Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Trotsky on Ukraine: lessons for today

By Frank Brenner

We are reposting Leon Trotsky's article from 1939, “Problem of the Ukraine”, from the Marxist Internet Archive, as a useful starting point in trying to make sense of the current crisis in Ukraine.
It is notable that very few of the groups claiming to be Trotskyist make any reference to this article, in particular to its central demand for a free, independent Soviet Ukraine. No doubt such groups would argue that the article was written 75 years ago, and a lot has changed. Marxism isn't a dogma, and not every word, even of someone of Trotsky's stature, is holy writ. Nonetheless, it is striking that groups which otherwise venerate Trotsky (sometimes with a degree of hero-worship he would have found appalling) make not a single reference to this article, let alone offer up an explanation as to why it may no longer be relevant.
And the more one learns about the Ukraine crisis, the more one is impressed by how the dead past has come back to life, how the supposedly out-of-date is very much up-to-date. Vampires like Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator who ran a fascist puppet state in Ukraine during the war that butchered thousands, have become undead, politically if not literally. Stalin, too, is much in vogue these days in the Kremlin. And ancient disputes – the Crimean Tatars – are suddenly front-page news. All sides in this crisis are embracing 'their' history fervently ... except, it would seem, the Marxist left.
Which is a serious problem because this crisis has unfolded with a speed and violence that make it hard to get one's political bearings. All the more reason to consider carefully Trotsky's article, especially as this is his fullest statement on the issue. In the parade of historical ghosts that is Ukraine today, he deserves a prominent place.

What follows are some observations on the current crisis and what I believe the fundamentals of a Marxist standpoint should be. I want to depart from the usual practice of tiny grouplets issuing statements awash in overheated rhetoric that pretend to have everything worked out, along with a heavy dose of denunciations for anyone who might disagree with them. The crisis in Ukraine is complicated and confusing, and probably the first principle to keep in mind is skepticism towards anyone who claims to have all the answers. I also don't have any special access to information about the facts on the ground apart from what's available to everyone on the net and in the mass media, so the best I can offer is a gleaning of what I feel are useful insights from a variety observers, not all of whom I necessarily agree with politically. Nonetheless I think such an approach can be helpful if it makes up in clarity what it lacks in rhetorical 'fervor'.
First point: Marxists should oppose the dismemberment of Ukraine. That means opposing any and all annexations, whether by Russia or by other 'players' like Poland and its imperialist partners in NATO. The dismemberment of Ukraine would be a disaster on the same order as that which befell Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This would be a calamity for the working class, and not just of the countries involved.
Trotsky argued strongly for the right of Ukraine to self-determination, and that right still has political significance. Ukraine was an oppressed nation under czarism and that oppression resumed under Stalinism, with genocidal results in the Thirties.

For Marxists, the right to self-determination is NOT an endorsement of Ukrainian nationalism. Rather it means one thing only: the right to separate, to establish an independent state. The distinction is crucial to the Marxist position on this issue, most clearly spelled out by Lenin: the right to self-determination is akin to the right to divorce (or to an abortion, an analogy Trotsky once drew): upholding that right doesn't mean you make a virtue of the thing itself. When you do make a virtue of Ukrainian nationalism, you can only end up in a reactionary dead-end. That's evident from the glaring contradictions in the Maidan movement, which I'll get to later.

But now I want to consider a possible objection to Trotsky's position. Since Ukraine already got its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it could be argued that the right to self-determination no longer applies. To which my reply would be that in the current crisis that independence is on the brink of collapse. So, translated into 21st century terms, self-determination in Ukraine means no annexations.

Why is this important? I think no annexations has to be a bedrock policy for Marxists on Ukraine BECAUSE WHAT IS AT STAKE IS THE UNITY OF THE UKRAINIAN WORKING CLASS. To support the carve-up of Ukraine into ethnic enclaves means giving up on any possibility of achieving class solidarity across national lines. Ukrainian-speaking workers and Russian-speaking workers would be under the thumb of reactionary nationalist forces on both sides of the ethnic divide. This is what happened in Yugoslavia, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. So, an indispensable pre-condition for fighting nationalist ideology is to oppose annexation; otherwise, it will be impossible to get a hearing for socialist policies that can unite workers in Ukraine.

