Response to John Garvey’s “Against the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, for the Successful Resistance of the Ukrainian People”

Thank you for the text. We think your review of early twentieth-century debates is very pertinent and will hopefully lead to some reflection and debate. Incidentally, some of us read or re-read the debates on the national question, including texts by Luxemburg, Lenin, some of the Austro-Marxists and Bundists. We were looking to tackle the debates on war next (of course, there is significant overlap between these areas, especially circa 1914), but your contribution will save a lot of effort.

Below are some thoughts provoked, in part, by your piece.

To anyone who subscribes to Lenin, the present invasion should pose no great theoretical difficulty. Ukraine is fighting a defensive “national war” and is to be supported, as suggested by Lenin’s polemic against the future left communist and later Left Oppositionist Kievsky (Pyatakov). To those who fear becoming entangled in inter-imperialist rivalries, Trotsky gave an answer ( in 1938:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation.

We are neither Leninists nor Trotskyists (though we try to keep an open mind, especially with respect to the original material as opposed to latter-day tribute acts), so quoting the classics is not enough to persuade us. However, anyone with such allegiances who takes a different position on the present war should take care to justify their “revisionism.”

As for the ultra-leftists for whom “revolutionary defeatism” is the only conceivable answer to any war and in any circumstances, some of them would still like to claim continuity with Lenin. They avoid the contradiction by referring to periodizations of capitalist development in which intercapitalist conflicts before 1914 could be progressive, pro-democratic, etc. (i.e., Marx was right about Poland, Lenin was right about the Russo-Japanese war, etc.), but all such conflicts after 1914 are necessarily imperialist. Hence, it is forbidden not just to take sides practically (fair enough), but also to even think about which outcomes of a war would be preferable from the point of view of the working class. Such considerations are dismissed as the geopolitical equivalent of “fortune-telling.” Alas, the materialist method seems to be applicable to everything but the realm of international relations, for one might otherwise commit the thoughtcrime of “taking sides”! For what it is worth, Marx and Engels sure did a lot of “fortune-telling” in their own time. Without getting into the details, we think that the underlying periodization based on ideas of long-term capitalist “decline” or “decadence” and a stagist misinterpretation of formal and real subsumption is to be rejected for reasons unrelated to any war. With that out of the window, the pre-and post-1914 distinction loses ground. (Note that Lenin himself, in his 1916 article titled The Junius Pamphlet,” dismisses the idea that “national wars” are impossible in the period of imperialism.)

Those who see themselves as heirs to the other strand of left communism may point to the councilist attitude to World War II, as expressed, e.g., by Otto Rühle. It is interesting to read his 1940 text in full. Rühle believed that the future was state-capitalist, not private-capitalist, and expected “democracy” to lose the war militarily and fascism to win. If the actual course of history took a different turn, perhaps the practical conclusions he drew from that analysis should be up for debate as well. There are surely a lot of important contributions in the Dutch-German tradition, but much of its lower-level analysis is steeped in expectations of a terminal crisis or of world revolution around the corner. (Incidentally, its writings on the national question are virtually non-existent—perhaps because in Germany and the Netherlands, it was not as urgent at the time as in Central and Eastern Europe, a region that had been home to not just one but two “prisons of the nations.”)

We have been working on an article on the Russo-Ukrainian war since basically the first week of the invasion. For us, this work has proven difficult, fraught with dilemmas and controversy, not to mention the dramatic changes in the course of the conflict. What follows represents a rough consensus so far, though in the form of rather scattered notes.

We do not think that whatever happens in Ukraine will spark a world revolution on its own. We do not see a movement capable of putting actual revolutionary defeatism on both sides into practice. We are also not inclined to see those few instances of looting and desertion (the favorite subjects of the “communization” tendency; we would be curious to learn how they propose to deal, under the existing conditions and given the existing balance of power between the workers and the state, with people who loot humanitarian aid or whatever else to sell it at exorbitant prices—this does happen!) on the Ukrainian side as the basis for world-historical hopes. With no recourse to the impressive but, in our view, bankrupt theoretical frameworks of the “imperialist stage,” “decadence” or “terminal crisis,” we see nothing wrong about asking (1) which of the (realistic) outcomes of the war seem probable and which would be preferable. Only then can one ask (2) what communists should do, and (3) what the working class should do. The latter two questions are not identical, for simple reasons of quantity: if it is advisable to flee a country at war, this can be useful advice to a group of political militants, but surely not to the working-class part of a population of 40 million.

