Sunday, May 12, 2024

Ukraine’s fight for freedom: a socialist case for solidarity and self-determination

Historian and activist Paul Le Blanc offers an essential socialist perspective on the Russia-Ukraine war, arguing for solidarity with Ukraine's fight for self-determination while opposing the imperialist agendas of both Russia and Western powers. Drawing on history and revolutionary principles, Le Blanc makes the case that the democratic and socialist left must stand with Ukraine's resistance by any means necessary. The text is based on a talk that Le Blanc delivered on April 15, 2024. First published at Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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It is necessary for those who support socialism and democracy to support Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion of their country.  Here I want to offer some historical and political background as to why I think this is so. 

There have been many economic, political, and cultural similarities between Russia and Ukraine – in part because Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire since the reign of Catherine the Great in the late 1700s.  The Russian Empire was long known by revolutionaries as “a prison-house of nations” precisely because it was made up of the gradual conquest and forced absorption of multiple nations and peoples into an expanding territory dominated by the powerful, violent authoritarian monarchy of the Tsars.

The economy was initially a form of feudalism, in which a mass of peasants were brutally exploited by a wealthy minority of hereditary land-owning nobles, supported by the Tsarist regime.  In the course of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, the Tsars also sought to advance a process of capitalist industrialization throughout the Empire, to make Russia more competitive – economically and militarily – in the global power struggles of the time.

This had the unintended consequence, however, of helping to generate socialist and labor movements that were increasingly drawn to the banner of Marxism, and which culminated in the Communist revolution of 1917 led by Lenin and his comrades which – after a three-year civil war – replaced both feudalism and capitalism with what many hoped would blossom into a socialist economy.  Instead, as the regime of Lenin gave way to that of Joseph Stalin, a bureaucratic-authoritarian order dominated most of what had been the Russian Empire, including what is now Russia and now Ukraine.  A state-controlled “Command Economy” drove forward, through brutal means, the modernization of the economy of what became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR). 

Despite the economic gains of this new system, it was beset by deep-rooted contradictions and instabilities.  These were related to the oppressiveness of the bureaucratic system, with its systematic violations of human rights and popular aspirations; it was also related to ongoing hostility and economic rivalry from highly advanced capitalist sections of the world.  Such problems and pressures eventually led to the collapse of the economic and political system of the USSR.  One aspect of this collapse was a resurgent nationalism which caused the break-away of oppressed territories out of the old “prison-house of nations,” leading for example to the independence of Ukraine in 1991. The collapse also involved elements in the upper strata of the bureaucratic dictatorship embracing a transition back to capitalism, while taking what had been publicly owned resources and wealth into their own hands.  The rise of these capitalist “Oligarchs” occurred throughout the disintegrating USSR – in Ukraine and Russia alike.  The economy of both has been privatized, giving rise to domination by these self-interested economic oligarchs. This is combined with breath-taking corruption and soaring inequality, at the expense of the great majority of Russians and Ukrainians.  Such capitalism, in the period of the Russia-Ukraine war, is the dominant mode of production on both sides.

Some elements in the nationalist resurgence in the former USSR had connection with old versions of extreme right-wing, authoritarian, racist (often antisemitic) nationalism prevalent throughout Eastern Europe – very much including in Ukraine and Tsarist Russia.  While this was antithetical to Marxist and Communist ideology, since the collapse of Communism it has sometimes taken the form of neo-fascist and neo-Nazi ideologies and organizations, particularly on the war front, and on both sides.  Serious analysts, however, note that this is marginal – as would make sense, given the horrific experience of the murderous Nazi onslaught during World War II.

On the other hand, there are significant differences between the Putin and Zelensky regimes — as well as one significant similarity: that neither is worthy of socialist support.

We can look first at Russia.  When Boris Yeltsin displaced the reforming Communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, leading to the destruction of the USSR, he introduced transition policies marked by corruption, chaos, and the downward spiral of the economy and of Russian living standards.  This was accompanied by the ballooning power of the Oligarchs. 

Out of this catastrophic situation, Vladimir Putin came to power, imposing a so-called “managed democracy” and a regulated capitalism.  The Oligarchs were cut down to size, forced to follow new rules set by Putin’s state. 

Putin and those close to him were able to secure their hold of colossal wealth, but in order to justify the increased centralization of political power and to provide an ideological rationale for an increasingly unified Russian state, they voiced the conservative ideals from the old Tsarist order: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. By “Orthodoxy” such ideologists referred to the dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church.  By “Autocracy” they referred to a despotic regime that does not tolerate challenges to its authority and makes use of brutally violent Cossacks and other repressive forces to intimidate critics and crush all serious dissent. By “Nationality” they referred to the aggressive domination of a vast empire in which all ethnic groups were to abandon their distinctive cultures and languages, adopting instead those of a unified Great Russia.  Putin has explained his outlook in terms such as these.

One source of Putin’s power he owed to his largely (but not entirely) inept predecessor Boris Yeltsin.  Yeltsin found himself challenged, in his inegalitarian and corrupt policies of capitalist transition, by a semi-democratic parliament established in the wake of Communism’s collapse. With support from the army, he rode roughshod over Russia’s parliament, finally physically assaulting it and ordering its dissolution. He pushed through a new constitution that created an authoritarian executive branch of government to enable him to rule by decree.  This paved the way for Putin’s later mode of operation, prevalent today.

This kind of political centralization and authoritarianism did not crystallize in Ukraine, although as Yuliya Yurchenko tells us an “authoritarian neoliberal kleptocracy” – not brought to heal by a figure like Putin – has continued to shape policies in Ukraine, at the expense of a majority of the country’s laboring people.  Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected on an anti-corruption platform, yet the assessment of the Zelensky government offered by Social Movement activist Vladyslav Starodubtsev is shared by many Ukrainian socialists:

Even before the war, this has been one of the most popular governments Ukraine has had — which is not saying anything good about it, it was just not as awful as the previous ones. Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, has become the most progressive party in parliament on social issues such as LGBTQ rights, opposing violence against women, and so on. But most of these policies have been promoted with European integration in mind, and not because the party is itself progressive.

