4 Supporting the democratic content of nationalism

In ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin stated that 

‘The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support, At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.’

We have already explained in the previous posts the limits to such support but there are others that we have not addressed and that have further relevance when considering the situation in Ukraine today.  We should obviously be wary of claims of a democratic content to a nationalism that has already shown its reactionary character.

The recent history of Ukraine has demonstrated that the growth of nationalism in that country has been the product of the cynical strategy and policies of certain oligarchic factions in struggle with rivals.  It has been advanced not as the flag under which democratisation of Ukrainian society has advanced but as a cover for austerity and repression, and as a substitute for the failure of a number of bourgeois leaderships to carry out promises to rid Ukraine of corruption and systematic abuses of democracy.

As this nationalism has advanced it has not broadened the scope of democracy through inclusion of different ethic, linguistic and cultural groups but acted as a weapon to restrict the rights of minorities and impose a single ethno-nationalism.  This has included restrictions on freedom of speech through crack-downs on rival media organisations; the banning of political parties and silencing of particular political views; promotion of an ideology of anti-communism, and attacks on workers’ rights.

This nationalism has celebrated and legitimised fascist figures from its history (see above picture) and current political slogans from far-right organisations, going so far as to integrate their armed organisations into the state, and at times place significant figures in positions of power within the Government.  The significance of the far right has advanced under the banner of, and in lock-step with, wider Ukrainian nationalism.  It is not that mainstream Ukrainian nationalism and the state that promotes it have become fascist but that the mainstream has seen no need or want to separate itself from the far-right movement, which it has celebrated as its ‘best fighters’.

The Ukrainian state has faced a number of secessionist movements but the policy advocated by Lenin in dealing with such movements by offering the right of secession in order to forge democratic unity, as the best grounds for uniting its working class, has been rejected. When Ukrainian nationalism has demanded self-determination it has ignored its own responsibility to defend consistent democracy within the territory it claims.  Instead, it has moved further and further into alliance with the world’s greatest enemy of equality between nations – US imperialism and its NATO alliance.

In sum, there is no democratic content to Ukrainian nationalism and it cannot be defended.  If it currently wields hegemony, this is not only the responsibility of the far-right in the country, or the oligarchic and political factions who solidify their position with its support, but also due to the reactionary policy of the Russian state. This state can offer no democratic alternative because it too is headed by a corrupt and reactionary nationalist regime.  Between two such regimes the ‘instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one side’, as explained in a previous post, is a betrayal of the working class of both nations.

The liberation of the Ukrainian working class will not be achieved in alliance with US imperialism, which is forging the strongest chains for this class through its superior economic and military power.  The utter dependency of Ukraine and its nationalists on US policy has now been firmly entrenched by the massive armed and associated financial support of the US.  Through this war Ukrainian nationalism has definitively made its country a client of the United States; so much for the promise of nationalism. 

Only by a struggle against this can the freedom of the Ukrainian working class be achieved, including in the East and South of the country, and only in conjunction with neighbouring countries including Russia.  This cannot be achieved by the US and NATO which seeks the permanent submission of Ukraine through radical diminution and debasement of Russia.

*                                  *                                  *

Unfortunately, some on the Ukrainian left acknowledge the reactionary character of US imperialism – ‘In this conflict, Russia can in no way be considered a different project than the US and the rest of the capitalist powers’ – but go on to frame the war as a purely anti-colonial struggle, with Russia as the imperial power.  ‘Ukraine needs to decolonize and de-Russify’, which neglects to explain how unity of the Ukrainian working class, including ethnic Russian workers with divided political loyalties, can be advanced.

Lip service is paid to ‘the centrality of Ukraine’s fight for independence from both Russian and Western Imperial domination’, and the war is presented as an ‘existential’ one for Ukrainians’ ‘very existence’, with war aims including the incorporation of Crimea and the Russian controlled Donbas republics under Kyiv rule.  Lenin’s policy of seeking unity through the right to secession isn’t on the table and the Ukrainian right to self-determination has simply become an example of the ‘refined nationalism’ that he warned against.

