Ukraine (2) – reality behind the slogans

photo: The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Ishchenko goes on to point out:

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

He notes the (partially prophetic) views of some:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

3 thoughts on “Ukraine (2) – reality behind the slogans

  1. Pingback: The Stop the War Coalition and Ukraine: Critical Notes. | Tendance Coatesy

  2. In my last comment I pointed to the distinction between fact and value. The historical origin of the distinction goes back to David Hume. The things we know to be facts are said to be real and are therefore stubborn in character, the things that are called values are said to be ideal and are therefore a lot less stubborn in character. It seems to me that the concept of self-determination is an ideal and belongs to the world of human values. Marx said

    ‘My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so called general development of the human mind, but on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life’

    That human values come to be as part of the general development of the human mind is a point well worth supporting, however knowing about the origin of values does not provide for a suitable explanation for the variations in the legal and political forms and decisions. To get to a more satisfactory account we have to get down to a study of the facts, this is called realism.

    A while back I pointed out that John Mearsheimer had provided a realistic account of the origins of the conflict waging over Ukraine, I also pointed out one important limitation of his account, his political realism was restricted to the stubborn facts about how powerful States conduct themselves. The realism of Marx is a social realism and attempts to account for the great power decisions and conduct of States with the help of a realism based on the realism political economy.

    It should be noted that Mearsheimer did not begin and end his analysis of the conflict by inserting or invoking the value/ ideal of self determination and for this he was much criticised by all sort of idealist. He began his analysis by explaining the part played by ‘Washington’ and then moving own to speak about the role of Moscow. The most outstanding fact is the major involvement of Washington in the conflict, this is where political realism begins. To argue that we should start the analysis from the standpoint of the violation of the ideal of self determination is already a breach with realism and a concession to value idealism.

    How sacred is this value of self-determination at this time or in any other time? The Republic of Ireland is fully behind the NATO organised war, when it is not even a member of NATO and claims it is supporting self-determination for Ukraine, at a time when it refuses to support the ideal of self-determination of Ireland. The public Irish Government support for Ukraine has got nothing to do with our common values with that nation, and all to do with the realistic subordination to the same Washington that Mearsheimer talks about, a subordination based on the hard facts of American State power and Ireland’s weak political economy.

    We can only wonder how ‘Marxists’ can make their stand on the value of something ideal all the while jumping over the facts of the matter.

  3. I set out a detailed response to the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International, in a series of posts starting here – https://boffyblog.blogspot.com/2022/06/ukraine-and-fourth-international.html. Essentially, the positions adopted are petty-bourgeois, socialist and nationalist, in equal parts.

    The problem actually with what Samary et al say, is not privileging concrete reality over concepts – as Lenin says, the truth is always concrete – but that the concrete reality presented is stunted and distorted, and then used to smuggle in support for a set of non-Marxist concepts itself. In my series on Lenin on Economic Romanticism, you will see that this was also a favourite method of the Narodniks, and their own support for petty-bourgeois socialist ideas, and nationalism.

    In fact, in your detailed argument, this fact of the stunted and distorted nature of the concrete reality presented is brought out well. The method of taking each event as in some way discrete, and separate from wider reality, is again typical of the method of the petty-bourgeois, and of the concept of “practical politics” developed by Third Campists such as Schachtman, based on the petty-bourgeois idealism and subjectivism of his mentor Burnham.

    Of course, the war in Ukraine cannot be separated from what went before it, or the concrete nature of the class divided nature of all societies including Ukraine, the role of US and Russian imperialism, and so on. The concept arrived at, which as you say comes down socialists being merely cheerleaders for the underdog, to support the weak against the strong, the small country against the large country, poor country against the rich country, and so on, is simply an extension of the old reactionary petty-bourgeois, Sismondist notions opposed by Marx and Engels, and later by Lenin against the Narodniks. It is simply an extension of the idea of “anti-monopoly alliances”, or “anti-imperialist alliances”.

    In fact, not only did Marx and Engels oppose the reactionary, Sismondist notions of holding back capitalist development in favour of the poor small producers, and saw large-scale capitalist development as the route to Socialism, they also saw the weak, poor states as themselves being reactionary. The clear parallel with today, is their opposition to the demands for self-determination of such small states in Europe, on the basis that in support of their demands, the “non-historic peoples” involved looked to Tsarist Russia as the means to achieving their goals, and so strengthened the greatest bulwark of reaction in the world of the time.

    But, the same was true of Lenin, Trotsky and the early Comintern. They did NOT advocate self-determination of nations. They argued against it, and argued FOR the self-determination of the working-class! They too saw the self-determination of small nations as being utopian and idealist in an age of imperialism, and, thereby, reactionary for the same reasons that Marx and Engels had described. They argued not for self-determination, which they made clear was a liberal, bourgeois-democratic demand, not a socialist demand, but for the greatest unification of the working-class across borders, and where possible the breaking down of borders where they existed.

    That is why Trotsky in his Programme for Peace in 1916, argued that if WWI resulted in Europe being unified under the jackboot of the Kaiser’s army, the socialist response would NOT be to try to reverse it with liberal, demands for national self-determination to restore the situation ex ante, but would be to recognise the historically progressive nature of such unification of Europe, and to fight within it for the removal of any remaining national barriers and restrictions, to move forward to a unification of the European working-class, and for a class struggle within this new state, for democracy, and for socialism.

    They did not argue for national-self determination, but for support for annexed and colonised nations to be able to separate should they choose to do so, free from violent resistance. But, even then, they did not give carte balance support for such a right. Firstly, they did not give support to any such right where doing so would conflict with the wider interests of the global working-class. In that respect, Lenin gave the example of a small kingdom where a struggle for a republic would result in war between two large neighbouring states. Secondly, support is not given where the demands are being used by some larger state to advance its own imperialist ambitions. Thirdly, active support is only given to those actually revolutionary forces engaged in such a struggle, who recognise their role in confronting the forces of bourgeois-democracy in their own state. All of those conditions severely limit the concrete conditions in which even support for the right of free secession can be advanced. All of them would exclude support for the reactionary forces involved in the war in Ukraine.

    But, as you also say, even the support for the right of self-determination, is one that applies to annexed or colonised nations seeking to separate. It does not apply to a state that is already separated, as in the case of Ukraine. As Lenin and the Bolsheviks noted, the liberal bourgeoisie used the demand for self-determination precisely in this way as a means of arguing for “defence of the fatherland” by other means. That is why the Bolsheviks changed their programme and dropped support for the right of self-determination, and replaced it with “the right of free secession”.

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