Social-imperialism and social-pacifism are not our only problems, argues Jack Conrad. There is also a left that tails, excuses and flatters the Putin regime
To begin again with some military notes.
Phase two of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ has begun in earnest. There has been fierce fighting along the 300-mile-long line of control in Donbas, but, unsurprisingly, no dramatic Russian breakthrough. Some armchair generals - given the flat, largely treeless and firm terrain - were expecting rapid movement and the re-enactment of the giant tank battles of World War II, most famously the 1943 battle of Kursk. However, in Donbas, not only are Ukrainian forces short on tanks and air cover: each side is heavily dug in after eight years of border warfare. Therefore there is a bloody war of a mile here and a mile there.
Of course, there is the possibility of the 30,000-strong Ukrainian army in the east being trapped in a huge Russian pincer operation, encircled and then subjected to grinding artillery and aerial bombardment. If that happens, it could prove to be a real game-changer.
Meanwhile, the fascist Azov battalion’s fanatical last stand in the deep bunkers of Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks must end either in death or surrender … and very soon at that. After the abject failure of phase one - the attempt to capture Kyiv - that would give Russia something to celebrate on May 9 (Victory Day). But the overall outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war remains far from certain. Boris Johnson says Russia can win. Volodymyr Zelensky says Ukraine can win. Both are right.
Russia has an estimated 900,000 active military service personnel and around two million reservists. The invasion force consists of some 190,000 men and has a huge arsenal of fighter planes, tanks, armoured cars, ballistic missiles and heavy artillery pieces available to it. Against them, though, they face a (Nato) armed nation: 196,000 regular troops, plus now 900,000 mobilised reservists and the conscription of all men between the ages of 18 and 60.1 So this is far from a David and Goliath contest. Indeed, Russian forces have been plagued by strategic blunders, poor intelligence, low morale and logistical failures. Deliveries of food, fuel and ammunition have all gone short. Corruption on high, petty theft, poor lorry maintenance and Ukrainian ambushes have sapped the fighting capacity of the Russian army.
As repeatedly argued in these pages, there has also been a revolution in warfare - a revolution which has given the highly motivated Ukrainian armed forces a real edge. What they lack in aircraft, tanks and artillery pieces is compensated for by Javelin and Nlaw anti-tank, and Starstreak and Stinger anti-aircraft, shoulder-launched missiles: relatively cheap, easy to master and deadly effective at short range. Such Nato tech, plus drones, plus US-supplied real-time intelligence, has allowed Ukraine to claim 20,000 Russian military personnel killed and 790 tanks, 381 artillery pieces and 2,041 armoured vehicles destroyed (impossible to verify). Then there is the sinking of the Black Sea flagship Moskva by two Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship missiles (presumably guided by the nearby US navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft2).
Moreover, instead of being greeted as liberators, or with mere indifference, Russia’s soldiers have, predictably, faced curses, defiance, sabotage and armed resistance. That surely explains most of the stories of torture and shootings of civilians carried by the western media. Suggestions, not least emanating from Moscow, that such instances are Ukrainian-upon-Ukrainian are hard to credit, yet - given the ethnic mix and the existence of a definite pro-Russia, albeit suppressed, political milieu - impossible to rule out entirely. We simply do not know. The first casualty of war is, after all, the truth.
Emboldened by Ukraine’s unexpected military resilience, the west - ie, the US and its Nato allies, not least its UK rottweiler - have been ratcheting up arms deliveries. Not only increased numbers of Nlaws and drones, but heavy weapons too: eg, the German delivery of Gepart anti-aircraft cannon tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles (fully backed by the Green Party junior coalition partner).
Getting such material to the Ukrainian border presents no difficulty whatsoever. However, getting it to the eastern front is another matter entirely. Russian fighter planes, helicopter gunships and missiles are already exacting a huge toll in hundreds upon hundreds of air strikes.
