Those socialists in Britain who might regularly read ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, and despair at the wretched propagandistic coverage of the war in Ukraine, should count themselves lucky that that they don’t live in Ireland and avail of the coverage of ‘The Irish Times’.
Unable to contribute to the cause of western imperialism directly, the Irish State has cloaked its contribution in mawkish tones of hypocritical concern, loudly proclaiming that it too supports the war while condemning its inevitable results. Like all western support, from right to left, it considers support for war has nothing to do with its consequences because “Russia started it.’
‘The Irish Times’ faithfully reflects the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Irish State and political establishment. The Russian war is routinely damned and its purported atrocities highlighted but its true horrors, which might include graphic pictures of the dead and dying, are hidden. Even more unsettling, photographs and video of those killed by Ukrainians will not be front page or headline news. War coverage in the West is so routinely censored that its presence is unnoticed.
So imagine my surprise when today’s newspaper includes a column by the historian Geoffrey Roberts, who sets out the dangers of western escalation and its purpose. No doubt the rest of the week will see numerous letters of condemnation.
He notes that the West’s previous red lines on the supply of weapons have been crossed while significant political figures dismiss the possibility of Russian escalation in response. He notes that such escalation ‘would be shocking to those western decision-makers who have become accustomed to the idea that only they can act with impunity when it comes to escalating the Ukraine war.’
Escalation includes main battle tanks and missiles with relatively long-range potential. It also includes direct NATO personnel intervention through intelligence, training and targeting. The provision of main battle tanks will involve significant maintenance support, and possibly NATO tank operators if they are to provide anywhere near their potential impact.
Previously, some left supporters of the Ukrainian state have made a distinction between defensive and offensive weapons and opposed ‘direct military intervention.’ Main battle tanks are clearly offensive weapons provided to Ukraine so it can carry out offensive operations, while missiles already supplied have the potential to hit Crimea, which previously was not simply a province of Ukraine but had autonomous status. Today its population is clearly Russian and is considered by the Russian Federation to be part of its territory. For those claiming justification for the war based on ‘self-determination’ this leaves something of a contradiction.
It is of course open to the supporters of Ukraine to support this state on the grounds that the war as a whole is purely a defensive one, but that does not avoid an existing problem and opens the door to another.
Those partisans of Ukraine who speak of supporting the Ukrainian people have the same problem as someone who recently posted on Facebook ‘victory to the Russian people in their struggle against NATO’. Neither the Ukrainian nor Russian people are fighting this war, although it is they who are dying. They are killing and being killed on behalf of the Ukrainian and Russian states, which are the real parties to the conflict. In neither case is the working class independently organised and fighting in its own interest and for its own objectives.
Either the respective supporters of the Ukrainian and Russian states believe that in this war one of these capitalist states is fighting for the interests of the working class or they can’t tell the difference between a capitalist state and its people, never mind its working class. In neither case can the left supporters of either state be considered Marxist, which as a bare necessity requires the ability to distinguish between a capitalist state and a working class and, having done so, be able to identify and assert their separate and antagonistic interests.
If, on this occasion, they maintain that their interests are the same or aligned they face the question of how such an extraordinary convergence has occurred? In the case of supporters of Ukraine – how did this alignment also include the whole of Western imperialism? Why wouldn’t it happen again and how does this not invalidate Marxism, which teaches the irreconcilable antagonism between the working class and the capitalist state? How often can the working class rely on the capitalist state to defend its interests? Do they know where this idea has led before and, if they do, can they not just do themselves and those of us who oppose this capitalist war a favour and take a short cut to openly repudiating Marxism?
The second, new problem opened up, is that if the character of the war is not to be defined by the infantile argument of who invaded who, then this must widen consideration of its nature to include the cause of the war, including the invasion; the objectives of the warring parties and the political character of these objectives and thus of the war itself. In relation to this the article by Geoffrey Roberts is appropriate:
‘Never has the world witnessed such a proxy war as that being waged in Ukraine by the West, the overarching aim being to cripple Russia as a great power.’
‘In pursuit of this aim the US and other western governments have showered Ukraine with more than $100 billion worth of military, humanitarian and financial aid. Nato has scoured the globe for old Soviet ammunition and weapons systems that can be readily utilised by the Ukrainians. Western financial institutions have seized control of Russian foreign currency reserves and imposed sanctions designed to destabilise the rouble and collapse Russia’s economy. The West is also working to turn Russia into a pariah state internationally.’
‘Without western support Ukraine’s war effort would have collapsed months ago. The continuation of the war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian casualties. Ukraine’s economy has been laid waste, while millions of its citizens have fled the country, and many more have been displaced internally.’
Roberts is correct that without Western imperialism there would no longer be a war – Ukraine would have negotiated a peace. To therefore pretend that western intervention is secondary is to deny reality.
Roberts presents one potential of the continuation of the war:
‘As Putin creeps closer to some kind of military victory in Ukraine, the voice of those urging western restraint will be needed more than ever. The more territory Ukraine loses, the more casualties it incurs, the greater will be the West’s temptation to take yet another escalatory step towards all-out war with Russia.’
It is obviously hazardous to predict the outcome of the war given the conflicting claims of both sides and the obvious propaganda character of most of what is published. The involvement of so many actors makes it difficult to have confidence. What role will Belarus play, and will a ‘coalition of the willing’ e.g. Poland etc. be the subterfuge that NATO will adopt for a more direct intervention? How much escalation will NATO go for on the basis that they argue that they will not be intimidated, Russia hasn’t reacted so far, and the threats from Russia are outrageous intimidation?
What one thinks will be the outcome very much reflects what one thinks is already happening.
A strange consensus exists in the Western media. Ukraine is winning but there are repeated entreaties for the Western powers to maintain their support, calls really directed to the populations consuming their media. The ‘between-the-lines’ message is that Ukraine will not win if the West does not continue to support it. That Ukraine can win, and claims that it is doing so, are meant to convince that the sacrifices already made have achieved results and not been wasted, although apparent setbacks also give rise to the same appeals.
What this means is that while Ukrainians are doing almost all the fighting, they cannot continue without Western support. In other words, the war must continue, and can only continue, if the West remains in the fight. Despite this repeatedly admitted dependence of Ukraine on the West, by both parties, their leftist supporters still claim to support their war based on the idea of ‘self-determination’.
In point of fact self-determination was achieved by Ukraine when it became an independent state in 1991, whereupon it suffered an economic collapse. It attempted to carry out an independent foreign policy by balancing between Russia and the West but this too failed. Its dependence now on the West is complete and all talk of self-determination and independence is so much deceitful humbug. Win or lose Ukraine–as it has existed–is not going to determine its own future, or be in any genuine way independent of imperialism: ‘self-determination’ has also failed.
Ukraine started the war with 43 million people and 5 million military-aged men, but according to the U.N.,14.3 million have fled and a further 9 million are in Russian-occupied territory. Ukraine is therefore reduced to about 20 to 27 million people and at this ratio it has less than 3 million draftable men. A million have already been drafted, and many of the rest are either not physically fit or have a vital role in the economy. The GDP of this economy has declined by an estimated 30 per cent.
It started with an army of 250,000 regular troops, together with 450,000 mobilised citizen soldiers, with 1,800 artillery pieces that allowed firing rates of 6,000 to 7,000 rounds a day, plus perhaps over 2,500 tanks. The weapons supplied by the West are needed not to add to these totals but to replace them because Ukraine does not itself have the necessary military-industrial complex to do it. If Ukraine could not defeat the invasion with these initial forces the lesser supplies from the West are not going to achieve this task despite the escalation in the power of the new weapons. Their purpose is to keep the war going, with all the horror this must necessarily entail.
Ukraine and the West have been able to present the idea that not only can it win the war, but actually is, through two arguments about how it has proceeded so far. First is the failure of the Russians to take Kyiv and its retreat from the city, and secondly the reverses and retreats in Kharkiv and Kherson, reducing Russian control to approximately 50% of the territory it had captured by the invasion on 24 February.
The Russian objective has been a neutral Ukraine if an allied one could not be attained, while Ukraine as a member of NATO is unacceptable.The initial invasion seemed to be based on the view that Russia could point the gun to the head of Ukraine’s political leadership in Kyiv and gain the concessions that it required without a full-scale war. When this leadership, with western intervention, rejected this course the only alternative was the grinding conflict that the war has become.
Since Russia has had no intention of occupying all of Ukraine the purpose of the invasion is to enlarge the buffer between it and the NATO powers and to destroy the military capacity of the country – to ‘demilitarise’ and ‘de-nazify’. A buffer, even an enlarged one through annexing Ukrainian territory, is not enough; Russia already started the invasion with a buffer but a continuing military threat in the remaining un-occupied state would be a very meagre victory.
This is why Russia invaded with only around 200,000 troops made up of regular Russian forces and soldiers from the two separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk; less than the Ukrainian armed forces when an overwhelming numerical superiority would have been required.
