The war in Ukraine and the Left

Andros Payiatsos

A war and in general any rise in national antagonisms and conflicts, represent the most difficult ground for the Left to adopt a position; this is particularly the case for the anti-capitalist/internationalist Left. Such developments inevitably mean the rise of nationalism and “hatred” among workers of different countries. Nationalism is the exact opposite of internationalism, which is one of the pillars of the anticapitalist struggle aiming at the socialist transformation of society. Trying to spread an internationalist message in conditions of rising nationalism becomes extremely difficult; the ideas of revolutionary socialism can find themselves isolated from the working masses for significant periods of time. This is a reality for the anticapitalist Left on an international level, as it is obliged to adopt a position in relation to the developments. However, it holds even more for organisations based in war-torn countries, as is the case today with Ukraine and Russia. 

The “establishment Left”

For the “establishment Left” in the “developed” industrial countries, i.e. parties originating from the left but eventually becoming integrated into the system, there are no real dilemmas: these parties will follow the stand taken by the ruling class of their country –in this case the policies adopted by the West and NATO– even if they whine or complain a bit. Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Left Bloc in Portugal, and other similar parties, known as “New Left Formations” that arose in the past couple of decades, are typical examples. The same is true for some so called “socialist parties” that are still considered as “left” in countries like France and Spain. 

This is the inevitable fate of the reformist, or ex-reformist Left: it will side with the ruling class of its country on all crucial issues, it will never challenge its power and the capitalist system. It will, of course, try to mumble some differentiating wordings, especially in cases when its political opponents are in office, but it will not question the substance of the policies followed by the ruling class, NATO and the EU. These parties may call for an “end to the war” and for “peace”, or take part in anti-war demos or concerts, but this doesn’t mean much in practice – even the war hawks in Washington may call for “peace”, by which they mean that Russia should get out of Ukraine. 

Reformist and ex-reformist parties are thus adopting similar positions internationally. Apart from clearly denouncing the Russian invasion, which is of course absolutely correct, they remain dead silent about the NATO crimes in general and also about the role that NATO and the West have concretely played in provoking the present war. 

Bernie Sanders 

The truth is that Bernie Sanders, of the left wing of the Democratic Party in the US, was probably the only figure in the international reformist left who had enough courage to criticise and directly attack the policies of his government. Sanders has been harshly critical of the Russian invasion, but at the same time denounced the US policies that paved the way to provoke the war. He recalled the US crimes in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc and went as far as stating that the US would never tolerate an enemy power establishing military bases in a neighbouring country such as Mexico. 

Bernie Sanders is a member of the Democratic Party which is currently ruling the US. This very fact reveals the huge ideological and political differences we have with the political current represented by Sanders. Nevertheless, we cannot but give him credit for having had the guts to directly confront his country’s establishment, while it is “at war”. None of the much younger “leaders” of the reformist “left” internationally, who fancy presenting themselves in radical colours, have demonstrated similar courage. 

The anti-capitalist Left 

Τhe reformist and the establishment “Left” will never change the world. That is why our attention and analysis must focus on the anti-capitalist, internationalist and revolutionary Left. 

The issues (differences and conflicts) arising in the anticapitalist Left are also considerable, albeit of a different kind. Roughly speaking, in relation to the war in Ukraine, we can witness the following variations among the different currents of the anti-capitalist Left internationally. 

A section of the anticapitalist Left consider that the problem is simply the attack of Russian capitalism/imperialism against a weaker country, Ukraine. 

Some will go as far as describing Ukraine as a “semi-colonial country”. According to this approach, the Left must take a clear position in support of Ukraine, and even support providing the Ukrainian state with military supplies by the western governments. The positions of the United Secretariat of the 4th International (USFI) are a typical example of this approach.

Some general criticisms of NATO, denouncing it as an imperialist military formation, would accompany this approach. However, it is only a general criticism, about the role of NATO historically, but there is no specific mention NATO’s responsibility for this particular war, certainly not in a way that will set out practical tasks and calls for action against NATO, concretely and today. 

Another section of the anti-capitalist left is supporting Russia, some in a direct way. 

For example, at their online meeting on March 26, a number of organisations concluded to an agreement to support the Russian invasion, as the website classconscious.org, whose editors participated in the meeting, reports:

On March 26th a panel was held bringing together Marxist groups from around the world who are taking a principled anti-imperialist position and offering critical support to Russia’s military action in Ukraine and stand united around the banner that nations in the cross hair of imperialism have the right to defend themselves. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is proving to be a decisive moment in the class struggle, revealing where Marxist parties stand in relation to their own bourgeoisie and imperialism.”

