An article on the Ukraine-Russia war, from Insurgent Notes from December 2022.
Winter is drawing in. The first year of the Ukrainian war is coming to an end. The war itself though looks set to continue. The mere passage of time will not stop the horrors. Russia is talking of the war ultimately needing a negotiated settlement. The key word here is “ultimately.” There is no sign of light at the end of the tunnel. Neither side has the ability to win outright. At the moment there seems to be no basis around which a compromise can be made. In these conditions there seems to be no alternative to the atrocities continuing. We in Konflikt believe the war will go on and on.
The response of the vast majority of the left to the war is akin to that of the American public at the start of February. People across the land decide which team they are going to root for in the Super Bowl. The left, too, is doing the same thing. It treats war and human catastrophe as some sort of game where one has to pick a team to support. This is a more serious intellectual game. On a superficial level the arguments seem to have more depth than “the Rams suck,” but not by much.
On the most basic level, supporters of each side have accused the other of being “Nazis.” Those supporting Ukraine accuse Putin of being a fascist. Those supporting Russia say that the Ukrainians are World War II Nazis reborn. Putin himself, accused by some of being another Hitler, throws the same accusation back and talks of the “denazification of Ukraine.” The very word “Nazi” itself has become yet another slogan to encourage workers to go out and kill each other. On a slightly more sophisticated level, there are those who talk of Ukraine’s “right to self-determination.” They talk of freedom, and the right of people to govern themselves. Others claim that Russia is fighting against imperialism. They, too, talk of freedom. Only this time it is freedom from American, not Russian, domination. We don’t want to address these arguments in this article, as we’ve dealt with them before at length.1
In this piece we want to tackle a different subject, about what “revolutionary defeatism” means today. In a world where the working class is weak, and revolution seems further away than ever, does it even have any meaning to bring up ideas and approaches from a century ago, or is it just the same sort of leftist pontificating as the slogans of the rest of the left? The argument of the “defeatists” is a simple one. At heart it says that the interests of the working class are opposed to their own bosses, and aligned with those of workers in other countries. It’s the same argument as that of Lenin and the revolutionaries in 1914. Opposed to the rabid pro-war jingoism of most “socialist” parties, the revolutionaries argued that workers should oppose the war, and rather than kill other workers to make the bosses in their own country richer, they should overthrow their own governments, and stop the war. In the end it was workers refusal to fight each other, and willingness to fight against their own governments that ended the war.
Today though, virtually nobody on the left takes this line. Nearly all groups claiming to be in the revolutionary tradition agree that it was the right line to take in 1914, but not now. If asked to explain in what way it was different, they have a host of answers to the question. Those who support Ukraine talk of how it is one small country being attacked by a bigger, more powerful one. It’s as if they have the idea that before communists can take a position against war, both sides must be exactly equally powerful. Of course this will never happen, so these “communists” will never actually have to oppose any wars. In fact, what happened in 1914 when the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire attacked little Serbia was that Serbian socialists rejected the idea of national defense, and resolutely came out against the war and both sides. This was because they believed that the war couldn’t be viewed in isolation, and it had to be seen within the context of imperial rivalry. The defenders of Ukraine today avoid this completely. They are completely blind that this “brave small country” is armed to the teeth by all the Western powers. America alone has supplied Ukraine with more money for arms already than Russia’s defense budget for an entire year. This war truly is a conflict between rival imperialisms, America/nato versus Russia. “nato socialists” talk with some leftwing veneer whilst all the time supporting the same sort of line as their own government.
Those who support Russia do talk of imperialism. They just refuse to see that Russia is an imperialist state too. Usually they justify this by some talk of finance capital that they clearly don’t understand. For them, every state or movement that is opposed to America is somehow “anti-imperialist.” They fail to see that imperialism today is a world system that no state can stand apart from. In their view, Russian bombs are good, whereas American ones are bad. The export of Chinese finance capital to Africa somehow takes on a progressive character, as opposed to America’s “evil” exploitation of Africa. While certainly in one way it’s not quite so repulsive as supporting your own government’s policies, it’s still calling on the workers of the world to unite behind anti-working class capitalist states. Those who are supporting Russia in this war tend to take up other “anti-imperialist” causes, such as supporting Iran’s suppression of anti-government protestors, as they claim they are all organized by the cia. What both of them have in common though is that when they come across people rejecting the war, they come out with the same line. When people say that workers on both sides should refuse to die to make the rich rich, they reply that it’s not realistic. Which brings us to the question of what the term “revolutionary defeatism” means today.
“There is no possibility of revolution today,” say those who decry the idea of revolutionary defeatism. “In a perfect world it would be possible, but not today,” they bemoan. Leaving aside the fact that if we lived in a perfect world there wouldn’t be this terrible war, it seems clear that most of the “left” have abandoned any idea of a revolutionary perspective at all. Any idea of workers’ power is put off until some unknown point in the future. It leaves the “left” as little more than cheerleaders in some game of international geopolitics.
