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