Friday, April 22, 2022

War in the Ukraine: the socialist response, Part III

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Hospital in Mariupol destroyed by Russian missile

The enemy is nationalism  by Frank Brenner

Note: This is the third and concluding part of a series on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Link to Part I

Link to Part II

This war is a brutal demonstration of the reactionary essence of nationalism. Putin’s rationale for the invasion is ‘Eurasianism’, but this isn’t much more than a Slavophile variant of right-wing populism. Instead of Trump’s MAGA, Putin is pushing to Make Russia Great Again. Of course there are many differences in the details and in Trump and Putin’s back stories, but the political thrust is similar. Two critical factors are at play here: neoliberal capitalism mired in crisis since its 2008 heart attack, generating ever greater levels of social inequality, and a politically atomized working class. This has made for the political vacuum that right wing populism exploits with nationalism, which lets you rail against ‘elites’ and ‘globalism’ but never against global capitalism; and lets you appeal to a collective identity based on nationality or language, religion, race etc., but never based on class. Populist nationalism is designed to harness the widespread sense of grievance of the masses in order to direct it against scapegoats. Since it can’t end or even lessen class exploitation and social inequality, populist nationalism’s objective is constantly to restoke that sense of grievance. Conspiracy theories are tailor made for such a political agenda, and they thrive in the toxic atmosphere of social media. Ultimately the only way out of this deadlock (short of socialist revolution) is an eruption of murderous violence: populism turns into the annihilation of the populace, or at least of those ‘others’ set up as scapegoats: immigrants, minorities, Muslims, Jews, gays and lesbians, Roma people, socialists. Directed outwards, as for instance when ‘Make Russia Great Again’ collides with ‘Make American Great Again’, that violence manifests as war.

It is a defining feature of our times that humanity faces existential threats (the pandemic, climate catastrophe and now the renewed threat of nuclear war) that can only be overcome through global cooperation. And yet the establishment politics of every capitalist society resists that – and the more pressing the need for that cooperation, the more tenacious the resistance, even to the point of blowing up the world.

Unpack the Ukraine war, and on every side, you find imperialist and nationalist insanity. This is as true of NATO’s aggression against Russia as it is of Putin’s filthy war. It is also true of Ukraine’s own politics, which since the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 has offered nothing to Ukrainian workers and young people apart from broken promises, widespread corruption and the unbroken dominance of oligarchs, no matter which political clique is in power. In all these years the only substantive issue has been choosing which imperialist master Ukraine will submit to. No doubt many workers and middle class people have illusions in the European Union, as was the case in many eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, discriminatory policies by the post-Maidan regimes in Kiev have alienated Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country; indeed had the invasion not happened, there was a good chance the current president, Zelensky, would have lost the next election to a candidate whose base of support was from those regions, joined by a sizable number of disaffected Ukrainian speakers. Not that such a result would have achieved much more than tilting the political balance of Ukraine a bit towards Russia and away from the West, and in any case that possibility has now been foreclosed by the invasion. You get the impression of a country caught between two dead-ends, shuffling from one to the other with every election cycle. The invasion has generated fervent patriotic unity around Zelensky, but that probably won’t last very long after the trauma of the war is over.

In the West the mainstream political narrative is that this is a war of good versus evil, in Russia it’s the same with the sides reversed. Bob Dylan’s fine antiwar ballad, With God on Our Side, was written in reaction to the Vietnam War, but its message is still relevant. Each stanza covers a different American war, always with the bitterly ironic refrain that we had “God on Our Side”. Here’s the stanza on the Cold War, which sounds eerily prescient today:

I've learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

You could think of Dylan’s song as being a riff on a famous line coined by Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” The powers-that-be have never been comfortable with this bit of unvarnished truth, but it applies full force to all the major actors in the Ukraine war. Why did Putin invade? Certainly security concerns about NATO and the imperialist ambitions of Russian capitalism were primary reasons but it’s also clear that domestic political considerations played a significant role. Putin only won his last election through widespread voter fraud, and the measures his government has taken since, especially the wholesale downsizing of the public pensions system, were hugely unpopular. In light of that, it seems evident that Putin is a patriotic scoundrel looking to solidify his precarious hold on power by taking refuge in a war. But this is also true of Joe Biden. His domestic agenda is stalled in Congress, his poll numbers are way down because of inflation and there is every likelihood that his party will lose badly in this year’s mid-term elections, which in turn will leave him a lame-duck president. And so, while the geo-political interests of US imperialism were undoubtedly the key factor in shaping US policy, Biden is yet another patriotic scoundrel who finds it convenient at this time to take refuge in a war, at least by proxy. And finally there is the Ukrainian president Zelensky, also facing a likely electoral defeat. Before the final crisis that led to war, his government had become increasingly reckless and provocative in its relations with Russia, particularly with its sabotaging of the Minsk II agreements, which were supposed to defuse the bloody stand-off in the Donbass region. (Socialists in Ukraine who criticized Zelensky on this score eventually had their organizations banned and their publications suppressed.) Zelensky also threatened to abandon the Budapest Accord of 1994, which raised the prospect of Ukraine re-acquiring nuclear weapons. Zelensky may have been bluffing about this, but it was the rhetorical equivalent of playing with matches in a room full of open gasoline cans.

