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?
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.
“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.
When the war in Ukraine broke out the Western powers rushed to supply weapons to the Ukrainian state, which became the purported bearer of freedom for the whole of Europe, if not the rest of the world because much of the rest of the world understood that the United States and Europe were not defenders of freedom.
In Ireland the government parties floated the idea of the state joining NATO so it too could supply weapons, but the rapid response by the Irish people showed that this idea was very unpopular and would require a lot more work to force through. After an apparent slight from Volodymyr Zelensky about the Irish contribution to the Ukrainian cause the government parties proclaimed that their contribution would be to provide a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Very quickly government ministers were predicting that as many as 200,000 Ukrainian refugees were to be supplied with accommodation, which on the face of it seemed incredible. This was a government and state that had proved incapable of solving a homelessness problem of around 10,000, while massive house price increases had made buying one impossible for many, rents were astronomical, and much of the newly built housing stock was dangerous or becoming rapidly uninhabitable.
However an unprecedented propaganda campaign ensured that the cause of the Ukrainian state received much sympathy, and did so in Ireland, so much so that a state notorious for corruption and reactionary nationalism was embraced by almost everyone from right-wing governments to much of the left. Ironically this left has just recalled thirty years since the massive anti-war demonstrations against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain etc. Today this left not only supports war but supports the US and Britain etc. supplying arms to ensure that the war continues to be fought, by a country that itself provided soldiers to occupy Iraq following the invasion.
Opposition to war has become support for war and opposition to western imperialism has become defence of western imperialism in its support for a state that wants to join its imperialist alliance. From the cause of death and destruction and oppression, these powers are accepted as defenders against these calamities, and the massive drive to rearmament has left this left trailing behind, endorsing the supply of weapons to its new ally while stuck with a past politics that recognises western imperialism as a prime source of war and oppression in the world. Of course, something will have to give here.
This is the first context to the refugee crisis in Ireland but one that was all but ignored by the demonstration in support of refugees in Dublin on Saturday, even though the massive increase in refugee numbers is mainly accounted for by Ukrainians. Not one of the left leaflets distributed at the demonstration mentioned the war, or so much as mentioned Ukraine, and I saw only one makeshift flag in Ukrainian colours, with no identifiable Ukrainian contingent on the demonstration.
The second context is the crises in housing and health services and stress on the provision of state services more generally. There is a valid argument that younger immigration will provide greater services than they will consume, but this will not immediately be the case and especially with so many Ukrainians being women with young children. Childcare costs can be extortionate in Ireland. When we also consider that refugee provision has been placed in mainly working class areas or in small rural towns, but not in more affluent and middle class areas, we can see why it would cause resentment Opinion polls have shown both support for refugees but also concern that the country has taken too many. There are also widespread complaints of lack of consultation with local communities before placing refugees in accommodation. Behind all this lies both valid complaints that there are inadequate services but also racism.
One reason why ‘war’ and ‘Ukraine’ was unmentioned at the demonstration is that the target of much racist invective, protest and attacks has been against non-Ukrainian asylum seekers. This includes men from Georgia and Albania, who have been particularly targeted. One can’t help but believe that were Georgia invaded by Russia or Albania by Serbia the Irish state would be proclaiming their needs and absolute requirement for emergency assistance.
The state and its governing parties have led the way into a crisis in which the far right and racist forces have mobilised in local areas to attack refugees and turn local people against them, with lurid stories of sexual harassment by refugees against Irish women and other racist tropes learnt from abroad. Irish people and existing asylum seekers have seen their demand for accommodation grow, and their needs be unmet, only to witness the government parties proclaim emergency measures to accommodate Ukrainian refugees.
The prioritisation of Ukrainians and creation of double standards when it comes to treatment of those seeking refuge in Ireland has not prevented the state’s efforts to assist Ukrainians from staggering from crisis to crisis with no evidence of the ability to create the required capacity in the short term or existence of a longer-term plan. This is not in the least surprising. The Irish state has failed to provide adequate housing for the pre-existing population and its health services have continually been in crisis. It has been silent on complaints that large numbers of refugees will not help this situation while it has all but ignored the full needs it has created.
It has therefore opened the door to racist and xenophobic arguments and agitation and has now started to row in behind them. It has promised to clamp down harder on asylum seekers while it proclaims the necessity to support more Ukrainian refugees, with the threat of more deportations of the former. It makes claims of their cheating to be here in the first place as a result ”criminal gangs”’ and human “traffickers”; makes statements denying that single men are being placed in accommodation, as if they were indeed the threat proclaimed by racists, and the new Taoiseach Varadkar has now declared that immigration policy must become “firm and hard”.
The real failure of the state and government parties to provide adequate state services is being blamed on refugees by the far right, which has not targeted the largest group of arrivals–Ukrainians fleeing war–but instead refugees who are not so obviously white and ‘deserving’. The state, on the other hand, has also declared these refugees uniquely deserving while it supports a war that has caused them to flee their homes in the first place, with continued support only promising more to follow. This combination is one more reactionary consequence of a reactionary war.
