Friday, March 24, 2023

Life and Times: What a contrast! (2023)

The Life and Times column from the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Last month’s column was entitled ‘What an example!’ and talked about a striking act of kindness and altruism by a young man working at a car wash. Round about the same time as this happened, I happened to listen to a play on Radio 4, a drama-documentary on the 20th century American writer and social theorist Ayn Rand, who was renowned for praising and encouraging just the opposite forms of behaviour, that is selfishness and self-interest. The previous column mentioned how several hundred people responded in a strikingly positive way to my relating on my local community Facebook page what had happened outside the car wash. This substantiated the idea, much supported by many recent studies on the topic, that humans, given the chance, are a fundamentally cooperative species. But the Ayn Rand programme (it was called Talk to Me) showed a person not just doubting this idea but recommending a completely different form of behaviour among humans and being lauded by many with particular opinions on politics and society.

Greed is good
In ‘Talk To Me’, we found out how Ayn Rand’s Russian parents had been rendered destitute by the Bolshevik regime in the 1920s but had nevertheless managed to send her to America as a teenager for her education. When she left, she said she would become famous, and that’s what happened. She never returned to Russia but nursed an abiding hatred of its dictatorial government, and this fed into her entirely anti-collectivist, anti-cooperative theory of society which argued that all interaction should be conducted by what she called ‘rational self-interest’ and in practice meant advocacy of and dedication to the idea of a society governed by the free market with minimal state intervention. Initially Rand produced books of fiction which, though attracting little attention at first, later became famous and sold in their millions. Her two major novels were The Fountainhead (1949) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), the latter famously referred to as ‘the bible of selfishness’. These depicted heroic individuals who prospered or won out through egotistic behaviours regardless of any negative impacts their actions might have had on others. In fact, if the weak fell by the wayside, then this could only make the world a better place. For this kind of depiction, and through her later writings, Rand is often seen as the inspiration behind the slogan ‘greed is good’.

A gateway drug?
After these novels she focused largely on works of social and political theory putting forward what is often referred to as her philosophy of ‘objectivism’, whose essence is that a person’s individual happiness via ‘rational self-interest’ should be the moral purpose of their life and that any consideration of ‘society’ or altruism can only obstruct this (one of her books was entitled The Virtue of Selfishness). Rand’s ‘objectivism’ emphasised individual rights, including property rights, seeing laissez-faire capitalism as the only moral social system, because in her view it was the only system based on protecting those rights. And the radio play showed how appealing these ideas became to a significant number of people and how, in her later years, many – some of them high up in the US establishment – sat at her feet and venerated her. And even though she herself rejected the label ‘libertarian’, that has not stopped her becoming a kind of cult figure on the libertarian right of American politics. Historian Jennifer Burns has referred to her as ‘the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right’.

The radio play also showed how unsatisfactory this view of life and the world made her personal relationships, how she never seemed able to connect on a truly human level even with those closest to her. One scene, for example, showed how, when a close relative spent a significant period in hospital, she never visited, the implication being that to do so would not have served any purpose for her and would therefore go against her philosophy of a human being needing to put their own perceived happiness and pleasure before everything else. Given her view of egoism as virtue, should we be surprised that, in more recent times, she is mooted as Donald Trump’s favourite writer?

Car wash kindness
What a contrast then to what happened outside the car wash close to my home a short time ago. There a complete stranger chose to use his specialist knowledge to resolve in an entirely cooperative way a potential dispute between two drivers and then to adamantly refuse any monetary reward for what he had done. Then, following that, close to 700 people on social media took the time to congratulate him for his act of kindness and human solidarity. Instead of following Ayn Rand’s famous dictum that ‘altruism is evil’ and that all that counts is the interests of the individual (ie, yourself), he had chosen the opposite path, of kindness and collaboration, showing it to be a more ‘natural’, perhaps a more ‘instinctive’ human reaction. He refused to accept any material gain, but his gain was that he felt good about himself and no doubt good about seeing the approbation of his fellow human beings.

