With 50 books in multiple languages, innumerable magazine articles, presence on ‘Foreign Policy’ Top 100 Global Thinkers list; dubbed the “Elvis of cultural theory” and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West”, the Slovenian ‘public intellectual’ Slavoj Žižek has often appeared to be all over the place. In his recent article on the war in Ukraine for The Guardian newspaper he really is. To follow his arguments, such as they are, is to oneself get dizzy, but here we go.
His hook is John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ in which ‘the world can live as one’, which, according to Žižek, is ‘the best way to end in hell’. Such pacifism ignores ‘brutal reality’ from which ‘it’s the time to awaken’. Unfortunately Žižek’s own message to the Left beguiled by such pacifism is instead to imagine something even more incredible, including that it ‘need[s] a stronger Nato – but not as a prolongation of the US politics.’
It needs to support Ukraine with NATO weapons in a war that he says it cannot win, although he doesn’t linger to consider the wasted lives this would involve. Politically, this does not mean ‘that the Left should simply take the side of the west, inclusive of the rightist fundamentalists who also support Ukraine’, although since one ‘cannot be a leftist’ without ‘unequivocally’ standing behind Ukraine one struggles to understand why not.
Like every other commentator he gets inside Vladimir Putin’s head to warn that we must stop him exploiting global warming to hijack the world’s food supply by routing it through an ice-free Artic Circle so that ‘Russia will dominate so much food production that it will be able to blackmail the whole world.’ This, he imagines, is the ‘reality beneath Putin’s imperial dream’.
How we are to believe that Putin is implementing his imperial dream to divide Europe with an invading army too small to occupy all of Ukraine is unexplained.
Through quotations from one speech he declares Putin’s intention to carry out a ‘brutal attempt to change our entire geopolitical situation. The true target of the war is the dismantlement of the European unity.’ But since he states that this is also the intention of US conservatives, and the war is a ‘proxy war between US and Russia’, why are we to support NATO?
His concern over this unity of Europe rests on Putin’s belief that countries are either sovereign or subordinated colonies, when it is rather the case ‘that in today’s global world in which we are all haunted by the same catastrophes we are all in-between, in an intermediate state, neither a sovereign country nor a conquered one: to insist on full sovereignty in the face of global warming is sheer madness since our very survival hinges on tight global cooperation’. Again, what NATO has to offer as a model for the cooperation necessary to avoid catastrophes rather than create one is unexplained.
But even a glimpse of the ‘brutal reality’ he claims to perceive shows we do not need these confused and wild imaginings.
The world’s food supply is already being manipulated, endangering many of the world’s poorest people, through rising prices and blockade caused not only by the Russian invasion but by Western sanctions affecting Russian food supplies to the world and refusal to lift these sanctions in order to release the supplies from Ukraine. We don’t need to wait for global warming to melt in ice cap.
We are invited to oppose the division of Europe and its conversion into a colony, but through subordination of the continent to a United States’ controlled NATO that will commit every country to follow the US lead in war under a protective umbrella that more resembles a protection racket. The illusion is given that every country will, with Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, be supported by a commitment to war in their defence if any member is attacked, but the Article makes no such commitment. What NATO does is make Europe the playground of US expansionism and the potential theatre of war, as the threat of Ukrainian membership has vividly demonstrated. The United States will enter only such wars as will satisfy its own imperial interest and will provoke the same with the intention of leveraging NATO membership to gain support for its wars of choice.
The US, supported by the lap dog, has pushed for Europe to sanction Russian energy imports in what can only be seen as invitation to an enormous act of self-harm; perhaps the ultimate definition of US hegemony in which the interests of the most powerful become identified as those of the subordinated.
For Žižek the point of his article is that, ‘Today, one cannot be a leftist if one does not unequivocally stand behind Ukraine . . . If the left will fail here, the game is over for it . . . from the leftist standpoint, Ukraine fights for global freedom, inclusive of the freedom of Russians themselves. That’s why the heart of every true Russian patriot beats for Ukraine.’
What type of Russian is to hold to their heart a Ukraine wedded to NATO is another philosophical mystery–to a regime that celebrates fascist heroes and incorporates fascist forces within its armed forces?
To envisage all this is to consider that John Lennon is almost positively grounded in his call for pacifism. By calling on us to imagine an alternative John Lennon at least could see the reality that required it. Žižek fails to properly to identify this reality and his imagined alternative is only a grotesque reactionary response to it. His article adds a name to the declamation of the valiant role of the Ukrainian state in its heroic fight against the uniquely evil Russian dictator but it’s all been said before and his name doesn’t make the Ukrainian state any less repugnant or reactionary.
However unrealistic John Lennon’s imagined alternative is, its other advantage is that it is at least an agreeable one. Žižek implies the possible existence of one of his own, through a separate working class interests when he says that:
‘When a country is occupied, it is the ruling class which is usually bribed to collaborate with the occupiers to maintain its privileged position, so that the struggle against the occupiers becomes a priority. The same can go for the struggle against racism; in a state of racial tension and exploitation, the only way to effectively struggle for the working class is to focus on fighting racism (this is why any appeal to the white working class, as in today’s alt-right populism, betrays class struggle).’
The collaboration of foreign occupiers with the ruling class of the conquered country demonstrates a fundamental identity of interests and thus their equally fundamental antagonism to the working class. The fitting response is not to fight for this country and its state, which purports to represent the interests of all its people including its working class, but to recognise within it the ideology and mechanism that enforces ruling class authority and power. The equally fundamental identity of the interests of the working class across nations, in this case Ukrainian and Russian, is demonstrated by the barbaric effects of the war and the willingness of the various states involved to sacrifice working people recruited to fight in it. This cannot be done by supporting one or other side but only through class struggle.
