Marx and Engels learn about revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 53

As we noted in the previous post, since the ideas we now consider ‘Marxism’ did not spring whole and fully formed all at once from their progenitors, these ideas underwent a development from less to more adequate expressions of working class politics.  We have already noted and addressed the penchant of Marx to anticipate the next economic crisis and potential for revolution.  

Similarly, it is argued that Marx and Engels consistently anticipated the imminence of this revolution.  If this was indeed their position it would undermine the argument of the last number of posts which have set out the constraints that bind successful working class revolution.

It would undercut their revolutionary caution and might subvert their early argument with the Willich-Schapper faction in the Communist League, which claimed that revolutions were essentially acts of “will” and that the job of revolutionaries was to ‘make’ the revolution.

Given any inconsistency it would be incumbent to compare when and how over-optimistic revolutionary expectations were expressed and when and how more considered and formal analysis led to the arguments of the last number of posts.  Marx and Engels were once young, and regardless of age were always enthusiasts of revolution, optimism expressed privately is the blood of hope that runs through the veins of all such revolutionaries.

So, when Engels was 24, a newspaper in 1845 reported that at a meeting ‘Mr Engels delivered a speech in which he proved (from the fact, that not a word was offered in reply), that the present state of Germany was such as could not but produce in a very short time a social revolution; that this imminent revolution was not to be averted by any possible measures for promoting commerce and manufacturing industry; to prevent such a revolution — a revolution more terrible than any of the mere subversions of past history — was the introduction of, and the preparation for, the Community system.’

Two years later he was writing that the coming revolution would be bourgeois and this class would have to come to power first before it would become the turn of the working class:

‘Not until only one class—the bourgeoisie—is seen to exploit and oppress, until penury and misery can no longer be blamed now on this estate, now on that, or simply on the absolute monarchy and its bureaucrats—only then will the last decisive battle break out, the battle between the propertied and the propertyless, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.’ 

‘Only then will the field of battle have been swept clean of all unnecessary barriers, of all that is misleading and accessory; the position of the two hostile armies will be clear and visible at a glance.’

‘With the rule of the bourgeoisie, the workers, compelled by circumstances, will also make the infinitely important advance that they will no longer come forward as individuals, as at the most a couple of hundreds or thousands, in rebellion against the established order, but all together, as one class, with its specific interests and principles, with a common plan and united strength, they will launch their attack on the last and the worst of their mortal enemies, the bourgeoisie. ‘

‘There can be no doubt as to the outcome of this battle. The bourgeoisie will and must fall to the ground before the proletariat, just as the aristocracy and the absolute monarchy have received their coup de grâce from the middle class.’

‘With the bourgeoisie, private property will at the same time be overthrown, and the victory of the working class will put an end to all class or caste rule for ever.’ (Engels, Collected Works Volume 6, p94–5) 

To believe that in underdeveloped Germany, its mainly small artisanal working class could carry out a social revolution that could ‘end class rule for ever’ would contradict the basic postulates of Marx and Engels historical analysis and their later lifetimes’ revolutionary activity.  Through both of these they learned about the validity of their view that it was necessary to fight with the bourgeoisie against the remnants of feudalism, and about how far the latter were actually prepared to struggle and not turn away from it or ally with fellow exploiting classes:

‘The workers know that the abolition of bourgeois property relations is not brought about by preserving those of feudalism. They know that the revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie against the feudal estates and the absolute monarchy can only accelerate their own revolutionary movement. They know that their own struggle against the bourgeoisie can only dawn with the day when the bourgeoisie is victorious.’

‘Despite all this they do not share Herr Heinzen’s bourgeois illusions. They can and must accept the bourgeois revolutions a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment regard it as their ultimate goal.’ (Collected Works Volume 6, p332–3)

The relationship between this struggle against feudalism and the bourgeois revolution on the one hand, and working class revolution on the other, is also a subject of much later debate and shall be taken up in greater depth later. In less developed countries it revolves around the idea of permanent revolution, made more famous by Leon Trotsky, but a term also employed by Marx on a number of occasions.  

Hal Draper states that a continued, uninterrupted revolution (the meaning of permanent in this case) was ‘a very widespread, though by no means unanimous view among the radicals of the time.’ (Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol II, p 201)

Marx and Engels went through a number of versions of what the transition from bourgeois to workers revolution would look like, learning from the experience of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, and summed up these lessons following the revolutions’ defeat.

Marx had, for example, hoped (at the end of 1848) that sections of the bourgeoisie would join with the Democracy in fighting for a Social Republic, an open-ended agitational slogan ‘referring to a government that takes a socialistic direction.’ (KMTR Vol II p234).  Instead, they learned that even in what was to be a bourgeois revolution, this bourgeoisie did not ally with the Democracy (peasants, urban petty bourgeoisie and working classes) but with ‘the trinity of Crown-aristocracy-bureaucracy’. (KMTR Vol II, 225).

The Communist Manifesto had stated that:

‘The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.’

Following defeat of the 1848 revolutions, especially in France and Germany, Marx drew some important and lasting lessons about the importance of England, as the most advanced country, to future revolutions:

‘A transformation of the relations of political economy in every land of the European continent, on the whole of the European continent, is a tempest in a teapot without England. . . . But every social upheaval in France is necessarily wrecked on the rock of the English bourgeoisies, of the industrial and commercial world domination by Great Britain.  Every partial social reform in France, and on the European continent in general, is and remains an empty pious wish insofar as it aspires to end there [without involving England].  (quoted in KMTR Vol II pp243–4)

The permanence of the revolution would allow the ‘tendency we represented [ to] enter the struggle for the attainment of our real party aims’; the party never imagined itself capable of producing at any time and at its pleasure, that revolution which was to carry its ideas into practice . . .’

This would become possible because ‘only through the increase in power of the bourgeoisie does the proletariat gradually get to the point of becoming the majority . . .’  ‘Only its rule [the rule of the bourgeoisie] tears up the material roots of feudal society and levels the ground on which alone a proletarian revolution is possible.’  In ‘countries where the aristocracy’ must be ‘driven from power’ there was lacking ‘the first premise of a proletarian revolution, namely, an industrial proletariat on a national scale.’ 

(KMTR Vol II p 249, 208, 280 and 284)

Back to part 52

Ukraine (6) – A proxy imperialist war

Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office on Monday, April 25, 2022, from left; U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, April 24, 2022,(Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Covert action has been a favoured means of waging war since at least the start of the first Cold War, with such covert action often part of what has been variously termed vicarious or proxy warfare.  It has been used by Empires for a long time, employing the resources of their conquests, such as the British with Hindu Sepoys, Nepalese Gurkhas and the French with Algerian Berber Zouaves.  In the middle of the 19th century Britain ruled India with almost 278,000 troops of which only around 45,000 were European

From the Truman administration onwards the typical US intervention into other countries has also involved economic and financial sanctions, with the proxy element involving the demand that third countries implement these measures as well.  These are usually followed by clandestine or ‘special’ operations and then conventional war; the preferred agency of the CIA thus became involved in over 900 major covert actions between 1951 and 1975.

The supposed advantage of this approach is that it is less expensive in terms of money, troops and political capital.  The proxy war being waged by US imperialism today shows all these features except on a much larger scale.  Almost an entire, and relatively large, country is being employed as a proxy – unless one believes that the US is really concerned with the independence of the Ukrainian state and not the significant degrading of Russia.  The US has demanded that every other country impose its economic and financial sanctions even to the point of incurring massive damage to their own economies.

While proxy wars are supposed to be less expensive the sheer scale of this one involves massive cost, which however is incurred unequally.  The arms and energy industries, especially in the US are doing just fine.  Massive political propaganda has improved the political position of US imperialism, at least in the West, including the subordination of much of what passes for the Left in these countries, so that in this respect as well the proxy war has fulfilled its function. Whether this continues to hold good is another matter.