Meanwhile, every top-level Kyiv visit, every carefully scripted Zelensky broadcast, every botched Russian missile attack, every deserving Ukrainian refugee is used to stoke up war fever in Nato counties (and other countries besides). This excuses crippling sanctions on Russia, increased military spending, Swedish and Finnish Nato membership, battle group deployments to eastern Europe, media censorship and readying public opinion for direct Nato involvement in what is, after all, a proxy war.
Already there are reports of SAS soldiers in Lviv (true to form, neither denied nor confirmed by the MoD).3 There is also an associated ongoing military lobby in the US for putting boots on the ground in western Ukraine. General Phillip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told The Times that Nato should establish a “forward supply base” for military and, of course, humanitarian aid.4 Mission creep could, in the worst possible scenario, take us to the threshold of World War III.
US war aims could not be clearer. Speaking in Kyiv, defence secretary Lloyd Austin not only reiterated the commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty, but looked forward to weakening Russia “to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”.5 The US president goes still further. Joe Biden’s “off the cuff” remarks about how Putin cannot be allowed to “remain in power” might have caused a sharp intake of diplomatic breath in France, Germany and Turkey … and even in Washington DC. Doubtless, but, this is, of course, the truth.
Halford Mackinder famously wrote in Democratic ideals and reality (1919):
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.6
Through Princeton’s Edward Mead Earle, Mackinder’s ideas reached George Kennan, architect of the grand strategy to “contain” the Soviet Union. That would, he argued, crucially in his February 1946 ‘Long telegram’, eventually result in “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power”.7 We all know the result. Having defeated an internally crisis-riven Soviet Union, having taken hold over eastern Europe, the US now contemplates a defeated Russian Federation in Ukraine. Far from impossible.
After that will come the concerted attempt to trigger 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 options would doubtless be combined).
A defeated Russia would be stripped of its high-end arms industry and reduced to an oil and gas-supplying US neo-colony. If successful (admittedly a big ‘if’), next would come China. The US has already set up Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjian for such purposes.
In that context, addressing the regular Business Roundtable of top American CEOs, Biden talked of instituting a “new world order”, led, naturally enough, by the US.8 In such a new world order the US would, so it hopes, be able to “manage” the Eurasian world island - as envisaged by Zbigniew Brzezinski.9 The result would not, however, be a new age of democracy, peace and prosperity, as he promised: rather the imposition of breakdown, warlordism and social regression.
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, Taiwan and Singapore). No, instead it brings barbarism (eg, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). Fear of the pending US new world order, surely - well, at least in part - explains why a whole raft of countries, and not only the ‘usual suspects’ (eg, Belarus and North Korea), but China, Iran, Iraq, India, South Africa … even Pakistan, have all refused to join the anti-Russia crusade.
The majority of the left in Britain takes a social-pacifist position: eg, the Stop the War Coalition, Peace and Justice, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and Momentum. Basically they push the lie that there can be a lasting peace under capitalism if governments were less bellicose and UN treaties and international law were adhered to.
There is a social-imperialist camp. Not, of course, Sir Keir and the Parliamentary Labour Party. There is nothing remotely social about them. They are just plain, everyday, careerist bourgeois politicians and as such are committed to the Atlantic alliance with US imperialism. No, the social-imperialist camp consists of the thoroughly compromised far right of the far left. Eg, the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign and its Labour Representation Committee, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Anti-Capitalist Resistance, Emancipation and Liberation and RS21 affiliates, along with individual supporters such as John McDonnell, Paul Mason, Nadia Whittome and Gilbert Achcar. A rogues’ gallery of Stinger missile ‘socialists’ who side with the US hegemon, Nato and their ‘own’ state, in the name of defending the sovereignty of ‘plucky’ little Ukraine. Naturally, all couched in fake socialist and fake internationalist language.
