by Philip Cunliffe
Wednesday, 12
October 2022
Idea
13:00

How to prevent World War III

Only mass engagement can restrain our warmongering elites
by Philip Cunliffe
Vladimir Putin. Credit: Getty

As Russia escalates its attacks on Ukraine in response to the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, analogies abound. Is it a rerun of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Is Putin’s aggression akin to Hitler’s expansionism? Is it like the First World War? Yet one way in which this crisis is novel is that, despite the war fever in the media, there is little evidence of the mass mobilisation and mass passion that we have seen in previous rounds of great power rivalry and conflict.

Writer Malcom Kyeyune makes the case that the Ukraine crisis most closely mirrors the eve of the First World War. One of the abiding images of that war is the celebratory crowds thronging public squares and plazas across Europe — war enthusiasm that resulted in mass conscription. The contrast with today could not be starker: Putin’s conscription drive is propelling Russian men to flee their country in droves. Similarly, the US has fallen 25% short of its recruitment target for this year. Seeing the social media videos of drunken Russian conscripts being herded onto buses and ethnic minority Russians remonstrating with recruitment officers, it does not take a lot to imagine the scenes here in the UK if there was a conscription drive in our densely populated urban areas.

Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The inability to imagine, let alone practically enact, mass mobilisation reflects atomised and consumerist societies in which politics is passively observed, whether in the democratic West or the authoritarian East. For example, throughout its Forever Wars the US avoided mass mobilisation, with President George W. Bush notoriously encouraging US citizens to consume more in order to prop up the economy, while intensifying military deployment so as to avoid having to draw more forces into theatre. This was followed by the shift to more special forces and expanded drone strikes under the Obama administration.

Such politics are the outcome of a long and conscious collective effort that emerged in the wake of the First World War, to de-massify war itself. The masses were drawn into politics through promises made to them by elites as recompense for their suffering. Such promises inflated popular expectations of the post-war era, in some cases even to the extent of revolution, as was seen in Russia (1905 and 1917) and in Germany (1919).

The intimate connection between industrial war and proletarian revolution was understood well enough that, as historians Gabriel Kolko and Azar Gat have demonstrated, most of the distinctive military strategies that emerged across the last century were expressly devised in order to avoid imposing the kinds of costs — especially in blood — that necessitated making promises to the masses. This was true of strategies such as the blockade by the Royal Navy, RAF terror bombing, Nazi Blitzkrieg and US containment, among others. It was also believed that de-massifying politics would help defuse the nationalist passions that fuelled conflict, facilitating diplomacy once elites were freed from explicit commitments to their national populations.

The Forever Wars and the West’s stoking of a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine give the lie to this view. Far from inaugurating a liberal peace, hi-tech weaponry and demobilised populations have given state elites greater leeway to pursue one war after another. It is no coincidence that the Forever Wars coincided with the peak of political apathy and disengagement across the industrialised world. If we are to avoid a Third World War, we can only do it by drawing the masses into politics once more, to check our reckless and warmongering elites. 

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Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago

I await with interest a strategy to draw the Russian masses into politics, to check their war-mongering elite.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

“West’s stoking of a proxy war”

By stoking I assume you mean giving Ukraine some weapons with which to defend itself from a murderous invasion?

Andy White
Andy White
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The West (NATO) is clearly more involved than just ‘giving Ukraine some weapons’. It’s a proxy war all right. Doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for the West to be waging it, tactically. Would a full-on NATO war with Russia over Ukraine be preferable? Obviously not.

Dan Webster
Dan Webster
1 month ago

Hmm. Looking forward to reading the longer form version of this in Marxist Review in which Philip can expand in more detail on reviving proletarian political consciousness in order to defeat the warmongering Western elites. It is reassurong that there is yet another generation of brave academics willing to consider these points in the face of such scorn from their bourgeois opposition. Vive la University of Kent Politics Department.

David Giles
David Giles
1 month ago

Well said Mike Doyle. This tripe is becoming monotonous. It doesn’t seem to matter what colour flag the Czar flies, his useful idiots here in Britain will always parrot his line.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 month ago

Some who worked for the Soviets did so for money, others were just useful idiots…plus ça change

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

And let’s not forget General Ludendorff, the brilliant geopolitical strategist who made it all possible. An American geopolitical expert, Charles R. Morris, once said to me in an awkward meeting where he’s been caught out on something, that our opponents were “too smart for their own good.” The problem with geopolitical types is that they’re too smart for our own good.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago

Always good to ignore the country where the very opposite has occurred–and thus spoil the cliche.

Ukraine is winning because it made all males across a very wide spectrum liable for the draft. They responded quite well.

Successful mobilization comes when the country really is in danger. Just now what we need are plans to get through the winter, not more troops.

Genuine threats to the Homeland will likely see volunteers. Protecting one’s home and neighbours is still part of human nature.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 month ago

Sounds like someone, a member of an academic elite perhaps, could do with de-politicising his story.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 month ago

Very accurate. Except that there are enthusiastic crowds cheering on the excitement of war, and just like in WW I they’re the stay-home armchair warriors feeling utterly blessed with real-life video war games. Hallelujah, it ups the ante and makes the game so much “more real.” Until of course the energy shortage and economics hits home. But only if you’re European, the Americans can still sit back and enjoy the Greek video-tragedy.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
1 month ago

Perhaps the author would care to live in the Ukraine or have some Ukrainian refugees living with him.

joe hardy
joe hardy
1 month ago

The war mongering elite in the U.S.is comprised of Alexandria occasio cortez and Randy Weingarten. Not exactly the warlords you may be looking for.

Alex Forbes
Alex Forbes
1 month ago

Well done the Editor in posting at the top a photo of the true author of this piece.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 month ago

This War was is amazingly popular – even though it is utterly wrong to be involved in it.

So how could this have happened, why would the West do such a immensely great self harm? MSM and Social Media backed the government agenda. The government fallowed their controllers who want to suck $Trillions out of the pensions and savings of the Middle and Working classes and asset strip the Stock Market, the Bond Market, and the Treasuries. They want all small business to fail so only the huge corporations survive.

See how your UK Pensions almost crashed? See Inflation? This is pure money flying from your pocket to the pocket of the Global Elite.

.

It is putting Russia – who were always a huge break on China with their 1000 mile land border – it is putting Russia and all the commodity producers (Oil, Mineral, Metals) into a cartel with China.

An Expert I heard said $8 Trillion damage has been done thus far…..Lots more to come before the next couple winters are past.

Make Peace you evil warmongers. Biden could get Zalenski to the table anytime – but this is what is wanted, this war – and it is destroying Ukraine in the process, but it is not about them anyway – it is about the New World Order – what else could it be?

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Indeed.

Doubtless World Capital bribed Putin to invade.
Their tentacles are everywhere.

And it ‘s so much easier than trying to understand Putin’s Russia or Ukraine.

You’ve got a problem? World Capital is to blame!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago
Reply to  martin logan

No, I think its a conspiracy between Elvis, a DNA reformed Hereward The Wake, and the granson of Sir Clement Attlee’s pet hamster Cadwallader.