The war in Ukraine – the blind leading the blind

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Blind leading the Blind’

Much of the argument over the war in Ukraine hits their target but misses the most essential point.

So, it is important to know that the historical demand for self-determination argued by Lenin does not provide support to those who want to support the Ukrainian state and its victory in the war.

It’s vital to understand that the massive role of the United States and NATO in provoking and affecting the course of the war also determines the war’s character.

It is important to be aware of the wider agenda of the United States, which wants to diminish Russia, and necessarily therefore achieve a change of regime in order to encircle China and also diminish it – as the only state capable of seriously challenging US hegemony.

It is instructive to appreciate the role of ultranationalism in Ukraine, which countless photographs of fascist iconography on display by the Armed Forces of Ukraine makes impossible to deny, or so you might think.

It is also necessary to understand that there is nothing progressive about the Russian state or its invasion and that this necessitates opposition to it.  To do otherwise, because Western imperialism also opposes it, is to accept that it is impossible for the working class to have an independent policy and that some indispensably correct positions must in effect be voluntarily surrendered.  It’s origin arises partially from some similar considerations of the pro-war, pro-Ukraine left who abandon the socialist programme because we can only currently fight for it with weak forces, which means, of course, that these will always remain weak.

It is, finally, important to understand what constitutes imperialism so that we can understand how the world works, the better to change it.

However, as important as these all are, the most important issue to understand is that the working class must identify and fight for its own interests including against the various states of the capitalist class, which are weapons to defend their system.  It is necessary to form a separate party of the working class to advance this understanding, including that such understanding categorically rules out support for any capitalist state, not only in war but especially in war.  This means that it is impermissible to support either the Ukrainian or Russian state and every attempt to do so is bogus and a gross betrayal.

We all know that this has not stopped large numbers of self-described socialists from supporting the Ukrainian state; defending the role of NATO when not actually supporting it; ignoring the wider agenda of the imperialist hegemon; minimising or simply ignoring the reactionary ideology of the Ukrainian state, and claiming that the interests of the working class in a war that now defines world politics is aligned with fascist fighters in Ukraine, the Ukrainian state and US imperialism and its NATO allies.

You would think that some extraordinary arguments would need to be employed to make such a case remotely plausible.  That it is not remotely credible is proved by the poverty of the arguments put forward in support of it, many of which have been addressed in previous posts.  What this implies is that much of what describes itself as left, radical left, anti-capitalist or even Marxist is nothing of the sort, and no wailing about politically sectarian argumentation can wash away the significance of the division that now exists.

A friend sent me a link to an article that presented itself as a summary of the leftists who are actively supporting the Ukrainian state.  What is noteworthy is their immediate emphasis on arming it:

‘Mick Antoniw and a group of British trade unionists went to Ukraine to deliver a car, military equipment and medical supplies to Ukrainian trade unionists currently in the Armed Forces.’

The statement calls, in particular, for the supply of military equipment and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as for the country’s foreign debt to be written off.’

‘As a reaction to the ‘pacifist’ left, the initiative has focused on promoting weapons supply, and solidarity with the people of Ukraine . . .‘

‘ENSU’s founders and members are opposed to all imperialisms, but support the right of oppressed peoples everywhere to seek military, economic and diplomatic support from their invader’s enemies.’

The authors make much of their opposition to imperialism but it is a strange sort of opposition that supports the intervention of the United States and NATO.

The Polish organisation has apparently distinguished itself by displaying its opposition to the country’s notoriously Russophobic political culture through having ‘unequivocally (sometimes even by Polish standards) taken a stance on the side of Ukrainians.’

From the text of the interviews it is clear that the solidarity of these associated groups comprises of the same analysis and perspective as most of the reactionary governments in the region:

‘This is an existential and fundamental issue. Not only for the Ukrainian left, but for the whole Eastern European and Nordic countries, for all countries that have been under the threat of Russian imperialism.’

‘This closeness of EE, Baltic and Nordic left is happening on the ground of the resistance to imperialism everywhere, solidarity with sovereign countries, with the people and working class who want to determine their own fate everywhere.’

