Notes on the war
Both the social-imperialists and the pro-Kremlin left fail to put the working class at the centre of their perspectives and look instead to either Nato or the Putin regime as an agent of social progress. Jack Conrad calls for rebellion against those who betray the elementary principles of socialism
Like other great men down on their luck, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin appears unwilling to offer a public explanation as to the causes that have led his ‘special military operation’ to so spectacularly backfire. His Victory Day speech in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9 drew inevitable parallels with World War II and contained the usual list of grievances, but there was nothing, nothing in the way of a frank and honest assessment.
The facts, however, surely, speak for themselves.
Instead of Russian forces powering down upon Kyiv, surrounding, taking the capital city within days, capturing, killing or forcing Volodymyr Zelensky into exile, a combination of stiff Ukrainian resistance and astounding Russian military incompetence saw a humiliating retreat. Thousands of Russian troops and many more Ukrainians, military and civilian, lay dead, or were horribly injured, in this, the first phase of the war.
Zelensky, the ‘lion of Ukraine’, now sits secure in his Kyiv bunker and is feted and courted by the west. He appears on TV and radio stations, before parliaments, assemblies and congresses and is all-in-all showered with praise and adulation. Politicians, from Boris Johnson to Antony Blinken, from Emmanuel Macron to Nancy Pelosi, from Liz Truss to Justin Trudeau have gained much kudos after well publicised visits. Triumph at Turin’s Eurovision song contest symbolically marks Ukraine’s victory, when it comes to soft power.
Far from the eastward march of Nato being halted, Putin, the man who oversaw defeat of Georgia in a mere five days, who reunited Crimea with mother Russia and who faced down the US over Syria, has seen France, Italy and Germany thoroughly subordinated to US strategic plans, Finland and Sweden apply for Nato membership and Ukraine act as a militarily very successful proxy in what is a (Nato-armed) people’s war against the Russian invaders.
What about the supposed aim of ‘deNazification’? I take this as code for regime change in Kyiv - or maybe even code for the abolition of Ukraine itself as a separate country. A not unreasonable assumption. After all, Putin’s July 2021 essay, ‘On the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, claims that Ukraine is an artificial entity and not a real nation “separate from Russia”. Lenin and the Bolsheviks are blamed for establishing “a federation of equal republics” and thereby planting a constitutional “timebomb”, a “timebomb” which finally exploded in 1991 in what Putin calls a “parade of sovereignties”.1
Well, perhaps, as Putin argues, the original Slavic root of the term ‘Ukraine’ meant ‘borderlands’ - interesting, but nothing more. Historians, including Marxist historians, have, of course, investigated 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 - well, for us, though clearly not for Putin - is what the mass of the population actually think; and today the mass of Ukrainians unmistakably think of themselves as very 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.
If the ‘special military operation’ was designed to restore the “historic unity” of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples in some brotherly neo-tsarist empire (along with, one presumes, White Russia), the opposite has, in fact, happened. National antagonisms within Ukraine have polarised, calcified, gone toxic. Reports come out daily of pro-Russian ‘spies’ and ‘agents’ being denounced by neighbours, hunted down by Ukraine’s SSU or simply being shot by police units, military irregulars or officially sanctioned troops. As for the vast majority of Ukrainian-Ukrainians, and perhaps not a few Russian-Ukrainians, Putin’s invasion force represents death, destruction, robbery and rape. For them, there is nothing welcome about his ‘special military operation’.
