We publish this analysis by the ControCorrente group in Italy, with which we are in agreement in all basic points
Who are we addressing?
The war that began with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is not the first nor the only war of this century, but it has elements that make it different from all the others and that, regardless of its military outcomes, suggest that its legacy will be lasting and in many ways difficult to undo. The military, economic, productive and propagandistic involvement of the main imperialist countries make it the first total war of the 21st century, and it is clear to (almost) everyone that what is at stake is not just some land in the Donbass, however rich in grain and minerals or some landing places on the Black Sea, but the redefinition of the balance of power to deal with the growing international turbulence. And, if the roots of this conflict lie in the rubble strewn ground of the “cold war”, its branches extend across the globe, becoming particularly dense in the Pacific theater.
It is natural that an event of this magnitude opens a lacerating political debate in all camps, including that which made proletarian internationalism its flag and one of its main constituent elements. And it is this camp we are addressing above all, aware, however, that the issues raised by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict have a much wider reach.
An important part of this area, although not the only part, is constituted by the movements and organizations that are based on the history and political legacy of the Fourth International. Within this part, the history and common political references, already in crisis after the collapse of the Eastern European regimes and the spectacular rise of the alleged “deformed workers State” of China at the height of imperialist power, have been shattered now by the test of war in Europe, which makes debates and political clashes until yesterday consigned to history timely topics. Consequently, even some of the most important of those movements and organizations slide into positions of support for American and European imperialisms, a choice that cannot be justified by the sacrosanct criticism of the campist positions that on the other hand justify Russian aggression in name of a one-way “anti-imperialism”. On the other hand, war is not only the natural outlet for competition between capitals, but it is also the moment in which the workers’ movement tests its autonomy by emancipating itself from bourgeois protection, which is the norm in times of peace. “Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” Marx and Engels loved to repeat in cases like these, quoting a phrase from Aesop addressed to a braggart who claimed to have made a huge leap on the island of Rhodes. If you are capable, do it again: “We are in Rhodes here, and jump here!”
It is a question that involves both the merit of the arguments, and the social and political pressures that act upon those who argue, conditioning their thinking and their actions. Often then, invective is substituted for analysis, according to the well-known and obvious consideration that it is easier to win at chess by overturning the board than by playing the game.
So let’s try to stay on the argument by following a logical line of thought. Supporters of the unconditional defense of Ukraine base their position on the fact that it is a war of aggression by Russia, motivated by Putin’s Great Russian nationalism, which denies the very existence of Ukraine as a state and of Ukrainians as a people. If this is the case, the external intervention of Atlantic imperialisms, both in the current war and in the entire phase that preceded it, does not characterize the conflict as interimperialist, but as a struggle between the aggressor – the Russian Federation – and the attacked, Ukraine. Some go so far as to argue that this characterization of national defense warfare is definitively certified by the absence of foreign armies on the ground. Of course, Ukrainians receive weapons from practically the whole Western world, the Republic of San Marino (perhaps) excluded, but weapons, like money, have no smell and, indispensable for defense, they are taken from those who are willing to give them. Usually at this point in the argument, the real ace in the hole has dropped: the analogy with the Resistance, which as is known, was supplied, to be honest, sparingly, with weapons and materials by the Allies, even if the objectives of the former did not totally coincide with those of the latter. Therefore, Ukrainians do well to accept them, whatever the intentions and purposes of the donors may be. Finally, Ukraine is a democratic state crushed by Putin’s autocracy. Also in this case, reversing the arguments put forward by Putin himself to justify the invasion, the comparison with the Second World War re-emerges and the God of democracy and anti-fascism is called on by both contenders, but in the end – as Napoleon argued – you can bet that he will take the side that has the best artillery. This is a picture of the situation, terrifying but uplifting, where there are the good, the friends of the good (but who are a little less good), the bad (who are so very bad) and the indifferent (who are therefore a bit bad too). However, there is one great absence: the class struggle. And that is not a mere detail.
