Internationalism and the War in Ukraine

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now approaching the two month mark. Like other imperialist conflicts in the past, it has put the internationalist convictions of revolutionaries to the test.

In 1914 the Second International spectacularly failed to honour its own previous resolutions to use all means to stop the imperialist war machine. It took the Bolsheviks, the Bulgarian Tesnyaki (Narrow) party and other parties of the International (such as the Serbian and the Polish Social Democratic parties) to lead the internationalist fight against the war. This was particularly significant in the case of the small Serbian Social Democratic Party since Serbia, like Ukraine today, was under invasion by a more powerful neighbour. They refused to vote for war credits despite the invasion of Serbian lands. A leading member explained this in 1915:

For us it was clear that, as far as the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was concerned, our country was obviously in a defensive position. Serbia is defending its life and its independence, which Austria was constantly threatening even before the Sarajevo assassination. And if Social Democracy had a legitimate right to vote for war anywhere, then certainly that was the case in Serbia above all. However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Serbia and Austria was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal, European war, and this latter — we were profoundly convinced of this — could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character. As a result, we — being a part of the great socialist, proletarian International — considered that it was our bounden duty to oppose the war resolutely. - Dušan A. Popović1

All the revolutionary defeatist socialists stood firm in the face of a great chauvinist wave which temporarily drowned out the socialist consciousness of millions of workers. It would take a couple of years before the real consequences of the war would come home to workers across the imperialist divide. In Russia it would lead the working class to overthrow, first Tsarism, and then the bourgeoisie, who tried to steal their revolution in 1917. And in Germany and Austria-Hungary, it would be mass workers’ uprisings which would finally end the imperialist slaughter in November 1918.

These episodes from the past are the inspiration of the Communist Left organisations of today, none of whom have been found wanting in taking an internationalist line on the war, whatever other disagreements exist between them. Not only ourselves2 , but others like the International Communist Party (in all its variants), the International Communist Current, as well as smaller organisations like the Internationalist Group of the Communist Left (Canada/France) and Internationalist Communist Perspective (South Korea), have all issued statements, held meetings, and made analyses based on the premise that “workers have no country”. The latter two have responded positively to our “Call for Action”3 to create “No War but the Class War” (NWBCW) committees wherever feasible, as has Controverses in Belgium, who have also helpfully made a compilation of organisations and their internationalist statements up until 14 April. These can be read at leftcommunism.org.

Happily too, organisations beyond the Communist Left tradition, like the anarcho-syndicalist KRAS (section of the IWA) in Russia and the Czech group Třídní Válka (Class War), have also come out with statements condemning both sides in the war and calling for “revolutionary defeatism”.

After that the picture is a little more confused. Whilst organisations like the Anarchist Communist Group and the Solidarity Federation in the UK tend to hold internationalist positions, other anarchist formations like Freedom and the Anarchist Federation have tended towards defencism on the spurious grounds that there is a workers' resistance in Ukraine, independent of the state, which has to be supported. The Angry Workers of the World seem unable to agree what position to take, while even Mouvement Communiste/KPK (France, Belgium and Czech Republic) have been seduced by the fiction that there is some independent workers' resistance in Ukraine which we should take note of. All the evidence suggests that the militias fighting there are adjuncts to the Ukrainian Army, when they are not like the Azov Battalion, a formation originally of neo-Nazis (with the SS Wolfsangel as its badge) but which now welcomes all kinds of nationalists. This apparently includes some anarchists. And there are many anarchist groups in Eastern Europe who have taken up defencist positions in support of Ukraine. To give just one example, we quote from one group whose name has been translated as Anarchist Fighter. It is a model of confusion and doublethink:

We, the collective of Anarchist Fighter, are by no means fans of the Ukrainian state. We have repeatedly criticised it and supported opposition to it in the past ... And we will definitely return to this policy in the future, when the threat of Russian conquest has receded. All states are concentration camps. But what is happening now in Ukraine goes beyond this simple formula, and the principle that every anarchist should fight for the defeat of their country in war.4

First of all, "workers have no country". The nation-state is just the perfect embodiment of the rule of capital. The capitalists own the country (40% 0f Ukraine's wealth is in the hands of a few dozen oligarchs). The argument posed here is that somehow the war has nothing to do with the class struggle and that the latter should be suspended until it is over. The same position as many "socialist" defencists in the First World War.

