Trotskyist Fraction on Ukraine – Centrist Waffling
Unlike most of the self-declared Trotskyist left, the Trotskyist Fraction (TF) has not characterised Russia as imperialist. In its 30 January international statement on the current crisis in Ukraine, the TF distinguishes Russia and Ukraine from the US and European imperialists:
“The American and European imperialisms, together with their puppet governments like that in Ukraine, offer only a reactionary path. Putin’s government and the rest of the pro-Russian reactionary governments are no progressive alternative. Only through a policy of independence will it be possible to confront imperialism, Putin’s reactionary policies, and the reactionary nationalisms that divide Ukraine—whether the neo-Nazi pro-Western nationalist organizations that support the Ukrainian government or the pro-Russian nationalists.”
– Left Voice, 30 January
In a statement published on 23 February, the TF observes:
“The roots of the conflict between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO go back to the end of the Cold War with the triumph of the United States, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and capitalist restoration. After having regressed to historic levels in the period of Boris Yeltsin, under Putin’s Bonapartist regime, Russia re-emerged as a power that has inherited the nuclear arsenal of the former USSR, although it does not have the status of the former Soviet Union and is based on a rentier economy dependent on oil. This gives Russia a geopolitical projection that far exceeds its material bases and feeds Putin’s ambitions to influence the international scene in the interests of Russian capitalism.
“In addition to promoting pro-Western governments in Russia’s neighborhood, the U.S. has moved forward with the eastward expansion of NATO, which gradually incorporated the countries that were part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence….The logic guiding this expansive action of the U.S. is the strategic objective of advancing a policy of semi-colonization of Russia.”
The TF does not characterise Russia as an imperialist power and recognises, correctly, that the long-term objective of NATO is to reduce it to semi-colonial status. U.S. think-tanks have suggested that this could best be achieved by chopping up the existing Russian state into several smaller, more manageable, units. In his 2014 book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Robert Gates recalled how Dick Cheney, then US defence secretary, proposed this in 1991:
“Because Dick is such a calm, fairly quiet-spoken man, I think a lot of people never fully appreciated how conservative he always was…. And when the Soviet Union was collapsing in late 1991, Dick wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world.”
Cheney’s objective was to open up Russia’s immense natural wealth for US corporations to plunder—a goal which, though far more difficult to achieve today than in 1991, remains the strategic objective of the US and its imperialist allies.
The Leninist attitude towards conflicts between capitalist countries is decisively shaped by whether they are imperialist, dependent capitalist or semi-colonies. The Fourth Congress of the Comintern, held while Lenin and Trotsky still led the Soviet Union, described “the essence of imperialism” as the “exploitation of the different levels of development of the productive forces in the different sectors of the world economy, in order to extract monopoly super-profits”. Russia’s relationship with the various other former Soviet republics is not characterised by the extraction of monopoly super-profits but rather by subsidising their energy imports (i.e., charging prices significantly below world market rates).
In 2014 the TF, to its credit, explicitly rejected groundless assertions by the global US hegemon that Russia was engaged in an imperialist project, a claim endorsed by most of the pseudo-Trotskyist left at the time:
“Putin’s policies are a challenge to the imperialist powers because this is the second change in Russia’s borders (it happened previously in 2008 in Georgia with the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia), but his intention is not to declare war against the Western powers but to improve his negotiating position. Although Russia has taken a role as a regional power in the last few years, it is far from being an imperialist country as some on the international left claim.
“Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has been advancing against Russia and its sphere of influence, using the chaos of the first years of capitalist restoration during the Yeltsin government and the consequent economic, political and social decline of the ex-USSR. However, the US was not capable of turning Russia into a semi-colonial country. With Putin’s arrival in power this course of collapse was arrested, but without fundamentally changing any of the structural parameters of Russian decline. Putin established a Bonapartist regime, strengthening state authority, taking firm control of the country’s most important natural resources – even confronting some of the oligarchs who had snatched the fruits of the privatizations – transforming Russia from an old industrial power into a gas- and oil-exporting country – benefiting strongly from the high prices of these commodities – and rebuilt its army. This has led to Russia’s revival as a regional power and its attempt to counter the Western offensive in its sphere of influence, through the launching of a series of initiatives such as the Eurasian Tariffs Union and the subsidizing of gas prices. But Russia has categorically not become a world power: its economy is ever more dependent on the price of oil and gas on the world market.”
