By ERWIN FREED
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the most important current example of the new world situation facing the global working class. Socialists have an obligation to take up the meaning of the war and how to respond in solidarity with Ukrainians fighting against occupation. Left Voice, the U.S.-based socialist publication connected with the international current known as the Trotskyist Fraction (FT), recently published an article polemicizing against Workers’ Voice and our position in support of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion. The article was written by Sam Carliner, a journalist and anti-imperialist activist.
A proxy war?
Carliner has taken the Trotskyist Faction’s position to its logical conclusion by openly defining the invasion of Ukraine as a “proxy war” between the United States and Russia. This idea is based on two aspects. The first is that the logic of NATO expansion has pushed Russia to invade Ukraine as a preliminary defensive measure against sharing its largest border with a NATO ally and/or member. The second is that the Ukrainian resistance to Russia is fundamentally politically subordinated to and dominated by the United States and NATO.
Carliner goes so far as to say that Workers’ Voice and other socialist organizations “condemn NATO’s role in the conflict but characterize it as a secondary factor, without acknowledging the active role of NATO interference in denying Ukrainian self-determination.” Again, there are two parts to this claim. One is that Carliner and Left Voice are taking the position that NATO’s role in the conflict is primary and two that Workers’ Voice does not acknowledge the “active role of NATO interference in denying Ukrainian self-determination.”
The latter point is easily countered within Carliner’s own article, where he writes that Workers’ Voice “deserve credit for addressing the imperialist intentions of the United States, NATO, and the Zelenskyy regime.” Interested readers can see more detail in our past articles, including “Ukraine: Cancel the Debt!; Biden’s Imperialist ‘Aid’ to Ukraine & the Tasks of Socialists in the US” and “Imperialism’s Role in the War in Ukraine,” the main piece that Carliner polemicizes against, and more recently, “The Imperialist Strategy to Colonize Ukraine,” which is entirely focused on the denunciation of U.S. and European imperialist plans to subordinate Ukraine to their own interests.
On the former points, the related ideas that Russian invasion of Ukraine is fundamentally driven by NATO and that NATO expansionism is the primary driver of the war, Carliner does not make substantive supporting arguments. The little that is actually said on these points boils down to the argument that Russia is not an imperialist country and that the war itself heightens NATO/Russia tensions.
In contrast, Putin has been very clear since June that the goal of the war is to occupy Ukraine and obliterate the independent existence of any sort of Ukrainian state. On the other hand, NATO’s leadership has consistently refused to discuss adding Ukraine to the bloc. To make the argument that Russia is acting in a purely “defensive” manner when it is invading, occupying, and annexing a country, one would have to show how this operates, beyond hand-waving at the relative size and under-development of the Russian economy in comparison with those of other imperialist powers. Carliner does not attempt to do this.
Since 2014, Russia has actively occupied Crimea. As we have pointed out previously, the occupations of Crimea, and more recently the DPR and LPR, meant the expropriation and transfer of major industries from the Ukrainian state or bosses to Russian capitalists. According to the Centre for Economic Policy Research, Russia now controls 20% of Ukraine’s agricultural land, including 27% of wheat farms. An April article in Foreign Policy explained how “Russia’s announced war aim of conquering Ukraine’s eastern regions and southern shores is hardly coincidental. These regions—including Ukraine’s section of the Black Sea, now mainly controlled by Russia—account for about half of Ukraine’s conventional oil, 72 percent of its natural gas, and almost its entire coal production and reserves. The bulk of Ukraine’s critical minerals, especially the rare earth metals that are now in high demand, are likewise found in Donetsk and other parts of Ukraine either occupied or threatened by Russia. A number of crucial agricultural crops feeding global markets—including wheat, corn, barley, and sunflower oil—are harvested in eastern and southeastern Ukraine.”
