Britain: Russia, spies and nerve agents

By Peter Taaffe, General Secretary, Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales)

Jeremy Corbyn is broadly right and his pro-capitalist critics both within the Tory government and their Labour fifth column in the Parliamentary Labour Party are wrong and lying in their responses to the recent use of nerve agents in Britain.

Of course, it is reprehensible for any human being – whether it is in Syria or London – to be subject to these fiendish and torturous weapons.

But they are a reality of the barbarism of modern warfare.

But Jeremy has correctly cautioned against the rush to judgement to blame Russia for the poisoning – if it is true – of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

He pointed out that not even Theresa May in the first instance apportioned blame to Putin’s government but conceded that the Russian state had allowed the possibility for “these deadly toxins to slip out of the control” of the government.

However, why should anyone accept May and the Labour right’s version of events after their dirty record in situations like this? The same people joined hands in accepting the lies of the Blair government and its ‘dirty dossier’ that led to the Iraq war, arguing that cast-iron existence of weapons of mass destruction existed.

This was then used to justify the destruction and mayhem in Iraq through a devastating and unsuccessful war and later in the wider Middle East as well. The inevitable consequences were terrorism both in the region and the rest of the world.

No wonder a writer in the Financial Times, which also supported the Iraq war, wrote recently that Tony Blair was the most hated public figure in Britain!

But any opposition to the government’s case is swept away by the childish ‘Defence’ Secretary Gavin Williamson, who declared that Russia should “go away and shut up”. One wag answered him on Twitter: “Russia better take heed. If they are not careful Gavin won’t let them play on his Play Station either”!

Formerly, Western capitalism opposed the Soviet Union until 1991 because it represented at bottom a different and antagonistic social system to capitalism. It was based upon nationalisation of industry and planning, albeit controlled by a privileged bureaucratic elite.

Moreover, right from the outset, with the creation of a democratic workers’ state following the Russian Revolution, the capitalists ganged up to try and crush the workers and peasants of Russia.

Winston Churchill was prominent in this campaign which involved the “use of the chemical weapon diphenylaminechloroarsine [a riot control agent also known as Adamsite or DM], dropped by British planes fighting the Bolsheviks in north Russia during the summer of 1919”. [Letter in The Guardian, 12 March 2018.]

Later, world capitalism and the Stalinist states were locked into merciless and destructive competition to outdo each other in the acquisition of nuclear and other weapons, such as nerve agents, for possible use against the other side. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the return to capitalism of Russia and its former satellites was enthusiastically welcomed. Putin, who was one of the agents of this change, was subsequently fulsomely praised by Blair and Bush. He was no longer just ‘Putin’ but ‘our friend Vladimir’, along with his oligarch friends.

This new capitalist regime and its state in Russia handed over industry, treasure of the Russian people, to a gang of kleptocrats, the oligarchs. Putin himself became one of them and is reputed to be now the richest man in Russia.

Cosy relationship given way to conflict

This cosy relationship has now given way to conflict, which is no longer between two social systems but rival capitalist/imperialist powers and blocs fighting for influence and control throughout the world. In other words, a new inter-imperialist rivalry exists. The struggle for economic and military domination which existed in the pre-1914 period and then again before 1939 culminated eventually in a world war.

Today a world war is effectively ruled out because of the existence of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) although Trump in the US and his counterpart Kim Jong-un in North Korea with their nuclear sabre rattling seem to be ignoring this danger!

As the conflict in the Middle East has demonstrated, Russia has now re-emerged if not yet with the full economic and weight of the past, nevertheless as an energy superpower and effective military machine. These proved to be decisive alongside Iranian military forces in the outcome of the Syrian war which saw Iran emerge as the ‘regional winner’.

It is these factors which explains the intensified hostility, not just of May and the British capitalists but of other capitalist powers who belatedly joined with her in condemning the Russian state in the alleged use in Britain of the nerve agent Novichok.

But a number of authoritative writers and commentators, such as the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray and journalist Seamus Martin, have undermined the veracity of May’s case and Russia’s use of this nerve agent in Britain.

Murray points out: “As recently as 2016 Dr Robin Black, Head of the Detection Laboratory at the UK’s only chemical weapons facility at Porton Down, a former colleague of Dr David Kelly [who committed suicide over the dossier on Iraq], published in an extremely prestigious scientific journal that the evidence for the existence of Novichoks was scant and their composition unknown.”

Black wrote: “There has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s” but no hard evidence and no “structures of all the properties” of these had been published.

Murray comments: “Yet now, the British Government is claiming to be able instantly to identify a substance which its only biological weapons research centre has never seen before and was unsure of its existence. Worse, it claims to be able not only to identify it, but to pinpoint its origin…It is plain that claim cannot be true.”

He also points out: “Porton Down has acknowledged in publications it has never seen any Russian ‘novichoks’. The UK government has absolutely no ‘fingerprint’ information such as impurities that can safely attribute this substance to Russia.”

Originally, May refused to provide a sample to the international body dealing with these kinds of weapons – the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Now Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has belatedly promised to grant the request Russia to do so. We await the outcome!

