A contribution on the war and the debates on the left

By Alejandro Bodart

The Russian invasion has divided waters in the global left. From the ISL we have contributed our points of view in several declarations and articles. In this text I will develop the theoretical and political framework that the left should have in order to act in a principled manner and contribute to the construction of a revolutionary alternative in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, something that a large part of the left that considers itself revolutionary does not even consider.

The characterization of the war and the sides in dispute

Since its beginning, the war in Ukraine has combined two processes at the same time. On the one hand, Ukraine’s just defense of its sovereignty and, on the other, the sharpening of inter-imperialist friction between the NATO powers and the emerging imperialisms of Russia and China. A misunderstanding of this double character of the war, its rhythms and the most likely perspective is the basis of the confusion that reigns in a significant part of the left.

The campist, neo-Stalinist left and marginal sectors of Trotskyism have openly aligned themselves with Putin’s imperialist Russia. They ride the coattails of the masses’ hatred of American imperialism and NATO. This sector deserves nothing beyond the repudiation of any consistent revolutionary, since whatever the characterization be of the current war, nothing justifies its alignment behind a capitalist power that oppresses peoples and a regime as reactionary as Russia’s. To justify themselves, some go so far as to deny Russia’s capitalist character, others propagandize the fable that it is Russia and not Ukraine that is the main victim of the war. All these organizations are transmission belts for the lies that emanate from Moscow’s enormous propaganda apparatus.

Another sector of the left, including various Trotskyist currents, raise an abstentionist policy and call for defeatism in Russia… and in Ukraine. They refuse to characterize Russia as imperialist, although they have the contradiction that they characterize the war as inter-imperialist and act accordingly or apply a policy as if it were. Objectively and beyond intentions, this sector also ends up being beneficial to Putin’s Russia and, if the war were to evolve into a true military confrontation with NATO, it would not be surprising to see them throw away their defeatism and align themselves with Russia and China.

To give their positions some authority, these leftists usually quote Lenin, referring to the Austrian war against Serbia, which marked the beginning of the First World War on July 28, 1914. Lenin, in a text written a year after the world war began, explains why the Austrian aggression against Serbia cannot be seen in isolation from the World War that was taking place and, therefore, the global policy that revolutionaries had to raise had to be revolutionary defeatism. The difference with the current situation is that after four months, the Russian invasion has not turned into World War III and it is not yet certain that it may advance in that direction in the short term. For this reason, although the war in Ukraine is part of the exacerbation of inter-imperialist tensions and the new cold war in which we are immersed, we cannot yet define it as the beginning of a global open military confrontation. To avoid it, American and European imperialism have been careful not to intervene directly with their armies and Russia has not yet advanced against any NATO country. That is why it is a mistake to define it at this time as an inter-imperialist war and not support the Ukrainian resistance.

Lenin himself, speaking of the Austrian aggression against Serbia, clarifies his point of view: “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 bourgeoisieas this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war. However it is this conclusion that the sophist Kautsky, who is now in the service of the Austrian bourgeoisie, clerics and militarists, has failed to draw…”[1]

Specifically, Lenin explains that, were the World War not involved, he would support Serbia without hesitation. Today, as there is no declared world war and it is not clear whether this will finally happen in the next period, it is an obligation to support the attacked nation, where there is “a national-liberation movement… embracing millions -the masses of the people-…”

Nor does the current war take place between two more or less similar capitalist states. Russia is a significant power, in our opinion imperialist, as we have demonstrated and documented in various elaborations of our current,[2] and Ukraine is a backward, semi-colonial capitalist country.

The Russian invasion was aimed at subduing Ukraine against its will and recovering it for Russia’s zone of influence, eliminating Ukraine’s relative independence and taking away part of its territory. The workers and people of Ukraine have every right to defend themselves and respond militarily to the invader. It is a just war,[3] in defense of their right to self-determination. That is why it is an obligation of the revolutionary socialists to support this national liberation movement, collaborating with everything in our power to defeat the invader. In this war we cannot be neutral, abstain or call for defeatism in Ukraine. We must stand for the defeat of Russia. There can be no ambiguities in this regard. The defeat of Russia would be a revolutionary triumph that would invigorate the Russian labor movement and all the nationalities oppressed by Russia, beginning with the Ukrainian people. It is false what the campers proclaim, that a possible Russian defeat by the Ukrainian resistance would be a victory for NATO. NATO, which was completely discredited and weakened before the war, has been enormously strengthened thanks to Putin. The aggression and brutalities against the Ukrainian people by Russia have allowed them to revitalize the alliance, arm its states to the teeth, end the neutrality of Sweden and Finland and present NATO as the “savior” of millions.

