U.S. and World Politics

Russia and Ukraine

By John Blackburn

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has divided opinion on the political left across the world. Most oppose the invasion and recognize it as an imperialist action, some are neutral calling simply for “Peace”1 while others support the Russian action and consider it a legitimate defensive measure.

The Russian actions have resulted in a spectrum of condemnation from far-left organizations to conventional politicians of all persuasions and ultra-right extremists. Some former Trotskyists and other communists support the Russian venture considering it a defense against the expansion of the imperialist warmongering alliance NATO and to defend the Russian minority in the east from attacks by Ukrainian ultra-right-wing paramilitaries.

In such a complex melee of fellow travelers and conflicting political views the Marxist-Leninist tradition affords a perspective and a consistently principled approach. This is neither a peripheral nor an academic question. With the flag of Imperial Russia behind his shoulder, Putin on television before the whole world, put the blame for the crisis on the “historic injustice” created when Lenin and the Bolshevik government gave Ukraine its independence in 1918. Ukraine was to become a sovereign soviet republic and joined the Soviet Union as an “equal partner” in 1922.

It is no coincidence that the centenary of the Russian revolution in 2017 passed without any official recognition or celebration. The most momentous event of world history in the 20th century was ignored in the country where it had happened. The revolution which destroyed the remnants of the feudalist fetters which had curtailed Russia’s industrial, economic, and social development and propelled it to the super-power status in just 40 years was ignored. Putin himself is a product of the Stalinist KGB. Trotsky was airbrushed out of Russia’s revolution by Stalin now Putin is continuing that tradition of falsification by airbrushing the October revolution from history.

Putin should have paid more heed to that revolution. Tzar Nicholas 2 sent an ill prepared, poorly equipped and incompetently led conscript army into WW1 to the eventual loss of his throne and his life.

A former KGB officer, Putin is a product of the Soviet era which he wishes to repudiate though retains all of the political practices of the Stalinism, falsification of the truth, censorship, political repression, disappearances and even the murder of political opponents. Having no historic authority, Putin wishes to gain it by restoring to boundaries of the 19th century Russian imperial empire.

Putin and his clique are a group of former officials and bureaucrats who were in the positions that enabled them to seize control of the assets, rob the people of the nation’s wealth and become capitalists when the Soviet Union collapsed. They never had been socialists and now had the opportunity to steal billions.

“Lumpen bourgeoise” as Ernest Mandel2 called them. Neither entrepreneurs nor innovators they are simply a small kleptocracy who took control of Russia’s state-owned institutions and transferred the wealth to themselves. To ensure that their loot was safe they invested widely abroad and became part of the world imperialist system.

In the era of imperialism, Lenin pointed out, capitalism ceases to be progressive leaving the uncompleted tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution to the socialist revolution. Foremost of these is the right of nations to self-determination.

Trotsky realized this too and it is integral to his theory of Permanent Revolution.3 Our movement should be at the forefront of the struggles to obtain independence in subject nations but as the bourgeois in these countries is too weak to take and hold power, the proletariat must assume that role so that the goals of the bourgeois democratic revolution can only be secured by the socialist revolution. Trotsky who grew up near Odessa continued to argue for Ukrainian independence till the end of his life.

The right to independence from the major imperial powers in Europe was integral to the Marxist outlook from the beginning with a delegate from the Polish independence movement at the founding meeting of the First International.

It was Lenin who in his 1916 article, “On the right of small nations to independence” written at the height of WW1 that has given us a clear and principled program. In this there are two fundamental principles:

The first is the right of small nations to independence from an imperial empire or from a colonial overlord. It is therefore incumbent for our movement to support all of these liberation struggles. We should be in the forefront of the struggles in the oppressed nations, building support in the imperial center and developing the international solidarity movement.

The second is that support in the imperialist centers is not conditional on the nature of the leadership of those fighting for independence. The working class in imperialist countries have a common enemy with those struggling for independence where we should do our utmost to build mass solidarity movements.

Was Lenin wrong and is Putin now correcting that wrong? That is the crucial question for present day Marxist-Leninists. For many, Lenin’s pamphlet is as relevant today as when it was written and with over 100 years of experience now its essential message has not been bettered.

Marxists are never neutral. In this conflict we unconditionally condemn the Russian invasion and the atrocities that are being carried out in Ukraine. The devastation of the infrastructure, schools, homes, hospitals, and attacks on nuclear power stations are directed at the civilian population not military installations. These barbaric acts of vindictive punishment on the Ukrainian masses are not liberation. They reflect the same total contempt for the lives, homes, and the few meagre possessions of ordinary people that rulers and invaders have always had. NATO and the U.S. have shown the same callous attitude in recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and others.4

We, therefore, unconditionally support the military struggle of the Ukrainian people against their invaders.

In the east of Ukraine and Crimea, should the majority of the population wish to stay part of Russia, our principle still applies, and we would support their right to do so if that is their genuine desire.