But while Žižek appears to endorse such struggle when it is necessary to fight racism it evaporates when it comes to capitalist war. Perhaps because even his recipe for struggle against racism is also misjudged. While leftists should not pander to alt-right populism the struggle against racism will fail if it does not ‘appeal to the white working class’. Žižek thinks ‘any appeal’ is ‘a betrayal’ but who then is he hoping to unite?
Chomsky has apparently said that Žižek’s views are often too obscure to be communicated usefully to common people. In this case, while they are frequently confused and confusing, they are also bald statements in support of ‘Ukraine’ and NATO so are very easy to understand. In this he adds nothing. For someone with so much to say he ends up saying nothing that hasn’t been said a thousand times before.
The Independent Left writer states his purpose as follows:
‘The left arguments I want to address here are those of the groups and their supporters who express opposition to Putin, but who refuse to take any steps towards bringing about a military defeat for the Russian invasion and in particular, are strongly opposed to the people of Ukraine obtaining arms from the West.’
Let’s look at the two arguments he wants to take to task; the first that he objects to is that ‘Support for the resistance in Ukraine is support for NATO.’
The first point to note is that he makes no attempt to politically characterise this resistance. Like others, he appears to believe that popular support for it, including from many on the left inside Ukraine, makes it progressive. Support from the left itself is assumed to be proof of its progressive character, which is exactly what has to be proved in the first place.
He rejects this argument because ‘To say that the people of Ukraine need arms is not at all the same as saying NATO should send troops to fight in the war.’ Indeed not, sending arms is not the same as sending troops, but this argument makes another assumption: that this means that the war cannot be a proxy one with Ukraine being used as the tool of Western imperialism. We have already dealt with this claim here and here so will not repeat these points again.
He rejects the argument against him that the US and NATO ‘have their own imperialist goals’ by responding that ‘this observation about the US is, of course, correct, but do you really think people in Ukraine, especially the left, are under any illusions about the US interests at play?’
The answer to this, of course, is that with reference to imperialist involvement, it really doesn’t matter what these people believe; what matters is the objective forces in operation. As we noted in the previous post, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians mobilised and demonstrated against corrupt regimes in 2004 and 2014 and succeeded, but still ended up with equally, if not worse, regimes afterwards. The best organised and most conscious forces imposed their solution regardless of the desires of most of the participants.
He argues that ‘the people of Ukraine’ are simply ‘taking advantage of inter-imperialist rivalry to obtain arms from NATO’ for which ‘there are very clear left precedents . . . it is worth noting Lenin’s response when France and Britain offered to give military aid to Russia to fight Germany, when he wrote: “Please add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and weapons from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.”
Unfortunately, this comparison doesn’t work for him. Ukraine is capitalist country that isn’t ‘taking advantage of inter-imperialist rivalry’ but has allied itself with one of the imperialisms (and here we leave out in what sense Russia can be called imperialist). It seeks to formally become a member of one alliance that it has already de facto joined. To compare this with revolutionary Russia, independent of both imperialist alliances in World War I and taking weapons from one of these imperialisms to defend itself, is off the wall. Having taken weapons from NATO will Ukraine oppose NATO afterwards, as revolutionary Russia did with the British and French? It’s complete nonsense.
The comparison with Solidarnosc in Poland, which the ‘CIA rushed to fund and influence’ and was ‘a genuine mass movement which socialists of the type now adopting the Evasionist position recognised and supported’ is hardly more compelling. Just as in the previous example in which Russia was a workers’ state (however much deformed), so Solidarnosc was a workers’ trade union that socialists had a duty to join and to fight within for a socialist policy. The attempt failed but this does not invalidate the requirement and duty to attempt it. The ‘Ukrainian resistance’ is a function of the capitalist state, not the independent organisation of the Ukrainian working class. Again, to compare the two as analogous is nonsense.
This capitalist state is in alliance with imperialism, which increasingly calls the shots and determines the aims of the war, which go way beyond defence. Prominent figures in the US have declared the war goals as the weakening of Russia, with the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying that “the stakes reach beyond Ukraine and even beyond Europe.” For the US this is not about Ukraine but all about Russia, with Ukraine as a tool that bleeds. It has no more interest in the Ukrainians who take their children to school etc. than the Putin regime.
It is not therefore that ‘the people of Ukraine’ are ‘taking advantage’ of imperialism but that imperialism is taking advantage of Ukraine – to fight a war for imperialist objectives. Typically, the US British lap dog yaps in advance of its owner that the war must go on until all of Ukraine is reoccupied, including Crimea, whose population almost certainly will not welcome either war or occupation. The imbecilic London Government of Boris Johnson declares that China must ‘play by the international rules’; the same rules presumably that allows the US and Britain to invade Iraq and Afghanistan etc.
So, the aims of the war will be determined not by the Ukrainian people, or its left, or their left supporters in other countries. These forces will not use imperialism, imperialism is using them.
Kostick states that the ‘The contradiction in the Evasionist Left position – ‘we condemn Russia but we don’t support arming the resistance in Ukraine’ – is an unstable one.’ He says that the ‘effect of the Evasionist Left is to align their political energies with a victory for Putin.’
However, it is his position of support for ‘Ukraine’ that is unstable – how long can this be defended while it becomes more and more obvious that the war is being determined by the demands of US imperialism? Biden has just announced he intends pumping $33 billion into Ukraine; after this are we still going to be told that Ukraine is not a proxy for Western imperialism?