The demonstration on Saturday was called after increasing anti-immigrant protests by the far right that have grown in number, particularly noticeable because of their previous absence and the naive and stupid notion that the Irish (of all people!) were immune from the racism that has grown across Europe. I went down to it from Belfast to support it, see its size and its composition and because it was important to rebuff the mobilisations of the far right for whom control of the streets is a strategic objective. A large demonstration would signal where it stood in terms of such mobilisation and the terms on which the whole argument could be waged. A large demonstration of the left would not be enough to meet these requirements.
In the event the demonstration was larger than such a mobilisation, consisting of a wide cross-section of the population, from outside of the left or who it would normally be able to mobilise. In this it was impressive and just about achieved its purpose. It was not however, in my estimate and those of a couple of comrades, 50,000 strong, but perhaps just more than half that number. It was largely Dublin-based and did not have the predominantly working class composition of the water charges demonstrations or of the very large demonstration against austerity that followed the crash of the Celtic Tiger. It did however contain a significant number from ethnic minorities and from the left and some trade unions. These were predominantly its activists and not significant numbers from the trade union membership, which would have made it much larger.
The left has built itself an electoral base in Dublin and Cork and its grass-roots organisation should be well placed to defeat attempts by the far right to organise in local areas, but it is not quite as simple as that. Building an electoral base is not the same as building a movement. People before Profit seemed to be aware of this, as it faces defeat by Sinn Fein in the next elections, and its main message on the demonstration was for people to join it. Unfortunately, it is not an organisation with the capacity to contain a mass membership and an electoral base is not an organisational one. Its leaflet called for a left government and for everyone to support its legislative motion in the Dáil on housing, proposals that are hardly adequate.
Any left government will require a Sinn Fein leadership and its left credentials are threadbare, even if it may have the capacity and scope for some social-democratic measures. What such a government could not be is a working class one – but then a ‘left’ government does not have to be working class, the term ‘left’ in an Irish context does not imply very much. An organisation that thinks the role of working class activity is to support votes in parliament has got it arse about face. Other left leaflets pointed to the need for working class unity and for it to organise and mobilise, but this requires challenging the bureaucratic character and leadership of the trade unions and these left organisations neither prioritise this nor have the capacity to be exemplars of healthy democratic organisation themselves.
It also requires the correct political approach, and too much of the demonstration was an expression of liberalism and not socialist politics. Not so long ago the left exposed the inane character of abstract nouns, such as the ‘war on terror’ but now it appears not to object to the demand to oppose ‘hate’ or support ‘diversity’, as if there are not some things, such as racism, that should be hated. Supporting ‘diversity’ is a bit like declaring your support for gravity, it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t, it will still exist. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, a diverse number of racists would not be a step forward. If you want the opposite of division it is called unity, and then you need to say who should unite and for what purpose.
The rise of the far right has been prepared by the failure for years of the Irish State and government parties to provide adequate state services for the majority of the Irish people, and for its similar failure in relation to those refugees it has, and has not, encouraged to come to Ireland. Its policies have sewn the division between natives and refugees and between first class refugees who are white–and victims of a war it has supported–and those second class others seeking refuge who it has determined are a problem.
The crucial issues facing Irish workers, Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers are therefore the same with the same guilty forces responsible for their plight. Their common need should be clear, as is the need for working class unity and for working class organisation to express it. Many organisations supported the demonstration in Dublin on Saturday. Those with a commitment to the interests of the working class, including Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers, should form a united organisation that can provide a programme for further action at national and local level that offers not only opposition to the far right but an alternative.
Where does the current political crisis put the left? I can’t remember a time when it has been so divided, not only over the causes of a crisis but what to do about it. Brexit, Covid lockdowns and the Ukraine war have all contributed, as have years of printing money. Yet many on the left have supported Brexit, demanded more severe lockdowns, supported war and western sanctions, and it even has its fair share of proponents of Modern Monetary Theory.
Even the minimum of policies raises division: against austerity includes opposition to energy price increases, which can be solved by ending support for war and removing sanctions. Opposition to the threats to workers living standards, and attacks on democratic rights opened up by the threats of removing EU laws, can be advanced by opposing Brexit. This means giving focus to the awareness of the majority that Brexit has failed, by explaining the purpose of re-joining the EU.
The Labour Party isn’t going to fight for these because it has, like some on the left, supported all the steps that got us here. Some on the left have therefore said that it is better to face a weakened Tory government than a stronger Labour one committed to more or less the same agenda, so we shouldn’t call for a general election.
There are things wrong with this, although it has the merit of admitting that the left is chronically weak. This should give it pause to recognise just how close, or rather how far away, it is to leading any revolutionary change, and to considering just what the preconditions for this would be.
Opposition to the call for a general election may reveal the belief that your alternative is weak but the weakness of your enemy will not make up for it. Labour support for ‘balancing the books’, and therefore austerity, can easily permit their implementation by Sunak if he introduces the odd seemingly ‘fair’ implementation of pain, which would also prevent Labour from shouldering the blame. The effect of further Tory mistakes and division could either be to encourage opposition to austerity or usher in a Starmer government essentially wedded to the same project.
Calls for a general election to kick out the Tories should not be opposed but since we know that it’s not nearly enough the left should concentrate not on this but on what Marx would have called the momentary interests of the working class as well as its future.
