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THE TERM “fifth column” originated in the Spanish Civil War, when one of the fascist generals declared that while they had four columns marching on Madrid, there was a fifth column within the city which would support them. It is used to describe people who undermine a government from within at the behest of an enemy power.
Quite disgracefully, it has been bandied about in the present crisis from MPs and journalists who want to attack the anti-war movement — anyone taking such a position must be in hock to another state (in this case Russia) and acting against a supposed “national interest.” They simply cannot comprehend that campaigners can oppose wars and the foreign policy of their own government while at the same time opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yet that is the position of the Stop the War Coalition. We condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The people of Ukraine and Russia — and elsewhere in Europe — are the ones who will suffer as a result. It will also lead to much greater instability, both military and economic, throughout Europe and more widely.
Yet this conflict did not start in recent weeks. It is the product of a system where war is baked into a network of inter-imperialist rivalries, of which our government is at the heart. I therefore reject the narrative of the Johnson government which like its predecessors over the past three decades has waged aggressive wars.
When I hear people say that Nato is a defensive alliance, when I hear as one MP said that this is the end of a period of peace for 30 years, I suggest they look at the reality.
One million dead in Iraq, devastation and defeat in Afghanistan and Libya, much greater military spending worldwide. At the same time Nato — an aggressive military alliance — has expanded in terms of member states and much more widely geographically. All this has contributed to the situation we are now in. Indeed, Putin’s plans may well have been influenced by the US defeat in Afghanistan.
It is regrettable that all of this is lost in the present witch-hunting atmosphere of those who dare to oppose Nato, the militarism and jingoism of the British government and the role of US imperialism over the decades. The talk of anti-war voices being a fifth column or enemy within is a shocking piece of McCarthyism. We live in a supposed democracy but in times of crisis the right to say what we think (and on which we have been proved so right in the past) suddenly goes into abeyance.
Anti-war and peace activists campaign because they believe these issues are wrong, not because they want to “give succour to” or support Putin (or indeed before him the Taliban, Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Gadaffi, all of whom at various times were referred to as new Hitlers).
One of the worst demands this week was the Labour whip’s demand that 11 MPs withdraw their names from a Stop the War statement because it criticised Nato. I don’t agree with their decision to do so, because I think this will be the start of further attacks on the left over this and other issues. We have already seen a further onslaught on the courageous activists in Young Labour.
But the key point here is that such a statement is completely justified in terms of democratic debate and surely comes within the remit of “free speech” which is so lauded by Johnson and his Tories. Even worse, Keir Starmer has made this move in response to Johnson’s taunting demands.
They will not silence us or the many anti-war voices internationally. I am proud to be an anti-war campaigner and I know there are many like me. I note that anti-war protesters in Russia are being lauded in the British media. I also support them and send them my full solidarity. The irony is that Putin will see them as the enemy within — just as our government (and loyal opposition) treats us.
There will be more of this backlash as the right-wing and pro-war elements (including some sadly who were on the left) demand more military action and insist on loyalty oaths from those who disagree with them. We must resist it.
Witch hunts cannot be defeated by giving in to them, but only by refusing to change your views to fit the climate. As Lillian Hellman, herself a victim of McCarthyism, said, this is “scoundrel time.” And it must be resisted. Otherwise we really are on a slippery slope.
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