The War in Ukraine (3) – a right to self-defence?

An argument related to the demand that Ukraine should be supported on the grounds of national self-determination is a general argument that there is a right to self-defence, although this is a no more cogent argument than that deriving from a claim to self-determination.  The civilian population of Donetsk could claim the same right to defend themselves from increased attacks by the Ukrainian military just before 24 February 2022, and the population of Crimea and Donbas more generally have the same right against the plans of the Ukrainian state to conquer and reoccupy their territories.  By demanding membership of NATO the Ukrainian state has given validity to assertion of this same right by the Russian state to defend itself and its supporters in these areas.  Lacking any class basis those supporting either Ukraine or Russia can, and do, parrot the same arguments that thus expose each other to the same rejoinder and counterclaim.

This argument is not to say that at the level of individual Ukrainians it is not permissible for them to defend themselves, but what the pro-war left is proposing is political support to the Ukrainian state and armed forces that are carrying out the fighting.  This is how those Ukrainians who are fighting for their state see it, expressed in nationalist terms as defence of their country.  But as Marxists maintain, countries are not united and the interests of the different classes composing it are antagonistic. At the level of individuals, it has made more sense to leave the county or relocate, as millions have done, and as we have noted before, those nearer the front line are more in favour of peace than those further away cheering for victory.

In other words, this claim that seems so straightforward, and may even appear to be so at the level of the individual, does not exist, and what we need is what we set out at the start – 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.

The reliance on an abstract right to self-defence is empty since socialists recognise no such right for the capitalist class or its state, which is why the support for the latter by the Second International was recognised as such a historical betrayal in August 1914.  What its twenty-first century imitators repeat is the lack of any principled Marxist position, retreating to the refuge of abstract moralism, which Marxists, going back as far as Marx himself, find repugnant because behind it lies the interests of the capitalist class–presented as universal truths–universal precisely because everyone, from right to left, can espouse them.

So, what we are left with are vacuous moral statements that don’t amount to an argument – that invasions are bad, that the Russians are aggressive and cruel and human rights must be protected.  That a Ukrainian invasion of Crimea would be bad, that the demand for NATO membership is aggressive and that Ukrainian fascists can hardly be trusted not to be cruel and deny human rights, are all objections to such claims.  It could be argued that the first catalogue of Russian immorality is what counts but that requires argument that the Ukrainian one doesn’t, (or perhaps doesn’t even exist if the western media is to be believed). But it’s obvious that occupation of Crimea would involve violence and oppression, that NATO is an aggressive imperialist alliance, that fascist units exist in the Ukrainian armed forces and that these armed forces are not the first to abide strictly by the laws of war.

So much of the argument in support of Ukraine is therefore based on arguments which dissolve when attached to concrete reality, only to return in abstract moral declarations.  We are not therefore on the terrain of Marxist analysis and Marxist politics, which explains why it is impossible for this left to take such a position.  It is why their arguments are so similar to that of western imperialism, its politicians, think tanks and media commentators, and their solutions so aligned.  

Marxism is thus utterly unnecessary and irrelevant to the arguments of the pro-war Left, all of which can be repeated without any reference to it, something that has escaped them.  There are no grounds presented for even the theoretical unity of all the workers of Ukraine and Russia; their support for war involves their unity with Ukrainian capitalism and western imperialism, something that doesn’t escape their notice but the significance of which does.

If successful, the victory of Ukraine, US imperialism and its NATO satraps would mean the occupation of areas where they are rejected by the local population and will see Ukraine subject to the tender mercies of western imperialism.  To expect ‘a more just and democratic post-war reconstruction’ from this partnership that they have supported is the height of naivety, if not stupidity.

The pro-war left claims ‘that If we are not seen to be on the side of the people of Ukraine, then the only voices they will hear will be those of western imperialists, not those of the socialists and internationalists.’ But if these so-called ‘socialist and internationalist’ voices are saying the same thing as the western imperialists, and they are, why should anyone care?

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1 thought on “The War in Ukraine (3) – a right to self-defence?

  1. Reading Trotsky on China, I am struck by the extent to which the arguments of the pro-war Left echo the arguments of the Stalinists and Bucharinists during that period, in relation to China and their support of the KMT.

