The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Revolutionaries and War in Ukraine

May 29, 2022

The following article is translated from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), issue #225, the magazine of Lutte Ouvriéve (Workers Struggle) the Trotskyist workers organization active in France.

The text of this article takes up, for the most part, that of a forum held at the Lutte Ouvrière Fête last May.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated an evolution of the international situation, which was already moving toward more tensions, more loud drum beats for war. It now threatens to become more permanent and even to spread. The head of the French armed forces wrote last May: "High-intensity warfare is back in Europe. [...] The probability of a major engagement has increased considerably. [...] We have changed times, scale and stakes. Everyone must do what is necessary to prepare for it."

Well, the revolutionaries must be prepared for that, too, or else they will be caught off guard and will have no other policy than to align themselves behind the rulers of this world, on both sides of the front lines.

Wars take everyone by surprise, and the day they break out, the lives of millions of people change overnight. The war in Ukraine seemed to break the course of society that everyone in Europe had become accustomed to.

And yet, there are wars! For the Iraqis, war has become a daily occurrence. For the Afghans too. Since 1945, there has not been a single year without conflict somewhere on the planet. The war in Ukraine has been rumbling since 2014. There is war in Yemen, Syria, Israel, Mali, Ethiopia, Sudan.... And there are tensions in the China Sea, where Americans and Australians are concentrating forces and preparing minds for a possible war with China.

War, never extinguished, threatens to spread again. Revolutionaries must remember that capitalism carries wars within itself and that, in order to stop them, we must want to overthrow it.

Time for a General Rearmament

Commentators, journalists and politicians were unanimous in their support for Ukraine….

When Nathalie Arthaud, on the television sets during the presidential campaign, explained that NATO and the imperialist countries had their share of responsibility in this war, that it was necessary to denounce it as fratricide and to oppose it, she was answered in a lapidary way: But, after all, the Ukrainians have the right to defend themselves!

And in the name of defending an invaded country, they all demanded that their government send arms to Ukraine, support it, sanction and further isolate Russia. The result was far beyond their expectations.

The imperialist countries are now supplying heavy weapons to the Zelensky government. On May 10, the U.S. House released $40 billion in aid. The declared objective of the United States is no longer even to obtain an end to the war, but to weaken Russia durably... with the skin of the Ukrainians!

Moreover, the Western states and NATO have embarked on a remilitarization that no one envisaged just a few months ago. As soon as Russia invaded, France sent 500 additional troops to Romania, on the border with Ukraine and Moldova, alongside other NATO troops.

Rearmament had in fact begun before the conflict: by 2020, total world military expenditure had already reached USD 1.981 trillion, 38% of which was for the United States alone, and with USD 813 billion planned for 2023, the United States will have the largest military budget ever, far ahead of the other states. The European Union pales in comparison. It has, however, just launched a plan to replenish and modernize its weapon stock. Germany, for the first time since 1945, has significantly increased its military budget.

Militarism "has become a capitalist disease," said Rosa Luxemburg in her time. Well, the same can be said today.

And the game of alliances is likely to escalate. NATO, energized by the war, is about to integrate Finland and Sweden, through which it will have an additional 1,300 kilometers of common border with Russia. It has announced that it is strengthening its presence "on land, at sea and in the air." It is hard to say how this situation will evolve in the years to come.

After three months of war, one would have to be blind not to see that the conflict is not just between a small nation and a larger one that has attacked it, although that is one aspect of the reality, but between two sides that are clashing on Ukrainian territory today and preparing for a larger clash perhaps tomorrow.

Imperialism Breeds War

By the beginning of the 20th century, the development of capitalism had reached its imperialist stage. The concentration of capital had led to the emergence of trusts, monopolies and the development of finance. As capital found itself increasingly restricted to the national framework, the states of a handful of so-called civilized countries extended their colonies and their hold over the entire planet. Since then, competition has been on the scale of the trusts and the major capitalist states. Rivalries are the rule between the national and international components of the bourgeoisie, which only show solidarity against the exploited when their domination is endangered: the rest of the time, they confront each other in a fierce war.

However, imperialist wars are always adorned with great abstract ideas and high moral values in order to win over the people: freedom, the rights of nations, the defense of the fatherland, the defense of civilization against barbarism or that of democracy against dictatorship.... Rosa Luxemburg wrote on this subject: "The legend of the defense of the fatherland belongs as much to the art of war as gunpowder and lead! Politicians are now telling us that the heavy weapons sent to Ukraine are to “preserve the peace”.

