When war isn’t right wing

4 Dec 2015


IMPACT Article of the Month


Just as Britain’s history would be incomplete without our wars, our political history would be incomplete without our love-hate relationship for taking part in them. In the past century we have fought in numerous major conflicts and our politics has swung wildly as a result. Britain entered the First World War eagerly but clung to peace during the run-up to the Second World War even more so. Northern Ireland proved an issue of contention for over 30 years for UK politicians, while the Falklands arguably won Margaret Thatcher her second and third term majorities, and Iraq arguably lost the 2010 general election for Labour.


Viewed from this perspective, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power in the Labour Party, and the consequent swing of British politics to the Left, is as much about war and peace as it is about the economics of welfare and austerity. Indeed, Wednesday’s vote on Syria has as many links to the war of 1982 as it does to the 2003 Iraq War; Jeremy Corbyn’s political career and active opposition to war dates back that far, and his rise to power has been facilitated as much by anti-war sentiment as by his left-wing economic policies. The Labour leader has been outspoken about Northern Ireland and Palestine for most of his political life, arguing that diplomatic solutions are more effective than military ones, and opposing right-wing economics and interventionism hand-in-hand. He opposed Thatcher and Tony Blair on very similar grounds – their pro-business approach and their willingness to support wars. Equally, therefore, with the return of Corbyn’s socialism to the mainstream comes his tentative and often pacifist approach to foreign affairs.


Recently, demonstrations against austerity and corruption in Manchester and London attracted hordes of placards bearing Stop the War and CND slogans. It is no coincidence that the support-base of the Corbyn/Momentum movement is closely linked to the Stop the War Coalition and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Indeed, Corbyn has himself supported and acted in an official capacity for both organisations during his time as an activist. Within these links are the strongest evidence of the “progressive alliance” sought to oppose the Conservatives in May and whose roots lie in early socialist thought. For example, the links between left-wing activism and anti-war movements date back to the early 1900s, when shop stewards and suffragettes took part in denouncing warfare as benefiting the ruling classes to the detriment of workers and soldiers. In a widely read paper at the time, Vladimir Lenin claimed that imperialism was “the highest stage of capitalism” and blamed capitalism for the onset of the First World War, and indeed all wars to come.


As radically socialist as that worldview may seem, it is not without its elements of truth. Our country’s shameful participation in the selling of arms worldwide, and our involvement along with France and Germany in the selling of chemical weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime are examples of individuals and companies profiting from conflict. Others highlight the involvement of George Bush with the Carlyle Group and other companies, many of which profited heavily from the Iraq War. As these dodgy dealings become clearer to a well-educated public, more people are questioning war in general and our willingness to participate in it. Many sceptics bolstered Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour Party leadership, and have undeniably formed part of the reason for the return of left-wing politics in Europe as a whole.


Britain thus seems to face a question which resonates throughout the entire previous century, and has come to a head through a man who gained office in 1983 and has campaigned tirelessly for socialism ever since – Jeremy Corbyn. That all-important question is not solely about Syria, but about the whole movement of British politics; who is on the right side of history? The socialist, anti-nuclear and peace-promoting Left, or the pro-business, political interventionist Right? The reality, of course, is that the decision to go to war is made on a case-by-case basis, but many across the political spectrum have been eager to create a false dichotomy and to encourage factionalism in the Syria debate.


This juxtaposition is ultimately false and detrimental to politics, because it undermines the idea that wars may be fought for reasons both left and right wing, and that neither are necessarily just or unjust based purely on their political affiliation. Let us remember that Lenin’s Soviet Union went on to be a vastly imperialist power, and that socialists have advocated violence in many corners of the world from the Spanish Civil War, to the modern anarchists who disrupt peaceful protests in Greece, Spain and elsewhere. Profits have been made by war, but wars have also freed people and brought about international justice when no other options were left on the table. Each war must be taken as a case unto itself, with many complex factors influencing its consequences and chances of success.


At the moment, a video (featured below) is circulating of Tony Benn making the strong point in 2003 that suffering in Iraq will only escalate with Western intervention. Behind him sits a bearded and serious-looking Corbyn. It is injudicious to assume that Benn’s argument, and Corbyn’s support of it, are the expression of socialist thought dating back a century, which opposes foreign intervention in all future cases to come. The war of 2015 is not the war of 2003. It seemed prudent not to destabilise the Middle East then, but the same logic does not apply to the incredibly destabilised region which exists today. There are many arguments as to why Britain should intervene in Syria and I won’t exhaust them here or take sides on the issue. What strikes me as precarious though is the view that supporting wars is conservative and opposing them is progressive. The current situation in Syria should not indicate that the Left opposes war in all its forms, nor that the Right encourages it.



In his lengthy memoir of the Second World War, Winston Churchill recalls the Oxford Oath of 1933 that “this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” It’s reminiscent of the wave of pacifism that swept Britain’s political sphere and indeed swept the nation in the 20s and 30s. As contemporaries painfully learned, war is not something that can be avoided by pretending it does not exist. Whether Labour opposes intervention in Syria on grounds of pragmatism is not an issue. Rather, the more pertinent problem is if some on the Left begin to believe that they have a duty to oppose warfare in all cases, and fail to recognise the situations in which warfare is a reality of international politics and one we should not always shy away from.


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