The first Cold War appeared to make direct war between the US and Russia unthinkable because of the risk of nuclear escalation, but the US has sought counterforce and nuclear primacy strategies that would supposedly make a nuclear war winnable in some meaningful sense.  The potential escalation involved in this proxy war is therefore greater than previous conflicts.

*                        *                           *

In a review of three books on proxy warfare In the London Review of Books Tom Stevenson notes that ‘America is the world’s most prolific sponsor of armed proxies’ and that it ‘has done most to develop the proxy war doctrine.  In January 2018 the US military introduced the ‘by-with-through’ approach. It was the work of J-2, the intelligence directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: ‘the US military must organise, resource and train’ local forces and ‘operate by, with and through’ its ‘partners’ and ‘nations that share our interests’ (note that the word ‘proxy’ is avoided in favour of more anodyne terms). Using proxies has been common practice for the CIA for decades, but the J-2 doctrine describes an increasingly common style of war.’ 

He noted when writing (in the second half of 2020) that ‘around half the US troops in Afghanistan are technically mercenaries: they are deployed for private profit.’  In Iraq in 2008 the US had a proxy army of 103,000 ‘Sons of Iraq’ fighting in Anbar.  In Afghanistan the US trained over 50,000 mujahedeen, providing nearly $3bn in aid between 1979 and 1989.  As the CIA Director William Casey put it: ‘Here’s the beauty of the Afghan operation . . . Usually it looks like the big bad Americans are beating up on the little guys.  We don’t make it our war . . . All we have to do is give them help.” 

The current war has been precipitated by Ukraine seeking to formally join NATO while securing the approval of US imperialism for its security strategy aimed at the conquest of the Crimea, which Russia considers its own territory. Nancy Pelosi, before the provocative visit to Taiwan, said after a visit to Kyiv and a meeting with President Zelensky, that America stands “with Ukraine until victory is won.” US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

US objectives are therefore not limited to those internal to Ukraine but to requirements in relation to Russia, its economy and security, and the balance of power between it and both Russia and China, to which the US quickly turned its sights on the pretext of the Ukraine war.  There can be no doubt that the amount of military aid provided by western imperialism has materially affected the dynamics of the war with the effect of turning almost the whole of Ukraine into a proxy for its own interests.

Since these interests are truly world-wide the potential for a global conflict is obvious, even the pro-war left acknowledges this danger while cheerleading Ukrainian armed forces.  This awareness does not translate into opposition to the war itself but only to the imposition by the US and NATO of a no-fly zone over Ukraine and the open introduction of their troops on the ground.

It appears therefore that the only inter-imperialist war that can exist for this Left is one that creates the immediate potential for a nuclear exchange.  This currently has the effect of allowing an underestimation of the potential for this happening through anything short of direct kinetic combat.  Even the right-wing RAND corporation presents scenarios in which US intervention can trigger direct warfare with the potential use of nuclear weapons.  Others were noted in the previous post.

It has been argued that there has been no nuclear war between the United States and Russia because conventional war between them is also inconceivable.  Except that it has reasonably also been suggested that direct conventional war between them has not occurred because no conflict between them has occurred that has involved the vital interests of both, and from which therefore neither can retreat.

NATO membership of Ukraine, with the possibility of stationing long-range missiles within a short distance from Moscow, coupled with an avowed policy of a direct conventional attack on territory claimed to be part of Russia containing its Black Sea fleet, would obviously seem to involve vital strategic Russian interests.  That this scenario has precipitated aggressive Russian action can be a surprise to no one.  To pretend therefore that only Russia is responsible for this war lacks any credibility.

Russia has time and time again warned that Ukrainian membership of NATO is a red line. Putin in 2008 ,after the summit in which NATO declared Ukraine would become a member, said that “we view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders . . . as a direct threat to the security of our country.”

It does not matter whether Russian action is morally reprehensible and should be condemned.  It is not the job of socialists to right the moral wrongs of world capitalism and the states that it comprises.  The job of socialists is to argue and fight for a new society in which such wrongs are abolished, and this means starting from current society and seeking how it can be changed.  This is the subject of the long series of posts on this blog on Marx’s alternative to capitalism (here for example), which relies on the independent social and political organisation of the working class across the world supported by other oppressed and exploited classes and layers of the population.

This will not be done by defending the prerogatives of capitalist states on the grounds that they have provoked invasion by other bigger capitalist powers, or the idiot view that we should defend their right to join imperialist military alliances.  We should oppose both the Russian invasion and the participation of western imperialism because only this identifies the sources of the war and the enemies of workers suffering from it directly and indirectly.

Gilbert Achcar of the Fourth International says that the war in Ukraine is not an inter-imperialist war because such a war ‘is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers . . .’    In the last couple of decades the phenomenon of imperialist proxy wars has had a resurgence and the most significant wars of the last few decades have all been proxy wars of one variety or another, either originating or developing as such, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and others.

It does indeed matter that US and NATO imperialism is not attempting to impose a no-fly zone or placing large numbers of troops on the front-line but refusal to call this an inter-imperialist proxy war has led to a position in which the actions of US/NATO imperialism is supported (through supply of arms) and the actions of the reactionary proxy (the Ukrainian state) are openly celebrated.

The war in Ukraine has brought the proxy mode of war increasingly adopted by imperialism to a new level, not only because of the scale of the war and the military support provided, not only because the proxy is a large state and is directly fighting Russia and not some Russian proxy, but because it involves the perceived vital interests of Russia.  We need only consider the response of US imperialism if Russia was pouring weapons into an anti-US Mexico that had declared its intention to reconquer Texas to appreciate the view of the Russian capitalist state. We can now see the provocation involved by successive reactionary Ukrainian governments including putting the objective of NATO membership into the constitution guided by an increasingly ultra-nationalist ideology.

Understanding that what we are seeing is an imperialist proxy war leads us to oppose both US imperialism and the Russian state and in doing so strengthens the independent political position of the working class.  If the road to freedom lies in appealing to the assistance of either US imperialism or Russia the working class will never learn to look to itself.

Back to part 5

Ukraine (5) – The role of Western Imperialism

http://www.voanews.com

In the debate between Gilbert Achcar of the Fourth International and Alex Callinicos of the International Socialist Tendency, Callinicos sets out what Achcar’s view is on what constitutes an anti-imperialist war – ‘a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo)colonial domain of the other, as was very clearly in the First World War. It is a ‘war of rapine’ on both sides, as Lenin liked to call it.”

He then criticises this view – ‘This definition, which requires an inter-imperialist war to be one where both sides are seeking to conquer each other’s territory, doesn’t even fit the Second World War. British and French imperialism weren’t interested in seizing German territory, but in hanging onto their already overstretched empires. And Hitler wasn’t particularly interested in these. It was eastern Europe and the Soviet Union he was after.’

Callinicos finishes by saying that ‘The properly Marxist approach is to recognise that the present situation involves both an inter-imperialist war by proxy and a war of national defence on Ukraine’s part.’  It is not clear whether his proposed fight for national defence includes reconquering Crimea or the already separated parts of the Donbas.

Achcar writes that ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the second defining moment of the New Cold War in which the world has been plunged since the turn of the century as a result of the US decision to expand NATO.’  Yet this ‘defining moment’ of a new Cold Ward is held not to define the war in Ukraine, the veritable front-line within it.  Still, he does not shy away from stating its importance, even if he gets the nature of it completely wrong: ‘the fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression.’

He opposes NATO ‘boots on the ground or the imposition of a No-Fly Zone from a distance’ and states that as a matter of general principle, he is against direct military intervention by any imperialist force anywhere. Asking for one of them to clash with another is tantamount to wishing for a world war between nuclear powers, he says.  Indeed so, but are we not also opposed to indirect ‘military intervention by any imperialist force anywhere’?  Not according to Achcar.

