An exchange on BT-SL debate with a former Spartacist cadre

Former Spartacist cadre:

Thanks for this, Tom. There was a problem with the link you sent me, so I tried the one that [J] sent out later and it worked well. Just finished watching the whole thing. I had read your presentation beforehand and of course agreed with it. The BT interventions were all quite good during the discussion period, and you ended the debate with a particularly strong set of arguments.

The one thing that got somewhat lost and overlooked in the exchange of polemics was the weakness of the Spartacist analysis of Russia’s objectives with its SMO. Over and over again, Spartacist speakers repeated the NATO line that Russia was trying to “conquer” Ukraine and subjugate ethnic Ukrainians to great Russian chauvinism. I think that this was inadequately addressed on the BT side, which gave David an opening during his summary to suggest that the BT favoured the conquest of Ukraine by Russia and then to pose the question: why not support a Russian invasion of Poland, Latvia, etc. as that would weaken the NATO alliance as well? I think that needed to be addressed more fully, because [the] Spartacist [League] was not only mischaracterizing the nature of Russia’s SMO but also misrepresenting the position of the BT terribly.

Key to their argument for dual defeatism was the premise that all (ethnic) Ukrainians supported Kiev’s supposed “war of national self-defence” against Russian aggression, and that a military victory for Russia would deepen national divisions amongst workers of the post-Soviet states and throughout Eastern Europe. This is fundamentally wrong. Those divisions already existed before the SMO, and can only deepen so long as the Ukrainian state remains a puppet of NATO. It is precisely the defeat of NATO and Ukraine’s corrupt, fascist-infested puppet government that will allow for the development of an anti-imperialist, class consciousness amongst Ukrainian workers.

Frankly, no one knows how “united” the Ukrainian working class is in opposing the Russian SMO. All pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine has been ruthlessly suppressed. To be sure, a Russian victory may temporarily strengthen the prestige of Putin’s government among Russian workers, but military victories (as well as defeats) by capitalist countries (even major imperialist ones) are frequently followed by a wave of heightened class struggle at home (witness the aftermaths of both world wars!).

Overall, and putting aside my own bias as best I can, I think that the BT clearly came out on top in the debate. I will circulate the link to some of my contacts.

Tom Riley:

Thanks for your interesting observations. I think we addressed the issue of US/NATO motivation clearly enough in a positive sense–but it would have been useful if we had pointed out that their attribution of Russian expansionist appetites echoed the imperialist narrative. The SL’s dismissal of geopolitical analysis as somehow unworthy of Marxists may be connected to the fact that they are not particularly good at it.

Toward the beginning of his remarks, cde. David, in posing the question of “the character of the war, that is, what is it about?” asserted:

“First, the current war is not about dismembering or balkanizing Russia. Everyone knows that Russia is not fighting for its national sovereignty against an imperialist invasion. This war is not about who will control Russia, it is about who will control Ukraine.”

This statement is of course true in a narrow, immediate sense. In my presentation I outlined the focus of imperialist strategists on “decolonizing” Russia—and attempted to sketch how Ukrainian membership in NATO and the bases, missile sites, etc. that would come with it, would represent a major step in realizing this project. We provided some of the background to this in our analysis of the 2014 Maidan coup.

In the pub after the debate in discussion with cdes. Perrault and David I suggested an analogy between turning Ukraine into a NATO base and the massive US military build-up in Saudi Arabia that preceded the 1991 invasion of Iraq:

“The [US-led] coalition’s efforts against Iraq were carried out in two key phases: Operation Desert Shield, which marked the military buildup from August 1990 to January 1991; and Operation Desert Storm, which began with the aerial bombing campaign against Iraq on 17 January 1991 and came to a close with the American-led Liberation of Kuwait on 28 February 1991.”

“Operation Desert Shield” was spun as a purely defensive measure to ward off the danger of an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia, just as Ukrainian NATO membership is advertised as a benign effort to attempt to promote security and stability in Eastern Europe. I told the comrades that, in our view, had Iraq intervened to abort the American military build-up we would have viewed it as an act of self-defense against impending imperialist aggression and asked what position they would have taken. Comrade Perrault refused to answer, dismissing my scenario as merely “hypothetical.” It was of course hypothetical, but my point was that revolutionaries do not need to wait for actual engagement between a non-imperialist country and an imperialist predator before taking sides. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was essentially defensive just as a 1990 pre-emptive strike by Saddam Hussein in Saudi Arabia would have been.

One issue we did not pursue, but should have, either during the debate or after, was cde. David’s rather open-ended statement about not standing by WV‘s 2014 coverage of the Maidan coup. Did he mean the passage about, “The ongoing aim of the Western imperialists is to establish a client state on the border of Russia” or the subsequent headline, “Ukraine Coup: Spearheaded by Fascists, Backed by U.S./EU Imperialists”? Or was he perhaps referring to their support for Crimea joining Russia? I am not certain we would have received clear answers, but we should at least have posed the questions.

You are quite right regarding the SL’s assumption “that all (ethnic) Ukrainians supported Kiev’s supposed ‘war of national self-defense’ against Russian aggression” is central to their position. They appear confused by, if not entirely unaware of, the long-standing ethnic divisions within Ukraine (which seems odd given their familiarity with the analogous situation of Quebec within the Canadian federal state). The murderous attempt to recapture the ethnically Russian Donbass, spearheaded by ultra-nationalist/fascist Ukrainian military units, killed some 14,000 people (including many civilians) between 2014 and 2022. This appears to have played a role in the Kremlin’s decision to intervene. Our comrade Christoph L. raised this during the debate:

“The conflict started in 2014, in the aftermath of which the eastern populations of Ukraine, Crimea, Donbass decided they did not want to be ruled by the fascist-infested Kiev regime. They instead opted for the Russian Federation. Crimea held a referendum [and] overwhelmingly opted for the Russian Federation. We believe that this is their right. Zelensky & Co. think it is not their right and have been waging war on Donbass since that time. They have been shelling Donbass since that time. We think they have the right to resist. We think it is the duty of revolutionaries to side with these people who are, who try to struggle for self-determination against Kiev.”

