Author Gilles Dauve

Peace Is War

June 2022

“Small countries, such as Belgium, would be well-advised to rally to the side of the strong if they wished to retain their independence.”

— Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Belgian king Albert, November 19131

“A great war is inevitable in the first decades of the twenty-first century, but will assume a maturing economic crisis, massive overproduction, a strong drop in profitability, an exacerbation of social conflicts and commercial antagonisms, demanding at the same time to re-share the world and regenerate the entire system… No more than in the past, no reformism will stop the march towards conflict, if not planetary, in either case more than regional.”

10 + 1 Questions on the War in Kosovo, 19992

“Don’t believe the propaganda, they’re lying to you here.”

— Marina Ovsyannikova, interrupting a televised news program on one of Russia’s main news channels3

“War for peace,” “the cause of the weak against the strong,” “crimes against humanity perpetrated in the heart of Europe… a battle for civilization,” “a genocide in progress in Ukraine”

In the previous sentence, the first citation is a piece from Droit du peuple, a socialist journal; the second from the Times of London, a bourgeois paper, both written in 1914; the third comes from the Prime Minister of France during the War in Kosovo in 1999, and the last from the Ukrainian Prime Minister on March 9, 2022.

French media will never talk about the dictatorship in Chad (supported by France) like they do about the Belorussian dictatorship (supported by Russia). No more than they will invoke the millions of civilians killed by the French and American armies in the wars in Indochina and Vietnam in the same way as the massacre of civilians by the Russians in Ukraine.

Nothing new in brainwashing, if not that propaganda intensifies when war approaches the heart of Europe. Russia denies it, prohibiting words like “war” and “invasion” The West euphemises, delivering arms to Ukraine through the intermediary of the “European Peace Facility.”

When words swell up/inflate, their sense splits/cracks. In particular genocide becomes a synonym for massacre whereas the word designates the extermination of a people as a people: Hitler did it to the Jews, nor Pol Pot later that of the Cambodian people. Nor Putin that of the Ukrainian people.

But before being mental, the confusion is practical. If ideologies are confused, if anyone can lay claim to socialism, to communism, to the proletariat, to “revolution” (the title of a book published by the current President of the French Republic), it is because up til now social movements have not accomplished a program which breaks with the order of things. So in political mythology and in discourse everything is permitted. Socialism having become national in 1914, the Nazis could claim it: the Nazi is the “national socialist.”

It is when we are reduced to passivity by failed or deviated revolutions that we receive information and images as a spectator of reality against which we cannot act.

Impossible Prediction, theoretical certitude

Who predicted that in 2022 Russia would launch an operation of such a great magnitude against such a large part of the territory of Ukraine?

“We are going straight towards an armed conflict between England and the United States [and] this conflict can be dated with maximum exactitude” declared Trotsky at the 3rd Congress of the Communist International in 1921.

A century later we ignore the fault lines and demarcation of “camps” engaged in future conflicts. But we know that rivalries between great capitalist powers—the United States today “dominant,” China “Russia reborn,” the European Union up til now “incapable of constituting itself as a political entity”—build up the conditions of regional and one-day world war.

Everything is done to persuade ourselves that contemporary states give in to violence for motives outside of the profound nature of a supposedly peace-loving capitalist system. In the twenty-first century, if Russia goes to war, the cause is the return of a nationalism fortunately outgrown by the West but revived in the East by a dictatorial power with excessive/outrageous ambitions.

In reality, competition between capitalist enterprises has never been soft, nor has international commerce been a factor of lasting peace. Contrary to a common opinion before 1914, and taken up by certain socialists like Kautsky, the economic interdependence of great powers has never impeded war. Industrial and mercantile dynamism develops one zone at the expense of another, creates rival poles, each based in a territory and supported by a political state force which is also military.

Peaceful West, bellicose Russia

American capitalism rarely needs to occupy a country—its economic superiority, its higher productivity, its foreign direct investments permit the United States a sufficient control of large parts of the world without sending troops. In Italy or in France after 1945, and in Eastern Europe after 1991, American power relied as much on multinationals as on gis. Germany and Japan were only occupied as a consequence of the Second World War, and the maintenance of American troops had as its goal to contain rival Russia. The United States doesn’t hesitate to intervene militarily on its borders, like in Mexico in 1914, not only to try and install and reestablish political leaders which suit them, but it does not need to cross the Rio Grande to promote its investments in maquiladoras.

