Why should the Left oppose sanctions on Russia but call for sanctions on Israel or Apartheid South Africa? Is this inconsistent? John Molyneux takes on the argument.
When it comes to Ukraine and condemning war we know our government and other Western rulers have double standards. They denounce the Russian invasion, as do we, but they say nothing about the war in Yemen or the occupation and oppression of Palestine by Apartheid Israel; they were complicit, via Shannon airport, with the US over invasion of Iraq and the long war in Afghanistan. They didn’t even bother much about Russia’s crushing of Chechnya and its obliteration of Grozny, or its help in suppressing a workers’ revolt in Kazakhstan.
But what about us? Are we in People Before Profit not being inconsistent when we supported sanctions against Apartheid South Africa and Apartheid Israel but oppose the current sanctions on Russia? Not in my view. I think we, and the left generally, were right then and we are right now. To discuss this let’s begin by looking back at the campaigns to apply sanctions to South Africa and Israel.
The campaign to boycott and apply sanctions to South Africa was spearheaded by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain. It began in the late 1950s and gained particular momentum after the appalling Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. The Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement was founded in 1963. The campaign, along with the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa itself, was part of a wider global revolt against racism and colonialism which included the Civil Rights and Black movements in the US, the anti-imperialist struggles inspired by the Cuban Revolution in Latin America and the Chinese Revolution in Asia, and the many struggles for national independence (from the British, French and Portuguese empires) in Africa.
In short, the call for boycott and sanctions on South Africa was part of a broad, international and thoroughly progressive movement of the left. The Western ruling classes, however, although they had to pay lip service to opposing the outright legally-encoded racial discrimination of Apartheid, were opposed to sanctions and wanted business as usual. They had to be dragged into sanctions by innumerable mass demonstrations, pickets, pitch invasions of sporting events, strikes etc; the most notable instance in Ireland being the heroic Dunnes Stores strike of 1984-7. Remember, when the Dunnes workers refused to handle South African goods they were promptly sacked by Dunnes and were on strike for two and a half years before the Government banned South African goods in food shops. Some ruling class representatives, most notably Margaret Thatcher, fought against sanctions to the bitter end, i.e. the actual fall of Apartheid.
The campaign for BDS on Israel was formed in 2005 by Omar Barghouti and others in direct continuity with the campaign against Apartheid because of the very clear parallels between the two regimes. It too was, and has always been, a broad international movement of the left relying on the support of trade unions, student unions, academics, progressive artists and musicians, socialist activists and the like. If Western rulers and mainstream politicians were reluctantly pressured into condemning and/or boycotting South Africa they have responded to BDS with outright hostility.
Not only have they continued to support and arm Israel – no matter how egregious and blatant its crimes – but they have orchestrated a massive international campaign to smear BDS as anti-semitic, to condemn it and even, in some cases to make it illegal. Among those explicitly denouncing BDS and alleging it be anti-semitic are former Spanish PM, Jose Maria Aznar, former French PM Manuel Valls, all 50 US State Governors in a statement in 2017, the Berlin SDP in Germany and British PMs, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, not to mention Keir Starmer’s use of this accusation against Jeremy Corbyn. And according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Irish ambassador said that the Irish government opposes BDS.
Now look at the contrast when it comes to sanctions on Russia. There has been no popular or grassroots campaign for sanctions on Russia because none was needed. Even before Putin actually invaded on 24 February Western governments were putting sanctions in place. In a 22 February speech Joe Biden announced restrictions against four Russian banks and Boris Johnson announced that all major Russian banks would be excluded from the UK financial system and that the assets of 100 additional individuals and entities would be frozen. On the morning of 24 February, the very morning of the invasion, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU commission, announced “massive” EU sanctions to be adopted by the EU. Immediately following the invasion these sanctions were massively expanded, including restrictions on the Russian Central Bank and cutting off Russian banks from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), thus triggering a financial crisis in Russia. Other countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, hardly known for their concern about democratic rights in Europe, quickly joined in.
Josep Borell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security policy, stated that Russia would face “unprecedented isolation” as the EU would impose the “harshest package of sanctions [which the union has] ever implemented. Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament called for “immediate, quick, solid and swift action” and convened an extraordinary session of Parliament for 1 March.
So why the dramatic contrast? It has nothing whatsoever to do with morality or values or humanitarian outrage about suffering. Horrible as Putin’s invasion is, it is not ‘worse’ in terms of human suffering than what the Saudis have been doing in Yemen, the Israelis have done to Palestine or what the US did in Iraq or Afghanistan. What explains the difference is geo-politics or to put it more clearly imperialist interest. Saudi Arabia and Israel are allies of the US/EU Western imperialist bloc. Russia is part of a rival, enemy bloc and very possibly going to be allied to the main, ultimate rival/enemy, China. So as ‘they’ see it (and they include the Irish Government) sanctions against Saudi Arabia or Israel are bad but sanctions against Russia are good.
Here it is important to understand what the US and its key allies (such as Britain) are doing in this situation. They are using Russia’s heinous invasion as an opportunity to reassert, especially after their defeat in Afghanistan, America’s position as leader of ‘the free world’ and to bring the EU under its hegemony. This involves using the NATO alliance and waging economic, political and ideological war – everything short of an actual shooting war – on Russia. Sanctions are a vital element in this. The aim of the sanctions is to push Russia into a deep recession with the likelihood of bank runs and hyper inflation. As Faisal Islam, BBC News Economics Correspondent, stated the measures are far from normal sanctions and are ‘better seen as a form of economic war’.
It is worth remembering that the closest precedents for this weaponisation of the international banking system against a country were the actions of the European Central Bank as part of the Troika against Ireland in 2008 and then against Syriza in Greece in 2015. In both cases the aim was to enforce brutal austerity on working people and this, despite all the talk about oligarch’s yachts and the rest, will affect ordinary Russians including the very considerable number opposed to the invasion. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has estimated the damage done by the sanctions has triggered “the greatest supply shock since at least the early 1970s”, and will retract Russia’s economy by 10% in 2022. Put in plain language, as opposed to the alienated jargon of bankers, this means millions upon millions of Russians will be plunged into even more dire poverty than they were experiencing already. The same, if to a lesser extent, will be the effect on working class people here and in Europe as we are asked to pay the cost of this ‘economic war’.
In South Africa, sanctions assisted the overthrow of Apartheid because they meant the withdrawal of Western support for the regime. By contrast, sanctions on Russia allow Putin to present Russian people as being under attack from the west, to present himself as their defender, and to target anti-war protesters at home as stooges of NATO.
To sum up: sanctions against South Africa and Israel were an integral part of a progressive people’s movement from below against racism, colonialism and imperialism. The current sanctions against Russia are an integral part of a political offensive waged by one of the imperialist blocs in this conflict – the bloc which, as internationalist socialists and opponents of all imperialism East and West, we have a particular duty to oppose because they are the bloc to which our ruling class is affiliated.
This is why socialists support the former and oppose the latter. Far from being inconsistent we are, in fact, consistently upholding the interests of the oppressed and exploited in both cases.