Smears and social-imperialism, the politics of the “third camp” on Ukraine
By Marcus Halaby
Why hasn’t Richard Brenner answered the AWL broadsheet’s claims (and the comments, above)? Why doesn’t Workers’ Power reply?
The fact is: they can’t. They don’t write anything because they know they’ve made a bad mistake. They don’t write anything because they’re not able to admit it. Because they’re a sect, run by Brenner.
What a rubbish group.
Leading AWL member Mark Osborn in the comments section of Workers’ Liberty’s 29 August 2014 online article “Another Yalta conference”
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) have a reputation to maintain, as the group on the British far-left most consistently willing to adapt their politics to the global outlook of their own country’s imperialist ruling class. They have held it almost unchallenged for about three decades, achieving notoriety with each new manifestation of it, ranging from their opposition to the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, through to their provocative use of Israeli flags at pro-Gaza demonstrations in 2009, their leader’s bizarre equivocations in opposing an Israeli military strike on Iran, verging on open support for one, and their willingness to resort to and justify the use of racist and Islamophobic imagery.
In recent months, however, the AWL have started to face some pretty stiff competition, as events in Ukraine have thrown organisations with a much better record of internationalism than theirs into complete confusion. Having first held the illusion that the “Euromaidan” movement in favour of signing the neoliberal EU Association Agreement was in some way progressive, the AWL and the larger part of the British far-left with it have since decided that its overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in February this year was a “revolution”.
Buying into the idea that what is now taking place is a Ukrainian national struggle for self-determination and independence from Russia, many of these same groupings have since also supported or failed to oppose the NATO-backed war that the Kiev government is waging against a part of its own country’s population – and with it, the complicity of our own government in this war.
A polarised country in a polarised world
In fact, Euromaidan was essentially a rerun of the so-called “Orange revolution” of 2004, in which a West-facing faction of Ukraine’s capitalist-oligarchic ruling class, led by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, confronted a Russia-facing faction led by Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced to step down as President-elect (and who would later be re-elected in 2010). Each faction was able to mobilise a mass base in its support, in the west and east of Ukraine respectively.
Similar events took place in Lebanon the following year, where the so-called “Cedar revolution” polarised the country between the pro-West Sunni-Druze-Christian 14 March movement and the pro-Syrian Shia and Christian 8 March movement. At the time, we refused to give any support to either of these bogus “revolutions”, in Lebanon or Ukraine, and in both cases we argued for working class political independence from both capitalist camps.
This time, however, there would be a number of important differences. Instead of accepting a mere rearrangement of government office, as when Yanukovych became the new President Yushchenko’s prime minister after 2004, the “anti-Russian” side this time actually took the power, excluding and disenfranchising the “pro-Russian” half of Ukraine’s population in the process.
This time, the “Orange” movement was led at street level not by established bourgeois figures like Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, but by fascist formations like Svoboda and the Right Sector, who were rewarded for their key role with government posts far out of proportion to their electoral support, and with effective control of key parts of the security forces. And while there have occasionally been fascist ministers in right-wing coalitions in post-war Italy, amongst other places, this is probably the first time that fascists have come to power in Europe through an insurrection since the Second World War.
This time, the imperialist backers of each side acted openly in defence of their interests in the country: first the Western powers by interfering in the formation of a new post-Yanukovych government, and then Russia by annexing the Crimea, an act supported by a majority of its population. (Nikita Khrushchev had arbitrarily transferred Soviet Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR from the Russian SFSR in 1954, and its Russian-majority population had long expressed separatist ambitions following Ukrainian independence in 1991-92.)
And this time, the alarm of Ukraine’s large “pro-Russian” constituency at the rise of a fascist far-right openly hostile to it, expressed most graphically by the Odessa massacre in May, would provoke a movement of resistance in the south and east of the country, one largely out of the control of Yanukovych’s capitalist Party of Regions.
In the east of the country, and in the Donbass in particular, this resistance has come to take the form of an amorphous armed movement, variously demanding either secession from Ukraine or Ukraine’s federalisation, as Yanukovych’s abandoned mass base began to look towards other sources of leadership and support in a way that is the hallmark of every serious social struggle. Almost all of Ukraine’s major oligarchs now support the pro-EU and pro-NATO regime in Kiev, including those like Rinat Akhmetov and current President Petro Poroshenko who were previously amongst Yanukovych’s sponsors or protégés.
The Western powers’ support for the new neoliberal-fascist coalition, and Russia’s attempts to exploit the Antimaidan movement against it, have polarised international politics in a way that has not been seen since the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. It should hardly be a surprise that it has polarised the left with it.
And to be fair to them, a significant part of the pro-Maidan left in Britain have acted out of the best of intentions, applying to Ukraine a lazy and inaccurate analogy with events in Syria, where there indeed was a popular democratic uprising against a totalitarian dictatorship backed by Russian imperialism.
The AWL however, who turned against the Syrian revolution almost as soon as its armed character and “Islamic” colouration began to alarm the bourgeois media in the West, have no such excuse; their opposition to the Syrian revolution in the present and to the anti-fascist resistance in Ukraine are both conditioned by their consistently pro-Western imperialist politics.
A crowded marketplace
The loudest voice on the pro-Maidan left in this country has probably been that of Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Fourth International. Their arguments have found an echo in the recent splinters from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the International Socialist Network (ISN) and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21). The two largest groups on the British left, the SWP and the Socialist Party (SP), each hold to a “softer” version of the same pro-Maidan narrative.
Against this consensus, it has been left to the smaller organisations like our own, the Counterfire grouping, Socialist Action and Socialist Appeal to make the case for opposing the policy of our own government and our own ruling class on this issue. This has put us into the same “camp” – on this question, if on very little else – with the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), and with the spectrum of little Stalinist and Maoist sects who, as one might expect, take equally as one-sided a view of Russian imperialism’s actions in Syria and elsewhere as the pro-Maidan left take of the West’s in Ukraine.
In this rather crowded marketplace, the AWL do however have one unique selling point: that where others whisper and insinuate, they just wade right in with their size nines. Where others are a little more circumspect in echoing the themes of their country’s bourgeois mass media, the AWL engage in tabloid-style smears in public.
The latest target of their verbal shelling, it would seem, is Workers Power member Richard Brenner’s attendance at a conference in Yalta in Crimea, held in solidarity with the Ukrainian anti-fascist resistance. Beginning with a 23 July article titled “A Popular Front for Russian Nationalism”, and followed up by a 29 August article titled “Another Yalta conference”, it has culminated in “A reply to Richard Brenner on the Yalta conferences, Ukraine and Russia” on 29 September.
The three articles between them purport to demonstrate that our positions on Ukraine have led us to become the “useful idiots” of Putin’s government, the Russian imperialist state and of the Russian far-right.
The “revelations” in the first two of these articles, in and of themselves, were not so remarkable: that this conference produced a populist-nationalist Russian-language manifesto (which we have critiqued on our website), and that some of the figures that took part in it or helped to organise it also took part in or helped to organise a subsequent conference with various figures drawn from the European far-right.
The third of these articles, building on the theme of “Russian fascism” set out in the first two, was ostensibly written as a reply to Richard Brenner’s 23 September report, “The Yalta Conference on Solidarity with the Resistance in South East Ukraine”, and tried to “expose” the alleged fascist or far-right politics of those who attended the first conference as well. AWL member Jim Denham, playing his usual role of court jester-cum-character assassin of plausible deniability, has made a number of posts on his Shiraz Socialist blog on the same theme.
