Recent events reaffirm that we are living in the epoch of imperialist decadence. Lenin predicted that this would be an epoch of catastrophes and conflicts, wars and revolutions. In fact, the pandemic caused millions of deaths, with social and military conflicts in a large part of the globe, the increase in the economic crisis led to the growth of hunger and poverty for the majority of the planet’s population.

By: Américo Gomes

As Trotsky wrote “The life of monopolistic capitalism in our time is a chain of crises. Each crisis is a catastrophe. The need of salvation from these partial catastrophes… lays the ground for additional, deeper and more widespread crises.1

Putin wants to rebuild the tzar’s Russian empire destroyed by the Bolsheviks

To understand the real meaning of the war in Ukraine we have to start from the concept of oppressor and oppressed nations developed by Lenin from theoretical and political points of view. He was credited with developing a revolutionary strategy for the oppressed nations.

Lenin wrote that, in the imperialist epoch, the international big bourgeoisie’s policy is one of annexations and wars, for oppression and exploitation. He established the concept of “oppressor and oppressed nations,”2 separating the oppressor nation’s nationalism, regressive, from the nationalism of the oppressed one, progressive; and the right to self-determination. So, he converted the struggle for national sovereignty against colonial oppression into one of the fundamental democratic demands of the programme of the permanent revolution of Marxist revolutionaries as part of the socialist revolution.

After the 1917 Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power, Lenin’s concrete policy was the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in a manner completely antagonistic to how the Russian Empire was formed, called by them the “prison of the peoples.” The Bolsheviks defended the right to self-determination of all nationalities and their free choice to join the USSR.

Stalin did the opposite when he tried to Russify Georgia, a fact that even led to the rupture of personal relations between him and Lenin, who was still alive. After Lenin’s death, Stalin advanced this policy for the whole USSR, suffocating nationalities, carrying out genocides and large population transfers, as happened in the Crimea.3

This is the reason for Putin’s polemic with Lenin’s stance on the subject.4 In what in one sense he is right. Putin, as he himself says, wants to re-establish the Russian Empire, which was destroyed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. To this end Putin’s capitalist Bonapartist regime mirrors the Tsarist one, violently repressing the working class and more than 160 nationalities.

The Great Russians foster prejudice against the Muslim Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Georgians, Kazakhs, and all non-white peoples, who make up about half of Russia’s workers occupying the worst jobs and receiving the lower wages.

Currently, Putin supports dictatorships in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Chechnya. To this end he invaded Georgia in 2008, to control South Ossetia; he won the bloody Chechen war in 2009; he sent troops to Belarus to quell the popular uprising against Lukashenko in 2020; Russian troops were sent to Kazakhstan to suppress protest movements in January 2022. It’s an oppressive-chauvinist policy that states clearly that the invasion of Ukraine is not a defensive war against NATO, as Putin claims, but an offensive war to reestablish what would be Russia’s vital space.

Pacifism and neutrality help Putin

As with any major event in the class struggle, the organisations claiming to be from the working class and social movements have split, as have the bourgeois ones. The Stalinists and neo-Stalinists and most Communist Parties around the world have again used the “camp theory,” trying to discover something progressive in Putin’s government, casting lies and falsifications on the Ukrainian people, all to entrench themselves on the side of the bloodthirsty and repressor.5 In which they are followed sadly by some Trotskyist organisations.

This position supports any capitalist regime, however repugnant, like that of Putin, Diaz-Canel, Ortega, Maduro or Bachar al-Asad, for supposedly opposing US imperialism. They turn a blind eye to these governments that exploit the working class, commit crimes and state terrorism, national oppression, and even wars and counter-revolutions against their own people. In Ukraine, they are on the side of invasion and occupation.