So, the sovereignty of capitalist states; the ‘people’ and the ‘working class’ are all compatible, all allies in determining their own fate ‘everywhere’.  So where in all this is opposition to the capitalist state, recognition of the division of ‘the people’ into classes, and identification of the separate interests of the working class?

The elimination of these independent interests leads to the witless belief that the capitalist state and ruling class will behave likewise and see things the same way.  What else could be meant by the following?

‘We try to convince western left activists that Russia is in no way anti-imperialist and that Ukrainian society deserves our solidarity irrespective of our disagreement with the oligarchs or the ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals in the Ukrainian parliament. Unfortunately, some western leftists believe that only western imperialism is a problem, so their solidarity with Ukraine is weak if not absent.’

We are meant to support ‘Ukraine’ even if we disagree (is that all?) with those who own it, rule it and are fighting to preserve its alliance with imperialism!  ‘Resistance to imperialism everywhere’ includes support for US and NATO backing for the ‘oligarchs and ultranationalists’ etc. How could socialists justify ‘solidarity . . . with the oligarchs or the ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals.’?

Blindness to the interest of the working class also leads to failure to see what is in front of their eyes.  Apparently it’s not western sanctions or US sabotage of pipelines that is causing the shortage of energy in Europe:

‘We are worried that Russia will manipulate oil and gas issues as winter approaches, encouraging cowardly and opportunist politicians to call for the partition of Ukraine – ‘peace at any price’ in exchange for Russian gas.’

So we get this ridiculous alternative:

‘Therefore we recently started networking with environmental groups and consumer protection activists to argue for accelerating the green transition.’

A transition that will take decades to achieve is an answer to the energy shortage this winter; and this will be accomplished through pressure by ‘environmental groups’ and ‘consumer protection activists’!  This is not serious.

The article we have been quoting starts with the following passage:

‘Since the beginning of the full-scale war, we have published numerous critical texts about those leftists who have got stuck in the past and keep seeing the war as just another confrontation between Western and Russian imperialism. Some adhere to this idea due to sincere beliefs; others simply choose a more comfortable position of not intervening or even searching for arguments against the support of Ukrainian resistance (‘nationalism,’ ‘protection of Russian-speaking people,’ ‘promotion of NATO,’ etc.). Westplaining helps them close their eyes to the whole picture.’

The author claims we must be ‘searching’ for arguments to justify opposition to the war and the Ukrainian state, and then gives us an (incomplete) list of what they might be! He thinks we are stuck in the past in opposing capitalist war, forgetting the socialist principles that have inspired this opposition and the lessons learned from the support of reformist parties for the mass slaughter of two World Wars.

This is not just another conflict between Western imperialism and Russia and no amount of covering for NATO or the ‘oligarchs ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals’ will change their role or the character of the war.  

It is not ‘comfortable’ to choose to fight for the independent interests of the working class and against both the reactionary Russian invasion and the Ukrainian state and its imperialist sponsors.  And as the author himself illustrates, we do not have to ‘search’ for arguments to defend our refusal to support the reactionary ‘Ukrainian resistance’, which no amount of leftists supporting will make progressive. 

We are told that we are ‘Westplaining’ – ‘a form of gaslighting that imposes Western views through the heads of residents of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Ukrainians.’

Given the support for NATO and US imperialism in much of Central and Eastern Europe, any ‘Westplaining’ that has occurred has been accomplished by all the forces – oligarchs, ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals who support NATO and the US. We in the western left are expected to show solidarity with all of them and through them to our own ruling classes and capitalist states, which we are supposed to encourage to arm the kleptocratic Ukrainian State. Just who is attempting the gaslighting?

Whatever socialist now believes that these forces are on our side is lost to socialism.  Whoever in the West believes that their own state and ruling class can play a progressive role in the world has no right to proclaim themselves as socialist.  They politically disarm their own working class and present it up on a plate for imperialism’s ‘progressive’ wars of the future.

The article referenced above is of use only to show the poverty of arguments of the pro-war left.  That their authors believe them in any way credible reminds me of what the musician Prince is purported to have said of Michael Jackson’s album ‘Bad’.  It should, he said, have been called ‘Pathetic’.