When will he realise that the alternative to supporting ‘Ukraine’ is not Putin but the working class, whose interest are international or they are nothing, and include the workers of Russia, the rest of Europe and, of course, Ukraine?
* * *
Socialists do not oppose workers defending themselves but, as noted above, Ukrainian workers have to defend themselves against their class enemies. There is another war that never stops – the class war – and the actions of the regime topped off by Volodymyr Zelensky has already used the war with Russia to clamp down on workers’ rights and opposition parties.
What matters is the independent organisation of the Ukrainian working class; only on that basis can socialists call for the workers of each country to unite. Such unity cannot come about through demanding support for the Ukrainian capitalist state in the guise of ‘Ukraine’; why, for example, would Russian workers oppose their own state and its war in order to support the Ukrainian state?
Conor Kostick claims that just such independent working class organisation exists – ‘Within the resistance to the invasion, the left are able to play an independent role.’
He informs us that ‘Some Social Movement activists, as well as many trade union members, have joined the TD [Territorial Defence] as volunteers. It is worth mentioning that dozens of anarchists and socialists have formed their own unit within the TD, called the Resistance Committee.’
Unfortunately, further inquiry does not support the claim that this left as described is able to play an independent role, either materially or politically. The information provided in this article by Ukrainian Anarchists, (which makes interesting reading for a number of reasons) explains their weakness, also something about their politics and their own division over the war.
On the last, it explains that ‘As for the attitude towards NATO, the authors of this text are divided between two standpoints. Some of us have a positive approach towards this situation. It is obvious that Ukraine cannot counter Russia on its own. Even taking into consideration the large volunteer movement, modern technologies and weapons are needed. Apart from NATO, Ukraine has no other allies who can help with this.’
On its weakness it states that ‘Anarchists do not have sufficient resources in Ukraine or elsewhere to respond effectively to the invasion of Putin’s regime. Therefore, one has to think about accepting support from NATO.’ It states baldly that ‘We still have very little influence on society at large . . . At this stage, our role can be described as the most radical approaches and views in the democratic camp . . . if a war breaks out, the main thing will again be the ability to participate in armed conflict.’
This weakness is not new and they honestly reflect on their previous experience in 2014:
‘In the end, anarchists participated in the Maidan revolution individually and in small groups, mainly in volunteer/non-militant initiatives. After a while, they decided to cooperate and make their own “hundred” (a combat group of 60-100 people). But during the registration of the detachment (a mandatory procedure on the Maidan), the outnumbered anarchists were dispersed by the far-right participants with weapons. The anarchists remained, but no longer attempted to create large organized groups.’
The other component of this Left seems not very different. Neither has politically broken from the Ukrainian state and, given their size, they will be easily subordinated to it as members and participants in its armed forces. It states that ‘We consider the slogans “Say No to War” or “The War of Empires” to be ineffectual and populist. The anarchist movement has no influence on the process, so such statements do not change anything at all.’
It therefore embodies all the weaknesses of the position of the Independent Left article, but for more appreciable reasons since the restrictions they suffer do not apply to socialists in some other parts of the world, including Ireland. They do not demonstrate genuine political independence from their own State, its political regime, or its policy of NATO membership, which ultimately means their subordination to the interests of US imperialism.
* * *
The second argument that Kostick wishes to oppose is the one that states that ‘the war in Ukraine is an ‘inter-imperialist war’ and therefore has no affinity to the First World War. This means that the principled opposition to the latter by socialists does not apply. His policy is not anti-war but for the victory of one side. He states that ‘You can’t negotiate any settlement with Putin, even a bad one for Ukraine that nevertheless de-escalates the threat of nuclear war, unless you stop his army and force him to realise he can’t implement his plan to eradicate Ukraine as an independent nation.’
Like others in the pro-war Left his war aims guarantee an extended war that ignores that it can only end with negotiation, which socialists should regard as potentially providing more favourable grounds for organising workers and conducting the fight against chauvinist nationalism on all sides. By now it should be clear that Putin is not seeking the eradication of Ukraine but that the United States has dramatically increased the aims of the war to include defeat for Russia at a global level, which means strengthening the US against its most important competitor, China.
Kostick however is reluctant to take on board the wider significance of the war, hence the trope of a Russian convoy approaching a Ukrainian town. He says that ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine is nothing like the outbreak of the First World War. Within a week of Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia in 1914, all the European imperial powers were in a full-blooded war against one another. From the Russian invasion until now, we have not witnessed the equivalent to French and British armies crashing up against the German army.’
We have however, witnessed unprecedented sanctions that amount to economic warfare, that hit the weakest hardest but which he nevertheless supports. Again, we have argued against them before and will not repeat our arguments here. We have witnessed a wall of propaganda that has been the cover for massive rearmament of Germany and the possible incorporation of Finland and Sweden into the western imperialist alliance.
His own Government has announced it intends increasing military expenditure by €500m from a base of around €1.1bn. If the war in Ukraine is progressive, logically he should welcome this and demand the Irish Government use its additional capacity to start sending weapons. It is easy to see how supporting one foreign capitalist state can lead to supporting your own.
We have not seen direct fighting between the strongest imperialist powers but if Kostick wants to wait until that happens before declaring the war an inter-imperialist one then it appears he can only shake himself into opposition when nuclear annihilation becomes an imminent threat.