However, what we want to deal with here is not social-pacifism or social-imperialism. Instead we shall deal with the pro-Kremlin left. Whereas the social-imperialists paint the US, Nato and the UK as objectively progressive, democratic and favourable to the working class, the pro-Kremlin left reasons along exactly opposite lines. Russia is portrayed as conducting a justified war in Ukraine, either with a view to deNazifying the regime in Kyiv or/and liberating Donbas, and its majority Russian population, from the Nazi terror of the Azov battalion. That and Russia defying the Nazi-promoting US hegemon has provided common ground for a whole variety of parties, groups and individuals.
Internationally it is not only the red-brown Communist Party of the Russian Federation which portrays Russian troops as bravely fighting to “repel fascism” (Gennady Zyganov).10 While, understandably, anti-Nazi rhetoric does not have the same traction in the Middle East and Latin America as it does in Europe, anti-US rhetoric, again understandably, does, and that leads more than a few to a pro-Kremlin position. Eg, the Workers’ Cause Party in Brazil.
We see the same phenomenon in Britain. George Galloway’s Workers Party, the Brarite CPGB (ML), the New Communist Party, Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight, Socialist Action, Socialist Labour Network - all see something progressive in the Putin regime and its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. It could be trumping US plans for extending Nato, it could be overthrowing Zelensky’s pro-western regime, it could be the “Russian army defending the Donbas” and “liberating” Mariupol from the “neo-Nazi Azov battalion” (Tony Greenstein).11 The last chilling phrase reminding me of the unnamed US major who said, speaking about the 1968 battle of Bến Tre during the Vietnam war, that it “became necessary to destroy the town to save it”.12 Either way, the end result is far removed from Marxism.
I have argued that the CPB’s Young Communist League, though using “devious language”, has constituted itself as part of the same pro-Kremlin camp.13 This, admittedly, is guesswork, a matter of interpretation. After all, the YCL’s leadership operates under the strictures of ‘democratic centralism’ - ie, bureaucratic centralism - which in this case bars any public criticism of the CPB’s social-pacifism. So, while the YCL’s central committee expresses its “sadness” at seeing Russian troops crossing the Ukrainian border, surely the giveaway is that its final list of demands have a highly significant absence: there is no call for a Russian withdrawal.14
Either way, the pro-Kremlin left has the virtue of saying that the main enemy is at home, but the naivety - and I am taking it that it is naivety, not corruption - is truly astounding. The pro-Kremlin left take Vladimir Putin at his word. When this capitalist gangster 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 already mentioned Azov battalion. But this militarily important tail hardly wags the Ukrainian dog.
To the extent Russia has a state ideology it must be described as far-right, revanchist and socially reactionary, a mix of Stalin era nostalgia and Orthodox Christianity. And, of course, there are plenty of fascists who are willingly recruited to the cause of Mother Russia. Leave aside well promoted individuals, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Alexander Dugin, and mercenary outfits such as the Wagner Group and Rusich. 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.15 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 down to bottom-dwelling fascist boneheads and boogaloos.
Whereas Lenin condemned Great Russian chauvinism and championed Ukraine’s right to self-determination, we hear voices raised from amongst the pro-Kremlin left to the effect that Ukraine is not a ‘real’ nation. Consciously, or unconsciously, this is echoing Putin himself. In February 2022 he condemned the Bolsheviks, in particular Lenin, for creating “modern Ukraine” by incorporating Russian-majority speaking areas in the east. For Putin this was “worse than a mistake”, it was a crime against Russian statehood.
Perhaps the original Slavic root of the term ‘Ukraine’ meant ‘borderlands’ - interesting, but nothing more. Marxists will investigate the Norman origins of the Kyivan 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.
One might just as well discount the demand for Ireland, Scotland and Wales to have self-determination on the basis that they are not ‘real’ nations - after all most people there historically speak English and must therefore be English. Politically hopeless.