The primary goal of the military conflict has therefore become the destruction of the Ukrainian armed forces, and not the acquisition of territory, which can be taken after a military victory. This includes those oblasts which Russia now claims as its territory but which it currently does not completely control. The primary purpose of Ukraine has been the recapture of territory lost; together these explain the character of Russian reverses in Kharkiv and Kherson.
In the former few Russian forces were in place to defend earlier gains and most of those that existed belonged to separatist militias; Russia did not have enough soldiers to maintain its occupation of the area. It was however able, in due course, to halt the Ukrainian offensive and then consider a counter-attack. In Kherson the Russian forces were exposed and retreated before this exposure crystallised into a more pressing threat. The result was that it was able to keep its forces intact and strengthen its immediate strategic position. In both Kharkiv and Kherson the maintenance of its armed forces was more important than territorial loss. To these must now be added the partial mobilisation of a further claimed 300,000 Russian soldiers, giving its forces numerical superiority for the first time.
Pro-Russian commentators have therefore argued that the static conflict that has been in place for the last three to four months has not been a stalemate but a result of Russian strategy to engage greater and greater numbers of Ukrainian forces with the purpose of then destroying them with greater firepower. So, while we have noted that Ukraine could fire 6,000 to 7,000 artillery rounds a day, Russia has been firing 40,000 to 50,000, with some reports stating that it has a six-to-one advantage in artillery pieces. It is therefore obvious that this sort of war is to Russia’s advantage; it is also true that it is not a war that Ukraine can win.
Attempts to keep it going by Western arms do not benefit Ukraine but will only result in the death of more Ukrainians, not to mention Russians. The number of weapons, including their diversity and the logistical problems arising from this, are inadequate and cannot in themselves rebuild an army that superior Russian forces already degraded when this army had larger weapons systems on which it had already been trained.
The political leadership of Ukraine, who walked their country into this war and promised victory, will find it difficult to admit defeat and so face the wrath of its far-right supporters and the displeasure of its US backers. EU leaders may decide that sanctions have failed to impose the costs on Russia that they expected; that they themselves can’t afford, and that would not be justified by the project of incorporating Ukraine in NATO. The rest of the world outside what calls itself ‘the international community’ has not rallied to the demands of the US, and China has not decided that doing the bidding of its declared enemy is better than maintaining its alliance with its new friend.
These point to an end to the war sooner rather than later, but not until Russia has degraded the Ukrainian armed forces and occupied those parts of Ukraine it now claims as its own sovereign territory.
This, of course, will not end the hatred and division between Ukrainian and Russian, including their working classes, and will not end the mutual antagonism between the two states. The US and its NATO creation will have suffered a reverse but these have happened before; military setbacks will not destroy western imperialism, and the Russian and Chinese states certainly won’t.
A victory for Ukraine and the US would have similar reactionary consequences and would not usher in any progressive Russian regime. We will leave to left-wing bourgeois moralists any notion that a victory for Ukraine would be a victory for the working class anywhere, least of all in Ukraine itself, which would then in such an eventuality have its future celebrations consist of the triumph of western imperialism and of Ukraine’s most reactionary nationalist traditions.
A war with potentially only reactionary outcomes and consequences is not one that can be supported. Its lasting tragedy may be that any sort of democratic and progressive peace settlement is impossible. Right now it certainly looks extremely unlikely, which is unsurprising. This could only arise from a working class armed with its own political alternative, and not some second-hand programme that has already failed and which is the most impossible outcome of all.
The Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko has an article in the latest New Left Review, which apparently has created a bit of a stir. Its audience is ‘Ukrainian scholars, intellectuals and artists’, who, he says ,‘face a dilemma.’ This dilemma is either to be ‘just another ‘voice’ in a very specific field of institutionalized identity politics in the West’, or ‘to articulate the questions of global relevance, search for their solutions, and contribute to universal human knowledge.’
What it really is, is a ‘J’accuse’ against his pro-Western peers who have stoutly defended the Ukrainian state in the war with Russia, more or less uncritically becoming a willing accomplice beside Western imperialism. It is clearly directed to a small world so it is no surprise that it is seen by some as provocative.
The issue, however, is a decisive one in separating all leftists and Marxists into two broad camps, raising principled political differences that immediately entail taking a side in the war. The obvious emotion aroused faithfully reflects the issues at stake; for both sides it is a question of betrayal.
The sociological jargon and the approach to the issue in terms of identity politics might seem to soften the polemic but you would have to be stupid to miss the point. The dilemma is between identity politics that seeks recognition by western imperialism, so that Ukraine is viewed as really standing up for the freedom the West constantly claims – ‘Ukrainians are more Western than those who live in the West’; or, ‘to voice a universally relevant perspective on Ukraine, no matter how many Ukrainians would sympathize with it.’
The most stinging criticism is of some left Ukrainians, whose support for the project of ‘decolonisation’ of the country involves not much more than ‘abolishing anything related to Russian influence in culture, education and the public sphere.’ Since the support of the pro-war Left in the West for self-determination has no room for any class analysis and becomes purely endorsement of Ukrainian nationalism, this anti-Russian agenda has simply been endorsed.
Since self-determination without any qualification is upheld there can in principle be no opposition to the actions of the Ukrainian state in the war, including its ‘proceeding with privatizations, lowering taxes, scrapping protective labour legislation and favouring ‘transparent’ international corporations over ‘corrupt’ domestic firms. The plans for post-war reconstruction did read not like a programme for building a stronger sovereign state but like a pitch to foreign investors for a start-up.’
This is only the logical consequence of supporting self-determination for an already independent capitalist state, one that is not a colony or subjugated within a foreign empire. The demand simply becomes one for it to be able to make its own political choices; the particular nature of the state regime or the policies it chooses are completely secondary. In truth, this view of many on the Ukrainian left is more a result of material reality – of the strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the Ukrainian state and of Western imperialism. The predominance of the demand for ‘self-determination’ also reflects the weakness of the working class movement in Ukraine and internationally. It should be no surprise if social layers such as ‘scholars, intellectuals and artists’ reflect this.
So, states Ishchenko, ‘national liberation is no longer understood as intrinsically linked to social revolution, challenging the basis of capitalism and imperialism’ and ‘Ukraine’s ‘decolonization’ becomes a version of (national-)identity politics—that is, a politics centered around the affirmation of belonging to a particular essentialized group, with a projected shared experience.’
‘It is not surprising, therefore, that talk of Ukraine’s ‘decolonization’ is so much about symbols and identity, and so little about social transformation. If what is at stake is the defence of the Ukrainian state, what kind of state is it?’
And this is the central question for Ukrainian socialists who support the war and for their allies in the West. How is it possible for socialists to support this state? A capitalist state notoriously corrupt by European standards, which western ‘investors’ still remain extremely wary of entering post-war. A state that gave political and military support to US imperialism and NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; in ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, and ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’. Lots of ‘freedom’ it would seem. We are expected to believe that this same combination is now again defending our freedoms, this time in Europe.
How did the Ukrainian state become the bearer of such a noble mantle that it now inspires Western ‘Marxists’; and how did the US and NATO likewise transform itself – just by doing what it has always done – by confronting the evil Russian empire?
Ishchenko is scathing of this choice – ‘The Western elites are trying to save the fraying international order; the Russian elite is trying to revise it to get a better place in a new one. However, neither can clearly explain how exactly the rest of humanity wins from either outcome.’
The pro-war left can see no independent position for the working class in opposing both the Russian invasion and the Ukrainian state and Western imperialists.
Instead, many pro-war voices in the West have exhorted us to listen to the voices of those Ukrainian leftists who have capitulated to their own state. On this Ishchenko is particularly wounding:
‘ . . . there has been a huge surge of events, panels and sessions related to Ukraine, Russia and the war, and a high demand for ‘Ukrainian voices’ in these discussions. Certainly, Ukrainian scholars, artists and intellectuals should be included in international discussions—and not just about Ukraine. The problem, however, is not the quantity but the quality of such inclusion.’
He goes on:
‘We can already see the tokenism phenomenon, typical of contemporary identity politics, when a symbolic inclusion of ‘Ukrainian voices’ does not mean revising the structures of knowledge aligned with Western elite interests, beyond sharpening their guilt for appeasing Russia. Furthermore, the formalistic representation of tokenized ‘Ukrainian voices’ helps silence other ‘voices’ from Ukraine that are not so easy to instrumentalize. Are we really to believe that the English-speaking, West-connected intellectuals, typically working in Kiev or Lviv, and who often even personally know each other, represent the diversity of the 40-million-strong nation?’
‘The solution is obviously not to include even more ‘voices’ but to break with the fundamentally flawed logic of escalating national-identity politics.’
He concludes: ‘The narrow ‘decolonization’ agenda, reduced to anti-Russian and anti-communist identity politics, only makes it more difficult to voice a universally relevant perspective on Ukraine, no matter how many Ukrainians would sympathize with it.’
