Wednesday 23 November 2016
“Left-wing” Trident? You’re having a laugh
Written by Gabriel Levy and first published at People and Nature
The UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn should drop his opposition to the Trident nuclear weapons programme, the journalist Paul Mason argued in a video broadcast in April this year.
What a monstrous example of “socialist” and “left wing” discourse being turned upside down and inside out.
“We” (which in the broadcast means “the British state”) should participate in the NATO strategy in Europe using conventional weapons, Mason argues. But Corbyn should drop his opposition to Trident, so he can get elected and focus on what “really matters for ordinary people ”, e.g. defending the National Health Service and stopping “shovelling public assets into private business” as they were during the banking crisis.
The kindest thing I can say is that maybe Mason imagines he is thinking pragmatically about how Labour, with a clearly left-wing leader for the first time since the 1920s, might win the next election.
It doesn’t even work on that level.
Mason’s argument assumes people will decide how to vote on the basis of Corbyn’s defence policy. Why? All sorts of things influence election results – family finances, xenophobia and racism, perceptions of class interest, actual armed conflicts (rather than nuclear weapons) – and it’s impossible to be sure that Corbyn will lose votes by opposing Trident.
It’s equally possible that his opposition to Trident will help bring young people, who otherwise wouldn’t vote, to the polls to support him. If that happened, and he was elected, it would certainly give Corbyn a stronger starting-point for taking other radical measures.
More important, to my mind, is that Mason’s “left wing case for nuclear weapons” (as he calls it) involves swallowing great chunks of ruling-class ideology that will poison any pro-Corbyn movement long before Corbyn gets anywhere near government.
First, it bigs up the NATO military alliance on the grounds that “we” (the British state) face “an unpredictable Russia”. Oh come on. It takes two to tango. Since the end of the Soviet Union, NATO (invading Iraq, putting armaments eastern Europe after promising not to, etc) has contributed as much as Russia (supporting Ukrainian separatists, Assad in Syria, etc) to the “unpredictability”. (You don’t have to be an apologist for Putin to think this. See other articles on this blog, e.g. here.)
Why should socialists take it upon themselves to advise the British elite on its part in this game, in which ordinary people on all sides have no interest?
Second, Mason argues that Trident, which he says would cost “£41 billion plus” is a deterrent that will “never be used militarily”. This ridiculous justification for nuclear military technology – which can only ever produce mass civilian casualties – has been repeated as long as that technology has been around.
This argument requires an unbelievable level of confidence that military commanders in a capitalist state – even in a crisis, even when in a corner – will never press the button. Oh yeah? Look at Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, etc, to see just what restrained people you’re dealing with.
Moreover, all this is incompatible with any outlook that could meaningfully be described as socialist. It trashes the anti-militarist foundation of socialism, the central idea that we are aiming for a society that ends large-scale military conflict along with labour exploitation and practices and laws that subjugate women.
Again, the damage is done by corroding the ideas around which any pro-Corbyn movement might coalesce – again, before Corbyn gets anywhere near government.
To be honest, even if Corbyn made it to no. 10 Downing Street, I think Paul Mason has as much chance as I do of influencing defence policy – i.e., zero. So 100% of the impacts of these arguments are on the pro-Corbyn movement, not on actual policy. And they are negative.
Perhaps the worst thing is Mason’s use of the word “we” to mean “Britain” or “the British state”. That’s the first trick of parliamentary politics that any radical anti-capitalist movement has to avoid. That was one of the ideological mechanisms by which reformist socialists of the early 20th century ended up justifying the slaughter of the first world war. It’s analogous to the knots in which Alexis Tsipras, the Greek socialist leader no less radical than Corbyn in his rhetoric, tied himself.
“We” means the movement outside parliament – call it working-class movement, communities, social movements, whatever. Mason is one of the few journalists who has reported on it and communicated with it. And that (rather than the defence ministry) is where his “left wing case for nuclear weapons” might cause damage.
I took Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism seriously enough, as a discussion of the transition to a better kind of society, to comment on it in detail (here and here) – and was therefore disappointed by his broadcast.
One issue I picked on in Postcapitalism was Mason’s contention that the working-class movement as a motive force of change is dead, and that what matters is “networked humanity”. A semantic quibble? It seems not.
From “networked humanity”, Mason’s “we” seems to have moved to “the British state”. I’ll stick with “the working class movement” as my “we”, thanks.
Another point I raised about Postcapitalism was its one-sided view of technology, which is presented as an almost entirely positive force for change. I argued in response that technology not only shapes society but is shaped by it, and that one of the ghastly proofs of that is … nuclear weapons. Hmm.
■ The photo shows the radioactive plume from the US plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, seen from 9.6km away, in Koyagi-jima. It killed about 40,000 people on impact. About the same number died, after great suffering, in the months and years that followed. Source: Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/Getty Images.