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Socialist Democracy Statement

The significance of the struggle in Ukraine

20  April 2014

When war and crisis face the working class the duty of Marxists is threefold.

They must say what is. They may lack full knowledge of all aspects of the situation but, unlike other commentators, they will present an analysis based on the struggle of contending classes.

They must express, as best they can, the interests of the working class.

They must propose a mechanism through which the workers' interests can be realized.

So what is the reality of the Ukraine today? The current situation arises from the collapse of the USSR and the seizure of public assets by elements of the bureaucracy who transformed themselves into a capitalist oligarchy.

The new Russia is struggling to re-establish itself as an imperialist power while at the same time the established powers are moving to assert dominance, partly through the economic penetration of the IMF and European Union, partly by military action by NATO and the US - forming a ring of steel around Russia in the form of new missile systems.

This struggle has expressed itself in a series of struggles within the new capitalist class. A section have allied themselves with Russia, appealing to a reactionary Russian nationalism and on the surviving structures of a police state. Others have allied with the West, gaining power in a series of variously coloured "revolutions" that promised democracy and prosperity through the modernisation of the economy.

In the Ukraine the pro-Russian regime was overthrown by a pro-western regime that itself proved so corrupt that it itself was overthrown in turn and a new pro-Russian oligarch installed. The current crisis arose because the Ukrainian capitalists zigzagged between the West and Russia and then split into contending sectors, with a rough geographic division into Eastern and Western Ukraine. 

The fact is that the command economy instituted by Stalin failed and the attempts to restore capitalism as a viable system have failed also. What exists is a decaying system led by a kleptocracy picking the pockets of the workers. Europe has an economic programme, but it is slash and burn under the rule of the Troika. Putin has offered economic subsidies, but he is unable to revive Ukrainian capitalism - indeed Russian capitalism remains unstable.

In these circumstances it is perfectly understandable that there be mass mobilizations by people who feel that their lives are being crushed. Socialists should have understanding and sympathy.

However these mobilizations are similar to other mass mobilizations across the globe. They express desperation, but in a situation where socialism is discredited and the working class fragmented. They generally rely on people power in the form of public protest and propose a more democratic capitalism, responsive to their needs. These movements begin to decay when the illusory nature of their goal and the limitations of popular protest become apparent. The space is occupied by existing forces, many of whom are reactionary.

In the Ukraine Maidan the political demand was for membership of the European Union. Socialists oppose the expansion of the existing imperialist alliance and its implementation would create a wasteland and lead to the further immiseration of Ukrainian workers. It is a sign of the levels of desperation in Ukrainian society that many workers understand the nature of the European project yet support membership as a way of escaping across the borders.

Organizationally, the dominant forces are liberals sponsored by a section of the oligarchy, bolstered by a Ukrainian nationalism that includes far right component and sections that are openly fascist. The fact is that fascist and far right gangs are mobilised on the streets in Kiev and Western Ukraine and hold key posts in the government. Thatís a development that raises the alarm in the workers movement across Europe.

At first sight the opposition in the East seems more attractive. It loudly proclaims its opposition to fascism and there is no doubt that, despite the Russian occupation, the vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia does represent the popular will in Crimea. However the Russian federation is far from being a democracy and the domination of Putin is not in the interests of workers in Crimea or in the Ukraine as a whole. In essence the absorption of the Crimea, driven by fear, is a solution based on ethnic division. A multi-ethnic Ukraine represents a better environment for the self-organization of the workers than an environment where the country is torn apart by competing powers.

The history of the socialist movement provides us with some clear guidelines. An examination of recent history should convince us that the US and Europe have been mounting an offensive against Russia, albeit with some friction. Germany, stressing economic incorporation and the US, stressing military containment. That should not lead us to award Putin with the absurd title of an anti-imperialist leader. Socialists do not support one set of imperialists against another. The only possible policy is "a pox on both your houses."

Within this general orientation there is one red line. It is our imperialism that it is our duty to oppose. This is not an arbitrary rule but a useful guide that socialists can apply without having to analyze each situation from first principles. Advances by European and US capital lead automatically to a weakening of the position of European and US workers. Victories for Putin tighten the noose around the necks of workers in Russia and its satellite regimes. 

100 years ago the International workers movement collapsed in the face of the drive towards war. Part of the mechanism was German socialists writing analyses that focused on the evils of British imperialism while their counterparts in Britain wrote of horrors of German imperialism. We should not fall into that trap.

The programme for workers is reasonably straightforward:

Repudiate the debt of the oligarchs

Utter opposition to the IMF programme of austerity 

Utter opposition to the extension of the NATO military alliance.

Organise for self-defence against the fascist thugs.

For a united, multi-ethnic Ukraine and a government of the working class.

Of course such a programme can only be implemented by the mass mobilization of the working class, led by a revolutionary party. Such a movement is years away and is clearly an immediately difficult task.

It is however a task which is achievable. What is not achievable is a capitalist solution which does not involve the crushing of the working class, a "socialist" solution that is organized by the oligarchs or, even stranger, aided by the US, Europe, the IMF and the far-right organizations that act in their interests.

When sections of the Ukrainian army marched out to confront Russian army units holding part of an airbase they marched under the Ukrainian flag. In front of it they carried their old regimental insignia, a souvenir of the period when they, and the Russian soldiers facing them, were members of the Red army.

For many workers the restoration of capitalism was a disaster and there is a deep nostalgia, even for the deformed bureaucratic monstrosity of "actually existing socialism." The nostalgia provides a base for the call for genuine socialism, which is also the only grounds on which workers across Ukraine, from different ethnic backgrounds, can be united. The mobilisations in Eastern Ukraine are of a very mixed character, but they are mobilisations of the working class and are not under the direct control of either Putin or the West. When workers raise the banner of the USSR rather than that of Russia and take over state buildings in order to declare workers soviets they are proposing a solution far more realistic than those of the contending powers and we should take them seriously.

It would be a big step forward if socialist groups offering solidarity would do so around the banner of socialism rather than promoting the idea of a capitalist democratic revolution which is not on the agenda of Putin, the US and European imperialists or the Ukrainian oligarchs. 


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