Ukraine & the Left

Revolutionary defeatism & workers’ internationalism

7 March 2022

The war in Ukraine is a pivotal moment in world affairs, and its repercussions in geopolitics and the domestic economic and political life of Europe and beyond will be felt for years to come. Marxists have a responsibility to analyze global politics and advance a revolutionary perspective to prepare the international working class for its historic task of overturning capitalism and rebuilding society along socialist-egalitarian lines. War is therefore an acid test for the socialist left, which has responded to the outbreak of hostilities in a variety of ways—most of which fail miserably to outline a revolutionary response.

On 24 February, the day that Russia moved into Ukraine after years of threats and encroachments from the West, we noted:

“The incursions into Ukraine and the provocations that preceded them are the inevitable result of great power rivalry in the imperialist epoch. While we reject Moscow’s move, we denounce in the strongest possible terms the actions of the Western imperialist powers that have brought Europe to the brink of a wider conflagration.”
—“NATO Provokes Russian Attack on Ukraine

We called for “the defeat of all imperialist powers, first and foremost one’s ‘own’ ruling class, advocating actions by the trade unions and workers’ movement to sabotage military deployments, transportation, arms manufacture and communications.” A few weeks earlier, at an online forum, we had emphasized that “for Leninists in any particular imperialist country, ‘the main enemy is at home’”:

“Revolutionary socialists living in the US, Britain and other imperialist NATO member states denounce the NATO war machine and call for the defeat of ‘our’ imperialist ruling class in any military conflict, regardless of who or what triggers it.”
—“NATO Imperialists Escalate Ukraine Crisis,” 30 January 2022

Russia is an imperialist power to which socialists can give no military support (see “Imperialist Rivalries Escalate,” 1917 No.41), but the IBT is currently based in the West and has no Russian section. It is therefore our task to focus our political fire entirely at the ruling classes of the Western imperialist countries and advocate their military defeat through the mobilization of the working class.

The United States and its allies in the European Union, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand oversee a crumbling global capitalist order and are determined to block the growing strength of Russia as well as break the power of the Chinese deformed workers’ state via the restoration of capitalism. Washington’s incessant provocations against Russia, which sparked the war in Ukraine, are likely to much more directly impact Germany and other European countries. Tensions within the Western bloc and its NATO military wing have the potential to lead to global realignments that would likely include Russia and China in some configuration.

A History of NATO Provocations

The present war is not simply a conflict between Russia and neocolonial Ukraine—the real protagonists are Russia and NATO. Although the government in Kiev cannot be said to be a mere agent or proxy of Western imperialism as it still exercises some degree of autonomy, this is rapidly diminishing. Washington, Berlin and other Western capitals are sending Ukraine abundant military supplies, though they are hesitant to send troops over the border or enforce a “no-fly zone,” which would immediately escalate the crisis and very likely initiate a world war. Confronted with a Russian military they cannot easily (or perhaps at all) defeat barring the prospect of a nuclear war, Western imperialist leaders seem poised to reluctantly sacrifice their Ukrainian pawn despite all the bluster. In the event of a Ukrainian surrender or regime change, a large part of the arms and money flowing into the country would likely end up in the hands of hardcore ultra-nationalist militants committed to fighting an insurgency against Russian forces.

The framework of the conflict has been set by NATO’s encirclement of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Contrary to Western speculation about Vladimir Putin’s state of mind or idiotic head-scratching over what could possibly have motivated the Russian president, Moscow’s intentions are clear. It did not invade simply because it wished to dominate Ukraine but because, from its perspective, it needed to halt the eastern advance of its adversaries. If Ukraine were admitted to NATO, this would allow hostile troops and armaments along the entirety of the western border of Russia and its Belarussian ally—including those already stationed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. In 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker falsely promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” Instead, since then the alliance has integrated 14 new members, all of them former Eastern European or Soviet states, and, step by step, signaled its intentions for Ukraine and Georgia to join them. That is where Putin drew the line.

In May 2008, a NATO summit in Bucharest declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO. Both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations.” In February 2014, after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich pivoted back to Russia by rejecting a European Union association agreement and austerity package, the US-backed Maidan protests overthrew him and installed a new Ukrainian-chauvinist regime infested with fascists. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and supporting separatist forces in the breakaway states of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Since 2014, the US has provided over $2.5 billion in military aid to Kiev.