Although a superpower, Russia on the other hand (like the ussr in the past) is based on a capitalist dynamic which is very inferior to that of the United States, Western Europe, and China. Most of its strength on the world market comes from gas and petroleum exports. It also tends to seek control over its neighbors to ensure that they remain within its orbit. Not only, like the countries of opec, does it turn its role as large producer of raw materials into an economic and political weapon, but its military power permits it as well (for the moment) to vassalize the countries of Central Asia, and to play an international role for which few countries have the means (China is incapable—for the moment). It is not illogical for leaders in Russia in a weak position on the world market to believe they can guarantee the power of the country (and their perpetuation in power) by appealing more directly than their rivals to the force of arms. Especially since, unlike the time when the influence of the ussr was relayed worldwide by Stalinist cps, the Russia of the twenty-first century does not have the soft power the United States enjoys.

But why engage today in a war in Europe?

After 1945 the ussr had an empire, the United States half the planet. America launched a new era of expansion, feeling no need to take over the Polish or Chinese market. Russia meanwhile consolidated its capital accumulation without anything to offer Western Europe other than ideology.

The confrontation took place on the periphery (Korea, Indochina, Middle East, Africa) and when it encountered an abyss (Cuban missile crisis, 1962), the United States and ussr stepped back. Each superpower recognized the hegemony of its adversary in its particular zone where it acted more or less as it wanted to (Guatemala 1954, Hungary 1956, Berlin Wall 1961, Czechoslovakia 1968, etc.). Numerous crises were mastered without confrontation in Europe, without recourse to arms during the Berlin blockade for example (1948–1949). Two camps were opposed to each other, relatively equal in the sense that each was forced to respect the territory of the other, but very differently socioeconomically.4

“Bureaucratic” capitalism had succeeded in promoting industrialization and creating a powerful arms economy, but showed itself incapable of organizing labor and capital in a productive way. The domination of a class collectively owning both capital and the state curbed competition—motor of capitalism—and ended up creating fiefdoms drawing their power not from a higher industrial and commercial productivity, but privileged links with the state. The crisis of Russian “bureaucratic” capitalism ended by dissolving into a system where the “oligarchs” are only the bearers of monopolies depending totally on political power. Unable to compete in the world market and foreign investment (like China has succeeded in doing), the Russian managerial class’s only guarantee is the continuity of the priority of military power. Whatever one thinks of gdp, statistics show a hierarchy of scale: in dollars gdp is about $20 trillion for the United States, $13 trillion for China, $4 trillion for Germany, and $1.6 trillion for Russia, being the equivalent of South Korea or Italy. Russia is only a regional (super)power.

After 1989 the superior dynamism of the United States and Western Europe ended up peacefully retaking Eastern European space that the ussr had conquered before the war in 1945.

The stability of terror has also been a social stability in each of the two camps: the emergence or resurgence of new competitors (Germany, Japan, China…) came to break this status quo, eventually opening up the possibility of armed conflict in the heart of Europe.

The Soviet giant had at the time no interest in initiating a reconquest of Western Europe: in the twenty-first century the—relative—weakness of Russia creates a risk of war in the entire European region. After the forced secessions of peripheral regions (Transnistria, Abkhazia, and Ossetia) and the occupation of Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine is a new effort by Russia to preserve what it struggles to keep together.

It’s frequently the weaker superpower which takes the initiative of the offensive. In the nineteenth century, when England dominated the world, it only attacked “underdeveloped” countries, leading to colonial wars in India and Africa. In the beginning of the twentieth century other imperialisms challenged its hegemony: German economic power had undermined the famous “European stability,” and that of Japan threatened Asia. After 1945 everything calms down for a few decades thanks to the Russian-American division of the world (apart from India and equally China). But now the gravity of the European Union weighs on Russia’s ex-satellites, and that of China on Asia.

The ussr was imperialist in its area of influence, compensating for its social weakness by protecting itself behind neighboring satellites in order to serve as a buffer between two separate but never watertight blocs—this margin practically no longer exists.

From Korea to Afghanistan, passing by Vietnam and Angola, the United States and the ussr never ceased their proxy wars, but this time the periphery is very close.

If the other imperialisms only make war in the Middle East and Africa, nato is progressively enlarged in the European East—Finland and Sweden are preparing to join the alliance.

In 1998 George Kennan (1904–2005), in 1945 the diplomat and architect of soviet containment, thought this extension was a little unwise: “We are engaged in protecting an entire group of countries without having either the means or the intention of seriously doing so.” Ten years later, a cia report warned against Ukraine joining nato; this would be crossing the most dangerous red line in the eyes of not just Putin, but the entire Russian elite, and would encourage Russian interference in Crimea and in the east of Ukraine.