In hindsight, it may well be the case that Richard’s report was unnecessarily defensive, perhaps inevitably given that the AWL had already “set the agenda” for it by the time it came out. But even leaving aside the one-sided political characterisations that AWL member Dale Street makes in all three articles, there are issues of principle involved here, and it is necessary to articulate them.
Why do we say that the AWL’s apparently scandalous revelations are “unremarkable”? For the simple reason that none of us live in a political vacuum. Every group on the left except the most sectarian, the most isolated or the most passive propagandist in its politics finds itself having to cooperate with (and therefore to confer with) all sorts of people, many of whom themselves cooperate and confer with all sorts of other people.
The degrees of separation guilt by association (the method of the “amalgam” so beloved of classical Stalinism) that Dale Street tries to apply to us in sending Richard Brenner to Yalta could just as easily be used to “demonstrate” the pro-Maidan left’s links to fascism in Ukraine, or to show that they are acting as useful idiots for the Western imperialist powers (as in our view they are).
And come to it, in June 2011 we took part in the First Forum for Solidarity with Arab revolutions in Cairo, which I attended alongside our then national organiser Simon Hardy. Amongst the top table speakers there were some conservative Libyan Islamists, the sort of people who the AWL normally describe as being “clerical fascists”.
These “clerical fascists” were there to make the case for the Libyan popular uprising against Gaddafi, and pressed for US airstrikes and a no-fly zone in Libya. In that conflict, the AWL not only – and quite rightly – defended the Libyan revolution despite its semi-Islamist and “pro-Western” leadership, but also and quite wrongly saw fit not to oppose NATO’s military intervention into it.
Others present at the Cairo conference included some Egyptian Stalinists who supported both the Gaddafi and Assad regimes, and who have since supported Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. In this way I am now personally linked both to the Gaddafi regime, and to the anti-Gaddafi Salafists, as well as various other unsavoury forces.
Our work in promoting solidarity with the Syrian revolution (at the Cairo conference, at the World Social Forum in Tunis in March 2013, and in the Syria solidarity movement in Britain since) has similarly brought us into contact with Syrians who called for US airstrikes and a UN no-fly zone to restrain the Assad regime, as well as with the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose ambiguous relations with the Assad regime have been a frequent source of controversy.
It has not, so far, brought us into contact with the supporters of Jabhat an-Nusra or the Islamic State, who in any case we consider to be enemies of the Syrian revolution, as most Syrian revolutionaries also do. This means that the AWL’s Dale Street, Mark Osborn and Jim Denham have not yet had occasion to accuse me of having being “feted” by takfiri-jihadists in a pub in Bloomsbury or in a hotel bar in Cairo or Tunis, the way that they have accused Richard Brenner of being feted by “Russian fascists” in Crimea.
It has however brought us into contact with the sympathisers of Islamists of the Ahrar ash-Sham or Islamic Front variety, who until their conflict with the Islamic State earlier this year had considered the Islamic State to be “mistaken brothers”, and who themselves have not yet completely broken with Jabhat an-Nusra.
Had we attended comparable conferences in the past in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance, or with the resistance to the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan, then this might easily have brought us into contact with Hamas (an organisation who, as we know, the AWL consider to be beyond the pale), as well as with the multitude of Ba’athist, ex-Ba’athist, Sunni and Shia Islamist, nationalist and other forces that were active in fighting US-led occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Any serious revolutionary socialists in Egypt today should actively be seeking to bring about forms of cooperation between the workers’ movement, and its mass organisations in particular, with the Muslim Brotherhood, against the military-state repression that the Brotherhood’s mass base have so far borne the brunt of. This might also have to involve the defence of some Salafist formations to the Brotherhood’s right, who have also seen their members arrested, imprisoned and even subjected to sexual assault in custody.
Were it the case that Russia actually was invading and occupying Ukraine, if it was happening that west Ukrainians were fighting a Russian occupation of their country, rather than east Ukrainians resisting a neoliberal-fascist coalition espousing an exclusivist Ukrainian nationalism, then we might similarly have to cooperate with some of the same forces that the pro-Maidan left feel the need to adapt to politically in the present; and we might discover that some of those forces are also not too discerning about what other allies they seek out.
After all, the Ukrainian Left Opposition, the pro-Maidan left’s favourite Ukrainian organisation, didn’t merely attend a conference with people who attended a different conference with fascists at it, but themselves shared an uprising with fascists, at least in spirit if not quite on its front line.
The united front
The general point of principle here is that in a democratic struggle – and as with our view of national struggles in general, this is our view of what is happening in eastern Ukraine – revolutionary socialists might find it necessary to cooperate with all sorts of bourgeois and petit bourgeois forces, without for a minute dropping their own programme, without hiding their criticisms of these forces (or their warnings to the workers’ movement about them) and without restricting their own freedom of action, or that of the workers’ movement in general. The policy of the united front, in our view, goes alongside the defence of working class political independence.
The AWL, however, looking at events through the Anglocentric prism that is a hallmark of their geopolitics, did not consider these unremarkable revelations to be damning enough. While they themselves can accept a united front only with non-working class forces that are not the subject of demonisation by their own country’s bourgeoisie, they nevertheless still felt it necessary to cast all or most of the people who were present at the first conference in the role of “far-right nationalists” or “fascists”, or as Dale Street put it, “people who fall somewhere in the grey area between extremist nationalism and outright fascism”.
Dale Street takes particular delight in “exposing” Russian journalist Maxim Shevchenko as someone “with a history of involvement in far-right Russian politics”, inaccurately describing him as a member of a “fascist think tank” and quoting his words in opposing the anti-Putin protests in Russia that took place in 2012.
But Shevchenko is at least as much as “leftist” figure as George Galloway, a man of conservative Catholic social views and atrocious sexual politics who occasionally poses as a Muslim, who has met with Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, and who defends his native Scotland’s place in a Union dominated by England through the standard British nationalistic narrative about the Second World War.
That is to say that in our terminology if not necessarily his own, Shevchenko is a Stalinist, one who advocates a Vietnam-style “people’s war” in Ukraine. Like a lot of Stalinists, he seems not to see present-day Russia as being an imperialist power (although in his case he does recognise the existence of a Ukrainian nation), and he views with suspicion Putin’s bourgeois liberal and neoliberal domestic opponents, as presumed agents of Western imperialism.
Stalinism, social democracy and the third camp
Stalinists elsewhere, including some who we have had to work with on the Ukrainian issue, express similar views about the domestic opponents of Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Slobodan Milosevic, as well about the pro-democracy protests now taking place in Hong Kong. We have had to oppose them on all of these questions.
Now, perhaps Dale Street intends to warn us that “Stalinism” is not a particularly “left-wing” politics or ideology. But this is equally true of social democracy, and we do not anticipate the AWL describing even the most right-wing, neoliberal, war-mongering, anti-immigration Blairite figure as being a “far-right nationalist” or “fascist”.
Social democrats no less than Stalinists identify with their own country’s national ideology and advocate its perceived state interests. They may or may not cover this with flowery phrases about multilateralism or democratic values, but these are no less deceptive than Stalinism’s own leftish decorations for the “national interest”, in Russia or anywhere else.
And social democrats no less than Stalinists have also justified or been a party to the crimes of the states that they hope to rule over or influence, the crimes of the European and US empires easily bearing direct comparison with the worst of Stalin’s or Mao’s.
A differential hostility to Stalinism over social democracy, however, is a hallmark of the “third campist” tradition that the AWL have adopted in the course of their consistent rightward evolution. And this is with good reason: “third campism” never seems to release them from the orbit of their own country’s imperialist camp, only from the orbits of others’. That after all was its intended purpose when Max Shachtman first articulated it in the 1940s, and it is still its purpose for the AWL today.