This kind of helpfulness and generosity without thought of material gain is something we see on a daily basis in so many interactions between people – and this despite the fact that we live in a system of society – capitalism – that has built into it an ethic of competition and individualism. Of course little of these daily interactions gets talked about or considered newsworthy in the information media, and this precisely because it is so common, normal and everyday. Rather what does get reported is the other kind of news, ‘bad news’, ie, those far less common instances of negative behaviour such as selfishness, unkindness, violence or ruthless maximisation of self-interest.

This is one of the things that socialists are at pains to point out in response to the common objection that the moneyless, wageless, free-access society we campaign for could not work because people are uncooperative, lazy, selfish, violent, etc. Well, actually, they’re not, and this is all the more reason why the society we advocate, based on cooperation not competition, would work. The coercion implicit in having to ‘get a job’ would go and human not monetary transactions would prevail.
Howard Moss

Are we heading for mass starvation? (2023)

From the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The very existence of hunger, and even more so, pockets of outright starvation, has sometimes encouraged the idea that we are witnessing the unfolding of some vast Malthusian tragedy. Inexorably, it is suggested, this will come to engulf a sizeable chunk of humanity. The irreconcilable tensions between the world’s haves and have-nots will plunge society into an unending state of barbarism.

Of course, if this truly was the case there would unquestionably be strong grounds for thinking a post-capitalist alternative to capitalism would be closed off completely. Those Malthusian-inspired ‘deep Greens’ who habitually present us with this bleak scenario, all too often coupled with such startling pronouncements along the lines of Agent Smith’s memorable comment in The Matrix, that ‘Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet’, would do well to consider the implications of what they are saying. If there is no hope for the future then we are lumbered with the very system that has brought us to this sorry impasse. Unfettered brutal competition would be the only game in town. It is but a small step from uttering such callously misanthropic sentiments to the calculated culling of one’s fellow citizens. We might just as well set about building our bunkers, fortifying our gated communities and fatalistically await the coming apocalypse like a scene out of The Walking Dead.

Way off the mark
In the 1960s and 70s a spate of books, uniformly alarmist in tone, appeared on the scene. In 1967 William and Paul Paddock spoke of this supposed looming global catastrophe and earnestly recommended applying the medical principle of the ‘triage’ (practised in the First World War to decide which wounded soldiers should be treated and which left to die) by giving food aid only to those countries that could be saved, while allowing the rest to perish. (William Paddock & Paul Paddock, Famine 1975! America’s decision: who will survive?, 1967). Paul Ehrlich reinforced this message of impending doom in his best seller, The Population Bomb (1968), declaring that ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death’. And the 1972 Club of Rome Report, The Limits to Growth, gloomily predicted in the same vein that the world was rapidly running out of key resources in the face of runaway population growth.

In fact, all these dire predictions of impending disaster proved to be way off the mark. As the free-market cornucopian, Julian Simon, pointed out in The Ultimate Resource (1981), the short term price food rises of the early 70s caused by such factors as drought, the decision of the Russians to import animal feed to boost meat consumption, and concerted attempts to reduce the huge food stockpiles of previous decades, did not really tell us much, if anything, about the long-term trends in the price (and, hence, availability) of food. Indeed, the poor harvests of the early 1970s subsequently gave way to gluts with grain prices plummeting to the consternation of US farmers in particular.

Much the same is true of more recent events. In the few years up to 2008, food prices climbed steadily but then fell back quite dramatically albeit not quite to their earlier levels. Later, from June 2010 onwards, the price of some foodstuffs, like wheat, once again rose – in this case, by nearly 50 percent in two months – following Russia’s decision to freeze grain exports after another serious drought (‘Global wheat crisis recalls Moscow’s “great grain robbery”‘, Observer, 8 August 2010).

Erratic, often speculatively driven, short-term fluctuations of this nature in the price of food are to be expected. Nevertheless, contends Simon, the historical trend is towards a gradual reduction in food costs as agriculture becomes more productive and efficient. This bodes well for tackling the problem of global poverty.

The demand for food is, after all, relatively inelastic – that is to say, it is not going to vary much with changes in food prices. Since food represents a significant component of the cost of living of the global poor (who typically spend at least half their income on food) the benefits of such long-term price reductions would be far reaching. It would mean they would then have more to spend on things like education and healthcare. A virtuous circle of self-improvement would ensue. A better-educated and healthier population will also be a more productive one and rising productivity will, in turn, generate yet more benefits. However, the converse to this argument is also true. The inelasticity of food as a human priority means that any price increases will require people to cut back on precisely these other things that might benefit them in the long run.

