A new anti-war movement is gaining traction in Russia and Ukraine

I wrote this article for the Morning Star, who published it in their issue of Satruday 12th March 2022.

There’s a new joke going round Russia. What’s the easiest way to clear the snow from your street? Write “No To War” in the snow – and the police will clear it for you.

Footage on social media shows police obliterating anti-war messages written in the snow. But the Russian peace movement will not be so easily stamped out.

The size of anti-war protests in Russia has taken everyone by surprise. Russian police have carried out over 13,000 arrests of peace protesters since the invasion of Ukraine. Over a million people in Russia have signed petitions against the war.

Vladimir Putin accuses Russian peace groups of being friends of NATO. They are not. Anti-militarist groups in Britain are accused of supporting Putin. We do not.

The imperialism of NATO and the imperialism of Putin are two sides of the same coin. The real division is not between Russian capitalists and western capitalists but between the world’s ruling classes – whether Russian oligarchs or US billionaires – and the mass of the population in all countries, who never benefit from war.

As the Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg put it, “Any war is destruction, blood, violence, innocent victims”.

Presidents and prime ministers will not save us from war. Putin sits pompously at his absurdly long table, looking like he is auditioning for the role of a Bond villain. Zelensky is hero-worshipped by Western commentators who disregard his actual policies and record of militarism. Johnson is sighing with relief that the headlines are no longer about Downing Street lockdown parties.

Meanwhile, working class people are resisting war in Russia, Ukraine and around the world. They, not politicians and generals, are the people who offer hope of an end to war.

Hope amidst the horror

Like millions of people, I watched with horror as Russian tanks entered Ukraine on 24 February. I have no time for hypocritical ministers who condemn atrocities in Ukraine while providing weapons and military training to Saudi forces killing children in Yemen. Recognising this is no reason to feel less concerned about people in Ukraine. It was difficult to feel anything other than fear and sadness on the day the invasion began.

At the Peace Pledge Union, we quickly published a statement condemning Putin’s aggression and pointing to the background of militaristic policies pursed by both Russia and NATO.

It was not until that evening that I was uplifted by glimmers of hope. News came through of anti-war protests in Russia. I was cautious, aware that US or Ukrainian authorities could exaggerate or even fabricate such stories. But soon longstanding Russian peace groups, known for opposing NATO as well as Putin, were posting footage of thousands of people protesting in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Protests in Russia are now too big for politicians to ignore.. A law passed in Russia on 4 March provides for jail terms of up to three years for “discrediting” the “use of Russian troops”. It allows jail for 15 years for people guilty of spreading “fake” information about Russian military operations. Last week, I heard from Boris, a Russian activist who had been visited by police every day since the war began, putting pressure on him not to speak out. He said he would continue campaigning

Putin would be impressed by the Police Bill that Priti Patel is pushing through the British parliament, similarly suppressing rights to nonviolent protest. The ruling classes of supposedly opposing countries can be remarkably similar.

Rejecting militarism

In the Russian Duma, two members of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party have proposed a law to conscript anti-war protesters and send them to fight in Donetsk and Luhansk – so that they can “see with their own eyes” what the Ukrainian authorities have done.

But Russian peace campaigners are already aware of such things. Amongst all the anti-war statements produced by peace groups in Russia, I have not come across a single expression of support for the Zelensky regime or NATO.

As the Russian group Feminist Anti-War Resistance puts it, Putin has “never been concerned about the fate of people in Luhansk and Donetsk”. Russian Communist MP Vyacheslav Markhaev, who initially supported the recognition of the separatist republics, now accuses Putin of being “motivated by entirely different intentions” leading to a “full-scale war”.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Zelenksy has handed out rifles to untrained volunteers, incorporated the neo-nazi Azov battalion into the Ukrainian army and banned men aged 18-60 from leaving Ukraine, so they can be conscripted.

Thankfully the resistance of Ukrainians on the ground has been much more creative and effective. “Reporting on conflict focuses on warfare and almost ignores nonviolent resistance to war,” notes Yurii Sheliazhenko of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. He points out that “brave Ukrainian civilians are changing street signs and blocking streets and blocking tanks, just staying in their way without weapons”. In the mostly Russian-speaking city of Melitopol, residents are marching daily in protest against Russian military occupation.

