Ukraine (5) – The role of Western Imperialism

http://www.voanews.com

In the debate between Gilbert Achcar of the Fourth International and Alex Callinicos of the International Socialist Tendency, Callinicos sets out what Achcar’s view is on what constitutes an anti-imperialist war – ‘a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo)colonial domain of the other, as was very clearly in the First World War. It is a ‘war of rapine’ on both sides, as Lenin liked to call it.”

He then criticises this view – ‘This definition, which requires an inter-imperialist war to be one where both sides are seeking to conquer each other’s territory, doesn’t even fit the Second World War. British and French imperialism weren’t interested in seizing German territory, but in hanging onto their already overstretched empires. And Hitler wasn’t particularly interested in these. It was eastern Europe and the Soviet Union he was after.’

Callinicos finishes by saying that ‘The properly Marxist approach is to recognise that the present situation involves both an inter-imperialist war by proxy and a war of national defence on Ukraine’s part.’  It is not clear whether his proposed fight for national defence includes reconquering Crimea or the already separated parts of the Donbas.

Achcar writes that ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the second defining moment of the New Cold War in which the world has been plunged since the turn of the century as a result of the US decision to expand NATO.’  Yet this ‘defining moment’ of a new Cold Ward is held not to define the war in Ukraine, the veritable front-line within it.  Still, he does not shy away from stating its importance, even if he gets the nature of it completely wrong: ‘the fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression.’

He opposes NATO ‘boots on the ground or the imposition of a No-Fly Zone from a distance’ and states that as a matter of general principle, he is against direct military intervention by any imperialist force anywhere. Asking for one of them to clash with another is tantamount to wishing for a world war between nuclear powers, he says.  Indeed so, but are we not also opposed to indirect ‘military intervention by any imperialist force anywhere’?  Not according to Achcar.

In a further article Achcar answers the following question – ‘Wouldn’t Ukraine’s standing up against the Russian invasion benefit NATO?’ – by saying ‘“so what?” Our support to peoples fighting imperialism shouldn’t depend on which imperialist side is backing them.’  To which the only rational answer is – how can a people be said to be ‘fighting imperialism’ when it is backed by a rival imperialism? And here, to be specific, we are talking about an independent capitalist state seeking to join by far the largest imperialist alliance!

In reply to the further question ‘Isn’t the ongoing war an inter-imperialist war?’ he answers:

‘If any war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival were called an inter-imperialist war, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side. An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy. . .’

Since he believes that only a direct war between the US/NATO and Russia (and presumably China) is an inter-imperialist war then he must believe we have not seen an inter-imperialist war since World War II, and not between these protagonists, also perhaps excluding the Korean War in which China could hardly be considered imperialist but Russia was involved, leaving aside the question whether this too could be seen as imperialist since it was part of the Soviet Union.  

Since indirect intervention in Ukraine is not an imperialist war then all the too numerous to mention indirect wars, not to mention covert actions, by the US and others must not be considered imperialist war either.  From concern that we label too many wars as imperialist, which is itself rather strange if we consider imperialism to dominate the world, he has arrived at his happy conclusion that very few wars can be characterised as imperialist.

His response might be that one-sided imperialist interventions may be cited as imperialist wars but his argument is about an inter-imperialist war, although in the case of the war in Ukraine such a response would fail his argument.

Of course, the scope and scale of indirect imperialist intervention is relevant to considering whether and to what extent a particular war can be considered imperialist and thereby its political salience.  But this applies to Ukraine in which it is impossible to argue that both Russia and the US/NATO are not involved.  The sheer scale of Western imperialist intervention in Ukraine does not permit its intervention to be considered secondary. 

The major Western powers have publicly supplied over $14 billion in military aid, which is over two times the defence budget of nearly $6 bn of Ukraine in 2021, and excludes other promised funding nearly three times this amount, and no doubt other military support that has not been openly revealed.  Since these words were written Biden has promised even more lethal aid.  In addition, unprecedented sanctions must be regarded as war by other means and have historically preceded open conventional warfare.

