Translated by Greg Butterfield

Marxism and the war in Donbas by Victor Shapinov

08/30/2015

Marxism and the war in Donbas

By | 05/24/2019

By Victor Shapinov, published on the English-language website of Borotba political group

Borotba is often criticized for supporting the Donbas people’s republics, for the fact that our comrades fight in the militia and assist the peaceful nation-building in Lugansk (LPR) and Donetsk (DPR) People’s Republics. This criticism is heard not only from those former leftists who succumbed to nationalist fervor and supported first Maidan, and then Kiev’s war of conquest in the Donbas. Others criticize us from the standpoint of “Marxist pacifism”, calling themselves “the new Zimmerwald”.

1914 = 2014?

The “Zimmerwaldists” seriously compare the war in the Donbas with the First World War. Historical parallels are always risky. This parallel is altogether meaningless. In the First World War of 1914-1918, blocs of imperialist countries of roughly equal strength fought over markets, sources of raw materials, and colonies. The victory of the Anglo-French bloc, easy to see in hindsight, was not so obvious to contemporaries of the war, even to Marxists. For example, Lev Kamenev, a leader of the Bolsheviks, predicted a German victory in the war.

In 1914, a deadly battle confronted two centers of capital accumulation, two systems of capitalist division of labor, with their centers in London and Berlin. These systems had reached the limits of their geographic expansion in the 1870s, bumping into one anothers’ frontiers. The last act of this expansion was the rapid division of the African continent between the great powers.

The clash of these divisions of labor (the German-Central European, Anglo-French, American and Japanese) was the economic cause of the First and Second World Wars. After World War Ⅱ, there was only one such system – headed by the United States. In the late 1940s, it incorporated the European and Japanese systems, in the 1970s it absorbed the former colonies, in the 1980s China and the Eastern European people’s democracies, and in the 1990s the Soviet Union.

The rightist, neoliberal reaction of Reagan-Thatcher gave this system its finished, current form. At the heart of this system is the Federal Reserve, as the body producing the world’s reserve currency, the IMF, WTO, and World Bank.

After 2008, the system entered a period of systemic crisis and gradual decay, the causes of which I have examined elsewhere. As a result of the collapse, the capitalist elites of some countries began to challenge the “rules of the game” set by Washington because the existing system was no longer as attractive as it was before the crisis.

Thus, we do not have two blocs gripped in a deadly showdown (as in 1914), but a brand new situation, with no historical analogues, where the system breaks down and starts to fall to pieces. Some capitalist groups (organized in nation-states and transnational formations) try to revise the existing framework of the system, while other groups (Washington’s ‘regional committees’), on the contrary, hold on to the status quo and seek to punish those who encroach on the holy principles of the system.

Conflicts within the system are related to its internal contradictions, rather than a clash between individual centers of capital accumulation and their  systems of division of labor, as it was in 1914 and 1939.

Modern imperialism is a world system

Those who present the conflict in Ukraine as a fight between Russian and U.S. imperialism à la 1914 have analytical skills at the level of the propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, who threatens to turn America into “nuclear ash.” Russia and the United States are not comparable in their economic power; they fight in different weight categories. Moreover, there is no “Russian imperialism”; even “American imperialism” in the sense of 1914 does not exist. There is a hierarchically-organized imperialist world system with the United States at the head. There is a Russian capitalist class, which in this structure resides not on the first or even the second “floor”, which tried to raise its “status” in this hierarchy and is now frightened by its own audacity, after meeting resistance from a united West. Imagine for a moment that Russia really is an imperialist country à la 1914, that is, like Italy with its “imperialism of beggars”. This Russia really had imperialist interests in Ukraine, related primarily to the transportation of hydrocarbons, and to a much lesser extent in industrial assets. However, these are not interests for which it would deliberately risk the deterioration of relations with the West.

In the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian capitalist elite have not conducted any deliberate imperialist strategy, they have only responded to the challenges of a rapidly developing situation. This reaction has been halfhearted, contradictory, inconsistent — demonstrating to the careful observer an absence of strategy.

As the situation developed following the coup in Ukraine and the beginning of the uprising in Crimea and the South-East, the Russian leadership faced a difficult dilemma. To not step in and not support the population of Crimea and the South-East meant losing legitimacy in the eyes of its own population, amidst a deteriorating economic situation fraught with political crisis, much stronger than in 2011. To intervene meant to break with the West, with unpredictable results. In the end, they chose the middle option — intervention in Crimea but not in the South-East. However, when the uprising in Donbas moved from peaceful to armed, Russia had to offer assistance. It had to, because the military suppression of the rebels with the tacit consent of Russia would be a catastrophic blow to the image of the Russian authorities within the country. But this support was given reluctantly. Putin publicly called on the people not to hold a referendum on the independence of the DPR and LPR. The meaningful flow of military aid only began after the abandonment of Slavyansk [July 2014], when the capital of Donetsk was under threat of falling to the Ukrainian army.

