Ukraine and the Present War Amidst a History of Great Power Politics and Inter-Imperialist Rivalries
by F.O. Marthoz (July 2022)
How the imperialists fight each other while blaming another
Europe is at war once again, for the third time in a little over a century: the specter of communism, we are told, is haunting its battlefields. A strange and most unholy alliance is once more attempting to exorcise this specter. Old Man Marx opened the founding document of our movement by pointing out that “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot,1 French Radicals and German police-spies” were all leagued against an ever-elusive communism. Now, a century and a half later, we can say that Joe Biden and Vlad Putin, CNN and Alex Jones, Ukrainian compradors and Russian police spies have reinstated this unholy alliance, even as their rifles, war planes and nuclear arsenals are with a laser focus pointed at each other.
For instance, Fox News gleefully quotes America’s creepy uncle (and president) Joe Biden, as saying: “[Putin] has much larger ambitions in Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, reestablish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.”2 They go on speculating about the Russian president’s next targets on his alleged quest to rebuild the USSR.
This is not, in fact, a new talking point for the mouthpieces of the Anglo-American Imperialist Alliance (AAIA).3 For example, Google and Facebook—who would have you believe that the BBC is the “British public broadcaster” (and not “funded by the British regime”) while RT, Redfish, and Telesur are operations of Russia and Venezuela, respectively—have been peddling this line since as early as 2014.4 If one decides to subject themselves to the uniquely unpleasant experience of reading Western ruling-class publications of this kind, one can hardly go a day without hearing about Putin’s alleged Soviet ambitions.
Meanwhile, V. Putin has hardly embraced his new status as Soviet icon. Instead, in the very speech announcing open war on Ukraine, he declared himself a member of these new Ghostbusters that we mentioned above:
I will start with the fact that contemporary Ukraine was completely and entirely created by Russia—specifically, by Bolshevik, communist Russia. This process started almost immediately after the revolution of 1917, as Lenin and his cohorts did this in the most brutish way possible towards Russia itself—by severing from her part of her own historical territory.5
Apparently Lenin’s policy towards oppressed nations weakened Russia. Thankfully, Putin is here to fix Lenin’s blunders.
How does Stalin fare in this rewriting of history? (Remember, Western “Sovietologists” and “experts on Russia” keep drawing parallels between comrade Stalin and the current Russian president, so let’s see). Apparently, Stalin fares not much better: Putin continues:
Then, immediately before and after the Great Patriotic War,6 Stalin annexed to the USSR and gave to Ukraine certain lands which, before this, belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary. At the same time, as compensation, Stalin gave Poland some originally German land, and in 1954 Khrushchev, for some reason, took Crimea away from Russia and gave that to Ukraine as well. In fact, this is how the territory of Soviet Ukraine was formed.
We should take a moment to consider what this means. Putin’s speech outlines a strictly geopolitical view of countries and borders, one that willfully buries the national question precisely where it matters the most: in Russia’s periphery (both its internal periphery and its external zone of influence, as we will see later on). The objective, it is plain to see, is to justify Russia’s current policy of annexations. The recognition of the right to self-determination in nationally-distinct parts of the Tsar’s empire thus appear as taking something away from Russia. This is, of course, typical of “Great Power” (read: imperialist) politics. This is the same frame of mind that created Africa’s absurd colonial borders, cutting right across national lines. It is also a throwback to a pre-Lenin understanding of nations in Eastern Europe—the Tsar’s own understanding, in fact! Let us keep that in mind, and come back to the national question in the Soviet Union and Russia later.
And so, while borders are being redrawn over piles of bodies and a world war threatens, Putin has joined the ranks of the exorcists; Biden and his ilk have been hunting the specter of communism for as long as they’ve existed; and disaffected elements of the ever-shrinking “middle classes,” those well-off workers and small business owners now being battered by the latest social and economic shifts in the conjuncture, are being pulled along to chase after socialist conspiracies left and right, led by increasingly rightist forces ranging from Trump to Alberta’s petro-oligarchs.7 The Western imperialists are fighting a war with each other in the name of a war against communism. What a convenient cover.
As it is once again targeted from all quarters, hunted from all sides, as Russia8 and its NATO rivals are both blaming it for the war in Ukraine and their slow, steady march to open inter-imperialist war9 and world cataclysm, the specter ought once more to speak in its own name.
An unsatisfactory story so far
In the hot-take economy we now seem to live in, it’s no surprise that such an explosive situation as a real, live war right on the borders of the Western imperialist heartlands has generated reams upon reams of commentary. In fact, it had started to do so before the first shot was even fired, in the form of both imperialist legacy media fear-mongering and confused “anti-imperialist” calls to please just trust Russia, it couldn’t possibly have aggressive intentions.10 A common feature of all this commentary has been its complete vacuity: much of it is written by people who think either in “Russia good” or “Russia bad” terms and not much else, who fail to apprehend the social forces at play or the objective mechanics of world imperialism, and who are oblivious to the Leninist theory of nations. This includes, of course, much of the ostensibly Left commentary.
We will attempt to be better-informed, with some use of Russian- and Ukrainian- language sources. We will reference “Lenin and his cohorts” when relevant, and contemporary revolutionary organizations where possible. We will first go through a brief history of Ukraine and its relations with Russia (pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet) to give ourselves as much background to the mess we’re all in today as possible in the space of a few short pages. Then, we will provide a political overview of the current crisis, and we’ll move into the heart of the issue: contemporary imperialism and the strategy and tactics that communist revolutionaries must assume in fighting against it. Here we go!
The origin of nations and revolutionary politics in the Russian Empire
The Russian Empire developed in the latter half of the last millennium on a feudal, then semi-feudal basis. Its heartland was located in Eastern Europe and was consolidated through the historical development of the Kyevan, Novgorodian and Muscovite states during the European Middle Ages. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian state pushed far into the East, right up to the doors of China, and consolidated holdings in the Caucasus, the Baltic, Northern Europe and Central Asia. These holdings, as well as the Russian heartland and its East European periphery (chiefly Ukraine, Belarus and Poland), did not initially develop on a capitalist basis: they comprised social formations best characterized as ethnicities, proto-nationalities or tribes, but not consolidated modern nations.11
In the latter half of the 19th century, however, capitalist relations started to develop at a rapid pace throughout the Russian empire. The Russian heartland was the main site of this process of transition into new relations of production. Regional centers of industry and trade did however develop in the empire’s far-flung Eastern regions where pre-feudal,12 feudal and capitalist relations of production existed simultaneously at least until the October revolution. The main tendency, however, was for capitalism to radically alter and subsume preexisting productive relations. In this process, fractions of bourgeois began to form and consolidate outside the Russian heartland. In the west, meanwhile, the same process of consolidation unfolded. In Russia proper, Belarus and Ukraine, the emergence of national fractions of the nascent bourgeoisie favoured (or, indeed, led to) the formal development13 of formerly largely peasant, folkloric cultures.14
The burgeoning national movements in non-Russian areas of the empire were accurately seen by the monarchy and the Great Russian15 ruling classes as a threat to the then-existing order of things. Repression followed: the cultural diversity that posed no major threat in a feudal order could not be tolerated once local bourgeoisies emerged and moved to establish their own private preserves. In Ukraine this politically took the form of a number of legal and clandestine bourgeois-democratic national organizations that emerged and existed through the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similar organizations of course existed in Russia proper and played a major, if ambivalent, role in the lead-up to the 1917 revolutions, the most famous one being the “Cadets” or Constitutional Democrats.
The emergence of a revolutionary socialist currents in the Russian Empire
In that same period, as national bourgeois movements developed and consolidated throughout the Empire, a revolutionary socialist left also emerged. It initially took the form of an attempt by the progressive intelligentsia and youth to link up with the peasantry and develop a peasant revolutionary movement. This was Narodism16 a tendency with whom Marx himself corresponded17 and which took on a succession of organizational forms (namely Land & Freedom, People’s Will and the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries). The political and military campaigns of this movement in the 19th century are well-worth studying in themselves. Though immediate success never followed the Narodniks, they did lay some of the groundwork for the later revolutionary developments in the empire.18
From the Narodnik tree, a Marxist branch grew out. Black Repartition, an organization led by G. Plekhanov, emerged from Land & Freedom and later developed into the Liberation of labour group.19 Though active mainly in exile, this group would prove influential on future developments. This was the organization responsible for translating much of the Marxist corpus into Russian. As the Plekhanov group was making a splash in the theoretical field, however, the workers’ movement was getting started on the ground throughout the empire. This provided the necessary conditions for the growth of a real, active Marxist underground in Russia. Revolutionaries influenced by the Liberation of labour group established organizations throughout the empire, linked up with the workers’ movement, and moved to consolidate their forces in a revolutionary party, the Russian Social-Democratic labour Party.
As Lenin and the Social-Democrats (as they were then known, but not to be confused with the decidedly reformist, post-Russian Revolution social democracy) grew into a significant opposition force, they had to contend with the national movements described above. The necessity of doing so was clear: the working-class, the peasantry, and the oppressed nations and nationalities were the three main reservoirs of revolutionary potential in the Russian empire. Though the proletariat had to lead this alliance if the coming revolution was to have a socialist character, the Party could not miss the chance of channeling the discontent of the peasantry and the oppressed nations.
To successfully do so, the Party developed its analysis of the national question beyond anything that West European socialists had done. As pointed out before, this might very well have been the case precisely because the conditions existing in Tsarist Russia made this question particularly urgent. The results were Lenin and Stalin’s well-known articles on the national question and the watchword of “complete equality of rights for all nations, the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations.”20 They drew attention to the perils both of great nation (in their case, Great Russian) chauvinism and, as we tend today to forget, of narrow nationalism.
This last question deserves an essay unto itself: since at least the 1960s, nigh-unconditional support for nationalism has characterized many trends in revolutionary communism, a development that is unilateral and leads to its own pitfalls.21 The proletariat is a global class. The Russian revolution was a multinational revolution and it established a multinational state. And such is the path that revolution in North America will almost certainly have to tread. In any case, Bolshevik national policy, though obviously not a be-all end-all to be retained for all time, remains likely the most advanced available to our movement today, and should be studied by would-be communists in the multinational patchwork and prison-house that is North America today.
The fall of the Russian Empire and the development of class struggle in a divided Ukraine
Back in soon-to-be Soviet Russia, with this policy concerning the national question to guide them, upon seizing power the Bolsheviks did actually move to recognize oppressed and minority nations’ right to self-determination, including the right of seceding from the former Empire. We should really stop to think about how unprecedented that was! Ukraine, as well as many other non-Russian areas, became a battleground: bourgeois-nationalist, Tsarist, Western interventionist, peasant anarchist and communist armed and political forces were all in the fray at the same time. What was left standing by 1922, the year of the founding of the Soviet Union, was a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR) which voluntarily joined the Union. Part of the West of the country, however, was left occupied by Poland after briefly functioning as an independent, anti-Bolshevik bourgeois republic.
The de facto revolutionary united front between the Bolsheviks and national revolutionary forces necessarily posed serious challenges once the Russian monarchy was overthrown. This was the case not only in Ukraine but elsewhere, particularly in the Caucasus. These two regions saw, in fact, the development of a “national communist” movement, represented by the Ukrainian Communist Party22 in Ukraine and by Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev (a former close comrade-in-arms of Stalin himself23) in the Caucasus. In the 1920s, such forces would be from time-to-time key allies of the Bolsheviks, especially for implementing policies pertaining to national rights (such as that of Ukrainization of the Party and state in Ukraine) and at other times ended up at odds with Marxism-Leninism owing to their too-narrowly nationalistic outlook. At the end of that decade and the beginning of the next one, they would largely be dismantled by the Soviet leadership.
Here, we must stop and examine two facts that are today endlessly rehashed by the two sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict: the famine of 1932-33 and the rise of the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in Western Ukraine.
First, the famine. Crop failure in 1932 led to famine that year in Eastern Ukraine and Western Russia. This would prove to be the second-to-last famine in that region which had seen many before. The last one, about a decade later, would be caused by the Second World War. The government’s policy at the time was redistribution of what grain was available towards the cities, so as to prevent starvation in tightly-packed urban industrial areas. De-kulakization—the dismantling of the rich-peasant class—was also playing out in precisely those years. The famine was tragic, undoubtedly, and might just possibly have been prevented or further mitigated by the government (who says revolutionaries, self-taught statesmen brought up in revolutionary struggle, can never fail?). Right-wing forces (first in the West, then in Ukraine itself) would go on dub this famine “Holodomor” (meaning death by hunger), politicizing it as a voluntary, planned, anti-Ukrainian genocide. “Holodomor” has served as both an anti-Russian and anti-communist talking point ever since.24
It is worthwhile to note that Soviet policy on the peasantry and industrialization was clearly flawed. The Chinese revolutionaries certainly thought so and took into account the lessons of that experience in developing their own policy.25 In Ukraine and western Russia, the question of class structure seems to also have played a role. There seems to have been a larger proportion of free-holding middle and rich peasants in this region, leading to a higher percentage of kulaks and a greater influence of this strata overall in rural economic and political life. The distinction of this balance of class forces in Ukraine would have likely required different tactics there, but the Bolsheviks largely applied the same tactics they had developed (on the basis of SR policies) in areas with a greater predominance of poor peasants. This, in addition to the national question, prepared the ground for acute political strife and for famine.
As for the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), the true Banderites (though of course Bandera led only the right-most wing of the organization,26 while Andriy Melnyk was the leader of another, distinct OUN fraction), they would go on to commit the original sin of Ukrainian nationalism by collaborating with the Nazis during the Second World War. (That’s an original sin that comes with the distinction of being committed about a century after the birth of the Ukrainian national movement itself!). The OUN was born in western, that is, Polish Ukraine in the 1920s. Aiming to free Western Ukraine from Polish rule and to, eventually, absorb Eastern Ukraine, the organization resorted to much the same methods (political assassinations, for one) that were then common to Central and Eastern Europe’s nationalist movements and soon became a relatively important player in Polish politics—this despite its clandestine character.