8 thoughts on “The war in Ukraine – the blind leading the blind

  1. I think this comment by Trotsky from The program For peace, probably sums it up.

    “The right of national self-determination cannot he excluded from the proletarian peace programme; but it cannot claim absolute importance. On the contrary, it is delimited for us by the converging, profoundly progressive tendencies of historical development. If this “right” must be – through revolutionary force – counter-posed to the imperialist methods of centralization which enslave weak and backward peoples and mush the hearths of national culture, then on the other hand the proletariat cannot allow the “national principle” to get in the way of the irresistible and deeply progressive tendency of modern economic life towards a planned organization throughout our continent, and further, all over the globe. Imperialism is the capitalist-thievish expression of this tendency of modern economy to tear itself completely away from the idiocy of national narrowness, as it did previously with regard to local and provincial confinement. While fighting against the imperialist form of economic centralization, socialism does not at all take a stand against the particular tendency as such but, on the contrary, makes the tendency its own guiding principle.”

  2. I agree entirely with the sentiment expressed here,

    “Whatever socialist now believes that these forces are on our side is lost to socialism. Whoever in the West believes that their own state and ruling class can play a progressive role in the world has no right to proclaim themselves as socialist. They politically disarm their own working class and present it up on a plate for imperialism’s ‘progressive’ wars of the future.”

    However, can I be a bit picky again, in relation to the actual formulation. Can any state, or ruling class play a progressive role in the world, today? Actually, yes I believe, obviously they can. The very fact that the bourgeoisie is led, even in defending capital, to also develop capital is itself progressive, whatever their intention might be. When states created the EU, was that progressive? Yes, it was, and to the extent they are forced to politically integrate and so on that too will be progressive.

    Trotsky points to the fact, in The Programme of Peace, that if the Kaiser unified Europe, via WWI that would be objectively progressive, and we wouldn’t seek to reverse it. There is also Engels comments about the dealing with North African brigands as progressive. Its not the fact that the bourgeoisie and its state cannot act in a progressive manner, but that a) the means by which it does so are not ones that socialists would support, b) there is no reason why we would call on it to do so, rather than putting forward our own response.

    Monopolies are progressive compared to the preceding free market competition of small private capitals, which is why we don’t argue for breaking up monopolies. But, that doesn’t mean we argue for the creation of capitalist monopolies, because, instead we argue for workers ownership and control. Our argument should not be that the bourgeoisie and its state cannot be progressive, because objectively, clearly it can be, but that, we have no faith in it actually being so, that it will always only act in its own interests, and so inconsistently and partially, so that, today, the only consistent progressive force is the working-class.

    • I think the content of the post and particularly the last sentence of the quoted paragraph shows the context in which I think western states and its ruling class cannot be progressive.

      Taking this context as a starting point: a war against Russia that united Europe under, say, Germany or the EU, would not be progressive, even if nuclear weapons weren’t used and we didn’t all end up as toast. That we would not seek to split up the new united Europe after such a war and go back to previous national states would indeed make this unity progress but given the effects of the war this would be subsidiary to the tragedy.

      At a more general level, socialists must believe that capitalism is progressive because it creates the working class and the grounds for socialism, even while it exploits and oppresses this class. I have set this out in the posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism; for Marxists the working class is not simply a suffering class but the agent of its own emancipation. As you have said, this emancipation does not yet exist and is, as yet, only a potential, which capitalism gives rise to but also frustrates and seeks to prevent.

      I do not agree with the view that capitalism is in decline such that it involves only stagnation or crises. But of course, the future is open and it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that the antagonisms generated by capitalism will lead to nuclear Armageddon or environmental destruction or the common ruin of the contending classes.

      To put the point differently, capitalism is not progressive in any consistent sense and it’s contradictions that generate these sorts of outcomes precludes such a judgement. Context when using the word is therefore important. As I said in a previous comment, if there’s another word for being ‘extremely bad and to be opposed but providing the grounds for getting rid of it for something better’ I would like to know. I think even the Germans would find such a word too long to handle.

      • “I think the content of the post and particularly the last sentence of the quoted paragraph shows the context in which I think western states and its ruling class cannot be progressive.”

        I agree, which is why I started by saying “I agree entirely with the sentiment expressed here”, and that I was just being picky over the formulation, not the underlying sentiment or argument.