Workers' resistance we do applaud emanates from Russian soldiers who have refused to fight, knowing that they will suffer at the hands of their own state, or those Ukrainian workers who have chosen preservation of their lives, before defending an abstract nationalism based on the defence of the property of their exploiters. In the meantime, both Russia and Ukraine are preparing for workers to be cannon fodder whether they like it or not.5 This is the nature of imperialist war which the world capitalist system engenders but which the working class everywhere pays for both mortally and materially.

And those who take up arms for either side in an imperialist conflict are taking up arms against the working class. These activist types sneer at internationalists for "doing nothing", which in their immediatist perspective means siding with the state and capitalism. Our anarchists criticised above have a very similar position to the Trotskyists, Stalinists and Maoists of the state capitalist left. For them, “imperialism” is not a stage of capitalism but a policy visited on the world only by the West, led by the USA. We will be obliged to analyse more of the machinations of these various tendencies in future articles but for now this gem from the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) gives an example:

It must be stressed that opposition to Putin does not involve aligning with imperialism. Pseudo-left denunciations of Russian and Chinese “imperialism” have no relation to the historical development of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.6

We proudly plead guilty to the charge that we see all states today as part of an imperialist nexus. There may be great powers, and what we have sometimes called “underdog imperialists”, but they are all forced by a rapacious system to bring death and destruction across the planet. There are no “lesser evils” for us to support today as the 1915 quote from Popović above makes clear.

The SEP comment also reveals another danger. In the minds of our state capitalists, opposition to Putin does not necessarily mean opposition to Russian imperialist ambitions. Thus the shorthand slogan “Neither NATO nor Putin” (which the CWO used in its first leaflet7 on the war) can be easily be distorted to disguise support for Russia. This is nothing new. Genuine internationalists are well aware that the capitalist left will also try to steal our slogans (after all, they already represent fake “communism”, and fake “internationalism”). Some have already used NWBCW images without even minimally discussing what it means. One of our tasks will be to expose the false flags they are flying, as they hide their pacifism and/or support for one imperialist (the "lesser evil") faction over another. We will have more to say on this in the coming weeks.

The fight to get rid of the entire mode of production is very complex and long term. We are talking nothing less than revolution. This can only come about when the vast mass of the working class purposefully come together to carry it out. Much easier for some minority to pretend that it has a "real" solution for now. This is the mentality of the trade unionist who is ready to argue for higher wages but not for an end to the wages system. Similarly the reformism of such “left” political parties stems from their view that socialism or communism is just a state-controlled and more “benign” version of existing society – capitalism. This is the counter-revolutionary legacy that emerged not from the Russian Revolution but from its defeat, and it is totally alien to the society of “freely associated producers” envisaged by Marx.

By contrast, we take the long view that, in the years to come, we will have to fight both for an anti-war and anti-capitalist struggle. This is why we are supporting NWBCW. It is not only an attempt to gather genuine revolutionaries around an anti-war stance but also to use that agreement to take an anti-capitalist message to the wider working class in the sure and certain knowledge that communism is the only society which can put an end to war. But communism cannot be imposed from above. It can only arise from the real movement of the class, of which revolutionary minorities are essential parts. We are not starting from a great place – decades of class retreat on top of a century of counter-revolutionary propaganda means that there are enormous obstacles to the emergence of a class movement. It certainly won't arise overnight. What is clear to see however is an increasingly existential crisis of humanity which demands a global revolutionary solution. Only the world working class can do this by ending capitalist exploitation and imperialist war. This is why we need something like NWBCW. In our original "Call for Action" we put forward how we see the world. We don't however expect others from different traditions to sign up to every letter of it.

Based on the legacy bequeathed to us by the Internationalist Communist Party in its fight against both imperialist alliances in the Second World War8 , and our own past experience of struggle against the war in Iraq, as well as the present discussions we have had with others who hold an internationalist perspective, we would say that the minimum basis for cooperation would involve the following points:

• Against capitalism, imperialism and all nationalisms. No support for any national capitals, “lesser evils”, or states in formation.
• For a society where states, wage-labour, private property, money and production for profit are replaced by a world of freely associated producers.
• Against the economic and political attacks that the current war, and the ones to come, will unleash on the working class.
• For the self-organised struggle of the working class, for the formation of independent strike committees, mass assemblies and workers’ councils.
• Against oppression and exploitation, for the unity of the working class and the coming together of genuine internationalists.

