Ukraine war, imperialism and the left: An interview with British socialist Phil Hearse

Anti-war protest

Interview with Phil Hearse by Federico Fuentes.

The war in Ukraine has provoked sharp differences among people on the left and peace activists. Federico Fuentes spoke to veteran British socialist and Anti*Capitalist Resistance member Phil Hearse about how these differences reflect deep underlying controversies about the world crisis. They also discussed the impacts of the war in Britain, the Tory leadership race and the rise of Enough is Enough.

In the days after Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, you wrote it had “caused some disorientation on the Left”. Why do you think this was the case? How do you characterise this war? And has anything occurred in the past six months to have led you to change your characterisation?

I think disorientation on the left stems from the complexity of what is happening — the fact that Ukraine’s just defensive struggle for self-determination is overlain by, and intersects with, inter-imperialist conflict and the push for war against Russia and China by right-wing politicians and the military in the West.

This war is an absolute catastrophe, for Ukraine, Russia and the world economy. It is hard to overestimate the sheer viciousness and cruelty of what the Russian army has been doing, a continuation of what Putin did in Chechnya and Syria — massive air, artillery and missile attacks on housing, hospitals, shopping centres and schools, with huge costs to the civilian population. Thousands of civilians have been killed and maimed. More than one million people have been displaced. Ukraine admits to 10,000 soldiers dead, but maybe it is twice that. And Russia has lost even more.

In all that, there are many thousands of people who have suffered irreparable loss — the death of loved ones and the wrecking of families and homes. If socialism is not about standing up to this kind of barbarism, then I don’t know what it’s for. The cost of rebuilding Ukraine could be as high as €100 billion, and the call for Russia to pay reparations is absolutely justified, although I can’t see that happening without a change in the regime there.

One of the saddest TV broadcasts from Ukraine I saw was a middle aged woman weeping over the death of family members and the wrecking of her apartment in a Russian missile strike. She said: ‘I’m a Russian speaker and all my family are Russian speakers. We regarded the Russians as our brothers. Now they do this to us. Why?’

Whatever the background to the conflict, the primary responsibility for the war obviously lies with Putin and the small, extreme right-wing nationalist coterie which surrounds him in the Kremlin. Putin and the nationalist ideologues like Alexander Dugin he listens to, say there is no such a country as Ukraine and want to re-integrate its territory with Russia.

The argument in the British left, echoed in all the English-speaking countries, has been mainly about NATO and sending weapons to Ukraine. In my opinion, if you say that the Ukrainian people have the right to self-defence, then they have the right to get arms from wherever they can. And the only realistic candidate is NATO — you cannot say that this is a war of national self-determination, but Ukraine has no right to effective weaponry that will enable them to resist.

But opposition to arming Ukraine has been the position of the Communist Party, New Left Review, the Socialist Workers Party, and the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition (STW). However, this is no longer a very urgent question. Ukraine has already got massive amounts of arms, mainly from the United States but also Poland, France, Britain, Slovakia and Germany. The demand to “arm Ukraine” is a bit superfluous.

I would say to comrades who are squeamish about getting weapons from the United States and other NATO countries that there are plenty of historical examples of revolutionary or progressive forces getting weapons from imperialist sources. For example, in 2014 the United States carried out multiple air attacks to aid the YPG (Peoples Defence Forces) under siege by the Islamist terror group ISIS in Kobani, a Kurdish town on the Syrian border with Turkey. This aid was decisive in defeating ISIS; without it, hundreds of Kurdish lives could have been lost and hundreds of women raped and brutalised. The United States continued to arm the YPG as the best fighters against ISIS in northern Syria, to the anger of Turkey and right-wing groups in the United States — until Donald Trump found out that the YPG was closely allied with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and that both had a Communist background. I for one strongly supported the YPG stance. Never say never in politics. And, of course, Britain armed [Josip Broz] Tito’s Communist-led resistance forces in Yugoslavia during the Second World War, for their own reasons, with the result that after the war the Communist came to power in that country.

In Britain, there is hardly anyone who accepts the position of John Bellamy Foster and the influential Monthly Review he edits — straightforward support for Russia. Then again, there are those in the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign who don’t want to raise the issue of NATO at all, a big mistake in my opinion. The right wing in European politics and the United States, and sections of the military and security apparatuses, are trying to push this war into becoming an all-out proxy war against Russia. The new head of the British army, Lieutenant General Patrick Sanders, told an international conference hosted by the army’s think tank, that the British military must prepare for a land war against Russia! [US President] Joe Biden says openly that Russia must be substantially weakened through sanctions and military defeat.

