War in Ukraine: The Internationalist Position

CWO Public Meeting on Zoom, 13 March 2022

This was the first ever CWO Public Meeting on Zoom and was well attended, despite the fact that a number of our own members were at work and could not participate. The meeting began with the introduction which follows which was kept deliberately brief in order to allow as much time for discussion in the time we had allotted.

CWO Introduction: A New Dangerous Departure

Anyone who thinks that the invasion of Ukraine is not a new, and dangerous, departure in world history has either not been paying attention, or they are happily retreating into self-delusion.

“A New Cold War”?

As the Russian build-up of troops went on last year there as much journalistic speculation about “a new Cold War”. In mid-December we rejected this rather casual historical analogy. It was not informed by looking at how the conditions which avoided direct confrontation between the major imperialist powers in the Cold War no longer apply

The first factor we have to remember is that the USSR and USA both emerged from the Second World War as victorious imperialist powers. They were not powers who felt cheated by the outcome of war as Germany (due to a humiliating peace treaty) and Italy (which felt cheated of the promised gains by its allies in France and Britain) after WWI. Neither “superpower” was in any sense “révanchiste”, or as the US today calls China, “revisionist”.

Second, the rivalry of the former war-time allies was already out in the open by 1947, but by then the post-war boom was beginning to take shape. Growth rates were soon healthy everywhere and we entered what the French called “Les trente glorieuses”. By the time it came to an end in the early 1970s the rules of engagement had already been set. The US policy formulated in 1947 was based on “containment” of “communism” rather than its overthrow, as the West had tried to do to the nascent Soviet republic in 1918. After 1945 the Stalinist USSR had settled for the teleological view that the capitalist West would inevitably implode and thus adopt what they persisted in calling “really existing socialism” but which revolutionary Marxists have always seen as just another model of state capitalism. In fact the USSR had its own capitalist contradictions and faced many of the same problems the West faced after 1973 (including an increase in strikes). As its growth rates declined it could no longer fund its imperialist reach abroad nor satisfy the needs of its population at home. Gorbachev’s solutions only antagonised the apparatchniki who in trying to overthrow him brought down the whole house of cards that was the Soviet Union.

But to understand the significance of the current war we need to understand what is different today compared to the Cold War. In the first place the post-war boom is so long forgotten that only those of us of a certain age can remember it. In the second place Russia is not a contented power – it is after a revival of at least some of its old spheres of influence.

Let’s take these two factors separately.

The Long Period at the End of the Cycle of Accumulation

The end of the post-war boom came as a shock to capitalism’s fans and indeed very few Marxists in the working class recognised that the economic miracle was not down to the cleverness of Baron Keynes, but to the fact that the Second World War had destroyed so much value that a new round of accumulation was still possible. By the 1970s the game was up. The constant tendency of the rate of profit to fall began to re-assert itself and the abandonment of the post-war Bretton Woods settlement whereby the dollar was as good as gold opened up a new period of inflation and unemployment. It was this situation that brought many of us in the UK to discover the ideas of the Communist Left. We saw the crisis was fundamental to the system and not just to some “oil shock” as they told us at the time. Taking our cue from history we assumed that the crisis would in short order not only produce massive attacks on the working class as capitalism tried to claw more profits from the exploited but would intensify the imperialist drive to a generalised war. Socialism or barbarism were on the agenda again. And so they were, but in this modern capitalist world where states had greater control over the market than they did at the beginning of the 20th century we did not appreciate all the expedients which the capitalists might resort to keep the system afloat.

