1 What did Lenin mean by self-determination of nations?

A recurring theme of those backing the Ukrainian state in the current war is reliance on  Lenin’s support for the right of nations to self-determination.  It is the purpose of this and the following posts set out what this policy was.

In 1903 Lenin wrote ‘The National Question in Our Programme’ in which he set out its meaning to those who ‘did not find this demand sufficiently clear’, something that needs to be attempted again over a century later.

He wrote that the demand to be clarified was the “recognition of the right to self-determination for all nations forming part of the state.”  He explained it in this way:

‘The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.’

‘As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.’

The main points of this clarification of the responsibilities of the socialist party bear repeating:

  1. ‘its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations.’
  2. ‘We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities.’ and
  3. ‘it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity.’

In relation to Ukraine, it is an independent state, it is not part of a separate state so the question of whether socialists ‘can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state’ does not arise.

So if this passage does not support application to it of the “recognition of the right to self-determination . . . ” in respect of Ukraine, this does not at all mean that the passage has no relevance.  For it advances the view that the ‘principal task [is] to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations’ and that this is to be done through seeking ‘the very closest unity of the proletariat’.

The role of this policy at the time Lenin wrote is explained in reference to the situation in Poland; that 

‘Class antagonism has now undoubtedly relegated national questions far into the background, but, without the risk of lapsing into doctrinairism, it cannot be categorically asserted that some particular national question cannot appear temporarily in the foreground of the political drama.’  

He goes on:

‘In including in its programme recognition of the right of nations to self- determination, it takes into account all possible, and even all conceivable, combinations. That programme in no way precludes the adoption by the Polish proletariat of the slogan of a free and independent Polish republic, even though the probability of its becoming a reality before socialism is introduced is infinitesimal.’

‘The programme merely demands that a genuinely socialist party shall not corrupt proletarian class-consciousness, or slur over the class struggle, or lure working class with bourgeois-democratic phrases, or break the unity of the proletariat’s present-day political struggle. This reservation is the crux of the matter, for only with this reservation do we recognise self-determination.’

Lenin may be criticised (in retrospect) for unjustified optimism on the prospects for socialism, and it is clear that the context of the class struggle affects the application of the policy, but neither of these considerations justify the widespread application of this policy today, which is used to advance the argument that Ukraine should be considered to avail of it like every other country.  Rather, the numbered priorities above renders its widespread application untenable and the particular circumstances of Ukraine, and its alliance with imperialism, render it least applicable to that country.

In general the increased economic development of previously economically backward countries; the consequent enormous development of the working class and therefore potential for class struggle, and the disappearance of nearly all colonial possessions, means that the above numbered priorities have even greater salience today.

In 1913 Lenin noted in ‘The Working Class and the National Question’ that ‘In our times the proletariat alone upholds the real freedom of nations and the unity of workers of all nations.  For different nations to live together in peace and freedom or to separate and form different states (if that is more convenient for them), a full democracy, upheld by the working class, is essential.’

This was written while Lenin believed that the coming revolution in the Tsarist Empire would create a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants and not a socialist revolution. 

In ‘Theses on the National Question’ written in 1913 Lenin explained specifically what the programme of the Party meant: ‘The article of our programme (on the self-determination of nations) cannot be interpreted to mean anything but political self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form a separate state.’ (emphasis added -SM)

He then went on to state its application, including considering ‘the fact that throughout Eastern Europe (Austria and the Balkans) and in Asia—i.e., in countries bordering on Russia—the bourgeois-democratic reform of the state that has everywhere else in the world led, in varying degree, to the creation of independent national states or states with the closest, interrelated national composition, has either not been consummated or has only just begun.’

This meant that socialists should ‘be unconditionally hostile to the use of force in any form whatsoever by the dominant nation (or the nation which constitutes the majority of the population) in respect of a nation that wishes to secede politically.’  Again, we can see that we are not speaking of socialists defending the prerogatives of an already independent capitalist state.

Instead Lenin warns ‘Social-Democracy, therefore, must give most emphatic warning to the proletariat and other working people of all nationalities against direct deception by the nationalistic slogans of “their own” bourgeoisie, who with their saccharine or fiery speeches about “our native land” try to divide the proletariat and divert its attention from their bourgeois intrigues while they enter into an economic and political alliance with the bourgeoisie of other nations and with the tsarist monarchy.’

In the case of Ukraine, this quote reminds one of the ‘saccharine’ and ‘fiery’ speeches of Volodymyr Zelensky and that the working people of that country are paying for the intrigues of its current ruling class and its alliance with NATO and western imperialism.  This policy has historically been against the opposition of the majority of the Ukrainian people; but it is testament to the thoroughly reactionary character of the Russian invasion and previous Russian policy that these have driven many to now support NATO membership who previously did not.  However, as Lenin notes, it is not socialist policy to absolve the Ukrainian people’s bourgeois leadership of its criminal policy never mind rally behind it.

That Lenin supported self-determination, the right to secede and form a separate state, did not mean that he favoured it, quite the contrary.  In a letter in 1913, in relation to the right to federation and autonomy, he wrote:

“Right to autonomy?” Wrong again. We are in favour of autonomy for all parts; we are in favour of the right to secession (and not in favour of everyone’s seceding!). Autonomy is our plan for organising a democratic state. Secession is not what we plan at all. We do not advocate secession. In general, we are opposed to secession.’

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, also written in 1913 Lenin writes:

‘If a Ukrainian Marxist allows himself to be swayed by his quite legitimate and natural hatred of the Great-Russian oppressors to such a degree that he transfers even a particle of this hatred, even if it be only estrangement, to the proletarian culture and proletarian cause of the Great-Russian workers, then such a Marxist will get bogged down in bourgeois nationalism. Similarly, the Great-Russian Marxist will be bogged down, not only in bourgeois, but also in Black-Hundred nationalism, if he loses sight, even for a moment, of the demand for complete equality for the Ukrainians, or of their right to forum an independent state.’

