An article in the British web site ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ has an analysis of the British Left’s view of the war in Ukraine. It reminds me of the old Irish response when asked for directions to a particular destination – if I wanted to get there I wouldn’t start from here.
So, if I wanted to determine the socialist position on the war, I wouldn’t start by saying you have to take sides between Ukraine and Russia. In all circumstances socialists look after the immediate aims of the working class movement but look after and take care of its future. The immediate aims involve identifying the interests of the working class – the whole working class, not any particular section and not any particular nationality.
It is not therefore the supposed interests of the Ukrainian working class or Russian working class but the working class of the world that is paramount. It’s why the socialist war cry is ‘Workers of the World Unite.’ ‘Taking sides’ means taking sides in the class war and the first step is recognising that the ‘two sides’ we have been invited to choose from by ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ are conglomerates of classes with conflicting interests, and we would betray the interests of the working class by pretending that right now their particular interests don’t count, which is what this article requires.
The independence of the working class and its unity are the watchwords of socialist politics without which we become liberals. This may be put differently, as Lenin did, by saying that we are in favour of the self-determination of the working class.
Instead, the article demands that we respect self-determination of Ukraine as ‘obvious’ but not that of the Donbass and Crimea. The borders of this particular capitalist state are now apparently sacrosanct despite its history. This is one problem of the demand for self-determination of nations – to whom does it apply when there are conflicting national claims?
As the article demonstrates, it often involves picking the primacy of one capitalist state over another, in other words supporting and fighting for one capitalist state and its capitalist class instead of another; in this case one group of oligarchs over another.
This is the very definition of surrendering the interests of the working class. Gone is any appeal to class interests, instead we are asked to believe in the progressive character of one capitalist state while its resistance contains a significant presence of far-right forces.
It is argued that “Russia attacked Ukraine. NATO did not invade Russia and nor did Ukraine” as if we are supposed to believe that the war came out of nowhere or could have had no cause that did not exclusively involve Russian aggression.
Who shoots first determines a war’s class character? Many states have gone to war claiming that the other side engaged in some attack, often a pure invention, but never has it been the case that socialists should either accept their word for it or offer their support even if they were told the truth.
It is argued that ‘Ukraine is facing one of the three most powerful imperialist powers . . . and is a much weaker country;’ as if we should support small capitalist powers against larger ones. Do we then support small capitalists against large monopolies, like the Stalinists used to argue? Do we support ‘native’ capital against foreign multinationals? And since Ukraine has the support of NATO this argument doesn’t even hold up very much anyway.
It is argued that although Ukrainians might know that ‘Zelensky’s government has [not] been any sort of progressive regime . . . at least they know they can vote the guy out.’ Again we are to accept that the class character of the state has no bearing on whether socialists should defend it – just as long as it has a bourgeois democratic government like . . . France or Germany or Britain or the US?
The history of the US intervening in elections, including Russian ones, is forgotten. But Zelensky can be voted out? Can the Ukrainian oligarchs be voted out, can the Ukrainian state be overthrown by voting, can its capitalist state be overthrown by voting? Will Ukraine’s subordination to the US through NATO be the achievement of real self-determination and democracy?
That self-determination of Ukraine will mean the expansion of NATO through Ukrainian membership, and so expansion of the power of US imperialism, exposes the bourgeois nature of the demand for the right of nations to self-determination. It is not a socialist demand. When it is therefore described as a bourgeois demand this has a particular meaning: it does not go beyond capitalism and must therefore be completely subordinated to the political interests of the working class. In these circumstances making it absolute makes your politics absolutely bourgeois.
It is argued that there is one Immediate question and everything else is ‘later’. We even get this from socialists who live in London for example, 1,500 miles from Kyiv, but who instinctively realise that this is really not the case so have deployed the arguments in the article to cover their nakedness.
‘Sure, NATO can be blamed to some point in time, but when the bombs start falling from the sky – only Russia can be blamed for bombing,’ which appears to mean that all political issues and responsibility for the war can be reduced to where particular bombs, suffered by one ‘side’, are falling.
We do not even get the justification, which is irrelevant to this particular Left’s argument, of a call for a separate working class resistance – on the basis that the Ukrainian working class has the right to physically and politically defend itself. We are, after all, not the slightest bit interested in the right of self-defence for oligarchs etc.