The real debate with the left that does not support the Ukrainian resistance is about the existence or not of an imperialism that is better than another. These sectors, openly or shamefully, end up supporting Russian imperialism. We are clear: we stand against all imperialisms. For this reason, in addition to giving our support to the Ukrainian resistance at the military level against Russian imperialism, we denounce the attempt of American and European imperialism to take advantage of the war to advance its claws on the East and the countries of the former Soviet Union. That is why our military support for the Ukrainian resistance does not imply any political support or collaboration with the neo-liberal government of Zelensky. We support the resistance militarily from a class position and politically independent and delimited from the Ukrainian bourgeoisie.

We do all this because the national liberation of Ukraine is not the only task that revolutionaries have to carry out in this conflict. A systematic campaign is also necessary against Western imperialism and NATO, against the European Union and the United States, which are using the war to reposition themselves politically and militarily in the region, weakening Russia as much as possible while escalating the trade war with China, which increases, day to day, the threat of the world suffering the unpredictable consequences of a war of international scope in the near future. Not carrying out this permanent denunciation of Western imperialism throughout the world, including in Ukraine, would also be a very big mistake and would imply a capitulation, in this case to the US and the EU.

If any of the imperialist countries in NATO were to declare war on Russia, for whatever reason, the character of the entire conflict would change. If this eventually happened, the current new cold war would transform into a Third World War. We would effectively enter an inter-imperialist armed conflict and would have to adapt our policy and orientation to the new situation: the Ukrainian liberation struggle would move to the background and the confrontation with the imperialist war would become the central axis. But for now, none of the imperialist “camps” wants to go down that path. On the side of Western imperialism there are important differences on the way forward. There are sectors of the EU that want to end the conflict as soon as possible, even if this implies that Ukraine cede territories, due to the enormous economic cost that it has caused them and the fear that this will evolve into an explosive social situation, while others like the US and Great Britain intend to deepen the siege on Russia to wear it down as much as possible and prevent China from deciding to follow the same path. This does not mean that tensions have not reached a critical point or that despite the intentions of the protagonists things cannot get out of hand. We cannot minimize the confrontation. The new cold war that has begun may, sooner or later, evolve into a new global conflagration, as the only way to decide whether Yankee imperialism continues to be hegemonic, a bipolar world order is consolidated or China emerges as the new world gendarme.

There are currents that completely minimize the inter-imperialist friction. Some have even written that there is no cold war or major friction between the superpowers. Some of these organizations have a correct position in relation to the Ukrainian resistance, but by not seeing the other component of the war, they end up having a unilateral orientation, capitulating to NATO.

The ISL, in all the countries where we have militants, has from the first day of the war, in addition to supporting the Ukrainian working people, clearly expressed our rejection of NATO’s interference in Eastern Europe, demanding the dissolution of both NATO and the CSTO.[4] From Ukraine we have called for the unity of Russian and Ukrainian workers, and from Russia and the countries in its area of ​​influence, we have promoted the mobilization against Putin and the war.

Ukraine and its path to independence

Russia failed in its goal of achieving a quick victory that would allow it to take control of the country and impose a puppet government, due to massive resistance of the population, including ethnic Russian and Russian speaking people. This forced the Russian army to withdraw and concentrate on trying to control southern Ukraine and the Donbass region in the East.[5] The militancy and courage of the resistance has to do with a deep-rooted nationalist sentiment that is very important to understand in order to comprehend Ukrainian society, its labor movement, and have a revolutionary policy that is as correct as possible.

Throughout its history, Ukraine has suffered the invasion of its territory by different powers. Unlike other states that were established as such around it, the Ukrainian territory was divided and oppressed by other states. Since the 17th century, the influence of the Russian Empire was consolidated in the eastern part of its territory and the western part was successively occupied by Poland and the Austrian Empire. In all those years, the struggle to achieve its territorial integrity and defend its language and cultural heritage gave shape to a nationalist movement that became stronger and stronger.

