A farrago of illusions
Social-Putinism and social-imperialism are not our only problem, argues Jack Conrad. There is the curse of social‑pacifism and centrism too
First, a few notes on the war.Phase one of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ did not go as planned. It ended in defeat at the gates of Kyiv. Now, in phase two, the main theatre shifts to Donbas and the south-east.
The outcome is far from certain. Russia’s armed forces are huge and have a mountain of equipment and human reserves to draw upon, but there have been crippling logistical shortcomings. Deliveries of food, fuel and ammunition were either pilfered or logjammed - or destroyed in Ukrainian ambushes. There has also been a revolution in warfare, which has cost the slow-moving, tactically ponderous Russian army dear. Moreover, instead of being greeted as liberators, or with mere indifference, Russia’s soldiers have, predictably, met stiff resistance - and not only from regular Ukrainian forces, but from militia units and the mass of the wider population too. Not surprisingly there are reports of low morale, mutinies and even defections.
Presumably the appointment of Alexander Dvornikov as the new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine is expected to fix such problems. Russia’s Kyiv army - three-quarters of its total invasion force - is already being rotated, re-equipped and redeployed to the east.
Before the Russian eastern offensive begins in earnest, the US, UK, France, Germany, etc, are furiously transporting thousands of drones, shoulder-launched Javelin and Nlaw anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, armoured cars, artillery pieces and much, much more military hardware besides. Getting such material to the Ukrainian border will present little or no difficulty, but getting it to the eastern front will be another matter entirely. Russian fighter planes, attack helicopters and missiles will presumably exact a terrible toll.
Meanwhile, every Russian atrocity, real and faked, is used to stoke war fever in Nato countries (and other countries besides). This excuses sanctions, increased military spending, Swedish and Finnish abandonment of neutrality, battle group deployments to eastern Europe and readying public opinion for possible, though unlikely, direct Nato involvement in what is, after all, a proxy war.
Needless to say, Russia is not an imperialist power (in the classical Leninist sense). Yet nor is it a colony or even a neo-colony. Though, if it is defeated in Ukraine, the US has definitely got its sights on regime change in Moscow - through a colour revolution, promoting anti-Russian ‘national liberation wars’ in Belarus, Moldova and Georgia, facilitating a palace coup or promoting national fragmentation (all four could, and doubtless would, easily be combined).
Next, in the attempt to reboot US hegemony, is China. If it can subordinate China - and it is a big if - the US would then be able to “manage” the Eurasian world island - as envisaged by Zbigniew Brzezinski.1 The result would not, however, be a new age of democracy, peace and prosperity: rather anarchy, breakdown, destruction and chaos. The declining US hegemon is the bringer, nowadays, not of new heights of (capitalist) civilisation - eg, the post-World War II social democratic settlement (in western Europe, Japan and, with a final flourish, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan). No, instead it brings barbarism (eg, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). Fear of generalised breakdown surely - well, at least in part - explains why a whole raft of countries, and not only the ‘usual suspects’ - ie, North Korea, Syria and Belarus - but also China, Iran, Iraq, India, South Africa … even Pakistan, all have refrained from joining Nato’s anti-Russia crusade.
What the prospect of a US imperial reboot presents is not the left - that is, the potential working class movement, the advocates of socialism and communism - taking sides with the Putin regime. There is, of course, a heterogeneous left that takes such a bizarre approach. Eg, in the UK: George Galloway’s Workers Party, the Brarite CPGB (ML), the New Communist Party, Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight, Socialist Action and (unofficially, using devious language) the CPB’s Young Communist League. Strategically myopic, true, but morally brave, albeit in a particularly stupid way.
Yes, they oppose the main enemy … which is at home (not least in the form of further curbing protests, imposing austerity and outlawing effective trade unionism). But naively the pro-Russian left take Vladimir Putin at his word. When this former FSB goon and budding autocrat says he is committed to the “noble cause” of deNazifiying Ukraine, they believe him. Gullible, moronic even. Yes, there are fascists in Ukraine, not least those incorporated into its armed forces: eg, the Azov battalion. But this militarily important tail hardly wags the Ukrainian dog.