The military aid follows years of increasing cooperation with NATO including training of its armed forces, their participation in the NATO occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and military exercises with NATO forces within the country. The US has directly impacted on the war through intelligence and real-time targeting of Russian forces and assets while it would be naive to believe that Western special forces have not been inside the country during the war.

The view that we are not witnessing an imperialist proxy war can lead to blindness to the assistance already given, both visible and hidden, and to the real possibility of escalation, which is at increased risk given what has already been committed.  It should already be noted that the nature of the weapons delivered by the US and other NATO powers is increasing in power and sophistication with the potential for fighter aircraft to be provided now under consideration. The debate is therefore not simply about an academic political characterisation of the war.  

Unfortunately, it is to be expected that much of the pro-war left will follow Western imperialist escalation, as it already has, not only because this is the logic of their political position of prioritising support to the Ukrainian State but because of an acquired emotional commitment. One only has to note Facebook posts in which so-called Marxists proclaim their gloating over Ukrainian advances to realise what counts for those with this commitment.

A recent examination of the potential routes to further escalation notes the following:

‘A Ukrainian law recently signed by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy gives Polish citizens the rights similar to those of Ukrainian citizens. This could serve as legal cover for thousands of Polish soldiers to enter Ukraine, don Ukrainian uniforms, and using NATO-supplied Western equipment begin fighting against Russia’s forces. When proof of any such gambit emerges – as it inevitably will – Russia could decide to hit Polish targets in response, bringing NATO into the war more directly in one form or another.’

The writer notes that ‘The Kharkiv advance was organized on the basis of: NATO training of tens of thousands of Ukrainian forces; massive Western weapons supplies to Kiev (e.g., see https://www.ustranscom.mil/cmd/usp.cfm); the NATO Central Command’s and Western intelligence’s deep embeddedness into the Ukrainian forces; NATO-designed counteroffensive tactics, strategy, and plan; large numbers of former Western soldiers and officers participating in the operation; possible participation of Polish officers and troops . . .  Retired former U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor has asserted that NATO officers form a military staff that is directing much of the Ukrainian war strategy and tactics.’

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Forward to part 6

What sort of Anti-War Campaign (3) – Not against the war but for victory?

Graphic from The Economist

Opposition to the Russian invasion to the exclusion of all other causes of the war rests upon the view that there has been an aggressive invasion of Ukraine and its people have the right to defend themselves. This cardinal fact supersedes consideration of all issues before the invasion occurred.

In doing so, while thinking (correctly) that the Russian regime is brutal and reactionary, and the invasion should be opposed; the Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR) group also believes (wrongly) that by this simple fact their support for the Ukrainian state is justified, which includes, whether it likes it or not, this state’s alliance with western imperialism.   

This could easily be countered by pointing to Ukraine’s continuing campaign against the separate Donbass regime which preceded the invasion, and its rejection of the Minsk agreement; the NATO military exercises in Ukraine last year that represent increasing de facto membership; changes to the constitution by Zelensky in 2019 to allow de jure membership, and typical Ukrainian oligarchic regime attacks against rival pro-Russian figures inside the country that threaten support for continuing Russian influence.  However, the argument of the ACR doesn’t go any further than the first observation of the Russian invasion.

This is unsustainable since it abstracts from the world before the moment of invasion and comes apart as questions arise from continuation of the war after it. Is western imperialist intervention really irrelevant when it is pressing the Zelensky regime to reject potential Russian peace deals and is supplying the military support to allow it to continue the war?  Is it still a just war to recover territory that it is unlikely would be supported by the local population? Would a war pursued in order to recover Crimea be a just war and be supported?

The leaflet given out by the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group and placed on its web site states that Ukraine has suffered an invasion from Russian imperialism.  Regardless of whether this is strictly accurate according to some definition written years ago by Lenin, we can say that Russia is by and large a primary commodity producer with limited productive forces but with many nuclear weapons and a strategic interest in its neighbouring countries, primarily because of the much stronger imperialist forces increasingly surrounding it.

