Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 25, 2015

The Ukrainian National Movement versus Great Russian chauvinism

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

As some of you may know, Roger Annis, a one-time member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, has become one of the most prominent, prolific and ardent defenders of the Kremlin’s attempt to carve a Novorossiya out of Ukraine, and arguably other territory that dates back to the original Russian empire created during the reign of Catherine the Great.

For most defenders of Putin’s foreign policy, support for the Lugansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics is based on the notion that Russia was forced to back the separatists and annex Crimea as a defensive measure against NATO encroachment. There are references to John Mearsheimer’s argument that Russia is entitled to do this because the USA does it as well. Just look at how JFK reacted to Russian bases in Cuba. Why would anybody expect the Kremlin to behave any differently when Ukraine was becoming aligned with NATO and western corporations? That the left would adopt such logic is really quite breathtaking. When you excuse Russia on this basis, where does socialism fit in? It was never a great idea to defend Soviet control over the “buffer states” in the name of realpolitik, and all the more so after Russia became another capitalist society.

Generally I don’t respond to Roger’s articles since most people have pretty much made up their mind on the Ukrainian issues. But I was taken aback when I saw his latest post on his website titled Dramatic Shifts in the political and military situation in Ukraine that includes a link to another article titled Donetsk Peoples Republic proclaims itself successor of the Donetsk-Krivoy-Rog Republic of 1918. The linked article makes the case that the breakaway republics are simply a restoration of the original Soviet republic that followed in the footsteps of October 1917. It states:

The capital of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic was Kharkiv and later Lugansk. The government of the Republic was represented by a Council of People’s Commissars, headed by Artem (Fyodor Sergeyev). In March 1918, the Republic became part of Soviet Ukraine, at the time a constituent of part of Soviet Russia. A year later, an agreement was reached for its dissolution. A Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared in 1922 and its capital became Kyiv. It was a founding constituent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, founded the same year.

Understandably, this historical reference might seem obscure to the average reader, and even some veterans of the Marxist movement who have this blog bookmarked. At first blush, this might seem like a good thing. Who could possibly object to the separatists invoking the infant USSR especially when their enemy has John McCain on its side? Maybe this was Boris Kagarlitsky’s encomium to the Donetsk separatists as “the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order” finally coming true.

As it happens, these questions were very much on mind as I was working my way through a book titled “On the Current Situation in the Ukraine” that is a collection of articles written by Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl’ Shakrai in 1918 in the context of a faction fight in the Ukrainian Communist Party over Ukraine’s independence. The two largest factions, the left Kievists and the right Katerynoslavists, were both primarily made up of native Russians who regarded independence as a bourgeois deviation. The Katerynoslavists, named after the city of Katerynoslav in the eastern Ukraine, were particularly hostile to independence and regarded the ethnic Ukrainians as peasant bumpkins urgently in need of assimilation into the Russian-speaking working class. In their polemic titled “Unity or Independence”, Mazlakh and Shakrai quote the Katerynoslavists:

In response to the categorical demand of the Ukrainian social-democratic parties for an indication of the attitude of the Communist Party organizations toward the Ukrainian question, we have busied ourselves with what, for the Party, was an empty and objectively stupid matter pertaining to an oppressed nation. . . repetition of ‘words’ about our recognition of the Ukraine’s right to separation at a time when the All-Russian Council of People’s Commissars demands from us a different attitude toward this right—clear and categorical statements and strong agitation in favor of a possibly closer connection between the Ukraine and Russia, against separation and for proletarian-revolutionary unity.

The Kremlin had sent one Christian Rakovsky to help promote “proletarian-revolutionary unity”. Rakovsky had a fairly distinguished career as a revolutionary but when it came to the national question—and Ukraine in particular—he was dreadful, reminding one of the hostile articles in the CPUSA press about “reactionary black nationalism” dividing the working class in the 1960s. Using a good command of Marxist jargon but with little understanding of Ukrainian realities, Rakovsky pontificated: “First of all, the ethnographic differences between Ukrainians and Russians are in themselves insignificant . . . More important is the fact that the Ukrainian peasantry lack what is generally called “national consciousness” . . . The Ukrainian proletariat is completely Russian in origin.”

In a very real sense, Annis, Boris Kagarlitsky and the Borotba group in Ukraine that works closely with outfits like John Rees’s Counterfire and Alan Woods’s IMT is a continuation of the Katerynoslavist tradition, a tendency that can only be described as Great Russian chauvinist in character.

The Donetsk-Krivoy-Rog Republic of 1918 was to Ukraine as Ulster was to Great Britain, an enclave ruled by the privileged enemies of self-determination. It was a reactionary tendency no matter who gave it their blessing, from Christian Rakovsky to Lenin. It was exactly such attempts to create territorial facts on the ground through superior military and economic power that became the counterpart of Guantanamo, the American military base in Cuba, the Malvinas, et al.

Ever since the Maidan protests broke out last year, I have made an earnest attempt to research Ukrainian Marxism that was steadfast against Great Russian domination, whether it originated in the Czarist ministries or the Comintern. Below you can read one of Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl’ Shakrai’s most useful articles in their campaign against national chauvinism and for the independence of Ukraine.

I want to call particular attention to the concluding paragraphs of the article that refers to Lenin’s article on the lessons of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916. This article is one of the most important that Lenin ever wrote, calling attention to the need to see revolutions dialectically. Lenin 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 without 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 would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

This is exactly the way I approach “impure” uprisings such as the Maidan and the ones that have taken place in the Middle East and North Africa. Others, of course, are free to choose their own way of looking at things even if sadly mimics the dogmatic, economistic and chauvinist tendencies of Christian Rakovsky and the Katerynoslavists.

The Ukrainian National Movement Against the Background of the Modern Capitalist-Imperialist Economy

One need not have studied in a seminary to know that we live in the epoch of the higher stage of capitalist development, the epoch of the domination of finance capital, the epoch of capitalist imperialism.

In this epoch the tendency of the capitalist economy to involve all parts of the globe in world trade, all-encompassing economic ties, and economic interdependence is becoming extremely powerful, and finance capital has all the necessary means for implementing and putting into effect this tendency.

The network of railroads covers almost the whole globe; every day gigantic steamships ply the seas and oceans in all directions; subways, submarines, and airplanes, telegraph and telephone wires enfold the earth like a spider’s web, under water and in the air. Thousands and millions of people communicate over them every day and every minute; goods are moved; every news event is broadcast over the whole world within a few minutes; every inquiry or disturbance is at once echoed in the most distant lands. The thousands of economic ties stretching out in every direction are supplemented by those of a cultural character. Financial ties among banks, enterprises, and states; commercial deals; international syndicates and trusts; trade agreements, colonial policies—all establish the closest ties among the countries of the world, strengthen them, and make them more all-encompassing. The bears’ dens whose inhabitants never leave and never hear any news, whose interests do not extend beyond their village, district, or region, are steadily vanishing.

The multilateral international interdependence of individual institutions and of the whole economies of various countries; the international organization of banks, enterprises, and trade relations; the internationalization of learning, literature, languages, technology, arts, fashions, manners, and customs; the many-sided continuing, lively, political relations; the continual intermingling of people of different nations—in a word, the internationalization of all spheres of life by the gigantic productive forces of contemporary capitalist society, are indisputable facts.