Between 2015 and 2019, Ukraine failed to honor its commitments under the Minsk Accords aimed at stabilizing the crisis in the Donbas. Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019 largely as a “peace” candidate but quickly moved to escalate tensions and offer up Ukraine as a willing tool of Western imperialism. In June 2020, Ukraine became a NATO “Enhanced Opportunities Partner,” providing “troops to Allied operations, including in Afghanistan and Kosovo, as well as to the NATO Response Force and NATO exercises.”

Zelensky, currently the darling of Western liberals, launched a campaign to forcibly re-integrate the DPR and LPR into Ukraine in early 2021. Kiev shut down leading opposition television channels and seized assets belonging to the family of Viktor Medvedchuk (a Ukrainian-Russian oligarch aligned with Moscow), including an oil pipeline. Zelensky’s former security adviser, Oleksandr Danyliuk, admitted that the Ukrainian president’s moves were explicitly designed to please the Biden administration and “fit in with the U.S. agenda” (Time, 2 February 2022). As the US State Department cheered on Kiev, Russia responded by stationing 3,000 troops near its border with Ukraine.

In March 2021, NATO’s Defender-Europe 2021 joint exercises were held across Europe, with Ukraine as one of the participating countries. These US Army-led military operations brought together some 28,000 multinational troops “to build readiness and interoperability between U.S., NATO and partner militaries” in Europe. The following month, Zelensky sought to fast-track Ukraine’s membership in NATO, declaring that “NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas. Ukraine’s MAP [Membership Action Plan] will be a real signal for Russia” (Al Arabiya News, 6 April 2021).

At our online forum in early 2022, we detailed NATO’s increased presence in Eastern Europe:

“The Pentagon has placed 8,500 troops on ‘heightened alert’ for deployment to NATO allies in Eastern Europe. The US already has roughly 6,000 troops in the region including 4,000 military personnel in Poland to go along with the 1,000 other NATO forces stationed in the country. The Biden administration is also reportedly developing plans to send warships, aircraft and up to 50,000 troops to the area. NATO alliance members, including Denmark, Spain, Bulgaria and the Netherlands, are sending fighter jets and warships to bolster defenses in Eastern Europe. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have some 4,000 troops in NATO ‘battlegroups’ and are now providing Ukraine with US-made Javelin anti-armor and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.”
—“NATO Imperialists Escalate Ukraine Crisis,” 30 January 2022

In response, Russia moved more troops into place along the Ukrainian border, preparing for a confrontation while also attempting to de-escalate the situation by demanding an assurance that Ukraine be barred from NATO membership, which the US rejected. Five days before Russia invaded, Zelensky gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he threatened (in diplomatic parlance) to re-acquire nuclear weapons, given up in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum:

“I am initiating consultations in the framework of the Budapest Memorandum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was commissioned to convene them. If they do not happen again or their results do not guarantee security for our country, Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working and all the package decisions of 1994 are in doubt.”
—cited in Kiev Independent, 3 March 2022

Putin had heard enough. Moscow formally recognized the DPR and LPR (a step it had previously avoided) and launched what was an essentially defensive operation to neutralize Ukraine. The high-tech Russian military faces comparatively weak resistance from Ukrainian forces, which has prompted Zelensky to plead “that Ukraine be granted admission to NATO so that the alliance’s 30 members might provide his country desperately needed military assistance” (Washington Post, 28 February 2022).

The military strategy of the NATO imperialists is to avoid direct engagement with Russia for the time being. They are therefore unlikely to accede now to Ukraine’s request for membership or to Zelensky’s call for the West to impose a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine. However, individual NATO countries have pledged to send arms to Kiev: the US (“an additional $350m worth of weapons from US stocks,” including anti-aircraft systems), Britain (“lethal defensive weapons”), France (“defensive anti-aircraft and digital weapons”), Germany (“1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles from Bundeswehr stocks”), the Netherlands (“200 Stinger air defence rockets and 50 ‘Panzerfaust 3’ anti-tank weapons with 400 rockets”), as well as Canada, Sweden Norway, Denmark, Finland and Belgium (Al Jazeera, 28 February 2022). The European Union agreed for the first time ever to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons—450 million euros worth to Ukraine.

