As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, the ground is being prepared for a NATO-led escalation in the form of sanctions and possibly military action down the line. John Molyneux looks at how war fever is ratcheted up by the establishment in order to win public support from people who ordinarily would not want war.
Most of the time most ordinary people don’t want war. Why would they? Consequently when our rulers want to go to war they have to try to create a public mood for it – a war fever. Having had a fair bit of practice, they have a well established playlist for doing this.
For the playlist to work they require the cooperation of the mass media but that is almost always forthcoming; there are deeply embedded links between the powerful capitalists, the government and both state and corporately owned media. This is very much the case in Ireland but it is true in all other countries as well – the US, Britain, France, Russia etc. – even, and especially, where they claim to be democracies.
The first move in this playlist is to create an intense focus on the situation or crisis which is intended to serve as the occasion or pretext for war. The media acts like a spotlight which shines a bright light on one particular place, leaving the rest of the world shrouded in darkness. Today, therefore, the focus is on Ukraine and Russia but not on Yemen or Israel/Palestine or anywhere else where war and conflict is occurring.
Of course there is the justification that is what is happening right now but effective propaganda works best when it contains a significant element of truth and controlling and narrowing the focus in this way is designed to protect the pattern of our rulers’ behaviour and thus their real motives from any scrutiny.
In beating the drums of war our rulers always present themselves as resisting aggression, defending democracy, standing up for human rights and so on but this claim only has any credibility if we don’t look at the bigger picture – the bigger picture in geo-political terms and the bigger picture historically. It is essential, therefore, to confine the discussion to Ukraine and not even think about the war in Yemen, the war on Afghanistan, the war on Iraq, the wars on Palestine, the war on Chechnya, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and countless other conflicts where the current ‘resisters of aggression’ and ‘defenders of democracy’ either failed to lift a finger to resist aggression or defend democracy or actively colluded in aggression and the crushing of democracy.
The next move they make is to say we must do something and to confront any opposition to their agenda with the question ‘So what do you say we should do?’ The key to the statement and the question is the little word ‘we’, which they hope will pass unexamined but which is a crucial word in politics. Who are ’we’ in this situation? Is It ‘the West?’ But ‘the West’ really means the US government and the EU and their allies. Is ‘we’ the Irish people? But ‘they’, as in our rulers. are not really asking ‘us’, as in ordinary Irish people, to do something . What they are really asking is that ‘we’, the people, should endorse what ‘they’, the government, are doing and want to do. They hope it will be taken for granted that their interests and goals are the same as the people’s interests and goals, but this is precisely not the case either in domestic issues – taxation policy, public spending, austerity etc. – or in issues of foreign policy, In reality their interests, the interests of the 1%, are diametrically opposed to our interests. In this instance they want us to go along with sanctions and possibly military action , with fanning the flames of war, whereas the interests of ordinary people in Russia , Ukraine and here, are in peace and international solidarity. This is what they hope to hide with the little word ‘we’.
Another move drawn from the same playlist is the demonisation of the enemy and their actions. As I said above, effective propaganda contains an element of truth and given the state of the world the ’enemy’ is usually pretty bad and behaving pretty appallingly, but this does not make them the worst tyrant the world has ever seen. Putin is undoubtedly an authoritarian tyrant, but is he the worst tyrant in modern times ? Hardly. Is he a worse tyrant than the well known friend of Margaret Thatcher and of the US, General Pinochet in Chile? Is he more of a dictator than Egypt’s General Al-Sisi, who currently holds 60,000 political prisoners and with whom all ‘our’ governments and corporations do business as usual and who barely gets a mention in the media?
I have said that our rulers want to keep the focus narrow and not look at history. There is one major exception to this, one historical analogy they reach for time and again when they need to stoke up war fever: the comparison with Hitler. Sadly I am old enough to remember being told that Colonel Nasser of Egypt, who in 1956 had (quite rightly) nationalised the Suez Canal, was the new Hitler who had to be stopped – presumably before he invaded France and bombed London! This was to justify a disastrous French–UK military intervention to ‘recover’ the canal for imperialism. Then there was Colonal Gadaffi in Libya who alternated between being a new Hitler and then Tony Blair’s and the West’s friend and then being ‘our’ enemy again as Libya was devastated by NATO intervention. And it was the same with Saddam Hussein. Saddam was indeed a brutal dictator who invaded Kuwait and tyrannised the Iraqi people but he was not Hitler. He was not about to march into Western Europe and invade or bomb Britain. In fact, of course, no Middle Eastern leader, however tyrannical, has EVER marched into Western Europe , since the Moors occupied part of Spain in 711 AD. It was precisely to get over this little difficulty that Bush and Blair came up with the lie about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which – if you remember – could strike London in 45 minutes!