The article is therefore full of references to historic Russian oppression while defending Ukrainian ‘agency’ and ‘subjectivity’, all the while forgetting that it is now an independent state with its own capitalist structure and dynamics.  The war is framed as a national struggle, just as it is presented in the West; the war aims supported are those of the most rabid US neocon, and the current means of struggle by its capitalist state are endorsed.  How the war is understood, the appropriate war aims and means of struggle supported by Yuliya Yurchenko are the same as that of Western imperialism. 

What we have then is not a policy that will combat the most rabid forms of Ukrainian nationalism, which Yurchenko accepts is a real problem, even admitting the ‘risk [of] confirming Putin’s obscene lie that we are a nation of bigots and fascists.’  What it proposes is an idea that Ukrainian nationalism can be made progressive.  The problem with this is threefold.

First, Ukrainian nationalism is already presented as progressive in a very objective sense, although by no means only that, through the ‘spirit of collective solidarity’ that the war has inspired.  This is despite her acknowledgement that previous democratic protests and mobilisations have only led to the strengthening of different oligarchic factions and the far-right. She claims that ‘Russia’s invasion has stirred up a healthy degree of Ukrainian nationalism.’

Second, the view that a healthy nationalism can arise from the war understood in existential national terms is simply beyond any credible belief.  This is especially the case since Yurchenko’s war policy, being the same as the most reactionary nationalist, promises a ‘long fight’, one that can therefore be guaranteed to build up massive bitterness and resentment. The policy of reliance on imperialism and domestic austerity necessary to finance it, coupled with opposition to the right of minorities to secede, means that nothing progressive could emerge from such a war, unless it provoked a revolt against it and the policy behind it.  But Yurchenko is not proposing that.

Lastly, the idea that any sort of nationalism, however ‘healthy’, could be the cause that would carry the Ukrainian working class forward is simply absurd for the reasons enumerated in the previous paragraph.  Nothing in the answers given in Yurchenko’s interview indicates any strategy to expose the role of US imperialism or that of domestic capitalist and bourgeois political forces in bringing this war to the Ukrainian working class.  The war, she says, was ‘a completely unprovoked attack.’ Nothing about the moves towards joining NATO or the repeated attacks on the break-away regions in the Donbas. Nothing to indicate that the Ukrainian working class has separate interests in the war from its rulers.

‘Compromise’ is rejected and the Minsk peace process merely ‘so-called’ and also rejected.  There is no acknowledgement of any Ukrainian state responsibility for the failure.  Instead ‘we will not settle for anything less than the reunification and independence of Ukraine.’  How this can happen through subordination to the US and NATO is something she is no more able to explain that the rest of the Ukrainian nationalist spectrum.

Capitulation to nationalism means avoiding assignment of any responsibility, and hence any opposition, to domestic capitalism and its rotten state.

Ukrainian nationalism does not find any democratic content that justifies any defence of it just because some on the left support it, portray it as democratic, or think they can make it so.

Yurchenko declares that ‘the international left must put its decolonial hat on in thinking about Ukraine’; in other words, put on its blinkers and accept the progressiveness of a war backed by US imperialism, the corrupt Ukrainian capitalist state, and the ‘best fighters’ of the ‘Ukrainian resistance’–the fascists of the Azov regiment.

Whoever thinks there is any democratic content in this nationalist melange is irretrievably lost to the struggle for socialism.

Back to part 3

3 Lenin Against Nationalism

In the previous post we noted that capitalism extends itself across the globe, leading to both bigger capitals and bigger states and then to international economic and political organisation.  Inevitably small capitals and small nations suffer.  This does not mean that socialists seek to halt or reverse such processes.

Within the Great Russian Empire, with its prison house of peoples, Lenin advocated the closest relations between its nations and the united organisation of the working class movement.  In his article ‘Corrupting the Workers with Refined Nationalism’ he states that:

‘Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.’

How far this is from some of today’s ‘Marxists’ can be seen in their championing of the likes of Scottish nationalism or Catalan nationalism.  Where Lenin argued that socialists should demonstrate their proletarian internationalism through membership of united organisations, these left nationalists have demonstrated their nationalism by leading the way in splitting their own organisations along nationalist lines.

