Publication War / Peace - International / Transnational - EN - Die Waffen nieder Consequent Peace Policies and the Left’s Capacity to Act

Ingar Solty makes the case for a "de-state-ification" of Left foreign policy.



January 1970

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"Whoever wants to stop refugee flows, must fight free trade."
«Wer Fluchtursachen bekämpfen will, muss Freihandelspolitik bekämpfen» CC BY-SA 3.0, Foto: Ggia, via Wikimedia Commons

Given the immense contradictions inherent in global capitalism and the danger that they could slip into barbarism because they appear unresolvable, it would be easy to simply give up. Left politics, however, cannot be reconciled with resignation. Its adherence to a critical-dialectical approach to theory and praxis stipulates, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, that “in the contradiction lies the hope”. Left politics analyses and intervenes into them, seeks to build unities between apparent contradictions among the subalterns and create oppositions among the apparent unity of the ruling classes. The dilemma of Left politics today, however, appears to be that it must pose the question of power given the immensity of the contradictions and the reality of looming dangers, but is not (yet) in a position to do so. Nevertheless, for leftists who do not give into resignation, there is a genuine desire to become more capable of acting. This is also true for foreign policy, which in turn is closely related to questions of domestic policy. In every foreign policy “crisis spot” and international “conflict”, however, the Left (and Die Linke) is faced with the unresolvable opposition between the large group guided by ethics of conviction who know why they adhere to a consequent peace policy for reasons of politics and principle, and a significantly smaller group adhering to an ethics of responsibility who, in the context of ongoing escalation and state-sponsored, interest-guided propaganda pushing for action, urge the Left to “do something” given the blatant suffering going on.

 So how could a Left foreign policy that provides the Left with capacity to act at the same time look? The fact is, the very important debate about a Left foreign policy is just getting started. One aspect of this debate is that the search for left-wing capacity to act concentrates on evaluating commonalities between the forces of the Left political spectrum. A certain resonance existed for this position following years of political alienation as a consequence of splits after the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens supported the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but disappeared again as a result of the renewed alienation during the Ukraine conflict. This development was related to the obvious, spectacular failure of military regime-change and state-building policies pursued by “the West” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. The realization that this policy had failed even to meet its own self-proclaimed goals also led to an acknowledgement within the SPD/Green spectrum that a foreign policy dominated by military logic is not sustainable. Against this backdrop, the idea arose that commonalities could be identified on the basis of an abstract human rights universalism with which, on the basis of such a normative orientation, Left foreign policy could be unified into a civil society-oriented and preventative policy to protect these human rights on a global scale. This position did not exclude the supplemental notion that military means could be necessary in some situations to make human rights a global reality. Theoretically, war remained an exception, but that made it all the more likely in practice.

The fundamental problem of this search for alliance-building capacity in the political sphere is tied to the fact that history in general and wars in recent years tell us that states’ foreign policy actions never happen for normative reasons and are never value-oriented. States always act according to their own real (geo-)political and economic interests. The fact that their activity is not guided by universal human rights is also revealed by the hypocrisy of imperialism, such as when it enters an alliance with Saudi Arabia while simultaneously justifying its opposition to Daesh or the Assad regime with the rhetoric of human rights.

The fact remains that some wars can theoretically lead to results which benefit human rights. There are certainly examples for this in history. Moreover, within the context of state-led wars, human rights can certainly play a role as an initial motivation for some actors. What is decisive, however, is that this value-oriented action can only be practically executed if the military intervention related to it does not contradict real state interests.

If Left politics believes it can realise Left values with the aid of a (warring) state, then it misunderstands the state’s mode of functioning in the interests of capitalism, which transpires on the basis of class interests condensed into political projects within it.

Taken to its logical conclusion, does this not mean that the Left cannot resolve the contradiction between an ethics of conviction and of responsibility, and is thus robbed of the ability to act in situations of massive human rights abuses on a global scale? How can the Left become capable of action in the interests of peace, if it “always just says ‘no’”,  as human rights critics accuse it of for (apparently) not assuming “responsibility”?

In reality, the Left can also act when it comes to foreign policy. A look into the history of the labour movement shows that the Left understood itself as (proletarian-) internationalist and that the Communist project was one of emancipation. Nationalism, on the other hand, was regarded as bourgeois and right-wing. It was only after World War I and the collapse of proletarian pro-peace internationalism, which mirrored a long and fragile process of national-welfare state integration of the dominant, social-democratic labour movement and the assertion of the “global capitalist” project in the context of the American Empire, that this relation was (partially) overturned.

However, this does not mean that the Left was incapacitated. Prior to the “state-ification” of the reform-oriented wing of the labour movement, the transformational Left never would have entertained the idea of exercising its proletarian internationalist action through the detour of the state. At the time, the expansionist policies of the capitalist states in the late 19th century, encapsulated in terms like “good imperialism” (“White Man’s Burden”, civilization vs. barbarism, etc.) were hardly a challenge for the Left to confront the way they are for some parts of the Left today. Claiming such policies for the Left would have been an absurd idea to this kind of Left internationalism. They searched for capacities to act on the path of practical internationalism, below the politically entrenched level of a specific capitalist nation-state. Today, we can learn a lot from the perspective of a movement-oriented, social internationalism operating below the state level. In doing so, we could apply quite a bit to the European Union, the EU Empire, which as a “form of transnational statehood” (Hans-Jürgen Bieling) is essentially a “condensation of social power relations of the second order” (Ulrich Brand), which can be understood as exhibiting a particular dominance of the capital side.