– Left Voice, 19 April 2014
Unlike imperialist countries that wage war to maintain or improve conditions for the generation of “monopoly super-profits,” Russia’s position in 2014, like today, is essentially a defensive one, as the TF acknowledges:
“NATO has been increasing its armed deployment on its eastern flank, having dispatched planes and ships, while Russia amasses troops along the Ukrainian border. The United States and Western powers claim that Putin is preparing a military invasion of Ukraine. The Russian president denies that his objective is the occupation of his neighbor. Instead, it seems to be a show of strength aimed at negotiating on better terms with the Biden administration over a set of demands considered ‘red lines’: that Ukraine remains neutral, that NATO halts its expansion toward Russia’s borders, and that NATO withdraws its missiles and tactical weapons from the countries of the former Soviet bloc.”
– Left Voice, 30 January 2022, op. cit.
This corresponds to the TF’s 2014 assessment that a key objective of the Russian ruling class has been to avoid being reduced to the status of a semi-colony. During the past year, the US, backed by its British ally, has been assuming an increasingly aggressive posture, and has sought to block the opening of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline to send Russian natural gas to Germany without passing through Ukrainian territory. The US sees the current crisis as a chance to kill two birds with one stone: compromising Russia’s weak energy-export-dependent economy whilst also derailing the prospect of economic integration between Germany and Russia. Without Nord Stream 2, German consumers will be forced to purchase more expensive liquified natural gas from US suppliers. As noted above, Left Voice can identify the imperialist aggressors, yet refuses to defend their intended victims, apparently on the grounds that “reactionary governments are no progressive alternative.”
Putin’s reactionary, bonapartist government is certainly “no progressive alternative” to imperialism. Yet for Leninists, the political character of the ruling regime does not determine our attitude when imperialist powers threaten semi-colonial or dependent capitalist states. As Trotsky famously observed:
“In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of ‘fascist’ Brazil against ’democratic’ Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers!”
– Leon Trotsky, Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation, September 1939
The TF’s neutrality in the confrontation between non-imperialist Russia and the West represents a failure to “distinguish between [the] exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers” of NATO and their target. To alibi their political cowardice in refusing to take a side in this conflict, the TF attacks a straw man: the claim that Putin’s reactionary capitalist regime is a “favorable” alternative to imperialist rule :
“As internationalists and socialists, we reject any idea that Putin’s government could be an alternative to imperialism that is favorable to the workers and poor masses. That idea, held by various populist and Stalinist sectors across the world, is an endorsement of Putin’s reactionary policies, which defends only his own interests, those of the Russian oligarchy, and reactionary and repressive governments.”
– Left Voice, 30 January 2022, op. cit.
Putin’s government, like the semi-fascist regime in Brazil in the 1930s that Trotsky cited, is not a progressive alternative to imperialism; but that is not the criterion which genuine revolutionaries use to take sides in such conflicts. Trotsky took the side of Haile Selassie against Mussolini’s armies during the invasion of Ethiopia, not because he considered a regime which practised chattel slavery to be historically progressive or “favorable to the workers and poor masses,” but because it was a victim of imperialist aggression. In 2005, during the US occupation of Iraq, the TF was capable of differentiating between military support to an oppressed people struggling against imperialist domination, and politically endorsing their reactionary leadership:
“We call on workers, students, youth, immigrants and all those who oppose the war to fight against any harassment of the Muslim community in Britain, and to redouble their support for the Iraqi people in their efforts to defeat the imperialist occupation of their country, for the national liberation of the Palestinian masses, and for the withdrawal of imperialism from the entire Middle East.”
– Left Voice, 9 July 2005
The various Shia and Sunni militias combatting US/UK/NATO occupation forces in Iraq were certainly no more pro-working class than Putin. The TF’s failure to side with the target of imperialist aggression in the Donbass as they did in Iraq a decade and half ago reflects a capitulation to the current imperialist propaganda barrage. It has caved in to this pressure and joined the reformists and centrists huddled under the banner of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow,” declaring:
“We must stand firmly against U.S. and NATO imperialism, and against Putin’s reactionary government. U.S., NATO, and Russian troops out of Ukraine!”
– Left Voice, 12 February 2022
Serious revolutionaries in the Trotskyist Fraction should take to heart Trotsky’s advice that the workers’ movement cannot remain neutral in any struggle between imperialist predators and their intended prey.