On the other side, among those who rightly support the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian people, the protection of the rights of national minorities and are in favour of resistance, there are unfortunately the pacifists. Drawing on the feeling of a large section of the world population for peace and rejection of imperialist offensives, they do not advocate and refuse to promote campaigns such as sending medicines and weapons to the Ukrainian resistance. All with the slogans “Stop the war in Ukraine,” “No to the expansion of NATO.”6

Revolutionary Marxists must differentiate themselves from Stalinist politics, who advocate Putin’s victory; and also from pacifists, who bet that imperialist “pseudo-sanctions” could bar the Russian army, or that Ukrainians must accept a deal that dismembered Ukraine or violated their national sovereignty.

Only the independent mobilisation of the workers can defeat the Russian invasion. Peace will only be achieved with the military defeat of Putin. Not to state this, is to sow illusions. To argue that the workers should not take up arms in self-defence in the event of war is an impotent and defeatist policy for the working class because it prevents turning the war into a revolutionary struggle.

The real revolutionaries must fight in this trench. The duty of the world proletariat should be dictated by helping the oppressed peoples in their national struggle against the oppressor nations and against their own imperialism.

Ukraine: an oppressed nation struggling for national sovereignty

The Ukrainian struggle of resistance, as of the other countries in the region against the imprisonment of the peoples becomes a struggle for national sovereignty against an oppressive, invading and occupying power.

In Ukraine, a democratic revolution overthrew Moscow’s puppet dictator Yanukovich in 2014. It established a bourgeois-democratic regime. Zelensky was elected as a bourgeois, pro-imperialist government, in favour of entering the European Union, in the same way as the nationalist leaderships of Catalonia and Scotland. Before the Russian occupation, it applied a tough IMF plan: a change in the Constitution allowing the sale of land to foreigners, wage cuts and a brutal cut in social spending and layoffs to the advantage of Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs who have companies in Ukraine7.

At the time of the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s military, Ethiopia was ruled by the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, and Trotsky replied that those who opined that the Italo-Ethiopian war would be a “conflict between two rival dictators” were mistaken, because they did not see that Ethiopia was an oppressed nation and that, therefore, Mussolini’s victory would mean “the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, while Ethiopia’s victory “would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples.8

In the same way, Putin’s triumph in Ukraine means the strengthening of the use of force of an oppressor nation against an oppressed nation and the attack on oppressed peoples all over the world. His victory will strengthen the imperialist nations that have greater military power and will legalise the use of force to carry out their conquests in the colonies and semi-colonies. That is why the war is already a pretext for arms build-up by imperialist powers.

No confidence in Zelensky

While we are betting on the self-organisation of the Ukrainian resistance, we must warn the fighters that they cannot trust Zelensky’s pro-imperialist government because it will capitulate and negotiate with Putin by renouncing Ukrainian territorial integrity and accept the “Finlandisation of Ukraine,” keeping its support to the imperialist policy but without joining NATO, as advocated by sections of German and French imperialism like Emanuel Macron.9

Zelensky is part of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie that handed over its entire nuclear arsenal – the third largest in the world with over 3,000 nuclear warheads and 100 ballistic missiles – to Russia in exchange for protection, signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 backed by the United States and France.

The same bourgeoisie that submitted the country to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, with a foreign debt exceeding 129 billion dollars, forcing the working class and poor people to pay it by cutting social programs, privatizing industry, laying off public workers and reducing wages.

Marx and Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy … at all events, Catholic reactionaries () But we, Marxists and Bolsheviks, considered the struggle of the Riffians against imperialist domination as a progressive war () To speak of “revolutionary defeatism” in general, without distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the service of the imperialists (…) Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is struggling. Only cowards, scoundrels, or complete imbeciles can refuse to participate in that struggle.10

As it is “inevitable” that Zelensky will capitulate to the Russian invasion, it is essential that the resistance and the working class build their own organisation and military command, so as not to be subordinated to the bourgeois and pro-imperialist leadership.