DeNazification can be given a narrower meaning. It can be taken as a reference to the Ukrainian far-right and organisations such as Svoboda, National Corps, Social National Party, Right Sector and, of course, the Azov battalion/movement. Politically, the far-right is no longer represented in the Rada, however, since 2014, in the form of the Azov battalion, it has constituted the most ideologically committed element of Ukraine’s armed forces. Doubtless there are genuine Nazis in the Azov battalion. The symbols, the salutes, the banners are impossible to ignore (except when it comes to the western media). However, most consider themselves followers of Stepan Bandera - a Ukrainian fascist and, in the early 1940s, a Nazi collaborator who independently oversaw a horrendous series of pogroms, in particular against Poles (well over 100,000 died). True, Bandera temporarily fell out with the Nazis, but it is surely significant that the Kyiv government has voluntarily chosen to elevate Bandera into a national hero: there are statues, bridges, squares, postage stamps and an annual holiday in his honour. Zelensky himself has praised Bandera as one of Ukraine’s “indisputable heroes”.2
So how has the ‘special military operation’ gone in this respect? Has the Azov battalion/movement been exposed, discredited, isolated and neutralised? Hardly. No, once again, the opposite has happened. Despite defeat in the battle for Mariupol, the Azov battalion has become, in the Ukrainian nationalist imagination, something akin to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Mad, bad and extraordinarily dangerous for leftwingers, lesbian and gay people, Jews, Tatars, Roma … and, above all, to the hated Russians. There is the distinct possibility, thanks to the ‘special military operation’, of the far-right coming back from the political fringes and returning to the Rada in far greater strength, given the fanatical last stand in the Azovstal steelworks.
Phase two of Russia’s war is now being fought in earnest. Absurdly, Zelensky claims to have broken the “backbone” of Putin’s forces. True, the Russian army was driven back from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. Nevertheless, Mariupol and Kherson in the south have been taken and Izium is surrounded and Sievierodonetsk looks like it will soon undergo the same terrible fate. Moreover, Ukraine is blockaded along the Black Sea coastline and Russia seems to have overcome the logistical problems that plagued its drive on Kyiv. Ammunition, food and fuel are, for the moment, being successfully delivered to the frontline - but the further that Russian forces advance, the longer and more problematic are the supply lines.
At the present juncture, the war is more a matter of artillery and bite-and-hold position, than tanks and grand manoeuvre. Russian artillery - which overwhelmingly outnumbers what Ukraine can deploy on the ground - relentlessly bombards everything before it. Despite being well dug-in after eight years of border warfare, the death toll on the Ukrainian side, though underreported, must be very considerable. Hence the overall picture, on both the eastern and southern fronts, is of grinding Russian advance but no dramatic breakthroughs. Therefore, the idea of trapping the 30,000-strong eastern Ukrainian army in a huge pincer movement seems to have been put on hold - well, for the time being. If that happens, it would be a real game-changer.
Zelensky now speaks of wanting “everything back”. This means the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk - and Crimea too. In other words, a total Russian defeat. An uncompromising stance which owes less to over-hyped Ukrainian military prowess, more to do with the geo-strategic calculations being made in Washington and London. Zelensky, is, after all, totally dependent on US-UK arms supplies, finance and diplomatic support (the UK being very much the junior partner). Whereas France, Italy, Germany … and Henry Kissinger want a negotiated settlement, the US-UK axis - yes, emboldened by Ukraine’s unexpected military resilience - is quite prepared to sacrifice the core economies of the EU, countless Ukrainian lives and billions of dollars and pounds in paving the way for regime change in Moscow. Joe Biden, the US president, has been perfectly candid on this score: the “butcher” Putin, he said, cannot be allowed to “remain in power”.3
Whether Ukrainian forces are actually capable of driving Russia out of Donbass and Crimea is militarily doubtful. Thwarting the attempt to take Kyiv, holding out in Mariupol for two long months of siege, saving Kharkiv from being encircled, are real military achievements. Yet, despite massive western arms deliveries, poor Russian moral and huge losses of tanks, troop carriers and lorries, the odds remain overwhelming in Russia’s favour. It has more of everything - fighting in the field and ready in reserve.
So, it is unlikely that the US-UK axis is banking on an outright Ukrainian military victory, but rather on Russia getting bogged down in a quagmire, an unwinnable war, which will create the conditions for regime change in Moscow: through the siloviki retiring Putin to a sanitorium; a colour revolution; launching anti-Russian ‘national liberation wars’ in Belarus, Moldova and Georgia; promoting separatist movements within the Russia Federation itself - in particular amongst the Chechens, Ingush, Daghestanis, Crimean Tatars, Yakuts and Volga Tatars (all options are surely under active consideration).
