Ukraine: Economistic wishful thinking
There is far more at stake than wages, says Paul Demarty
News reaches us of the Ukrainian Socialist Solidarity campaign. It is an organisation with a pretty low profile at the moment, but it has held a founding meeting with the participation of various forces - the Labour Representation Committee, including its figurehead, John McDonnell MP; the Socialist Workers Party; Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21), the recent split from the SWP; and Socialist Resistance, the drippy British section of the Fourth International.
A widely circulated report reads:
Participants noted that, while much attention has been focused on the Anti-Terrorist Operation [!] of the Kyiv government and the separatist movement in the eastern oblasts, the rapidly deteriorating socioeconomic conditions of life for the vast majority of people right across the country is largely ignored in the international media. However, miners’ communities in Krasnodon, Kryviy Rih and Chervonohrad have recently drawn attention to the sharp fall in real wages and disintegrating communal services, which is generating much of the desperation and uncertainty on which extremist politics now thrives.1
The main campaigning priority of USS is support for these miners, and working class “collective action and self-defence”. Very nice. Given how wonderfully vague this is, we wonder why Workers Power were not allowed to attend. Of course, we know the reality - the forces involved in this meeting, with the exception of the SWP, were all notable for their initial enthusiasm for the EuroMaidan protest movement. WP, on the other hand, has virulently denounced it as fascist. People who want to get involved can attend a demonstration in support of the miners, or otherwise email the campaign’s convenor, Chris Ford. There does not appear to be an official website yet.
Given the unclarity of the Ukrainian situation, with news filtered either through the distorting lens of the western or pro-Russian media, two interpretations - charitable and uncharitable - are possible of this apparently worthy initiative. Neither are particularly complimentary, and both are true of one or another of the campaign’s supporters.
The uncharitable interpretation runs as follows: the comrades have become, willingly or unwillingly, dupes of the Kiev regime and its western backers. They promote to an audience of the western left the image of EuroMaidan as a mass popular revolt against post-Soviet oligarchy, in the lineage of the more ‘unproblematic’ square occupiers in Greece, Egypt, Turkey and so on. (All of these examples themselves, with the possible exception of Greece, were more problematic than first thought anyway - see the participation of Kemalists in Turkey, Islamists in the ‘Arab spring’ …). Its reactionary nationalist content, however, is now plain to see.
In the case of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, which does not appear to support the campaign as such, but has prioritised many of the same stories and is promoting the miners’ support demo, it is no more than you would expect. ‘AWL supports US allies’ is becoming something of a dog-bites-man story these days; suffice to say that the issue for these comrades has been, all along, a matter of ‘Russian imperialism’ (rather than merely Russian Realpolitik), despite the obvious interests of the US and EU in Ukraine.
Thus the AWL continues its basic political commitment to mealy-mouthed apologetics for US foreign policy. (We note, inter alia, one of the more ‘interesting’ arguments against western intervention in Nigeria, from the pages of Solidarity: “Nigeria’s government has more than enough resources to crush Boko Haram. It does not need western intervention!”2 So that’s all right then.)
As for the others, they find reassurance in the emergence of ostensibly leftwing or working class voices presenting this sort of world view. Things on this front, alas, are murky. Much has been made of the miners striking against the Russian firm, Evraz. The most prominent advocate for the miners is one Mikhail Volynets, leader of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, who previously was a parliamentary deputy for the ‘Yulia Tymoshenko bloc’, a now defunct alliance of parties in support of the eponymous oligarch-politician. His present political sympathies are obscure; but past associations are hardly encouraging. Certainly, we are not dealing with the equivalent of South African platinum miners here.
Prominence has also been given to the so-called ‘Ukrainian Left Opposition’ - which is, alas, even more dubious. Here we must remind readers of a pretty tragicomic episode in the recent history of the left.
In the early 2000s, there was - all of a sudden - an explosion of interest in various Trotskyist micro-internationals in Ukraine and Russia. All manner of groups in America and the UK were contacted by individuals claiming to have digested the one true path of revolutionary Trotskyism, and wanting funds and resources to ‘bootstrap’ their propaganda circles.
