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.