Leninism & Imperialist War

Marxists seek to present a revolutionary socialist response to the crisis in Ukraine, which threatens to unleash a direct inter-imperialist military conflict, i.e., World War III. It is necessary to revisit the contributions of revolutionaries before and during the last two world wars. The programmatic heritage of the Marxist movement was developed by leaders like V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky and others as they grappled with the political implications of imperialist conflict.

On 4 August 1914, the German Social Democratic Party leadership voted for financial support to the Kaiser’s military efforts in the war that had just broken out. This betrayal, replicated by the leaders of the Second International in other belligerent countries, signaled their open descent into “social-chauvinism,” i.e., “socialism in words, national chauvinism in deeds,” as Trotsky later put it (“Lenin and Imperialist War,” 1938). Support for one’s own imperialist government (undertaken, at the time, under the slogan of “defense of the fatherland”) went hand in glove with a repudiation of the class struggle. Lenin argued, instead, that revolutionaries should seek to “convert the imperialist war into a civil war” (Socialism and War, 1915).

Lenin explained his position in several articles and speeches at the time. In a 1915 polemic entitled, “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War,” he presented a useful summary of the position against its centrist opponents, which at the time included Trotsky. Lenin began by noting: “During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its own government.” But in the Russian context, would this not have meant desiring the victory of Germany? Lenin argued that calling for the defeat of one’s own imperialist government emphatically does not mean favoring the victory of its imperialist rivals, since “in all imperialist countries the proletariat must now desire the defeat of its own government.” This position has come to be known as “dual defeatism.” It is not the same as neutrality or “neither victory nor defeat” but means what the name suggests: workers on both sides calling for the defeat of their own imperialist government.

How can both sides in a military conflict be defeated? Does not the defeat of one logically imply the victory of the other? Only if one discounts the role of the working class within the contending states. Lenin’s point was that workers in every imperialist country should carry out revolutionary actions against their own ruling class (including strikes aimed at sabotaging the war effort), and that these actions would, practically speaking, lead to “a series of military reverses and defeats of governments that receive blows from their own oppressed classes.” Consistent internationalism and revolutionary agitation mean dual defeatism:

“A proletarian cannot deal a class blow at his government or hold out (in fact) a hand to his brother, the proletarian of the ‘foreign’ country which is at war with ‘our side’, without committing ‘high treason’, without contributing to the defeat, to the disintegration of his ‘own’, imperialist ‘Great’ Power.”

Dual defeatism does not apply when an imperialist country attacks a non-imperialist country in what is effectively a war of conquest. In such cases, Marxists not only call for the defeat of their own imperialist government but actively favor the military victory of the non-imperialist state, as Lenin explained in Socialism and War:

“For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be ‘just’, and ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slaveholding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers.”

It can happen, however, that conflict between imperialist powers becomes the defining feature of the situation—in such cases, a non-imperialist country’s independence and right to self-determination become illusory in the context of an inter-imperialist struggle for control of its territory, whichever side it chooses or is forced to align with. Today, this applies to the war between imperialist Russia and neocolonial Ukraine, which is backed by a massive coalition of Russia’s imperialist rivals. In The Collapse of the Second International (1915), Lenin addressed this type of situation vis--vis Serbia’s war against the Austro-Hungarian empire:

“In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria.… It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, ‘the masses of the people’, a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a ‘continuation’. If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie.”

The problem, Lenin argued, was that the Serbian struggle for national self-determination had become subsumed in the broader inter-imperialist conflict:

“The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. If Germany wins, she will throttle Belgium, one more part of Poland, perhaps part of France, etc. If Russia wins, she will throttle Galicia, one more part of Poland, Armenia, etc. If the war ends in a ‘draw’, the old national oppression will remain. To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one per cent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e., of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them. The Triple Entente, which is ‘liberating’ Serbia, is selling the interests of Serbian liberty to Italian imperialism in return for the latter’s aid in robbing Austria.”

Likewise, Ukraine’s struggle to defeat Russia cannot be separated from NATO’s campaign to diminish Russian imperialism—a campaign whose victory would result in further subordinating Ukraine to German and US imperialism.

In the lead-up to WWII, Trotsky wrote “War and the Fourth International,” in which he reiterated the fundamental programmatic features of the Leninist attitude toward imperialist war:

“Lenin’s formula, ‘defeat is the lesser evil,’ means not defeat of one’s country is the lesser evil as compared with the defeat of the enemy country but that a military defeat resulting from the growth of the revolutionary movement is infinitely more beneficial to the proletariat and to the whole people than military victory assured by ‘civil peace.’ Karl Liebknecht gave an unsurpassed formula of proletarian policy in time of war: ‘The chief enemy of the people is in its own country.’ The victorious proletarian revolution not only will rectify the evils caused by defeat but also will create the final guarantee against future wars and defeats. This dialectical attitude toward war is the most important element of revolutionary training and therefore also of the struggle against war.”