A debate has been taking place on the nature of the war in Ukraine on the post put up immediately after it started. Those familiar with this blog will be aware of the various arguments against those who would support the Ukrainian capitalist state and its western imperialist backers against the Russian invasion.
The supporters of Ukraine variously claim that it is a colony or simply a victim of invasion by a predatory imperialist power. They demand that the working class stand with the Ukrainian capitalist state and excuse its alliance with western imperialism. They are usually too embarrassed to argue direct support for US and NATO although they could claim that they are providing no political support to western imperialism but simply some acceptance of military commitment that can be distinguished from it. This of course is nonsense.
The argument has been joined by the mirror opposite of this and it is claimed that because Russia is not an imperialist power in a ‘Marxist’ sense, and it faces an undoubted imperialist alliance that is imperialist in this sense, socialists must support Russia.
A number of questions are raised, including is the so-called ‘Marxist’ definition of imperialism employed correct and if it is, does Russia actually fall within it?
I am not going to address these questions which I have in other places argued are secondary. I have contended that the support of one capitalist power against another in this war is a betrayal of the interests of the working class and of socialist principles. It involves workers sacrificing themselves for either western imperialist interests or for Russian capitalism and it is nonsense to claim that because Russian capitalism is less advanced than western imperialism it should be supported!
It has been claimed that Russia is in some way analogous to Ethiopia in 1935 when Trotsky opposed the Italian imperialist invasion of that country and supported Ethiopia. However, Russia is not some underdeveloped country with a feudal monarchical regime being invaded by western imperialism in an attempt to colonise it; this argument will no more fly than the argument that Ukraine is a Russian colony, so there is no great point in attempting to shoot it down.
The argument to support Russia is supported by appeals to Lenin and Trotsky but as it has been pointed out, they didn’t support Russia in the First World War. At that time Russia was not an imperialist power by this ‘Marxist’ definition (in so far as it has been explained) and it faced in Germany an exemplar of finance-capital imperialism. It is perhaps implied that they opposed Russia in the war because of its broader alliance with capitalist imperialist powers but Lenin repeatedly emphasised that Russian ‘imperialism’ was in respects worse than the others!
Far from supporting the argument that we should support the ‘non-imperialist’ capitalist states, they did the opposite and opposed both the imperialist and non-imperialist capitalist states (that is non-imperialist in the sense that it is employed to support Russia today).
The general approach of supporting less developed capitalisms against more developed forms is not only wrong politically but totally un-Marxist. For Marx, socialism arises on the advances and development of capitalism and not from its backward forms. It is what makes socialism possible. The many posts on this blog on Marx’s alternative to capitalism explain this in detail. It is the very definition of reactionary to believe that the road to socialism comes through defence and support for the most undeveloped and backward forms of capitalism. Having stood Hegel on his head some want to turn Marx upside-down.
This relates to another problem reflected in both the appeal to Lenin and to the belief that opposition to imperialism today means support for non-imperialist capitalist states, just as previous socialists defended the right of nations to self-determination in the colonies and where nations were annexed to empires.
It was queried whether ‘anything qualitative has changed in the last hundred years to justify changing that approach’ to supporting non-imperialist states fighting imperialist ones. I argued in return that:
‘When Lenin wrote on imperialism he said that capitalism had become characterised by monopolies and just as national economies were so dominated, so the world was divided up by imperialistic countries who turned each colony into their own property. The world was therefore divided into imperialist countries and colonies, between oppressor and oppressed nations.’
‘However, in the past one hundred years the Austro-Hungarian empire has disappeared, along with the Ottoman empire and by and large the European empires of Britain, France and Belgium etc. Almost all their colonies are politically independent capitalist states so the policy of self-determination does not apply, just as it is inapplicable to Ukraine today. It too is already an independent capitalist state and now with the backing of western imperialism.’
‘Many of these former colonies or dependencies are major capitalist powers in their own right including, for example, two of the biggest countries in the world – India and China. Capitalism has developed in leaps and bounds in many of these countries and with it the development of significant working classes. The role of socialists in these countries is not, as it was before, to seek to overthrow foreign imperialist rule so as to weaken the imperialist countries and thus advance the cause of socialism within them, but rather to advance the struggle of their own working classes to overthrow their own capitalism in unity with other previous colonies and the workers of the old imperialist countries.’
It was then queried whether the fact that ‘the colonies have achieved formal national independence?’ meant ‘subsequently that the political approach outlined in Permanent Revolution is also now invalid?’
Well, it must be obvious that if political independence has been achieved, and many of these former colonies have developed capitalisms with significant working classes, the scope of permanent revolution has in some respects changed. For a start the bourgeois democratic tasks of the revolution – national independence, removal of feudal restrictions and classes – that were so prominent in permanent revolution are no longer so prominent. To claim that they are, that in such developed capitalist societies the immediate tasks of the working class involve national independence etc. in some sort of joint struggle with native bourgeois forces would turn permanent revolution into its opposite and Trotskyism into Stalinism.
The argument to support Russia invites us to consider the big picture of what defeat for it would mean, presumably so that workers must rally to support it and prevent such defeat:
‘I think you might want to consider what is at stake for Russia in this conflict and what a victory for US/NATO imperialism in this conflict would mean for them. At the very least it is regime change in the Kremlin to install a compliant pro-imperialist puppet if not the actual dismembering of Russia into 3 or 4 smaller compliant states to better allow direct imperialist plunder of its resources.’
The same argument has been presented in favour of Ukraine and I have argued that it is not the job of socialists to come to the aid of capitalist powers just because they are losing. Defeat undoubtedly inflicts misery and suffering and encouragement for the victor, but these are grounds to oppose the war, not to take sides in it.
Were the scenario above to transpire this would involve the dismemberment of the Russian state. Russian military doctrine affirms that it could use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or an aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the state”, which dismemberment would constitute.
The issue would then not simply be the subjugation of Russia but the immediate threat of nuclear war and the end of human civilisation as we know it. I do not know at what point, if any, it would not become an issue of supporting the Russian capitalist state but ending the war through the activity of the working class.
Support for Russia is also argued for what might be seen as ‘positive’ reasons but personally I find this the most repulsive of all the arguments.
In arguing that Russia today is in some way comparable to Ethiopia in the 1930s the supporter of the Russian state inserts into the writings of Trotsky at that time the names of today’s combatants:
“If US/NATO and their Ukraine puppet triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of Putin, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Western imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”
We are asked to believe that the victory of Vladimir Putin would act as a beacon for the oppressed people of the world and be a blow against imperialism as a whole! Does the writer really believe that Putin will inspire the workers of Europe and Americas to overthrow their oppression? That is overthrow capitalism? Will he inspire Russian and Ukrainian workers to overthrow their oppression? Does he believe that millions of other workers and oppressed in Asia and Africa do not just see Western imperialism as murderous and hypocritical but also see Russia as their leader in a fight against their oppression? And what if many did? Would that be a cause for celebration, something to earnestly seek and support?
For Marxists, the emancipation of the working class will be achieved by the working class itself and not on the coat-tails of kleptocratic capitalist leaders.
The arguments in favour of supporting Russia in the war in Ukraine involve claiming Lenin and Trotsky would support the opposite of what they actually did; involves turning Marx upside-down; ignoring the effects of one hundred years of capitalist development, and the elevation of Vladimir Putin to the inspirer of the world’s oppressed. As one group of so-called socialists trail behind Zelensky and NATO another follows Putin and Russia.
As we have noted in a number of posts, including this one and a series beginning here, some socialists have argued that the war in Ukraine is both an imperialist proxy war and a war of national defence by Ukraine.
If it is the former, then socialists can support neither side and if it is the latter we are obliged to support Ukraine. It can’t therefore be both. As has been argued in these posts and others, there are not two wars going on; there are only two sides and the one involving the Ukrainian state involves an alliance with Western imperialism.
There is little doubt that the pretence of opposing the war while also supporting it through defending Ukraine is unsustainable. It arises from inability to stand against the tide of the massive propaganda campaign waged in Western states by its mass media and the capitalist-controlled press and television.
The ability to sustain this balancing act against this strong head-wind is partially dependent in how sheltered a particular left organisation is from the attention of this media and their exposure to ‘public opinion’, which is pro-Ukrainian because of it. Rolling with the punches however is painful and unprincipled; you can’t directly fight back on the central issue because you can’t establish an independent working class position consistently opposed to the supporters of the war.
People before Profit (PbP) in Ireland have been successful in getting representation in the Irish parliament but this leaves them exposed to the mass media and the ‘public opinion’ that it is able to manufacture. Its politics are already weak, focussed as it is on parliament and maintaining their presence in it. It is therefore no real surprise that when the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke to Dáil Éireann on 1 Dec 2022, its nonsense position fell over, and equally unsurprising on which side it fell.