And that is the point. It’s not that the individual motives of these leaders are decisive on their own, it’s rather that the politics of nationalism and the economics of global capitalism have saturated the world with dangerously toxic fumes. Each leader pursues their own national and political self-interest, each sees their policies as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘realistic’ – and yet the end result is mass slaughter, cities turned to rubble and the nightmare prospect of nuclear war. It is the revolutionary socialists, for so long disparaged as hopeless utopians, who are the only true realists. To operate as a ‘pragmatist’ inside a lethal social system is to become an enabler of apocalypse.

A few words about the right of nations to self-determination. Socialists defend that as a democratic right, and those leftists who support Putin’s invasion are betraying socialist principles. But for socialists, democratic rights are not abstractions or absolutes. We are ‘class reductionists’, a term of abuse directed at Marxists by the identity politics crowd which we should proudly plead guilty to. Democratic rights can’t be defended outside the struggle against capitalism. Separate the two and you end up, to take a striking example, like Black Lives Matter, a mass protest movement against racism that was co-opted by political and corporate elites with breathtaking ease.

The Ukrainian masses will never be able to determine their own future within a capitalist Europe. Hopes for a better life through membership in the European Union are misplaced, more a matter of glitzy pop culture images and bourgeois political propaganda than hard facts. Many in eastern Europe now look back on the Soviet era with some nostalgia for a time when social necessities like health care and access to education were guaranteed, despite the heavy hand of Stalinist state repression. If Ukrainian workers want to see what their future in the EU would be like, they need only look at the economic shock therapy imposed on Greece in 2015. Here is our description at the time of what Greek workers and middle class people were facing:


The country's debt is 180 percent of its GDP. That is a staggering number, far beyond the realm of the reasonable. You could think of it this way: if everyone in Greece worked for nearly two years but CONSUMED NOTHING, that would repay the debt. Of course, they'd all be dead because they couldn't buy any food. It's almost as if we're in Alice in Wonderland territory, except the story line is much starker and far less entertaining. Of course, that isn't quite what the European elites are demanding of Greece. No, all they want the Greek government to do is generate a 2% or 3% annual surplus for the foreseeable future, with that surplus being skimmed off to repay the banks. Which sounds reasonable, except it would be the kind of reason only Alice's Queen of Hearts would appreciate. It means the government will be stripped of all its disposable income: it will have nothing to reinvest in a country that has already endured a depression for six years and where official unemployment sits at 25%. It will mean, in other words, ongoing austerity for the foreseeable future. How long is that future? Here is an answer from a recent comment by the BBC's economics editor Robert Peston: “It would take around half a century for Greek public sector debt to fall to a level regarded as sustainable.” Then Peston adds: “A half century of austerity? In what modern democracy would that be regarded as a realistic option?” [1]


Seven years later not much has changed: Greece remains in a state of perpetual debt peonage. In the event of a global recession, which is all but certain as a result of the Ukraine war and the sanctions against Russia, economies like Greece will face collapse and its government will have hardly any resources to cushion the impact. Or look at the United States, the world’s richest country, where the income of billionaires rises exponentially while 40 percent of Americans – 130 million people – don’t have $400 in the bank if needed for an emergency. This is the grim reality behind the shiny fantasies of the American Dream.

Given all that, we can draw a clear conclusion: national self-determination without socialism is nationalism. And that can only produce the grotesque social inequalities of oligarch rule and lead eventually to the horrors of fascism and war. For nations to be truly free, they must be free of capitalism. So the paradox is that self-determination can only be achieved in opposition to nationalism. Traditionally the socialist alternative to the EU has been expressed in the slogan: For a United Socialist States of Europe! It’s an ideal that needs to be revived as a rallying cry for workers throughout Europe.

