Centrism & Bolshevism in Ukraine
YRM’s Intervention in Anti-Kuchma Movement
In early 2001 Ukraine was gripped by an acute political crisis after a former member of the political police, Mykola Melnychenko, leaked tapes implicating President Leonid Kuchma in the grisly murder of Georgy Gongadze, a journalist who had been a thorn in the side of the regime. Melnychenko’s tapes, which the government initially dismissed as forgeries, graphically revealed the murderous brutality and venality of Kuchma’s administration.
Kuchma was elected in 1994 on a promise of aligning Ukraine closely with Russia, but once in office, he made an abrupt turn and joined Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Moldova in a NATO-sponsored alliance aimed at undercutting Russian influence in the region. As a reward for its independence from Moscow, the U.S. has doled out more than $2 billion to Ukraine. Kuchma won reelection in 1999 pledging to continue to balance between NATO and the Kremlin, but this time his deteriorating domestic position forced him into Vladimir Putin’s embrace.
The nascent Ukrainian bourgeoisie is divided between those who favor an orientation to Moscow, and others who look to the U.S. and the European Union. Despite Russia’s economic implosion during the past decade, its per capita GDP is still almost three times that of Ukraine, and Kiev’s dependency on Moscow for energy has given Russian oligarchs the leverage to buy up large chunks of the Ukrainian economy.
The spectacular revelations on Melnychenko’s tapes galvanized Kuchma’s pro-Western bourgeois opposition under the banner of “Ukraine Without Kuchma.” In December 2000, a tent city was set up in Kiev’s Independence Square where fascists and various reformist leftists huddled together. The participants in this foul lash-up included members of “Workers Resistance” (affiliated with Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers International), “Red Wolves” (a grouping linked to Alain Krivine’s United Secretariat of the Fourth International), the Socialist Party, the Social-Democratic Party, the Green Party, several pro-Western bourgeois parties, the right-wing nationalists of the Ukrainian People’s Movement and the fascistic Ukrainian National Assembly/Ukrainian National Self-Defense.
Kuchma was supported by pro-Russian elements of Ukraine’s proto-bourgeoisie. Also in his camp was the Workers Revolutionary League (formerly known as the Socialist Youth of Ukraine, an affiliate of Sheila Torrence’s orthodox Healyite tendency), along with the far-right Social National Party of Ukraine (which is linked to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front) and the fascist thugs of Stepan Bandera’s Trident.
In early February 2001, as anti-Kuchma protests gained momentum, the European Union called for an inquiry into Gongadze’s murder. This was a clear signal that Brussels thought it was time for Kuchma to go, but the president refused to budge. On 6 February several dozen masked “anarchists,” obviously members of the state security police, attacked the tent city. The same day leftists and fascists clashed at an anti-Kuchma rally. On 10 February, on the eve of a major demonstration, Kuchma fired the heads of the security police and the presidential guard in a desperate attempt to deflect criticism. The next day only 5,000 protesters turned out to march in Kiev.
Kuchma avoided the protest and spent the day in Dnipropetrovsk meeting with Russian President Putin who agreed to allow Ukraine to reunite its energy grid with Russia’s, thus significantly lowering energy costs. Putin’s backing, and the relatively small turnout for the 11 February protest, emboldened Kuchma to order the immediate removal of the tent city.
Viktor Yushchenko, a former governor of the central bank, who was prime minister during the crisis, was the West’s preferred candidate to succeed Kuchma. The call for “Ukraine Without Kuchma” was popularly understood as a demand for Yushchenko to assume the presidency.
Earlier, in January 2001, Kuchma had Yuliya Tymoshenko, the country’s deputy prime minister and energy minister, arrested and charged with “corruption.” Tymoshenko was one of Yushchenko’s closest allies, and her difficulties clearly demonstrated the limits of Western influence in Ukraine. The NATO powers would prefer a strong and “independent” Ukraine on Russia’s southern flank, but are unwilling and unable to provide the capital to revive Ukraine’s moribund economy.