Attacked and attacker
Basically, there are two ways to start a war, which can also be combined with each other: incident and aggression. Appointments on the battlefield being a thing of the past, when the tensions between countries or alliances make conflict inevitable, someone has to start and does it by using an incident, true or false, to justify it or by attacking the opponent (from the explosion of the USS Maine in the bay of Havana in 1898 to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, the USA is the undisputed world master in this area). But the real cause of the war lies in the forces that give rise to the tensions and not in its formal beginning. It was the change in the balance of power between imperialisms in Europe in 1914 and not Gavrilo Princip’s pistol that started the First World War. In May of 1914 the Italian government did not even bother to organize an incident. Following the compass of Salandra’s “sacred self-interest”, in twenty days it broke the alliance with the Central Powers and invaded Austria-Hungary: a cowardly stab in the back, if it lost the war, but, given that in that case it won, a noble ride to free Trento, Trieste and Bolzano (the latter was actually Bozen, inhabited by German-speaking South Tyroleans, but let’s not quibble…).
Lenin mocked these distinctions between attacked and attacker, used by the Mensheviks to justify their chauvinism at the outbreak of the First World War: “ We know that, for decades, three robbers (the bourgeoisie and the governments of Britain, Russia and France) were arming to pillage Germany. Is there anything surprising that two robbers began the attack before the other three got the new knives they had ordered? Is it not a sophism for phrases about “who started the war” to be used to gloss over the equal “guilt” of the bourgeoisie of all countries, …“1
And Trotsky, in 1918, returned to the beginning of the First World War: “A group of Serbian conspirators had murdered a member of the Habsburg family, the mainstay of Austro-Hungarian clericalism, militarism, and imperialism. Using this as a welcome pretext, the military parry in Vienna sent an ultimatum to Serbia, which for sheer audacity, has scarcely ever been paralleled in diplomatic history. In reply, the Serbian government made extra-ordinary concessions, and suggested that the solution of the question in dispute be turned over to the Hague tribunal. Thereupon Austria declared war on Serbia. If the idea of a ‘war of defence’ has any meaning at all, it certainly applied to Serbia in this instance. Nevertheless, our friends, Ljaptchevitch and Katzlerovitch, unshaken in their conviction of the course of action that they as Socialists must pursue, refused the government a vote of confidence.” 2
To our knowledge, no one contests that these political positions were correct for the international situation of 1914, but many object that today the situation is completely different. In their opinion, in fact, we are not in the presence of an inter-imperialist war, but rather of the attack of an imperialism – that of Russian – against an independent non-imperialist state – Ukraine – aimed at denying its very existence. In other words, it is a typical national defense struggle in which the Ukrainians accept help from NATO as the Vietnamese accepted that of the USSR and China. This is an argument that holds up only if it isolates the military confrontation from the international context and from history, but which at least allows us to tackle two fundamental issues: imperialism and the national question.
Imperialism in 2022
Lenin developed his theory of imperialism as the supreme phase of capitalism in 1916 during the First World War, which was the disastrous consequence of imperialism. More than a century has passed since then, but the elements that characterize this phase remain fully confirmed. Indeed, it is precisely their expansion to the entire planet that creates a new situation. The nation states, which at the time of the affirmation of imperialism guaranteed the rules of the internal market and had a monopoly on the instruments of domination (political and military), are still necessary today, but insufficient to satisfy the needs of international capital, that has therefore equipped itself with extra-national superstructures, both economic and political. Alliances and treaties also existed at the beginning of the twentieth century, but entities such as the IMF or NATO are not only expressions of power relations between states, but in some way live their own life, with their own politics and their own economy, albeit conditioned by the relations between the members. Furthermore, in today’s multipolar world, each state is located within a complex network of relations and tensions, so while there really are classes oppressed by imperialism, there are no states that can be defined outside of it. E.P. Thomson gave this definition of class: “class is not this or that part of the machine, butthe way the machine works once it is set in motion — not this interest and that interest, but thefrictionof interests — the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise.” 3 Paraphrasing his definition, we can say that imperialism today is not this or that state, but it is the way the machine of world capitalism works. In this way the Ukrainian state is fully inserted in the general context, and the political struggle that has taken place within it since 1989 is a reflection of the pushes, towards this or that imperialist bloc, of each fraction of domestic capital supported by external sponsors, that use nationalism as a bludgeon to fight with each other. This practice has as an inevitable corollary phenomena of national oppression which, as always, affect especially the poorest sectors of the population, mostly proletarians. However, the real object of the dispute is not the existence or otherwise of Ukrainian nationality, but rather the adhesion of the Ukrainian state to this or that imperialist bloc. The clash is strategic, both in terms of the economic resources at stake and the geopolitical balances and has an ancient history that precedes the development of capitalism itself, even giving rise to the meaning of the name Ukraine, literally “borderland”, wedged between the Slavic, German and Ottoman tectonic plates in constant conflict with each other.
