Supporters of Ukraine claim that those who refuse to support its state deny the agency of Ukrainians and make it all about the west and western imperialist intervention. But it is these people who deny the agency of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Ukraine, for them, has no role in starting the war but is simply its victim. We are asked to support ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ but these have no agency outside the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian armed forces because outside them they don’t exist. The first is a corrupt capitalist state on a level with Russia and the second is the major repressive force of this state, with particularly reactionary elements such as fascist units in the army. Supporters of Ukraine do not so much justify support for them as dissolve them into abstractions that do not exist in concrete realties.
The motivation of western imperialist backing of Ukraine is usually not examined, or passed over with nebulous remarks that have no significance to taking a political stand. The history of its intervention is treated as irrelevant; its inherently oppressive and repressive character has gone missing, and what this implies for the nature of its intervention in Ukraine and the politics of the war is normally terra incognita and is staying that way. It would appear that all we can do is point out the absurdity of the demands of those supporting Ukraine, such as the call for Britain ‘gifting to Ukraine . . . all the surplus UK military equipment due to be replaced, especially the 79 Challenger tanks, 170 Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles, all Warrior infantry fighting vehicles, Typhoon fighter aircraft – to help Ukraine win more quickly, with less suffering.’
This must be the first time tanks, fighting vehicles and fighter aircraft will ensure ‘less suffering.’ It is assumed that Ukraine will win and win more quickly, presumably because the western media has told them this, and that winning more quickly will not involve inflicting suffering more quickly, or perhaps this is something that also does not exist–the suffering of others. Meanwhile the British capitalist state can get on with modernising its tanks, fighting vehicles and war planes, perhaps for its next progressive imperialist intervention, or whatever.
However, yet another solidarity with Ukraine statement has felt the need to address the role of NATO but does so by somehow giving it no real agency in enforcing its own interests; becoming a prop in the war that is subsidiary in determining its nature, while the rest of the world, including the Ukrainian state, regards its role as vital and critical to success. The supporters of Ukraine again invent a world that does not exist.
The statement says that ‘we should be critical of of the Zelenski government which has embraced neoliberalism . . . and seeks to join the European Union and NATO’, but this criticism is not an obstacle to support! It says that ‘the supply of arms should be without strings or illusions in NATO and the West because the supply of arms can be used to control the scope and duration of the war’. So imperialism with not seek to impose its own interests but supply billions of dollars and Euros of weapons without strings, and this is called politics without illusions! When has imperialism not acted in its own interest but instead on behalf of a ‘national liberation’ struggle?
‘NATO and Western imperialism are backing Ukraine for their own geopolitical interests, so there should be no illusion that NATO and Western imperialism are forces for democracy’, the statement says. No more ‘illusions’ again; but if NATO is backing a ‘national liberation’ struggle then, by definition, it is a ‘force for democracy’. It doesn’t matter how many times you say ‘but NATO is not a force for democracy’ and ‘is the military wing of Western imperialism . . .’ and NATO is acting to ‘defend its geopolitical interests’ while it also supports a war that you claim is progressive and justified. Something has to give.
So who is mistaken here? Is imperialism being fooled into supporting a progressive war of national liberation, an anti-imperialist war? Or are the Left supporters of the Ukrainian state denying the reactionary character of the Ukrainian state and its pursuit of NATO membership; and wrongly supporting NATO intervention in the belief that its geopolitical interests advance democracy, although we are asked to believe that this is not what NATO is about? In what world does any of this make any sense?
Perhaps it is the one that exists in the ‘proxy war between Western and Russian imperialism’ in which ‘NATO has used the Russian invasion to give itself a new purpose’; but whatever new purpose NATO has given itself, it is not one of fighting for democracy. Such a world does not exist and all claims to it doing so are false, shockingly misleading the workers living in NATO countries.
But let us give it one more chance. We are told that ‘when internationalists support the Ukrainians’ right to resist military the Russian invasion and obtain arms from NATO countries, it is not an endorsement of NATO. There have been many movements of national liberation in the past which have called upon imperialist countries for arms without being condemned by socialists: Irish nationalists in 1917, the Spanish republic in 1936, the communist resistance in World War Two, to name a few.’
So maybe such a world existed in the past?
Let’s just take the Irish example. Was Ireland an independent state in 1916 or a British colony? Were the Irish rebels in 1916 seeking to join the German imperialist alliance, or did they claim ‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser’? Did the Irish workers movement participate as a separate political and armed force from the bourgeois nationalists, and did not James Connolly repeatedly declare the political independence of the Irish working class? Was his anti-imperialism the anti-imperialism of opposition to foreign rule or opposition also to capitalism and for the creation of a Socialist Republic? Where does the capitalist Ukrainian state and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ stand on all these questions today?
