Learning to say “Goodbye Lenin”
A critique of the IST statement on the Ukraine war
Kyiv, 20 Febuary 2022 11:00 local: Long Read.
The International Socialist Tendency, represented in Britain by the SWP, has issued a statement on Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukriane. The sad thing is that, because it refuses to side with Putin and Xi Jin Ping in this conflict, it will be denounced by the neo-Stalinist left.
But if this is as good as it gets in the world of Leninist re-enactment, it’s not good enough.
The whole thing is characterised by abstraction. I’ve noticed both at the political and personal level, parts of the left in Britain and the USA consistently refuse to engage with the concrete facts of the conflict, the class dynamics and the concrete choices facing millions of working class people in Ukraine today.
I’ve written this critique because I think the SWP/IST position is going to be the default position of long-time socialists who can’t stomach the pro-Putin talking points that the Stalinists are coming out with (Ukrainians are all fascists, Nato has “encircled” Russia etc) but want to remain neutral as Ukrainians defend themselves, if war breaks out.
So here’s a par-by-par critique of the IST statement, from the point of view of a Marxist who supports Ukraine’s right to self-determination, and wants to answer the concrete question: what should the international labour movement do if Putin invades and annexes more of Ukraine than he has already done?
The statement begins:
1- The crisis over Ukraine has brought Europe closer to a terrifying war.
True, whose fault is that? It continues:
In its essence it is a conflict between the most powerful imperialist bloc in the world, the United States and its European allies, and Russia, a weaker but still vicious imperialist power. For both sides, Ukraine is merely a pawn.
Now hold on a minute. “In its essence” is a big logical leap. The USA, EU and Russia could all be described as “imperialist blocs” if you want to use the term (ignoring 50 years of financial globalisation — see note).
But the actual, concrete threat is of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
The logical claim here is that, whatever right to self-defence the Ukrainian people may have, faced with tanks rolling into their cities and the destruction of their democracy, this is over-ridden by the “essential” character of the war as a conflict between the USA and Russia. Hence the conclusion:
Working-class people have no interest in the victory of either side in this conflict. Revolutionary socialists in the states involved in this dispute must give priority to opposing their ‘own’ governments.
With a simple logical distillation of facts into abstractions, the IST tells Ukrainian workers that they have “no interest” in resisting the Russian invasion. Presuming they are included in this advice, Ukrainians must prioritise opposing Zelensky and not opposing the far right separatists currently shelling their kindergartens.
I don’t know how this will go down with trade unionists who fear their organisations would be shut down, or human rights activists who will get thrown into jail, or the relatives of people cooped up for years in unofficial detention camps in the Russian-controlled Donbas, or the kids I just saw breakdancing outside Macdonalds. They would be right to see it as irrelevant posturing.
You could say: “we’re not going to suspend our struggle for a democratic and socially just Ukraine just because the war broke out”, and “we should resist with our own organisations, form a left-led resistance and fight for workers’ and minority rights inside the army” (as workers did in WW2). But the statement doesn’t say that.
It says there is literally no difference — for a Ukrainian coalminer or call centre worker or LGBTQ+ activist — between living under a flawed multi-party democracy and the absolutist dictatorship of a foreign power whose leader has denied the existence of your nationality.
In short, the IST has applied the methodology of Lenin faced with war in 1914, 108 years after the event and in completely different circumstances. If I thought the facts supported this analysis, I might adopt the same methodology. But they don’t — and the rest of the declaration has to swerve consciously around the facts. It continues:
2- This particular crisis was sparked by the decision of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to concentrate troops on the border with Ukraine. He justified this threatening move partly by appealing to Great Russian nationalist mythology about the historic links between Russia and Ukraine and partly by repeating his long-standing grievances about the US policy of expanding NATO and the European Union eastwards. He has been demanding, in particular, a commitment that Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO and the withdrawal of NATO forces from Central and Eastern Europe.