Those who preach moderation forget that “containment” and “pushing back” go together when the United States decides it’s necessary and possible, like Truman and Eisenhower demonstrated. For more than 20 years nato at the same time contained and pushed back against Russia. It’s normal that a state or alliance takes the opportunity from the retreat of a competitor to advance its pawns. The ussr did the same thing (aborted attempt to create an autonomous Azerbaijani Republic in the north of Iran in 1945, to set up Asia, in Africa…). In 2002, like the ussr armed North Vietnam, nato leads a proxy war against Russia.5

Whatever it is, Russo-Ukrainian peace will be the continuation of war by other means. At the European level, the question is whether the European Union will limit itself to a zone of free exchange, or if it will give itself a political direction around a Franco-German pivot, having a “European” army—a hypothesis less and less probable in view of the present evolution, which reinforces us dominance in nato. Winning (or not losing) does not at all have the same meaning for Russia (a strong but regional power) and the United States, led to refocus its world power against what becomes its main adversary: China.6 But we will avoid imitating Trotsky with such adventurous predictions.

Rationality—600 million deaths

However, the Russian invasion was a surprise. In 2014 the weakness of the rebels in the east of the country had pushed Russia to intervene militarily to aid the birth of the “peoples’ republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. But from there to trying to invade a large part of the country and besiege Kyiv…?…

It invites us to think about states and rationality. In 1982, was it “rational” for the United Kingdom to send an army to the edge of the world to keep some islands without economic or strategic importance?

One could rationally estimate that Hitler had no chance of winning against the Anglo-Russian-American coalition, but he thought it was possible to vanquish the ussr before the United States mobilized all its industrial power. When they entered Afghanistan, Russians (1979) then Americans (2001) believed that a massive military intervention would allow them to vanquish an adversary that was considered, rather logically, as militarily inferior. Through it, the real objective was to consolidate an empire—economically for the United States, quasi-colonially for the ussr—against a rival, having a cost initially deemed reasonable. The two imperialisms could reassure themselves by recalling their successful exterior operations: Hungary in 1956, Santo Domingo in 1965.

But the issue is never essentially military. In 1918, the belligerents ended up stopping, less constrained by the stalemate on the ground than by the crumbling of the home front, above all in Germany and Austria-Hungary. On the contrary, the Nazi regime waged a “total” war since it was waged first for the domination of the German people, and if the latter did not show itself equal to the destiny assigned to it by the Nazis, for Hitler, Germany deserved to perish. Ordinarily war is not waged to destroy, even less to destroy everything—but Nazi logic accepted the self-destruction of Germany in 1945. War is between two forces, neither of which decides what the other will do, and the reciprocity of actions contains the possibility of their exacerbation. Self-restraint (avoiding destroying what one wants to conquer) finds its own limits. It’s one thing to be a murderer, another to kill oneself, often the one excludes the other, yet Hitler did both: for him, politics was “all or nothing.”

Putin isn’t Hitler. But for Putin as well, the limit between a partial objective (to modify a border) and a total objective (to force a change of policy, neutralize a country) is easily crossed—sometimes the political direction of a country pushes it to go to the limit, which it crosses at its own risk/peril.

But what is a war won or lost? And above all, what happens after? One repeats that the United States interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up in failures, but in Baghdad as in Kabul, it was a matter of the police operations of a large country against a small one. Neither the major interests of the United States, even less their survival, were in the balance. To win is not, in either case, the point. In Vietnam, it was not necessarily the occupation of the country, but no longer feeling threatened by it. Did the United States lose in Vietnam in 1975, when the country has been for 20 years open to foreign capitalists in search of low wages?

Whatever conclusion the Russo-Ukrainian affair has, in their confrontation with Russia, the United States and the European Union seek to place themselves in a position of force against China. There were 2 nuclear superpowers—now there are 3 (4 or 5 counting India and Pakistan). If a future employment of atomic arms isn’t certain, it would be naive to exclude it on the grounds that it would have catastrophic effects for humanity, but also for the masters of the world, attached to their position and privileges.

The only judge of the “vital interests” of a country, and the means they will choose to defend them, is neither humanity nor an abstract reason, nor a definition of sovereignty; it is the leaders who are at the head of state. If he had the atomic bomb, the Nazi Hitler would not have hesitated to use it. The Democrat Truman hesitated (one of the differences between fascism and democracy), and used them twice.

Five years later, faced with the setbacks suffered in Korea, the American president declared that he was considering all possibilities, “which includes all the weapons we have,” including nuclear weapons: “we have seriously thought about it.” The nuclear threat will be reiterated by Nixon against North Vietnam (1969) and by Trump against North Korea (2017).

