Day and night, gunfire could be heard. There was no public transport. Knocked-out Russian tanks stood raggedly about the streets, while others rumbled continually up and down. Shattered buildings with gaping holes cast grotesque shadows across hundreds of bodies lying in the streets amid the broken glass, empty cartridges and other debris. Occasionally, a van with a Red Cross flag or a lorry-load of ‘freedom fighters’ would go crunching by. Some food shops were open. The cinemas, theatres, and restaurants were closed. In the ferment of activity, there was no time or thought for entertainment.
Andy Anderson, Hungary ’56
In 1956, Russian tanks and troops carried out a massive assault on Hungary. After a first wave had stalled, a second wave involving around 6,000 tanks succeeded in occupying the main cities of the country, abducting the Premier, Imre Nagy, and crushing the popular ‘soviets’ that had sprung up to co-ordinate resistance to the invasion.
This was a watershed moment for the left internationally. Until 1956, mass communist parties retained thousands of supporters in most countries. It was still possible to believe—if you didn’t examine the evidence too closely—that Russia was not an imperialist power but rather a state that for all its faults had held back fascism and Western aggression.
Today it should not really be necessary to make the case among the left that Russia is an imperial power. The evidence has been available for decades. Yet the left, at least the Western left I am familiar with, has so declined in the clarity of its thinking and in moral principles that the generation of revolutionaries who rose in ’68 and won young radicals away from Communism towards international socialism – figures such as Tariq Ali – are not even calling for Putin’s army to be thrown out of Ukraine.
The Left and Imperialism
Around the time of the Great War, the left understood the nature of imperialism. For Luxemburg, imperialism was a by-product of a relentless thirst by capital for surplus value. For Lenin, imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. For Bukharin, it was the result of competition being eliminated between companies within a state only to reappear as competition between states. And for James Connolly, imperialism was a desperate drive to obtain new markets by aging capitalism.
By any of these definitions (and none are up-to-date, we need new ones that reflect modern conditions) Russia is a major imperialist power. After the Second World War, Russia subordinated the countries behind the Iron Curtain to its own drive to compete in four ways: direct theft of factories, which were dismantled and moved to Russian territory; the purchase of raw materials and goods at strong-armed prices; ‘joint’ companies which sent the lion’s share of profits to Russia but expected the satellite country to underwrite any losses; and ‘collectivisation’—the formation of Russian-led state farms.
No wonder the people in these countries – who were deprived of the right to strike, to form trade unions, or express critical ideas – wanted to escape Russian control. No wonder that they repeatedly rose up in their millions, such as in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980. When the opportunity came in 1989 to get rid of both Russian control and their own local Communist rulers, of course the people did so. The mass movements of that year were entirely understandable and justified. The fact that the ‘free’ market of Western-style capitalism failed to bring about prosperity proves nothing positive about Russian control over Eastern Europe, but only that capitalism is a failed system worldwide, whatever particular garb it wears (including the twist that people wielding red flags and carrying pictures of Marx should become the ruling elite).
Justified Resistance to Russian Imperialism
Ukraine 2022 should be seen in this context of justified resistance to Russian imperialism.
Worldwide, there should be left solidarity movements for Ukraine as there were for Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Internationally the socialist left should be blossoming. By supporting the resistance of the Ukrainian people and demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops as well as pointing out that the capitalist system of ruthless competition will lead to more wars unless humanity gets out of the social vice we are trapped in, the left could revive across the planet. Millions of people are coming to realise the real danger the system we live in poses and are looking for alternatives.
Yet, in the west at least, the left is in the process of making a mess of what should be a simple task. Where are the big anti-imperialist marches like we saw in the build up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003? Why are the left’s media filled with more posts about the US than Russia? Or maps of NATO expansion? Where is the amplification of the voices of our comrades on the front lines in Ukraine? Our anarchist and socialist comrades are fighting Russian imperialism and for a transformation of Ukraine, and they are reaching out to us for solidarity.