In a further article Achcar answers the following question – ‘Wouldn’t Ukraine’s standing up against the Russian invasion benefit NATO?’ – by saying ‘“so what?” Our support to peoples fighting imperialism shouldn’t depend on which imperialist side is backing them.’  To which the only rational answer is – how can a people be said to be ‘fighting imperialism’ when it is backed by a rival imperialism? And here, to be specific, we are talking about an independent capitalist state seeking to join by far the largest imperialist alliance!

In reply to the further question ‘Isn’t the ongoing war an inter-imperialist war?’ he answers:

‘If any war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival were called an inter-imperialist war, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side. An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy. . .’

Since he believes that only a direct war between the US/NATO and Russia (and presumably China) is an inter-imperialist war then he must believe we have not seen an inter-imperialist war since World War II, and not between these protagonists, also perhaps excluding the Korean War in which China could hardly be considered imperialist but Russia was involved, leaving aside the question whether this too could be seen as imperialist since it was part of the Soviet Union.  

Since indirect intervention in Ukraine is not an imperialist war then all the too numerous to mention indirect wars, not to mention covert actions, by the US and others must not be considered imperialist war either.  From concern that we label too many wars as imperialist, which is itself rather strange if we consider imperialism to dominate the world, he has arrived at his happy conclusion that very few wars can be characterised as imperialist.

His response might be that one-sided imperialist interventions may be cited as imperialist wars but his argument is about an inter-imperialist war, although in the case of the war in Ukraine such a response would fail his argument.

Of course, the scope and scale of indirect imperialist intervention is relevant to considering whether and to what extent a particular war can be considered imperialist and thereby its political salience.  But this applies to Ukraine in which it is impossible to argue that both Russia and the US/NATO are not involved.  The sheer scale of Western imperialist intervention in Ukraine does not permit its intervention to be considered secondary. 

The major Western powers have publicly supplied over $14 billion in military aid, which is over two times the defence budget of nearly $6 bn of Ukraine in 2021, and excludes other promised funding nearly three times this amount, and no doubt other military support that has not been openly revealed.  Since these words were written Biden has promised even more lethal aid.  In addition, unprecedented sanctions must be regarded as war by other means and have historically preceded open conventional warfare.

The military aid follows years of increasing cooperation with NATO including training of its armed forces, their participation in the NATO occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and military exercises with NATO forces within the country. The US has directly impacted on the war through intelligence and real-time targeting of Russian forces and assets while it would be naive to believe that Western special forces have not been inside the country during the war.

The view that we are not witnessing an imperialist proxy war can lead to blindness to the assistance already given, both visible and hidden, and to the real possibility of escalation, which is at increased risk given what has already been committed.  It should already be noted that the nature of the weapons delivered by the US and other NATO powers is increasing in power and sophistication with the potential for fighter aircraft to be provided now under consideration. The debate is therefore not simply about an academic political characterisation of the war.  

Unfortunately, it is to be expected that much of the pro-war left will follow Western imperialist escalation, as it already has, not only because this is the logic of their political position of prioritising support to the Ukrainian State but because of an acquired emotional commitment. One only has to note Facebook posts in which so-called Marxists proclaim their gloating over Ukrainian advances to realise what counts for those with this commitment.

A recent examination of the potential routes to further escalation notes the following:

‘A Ukrainian law recently signed by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy gives Polish citizens the rights similar to those of Ukrainian citizens. This could serve as legal cover for thousands of Polish soldiers to enter Ukraine, don Ukrainian uniforms, and using NATO-supplied Western equipment begin fighting against Russia’s forces. When proof of any such gambit emerges – as it inevitably will – Russia could decide to hit Polish targets in response, bringing NATO into the war more directly in one form or another.’

The writer notes that ‘The Kharkiv advance was organized on the basis of: NATO training of tens of thousands of Ukrainian forces; massive Western weapons supplies to Kiev (e.g., see https://www.ustranscom.mil/cmd/usp.cfm); the NATO Central Command’s and Western intelligence’s deep embeddedness into the Ukrainian forces; NATO-designed counteroffensive tactics, strategy, and plan; large numbers of former Western soldiers and officers participating in the operation; possible participation of Polish officers and troops . . .  Retired former U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor has asserted that NATO officers form a military staff that is directing much of the Ukrainian war strategy and tactics.’

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

Ukraine (4) – Supporting Ukraine and Opposing NATO?

People before Profit protest outside Russian embassy in Dublin

There is a second set of errors in what I have called the pro-war left, involving not only those who explicitly support the capitalist Ukrainian state but those who claim that in addition to this it is necessary to also condemn and oppose NATO.

A previous series of posts have demonstrated that the arguments put forward by Gilbert Achcar of the Fourth International are not consistent with a socialist approach to the war.  He and Catherine Samary consistently understate the significance of the role of NATO and the US, and in the case of Samary reach for arguments that are the equivalent of a magician’s misdirection.

The latter, for example, insists that the primary issue in the original enlargement of NATO following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was concern among rival imperialisms to retain some sort of control over Germany, and not opposition to Russia. (It is, by the way, relevant to note that Germany is now claiming its role is to take the lead in European security and what role other than opposition to Russia?)

This argument by Samary is not serious but inadvertently revealing.  The unity of Germany under NATO firstly required removal of massive numbers of Soviet troops, and the later enlargement of it across Eastern Europe nails any illusion that this was not an anti-Russian move.  A united Germany was a concern, but all the more reason to strengthen the European Union and further the project of a single currency.

NATO membership would further constrain the independent initiative of Germany as Samary appears to admit, which tells against any argument that Ukrainian self-determination, in the sense that she argues it, is compatible with the current embrace of that country by NATO; an issue she wishes to render scarcely relevant to the nature of the war.

Similarly, she claims that Russia was not under threat from NATO and that Putin’s main concern was with the colour revolutions against corruption, including potentially against himself.  For her, the actions of Russia must never be framed as defensive in any way or a reaction to western actions.  So, the possibility of taking control of Donbas and Crimea was primarily to boost his popularity while strengthening Russia’s international position.  This happened when it did because Putin was not previously in a position to be aggressive, while the earlier catastrophic collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s and its diminished geopolitical power were the result of Boris Yeltsin and an act of Russian self-determination. The war in Ukraine today is not therefore a reactive one but an active aggressive war explicitly against Ukrainian independence.

Some of these points are correct in themselves, it is a question of how far they go in explaining the origin and nature of the war.

Once again the selection of relevant factors ignores the blatantly obvious anti-Russian nature of NATO and its increasingly threatening enlargement, all the more possible and unnecessary precisely because of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact; the collapse of the Russian economy due to Western imported shock therapy; US  interference in internal Russian politics in favour of Yeltsin, and following him the initial attempts by Putin to form some sort of partnership with Western imperialism rather than confront it as an enemy.

And once more the argument is revealing.  Apparently Russian shock therapy was an act of self-determination and since her false application of this principle supposedly adds legitimacy to it, we are left with the view that this was an internal Russian matter. Nowhere is it viewed as arising within and out of the class struggle within Russia, almost always implemented by internal forces, but often on behalf of outside imperialist powers and institutions such as the US, EU or IMF.

Yet nowhere is the loss of political sovereignty by Ukraine through the demands of these organisations given any consideration as impairing the ‘self-determination’ of Ukraine, nor are classes within that country assigned responsibility for the imposition of austerity, repression, and submission to the demands of the IMF, EU and NATO.  Neither is the development and growth of separatist tendencies in the east of the country granted any legitimacy through their resulting to a great degree from the repressive actions of the Kyiv government.