And, of course, there are plenty of fascists on Putin’s side too. Leave aside figures such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Wagner and Rusich mercenary outfits. During the 2000s Putin’s regime launched a ‘managed nationalism’, which sought to incorporate the radical far right, including neo-Nazis, in order to counter the rising tide of liberalism and the left. Skinhead gangs, such as the notorious OB88, were recruited too. There followed a wave of savage beatings and murders of leftists, migrants and journalists.2 Abroad too Russia has established well known links with the far right, going from the high-profile likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán all the way to bottom-dwelling fascist boneheads and boogaloos.
Then there is the equal nonsense about Ukraine not being a ‘real’ nation. Perhaps the original Slavic root of the term ‘Ukraine’ meant ‘borderlands’ - interesting, but nothing more. Marxists will investigate the Norman origins of the Kievan and Muscovite Rus states, the religious-ideological influence of the Byzantine empire, the impact of the Mongol invasion, the expansionism of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Brest-Litovsk treaty, etc. But what really matters is what the mass of Ukrainians actually think today - and they surely think of themselves as fervently Ukrainian. That for us is what decides whether or not there is a Ukrainian nation … a historically constituted people, which occupies a common territory, speaks a common language and is united by a common economic life and political consciousness.
So what are Putin’s real war aims?
We take seriously enough the goal of “decommunisation”, which, presumably, means rejecting the Bolshevik commitment to national self-determination and federalism that gave birth to the modern Ukraine. And yet, while Putin claims that the Russians and Ukrainians are essentially one people, it is all too clear that the majority of ordinary Ukrainians disagree. Indeed, because of the misjudged February 24 invasion, divisions between Ukrainians and Russians have hardened, become toxic, turned into bitter hatred, especially on the Ukrainian side.
Maybe militarily the goal is now to destroy the Ukrainian army in Donbas and then renew the offensive on Kyiv in order to install a pliant puppet regime. But, as already proven, initial military plans are always abandoned following the “the first encounter with the enemy’s main force” (Helmuth von Moltke3). Phase one ended in defeat. So, whatever Putin’s intentions are for phase two, the actual result will, once again, be decided in the battle to surround and take the remaining towns and cities of the Donbas. Because urban warfare and street-by-street combat is such a great equaliser, expect one, two, three, many more Mariupols.
Finally, in terms of the pro-Russian left, there is the argument that America’s enemy must be our friend. A sort of Americaphobia, which mirrors the supposed Russiaphobia of Marx and Engels. True, the Marx-Engels team championed war against tsarist Russia by “revolutionary Germany” in 1848.4 Such an approach - soon abandoned by Marx and Engels - might once have been applicable (eg, in the 1776-1871 period), but that is manifestly no longer the case. What is posed nowadays is not the left placing itself behind this or that big, middling or small power in order to push forward capitalist progress against feudal reaction. No, what is posed by a declining capitalism, along with its declining US hegemon, is the question of working class rule - that or civilisational breakdown (through generalised warfare, but also the capitalocene and runaway climate change).
Yet, whereas the working class was a (rival) global power in its own right, say from the 1860s onwards, that is clearly not something we can boast about at this juncture. Indeed, speeded up no end by the Ukraine war, what we have had is the political collapse of much of what passes for the left. Here is our modern-day tragedy. Doubtless there are materialist explanations for this dreadful situation (the incorporation of Labourism into the capitalist state apparatus, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the merging of the so-called far left with the lower levels of the trade union bureaucracy, the abject failure of the Corbyn project, etc).
In any case, given our resulting fringe status, we have no choice but to concentrate on the battle of ideas and rival small groups and personalities.
With that in mind, we turn to Chris Ford’s ghastly blue and yellow Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. Despite “murky origins” in CIA cold war operations,5 it is supported by the Labour Representation Committee, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Anti-Capitalist Resistance, Labour Briefing, Emancipation and Liberation, RS21, the Haldane Society and a couple of trade unions: ie, Aslef and the micro-rump NUM. The USC also enjoys individual backing in the form of Labour’s ex-shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the Socialist Campaign Group MP, Nadia Whittome, Paul Mason (once of Workers Power, now The New Statesman), and Soas professor Gilbert Achcar - a rogues’ gallery of cruise missile socialists.
The USC purports to “support the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future free from external intervention from Russian or western imperialism”. But on Saturday April 9 the USC led a little, mainly aged, demonstration in central London under the twin slogans of “Russian troops out now!” and “Victory to the Ukrainian people!” Other slogans, chanted en route, included “Arm, arm, Ukraine!” and “Putin. Putin, out, out, out!” Basically the war aims of “western imperialism”: ie, the US and its core allies.