Ukraine is already an independent state, but it is not in the interests of Russian workers that the Russian state invade Ukraine in the interests of its great power pretensions, however relatively strong or weak either state may be.  Neither can the invasion be justified by reference to claims to ensure geopolitical security.  For socialists, however much they can be referenced to explain the actions of the Russian state, they in no way justify it. Socialists are not beholden to the security claims of capitalist states.  Many ordinary Russians have courageously publically opposed the war and this has been welcomed by many Ukrainians.

But this is not enough, as Lenin implies.  It is not enough for Ukrainian workers to oppose Russian aggression as some brave Russians have done. Just as these Russians have opposed their own ruling class and its state so must Ukrainians do the same and oppose their own rulers.  These rulers have quite easily whipped up the most extreme nationalist poison against everything Russian so that in the West even Russian artists and athletes have been assigned responsibility for the invasion and sanctioned.  In Ukraine itself this nationalism has gone as far as mobilising the most reactionary armed forces, including outright fascists whose hatred of all things Russian can guarantee nothing but death.

to be continued

Forward to part 2

What sort of Anti-War Campaign? (6) – the confessions of Gilbert Achcar

The arguments of Gilbert Achcar covered in the previous post are a melange of the ridiculous, hypocritical, nonsensical and indifference to working class interests.  It has received criticism from Alex Callinicos, which leads Achcar to double down on his argument.

‘There is no denial—and certainly not by me—that there is an inter-imperialist conflict behind the Ukraine war. But the argument you quote from me is not about that: it is about the fact that the war in Ukraine is not an inter-imperialist war, even though it very obviously takes place on a background of inter-imperialist conflict.’

So war is the continuation of politics by other means but not in this case.  The conflict between imperialism that he admits to apparently disappears when war begins as if it bore no relation either to its cause or its nature.  He supports arming Ukraine so that it can affect the outcome of the war but claims such imperialist intervention is not politically significant!  The ‘background’ has been foregrounded and both imperialisms are involved in a war but it’s not an inter-imperialist war!

How does he justify this?

‘What is the difference here? Quite straightforward indeed, from the Leninist perspective that you like to refer to—had the Ukraine war been an inter-imperialist war, internationalists should have advocated revolutionary defeatism on both sides. Since it is not an inter-imperialist war, revolutionary defeatism is on the order of the day on the Russian side only, whereas, as you yourself admit, “it would indeed be good if the Ukrainian people were able to drive out the Russian invaders”.

The fact that Achcar does not take a principled position is used as evidence that it is not required! A brass neck that a blowtorch couldn’t mark! So how does he justify this one? 

‘An inter-imperialist war … is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo) colonial domain of the other.’

Aside from the fact that the only imperialist war this envisages is one that threatens world war and nuclear oblivion, it seems to say that imperialism cannot use surrogates as its weapon, which is absurd.  Every day that passes demonstrates US and NATO’s involvement in the war, with some NATO powers seeking to impose war aims on Ukraine and therefore determine its objectives as their own.  We have already alluded to the reactionary consequences of a Ukraine victory, which would also be a victory for the US and NATO.

But this war is not even a proxy war involving two states fighting each other with one supported by one imperialism and the other by its rival. In this case one ‘imperialist’ power is directly engaged, while the other capitalist state directly engaged seeks formal alliance with the other much more powerful imperialism.  It is already in partnership with NATO, in practical alliance, and is trained and increasingly armed by it.  This does not make it a one-sided imperialist war with a righteous adversary but makes US imperialism much more involved and interested in its outcome precisely because Russia is very directly involved. That’s why we have the unprecedented propaganda war; the unprecedented economic war through sanctions and the unprecedented arming of a belligerent. This ‘arms-length’ imperialist war is still an imperialist war.

This too is even inadvertently admitted by Achcar:

‘If Ukraine were to succeed in rejecting the Russian yoke, it is more than likely that it would be vassalized to Western powers. But the point is that, if it fails to do so, it will be enserfed to Russia. And you don’t have to be a qualified medievalist to know that the condition of a vassal is incomparably preferable to that of a serf!’

This, of course, should be seen as an argument against both sides but not for Achcar.  So what is a ‘vassal’ – that Ukraine will become if it is victorious – but ‘a holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance.’  Where does that put the nonsense that this is a fight for Ukrainian self-determination?  Is this policy of Lenin, so badly misunderstood, really a policy of vassilisation?!  Socialists in the rest of the world should support the Ukrainian state so it can pay homage and allegiance to US imperialism and NATO!  But still it is claimed this is not, most definitely not, an imperialist war!

Straight from the horse’s mouth we have a confession that the Ukrainian struggle is not in pursuit of a bourgeois democratic demand but in pursuit of pre-bourgeois feudal status! Of course the language employed is metaphorical but the metaphorical language reveals what all good metaphors do – it is representative and symbolic of reality, the very obvious fact that this is not a war by Ukraine against imperialism but against Russian imperialism and for US and European imperialism. The Ukrainian state has come down on one side and idiot anti-imperialists have followed them.

Achcar says that ‘to describe the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, in which the latter country has no ambition, let alone intention, of seizing Russian territory, and in which Russia has the stated intention of subjugating Ukraine and seizing much of its territory – to call this conflict inter-imperialist, rather than an imperialist war of invasion, is an extreme distortion of reality’.

Except of course militarily defensive wars are not by that fact politically defensive by Marxist criteria, otherwise we would it seems, according to Achcar, be dragged into support for whatever capitalist power proved weakest in battle.  In any case Ukraine seeks to join NATO and Achcar has already endorsed seizing back territory in Crimea, which reality would most likely present as aggression against the majority of its population.

He says that ‘in their fight against Great Russian imperialism, led by an autocratic and oligarchic ultra-reactionary government in Moscow that presides over the destinies of one of the most unequal countries on the planet, the Ukrainian people deserve our full support. This certainly does not imply that we cannot criticize the Kyiv government.’

Except Achcar hardly does criticise Kyiv and according to his rationale why should he?  He supports Ukraine in the war and since everything else comes second such criticism wouldn’t matter!  Of course, that country is also ‘led by an autocratic and oligarchic ultra-reactionary government in Moscow Kyiv that presides over the destinies of one of the most unequal countries on the planet,’ but that too doesn’t matter to Achcar.  What difference there is between them is simply that one is much stronger militarily, is defending its own interests by itself while the other seeks to do the same, in so far as it can, by seeking alliance with the strongest imperialist powers.

