The War in Ukraine and the Left

Russians in St Petersburg protest against the war in Ukraine

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.

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16 thoughts on “The War in Ukraine and the Left

  1. Pingback: What sort of Anti-War Campaign (3) – Not against the war but for victory? – 🚩

  2. Sadly you made the mistake of not reading the article fully before deciding to equate the positions held within the article to those held by Anti*Capitalist Resistance. We often republish articles and posts from far and wide and as the article stated – The Anti*Capitalist Resistance Editorial Board may not always agree with all of the content we repost but feel it is important to give left voices a platform and develop a space for comradely debate and disagreement. Close reading of the article would have demonstrated to anyone reading it was from another website. The position or line of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance is that which is issued by the Anti*Capitalist Resistance steering committee and goes through many iterations and debates before posting. 10/10 for mischief making 1/10 for close reading. I hope you will post this as a right of reply rather than trash!

    • Now I need to apologise for my own lack of close reading (embarrassingly so) as I misread the article under critique, it was not a repost, but not an Anti*Capitalist Steering Committee statement either. Members can write articles under their own names without it being taken as the position of the organisation as a whole.

  3. So you reject Lenin’s position on the right of nations to self determination, eh? And the Ukranian people’s right to take up arms to defend themselves? Shame on you on you!

    • You really haven’t bothered trying to answer any of the arguments in the post, have you? There is therefore nothing to add in response, except that you appear either not to have read what I have written or not understood it. Shame belongs to those on the left who have rallied behind the banner of the reactionary capitalist and imperialist-supporting forces of Ukraine and refused to oppose their own ruling class in its war against Russia.

      • I haven’t bothered to answer you arguments because Trotsky and Lenin have already dealt with them.

        “The Second International, expressing the interests of the labour bureaucracy and aristocracy of the imperialist states, completely ignored the Ukrainian question… Hence the constant opportunist attempts [even among revolutionaries] to shy away from this question, to suppress it, to pass over it in silence, or to postpone it to an indefinite future.

        “The Bolshevik party, not without difficulty and only gradually under the constant pressure of Lenin, was able to acquire a correct approach to the Ukrainian question. The right to self-determination, that is, to separation, was extended by Lenin equally to the Poles and to the Ukrainians… Every inclination to evade or postpone the problem of an oppressed nationality he regarded as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism.”

        “What Ireland has become for England, Ukraine has become for Russia… Unfortunately some of our comrades have become imperial Russian patriots… We Muscovites are enslaved not only because we allow ourselves to be oppressed, but because we allow others to be oppressed…”

      • So, in your second comment you admit that you didn’t bother to answer my arguments in the first, raising the question whether what you are engaged in is really any sort of attempt at debate. Just waving a flag – here’s my position!

        Unfortunately, it appears you didn’t even read what I had written. So, you said that I reject ‘the Ukranian people’s right to take up arms to defend themselves’. What I actually wrote in the very first words of my first post was that ‘The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces should be opposed by all socialists’.

        I then said that ‘while the Ukrainian people have the right to defend themselves and to seek support from Russian workers and workers in the West, they need to ask what sort of state and Government it is that has led them into this war.’ I also wrote that ‘we must not rally to our own ruling classes and states in their aggression towards Russia.’ You ignore all of this.

        Equally you ignore my statement that ‘Self-determination for Ukraine today means opposition to the war and to NATO.’ And that ‘Real self-determination can only be accomplished by the unity of the peoples of the region, of Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Europe as a whole.’

        I then get to the nub of the matter which is that ‘The working class movement of each country must reject the aggressive policies of its own states and leaders and seek to build real unity of its working people.’ This applies in Ukraine as well as everywhere else – there is nothing progressive about the Ukrainian Government or the Ukrainian state; as I also wrote ‘We are, after all, not the slightest bit interested in the right of self-defence for oligarchs etc.’

        In my second post on the war I stated that the demand for the right of nations to self-determination is a bourgeois demand. ‘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.’ And that is precisely what you are doing.

        You do not address any of this but tell me that Lenin and Trotsky did. Well, I’m afraid they didn’t. Well, certainly not in the passages quoted. This should not be surprising since they also didn’t read what I had written so could hardly have responded as they thought appropriate. I am willing to give them some leeway in this failure. But what is your excuse?