None of this justifies the invasion or negates socialist opposition to it – it is an entirely reactionary action that will further divide Ukrainian workers, divide these workers from Russian workers and facilitate the whipping up of pro-imperialist sentiment among workers in the West; although to a lesser extent elsewhere in the world among those who might see themselves as potential future victims of Western imperialism.

Socialists do not accept capitalist states’ strategic interests as justification for such invasion but seeking to understand the nature of the war requires that we recognise it.  Even the leaflet from the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group states that ‘Ukraine is being torn apart by imperialist powers’ implying that it is subject to aggression by more than one imperialism.

Ukraine is not an oppressed colony but became legally independent in 1991 and without the debts accumulated by the Soviet Union.  It contained numerous nuclear weapons on its territory and sought to bargain them for political and economic advantage. It ultimately surrendered them because both the US and Russia wanted them removed.  In other words, it was an independent capitalist state that came under political and economic pressure to surrender its most threatening weapons.

This makes a nonsense of the argument of the leaflet that ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure.’  How on earth is this supposed to be achieved?  Or is this a utopian and reactionary argument for all smaller capitalist powers to grab onto in order to win favour from some leftist groups?

Ukraine has been ruled by oligarchs from its first steps to independence, both by old nomenklatura and newly minted capitalists alongside criminal organisations, and all sorts of combinations between them.  Western imperialism has attempted to impose its own will through international financial institutions such as the IMF while the local oligarchs have employed western financial institutions to dodge taxes, launder money, steal from the Ukrainian state and shift money on and off-shore as it suits their interests.  Their employment of the machinery of a corrupt state has allowed them to expand their ownership and wealth through privatisation and tax evasion so that the debts to the West are paid by the taxes of the working class.  Russian gas has been used to gain enormous corrupt rents to fund both their economic and political power.

Given this use of the Ukrainian state by oligarchs to protect their wealth and political power, despite the encroachment of western multinationals, it makes a nonsense to demand of Ukrainian and other workers that they should seek to defend the independence of this rotten and corrupt state.  But that is what these ‘Marxists’ advocate.

Of course, the ability of the Ukrainian state to balance its own interests against those of its much more powerful neighbours is limited and has a shelf-life.  The oligarchs themselves have been split, and the greater power of Western imperialism has meant that it has more and more incorporated the country into its sphere of influence and projection of power.

This has involved steps to join the EU and also NATO, with collaboration between Ukraine and NATO armed forces.  It has sent its own troops on Western imperialist adventures as a gesture of solidarity and wants full membership, which Russian capitalism naturally sees as aggressive.  

Why wouldn’t it?  NATO is an aggressive imperialist alliance because imperialism is aggressive.  The only way to present Russia as the only relevant imperialist power in the war is to pretend that this isn’t true.  And true to form the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group (ACR) has placed on its web site arguments that this isn’t always true or doesn’t really matter . . . which we will come to in a later post.

It is simply an unsustainable position to demand of workers and socialists across the world that they defend weaker capitalist powers from imperialist attack when these too are part of the world imperialist system and seek to further integrate themselves into its most powerful alliance.  But that is what the position of the ACR amounts to in its demands in favour of Ukrainian ‘self-determination’.  And this isn’t new: the argument has been used by NATO in relation to a number of countries in order to expand across Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

As has been said on the blog before – the demand for self-determination does not apply in the way the ACR thinks it does.  It is a bourgeois democratic demand that goes no further than the capitalist order and when it comes to choosing between two capitalist powers, or different imperialist alliances, one is not preferable to the other. To do so would subordinate workers to a particular capitalist state and prevent the real self-determination that is required – that of the working class that must unite across national borders.

Pressed between two larger capitalist powers the Ukrainian state has attempted to navigate between them in its own interest but has fallen to the side of the stronger.  The independent power of this oligarchic and corrupt state is not the concern of workers and socialists except in so far as we wish to destroy it.  The only answer for Ukrainian workers is not to subordinate itself to its own state or support its alliance with Western imperialism but to assert its own class interests, which are also those of Russian and other European workers.