Furthermore, in this war not only the fate of Ukraine is at stake. Indeed, by applying the method that Ernest Mandel used to analyze the Second World War4 , identifying in it as many as five different wars combined, we can argue that behind the fighting in the Donbass and its surroundings several wars are taking place, some of which, for now, are only economic and political, but probably a prelude to great military clashes in the future.
The trigger is undoubtedly the desperate attempt by Russian imperialism to reverse the course of its historic decline through the use of force. In linear continuity with the modus operandi of Soviet state capitalism (Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968), Putin uses tanks to hold back pieces of the former Eastern Bloc fleeing to the West. It is a choice of force dictated by weakness, and for this reason it risks accentuating what it would like to avoid. Some signs of this are beginning to be seen, such as the ill-concealed irritation of the Chinese government (which will certainly have a cost for Putin) or the not surprising distancing of some former Central Asian vassals.
This fits into the clash between the US and China. In the almost inevitable prospect of being overtaken by the Asian giant within fifteen years, the United States is putting in place all possible measures to isolate Beijing on the one hand and strengthen its own alliances on the other, also in view of a possible direct confrontation. The compacting, strengthening and enlargement of NATO, the creation of AUKUS in the Pacific, the weakening of Russia and a climate of international tension that certainly does not favor the “silent” enlargement of Chinese imperialism (which has very large interests in investments and trade in Ukraine), all go in this direction and the Ukrainian crisis happens, or has been made to happen, for this reason.
In this context, relations between the USA and Europe are also at stake, because the former undoubtedly needs stronger allies, but certainly not a stronger competitor on the international market, and European imperialism, even with all its contradictions, is in fact the third wheel in the clash with China. In a moment of political weakness of European leadership (Scholz is not Merkel, Macron is not De Gaulle and Draghi is Draghi, or rather, he was), the war weakens the EU economically, especially Germany, undermining its internal cohesion. It is true that the shock of the conflict has brought the military spending of each member to at least 2% of GDP, but, with these assumptions, even the European common defense project becomes problematic because, if war is the continuation of politics by other means , before thinking about war it is necessary to have a policy, while the EU has several, that is, none. In the face of the European defense model outlined in the Quirinal Treaty – an autonomous intervention force to guarantee its own interests under the defensive umbrella of NATO – a super NATO is emerging, which also includes countries of the former Warsaw Pact (Poland has approved a rearmament plan that goes well beyond 2% of GDP) and which, in close agreement with Washington and London, seeks to free itself from the Rome-Paris-Berlin axis, in view of a future war – cold or hot as it may be – on the eastern border.
Finally, there is the elbowing of regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Turkey, to expand their areas of influence and increase their bargaining power on the international stage. Above all, Turkey moves unscrupulously on several levels, making use of its strategic position and its military strength to its advantage against its adversaries and allies. In fact, we must not forget that the Russian-Ukrainian war not only does not cancel ongoing conflicts (Yemen, Syria, Libya, Palestine) but rather exacerbates their tensions, starting with those related to the control of energy sources and trade routes.
The matryoshka of the oppressed nations
The denial of the interimperialist character of the war is usually coupled with the argument which limits it only to the attempt – albeit real – to deny and annul Ukrainian nationality by a chauvinist imperialism. There is some truth to this statement: the ideology of the Russian ruling bloc headed by Putin is truly the quintessence of the “Black Hundred Great Russian chauvinism” stigmatized and fought against by Lenin. Indeed, Putin’s speech on the eve of the invasion was a textbook exposition of all the chauvinist clichés that in the past underpinned the power of the Tsar of All Russia, including anti-Bolshevism. Only a few anti-Semitic comments were missing to have the complete sample, but let’s give it time…
However, the fight against national oppression and the self-determination of nations are not the same thing – even if they are often linked – and we need to clarify this.