I suspect it is only a matter of time before we hear stories of individual Russian soldiers following the advice of the Russian Movement for Conscientious Objectors and refusing to fight.

An international struggle

A demonstration by the Moscow group of Food Not Bombs was violently broken up by police a few days after the war began. Food Not Bombs also has groups in the West, who challenge NATO militarism as their Russian members challenge Putin’s militarism. Members of Food Not Bombs in Southampton were physically assaulted as they protested against Armed Forces Day in 2018. It is a reminder that resistance to militarism must be as international as war itself.

Coverage of Russian anti-war protests – which should be one of the big stories of the war – has been minimal in British media. The establishment tends to think that news is about the actions of powerful individuals, and to assume that such people determine the political future alone. They do not. Change comes from below, and war will end when people refuse to go along with it.

Blair’s knighthood is a distraction from resisting war

A lot of people are understandably angry about Tony Blair receiving a knighthood. But while some decent people receive knighthoods, the honours system is full of people so dodgy and disreputable that I am amazed that any progressively minded person ever wants to receive one. A knighthood is militaristic in itself; the knights of the Middle Ages were little more than mercenary soldiers.

Let’s not put our energy into worrying about what absurd and antiquated titles members of he establishment choose to give each other. Instead, let’s focus on resisting war and its causes – including the undemocratic structures that allowed Blair to send troops to invade Iraq against the wishes of the British people.

I expanded on these points in an article I recently wrote for the i paper, which you can read here.

‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – Celebrating Jesus or controlling children?

There can be few lines in Christmas carols that are more disturbing than the third verse of Once in Royal David’s City:

And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey
Love and watch the lowly mother
In whose gentle arms he lay
Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as he.

A celebration of Christmas is turned into an attempt to control children, based on the claim that Jesus was “obedient”.

This is not perhaps surprising. The carol was written by Cecil Frances Alexander and appeared in her Hymns for Little Children in 1848. Other hymns that she introduced in this book include All Things Bright and Beautiful, containing the verse “The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them, high and lowly/ He ordered their estate.”

That verse, suggesting that the social order was created by God, is now usually omitted when All Things Bright and Beautiful is sung in churches. But we still seem to be singing Alexander’s child-controlling lines at Christmas.

The only biblical story about Jesus’ behaviour as a child shows him being distinctly rebellious, spending his time debating in the Temple when his parents expect him elsewhere. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “obedience”. Obeying God involves resisting the sinful structures of a world in which power is based on violence, hierarchy and coercion.

I suggest that instead of

Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as he
.

We could go with

Christian folk are called to be
Wild, rebellious and free.

OK, I’ve been suggesting that for a while. I’ve also been questioning the dreadful theology of Christmas carols in general. Now I admit I’ve gone further: I am feeling so frustrated with Once in Royal David’s City that I have had a go at rewriting the whole carol. The original has some good bits, such as acknowledging Jesus’ humanity: “tears and smiles like us he knew”. So I have not changed everything! (You can read the original words here).

I don’t claim to have Cecil Frances Alexander’s skill as a songwriter, but I do reject her theology. Here’s my alternative version:

Once in Royal David’s city,
Power was turned upon its head,
Where an almost-single mother
Had to improvise a bed,
Mary defied tyranny,
Jesus came to set us free.

He appeared on Earth from Heaven,
Born a child where life was tough;
Though he is our God and saviour,
They laid him in a feeding-trough.
With the poor he lived and died
And showed that he was on their side.

And through his chaotic childhood
He would love and laugh and pray,
Learnt the power of love and justice,
Knew there was another way.
Christian folk are called to be
Wild, rebellious and free.

For he is our human pattern,
Day by day like us he grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he cries with us in sadness,
And he cheers with us in gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord, here and above.
And he leads us every day,
Guiding us into God’s way.


Not in poverty or privilege,
Living under tyranny,
Shall we see him, but in heaven
When the whole world’s been set free.
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall be around.

What if armed forces were abolished?

New Internationalist magazine publishes a regular “What if?” feature. It is a space to consider a radical suggestion that is not often debated.

