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Ukraine and imperialism

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This article first appeared as a discussion piece for the upcoming Revolutionary Unity conference taking place on 26 April.

Ukraine and imperialism


There has obviously been much debate about the crisis in Ukraine. The toppling of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government by a pro-European Union and largely nationalist protest movement, and its replacement by a right wing Ukrainian nationalist government, was followed by a military intervention by the Russian state which led to the annexation (or separation depending upon your take on events) of Crimea and pro-Russian separatist groups, suspected of being directly supported by Moscow, seizing government buildings in eastern parts of Ukraine. This has raised a number of questions regarding how the left should respond, both to the right wing government in Kiev, and the actions of Moscow; which raise issues regarding the revolutionary socialist analysis of imperialism.

Some argue that our primary concern should be the seizure of power by right wing nationalists in Kiev, which many argue are backed by the European Union and US imperialism, in an attempt to further break into Russia’s sphere of influence, as it has been doing since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There are some truths to this narrative. The Maidan movement quickly became dominated by right wing organisations, including fascist groups, which played a key role in the street fighting which led to the seizure of power. It is also true that after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the US became by far the most powerful state in the world, Western imperialism, often through the European Union or NATO, began to encroach upon former Soviet spheres of influence. Eleven countries which were formally part of the Eastern Bloc are now EU member states. The West also increased its influence by backing movements which seized power in Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Much of the politics in these countries since 1991 have been dominated by a push and pull between the West and Russia over control of such states. This has often led both sides to manipulate political, religious and ethnic divisions in these countries in order to maintain, or attempt to establish, control. However, it is incorrect to argue that the main villain in the crisis is US imperialism attempting to encroach upon Russia’s turf. Firstly, this makes a rather problematic assumption that Russia in some way has a right to dominate Ukraine and other countries, and treat any attempt to encroach upon that as an act of aggression. Secondly, it utterly downplays the despicable role Russian imperialism has had in the region, and continues to have.

Russian imperialism in Ukraine

Ukraine was arguably Russia’s oldest colony, to various degrees subject to the Russian empire since the early 18th century. Under the tsars there was a policy of Russification of Ukraine, as there was elsewhere in the empire. The use of the Ukrainian language in print and public was suppressed, Russian nationals were appointed to all leading administrative positions, and eastern Ukraine was forcibly settled by Russian nationals. Throughout the 19th century a Ukrainian nationalist movement began to emerge. As urbanisation and industrialisation occurred, driven by the tsars, this movement became dominated by a cultural trend towards a romantic version of nationalism often led by the middle class intelligentsia. With the 1917 Russian Revolution, Ukrainian nationalism emerged as a force, and there were several attempts to establish a Ukrainian nation. The Civil War, however, devastated Ukraine. 1.5 million people were left dead, and there was a famine in the south in 1921. A national cultural revival was supported by the Soviet government following the Civil War, but these policies were reversed by the Stalinists in the 1930s. The programme of collectivisation of agriculture used to fuel the Soviet Union’s industrialisation drive in the 1930s led to a Great Famine in Ukraine where 10 million people died. In the Great Purges of 1929-34 and 1936-38 systematic state terror was used against Ukrainian culture. “Nationalist deviationists” were purged from the Ukrainian Communist Party, artists and intellectuals were imprisoned. Political repression at this time killed a further 700,000 people. The Ukrainian language and culture was once again repressed - the Stalinists returned to the “Russification” policies of the tsars.

These were the events which led up to the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Although the majority of people in Ukraine either fought against the Nazis, or did not fight at all, a significant number supported the Nazi invasion. The Nazi ideology, with its anti-Communist and anti-Slav elements, resonated with many Ukrainian nationalists. The brutal repression of the Soviet state drove many Ukrainians into the arms of the Nazis, and Ukrainian nationalism since has been influenced by fascism. Ukraine, particularly the west, was largely agrarian; industrialisation enforced by Russia and the Soviet Union meant much of the middle class and intellectuals were influenced by romantic, utopian ideas about conservative rural societies and this became integral to Ukrainian nationalism - the Nazis’ “blood and soil” nonsense resonated with this.

