The German workers’ movement and the war in Ukraine

Ukraine solidarity protest, Berlin, February 2022 (Leonhard Lenz/Wikimedia Commons)

Russia’s war against Ukraine is a shock and, at the same time, a turning point, because for the first time, in a long time, the question of a military confrontation between great powers is concrete. There is fear of an escalation towards a ‘third world war’. At the same time, the question arises of how Putin’s war can be stopped. Among leftists, long-standing principles such as opposition to arms deliveries to capitalist governments and economic sanctions or the rejection of NATO are being questioned. At anti-war demonstrations, left-wing internationalists who oppose the use of NATO and the delivery of weapons are challenged and, in some cases, even attacked. What are the tasks of the workers’ movement and the left in the face of this situation?

Social grievances, like diseases, should be fought at the source. If we want to stop the war over Ukraine, we have to ask about the causes of the war. The answer to this question is not one-dimensional and cannot be found only in the politics or even the psyche of an autocratic ruler in Moscow.

No one forced Putin to invade Ukraine. It is a war of aggression by a regional imperialist state, against a smaller state that has been crushed for years between the interests of the major imperialist powers and Russia. Therefore, there can be no excuse for or explaining away Russia’s brutal and inhumane actions. The demand for an end to the bombardments and the withdrawal of Russian troops is at the top of the list of demands of left opponents of the war.

In the slipstream of this war, however, a new level of armament is taking place in Germany and in other countries, and NATO is trying to further expand its sphere of influence. The expansion of NATO’s sphere of influence into Eastern Europe – contrary to promises made to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union – in recent years, is a factor in the course Putin has taken. This does not absolve him of responsibility for the war, but it shows that the politicians of the Western states and NATO have consciously accepted such an escalation in order to expand their power and influence. Above all, it shows that this war is not a consequence of individual character traits of rulers, but a consequence of the intensifying contradictions in a capitalist world based on competition for raw materials, sales markets, labour, trade routes, etc. As long as the capitalist system dominates this world, wars like this will occur. Without a change of system towards a society without the logic of profit and competition between private corporations and states, lasting peace in the world is impossible. Sol (CWI in Germany) therefore advocates a socialist system change and that the politics of the left and the workers’ movement must bring us closer to such a system change and not be an obstacle to it.

But how should we react to the Russian invasion? The question is: does the reaction of Western states to Putin’s war make the world a safer place? No! As a result, the arms spiral will continue, in Russia and China, as well. Billions will be invested in bombs and tanks instead of in saving the climate, fighting hunger and the causes of flight, instead of investment in science and research, and, sooner or later, they will find their place of deployment.

But will this action at least end the war, save lives in Ukraine, and prevent future attacks by Russia? Wars of aggression are not Moscow’s monopoly. On the contrary, the record of NATO countries does not look any better: Afghanistan, Iraq, (ex-)Yugoslavia, Libya …The increase in capitalist contradictions inevitably leads to an increase in armaments spending and war, on all imperialist sides. The rise of China and the waning power of the USA means that the likelihood of conflicts between the great powers increases and that these can also be discharged militarily.

The biggest mistake that the left and the workers’ movement could make would be to do a disservice to the struggle against the causes of war (armaments, capitalism, and imperialism), with the aim of a supposed struggle to end the war over Ukraine, by relegating this struggles to the background or even abandoning them and glorifying the imperialist rulers as bringers of peace.

No one can say in advance how this war will go and how it will end. We have to rely on information disseminated by the warring states. The truth of which is often difficult to verify. At present, it seems unlikely that the war will come to a quick end, as neither a quick military victory for one side nor a face-saving compromise, for both sides, is visible. The Russian army’s invasion has met with more resistance than they expected and was also obviously poorly planned and executed. Morale is reportedly higher among Ukrainian soldiers and morale lower among Russian troops. At the same time, the superiority of the Russian military cannot be denied. Most military experts assume that the Russian army cannot be driven out of Ukraine in the foreseeable future by purely military means.

It cannot be ruled out that the strong resistance on the Ukrainian side will increase the problems in the Russian army to such an extent that Putin will be forced to settle for a declaration of neutrality by Ukraine and negotiations on the status of the territories hitherto occupied by Russia. Nor can it be ruled out that Putin will intensify the attacks to such an extent that the Ukrainian government will capitulate in the face of massively rising casualty figures. But we have to assume that this war will probably continue for at least weeks or months; will claim more victims and that it cannot be ended purely militarily by a victory of Ukraine over the Russian army, no matter how many weapons the former receives.