Others do so in an indirect but quite clear way, based on the thinking that Zelensky’s regime is reactionary and relies heavily on neo-Nazis, while at the same time “the main enemy is NATO”. Based on this thinking, the Left should defend any force clashing with what represents the greatest danger to the global movements, namely the US and NATO. So indirectly they provide support to Russia without however stating directly that they support the invasion of Ukraine

Another issue which is very controversial, is that of the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas region (in the east of the country) where the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces have declared their independence since 2014. The fact that these populations have been oppressed is acknowledged by almost everyone in the anti-capitalist Left. However, when it comes to the declaration of independence by these provinces, most of the anticapitalist Left tend to keep quiet while a number of them take a clearly negative stand. The “right of self-determination”, i.e. the right of the Russian-speaking provinces to decide for themselves whether or what kind of relations they wish to have with the Ukrainian state, is like a “hot potato”. Recognising the “right of self-determination” is equivalent to changes to existing borders – and this aspect is causing inevitable conflicts and dilemmas.  

Of course, most of the above views are partially based on objective facts, on actual aspects of the real situation. The point however is that the anti-capitalist Left must take a position not only based on a few facts or aspects, but taking into account the whole picture

Internationalist Standpoint belongs to that section of the Left which, taking all facts and factors into account, on the one hand denounces the Russian invasion as imperialist, but on the other hand stresses that the US, NATO and the EU are also imperialist, not only in general and historically, but also in respect to the present war, i.e., that their policies in the past years and at present have actually contributed to the military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. We denounce the reactionary regime of Putin but also that of Zelensky and the neo-Nazis who he has been relying on and who are actually part of the state (officially incorporated in the Ukrainian army). We take a stand against both reactionary ruling classes and imperialist camps and on the side of the workers and the youth in both Russia and Ukraine, as well as the Russian-speaking provinces. 

In what follows we will make an attempt to look at the complete picture, to look at all the facts as a whole and at the ways in which they are interrelated. 

