The response of much of the political left in the Western countries to the special military operation launched by Russia in Ukraine on February 24 is a ‘1914’ moment for them and the world.
By Roger Annis
Published on A Socialist In Canada, Mar 5, 2022
In August of 1914, the large imperialist countries of the world declared war on each other. More than four years of slaughter on the battlefields of Europe followed. Tens of millions were killed, injured and displaced. A socialist revolution took place in 1917 in Russia that overthrew the country’s decrepit monarchy and ended Russia’s participation in the war. The revolution’s declared goals were peace, land reform and a worldwide struggle for peace and socialism. One year later, under the impact of the Russian Revolution, the German soldiers and sailors mutinied, overthrowing the country’s militaristic monarchy and putting an end altogether to the world war. Europe, if not the entire world, seemed poised to make the profound social and economic changes heralded by Russia’s revolution.
But tragically, history turned in favour of the warmakers. War and economic blockade was waged for four more years against Russia following 1917 as the imperialist countries sought to violently overthrow the new revolutionary government. The Germany Revolution of late1918/early 1919 did overthrow the country’s monarchy but it failed to wrest political power from the bankers and industrialists who had waged the war. Anti-imperialist uprisings occurred in the Middle East and Asia, including China, offering hope that the ideals of the 1917 revolution would spread beyond Europe.
In the end, the global capitalist and imperialist system managed to consolidate itself and beat back, through extreme violence, anything resembling the Russian peoples’ achievement. Yet another world war was unleashed upon the world’s peoples beginning in 1939.
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, the mass, socialist parties of the world declared their opposition to imperialist war. The seventh congress of the Second (socialist) International was held in Stuttgart, Germany in 1907; the main agenda item was creating a unified policy to confront the menace of militarism and inter-imperialist and colonial wars. A description of the proceedings of the congress, written by Canadian researcher John Riddell, is here. The congress resolution against imperialist war was adopted unanimously; the text is here.
But in August 1914, a political tragedy took place upon the outbreak of war: the majority of the parties represented at the conference in Stuttgart turned tail and joined the war effort of their respective ruling classes. That included the Second International parties in Germany, France and Britain.
A minority of parties from the remnants of the Second International stood up to the war pressure and reaffirmed their adherence to the Stuttgart Resolution. It had concluded: “In case war should break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”
The first international gathering of antiwar activists and parties opposing the imperialist world war took place 13 months after the war’s outbreak, in the town of Zimmerwald, Switzerland. The conference issued a famous manifesto, text here. (The proceedings of the conference are described here on Wikipedia.)
A mere two years following the Zimmerwald conference, the largest party represented there—the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party led by Vladimir Lenin (soon to be renamed the Russian Communist Party, and popularly known as the ‘Bolshevik Party’) led the peasants and working class of Russia, in alliance with other socialist and anarchist parties and movements, to overthrow the discredited, pro-war capitalist government in Russia and found a new, socialist republic.
A case study of left-wing thought bowing to imperialist war and aggression
There are too many upheavals currently taking place in the Western political left in the West in reaction to events in Ukraine to describe here in this essay. In the following, I will look at one example of this upheaval; it is typical of the backhanded (or call it de facto) support for NATO’s aggression against Russia now playing out in Ukraine. It is a lengthy interview with writer and author Tony Wood, published in Jacobin magazine on March 4. The published interview is titled ‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not just a crime, it’s also wildly irrational’. What follows is a point-by-point examination of the claims made by Wood in his interview.
Wood is an anti-Russia writer, frequently published in the London Review of Books. In February 2021, he wrote a short commentary in the LRB lauding the pro-Western Russian ideologue Alexander Navalny. Wood cites Navalny as his source in writing that Russian president Vladimir Putin maintains a “palace of 17,691 square metres”, which cost one billion dollars to build, located on the Black Sea. Wood authored a 2018 book published by Verso Books predicting the downfall of the Russian government as led by its president, Vladimir Putin. The book is titled Russia without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War.
Jacobin is a leading voice in the United States for what can be called modern-day social democracy. That is the view that the ills of the capitalist system may be mitigated and eventually overcome by peaceful, gradual changes to it.
Point by point
In the interview, Wood describes the Russian president as “insane” and says, “I think the idea that the Russians want to occupy all of Ukraine and impose a new government on it by force is crazy.” Later in the essay, he writes, “The Russians’ decision to invade seems to me fundamentally irrational, both a crime and a historic miscalculation.”
Readers will recognize in the terms ‘crazy’, ‘insane’ and ‘irrational’ to describe Vladimir Putin and the government he leads as taken straight out the pages of corporate and state-run media in the West.