It began with the abandonment of control of the “commanding heights of the economy” in many states and it carried on with the deregulation of finance. Banking capital now regained a significance in the traditional capitalist powers which they had hitherto not wielded under Keynesianism. And these factors led to a partial deindustrialisation of the old capitalist powerhouses and the transfer of their investment to low wage economies. Globalisation was a cooperation largely between Western (mainly US finance capital) and China. It was a symbiotic relationship which brought about increased wealth to a new Chinese middle class and cheap commodities could be sent to the capital-rich states to cushion the blow of all the cuts in real wages that have gone on since the end of the 1970s. Whilst Western finance gorged itself on speculative capital, the wealth that accrued to China changed the balance of the world economy. The ideologists of the West had thought that the adoption of the market economy would automatically end the rule of Chinese Communist Party. This not only did not happen, it increased the global power of China itself. A China, which has become increasingly assertive as it has grown, is now openly called “revisionist” by the current US President. Biden also announced that China will never become the leading power in the world on his watch. Increasingly Western, especially US policy is forcing both China and Russia into an alliance which is becoming ever closer both economically and militarily.

After 1991

We have already explained this in more detail in our article on the Ukraine and Taiwan on the site so we’ll just remind comrades of the two key factors that brought about the current Russian aggression. After the collapse of the USSR, US economists like Larry Summers and Jeffery Sachs came in and told the Russians to privatise everything immediately. The result was an economic disaster which saw the economy plunge under Yeltsin and even worse saw the privatised economy fall into the hands of those who had managed to get their hands on cash (and not always legally) creating a class of Russian oligarchs who mainly sprang from the old apparatus. When Putin, who had resigned from the KGB at the fall of the USSR, came to power he brought these oligarchs to heel by gaoling or forcing abroad those who did not toe the state line. Putin also began the re-establishment of Russian power within its old borders by first crushing the Chechen rebels. He was then lucky that oil and gas prices went up so that he was credited with economic revival as well. Trading on the initial popularity from this he has not hesitated to assassinate opponents and rig elections since. He has though constantly inveighed against the West’s broken promises that NATO would not come up to Russia’s borders. In 2005 in a Kremlin speech he said the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of our time”. He was not bemoaning the lost Stalinist system but the weakness of the Russian state that followed.

NATO expansion carried on after Putin was elected President of Russia in 2000. The current crisis really has its roots here. The Baltic States joined in 2004 bringing NATO to within a couple of hours by road to Putin’s home city of St Petersburg. In the same year the Ukrainian crisis began when the Orange Revolution financed and supported by Western organisations supported by the US embassy and the likes of John McCain (he of “Bomb Iran” fame) overthrew the fraudulent election of Victor Yanukovych. A couple of years later Putin responded by accusing Ukraine of siphoning off gas from the pipelines that cross its territory and even cut off gas supplies to Europe for a few days to stress Russia’s power. The Orange Revolution which was supposed to bring Ukraine into the EU and NATO orbits also began to fall apart. Ukraine’s economy like the Russian economy is dominated by oligarchs. The difference is that Putin has his oligarchs under control. In Ukraine the oligarchs promote their own creatures to be President and this led to the spectacular collapse of the alliance of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko so that the Donbass oligarchs managed to get Yanukovych back as a legitimately elected President. Yanukovych had promised in the election to keep out of NATO but work towards entering the EU. When he suddenly pulled out of the talks with the EU in 2014 the pro-Western forces egged on by the US Embassy and financed by the same organisations as in 2004, once again took to the streets in the so-called Maidan. When the first wave of repression failed Yanukovych fled to Moscow, and civil war between ultra-nationalists on both sides engulfed the Donbass. The pro-Russian separatists would have likely lost if Putin had not sent in reinforcements. 14,000 have died then and since in what was a continuing “low level” conflict until the Russian invasion of 24 February.

The Current Conflict

Which brings us to the current conflict. As we said in the article in RP19 the crisis opened with Putin’s reaction to the rearming and reorganisation of the Ukrainian Army with NATO help. His solution was to muster troops on the border to threaten invasion. Throughout 2021 the numbers of these troops rose and fell according to the threat emanating from the West. When Biden made conciliatory gestures in the summer, 10,000 troops were withdrawn, but when the Ukrainians successfully annihilated a Russian separatist artillery battery with a drone supplied by NATO member Turkey, even more troops came to the border of the Donbass to be followed by military manoeuvres in Belarus. Frantic negotiations did not give Putin anything of what he wanted – the neutralisation of Ukraine. Indeed the Ukrainian position on joining NATO hardened rather than softened given the support it was getting from the US. Around about the first week in February, Putin went from playing diplomatic poker to planning nuclear Russian roulette.