        “a war against Russia that united Europe under, say, Germany or the EU, would not be progressive, even if nuclear weapons weren’t used and we didn’t all end up as toast. That we would not seek to split up the new united Europe after such a war and go back to previous national states would indeed make this unity progress but given the effects of the war this would be subsidiary to the tragedy.”

        I don’t this is a correct formulation or understanding of historical materialism. We certainly would not advocate such a war for the reasons you describe, because they are not our methods, and we seek the greatest proletarian unity, avoiding such national or imperialism wars, and instead pursuing class war, but that is entirely different to whether if such a war occurred, and did create a unified European state, its existence represented an objectively progressive occurrence. All existing nation states involved some such war and violence, and in the case of the US, a national war of independence, supplemented by a vicious civil war to assert the dominance of the federal state of the individual states. Marx and Engels began by seeing the Franco-Prussian War in that light, even though they changed their mind shortly after on the basis of a forever war over the actual territory of Alsace-Lorraine.

        If you are not careful you end up with a moral socialist/pacifist objection to war, rath than a Marxist historical materialist understanding of the progressive role of wars throughout history in the creation of new, more progressive social forms. There is a difference between recognising that the consequence of such wars MIGHT be progressive, and yet the responsibility of socialists to oppose them, and to propose a socialist alternative to them. Trotsky did not deny, for example, the liberal interventionist claims of people like Miliukov in relation to the Balkan Wars that the overthrow of the existing Ottoman Empire and the liberation of the Balkans from it would be historically progressive. But, he still opposed that liberal interventionism anyway, because a) those engaged in it would do it for their own reasons not ours, b) we have no control over their military actions, c) there is no guarantee the result would in fact lead to a progressive result – a fact repeatedly seen in all of the more recent cases of liberal interventionism by “democratic imperialism” – d) our programme is based upon the unity of workers across borders, and their joint class struggle, not reliance on the bourgeoisie and its state, and particularly not on imperialist states.

        Trotsky’s comment,

        “The emancipation of the Macedonian peasantry from feudal landlord bondage was undoubtedly something necessary and historically progressive. But this task was undertaken by forces that had in view not the interests of the Macedonian peasantry but their own covetous interests as dynastic conquerors and bourgeois predators. A usurpation of historical tasks such as this is not at all an exceptional happening. The emancipation of the Russian peasant from the fetters of the village community of the epoch of police rule and serfdom is a progressive task. But, it is not at all a matter of indifference who undertakes this task and how. Stolypin’s agrarian reform does not solve the problems set by history, it merely exploits these problems in the interests of the gentry and the kulaks. No, there is consequently no need to idealise the Turkish regime or the regime of Russia’s village community in order to express at the same time one’s uncompromising distrust of the uninvited ‘liberators’ and to refuse any solidarity with them.” (p 325)

        is appropriate for the current events in Ukraine.

        I agree wholeheartedly with your third paragraph.

        I obviously agree with the start of your fourth paragraph. I think the fact that, in fact, capitalism, in its current imperialist phase has seen some of the most dynamic and rapid changes in technology and everything that goes with it in terms of the development of a global economy and so on, and continues to see such development – indeed I think that even more mazing developments lie ahead – but, that does not contradict the idea that, even during that process of continued rapid development, humanity could destroy itself. The world was at the start of a new powerful long wave upswing still in 1962, but it could have indeed itself in the Cuban Missile Crisis. A bloke I knew from my local LP, told me on several occasions about when he had been in the Air Force flying Vulcans in the North Sea patrols, which would make your hair curl and butt cheeks clench, as he said that a lot of the time a good part of the crew relieved the boredom by smoking weed and so on.

        On your final paragraph, I think you have to conclude that, in fact, absent any actually existing, more advanced social form, capitalism continues to be progressive, inconsistent or not. That is why Marxists are not “anti-capitalist”, nor “anti-imperialist”, but pro-socialist. The fact that the capitalists themselves – particularly the ruling class as owners of fictitious capital – are conservative (not reactionary) in their outlook, seeking no further change in the mode of production itself (for example industrial democracy), does not change the objective reality that simply conserving the existing mode of production, involves its further development and maturity, because that is inherent in its contradictory nature, and that is objectively progressive.