The same considerations apply to linguistic rights of minorities, particularly Russian-speakers. When the interim government in Kiev took over after Yanukovych fled, one of its first actions (later withdrawn) was to outlaw Russian as an official language. In the reactionary logic of nationalism, the 'victory' of one linguistic group can only come at the expense of another. For Marxists, the crux is always the unity of the working class, and anything that gets in the way of that unity, that builds up resentments and creates fissures along linguistic or national lines, has to be opposed. Marxists should support full linguistic rights for Russian-speakers, including the right to educate their children and to work in their language. (Incidentally, Russian speakers in Ukraine are not Russians, they are Ukrainians who happen to speak Russian, just as Hispanics in Texas or California are not Mexicans but Americans. For its own reasons, the Russian government has deliberately blurred this distinction, and much of the radical left has followed suit.)

Second point: No crisis in Ukraine is ever just about Ukraine. Like the Balkans, like the Kurds, Ukraine is a conundrum that capitalism has never been able to resolve or get past. The current crisis has elements of Cold War redux, with a US-led NATO squaring off against the evil empire run from the Kremlin.
In that confrontation, one's first instinct as a revolutionary should be hostility towards one's 'own' government. The term American imperialism may seem outdated rhetoric, but only to those suffering from historical amnesia. A recent summary of US foreign policy since 1945 shows that “the US tried to overthrow more than 50 governments, many of them democratically elected; grossly interfered in elections in 30 countries; bombed the civilian populations of 30 countries; used chemical and biological weapons; and attempted to assassinate foreign leaders” (1). Drone warfare, an Obama specialty, can be added to that list. All of which should make it plain, mass media hype notwithstanding, that the power elite in Washington, and its counterparts in London and Berlin, couldn't care less about the welfare of the people of Ukraine. Their real interest is a strategic one, long expressed by such gurus of Great Game politics as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, which is to encircle Russia with a network of hostile states occupied by NATO forces.
The crisis in Ukraine is a major opportunity to weaken Russia, to say nothing of the immense economic spoils Ukraine has to offer Western business. So there is no doubt that the CIA et al. are up to their usual sinister machinations. It's not that clear, however, to what extent they are fomenting events or, instead, reacting to them. Too often what passes itself off as Marxist analysis is just a reductive view of a crisis like Ukraine as a chess match between Obama and Putin. Imperialism is a reality but the elites aren't omnipotent. There are other 'players' in such a crisis, including a rather important one for Marxists – the masses.
The campaign to demonize Putin in the Western media has been pretty unrelenting, but as is all too often the case, the truth and the hype turn out to be opposites: think Iraq. The Western powers are the aggressors and Putin is reacting defensively, desperate to maintain what the Russian elites have always considered their 'sphere of influence'.

That being said, opposing Western imperialism doesn't mean giving a pass to Russian imperialism. The annexation of Crimea, the troop build-ups on the Russian-Ukrainian border, the appeals to Russian patriotism, are clearly aimed at building a Greater Russia, bound together by what Trotsky called Great Russian chauvinism. And another point of no small importance: for all the confusion of the Maidan movement, it still was a mass movement that toppled a regime, and how could the Kremlin not see that as a dangerous precedent? It's notable that as the Ukraine events have unfolded, the nascent opposition movement to Putin inside Russia has largely been silenced, drowned out by a torrent of Russian patriotism.

The events in Ukraine have also brought a more aggressive Polish capitalism on to the scene. Reportedly the Polish foreign minister Sikorski has been the leading voice inside NATO pushing for military intervention in Ukraine. The government of Premier Donald Tusk combines free market zealotry and Catholic social reaction, and now the country's political culture is awash in militarist rhetoric and anti-Russian nationalism. There is a long history to this conflict: Poland and Russia have fought over Ukraine for centuries. In the event Ukraine disintegrates, Poland would quickly seize its western territories, which were part of Poland before the Second World War. Even if this doesn't happen, the orientation of the Kiev political elite towards the EU and NATO would mean that a so-called independent capitalist Ukraine would really be an economic and political vassal of Poland and ultimately of an even bigger 'player' to the west, Germany. It would probably last about as long as a hunk of meat in a tank of sharks.