Putin not only invaded Ukraine but threatened nuclear war against any outside intervention. As early as 8 February Putin warned Macron that “we do not have the same power as NATO. However, we do have nuclear weapons.” He followed this up on the day of the invasion by snarling: those “who would try to interfere with us must know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead to consequences that you have never experienced before.” According to Le Figaro, the French Foreign Minister, Le Drian retorted, “Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic Alliance is a nuclear alliance.”

What makes such sabre-rattling even more worrying is that we know that both sides have considered the use of so-called tactical nuclear weapons “on the battlefield”. However this is unlikely to stop there, especially as we live in an imperialist epoch, an epoch of total war where “the battlefield” is everywhere (as the citizens of Mariupol currently and tragically know only too well). We also know that the US National Intelligence Council sent a report to Biden in March 2021 in which it concluded that the use of nuclear weapons “is more likely in this competitive geopolitical environment”. The continuing global economic crisis is forcing the various imperialist actors into greater and greater preparations for a generalised war. The outgoing Commander of the US Pacific forces Admiral Davidson has predicted that such a war will occur within the next 6 years although he sees it with China first of all.

And what is happening in this invasion of Ukraine is the exact opposite of what both sides want. Their actions have only consolidated the imperialist line up of their enemies. Putin has done more to revive the unity of the Western alliance than any US President. Meanwhile the insistence of the West in taking NATO forces right up to the borders of Russia has forced Russia to become more and more reliant on China both in terms of trade and in military cooperation. The more the US refers to China as a “revisionist” power the more it will live up to that title and China, although not as desperate as Russia, has made no secret of its aim to be the most powerful state in the world by mid-century. Just as Russian violence is uniting NATO powers, Western sanctions are driving the two Eurasian powers closer together.

As we have said many times recently, climate change is not the only threat to all our futures and the threat of generalised imperialist war is now nearer than at any time since 1945.

The Working Class Response?

What makes the situation even more drastic is that it comes at the end of a long period of class retreat as a consequence of the restructuring forced on our global capitalists as a result of the crisis. That crisis has not gone away. The system is loaded with debt since states bailed out the banks after 2008. A decade of austerity has not brought about recovery. And the social tensions this was creating were accelerating towards the end of 2019 before the pandemic struck. It has only worsened since. Even before they got some control of the pandemic thanks to vaccines, capitalist states everywhere have been preparing to make the working class pay yet again for the failures of the system. This war in Ukraine is already exacerbating it. Commodity prices of fuel are rising and the loss of Ukrainian grain (13% of the world’s total) to the markets of the Middle East and North Africa are already leading to warnings of food riots such as those the preceded the “Arab spring”.

What can workers and revolutionaries do about it? All war situations begin with us drowning in a tide of propaganda and lies. “Plucky Belgium” in 1914 is mirrored in “heroic Ukraine” in 2022. Nationalist fervour will be whipped up and any one section of workers taking action even to defend their living standards will be denounced as “traitors to their nation”. Even the real humanitarian disaster that unfolds on the screens in front of us will be used to aid war mobilisation in the West. It is already being cited by some (usually retired generals) as a justification for widening the war.

We have to take our cue from workers’ actions in the past. When Lenin called for "revolutionary defeatism" in 1914 he was widely derided. But what he was doing was setting down a marker for the future – in short giving a political lead to a struggle which had not yet begun. In his works over the next two years he outlined the classical positions of Marxism starting from the premise that “Workers have no country”. He called for opposition to all forms of militarism, and imperialist annexations, at the same time as calling for fraternisation between workers, including those who were in uniform and above all the need to turn the imperialist war into a class war. At the same time he also set about those in the Second International who had abandoned class positions either for pacifism or outright support for one imperialism or another.

