Socialist Democracy statement: Understanding the war in Ukraine
Pro-NATO left choose moralism as opposed to class analysis
17 November 2022
According to the pro-NATO left, the only issue in the war is the self-determination of the Ukrainian nation. The Russian view does not exist. Putin is an imperialist warmonger gearing up to sweep across Europe. The NATO presence, the global mobilisation behind the US and the militarisation of European countries is dismissed as Ukraine having the right to self-defence. The broader economic war which directly affects the living standards of workers across Europe is simply solidarity arising out of public indignation. The torrent of propaganda across the media is ignored, as is the role of the western states and capitalist firms. This time the left agree that the media and its owners are right. Oppression of workers and democratic rights by the Ukrainian government are none of our business and can be sorted out once Russia is defeated.
One way to clarify things is to consider that both Russia and Ukraine are component parts of the former USSR. The Russian leaders are described as oligarchs because they rose to power through the theft of public property. Who then are the Ukrainian leaders? They are of course Ukrainian oligarchs.
The issues of self-determination still exist, but the fundamental reality is of a battle between oligarchs. One side is incorporated into the western imperialist system and is dominated by the US. The Russian oligarchs see their interests as being best served by preventing an uncontrolled western invasion and takeover of the economy.
New Capitalist States
The collapse of the USSR and the fragmentation of the constituent nations gave birth to a unique phenomenon. Suddenly new capitalist states popped into existence. In the eyes of Western analysts, the result would be a steady advance towards democracy and prosperity.
The Marxist view is very different. In history, capitalist states formed through primitive capitalist accumulation. The incipient capitalists squeezed the serfs and raided other countries. This long process led to the establishment of the new social structures of capitalism, later supercharged by imperialist domination of the globe.
In the USSR capital accumulation was by the working class under a bureaucratic caste. The transfer of that capital to the former bureaucrats when the USSR collapsed was through the mass theft of resources by the robber barons, with a devastating attack on the workers. In the 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were somewhere between three and seven million excess deaths. Male life expectancy fell by six years between 1991 and 1994, female life expectancy fell by three years. Added to the material hardship was the humiliation of the alcoholic Yeltsin acting as a puppet for the West.
It quickly became evident that the end result would be the disintegration of the Russian Federation and the reduction of the fragments to colony status. The election of Putin saw the state apparatus, led by the former KGB, step in to stabilise the situation.
The State and the Oligarchs
The state apparatus represented the collective interests of the new oligarchs, but their interests were contradictory. For one group, the stolen wealth was exported and sunk into the world commodity market through a variety of money-laundering schemes. Ironically, despite its current warlike stance, Britain was a central enabler in this. Football clubs and peerages were up for grabs alongside major property deals. The odd political assassination, even the bizarre use of radiation poisoning, were quickly buried by the British authorities.
A second strategy was inward investment led by transnational capital, which would have converted the oligarchs into a comprador class acting for the US and Europe. Yeltsin attempted this experiment and it ended in disaster.
The third strategy involved state sponsored investment. This required a strong state, a great deal of bloodshed and autocratic rule. Internally much of the state apparatus, including the KGB, remained in place. Externally the new state retained a large army and its status as a nuclear power. The new state was consolidated under Putin, a former KGB officer. The Stalinists had for decades replaced the call for socialism with a brand of ultranationalism and this became the ideology of the state.
The Russian dilemma applied across the former USSR. In other states with fewer resources local oligarchs were more likely to line up with foreign capital, a process aided by the poor record of the Soviet bureaucracy in relation to the national rights of many of the nationalities inside the USSR.
The central contradiction was that transnationals were able to provide capital and economic development, but that meant handing over control and ownership. The oligarchs became a comprador bourgeoisie and new levels of social inequality developed. As in Russia, the binding ideology was violent nationalism, but in the satellite states it was directed towards Russia.
Should we use the word imperialist to explain Russian actions? This is the lynchpin for the pro-NATO left, claiming that the central issue is Russian imperialist expansion. There is no doubting that Russia is a capitalist country. However, as we explain below, there is no real expansionist pressure. Russia is massively underdeveloped. It doesn't need more land. We can say that imperialist pressures drive action in Syria, where it protects trade and a warm water naval port. The protection of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol partly explains the annexation of Crimea. However, the idea of a blitzkrieg reaching across Europe is ridiculous, as is the notion of inter-imperialist war allowing an equals to sign being placed between Russia and the US or, worse, hiding the central role of US hegemony.