Similarly, on the question of NATO’s role in the Ukraine war, Carliner does not show that either the U.S. or NATO is directing the war effort, or through what means they might be doing so. In an earlier article devoted explicitly to making this argument, Carliner simply says that imperialists are sending arms to Ukraine, their purpose is not to defend Ukraine but rather to weaken Russia, Ukrainian capitalists are allied with Western imperialists, and therefore the working class has no interest in Ukraine’s defense. We agree on the first three points, but make a break on the last, which will be addressed more fully later in this article.
The reality is that while the Ukrainian state is utilizing aid, both material and informational, from imperialist militaries, they are still the ones directing the fight against Russia. Insofar as their strategy is one of defeating the Russian invasion, they are supported by large sectors of the Ukrainian working class—who are the ones fighting the war, maintaining surveillance networks on Russian troop movements, and carrying out guerrilla tactics and industrial sabotage in the occupied areas.
The Institute of War reported in July that “Ukrainians in occupied territories are refusing to collaborate with Russian occupation officials en masse, forcing the Kremlin to import Russian citizens to fulfill basic tasks. Russian officials continue to struggle to procure enough labor to reopen businesses, clear rubble, or establish occupation bureaucracies in occupied Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on July 26 that the three branches of the Russian Promsvyazbank “failed to open as expected in Kherson Oblast because insufficient numbers of Ukrainian civilians agreed to work there—Promsvyazbank and other financial institutions are key to the Kremlin’s plans to replace the hryvnia with the ruble in occupied Ukrainian territories.”
On the role of the United States and other imperialists directing the Ukrainian resistance in the war, Carliner does not show anywhere that the liberation of Ukraine from Russian occupation is politically subordinated to the U.S. or NATO. While it is of course true that Western imperialists are attempting to use the war to strengthen their position in Ukraine, this relationship between a section of imperialism using the real struggles of national liberation to increase their relative dominance in the semi-colonial country is true of any wars of liberation.
There are multiple indicators of this position by the United States. The first and most obvious are the strings attached to the “aid” packages going to Ukraine. As Carliner points out, these are structured first and foremost to rearm, replenish, and update the United States’ own arm stockades. Another, as Workers’ Voice and the International Workers’ League have regularly documented, is that the “aid” that is requested not only by Zelensky but from the working ranks of the army and the Territorial Defenses is also deepening the debt-bondage of the Ukrainian economy to those of Western imperialisms. U.S. imperialism is preparing the ground for a post-war reconstruction with lucrative opportunities for American businesses at the expense of Ukrainian workers, farmers, and students.
Similarly, the Zelensky government has made multiple decisions that decrease the Ukrainian people’s ability to fight the war due to its position as the state of a national bourgeoisie. These include the horrendous roll-backs of workers’ rights; an overly harsh attitude towards “collaborators” in liberated territories, for example, punishing teachers who taught Russian curricula under threat of violence; and the agreements being made with various imperialist powers to sell off the country’s resources by implementing IMF reforms before the war and supporting the EU/IMF imperialist plan of reconstruction.
Choose a side
In the 1930s and 1940s, the workers’ movement, especially in imperialist countries, was confronted with similar questions on how to relate to wars between semi-colonies and imperialist powers, in which different imperialists were making various contributions of material and intelligence aid to the semi-colonies. An important example is the invasion of Japan into China, which became a front of World War II.
A debate broke out in the Trotskyist movement on this question between the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party (the former led by James Cannon and the latter by Max Shachtman). The former took the position to support the military resistance of China against Japan, in spite of the bourgeois-national leadership and connections with the United States. The latter took a position of “revolutionary defeatism” because “China’s struggle against Japan was progressive when it was an anti-imperialist struggle; it loses that characteristic when it becomes a struggle against one imperialist power conducted and directed by another imperialist power and its interests. … In the person of Chiang Kai-shek, China has become a tool in the hands of Anglo-American imperialism” (for quotations, see pages 26 and 27 of “Workers’ Voice Informational Bulletin #1”).