The following text is a translation of a leaflet, dated 14 March 2001, that was distributed in Kiev by the Young Revolutionary Marxists (YRM—now the Ukrainian section of the IBT).
Tasks of Revolutionary Marxists
“The greatest honor for a genuine revolutionist today is to remain a ‘sectarian’ of revolutionary Marxism in the eyes of philistines, whimperers and superficial thinkers….
“We must first entrench ourselves on principled positions, take a correct starting point, and then proceed to move along tactical lines. We are now in the period of principled self-clarification and merciless demarcation from opportunists and muddlers. This is the only avenue to the highway of revolution.”
—Leon Trotsky 12 June 1929
Revolutionary Marxists in Ukraine today are confronted with a difficult set of strategic and tactical problems. It is quite clear that revolutionaries cannot be involved in the openly bourgeois (and fascist-infested) “Ukraine Without Kuchma” movement (recently redubbed the “National Salvation Forum”).
Yet we are not indifferent to Kuchma’s murderous bonapartism nor his other attacks on democratic rights, including those of his fellow oligarchs. While we demand the immediate and unconditional release of all leftists and workers imprisoned by the bourgeoisie in the class war, we are only concerned in the case of bourgeois figures charged with corruption, etc. that all proper legal procedures are observed and their democratic rights protected. This is why we support the call for an independent investigation of the Gongadze murder. We recognize that there is a real danger that either Kuchma, or his bourgeois rivals, could attempt to solve their problems through some sort of military coup. The proletariat has a vital interest in taking steps to prepare for such an eventuality. The creation of strike committees and workers’ defense squads in each workplace could make the oligarchs think twice about using the police or fascists against the workers.
An item included in the 16 February issue of the LRCI’s [League for a Revolutionary Communist International] e-mail newsletter, “Workers Power Global Week,” raised similar concerns:
“In the near future a coup d’etat by Kuchma or Yushchenko is possible or at least sharp confrontations on the street with the police and/or the fascists.”
This is quite correct. Yet comrades of the YRM have found in discussions with RV-MRM [LRCI supporters in Kiev], that the LRCI considers us “sectarian” for failing to side with the supposedly “more democratic” Yushchenko/Tymoshenko wing of the bourgeoisie against Kuchma’s wing. This attempt to find a “lesser evil” element among the capitalists can only disorient the Ukrainian workers in the present situation. And the LRCI is only one of many organizations making this mistake.
The current situation presents real opportunities for strengthening revolutionary influence within the workers’ movement, but a political prerequisite is that we maintain fidelity to the fundamentals of Marxism, and never lose sight of the historic irreconcilability of the interests of workers and capitalists. We must also recognize that the victory of the counterrevolutionaries in Moscow in 1991, and the destruction of the bureaucratized Soviet economy, has led directly to our present impasse. Under capitalist restoration the Kuchmas, Tymoshenkos, Yushchenkos and their ilk have all enriched themselves at the expense of working people.
Capitalist restoration has been a complete social catastrophe for most people in Ukraine and throughout the former Soviet bloc. Today there can be no illusions in the prospects of life under capitalism. The workers’ movement, which has now had a decade of experience with the ravages of capitalist restoration, confronts a deeply discredited and increasingly unpopular administration, which sits atop an unstable and seriously divided ruling class. Neither wing of the bourgeoisie—those oriented toward the West or toward Moscow—currently appears capable of mobilizing substantial popular support.
While the workers are hostile to the regime and the rival blocs of bourgeois exploiters and thieves, they have not, to date, been particularly combative. This is partly a product of the desperate economic conditions that require ordinary people to concentrate on mere survival. But it largely reflects the fact that the main organizations of the workers’ movement, particularly the CPU [Communist Party of Ukraine], have pursued a policy of inactivity and petty parliamentary maneuvers. Their hostility to Kuchma has abated as he has warmed to Putin, who the former Stalinists in the CPU leadership apparently view as some sort of friend.