Of course, it turned out to be a fraud. Ukrainian ex-members of the Socialist Party’s Committee for a Workers’ International had turned the patient work of building mass workers’ parties into a small criminal enterprise. They found, it must be conceded, an all too willing audience in the west, who gullibly spooned money over to their new ‘comrades’. Around a dozen organisations fell, in substance, for a 419 scam.3 Red faces all round.
We had been wondering if the fraudsters would poke their heads out in this ongoing farrago. And sure enough, they have. The western left has been all too happy to run with the opinions of Zakhar Popovych, who was an active participant in the 2003 fraud.4 Fool me once …
Of course, 11 years is a long time in politics. It is perfectly plausible that our old Ukrainian friends are reformed characters - indeed, many were pretty young when they were drawn into the scam. We note merely that confidence tricks only work if the mark believes the whole thing is his idea. Presenting the tiny Ukrainian Left Opposition as an organisation whose lead we should follow is absurd; it simply happens that Popovych and co have deluded themselves about the political dynamics in the exact same manner as many western lefts, and have for no other reason been rapturously received by the latter.
This brings us to the more charitable interpretation of this initiative - having identified nasty elements on both sides of the brewing dispute, the comrades seek instead to offer concrete support and solidarity to the particular struggles of workers in Ukraine. That they afford so much prominence to the Evraz strike is unfortunate, given that it is obviously identifiable with pro-Kiev elements; but that does not mean those miners’ concrete demands (for a doubling in pay) are unsupportable, or that the solidarity campaign would not support strikes against pro-Kiev oligarchs. Indeed, it already calls for worthy protests against International Monetary Fund austerity measures and so forth.
The trouble with this attitude is that it is hopelessly economistic. The key issues facing Ukrainian society today, to put it mildly, are not the wages in the mines of Kriyviy Rih. On those issues, this solidarity campaign must presumably silence itself beyond the most banal statements in opposition to Russian or EU/US interference. Very good, comrades - but what are you for?
The Ukrainian political crisis has exposed sharp geographical, ethnic and economic divisions in the country. Concerned observers wonder if the escalating tension will erupt into violence on the level of the Balkan wars 20 years ago. Pursuing the independent interests of the working class in such a situation is incredibly difficult, as Ukrainian leftwingers of all stripes - or at least those who try to do so - well know by now. We might quote, of all people, another comrade connected to the 2003 fraud, the Russian, Ilya Budraitskis (he has always claimed that he was roped into it unawares5), who offers a counsel of despair with a rather Frankfurt School feel to it:
The logic of civil war has been let loose, and it is now almost impossible to stop it … Revenge for the first victims just produces new ones - and provides the basis for new and just acts of retaliation. This is the most frightful result of the Odessa events: for both sides, they have made any vengeance, even the most brutal, justified and inevitable.
In the flames that erupted at the House of Trade Unions it was not hard to see the depths of barbarism into which Ukraine could easily sink … Not so long ago, the demand to ‘remain human’ would have sounded like a completely abstract desire. Now, after the Odessa slaughter, it has turned into a political programme.6
Comrade Ilya is an artist by trade, and expresses subjectively what is objectively hopeless in this ‘solidarity campaign’. There is the real and present danger of Ukraine sliding into war. It is probably too late to fight effectively for the unity of the working class and the maximum autonomy for the regions; the former part of the policy would be identified in the east as Ukrainian nationalism, and the latter as Yanukovichism, or advocacy of the right of Putin to salami-slice majority Russian areas, South Ossetia-style. Still, if major bloodshed is avoided - or otherwise, when it is exhausted - this problem will still exist for the working class of Ukraine (and of Russia). Our class will still require a workable solution, not an admonition to concentrate on ‘clean’, easy wage demands and the like, if it is to lead society.
This economistic approach is, in the last analysis, a result of wishful thinking - not just about the narrow matter of the Ukraine, but in general. The left, in broad terms, has strained every sinew to maintain the belief that things are going forward - that the masses are angry, and will storm the heavens if only their energy is unleashed - that it is, in the words of Paul Mason, still “kicking off everywhere”. Well, it is kicking off all right: in Ukraine, in Syria, in many other places. The story of our age, however, is not one of resurgent mass movements for progressive change, but decomposition, nationalism and, increasingly, descent into barbarism.
2. Solidarity May 14.
4. For example, www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3292.