This however requires an independent working class policy, not supporting the self-determining power of the Ukrainian state.  This includes separate organisation to defend itself in the invasion through separate political and military organisation in such maximal forms as can be created in the circumstances.  But this requires rejection of the political position that one must subordinate oneself to the Ukrainian state in its war against Russia, which is what the ACR position involves.

The political formulas of this group that elide class distinctions do not prevent Ukrainian capitalism or its state from enforcing its class interests, it simply puts to sleep the idea that Ukrainian workers must continue to defend theirs against Ukrainian capitalism and its state.  We have seen this already during this so-far short war, in attacks by the Government on workers’ rights and the banning of opposition parties that are considered ‘left’, and follows attacks on rival media sources to the President, including independent journalists and activists.

The oligarchs and its political representatives have employed increasingly right wing nationalism to protect its role, directed against the threat from the East, all the while seeking incorporation into the Western imperialist system.

The ACR solidarity campaign simply supports these developments by parroting nationalist principles while wishing that the Ukraine state was less subordinated to the stronger imperialist powers.  The former has been employed to subordinate the Ukrainian working class while the latter is not only impossible and reactionary, but again represents the interests of the country’s capitalist class.

Nationalism is the refuge of a discredited Ukrainian capitalist class that employs the language of patriotism and anti-communism, that glorifies some of the worst historical figures in the country’s history, and in doing so legitimises today’s far right nationalists and fascists.  These are the expression of a capitalist state that deserves no support but which some socialists have come to defend.

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Forward to part 4

What sort of Anti-War Campaign (2) – A broad campaign?

Photograph Irish Times

In the previous post I argued that the argument for an anti-war campaign set out in this article is wrong and beset by numerous problems. So let’s consider its statements that demonstrate the accuracy of this judgment:

‘Our priority is how to mobilise the majority of people in Britain who recognize the reactionary nature of Putin so that we can build the biggest possible movement in solidarity with Ukraine. Secondly we need to organise the biggest possible audience for voices from Ukraine. Once we have achieved that we can then talk to them about the reactionary nature of NATO.’

So, the task is first to appeal to all those opposed to Putin and then tell them how awful NATO is.  Why?

Why would you not have a campaign against NATO and then try to tell them how awful Putin is?

Would it be because this would be more difficult or is it because the political analysis and principles that have ‘not’ informed their ‘shopping list of demands’ means that you have to oppose Putin first and then talk about NATO?  And why even talk about NATO since the reason opposition to Putin is prioritised is because NATO is completely secondary, if not irrelevant, to this particular war, at least according to their analysis?

But not only would a newly-found audience not appreciate being rounded up on false pretences, and be opposed to lessening Putin’s responsibility – so are the authors of the strategy!  The only justification to parrot support for ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ etc. is if they are not part of a de facto imperialist alliance with NATO and NATO has no responsibility for the actions of Russian imperialism – the mad, bad Mr Putin.

So, it is not the case that the political demands of the campaign are diluted in order to con an audience into the theatre; it is because this is the objective of the campaign – to oppose the Russian invasion and absolve the Ukrainian state and western imperialism of responsibility for a war that this state is fighting and NATO is supporting.  

It’s not that it isn’t smart politics to target NATO, but that NATO should not be the target.  It’s why such a campaign can avoid such inconveniencies as Ukraine being a capitalist state and a tool of imperialism in the conflict, and the fact that its armed forces even contain fascist units.  This latter point is secondary the authors might say.  And so it is, but only if what is primary is the capitalist nature of the state.  If the issue is defence of some sort of bourgeois democracy then fascist units are an issue of primary importance, not just to the workers of the Donbas etc but to Ukrainian workers as well. 

But the authors admit to a problem before they coral the audience into the theatre:

‘Anti-Capitalist Resistance has consistently presented views from Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans. But it would be much better if those views could reach the millions who already consider Putin reactionary (we would almost certainly need to clarify what exactly they mean by that; there are so many possible interpretations).’