This means supporting and generalising the strikes workers are taking to defend their living standards. It means politicising them, including with the demand to bring down the Tories with the purpose of also setting the expectations that will be placed on any alternative Government, including a Labour one. It means organising in the trade unions to make them more democratic, which is easier to do when workers are engaged in union activity, and building the grounds for longer term rank and file activity. It means similar activity in the Labour Party, and since this is mainly a defensive struggle against the leadership, it means defending existing rights and supporting the very few potential candidates who will get to stand in an election that support working class action.
If it is argued that the Labour Party is dead then such a view must be tested by the activity that can be organised within it; by the possibility of activating members and recruiting others through the strikes that are taking place, and some proof that the lessons of numerous attempts to organise a party outside it have been learnt. It’s not enough to say that numerous battles have been lost if it is not clear to thousands of Labour members that the war inside it is over and definitively lost. It’s not enough to propose some party that does not exist to something you claim is dead but will in some way have to be recognised as very much alive for millions who will vote for it.
Unity on the left is not enough. There is no point blindfolding ourselves to Brexit, which cannot, like Starmer hopes, simply be parked, but has to be opposed. Those who have supported it show no sign of recognising their mistake when it stares them in the face. Likewise, what is the point of demanding protection from the enormous increase in energy prices while supporting war and the sanctions that make it inevitable? The political struggle against these disastrous positions must continue.
The left, both in Britain and Ireland has put forward actions that the state must implement to address these problems: through nationalisation of energy companies, windfall taxes or price caps, increased state spending and taxation of the rich. All of these rely on the state doing what the working class needs to do itself, and the state doesn’t exist for this purpose. We have all just been given a huge lesson on who really controls society and what they are prepared to do even to a pro-capitalist Government that doesn’t play by its rules.
Nationalisation will not gain control over the supply of gas and oil so nationalising retail companies (known as suppliers in the industry) will not reduce prices; and you can’t nationalise companies in other countries. This is also the case in Ireland, where much of the industry is already nationalised. You certainly can’t nationalise Russian gas, but you can pay a lower price for it, if you argue it’s generally good practice to buy from the cheapest supplier.
You can’t continue to increase workers income from state payments to make up for inflation when the financial markets won’t even support unfunded tax cuts for the rich. While it’s an acceptable propaganda demand to increase taxation on the rich you won’t be able to make this the answer to the crisis. The underlying weakness of British capitalism is set to continue worsening, especially outside the EU, and redistribution of the tax burden isn’t going to change this.
The Tories have already overturned proposals to reverse corporation tax increases and there comes a point where significant increases would simply amount to a form of state capitalism, and one that is to the benefit of workers! That’s not the society we live in, or one that could possibly exist. Income taxes on the rich require a government to legislate it; require a capitalist class to accept it without shifting its incomes abroad, and a state willing to implement it. The British tax authorities have proved time and time again their willingness to indulge tax avoidance and evasion by corporations and the rich. Tax incentives are as much a part of the code as levies and these always apply to the rich; workers don’t need an incentive to work since it’s the only way they can afford a tolerable or decent standard of living.
The recent crisis of the British state’s creditworthiness was caused not by proposed tax cuts for the rich but by increased debt caused by income payments during the pandemic, and early predictions of a £150 billion bill for energy supports to energy companies in lieu of consumers paying. The idea that the financial markets will accept lending money to fill any gap left after screwing Britain’s rich, so that the incomes of the working class can be protected, ignores the political interests of the players involved in these markets. At the very least increased interest rates would be demanded if steps along this road were taken, which means they would get their pound of flesh one way or the other.
It makes no sense to offer alternatives that depend on actions by the state when you also argue any possible government won’t introduce them. To paraphrase Marx again, the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself. So must the fight against austerity, the defence of living standards and against war.
Under capitalism the place of the working class is determined by its absence of property ownership – the means of producing goods and services. If you create these by your labour but don’t own them, you can’t expect to receive the revenue arising from them, and especially from a state that is there to defend existing property rights.
This means that the income of the working class comes overwhelmingly from wages and if these are being reduced through inflation the correct response is to increase them, including through strikes. The working class in many countries is now in the fortunate position of being in a period of low unemployment where it can take advantage of its position in the labour market to organise, demand wage increases and fight for them. The longer term perspective is to take ownership of the means of production, and thus of the goods and services produced, so it can determine the distribution of the incomes derived from their use and sale. In this it will obviously come up against the state determined to defend the rights of existing ownership.
It should be axiomatic for the left that the benevolence of the state is not the answer. It takes the workers’ own money and then decides how much of it to give back, to whom and for what purpose. It also borrows, then taxes workers to repay the borrowing. In all this it buys the goodwill of workers with their own money, pretending it is that of the government. The problem of lack of income then becomes one of demanding that the state gives you more, in the form of lower taxes, higher welfare and pensions, payments for not working (as in Covid) or subsidies to pay energy bills.
This analysis derives from very basic understandings derived from Marxism that many of its adherents accept in theory only to forget in practice. The failure produces a phenomenon not unknown to Marx.
It produces an inverted reality in which workers seek salvation in actions by the instrument of their subordination. It illustrates the grain of truth in accusations of the right that welfare dependency creates a culture of dependency, of which the politics of much of the left is a demonstration. It is indeed ironic that the right often betrays a better appreciation of the role of the state than many self-described socialists.
