Coming from one of the leading figures on the British left, a Labour MP and Shadow Chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn from 2015 – 2020, John McDonnell’s recent article “The Ukrainian Question for Socialists” requires comment: all the more so because it argues that it is an inescapable conclusion that socialists in the UK (and presumably in all countries) should support their own ruling classes in providing material support to the Ukrainian government in furtherance of its war aims. While couched in left-sounding language, the end result is a confused (not to say disastrous) collapse into support for a war which is fundamentally no different from almost all the other wars in history which have been commended as “just” wars. This argument runs completely counter to the interests of the working class, who are always the ones to pay the price of such war, and whose interests invariably lie in abolishing the system that causes war.
Waging war on the system
We live within a world system characterised in general by rivalries and competition between nations and alliances of nations. The tenor of this competition can fluctuate on a spectrum between peace and collaboration at one end, through trade wars and market aggression, to sanctions, embargoes, and ultimately outright war at the other end. It always contains the potential for war. War is not an aberration but a general normalised feature of the world system of competing capitalist states, among which number both Ukraine and Russia.
What are the tasks of our movement? It is all too easy, as many on the left have done, to fall into the trap of considering each war on its own as essentially an aberration, and to attempt to determine in isolation which nation (which means, of course, which nation’s ruling class) is “in the right” and deserving of support.
Criteria of big and small, rich and poor, weak and strong, map seductively onto conflicts when viewed in isolation. But this has two potentially disastrous effects. First, it undermines (often fatally) the class struggle within each nation, which should be our North Star guiding us, in favour of the national struggle (which, so long as the capitalist system survives, necessarily involves an alliance with the ruling class). Second, it obscures the context of the war within the global system.
Our task as socialists is not to view world politics as cheerleaders, lurching from one conflict to the next, hitching our banner to whoever we perceive to be the relative underdog in a given fight. Our task is to fight to bring down the system of conflict and exploitation which can offer our class only destruction: destruction of our lives, the scant resources and comforts we may enjoy, and – crucially – destruction of the independent working class movement which has the potential to transform things in our favour.
Is this simply a question of self-defence?
John McDonnell and the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign regard the questions for socialists as straightforward: the issues are the right of all people to self-defence; the right of nations to self-determination; and, as a somewhat secondary argument, the fact that Ukraine’s current political system is formally and practically more democratic than both Russia itself, and whatever political settlement would be imposed in Ukraine in the event of a Russian victory.
The principal mistake made is that they see Ukrainian workers and socialists mobilising to defend themselves, and assume that the war as a whole is therefore principally about Ukrainian self-defence, or national liberation, and/or a struggle for democracy.
No-one could dispute that a significant motivation for those resisting the invasion is simple self-defence (as it is for the general civilian population in most wars). However, recognising that that motivation exists is no substitute for critical analysis of the level of its significance, when set against other motivating factors such as nationalism, profit, geopolitical struggle between superpowers, and so on.
Is the Ukrainian state engaged purely and simply in the same task of “defending [the Ukrainian working class]”? Or is it doing other things in addition?
It is defending its sovereign territory, and by extension all of the natural and economic resources contained within it, from capture. At present, of course, these resources and the wealth they produce do not benefit the Ukrainian working class nearly so much as the Ukrainian and international capitalist class.
It is defending its pro-Western political elite (the pro-Russian parties having been outlawed) from possible liquidation, or at least replacement with people more compliant.
It is generating profit for arms manufacturers and suppliers who play a key role in influencing policy in those states supportive of Ukraine.
It is acting as the pioneer of NATO’s long-term eastward expansion.
So to point out that people in Ukraine are defending themselves is a banal observation. Of course they are. However, a full analysis requires us to ask what else they are doing, besides defending themselves, when they enlist in support of their government’s war effort. What other objectives and ends are they serving, besides the simple defence of their own lives, their own homes, and those of their families and neighbours?
Then, having uncovered those other objectives and consequences of support for the war effort, we can properly ask whether these various objectives can be separated from each other. Can there, for example, be self- defence without being used as a tool of the ruling class, or indeed of international reaction? How much weight and significance does each aspect have? Is the net effect on the aims and activity of the socialist movement positive, or negative?
Who is in the driving seat?
One would only have to raise the classical demands of the socialist movement to gain an idea of the answers to these questions. What would happen if the organised Ukrainian working class were to go to their politicians and generals and say, “This is our home, and we will take responsibility for defending it. Give us the guns; we will form democratic battalions under working class control to defend our democratic rights from any who assail them, but we will take no orders from those who exploit us and seek to utilise our deaths for profit.” With what response would they be met? They would at the very least be rebuffed, and more likely subjected to state repression or execution – by their “own” nation state, of course.