As regards the Malthusian obsession with population growth, contended Simon, far from this growth constituting a threat to living standards, the very opposite is true. It actually helps to raise these standards by increasing the productivity of farming itself – for example, by making it more economically feasible to develop good road networks that then makes it easier and cheaper to transport both agricultural inputs and outputs. Some of the wealthiest parts of the world, after all, also happen to be some of the most densely populated. Just as there are economies of scale in production so are there economies of scale in population size.

Free-market optimism
Simon’s Panglossian-like technological optimism and his unabashed faith in the market economy to deliver the goods in due course, is justified in some respects but not in others. For a start, food prices, on the whole, don’t seem to be quite following the broad trend he predicted. They tend to be volatile – more so than for other goods – and while many food items have become more affordable over long stretches of time (if you compare median weekly earnings to the average price of selected food items), quite recently food prices seem to have been trending upwards for various reasons and more to the point, setting new records. It is frankly difficult to square this with the idea of a long-term downward trend. It makes the latter seem more like an article of faith than a deduction based on rigorous scientific enquiry.

As Otaviano Canuto noted:
‘The world food price index collected for the last 60 years by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hit its highest record in March, declining gently in April. Pandemic, war and death in Ukraine, and droughts in the last 2 years… Such a combination looks apocalyptical. Now it is adding global hunger risks, because of the food price crisis’ (Otaviano Canuto, The Global Food Price Shock, Policy Center for the New South, May 18, 2022).
Other factors, as the article goes on to point out, such as supply-chain disruptions triggering food stockpiling and bans on exports, as well as mobility restrictions on migrant farm labour negatively impacting on harvests in many parts of the world, have also played a role in pushing up prices to these record levels. What lies behind these various factors is the division of modern capitalism into competing nation-states and giant corporations.

A mere handful of the latter control the great bulk of the global grain trade and these corporations, particularly following the onset of the Ukrainian war (Ukraine being a major grain exporter), have significantly boosted their profit margins by raising prices (albeit at the expense of profit margins elsewhere in the economy). A similar picture of corporate dominance pertains in the case of agribusiness suppliers of farm inputs like seeds and fertilisers with just three multinationals – Bayer-Monsanto, Dupont-Dow and Chem-China Syngenta – controlling 60 percent of the trade. And among retailers, a mere 10 grocery businesses account for half of all food sales in the EU (Fiona Harvey, ‘Food price rises around the world are result of ‘broken’ system, say experts’, Guardian, 24 August 2022).

This oligopolistic situation is far removed from the rosy vision of small-scale ‘corner shop’ capitalism promoted by free-market devotees, like Simon. Indeed, were such a vision ever to magically materialise, one can safely assume it would ineluctably lead us back, sooner or later, to the self-same situation we now find ourselves in. Competition itself, after all, tends to generate monopoly or oligopoly. The strong tend to drive out the weak. In any event, the outcome we now have is a food system that, in the view of many commentators, is irredeemably broken. It works not only against the interest of consumers who have to pay for these higher food prices but also numerous small farmers, struggling to survive in the face of mounting costs.

Enough for 10 billion . . .
And yet, despite everything, this same food system has also demonstrably created the potential for food abundance – even if it fails to deliver on that promise. According to one often-cited, if somewhat dated, source the world, as it happens, already grows enough food to support 10 billion people – compared to an existing global population of 8 billion (Holt-Giménez, Eric & Shattuck, Annie & Altieri, Miguel & Herren, Hans & Gliessman, Steve July 2012, ‘We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can’t End Hunger’, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 36 (6) p595-8).

Furthermore, contrary to the dire Malthusian predictions of exponentially growing populations, population growth peaked sometime in the 1960s and has been slowing ever since then. In 1950, the average birth rate was about 5 children per woman; by 2021 this had fallen to 2.3, according to the United Nations Population Division, with the world becoming increasingly urbanised (World Population Prospects: Summary of Results, UN Report 2022). Partly this is because, living in a town, you don’t need more children to look after your goat herd or tend your crops. Also, living in a town means you have better access to medicines that have significantly reduced rates of infant mortality. If people had larger families in the past it was precisely because so many of their children died young.

