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

The War in Ukraine:
A Major Step in the Escalation toward a Third World War

Oct 17, 2022

Trotsky completed one of his last writings in May 1940, when World War Two was already underway, just before one of Stalin’s henchmen assassinated him. This was the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War.

Isolated and exiled from the Soviet Union, Trotsky directly addressed workers with his words: “The present war—the second imperialist war—is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradictions of international capitalist interests. Contrary to the official fables designed to drug the people, the chief cause of war as of all other social evils—unemployment, the high cost of living, fascism, colonial oppression—is the private ownership of the means of production together with the bourgeois state which rests on this foundation.”

As long as the capitalist system and its senile phase of imperialism have not been destroyed, any state of peace is nothing but a temporary pause between two world wars.

The revolutionary communist current, as weak as it has been in recent decades, has always denounced the illusion that capitalism can bring universal peace.

Even the so-called peaceful periods only mean the absence of a world war that directly or indirectly engages the entire planet. Wars have never stopped across the world. Wars waged by the imperialist powers to maintain peoples in colonial slavery or economic plunder. Regional wars with the direct or indirect involvement of the imperialist powers. Local, national, or ethnic wars, armed or backed by the big powers, at the same time as a cold war between two blocs, etc.

One century ago, the victorious proletarian revolution in Russia seemed capable of putting a stop to what had appeared inevitable under the domination of imperialism. It promised to be the first step on the road to the transformation of humanity’s social organization by the overthrow of capitalism, which meant putting an end to “the private ownership of the means of production together with the bourgeois state which rests on this foundation.”

This first major battle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for the leadership of society did not bring about a generalized class war in the only setting where the proletariat could win it: the international arena.

The first workers’ state was only the instrument of worldwide proletarian revolution during the first years of its existence, before it found itself isolated and gave rise to a bureaucracy. Still in its infancy, the workers’ state in its few revolutionary years gave the world an idea and a foretaste of what the transformation of society at an economic and social level could mean. It laid the foundations for an economy where the largest means of production were no longer in private hands, where the proletariat in power held the means to reorganize production not by blindly obeying the market and the competition for private profit, but consciously, in order to satisfy human needs by planning production. The international proletariat can be proud of this first attempt, of what it accomplished by successfully taking power from the bourgeoisie and demonstrating the validity of the socialist perspective, not only in theory but across one-sixth of the earth’s surface.

It was the excitement and promise of a revolution for the social emancipation of the oppressed that was able to unite in a single force the multiple groups in the prison of peoples that had been czarist Russia. It was this impulse that created the conditions for the Soviet Union to form as a concretization of the union between equal peoples. It was this momentum that gave the impulse needed for the huge economic transformations of the Soviet Union that allowed it not only to survive, but to industrialize at a rapid pace even when, at the same time, the far more developed imperialist countries stagnated in the crisis of 1929.

The bureaucracy was born from the collapse of this momentum. It became an accelerating factor in the decline of the revolutionary action of the masses, increasingly decisive, more and more conscious of its particular interests which opposed it to the proletariat.

The same counter-revolutionary decline that turned the power of the soviets into a vile dictatorship over the proletariat also eliminated the freedom of the peoples of the Soviet Union to determine their own fate, at the same time as it did their other freedoms. Putin summed this up clearly when, at the start of the intervention in Ukraine, he praised Stalin’s policy by opposing it to that of Lenin.

With the degeneration of the workers’ state and its political expression in Stalinism, the bureaucracy strangled all revolutionary impetus, not only in the Soviet Union, but everywhere in the world where it usurped the revolutionary credibility of October. The Soviet bureaucracy quickly became one of the guardians of the global imperialist order, all while trying to preserve the interests of its particular caste.

This degeneration was not inevitable, but a phase of intense class struggle. Against a backdrop of retreat of the international proletariat, it opposed the best of what remained of the proletarian revolution in the Soviet Union to the emerging bureaucracy.

This was a fight to the death, in the most material sense of the term. The Stalinist bureaucracy made the choice, with increasing consciousness as its grip on the Soviet state and what had been the Bolshevik party grew stronger, to physically wipe out all those who stood in revolutionary continuity with October 1917.

The Left Opposition, which gathered around the person of Trotsky, was a true revolutionary communist party. This was due to the richness of its collective political experience and the individual experience of its militants, acquired in the revolution and then in the victorious civil war against the bourgeoisie, also acquired in the immense effort of finding the path to build a new social organization.

The more the archives of the Stalinist bureaucracy are opened, the more it becomes clear that the Left Opposition was not limited to the person of Trotsky and a few hundred militants, people of quality who knew how to resist prison, trials, and concentration camps for a more or less long time before most of them were killed. They were the militants of a real party that had the means and the competence to regenerate the international workers’ movement by reviving the revolution.

It is this party, the only one in the history of Trotskyism to merit the name, which the triumphant bureaucracy destroyed, at the same time shattering the political and human continuity with the revolution of October 1917. Of all of Stalin’s crimes against the revolutionary workers’ movement, this is both the worst and encompasses the others, making Stalin comparable to Hitler.