Instead, the growth over the years of support within Ukraine for NATO membership is blamed on Russian aggression, which is only partially true, but with no account taken of the reactionary Ukrainian regimes that have pushed membership even when the majority of the Ukrainian people opposed it, or been so divided that its pursuit could only lead to deepening division and exposure to long-standing Russian threats.

The Fourth International (FI) In the shape of Gilbert Achcar has debated Alex Callinicos on the nature of the war here and here.  The international Socialist Tendency (IST) to which Callinicos belongs and which is represented by the Socialist Workers Network in Ireland, the political leaders of People before Profit, published an early statement on the war.

The IST is strongly critical of the FI’s refusal to condemn the intervention of NATO and its general disregard for its role. This leads them to make many valid criticisms and take a stand against NATO’s provision of arms to ‘Ukraine’ as well as to western sanctions.

Unfortunately, they share other positions with the FI that makes their overall position something of a contradiction.  Similarly with their support for Brexit it has the flavour of having your cake and eating it.  So, they claim that ‘for Ukrainians it is a war of national self-defence’ while ‘at the same time from the side of Western imperialist powers led by the United States and organised through NATO it is a proxy war against Russia.’  One is immediately propelled to ask – so which is it?

What is it from the side of the international working class – from those in China, India, Africa, Europe etc?  It’s difficult not to keep on recalling that Alex Callinicos wrote a book about Postmodernism, from which the IST position seems to be inspired – the nature of the war depends on where you are, i.e. reality is dependent on your viewpoint.

The IST statement says that ‘the war is both an imperialist invasion of a former colony and part of an inter-imperialist conflict between the US and Russia with their allies. We are against both imperial powers. We express our solidarity with the Ukrainian people, supporting their right to resist the invasion.’  Elsewhere Callinicos has said that the war is one of national defence by Ukraine and therefore is justified, and that ‘it would indeed be good if the Ukrainian people were able to drive out the Russian invaders.’

The only way to reconcile this contradiction of being both a justified war of national defence and an inter-imperialist one (and even this would not justify support for the Ukrainian state) is to claim that the Ukrainian state is somehow independent of western imperialism.  We have already seen in this series of posts that this is not credible.  Indeed, the IST statement itself claims otherwise: ‘The inter-imperialist character of this conflict is confirmed by the policy of the Kyiv government, which is to draw the West into the shooting war.’

So, the policy of the Ukrainian state is actually more reactionary and dangerous than that of the US and NATO.  So where is this war of national defence?

When it comes down to it, the approach to the war is not so different between the IST and FI, with the IST saying that ‘The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February was an act of imperialist aggression and a violation of the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination.  . . . We express our solidarity with the Ukrainian people, supporting their right to resist the invasion.’  The IST thus have the same mistaken take on the demand for self-determination as the FI, from which all else seems to follow.  Except for the IST all else doesn’t follow, which is good, but only because that makes their position more contradictory, if better than that of the FI for it.

If the war really was one of justified national defence, if it were some sort of colonial possession, it wouldn’t matter from whom ‘Ukraine’ got the weapons to fight its war, providing it could retain its interests independently of western imperialism, but the IST doesn’t make this distinction.  Instead, Alex Callinicos says that ‘. . . the Western imperialist powers are instrumentalising the Ukrainian national struggle against Russian imperialism for their own interests.’

On this the FI is more consistent but at the price of complete capitulation to western imperialism.  The FI also proclaims its opposition to NATO, just as does the IST, but neither thinks its role therefore makes the war by Ukraine a proxy one fought on behalf of western imperialism, using its money, its weapons and for its political objectives.

Of course, opposition to NATO arming Ukraine allows the IST to avoid the charge that NATO must exist for it to play this ‘progressive’ role and that is no small thing.  But willing the end – a Ukrainian victory – without willing the means is deceitful.

What would be the result of a Ukrainian victory but a strengthened reactionary regime in Ukraine and a strengthened western imperialism threatening Russia even more immediately and closely?  And this assumes that the perceived vital security interests of Russia would not have beforehand led to the use of tactical nuclear weapons and the potential for nuclear conflagration.

The politics of the IST are not so different from that of the FI.  Both start from ‘anti-imperialism’ and the ‘right’ of independent capitalist countries to their own reactionary policies even if, as I have said before, it lands them in the shit.  Neither start from the independence of the working class, including from the capitalist state no matter what its form. Lenin long ago gave the answer to those who think they can combine an imperialist war with national liberation as we set out in a previous post. 

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

The death of the British Queen

Photo: Newstalk

The death of the British Queen is a significant political event.  The wall-to-wall television blitzkrieg; the solemn sermons from the press and the many homilies from politicians and statesmen across the world make any other judgement impossible.  Yet many in the British labour movement and left pretend that this is first and foremost a personal tragedy for the 96 year-old woman who died and her family, requiring the cancelling of strikes and paying of their respects to the family.

Take this from the following site:

‘Now is the moment for quiet republicanism. Respect for the person of Elizabeth II, respect for the grieving family and the millions who mourn.’

To which I commented:

‘I don’t think you have anything to worry about Andrew – the media is not going to be banging any republican drums. I don’t see the requirement to join them.

But what exactly does ‘respecting the person’ mean? This is ALL about respecting her as the Queen; that is, a loathsome, feudal relic designed to keep the plebs in their place. As the Queen she deserves no respect.

Lots of old ladies died yesterday but their person will receive no media gushing.

As for the grieving family! The living feudal relic that continues to represent all the worst slavish attitudes inculcated into the working class. Charlie, Andrew etc! Which one of those deserves any respect?

As for the millions who mourn; what they need is some education in their class interests, not sympathy for their ruling class they never knew and who wouldn’t let them darken their door. Some people are in the gutter but looking at the stars. Mourning these royal parasites is looking down the drain.

Today the NHS put out a statement saying lots of communications will stop, which one must assume includes lots of training of staff. This is not something to keep quiet about.’

Boffy made a similar comment, including on the same site as above:

‘I am at a loss to understand how people who never knew the Queen can claim she was a “decent” person. How do you know? Lots of people thought Jimmy Saville was a “decent” person with all of his charity work, his OBE from the Queen, and so on. What we do know is that the Monarchy itself is a thoroughly indecent institution that is an affront to all civilised society, and so its hard to see how anyone who is prepared to occupy that position, and so defend it, support it, and ensure its continuance can be said themselves to be “decent”. A decent person would refuse to occupy the position to begin with!’

In Ireland the Northern nationalist paper asserted on its front page that the queen was ‘A friend of Ireland’.  So, the commander-in -chief of the British Army, which arrested and incarcerated hundreds without trial; that went on to torture a number of them; which murdered 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972, and which ran loyalist sectarian death squads, providing weapons, intelligence and personnel, this person was a friend of Ireland? 

Perhaps the Ireland that wants stable capitalist rule and that despises rebellion of any kind, but not the Ireland of ordinary working class people.

I don’t recall this friend of Ireland renounce the actions of her army or condemn its brutality and murder.  Did she ever forswear this Army’s oath of loyalty?

The Irish President, along with the Irish State’s Foreign Minister, praised her public service, as if in all her public engagements it was she who bent the knee and curtsied, rather than acknowledging the purpose of these ‘public duties’ being to spread deference to inherited authority and privilege as far and wide as possible.

Both the President and Tánaiste noted the “complex and often difficult history” between the two countries and that “Ireland has had a complex and deeply troubled relationship with the British monarchy over many centuries’; but they are not so impolitic as to actually say what this history was or what exactly the nature of the relationship between the two countries has been.

Instead, we are to recall the visit of the British Queen to Ireland in 2011 and her laying of a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance that pays tribute to those who rose up against British rule in 1916.  We are again reminded that she said: ‘To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.’ The classic subterfuge of ambiguity – we are all to blame so that no one is to blame, for whatever it was that we can’t be blamed for.