As all of Europe moved into the Second World War, the OUN nationalists aligned themselves with Germany—this is the above-mentioned original sin of Ukrainian nationalism and is a fact endlessly rehashed both by the mouthpieces of the Russian bourgeoisie and by the (now often self-identified) “tankies” i.e., usually do-nothing, Internet-overdosed Leftists. This, however, wasn’t due to either the inherent fascism of Ukrainian culture,27 nor to bad people having bad ideas. The objective mechanics by which this fascist movement was developed merit at least a cursory examination.
The origins of Ukrainian fascism
Here: the Bandera and Melnyk movement represented the interests of land-owning and propertied classes in western Ukraine. This movement was born and grew under Polish occupation, in a region of the country which was located outside the Soviet Union. The main watchword of the movement—and the small, hard core of legitimate grievances which gave it some measure of influence and popularity—was the need to reunify Ukraine. As the movement represented propertied classes, it could only accept reunification on anti-communist terms: outside the Soviet Union. The politics they developed in these early years thus became part and parcel of the general European trend towards fascism. This, however, did not necessarily have to mean collaboration with the wartime German occupation of Ukraine. In other contexts, reactionary nationalists fought against Nazism proper.28 Instead, OUN earnestly aligned themselves with Nazi Germany in an attempt to defeat the Soviet Union which, as a proletarian state necessarily opposed their objective interests. They embraced the ignominious role of collaborating with occupiers. Class interests thus trumped nationalist interests.29
With the defeat of the Nazis and the overall decline of German imperialist power, OUN turned away from it and sought (quite successfully) alliances with the British, American and Canadian imperialists (the Anglo-American Imperialist Alliance). At the same time they exploited real, existing contradictions between the Ukrainian peasantry and the Soviet government to prop themselves up in Ukraine. From 1945 to the early fifties, the Banderites steadily declined despite a small-scale, continued armed campaign supported by foreign imperialists looking to defeat the Soviet Union. Over this period, a sizable number of OUN fighters, activists and sympathizers emigrated and continued their activities in exile. These forces would unite, to some extent, squabbling pre-OUN nationalist factions (attached to revolutionary-era bourgeois-nationalist leaders, to the Orthodox and Catholic churches, etc.) and win leadership over the Ukrainian immigrant populations in North America, which until then were largely communist-led. (By contrast, the Ukrainian and Russian émigrés in Europe were already monarchists, nationalists or revisionists.) From there, the modern Ukrainian nationalist narratives would develop in exile and later be brought back to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. This was, of course, a conscious step taken and promoted by the Anglo-American imperialists. In Canada and the US, Eastern European workers had been a key component of local Communist Parties and of working-class dissent more generally. And so, the de-clawing and reactionarization of the Eastern European diasporas was thus useful both in foreign and domestic politics.
We cannot be content with speaking only of the OUN when discussing World War II in Ukraine, however. Reading some of the modern-day “analysis” (as it were) of the country’s history, one could easily be led to believe that it was in its entirety in the hands of the nationalists. Nothing could be further from the truth. We should remember that Ukraine was the western marches of the Soviet Union, along with Belarus and Western Russia. These are the very areas where the war’s eastern front played out. In the fighting, the Ukrainian SSR suffered the second-highest number of casualties both militarily (and we do mean in the Red Army) and civilian in the Union (right after Russia). Throughout occupied areas of the country, tens of thousands of partisans operated until the war’s end, fighting both foreign forces and domestic collaborators. As to the OUN’s stated goal of Ukrainian reunification, it was ironically achieved by the Soviet Union in the Red Army’s march towards Germany.
Ukraine and the Soviet Union in the post-war period
Let’s stop here and think back to Vladimir Putin’s statement on Lenin and Stalin’s invention of Ukraine. This is particularly, uniquely messed-up: the Russian president, chief political representative of that country’s bourgeoisie, has condemned the creation of a nation-State for the Ukrainian people while also arguing in a most circular fashion that the Ukrainians were not a nation at all precisely because they did not have a nation-State prior to 1917, and because that nation-State did not comprise all Ukrainian-majority territories before 1945! While Putin is likely no more cynical than his Great Game 2.0 opponents Biden, Johnson, Macron or Scholz, he is at the very least more candid. As for the question of whether or not the Ukrainian nation exists, one may expedite it by referring to a theoretical tool built precisely for analyzing former subject-nations of the Russian Empire: it has a continuous, fairly large territory; a common language; a common economic life; and its own culture. The omnipresence of Russian as a second language on the Ukrainian territory is easily explained by the same reasons many Algerians speak French!
Crimea, for its part, is a different matter altogether. It was transferred from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, under Khruschev’s leadership, for reasons that appear mostly geographical. The fact is that geographically speaking, Crimea is a peninsula that connects to the Ukrainian land-base. It has, however, a largely Russian-speaking population as well as a sizable minority, the Crimean Tatars, which has since been largely caught in the political crossfire of the NATO-Russia-Ukraine conflict. This arrangement made a lot of sense in the context of a united Soviet Union, but ended up being troublesome after the Union’s breakup.
Beyond this, we are not well-equipped to discuss the finer points of internal Soviet politics in the post-war period here, and they thankfully do not come much into play in the dramatic struggle playing itself out on live TV today. The main fact that bears mentioning here is that as the post-Stalin, post-revolutionary Soviet Union moved towards a reversal of socialist transition and as workers’ rights and political prerogatives were rolled back and a new bourgeoisie became consolidated within the Party, national oppression also made a gradual comeback. While national oppression in the Soviet Union never managed to reach the same summits of ignominy that characterized imperial national policy of Tsarist Russia in the past, and is completely incomparable with the national oppression faced by Black and Indigenous people in the US or Canada in the same period, the differentiated development favoring Russia proper, the rollback of cultural rights and cultural development, and unfavorable internal migration patterns all became commonplace throughout the non-Russian republics.30 Though the Central Asian and East Asian component parts of the Soviet Union saw most of this rollback of national liberation, this pattern of neo-Russification affected Ukraine as well. Economic underdevelopment, by and large, did not however: though parts of Ukraine remained largely agrarian, other parts, Donbas included, were squarely set in the USSR’s industrial heartlands. (This is in fact part of why that region’s annexation now appears so appealing to the Russian bourgeoisie.)
The second fact that bears mentioning as far as the late Soviet period goes is this one: From the late 1950s onwards, the Soviet Union’s working class suffered political defeat after political defeat. A new ruling class grew within the Communist Party, headed by such characters as Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev. The accomplishments of socialism were slowly but steadily rolled back, in a reactionary process that would end only in 1991, with a full, formal and official restoration of capitalism. Maoism was born precisely in opposition to this trend and to the Soviet Union’s declawed brand of “Marxism.” The late Soviet Union’s foreign policy, for instance, was analyzed as being representative of a new trend of “social-imperialism” by Chinese revolutionaries.31 It consisted in backing largely the military of regimes dominated by the petty-bourgeoisie who proclaimed loyalty to the USSR (as in Afghanistan, for instance, or in Ethiopia32) while gleefully targeting genuine proletarian revolutionaries and antagonizing socialist China. This is important insofar as Russia is now being portrayed as somehow progressive. Twitter-dwelling “Maoists,” in accepting a most unusual view of history—wherein Russia was a hellhole under the Tsar, then a socialist country, then a revisionist, social-imperialist country, only to somehow become progressive once more once capitalism was fully restored (!)—must then reject outright the Mao-era communist assessment of the Soviet Union as wholly mistaken.
We must accept the Maoist assessment of the Soviet Union after 1956 in large part because history has shown it to be correct. After a step-by-step rollback of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary political line and of material gains (in the relations of production, in the march to communism, etc.) made during the revolutionary era, the Soviet Union fell into serious political crisis by the 1980s and was disbanded by the early ’90s. Though socialism was already a thing of the past (and though an anti-revisionist opposition operated, on a fragmented and piecemeal basis, during the post-Stalin period33), the collapse of the Soviet Union was nonetheless a calamitous event for the peoples of the region and the world. The “New Russia” and the “New Ukraine” were both thrown into economic chaos and in the ensuing free-for-all oligarchs, organized crime and reactionary political forces all prospered.
New Bourgeoisies in the Post-Soviet Era
The international alignment of the post-Soviet oligarchs, in all or most of the post-Soviet republics, ended up depending on their own stability and strength locally and on where they could get better terms. The Baltic states firmly aligned themselves with the Western imperialists, while Belarus and Kazakhstan, among others, saw their bourgeoisie largely ally itself with the Russian ruling class. Ukrainian oligarchs, however, wavered between these two positions.34 Long story short, while the dominant position in early-to-mid ’90s Ukraine was a pro-Russian one, internal struggle within the bourgeoisie eventually allowed a nationalist, pro-Western position to gradually gain ground, being put forward by different sectors of the bourgeoisie, until this position won out in the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan rebellion.
How did this play out? In Ukraine, one of the consequences of the Soviet collapse was the re-importation of a right-wing national mythology preserved in the US, Canada and the UK35 in the Ukrainian diasporas. This nationalist ideology entered mainstream Ukrainian politics when Leonid Kuchma, second President of Ukraine, took up the politicization of the ’32-’33 famine (Holodomor) to stoke nationalist sentiment and court votes in western Ukraine. In 2004-05, Kuchma’s preferred candidate for succession, Viktor Yanukovych, was ultimately defeated in a much-contested electoral contest against the nationalist, pro-European candidate Viktor Yushchenko. It was precisely during this electoral contest that the “Orange Revolution” took place – an event which we should take some time to analyze because of its legacy in Western anti-imperialist thought and rhetoric.
The so-called Orange Revolution was one of the earliest of “colour revolutions”—a term that has arisen to designate popular mobilizations used to effect pro-Western regime changes without direct intervention. The fear of “colour revolutions” is strong within anti-imperialist circles and this terminology is mobilized in attempts to grapple with non- or counter-revolutionary mass mobilizations in many oppressed countries, from Venezuela to Syria and beyond. Indeed, any protest of this type (most recently in Hong Kong and Belarus) are often portrayed by honest but thoroughly non-dialectical activists as “CIA plots” or “coups.” The US State Department thus appears to be playing the peoples of these countries like a fiddle and indeed to preside over the destinies of entire nations and the world.
What we must understand is this: no “colour revolution” is possible if there is no basis for mass rebellion and a mass movement in the first place. A colour revolution is either spontaneous and confused (like, say, the french Yellow Vests were, though in a different context) or it is actually led and influenced by foreign imperialists and their agents.36 In either case, however, it depends on real mass discontent and often genuine popular demands buried somewhere down under the cynicism of Great Power realpolitik.37
The real demands of the Orange Revolution seem to have been much the same as those seen in protests across Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet world: first and foremost, the struggle against corruption.38 Ethno-linguistic lines were already being drawn by that time, and played into this whole shitshow, but they were a secondary element in the Orange Revolution’s success (as was Western interference and the passivity or relative support of the repressive state apparatus).
After Yushchenko’s contested victory, nationalistic themes were further promoted and popularized, infamously culminating in Stepan Bandera being named a national hero. His foreign policy largely hinged on rapprochement with the European Union, though Russia remained influential in Ukraine both economically and politically. In 2010, Yushchenko was electorally defeated by Yanukovych, who would go on (by 2013) to pursue a foreign policy more favorable to Russia. Ideologically, he relied on a “Slavic” rather than “European” identity. In essence, both sides of this struggle were led by or allied with oligarchs, and both were fighting for what they saw as the “better deal” for their economic interests. Whether the “best deal” was a deal with Russia or with the European Union, it certainly couldn’t be much good for the Ukrainian proletariat, which lived (and still lives) in relative poverty, under the rule of a ruthless bourgeoisie that works for its own benefit and those of foreign imperialists of one side or the other.39
In 2013-2014, things came to a head with the eruption of the “Euromaidan” movement—a series of protests that developed into gun battles in the streets of Kyiv and lead to Yanukovych’s ouster. Though the formal demand of the movement was rather clearly stated—a pivot back towards the European Union—the underlying factors seem to have been much the same ones we have outlined above: anti-corruption, a general disgust with the state of bourgeois politics in the country, and ethno-linguistic divisions. As we have argued above about the “Orange Revolution,” we must argue again that characterizing this uprising as a “coup” (or, worse, a “Western coup” or a “Nazi coup”) means missing precisely that which revolutionaries must never miss: the state of mind of the masses (the subjective situation) and the key contradictions in society (the objective situation).
From 2014 Onwards: From “colour revolution” to all-out war
In brief, what seems to have happened with the Euromaidan movement is this: hundreds of thousands took to the streets under a vague pro-European slogan. The government responded with acute repression. Organized far-right forces, numbering a few hundreds initially, managed to gain leadership over the movement largely because they were the only ones prepared and willing to take the lead in a violent, armed confrontation with State forces. Various established bourgeois forces (oligarchs and their close collaborators, established anti-Yanukovych parties, etc.) jumped on the bandwagon and eventually took it over. Yanukovych fled the country and was replaced by Petro Poroshenko. In the eastern region of Donbas, pro-Russian forces, aided by the Russian government (much like the Maidanists were aided by the US and EU) launched their own counter-movement aimed at seceding from Ukraine. In Crimea, things went much further and Russian troops occupied the region, staging a dubious referendum that confirmed the region’s annexation to Russia.40 The new Ukrainian government sent troops to Donbas to put down the regional uprising. The ensuing civil war would go on, with limited lulls in the fighting from time to time, until the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Three major topics have to be covered here: the question of our attitude towards the Maidan rebellion, the character of the Poroshenko and Zelensky administrations and the biggest question of them all: what the fuck is even Donbas?