This state-centred socialism has resulted in support for Brexit because it is believed that somehow the British state can be relied upon to be more progressive than any European one, and can become the vehicle to introduce socialism.
It fuelled demands for more stringent lockdowns during the pandemic because the state can miraculously give people money to buy goods and services it then prevents them from making and providing.
It now results in support for a notoriously corrupt capitalist state and its armed forces because it supposedly embodies the interests of Ukrainian workers; indeed the workers of the world, even while it acts on behalf of the most powerful states, together forming what is customarily called imperialism.
From all this we can see that the task of the left in assisting the British working class in the current political crisis needs some work itself. A lot of work.
Much of the argument over the war in Ukraine hits their target but misses the most essential point.
So, it is important to know that the historical demand for self-determination argued by Lenin does not provide support to those who want to support the Ukrainian state and its victory in the war.
It’s vital to understand that the massive role of the United States and NATO in provoking and affecting the course of the war also determines the war’s character.
It is important to be aware of the wider agenda of the United States, which wants to diminish Russia, and necessarily therefore achieve a change of regime in order to encircle China and also diminish it – as the only state capable of seriously challenging US hegemony.
It is instructive to appreciate the role of ultranationalism in Ukraine, which countless photographs of fascist iconography on display by the Armed Forces of Ukraine makes impossible to deny, or so you might think.
It is also necessary to understand that there is nothing progressive about the Russian state or its invasion and that this necessitates opposition to it. To do otherwise, because Western imperialism also opposes it, is to accept that it is impossible for the working class to have an independent policy and that some indispensably correct positions must in effect be voluntarily surrendered. It’s origin arises partially from some similar considerations of the pro-war, pro-Ukraine left who abandon the socialist programme because we can only currently fight for it with weak forces, which means, of course, that these will always remain weak.
It is, finally, important to understand what constitutes imperialism so that we can understand how the world works, the better to change it.
However, as important as these all are, the most important issue to understand is that the working class must identify and fight for its own interests including against the various states of the capitalist class, which are weapons to defend their system. It is necessary to form a separate party of the working class to advance this understanding, including that such understanding categorically rules out support for any capitalist state, not only in war but especially in war. This means that it is impermissible to support either the Ukrainian or Russian state and every attempt to do so is bogus and a gross betrayal.
We all know that this has not stopped large numbers of self-described socialists from supporting the Ukrainian state; defending the role of NATO when not actually supporting it; ignoring the wider agenda of the imperialist hegemon; minimising or simply ignoring the reactionary ideology of the Ukrainian state, and claiming that the interests of the working class in a war that now defines world politics is aligned with fascist fighters in Ukraine, the Ukrainian state and US imperialism and its NATO allies.
You would think that some extraordinary arguments would need to be employed to make such a case remotely plausible. That it is not remotely credible is proved by the poverty of the arguments put forward in support of it, many of which have been addressed in previous posts. What this implies is that much of what describes itself as left, radical left, anti-capitalist or even Marxist is nothing of the sort, and no wailing about politically sectarian argumentation can wash away the significance of the division that now exists.
A friend sent me a link to an article that presented itself as a summary of the leftists who are actively supporting the Ukrainian state. What is noteworthy is their immediate emphasis on arming it:
‘Mick Antoniw and a group of British trade unionists went to Ukraine to deliver a car, military equipment and medical supplies to Ukrainian trade unionists currently in the Armed Forces.’
‘The statement calls, in particular, for the supply of military equipment and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as for the country’s foreign debt to be written off.’
‘As a reaction to the ‘pacifist’ left, the initiative has focused on promoting weapons supply, and solidarity with the people of Ukraine . . .‘
‘ENSU’s founders and members are opposed to all imperialisms, but support the right of oppressed peoples everywhere to seek military, economic and diplomatic support from their invader’s enemies.’
The authors make much of their opposition to imperialism but it is a strange sort of opposition that supports the intervention of the United States and NATO.
The Polish organisation has apparently distinguished itself by displaying its opposition to the country’s notoriously Russophobic political culture through having ‘unequivocally (sometimes even by Polish standards) taken a stance on the side of Ukrainians.’
From the text of the interviews it is clear that the solidarity of these associated groups comprises of the same analysis and perspective as most of the reactionary governments in the region:
‘This is an existential and fundamental issue. Not only for the Ukrainian left, but for the whole Eastern European and Nordic countries, for all countries that have been under the threat of Russian imperialism.’
‘This closeness of EE, Baltic and Nordic left is happening on the ground of the resistance to imperialism everywhere, solidarity with sovereign countries, with the people and working class who want to determine their own fate everywhere.’
So, the sovereignty of capitalist states; the ‘people’ and the ‘working class’ are all compatible, all allies in determining their own fate ‘everywhere’. So where in all this is opposition to the capitalist state, recognition of the division of ‘the people’ into classes, and identification of the separate interests of the working class?
The elimination of these independent interests leads to the witless belief that the capitalist state and ruling class will behave likewise and see things the same way. What else could be meant by the following?
‘We try to convince western left activists that Russia is in no way anti-imperialist and that Ukrainian society deserves our solidarity irrespective of our disagreement with the oligarchs or the ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals in the Ukrainian parliament. Unfortunately, some western leftists believe that only western imperialism is a problem, so their solidarity with Ukraine is weak if not absent.’