Third point: We need to pay careful attention to role of the masses in this crisis. Here the picture gets dense and tangled. Workers seem to have joined the Maidan occupation and protests against Yanukovych, and workers in the Donbas are now also part of the 'separatist' groups seizing city halls and police stations. In both cases they seem to play no independent role but instead function as recruits to the banners of contending nationalisms, and perhaps just as importantly, to the machinations of competing oligarchs. The role of the oligarchs is, it seems to me, a key to the real story behind the current crisis in Ukraine. In large areas of the country, they are virtually a law unto themselves, controlling not only finance and factories but armed gangs as well. But their activities go largely unreported, and so it becomes a guessing game to figure out to what extent spontaneous movements are truly spontaneous.

I can't claim any independent knowledge of the mass movements in Ukraine so what I'm going to do is summarize the most insightful comments I've found from others. The first such summary is from an article in the Workers International Journal by Balazs Nagy. Again a disclaimer: I don't agree with the political tendency Nagy belongs to or even everything in this particular article. (Apply the same disclaimer to the other sources that follow.) But this much I do agree with. Nagy argues that in the aftermath of such an epoch-changing event as the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would be nonsense to imagine that mass movements in the old Soviet bloc countries are going to be class conscious; instead they are going to be marked by “howling contradictions” in their political outlook, for the simple reason that you don't dispense with 75 years of crap that easily. Nagy gives a striking example of a miners' strike in Ukraine in 1993 that brought down the government of Leonid Kravchuk: besides typical union demands the workers “advanced the demand for a market economy against the bureaucracy's monstrous planning system. That was how they were duped and their movement exploited by bourgeois formations.” Another famous example is the Solidarność movement in Poland, and the way in which it got sucked in by the Catholic church. Nagy is right when he says that these examples of what he calls “this spectacular lack of any political clarity of vision” by the working class are “entirely due to the heritage of the Stalinist dictatorship.”(2)

I think what happened with the Maidan protests is best understood as another example of such howling contradictions, and if anything this time the outcome was even more extreme. The spark that set those protests off was the sudden refusal by Yanukovych to sign a trade pact with the EU, but along with that came a welling up of hatred of government corruption, the power of the oligarchs and grinding poverty. But very quickly this movement was co-opted by extreme right-wing and neo-Nazi forces (Svoboda, Right Sector). Leftists and unionists who tried to join the Maidan occupation were driven out violently. The fascists became 'heroes' in the eyes of many protesters, as the most militant opponents of the government. Given how much Stalinism did to discredit socialism in the eyes of the masses, it's not surprising that fascists came to fill the political vacuum in a mass movement without any clear idea of where it was going.
Now the fascists have important positions inside the interim government, the first time in postwar history that neo-Nazis are in power anywhere in Europe. There is also strong evidence that the fascists manipulated the protests by posing as government snipers who killed 19 people in late February. Up to then Yanukovych had been desperately trying to hold on, offering to share power with the protest leaders; the outrage over the shootings, which everyone blamed on the government, forced him out. In April, Right Sector thugs were responsible for the worst outrage of the crisis so far, killing 46 pro-Russian protesters in Odessa. A movement that doesn't know where it's going can be a very dangerous thing.