Communists are always and everywhere against the oppression of one nationality by another, just as they are for the end of all forms of human oppression, which is the ultimate goal of their action. But they relate to national self-determination, or rather to the process of forming independent nation states, by trying to favor the establishment of the best conditions under which the working class can accumulate and deploy its strength to lead the clash with capital. For Marx and Engels, the unification processes of Germany and Italy were to be favored, not on the basis of an abstract “right” to self-determination, but because they defined the creation of two great sectors of the working class that could be linked with those of France and England, thus creating the concrete foundations for the development of proletarian internationalism. And in the same way, the oppression of Ireland by the English crown was seen as an obstacle, to be eliminated, to the development of the class struggle in the two nations. For this reason, sectors of the national bourgeoisie that fought for independence had a progressive role and became possible, albeit temporary, allies. For the same reason, the more radicalized elements of these sectors practiced what we can define as “internationalism of national liberation”, participating in the struggles of other peoples, as happened for Italy, Greece, Hungary and, in the Franco- Prussian war of 1871, for France. It is no coincidence that some of them have been the forerunners of the workers’ movement in their countries once the unification processes were completed.
However, Marx and Engels, knowing that the unification processes were driven by the development of capitalism and not by evanescent elective affinities based on language, customs or traditions, were careful not to give credit to the nationalist ideologies strewn with both hands by the bards of the more or less oppressed nationalities, which unfortunately most of their alleged followers have not done. The era of national struggles was also that of the invention of nationalities and their traditions, but history does not lend itself to drawing clear lines within which to place a people who speak the same language and practice the same customs, and so, where history did not come to the rescue, myth was resorted to. The age in which national liberation turns into nationalism is full of national stories invented from scratch, like the Scottish tradition, kilt included, which Hugh Trevor-Roper proves to have been elaborated during the nineteenth century by imaginative local intellectuals.5
In the age of imperialism, which began in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the national question takes on new and more complex contours. On the one hand, it remains open due to the immense colonial domains of European imperialisms, and on the other, it also concerns the definition of national state entities in the course of the dissolution of pre-capitalist empires such as the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Tsarist empires. However, in the era that George Mosse rightly defined as the “nationalization of the masses”, in imperialist countries nationalism was rapidly transforming itself from an ideological reflection of the unification of the internal capitalist market to the support of aggression towards the new markets to be conquered. This was an imperialist nationalism that involved, as well as the great bourgeoisie, also the petty bourgeoisie and large sectors of working class aristocracy in the phenomenon that John Atkinson Hobson defined as “gingoism”6, that is, the mass pro-imperialist chauvinism which spread throughout the European and North American metropolises.
It is in this ever more insidious ocean that the new Soviet state and the Communist International had to navigate, trying to contrast national thrusts and the initiative of imperialism within the framework of an internationalist strategy. For Soviet Russia, it was not only a question of responding to peoples oppressed by the great Russian hegemony for centuries, but also of preventing their often conservative demands from joining with “white” adversaries in the civil war7or from coagulating in ethnic-religious independence movements, such as the Panturanic movement of the Basmachi, dangerous for the very existence of the Soviet state due their natural attraction towards the nascent Turkish nationalism. Furthermore, that self-determination in the course of the post-war revolutionary situation was no longer a question of national independence tout court, but a battleground with imperialism is demonstrated by the use of the “Fourteen points” of US President Woodrow Wilson in the course of defining the European order, which led to the formation of a belt of nation states on an ethnic basis, formally “independent”, but in reality tied hand and foot to the allied powers, as a containment belt for the October Revolution: Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.
