The war in Ukraine (1) – picking sides

Imperial War Museum

“What appears to characterise (opportunist) practice above all? A certain hostility to ‘theory’.  This is quite natural, for our “theory”, that is, the principles of scientific socialism, impose clearly marked limitations to practical activity–insofar as it concerns the aims of this activity, the means used in attaining these aims, and the method employed in this activity.  It is quite natural for people who run after immediate “practical” results to want to free themselves from such limitations and to render their practice independent of our “theory”.  However, this outlook is refuted by every attempt to apply it in reality.”

Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Reform or Revolution’.

A year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine the clear and hard division in the socialist movement can hardly be said to have mellowed.  The escalation of western involvement has not caused supporters of Ukraine to miss a beat in their support, despite initial indications that they saw possible limits to their defence of imperialist intervention. Indeed, the most startling aspect of their response was the immediate support given to the intrusion of western imperialism, thus placing themselves on the same side as the US, and with objectives identical to it and its NATO allies.  Anti-imperialist rhetoric continues to be espoused by pointing solely at Russia while demanding that their own imperialist state intervene more strongly to arm the Ukrainian state.

So sudden and complete was this conversion to seeing western imperialism as key to a progressive solution that no further political moves were required to justify the alliance of this left with their own capitalist state and its imperialist allies.  This leap into bed with its previous class enemies was carried out with agreement on what the nature of the war was, who the necessary allies were, what the objectives of the war were, and what should be done about it.

Of course, like repeated references to a certain imperialism, the rhetoric has included left phraseology, but this can’t disguise the fundamental identities: the courtiers of western imperialism have themslves denounced imperialism.  Such has been the decisiveness of the embrace of the Ukrainian state that their ‘opposition’ to the war means opposition to Ukrainian defeat, not to the war itself, and Ukrainian victory is construed in the most comprehensive and absolute terms.

Their position is bolstered by the unprecedented support for the war by the Western media, which has been little more than propaganda for this imperialist alliance; war pornography but without the pictures that reveal the real brutality.  Their moral certitude, which they believe arises from the clarity of what is happening, is assisted enormously by the western media’s one-sided presentation.  Even when western diplomats get exasperated at Ukrainian lies, such as its continued claim that it was a Russian missile that landed in Poland and killed two men, this left does not miss a beat to ask what else might not be true?  The effect of sanctions on the world’s poor or on workers living standards in their own countries are all an inevitable price to be paid from the perspective of the war being Russia’s fault and its effects only to be ended by its defeat. Nothing its own imperialist state does can be challenged when it is recognised as the only force able to help win the war that it supports. When you have picked a horse, it is relatively easy to see everything through its blinkers.

A third factor is the unattractive nature of Russia itself, a corrupt and authoritarian capitalist state, but this only invites comparison with the Ukrainian state itself, which is hardly very different and certainly not when it is allied with western imperialism, whose toll of death and destruction dwarfs that of Russia.  If Putin is a criminal, Bush and Blair are godfathers, and their successors Biden and Johnson, Truss and Sunak etc. are no different.  But it is precisely the refusal to go there that is the problem, because the signal fact that the Russian invasion on 24 February was wrong cannot possibly justify support for the Ukrainian capitalist state and its imperialist backers.

Writing from Ireland it is beyond lamentable to see people who opposed the British armed forces in the North of Ireland suddenly find common cause; effectively demanding that the Minister of Defence, whose own military record here is censored, call for their power to be wielded to implement imperialist interests in Eastern Europe.

Condemning the Russian invasion on the grounds of opposition to imperialism while failing to recognise the Ukrainian desire to become part of the biggest imperialist alliance, and also failing to recognise the role of this alliance in a war in which Ukraine is its proxy, makes all claims to support for Ukraine on an ‘anti-imperialist’ basis not only groundless but thoroughly dishonest.

And this is the issue; a position on the war can only be satisfactorily approached through a Marxist analysis – of the cause and nature of the war as determined by its historical origins and development and the nature of the participants and their objectives.  When we look at it from this aspect, left support for Ukraine does not so much fall apart as simply not exist.