First, our attitude towards Maidan: we have spoken above about the way to treat and analyze non-revolutionary mass upsurges of this kind. Maidan is no different. The key (though ultimately limited) role played by the far-right doesn’t change our position, and neither does the fact that one fraction of the oligarchy merely ended up ousting the other. As for the stupid, though oft-repeated, argument according to which Yanukovych was “a democratically elected president” (spoken by teary-eyed Left cheerleaders of Russia’s foreign policy, as if the man was Allende’s second fucking coming), we answer: so what? Since when do revolutionaries care whether a bourgeois statesman got the right number of votes in a once-every-X-years televised farce? Do we, communists in Canada and the US, not endeavor to some day overthrow a few “democratically elected presidents” (or prime ministers) in our own countries?
The main lesson to be drawn from Maidan is that the absence of a revolutionary vanguard with deep roots in the masses allowed, first, the street-level fascists, then, the pro-European oligarchs, to take leadership of a mass rebellion that mobilized tens or hundreds of thousands and then lead it in the direction they wanted; a direction that translated into “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” plus civil war.)
On the post-Maidan Ukrainian governments: Poroshenko was not mainly a “Nazi.” Though he did, during his dubious mandate, veer more and more towards far-right talking points and though he did forge alliances with relatively marginal street-level far-right forces, he was first and foremost an oligarch (in fact, a bona-fide billionaire in a country where most people don’t make in a month what an “Average Joe” American worker makes in a week) who was attempting to ride the coat-tails of the European Union. He was, in any case, wildly unpopular by the end of his mandate and lost the election to an absolute newcomer, TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, a man best known for playing the president in a goddamn sitcom. Poroshenko did not hesitate to make distasteful alliances with Nazi thugs, but he was no Adolf Hitler. Instead, he was in his own way a proud successor to Yanukovych, Yushchenko and Kuchma, carrying on a long tradition of comprador “leadership” and corruption.
Zelensky was elected on a vague populist platform that carried anti-corruption, anti-oligarchic and anti-war themes. Ironically, real die-hard Ukrainian nationalists saw him as a puppet of Putin’s government (which he proved not to be). Once in power, however, he proved unable to broker peace in the east or to effect the much-desired (though virtually impossible under a bourgeois regime) social changes that the country needed, and his own popularity began to fall as he proved to be yet another “new boss, same as the old boss.” Without the 2022 invasion, he would most likely have been replaced by some other stooge and gone on to become an amusing, stupid footnote in Ukrainian history. Instead, he has for the moment become a key figurehead of world politics and, locally, a rallying point for all who oppose the Russian invasion (in the absence of any serious alternative).
Now, finally, onto Donbas. What is it? Is it revolutionary? Progressive? Are Donetsk and Luhansk oppressed nations? What should our policy towards Donbas be? We have seen how pre-revolutionary imperial policies, and the very process through which the Russian and Ukrainian nations were born and consolidated during the early capitalist era, made the border area both multilingual and multinational.41 We have seen that genuine fear of the new Kyiv government, prodded and encouraged by Russian state forces, led to the founding of the breakaway “republics” in Donbas. These entities were born at least in part out of genuine popular sentiment, and since their appearance some Russian left forces have seen the upheaval in Donbas as an opportunity for political advances (though this hardly seems to have manifested on the ground). At the same time, this sentiment was hardly general: over a million people ended up internally displaced in Ukraine after attempting to escape the escalating conflict.
The key economic and political personnel of Donbas have hardly been revolutionary. It was, in fact, in some ways a mirror image of the new pro-European oligarchy rule: former pro-Yanukovych oligarchs, already well-implanted in this key industrial region, have come to play a significant role in the internal politics of Donbas.42 The chaotic, rebellious leadership that established the two republics, though by no means socialist or proletarian, ended up being removed and replaced by the Russian government after only a few years. If there was ever any potential for a “Donbas revolution,” it was prevented from developing and was soon asphyxiated to death by Russia itself. And why wouldn’t that be the case? What imperialist has ever tolerated any kind of people’s power right on its borders?
As for the national question, it is unusually complex in this case. In eastern Ukraine, the separation between Russian-speaking Ukrainians and self-identified Russians is (was?) difficult to parse, and may be more a matter of political loyalties and opinions than of actual national distinction. Though native Russian-speakers are a minority in Ukraine, the Russian language is understood and spoken by a majority of Ukrainians. This contributes to another complicating factor: though Russian is technically a minority language in Ukraine, it has long enjoyed a privileged, dominant status in the country because it’s also the national language of Russia, Ukraine’s powerful neighbour and former imperial overlord. Hence, until very recently, a majority of television programs shown in Ukraine were broadcast in Russian. As we have seen, Russian-speaking pro-Russian oligarchs were major contenders for power against the Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU oligarchs until the events of 2014. Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic politics are messy and complex (much as they are in all other parts of Eastern Europe!) and any one-sided analysis portraying Russians in Ukraine as a persecuted minority is likely to be misguided and uninformed. In some ways, Donbas is to Ukraine what Ulster is to Ireland.
None of this means, of course, that the spike in anti-Russian sentiment fostered by the Poroshenko government is acceptable. But the escalation of ethnic strife in eastern Ukraine is not the product either of “natural” Russian aggression or “inborn” Ukrainian fascism—it is instead the product of political-economic strife among local and global elites fighting for the control of markets, resources and the political destinies of the country.
Having provided what we hope is a sufficiently comprehensive historical overview, we can now proceed with a brief reminder of the events we’re examining here. In early 2022, Russia started a military build-up on the Ukrainian border in the east, north and south. All the while, it denied that it had any hostile intentions and claimed that it was conducting exercises. On February 24, 2022 Russian troops crossed the border and launched a war on three fronts. Only a week or two into the war, the Battle of Kyiv took place: the Russian military leadership quite transparently expected to be able to conduct a blitzkrieg operation not too different from the ones it had conducted in Georgia (in the late 2000s) and in Kazakhstan (earlier in 2022!). The goal was likely to decapitate the Ukrainian State, conduct regime change and make a quick departure depart quickly.
This proved to be impossible. Instead, the Russian army was beaten back from the outskirts of Kyiv. Next, Russian military forces moved to reinforce the southern and (especially) eastern offensives, with the fiercest fighting occurring in the Ukrainian-held portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. In the first month or so of the war, Western imperialist aid to Ukraine was quite timid and limited, though major economic moves aiming to isolate Russia (read: to eliminate it as an imperialist rival) were undertaken. Ukraine threw all of its resources in the war, and in a few months these resources (especially military equipment) were all but depleted. By then, however, the proof of concept had been delivered: Western military aid flooded into Ukraine in the hopes of using Ukrainian soldiers and civilians to bleed the Russian army dry. This is where things stand in early July 2022: the Russian army is still slowly slogging through Donbas, raining down destruction onto the very same people it claims to be “liberating,” while the Ukrainian army slows its progress at heavy cost and the Western imperialists prop up Ukraine’s defensive war for their own ends, to weaken their opponents and reassert their supremacy. This brings us to the next major thing we need to understand about this war.
This is an inter-imperialist war
Mainstream talk about the war tends to reduce the whole thing to the actions of a few eminent personalities, in a striking and frankly stupid revival of the “Great Man” theory of history. Hence, Western propaganda outlets constantly question Vladimir Putin’s sanity. Biden openly calls for regime change in Russia. “Analysts” both professional and armchair-bound wonder: How’s Vlad doing? Is he getting old?43 Russian state-sanctioned media, for their part, play the same game, as they started out by calling Zelensky and his government “Nazis and drug addicts,” as if the problem was that of the current bourgeois figurehead (not that the Russian ruling class has any interest in solving Ukraine’s problems. It should be becoming clear by now that it aims merely to replace these problems with new ones). When their troops, as any fool could have divined, met serious resistance not only from the Ukrainian army but also from the civilian population (as is bound to happen in any invasion—nobody likes getting invaded) they quickly came to the conclusion that this meant the whole population was composed of Nazis,44 that the entire country had to be occupied, annexed, renamed and Russified.
This kind of personality- or label- driven “analysis” is quite obviously beneath the communist movement. We have historical materialism for fuck’s sake. So what’s been happening? Quite simply this: being located right on the border between Russia and Europe, Ukraine has long been contested territory among the imperialists. Russia’s bourgeoisie sees it as its natural preserve, a long-time part of its “area of influence” and a potential bulwark against their Western rivals. These things are openly stated by bourgeois political theorists and by the government itself. European elites see the country as another potential reserve of cheap labour and resources as well as a market for future capital exports. For the Anglo-American imperialists, Ukraine is a necessary link in a chain whose purpose is to encircle their eastern rival—because whatever we might think, the State Department’s got a clear notion that Russia’s a dangerous rival in the imperialist arena.
Nowadays, hardly anyone is sufficiently dense to seriously think that US meddling in the Middle-East has anything to do with “promoting democracy.” It’s about oil markets, cheap labour, “reconstruction” contracts and geopolitical supremacy. Yet, it seems that it is harder for many people, including usually well-informed, thoughtful people, to understand that the war in Ukraine is not about ideologies (wars hardly ever are, whatever the liberal establishment may say), nor about rights for oppressed Russian-speaking minorities. Does one really have to point out that these minorities exist in the first place because of Russian expansionism from the 17th century on and because of assimilationist policies of “Russification” (which were only halted for a precious few decades by the early and revolutionary Soviet Union) with Russians being the dominant nation and Russia being the main power of that part of the world. It is, in fact, a war that’s about gas pipes, mining and agricultural resources, industry, and geopolitical strategy. If it is being sold by Russia as a war of national liberation, or a defensive war against NATO, it’s only because hardly anybody cares enough about pipelines and minerals to actually die for them.
What we’re seeing now is not a just war45—it’s just monopolies and their political representatives once again throwing proletarians (in this case, Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, and Russian soldiers,46 some of them conscripts as well) into the meat grinder of inter-imperialist war to decide whether there should be four or three “Great Power” capitalist-imperialist camps, four or three areas of influence and control. It is a war to decide whether Russia can continue to play with the other big imperialist powers (i.e. US, the EU and China), and who gets paid to fix the mess, who gains a controlling stake in the Ukrainian markets, whether Russia retains its holdings in Eastern Europe and Central Asia or whether some other Power gets to grab these holdings. And though Ukrainians have no choice but to resist imperialist intervention, the tragedy here is that there is nothing good waiting for them in victory or defeat. Their choice is a choice between the Euro-American carrot and the Russian stick: both paths lead to peripheral status and dependency.47 This will remain the only choice available to all economically weak countries and peoples as long as the communist movement fails to bring proletarian revolution back onto the order of the day.
If this particular war is unusual in any way, it isn’t in its fundamental causes or in its profound nature. It is, instead, unusual in at least two concrete ways. First: this is a land war. Real, old-school land wars have been fought in East Asia in the late ’70s (the Sino-Vietnamese war of ‘79), in the Balkans in the ’90s, and are still being fought on multiple fronts in Africa today. But as a rule, imperialist Great Powers don’t fight land wars directly against one another. For one, it poses the cataclysmic possibility of quickly escalating into mutually-assured thermonuclear annihilation. So instead, the imperialists bomb the shit out of markedly weaker opponents, they wage counter-insurgency campaigns in the context of asymmetric warfare, and they go on fighting for their redivision of the world in fits and spurts through proxy wars. But they certainly don’t align tanks and conscripts to send out marching right at the other imperialists’ tanks and conscripts. That’s outmoded, that’s just not something you do anymore, because the last two times the imperialists tried to settle their rivalries this way, tens of millions were left dead each time (which the bourgeoisie really didn’t mind) and with increasing swathes of the world lost to communist-led revolutions and progressive nationalist regimes (which the bourgeoisie really did mind!).
And yet here we are: two large, modern armies engaged in a direct conflict with one another—for now confined to the battlefields of Ukraine.48 To find anything remotely comparable in Europe, one has to go back to not only the Balkan Wars, but to the early stages of World War II (the later stages of World War II being distinct by their even bigger scale and their even bloodier consequences, which are thankfully not comparable to what we’re seeing now in Ukraine).
The second unusual feature of this war: one of Russia’s stated objectives is outright annexation of Ukrainian territory.49 Not only, in fact, eastern “Russian-minority” territory but rather the entire Southern part of Ukraine, which would enable a land bridge to Transnistria50 and Crimea. This is also very unusual in our neo-colonial era where “soft power” and comprador-led systems and satellite states reign supreme as methods of domination and exploitation. This is how the US generally operates and, in a sense, this is also where Russia’s network of breakaway republics fits best. Yet this neo-colonial era is in itself also relatively new. Within living memory, France and Germany were still regularly exchanging ownership of Alsacia and the Lorraine. At the beginning of the last century, Russia was carving out parts of China for itself. Slightly later, Japan was doing the same thing and colonizing Korea and other parts of East Asia. Until the 1960s, the French were declaring Algeria to be not merely a colony, but just another département among its internal and “overseas departments” (as it continues up to the present with French Guiana in South America, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Mayotte and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean). And up to the very present, Canada continues to claim as its domain a geographic two-thirds of the country (at least) that is populated with majority-Indigenous people continuing to live in their ancestral domains under the oppression and exploitation of Canadian monopoly capitalism / imperialism.