Nationalism and irredentist aspirations
In fact, the most that the AWL are able to prove so far about any of the first conference’s participants is that they are Russians or people with a Russian national outlook, either Stalinist or nationalist in origin, and that like a lot of Russian nationalists they hold some irredentist aspirations. The “Russian world” has in their view been divided by the collapse of the USSR, as ethnically Russian or Russian-speaking populations have been left behind in the non-Russian republics that acquired independence in 1991-92. In some of these countries they have faced varying degrees of national oppression, in particular in the Baltic states, where they were stripped of citizenship.
These irredentist aspirations on their own, it would seem, are enough to make them into “extreme nationalists”, a description which can then be elided first with “far-right” politics, and then with fascism. Or as Dale Street puts it, these aspirations “deserve to be classed, at a minimum, as far-right”.
However, irredentism – the aspiration of “redeeming” territories with kindred populations that are under the rule of other states – is a frequent feature of nationalism in general in countries where there is an outstanding national question, and as such is hardly the sole preserve of the right, still less of the far-right.
In the Arab world, it has most visibly taken the form of Palestinian nationalism, where as we know the AWL remain utterly opposed to the demand of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants for the right to return to their homeland, even as the AWL continue to support Israel’s right to maintain itself as a “Jewish state”, the state of a group of people who in their majority do not live there and never have, and most of whom probably never will.
Irredentist nationalism in the Middle East has also taken the form of Kurdish and Armenian nationalism, of pan-Syrian nationalism (the project of reuniting geographic Syria, or “the Fertile Crescent”), and most obviously of all of pan-Arab nationalism (the project of bringing together all the Arabic-speaking peoples in a single state).
Were, say, Nasserism or Ba’athism in their origins “left-wing” or “right-wing” ideologies? Are Fatah, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation or the Turkish republican-Kemalist parties “left-wing” or “right-wing”? All of these nationalisms have at various times faced right or left, depending on whether they were in conflict with the workers’ movement at home, or with a foreign power or a national oppressor abroad.
Present-day Russian nationalism, or certain variants of it at least, certainly does contain a strong populist streak that locates “the West” as a source of cultural decadence and as the face of big capital, a view that does indeed slide into antisemitism. We should give no more credence to its populist demagogy than we do to Scottish nationalism’s self-flattering belief that the Scots are an inherently progressive nation in comparison to the congenitally reactionary English – or indeed to Ukrainian nationalism, which self-exculpatingly locates Russia as the ultimate source of oligarchy and corruption in Ukraine.
But here we might ask, why are Russian irredentist aspirations qualitatively more reactionary than Ukrainian ones? Why is the project – which we do not support – of stringing Belarus together with the Donbass, Transnistria, Crimea and southern Ukraine into a common state with Russia indicative of “far-right” politics, while the project of re-imposing the authority of a unitary Ukrainian state on regions that have rejected the rule of its present government is just defending Ukrainian sovereignty? Where does this curious reverence for established state boundaries come from?
Self-determination and imperialist geopolitics
There is here more than a little of the very English supposition that national aspirations that transgress the borders of existing states – especially if those states are allies of our own – are necessarily “extreme”, along the lines of Adolf Hitler’s quest to redraw the map in search of Lebensraum for Germans in central and eastern Europe.
For the English, who have never been oppressed as a nation anywhere in the world, who are not dispersed across more than one state, and who as 85 per cent of the population of their own plurinational state have unlike almost every other European country never had a real “national question” of their own, this might seem like a perfectly logical assumption.
For many people from any part of the world in which national conflicts are a regular or at least a relatively recent part of political life, it might look a lot more like a sleight of hand, a non sequitur deserving of much closer examination. And as a nationally-centred British grouping, it is entirely fitting that the AWL should share this particular deficiency of the mainstream British reformist labour movement, as it also has on the national question in Ireland and in Israel-Palestine, and in the recent past on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We do not, for our part, advocate the secession of southern and eastern Ukraine, or “Novorossiya” as the separatists would have it, and we have argued repeatedly that the objectives of the Antimaidan movement should be for a pan-Ukrainian struggle for the overthrow of the neoliberal-fascist coalition, on the basis of a class appeal to the workers and peasants of western and central Ukraine, combining national-democratic and social demands.
But if it happens that state violence or the threat of it – in this case, the violence of the Ukrainian state and its fascist auxiliaries – drive the majority population of any of Ukraine’s regions to actively desire their own permanent separation from Ukraine, then they should have that right; and if like the majority-Russian population of Crimea they express a clear desire to join the Russian Federation, then that too is also their right.
We do not regard Ukraine, Russia, Britain or any other existing nation-state as being a permanently “one and indivisible” entity. Nor do we follow in the footsteps of those on the pro-Maidan left who, in the spirit of China’s anti-secession law, seem to regard the existence of a veto on the secession of any particular region from Ukraine, dishonestly exercised in the name of Ukraine’s population as a whole, as somehow being an expression of Ukraine’s own right to self-determination vis-à-vis Russia.
Similarly, if the population of Belarus, who do seem to regard themselves as being Russians of a sort, decide of their own volition to be part of a large Russian imperialist state rather than its neighbouring semi-colonial satellite, then why should we want to stop them? And why should we regard the present-day advocates of this particular nationalist aspiration as being “far-right nationalists” or “fascists”, on the basis of that fact alone?
We should give no more legitimacy to Aleksandr Dugin’s “Eurasian” project than we give to the claim of any other imperialist power to a recognised sphere of influence of its own. But Aleksandr Dugin, who does seem to be a fascist of sorts, is hardly the only advocate of a Russian sphere of influence in Russia’s “near abroad”, and the US neoconservative “Project for the New American Century” was no less ambitious in its global objectives than his. Whatever else we might have to say about them, we have never described Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz as being fascists.
The adulation of many Western Stalinists for what they once called “actually existing socialism” has translated since the collapse of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism in China into an utterly one-dimensional anti-imperialism, according to which present-day capitalist Russia and China are somehow not imperialist powers, and their dictatorial clients like Assad’s Syria or Gaddafi’s Libya are somehow not dictatorships.
For their part though, the AWL’s one-dimensional anti-Stalinism has similarly translated into a rather conveniently one-dimensional geopolitics, within which the category “imperialism” no longer has any precise meaning, and according to which the most reactionary states and non-state actors on the planet just happen to be the ones that are in conflict with our own, or with its allies. The main enemy for them, it would seem, is never quite at home.
Good nations, and bad ones
There is an irony here. It has historically been the AWL that have accused us, amongst others, of conceptually dividing the world into “good” and “bad” nations, their self-appointed mission being to stand up for the rights of “bad” peoples like the Israelis or the Ulster Protestants, against a far-left that perversely insists on supporting the national liberation struggles of the “good” ones instead.
But here it seems to us that the AWL have joined the British and US mass media, who are screaming blue murder about authoritarian Russia with its expansionist ambitions and its hyper-nationalist political culture (while being much more circumspect about the presence of fascists in government and in the repressive apparatus in Ukraine), in deciding that the Russian bear belongs to a special category of bad nations, one whose national sentiments are in their own right equivalent to “far-right nationalism”.
Indeed, Dale Street lists a number of features that are apparently supposed to form the common ground of far-right Russian nationalists with European fascism: hostility to US imperialism; to globalisation as its Trojan horse; to the EU as a vehicle of German imperialism; to “decadent” Western values (symbolised by the question of LGBT rights); a demagogic anti-oligarchic populism; and finally the promotion of a multi-polar global order.