Indeed in and around the USC there are those who have come out in favour of strengthening Nato in what is claimed to be an existential battle between “democracies”, on the one hand, and “autocracies” such as Russia and China, on the other.6 In that exact same spirit, Eric Lee, writing in the AWL’s Solidarity, has even made reference to Marx’s and Engels’ attitude towards the Crimean war of 1853-56 and claimed that they would have stood alongside Nato against Russia today.7 Disgraceful, and nonsense besides. The fact of the matter is that neither Marx nor Engels championed Britain and France, let alone the Ottoman empire, against Russia over Crimea. Pro-war socialists such as Lee, who trace their own current views back to Marx and Engels, simply ignore the historical record. True, Marx and Engels were for the defeat of Nicholas I, but that should not be taken as wishing for an Anglo-French victory. What they sought to encourage was revolution, not only in tsarist Russia, but in Peelite Britain and Bonapartist France too. Those former 48er revolutionaries - eg, Louis Kosuth and Armand Barbès, who sided with the Anglo-French alliance - found themselves excoriated by Marx and Engels.8
The USC talks heavy on workers’ rights and international workers’ solidarity. But, clearly, this provides socialistic cover for what is a proxy war against Russia being conducted by the US hegemon and its UK rottweiler. Any semblance of working class political independence has been abandoned. Logically calls for arming ‘plucky little Ukraine’ with heavy armour, long-range artillery and F-35 jets lead, inexorably, to calls for a “stronger, not a weaker, Nato”.9 And, obviously, such social-imperialism adds a useful note to the bellicose media chorus demanding a ban on all Russian gas and oil imports, increased military budgets and a Nato-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine (in effect, World War III).
That should cause any honest, or even half-honest, socialist in the ranks of the AWL, LRC or ACR to immediately, openly, rebel - in short, to risk expulsion. When it comes to the struggle for socialism, those who do not do that - those who treat Ukraine as merely some interesting issue to be cosily, politely, debated between friends and colleagues - consign themselves to the ranks of the living dead. They become renegades.
Whereas the social-imperialists call for the arming of Ukraine (including, by definition, fascists, such as the Azov battalion) and victory for Ukraine/Nato, the social-pacifists make the plea for peace.
The Stop the War Coalition, the Morning Star’s CPB, Counterfire, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, Peace and Justice, Momentum, etc, in fact champion diplomacy, the Minsk accords, international law and the notion that capitalism and peace are compatible. Plaintive calls for a Nato reset combine with plaintive calls for Ukrainian self-determination and territorial integrity. Where this leaves the Russian majority in the Crimea and Donbas largely goes ignored.
Though branded “fifth columnists” and “Putin apologists” by Sir Keir and the Labour front bench, the abject cowardice of the 11 ‘left’ Labour MPs should never be forgotten. Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Richard Burgon, Ian Lavery, Beth Winter, Zarah Sultana, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Apsana Begum, Mick Whitley, Tahir Ali and Ian Mearns all signed up to the StWC’s ‘Self-determination for the Ukrainian people’, plus respect for Russia’s ‘legitimate security concerns’ statement.10 Shamefully, they immediately withdrew their names after nothing more than being threatened with the loss of the Labour whip.
They put unity with the pro-imperialist right wing and their silly little careers above the principles they claim to hold so dear. Instead of defying Sir Keir, organising a long overdue fightback in Labour’s ranks and pledging to stand in the next general election as unofficial Labour candidates, they pathetically collapsed. Proving it, many of them eagerly rushed to condemn Putin’s February 24 invasion and display their state loyalty in the House of Commons. Condemning Sir Keir over his threats is right and justified, but really misses the point. It is the spineless 11 who really deserve our odium.
But it is not only the 11 MPs. The StWC hardly deserves to be called social-pacifist. In word and deed it is simply a pacifist organisation. Take its damp-squib April 9 day of action. Sounding like some canting C of E vicar, the StWC made the call, in the name of “peace-loving people”, for Boris Johnson’s “British government” to “set aside all belligerent language and encourage the participants in the ongoing peace talks to negotiate an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and a full and lasting peace”.11
It is all too clear that John Rees, Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and the Counterfire leadership of the StWC have collapsed into petty bourgeois pacifism. They are “peace-loving people” who call for peace in general (ie, a “full and lasting peace”). An approach that is, obviously, not only non-socialist, but is left deliberately vague and undefined in the interests of securing the broadest possible unity.