After the Second World War, Soviet repression continued. Twenty per cent of the Soviet Union’s “special deportees” in the early 1950s were Ukrainian. Tartars from Crimea were deported to Central Asia in their hundreds of thousands, ethnic Germans were also deported. The Soviet Russification of Ukraine continued. Right wing Ukrainian nationalism remained the most dominant resistance ideology right up until the liberation movements of 1989-91. Despite becoming independent with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it remained part of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and dominated both economically and politically by Russia. Attempts by Ukrainian nationalists to break from this domination, and resistance to this from elements of the ruling class which support Moscow, have become the dominant themes of politics in post-Soviet Ukraine. The current crisis is the latest phase in this process.

The Ukrainian government and fascism

It has been repeated often by many people on the left that the Ukrainian government put into power is either fascist, or it contains fascists. The government is definitely right wing, and includes three ministers from the far-right populist party Svobda, which has a number of rabidly anti-Semitic leaders and racist policies. However, it would be inaccurate to label them as fascists. They are not a dictatorial party which aims to found the state on racial grounds. Undoubtedly, like many right wing populist organisations, there may number some fascists and fascist sympathisers in their membership, but this in itself does not make a party a fascist one. The government as a whole is a mixed bag of right wing nationalists, conservatives and right neoliberals. The Right Sector, which was formed in the course of the Maidan movement, could, and should, be called a fascist organisation. It is constituted largely of neo-Nazi groups and individuals and was the core of the street fighting units in the Maidan movement. It continues to organise violent racist street gangs. The Right Sector, however, has no members in the government, and its relationship with the government is at best complex. On 25 March one of its leaders was shot dead by police.

This is not to underestimate the role of fascism in the Maidan movement. It did not start as an overtly right wing movement, and included many progressive elements, such as anarchist groups. However, the movement was quickly hegemonised by the organised right, and these progressive elements were driven out. But there is an important distinction between right wing nationalist and conservative capitalist governments, and a fascist one. It is this that needs to be made clear. A fascist government would mean the complete shutting down of all democratic freedoms in Ukraine, and the establishment of a police dictatorship. It is perfectly conceivable for the current government to become such a state, or the social forces upon which it rests to replace it with one. But this has not happened yet. This has important implications for our analysis of resistance to the Kiev government. If it is correctly designated as fascist then the role of socialists is to organise alongside those who wish to overthrow it, and this may include compromise with some unsavoury elements in the Russian separatist movement in order to do so. The overthrow of the fascist government would be the absolute priority. If this designation is incorrect then socialists’ relationship towards such a group would be different. While they should absolutely fight for any overthrow of a right wing government, any act of resistance to the state would not become by virtue of its opposition to the government an objectively anti-fascist act. Furthermore, the role of neo-Nazism is not limited to the Ukrainian nationalist movement - there are fascist groups in the Russian separatist movement too, such as the openly neo-Nazi Russian National Unity group, which has been involved in actions in Donetsk and elsewhere.

Lenin on imperialism

Many on the left have argued that a refusal to criticise Russia is based upon a theory and practice informed by the Leninist tradition, rooted in Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ response to the First World War. When the war broke out in 1914 the vast majority of the social democratic movement in Europe, most notably the German SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), backed their respective states, in most cases arguing that it was a defensive war against the aggression of others. Lenin argued that Marxists should take a “defeatist”, rather than “defencist” position, call for the defeat of their own states, and oppose any calls for victory. The argument went that “the real enemy is at home”. The workers of Russia were oppressed by their factory owners and the tsarist state, just as the German workers were oppressed by their own capitalists and the Kaiser. By supporting their own states, the social democrats were not only propping up their own oppressors, but defending their own bourgeoisie’s right to oppress the people of other states. The war on either side was not one of defence, but an imperialist war fought between rival predatory states over the right to subjugate colonial people.

This position was absolutely correct. However, when applied abstractly to Ukraine, it ceases to have much relevance. The First World War was an all-out conflict between rival imperialist camps. While Western imperialism has no doubt been encouraging Ukrainian nationalists in the hope of facilitating a turn towards the European Union and away from Moscow, the main aggressor, both historically and currently, is Russia. As has been argued above, the troubling nature of the Ukrainian nationalist movement has its roots in historic oppression by the Russian and Soviet states, and the Maidan movement is simply the latest attempt to break Ukraine from Russian domination. There is no current military threat from the West, either towards Ukraine, or Russia; however, the events in Crimea clearly showed the direct military threat Russia poses to Ukrainian self-determination. To argue when Russian troops are annexing territories, and massing troops on the Ukrainian border, that we should not criticise this and instead insist that “the real enemy is at home” is essentially to remain silent whenever any state which happens to be in some kind of rivalry with Western imperialism commits any act of subjugation against another country. This approach was not at all what Lenin argued for. The slogan “the real enemy is at home” was raised to argue with workers that their enemy was not workers of another country, but the bourgeoisie; it was not meant as an apologia for the imperialist states of other countries.