This is correct — and it’s going to get the IST into a lot of bother with the outright pro-Putin wing of the left, who insist the crisis was sparked by US aggression. I congratulate the authors for refusing to use the “NATO encirclement” and “Ukrainian fascism” memes that key figures on the British left are promoting. It continues:
3- It is true that the expansion of NATO and the EU to incorporate most of the ex-Stalinist states in Central and Eastern Europe was driven by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush to extend the power of Western imperialism deeper into the Eurasian continent. The policy broke promises made to the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, by US secretary of state James Baker in 1990, when Moscow agreed that a reunified Germany could join NATO.
Let’s accept that this is correct. There’s strong evidence that verbal assurances were given to Gorbachev. NATO and EU expansion in the 1990s were driven by the desire to create a Western-aligned freemarket economy in Europe.
But it is also true that the USSR (the state to which Baker gave the assurance) no longer exists. It collapsed into chaos and became a series of unstable mafia states. The nascent capitalist elites of Eastern Europe, along with large parts of their population, saw joining NATO and the EU as an insurance policy against being re-absorbed into a chaotic Russian empire run by ethnonationalist kleptocrats.
That, it turns out, was not paranoia.
In short, the expansion of NATO and the EU was not simply the result of US agency: it was also the result of an emergent Western-orientated democratic culture in Eastern Europe which, though it remains fragile and subject to decay, is a non-negligible aspect of reality.
In any case, the substantial expansion of NATO is a finished fact. It’s not going to be reversed by Putin’s nuclear diplomacy. Large parts of Eastern Europe want to be in NATO because they don’t want to be invaded and annexed by Vladimir Putin. I can see their point. The statement continues:
4- Putin is no friend to the international working class. He presides over a repressive neoliberal regime, appeals to Great Russian nationalism for ideological support, and has sought to rebuild Russian military power and to use it to maintain Moscow’s dominance of its ‘near abroad’, notably in the crushing of the independence movement in Chechenya, the 2008 war with Georgia, the 2014 seizure of Crimea, and the recent intervention against popular protests in Kazakhstan. Further afield, Russian military power has been used to rescue the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Again correct, as far as it goes. Again it’s going to annoy the tankies. But there’s an important omission here.
What happened in 2014–15 was not just “the seizure of Crimea”. It was the seizure by force of large parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in Ukraine. That war has killed 14,000 people. It has seen hundreds of oppositionists kidnapped, tortured, raped and detained without trial. It has inflicted ecocide on the two regions. As I write, from the safe distance of 500km, the separatists are lobbing shells onto Ukrainian held territory and staging one false flag incident after another, to trigger a war. This is the war Ukrainians have lived with for eight years, and to understand the current dynamics of the country, you have to at least mention it. It is certainly front of mind with everyone I’ve met so far in Kyiv.
So Putin is not just “no friend to the international working class”. He and his proxies are the sworn enemies of the Ukrainian working class, and the civil society their organisations exist in. To add some concreteness to this, I will just quote from a celebrity TV broadcast on Rossiya 1, on the same day the IST’s declaration was made:
“The whole world exists only thanks to Russia… Ukraine needs to know it’s place… Ukraine is sick and needs to be annihilated or controlled from outside”
“Ukrainians are psychotic and miserable people … They want to kill us, Russian people … The Ukrainian people are sick, Ukraine is a cancer within Europe”
Not long after this broadcast Vladimir Putin publicly accused Ukraine of committing genocide in the Donbas. If I was sitting in a Ukrainian workplace, hearing this, I would want to know what to do about these ethnonationalist slanders. So read on…
Who started it?
5- Nevertheless, it has been Washington, egged on by Boris Johnson’s shambolic government in Britain, that has escalated the present crisis. Joe Biden’s administration has refused seriously to entertain Putin’s main demands, has talked up the danger of war (against the protests of Ukraine’s pro-Western government), and, along with NATO allies, has been moving more military assets close to Russia’s borders.
This is wrong. It conflates three events, and reflects the “Macron good, Biden bad” narrative that emerged from Britain’s Putin-apologists during the week Scholz and Macron were try to de-escalate the conflict.
Putin started the crisis by issuing an ultimatum — in the form of two draft treaties in December — demanding NATO demilitarise Eastern Europe, disavow Ukraine and Georgia’s membership ambitions, and agree a new security arrangement whereby Putin can veto any change (above all crush any democratic political uprising) in any part of Eastern Europe.