Such support has aroused dissatisfaction and resistance among most of the Russian oligarchy, which dreams not of restoring the Russian Empire but of a mutually beneficial partnership with the West.

Historical parallels: Spain 1936, Ireland 1916, Rojava 2015

Is it possible to support the republics if the Russian bourgeois regime is trying to instrumentalize the revolt and use it in its own geopolitical interests?

Let’s conduct an historical analogy. It seems to me that the following is much more appropriate than the analogy with the situation of the First World War.

Spain in 1936: There is a civil war in Spain. Let us imagine that the Soviet Union, for one reason or another, could not or would not assist the Spanish Republic, and bourgeois Britain and France, on the contrary, provided support, sent military supplies and humanitarian aid, gave loans and even sent military experts to help the Republican Army and police. Naturally, the capitalist elite of Britain and France would pursue their own goals at the same time — the retention of Spain in its own system of investment and trade in the context of an emerging confrontation with the German bloc.

Would the left, on this basis, have refused to support the anti-fascist struggle of the Spanish Republicans? Of course not.

The Easter Rising of the Irish Republicans against the British Empire in 1916: All those who call themselves leftists honor this heroic episode of the anti-imperialist struggle of the Irish people.

Meanwhile, one of the major factions of the uprising — the Irish Republican Brotherhood — in 1914, at the beginning of the war, decided to revolt and take any German assistance offered. A representative of the Brotherhood traveled to Germany and obtained approval for such assistance. It wasn’t provided only because the German ship carrying weapons was intercepted at sea by a British submarine.

Lenin unconditionally supported the Irish rebellion, despite the fact that it was much less “proletarian” than the revolt in the Donbas. And in those days there were leftists who called the Irish Rebellion a “putsch,” a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing.” Lenin answered them, “Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.” 1.

Despite the apparent support of the Germans, not to mention the fact that the uprising in the rear of the British Empire “played into the hands” of German imperialism, real leftists supported the Irish Republicans. Supported them, despite the fact that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Irish nationalists fought together with socialist James Connolly and his supporters. Of course, Connolly said that a declaration of independence without the formation of a socialist republic would be in vain. But the left in Donbass says this too.

Why doesn’t the Irish example apply to the Donbass, an example from the era of the First World War, which the self-styled “Zimmerwaldists” are so fond of?

The present-day Kurdish people of Syria (Rojava): Or take a modern example. It’s no secret that the Kurdish militia in Syria fighting against Islamic fascists receives support from the United States. On this basis, should the left refuse to support the Kurds of Rojava? Of course not.

The Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation: Over the years, the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation has also relied on the support of bourgeois and undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. The ratio of advanced and progressive elements in the Palestinian leadership was usually far less beneficial to the forces of progress than in the Donbas. However, the left has always supported the Palestinian liberation movement.

But with Donbas, some leftists apply a double standard, diligently looking for excuses to condemn the DPR and LPR and allowing themselves to take a position of indifferent pacifism. Genuine leftists never held such a position. “Indifference to the struggle is not, therefore, exclusion from the struggle, abstinence or neutrality. Indifference is tacit support of the powerful, the oppressors,” Lenin wrote. 2 Standing aside in a detached posture, the self-styled “Zimmerwaldists” actually side with the Kiev authorities, who are leading a punitive operation against the rebels.

War — continuation of policy by other means

War is nothing more than the continuation of policy by other means,” wrote the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. This statement is recognized approvingly by the classics of Marxism. 3.

What are the policies continued by Kiev and Donbas? To justify a “neutral” position, the imaginary “Zimmerwaldists” try to prove that these policies are the same. “All cats are gray” – that’s the apex of their “Marxist” wisdom.

The World War of 1914-1918 was really a continuation by Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia of policies of colonial plunder, the struggle for colonies and markets, the fight for the destruction of imperialist competitors. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 was a continuation of the same policies.