I was pleased to have been asked to write the “What if” feature for the September/October 2021, with the question “What if armed forces were abolished?” It’s a big question for a short article, but I did my best!

I forgot, however, to post it on my blog site as well. You can read it on the New Internationalist website here.

We shouldn’t rely on charity to support veterans

The need for charity on a mass scale in one of the richest countries in the world is a sign of major failure.

I wrote about this issue for the i newspaper in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday this year. You can read the article on the i newpspaper’s website here.

I’m sorry I forgot to post the article here at the time. In the run-up to Remembrance Sunday I was working with other members and allies of the Peace Pledge Union to promote white poppies and the message that they represent: remembrance for all victims of war of all nationalities, a commitment to peace and a rejection of militarism.

Britain, the arms industry and the ‘war on terror’

I have recently written a couple of articles for Tribune about the arms trade and the influence of the arms industry on British politics and British foreign policy.

Last week, as I joined protests against the DPRTE arms fair in Farnborough in Hampshire, as I wrote an article for Tribune about the need to resist the arms industry at a time when the UK government has implemented a sharp rise in military spending. You can read it on the Tribune website here.

A few weeks earlier, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, I wrote for Tribune about the failure of the so-called “war on terror” – in which arms dealers were the only real winners. This is also available on the Tribune website.

I will try to get better at remembering to post my articles on here at the same time as they are published elsewhere!

Why calls for more military intervention in Afghanistan are spectacularly missing the point

I wrote the following article for Left Foot Forward, who published it on Monday 16th August, as the Taliban took control of Kabul.

Twenty years ago, Tony Blair promised to bring democracy to Afghanistan with all the zeal of a Victorian colonialist offering to bring civilisation to the heathen. After two decades and uncountable thousands of deaths, Afghanistan has returned to the control of the Taliban. 

Bizarrely, some are trying to use this situation to argue in favour of military intervention. If only the US and UK troops had stayed a bit longer, they suggest, things would be better. The reality is that if those troops had continued to behave as they have done, then we could expect the situation to be similar whenever they had withdrawn. 

The Taliban and the NATO forces have always been two sides of the same coin. They have used each other’s existence to justify themselves. Al Qaeda’s horrific murders on ‘9/11’ were used by George Bush and his allies to justify the killing of an even greater number of civilians in Afghanistan. The Taliban, despite their own record of death and destruction, have used the NATO atrocities in Afghanistan to recruit members and to bolster support for their own vile agenda. Militarism anywhere encourages militarism everywhere. 

The people who have suffered most have not, of course, been fundamentalist warlords or western politicians, but the people of Afghanistan, sacrificed to the ideals and military interests of the competing forces. 

All the lies ring hollow now. Every justification for war used by Bush and Blair and their successors has been exposed as at best naive optimism and at worst outright deception. Terrorism was to be defeated, the Taliban removed from power, democracy and freedom built on the back of the bombs. Tony Blair said he wanted to improve the position of women in Afghanistan, an ambition that I suspect he did not mention to his friends in the government of Saudi Arabia on the many occasions on which he was selling them weapons. The real liberators of Afghan women have of course been Afghan women themselves. Many people in Afghanistan have shown a staggering and humbling ability to stand up for their own rights in the face of both the Taliban and the US forces. 

It has all been exposed as a waste: the 457 British forces personnel killed, the other NATO troops who died with them, the much greater number of Afghans killed, shamefully uncounted by the western authorities. As for the billions of pounds that were wasted on weaponry and armed forces, I invite you to imagine what might be different if these billions had instead been spent on improving healthcare and education in Afghanistan, or building up local communities and their economies, or resourcing civil society, or training people around Afghanistan in mediation, conflict resolution and strategies of mass non-co-operation with injustice. 

There is much talk of whether “we” should be in Afghanistan. For too long, “we” has meant the British armed forces. In effect this means the US armed forces.  Although British troops like to emphasise that they are very different to “the Americans”, the reality is that they are sent to fight only as a tribute band to the Pentagon. However many sign up out of a genuine belief that they are protecting the British people, they find themselves deployed in the service of the US establishment. 