But it's wrong to see Maidan as nothing other than a movement FOR fascism. In a crisis like this it's wrong to overestimate the power of the enemy, while underestimating the power of the masses. Fascism is not yet triumphant in Ukraine, or even in Kiev: the government there is a reactionary amalgam of oligarchs, mainstream politicians and fascists, but it is also a highly unstable regime, and the fascists themselves are still far from being a mass movement. Denunciations of fascism are easy to make, but it's much harder to find a way to appeal to the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian masses. If there was nothing more to Maidan than fascism, then any prospect for uniting Ukrainian workers goes out the window. In my view, fascists are not the main danger, at least for now, in Ukraine. Much more important are the oligarchs. Focus fire on them and it becomes possible to counter nationalist hysteria (on both sides) with an appeal based on class. A Ukrainian oligarch is no less an exploiter and a thief than a Russian one.

Once you begin looking at Maidan from that perspective, some clarity emerges. Here is a quote from a manifesto by a group called the Left Opposition Collective, which provides an important context to the protests:
Euromaidan’s popularity has nothing to do with Ukrainians finding the question of free trade with the European Union so significant that it emboldened them to survive sleepless nights on the square. The country’s socioeconomic problems, which are much more acute than those of its neighbors to the East and West, gave the protest its meaning. The average salary in Ukraine is 2 to 2.5 times lower than in Russia and Belarus, and much lower than in the EU. The worldwide economic crisis affected the Ukrainian economy much more drastically than almost any other economy in Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals. Economic growth after the crisis nearly froze, and industry will most likely continue to decline in 2013. Furthermore, Ukraine’s economic system more or less exempts oligarchs from paying taxes. One can completely legally export tens of billions of dollars worth of minerals, metals, ammonia, wheat, and sunflowers, and report no profit. All earnings are stashed in offshore jurisdictions, where almost all of Ukraine’s functioning enterprises are formally located. Any profits earned by an enterprise inside the country can be legally and effortlessly transported to offshore locations by reframing them as a fictitious loan, for example. (3)

I should add that the manifesto comes with a program of socialist policies (nationalization of primary industries, workers' control) and policies aimed at the oligarchs (a luxury tax, prohibition of offshore transfers, separation of government and business) that seems to me in the spirit of what Trotsky thought a program should be – a bridge to socialist consciousness. Beyond that I know nothing about the group.
“Ukrainians, “ wrote Slavoj Žižek in a recent article, “ are far from blind about the reality of the EU. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man's problems.” (4) That seems to me about right when it comes to understanding what Maidan was about. And that ultimately can pit the masses against their homegrown fascists, who like the extreme right in other countries, are hostile to the EU and have nothing else to offer except nationalism, more misery and eventually war. Socialists, on the other hand, do have an alternative: a united socialist states of Europe. Which means that the issue of Europe can be a wedge into class consciousness, without giving in to illusions about the EU.

I read somewhere that as many as 16 statues of Lenin were torn down all over Ukraine. It's one of the sad ironies of these events that Lenin is identified with the hated oppression of Stalinism. But as Žižek rightly points out, “the golden era of Ukrainian national identity” was “the first decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraine exhausted by war and famine was 'indigenization'. Ukrainian culture and language were revived, and rights to heath care, education and social security introduced.” Doubtless very few people in Ukraine know that history. The Kremlin, though, is well aware of it. “The Bolsheviks,” declared Putin in a recent speech, “for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the south-east of Ukraine.” It seems that Lenin is very unpopular with nationalists on both sides of this divide. That's the kind of unpopularity Marxists should embrace. It's the same spirit that animates Trotsky's article.

The quote from Putin at the end is from Žižek ‘s article.


Mitchel Cohen said...

An interesting but ultimately unsatisfying (to me) prelude to an analysis. Why "unsatisfying"? Partly because it focuses barely a whit on the IMF/NATO/Global Capital forces behind the break-up of the Ukraine (see Michael Hudson's article for a healthy antidote!), and too much on Russian annexation, as though that's what Russia is actually doing outside the Crimea, and as though that -- and not the U.S. -- is the driving force behind the events in Ukraine.

(Question: You refer to Russian imperialism here, as though it is a given. At what point did the "deformed workers state" become "imperialist" and how are you defining that term, which should not be thrown around so loosely, seems to me, as you're doing, or you end up with an analysis that leads to wrong leadership strategies for the working class.)