These declining birth rates have meant an increasing number of countries are now experiencing below-replacement level – or negative – growth and, remarkably, there is more and more concern being expressed about the prospect of depopulation and a steadily ageing population, rather than overpopulation. Some countries, worried about their waning influence on the international stage, have begun to institute pro-natalist policies with a view to reversing their relative population decline. For them the link between power and population is compellingly self-evident: big is obviously better in a competitive global economy.

. . . so why hunger?
However, despite the aforementioned productive potential to adequately feed the world, hunger, seemingly bafflingly, continues to scar the lives of hundreds of millions of people:
‘The UN estimates that more than 820 million people are undernourished, a jump of 60 million in five years. Nearly a quarter of all children under five are stunted and 1.9 billion adults are overweight, according to the World Health Organisation’ (John Vidal, Guardian, 4 March 2021,)
How is this possible? If agricultural output is already more than sufficient to meet the need of the world’s people why do so many go hungry? It’s because the bulk of food produced today is produced to be sold on a market and so access to it is dependent on purchasing power. If you lack the means to buy food then you are denied it in a market economy. This essentially explains why people go hungry today. They are unable to express enough ‘market demand’ to meet their needs. It’s as simple as that.

If you don’t earn much money you face a serious problem. If the price of food goes up your problem gets even worse. That is why rising food prices translate into more and more people becoming hungry. They might choose to allocate a rising portion of their small budgets to food purchases and a shrinking portion on other things, but there will come a point when this will simply no longer be feasible. Something will have to give. When that happens this often results in an explosion of food riots and violence on the streets that can, and has, toppled governments.
Robin Cox

Extinction? Rebellion? (2023)

From the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Extinction Rebellion (XR) was founded in 2018 based on the following:
  1. That there is a ‘Climate Emergency’ due to an imminent threat of extinction from global warming not just of other species but of humans too.
  2. That because the government has failed in its duty to protect the security and safety of its citizens, they are no longer obliged to obey its laws.
  3. That net-zero carbon emissions should be achieved by 2025.
  4. That 3.5 percent of a country’s population practising non-violent civil disobedience can bring about political regime change.
Just Stop Oil is an offshoot inspired and led by one of XR’s founders, Roger Hallam. In 2021 it was called Insulate Britain. Last year it became Just Stop Oil. The difference with XR is over the immediate aim and tactics. Basically, Hallam is more militant. While they talk of love, he talks of toppling the government.

In his Common Sense for the 21st Century, that came out in 2019, Hallam wrote of ‘the system spiralling out of our control and the likelihood of global collapse within a decade or two’ and of ‘6-7 billion people’ dying as a result of climate change ‘within the next generation or two’ (

He repeated this claim in an interview on the BBC Hardtalk programme on 16 August:
‘The capitalist system, the global system that we are in, is in the process of destroying itself and it will destroy itself in the next ten years. The reason for this is because it’s destroying the climate.’

‘I am talking about the slaughter, death and starvation of 6 billion people this century – that’s what the science predicts’ (
Actually, it wasn’t what science said or says. It was just a worst-case scenario should average global temperature rise to 5 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial level, which no scientist expects to happen. Admittedly, if it did it would be catastrophic. But it is not going to happen, not even those who rule under capitalism are so stupid as to allow that.

XR subscribes to the myth that the government exists to serve and protect its citizens and argues that, in not doing enough to protect them from climate change, the government has failed in its duty and, worse, has betrayed those they are supposed to protect; the government having broken its side of the bargain, they as its citizens are absolved from having to obey its laws.

The political philosophy behind this justification for engaging in civil disobedience, ie, not obeying the law, is surprisingly old-fashioned. It’s based on the ‘social contract’ theory of the origin of government that underlies the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. This famously declares that all humans have
‘certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…’
And goes on:
‘That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.’
XR say they are exercising this ‘right to rebellion’. Hence their name.

