Defeatism and the Ukrainian working class

We recently received the following communication from a former Spartacist:

I did just watch [the BT-SL debate]—you did a fine job, and I much appreciated your wrap-up, with its encomium of the early SL (which is when I joined…. So my sense of the tradition is very deep and, as you beautifully said, precious.

Very rich event—I have a page of comments I’d have liked to make. I think I’ve said to you before that it comes down to a definition of reality: is the reality of the Ukraine war (special operation, to follow Scott Ritter’s discussion of the difference) what is happening on the ground, or is it the geopolitical situation? I’m for the latter—not as a result of this debate but for a long time, and I share your view of US intentions toward Russia—not only in this and the last century, but even in the 19th c….

I think the SL’s view is based on a somewhat myopic view of reality, in that this NATO aggression can be seen as a step toward dismemberment of Russia—a long-term project. One question that I don’t know if you answered: What does your position mean for the Ukrainian proletariat? If you were in Ukraine, what would your leaflets that you’re handing out at a factory gate say? (I have my own ideas but wd like to hear yours.)

We replied:

Your question as to how Trotskyists in Ukraine should intervene to win workers to a defeatist position on NATO’s proxy war against Russia is a good one, and one that other former Spartacists have also raised. We did not attempt to address this issue, and various related questions during the debate due to the time constraints of a 20-minute presentation.  We thought it more crucial to concentrate on making the case for a Russian military victory.

In any mass activity Ukrainian revolutionaries must obviously take into account the threat posed by the virulent fascist milieu as well as the agencies of state repression. Opposition to fascist activity would go hand in hand with both the defense of working-class living standards and the rights of the oppressed: Russian-speakers and other national and linguistic minorities, as well as women, gays and all other sexual orientations. Trotskyists must champion the right of the population of Crimea, Donbass and other regions with language or national minorities to decide their own fate, up to and including the right to secede from Ukraine.

In seeking to win over the advanced section of the working class we would stress NATO’s role in pushing Zelensky into this war, and the role of Ukraine’s imperial patrons in aborting the tentative settlement Russian and Ukrainian negotiators reached in March 2022 to end the fighting. The overall geopolitical framework of the conflict would need to be carefully explained, i.e., American imperialism’s historic goal of weakening, and ultimately dismembering, Russia in order to remove a geopolitical obstacle to future aggression against Iran, China etc., while opening the door for Western corporations to plunder its immense natural resources. There is an obvious parallel with Kiev’s willingness to help foreign agribusiness grab a big chunk of the 32 million hectares of Ukraine’s extremely fertile black soil (known as “cernozëm.”) Ukrainian and Russian working people have a common interest in resisting foreign corporate looters, a fact that could potentially become a powerful lever for undercutting the poisonous bourgeois nationalism promoted by the rulers on both sides.

In commenting on the 2014 Maidan coup against the elected government of Viktor Yanukovych who was tilting toward Moscow, we wrote:

“Yanukovych and his cronies were corrupt and self-serving, but their EU-oriented rivals, personified by Tymoshenko, were no better. By linking opposition to Yanukovych to demands to expropriate the oligarchs, restore social services and reorient economic activity to meet the needs of working people, socialists could have sought to turn the protests in a revolutionary direction, a development which would have been enthusiastically supported by tens of millions in Russia, East Europe and beyond. In the absence of any significant challenge from the left, the protest remained a dispute within the parasitic oligarchic elite over whether to tie themselves to Russia or the EU.”

1917 No. 37, 2015

Socialist organizers must put forward similar demands today to address the pervasive corruption of Ukraine’s capitalist parasites, their attacks on trade-union rights and their embrace of IMF austerity “reforms.” In the context of the devastation of Ukraine resulting from Zelensky’s willingness to sign on as NATO’s proxy, agitation focussing on the massive corruption of the oligarchs who have cynically profited from their role as imperialist agents could have a powerful impact on the masses of ordinary Ukrainians whose living standards have been steadily eroded and who are being used as cannon fodder. The indifference with which the lives of hundreds of thousands of poorly trained draftees have been squandered by a venal political elite whose own families are exempt from military service, has undoubtedly created fertile conditions for anti-war activity (including in the army).

The central axis of revolutionary propaganda should be to stress that workers on both sides of the battle lines share a common interest in expropriating the billionaire oligarchs in both Kiev and Moscow. An uprising by Ukrainian workers and soldiers aimed at ending the bloody, fratricidal conflict initiated by NATO would profoundly impact the consciousness of Russian workers who, like their Ukrainian counterparts, are exploited by a thin layer of parasites who enriched themselves by appropriating public property following the August 1991 triumph of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. Such a movement would reverberate powerfully and potentially spark a renewed wave of revolutionary struggles across Europe and around the world.