Why is the Western left ambiguous about wanting a defeat for Russia?
I believe that the reason for the current fumble by the Western left is that they have a mindset that prevents them from making sense of the obvious. There shouldn’t be any doubt about the fact we are witnessing a popular uprising against an empire. Instead, the left see fascists and dupes of NATO everywhere in Ukraine, even when the left in Ukraine is shouting to us that this isn’t the case.
Naturally, the Stalinist and Maoist left are for a Russian victory. I’m not addressing them. They are walking cadavers who ache to be dominated, mouthing statements fed to them by their masters. They have nothing to offer in regard to an international left revival. I’m writing this feature for a different audience: those currently wondering why Western anti-war organisations led by the left are not doing more to assist those fighting in Ukraine.
Part of the answer, I think, is that this left is moribund and has been for some years.
As Stalinism began to break up after ’56, the New Left adopted the attitude that both US imperialism and Russian imperialism were equally dangerous. But the counter culture that scorned capitalist values and the inspiring prospect of the possibility of international socialism both faded towards the middle of the 1970s. The genuinely revolutionary left was stranded high on a beach while the tide of working class revolt withdrew. To survive for all these decades, most of the left found their own rock pool to hide in and they became sects. Without the reality check provided by being rooted in working class communities, and without a connection to a mass movement of radical workers, they lost something essential: the spirit of questioning everything and debating freely (there was a darker side to this too, in the appearance of abusive hierarchies forming within several far left groups).
When you read the writings of Ukrainian socialists and anarchists today, it is striking how consequential they are. They write about the results of decisions and their real, practical outcomes (which are not always for the best). Theory for the Western left, on the other hand, has degenerated into performance at conferences and second rate expositions of the canonical texts of Marxism. No one is ever called to account for their views, and where leading members of the Western left have articulated positions that don’t stand the test of time, such embarrassments are simply removed from party history.
Yet a spirit of free thinking and lively debate is needed on the left, now more than ever. No social theory is so perfect that it is accurate and actionable for decades. Specifically, in regard to the issue of Russian imperialism, there was a contradiction in the theoretical tools of the Trotskyist left that means allowing elder gurus to formulate current policy unchallenged leads to the current problem.
After the rise of Hitler and the defeat of the Spanish revolution of 1936–9 (both decisively influenced by the positions taken by the German and Spanish Communist Party) Trotsky was convinced that Stalinism was absolutely counter-revolutionary. Yet at the same time he believed there were positive features of Russian society, such as the nationalised economy, that the new rulers of Russia had yet to overturn. Trotsky was murdered by a Stalinist in 1940, so he didn’t live to see a post-war state of affairs that would have forced him to face the following contradiction in his thoughts about Russia: given that in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc., industry was nationalised as a result of the arrival of the Red Army, then either such nationalisations are not necessarily a step towards socialism, or Stalinism is not always counter-revolutionary.
Some of the Trotskyist left opted for believing that Stalinism can be positive, sometimes, despite itself (just watch the knots they will get into if Putin nationalises the airlines and banks). Others went the other way, such as the SWP in the UK, which saw state capitalism as in no way superior to free market capitalism. Yet even in the case of the SWP a softness towards Stalinism was revealed – particularly by those who later broke away to found Counterfire – when they thought it clever to join with George Galloway and form Respect Party. An abandonment by the radical left of the spirit of independence from all imperial agendas, in favour of a geo-political approach of picking the lesser evil is at the heart of their weakness at this defining moment. We are at the beginning of a new era of imperialist wars and we have to do better than ‘lesser evil’ politics, because they betray those fighting against empire and for social change.
Today, the Stop the War Coalition in the UK embodies the weakness of a Western left that had the potential to rally people to the side of the Ukraine socialists and anarchists who are fighting against Russia. Stop the War is dominated by former Stalinists, Trotskyists and SWP members who have found themselves in agreement that the main enemy to organise against is the US and NATO even in a situation where it is Russia invading another country . The Trotskyists can only maintain their alliance with the Stalinists by muting any criticism of Russia, or support for the Ukrainian resistance.