Unfortunately many Ukrainian voices want a NATO imposed no-fly zone, risking a third world war; should the organisation amplify these views because they are Ukrainian?  Ukrainians come in all shapes and sizes, just like everyone else, and there are some voices socialists don’t need to hear never mind promote.  This is because there are different classes in Ukraine and different political forces representing them, which all talk about ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ covers over.

But a major problem is with the statement that ‘our priority [is]. . . to mobilise the majority of people in Britain who recognise the reactionary nature of Putin so that we can build the biggest possible movement . . .’ and their awareness that while people dislike Putin and think he is reactionary, this means that ‘we would almost certainly need to clarify what exactly they mean by that; there are so many possible interpretations.’

Some people might dislike Putin because he is ‘a communist’, a Russian, a criminal or used to be a KGB agent.  In these cases, they might be reactionary themselves; xenophobic, concerned about the integrity of the Russian state and not particularly its foreign behaviour, or dislike the particular clique that he has surrounded himself with.  Opposition to Putin is therefore no basis for an anti-war campaign; it clarifies nothing and leads nowhere except to amplify the prevailing imperialist narrative.

Above all it indicates no specific working class interest in the war.  Why would there be an independent interest of the British working class if none exists in Ukraine; the campaign, remember, is in solidarity with ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’, all without class distinction.

Opposition to Putin is also the policy the British state and its Government which therefore has stronger credentials in terms of solidarity – it is after all arming and training ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’.  Who needs a small lefty solidarity campaign when ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ calls for more weapons and more sanctions and Boris Johnson says yes.

The campaign called for by the article is already redundant, which is why they are ‘concerned at the small size of the anti-war protests’ and complain that ‘protests have been small and often divided.’  This is despite their acknowledgement that there has been widespread action and support for ‘Ukraine’ motivated by the Government, political parties and the propaganda campaign of the mass media, which also employs the language of ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian people’ and doesn’t require the language of class.

In such circumstances the solidarity proposed appears to most people be what it really is (so doesn’t require ‘all those fine analyses [that] will have no impact outside a narrow group of lefties’), which is simply a left wing variant of mainstream bourgeois thinking propagated by their political leaders and media; in objective terms western bourgeois solidarity with its fellow capitalist Ukrainian state and its ruling class. One that will help varnish the moral claims of all involved.

As the authors implicitly admit, were the campaign bigger there could be no way of determining what the motivation of any of their particular demonstrations were, given that ‘we would almost certainly need to clarify what exactly they mean . . . there are so many possible interpretations’, which brings us to another problem – the determination ‘to include the broadest number of people’.  

All the problems above are the result of deliberately seeking not to create a specifically working-class campaign but instead a broad campaign that is so deliberately wide it is in effect a cross-class one that eschews class demands.

In part this is totally unconscious because it has been the method employed by the left for decades.  The authors refer approvingly to the Iraq anti-war campaign and note the participation of pro-NATO Liberals and pacifists on its platforms.  The ultimate confusion is created by pretending you can oppose imperialist war while supporting the imperialists!

This campaign was a great success by the authors yardstick but it was still a failure.  The movement was once described to me by the late US socialist Gerry Foley as ‘like some mid-Western rivers – a mile wide and an inch deep.’  They denoted no general radicalisation and therefore no reason for western Governments to worry about their decision and the potential threat to themselves created by mass mobilisation.  I remember trying to sell a socialist paper in the middle of the road on the biggest London demonstration as hundreds of thousands walked past and never sold in double figures.

The war itself did not teach the participants any deep political lessons and the demands of the anti-war movement were almost guaranteed to ensure it.  Despite excited talk before the demonstration that we had to be out there to approach the mass audience with our ideas and our papers, those ideas had already been declared entirely secondary by the demands of the campaign and its open door to supporters of imperialism but not their war.

Not only did the mass of participant learn no lessons but neither did the socialists.  The article asks:

‘How do we mobilise the biggest number of people so that we have an audience where we can put forward our respective arguments about the nature of Putin’s Russia or the role of NATO.’

