Marxist theory

Once More: Should socialists support or oppose NATO arms to Ukraine?

Today the majority of socialists in the West argue that it is our duty to oppose “our” government’s sending arms to Ukraine. They equate the situation today with that at the start of WW I. At that time, almost all socialists supported their “own” capitalists in sending their workers to that imperialist slaughter in the interests of their “own” imperialists. By doing so, those socialists not only betrayed socialism, they betrayed the working class.

“Learn to Think”
At that time, those socialists who opposed supporting that war called on workers to “fight the enemy at home”. They were right. Today, most socialists mechanically repeat that phrase in opposing the NATO nations sending arms to Ukraine. These socialists today think that means that whatever our “own” capitalists say or do, we must everywhere and always say the opposite. That is letting the capitalists control us, but in reverse. It’s not that Trotsky was always right, but he wrote a very good little essay called Learn to Think. In it he dealt with exactly this issue. He pointed out that 9 times out of ten we will oppose what “our” capitalists say or do, but there can always be that tenth time. We have to judge the situation based on the actual conditions. Among other things Trotsky posed the question of a hypothetical uprising of Algerians against French colonial rule. He asked what should be the position of socialists if the fascist Mussolini wanted to send arms to the Algerians. Mussolini would be doing so for his own imperialist reasons, but Trotsky explained that even so, socialists should not only support that, they should actively help sending those arms to Algeria. Doing so had nothing at all to do with supporting Mussolini. It is similar with the NATO nations sending arms to Ukraine.

In any case, today the situation is much more similar to the onset of WW II, when the Nazis invaded one country after another.

The Coup in Myanmar/Burma
The fact that the Western capitalists are supporting Zelensky against Russia is used to claim that this is just an interimperialist war. That is nonsense. Would they make the same claim about the situation in Myanmar/Burma? There, the military seized direct power through a bloody coup. Hundreds of thousands of workers and young people rose up to resist that coup. They were mowed down in the streets by the Myanmar military. Now there is something of a civil war going on there. The US and other Western capitalist countries support the opposition (although minimally so). The Chinese and Russian imperialists support the coup. So would the Western socialists claim that what is happening there is simply an inter-imperialist war?

Some counterpose the arming of the Ukrainian army with a call for unity between the Russian and the Ukrainian working class and for the revolutionary overthrow of both capitalist governments. Again, we should think about the situation in Myanmar:

Similarly to in Ukraine, the resistance to the generals in Myanmar is being led by the capitalist former government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. She was the head of state who at best stood by while the Rohingya were being slaughtered by the military. In fact, she somewhat justified it. So, should socialists simply say “we must not support either side in Myanmar, and instead call for unity of the Russian, Chinese and Myanmar working class and the overthrow of capitalism in all three countries together?

This argument is a form of “ultamitism”. It is saying in effect: “Until you workers in both countries are ready to act together and overthrow capitalism, there is nothing to be done, and we will not support any resistance to Russia’s invasion (or to the coup in Myanmar) Until then, this is nothing but an inter-imperialist war and we won’t support either side.” The fact that Myanmar does not face an invasion from outside makes the argument even stronger.

Theory a Guide to Action
If theory is not a guide to action it is just sophistry. Many of those socialists say they are opposed to the invasion, but what does that mean in practice, given their opposition to the NATO nations arming Ukraine? Do they think that mere words, mere propaganda, mere pressure will stop Putin? He has proven in the only arena that really counts – the arena of action – that it will not. What partially stopped Putin – at least for now in his drive for total regime change – was a military defeat.

That is what will stop the invasion, and for that arms are necessary. There is only one source of those arms: the NATO nations.

No-Fly Zone & Blue Helmets
The call for a no-fly zone is a different question. That would be an invitation for Western imperialism to directly send in its own troops. In the future, those troops would be used to reinforce the the Western imperialist interests against any movement of the Ukrainian working class.

