New Left Review and the war in Ukraine (1)

The editorial of the most recent New Left Review covers the war in Ukraine. It attempts to ‘throw some light’ on the war through an analysis similar to that of Ernest Mandel’s examination of World War II.

Mandel claimed that the war could be defined as falling into five categories : an inter-imperialist war between the US, Japan, Germany and Britain; a war of a degenerated workers’ state – the Soviet Union – against German imperialism and its allies; a war of the Chinese people led by Mao Zedong against Japanese imperialism that also involved a social revolution against the Chinese nationalist regime; wars of national liberation in the colonies of European imperialist powers, and lastly wars of resistance against Nazi occupation waged in Yugoslavia etc.

All these involved imperialism on at least one side and were primarily the result of inter-imperialist competition arising from the forces of capitalist accumulation breaking out of existing national limitations.  It is therefore correct to state that the war was an imperialist one in which the Soviet Union, certain European workers and peoples in the colonies found themselves fighting it in various forms.

New Left Review begins by stating that ‘there is no avoiding the question of the civil conflict within Ukraine itself. On its own, this could not have generated an international war; yet the fighting could not have escalated without it.’ 

This is already an uncomfortable analysis for left supporters of Ukraine for whom there is only one type of Ukrainian – the pro-western one – with the pro-Russian minority usually ignored.  Their prime justification for support can’t allow that the nationalist demand for Ukrainian self-determination must exclude self-determination for this minority, since the Ukraine it supports is fighting against any such right that it claims only for itself.

It is of course argued, not least by anti-Russian Ukrainians, that their struggle is existential – the very existence of their country is under threat.  This, however, does not address the problem that the self-determination they seek does not allow for equal rights to its minority.

The potential for a Ukrainian polity that did so was excluded even before the invasion of 24 February through its rejection of the Minsk Accords.  This view also fails to recognise that Russia invaded with far too small a force to occupy all of Ukraine.  It would not be in Russia’s interests to attempt an occupation of such a large country and this has clearly not been its aim; clear anyway to those not seeking any and every argument to support the Ukrainian state.

This does not mean that this Ukrainian view has no validity; the war has, like all wars, changed the coordinates of all the parties to it through imposing its own logic.  Ukraine is the weaker party in any struggle against Russia and within these parameters would be expected to be unable to withstand the imposition of a new partition of the country demanded by Russia.  In this case the existence of the remaining Ukrainian state would not be in question and Russia would require only that it be militarily neutral.

The intervention of the US and NATO has given Ukraine the belief that it can win, despite the devastation caused by the war including mass emigration; the occupation of nearly 20 per cent of its territory; economic catastrophe and effective bankruptcy staved off only by western finance, and the nightmare of the loss of electricity in the coming winter caused by damage to the power system by Russian missiles and drones.

This belief has meant Ukraine rejected a peace deal brokered by Turkey and has followed the advice, if that is the right word, of western imperialist backers that it should fight on to victory.  This has meant a rejection of any negotiations with Russia and the setting of preconditions that it knows are unacceptable (such as regime change).  The US has, however, now become concerned that this weakens support around the world for its client and is seeking to modify this appearance of intransigence.

Like its fervent left supporters in the West who also seek ‘victory’, the Ukrainian state is claiming – according to The Guardian newspaper – that ‘Ukraine [is] winning the war and therefore to sit down at the negotiating table now would be “nonsense”.

The Guardian reports that ‘Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podalyak, told Radio Svoboda, that Ukraine will only negotiate with Russia once Russian troops have left all of Ukraine’s territory, including those it occupied in 2014. The secretary of Ukraine’s security council said on Tuesday the “main condition” for the resumption of negotiations with Russia would be the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Oleksiy Danilov said Ukraine also needed the “guarantee” of modern air defences, aircraft, tanks and long-range missiles.’

In relation to any call for “genuine negotiations”, President Zelenskiy is reported as saying that ‘Ukraine had repeatedly proposed such talks, but “we always received insane Russian responses with new terrorist attacks, shelling or blackmail”.  He went on to say that “Once again – restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the UN Charter, compensation for all damages caused by the war, punishment of every war criminal and guarantees that this will not happen again. These are completely understandable conditions.”