We are meant to support ‘Ukraine’ even if we disagree (is that all?) with those who own it, rule it and are fighting to preserve its alliance with imperialism! ‘Resistance to imperialism everywhere’ includes support for US and NATO backing for the ‘oligarchs and ultranationalists’ etc. How could socialists justify ‘solidarity . . . with the oligarchs or the ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals.’?
Blindness to the interest of the working class also leads to failure to see what is in front of their eyes. Apparently it’s not western sanctions or US sabotage of pipelines that is causing the shortage of energy in Europe:
‘We are worried that Russia will manipulate oil and gas issues as winter approaches, encouraging cowardly and opportunist politicians to call for the partition of Ukraine – ‘peace at any price’ in exchange for Russian gas.’
So we get this ridiculous alternative:
‘Therefore we recently started networking with environmental groups and consumer protection activists to argue for accelerating the green transition.’
A transition that will take decades to achieve is an answer to the energy shortage this winter; and this will be accomplished through pressure by ‘environmental groups’ and ‘consumer protection activists’! This is not serious.
The article we have been quoting starts with the following passage:
‘Since the beginning of the full-scale war, we have published numerous critical texts about those leftists who have got stuck in the past and keep seeing the war as just another confrontation between Western and Russian imperialism. Some adhere to this idea due to sincere beliefs; others simply choose a more comfortable position of not intervening or even searching for arguments against the support of Ukrainian resistance (‘nationalism,’ ‘protection of Russian-speaking people,’ ‘promotion of NATO,’ etc.). Westplaining helps them close their eyes to the whole picture.’
The author claims we must be ‘searching’ for arguments to justify opposition to the war and the Ukrainian state, and then gives us an (incomplete) list of what they might be! He thinks we are stuck in the past in opposing capitalist war, forgetting the socialist principles that have inspired this opposition and the lessons learned from the support of reformist parties for the mass slaughter of two World Wars.
This is not just another conflict between Western imperialism and Russia and no amount of covering for NATO or the ‘oligarchs ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals’ will change their role or the character of the war.
It is not ‘comfortable’ to choose to fight for the independent interests of the working class and against both the reactionary Russian invasion and the Ukrainian state and its imperialist sponsors. And as the author himself illustrates, we do not have to ‘search’ for arguments to defend our refusal to support the reactionary ‘Ukrainian resistance’, which no amount of leftists supporting will make progressive.
We are told that we are ‘Westplaining’ – ‘a form of gaslighting that imposes Western views through the heads of residents of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Ukrainians.’
Given the support for NATO and US imperialism in much of Central and Eastern Europe, any ‘Westplaining’ that has occurred has been accomplished by all the forces – oligarchs, ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals who support NATO and the US. We in the western left are expected to show solidarity with all of them and through them to our own ruling classes and capitalist states, which we are supposed to encourage to arm the kleptocratic Ukrainian State. Just who is attempting the gaslighting?
Whatever socialist now believes that these forces are on our side is lost to socialism. Whoever in the West believes that their own state and ruling class can play a progressive role in the world has no right to proclaim themselves as socialist. They politically disarm their own working class and present it up on a plate for imperialism’s ‘progressive’ wars of the future.
The article referenced above is of use only to show the poverty of arguments of the pro-war left. That their authors believe them in any way credible reminds me of what the musician Prince is purported to have said of Michael Jackson’s album ‘Bad’. It should, he said, have been called ‘Pathetic’.
As we have noted, the politics of the anti-war campaign supported by the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group starts and ends with the invasion of Ukraine and support for its defence. Not simply, it must be said, self-defence.
‘A “socialist” who preaches national defence is a petty-bourgeois reactionary at the service of decaying capitalism. Not to bind itself to the national state in time of war, to follow not the war map but the map of the class struggle, is possible only for that party that has already declared irreconcilable war on the national state in time of peace.’
The ACR will claim that Ukraine is not an imperialist power so this admonition does not apply. It is however undeniably capitalist and a particularly corrupt one at that. It has moved closer to collaboration with the imperialist NATO military organisation through participation in its activities and is now armed and trained by the biggest western imperialist powers
This alliance with western imperialism involves the imposition of unprecedented sanctions that is a form of warfare itself and which will have devastating effects on the majority of the Russian population and will exacerbate problems for the majority of working people in the countries imposing them. The Ukrainian state has called for greater sanctions and greater support from imperialism.
In these circumstances, to attempt to deny the application of Trotsky’s judgement is without merit and is baseless. As we have already noted: to defend the integrity and prerogatives of any independent capitalist state in war against another is precisely to renege on any responsibility to declare ‘irreconcilable war on the national state.’ It is to be permanently at the beck and call of capitalist powers seeking ‘self-determination’.
During World War 1 the social-democrats who supported their own state in the war were also loud in proclaiming the right to self-determination of those oppressed by its enemies
‘Thus, for example, the German and Austro-German social democrats missed no opportunity of denouncing the brutal treatment of national minorities and the ‘indigenous population’ in Tsarist Russia, the British Empire, etc. But what happens to the Italians, Rumanians and Slavs in Austria, and in the German Empire (the Posen province!) is systematically suppressed. But in this respect the attitude of the social-patriotic press in England, France, Russia and Italy was just the same. Everywhere the same lying and hypocrisy.’
