International workers’ unity and action needed to stop Ukraine war

Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) members at the London STWC anti-war demo, London, 6 March 2020

The horror of war, of families fleeing for their lives as bombs fall on their cities and towns, is dominating the news. Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is being watched with fear and revulsion. His farcical propaganda claims this is a ‘special military operation’, designed to fight ‘Ukrainian fascism’. Yet Ukraine is being trampled over in order to try to assert the power of Russian capitalism and to warn US imperialism and western powers not to move any further east.

War is the inevitable consequence of an international capitalist system based on profit, exploitation, and oppression, where the national rights of smaller or weaker nations can be trampled into the dirt for the short-term interests of the ‘great powers’.

Putin’s criminal actions have been attacked as ‘mad’. They will prove to be an enormous miscalculation, but they flow from the logic of capitalism. They are ‘mad’ in the same way that US president George Bush was mad in 2003 when, backed to the hilt by Britain’s New Labour prime minister Tony Blair, the US invaded Iraq, justified it with the lie that the regime had ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, believing that it would demonstrate the power of US imperialism and provide it with cheap oil. That occupation created a nightmare for the people of the Middle East. Its hubris also enormously undermined US imperialism, as this will for Putin and his regime.

The Russian working class is not being allowed to see the horror of Ukraine on their television screens, just as the capitalist media in Britain did not show the working class here the horror created by 30 days of ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Baghdad prior to that invasion. Despite this, however, in cities and towns across Russia substantial numbers have risked arrest to participate in anti-war demonstrations.

That anti-war mood will grow. Given the enormous number of links between Russians and Ukrainians, plus the experiences of Russian soldiers, many of whom are young conscripts who had been told nothing of what they would be facing, no amount of censorship will indefinitely prevent the real situation becoming known. A mass movement to overthrow Putin and his rotten, authoritarian gangster-capitalist rule is posed in the next period.

British PM, Boris Johnson, and the Tories are cynically trying to use the war in Ukraine to bolster their own position. But working-class people can have no trust in capitalist governments in any country to defend their interests. Johnson is now posturing as a man who stands up to oligarchs, but just two years ago he overruled security service concerns to get Russian billionaire Evgeny Lebedev the title of ‘Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia’! Lebedev is one of nine Russian oligarchs who are known to have given money to the Tory party, along with billionaires linked to many other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

Workers worldwide have nothing in common with these capitalist looters. We need to build workers’ unity and international solidarity in a struggle to kick out all the warmongers and the profiteers and for a democratic, socialist society.

  • Stop the war. Withdraw Russian troops and end the bombing.
  • For workers’ unity, for self-determination and full democratic rights for all minorities.
  • No trust in Nato or the capitalist politicians. For an independent workers’ movement.
  • Fight for a socialist alternative to capitalism and war.

Capitalism creates war

It was not accidental that, as part of trying to justify this barbarous invasion, Putin felt the need to attack the legacy of Lenin, one of the key leaders of the Russian revolution in 1917, where capitalism was successfully overthrown for the first time. The steps to building a democratic workers’ state that followed the revolution were the only time –so far – that the possibility of genuine national liberation for all the peoples of the Ukraine was on the agenda, instead of the centuries of war and repression they have faced before and since.

In 1919 Lenin emphasised that the Russian workers’ state held “to the view that the independence of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic be recognised” and that “In view of the fact that Ukrainian culture (language, school, etc) has been suppressed for centuries by Russian tsarism and the exploiting classes” they had to “use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture”. This was the consistent position of Lenin and Trotsky, the key leaders of the Russian revolution.

However, the degeneration of the Soviet Union, as a result of its isolation and poverty, and the consolidation of power by a brutal Stalinist dictatorship, came with a new wave of Greater Russian nationalism, and once again brutal repression against other nationalities.  When Stalinism finally collapsed in the early 1990s, the restoration of capitalism did not bring  peace and prosperity to the peoples of the region but ‘gangster capitalism’, meaning a massive fall in living standards for the majority and the robbing of state resources by a few who became the oligarchs. Whether they look towards Western or to Russian capitalism, these looters are driven only by maximising their own profits.

But it is not only the oligarchy which is incapable of taking society forward. On a global basis capitalism is a system in crisis, increasingly presiding over a relentless diet of falling living standards, growing conflict and environmental crisis. US imperialism, while still the strongest imperialist power, is no longer able to dominate the globe. Instead there is more and more conflict between the major powers, as they jostle for a greater share of the spoils.

