This is an individual statement of an AngryWorker comrade. We don’t have a collective position on all aspects of the current war and how to relate to it, but we think that the controversy around it is still productive and worth sharing with others.
In continuation of the discussion on the war in Ukraine I want to think about three texts, written by comrades whose opinions I tend to respect, who call in one form or the other for the support of the ‘armed resistance’ in Ukraine.
The first text was written by an AngryWorker comrade in response to my subjective summary of our internal debate. He mainly refers to the example of armed working class resistance during the Yugoslav war and asks us to search for the working class core within the bourgeois-nationalist shell.
The second text was published by a close comrade from People and Nature. He urges us to see the war in Ukraine as a war between unequal sides and tactically supports the continuation of arms supply for Ukraine and the fact that western activists fight against the Russian army.
The third text is from comrades of Mouvement Communiste who argue that the resistance has to be seen as an armed democratic movement and that the imperialist war can only be turned into class war if the war continues, while both the Ukrainian and Russian state get weakened.
* Looking for the working class core within the national resistance?
“The problem is that all inter-imperialist wars always contain within them the war between classes. In each situation, militants have to try to understand how these two different wars are overlaid – and this can be very difficult in situations where the working class has no clear voice of its own.”
The comrade’s contribution was written as a direct reply to my subjective summary of our discussion so far. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t really relate to the issues discussed e.g. the question of whether we have to see the resistance in Ukraine as a form of immediate self-defense, or rather as a defense of future liberties, or as mere pawns within an inner-imperialist conflict – or perhaps all of it at once! Instead the comrade uses the example of the Yugoslav war and the resistance in Tuzla as evidence that a default ‘no war but the class war’ position prevents an investigation of what is actually happening on the ground.
I have two problems here. One is the thought that referring to historical lessons or general structural conditions necessarily prevents us from concrete investigation. The working class movement has learnt a few things about nationalist conflicts, imperialist or other state wars. Like wage work, parliamentary democracy or patriarchal nuclear families, we can say something general about their role within capitalism and their impact on working class emancipation. You don’t face any phenomena without a political thought. Knowing about the limited use or even detrimental impact of parliamentary politics for workers’ emancipation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t concretely investigate what parties are standing for election and what outcome the victory of this or that party would have for future struggles. I had the feeling that within AngryWorkers we try to square this – referring to historical lessons and positions from a general class perspective and at the same time trying to understand the particular conditions that workers face concretely.
The second problem is that by using a concrete example, the example of the resistance of a multi-ethnic working class enclave during the Yugoslav war, without really comparing it to the situation in Ukraine today, the comrade commits the same error that he accuses us of: a lack of actual investigation. As far as I can see, there are no real equivalents to the situation in Tuzla. If, for example, the mining and steel workers in the East of Ukraine would defend ‘their communities’ both against the military occupation of the Russian state and the Ukrainian state army as an armed force of further neoliberal reforms, then perhaps we would have a parallel. The recent curbs on trade union rights by the Ukrainian state and the long track record of neoliberal reforms aided by, amongst many others, the British state, are proof enough that working class communities would have an interest in opposing ‘their’ state. That doesn’t seem to be the case. There is no ‘workers third position’ such as in Tuzla.
There also wasn’t any ‘popular movement’ in Ukraine previous to the war that could be compared to the recent uprising in Kazakhstan. The movement of the Maidan in 2014 has long been integrated into the (geo-)political strategies of both the Russian and Ukrainian state and their allies. Neither does it seem to be the case in Ukraine that armed resistance was an immediate necessity in the face of potential ethnic genocide, as it was in a few escalated situations during the war in Yugoslavia. There is enough evidence that armed resistance in the current form of open warfare in Ukraine will have increased the likelihood of mass destruction such as in Mariupol. The other major difference is the type of warfare. During the Yugoslav war you might have gotten somewhere with an AK47 as an independent workers unit. In the current war, the level of technology used, from anti-tank missiles to hypersonic weapons to telecommunication attacks, is largely outside of the reach of ‘workers’ independent units’. In this sense, you might find individual workers who fight with their own motivations, such as future liberties, but under objective conditions which prevent the possibility of breaking out from the nationalist and imperialist interests of the warring parties – more about whether or not they are ‘equal sides’ later on.
The comrade also writes about the general mood of solidarity and outrage here in the UK or other European countries that we should be able to relate to. Sure, the generally supportive attitude towards refugees is positive and it would even be more positive if it was expressed in the same way to refugees from non-European countries. In general, I think there is no lack of solidarity ‘with Ukraine’. From the corporate world to the Trot sects, from the far-right to the liberals. Do we need to enter that chorus? During the time of the anti-Apartheid struggle the comrade himself didn’t join the general ANC flag-wavers, but supported the working class elements that criticised the politics of the ANC. Why now propagate a myth of ‘popular resistance’ in Ukraine if we haven’t actually found any working class initiatives on the ground? I feel that the absence of a peace movement and the ease with which large parts of the so-called left – from the Green Party in Germany to ‘Left Labour’ hacks like Paul Mason in the UK – call for rearmament ‘against Russia’ makes it even more important to reiterate that we won’t pay for their crisis and wars.