        That it is only necessary for me to copy and paste what I have already written shows how little your comments bring discussion forward. One hundred-year-old quotes won’t cut it. Ukraine is no longer part of the Tsar’s Empire and NATO wasn’t employing the country as a cat’s paw 100 years ago.

        It is necessary to have an independent working class position in this war and not parrot slogans that cover up capitulation in this task.

      • “My excuse, “comrade” is that I have an elementary understanding of Marxism. You should try it.”

        That is the trouble. Your understanding of Marxism is indeed “elementary”, and never went beyond that elementary level. Now you are abandoning even that.

      • “the Ukranian people’s right to take up arms to defend themselves?”

        Which “people” are you talking about? I remember a time when members of the AWL’s predecessor organisations used to scoff at the Stalinists who used the term “people”, precisely because it not only has no class content, but because it disguises the fact that the “people”, “nation” and so on, are abstract terms, in which the fact that they are divided into antagonistic classes is deliberately hidden from view!

        Its not the “people” involved is it, Jim? Remember Lenin’s rebuke of petty-bourgeois liberals like you for using such abstract terms, and his riposte that “the truth is always concrete”, so that if we want to analyse events in Ukraine its necessary not to talk about a “people’s” right to defence, but the right of Ukrainian workers to defend themselves, which raises the question of how they are to do that, and against whom, including against the Nazis of the Azov Battalion with whom you are currently allied, along with the rest of the reactionary Ukrainian government and ruling class whose defence you have lined up behind!

        If Ukrainian workers really were organising to defend themselves militarily, and were doing so, by also defending their rights as workers against Ukrainian capitalists, and others, how long do you think it would be before Zelensky turned the Azov Battalion and the rest of the state against them? How long was it before the British cops intervened to turf squatters out of the mansion in London this week, because although they think its fine for the capitalists to rob property from each other, god forbid that workers should start to reclaim their property from capitalists!

        Its not Ukrainian “people” fighting this war, but the Ukrainian ruling class and its state, backed by NATO, which is providing it with the latest hardware, intelligence and covert support, via cyber warfare, not to mention the economic war that NATO has been waging against Russia and China for at least a decade. The Ukrainian “people” have no control over the war being fought over their heads by NATO using the Ukrainian state as its tool and proxy, in the same way they used Bin laden in Afghanistan, Saddam against Iran, the Contras against Nicaragua, The KLA against the Kosovan Serbs, the jihadists and feudalists against Gaddafi, and against Assad, and on and on. They do not even have control over the war being fought by the Ukrainian state, and its corrupt government, and Azov battalion spearhead! As a piece of PR, thy have individually been given guns, for photoshoots, but with no training, and God forbid they should actually then act collectively as a workers militia, rather than as individual bits of cannon fodder. Of course, the minute they did form any kind of workers militia, they would become the enemy of the Ukrainian state and of NATO.

        That is the truth when analysed concretely in terms of class, as against your petty-bourgeois, liberal abstract nonsense about “Ukraine”, or “people”.

    • “So you reject Lenin’s position on the right of nations to self determination, eh? And the Ukranian people’s right to take up arms to defend themselves?”

      Its you that rejects Lenin’s position on the right of nations to self-determination, and more specifically reject Lenin’s position on whether Marxists should demand self-determination for nations. On the latter, he says, they shouldn’t, that is why we don’t argue for Brexit, or Scottish independence, for example. On the former, he says, we only do sometimes, i.e. where it is consistent with the interests of Socialism, and the global working class’s interests. Generally, speaking wars between capitalist states are not in the interests of the global working-class, particularly where they might end up as nuclear wars, which is why Lenin gives the example of not supporting bourgeois democratic rights in a small state, if doing so would lead to a war between two larger states. Your support for national self-determination, irrespective of all these other considerations outlined by Lenin is not Marxism, its simple liberalism consistent with your organisations liberal politics.

      But, your argument in terms of “defence” is nonsensical. Ukraine is no longer a part of the Russian Empire which was the context of Lenin and Trotsky’s arguments. Lenin and the Bolsheviks specifically changed the formulation to reject the support for the right of nations to self-determination to deal with precisely the misuse of it that you currently undertake. They changed it from support for the right of nations to self-determination, to support for the right of free secession. They did so precisely because liberals and social patriots like you were using the former formulation to argue for “defence of the fatherland”, which Lenin and Trotsky would never support where it was in relation to a bourgeois state such as Ukraine, or Russia.