But there is another side to this increasing interdependence of modern society and the increasing involvement of outlying areas in its economic life. Side by side with this internationalization of economic, social, political, and spiritual culture goes a nationalization, an intensification of national feeling in the masses, an awakening of their national consciousness. This leads to the consolidation of nations, revives backward and seemingly lost nations, leads them from a state of helplessness and ignorance to one of national consciousness, and impels them to create their own literatures.

And this is entirely understandable. The development and spread of capitalist production among backward peoples draws them out of their patriarchal and feudal conditions of life, by destroying their old methods of production and introducing them to new goods, new ideas, new customs and needs promotes their advance, and by compelling them to seek work in factories and in cities, on railways, leads them into the new culture. Regardless of how simple it is, factory or railroad work demands greater intelligence than work in a village. All this impels them to study, faces them with the necessity of learning how to read and write in order not to get lost, so as to better their position. Before them are spread the wonders and riches of modern capitalist culture. If they are not adopted by the people, they will crush them. But this culture can be adopted only when presented in a suitable form, in a language the people understand. Although some are able to learn one or more foreign languages, and thus acquire an alien culture, the whole nation cannot do this. The people cannot spend so much time in study: one must work, keep house, earn a crust of bread. Someone, therefore, must undertake to acquaint them with the results of scientific investigations and artistic achievements in a suitable form—that is, in their native language. Their children must be schooled in their native language, and this means a need for teachers. They need officials (whether elected or not is unimportant here) who know and use the native language.

In thus awakening the national masses of the most oppressed, crushed, and undeveloped nations, capitalism creates the need for conscious and educated men—the intelligentsia.

The intelligentsia is generated out of the people, although the birth process differs from one nation to the other. Different classes have participated in different ways in contributing to the intelligentsia: bureaucrats, teachers, parliamentarians, party leaders, lawyers, engineers, writers, technicians, speakers, and scholars. We know that every social class has its own intelligentsia. But irrespective of these different class origins and views, the intelligentsia of all classes have common features which justify our viewing them as a separate social group. The principal feature or characteristic of the intelligentsia as a social group is its role in satisfying the spiritual needs of society or of some special social group or class. To perform this task properly the intellectual needs an appropriate means of production. The intellectual’s means of production is the word—his language. In addition, every group of the intelligentsia needs its own special means of production: the physician, medicine and medical instruments; the writer, paper and pen; the scholar, office or laboratory. But the primary and essential means of production of each of them is language—the printed or spoken word, literature, knowledge.

These productive forces affect the intellectual in many ways. On this base is erected the superstructure of the intelligentsia with all of its features good and bad: altruism and the sincere love of one’s own people and of all humanity, disdain for the material side of life, a broad outlook: but also the desire to become a bureaucracy, to live more gaily and spaciously, narrowmindedness, petty-bourgeois attitudes, and timidity.

The intelligentsia is an indispensable product and agent of bourgeois society. In a communist society it may be possible to abolish the intelligentsia as a separate group by transforming all classes into intelligentsia. But until this happens, no class or group can dispense with the intelligentsia. Nor can any nation do without its national intelligentsia.

A nation is interested in having its own intelligentsia to care for its spiritual needs, but on the other hand, the intelligentsia is concerned that the nation be great, strong, and educated because these factors determine the demands for the books of its teachers, officials, authors, and doctors. The capitalist mode of production enforces an increasingly extensive division of labor, the improvement and perfecting of instruments, machinery, and so on. It also leads to an improvement in the means of production of the intelligentsia—his language—because on this depends his ability to express the subtlest variations of thought, feelings, impressions, and so on, and even the further development of the nation. Furthermore, pedagogy holds that the education of the child and his further development as a human being are promoted more effectively by teaching in the native language. This is true generally for all members of a given nation, but it has additional importance for the child who will become an intellectual, for in this way he will learn the language better and use it in all its strength, beauty, and richness—thus with more success. With the exception of a few particularly talented persons, only one who has used a language from early childhood will gain a deep knowledge of it. In modern education it appears that, as a rule, only the native language can be used accurately.

“To master the accomplishments of international culture the intellectual should learn foreign languages, but if he is to make a contribution to culture, this must be done primarily in his native tongue. His initial audience are the members of his own nation. That intellectual is fortunate who is a member of a great nation, and especially of a nation whose language has become a world language. In such a case he speaks to the whole world. On the other hand, the intellectual from a minor nation which is, furthermore, poor and backward, can of course acquire a profound knowledge of international culture by learning foreign languages, but his own contribution to this culture will often fail to reach a public even though his works show extraordinary genius. He is forced to use a foreign language in which his thoughts are less well expressed.

“For this reason no one so ardently desires to see his nation achieve greatness as an intellectual from a minor nation.

“It is precisely those well-educated people who have mastered foreign languages, are most influenced by international culture, and are most concerned with the purity of their own language, who worry about expanding the area in which it is used and about reducing the number of people who read only foreign authors. In short, the most internationalized elements of the nation at the same time appear to be the most nationalistic.”

But we should warn the reader against an error which is often set forth as absolute truth. This is the view that the nation is the invention of the intelligentsia. We must warn the more strongly against this error in view of the currently widespread fashion of scolding the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia indeed deserve this rebuke, but it is not necessary to throw out the baby with the bath water. The intelligentsia may be punished, may be brought to its knees, but the nation cannot dispense with it without doing harm to itself. This is the more true in view of the fact that the sharpest rebukes also come from the intelligentsia.

The intelligentsia’s role in modern society in general, and in national movements in particular, can be explained by analogy with the role of machinery in contemporary capitalist production. The analogy extends to cover the mode of coping with the shortcomings of both intelligentsia and machines.

There can be no doubt that the existence of machines has placed another weapon in the hands of the capitalists for use against the proletariat and against the broad masses of toilers; that machines have given rise to an unprecedented exploitation of the workers; and that they have, by accelerating production, helped the capitalists to gain domination over millions of toilers, thus leading to expropriation, proletarization, and hardship. But there can also be no doubt that the movement against the use of machinery in production which arose in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, at the dawn of the modern capitalist era, hurt the workers and not the capitalists. Not only did it fail to help in the struggle with hardship and misery, it even worsened the position of the workers. One should not oppose the machines, but rather their capitalist exploitation at the expense of the toiling masses. One should not abolish the intelligentsia but rather use it in one’s own interests, thus to free all from slavery, transform everyone into intelligentsia, and abolish the abyss between mental and physical labor.

The intelligentsia’s role in a national movement is analogous to the role of the machine in capitalist production. It is not because of the machinery that capitalism exists, develops, and expands; on the contrary, machinery exists because of the existence, development, and expansion of capitalism. National movements do not come into existence and wax strong and active because of the national intelligentsia; on the contrary, the national intelligentsia comes into being because national movements exist and become strong and active.

Capitalism uproots millions of people of different nations, moves them from place to place, mixes them all together, pounds them in the mortar of capitalist production, cooks them in the boiler of the factory, grinds them in the mill of combined enterprises, melts them down in the ovens of “metallurgical colossi,” and shapes them into a new type of iron, cast iron, and steel. Thus nations are born and develop, and national movements appear over and over again, grow stronger, and demand autonomy and independence. This is not reasonable; the productive forces of certain shopkeepers, philistines, and financial titans grow angry at it—but what can you do, history is so foolish, it did not study at the Katerynoslav seminary.