Putin’s war for prestige and power

Today, economically Russia is a small power on a world scale – about the size of the Netherlands and Belgium combined – and overwhelmingly reliant on exporting energy and raw materials. Nonetheless, it is the dominant country in the region, and a military superpower.

Partly by relying on China for economic assistance, Putin obviously imagined that he could further strengthen his regime via this invasion. Possibly he even ludicrously imagined that Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops, drawing a comparison with Crimea. It is true that when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, had there been a genuine free referendum on the issue, a majority there would have probably voted to be part of Russia. However, Crimea, which only became part of Ukraine in 1954, is not the same.

On the contrary, it is clear that the large majority of Ukrainians, including many ethnic Russians, are horrified by the invasion, with many prepared to fight. The Russian army therefore seems to be facing greater obstacles than it expected and has stepped up barbaric bombings of cities in an attempt to win.

There is an understandable widespread fear that Putin will now ‘stop at nothing’ and in worst-case scenario could even use nuclear weapons in the conflict. However, while there is a clear ‘logic’ to Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons, as a means to prevent Western powers becoming directly involved in the war, using them in a war just over the Russian border would serve no possible purpose, and would mean annihilation for Putin and Russian capitalism.

‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ which stayed the hands of the West and Russia during the ‘cold war’ still applies to the different competing capitalist blocs today. Reports of ‘back channels’ being set up to try to ensure that accidents like Russian planes entering Polish airspace don’t lead to escalation, are an indication that all sides are aware of this.

World war is not on the agenda, but this conflict is still appalling. While Russia’s military strength is much greater, that does not mean there is any road to any real ‘victory’ for Putin. Any attempt to occupy parts of Ukraine, or to install a puppet government, would inevitably be faced with sustained guerrilla-type opposition from large parts of the population. Such a horrendously expensive undertaking – economically and in terms of human life – would create mass opposition in Russia, in all likelihood signing the political death knell of Putin.

Even now there are reports that elements of Russia’s ruling elite are extremely disquieted about the invasion and its consequences for their interests. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are most likely to move against Putin in the short term. Once a capitalist state goes to war the prestige of the whole capitalist class is on the line, making retreat extremely difficult and costly. In the end the only way to prevent wars is for the working class to take power out of the hands of the capitalist elite, and begin to build a new socialist society. Nonetheless, the development of mass movements of the Russian working class demanding an end to the war are the most effective means to defeat Putin.

For an independent class appeal to the Russian working class

It is no surprise that at the moment many Ukrainians are currently rallying behind Ukrainian President Zelensky as they face a foreign invader. At the end of last year his poll ratings had slipped to about 25%, but now he appears very popular, his reliance on the oligarchs and failure to deal with corruption temporarily put aside by the war. However an independent class appeal by Ukrainian workers’ organisations to Russian workers and soldiers could have a far greater effect than those of Zelensky who, as president, failed to deliver on his popular 2019 election pledges to end corruption and start serious talks to end conflict in the Donbas that’s caused the loss of 14,000 lives.

Instead, his government has continued the shelling of Donetsk and Luhansk – claimed by Putin as the justification for the war. The peoples of these impoverished statelets have a right to determine their own future, although this will not be achieved under the shadow of Russian invasion. Zelensky has also presided over the continuedbanning of Russian from Ukrainian schools.

It is clear that there have already been instances of the Ukrainian workers discussing with Russian troops, demanding they go home. An appeal from Ukrainian workers saying ‘go home and throw out Putin who has sent you here under false pretences, and leave us to build a movement against our own oligarchs, and together fight for governments in our interests’ would be very powerful.

The workers’ movement internationally can also assist. The impressive instances we have seen of ‘workers’ sanctions’, like the refusal of dockers to unload Russian oil, are examples of the potential power of the working class. These are very different to the sanctions introduced by capitalist governments, which will hit working class Russians hardest and can potentially temporarily give Putin a means to rally support behind his regime. Workers’ sanctions, targeted at what will hit the Putin regime hardest, and combined with class appeals to the Russian working class, can have a different effect.

No trust in the capitalist elites!