Many, many people favour peace in general, including, of course, Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. Each of them wants a swift end to the present war. The trouble is that each of them advocates a reactionary peace (ie, a peace that is oppressive towards other peoples) and which is, naturally, to the advantage their own state. The US and the UK wants a peace in Ukraine that sees Russian humiliation as a prelude to regime change in Moscow … and from there on to Beijing. Zelensky wants to align with Nato and the European Union and deny national rights to Ukrainian Russians. Putin wants a neutered Ukraine as a step towards establishing a greater Russia as an imperialist power in its own right, which commands equal status with the United States.
Our perspectives, by contrast, are based on challenging the existing division of the left into countless confessional sects and highlighting the gulf separating socialism and capitalism (including of the Jeremy Corbyn variety), for the purpose of uniting the working class under the banner of a mass Communist Party and the struggle for extreme democracy and revolution.
Does that mean we scorn or sneer at demands for peace that come from so-called ordinary people? No, not at all. As Lenin explained, the slogans of the organised left are one thing; the sentiments of the masses are something else entirely. Indeed, the yearning for peace “is one of the most important symptoms revealing the beginnings of disappointment in the bourgeois lie” about a war of “liberation”, the “defence of the fatherland”, and similar falsehoods that the class of capitalists “beguiles the mob with”.12
That is why Lenin urged socialists to pay the closest possible attention to popular yearnings for peace. In fact every effort must be “bent towards utilising the masses’ desire for peace”. But, asks Lenin: “how is it to be utilised?” To “recognise the peace slogan and repeat it” would be mere phrase-mongering, would “mean deceiving the people” with the illusion that “existing governments”, the “present-day master classes”, are capable of granting a “peace in any way satisfactory to democracy and the working class”. No, they will have to be “eliminated” by a series of revolutions in all the advanced countries.13
Today, therefore, nothing is more harmful to our cause than the deception peddled by the StWC that Biden, Johnson, Zelensky and Putin are capable of delivering “a full and lasting peace”. Nothing fosters more illusions amongst the advanced part of the working class, nothing misleads more, nothing blurs over the profound difference between capitalism and socialism, nothing embellishes capitalist slavery more than this deception does.
No, we must make use of the desire for peace so as to explain to the masses that the security, prosperity and progress they expect from peace cannot be obtained without revolutions. We want peace between all peoples, an end to imperialist wars, annexation wars and proxy wars - that is our stated goal. But that can only be realised through the struggle for extreme democracy and socialist revolution. The ground for that is laid by making propaganda for the abolition of all standing armies, for a popular militia, by supporting all progressive mass actions, protests and movements, and exposing - not least through polemics - all the direct and indirect allies of the bourgeoisie.
There is what we have called the more principled left. We shall once again focus on the Socialist Party in England and Wales, but mainly the Socialist Workers Party (through there are more than a few others who could be cited). ‘More principled’, because SPEW and the SWP do link the question of peace with the struggle for socialism. But ‘more principled’ does not mean consistently principled. For example, SPEW calls for a pre-1989-91 Nato reset, but, strangely, not the abolition of Nato itself. Then there is the SWP.
Our basic argument bears repeating. Alex Callinicos, the SWP’s leading thinker, rightly points a critical finger at the spineless Labour 11, attacks Nato expansionism and candidly admits that the left is pitifully weak and is in no position to do much in the way of decisive action. Good. We have had more than enough nonsense about the actuality of revolution.
Yet, given the intellectually suffocating dictates of the International Socialist tradition, Callinicos can only but explain the Ukraine conflict as being down to rival imperialisms. However, by this he means nothing more than the “rivalry of states”. If that was the case, then we have had imperialism since the rise of the first city-states such as Sumer, Kish, Uruk, Ur and Larsa in the 4th millennium BCE. True, there was imperial Rome, imperial China, etc, but from the early 20th century onwards Marxists, as everyone knows, have given the term ‘imperialism’ a much narrower, specific, definition. Eg, the colonial division of the world, the export of capital, super profits and great-power rivals striving to become the global hegemon.
The problem for Callinicos arises, of course, from the insistence that, with the first five-year plan, the Soviet Union saw the birth of what the SWP’s founder-leader, Tony Cliff, called “bureaucratic state capitalism”. Not that capitalism operated within its borders, but rivalry with outside powers imposed the compulsion to accumulate capital for the sake of accumulation and to behave in an imperialist manner abroad. According to Cliff, external, not internal, contradictions provided the system’s laws of motion.