For the Communist International, founded in 1919 when the ebb of the revolutionary wave in the West had already begun, the national question was mainly centered on the elaboration of a strategy capable of linking the proletarian struggles in the imperialist metropolises with the Asian anti-colonial movements. Therefore, it was not the abstract affirmation of a principle, but the articulation of a concrete revolutionary strategy based on the analysis of the phase through which capitalism passed. It was a strategy that, for the communist parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries, combined the common struggle with bourgeois revolutionary organizations against colonialism and the political and organizational independence of a class party. It is enough to scroll through the list of participants in the Congress of the Peoples of the East held in Baku in September 1920 and at the lesser-known First Congress of Communists and Revolutionary Organizations of the Far East in January 1922 to realize the effort made by the Communist International to cover the skeleton of its strategic approach with muscles and blood. How difficult this task has been is demonstrated by numerous examples, starting with that of the Chinese revolution in 1926-27, where the Kuomintang’s break with the Chinese Communist Party led to the massacre of most of the workers vanguards in Canton and in Shanghai.
And today? The old colonies have been transformed into markets for an imperialism that has conquered the world, integrating within it their national bourgeoisies, albeit at different levels, which are now devoid of any revolutionary thrust. The goal of a small happy and independent homeland is now the reactionary utopia common to petty-bourgeois sectors of many countries which, crushed by big international capital, dream of opening their stall in the immense planetary souk, in which to offer low-cost labor and tax exemptions to the very capital that oppresses them, in competition with the stalls next to them. This does not mean that unresolved national problems do not still exist, but that they cannot be solved within the framework of the capitalist system, through the alliance of the proletariat with its own national bourgeoisie. In the current international context, there can exist, for example, a Palestinian state, if we mean by this term an entity even partially self-sufficient, or can it only be a simulacrum of authority that survives with the approval of Israel and the imperialism and the two-faced charity of the Arab bourgeoisie?
But let’s get back to Ukraine. Can there be an independent Ukraine (whatever this adjective means today in the current network of economic and political relations between states)? Or is the real choice between joining a backward imperialism like that of Russia or those, certainly more developed, in Europe and the United States? It is understandable that the Ukrainian bourgeoisie leans mostly towards Europe and the USA, just as it is also understandable that large sectors of the proletariat do so too, attracted by Western wages, certainly higher than the Russian ones, but it is a matter of choosing between two imperialisms and not of freeing oneself from them.
The Ukrainian government has also asked to join NATO, a military alliance whose expansionism paradoxically intensified right after the end of the “cold war”, thus creating the conditions for a Russian reaction, which was also taken into account. We may be a bit old-fashioned, but we see a notable difference between supporting the self-determination of a people and supporting a bourgeois government in its maneuvers to join an imperialist military alliance.
Furthermore, for the supporters of self-determination as an absolute principle, another problem also arises. As we have already written, Ukraine is a land with a troubled history, with an articulated link with Russia and in which about 78% of the population is Ukrainian and 17% Russian-speaking, plus other minor ethnic groups. These are data to be taken with a grain of salt, considering that, given the philological proximity between the two languages and the complex historical events, there is not necessarily an identity between the language used normally and the ethnic group in which one recognizes oneself. But, assuming that almost a fifth of the population considers themselves Russian and that this fifth is mostly concentrated in the eastern regions, doesn’t the right to self-determination also apply to this group? This is a right that, all the more, must be recognized to the inhabitants of Crimea, annexed to Ukraine in 1954 by decision of Nikita Khrushchev, but who long before the 2014 annexation to Russia, expressed their overwhelming desire not to be considered Ukrainians8. To stay in this area, the abstract criterion of self-determination resembles the matryoshka: a doll that contains a smaller one, which in turn contains another even smaller one …
At this point one of our interlocutors could interrupt us saying: “One may or may not agree with what you are sustaining, but the real problem is another: war. Because in Ukraine there is a real war, with all the atrocities that go with war, and it was started by Putin and is on Ukrainian territory. So, what should be done?“
It’s true. But to know what to do, it is necessary to understand what war is being fought, what are the real forces in the field and, above all, what war is today.