The observation and study of national movements, of the awakening and development of nations, show that the existence of a peasantry is of prime importance for the preservation and formation of a nation. Capitalism, with its capacity for cracking the concrete and iron Chinese walls of particularism and provincialism, even affects the peasant masses when conditions are suitable: a territory, large or small, inhabited by more or less the same nationality. Capitalism wakens these masses, forces them to leave their villages and districts, makes them aware of problems beyond what can be seen from the village belfry. The peasants who migrate to the cities become workers or intellectuals. Although at the beginning of the process isolated workers and intellectuals are quickly assimilated, acquire the veneer of the new culture, and are ashamed of their peasant language and peasant origin—as the process continues, and as they learn more about the new and higher culture, they come to understand the deep abyss which exists between the more cultured and educated and their own browbeaten and illiterate village people. Then they return to their own villages and begin to work with enthusiasm at awakening the peasants’ consciousness, at raising them to the higher cultural level.

“The prestige of the nation to which they belong is not a matter of indifference to the elements in the framework of capitalist production—and least of all to the existing classes and to the wage-worker” The history of the past century presents much glaring evidence that workers do borrow these and other national slogans.

But, although the wage worker can learn a foreign language quickly and become assimilated (this applies likewise to the capitalist, the landowner, and the intellectual) , the peasant has no such opportunity. He lives in a village where foreigners do not penetrate, or at the most pass through for brief visits. He himself rarely visits a foreign city, and, if he does, for such a short period that it is pointless to talk of his acquiring a foreign language.

Thus the peasantry, as the base, and the intelligentsia as the ideologues, the superstructure, have (in recent decades, at least) been the principal agents of any national movement. This contrasts with the beginning of the capitalist era, the period of its struggle with feudalism, when the national liberation movement was headed by the urban bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. To be sure, even today, the bourgeoisie takes quite an active part in the national struggle, as does the proletariat. None of the attempts yet made to remove the proletariat from the national movement, to place them outside or above it, has yielded definite results. Each class or group of course interprets the movement in its own way, but all participate in it.

National movements, in the modern acceptance of the term, appeared at the same time as capitalism itself. And they have appeared not because they were invented by one or another exploiting class of capitalist society for the interest or profit of that class (this feature is very important for national and other movements) , but because capitalism has involved the most closely knit and diverse groups of people in world trade and in a common economic—meaning a common spiritual—life. National movements are more closely associated with the progressive aspect of world capitalism than with its destructive tendencies, its exploitation and degradation of the national masses. This latter fact has a considerable impact on the development of national movements, but the movements, and their depth and pervasiveness among all classes of contemporary society, cannot be explained by this fact alone. No class, including the proletariat, fails to participate in national movements or to advance nationalist demands. Of course, this does not mean that all classes advance the same demands with the same force and enthusiasm. At different times and in different places various classes have espoused various national demands with varying force and obstinacy.

The two eras of national movements must be distinguished from the general historical point of view. The dividing line between these eras was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 which brought about the national unification of Germany. “There is, on the one hand, the period of the collapse of feudalism and absolutism, of the formation of the bourgeois-democratic society and state, when the national movements first became mass movements and through the press and through participation in representative institutions involved all classes of the population in political life. On the other is the period of fully formed capitalist states with long-established constitutional regimes and a highly developed antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie—a period which may be called the eve of capitalism’s downfall.

“The typical features of the first period are: the awakening of national movements and the involvement in them of the peasants, the most numerous and most sluggish sector of the population, through the struggle for political liberty generally, and for the rights of the nation in particular. The typical features of the second period are: the absence of bourgeois-democratic mass movements and the prominent position of the antagonism between the internationally united capital and the international working-class movement, this being due to the fact that developed capitalism brings closer together the nations that have already been involved in commercial intercourse and causes them to intermingle in an increasing degree.”

Lenin continues in the same vein: “Of course the two periods are not partitioned off from one another; there are numerous transitional links, as countries differ from one another in the rapidity of development of their national movement, in the national composition and distribution of their populations, and so on.”** In another place he gives the following classification of countries “with respect to the degree of their self-determination”:

  1. The advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States. Here the progressive bourgeois national movements have long since come to an end. Each of these “great” nations oppresses others in the colonies and at home.
  2. Eastern Europe: Austria, the Balkans, and especially Russia. Here bourgeois-democratic national movements have developed, and the struggle has intensified, particularly in the twentieth century.
  3. The semi-colonial countries, such as China, Persia, Turkey, and the colonies, with a combined population of one billion (moo million) . Here the bourgeois-democratic movements have either hardly begun or else have a long way to go.

The above description of the two periods in the history of national movements is evidently applicable only to countries of the first type, but even with respect to them, some limitations must be introduced. England falls in the second group of states with respect to the Irish question. And Norway’s separation from Sweden occurred in 1905, that is, only in the second period.

Again, the description of the second period as characterized by the “absence of mass democratic movements” can be regarded as accurate only within distinct limits. Of course there are no democratic mass movements where bourgeois-democratic movements have ended, where nationally homogeneous capitalist states have been formed, and where a constitutional order has been established—this is only a tautology. But where this has not occurred we see an altogether different phenomenon. We can call it an exception, if that is convenient, but an exception that violates the very rule.

The most characteristic point of difference between the two periods relates to the question: “Who heads the mass democratic movements?”

Formerly it was the bourgeoisie; now it is the proletariat. This is agreed in any discussion of democratic movements generally. But when it comes to that sub-variety of democratic movements which is the national-democratic or national-liberation movement, the objection is at once raised in international phrases that the working class, the proletariat, is an international class concerned with international problems, that it is indifferent to the national question, that the proletariat should pay no attention to national matters, and that nationalism is an invention of the bourgeoisie to deceive the proletariat. These accusations are all absolutely correct when used properly, but harmful if used to attack the essence of the national liberation question. For the gist of every national liberation question lies precisely in the fact that each nationality strives for the formation of its own independent sovereign state. Now what is, and should be, the attitude of the proletariat toward this aspiration to form a national state?

Historical experience shows that the proletariat participates directly in the national liberation movement and cannot stay away from it. It cannot be set aside, placed above the national movement, or in any other neutral position. And regardless of how many international phrases are used, the national question cannot be ignored. The task of the proletariat is not to ignore it, but to solve it. International social democracy has also proclaimed the “right of nations to self-determination,” that is, to the formation of sovereign, independent national states, as a way of solving the national question.

International social democracy set itself the task formerly performed by the bourgeoisie—when it was revolutionary, when it was destroying absolutism and feudalism.

“Social democracy inherited from bourgeois democracy the striving for a national state. Of course we are not bourgeois democrats, but we resemble them in viewing democracy as more than a trifle, as something superfluous and unnecessary. As the lowest class in the state, the proletariat can only assert its rights through democracy. But we do not share the illusion of bourgeois democracy that the proletariat will gain full rights when it does achieve democracy. Democracy is only the basis for the acquisition of its rights. The liberation struggle of the proletariat does not end with democracy but merely takes on a different form.

“Democracy is a vital necessity, not for the bourgeoisie, but precisely for the proletariat. The bourgeoisie has now renounced its former democratic ideals and, at the same time, the idea of a national state. Its present concept of the ideal state goes beyond the boundaries of the national state. It throws these survivals of liberalism into the warehouse of historical curiosities. But we have no reason to do this. We should not take the materialist interpretation of history to mean that the proletariat had to adopt the general tendencies of bourgeois development just because they are determined by economic relations. The proletariat has its own tendencies of development, which are no less economically determined, and it should follow them without worrying about whether or not they contradict bourgeois tendencies.”