The rise of the revolutionary left at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in the region, which would lead to the collapse of the empire of the tsars and the victory of the Bolsheviks, united the national aspirations of the Ukrainian masses in the struggle for construction of a classless, socialist society. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were the only ones who defended the right to self-determination of the oppressed nationalities from an internationalist perspective and thus became the determining force among the Ukrainian workers and masses. This is what Lenin said in 1914:

“In Russia, the creation of an independent national state remains, for the time being, the privilege of the Great-Russian nation alone. We, the Great-Russian proletarians, who defend no privileges whatsoever, do not defend this privilege either. We are fighting on the ground of a definite state; we unite the workers of all nations living in this state; we cannot vouch for any particular path of national development, for we are marching to our class goal along all possible paths.

However, we cannot move towards that goal unless we combat all nationalism, and uphold the equality of the various nations. Whether Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle “guesses”, we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state. We respect this right; we do not uphold the privileges of Great Russians with regard to Ukrainians; we educate the masses in the spirit of recognition of that right, in the spirit of rejecting state privileges for any nation.”[6]

The support of the Bolsheviks for the right to self-determination of nationalities was one of the pillars that allowed the victory of the Russian Revolution, together with the policy against the imperialist war and the support for the struggles of the workers and poor peasants. And it was thanks to the victory of the Russian Revolution that the first independent Ukrainian state emerged in 1919: the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) since its foundation in 1921.

However, the long pilgrimage for its right to be an independent nation, far from having ended, would quickly resume with renewed strength. The heated debates that took place within Bolshevism about what policy to follow toward the different nationalities that made up the Soviet Union and in particular towards Ukraine are public knowledge of all minimally educated Marxists. The Ukrainian communist militants together with Lenin and Trotsky fought a political battle against Stalin, at that time Commissar of Nationalities, who tried to subjugate the independence of the recently created Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Lenin’s victory in this debate laid the foundations, which would later be transferred to the first Soviet Constitution, of the policy that revolutionaries should have towards nationalities: the full right to national self-determination, which included the right to independence and to separate from the Soviet Union, to which each republic freely joined without any coercion.

This is how Lenin addressed the Ukrainian workers and peasants in 1919:

“The independence of Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia…

The working people must not forget that capitalism has divided nations into a small number of oppressor, Great-Power (imperialist), sovereign and privileged nations and an overwhelming majority of oppressed, dependent and semi-dependent, non-sovereign nations. The arch-criminal and arch-reactionary war of 1914-18 still further accentuated this division and as a result aggravated rancour and hatred. For centuries the indignation and distrust of the non-sovereign and dependent nations towards the dominant and oppressor nations have been accumulating, of nations such as the Ukrainian towards nations such as the Great-Russian.

We want a voluntary union of nations—a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another—a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent…

Among the Bolsheviks there are advocates of complete independence for Ukraine, advocates of a more or less close federal tie, and advocates of the complete amalgamation of Ukraine with Russia. There must be no differences over these questions. They will be decided by the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets.”[7]

A few years later, when the 1920s had not yet ended, the Stalinist counterrevolution began to gradually reverse all of this until it transformed the Soviet Union into a new prison of nations. There was fierce resistance from genuine Bolsheviks and left-wing opposition to this Thermidorian turn that encompassed every foundation and principle of the workers’ state founded by Lenin and Trotsky. The bureaucracy’s response was a brutal repression. In successive purges, all the Bolshevik old guard who had survived the revolution and civil war were killed in the 1930s or confined to death in the concentration camps that flourished throughout the USSR.

