Paul Murphy TD and the socialist position on Ukraine – part 1 of 3

The People before Profit TD Paul Murphy has written on the nature of the war in Ukraine and its importance for socialists. He makes clear that he supports a position I have already critiqued in a previous post but has something more to say than already argued; the critique therefore does so as well. 

On its importance he correctly notes that:

‘If we give succour to the idea that NATO can be a force for defending democracy and human rights, where will that leave us when its members engage in another blatantly imperialist anti-democratic intervention somewhere in the world? The question will be asked – if we accept that NATO is actually concerned with protecting democracy in Ukraine, then why not support joining NATO and expanding it further?’

This is absolutely correct and exposes the threat to any socialist opposition in the West to its own ruling class.  The ideas of some, who defend the Ukrainian state and the supply of arms to it by NATO, is such a departure from working class politics that one would expect some extraordinary arguments in its support.

What we have gotten instead is moralistic expressions of sympathy for the ‘Ukrainian people’ with no consideration of the class nature of the state waging the war, or explanation of how on earth US imperialism and NATO found itself on the side of the working class.

Paul Murphy is correct to say that if NATO is indeed playing a progressive role in the war there is no a priori reason to doubt its claims for its role in future.  These cannot be assumed to be necessarily reactionary but become subject to approval or acceptance on a contingent basis.  For all the wind expelled in claiming to uphold an an anti-imperialist position by the supporters of Ukraine, this becomes an open question; for if the greatest imperialist alliance can carry out progressive military and political actions, then it is not necessarily reactionary and to be opposed.

Unfortunately, it becomes clear in what he writes that Murphy can only avoid this fate himself if he abandons the position he goes on to advocate.  Given the enormous propaganda offensive in Ireland in support of the Ukrainian state, if People before Profit TDs were to abandon this current position, they would face even greater condemnation from manufactured ‘public opinion’, and would have to sit down as well as not applaud the Ukrainian President when he speaks to the Dail.

I will not repeat the arguments made in my previous post referenced above in relation to the statements of the International Socialist Tendency, to which PbP is aligned, but will take up directly what Paul Murphy argues.  I will not address his mistaken understanding on Lenin’s policy of self-determination of nations, which has also been taken up in a number of previous posts starting here.

It is impossible not to get fed up with this policy being held up as support for the Ukrainian state when it doesn’t fulfil this function. Again, unfortunately, left supporters of ‘Ukraine’ are so keen to offer such support they appear too lazy to read what Lenin has actually written.  No matter, this only demonstrates that it’s not what motivates their position in any case.


Paul Murphy sets out three categories relevant to socialists characterisation of the war:

1) Those who have taken the side of Russia in the conflict, either because they see this as a conflict between US imperialism and a non-imperialist Russia, or because they consider Ukraine to be a fascist-dominated state;

2) Those who see the Ukrainian conflict simply as an example of an imperialist country invading a former colony and have taken the position of support for Ukraine;

3) Those who see two intertwined and sometimes contradictory aspects to this conflict: the Russian imperialist invasion of Ukraine – in which they take the side of the Ukrainian people, and an inter-imperialist conflict between the US-led NATO and Russian imperialism, in which they oppose both sides.

He seems oblivious to a position which (1) refuses support either to the Ukrainian state, in which case support for NATO does not arise, and (2) also opposes the Russian invasion.  The first statement on this blog along these lines was put up at the start of the war on 24 February.

While taking up this position it is of course necessary to evaluate the role of US imperialism and NATO, but from first principles it is impossible to support a capitalist state in war against another capitalist state; especially a state that has sought to join the primary imperialist alliance in the world led by the United States in an obvious move to assert its world-wide predominance.  Even if you start from the wrong place, it should be impossible to ignore this reality, thereby compelling an assessment of the role of the Ukrainian state in advancing it.

The right place to start is from the interests of the working class, which precludes support for either ‘Ukraine’ or Russia.  From this point it matters not whether the latter is imperialist or not, by whatever definition is considered correct, just as it is not of primary importance to what extent ‘Ukraine’ is home to, and consists of, far-right and outright fascist forces.  If the latter is noted, it is to illuminate just how awful the position of those supporting the Ukrainian state is and draw attention to the capitulation involved, as well as to pay attention to the political dynamics within that country.

The third position supported by Murphy is not therefore really a third alternative analysis but broadly just an addition of the first two, and it makes no sense, as our previous critique has argued.  He claims ‘two contradictory aspects’ to the war and claims to reconcile them in his third category above.  In fact, the contradiction involved is within his analysis of reality and not the reality itself that he seeks to explain.