Lenin emphasises the need for unity in ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’:

“No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,” said Marx and Engels, the greatest representatives of consistent nineteenth century democracy, who became the teachers of the revolutionary proletariat. And, full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want, come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and proud Great Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours on the human principle of equality, and not on the feudalist principle of privilege, which is so degrading to a great nation.’

‘Just because we want that, we say: it is impossible, in the twentieth century and in Europe (even in the far east of Europe), to “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by using every revolutionary means to combat the monarchy, the landowners and the capitalists of one’s own fatherland, i.e., the worst enemies of our country.’ 

‘We say that the Great Russians cannot “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by desiring the defeat of tsarism in any war, this as the lesser evil to nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Great Russia. For tsarism not only oppresses those nine-tenths economically and politically, but also demoralises, degrades, dishonours and prostitutes them by teaching them to oppress other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and quasi-patriotic phrases.’

It is not necessary to endorse Lenin’s remarks about ‘desiring defeat’ or ‘lesser evil’ to appreciate the motivation of absolute opposition to the nationalism of Great Russia; the nationalism that lives on today in the pronouncements of Vladimir Putin but which is ideological garb draped over the body of the Russian state and oligarchic capitals that it is designed to protect.

Just as Marx supported the development of united nation states such as Germany and Italy, because this involved the internal overthrow of reactionary feudal privileges and restrictions, so he opposed national oppression within nations and looked to the progressive social forces within the oppressed and oppressor nations to achieve this free unity and benefit from it.  Lenin in this article mentions the ‘freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers.’

The idea that in Ukraine any positive nationalist programme could issue from a corrupt capitalist state, one more and more the supplicant of US imperialism, and this spearheaded by its ‘best fighters’ who are fascists, shows the drastic illusions consuming many on the left. 

In relation to his opposition to Great Russian chauvinism, Lenin said that:

‘The objection may be advanced that, besides tsarism and under its wing, another historical force has arisen and become strong, viz., Great-Russian capitalism, which is carrying on progressive work by economically centralising and welding together vast regions. This objection, however, does not excuse, but on the contrary still more condemns our socialist-chauvinists . . .’

‘Let us even assume that history will decide in favour of Great-Russian dominant-nation capitalism, and against the hundred and one small nations. That is not impossible, for the entire history of capital is one of violence and plunder, blood and corruption. We do not advocate preserving small nations at all costs; other conditions being equal, we are decidedly for centralisation and are opposed to the petty-bourgeois ideal of federal relationships.’

He goes on to say that this does not mean supporting the capitalist political forces that promote this economic development.  However, it also means we do not seek to reverse it either.

In ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin states that:

‘The Russian proletariat cannot march at the head of the people towards a victorious democratic revolution (which is its immediate task), or fight alongside its brothers, the proletarians of Europe, for a socialist revolution, without immediately demanding, fully and unreservedly, for all nations oppressed by tsarism, the freedom to secede from Russia. This we demand, not independently of our revolutionary struggle for socialism, but because this struggle will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question.’

‘We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.’

Many of today’s ‘Marxists’ see in self-determination only separation and not the objective of unity.  They see the creation of new states where Lenin saw the unification of nationalities.  They think the right to secede mean support for secession when it is the means to provide guarantees to unification.  They think self-determination is only expressed by separation and creation of a new capitalist state when for Lenin it was the means for ensuring voluntary unity and the avoidance of such an outcome. Lenin advocated this policy even in the case of colonies.

In A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism Lenin writes that:

‘We demand from our governments that they quit the colonies, or, to put it in precise political terms rather than in agitational outcries—that they grant the colonies full freedom of secession, the genuine right to self-determination, and we ourselves are sure to implement this right, and grant this freedom, as soon as we capture power.’

‘We demand this from existing governments, and will do this when we are the government, not in order to “recommend” secession, but, on the contrary, in order to facilitate and accelerate the democratic association and merging of nations. We shall exert every effort to foster association and merger with the Mongolians, Persians, Indians, Egyptians. We believe it is our duty and in our interest to do this, for otherwise socialism in Europe will not be secure.’ 