 Wars are often not ended purely militarily, but by depriving the belligerent states of their social base on the home front, through movements and strikes directed against the warlords that, in best case, threaten their power and their capitalist system. This, along with military difficulties and defeats, can be a decisive factor in undermining morale among soldiers. This was the case in the First World War, which was ended by the Russian Revolution in 1917 and by the start of the November Revolution in Germany in 1918. It was the case in the Vietnam War, where the worldwide protest movement, and especially the anti-war movement in the USA, played a decisive role in the military withdrawal of the US army.

The strengthening of protests in Russia, which should be linked to the building of strong independent workers’ organisations, is, therefore, the central lever to undermine the government’s war policy. But one thing is clear: the policies of the governments in Kyiv, Washington, and Berlin are more likely to drive the Russian population into Putin’s arms than to encourage a rupture. Anti-Russian hysteria and economic sanctions that are destroying the lives of Russian workers are not the appropriate means to strengthen the anti-war movement in Russia. But this strengthening is exactly the most important task.

Most Ukrainians do not want to live under the thumb of Moscow and want to resist the invasion of the Russian army. But their leadership is not pursuing a policy of peace or international understanding. Ukrainian governments since 2014, including under Zelensky’s watch, have integrated fascist militias into the army and police; continued discrimination against the Russian-speaking part of the population; continued the shelling of the so-called separatist areas in Luhansk and Donetsk; and are not prepared to let the population there, and in Crimea, freely decide for themselves in which state they want to live. It is a pro-Western and pro-capitalist government that is responsible for the economic exploitation of its own working class and effectively acts as an outpost of Western imperialism in the region. It was Zelenskiy, among others, who vehemently supported the demands of the International Monetary Fund and pushed for the liberalisation of agriculture in Ukraine. In March 2020, in the midst of the covid pandemic, the Ukrainian parliament decided, on Zelenskiy’s initiative, to lift a long-standing ban on the sale of arable land, and Zelenskiy campaigned to extend this to international investors.

The Left and the workers’ movement must not support the Zelenskiy government – neither politically nor militarily. There is no question that this government does not represent the interests of the Ukrainian masses – not through its social and economic policies, not through the imposition of martial law, which can also be used against protests against the government and prohibits men from leaving the country. There can be no trust in the policies and warfare of the Zelenskiy government!

Zelenskiy pretends to fight for the national self-determination of the Ukrainians and yet drives the population into the economic dependence of international capitalist states and corporations. There can be no real social or economic self-determination for the people of Ukraine when multinationals own a large part of the country’s economic base and more decisions about conditions in the country are made in Brussels, Washington, and Berlin than in Kyiv (Kiev), Kharkiv (Kharkov) and Odesa (Odessa). Just as there is no capitalism without war, there is no real independence –politically, socially, and economically – based on capitalism for countries like Ukraine. Just as there will be sustainable peace in the world only through socialism, there will be real social, political, and economic self-determination only when the power of banks, corporations, and imperialism is overcome.

The Ukrainian working class should take an independent stance from this government and demand that resistance to the Russian invasion is taken out of the hands of the pro-capitalist and pro-Western military and politicians and put into the hands of the workers and soldiers: through independent workers’ militias and the election of officers and all ranks in the military. On this basis, an appeal could be made to the Russian workers in uniform who are being turned into cannon fodder by Putin. And an appeal could be made to the Russian working class to rise up against the war and the autocrat in the Kremlin, and to fight together for social rights, adequate wages, jobs, and against poverty against all the oligarchs, whether in Russia, Ukraine or elsewhere.

A socialist government in Kyiv (Kiev), would immediately make clear that it does not lay claim to Crimea and the mainly Russian-speaking areas in eastern Ukraine and accepts the right of self-determination of the people living there. It would propose democratic elections to constitutional assemblies there, which could draw up a proposal for the state constitution of these regions and put it to a referendum without the presence of the Ukrainian and Russian armies. It would restore the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine and repeal the discriminatory laws of recent years and guarantee the rights of all other minorities.