But to do this would require a political programme to win Ukrainian workers away from their current leaders and find a basis for possible unity with Russian workers – and this goes way beyond opposing the bombs. Yet all we get is the vague and mealy-mouthed statement that it ‘does not mean you give up the class struggle in Ukraine but it does mean you fight against getting a worse regime foisted on you.’
The article quotes a Ukrainian that ‘A friend told me that it is also NATO’s guilt and after everything will be over we will have a very nationalist, xenophobic country and other problems. So I answered him: Sure, we probably will, but I will think about it later when there will be no shelling of cities and when there will be no Russian army here. Now we cannot solve these problems.’
Except if you are that weak you will not solve the problem of the Russian invasion by your actions either. And if your actions are to advance your cause then clearly you want to advance your arguments now.
But at least this Ukrainian has no illusions in the outcome unlike the British author, who would have us believe that ‘A victory for the Ukrainian resistance, far from being reactionary, could lead to positive changes both in Ukraine, in Russia and across Eastern Europe.’
What is involved here is a capitulation to one’s own ruling class, in this case the British state, which is a significant member of NATO. The article endorses the demands – ‘Russian Troops Out Now and No To War’ and seems to endorse that ‘pro-NATO politicians spoke from STW [Stop the War’] platforms during the Iraq war.’
Of course, this makes sense, inter alia, only if you think NATO bears no responsibility for the war itself; no responsibility for the bombs etc. In which case the criticism of Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the article is pretty pitiful and there is really no reason why he can’t join their ‘anti-war’ movement.
This capitulation is evidenced in another respect. The article strangles itself over support for sanctions against Russia. It supports them and expects that Russian workers will forgive them – ‘The existence of a very brave anti-war movement on the streets in Russia will hopefully make a nationalist pro-Putin boost less likely as a result of sanctions.’ These brave Russians are actually being told that they are on their own.
The article says that ‘Sanctions against Russia should hit its oligarchs and Putin’s war machine, not its populations’ but then says ‘In reality it will be difficult to shield Russian workers from all the effects of sanctions but any discomfort they suffer has to be balanced against the way such sanctions may shorten the war and the killings of Ukrainians.’ Of course, the sanctions are coupled with support for arms to the Ukrainian state, which will purchase its own killings, this time of Russian conscripts. But again, the brave Russians will understand even if the effect on them is belittled and insulting – ‘not being able to buy the latest smart phone with your Visa card has to be put against a family dying in an apartment block.’
In fact, ‘Russian workers’ will quickly understand that they will be most affected by sanctions and that this is their purpose: to put pressure on the Putin regime through their impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. It is what sanctions are for. They are not an alternative to war, they are part of it. If war is the continuation of politics by other means sanctions are the result of political action to make economic measures the continuation of war.
One little argument demonstrates the nature of such sanctions, that they are in fact an attack on the Russian people because they are Russian, not because they support or otherwise advance the war in Ukraine.
The article states that ‘Putin’s regime lays great store in cultural and sporting soft power. A boycott helps weaken this. It sends a message to the world that you cannot just sit there and see a state sponsored ballet company perform blithely unaware of Russian bombs falling on Kharkiv.’
So what contribution do Russian ballet dancers make to the war? In what way are they responsible for it? In what way are Russian paralympians, subject to banning from the Winter Olympics, responsible for the war? How have they contributed to it? What possible role does their ‘soft power’ have? Why have they been sanctioned? The only possible reason is simply because they are Russian. Yet the article disavows any ‘Russia phobia’!
We thus see in the most petty way what ‘taking sides’ means. Not only is any class analysis abandoned, but so is any remotely sensible allocation of responsibility for the war. The capitulation to one side of this capitalist war has revealed its socialist cheer leaders to have emulated their liberal allies, who defend human rights except when they are under attack. So our brave anti-capitalists defend socialist internationalism except when capitalism goes to war.
The absence of any role for class in their analysis should give these ‘anti-capitalists’ pause for thought. When it can only come as an optional decoration you have not only started your journey from the wrong place, you’ve arrived at the wrong destination.