What is involved is a clash of two imperialistic powers in which Ukraine has decisively chosen the much more powerful, but which Achcar seeks to relegate as simply a background ‘conflict’ of no consequence.  That the weaker ‘imperialist’ power opened up the invasion but not the violence, which has been ongoing for a number of years in the East of the country, is explained by the fact that Ukraine is next door to Russia.  That the distance between Kyiv and Washington DC is over 7,500 kms, but there is only 750 kms between it and Moscow, demonstrates the reach and power of the respective imperialist powers and what the balance of aggression actually is.

Ukraine has for some time been a victim of this background ‘conflict’, but concretely this has resulted in the desire of sectors of the Ukrainian political class and its oligarchy and state to throw itself onto the side of Western imperialism.  This risked war and that risk has now crystallised, so that while oligarchs get offside Ukrainian workers will be the victims of this policy.  The reactionary character of the war is again demonstrated in the fact that it binds Ukrainian workers closer to those who gambled with their lives.

One final element of Achcar’s argument should be disposed of.  He quotes Lenin:

“The German imperialists shamelessly violated the neutrality of Belgium, as belligerent states have done always and everywhere, trampling upon all treaties and obligations if necessary. Let us suppose that all the states interested in the observation of international treaties declared war on Germany with the demand for the liberation and indemnification of Belgium. In such a case, the sympathies of Socialists would, of course, be on the side of Germany’s enemies. But the whole point is that the “triple (and quadruple) entente” is waging war not over Belgium, this is perfectly well known, and only hypocrites conceal this. England is grabbing Germany’s colonies and Turkey; Russia is grabbing Galicia and Turkey, France wants Alsace-Lorraine and even the left bank of the Rhine…”

This quote might seem to support the argument that imperialism will exploit ‘shameless violations of neutrality’ in order to advance its own interests.  In other words, it provides absolutely no support for his argument in support of Ukraine, just as it would have been wrong for socialists to rally to Belgium in World War I.  So why does he drag up this quotation?

‘I hope that this quote makes clear enough to you the importance of drawing a clear distinction between a war opposing an imperialist power to a country that it tries to subjugate, even when rival imperialist powers support the latter country’s resistance.’  He points to Lenin’s hypothetical scenario that other imperialist powers might rally to defend Belgian neutrality for its own sake as a possible excuse to now support Ukraine.  But the whole point of Lenin’s example, indeed his whole pamphlet, is to demonstrate that this is not how imperialism works.  Indeed ‘the whole point’ is that imperialist powers engage in war to further their own interests.

Even Achcar seems to admit this, since he adds ‘Lenin says even if they “declared war” on its behalf, which is a useless hypothesis in my view since other imperialist powers would only declare war for their own imperialist interests, whatever they pretended’, which is precisely what western imperialist intervention is doing now

Achcar finishes by saying that the point he makes is simple—’Had Russia managed to crush the Ukrainian resistance, control the whole country and implement “regime change” as was obviously Putin’s intention and calculation, our voices as forces that advocate a drastic reduction of military expenditure and NATO’s dissolution would have been completely drowned by a tsunami of jingoistic warmongering.’

But now that this hasn’t happened have his voices for ‘drastic reduction of military expenditure and NATO’s dissolution . . . [not] been completely drowned by a tsunami of jingoistic warmongering’?  Unfortunately not, among other reasons because while we have still had ‘a tsunami of jingoistic warmongering’ we have not heard much from him or his comrades about NATO.  Rather we have been told to consider how much more important is the threat of Russia, and the necessity to defend the country that wants to join the Alliance, which of course will do wonders to the project of its dissolution he claims to favour. In effect, the politics of Achcar are not an opposition to ‘jingoistic warmongering’ but its chorus line, to the left of the stage of course.

concluded

Back to part 5

What sort of Anti-War Campaign? (5) – the arguments of Gilbert Achcar

Gilbert Achcar

I have argued that the Russian invasion has coloured the response of some on the left and defined their understanding of the nature of the war from which follows the socialist attitude to it.  This might seem both natural and obvious but the threat of war was known well before the invasion, which most did not expect, so there was plenty of time to consider what the nature of the potential war was going to be.

Instead, the approach criticised in this series of posts relies on the fact of invasion itself to determine understanding of the nature of the war and the socialist attitude.  Implicitly it ignores the view of Marxists, stated for example by Lenin in ‘Socialism and War’; that ‘for example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on Russia, and so forth, those would be “just,” “defensive” wars, irrespective of who attacked first.’ 

While the first impulse of Marxists should be to oppose one’s own capitalist state, this left has immediately rallied to it, and its position on the war is in no sense significantly different: both oppose the Russian invasion, support arming the Ukrainian state and make no distinction between the class interests involved either in Ukraine or in Britain itself.  The only criticism is hypocrisy of the British Government over its restrictive policy on refugees.

Ire is directed against those who refuse to support the Ukrainian state or the intervention by the western imperialist powers.  Facebook discussions have centred on how important it is not to be taken in by Putin’s propaganda, as if in the West we have not endured a deluge of propaganda informed by the Ukrainian side in the war.

We are expected to believe every statement by the Ukrainian regime when that state is one of the most corrupt in the world, as measured by Transparency International, ranking 122 out of 180 countries with a score of 32 and the worst in Europe with the exception of Russia, not far behind with a score of 29.  The least corrupt countries measured by this index score 88 with the Irish state scoring 74 and the British 78.

Lately righteous indignation has followed reporting of atrocities by the Russian army, as if atrocity has not always been part of war but does not define its political character.

So, to defend this position on the war, more ‘elaborate’ arguments have been presented herehere and in a debate on these positions here by Gilbert Achcar and Alex Callinicos.