Some ‘jokers’ – there are some also in the area of forces that refer back to Trotskyism – argue that the war is not interimperialist because there are no soldiers from NATO, the USA or other imperialist countries fighting on the ground. Apart from the easy consideration that the backline of both contenders (but especially the Ukrainians) are now an international camping site for military experts and contractors from all over the world, the fundamental fact is that the concept of “ground” no longer makes any sense when there is a high-intensity war between modern armies. War is a mirror of the society in which it occurs and in a globalized, interdependent and capital-intensive world it cannot but have these characteristics itself. Even the most traditional weapon, for example the heavy cannon is an object for use only in parades without a positioning and satellite navigation system that directs the shots and without adequate IT support to calculate the trajectories of the shells, and today only the USA, Russia, China and Europe (in part) have satellite networks that cover the entire planet. The war of 1914-18 was defined as “total” because it involved not only the front and rear, but also the rest of society, meaning particularly the society of each individual nation. Today, the supply chains of funding, procurement, technology and information gathering and management are all on a multinational scale and beyond the reach of the vast majority of individual countries, even if industrialized, as Ukraine is. Indeed, an even more significant element, also the state military apparatuses are forced to integrate their structures with those of private capital, both at the operational level (the Wagner of the Russians), and for the acquisition and management of data (the Starlink of Elon Musk for the Ukrainians). Even the alliances, such as NATO and AUKUS, are much more than mutual military assistance agreements, since they involve industrial apparatuses, technology development, standardization, investments … Also for all these reasons the war is interimperialist simply because it can only be such. And always for the same reasons, it is total because it dissolves the boundaries between the military and civilian areas. Sanctions, cyber attacks, data collection and processing are to all intents and purposes military operations, and we agree with what the Chinese Air Force colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote in 1999: “ If that young lad setting out with his orders should ask today: “Where is the battlefield?” The answer would be: ‘Everywhere.’”9
The myth of the Resistance
At this point, however, one could answer: “The Second World War was also an inter-imperialist war. But the Resistance accepted military aid from the Allies to defeat Nazi-fascism. And the same thing is happening today in Ukraine.”
It is a consideration that deserves to be taken seriously, and to do so we need to go into greater detail.
Let’s start by saying that, if we consider the whole of the Second World War, it is more correct to speak of Resistances in the plural, because the movements of armed opposition to Nazi-fascism had different characteristics in each country in which they developed. Not only that, but also, within each country different social pressures or political settings often gave rise to independent movements, sometimes in collaboration with each other (France, Italy), but at other times in open mutual hostility, even while fighting the common enemy (Poland, Yugoslavia). In many cases – not in all – these movements were not the direct expression of national governments in exile, but rather represented autonomous social bodies or, in any case, the link with the government of the country was made precarious by the fact that the latter no longer had the monopoly of violence in the territory; these are the cases, for example, of Northern Italy, Greece or Yugoslavia. These movements received weapons – not many and almost always light – from the Allies to the extent that they considered them useful to their own war effort. But they received them in exchange for their subordination, not only to the allied military directives, as was obvious, but also to the geopolitical framework resulting from the agreements made during the inter-allied conferences. Whatever the objectives that each partisan formation set itself, its action and its very existence had to conform to the framework established by the “big three”. It is no coincidence that the immediate disarmament of the partisan formations after the liberation and their dissolution was a task to which the allied commands dedicated themselves with particular diligence10, because it had a strategic value for the control of the post-war order and, where it did not go well, as in the case of Greece, the repression was merciless. Togliatti – one of the thinking heads of international Stalinism – knew this well, and with his “turning point in Salerno”, even renounced anti-monarchical prejudice, aware that the Resistance would not have had a decisive say in changing the social, political and institutional equilibriums in an Italy that the Yalta agreements had assigned to the Western camp. In this harsh reality in the post-war period, the myths of the “betrayed Resistance” and the “failed revolution” flourished on the left, but, of course, also myths are made of the same stuff that dreams are made of…
The situation in Ukraine is completely different. In this case, it is the war effort of an invaded state, whose military structures receive all the necessary assistance from a military alliance of imperialist states – NATO plus some states that are not yet formally part of it such as Sweden – to be enabled to resist the invasion. We believe that no one is able to quantify the incidence of popular resistance against the Russian army, but the fact that over 80% of Russian tanks have been destroyed by heavy artillery speaks volumes about the predominant characteristics of this war, which is not a “people’s war”, but rather a clash of structurally similar military apparatuses. So it is not a question of receiving weapons from those who produce and possess them, to use them today against the invading army and tomorrow against the oligarch friends of Zelensky (twin brothers of those who are friends of Putin), as classist military formations present in Ukraine (and we hope there are some) would do very well to acknowledge. Instead, it is the “normal” military and political support of an imperialist military bloc for its ally at war against another imperialism. Military support of this magnitude makes any comparison with the airdrops of light arms to the partisans during the Second World War ridiculous: beyond a certain level, quantity becomes quality.