* Equal sides or lesser evils?
“Fourth, as a movement we can put demands on our own government or any other government, but we do not have to play the game of solving capitalist politicians’ problems for them. Take, most urgently, Ukraine’s call for a no-fly zone. I know why many Ukrainian friends, whose cities are being pulverised by Russian bombs, support it. It personally scares me, because it brings the prospect of a widening conflict, and I would find it difficult to vote for – although I would support the delivery of weapons to Ukraine in the present circumstances.”
“Nevertheless, our movement must support our Ukrainian friends who join territorial defence units, and the young people in anti-fascist milieu across Europe – hundreds, I suspect – who are travelling to Ukraine to join the resistance to Russia.”
I think the comrade sets up a bit of a straw man by claiming that the ‘anti-imperialist’ left explains the Russian state’s attack simply as a direct reaction to Nato expansion (and therefore defends Russia’s right to invade). Some might do that, but to criticise them is an easy task. In response he wants to make clear that there are no ‘equal sides’ in this war, that Russia is the aggressor. Should we read this as a moral statement? Or as a description of the uneven military power of both sides? When would there ever be ‘equal sides’?
If we see the dispute as part of the divisions and tensions of a global state system, a teetering US hegemony and a stalled ascent of Chinese global influence, then talking about equal or unequal sides doesn’t make much sense. The US has lost its industrial hegemony and has to use foreign policy in order to defend its financial sphere of influence. Therefore, one of the US state’s major concerns is to maintain its influence in Europe, last but not least by isolating Russia, in which Nato expansion plays a significant, but not singular role. Ukraine is one region where these spheres of influences and conflicting interests clash. On the global scale the Russian state is less able than other states to secure and extend its influence financially or through industrial investments. The EU has managed to integrate the Ukrainian economy through supply-chains, e.g. for the automobile industry, through labour migration and military cooperation. For Russia to attack militarily can be explained less through its inner ‘aggressive imperial nature’ than through its weak global position and the weak position of the government vis-a-vis its own working class, for whom ‘nationalism’ and an external enemy has to compensate for a lack of welfare and material development. It is the particular composition of its capitalist economy, e.g. the high degree of concentration of capital and wealth after the ‘privatisation’ and the heavy dependence on oil, gas and the military complex, that tends to require semi-dictatorial state forms. The talk of ‘regime change’ without a fundamental change of class relations is naive at best and ‘war propaganda’ at worst. That doesn’t make the aggression less brutal and doesn’t help the victims, but this is not the level on which we discuss this.
But does that mean that we can distinguish between a militarily aggressive ‘weak capitalist power’ and a peaceful ‘developed capitalism’? Seen from a global system level you cannot detach ‘Russia’s aggression’ from the US interventions in the Middle East, the murderous ‘fortress Europe’, the Chinese forced labour camps and land-grabs in Africa. Where are the equal sides here? The fact that the Russian army has a tough time in Ukraine is not mainly due to the valiant nature and patriotic courage of its citizens, like the government wants us to believe, but due to the extreme degree of militarisation through Nato states before the war broke out, meaning that Nato states could provide timely weapons, training and intelligence to the Ukrainian army. To speak of ’sides’ in a global context is also questionable when we see that despite all the preaching about martyrdom for the fatherland, the Ukrainian government still continues oil and gas deals with Russia, as both countries depend on it, either as a supplier or as a receiver of fees. In this global system, allegiances shift quickly, not according to democratic values, but the value of money, as, for example, the US now considers oil deals with the former ‘evil state’ Venezuela in compensation for lacking oil from Russia.
Does that mean we remain silent, or not condemn the attack by the Russian state? It doesn’t. But it does mean that we should also focus on the fact that in the current system, war is an integral part of politics by all state powers and workers should do what they can to avoid fighting their bosses’ wars. The author draws different conclusions and supports the supply of weapons to the Ukrainian state and left activists fighting against the invasion of the Russian army. Is this because he thinks that ‘once we are in it we have to get through it’ and that more weapons for the Ukrainian army now will shorten the war and avoid costs of lives in future? This remains unclear. What is clear, and this makes the demand for the continuation of arms supplies so dangerous, is that the US, and to a certain extent the UK government, have an interest in a continuation of the war. They aim at creating another Afghanistan for Russia, to set an example for China/Taiwan and to drip-feed more weapons into the region. This will cost tens of thousands of lives.
