Staff Writer, Douglas Gibb, argues in favour of maintaining Western support for Ukraine from the left-wing perspective.
The war in Ukraine has raged on for over 500 days, and with that, I would like to offer some criticisms of the analyses presented by supposed anti-imperialist and anti-war activists. Before I get into the criticism, I would first like to clarify some frequently used terms. The word “Tankie” refers to someone who is reflexively anti-West and who supports virtually any government under virtually any circumstances so long as it is anti-American. “Red fascists” (or “Red Fash”) refers to self-described socialists, communists or Marxist-Leninists who, by virtue of their support for quasi-fascist anti-West regimes everywhere, are in practice fascists who like the colour red. These terms are broadly synonymous, although the latter is more extreme. An example of a ‘tankie’ archetype would be the feline fanatic, otherwise known as George Galloway.
Among the IMT (International Marxist Tendency, parent of Socialist Appeal) and STW (Stop The War, front for the Socialist Workers Party) there is a habit of using terms such as “internationalism”, “solidarity”, “class struggle” whilst defending a stance of neutrality in the war. Sometimes this even verges into support for Russia, exemplified when Eamonn McCann argued that “If we have to pick a side over Crimea, let it be Russia“. Within this more extreme Pro-Russia category are people like Danny Haiphong; according to them, Russia is only doing the Ukrainian people (and the world) a favour by “denazifying” it. (The fact that the country’s president is a Jewish liberal does not faze them.) When such obvious absurdities exist, one is obliged to do their best to correct them.
On internationalism, the IMT seems to misunderstand the concept completely. It should not be seen as “do nothing to help other countries because that will lead to a proletarian revolution in Britain through some convoluted series of events that we won’t bother explaining.” In actuality, internationalism is simply the recognition that solidarity does not reside exclusively between Land’s End and John o’ Groats. Solidarity underlies every liberation struggle, not limited to one union branch, congress or even one country. Solidarity means working for the collective good, even if you aren’t directly impacted by the fight at hand. (This is why there’s an expectation that a UCU member won’t cross an RMT picket.) The only inequality solidarity concerns itself with is that conflict between oppressor and oppressed, bully and bullied. And when one looks at this war, it is impossible not to see Russia as the oppressor of Ukraine, which wants to be a part of a progressive Europe, not a reactionary Russia.
If STW had their way, and Ukraine were left to arm themselves, what would this be and what would this lead to? The first question is easy to answer. It would be abandonment. It would be akin to what Trump did to the Kurdish people: withdraw from Northern Syria and leave the Kurds exposed to what was an inevitable and imminent Turkish onslaught. Erdogan, just like Putin, gave reasons for his crimes of aggression, but these were and are unsupported by facts. Why would anyone want a repeat of this? This is a total inversion of solidarity, where we don’t stand shoulder to shoulder with the victim, but instead shrug and pretend there is nothing in our power we can do to help Ukraine, except wait for a socialist revolution at home, much in the same way the Millerites waited for the Second Coming. (The First Coming was the October Revolution, which for some reason has become a model for all subsequent socialist movements.)
Frequently quoted in these discussions, including by KCL’s very own Joe Attard, is the Spartacist slogan “the main enemy is at home”. If we’re in the business of relying on century-old pamphlets to make foreign policy decisions in 2023, then at least read them properly before sloganising them. What the Attardite quote-miners ignore, is the context in which Karl Liebneckt said this. Liebneckt was a German socialist, directing his comments towards a German-speaking audience, seeking to oppose German and Austrian chauvinists who were trying to get socialists to fight against Italy, which had recently entered the First World War on the side of the Entente powers. It would be wrong to say that Liebneckt was uncritical of the Entente, this is clearly untrue.
Offensive are the tirades with which Italian imperialism glosses over its pillaging; offensive is that roman tragicomedy in which the now-common grimace of the Burgfrieden (“civil truce”) [sic] is present.The Main Enemy Is At Home!, Karl Liebneckt, May 1915. (Der Hauptfeind steht im eigenen Land!)
As we can see, he was under no illusions about Italy’s status as an imperial power, much in the same way socialists and progressives should not be uncritical of Nato, but he recognised that Germany and Austria were “chiefly responsible” (ibid.), a nuance Socialist Appeal neglects to recall. Liebneckt continues:
It is still the case: The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia from July 23, 1914 was the spark that ignited the world, even if the fire was very late in spreading to Italy.
It is still the case: This ultimatum was the signal for the redistribution of the world, and by necessity called on all capitalist pillager-states to participate in the plan.
It is still the case: This ultimatum contained in it the question of the dominance over the Balkans, Asia Minor, and all of the Mediterranean, and therefore contained all the antagonisms between Austria-Germany and Italy in one stroke.Ibid.
Is there not an analogy with Ukraine? The Russian irredentists were behaving in a wholly unreasonable manner (as the Austrians were regarding the ultimatum). They tried and are trying to bully Ukraine into waiving its sovereign right to enter into defensive alliances (a right Russia promised to uphold in the Budapest Memorandum and Charter for European Security), a strategy which amounts to an imperialist “domination” of Ukraine as a state and a people. Continuing with the analogy, we must ask ourselves, who can anyone thank for the continuation of the horrid war and for the partial intervention of NATO? Who else but the irresponsible people in the Russian government?