For all the rhetoric of reconciliation what mattered was that this ‘complex history’ was precisely that: in the past, history.  The problems of the past have been solved, time to move on, and leave the past by everyone ignoring what it actually was.

One Irish historian has noted an archive from 1979 looking at a possible visit to Britain by the Irish President, and a remark by a civil servant at the British Foreign Office that noted the queen’s “alleged dislike of the Irish”.  As the historian points out ‘a longer report about the queen’s supposed personal attitudes was withheld from the released file.’

Did she have a personal antipathy towards the Irish? Who cares?  It’s not about her personal qualities, whatever they were.  It’s about her role at the pinnacle of a viciously violent Empire abroad and a thoroughly rotten polity at home.  This is what she represented and the current media and political campaign around her death is to legitimise this on behalf of what’s left of Britain’s foreign footprint and all the inequality, poverty and suffering at home. We are to be united through our heart-felt mourning for the loss of our sovereign.

The British establishment will now utilise her death to strengthen the increasingly transparent rottenness and corruption of the monarchy.  We already have a new king, a new head of state with all the prerogatives that have been and still are hidden from us, and a new commander-in-chief of the armed forces. We are drowned in sanctimonious and maudlin commentary that dishonestly demands grief for a media construct most of us never knew. 

That, we have been reminded, was one of her great qualities – that she kept her role and views secret.  We do not need to impute them to damn the monarchy and say that this should be the last queen and there should now be no king.

Some on the left, like liberals who defend democratic rights until they are attacked, want to proclaim their republicanism at a more opportune time.  They are not so much boxing clever as taking their gloves off and leaving the ring.  There are indeed, at times like this, intelligent ways of getting your message across but this requires a message in the first place, not surfing the wave of sycophantic rubbish with claims that it’s all just a personal tragedy.

Ukraine (3) – Self-determination?

Photo: The Guardian. A demonstration in United States

We showed in the previous post that behind support for the demand for self-determination of Ukraine lies a struggle within that country about what that involves and over the choices that should be made.  The issue is not therefore whether Ukraine should be an independent state, because it already is, but what it should do with whatever independent policy it can determine.  In this case, whether it should join NATO.  Joining this alliance is not a decision that can simply be labelled ‘self-determination’ and accepted as such; it cannot help affecting the politics and security of other states while also involving subordination to US imperialism.

It is not therefore a question, as the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International, put it in an article published before the escalation of the war in January that ‘it is up to the Ukrainian people – and not to blackmail and negotiations between great powers – to decide on their membership or not of NATO.’

Ukraine joining NATO cannot involve anything other than negotiations and threats with the ‘great powers’ because it involves taking sides between them.  To cloak such a decision in the garb of some expression of democracy is a travesty of what is involved.  For socialists to advocate and defend the freedom of capitalist states to join NATO is like championing the right to be subject to IMF adjustment programmes or the right to site nuclear weapons pointing at your neighbour. Does this right to self-determination also include the right to suppress labour rights and opposition parties, as it has already done?

The right to self-determination understood by Marxists, and not in its bastardised version often employed by the pro-war left, is the right for an annexed nation to separate, which annexation or separation socialists can either support or reject, although always with a view to what most lends support to the unity and independence of the working class across the states involved, and further afield.

Once separation has occurred it is no business of socialists to demand that the separated state is successful; that the country becomes ‘really’ or maximally independent of others, or that it can adopt whatever reactionary policy it wants because it has the self-determining ‘right’ to do so.  This is absurd, but that is exactly what is being argued by the pro-war left in its support for the Ukrainian state.

This left covers its claims, or attempts to, by claiming that the objective of Russia is to end Ukraine’s existence as a separate state.  They refer repeatedly to the putative psychology of Putin and his Great Russian nationalist narrative of Ukraine as part of the Russian family; its existence as an artificial state whose boundaries were originally the creation of Lenin and whose enlargement was due to Stalin and Khrushchev.

Reference is also made to Ukraine as a former colony of Russia although one writer has compared Ukraine to Scotland and not Ireland – “ Anatol Lieven has likened Ukrainians’ role in the Russian empire to that of the Scots rather than the Irish— except that, in the legal and economic domains, it was ‘impossible to tell who were the “colonizers” and who were the “colonized”.’ In this Ukraine differed from the Central Asian and Caucasian Soviet republics, where something closer to a colonial relationship obtained.’

The pro-war left both inside and outside Ukraine is keen to defend the existence of a Ukrainian nationality but the history of the country, including the divisions within it – while confirming such a nationality – do not lend themselves to the creation of a single conception of what its history has involved or what it implies for political arrangements today and tomorrow.  Since internal elites, the far right and reactionary Western intervention is happy to impose the most reactionary variety of Ukrainian nationalism, and war polarises views in any case, the pursuit of any progressive and broad democratic conception of Ukrainian nationalism by the pro-war left is a fool’s errand.

The borders of Ukraine should be decided through the democratic wishes of the inhabitants, including those of Crimea and the Donbas, although this is subject to the qualifications that apply to that of the Ukrainian state as a whole, which we have already set out in this and the previous posts.  The Ukrainian state and Western imperialism are less vocal about these rights to self-determination and the wishes of these local inhabitants. Before the Russian invasion the Ukrainian Government had announced that it had approved a security strategy aimed at retaking Crimea while refusing to engage in a process that might offer some autonomy within Ukraine to the Donbas areas that had separated.  Of course, this does not make the nationalism of such areas, in whatever form, ‘progressive’.

The Russian invasion did not have enough forces to conquer and occupy the whole of Ukraine, but it is nevertheless true that the war has caused enormous damage and suffering to its people.  It is a fundamental reason why the invasion must be opposed.

The article in which the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International defends the prerogatives of the Ukrainian state says that ‘the withdrawal of foreign forces (Atlantic and Russian) and the military neutrality of Ukraine are the only protection of its independence. The problem is that neither US imperialism nor Russia intends disengaging from Ukraine and military neutrality is not the policy of the Ukrainian state.  If the authors of these words meant what they said they would be calling for an end to US and NATO arming of the Ukrainian regime; the declaration of military neutrality by the Ukrainian state and the withdrawal of Russian forces to the lines of 24th February.

Instead, supporters of this organisation support NATO arming the reactionary Ukrainian regime and the subordination of Ukrainian socialists to its fight against Russia, including the objectives of reconquering Crimea and Donbas regardless of the views of their inhabitants.  The claim that this is an immediate and concrete policy ignores what the policy is and whose interests it serves. 

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

Ukraine (2) – reality behind the slogans

photo: The Guardian

The International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE) in Amsterdam, associated with the Fourth International organisation held a number of presentations on imperialism last week, including its relevance to Ukraine.  In the presentation by Catherine Samary she began by asserting that when looking at the situation we needed to subordinate concepts to the concrete and immediate situation.  In other words, in opposition to the approach put forward in our first post.

She then stated that Russian imperialism and the Ukraine nation exist and that there is an aggressive war of the former against the latter.  The war is one against Ukrainian independence and we must assert the self-determination of that nation, which includes its right to decide upon peace and the kind of society to be built afterwards.

So, we have the dismissal of theoretical concepts and reference to the requirement to follow some others. Concrete political positions must follow from concepts that are presented as axiomatic but are to be unexamined.  The right to self-determination is presented as involving the Ukrainian nation determining what sort of peace is to be accepted and what sort of society will be constructed thereafter.

We have shown that Lenin’s concept of self-determination was concerned with the self-determination of the working class, its own independence and unity as against the capitalist class and all varieties of its politics, including nationalism.  The demand for self-determination applies only to the right of annexed nations to separate from whatever empire or agglomeration of nation states it belongs to.  Since Ukraine has been an independent state since 1991 the advocacy of its prerogatives does not apply.  As socialists we are not interested in supporting the claims of capitalist states and certainly not to their claims to independence when they are already independent.

