We Would Have Been the Liberal Ones

Russell Blackford warns against unthinking, authoritarian tribalism in our responses to war.

On 24 February 2022 – four weeks ago as I write – Russia commenced an illegal and unjust invasion of its neighbour Ukraine: illegal under the Charter of the United Nations, and unjust by the standards of traditional just war theory. Nothing in what follows justifies Russia’s action, let alone its serious and widely reported breaches of international humanitarian law. Nothing should detract from our grief over immense human and cultural loss.

At the same time, there’s a long history behind current events in Eastern Europe, and there’s merit in a serious effort of understanding. Without such efforts, public discussion is hollow and policymaking becomes a reckless process.

This means making distinctions. On one hand, we have Russia’s outrageous propaganda claims (that Ukraine is run by Nazis, that it plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction, and so on). On the other hand, there are Russia’s underlying grievances and security concerns. These might seem absurd in the West, while being, for all that, sincerely held and grounded in memory. It won’t help our understanding if we blame this war entirely on the temperament and ideology of a single man, Vladimir Putin, whom we can then label as insane or evil. Even a more liberal Russian regime might, at some future stage, have taken similar steps.

Amidst the current crisis, the West has responded to Russia’s actions by providing Ukraine with a seemingly inexhaustible stream of weapons suitable for asymmetric warfare. Western nations have also punished Russia with sanctions, and these are at a level designed to collapse its economy. In theory, this one-two combination of measures could degrade Russia’s capacity and will to fight, and bring about its withdrawal from all or most of Ukraine. Less optimistically, the West’s measures might force Russia to settle the conflict on terms relatively favourable to the Ukrainians. In the extreme, sufficiently crushing sanctions might prompt a coup d’état by the Russian elite – there’s been much talk of that – or impoverish and starve Russia’s people to the point of mass uprisings and revolution. Meanwhile, as the situation continues, we can only hope that no one takes a misstep onto the path to nuclear cataclysm.

With all that said, I don’t know the most practical or acceptable solution. For all I can tell, the West’s response of enthusiastically arming Ukraine and harshly sanctioning Russia might be the best option, or the only viable option, in the circumstances. By the time this essay is published, you will know much more than I do now about how it’s working out for us – and for the Ukrainians and the Russians. Bear with me, dear reader, for I’m writing from the past.

But whatever happens on this particular occasion, whenever we’re at war (or caught up in a moral equivalent), the imperative to triumph can become all-consuming. Other concerns fall by the wayside, since war and threats of war, and the evils that follow them, make almost anything else seem unimportant. And this spurs impatience, or worse, with anyone who dissents from the program or asks for efforts at understanding.

Here in the nations of the West, have we fallen into this? Perhaps not completely, perhaps not yet. But it’s early days and many signs are troubling. We’re seeing attacks on Russian culture, as if it’s inherently tainted or unclean, blacklisting of Russian musicians working in the West, and calls for coerced denunciations of Putin from Russian athletes and entertainers. Irrespective of their personal beliefs, which of course they’re entitled to, these individuals might have family members back home, at the mercy of an autocratic regime. We’re seeing more and more initiatives that have little to do with any delimited and coordinated plan. We’re not (yet?) technically at war with Russia, but we’re seeing suggestions that it’s treason to question the West’s actions. We’ve seen calls to deny the Russian population life-saving drugs, as if that’s now a normal part of economic sanctions.

Some of this is relatively minor, but not all. All of it can escalate, and when viewed in retrospect it might look very ugly. We’ve been in such situations before – many, many times. One time was around a century ago, in response to World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. In what we now think of as liberal democracies, these events prompted intense patriotism and heavy-handed censorship.

Immediately upon entering the war, the UK passed the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, which granted its government authoritarian powers over much everyday life and speech. It gave the government extensive censorship powers, enabling it to take punitive actions to suppress dissent, which included the views of pacifists. Perhaps the most prominent victim at this time of intolerance and persecution in the UK was the distinguished philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was fined in 1916, subsequently dismissed from his position at Trinity College, and then jailed in Brixton Prison for six months in 1918 – in the latter case for publicly opposing entry into the war by the US. Once the US got fully involved, a consequence was demonisation and vigilantism aimed at German Americans, including pressure to change their names to something less “Germanic”. American academics who displayed insufficient jingoism found themselves investigated for disloyalty. Academic freedom was virtually suspended across American universities at this time, and it became unsafe to advocate pacifism or socialism, or to criticise military conscription.