Hence, what we’re seeing in Ukraine is nothing new. It is instead old methods, back with a vengeance in a brave new world of nuclear stockpiles and information warfare. This isn’t a glorious strike against US hegemony: it’s an open door for the old “imperialism without a human face” to come back through, straight from the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun. It might prove to be a dud, but it could also prove to be the beginning of a new and even more dangerous period in human history: a time of the imperialists engaging in open and direct warfare once again, this time with the nuclear swords of Damocles’ hanging over all of our heads.
As to the question of whether Russia is a true imperialist power, whether it fits this or that list of criteria, we have neither the time nor the resources to provide a numbers-crunching, economic analysis of the question51. Thankfully, we also consider it to be relatively secondary for the purposes of deciding whether modern Russia is worth siding with. In writing down his famous criteria of imperialism,52 Lenin wasn’t giving us a checklist to be used to determine whether a capitalist country was good or bad. Rather, he was naming the defining feature of an entire epoch—an epoch of capitalist monopolies, both national and international, of the dominance of financial capital, of frantic capital exports and of violent redivision of an already-divided world. All countries fall somewhere on the oppressed-oppressor spectrum. Some are re-dividing the world through economic, diplomatic and, when necessary, military clashes; others are the ones being shared among that first group.53 Whether one characterizes Russia as an imperialist power or a sub-imperialist regional power, it is clearly among those doing the re-division. It is not being fought over as spoils for the taking. Russia has a political and economic sphere of influence covering most of the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, across some of the oppressed countries across the world. For instance, it’s been a major actor in the violent wars of re-division of the Middle-East.
It must also be acknowledged, however—and this is a crucial point for North American communists—that Russia is not the main imperialist power (the US-led Anglo-American Imperialist Alliance is). In fact, Russia is in a very real sense fighting for its survival—its survival as an imperialist power. But, arguably, so is the US: it has been experiencing a long-term decline from the place of hegemonic supremacy in the face of a rising imperialist China. US and European encroachment on traditional Russian allies and vassals absolutely do serve the purpose of attempting to eliminate it as a competitor, seizing both Russia’s sphere of influence and, if possible, Russia itself as new areas of expansion for Western monopoly capital. This, however, is precisely the point: Russia is not an oppressed country, no more than Austria-Hungary and Germany were oppressed by France and Britain a century ago.
Imperialism is not unipolar, or at least does not remain so for very long. The imperatives of a world capitalist economy lead to struggle and competition among dominant states. And there are no “good imperialists” in all this. No “sphere of influence” can be legitimate. If Russia and China succeed in weakening the US and Europe, this can be a net positive if there are revolutionary organizations poised to seize upon the openings that such multipolarity will provide. If this is not the case, a Russian-Chinese advance means merely that the balance of imperialist power shifts in a new direction. This geopolitical shift is neither something to be celebrated (as so many tankies and revisionists do in their celebration of the new multipolar world54) nor is it something to be opposed in the form of sending thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of men off to die in war (with the likely equivalent, if not many times larger, number of civilian deaths that such a war implies). Shift or no shift, the overall situation of the world proletariat remains precisely as it is now.
But isn’t Russia at least defending the peoples of the Donbas? Isn’t it antifascist or, somehow, democratic in comparison to the US and EU?55 In fact, this is merely Russia’s attempt at US-style “humanitarian” imperialism and it stands on shaky ground. While the Russian ruling-class has a history of propping up small breakaway republics and claiming that this serves only to protect the interests of Russian-speaking minorities (as they have done in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine), their own internal policy towards national minorities is utterly reactionary. The Russian Federation, much like the US and Canada, is not a nation-state: it is a multinational country and, in fact, a prison-house of nations much like it was under Tsarist rule. Limited regional autonomy, inherited from the (now utterly gutted) proletarian, revolutionary Soviet policy regarding national minorities, is not compensation enough for widespread underdevelopment of minority regions or against the reemergence (with a vengeance) of Great Russian chauvinism and, in some cases, for outrageously brutal repression of national movements. Chechnya is the case in point.
What Chechnya and other national minorities tell us about this war
Western cheerleaders of Russia’s expansionist war might often be too young to remember it, but Russia was once faced with the same conundrum that led to Poroshenko and Zelensky shelling their own people in Donetsk and Luhansk: namely, an independence movement taking de facto political power in a minority-nationality region. In the political chaos which followed the disbanding of the Soviet Union, the Chechen Republic (a component part of the Russian Federation, inhabited by about a million Muslim-majority Chechens, a distinct nation with its own language, culture and land-base) chose to secede from the Federation, establishing the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. In 1994 Russia responded by sending in its army, hoping to quickly put down the independence movement, only to be beaten back in two years of heavy fighting which nearly leveled the country’s capital city of Grozny. By 1996, the Russians retreated, and a ravaged Chechnya descended into a warlord-led civil war. By the end of the decade, Russia seized upon Chechnya’s instability to re-enter the fray, resuming a war that would only end in 2009.
Today, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is being brandished as a scarecrow in Russia’s alleged mission to free the Donbas, with reports claiming that he was personally present in Mariupol to assist in leading military operations or at least in improving military morale. The irony, here, is striking: Kadyrov and his late father Akhmad Kadyrov are known precisely for siding with Russia in Chechnya’s wars of independence. These former Chechen nationalist leaders switched sides in the middle of the war, allying themselves with Putin and the Russian government in exchange for a role as local potentates and enforcers of Russian policy. The Kadyrovs thus went on to participate in the brutal repression of the Chechen separatists. After his father’s assassination by Chechen militants, Kadyrov junior went on to establish a peculiar sort of personal rule, swearing fealty to Putin’s Russia while still largely operating like a local warlord. That he is now being painted as some sort of anti-fascist, national liberation figure in Russian narratives about the war in Ukraine speaks volumes. You can’t make this shit up!
Beyond armed struggle in the Caucasus, beyond generalized underdevelopment of Russia’s vast Eastern regions and Great Russian dominance, one more key example of national oppression in Russia today must be pointed out, one that has everything to do with the war in Ukraine. We mean, of course, the poverty draft or minority draft—two facets, in fact, of the same phenomenon, which consists in militaries drawing significant numbers of recruits from poor and oppressed sections of the people. Such recruits are pushed to enlist by the promise of decent wages, higher education, and so on. It has been observed, since the beginning of the war, that a disproportionate number of confirmed Russian military casualties is made up of non-Great Russian ethnic minorities from the Caucasus and the Far East (Chechens, Buryats, etc.).56This would certainly be quite surprising if Russia was some sort of genuinely democratic champion of national rights. It shouldn’t be surprising for those who understand that Russia is a (second-rate) imperialist power that resorts to similar poverty/minority drafts that have long been observed in the US in relation to Black, Puerto Rican, Chicano and other oppressed nation and national minority soldiers. Hence, once more, we see Russia applying a playbook we, as anti-imperialists, know very well (though we might have trouble recognizing it when it isn’t used by the usual suspect).
What the status of Crimea tells us about this war
The final word on the topic of this war should concern Russian policy in the one particular part of Ukraine that it did already annex: Crimea. How does Russian national policy and “antifascism” stand up to examination there? We can begin by pointing out that almost immediately after annexation, the new Crimean authorities abolished Ukrainian language classes at the primary school level,57 this despite officially recognizing Ukrainian as an official language. This is entirely unsurprising when we remember that Russia’s policy towards the Ukrainians is that of full assimilation.
And how did Crimea’s historical Muslim, Turkic national minority, the Crimean Tatars, fare under Russian rule? Did Russia free them from “Ukrainian fascism”? On the contrary, the same authorities who have implemented anti-Ukrainian assimilationist policies have also pursued a policy of repression (indeed, of open terror) towards Crimean Tatar organizations and activists.58 This is being undertaken both as a necessary adjunct to Russian policy in its own national minority areas and because many Tatars were opposed to annexation, likely because of Russia’s track record toward Muslim minorities. During this campaign of repression, Russian authorities banned the Tatar parliament, the Mejlis, portraying it as an “anti-Russian” organization.59 It had operated relatively freely under Ukrainian rule (helping once again to explain Tatar opposition to Russian annexation). Is this “liberation” or is this a return to pre-revolutionary policy in the interests of modern-day imperialist power politics? We believe the facts speak for themselves.
So, what does all of this amount to? This: we are seeing Russia hang on for dear life to its area of influence, to its status as an imperialist power. We are seeing the US and its allies, in contradictory unity with the European Union, play every card they’ve got in an attempt to eliminate Russia as a rival in world markets. We are seeing China attempt to remain aloof from the fighting in the likely hope that it’ll be able to swoop in and reap the conflict’s benefits.60 Most of all, we’re seeing the four main imperialist blocs—the AAIA, the EU, Russia and its tributary states, and China61—march to world war and absolute catastrophe like they’ve never done since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Much to the chagrin of neo-Kautskyite academic Marxists and “post”-Trotskyists,62 the apparent stability of world imperialism is shown to have been a fragile facade. The myth of a unipolar world collapses in on itself. For humanity as a whole and for the world proletariat, the situation looks bleak and dreary. For bold and confident revolutionaries, the situation looks excellent (as long as we’re up for the challenge of our lives!).63
Who are the real fascists in all this? Russian and Ukrainian fascists
Having established the general character of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, we would do well to look with greater depth at the political forces at play on the ground. Since the Russian government (and its cheerleaders in the West) has portrayed its war of aggression as “anti-fascist”, since it has accused the Ukrainian government of Nazism (!) and since it has shamelessly appropriated the symbols of the international working-class, making them into symbols of Russian “patriotism”, we ought to start this examination by looking at the fascist and far-right forces64 on both sides of the border.
Much has been made of the far-right’s role in Ukraine since 2013 and the Euromaidan. It is true that for much of these particular events, the organized far-right (Right Sector, the infamous fascist party/militia; Svoboda, the main electoral force of the far-right in Ukraine, and a number of smaller organizations) were the main organized forces in the streets. They were, at the same time, an absolute and fairly small minority of participants. This is unsurprising and it shouldn’t scare us so much: confused mass, multi-class uprisings tend to become a battle-ground between radical left and right forces.65 As the then-extant (revisionist) Left in Ukraine largely sided with the Yanukovych government and, later, with Russian interventionism, and as other Left currents (anarchists, social-democrats) did not have the street forces to challenge fairly large, armed far-rightists for leadership over the movement, the rightists came to play an out-sized role in comparison to their actual forces. All in all, it appears that the die-hard, street-fighting far-rightists never had more than a few thousand activists on the ground.
As the pro-EU oligarchs reasserted control and established their new government under Poroshenko, they moved (as we have stated before) to bring the far-right groups under control and to leverage them in the brewing civil war. Poroshenko’s secret services and armed forces made liberal use of these groups as intelligence assets and as paramilitaries. This in itself meant opening the door to something even worse than ordinary bourgeois rule (and the organized far-right made no secret of its ambitions for political power). But that threshold was never crossed: the oligarchy succeeded in using the far-right forces for its own ends. After the end of Poroshenko’s term, this relationship actually declined in importance, as did the far-right’s political role (with new challenges facing that movement, less State support and a steep decline in its already limited electoral support).66
If anything, the Russian invasion seems to have been a godsend for the Ukrainian far-right. In peacetime (relatively speaking, despite the civil war’s occasional flareups), it was fast becoming something of an embarrassment for a Ukrainian ruling-class angling for EU membership. In wartime, the “Banderaites” may yet become the Ukrainian Taliban. The highly controversial, Neo-Nazi-initiated Azov battalion, for instance, made worldwide headlines by its stubborn defense of the Azovstal industrial complex in Mariupol in the last few months. By showing themselves to be determined opponents of foreign occupation and subjugation by Russia, the Ukrainian far-right may in fact gain further popular support that would make it excessively difficult to extricate even under full Russian occupation.
We specify the Ukrainian far-right because Russia, despite its claims of anti-fascism, has long cultivated its own far-right para-State actors, which it doesn’t seem in a rush to eliminate. As in Ukraine, the Russian far-right has long had a contradictory form of unity with the State. For instance, the infamous Alexander Dugin, ideologue of the “Fourth Political Theory”,67 is both a key reference of the mis-named “National-Bolshevik” movement and spends his free time flexing his connections with the Putin administration. In fact, the main ideologues of the Donbas movement and the Crimean annexation, the Izborsk Club, have quite a striking far-right pedigree themselves.68 As we have seen earlier, despite a shallow layer of “anti-fascist” varnish, the Russian State’s rhetoric on the Ukraine war edges dangerously close towards becoming outright genocidal and makes no secret of that State’s assimilationist, Great Russian chauvinist intentions.
It is not surprising, then, that far-right activists have appeared on both sides of the civil war in Donbas in the years prior to the start of the all-out Ukraine-Russia conflict.69 Neither should it surprise us that during the same civil war the Western European far-right actually quite openly sided with Russia, against Ukraine.70 Surely these people know where their interests lie—or are such notorious right-wing organizations as France’s Front National and the UK’s UKIP secretly anti-fascist? Indeed, while many of Russia’s far-right European allies ended up performing rather impressive 180-degree changes in direction when the full-scale invasion began, the main EU holdout against support for Ukraine and anti-Russian sanctions has so far been Hungary’s Viktor Orban, possibly the right-most elected leader in the European Union!
Ultimately, if the Ukraine war tells us anything about the far-right in general, it is this: fascism is another form of bourgeois rule, one usually used as a last resort when faced with crisis or revolution. The far-right flourishes in the region not because of Ukraine’s inherent fascism, nor because Putin is an “authoritarian” (whatever that even means) but precisely because, a hundred years after World War I and the October Revolution, it is once again a storm center of contradictions and a weak link in the chain of the capitalist-imperialist world system. A century ago, such conditions did give rise to proto-fascist forces (namely the Black Hundreds in Russia, the OUN in Poland’s Ukrainian area and a slew of right-nationalist forces in the Balkans) but these ended up not amounting to much precisely because the organized revolutionary proletariat rose to the occasion and made revolution, changing the entire playing field for the decades to come.