If the US state department could get its man into the Kremlin - say, the already presidential Alexei Navalny - Russia would be stripped of its high-end arms industry and reduced to an oil- and gas-supplying neo-colony. There is already excited talk of demilitarising, denuclearising and decentralising a post-Putin Russia so as to “remove” it as a threat to world peace and make it safe for its neighbours.4 More sober voices are being raised, warning of a Pax Sinica: that is a post-Putin Russia throwing itself into the arms of China and becoming its Austria-Hungary. Either way, the main strategic target remains China itself. The US has already set up Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjian for such purposes.
In that context, it is worth recalling Biden addressing the regular Business Roundtable of top American CEOs back in March. He talked of instituting a “new world order”, led, of course, by the US.5 In such a new world order the US would, so he hopes, be able to “manage” the Eurasian world island - as envisaged by Zbigniew Brzezinski.6 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, the contras in Nicaragua, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, sectarian fragmentation in Iraq, civil war in Libya). Fear of the pending US new world order, surely - 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 its anti-Russia crusade.
The majority of the left in Britain take a social-pacifist position: eg, Stop the War Coalition, Peace and Justice, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Left Unity, CND and Momentum. There are, naturally, differences and gradations: eg, some stand for overt pacifism, others shade over into overt pacifism. Basically, though, all peddle the lie that there can be a lasting peace while capitalism lives.
Revealingly, StWC plays host to Yuri Sheliazhenko of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, not just to provide a platform for a brave war resister, but because it shares much of his politics. StWC makes whimpering pleas for governments on both sides of the conflict to behave in a less bellicose manner, for them all to respect legitimate security concerns and for them all to adhere to UN treaties and international laws guaranteeing national sovereignty. An approach which effectively lines-up StWC behind António Guterres and the United Nations bureaucracy.
Note, the SWP triumvirate of Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber and Amy Leather stress their “support” for StWC (Party Notes) and, in the dull as ditchwater pages of Socialist Worker, desperately seek dialogue with well known representatives of social-imperialism. A shameful position that ought to have, at last, provoked a serious rebellion in the, shrinking, ranks … but, testifying to the success of the SWP’s ruling regime in lobotomising one cohort of bright young kids after another, so far there is an eerie silence (of the grave?).
Not surprisingly, any idea, any suggestion of demanding the abolition of standing armies and their replacement by the armed people, a popular militia, is cowardly side-stepped or contemptuously dismissed as “utopian” by the entire social-pacifist pack! We have heard it from the SWP, Left Unity, the CPB - the lot of them. Social-pacifism being, in fact, a variety of bourgeois pacifism. It is, therefore, they, the social-pacifists, who are the utopians.
Not that we dismiss calls for peace that come from so-called ordinary people, not least those in Russia who risk, who experience, arrest and imprisonment for the merest act of defiance. Their disgust with the war, their heartfelt desire to put an end to the killing, their instinctive distrust not only of Putin, but Biden and Johnson too, should be wholeheartedly welcomed, encouraged and, yes, whenever possible, given voice. However, pacifism is not Marxism, and in the name of Marxism we continue to uphold the perspective of converting wars of conquest, wars of proxy, wars of nation versus nation into civil wars for working class liberation. No matter how small, no matter how isolated our forces are at the moment, that is the main task of today.
There is, as already indicated, a social-imperialist camp. Not, as we have repeatedly explained, Sir Keir and the Parliamentary Labour Party. Obviously. Any such suggestion is stupid in the extreme. There is nothing remotely social about them. They are just plain, everyday, career bourgeois politicians and, as such, just as committed to the Atlantic alliance and the total defeat of Russia as is the Joe Biden administration and the Boris Johnson government.
