Prolonging the war in Ukraine, however, is US policy. That makes it important for people on the left to understand the sources of this policy, and particularly the purpose and role of NATO, as the debate highlighted in Michael Kazin’s article “Reject the Left Right Alliance Against Ukraine” demonstrates. Kazin repeats ideas about NATO and the U.S. role in the world that are historically wrong, and which lead to support for an increasingly war-oriented U.S. foreign policy.
In the first paragraph of his article, Kazin states: “When, twenty years later, American Communists backed the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, they shoved their party firmly and irrevocably to the margins of political life, which opened up space for the emergence of a New Left that rejected imperial aggressors of all ideological persuasions.” It is an important statement because Kazin is, in fact, taking us back in history to the era in which NATO was formed, and to the costs of the Cold War to the left. This is a necessary journey.
At the time of the Hungarian uprising, the U.S. Communist Party had already been decimated by waves of repression. Its leaders were in Federal prison, and its activity was virtually illegal. Many of its members who remained had chosen, wisely or not, to go underground. The events in Hungary did lead some members to leave, state repression had already made support for socialism and communism in the U.S very dangerous. It was this repression that led, a decade after Hungary, to an opening for organizing a New Left. It also led to a left marked by a combination of support for radical social change and fear of communism and the Soviet Union. Opposing NATO was not on the agenda of the New Left, at least not in the U.S.
As left activists, we often ignore our own history as it led to this period, and that has fostered illusions about the nature of NATO and the intent of U.S. foreign policy. At the end of World War Two the U.S. intensified its historic effort to stop the advance of communist and socialist parties. After the war they were very popular, having led the resistance to Nazism, and in Asia and Africa, the resistance to colonialism. In European countries, especially France and Italy, the US fought to keep the left out of power, setting up anti-communist unions, parties and intelligence projects.
As communist and socialist parties became governing ones in the parts of eastern Europe under Soviet control, the U.S. instituted the Marshall Plan to reestablish the capitalist economies of western Europe. In 1949 the U.S. formed a military alliance against the Soviets – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Its purpose from the beginning was to roll back socialism as it existed in the USSR and eastern Europe, and to prepare for war. In an even larger sense, its purpose was to protect capitalism as a system, and a world order in which the U.S. corporate elite was dominant.
In the U.S. the labor movement split on the issue of war or peace with the Soviet Union. When Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party ran for President on a platform of peace in 1948, many leftwing unions and union activists supported him. They passed resolutions opposing the Marshall Plan, and after NATO was established, against a war policy. It is no coincidence that the expulsion of the left led unions from the CIO, and the destruction of most, took place at this time. Opposing the Marshall Plan and NATO were key accusations used to drive the left out of our labor movement.
For the next 40 years, until the Soviet Union fell, NATO heightened the war danger in Europe. Its military strategy was directed at the containment and eventual rollback of the Soviet Union, and NATO faced widespread popular resistance. Putting Pershing missiles in Europe, for instance, was met with demonstrations of millions of people in the streets there, and here in the U.S. too. At the same time, the policy of encirclement of the Soviet Union, and then China, led to creating other alliances, like SEATO and CENTO, organized with the same purpose. The U.S. used containment alliances to fight the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Malaya the Philippines and other countries, and those wars all had a clear class purpose.
NATO from the beginning has been an instrument of class power – the corporate class of the U.S., with its partners in Europe. While military budgets and wars are certainly profitable, NATO’s purpose hasn’t just been lining billionaires’ pockets. Military power has been the ultimate guarantee of political and economic power.
After the Soviet Union fell, NATO strategy changed, but not its purpose of maintaining the class power of those who have historically controlled the alliance. It provided a useful vehicle for conducting wars to maintain and project their power – in Yugoslavia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Today’s NATO strategy is ultimately directed at war with Russia and China, its historical targets for encirclement. Such a war would lead to the deaths of millions of people, and conceivably lead to a nuclear exchange and the end of human life on the planet.
During the Cold War the prevention of nuclear war rested on the idea of the mutual coexistence of two social systems – capitalism and socialism. Even in that era, NATO’s purpose of containment and rollback contradicted that goal. Now Russia is no longer a socialist country, and China’s hybrid system is not the socialist antithesis to capitalism of decades ago. In this context, has NATO become the vehicle for protecting the interests of one group of capitalists in a world where their control is diminishing? A movement for peace in the United States has to come to grips with this question in order to prevent war and create the space for social transformation, in this country and internationally.
Later in his piece Kazin states that “In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise, the expansion of NATO may well have been too hasty. But not one of its newer members has done anything to threaten Putin’s regime.” The problem of NATO is not whether it expanded too quickly, but its purpose. Why did it expand to begin with, as countries that once had been part of a socialist USSR became independent capitalist states? This should have been a fundamental question for the left here in the U.S., where this system of alliances was established and where it is still controlled. The continuing impact of the Cold War on the left helps explain why this expansion took place with virtually no outcry or discussion.
The possibility of much bigger wars than Ukraine is on the horizon. U.S. and NATO generals openly call for preparing for war with China, and for continuing their policy of encirclement. NATO controls the military machine that would be the vehicle for waging that war. Calling for ending NATO, because of its purpose and use, is a legitimate demand. It has a long history in the left in the U.S. and Europe, and the reasons for making this demand come from the rhetoric of NATO itself. An uncritical assumption that NATO really has no class purpose, or that it poses no danger to people seeking fundamental social change, does not square with its history.
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