On sanctions and the war in Ukraine

Among those who defend the Russian defeat in Ukraine, there are some who support the economic sanctions against Russia, carried out by the imperialist countries. Among them, we find the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International”,11 the former Unified Secretariat (USec).

We must understand that US and European imperialism’s class interests prevail over the conflict against Putin’s government. Imperialism’s priority is the maintenance of the imperialist world order, which is in crisis, not the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian people.

That is why the support of imperialist governments for Ukraine is symbolic, partial and insufficient, ultimately accepting that it can be occupied and divided by Russia (Finlandisation). Similar to what English and French imperialism did when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of WWII. Macron, at the head of the European rulers, has announced that they will not accept Ukraine into the European Union.12

They talk about freezing the assets of the Russian oligarchs, and even then partially, but not about expropriation or confiscation of these assets to send them to the Ukrainian fighters. In the UK the Oligarchs’ money is needed to balance the trade deficit and is part of the annual flow of foreign funding. The most grotesque example is Portugal, where the banks confiscated €242 (a fortune!) from one of these Russian oligarchs.

The sanctions announced by imperialism are palliative, demagogic and cynical. Their aim is to try to win the consciousness of the working class into the sense that the UN and NATO can guarantee “collective security” resorting to government sanctions against those they consider “aggressors.” With the false appearance of legality of a pseudo-international body, by creating a mood of “national unity” against the war, as if an alliance between the working class and imperialism were possible.

In this way, they are trying to prevent the workers from believing in their own strength and avoid the mobilisation of the working class to support the Ukrainians. In this sense, these sanctions are not even complementary to the actions of our class, in fact, they are opposite.

It is enough to see that at the same time as they announce these partial measures, they continue to buy and pay for oil and gas from the Russians.13 Just see that at the same time as they announce these partial measures, they are still buying and paying for oil and gas from the Russians[13]. The Germans and Italians say they cannot stop receiving it; the British, that only get 4% of their gas from Russia, and the Dutch announce plans to cut it off in December, possibly when the war will be over. To have an idea, Russia has increased oil production and exports since the invasion of Ukraine.14 Some 15 billion euros have entered Russia since the invasion began thanks to gas, oil and coal exports to the European Union.15

This is nothing new. When Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, was invaded by fascist Italy, the League of Nations – called by Lenin the “Den of Thieves” – passed economic sanctions against Italy and condemned it as an illegal war of aggression. The Stalinists supported these sanctions. But, off the records, the British and French governments took no serious action against Italy, the United States continued exporting, including weapons, and the Stalinists continued selling oil. The fact was denounced by Trotskyists and Pan-Africanists such as Padmore and CLR James.16

For Trotsky, “its support for sanctions is an integral part of its participation with the Social Democrats on the treacherous front of ‘official pacifism’.” For him “… to take up the defence of Ethiopia against Italy in no way means to encourage British imperialism to make war.17

This explains why the US government, the head of NATO, was against sending the Polish planes to the Ukrainian fighters or the necessary equipment so that the Ukrainians themselves could defend their territory by land, air and sea, without the need to send NATO troops.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated flatly, “One thing also needs to be clear: NATO will not intervene militarily in this war.”

The Spanish state and Italy are sending obsolete missile launchers and machine guns, real scrap metal to the Ukrainian fighters.

The demands that revolutionaries must make on imperialist governments are subordinate to the strategy of fighting against the oppressing nation, in this case, Russia, and against their internal enemy in every capitalist country.

In the imperialist countries, which are allied with the countries conducting progressive and revolutionary wars, it boils down to this: that the proletariat fights with revolutionary means for an effective, direct military support, controlled by it, of the progressive cause (“Airplanes for Spain!” cried the French workers).”18

For the dismantling of NATO

We must demand from governments, especially imperialist countries, that they hand over, unconditionally, weapons and all materials necessary for the Ukrainian resistance. We are totally against the entry of NATO troops into the country and furthermore never to submit the command of the militias to imperialist military officers.