Moreover, even if we return to the field of national liberation struggles, historical examples are not lacking. In its long struggle against British domination, the IRA accepted weapons from the German Kaiser and, with the Easter uprising of 1916, even took advantage of the fact that the United Kingdom was engaged in World War I to try to seize power, but its goal was to proclaim the Republic of Ireland and not to ally with the Central Powers against England. “Bloody Easter” was a great defeat, but the Irish independence movement survived the First World War and managed to obtain (partial) independence. On the other hand, to fight against British imperialism Subhas Chandra Bose’s “Government of Free India”, allied itself militarily with Japan during the Second World War and thus shared its defeat.
What is striking, looking at many “interventionist” positions on the war, is, in addition to their merit, the language and the conceptual apparatus that supports them. Almost everywhere the proletariat disappears, replaced by the people, or rather by the peoples, who in the East would feel safer under the NATO umbrella. Sometimes the bourgeois governments even become “our governments” to which to make peremptory requests, while attempts to insert the ongoing conflict within the wider clash between imperialists are viewed with annoyance.
Changes in concepts and language have their roots in the change in social reference. The petty bourgeoisie, especially in its “intellectual” and urban sectors, is today in European countries the real social base of a left in which even groups that think they are revolutionaries claim membership. This social base heavily influences the perception of reality and political conduct, making internationalism a sentimental backdrop and not a strategic indication, and gradually adapting to European imperialism. This is not a new story: lack of political autonomy inevitably leads to the search for the “least worst” among the imperialist contenders. After all, in the EU we have generalized welfare, trade unions are legal, the rule of law is in force, etc. So why not also adopt the tools (defensive, ça va sans dire!) to safeguard these conquests, which are also and above all achievements of the workers? It is a coherent discourse if made by a Social Democrat who sees Europe as the extension of the social pact in force in his country and is used to bargaining for the amount of crumbs that domestic capital drops off the table. It is much less so for a left to whom it comes as a shock that the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland, both Social Democrats and at the head of model countries in the protection of rights and safeguards, with a cynicism worthy of a South American dictator, negotiate entry into NATO of their own countries with the domineering master of Turkey Erdogan at the expense of the Kurds who took refuge in their countries. There is nothing to be scandalized by: together with the Ankara satrap they are simply doing their job as officials of imperialism. But, please, at least spare us the fairy tale of the right of peoples to self-determination guaranteed by the NATO umbrella!
To find the key to the problem, it is necessary to start over from the situation we face today in Europe, sharpening our focus on a few concerns. The first and most general is that we find ourselves in a very long period in which there is an absence of revolutionary crises. In the countries of Western Europe, no living person has participated in a revolutionary experience and even those who lived through the struggles of the late 1960s are now elderly. The social body active today was therefore formed in an era of absolute dominance of capital and its ideologies and has internalized and assimilated their contents. A situation, therefore, that makes an all-out battle against any manifestation of capitalist domination central, and war is one of the main manifestations.
The second is that the post-Second World War equilibrium has been definitively broken and we are facing a period of strong international turbulence in which it will be essential to keep the tiller on class independence. The Russian-Ukrainian war is not yet over and the temperature is already rising around Taiwan and if, perhaps, the time is not yet ripe for a confrontation in the Pacific, the reasons for the conflict are already in place and, even thousands of kilometers away, workers feel the breath of propaganda on their necks that wants them to be enlisted against China, and likewise the Chinese workers against the West.
The third is that the war will have (and already has) heavy consequences on the living conditions of workers even in countries not directly involved (indirectly they all are), causing social tensions for which action must be taken even now. Our opponents have already dug up the historic alternative between butter and cannons, where butter is understood as health, school, wages, pensions, etc. and cannons … as cannons. It is an alternative that requires a clear response, without grasping at straws or expecting to have their cake and eat it too.