It is similar with the issue of calling for the UN “blue helmets” to be sent in as a peacekeeping force. Given the presence of both China and Russia on the UN Security Council, there is only one instance in which such troops could be sent in: If Russia is defeated and is being driven out of Luhansk and Donetsk, and if the other imperialists on the UN Security Council felt threatened by a possible workers uprising in the region, and if they simply wanted capitalist stability in Ukraine, then both sides might agree to send in UN troops in order to maintain the status quo prior to Russia’s invasion.

Russian Working Class
As far as the Russian working class: It’s impossible to know what the mood is right now. But until the invasion, Putin’s support was pretty widespread. The best, in fact the only way to seriously cut into that support and turn workers against Putin is through the military defeat of the Russian army. That, for example, was why the great bulk of the US working class turned against the Vietnam War – because they saw their sons, brothers and friends coming home maimed or dead. Nobody likes to see this sort of human suffering, but if Putin’s invasion succeeds it will increase the patriotism and chauvinism in Russia and will increase the support for Putin. So if socialists want to see the Russian working class take its leave ot Putin and rise up against him, then they must support the military defeat of the Russian army.

Once again, we return to the question of arms for Ukraine, because such a defeat is just as impossible without receiving arms from the West as it was for the American Indians to defeat the US cavalry with bows and arrows vs. the Gatling gun.

The defeat of Putin’s invasion will be a gain for the working class in Ukraine, in Russia and around the world. That defeat can only happen militarily. For that, Ukraine needs arms and the only source of those arms is the NATO nations.  War is a horrible thing, but like gravity it is here. How long and at what cost Putin’s invasion can be fought is up to the Ukrainian people, not us here in the West.

From every angle, opposition to the West sending arms to Ukraine means in practice calling for the victory of Putin’s invasion. There is no way around it.

9 replies »

  1. Whatever arms are needed to defeat the invasion should be provided, no matter what the source. The military defeat and political destruction of Putinism, if achievable, would be a powerful blow against the enemy at home.

    • My reply to Roger Silverman:
      First to return to the issue of Trotsky: I am not basing my program on an appeal to NATO (in this case) to send arms to Ukraine; I’m talking about our position on the fact that it already is and whether or not we should oppose it. As with what appears to be the majority of the socialist left, Roger evidently says we should. Roger denies that anybody is equating the role of NATO with that of Russia. He may not, but if you read what most socialists are saying, it’s clear that they do. My article was not only aimed at Roger alone. And whatever our views on Ukraine’s source of arms, we must combat that approach of the majority of socialists rather than ignore it.

      But on to present situation, keeping in mind that theory is just so many words if it is not a guide to action:

      Imagine the following situation: There are two rival criminal gangs which make their money by running protection rackets, selling drugs to children, and all sorts of other nefarious activities. The leader of one gang creates a scandal by abusing his wife and sexually molesting his daughter. The leader of the rival gang offers the abused woman a gun to defend herself and her child. He makes the offer entirely for the purpose of gaining territory in order to be able to loot and oppress the residents of at least part of the neighborhood “belonging” to the rival. Should the residents of both neighborhoods oppose that woman obtaining those arms, including even blocking the transfer of that gun to the abused woman?

      That is the situation with Russia, NATO/the US and Ukraine. We can make all the calls we like for Russia to withdraw, but there is only one way that that will happen: If they are militarily defeated. That is exactly why Putin has apparently reduced his war aims for the moment, away from complete regime change, in other words for the moment giving up on capturing Kyiv. It was because his troops were militarily defeated. That defeat would have been impossible without the arms Ukraine obtained from the West.

      We can call for a working class movement in Russia to force him to withdraw, but that is not going to happen unless and until Russia is militarily defeated overall. Until that time, patriotism and chauvinism will retain their grip within Russia. Again, that is exactly why the bulk of the US working class, including the working class youth – the soldiers – turned against the US invasion of Vietnam. It was because the Vietnamese were defeating the US.

      In the face of this fact, calling for Russia’s withdrawal is idealism at best if we oppose Ukraine obtaining the means through which it can force Russia to withdraw, which also means opposing the path through which the Russian working class can turn against Putin.