As you note the issue of NATO’s involvement has perhaps been the most debated issue on the left. How do you view NATO’s role in this conflict?

Today there is a push for NATO to “go global” and become the framework for confronting China, not just Russia.

Deepening militarisation, hugely increased defence budgets, pouring US Navy resources into the Pacific arena, and more and more American soldiers in Europe — this is the order of the day, and much of it co-ordinated through NATO. The US political theorist William I Robinson calls this a constituent part of “militarised accumulation”, by which he means the way that defence, paramilitary and police expenditure, together with its complementary surveillance of populations — deeply integrated with high tech firms like Apple and even Facebook — is becoming a much bigger part of capital accumulation and profit.

Militarised policing in the United States and elsewhere is a perfect illustration of how this system works. A new permanent arms economy has been put in place. In the 1980s, British theorist Mary Kaldor called the monstrous defence expenditure of the Reagan administration a “Baroque Arsenal”. Now we have a super-Baroque arsenal, a grotesque level of military expenditure and weapons innovation that is superfluous to requirements even by NATO’s profligate war-fighting standards. Take America’s stealth fighters and ground attack aircraft. Why do they need both the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighter programs, each costing many billions? Considering any enemy they might be fighting against, there is no good reason. In fact the US is now modernising and updating its existing F-16 fighters, which it has recently sold to Turkey. In every field — army, navy, airforce and marines — the United States and its allies have a super-abundance of weaponry which gives vast profits to the major arms companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and BAE Systems. Most of the top arms companies are American, but among the top 10 in profit terms are three Chinese companies.

Militarisation is stretching into space as the United States and China in particular ramp up their space surveillance and weaponry programmes.

Militarised accumulation is linked to the new ideology of imperialism. Until 1990 you had the old anti-Communist Cold War against the Soviet Union, but also against China, Vietnam and Cuba. Then, after 9/11, you had the War on Terror as the over-arching concept which justified imperial outreach in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the United States’ continuing operations in Africa, where there are dozens of individual raids against Islamist fighters every day.

Now the War on Terror is over according to US defence analysts. While still undertaking anti-Islamist operations, the current priority is preparations for a direct war against Russia and a longer term war against China. China is the main enemy for the simple reason that it is the only country capable of threatening US economic superiority. The main thing to realise here is that the wars being prepared for may never actually be fought, but that the United States tries to leverage its military dominance into leadership of the West and permanent pressure on the economies of its enemies. On the latter, by the way, I am against sanctions on Russia. This is part of the US sanctions regime, in which 39 countries have been targeted in 8000 individual sanctions against a wide range of people and companies.

The “End of History” theorist Francis Fukuyama has re-emerged to define the mainstream of this new period. Unsurprisingly it’s “autocracy versus democracy”, which of course closely parallels the “dictatorship versus democracy” ideology of the first Cold War (1950-90). Like the first version, this new espousal of capitalist democracy has its contradictions and problems. For example, the world’s most repressive state, Saudi Arabia, is put in the category of “democracy”, because it’s “our” ally and a major oil producer. By contrast, Cuba is put in the category of “autocracy”, despite its amazing record of pro-working class social achievements, at home and abroad.

The floods in Pakistan show once again that the main crises and conflicts of our time cannot be summed up as “democracy versus autocracy”, but by the need for radical action to solve the problems of the climate crisis, poverty, hunger, war and the growing chasm between the living standards of the global elite and the mass of humanity. The structure of the latter is brilliantly summed up by William I. Robinson and Yusef K. Baker in their article on ‘Savage Inequalities’.

The pro-NATO ideological mobilisation around Ukraine, absolutely massive in the United States and Europe, has its own obvious hypocrisy — Western powers, including especially Britain, have provided the planes, weapons and targeting expertise for Saudi Arabia’s sickening war against the Huti rebels in Yemen, which has been every bit as brutal as Russia’s war in Ukraine, probably more so. And yet there is almost nothing in the Western media about this. A 2021 UNICEF report puts the number dead in Yemen at 377,000 — probably 400,000 by now and a similar number wounded. Yet there is no mention of this and no outrage from Western “democrats”.

Against the pro-NATO ideology of “democracy versus autocracy”, socialists have to explain that the world is riven by inter-imperialist competition, between the United States, China and Russia. But with two important qualifications. First is that the military posture of China is overwhelmingly defensive, designed above all to fight a defensive war against the United States along its own coastline and the South China Sea. There are no Chinese aircraft carriers along the coast of California, and China is the one major nuclear power that has maintained the doctrine of “no first use” of nuclear weapons since the 1960s. Secondly, China is in fact an autocracy, a state-controlled capitalist regime, with heavy-handed and brutal repression, exemplified by the mass imprisonment and cultural genocide being carried out against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province. And of course by its brutal repression of the Hong Kong democracy movement.