Unsatisfying because you do not (and I believe cannot) "solve" the conundrum of what if the working class, acting in its own self-determination, decides that it wants to be part of Russia, as occurred in the Crimea, and may occur elsewhere -- not that Putin wants those other areas to beg him to annex their areas! In other words, what happens when in its own self-determination the working class in a particular area decides to do something that you -- YOU, Frank Brenner and Alex Steiner -- are opposed to?

So much for the much ballyhooed "right" of self-determination without qualifyer, eh?

Fascism is indeed a huge issue, and even though I agree with you about the need to unite the working class to fight the oligarchs (and the fascists aligned for now with them), you nevertheless downplay the horrific doings in Kiev. If fascists -- yes, real Nazis -- had not taken the reins of a number of government ministries, the goings-on in the Ukraine would not carry anything near the current "charge". But then again, the U.S. government and global capital would not have been successful, either, in prompting and taking over the Kiev government without them. So that mind game really carries no weight in reality. At some point the tactics used by the IMF and NATO threaten to over-run consciousness of the longer term strategies of capital, just as they did in Vietnam and elsewhere, where the crimes were just so horrific, widespread, and constant that the strategies of the U.S. government (and those in Vietnam opposing it) became secondary to stopping the war (and mass murder) at all costs.

Finally, you ignore Trotsky's awful role in the Ukraine following the Russian Revolution. While I believe Trotsky to be extremely prescient with regard to the beginning stages of Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, in 1919 thru the early 1920s his analysis was not quite so refined, and his positions were exactly the opposite than the ones you promote here, with regard first to Kronstadt and then to the Ukraine, where Nestor Makhno and other rural-based forces who fought alongside the Red Army were ultimately smashed by Trotsky when they tried to enact the very self-determination that you espouse.

I'll add on a few more points later, but I do urge you to read Marilyn Vogt-Downey's article on Ukraine, and also Michael Hudson's. I've compiled them on my website at www.MitchelCohen.com.

Frank Brenner said...

Note: This response is in two parts because of the size limitations imposed by Blogger on comments. This is part one.


I'm sorry you found my article unsatisfying, but I doubt that any article written from a Trotskyist perspective – which is, after all, what I was trying to do – would have met with your approval. (By the way, I suggest you re-read Vogt-Downey's article, “Whither Ukraine?”: you'll find the same 'unsatisfying' outlook there.)

As to specifics:

1 It's wrong to say my article focuses “barely a whit” on the role of Western imperialism. I state explicitly that the Western powers are the aggressors and that their strategic aim is to weaken Russia. Are the Western powers “the driving force”, as you put it, behind the events in Ukraine? I would say the economic crisis of world capitalism is the real driving force. Within that context imperialist conspiracies play an important role, but what is fundamentally setting the agenda is the collapse of the Ukrainian economy and the stranglehold of the oligarchs.

2 I disagree that my article focuses too much on annexation. I think I made it abundantly clear that my focus was on THE UNITY OF THE UKRAINIAN WORKING CLASS. I argued that no annexations has to be a bedrock position for Marxists on Ukraine because this is essential for cutting through nationalist hysteria on both sides and allowing for appeals to CLASS consciousness. If you have another proposal for how Ukrainian workers can be united, I'd be interested to hear it. From my reading of the radical left coverage of the Ukraine crisis, this issue registers “barely a whit”.

3 Workers' self-determination … hmmm. Nice phrase but I'm not sure what it means. Marxists talk about class consciousness, a rather more precise concept. Most American workers voted for Obama, no doubt before that many American workers voted for George Bush – is this workers' self-determination? I'm all for workers determining their future, but I'm not for oligarchs manipulating workers for their own ends. I suspect that a good deal more of the latter than the former is going on now in the Donbas. I drew an analogy between the possible breakup of Ukraine and the actual, tragic, breakup of Yugoslavia. Is that precedent relevant? I think it is, and if you disagree, you need to explain why. My claim is that the breakup of Yugoslavia was a terrible blow to the cause of working class liberation, and the same would hold true for the breakup of Ukraine.