‘Ukraine Without Bourgeoisie and Fascists’: A Balance Sheet
In addition to establishing a clear political demarcation from revisionists, revolutionaries seek to unite with others who may have very different political programs in common struggles for shared practical objectives. In the language of Leninism this is the policy of a “united front.”
The recent activity of the YRM and its involvement in the “For Ukraine Without Bourgeoisie and Fascists” initiative has had both strengths and weaknesses and only through making a frank assessment of this experience, and of what we have learned from it, can we learn from our mistakes to better equip ourselves for revolutionary activity in the future.
Let us begin by acknowledging the correct criticism raised by the LRCI comrades of the demand in the 23 February text initiating the bloc which called for “Condemnation of neo-fascist terror attacks on workers and leftist activists, and prohibition of nazi parties and organizations.” The call for the “prohibition” of fascist groups fails to make clear that the fascists must be physically driven off the streets through aggressive united action by workers and the oppressed. We do not know of any of the groups signing the common text that would waste their breath calling on Kuchma to ban the fascists (some of whom are among his few remaining supporters). However the way this demand is formulated is clearly open to this interpretation and so it must be rejected.
There is also a more general problem with the presentation of the issues in the statement of the bloc. The Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky drew an important distinction between a bloc for action (a united front) and a bloc of politically disparate groups to issue common propaganda. A “bloc for propaganda” between organizations that are not preparing to fuse can only confuse people who will naturally tend to conclude that the participants cannot have any very serious differences among themselves. It can be fatal for Marxists to confuse their banner in this fashion with those of their reformist or centrist bloc partners. In signing the declaration “For Ukraine Without Bourgeoisie and Fascists” the YRM failed to make this important distinction.
The YRM played an important role in initiating this bloc, and in the concrete circumstances that confront society today, it was necessary and correct to attempt to group together those who oppose Kuchma and his capitalist opponents for common action—particularly for active self-defense against the fascists who inhabit both camps. But we were mistaken to sign a statement that suggests that the participants in this bloc share a strategy for achieving, “Liberation of Ukraine from the IMF, oligarchs, bourgeois and their lackeys, and from betrayers of the working people.”
If all the participants had such a level of agreement then it would be irresponsible in the extreme to maintain our separate organizations. The only reason we are not in a common organization today is because we do not have such a far-reaching level of agreement. Thus a slogan that obscures this fact is not appropriate for a united front and can only serve to blur the very important distinctions that separate the various political tendencies.
To illustrate this, we shall use the comrades of the LRCI as an example. While we both oppose any moves by Kuchma to use the state authorities to restrict the democratic rights of his opponents, including, for example, the dispersion of the inhabitants of the tent city on Independence Square, we disagree fundamentally with the LRCI’s conception that in a confrontation between the Kuchma and Yushchenko/Tymoshenko bourgeois gangs, the workers have an interest in the victory of the latter. Similarly, we disagree with the LRCI’s decision in Moscow in 1993 to support the Rutskoi/Khasbulatov wing of the capitalist restorationists against their erstwhile ally Yeltsin. In that situation, as in this one, the working class had no interest in the victory of either side in the struggle for power between qualitatively similar groups of capitalists.
Kuchma versus Yushchenko/Tymoshenko: No ‘Lesser Evil’
There are points in history where elements of the exploiters may come to blows and the workers’ movement does have an interest in the victory of one side over another. One such example was in 1917 when General Kornilov sought to crush the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky and potentially open the way for a restoration of the monarchy. The LRCI comrades have argued that this conflict is analogous to our situation today. But this is mistaken.