‘We shall endeavour to render these nations, more backward and oppressed than we are, “disinterested cultural assistance”, to borrow the happy expression of the Polish Social-Democrats. In other words, we will help them pass to the use of machinery, to the lightening of labour, to democracy, to socialism.’

‘If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. That is the only reason!’

The failure of Russia to offer a powerful and attractive example to Ukraine lies behind its turn towards invasion to substitute for this failure.  Undoubtedly this has divided the Ukrainian people themselves whose attempts to clean their own stables have been frustrated time and time again by oligarchic factions.

Through some of these factions the country has been turned towards the EU and NATO, membership of which its oligarchs and bourgeois political parties have attempted to impose even when the majority of the people have opposed it.  So, an unconstitutional Government signed an EU Association agreement and IMF loans, with their consequent massive implications for austerity, without any elections following the Maidan overthrow of the previous Yanukovych Government. The prime minister responsible, Yatsenyuk, admitted that “I will be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country . . .’

Three weeks before the ouster of Yanukovych the most popular opposition figure was Klitschko with a poll rating of 28.7% while Yatsenyuk didn’t even reach 3%.  Yatsenyuk however had the support of the United States, whose plans to put him in place were famously discussed in the leaked phone-call between US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt days before formation of the post-Maidan regime. 

The current divisions within Ukraine are not simply externally imposed but prove the failure and hypocrisy of nationalist claims to further national unity and oppose foreign interference.  In February 2017 a Gallop opinion poll recorded that more Ukrainians considered NATO a threat than a protection.  Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Government changed the constitution in 2019 to add a stipulation on “the strategic course” of Ukraine toward NATO membership.

This course has played no small part in causing the current massive escalation of war and making Ukraine utterly dependent on US imperialism, exposing all calls for defence of this state and its regime on the grounds of self-determination to be deceitful lies.

It is ironic that this subordination to the United States has been accompanied by, and is the product of, the growth of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, proving that Lenin was right to warn that bourgeois nationalism will happily ally with external imperialism while demanding sacrifice from its own people.  This nationalism disguised as ‘self-determination’ has inevitably infected its left supporters in exactly the same way; we noted at the end of the previous post the absurdity of some on the left declaring that self-determination requires the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances, including subordination within NATO.

The result of such subordination makes all talk of self-determination by the left while welcoming weapons from ‘anywhere’ – read NATO – not so much utter delusion, or even mistaken, but treacherous betrayal.  Having invited the US to determine the outcome of the war does this left really pretend the US will not determine the outcome of the peace? 

Back to part 2

2 What Lenin did not mean by self-determination of nations

In Ireland it has been common to hear left-wing nationalists claim that Marxists support the nationalism of oppressed nations.

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, quoted in the previous post Lenin writes:

‘The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.’

‘The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the “positive” activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.’

‘To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.’

‘Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general? — Of course not. The economic development of capitalist society presents us with examples of immature national movements all over the world, examples of the formation of big nations out of a number of small ones, or to the detriment of some of the small ones, and also examples of the assimilation of nations.’

‘The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.’

So we see the progressiveness of nationalism, as the political framework for the development of capitalism against feudal restrictions, but not as support for capitalist states or their various nationalisms that develop thereafter.  Thereafter, the development of capitalism creates a working class with the interests of this class the same across national borders and therefore opposed to the division of the class that nationalism entails.

Support for nationalism beyond the negative sense of opposition to national oppression is to capitulate to bourgeois nationalism.  Support against national oppression is limited to what is progressive in any nationalist movement and although there may be a border-line between this and betraying the working class to bourgeois nationalism, what we have in the approach of much of the left today is an instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one state in any particular conflict.

Lenin’s ‘formula’ of self-determination of nations has been carried forward as the key to unlocking any national issue without regard to its historical limitation and by ignoring Lenin’s explicit subordination of this justification to the determining interests of the working class.  

Instead of the unity of the working class coming first, the demand for self-determination for a particular nation is placed beforehand, with the assumption that this leads to the former.  Since the demand for self-determination is a bourgeois democratic demand it cannot even on its own terms be seen to lead to the unity of the working class.  We have countless historical examples of self-determination being enacted through creation of new nation states with capitalist social relations and no progressive working class unity established.