Achcar understands that in order to avoid opposing both capitalist states in the war and to support Ukraine he needs to show that the victory of one side is progressive in some way, or at least to be preferred.  The argument he proposes invites an incredulous response:

‘The fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression. If it fails in turn, the effect on all global and regional powers will be one of powerful deterrence. If it succeeds, that is if Russia manages to “pacify” Ukraine under Russian boots, the effect will be a major slide of the global situation toward unrestrained law of the jungle, emboldening US imperialism itself and its allies to resume their own aggressive stances.’

We are expected to believe that the support of Ukraine by the US and its NATO allies will leave them disempowered if they are successful!  That victory would not add another country to the imperialist alliance and act as a deterrent to anyone who opposes the interests of US imperialism.  We are asked to believe that on the other hand if Russia wins it will strengthen US imperialism, and that the US currently has no aggressive stance because it left Afghanistan suddenly, although having signalled it for a long time.   A defeat for Russia will create a Vietnam syndrome – in the US?!!  Did Russian defeat in Afghanistan have this result for the US?  If Achcar’s argument were true why did recent US humiliation in Afghanistan not deter Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Elsewhere he says that ‘indeed, the United States and its Western allies have already benefited enormously from Putin’s action. They should be warmly grateful to the Russian autocrat.’  But does this not demonstrate the reactionary character of the invasion and confirm the aggressive character of US imperialism (regardless of Russian victory).

The whole argument is that the US and Russia do not assess their policy based on their geopolitical and economic interests and their capacity to enforce them, but simply as passive observers of the world, who will see enemies getting away with aggression and suddenly see that it works; as if neither had a long history of such actions. What is lacking apparently is simply some lack of will that will be remedied but only if Russia loses the war.  Should it win, the US will suddenly discover the efficacy of invading other countries! 

The next argument is that – ‘the demand of Russian withdrawal applies to every inch of Ukraine’s territory – including the territory invaded by Russia in 2014. When there is a dispute on the belonging of any territory anywhere in the world – such as Crimea or provinces in Eastern Ukraine, in this instance – we never accept that it be solved by naked force and the law of might, but always only through the free exercise by the people concerned of their right to democratic self-determination.’

So, invasion is undemocratic but in this case it is ok if it is carried out by Ukraine.  The pre-2014 borders of Ukraine must be inviolate and claims as to the national character of Crimea as separate or Russian are either false or irrelevant, and certainly not worth addressing when proposing that the maximal war aims of Ukraine are supported, which more or less guarantees a longer war.

The third argument is that ‘we are in favour of the delivery of defensive weapons to the victims of aggression with no strings attached – in this case to the Ukrainian state fighting the Russian invasion of its territory.’  But what on earth is a defensive weapon?  The same weapons currently used by the Ukrainian armed forces in their offensive against Russian positions were the same used in their defence against the original invasion.  Some have argued against the supply of fighter aircraft to Ukraine because this is not a defensive weapon but if employed mainly over Ukrainian territory how is it not?

There are offensive and defensive military strategies and there are offensive and defensive wars but the latter is a political definition that rests on a characterisation of the war.

Achcar is inconsistent but his inconsistency doesn’t stop here.  He claims that ‘we have no general attitude on sanctions in principle’ while they are in fact the continuation of a policy of war, as we have previously noted – ‘if war is the continuation of politics by other means sanctions are the result of political action to make economic measures the continuation of war.’

Instead Achcar notes that some sanctions’ may be harmful to the Russian population without much affecting the regime or its oligarchic cronies’ but that ‘we should neither support the latter’s sanctions, nor demand that they be lifted.’  It is impossible not to note the cynicism of such a position, which allows passivity while imperialism imposes sanctions and accepts them when they are imposed.  It is now widely acknowledged even by their supporters that they will cause untold hardship across the world and the poorest will suffer the most.  While Achcar is determined to take sides in the war he affects lofty indifference to defence of the world’s workers and its poorest sections.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

What sort of Anti-War Campaign (4) – a question of defence?

Ukrainian soldiers in an Independence Day parade in Kyiv Credit Sergei Gapon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As we have noted, the politics of the anti-war campaign supported by the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group starts and ends with the invasion of Ukraine and support for its defence.  Not simply, it must be said, self-defence.

Trotsky, in ‘War and the Fourth International’, was blunt:

‘A “socialist” who preaches national defence is a petty-bourgeois reactionary at the service of decaying capitalism. Not to bind itself to the national state in time of war, to follow not the war map but the map of the class struggle, is possible only for that party that has already declared irreconcilable war on the national state in time of peace.’

The ACR will claim that Ukraine is not an imperialist power so this admonition does not apply.  It is however undeniably capitalist and a particularly corrupt one at that.  It has moved closer to collaboration with the imperialist NATO military organisation through participation in its activities and is now armed and trained by the biggest western imperialist powers

This alliance with western imperialism involves the imposition of unprecedented sanctions that is a form of warfare itself and which will have devastating effects on the majority of the Russian population and will exacerbate problems for the majority of working people in the countries imposing them.  The Ukrainian state has called for greater sanctions and greater support from imperialism.

In these circumstances, to attempt to deny the application of Trotsky’s judgement is without merit and is baseless.  As we have already noted: to defend the integrity and prerogatives of any independent capitalist state in war against another is precisely to renege on any responsibility to declare ‘irreconcilable war on the national state.’  It is to be permanently at the beck and call of capitalist powers seeking ‘self-determination’.

During World War 1 the social-democrats who supported their own state in the war were also loud in proclaiming the right to self-determination of those oppressed by its enemies

‘Thus, for example, the German and Austro-German social democrats missed no opportunity of denouncing the brutal treatment of national minorities and the ‘indigenous population’ in Tsarist Russia, the British Empire, etc. But what happens to the Italians, Rumanians and Slavs in Austria, and in the German Empire (the Posen province!) is systematically suppressed. But in this respect the attitude of the social-patriotic press in England, France, Russia and Italy was just the same. Everywhere the same lying and hypocrisy.’

The ACR group no doubt opposes British imperialism, but not when it arms and trains Ukraine with its fellow imperialists; nor does it oppose its sanctions, which, we have averred, are not an exercise in self-defence.  Imperialism becomes, not the economic and political forms of advanced capitalism, but the policy of the individual powers which one might even sometimes support, without of course honestly proclaiming it directly.