The fourth is that we are facing an unprecedented crisis of leadership of the bourgeoisie. Its political apparatuses are by now devoid of credibility in the eyes of the workers and also of large sectors of the bourgeoisie itself. Political personnel are now recruited in bank offices (at best), on television talk shows or from vaudeville (and the latter, in Ukraine as in Italy, is not a metaphor). The same bourgeois institutions, idealized and defended to the bitter end by a “left” at the end of its rope, are overwhelmed at each election by the rising tide of abstentionism which, although not in itself a symptom of class consciousness, is nevertheless the sign of the lack of confidence of large sectors of the population – especially proletarians – in the magnificent progressive destiny of bourgeois democracy.
Finally, the last is a question of method. Faced with an event like war, the conditioned reflex is triggered of “taking a stand” – against the invasion, against Putin, against war in general – as if this could, even minimally, change something in the course of events. However, war is inherent in the system in which we live and not an “accident” that we can avoid through an exercise of the will. Instead, we can – and must – move and act on the basis of the new conditions that war determines, starting from the “here and now”, that is, from our material social condition as militants and workers of an imperialist country that is involved in the war. It is not a question of claiming a Pontius Pilate-like equidistance between the contenders, as if the conflict did not concern us, but, on the contrary, of starting from the point of view of class independence to understand what are the interests of the workers who are involved in the war.
For all these reasons, and fully aware of the complexity of the situation, we think it is central to focus the intervention on a denunciation of the imperialist character of the war. There is no ambiguity about the counter-revolutionary character of the Russian ruling group and the bourgeois and imperialist nature of its state, but equally no ambiguity about the imperialist character of the bloc which opposes Russia, of which the Kiev government is only the spearhead. We do not underestimate the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they are the horrors of every war, even those to which the imperialist media caravanserai does not pay the same attention or, worse, hides under the carpet for its own convenience.
It is difficult today to say that the enemy is in our house, even though he has always been here, in 1914 as in 1939. Yet it is profoundly true and therefore absolutely necessary if we want to keep alive at least a glimmer of a revolutionary perspective and for this we must say it, even today: the enemy is not on the Donbass front, but in our house.
Some have evoked the need for a “new Zimmerwald” to call for discussions on war and the prospects of internationalism. The formula may seem pretentious, given the enormous differences that separate us from that era and above all the enormous gap in terms of political development and social establishment between the revolutionary Marxist organizations of that time and those of today. Nonetheless, we think that today this discussion must be undertaken, and our contribution is an attempt to respond to what seems realistically possible to do in this concrete context: to delimit a field of forces which share an internationalist approach based on the political independence of workers. The divergences that have emerged in the face of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, even among forces that come from the same tradition, do not represent, in our opinion, simple differences of analysis on an issue as important as war, but rather the result of alternative world views which, as we have said, reflect different social points of view and therefore also different long-term political perspectives.
1. V. I. Lenin, The Russian brand of Südekum, Sotsial-Demokrat No. 3 7, February 1, 1915. In Lenin, Collected Works, volume 21, August 1914 –December 1915, Progress, Moscow, 1974
2. L. D. Trockij, The War and the International, (The Bolsheviks and World Peace); https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1914/war/part1.htm
3. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin Books, 1992
4. Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, Verso, 1986
5. Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland, on Eric J. Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger (ed.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1992
6. John Atkinson Hobson, The Psychology Of Jingoism, Ulan Press, 2012
7. “The fortune of the Bolsheviks [in the civil war], however, lies in the fact that white military leaders everywhere observe a resolutely hostile attitude towards national movements.” Hélene Carrère D’Encausse, Communisme et nationalisme, in Revue française de science politique, n. 3, 1965
8. During the Ukrainian independence process, on January 20, 1991, a referendum on whether or not to re-establish the Autonomous Socialist Republic of Crimea, suppressed by Stalin in 1945, recorded a participation of 81.37% and 94.3% yes vote. See Gérard-François Dumont, L’Ukraine, une terre étrangère pour la Russie?, in Géo, n. 43 of 25/01/2014
9. Qiao Liang, Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999
10. Olivier Wieviorka, The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940–1945, Columbia University Press, 2019