Supporters of ‘Ukraine’ have, for example, said that ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure’.  This has been accompanied with calls to cancel Ukraine’s foreign debt – ‘it is important in ensuring that, when they have reconquered their independence, Ukrainians won’t be even more dependent on creditors or domestic oligarchs over whom they have no control.’

But we have demonstrated that the demand for self-determination is not only not applicable to an independent country like Ukraine in this war, but is a capitulation to bourgeois nationalism, with the long quote above demonstrating why.

As Lenin says – self-determination is not support for anything other than the right to secede and form an independent state, and in doing so to reject feudal or dynastic chains such as were forged by the Tsarist, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.  This will allow for the free development of capitalism by that particular state.  It is no job of socialists to uphold that state’s capitalist economic development that is built on the exploitation of workers, except in so far as we welcome this development by its creation of a working class that will overthrow it, and which more and more removes national differences.  It is therefore, not our job to seek to constrain such development through reactionary political projects such as Brexit or splitting already established states, such as Britain.

When left nationalists welcome that ‘Ukrainians’ have ‘reconquered their independence’ but complain that foreign debt must be also be cancelled, so that they won’t be dependent on foreign creditors or domestic oligarchs, they fall exactly into the camp of bourgeois nationalism.

Firstly, the cancellation of past debt will without doubt be followed by incurring new debts, debts that will be paid from the surplus produced by Ukrainian workers who will not be free and independent of either this debt or the domestic oligarchs, who can only be disposed of through socialist revolution and not mitigation of foreign loans.  It is no job of socialists to defend the capitalist development of smaller or weaker capitalist states as if they are somehow oppressed and exploited when the real exploitation involved is class exploitation.

While, on its own, socialists will not object to the cancellation of foreign debt (but why just foreign? what would these socialists demand if the debt was gifted to domestic creditors? ) this cannot be as part of support for a programme of capitalist economic development.  To repeat, for us the development of capitalism is of benefit because it creates the working class, and its greater development objectively prepares this class for its historic task of becoming the new ruling class and undertaking the task of abolishing class altogether. 

The capitalist development of new nations inevitably involves insertion into a world system that will rob the innocent of any illusion that their nation is really independent of the forces that determine its future.  Overwhelmingly these forces are based on the interests of the most powerful states and the largest capitals.  Just as big capitals destroy small ones within the framework of their own state, these capitals get too big for the nation state and seek existence across states, creating multinational capitals and multinational para-state bodies, which determine the fortune of smaller states and smaller capitals. 

In attempting to counter such forces Lenin goes on to say that ‘Consolidating nationalism within a certain “justly” delimited sphere, “constitutionalising” nationalism, and securing the separation of all nations from one another by means of a special state institution—such is the ideological foundation and content of cultural-national autonomy. This idea is thoroughly bourgeois and thoroughly false.’

‘The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.’  This is the ground on which socialists oppose all varieties of nationalism and oppose reactionary national movements.  

In one Facebook discussion a supporter of the Ukrainian state argued that self-determination required the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances.  When someone tries to argue that socialists should fight for the right of a capitalist state to join an imperialist alliance such as NATO you know you aren’t dealing with any sort of socialist, and certainly not arguing with support from Lenin’s formulation of self-determination of nations.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

The war in Ukraine and the politics of evasion – 2 of 2

from BBC

The Independent Left writer states his purpose as follows:

‘The left arguments I want to address here are those of the groups and their supporters who express opposition to Putin, but who refuse to take any steps towards bringing about a military defeat for the Russian invasion and in particular, are strongly opposed to the people of Ukraine obtaining arms from the West.’

Let’s look at the two arguments he wants to take to task; the first that he objects to is that ‘Support for the resistance in Ukraine is support for NATO.’

The first point to note is that he makes no attempt to politically characterise this resistance.  Like others, he appears to believe that popular support for it, including from many on the left inside Ukraine, makes it progressive.  Support from the left itself is assumed to be proof of its progressive character, which is exactly what has to be proved in the first place.