What is clear is that these war aims and conditions for negotiation guarantee only continued war.  It would appear this approach is supported by many Ukrainians because they believe they can win, which in turn is a consequence of western imperialist support.  The Guardian nevertheless records that ‘Kyiv would fight on even if it is “stabbed in the back” by its allies’.

In stating that the war is existential the Ukrainian leadership is unnecessarily making it so.  It would be impossible for Ukraine to win the war without Western assistance and they have so far been unable to do so with it, regardless of the over-hyped gains made in recent months.  The Russians have learned that they could not win it with the forces they initially employed so have carried out a ‘partial mobilisation’ of a reported 300,000 reservists with which they hope to establish what they would consider victory.

Since Russia long ago made it clear that a Ukrainian state as a part of NATO was unacceptable, victory would now be a buffer zone composed of annexed territory with enough local support to make it a relatively stable part of the Russian Federation.  This is its solution to the political divisions within Ukraine, which is no more than a mirror image of the Ukrainian one.

It would be a relatively hollow victory if the remaining Ukrainian state was to become the base for a western imperialist threat, and the end-of-the-war conditions proclaimed by the Ukrainian regime involve precisely that; even excluding recovery of all territory lost since 2014 this would not be acceptable to Russia.  The declared aim of “modern air defences, aircraft . . . and long-range missiles’ would establish exactly what Russia invaded to prevent.  An effective air defence along with long-range missiles, which could only be pointed at Moscow, is what opposition to Ukrainian membership of NATO has always been about.  Even now, in the middle of the war, the US has so far refused to supply long-range artillery shells.

The conditions set by Ukraine therefore imply that the objectives set by Russia can only be achieved by reducing the rest of the Ukrainian state unoccupied by Russia to one either incapable of representing a threat, with all the devastation that this would entail, or Ukraine declares its military neutrality and abjures any attempt to militarily recover lost territory.  Since Ukraine would not accept the Minsk Accords, this looks unlikely unless western imperialism decides it will reverse its support for these conditions. This, of course, could all be fudged, just as the Minsk Accords were, but that is what has brought us to full-scale war.

It started because Ukraine chose to ally with western imperialism and is now dependent on it.  The Russian invasion has turned the majority of its people even more decisively against it, to the extent that it appears that they will not agree to what they consider an unacceptable peace. They are prepared to continue a war that Russia considers involves its decisive interests, and in which it cannot therefore accept defeat because defeat in Ukraine would present a much greater threat and represent a much greater loss than that encompassed within the boundaries of that state.

In such a ‘stalemate’ the western left that supports Ukraine will no doubt demand a Russian retreat regardless of what that state conceives as its vital interests. It is as if the world could be remade according to some predetermined state of moral justice, and through the actions of western imperialism and its client state to boot! The full results of such a victory are scarcely considered.

They will likely go along with whatever support their own imperialist states provide until perhaps such escalation threatens more or less immediate face-to-face war with Russia.  Their opposition would then be, as the saying goes, a day late and a dollar short.

Forward to part 2

6 thoughts on “New Left Review and the war in Ukraine (1)

  1. Is this part of the intellectual legacy left with for us with by Marx and Engels? Marx tells us that the ruling ideas in capitalist society are solely the idea of the ruling class. He also tells us that these ruling ideas are absorbed by the other social classes, especially the working class. These ruling ideas are then past along as the central part of public opinion. However Marx also argued that the working class must free liberate themselves from the ideas of the ruling class, the bourgeois ideas. How are the workers to do this?.

    At least two intellectual frames of Marxist thought eventually settled. One emphasised the fact that Marxism was a science, a science true enough and strong enough to combat the ruling class ideas. You might call this version of Marxism the positive science school of Marxism. The ideas of scientific socialism must be propagandised’ to the working class( I do not use propaganda as necessarily something bad) . Without this Marxist scientific propaganda the working would remain be under the spell or hegemony of the ruling class ideas.

    The other Marxist framework, came to distrust the trend of Marxism that spoke about Marxism as a positive science. This framework might be called the historicist version of Marxism, Gramsci said of Marxism that it was indeed a historicism. This group of Marxist thinkers, Korsch, Lukacs, and Gramsci played down the scientific or technocratic side of Marx and therefore of socialism, they are sometimes referred to as the praxis school of Marxists. They placed the emphasis on the ‘unique experiences’ of the working class as forming the basis of socialism liberation of the working class from the ruling ideas of the working class. In this mode, the doctrines Marxist science is subordinated to working class practice and experience. Lukacs famously said that Marxism was not a set of scientific doctrines but an historical method.