 A comment by Alex Steiner


But how do we get from the embrace of nationalism to international class solidarity?  That is a question that is never asked by those who - in words only - oppose Ukrainian nationalism.  I think Trotsky had something relevant to say about this, when writing in a different context in 1939, he derided sectarians who were opposed to the right of Ukraine to self-determination.   He wrote,


The sectarian simply ignores the fact that the national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution. With their eyes turned away from the USSR, and failing to receive support and leadership from the international proletariat, the petty-bourgeois and even working-class masses of Western Ukraine are falling victim to reactionary demagogy. Similar processes are undoubtedly also taking place in the Soviet Ukraine, only it is more difficult to lay them bare. The slogan of an independent Ukraine advanced in time by the proletarian vanguard will lead to the unavoidable stratification of the petty bourgeoisie and render it easier for its lower tiers to ally themselves with the proletariat. Only thus is it possible to prepare the proletarian revolution.[2]


In the context of today's invasion of the Ukraine by an imperialist Russia, it is incumbent on the revolutionary left to be the most consistent supporters of Ukraine's right to self-determination and resist Putin's invasion. This is crucial in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian masses who are currently largely under the sway of right wing and fascist forces. At the same time the revolutionary left must warn the Ukrainian masses about the alternative trap of aligning themselves with U.S. imperialism and NATO. The slogan of the day must be ‘neither Moscow nor Washington but an independent socialist Ukraine as a step toward the United Socialist States of Europe.’ That Is the only way to concretize the struggle for internationalism and overcome the destructive force of nationalism.




Karin Hilpisch said...

I decidedly disagree with the position that the U.S. and Russia are playing analogous roles in the Ukraine war; I’m opposed to an attitude worthy of Solomon, assigning an equal share of blame to both sides.

Taking a different point of view on this issue is possible independently of expressing any support for Putin, as is demonstrated, e.g., by American political scientist John Mearsheimer, apparently a left-leaning, non-socialist scholar. If you, Frank, or Alex have any information on Mearsheimer enjoying a reputation as willfully blind apologist for Putin, I’d appreciate your pointing it out to me.

Since I haven’t been able to find online any freely available text by Mearsheimer, I’m transcribing below some statements from one of his talks, the upshot of his detailed analysis of the background of the war.

He says,
“It is of tremendous importance to understand who caused this situation because it involves assigning blame. (…) The question of who caused it and who bears the blame really matters. (…) Whoever you argue caused the crisis is responsible for this disaster.(…) In my opinion the West bears primary responsibility for what is happening today. (…) There‘s no question the Russians are doing the dirty work — I don‘t want to make light of that fact — but the question is, what caused the Russians to do this? In my opinion, the answer is very simple: the United States of America.” (1)

(1) The title of tthe YouTube video is,
“John Mearsheimer Ukraine-Russia 2022 Analysis”


Anonymous said...

You do a nice job listing the provocations of Ukraine against Russia, yet, by labeling Russia imperialist your concern is only for Ukrainians enjoying true self determination under socialism! What about the plight of Russian speakers in Ukraine? What kind of imperialist waits 8 years to attack Ukraine? It seems to me that Putin is a reluctant imperialist because he took his time responding to NATO provocation.The man is reactionary but he ended up doing the same thing Trotsky and Lenin did by going to war with Poland in 1918-1920 because geo-politics doesn't care about ideology. The Russians did what they have always done when attacked by Western forces.

Alex Steiner said...

Reply to Karin,

As Marxists, unlike Mr. Mearsheimer, we are not looking for who is blameworthy in the current conflict. That is a moral approach to war that has nothing to do with an objective evaluation of the dynamics in the current conflict. We ask the question of what is the nature of the participants in this conflict and how do they interact within the context of the global economic and political system of capitalism. Above all we try to understand the underlying class forces at work in these conflicts and what kind of response is required in order to strengthen international class solidarity in the struggle for a socialist United States of Europe. Mr. Mearsheimer, does not share these concerns as he is not and does not pretend to be a Marxist. Mr. Mearsheimer may perhaps have some important facts about the conflict that could help in developing an overall assessment, but his methodological approach of trying to decide who is to blame is something I would leave to Sunday school teachers.

Alex Steiner said...

Reply to Anonymous:

This slur on Lenin and Trotsky, comparing them to Putin, without even the pretense of an explanation, is typical of the kind of anti-communist drivel that populates social media. Nothing more need be said.

Anonymous said...

How is it a slur to point out that Lenin an Trotsky did attack Poland after the Poles invaded Russia? It is a fact, something you seem to be allergic to. Your claim that I didn't even pretend to explain their motivation is nonsense. They attacked Poland after Poland attacked them, Trotsky hoped that the red army would be in a position to provide military aide to a communist insurrection in Germany after conquering Poland. We both know that didn't happen. Let's get back to the current war. Your claim of 'Russian imperialism' is nonsense since Putin let Ukraine deal with its problems for eight years, another fact you seem allergic to. What kind of imperialist, avid for markets, waits that long to move in on his victim? Putin, in my opinion, has turned Stalin's "Socialism in one Country" into "Capitalism in one Country". This worldview is based on the fact that Russia is big enough to develop based on its resources. I find it bizarre that you should concern yourself with the 'independence' of Ukraine in light of your awareness of the influence people like Victoria Nuland wield over the political class of that nation. Your 'discovery' of 'Russian imperialism' seems to me to be a fig leaf to hide that reality.