He rejects this argument because ‘To say that the people of Ukraine need arms is not at all the same as saying NATO should send troops to fight in the war.’  Indeed not, sending arms is not the same as sending troops, but this argument makes another assumption: that this means that the war cannot be a proxy one with Ukraine being used as the tool of Western imperialism.  We have already dealt with this claim here and here so will not repeat these points again.

He rejects the argument against him that the US and NATO  ‘have their own imperialist goals’ by responding that ‘this observation about the US is, of course, correct, but do you really think people in Ukraine, especially the left, are under any illusions about the US interests at play?’

The answer to this, of course, is that with reference to imperialist involvement, it really doesn’t matter what these people believe; what matters is the objective forces in operation.  As we noted in the previous post, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians mobilised and demonstrated against corrupt regimes in 2004 and 2014 and succeeded, but still ended up with equally, if not worse, regimes afterwards.  The best organised and most conscious forces imposed their solution regardless of the desires of most of the participants. 

He argues that ‘the people of Ukraine’ are simply ‘taking advantage of inter-imperialist rivalry to obtain arms from NATO’ for which ‘there are very clear left precedents . . .  it is worth noting Lenin’s response when France and Britain offered to give military aid to Russia to fight Germany, when he wrote: “Please add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and weapons from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.”

Unfortunately, this comparison doesn’t work for him.  Ukraine is capitalist country that isn’t ‘taking advantage of inter-imperialist rivalry’ but has allied itself with one of the imperialisms (and here we leave out in what sense Russia can be called imperialist). It seeks to formally become a member of one alliance that it has already de facto joined.  To compare this with revolutionary Russia, independent of both imperialist alliances in World War I and taking weapons from one of these imperialisms to defend itself, is off the wall.  Having taken weapons from NATO will Ukraine oppose NATO afterwards, as revolutionary Russia did with the British and French?  It’s complete nonsense.

The comparison with Solidarnosc in Poland, which the ‘CIA rushed to fund and influence’ and was ‘a genuine mass movement which socialists of the type now adopting the Evasionist position recognised and supported’ is hardly more compelling.  Just as in the previous example in which Russia was a workers’ state (however much deformed), so Solidarnosc was a workers’ trade union that socialists had a duty to join and to fight within for a socialist policy.  The attempt failed but this does not invalidate the requirement and duty to attempt it. The ‘Ukrainian resistance’ is a function of the capitalist state, not the independent organisation of the Ukrainian working class. Again, to compare the two as analogous is nonsense.

This capitalist state is in alliance with imperialism, which increasingly calls the shots and determines the aims of the war, which go way beyond defence.  Prominent figures in the US have declared the war goals as the weakening of Russia, with the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying that “the stakes reach beyond Ukraine and even beyond Europe.”  For the US this is not about Ukraine but all about Russia, with Ukraine as a tool that bleeds.  It has no more interest in the Ukrainians who take their children to school etc. than the Putin regime.

It is not therefore that ‘the people of Ukraine’ are ‘taking advantage’ of imperialism but that imperialism is taking advantage of Ukraine – to fight a war for imperialist objectives.  Typically, the US British lap dog yaps in advance of its owner that the war must go on until all of Ukraine is reoccupied, including Crimea, whose population almost certainly will not welcome either war or occupation.  The imbecilic London Government of Boris Johnson declares that China must ‘play by the international rules’; the same rules presumably that allows the US and Britain to invade Iraq and Afghanistan etc.

 So, the aims of the war will be determined not by the Ukrainian people, or its left, or their left supporters in other countries.  These forces will not use imperialism, imperialism is using them.

Kostick states that the ‘The contradiction in the Evasionist Left position – ‘we condemn Russia but we don’t support arming the resistance in Ukraine’ – is an unstable one.’  He says that the ‘effect of the Evasionist Left is to align their political energies with a victory for Putin.’

However, it is his position of support for ‘Ukraine’ that is unstable – how long can this be defended while it becomes more and more obvious that the war is being determined by the demands of US imperialism?  Biden has just announced he intends pumping $33 billion into Ukraine; after this are we still going to be told that Ukraine is not a proxy for Western imperialism? 