The method is entirely wrong, and while pretending to be non-sectarian is actually the opposite.  It forgets that the campaign is not a means of creating an audience for small left groups to deliver the ‘real message’ (as it might be put) but is the message.  In other words, the campaign is the means to organise to speak to British workers and the mechanism by which socialists explain the character of the war, why it must be opposed, who the enemy is and what their class interests are. It isn’t the audience, it’s the means by which we communicate to the audience – the working class.

The political lessons we want to teach are not the preserve of potential recruits to small left wing groups but are something the vast majority of British workers must learn and can only learn from mass activity.  The role of Marxists is to build the working class movement and to infuse it with socialism.  It is not to lead it by the nose by recruiting a ‘vanguard’ that can be put in the know about what is really going on.

With its inability, in any case, to set out an independent working class position on the war this is less important and is actually a silver lining on the cloud.  The cloud however is that the platform of this proposed campaign against war – through being against the Russian invasion by way of dislike for Putin – aligns with the policy of the British ruling class and its state and commercial mass media.  Through this class’s alignment with NATO, US imperialism and then the Ukrainian state, the putative anti-war campaign has taken one side in a war when opposition to it requires opposition to both.

Back to part 1

Foward to part 3

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces should be opposed by all socialists.  It will deliver death and destruction and strengthen division between the workers of each country; not to mention division within Ukraine between its majority and Russian-speaking populations, and within Russia and its millions of Ukrainian residents.

Initial reports are of opposition by many Russians to the invasion and this must be supported by workers everywhere.  If we seek to support these voices we must not rally to our own ruling classes and states in their aggression towards Russia, which will inevitably hit ordinary Russians most rather than the oligarchs who have been so royally entertained in the West for so long.

We must oppose NATO and its expansionism and demand no Western involvement in the war.  The future of Russia must lie in its workers opposing the repression of Ukraine, which will be a foil to resistance to their repression from their own state.  They will bear the cost of the war in the lives of their fathers, sons and brothers and the cost of bombs, shells and missiles as well as incurring the wider enmity created.

Similarly in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian people have the right to defend themselves and to seek support from Russian workers and workers in the West, they need to ask what sort of state and Government it is that has led them into this war.  The higher living standards of the West have understandably attracted many in Ukraine, but the route to economic and social unity with the West does not lie through an alliance with NATO, which has demonstrated its aggressive and war-like nature in Afghanistan, in Libya and previously in Europe.

The promise of independence of Ukraine within NATO was a promise that could not be kept and could exist only as an increasing threat to Russia.  NATO membership would simply make Ukraine a hostage to NATO – in reality US – foreign policy and its intentions. This does not excuse the Russian invasion but damns the policy of the Ukrainian Government and the lies of Western powers.

Self-determination for Ukraine today means opposition to the war and to NATO.  At some point the fighting will stop but it will not be the Ukrainian people who will determine their future, just as the prelude to war has involved the US, EU and China arguing over their fate.  Real self-determination can only be accomplished by the unity of the peoples of the region, of Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Europe as a whole.  Who will achieve this?

Only the working people of Ukraine and Russia have an interest in denying the territorial ambitions of their respective states and ruling classes.  Only they have a joint purpose in removing their own corrupt governments from power and denying their wider geo-political ambitions.  The so-called end of the cold war and the Soviet Union has demonstrated that war is intrinsic to the existing regimes in both Russia and the West, and of most benefit to its strongest power the United States. The demand for peace will be hollow if it does not recognise this glaring fact of recent history.

In Ireland we are asked to join the hypocrisy of Western powers with blood on their own hands, to oppose Russia in its copying their own actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia etc.  The call to join NATO is getting louder and the demand for a bigger Irish military is now prominent.  Ukraine has demonstrated that neither of these is a contribution to peace or security.

The unity of the peoples of Eurasia can only be achieved over the body of capitalist state rivalry and the billionaires and oligarchs who have benefited from the existing political and economic system. The working class movement of each country must reject the aggressive policies of its own states and leaders and seek to build real unity of its working people.

Against the War! Against the invasion! For immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine!  No to NATO! For the unity of working class people – Workers of the World Unite!

see also here