    I recently went through the book by Althusser called Reading Capital. It is a useful exercise to go through it, the book has chapters like ‘Marxism is not a Historicism’ ‘The epistemological propositions of Capital’ ‘Marx’s immense theoretical revolution’.
    In a nutshell Althusser does his utmost to play up the scientific status of what Marxism was, for him Capital belongs to the history of a handful of great scientific achievements. On the other side of things he drastically played down the practical learning ‘experiences’ of the working class socialism, a Marxism he repudiates as humanism and historicism.

    When Althusser was criticised by other Marxists, one criticism they often made was he was being Platonic in his understanding of the correct relationship between Marxist science and the working class. The workers had to learn from professor Marx, the philosopher king. Without his science they would be lost in ignorance.

    Yet he at least was facing up to the problem of ‘correctly’ stating the relationship Marxist science must have to to dominant bourgeois public opinion.

    I reply by saying that you have to face up to the obstacle ‘public opinion’ presents to Marxism. In what Boffy says, there is the by now settled thought that the ruling ideas of bourgeois society are dominant and public opinion is therefore fully under bourgeois tutelage. He seeks to dismiss public opinion as having any relevant for emancipatory politics. The only way to socialism is to free both oneself and the workers from the hegemony of bourgeois ideas with the help of the ‘Marxist Science’. He spends many hours and words through his own blog reminding ‘us’ what this Marxist science really is or was.

    Sraid makes a particular point about one spokesman in Ukraine has to say about the centrality of public opinion in western democracies and how it is currently much in favour of Ukraine. I take the view that public opinion in a democracy is complex and subject to both slow and rapid change. I don’t agree that it represents solely the ruling ideas of the capitalist class. The capitalist class would like it to be the case that public opinion is in favour of supporting war in Ukraine, and uses media technology to try and control public opinion, yet it is not guaranteed success for the reason that working class have the intellectual capacity to reach opinions that are not friendly to the ruling ideas and are also not completely dependent on the widespread influence of the ‘science of Marxism’, especially if there are spaces and openings for the expression of opinion.

    Yes my own believe is that imperialism is a weak and declining force because of the obstacle of public opinion, here I am using imperialism not as the famous monopoly or finance capital of Lenin and Trotsky. I mean by imperialism the rapacious coveting of expanded political territory and economic resources using military means.
    Yes I think public opinion in the bourgeois democracies is indeed resolutely against such a thing as imperialism. The main reason, public opinion is in favour of Ukraine is this very opposition to imperialism as defined.

    I also think Sraid Marx does not think much of my definition of imperialism. He would know doubt call it subjective or worse; bourgeois. I can understand this, he thinks that such a definition implicates Russia as the only imperialist military force currently at play.

    I don’t yet know what account of imperialism Sraid Marx he currently holds. He seemed to have rejected the accounts of Lenin and Trotsky in previous posts about imperialism in reference to Ireland. At one point I thought he was edging close the to the Bill Warren thesis that western imperialism is progressive because capitalism is still progressive. I don’t know what ‘Marxist,’ account he is currently working with. He has quoted Lenin a fair bit in the context of Ukraine, but not the Lenin of monopoly capitalism is imperialism. There is no shared or settled account of imperialism, Boffy at one point favoured Kautksy’s theory. Other contenders have all fallen away, including Luxemburg’s, Lenin’s and Trotsky’s.

    • I can answer the points raised, here, fairly easily.

