Ukraine: Outlines of a Marxist position
Parts of the left disgraced themselves in the run-up to Putin’s attack on Ukraine, first by claiming the crisis was the result of “NATO aggression”, second (for a few) by backing Putin’s lies about Donbas, and supporting the idea that Ukraine’s territorial borders were illegitimate; third, by repeatedly assuring their followers that Putin would not attack and then, when he did, claiming he had been tricked into it by the West.
What we’re dealing with here is Stalinism — and not just some residual loyalty to Russia as the former Soviet state, but Stalinism as a way of thinking. It’s shared by 60 year old Soviet nostalgics and 20 year old leftists who’ve drunk the kool aid of anti-humanism from Althusser and Foucault.
Once you can accept that “humanity is a social construct” and that “history is a process without a subject”, you can look at the 1,500 dead civilians in Mariupol and categorise them as “neo-nazis”; you can look at Eastern Europe’s move towards NATO membership in the 1990s and call it “encirclement”; you can file an entire nation of 41 million people under the category “puppets of the West”.
Thankfully many on the left are in a process of reappraisal — partly due to some excellent interventions from the Ukrainian and Polish left and the East European anarchist movement.
The new situation does not fit with a knee-jerk anti-Americanism, anti-NATO and default anti-militarism that have been prevalent on the left since the end of the Cold War. Some of the best left groups and activists, however, still cling to the old “Neither Washington nor Moscow” position, arguing that “the main enemy is at home”. Which would mean, literally, that in Ukraine the main enemy of the working class is Zelensky.
So here I want to spell out an alternative.
1. Ukraine is fighting a legitimate war of self-defence against a criminal war of aggression. That means the unions, the left parties and progressive civil society movements all over the world should support Ukraine; support their governments sending arms to Ukraine; support debt relief and aid; and support the call for international volunteers.
It does not mean uncritically supporting the Zelensky government, or its privatisation strategy, or its alliances with Ukrainian oligarchs, or its anti-democratic laws. It means turning the resistance into a movement for social justice in the new Ukraine.
The left-wing group Sotsialny Rukh argies: “only a socialist and democratic Ukraine can defeat the Russian miltarised dictatorship”. Actually, that’s probably an overstatement — it’s entirely possible that a capitalist and democratic Ukraine can mobilise its people in a resistance war to paralyse Putin’s armies, but the idea of a transformative social resistance is out there.
Inside Ukraine it means, in the occupied areas, organising passive resistance, strikes, sabotage of the occupation forces and, if possible, armed resistance. In the unoccupied areas it means demanding the right of political organisation within the territorial army (the various anarchist and left platoons) and freedom for trade unions to organise humanitarian relief, solidarity etc.
Outside Ukraine it means the left supporting massive sanctions on Russia and Belarus, designed to paralyse the state’s ability to make war, and to deter Putin from contining the occupation.
2. There is an inter-imperialist aspect to this war, but it is secondary to the overall systemic conflict it is part of. From 1989 to 2008 we had a single imperialist power (the USA) overseeing a global order attuned to financial extraction; Russia was plundered; China was happy to play a subordinate role, generating superprofits from its factories while developing its economy.
After 2008 this changed. After the Georgia war Dmitry Medvedev declared a “multipolar world” in which Russia would act as a great power, demanding influence and control in large parts of the former Soviet Union. After 2013 Xi Jin Ping turned China into a one-man dictatorship, with a state directed economy, a rapidly expanding military and the neo-colonialist Belt and Road Initiative to secure raw materials and trade routes.
So at some point in the 2010s there emerged a tri-imperialism, with each elite relying on a specific form of rent-extraction. The West maintained the old, neoliberal economic model, where the source of elite wealth is financial extraction (backed by central bank money creation). Russia doubled down on energy rents, creating a tight oligarchic and security elite. China’s elite extracts wealth through the super-exploitation of labour and, to an extent, monopolised positions over raw materials, again backed by a super-soft central bank regime and increasingly state-directed economy.
If these were the only stakes, then the old Leninist principle of taking no sides in inter-imperialist conflict might hold some validity. But the crucial determining factor in this conflict is systemic.
3. The world has entered a systemic conflict between two, allied militarised capitalist dictatorships and the liberal-democratic West. Both Putin and Xi have smashed internal opposition, smashed the independent labour movement, overriden the rule of law and turned the full force of surviellance capitalism onto their populations.
There is nothing intrinsic to Western capitalism that says, always and forever, that it will remain liberal-democratic. However, right now that is what it is. In addition, apart from the ultra-right wing factions (Trump, Zemmour, Orban) Western political and economic elites express an active preference for, and attachment to, the rule of law, science, democratic process and universal human rights.