  3. “It is important to be aware of the wider agenda of the United States, which wants to diminish Russia, and necessarily therefore achieve a change of regime in order to encircle China and also diminish it – as the only state capable of seriously challenging US hegemony.”

    Actually, I don’t agree with this point, for the reasons I set out in my recent letter to the WW, in response to Mike McNair. I agree with all the bits about defeating Russia to encircle China. However, I do not agree that China is the only state capable of seriously challenging US hegemony. I think the EU is far more capable of doing that, but currently chooses not to do so, because of its relationship to US imperialism.

    But, as I pointed out in my letter to WW, its also important to recognise that US policy, implemented via NATO is means of continuing that subordination of EU imperialism to that of the US. US policy places most of the cost on the EU – not the military cost, but the overall economic cost – as its the EU economy being decimated by high energy and food prices, energy shortages, and so on, and its the EU picking up all of the refugees, just as it did from US wars in the Middle East and so on.

    In the 1920’s, it was generally considered that the next war was going to be between Britain and the US, as the latter challenged its hegemony. But, it wasn’t, and elsewhere, I’ve examined why that is. It could have been. The US could have entered the war on the side of Germany, in different conditions. But, as in WWI, coming in on the losing side (Britain and France already defeated by 1940) made it possible for US imperialism to rise immediately above all its old competitors, like SPECTRE in From Russia With Love.

    If workers across the EU rise up to oppose sanctions causing high energy prices, the US may again shift its position.

    • The reason I said that China is the only state capable of seriously challenging US hegemony is that the EU, while potentially economically and politically stronger, is not currently a state with its own single political programme and armed forces. It is still somewhere between an alliance of nation states and an international state, perhaps to be considered a proto-internationalist state.

      As you say, the US has, so far, successfully imposed costs of the Ukraine war on Europe while its own energy corporations rake it in. It has done so without obvious threats – a sign of real hegemony. Comparing this to China, the US can only seek to further its aims by threatening it, implementing sanctions and supporting war against its allies. China has, in addition, projected its economic strength internationally in a way that has reduced US influence.

      The barriers to the EU developing as a serious political competitor to the US include the divisions within Europe itself, for example the opposition of Britain to any challenge to the US, and division within the EU, including some East European states that define themselves negatively against Russia almost as much as any positive identification with the rest of Europe. This can change, as Macron for example is pushing for, but it may not always prove to be the case that European integration is the road taken in response to crises.

      When we add the political oppositions within each EU state to further integration, we can see how far we are from the EU forming a real state capable of imposing its interests across the globe. Of course, challenging the US will not start with a global assertion of incompatible interests and should probably start by asserting these in Europe itself. We would expect the US to then revise its view on European union if it cannot prevent this unity being directed against itself.

      In addition to all this is still the fact that the US remains in relative decline and more and more countries feel the ability to refuse to do its bidding. Which one, or group of them, emerges to lead these countries politically in a more open challenge is an interesting question.

      The best outcome is, as you say, that European workers refuse to pay the price for the war and the sanctions imposed by the US and their own governments from which they suffer the consequences. Such an outcome would be a great step forward not only to deflating the US/NATO war drive but also establishing the working class as an independent actor on the world stage. Another reason to damn the pro-war left.

      • These are all excellent points. However, the EU does effectively act as a state, and its interests are not all coincident with those of the US. The different positions on Iraq was a case in point, not to mention the various trade wars over steel, aerospace and so on between the US and EU. Is the US approach to the EU in any of that really that much different to its approach to China. After all, even the prospect of the EU reversing its position on Nordstream led the US to blow up the Nordstream pipelines! That is actually an active act of war against the EU as it is against Russia.

        Britain, of course, is now out of the EU, and so its historic role as US Fifth Column in the EU has ended – one reason the US opposed Brexit. I’ve written some posts on this to appear soon. Its in a similar position to Ukraine, torn between two imperialisms – Atlanticists on one side, Europeans on the other, and the obvious manifestation is going to be in Scotland and N.I.

        I agree entirely and wholeheartedly with your last paragraph.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.