Hobbled by this rotten theory, the SWP could not admit that something fundamental happened in 1991. History did nothing more than “move sideways” (Chris Harman).14 The Soviet Union was imperialist, so Putin’s Russian Federation must be too, despite the fact that, characteristically, what its so-called oligarchs (ie, billionaires) export is not capital - that is, self-expanding value - but money, which they use to purchase luxuries: properties in Manhattan’s Upper East Side or London’s Mayfair, Hampstead and Highgate … that and rare art works, super yachts and prestige football clubs.
But the real giveaway, as argued first by myself and then a little later by Paul Demarty, is the centrism of Callinicos.15 He fawningly conciliates ‘very important people’ in the social-pacifist and social-imperialist camps.
I singled out Callincos’s “Dear Paul” open letter to that turncoat, Paul Mason. Callinicos went out of his way to express his friendship and admiration.16 Comrade Demarty did a similar job on Callinicos’s next open letter to Gilbert Achcar of ACR and the Mandelite so-called Fourth International. Once again there were fulsome expressions of friendship and admiration.
Why the friendship and admiration for social-imperialists who side with Zelensky’s Ukraine, Nato and the “master class” in the US and UK? Leon Trotsky furiously denounced ‘official communism’ and its promotion of such class-collaboration in the late 1930s, branding the turn as an act of class treachery on the scale of August 1914 - when ‘official’ social democratic parties went over to their own bourgeoisies in ‘defending the fatherland’. We all know how Lenin responded: polemical salvo after polemical salvo and call after call for splits.
He also rounded on centrists who opposed World War I, but refused to countenance a complete break with the social-imperialists: Julius Martov, Henriette Roland Holst, Leon Trotsky and, above all, the former ‘Pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky.
Doubtless, Callinicos’s criminal softness can be explained by the SWP’s guilty past and the Respect mishmash. After all, the SWP established Respect in 2004, in collaboration with the likes of George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, Alan Thornett and Nick Wrack, so as to unite socialist activists with Islamic radicals: eg, the Muslim Association of Britain (a recognised branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). A classic, unpopular popular front that failed in the ballot box and over which the right possessed an acknowledged political veto.
But there is also a guilty present. The expression of friendship and admiration for Mason and Achcar is surely done with an eye on getting them to grace the platform of the next Stand Up To Racism demonstration or the next Marxism school. After the ‘comrade Delta’ scandal, the SWP is still desperate to court such ‘leftwing’ VIPs.
Then there are the social-pacifists - a slightly different story. Given February 24 and the Doomsday Clock’s “hundred seconds to midnight” danger of a World War III,17 the SWP’s central committee decided on an urgent reorientation … back to the StWC.
Having been content to leave it in the hands of the breakaway Counterfire group headed by John Rees - Tony Cliff’s chosen heir and successor, but a disaster when it came to the Respect popular front - Charlie Kimber and Amy Leather have directed their much diminished forces back into helping to “build and shape the anti war movement in Britain - that means being involved in the Stop the War Coalition”.18
From maintaining a watching brief with former CC member Judith Orr on the leadership, the SWP might well have its sights on re-establishing effective control over the StWC at its April 23 AGM and quietly elbowing Counterfire aside.
An SWP counter-coup would be a step forward - but not much of one. Instead of rightwing social-pacifism we will have leftwing social-pacifism.
Z Brzezinski The grand chessboard New York 1997, p30.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p212.↩︎
P Houston, ‘A toxic operation’ Weekly Worker March 24: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1388/a-toxic-operation.↩︎
Solidarity March 22.↩︎
H Draper and E Haberkern Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 5, New York 2005, pp96-101.↩︎
Solidarity February 16.↩︎
VI Lenin CW Vol 21, Moscow 1977, p292.↩︎
C Harman, ‘The storm breaks’ International Socialism spring 1990.↩︎
My ‘Here we stand’ article, Weekly Worker March 3: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1385/here-we-stand; Paul Demarty ‘Alex’s greater friend’ Weekly Worker April 7: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1390/alexs-greater-friend.↩︎
Socialist Worker February 21 2022.↩︎
Party Notes April 4 2022 (my emphasis).↩︎