The ACR group no doubt opposes British imperialism, but not when it arms and trains Ukraine with its fellow imperialists; nor does it oppose its sanctions, which, we have averred, are not an exercise in self-defence. Imperialism becomes, not the economic and political forms of advanced capitalism, but the policy of the individual powers which one might even sometimes support, without of course honestly proclaiming it directly.
The organisation might claim that Ukraine is not a free and independent state and must be allowed to be so. But the independence it seeks is impossible; it says ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure.’ No capitalist state can fulfil this requirement because capitalist competition entails and requires military and economic pressure.
As Lenin explained in 1916:
‘Our “peace programme” demands that the principal democratic point of this question – the repudiation of annexations – should be applied in practice and not in words, that it should serve to promote the propaganda of internationalism and not of national hypocrisy. To do this, we must explain to the masses that the repudiation of annexations, i.e. the recognition of self-determination, is sincere only when the socialists of every nation demand the right of secession for nations oppressed by their own nations . . . ‘
Ukraine became an independent state in 1991. The current conflict arises precisely because it is impossible for it to attempt to continue to balance between Western imperialism and Russia. Its reliance on the IMF and its free trade agreement with the EU demonstrates the impossibility of it developing autonomously ‘free of economic pressure’.
The Copenhagen Criteria on entry to the EU requires that the ’candidate country . . . [has] the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate’s’ ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.’
Reactionary socialists may claim this dilutes, if not removes the self-determination of nations and so, to a degree, it does. By championing the independence of Ukraine in wholly unrealistic terms the ACR ignores the historical and continued constraints on Ukraine and the answers chosen to address them by the political leadership of this capitalist state. But ‘self-determination of nations’ cannot be working class support for the maximum freedom of their ruling classes to advance their own class and state interests in relation to competitors.
It should be noted that ‘competitive pressures and market forces’ do not disappear outside the EU and the obligations of membership are the obligations of a capitalist club that can at least partially set the rules as opposed to have to follow them.
What is left of the demand for self-determination of Ukraine is its defence against a capitalist rival; the policy of self-defence for Ukraine is then simply the policy of ‘national defence’, which is that of ‘a petty-bourgeois reactionary.’
In contrast to the policy of the Ukrainian state Trotsky goes on to say that:
‘The working class is not indifferent to its nation. On the contrary, it is just because history places the fate of the nation into its hands that the working class refuses to entrust the work of national freedom and independence to imperialism . . . Having used the nation for its development, capitalism has nowhere, in no single corner of the world, solved fully the national problem. . . . The task of complete national determination and peaceful co-operation of all peoples of Europe can be solved only on the basis of the economic unification of Europe, purged of bourgeois rule.’
This socialist and internationalist policy is light years from the pursuit of utopian freedom for a particular capitalist state as it seeks subordination under an imperialist alliance.
Trotsky then goes on in remarks applicable to Ukraine today:
‘The concept of national defence, especially when it coincides with the idea of the defence of democracy, can most easily delude the workers of small and neutral countries . . . which, being incapable of engaging in an independent policy of conquest, impart to the defence of their national borders the character of an irrefutable and absolute dogma.’ So, for example, will ACR join in demanding that the self-determination of Ukraine requires incorporation of Crimea, and the whole of Donbas and Luhansk regardless of their local populations’ wishes?
In words also apposite today – ‘for a revolutionary party, the moment of declaration of war is especially critical. The bourgeois and social-patriotic press in an alliance with the radio and movies will pour out upon the toiling masses torrents of chauvinistic poison.’
‘Our attitude to war is determined not by the legalistic formula of “aggression” but by the question of which class carries on the war and for what aims. In the conflict of states, just as in the class struggle, “defence” and “aggression” are questions only of practical expediency and not of a juridical or ethical norm. The bare criterion of aggression creates a base of support for the social-patriotic policy of Messrs. Léon Blum, Vandervelde and others, who, thanks to Versailles, are given the possibility of defending imperialist booty under the guise of defending peace.’
The ACR wish to defend against aggression by supporting the national interests of a corrupt capitalist state in war against another while seeking incorporation into the world’s biggest imperialist alliance with a roll call of aggressive wars that would make Putin blush.
Again to Trotsky: ‘If in time of war it is necessary to reject the class struggle for the sake of national interests, it is also necessary to renounce “Marxism” in the epoch of a great economic crisis that endangers “the nation” no less than war. Back in April 1915, Rosa Luxemburg exhausted this question with the following words: “Either the class struggle is the imperative law of proletarian existence also during war … or the class struggle is a crime against national interests and the safety of the fatherland also in time of peace.”’
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.
The war in Ukraine has revealed deep divisions amongst those describing themselves as Marxists, with references to Lenin and Trotsky aplenty and rebuttals against them quoted from the same sources. It is however necessary to study this debate and read the references if you want to make any pretence at being a Marxist, while those who are not may learn why the arguments are important to human emancipation and an end to war, and not just this war.
Unfortunately, for some ‘Marxists’ this debate is unnecessary, as argued here.