The view expressed a number of times that because Ukraine is a smaller and weaker power, we should champion its interests is no more valid than the claim that because Russia is a weaker power vis a vis the United States we should defend it against its more powerful rival and support its victory in the war.  What we have here is the primitive substitution of size for a political assessment of the class interests involved.

And this is where we find the origin of the failure of the pro-war left to defend a socialist position on the war.  Since a position on the war must involve some class standpoint, conscious or not, the one adopted by this left is a bourgeois one.  Not only does the pro-war left make its stand upon a bourgeois demand – of self-determination of nations– but it asserts this demand with a thoroughly bourgeois content.

Self-determination is presented as the right of the Ukrainian nation to determine the nature of any acceptable peace settlement and of that nation to determine its future character afterwards.

At this point let us get concrete, as we are advised to do, but without discarding the concepts required to understand what this means in reality.  So, it is  not the Ukrainian nation that will determine the point at which peace should be declared and what it will entail but the Ukrainian capitalist state, and given its dependence on US imperialism even this is not true.  Any decision on agreeing an end to the war will be a result of the machinations of outside powers, likely made in Washington as much if not more than Kyiv.

This is the concrete truth and the inevitable result of dependence of the Ukrainian state on US arms, the provision of which the pro-war left defends and supports.  Ukraine is going bankrupt and cannot pay its current bills, even with existing help of €2.5bn-€3bn per month, never mind its additional loans.  It is printing money that is devaluing the currency and will lead to increasing inflation.  It isn’t and can’t afford the war because it doesn’t have the requisite number of troops, weapons, or money.  These are not the grounds upon which it can by itself determine the terms and timing of the end of the war. 

Likewise with the view that it is up to Ukraine to decide what sort of society will be constructed after the war.  This too will to a great extent depend on US imperialism and its European allies. Even were this not the case and it were somehow to be determined by ‘Ukraine’, this country, like every other, is made up of classes with antagonistic interests and ambitions for what any new Ukraine should look like.  The character of the country is a subject of a struggle, the class struggle, and the demand that it be resolved by the nation has everywhere and always been the demand that it be made in the interests of the capitalist class.

The Ukrainian socialist Volodymyr Ishchenko has pointed out how Ukrainian elites have employed ‘silencing and repression’ to push a nationalist pro-imperialist agenda that deprives many Ukrainian citizens of a voice:

‘In reality, Euromaidan was a deficient revolution. It did not form any national unity, but the elite groups which benefited from it (together with ideological cheerleaders) need to sustain this illusion for internal and external legitimacy via combination of silencing and repression. It is, therefore, in their interest to paint the alternative positions on Ukrainian past, present and future as “non-Ukrainian” or even “anti-Ukrainian,” even though these positions are shared by many (if not most) Ukrainian citizens. As a result, these Ukrainians are more and more deprived of a voice in the domestic and international public spheres.’

‘Ukraine has not simply turned into an object of the Great Powers’ play. In an especially humiliating way, Ukraine is exploited to cover imperialist interests and misrepresent them as a noble endeavour. The pathos-laden references to Ukraine’s sovereignty parallel the reality of the state, which is more dependent on foreign powers politically, economically and militarily than ever before since the Soviet collapse.’

As Ishchenko goes on to point out:

‘In December 2007, on the eve of the infamous Bucharest summit that settled that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO,” less than 20 percent of Ukrainian citizens supported joining NATO.  The majority of Ukrainians were split between support for a military alliance with Russia or retaining the non-bloc neutral status.’

He notes the (partially prophetic) views of some:

‘Many other Ukrainians feel that NATO membership would forfeit more of Ukraine’s sovereignty to the West, which they feel has been happening since 2014, and, at the same time, would increase tensions with Russia, escalate internal tensions among Ukrainians, and drag the nation in one of the U.S.’s “forever” wars, one of which just recently ended in a humiliating defeat.’

Nowhere in the IIRE’s Samary presentation is a separate interest of the Ukrainian working class identified and defended. At most it is buried under formulations about the ‘Ukrainian people’ as if this country was not also divided by class.  Since the interest of the working class are not ultimately separable by nationality, this means smothering the common interests of the Russian working class as well as that of the working class in the West who are paying for the weapons to the Ukrainian state and sanctions imposed on Russia.

Identifying the separate interests of the working class involves opposition not only to the Russian escalation of the war but also to the war policy of the Ukrainian state, including its alliance with Western imperialism.  It therefore also involves opposition to the supply of weapons by imperialism and its sanctions. 

In the first presentation in the IIRE series Peter Drucker argued that the key dividing line is between imperialist and imperialist dominated countries, which are not necessarily colonies.  In doing so he says that the primary task is to be anti-imperialist and to support struggles for national liberation.

Since it is not conceivable that world capitalism could any time soon remove inequalities between nations, war of this character will continue to be a regular occurrence.  His suggestion amounts to socialists prioritising the struggles of weaker capitalist powers until perhaps the working class decides to prioritise overthrowing capitalism and creating its own rule itself.  The mistake is not significantly rectified by saying that Ukraine cannot rely on NATO, that we must continue to oppose NATO and must instead seek the solidarity of the Russian people.

Once again, the fundamental division of the world into classes is ignored and the working class and its own politics are simply not mentioned.  Without this we start in the wrong place and so inevitably end up in the wrong one.  To paraphrase an old Irish saying – if I wanted to get to a working class solution I wouldn’t start from the demands of a capitalist state.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Ukraine (1) – For Peace and For War

Photo: Counterfire

The war in Ukraine has been the object of an unprecedented media barrage in the West that has gone beyond propaganda and become a proselytising campaign to recruit the population to support for ‘Ukraine’.  The requirement not simply to justify but recruit is necessary not only because of the tarnished reputation of the Western powers when it comes to foreign wars, recently propelled into the headlines by the scramble to get out of Afghanistan, but also because the population is being asked to support war in new ways.

Personally, the most disappointing result of this is the otherwise sincere recruitment of many who are generally ‘for peace’ to a position of supporting the prosecution of war; a war that they have no control over and are kept uninformed of by the open bias of the main sources of information.  Support for war is declared as opposition to war in true Orwellian style;  but only to Russia’s war while supporting that waged by ‘Ukraine’, which through media censorship and bias is presented as essentially unblemished.   Through this prism their genuine and real support for war is facilitated by cognitive dissonance so that it sits comfortably with what they consider their core belief in peace.

Proselytising is necessary for them to accept the supply of arms that are daily reported to be effective means of killing, to provide accommodation to Ukrainian refugees, and to accept that, although sanctions imposed on Russia will have enormously damaging effects on themselves they must nevertheless support them. The prospect of unaffordable energy costs in winter should at the very least encourage questioning but has been employed to enjoin them in continuing to accept their governments’ sanctions on Russian gas and oil.

Any opposition is regarded as morally reprehensible and as deriving from ignorant or malicious support for Russia and its barbarous aggression.  No epithet is too charged not to be levied against it so that warlike bombast attempts to cover the failure of sanctions to quickly bring Russia to heel.

From the news reports by local radio stations with their human interest stories on the plight of Ukrainian refugees to the pompous briefings on national television by Rear Admirals discharging on the failure of Russian strategy, every angle and aspect drives home the obligation to support ‘Ukraine’ and its people.  Sympathy for refugees can only mean unilateral opposition to Russia and any deeper recounting of the history and context of the war is considered exculpatory of Russian aggression and immediately suspect.

The effects of all this on the political consciousness of workers in the West is a primary concern of socialists; only the most stupid, belligerent, or naive can believe that the war has resulted in an increase in political consciousness or that their support for ‘Ukraine’ is the expression of the recognition of an independent class viewpoint.