With such a programme, the Ukrainian workers’ movement should participate independently in the struggle against the invasion of the Russian army. It would require weapons but under workers’ control they would not be used against the people of Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk or to suppress leftists and the workers’ movement.

It is just as certain, however, that in the event of military success against Putin, today’s Ukrainian army would not stop there and would annex these areas back into Ukraine against the will of the people living there. If it felt the need to do so, it would not hesitate to turn these weapons on the Ukrainian working class in the future. These are all reasons why arms deliveries to this pro-capitalist and nationalist Ukrainian government and army cannot be supported by socialists.

But what can the left and the trade unions in Germany and elsewhere do concretely today? Firstly, fight for maximum humanitarian aid for the victims of the war in Ukraine and for the acceptance of refugees from Ukraine without exception and regardless of their nationality (and make clear that the necessary social investments for the refugees and the whole working population, should and can be financed by the banks and corporations).

Secondly, support the anti-war movement in Russia – materially as far as this is at all possible at the moment, but above all politically. Trade unions should establish links with Russian trade unions and anti-war groups and propose to them to carry out joint declarations and days of action against all wars and militarism.

Thirdly, to ‘put one’s own house in order’ and organise opposition to one’s own imperialism instead of glorifying it. This means resisting rearmament but also protesting against arms supplies to pro-capitalist and reactionary governments and against economic sanctions designed to drive the Russian people into hunger and hardship.

Fourthly, work on a worldwide basis to build a trade union and working class-based anti-war movement that targets the cause of wars – capitalism – strives for a democratic, socialist change of society, and does not support any of the capitalist and imperialist powers.

In the trade unions and the left, we need an open debate on these issues. Resolutions like that of the Berlin Hospital Movement (10 March 2022) – see below – should be discussed at all levels. It must be demanded that it is not the working class but the capitalists and the super-rich who have to pay the costs caused by the war. The Left should try to form an anti-militarist and anti-capitalist pole in the trade unions and in the anti-war protests and pull together for these ideas. The call for ‘Trade Unionists against War and Rearmament’ and joint protests, declarations, and alliances of left groups, are the first steps in this direction. However, we must try to reach out beyond our own circle of the organised left to comrades and demonstrators who are still falling for the propaganda of the rulers and their media. Patient explanations should be combined with their own protest actions in order to go on the offensive against the currently prevailing pro-NATO sentiment.

DGB calls for demonstrations – Resolution of the Berlin Hospital Movement

It is to be welcomed that the DGB [German TUC] is calling for large-scale demonstrations against the war in Ukraine on Sunday 13 March. We call on everyone to participate in these demonstrations, where possible. It should be one of the core tasks of trade unions worldwide to mobilise against war and rearmament, with demonstrations up to and including work stoppages.

At the same time, it is important that trade unions do not stand behind the goals of the NATO governments and the rearmament plans of the German government. The war is, in fact, an expression of the growing conflicts between the different capitalist powers. There must, therefore, be no support for arms supplies that escalate the war further, nor for sanctions from above, that will lead to the social situation of the working class becoming enormously worse internationally! These measures do not offer a solution – not even for the Ukrainian working class. On the other hand, there are concrete measures that the working class internationally could take to end the war. For example, arms deliveries could be prevented.

It must be made clear that it is only solidarity in the working class and working-class unity that can interrupt the spiral of war and violence and not the support of some government that is fighting for spheres of influence, raw materials, and markets for its own corporations.

A clear “no” to rearmament is necessary!

Further rearmament, as now decided by the German government, must also be clearly and unequivocally rejected. Unfortunately, the DGB shirks a clear position in its statement and only sees the plans “critically”. The engineering workers’ union, IG Metall in Baden-Württemberg, even issued a joint statement with the employers’ association Südwest-Metall, on 3 March, supporting “the measures decided”. This policy of Burgfrieden [class truce)] must be clearly rejected!

Instead, the resolution, ‘More money for care, instead of rearmament!’, was passed by the ver.di general union meeting of Berlin hospital workers at the Charité, Vivantes, and Vivantes subsidiaries is to be welcomed. They demanded: investments in health, education, social affairs, and climate, instead of in the armed forces; no cuts in public services under the pretext of increasing arms spending; and adequate funding to support those fleeing wars and despotism.





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March 2022