The way ahead will not be easy but, given the seriousness of the situation, revolutionary minorities have to act now to prepare the way for the wider international class movement of tomorrow.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
23 April 2022

  • 1Popović though was to leave Serbia, and the Party, in 1917 when it began to support the Entente powers. He died in London a year later. He was originally buried in Highgate Cemetery, near Karl Marx but, in a gross insult to his internationalism, the Titoists had his remains removed to their "Alley of Greats" in Belgrade in 1959.
  • 2There are several statements on our site but the first in the earliest days of the war, agreed by the whole ICT, is the following statement: leftcom.org
  • 3leftcom.org
  • 4crimethinc.com
  • 5All Russian males of military age have been told to be prepared to be called up and Ukraine has forbidden males between 18-60 from leaving the country. And just to underline the nature of this war, the Zelensky government has already drawn up plans to curtail labour rights in the interests of capital. See: opendemocracy.net
  • 6wsws.org
  • 7leftcom.org
  • 8The Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt) was founded in 1943 against all sides in the Second World War. Its struggle cost some of its members their lives at the hands of both the Gestapo and the Stalinists. It too called for a united proletarian front against the war and welcomed workers from various traditions. Their Appeal of 1 February 1944 was able to announce that:

    workers (the label of their political faith does not matter) have become disseminators of our party's appeal, and, having discussed and clarified and accepted the ideas that justify them, they initiated the first contacts and the first groups organised in the workplace. After all, the workers have clearly demonstrated that they are now masters in the art of organisation in spite of the bosses and their Fascist servants. (leftcom.org)

    For more articles on the history of the PCInt see: leftcom.org

Comments

adri

2 years 1 month ago

Submitted by adri on May 22, 2022

The Angry Workers of the World seem unable to agree what position to take. . . .

Surprised there wasn't any discussion on that one Angry Workers piece (this I believe, "‘No war but the class war’. Not a very useful slogan"). I'd agree in general about not elevating some slogan to an article of faith, but I wouldn't really say "no war but the class war" is entirely useless in the current Ukraine situation.

adri

2 years ago

Submitted by adri on May 26, 2022

jaycee wrote: I thought Shugs response was good while it lasted

It's gone because they realized I wasn't criticizing the article and that I actually like much of the ICT's stuff. I also can't think of anything more anti-Marx than going around saying that certain ideas are not "Marxist," or are contrary to the wisdom of Marx and Engels (as if Marx were the same as Engels and as if Marx's writings form some coherent and consistent whole). What's anti-Marx is putting unthinking slogans in place of a careful examination of current events in Ukraine. With that said, I do agree with much of the article and that people should not travel to Ukraine or fight alongside/form alliances with Ukrainian nationalists.

jaycee

2 years ago

Submitted by jaycee on May 27, 2022

I get the unease having never lived through a war situation telling people in that situation that you know better than them what they should be doing, but it's not about individuals at the end of the day.

When it comes to political positions, principle should come first. Like Shug said internationalism is not a 'slogan' it is the heart and essence of what makes the proletariat revolutionary. Without it the proletariat and its organisations have no perspective to offer.

The idea that 'supporting' ukraine is 'doing something' whereas saying nwbcw is standing on the sideline is ridiculous. Neither has much effect on the present. The point of a revolutionary position/organisation isn't about the present though. It's about the perspective of the proletariat which as I said is inseperable from internationalism.

adri

2 years ago

Submitted by adri on May 27, 2022

jaycee wrote: When it comes to political positions, principle should come first. Like Shug said internationalism is not a 'slogan' it is the heart and essence of what makes the proletariat revolutionary. Without it the proletariat and its organisations have no perspective to offer.

I'm sure you would make an exception for Marx's support of the Union during the Civil War, even though the Northern States and US government had actively assisted the development of Northern industry? Northern textile workers (mostly women) were also among the first to employ the term "wage slavery," and frequently/rhetorically compared their bondage to the slaves of the South or the serfs of Russia (in opposition to those who claimed wage-labor was freedom). A Northern proletariat was thus well-established by the time the Civil War came around, and Marx (correctly), after examining the American situation, put aside his "political principles" about the self-emancipation of the working class and workers having no country/nation[1] to support the Union effort.