That question being answered, the character of the Ukrainian state as an enemy (one among many) of the Ukrainian working class is exposed. Political power in Ukraine is held by the ruling capitalist class, not by the working class. To change that state of affairs is the primary aim of all socialists in their respective countries – but it is an aim that socialists who support their ruling class in waging war have lost sight of.
Suggesting that the Ukrainian working class should refuse to fight on behalf of its own ruling class is not a moral criticism of those who have concluded for various reasons that they have no other option. This is not a question of morals. Ukrainians who enlist in their country’s armed forces to fight are no more guilty of any moral failing than have been the majority of our class throughout history, for whom war has been all too common and unavoidable. It is also true that in the absence of an organised working class movement capable of contesting power, individual workers have an impossible choice to make.
Indeed, the moral arguments in their favour – viewed apolitically – are persuasive enough that many people on the left have let them cloud their judgement. Perceived necessity borne out of desperation has been confused with strategic thinking and political analysis.
Pro-war socialists, in this war just as in countless other wars throughout history, rely on emotive justifications to stir people with sincere sympathy for human suffering – and often with left-wing views – into supporting a policy that in reality allows that human suffering to continue, and undermines the prospect of a movement that could bring it to an end.
Rather than a moral question, we should ask ourselves questions about the interests of our class: its objective need to take power, and the strategy and tactics that must inevitably follow if that aim is to be achieved. Our task as a movement is to offer something better than sympathy; we aim not merely for the meagre miserable outcome perceived as righteous in this conflict, but for the rights of billions of people (including those not yet born) to live in a world free from the threat of war in general.
Only our class can defend democratic rights
War inevitably constrains or destroys the capacity of the working class for independent action. Having acquiesced to or excused the Ukrainian state’s wartime repression of opposition parties on the grounds that they were pro-Russian or insufficiently supportive of the war effort, what would happen if then at a later date a working class or socialist organisation (perhaps Sotsialnyi Rukh) develops a policy on the war which is at odds with the policy of the ruling class?
It is conceivable that the war might reach a stage where Ukraine reclaims all of the territory it held prior to the 2022 invasion. What if the working class movement takes a view at that stage that it is no longer worth the loss of human life to try and reconquer the Crimean peninsula lost in 2014 (one of Zelenskyy’s stated war aims, supported by his European allies)? If the state responds by banning hitherto pro-war socialist organisations, how would they respond? Politically, on what basis would our movement protest, when previous state bans on pro-Russian parties passed with barely a murmur of discontent?
Beyond the political conundrum, how would state repression be resisted materially, the pro-war socialists having subordinated themselves to the state and thereby diminished their own capacity for self-organisation and independent action?
The capitalist class is impelled towards war in order to control land and natural resources, to secure an advantageous position in international trade, to open up new markets, and to disadvantage or destroy its competitors. This destruction of human lives in the pursuit of profit is in and of itself reason enough for socialists to oppose war.
Once war has broken out, the ruling class also needs to maximise the efficiency and capacity of its war economy. The main way it can achieve this, just as in peacetime, is by forcing the working class to work faster, over longer hours, for lower pay. The urgency of the war is used to justify taking this to new extremes.
The consent, or at least acquiescence, of the working class in the war effort is key. Any attempt to refuse or push back against this heightened exploitation is swiftly denounced as sabotage of the war effort. This is why governments are always so determined to undermine or repress the anti-war movement.
Therefore the task for all socialists is to recognise that the main enemy is at home. The interests of the working class can only be advanced by an independent working class movement which is capable of fighting both for betterment of its economic conditions, and for political power. In that fight, the Ukrainian ruling class (and therefore the state) is no ally of the Ukrainian working class. They are enemies.
Let’s be realistic
John McDonnell recounts his involvement in the founding of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. It is to be hoped that he does not endorse the follow-up contribution by the Campaign, “Some Answers to Frequently Asked Questions”, also published on the LabourHub website, which sinks into what can only be described as shameful apologism for attacks on working-class living standards and on democratic rights by the current Ukrainian government.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that this confused intervention is in keeping with McDonnell’s “realistic” turn from his stated aims as a candidate in the 2007 Labour Party leadership campaign, to his later tenure as Shadow Chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn. Those changes were overwhelmingly negative: republicanism was transformed into support for the monarchy; disarmament into support for Trident; nationalisation of the banks into the creation of a “national investment bank”. In the same vein, we are now encouraged to follow our own ruling class’s war policy, on the grounds that it is the only course that is “realistic”.
When one stops and thinks for a moment it is plain to see that the only “realistic” policy is that policy which begins the slow, difficult work of building the working class of all countries as an organised force, armed both materially and ideologically for our strategic objective – to take power and reshape society in the interests of all.
To imagine that the interests of our class can be served by calling on workers to fall upon and slaughter each other, blind to the reality of the greater games being played by those who command them, is profoundly unrealistic – at least, if our aim is the socialist transformation of society.