So we must not be fooled by the lies that justify wars. A famous phrase by Clausewitz, an officer of the Napoleonic era, says: "War is only the continuation of politics by other means."

Well, in the face of every war, we have to ask ourselves what is the policy of which this war is an extension. And more precisely: which class is leading this war? With what objectives? It is generally impossible to answer these questions from a strictly national point of view.

Russian Bureaucracy Confronted with Imperialist Rivalries

The media hammered it home: the aggressor is Putin, it’s Russia.

Formally, it is indisputable that it was Russia that attacked. It is Russia that is bombing cities and its troops are now an occupation army, with all the horrors that this implies.

However, we must consider what Putin is saying when he says that he took the initiative because, sooner or later, a confrontation was inevitable. Some political and military leaders here are saying the same thing. It is not a question of proving him right, but of hearing: this is how the Russian authorities perceive the relations that have been established between Russia and the West since the fall of the USSR. The country’s privileged strata—the bureaucracy inherited from the Soviet era, the heights of power—believe that the West has rejected Russia from the world capitalist system, even though at the beginning of the 2000s, when Putin came to power, this same Russia still aspired to take its place in it. This was without taking into account that, in the imperialist system, there is no room for everyone to share the profits.

After the fall of the USSR, capitalism was certainly ready to reintegrate the former Soviet republics, but on condition that they be subjected to its domination, as it subjects the rest of the world. It wanted Russia, with its natural wealth, but reduced to a minimum. Since 1991, NATO has gained ground, set up new military bases, and Western capital has penetrated Eastern Europe. Russia’s sphere of influence, including in its immediate vicinity, has become much smaller than it was during the Soviet Union. In fact, it has never stopped shrinking.

Nevertheless, Russia still stands its ground, and defends its corner tooth and nail, as a result of an originality inherited from history, which has made it the number one public enemy of the imperialist world today—along with China.

These two countries, Russia and China, are large countries, and above all strong states, born of revolutions of different social natures, but of two powerful, profound revolutions that have completely transformed these countries. Statism allowed both of them to resist imperialism, to develop within certain limits on the fringes of the world market, before reintegrating into it. And to this day, the state plays a dominant role in both Russia and China, which explains why these countries can, to some extent, conduct their own policies and constitute a thorn in the side of the imperialist states. With the deepening of the world crisis, aggression toward them is increasing.

So, certainly, Putin’s current policy is criminal, but economic, political and military aggression comes first and foremost, and permanently, from the side of the imperialist powers that have been shaping the planet for more than a century.

The present relationship between imperialism and the Soviet and then Russian bureaucracy is not new. They have always consisted of a succession of rapprochements and tensions threatening to degenerate into armed conflict. But the two come together when it comes to fighting the exploited. Trotsky already denounced the complicity of the Stalinist bureaucracy with imperialism, its attempts to gain acceptance and its counter-revolutionary role. At the end of the Second World War, it showed that it was ready to contribute to the maintenance of order. And more than once imperialism has been satisfied with Soviet interventions: in the People’s Democracies, in Afghanistan, in Syria. As recently as last January, the imperialist countries said nothing when Putin invaded Kazakhstan to quell a revolt that risked undermining the dictatorship in place: it must be said that the Western trusts are omnipresent in this country.

All this does not prevent the Russian bureaucracy from being badly rewarded, that, for all these services rendered to imperialism. So it plays unscrupulously with the skin of the Ukrainian and Russian people to defend its interests. Once again, to say this is not to justify Putin’s policy, on the contrary: it is to denounce this society where rivalries and power relations rule everything, and those who defend it.

The Right of Peoples to Self-Determination as a Cover for a Policy of Alignment behind the Bourgeoisie

Many commentators claim that Russia itself is behaving like an imperialist against a small nation fighting for its independence. What is at stake is the right of peoples to self-determination. But this way of posing the problem, which makes imperialism just a synonym for an aggressive policy toward another country, does not help to explain what is at stake.

Nonetheless, this is the discourse of a part of the extreme left, which in fact serves to conceal its own alignment behind the Ukrainian leaders and behind the imperialism of Biden & Co.

Last April, a joint declaration by two organizations, one Ukrainian (the Social Movement), the other Russian (the RSD), developed this argument. Here, Olivier Besancenot, on his return from Ukraine at the beginning of May, explained in an interview: "Russian imperialism is reviving the tsarist expansionist impulses that the Bolsheviks had broken after 1917 by pronouncing themselves in favor of the right to self-determination, before the Stalinist counter-revolution. Putin, by the way, did not forget to oppose Stalin to Lenin when he declared war."