At home Russian oligarchs had direct control of the state and the parliamentary and judicial systems. They were able to allow controlled foreign investment and to discipline the more reckless of their own class, but they remained unpopular and the slow pace of economic development led to discontent amongst the youth.
Outside the Russian Federation a Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was built. It was also based on the nationalism of a greater Russian family, an alliance of autocratic regimes. Where the local oligarchs were hostile, armed force was used, not to occupy the country, but to carve out autonomy for local Russian populations and prevent a transfer to the NATO sphere of influence.
The other side of the coin is the Ukrainian oligarchs. The promise of transnational capital to build their economy has turned into a cartoonish pantomime. Capital flows inwards to the tune of tens of billions, but it is in the form of arms supplies burning up their country and leaving rubble behind. Even before the Russian invasion it was the poorest and most corrupt of the Eastern European countries. The oligarchs were stuffed with money as the workers and farmers became more impoverished and as local resources were sold off.
The current ideology on the left is that the Ukraine conflict is like the US attack on Vietnam or like Irish resistance to Britain. But Ukraine is not a colony and Marxists have no need to rush to the defence of capitalist states. In colonial struggles they offer critical support to the resistance but do not support the capitalists. The reason for support for nationalist resistance is the generally democratic content of the nationalist programme which allows more opportunities for workers self-organisation. The Ukrainian oligarchs are bereft of any democratic impulse. Workers’ rights have been shredded. Political parties are banned, Russian speakers are regarded as having fewer rights and the secret police run riot.
Once we move away from the largely apolitical insistence that socialists have some duty to support the Zelensky regime we are in a position to examine the broader geopolitical aspects of the conflict. The central element here is the US and its struggle to maintain global domination.
There is no doubt that the US remains the dominant power and retains hegemony over the capitalist system worldwide. It's also pretty clear that it is in the era of late capitalism, in decline both internally and externally. Although it remains a major industrial power, it has outsourced a great deal of production. Its major rival is China, with a smaller economy but with much higher labour productivity and levels of physical investment in infrastructure.
As with all empires in decline, the US relies more and more on coercion. The most direct form of this coercion is its immense military power. In decline it tones down diplomacy and soft power in favour of greater and greater reliance on the military, ignoring earlier attempts to run the world through the "rule of law" determined by a U.N. that it controlled, it has a new doctrine of "rule based international order" where it writes the (arbitrary) rules.
US military adventures are costly, unpopular and do not end with victory (defined as a stable and compliant subject regime). They now use proxies to fight and die in their place, while asserting the right to carry out attacks, kidnappings and assassinations in any country if it serves their interests. The UK has achieved a new notoriety as poodles and stooges of the US, carrying out assassinations and covert attacks that cannot be publicly acknowledged. US economic power has also come to the fore, with economic war launched at will against countries, organisations and individuals. Alongside the sanctions runs the US control of the world banking and financial system, able to exclude anyone from much of global trade. These powers are not minor. Their application has led to the deaths of millions unable to obtain medicines and other essentials in many countries.
Under Trump’s rule US global authority declined. The new Biden regime, while doing nothing to reverse the tide of reaction at home, scrambled to reassert its power across the world. Alongside a live war in Europe ran provocation of China and the building up of military forces and alliances in the Pacific, threats to Latin America, refusal to return to a nuclear agreement with Iran, further bolstering of Israel and new military build ups in Africa. There has also been a systematic shredding of longstanding nuclear arms treaties.
We can now return to the Ukraine conflict. The country was riven in two, between those who wanted to keep the traditional association with Russia and those collaborating with Western capital. The tension exploded in 2014 in the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev. One fragment, middle class professionals, set the tone for gallant Ukraine resisting Russian control. In the background were nationalist and fascist groups and the intervention of US officials.
The Maidan was followed by revolt in the Donbass. This led to ongoing war in the East, the restructuring of the Ukrainian military, ad hoc incorporation into NATO and a shift in the delicate political balance that led to the triumph of the pro-western oligarchs. The Zelensky regime refused to implement previous agreements (the Minsk Accords) and is resolutely opposed to any negotiation. Their game plan is to force a direct confrontation between the US and Russia to bring about Russian defeat and humiliation.