However, it would be foolish to argue that there could be a civil war where the parties are pursing the same policy. The essence of civil war is to impose one’s policies on the enemy, to break the political force and suppress the social classes or layers that conduct this policy. North and South Vietnam carried out different policies, resulting in a civil war. Different policies are also carried out, for example, by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other Islamists in Syria. Different policies guided the Spanish Republic and Franco in the years 1936-1939. Different policies were pursued by Muammar Gaddafi and his opponents in the civil war in Libya in 2011.

So the  civil war in Ukraine is not a continuation of the same policy. What are the different policies of Kiev and Donbas?

Policies in Kiev

The policies of Kiev in the civil war are a logical continuation of the policies of the Maidan. This has several components:

  1. “European integration” and subordination to imperialism. The first slogan of the Maidan was so-called “European integration”, which in economic terms means the surrender of Ukrainian markets to European corporations, the transformation of Ukraine into a colony of the European Union as a source of raw materials and disenfranchised migrant worker-slaves. Today, more than a year after the victory of Maidan, the economic results are already being felt so deeply that they cannot be ignored by even the most hard-nosed “Euro-optimists.” 4

    The new regime in Kiev also finally abandoned sovereignty and become a puppet state. The solution of the internal conflict within the Kiev regime, between President-oligarch Petro Poroshenko and Governor-oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, came through an appeal to the U.S. Embassy. The handing over of the militarily and logistically strategic Odessa region to the direct control of a U.S. protégé, former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, clearly testifies to this.

  2. Neoliberalism. The post-Maidan government has consistently pursued policies dictated by the IMF. And this is not “cheating” Maidan expectations. All this was openly declared from the rostrum of the Maidan. The political forces that led the movement have long and consistently favored economic neoliberalism. Movement toward all-out privatization and the systematic destruction of the remnants of the welfare state — that is the essence of the economic policies of the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk regime. Leftist readers probably do not need me to explain the harmfulness of such policies to the working class and other popular sectors.

  3. Nationalism and fascism. Nationalists and outright fascists managed to impose their agenda through the Maidan. Our organization wrote in winter 2014:

    “The undoubted success of the nationalists is due to the fact that, because of their high level of activity, they have managed to impose ideological leadership on the Euromaidan movement. This is evidenced by the slogans which have become a kind of ‘password’ for mass gatherings and activists on Maidan Square. Slogans such as: ‘Glory to Ukraine – glory to heroes!’, which, together with raising the right hand with straightened palm, became the official greeting of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in April 1941. Other popular slogans were ‘Glory to the nation, death of the enemy!’; ‘Ukraine above all’ (copying the infamous German slogan, Deutschland über alles); and ‘Whoever doesn’t jump up and down is a Muscovite’. The rest of the opposition parties did not have a clear-cut ideological line or set of slogans, leaving the neoliberal opposition to adopt the nationalist slogans and nationalist agenda.”

    Thus, the neoliberal-Nazi alliance was formed. The neoliberals adopted the political program of Ukrainian fascists, and the Nazis agreed with carrying out the neoliberal line in the economy. This alliance was “consecrated” by representatives of imperialism, such as Catherine Ashton, Victoria Nuland, and John McCain.

    Another important point in the fascistization of society after Maidan was the legalization of paramilitary Nazi groups and the integration of the Nazis into the law enforcement agencies of the state.

  4. The violent suppression of political opponents, repression, censorship of the media, banning of communist ideology. It is not necessary to give examples, as this is common knowledge.

  5. Contempt for the working class, ‘class racism’. Established on Maidan under the leadership of the oligarchy, the ideology of the social bloc of nationalist intelligentsia and “middle class” petty proprietors has infected the Western Ukrainian ‘man in the street’ who clearly defines his class enemy as the “cattle” in Donbas. With this ‘class racism’ against the working-class majority of the South-East, the oligarchy rallies broad social strata around itself, leading even a poor person in the streets of Kiev to support policies in the interests of billionaires Kolomoisky and Poroshenko.

These are the main elements of the policy of the new regime in Kiev. This is the class politics of transnational imperialist capital and the Ukrainian capitalist oligarchy, which tries to escape its crisis at the expense of the working class. This policy is based on using the petty bourgeoisie, the so-called “middle class,” as its strike force. In the 1930s, this design of political dictatorship in the interests of big business was called fascism.

Policies in Donbas

Since the statehood of the territories liberated by the rebels of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions is just being established, it is probably too early to draw final conclusions about the policies of the DPR and LPR. However, we can highlight some trends.

  1. Anti-fascism. The rebels of all political persuasions definitely characterize the regime established in Kiev after Maidan as fascist. Often without a clear scientific understanding of fascism, they nonetheless reject the following features of the Kiev regime: extreme nationalism, chauvinistic language policy, anti-communism and anti-Sovietism, repression of political opponents, exoneration of Nazi war criminals and collaborators.