    Trotsky notes that Bukharin claimed that the fight against imperialism by a colony, automatically made the bourgeoisie of the colonial country more progressive than the bourgeoisie of a non-colonial country. Trotsky says not only is this nonsense, and not at all what Lenin had argued, but that, in fact, the bourgeoisie in colonies and semi-colonies was generally more reactionary, crude and brutal than that of non-colonies, including of imperialist states.

    But, this concept, and around it of “anti-imperialist” struggle, Trotsky notes, Bukharin and Stalin developed the notion of “the bloc of four classes”, which is also the foundation of the Popular Front. Bukharin and Stalin claimed that the consequence of imperialist oppression was to forge the interests of all classes into one national interest. That is what the pro-war Left argue, whether they use it to support their argument to support Ukraine against Russian imperialism, or conversely o support Russia against US/NATO imperialism.

    The corollary of this, in China, was to support the KMT government, just as Stalin had argued support for the government of Kerensky, and later agued support for the Popular Front government in Spain. To do so, the Chinese Communists not only had to subordinate their own interests, and those of the working-class to the KMT, but the rue reactionary nature of the KMT had to be denied, just as the pro-war Left, particularly in relation to Ukraine do today.

    Even when Trotsky warned of the dangers of the KMT, and of subordinating the Chinese workers and communists to it, the Stalinists denied it, and attacked the Trotskyists instead. Within weeks of the warning the KMT murdered thousands of communist workers in Shanghai. Even then the Stalinists refused to accept they had made a mistake – much the same could be said about the way large sections of the Left gave support to the Vietnamese Stalinists, and to the Khomeniites in Iran – and simply applied the same approach to the so called Left Kuo Min Tang. All of these elements can be seen in the approach of the pro-war Left.

    Following the massacre of the Communists, which represented a huge setback for the revolutionary wave, the Stalinists claimed that this was all part of a process of “permanent revolution”, except this concept of PR was not that of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Instead, it was a concept in which once revolution is on the agenda, it becomes permanent, and simply flows through periods of rise and fall, one revolution, and setback being followed by another and another. Of course, that just rationalised the error and the huge defeat, and the Stalinists even tried to claim that following the massacre and defeat their numbers had increased substantially via new recruits!

    In fact, as Trotsky said, what the defeat really meant, as with the defeat in Germany in 1923, was that the question of revolution itself had been taken off the front burner for some time. The Stalinists claimed that this was “defeatism”. They needed to redefine permanent revolution to explain the defeat, and to fit their “stages theory”, and its requirement to support the bourgeoisie whether represented by the KMT of Chiang or the Left KMT. The perspective was not permanent revolution, but a bourgeois revolution, which only after it has been consolidated can be taken forward to socialist revolution.

    This same argument can be found in the USC, for example, where they make the same arguments for supporting bourgeois democracy, on the basis of merely creating space within which workers can operate. But, the whole point of permanent revolution is to reject the stages theory, to build up the independent forces of the proletariat, even as it fights alongside, but separated from other class forces for bourgeois freedoms to the extent they don’t exist, but does so using proletarian methods of struggle, proletarian organs such as defence squads, workers’ militia, and where possible soviets. PR requires the communists not to support bourgeois democracy, but to expose it as a sham, even though they say to the workers not yet convinced of that, they will support their struggle for it, so as to show them in action, that it is a sham.

    The communists use that bourgeois democracy not as a means of gaining breathing space, but in order to expose it, to denounce it, and to draw the workers away from it, and towards the building of, or dominance of soviets. The permanent nature of the revolution flows from this counterposing of workers’ interests and workers democracy to bourgeois democracy from day 1. The only right of defence we recognise is the right of workers self defence, and history shows that such defence requires the workers to remain separate from the bourgeoisie and its state, because once the bourgeoisie see the workers as a threat, then as in China, Spain and elsewhere, they will turn on their own workers, irrespective of any other threat.

    Already, the Ukrainian capitalists, no doubt buoyed by the support they are receiving from some western social-democrats, are already engaged in such action against their own workers, via a restriction of their trades union and civil rights, and that is before those Ukrainian workers pose any threat to it. The USC argument is based on the fantasy of a war conducted by Ukrainian workers, but if any such situation did arise, you can be sure that Zelensky and his NATO backers would be soon to see the danger it presented to them, and would make it their prime objective to smash it, including, if required doing a deal with Putin.

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