But I do not think that China would risk a military attack on Taiwan. Apart from drawing it into a military confrontation with the United States, China is heavily dependent on trade with Taiwan, in particular imports of Taiwanese-made computer chips, of which there is a big shortage world-wide.

The decision to go for “NATO enlargement” was taken at the Brussels summit in 1994. From 16 members then it has 28 members now. While these states have only 13 % of the world’s population, they have 45% of its GDP — which tells you straight away that they represent the richer countries of the world. Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, argued that Ukraine is the key to controlling Eurasia, militarily and politically. Eurasia here means the whole of the contiguous area from Portugal to Japan. Look at a map and you’ll see what he means immediately. I think this kind of dominance is still the United States’ objective. At its 1994 summit NATO agreed to “out of area” operations (Afghanistan for example). Wearing the NATO hat is not the key thing. In my opinion AUKUS, with the US, Britain and Australia, is effectively the Pacific version of NATO. America’s closest ally, Britain, joined it in the Iraq war, where the absence of a NATO badge was more a matter of form than substance.

In 1987, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, put forward the idea of a ‘common European homeland’, in which neither Russia nor Europe, east or west, would be members of a military alliance, but instead combine to create peace and prosperity throughout the continent. After all, NATO’s military opponent, the Warsaw Pact, comprising Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland had dissolved. Communism in Russia had fallen, so what purpose did NATO now have? Of course the Russian invasion of Ukraine has solved the conundrum of NATO’s purpose, and drawn the Europeans tighter to US dominance.

The United States presidents of that period, George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton, would never accept the common European homeland idea, because NATO puts the US front and centre in European discussions about the economy and security. Instead, through NATO, the IMF and the World Bank, the West, with the US at its head, imposed a revanchist settlement on Russia. In the economy it was shock therapy privatisation and in security it was to push NATO right up to the Russian borders.

These were the circumstances which led to the re-emergence of Great Russian nationalism as a major political force. Putin was a key figure in the FSB, the re-christened KGB secret police. The military and security apparatuses rebelled against the billionaires who acceded to crashing the Russian economy and prostration before a triumphant NATO. The security apparatchiks who gathered round Putin did not neglect to fill their own pockets. But from then on, millionaires had to obey the diktats of the Kremlin. Dugin emerged as the leader of the National Bolshevik movement, which really had nothing to do with Bolshevism.

In the article I previously referred to, you said that while raising the slogan of "No to NATO Expansion" was correct, it should not be a central slogan of the anti-war movement and the left, and that its central slogans should instead be "against the Russian war, for a ceasefire and a withdrawal of all Russian troops". Do you still feel this is the case? Should the focus not be instead on demanding negotiations as a way to end the war?

At this stage I think it is still correct to call for a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal. For the moment Russia is rejecting meaningful negotiations, and NATO countries are telling Ukraine not to negotiate until military victory. But a ceasefire is desperately needed to stop the present slaughter. I think a major defeat has already been inflicted on Russia. Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky has already offered to consider Ukrainian neutrality and other security guarantees as part of a settlement. Both sides have an urgent interest in a negotiated settlement, but the Russian leadership would have to accept that its goal of eliminating the Ukrainian nation is lost, and it can expect little more than some face-saving crumbs.

Some commentators have said that we should want the biggest military defeat of Russia possible, because that will serve as a warning to all imperialist countries not to invade other countries. This is pie in the sky, wishful thinking. A big military defeat for Russia will be experienced as a big victory for the United States and the West, and will encourage it to go on to its next agenda point — China. In addition, banking on Putin seeing reason and never using battlefield nuclear weapons, whatever the defeat that Russia faces, is really dangerous thinking. A wider war with Russia threatens the world with nuclear catastrophe — another reason why we should campaign to bring this war to an end.

Personally I doubt Russia’s capacity to sustain an indefinite war, but the present regime, given the power of its domestic police apparatus, could sustain the war for several years despite its increasing unpopularity.

Also I think it is right to call for a normalisation of exports of Ukrainian wheat and Russian fertiliser and agricultural produce, which are desperately needed in African and other countries. All obstacles to both Russian and Ukrainian exports of these vital food products must be removed.

