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about the Ukraine crisis, the more one is impressed by how the dead past has come back to life, how the supposedly out-of-date is very much up-to-date.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.

Problem of the Ukraine

Note: We are reprinting below a seminal essay by Trotsky from the Marxist Internet Archives written on the eve of the Second World War on the problem of the Ukraine.   The issues Trotsky addresses have once again become relevant in 2014 as the crisis of the Ukraine demands a serious review of the national question. We will follow with a comment on the current situation in the Ukraine. 

Leon Trotsky

Problem of the Ukraine

(April 1939)

Written: April 22, 1939.
Originally published: Socialist Appeal, May 9, 1939.
Source: Arsenal of MarxismFourth InternationalVol.10 No.10, November 1949, pp.317-319.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive 2009. This work is completely free to copy and distribute.

Trotsky’s article on the Ukraine first appeared in the Socialist Appeal on May 9, 1939. Like so many of the writings of the great Marxist master, his analysis in this article has withstood the test of the years and the turbulent events they encompassed. Today, more than a decade later the struggle of Yugoslavia against the oppressive Great Russian chauvinism of the Kremlin confirms what Trotsky wrote in 1939.
The ruthless offensive against Tito is, in reality, only the latest and most dramatic expression of what Trotsky called the “outright strangulation of any kind of national development of the peoples of the USSR.” By an ironic quirk of history, the man who made his reputation as a Marxist expert on the national question, has “solved” the problem of the national minorities by methods no Czar would have dared to employ. During the war and since, Stalin has uprooted entire peoples from their ancestral homes and shipped them in cattle cars to the barren wastelands of Siberia. This was punishment for murmuring against the Kremlin whip and “security” against a possible revolt.
As far as the Ukraine itself the concerned, here too Trotsky proved correct if not in detail then in the essence of the matter. Hitler’s first and easy victories in the war resulted not least of all from the dissatisfaction and hatred towards the Kremlin which Stalin’s policy had engendered in the Ukrainian people.
Recent reports of “partisan bands” operating in the Ukraine and of groupings of anti-Stalinist Ukrainian refugees in exile indicate that the embers of the Ukrainian problem are still glowing and that Trotsky’s slogan – A united, free and independent workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine – has lost none of its timeliness.
“Only hopeless pacifist blockheads are capable of thinking that the emancipation and unification of the Ukraine can be achieved ... by decisions of the League of Nations ... The program of independence for the Ukraine in the epoch of imperialism is directly and indissolubly bound up with the program of the proletarian revolution. It would be criminal to entertain any illusions on this score.”
The Yugoslav worker-communists would do well to ponder these lines.
second article by Trotsky replying to critics of his program for the Ukraine will appear in the December Fourth International.
* * *
The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force. The latest aggravation of the Ukrainian question is most intimately bound up with the degeneration of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern, the successes of fascism and the approach of the next imperialist war. Crucified by four states, the Ukraine now occupies in the fate of Europe the same position that was once occupied by Poland; with this difference – that world relations are now infinitely more tense and the tempos of development accelerated. The Ukrainian question is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous, role in the life of Europe. It was not for nothing that Hitler so noisily raised the question of creating a “Greater Ukraine,” and likewise it was not for nothing that he dropped this question with such stealthy haste.

A Question That Must Not Be Ignored

The Second International, expressing the interests of the labor bureaucracy and aristocracy of the imperialist states, completely ignored the Ukrainian question. Even its left wing did not pay the necessary attention to it. Suffice it to recall that Rosa Luxemburg, for all her brilliant intellect and genuinely revolutionary spirit, found it possible to declare that the Ukrainian question was the invention of a handful of intellectuals. This position left a deep imprint even upon the Polish Communist Party. The Ukrainian question was looked upon by the official leaders of the Polish section of the Comintern as an obstacle rather than a revolutionary problem. Hence the constant opportunist attempts to shy away from this question, to suppress it, to pass over it in silence, or to postpone it to an indefinite future.
The Bolshevik party, not without difficulty arid only gradually under the constant pressure of Lenin, was able to acquire a correct approach to the Ukrainian question. The right to self-determination, that is, to separation, was extended by Lenin equally to the Poles and to the Ukrainians. He did not recognize aristocratic nations. Every inclination to evade or postpone the problem of an oppressed nationality he regarded as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism.
After the conquest of power, a serious struggle took place in the party over the solving of the numerous national problems inherited from old Czarist Russia. In his capacity as People’s Commissar of Nationalities, Stalin invariably represented the most centralist and bureaucratic tendency. This evinced itself especially on the question of Georgia and on the question of the Ukraine. The correspondence dealing with these matters has remained unpublished to this day. We hope to publish a section of it – the very small section which is at our disposal. Every line of Lenin’s letters and proposals vibrates with an urge to accede as far as possible to those nationalities that have been oppressed in the past. In the proposals and declarations of Stalin, on the contrary, the tendency toward bureaucratic centralism was invariably pronounced. In order to guarantee “administrative needs,” i.e., the interests of the bureaucracy, the most legitimate claims of the oppressed nationalities were declared a manifestation of petty-bourgeois nationalism. All these symptoms could be observed as early as 1922-23. Since that time they have developed monstrously and have led to outright strangulation of any kind of independent national development of the peoples of the USSR.