      Unfortunately, what appears to be the bulk of the left in the West thinks that its obligation is to focus on “the enemy at home” in every and all situations. In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they lay the blame on the expansion of NATO, as has Roger in the past. However, there has never been any formal plan for Ukraine to join NATO and, furthermore, it was always unlikely that that could happen because at least a couple of countries would most likely have vetoed it. And now, every day, Putin is proving that that is not so. Zelensky has offered to guarantee that Ukraine would remain unaligned. Putin’s response was to prohibit the news of this offer from being broadcasted in Russia and to continue his invasion unchecked.

      Overall, I believe Roger makes too many concessions to this sectarian and “campist” left. This is the same left which focuses on the existence of fascists within Ukraine, but almost never talks about not only Putin’s links to fascism but also the links to fascism of the “independent” governments of Luhansk and Donetsk. These governments are nothing but proxies for the Russian government. That approach was exactly the approach of the two sectarians that Roger had speak to the two WIN meetings on Ukraine. Aside from myself, where was the push-back against their misleading approach?

      Also, the call for a referendum on the status of these two bantustan-like “republics” plays into the hands of the forces that created the “republics” in the first place. It pretends that the creation of these “republics” represented a movement from below, rather than the actual fact that it was an early invasion by Putin’s forces that created the “republics”. The pretense that a referendum can be democratic ignores the fact that millions of residents have been driven out of Luhansk and Donetsk. It ignores the starting point of any democratic decision: That Putin’s gangster and fascist-linked forces must be driven out. That must be the starting point.

      The socialist left has gone through a long period of sectarian degeneration. It was clearly revealed when much of it pretended that the war in Syria was simply a matter of a US attempt at “regime change”. That pretense was based on that focus to everywhere and at all times to oppose “the enemy at home”, which in reality means simply find a way to blame US imperialism. That claim that the Syrian war was all about US inspired “regime change” was so contrary to obvious fact that even some of the sectarian left could not accept it with a straight face. In this situation, the sectarian left can hide behind the fig leaf of NATO expansion so the apparent majority has taken up that claim. Of course we should oppose not only NATO’s expansion but NATO itself. The problem is that much of this apparent majority claims to oppose the invasion also. But they give political cover to the invasion by pretending that Ukraine is full of fascists while ignoring Putin’s fascist links. They give political cover by the focus on NATO’s expansion as the supposed cause of the invasion. And they disarm socialist opposition to Putin’s invasion by in practice opposing the only means through which it can be stopped – by a military defeat. (Again, as a pointed out, the Russian working class will not turn against the invasion as long as it is successful. So the call for unity between the Russian and Ukrainian working class rings hollow if we oppose the only road through which such unity can develop.)

      Note: pointing out the actual fact that NATO’s expansion was not a serious reason for Putin’s invasion has nothing to do with supporting NATO or its expansion, which I do not. But facts are facts, no matter how inconvenient they may be.

      There is a reason why possibly the entire left in Ukraine demands arms from whatever source available, including the nations in the West. There is a reason why nearly this entire left is extremely impatient (to say the least) with the position of the socialist left in the West. This view of theirs comes from a wide gamut of leftists, including anarchists and various socialists including outright Marxists. It is possible that they are all mistaken, but the fact that they take this position should give pause to socialists in the West. It should not be ignored. As for the rest of the Ukraine working class, they are expressing their views in action – by struggling to join the home defense guard or the army, in order to fight the Russian invaders. In fact, so many are volunteering that Ukraine doesn’t have enough guns for them all. In the past, Roger has vigorously pointed out that socialists must be very cautious in developing a program for a situation with which they are not familiar, for a country other than their own. It is unfortunate that he has not carried out his approach in this complex situation.

      Evidently Roger considers it “social chauvinism” to stand with the Ukrainian left and the overwhelming majority of Ukraine’s working class. For my part, I recognize that it may be uncomfortable to oppose what appears to be the majority of the socialist left around us. It makes working together on other issues more difficult. So be it.