Objective facts

  1. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is clearly an imperialist intervention. A militarily and economically powerful country is invading another country, in order to force it to accept its own terms. What makes the intervention an imperialist one, however, is not related to Russia’s relative strength and Ukraine’s relative weakness. The imperialist character of the invasion is a result of the fact that the Russian army is aiming at imposing a new balance of power that favours the geopolitical, strategic and, ultimately, economic interests of the Russian ruling class
  2. NATO’s and the Western leaders’ denunciation of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in the name of defending human, national, democratic rights, in order to avoid a humanitarian disaster, etc are nothing but pure hypocrisy and nauseating double standards. Ukraine is “important” only because it is their ally and under the West’s sphere of influence, and because it is attacked by Russia which is an antagonist in the global balance of power. The whole history of Western capitalism has been embedded in blood. The “West” has been responsible for massive devastation and massacres in every corner of the globe, from colonial times to the decades before and after WWII. It has continued to act in the same way during the last 3 decades, after the end of the cold war of the post-war era with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Modern day Russian imperialism is too weak to be able to do anything on the scale of NATO and the western powers. Despite the one-sided propaganda, in which the Western media have engaged, the destruction and loss of human lives in the Ukraine war is a small fraction of the equivalent in each of the major wars of the last decades, such as in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc. 
  3. The US and NATO are far more powerful than Russia’s CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation – Russia together with its allies in Central Asia) and the US and NATO are responsible for the worst crimes against humanity. But the fact that Western imperialism is more powerful and therefore more dangerous than Russian imperialism does not mean that we can ignore the existence of the latter, its aggressive and barbaric characteristics, as has been manifested in many wars in its “backyard” in the past couple of decades. 
  4. The war in Ukraine is not just a conflict between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. A clash between major imperialist-military blocs is taking place on Ukrainian soil: on the one hand NATO which has been arming Ukraine en masse and on the otherRussia (with its own allies). According to the Financial Times the military supplies that Ukraine has been receiving from the West amount to the greatest arms push since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is at stake is spheres of influence and dominance on a global level. China is on Russia’s side and this is a critical element. Russian imperialism would not be able to survive an economic attack/boycott by the West for any significant length of time, if it was isolated on its own. 
  5. The Russia-NATO conflict must be viewed in the context of the broader US (and Western) confrontation with China, that has been developing in recent years. US primacy is being seriously challenged for the first time since the interwar period (i.e. over the past 100 years more or less) by China. The rise of China, which in a few years will overtake the US as the most powerful economy on the planet, is intertwined with the beginning of the era of decline of US imperialism. This confrontation will last for decades, it cannot be resolved in a matter of a few years. NATO’s expansionism against Russia (14 countries of the former Soviet bloc have been integrated into the alliance) is also part of this global geopolitical confrontation. Russia’s (and China’s) reaction to this was only a matter of time. It is difficult to even consider that the West was so myopic, not to say completely blind, not to see where its policies were leading. 
  6. Putin’s government has shown its character clearly in the course of the past decades: Authoritarian and reactionary, suppressing basic rights and freedoms, imprisoning its opponents (even murdering its opponents according to lots of evidence), banning demonstrations, suppressing protests, defiantly sexist and homophobic, attacking and even splitting neighbouring countries. There is nothing progressive about Putin’s regime. 
  7. Zelensky’s government is also a reactionary one, at all levels: authoritarianism, nepotism, nationalism, corruption, neoliberal policies of course, abolition of trade union and democratic rights, abolition or limiting of the free use of Russian and other minority languages, overall suppression of the rights of the ethnic groups living in Ukraine, (mutual) support to the Nazi battalions operating unchecked in the country, and of course full support for the country’s membership of NATO (until Russia’s invasion). On March 20, 2022, Zelensky banned 11 opposition parties (the majority of them centre-left – the Communist Party was already banned in 2014) accusing them of pro-Russian stance. 
  8. The way someone like Zelensky (a comedian) happened to be ruling a country surely is related to the incredibly huge political vacuum in the country: Before the war, according to polls, trust in the central government, the judiciary system and the parliament was at 4%, 4% and 3% respectively!!! 
  9. Ukrainian neo-Nazis are not some kind of a funny or folkloric case. There are 4 operating major Nazi organisations, with tens of thousands of members. The best-known ones are the “Right Sector” and the “Azov Battalion”. According to Western antifascist observatories, Ukraine’s neo-Nazis’ current massive stream of recruitment, at international level, can only be compared to the recruitment wave of the Islamic State (ISIS) during its rise and expansion in Iraq and Syria. These gangs are not just supported by the Ukrainian state, they are officially integrated into it. The Azov Battalion has been integrated into the Ukrainian army and operating in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. It is necessary to note and emphasise this: the neo-Nazis operate within the Ukrainian army as an official political wing! The mega-defenders of democracy and freedom in the EU and the US pretend not to have noticed. The most massive neo-Nazi organisations in our time are found in Ukraine, armed to the teeth and fully operational, under the official cover of the state. The West with its policies is once again creating a monster with international dimensions and repercussions. 
  10. All minorities are being oppressed in Ukraine, but particularly the Russian minority, which is numerous. At least 30% of the Ukrainian population (44 million in total) are Russian-speaking. Solid Russian-speaking populations are dominant in eastern Ukraine. The Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, declared their independence in 2014: referendums were organised and they unveiled an overwhelming majority supporting independence. According to the (Russian-speaking) local authorities, participation was at 75%, while 89% voted in favour of independence. The Kiev government downplayed the referendums as “an attempt to cover up crimes”. The Western media however did not attempt to question the fact that the referendums do actually express the mood and consciousness of the inhabitants of the eastern regions. Since their declaration of independence in 2014, these regions have been in a constant war with the Ukrainian state. The death toll of this 8-year war is 14,000 and the number of refugees is close to 1,5 million.

Given the above, what position should the Left adopt? 

The positions of the Left  

The Left, as a matter of principle should not side with one imperialism for the sake of fighting against another imperialism. 

It should not side with one reactionary government in order to fight against another one. 

On the contrary, the Left must take a position which is independent of the two reactionary ruling classes and the two imperialist camps. It should take an independent class, internationalist position.  

It should not be dragged by the fake dilemma “do you support Ukraine or Russia?”. It should take a stand against both Russian and NATO imperialisms, against the governments of both Putin and Zelensky, against the neo-Nazis who are backed by the Ukrainian government, it should denounce the massive hypocrisy of the West. 

It should take a stand in support of all those who are suffering from this war: the Ukrainian workers and youth, the Russian-speaking workers and youth of Ukraine, the Russian workers and youth in Russia – all those whose lives are in danger, and whose economic sustainability is also sacrificed on the altar of the ruling classes’ interests and the imperialists’ conflicts. 