“We” – the British people – need to support the Afghan people. That does not mean calling on our government to send men with guns to sort things out. It means supporting international organisations working with whatever remains of civil society and human rights groups in Afghanistan after the mess created jointly by the Taliban, the NATO forces and the opportunistic warring groups who find their allies on different sides at different times. 

It also means resisting calls for military attacks on other countries, which are so often justified on the grounds of promoting democracy even as the UK armed forces provide military training to some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. It means resisting the arms trade. It means recognising that people around the world – British, Afghan, Russian, American and everyone else – share the same human needs, and have more in common with each other than with those who would wage war in our name. 

And it means accepting the most obvious truth that the situation has brought to the surface: that you cannot build democracy with guns and bombs. 

Misogyny, madness and terror: the language around the Plymouth murders

Reading about the horrendous murders in Plymouth yesterday, I instinctively wanted to close my eyes, or shut my laptop or think about something else. Nothing can ever make sense of these murders, including the killing of a three-year-old child. No amount of discussion can begin to fill the void in the lives of the victims’ loved ones.

If this incident is nauseating for those of us reading about it, it must be a million times more so for the friends and relatives of Maxine Davison, Lee Martyn, Sophie Martyn, Stephen Washington and Kate Shepherd; and for the two unnamed people who were injured and remain in hospital.

I tend to avoid commenting on these sort of incidents. I don’t feel that I have much to say that cannot be said better and more helpfully by others. I am commenting briefly now because I am alarmed by several things that are already being said by people who seem to think that it is possible to make sense of such a tragedy – or who by their language seem ready to damn groups of people who are not responsible.

Madness?

Words such as “mad”, “psycho” and “insane” have appeared around social media in connection with the murders. This all adds to the impression that people with mental health problems are likely to shoot you. They are not. Nearly all people with mental health problems are far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. The many mentally unwell people who harm and kill themselves receive far less attention than the tiny number who tragically kill others, having been failed by a state that routinely underfunds mental health services and a society and economy that seem set up to make people ill.

But as yet we have no evidence that the Plymouth murderer, Jake Davison, was mentally unwell. He was wrong – more wrong than it is possible to say – and engaged in vile and unimaginable acts. If that leads you to assume that he was mentally ill, you might want to ask why you associate such things with mental ill-health. We will find out more in time about the state of Davison’s mind, although we will never know enough to understand it.

Terror?

“Defence” Secretary Ben Wallace said, “We can rule out terrorism”. Tory MP Johnny Mercer, whose own attitudes to murder are extremely inconsistent, said that the murders were not “terror-related”. Such phrases are often used as if they were supposed to be reassuring. If they are meant to mean that Davison was not part of a group who are about to launch another attack, then I suppose that it is reassuring to an extent. It does not make the killings any less horrific or evil.

“Terror” used to refer to an emotion. Then we had the “war on terrror” – war against an emotion – that began with an invasion of Afghanistan to remove a group who, 20 years later, look set to take it over again (showing what a failure the whole “war on terror” has been). If “terror” is just short for “terrorism”, then we might say that it involves political killings carried out by organised groups designed to frighten populations into worrying about further attacks. But this definition does not apply to many of the incidents routinely described as terrorism. Take the murders on tubes and buses in London on 7th July 2005. People were murdered for political reasons and their killers were understandably described as terrorists. But they were scarcely an organised group and were not part of any organisation planning further attacks.

Does “terrorism” then simply refer to politically motivated violence? If so, I don’t see how Ben Wallace or anyone else can rush to say, so early in the day, that the Plymouth murders were not terrorism. Unless that is that our language has been so debased that “not terror-related” simply operates in a racist way as shorthand for “not committed by a Muslim”.

The chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, Shaun Sawyer, seemed to confuse the issue when he said that the police are “not considering terrorism or a relationship with a far-right group or any such other group”.

At least Sawyer and his officers seem not to be equating terrorism with Islamic terrorism. They recognise the existence of far-right terrorism. What is not clear is why they are so keen to rule out Davison’s possible connection with it. It may be that they have concluded that he was not acting as part of a group (even though it seems early for such conclusions) but it seems pretty clear that he did have some far-right views. I have no idea whether he held racist or fascist views, but he certainly expressed extremely sexist and misogynistic views associated far-right attitudes to gender and sex.