But these are all thoroughly mainstream features of post-Stalinist Russian nationalism in general. They permeate Russian bourgeois politics every bit as much as secular-republican France’s belief in its civilising mission pervades French politics, every bit as much as the belief that the rest of the world “hate us for our freedoms” pervades American politics, and every bit as much as British imperialism’s belief in itself as a model of moderate constitutional parliamentarism, siding selflessly with the plucky little underdog in world affairs, pervades the British labour movement.
Even its grand geopolitical aspects are predictably mainstream to the point of banality. There is for example no obvious practical difference between Aleksandr Dugin’s “Eurasian” concept and Putin’s notion of a “post-Soviet space”.
Now, do the geopolitics of nationalists and of nation-states look unpleasant when viewed from the outside? Almost certainly they do. But the comrades should conduct this experiment on themselves sometime. How do they think that their support for Israel’s continued existence as a “Jewish state” looks outside of Western Europe and North America? How does their opposition to the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan look outside of Britain, or their past declarations in favour of “the right of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders”, for that matter?
How easy would it be to demonstrate the AWL’s “links” to the British National Party or the National Front, on the basis of their belief that the Ulster Protestants are a nation?
It happens that we agree with the AWL in opposing the current movement, misguidedly supported by most of the English and Scottish far-left, to bring about Scotland’s separation from Britain, even while both our organisations recognise Scotland’s right to secede if a majority of its population so wishes. This gives both of our organisations a common ground with George Galloway, and with the “official” Stalinist CPB on this matter. In this way the AWL are now connected both to Bashar al-Assad and to Saddam Hussein.
Connected to them or not though, the AWL must know how difficult it is to make the argument against secession and for cross-national working class unity and working class political independence in Scotland, where one-third of Labour voters were part of the 45 per cent of Scots who voted “Yes” in the recent independence referendum.
And just how difficult would it be for socialists in other countries, relying on a thoroughly one-dimensional view of this question, to “demonstrate” our support and the AWL’s for British Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat sidekick Nick Clegg? Only there are enough people in England – and Scotland – making this argument anyway.
The national question in Ukraine
The very fact that the AWL have to ask why the nationalists in the struggle of eastern Ukraine’s population against the Kiev government are Russian nationalists rather than Ukrainian nationalists tells us that whatever they think they know about the Russian far-right, they have only a limited understanding of the form taken by the national question in Ukraine, especially since it became an independent state.
Like the rest of the pro-Maidan left, they rest content with truisms and generalities, about how the Ukrainians were nationally oppressed under Tsarism and Stalinism (which they were), about how their language was suppressed (which it was, although this is not quite the whole picture), and about how Ukraine was subjected to forced collectivisation and famine (occasionally referred to by Ukrainian nationalists and others as the Holodomor, in a bid to place it alongside the Nazi holocaust of the Jews).
But even here one runs into difficulties. Even if one accepts that Stalin’s 1932-33 famine was a national crime against Ukrainians, rather than a class crime against the Soviet peasantry as a whole, the fact remains that western Ukraine, the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, was completely untouched by it, having been under Polish rather than Soviet rule at the time.
On the other hand, the regions most affected by the famine were amongst the most “pro-Soviet” during the Second World War, and are amongst the most “pro-Russian” today. This makes its present-day use by Ukrainian nationalism, as an explanation-cum-justification for Ukrainian nationalist collaboration with the Nazis and participation in the Nazi holocaust, more than a little problematic.
In fact, the federalists and separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine are not, even in their own terms, fighting for “the national liberation of Ukraine” from some non-Ukrainian national oppressor – or at least, they make this claim only insofar as they identify the Kiev junta with domination by Germany, the EU and the USA.
In their own terms, they are fighting for their own liberation from Ukraine – or rather, for their liberation from a Ukrainian nationalist government that seems intent on inflicting a social catastrophe on their still mainly industrial region, and whose ideology marks them out as “settlers” or as the dupes of settlers (a view that is occasionally echoed by the more idiotic on the pro-Maidan left).
This government and the movement that supports it threatens the status of their language and insults the symbols of their identity, most noticeably by the demolition of statues of Lenin across the country, while flaunting the symbols of fascism in their faces: the swastika-like Wolfsangel, the portrait of wartime collaborator Stepan Bandera and the red and black flag of his Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).
These, indeed, are the camps into which Euromaidan has divided Ukrainian society: between the descendants (ideologically and to some extent literally) of those who once fought alongside Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and of those who fought in or alongside the Soviet armed forces against them.
In the absence of a strong working-class movement or socialist left to give an alternative direction to their struggle, their consciousness in the course of it therefore necessarily takes the form either of an amorphous Soviet-style “anti-fascism”, with all its contradictions, or the form of nationalism. And as the Kiev government has chosen to pursue its struggle against them under the banner of Ukrainian nationalism, it can only be a non-Ukrainian nationalism – in this case mainly Russian – that they can rally around against it.
On this note, it is one noticeable if unsurprising development that the proportion of Russian-speakers in Ukraine who now self-identify as “Russians” rather than as Ukrainians has multiplied since the Kiev regime’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO), as compared to the situation in 1991, where more than four-fifths of them voted in favour of Ukraine’s independence from the collapsing USSR.
A multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country
How has this happened? The fact is that Ukraine is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and to some extent a multi-national country. It was the Bolsheviks, who decided to include the Donbass and the Black Sea coast in the Ukrainian SSR rather than in the Russian SFSR, who first brought it together in its current form; and it was Stalin who consolidated its present-day territory.
For all Stalin’s centralising Great Russian chauvinism, he still brought almost all Ukrainians together in one state, by annexing the Galicia and Volhynia regions from Poland during the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, and later by annexing the Ukrainian-speaking regions of Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. This was entirely consistent with the Soviet bureaucracy’s overall national policy, which officially recognised the existence of the various minority nations under its rule, while simultaneously holding them within a union of republics dominated by the largest of them.
Ukraine’s southern region has always had a large “Russian” component; indeed most of southern Ukraine’s major cities like Odessa were founded as Russian military-bureaucratic settlements following its conquest by Tsarism, not from any Ukrainian national or proto-national entity but from the Crimean Khanate, which had systematically depopulated this region in the course of the slave-raiding that formed a major component of its political economy.
Southern Ukraine’s countryside likewise was also settled under Tsarism, with Germans, Serbs, Bulgarians, Albanians and Jews, but most of all with peasants from elsewhere in Ukraine. Its “Ukrainian” population is therefore no less composed of the descendants of former colonists than its “Russian” population is.
Eastern Ukraine, or the Donbass, is another region that had never been part of any Ukrainian entity prior to its absorption into the Russian Empire, a century or two before today’s central and southern Ukraine. There, rapid industrialisation in the late nineteenth century brought about a massive economic migration from across the Russian Empire, to cities like Donetsk (originally named Yuzovka after a Welsh engineer and industrialist called John Hughes). This is the historic core of Ukraine’s working class – multi-ethnic and multi-national in origin, with Russian as its lingua franca.
The result is that as in Lebanon and Iraq (two other countries that have never enjoyed a consensus of their citizens as to the basis for their existence as states), there is not one single, consensual Ukrainian national consciousness, but several competing ones.
Separatist Ukrainian nationalism
One is separatist, West-facing, anti-Russian and historically also anti-Polish and anti-Jewish. It is at its strongest in the Galicia region around Lviv and elsewhere in western Ukraine, regions that had been part of Austria-Hungary rather than Tsarist Russia, and that came under Soviet rule only after Stalin and Hitler divided Poland between them in 1939.
It regards Ukraine as being a central European country like Poland or Hungary, regards the Russians as being a barbarian nation of congenital slaves, and claims to identify with what it calls “European values”.