“No to NATO expansion” is a redundant slogan, because apart from Ukraine, there is nowhere else in Eastern Europe or Scandinavia for NATO to go, now that Sweden and Finland have decided to join. A more relevant demand is for NATO to be disbanded. The left also needs to step up its campaign against the militarisation that is taking place internationally. Europe in particular is the site of massive militarisation, with most governments stepping up their defence expenditure. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of military equipment, but before the war Russia was the world’s second largest exporter of weaponry, selling to reactionary regimes like that in Egypt, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia Indonesia, Sri Lanka and others.

War and the military are a disaster for the environment. The US military is the world’s single largest institutional consumer of oil — and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have had a serious impact on the natural environments of these countries. Military vehicles consume petroleum-based fuels at an extremely high rate, with the vehicles used in the war zones having produced many hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and sulphur dioxide in addition to CO2.

Another casualty of Putin's war has been the Kurdish people, who you have written extensively about, and who have been sacrificed to Turkey by Sweden and Finland in return for NATO membership. How has the war on Ukraine impacted on Turkey's war on the Kurds?

Effectively NATO has traded away Finland and Sweden being safe havens for Kurdish and Turkish opponents of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan has demanded the return of 33 supporters of the PKK. We will see how this pans out. It could even be a block to Sweden and Finland joining NATO if the extraditions are not granted, although that is unlikely. Once NATO and Finland have joined NATO, Erdoğan’s ability to leverage this issue will diminish.

Erdoğan has been trying to push himself forward as an “honest broker” between Russia and Ukraine, and has ensured that both sides give him concessions. Business between Russia and Turkey is booming, as Turkey takes advantage of low Russian prices. For example, oil exports to Turkey have doubled since the start of the war. The Turkish economy is in a dire state, and Erdogan is not going to miss out on the economic advantages the war gives him.

Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among the most gungho in his support for Ukraine, using it to promote remilitarisation and projects such as AUKUS. What role has Britain, and in particular Johnson, played in war? What ramifications has the war had on British domestic politics and on the current race for the Tory leadership? In turn, what impact is the race having on British politics?

Johnson has tried to posture as the biggest friend of the Ukrainians, partly because Britain is the US’s most loyal friend in NATO and partly in a vain attempt to paint himself as a world statesman. Both Tory leadership candidates, Liz Truss — who is going to win — and Rishi Sunak, have given uncritical support to NATO, which is what you would expect. Both have pledged to make Britain’s defence spending 3% of GDP.

Labour leader Keir Starmer also gives uncritical support to NATO. This has impacted on the Labour Party, because at the beginning of the war Starmer warned a group of 11 left-wing MPs to remove their name from an STW statement that criticised NATO, and against speaking at a public meeting called by the coalition. This has caused some division in the Labour left, with left-wing writer and journalist Paul Mason, desperately seeking to be a Labour candidate in the next general election, saying that British defence spending must increase and that people who criticise NATO have no place in the Labour Party. There’s no doubt that criticism of NATO is for the moment unpopular. But things could change as the war drags on and the catastrophic economic crisis facing Britain explodes.

Amid this political situation, a new initiative - Enough is Enough - has emerged. What can you tell us about this and its significance for the left?

What has underlain the emergence of the Enough is Enough trade union propaganda and campaigning alliance is the growing upswing of trade union struggles and national strikes, led by the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) train workers, closely followed by the CWU (Communication Workers Union) postal workers, local government workers, barristers, refuse workers and many others. Late summer foreign tourists are going to get a shock on days when national railways and the London Underground network are on strike. Visitors to the world-famous Edinburgh cultural festival will be shocked by the piles of uncollected rubbish littering the city. Trade unions are back, with a vengeance.

Behind this is the massive cost of living crisis. Inflation is soaring past 10%, with the retail price index going up by 15%. Rents, especially for young people, are unaffordable, taking 50% or more of disposable incomes in London. And now energy prices are literally exploding, with millions having to pay upwards of £4,500 for gas and electricity next year. Millions will have to choose between eating and heating their homes (vital in a British winter). The consequences will be incredibly damaging for the poor, children, pensioners and disabled people. Food banks are now in crisis, with food donations diminishing rapidly. And charity organisations are suffocating under the torrent of new clients.

This amounts to a crushing impoverishment of whole sectors of the population. Incoming Tory prime minister Liz Truss, elected by just 125,000 Conservatives out of a population of 70 million, says she will not give “handouts” but will cut taxes, mainly benefiting the rich and the well-to-do, and she plans to introduce legislation banning strikes in public services.

Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT rail workers, has emerged as the main spokesperson of this new wave of militant trade unionism and the Enough is Enough campaign. He has thereby become the main spokesperson of the millions of the poor and most exploited. There are hard times and harsh struggles ahead.