In the 1960s, estimating that the ussr would be incapable of surviving a first atomic strike and to retaliate with significant reprisals, the American General Staff considered an atomic attack against the ussr and China, which would cause around 400 million deaths, plus 100 million in neighboring countries and as many in Western Europe, i.e., 600 million in all. Absurd, one would say: the price would be too heavy…but for whom? Rulers are not mad, nor bloodthirsty soldiers. Their folly does not lack method, as Shakespeare would say; a monstrous adversary demands the use of means more terrible than his own.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States updated its plans, and Russia and China have theirs. State rationality is to act according to the interests of the country and the interests of its leaders, which coincide. The objective is to perpetuate itself, not to commit suicide, but disproportionality and excess are part of the equation. In 1914, empires did not act irrationally, nor the Nazis in 1939 or 1941. In Vietnam, the Domino Theory had its own rationality. Likewise the “strategy of terror,” where the United States regularly sought to obtain and maintain a superiority over the ussr, therefore a chance of winning. At the cost of hundreds of millions of deaths, but it is a price that they were ready to pay, however horrible it may be.

When the Nation is Incomplete

During the Sino-Japanese war, the nationalist government had the dykes of the Yellow River destroyed to delay the advance of the Japanese troops—objective achieved, and the flood killed 500,000 Chinese. Probably the greatest war crime in all of history, with the particularity of having been inflicted by an army on its own population.7 The day any government seems fit to kill 500 million to save a billion, it will.

The United States would have about 1,350 nuclear warheads ready for use (including a hundred on bases in Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands), against 1,400 on the Russian side. At this level of “overkill,” the gap between respective overkill abilities loses its meaning.

Whatever one repeats about a globalization that would have absorbed states and borders under the domination of a cosmopolitan financial oligarchy and trans-state multinationals, the planet is not deterritorialized. It remains organized into state entities—without however resembling the American “melting pot,” some function fairly well as national states, others do not, and the countries that dominate the world belong to the first group. The United States, China, Russia, India, are national states, and a hitherto unresolved weakness of the European Union is that it is not a national whole—federal or not.

A state is a political power capable of imposing itself on a territory it controls. What is specific about a national state is to:

bring together components that are often very diverse in terms of language, origin, or religion, thanks to the possibility of a self-centered capitalist development on a territory controlled militarily but also financially… The national presupposes this modern creation, the individual, a being freed from ties of birth and in principle “free” to become bourgeois or proletarian, and it responds to the need to link these individuals into a new community when the preceding ones were dislocated… Beyond individuals, the nation reunites classes… through a fluid circulation of capital as well as labor, a relative equalization between levels of productivity of its regions… On its own the market is not sufficient: the addition of consumers does not create cohesion.8

Where such a socio-economic unification of the country and therefore a political pacification, are impossible or unfinished, the developmental gaps between regions encourages the political center to ignore them, even to discriminate against them, favoring centrifugal forces which tend to dissociate from a center incapable of mastering them.

Countries born in the nineteenth century from regions successively detached from the Ottoman Empire experienced permanent instability, notably in Greece and Serbia. These incomplete nations are caught up in the game of powers stronger than themselves. Great Britain, fearing that the independence of new Slavic states reinforced Russia, in the Crimean War (1853–1856), yesterday as today a peninsula of strategic importance for the Russian navy, allied with France and Turkey against Russia.

In the East and in the Balkans, “minorities” pose a problem. Engels writes to Bernstein on February 22, 1882: “The Serbs are divided into three denominations… Where these people are concerned, religion actually counts for more than nationality, and it is the aim of each denomination to predominate. So long as there’s no cultural advance such as would at any rate make tolerance possible, a Greater Serbia would only spell civil war.”9 The Austrian annexation in 1909 of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a million Serbs lived, ruled an opposition between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia—an explosive situation from which came the spark of 1914, and which will reappear at the end of the twentieth century.

The movement of “nationalities” of old and struggles for national liberation in the twentieth century, was a historical novelty on a global scale.10 But the creation of a national whole is only possible where there is relatively homogeneous and coherent capitalist development: otherwise, “religion [or any other criterion of identity — gd] counts for more than nationality.”

Not only do most new states suffer disunity, but as William II remarked in 1913 to the Belgian King, it is often necessary for a small country to take sides. This is a risky game, however.

Generally independence is acquired thanks to a great power, and frequently guaranteed by another, a rival of the first. In 1948 the nascent Israeli state benefitted from Czech arms delivered in agreement with the ussr seeking to weaken English domination in the region—then Israel turned towards other support. The same with Egypt, which was armed by one camp and then another. With risk of reversal—the Kurds relied on the United States in their fight against Daesh, but what will become of Rojava if Americans give priority to Turkey, the pillar of nato in the region?

The protection of a “small” country by a “big” country is no necessary guarantee of security. In April 2008 nato announced that it was ready to accept Georgia and Ukraine—in August Russia attacked Georgia. The “aggressor/aggressee” distinction indicates the place where a conflict breaks out, but not its cause or logic.