Ukraine and Russia are not uniform entities. The dilemma “with Russia or with Ukraine” is superficial. The Left needs to support the Ukrainian workers and youth but at the same time oppose and fight against the Ukrainian government and Zelensky. It should support Russian workers and youth, but should be fighting against Putin. It should defend the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine and their rights, against the neo-Nazis who kill and rape with the support of Zelensky’s government. 

This discussion is not really relevant to the role that the reformist/systemic Left may play – as already mentioned, this Left will never be up to the task. The discussion about the “tasks of the Left” is actually only relevant to the anti-capitalist Left which, however, still has many tests to pass, not least of which is to acquire some semi-mass appeal. Unfortunately, fragmentation and sectarianism run across the anti-capitalist Left internationally, and expose it to the eyes of the broad working classes (there is a partial exception to this in some processes unfolding in some Latin American countries, like Argentina).

What would the revolutionary Left do in Russia and Ukraine?

The anticapitalist Left’s task, internationally, is not just to take part in anti-war demonstrations or concerts: it also needs to put forward proposals, a political programme and actions/initiatives that help mobilise people to realise these demands. 

It is very difficult to formulate proposals for those living the nightmare of war, from the position of an “outsider”. However, this debate has been unfolding across the international left, questions and reflections are arising, it is therefore necessary for all to take a position. The fact however that there are no significant forces of the anti-capitalist left either in Ukraine or in Russia makes this task doubly complicated. Still the discussion can be useful in the attempt to clarify the issues ideologically and politically.

Internationally, no mass anti-war movements have developed so far as a reaction to this war. Nothing like the demonstrations of millions that we witnessed against previous wars. In a sense, the most important anti-war mobilisations have actually taken place in Russia, where it demands courage to take to the streets. 

Many thousands have demonstrated in Russia and some 15,000 have been arrested and detained. This is an important movement which can be nothing but an indication of even bigger movements in the future – though, and this is important, not necessarily in the short-term. One question that is certainly arising is towards which direction the Russian anti-war movement is heading. If it aims at linking Russia to the West, there is no hope for it to solve any of the great problems and contradictions in Russian society. This, though, is the topic of a different discussion. 

The revolutionary Left in Russia, however small its forces maybe, should of course step forward and actively intervene in these movements. At the same time, it should develop an as massive as possible campaign in Russian society, illegal or semi-legal given the character of the regime, explaining why this war is wrong. 

It should denounce the Russian ruling class for the invasion of Ukraine and at the same time point to the criminal policies and role of NATO; denounce Zelensky’s policies which have been actively helping NATO to “surround” Russia; strongly defend the rights of the Russian-speaking populations in  Eastern Ukraine and their right to self-determination; declare its solidarity with the Ukrainian workers and youth; defend conscientious objectors (on both sides of the border); finally, call for a joint struggle between the Russian and Ukrainian workers and youth for the overthrow of capitalism and for a society of friendship and cooperation within the framework of a voluntary socialist federation of the two countries and the wider region. 

A campaign by Russian revolutionaries based on the above set of demands can appeal to the best, more radical and courageous elements in the Russian population.

If there were forces of the anti-capitalist left in Ukraine with any mass or semi-mass appeal, at least part of them would inevitably be involved in the armed conflict, trying to defend themselves against the Russian troops. Many of them would participate in the defence of the cities and neighbourhoods where they leave, particularly after the distribution of arms to the population by the Ukrainian government. 

What should be the main concern of those armed fighters who embrace the ideas of radical or revolutionary socialism? Would it be to kill as many Russian soldiers as possible, in the context of the nationalist/patriotic fever fostered by the ruling class? No, this would in practice mean an identical position to that of Zelensky and the scum of his government- the Ukrainian neo-Nazis. 

The revolutionary Left’s task in Ukraine, to the extent that it has substantial mass appeal, should have been to fight both against the invasion and against the Ukrainian ruling class -Zelensky and the neo-Nazis- because of the role that they played over the past years with their extreme nationalist and pro-NATO policies, which played a crucial role for the creation of the current crisis. 

The main objective of the consciously advanced workers and youth fighting the Russian invasion could only be one: to stop the bloodshed. In order to achieve this, they would need to “appeal to the enemy”, i.e., to the ranks of the Russian army and to the Russian working class and youth. 

There is one point on which Ukrainian and Russian soldiers cannot but agree: they want to live. This will only be the case if the war comes to an end. This aim, to stop the war, can objectively create the conditions for a common front among them, provided of course that there are political forces to pursue this. 