He recognises that ‘We should oppose US intervention of troops, ships, and aircraft, mainly because of the risk of nuclear war but also because of their own imperialist record’, but he doesn’t seem to recognise what this record implies for the nature of the intervention that has already taken place. The intervention that he does want has to be significant enough to affect the outcome of the war, or why else would he call for it, but by this very fact it becomes undeniable that we have an inter-imperialist war.
He finds another analogy with Ukraine from history that is as false as those claimed with revolutionary Russia and Solidarnosc; this time with Ireland during the First World War:
‘Just as Connolly was right to take German weapons to support an armed rising against the British empire, so the Ukrainian people are right to take weapons from wherever they can to rise against the Russian empire.’
The difference is that Ukraine is not a colony and is already an independent capitalist state in alliance with the strongest imperialist alliance on earth. Ireland was a colony, didn’t even have a state and obviously wasn’t an ally of imperialism; no imperialist powers entered on its side during the 1916 rebellion or during its later war of independence.
The aims of the Irish rebels were not determined by Germany and the slogan of the Irish Citizen Army made it clear where they stood – ‘we serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland’. The Ukrainian state is not declaring – ‘We serve neither Russia nor NATO’.
* * *
Conor Kostick claims his policy stands on grounds of practicality, and any alternative to it must also – ‘These practical questions are a good way to judge the two key formulations that the Evasionist Left are using.’
It is indeed very practical for NATO to arm the Ukrainian state and for socialists to argue for imperialism to ‘do the right thing.’ But NATO giving weapons to Ukrainian armed forces is not any action of socialists or the working class and it involves no practicality from them at all. Nor is calling for imperialism to ‘do the right thing’ the least bit necessary – it needs no persuasion to do what it is doing.
So, while extolling the practicality of his Ukrainian policy he genuflects to other causes but seems not to notice that these seem not to contain the same practicality, being simply influencing public feeling of solidarity. He puts it like this:
‘The left can influence this public feeling of solidarity for Ukraine by making points about Western hypocrisy on refusing to cancel Ukraine’s debt; on refugees, on Palestine, and yes, on the imperialist role of NATO. But the best way to do that is to amplify the voices of Ukrainian socialists and anarchists who are putting their lives in the front lines against Putin’s army.’
So we are supposed to believe that solidarity with Ukraine will somehow lead to solidarity with Palestine, for example. Calling for NATO to arm Ukraine will help expose its imperialist role! And we will do this by repeating the voices of Ukrainian socialists and anarchists? We apparently must subcontract our politics to them, including opposition to NATO, while they are simultaneously calling on it for support! What sense does this make?
These Ukrainian socialists and anarchists are unfortunately subordinated and dependent on the Ukrainian state, which is in turn subordinated and dependent on NATO, and what Conor Kostick proposes is that the rest of us join the club.
An analysis has appeared on an Irish Left web site opposing the policy on the war in Ukraine that ‘one can read in Jacobin, or in statements by Chomsky, Corbyn, and the Stop the War Coalition in the UK’, and ‘in Ireland [where] we have the same type of response . . . from People Before Profit and the Socialist Party of Ireland.’ The author, Conor Kostick, applies ‘the label Evasionist Left for this approach.’
It is not the purpose of this post to defend the positions of all or any of these journals, figures or organisations but to rebut Kostick’s own arguments. He states that his ‘goal is to argue that these ideas are wrong and that if you take them seriously, you will find yourself on Putin’s side in the war. Often, when I try to discuss these points with their supporters, I hear only silence when I ask them to really think through the consequences of their formulations. But the war itself allows for no evasion’
His arguments are not new and the claim that if you don’t support ‘Ukraine’ you are a supporter of Putin is one that all those opposed to the Ukrainian capitalist state and its war in alliance with imperialism has had to face. It contains the usual cheap shots that ‘“Opposing the war” is a comfortable position to adopt if you are on the other side of Europe to the columns of Russian soldiers.’
The only thing more comfortable however, is supporting the war in the West where you can preach in the slipstream of western imperialist states, their political parties, and the mass media propaganda blitzkrieg in which every word from ‘Ukraine’ about atrocity is asserted as gospel and Russian denials are dismissed out of hand. Where videos of Russian POWs are shown being shot by their Ukrainian captors, we are not invited to denounce the Ukrainian state or its Army but to accept their denials of responsibility and promises of investigation, at which point we are directed to get back to the main story.
We are to ignore that the war didn’t start on February 24 with the Russian invasion and forget the findings of murder, torture and rape by Ukrainian forces, which have been asserted not by Russian sources but by the United Nations and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – decidedly not Russian sources. See, for example, here and here, where the crimes of both the Ukrainian state and the Donetsk people’s republic and the Luhansk people’s republic are set out.
All war involves atrocity, which is why socialists oppose it, but the propaganda propagated by the Western media and its capitalist class and state owners does not allow for attention to the stories told in these reports. For the purposes of this article the importance of the evidence of brutality on both sides leading up to the current war is not simply to make this general point but to counter the use of the results of this media propaganda by Kostick, as we will see below.
* * *
The first sentence of the article states that ‘Wars are not light topics that can be dispensed of with simple formulas.’ But simple formulas is exactly what this article delivers; in fact, one simple formula. This is a device that apparently has the merit of judging the war through looking at the ‘practical questions’. It asks us to imagine that ‘A Russian convoy is approaching your town’ and asks what we would do – fight back or say “No. Don’t escalate. It will lead to more war horror. And potentially nuclear war. Instead, let’s appeal to the Russian anti-war movement to save us.”
From this simple illustration we are expected to determine the political character of the war, so that ‘a victory for Ukraine against Russia would be the best outcome for the left and the world generally and yes, we should support the people of Ukraine getting arms from wherever they can, including from NATO.’