Part of the legacy is a dismal set of cases decided in 1919 by the US Supreme Court: in Schenck v. United States, the court upheld the convictions of two executive committee members of the Socialist Party of America for distributing pamphlets opposing conscription; in Debs v. United States, it upheld the conviction of a leading socialist figure, Eugene Debs, for praising individuals who’d resisted the draft; in Abrams v. United States, the court upheld the convictions of five Russian Jews for distributing so-called seditious pamphlets during the final months of the war. These cases produced some famous and finely worded opinions from various judges, with occasional phrases and thoughts that later served the cause of liberty. But the outcome every single time was detrimental to liberal freedoms. This approach from American legislatures and courts continued for many decades in response to fears of communism. Whitney v. California (1927), for example, upheld Charlotte Whitney’s conviction under a “criminal syndicalism” law for her role as a founder of the Communist Labor Party of America.

We can multiply examples of this social derangement, whether it’s the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the well-known story of the McCarthy era in the US, or Australia’s unsuccessful attempt to ban the Communist Party in the 1950s. All of these actions might seem trivial compared to other things – compared, for example, to what happens to the victims of purges, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, to civilians caught up in the havoc of war, or, indeed, to regular soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed or wounded in battle. Against a backdrop of huge and harrowing geopolitical events, and of circumstances that call strongly on our empathy, inspire our fear, and perhaps arouse our anger, it can seem distasteful – almost offensive – to advocate freedoms at home. But this is when liberal freedoms are most in danger.

Most of us think that we would have been the liberal ones in past circumstances such as the world wars and the McCarthy era. Even if we’d disagreed with Bertrand Russell and Eugene Debs, we’d have rushed to defend their freedom of opinion and speech. We’d have protested loudly when they were imprisoned. We’d have defended Senator McCarthy’s victims no matter how much we personally hated and feared Joseph Stalin or disagreed with communist dogma. Or so we like to think. But in all these cases, many good-willed people did not support liberal freedoms on the home front.

We tend to condemn those people, but how many of us would have done better? In desperate times with heightened emotions, it’s not as easy as it sounds to be liberal-minded about stray philosophers and activists getting locked up. Far worse things are happening, and don’t the times demand sacrifices? To appreciate the larger context, yet hold to our own principles, we have a narrow line to walk. Perhaps, then, we should be more charitable to those who came before us and failed to walk that line. Alternatively, or in addition, if we like to imagine ourselves as the sort of people who’d have defended Bertrand Russell and Eugene Debs – even if we disagreed with them – what does this mean for us today?

As I’ve stated, I don’t know the “right” response from the West to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps a supply of weapons for the invaded, with carefully deliberated sanctions on the invaders, is the best we can manage in a situation like this. At least it has some chance of producing a desired result while keeping a war, with all its unpredictable consequences, geographically confined. Nevertheless, let’s not fool ourselves that sanctions are a mild or nice alternative to overt acts of armed violence. Beyond a certain point, harsh sanctions are a form of coercion that operates by impoverishing a country’s people. That translates to suffering, sickness, and shortened lives. In their effects, harsh economic sanctions are an indiscriminate weapon that strikes at a civilian population rather than at personnel in the chain of military command.

Perhaps we have no other option except to stand by as spectators while Ukrainians are maimed, killed, driven from their homes, or carted off en masse to Russia, and while their country is bombed to rubble around them. But that granted, once we start sanctioning an entire people, however atrociously its leaders and soldiers are acting, we’d better be clear and measured. We’d better be solemn and regretful about what we feel we must do.

It’s easy to be driven by pressures to conform, and of course by real sympathies for the victims of war, into suspending our everyday principles. We can get caught up in intolerance of dissent or even of nuance, and in a cruel, gleeful race to hurt the bad guys – which can include ordinary Russian families – as much as possible.

But surely that’s not us. When we look back in another five years, or fifty, or more, we’ll know that we held to our principles while others let go of theirs. Am I right?

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Russell Blackford is Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, Australia.