The Bolshevik Conception of Soviet Ukraine

In the conception of the old Bolshevik party Soviet Ukraine was destined to become a powerful axis around which the other sections of the Ukrainian people would unite. It is indisputable that in the first period of its existence Soviet Ukraine exerted a mighty attractive force, in national respects as well, and aroused to struggle the workers, peasants, and revolutionary intelligentsia of Western Ukraine enslaved by Poland. But during the years of Thermidorian reaction, the position of Soviet Ukraine and together with it the posing of the Ukrainian question as a whole changed sharply. The more profound the hopes aroused, the keener was the disillusionment. The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence. To the totalitarian bureaucracy, Soviet Ukraine became an administrative division of an economic unit and a military base of the USSR. To be sure, the Stalin bureaucracy erects statues to Shevchenko but only in order more thoroughly to crush the Ukrainian people under their weight and to force it to chant paeans in the language of Kobzar to the rapist clique in the Kremlin.
Toward the sections of the Ukraine now outside its frontiers, the Kremlin’s attitude today is the same as it is toward all oppressed nationalities, all colonies, and semi-colonies, i.e., small change in its international combinations with imperialist governments. At the recent 18th Congress of the “Communist Party,” Manuilsky, one of the most revolting renegades of Ukrainian communism, quite openly explained that not only the USSR but also the Comintern (the “gyp-joint,” according to Stalin’s formulation) refused to demand the emancipation of oppressed peoples whenever their oppressors are not the enemies of the ruling Moscow clique. India is nowadays being defended by Stalin, Dimitrov and Manuilsky against – Japan, but not against England. Western Ukraine they are ready to cede forever to Poland in exchange for a diplomatic agreement which appears profitable at the present time to the bureaucrats of the Kremlin. It is a far cry from the days when they went no further than episodic combinations in their politics.

Stalin, Hitler and the Ukraine

Not a trace remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the Western Ukrainian masses for the Kremlin. Since the latest murderous “purge” in the Ukraine no one in the West wants to become part of the Kremlin satrapy which continues to bear the name of Soviet Ukraine. The worker and peasant masses in the Western Ukraine, in Bukovina, in the Carpatho-Ukraine are in a state of confusion: Where to turn? What to demand? This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their “nationalism” by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence. Upon this tragic confusion Hitler bases his policy in the Ukrainian question. At one time we said: but for Stalin (i.e., but for the fatal policy of the Comintern in Germany) there would have been no Hitler. To this can now be added: but for the rape of Soviet Ukraine by the Stalinist bureaucracy there would be no Hitlerite Ukrainian policy.
We shall not pause here to analyze the motives that impelled Hitler to discard, for the time being at least, the slogan of a Greater Ukraine. These motives must be sought in the fraudulent combinations of German imperialism on the one hand and on the other in the fear of conjuring up an evil spirit whom it might be difficult to exorcize. Hitler gave Carpatho-Ukraine as a gift to the Hungarian butchers. This was done, if not with Moscow’s open approval then in any case with confidence that approval would be forthcoming. It is as if Hitler had said to Stalin: “If I were preparing to attack Soviet Ukraine tomorrow I should have kept Carpatho-Ukraine in my own hands.” In reply, Stalin at the 18th Party Congress openly came to Hitler’s defense against the slanders of the “Western Democracies.” Hitler intends to attack the Ukraine? Nothing of the sort! Fight with Hitler? Not the slightest reason for it. Stalin is obviously interpreting the handing over of Carpatho-Ukraine to Hungary as an act of peace.

For a Free, Independent Soviet Ukraine!

This means that sections of the Ukrainian people have become so much small change for the Kremlin in its international calculations. The Fourth International must clearly understand the enormous importance of the Ukrainian question in the fate not only of Southeastern and Eastern Europe but also of Europe as a whole. We are dealing with a people that has proved its viability, that is numerically equal to the population of France and occupies an exceptionally rich territory which, moreover, is of the highest strategical importance. The question of the fate of the Ukraine has been posed in its full scope. A clear and definite slogan is necessary that corresponds to the new situation. In my opinion there can be at the present time only one such slogan: A united, free and independent workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine.
This program is in irreconcilable contradiction first of all with the interests of the three imperialist powers, Poland, Rumania, and Hungary. Only hopeless pacifist blockheads are capable of thinking that the emancipation and unification of the Ukraine can be achieved by peaceful diplomatic means, by referendums, by decisions of the League of Nations, etc. In no way superior to them of course are those “nationalists” who propose to solve the Ukrainian question by entering the service of one imperialism against another. Hitler gave an invaluable lesson to those adventurers by tossing (for how long?) Carpatho-Ukraine to the Hungarians who immediately slaughtered not a few trusting Ukrainians. Insofar as the issue depends upon the military strength of the imperialist states, the victory of one grouping or another can signify only a new dismemberment and a still more brutal subjugation of the Ukrainian people, The program of independence for the Ukraine in the epoch of imperialism is directly and indissolubly bound up with the program of the proletarian revolution. It would be criminal to entertain any illusions on this score.