The example is supposed to be so concrete and practical that those in opposition to supporting the Ukrainian state are reduced to ‘silence’. But of course, this concrete and practical example is not concrete or practical at all. It abstracts from everything that brought the Russian convoy to town in the first place. If I told you that while I was typing this post I had looked out the window and saw a Russian convoy coming down my street, would you ask are you going to fight it? I doubt it; yet you are invited to determine your political evaluation on the war in Ukraine from this little slice of information.
In the real – concrete and practical – world, you will have some idea why ‘a Russian convoy is approaching your town’ and what practical measures you can take, either to fight it or do something else. And it is this choice among many that are in dispute, not just for those in the Ukrainian town but for everyone across the world; otherwise the author wouldn’t be writing an article boiling the whole issue down to how the residents of a Ukrainian town should react.
But to answer this we have to go way beyond this attempt to reduce the issue to simple formulas that tell us nothing; even the author of the article has to go way beyond this scenario in order to attempt to deal with the issues. The weakness of his argument however rests on this simplistic and abstracted formula that is an evasion of everything that went before the convoy coming down the road, that explains why it is there, and therefore informs future actions.
So in order to determine a political position on the war we need to know what happened before the convoy appeared. Conor Kostick attempts to paint a pretty picture:
‘The majority of the world’s working class empathise with the people of Ukraine, who before Putin’s invasion were bringing their kids to school, going to work, planning their weekly shop, collecting the kids, going to the playground, chatting with friends. They were exactly like us and then the hell of war descended on them from Russia.’
Which is exactly the story presented by the western capitalist media that we noted above and which the author employs to bolster his political stance, which stance is exactly the same as this media and its corporate and political masters. But as we have seen, there was a war already on before this convoy appeared and, in this war, the Ukrainian state was imprisoning, torturing, sexually assaulting and murdering those perceived as its enemies. Not such a pretty picture as kids going to school or playing, or adults doing shopping or going to work.
We could have rephrased the above to say that it was the Ukrainian people who were imprisoning, torturing, sexually assaulting and murdering those perceived as its enemies; but that would be to fall into the miserable mistake of the author, for whom there appears no difference between the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian armed forces etc. In fact, this simple and abstract way is how nationalists talk about countries and nations, obfuscating the concrete reality to which Marxists speak – about Ukrainian classes, the Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian political leadership, the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian fascists. Just as we talk about the Russian armed forces, the Russian state and the working class of Russia etc.
So, before ‘the hell of war descended on them from Russia’, the Ukrainian state was forming an alliance with NATO; was receiving arms and training from NATO, was sending troops to Iraq to support the US imperialist occupation of that country, and was increasingly within the grip of western imperialist finance. Internally the political leadership was still corrupt, still the tool of oligarchic interests, and still continuing to clamp down on free speech and to repress political opposition.
And yes, before ‘the hell of war descended on them from Russia’, Ukrainians ‘were bringing their kids to school, going to work, planning their weekly shop, collecting the kids, going to the playground, chatting with friends.’ But we don’t confuse these Ukrainians with the Ukrainians who own and run the country and its state and armed forces. In other words, we have a class analysis that means that when we are asked to support Ukraine we ask – what Ukrainians are you talking about?
So, what we have in this article is not an argument against the ‘Evasionist Left’ but an analysis that evades all the issues in order to present a bourgeois morality play. Behind support for Ukraine lies support for the Ukrainian capitalist state and as socialists we categorically do not support it. We recognise that the Ukrainian working class has separate interests from the Ukrainian capitalist class and its state, and that these are the enemy of the Ukrainian workers, with the war being an example of it.
One of the first comments I made in reaction to the war was that the Zelensky political leadership, in so far as he actually is and not a front man for domestic capitalist and foreign imperialist interests, had walked the country into a war. It was not in the interests of Ukrainian workers that their country join NATO or ally with it against Russia. Their political leadership put the objective of such membership into the constitution in February 2019 when opinion polling showed only around 45 per cent supported joining it. Privatisation and austerity has also been opposed by Ukrainian workers but again they have been unable to prevent the state and its oligarchic supporters from imposing both.
The Ukrainian working class has been damned by regimes that promised an end to corruption but just delivered more corruption by different actors. They have taken to the streets repeatedly to bring down these regimes yet end up with the new boss the same as the old boss. The tragedy of this war is that it has only strengthened their chains. Such is the reactionary nature of the Russian invasion and of the Ukrainian state, the state much of the left, including Conor Kostick, has rallied to support.
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 isprecisely 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.
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 here, here 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.
As we have noted, the politics of the anti-war campaign supported by the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group starts and ends with the invasion of Ukraine and support for its defence. Not simply, it must be said, self-defence.
‘A “socialist” who preaches national defence is a petty-bourgeois reactionary at the service of decaying capitalism. Not to bind itself to the national state in time of war, to follow not the war map but the map of the class struggle, is possible only for that party that has already declared irreconcilable war on the national state in time of peace.’
The ACR will claim that Ukraine is not an imperialist power so this admonition does not apply. It is however undeniably capitalist and a particularly corrupt one at that. It has moved closer to collaboration with the imperialist NATO military organisation through participation in its activities and is now armed and trained by the biggest western imperialist powers
This alliance with western imperialism involves the imposition of unprecedented sanctions that is a form of warfare itself and which will have devastating effects on the majority of the Russian population and will exacerbate problems for the majority of working people in the countries imposing them. The Ukrainian state has called for greater sanctions and greater support from imperialism.