Another factor in WWII was the Soviet Union, degenerated under the weight of the Stalinist bureaucracy but fundamentally remaining a workers’ state. The USSR made deals with the contending imperialists, first with Hitler and later with the Allied powers as the global conflict broke out, but Trotsky nevertheless argued that it must be unconditionally defended against capitalist counterrevolution and imperialist attack: “Defence of the Soviet Union from the blows of the capitalist enemies, irrespective of the circumstances and immediate causes of the conflict, is the elementary and imperative duty of every honest labor organization.” In no way did this mean that Trotskyists ceased calling for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinists, nor did it mean supporting the imperialist allies of the USSR. These lessons are vitally important today as they apply to China—a deformed workers’ state that, while sitting out the Ukraine war, is currently allied with Russia and would likely be drawn into a global conflict.

Social-Chauvinism Today

It is not surprising that the self-described “socialists” inside the US Democratic party (a capitalist party through-and-through) have taken a position in defense of their own imperialist government in the present Ukraine conflict. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, tweeted that the “U.S. is right to impose targeted sanctions on Putin & his oligarchs,” adding that “any military action must take place with Congressional approval.” AOC is fine with initiating WWIII, as long as she and her colleagues in Congress are allowed to approve it first. Senator Bernie Sanders chimed in by calling for “severe sanctions” against Russia and ominously threatened that Putin’s “day will come—hopefully sooner than later.”

In Britain, Keir Starmer has promised to expel Labour party members who blame Western imperialism for provoking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “There will be no place in this party for false equivalence between the actions of Russia and the actions of Nato,” which Starmer described as “one of the ‘great achievements’ of the post-war Labour government” (Independent, 1 March 2022). Eleven Labour MPs had initially signed on to a Stop the War Coalition letter that acknowledged NATO’s role in stoking tensions—all rescinded their endorsement after being threatened by Starmer with losing the whip.

In Canada, the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) issued a statement in which it “urge[d] the Liberal government to use all tools to deter Putin’s aggressive actions, including by immediately imposing additional severe economic sanctions” (ndp.ca, 24 February 2022). The NDP’s call for Justin Trudeau’s government to “use all tools” is an endorsement not just of “severe economic sanctions” but potentially of military operations as well.

The trade-union bureaucrats in the West have predictably fallen into line behind their imperialist masters. The leadership of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)—a union with a tradition of militant strikes against racism and US imperialist war—has authorized its members in all 29 west coast ports to refuse to unload Russian cargo. According to International President Willie Adams, this action is intended to “send a strong message that we unequivocally condemn the Russian invasion” (Orange County Register, 3 March 2022). With not even a mention of the violence that US imperialism unleashes around the world, this “hot cargoing” action is not the act of class solidarity some rank-and-file union members may believe it is but simply an extension of Biden’s foreign policy. Similar actions have been taken in Britain (where political strikes have been close to non-existent for decades) by dockers in Kent and Merseyside, preceding by a couple of days an announcement by the British government banning Russian ships from British ports.

The British Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), which for some reason considers itself to be on the far left, was critical of Starmer’s challenge to the 11 MPs, but supportive of his demand that British imperialism arm Ukraine against Russia: “The Labour leader, Kier [sic] Starmer, has rightly stated that the UK must do ‘all we can to help Ukraine defend herself, by providing weapons, equipment, and financial assistance, as well as humanitarian support for the Ukrainian people’” (Workers Liberty, 2 March 2022).