The Bolsheviks understood that a victory for Kornilov would lead directly to military dictatorship, the crushing of the workers’ movement and the eradication of the democratic gains won through the February Revolution. Kerensky had thrown Trotsky into jail, was hunting for Lenin, and sought to crush the Bolsheviks and their proletarian supporters. Yet Kerensky depended on support from the Mensheviks and other reformist elements in the workers’ movement who Kornilov would also have destroyed along with the Bolsheviks. Therefore when Kornilov attacked Kerensky, the Bolsheviks militarily defended him against the counterrevolutionaries. The defeat of Kornilov laid the basis for the overthrow of Kerensky and the victory of the October Revolution a few weeks later.
The lesson of this experience is not that, in general, Marxists should look for a “lesser evil” in conflicts among capitalist factions, but rather that we must judge each situation on the basis of the overall interests of the workers’ movement. In the United States, for example, genuine Marxists have long been distinguished from Stalinists and reformists by their refusal to support either of the twin parties of imperialist rule—Democrats or Republicans. This, not the Kerensky-Kornilov episode, is an appropriate analogy for the current wrangle between the Kuchma and Yushchenko/Tymoshenko bourgeois gangs. There is no lesser evil and therefore workers have no interest in the victory of either.
In the August 1991 coup in Moscow, conversely, workers across the USSR had a vital interest in the defeat of Boris Yeltsin and the forces of capitalist restoration. Without giving any political support to the treacherous and incompetent Stalinist bureaucrats it was necessary to militarily support the last-ditch attempt by Yanayev/Pugo who, however incompetently, attempted to preserve the status quo against the openly pro-imperialist, capitalist-restorationist forces led by Yeltsin. In that instance, to their shame, comrades of the LRCI mounted the barricades alongside the Yeltsinites and proclaimed the triumph of the counterrevolutionary restorationists a victory for “democracy.”
The Basis for United Action Today
A united front should have a simple, action-oriented program based on common objectives shared by the participants. At the same time there must be “freedom of criticism” for all participants. This permits revolutionaries to unite in action with reformists and others around concrete issues, while also criticizing the political inconsistencies or contradictions of their partners. It is obviously urgently necessary to prepare for united action against the sinister bands of fascists.
Given the current precarious situation and the danger of repression, the fight against the fascists must be linked to the needs of the workers’ movement to defend itself. This is why we call “For workers’ defense squads to smash the fascists and defend democratic rights.” The fight to crush the fascist scourge is closely linked to the necessity to protect and expand the rights of working people against the exploiters and their thugs. Workers with very different political orientations also have a common interest in creating strike committees, which could prove vital in carrying out coordinated actions. As such committees spread from one enterprise to another, they will naturally require some sort of organizational framework for coordinating their activities, on a local and, ultimately, a national scale, as the workers’ councils of 1905 and 1917 did throughout the Czar’s empire.
For Revolutionary Regroupment!
The YRM is only one of a number of ostensibly Leninist groups currently active in Kiev. We believe that it is vitally important to engage in political struggle with other left currents as part of the process of clarifying areas of agreement while clearly demarcating genuine Marxism from every shade of revisionism, reformism and muddleheaded centrism. Only in this way will it be possible to lay the basis to unite revolutionaries from very different backgrounds into a disciplined party.
The critical task posed at this moment is to regroup serious subjectively revolutionary militants and create an organization with sufficient social weight to effectively intervene in the struggles of the working masses. This can only be done on the basis of clear programmatic agreement and an authentically Marxist strategic line, based on the recognition of the fundamental historical incompatibility of the interests of the workers and all wings of the exploiters.
The only solution to the profound social and economic crisis that grips Ukraine today lies through a struggle to reappropriate the factories, mines, transportation and distribution facilities and organize production on the basis of human need, not profit. This requires the creation of an authentically Bolshevik Party, modeled on that of Lenin and Trotsky, capable of leading the struggle for proletarian power.
Down with Kuchma/Yushchenko! Break with the Bourgeoisie!
Defend Democratic Rights! For United Action to Smash Fascist Terror! For Workers’ Self-Defense Squads!
For Strike Committees in Every Workplace!
Return to the Road of Lenin and Trotsky!