“Left-wing” Trident? You’re having a laugh

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 this week.

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

Nagasaki bomb

“Never to be used militarily”? They don’t see it like that in Japan

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. GL, 8 April 2016.

■ 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.

I have seen the techno-future and I’m not so sure it works. (Comments on Postcapitalism.)

Wear the white poppy with pride (September 2015)


7 Responses to “Left-wing” Trident? You’re having a laugh

  1. mbarker2012 says:

    Mason is very confused. I wrote a similar article earlier today looking at his earlier Guardian article that touched on his advice for Labour. https://thoughtsofaleicestersocialist.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/going-nuclear-on-labour-paul-masons-counsel-for-a-consensual-cataclysm/

  2. philw53 says:

    Paul Mason is advocating that Corbyn abandon the interests of the working class for the sake of a tactical manoeuvre to appease the right in the Labour Party. This is just at the time when he has the opportunity to present a new vision of equality and welfare to replace the system of greed and cronyism so effectively exposed by the Panama papers. I would love to see his enemies in the LP trying to defend tax havens and complicated tax avoidance strategies.

    There are two other arguments against Trident. A technical one that might appeal to those otherwise disposed to support it is that it will be redundant anyhow by the time it is built. Submarines will be detectable by networks of small, very cheap sea-going drones.

    More importantly for the left, climate change means that we have to propose a whole new economic approach that breaks from the growth paradigm essential to capitalism. To do that and defend jobs at the same time requires economic planning, work-sharing and conversion of industries. If the left cannot propose such a strategy in the place of a white elephant like Trident (and the “defence” industry in general), what hope have they of doing so with, say, car manufacturing?

  3. PW says:

    How is unilateral nuclear disarmament by the British government and the rejection of strategic deterrence that such disarmament would entail in the interests of the British working classes? Why not pursue multilateral nuclear arms reductions in tandem with Russia and China instead? At least that makes some amount of sense.

  4. Theo Simon says:

    It’s is a weapon of mass destruction- an obscene relic of the imperialist age. And no one should think we are safe while we “hang on to it” (and in the process undermine non-proliferation and international law still further). Given an emergency that the owning class believed threatened their power, or an accident or a misunderstanding trident could literally be fired in the next few minutes. That would be the end of this blog and all our hopes for international socialism.

  5. unicodegeek1 says:

    I think this needs to be seen in the context of the sort of politics Paul Mason defends in “Postcapitalism” – as GL points out, the book is worth reading. However, one of the very obvious criticisms that can be made of the book is that it has no real criticism of the capitalist state. In his comments about the transition to “post-capitalism” he doesn’t see any need for the power of the state to be neutralized in any way and seems to assume that the ruling class will just give in without a fight.

    In fact, in his comments about Trident, Mason reveals himself to be a very typical social democrat. Rather than seeing the real conflict in existing society as being between capital and labour (and taking the side of the proletariat like proper Marxists do!), he sees the conflict as being between private capital (particularly big firms, rich tax dodgers etc.) and the state (which he identifies with the common interests of society in some way). In this sense it is quite logical that he would defend the state’s absolute monopoly of violence – and you can’t get much more absolute than nuclear weapons! What he doesn’t get is that the state itself is a capitalist institution, acting as a very particular type of capitalist business and being dependent on the over all viability of capital accumulation.

    Of course, the fact that he can even envisage supporting the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn is an expression of the same weakness. As a certain famous novelist once put it: “when I see a worker being hit over the head by his natural enemy the policemen, I know which side I’m on”. Even more so when a worker is being vapourised in a flash of radiation…

  6. Nuclear weapons have nothing to do with the left or the right. Both have and are supporters of them

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