Frank Brenner said...
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Alex Steiner said...
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Frank Brenner said...

[Part two of response to Mitchel Cohen's comment]

4 I don't see how I “downplay” the role of fascists in Ukraine. Their murderous manipulation of the Maidan protests, the dangerous precedent of their positions in the interim government, the outrage they perpetrated in Odessa – all are discussed. What I argued, however, was that the fascists were not the MAIN danger, at least for now, in Ukraine. The presidential election just held in Ukraine seems to confirm my reading of the situation. My point was that the fascists were not yet a mass movement, and that it was wrong-headed to exaggerate their importance. The victory of Petro Poroshenko is certainly a victory for a Ukrainian oligarch, but not for Ukrainian fascism. The two fascist parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, polled about 3 percent, according to one report I read. They might do better in the upcoming parliamentary elections, especially given the virtual absence of a Ukrainian left, but I still think this latest election result is indicative of how MARGINAL the fascists are, for now at least. I think the real problem is not my downplaying of the importance of the fascists but rather the EXAGGERATION of their strength by most of the radical left. I think that exaggeration is directly connected to the blind spot about the unity of the Ukrainian working class.

5 I don't think your analogy to Vietnam clarifies anything. You say that the tactics of the imperialists supposedly over-run their strategies so that the strategies become “secondary to stopping the war (and mass murder) at all costs.” This isn't a dialectical conception of tactics and strategy. Instead it harkens back to a deeply discredited politics: Popular Frontism. Stop the war “at all costs”. Stop the fascists “at all costs”. But HOW exactly do we stop the fascists? The Popular Front was never very good at answering that question: in practice it meant alliances with bourgeois forces that ended up divorcing the fight against fascism and war from the fight against capitalism, with disastrous consequences. In Ukraine I would suggest that a crucial part of the answer as to how to stop the fascists is – the UNITY OF THE UKRAINIAN WORKING CLASS.

6 I'll deal briefly with the kitchen sink stuff you throw in: Russia hasn't been any sort of a workers' state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. References to Kronstadt and Nestor Makhno are boilerplate anarchist rhetoric against Trotsky. For anyone else not totally wedded to that rhetoric, I would refer them to this article on Makhno: http://www.isreview.org/issues/53/makhno.shtml.As for Kronstadt, there are library shelves full of material. For anyone interested in the Bolshevik perspective (which in my view effectively counters anarchist accusations), Pathfinder put out a compilation of articles by Lenin and Trotsky in 1979 that can still be gotten second-hand. Some of this material is available on the Marxist Internet Archive.

Frank Brenner

Anonymous said...

To focus so exclusively, as the Brenner does, on national self-determination for the Ukraine, for the unity purely of the Ukrainian workers, is not in the tradition of Leon Trotsky, V.I. Lenin, and certainly not in the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg. The unity of the entirety of the international working class is what is at stake here and what we should be fighting for. The sole focus on unity for a single nationality—especially when it comes at the expense of RUSSIAN “national self-determination,” (which would also just a conceivably unite the RUSSIAN working class, including Russian workers in the Ukraine, as well as an awareness of the role of U.S. imperialism "crawling out of the egg shell of" 'Ukrainian nationalsim'--is a trademark of today’s Pabloites,
As for the Makhno and Kronstadt, they were deplorable errors, resulting from the growing bureaucratization of the Soviet Union and Trotsky's uncritical partipation in it, at the time. I don't see why these problems with his and the Bolsheviks' military-bureaucratic behavior should lead us to overlook his great legacy in the main.

Frank Brenner said...

My focus was the same as Trotsky's. Like many others who claim to admire Trotsky, you ignore the substance of his article. I also make it very clear that opposition to annexations is NOT the same as support for Ukrainian nationalism, but you ignore what I wrote (and all that Lenin wrote on the same subject). By the way, Trotsky and Lenin pointedly disagreed with Luxemburg on the issue of self-determination of oppressed nations, and I think history has proven them right.