Does such a potential exist today in Ukraine and Russia? Where are Eastern Europe’s communists and revolutionaries? Is there potential for transforming, in Lenin’s words, imperialist war into revolutionary civil war?
The huge, rotting corpse of Soviet Revisionism and the revolutionary left
There is no need to keep up the suspense here: there really is no potential in terms of the subjective conditions. The Russian Left, comprising a multitude of post-Soviet revisionist organizations, which are very large but not very revolutionary,71 has by and large failed to rise to the occasion. It has so far been pursuing a policy of support for the war combined with (usually) timid criticism of Putin’s domestic policy. It has opted to “keep calm and carry on,” in practice usually acting as if there was no war and pursuing its business-as-usual activities, with the occasional jingoistic gesture to ensure it doesn’t antagonize the powers-that-be more than strictly necessary.
The Ukrainian Left is even less capable of providing us with any hope for a revolutionary resolution to the current war, if only because it barely exists. While until 2014-2015 the country had a large, active post-Soviet revisionist movement much like the one in Russia, this (legalistic, non-revolutionary) movement paid a heavy price for failing to stage a correct intervention during the Euromaidan crisis: The Poroshenko administration banned the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) and a number of smaller pro-Russian Left organizations and they by-and-large ended up collapsing as a consequence, being unable to transition to conditions of clandestinity. Other Leftist trends in Ukraine (anarchists, such as they are, and social-democrats) had had some limited success in supplanting the post-Soviet revisionists before the war began, but they have since proved largely incapable of pursuing an independent policy and have thrown their (very limited) weight behind the Zelensky government in practice, while keeping up some criticism of the Ukrainian State’s policy.72
We must admit that the Ukrainian Left’s position is a very difficult one indeed: it is not strong enough to lead its own military opposition to the invasion, and yet it cannot fail to oppose it in some way if it wishes to avoid going the way of the CPU and, what’s more important still, avoid alienating itself from the people’s demands. In Russia, however, the situation is a lot more clear-cut: the revisionists have quite simply decided to support their government’s policy of aggression.73 This is all the more disappointing since many of the Russian revisionist Left do not share Western leftists’ illusions about Putin! Many of its organizations recognize that Russia is an imperialist state, while still proclaiming their support for its war on Ukraine under the pretext of “anti-fascism” (we have seen earlier what this really means).74
The one tiny bright spot in all of this is to be found by looking at Russia and Ukraine’s (tiny) ICOR75 affiliates: the Russian Maoist Party, the Marxist-Leninist Platform and the KSRD (Coordination Council of the Workers’ Movement, Ukraine). As far as we know, none of these organizations are much larger than the tiny Communist groups we’re used to seeing in our own countries. However, ICOR’s presence on the ground in the two belligerent countries and its already-developed analysis of world imperialism have allowed it to become the communist force likely with the most correct position on this whole mess. The KSRD’s statement on the war is in our view truly exemplary: it is short, to-the-point and it mobilizes its own World War II references in a much more substantial way than what the Russian bourgeoisie has been doing.76
ICOR’s (limited) success in responding to the Ukraine war goes to show how badly we need a much stronger, wider-ranging international organization of communist revolutionaries.77 As things stand, individual would-be communists and even serious revolutionary organizations have been stuck trying to figure out the world situation one-by-one, with many reaching incorrect or one-sided positions.78 For the moment, though, as we struggle to rebuild a broad-based, revolutionary communist movement, we can only trust our own eyes and turn to the revolutionary theory of years past to determine what our stance must be and how we can best serve the international proletariat through this new time of strife and danger.
Lenin and war
It is fitting that we should look to Russia’s greatest revolutionary to figure out how to react to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Much of Lenin’s thought and politics were determined by the march to global inter-imperialist war. In grappling with the dramatic geopolitical developments of the 1910s and the greatest bloodbath ever unleashed by the world’s ruling classes up until that time, Lenin provided us with a number of crucial insights which we would do well to keep in mind as we come to grips with the current world situation, as we struggle to avoid either backing the Russian imperialists or (and this is even more important) “our own” Anglo-American imperialists.
We should say from the get-go that comrades interested in arming themselves with sharp theoretical tools for analyzing this war and all those to come should absolutely take some time to go back to Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, to his polemics around the Zimmerwald conference and around the Second International’s social-chauvinist stances, around the Kerensky government’s policy on the war, and so on and so forth. This is a priceless body of work and it can save us much trouble in the future if only we can grasp it correctly now. This being said, let us draw out some key insights from Lenin on the topics of imperialism and war.
One: whatever the KPRF might say, Russia’s excuses for its current policy are not new ones. We can see, when we look back, that during the first World War leading German, French and Russian socialists (located, therefore, on both sides of that conflict!) proclaimed that the war they were faced with was an “exceptional” war in which the nation’s bourgeoisie had to be supported by any means necessary. Hence, western European social-chauvinists claimed that defeating Germany and Austria-Hungary would allow the advance of democracy and create better conditions for the socialist movement in Europe. Plekhanov, a one-time leader of Russian socialism, pleaded merely for the “right to defend one’s fatherland.” Chauvinists of all stripes argued about “who started it” (doesn’t that ring a bell? Don’t Russia’s cheerleaders in our movement claim that “NATO started it,” while pro-NATO outlets underline that in the current war Russia fired the first shot? Don’t both sides neglect the spiral of growing contradictions starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union and leading up to the current situation, a spiral pushed ever forward by the very laws of imperialist competition?)79 On this topic, at least, there is nothing new under the sun: some people will always manage to take the correct, proletarian stand in hindsight and yet fail to take it when it matters, as things are unfolding.
Two: though Russia is weaker and less dangerous on the world scale than the US doesn’t matter. In Imperialism, Lenin provides statistics which show that the Triple Entente (France, the UK and Russia, joined later on by the United States, Japan and other, lesser capitalist powers) were without doubt the dominant imperialist powers of the day. Their opponents, the Central Powers (primarily Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) were markedly weaker. Among the Central Powers, the only true world-class imperialist power was Germany. The UK, the US and France controlled much of the world’s economy and landmass through their colonial empires. Germany was an upstart attempting to dislodge them; Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were empires of the old type: on the decline, deprived of the important roles they had played under late feudalism and early capitalism and desperately attempting to catch up. Needless to say, while Lenin advocated open struggle against the Triple Entente imperialists, he did not for a second advocate siding with Germany to “destroy British hegemony” or “promote a multipolar world.”
Three: Lenin’s policy of revolutionary defeatism meant transforming reactionary imperialist war into revolutionary proletarian civil war. It didn’t mean actually rooting for the other imperialist, but it did mean preparing the socialist movement for the seizure of power, creating opportunities for this seizure of power by targeting “one’s own imperialists” and never hesitating to show the overall corruption of world imperialism (on all sides), as for instance when the Bolsheviks, newly in power, published the Tsarist government’s diplomatic correspondence which showed Russia and its allies planning the re-division of Europe and the world. In our case, applying such a line doesn’t mean uncritically heaping praise upon Putin, Xi Jinping or whoever just so happens to be opposed to the US for his own reasons, but instead building a revolutionary movement capable of seizing power and, through revolution, creating the conditions in which inter-imperialist wars, areas of influence and the re-division of the world become impossible.
Self-determination in the 21st century
A fundamental truth that must not be neglected when thinking about the national question in the modern world—whether Black people’s or Indigenous national questions in North America, the Ukrainian national question v. Russia, the separatist movement in Donbas, or any other case having to do with the question of national independence and self-determination is this: true independence is virtually impossible in the modern world. Where and when it is possible, it can only be realized by the working class and through socialist revolution. Here’s why.
The world is divided between four major players: the Anglo-American Imperialist Alliance (AAIA),80 which is still the dominant bloc in the imperialist world order; the European Union and its own adjuncts, a close ally of the previous bloc but one that’s pursuing its own independent interests; China; and finally, Russia. Next, we find the regional powers, the “expansionists” as per commonly-used terminology: one might identify Israel, India, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda and other such second- or third-rate actors in the AAIA-dominated world system of capitalism-imperialism. If one wants to do so, one can count Russia as part of this category instead: it ultimately doesn’t matter much for our purposes. Each and every one of these actors maintains a sphere of influence, including both areas that are solidly in their grasp or shared with allies and areas which are hotly contested between them. Ukraine precisely happens to be such a hotly-contested area. It’s a big prize for whoever can win it: a gateway to Europe (especially in terms of the East-West flow of fossil fuels), a major agricultural player, and a fairly developed industrial-capitalist country because of its participation in the former Soviet Union, and the list goes on.
The people of Ukraine, as long as they live under a bourgeois regime, can only choose to submit to either Russia, on one hand, or the AAIA and the EU (“the West”), on the other. This is not, in fact, much of a choice at all. The only true way out is proletarian revolution, whose prospect does not appear on the immediate horizon. Even so, there is a qualitative difference between Russia’s current relationship with Ukraine and that of the West. This, in fact, is the precise reverse of the situation we’re used to: we usually see bourgeois governments seeking a greater measure of independence and better terms of relations turn to Russian or Chinese imperialism for backing. The essence of the phenomenon, though, is the same, as unpalatable as that might be to a Western anti-imperialist. The only “independence” that can exist in the current order of things is to be found in the cracks and fissures created by inter-imperialist conflict and competition. Another, similar example is to be found in the case of the Kurdish national movement81 and the same Left forces celebrating Russian aggression today are in fact usual suspects, the same people who’ve been rooting for Erdogan, ISIS and Assad against the Kurdish nation. All a non-imperialist bourgeoisie (or any force aspiring to become such) can do is play one side against the other. But this type of “fissures-and-cracks” independence is always limited and precarious, and failure, in the long term, is inevitable. It cannot be our end-goal (which, of course, is communism and nothing less) and it is nothing more than a barely-tenable compromise in those countries where it is practiced.
As long as there is open war, our position must be that this war must cease. Putin is a butcher. He’s been at work in Chechnya, in Georgia; his political police has been hard at work repressing the workers’ movement (not, indeed, in relation to the war, but merely in relation to class struggle in Russia) even as Siberian conscripts die in muddy Ukrainian ditches and fields. Once the war ceases, we must continue building links with and encouraging the communists in both Russia and Ukraine—communists being not merely those who claim the title, but those indeed fighting for communism. The fascists in both Russia and Ukraine must at length be neutralized—through ideological, political and armed struggle. The Russian army is of course not the proper tool for that job, a job which can only be carried out by the working classes of both countries. National minorities in Ukraine and Russia must be analyzed according to Marxist-Leninist categories which were specifically designed for that job over a century ago. The right to self-determination must be upheld in a way that only becomes possible in a socialist society, upheld in a genuine way rather than brandished as a pretext for re-division of the world (and we will do well to apply this same principle in relation to our tasks for making revolution in Canada and the US as well).
Russia, in particular, seems to have adopted a tactic consisting in propping up micro-states wherever it can get away with it and wherever there are sufficient Russian-speaking minorities (whether in Ukraine, in Georgia or in Moldova). To adapt a famous quote: why is it we hear the loudest yelps for self-determination come from the wardens of prison-houses of nations? The US, of course, leverages what is for all practical purposes a similar enclave in China (the Uyghurs of Xinjiang). Why, it even supported “Indigenous rights” in FMLN-run Nicaragua back in the 1980s, despite waging a protracted campaign of murders, arrests and prosecution against American Indian Movement activists back at home in the decade prior. This is a key lesson that revolutionaries need to learn if they are to succeed: the enemy is skilled and clever, he will leverage the genuine hopes, fears and aspirations of the worldwide proletariat for its own purposes if he can get away with it.
While genuine wars of liberation are possible outside of a socialist movement,82 and while Russia has nothing to do in Ukraine and should get the fuck out, national oppression cannot melt away outside of a protracted process of world socialist revolution. In this process, national rights, national cultures and particularities, and national self-determination must be upheld at every turn in a contradictory and likely slow advance towards the big prize itself, a world socialist republic. Following the example of China and the Soviet Union, secession should be discouraged when avoidable, but never prevented by force.
None of this is possible, however, if we don’t have the right tools for the job.
You already know what it is…that needs to be done
Russia’s impotent “Left” cheerleaders in the West are showing their dreadful lack of imagination and political courage, and we’re all going to pay for it. As long as the absurd notion that rooting from the sidelines for the other empire is the best communists can do in the face of war and catastrophe, we aren’t going to get far. What we’re looking to build is a communist world, one where international aggression, areas of influence, arms races and conscripted youth shooting at each other in defense of their respective masters’ moneybags are things of the past, consigned to the dustbin of history and to be found only as artifacts in future people’s museums and textbooks in sections labeled “Never Again”.
At the same time, and precisely in pursuit of that objective, we cannot make the moral support some misguided comrades (and some proletarians more generally) lend to Russian aggression at this time become a hard line of demarcation. The ideological struggle against this deviation must continue, of course, but we must also put forward actionable revolutionary slogans: Canada out of NATO is one; no to military budget increases is another; oppose US foreign military bases; no to conscription; etc.
“Russia out of Ukraine” is the correct principled stand on this particular issue; so was “Ukrainian troops out of Donbas, yes to a democratic solution”83 in the earlier civil-war phase of the ongoing conflict. But these calls cannot have any significant effect unto themselves. Indeed, even practical, actionable anti-NATO, anti-AAIA slogans remain sterile for now.
