An analysis has appeared on an Irish Left web site opposing the policy on the war in Ukraine that ‘one can read in Jacobin, or in statements by Chomsky, Corbyn, and the Stop the War Coalition in the UK’, and ‘in Ireland [where] we have the same type of response . . . from People Before Profit and the Socialist Party of Ireland.’ The author, Conor Kostick, applies ‘the label Evasionist Left for this approach.’
It is not the purpose of this post to defend the positions of all or any of these journals, figures or organisations but to rebut Kostick’s own arguments. He states that his ‘goal is to argue that these ideas are wrong and that if you take them seriously, you will find yourself on Putin’s side in the war. Often, when I try to discuss these points with their supporters, I hear only silence when I ask them to really think through the consequences of their formulations. But the war itself allows for no evasion’
His arguments are not new and the claim that if you don’t support ‘Ukraine’ you are a supporter of Putin is one that all those opposed to the Ukrainian capitalist state and its war in alliance with imperialism has had to face. It contains the usual cheap shots that ‘“Opposing the war” is a comfortable position to adopt if you are on the other side of Europe to the columns of Russian soldiers.’
The only thing more comfortable however, is supporting the war in the West where you can preach in the slipstream of western imperialist states, their political parties, and the mass media propaganda blitzkrieg in which every word from ‘Ukraine’ about atrocity is asserted as gospel and Russian denials are dismissed out of hand. Where videos of Russian POWs are shown being shot by their Ukrainian captors, we are not invited to denounce the Ukrainian state or its Army but to accept their denials of responsibility and promises of investigation, at which point we are directed to get back to the main story.
We are to ignore that the war didn’t start on February 24 with the Russian invasion and forget the findings of murder, torture and rape by Ukrainian forces, which have been asserted not by Russian sources but by the United Nations and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – decidedly not Russian sources. See, for example, here and here, where the crimes of both the Ukrainian state and the Donetsk people’s republic and the Luhansk people’s republic are set out.
All war involves atrocity, which is why socialists oppose it, but the propaganda propagated by the Western media and its capitalist class and state owners does not allow for attention to the stories told in these reports. For the purposes of this article the importance of the evidence of brutality on both sides leading up to the current war is not simply to make this general point but to counter the use of the results of this media propaganda by Kostick, as we will see below.
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The first sentence of the article states that ‘Wars are not light topics that can be dispensed of with simple formulas.’ But simple formulas is exactly what this article delivers; in fact, one simple formula. This is a device that apparently has the merit of judging the war through looking at the ‘practical questions’. It asks us to imagine that ‘A Russian convoy is approaching your town’ and asks what we would do – fight back or say “No. Don’t escalate. It will lead to more war horror. And potentially nuclear war. Instead, let’s appeal to the Russian anti-war movement to save us.”
From this simple illustration we are expected to determine the political character of the war, so that ‘a victory for Ukraine against Russia would be the best outcome for the left and the world generally and yes, we should support the people of Ukraine getting arms from wherever they can, including from NATO.’
The example is supposed to be so concrete and practical that those in opposition to supporting the Ukrainian state are reduced to ‘silence’. But of course, this concrete and practical example is not concrete or practical at all. It abstracts from everything that brought the Russian convoy to town in the first place. If I told you that while I was typing this post I had looked out the window and saw a Russian convoy coming down my street, would you ask are you going to fight it? I doubt it; yet you are invited to determine your political evaluation on the war in Ukraine from this little slice of information.
In the real – concrete and practical – world, you will have some idea why ‘a Russian convoy is approaching your town’ and what practical measures you can take, either to fight it or do something else. And it is this choice among many that are in dispute, not just for those in the Ukrainian town but for everyone across the world; otherwise the author wouldn’t be writing an article boiling the whole issue down to how the residents of a Ukrainian town should react.
But to answer this we have to go way beyond this attempt to reduce the issue to simple formulas that tell us nothing; even the author of the article has to go way beyond this scenario in order to attempt to deal with the issues. The weakness of his argument however rests on this simplistic and abstracted formula that is an evasion of everything that went before the convoy coming down the road, that explains why it is there, and therefore informs future actions.
So in order to determine a political position on the war we need to know what happened before the convoy appeared. Conor Kostick attempts to paint a pretty picture:
‘The majority of the world’s working class empathise with the people of Ukraine, who before Putin’s invasion were bringing their kids to school, going to work, planning their weekly shop, collecting the kids, going to the playground, chatting with friends. They were exactly like us and then the hell of war descended on them from Russia.’
Which is exactly the story presented by the western capitalist media that we noted above and which the author employs to bolster his political stance, which stance is exactly the same as this media and its corporate and political masters. But as we have seen, there was a war already on before this convoy appeared and, in this war, the Ukrainian state was imprisoning, torturing, sexually assaulting and murdering those perceived as its enemies. Not such a pretty picture as kids going to school or playing, or adults doing shopping or going to work.
We could have rephrased the above to say that it was the Ukrainian people who were imprisoning, torturing, sexually assaulting and murdering those perceived as its enemies; but that would be to fall into the miserable mistake of the author, for whom there appears no difference between the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian armed forces etc. In fact, this simple and abstract way is how nationalists talk about countries and nations, obfuscating the concrete reality to which Marxists speak – about Ukrainian classes, the Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian political leadership, the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian fascists. Just as we talk about the Russian armed forces, the Russian state and the working class of Russia etc.
So, before ‘the hell of war descended on them from Russia’, the Ukrainian state was forming an alliance with NATO; was receiving arms and training from NATO, was sending troops to Iraq to support the US imperialist occupation of that country, and was increasingly within the grip of western imperialist finance. Internally the political leadership was still corrupt, still the tool of oligarchic interests, and still continuing to clamp down on free speech and to repress political opposition.
And yes, before ‘the hell of war descended on them from Russia’, Ukrainians ‘were bringing their kids to school, going to work, planning their weekly shop, collecting the kids, going to the playground, chatting with friends.’ But we don’t confuse these Ukrainians with the Ukrainians who own and run the country and its state and armed forces. In other words, we have a class analysis that means that when we are asked to support Ukraine we ask – what Ukrainians are you talking about?
So, what we have in this article is not an argument against the ‘Evasionist Left’ but an analysis that evades all the issues in order to present a bourgeois morality play. Behind support for Ukraine lies support for the Ukrainian capitalist state and as socialists we categorically do not support it. We recognise that the Ukrainian working class has separate interests from the Ukrainian capitalist class and its state, and that these are the enemy of the Ukrainian workers, with the war being an example of it.
One of the first comments I made in reaction to the war was that the Zelensky political leadership, in so far as he actually is and not a front man for domestic capitalist and foreign imperialist interests, had walked the country into a war. It was not in the interests of Ukrainian workers that their country join NATO or ally with it against Russia. Their political leadership put the objective of such membership into the constitution in February 2019 when opinion polling showed only around 45 per cent supported joining it. Privatisation and austerity has also been opposed by Ukrainian workers but again they have been unable to prevent the state and its oligarchic supporters from imposing both.
The Ukrainian working class has been damned by regimes that promised an end to corruption but just delivered more corruption by different actors. They have taken to the streets repeatedly to bring down these regimes yet end up with the new boss the same as the old boss. The tragedy of this war is that it has only strengthened their chains. Such is the reactionary nature of the Russian invasion and of the Ukrainian state, the state much of the left, including Conor Kostick, has rallied to support.
Forward to part 2