That being said, there is a difference between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian nationalism. To ignore that difference is to ignore centuries of oppression of Ukraine under czarism and then under Stalinism. Russian nationalism has always been bound up with the imperial ambitions of the Russian elites; Ukrainian nationalism is a contradictory expression of resistance to national oppression. Trotsky says that Ukrainian history is rich in experiences of the wrong way of fighting that oppression. The job of Marxists is not to ignore that oppression but to help Ukrainian workers, youth and intellectuals find the RIGHT WAY - via an independent socialist Ukraine.

Finally I don't agree with you about Makhno and Kronstadt.


Anonymous said...

Frank,I know that Lenin and Trotsky disagreed with Luxemburg. I agree with Luxemburg on the issue of "national self determination." Their slogan was an adaptation to the position of the Social Revolutionaries.
Yet all three agreed that nationalism must be subordinated to the priority of international working class unity. When you say your goal is the unity of the Ukrainian working class, you are NOT speaking as a follower of Trotsky, Lenin, OR Luxemburg.
The analogy here that must be drawn is NOT to Trotsky's defense of Ukrainian nationalism in the face of the Stalinist bureaucratism. You Pabloites need to get your heads out of the 1930s. The analogy, as I hinted before, to be drawn here is the use of Ukrainian nationalism by the German imperialists to garner support or at least confusion for their stealing the Ukraine from the Soviet Union in 1918. "out of the slogan of Ukrainian self-determination," wrote Rosa, "came the German bayonets." So, now, the bayonets of NATO and the U.S. (and our energy corporations, hell bent on selling fracking-derived gas to the Europeans) crawl out of the same nationalism.
As for Makhno and Kronstadt, am I supposed to be chagrined that you don't agree with me? Sorry, I'm not, but incidentally, my position is that of Victor Serge, who knows what he was talking about--Thomas

Frank Brenner said...
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Frank Brenner said...

“Pat formulas don't solve concrete tasks” is a sub-head for one of Trotsky's articles on Ukraine. He had in mind the kind of argument you are making. International working class unity is an objective, not a program. You could apply this “pat formula” to any number of problems: abortion rights, gay marriage, the fight against racism etc. - we don't need policies to address these problems, everything will be resolved through the “pat formula” of the international unity of the working class.

Lenin and Trotsky's position on self-determination of oppressed nations was NOT an “adaptation” to the Social Revolutionaries: you assert this without any evidence.

I never said my goal was the unity of the Ukrainian working class. Nor did I ever say that I was a supporter of Ukrainian nationalism. Like Trotsky, my goal is an independent socialist Ukraine as part of a United Socialist States of Europe. I argued that the only way that could ever come about was through uniting Ukrainian workers around a socialist program.

In other words, the unity of the Ukrainian working class is a means to an end – and specifically a means to combat nationalism, both of the Ukrainian and Russian variety. I also argued that no one else on the radical left has any other idea of how to fight nationalism in Ukraine (on both sides of the political divide), and that applies to you as well.

You throw around the term Pabloite without any explanation: this is just invective. As for having our heads in the 1930s, your head seems to be with Luxemburg in the 1910s but that doesn't bother you at all. I argued that the historical past has come to life in Ukraine and that all the political factions have embraced their history, except the Marxist left. I might add that it was the Pabloites who coined the phrase, 'Junk the old Trotskyism'; your remark about having our heads in the 1930s is nothing more than a variation on that old Pabloite theme.

I couldn't care less about whether you were chagrined (!!?) or not. In my response to Mitchel I'd referenced an article on Makhno and a book of articles by Lenin and Trotsky on Kronstadt. You didn't address this material, and so I simply registered my disagreement with your bald assertions. Invoking Victor Serge for a bit of name- dropping proves nothing.


Anonymous said...

Since your relationship with the WSWS is a central aspect to your history, and you are at the moment championing the right (not advocacy I assume) of national self-determination, I would be curious on your take on their decision in the 90's to renounce that historic position of the Marxist movement, along with writing of the trade unions as working class organizations, since supposedly the globalization of the world economy had decisively transformed the content of the previous Marxist positions on these questions.