Thus we see that national movements admit of only one solution —full democracy. And full democracy means the organization of sovereign and independent national states. This was true for the era of the destruction of feudalism and absolutism and the birth of bourgeois-democratic states. And it is also true for our own era, the era of imperialist capitalism, the eve of the birth of socialism. The same will be true for socialism. We see the past and the present, and we see what will be in the future. And in saying what things will be like under socialism we base ourselves not on what has already been accomplished but on that “tendency in the development of the proletariat” mentioned by Kautsky.

This is what Comrade N. Lenin states:

“Victorious socialism must necessarily establish full democracy and, consequently, not only introduce the complete equality of nations but also implement the right of oppressed nations to selfdetermination, i.e., their right to free political separation. Any socialist party whose activity now, during the revolution, and after victory does not make clear that it will liberate the enslaved nations and establish relations with them on the basis of a free union —and free union is a false phrase if it does not include the right to secession—would be betraying socialism.”

“Marx wrote in his Critique of the Gotha Programme: ‘Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other. In this period of political transition the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.’

“Hitherto this truth has been indisputable for socialists, and it includes recognition of the fact that the state will exist until victorious socialism develops into full communism. Engels’ dictum about the withering away of the state is well known.

“And since we are discussing the state, this means that we are also discussing its boundaries. In his article, ‘The Po and the Rhine,’ Engels writes, among other things, that during the course of historic a I development, which swallowed up a number of small and non-viable nations, the ‘boundaries of the great and viable European nations’ were increasingly determined by the ‘language and sympathies’ of the population. Engels calls these boundaries ‘natural.’

“Today, these democratically determined boundaries are being increasingly broken down by reactionary, imperialist capitalism. There is every indication that imperialism will bequeath its successor, socialism, a heritage of less democratic boundaries, a number of annexations in Europe and other parts of the world. It is to be supposed that victorious socialism, which will restore and implement full democracy all along the line, will refrain from demarcating state boundaries democratically and ignore the ‘sympathies’ of the population?”

In this we see how deeply and strongly the national liberation movements are linked to the progressive side of the world development of capitalism. Of course, the national liberation movement is not an exception among democratic movements and has other aspects which should not be forgotten. Of course it can be exploited by the bourgeoisie. It should be clear enough that we are speaking here of a “tendency which is to be followed, not blindly, but in full awareness.”

The Ukrainian movement does not appear to be a unique phenomenon in history, but it has assumed such vivid forms and developed in such a distinct and classical manner that it is very important for understanding the character, essence, and laws of development of national liberation movements in general. This study is, and will be, of not only theoretical interest. “Today, these democratically determined boundaries are being increasingly broken down by reactionary, imperialist capitalism [of the great and viable European ions whose boundaries were earlier being increasingly determined by the language and sympathies of the population—V. Sh.-R.]. There is every indication that imperialism will bequeath its successor, so( ialism, a heritage of less democratic boundaries, a number of annexaions in Europe and other parts of the world.”

The Ukrainian movement, along with others, will supply much material for working out the principles and tactics of the proletariat. While the proletariat’s attitude toward national movements has been, sip until recently, more negative, when it has to act as the “dominant class of the nation” it will be forced to adopt a positive policy. The Ukrainian nation inhabits an uninterrupted area from the Carpathians in the west almost to the river Don in the east, and from the Black Sea in the south to the line of the Prypiat in the north. The area of this territory is nearly 850,000 square kilometers.t Even if this figure is considered exaggerated, it will be clear that territorially the Ukraine does not fall among the smaller countries. Here are the areas of some of the larger states of the world without their colonies:

 

Territory Population
State Year (thousands of Sq.   K) (millions)
United States of America 1897 7,872 63
Turkey 1897 1,631 22.8
Austria-Hungary 1890 602 42.9
Germany 1895 476 52.3
France 1896 465 38.5
Spain 1887 450 17.6
England (including Ireland) 1891 275 38.1

 

And there are other states with territories of less than 400,000 square kilometers. So even if the Ukraine’s area were reduced by half, that is, if we took only the eight provinces (gubernias) of the former Russian Ukraine (Poltava, Kyiv [Kiev], Kharkiv [Kharkov], Katerynoslav [Ekaterinoslav], Chernyhiv [Chernigov], Volyn, Podillia [Podolia], Kherson) in which the Ukrainians comprise an absolute majority of the population, it would still be territorially comparable to France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Spain, and greater than any other European state except Russia.

We cannot say precisely how many people inhabit this territory, but an estimate of 35 million cannot be an exaggeration. Thus even with respect to population the Ukraine occupies approximately the same place among European states. The number is equally valid as an expression of the population of the territory where Ukrainians form an absolute or a preponderant majority or as an expression of the total Ukrainian population, including those living outside this territory.

For a better understanding of the character of the Ukrainian national movement, its class essence and its various forms, it will suffice to give information on the above eight provinces alone. They differ in no way from the rest of the territory, and their characteristics may thus be considered typical.

Of the 22 million persons inhabiting these provinces in 1897, 16.4 millions or 74.6 percent were Ukrainians, 2.4 millions or 10.7 per cent were Russians, 1.9 millions or 8.5 percent were Jews, 0.4 million or 1.9 percent were Germans, and 0.4 million or 1.9 percent were Poles.

Of the Ukrainians 90 percent are peasants, and the cities are inhabited predominantly by non-Ukrainians. The following are a few characteristic figures:

 

Percentage of Ukrainians in the Population
District Including the cities Without the cities
Poltava 88.7 98.7
Kremenchuh (Kremenchug) 80.8 98.2
Chernyhiv (Chernigov) 86.1 97.4
Kamianets Podilskyi (Kamenets Podolskii) 78.9 87.0
Kharkiv (Kharkov) 54.9 88.8
Kyiv (Kiev) 56.2 84.0
Katerynoslav (Ekaterinoslav) 55.7 74.1

 

For this reason one significant characteristic of the Ukrainian movement has been the opposition between the Ukrainian village and the non-Ukrainian city.

Furthermore, social contradictions have been clothed in national colors. Manufacturers, merchants, and landowners were usually either Russians, Poles, Jews, Germans, or Ukrainians of the Skoropadski type. The Ukrainian noble strata had been russified or polonized during the preceding two and one-half centuries. Only during the revolution, when the strength of the national movement became clear to everyone, did some landowners begin to recall their Ukrainian ancestry. All of the grand bourgeoisie—landowners, merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers—had close ties with Russia because of profitable business interests. Separation of the Ukraine brought them only clear loss. And when the landowners and capitalists now do everything possible to regenerate the one and indivisible Russia, they show a much better understanding of their own interests than Comrade Kulyk imagines.

It could, of course, be maintained that the aristocratic intelligentsia has played a prominent role, especially in the early stages of the new Ukrainian movement in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Thus one could “write history” as follows: I. Kotliarevskii’s Aeneid “gave birth” to the Ukrainian national movement. And Kotliarevskii was (1) of the intelligentsia, (2) a bureaucrat and high official of the Poltava governor-general, and (3) concerned with the problems of landowners (he was an official for special assignments of the governor-general who was himself a landowner). Ergo, as early as the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century the landowners and intelligentsia foresaw the 1917 revolution, and the fear of this proletarian revolution forced them to seek shelter. Their prognostications came true, and we see them first seeking refuge with the Central Rada and then dispersing it and setting up Skoropadski! But this made the productive forces angry, and Shevchenko was made a soldier while Minister Valuev3 (who was clever, even though a landowner!) said: There were no Ukrainians, there are none now and there will be none in the future!