He then escalated the crisis by moving 100+ battalions worth of armour to the border and blockading the Black Sea. In response, the USA/UK sent bilateral supplies of small arms and instructors to the Ukrainian armed forces, and put NATO reaction forces on high alert. There is really no symmetry between the scale of the mobilisations so far.
In the past week NATO has deployed more forces forward to its own borders with Ukraine, Russia and Belarus — and made provocative flights with B-52 bombers. Socialists in the West should call on their governments to desist from all but sensible preventive self-defence measures. But it is not the USA that escalated the crisis.
Biden, says the IST, “refused seriously to entertain Putin’s demands” — too right, since they would have overridden the democratic choices made by half of Europe’s population. For clarity, Putin’s demands include the forced demilitarisation of every East European state bordering Russia and Belarus, with no concomitant military drawdown by Putin himself.
However, Biden did engage for weeks in secret diplomacy aimed at placating Russia and dissuading and deterring Putin’s aggression.
Then, last week and again this weekend, Biden did “talk up the danger of war” because (it claims) it got hold of leaked intelligence indicating Putin had designated a start date for a surprise attack. We cannot know who is telling the truth, and Zelensky himself has pleaded with the US to stop using this rhetoric. It’s proving counter-productive in the global conversation and should stop. But if the shooting starts, it won’t be because Biden was playing mindgames. It will be because Beijing and Moscow have agreed a joint operation to smash a country with 41 million citizens
And yes, Johnson and his ministers have been driving their clown car from Moscow to Minsk in an attempt to capitalise on the crisis, but they are bit-part players. The statement continues:
6. If war came, the main victims would be the people of Ukraine. They suffered terribly in the 20th century, from the First World War, the counter-revolutionary military interventions against the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalinist collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s, and the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941. In 1991 they asserted their right to national self-determination, initiating the break-up of the Soviet Union. But since then they have been ruled by rival gangs of corrupt oligarchs, tilting now westwards and now eastwards. Since 2014 parts of southeastern Ukraine have been a war zone between the Kyiv government and its Russian-backed opponents. The Ukrainian people need no more armies, whether from NATO or Russia!
This paragraph was going so well until the end (though Ukraine tilted decisively eastwards in 2014).
Here’s the problem: if the Ukrainian people need “no more armies” from either NATO or Russia, what is their actual (non-NATO) army supposed to do if Russia invades? How will they defend themselves from Russian ethnonationalists who believe they should be “annihilated” and are “a cancer” — except with their own army, which is training acivilian territorial militia full of working class people?
There is no chance of NATO fighting to defend Ukraine. There is every chance of Russia invading Ukraine and defeating the Ukrainian army, after which we will likely see years of insurgency and destabilisation.
Right now, we should be doing everything to stop this happening, urging cross-border dialogues between Russian and Ukrainian workers, pledging international solidarity with Ukrainian civil society, urging NATO and Russian leaders to remain at the negotiating table. That’s what I am here in Kyiv doing with the leader of Plaid Cymru, a Welsh MS and two trade union leaders. But…
Marxists support just wars of self defence
If Russia attacks Ukraine, by any Marxist definition of a just war, the Ukrainian people would have both the right (self-determination and international law) and justification (resisting a dictatorship) to defend themselves by force of arms.
This is the one thing the IST cannot bring itself to say. Maybe it will say it the day after it happens, which will be cold comfort to the miners and railway workers on the barricades trying to stop Russian tanks. They continue:
7- The Western escalation of the Ukraine crisis is related to the global rivalry between the US and China. Biden wants to send a signal to Chinese president Xi Jinping that Washington won’t accept any attempt by Beijing forcibly to reintegrate Taiwan into China. Xi has responded by backing Putin over Ukraine. This competition is threatens the fragmentation of the international system into rival imperialist blocs, increasing the danger of a world war that would destroy humankind.