The organisation might claim that Ukraine is not a free and independent state and must be allowed to be so. But the independence it seeks is impossible; it says ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure.’  No capitalist state can fulfil this requirement because capitalist competition entails and requires military and economic pressure.  

As Lenin explained in 1916:

‘Our “peace programme” demands that the principal democratic point of this question – the repudiation of annexations – should be applied in practice and not in words, that it should serve to promote the propaganda of internationalism and not of national hypocrisy. To do this, we must explain to the masses that the repudiation of annexations, i.e. the recognition of self-determination, is sincere only when the socialists of every nation demand the right of secession for nations oppressed by their own nations . . . ‘

Ukraine became an independent state in 1991. The current conflict arises precisely because it is impossible for it to attempt to continue to balance between Western imperialism and Russia.  Its reliance on the IMF and its free trade agreement with the EU demonstrates the impossibility of it developing autonomously ‘free of economic pressure’.

The Copenhagen Criteria on entry to the EU requires that the ’candidate country . . . [has] the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.  Membership presupposes the candidate’s’ ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.’

Reactionary socialists may claim this dilutes, if not removes the self-determination of nations and so, to a degree, it does.  By championing the independence of Ukraine in wholly unrealistic terms the ACR ignores the historical and continued constraints on Ukraine and the answers chosen to address them by the political leadership of this capitalist state. But ‘self-determination of nations’ cannot be working class support for the maximum freedom of their ruling classes to advance their own class and state interests in relation to competitors.

It should be noted that ‘competitive pressures and market forces’ do not disappear outside the EU and the obligations of membership are the obligations of a capitalist club that can at least partially set the rules as opposed to have to follow them.  

What is left of the demand for self-determination of Ukraine is its defence against a capitalist rival; the policy of self-defence for Ukraine is then simply the policy of ‘national defence’, which is that of ‘a petty-bourgeois reactionary.’

In contrast to the policy of the Ukrainian state Trotsky goes on to say that:  

‘The working class is not indifferent to its nation. On the contrary, it is just because history places the fate of the nation into its hands that the working class refuses to entrust the work of national freedom and independence to imperialism . . . Having used the nation for its development, capitalism has nowhere, in no single corner of the world, solved fully the national problem. . . . The task of complete national determination and peaceful co-operation of all peoples of Europe can be solved only on the basis of the economic unification of Europe, purged of bourgeois rule.’

This socialist and internationalist policy is light years from the pursuit of utopian freedom for a particular capitalist state as it seeks subordination under an imperialist alliance.

Trotsky then goes on in remarks applicable to Ukraine today:

‘The concept of national defence, especially when it coincides with the idea of the defence of democracy, can most easily delude the workers of small and neutral countries . . . which, being incapable of engaging in an independent policy of conquest, impart to the defence of their national borders the character of an irrefutable and absolute dogma.’  So, for example, will ACR join in demanding that the self-determination of Ukraine requires incorporation of Crimea, and the whole of Donbas and Luhansk regardless of their local populations’ wishes?

In words also apposite today – ‘for a revolutionary party, the moment of declaration of war is especially critical. The bourgeois and social-patriotic press in an alliance with the radio and movies will pour out upon the toiling masses torrents of chauvinistic poison.’

‘Our attitude to war is determined not by the legalistic formula of “aggression” but by the question of which class carries on the war and for what aims. In the conflict of states, just as in the class struggle, “defence” and “aggression” are questions only of practical expediency and not of a juridical or ethical norm. The bare criterion of aggression creates a base of support for the social-patriotic policy of Messrs. Léon Blum, Vandervelde and others, who, thanks to Versailles, are given the possibility of defending imperialist booty under the guise of defending peace.’

The ACR wish to defend against aggression by supporting the national interests of a corrupt capitalist state in war against another while seeking incorporation into the world’s biggest imperialist alliance with a roll call of aggressive wars that would make Putin blush.

Again to Trotsky: ‘If in time of war it is necessary to reject the class struggle for the sake of national interests, it is also necessary to renounce “Marxism” in the epoch of a great economic crisis that endangers “the nation” no less than war. Back in April 1915, Rosa Luxemburg exhausted this question with the following words: “Either the class struggle is the imperative law of proletarian existence also during war … or the class struggle is a crime against national interests and the safety of the fatherland also in time of peace.”’

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

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

Graphic from The Economist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

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

Photograph Irish Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 1

Foward to part 3

What sort of Anti-War Campaign (1) – A question of tactics?

This image is an advertisement for a Ukraine Solidarity Campaign meeting in Ireland

The war in Ukraine has revealed deep divisions amongst those describing themselves as Marxists, with references to Lenin and Trotsky aplenty and rebuttals against them quoted from the same sources.  It is however necessary to study this debate and read the references if you want to make any pretence at being a Marxist, while those who are not may learn why the arguments are important to human emancipation and an end to war, and not just this war.

Unfortunately, for some ‘Marxists’ this debate is unnecessary, as argued here.

The authors write that they ‘started by outlining in some detail the differences on the left about Ukraine. We outlined the now well-rehearsed arguments about: relative importance of NATO expansion versus Putin’s imperial project, supporting the armed resistance or de-escalation/no arms from the West, [and] is it an inter imperialist war or a just war against an imperialist invader?’

All pretty important in determining one’s attitude to the war you might think.  But no: ‘the discussion about how to build a mass anti-war movement on Ukraine should not depend on this level of argument involving principles and political analyses about history and the current invasion. No, building a movement here is about tactics.’ (emphasis added – Sráid Marx)

There are two aspects to this.  One is sheer dishonesty.  The movement they want to build is built on political analysis and principles, or some might more accurately say on their abandonment, but this is the less interesting aspect.

The second are the questions around what principles – that they no longer want to forefront – are correct and how they should be fought for, because the nature of these principles determines the nature of any anti-war campaign; something that should be obvious.

It is not possible to divide these aspects except conceptually, so it is possible to argue with people who will respond to the charge of capitulation to imperialism (in the form of NATO); and the charge of refusal to support an independent working class position (through their support for the Ukrainian state, its armed forces and its reactionary leadership), that this is simply not true.  These people claim that they do oppose NATO and do support the interests of the Ukrainian working class. But first things first, might be their response.