Revolutionaries then were working under enormous pressure as the slaughter was already well under way. Today we are not yet in the generalised war which gives us a little more time but we have been in retreat as a class throughout the best part of four decades. We have to begin to build an internationalist movement which is both anti-war and anti-capitalist. We already have the programmatic basis inherited from the revolutionary past of the world working class to understand what needs to be done. This already allows us to denounce those who claim the titles “socialist”, “communist” and “anarchist” who takes sides with one “lesser evil” imperialism or another. We also have to reject pacifism. Our slogan is not just “No War” as some brave people in Russia have been using since the war. “No War” only means stop fighting and go back to where we were (this was the position of Kautsky back in 1914). We did not like where we were – we have to make the wider working class see the link between the war and the capitalist system in crisis. The only long term solution to capitalism’s wars is to get rid of the system that spawns them.

We must not be discouraged by the lack of response at first. A wider class response straight away is unlikely. We have to remember that though it was working class revolution which finally put an end to the first world imperialist slaughter that process only began after three years of increasing misery, murder and privation. We are still in the foothills of the revival of the class struggle and it faces many obstacles. Apart from the legacy of decades of retreat which is no small factor there is a mountain of propaganda for workers everywhere to overcome.

There are however some positive signs. Even before this conflict broke out there were groups of striking workers looking for new ways to organise resistance to exploitation. In the USA, Spain and Turkey there are increasing numbers of strikes as prices go up and wages don’t. In Iran workers have come up with some ingenious ways to keep the struggle going as with the oil workers. And the workers of Haft Tappeh who last year called for new soviets have already issued several declarations against the war which make the link to the system:

Capitalists and capitalist governments use their policies for profit and investment in various ways.
Repression, arrest and imprisonment, torture and execution, unemployment and homelessness, and sometimes war and the killing of innocent people who have no role or get any benefit from the war, except death and displacement.
This war is not our war!
Our war is the working class war against the capitalist class, against oppression, exploitation and discrimination.
Let us dismantle the capitalist governments in all parts of the world in order to get rid of war, insecurity, poverty, etc.
Long live the international solidarity of the working class!

Statements from the Haft Tappeh Workers

We have even read of wildcat strikes in Russia against the collapse of the rouble as a result of the war. Turkish migrant workers in Kazan won a big pay rise by doing this. It would be even more encouraging if the Russian working class in general were to follow their lead. Given the collapse of the rouble this already seems possible. There must be no more sacrifices for capitalism in either war or peace.

The revolutionary working class only has two weapons. Its consciousness and its organisations. The one is linked to the other. The more aware workers are of the operation of the system, the more they will see the need to organise themselves. This organisation will take different forms but, on the one hand, they have to try to unite the bulk of their forces in assemblies, strike committees and councils, whilst on the other they need to give themselves a political compass. This will not be formed by accident and will always be a minority but by the conscious efforts of revolutionary workers linking the daily struggle and the fight against imperialist war to a different and better future. We have seen too many examples over the years where a lack of a political organisation of the class has led to promising movements into falling behind bourgeois democratic or petty bourgeois agendas. We have to get political and we have to have an international organisation guided by a programme which the great mass of the class can sign up for – a programme which banishes capitalist exploitation and its states to the lumber room of history. Nobody can pretend that this will be easy but we have a new generation of young workers coming to the internationalist Communist Left, a generation which are better educated and less integrated into the system than ever before. These are the ones to whom we must look to build the new international. This war crisis only emphasises that we have to get out there and take this message to the widest layers of the world working class. It alone is capable of saving humanity from the present and future horrors that capitalism imposes on us.

The Discussion

The fundamental point of the introduction, that we were witnessing a fundamental tipping point in the history of imperialism, was accepted by most of the participants. However some argued that it was not as serious as we had made out as the alliances necessary for a more generalised conflict were not yet in place. The European working class, they argued, could not be mobilised for war and the consolidation of blocs was still fragmentary (pointing to the fact that Nord Stream 2 was suspended not ended and that Turkey was ambiguous in its relations with both sides). Others seemed to accept that the invasion of Ukraine was a serious step towards generalised warfare but did not draw the conclusion that what we should focus on is how revolutionaries should respond. The situation, one participant argued, was more bleak than we painted it. It was not analogous to either 1914 or 1939 and neither general view of an alternative to capitalist society nor the communist programme to achieve a new society exist.

