Imperial War Museum
“What appears to characterise (opportunist) practice above all? A certain hostility to ‘theory’. This is quite natural, for our “theory”, that is, the principles of scientific socialism, impose clearly marked limitations to practical activity–insofar as it concerns the aims of this activity, the means used in attaining these aims, and the method employed in this activity. It is quite natural for people who run after immediate “practical” results to want to free themselves from such limitations and to render their practice independent of our “theory”. However, this outlook is refuted by every attempt to apply it in reality.”
Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Reform or Revolution’.
A year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine the clear and hard division in the socialist movement can hardly be said to have mellowed. The escalation of western involvement has not caused supporters of Ukraine to miss a beat in their support, despite initial indications that they saw possible limits to their defence of imperialist intervention. Indeed, the most startling aspect of their response was the immediate support given to the intrusion of western imperialism, thus placing themselves on the same side as the US, and with objectives identical to it and its NATO allies. Anti-imperialist rhetoric continues to be espoused by pointing solely at Russia while demanding that their own imperialist state intervene more strongly to arm the Ukrainian state.
So sudden and complete was this conversion to seeing western imperialism as key to a progressive solution that no further political moves were required to justify the alliance of this left with their own capitalist state and its imperialist allies. This leap into bed with its previous class enemies was carried out with agreement on what the nature of the war was, who the necessary allies were, what the objectives of the war were, and what should be done about it.
Of course, like repeated references to a certain imperialism, the rhetoric has included left phraseology, but this can’t disguise the fundamental identities: the courtiers of western imperialism have themslves denounced imperialism. Such has been the decisiveness of the embrace of the Ukrainian state that their ‘opposition’ to the war means opposition to Ukrainian defeat, not to the war itself, and Ukrainian victory is construed in the most comprehensive and absolute terms.
Their position is bolstered by the unprecedented support for the war by the Western media, which has been little more than propaganda for this imperialist alliance; war pornography but without the pictures that reveal the real brutality. Their moral certitude, which they believe arises from the clarity of what is happening, is assisted enormously by the western media’s one-sided presentation. Even when western diplomats get exasperated at Ukrainian lies, such as its continued claim that it was a Russian missile that landed in Poland and killed two men, this left does not miss a beat to ask what else might not be true? The effect of sanctions on the world’s poor or on workers living standards in their own countries are all an inevitable price to be paid from the perspective of the war being Russia’s fault and its effects only to be ended by its defeat. Nothing its own imperialist state does can be challenged when it is recognised as the only force able to help win the war that it supports. When you have picked a horse, it is relatively easy to see everything through its blinkers.
A third factor is the unattractive nature of Russia itself, a corrupt and authoritarian capitalist state, but this only invites comparison with the Ukrainian state itself, which is hardly very different and certainly not when it is allied with western imperialism, whose toll of death and destruction dwarfs that of Russia. If Putin is a criminal, Bush and Blair are godfathers, and their successors Biden and Johnson, Truss and Sunak etc. are no different. But it is precisely the refusal to go there that is the problem, because the signal fact that the Russian invasion on 24 February was wrong cannot possibly justify support for the Ukrainian capitalist state and its imperialist backers.
Writing from Ireland it is beyond lamentable to see people who opposed the British armed forces in the North of Ireland suddenly find common cause; effectively demanding that the Minister of Defence, whose own military record here is censored, call for their power to be wielded to implement imperialist interests in Eastern Europe.
Condemning the Russian invasion on the grounds of opposition to imperialism while failing to recognise the Ukrainian desire to become part of the biggest imperialist alliance, and also failing to recognise the role of this alliance in a war in which Ukraine is its proxy, makes all claims to support for Ukraine on an ‘anti-imperialist’ basis not only groundless but thoroughly dishonest.
And this is the issue; a position on the war can only be satisfactorily approached through a Marxist analysis – of the cause and nature of the war as determined by its historical origins and development and the nature of the participants and their objectives. When we look at it from this aspect, left support for Ukraine does not so much fall apart as simply not exist.
So right from 24 February 2022 their claim was that the war was caused by Putin. One man caused it, arising out of his cranium with his imperialist obsession and a distorted and false view of Ukrainian history, including the view that Ukraine was not a real country and Ukrainians were a variety of Russian. Far from looking for the material roots of a war that has impacted the world, the moral left discovered from the start that it was Putin’s view of history that explained it.
Not that Putin’s ideas explained everything, for this left everything did not have to be explained, only the invasion, as this determined everything relevant to understand and upon which to strike a political position. And because nothing prior to this matters, and everything subsequent depends absolutely on it, disagreement with their political position is admission of moral failure. As the late socialist Andrew Collier put it, ‘liberals have a notorious tendency to construct values which might explain their opponents’ policies.’
That this justification for their approach does not fall apart but simply does not exist is illustrated, among other things, by the fact that what Putin actually said before the invasion–that was most directly relevant to it–was all but ignored, which we shall look at in a future post along with other claims.