And while this occasionally produces embarrassment for its liberal and left-liberal attorneys in the West, it sits very much in the tradition of Symon Petliura, whose antisemitic pogromist army struggled against the Bolsheviks, amongst others, for control of Ukraine after the 1917 Russian revolution, and of Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazis against the USSR during the Second World War, and whose UPA continued a guerilla struggle in Soviet Ukraine well into the 1950s.
While in its origins it displayed a left-populist and even a utopian socialist streak, symbolised by the work of the poet Taras Shevchenko, its fierce later and present-day anti-communism (along with a notoriously virulent antisemitism that it has by no means shed) is not just a product of the fact that its national struggle was directed primarily against “Jewish-Muscovite Bolshevism”. It also reflects the fact that Ukraine’s working class, like Ukraine’s urban population in general, was predominantly or disproportionately “foreign” (or rather, not Ukrainian-speaking), at least until the Soviet planned economy sucked the Ukrainian peasantry from the countryside and created a Ukrainian-speaking proletariat.
The Ukrainian-speaking petit bourgeoisie had barely begun to articulate a common set of national aspirations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when they found themselves in direct conflict with a militant working class movement that was visibly Russian (or Russified Ukrainian) and Jewish as well as Ukrainian in composition. Here the natural suspicion of the middle class with regard to the patriotism of the working class would meld with the hatred of ethnic nationalists for those deemed to be an alien element in their society.
In the form in which the Euromaidan nationalists now most popularly express it, this ideology designates as being properly “Ukrainian” only those who speak the Ukrainian language or whose ethnic forbears did. This nationalism accordingly relegates anywhere between a quarter and a half of its own country’s population to the status of aliens, or of suspect Ukrainians in need of some form of rehabilitation, to bring about their post-Soviet ideological deprogramming. Failing it, they should either leave the country or accept a subordinate status in it.
Exceptions are, of course made for nationalistic oligarchs like Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko (whose own character as “Ukrainians” could easily be called into question if subjected to sufficient scrutiny), as well as for Kiev’s neoliberal Russian-speaking middle class and bourgeoisie, who have absorbed this ideological outlook.
Indeed, Kiev’s Russian-speaking middle class were amongst the most enthusiastic participants in Euromaidan, rubbing their hands at the economic opportunities they thought that integration into the EU’s sphere of influence might open up, and calling this politics a “struggle against corruption”.
The “Russian-Ukrainian” identity
Another variant of the Ukrainian national consciousness one might refer to as being “pan-Russian” or “Russian-Ukrainian”. Like Unionists in Scotland or Arab nationalists in Lebanon or Iraq, they locate Ukraine within a wider cultural and political context, in this case the “Rus’ civilisation”, which according to Russian national myth originated in Kievan Rus’ in the ninth century, and which according to this narrative was later preserved by the Muscovite princes following Kiev’s conquest by the Mongols four centuries later.
Their designation of central and southern Ukraine as Malorossiya (“Little Russia”) and Novorossiya (“New Russia”) respectively harks back to Tsarism’s pact with the Cossack military caste under Bohdan Khmelnytsky, which originally brought today’s central Ukraine into the Russian Empire in 1654.
Ukrainian nationalism also lays claim to the Cossack hetman Khmelnytsky, as the leader of a supposed war of national independence against Poland; it regards his treaty with the Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich as an uncomfortable compromise forced by necessity, and the Cossack military caste’s subsequent loss of their political privileges as having been a betrayal of Ukraine’s national autonomy (and this in a pre-national age).
Russian and pan-Russian nationalism similarly extend their political claims in Ukraine into the distant pre-national past, presenting the Cossacks’ switch of allegiance from the Polish nobility to the Muscovite autocracy as having been a “reunification” of the heirs to Kievan Rus’, a view that would later be revived under Stalinism. In this way, pan-Russian nationalism’s attitude towards Ukraine combines elements of Unionism’s view of Scotland or Ireland, with elements of Serbian nationalism’s view of Kosovo.
This ideology was once mainstream amongst Ukraine’s politically conscious urban elites, and with it much of its urban population, unsurprisingly given that it formed part of Tsarist Russia’s official ideology. It was in opposition to it that a separatist Ukrainian national ideology originally emerged. And it persists in various forms in Ukraine today, forming part of a hybrid ”Russian-Ukrainian” identity that anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism in power in post-independence Ukraine has made it its mission to stamp out and delegitimise.
And while it has its origins in roughly three centuries of rule from Moscow, it is no less “Ukrainian” than Unionism in Scotland is Scottish, or than Arab nationalism in Iraq or Lebanon is Iraqi or Lebanese.
From its own point of view, separatist Ukrainian nationalists are indeed “Orange traitors” (to use Maxim Shevchenko’s words in describing the Russian anti-Putin protesters), to an all-Russian or pan-Russian nation to which they too are deemed to belong, regardless of their own views on the matter.
This gives the advocates of this ideology a certain common ground with Russian-based irredentist nationalists, who solidarise with the Antimaidan movement on a patriotic rather than on a social basis. To this extent, and to this extent only, their ideology can be and occasionally is co-opted by the Russian state to justify its own regional ambitions. However, the actual policy of the Russian state being what it is (as opposed to its policy in the imaginations of those who have bought the geopolitical narratives of their own ruling classes in the West), these aspirations are more often than not articulated in opposition to it.
A third variant of the Ukrainian national consciousness, occasionally eliding into the second, one might describe as being “Sovietesque”. It positively identifies with the Soviet legacy and with its symbols (statues of Lenin, red flags, the hammer and sickle, the St George’s ribbon and so forth), and especially with the “Great Patriotic War”, which in Ukraine partly took the form of a civil war.
And while it is a good idea not to let one’s judgment be swayed by people’s choice of symbols alone, it is not by accident that Lenin is a far more popular figure in eastern Ukraine (where he is credited with Ukraine’s very formation as a polity) than he is in Russia, where Russian nationalists blame his “national liberalism” for the fragmentation of the “Russian world”.
Whereas the “Orange traitors” identify themselves with the SS Galicia Division and with Bandera’s UPA (while whitewashing his crimes and excusing his collaboration with the Nazis on the basis of pragmatism), these “Soviet patriots” identify with the Soviet partisans (Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian and Jewish) and with the Soviet armed forces that ejected the Nazis from Soviet Ukraine. They therefore view the ruling orange-brown bloc in power in Kiev, with their Bandera-style Ukrainian nationalism, as part national traitors, part national oppressors.
This outlook is particularly strong in eastern Ukraine, where as previously mentioned economic migration created a multi-ethnic working class and urban society, within which the line between who was “Russian” and who was “Ukrainian” was extremely difficult to draw, and which accordingly could only be drawn by ethnic nationalists with malign intent.
And while it contains within it a great deal of Stalinist myth-making, not least with regard to what actually happened in the Second World War, it does also contain one very important element of truth: that Ukraine in its present form cannot hold together as a state without recognising all of the peoples in it, and in particular its largest minority, its Russian and Russian-speaking component.
Our Ukrainian allies in Borotba have more than once made the observation on this basis that Ukraine is a country “created by Lenin and disintegrated by its patriots”.
Buying one nationalist narrative over another
Of course, none of this is to say that Ukrainian nationalism is an inherently “fascist” or reactionary nationalism while Russian nationalism is somehow benign. For every nationally oppressive feature of Ukrainian nationalism, it will be possible to identify an equally nationally oppressive feature of Russian nationalism, even of its Soviet-nostalgic variant, and vice versa.