Unfortunately, these people will then continue to parrot support for ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’, as if Ukraine is not a state, a capitalist state, and a corrupt capitalist state that socialists would not defend or support in peace but are asked to do so in war.  Likewise, the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ is made up primarily of the Ukrainian state’s armed forces, incorporating fascist units, with mass support for these armed forces in Ukraine making as much difference to its class nature as mass support for the British army in 1914 did for its imperialist character and its defence of Empire.

As for the formulation of principles and political analysis based on the ‘Ukrainian people’: is this people uniquely undivided by class, with their separate class interests?  Where did all the oligarchs go?  Is there no working class in Ukraine?  Did Marx declare ‘people of the world unite!’; call for the self-emancipation of ‘the people’ and analyse the origin of surplus value in the exploitation of ‘people’?  Do Marxists today call for ‘people’s’ control of production? Or does all this stuff have no application anymore?

Perhaps we are now being asked to believe that the interest of the Ukrainian working class is currently aligned with that of its state, which is aligned to that of NATO and imperialism, in which case the primacy of class struggle disappears when these forces go to war.  Marxism is fine but in war it’s first things first and this means it’s a question of tactics – ‘building a movement here is about tactics.’

‘All those fine analyses will have no impact outside a narrow group of lefties if we are unable to build a mass audience’ says the article, so it is a question of ‘how do we mobilise the biggest number of people so that we have an audience where we can put forward our respective arguments about the nature of Putin’s Russia or the role of NATO?’

So, what is the problem with this approach? – apart from the fact that it dismisses the role of principles and political analysis, which should really determine the nature of the campaign, its demands and its objectives. These unfortunately are dismissed as ‘a shopping list of correct demands’.

But let’s leave this aside for the moment, because there isn’t a single problem with it, there are many.

It is based on the idea that the task is to build a campaign on the lowest political level; that this is politically adequate, and then – having enticed this ‘mass audience’ into the theatre – it will thank you for telling them that they will be entertained by a different show.

It forgets that the lowest political common denominator is still a denominator.

You think this is unfair? Well in the next post we will look at the statements that justify this judgement.

Forward to part 2

On a Resolution in Solidarity with Ukraine

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/ukraines-labour-reforms-threaten-its-already-precarious-workers/

British trade unionists are being asked to support a model resolution in support of Ukraine in the war with Russia.  It is not the usual generalised call for an end to the war and for peace but is explicit support for one side. For example, it calls ‘for Russian troops to cease fire and leave all Ukrainian territory immediately.’

There is no call for a general ceasefire, so it is in effect a call for surrender by one participant. It is not clear whether the call for the territory to be retaken by Ukrainian forces includes Crimea or the currently separate Donetsk and Luhansk areas.  Aside from the clearly impossible demand that only one army cease fire it is unclear what political settlement of the war is considered just and whether what is proposed might actually demand an end to one and the effective relaunch of another.

This is important not only from a principled point of view but also because such resolutions are designed to be relatively simple and practical with obvious steps to implementation.  They are also meant to establish a specifically working class view that demonstrates the common interests of, in this case, the workers of Britain and Ukraine.

These specific working class interests must establish their difference with that of the class enemy of British workers, which is the British state and its ruling class etc.  It must demonstrate that, just as the class interest of British and Ukrainian and also Russian workers are aligned, so are the opposing class interests of the British ruling class and its fellow capitalists in Russia and Ukraine similar, even if competition between them sometimes leads to war.  Such wars do not result in the capitalist class of the rival states being expropriated or the interest of their working class being protected, quite the reverse.

The resolution instead presents the Ukrainian working class–as an object of solidarity–only as a specific section of the Ukrainian people in general.  The idea that British workers should express a view to Russian workers probably didn’t cross the minds of the drafters of the resolution.

The difficulty in framing this unity of workers cannot be denied but the approach of the resolution categorically prevents it.

The resolution states that ‘the people of Ukraine have the right to defend themselves and to obtain . . . weapons’, and in so doing opens the door to Western imperialist intervention and support for its arming of the Ukrainian state.  There is no qualification to this, either in the armed support that should be given, or the identity of the ‘Ukrainian Resistance’ forces that should be armed.  These will include those who will happily turn any guns supplied against the Ukrainian working class and its left wing.

In the context of an unprecedented propaganda campaign that has included covering up the integration of fascist units into the Ukrainian state forces, and the lionisation of the Ukrainian leader Zelensky – elected to uproot rampant corruption but now revealed to having links to his own and colleagues’ offshore accounts – it perpetuates illusions in the reactionary class character of Ukrainian military and political forces.

Very helpfully, the most recent issue of The Economist magazine has a graphic of a ‘crony-capitalism’ index which, unsurprisingly, shows Russia way out in front.  Ukraine, however, is fifth.  This crony capitalism supports the Ukrainian state and its political leaderships, and is responsible for the corruption of Ukrainian politics and society.  Ukrainian workers have suffered from and opposed this corruption for many years but the agents of it are released from any responsibility by cries from the West that ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ must be supported.

This resolution amplifies this rhetoric and shamefully avoids the separate interest of the Ukrainian working class; in effect it amounts to a call to follow its class enemies.  Whatever potential agency the Ukrainian working class has is buried beneath the cardinal imperative to defend the self-determination of the Ukrainian capitalist state.

Rather than demonstrate to British workers the common greed and corruption of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and British connivance with it, the necessary class differences are erased, perfectly mirroring the claims of the British, Ukrainian and Russian ruling classes.

The propaganda campaign in the West has presented Russia and Putin as uniquely evil.  By definition rather than just implication, the forces of the Western powers are the principled opponents of this evil – where else are the guns called for by the resolution to come from? British workers are asked to take sides in a war in which corporate and state media propaganda has blamed only Russia, an argument which the resolution explicitly endorses.  