The US has at the moment held back from direct war. Its stated aim is to bleed Russia dry so that it is no longer a threat. To that end the expulsion of Russia from the world banking system and the seizure of state funds held abroad along with more general sanctions are meant to achieve this. The oil, gas, grain and fertiliser sanctions have caused immense damage in Western Europe and in Asia and Africa, but this means that the US has achieved an aim it has long held, of forcing European reliance on American LPG supplies and restoring military and political dominance there. A major war aim is to force a full mobilisation against Russia. This would starve industry of skilled workers and this would achieve the US aim of degrading the Russian economy.
The greatest threat in the current situation is the success of the US in re-establishing full global hegemony. The system is rotting internally and externally and their victory would mean immense misery for workers as Russia and their satellite states are assimilated and misery in the pro -NATO states as their capitalist classes are vindicated and misery in Western Europe and across the globe. Victory for the US would be a big step towards a major war with China.
Prominent in the war rhetoric around Ukraine is the declaration that Russia is threatening nuclear war. In reality their hints are always linked to direct invasion of their own territory. On the other hand, the US have torn up arms control treaties, are investing over one trillion dollars in renovating their nuclear arsenal and developing battlefield nuclear weapons and have a nuclear doctrine that allows for first strike.
Despite the illusions of those who see some sort of socialism in the utterly reactionary Putin regime, the Russian oligarchs have no connection with socialism. They established themselves via the most vicious of wars, employed false flag operations to garner support, run a police state and have a signature of barely deniable assassination, where people are poisoned or fall from windows.
The Putinist Ideology is ultranationalist, looking back to the days of the Tsar, expressing a burning hatred of the Bolsheviks and their support for national self-determination, seeing the future as unity of the Russian family. Their critique of imperialism starts with correct opposition to the US rule-based world order. (The US sets the rules) but puts as an alternative to the global unity of the human race an association of independent nations, a dream of a past world before the emergence of capitalism and imperialism. The regime itself is not secure. Support has hardened since NATO involvement, but the extremely cautious Russian deployment is meant to avoid mass casualties that might shift public opinion.
The interests of the working class
Both the US and the Russian oligarchs are morally reprehensible, but expressing the interests of the working class is not a position of striking moral stances. It is very firmly in the interest of the workers that the US attempt to reinforce its rule across the globe be defeated. A multipolar world is a better environment than American hegemony. After all, the long battles for national independence in the 20th century were only made possible by a multipolar world before World War II and by the presence of the USSR and China afterwards.
We assert that the alternative to war is unity of the working class around their own programme, bringing together workers in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and across the world, calling for peace in Ukraine and warning against attempts to foment war with China.
The first demand must be the abolition of NATO. It claims to be a defensive alliance, but fights alongside America when required. It is not the case that it restricts US warmongering. If some nations are unwilling, NATO is immediately discarded to be replaced with a "coalition of the willing", usually involving the UK. The most dangerous component of NATO is article five, which commits all members to defend any member under attack. There is no such thing as a defensive weapon. The NATO shield allows provocation by smaller members and an ability to switch on full scale war by the US leadership.
The call for the dissolution of NATO should be accompanied by the withdrawal of Russian troops. Their victory would simply extend oligarchic rule and leave open an eternal war with the Ukrainian state.
The self-determination of nations and peoples, especially the peoples of Ukraine, can be resolved in this context. Oligarchs of the East and West must be defeated. The exclusion of NATO and the US would allow self-determination in Ukraine. The Donbass and Crimea should be allowed to independently vote and express their wishes.
In Russia and associated countries, the call for the ousting of the oligarchs should be accompanied by a call for a return to Soviet rule. Following the 2014 coup in Kiev this was the response of many in the Donbass until Putin suppressed the native leadership. In Russia itself the Communist party remains a sizable force. It is innocent of any genuine socialism, but demonstrates a sentiment in the general population against the rise of capitalism.
At the moment these calls are idealistic and propagandistic. There is a long, long road to travel in dealing with demoralisation and political decay. What we can say is that neither the Russian oligarchs nor the Western imperialists have a secure base of support and that the alternative to mobilising for peace is unending war in Europe and a shift towards war with China and the unleashing of nuclear terror.