A vivid example of the practical implications was provided by the Donbas miners’ union, whose leaders I met in Kyiv 18 days ago. When the separatists seized the Donbas, they asset stripped the mines, shut most of them down, banned the independent miners’ union, kidnapped and tortured its members. As a result, many fled to the Ukrainian side of the border Little wonder then, that on the first day of the war its members were ringing the HQ to say: “we’ve run away once before, this time we fight”.
For the left, then, there is a big decision to take. We can sit on our hands, quoting Lenin; or we can accept the systemic nature of the conflict and take a side in it, using our expertise and connections to turn the underground opposition networks in Belarus and Russia into outright revolts — and indeed among the underground working class movement in China.
This, of course, is what Western liberalism never contemplates, because the idea of workers with molotovs and AK-47s controlling a country never really appeals to them.
To take a side in the systemic conflict does not mean advocating war between NATO and Russia. It does mean, as most of the European Left and all of Social Democracy did in the European Parliament, voting for the resolution that committed to sanctions and military support for Ukraine.
Given Putin has threatened the West with a pre-emptive nuclear strike in case of intereference, the left can be an important voice for realism (though not of the Mearsheim flavour) while the neocon right stokes calls for direct military confrontation with Russia.
What you cannot do is hide from the issues — by “clinging to the average day” as Auden put in 1939. I’ve seen a lot of left figures, for example parts of the Democratic Party left in the USA, adopt this as a default — refusing to tweet, engage or comment on Ukraine except in the most general terms.
There is a perfectly sound “just war theory” within Marxism — which saw Marx and the First International become the main organisers of solidarity with the French Republic at war with Prussia after 4 September 1870, and before that with the “total war” faction of the Union side in the American Civil War. It reappeared during the Popular Front period in the 1930s and in Britain aligned with the instincts of the vast majority of workers in 1939, who realised they had a stake in the victory of democracies over fascism.
Practically we can support the Ukrainian left, unions and human rights groups; we can raise money, buy equipment and medical supplies and organise a left-counteroffensive to Putin’s information war, especially in Eastern Europe and the global south. A lot of this is actually under way, and being led by the social-democratic and anarchist left.
We can also insist on “no truce in the class war” — maintaining our opposition to spending cuts, repressive laws, racist immigration and refugee regimes, and any attempt to use the situation to impose restrictions on civil liberties.
For those of us who live in NATO and NATO-aligned countries there is also a huge opportunity — to redesign NATO as a defensive-only alliance, with clear limits to “out of area” operations, and to democratise the professional, right-wing dominated security and military machines of the West.
For those in the EU there is another opportunity. At Versalles the EU leaders pledged to make the continent self-sufficient in food, energy and military technology by 2027. This is the long-awaited resolution of the strategic autonomy debate. If Europe desires strategic autonomy, it will need a massive, debt funded and state led investment programme, with the distributional impacts of re-armament and decarbonisation shifted onto the rich.
What we can’t go on with, and should cease tolerating, is the “Dissolve NATO” rhetoric coming out of the campists, Stalinists and outright pro-CPC groups on the left. It’s time to draw an absolute line of demarcation with them: how for example can Die Linke ever go to the German electorate again with a loud minority of pro-Putin candidates?
We should recognise that the left, like the rest of Western society, is a battlefield in Putin’s hybrid war against democracy and cease giving his outright backers the space to operate. By all means, let there be pro-Putin neo-Stalinist parties that can operate freely and openly, but they should not find space either in social democracy or the radical left.
We have been brought, by Putin‘s ethno-nationalist attack on Ukraine, to the final point of a divergence within the Western left that began over Hungary 1956. There is, said EP Thompson recalling that event, no single Marxist tradition, but two: “The first is a tradition of theology. The second is a tradition of active reason.” Right now, conceptually, these two traditions are on different sides in a shooting war. What’s left to discuss?
- Support Ukraine! Arms, aid, debt relief and volunteers to Ukraine.
- Solidarity with the Ukrainian left, unions and progressive civil society groups
- Massive sanctions to paralyse the Russian state
- Support the opposition in Russia and Belarus, up to and including revolts to topple Putin and Lukashenko
- Reform NATO into a defensive only alliance, designed to deter Russian aggression
- State-directed and debt-financed investment to make Europe self-sufficient in food, energy and military technology
- Break with Stalinism; fight Putin’s hybrid war operation inside the labour and trade union movements