“The main enemy of every people is in their own country!”
– Karl Liebknecht, addressing the anti-war movement in Germany after the outbreak of World War I
The outbreak of war is always a human disaster with unforeseeable consequences. The ‘fog of war,’ incessant propaganda, rapidly changing events, our own confused thoughts and emotions, all make it exceedingly difficult to know how to react.
Unfortunately war is by no means an unusual event, so we can look to the experiences of others in the past to see how they reacted to war.
The war that more than any other shaped the modern world was the First World War, called the Great War at the time. The beginning of the First World War was marked by a world-historic tragedy: the collapse of the Socialist International, all of whose members had pledged that they would oppose any imperialist war and call on the workers of all countries to refuse to fight their fellow workers in other countries. As soon as war was declared, the major socialist parties abandoned their principles and rushed to support ‘their’ country in the war. Only in Russia and Serbia did socialist parties stand firm in their opposition to war.
Prior to the war, socialists had been clear that the policies of all the major capitalist powers were pushing Europe toward war. The question was not whether there would be war, but when it would break out, and what particular incident would trigger it. In the years before 1914, there were in fact a number of close calls when war seemed imminent, only to be averted at the last minute when one side or the other backed down, or some face-saving compromise was found. For socialists, it was clear that all the capitalist powers would be responsible for the outbreak of the war they had been preparing for years, regardless of what side fired the first shot.
A small courageous minority maintained that position once war broke out. In Germany, Karl Liebknecht emerged as the leader of the anti-war socialists. The slogan which he made famous was “Der Hauptfeind steht in eigenen Land!” - “The main enemy is at home!”
Liebknecht said: “The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. The enemy in our own country is the enemy we must fight.”
Liebknecht’s message is just as valid today as it was then. For those of us who live in the U.S. Empire, that is, the United States and its NATO client states, including Canada, the main enemy is US/NATO imperialism, and our own countries’ complicity in that imperialism. This is the enemy we must fight.
This week’s events in Ukraine did not start a few days ago. They were the predictable, if not inevitable, outcome of US/NATO imperialism over the last 30 years. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 should have been quickly followed by the dissolution of NATO, if NATO had actually been the defensive alliance it claimed to be. The opposite happened: NATO not only remained in existence, but expanded, pushing relentlessly closer to Russia’s borders (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic), and launching wars of aggression (Yugoslavia/Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya). This, it was clear, was an imperialist alliance aimed at world domination, and above all at Russia and China, the two countries most guilty of the crime of trying to resist U.S. domination.
It was not clear to everyone, of course. All-too-many liberals and activists followed in the footsteps of the socialists who had betrayed their principles in 1914, and cheered on the bombing of Serbia and Libya. Repeating slogans about “duty to protect” and “humanitarian intervention,” people who had once identified with the left were now cheering on NATO’s humanitarian bombing of civilian populations.
Russia tried for years to negotiate agreements that would respect its security. Again and again, the U.S. made it clear they had no intention of co-operating. On the contrary: they unilaterally backed out of arms limitations treaties such as the treaty covering intermediate-range nuclear weapons, announced plans for the militarization of space, and declared that they reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first, posing the nightmare threat of a first-strike attack on Russia.
Events in Ukraine pushed Russia to draw the line. The violent overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government in 2014 led to the establishment of a regime in which fascists and outright nazis played a significant role, especially in the armed forces. The new government moved immediately to remove the status of Russian as an official language. Violent attacks on the Russian-speaking minority by fascist militias became regular events, leading residents of the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas to arm themselves and defend their territory.
From 2014 until 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin sought a negotiated settlement, including autonomy for Donbas within a federal Ukraine, and binding guarantees that Ukraine would remain neutral, would not become part of NATO, and would not host missiles and other offensive weapons aimed at Russia. He continued to seek a negotiated settlement until early February 2022.
He was decisively rebuffed: the U.S. broke off negotiations; a large force of Ukrainian military and fascist militias began to mass on the borders of Donbas; artillery attacks against Donbas greatly increased; and – the last straw – on February 19 Ukrainian president Zelensky said Ukraine was considering acquiring nuclear weapons.
Like other wars, this one is the outcome of a long series of causes. What can we do now that it has started?
That depends, of course, on who ‘we’ are and where we live. Courageous people in Russia have taken to the streets to protest the war. Russian members of the International Marxist Tendency have issued this statement of opposition to the Russian intervention. They have bravely taken on their responsibility to oppose military intervention by their government.
There is no need for those of us who live in the American Empire to devote energy to denouncing Russia. The entire corporate and state media around the world are already doing that. A few voices on the left echoing what the Empire’s worldwide propaganda apparatus is already saying are meaningless. The only advantage to doing so is that it takes no courage.
Our duty, I suggest, is to heed Karl Liebknecht’s call: “The main enemy is at home.” That enemy – U.S. imperialism, NATO, Canada’s complicity, and the military-industrial complex – is the enemy we must fight. It’s a hard thing to do, and it takes some courage, perhaps, but it’s something that could perhaps make a difference in the long run.
From Cold War I to Cold War II: A brief history
Is this how it all ends
Lurching to War
Our job is to oppose the U.S.-NATO Empire
War, Peace, and the Media
Russia-Ukraine Resources: History, context and analysis of the crisis
“A warm reminder of humanity’s less barbaric traits”
Experts Warned For Years That NATO Expansion Would Lead To This
John Mearsheimer on the siuation in Russia and Ukraine
US Foreign Policy Is a Cruel Sport
War in Europe and the Rise of Raw Propaganda