The spirit of Lenin has also been channelled in order to justify, or apologise for, the annexation of Crimea. Crimea is, like other parts of eastern Ukraine, ethnically and linguistically majority Russian. It is also the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. After the Maidan movement seized power in Kiev, Russian troops seized government buildings and military bases. A referendum was then called by the Crimean parliament on secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia, which was returned with a 97% vote in favour. It has been argued that socialists should support this decision, on the basis of the right of nations to self-determination, as argued for by Lenin. The Tsarist Empire dominated a huge number of national minorities in Europe and Asia. As has been referred to above, the tsarist state was extremely repressive to these national groups through the system of Russification. There was a debate among Marxists as to whether to support national struggles for liberation. Some argued that by supporting national liberation movements Marxists would be supporting backward and reactionary ideas of nationalism, which would reinforce divisions created by class society. The role of Marxists was to oppose all forms of nationalism and argue for internationalism. Furthermore, many of the leaderships of these movements tended to be from the bourgeoisie and middle classes of the national minorities, and many of them held reactionary politics. Marxists should be arguing that working class should be fighting as much against them as against the Russian autocracy. Lenin, however, argued that the right of nations to self-determination was a basic democratic right. While Marxists should be fighting for the leadership of the working class in national liberation struggles, the victory of these movements was a key part of the fight against tsarism and capitalism. One cannot argue for the self-emancipation of the working class and yet refuse to recognise the right to be liberated from imperialism of working class people in other nations.

It is simply absurd to argue that what occurred in Crimea was an exercise in self-determination for the Crimean people. That any democrat can argue with a straight face that a 97% vote carried out under military occupation does not have some question marks over its legitimacy is quite worrying. What occurred in Crimea was annexation, not liberation. While all Marxists absolutely should argue for the right of Crimean people to self-determination, a prerequisite of that must be an immediate withdrawal of the occupying Russian forces. It is a strange kind of anti-imperialist who argues that sending in the tanks is the solution to the national question. Furthermore, if we are going to argue for the right of nations to self-determination, we should apply this principle equally to Ukraine as a whole. Russian imperialism continues to attempt to dominate Ukraine politically and economically, and has just annexed one of its regions. This same tactic is being threatened in other parts of eastern Ukraine. A major concern for all socialists and internationalists at this point should be the fracturing of Ukraine along ethnic lines. All forms of capitalist imperialism have purposely exploited ethnic divisions in order to maintain or establish control, and this is exactly what is occurring in Ukraine, as a deliberate policy from Moscow. The ethnic divisions created and imposed by Russian and Soviet oppression are now being exploited to fracture Ukraine and impose Russian dominance. It was colonisation by Russia and the Russification programme which created both Greater Russian chauvinists, who considered themselves a privileged caste under Russification, and right wing Ukrainian nationalists, who looked to Western imperialism, and even sometimes fascism for liberation. We have seen from Yugoslavia to Rwanda the dangers of such divisions, which were encouraged and manipulated by imperial powers, and led to ethnic civil war. Such an outcome would be a disaster for the working class of any ethnicity. The first step for the self-determination of all Ukrainian people has to be the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and an end to its interventions in the country’s politics.

The anti-imperialist movement

The International Socialists raised the slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow” during the Cold War. This was based upon the analysis of the Soviet Union as a state capitalist society, in which the exploiting class was the bureaucracy. It rejected the designation of the USSR as being a workers’ state in view of the fact that the working class, as a result of the Stalinist counter-revolution, no longer controlled the means of production. This is not the place to go into the virtues of this theory; however, this theory established a policy for the International Socialists where they did not reserve our criticisms for native imperialism alone, and would oppose imperialism from both sides of the Cold War, including the one which claimed to be socialist. For example, when there was a workers’ revolution in Hungary in 1956, which was crushed by Russian tanks, they did not argue that “the main enemy is at home” and point to the real and imagined benefits Western imperialism would gain from a successful Hungarian revolution and a weakened Eastern Bloc. It was argued, first and foremost, that support for the workers of Hungary against Soviet imperialism was the number one priority for internationalists. The same was true for Czechoslovakia in 1968.