Western media have reported cases of Russian soldiers shooting their officers. Russian media have reported and interviewed Ukrainian soldiers defecting to the Russian side. Neither Western nor Russian media are to be trusted, but there is good reason to assume that such information is at least partly grounded. Nevertheless, we can certainly trust the news reported by Western media about Zelensky having sacked (at least) two generals of the Ukrainian army on the charges of “treason” and… “anti-heroism” on March 31! Obviously, there are contradictions in the situation and reactions that are impossible to conceal.

Soldiers at war, find themselves in a truly horrific situation, in which they are turned into “cannon fodder”, having no right to express opinions or to be informed about what is happening or what is next, not even to ask questions. 

Under such conditions, the creation of soldier’s committees becomes objectively possible and under certain circumstances. Demanding to have a say about the war, essentially a say in how to bring the war to an end, means addressing the soldiers of the other side with whom they have same fundamental interest, in order to spare their lives. 

History has provided us with many similar examples. The most eloquent one is that of the role of the army ranks in 1917 revolutionary Russia. The soldiers’ councils (soviets) played a key role in the victory of the Russian revolution while Russia was at war with Germany in 1917. Of course, the existence of the Bolshevik party in 1917 marks a key difference in comparison to the present situation. 

The Bolsheviks’ response to WWI was not of the kind “the motherland is being attacked, our task is to defend it, kill the enemy soldiers”. On the contrary, their position was: the war is imperialist on both sides; workers from the opposite camps have no interest in killing each other; we form soldiers’ councils and rank and file committees; we fight against the internal enemy, the Russian capitalists and landlords; we aim at taking power to bring the war to an end, by appealing, among other things, to the German troops who also have an interest in bringing the war to an end. This policy was tested in the course of the Russian revolution and led to victory. 

The Ukrainian revolutionary Left should at the same time of course defend the right of self-determination of the Russian-speaking provinces. Explaining that this would be an absolutely necessary condition in order to establish working relations, comradeship and friendship between the workers of Western and Eastern Ukraine, so that peace could be achieved of a solid basis. Otherwise, nationalist hatred would be inherited from one generation to the next

These positions would also allow the Ukrainian revolutionary Left to reach out to the popular layers in the Eastern regions, who have been fighting for years for their independence and against the Ukrainian state. It would help these populations liberate themselves from their inevitable dependence on Putin, who appears to be the only one supporting their demands. Had the Russian-speaking people of the eastern regions known that there were sizeable political forces in Ukraine that support their right to self-determination, they would have no reason to side with the Russian invasion and Putin. As such Ukrainian political forces do not exist, the Russian speaking people of Eastern Ukraine, are bound to side with the Russian invasion

All of the above would of course be far from easy to achieve. Even if there were sizeable forces of the anti-capitalist left in Russia and Ukraine, their task would still be hard and complicated. Under all conditions, the above-described political approach would be the only consistent revolutionary stance, and the only one able to offer a perspective to those whose consciousness would be awakened by the devastation caused by the war. 

The contribution of the anti-capitalist Left internationally 

From an objective point of view there is common ground among Ukrainian and Russian workers and youth, soldiers or civilians, to develop a common struggle against the war, against their ruling classes, against capitalism and imperialism which are devastating their lives and economies. 

What is unfortunately missing is a Left force able to develop the necessary political programme, based on the common class interests and to facilitate communication between the masses on either side. This is the most important factor that is lacking in our times: the absence of a mass revolutionary Left. 

Nevertheless, on the international level the anti-capitalist Left, has a noticeable presence in several countries, and it is able to make a contribution. It is not in a position today to directly influence developments but it can assist the most militant layers in society to prepare themselves politically and ideologically for the future, by fighting: 

  • against war
  • against both Russian and NATO imperialism
  • against both Putin and Zelensky 
  • for the common interests and class solidarity of the workers and youth in both countries, for an independent, class, revolutionary stand
  • against the neo-Nazis
  • or the right of self-determination of the Russian-speaking provinces of Ukraine
  • for an internationalist anti-war movement 
  • against capitalism and imperialism that make wars inevitable
  • for the socialist transformation and a voluntary federation between the peoples and ethnic minorities in the two countries and the wider region. 

The forces of the revolutionary left who share the above programmatic demands should aim at coming together, on a national and international level. They need to seek to work together, so that they can intervene, influence developments and play a role in developing class consciousness and socialist ideas. The present situation entails many difficulties but also provides opportunities for revolutionary ideas, while at the same time paving the way for even more important developments, movements and social eruptions in the future.

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