But it does help to explain why so many Ukrainians seem not to see any special contradiction between their being “Russian”, in the linguistic and cultural sense, and their being “Ukrainian”, in the geographic and present-day political sense. It explains why they do not share many of their fellow-citizens visceral hostility to Russia, their patriotic outrage at their own willingness to accept aid from “the Russian world”, or their enthusiasm for Ukraine’s entry into a system of regional and global alliances that is directed against Russia.
The fact that the AWL, like the pro-Maidan left in general, evidently do share, vicariously, the outrage of Ukrainian nationalists at the willingness of the Antimaidan forces to accept aid from where it is most readily available, and with it their belief that Ukraine’s entry into Western imperialism’s sphere of influence is somehow equivalent to an assertion of its sovereignty and independence, tells us little more than this: that they have effectively decided that the first variant, and only that variant, of the Ukrainian national consciousness is an authentic expression of Ukrainian national aspirations, and that its Ukrainian opponents are dupes or stooges of Russian imperialism.
In order to do so, they are forced to turn a blind eye to its present, if not entirely to its past, and to be willfully blind to the fact that like “Greater Serbian” nationalism in Yugoslavia, this is a nationalism that is utterly disintegrative of the polity that it seeks to rule over, especially when combined with the project of bringing Ukraine into the Western imperialist bloc’s sphere of influence.
Yulia Tymoshenko for example might not be a “fascist”, but almost the whole spectrum of anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism feels the need to rehabilitate the fascist Bandera’s UPA, and actual fascists like Oleh Lyashko (a member of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party until 2012), Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnybok and the Right Sector’s Dmytro Yarosh are not beyond the pale to them, even if they are to the population of eastern Ukraine.
For “third campists” like the AWL, for whom there can be nothing positive at all in the Soviet legacy, this can be glossed over by turning Ukraine’s history into one of undifferentiated centuries of national oppression by Russia, with the Antimaidan movement cast as the latest embodiment of it.
For others, like the Fourth International’s British section Socialist Resistance, it forces them to forget or downplay the important role played by the Bolsheviks’ “korenizatsiya” (“indigenisation”) policy in creating and shaping a modern Ukrainian nation in the first place, by creating a Soviet Ukrainian republic, by turning Ukrainian into a modern literary language in it, and by making it a language of instruction and of the state bureaucracy. All of these historic facts have left a legacy in Ukraine, one that is not rejected by all of its inhabitants and that is still embraced by many of them.
Euromaidan and Western imperialist ambitions
To go from their pronouncements, there is, it would seem, only Russian imperialism at work in Ukraine, although it also seems somehow to have duped an awful lot of Ukrainians with it.
For our part, we prefer to have both eyes open, and to be wise to the machinations of all the imperialist powers in Ukraine, and not just Russia’s. On this basis, we recognise that the biggest threat – at present – to Ukraine’s working class and to inter-communal relations in Ukraine is the determination of the Western imperialisms, and primarily the USA, to bring Ukraine as a whole into their sphere of influence and to exclude it from Russia’s, regardless of the wishes of almost half of its population.
In order to inflict the neoliberal social catastrophe on eastern Ukraine that is a necessary condition of the EU’s Association Agreement, the Western powers are happy to see their client regime in Kiev plunge the country into civil war. The fascist thugs that were let loose in Odessa on 2 May, and who today are doing the dirty work of the ATO in the Donbass, are a necessary overhead in this process, if a dangerously destabilising one.
Russian imperialism, for the moment at least, rests content with securing its military interests through the annexation of Crimea, and with posing to the population of the south and east of Ukraine as their protector, while preparing the way for a deal with the Western imperialist backers of the orange-brown Kiev regime that will allow Ukraine to return at least partially to the status of a neutral or semi-neutral buffer state.
German imperialism, heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, and with an eye on future trading opportunities with Russia and China, is the Western imperialist party most willing to strike a deal of this sort. And it is for precisely this reason that US imperialism, with British imperialism playing the time-honoured role of its willing assistant, saw fit to scupper the EU-brokered deal in late February that would have allowed a power-sharing government to lead the country to elections, by bringing the fascist Svoboda into government instead, and by excluding Germany’s client politician Vitali Klitschko.
In this way, one can see the “cordon sanitaire” of new NATO member states that the USA has built around Russia since the collapse of the USSR as also playing the role of a barrier between Russia and Germany, retarding the emergence of a German-Russian imperialist axis that might in the future rival the still dominant but declining Anglo-American one.
“Saving Donbass people”
There is no more a “Russian invasion of Ukraine” going on – yet – than there was a “US invasion of Syria” in 2012 or 2013, when pro-Assad Stalinists across the world attributed the armed rebellion against Bashar al-Assad to an American conspiracy in a way that was just as oblivious to the popular forces at work as the pro-Maidan left are now to what is happening in eastern Ukraine.
Indeed, if there is one important difference between these two recent events, it is that Putin is under far greater domestic pressure to be seen to be “saving Donbass people” than Obama is to be seen to be aiding the Syrian people in overthrowing their genocidal dictator.
And of course there now actually is a US intervention in Syria – one directed against Assad’s enemies – that has so far received the enthusiastic if conditional backing of the Assad regime. Putin will in all likelihood “betray” the Donbass just as willingly as Obama has been willing to “betray” the Syrian revolution, something that should be food for thought for those in Ukraine who are still waiting on Russian imperialism to save them.
As with Washington’s policy with regard to the Syrian rebels, Moscow has allowed the Ukrainian rebels to access just about enough logistical and material aid to maintain their nuisance value, while it seeks political arrangements of its own over their heads. But like the Syrian rebels, they have held out all the same, boosted by the support of their local populations and by the aid and sympathy – yes, nationalistic in character – of ordinary Russians who identify with their cause, and who are far from simply being the agents of Putin’s policy.
Is it possible that things could change, that the course of the war in the east and the Western powers’ aggressive entry-by-proxy into Russia’s former sphere of influence, reinforced by their determination to give NATO a recognised role in Ukraine, might push Russian imperialism to raise the stakes by actually sending its own armed forces into eastern Ukraine?
If this happens (and some pessimists might say “if and when”) then we will oppose it, just as we opposed the NATO intervention in Libya, which, as noted above, the AWL did not oppose. We will not buy the lie of benevolent humanitarian intervention from any of the imperialist powers, whether it is Russia selling it or the USA and its allies.
The emerging shape of the new cold war
This, then, is the emerging shape of the new cold war, one in which the AWL have sided so far not with some mythical “third camp”, but with the first camp of their own country’s ruling class. Like Germany and Japan before them, the rising Russian and Chinese imperialisms want their own place in the sun, their own unchallenged spheres of influence, and this occasionally puts them into conflict, raising with it the threat of war, with the declining US hegemon and its allies, some of whom also have ambitions of their own.
Much as France, Italy, Germany and Britain once supported independence movements in each others’ colonies while suppressing them in their own, each imperialist bloc today acts to weaken and undermine the others’ client regimes while promoting its own pet opposition movements. Russia poses as the defender of state sovereignty in Libya and Syria, while claiming to stand against fascism in Ukraine. The USA and its allies claim to stand for state sovereignty in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, while claiming to defend democratic values in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
As with the eight-power suppression of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the interests of the major imperialist blocs will occasionally converge, as they already have done in Egypt, where both imperialist blocs support Sisi’s military regime, and in Syria and Iraq, where both blocs similarly have determined to stabilise the Assad dictatorship and the Shia-sectarian Iraqi state. During Israel’s most recent bombardment of Gaza, Putin even defended Israel’s “right to self-defence”, the sine qua non of Western imperialist politics in the Middle East since 1967.
And of course, each bloc of imperialists will happily ditch their clients, in power or in opposition, when they perceive that they can strike a deal that allows them a guarantee or an extension of their global interests, at the expense of some third party.