For some years before this war in Ukraine, the signs were clear that left-wingers of this type were moving away from a policy of listening to people engaged in real conflict with imperialism and towards an armchair geo-political analysis focused on finding out what the US agenda was in any situation and choosing the other side. When it came to the destruction of Syria, Stop the War did nothing to oppose Russia’s crushing of a popular uprising and, indeed, drove away those attending rallies on the topic of Syria who were looking for support against Russian backing of Assad. Over the course of six years in Syria, Russia killed 23,000 Syrian civilians, tested 320 weapons systems and gave combat experience to 85% of its officers.
I see this generation – the Tariq Alis, the Jeremy Corbyns – as they themselves must once have seen the leaders of Western Communist parties. As a result of their ‘campism’ (i.e. picking a camp that isn’t the US, no matter how anti-working class), they are incapable of giving the anti-war movement the energy and focus on Ukrainian left activists it needs. Corbyn often has a platform with Jacobin, the US left magazine, and that magazine too fails to amplify the voice of the Ukrainian left. Almost certainly, this is because Jacobin does not discuss the question of Russian imperialism but argues instead that this war is the product of decades of NATO expansionism. In its coverage of Ukraine so far, the magazine has limited itself to pointing to the hypocrisy of Western elites. The Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organisation in the USA, has a similar view.
Similarly incapable of being able to rise to the occasion are those who cannot commit themselves to offering solidarity with the Ukrainian left in their time of need, because they see resistance to Russia as strengthening NATO.
For groups like People Before Profit in Ireland, this is not a war of liberation by a small nation against an imperial power, because if so, the Irish tradition of James Connolly’s working-class based opposition to the British Empire would be entirely relevant (as it is, including the validity of obtaining arms from Germany). No, for them, this is an inter-imperialist conflict:
Putin’s actions are being used by military hawks in the US to whip up an atmosphere for war. The US military was humiliated by their defeat in Afghanistan and are determined to re-assert their ‘leadership’ over the Western world by posing as its defenders. This is why they have done everything possible to whip up tensions. They have sent an extra 5,000 soldiers to Poland and have been systematically supplying the Ukrainian army with missiles.
Again, for them, this war is all about the agenda of the US rather than a national liberation struggle against imperialism..
When prominent PBP members frame the war in a way that presents it merely a matter of Putin versus NATO, they write out of the picture the Ukrainian left and, indeed, the entire Ukrainian people, who have as much right to an independent country free from Russia as Ireland does in respect to Britain.
Clearly, a stronger opposition to Russian imperialism needs to be voiced by the Western left at this time. There are signs that this is taking place. In the UK the executive of the trade union Unite have taken a better position on the conflict, perhaps because its members have taken solidarity action in not unloading Russian oil. For the statement of Independent Left on the conflict see the link. And for English language socialists wanting to connect with the left in Ukraine and give them support, we recommend the work of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign.
The Western left and Russian imperialism FAQ
Is Ukraine fascist?
No, that’s Putin’s pretext for the invasion. There are a small number of Nazis in Ukraine (they won 2% of the vote in the 2019 election) and they have less of a presence in the military than they did in the events of 2014. Russia, too, has fascist organisations and countries like the USA have larger numbers of fascists. When asked was Putin’s De-Nazification of the Ukraine welcome, Kyiv’s Chief Rabbi said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about. In terms of antisemitism, we’re very secure here.”
Should the Western left want to see a defeat for Russia in the war in Ukraine?
Yes. This should be obvious and as instinctive as supporting oppressed people anywhere in the world. This a crucial test of whether the left is at all relevant more generally. And unfortunately, much of the Western left is in the processing of failing it and failing the Ukraine resistance.
Will NATO benefit if Russia is defeated?
Possibly. But then, if Russia wins, that will create a massive upsurge of a desire for a greater NATO presence and more US armaments among the countries adjacent to Russia. This question has become the primary one for the much of the Western left but it should be secondary to the more fundamental question: are you on the side of the people facing the Russian invasion?
