Not all quiet on the Eastern Front

The Stop the War demonstration took place last weekend amidst a huge wave of pro-war propaganda in the British media. Even the BBC World Service, which usually has to attenuate its imperial message for a global audience, is full-throttle behind Ukraine – no other voices are entertained.

In this context, the Stop the War demonstration represented a moment in what will be a growing campaign to call for a ceasefire and a resolution of the conflict through negotiations. While media coverage focuses on individual stories of civilian casualties on one side of the conflict, there are mostly only oblique references to the charnal house that is the front line.

The fog of war makes it impossible to verify estimates. In what may have been an unguarded moment, the Norwegian Chief of Defence Eirik Kristoffersen suggested in January 2023 that Russia had suffered 180,000 killed or wounded in Ukraine so far, while the figure for the Ukrainians was 100,000 military casualties and 30,000 dead civilians.

Even if half that number is true, there must be tens of thousands dead.If, as is being suggested, the war is to last for another year, then, by February 2024 over a quarter of a million may have been killed or wounded.

Occupying the moral high ground

As the body count mounts, the blanket pro-war media ask us to take one side, that of Ukraine, led by Zelensky, against the Russian invasion. On numerous occasions during discussions on social media, the complexity of the debate is overridden by a statement of fact, followed by a question: ‘Russia invaded Ukraine – what is it about that fact that you do not understand?’ 

The sentiment is to get on to the ‘moral high ground’ occupied by Ukraine, support arms supplies from wherever they can be sourced and wish death to the invader – because that is the point of the arms supplies. 

At heart, this is the argument of the ‘national defence socialists’ – those who have taken the Ukrainian side in the war.

If condemnation of an invasion by a larger neighbouring power and military support for the invaded nation were incontestable positions for revolutionary Marxists, our history would be very different.

Revolutionary Marxists would, for example, have taken the side of Kuwait and its military ally, the United States – for there was little chance of Kuwait defending itself – against the heavily militarised and authoritarian Iraqi Baathist regime following the 1990 invasion. Or, to go further back, they would have been four-square behind the British Expeditionary Force and its defence of ‘plucky Belgium’ in 1914 – against Kaiser Bill and all those in Germany, including all socialists – bar Karl Liebknecht – who voted for war credits.

But they didn’t, and for good reason. War is the continuation of politics by other means. While acknowledging who fired the first shot is rightly part of a historical narrative, it is not a substitute for a materialist analysis of why the first shot was fired. Consciously or unconsciously, giving analytical primacy to the fact of the Russian invasion has the effect of bleaching out everything that went before – the road to war and the creation of the casus belli, which the powers allied to Ukraine played a pivotal role in developing.

The starting point is to understand what led to war, necessarily analysing how those specific events unfolded over time within the dynamic global material totality in which they took place. 

In one sense, there is nothing specifically Marxist about this approach – no bourgeois historian worth their salt would begin a history of the first or second world war with the invasion of Belgium or Poland and suggest that all that went before was neither here nor there.

The ‘realist’ contemporary school of international relations, best represented by John Mearsheimer1 understands much the same with regard to the origins of the Ukraine War: Putin had a casus belli. At the same time, the realists are opposed to Putin because they support global free market capitalism under US leadership but they understand, unlike many a national defence socialist, that to explain and acknowledge Putin’s motives and the dynamics set in motion, is not the same as to support the invasion.

Given that the ruling class rely on the working class to fight their inter-imperialist conflicts for them, one of the key additional ingredients that Marxists bring to the table is the argument that the working class should have an independent analysis, programme, and strategy with regard to war – independent of the ruling class that stands opposed to and exploits them, day in day out. It is only through such an independent strategy that the working class can try to prevent or end inter-imperialist war and remove the class system that is the source of such wars.

The national defence socialist commentary instead promotes a position which takes a side in the war, using justifications which, intentionally or not, are at best liberal-social democratic amplifications of ruling class ideas in the working-class movement and, at worst, lead to the support of NATO imperialism as a project – witness Paul Mason who argues ‘NATO needs a new defensive strategy, bigger armed forces, faster technological innovation…’.2

Simply focus on the invasion and nothing else

It is suggested that Marxists need to focus simply on the fact of the Russian invasion, the resulting human tragedy and Putin’s desire to rebuild a Russian Empire.

The century-long inter-imperialist struggle for control of Eastern Europe is not part of the calculus, it is argued, nor the expansion of NATO into it, nor the neo-liberal shock therapy that killled millions of Russians in the 1990s. The fact that NATO’s noose is being tightened around Russia is not worth consideration, nor even is NATO’s post-cold-war emergence as a global power with hundreds of military bases around the globe.