Soviet Constitution Admits Right of Self-Determination

But the independence of a United Ukraine would mean the separation of Soviet Ukraine from the USSR, the “friends” of the Kremlin will exclaim in chorus. What is so terrible about that? – we reply. The fervid worship of state boundaries is alien to us. We do not hold the position of a “united and indivisible” whole. After all, even the constitution of the USSR acknowledges the right of its component federated peoples to self-determination, that is, to separation. Thus, not even the incumbent Kremlin oligarchy dares to deny this principle. To be sure it remains only on paper. The slightest attempt to raise the question of an independent Ukraine openly would mean immediate execution on the charge of treason. But it is precisely this despicable equivocation, it is precisely this ruthless hounding of all free national thought that has led the toiling masses of the Ukraine, to an even greater degree than the masses of Great Russia, to look upon the rule of the Kremlin as monstrously oppressive. In the face of such an internal situation it is naturally impossible even to talk of Western Ukraine Voluntarily joining the USSR as it is at present constituted. Consequently, the unification of the Ukraine presupposes freeing the so-called Soviet Ukraine from the Stalinist boot. In this matter, too, the Bonapartist clique will reap what it has sown.
But wouldn’t this mean the military weakening of the USSR? – the “friends” of the Kremlin will howl in horror. We reply that the weakening of the USSR is caused by those ever-growing centrifugal tendencies generated by the Bonapartist dictatorship. In the event of war the hatred of the masses for the ruling clique can lead to the collapse of all the social conquests of October. The source of defeatist moods is in the Kremlin. An independent Soviet Ukraine, on the other hand, would become, if only by virtue of its own interests, a mighty southwestern bulwark of the USSR. The sooner the present Bonapartist caste is undermined, upset, crushed and swept away, the firmer the defense of the Soviet Republic will become and the more certain its socialist future.

Against Imperialism and Moscow Bonapartism

Naturally an independent workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine might subsequently join the Soviet Federation; but voluntarily, on conditions which it itself considers acceptable, which in turn presupposes a revolutionary regeneration of the USSR. The genuine emancipation of the Ukrainian people is inconceivable without a revolution or a series of revolutions in the West which must lead in the end to the creation of the Soviet United States of Europe. An independent Ukraine could and “undoubtedly will join this federation as an equal member. The proletarian revolution in Europe, in turn, would not leave one stone standing of the revolting structure of Stalinist Bonapartism. In that case the closest union of the Soviet United States of Europe and the regenerated USSR would be inevitable and would present infinite advantages for the European and Asiatic continents, including of course the Ukraine too. But here we are shifting to questions of second and third order. The question of first order is the revolutionary guarantee of I the unity and- independence of a workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine in the struggle against imperialist on the one hand, and against Moscow Bonapartism on the other.
The Ukraine is especially rich and experienced in false paths of struggle for national emancipation. Here everything has been tried: the petty-bourgeois Rada, and Skoropadski, and Petlura, and “alliance” with the Hohenzollerns and combinations with the Entente. After all these experiments, only political cadavers can continue to place hope in party one of the fractions of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie as the leader of the national struggle for emancipation. The Ukrainian proletariat alone is capable not only of solving the task – which is revolutionary in its very essence – but also of taking the initiative for its solution. The proletariat and only the proletariat can rally around itself the peasant masses and the genuinely revolutionary national intelligentsia.
At the beginning of the last imperialist war the Ukrainians, Melenevski (“Basok”) and Skoropis-Yeltukhovski, attempted to place the Ukrainian liberation movement under the wing of the Hohenzollern general, Ludendorff. They covered themselves in so doing with left phrases. With one kick the revolutionary Marxists booted these people out. That is how revolutionists must continue to behave in the future. The impending war will create a favorable atmosphere for all sorts of adventurers, miracle-hunters and seekers of the golden fleece. These gentlemen, who especially love to warm their hands in the vicinity of the national question, must not be allowed within artillery range of the labor movement. Not the slightest compromise with imperialism, either fascist or democratic! Not the slightest concession to the Ukrainian nationalists, either clerical-reactionary or liberal-pacifist! No “People’s Fronts”! The complete independence of the proletarian party as the vanguard of the toilers!

For an International Discussion

This appears to me the correct policy in the Ukrainian question. I speak here personally and in my own name. The question must be opened up to international discussion. The foremost place in this discussion must belong to the Ukrainian revolutionary Marxists. We shall listen with the greatest attention to their voices. But they had better make haste. There is little time left for preparation!
April 22, 1939


Last updated on: 17 March 2009