The response to von der Leyen’s speech by Richard Boyd Barrett started by thanking her and ‘Europe’s commitment to ensuring that there will be no hard Border on the island of Ireland or that the exit of Britain from the EU should not in any way adversely impact on the peace on this island.’ You wouldn’t think that PbP had itself supported Brexit, so giving rise to this concern in the first place. But that is a another story.
He went on to note the housing crisis in the Irish State, stating that – ‘while much of the responsibility lies with successive Governments failing to address it, a large component of the responsibility also lies with the decisions taken by the European Commission and the ECB, as part of the troika, to ram billions worth of austerity down the throats of the people of this country. It is long past time that the EU acknowledged its mistakes in imposing that austerity and devastating consequences it has had.’
Asking for the political representatives of capitalism to say sorry for their policies is useful for what purpose exactly? What meaningful difference to anyone was Tony Blair’s apology for Britain’s role in the Irish famine? Was this to acknowledge the baleful role of British rule in Ireland or to present it in a good light as it imposed another ‘solution’. What use was David Cameron’s apology for the British Army murder of fourteen civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972, except to absolve the political leadership and pass the blame onto the grunts on the ground? What use are requests for apologies for past sins when you support their current ones?
Boyd Barrett went on – ‘I also note that this week the President has called – I support her in this – for a tribunal to be established to investigate the undoubted war crimes of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. We all condemn the utterly barbaric and murderous invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We support the people of Ukraine in their struggle for self-determination.’
Of course, he noted some hypocrisy here – ‘I must say, however, in the week when there is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, for the President to not call simultaneously for an investigation into the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by the apartheid state of Israel against Palestinian people makes me wonder about the consistency of the ethics of the EU’s foreign policy.’
He also criticised EU policy on Saudi Arabian and the ‘EU-Moroccan trade agreement, which involves essentially taking the fish and mineral resources of the occupied Western Sahara people.’
Summing up, he said that ‘If we are to condemn, as we must, the war crimes of Putin, we must simultaneously condemn all war crimes and all crimes against humanity, even when they are committed by people that the European Union perceives as allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or those that arm and support them.’
But what has Boyd Barrett got to say about the war crimes of the Ukrainian state? Does he not know about the continuing attacks on civilians in Donetsk City that have been going on since 2014? Has he not seen the videos of captured Russian soldiers being shot in the head by Ukrainian armed forces? If he wants to condemn the human rights abuses in the war in Ukraine, why does he ignore those carried out by the Ukrainian state? Or is he too hypocritical in his selective condemnation, ignoring the crimes of the capitalist state he supports?
He finishes by declaring – ‘President, we must have consistency in our foreign policy, in our ethics and in our morality if we are to be taken seriously as defenders of human rights and opponents of war.’
He wants Western capitalist states ‘to be taken seriously as defenders of human rights and opponents of war’? How is that going to happen? Since when did it become possible for capitalist states to be consistent defenders of human rights and opponents of war? How can he even conceive that this is possible when every state in the EU is in the midst of supporting the biggest war in Europe since 1945! Hasn’t Boyd Barrett noticed this support? Or is it too like his own, as he too parades himself as against the war?
Maybe he should stop wondering about the ethics and morality of capitalism and its state machinery and try to recall some of the Marxism he claims to stand for; like Lenin suggesting that the only thing that will end war is socialism. Maybe then he might become aware that it is not the inconsistency of capitalist states that is the problem; they are really pretty consistent in their foreign policy and support for war. He might also reflect on his support for Western imperialism adjudicating on the crimes of others, and its Ukrainian allies, when perhaps this is something only the working class can do! Just a thought he might want to consider.
This miserable speech is testament to what happens when socialists abandon principled positions and indulge in capitulation to their own rulers, leading them to the frankly idiotic nonsense that pleads for consistent progressive policies from their own capitalist states in the middle of them supporting a reactionary war.
The New Left Revieweditorial describes five aspects of the war as ‘different types of conflict—civil, defensive- revanchist, national-resistance, imperial-primacy, Sino-American.’
‘The fourth type of conflict, then, is the one being waged by the Biden Administration. A former CIA chief describes it as a proxy war . . . Leon Panetta, ‘It’s a proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not’, (Bloomberg tv, 17 March 2022) . . . Yet the goal of Biden’s sanctions was not just to put an economic chokehold on the invasion of Ukraine; their aims, the Economist explained, are more sweeping— ‘to impair Russia’s productive capacity and technological sophistication’ and deter China.’
‘The character of the Biden Administration’s conflict with Russia is unambiguously ‘imperialist’, in the sense that it aims at regime change and the assertion of American hegemony over the Eurasian continent . . . In another sense, the Ukraine war is a massive distraction from the Democrats’ real priority: domestic revival to ensure American primacy in the strategic rivalry with China, where the US also hopes to see another type of regime installed in due course.’
This is where ‘the spectre of a fifth type of conflict intervenes, over-determining Washington’s reactions to Ukraine: the coming battle with Beijing.’
This analysis of the war as involving five, perhaps six conflicts; possibly seven if the ‘big gain in soldering Europe to Washington’ is included, is inspired by Ernest Mandel’s analysis of the various conflicts in the Second World War. His analysis, however, involves separation of the war into distinct wars identified by their political character. At its most simple, the New Left Review editorial identifies only three: a civil war within Ukraine, a war of national defence by the Ukrainian state and an imperialist war.
The conflict long ago (in 2014) left the terrain of a civil war and the war of ‘national-resistance’, which, in the language of NLR, might be described as ‘overdetermined’ by the US struggle to significantly cripple Russia–itself ‘overdetermined’ by the struggle against China–is therefore subordinated to the objective of ‘American hegemony over the Eurasian continent.’ This necessarily also entails subordination of Europe to US hegemony, achieved mainly through sanctions but spectacularly demonstrated by the almost certain US-determined sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines.
New Left Review argues that its five wars create an escalatory dynamic. This has included the scuppering of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in March and April by the United States, acting through Boris Johnson, of all people. This has been denied by supporters of Ukraine for whom the purity of its cause rivals that of the immaculate conception, made all the more luminous set against the evil of Russia.
Despite its turbulent and conflicted history and its renowned corruption, its cause is unblemished either by its internal politics or all this external realpolitik context. To defend such a position an alien power can only be responsible for the tragedy on whose door all blame can be laid. These defenders of the Ukrainian state thereby claim that ‘Russian diplomacy was always a smokescreen’ and nothing it says can be taken at face value.
Their argument is derived from the assertion “that the logic of Russia’s behaviour regarding Ukraine and the ‘collective West’ more broadly is driven by territorial expansion and the opportunistic use of violence.” From this vantage point nothing Russia has done, or can do outside of capitulation, can be trusted and all actions can only be interpreted with this intent. An argument is thereby offered, which doesn’t prove that Russia has been insincere, but simply commits to no proof being necessary.
So, ‘Russia’s insistence on implementing the Minsk II Accords in Donbas’ was not ‘proof of [a] preference for diplomacy, and accepting it is only to make the mistake of taking ‘the Kremlin’s statements at face value.’
While it is claimed that support by Russia for the Minsk agreements was false, it is also claimed that ‘they weren’t a magic recipe for peace, but a tool of Russian military-diplomatic pressure whose meaning and use changed over time.‘
‘While in 2014-2017 the implementation of the Minsk Accords could have led to a negotiated reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine under international supervision, the international situation and Russia’s intentions have changed.’
Nowhere is it acknowledged that Ukraine had repeatedly rejected these agreements in practice and continued to treat the separate regions as the consequence of simple terrorism, hence its anti-terrorist operation to recapture them.
It is claimed that ‘the Ukrainian leadership pursued a ceasefire in Donbas from the summer of 2020’ while ‘the Kremlin used it as a bargaining chip to put pressure on Zelensky’s government and to create a flimsy pretext for an invasion.’ In fact the ceasefire was temporary and both separatist and Ukrainian forces carried out attacks, which increased just before the invasion.
The apologists for the Ukrainian state continue: ‘Zelensky’s last-ditch attempts to return to the negotiations in late 2021 were rejected by Putin, who tore up the Minsk Accords by recognising the independence of the breakaway regions.’ This claim may be a reference to the purported offer reported by Reuters, here and here for example, but which Russia has denied.
The authors state that before the invasion ‘the US and Europe made efforts to take Russia’s security preoccupations seriously, agreeing to make concessions in the areas of arms control and limitations on military exercises. Additionally, Joe Biden promised Putin that no missiles would be placed in Ukraine . . .’
Given the pre-history of NATO expansion; withdrawal from existing arms control treaties; the commitment of Ukraine to NATO membership; the endorsement of Ukrainian security policy by the US; increased participation of Ukraine in NATO exercises; a history of lying about NATO interventions in Eastern Europe and also, for example, in Libya; it is not credible to claim that at this late stage these US statements demonstrate that the war was avoidable through western good intentions.
The US claimed to know that the invasion would take place and made preparations for it; it cost nothing and was completely cynical to promise diplomatic talks involving concessions. On the Russian part, it was equally cynical then to demand NATO concessions it knew would not be delivered and to deny that an invasion was planned. Both were simply setting out positions just before war; nothing unusual in this.
