IIt’s a funny time to be a pacifist in Britain. Everywhere there are calls for an end to the war in Ukraine: from politicians to Premier League footballers to pleas for peace hand-painted on people’s shop windows. The illegitimacy and brutality of the Russian invasion make it very easy to condemn.
Yet, at the same time, some of Britain’s oldest peace activists are being attacked and threatened. Labor leader Keir Starmer has accused the Stop the War coalition, which has opposed conflict for more than 20 years, of being ‘at best… naive’ and ‘at worst… in solidarity with the aggressor “.
Eleven Labor MPs who signed a Stop the War declaration on Ukraine, including veterans like John McDonnell and recently elected leftists like Zarah Sultana, have been told they could be kicked out of their parliamentary party if they don’t remove not their name. All the deputies obeyed. From what was until recently a fairly loose political party, this was a surprisingly aggressive disciplinary action.
The contested statement doesn’t seem outrageous. Published before the invasion, it “opposes any war against Ukraine”, calls for “a diplomatic settlement” and criticizes the British government for its “aggressive posture” and NATO for its “eastward expansion”. “. Russia is less criticized than its own much more violent expansionism deserves; but few signs of the alleged “solidarity with the aggressor”. “We do not condone the nature or conduct of the Russian or Ukrainian regimes,” the statement said. “The crisis must be resolved on a basis that recognizes the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination and addresses Russia’s security concerns.”
Such impartiality may seem horribly inappropriate now. But the interests of both parties may need to be accommodated if this crisis is ever to end.
This Stop the War stance prompted what its organizer, Lindsey German, described at a rally last weekend as “a serious backlash” – including a death threat against Sultana – suggests that space in the British policy for pacifism, even for skepticism with regard to the army institutions such as NATO, is considerably reduced. Only two years ago the Labor Party was led by peace campaigner and NATO critic Jeremy Corbyn. Today, his successor hails aid to the founding of NATO as one of Labour’s “great achievements”, in the same way as the creation of the NHS. The vaguely defined “security” that Starmer offers voters, without much success, suddenly becomes a militaristic project.
You can rejoice as the work becomes real again. The party has a tradition of militarism against foreign enemies seen as extremists and aggressors, from World War II to Afghanistan and Iraq. For a party often characterized as unpatriotic, unrealistic and weak, supporting wars and increasing defense spending can be an attractive tactic. Recent search by the British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG) showed that British military interventions were most strongly supported by older, white, voting men outside of London: exactly the voters Starmer prioritized winning back.
The centre-left’s most moral case for militarism was summarized in 1942 by George Orwell. “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist,” he wrote, because it actually helped the Nazis. The idea that one could live “away” from the war was an “illusion”: the war affected everyone’s life. Sometimes a lack of hindsight undermines pacifism in general. Anti-war activists don’t always recognize how commonplace violence is in times of peace – in coercive modern capitalism, for example.
But more often than not, pacifists are more worldly than their detractors claim. At a crowded Stop the War rally in London on Wednesday, speakers spoke about poverty, inequality and austerity as well as the military situation. Russia’s apologists were conspicuous by their absence. “There’s nothing progressive about Putin’s Russia,” longtime anti-war activist Tariq Ali said, to loud applause. Corbyn accurately described it as a regime of “robber barons”.
The idea that pacifists are dupes or tools of the enemy surfaces in Britain every time there is a war. Despite this, many voters are consistently anti-war. The BFPG found almost a fifth of British interventions opposed in all circumstances. They are almost always underrepresented in parliament. With the exception of rare major rebellions like those in Iraq and Syria, “unity” is prized during wars. Anyone who believes in democracy should be uncomfortable hearing that word.
Sometimes pacifists are naïve, for example about Hitler in the 1930s. Yet the same criticism could be leveled at the so-called realists who supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Often not fighting is the least bad option, which is why most countries rarely fight. British parochialism – and the shaping of opinion by our huge defense industry – prevents us from seeing how exceptionally belligerent we really are.
For now, our politicians are resisting the temptation to directly confront the Russians. But it’s a very belligerent form of restraint — hence Starmer’s fury at Stop the War, which opposes arming Ukraine. And the desire for peace here feels like it could easily turn into its opposite. At last Saturday’s demonstration outside Downing Street against the invasion, the chants of “Stop the war” were followed by others from the more Ukrainian parts of the crowd: “Shelter our skies” – impose a zone of air exclusion – and “Arm Ukraine”. .
With a new Cold War or worse, the peace movement will become both more demonized and more vital. People who loudly refuse to accept that the world is divided into two camps, regardless of the horrors committed by one of them, can seem foolish, disloyal, even lacking in basic morality. But without them, our policy will be left to warmongers and their suppliers.