The AWL view Russia, not NATO, as the greater danger:

“Some gullible socialists in the West have parroted Putin. “But the issue is wrongly put. Why consider Russian concerns above, say, Polish concerns, or the concerns of the Baltic states, or Finland? NATO does not threaten these countries, but Russia under Putin does. These states wanted to join NATO for justifiable fear of Russia.”
Workers Liberty, 22 February 2022

On 26 February, the AWL attended a demonstration in London based on the slogan “Russian Troops Out Now,” organized by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, which is endorsed by RS21 and Socialist Resistance as well as the AWL. Socialist Resistance (affiliated to the Bureau of the Fourth International, formerly known as the United Secretariat) published an article by Gilbert Achcar that argues: “The fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression. If it fails in turn, the effect on all global and regional powers will be one of powerful deterrence” (International Viewpoint, 28 February 2022). While they are “against calls for direct military intervention” in order to avoid a world war, they are “in favour of the delivery of defensive weapons to the victims of aggression with no strings attached-in this case to the Ukrainian state fighting the Russian invasion of its territory.” In other words, the “Fourth International” favors the defeat of Russian imperialism at the hands of NATO-backed Ukraine.

Pacifism & Neutrality in the Face of Imperialist War

Lenin observed that the “temper of the masses in favour of peace often expresses the beginning of protest, anger and a realisation of the reactionary nature of the war. It is the duty of all Social-Democrats [as revolutionaries were known at the time] to utilise that temper” (Socialism and War). Marxists intervene in demonstrations and organizations of workers and other oppressed to intersect anti-war sentiment and develop it in an anti-imperialist, revolutionary direction. That requires exposing the “deception” of bourgeois pacifism, i.e., the notion that peace is possible under capitalism. To the contrary, Marxists seek to educate the masses that “the ‘peace’ demand acquires a proletarian significance only if a revolutionary struggle is called for.”

On the day the war started, the British Stop the War Coalition (StWC) issued a “Statement on Ukraine” in which it called “for an immediate ceasefire alongside the resumption of diplomatic negotiations to resolve the crisis”:

“This dispute could and should be resolved peacefully, and that remains the only basis for a lasting settlement, rather than the imposition of military solutions.…
“If there is to be a return to diplomacy, as there should be, the British government should pledge to oppose any further eastward expansion of NATO and should encourage a return to the Minsk-2 agreement, already signed by both sides, by all parties as a basis for ending the crisis in relations between Ukraine and Russia.
“Beyond that, there now needs to be a unified effort to develop pan-European security arrangements which meet the needs of all states, something that should have been done when the Warsaw Pact was wound up at the end of the Cold War. The alternative is endless great power conflict with all the attendant waste of resources and danger of bloodshed and destruction.”
—stopwar.org.uk, 24 February 2022

Despite StWC being seen as some kind of “enemy within” by Starmer and his allies in the British establishment, this pacifist drivel confines itself completely to the framework of imperialist geopolitics. The “great power conflict” to which it refers is not due to the absence of “pan-European security arrangements” but to global capitalism itself.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) has written: “Socialists and the wider workers’ movement must oppose the war in Ukraine and the region, in which working class people will, in the main, pay the price. International working class solidarity is essential to build a mass anti-war movement everywhere” (socialistworld.net, 24 February 2022). Yet while the CWI criticizes NATO, opposes sanctions against Russia and advocates a “socialist society,” it does not come out in favor of the defeat of British/NATO imperialism, which amounts to a semi-pacifist, neutral position on the war.

The response of the Trotskyist Fraction-Fourth International (TF-FI) is similar. The TF-FI argues that Ukraine under Zelensky “is subordinated to imperialism” and sees the present war as a “confrontation between NATO and Russia in Ukraine.” Yet instead of defending Russia, as logic might dictate since they reject the view that Russia is imperialist, they state: “In the face of this possibility of an even broader reactionary war, we denounce NATO and the sanctions imposed by the imperialist powers, while at the same time repudiating Russian military interference in Ukraine” (Left Voice, 24 February 2022). The TF-FI may want to reconsider their assessment of Russia as non-imperialist given that they are forced to discuss “rivalry between powers” (including Russia) in order to characterize the present crisis.

A similar perspective is offered by the WSWS (aka the International Committee of the Fourth International, centered on the American Socialist Equality Party). The first point of the WSWS’s statement on the war “denounce[s] the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Despite the provocations and threats by the US and NATO powers, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must be opposed by socialists and class-conscious workers” (WSWS, 24 February 2022). In its statement, the WSWS fails even to demand that NATO troops leave Eastern Europe, but instead merely “calls for an immediate end to the war” while denouncing “the policies of US/NATO imperialism.” This is neutral at best.