Socialists need to cut through the lies of bourgeois diplomacy, not embroider it with nonsense that NATO ‘didn’t have a mechanism’ to agree steps that would prevent the invasion, or didn’t have time to do it. This war was a long time in the making; that it was preceded by a propaganda war is how every such war commences.
The crux of the argument is over the collapse of the deal negotiated in April in Istanbul, of which these defenders of the Ukrainian state say: ‘we might never know what would have happened had it not [collapsed].’ In their long description of the context of the negotiations there is no rebuttal of the particular point they set themsleves to refute: that Johnson made Ukraine know of western opposition to the deal and it was thereby taken no further by it.
That Russia later conducted the war is also offered as proof of the argument that it was determined to have it in the first place; something of a non sequitur. Like the Zelensky regime itself, these Ukrainian leftists conclude that they didn’t want this peace deal anyway – ‘It isn’t just any peace Ukrainians want.’ We are thus given to simply accept that no deal was possible because you can’t trust Russia: ‘Russia’s approach to the March negotiations likely wasn’t genuine.’
Since the war started the regime in Ukraine has taken part in negotiations, then walked away at the threat of a withdrawal of NATO support; has claimed it will not negotiate and then promised to pass a law enforcing this decision; then made a number of statements claiming it would negotiate on terms that it knows Russia will not accept.
The upshot of all this is the argument of the Ukrainian state that the war cannot end except through victory but that the cause of its continuation is not its fault in any way. This position can only be embraced by socialists if they also embrace the Ukrainian state and its allies, which is why abstract principles are applied to the first and the second ignored.
The more and more obvious leverage that the US and NATO have over Ukraine makes it obvious that they will have a big say over the end to the war and cannot be ignored.
The most publicised element of support from western imperialism has been its provision of arms, which undoubtedly have played a significant role. How significant is a matter to be determined. Supporters of Ukraine, and Ukrainians themselves, have been keen to assert their own agency in this war, although not so keen to assert it in its creation. It is Ukrainians who are fighting and dying, albeit with the support of Western military personnel to an undisclosed degree. The quality as well as the quantity of military support has been denigrated by observers, but the greater demands of the Ukrainian state cannot be satisfied without certainty of serious escalation.
More important than this has been the financial support without which the Ukrainian state would be collapsing to an even greater extent than it is; its economic contraction is currently estimated as a reduction in GDP of around a third this year. This points to the importance of the political support without which the Ukrainian state could not but accept it had no possibility of winning the war. Without the potential for a political home within western imperialism there would be no alternative but agreement with Russia. It is not enough to claim the right to self-defence in some physical sense when politically there is no viable project within which it could be effected, the alternative political resolution is therefore an agreement with the enemy.
Western imperialism, which currently means the United States, will determine how long the Ukrainian state continues to fight and for what objectives. Ukrainians are therefore prisoners of the US, which means their leftist supporters are no less tied to it. Ironic for a group constantly parroting the demand for self-determination.
New Left Review ends its editorial by noting that theoretically Europe could have balanced against the US but that ‘after fifty years of sapped sovereignty, European states lack the material and imaginative resources for a counter-hegemonic project.’ It concludes that ‘In the 2020s, the Europeans are wide awake, smiling and cheering, exulting in their ‘strategic autonomy’ as they are frog- marched towards the next global conflict for US primacy.’
The concern with the power of European countries to stand against the US is touching for a journal that is so committed to Brexit and opposition to the EU. Does it really believe that a continent of independently organised states would have the material resources and thus the ‘sovereignty’ to counter US hegemony? Does it believe that Brexit has allowed Britain to play a more independent role against the US?
* * *
In the meantime, the Ukrainian state doesn’t cease to be capitalist and recognises that the war will end at some point. It therefore continues to implement its reactionary policies while its people fight for its defence. So New Left Review describes how Zelensky has pushed forward removal of labour protections from up to 70 per cent of the existing work-force. The unity of Ukraine celebrated by the Ukrainian left and its supporters in the west, and the former’s call for social peace, results in a one-sided suspension of the class struggle.
As ever, prosecution of national war entails subordination of its working class, an example of what Marx meant when he said in the Communist Manifesto that ‘the working men have no country’, better rendered as the working class has no fatherland. It should be recalled that during the Second World War British workers went on strike (in almost 9,000 stoppages between September 1939 and April 1945), but I’m pretty sure many would no doubt be aghast at such a suggestion today. Just like the Daily Mail, which has described them as revealing a ‘disgusting lack of patriotism’, such suggestions would be regarded as the parroting of ‘Russian talking points’ by ‘Putin stooges.’
The New Left Revieweditorial describes five aspects of the war but says nothing about any independent role for the working class. This is not a question of recognising that at present it plays no independent part but of identifying the role that it should play and the political basis on which this should rest.
Obviously, those supporting the self-determination of the Ukrainian state leave no role for it except cheering on the vehicle of its newly-adopted cause, while studiously avoiding any uneasiness at it also being the vehicle for the designs of western imperialism. Similarly, those favouring a victory for Russia, as a defeat for the main enemy, have left no role for the working class since this is a job that can only be achieved by the Russian state. I’m not sure these people will ever get around to removing such duties from the other enemies of the working class and in the meantime I assume they would oppose Russian workers taking action to stop the war being conducted by their state.
For socialists in the West, the task is to oppose the war, to seek its end and to oppose the interventions of its own states. This means opposing the supply of weapons and the sanctions from which they are suffering, through campaigns and any direct action that workers can collectively organise.
The role of socialist analysis is to expose the wretched treachery of those who would proclaim that the Ukrainian capitalist state, supported by Western imperialism, is engaged in some progressive struggle that the working class should not only support but for which it should make extraordinary sacrifices.
The main enemy is at home. It is always at home and hasn’t suddenly become our vicarious ally.
New Left Reviewstates that ‘Putin’s war, the second type of conflict at stake, has an ambiguous double character, defined by its twin adversaries, NATO and Ukraine. On the one hand, Russia’s mobilization began as a desperate defensive gamble against the advance of US military power. On the other, the invasion is a neo-imperialist war of conquest or partition, wavering in scope, provoked by Kiev’s declared option for incorporation into the West.’ The editorial states that ‘the two aspects of the war are distinct in their origins, aims and ideologies.’
This argument, however, sustains only one real difference, which is the ideological cover given by Putin for the Russian invasion; in all other respects the two aspects are one. As I argued on Facebook to a member of the Fourth International (FI) who condemned Putin’s imperialist justifications regarding the validity of Ukrainian claims to nationhood – Marxists should not take ideological justification for explanation.
There are not two wars going on in Ukraine, only one. That Ukraine is still fighting is due to Western support. Its justification is for self-determination and its left supporters have rallied to this flag in wilful ignorance of its meaning for socialists. The self-determination demanded by Ukraine entails the right to join NATO, which obviously threatens the self-determination of Russia, not to mention those in Crimea and other areas of the Ukrainian state that no longer wish to be ruled from Kyiv. Wilful ignorance exists for them too.
The result of a Ukrainian victory would be the subordination of minorities in a Ukrainian state. In the October issue of The Atlantic magazine the very pro-Ukrainian US journalist who visited the country notes that there is ‘a burning hatred of all things Russian, whether Putin or Pushkin, and open contempt for the Russian people, who are widely regarded as Putin’s slaves.’ What price the rights of those who see themselves as Russian in a victorious Ukraine?
A victory would see Ukraine join NATO as a subordinate member of that imperialist alliance. Militarily subordinated, already dependent on western arms, the Ukrainian state will have to sign up to new IMF or other lender conditions for help, for which the Ukrainian working class will pay. And this is what is termed self-determination! There would not be two victories in this war because there are not two wars going on, only one.
Nevertheless, New Left Review (NLR) states that ‘Russia’s invasion generated a third type of conflict: Ukraine’s war of national self-defence’. This is the argument that the war has two political characters that I have repeatedly rejected here and the series of posts starting here.
The argument presented is that:
‘The trauma of the invasion has inevitably forged a new national consciousness in Ukraine . . . Pride in Ukraine rose from 34 per cent in August 2021 to 75 per cent a year later. This has come at the price of a visceral hatred for Russians—‘the orcs’—whose terms Zelensky shares: ‘Until they get smashed in the face, they won’t understand anything’, he told the Wall Street Journal.’
‘In August 2022, 81 per cent of Ukrainians reported they felt ‘cold’ or ‘very cold’ towards Russian people, and nearly half regarded the populations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in the same hostile light. The proportion of people who think Ukrainian should be the only state language has risen from 47 to 86 per cent.’
The article notes one result – ‘Given the mixed genealogies and trans-border extended families in the region, this translates into innumerable strained or broken relationships; a third of Ukrainians define their predominant feeling as grief.’