The authors write that they ‘started by outlining in some detail the differences on the left about Ukraine. We outlined the now well-rehearsed arguments about: relative importance of NATO expansion versus Putin’s imperial project, supporting the armed resistance or de-escalation/no arms from the West, [and] is it an inter imperialist war or a just war against an imperialist invader?’
All pretty important in determining one’s attitude to the war you might think. But no: ‘the discussion about how to build a mass anti-war movement on Ukraine should not depend on this level of argument involving principlesand political analyses about history and the current invasion. No, building a movement here is about tactics.’ (emphasis added – Sráid Marx)
There are two aspects to this. One is sheer dishonesty. The movement they want to build is built on political analysis and principles, or some might more accurately say on their abandonment, but this is the less interesting aspect.
The second are the questions around what principles – that they no longer want to forefront – are correct and how they should be fought for, because the nature of these principles determines the nature of any anti-war campaign; something that should be obvious.
It is not possible to divide these aspects except conceptually, so it is possible to argue with people who will respond to the charge of capitulation to imperialism (in the form of NATO); and the charge of refusal to support an independent working class position (through their support for the Ukrainian state, its armed forces and its reactionary leadership), that this is simply not true. These people claim that they do oppose NATO and do support the interests of the Ukrainian working class. But first things first, might be their response.
Unfortunately, these people will then continue to parrot support for ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’, as if Ukraine is not a state, a capitalist state, and a corrupt capitalist state that socialists would not defend or support in peace but are asked to do so in war. Likewise, the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ is made up primarily of the Ukrainian state’s armed forces, incorporating fascist units, with mass support for these armed forces in Ukraine making as much difference to its class nature as mass support for the British army in 1914 did for its imperialist character and its defence of Empire.
As for the formulation of principles and political analysis based on the ‘Ukrainian people’: is this people uniquely undivided by class, with their separate class interests? Where did all the oligarchs go? Is there no working class in Ukraine? Did Marx declare ‘people of the world unite!’; call for the self-emancipation of ‘the people’ and analyse the origin of surplus value in the exploitation of ‘people’? Do Marxists today call for ‘people’s’ control of production? Or does all this stuff have no application anymore?
Perhaps we are now being asked to believe that the interest of the Ukrainian working class is currently aligned with that of its state, which is aligned to that of NATO and imperialism, in which case the primacy of class struggle disappears when these forces go to war. Marxism is fine but in war it’s first things first and this means it’s a question of tactics – ‘building a movement here is about tactics.’
‘All those fine analyses will have no impact outside a narrow group of lefties if we are unable to build a mass audience’ says the article, so it is a question of ‘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?’
So, what is the problem with this approach? – apart from the fact that it dismisses the role of principles and political analysis, which should really determine the nature of the campaign, its demands and its objectives. These unfortunately are dismissed as ‘a shopping list of correct demands’.
But let’s leave this aside for the moment, because there isn’t a single problem with it, there are many.
It is based on the idea that the task is to build a campaign on the lowest political level; that this is politically adequate, and then – having enticed this ‘mass audience’ into the theatre – it will thank you for telling them that they will be entertained by a different show.
It forgets that the lowest political common denominator is still a denominator.
You think this is unfair? Well in the next post we will look at the statements that justify this judgement.
British trade unionists are being asked to support a model resolution in support of Ukraine in the war with Russia. It is not the usual generalised call for an end to the war and for peace but is explicit support for one side. For example, it calls ‘for Russian troops to cease fire and leave all Ukrainian territory immediately.’
There is no call for a general ceasefire, so it is in effect a call for surrender by one participant. It is not clear whether the call for the territory to be retaken by Ukrainian forces includes Crimea or the currently separate Donetsk and Luhansk areas. Aside from the clearly impossible demand that only one army cease fire it is unclear what political settlement of the war is considered just and whether what is proposed might actually demand an end to one and the effective relaunch of another.
This is important not only from a principled point of view but also because such resolutions are designed to be relatively simple and practical with obvious steps to implementation. They are also meant to establish a specifically working class view that demonstrates the common interests of, in this case, the workers of Britain and Ukraine.
These specific working class interests must establish their difference with that of the class enemy of British workers, which is the British state and its ruling class etc. It must demonstrate that, just as the class interest of British and Ukrainian and also Russian workers are aligned, so are the opposing class interests of the British ruling class and its fellow capitalists in Russia and Ukraine similar, even if competition between them sometimes leads to war. Such wars do not result in the capitalist class of the rival states being expropriated or the interest of their working class being protected, quite the reverse.
The resolution instead presents the Ukrainian working class–as an object of solidarity–only as a specific section of the Ukrainian people in general. The idea that British workers should express a view to Russian workers probably didn’t cross the minds of the drafters of the resolution.
The difficulty in framing this unity of workers cannot be denied but the approach of the resolution categorically prevents it.
The resolution states that ‘the people of Ukraine have the right to defend themselves and to obtain . . . weapons’, and in so doing opens the door to Western imperialist intervention and support for its arming of the Ukrainian state. There is no qualification to this, either in the armed support that should be given, or the identity of the ‘Ukrainian Resistance’ forces that should be armed. These will include those who will happily turn any guns supplied against the Ukrainian working class and its left wing.