The triumphant bureaucracy was especially vicious against the main Ukrainian leaders and cadres of the CP who had defended the right to self-determination in the debates of the nascent Soviet Union. The Ukrainian communist membership was decimated in the 1930s, its leaders assassinated and tens of thousands arrested and sent to die in the GULAG camps.[8] It is estimated that by the end of the 1930s the CP in Soviet Ukraine had been reduced by half. The same fate befell all those who tried to oppose the policy emanating from the new Great Russia, this time in false socialist guise. Stalin’s forced collectivization caused a famine in Ukraine between 1932 and 1934 in which millions of people died. Russification was imposed more strongly in Ukraine than in other nationalities, the Russian language was re-imposed and institutional authorities began to be replaced by Russians sent from the Kremlin. In addition, the implantation of the Russian population in the east and south of Ukraine was encouraged. And when the part of Ukraine that had remained in the power of Poland was annexed in 1939, the CP of that region was dissolved. Until then it had been part of the III International, which was later also dissolved. The theory of socialism in one country had been imposed, and everything was subordinated to the needs of the bureaucracy that centralized everything from Moscow. None of this could put an end to the resistance to the oppressor, although it was configured in a completely different way than it was in the late 19th century.

The void left by the Communist Party in Ukraine by transforming itself into the tool of the oppressor State, would gradually begin to be occupied by extreme right-wing nationalist organizations,[9] which, in opposition to the Stalinist regime and its false socialism, took an openly pro-capitalist orientation. In the following decades, the hatred against Stalinism and what many considered to emanate from Russian Marxism shaped the consciousness of a significant part of the mass movement and the Ukrainian working class.

It is not possible to understand why Ukrainian nationalism gained so much influence during Stalin’s “reign,” how it shifted to the right and everything that happened after the fall of the Soviet Union without analyzing how events unfolded. Neither can the labor movement be held responsible for its confusion and the setback it suffered in its conscience, since this was caused by decades of Stalinist barbarism.

In a world where there are still many widows of Stalinism, it is necessary to permanently remember the monstrous role played by the largest counterrevolutionary apparatus that has ever existed within the labor movement. And also, that the bureaucrats who were in charge of it until the ’90s, today have been recycled and are the oligarchs and officials who run the States where capitalism was restored, as is the case of Russia and China.

Ukrainian nationalism in the 21st century

The cynical Russian propaganda, which has confused a part of the left, tries to make people believe that the entire Ukrainian people are extreme right-wing and that the Nazis are a mass force in Ukraine. This is false.

There are Nazis, as there are also in Russia and in most European countries, whose electoral representation has never exceeded 2%, and they have just suffered the loss of most of their armed wing, the Azov Battalion.[10] But there is also an anarchist current that has formed its own battalion to fight the Russians, other small left organizations, like the Social Movement and our Ukrainian Socialist League, and also several pro-Russian, Stalinist organizations that have been outlawed.

Although there is currently no organized nationalist party or movement with mass influence, it is important to bear in mind that, being a nationality that has been oppressed for over a century, the demand of its national identity is very strong in the mass movement. The war took this to its maximum expression, hence the combative militancy of all the people against the invader.

As Lenin correctly explained, the profoundly reactionary nationalism of the masses of the oppressor nations is not the same as the nationalism of the oppressed nations, which is more contradictory, since it expresses a commitment to the struggle for their national liberation. Being internationalists, we must understand this phenomenon, not allow it to be capitalized only by the right, fighting the right for influence among the masses and their most militant vanguard, showing them in practice that we are and will be in the front line of combat in the struggle for national liberation against all kinds of external oppression. Only in this way will we be able to have a hearing and gain authority to develop our entire program, which of course does not end there but is combined with the tasks that lead us to economic and social change, to a workers’ government that gives birth to true socialism.

In some organizations of the left, especially those in imperialist countries or nations that oppress other peoples, there is a total misunderstanding of the fundamental weight that anti-imperialist and democratic tasks have in semi-colonial and oppressed countries.

The defense of the right to self-determination of peoples and the struggle against all kinds of national oppression is an essential part of the program of the socialist revolution. Failure to understand this is criminal and involves breaking with the tradition of revolutionary Marxism.

In Ukraine, where the people are waging a just war against the invasion of their territory by a power like Russia, being a consistent revolutionary implies supporting the armed resistance against the invader with all our might, regardless of the bourgeois and neoliberal character of Zelensky’s government that is leading that resistance. And the same orientation must be held all our international. Not acting like this, in addition to standing on the wrong side of the trenches, actually supporting the oppressor, implies giving up on building a revolutionary socialist organization in Ukraine and in all the former Soviet republics.

We have to understand that military support for a just cause, regardless of who leads, is an obligation, does not imply any political support or loss of independence, and is what truly revolutionary Marxism has always done.