The self-styled Marxists supporting this resolution state that in this particular case it is Russian imperialism that is the aggressor, and NATO ceases to be relevant.  Only sometimes, it appears, is NATO, Britain and the United States aggressive imperialist forces such as in Iraq.  Sometimes, it must be assumed, it is on the right side – the side of Ukrainian self-determination.  The framing of the war as purely Russian aggression prevents any responsibility being assigned to NATO and its powers.  Instead, workers are invited to support its military intervention and with no warnings even on the need to limit it.  Why would there be? For the resolution there is only one issue.

The declaration that NATO is opposed is empty in such a context and mention of its eastward expansion of no consequence.  In fact, its role is explicitly absolved as ‘Putin has used the pretext that Ukraine wanted to join NATO to justify yet another war for regime change.’ Anyone assigning any responsibility to NATO must presumably be joining in with Putin in giving a reason for the war that is not the real reason, echoing again the claims that placing anything other than full blame on Russia is to be a dupe of Vladimir Putin.

With explanation of the war confined to Russian aggression the real cause of the war, its nature and the principled socialist response cannot be argued.  What is left can only be agreement to support for the Ukrainian state from wherever it comes because the cause of the war, its nature and the principled response excludes opposition to NATO, US and British imperialism.  Such is the deception woven through the words of the resolution

The resolution states that it supports sanctions but that ‘we believe that sanctions should hit the Russian oligarchs and war machine, not the people.’  Since these sanctions are already hitting workers in the West and to an even greater extent threaten peoples in places such as North Africa, Middle East and East Asia, the idea that they will not hit Russian workers even harder is pure deceit.

Finally, all this is justified by the central need to ‘support the right of the people for Ukraine to self-determination without foreign military or economic pressure.’  If this were to be the case Ukraine would be the only nation in the world able to determine its fate ‘without foreign military or economic pressure.’  That the drafters of the resolution think this is possible, and particularly of Ukraine, shows remarkable ignorance of the country’s history and its permanent geographical position.

It also shows that they do not understand the demand for self-determination, which refers only to the right of a nation to independence from incorporation within another state.  Once formal independence is achieved the idea that workers and socialists should guarantee its freedom of action is a licence for every capitalist power to demand of its own working class and others’ that it be supported because its freedom is circumscribed by other capitalist powers.  It is a perfect recipe for the complete subordination of each working class to its own capitalist state and capitalist class in their competition with every other.

Socialists should neither support or defend the invasion by Russia of Ukraine but we do not take sides between capitalist powers, between the oligarchs of Russia and the oligarchs of Ukraine, between the offshore wealth of Zelensky and hidden millions of Putin, between the army of Russia and the army of Ukraine (with its fascist units and its NATO arms).

Self-determination by Ukrainian workers, for whom we are in solidarity, can only come through unity with workers in Russia and the rest of Europe.  The desire if its leaders to join NATO has helped precipitate the invasion.  Joining it would subordinate Ukraine to the requirements of US imperialism, which will continue to employ NATO to contain and weaken Russia and to constrain the demands of its main rival China.  This is not the future that Ukrainian workers should seek or British workers support through arming the Ukrainian state.  

The weakness of the Ukrainian working class is being exploited by both its own rulers and the Western powers. It is a result of internal divisions, which are exploited by its oligarchs and political leaders, and its geopolitical position.  Overcoming this division and outside threats will not be achieved by defending the rights of the Ukrainian capitalist state or effective capitulation to the strongest external power.

Its immediate vulnerability can mainly be addressed by workers in the Ukraine itself, in so far as it is able to assert its separate class interests.  Surrendering it to the political leadership that walked them into this nightmare and the NATO predator that presents itself as their saviour is politically fatal.  Workers outside the country can show their common class interests through material support; opposition to the war – especially in Russia – and others’ solidarity with it; and political solidarity based on clear assertion of international working class unity.

See also:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

The War in Ukraine and the Left

The War in Ukraine and the Left

Russians in St Petersburg protest against the war in Ukraine

An article in the British web site ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ has an analysis of the British Left’s view of the war in Ukraine.  It reminds me of the old Irish response when asked for directions to a particular destination – if I wanted to get there I wouldn’t start from here.

So, if I wanted to determine the socialist position on the war, I wouldn’t start by saying you have to take sides between Ukraine and Russia.  In all circumstances socialists look after the immediate aims of the working class movement but look after and take care of its future.  The immediate aims involve identifying the interests of the working class – the whole working class, not any particular section and not any particular nationality.

It is not therefore the supposed interests of the Ukrainian working class or Russian working class but the working class of the world that is paramount.  It’s why the socialist war cry is ‘Workers of the World Unite.’ ‘Taking sides’ means taking sides in the class war and the first step is recognising that the ‘two sides’ we have been invited to choose from by ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ are conglomerates of classes with conflicting interests, and we would betray the interests of the working class by pretending that right now their particular interests don’t count, which is what this article requires.

The independence of the working class and its unity are the watchwords of socialist politics without which we become liberals.  This may be put differently, as Lenin did, by saying that we are in favour of the self-determination of the working class.

Instead, the article demands that we respect self-determination of Ukraine as ‘obvious’ but not that of the Donbass and Crimea.  The borders of this particular capitalist state are now apparently sacrosanct despite its history.  This is one problem of the demand for self-determination of nations – to whom does it apply when there are conflicting national claims?

As the article demonstrates, it often involves picking the primacy of one capitalist state over another, in other words supporting and fighting for one capitalist state and its capitalist class instead of another; in this case one group of oligarchs over another.

This is the very definition of surrendering the interests of the  working class.  Gone is any appeal to class interests, instead we are asked to believe in the progressive character of one capitalist state while its resistance contains a significant presence of far-right forces.

It is argued that “Russia attacked Ukraine. NATO did not invade Russia and nor did Ukraine” as if we are supposed to believe that the war came out of nowhere or could have had no cause that did not exclusively involve Russian aggression.

Who shoots first determines a war’s class character?  Many states have gone to war claiming that the other side engaged in some attack, often a pure invention, but never has it been the case that socialists should either accept their word for it or offer their support even if they were told the truth. 