There are so many economic, financial, political, and military aspects that determine the internal and external policy of a state—especially if it is located in a geopolitical zone of great importance in inter-imperialist rivalries, such as Eastern Europe—that it is obliged to sell its “independence,” and thus its territory, economy, and government, to one of the imperialist poles that can best promote its national interests or, at least, protect it from the lusts of enemy countries.11

What is a “Ukrainian”? What is a “Russian”?

“Our history is different,” says a Ukrainian to explain why they’re destroying statues of Lenin and why at the same time everywhere the portrait of Stepan Bandera flourishes. The Bolshevik leader symbolizes dictatorship and foreign domination. Conversely, whatever his responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews (and many Polish civilians), the militant nationalist would embody the Ukrainian aspiration for freedom. Born in 1909, he represents above all the turns and reversals inherent in any national movement. Alternately allied then opposed to the Germans who imprison him in 1941 because they do not want an independent Ukraine, then fighting alongside them, then briefly against the soviets, collaborating after 1945 with the German and British secret services who until 1945 will maintain anti-government maquis in Ukraine, Bandera dies in 1959, very likely assassinated by the kgb. First a supporter of ethnic nationalism, he ends up a follower of a certain social democracy. Ideology of circumstance, search for compatible allies… nationalism uses the support it finds and changes it, sometimes successfully, ultimately at its own expense.12

As it exists today, Ukraine is not the only recent state reality in the region. Before 1914 very few thought that there existed a Belorussian people justifying the creation of an independent state, and in Vilnius, capital of present-day Lithuanian, barely a few percent of inhabitants spoke Lithuanian. Transcarpathia, Galicia (ex-Austrian) in the west, Crimea in the south… the components of Ukraine varied over the course of the twentieth century, like what we call Russia today, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania have experienced shifting borders since 1917.

And yet the countries that emerged from the Russian and Ottoman empires suffer not only from their exterior borders being called into question, but also if not more so from what could be called interior separations.

The capitalist mode of production brings together and unifies populations where the wage relation, circulation of labor and capital, and endogenous development allow it. In countries like France, Great Britain, the United States, different languages and religions coexist, but one language dominates, sometimes two (French and German in Switzerland). Spanish is the mother tongue of 40 million Americans out of 330 million, and they profess a Catholic faith in a majority Protestant country, without ever giving rise to an “ethno-confessionalism,” without this dividing a society characterized by “the highest mobility of workers… and an incessant migration from one branch of industry to another… a continuous creation of new modes of labor… in short, a growing division of labor in society as a whole” (Marx, unpublished chapter of Capital, 1867).

Lacking these conditions, the European states born after 1914–1918 in the interwar period suffer (and despite population transfers continue to suffer) a “problem of national minorities.”

We will not summarize the episodes, after 1918, opposing Bolsheviks, White Russians, Poles, and various other parties and regions of what is today Ukraine, under the influence of the victors of 1914–1918, France in particular. In 1920, with the support of part of the local population, Poland invaded Ukrainian territory hoping to create a buffer-country there to protect it from Russia. It failed but annexed the western regions of the country and a part of Lithuania and Belarus.13

In 1945, the Polish border was moved to the west, causing the displacement of millions of inhabitants: the forced departure of Germans towards Germany, and Poles residing in Ukraine, Belarus, and in Lithuania towards a Poland which had just been granted East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia. One of the objectives was to constitute states having a homogeneous population: “all countries are built on national and not multinational principles,” declared Gomulka, the leader of this new Poland, in May 1945.

Federated with the ussr, the Ukrainian ssr provided one third of the Union’s industrial production, but its economy remained too dependent on Russia for a self-centered development promoting social and political cohesion of the country. With the ussr gone, the majority of Ukrainian citizens have a good command of the Russian language and millions of them work and live in Russia. But if, in Donbass, a few million inhabitants call themselves “Russians”—unlike those from Kyiv and if Russia has been able to manipulate a separatist “ethno-nationalism,” it’s because this region and its population have been only very partially integrated into the rest of Ukraine.

National incompletion is reflected in political life. The famous Russian “oligarchs” have their equivalent in Ukraine. A “Gas Princess,” Yulia Timochenko, was the first prime minister, and a “Chocolate King,” Petro Porochenko, president of the republic. Ukrainian parliamentarianism is far from the practices of Western Europe. While Ukraine has an important military industry and an exporting agriculture, monopolies sometimes reinforced by media empires dispute and distribute political-economic power, and it has happened that the state directly appoints an oligarch as governor of a region. The Orange Revolution of 2004 did not put an end to it, nor did Maidan in 2014.