In the current situation, faced with this horrific invasion, it is inevitable that many workers in Ukraine and nearby states are looking towards US imperialism and the west for some protection. However, as the working class and poor of Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine and many other countries can attest, none of the major capitalist powers offer any real way forward, and all are prepared to trample over national democratic rights whenever it suits their interests to do so.

Western media are now emphasising the desolation caused by past Russian military action in Chechnya and Syria but do not include Fallujah in Iraq, devastated by US action in 2004, in their list of cities recently wrecked by war. Nato’s expansion eastwards over the last 30 years, which Putin is now trying to push back against via this invasion, has had nothing to do with protecting democratic rights, but is motivated by defending the interests of western, particularly US, imperialism.

Of course the capitalist powers in the US, UK, France, etc are trying to use the current crisis to build their domestic support. Johnson, who was on the verge of being booted out, has temporarily been able to gain a little breathing space. More broadly, they are trying to build support for their system.

Frances Fukuyama, the philosopher who famously predicted that the collapse of Stalinism would mean ‘an end of history’, with capitalism delivering peace and prosperity to the world, is once again pontificating. Having long since having to admit that capitalism cannot offer peace and prosperity for all, he is now using this war to make a rear-guard appeal for the world to rally to the banner of ‘liberal’ capitalism, under threat from dictatorship and war. In reality of course dictatorship and war are a product of the capitalist system that Fukuyama defends.

Keir Starmer, pro-capitalist leader of the Labour Party, has also taken advantage of the situation to inflict further defeats on the remnants of the Labour left. Eleven left Labour MPs who had signed a very weak statement from the Stop the War Coalition were threatened with being forced to join Jeremy Corbyn, no longer able to sit as Labour MPs. They immediately retreated and withdrew their names.

John McDonnell MP then went further and withdrew from speaking at a Stop the War rally saying:  “My response is that people are dying on the streets of Ukrainian cities. This is not the time to be distracted by political arguments here. Now is the time to unite”. But the worst possible thing that the workers’ movement could do – both for the working class of the Ukraine and of Britain – is to ‘unite’ behind, which means uncritically support, our capitalist elite.

Look at the question of Ukrainian refugees. The initial response of the Tory immigration minister made clear their real attitude to helping ordinary Ukrainians when he suggested they could get visas to work as fruit pickers! Neither the Tories or the Labour leadership are prepared to offer asylum to more than a very limited number fleeing war in Ukraine, never mind those fleeing other wars around the world. Nonetheless, under pressure from below, Dominic Raab has now rhetorically called for the housing of the refugees in the Russian oligarchs’ mansions. The workers’ movement should take that and demand more – why stop at mansions owned by Russian oligarchs? Why not expropriate the empty mansions of all the super-rich in order to house all of the homeless?

And despite the cynical attempts of Johnson, Biden and co to use this war to bolster their domestic support, there is no prospect of the long-term strengthening of western capitalism or its governments. It will not only be Putin’s regime that will be weakened by these events but also the Nato powers. Not long ago, US imperialism was not even paying lip service to uniting with the other Nato powers – on the contrary, Biden pulled out of Afghanistan without even consulting them. Now there is a temporary coming together, but the increased divisions within the Nato powers ultimately reflect the decline of US imperialism and the crisis of the capitalist system, which means they are bound to find a new expression.

At the same time, the Ukraine war is deepening the crisis in the world economy. Energy and grain prices are soaring, and overall commodity prices are at their highest level since 2008. The shortage of semiconductors is growing again, as a result of 50% of the world’s neon gas – a vital component, being produced in Ukraine. Living standards, already under the cosh from ‘inflation austerity’, are set to suffer further.

Growing workers numbers of workers have to choose between ‘heating and eating’. The rash of strikes for pay to at least keep up with inflation needs to be extended. National action for decent pay rises, including coordinated strike action, is urgently on the agenda. Johnson and the other capitalist politicians will cynically use the war to try to distract workers from these issues, but they will not succeed.

An industrial fightback is vital, but it is not enough. This nightmarish war throws into high relief the need – in Russia, Ukraine, Britain and every country – for the working class to have its own mass parties, independent of all the rotten capitalist elites. Such parties need to fight for power to be taken out of the major corporations and banks that dominate the economy, so that society can be run democratically in the interests of the majority, based on planning and cooperation, instead of capitalism’s ruthless pursuit of profit which leads to poverty, environmental destruction and war.

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