No, the Ukrainian movement depended mainly on the village and was led by an intelligentsia in constant communication with the village. The Ukrainian workers also played an important role in awakening and activating the national consciousness of the peasants and maintained contact with the village. The Ukrainian worker felt the national oppression on his own neck.

The central figure of Ukrainian literature and of the intelligentsia is Taras Shevchenko, son of a peasant serf. Throughout the century Ukrainian literature and art bore a primarily rustic character. It depicted peasant life, took its heroes from the village, and was imbued with a deep and sincere love of the illiterate, browbeaten, and helpless village population. Not from the national character but through a consideration of the Ukrainian people’s exceedingly difficult and abnormal living conditions can one understand the idealistic enthusiasm which runs like a red thread through the history of Ukrainian literature and social thought and of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. The role and character of the intelligentsia in the Ukrainian national liberation movement is better understood if compared with that of the Russian intelligentsia in the general history of the revolutionary destruction of serfdom and despotism. Not in vain did they live together under the roof of the tsarist autocracy!

It was hard work! The enslaved village was silent, only occasionally sending out its sons to anounce that

The species has not perished, The country is still alive.

But conditions changed at the beginning of this century. The capitalism which invaded the Ukraine with a clattering and whistling of locomotives and a wailing of factory sirens also aroused the village. The Ukraine was lighted up by the glowing coal of the blast furnaces; the straw-thatched villages were set afire by the sparks from locomotives and factory chimneys. It is no accident that the rise of capitalist production in the Ukraine, the peasant insurrections in Poltava and Kharkiv (Kharkov) provinces, the divisions among Ukrainian groups along party lines, and the advent of an urban type of literature (particularly in the writings of the talented V. Vynnychenko) all occurred at the same time. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” That very same 7o percent of coal, 99 percent of beams and channels, 79 percent of rails, and 68 percent of shaped iron with which the Katerynoslavians attempt to strangle and bury the Ukrainian movement were the base of this movement. Ukrainian independence rests precisely on this industry, and not on any higher feelings (“in them, for them”) of these or other “benefactors.” The same combined enterprises which the Katerynoslavians use to offer the Ukrainian people a combined unity will see to it that the Katerynoslavians are left with combined enterprises made up of their own fingers.

We know that revolution rejects all that is superficial and conventional and reveals the sources of deep springs and forces. A revolution is an examination. What do we learn from the revolutionary national liberation movement?

As early as May, 1918, we wrote (in a book which was never published) :

The national movement for the first time gives evidence of its own vigor and strength. Before the revolution the general attitude was that the Ukrainian movement was the invention of an eccentric “Little Russian” intelligentsia, was incompatible with the interests of a majority of the population, had no mass following, and was not supported by any wide circles of “Little Russian” citizens. The movement was considered as limited to so-called cultural demands: schools in Ukrainian, free use of both spoken and printed Ukrainian, etc. The desire for autonomy, for the organization of Ukrainians into a political unit, was viewed as “separatism,” “an Austrian orientation,” “supported by German marks” in order to arrive at the police deduction: “grab ’em and hold ’em.” Although formerly one might have thought that the Ukrainian movement could not pass beyond literary, cultural, and educational matters, since t he revolution only those who are hopelessly ignorant of its real relation to political life can call the Ukrainian movement a “bourgeois invention” or can advance such petty arguments as that the peasants understand Russian better than “Galician” and so on. These views would not be so annoying if held only by the common people, but it is regrettable that even those in high positions in our party7 advocate them even after the proclamation of the Ukrainian Republic.

Only the blind can fail to see that the movement has cm braced the broadest and deepest circles of Ukrainian citizens and has revealed their general desire to become not only a cultural, linguistic, and ethnographic group, but also a sovereign political nation. The initial demands for national territorial autonomy and then for republican status in a Federated Russia evoked a broad and immediate response.

All congresses—peasant, worker, military, party, professional, or educational, whether All-Ukrainian, regional, or district—have unanimously adopted this objective.

The power of this movement for rebirth of the nation in statehood has been so unexpected that even the leaders of t he movement can hardly give it suitable political expression. The movement has also been very influential in Galicia and has awakened the desire to do away with the border dividing the two parts of the Ukrainian nation.

It can be stated with certainty that the Ukraine will not agree to die, or to accept national captivity, regardless of what misfortunes may befall it. This should be kept in mind by every party working in the Ukraine.

The will to organize the Ukraine as a state-political unit within ethnographic boundaries is an incontrovertible fact.

What “ideological” elements enter into the Ukrainian movement?

First, the language. One’s native language, one’s own word, evoke the deepest national feelings. Every Ukrainian has loved his native tongue. In it are historical memories, songs, literature, and also the social-national protest of a people using a “peasant” language against those speaking “noble” languages (Russian or Polish) . It contains a vision of equality with the “noble” nations. It contains the recognition of national unity: we are Ukrainians above everything else.

There were recollections of the historic past—the Cossack campaigns, the struggles with Poland and Muscovy—whose strength was a source of delight. Others—the Petrograd erected on Cossack bones—awoke bitter feelings about a greater culture and enlightenment in the past.

There was protest against socioeconomic and national-political oppression by the Russians, Poles, Rumanians, and Hungarians who were the large landowners, merchants, manufacturers, and officials.

There was protest against the city which leads a luxurious life on the power and money it derives from the village and gives hardly anything in return.

Among Ukrainians there was a desire to organize their own land fund, to increase production, to raise their culture to a higher level.

There was protest against the centralism and imperialism which returned to the Ukraine only half of the taxes which it paid.

There was the desire to exercise one’s own will and power in one’s own house.”

Ukrainians felt that they represented the only democracy in the Ukraine—in contrast to the other nationalities which they viewed as autocratic.

“We have no bourgeoisie, only democracy.”

“We have only socialist parties!”

In the detailed memorandum sent to the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies we read:

“The ruling circles of the Ukraine are not Ukrainian. Industry is in the hands of the Russian, Jewish, and French bourgeoisie, and the capitalist traders, together with a large proportion of the agrarian bourgeoisie are Poles and Ukrainians who have long since called themselves ‘Russians’ [italics ours]. Similarly, administrative posts are all in the hands of non-Ukrainians.

“But the exploited strata—the peasantry, a majority of the urban proletariat, the artisans, and petty officials—are Ukrainians. Hence, at the present time there is no Ukrainian bourgeoisie [italics in the memorandum] which considers itself Ukrainian. Although the class interests of some individuals and small groups are identical with those of the economically dominant classes, no bourgeois class, we repeat, exists.

“This is why no Ukrainian party has yet failed to include the idea of socialism in its platform.”

What forms did this movement take? How did it make itself noticed?

Through gigantic rallies, mainly of soldiers, in places such as Kiev and Petrograd where there were many Ukrainians; through thousands of peasant congresses, military congresses, and workers’ educational, cultural, and party congresses; through meetings in villages, cities, railroad yards, and factories.