The International Marxist Tendency (IMT) has put forward a more orthodox-sounding line:

“The position of revolutionary Marxists should be clear: a principled class-based stand on the lines of ‘the main enemy of the working class is at home’. No trust whatsoever should be placed on NATO and the western imperialist gangsters, and that is particularly true for workers and socialists in the West.”
—In Defence of Marxism, 1 March 2022

This sounds very leftwing, but it is essentially a neutral position, since the IMT does not advance a perspective of revolutionary defeatism, stating merely: “We cannot support either side in this war, because it is a reactionary war on both sides. In the final analysis, it is a conflict between two groups of imperialists. We do not support either of them.”

IMT leader Alan Woods bizarrely offers assurances that the inter-imperialist rivalries currently playing out in Ukraine will not lead to a direct conflict between Russia and Western imperialism:

there will be no war between the United States and Russia, neither now or in the foreseeable future.
“Let us repeat things that ought to be ABC for any Marxist. The capitalists do not wage war for patriotism, democracy, or any other high-sounding principles. They wage war for profit, to capture foreign markets, sources of raw material (such as oil), and to expand spheres of influence.
“Is that elementary proposition not absolutely clear? And is it also not quite clear that a nuclear war would signify none of these things, but only the mutual destruction of both sides. They have even coined a phrase to describe this: MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).”
—In Defence of Marxism, 28 February 2022

This perspective suggests that WWIII is impossible—a naive illusion. Whatever happens in the immediate term, the current situation is volatile and tremendously dangerous. The IMT is sowing illusions in the imperialist system’s ability to operate in a rational manner.

Confusion over Dual Defeatism

The International Communist League (ICL, aka Spartacists) have come out with a dual defeatist position: “There is only one progressive way forward in the war between Ukraine and Russia: to turn this war between two capitalist classes into a civil war where workers overthrow both capitalist classes. We call on the soldiers and workers of Ukraine and Russia: Fraternize! Turn the guns against your exploiters!” (Spartacist supplement, 27 February 2022).

Yet the ICL’s position is based on pure confusion and liable to flip at any moment. They do not consider Russia to be imperialist, but acknowledge that the “war is fundamentally about whose sphere of influence Ukraine is under, and the victory of either the Russian or Ukrainian armed forces can only lead to more oppression”:

“The Ukrainian government is fighting not to liberate Ukraine but to further enslave it to the NATO/EU imperialist powers, to which it has been bound since the 2014 U.S.-backed coup. Its victory would also increase the oppression of the Russian minority in Ukraine. On the other side, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seeks only to replace the imperialist boot with a Russian whip. The legitimate national struggle for self-rule in Donetsk and Luhansk has now been hitched to Russia’s broader reactionary war aim.”

The ICL argues against calling for Russian troops out of Ukraine on the grounds that it “is NATO’s slogan and can only mean victory for the Ukrainian government.” Certainly any Western leftist who demands that Russian troops leave Ukraine while not principally calling for NATO out of Eastern Europe and the defeat of Western imperialism and its Ukrainian pawn would indeed be demanding “freedom for their own imperialist rulers to plunder Ukraine.” But does the ICL support the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine? If so, how then can they claim to advocate Russia’s defeat (as well as Ukraine’s)?

The Internationalist Group (IG), founded by expelled members of the ICL in the 1990s, has effectively taken the same position. The IG describes the conflict as “a war between the Russian capitalist state, with its nationalist ruler in Moscow, and that of Ukraine, whose nationalist regime in Kiev has acted as a cat’s paw of Western imperialists and uses fascist forces to besiege the Russian-speaking population of southeastern Ukraine” (Internationalist, 28 February 2022). The IG variously describes the Kiev government as a “cat’s paw” and “flunky” of Western imperialism while falsely maintaining that Russia is not imperialist, yet they “call for revolutionary defeatism on both sides in this reactionary nationalist war.” The IG argued in a statement issued on the eve of the Russian intervention that if “it turned into a war by Ukraine’s imperialist backers against Russia that would be a very different matter” (Internationalist, 23 February 2022). In other words, this “dual defeatism” would be abandoned in favor of Russian defensism if NATO directly intervened rather than relying on the feeble military of its Ukrainian “flunky.”