In these circumstances, to attempt to deny the application of Trotsky’s judgement is without merit and is baseless. As we have already noted: to defend the integrity and prerogatives of any independent capitalist state in war against another is precisely to renege on any responsibility to declare ‘irreconcilable war on the national state.’ It is to be permanently at the beck and call of capitalist powers seeking ‘self-determination’.
During World War 1 the social-democrats who supported their own state in the war were also loud in proclaiming the right to self-determination of those oppressed by its enemies
‘Thus, for example, the German and Austro-German social democrats missed no opportunity of denouncing the brutal treatment of national minorities and the ‘indigenous population’ in Tsarist Russia, the British Empire, etc. But what happens to the Italians, Rumanians and Slavs in Austria, and in the German Empire (the Posen province!) is systematically suppressed. But in this respect the attitude of the social-patriotic press in England, France, Russia and Italy was just the same. Everywhere the same lying and hypocrisy.’
The ACR group no doubt opposes British imperialism, but not when it arms and trains Ukraine with its fellow imperialists; nor does it oppose its sanctions, which, we have averred, are not an exercise in self-defence. Imperialism becomes, not the economic and political forms of advanced capitalism, but the policy of the individual powers which one might even sometimes support, without of course honestly proclaiming it directly.
The organisation might claim that Ukraine is not a free and independent state and must be allowed to be so. But the independence it seeks is impossible; it says ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure.’ No capitalist state can fulfil this requirement because capitalist competition entails and requires military and economic pressure.
As Lenin explained in 1916:
‘Our “peace programme” demands that the principal democratic point of this question – the repudiation of annexations – should be applied in practice and not in words, that it should serve to promote the propaganda of internationalism and not of national hypocrisy. To do this, we must explain to the masses that the repudiation of annexations, i.e. the recognition of self-determination, is sincere only when the socialists of every nation demand the right of secession for nations oppressed by their own nations . . . ‘
Ukraine became an independent state in 1991. The current conflict arises precisely because it is impossible for it to attempt to continue to balance between Western imperialism and Russia. Its reliance on the IMF and its free trade agreement with the EU demonstrates the impossibility of it developing autonomously ‘free of economic pressure’.
The Copenhagen Criteria on entry to the EU requires that the ’candidate country . . . [has] the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate’s’ ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.’
Reactionary socialists may claim this dilutes, if not removes the self-determination of nations and so, to a degree, it does. By championing the independence of Ukraine in wholly unrealistic terms the ACR ignores the historical and continued constraints on Ukraine and the answers chosen to address them by the political leadership of this capitalist state. But ‘self-determination of nations’ cannot be working class support for the maximum freedom of their ruling classes to advance their own class and state interests in relation to competitors.
It should be noted that ‘competitive pressures and market forces’ do not disappear outside the EU and the obligations of membership are the obligations of a capitalist club that can at least partially set the rules as opposed to have to follow them.
What is left of the demand for self-determination of Ukraine is its defence against a capitalist rival; the policy of self-defence for Ukraine is then simply the policy of ‘national defence’, which is that of ‘a petty-bourgeois reactionary.’
In contrast to the policy of the Ukrainian state Trotsky goes on to say that:
‘The working class is not indifferent to its nation. On the contrary, it is just because history places the fate of the nation into its hands that the working class refuses to entrust the work of national freedom and independence to imperialism . . . Having used the nation for its development, capitalism has nowhere, in no single corner of the world, solved fully the national problem. . . . The task of complete national determination and peaceful co-operation of all peoples of Europe can be solved only on the basis of the economic unification of Europe, purged of bourgeois rule.’
This socialist and internationalist policy is light years from the pursuit of utopian freedom for a particular capitalist state as it seeks subordination under an imperialist alliance.
Trotsky then goes on in remarks applicable to Ukraine today:
‘The concept of national defence, especially when it coincides with the idea of the defence of democracy, can most easily delude the workers of small and neutral countries . . . which, being incapable of engaging in an independent policy of conquest, impart to the defence of their national borders the character of an irrefutable and absolute dogma.’ So, for example, will ACR join in demanding that the self-determination of Ukraine requires incorporation of Crimea, and the whole of Donbas and Luhansk regardless of their local populations’ wishes?
In words also apposite today – ‘for a revolutionary party, the moment of declaration of war is especially critical. The bourgeois and social-patriotic press in an alliance with the radio and movies will pour out upon the toiling masses torrents of chauvinistic poison.’
‘Our attitude to war is determined not by the legalistic formula of “aggression” but by the question of which class carries on the war and for what aims. In the conflict of states, just as in the class struggle, “defence” and “aggression” are questions only of practical expediency and not of a juridical or ethical norm. The bare criterion of aggression creates a base of support for the social-patriotic policy of Messrs. Léon Blum, Vandervelde and others, who, thanks to Versailles, are given the possibility of defending imperialist booty under the guise of defending peace.’
The ACR wish to defend against aggression by supporting the national interests of a corrupt capitalist state in war against another while seeking incorporation into the world’s biggest imperialist alliance with a roll call of aggressive wars that would make Putin blush.
Again to Trotsky: ‘If in time of war it is necessary to reject the class struggle for the sake of national interests, it is also necessary to renounce “Marxism” in the epoch of a great economic crisis that endangers “the nation” no less than war. Back in April 1915, Rosa Luxemburg exhausted this question with the following words: “Either the class struggle is the imperative law of proletarian existence also during war … or the class struggle is a crime against national interests and the safety of the fatherland also in time of peace.”’
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.