At least the reference to the Bolsheviks’ policy for the right to self-determination is correct: the ruling Bolsheviks broke—the only time in history—with the policy of chauvinist oppression imposed by tsarism on many nationalities, which meant recognizing the right of new states, including Ukraine, to declare themselves independent.

Decreeing the right of nations to self-determination, in this revolutionary period when the Russian proletariat had seized power, was a way of demonstrating that the proletariat was in the camp of the oppressed peoples. That only the proletariat, because it placed the interests of the world working class above national interests, could rule society while respecting the rights of all nationalities. It was not an ode to independence, to separatism, much less an encouragement for the workers to line up behind their national bourgeoisie. It was a demonstration to the workers of oppressed nationalities to join the revolution.

So it is a real deception to talk about the current states, including Ukraine with the United States behind it, as the embodiment of the right of peoples to self-determination. In fact, Ukraine is looking more and more like a U.S. protectorate! The imperialists are only supporting its right to independence because it is now a prop which allows them to wage war against Russia without committing their own troops.

The pretext of Ukrainian sovereignty also makes it possible to conceal the fact that there were and are rich and poor, workers and profiteers, in Ukraine as elsewhere. The Ukrainian political caste is notoriously ultra-corrupt. The oligarchs, like their Russian twin brothers, built their fortunes by plundering the Soviet legacy, while the population became poorer. Putting this aside plays into the hands of Ukrainian nationalists and the far right, who have been omnipresent since 2014.

If we do not denounce the Ukrainian regime and the imperialism that arms it to the teeth, if there is no policy that affirms the common interests of the Ukrainian and Russian workers, all that remains is a narrow nationalism and the so-called revolutionaries are only siding with the bourgeoisie. To call for arms for Ukraine, wherever they come from, without asking who controls them and who commands the fighters, is to call for exactly what is in fact happening, i.e., for the imperialist states to arm for their own purposes a government which has an interest in allying itself with them but which is an enemy of the workers in its own country.

Russian revolutionaries could rightly adopt the slogan of withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, because it is a way to educate the workers in the idea that a people that oppresses another one cannot be a free people. But to say that the only question that counts, at the moment, is victory or defeat on the military terrain, is like saying that the class struggle has ceased for the duration of the war! Well, it is a similar attitude that the revolutionaries called treasonous opportunism in 1914, when the Second International sank into the Sacred Union.

When one has no influence, it is not too serious, it just amounts, if one dares to say it, to fading away politically, not to say denying the basis of one’s existence. But in the worst case, when one has influence, as the example of social democracy in 1914 showed, it leads to participate in the recruitment of workers, to enter into war governments, in a word to play the policeman of the working class for the bourgeoisie.

The war itself, whatever its outcome, already represents a defeat for the workers of Ukraine and Russia. The Russian invasion, the exactions of the Russian army, are coupled with an equally serious crime for the proletariat: the creation of a gulf of hatred and blood between the inhabitants of the two countries, who had shared a common fate for decades. The only victory for the proletariat could come only from a common struggle to turn the guns against the war-makers on both sides.

It is conceivable that Ukrainians, including Ukrainian workers, would want to repel the Russian army. We have examples showing that, in certain circumstances, the patriotism of the oppressed, which covers much more than that of the bourgeoisie, can be transformed into revolutionary energy. This is what the Paris Commune showed. But for this to happen, the class struggle, far from stopping, must be heightened! The “defense of the fatherland", in the mouth of a revolutionary, can never justify serving as cannon fodder under the orders of the bourgeoisie.

The Attitude of Revolutionaries to the Imperialist War

Without knowing the situation on the spot, it is impossible to say what the policy of the Ukrainian and Russian revolutionaries might be, as far as we know, very few in number.

On the other hand, we must not, here, follow in the footsteps of our imperialism and our own leaders….

We are already facing the economic consequences of this war. We are not directly threatened with starvation in the short term, like a number of countries that depended on Russian and Ukrainian exports of grain, fertilizer and other necessities, but there are already repercussions. Not to mention the speculators and the government using the war to justify the price increases and the sacrifices that are being asked of us.

