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Ukraine raises the spectre of new intolerance
Why the left must oppose an authoritarian backlash to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
In an extra mailing this week, I had a column in The Herald today looking at some of the ways in which regressive and authoritarian impulses can grow in a period of wartime.
The next full newsletter will be out on Wednesday as usual, as we continue to map the impact of the war in Ukraine on the Scottish national question.
“Europe is gliding down an inclined plane with increasing swiftness towards the abyss of a general war, a war of hitherto unheard-of extent and ferocity. Only one thing can stop it – a change of system in Russia. That this must come about in a few years there can be no doubt. May it come to pass in good time before the otherwise inevitable occurs." Those are the words of Frederick Engels, writing in 1890, as part of a scathing critique of Russian Tsardom.
Whatever your general view of Engels, he would have been equally scathing of Putin’s regime. Yet on the question of Ukraine, Engels has been the subject of some controversy. There have been discussions about removing a statue of him from Manchester’s centre for contemporary arts as an act of solidarity with those at the receiving end of Putin’s war. Bizarrely, the statue in question was originally from Eastern Ukraine. Removing a statue of a German, made in Ukraine, who would have bitterly opposed Putinism, is difficult to make any sense of.
It is ahistorical and it is anti-intellectual. Perhaps we might write it off as simply the latest example of the litany of vacuous virtue signalling that is all too common today. But here I think there is a wider atmosphere emerging that poses serious challenges to democratic debate. A kind of war fever has taken hold in some quarters, and so with it, the capacity for regressive and authoritarian impulses to flourish.
Perhaps the ignorance on show in the Manchester example can be explained by this kind of context. The danger, though, comes when the charged political environment is exploited with a more deliberate and cynical strategy. Here all manner of anti-democratic measures are possible.
It didn’t take long for the invasion of Ukraine to end up in an attack on one of Britain’s strongest trade unions, the RMT. Their tube strike saw them pinned as “the enemy underground.” The question was posed: “how close is the RMT to Putin’s Russia?” Some didn’t speak so directly about the RMT, but offered a more general condemnation of any strike action whatsoever at a time of war in Europe. That is a serious – and very worrying – sign of the times. It is a calculated incursion into hard-won civil and democratic rights and nothing to do with Ukrainian solidarity.
Within our own establishment there are insidious hypocrisies that go unchallenged, while others are unfairly targeted because of their opposition to the status quo. We know about the extensive economic and political integration between the Russian oligarchy and those with real power in the British state.
This is not a new development and nor is it limited to Johnson’s dodgy dealings. Indeed, Tony Blair had a night out at the opera with Putin himself at the precise moment the Russian state was carrying out systematic human rights abuses in Chechnya. Peter Mandelson has also had a well-documented working relationship with Putin.
Despite this material support for the Russian regime, who is described as an “agitator for Putin’s Russia” and a “mouthpiece” for the Kremlin? Left-wing Labour MP Zara Sultana. The result: a racially abusive death threat referencing these false claims. The chilling effect this has on democratic debate about serious issues of history, foreign policy and geo-politics is palpable.
In her own words:
“I am in no doubt that this horrific and absurd attack is the direct result of inaccurate media reports and deliberately misleading press comments. The environment this has created is an active danger to the safety of public figures, and threatens to narrow our democracy.”
There should be space for sharp, critical and educated debates about foreign policy. It is wrong – and historically illiterate – to coalesce criticism of Western foreign policy with support for Putin. Just as it is wrong for anyone to excuse Putin’s actions. Such crass reductionism gets us nowhere in the search for a more peaceful world order. Indeed, it is notable that the Russian anti-war movement is castigated and marginalised as NATO supporters.
Nor should Putin’s devastating and illegal invasion allow politicians to justify the cost-of-living crisis by pointing to war-torn Ukraine. As millions in the UK look on at rising energy prices with dread, Liz Truss boldly states that the economic situation “will worsen” as a result of the war. For her, it is a price worth paying: “the pain we will face in the UK is nothing like the pain the people in Ukraine are currently facing”
But who exactly is going to pay? It will not be the British oligarchs, to borrow a term. It will be the same people who paid for the financial crash of 2008. Ironically, though unsurprisingly, the same people who tell the millions living on the bread line that the economic pain is worth it, also happen to be the most protected from it. Is this a display of moral heroism from Truss? For that, some personal sacrifice must be involved. In reality, it is a preamble to sanctioning dissent and to rationalising a failing economic system.
This century has already been riven with war. Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya. Now, it has come once more to the Europe. As the IPCC reveals the extent of the climate catastrophe coming down the line and as the global economy stutters on, we can expect conflict between the great powers to rise further up the agenda in the coming decades. Accordingly, military spending is seen as a more urgent priority than serious interventions around the environment.
As we lurch from one crisis to the next, the world is a confusing and fearful place. Putin’s unconscionable war of aggression has changed everything. Democratic debate and civil liberties will be vital if we are to overcome the challenges that lie ahead here, and internationally. That is more constructive than the kind of atmosphere that leads people to conclude that removing a statue of Engels is an act of solidarity worthy of the Ukrainian people.