The war in Ukraine has revealed deep divisions amongst those describing themselves as Marxists, with references to Lenin and Trotsky aplenty and rebuttals against them quoted from the same sources. It is however necessary to study this debate and read the references if you want to make any pretence at being a Marxist, while those who are not may learn why the arguments are important to human emancipation and an end to war, and not just this war.
Unfortunately, for some ‘Marxists’ this debate is unnecessary, as argued here.
The authors write that they ‘started by outlining in some detail the differences on the left about Ukraine. We outlined the now well-rehearsed arguments about: relative importance of NATO expansion versus Putin’s imperial project, supporting the armed resistance or de-escalation/no arms from the West, [and] is it an inter imperialist war or a just war against an imperialist invader?’
All pretty important in determining one’s attitude to the war you might think. But no: ‘the discussion about how to build a mass anti-war movement on Ukraine should not depend on this level of argument involving principlesand political analyses about history and the current invasion. No, building a movement here is about tactics.’ (emphasis added – Sráid Marx)
There are two aspects to this. One is sheer dishonesty. The movement they want to build is built on political analysis and principles, or some might more accurately say on their abandonment, but this is the less interesting aspect.
The second are the questions around what principles – that they no longer want to forefront – are correct and how they should be fought for, because the nature of these principles determines the nature of any anti-war campaign; something that should be obvious.
It is not possible to divide these aspects except conceptually, so it is possible to argue with people who will respond to the charge of capitulation to imperialism (in the form of NATO); and the charge of refusal to support an independent working class position (through their support for the Ukrainian state, its armed forces and its reactionary leadership), that this is simply not true. These people claim that they do oppose NATO and do support the interests of the Ukrainian working class. But first things first, might be their response.
Unfortunately, these people will then continue to parrot support for ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’, as if Ukraine is not a state, a capitalist state, and a corrupt capitalist state that socialists would not defend or support in peace but are asked to do so in war. Likewise, the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ is made up primarily of the Ukrainian state’s armed forces, incorporating fascist units, with mass support for these armed forces in Ukraine making as much difference to its class nature as mass support for the British army in 1914 did for its imperialist character and its defence of Empire.
As for the formulation of principles and political analysis based on the ‘Ukrainian people’: is this people uniquely undivided by class, with their separate class interests? Where did all the oligarchs go? Is there no working class in Ukraine? Did Marx declare ‘people of the world unite!’; call for the self-emancipation of ‘the people’ and analyse the origin of surplus value in the exploitation of ‘people’? Do Marxists today call for ‘people’s’ control of production? Or does all this stuff have no application anymore?
Perhaps we are now being asked to believe that the interest of the Ukrainian working class is currently aligned with that of its state, which is aligned to that of NATO and imperialism, in which case the primacy of class struggle disappears when these forces go to war. Marxism is fine but in war it’s first things first and this means it’s a question of tactics – ‘building a movement here is about tactics.’
‘All those fine analyses will have no impact outside a narrow group of lefties if we are unable to build a mass audience’ says the article, so it is a question of ‘how do we mobilise the biggest number of people so that we have an audience where we can put forward our respective arguments about the nature of Putin’s Russia or the role of NATO?’
So, what is the problem with this approach? – apart from the fact that it dismisses the role of principles and political analysis, which should really determine the nature of the campaign, its demands and its objectives. These unfortunately are dismissed as ‘a shopping list of correct demands’.
But let’s leave this aside for the moment, because there isn’t a single problem with it, there are many.
It is based on the idea that the task is to build a campaign on the lowest political level; that this is politically adequate, and then – having enticed this ‘mass audience’ into the theatre – it will thank you for telling them that they will be entertained by a different show.
It forgets that the lowest political common denominator is still a denominator.
You think this is unfair? Well in the next post we will look at the statements that justify this judgement.
British trade unionists are being asked to support a model resolution in support of Ukraine in the war with Russia. It is not the usual generalised call for an end to the war and for peace but is explicit support for one side. For example, it calls ‘for Russian troops to cease fire and leave all Ukrainian territory immediately.’
There is no call for a general ceasefire, so it is in effect a call for surrender by one participant. It is not clear whether the call for the territory to be retaken by Ukrainian forces includes Crimea or the currently separate Donetsk and Luhansk areas. Aside from the clearly impossible demand that only one army cease fire it is unclear what political settlement of the war is considered just and whether what is proposed might actually demand an end to one and the effective relaunch of another.
This is important not only from a principled point of view but also because such resolutions are designed to be relatively simple and practical with obvious steps to implementation. They are also meant to establish a specifically working class view that demonstrates the common interests of, in this case, the workers of Britain and Ukraine.
These specific working class interests must establish their difference with that of the class enemy of British workers, which is the British state and its ruling class etc. It must demonstrate that, just as the class interest of British and Ukrainian and also Russian workers are aligned, so are the opposing class interests of the British ruling class and its fellow capitalists in Russia and Ukraine similar, even if competition between them sometimes leads to war. Such wars do not result in the capitalist class of the rival states being expropriated or the interest of their working class being protected, quite the reverse.
The resolution instead presents the Ukrainian working class–as an object of solidarity–only as a specific section of the Ukrainian people in general. The idea that British workers should express a view to Russian workers probably didn’t cross the minds of the drafters of the resolution.
The difficulty in framing this unity of workers cannot be denied but the approach of the resolution categorically prevents it.
The resolution states that ‘the people of Ukraine have the right to defend themselves and to obtain . . . weapons’, and in so doing opens the door to Western imperialist intervention and support for its arming of the Ukrainian state. There is no qualification to this, either in the armed support that should be given, or the identity of the ‘Ukrainian Resistance’ forces that should be armed. These will include those who will happily turn any guns supplied against the Ukrainian working class and its left wing.