When will he realise that the alternative to supporting ‘Ukraine’ is not Putin but the working class, whose interest are international or they are nothing, and include the workers of Russia, the rest of Europe and, of course, Ukraine?

*      *      *

Socialists do not oppose workers defending themselves but, as noted above, Ukrainian workers have to defend themselves against their class enemies.  There is another war that never stops – the class war – and the actions of the regime topped off by Volodymyr Zelensky has already used the war with Russia to clamp down on workers’ rights and opposition parties.

What matters is the independent organisation of the Ukrainian working class; only on that basis can socialists call for the workers of each country to unite.  Such unity cannot come about through demanding support for the Ukrainian capitalist state in the guise of ‘Ukraine’; why, for example, would Russian workers oppose their own state and its war in order to support the Ukrainian state?

Conor Kostick claims that just such independent working class organisation exists – ‘Within the resistance to the invasion, the left are able to play an independent role.’

He informs us that ‘Some Social Movement activists, as well as many trade union members, have joined the TD [Territorial Defence] as volunteers. It is worth mentioning that dozens of anarchists and socialists have formed their own unit within the TD, called the Resistance Committee.’

Unfortunately, further inquiry does not support the claim that this left as described is able to play an independent role, either materially or politically.  The information provided in this article by Ukrainian Anarchists,  (which makes interesting reading for a number of reasons) explains their weakness, also something about their politics and their own division over the war.

On the last, it explains that ‘As for the attitude towards NATO, the authors of this text are divided between two standpoints. Some of us have a positive approach towards this situation. It is obvious that Ukraine cannot counter Russia on its own. Even taking into consideration the large volunteer movement, modern technologies and weapons are needed. Apart from NATO, Ukraine has no other allies who can help with this.’

On its weakness it states that ‘Anarchists do not have sufficient resources in Ukraine or elsewhere to respond effectively to the invasion of Putin’s regime. Therefore, one has to think about accepting support from NATO.’  It states baldly that ‘We still have very little influence on society at large . . . At this stage, our role can be described as the most radical approaches and views in the democratic camp . . . if a war breaks out, the main thing will again be the ability to participate in armed conflict.’

This weakness is not new and they honestly reflect on their previous experience in 2014:

‘In the end, anarchists participated in the Maidan revolution individually and in small groups, mainly in volunteer/non-militant initiatives. After a while, they decided to cooperate and make their own “hundred” (a combat group of 60-100 people). But during the registration of the detachment (a mandatory procedure on the Maidan), the outnumbered anarchists were dispersed by the far-right participants with weapons. The anarchists remained, but no longer attempted to create large organized groups.’

The other component of this Left seems not very different.  Neither has politically broken from the Ukrainian state and, given their size, they will be easily subordinated to it as members and participants in its armed forces.  It states that ‘We consider the slogans “Say No to War” or “The War of Empires” to be ineffectual and populist. The anarchist movement has no influence on the process, so such statements do not change anything at all.’

It therefore embodies all the weaknesses of the position of the Independent Left article, but for more appreciable reasons since the restrictions they suffer do not apply to socialists in some other parts of the world, including Ireland.  They do not demonstrate genuine political independence from their own State, its political regime, or its policy of NATO membership, which ultimately means their subordination to the interests of US imperialism.

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The second argument that Kostick wishes to oppose is the one that states that ‘the war in Ukraine is an ‘inter-imperialist war’ and therefore has no affinity to the First World War.  This means that the principled opposition to the latter by socialists does not apply.  His policy is not anti-war but for the victory of one side.  He states that ‘You can’t negotiate any settlement with Putin, even a bad one for Ukraine that nevertheless de-escalates the threat of nuclear war, unless you stop his army and force him to realise he can’t implement his plan to eradicate Ukraine as an independent nation.’

Like others in the pro-war Left his war aims guarantee an extended war that ignores that it can only end with negotiation, which socialists should regard as potentially providing more favourable grounds for organising workers and conducting the fight against chauvinist nationalism on all sides.  By now it should be clear that Putin is not seeking the eradication of Ukraine but that the United States has dramatically increased the aims of the war to include defeat for Russia at a global level, which means strengthening the US against its most important competitor, China.