So right from 24 February 2022 their claim was that the war was caused by Putin.  One man caused it, arising out of his cranium with his imperialist obsession and a distorted and false view of Ukrainian history, including the view that Ukraine was not a real country and Ukrainians were a variety of Russian.  Far from looking for the material roots of a war that has impacted the world, the moral left discovered from the start that it was Putin’s view of history that explained it.

Not that Putin’s ideas explained everything, for this left everything did not have to be explained, only the invasion, as this determined everything relevant to understand and upon which to strike a political position.  And because nothing prior to this matters, and everything subsequent depends absolutely on it, disagreement with their political position is admission of moral failure.  As the late socialist Andrew Collier put it, ‘liberals have a notorious tendency to construct values which might explain their opponents’ policies.’

That this justification for their approach does not fall apart but simply does not exist is illustrated, among other things, by the fact that what Putin actually said before the invasion–that was most directly relevant to it–was all but ignored, which we shall look at in a future post along with other claims.

Forward to part 2

3 thoughts on “The war in Ukraine (1) – picking sides

  1. The fallacies of the basic arguments on either side can be summarised as follows.

    1) “Marxists support the right of nations to self-determination”. Wrong. Marx and Engels specifically rejected that in respect of the “non-historical peoples”; its always subordinated to the interests of the global working-class and struggle for Socialism; Lenin made clear that we are in favour of the self-determination of the working-class across borders, not the self-determination of nations; the Bolsheviks removed support for the right of self-determination from their programme, and replaced it with the right to freely secede, because the former was being used by social chauvinists to justify defence of the fatherland, which is what both the pro-Ukraine and pro-Putin camps do respectively.

    2) “Marxists support oppressed nations against oppressor nations”. Again used by both sides, one side classifying Ukraine as oppressed by Russia, the other Russia oppressed or potentially oppressed by US imperialism. Again wrong. Engels wrote that the oppressed Slav nations could “go hang” if their national struggles led to a war between larger states that would lead to millions of workers being killed, and the proletarian revolution within them derailed. He also didn’t sympathise with “barbarians”, as shown in his article on Algeria. Lenin and the Comintern made the same point that the “rights of small nations are subordinate to those of the liberation of large nations and struggle for socialism.” The Theses on the National and Colonial Questions makes clear that whilst we support national liberation struggles in the abstract, its conditioned by not supporting it in a series of conditions such as where its being used by some external power for its own benefit, where its conducted by a reactionary class, khans, mullahs and so on. We only support the truly revolutionary forces in such struggles, and demand their independence from the bourgeoisie.

    When Stalin used the same arguments that both sides are using, today, to justify his position of supporting the bourgeois forces of the KMT, in China (which led to disaster) Trotsky reminded communists of precisely these points, quoting the bits of the Theses just referred to. Neither Zelensky’s regime, nor that of Putin qualifies, any more than did the KMT. The truth is always concrete, and our support depends not on abstract principles, but the reality of the forces actually involved. We base ourselves on class, and the class struggle not abstract principles. The only basis for supporting national liberation struggles flows from this, which is that it is an integral part of the struggle for Socialism, via permanent revolution.

    3) Abstract support for national liberation or of the oppressed against the oppressor is not the same as support for the actual forces of the oppressed involved. Trotsky describes the way Hitler was able to come to power as a result of the oppression of German by the Versailles Treaty. That did not require Marxists to support the Nazis. Opposition to the Sha’s regime did not require support for Khomeini, opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, did not require support for Saddam, or later for Political Islamists.

    Some supporters of Putin, like Gerry Downing refer to Trotsky’s interview, where he declares that in a war between Britain and Brazil, he would support fascist Brazil against “democratic” Britain. This suffers from the same failure as on the other side supporters of Ukraine argue that Trotsky in Learn To Think, says in case of a war between fascist Italy and Democratic France, where Italy offered arms to an Algerian national liberation struggle, Italian workers would ensure the flow of arms, even if it weakened France, and strengthened Italy.