No, the social-imperialist camp, in Britain, consists of the thoroughly compromised, far right of the far left. Eg, the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign and its affiliates - Labour Representation Committee, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Anti-Capitalist Resistance, Emancipation and Liberation and RS21 - 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. Along with the US state department and UK foreign office, their slogans are: ‘Arm, arm, arm Ukraine’ and ‘Putin, out, out, out’. Naturally, despite proven CIA political links and financial connections, all this is couched in fake internationalist and socialist phrases.
There have been a few rebels. But, sad to say, at least so far, the unity mongers prevail. Eg, the LRC’s ‘Red Line TV’, the supposed successor and continuation of Labour Briefing, steadfastly refuses to take sides: for social-pacifism, for Kyiv, for the Kremlin, for Marxism and revolutionary defeatism. Such inexcusable neutralism is espoused, not least by our former comrade Tina Werkmann, a ‘Red Line’ co-host along with Jackie Walker, in the name of staging civilised conversations between, in class terms, irreconcilable viewpoints. A political stance that is, frankly, beneath contempt. Marxism, socialism, communism is by definition intensely partisan and demands, not least when it comes to a situation where there is more than the whiff of World War III in the air, a definite position, a definite standpoint and politics which provide definite answers.
What about the pro-Kremlin left? Whereas the social-imperialists somehow manage to 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 to liberating Donbas and its majority Russian population from the Nazi terror of the Azov battalion. Putin’s claim of Russia, defying, standing against, the Nazi-promoting US hegemon, has triggered, as would be expected, an almost Pavlovian response from a range of parties, groups and individuals.
Internationally we see a Trotskyite-Stalinite interweaving. It is not only the red-brown Communist Party of the Russian Federation which portrays Russian troops as heroically fighting to “repel fascism” (Gennady Zyuganov).7 So does the pro-Kremlin Trotskyite left - eg, Savas Michael-Matsas and his Workers Revolutionary Party in Greece.8
Britain is no different. George Galloway’s Workers Party, the Brarite CPGB (ML), the New Communist Party, Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight, Socialist Action - 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).9 Either way, the end result is far removed from Marxism.
I have argued that, though they use “devious language”, the CPB’s Young Communist League has constituted itself part of the same pro-Kremlin camp.10 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 has a highly significant omission: there is no call for a Russian withdrawal.11
If I am right, and I think I am, there is clearly a welcome impulse underway here. The YCL is rebelling against the soggy social-pacifism of their CPB elders. A recent Morning Star article by James Meechan of Glasgow YCL surely confirms the thesis. He writes: “we should consider that the slogan ‘no war but the class war’ is not a shibboleth of an ineffectual left, but watchwords for the workers’ movement at times like these”. His piece is spoilt by the plea for a “prompt ceasefire” and the wish for a “diplomatic solution” and “Ukrainian neutrality”, but it does contain this formulation: “The best thing we can do to ensure a peaceful de-escalation of the conflict in Ukraine is to obstruct the imperialist ambitions of our own bourgeoisie … by intensifying the class struggle at home.”12 It is, of course, quite possible that Meechan’s article was subtly edited by Ben Chacko. Nonetheless, the fact that it actually appeared in the Morning Star testifies not to a commitment to debate and openness. No, it testifies to a rebel YCL and the desperate attempt to stop it following the example of the Connolly Youth Movement in Ireland and breaking with its CPB parent. (The CYM voted in January 2021 to “disaffiliate” from the Communist Party of Ireland.13)
Another rebel against the CPB’s soggy social-pacifism is Morning Star international editor, Steve Sweeny, who appeared, in his “personal capacity”, at the May 8 Victory Day meeting organised by the Workers Party of Britain - the other platform speakers were George Galloway and Ranjeet Brar. On good authority I am told that Sweeny has since resigned from the CPB. Not that you will read about this, or his reasons for quitting, in the Morning Star.
The pro-Kremlin left at least has the virtue of saying that the main enemy is at home; but the naivety - and I am assuming it is naivety, not corruption via RT and Sputnik and other such Russian avenues - is truly astounding. The pro-Kremlin left take Vladimir Putin at his word. When this gangster, kleptocrat and devotee of the Orthodox church says he is committed to the “noble cause” of deNazifiying Ukraine, they believe him. Gullible, moronic even.