Kostick however is reluctant to take on board the wider significance of the war, hence the trope of a Russian convoy approaching a Ukrainian town.  He says that ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine is nothing like the outbreak of the First World War. Within a week of Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia in 1914, all the European imperial powers were in a full-blooded war against one another. From the Russian invasion until now, we have not witnessed the equivalent to French and British armies crashing up against the German army.’

We have however, witnessed unprecedented sanctions that amount to economic warfare, that hit the weakest hardest but which he nevertheless supports.  Again, we have argued against them before and will not repeat our arguments here. We have witnessed a wall of propaganda that has been the cover for massive rearmament of Germany and the possible incorporation of Finland and Sweden into the western imperialist alliance.

His own Government has announced it intends increasing military expenditure by €500m from a base of around €1.1bn.  If the war in Ukraine is progressive, logically he should welcome this and demand the Irish Government use its additional capacity to start sending weapons. It is easy to see how supporting one foreign capitalist state can lead to supporting your own.

We have not seen direct fighting between the strongest imperialist powers but if Kostick wants to wait until that happens before declaring the war an inter-imperialist one then it appears he can only shake himself into opposition when nuclear annihilation becomes an imminent threat.

He recognises that ‘We should oppose US intervention of troops, ships, and aircraft, mainly because of the risk of nuclear war but also because of their own imperialist record’, but he doesn’t seem to recognise what this record implies for the nature of the intervention that has already taken place.  The intervention that he does want has to be significant enough to affect the outcome of the war, or why else would he call for it, but by this very fact it becomes undeniable that we have an inter-imperialist war.

He finds another analogy with Ukraine from history that is as false as those claimed with revolutionary Russia and Solidarnosc; this time with Ireland during the First World War:

‘Just as Connolly was right to take German weapons to support an armed rising against the British empire, so the Ukrainian people are right to take weapons from wherever they can to rise against the Russian empire.’

The difference is that Ukraine is not a colony and is already an independent capitalist state in alliance with the strongest imperialist alliance on earth.  Ireland was a colony, didn’t even have a state and obviously wasn’t an ally of imperialism; no imperialist powers entered on its side during the 1916 rebellion or during its later war of independence.

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The aims of the Irish rebels were not determined by Germany and the slogan of the Irish Citizen Army made it clear where they stood – ‘we serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland’.  The Ukrainian state is not declaring – ‘We serve neither Russia nor NATO’.

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Conor Kostick claims his policy stands on grounds of practicality, and any alternative to it must also – ‘These practical questions are a good way to judge the two key formulations that the Evasionist Left are using.’

It is indeed very practical for NATO to arm the Ukrainian state and for socialists to argue for imperialism to ‘do the right thing.’  But NATO giving weapons to Ukrainian armed forces is not any action of socialists or the working class and it involves no practicality from them at all.  Nor is calling for imperialism to ‘do the right thing’ the least bit necessary – it needs no persuasion to do what it is doing.

So, while extolling the practicality of his Ukrainian policy he genuflects to other causes but seems not to notice that these seem not to contain the same practicality, being simply influencing public feeling of solidarity.  He puts it like this:

‘The left can influence this public feeling of solidarity for Ukraine by making points about Western hypocrisy on refusing to cancel Ukraine’s debt; on refugees, on Palestine, and yes, on the imperialist role of NATO. But the best way to do that is to amplify the voices of Ukrainian socialists and anarchists who are putting their lives in the front lines against Putin’s army.’

So we are supposed to believe that solidarity with Ukraine will somehow lead to solidarity with Palestine, for example.  Calling for NATO to arm Ukraine will help expose its imperialist role! And we will do this by repeating the voices of Ukrainian socialists and anarchists? We apparently must subcontract our politics to them, including opposition to NATO, while they are simultaneously calling on it for support! What sense does this make?

These Ukrainian socialists and anarchists are unfortunately subordinated and dependent on the Ukrainian state, which is in turn subordinated and dependent on NATO, and what Conor Kostick proposes is that the rest of us join the club.

Back to part 1