Even if we were to use the slogan entirely dettached from its context, it’s not true. The IMT are inconsistent in this regard. They say the US is the “most reactionary force on Earth”, so by their reasoning shouldn’t the US be the main enemy? Ultimately, the premise itself is quite silly. Are we to take it that Hungary, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and North Korea are all somehow less reactionary than the United States?
The only bothsidesism to this debate is that neither are socialist economies, i.e. both are non-socialist. The simple truth is that Zelenskyy is a liberal while Putin is a hard right ultra-nationalist. There is clearly a better side (and therefore a worse one) in this conflict and it shouldn’t need explaining which is which. Essentially the only correct point the IMT makes regarding this conflict is that it proves there is money to fund public services in addition to armed services.
Other spin the ‘tankies’ and tankie-adjacent folks like to put on this is that NATO “ultimately prepared the ground” – a longwinded way of saying “caused” – this conflict. This is a pathetic lie. Any thinking individual will look to a person’s (or country’s) actions over their words when there is doubt about motives. Here are the facts about NATO in relation to Europe. Former US Secretary of State, James Baker, gave assurances (prior to German reunification) that NATO wouldn’t move its troops into the former GDR (German Democratic Republic, East Germany). This was made at a time when the USSR and the Warsaw Pact still existed. The Russian Federation interpreted the assurances from Baker as meaning that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, NATO would not admit any former-Warsaw Pact or former-Soviet countries. This is why Boris Yeltsin wrote to Bill Clinton saying
I also want to call attention to the fact that the spirit of the treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany, signed in September 1990, especially its provisions that prohibit the deployment of foreign troops within the Eastern lands of the Federal Republic of Germany, precludes the option of expanding the Nato zone into the East.Yeltsin letter on Nato expansion, September 1993.
But if you care to read Articles IV and V (A4 and A5) of the said treaty, this is quite a stretch. A4 says that Germany and the USSR were to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces from the former GDR (East Germany) by a treaty and that US, UK and France note this. A5(1) says that prior to the withdrawal, no German forces “integrated into the alliance structures [e.g. NATO]” could enter the territory of what was the GDR. A5(2) says that, during the withdrawal period, the aforementioned three Western powers may stay in Berlin so long as it was at the request of the German government. A5(3) says: (quoting for clarity)
…Foreign armed forces and nuclear weapons or their carriers will not be stationed in that part of Germany [the former GDR] or deployed there.Treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany, September 1990.
This does not say, in any way, that NATO-integrated forces are prohibited from existing in former Warsaw Pact countries. For example, Lithuania is in NATO and so its armed forces are integrated into the NATO command structure, but this treaty does not prohibit the existence of Lithuanian military bases in its own territory, nor does it prohibit the Lithuanian government from inviting other countries to establish bases in their country. What it prohibits is foreign armies existing in the former GDR, and if one looks at a map, it is clear that this provision has been and is being complied with. Gorbachev even said as much:
The topic of “NATO expansion” was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled. The agreement on a final settlement with Germany said that no new military structures would be created in the eastern part of the country; no additional troops would be deployed; no weapons of mass destruction would be placed there. It has been observed all these years.Mikhail Gorbachev: I Am Against All Walls, October 2014.
Even if you want to pretend Yeltsin’s claims were justified, it is simply a matter of fact that there was no Eastern expansion between 2004 and 2023 (after the invasion). By “Eastern expansion” I mean the admission of a state (or former Soviet Republic) that was, in September 1990, a member of the Warsaw Pact. That is, the USSR, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now Czechia and Slovakia) and Bulgaria. Poland, Hungary and Czechia joined in 1999 and the remaining ex-Warsaw countries joined in 2004.
There was no immediate prospect of Ukraine joining NATO (“Ukraine’s immediate prospects of gaining membership are virtually nonexistent”) and NATO hadn’t expanded Eastwards for almost 20 years prior to Russian aggression. Thus it was ludicrous to claim that NATO expansion was somehow the cause of the invasion. The only reason Finland recently joined the bloc is because Putin had just proven that non-aligned status was not a guarantee of a country’s security.
So if the cause wasn’t NATO, what was it? Russian ethno-nationalism. If anyone thinks ethno-nationalism is too strong a word, simply read what Russia’s own state media RIA (the domestic version of RT) said was the reason for the invasion: What Russia Should Do With Ukraine. To paraphrase the US Declaration of Independence, this article, among others, evinces a design to reduce Ukraine under absolute despotism, and it is the right and duty of the Ukrainian people to throw off such aggression. But the article doesn’t only tell of mass political suppression, it goes well beyond that, it explicitly calls for suppression in education and culture, even banning the word “Ukraine”. This is a genocide, which everyone is obliged, morally and legally, to prevent and punish. (Should a comparison be needed, and it shouldn’t, imagine if the BBC or Channel 4 wrote that the British government needed to free Ireland of Hiberno-Nazism and for that purpose it should invade, install a client regime, and imprison the bulk of its population. This would be orders of magnitude worse than Operation Demetrius. Would any self-described anti-imperialist object to Ireland’s right to self-defence, or calling on its allies to help it in its time of need?)
Whereas the refrain in Liebneckt’s pamphlet was “don’t forget anything”, the ‘tankies’ have managed to forget everything. We have the power to help Ukraine, not just the government but also the public, so let’s do the right thing and give critical support to Zelenskyy and Ukraine. Slava Ukraini!