In short, they subscribe to the conventional view of what governments are there to do, whereas in fact governments are there to protect the interests of the rich owning class. It is their government not ours.

Beyond politics
In the beginning they considered themselves to be ‘beyond politics’ as the situation was supposedly so urgent that politics must be set aside. This included not just the trivia of everyday conventional politics — the Westminster Passing Show — but talk of ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ was also part of politics that they were beyond.

They have since come to recognise that they too are involved in politics in the broad sense and now say that they are beyond only ‘party politics’. In fact they have gone further and say they want political, economic and social change and spell this out as ‘a rapid change in wealth distribution and power structures, preventing a rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology’ (

That should mean that they are now open to discussion about ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ as well as discussion of the best means to get to the sort of society they say they want. They still dismiss ‘socialism’, though, no doubt because of what the word has unfortunately come to mean.

Changing slogans
XR’s demand of net-zero carbon by 2025 was unrealisable. Even if socialism had been established in 2019 we wouldn’t have been able to reach that by then. Yet this demand is still on their website where – with only two years to go – it is even sillier than it was in 2019.

Hallam didn’t think that this was good enough as a slogan to mobilise enough people to engage in civil disobedience on the scale he envisaged. He thought that what was needed was something felt as more immediate. The first such mobilising slogan he came up with was ‘insulate Britain’. Not that this demand would make much difference to global warming as the contribution to this from poorly insulated houses on an island of 65 million people off the north-west coast of the Eurasian land mass will be fairly minimal.

At the beginning of last year this slogan was dropped and later replaced by ‘Just Stop Oil’. Originally, it was meant as a slogan for a campaign to stop any further licences being granted to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea.

Hallam’s Common Sense in the 21st Century – which, subtitled Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown And Social Collapse, is intended as a handbook on how to topple a government:
‘We must adopt the most successful model for regime change shown by the social scientific research – the civil resistance model. This involves mass participation civil disobedience: tens and hundreds of thousands of people blocking the centres of cities to demand change. There are a number of tactical options, but the main process is as follows:
  • The people conduct mass mobilisation – thousands need to take part.
  • They amass in a capital city where the elites in business, government and the media are located.
  • They break the law – they cross the Rubicon. Examples include blocking the roads and transport systems.
  • They maintain a strictly nonviolent discipline even, and especially, under conditions of state repression.
  • They focus on the government, not intermediate targets – government is the institution that make the rules of society and has the monopoly of coercion to enforce them.
  • They continue their action day after day – one-day actions, however big, rarely impose the necessary economic cost to bring the authorities to the table.
  • The actions can have a fun atmosphere– most people respond to what is cultural and celebratory rather than political and solemn.
After one or two weeks following this plan, historical records show that a regime is highly likely to collapse or is forced to enact major structural change.’
At the beginning of the year XR announced what seemed to be an attempt to implement this ‘model for regime change. They are going to organise a mass presence over a number of days of at least 100,000 people in Parliament in London beginning on 21 April. Describing it as the ‘Big One’ and part of ‘Project 3.5‘, they declared:
‘Gathering peacefully in such large numbers at the nation’s seat of power will create a positive, irreversible, societal tipping point’(
If they really think that this way they can topple the government and usher in ‘a fair society and a citizen-led end to the fossil fuel era’ within a couple of weeks, only one word comes to mind — delusional.

In praise of minority action
The underlying assumption of XR and Just Stop Oil is that political change can be brought about by as little as 3.5 percent of the population practising civil disobedience. The XR website says that its mission involves
‘Mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change – using ideas such as “Momentum-driven organising” to achieve this. The change needed is huge and yet achievable. No regime in the 20th century managed to stand against an uprising which had the active participation of up to 3.5% of the population’ (for Erica Chenoweth’s research, see
XR typically give three instances of this working: the Civil Rights movement in the US, the collapse of the ‘Communist’ regimes in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring. What these have in common is that they were political changes in the political superstructure of capitalism that were not incompatible with the operation of capitalism as an economic system. There are no examples of the economic laws of capitalism being overcome by this kind of action.

Supposing (just for a moment) XR or Just Stop Oil managed to topple the government, what then?