Murphy realises the issue is a reoccurrence of a historical problem for socialists, stating it as similar to the those thrown up by World War II, although it more closely corresponds to the experience of the First World War. As Murphy notes: ‘For all who define ourselves as revolutionary Marxists, a common point of understanding is an appreciation of the disastrous consequences of the betrayal of the vast majority of socialists supporting their ‘own’ side with various justifications in World War’.

Through support for the state of Ukraine this is precisely the problem faced by the pro-war Left, which supports its own ruling class’s arming of that country: by one (not very distant) remove it is supporting its own capitalist class and state.  As an aside, the mass propaganda in support of Ukraine by the mainstream bourgeois media and full gamut of bourgeois politicians has caused them no embarrassment, never mind pause for thought.

If he continued this line of thinking he would arrive at the position of Trotsky that he mentions: ‘in consistently arguing against support for either side in such a clash and arguing that the end of the war which socialists should fight for was based on “the intervention of the revolutionary proletariat.’ 

Supporters of Ukraine leave no room for such a position and disarm the working class.  There is no need for its intervention if it is ‘Ukraine’ that must be supported, i.e. the capitalist Ukrainian state that is actually waging the war, not ‘the Ukrainian people’ who must fight it; while there is also no need for it since the arms relevant to Ukraine’s defence are those that can only be provided by NATO.

Murphy acknowledges that ‘the independence of the working class, with an emphasis on working class power and a socialist position is essential’ but this is precisely what is elided, through an appeal to ‘reality.’  But as we have argued before, support for ‘the Ukrainian people’ in war in the real world, as opposed to the imaginary one invoked by erroneous political formulations, involves support to the Ukrainian state actually fighting it. The Ukrainian armed forces do not cease to be a capitalist army just because it is composed of working class people, whether voluntarily enrolled or not.

Of the three types of war he mentions Ukraine does not seem to be included in any of them – not ‘Wars of national liberation or revolts against colonialism’; not Inter-imperialist wars (Ukraine is not imperialist in the sense that it subordinates other capitalist powers, though it is obviously capitalist); and not obviously a war ‘between post-capitalist or workers’ states and capitalist states.’

Murphy claims that the war in Ukraine is of the first variety:

‘The suggestion by some that there is no imperialist invasion of Ukraine, or no legitimate struggle of national liberation by Ukrainian people is not dealing with reality. To reach that conclusion, those who argue for this line are compelled to essentially ignore the fact of Russian troops invading and occupying Ukraine against the opposition of the Ukrainian people.’

But let us unpick the assumptions behind this statement.

Firstly, it is not true that all Ukrainians oppose the Russian invasion.  A minority supports Russia, and this is clearly the case in Crimea and Donbas.  A larger number has previously expressed support for greater autonomy for the Donbas but as citizens of Ukraine, and this was supposed to be the basis of the peace settlement based on the Minsk agreements.  One problem is that the Ukrainian state opposed such autonomy, partly due to far-right opposition, so this settlement became a dead letter and the Ukrainian armed forces continued to attack the population of the Donbas area.

The idea that there is one Ukrainian people with a unified political view is one spread by ultra-nationalists and by Western imperialism and its repetition by the Left in the West is but another illustration of its capitulation to these forces.  The political fracturing of Ukraine is testament not only to outside intervention by Russia and Western imperialism but also to internal divisions, a reality usually ignored in the western narrative.

Far from this proving the need for Ukrainian ‘national liberation’ it proves that Ukrainian nationalism cannot encompass all its people and that it is necessary to, not so much go beyond it, as replace it.  This is an example of why working class unity is required: as the only progressive alternative to nationalist division.

Undoubtedly part of the socialist programme to achieve this involves a fight for democracy, but this is primarily to assist the creation of working class unity and this is not made easier by either support for the Russian invasion or for Ukrainian ultra-nationalism.  This nationalism has been the banner under which the repression, censorship and banning of opposition political parties has been carried out by the Ukrainian state.

Forward to part 2

2 thoughts on “Paul Murphy TD and the socialist position on Ukraine – part 1 of 3

  1. “Paul Murphy is correct to say that if NATO is indeed playing a progressive role in the war there is no a priori reason to doubt its claims for its role in future. These cannot be assumed to be necessarily reactionary but become subject to approval or acceptance on a contingent basis. For all the wind expelled in claiming to uphold an an anti-imperialist position by the supporters of Ukraine, this becomes an open question; for if the greatest imperialist alliance can carry out progressive military and political actions, then it is not necessarily reactionary and to be opposed.”