  2. Anti-oligarchism. The role of the Ukrainian oligarchy, as the main sponsor and beneficiary of Maidan and the right-nationalist coup, became an essential element of the consciousness of the resistance movement in the South-East. Also, during the winter and spring of 2014, the complete dependence and subordination of the Ukrainian oligarchy to imperialism, headed by the United States, became apparent. A good example is the behavior of the “master of Donbas” and one of the main sponsors of the Party of Regions, Rinat Akhmetov. This “friendly” Donetsk oligarch, after a conversation with U.S. State Department representative Victoria Nuland, openly supported the Maidan, making a special statement on behalf of the SCM Corporation. Then his countrymen saw Rinat Akhmetov attend the inauguration of “Maidan President” Petro Poroshenko.

    In this regard, it can be argued that for the rebels of Donbass and the masses involved in the resistance movement in the South-East, anti-oligarchic slogans are not mere “populism”. These masses, from their own political experience, understand the role of the apex of the ruling class — the Ukrainian political oligarchy.

    This distinguishes the mass progressive movement in the South-East from the mass reactionary movement of Maidan. Some mild, anti-oligarchic slogans were also heard on the Maidan, but they did not go beyond the limits inherent in far-right social demagogy and populism — direct proof of this is the election by the pro-Maidan masses of oligarch Poroshenko to the presidency, as well as approval of the appointment of oligarchs such as Igor Kolomoisky and Sergei Taruta to key posts.

  3. Anti-neoliberal policies. An important feature of the internal life of the Donbas republics is the trend towards social-democratic, Keynesian models of economic development, socially-oriented state capitalism. While this is only a trend, though an important one, it is the opposite of the economic policy of the Kiev authorities. Tentative steps to nationalize strategic assets (such as retail chains, mines, etc.) are met with delight by the population. Alexander Borodai, who distinguished himself by stating that “we will not carry out nationalizations, because we are not communists”, left the leadership of the DPR. On the contrary, the leadership of the republics not only takes steps to return some industry, trade and infrastructure to state ownership, it also actively promotes these measures among the population.

  4. Friendship of peoples, internationalism and Russian nationalism. Everyone who has been in the Donbas notes the international character of the region. Dangerous trends of Russian nationalism in response to the Ukrainian chauvinism of the new Kiev authorities have not developed in a serious way (although that danger has been actively exploited by opponents of the people’s republics for propaganda purposes). On the contrary, the formalization of the Ukrainian language as the second official language in the almost entirely Russian-speaking region demonstrates the intention to carry out a democratic policy on nationalities and language. It was also an important signal that the birthday of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko was officially celebrated in Donetsk and Lugansk. This shows that the republic’s leadership understands the importance of presenting an alternative to the chauvinistic and repressive language and cultural policy in Kiev.

    Also, there has been no serious development of another danger — clericalization of the resistance movement. Despite the fact that the Orthodox Church is mentioned in several documents of the people’s republics, clerical forces do not play a decisive or significant role in the social life of Donbas. The resistance movement is predominantly secular in nature, and the influence of religion and the church does not go beyond what it was in the pre-war period in Ukraine. This distinguishes the resistance forces from the Maidan, wherein the Greek Catholic Church played a significant role (with daily prayers read from the official Maidan rostrum, church hymns sung, etc.).

These are the main elements of the policy of the people’s republics of Donbas. Of course, this policy is not socialist. But it leaves room for the left, the communists, to participate in such a movement under their own banner, with their own ideas and slogans, without abandoning their own views and program. The Maidan movement and post-Maidan regime, focused from the beginning on militant anti-communism, does not provide such opportunities.

Having considered in detail what kind of policies the civil war continues for both sides, we can conclude that this policy is not the same from the point of view of left-wing, anti-capitalist forces. The self-styled Zimmerwaldists, stating that “both sides are the same”, show that they are either unable to carry out an analysis of the policies of Kiev and Donbas or, more likely, are hypocrites.

Just and unjust wars

The attitude of Marxists to war cannot be reduced to the single example of the First World War. Marxists have always supported wars of the oppressed against the oppressors, considering the retreat into pacifism and indifference in the case of a just war to be bourgeois hypocrisy and hidden support for the masters.