Note that, by definition, the way the first question is posed excludes certain fantasies, such as the one where there is no conventional military resistance at first, but the occupation is followed by a complete lack of cooperation by the working class in a quasi–Kapp Putsch scenario. For a multitude of reasons, including the existence of well-armed and experienced nationalists, this was out of the question from the get-go, but it is also becoming ever less plausible with each day of conventional warfare. It is similarly “realistic” to expect that now, in the face of cruise missile attacks, the Ukrainian people will readily sabotage the war effort including the supply and functioning of air defense systems—many of them Western-provided—which provide at least some protection of lives and life-sustaining power grids.

All of the possible outcomes of the Russian state’s aggression already come with the terrible price tag of up to a quarter million casualties (that is one estimate of the toll so far), scores of thousands of maimed, and millions traumatized, displaced, and dispossessed. How many are yet to be added to that count, we do not know. In this sense, any outcome will be terrible. Having said that, the preferable one, given what we know now, includes the implosion of Russia’s military effort due to desertion, mutiny, and “fragging.” This is a realistic scenario in the sense that there are indications of a gradual decomposition of the invading force, although we are clearly not there yet (for a window into the current thinking of Russia’s propagandists and pundits, see this; for a story of everyday working-class antiwar heroism brewing under the surface, see here). One of the possible steps after that would be a democratic, anti-militarist revolution in Russia, hopefully with a significant working-class component in terms of forms of struggle as well as demands. As we discussed in the interview with Sozial.Geschichte Online (, this might send shockwaves around the whole CIS region, threatening the authoritarian capitalist regimes in Belarus, Kazakhstan, etc. In the best of worlds, such a course of events could turn into something like the twenty-first century’s 1905. Of course, at every junction, there are other possibilities, including the formation of a full-fledged military-nationalist dictatorship in Russia in response to the defeat, as well as a buildup for the next (and possibly the last) war.

The scenario would be foreclosed should the Ukrainian military cease to fight or should aid from the West stop. Despite all the assistance so far, the difference in military hardware and ammunition is still vast (the Kiel Institute for the World Economy has useful data on this). Russia would be quick to resolidify its effort against a weakened Ukraine while also consolidating its rule internally. On this, two notes. Firstly, this does not necessarily mean that communists or even “the Left” must openly call for the continued arming of Ukraine. It does not seem that the positions or wishes of fringe political groupings are the decisive factor here, anyway. However, even remaining silent (so as not to tarnish one’s defeatist credentials) would be preferable to some of the faux-internationalist ideas completely divorced from reality that are put forward. Moreover, admitting that, right now, the still rather limited military aid from the West is helping prevent destruction and civilian loss of life on an even more massive scale does not amount to unconditional support for everything the Ukrainian armed forces are doing or may try to do in the future. The situation—not just on the battlefield—is subject to change, and an honest and realistic analysis will change with it.

Secondly, this does not mean that we should refuse solidarity with Ukraine’s draft dodgers or campaign against fraternization with Russian draftees/pows, including men forcibly mobilized by the two former (now “annexed”) “people’s republics”; both are good things even on a basic, pre-political level. Incidentally, there have been some encouraging signs of understanding and compassion toward Russian soldiers who refuse to fight or arrive at a critical position to the war—see, e.g., some of the extensive interviews with pows conducted by journalists like Volodomyr Zolkin. Unfortunately, Ukrainian courts have not been lenient with the forcibly mobilized, despite the government’s official position. The Ukrainian activists defending their rights also deserve support.

At the same time, our views and the scenario sketched out above are clearly incompatible with some actions, such as the one at an Italian airport in March, where the local union refused to load a shipment of weapons for Ukraine. (Not that it had any real impact beyond warming the hearts of a few ultras. It is of course a mere coincidence that a representative of said union who defended the action also participated, in 2017, in a Stalinist-style May Day parade in the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic which ruthlessly crushes worker protest.)