‘Bolshevik Tendency’: Pro-Imperialist Disgrace

Our former comrades who split from us in 2018 and absurdly called their new group the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) are one step ahead of the IG in their defense of Russian imperialism. The BT’s initial statement on the war, published on 27 February, contained the following:

“The Russian military action against Ukraine is tactically aggressive but strategically defensive. Revolutionaries do not give Putin any political support while recognizing that Russia’s right to self-defense includes the right to sever Ukraine’s NATO connection. If the current conflict escalates into a fight between Russia and NATO or its proxies, we defend Russia. Our attitude to any adjustment of Ukraine’s frontiers is chiefly determined by the will of the peoples involved—as in the case of Crimea. We oppose any attempt by Russia to occupy or control areas in which the population wishes to remain in the Ukrainian state.”

Although the statement was published three days after the war began, this confused passage both acknowledges the “Russian military action against Ukraine” and poses “a fight between Russia and NATO or its proxies” as a hypothetical eventuality. They catch up later in the same piece, where they write that “rejecting Ukraine’s ‘right’ to enlist as a pawn in the imperialist struggle to defeat and dismember Russia, means favouring the military victory of Putin’s forces.” In a subsequent 1 March polemic, they write that the “WSWS correctly describes [the Ukraine war] as ‘in essence, and in fact, a war between NATO and Russia’—in this war Trotskyists have a side”.

The BT’s support to Russia is therefore clear, but the war that began on 24 February does include an “attempt by Russia to occupy or control areas in which the population wishes to remain in the Ukrainian state,” regardless of where the formal borders are drawn. In its efforts to “de-NATO-ize” Ukraine, Moscow is both “occupying” parts of the country where the residents do not want Russian forces and using military force to exercise “control” over Kiev. Why would the BT pledge to oppose Russian efforts to “occupy or control” Ukraine when, presumably, they would view bourgeois-democratic questions as subordinate to the struggle against (Western) imperialism? It is not obvious the BT has thought any of this through very carefully.

A central theme pushed by the BT is that there is some kind of polarization on the left over Ukraine’s “right” to join NATO:

“We categorically reject the idea that the rulers of Ukraine or Georgia have a right to join the NATO imperialist military alliance targeting Russia. The left wing of the ‘Neither Moscow nor Washington’ crew tend to want to avoid taking a position on this issue—because recognizing such a ‘right,’ means aligning with the US State Department’s position.”

It is unclear which organizations they are discussing, but it would be odd if the “left wing” of those groups that are dual defeatist against NATO and Russia (a position the BT conflates with neutrality and views as at least tacit support to imperialism) defended Ukraine’s right to join an imperialist military bloc—a position that would place any such grouping on the far right of the “‘Neither Moscow nor Washington’ crew.” Rather, this is a straw man, designed by the BT to bolster their “more anti-imperialist than thou” credentials.

The crux of the BT’s error comes down to its increasingly untenable view that Russia is a neocolonial country (though they prefer to call it “dependent”):

“In contrast to the motley crew of pseudo-socialists huddling under the ‘Neither Moscow nor Washington’ banner, who characterize Russia and/or China as ‘imperialist’ powers qualitatively similar to the US, UK, Germany, France, etc., Trotskyists consider Russia to be a dependent capitalist country qualitatively similar to Brazil or Iran.”

Yet the BT acknowledges:

“Russia, in alliance with China, appears capable of denying the US the ‘full spectrum dominance’ displayed during the ill-fated, criminal conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq two decades ago. Many analysts estimate that the Russian military, which has undergone a dramatic upgrade since its 2008 Georgian intervention, would defeat NATO in a conventional war in Europe.”

How many “dependent capitalist” countries could “defeat NATO in a conventional war in Europe”? Does the BT think that “qualitatively similar” Brazil or Iran could do that? How does a supposed “dependent capitalist” state possess the military technology and capability—more than three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union—to potentially defeat a coalition of the most advanced imperialist countries on the planet? If Russia is, defying all appearances, actually a “dependent capitalist” country, which imperialist countries is it “dependent” on? We have demolished the BT’s assertions that Russia is a neocolonial victim in various documents and articles, most recently in a reply to their rather silly polemic on energy prices (“Imperialism & Energy Prices,” 14 February 2022).