  2. First, no one had “equated the situation today with that at the start of WW1”. The reference was aimed specifically at John’s response to the idea of a socialist internationalist approach to the Ukraine crisis, which he had dismissed with this comment: “Sure, campaign for the solidarity between Ukrainian and Russian working class. But how about meanwhile?”. I pointed out that that was exactly the standpoint of the leaders of the Second International in 1914: that “workers’ internationalism is all well and good, but meanwhile we have to defend the country.” It was the pretext on which the leaders of the Second International had based their support for their own ruling class.

    John is not a “social-chauvinist”, but he is falling into the same trap. He insists that socialists must demand that NATO powers arm the Ukrainian government. In doing so, John constantly seizes triumphantly on his one single trump card: “Trotsky posed the question of a hypothetical uprising of Algerians against French colonial rule. He asked what should be the position of socialists if the fascist Mussolini wanted to send arms to the Algerians.”

    This is a very weak and convoluted example. Trotsky was reflecting on a hypothetical conjecture; he did not base his programme for the Algerian revolution on an appeal to Mussolini to send them arms. Yet John insists that the central and immediate platform of socialists today must be a demand that NATO arm the Ukrainian government.

    In any case, as John himself says, “today the situation is much more similar to the onset of WW II, when the Nazis invaded one country after another.” Exactly! So instead of seizing triumphantly on Trotsky’s passing conjecture about a hypothetical scenario, why does JR avoid any reference to a far more appropriate real historical analogy – one that he is already aware of, because I had quoted it earlier on in our exchange? I am referring to Nazi Germany’s actual invasion of Czechoslovakia; that is a real historical parallel. Did Trotsky urge socialists at that time to appeal to the “democratic” powers to intervene to defend the victim of Hitler’s attack? On the contrary: look how scathingly he rejected that notion:

    “It may be argued that after separating the Sudeten Germans… Hitler will not stop before the enslavement of the Czechs themselves, and that in this case their struggle for national independence would have every claim upon the support of the proletariat. This means of formulating the question is nothing but social patriotic sophistry… Is the role of a revolutionary party then that of a nurse to “crippled” gangsters of imperialism?… Obviously, such a policy would be not Marxist but subjective, not internationalist but chauvinist in character. An imperialist war, no matter in what corner it begins, will be waged not for ‘national independence’ but for a redivision of the world in the interests of separate cliques of finance capital. This does not exclude that in passing the imperialist war may improve or worsen the position of this or that ‘nation’; or, more exactly, of one nation at the expense of another… Social patriots invoke precisely this possible ‘national’ peril of the future as an argument for supporting ‘their’ imperialist bandits of the present. Czechoslovakia does not in the least constitute an exception to this rule.”

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is every bit as brutal and monstrous as Hitler’s of Czechoslovakia. Is it remotely conceivable that Trotsky today would be looking today to NATO for a solution to the crisis in Ukraine – any more than he appealed to the British and American imperialists in the case of Czechoslovakia in 1938, or come to that the Spanish civil war?

    I have no wish to apply to John’s case Trotsky’s harsh description of such an argument as “social patriotic sophistry”; but I do think he is being uncharacteristically naïve. The NATO powers have no need of any prompting from socialists to arm Ukraine. They are already conducting, in effect, a low-level clandestine proxy war there against Russia, just as they did in Afghanistan and in Georgia. Military hardware is pouring into Ukraine from Britain, France, Germany, the Czech republic, and altogether more than thirty countries. Arms shipments to Ukraine so far already include $2.5 billion worth from the USA alone, and one billion Euros’ worth from the EU: artillery, armoured vehicles, helicopters, howitzers, artillery rounds, Switchblade drones, radar systems, Claymore landmines, anti-tank missiles, etc. In such a scenario, for socialists to demand that NATO send arms to Ukraine seems somewhat superfluous.

    NATO is already sending arms to Ukraine in huge quantities. It is sending them in the interests of NATO, and those interests are not those of the Ukrainian or the international working class.

    Why does John support NATO sending in arms, but oppose it sending in the soldiers trained to deploy them? He rules this out because, he says, “those troops would be used to reinforce Western imperialist interests”. I have to confess that this subtle distinction is quite beyond me. Can John actually delude himself that NATO is currently sending arms to Ukraine without assuring themselves first that they will not be used for any other purposes but to reinforce their own imperialist interests? Is he really so naïve as to imagine that their motives right now in sending arms are a manifestation of charity and altruism?