Our starting point in evaluating this - or any war, for that matter - is not who is strong and who is weak, who fired the first shot, who is the invader or who is the defender. No, Marxism takes Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum as its starting point. This celebrated solider-philosopher gave us this definition: “War is a mere continuation of policy by other [violent] means.”16 Marxists have quite rightly regarded this proposition as providing the basis of their approach to each and every war. It was certainly from this viewpoint that Marx and Engels regarded the various wars that happened during their lifetime.
Apply this dictum to the present Russo-Ukrainian war. Volodymyr Zelensky is an obvious pawn of the Ukrainian oligarchy, Nato and above all the US state department in its great chess game. But what of Vladimir Putin? He is an obvious product of the dead end of bureaucratic socialism, the counterrevolution within the counterrevolution and the determination of the KGB/FSB (Federal Security Service) to prevent the complete collapse of the Russian Federation as a world power.
Even under Stalin there was the wish from amongst the elite to go over to capitalism. They wanted to enjoy the security, privileges and wealth of the millionaires in the west. With Mikhail Gorbachev, but especially Boris Yeltsin, they got their chance. State and party officials, plus the newly emergent mafia, grabbed whatever they could. State assets were robbed, misappropriated, stolen. The ‘new Russians’ became not mere millionaires, but billionaires. But as a class they never established their rule. Why? We live in an epoch of capitalist decline, an epoch of transition - an epoch of transition where the working class cannot yet rule, but where the capitalist class increasingly turns, not to productive investment, revolutionising the means of production, but to finance, luxury and sheer indulgence. Russia’s so-called oligarchs have exported money, not capital (ie, self-expanding value). Their wealth is embodied in swollen bank accounts, London and New York properties, English football clubs, top-end art works and trophy wives and girlfriends.
Meanwhile, the masses, though they were promised German living standards and Swedish levels of social security, in actual fact got crashing living standards and grinding poverty. Male life expectancy plunged from 67 to 57. The Russian Federation, shorn of the other 14 republics, faced the definite prospect of being reduced to a mere US neo-colony. Shock therapy, as advised by economist Jeffrey Sachs and his Harvard boys, deindustrialised Russia and left it in thrall to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Hence, in desperation, the FSB chose Putin - first as prime minister, then as Yeltsin’s replacement as president.
The present Russo-Ukrainian war owes very little to Putin’s mind, his megalomania, his 5' 7" stature, etc, etc. Psychobabble. No, we must understand Putin as the chosen representative of the FSB elite, which is, like him, set on restoring the great-power status of Russia that crashed in 1991. The Putin regime, is, in fact, a state regime, in which the oligarchs now, post-Yeltsin, occupy a subordinate, not a dominant, position (so it is no oligarchy).
Economically, Russia is certainly a capitalist country, but it is a second- or even a third-rate one. Despite its near 150 million population, it ranks far behind Germany, France, the UK and Italy in GDP terms. But, primarily because of gas and oil, it is able to maintain itself as a great military power. Exports of oil and gas allow a first-rate arms industry and correspondingly powerful armed forces. So we have a giant oil and gas station with a giant arms industry attached to it: a fossil-fuel, arms-industry complex.
Why anyone on the left would support such a capitalism testifies to a loss of faith in working class politics - an abandonment of working class politics for the politics of lesser evilism or vicarious nationalism.
The Times April 20 2022.↩︎
Daily Mail April 23 2022.↩︎
The Times April 24 2022.↩︎
H Mackinder Democratic ideals and reality Washington DC 1942, p106.↩︎
G Kennan, ‘The sources of Soviet conduct’ Foreign Affairs July 1947.↩︎
Z Brzezinski The grand chessboard New York NY 1997, p30.↩︎
T Greenstein, ‘Pro-war socialists Weekly Worker April 21 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1392/pro-war-socialists.↩︎
New York Times February 8 1968.↩︎
J Conrad, ‘A farrago of illusions’ Weekly Worker April 14 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1391/a-farrago-of-illusions.↩︎
A Rapoport (ed) Clausewitz on war Harmondsworth 1976, p119.↩︎