There’d still be capitalism, the cause of the problem and an obstacle to its solution, and to get rid of that requires majority understanding and democratic political action, not civil disobedience by a small minority. The capitalist economic and social system could not be toppled by the determined ‘rebellion’ of some 2 million activists, as they claim (2.3 million being 3.5 percent of the population of Britain).

Their strategy is not a democratic one. It is an attempt by a minority to impose its will on society by coercion (blocking roads is a form of coercion even though non-violent).

In his Common Sense in the 21st Century Hallam openly stated:
‘We should not make the mistake of thinking “the people have to rise” in the sense of the majority of the population. We need a few to rise up and most of the rest of the population to be willing to “give it a go”.’
Citizens’ Assemblies
He envisages that, once the 3.5 percent had toppled the government, decision-making power should be handed over to a National Citizens’ Assembly (chosen by lot) to decide the precise measures that should be taken to deal with the ‘climate emergency’.

Leaving what to do to citizens’ assemblies is a cop-out. For all the merits of such assemblies, most ‘citizens’ today will have the same ideas that they express in elections, ie, that they see no alternative to capitalism, and so would come up with proposals to be implemented under capitalism and which in all probability would accept its constraints. A majority of them would still have to change their ideas about society before they could decide what was required to deal with global overwarming.

Helping this change of consciousness to emerge – ‘making socialists’ –must be the priority as a majority in favour is a precondition for any effective ‘change in wealth distribution and power structures, preventing a rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology’.

Hallam himself is still thinking within the capitalist box. His long-term goal seems to be the sort of mixed state/private economy geared to the market that we have today (plus a few social reform measures) ‘only there will be no oil, coal or gas industry’, as can been seen from the sort of measures he thinks his National Citizens’ Assembly would have to take:

‘the application of taxes, subsidies and mandates by government. Some examples include: Carbon taxes and dividends to both drive behaviour but also to compensate the poor;’ ‘taxes on all virgin materials to encourage investment in recycling; feed-in-tariffs to drive distributed energy and storage in homes, schools and factories.’

In claiming that we should give priority to campaigning for ‘climate justice’ rather than socialism, XR and its offshoots are begging the question by assuming that the threat of serious climate change can be lastingly and effectively tackled without getting rid of capitalism. But it can’t. In rejecting the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources – socialism, properly understood – they are rejecting the only framework within which the climate change crisis can be lastingly and effectively tackled.
Adam Buick

Something’s lurking around the corner – but it isn’t a world war (2023)

From the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard
A reader in Greece has sent us the article below. We publish it as informative and a contribution to the discussion about whether the war in Ukraine is likely to lead to a Third World War.
The devastating one-two punch delivered to the world economy by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian war has fuelled fears that World War Three may soon break out. With no other historical event to compare the current crisis to, many take their cue from how World War One killed the first wave of globalisation in 1914 and conclude that the end of our second wave of globalisation is nigh.

Although world trade as a percentage of world GDP is currently down to 52 percent (the same level as in 2009), we are very far from the nadir of 5 percent registered in 1945 at the end of World War Two. Because of the tendency to conflate or confuse the order of historical events, the decline in world trade is incorrectly seen by many to be a harbinger of world war. Yet it was the other way around with the demise of ‘Globalisation 1.0.’ Moreover, World War Two did not erupt immediately after 1918. It took twenty-one years of interwar isolationism, protectionism and the Great Depression to trigger it.

How realistic is the outbreak of a major international war in the foreseeable future? The causes of World War One were imperialism, militarism, nationalism and the alliance system. Although present in the equation today, these factors are considerably less dynamic than they were at the end of the long nineteenth century in 1914. Imperialism has been replaced by transnational organisations and multinational corporations. Militarism is also significantly weaker. If the war in Ukraine is the prelude to World War Three, where is the will to fight on the part of the Russian aggressor? It appears that only the Ukrainians possess this quality. The same may be said about the explosion of nationalism in Ukraine, which is the exception that proves the general rule. Nationalism was necessary for capitalism’s gestation from feudalism with its myriad tariffs and customs barriers that hindered trade. In our technologically connected world, nationalism is an anachronism that has no lasting power against large multinational corporations and transnational organisations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

