Socialists must be unequivocal in their defence of democracy against authoritarianism, says Bryn Jones, who looks at parallels between the Spanish Civil War and Putin’s war on Ukraine
The eternal tension between pacific non-violence and ‘just war’ theories has resurfaced in a particularly acute form in British reactions to Ukraine. What should a socialist stance be? Recent Guardian commentaries, by Larry Elliot and Jo Nesbø, highlight economic and political parallels with the run-up to World War II. In brief, the late 30s involved the gradual fracturing of the – essentially imperialist – economic system and ‘Western’ political ambivalence towards the rising fascist dictatorships. In his diagnosis, Karl Polanyi, the perceptive Austro-Hungarian historian and social economist, argued that fascism, socialism and communism were indirect responses to the insufferable fraying of social bonds by merciless markets. Similarities to the rise of Putinism in Russia are manifest.
At least in his early days, most Russians embraced Putin’s promise of some security from the political and economic chaos unleashed by Western attempts to impose neoliberal economics and a corrupt form of democracy on the Soviet Union’s former centre. Some Western analysts have been quick – perhaps too quick – to equate Putin’s authoritarianism and crusade to recover lost territories with Hitler’s revanchist aggression for a Greater Germany and Lebensraum in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, like Putinism, Nazism was buoyed by the consequences of an economic settlement – for Germany, the exorbitant reparations and economic penalties imposed by the victorious allies after World War I.
The parallel can be over-drawn. Putin’s nationalist ideology is not Nazism and his territorial ambitions do not – yet – match the continental conquest envisioned for the Third Reich. Yet the international political economy context described by Polanyi is remarkably similar. Globalisation has not spawned the liberal democracies predicted by naïve neoliberalism and sought by bombs and bayonets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. For every South Korea or Ghana, there is at least one Thailand, Tunisia or Turkey. Indeed, Turkey exemplifies the latest trend in authoritarianism, also present to varying degrees in India, Philippines and Sri Lanka, where formally democratic institutions and processes are twisted to implement and legitimise authoritarian forms of control underpinned by populist, xenophobic or ethno-centric movements.
These developments do not replicate the 1930s totalitarianism of Blackshirts and Führer-worship. They retain semblances of civic rights and quasi-market economies, but with political and economic elites forming overlapping, and usually corrupt, business oligarchies.
A more disturbing resemblance to the 1930s is the tacit alliances between some of today’s main autocracies. In the 1930s, Germany, Italy and Japan formed the Axis alliance which began World War II. In 2022 there are now pacts or understandings amongst the biggest authoritarian and crypto-totalitarian regimes: Russia, China and India, with Recep Erdoğan, Turkey’s ideologically sympathetic president, hovering between Russia and NATO. So where does Ukraine sit in this parallel to the rise of 1930s fascism? Is it Poland 1939, or Spain 1936? In some respects, Ukraine is Spain and Poland rolled into one.
Most of the left view the Spanish Civil War as the missed opportunity to challenge and halt fascism. In brief: a government of left-liberals and socialists was attacked by fascistic-nationalist army officers under Francisco Franco, backed with armaments and air support from Italy and Germany. The Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria carried out the bombing of Guernica, immortalised in Picasso’s painting. Shamefully, the liberal democracies turned a blind eye. Some right-wing British politicians positively welcomed the prospect of the annihilation of ‘Bolsheviks’. Franco’s victory in 1939 was followed within the year by Hitler’s invasion of Poland: the start of World War II. George Orwell fought in the International Brigade for the republicans and was an early campaigner against the evils of Nazism. His views are particularly relevant to today’s international crisis.
Writing in 1940, when Britain was still struggling to find its wartime feet, Orwell castigated both the lethargic pre-war governments and sections of the left including Communists. The latter, following the USSR line, labelled the conflict an ‘imperialist war’. Arguing that this stance failed to grasp what was at stake, Orwell railed against “left-wingers who wail this is a capitalist war” and that “British imperialism is fighting for loot”, arguing that “the last thing the British moneyed class wish for is to acquire fresh territory… Their war aim is simply to hang on to what they’ve got”. Substitute ‘Western’ for ‘British’ and we have a close approximation to some current leftist critiques of an American, NATO, or even EU, provocation of Russia. Orwell argued that Britain’s ‘moneyed class’ were prime opponents of resistance to Nazism because, as in the Spanish Civil War, they recognised that Hitler (now read Putin) favoured plutocracy. Until Putin overplayed his hand, the Russophile British moneyed class, inextricably interwoven into the Conservative Party and government, took a similar stance. Objections to Russia’s seizure of the Donbas and Crimea in 2016 were just so much hot air.
It’s not necessary to toe the crude Starmer line to recognise contemporary similarities with 1930s anti-war leftists that Orwell described as “sniggering at patriotism” and imagining they were “living in a squishy League of Nations [read EU or UN] universe”. Another echo: the pre-war left, argued Orwell, by alleging that liberal democracy was little better than totalitarianism, failed to appreciate that the very principle of democracy was at stake. Theirs was an argument that ‘half a loaf is the same as no bread’. Orwell concluded that it was “all-important” to preserve warts-and-all democracy because “to preserve is always to extend”. It is a pre-condition for progress towards socialism. Together with its financial oligarchs, Putinesque populist authoritarianism has wormed its way into the USA and Britain via Trump and extreme Brexitism. It could advance further unless Ukraine repulses Putin. He may not be a Hitler, but subjugation of Ukraine will reinforce autocracy in Russia and strengthen it in China, India and elsewhere, as well preserve the plutocratic corruption of British democracy. Mariupol is today’s Guernica; Ukraine is our Spain – not for reasons of ethnic nationalism, but because it is fighting for the survival of democracy.