Twenty years ago Emmanuel Todd wrote that:

Ukraine has enough cultural differences with Russia to allow it to take on its own identity. But without a social dynamic of its own Ukraine can only escape Russian control by being pulled into the orbit of another power. The force of America is too far away and too immaterial to serve as a counterweight to Russia. Europe is a real economic force with Germany at its center, but it is not a military or political force. But if Europe wants to acquire these latter dimensions, it is not in its interest to grasp at Ukraine because it will need Russia as a counterbalance to emancipate itself from American control. Here we can take the measure of America’s concrete economic nonexistence in the heart of Central Asia… All that America can do is hold up the illusion of being a financial power by maintaining political and ideological control over the imf and the World Bank—two institutions, we may note in passing, Russia can now do without, thanks to its trade surplus… [The United States] was not able to propose a second Marshall Plan, which the countries coming out of communism really needed.14

To win its independence, after ’14–’18, the Ukrainian national movement had successively relied on Germany, on the Entente, that is to say the victors of the war, then in 1920 in Poland. A century later, “Ukraine had long exploited the contradictions between Russia and the West. But in the end, this proved a dangerous game. Ukraine mattered to Russia more than any other country.”15

In 2014, Russia attempted to federalize Ukraine to its advantage: but the annexation of Crimea “did not succeed in mobilizing the support of ethnic Russians outside the area directly controlled by the Russian military.” In 2022, the Kremlin hoped to repair this failure by expanding its ambitions beyond Donbass: the error was to have underestimated the national factor in the adversary.

The peoples’ republics of Luhansk and Donetsk are added as micro-states born under the armed pressure of Russia—like Transnistria detached from Moldova, Akkhazia and South Ossetia taken by Georgia.

The war in Ukraine will probably end with a compromise recognizing in Donbas (perhaps increased a bit along the Black Sea) a more or less higher degree of autonomy, even independence. As for the Ukrainian “Sacred Union”/“union sacrée” it will have succeeded in “Ukrainizing” the population, “Russian-speaking” included, except in the southeast, proving the lack of viability of a Ukrainian nation as it existed within its borders.


In the decades before 1914 Engels was not the only one to consider the possibility of a European war where “our party in Germany, temporarily overwhelmed by the tide of chauvinism, would be dispersed, while exactly the same would happen in France.”16 This conflict “with a scale and violence never before imagined” where millions of men will fight, involving the fall of empires, “general exhaustion and the establishment conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class… The war will perhaps throw us back momentarily, it could take away from us many positions already conquered. But… whatever turn things take, at the end of the tragedy… the victory of the proletariat will be already achieved, if not, at least inevitable.”17 Despite “a recrudescence of chauvinism in all countries” and “a period of reaction based on the inanition of all the peoples by then bled white,”18 capitalism would therefore be disrupted to the point that its perpetuation becomes impossible.

In the face of militarism, the worker and socialist movement did not remain inactive. As it agitates in the factory and in the street (and in parliament), it attempts to intervene in within the military institution: the cgt sent a small sum (the “sou du soldat”) to its conscripted trade union members to maintain their link with the working class. But parties and trade unions could envision nothing else than a “struggle for peace” that’s supposed to render war impossible: nothing was planned in the event, supposedly improbably, where it comes all the same. Believe it or not, the threat of calling for a general strike (peaceful for the moderates, insurrectionary for the radicals) had as little reality as the proclaimed intention to make a revolution… someday.

As well, among most future belligerents, the month which separates the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia is marked by numerous massive demonstrations against the threat of war: but their goal is to exert pressure on bourgeois governments, not to act by itself qua proletariat. It was only logical—the vast majority of socialists and trade unionists (and some of the anarchists) behaved as adversaries and working-class partners of a bourgeois world. To accept in fact (whatever one thinks or says about it) the essence of society already paves the way to accepting major decisions taken by its leaders—war in particular. In the summer of 1914, the Second International perhaps betrayed its ideology, but not its practice.

Faced with what the proletariat is unable or unwilling to prevent, for Lenin every revolutionary must wish for the defeat of their own country, and to contribute to it as much as possible. In Russia, from the point of view of the working class and toiling masses the “lesser evil” would be the defeat of tsarist monarchy. Lenin thinks future revolts are possible in the army like in 1905. Unrealistic? No, if one reckons that the capitalist world is in a grave crisis, a crisis provisionally overcome by the “Union Sacrée” but which will inevitably reappear, exacerbated by the pursuit of war. From the usual vision of capitalism as warmonger, Lenin passes to that of capitalism as the cause of war and therefore of revolution.