The job of socialists should not be to take sides with either imperialist bloc, with Russian or Chinese imperialism as supposed guarantors of social stability and economic development, or with the Western imperialisms as supposed guarantors of individual freedoms and democratic values.
Rather, it should be to defend the legitimacy of genuine popular movements where they have progressive objectives, most of all in the imperialist bloc whose states have directed their power against them, while warning the mass base of those same movements against the machinations of the rival imperialisms that self-interestedly claim to support them, and arguing against those in their ranks who wish to take the line of least resistance, by subordinating themselves to them.
This will require socialists to exercise judgment, always a difficult task for some, and to distinguish genuine mass movements from mass mobilisations directed by one or another faction of the bourgeoisie, supporting one or another imperialist bloc. It will similarly require them to notice when genuine mass movements actually have been subordinated to the policy of an imperialist power, and to act accordingly. The guiding principles should be those of opposition to all the imperialist powers, an understanding that the main enemy is still always at home, and the promotion and preservation of working class internationalism and working class political independence.
The war in the east continues
In the meantime, however, the war continues, thousands have been killed and almost a million have been displaced, three-quarters of them to Russia, a curious choice of destination if what they are fleeing actually were a “Russian invasion of Ukraine”.
Ukraine as a whole remains an economic basket case whose government looks extremely likely to default on its debts before the end of the year, and in which the pensions of millions are being cut in half, even as its government recruits into its security forces nationalistic youths provided with an ideology and with leadership by fascist Right Sector formations that make no secret of their murderous hatred for those of their own country’s citizens that they have decided are foreigners or insufficiently patriotic.
These people form a threat to the working class movement in west and central Ukraine as well, even if for the moment their mission is in the east, as attested to by their attack on a conference of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine in Kiev on 26 June, and by the burning down of the Zhoten cinema, Kiev’s oldest, on 29 October during a screening of the French LGBT film “Les Nuits d’été”.
As one person present was quoted saying in Pink News: “In a country, where street Nazis have become police officers, no one will investigate a crime, committed by the far-right. One hand washes the other.”
And the fascist presence in the security forces should be of even greater concern now, as Svoboda parliamentarian Yuri Michalchyshyn quits the party to become head of propaganda for the Security Service of Ukraine, and as neo-Nazi Azov Battalion deputy commander Vadim Troyan is appointed to be Kiev police chief.
Towns and villages in the Donbass are being starved and besieged, while public buildings and apartment blocks (actual rather than rhetorical ones) are being bombed and shelled, attracting condemnation from the Red Cross and an eerie silence from the mainstream Western media. Like the Kurds in Kobane, those residents who have not yet fled the Donbass are either supporting or joining volunteer militias, in some of which there are also volunteers from Russia or elsewhere in “the Russian world” present.
Some of these people – maybe even many or most of them – have reactionary politics on a whole range of other questions. Some of them, and some of their Russian sympathisers, do not recognise the existence of a Ukrainian nation or its right to self-determination, even less so now that it is Ukrainian nationalism that is being used to justify the state’s attack on their homes and on their infrastructure.
But it is their right to self-determination, their right to determine the form of their collective relationship with the state within a territory that they themselves live in, that is being denied in the present, and their core demands for federalisation and greater autonomy in Ukraine are in the current context entirely justified. It would be entirely crass to stand aside from their struggle until they adopt a socialist programme, purge the taste of nationalism from their mouths, and present themselves in a way that might be more acceptable to those influenced by the hostility to them of their own ruling classes at home.
Were we wrong then to send Richard Brenner to Yalta? No more than we were to send me to Tunis, or myself and Simon Hardy to Cairo. No more than we were to defend the right of the Iraqi or Afghan people to expel the US-led invaders and occupiers from their country, under whatever leadership. And no more than we were to defend the struggle of the nationalist community in the Six Counties of northeast Ireland, against a continual flow of lies and disinformation directed by the British state and given voice by the British media, and echoed by some on the British left.
Perhaps the AWL consider Libyans who call on US imperialism to bomb their own country in order to help them overthrow its government to be not quite as bad as Ukrainians who demand that Russian imperialism help them to overthrow theirs, or indeed help them to secede from Ukraine. Perhaps the AWL consider Russian nationalists or Soviet-nostalgic Ukrainians to be qualitatively worse than Islamists – although, given the AWL’s politics on Islamism in general, one has to wonder just who they consider to be the lesser evil here.
Or, more likely, they just think that Russian and Chinese imperialism are qualitatively worse than the Western imperialisms, the possession of a more extensive bourgeois democracy at home somehow translating into a less predatory and less destructive policy abroad.
We don’t. And we have been no less justified on this occasion than we will be the next time that we try to show solidarity with struggles abroad that the AWL have joined their own imperialist bourgeoisie in demonising.
An appendix: Stalinist amalgams and the Russian and Ukrainian left
Somewhere in the middle of his article on the Yalta conferences, Dale Street makes the observation that “At a certain point in time it becomes boring to write – and doubtless also to read – about the same names, the same website and the same newspaper”. And he is right there, although not quite for the reasons that he tries to lead the reader to conclude. As Dmitry Kolesnik of Borotba points out, it would be almost impossible to find any left wing group or any veteran left activists in Ukraine or Russia who have not worked alongside many or most of the people mentioned in Dale Street’s article, or others like them, including some who backed the Euromaidan movement.
Now, this may tell you a lot about the Russian and Ukrainian left, but they are hardly the only people on the left internationally to find themselves struggling with the legacy and the influence of alien class ideologies.
Dale Street names two people who were at the first conference (Vasily Koltashov and, we have to assume, Galina Zaporozhtseva); four people who were apparently at both conferences (Aleksey Anpilogov, Vladimir Rogov, Pyotr Getsko and Maxim Shevchenko); and another four who were at the second conference (Darya Mitina, plus Roberto Fiore, Mateusz Piskorski and Johan Bäckman). He also names fourteen other figures whose connection to the previous ten is through various organisations, publications, websites or past campaigns.
Amongst these are the Florian Geyer Conceptual Club (linking Shevchenko to Alexander Prokhanov, Mikhail Leontyev, Maxim Kalashnikov and Israel Shamir, the last of whom appears to have been at the second conference as well); the publication Novaya Rus’ (linking Anpilogov, Shevchenko, Bäckman and Koltashov to Kalashnikov, Mikhail Delyagin, Vladislav Shurygin, Anatoly Wasserman and Lev Vershinin); the “Anti-Orange Committee” (linking Shevchenko to Prokhanov, Leontyev, Aleksandr Dugin and Nikolai Starikov); and a past conference on “Colour Revolutions in the Commonwealth of Independent States” (linking Shevchenko to Shamir, Dugin, Leontyev, Kalashnikov, Claudio Mutti and Geydar Dzhemal).
For good measure, Dale Street makes repeated reference to the Izborsky Club, a club of writers whose stated aim is “to overcome the backwardness of Russia”, which attempts to combine a pro-Soviet agenda with Russian nationalist and orthodox ideas, and which includes Stalinists from the mainstream Stalinist Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and “Eurasianists”, as well as Orthodox and other pro-Soviet figures.
Dale Street refers to the Izborsky Club as a “fascist think tank”, using it to link Mitina and Shevchenko to Dugin, Prokhanov, Shamir, Kalashnikov, Delyagin, Leontyev, Starikov, Shurygin, Alexander Nagorny and Pavel Gubarev. Prokhanov’s publication “Zavtra”, deemed a “fascist newspaper” edited by a “well-known Russian fascist”, similarly helps Dale Street to link Anpilogov, Rogov, Mitina and Zaporozhtseva to Prokhanov, Nagorny and Gubarev.