But Murray also points out that the programme for this weapon “was in the Soviet Union but far away from modern Russia, at Nukus in modern Uzbekistan.” He had “visited the Nukus chemical weapon site… It was dismantled and made safe and all the stocks destroyed and the equipment removed by the American government, as I recall finishing while I was Ambassador there. There has in fact never been any evidence that any ‘novichok’ ever existed in Russia itself”.

Of course, there may be some factors which Murray was not aware of and will subsequently come to light. But there is enough doubt cast by this and by an equally sceptical article in the Irish Times by Seamus Martin, the paper’s former Moscow correspondent, which backs up and reinforces Murray’s argumentation.

He writes that: “Those who became extremely rich by selling natural resources, military equipment or anything they could get their hands on became known as the Russian oligarchs, but not all the oligarchs were Russian. The main production plant for Novichok was in Uzbekistan.”


And it was oligarchs who stole from the Russian people their wealth who have filled the coffers of the Tory party with huge financial donations estimated at £820,000. Now Tory Chancellor Philip Hammond has refused to return the money because he did not want to tar the oligarchs “with Putin’s brush”.

Putin is flesh of the flesh to these gangster capitalists and we have opposed him and his regime from the outset. Notwithstanding his likely victory in the election on Sunday, colossal forces of opposition are developing amongst the working class and the youth in Russia and in all the states which were originally part of the Soviet Union.

The purpose of this campaign by Britain and its temporary ‘allies’ against Russia now, which has taken on a sharp character, is to further undermine Russia through sanctions. This probably will amount to merely trimming the fingernails of the oligarchs in London and Europe but little else.

The labour movement should propose effective workers’ sanctions against this obscene plutocracy in London and elsewhere. To begin with, all property – estimated by the think tank IPPR, to be 216,000 homes in England empty for six months – should be immediately taken over to house the Grenfell and other homeless tenants. And not just those of the Russian super-rich but also the Chinese, Asian and other oligarchs who control great chunks of London and others European capitals.

However, the sanctions already in place as ‘punishment’ for Russia’s military interventions in the Ukraine and Crimea by Germany and the EU have proved to be ineffective. Before this latest conflict there were proposals for them to be scaled down and eventually dismantled. A further round of measures is likely to amount to slap on the wrist for Russia.

In answer to the European and US ruling class, Putin has taken retaliatory measures, with his latest nuclear tests – which he boasted would provide Russia with military- installed nuclear weapons in the enclave of Kaliningrad. This is a warning to the European and other capitalist powers.

This points towards an intensified clash between the rival capitalist powers and blocs. The European labour movement and working class in general should take an independent class position – rejecting all proposals for the governments of the rich to ratchet up tensions that already exist and particularly oppose increased arms expenditure, which the Tories are openly canvassing for in Britain, is one of the reasons for this latest campaign.

As if enfeebled British capitalism with its puny military forces in comparison to other major military powers could seriously challenge Russia! It is like a pitting a peashooter against a tank!

In answer to Britain’s military bluster, the late Tony Benn pointed out that Britain’s reduced military prowess would not even allow them to occupy the Isle of Wight, never mind launch another Falklands adventure!

Labour Party divisions

Alongside this propaganda war and nerve agents, another war is taking place in Britain – within the Labour Party. This is a consequence of the incomplete Corbyn revolution – the toleration of unreconstructed Blairites and the refusal of part of the left, in Momentum, to fight for and implement mandatory reselection together with a drive against the right.

This conflict reveals once more and very starkly Labour’s continuing divisions, the two parties in one – with the right openly sabotaging Corbyn in debates in the House of Commons on this issue. This came from the usual suspects: defeated leadership candidates Yvette Cooper and Owen Smith, John Woodcock, Stella Creasy and Chuka Umunna.

Umunna famously declared in 2014, when he was still comfortably ensconced as a Blairite: “We’re all capitalists now”. When applied to himself, this was very accurate but not to the leftward-moving ranks of labour.

In the House of Commons, their espousing of the ‘national interest’ instead of the internationalist interests of the working class gave warning of their future treacherous role. In the same ‘national interest’, they could do as Ramsay MacDonald did in 1931 and split a Labour government, led by Corbyn, and form a new ‘national’ one with Labour’s opponents in the ranks of the Tories and Liberals.

Their position and those on the right who share their approach is part of the campaign to picture Jeremy Corbyn and Labour as ‘untrustworthy’ of office and ‘unpatriotic’. They hope they can restore support for May and the Tories through a new patriotic campaign. Jeremy Corbyn and the left will be featured as the ‘enemy within’ and Corbyn, following the attempt to suggest he was a Czech spy, as the ‘spy who came in from the allotment’!

Denunciations of the Russian government and assassination are completely hypocritical on the part of the British and other capitalists. Yes, the Russian government of oligarchs and Putin himself has not been squeamish about eliminating his opponents. Nor has the British government, as shown by the targeted assassination in Gibraltar of IRA suspects, and the elimination of opponents through unmanned drones.

The labour movement can only free itself from these horrors – including the use of nerve gas, targeted killings, new conflicts and wars – by helping capitalism off the stage of history and establishing a new democratic socialist society.


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