    NATO is already showering arms on Ukraine, not out of solidarity with the Ukrainian people but in the interests of NATO. Those interests are not those of the Ukrainian working class. An appeal to workers’ internationalism is never easy, but it is the only conceivable principled position for socialists.

    Russia, hands off Ukraine. Immediate withdrawal of occupation forces.
    Solidarity with the people of Ukraine in defence of their democratic rights.
    No trust in NATO, the EU, Biden or Johnson.
    Self-determination for the peoples of Donbass and Crimea on the basis of a genuinely democratic referendum.
    Mutual demilitarisation of the border territories on either side.
    Unity of the workers of Russia and Ukraine to overthrow their corrupt reactionary oppressors.

    • Roger, even if fears of further NATO expansion was part of the reason for Putin’s invasion it has completely backfired or blown up in his face. Now both Finland & Sweden want to be part of NATO and they will both get approval before anyone even reads Ukraine’s application (if they ever actually apply).

      As for military aid being provided via arms by the U.S. U.K. NATO it is what is at this point. I oppose war in all forms but self – defense is an intelligent response to being invaded, occupied, or whatever degradation by an aggressor one may face.

      I understand a Civil War has been underway in the Donbass since 2014. I understand both sides are using Nazis (we talk about the Azov Battalion but rarely about Putin’s Wagner Group). And no matter how this ends, Ukraine will be someone’s vassal state. BUT in the here and now if the Ukrainians can’t make a peace treaty with Russia via negotiations then it must due so, unfortunately, by making this war untenable for Putin which means routing his army, navy , & airforce. I’m worried that he will use either a FOAB or a tactical nuke out of desperation but we will cross that bridge when we get there.

      Finally, NATO isn’t fully on board still with supporting Ukraine and neither is the EU. Germany , a key member of both, still hasn’t stopped its energy/fuel imports from Russia. The Ukraine is on their own in this war beyond the arms provided and the sanctions.

  3. Roger Silverman says “NATO is already showering arms on Ukraine, not out of solidarity with the Ukrainian people but in the interests of NATO. Those interests are not those of the Ukrainian working class. An appeal to workers’ internationalism is never easy, but it is the only conceivable principled position for socialists”: this is nonsense that gets us nowhere. In fact, most NATO countries are very reluctant to provide arms to Ukraine and Zelensky regularly and repeatedly complains about this. More importantly, does Silverman want Ukraine to *defeat* Putin – yes or no? As far as I can make out, the answer (while we all wait for a response to the call for “workers internationalism”) is, for all practical purposes … no.

  4. John, lately Black Twitter has started to say Fuck Ukraine and some are even posting Russian flags. This all began after the Pecae Corps issued warning about Black American volunteers will most likely face racism while helping Ukrainians. Black people also saw how Black and Brown people were being treated at some of the border crossings.

    Separately, the Global South has either remained quiet or have come out in support of Russia or specifically the Chinese response to the Russian invasion. These nations as do many of us of color in the West understand the hypocrisy of the Western response.

    Putin used the Wagner group in the Central African Republic back in 2018 and I don’t remember the West saying a peep. I don’t remember socialists, anarchists, and anti-imperialists saying much about it, but we now suppose to have #IStandWithUkraine in our online bios, which rings hollow to me and it’s something I won’t do. I’m not posting a Russian flag neither.

    Personally, I think that all wars are a racket and I believe Ukrainians have the right to defend themselves and determine their own futures, as I feel the Kurds, Uyghurs, Palestinians, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Taiwan, Yemen, Bahrain, Tibet, the First Nations and a host of other nations and peoples have that same right to self-determination.

    I wonder if you could do a blog about the lack of response or non-response from the Global South,? Should Black people in American and elsewhere should support the Ukrainians (even if there is evidence of racism? how to combat or cut through the whataboutism around this situation? Is Russian imperialist? Are its actions the actions of an imperial power? What is China role in all.of this? It would be appreciated.