It is argued that ‘Ukraine is facing one of the three most powerful imperialist powers . . . and is a much weaker country;’ as if we should support small capitalist powers against larger ones.  Do we then support small capitalists against large monopolies, like the Stalinists used to argue?  Do we support ‘native’ capital against foreign multinationals?  And since Ukraine has the support of NATO this argument doesn’t even hold up very much anyway. 

It is argued that although Ukrainians might know that ‘Zelensky’s government has [not] been any sort of progressive regime . . . at least they know they can vote the guy out.’  Again we are to accept that the class character of the state has no bearing on whether socialists should defend it – just as long as it has a bourgeois democratic government like . . .  France or Germany or Britain or the US? 

The history of the US intervening in elections, including Russian ones, is forgotten. But Zelensky can be voted out?  Can the Ukrainian oligarchs be voted out, can the Ukrainian state be overthrown by voting, can its capitalist state be overthrown by voting?  Will Ukraine’s subordination to the US through NATO be the achievement of real self-determination and democracy?

That self-determination of Ukraine will mean the expansion of NATO through Ukrainian membership, and so expansion of the power of US imperialism, exposes the bourgeois nature of the demand for the right of nations to self-determination.  It is not a socialist demand.  When it is therefore described as a bourgeois demand this has a particular meaning: it does not go beyond capitalism and must therefore be completely subordinated to the political interests of the working class. In these circumstances making it absolute makes your politics absolutely bourgeois. 

It is argued that there is one Immediate question and everything else is ‘later’.  We even get this from socialists who live in London for example, 1,500 miles from Kyiv, but who instinctively realise that this is really not the case so have deployed the arguments in the article to cover their nakedness.

‘Sure, NATO can be blamed to some point in time, but when the bombs start falling from the sky – only Russia can be blamed for bombing,’ which appears to mean that all political issues and responsibility for the war can be reduced to where particular bombs, suffered by one ‘side’, are falling.

We do not even get the justification, which is irrelevant to this particular Left’s argument, of a call for a separate working class resistance – on the basis that the Ukrainian working class has the right to physically and politically defend itself. We are, after all, not the slightest bit interested in the right of self-defence for oligarchs etc.

But to do this would require a political programme to win Ukrainian workers away from their current leaders and find a basis for possible unity with Russian workers – and this goes way beyond opposing the bombs.  Yet all we get is the vague and mealy-mouthed statement that it ‘does not mean you give up the class struggle in Ukraine but it does mean you fight against getting a worse regime foisted on you.’

The article quotes a Ukrainian that ‘A friend told me that it is also NATO’s guilt and after everything will be over we will have a very nationalist, xenophobic country and other problems. So I answered him: Sure, we probably will, but I will think about it later when there will be no shelling of cities and when there will be no Russian army here. Now we cannot solve these problems.’

Except if you are that weak you will not solve the problem of the Russian invasion by your actions either.  And if your actions are to advance your cause then clearly you want to advance your arguments now.

But at least this Ukrainian has no illusions in the outcome unlike the British author, who would have us believe that ‘A victory for the Ukrainian resistance, far from being reactionary, could lead to positive changes both in Ukraine, in Russia and across Eastern Europe.’

What is involved here is a capitulation to one’s own ruling class, in this case the British state, which is a significant member of NATO.  The article endorses the demands – ‘Russian Troops Out Now and No To War’ and seems to endorse that ‘pro-NATO politicians spoke from STW [Stop the War’] platforms during the Iraq war.’

Of course, this makes sense, inter alia, only if you think NATO bears no responsibility for the war itself; no responsibility for the bombs etc.  In which case the criticism of Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the article is pretty pitiful and there is really no reason why he can’t join their ‘anti-war’ movement.

This capitulation is evidenced in another respect.  The article strangles itself over support for sanctions against Russia.  It supports them and expects that Russian workers will forgive them – ‘The existence of a very brave anti-war movement on the streets in Russia will hopefully make a nationalist pro-Putin boost less likely as a result of sanctions.’  These brave Russians are actually being told that they are on their own.

The article says that ‘Sanctions against Russia should hit its oligarchs and Putin’s war machine, not its populations’ but then says ‘In reality it will be difficult to shield Russian workers from all the effects of sanctions but any discomfort they suffer has to be balanced against the way such sanctions may shorten the war and the killings of Ukrainians.’  Of course, the sanctions are coupled with support for arms to the Ukrainian state, which will purchase its own killings, this time of Russian conscripts.  But again, the brave Russians will understand even if the effect on them is belittled and insulting – ‘not being able to buy the latest smart phone with your Visa card has to be put against a family dying in an apartment block.’

In fact, ‘Russian workers’ will quickly understand that they will be most affected by sanctions and that this is their purpose: to put pressure on the Putin regime through their impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.  It is what sanctions are for.  They are not an alternative to war, they are part of it.  If war is the continuation of politics by other means sanctions are the result of political action to make economic measures the continuation of war.

One little argument demonstrates the nature of such sanctions, that they are in fact an attack on the Russian people because they are Russian, not because they support or otherwise advance the war in Ukraine.

The article states that ‘Putin’s regime lays great store in cultural and sporting soft power. A boycott helps weaken this. It sends a message to the world that you cannot just sit there and see a state sponsored ballet company perform blithely unaware of Russian bombs falling on Kharkiv.’

So what contribution do Russian ballet dancers make to the war?  In what way are they responsible for it?  In what way are Russian paralympians, subject to banning from the Winter Olympics, responsible for the war?  How have they contributed to it?  What possible role does their ‘soft power’ have?  Why have they been sanctioned?  The only possible reason is simply because they are Russian.  Yet the article disavows any ‘Russia phobia’!

We thus see in the most petty way what ‘taking sides’ means.  Not only is any class analysis abandoned, but so is any remotely sensible allocation of responsibility for the war.  The capitulation to one side of this capitalist war has revealed its socialist cheer leaders to have emulated their liberal allies, who defend human rights except when they are under attack.  So our brave anti-capitalists defend socialist internationalism except when capitalism goes to war.

The absence of any role for class in their analysis should give these ‘anti-capitalists’ pause for thought.  When it can only come as an optional decoration you have not only started your journey from the wrong place, you’ve arrived at the wrong destination.

Previous statement

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

see also here