      1) Marxism is a science. It bases itself on materialism, the idea that phenomenon can be explained solely on the basis of changes in material conditions, without reference to the role of some God, or unfolding of The Idea, or independent role of ideas (public opinion) that spontaneously spring into existence in the human mind. In the same way that Darwin theorised biological evolution scientifically, on this basis of changes in material conditions existing outside the conscious will of organisms, so Marx and Engels theorised the evolution of social organisms (modes of production) on the basis of the changes in material conditions that take place “behind Men’s backs”. The driving force of biological evolution is The Law of Natural Selection. The driving force of social evolution is The Law of Value, the requirement to produce by ever more productive means (all modes of society) that drives technological change, and different forms of property arising from it. Man is just the personification of these different forms of property, and the ruling class is merely the personification of the dominant form of property at a given point in social evolution. This is the nature of social revolutions, and political revolutions merely bring the superstructural relations (control of the means of production and state, political and juridical manifestation) into alignment with it. We are in the process of this latter. When Marx said Socialism was inevitable, as Lenin notes, it was not a prediction, but a statement of the fact that the former process was already well underway – the expropriation of the expropriators already completed, as socialised capital (cooperatives and joint stock companies) had replaced the monopoly of privately owned capital. In terms of the dominant form of property, and so determination of the ruling ideas, it was already this socialised capital (collective property of the working class), but was itself, in Marx’s words, a transitional form of property, still capital, but creating social conditions and ideas – the need for planning and regulation and so on, as described in Anti-Duhring – that form the basis of Socialism. It requires that the working-class become conscious of its role as ruling class, before it can undertake the political revolution required to bring that into alignment with this material reality.

      2) The requirement for a Political Revolution is precisely that the existing ruling class, the bourgeoisie, is class conscious, and does have control of the State, and does not leave the stage of history voluntarily. It can ignore public opinion, as well as shape it, precisely because there is no mechanical relation between the existing material conditions, and class consciousness, as Engels describes in his Letter to Bloch. But, even a class conscious class has to overcome the resistance of the existing ruling class and its state. The bourgeoisie had to fight a vicious political revolution against the landed aristocracy, even though it had become the ruling class long before. As Marx points out, as soon as the capitalist farmer arose, the social role of the landlord disappeared, and yet, even in 1865, Marx in his Inaugural Address was referring to the dominance of the House of Commons, let alone the Lords by the landed aristocracy.

      On imperialism, its not colonialism. Lenin confuse he two, and Trotsky followed suit. Colonialism is based upon Mercantilsm, and the symbiotic alliance between the old landed aristocracy (revenue rent, based on unequal exchange/monopoly/protection), whereas Imperialism is based on the dominance of industrial capital. As Engels describes in his later prefaces to The Condition of the Working Class, the 1832 Reform Act was about the bourgeoisie as a whole asserting its dominance, whereas 1848, and the Repeal of the Corn Laws etc., was about the large scale industrial capitalists, backed by the industrial proletariat, asserting its dominance not only over the landed aristocracy, but also those other forms of capital allied to it, i.e. merchant capital and interest-bearing capital (revenues merchant profit and interest, also based upon unequal exchange, and monopoly/protection).

      Colonialism required the carving up of the globe into geographic territories, so as to ensure the continuation of monopoly, protection and unequal exchange as the basis of merchant profit, rents from plantations and so on. All of that is anathema to imperialism based upon industrial capital as much as the interests of industrial capital are antagonistic to the leaching effect of rent and interest from profits in general. I find Kautsky’s account, and that of Warren more useful than that of Lenin written as war propaganda in 1916, and which I’m sure he would have changed had he lived longer.

      3) Precisely because capitalism is progressive as against previous modes of production, and industrial capital is progressive as against earlier forms of capital, and large-scale socialised industrial capitalism (transitional form of property) is progressive compared to early forms of industrial capital, and as imperialism is the expansion of this industrial capital on a global scale, creation of a global single market, economy and so on, then, yes, it is progressive. But, the term progressive is relative. Progressive compared to less mature forms of capital? Compared to the nation state? Certainly, which is why we don’t fetishise the bourgeois-democratic demand for national self-determination, which, now, in the age of imperialism, is reactionary. Compared to an as yet non-existent Socialism? Certainly, not, but until the latter is established, that point is moot. We don’t oppose the mature form of monopoly arising out of competition creating large-scale industrial capitals, but we don’t propose it either, instead drawing out the need for workers control, as the rational means of developing those monopolistic forms, via more integrated planning and regulation on an ever larger scale, concepts that industrial capital is led to itself, but only haphazardly, and via crises.