      The nonsensical conclusion of your argument is that in WWI, it was fine for Kerensky to argue for defencism, because the self-determination of Russia was at risk from Germany and Turkey! After all, it was a backward, more or less peasant country, whereas Germany was the most advanced industrial country on the planet, and one that had already taken land from Russia, a country that had already lost territory to another advanced industrial power, Japan in 1905. But, Lenin and Trotsky rejected those arguments for defencism that you are now putting. The people who argued that national defencist position were Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and Lenin fumed at them, threatening to split the party rather than accept their betrayal and collapse in social patriotism.

      It would likewise have been legitimate for the workers in France to have lined up with their own bourgeoisie to oppose invasion by the German army, which had rolled over Belgium, and now occupied large parts of France. So, what you are arguing for is social patriotism pure and simple. In fact, in 1982, you should have been on the side of the Thonnettites, in arguing for support for Galtieri and Argentina, because Britain was clearly threatening Argentina and its freedom of expression of its national self-determination. Its ironic that not only have you joined the Stalinists and Liberals in adopting the ideology of nationalism, and defence of the fatherland, but you have also become an idiot-anti-imperialist forming a Popular Front with the not only the corrupt bourgeois politicians in the Ukrainian government, with their billions stashed in offshore bank accounts, but also with the Nazis of the Azov Battalion, which they have incorporated into the forces of the state, armed, trained and financed, and given the latest NATO hardware – much as NATO did with the jihadists of Bin Laden in Afghanistan. You follow the Liberals and Stalinists in talking about abstract concepts such as Ukraine, i.e. nation, rather than as Marxists do talking about classes, i.e. the Ukrainian workers not the Ukrainian capitalists. In doing so, you line up with the Ukrainian capitalists and their state, as well as the fascists, and imply that the Ukrainian workers should join you in that Popular Front, ignoring and subordinating their own class interests., just as the social-patriots did in WWI and II. But, the truth is always concrete. Marxists defend the reality of the Ukrainian working-class, and the Russian working class, not the abstract concept of Ukraine, or nation, which, denies the existence of these antagonistic class interests. You are a liberal, a social-patriot, not a Marxist.

      The truth is that your petty-bourgeois moralism and Third Campism has now landed you in exactly the same place as the SWP, and other idiot anti-imperialists, except that for you it is expressed in idiot anti-imperialism against Russia. They argued that it was necessary to ignore class struggle, and class interests in order to oppose imperialist interventions, which is why they ended up supporting the mullahs, Hamas, Hezbollah and so on. You are in exactly thee same place, but you now support the Ukrainian corrupt capitalist state and government, and the Nazis of the Azov Battalion, in order to oppose Russian imperialism. Facebook has already changed its rules to allow people to praise the Nazis of the Azov Battalion, its only a matter of time, before the logic of your position leads you to follow the SWP example, and proclaim on your banners “We are all the Azov Battalion now.”

      What a shower of petty bourgeois liberals and moralists you have become.

  4. Right on cue, just up on the BBC news service.
    ‘ The UK is increasing its supply of weapons to Ukraine to help defend itself against Russian attack. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said.
    before the invasion, we delivered 2,000 light anti- tank missiles and we are now sending another 1,615. Mr Wallace told MPs, the UK Govt would deliver a consignment of longer range missiles and was looking at sending surface -to air missiles.’

    For just how long will the Russian Government and military go along with the pretence that GB government and military is not rally at war with Russia?

  5. Joe, your last two posts have been excellent, and more so given the difficult conditions in which they are made, with most of the Left having capitulated to social patriotism and social-imperialism, with some having gone over completely to being just pro-imperialist apologists.

    Its in times like these that the mettle of Marxism is truly tested.

  6. The standing ovation yesterday for the President of one of the most corrupt States in the world in the British
    House of Commons is the most alarming political thing I have experienced in my 40 years of watching the comings and goings of many Governments. The President of Ukraine has done nothing but try to goad NATO and Europe into a full scale war with Russia. It looks like he has made his case well enough in the eyes of the entire British political class to have his way soon enough. An expanded war is just around the corner.

    Political adage : the middle classes start wars so that the working class can fight them.

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