A more pointed summary is expressed in The Atlantic magazine: ‘Ukraine’s present unity is unprecedented, but war – always intolerant of complexity and ambivalence – is pushing Ukrainians to construct an identity that is simpler than the country’s history. The war will not resolve the abiding question of what it means to be Ukrainian.’
The purported war of national defence is intensifying an already reactionary nationalism that no amount of left apologetics can render progressive. The Atlantic magazine author is correct that this ultra-nationalism does not reflect Ukrainian history, and the ‘new national consciousness’ is being built upon the worst history of the old. This new consciousness is not progressive, no matter that some Ukrainian socialists claim: that the war is an opportunity to create a progressive nationalist consciousness.
Its reactionary character can be seen in the views of many Ukrainians reported by the NLR editorial:
‘After the Maidan uprising in 2014, two-thirds of Ukrainians thought the country was ‘going in the wrong direction’, with a brief exception for the peace moves in 2019; now, over 75 per cent think it is heading in the right one. An overwhelming majority believes Ukraine will win the war, even though they think it may take a year or more.’
So, tens of thousands have been killed with many more injured; millions have become refugees at home and abroad; the economy has contracted catastrophically and the country effectively bankrupt. It faces a continuing war in which it either accepts defeat and loss of territory or it seeks to regain this territory against the wishes of much of the population it will conquer. All this is set to continue. This is not ‘heading in the right direction’.
Dig deeper, and it becomes clear that while the views of most Ukrainians may have been coloured by war, the long familiarity by many of the corrupt character of the state they are fighting for has not been forgotten.
The highest support is for the armed and security forces of the state, the most common expression of war in any country. Support for the President is also high. Support for other organisations is much lower and when it comes to the state bureaucracy, courts and political parties it becomes strongly negative. The expressions of hope among the majority of Ukrainians recorded in another opinion poll are not new; they have been raised many times before in the recent past, including, for some, after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan uprising in 2013/2014, plus the elections of various Presidents including Zelensky.
One of the most dramatic turnarounds in popularity is that of President Zelensky and this is the most marked illustration of the reactionary character of the war. Elected promising an end to corruption and peace he has been exposed as having his own offshore account, like previous oligarchs and corrupt leaders, appointing his own supporters to positions of power, and delivering his country into an avoidable war, for which he should not be absolved of his share of responsibility. His popularity is testament to the fact that he has, certainly he wouldn’t have had his picture in Vogue if he hadn’t.
Further evidence of the reactionary character of the war in legitimising the reactionary direction of the Ukrainian state are the words of one Ukrainian ‘socialist’ in a radio interview, who, while pointing out the regressive social policies of Zelensky, declares enthusiastic support for his policy of war, lamenting only that he does not unite the country to his satisfaction! His words have been spoken before by every social-imperialist lamenting that his capitalist rulers do not reciprocate their own prostration to their class enemy:
‘What the Zelenskyy government does is absolutely awful and creates a lot more social instability [inaudible] in times of war by using the situation as a pretext for attacking the rights of trade unions, of the people who are in precarious conditions, attacking of housing rights, of social rights, depriving of basic social securities for the needs of advancing their market fundamentalist ideology.’
‘At the same time, they are progressing privatization laws. They are even privatizing the [inaudible] industry, so in times of war, where war economy is needed and social dialogue and social stability is absolutely necessary to enforce, they are pushing for awful neoliberal reforms.’
‘They’re actually using the situation of the war to push for the most horrible reforms in economic democracy and trade union rights that were introduced a few years ago, that they failed to push at that time. For them it’s a possibility to achieve their vision of Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s a pretty good vision, especially in times of war. It’s absolutely compromising the Ukrainian defence.’
The war therefore, contrary to the view of New Left Review (NLR) is not one of ‘Ukraine’s war of national self-defence’, and the growth of Ukrainian nationalism preceding and during it has not been the expression of universal emancipatory beliefs. As we have seen, the views are Russophobic even while presented by Ukrainian ‘socialists’ as ‘healthy’. These views are a more accurate reflection of the nature of the war being fought by the Ukrainian state than the strident appeals to democratic values equally hypocritically trumpeted by the West.
The view that the war is the responsibility of the Russian people (no doubt while it is also illogically maintained that Ukraine is more democratic than Russia) is confirmed by the earlier opinion poll quoted above. It recorded that while ‘86% of respondents believe that the Russian leadership is primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine 42.5% also believe that the same responsibility lies with the citizens of Russia.’ The poll, however, also records that ‘at the same time, about 20%, in addition, blame the Ukrainian leadership for the invasion, and 18% and 16%, respectively, blame NATO member states and the U.S. leadership.’ This shows a greater appreciation among a significant number of Ukrainians of the causes of the war than the left cheerleaders of the Ukrainian state inside and outside it.
This finding illustrates that there are still deep fissures in the Ukrainian population, even among those still part of the Ukrainian state. The process of radicalisation of the population by ultranationalism has not been comprehensively successful. This is one reason it is wrong to characterise Ukraine as either a fascist state or dominated by fascism. Equally however, it is more than disgraceful that Western left supporters of the war have sought to minimise or downplay its importance, which they would, one would hope, not be so keen to do if similar influence existed in their own countries.
The growth of nationalism has gone hand in hand with the process of ‘decommunisation’, both of which have had the function of covering for the attacks on working class living standards and political rights resulting from the drastic imposition of capitalism into a previously non-capitalist society. While directed at the symbols and history of Stalinism, decommunisation has been useful to discredit any left alternative to what is called neoliberalism. Nationalism has repeatedly been employed by successive politicians and their oligarch sponsors to deflect from the failure of their austerity to deliver improvements for the majority.
The hegemony of nationalism has been demonstrated again and again as even popular uprisings against corruption have been exploited by the far right to advance its cause. The inchoate strivings by many Ukrainians, for example in the Maidan uprising, have empowered the far right and its oligarch sponsors. Their leading role has endowed them with legitimacy and witnessed their slogans become popularised outside their ranks. Its historical figures, such as Stepan Bandera, have become the precedent for, and exemplar of, Ukrainian nationalism, to be celebrated in iconography, stamps, a national holiday, street names, demonstrations and re-writing of history.
This has also involved assimilation of prominent far right figures into other parties and into the armed detachments of the state’s security forces. Far right violence has been tolerated and sometimes important in setting the limits to state action, such as its implementing the Minsk Accords. The ideological influence of the far right has far exceeded their numbers.
The Atlantic magazine journalist interviewed a sculptor in Lviv who ‘could hardly keep up with requests from Territorial Defence units’ for busts of Stepan Bandera. When asked what she thought of his views, the sculptor ‘had little to say’. He was just a symbol of resistance – “Don’t fuck with Ukraine.”
The problem is not that the majority of Ukrainians have thereby become fascists, the excuse is often offered that they are not aware of his views. It is that his followers today have a standing that means they are not and cannot be challenged, and without challenge their reactionary views cannot be confronted. The post-Euromaidan civic nationalism of liberals did not therefore undermine ethnic nationalism but empowered it, helping exclude a radical socialist agenda.
The strength of the far-right reflects the nature and strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the latter is not a replacement for it. The assimilation, prominence and legitimacy of it all reflects not so much the independent strength of fascism in Ukraine, which is real enough despite embarrassed attempts to now minimise it, but the particularly reactionary nature of a mainstream Ukrainian nationalism that can assimilate it, accept its precepts and prominence, and lend it legitimacy. This is not simply an ideological problem, or even barrier to the left, but a threat to any idea of being able to reconcile to its rule to the populations of eastern and southern Ukraine the state wishes to reoccupy.
Ultra-nationalism influences the potential for continued war. The opinion poll above states that:
‘. . . the question arises, what can be considered a victory? The majority of respondents (55%) say that the withdrawal of Russian troops from the entire territory of Ukraine and the restoration of borders as of January 2014 can be considered a victory. Another 20.5% are even more radical – a victory in the war for them would be the destruction of the Russian army and assistance to the revolt/breakdown inside Russia. A relatively small proportion of respondents would consider the end of the war with some kind of concessions from Ukraine a victory. About 9% would consider the withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukrainian territory except occupied Crimea a victory, 7.5% would consider the restoration of the status quo as of February 23, 2022.’
But war imposes a view of its own, whether dressed up as national defence or not. In a recent Irish Times article the author of a book on Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ reports his findings in a survey during the summer in three Ukrainian cities close to the southeast battlefields. He states that ‘almost half agreed it was imperative to seek a ceasefire to stop Russian killing Ukraine’s young men. Slightly more supported negotiations with Russia on a complete ceasefire, with a quarter totally against and a fifth declaring themselves neutral . . . Those most touched by the war, namely the internally displaced, were more likely to prioritise saving lives. Other research reveals that those farthest from the battlefields have the most hawkish attitudes.’
Maybe this goes some way to explaining the moral righteousness of those western leftists supporting the Ukrainian state’s war; that and their rotten politics.