      So, we do not have to support imperialist wars, nor military actions by imperialism to gain territory, for example, because they are actually, even within the context of imperialism itself, irrational and ineffective means of achieving its own ends. Trotsky described that in relation to WWI, in his Program For Peace. Britain’s colonisation of India was historically progressive, in its effect, but that was no reason why Marxists would have promoted the idea of such colonisation, let alone its brutal, irrational and ineffective methods. had Napoleon, Bismark, the Kaiser (or Hitler) unified Europe into a single state, that would have been historically progressive, and as Trotsky says, would not have led us to call for it all to be undone on the basis of reactionary demands for national self-determination. But, it was also, no reason why we would support Napoleon, Bismark, the Kaiser, or Hitler in such ventures, with all of their devastation, irrationality and inefficiency either.

      The only reason Lenin raised the issue of the right of oppressed nations to freely secede was not because of supporting such a bourgeois-democratic demand for its own sake, because, in the age of imperialism, it is a utopian (there can be no actual national self-determination under imperialism, even for the most powerful), and reactionary (we don’t want separate nation states with borders dividing them, but a global state, with no borders, and, at least, much larger states, with much fewer borders. He raised it only as a tactic, in order to try to gain the support of those in oppressed nations, to join the Bolsheviks in the social revolution, in Russia against the Tsar, and globally against the colonial powers/imperialists. At every stage this tactic was designed not to promote national self-determination in itself, but to promote the greatest possible unity of workers (and peasants) across borders against the ruling class both foreign and domestic. It is a million miles away from the position of the social imperialists, today who have gone over completely to the camp of bourgeois-liberalism, and a corresponding subordination of Socialist principles to bourgeois-democratic, liberal principles.

  2. I wonder also if imperialism has changed since the time leading up to the second world war. There does not seem to be the resolve and appetite for all that it entails in the western democracies. I recall E. Powell saying that Great Britain could not have stayed in India after 1945 for two reasons. One of course the nationalist resistance of the Indian population but also the lack of resolve of the British people on the domestic front to make the sacrifices needed to keep India. The second one relates to the seeming incompatibility between maintaining a peaceful democracy at home and pursuing a war like and anti-democratic policy abroad.

    Looking at the recent history of American imperialism since Viet Nam one can hardly say its adventures have been a great success, they have all ended in retreat. I suspect that the recent retreat from Afghanistan, leaving behind 60 billion worth of high tech military equipment influenced Putin to go for it in respect of Ukraine. The American public does not have the character and resolve needed for old fashioned imperialism, especially if involves the sacrifices that come with war.

    This instance is a little different in that American lives, are not being wasted in fighting in Ukraine, imperialism has a willing army to do the fighting and make the sacrifices. Yet the Ukraine political leadership must know that they have taken a big political gamble on taking on Russia on the basis of the feeble will of the American and European governments. These governments may throw in the towel at any time and ask the Ukraine government to make big concessions to Putin.

    The imperialism of our time is way more economic than it used to be, it does not generally include the taking of political territory and the redrawing of borders. Most of
    the imperialism Mandel described did involve the stealing of territory and redrawing of borders. The main active weapon of imperialism is the imposition of economic sanctions which brings its own set of problems of enforcement.

    There does seem to be a an incompatibility between democratic government and an imperialism that includes successful foreign wars. Ultimately democracies are ruled over by public opinion and changing moods and emotions, the governments of the day do their best to control public opinion and the changing moods, but with only limited success, if they were really in command of public opinion and its changing moods then government would never change, despite the inconvenience of elections. The conclusion is that public opinion in a democracy is a very insecure ground for a successful military imperialism . The political leadership in Ukraine might end up covering for a great betrayal. If they are determined to win they will have to do it pretty quickly, a long conflict will eventually bore the pants off the easily distracted western public opinion. When the world cup starts, the public’s attention will turn in that direction, such is the way democracies are.

    • “Ultimately democracies are ruled over by public opinion”.