In the context of an unprecedented propaganda campaign that has included covering up the integration of fascist units into the Ukrainian state forces, and the lionisation of the Ukrainian leader Zelensky – elected to uproot rampant corruption but now revealed to having links to his own and colleagues’ offshore accounts – it perpetuates illusions in the reactionary class character of Ukrainian military and political forces.
Very helpfully, the most recent issue of The Economist magazine has a graphic of a ‘crony-capitalism’ index which, unsurprisingly, shows Russia way out in front. Ukraine, however, is fifth. This crony capitalism supports the Ukrainian state and its political leaderships, and is responsible for the corruption of Ukrainian politics and society. Ukrainian workers have suffered from and opposed this corruption for many years but the agents of it are released from any responsibility by cries from the West that ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ must be supported.
This resolution amplifies this rhetoric and shamefully avoids the separate interest of the Ukrainian working class; in effect it amounts to a call to follow its class enemies. Whatever potential agency the Ukrainian working class has is buried beneath the cardinal imperative to defend the self-determination of the Ukrainian capitalist state.
Rather than demonstrate to British workers the common greed and corruption of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and British connivance with it, the necessary class differences are erased, perfectly mirroring the claims of the British, Ukrainian and Russian ruling classes.
The propaganda campaign in the West has presented Russia and Putin as uniquely evil. By definition rather than just implication, the forces of the Western powers are the principled opponents of this evil – where else are the guns called for by the resolution to come from? British workers are asked to take sides in a war in which corporate and state media propaganda has blamed only Russia, an argument which the resolution explicitly endorses.
The self-styled Marxists supporting this resolution state that in this particular case it is Russian imperialism that is the aggressor, and NATO ceases to be relevant. Only sometimes, it appears, is NATO, Britain and the United States aggressive imperialist forces such as in Iraq. Sometimes, it must be assumed, it is on the right side – the side of Ukrainian self-determination. The framing of the war as purely Russian aggression prevents any responsibility being assigned to NATO and its powers. Instead, workers are invited to support its military intervention and with no warnings even on the need to limit it. Why would there be? For the resolution there is only one issue.
The declaration that NATO is opposed is empty in such a context and mention of its eastward expansion of no consequence. In fact, its role is explicitly absolved as ‘Putin has used the pretext that Ukraine wanted to join NATO to justify yet another war for regime change.’ Anyone assigning any responsibility to NATO must presumably be joining in with Putin in giving a reason for the war that is not the real reason, echoing again the claims that placing anything other than full blame on Russia is to be a dupe of Vladimir Putin.
With explanation of the war confined to Russian aggression the real cause of the war, its nature and the principled socialist response cannot be argued. What is left can only be agreement to support for the Ukrainian state from wherever it comes because the cause of the war, its nature and the principled response excludes opposition to NATO, US and British imperialism. Such is the deception woven through the words of the resolution
The resolution states that it supports sanctions but that ‘we believe that sanctions should hit the Russian oligarchs and war machine, not the people.’ Since these sanctions are already hitting workers in the West and to an even greater extent threaten peoples in places such as North Africa, Middle East and East Asia, the idea that they will not hit Russian workers even harder is pure deceit.
Finally, all this is justified by the central need to ‘support the right of the people for Ukraine to self-determination without foreign military or economic pressure.’ If this were to be the case Ukraine would be the only nation in the world able to determine its fate ‘without foreign military or economic pressure.’ That the drafters of the resolution think this is possible, and particularly of Ukraine, shows remarkable ignorance of the country’s history and its permanent geographical position.
It also shows that they do not understand the demand for self-determination, which refers only to the right of a nation to independence from incorporation within another state. Once formal independence is achieved the idea that workers and socialists should guarantee its freedom of action is a licence for every capitalist power to demand of its own working class and others’ that it be supported because its freedom is circumscribed by other capitalist powers. It is a perfect recipe for the complete subordination of each working class to its own capitalist state and capitalist class in their competition with every other.
Socialists should neither support or defend the invasion by Russia of Ukraine but we do not take sides between capitalist powers, between the oligarchs of Russia and the oligarchs of Ukraine, between the offshore wealth of Zelensky and hidden millions of Putin, between the army of Russia and the army of Ukraine (with its fascist units and its NATO arms).
Self-determination by Ukrainian workers, for whom we are in solidarity, can only come through unity with workers in Russia and the rest of Europe. The desire if its leaders to join NATO has helped precipitate the invasion. Joining it would subordinate Ukraine to the requirements of US imperialism, which will continue to employ NATO to contain and weaken Russia and to constrain the demands of its main rival China. This is not the future that Ukrainian workers should seek or British workers support through arming the Ukrainian state.
The weakness of the Ukrainian working class is being exploited by both its own rulers and the Western powers. It is a result of internal divisions, which are exploited by its oligarchs and political leaders, and its geopolitical position. Overcoming this division and outside threats will not be achieved by defending the rights of the Ukrainian capitalist state or effective capitulation to the strongest external power.
Its immediate vulnerability can mainly be addressed by workers in the Ukraine itself, in so far as it is able to assert its separate class interests. Surrendering it to the political leadership that walked them into this nightmare and the NATO predator that presents itself as their saviour is politically fatal. Workers outside the country can show their common class interests through material support; opposition to the war – especially in Russia – and others’ solidarity with it; and political solidarity based on clear assertion of international working class unity.