Over three years ago we said goodbye to the comrades of the BT as we accepted their resignations with regret; today we say good riddance to those of them who refuse to repudiate their group’s capitulation to imperialism. In a 2 January 2019 letter to our former comrades, we wrote that the “differences we have do not justify separate organizations,” and noted: “We maintained discipline over many years in order to avoid this split, and we do not want it now.” In a more recent exchange with the BT, we defended ourselves against their baseless slander that we supposedly supported “Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control” in Crimea and would have been shooting at them from opposite sides of the barricades in defense of Western imperialism. We observed that they lied about us “to justify your sectarian split from the IBT” (“Sectarian Slanders over Crimea,” 29 January 2021)

Leninists do not split organizations lightly but instead maintain unity as long as it is possible to do so without betraying the Marxist program. Despite their incorrect analysis of Russia and programmatic mistakes, until now the BT had not actually sided with Russian imperialism in a real war. It was conceivable that, when the time came, they would find an excuse to avoid doing the wrong thing. The ICL and IG, by treating Ukraine as not subordinated to the West but simply in a conflict with another neocolony, have arrived at the correct position of dual defeatism for the wrong reasons. Given the obvious fact that Ukraine is a NATO pawn and that Russia is acting to counter threats from Western imperialism, one must wonder whether they are instinctively feeling uneasy about denying Russia is imperialist in the face of the mountain of evidence to the contrary.

As it turned out, the BT had no such qualms—they have now crossed the line by siding with Russia in its war with NATO-backed Ukraine. Brimming with pride over their shameful defense of an imperialist power, the BT have definitively severed their ties with the heritage their comrades once defended. Sectarian and unjustifiable in 2018, a split is what we would have initiated today, with full Leninist justification, were we still in an organization dominated by the BT.

A hypothetical equivalent to the BT’s position would have been US Trotskyists lending support to Japan in WWII, or Bolsheviks backing German imperialism because it was fighting their “main enemy,” Tsarist Russia. In Socialism and War, Lenin in fact noted that the comparatively new imperialist state, Germany, did not possess as many colonies as more established imperialists like Britain and France, but that it “is not the business of socialists” to defend German imperialism. Instead, revolutionaries “must take advantage of the struggle between the robbers to overthrow all of them.” There is no place in a Marxist party for supporters of imperialism, even of the rival to one’s own imperialist government.

For Leninist Internationalism!

Within most far left groups around the world there are militants who are genuine revolutionaries with a deeply felt hatred of their ruling class and a desire to build a Marxist party to lead the working class to power. Their effectiveness as revolutionaries, however, depends entirely on the program they defend—and if that program promotes pacifism or neutrality in the face of imperialism at home, or a misguided defense of imperialism abroad, then those revolutionaries will remain so only in a subjective sense.

The fundamental programmatic elements of a future revolutionary socialist party have been clear for over a century, as codified in the first four congresses of the Communist International and in the principal documents of the Fourth International. The need for a revolutionary party capable of applying that programmatic framework to current events has never been more urgent. Since WWII, the Trotskyist movement, which alone upheld the heritage of Leninist internationalism, has fragmented and declined, with many nominal adherents espousing a politics that would barely be recognizable to Trotsky himself.

Whether in the short, medium or long term, a direct inter-imperialist military conflict leading to incalculable human devastation is a certainty so long as capitalism persists. The present war in Ukraine sharply underlines the grave danger in which the imperialist system has placed humanity. It should, too, serve as an impetus for the regroupment of revolutionaries around the Marxist program. In “War and the Fourth International,” Trotsky observed:

“Of course, no one can predict just when the war will break out and at what stage it will find the building of new parties and of the Fourth International. We must do everything possible to make the preparation for the proletarian revolution move faster than the preparation for a new war. It is very possible, however, that this time also imperialism will overtake the revolution. But even this road, portending great sacrifices and calamities, in no case relieves us of the duty of building the new International immediately.…
“Even if at the beginning of a new war the true revolutionists should again find themselves in a small minority, we cannot doubt for a single moment that this time the shift of the masses to the road of revolution will occur much faster, more decisively and relentlessly than during the first imperialist war. A new wave of insurrections can and must become victorious in the whole capitalist world.
“It is indisputable at any rate that in our epoch only that organization that bases itself on international principles and enters into the ranks of the world party of the proletariat can root itself in the national soil. The struggle against war means now the struggle for the Fourth International!


Related articles:
NATO Provokes Russian Attack on Ukraine (24 February 2022)
NATO Imperialists Escalate Ukraine Crisis (audio and text, 1 February 2022)
Ukraine in Imperialist Vise (1917 No.44)
The Bulldog Pokes the Bear: Down with British imperialist provocations! (1917 No.44)
Imperialist Rivalries Escalate (1917 No.41)