However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a shift of emphasis, not just for International Socialists, but for all the anti-Stalinist left. Where previously there had been two competing world powers, it was generally agreed that there was now only one. In a “unipolar” world, the focus of anti-imperialism was naturally the now unchallenged US imperialism, which was increasing its power through extending its control into formerly Russian spheres of influence, and was now largely unrivalled when subjugating the Third World, where previously it had to compete with Moscow. The anti-imperialist movement in response to US hegemony reached its height with the opposition to the launch of the “War on Terror” and the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only was the main aggressor obviously the US, the countries it was invading were clearly not rival imperial powers. Attempts to claim that these wars were either wars of defence or liberation were quite rightly written off as propaganda. The unipolar imperialism meant that a consensus both with regard to resistance to imperialism at home and national liberation could be formed within the anti-imperialist movement, which had previously been much more difficult when there was a competing world power. In Britain, the most obvious example of this consensus was the Stop the War Coalition, which achieved massive mobilisations over the Iraq invasion. Some of the core organisers of this were from Trotskyist, International Socialist and Stalinist traditions. Some involved, particularly from the latter tradition, held to the idea that anti-imperialists should never criticise states which are fighting against US imperialism (mostly because during the Cold War these states were either supported by the Soviet Union or their victory would weaken the US in favour of the USSR). Many of these were also sympathetic to the Ba’ath regime. While International Socialists and other Trotskyists were critical of the regime, and equally so of the politics of those who supported them, such divisions were much easier to overcome when the main threat was Western imperialism. The real enemy was at home.

The anti-imperialist consensus has largely broken down, for a number of interconnected reasons. The combination of becoming bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic crisis, severely weakened US imperialism. While it remains without a doubt the global hegemon, its relative power compared to other states such as Russia and China is weaker than it was before. One could in fact argue that the recent setbacks for the West when it has attempted to encroach upon the Russian sphere of influence - such as Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and possibly now Ukraine - were the result of Russia being able to assert itself now that the US has been weakened. This realignment has unbalanced the consensus that was established around anti-imperialism. Many in the anti-imperialist movement consider states such as China and Russia to be anti-imperialist themselves, and refuse to criticise them. This made little difference when the US was invading Iraq. However, when Putin’s Russia began sending tanks into other countries, such a position became problematic to say the least. Furthermore, the Arab Spring also broke through the consensus. While mass movements against US allies like Ben Ali and Mubarak were supported by all, when the regimes of Gaddafi and Al-Assad came under threat the divisions grew even greater. Both had been supported as anti-imperialist regimes by Stalinists, and some Trotskyists, and Syria remained a key Russian ally. Russia had troops stationed in Syria, and supplied Al-Assad with weapons to put down the revolution. At this point, the Stop the War Coalition argument that “the real enemy is at home” slogan was appropriate ceased to be a principled anti-imperialist position, and became nothing more than apologism for Putin’s Russia and the regimes he supports. This is not internationalism, as the real enemy for the people of Syria was not the US, but Al-Assad and the Russian state backing him. The same is true for the Ukrainian people now.

The role of internationalists is not to side with one imperialism over another. While we must primarily criticise our own state’s imperialism, and certainly refuse to be pulled by any attempts to paint it as progressive or benign, when a rival imperial power, such as Russia, is engaged in the oppression of another country as internationalists we should argue for solidarity with those it is oppressing. However, the resurgence of Russia may weaken Western imperialism; it is not the role of anti-imperialists to root for rival imperialisms. Socialist Resistance, Workers Power, the Anticapitalist Initiative, the IS Network and rs21 have managed to work well together on the question of Syria. We all built a conference on the Syrian Revolution, and the first four released a joint statement in its support. We may not be able to reach a similar consensus over Ukraine, but we should be looking where possible to build joint work on international and anti-imperialist issues. The Stop the War Coalition has become politically bankrupt, and while we are not in a position to build a new campaign, we should be attempting to make the argument for a new radical anti-imperialist left which builds practical and political solidarity for international resistance movements.


Further discussion on Ukraine:

Videos from the IS Network public meeting 'Crisis in the Ukraine' with Chris Ford (IWGB/Debatte Journal) and Zakhar Popovych (Ukrainian Left Opposition/Commons Journal) >>

Videos from a public meeting 'Crisis in the Ukraine' hosted by John McDonnell MP, with Zakhar Popovych (Ukrainian Left Opposition/Commons Journal) and Volodymyr Ishchenko (Commons Journal) >>

Ukrainian Left Opposition statement >>