Once the war began, in the beginning only a small minority could act by basing itself on the conviction expressed by Liebknecht that for everyone, the enemy is in their own country.19 For, in order for “revolutionary defeatism” to become a material force, it was necessary for the stalemate to use up military and patriotic energies, as Engels had already seen the possibility. “It is a manifest fact that the disorganization of armies and a total relaxation of discipline have been both precondition and consequence of all successful revolutions hitherto.”20 “Best of all would be a Russian revolution which, however, can only be expected after severe defeats have been inflicted on the Russian army.”21 The Bolshevik strategy only made sense founded on the reasoned certainty “that the war is creating a revolutionary situation in Europe”22: Lenin called for a split (then considered premature by Rosa Luxemburg) of a vast political movement which failed, certainly, but whose “healthy” parties had to separate in order to (re)create revolutionary parties, taking advantage of the general crisis caused by the war to destroy/defeat capitalism.

The situation is not the same a century later, in particular noted by the absence of substantial radical minorities like Lenin was addressing. And opposition to imperialist wars (like in 2003 against war in Iraq, for example) is either simply pacifist or incapable of having an impact on the situation.

Calls for desertion, defeatism, and sabotage of the war from both sides, launch today from numerous groups [milieux] are certainly the only viable position from the class point of view. They are commendable and shareable—and certainly more dignified than the unilateral anti-imperialism of those who feel obliged every time to support the “weaker” imperialism. This, at least in principle. But such appeals [appels] risk being, at bottom, if not “ideological,” at least completely sterile.23

Revolutionary defeatism?

“What use is an internationalist principle if your village is being shelled by a Russian tank? To what extent do workers in Ukraine just have to defend themselves against a military aggression? Could we tell people in the Warsaw ghetto, in Srebrenica, or in the moment of an isis attack not to take up arms, because their arms might be supplied by nationalists or that their resistance falls in line with the interests of one of the big imperialist powers?,” asked a participant at a discussion organized by Angry Workers on March 12, 2022. “I guess we can’t.”24

(In passing it is abusive to compare Ukrainians forced to find the means to protect themselves against invasion, and the insurgents of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. Back to the wall, lacking practically any exterior support and destined for a certain death, the Jews of the ghetto preferred to die with weapons in hand. The Ukrainians in 2022 fortunately have more than this sole option.)

If the question is legitimate, it is valid for the summer of ’14, under the fire of German cannons, to the inhabitants of Belgian villages, where the invader shot thousands of civilians, forcing millions of people to seek refuge in unoccupied regions of France.

To answer in the place of Ukrainians would be impossible, and moreover without nearly any practical consequence. To the urgency of the world we have no immediate solution, and communist minorities don’t have the capacity to do more than proletarians themselves in the situation of countries in which they live.

Faced with Russian aggression, a collective resistance was set up, village and neighborhood mutual aid, with aspects of grassroots democracy, creating battalions of volunteers, military and nursing training centers, welcoming refugees, sometimes bypassing (short-circuiting) official hierarchies, with barter, too (exchange of a stock of weapons for a vehicle), without discontinuity between a “civil” material solidarity and the “armed” self-defense of its city and its own life.

A widespread position among “radical” milieux consists in preaching and practicing a form of revolutionary defeatism but only in one of the two camps, in Russia, to weaken its war effort, while supporting or joining a supposedly autonomous resistance inside Ukraine, trying if possible to extend it.

And yet this multiform reaction is parallel to the military action of the state, it completes it, and very few of its participants have for their goal to substitute for it. The hope is that a direct democracy propagates in Ukraine thanks to the self-organization of resistance relies on no concrete fact. The situation being what it is, it is impossible to protect other than by arming the population without relying on the state or in return, whether one wants it or not, giving it support. There is no Ukrainian people fighting alongside the state without being dominated or surrounded by it. On this subject, the reference to the war in Spain is particularly unfortunate—in the summer of ’36, those anarchists who accepted the maintenance of a bourgeois government under pretext that it wasn’t the true power, which was in the hands of the popular classes leading the anti-Franco war by autonomous organizations, were cruelly denied a year later. May 1937 showed who had power—the Republic repressed the most radical, brought down the workers militias, definitively transformed the insurrectional movement into a frontline war, winning the game against the proletarians before losing it to Franco.

In 1914 it was not because of chauvinistic warmongering that all the socialist parties accepted national unity, but in the name of the interest of the people (and the proletariat), therefore of its right to defend itself against the invader. In 2022, while admitting in Ukraine that two imperialisms are opposing each other, some recommend supporting a camp (because democracy is under attack) against the (dictatorial and aggressive) other. History stutters.