From the mid 18th to the mid 19th century British propaganda focused on the threat from France which reached its height with the French Revolution and Napoleon. In the process of ‘defending’ itself against France, Britain managed to establish the largest empire the world has ever seen, eventually covering 35.5 million square km- 26.35% of the earth’s surface and seven times the size of the Roman Empire. Throughout the Cold War we were told repeatedly that the Soviet Union had to be deterred from marching into Western Europe even though there was no evidence for this. In fact at the famous Yalta Conference in February 1945 Stalin had specifically agreed to Western Europe being in the US/UK sphere of influence and backed this up by telling the Italian, French and Greek Communist Parties not to challenge for power when they were well placed to do so after leading the war time Resistance. The ‘threat of Communism’ was used to justify the creation of the greatest military arsenal the world had ever seen with the power to destroy all humanity several times over, to legitimise innumerable proxy and regional wars, to try to crush numerous liberation movements and back the vilest dictators, all in service of informal economic empire that gave free reign to its giant corporations and stretched even further than the British formal empire.
In reality the Soviet Union wanted not to conquer Western Europe but to maintain control over its own imperial sphere of influence, its ‘near abroad’ such as Eastern Europe, and its Southern and Eastern flanks. And where Eastern Europe was concerned, the US and NATO acquiesced in this and did nothing to assist Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Poland in 1979. Only when the Soviet Union collapsed through its own contradictions did the US and NATO move to embrace the likes of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia etc. Putin wants to recover some of what Stalin had – he knows he can’t take on China or South East Asia. He is an imperialist but he is not Hitler and comparing him to Hitler is just bad history in the service of war mongering.
A further point needs to be made about the Hitler analogy. More or less everyone has heard of Hitler, the War and the Holocaust. Far less is known about how he actually came to rule Germany. It is little known, for example, that when Hitler started to organise, Germany was in the throes of socialist not fascist revolution. The German Revolution of 1918-23 stopped World War 1 and overthrew the Kaiser. If it had not been sold out by Social Democrats, who colluded in the murders of the revolution’s leaders – Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – there might have been socialism in Germany and Hitler would never have got off the ground. It is also not often referred to in mainstream history that in the run up to Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 there was a force in Germany that could have stopped him in his tracks. This was the very powerful and well organised German working class movement. It was prevented from doing so by the failure of the German Social Democrats and Communists to form a united front against the Nazis. This tragedy opened the door to Hitler to take power without serious resistance.
This point is very relevant today because the main force that can stop Putin and the invasion of Ukraine is precisely the anti-war movement in Russia. Mass revolt against the war in Russia itself, while neither easy nor guaranteed, will be far more effective than sanctions or NATO sabre rattling. Establishment politicians and the mainstream media never have any faith in the ability of mass movements to achieve change or resist tyrants and their wars, but history, including both Russian history (1917) and Irish history, is full of examples of this. So the answer to the original ‘We must do something ‘ argument is yes, we must build an international anti-war movement based on solidarity, not Western intervention.
The final factor we have to bear in mind when dealing with our rulers’ warmongering propaganda is that just as they are not sincere in their rhetoric about democracy and self-determination so they may also be exaggerating their belligerence in order to ‘look big’. They know that even if they don’t actually go to war they benefit from the ‘war fever’ that they have stirred up. They benefit, as they have always benefitted, from jingoistic war drums, from getting working class people to set aside their own grievances and struggles in a sense of false togetherness and unity with their real oppressors.
That is why it is the task and duty of socialists to counter our rulers’ war propaganda and expose it for what it is: self-serving, hypocritical and dangerous.
“The main force that can stop Putin and the invasion of Ukraine is precisely the anti-war movement in Russia.” This misses the obvious and urgent point that Ukranians can defeat Putin and stop the invasion. Right now (2 March) socialists should be 100% on their side against Russian imperialism. There’s a strong people-power element to the resistance and if you were serious about the anti-war movement in Russia you would have to acknowledge that it will grow in proportion to Ukranian success.