Wood goes on: “I think the aim is something slightly different, which is to tear Ukraine apart politically.” But this is not what Russian leaders say. Here is Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaking in a March 4 interview in Moscow with Western journalists: Question: Is the plan to bring back Viktor Yanukovych to power in Kiev? Sergey Lavrov: Again, your question shows that you came to this interview without even reading through what President Vladimir Putin and I have said on multiple occasions. It is up to the Ukrainian people, or rather all the peoples living in multi-ethnic Ukraine, to decide on the future of Ukraine and on who should be their leader. [end citation]
Note Minister Lavrov’s recognition of a ‘multi-ethnic Ukraine’. This is something which NATO and the governing regime in Kyiv most emphatically do not recognize. The Ukraine regime has banned Russian and other languages from schools and media outlets during the past eight years. It has adamantly refused to consider the demands for political autonomy voiced by the people of Donbass beginning in 2014, if not long before. Instead, Ukraine has blockaded, shelled, bombed and sniper-fired against the people there, using NATO training and weapons.
What’s more, Russia and its supporters have a living ‘multi-ethnic’ example to which they can point: Crimea. Since joining the Russian Federation, Crimea has been one of the fastest growing regions economically in the federation, far outstripping Ukraine’s moribund economy. One of the first acts of post-Ukraine Crimea was to end Ukraine’s policy of of Ukrainian as it only official language and instead legislate three official languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar. Political violence was all-but absent in 2014 and certainly does not exist today.
Ukraine has blockaded Russian Crimea since 2014. It has blocked all trade as well as water and electricity supply from Ukraine to the peninsula. The blockade of Crimea has occurred with nary a peep of protest from the likes of Tony Wood nor the ‘human rights’ brigades in the West. They only condemn ‘certain types’ of military actions in Ukraine, namely, the ones aimed at stopping the cruel war against Donbass and stopping NATO’s ongoing war plans against Russia.
Wood inadvertently acknowledges the multi-national character of Russian society and its governing institutions in writing, “All recent Russian governments have been quite scrupulous [emphasis added] in describing Russia as a multinational federation, comprising lots of national minorities.”
Wood continues: “Very quickly, the Russians became bogged down, and it was apparent from pretty early on that they totally miscalculated the scale of opposition, the intensity of the resistance they would meet. They just kept bludgeoning away…” He also says that Russia’s military intervention “is going to be a total disaster for Russia.”
Where does Wood get his information? Evidently, straight out of the news and editorial pages of Western media. Because contrary to their claims, the Russian military operation in Ukraine is making steady progress in its goal of demilitarizing Ukraine and stopping NATO from using Ukraine as a platform for threats against Russia. What’s more, Russia is doing its best to avoid civilian casualties. The tragic casualty numbers to date illustrate this. As of March 4, Russian military personnel have suffered three or more times the number of deaths compared to civilian deaths. (See the ‘World news‘ page of A Socialist In Canada website for ongoing reporting of militairy and civiian casulaties in Ukraine.)
The harshest fighting in Ukraine is taking place in and around the cities under the military occupation of extreme-right and neo-Nazi paramilitaries, notably Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, close to the Russian border, and the Black Sea port of Mariupol. Heavy fighting is also taking place in the areas of Donbass occupied since 2015 by the Ukrainian extreme-right paramilitaries. Who is responsible, then, for civilian casualties—the extreme-right paramilitaries holding civilians hostage in such places as the above, or the Russian and Donbass forces seeking to liberate them?
Wood writes, “This is not a popular war [in Russia]. There is no support for it, no appetite for conflict, certainly no appetite for sending conscripts to get killed in Ukraine.” Polling of the Russian people shows the opposite. Let us also note Wood’s utterly false claim that “conscripts” to the Russian army are being sent into the Ukraine conflict.
Wood writes, “I’m very uneasy with the idea that flooding Ukraine with weapons can be equated to an antiwar position. That is extremely dangerous.” Only ‘uneasy’? Is he reading the few Western news reports and many social media reports evading Western censorship which describe how NATO’s weapons are making life hell for Ukraine’s residents? Any Tom, Dick or Mary can now pick up a machine gun, anti-tank missile system or manufacture gasoline bombs, thanks to the NATO governments and the governing regime in Kyiv. Wood should be more than ‘uneasy’: he should condemn this bloody and flagrant ransacking of the lives of Ukrainians.