The fact is: the communist movement in the US and Canada is and remains wholly inconsequential—its small numbers, its organizational chaos, its significant disconnect from the daily lives of the proletariat mean it is incapable of opposing imperialist policies here and abroad. As international contradictions grow sharper and the danger of large-scale war grows nearer, we are still quite likely to be caught pants-less and to have to resign ourselves to staring stupidly at the world as it burns, leaving the heavy lifting to comrades in those precious few (often oppressed) countries where the communist movement remains a significant force. So there’s haste to be made.
In so doing, let’s be sure not to split on the question of Russia (though of course there is a right position and a wrong position here, as we’ve seen earlier) but rather get off our collective ass and build a revolutionary party, a genuinely revolutionary party that is characterized not by the incredibly correct and advanced views of three or four of its leading members but by its ability to mobilize the proletariat to be a real actor in the continent’s politics and thus to oppose “our own” bourgeoisie in a way that’s not smugly symbolic and ultimately fruitless! Only this way can we stop riding the coattails of Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping in feebly attempting to combat the NATO imperialist camp led by our own monopoly bourgeoisies and stage an independent, genuinely proletarian opposition capable of actually overthrowing and disbanding NATO without propping up its ultimately identical (even if smaller) competitors.84
Such a party must have a firm basis in the proletariat. It must have a strong, disciplined rank-and-file layer acting as leadership to the masses’ struggles and providing compelling watchwords and calls to action. It must have a highly consolidated and efficient leadership group capable of setting general strategy to advance towards socialism. This leadership group must be able to count on internal resources for research and analysis of ongoing events and social forces; the party press must not take the form of a monthly parody of Lenin’s Iskra but instead form a real proletarian media empire. Indeed, we shouldn’t have to rely on either CNN or RT for analysis of the current conflict. In the future, we should have our own correspondents on the ground!
As long as this task isn’t accomplished, we’re doomed to remain (at best) killjoys with no solutions to the proletariat’s problems, or worse, cheerleaders on the sidelines of the struggle for the re-division of the world between its monopolist masters.
A point on whataboutism and final thoughts
We have seen, in the early stages of the Ukraine war, a flare-up in Leftist “whataboutism”. Though this malady is far from exclusive to the Ukraine issue, it is, for a number of reasons, particularly pronounced in this case (thus providing a good illustration of a much wider phenomenon). One might surmise that these reasons are, in no particular order: (1) these are white people being shot at (white people in the sense of having pale skin, not in the sense of having much to do with Western standards of living85), which opens the door to all kinds of identity opportunism; (2) some sections of the Left are sympathetic to Russia to various degrees, as outlined throughout this article; and (3) since Western imperialists, namely the AAIA and EU, have an objective interest in backing Ukraine to weaken their competitors, this war is fertile ground for basic contrarian attitudes.
The argument goes something like: Why are Ukrainian refugees welcomed much more warmly than, say, Middle-Eastern refugees? Or else: Aren’t Ukrainian-Canadians or Ukrainian-Americans settlers? Or else: why is everyone suddenly talking about this particular war and not about Palestine/Yemen/the Congo/West Papua/you name it? The answer to that last question is, of course, because Western imperialists have an objective interest in backing Ukraine to weaken their competitors.
Attitudes like these risk appearing (if not actually becoming!) callous, unfeeling or hypocritical in the eyes of the many proletarians who rightly yearn for world peace, who rightly oppose any war of plunder and conquest. The fact that, for once in our lives, mainstream media outlets are admitting that it’s a bad thing to bomb hospitals and schools, that it’s a bad thing to shoot civilians, that it’s a bad thing to meddle in the affairs of other, weaker countries should not invite contrarianism but instead appear like a golden opportunity to point out ruling class hypocrisy. Hence, not “But what about Palestine?” but rather “Why is it only bad when Russia does it, but when our Israeli “allies” do it it’s suddenly OK? Why is it bad in Ukraine and okay in Afghanistan or Iraq?”
Besides, among those principled anti-imperialists who see this war for what it really is, few are opposing this war and no other. Many of us have acted, in a fashion admittedly as ineffective as we are now acting on the Ukraine question, to oppose “our own” imperialists time and time again.
As for the Ukrainians themselves: of course, in the absence of widespread revolutionary politicization, they care first and foremost about this intervention, because it affects them, their families, their friends. Much in the same way, your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Palestinian is unlikely to have heard of West Papua! We once heard an Indigenous proletarian ask: “Why should I care about the Holocaust? We’ve suffered a genocide right here!” And indeed, this applies (though in a different way) to ordinary working-class people taken in by Western imperialist propaganda—a narrow view which corresponds with the interests of “our” ruling class, rather than with the interests of the international proletariat, is actively being promoted.
This is to be expected. As revolutionary internationalists, we have a breadth of view that few members of our class get to develop outside of a strong, mass-based revolutionary movement. We take the point of view of the international proletariat—a point of view that is rarely if ever achieved spontaneously, a point of view which has to be developed, propagandized, and spread, and a point of view to which we must win as many proletarians as possible. We shouldn’t play the stupid game of 180-degree reversal (we would only win stupid prizes, as the expression goes) but instead promote a revolutionary 360-degree point-of-view. This might not be as hot a take on Twitter, but it certainly is more productive in the grand scheme of things.
1 Metternich was a prominent Austrian statesman, best known as a political adversary of Napoleon, who played an oversized role in early 19th century European “Great Power” politics. Guizot was a French statesman, an important player in King Louis Philippe’s “liberal” monarchy in France. These two men were enemies in the ongoing struggles between the main European monarchies. They were also both die-hard enemies of the revolutionary movement, representatives of the old order who would be opposed, weapons in hand, by the revolutionaries of 1848.
2 See “If Putin wants to remake the Soviet Union, what country would Russia target next?”, Fox News, March 7, 2002 (https://www.foxnews.com/politics/putin-soviet-union-next-move).
3 When we speak of the Anglo-American Imperialist Alliance (AAIA), we are referring to the dominant bloc among the four main blocs of imperialists fighting over the redivision of the world. Bourgeois politicos would speak instead of “Atlanticism.” Either way, what we mean is that bloc which is led by the United States, closely followed by the United Kingdom and Canada as well as other second-rate imperialist powers (Australia and New Zealand, who make up the final two members of the Anglo-imperialist “Five Eyes” spy operation) as well as a whole series of unwavering subaltern allies, client-states, and outposts throughout the world. Without getting into details, which would require a much longer elaboration and closer research than we can afford here, we should note Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea as being among some of the most important of these subaltern allies of the Anglo-American imperialists, with countries like Colombia and Rwanda existing further down the list of this “world order”). This bloc is the dominant one in the world today and also represents the most virulent alliance of warmongers, struggling to maintain its supremacy on a shifting geopolitical landscape. It has, since the beginning of the Cold War, been closely allied militarily with the European Union, which is a bloc unto itself with distinct political and economic interests. The main opponents of the AAIA in the ongoing contest among the imperialists are the loose alliance of distinct imperialist blocs led by China and Russia, respectively.
4 See “Vladimir Putin: The rebuilding of ‘Soviet’ Russia,” BBC, March 28, 2014 (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26769481).
5 Our translation, straight from the horse’s mouth: http://prezident.org/tekst/stenogramma-obraschenija-prezidenta-rossiiskoi-federacii-21-02-2022.html
6 This is how World War 2 is referred to in Soviet and later Russian nomenclature.
7 We have been hearing a lot about Russian oligarchs lately. What is an oligarch, exactly? We would say it’s a monopoly bourgeois who meddles in politics directly rather than acting according to the “liberal democratic,” Euro-American convention that prescribes a formal distinction between the bourgeoisie-as-such and its spokespeople in the political arena. According to this definition, then, certain political players in Canadian and US politics can certainly be characterized as oligarchs (the April 2022 contribution to kites “War in the Enemy Camp: An investigation into the ‘Freedom Convoy’ movement” makes just such an argument). So can some Western European social-political actors, such as former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul, or France’s Bolloré, another media mogul who, although not an elected official, is certainly a political figure. None of that is to say, of course, that oligarchs don’t play a more decisive role in Russian and Ukrainian politics, where the division between economic and political power in these particular bourgeois regimes often doesn’t exist even in a formal sense.
8 That Russia’s official rhetoric on their military intervention in Ukraine also includes lip service to “anti-fascism” is worth noting. The communists have allegedly invented Ukraine, constructed it out of whole cloth (What a stupid idea! What a shocking degree of national chauvinism!), which ended up benefiting the fascists. The only way out is Putin’s economically liberal, highly repressive brand of capitalism. As for the content of this alleged “anti-fascism”, we will discuss it in more detail further down.
9 The ongoing war in Ukraine is a regional cataclysm while at the same time representing an integral part of rising inter-imperialist contradictions. Tensions over Taiwan, Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO, Syria’s civil war, the attempted coup of Juan Guaidó in Venezuela and subsequent sanctions and embargoes against Venezuela, the hypocrisy of Western scrutiny over Xinjiang, the ongoing trade war between and decoupling of the US and Chinese economies, European embargoes on Russian energy exports (and the list goes on) are all part of this web of increasingly tense inter-imperialist contradictions and speak to the growing potential for global cataclysm.
10 For instance, Canadian anti-imperialist intellectual Yves Engler came out with the article “Canadian interference in Ukrainian affairs reaches epic proportions” at Monthly Review Online (https://mronline.org/2022/02/11/canadian-interference-in-ukrainian-affairs-reaches-epic-proportions/) characterizing the march-to-war news-cycle about Russian troops on the Ukrainian border as a “ramping up of tensions with Russia.” The solution, of course, was for Canadians to “oppose” this “ramping up.” It seems however that what was really happening was that the Canadian imperialists already knew an invasion was forthcoming (it came about a week after the Engler piece!) and were merely switching gears to account for much sharper inter-imperialist contradictions. The result, then, was that the bourgeois media appeared to have a factual understanding of events while Leftist media, such as it is, appeared either to blindly trust Russia’s denial that it was gearing up for aggressive action or, worse, to actively cheer for said aggressive action. And some of it cheered indeed! The right call, of course, would have been to acknowledge Russian aggression, expose the reasons why Canada should stay out of any conflict over Ukraine, and gear up for a proletarian response to war even as the ruling class was gearing up for a bourgeois/imperialist response to war. Hardly anybody seems to have done that.
11 The modern nation is a product of capitalist social relations, as the Bolsheviks correctly pointed out. In fact, we might speculate that the Bolshevik understanding of the nation was so much more advanced than that of Western socialists precisely because this nation-making process was very recent in their geographical area. Stalin, a Georgian himself, was well-poised to see new relations of production consolidate nations from looser, disparate social formations.
12 Pre-feudal social relations can take a multitude of forms. Here, we must be content with pointing to the Indigenous Yakut reindeer herders & hunter-gatherers of Russia’s far-east as one example among many.
13 This formalization of culture mirrors (in its own way) similar developments elsewhere in the world and notably in Western Europe a century or so prior. Fragmented, pre-capitalist peasant folklore and culture were seized upon by the emerging bourgeoisie to develop a central, national culture. In the Russian empire, this process was particularly visible, with the “slavophile” movement emphasizing Russian national particularity becoming a leading school of thought. For instance, “musical nationalism” became a major artistic trend consisting in the integration of folk melodies and techniques into “high-culture”—bourgeois and aristocratic classical music, as exemplified by composer Balakirev among others (google him!). In literature, we can cite Gogol’s wide-ranging use of folk tales and peasant settings as only one flagrant example among many.
14 The full extent and precise mechanism of the general process of capitalist development and modernization in the Russian empire is behind the scope of this essay. It is enough, however, to say that among its results were such things as the emergence of Pushkin and Lermontov in the Russian literary field and, a few decades later, of Taras Schevchenko and Ivan Franko in the Ukrainian camp; the failed Decemberist liberal uprising in Russia, an attempt at bringing in a constitutional monarchy; the short campaign by the Ukrainian Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a conspiratorial organization pledged to promote both Ukrainian culture and wide-ranging liberal reforms in the empire as a whole; the eventual (and quite slow) abolition of serfdom by the “Tsar Liberator,” etc. A little-read (today) but highly interesting scientific analysis of the emergence and growth of capitalism in the Russian Empire is available in Lenin’s early The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899): https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1899/devel/
15 In that time’s nomenclature (which has seen something of a revival since the fall of the USSR, more so this year in Russian war propaganda), the “Great Russians” were Russians proper, the Little Russians were the Ukrainians and the White Russians were the Belarusians (Belarus, in fact, simply means White Russia). What’s in a name, then? One could for instance quote statistics on the present-day status of the Belarusian language, which is spoken only by a minority of Belarusians, owing at least in part to Russification policies over the last centuries.
16 Meaning, merely, populism (or peopleism if one wants to be more precise than the English language permits). The foremost academic account of the Narodnik movement (that we know of) is Franco Venturi’s Roots of revolution. A much shorter, Marxist-Leninist account is provided in Chapter 1 of the History of the CPSU(b) (https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1939/x01/ch01.htm).
17 We are referring here, mainly, to Marx’s brief 1881 exchange of letters with Vera Zasulich, then still a Narodnik, later a founder of the Russian Marxist tradition, later still a Menshevik. See https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/zasulich/index.htm
18 Though the Narodniks are best-known for revolutionary terrorism and quite dramatic political assassinations, which did likely lay the foundations for later and much wider armed revolutionary action in 1905 and 1917-1920, we should really think about the meaning of another one of their key tactics: going to the people. The Populist social base was largely comprised of young urban intellectuals in an Empire that was largely a peasant country. Thus, hundreds or thousands of Narodniks, seeing that no revolution was possible without these broad peasant masses, quite literally went to work (usually as teachers, public servants, etc.) to propagandize in the countryside. This hardly had any immediate political impact. However, years later, in the early 1900s, this early attempt did provide the foundation for the building of the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (or SRs), a peasant-based, eclectic socialist organization which played an important role in leading the peasantry through the revolutionary storms of the 1905-1920 period. The left-most fraction of that party would then go on to form the Bolsheviks’ peasant base during the revolution. The whole Narodnik parenthesis in Russian history seems at the very least to have prepared the ground for widespread peasant politicization, for land seizures, etc. Think about what this means, think about the decades-long process that allowed this revolutionary people to be born and come into its own! Now, think about what this means for us today.