On the economic front, Zelensky’s party has a market fundamentalist orientation, adopting neoliberal legislation to deregulate labor relations, which has weakened the power of collective labor contracts and trade unions. Due to its market fundamentalist outlook, it views trade unions and any form of economic democracy as harmful to economic development.

We also must consider the global framework of the conflict, which involves the centrality of imperialism to world politics.  Those who believe in socialism and democracy — rule by the people over our economic and political life — must oppose it.  By imperialism, I am referring to military and/or political and/or economic expansion beyond the borders of one’s own country for the purpose of ensuring the well-being of one’s economy, including the need to secure markets, raw materials and investment opportunities.  US imperialism is a reality in our world. This has been so at least since the 1890s, although it could be argued that this has been the case since the 1790s.  But neither Lenin nor Rosa Luxemburg saw imperialism as representing a single evil country, but rather all countries in our epoch — oppressed by competing and contending elites of the so-called “Great Powers” — and reflecting the capitalist dynamics of the global economy. Both Lenin and Luxemburg saw imperialism as very much including both the US and Russia. That remains the case today.

Focusing for a moment on US imperialism, one must understand that a key imperialist instrument is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  It is a military alliance designed in 1949 to contain and push back the threat to capitalist interests represented by the Soviet Union and possible revolutionary insurgencies. Yet another instrument of capitalist expansion and stability has been the European Union (EU).  Both NATO and the EU figure into a shrewd analysis developed by political scientist John Mearsheimer, an influential critic of recent US foreign policy. He asserts that US policymakers “have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border.”  He sees NATO expansion and EU expansion as seeking to make Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, at the expense of Russian power interests.

There are irreconcilable differences between Mearsheimer’s liberal-realist outlook and the revolutionary socialist approach of Lenin, which influences my own approach.   I want to conclude by describing what amounts to a debate between Mearsheimer and Lenin.  

Mearsheimer notes that the US power elite, when finding itself in a similar situation to that of Putin today, has overthrown “democratically elected leaders in the Western hemisphere during the Cold War because we were unhappy with their policies. This is the way great powers behave.”  He sees as reasonable, therefore, Putin’s desire “to install in Kyiv a pro-Russian government, a government that is attuned to Moscow’s interests.”  He believes that the US government and the Russian government can and should negotiate in way that respects each other’s “interests,” and work out a compromise consistent with those interests.

Lenin’s revolutionary Marxist approach is different from that of Mearsheimer.  He emphasizes the reality of class conflict, refusing to blur all classes together with the governments of their specific countries.  The foreign policies of the “great powers” are always in the interest of privileged and wealthy elites, and at the expense of the laboring majorities.  He absolutely rejects the right of “great powers” to insist on having their way. 

Mearsheimer tells us: “In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if the Ukrainians were free to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy.  But,” he admonishes, “in the real world, that is not feasible. The Ukrainians have a vested interest in paying serious attention to what the Russians want from them. They run a grave risk if they alienate the Russians in a fundamental way.”

No, Lenin responds.  In an ideal world, the Ukrainians would have the right to self-determination – for a free and independent Ukraine, for political and economic democracy and a decent life for all.  True, in the “real world” such things are not feasible.  But instead of bowing to one’s oppressor, one should demand “the impossible” and fight to make what is “ideal” the new reality.  This will mean fighting against Putin’s invasion, just as it will mean fighting against Zelensky’s neoliberalism.  And one thing more – among “the Russians” there are people like us who hunger for political and economic democracy and a decent life for all.  And there are such people among the Western Europeans, among the peoples of the Americas and Asia and Africa.  The struggle must include all of us if we are to have a truly ideal world.

I want to add a couple of extra minutes to my presentation in order to take up an important question.  Where will Ukrainian freedom fighters get their arms?  They will get their arms wherever they can, however they can – otherwise their fight for freedom will inevitably go down to bloody defeat at the hands of their oppressors.

This life-or-death question has come up time and again down through history.  And freedom fighters sometimes acquire such arms from rivals of their oppressors, even from sources representing the opposite of what one is fighting for.

One of many examples can be found in the American Revolution of 1775-83. [1] Money, arms and direct military support from the French monarchy helped anti-colonial revolutionaries of North America to break free from the British monarchy. Some argue that imperialist powers provide such assistance to manipulate the situation for their own advantage. Absolutely — that is what imperialists always do.  But revolutionaries and freedom fighters also seek to manipulate the situation for the advantage of their cause.

This leads to my final point.  It would have been a mistake for American revolutionaries, in exchange for French assistance, to violate revolutionary principles by integrating themselves into the French Empire — just as it would be a mistake for revolutionaries of today to integrate themselves into NATO. But it is not a mistake, in a life and death struggle, for freedom fighters to accept weapons from either the French monarchy of 1778 or from nations belonging to NATO today.  If the cause of revolutionaries and freedom fighters is just, they will be inclined to struggle for victory by any means necessary.

[1] Among examples worth exploring from the 20th century: the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36, the Spanish Civil War of 1935-39, the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45, numerous anti-colonial struggles from the 1940s through the 1970s.

Paul Le Blanc is the author of works on the labour and socialist movements, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1990), From Marx to Gramsci (1996), and Leon Trotsky (2015). He is an editor of the eight-volume International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest, and a co-editor of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg.

See also:

Ireland and Ukraine’s Struggle for Independence, 1916-1923,