And at times of particular tension it took the form of near-insurrections. There were three such occasions: in the early days of June when Defense Minister Kerenski forbade the convocation of the Second Military Congress, and it assembled in spite of him (the upshot of this “peaceful” insurrection was the proclamation of the First Universal and the declaration of autonomy) —then during the October revolution when the Third Military Congress carried with it the vacillating Central Rada (resulting in the Third Universal and the proclamation of the Republic) —and finally there was the insurrection against the “Bolshevik Russian” government and the Fourth Universal proclaiming independence and appealing to the “German people” (in reality, to Kaiser Wilhelm, Hindenburg, and Hertling) for help against the “Russians” and “Bolsheviks” …

We have not even mentioned the newspapers, proclamations, announcements, and so forth.

But after all this has happened some people still call it an “invention”—a “bourgeois invention” perhaps, but an “invention” nonetheless!

In the same way the Cadet Rech, and even the left-wing Zimmerwaldists in Berner Tagwacht, called the Irish insurrection a “Putsch.”

Here is what N. Lenin wrote about this “Putsch,” this “invention”:

“The term ‘putsch’ [and `invention], in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempted insurrection is exposed as nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs who have aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries-old Irish movement, after passing through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a massive Irish National Congress in America (Vorwaerts, March 20, 1916) which called for Irish independence; it also took the form of street fighting by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a `putsch’ [or an `invention] is either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire, hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.”

The Ukrainian people as a nation, regardless of class, have expressed their will with respect to self-determination and their political status.

In tens and hundreds of resolutions at meetings, at congresses of various kinds, large and small, in the party and the public press, in demonstrations on an imposing scale, in armed clashes—the desire has everywhere been expressed to:

  1. Organize themselves as a state-political nation.
  2. Unite the various Ukrainian lands and regions in which there is a Ukrainian majority, regardless of existing political boundaries, into a united Ukrainian Republic.
  3. Declare themselves for an independent republic not in theory but through personal experience and through the course of events.

This we wrote eight months ago.

 

12 Comments »

  1. William K. Polk: The Cold War and Ukraine / Cuban Missile Crisis in Reverse? CounterPunch February 25, 2015

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/25/the-cold-war-and-ukraine/

    Comment by thom prentice — February 25, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

  2. Paul Craig Roberts: America’s Political Autism / Washington has Resurrected the Threat of Nuclear War

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/25/washington-has-resurrected-the-threat-of-nuclear-war/

    Comment by thom prentice — February 25, 2015 @ 10:37 pm

  3. Not that Lenin’s words are the equivalent of religious dogmas written in stone, but for what it’s worth here is what Lenin wrote in “Socialist Revolution & Right of Nations to Self-Determination (Thesis)”, written in 1916 (from Section 8):

    “It will be the duty of the Socialists to explain to the masses that English Socialists who fail to demand the freedom of secession for the colonies and for Ireland; that German Socialists who fail to demand the freedom of secession for the colonies, for the Alsatians, for the Danes and for the Poles, and who fail to carry direct revolutionary propaganda and revolutionary mass action to the field of struggle against national oppression, […]; that Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.—are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jan/x01.htm)

    As the reader can see, Lenin was addressing *socialists and revolutionaries*. So, it is clear at least from this text that Lenin was *explicitly* and positively supportive of Ukraine’s right to self-determination. In the same text Lenin makes clear that the right of to self-determination is not some nicety or good decorum for socialists to observe. No. For him it was the prerequisite and a basic condition for true internationalism, for true solidarity (based on equality) between the working classes of the oppressed and the oppressor nations.

    Comment by Reza F. — February 26, 2015 @ 5:08 pm

  4. I wish somebody would define the terms “(one) True (Holy and Apostolic) Internationalism” and “(one) True (Holy and Apostolic) Solidarity” as well as explain the use of “between” as in “between the working classes …” as opposed, to say, use of the term “among”…among others.

    It would also be useful for folk to explain exactly HOW this is to be achieved — the mechansim(s) by which this is to be achieved — since theory really doesn’t seem to have worked out in praxis in the past. For instance, a distinct alignment exists among the working classes and voters of Syriza of Greece and Podemos or Spain and Bolivarians in Venezuela maybe even — Scotland?! — but does that all constitute True Enlightenment, I mean, “true internationalism” and ‘true solidarity”?

    Moreover, I would simply observe that Mr. Khruschev must have been a “nearly-true Leninist” as he at least GESTURED toward Ukraine’s right to self-determination in the 1950s and would further observe that Mr. Yeltsin was CLEARLY a “borscht-belt” (think bible-belt) true Leninist since Mr. Yeltsin was at least responsible for not interfering in the independence of Ukraine if not actually having midwifed it.

    I was in a poetry improvement meeting last night with really good poets but the discussion nevertheless ALWAYS degenerated into too many rules and too much grammar and rigidity about form (Haiku, Tanka, whatever — think Lutheran or Roman Catholic rubrics and liturgy) and I thought that THIS was exactly the kind of shit I was trying to get away from. Nevertheless they really improved my poem and I tried to help them think about other ways to think about theirs. It was overall, good, and I’ll keep attending. I have the same thoughts with all this doctrinaire Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Gorbachevism, et cetera. If I wanted to keep reading rigid and mind-numbing encyclicals and reports from Treasury, think tanks and Senate committees or even eye-crossing Baudrillard or Derrida or the platform of the Texas Republican Party pickayear, or ANY Obama speech, I would have… 😉

    Comment by thom prentice — February 26, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

  5. Thom,

    In case you are asking a ‘true’ question (as opposed to a rhetorical, mocking one), in the same text (which incidentally is a very short one, about a dozen pages, so it can be read quickly for the gist of his position on this issue), Lenin makes an attempt to contrast ‘true’ solidarity to fake internationalism/solidarity of socialist-chauvinists. For example, in Section 3 he states:

    QUOTE: The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that “its own” nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible; the hypocrisy of the reformist and Kautskyan advocates of self-determination who maintain silence about the nations which are oppressed by “their” nation and forcibly retained within “their” state will remain unexposed. END QUOTE. (same text, Section 3; https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jan/x01.htm)

    The fake internationalism, in other words, is akin to saying to the oppressed nations’ working classes: “Yeah, yeah, yeah! For now, just shut up about your particular oppressions. We’ll take care of all that in our future utopia, once we create socialism.”

    Again, in Section 3, we read: “[Socialists/revolutionaries must] demand the liberation of the oppressed nations, not only in general, nebulous phrases, not in empty declamations, not by “postponing” the question until socialism is established, but in a clearly and precisely formulated political programme which shall particularly take into account the hypocrisy and cowardice of the Socialists in the oppressing nations. Just as mankind can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so mankind can achieve the inevitable merging of nations only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede.”

    In Section 4 of the same text, Lenin goes so far as to call for *organizational* unity between (among, whatever is the correct grammar; pardon my second-language/acquired English) the working classes of the oppressed and oppressor nations:

    “The Socialists of the oppressed nations, on the other hand, must particularly fight for and maintain complete, absolute unity (also organizational) between the workers of the oppressed nation and the workers of the oppressing nation.” (Same text, Section 4: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jan/x01.htm)

    Comment by Reza F. — February 26, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

  6. MORE “This Just In” from CounterPunch:

    Peter Lavenia: Syriza, Germany, and Reality: The Death of Social Democracy

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/26/the-death-of-social-democracy/ PETER LAVENIA

    EXCERPT: “In reading Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister’s essay “How I Became an Erratic Marxist1,” I was reminded of a line in Karl Marx’s famous letter to Arnold Ruge where he declares “But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”2Marx was of course arguing real radicalism cannot shy from harsh truths.