19 Generally called Emancipation of Labour in English-language sources.
20 See “The right of nations to self-determination”in Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 20. Also pertinent to this topic are, of course, Stalin’s Marxism and the national question and Lenin on the national and colonial questions.
21 Mao Zedong addresses the perils of unilateral analysis in On practice and in On contradiction. Most social problems and questions facing the communist movement are complex and multi-sided, and they have to be analyzed from all angles if we are to apprehend them correctly. Nationalism can have both progressive and reactionary aspects, but our movement has tended to unilaterally see its progressive potential, leading to sometimes incorrect assessments of the trends and movements it has to interact with. Such unilateralism is, arguably, a major problem with contemporary Leftist thought.
22 Not to be confused with the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine, the fraternal organization of the Bolsheviks in Ukraine. The many splits, mergers and name changes of Ukraine’s revolutionary organizations in the 1890-1920 period are remarkably complex and beyond the scope of this essay.
23 On this topic, one may read Stalin’s public statement on the Sultan-Galiev case, which also provides some insight into this particular inner-Party struggle and Sultan-Galiev’s downfall more generally (https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1923/06/09.htm#2._), while an overview of his politics and views is available in Mathieu Renault’s The idea of Muslim national communism (https://viewpointmag.com/2015/03/23/the-idea-of-muslim-national-communism-on-mirsaid-sultan-galiev/). On Ukrainian national communism, one might consult (with precautions) Stephen Velychenko’s bourgeois, academic treatise Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red (2015).
24 A decent study of the famine’s politicization by bourgeois and far-right forces is available in Douglas Tottle’s 1987 book Fraud, Famine and Fascism. As for a precise analysis of the real famine, rather than the imaginary genocide, that remains to be written and goes far beyond the scope of this article. We can only say that on this front, it is very important to recognize that mass starvation with deaths in the hundreds of thousands or millions necessarily implies tragedy and mistakes and that no quarters must be given to nationalist opportunism trying to make this into a race issue. In some ways, it might be much more of a class-issue and rest on post-Lenin Soviet Marxism’s imperfect understanding of the peasantry. Hence, Robert Linhart’s book Lenin, the peasants, Taylor portrays some Bolshevik leaders’ negative attitude towards the peasantry, contrasted with Lenin’s growing understanding of its key role in the ongoing Russian Revolution.
The bourgeois and right-nationalist analysis of the famine rests on the conceit that it was planned by Stalin, neglecting of course the inconvenient fact that Stalin, a Georgian and a former People’s Commissar to the Nationalities, was a key architect of Ukrainian national liberation ten years prior! It rests on thoroughly anti-communist a-prioris: Of course the Communists would do that! They’re no-good, godless Communists! Finally, this “socialist famine” (much like the late-’50s Chinese famine) is used to obscure and overshadow the historical and ongoing capitalist famines which claim millions of lives every year—sometimes complete with analogous policies of grain seizures, as in West Bengal by the British imperialists (with the important difference that the grain, there, was seized not in the interests of the urban proletariat but in the interests of British monopolies).
25 Mao Zedong had this to say on Soviet policy concerning the peasantry in his April 1956 speech “On the ten major relationships” to an enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party: “The Soviet Union has adopted measures which squeeze the peasants very hard. It takes away too much from the peasants at too low a price through its system of so-called obligatory sales and other measures. This method of capital accumulation has seriously dampened the peasants’ enthusiasm for production. You want the hen to lay more eggs and yet you don’t feed it, you want the horse to run fast and yet you don’t let it graze. What kind of logic is that!” Available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-5/mswv5_51.htm
26 Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) was, in the final analysis, nothing more than a typical bourgeois nationalist and fascist-adjacent political leader of the 1930s-1940s, in the vein of Croatia’s Ustase, France’s French Popular Party, etc. Bandera was born in Galicia (western Ukraine, then a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire). He joined the already-existing OUN in 1929, climbed the organization’s internal hierarchy quickly, was arrested in 1934 for his role in an assassination plot directed against a Polish Government official, was freed from prison in 1939 and resumed his role in the OUN. Bandera played a key role in the development of the organization’s paramilitary force, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA in Ukrainian). During the war, he established ties with the Nazis and attempted to make OUN the main cornerstone of fascist politics in occupied areas of Ukraine, but these overtures ended up coming to naught and OUN/UPA ended up fighting both the Red Army and, to a limited extent, the Wehrmacht. Considered unreliable, Bandera was detained and imprisoned by the Nazis in 1941, only to be set loose once more in 1944 as the war drew to a close, in the hopes that he could weaken the Soviet Union. After the war, he escaped to West Germany, where he lived in exile until he was executed by a KGB operative in 1959.
27 This laughable notion has appeared in Russian propaganda outlets. It goes hand-in-hand with the notion that there is no Ukrainian nation, a notion inherited from Tsarist-era theories and which finds an echo, for instance, in the Turkish State labeling the Kurdish nation “Mountain Turks”. The argument, in essence, is that Ukraine was created and developed by Russia’s internal and external enemies (Bolsheviks, Western imperialists, fascists) to weaken Russia. The Ukrainians, then, are merely deluded Russians who should be brought back into the fold by any means necessary. The truth, of course, is instead that which we have outlined above: the Ukrainian nation grew out of one of the many pre-capitalist cultural-ethnic groups through the same process that created most modern nations, with the birth of capitalism. Its cultural and historical roots are at least as deep as that of the Russians, going back to the same initial sources, but it is a distinct nation with its own language, territory, economic life and culture.
28 Hence, in France, the fascist Croix-de-Feu, a far-right, mass-based militia sharing much of the OUN’s nationalist, anti-communist politics, wavered for two years under Nazi occupation before moving to oppose collaboration, leading to their leader colonel La Rocque’s political internment. Which does not make them better fascists (there can be no such thing), but which does make them non-collaborators. In Greece, the arch-reactionary dictator Metaxas refused to give up his country’s sovereignty to the Italian fascists (no doubt for reasons having to do more with realpolitik than with morality).
29 As an aside: in Russia, the same phenomenon took place and counter-revolutionaries of all stripes rushed to put themselves in the service of Germany under the banner of the ironically-named Russian Liberation Army, a sizable military organization collaborating with the Hitlerites, led by one Andrey Vlasov.
30 One can start to investigate this issue by reading Natasha Iliriani’s 1987 article “Some manifestations of national oppression in the Soviet Union today,” which gives a good overview as to where things stood before the Union’s breakup and helps explain the deeply uneven economic development of the various post-Soviet republics. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/albania/al-national-opp-87.pdf
31 As seen in the following Mao-era pamphlet, where the Chinese communists identify the revisionist Soviet leadership as “New Tsars”! (https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/china/new-tsars-2.pdf)
32 On Afghanistan, we encourage comrades to investigate the Afghan Maoists, a revolutionary tradition still active today which has roots precisely in the 1970s’ war, in opposition to the pro-Soviet government, the Islamists and the US imperialists. Concerning Ethiopia and the “socialist” Derg military junta and the (Marxist-Leninist) Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party see Ian Scott Horst’s Like Ho Chi Minh! Like Che Guevara! The Revolutionary Left in Ethiopia, 1969-1979 (Foreign Languages Press, 2020), available here: https://foreignlanguages.press/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/N06-Like-Ho-Chi-Minh-4th-Printing.pdf
33 See Andrew Smith’s Which East is Red? (Foreign Languages Press, 2019), available here: https://foreignlanguages.press/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/N03-Which-East-is-Red-5th-Printing.pdf
34 We take inspiration for this insight from the Maison Norman Bethune Committee’s Cahiers du réseau #1, which carried one of the strongest, most principled analyses of the war out of any Western communist force.
35 Note how the countries identified here line up quite well with the concept of an Anglo-American Imperialist Alliance. Note also how deliberate this preservation and re-importation of post-OUN nationalist propaganda appears when viewed from that angle.
36 We will come back to this, but one could indeed argue that this tactic is precisely the one that Russia employed in Donbas!
37 See “War in the enemy’s camp”, in the same issue of kites in which this essay appears, for an analysis of such a confused mass movement heavily influenced by a fraction of the Canadian bourgeoisie. We must understand that while the specifics might differ—indeed differ a lot, especially when we’re looking at a populist movement in an imperialist country not at a “colour revolution” in an oppressed country—many of the same objective mechanisms are at play. We revolutionaries don’t get to just poo-pooh contradictory, complicated mass upsurges: we must grapple with the real contradictions which underlie them so as to learn to provoke such upsurges and lead them in pursuit of genuine, non-“colour” socialist revolution.
38 If anyone doubts that the Kuchma-Yanukovych camp was corrupt, we have to tell them that Kuchma was apparently caught on tape discussing a successful hit he put out on a journalist; we have also to remind them of the corruption widespread even in relatively stable, advanced imperialist powers, and of Eastern Europe’s oligarchic ruling classes. Was Yushchenko particularly less corrupt than Yanukovych? Likely not, but he had a certain “anti-corruption” aura after surviving a near-fatal poisoning attempt during the electoral campaign. Besides, “anti-corruption” ideology is a poor man’s substitute for revolutionary ideology. It appears to have been on the rise ever since the “end of history” was proclaimed, and it deserves a full, detailed analysis at some later time, as it is omnipresent in mass movements the world over.
39 The account presented in the last few paragraphs is drawn from a number of sources, most significantly the April 2022 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique (no doubt the best, most thorough bourgeois newspaper in existence in the West) and the Ukrainian social-democratic web-journal Spilne/Commons. That we cannot draw on serious local Marxist-Leninist analysis simply illustrates how weak the revolutionary Left is in Eastern Europe at this time, despite the existence of very large post-Soviet revisionist organizations. We will come back to this issue slightly later.
40 The referendum returned a 97% vote in favour of joining Russia, a rather impressive total considering both the number of Crimeans which self-identify as Ukrainians and the traditionally anti-Russian political position of the Crimean Tatars.
41 This is true both in Ukraine and in Russia, where over a million self-identified ethnic Ukrainians inhabit the western regions closest to the border. The largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world is to be found in Russia, with the second largest being located in… Canada! (One more reason for us not to fuck up in analyzing this conflict!)
42 Here’s an article (from a Western imperialist source, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) that provides examples of this phenomenon: https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/84859
43 As has now become customary in bourgeois political analysis, Western sources have, since the war began, questioned Vladimir Putin’s physical and mental health, his personal morals (hint: he doesn’t have any, and neither do his Anglo-American imperialist rivals), his standing among the Russian ruling-class, and a number of other such factors.
44 Here are two articles from mainstream Russian media peddling this fucked-up line of argument: https://web.archive.org/web/20220226051154/https://ria.ru/20220226/rossiya-1775162336.html and https://ria.ru/202220403/ukraina-178149605.html. The idea is that since the Ukrainians haven’t welcomed Russian troops as “liberators,” they must be at least “passive Nazis.” Ukraine is portrayed as a Western invention (wasn’t it a Leninist invention? This is getting quite confusing!) which should be dismantled, renamed and thoroughly Russified. Whoever supports such a policy supports at the very least a systematic policy of national oppression, if not something worse than that.
45 From Chapter 5 of Quotations from Mao Zedong: “History shows that wars are divided into two kinds, just and unjust. All wars that are progressive are just, and all wars that impede progress are unjust. We Communists oppose all unjust wars that impede progress, but we do not oppose progressive, just wars. Not only do we Communists not oppose just wars; we actively participate in them. As for unjust wars, World War I is an instance in which both sides fought for imperialist interests; therefore, the Communists of the whole world firmly opposed that war. The way to oppose a war of this kind is to do everything possible to prevent it before it breaks out and, once it breaks out, to oppose war with war, to oppose unjust war with just war, whenever possible.” This quote gets at the crux of the debate: The Russian imperialists attempted to portray their war of aggression as a just war by using Donbas as a casus belli, while their Western imperialist competitors attempt to discredit them by portraying the war as unjust. But Russia’s open admission that it intends to annex significant portions of Ukraine’s territory, the economic underpinnings of the war and Russia’s role as one of the main contenders in the re-division of the world all go to show that it is nothing more than an ordinary imperialist war of plunder. The Ukrainian people’s resistance is, on the whole, just. Any direct Western military intervention aiming to secure control of Ukraine for themselves, however, would also be an unjust war, a mirror-image of Russia’s claim that it is “liberating” Donbas.
46 We are not used to this notion here because Canada and the US maintain fully-professionalized armies nowadays (though the sheer size of the US army might make that relevant still), but it’s long been a Communist talking point that though they are a key part of the repressive state apparatus, soldiers (proletarian recruits or conscripts, specifically) are also unwitting victims of war. Hence Bolshevik agitation among the soldiers for peace and fraternization in the crucial years 1917-1918. Hence also this stanza in the Internationale (from the original French): “Kings intoxicated us with smoke / Peace among us, war on tyrants! / Let’s apply the strike to armies / Rifle butts raised on high and breaking ranks / And if they insist, those cannibals / On making heroes of us / They’ll soon learn that our bullets /Are for our own generals.” Though generally omitted in the English versions of the Internationale, a stanza carrying the same general meaning is notably present in the Russian version as well.
47 More often than not it’s “the European/American stick and the Russian/Chinese carrot,” as is the case, for instance, in Venezuela or in parts of the Arab world.