This of course isn't the American Civil War, but it is really not helpful to say that one's position on Ukraine or whatever else should only be informed by political principles/slogans, rather than an actual examination of current affairs. And just to be clear again, I have never argued that people should travel to Ukraine or form alliances with Ukrainian nationalists; I have only said that political positions should be informed by more than just unthinking slogans.

1. "The nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is labour, free slavery, self-huckstering. His government is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is capital. His native air is neither French, nor German, nor English, it is factory air." See here.

jaycee

2 years ago

Submitted by jaycee on May 28, 2022

I think you underplay the importance of the fact that this 'isn't the American civil War' its a completely different situation and time. Marx supported the Union because the North was developing capitalism not in spite of the fact. This was a time when there were non-capitalist powers in the world and the building of an international proletariat was seen by Marx as a pre-requisite for the communist revolution.

I would say that Marx did possibly go a bit over the top in his support for the Union (writing to Abraham Lincoln wasn't his best moment) but again it isn't about him as an individual. The perspective he put forward is key. At that time it made sense to see the development of capitalism as 'progressive' because it it was laying the foundations for its overthrow i.e a global proletariat. This global proletariat has been established for over 100 years now. Humanity doesn't need any more capitalist 'development' now. Of course each situation should be looked at in detail but there are some things that are the same regardless and this general global context is key.

Ukraine/the west are no more progressive/less destructive than Russia. Support for Ukraine is support for the Ukrainian nationalism/imperialism/Western imperialism. A few anarchist battalions isn't going to alter this fact; does that mean I condemn people for 'defending themselves'? obviously not, but as I said a political organisation has to put forward a clear line and a clear perspective. I just don't see how muddying the waters with 'nuanced' support for imperialism helps matters.

adri

2 years ago

Submitted by adri on May 28, 2022

jaycee wrote: This was a time when there were non-capitalist powers in the world and the building of an international proletariat was seen by Marx as a pre-requisite for the communist revolution.

On the contrary, Marx saw potential in the development of the Russian mir, after the 1861 emancipation of the serfs, in order to avoid, "all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime." Marx was similar in that regard to the narodniks and anarchists like Bakunin, though Bakunin had his criticisms of the mir (its conformist and patriarchal character, along with peasants' affection for the tsar). So it is not the case that Marx had always seen "the building of an international proletariat" as a pre-requisite for communist revolution.

jaycee wrote: Marx supported the Union because the North was developing capitalism not in spite of the fact.

Marx obviously supported the Union in the Civil War because slavery was a horrendous institution and ending it was progressive. However, he did not think that the lower classes should have simply adapted themselves to the growth of industry in the name of "progress." As I mentioned before Northern governments such as in New England assisted the development of industry by, for example, allowing textile-mill owners to divert water in order to power water wheels. In the process they also undermined the lower classes' subsistence practices, who relied on such rivers for fish. Marx did not argue that the lower classes should have simply contented themselves with such changes/violence. Speaking on capitalist agriculture in Europe for example, Marx wrote in an 1853 article in the New York Daily Tribune: "But can there be anything more puerile, more short-sighted, than the views of those Economists who believe in all earnest that this woeful transitory state means nothing but adapting society to the acquisitive propensities of capitalists, both landlords and money-lords? In Great Britain the working of that process is most transparent. The application of modern science to production clears the land of its inhabitants, but it concentrates people in manufacturing towns." So it is also not the case that Marx "welcomed" such violence towards the lower classes in the name of progress (as illustrated in him saying Russia could avoid capitalist development).

jaycee

2 years ago

Submitted by jaycee on May 28, 2022

I think you've misinterpreted me a bit; I know Marx didn't think every single part of the world had to go through its own bourgeois revolution; he indeed hoped some parts like Russia might be spared this process.

Likewise I'm aware that he didn't simply 'welcome' the 'progress' of capitalism but called on the workers and the oppressed everywhere to fight for their own interests. However he did see the 'progressiveness' of capitalism in the fact that it created the means of its own destruction ( not for anything inherent to capitalism itself) and this is precisely the international proletariat. I'll respond in more detail to some of your other points when I get a bit more time but thought I should say that.