Nevertheless, we must realize the reality of the situation. The working class is weak, not just in Russia and Ukraine, but internationally. While we may be seeing an upturn in the class struggle currently, we are still a far cry from the level of class struggle that existed in the period of the late 1960s to early 1980s. Are we completely out of touch with reality to talk of revolution and defeatism today?
We think not. It’s not just revolution that could stop the war. Rising class struggle itself could force the belligerents to the negotiating table. If workers in the West refuse to bear the costs of the war, and workers in the warzone refuse to fight and die in it, then the rival imperialists may feel forced to look for an end to the slaughter.
If the so-called revolutionaries are unclear on this, then the ruling class are not. In the United Kingdom, the Western country currently suffering most acutely from the crisis, and seeing the highest level of workers’ response to it, the governing party is in no doubt on this question. The chairman of the Conservative Party has openly told striking nurses that they shouldn’t ask for more money as it helps Putin and damages the war effort. “This is a time to come together and to send a very clear message to Mr. Putin that we’re not going to be divided in this way… our message to the unions is to say this is not a time to strike, this is a time to try to negotiate,” implored Nadhim Zahawi.2
The message is very clear. Workers should shut their mouths, and accept below inflation pay rises, essentially pay cuts in order to enable the country to fund death and destruction in the war in the East. Nurses’ leaders have been quick to condemn these words. “[It is] a new low [for the government to] use Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the United Kingdom,” said Pat Cullen.3
We believe that the United Kingdom government is clearly expressing its class interests here. The crisis and the war has caused massive inflation, and if Western regimes are to finance this war, they need to make the working class pay for it.4
Although the strike wave that is slowly spreading across Western countries is based upon economic demands, it ultimately raises deeper questions of whether the working class can be forced to pay for the war.
The American state is also very clear on this with Joe Biden using Congress to impose a settlement to stop a potential rail workers’ strike. Even here in Bulgaria, a country which has a low level of class struggle, the state has used its courts to declare workers strikes illegal. One hundred and thirty-six nurses in Dobrich were individually prosecuted in order to discourage discontent in the health system.5
The message is crystal clear. Nothing must be allowed to break national unity and the ability of the West to finance its war. The converse is also true. It’s not only that workers need large pay rises just to maintain already low living standards, but also that a massive pay revolt could threaten the war effort.
If the class is to build unity in order to fight these struggles, one of the potential obstacles to this is divisions over which side to support in wars. In the West, the relevance of this point may appear moot. But in countries like Bulgaria, where there are historic and cultural ties to Russia (and therefore more sympathy for it), there have been cases of physical fighting in the streets of the capital. Not between Russians and Ukrainians, of whom there are many here, but between Bulgarians themselves. This was on a very low level, but as the war intensifies and drags on it could well get worse. In the wars of the Middle East, it’s a much more salient point.
The Syrian war always had the potential to spread across borders. The same ethnic and religious groups exist across all the borders of the region. The same forces that exist in Syria also exist in Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. Iraq has been war-torn for years now, Turkey has its near four decade long barbaric war against the Kurds, and Lebanon has seen firefights between the protagonists in the Syrian war. The threat of the war spreading there was very, very real.
For communists the question is clear. It’s not possible to build class unity around support for factions in a foreign war when the sides in that ethnosectarian war are built along the very same divides that are pulling the working class apart at home. Taking an internationalist position and arguing against all ethnosectarian factions abroad is an intrinsic part of building class unity at home, and stopping the war from spreading across borders.
This isn’t the war to end all wars. War has become a constant. The decline of America and the rise of China will lead to new conflicts. While the working class in America and the West has not been divided along pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian lines, we’ve seen in the past how war has been used to reinforce divisions in the working class in the endless conflicts in the Middle East, and the bile and hatred thrown at workers from Muslim and Middle Eastern backgrounds.
For us, a refusal to take sides in the war is a basic step towards building the class unity that will be required to build a movement that can, if not overthrow the states involved in the war, then at least force them to stop the slaughter.
Then of course we remember that at the start of the First World War, the revolutionaries were a tiny minority. Yet four years later they stopped the war. This war will continue, and the situation at the front will get worse, and the crisis will cause economic attacks on workers in other countries to increase. We should always remember that “there are weeks when decades happen.”6
- 1Those who want to return to those arguments can see how we approached them here: Konflikt, “The Real End of History is the End of War,” 8 April 2022
- 2Rob Merrick, “Nurses Must Drop Pay Demands to ‘Send Clear Message to Putin,’ Cabinet Minister Says,” The Independent, 4 December 2022.
- 3Rowena Mason, “Tory Chairman’s ‘NHS Strikes Help Putin’ Claim Dismissed as ‘Ludicrous’,” The Guardian, 4 December 2022.
- 4Konflikt, “What Inflation Means to the Workers,” 22 January 2022.
- 5Konflikt, “Призив за солидарност,” 10 November 2022.
- 6Apocryphal quoted attributed to Lenin: “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen” [«Есть десятилетия, когда ничего не происходит; и бывают недели, когда происходят десятилетия»].