    Trotsky’s point in both cases was in the context of arguing against a trend of social-patriotism in the Trotskyist movement that sought to line up in the camp of “democratic imperialism”, against the camp of “fascist imperialism” in what was an obviously approaching imperialist war. It was to make the point that “fascism” and “democracy” were merely masks picked up and discarded by imperialism, and that what was important was not the superficial veneer of the political regime, but the class nature of the state.

    So, in Learn to Think, he was saying that even though France was Democratic and would be weakened as against fascist Italy, Marxists would still act to send weapons to Algerian revolutionaries. Similarly, in saying he would support Brazil that did not at all mean supporting the regime of Vargas, but supporting revolutionary forces in Brazil fighting both against any British invasion, an fighting against Vargas.

    Again, in his writings on the Spanish Revolution, Trotsky makes this clear noting that there is no such thing as “anti-fascism”, because it comes down once more to the class struggle. The bourgeoisie ae only “anti-fascist” so long as it suits them, and workers “anti-fascism” is only real in the context of the class struggle against capitalism and the bourgeoisie itself, i.e. is identical to their struggle for socialism.

    “The very concepts of “anti-fascism” and “anti-fascist” are fictions and lies. Marxism approaches all phenomena from a class standpoint. Azaña is “anti-fascist” only to the extent that fascism hinders bourgeois intellectuals from carving out parliamentary or other careers. Confronted with the necessity of choosing between fascism and the proletarian revolution, Azaña will always prove to be on the side of the fascists. His entire policy during the seven years of revolution proves this.

    On the other hand, the slogan “Against fascism, for democracy!” cannot attract millions and tens of millions of the populace if only because during wartime there was not and is not any democracy in the camp of the republicans. Both with Franco and with Azaña there have been military dictatorship, censorship, forced mobilization, hunger, blood, and death. The abstract slogan “For democracy!” suffices for liberal journalists but not for the oppressed workers and peasants. They have nothing to defend except slavery and poverty. They will direct all their forces to smashing fascism only if, at the same time, they are able to realize new and better conditions of existence. In consequence, the struggle of the proletariat and the poorest peasants against fascism cannot in the social sense be defensive but only offensive. That is why León goes wide of the mark when, following the more “authoritative” philistines, he lectures us that Marxism rejects utopias, and the idea of a socialist revolution during a struggle against fascism is utopian. In point of fact, the worst and most reactionary form of utopianism is the idea that it is possible to struggle against fascism without overthrowing the capitalist economy”.

    (On the Causes for the Defeat of the Spanish Revolution)

    Its why, in The action Programme For France, Trotsky makes clear that whilst we would oppose fascist attacks on bourgeois democracy and its institutions, we would do so without giving any credence or support for bourgeois-democracy itself. We oppose the fascist attacks on it, only because failure to do so would weaken us too. A comparison can be made with Marx’s comments about wage struggles. They are a diversion from the need to abolish the wages system, but failure to defend wages in the meantime would weaken our position and ability to fight for the former. It doesn’t mean we support the wages system, and bargaining within it, rather than seeking to overthrow it.

    Trotsky makes clear that we oppose the fascists attacks on bourgeois democracy not by supporting or using the methods of bourgeois democracy, but by using the methods of proletarian class struggle, which, in turn, and in line with permanent revolution, will grow over from resisting fascism to overthrowing bourgeois-democracy too!

    “Our slogan is not the disarming of the fascist gangs of finance capital by finance capital’s own police. We refuse to spread the criminal illusion that a capitalist government can actually proceed to the disarming of the capitalist bands. The exploited must defend themselves against the capitalists.

    Arming of the proletariat, arming of the poor peasants!

    People’s Antifascist Militia!

    The exploiters, who are but a tiny minority, will recoil before the unleashing of civil war; the fascist and reactionary bands will lose their audacity only if the workers are armed and lead the masses.”

    • Incidentally, it should be pointed out that were workers in Ukraine to follow the advice given above by Trotsky, and form such independent workers militia etc. one of whose first tasks would also be to fight against the attacks on their trades union rights by the Zelensky government backed by Nazi paramilitaries, or if Russian workers were to do likewise, as Trotsky says above, it would not take many days before both governments, backed by NATO made a rapprochement, and joined to suppress the revolutionary workers uprising in either or both countries!

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