In contrast, in a 1941 piece, right after the U.S. started sending materiel aid to China (as insufficient as the materiel the U.S. is sending today to Ukraine), Massini from the SWP argued: “We do not oppose acceptance by China of aid from Anglo-American imperialism; we do not oppose an alliance of China with one imperialist power against another—neither of these in and of themselves would change the situation so as to warrant a change in the policy of the Marxists, for neither of these by themselves could transform the character of China’s war against Japan. What we oppose is any subordination of China’s war for freedom to the aims and strategy of imperialist allies of China.”
The parallels between that debate and this one are immediate and obvious. Left Voice and Carliner define an “internationalist” position on the war in Ukraine as defeat to Russia and Ukraine. In this view, an “independent” course for the working class includes stopping shipments to either Ukrainian or Russian military forces. While calling for “Russian troops out of Ukraine,” they simultaneously supported Greek rail workers stopping shipments of tanks to Ukraine, so in action they have proposed to militarily disarm the Ukrainian resistance to the invasion.
This perspective misses the entire dynamic of struggles for national liberation. The international working class can and must choose sides. It is only by having an understanding of the need to fight an independent struggle against imperialist occupation that revolutionaries can speak to Ukrainian workers and their international allies about what it will really take to win national liberation, that is, workers taking power in Ukraine. Without this, there can only be abstractions and mistrust in and of a revolutionary perspective.
What do the comrades in Left Voice and the Trotskyist Fraction present to the workers in Ukraine fighting and dying against Russian imperialism today? They say: Stop fighting; your struggle for independence is only and can only be subordinated to imperialism because you are not yet a fully independent state.
We say: Continue fighting! The struggle against Russian occupation is fundamental to the independence of your country, and we support your right to demand and get all the weapons you need for that, including from NATO. But as long as the fight remains under the leadership of Zelensky and his national capitalist cronies, the struggle can only be carried out part-way. We point out the constant betrayals of the Zelensky leadership and the burning need for workers and their organizations to develop their own fighting units. We emphasize this perspective not only in our press but worker to worker, by showing that revolutionary socialists are the most ardent supporters of the fight for an independent Ukraine. In this capacity, we are able to speak directly to trade unionists through material solidarity campaigns and international aid convoys. This is not an abstract relationship but a concrete one, which is being realized and deepened as the invasion and the resistance to it continues.
Perspective for Ukrainian workers and international allies
As long as Zelensky in particular and capitalism in general remain in power, the fight for an independent Ukraine will always be incomplete. This needs to be pointed out every step of the way. Simultaneously, while the workers might not be organized independently in the resistance and still have illusions in the current government, revolutionaries have an obligation to struggle against the invasion in the capacities that are open to them, which includes the Ukrainian military and Territorial Defense Forces. Revolutionaries need to show themselves to be the best fighters in the struggle against Russian invasion and occupation inside and outside of Ukraine.
At the same time, we need a program to turn the war against Russia into a fight for workers’ power and combine the tasks for national liberation with the tasks for the socialist revolution. Ultimately, these are part of the same process, but the transformation from one into the other is not automatic.
Winning real independence for Ukraine will not come under the leadership of Zelensky. It is only possible if the Ukrainian working class takes control of the struggle by forming independent militias under trade-union control, and is successful in expelling all imperialist influence through measures including the renationalization of production, finance, agriculture, and mining; imposing a state monopoly on foreign trade; refusing to pay the debts imposed on the country by the IMF and similar institutions; implementing country-wide economic planning; and carrying out its own propaganda war to convince Russian soldiers to a position opposing the invasion.
In order to bring this program to Ukrainian workers and gain a hearing from them, it is imperative that revolutionaries outside of Ukraine not only raise demands in solidarity with the military struggle against Russian occupation but also denounce the political and economic techniques being used to subordinate Ukraine to other imperialisms. This does not mean calling for the United States and other countries to stop sending arms to Ukraine, which would only weaken the Ukrainian military and strengthen Russia’s attempt to directly colonize large portions of the country. Instead, it means on the one hand supporting the right of the Ukrainian resistance to arm itself, while also warning about the intentions of the “friendly” imperialists and exposing them through raising demands for debt cancellation and political autonomy.
Photo: Getty Images