Don’t forget the long bloody history of US imperialism, from the Spanish-American War to the world wars, the Vietnam war, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and its present support for the occupation of Palestine and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Just like all governments, NATO members and the European Union have a sordid history of imperialist occupations all over the world. That is why we advocate the liquidation of NATO with the dismantling of all its military bases.

This is a similar position to that adopted by the Executive Committee of the Fourth International when Japan invaded China. The revolutionaries declared in favour of the victory of the Chinese army commanded by Chiang Kai-shek against Japanese imperialism. They exposed the intentions of US imperialism and Chiang Kai-shek’s reactionary policy while supporting the delivery of military hardware but refusing the deployment of troops and under no circumstances subordinating the strategy of the Chinese army to the command of imperialism.19

This position was followed in the Abyssinia conflict, which was “the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia”, by preventing the Italian government from receiving support from other imperialist powers and defending the delivery of arms to the Ethiopian people.20

Class solidarity

“Imperialist sanctions” have nothing to do with the “international workers’ boycott”, which is a form of working-class action and a tool of struggle.

We must support the actions of the workers who, through their organisations, boycott Russian products, starting with oil and gas. Therefore the dockers’ actions in England, Holland and the United States who refused to unload oil from Russia are exemplary. In Liverpool and Kent, they stopped the loading and unloading of oil, with motions of support from the FBU (firefighters) and Unite, which condemned the invasion and NATO, whose leaders stated that the oil is “stained with the blood of the Ukrainian people” because it is serving to fund the Russian military.

This should be the main task of the working class.An actual stoppage of exports to Italy by a decision of the Soviet trade unions would have evoked a world movement of boycott incomparably more real than the treacherous “sanctions”, measured as they were in advance by diplomatists and jurists in agreement with Mussolini.21

Weapons for Ukrainian resistance

The first step is to carry out mobilisations and public demonstrations in support of the Ukrainian resistance and the military defeat of Russia. But we cannot stop there, we must collect funds, medicines, military material and weapons for the fighters.

Unlike the pacifists who only call for “No to war” or “Out Russian troops from Ukraine”, we believe that the Ukrainian resistance must defeat the Russian invasion. For this, we cannot believe the imperialist demagogy, with its partial sanctions, or that Zelensky will take this struggle to the end. We must build real class solidarity to help them win the war.

There are already volunteers from class organisations who are building support convoys for the resistance and even going as volunteers to fight the Russians, as the North American black airline pilots who went to fight in Ethiopia. One of them, Hubert Julian, became known as the “Black Eagle of Harlem” and another, John C. Robinson, the “Black Condor.” They were responsible for founding the Ethiopian Air Force.22

Imperialism is scared to death of arming these militias of volunteers and civilians, they say it would open Pandora’s box of unimaginable proportions in Europe.

Militias formed by men and women in military uniforms, as in Kharkiv, carrying grenades and AK-47s or sandbags for the protection of buildings. At the headquarters of these Territorial Defence Forces, hundreds of people were waiting in line to join the civilian force. It is believed that 130,000 volunteers already carry out training sessions.

This is also the case in other cities like Dnipro, Lviv, Kramatorsk and Kyiv, where dozens of volunteers fill glass bottles and cut wicks to prepare Molotov cocktails. Among them are engineers, drivers, construction workers, cooks, nurses and health professionals. In the Kyiv region, it is estimated that about 18,000 arms were handed over to civilians. Prisoners with military experience were released provided they went to fight and joined the 36,000 reservists, 5,000 National Guard retirees and a further 5,000 Border Police retirees.

As the Russian blitzkrieg failed the bombing of the urban centres of Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kyiv were intensified as well as the actions of the resistance. Fighting is escalating in the north-western suburbs of Kyiv – in Irpin, Borodyanka, Bucha and Gostomel – leaving the population deprived of electricity, heating and telephone wiring, spending several days in cold, damp basements, inadequate to protect themselves from Grad or Iskander missiles launched by the Russian army.

If Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and other cities resist, at an impressive military disadvantage, it is because there is a great people’s mobilisation not only of the fighters but of unarmed people, who form human chains to stop the advance of Russian tanks and hold protest demonstrations against the invader, as in Energodar.

Revolutionary defeatism in Russia

Lenin argued that the revolutionary defeatism of its own bourgeoisie was a strategic policy of the proletariat, which was materialised in Karl Liebknecht’s formula that the workers’ enemy is within their own country. Trotsky warns that this policy, like all others, cannot be viewed dogmatically, differentiating the particularities in each conflict. The Bolsheviks applied the defeatist policy differently in the tsarist period and after February 1917.23

The key is to establish a policy of proletarian independence for the struggle and mobilisation processes, opening up the possibility of revolutionary propaganda for the struggle for power. “Defeatism is the class policy of the proletariat, which even during a war sees the main enemy at home, within its particular imperialist country. Patriotism, on the other hand, is a policy that locates the main enemy outside one’s own country. The idea of defeatism signifies, in reality, the following: conducting an irreconcilable revolutionary struggle against one’s own bourgeoisie as the main enemy, without being deterred by the fact that this struggle may result in the defeat of one’s own government; given a revolutionary movement the defeat of one’s own government is a lesser evil. Lenin did not say, nor did he wish to say, anything else. There cannot even be the talk of any other kind of “aid” to defeat. Should revolutionary defeatism be renounced in relation to non-fascist countries?24

Trotsky argued that even to overthrow Hitler it would not be right to support the imperialist bourgeois democracies by renouncing an independent revolutionary policy.25 Even the struggle against fascism must be embedded in a death struggle against its own imperialism.26 This teaching is fundamental for the Russian people, but also for imperialist countries.

Inside Russia, the defeatist demonstrations against the war are fundamental, and in fact can lead to the defeat of the invasion, as has already occurred in Vietnam with the US army. Putin knows and fears these mobilisations, so the repression against these demonstrators is brutal. 15,000 people have been arrested in anti-war protests in Russia since the invasion on 24 February, according to the human rights organisation OVD-Info. Russia has adopted a new law threatening jail terms of up to 15 years for spreading “false news” about its military or calling for sanctions against the country. Putin recently announced that he will “cleanse Russia of scum and traitors”, announcing that people will disappear “on their own.” Putin’s threat came two days after a TV producer on Russia’s state-run Channel One, Marina Ovsyannikova, interrupted the news with a banner behind the anchor that read, “They are lying to you,” in a public protest against the war in Ukraine. The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament denounced the protest as “treason” and called for her to be punished “with all rigour.”

In the face of this intimidation, thousands are signing petitions against the war, artists are demonstrating against Putin, professors at Moscow University and even some MPs. The anti-war feeling could flare up further as Russian soldiers and conscripts lose their lives in war.

These protests have to be supported by workers all over the world and encouraged to be transformed into demonstrations and strikes, and even desertions, as in WWI or as occurred with the Portuguese military in the colonial independence struggles.

The strategy of struggle against the capitalist and imperialist governments that claim to support the struggle of the Ukrainian people must be done through other tactics. We must demand arms for Ukraine, but without this being confused with support for any measures adopted by these governments, nor can this be a justification for the increase in the arms race in these countries so desired by these governments.

Germany has announced that it will triple its defence budget to re-equip its Armed Forces. All this to defend “freedom and democracy”, a clear fraud, or as a response to Putin’s aggression. France has one of the largest military industries, only rivalled in Europe by the UK. Both countries have nuclear weapons. Italy has pledged to increase defence spending by 2% while Macron has announced that in his second term military spending will be the highest ever and Boris Johnson that Britain’s will be the highest since the cold war. Several other European countries are making similar increases in their military budgets.