      Since when?! The democracies you refer to a bourgeois democracies, and they are ruled over (ultimately) by the bourgeoisie and its state. It is that, and the dominant ideas of the age, i.e. the ideas of the bourgeoisie, as permeated in into the heads of society by its state, and the day to day functioning of the process of capitalist production that shapes and determines public opinion. Its why, even at the level of the working-class that sees its immediate interests being in contradiction to those of capital, this is itself seen in purely bourgeois terms, i.e. of its need to strike a better deal for itself on the distribution of production – production it is itself responsible for – rather than the need to change the mode of production itself. As Marx puts it, instead of being concerned with abolishing the wages system, it simply negotiates for higher wages, which incidentally is also the dead end of Luxemburgism and syndicalism represented by the SWP, and its splinters.

      It is no accident that public opinion is constrained within the “Overton Window” represented by only the bourgeois political parties who engage in a Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dummer alternation of having their nose in the governmental trough. If “public opinion” ever did fundamentally contradict the interests of the ruling class, then the fact that it does not ultimately exercise control would be demonstrated most vividly, and the sham of bourgeois democracy be exposed, because, first that public opinion would be disregarded – in fact, in a negative way for Marxists that was illustrated by the opposition by the state to Brexit, and the removal of Truss – and frustrated, using all of the levers of ruling class power in parliament, the courts and so on, secondly, by a massive propaganda offensive using the state, schools, universities, churches, and media etc., to change that majority opinion, and finally, if all that failed to simply sweep away the superficial manifestation of democracy itself, by undertaking a coup as happened against Allende in Chile and so on.

    • I have just finished reading the transcript of a radio interview with a Ukrainian ‘socialist’ who appears to follow your idea that there is ‘an incompatibility between democratic government and an imperialism that includes successful foreign wars’. He argues that the war against Russia is a war in defence of all democratic rights; the same argument as the social-imperialists who support Ukraine. Since imperialism is incompatible with bourgeois democracy his opposition to it includes Russia, China and Turkey but no mention of the US or Britain.

      His stupid illusions in the power of public opinion is revealed in the following answer given to the question how leftists in the West should respond to the war:

      ‘The most important thing to do is to agitate for the weapons and agitate for the sanctions, to continue pressure from the grassroots organizations and popular movements, and for the government to adopt such positions. The fact that governments are still supporting Ukraine, it’s not because they’re very altruistic, very democratic, and so on and so on. It’s because popular opinion is with Ukraine. They can’t just ignore this issue. All of their governments, US, even Britain, wanted to sell Ukraine. They didn’t adopt any strong sanctions in 2014 and they didn’t provide any help, practical help, in 2014. The first [inaudible] Ukraine, absolutely imperialist Minsk agreement, and continued business as usual with Russia. They are trading arms with Russia, they’re doing their capitalist cooperation, and now they’re just waiting for any possibility to continue this cooperation. For there to be any possibility at all, trading with fuel and gas with Russia, trading arms with Russia, and so on.’

      It’s the worst commentary on the war I’ve read, and that’s saying something:

  3. We know that nine countries have publicly declared their support for Ukraine joining Nato. They are the less important members of Nato, Nato has 30 current members. What is the position of the USA on this matter? the often public stance dating back to 2008 is that the USA is open to the idea of Ukraine joining Nato. It seems this is a diplomatic position, disguising a hidden motivation to have Ukraine as a new member. It is said that Nato operates on the basis of consensus not majority voting, so it is assumed that at least some of the more important Nato members have been unpersuaded by the idea, hence the public diplomacy of the US stance, the so called open door approach and maybe in the future words.

    Because the Ukraine State has been asking to become a member of Nato for some time now and as been put on hold, the argument has been advanced that Nato has not taken an ‘imperialist’ position with respect to Russia. The argument is that Russia is most at fault for behaving like Ukraine is about to join Nato when the reality is that no such provocation has been taken. On top of this it is often repeated that Nato is a force for peace and democracy and almost by definition cannot act as an imperialist.
    It is then said that Putin must be no more than something paranoid about Nato and Ukraine, much of the public commentary in the ‘west’ runs on the theme of the obvious paranoid mind of Putin. This war is always said to be ‘Putin’s war’ alone.

    So imperialism consistently defines any political opposition to its expansion and programmes as some sort of personal ‘madness’ and ‘irrationalism.’ Saddam Hussein was a madman, Colonel was as mad as they come, President Milosevic was mad and so was his dreadful wife. The entire political leadership in Iran are obviously mad. You get the picture.

    As things currently stand, those who oppose the war in Ukraine are just about mad in the head.

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