As for Ukraine itself, we do not hold out high hopes about its near future in the event of a victory. Fortunately, the far right does not seem to have been strengthened all that much, although we should note that ours is a view from the outside, through the media, social media, polls, etc. On the other hand, the softer versions of nationalism have surely grown in popularity—hence all the Western talk of the “birth” of “Ukraine as a modern nation.” The present urge to mete out harsh punishment to alleged “collaborators”—who, for some, include people who simply accepted Russian humanitarian aid or continued their work in social services—will hopefully fizzle out. This is currently on the agenda after the liberation of parts of the Kherson Oblast, as well as previous successes in the Kyiv and Kharkiv Oblasts. At least hundreds of criminal investigations are ongoing, but based on what we have seen so far, it seems that only the more serious charges (providing information about Ukrainian positions, helping coordinate logistics for the occupying force, assuming positions of power) can lead to prison terms. Anyway, the destruction and chaos brought about by the war is immense and the next years or even decades will be very difficult. Ukraine will be completely dependent on outside help, possibly including Russian reparations. We should not expect people fighting for survival in such conditions to act as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. (It often comes to mind when reading fervent “defeatists,” that they surely place a lot of world-historical expectations on others, considering that they themselves are largely irrelevant at home.)

Unlike some comrades, we are not too concerned about “Western capital” coming to Ukraine to “plunder its resources” and “exploit its cheap labor power.” For one, Ukraine has had its share of experience with a nationally-oriented model of capitalist development which not only plundered and exploited it, but also did very little to develop the economy in a purely “rational capitalist” sense, such as by investing in fixed capital. The years since 2014 were at best a slight improvement. Also due to the ongoing war in the Donbass, Ukraine could not benefit from the economic boom of those years (unlike, say, neighboring Slovakia, where unemployment fell to 5 percent for the first time since 1990).

Other Central and Eastern European (cee) countries, including our own, have also seen experiments, albeit much shorter, with models of “national capitalism” in the early 1990s. When this came crashing down, the countries opened up to Western fdis, implementing eu-accession-related or other “neoliberal” reforms. This period brought a lot of suffering, especially to some strata of the working class (sections of the public sector, “post-socialist” legacy industries, the unemployed, and the racially excluded). On the other hand, the process was not completely unambiguous. Since then, there have been stretches of continually rising real wages and declining unemployment, reflected in improving living standards (comparisons across the former Eastern bloc using indicators like life expectancy are also telling). In other words, Western-oriented integration brought about “normal,” contradictory capitalist development. This is a slightly different trajectory than, say, in Germany, where real wages have been largely stagnant for the past two decades. Perhaps the us is similar. This should also be taken into account when thinking about what the working class in our region can hope for and what stakes it has in continued capitalist development.

Those who warn that the same is about to happen to Ukraine should also clearly list the alternatives: (a) world revolution and full communism (not on the cards for 2023 if you ask us), (b) continued “development to nowhere,” i.e., a fantasy of a strong, independent national economy acting as a “bridge between the East and the West” etc., or (c) an orientation toward Russia in the position of a subservient client state. Mixes of (b) and (c) have already been tried in Ukraine with little success in terms of standard indicators of capitalist development, even when compared to other post-Soviet countries. It is no wonder that many working-class Ukrainians want a “Poland at home,” so that they do not have to become migrant workers and only see their family every few months. Of course, whether a “Ukrainian Poland” is really possible, even with eu membership, is another matter. It is not 2004, the year of many cee countries’ accession, and the eu faces a plethora of its own issues. But those who are up in arms about the circa 1,000 state-owned enterprises still operating in Ukraine being privatized should reassure us (and the Ukrainians) about a path to (a), hopefully one where the working people of Ukraine are not expected to do all the work, including stopping a war by confronting both belligerent states head-on and at once. Alternatively, they should describe how (b) will be made to work this time—given all the world market constraints—and secure some actual capitalist development. Where is the capital going to come from that is needed for dealing not just with the decayed industrial base of the Ukrainian economy pre-2022, but even more so with all the destruction brought about by the war?

Again, none of this means we have to become cheerleaders for eu-accession or start organizing investment fora for Western corporations interested in Ukraine as the next frontier. But if our analysis is to be not even appealing but at least understandable and realistic-looking to people in the region, these conditions, possibilities and hopes have to be taken into account. It is arrogant and patronizing to preach about the dangers of “colonization” by the eu from a position of eu living standards and freedoms, either in the core countries or in the more recently added states.

1 December 2022

Bratislava, Slovakia


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. I think we must take into consideration the situation in Russia to prepare the insurrection…

Add Your Comments

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>