Some comrades did attempt to face up to the current situation, the most precise coming from the ICC and AWW. The former argued that the Communist Left should produce a joint declaration against the war, arguing that it would carry greater weight as declaration coming from the Communist Left as a whole. The ICC speaker here seemed to imply that the ICT had rejected the proposal already, but the chair of the meeting pointed out that not only had we acknowledged the ICC proposal of over two weeks previously, but had replied within 2 days. We had asked the ICC to clarify where it stood on the current war and who it considered the appeal they had not yet drafted should be sent to, but two weeks later we still had no answer.

The AWW comrade focussed on the fact that workers in Merseyside had refused to unload Russian ships as a pointer to a possible beginning of class resistance. He then informed the meeting that the AWW had signed the Transnational Social Strike document though it was “a little pacifist” as a way to get wider cooperation in the fight against war and over 100 organisations around the world had signed it.

CWO comrades replied that unfortunately the Merseyside boycott of Russian goods, like others in the UK and around Europe, were actually led by trade unions, as ever identifying with the national capital, and “doing the bosses work for them”. They were not independent class actions against both sides in this war. We were also very critical of the signatories of the Transnational Social Strike document who included not only reformist social democrats but various supporters of national liberation (“underdog” imperialists who can identify with Ukraine in this war against a more powerful attacker).

The most telling contribution came from a comrade who joined the meeting from Russia. He told us that before the attack every TV station there was saying that talk of an invasion was "Western hysteria" and so on. Even the foreign ministry seemed to have no idea that an invasion was coming, and looked foolish when it happened. He added that Western sanctions were only consolidating the hold of the Putin regime over the Russian population who bought into the regime’s “special military operation” lies. The preparation for a wider conflict on both sides were increasing.

A CWO comrade took the discussion back to the wider issue by posing the question of where China stood in relation to this war. This allowed us to develop the main point that the world is now clearly dividing into two camps both militarily and economically. Behind Ukraine stands the US and behind Russia stands China. These are the real antagonists and already China is cautiously aiding Russia economically as well as militarily.

We concluded the meeting by thanking comrades for joining – it was indeed a sign that they recognised the serious situation into which the world was now plunging. For our part we think that today’s communists are prepared programmatically to meet the crisis by recognising that this is the latest, inevitable stage in capitalism’s decades long crisis and by learning from the working class experience of the past. We know that the invasion of the Ukraine is only one episode in an increasingly dangerous situation which threatens to become more generalised if not now, then certainly later. Even the UK Government in March 2021 quietly reversed four decades of nuclear weapons reductions and committed to an increase in its nuclear stockpile by 40%. The problem remains that we still do not have a mass class resistance to the attacks of capital, and have not had for a long time. You can have all the theoretical preparation you like, but revolutionaries outside of a real class movement are powerless. There is a need for a new revolutionary workers’ international to both contribute towards the creation of such a movement, and to act as a guard against the penetration of anti-working class ideas into the struggle. We have seen how previous promising movements have not given birth to any political formation and without it the consequence is always that they end up either in defeat and dispersal or worse, in the grip of a new movement inside the capitalist order. We see the Transnational Social Strike document as pointing in the latter direction. Obviously there is a big leap from where we are now to a real international so our proposal would be the development of the No War but the Class War movement like the one started in the UK in 2002-3 against the imperialist adventure in Iraq. This goes beyond the limited confines of the “Communist Left” to embrace individuals and organisations who understand what revolutionary defeatism means. It means going beyond the current cry of “no war” to “down with the war”, and the capitalist system that produces imperialist war. We now need to develop this on an international scale. And it cannot content itself with paper declarations, essential though these are – our aim must be to organise and take this to the world working class, as it is only the exploited that can put an end to the continuing massacres that capitalism keeps on producing.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
16 March 2022
Thursday, March 17, 2022