First, it’s a complete misreading of the facts that the West wanted to escalate this crisis, or to link it to Taiwan. If Ukraine falls, Taiwan will fall — that’s the actual sequence. It is likely that Xi and Putin have jointly designed this operation — otherwise why would Russia withdraw most of its armed forces from the Chinese border? The remaining neocon faction in the USA and Europe is outraged at the passivity and reactiveness of Washington in the face of Putin’s aggression. But sadly the abovepassage is already out of date.
Since 4 February, when Xi and Putin made their statement announcing the end of the rules based order, the fragmentation of the global system is a reality.
The working class of Western democracies are lucky enough to live in the one part of this tripartitie power struggle where independent class organisaton, free speech and multi-party democracy remains a reality. There is certainly an increased danger of global war. The question is: what will that the Russia-Ukraine war be about?
If, as in Ukraine, it’s about the extension of Putin/Xi reality into a fledgeling and flawed democracy, you would have to consider the justice of resisting that — even, as in WW2, alongside bourgeoisie of your own country.
While, for most of us, this is a remote prospect, for Ukrainian workers it is the question they may have to answer tonight. But the IST statement doesn’t answer it. Instead it swerves around any advice to
8- We say: No war over Ukraine! — Both Russian and NATO forces pull back! — Don’t expand NATO — dissolve it! — Demilitarize Europe! — End the arms races eating up resources we need to fight poverty and climate change!
For starters it’s not really a list of demands. It’s a series of breast-beating moral statements and non-sequiturs. Do you seriously imagine, for example, even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could have adopted this postion? It’s the position of a left propoaganda group, not one designed for use in a mass workers’ movement.
How do we demilitarise Europe and end the arms race? Remove the main threat, which is a lonely narcissist in Moscow and his brutal allies in Minsk and beyond, through democratic uprisings. No mention of that here.
To what end would you dissolve NATO when there is an aggressive military alliance, with a record of seizing territory and shooting down civilian airliners, that is only currently contained by NATO’s commitment to collective self-defence? You might want to reform NATO, or kick out some countries — but dissolve it?
“Demilitarise Europe?” With a semi-fascist madman determined to redraw the map using tanks? Cui bono? Russian and NATO forces pull back? Yes, I am all for that. But from where to where?
“No war over Ukraine!” Fine, but what if it starts? What should Ukrainian workers do?
Clinging to Lenin
There’s no answers, and the final point of the declaration reveals why. To remain true to the Leninist doctrine of revolutionary defeatism, minted in the completely different world of 1914, you have to remain immured from 108 years of intervening history and from contemporary reality:
9- We trace our political tradition to the revolutionary socialists who refused to take sides in the First World War. Headed by V I Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, they saw international socialist revolution as the only way out of an imperialist system where the competitive accumulation of capital inevitably leads to wars. Luxemburg’s comrade Karl Liebknecht coined the slogan: ‘The main enemy is at home.’ That should be our watchword today.
Lenin and Luxemburg were right to reject working class support war in 1914. There was an international workers movement with a separate political culture, hostile to militarism, whose leaders had pledged a general strike against imperialist war. By 1916, less than two years into the war, it was staging uprisings and demonstrations — from the Easter Rising to the Berlin Mayday demo of 1916 to the French army mutiny of 1917 and the Russian and German revolutions that ended the war.
But between 1935 and 1939 a different kind of war threat emerged. The invasion of Abyssinia by fascist Italy; Franco’s fascist revolt against the Spanish Republic; the mass slaughter of civilians in Toledo, Malaga and Guernica; the racist invasion of China by Japan; the ethnonationalist annexation of Sudetenland and then the whole of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany; the Anschluss, Kristallnacht … these events, one by one, convinced a generation of Leninists (and revolutionary social democrats) that an anti-fascist war was coming, and that in that war “the main enemy is at home” would not apply.
By July 1936 the main enemy was fascist dictatorial expansionism and mass murder, and most workers understood that even if the left’s leaders found it unpalatable.
And there was also a different working class political culture. The most authoritative international body — the Comintern — from 1936 to 1939 urged workers in democratic countries to support rearmament and form an alliance against the emerging Axis. So did the Second International, eventually. The counter-culture that had fostered the pacifism of pre-1914 labour movements was eroded and replaced with something much more durable: a mass cultural antifascism.
