“The working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war. If war is right, let it be declared by the people – you, who have your lives to lose.“
It was those words among others that put American socialist leader Eugene Debs behind bars for violating the Espionage Act following President Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda blitz to drum up support for the United States’ entry into WWI.
At the time, dissidents like Debs agitated against U.S. involvement in the war, joining millions of workers and labor union progressives united against what they saw as a war for empire. They were adamant about what the left’s position should be when it came to the question of U.S. military involvement – the revolutionary left would not support sending the working class as cannon fodder to settle imperial rivalries for capitalist interests.
It was also this sort of position that united liberals and conservatives of the time against socialists like Debs who they viewed as a thorn in the side to the interests of empire and capital. Theodore Roosevelt called Debs one of the nation’s most “undesirable citizens” and accused him of fomenting “bloodshed, anarchy, and riot,” for agitation and speeches espousing these sorts of anti-war sentiments.
Debs’ refusal to play into nationalist sentiments was by far one of his most egregious sins as far as mainstream bourgeois political thought was concerned.
For socialists who oppose US-NATO meddling in Eastern Europe following the Russian Federation’s incursions into Ukraine, Debs’ story sounds very familiar – especially during a time in which the anti-war left is perhaps weaker than it has ever been. In the wake of Trump’s “Russiagate” scandal, even the most “progressive” liberals have been out for blood when it comes to giving support for U.S. imperialist adventurism, driven by the mere thought of creating a geopolitical vacuum for Russia to fill otherwise. With this in the center of their imagination, the remnants of what was left of the liberal anti-war movement, or the semblance of what seemed to be an anti-war movement up to and during the Bush Jr. era, has become a distant memory.
Two decades ago, the streets were flooded with protestors amid President George W. Bush’s War of Terror. However, today, conservatives and liberals are more united than ever on the question of U.S. imperialism – and most agree that the U.S. must “maintain its position as leader of the world.” In short, this means more geopolitical military competition with Russia, whether it’s as indirect as maintaining a presence in the Middle East as a proxy battleground between the two capitalist empires, or something closer to direct confrontation, like supplying weapons to factions engaged in direct conflict with Russia and giving serious consideration to the possibility of NATO intervention moving forward. Even after the humiliation in Afghanistan and the trillions wasted on its failed occupation, it seems the nation and its imperialist ideologues have learned few, if any, lessons about the follies of U.S. imperialism.
So, what should the socialist’s response be to all of this? Just like Debs’ response to the question of U.S. involvement in WWI.
As liberal publications like New York Times and conservative publications like Wall Street Journal prattle on about Ukraine with the premise that the U.S. must involve itself militarily to some degree, or the tone-deaf nail-biting over what a Russian invasion will mean for their shareholders’ stock portfolios, socialists should view this as a chance [and responsibility] to propose our alternative view on world affairs. It’s a time to discuss what interests American workers should be concerned with most – that of our class, and not of the abstract idea of us as a nation-state united behind its imperialist ruling class.
The U.S. regime has no moral authority on international law and human rights in the context of aggression against sovereign nations. The U.S. regime is the undisputed leader when it comes to civilian body count produced in unprovoked wars and coups manufactured by foreign interference in the 21st century.
It’s violated the sovereignty of dozens of nations like Honduras, Venezuela, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Libya, among others in the past two decades alone. It’s the only country engaged in its level of military adventurism, so much so that the country’s most “progressive presidential administration in history” began its administration by bombing Somalia on Black History Month last year with little dissent from “progressives” in the corridors of power. Why should war criminals be able to decide how to deal with the situation in Ukraine?
As the death drive that fuels U.S. imperialism becomes normalized and legitimized more and more amid the fixation on Ukraine, socialists must vehemently oppose the hypocrisy of American neo-colonialism and paint the sycophantic crocodile tears from the leaders of the so-called “free world” for what they are. The problem isn’t the idea of wanton violence against Ukrainians – at least not for pro-imperialist politicians and pundits. They have no problem with wanton violence against nations that don’t align with U.S. capital interests.
The idea they propose, in a nutshell, is that the U.S. should be allowed to do such things as Russia is in Ukraine, and even worse – such as when it outraged the world and much of its own allies when it began its occupation of Iraq that killed approximately 1 million Iraqis and left the nation destabilized as a hotbed for Sunni extremism. The world could only look on with disgust at what the Bush regime did, and the subsequent continuation of that foreign policy in later administrations.
The lack of an anti-war perspective in mainstream discourse means that socialists, now more than ever, must speak up for anti-imperialist ideas as tensions in the Balkans involving NATO and the U.S. heat up over Ukraine. We must show the most politically jaded Americans fed up with the ruling class’ status quo our political vision in wars between empires – a world where the worker and poor are not called upon to fight the wars of the rich and do their dirty work for them. A world where we can speak and think for ourselves about what is right, without the commentary from hacks writing for imperialist rags telling us the U.S. must maintain a geopolitical stranglehold anywhere it can reach its tentacles.
There is no progressive position on U.S. imperialism other than that it shouldn’t exist, and any pretext given for actions on its behalf is the attempt of capitalists trying to speak the language of real, human rights concerns. (“What about our stocks?” just doesn’t play well with workers, after all.)
Let’s make our position clear and loud enough to be heard by imperialist mouthpieces and pro-war capitalists that will never fight their own wars or bear their costs. In the asylum that is mainstream American foreign policy discourse, it is socialists who have the voice of reason, the willingness to speak out against war and expose it for the capitalist racket it is – paid for by the blood of workers who struggle for access to health care even during an unprecedented pandemic, who toil without a living wage and who remain at the mercy of speculators in the housing markets driving rent up.
Remember Debs and what he had to say back then when you think of US-NATO positions in Eastern Europe today.
If the capitalist wants war and conflict, let that tension be settled between their class, not ours. As for socialists, we reject their dystopian view of the world that embraces clash of civilizations theories to distract us from the real class war being waged against us by the ruling class right here at home.
The only war we want to fight [or rather, fight back in] is the class war. Our only enemy today is the ruling class here in the epicenter of global capital– not the Russian.