The editorial of the most recent New Left Review covers the war in Ukraine. It attempts to ‘throw some light’ on the war through an analysis similar to that of Ernest Mandel’s examination of World War II.
Mandel claimed that the war could be defined as falling into five categories : an inter-imperialist war between the US, Japan, Germany and Britain; a war of a degenerated workers’ state – the Soviet Union – against German imperialism and its allies; a war of the Chinese people led by Mao Zedong against Japanese imperialism that also involved a social revolution against the Chinese nationalist regime; wars of national liberation in the colonies of European imperialist powers, and lastly wars of resistance against Nazi occupation waged in Yugoslavia etc.
All these involved imperialism on at least one side and were primarily the result of inter-imperialist competition arising from the forces of capitalist accumulation breaking out of existing national limitations. It is therefore correct to state that the war was an imperialist one in which the Soviet Union, certain European workers and peoples in the colonies found themselves fighting it in various forms.
New Left Review begins by stating that ‘there is no avoiding the question of the civil conflict within Ukraine itself. On its own, this could not have generated an international war; yet the fighting could not have escalated without it.’
This is already an uncomfortable analysis for left supporters of Ukraine for whom there is only one type of Ukrainian – the pro-western one – with the pro-Russian minority usually ignored. Their prime justification for support can’t allow that the nationalist demand for Ukrainian self-determination must exclude self-determination for this minority, since the Ukraine it supports is fighting against any such right that it claims only for itself.
It is of course argued, not least by anti-Russian Ukrainians, that their struggle is existential – the very existence of their country is under threat. This, however, does not address the problem that the self-determination they seek does not allow for equal rights to its minority.
The potential for a Ukrainian polity that did so was excluded even before the invasion of 24 February through its rejection of the Minsk Accords. This view also fails to recognise that Russia invaded with far too small a force to occupy all of Ukraine. It would not be in Russia’s interests to attempt an occupation of such a large country and this has clearly not been its aim; clear anyway to those not seeking any and every argument to support the Ukrainian state.
This does not mean that this Ukrainian view has no validity; the war has, like all wars, changed the coordinates of all the parties to it through imposing its own logic. Ukraine is the weaker party in any struggle against Russia and within these parameters would be expected to be unable to withstand the imposition of a new partition of the country demanded by Russia. In this case the existence of the remaining Ukrainian state would not be in question and Russia would require only that it be militarily neutral.
The intervention of the US and NATO has given Ukraine the belief that it can win, despite the devastation caused by the war including mass emigration; the occupation of nearly 20 per cent of its territory; economic catastrophe and effective bankruptcy staved off only by western finance, and the nightmare of the loss of electricity in the coming winter caused by damage to the power system by Russian missiles and drones.
This belief has meant Ukraine rejected a peace deal brokered by Turkey and has followed the advice, if that is the right word, of western imperialist backers that it should fight on to victory. This has meant a rejection of any negotiations with Russia and the setting of preconditions that it knows are unacceptable (such as regime change). The US has, however, now become concerned that this weakens support around the world for its client and is seeking to modify this appearance of intransigence.
Like its fervent left supporters in the West who also seek ‘victory’, the Ukrainian state is claiming – according to The Guardian newspaper – that ‘Ukraine [is] winning the war and therefore to sit down at the negotiating table now would be “nonsense”.
The Guardian reports that ‘Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podalyak, told Radio Svoboda, that Ukraine will only negotiate with Russia once Russian troops have left all of Ukraine’s territory, including those it occupied in 2014. The secretary of Ukraine’s security council said on Tuesday the “main condition” for the resumption of negotiations with Russia would be the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Oleksiy Danilov said Ukraine also needed the “guarantee” of modern air defences, aircraft, tanks and long-range missiles.’
In relation to any call for “genuine negotiations”, President Zelenskiy is reported as saying that ‘Ukraine had repeatedly proposed such talks, but “we always received insane Russian responses with new terrorist attacks, shelling or blackmail”. He went on to say that “Once again – restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the UN Charter, compensation for all damages caused by the war, punishment of every war criminal and guarantees that this will not happen again. These are completely understandable conditions.”
What is clear is that these war aims and conditions for negotiation guarantee only continued war. It would appear this approach is supported by many Ukrainians because they believe they can win, which in turn is a consequence of western imperialist support. The Guardian nevertheless records that ‘Kyiv would fight on even if it is “stabbed in the back” by its allies’.
In stating that the war is existential the Ukrainian leadership is unnecessarily making it so. It would be impossible for Ukraine to win the war without Western assistance and they have so far been unable to do so with it, regardless of the over-hyped gains made in recent months. The Russians have learned that they could not win it with the forces they initially employed so have carried out a ‘partial mobilisation’ of a reported 300,000 reservists with which they hope to establish what they would consider victory.
Since Russia long ago made it clear that a Ukrainian state as a part of NATO was unacceptable, victory would now be a buffer zone composed of annexed territory with enough local support to make it a relatively stable part of the Russian Federation. This is its solution to the political divisions within Ukraine, which is no more than a mirror image of the Ukrainian one.
It would be a relatively hollow victory if the remaining Ukrainian state was to become the base for a western imperialist threat, and the end-of-the-war conditions proclaimed by the Ukrainian regime involve precisely that; even excluding recovery of all territory lost since 2014 this would not be acceptable to Russia. The declared aim of “modern air defences, aircraft . . . and long-range missiles’ would establish exactly what Russia invaded to prevent. An effective air defence along with long-range missiles, which could only be pointed at Moscow, is what opposition to Ukrainian membership of NATO has always been about. Even now, in the middle of the war, the US has so far refused to supply long-range artillery shells.
The conditions set by Ukraine therefore imply that the objectives set by Russia can only be achieved by reducing the rest of the Ukrainian state unoccupied by Russia to one either incapable of representing a threat, with all the devastation that this would entail, or Ukraine declares its military neutrality and abjures any attempt to militarily recover lost territory. Since Ukraine would not accept the Minsk Accords, this looks unlikely unless western imperialism decides it will reverse its support for these conditions. This, of course, could all be fudged, just as the Minsk Accords were, but that is what has brought us to full-scale war.
It started because Ukraine chose to ally with western imperialism and is now dependent on it. The Russian invasion has turned the majority of its people even more decisively against it, to the extent that it appears that they will not agree to what they consider an unacceptable peace. They are prepared to continue a war that Russia considers involves its decisive interests, and in which it cannot therefore accept defeat because defeat in Ukraine would present a much greater threat and represent a much greater loss than that encompassed within the boundaries of that state.
In such a ‘stalemate’ the western left that supports Ukraine will no doubt demand a Russian retreat regardless of what that state conceives as its vital interests. It is as if the world could be remade according to some predetermined state of moral justice, and through the actions of western imperialism and its client state to boot! The full results of such a victory are scarcely considered.
They will likely go along with whatever support their own imperialist states provide until perhaps such escalation threatens more or less immediate face-to-face war with Russia. Their opposition would then be, as the saying goes, a day late and a dollar short.
Irish politicians give a standing ovation in the Dail following a speech by Zelensky. People before Profit TDs stand but do not applaud.
Paul Murphy clearly recognises the problem posed by his analysis that the war in Ukraine is both one of national liberation and an inter-imperialist conflict. He asks himself:
‘What is the balance of these elements of the conflict – national liberation struggle and inter-imperialist conflict? Unlike with Serbia at the start of World War I, this is certainly not a case of 99% inter-imperialist conflict and 1% national liberation struggle. It has not, at least yet, resulted in all out global conflict, with multiple countries being directly drawn in. The different aspects are more evenly balanced. However, the trend of development has been for the inter-imperialist element to predominate more over time, as more US weapons are sent, and the number of NATO troops in eastern Europe having increased tenfold since the start of the year.’
How does this help him decide? He still declares that ‘supporting the right of Ukrainian people to self-defence is vital.’ Why? If ‘the trend of development has been for the inter- imperialist element to predominate more over time’ why is this still vital? In what way is it vital? For what purpose? Is it some quantitative assessment that at some point tips 51% support for ‘Ukraine’ become only 49% and thus 51% support for . . . who exactly?
Given the approach he takes these are impossible questions for him to answer, or at least answer correctly, and this is because the wrong question is being asked. The correct question is what the interests of the working class are, and repeatedly we have shown from numerous arguments that these do not involve support for the Ukrainian state, or US imperialism and NATO intervention.
Murphy gets himself tied up by formulas he has learnt but are precisely only formulas because he doesn’t stop to consider their basis in reality. This leads to proffered answers that are equally unreal.
He sets himself tasks that should be easy to answer. He says that his analysis – ‘means socialists must attempt to disentangle, to the degree possible, the legitimate resistance to Russian imperialist invasion, and the inter-imperialist conflict which we oppose.’ And how would we do that if we claim it is a war of national liberation? If we consider an already independent capitalist state must be supported in war because of the formula of self-determination?