Alex Steiner said...

We wrote a critique of the SEP's analysis of the changed role of the unions as a consequences of globalization in our earlier book length polemic, Marxism Without its Head or its Heart. I would refer you specifically to Chapter 5 of that document, the section titled,
Marxism and the Unions: the Evolution of a Correct Analysis starting on page 129, and the following section,
Rationalizing Abstentionism
starting on page 132. Here is the link to that chapter:

I would especially direct you to our critique of North's "philosophical" rationalization for abstentionism in the unions, namely his contention that the very form of unionism imposes a bourgeois content on its struggles. With such a rationale any movement of the masses that in some way falls short of the finished forms of socialist consciousness and internationalism is thereby deemed unworthy of the intervention of Marxists. Such is the logic sectarian abstentionism. This explains why, although the the original analysis of the changed role of the unions as a result of globalization is mostly correct, the conclusions drawn from it are exactly the opposite of what a revolutionary who seeks a road to the masses should be advocating. Much the same could be said for the SEP's discussion of the national question. The main theoretical justification for their repudiation of the right of nations to self-determination can be found in one chapter of their document on globalization,
and is written in the form of a polemic against the Spartacist group. And while much of the critique of Spartacist is justified, there is one response from Spartacist (quoted in the SEP document) that hits the nail on the head:
"But what do the Northites tell the Mexican workers to do until the mass of workers in the US move to overthrow the capitalist system? The answer is effectively nothing. By counterposing an abstract conception of socialist internationalism to the actual struggles of the workers, rural toilers and oppressed peoples, the Northite tendency inexorably puts forward a defeatist line toward these struggles..."

The theoretical conclusion drawn from the SEP's analysis is once more that because the bourgeois content of nationalism has shown itself to be ever more reactionary as a result of globalization, therefore there is no longer a need for revolutionary internationalists to be sensitive to the right of nations to self-determination where that slogan is appropriate. Again the "philosophical" core of this sectarian politics rests in identifying the forms themselves within which the struggles of the masses are organized as somehow subordinating those struggles to a bourgeois and reactionary content whether those forms are a union or a nation. But this is to fetishize the forms and miss the dynamic possibilities that emerge when a conscious leadership intervenes in a struggle whatever its initial forms. And this amounts to forgetting the whole point of revolutionary leadership - which is to build a bridge to the consciousness of the masses.

Alex Steiner

Anonymous said...

I would like to know how you stand to Zizek. Do you think he is a Marxist ? Thank you.

Alex Steiner said...

It is odd that your are asking about Zizek in a post about Trotsky's views on the Ukraine. But since you asked, here is a link to the audio of a lecture that one of our supporters gave at a Left Forum a few years ago on the very topic:

Left Forum presentations: 'A critique of Lacanian reductionism in the work of Slavoj Žižek'

Anonymous said...

But you quote Zizek in the article. I asked you because I think that Zizek is not a Marxist.
I wonder why you mention Zizek. His comment on ukraine is nothing that was dicovered by him.On the other hand i agree with you critique of wsws. Thank you.

Alex Steiner said...

I see.

Regardless of whether you think Zizek is a Marxist or not, is Zizek's observation not insightful?

Anonymous said...

It might be insightful nevertheless it is important to notice that Zizek who claims to be in the tradition of marxism is not a marxist.
His explanation of materialism has nothing to do with dialectic materialism and causes confusion.
I would like to discuss more about philosophical problems with you. What forum you use for this ?

Anonymous said...

Another point. I read your analysis of wsws position about the iraq war. And i missed a political and economical analysis of the so called islamists. What is their social base in our time. It is clear that these groups are not just revivals of the past with another social structure.
Unfortunately no left group is interested in this question nor gives a dialectical and materialistic explanation of this phenomenoun in our time.
Besides, what do you think about tactical collaboration even with not reliable groups if they really fight ?

Alex Steiner said...

You can go to the contact form on the website or as an alternative you can email us directly at
email us here