Richard Seymour is a busy man – in the last year alone he has organised a split from the SWP and then, in time-honoured fashion, a warp-speed split from the split. The former was over rape allegations, the latter over (I may not have this completely right) the analysis of a chair, a dominatrix and people generally being rude to one another. The class nature of the GDR no longer provides enough juice for far-left divisions, it seems, but their enterprise in finding new energy sources is admirable.
Stepping out of this Wolfie Smith-comes-over-all-intersectional world, Seymour takes issue with Lindsey German’s article on the Ukraine crisis. The protagonists here start with different objectives in mind. Lindsey and Stop the War have to adopt an analysis that leads to action, above all in terms of confronting the actions and manoeuvres of the British government. Seymour’s mandate is to provide a running commentary on events, not to mobilise people to necessarily do anything about them. In itself, that doesn’t make the one right and the other wrong in any particular assessment, but it does indicate different starting points and different destinations.
This is clearest in Lindsey’s insistence, which Richard does not like, that the US has been centrally involved in the Ukraine crisis. Seymour does not really dispute this as much as assert that it is all much more complicated, and there are other major players involved too. In that, he is right, and it is common ground with Stop the War, I’m sure. However, the British government is closely aligned with the US imperialism, and if Britain deepens its own involvement in the crisis, it will likely be in lockstep with Washington (although a desire to keep Russian money in the City may mitigate this). That is a central point to understand if one’s intention is to intervene politically in Britain. It does not preclude criticism of other forces involved, including Russia.
There is a larger point here too. Whatever assessment one makes of Russia and its actions in the Crimea, it is US which is the main imperial power in the world today, which retains a more-or-less global capacity to intervene lawlessly around the globe and against which, therefore, the main efforts of our campaigns of exposure should be directed, particularly, to repeat, for an anti-war movement in a country so closely and often criminally aligned with Washington. Russia by contrast is no more than a regional player with no capacity for global intervention. In Moscow, challenging Putin would be a reasonable priority of course, but not in London.
So should we match every denunciation of the US with one of Russia in this situation? It’s not a new argument. When Stop the War was founded, there were demands from parts of the far left that we should balance our criticisms of the post-9/11 war drive by the US and Britain with equivalent attacks on religious (Islamic, of course) fundamentalism. One of the foundations of the initial mobilising success of Stop the War was its rejection of such counsel and a rigorous focus on opposing the main enemy on a world scale, which is also in our case the enemy at home. We rejected the argument, which Seymour mirrors today, that we were soft on religious fundamentalism as a consequence. This could not have been accomplished without the SWP (of which both Lindsey German and Richard Seymour were then members) actively supporting such an approach at the time. It led to the creation of a mighty mass movement against war, the reverberations of which helped forestall the attack on Syria last year, inter alia. Lindsey still holds to that analytical outlook, Seymour apparently doesn’t. The latter position – which I mention since Seymour raises, somewhat irrelevantly, the “mother Agnes” storm in a teacup – leads to the absurdity of some far left groups calling on western imperialist governments to arm the opposition in Syria and interfere in the conflict there by every means short of overt military intervention. At best, this is liberal moralising from “apparently Marxists”, vitiated only by the fact that if Britain does decide to arm the opposition it will not be as a result of an appeal from the Fourth International.
Seymour invokes “complexity” to occlude what has happened in Kiev. Of course, there have almost certainly been democratic elements involved in the movement against the Yakunovych government, and there were certainly reasons enough to protest. Nevertheless, the outcome at present includes the overthrow of an elected President by dubious constitutional means, a dangerous precedent particularly in such a deeply divided country, and the installation of a new cabinet which includes the first overt neo-nazis to hold office in Europe since 1945. Again, I do not think these facts are disputed between the protagonists in this debate, but the compelling issue is what weight is to be given to the different elements – if one is oriented towards political action. For instance, the existence of an entrenched far right in power in Kiev – anti-semitic, Russophobic (and incidentally Polish-phobic too) – greatly increases the likelihood of intensified conflict in the Ukraine, leading to a war which could draw in outside powers. Hence “bending the stick” towards highlighting the role of the neo-nazis in the Ukraine is not so much excusable as unavoidable for an anti-war movement. The forces in power in Kiev are forces for the spread of war, which the Crimean parliament isn’t.
The strangest section of Seymour’s polemic is his taking umbrage at Lindsey’s suggestion of neo-conservative involvement in the crisis, and her suggestion that they are eager to confront Russia. He doesn’t help himself here by his failure to rent a fact-checker. He apparently believes that Robert Gates (50% of the examples of non- neo con actors submitted) is still in office. In fact, he left nearly three years ago. And apparently Seymour has not stumbled across Victoria Nuland, the wife of Robert Kagan, one of the founders of the core neo-con Project for a New American Century, senior foreign policy adviser to Dick Cheney during the Bush presidency and present US assistant secretary of state for Europe. She was tape-recorded speaking to a US colleague profaning the EU and, more consequentially, dictating the composition of the post-Yakunovych Ukrainian government (it has come to pass as she ordered). Seymour further muddies the waters – although not to the extent that it doesn’t remain clear that he is straining to invent a dispute on this point – by claiming that the US foreign policy elite is divided between “realpolitickers and liberal imperialists”. While divisions and definitions do retain some fluidity, the latter category is largely a rebranding of the neo-conservatives. When Seymour brings this passage of barnyard dialectics to a climax with the allegation that Lindsey’s spotlighting of the neo-cons means she is “soft on imperialism” then we are back to the asphyxiating heyday of ultra-left polemical inanity. Presumably her exposure as a Special Branch agent is only a blog away.
Of course, the idea that the situation in the Ukraine is multi-faceted and hence complex is true, and this should not be a ”barrier to understanding”. But nor should it be a barrier to action. Seymour risks analysis-as-paralysis, since his arguments would leave the anti-war movement with maybe two-and-a-half choices. First, sit this one out. Second, join the Henry Jackson Institute, Nick Cohen, Harry’s Place and sundry Bandera-ites in a demonstration outside the Russian Embassy. Or, as a variation on the second position, follow the AWL’s inspiring example of 1999 and go on a demonstration against western intervention in Yugoslavia and then leave it to join a simultaneous demonstration for western intervention.
Political action clearly carries no guarantee of success. Lindsey’s record in building a mass anti-war movement in Britain, an enterprise in which Richard Seymour was once a collaborator, should indicate that she has some idea as to how this should be done and, in particular, against whom our campaigning efforts should be directed. The alternative – a left that can take a position on a chair but not a war – is of no use to anyone.
Andrew Murray is vice president of the Stop the War Coalition and a contributor to21centurymanifesto