And what are we to do if, tomorrow, the war spreads to Europe? Or on more distant battlefields, but our bourgeoisie sends its armies there in a more massive way? Here again, we cannot anticipate everything. It will depend on many things, on the state of mind of the workers, which may change during the war, on our own forces and on other factors.

But once war is here, we must not lay down our arms and give up our revolutionary perspectives in order to align ourselves behind the power. We must have the will to tell the proletariat the truth, that any war provoked by imperialist rivalries is a war of brigands fighting for booty. We must be able to resist the hatred aroused by the horrors of war, the pressures and lies of propaganda, and fight chauvinism. It will also be necessary to denounce the authoritarian measures that will inevitably be taken to force or punish those who refuse to march.

In this connection, a revolutionary organization must be prepared to act illegally if this becomes the only way for it to combat the propaganda of the government and the army. The discipline in the barracks and in the factories in wartime makes it necessary to take active measures which cannot be defined abstractly in advance, but which one must be morally prepared to adopt.

We are not pacifists and we do not call for disarmament, unlike others, because that is an illusion. Pacifism is expressed all the more vigorously because it is powerless in the face of the unleashing of weapons. Today, some of those who claim to deplore the war in Ukraine promise to fight for disarmament ... after it is over, once Russia has been defeated. The bourgeoisie can be grateful to people who claim to fight wars in this way!

The role of a revolutionary party, needless to say, is to preach the necessity of revolution, to demonstrate its usefulness and to prepare the proletariat and the exploited for it. It is to organize in case of war a vast propaganda, in the army as well as in the rear, in order to transform the imperialist war into a civil war. It is to work methodically and relentlessly for this, even if it is impossible to know when protest movements or a revolution will break out.

This is what the revolutionaries of the beginning of the 20th century did when the 1914–1918 war broke out, at least those who did not give up their struggle under the pressure of bourgeois nationalism. Let us quote Lenin, on the eve of October 1917: "It is impossible to extricate ourselves from the imperialist war, impossible to obtain a democratic peace, not imposed by violence, if the power of Capital is not overthrown, if the power does not pass to another class: the proletariat." The October Revolution in Russia proved the accuracy of this judgment.

Of course, we could say that the workers’ movement of today does not resemble that of the beginning of the 20th century, that the consciousness of the working class is not at the same level. It’s true, there’s a lot of catching up to do from this point of view, but that’s all the more reason to make an independent class point of view exist.

The Transition Program, or “Where to Start?"

If we do not know exactly what stages the mobilization of the proletariat against the war will go through, nor what policy we will have to carry out exactly, we are lucky to have the political program that Trotsky left as a legacy to the organizations of the Fourth International, the Transitional Program written in 1938. A whole part of this program is devoted to the war, which was then on the verge of becoming generalized.

The fundamental principle of the struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its war, this program said, will be: "the main enemy is in our own country" or "the defeat of our own (imperialist) government is the lesser evil”.

Armed with this compass, Trotsky gave some guidelines for addressing the workers. He wrote in particular: "War is a gigantic commercial enterprise, especially for the war industry. That is why the “200 families” are the first patriots and the main provocateurs of war. Workers’ control over war industry is the first step in the struggle against the war makers."

The capitalist economy, in general, needs business secrecy, and campaigning for its abolition is already part of our policy. But we must realize that in times of war, when all means are mobilized, the majority of companies no longer work for the market, as they say, but for the state, for the war. It is then a source of enormous profits, guaranteed by the money of the State, an opportunity for gigantic plunder for the capitalists. Thanks to the loans, the banks also make fabulous profits. Not to mention the speculators. There are war profiteers, everyone knows that! Well, they must be denounced, because the profiteers are also the war-makers, and the workers must implement workers’ control, transparency, and draw all the conclusions: "Confiscation of war profits and expropriation of enterprises working for the war", is the slogan of the Transitional Program. Workers’ control, too, in the nationalized enterprises.

He also suggests a series of other slogans, adapted to the context of the time, on the eve of the Second World War, which were inspired by the agitation led by the Bolsheviks in Russia between February and October 1917. We can draw inspiration from them in our turn.

These few sentences of Trotsky, finally, summarize the approach that must guide the politics of the revolutionaries in front of the war, in Ukraine today, in other countries at war obviously, and maybe here tomorrow: "The imperialist war is the continuation and the sharpening of the predatory politics of the bourgeoisie. The struggle of the proletariat against the war is the continuation and the sharpening of its class struggle. The beginning of war alters the situation and partially the means of struggle between the classes, but not the aim and basic course."