Socialists and the test of Ukraine
4 March 2022
Protesters outside the embassy of the Russian Federation in Dublin.
Marxists claim to have a superior method of analysis that can strip away the fog and confusion of war to expose the class realities below the surface.
Can it meet the test of Ukraine?
At first sight it appears not. The Left groups are fragmented and confused. A small number reproduce Russian propaganda. Others support gallant little Ukraine against Russian imperialism, apparently oblivious to the rallying cries of the US and Europe in past wars. (i.e. gallant little Belgium).
Some groups try to straddle the divide with pacifism. Many go beyond, with calls for the financial destruction of the Russian economy and the immiseration of Russian workers and the export of arms and extensive military action against Russia.
However, Marxism can help, with the use of a few basic tools:
We should look beyond the foam - the immediate appearance of things - to the class struggle beneath.
The most basic application of this approach is the idea that "the main enemy is at home".
Wars between capitalist states are not organised by or in the interests of working people. They are organised by capitalists. Each capitalist group will use the war against the workers. If we focus on "the other side" we will be defenceless against the knife in our backs.
In this war thousands of Russian workers are going onto the streets, knowing that they face immediate arrest. Ukrainian civilians are directly confronting Russian soldiers. Our task is not to clap them on from the opposing countries, but to take equally determined actions ourselves against our own rulers.
Marx advises us to "ascend
to the concrete"
Context is essential to understand any situation.
The abstract idea on the left is of equal imperialism. Everyone is imperialist. Russia is imperialist. They fired the first shot and/or they are bigger. They become the sole enemy.
In reality Russia is a medium regional power dependent on the export of raw materials such as gas and oil with an oversized military and nuclear weapons. It is true that Putin rambles about Russian imperialist glory and the crimes of the Bolsheviks in supporting national independence, but his history is of using military force to create Russophile enclaves so that he can prevent effective NATO expansion rather than full occupation of other countries. The long project to build the Nordstream 2 pipeline around Ukraine would make little sense if Ukrainian occupation was the plan.
World imperialism continues to be directed by the United States. The historical context is the collapse of the USSR, when the US and NATO decided to go in for the kill and encircle Russia with their own nuclear arsenal. The promises to Russia and the warnings against this policy even by US advisors is well documented.
The immediate context is Biden's attempts to reassert American power through aggressive alliances in Europe and the middle and far East. Ukraine has an important role, with a CIA coup in 2014 that led to the ongoing war in the Donbass.
The most important context for Marxists is the economic substructure. On the global scale, following the fall of the USSR, the major powers stepped back and waited for the oligarchs to steal public property and collapse the economy. Now Russia has stabilised on a much lower economic level mainly as an exporter of energy resources and raw materials. An increasingly financialised US capitalism wants to fragment Russia and gain control of its energy reserves. We should remember that the great game against Russia extends well back into Tsarist times.
It's important to remember that the opponents are both enemies of the working class. In Kazakhstan a short time ago the local oligarchy and Putin combined to defeat protesters and strikers. The main beneficiaries were western mining companies operating with the support of the oligarchy.
The background to the conflict is the energy war. The US wants to prevent Russia using energy supplies to exert political pressure and wants to force Europe to pay twice the price for gas shipped from the US.
At the local level Ukraine has the worst economy in Europe. The solution to many is to join the European Union, if only to travel abroad and earn some sort of wage. This debate is played out across Eastern Europe. The areas where the oligarchs rule are in stasis, those that open up see an influx of capital but there is a cost - mass privatisation of land and services, sovereign debt to pay for mass rearmament, all of which leads to increased unpopularity of the local leaders and their adoption of the politics of racism, misogyny and populism. Hungary and Poland are good examples.
Ukraine has defaulted on a £3 billion debt to Russia and survives on IMF loans dependent on austerity and the privatisation of state resources, especially banking. The IMF are aiming for ownership of the small farming sector by agribusiness. Admiration for Zelensky seems to blind people to his policy, which is to achieve victory through all-out war that involves NATO forces.
The longer-term issue is the US retreat from full frontal military invasion to using military power as a shortstop for economic aggression. Control of the global banking system has been used to strangle the working class in Iran and Venezuela. The banking reserves of Afghanistan have been seized, leaving a country in the grip of famine. A new nuclear option involving tearing up treaties and a new round of battlefield nukes aims to drive the Russian economy back to the stone age. Whatever way the Ukraine crisis ends, we have in place the foundations of a third world war aimed at subjugation and fragmentation of Russia, and eventually China.
The results in Europe are terrifying. Germany is to re-arm. Nordic states are moving towards NATO membership. NATO is in Ukraine in fact, if not in name and it is left to the Russians to decide when the torrent of weapons and sanctions amount to intervention. Sanctions will lead to devastating increases in the cost of living. The claim is that Putin is to blame and has forced these measures on the West, yet all were already present in embryo in capitalist strategy.
In Britain Johnson has recovered from party gate and he and his cabinet are playing as warlords. Repression is to be stepped up, with suggestions of new treason offences and an executive free to revoke citizenship at whim. Keir Starmer has emasculated the Labour party with yet another loyalty test, in this case support for NATO.
Ireland drives towards NATO, increasing its war budget, yet again aiding mass troop movements by the US and aiming for full integration with the west. Sinn Féin is in full support, praising expansion of the military budget and calling for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador. Many socialist groups are swept along, trailing behind public sentiment and oblivious to the growing democratic threats behind the war hysteria and the economic pain that will follow the tearing up of global supply chains.
What is the working-class interest? We want an end to war and that can only come from political agreement, not endless escalation. The Russian army must withdraw. There should be a level of self-government for Donetsk and Lugansk. Ukraine has a right to independence but that should not amount to the right to press the NATO dagger to Russia's throat.
The major threat to workers is NATO. Putin is in opposition but he is not the antithesis of NATO, he simply wants his own version. That anthesis is the Ukrainian and Russian working classes, both opposed to war and both with a long history of shared oppression.
A principled solidarity movement might help build those bridges, if it could raise its gaze from the drama of immediate events, apply the tools of class analysis and set aside empty gestures that leave it defenceless as western capitalism reaches out to strangle its own working class
It now appears that this will follow a massive restructuring of the socialist movement in the West. Lack of economic theory, a failure to apply a materialist analysis and a political strategy that marches behind middle class liberalism mean that many no longer understand the questions, let alone be able to participate in formulating the answers.