Under the leadership of the political rulers who succeeded each other after Stalin’s death, the bureaucracy never ceased to be a conservative element in the global imperialist order. It started to play this role by betraying revolutions which it claimed to lead or support (China in 1927, Spain in 1936—1938), not to mention its betrayal of all kinds of workers’ mobilizations with its policy of Popular Fronts. It continued to do so by extinguishing any possibility for the working class in Europe to rise up and shake the global order at the end of World War Two, as the workers had done in 1917—1919. And it maintained this role by intervening militarily and crushing workers’ mobilizations from 1953 to 1956 in its sphere of influence at the time, in East Berlin, Poznan, and Budapest.

The bureaucracy contributed to the defense of the worldwide imperialist order for decades, all while remaining a foreign body to the global bourgeoisie and even depriving Western imperialism of control over the Eastern European countries which were transformed into so-called People’s Democracies. However, under Mikhail Gorbachev and especially Boris Yeltsin, it announced its desire to rejoin the ranks of the global big bourgeoisie (and its capitalist market).

The Yeltsin era, with the catastrophic collapse of the Russian economy and the decomposition of the Soviet Union into states more or less hostile toward one another, proved that the big imperialist powers had no intention of letting too powerful a rival exist. They certainly wanted Russia as an accomplice—in the time of Stalin, it already was—but only as a despised subordinate.

They accepted it as something resembling Brazil, India, or even Mobutu’s Congo, but Russia had a power derived from the immensity of its territory, the size of its population, the variety of its natural resources, and, above all, a certain number of economic elements inherited from the upsurge of the proletarian revolution.

Putin’s rise to power was the reaction of the Russian state bureaucracy to the threat of its decomposition under Yeltsin. The imperialist powers, whose fundamental aims were so well understood and served by Yeltsin’s submissive attitude, never stopped exercising a permanent pressure on Russia. The desire for a “reestablishment of the vertical power” proclaimed by Putin has by all accounts received wide support from the ruling layer, even if a certain number of oligarchs who profited from the power’s decay under Yeltsin have paid the price for it.

The global economic crisis, the Russian-Ukrainian war, and Western sanctions affect, besides the populations of the former Soviet Union, the balance of force inside the Russian power itself.

“In Moscow, the Party of War Has Taken All the Power,” announced the front-page headline of Le Figaro on August 12. It evoked the reinforcement of this layer of the bureaucracy whose power rests on its control of the “sovereign forces” and the core of the state apparatus, in opposition to the upper bureaucracy of the economy: the oligarchs. Putin emerged from and remains the figurehead of these “siloviki,” as Russians say to denote members of the core state apparatus, the men of the organs of repression which are the army, police, intelligence, and, above all, the FSB (ex-KGB).

These two layers are closely intertwined, as are their interests, in the most material sense of the term. The oligarchs emerged as a more or less distinct entity and took hold of Russia’s companies and management of the machinery of its economy, under the protection of the bureaucrats of the repressive apparatus. They depend on the leadership of the state apparatus and even on the “good graces” of the political chief of the bureaucracy, Putin himself. However, the state power in the sovereign sense of the term is reciprocally dependent on those who allow the bureaucrats as a whole to draw on the surplus value produced from exploitation. This functional division takes the form of a multitude of collective and individual ties between them.

The oligarchs, with their wealth, their private yachts and jets, their ambitions, and their nouveau riche lifestyle, have certainly reached the social level of the capitalist class. However, their dependence on the state bureaucracy distinguishes them from the well-established big bourgeoisie of the imperialist powers. This is what still remains of the fundamental contradiction that characterized the bureaucratized USSR, between the original revolutionary impulse and the antithesis that emerged from its degeneration. The powerful impulse of the proletarian revolution was needed to wipe out czarism, the landed aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie. But once this revolutionary flame was extinguished, the situation stabilized for several decades under the iron fist of a bureaucratic monstrosity with no historical precedent. Trusts like Gazprom and Rosatom represent a distant memory of this period, equipping this bureaucracy, that mixes together the powers of state and oligarchs, with the means to confront the imperialist powers.

The war in Ukraine, by reshuffling the deck between the oligarchs’ dependence on Putin and their links with the big imperialist bourgeoisie, is causing the balance of force to fluctuate within the Russian power itself.

Taking a position on the war in Ukraine while overlooking imperialism’s grip on the world means taking the side of the imperialist powers. When political tendencies who identify with Marxism do this, it is a form of desertion.

The justifications given by those who openly or hypocritically take the side of the imperialist powers are surprisingly similar to those advanced by their ancestors or predecessors from before and during World War Two:

The Defense of Democracy?

Putin is the worst type of dictator, meaning he is like Stalin, with whom he identifies in rejecting Lenin. But this argument is despicable, given how many dictatorships throughout the world have been stoked, protected, and armed by the imperialism of the great “democracy” of the United States.