    The harsh truth we are faced with is that Syriza represents the last gasp of honest, reformist, left-Social Democracy.

    After the deal made with the Troika on Friday, it,

    ***as Rosa Luxemburg declared its predecessor – revolutionary Social Democracy – is now nothing but a stinking corpse.***

    The constraints of the capitalism world-system, the EU, and the European ruling class have conspired to make all attempts at real left-Social Democratic policies impossible.

    Honest, reformist left-Social Democracy has attempted over the years to be a broker between the needs of the working class and poorer sections of the middle class, the state, and the bourgeoisie. More Keynesian than socialist, its social and electoral base has demanded expansion and enforcement of pro-worker labor laws, reversal of privatizations, higher minimum wages, and political checks on the power of large corporations….

    Comment by thom prentice — February 26, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

  7. Louis, I enjoyed reading this post and I think you’re absolutely justified in wanting to condemn ‘Great Russian Chauvinism’ in Eastern Europe. I’d also agree that it’s lamentable the way the discourse on Ukraine has developed recently. No one is willing to change their position. At the risk of slandering other Marxists (dogmatic or otherwise), I think part of the problem stems from the pro-separatist/anti-imperialist habit of being far too outspoken and haughty, and making almost no effort to convince anyone of the value of their position. Some of the CounterPunch articles that I’ve come across during the last twelve months have been so withering, so simplistic, it makes me wonder what they’re hoping to achieve by publishing them.

    Nevertheless, I am still not convinced that the Russian Bear is the principal belligerent in this conflict. Obviously that’s a completely counterintuitive thing to say, since there’s evidence of Russian servicemen and -women filling out the ranks of the ‘Novorossiyans’ as well as arms crossing the border (though this has been exaggerated in the press – many of the reports of separatists riding in Russian tanks have actually shown *captured* Ukrainian-built tanks, or relied on photos taken in Crimea where parts of the Russian military were already stationed). I know you’ve suffered these arguments too many times already, but I really do think it’s the US who is a greater threat to Ukraine and Europe and I’m bothered that your position omits some crucial details.

    First of all, even if we accept that Russia has been stoking the conflict, brainwashing the population of the East, pouring arms into the region (but also taking in thousands of refugees, don’t forget), you surely can’t deny that in the next few months we’re likely to see an even greater influx of NATO troops, or advisers, or air power, or lethal aid? (And that’s to say nothing of the non-lethal aid which has already been supplied, or the loans and donations the US has already underwritten.) I know it’s not a given – it depends on whether the situation stabilises – but Western intervention appears to be a major possibility. Representatives from the State Department have already said they want Ukraine to go back to the old borders, with the old centralised government, so there’s a good chance that they’ll find a pretext to rout the eastern separatists at some point this year. And because America’s military budget outstrips everyone else’s by such a wide margin, the threat of absolute decimation faced by the rebels and civilians in the east is very real. The outcome of a NATO-led assault on the country has the potential to be far more destructive than a covert secessionist war supported by Russia, which has limited objectives (limited by the extent of ‘popular’ support for secession, I mean). I know that’s just a hypothetical argument, but in light of what’s gone on in Libya and Syria, I don’t think we should ignore the ever-present threat of Western intervention, which almost never leads to the attainment of progressive aims. You can blame this on the actions of strongmen dictators like Gaddafi or Assad or Putin, you can claim that they are ultimately responsible for exacerbating the situation and subjecting their people to US intervention, but in the end this moral calculus only helps to generate support for Western military involvement – and nothing good can come of Western military involvement.

    It’s also important to note that Ukraine’s movement towards closer integration with the EU, which the new government is supposed to support (in accordance with the wishes of the EuroMaidan protestors), is a huge boon to the US. This is the main reason why Russia shouldn’t be considered the dominant reactionary force in eastern Ukraine. The tactical significance of Ukraine’s western realignment in the context of capitalist crisis is not lost on someone like Victoria Nuland, who is also pushing for the ratification of TTIP. The US would like to lower the cost of ‘inputs’ – specifically, the cost of energy (rolling out fracking in Ukraine will help ‘diversify supply’ and reduce prices) and the cost of labour. Since there’s limited scope for capitalist ‘growth’ in new sectors of the economy (the phone/tablet/tech industry has started to plateau, biotech hasn’t really got off the ground yet), the best course of action for capitalists faced with a crisis of overproduction and a falling rate of profit is to depress wages, to find new workers who will labour for less. The IMF’s commitment to austerity shows that they aren’t interested in developing automation as a means of increasing productivity – they want cheaper labour, deregulation, a reduced welfare bill. America is totally committed to this kind of predation on the global working class and it is far more adept at carrying it off long-term than Russia’s goons ever will be. The US is a much stronger reactionary force than Russia, and the consequence of its expanding influence in Europe will only produce more humanitarian crises like the one that Greece is currently experiencing.

    I don’t doubt that the protestors in Kiev were sincerely fed up with Yanukovych, or that they had a right to protest and remove him from office, and I’ve even managed to stop myself going on about Right Sector and fascism. But now that Ukraine has elected Poroshenko, and the consequences of this have become a little clearer – for instance, the expansion of the energy sector through ‘diversification’ will accelerate global warming, and seems to be motivated by the West’s refusal to subsidise Venezuela, Russia, and Iran through the oil price (too bad for their citizens, I guess) – should we really be focusing on ‘Russian imperialism’? I can’t be so sanguine about the ‘progressive’ (as in ‘historically progressive’, or developmental) secondary effects of US-dominated globalization, because the US has the means to keep blocking or deferring any and all socialist gains, no matter how structurally logical they are. Some of the most effective forms of opposition to capitalism are to be found in those national movements explicitly opposed to the US – like the black nationalists of the ’60s, actually. Conversely, the people in Ukraine who continue to shout ‘glory to heroes’ seem to be staunchly anti-Russian, unconscious of the threat posed by the US. I think they’re failing to grasp what’s at stake, or how to defend themselves.

    I know you think this is a fascistic ‘red-brown’ political position but I remain convinced that you’re mistaken.

    Comment by j — February 27, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

  8. Socialists and leftists who believe that NATO pushed Russia into intervening in Ukraine must by force of logic agree with and support (not implicitly but explicitly) imperialist logic. How so?

    Imperialist logic divides the world into the oppressed (lesser) nations and oppressor nations dominating them. It is ONLY in imperialist logic that the notion of *sphere of influence* or *buffer zones* have meaning. It is only in imperialist thinking that one can reduce an entire nation on one’s border to the object position of being dominated and controlled so that others cannot penetrate that *sphere of influence*. Meaning, only in imperialist logic does a whole nation get reduced to an object to be manipulated.

    When leftists step back from the right of nations to self-determination, and *only* when one rejects that right, can one go along with Putin’s arguments about Ukraine today, or Teddy Roosevelt’s arguments about Cuba back a hundred years ago. To talk about and accept the idea that the *sphere of influence* of great powers should be respected and not interfered with, is to accept that nation-states must fall into a two-tier system, with some nations having more rights, including the right to interfere in the affairs of, and subjugate, other nations.