  5. The comparison with Trotsky’s argument in Learn To Think is false. There Trotsky was dealing with a liberation struggle by Algerians, who were a French colony. Ukraine is not a colony, but an independent capitalist state. The comparison would not be with France, Italy and Algeria, but simply the war between France and Italy, leaving the question then as should socialists support sending arms to either France or Italy.

    Indeed, not only is Ukraine an independent capitalist state, as were France and Italy, but Ukraine is a capitalist state that is in the camp of western imperialism, and massively backed by it, with military equipment, cyber warfare against Russia, and large-scale economic warfare conducted by NATO imperialism. To give another example, it would be as if, in 1982, socialists seeing a weaker capitalist state, Argentina, in a war against a more powerful imperialist power, Britain, called on arming Argentina so as to protect its independence against an imperialist power that had declared war on it.

    Secondly, to understand Trotsky’s position in relation to Learn To Think, its necessary to put it into context. When Trotsky talks about supporting the Algerian struggle for independence, what does that actually mean? Trotsky does not make the same mistake as the liberals and social-patriots in talking in abstract terms, but deals with the concrete realities of classes, not “people” or “nations”, because in these latter, the concrete reality is that there are antagonistic classes.

    If we take the Comintern’s Theses on The National and Colonial Questions, for example, what does it say in this regard. It does not at all commit socialists to supporting every such struggle as the “idiot anti-imperialists” have felt obliged to do, and as those supporting the Ukrainian oligarchs and Azov battalion feel obliged to do now. It makes clear that we only support the revolutionary proletariat in such struggles, and we do so only where it organises independently of the other classes, and ready to engage in revolutionary struggle against, on the basis of permanent revolution.

    Marxists give support, “only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form..”

    (Lenin – Draft Theses On The National and Colonial Struggle)

    And, it was precisely on that basis that Trotsky and the Left Opposition demarcated themselves from Stalin and the Right when it came to the Chinese revolution, and the attitude to Chiang Kai Shek and the KMT. Trotsky did not support the Chinese liberation struggle in the abstract as those calling for support for Ukraine in the abstract do today, which actually means supporting the Ukrainian capitalist state, but did so on the basis of supporting the Chinese workers and peasants organised within the Chinese Communist Party, and its military units, which he demanded had to be kept strictly separated from the KMT, and any Popular Front, knowing that otherwise they would face demobilisation and slaughter, which indeed is what happened in 1927 in Shanghai as a result of Stalin’s Popular Frontist policy, and subordination of the workers struggle to the national liberation struggle of the KMT. Those today, who call for support for “Ukraine” or the “Ukrainian people” in the abstract, are not following Trotsky, or the Comintern Theses, but the Popular Frontist startegy of Stalin in 1927, or Stalin’s Menshevist position in April 1917, when he and Zinoviev and Kamenev argued the same kind of bourgeois defencist position for Russia, in face of invasion by Germany, that the social-patriots and social imperialists now argue in relation to Ukraine.

    Socialists should indeed argue for the development of an independent revolutionary proletarian force in Ukraine, which as with the above Theses engages not only in a defensive struggle, but which is ready to also engage in struggle against its main enemy at home. The need for that is illustrated by the fact that the corrupt, reactionary government of Zelensky has already banned a dozen left-wing parties, as well as clamping down on Ukrainian media. And, we should, as soon as any such independent revolutionary military organisation arises, seek to arm it – though its unlikely that either NATO or the Ukrainian state is going to do, any more than that happened with revolutionary socialist forces fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War. But, in doing so, we would also need to be arming similar revolutionary workers units in the DPR and LPR, which for the last 8 years have been fighting murderous attacks from the Nazis of the Azov battalion and the Ukrainian state, leading to 14,000 of them being killed.

    In fact, if we were to apply Trotsky’s argument in Learn To Think, it would more clearly apply to the struggle for independence for the DPR and LPR, whose right even to regional autonomy agreed under the Minsk Accords is being denied to them by the government of Zelensky.

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