In the context of an unprecedented propaganda campaign that has included covering up the integration of fascist units into the Ukrainian state forces, and the lionisation of the Ukrainian leader Zelensky – elected to uproot rampant corruption but now revealed to having links to his own and colleagues’ offshore accounts – it perpetuates illusions in the reactionary class character of Ukrainian military and political forces.
Very helpfully, the most recent issue of The Economist magazine has a graphic of a ‘crony-capitalism’ index which, unsurprisingly, shows Russia way out in front. Ukraine, however, is fifth. This crony capitalism supports the Ukrainian state and its political leaderships, and is responsible for the corruption of Ukrainian politics and society. Ukrainian workers have suffered from and opposed this corruption for many years but the agents of it are released from any responsibility by cries from the West that ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ must be supported.
This resolution amplifies this rhetoric and shamefully avoids the separate interest of the Ukrainian working class; in effect it amounts to a call to follow its class enemies. Whatever potential agency the Ukrainian working class has is buried beneath the cardinal imperative to defend the self-determination of the Ukrainian capitalist state.
Rather than demonstrate to British workers the common greed and corruption of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and British connivance with it, the necessary class differences are erased, perfectly mirroring the claims of the British, Ukrainian and Russian ruling classes.
The propaganda campaign in the West has presented Russia and Putin as uniquely evil. By definition rather than just implication, the forces of the Western powers are the principled opponents of this evil – where else are the guns called for by the resolution to come from? British workers are asked to take sides in a war in which corporate and state media propaganda has blamed only Russia, an argument which the resolution explicitly endorses.
The self-styled Marxists supporting this resolution state that in this particular case it is Russian imperialism that is the aggressor, and NATO ceases to be relevant. Only sometimes, it appears, is NATO, Britain and the United States aggressive imperialist forces such as in Iraq. Sometimes, it must be assumed, it is on the right side – the side of Ukrainian self-determination. The framing of the war as purely Russian aggression prevents any responsibility being assigned to NATO and its powers. Instead, workers are invited to support its military intervention and with no warnings even on the need to limit it. Why would there be? For the resolution there is only one issue.
The declaration that NATO is opposed is empty in such a context and mention of its eastward expansion of no consequence. In fact, its role is explicitly absolved as ‘Putin has used the pretext that Ukraine wanted to join NATO to justify yet another war for regime change.’ Anyone assigning any responsibility to NATO must presumably be joining in with Putin in giving a reason for the war that is not the real reason, echoing again the claims that placing anything other than full blame on Russia is to be a dupe of Vladimir Putin.
With explanation of the war confined to Russian aggression the real cause of the war, its nature and the principled socialist response cannot be argued. What is left can only be agreement to support for the Ukrainian state from wherever it comes because the cause of the war, its nature and the principled response excludes opposition to NATO, US and British imperialism. Such is the deception woven through the words of the resolution
The resolution states that it supports sanctions but that ‘we believe that sanctions should hit the Russian oligarchs and war machine, not the people.’ Since these sanctions are already hitting workers in the West and to an even greater extent threaten peoples in places such as North Africa, Middle East and East Asia, the idea that they will not hit Russian workers even harder is pure deceit.
Finally, all this is justified by the central need to ‘support the right of the people for Ukraine to self-determination without foreign military or economic pressure.’ If this were to be the case Ukraine would be the only nation in the world able to determine its fate ‘without foreign military or economic pressure.’ That the drafters of the resolution think this is possible, and particularly of Ukraine, shows remarkable ignorance of the country’s history and its permanent geographical position.
It also shows that they do not understand the demand for self-determination, which refers only to the right of a nation to independence from incorporation within another state. Once formal independence is achieved the idea that workers and socialists should guarantee its freedom of action is a licence for every capitalist power to demand of its own working class and others’ that it be supported because its freedom is circumscribed by other capitalist powers. It is a perfect recipe for the complete subordination of each working class to its own capitalist state and capitalist class in their competition with every other.
Socialists should neither support or defend the invasion by Russia of Ukraine but we do not take sides between capitalist powers, between the oligarchs of Russia and the oligarchs of Ukraine, between the offshore wealth of Zelensky and hidden millions of Putin, between the army of Russia and the army of Ukraine (with its fascist units and its NATO arms).
Self-determination by Ukrainian workers, for whom we are in solidarity, can only come through unity with workers in Russia and the rest of Europe. The desire if its leaders to join NATO has helped precipitate the invasion. Joining it would subordinate Ukraine to the requirements of US imperialism, which will continue to employ NATO to contain and weaken Russia and to constrain the demands of its main rival China. This is not the future that Ukrainian workers should seek or British workers support through arming the Ukrainian state.
The weakness of the Ukrainian working class is being exploited by both its own rulers and the Western powers. It is a result of internal divisions, which are exploited by its oligarchs and political leaders, and its geopolitical position. Overcoming this division and outside threats will not be achieved by defending the rights of the Ukrainian capitalist state or effective capitulation to the strongest external power.
Its immediate vulnerability can mainly be addressed by workers in the Ukraine itself, in so far as it is able to assert its separate class interests. Surrendering it to the political leadership that walked them into this nightmare and the NATO predator that presents itself as their saviour is politically fatal. Workers outside the country can show their common class interests through material support; opposition to the war – especially in Russia – and others’ solidarity with it; and political solidarity based on clear assertion of international working class unity.
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.