Wood writes, “Solidarity with Ukraine is one thing, and supporting the continuation and escalation of the war is another. We should try to stop that last part.” This is the standard theme now of liberal and former leftists in the West as they craft the public messaging of de facto support for NATO expansion in eastern Europe. Their message is ‘Russia bad, NATO bad, all bad.’ Alas, that is no help in crafting a proper antiwar strategy for the peoples of the world.
He continues, “In some ways, NATO expansion has helped produce Putin’s hardening nationalist Russian line.” This is the subtle language of shifting blame away from NATO member countries for their 30-plus years of expansion into eastern Europe—Poland, Romania, the Baltic countries—and their murderous regime-change wars outside of Europe—Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Yemen, and on and on. Not to mention NATO countries’ efforts to blockade and overthrow socialist and progressive governments in Latin America. This has turned the world topsy-turvy ‘only in some ways’?
“You’ll notice that the people who are most hesitant within NATO about the expansion are the people in Europe. They don’t really want a war with Russia,” Wood writes. Then why should antiwar forces in Europe condemn Russia and tell it to submit to NATO?
The stock phrase of liberals and former leftists in Europe is that Russia should return to ‘diplomacy’ in order to settle its grievances against NATO expansion and aggression. In saying this, are they truly ignorant of Russia’s relentless diplomatic efforts during the past 30-plus years precisely to stop NATO aggression? Are they truly ignorant of the many thousands of people killed in Donbass by the war waged against them by the Kyiv regime and its extreme-right paramilitaries? For how many more years, or decades, for ‘European diplomacy’ to work magic?
If liberals and leftists are ignorant of the diplomatic history, then it is a disgrace for them to be recklessly pronouncing condemnations of Russia. If they are not ignorant but fail to place the diplomatic record front and center, then they are charlatans and a disgrace to the name of socialism and anti-imperialism.
Perhaps the strangest words of all in Wood’s commentary are the following: “If the West were really concerned about the welfare of the Ukrainian people, there would be much more conversation about a viable political settlement for the future of Ukraine…” What would that settlement consist of? Wood writes, “If there is some kind of platform to be found, it will take something like a Minsk III. I’m not wildly optimistic about that happening.” His long description of the fate of the ‘Minsk 2’ agreement of February 2015 in this section of his interview is similarly doubting and uncertain.
For global, anti-imperialist action
It is true that large doubts now surround the prospects of Minsk 2, but not those of Wood. At its inception, Minsk 2 was a clear and viable path to a political solution for the situation in Donbass. But who could blame the people of Donbass if today they are turning their backs on Ukraine and pursuing political independence (or even better for most, voting to join the Russian Federation, as did the people of Crimea in 2014)? The limits of Minsk 2 in light of the definitive failure of diplomacy (caused by NATO and the Kyiv regime are even more apparent when we consider that Minsk 2 did not address the large issue of Ukraine neutrality and rejection of membership in NATO.
Something more far-reaching than Minsk-2 is now required in order for Ukraine to create a genuine independence and fix its internal political crisis. Kyiv must abandon any idea of joining NATO and it must recognize the right of people in Donbass and southern Ukraine to freely determine their political future.
For the antiwar and political left in the West, its responsibilities are clear. It should campaign for the dissolution of NATO, and it should support all efforts to create a federal and democratic Ukraine. Beyond Ukraine, broad, anti-imperialist alliances are needed to fight for political self-determination for the world’s peoples, for an end to imperialist militarism and war, for decisive measures to mitigate the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, and for decisive measures to mitigate and eventually reverse the catastrophic warming of planet Earth. These are the urgent priorities for humanity; NATO’s war threats and actions are precisely designed to ‘delay and deflect’ attention from them.
* New polls: What do Russians think of the war in Ukraine?, report by Russia Matters, Mar 4, 2022 This week, two Russian pollsters—VTsIOM and FOM—published surveys showing that approximately two-thirds of the Russian public support the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. The independent Levada Center, which Western experts often cite as more reliable, has not yet released its data on the topic. However, its earlier research suggests that a large share of Russians may indeed be supportive of the ‘special military operation’, as Moscow calls it…
[Russia Matters is the publication of three mainstream academic think tanks in the United States.].
* Poll by FOM agency shows support by Russians for special military operation in Ukraine has risen since its launch, New Delhi Television Network, Mar 3, 2022 [This news report by NDTV also says that a poll conducted by Levada Centre in Russia showed that “one third of Russians don’t support their government’s decision to invade Ukraine”. But NDTV provides no source or other confirmation of this claim. The Levada Center has not yet published comprehensive polling results of Russian people.]
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