The protection of the Ukrainian working class does not lie in the continuation of a war that continues only because of imperialism. The desire to conquer Donbas and Crimea will deliver only more war and more suffering for themselves and the workers of these regions. Only an end to the war can offer the prospect of a peace that can begin to address their needs; war on behalf of the US and NATO offers nothing but more death and destruction for everyone except the western imperialists! More or less arms from NATO does not affect this truth.
Murphy says that his ‘disentangling’ ‘means supporting the right of Ukrainian people to resist. We don’t blame people in Ukraine for getting weaponry from wherever they can source it, but we do encourage them to operate on the basis of complete independence from NATO’. But it isn’t the people of Ukraine who are resisting, it is the Ukrainian state and the political regime that walked them into this war despite all the warnings. The majority of the Ukrainian people might believe it is their war, but if they have guns in hand, these have been provided more and more by western imperialism and it is not for themselves that they are killing and dying.
They cannot operate ‘on the basis of complete independence from NATO’ because the state they are under the command of is not operating ‘on the basis of complete independence from NATO’. To do this, Ukrainian workers would have to be independently organised from their capitalist state. This, of course, may be practically impossible but this doesn’t mean you ignore the terrible consequences of not being able to, or the price to be paid by being subordinated to your own state. It certainly doesn’t justify thinking that the interests of the Ukrainian working class can be collapsed into the idea of a Ukrainian people without class distinctions, and a Ukrainian state that it is in their interests to oppose. The fact this state and its political leadership has led them into this war while promising peace is proof of this.
Murphy claims that ‘If such genuinely independent forces existed, socialists could even fundraise to send them weapons. However, those of us living in the western camp, the dominant imperialist bloc in the world, cannot support NATO forces pouring weapons into Ukraine in the pursuit of an inter-imperialist conflict, risking an escalatory spiral that could lead to armageddon.’
If independent working class forces existed in Ukraine they would have opposed the war from the start and opposed the project of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists to re-occupy Donbas and Crimea. They would have opposed NATO membership and sought to campaign jointly with their fellow workers in Donbas, Crimea and Russia. That they were too small to do so does not mean they should adopt the alternative of joining those forces who prevented their doing what they should have done had they been more powerful.
What socialists in the west should do is oppose the war, oppose sanctions, and oppose the imperialist alliance in their own countries or attempts by their politicians, as in Ireland, to get them to join it. This is impossible if you claim that there is some justified war going on that it is ‘vital’ to support and your own state is doing just that.
Murphy claims that ‘A just peace would only be possible on the basis of the withdrawal of these [Russian] occupation forces. Included in that should be recognition of the right of minorities within Ukraine to self-determine their own future. An essential condition for the fair exercise of that right in Crimea or the Donbas region for example would have to be the withdrawal of the invading army and the right of all refugees to return.’
‘In contrast to the calls for further militarisation, we should focus on demands which can assist the Ukrainian people. The demand for cancellation of Ukrainian debt, coming from social movements within Ukraine, may yet gather momentum, as it becomes clear that reconstruction will be impossible with the mountain of illegitimate debt that arose because of the oligarchisation of Ukrainian society. This debt has grown even further as a result of war loans from the Western powers, which have no intention of releasing Ukraine from debt bondage.’
The Ukrainian state has already rejected the rights of minorities within its state, which is why it refused to implement the Minsk agreements and continued, for example, shelling Donetsk city. Victory for the state of Ukraine will quite obviously not change this. Equally, so obvious is it that imperialism will exploit Ukraine should it win the war that Murphy himself notes that western imperialism has no intention of leaving it debt free. What cannot be repaid will not be repaid but this means only that new debt will replace the old and the amount to be repaid will depend on how much can be squeezed from Ukrainian workers after ‘their’ victory.
The contradictions of Murphy’s position will either be resolved positively or sprout further confusion down the line. From a theoretical point of view the way forward is to review handed-down formulas so that their meaning is properly understood. From a practical point of view it is to join those in Ireland attempting to campaign against the war; and from a psychological point of view it is to stand 100 per cent against the policies and lies that bourgeois politicians and its media has poured into the heads of what passes for ‘public opinion’.
Paul Murphy states on four occasions that Ukraine is a former colony, for example, that ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a brutal imperialist invasion of a former colony is clear.’ Repetition gives the impression of the relevance of the concept of national liberation and anti-colonial war, except of course, we are informed four times that Ukraine is not a colony. So, if it’s not a colony it must be an independent capitalist state, in which case Lenin’s policy of self-determination obviously cannot apply in the way it is assumed it must.
The outcome of believing that some principle of self-determination applies to every capitalist state in a war, perhaps as long as it finds itself up against a more powerful adversary, could only promise future support for one capitalist state after another. The possibility of an independent working class position is permanently lost. Ironically, both those who support Ukraine and those who support Russia (because it is defending itself and China against the US) surrender working class politics and just pick a different poison.
The ’reality’ of the Russian invasion he draws attention to – the death, suffering and destruction of war – does not lead to support for the Ukrainian state whether presented as synonymous with its people or not. The way to deal with the reality of this obvious tragedy is to oppose the war, oppose the Russian invasion, and oppose its never-ending continuation promised by the Ukrainian state and their imperialist supporters’ demand for victory. This is the position that this blog has argued from the start.
In opposing those who do not support the Ukrainian state, Murphy says that these people ‘by declaring that western capitalism has already robbed Ukrainian people of social and national rights . . . effectively attempt to cover up their own denial of the rights of the Ukrainian people to self-determination.’ But if it is true that the Western powers have, through their intervention, denuded Ukraine of its rights then what independent role is this state now playing; how could it have become anything other than a tool of Western imperialism, and if this is so how on earth can it be supported?
Murphy accepts that ‘The Russian invasion of Ukraine cannot be divorced from the ongoing conflict between the US-led NATO alliance and Russia and its alliance’ but if this is the case then, given these geopolitical forces involved, this is what defines the character of the war. It is not therefore in the interests of either the Ukrainian or Russian working class that it continues.
But this is far from the position of those on the left supporting the war for whom the victory of Ukraine is the objective, an objective only achievable if it continues to fight, no matter what forces the more powerful Russian state throws at it. Even if Ukraine with western imperialist support was able to achieve their improbable victory, it would involve the occupation of Crimea and Donbas against the wishes of the majority of its people, make Ukraine a NATO member, and allow the stationing of large conventional forces and nuclear weapons that would threaten Russia.
Whoever thinks that this will bring peace and stability probably still believes the Versailles Treaty was a good idea, that NATO really is a defensive alliance, and that Ukrainian ultra-nationalism will be satisfied. Unfortunately, if you already support a reactionary capitalist state that has armed its native fascists; sought the unlimited support of western imperialism; supported a regime that has demanded no-fly zones and ‘pre-emptive strikes’ on Russia that would lead to World War, then your illusions in the fruits of their victory is entirely consistent with this reactionary logic. So why the attempt to support Ukraine and oppose its NATO allies, without whom it would already have collapsed?
Paul Murphy correctly notes that the weapons going to the Ukrainian military ‘which is increasingly integrated into NATO . . . are not being transferred by western imperialism out of concern for the Ukrainian people’s rights, but in pursuance of its own interests – which are not those of working class people.’ Again, if this is the case, how can those who are wielding these weapons be pursuing any other interest than those of the imperialist powers providing them?
The interests of US imperialism is to neuter Russia as a means of surrounding and subordinating China, and which – through the sanctions directed at Russia – also hobble the European Union as its largest economic Competitor. The lengths it is prepared to go to are illustrated by its destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines that cut off Europe from cheaper gas supplies and make it more dependent on much more expensive US gas.
Already European industry is closing and looking to relocate production. The muted response from western media would not have occurred had Russia, for some inexplicable reason, decided to blow up its own pipeline and future source of revenue, but is another perfect example of the censorship that defines western media coverage of the war. How is the victory of Ukraine and US imperialism in the interests of European workers, unless you think a permanent cost of living crisis is a good idea?
Why on earth should anyone believe that there is also an identity of interests between the Ukrainian working class and US imperialism, and that the ever-increasing reliance and subordination of the Ukrainian state to imperialism will not be at its expense? Already, even pro-war Ukrainian socialists complain about the effect of western imperialism on the country, through IMF demanded austerity and privatisation. Yet their subordination to the Ukrainian state leaves them supporting the war and defending the opportunity for its intensification.
This left supports ever-increasing military and financial support by imperialism while flying the kite that this should not be paid for – that the debt of the Ukrainian state should be cancelled. The potential altruistic intentions of imperialism are given another opportunity to disappoint as the pro-imperialist logic of their position works itself out. Pretending to be based on ‘reality’ they require a belief in the incredible to make any sense.
Paul Murphy does not endorse some of these woeful illusions but support for the Ukrainian state requires going down this road, unless the contradictory nature of his characterisation of the war is resolved correctly. He too calls for cancellation of the debt while noting that ‘the Western powers . . . have no intention of releasing Ukraine from debt bondage.’