The pro-Kremlin left gets itself into an awful muddle trying to portray Russia as the victim. Some even quote CPGB members and supporters who have rightly argued that Russia is fighting a defensive war against Nato by invading Ukraine (Gerry Downing and Tony Greenstein come to mind14). But there can be no doubt that Ukraine is also fighting a defensive war against Russia.
However, our starting point in evaluating this war - or any war, for that matter - is not who invaded who, who fired the first shot, who is strong and who is weak. No, we Marxists take Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum as our starting point. This celebrated soldier-philosopher gave us this definition: “War is a mere continuation of policy by other [violent] means.”15 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.
Applying this dictum to the present Russo-Ukrainian war, Volodymyr Zelensky is an obvious pawn of the Ukrainian oligarchy, Nato and, above all, the US. The war being fought under the name of Slava Ukraini! is, therefore, in fact, a proxy war, the continuation of US domestic and foreign policy, pursued, certainly, since the early 1980s, ie, breaking trade union power, the turn to financialisaton and IMF and World Bank austerity programmes.
What of Vladimir Putin and his war? Putin is an obvious product of the dead end of bureaucratic socialism, the counterrevolution within the counterrevolution and the determination of the KGB/FSB to prevent the complete collapse of the Russian Federation as any kind of 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’, the so-called oligarchs, became not mere millionaires, but billionaires. But as a class they never established their rule (so Russia is no oligarchy).
Why this inability of the capitalist class to rule? We live in an epoch of capitalist decline, an epoch of transition - an epoch of transition where the working class cannot yet come to power, but where the capitalist class increasingly turns, not to productive investment, revolutionising the means of production, but to finance, luxury and sheer indulgence. This is most certainly the case with Russia. Its so-called oligarchs have exported money, not capital (ie, self-expanding value). Their wealth - well, until they were sanctioned - took the form of swollen offshore bank accounts, London and New York properties, English football clubs and luxury yachts.
Meanwhile, the masses, though they were promised German living standards and Swedish levels of social security, in fact got crashing living standards and crushing 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 IMF 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 little if anything to Putin’s mind, his megalomania, his 5′7″ stature, etc, etc. Psychobabble. No, the ‘special military operation’ is a continuation of the siloviki’s policy of clamping down on centrifugal forces undermining the Russian Federation, not least uppity oligarchs, and restoring the superpower status that was lost with the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. It is not that Putin and the siloviki are bent on restoring bureaucratic socialism. No they are quite content with a capitalist Russia, except that they want a bigger, a richer, a more powerful capitalist Russia. After all, though Russia is most certainly a capitalist country, it is economically second-rate. Despite its near 150 million population, it ranks far behind Germany, France, the UK and even Italy in GDP terms. Only because of gas and oil has Russia been able to maintain itself as a great military power. Exports of oil and gas allowed a first-rate arms industry and correspondingly powerful armed forces. So, a giant oil and gas station with a giant arms industry attached to it: a fossil-fuel, arms-industry complex.
Of course, the Ukraine war, and the associated western sanctions regime, has had a dreadful effect. Not only have the bank accounts and assets of oligarchs been frozen and their yachts seized. The Russian economy is expected to shrink by 7.5% and the country’s risk assessment has been downgraded from B to D (ie, from fairly high to very high).16 So maybe now the Russian Federation should be classified economically as a third-rate power.
That anyone on the left would support the violent continuation of the policy of such a grossly malformed example of late capitalism testifies to a loss of faith in working class politics - an abandonment of working class politics for the politics of bogus anti-fascism or mere lesser evilism.
The Guardian March 26 2022.↩︎
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.↩︎
J Conrad, ‘A farrago of illusions’ Weekly Worker April 14 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1391/a-farrago-of-illusions.↩︎
Letters Weekly Worker May 12 and May 19 2022.↩︎
A Rapoport (ed) Clausewitz on war Harmondsworth 1976, p119.↩︎