Yes, even in the First World War, those socialists who did not disgrace themselves by betrayal, who did not shift into the service of the imperialist governments, were not just for ending the fratricidal war, where workers of one country kill workers of another country for the alien interests of the capitalist elite. These socialists advocated turning the imperialist war into civil war. They said that the oppressed should turn their weapons against their own oppressors, using the mass arming of the people as a tool for social revolution.

History has known in the past (and very likely will know, must know, in the future) wars (democratic and revolutionary wars) which, while replacing every kind of ‘right’, every kind of democracy by violence during the war, nevertheless, in their social content and implications, served the cause of democracy, and consequently socialism,” Lenin wrote 5. It is this kind of war we have now in the Donbas.

Such was the position of genuine left-wing Zimmerwaldists. The imaginary “Zimmerwaldists” from Kiev, calling for disarmament of both sides of the conflict, place an equal sign between the rebels, on the one hand, and the regular troops forced to the front and neo-Nazi volunteer battalions, on the other.

The demand for disarmament of the rebel militias is a demand for their surrender, and it is unlikely that the self-styled Zimmerwaldists do not understand this.

Of course, any war means blood and suffering of people, but to stop this war by a complete renunciation of the uprising means that the blood has been spilled in vain. Moreover, it means revenge and repression by the nationalist forces against the population of Donbas.

Notes:

  1. Lenin further wrote: “To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.- to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism,’ and another, somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch.’
    “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.
    “The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest and most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the back of tsarism and paving the way for democracy; for this reason the class-conscious workers led it.
    “The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it — without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible — and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately ‘purge’ itself of petty-bourgeois slag.” – From “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” July 1916.
  2. V.I. Lenin, “The Socialist Party and the Non-Party Revolutionism,” Nov.-Dec. 1905.
  3. For example: “In the case of wars, the basic position of dialectics … is that ‘war is merely a continuation of policy by other (violent) means.’ This is the wording of Clausewitz. … And it was always the standpoint of Marx and Engels, who viewed every war as a continuation of the policies of the interested power – and the various classes within them – at that time.” – V. I. Lenin, Collected Workers (Russian edition), 5 ed., vol. 26, p. 224 (The Collapse of the Second International).
  4. It should be remembered that those leftists who today are trying to pass themselves off as “Zimmerwaldists” fully supported the same policy which was continued as the war against Donbas. Here is what the imaginary Liebknecht from Kiev wrote: “We demand the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union and are confident that it will enhance democracy, increase transparency in government, lead to development of a fair legal system and limit corruption.
    Even then, we wrote: “Euro-hysteria has swept the political movement of the left outside the Communist Party.
    “An anarchist group published a leaflet which doesn’t mention that European anarchists actively oppose the EU — only the usual mantras of ‘self-organization’. A small Trotskyist group was photographed on the edge of the Maidan crowd, singing ‘Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!’ and released a statement which could grace the website of any liberal NGO: ‘We demand the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union and are confident that it will contribute to greater democracy…’ blah blah blah.
    “Comrades of the left, it’s time to remember what opportunism is. It’s not necessarily participation in elections (the parliamentary system can be used in a revolutionary way). Opportunism is – among other things — adapting one’s politics to the mood of the crowd, to the mainstream, and ultimately, to alien class interests.
    “Those Ukrainian leftists who removed from their statements slogans against the EU, common to all the European left, are on this path. Removed so they would be allowed to stand on the sidelines of ‘Euromaidan’ … the victory of which not only will not help the dissemination of the notorious European values but, on the contrary, is guaranteed to put in power those nationalists who attack us today.
    “Are these real leftist politics — or just playing along with the right-liberal bloc? Can they seriously persuade someone in the Euromaidan crowd? No, on the contrary, they have adapted their line to the hysteria for European integration that swept the petty-bourgeois masses in Kiev, where 20 years of right-wing propaganda always makes the ‘democratic’ crowd dance to the ‘democratic’ chant, ‘Whoever doesn’t jump up and down is a Muscovite’. They remove all slogans against the imperialist EU, to make it appear that they ‘belong’ in a liberal-nationalist crowd — although only the left can convey to Ukrainians the arguments against the EU, which their fellow European leftists and trade unionists share. They succumbed to the mood of their non-leftist friends. And then they will feel ashamed for their actions, as it was embarrassing to the supporters of the ‘people’s president’ Yushchenko a few years after the previous ‘Maidan’ — where a few leftists also campaigned, and with the same success.
    “The hysteria will subside, but the memory remains, comrades.
  5. V.I. Lenin, “Reply to P. Kievsky (Y. Pyatakov),” Aug.-Sept. 1916.

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