Then, finally, came the abject betrayal of the Comintern, which in August 1939 switched support to Nazi Germany, backing its attack on Poland and ordering the Western CPs to campaign for “a people’s peace”.
Those who followed the pure Leninist logic — eg the Trotskyist parties in Europe — ended up isolated from the European working class, and bit part players in the anti-fascist rebellions towards the end of the war.
Those who understood that antifascism had emerged as a mass political resistance culture, subsuming and replacing the Leninist tradition, managed to retain agency. Far from a “people’s peace” they fought to turn the Second World War into a People’s War. This, after the start of Operation Barbarossa, included the Communist Parties. They were right.
Today’s conflict, between the globalist, democratic former imperialist countries of the USA and EU, versus the authoritarian, anti-modernist dictatorships of China and Russia, contains elements of both kinds of war. It is rivalry between capitalist power blocks, but it contains numerous just wars of resistance for national liberation and democracy. And, like it or not, it is a conflict between a democratic, socially liberal model of capitalism and an authoritarian, socially conservative one.
“Tracing your tradition” to 1914, ignoring 1939, 1941, and indeed large parts of modern reality is something you would only do if you didn’t want to answer hard questions posed by complexity.
‘The truth is always concrete’
So here’s an alternative. I’m a Marxist but not a Leninist. I believe — unlike Lenin — that the working people of the world have agency; even if they don’t have a revolutionary class consciousness, they have a desire for social, economic and climate justice — and a desire for peace.
I also believe the route to social, environmental and racial justice lies through the fight for left-wing governments in democratic states (and the defence of their democratic institutions from far-right and oligarchic attempts to destroy them).
This, in turn, means I don’t have the luxury of gestural slogans like “Dissolve NATO” or “Disarm Europe!” — (because unlile the SWP I actually have to go on doorsteps in places like Plymouth, Portsmouth and Barrow and convince them to vote Labour).
Working people have no interest in the world order collapsing into an inter-imperialist war. They should resist that by building cross-border dialogue, protest and solidarity. If NATO and Russia go to war, that would mean nuclear armageddon: who started it, whether the casus belli was just etc would be secondary questions.
But NATO has no intention of attacking Russia. NATO is composed of democratic countries, most of whose electorates would never in a thousand years consent to attacking Russia. Right now, from Biden to Scholz and Macron, NATO leaders are going out of their way to de-escalate the crisis through a mixture of (weak) deterrence and (ineffectual) persuasion.
The most likely outcome is that they strongarm Ukraine into accepting that it cannot join NATO anytime soon, and then beef up conventional deterrence in the NATO countries bordering Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. That’s probably the best outcome we can hope for.
But if Russia attacks Ukraine, in an ethnonationalist invasion premised on the idea that its people are “a cancer”, then by any Marxist principle the Ukrainian people would have the right of self-defence.
Since self-defence is more effectively done by soldiers in tanks, not grandparents with hunting rifles, that means supporting the Ukrainian state’s right to resist invasion, despite the capitalist character of that state and the oligarchic nature of the Ukrainian elite. It means — as the non-Leninist left in Britain did in May 1940 — demanding a people’s war, with social and economic justice and the end of oligarchic power as the fruits of victory.
The Marxist position on war has never been simply “the enemy is at home”. Marx himself supported wars by bourgeois states — the Union in the American Civil War, the French Republic in the Franco-Prussian War — and wars of national liberation, as well as revolutionary insurrections.
Just because, in 1914, there was a clear example of a no-win warfare situation for the working class, doesn’t mean there can never be one again.
The Marxist position on war varies depending on the social and political issues at stake in the war. These, in turn, depend on facts. That’s why so much of the left is happy to leave the facts unexplored.
To quote Lenin: the truth is always concrete. You can’t escape into the world of “essences” that absolve you from solidarity. The concrete truth is that the invasion of Ukraine, to topple its government, annex its territory and destroy its democracy, will be a crime under international law and an act of violence against the working class and minorities— which the population will rightly resist.
But like I say, for all its abjectness, the IST’s statement it’s probably the best we’re going to get from modern-day Leninism, which is why the whole tradition needs to be abandoned.