    I don’t think this is quite correct. As Marx describes, the consequence of British colonialism in India was historically progressive, bringing about, as he says, the only social revolution in its history. But, Marx did not advocate such colonialism, nor avoid criticising the brutish nature of its methods. Trotsky notes that when the USSR invaded Poland in 1939, its actions had all the hallmarks of “imperialism”, and given that Marxists do not believe in missionaries carrying bayonets, we would certainly not have advocated or supported such an invasion. Yet, he goes on to say, the objective result of that invasion, the tearing up of the social roots of the old landlord and bourgeois ruling classes, was itself historically progressive, and so we would certainly not have demanded its reversal like trying to wind the film of history backwards.

    That is fully consistent with the scientific method of historical materialism. It is also the position he set out in 1916 in The Programme of Peace, where he set out that, of course, Marxists opposed the imperialist war, but had Germany crated a united European state, even one under the Kaiser’s heel, that would have been historically progressive, and not something we would seek to unwind. On the contrary, we would start from that more advanced condition, and move forward on the basis of it, of a united struggle of a European proletariat, no longer divided by the idiocy of national borders.

    We do not advocate capitalist monopolies, trusts and cartels, but we recognise them as more advanced forms than that of free market private capitalism, and so do not seek to turn the clock of history back to those less mature forms. Instead, we argue the need for workers control over them. We have no control over the negotiations between shareholders, as they create these forms, but we do have control over the links between workers in the different companies being merged, taken over and so on. We have no control over the military of competing capitalist states, but we do have control over advocating the establishment of workers’ militia in each country, of uniting the workers movements in each country, in turning the guns on our own ruling classes.

    Otherwise, again an excellent response.

  2. reminds me of the time the socialist intellectual Christopher Hitchens supported the war to remove the dictator of Iraq and his conservative leaning brother Peter Hitchens did not. Peter Hitchens is one of the few prominent people in GB and Ireland to say he is against the current war. What would be the basis of a ‘conservative’ opposition to the war?

    Hitchens invokes the British national interest to explain his own stance. I dare say if there were any old style De Valera nationalists left in Ireland they could certainly make the case that helping out the Ukraine Government in its hour of need would not be in the country’s national interest right now, given the fact that ‘we’ are paying a financial cost for doing so. No doubt the calculation has been made that taking up the traditional neutral international stance of Ireland might cost us in even bigger ways, especially with the EU and in the USA.

    It does seem to be the case that those with a serious conservative bent in their character and makeup are less likely to promote wars on behalf of universal human rights and democracy than are the liberals and the various shades of socialism. Think of Afghanistan, I well remember being informed that a military and policing intervention was necessary to liberate the oppressed women of that unfortunate country. Back then, the Marxists were talking about non existent oil and gas pipelines being the real reason for the intervention. This explanation in terms of esoteric economic interests seemed to do well by the conception of imperialism, yet the Imperialists left without the booty or profits and wasted billions in the process, they lost billions in Iraq also.

    I have a book at home called Democracy and Leadership, by one Irving Babbitt, who was an American conservative, it is a book that is full of the most quotable lines and paragraphs. It was written against the liberal crusade, undertaken by Woodrow Wilson to persuade American to spread their wings and fly to the rescue of what remained of British democracy mid the first world war. Babbitt is arguably the best voice for political conservatism in our contemporary American dominated world. Oddly he is a forgotten figure that is never mentioned on the Right or the Left. The point here is that he offered a somewhat underplayed account of the imperialist urge to expand, one that does not mention oil barrels and gas pipe lines. His argument being that human rights and democratic norms as we know them to be made in America are the driving forces that go to make up US imperialism. The USA is a crusader society acting on behalf of an ideology of universal human rights and its particular flavour of what democracy should be like, not unlike what France was for a time under the crusading Jacobins. Of course, Babbitt’s day job had been as a professor in French studies, especially the literature.

    Interesting to think that serious minded conservatives are more likely to disavow the revolutionary wars of our time and are the liberals and the socialists. One thing you have not yet covered much on this topic of Ukraine concerns the crusading element with it. The war is in fact presenting as a revolutionary one, not unlike most of the recent ones on behalf of democracy and universal human rights. You seem to think that revolutionary thinking and policies are the preserve of Bolsheviks and their fellow travellers and nobody else. Thinking like so, tends to make you believe that what is going on over Ukraine is evidently ‘reactionary’ rather than being evidentially ‘revolutionary’. If capitalism is a system that makes everything new because of its inner economic dynamism then it follows that it is revolutionary in its political character too. Or maybe I am mistaken, only the economic dynamic of capitalism is progressive and its political character is in fact reactionary.

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