But let’s not leave the Irish analogy there. What happened to the Irish national struggle when the forces of the working class proved to be too weak and the movement became a purely bourgeois one? ‘Labour’ was told to wait, just as in Ukraine today, and the forces of bourgeois nationalism accepted a settlement with imperialism that left the working class more divided than before, subject to two reactionary regimes that inflicted years of austerity, unemployment and emigration built upon Catholic Church abuse of women and children and Protestant sectarianism and discrimination. Today the capitalist Irish state supports the Ukrainian capitalist state and imperialism, particularly that of the US, upon which its current success depends; which brings us to the core argument of the left supporters of Ukraine.
Beside the unprecedented assortment of support from western imperialism the left supporters of Ukraine present one Marxist-sounding justification, although bourgeois politicians and the media state it as well. This is the demand for Ukrainian self-determination, upon which we get the idea of national liberation and the analogy with Ireland. In this there might seem an argument that at least exists, and it does, except it does not exist for Marxists.
After World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson made himself and the policy famous through his espousal of self-determination, but this is not the grounds for a socialist argument, including his ignoring the demands of some nationalities while upholding others. Through the Treaty of Versailles, the ground was prepared for another world war that further exposed the elastic character of bourgeois support for self-determination. Even before this, the credo of self-determination of nations had failed in the 1848 revolutions in Europe.
The demand, in so far as Lenin actually upheld it, is subsidiary to the self-determination of the working class and involved supporting, if necessary, the demands of nationalities imprisoned within empires or held as colonies. Ukraine became an independent state in 1991 and does not cease to be one because it is losing (or winning according to its supporters) a war with another independent capitalist state. If it is further claimed that socialists should support the prerogatives of a capitalist state in war then it should be clear what this means – the demands of the capitalist state assume priority, which must necessarily therefore involve the subordination of the working class to its rights and requirements.
The interests of the working class either do not then exist, or are identical to those of its capitalist state. If it is further claimed that it is only in this one respect that the interest of the working class and capitalist state are the same, then this fails to recogniser that self-determination of the Ukrainian capitalist state means that it determines what it requires, what it does, and its freedoms without restriction, otherwise it is not self-determining.
If the attempt is made to wriggle out of this definitional constraint and it is claimed that it is the country (or nationality) that self-determination applies to, then we must recall Marx’s description of history: ‘History does nothing . . . it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” In our case, it is not ‘the country’, or ‘Ukraine’, that ‘wages battles’ but the Ukrainian state and its armed forces.
For the supporters of Ukraine the idea of an immaterial entity to which self-determination applies has been propagated through repeated use of the words Ukraine, Ukrainian resistance, and Ukrainian people when what that corresponds to in reality is the state, the armed forces of that state and a population divided by class in which these socialists wrap up the interests of the working class inside that of the first two – the state and its armed forces.
Reference is sometimes made to particular Ukrainian workers, with the pious invocation to accept their views, as if their coming from a Ukrainian must entail unimpeachable endorsement and acceptance, although their views are presented as privileged not because of their power to advance our understanding but because of their position as potential victims of war. In effect they become props to a story that is being more and more determined by western imperialism, and certainly not by any independent political role that these workers play.
The term ‘Ukrainian people’ is an abstraction without apposite reality, since this people is divided, with some supporting Russia. For supporters of the Ukrainian state this latter people effectively does not exist, so the argument for self-determination does not apply for them. Not so much Lenin as Woodrow Wilson again.
In any case the Leninist argument advances only the right to set up a separate state and this the Ukrainians already have. What the capitalists and its politicians do with this is something else entirely, and socialists do not follow them in order to ensure this capitalist state achieves maximum capacity to act autonomously and independently. Even if we did, it would be a very hard argument to make that the dependence on western imperialism is the road to such freedoms. Since Ukraine has been, and still does, seek membership of NATO, such membership could easily be accused of threatening the same rights that would logically have to apply to Russia.
The only counterargument to this is to claim that Ukraine should not be subordinated to imperialism (e.g. should not be subject to debt dependence), which as we have seen in the statement of the Ukrainian Solidarity Campaign is not an argument but a pious wish, and one that support for reliance on the west and its weapons exposes as either rank stupidity or hypocrisy. Again a reality is invoked that does not and cannot exist.
Back to part 1
Forward to part 3
I’ve set out the Marxist position in relation to National and Imperialist Wars, and their interconnection, as described by Lenin and Trotsky here https://boffyblog.blogspot.com/2023/03/black-sea-incident-and-coming.html. Both Lenin and Trotsky describe the social imperialist position, and the use of “national independence” as “sophistry”.
Trotsky’s description of the Marxist position in relation to Czechoslovakia, previously linked to, is an almost exact parallel to the position in relation to Ukraine and Russia. But, Trotsky’s argument about opposing the use of “national independence” as cover, also applies equally well in relation to the social-imperialist arguments of the pro-Putin camp, who argue that its an oppressed state by NATO that should be defended.
Neither Lenin nor Trotsky had any truck with such nonsense.
I think you and your readers might be interested in this article by Trotsky – https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/10/czech01.htm.