Whoever supports the continuation of the war through weapon supply will have to explain why it is worth risking further deaths and atrocities – the author does this by speaking of a ‘peoples’ war’ in Ukraine and a ‘revolutionary movement’ in Syria. While there was a popular uprising in Syria, it was quickly quelled and the warlords of all sides, from ISIS to tribal gangs, took over. Whether or not we can speak of a ‘peoples’ war’ in Ukraine also concerns the last contribution, see below. I think that calling the war in Ukraine a ‘peoples’ war’ is a dangerous mystification. I honestly think that most working class people are trying to avoid getting drawn into this ‘peoples’ war’. In 2017 alone nearly 700,000 people have left (western) Ukraine towards the EU, hundreds of thousands more since then, plus 2 – 3 million who have left the country since the war started. Has there ever been a war or invasion in history where people reacted by immediate flight to such an extent? How many returned to fight? Last figures were 80,000. This would require more investigation – how many people actually ‘join up’, what impact does the conscription have (and to talk about a ‘peoples’ war’ under condition of conscription is problematic, I think).
Does the term ‘peoples’ war’ make sense in general? Perhaps the Vietnam war or the partisan war against Nazi occupation in Italy or Greece. These were perhaps ‘peoples’ wars in the sense of form (guerrilla) and content (promise of social redistribution), but we should be aware of how, in the end, ’the people’ were used against ’the workers’ by the actual leadership who controlled the material reproduction of the army. As far as I can see, we are not even close to such a situation in Ukraine today. The next thing on the agenda for the Ukrainian government after the war is over will most likely be further liberalisation of the land property rights, which they can now sell as ’necessary concessions towards our benefactors’.
The tactical support for weapon supplies also leaves us exposed when it comes to the home front. While in France and Spain people protest in their thousands against energy price increases, in countries like Germany, with a left-green government which is able to use ‘lefty’ pro-war talk, the rise in energy costs is sold as a ‘solidarity payment’ to finance the sanctions against Russia.
* An armed movement for democracy?
“The resistance in the larger sense must thus be read as an armed democracy movement. Patriotism is the binding and constitutes the main limit of this movement.”
“In Ukraine, as anywhere else when capitalist armed conflicts break out, the scenario which is objectively the most favourable to class war stifling capitalist war would be that of a war which continues, accompanied by growing losses in the Russian ranks and where the popular resistance entirely and definitively takes the place of the regular Ukrainian army.”
To me it seems the comrades try to siphon social reality through pretty old-school Leninist categories, such as ‘democratic movements’ or ‘civil war’. I really don’t see how the ‘resistance’ could gain the upper-hand over the Ukrainian state through the continuation of the war, as its continuation entirely depends on Nato weapons and logistical supplies. ‘Democracy’ clearly dies with the continuation of the war, as we can see with the recent bans of political parties, war laws curbing trade union rights, streamlining of the media and arbitrary punishments of ‘plunderers’ in Ukraine. It completely leaves out a more detailed picture of what actually tends to happen during continuous warfare, in terms of militarisation of society, the deepening of sexist divisions, sexual violence, trauma and general brutalisation. We can see that both sides consider or actually start to use all kinds of mercenaries – from Islamists on the Ukraine side to Syrian conscripts on the Russian side – in order to guarantee the continuation of the war.
The comrades also speak nonchalantly about ‘losses on the Russian side’, as if we wouldn’t know more about the composition of the Russian army by now: largely young soldiers on 1-year contracts from smaller towns, often oblivious to where they are going and why. This doesn’t mean that they will just turn their weapons once you greet them with a bunch of flowers. The question is how you can fight a military occupation or police state ‘on workers’ terms’, without risking mass carnage and alliances which tie you to imperial powers and oligarch finance. History provides ample examples of workers being able to organise strikes, guerrilla warfare or social non-cooperation against dictatorships.
As a collective we need to be able to debate these issues. ‘Workers’ internationalism’ is not something defined in everlasting principles. At the same time, having diverging points of views should not lead to paralysis. If some comrades say that airport workers who refuse to load weapons for the Ukrainian army are on the side of reaction and others use it as an example of workers’ control and class consciousness, then we are in a pickle, which cannot be solved merely by investigating whether or not the airport workers’ union has Stalinist ties. In the end the question is if we have really broken with the leftist framework, which is willing to subsume workers to ‘progressive aims’ or ‘historical missions’ via the vehicle of the state.
We should end any debate about the war with the question: what can be done? There are some initiatives most of us can support, despite other disagreements, such as this trade union convoy from France…
Or the organising efforts of women care workers from Ukraine working in Poland, aided by our comrades from Workers’ Initiative…