Threat of WWIII an indictment of capitalism
Threat of WWIII an indictment of capitalism

After a rout of Russian forces in the first week of its Ukraine invasion, Vladimir Putin abandoned his initial strategy of overthrowing the Zelensky government with minimum casualties. He ordered the Russian military to revert to what it knows best— imposing its will through the slaughter of thousands of civilians.

The coming days and weeks will be horrific. Crimes against humanity, like the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, will continue. When you adopt a policy of achieving victory by pulverising civilian populations, such barbarities are not accidents, they are the point. This is what the Russian military did in Syria. It’s what it did in Chechnya. The death and destruction in Ukraine are not yet on that scale, but all the indications are that this is what is coming.

In the West, we will know all about this unfolding crime. We will see the corpses of children carried out of rubble. We will hear the terrified cries of people unable to find loved ones, or worse, who have found them dead, victims of the unspeakable machinery of death that only a sick society could conceive of, let alone unleash.

The truth of this war will be beamed into our homes not because such crimes demand attention, which they do, but because this time those doing the killing are the enemies of our rulers, and because the people dying look like the white collective “us” of the Western imagination.

We don’t see the children dying in Yemen, victims of a nearly decade-long war by a regime just as brutal as Putin’s, because the Saudi autocrats are Western allies. And the Yemeni children? They are from the Middle East. Parents don’t grieve their children the same way there.

We don’t hear the cries of Palestinians who have lost brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, because they are not freedom fighters like the Ukrainians. They are terrorists, driven by some obscure religious hysteria. Nothing to do with decades of occupation and subjugation. Nothing heroic.

In 2004, in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a whole population rose in revolt against military occupation. But the faces of those heroes were not beamed around the world, nor hailed as fighters against tyranny. And when the US responded in exactly the same way Russia has responded to the Ukrainian resistance, the newspapers of the supposedly humanist and democratic West did not plaster this atrocity across their front pages.

The fact of Western hypocrisy does not lessen the severity of Putin’s crimes, however. The socialist movement is the mortal enemy of imperialism whether the imperial power in question is in “our” camp or not. We leave the shameful practice of selective outrage to our rulers, and to those in the press and political establishment who pick and choose which atrocities to be offended by.

The devastation now being unleashed against Ukraine is one of the great crimes of modern history. Millions have been displaced, and a whole society has been traumatised. And not just on the Ukrainian side. Thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed, not in defence of any worthy cause, but simply in the service of an odious dictator who doesn’t care about them and denies them rights in the society he rules.

But even worse could come of this war than the destruction of Ukrainian society. The Western left is used to our rulers inventing bogey men. Remember Saddam Hussein, whose nuclear weapons could hit London within 40 minutes? It was all lies, cheap propaganda for what became, in every sense, a very expensive war.

Putin, though, is no Saddam Hussein. The Russian state does have the capacity to obliterate life on our planet. Between them, the US and Russia control the overwhelming bulk of the world’s nuclear weapons. The destructive potential of the US/Russian nuclear arsenal is largely undiminished from what it was at the height of the Cold War. Then, the world lived under the shadow of nuclear apocalypse. We still do. The only difference is that we’ve stopped talking about it. The mass movements demanding disarmament evaporated, but the weapons and the military industrial complexes remained.

We may be about to pay the price for that shocking failure. The US establishment— the Pentagon, the State Department and the political and economic wings of the US ruling class—do not want this conflict to escalate into nuclear war. That’s why they are intransigent, for now, in their resistance to the demand for a “no fly zone”, which is essentially a demand for a hot war between NATO and Russia that could quite possibly escalate into all-out nuclear confrontation.

The Ukrainian government is calling for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone. Like every national liberation movement in history, they have a right to demand armaments. But they do not have the right to demand World War III, which is what the call for a no-fly zone fundamentally is.

It might be uncomfortable to say, but socialists have to agree with two propositions from the Pentagon and the White House. One, the Russian war on Ukraine is criminal, and the resistance should be given material support. Two, direct intervention into this war by Western powers could lead to a wider European war, or even a direct conflict between the US and Russia, even a nuclear conflict, and this would be so disastrous it should be avoided at all costs.

That’s not to say that we should give any political support to Western governments or that they are not themselves a dire threat to humanity. The very existence of nuclear weapons, and all the elaborate “theories” to justify them, are an abomination. The fact that after the Cold War ended the world didn’t abolish these horrific weapons is sheer madness from any human perspective. What kind of society successfully ends a half-century power struggle between two armed-to-the-teeth blocs capable of destroying all humankind, and then proceeds to keep all the weapons from that war active and intact, and allows the proliferation of such weapons?

The world is rightly sickened by the intentional bombing of a single hospital. But the governments of the nuclear powers and their allies should check their outrage. All of them have people at the core of their government bureaucracy whose job is to plan and prepare for a nuclear war.

The existence of nuclear weapons would represent an existential threat even in the most harmonious system of states. Accident, miscalculation, misunderstanding: even if these things could mostly be averted, the apocalyptic potential consequences make abolition the only sane option.

But we do not live in that best of all possible worlds. Not by a long shot. In our world the “sane”, “rational” power—the one that wants to avoid nuclear war this time—also happens to be the only power that has ever launched one. And why did the US drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? To prove it could and would do anything to impose its will.

The US was rewarded with half a century of global domination. Now the US—like the British and the French at the beginning of the world wars—can afford to wage mainly “defensive” wars (though tell that to the Iraqis). The US has an interest in preserving the current order, not creating new fissures.

But for Putin, the situation is not so clear. This has become an existential battle for him. If Russia is defeated in Ukraine, it is hard to see him leaving the Kremlin in anything other than a box. Would a person who has already proven to care so little about human life be willing to accept military defeat in order to avoid nuclear war when the stakes for the state he rules and for him personally are so high?

We don’t know.  But the fact is, as long as nuclear weapons exist, as long as they are in the hands of rulers concerned only with holding onto and expanding their power, the possibility of nuclear war cannot be ruled out.

Capitalism is not the first form of organising human society that has produced war. Ancient slave societies, the feudal system of the Middle Ages and other forms of pre-capitalist class society all had their share of bloody conflicts. But the rise of capitalism, and particularly the modern form that arose at the end of the nineteenth century, has led to more bloodshed than all prior human history combined.

The first half of the last century was dominated by conflict and preparation for conflict between the great powers. Combined, the two world wars killed something in the order of 85 to 100 million people. The “peace” of the Cold War that followed was the peace of a world with a gun to its head that could at any moment go off and destroy all human life. And even the Cold War was not cold in much of the colonial world, where millions died in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere.

Today, three decades after the end of the Cold War, we live in a multipolar global system that in many ways resembles the world in the first half of the 20th century. Now, as then, multiple powers, some rising, some declining, are all jockeying for power and influence. The difference today is that nuclear weaponry is now in the hands of every major power bloc. The future we face is the great power competition that led to two world wars, but where every power has nuclear weapons.

That reality forces us to do more than just oppose the horror Putin is unleashing on Ukraine. We need to fight for a world without nuclear weapons, and without the endless competition between states which gives rise to them. And that means, in the final analysis, fighting for a world without capitalism.

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