Cde. Ray B., a long-time SL cadre, replied:

“Russia’s victory over Ukraine and the oppression of Ukrainian people is not worth the price of the East Russian, of Ukraine’s Russian population, winning a false freedom. Because it will unite Ukrainian workers behind imperialism even more firmly. That’s what happens when you reject an independent proletarian perspective to advance the struggle against imperialism.”

It was not clear if Ray was suggesting Marxists should be indifferent to the oppression of the people of the Donbass. As you suggest, a defeat for NATO and the imperialists’ corrupt puppet government could well promote “the development of an anti-imperialist, class consciousness amongst Ukrainian workers.” There are many examples of military defeat sparking revolutionary upheaval—including France in 1871 and Russia in 1905 and 1917.

The question of the national oppression of the pro-Russian population of the Donbass was taken up by cde. David in his summary:

“The national question in Ukraine, somebody mentioned it. But I think the point is, like it’s quite simple in a sense. Of course, we are against the oppression of the Russian minorities. And of course, we are for the end of that oppression. And you say, ‘oh, the only way to do that is through a Russian victory’—but the Russian victory oppresses the Ukraine, it oppresses the Ukrainian minorities.

“Don’t say no—they’re conquering the country! Maybe that will end the oppression of the Russians, but it will create the oppression of the Ukrainians. And, by the way, no BTer so far raised this. I’m all for liberating the Russian minority and fighting for that, but the national rights of Ukrainians are important in a revolutionary position. That’s what your position is blinded for by this, which has nothing to do with Marxism, about how Russia has a right to sever Ukraine’s ties to NATO or something.”

Cde. David presumably grants the right of the people of Crimea, the Donbass and other pro-Russian regions to opt out of the Ukrainian state if they wish. In an attempt to find common ground after the debate, one of our comrades drew David’s attention to the following passage in our February 2022 statement which addressed both Russia’s right to sever Ukraine’s NATO connection and the right of Ukrainians who wish to do so to maintain their own national state:

“The Russian military action against Ukraine is tactically aggressive but strategically defensive. Revolutionaries do not give Putin any political support while recognizing that Russia’s right to self-defense includes the right to sever Ukraine’s NATO connection. If the current conflict escalates into a fight between Russia and NATO or its proxies, we defend Russia. Our attitude to any adjustment of Ukraine’s frontiers is chiefly determined by the will of the peoples involved—as in the case of Crimea. We oppose any attempt by Russia to occupy or control areas in which the population wishes to remain in the Ukrainian state.”

David read this passage over carefully but was not convinced by it. At the end of this discussion it was still not clear to us whether or not the new SL leadership shares our view that the right of Crimea (and other pro-Russian regions) to secede trumps Kiev’s desire to restore Ukraine’s 2013 borders.

One thing I think we succeeded in doing, at least partially, was linking the SL’s current confusion over Ukraine to the qualitative degeneration it has undergone over the past 40-odd years since it was an authentically Trotskyist organization. A Marxist approach to the Ukrainian conflict is essential, but it is ultimately less significant than understanding the steps through which the once-revolutionary SL became what it is today. Despite their energy, charm, subjective seriousness and willingness to engage politically with those outside of their group’s own sclerotic circle, the new SL leadership collective is clearly headed in the wrong direction politically. The peculiar reluctance to investigate events prior to 1990 (which I imagine was about the year they were born) is perhaps motivated by hopes of reaching a modus vivendi with the more vigorous IG [Internationalist Group]. As a first step they officially repudiated the IG’s purge, without offering a serious account of how or why it happened. The manifest indifference to the historical roots of the political degeneration which led to the SL’s virtual collapse and set the stage for the meteoric rise of the “Montreal Collective,” is combined with a regrettable inclination to toss out some of Robertson’s most important contributions—including the SL’s uniquely correct position on the 1948, 67 and 73 Arab-Israeli wars. During our post-debate discussion when I suggested to one of the new leading comrades that carrying the flag of the Salvadoran popular front, as the Spartacists did in 1982, was an example of why they should investigate the SL’s history prior to 1990, he responded that he considered it to be entirely correct—and unfortunately was not joking.

It seems likely the IG’s upcoming debate with the SL will have a somewhat broader scope than ours—but it will undoubtedly be seriously flawed by the IG’s refusal to seriously discuss any problems that may have existed in James Robertson’s group prior to their 1996 purge. You may recall the lengthy letter on Spartacist history we sent them a few months after their departure from the SL in an attempt to discuss various key episodes— the 1979 Logan show trial, the 1981 purge of the Australian section, the social-patriotic flinch on the US Marines in 1983, along with many others. In it we asserted:

“A rigorous and critical accounting of the history of the Trotskyist movement is an essential element in forging the cadres of the future. We recognize that in his 1993 document tracing the genesis of Pabloism to the disorientation of the post war Fourth International over Yugoslavia comrade Norden made an important contribution to the historiography of our movement. The same seriousness and detachment must guide our approach to the history of our own time.”
A Letter to the IG on SL History, 15 December 1996

There has, as you know, been very little progress in this regard since that letter was sent.