David Jamieson – Ukraine viewed from Mount Olympus

The politics of internationalism from above does not serve workers anywhere, it only builds bridges between them and their exploiters.

David Jamieson is a journalist and editor of Scottish anti-capitalist website Conter.

Cross-posted from Conter. This article can also be listened to on Conter’s podcasts.

Picture by Shaan Hurley

NATO General Secretary Jen Stoltenberg made a remarkable statement, widely ignored by the world press. Speaking to a joint meeting (7 Sept) of the European Parliament and the EU’s defence committee, he finally admitted what everyone knows – the Russian invasion was motivated by NATO expansion:

“…President Putin declared in the autumn of 2021, and actually sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement. That was what he sent us. And was a pre-condition for not invade Ukraine. Of course we didn’t sign that.”

“…So he went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.”

You can’t really express it more clearly than that. Months and years of faux consternation every time NATO enlargement and the encirclement of European Russia were mentioned, and of course they knew its importance all along.

But the games are far from over, as demonstrated by GMB union leader Gary Smith. At this year’s Trade Union Congress, his union is pressing a motion calling on trade unionists to support UK Government policy – war until the re-conquest of Crimea, and the total military defeat of Russia.

Stop the War chair Andrew Murray is quite right to note that for Smith: “…Tory politicians become different people, no longer class politicians, when they go abroad.”

The treatment of foreign policy as though it somehow exists above and beyond capitalism and social class is, of course, an old affliction in trade union officialdom. It has allowed trade union and social democratic leaders to back a long list of disastrous wars and prompted anti-war socialists to demand the continuation of class politics during war under the slogan: “The main enemy is at home.”

But just because these stances are old, doesn’t mean they remain the same over time. When Germany invaded in 1914, ‘plucky Belgium’ became a subsidiary cause to the real thing – the ‘King and Country’ patriotism of the British Empire.

When NATO partisans in the west call for ‘national self-determination’ for Ukraine today, what they really mean is incorporation of states into military and economic transnational blocs. These organisations are the antithesis of self-determination as traditionally understood, because they are specifically designed to remove ‘the nation’ (at least the whole nation – including its working class majority) from politics and decision making.

This new political reality lies behind some of the strange and distinctive qualities of modern pro-war politics. From the US to Britain, pro-war agitators no longer rally to the symbols of their own nation – but foreign ones. The interests of British and US elites are being served, but the flag waved is Ukrainian. ‘National chauvinism’ has thus been relegated by ‘internationalism from above’ – and it is to this elite internationalism that the pro-war left appeals.

Objections to the idea of a nationally oriented politics typically come from those who see themselves as above such confines. Social media addicts, and the politics-adjacent professional jet set (often the same people), can’t understand why they should limit themselves to making demands on one’s ‘own state’ or elite.

Imagine you are part of a network of people living in a dozen cities across three or four continents. You are in regular – perhaps daily – contact with these people in professional and sometimes personal matters. You read the news in several countries. In fact, you often scan quickly past the national news in despair and explore the grander vistas of the international scene. You read the business section, since you are at least tangentially affected by markets across the world (and you have the worldly awareness of the butterfly effect of global financial markets). You read the arts pages, and certainly don’t limit yourself to national fair. Not only your culture, but your professional and status life is far removed from any conception of national society, national economy or national well-being.

It would make little sense to you to view events in Ukraine and Russia from a mainly British perspective. It would certainly never occur to you that there might be a virtue in choosing this perspective. That would be downright uncouth – and a horror at this democratic rudeness is frequently evoked in appeals to ‘centre Ukrainian voices’ (though only the ones who agree with western elites), as though people living in Britain have no right to concern over their own government’s policy.

Those who recoil from a national politics – the networked, globalised new man – are a poor basis for democracy. They are alienated from any sense of organic connection to a national demos, feel no responsibility for state policy, and no obligation to oppose policies adopted by a national elite. And though they are a small social element, their cultural forms are projected into the media and mass ideology, where we are all encouraged to view events from Mount Olympus, with a god’s eye view of what goes on below. From the mountaintop there is no politics, democracy or social responsibility. There is only the ego and its morality.

It is to this ‘internationalism’ that Smith is appealing – the global politics of powerful states, military alliances, and multinational arms firms. But this can never be the internationalism of the workers’ movement.

That must begin at home since the national vector is the only one open to the social majority. We cannot access the cosmopolitan internationalism of the elite. We are not close enough to that world to imagine ourselves, even falsely, as having any influence upon it.

The politics involved in supporting the Tory government and Nato against Russia is profoundly alienated from the working class. Not only does it seek to build a bridge between workers and their exploiters, but it also seeks to replace a working class political perspective with the ethos of a post-democratic, transnational elite.

Far from an antique, the attitude that ‘the main enemy is at home’, makes more sense today. It pushes now, not only against ‘national chauvinism’, but against transnationalism. It is a demand to bring politics back from the mountain top. The call for peace is not an abstract one if it is made against the UK government and against the NATO alliance of which it is an important part. It is the only practical basis for a real international solidarity.

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