Many inspiring experiences to solve challenges facing contemporary Left politics can be found in the history of the internationalist, revolutionary labour movement. To name one example with view to the problems that emerge with the unequal development of capitalism, wage gaps, labour migration and racism, much can be learned from Russian Social Democracy’s approach to the problem of wage dumping and racism linked to the movement of Iranian proletarians into the Baku oil fields. Rather than calling on the state (which persecuted the Social Democrats in the wake of the 1905 Revolution) to close the border, they rather sought to build an allied workers’ party in Iran below the state level, and supported the praxis of the emerging Iranian labour movement during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911) in diverse ways.

This perspective of a transformative movement internationalism which operates with the knowledge that the destiny of the subaltern in the various capitalist states is connected could be further extended with view to contexts in which the transformational Left gets caught up in the fight between ethics of conviction and responsibility vis-à-vis “international crises”. This conflict necessarily remains unproductive for two reasons: firstly, due to its abstract principled nature, and secondly, because the Left in (social) opposition may like to regard itself as being in the driver’s seat when it calls on or advises the bourgeois capitalist state to act (or not act) in a specific way, when in fact the concrete actions of this entrenched state do not depend on the Left’s demands or recommendations as long as the Left remains in (social) opposition anyway and has not made “the state” into “its” state through a radical process of social transformation (which entails more than even taking government with an absolute majority). In other words: the Left should not simulate capacity to act by adopting the state perspective in situations which it ­– by acting in this fashion – effectively has no capacity to act anyway.

Left foreign policy should correspondingly work towards a de-state-ification of its praxis perspective and search for paths with which parties – as parties of the (class) movement(s), whose capacity to act in state institutions fundamentally depends on the (counter-)power of these movements in “civil society” – could become active on the basis of a stance of international solidarity. But how exactly could a de-state-ified perspective of Left foreign policy thinking look like? This is worth discussing – both in general terms as well as in specific difficult situations, where Left positions risk getting caught up in contradictions. One of those would most certainly be the question of Rojova and Kobane and the threat to Kurdish autonomous regions posed by Daesh – a particularly emotional question for the Left. Here as well, the German state’s decision whether to provide weapons to the Peshmerga or participate in the war against Daesh did not depend on the Left, let alone Left parliamentarians. Then why does this question of which position Left politicians took and how they voted trigger such dramatic scenes? A focus of Left foreign policy on concrete, (civil) society internationalism contained many possibilities for concrete action and practical decisions: do we organize demonstrations and solidarity actions to exert pressure on the German government to legalize the PKK or in turn exert pressure on Turkey to systematically close the borders to infiltrating Daesh fighters and open them for Kurdish refugees? Would it perhaps be wise to collect donations among the Left for civil institutions (“a fire department for Rojava”)? Or for defensive weapons? Or even – in the spirit of the internationalism of the Spanish Civil War – become involved in practical military defence of the Kurdish areas against Daesh barbarism? The answers to all of these questions would have produced more capacity to act than the eternal clash between an ethics of responsibility and one of conviction.

That said, further developing a Left foreign policy cannot exhaust itself in such a de-state-ified perspective. One essential of peace and conflict studies is that peace is more than just the absence of war! It addresses, ultimately, the question of how societies go from a state of no war to one of war. The previous chapters have argued that peace is hardly thinkable within the framework of global capitalism, and that the capitalist states reactively address the terrible symptoms which the contradictions of the globalization of capitalist social relations bring forth often enough. In a world of these contradictions – from the precarity of totally market-dependent humans in the context of the volatility of global markets to the dramatic growth of global wealth inequality – war is long present before it breaks out. Global capitalism means permanent latent war.

Against this backdrop, Left foreign policy is not only ill-advised to abandon its knowledge that the new (resource) wars will never end without a transformation of capitalism which cannot be realized without class struggle. It must repeatedly remind itself that its job is to address the problem at its root. This root has a name: global capitalism.

With that, however, Left foreign policy ceases to be foreign policy, and begins to sublate the reduction of the term foreign policy to the politics of the state and the logic of the military. It begins long before an “international crisis” emerges. Left foreign policy is not “Left” if it adopts the “muddling through” of capitalist states when dealing with the contradictions it itself creates. Left foreign policy becomes “Left” by orienting itself towards a struggle against the sources of the problems and not the symptoms.

Of course, this is easier said than done. But it begins with a realization: Left foreign policy becomes Left foreign policy by adopting a broader approach, overcoming the division between domestic and foreign policy, between economic and social policy, and so on, and translating it into a unified project of international(ist) formation of social (class) parties. If it manages, for example, to prevent free trade agreements, then it operates in the spirit of a Left foreign policy insofar as it addresses fundamental causes of hopelessness, religious fundamentalism, war and refugee flows and preventatively addresses future crisis situations. That, in turn, also means that Left foreign policy does not exclude pursuing real improves for the subalterns – on the contrary. Transformative Left politics is ultimately defined by the fact that in trying to realize concrete improvements for the subalterns, it does not forget the goal and the need for a long-term transformation of capitalism, which carries war within it like the clouds carry the rain, and measures achieved improvements according to how they bring the global Left closer to this goal.

This text is an edited and translated version of the final chapter from Ingar Solty's book Exportweltmeister in Fluchtursachen (2016).