For the military defeat of Russia

Only the independent action and solidarity of the workers in the world, combined with the Ukrainian armed resistance and revolutionary defeatism of Russian workers can stop Putin’s aggression and defeat him.

The arming of the proletariat for its self-defence is the main lesson the working class must learn in this conflict. As in China and Ethiopia before the Japanese empire and the Italian fascists, it is essential that the workers participate in the struggle against Russian aggression and invasion. Even under Zelensky, as before under the Kuomintang or Emperor Haile Selassie.

A pacifist policy goes against solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance. Not all forms of violence and war are reactionary. When in the hands of the oppressed, they are instruments of liberation from oppression. The liberation struggle in Vietnam, which defeated French and US imperialism, relied on the use of military force, just like the liberation struggle of the Portuguese colonies in Africa and the US Civil War which ended slavery in the United States.

Neutrality in the struggle between oppressors and oppressed favours the oppressor. That is why revolutionaries support all wars against domination, oppression and exploitation.

Social movements and working-class organisations have to support the Ukrainian resistance because it is an oppressed nation. We must solidarise with the Russian anti-war movement which may broaden to the point of questioning Putin’s government. We are against any imperialist NATO-like intervention. We do not support the fraud of the false and hypocritical imperialist sanctions. We must demand from the imperialist government an end to the trade in Russian gas and oil all over the world as well as arms for the resistance fighters, first of all, to unmask these governments.

We must effectively develop working-class solidarity by sending medicines and weapons to our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. For we know that only this solidarity can defeat Putin’s invasion.

This action will educate the masses that for the overthrow of their own governments, they must take part in the military struggle, even if under their orders for a period since, unfortunately, they are the ones in charge in the war for independence or self-determination. Meanwhile, revolutionaries must brace politically for the overthrow of these governments: “that is the only revolutionary policy.”27

Notes:

1Trotsky, Marxism in our time, April 1939.

4 https://br.rbth.com/politica/2016/01/26/putin-esclarece-declaracao-polemica-sobre-lenin_562435

5 www.brasildefato.com.br/2022/03/01/como-a-esquerda-mundial-ve-a-guerra-entre-russia-e-ucrania

6Among these organisations we will find the “Stop the War Coalition” (STWC), under the leadership of Corbynists and the SWP; the “Manifesto: Feminist Resistance Against War”; and the “Declaration of the Trotskyist Fraction – Fourth International” (FT-CI).

7 Micahel Roberts. https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/ukraine-russia-like-an-earthquake

9 www.abc.es/internacional/abci-finlandizacion-ucrania-posible-salida-conflicto-rusia-o-brindis-202202081342_noticia.html

10Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, September 1937.

11Statement on the war: https://puntodevistainternacional.org/project/no-a-la-invasion-de-ucrania-por-parte-de-putin-apoyo-a-la-resistencia-ucraniana-solidaridad-con-la-oposicion-rusa-a-la-guerra/

12 www.gazetadopovo.com.br/mundo/breves/lideres-da-ue-descartam-rapida-adesao-da-ucrania

13 https://elpais.com/internacional/2022-03-19/bruselas-teme-que-las-sanciones-a-la-energia-rusa-quiebren-la-unidad-europea-frente-a-putin.html

14 www.elfinanciero.com.mx/mundo/2022/03/17/sanciones-economicas-le-hacen-cosquillas-a-rusia-su-produccion-y-exportaciones-de-petroleo-subieron-en-marzo/

15Data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

18Rudolf Klement, Principles and tactics in war, May 1938

19 Resolution Adopted by the Executive Committee of the Fourth International on the American Intervention in China, March 1941

20 Trotsky, The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-1936, V. 1.

21Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 8.

23Lenin, Reply To The Debate On The Report On Ratification Of The Peace Treaty March 15, Extraordinary Fourth All-Russia Congress Of Soviets, 1918.

26Trotsky, Phrases and Reality, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-1939, V.1.

27Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, September 1937