The Right of the Ukrainian Nation to Determine its Own Fate?

At the time of the Hapsburg monarchy’s attack on Serbia—the action that set off World War One—many had feelings of solidarity for a small, poor nation whose survival was threatened. But for revolutionaries of the time, Serbia’s right to national existence was of secondary importance given that this took place in the context of a clash between imperialist camps.

Putin Is Responsible for an Imperialist Policy?

This is unquestionably true, in the generic sense of the term used in the centuries since the policy of ancient Rome. But the insistence on repeating this term is to hide the fact that imperialism today is above all a specific stage of capitalism and that it is only possible to put an end to its warmongering policies by destroying its capitalist roots.

It Is Putin Who Started the War?

This is a pathetic argument, along the lines of those who evoked the Dey of Algiers swatting the French ambassador with a fly whisk to justify the French conquest of Algeria in 1830.

For communist revolutionaries, the only possible attitude must be guided by the idea which Karl Liebknecht formulated at the time of the First World War: “The enemy is in our own country.”

For Russian communist militants, this means opposing Putin’s war and working toward the overthrow of his predatory regime that serves the bureaucracy and the oligarch billionaires.

Fraternization: addressing the Ukrainian proletariat in the name of the commonality of their interests with those of the Russian proletariat, all while advancing the Bolsheviks’ policy of respecting Ukraine’s right to independence if the workers support it.

The same policy for Ukrainian militants: refusal to be a part of any national union, instead fighting to overthrow the regime in place based on bureaucratic cliques and oligarchs, of the same type as those for whom the Russian proletarians mobilized in the army are being asked to die.

France is not directly at war in Ukraine, at least not yet. Despite its declared refusal to get involved, France is supplying arms to the Ukrainian State to wage war, just as it is providing it with future officers by playing an ever-greater role in their training. By expanding the scope of its hypocritical, half-declared war, imperialist France is increasingly engaged in the war. It is only of secondary importance whether it is doing so under the orders of U.S. imperialism or to preserve the interests of its own capitalists. Even the French companies that withdrew from Russia took pains to keep open the option to return.

The French working class is already confronted with the same choices as its counterparts in Russia and Ukraine. This is not our war! No complicity with our bourgeoisie and its State!

We must struggle against the war, not as pacifists, but in the name of the political independence of the working class. [This is how much more true in the case of workers in the U.S., the policy of which has long pushed for this war, a war in which U.S. weapons are being used to maintain it.]

Without even openly declaring war, our bourgeoisie, its politicians, and its organs of (dis)information are morally and humanly preparing the population for war by creating an anti-Russian climate.

They are having more trouble with the part of the population with an immigrant background from North or Sub-Saharan Africa, whose anti-U.S. reflexes push some of them to justify Putin. However, in general, these reactions hide a form of conservatism toward the governments of their countries of origin. Their governments’ support for Putin does not make them any better. It is important to discuss the interests of the working class with them.

No one can predict today how long the current war in Ukraine will last, nor how and when it will lead to generalized war.

But we must denounce all forms of collaboration, all forms of national unity behind the bourgeoisie, its politicians, and its general staff, even in their role as defender of Ukraine and its sovereignty.

It is hardly necessary to repeat the pathetic Declaration of the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International on the Invasion of Ukraine, published at the start of the war on March 1, 2022. The essence of this declaration is summed up in this excerpt: “In the face of the war in Ukraine, it is the responsibility of all activists in the labor and social movements, of those who have mobilized against the war, to support the resistance of the oppressed Ukrainian nation. To stop this war, Putin’s regime must be sanctioned and Ukraine supported in resisting the aggression.” And to make things perfectly clear: “Solidarity and support for the armed and unarmed resistance of the Ukrainian people. Delivery of weapons on the request of the Ukrainian people to fight the Russian invasion of their territory. This is basic solidarity with the victims of aggression by a much more powerful opponent.”

We must also cite this pearl of analysis whose authors claim to be Marxists: “U.S. imperialism is only taking advantage of the headlong rush of the new Kremlin czar.”

This needs no comment. We will say only that there is a political continuity, directly opposed to Trotskyist ideas, between these people and their ancestors, who, just after Hitler’s invasion of France, called for unity with the “French-thinking bourgeoisie, for the creation of ‘national vigilance committees.’”

It is enough to conclude with Trotsky’s words in the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War: “We do not forget for a moment that this war is not our war. … Independently of the course of the war, we fulfill our basic task: we explain to the workers the irreconcilability between their interests and the interests of bloodthirsty capitalism. We mobilize the toilers against imperialism. We propagate the unity of the workers in all warring and neutral countries; we call for the fraternization of workers and soldiers within each country, and of soldiers with soldiers on the opposite side of the battle front. We mobilize the women and youth against the war. We carry on constant, persistent, tireless preparation for the revolution—in the factories, in the mills, in the villages, in the barracks, at the front, and in the fleet.”