It is not our job to “defend” the politics of the participants at either of the Yalta conferences, or for that matter the politics of the broader milieu within which they operate. As I have tried to make clear in my main article on the subject, what is at stake here is not really who Richard Brenner did or didn’t attend a conference with, who was present at another conference attended by some of the same people, or what other people the latter group might be linked to further afield.
Rather, what is at stake is an understanding of what is happening in Ukraine, and what is the political character of the Euromaidan and Antimaidan camps into which Ukraine has been divided. And here, Dale Street’s revival of the Stalinist-style method of the amalgam is of much less use than a historical and materialist understanding of the national question in Ukraine, of the global imperialist system as it exists today, and of a concrete assessment of the form taken by inter-imperialist rivalry. His attempt at what some AWL supporters have described as “investigative journalism”, which more than resembles pro-Maidan blogger Anton Shekhovtsov’s occasional slanders against Borotba and others on the Ukrainian left, can only throw sand into people’s eyes on this score.
To quote Dmitry Kolesnik’s reaction in correspondence on Dale Street’s article:
“I think that the first what should be said: almost all the accusations are indirect, that is, like Shekhovtsov’s accusations they are via other persons. It’s like an accusation: you speak with a person who then spoke with another person believed to be fascist and the weird conclusion is that you are a fascist too.
“As I remember, Shekhovtsov and [pro-Maidan ‘anarchist’ Alexander] Volodarsky accused us of participating in a rally with [Pavel Gubarev’s] Progressive Socialist Party under red banners when one of its leaders was then seen speaking with [American right-wing cult leader Lyndon] LaRouche.
“Of course, in case of Maidan and its supporters they don’t come to such conclusions despite the strong presence outright fascists with Nazi symbols.
“Moreover, you could hardly find in Ukraine or Russia any group or long-time activists who have never participated in joint conferences with people like those mentioned in the list (but, of course, from the point of view of Workers’ Liberty it seems to be not a sin for those participants who backed Maidan).
“Most people mentioned are considered to be Stalinists, Soviet-glorificators, inclined to the official Orthodox Church. I don’t share their views and we always considered them opponents. But they are quite different things – the Stalinists, Orthodox religious opponents and neo-Nazis.”
Even so, some of Dale Street’s political characterisations are quite wide of the mark, the casting of Alexander Prokhanov as a fascist being a case in point. As Dmitry Kolesnik puts it:
“He [Prokhanov] supported the Russian Communist Party and his views are a combination of Soviet Stalinism and Orthodox beliefs. The newspaper Zavtra is pro-Soviet, Stalinist, conservative, close to some conspiracy theories, and around it are mostly writers from the circles of 1993 Moscow riot, when Boris Yeltsin shot at Parliament from tanks.
“And all those people despite their suspicious views consider themselves anti-fascist, though they may be Orthodox, Stalinists or Conservatives, and it is mostly based on the fact that all they are against rewriting history, against revanchism towards the results of the Second World War, against glorification of former World War enemies, and for the USSR.”
And of course, there are anomalies in Dale Street’s characterisations, suggesting that there is a bit more to the politics of the various people mentioned than just “pro-Russian” or even “pro-Putin” politics. Amongst some of them, it is worth noting that Pyotr Getsko, a nationalist of the Carpathian Rusyn ethnic minority in western Ukraine, was made the Congress of Rusyns’ “prime minister” of the republic of Transcarpathian Rus’ (a self-declared state without any territory under its control) in 2008, and has been wanted for it since that time by the Security Service of Ukraine, including throughout Yanukovych’s rule as president from 2010.
Similarly, the Azerbaijani-origin “Islamic Marxist” Geydar Dzhemal, who was briefly involved alongside Aleksandr Dugin in the semi-fascist Pamyat movement before disassociating himself from it, was actually a participant in the anti-Putin protests that Shevchenko’s “Anti-Orange Committee” was formed to mobilise against.
And the well-known Odessa Jewish intellectual Anatoly Wasserman, who Dale Street appears to describe as a “non-Izborsky Club far-right-winger”, considers himself to be a Stalinist, a Marxist, and in religious terms an atheist.
Returning however to the undoubted “rightists” in the list, there is Vladimir Rogov, the leader of “Slavic Guard”. As Dmitry Kolesnik describes them, they are:
“Also a mix of Stalinists and Russian conservative nationalism. The key aspect of their ideas is the glorification of victory in the Second World War, which they see as ‘victory of Soviet Motherland over Nazism’. For many years in Ukraine they attacked the rallies of pro-Bandera and other Nazi-collaborator movements. They were the first to use the St George’s ribbon symbol (before used in Second World War medals) as a symbol against revanchists in Ukraine.”
Indeed, Dmitry points out that they held a rally in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia in 2008, re-enacting the 1945 victory parade under red flags alongside Soviet war veterans, and defiling the flags of Nazi Germany, NATO and the Nazi-collaborationist UPA.
This march was also organised by the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine, and by the Socialist Party of Ukraine. Since then, some former Socialist Party members involved in it have organised a new initiative to establish new left party alongside the Ukrainian Left Opposition group so beloved of the pro-Maidan left, meaning that, in Dmitry’s words, “the same argument over cooperation with Slavic Guard can be now attributed to them too”.
And come to it, Vasily Koltashov, who Dale Street quotes at length writing in Zavtra, has also been a contributor to the Russian left wing site Rabkor, which many Russian and Ukrainian left activists have also written for, including pro-Maidan figures like the “anarchist” Autonomous Workers’ Union’s Alexander Volodarsky and the Fourth International’s Russian leader Ilya Budraitskis (formerly associated with the infamous fraudsters of Ukrainian section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, some of whom now belong to the Ukrainian Left Opposition).
Finally, to return to Dmitry Kolesnik’s comments:
“So, the main line of division in Ukraine and Russia is the attitude towards the Second World War and its results. Certainly, not all the winners in the Second World War were progressive (Stalinists, British and French imperialists, US capitalists etc.). But this fact doesn’t justify Nazi Germany and its collaborators’ movements.
“That’s also why the symbol of anti-Maidan and the Donbass rebels has become the [St George’s] ribbon from the Victory medal so hated by our Nazis.
“During the Second World War, which was also a civil war between Ukrainians, the country was divided. After the Second World War, the collaborators’ movement was used by the USA, and their network became the core for re-establishing it in Ukraine during the last years [of the USSR]. People in Ukraine (and all over the former USSR) mostly identified “Nazis” and “non-Nazis’ on the basis of their side in the Second World War and their attitude towards the USSR and its “communist” symbols. We all were taught in schools the definition: “Fascism is first of all deep anti-communism”. And any woman in a village identifies “fascists” on this basis.
“At the same time, that’s also the reason why real Russian Nazis (“White Power” Aryan warriors who support a “united white Europe”) fight for Maidan, coming to Ukraine and joining the [Ukrainian state’s] volunteer battalions.
“The Russian ‘Wotan Youth’, the ‘Misanthropic Division’ and [the immigrant-bashing Saint Petersburg-based neo-Nazi group] ‘Nevograd’ – pro-Hitlerites – are active participants in Maidan.
“So, let’s imagine a similar situation, for example in France, where some forces may try to revive and promote the French Vichy regime. There were hundreds of thousands who were involved in it and who participated in military actions against the French Resistance movement. They and their successors may feel the results of the war to be ‘unjust’ and seek to rewrite it. They may accuse the French Republic after 1945 of being ‘colonialist, imperialist, corrupted’, and they are right over it. However, it doesn’t justify the whitewashing of the pro-Nazi regime.”