But what about Palestine?
Many of those raising the issue of Palestine in the context of the war in Ukraine are doing so in bad faith. They don’t want to admit to preferring a Russian victory to a Ukrainian one; rather than acknowledge this politically unpalatable position, they draw attention to the double standards of Western governments and some media outlets, which do not champion Palestine with a fraction of the energy they are devoting to Ukraine. Yes, of course the left should recognise the cause of the Palestinians as a just one. But where do you stand on the question of Ukraine?
What does Noam Chomsky say about the war in Ukraine?
You can read this for yourself in his interview here. He’s another of those on the left who see the war as a geopolitical conflict between NATO and Russia, leaving out Ukrainian people themselves. Dismissing the possibility and even the desirability of a victory for Ukraine, Chomsky argues that concessions to Putin’s goals are necessary.
What Can Socialists in the West do to help the left in Ukraine?
Above all, the Western left needs to get off the fence and start listening to their comrades who are battling Russian tanks and troops – without supporting NATO – and champion their cause against the Russian invasion. Independent Left are channeling our support through the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, who have strong contacts among trade unionists, socialists and anarchists in Ukraine.
They have a crowdfunder campaign here.
Patrick O'Connor says
You make the point that 85% of the Russian officer corps got field experience in Syria supporting the Assad regime. The tactics used in that campaign were brutal. Opposition-held-areas were reduced to rubble and civilians killed indiscriminately – a reprise of the Russian tactics in Grozny during the Chechen war of the late 90s. The brutality in the Chechen war arose after the Russians didn’t get the quick victory that was expected. Grozny was pounded to dust and it was said that a majority of the civilian deaths were ethnic Russians that were supposedly being rescued. Putin was PM then (and running the show as Yeltsin was in poor health and drunk daily) and it appears, just as now, none of the advisors would speak up with accurate perspectives. Thus the worst barbarism of this war may be to come. Putin may be a complete loose cannon now. In the post Stalin ‘Soviet’ era state control was divided between the Communist party, KGB and a tame Intelligentsia who had to be listened to sometimes. Putin has no constraints now and all the appearance of a Czar.
I think it’s right for those of us on the left to support Ukraine’s fight to preserve its independence but I fear Putin’s next move.
Martin Comack says
Carl Rosenberg says
I agree with much of what this article says, except perhaps for one aspect, namely Conor Kostick’s criticism of the magazine Jacobin. Kostick says that “In its coverage of Ukraine so far, the magazine has limited itself to pointing to the hypocrisy of Western elites.” There’s more to their coverage than this. For instance, they published on March 3 “A Message From Russians Against the War,” which says at the outset, “War is not Russia. War is Putin and his government. That is why we, Russian socialists and communists, are against this criminal war.”
John Reimann says
Here in the US, the left has been divorced from the working class for many decades. This happened partly due to outside forces, including the results of Stalinism and the Red Scare/anti-communist (of all sorts) drive in the 1950s and beyond. These forces led to an anti-socialist mood developing within the working class. (As an activist and socialist in the Carpenters Union for decades, starting in 1970, I experienced it up close and personal.) More and more, the left turned inwards, being increasingly comfortable living in its own self-imposed ghetto, talking just among itself. Since the most powerful force was Stalinism, even the anti-Stalinists (“Trotskyists” and others) absorbed the attitudes of Stalinism – first and foremost that the working class in the former colonial world was just a pawn in a greater game. After all, if they were cut off from the workers at home, how could they possibly not be cut off from the working class abroad?
We are facing a 1914 moment in the socialist left. All the rot that was eating away and only partially revealed has now come to the fore. I live in California – earthquake country. It’s like a house that has been eaten away by termites. You only see the evidence if you look closely. But let a crisis arise – a huge earthquake – and the inner rot is fully revealed as the house collapses. But that collapse is necessary. Every crisis is also an opportunity.