Trotsky, who has written a lot about how revolutionaries should act in situations like these, referring to the war between imperialist Japan and semi-colonial China, in a letter to Mexican painter Diego Rivera dated September 23, 1937, said the following:

“In my declaration to the bourgeois press, I said that the duty of all the workers’ organizations of China was to participate actively and in the front lines of the present war against Japan, without abandoning, for a single moment, their own program and independent activity. But that is “social patriotism!” the Eiffelites cry. It is capitulation to Chiang Kai-shek! It is the abandonment of the principle of the class struggle! Bolshevism preached revolutionary defeatism in the imperialist war… These four lines, taken from an Eiffelite document of September 10, 1937, suffice entirely for us to say: we are concerned here with either real traitors or complete imbeciles. But imbecility, raised to this degree, is equal to treason.

We do not and never have put all wars on the same plane. Marx and Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy … at all events, Catholic reactionaries … But we, Marxists and Bolsheviks, considered the struggle of the Riffians against imperialist domination as a progressive war. Lenin wrote hundreds of pages demonstrating the primary necessity of distinguishing between imperialist nations and the colonial and semicolonial nations which comprise the great majority of humanity. To speak of “revolutionary defeatism” in general, without distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the service of the imperialists…

China is a semicolonial country which Japan is transforming, under our very eyes, into a colonial country. Japan’s struggle is imperialist and reactionary. China’s struggle is emancipatory and progressive. But Chiang Kai-shek? We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, his party, or the whole ruling class of China, just as Marx and Engels had no illusions about the ruling classes of Ireland and Poland. Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is struggling. Only cowards, scoundrels, or complete imbeciles can refuse to participate in that struggle.”

The sectarians and ultra-leftists are afraid of getting dirty with mud in the trenches of just wars that many times, as is the case in Ukraine, have to be shared with more or less extreme right-wingers. And that is why they decide not to participate, leaving the defense of just causes in the hands of the right and the masses at their mercy. And then they complain, generally blaming the masses, that the right, in its different shades, is almost the only visible political expression.

Because of these confusions and their petty-bourgeois class character, these expressions of the left end up abandoning any intention of building a revolutionary party in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and any country with complex processes. And there is no greater possible capitulation to the bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy than not building the indispensable tool for the revolution!!!

Our Ukrainian Socialist League is a year and a half old. It is small, with a few experienced comrades, but essentially union based, and a majority of young people in the process of training. It is exposed to multiple pressures and permanent repression. It will surely make many mistakes. But it is the only Trotskyist organization in Ukraine with a real existence, the only one that fights to provide a working class and revolutionary alternative to the masses, the only one that fights the bourgeoisie and the right on the ground, while the rest of the left follows what is happening through Putin or NATO’s media, from thousands of kilometers away in the comfort of their home.

June 27, 2022

[1] The Collapse of the Second International, Lenin, May-June 1915.

[2] See: “Putin and Russian Imperialism, Some Debates,” by Sergio García (MST) and “What is Imperialism? Are China and Russia Imperialist?” by Gunes Gumus (SEP), both from 2022.

[3] This is how Lenin characterized this type of war. He had heard the term from W. Liebknecht, leader of the German Social Democratic Party and father of German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht.

[4] Collective Security Treaty Organization, political and military agreement of Russia with various ex Soviet republics close to it.

[5] While writing this, the Russian army was close to achieving this.

[6] The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Lenin, November 1, 1914.

[7] Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine, Apropos of the Victories Over Denikin, Lenin, 1919.

[8] The GULAG was the government agency of the Soviet Union that created the forced labor camps run by the KGB under the Stalin regime.

[9] In 1929, the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization was formed and split in 1940 between the followers of Stepan Bandera and Andriy Mélnyk. Those led by Bandera founded the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1942, which confronted the Soviet army under the flag of independence, allied with the Nazis when they invaded the Soviet Union, then broke and confronted both. They also organized lynchings of Jews and other atrocities. They were annihilated in 1960. Currently, two small organizations claim to be its heirs and there are attempts by the bourgeoisie to show Bandera as a hero of the struggle for independence, hiding his crimes and reactionary character.

[10] Most of the members of the infamous Azov Battalion, made up of Nazi-oriented hooligans, have been killed or taken prisoner by the Russians.