Davison was linked to the misogynistic “incel” movement. “Incel” is short for “involuntarily celibate”, combining a misunderstanding of the nature of celibacy with an assumption that men are entitled to expect sex from women. It is often linked with extreme “men’s rights activists” who argue that feminism is about women gaining superiority and that men face discrimination because of their gender. I don’t think I need to take up space here by explaining why this is obvious nonsense. Davison is also reported to have followed the “blackpill” movement, which involves a degree of self-loathing that would be pitiful if it were not so linked to hatred and bitterness towards women.

Blaming women for your problems – rather like blaming migrants, or Muslims, or Jews or the man next door – is a simplistic and inaccurate alternative to looking at how the structures of society serve to promote cruelty, selfishness and isolation and undermine the chances of love and meaningful community. Misogyny is a political position, and if “terrorism” means political murder than it is far too soon to say that yesterday’s horrendous events in Plymouth were not terrorism.

The situation has been well described by the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, who put it better than I can:

While it is too soon to say what motivated this man to commit murder, we do know that the incel ideology can be dangerous and radicalising. It is built on misogyny, and a twisted, desperate world view.

“We do not know what motivated this horrendous incident, however those who consume incel content have engaged in violent attacks. Whatever happened in Plymouth, the hatred of women – and the communities of men who engage in a celebration of that hatred online – must be taken seriously, in schools, by social media firms and by government.”

In this blog post, I have focused on the dangers of the language used to discuss the Plymouth shootings. That’s why I haven’t even discussed how Davison was able legally to obtain a pump-action shotgun.

Please can we all stop pretending to be independent?

I’ve been campaigning about mental health or over 20 years. In that time, some of my views have remained firm and others have changed or developed. One of the things that bothers me more than it used to is all the talk we face about being “independent”.

Of course, independence in some contexts can at times be a worthy goal. If you’re wanting to do something on your own that you previously could not, and that personally matters to you, then fair enough, go for it.

If you don’t want to be dependent on someone who has too much influence over your life, your home, your work or your money, then you may well talk about “independence” to mean no longer being so dependent on that person, which may be very important. I certainly don’t mean to discourage you.

However, it can be hard to resist the lie that we all can and should be “independent”. People who turn to social security for help (which is what it is there for) are told they should not “rely” on state benefits. They are accused of “welfare dependency”. Everybody is encouraged to be “financially independent”.

This attitude is not only wrong and immoral; it is absurd. It has no connection with reality. Nobody is independent.

I have just drunk a cup of tea. To do so, I depended on hundreds of people on the other side of the world, who picked the tea. I depended on hundreds more who packed and transported the tea. I depended on the people who put the tea into tea-bags, who designed the boxes in which the tea-bags were sold, who worked in the supermarket at which I bought the tea-bags. That’s even before I consider the sugar and milk, and the supply of water to the taps in my kitchen.

I cannot drink a cup of tea without depending on literally thousands of people.

In a less tangible but equally important way, good mental health can rarely if ever be achieved in isolation. It depends amongst other things on our connections with others and the nature of the communities and the society of which are part. When the economy and culture of society encourage greed and prejudice, mental health is one of several things that suffers.

The attack on “welfare dependency” implies that it is the poorest people who are the most dependent. This is the opposite of the truth.

Rich people recieve their wealth from others. The wealthy owner of a business is dependent on all the people who work in that business, and often on those who buy its products as well. People who profit from buying and selling shares are dependent on the workers in a vast range of businesses that they seek to profit from. Billionaires are dependent on the rest of the population not overthrowing them and redistruting their wealth. So-called “wealth creators” create wealth only through the labour of the thousands they employ, who are the real wealth-creators (billionaires don’t create wealth on their own, do they?).

I suggest that we need instead to embrace interdependence, in which we rely on each other as equals to meet our own and each other’s needs. This requires fundamental changes to our very unequal society. We cannot even begin this process unless we challenge the attitude that praises rich people for supposedly being independent, and condemns poor people because they are not.