Western states and mass media have declared Ukraine a bastion of freedom, defending democracy in the rest of Europe from Russian autocracy.  The policy of the pro-war left is worse than the lies and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, not only because it should be better but because it openly declares it doesn’t matter what the character of the Ukrainian state and regime is.  With its completely bourgeois understanding of the policy of self-determination of nations it openly states that neither of these matter.

This means it would itself be hypocritical, if it even had the interest, in pointing out to workers in the West the reactionary character of this supposed defender of freedom.  Using various indicators we can quantify (however unscientifically) some differences between the saviour of freedom and the autocratic threat.  Two indices are taken purely as examples. They do not illustrate the social character of the two states, both capitalist, which is the prime determinant of whether socialists should support either.   But for what it’s worth. 

The right wing US think-tank The CATO Institute has an annual ‘Human Freedom’ index, a combination of separate indices for personal and economic freedom.  Its 2021 report shows that Ukraine is the third worst country out of 22 in Eastern Europe while the Russian Federation is the worst.  Over 165 countries Ukraine is number 98 while Russia is 126.  The freest country at number 1 is Switzerland, which scores 9.11 for human freedom while Ukraine scores 6.86 (75% of the Swiss score) and Russia scores 6.23 (or 68% of the Swiss score).  We are expected to support the war of Ukraine with 75% of the ‘human freedom’ of the freest against Russia with 68%.  The war of 7%. It is relevant to note that while in 2021 Ukraine ranked 98th, it ranked higher at 82nd in 2008, so that relatively it has gotten worse, but so has Russia from 112th to 126th.

The second index is that of ‘Transparency International’ which reports the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 180 countries/territories around the world. It scores these countries out of 100, with the lower the score the more corrupt a country is perceived to be.  The 2021 publication reports that the least corrupt countries included Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, scoring 88 each.  Ukraine is 123rd on the list while Russia is 139th. A better indication of the difference is that Ukraine scores 32 out of 100 while Russia scores 29, meaning that the former scores 36% of Denmark etc. while Russia scores 33%.  Not a pile of difference; 3 to be exact.

Source Financial Times

As the war has been articulated by the media there is no way to express any other position than to support the mainstream narrative or embellish it with democratic sounding phrases such as ‘self-determination’ that are the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.  It has been said that to win an argument you must rob the other of the language to articulate their disagreement.  With the language of ‘Ukraine’, ‘the Ukrainian people’ and ‘self-determination’ it seems obviously perverse to propose opposing ‘Ukraine’, ‘the Ukrainian people’ and ‘self-determination.’  How could you defend a position like that?

To stand in opposition to this war requires ideas and concepts that belong not to the hypocrisy of bourgeois politics but to socialism.  To relate these concepts correctly to the war in Ukraine is not to impose them as true because some selected facts can be held up as justification but to examine the war and the interests expressed within it to determine its character and therefore the political position one should take to determine a working class approach.

This is the position of Marxists because previous investigation has revealed that only the working class can rid humanity of exploitation, oppression and the ravages of a system that regularly and inescapably produces war.  It is not enough to hold these views at a general abstract level but to demonstrate that this is true in each individual case.  If it cannot be demonstrated, then Marxist ideas are either only partially correct or wholly wrong. 

We therefore need the language of class so that we can identify who the participants in the war actually are, what their core interests are and to what extent their actions reflect these interests.  We need this and the concepts arising from our understanding of how society works in order to construct a language that allows us to articulate what the position of the working class should be.

A first word here about language.  Supporters of Ukraine sometimes claim that Russia is an imperialist country and Ukraine is not and since the starting point of Marxists is anti-imperialism this points to opposition to Russia.  Sometimes the argument becomes infantile, as when it is argued that Ukraine is a smaller and less powerful country than Russia, as if political positions resemble the school playground where big bullies are condemned.  Others equally falsely claim that since the biggest imperialism supports Ukraine, we should support the smaller and weaker one.  Sometimes it is stated that Russia is not imperialist by Marxist definition so this too points to its defence.

Since imperialism is a form of capitalism it is not the role of socialists to support smaller or weaker capitalist states in competition with larger ones, whether imperialist or not (by whatever criteria agreed).  The starting point is not anti-imperialism or even anti-capitalism, because there are reactionary anti-capitalisms as well, but the independent interests of the working class.  This identifies our allies and our enemies and must include opposition to subordination to any capitalist state no matter how big or small it is or how much shit it finds itself in.  For the avoidance of doubt, Ukraine is not a colony, certainly not of Russia!, but an independent capitalist state.

This is the first task of socialists and the reaction to the war shows how drastically many of them have failed to properly determine its character.  This series of posts will address this failure and we will start with two examples beginning in the next post.

Forward to part 2

Revolutionary Restraint

Paris Commune barricade

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 52

Since the ideas we now consider ‘Marxism’ did not spring whole and fully formed in one go it is necessary to address at least some of the many judgements Marx and Engels made about the proximity of revolution and its prerequisites, notwithstanding their caution and realism as addressed in the previous post.

These included the view that England (by which we should understand Britain as a whole), was by far the most advanced nation and was key to revolutionary prospects on the Continent, while later considering that ‘the English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.’ (Letter from Marx to Engels December 1869)

In the process of their activism, they set out numerous statements on the preconditions for working class action and socialism.  In 1865 Engels wrote The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party, in which he set out one basic condition for the struggle:

‘Even if the worst came to the worst and the bourgeoisie was to scurry under the skirts of reaction for fear of the workers, and appeal to the power of those elements hostile to itself for protection against them—even then the workers’ party would have no choice but, notwithstanding the bourgeoisie, to continue its campaign for bourgeois freedom, freedom of the press and rights of assembly and association which the bourgeoisie had betrayed. Without these freedoms it will be unable to move freely itself; in this struggle it is fighting to establish the environment necessary for its existence, for the air it needs to breathe.’  (Collected Works Volume 20, p78)

In fact, it can be said that the strategy and tactics of Marx and Engels in all their struggles are precisely to strengthen and prepare the working class for its social revolution, to create in so far as it can the conditions and prerequisites for its success.  Some, of course, are more fundamental than others and we cannot dig up quotes from over a century ago to justify political positions now without appreciation of the context then and today.

So, Engels advised German socialist August Bebel in 1879 of a principle that:

‘Social-Democratic deputies must always uphold the vital principle of consenting to nothing that increases the power of the government vis-à-vis the people.’ (Collected Works Volume 45, pp423-4)

He wrote to the same German socialist in 1884:

‘No party, unless it was lying, has ever denied the right to armed resistance in certain circumstances. None has ever been able to renounce that ultimate right.

‘But once the debate begins to turn on the circumstances in which a party may reserve that right, the game is already won. The whole thing becomes progressively more nonsensical. Particularly in the case of a party that has been declared illegal and is thus actually reduced by higher authority to resorting to revolution. And such a declaration of illegality, having been made once already, might recur any day. To demand an unconditional statement of this kind from such a party is utterly preposterous.’

‘Nor, for that matter, have the gentlemen anything to worry about. The military position being what it now is, we shall not go into action so long as we have a military power against us. We can bide our time until that military power ceases to be a power against us. Any revolution prior to that, even a victorious one, would bring to power, not ourselves, but the most radical elements of the bourgeoisie and/or petty bourgeoisie.’ (’ Collected Works Volume 47, pp223)

Once again, we have revolutionary strategy grounded on material circumstances and once again a warning of premature action, the result of which would be the success not of the working class party but of its enemy or competitor.