48 Trained and equipped by NATO, the Ukrainian army is amusingly enough one of the largest, most powerful militaries in Europe. Russia’s own forces are its pride and joy, the main factor setting it aside from sub-imperialist “regional powers” in our view. Its ability to project military power is second only to that of the United States. China and the European Union are much more important economic players than Russia, but they are militarily inferior and not particularly adept at projecting military power. One can look at the logistical issues the United Kingdom ran into when it carried out its infamous Falklands bombing run (it owned no plane capable of making the run and returning to home base without a perilous mid-air refueling maneuver!) or the (French!) claim that France’s military aviation could be fully disabled five days into a high-intensity military conflict See Le Monde Diplomatique, “Les «militaro» relèvent la tête” (https://blog.mondediplo.net/les-militaro-relevent-la-tete). Also of interest is the fact that no country besides the US possesses more than two aircraft carriers at this moment, and that Russia and the US each possess orders of magnitude more nuclear firepower than any other imperialist or sub-imperialist country or regional power. There is enough nuclear firepower in stock to destroy our atmosphere and most life on earth many, many times over.
49 This is best exemplified by the occupation forces’ establishment of a new local government in the major city of Kherson, in southern Ukraine and the move to integrate it into Russia. Given the geographic location of Kherson, it seems likely that this move heralds the annexation of large portions of southern and eastern Ukraine. A policy of direct annexations hasn’t been a feature of major imperialist powers’ policy for some decades now, especially since World War II (being replaced by neo-colonialism), but now it’s back with a vengeance. See The Guardian, “Kherson’s military administrators to call for Russian annexation,” May 11, 2022 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/11/kherson-military-administrators-to-call-for-russian-annexation-ukraine).
50 Transnistria is a de-facto independent pro-Russian enclave in Moldova. While much longer-standing than the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, it is ultimately a very similar entity.
51 With this being said, we still feel the need to point out the fact that Russia’s economy is dominated by Russian monopolies (Lukoil, Gazprom and Rosneft, three major energy companies, are the most important examples of this phenomenon). These monopolies play an important role in world economics and politics (remember how important the gas-and-oil question is to the ongoing war in Ukraine), though this role is certainly undersized when compared with that of US monopolies.
52 Here we are of course referring to Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917).
53 This is precisely why Lenin could identify Russia as one of the actors of the re-division of the world back in the 1910s despite its economic backwardness when compared with other major European powers.
54 Multi-polarity in a capitalist world means nothing more than heightened inter-imperialist contradictions, up to and including open conflict, while also providing (to a limited extent) greater wiggle-room for non-imperialist countries in terms of commercial opportunities and ability to negotiate better terms with the “masters of the world”. It can provide opportunities for genuine revolutionaries from time to time (opportunities of a “Lenin taking a train through Germany” kind) but it does not change anything fundamental, and it does not represent a “stepping stone” to communist revolution or a necessary “stage” that we must go through.
55 One can easily notice that this idea, heavily promoted by Russian propaganda outlets, is in fact a 180 degrees reversal of conventional Western wisdom. It sounds, of course, reasonable to many activists and outright bizarre to most everybody else. This reversal can look appealing to those of us stuck in the belly of the beast, but it falls short of historical materialist analysis and of genuine revolutionary anti-imperialism. Indeed, the Russian government’s understanding of fascism differs significantly from our own: fascism is defined by them not as the open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie but as anti-Russian sentiment and Western ideology. Hence, LGBT rights and other democratic-liberal causes can be presented as symptoms of fascism, as can recognition of Ukraine as a distinct nation.
56 On this topic, one may consult the following article from the BBC’s Russian-language service, “Каждый пятый – офицер. О чем говорят подтвержденные потери России в войне с Украиной“ (available here: https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-61003964). While the source is distasteful, the data provided is based on publicly-available lists of casualties and does help us figure out who is dying for “mother Russia” (hint: it’s mainly not Great Russians). Of particular interest is the map showing the regions of provenance of Russian casualties. A relevant quote is also enclosed: “The army is an important employer in those regions where earning a living is nearly impossible. Being in the army gives you a stable revenue and some stability,” says one Natalya Zubarevitch, an economist specializing in regional development.
57 For those who can read Ukrainian: “У Криму більше не буде початкових українських класів”, (https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2014/08/14/7034864/).
58 See, for instance, “Russia’s crackdown on Crimean Tatars foreshadows wider repression,” Al Jazeera, (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/12/russia-ukraine-crimean-tatars-dissent-repression).
59 See “Crimean court bans ‘extremist’ Tatar governing body,” The Guardian, April 26, 2014 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/26/court-bans-extremist-crimean-tatar-governing-body-mejlis-russia).
60 See for instance: “China’s delicate balancing act”, Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2022 (https://mondediplo.com/2022/04/02china). While China and Russia share a relationship of contradictory unity not unlike that of the EU and the US, and both desire to check their Western rivals and reverse the balance of power that has existed for the last few decades, it seems that Russia’s moves appear premature and risky to the Chinese leadership. Whether this will prevent further inter-imperialist escalation for the time being remains to be seen. As an aside, let us mention that while Russia is intervening militarily and the EU-US axis is intervening economically and diplomatically in a struggle for Ukraine’s political allegiance, China has a rarely-mentioned but important economic role in the country: it just so happens to be Ukraine’s main economic partner in terms of trade.
61 The decidedly complex question of China’s economy, character and role in world imperialism deserves a full treatment elsewhere. I would invite any comrade reading this who has made or can make a comprehensive analysis of these matters, or who knows of some good resources or pieces of research on these matters, to please share with kites. Suffice it to say for now that its relationship with the global periphery, and significantly with oppressed Asian and African countries, is clearly imperialist from the moment that we accept that “imperialism” is not synonymous with “America and its allies” but instead means the entire system of capitalist-imperialist international relations, whether political, economic or military, since the late 19th century, with the overdetermining feature consisting of the domination of monopoly-finance capital.
62 We are referring to that species of academic “Marxists” who long argued that inter-imperialist conflicts were no longer a major threat in such a globalized and interconnected world.
63 We will touch later on on what is needed if the current crisis is to achieve its potential as an opportunity for revolution rather than being a catastrophe for the worldwide proletariat. Needless to say, we communists in the Western imperialist countries are far from ready for this momentous occasion and we need to become ready—and fast, if we are to win.
64 For our purposes, fascism is, as per Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov, “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist elements of finance capital,” whereas fascist organizations are organizations led or backed (more-or-less directly) by finance capital and aiming to establish such an “open, terrorist dictatorship,” while “far-right forces” are a looser set of political organizations which share the broad methods and/or objectives of fascism without enjoying the backing or leadership of “the most reactionary […] elements of finance capital,” or else without going as far as establishing “open, terrorist dictatorship.” This from Dimitrov’s “Main Report delivered at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International: The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class against Fascism”, August 2, 1935 (available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/dimitrov/works/1935/08_02.htm#s2).
65 One has only to look at France’s Yellow Vest movement in 2018-2019. A mass uprising directed against cost of living increases, and particularly against high gas prices, initially attracted members of Action Française, the infamous monarchist organization, amongst an array of other ultra-right elements. In the first few months of the movement, Left and antifascist activists went on a counter-offensive to expel these elements from the movement, leading to small-scale street-fights within Yellow Vest demonstrations! Here is a video of such a confrontation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyEM4RgKzJw
66 From “Self-Determination and the War in Ukraine” in Spilne: https://commons.com.ua/en/self-determination-and-the-war-in-ukraine/
In recent years, the far right’s power in Ukraine has been subject to new challenges. Since Maidan, the development of liberal civil society has changed the balance of power in street politics. Until recently, there wasn’t always a clear line between the far right and other political forces. But this is also gradually changing due to the rise of feminist and LGBT movements, which oppose right-wing radicals. Finally, thanks to the campaign against the deportation of Belarusian anarchist Aleksey Bolenkov and the protection of the Podil district from the far right in Kyiv last year, there has been a resurgence of the antifa movement on the streets… Since 2014, the far right has compensated for electoral failures by strengthening its presence on the streets and reinforcing its alliance with the liberals, which formed during the years of struggle against the Yanukovych regime. But this union began to gradually collapse after Zelensky came to power in 2019. The far right, in particular the Azov movement, was in crisis. And after the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who was considered Azov’s patron, the state apparatus began to treat them more coolly.
67 The “Fourth Political Theory” is a political trend that Dugin describes as a fusion between aspects (we shit you not) of liberalism, communism and fascism! For an introduction to Dugin, his political role and his reactionary theories, see a recent episode from Revolutionary Left Radio: https://revolutionaryleftradio.libsyn.com/dugin
68 See “The deep ideological roots of Russia’s war” in Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2022 (https://mondediplo.com/2022/04/03ideology).
69 Here’s a fairly detailed piece outlining far-right actors on both sides of the civil war, with a level of detail that we simply can’t afford here: https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/rnv95_uk_likhachev_far-right_radicals_final.pdf
70 See for instance: “Europe’s Far Right And Putin Get Cozy, With Benefits For Both”, NPR, December 26, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/12/26/371670726/europes-far-right-and-putin-get-cozy-with-benefits-for-both). One representative quote: “Nigel Farage, the head of UKIP, Britain’s far-right party, called Putin one of the world leaders he admires most. When Russia annexed Crimea last March, Le Pen and Austria’s far-right FPO party defended the move as legitimate. Putin even invited a handful of European far-right leaders to observe the separatist referendum in Crimea.”
71 Many of these organizations were in fact founded by former Communist Party of the Soviet Union members. The most significant of these is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), but it is surrounded by a whole network of smaller organizations (the Russian Communist Workers’ Party, the Left Front, and others) with a variation of similar lines and policies. That said, these revisionist (and nowm social-chauvinist) organizations are much stronger than the ones of a similar character in the West today. See for instance this footage of 1993’s riots against Yeltsin and the formal dismantling of Soviet institutions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoqvSch9Q1g
72 See https://newpol.org/russian-and-ukrainian-anarchists-speak-out/ on anarchist responses to the war and https://commons.com.ua/en/letter-western-left-kyiv/ from a Ukrainian social democrat.
73 See the KPRF’s recent statements on the war: https://cprf.ru/2022/03/to-the-communist-and-workers-parties-of-solidnet/ This statement, and many others, echo not only Russian state propaganda about the motives of this war (apparently a clash of ideologies, not of classes and economic interests!) but also express “Eurasianist” views more in line with Alexander Dugin’s theories than with Marxism-Leninism. Interestingly, the KPRF has found itself under fire from other major revisionist organizations, including the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), for its chauvinistic stance: https://inter.kke.gr/en/articles/On-the-imperialist-war-in-Ukraine-and-the-stance-of-the-CPRF/
74 Here’s one example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ona__QLfMlI&t=11s Viktor Tulkin, secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Workers’ Party (a “more orthodox, Marxist-Leninist” alternative to the KPRF) admits that the Russian bourgeoisie is imperialist, then says that it must be supported in this instance because it now supports the Donbas republics. Tulkin also states that the same logic applies to Putin’s support for the Syrian government.
75 ICOR is the International Coordination of Revolutionary Parties and Organizations, an international body of communist organizations which has member parties in a large number of countries, though most of these member parties are relatively small. The major players within ICOR are Germany’s MLPD and Turkey’s MLKP. ICOR appears to us like a serious, though flawed, attempt at regrouping revolutionary forces internationally and we should make sure, as we build our forces on this continent, to make a serious investigation of its politics and its affiliates’ practice.
76 We encourage you to read it in full here: https://icor.info/2022-1/statement-on-the-war-in-ukraine
77 See Hinton Alvarez’s Exceptionally Serious Responsibility in kites #4 for an in-depth exploration of the last attempt at building such an organization and some considerations on how to move forward towards re-establishing one: https://kites-journal.org/2021/08/31/exceptionally-serious-responsibility/
78 The main parties of the Maoist movement have, however, on the whole taken correct stances on the issue. See for instance the statement of the Communist Party of Nepal (Revolutionary Maoist) https://bannedthought.net/Nepal/CPN-Maoist/2022/Inter-ImperialistContradictionAndUkraine-recd220331-Eng.pdf and that of the Communist Party of Indian (Maoist): https://bannedthought.net/India/CPI-Maoist-Docs/Statements-2022/2022-02-26-CC-StmtOnWarOnUkraine-Eng.pdf
79 See Lenin’s “Collapse of the 2nd International” (available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/csi/).
80 The USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as those allies that would not exist without the Anglo-American Imperialist Alliance, like Israel, Saudi Arabia and among many other examples.
81 Of course, Kurdish revolutionary politics are much more progressive than Ukrainian nationalism. This, however, is not the point: the point is that both nations find themselves appealing to western imperialists in some capacity to stave off a more immediate, regional threat.
82 Such is the case in Afghanistan. The reactionary Taliban were right to rebel against the US occupation but they will ultimately only be defeated by the people of Afghanistan itself.
83 This was the case in spite of clear Russian meddling in Donbas, and in spite of the fact that absorption into Russia was always the end-goal of the main “separatist” leaders and was bound not to improve material conditions for Donbas’ proletarians. However, a genuinely democratic, peaceful solution had to be promoted, though it was always going to be a long shot.
84 That’s what the China-and-Russia alliance ultimately is: not a remedy for imperialism, not enemies of NATO, but competitors, in the same way that Apple is Microsoft’s competitor. Their battles are very serious affairs and yet in the final analysis they stand on the same side of history—the wrong fucking side.
85 For instance, in one piece of research I stumbled upon (but cannot now track down) a Ukrainian social-democrat, in describing Ukrainian miners’ political struggle in the days before the war, explains that they were fighting to increase their monthly wages from 300 US $ a month to 1000 US $ a month.