openDemocracyUK: Opinion

In wars where social justice is at stake, socialists have to take a side

Our key objective should be to stop the invasion escalating into all-out conflict between NATO and Russia, but we do this by standing with Ukraine

Paul Mason
2 March 2022, 11.07am
Shelling by Russian troops has damaged parts of central Kharkiv
Ukrinform/Alamy Live News

All wars disorientate us. But what's going on among some on the British left as Russia invades Ukraine is not disorientation. Some have, from the very beginning of the crisis, echoed President Vladimir Putin's arguments and painted NATO as the aggressor.

When Putin rolled his tanks into Ukraine last week, the British campaign group Stop The War condemned the “movement of Russian forces into Ukraine” – it could not bring itself to use the word invasion – and urged Russia to withdraw and negotiate. But it has yet to declare its support for Ukraine's right to resist, or to call for measures such as sanctions against Russia.

Stop the War, which once mobilised millions of people against the invasion of Iraq, has also stayed away from the nightly vigils outside Downing Street that demand an end to Russia’s actions. How could this have happened?

This position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has two causes. First, Stop the War is dominated by a small faction within the Left, which was highly influential in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership team, that actually supports Russia's geopolitical stance.

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Second, positions such as these could never have become so influential without widespread acceptance of ‘campism’ on the Left. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the defeat of mass trade union movements in the West, many on the Left began to look to ‘anti-imperialist’ dictatorships such as Cuba and Venezuela for alternative sources of resistance to global capitalism.

Then, as China rapidly militarised under President Xi Jinping and began to challenge the US for global hegemony, some concluded that China's system was the model the Western Left should follow. John Ross, a China-based economist and supporter of Socialist Action, has argued that by privatising its economy and repressing its own working class, China has “saved world socialism”. Any progressive force with sense, Ross said, should “study China's success to understand what lessons could be applied to the situation in its own country”.

Ukraine’s fight for self-determination

What we're dealing with, then, are not what Lenin once called "useful idiots". We are dealing with a view of international relations in which Putin and Xi Jinping are right because they provide a counterweight to the West, and in which Putin's claims on Crimea and Donbas and for a demilitarised eastern Europe are seen as just.

To counter this view, we must recognise the following. There is, for certain, an "inter-imperialist" aspect to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. French president Emmanuel Macron flew to Kyiv on 8 February to tell the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, to accept neutrality – and came away with a handful of privatisation contracts for the French railway giant Alstom. Both NATO and the EU have enlarged eastwards over the past 30 years in pursuit of an expanded area of exploitation for free-market, financial capitalism.

Putin's invasion is not simply a breach of international law – it is a repudiation of international law itself

But Ukraine's fight for self-determination is just. Putin's invasion is not simply a breach of international law – it is a repudiation of international law itself. Putin says Ukraine is an artificial creation of the Communist era, and his allies claim that Ukrainian national identity cannot exist other than as a subordinate people within a Russian empire. When Russian propaganda suggests a "solution to the Ukrainian problem", we should note the potentially genocidal implications.

By declaring war, Putin has opened up a systemic conflict. His disinformation operations, electoral manipulation, support for the far Right, and oligarchic finance networks constitute a threat to the Western system of liberal democracy, universal human rights and international law.

We who live in that system may not like it; we may decry its hypocrisy as it applauds the petrol-bomb throwers of Kyiv but scorns the stone-throwing kids of Gaza – but it is a qualitatively better system than Putin and Xi's authoritarian capitalism. It is the only system in which left-wing parties, trade unions and social movements can exist.

I respect the position of pacifists who, in revulsion at all wars, refuse to take a side. I agree with those who remind us that all wars end in negotiations and that the Russian people bear no blame for Putin's actions.

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Socialists have to take a side

But in wars where social justice is at stake, socialists have to take a side. Last week in Kyiv, I met trade unionists and social activists on the Left who despise their government, and who do not want to join either NATO or the European Union. Today, many of them are holding rifles, or preparing to mount a social resistance to Russian occupation.

In a just war of self-defence the British Left should stand with Ukraine, and build direct solidarity with its working people. Our number one objective should be to stop this conflict escalating into an all-out war between NATO and Russia, with the terrifying risk that Putin would go nuclear. That's why hard, fast and devastating sanctions, to paralyse the Russian state and aid its overthrow, are vital now.

It is possible to criticise NATO, call for its reform and democratisation, and to hate the jingoism and militarism that flourish in wartime – and yet stand with the Ukrainian people.

It's not enough for Stop the War to merely condemn the Russian invasion and call for peace. We should support all sanctions that speed the fall of the Kremlin dictatorship and stand with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters resisting the destruction of their fledgling democracy.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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