When Russia’s oil-and-gas-fuelled economic expansion wound up in 2008, President Vladimir Putin put everyone on a daily diet of Great Russian chauvinism and idiosyncratic imperial revanchism. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels had ten years to work their propaganda. Putin has had a good fourteen—and the efforts bore fruit. Ask the average Russian teenager what they know about the 1917 revolution and they’ll shrug their shoulders. Yet like parrots they’ll repeat that Joseph Stalin saved the planet from fascism in World War Two. Never mind that it was the Soviet people who defeated the Nazis—and not Stalin. The Red Tsar’s purge of the Red Army shortly before the war began and murder of the Soviet Union’s top military minds, his myopia over Hitler’s plans and other blunders that cost the lives of millions of people, make his role in the war much less than heroic, to say the least. Nevertheless, under Vladimir Putin the victory of the Soviet Union against the Third Reich was quickly turned into a hypostasis of the Russian state. Quite tellingly in terms of his intention to attack Ukraine under the pretext of fighting Ukrainian Nazis, Putin had legislation passed in July 2021—just six months before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine—that make it a crime to equate Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. In a word, the Kremlin uses Hitler to whitewash Stalin.

Kremlin propagandists speak of a ‘sacred national war’ in Ukraine but most Russians, particularly in St. Petersburg, Moscow and other large cities, are ceasing to be idiots—to use the term in the original, ancient Athenian sense of ‘idiotis,’ that is, an individual who does not participate in the common affairs of the demos, or ruling body of free citizens. Russians are waking up from a 22-year slumber. They see that their grey FSB mouse-turned-emperor is naked—and from the waist down this time. Moscow insists that the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine was imperative in order to pre-empt an attack from NATO. However, increasing numbers of people understand that Putin’s real motive was to distract the public’s attention from a tanking economy and gain ratings through a short, victorious war.

The closest parallel in Russian history to what we are witnessing in Ukraine’s snow-covered fields of fertile chernozem, or black soil, is Tsar Nicholas I’s attempt in 1853 to bolster his regime via a ‘short, victorious war’ in Crimea. The results were catastrophic. The war lasted until 1856, the Imperial Russian Army was soundly defeated, the treasury was drained (leading to the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867), and Russia’s influence in Europe was seriously undermined. The humiliation in the Crimean War forced Russia’s educated elites to recognise that rapid modernisation was the only way to recover the empire’s status as a European power. This was a catalyst for social reforms in the 1860s, including the abolition of serfdom and the overhaul of the justice system, local self-government, education and military service.

For a world war to be on the cards, a fight between two opponents must swiftly turn into a fight between many. Russia today is more isolated than she has ever been. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has more allies than does the pale moth, as Russians pejoratively refer to their president. China is at best a lukewarm ally and even an engagement of NATO forces against Russian troops in Ukraine will not see the Red Dragon leap to Putin’s defence. A war between the United States and China is a non-starter because globalisation has bound the world much more tightly together than it has ever been. Were such a war to start, it would be an armed conflict between a buyer and seller, a consumer and a producer—and all parties would lose. China is a giant with clay feet, as the pandemic of recent protests in cities across the country suggest. Xi Jinping and the elite in Beijing fear worker unrest like death. They know that their privileges—and very survival—depend on their ability to ensure that people are not unemployed.

While a world war may be necessary to kill Globalisation 2.0, it is not an imperative for socialist revolution. In the early 1920s, for instance, a massive workers’ movement developed in Germany. Organised in councils (Arbeiterräte), these people were devoted to a general struggle against exploiters and the seizure of economic power by associations of worker collectives. They opposed patriotic defensism (defence of ‘their country’) and were hostile to all governments, including their ‘own’ leaders in Berlin. The workers’ councils rejected political parties and trade unions, which they regarded as fundamentally anti-democratic because they invariably have leaders who make all the important decisions and followers who do as they are told.