As Marxists we believe that ultimately the working class of Russia and Ukraine will settle this on the basis of mutual respect and solidarity. That is not, however our world today, but our program must retain the essential principle of international working-class solidarity at its heart. The working class and poor of Russian and Ukraine have nothing to gain from killing each other. Our message, however difficult to get across, should be that Ukrainians are not their enemy, we want the Russian working class to intervene as they have the power to stop this war.

What unnecessary waste. Every missile fired or every tank destroyed represents millions-of-dollars that could have been spent building better homes, schools, hospitals and generally improving the quality of the lives of the Russian and Ukrainian masses. Destroying working class peoples’ homes is not the action of a liberating army. The Russian army has insufficient food to adequately supply its own troops so, clearly, has made no provision to feed the population of “liberated” Ukraine.

Biden, NATO, and the EU have interests which are those of international capitalism and least of those are what is best for the Ukrainian people. Past agreements have been ignored and now the U.S. would have military installations on Russia’s borders from the Baltic to the Black Sea were Ukraine to join NATO. Putin argues that the U.S. and NATO sponsored right-wing coup in 2014 is a military threat to Russia and has resulted in anti-Russian pogroms in Eastern provinces. His preference would be for a puppet regime such as Belarus or Kazakhstan to act as a buffer, until he can ultimately restore the traditional Tsarist boundaries. Irrespective of the intervention of U.S. and NATO, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia was an imperialist act of aggression by a capitalist against a sovereign country. Marxists unconditionally condemn this.

The invasion has given western governments the excuse to massively increase “defense” spending and pour billions more into the coffers of the arms manufacturers. We condemn this too and the warmongering posturing of Boris Johnson and his kind.

Boris Johnson’s childish bravado “Send Ukrainians more tanks” demonstrates his desire for this tragedy to continue as it has temporarily saved his premiership. A long war of attrition is not against his political interests as it detracts from the lying, corruption and criminal behavior of his government while simultaneously directing massive funds to arms dealers. Johnson is quite willing for Ukrainians to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield but there is only a remote chance of them finding asylum in Britain.

The increasing belligerence of Biden, Johnson and their acolytes must be universally condemned. Their behavior now serves only to prolong the conflict and the suffering of the Ukrainian people. Genuine leaders would be pursuing every channel to bring about an immediate ceasefire, end the bloodshed and to ensure the safety of the Ukrainian people. Biden’s labelling of Putin as a “war criminal” at this stage is counterproductive, aggravates the situation and becomes a barrier to negotiations with Russia which will cost many more unnecessary Ukrainian deaths. It is lunatic to goad a dictator who has a nuclear arsenal.

Some comrades are arguing that in the middle of the war it is not the appropriate time to raise the demand for self-determination for Ukraine. I would remind them that Lenin’s pamphlet which specifically includes the demand for self-determination for Ukraine was written in 1916 in the middle of WW1. True to their principles, Ukraine was granted its independence by the Bolsheviks in 1918 while the war was still raging on the Western and other fronts.

In every political campaign we engage in, we Marxists want to mobilize the maximum number of people around a principled platform. If successful we will find ourselves with fellow travelers who have arrived from a diverse range of political points of view. Provided that we adhere to the principles that guided us to our position and are confident in the correctness of our perspective this should never be a problem.

Principled slogans that we could support:

  • Ceasefire Now!
  • Russia out now!
  • Self-determination for all the peoples of Ukraine and Crimea.
  • No to NATO expansion.

1 The call for “Peace” in any conflict is not necessarily progressive, it must always be determined by the context. To call for “Peace” during the Vietnam war was to concede that the U.S. had some right to be there and to divide the country along the 17th parallel. That was a betrayal of the Vietnamese struggle while the slogan of “Out Now!” was principled, it implied the right to self-determination and helped to recruit greater numbers of people to the anti-Vietnam war movement.

By the same token Trotskyists were in the forefront of the anti-Vietnam war movement around the world. They were not deterred by the leadership of the Vietnamese by the Communist Party which had been responsible for the murder of thousands of Vietnamese Trotskyists.

2 Ernest Mandel, was a Belgian Marxian economist, Trotskyist activist and theorist, and Holocaust survivor. He fought in the underground resistance against the Nazis during the occupation of Belgium.

3 Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution” held that, historically, an economic system had to be seen as a world system rather than a national one. All national economic development was affected by the laws of the world market, even though such regional factors as location, population, available resources, and pressure from surrounding countries made the rate of development different in each country. Thus, in Trotsky’s view, the Russian Revolution, to be permanently successful, would have to depend on revolutions in other countries, particularly in western Europe.

The Permanent Revolution & results and prospects, by Leon Trotsky can be read in full here:

4 “ Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!

It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!

An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,

Your tiny house lies in a ruin,

It’s fragile walls wind-rent and strewn!

Now nothing’s left to construct you a new one

—Robert Burns “To a Mouse”