March 26, 2023
From Irish Marxism

On February 24 2022 the US President Joe Biden condemned Russia’s invasion as “a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity” and a “flagrant violation of international law.” Putin he said, “rejected every good-faith effort the United States and our Allies and partners made to address our mutual security concerns through dialogue to avoid needless conflict and avert human suffering,”

Boris Johnson pronounced that ‘President Putin has chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction by launching this unprovoked attack on Ukraine’, while then foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said she had summoned the Russian ambassador “to meet me and explain Russia’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”.  The British Government website continues to have this as its leader – ‘The UK and our allies condemn the Russian government’s unprovoked and premeditated war against Ukraine.’  

The Irish Government as part of the EU has repeatedly supported its sanctions, even demanding they go further, joining Poland and Baltic states in calling for more.  Upon the invasion Tánaiste Leo Varadkar stated that whilst Ireland is militarily neutral, “in this conflict, Ireland is not neutral at all”, stating its “unwavering and unconditional” support for Ukraine.’

This Wikipedia entry sets out a whole list of States responses in which the word ‘unprovoked’ appears 29 times at my last count.

The media followed suit: the New York Times described it as ‘an unprovoked invasion’; the Financial Times a ‘naked and unprovoked aggression’; the Guardian ‘an unprovoked assault’, while the Economist thundered that ‘Russia’s president has launched an unprovoked assault on his neighbour.’

On 14 October 2022, Defenders Day in Ukraine, the US ambassador issued a video message saying:

‘The United States, our partners and allies, will continue to support Ukraine to hold those who commit war crimes accountable and to work to bring together the world to maintain pressure on the Kremlin until it ends its brutal, unprovoked war against Ukraine and our shared values. And we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.’

The position of much of the Western Left, certainly in Britain, is much the same, with a recent Ukraine Solidarity Campaign statement also calling for ‘a week of action’ against ‘the brutal and unprovoked invasion’.  It sees no provocation; absolves western imperialism and the Ukrainian state and regime of any responsibility; supports ‘Ukraine’s freedom, presented as ’self-determination’; has failed to oppose sanctions while mouthing hypocrisies about not supporting them either; sets no political limits to its support – that is ‘unconditional’; and supports western supply of arms, which along with sanctions and financial support are the main western imperialist interventions.

If anything, the political resources required by the support of the pro-war Left for Ukraine might seem to be much greater than that of the various capitalist states, politicians and media.  It has faced opposition from those socialists opposed to capitalist war, something that has been a principle of our politics at least from the exemplary case of the First World War, the character of which has recently been graphically exposed by the film “All Quiet on the Western Front’.  The pro-war left has had to face this opposition–which capitalist Governments and its bourgeois media are not of course concerned with–and reject its arguments, sometimes claiming how comfortable it is for its critics that they take such a position!

However, because it claims the mantle of socialism its position very quickly became dishonest, confused, as well as reactionary.  Consider the exchange of views in Britain between Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR) and the Stop the War coalition (StW).  Like many organisations not interested in principled politics, ACR argues the prime necessity for action and berates Stop the War for putting up conditions to joint activity.  

We have dealt with what sort of anti-war movement is required before, so suffice to say here that its own insistence on the absence of certain demands, such as opposition to NATO, is also a precondition.  The point of a political campaign is to fight for particular objectives that are directly relevant and to raise the consciousness of the working class.  To exclude certain demands is to avoid fighting for these objectives and failure to raise political consciousness around them.  Lack of concern for political principle leads to this obvious truth being passed over.

Since it is impossible to hide the political differences, it quickly became clear that those such as ACR calling for a broad approach, ‘designed to build the broadest possible movement against the war’, were not actually against the war but for it, war until Ukrainian victory.  This is where the pro-war position is dishonest.

ACR refuses to support demands opposing NATO, rejecting the view that ‘NATO’s expansion has “contributed to the war”’, stating that ‘this is not clear at all. It could equally be argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an act of unprovoked imperialist aggression.’  Having said that it could equally be argued that the war was the fault of Russia, what ACR really means is that Russia was wholly at fault, and the problem with the StW coalition is that it is not ‘engaging with the central issue: the unprovoked war on Ukraine.’

ACR wants to oppose an ‘unprovoked attack on Ukraine’, oppose the war and ‘to organise constructively against it – not in a way that fans the flames of war – which is why the demand “No to war” is included – but in a way that solidarises with the plight of the Ukrainian people.’  It thinks, or perhaps pretends to think, that you can demand solidarity with one of the sides waging without supporting war and without fanning its flames, all while supporting a greater and greater supply of weapons.  This is where the pro-war position is (shall we say?) confused

In their exchange of views the StW coalition raised the question of opposing arms expenditure as an urgent issue, but ACR regarded this as belonging to ‘a whole range of other criticisms’ that can be parked and not form part of the movement. But this identification of the issue by the StW coalition turned out to be very prescient: the British Trade Union Congress voted shortly after to support increased ‘defence spending’, more honestly stated as spending on war.  The ACR position would have left, and still would, any supposed anti-war position silent in this debate.  Since, in any case, the ACR defends the arming of Ukraine by the British state this is a perfectly logical position for it to take.  This is just one case in which the pro-war position is reactionary.

As the argument supported by ACR shows, the stance of the pro-war left rests, like that of western imperialism in general, on the view that the Russian invasion was unprovoked.  Of course, provocation does not equate to justification or automatically follow from it.  In the world of capitalist state competition provocation may be seen as sometimes inevitably resulting in war, but that does not require socialists to support either the provocation or the response.  In fact, opposition to both is clearly a principled socialist approach.

But this would not be enough for the pro-war left because admission of western imperialist and Ukrainian provocation would require taking this principled position.  Both western imperialism and Ukraine would then be seen as playing their own part in causing the war; Ukrainian agency as they call it, and having responsibility for it, in which case defending either would be anathema. The pro-war left cannot concede this reality; let’s call it the homage that treachery pays to principle.

The pro-war left denies reality when it absolves western imperialism and Ukraine of any provocation and therefore any responsibility.  In doing so, in denying recent history and current reality it signs up to an infantile view saturated with bourgeois morality in which Ukraine is Good and western imperialism Innocent; innocent of acting on its essential nature. 

The reality of capitalist war becomes instead a morality tale of heroic resistance, and the messy reality is only so much noise – unpleasant, unwelcome and better drowned out.  The unpleasant nature of Ukrainian nationalism for example, that shades into the relatively large constituency for fascism; or the fact that there are a large number of Ukrainians who support Russia, are just irrelevant noise to signal. 

Instead, they can fight for what is Good; while other socialists fight in opposition to their own capitalist state and capitalist class, watching and reading mass media propaganda about the ‘unprovoked’ war.

Back to part 3