We are neither pacifist nor nonviolent—the revolutionary uprising of society necessitates a recourse to arms. But an armed struggle, even self-organized, is not sufficient to put into question the foundations of a society. By itself, a movement of partisans, even important in number, contributes to the defeat of the enemy, without as a consequence initiating a revolution. It’s not surprising that a priority of a number of our Ukrainian comrades is the departure of the invader, but if they’re hoping for a profound social transformation, it’s doubtful that national unity would be favorable to it—“the people” resemble all Ukrainians, all classes mixed together (excluding only the applicable cases of enemy collaborators), the postwar period will not go against the interests of the owners. At best some reforms will come out of it, certainly not a large direct democracy nor structural changes.

Another thing would be the emergence of groups at the head of the resistance towards a situation of “dual power,” ending up in confronting not only the Russian army (itself weakened from within by its failures, even undermined by mutinies, but equally that of a Ukrainian state itself also contested from within. We are not there. There are not in Ukraine three forces at present: the Russian invader, official army, and as well a popular autonomous resistance that is able to expand. Moreover, insofar as the latter would allow itself to be recruited neither by regular troops nor by territorial defenses, it would not have access to the weapons which decide the fate of combats (for example anti-tank missiles), nor to logistics that have become indispensable (ammunition, fuel, food, evacuation of wounded, etc.) and would only play an auxiliary role. In 1944, the Resistance and the maquis contributed to the German defeat, but France was liberated by the Allied armies.

As with every serious crisis, a war sets in motion the foundations of a society, but it mends fractures as much as it aggravates divisions, and anything can come out of it provided it appears to offer a solution: the Bolshevik Party in Russia in 1917, the fascists in Italy in 1922. The shock of a war does not entail ipso facto an antiwar reaction—which is susceptible to taking the most opposing forms, revolutionary, conservative, or reactionary. Exactly one hundred years ago Lenin, who in terms of revolutionary defeatism was speaking from experience, asserted that “the national question” was “destined to be decided by the working class in favor of the bourgeoisie.” The past century has rather proven him right.


  1. Marie-Rose Thielemans and Emile Vandewoude, Le Roi Albert au travers de ses lettres inédites, 1882–1916 (Brussels: Office International de librairie, 1982), 85.↩︎
  2. 10 + 1 questions sur la guerre du Kosovo (1999–2010).↩︎
  3. Pjotr Sauer, “ ‘Theyre lying to you: Russian TV employee interrupts news broadcast, Guardian, 14 March 2022.↩︎
  4. On third camp internationalists, 1940–1952 (“groups distinguished by their refusal of any support to any imperialist camp”), see here.↩︎
  5. Tariq Ali, “Before the War,” London Review of Books, 24 March 2022.↩︎
  6. Jerry Brown, “Washington’s Crackpot Realism,” New York Review of Books, 24 March 2022.↩︎
  7. Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937–1945, Penguin, 2014, pp. 157–162.↩︎
  8. Tristan Leoni, La Nation dans tout son état, 2019. Part 1, Part 2.↩︎
  9. Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Eduard Bernstein, 22 February 1882,” translated by Peter and Betty Ross, Collected Works, Volume 46 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1992), 206.↩︎
  10. Jean-Numa Ducange, Quand la Gauche pensait la Nation: Nationalités et socialismes à la Belle-Époque, Fayard, 2022.↩︎
  11. International Communist Party, “In its Confrontation with American and European Imperialisms, Russian Imperialism Launches Its Troops to the Territorial Conquest of Strategic Areas of Ukraine,” 24 February 2022.↩︎
  12. Stephen Dorril, MI 6. Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Simon & Schuster, 2002, chapter 14.↩︎
  13. Norman Davies, White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919–20, Pimlico, 2003.↩︎
  14. Emmanuel Todd, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order [2002], translated by C. Jon Delogu (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003), 162–164.↩︎
  15. Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (I.B. Tauris, 2015), 79.↩︎
  16. Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Bebel, 22 December 1882,” translated by Peter and Betty Ross, Collected Works, Volume 46 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1992), 415.↩︎
  17. Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to a Pamphlet by Sigismund Borkheim,” 1887.↩︎
  18. Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Paul Lafargue, 25 March 1889,” Collected Works, Volume 48 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 2001), 283.↩︎
  19. Karl Liebknecht, “The Main Enemy is at Home!” (May 1915).↩︎
  20. Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Marx, 26 September 1851,” translated by Peter and Betty Ross, Collected Works, Volume 38 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1982), 469–470.↩︎
  21. Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Bebel, 13 September 1886,” translated by Peter and Betty Ross, Collected Works, Volume 46 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1992), 487.↩︎
  22. Vladimir Lenin, “Revolutionary Marxists at the International Socialist Conference” (September 5–8, 1915).↩︎
  23. Lato Cattivo, Du moins, si lon veut être matérialiste, 2 March 2022.↩︎
  24. Angry Workers, Fragments of a Debate on the War in Ukraine, 12 March 2022.

This article was translated by Jake Bellone.