This was also true in Russia, where workers’ councils, or soviets, first appeared in the Revolution of 1905. Unlike political parties or trade unions, they answered to no one but their own collective and their elected representatives were recallable by the majority. The councils held de facto power in working class neighbourhoods in St. Petersburg and Moscow after Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in February 1917. The rest, as they say, is history. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party came to power on the rising tide of soviets, then quickly swept the workers’ councils off the political stage and replaced them with its own dictatorship—which then morphed in the thirties into Stalin’s personal tyranny. Naturally, the USSR presented itself as anti-capitalist. From the standpoint of capitalists the world over, this was confirmed by the supposed abolition of private property and the free market. From the perspective of Soviet workers themselves, however, their government, though endlessly spewing Marxist phraseology, was in fact a harsh exploiter. This was also felt by the workers in the Communist Bloc, especially when the Soviet Union ordered an armoured division into East Berlin in 1953 to crush a rebellion by East German workers—which set a precedent for the armed interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist or a ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ workers’ state, as some argue, it certainly was no paradise for most people. The USSR had very little in common with socialism, if of course by socialism we mean a society without exploitation and classes. Not for nothing did many Russians call their country the ‘land of the great lie.’ The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was neither a union (Moscow ruled despotically over the regions), nor soviet (the workers’ councils were eliminated), nor socialist (workers’ self-management was destroyed), nor republican (there were no free elections). Every word in this “USSR” was a bald lie.

War is not a necessarily condition for anti-capitalist revolution. Most analysts neglect to mention or are simply unaware of the fact that the revolution in Russia might very well have broken out before the guns sounded in August of 1914. Analysis of the extensive data collected by Tsar Nicholas II’s Factory Inspectorate for the period from 1900 to 1914 shows a sharply rising strike wave, particularly in the empire’s capital, St. Petersburg. In the first six months of 1914 alone some 2 million people went on strike—and their demands were political rather than strictly economic. If anything, the outbreak of WWI seriously dampened the workers’ movement, which picked up again in a big way in 1916 following Russia’s Pyrrhic victory against Austria-Hungary during the Brusilov Offensive.

Recent history is peppered with efforts by workers’ councils to challenge the establishment (both capitalist and ‘communist’) during peacetime. Among others, these include Poland in 1956 and 1980-81 (rady rabotnicze), Mexico in 2011 (comités trabajadores), Hungary in 1956 (szovjetek), Italy in 1968 (consigli di fabbrica), Spain in 1936-37 (comites trabajadores; although formed during a war, this was a civil war), France in 1968 (comités d’entreprise), Czechoslovakia in 1968 (zavodnie rady) and Iran in 1978-79 (shoras).

Neither Moscow nor Kiev can win the war in Ukraine. A prolonged, bloody stalemate is much more likely. This of course is pregnant with grave dangers, and not just for the leaderships of the two belligerent countries. During the early interwar years one hundred years ago, the philosophy behind the League of Nations’ use of sanctions against a recalcitrant Germany was based on the observation during the Great War of how the British naval blockade had led to anti-war demonstrations and strikes in Germany (activities which the Nazis would later deem a ‘stab in the back’). The idea was that by making the Germans suffer economically, they would rise up against their government—as they had in 1918, when Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate and escape to his relatives in Holland. However, the Ruhr Crisis in 1923, and the insane hyperinflation in Germany that ensued, threatened to have quite the opposite result. American trepidation that a socialist revolution might rip Germany asunder and lead to the replacement of the centre-left Weimar government by one openly friendly to the USSR, showed the limits of economic sanctions. In other words, it is far from inconceivable that the current sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime may actually trigger unrest and revolution in the West and around the world.

The consequences of this war are enormous and will end up weakening rather than strengthening NATO. The world’s ‘middle class’ is receiving its coup de grace and poor countries will suffer terrible privations, including famine. Social stability will be shattered and there will be anger and polarisation everywhere, especially in China and the United States, where inequality is extreme. Sky-high energy prices and inflation work as a counterincentive to the strengthening of NATO. Most member nations—including the United States, which has clearly forsaken its role as the world’s policeman—do not want to spend more money on keeping the organisation alive.

Instead of the beginnings of a new world war, what we are witnessing is the stage setting for global turmoil and revolution with people in many countries challenging their establishments and demanding drastic change.
Evelpidis Economakis