Most famously, Marx counselled revolutionary restraint to French workers regarding its new bourgeois republic following France’s defeat by Bismark’s Germany in 1870, in the prelude to the creation of the Paris Commune:

‘The French working class moves, therefore, under circumstances of extreme difficulty. Any attempt at upsetting the new Government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. The French workmen must perform their duties as citizens; but, at the same time, they must not allow themselves to be deluded by the ‘national souvenirs’ of 1792 . . .   They have not to recapitulate the past, but to build up the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.’ Karl Marx, Second Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association on the Franco-Prussian War 1870 (Collected Works Volume 22 p269)

Engels wrote to Marx: ‘Dupont has just left. He spent the evening here and was furious about this beautiful Paris proclamation. . .  His views on the case are perfectly clear and accurate: make use of the freedoms inevitably granted by the republic to organise the party in France; act when occasion presents itself, once organisation has been completed; the International to be held on a leash in France until after peace has been concluded.’ (Engels to Marx 1870, Collected Works Volume 44, p67)

Of course, as revolutionaries they energetically supported the Commune rising once it had begun but their main contribution was to learn its lessons for the workers that followed, among which we have noted before:  ‘They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.’

In a letter to a Dutch socialist in 1881, a decade after the Commune, Marx said that:

‘The forthcoming Zurich Congress’s ‘question’ which you mention would seem to me a mistake.1 What is to be done, and done immediately at any given, particular moment in the future, depends, of course, wholly and entirely on the actual historical circumstances in which action is to be taken. But the said question, being posed out of the blue, in fact poses a fallacious problem to which the only answer can be a critique of the question as such. We cannot solve an equation that does not comprise within its terms the elements of its solution.’

‘Come to that, there is nothing specifically ‘socialist’ about the predicaments of a government that has suddenly come into being as a result of a popular victory. On the contrary. Victorious bourgeois politicians immediately feel constrained by their ‘victory’, whereas a socialist is at least able to intervene without constraint.’

‘Of one thing you may be sure — a socialist government will not come to the helm in a country unless things have reached a stage at which it can, before all else, take such measures as will so intimidate the mass of the bourgeoisie as to achieve the first desideratum — time for effective action.’

‘You may, perhaps, refer me to the Paris Commune but, aside from the fact that this was merely an uprising of one city in exceptional circumstances, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it have been. With a modicum of COMMON SENSE, it could, however, have obtained the utmost that was then obtainable — a compromise with Versailles beneficial to the people as a whole. The appropriation of the Banque de France alone would have rapidly put an end to the vainglory of Versailles, etc., etc.’  (Marx letter to Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis London, 22 February 1881 (Collected Works Volume 46, p66) 

  1. This refers to an International Socialist Congress to be convened in Switzerland to discuss the establishment of a new International. The congress took place not in Zurich (the Zurich cantonal council forbade it), but in Chur between 2 and 4 October 1881. It was attended by delegates of socialist parties from 12 countries. The congress decided against forming a new International. In his letter to Marx of 6 January 1881 Nieuwenhuis expressed the intention of the Dutch Social Democrats to discuss at the congress the immediate laws to be passed in the political and economic fields by the socialists should they come to power (footnote 100 to Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 46, p 489)

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A prolonged birth for socialism

France (19th c.). Workers’ movement. Strike of miners in Pas-de-Calais. The strikers’s demonstration on the streets of the city. Engraving. FRANCE. Paris. National Library.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 51

Marx was always clear that the creation of socialism following the conquest of political power would be a long-drawn-out process, after emerging through ‘prolonged birth pangs’ from capitalist society (Critique of the Gotha Programme).

In an early idealism-tinged writing in Deutsche-Franz­sische Jahrbrucher he wrote that:

‘[We] must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way.  The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in the womb.’ 

Following the failure of the 1848 revolutions Marx was involved in a dispute inside the Communist League over the remaining potential for revolution. He set out this summary of the issues arising:

‘In the last debate on “the position of the German proletariat in the next revolution” views were expressed by members of the minority on the Central Authority which directly clash with those in the last circular but one and even the Manifesto. A German national standpoint was substituted for the universal outlook of the Manifesto, and the national feelings of the German artisans were pandered to.’

‘The materialist standpoint of the Manifesto has given way to idealism. The revolution is seen not as the product of realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power, it is said: We must take power at once, or else we may as well take to our beds.’

‘. . . As for personal sacrifice, I have given up as much as anyone; but for the class and not for individuals. And as for enthusiasm, not much enthusiasm is needed to belong to a party when you believe that it is on the point of seizing power. I have always defied the momentary opinions of the proletariat. We are devoted to a party which, most fortunately for it, cannot yet come to power. If the proletariat were to come to power the measures it would introduce would be petty-bourgeois and not directly proletarian. Our party can come to power only when the conditions allow it to put its own views into practice. Louis Blanc is the best instance of what happens when you come to power prematurely.’

‘In France, moreover, it isn’t the proletariat alone that gains power but the peasants and the petty bourgeois as well, and it will have to carry out not its, but their measures. The Paris Commune [1792–94] shows that one need not be in the government to accomplish something.’ (Meeting of the Central Authority September 15, 1850, Collected Works p626, 628–9) 

Engels reflected similar concerns when he wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer in April 1853: 

‘This time we shall start off straight away with the Manifesto thanks largely to the Cologne trial in which German communism (most notably through Röser) has passed its matriculation.’

‘All this, of course, relates merely to theory; in practice we shall, as always, be reduced to insisting above all on resolute measures and absolute ruthlessness. And that’s the pity of it. I have a feeling that one fine day, thanks to the helplessness and spinelessness of all the others, our party will find itself forced into power, whereupon it will have to enact things that are not immediately in our own, but rather in the general, revolutionary and specifically petty-bourgeois interest; in which event, spurred on by the proletarian populus and bound by our own published statements and plans—more or less wrongly interpreted and more or less impulsively pushed through in the midst of party strife—we shall find ourselves compelled to make communist experiments and leaps which no one knows better than ourselves to be untimely.’ (Collected Works Volume 39 p308–9)

This concern at the potential for the party of the working class to be exposed to premature revolution might now be seen as an anachronism, but it is not, and arises not just from insufficient development of what are usually understood as subjective conditions (wrongly reduced to the insufficient size of some candidate for a revolutionary party), but also from insufficient attention to the requirements of objective conditions, which have been set out a number of times in these posts, as for example in this one

Much later, in his address on the Paris Commune in 1871, we see Marx also acknowledge the long process of development required of the struggle of the working class, along with the effects of the development of capitalism itself:

‘The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.’  

In the first draft of The Civil War in France he writes that:

‘The working class know that they have to pass through different phases of class struggle. They know that the superseding of the economical conditions of the slavery of labour by the conditions of free and associated labour can only be the progressive work of time (that economical transformation), that they require not only a change of distribution, but a new organisation of production, or rather the delivery (setting free) of the social forms of production in present organised labour (engendered by present industry) . . . . ‘

‘They know that the present “spontaneous action of the natural laws of capital and landed property” can only be superseded by “the spontaneous action of the laws of the social economy of free and associated labour” by a long process of development of new conditions, as was the “spontaneous action of the economic laws of slavery” and the “spontaneous action of the economical laws of serfdom.” But they know at the same time that great strides may be [made] at once through the Communal form of political organization and that the time has come to begin that movement for themselves and mankind.’

The struggle of the working class will therefore involve a long process of development before and after political revolution and these struggles are just as much a precondition for its success as the development of the forces of production from which they cannot really be divorced.

He compared workers’ revolution with the bourgeois one in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, including as a result of conditions that demanded it:

‘Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long crapulent depression takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly.’

‘On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticise themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:  Hic Rhodus, hic salta!  [Here is the rose, here dance!]’

How much could that model of socialist revolution – the Russian one – be subject to such interrogation given that it was not simply a workers’ revolution but a bourgeois one as well? 

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