    A very simple criterion for being a leftist is the absolute adherence to the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination. It should not matter whatsoever the political direction a nation decides to take; the right to self-determination includes going in any which direction a nation wants to go politically. The right of self-determination is NOT just for those whose political lines we like or agree with. The leftists who contort and twist and torture all manner of logic to find rationalizations and excuses for Russian aggressions in Ukraine are simply accepting the logic of imperialism as it is espoused by U.S. and other powerful political leaders.

    Comment by Reza F. — February 28, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

  9. “A very simple criterion for being a leftist is the absolute adherence to the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination. It should not matter whatsoever the political direction a nation decides to take; the right to self-determination includes going in any which direction a nation wants to go politically.”

    This is the source of my confusion.

    What if a nation decides to go in a political direction which clearly undermines its capacity for self-determination? What if a nation chooses to swap one imperial yoke for another?

    What if a nation decides to go in a direction which undermines a neighbouring nation’s capacity for self-determination?

    Both of these questions apply directly to Ukraine. Firstly, the EuroMaidan protests were explicitly in favour of the free trade agreement with the EU. Closer integration with Europe entails IMF loans and the possibility of NATO membership. Look at Greece: the situation there is largely a product of these institutions – Greece’s capacity for self-determination has diminished considerably! This is why I can’t agree that Ukraine has ‘declared independence’ in this instance. Rather, the Maidan protests and the resulting change of government freed Ukraine from Russian oligarchic corruption only to deliver the country into the hands of an altogether more clinical and legalistic Western financial imperialism. Whether we wish to defend the legacy of the EuroMaidan protests will depend on whether we think European integration is a net gain for Ukraine. Taken in isolation (i.e. without taking into account the conflict which has now flared up in the east) I would agree that this change of ‘landlord’ is possibly a slight improvement. But this is quite obviously a grey area, and not a simple case of defending a country’s right to self-determination as a matter of principle. Simply put: was Ukraine’s sovereignty truly reinforced by the country’s European realignment? If self-determination is paramount, did EuroMaidan deserve our vocal support?

    Regarding the second question, it is worth remembering that there’s a working class in Russia as well as in Ukraine and their lot has worsened considerably since the Ukrainian revolution. The left-wing opposition inside Russia has been battered by a rising nationalist tide. Putin’s approval ratings are up, and there’s a strong pretext for more authoritarian and conservative domestic policies. The Kyiv protestors helped to produce this situation: they did not repel the US diplomats or Russophobic nationalists who joined their ranks. Russians to the east are now faced with the dire prospect of more rigid domination and manipulation by the Russian bourgeoisie. Can you honestly claim that Ukrainian self-determination is beyond all criticism, even when it takes place at great cost to those in the east?

    It did not have to happen like this. Ukraine could have asserted herself without there being a war in the east. But the nature of EuroMaidan – the timing, the rhetoric, the statements by US, UK, NATO, and NGO representatives, not to mention the state of the energy market (even prior to the effective dissolution of OPEC) – has made it very easy for hostilities to spill over into violence, and for both sides to feel themselves justified in engaging one another militarily. That goes for the Anti-Terror Operation just the same as it goes for Russia’s backing of the rebels.

    There’s an article by Kirill Medvedev (posted on this site I think) which offers the fairest assessment of what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia right now. In each case, the promise of Maidan gave way to something reactionary and the promise of a fairly autonomous ‘anti-Maidan’ gave way to something reactionary. It doesn’t hurt anyone to admit that there’s no good side in this conflict. I don’t know what difference it would make if I typed out my unflagging support for national self-determination in this comment box. What’s at stake now is the outcome of the war – there needs to be a diplomatic solution. If any of NATO’s member states start to get involved there will be carnage, and that’s why people in western Europe and the US need to focus on NATO rather than Putin and make sure we mobilise against any escalation of the conflict by our own governments.

    If the eastern separatists reveal themselves to be full-on imperialist expansionists and start marching on Kyiv then I will be forced to change my position, of course.

    Comment by j — March 1, 2015 @ 4:16 am

  10. J said: “What if a nation decides to go in a political direction which clearly undermines its capacity for self-determination? What if a nation chooses to swap one imperial yoke for another?”

    Reza replies: All those possibilities are … well, possible!! Right of nations to self-determination is just that: the right of a nation to decide for itself what it wants to do politically, who it wants to align itself with, etc. etc. We socialists cannot declare that “the right of self-determination is ONLY acceptable if the nation decides to go socialist!” In fact, the right of self-determination is by nature a bourgeois right, not a socialist concept. The reason we support it is because the international unity of working classes must be based on real equality of peoples of different nations.

    Let’s look at the Ukraine situation from another angle. At the very historical moment when the Ukrainian working classes needed the highest level of unity in order to fight back against the right-wing regime that installed itself last February, after the Maidan protests, the Russian military aggressions (land grab in Crimea, etc.) instigated by Putin made sure that no such unity was possible. In fact, one can argue that the Russian interventions were designed to make sure that on both sides of the border (in Ukrainian eastern provinces, and in Russia itself) fracturing of the working classes would be intensified along *ethnic/linguistic* lines, which is to say along *reactionary* lines. Right wing nationalist and chauvinistic tendencies have been greatly intensified and as a result a fracturing along ethnic lines has become the norm and will remain the norm for decades to come.

    Comment by Reza F. — March 1, 2015 @ 6:52 pm

  11. You make a convincing case. I only have a couple of objections, but they don’t really touch the heart of your argument:

    1. As far as the ethnic/linguistic division is concerned, I agree that Russia’s involvement over the past year has pretty much guaranteed that the politics of the region are now mired in reactionary nationalism. But we should not forget that there were significant contributing factors on the Ukrainian side: some of the policies of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, or the right-wing activism undertaken by Svoboda and Right Sector. When American support was given to Ukraine, it did not always flow to progressive anti-nationalist forces within the country – and this is in keeping with neoconservative foreign policy towards other places like Chechnya and Georgia. So when we analyse this crisis I think there ought to be some awareness that the ruling classes on both sides of the Russian border are acting according to the maxim “divide et impera”. (I’m not really sure how this awareness would help – maybe it can form the basis of a reconciliation?)

    2. When we discuss the dismal condition of the Russian state, the tendency towards authoritarian nationalism, the violence and deceit which has become normalised there, we should again try to understand that the US had a hand in creating that system. Not only through the shock doctrine carried out in the ‘90s (midwifed by Western economists), but in the shallow forms of democracy promoted by the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the ‘Center of Political Consulting’ in Moscow (nicknamed ‘Niccolo M’ after Machiavelli). This does not mean that the US is solely responsible for Putin’s actions, it only means that Western influence is evident on both sides of the Ukrainian/Russian conflagration.

    I write all this only to try to convince you of the validity of some of the points made by the ‘vulgar’ economistic anti-imperialists.

    A considerable part of the blame for the situation in Ukraine rests with US institutions. If we recognise this and incorporate it into our analysis we can unite against warmongers in the Russian government and against the ruling class ’tacticians’ in the West.

    (I completely agree with your second paragraph though… the Russian land-grab has not helped anyone and I find myself perplexed when I see people defending it to the hilt.)

    Comment by j — March 1, 2015 @ 9:47 pm

  12. […] Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl Shakhrai, On the Current Situation in the Ukraine (excerpt) (1918) https://louisproyect.org/2015/02/25/the-ukrainian-national-movement-versus-great-russian-chauvinism/ […]

    Pingback by Rex — December 28, 2015 @ 1:36 pm


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