Within Ukraine, the 14,000 dead resulting from the eight-year civil war in the east, the recent build-up of Ukrainian troops on the border of the breakaway republics, membership of NATO being codified in the Ukrainian constitution and the modernisation of Ukrainian armed forces under the guidance of NATO forces – none of this is relevant to the present war. 

Yet all of these matters set the conditions for war – Putin might have thought, as did Chief of the German General Staff Helmuth von Moltke prior to the outbreak of World War One: if there is going to be a war, better sooner rather than later before the imperialist adversary grows too strong. 

To be clear, none of the context means the working class should support the unjustified Russian invasion, but at the same time, it is essential to go beyond the simplicity of who fired the first shot and understand that NATO’s march East will not stop at Moscow, which is the hors doeuvres before Beijing. 

The curious disappearance of fascism in Ukraine

Then there is the mysterious disappearance of organised fascism in Ukraine. As is known, particularly in the years prior to the invasion, both the United States Congress and international media had shown interest in the Azov Battalion with Congress banning arms supplies to group in 2018. Broadsheets and mainstream media outlets carried reports about the worrying development. It was commonplace that these groups existed, playing a significant role in political events, for example, notoriously destroying a trade union centre in Odesa in 2014.

Since the Russian invasion, the pro-Ukraine ruling classes and their allies have sought to downplay the existence and influence of organised fascism in Ukraine. They have been joined in this by national defence socialists, both explaining that the fascists only got 2% in recent elections and the Azov Battalion had now been integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces – as if this should reassure anyone. In the first decade of this century, the British National Party received a growing share of the vote in UK general elections – averaging almost 2% in 2010 – at no point did Marxists in Britain shrug their shoulders or meet this outcome with equanimity. There was, quite rightly, real alarm expressed across the workers movement and significant anti-fascist mobilisations took place.

The truth is that many of those who have taken the side of Ukraine are keen to erase this inconvenient history and present. Yet, streets are named after Nazi-collaborator and murderer of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Stepan Bandera. Ukrainian fascist slogans and symbols are used in demonstrations; NATO’s press department has even circulated (now deleted) pictures of Ukranian troops with fascist insignia on their uniforms. When asked about Bandera, Zelensky replies like a politician holding a coalition together and probably wary of armed fascism at his back, in one interview explaining that Bandera is a national hero to many but suggests perhaps it might be better to name streets after some other figures in Ukrainian history – a throwaway line that speaks volumes.

All this poses an enormous problem for socialists who claim the insignificance of fascism in Ukraine and support for Ukraine’s war of defence, so instead, they point to fascist support for Putin, which exists and needs to be fought, but this does not obviate the need to deal with the issue at hand.

Marxists should have nothing to fear from the truth. Rather than to dissemble and pretend the fight against organised fascism is just a Russian problem, an independent working class anti-imperialist strategy would warn the working class of the danger and stand in opposition to armed fascism in both Ukraine and Russia and be wary of its liquidation at its hands.

Wars are engines of revolutions, and not just revolutions coming from the left, as Afghanistan has demonstrated. The resistance to the Russian army is coming in part from the nationalist right, within which the fascists are embedded, empowered and armed by NATO.  The implication of the liquidation of the Azov fighters in Mariupol may be profound over time and radicalising for the right – instead of a withering away of fascist power, whatever its present social weight, the dangerous possibility exists that it will grow. 

The pro-war left is riding a tiger.

National defence socialists amplify ruling class strategy by developing a reliance on NATO for security. A key repeated claim is the suggestion that Putin is a leader who is not only trying to destroy western democracies but has the capability to do so, with Ukraine as the first significant domino to fall. 

Putin is also described by some as a ‘fascist’, helping to provide justification for the ‘democratic alliance’. This is all risible of course; no fascist seizure of power has taken place in Moscow. It would have produced a political earthquake if this had happened prior to the war. Russia has an authoritarian reactionary leadership, threatened by both ultra-nationalists and neo-liberals who support US hegemony. Russia is a regional power with some military reach. It is also a country of 144 million that, in a direct confrontation, would struggle to match the combined military force of NATO which claims to be “working for peace, security and freedom for one billion people”.

NATO has seized the opportunity to present itself as an actor that defends democracy and as an agent for progressive change in the world. The Swedish and Finnish ruling classes have utilised the conflict to try and force a break from post-war neutrality. Kurdish opponents of Erdogan are to be sacrificed for Swedish entry. National defence socialists have amplified this progressive version of NATO, welcoming its role in arming Ukraine. Some claim they will campaign against NATO’s war drive after the Ukraine war is won, others go in another direction, positively asserting NATO’s future role, with some reform, as a defender of democratic values.

In a matter of a few short weeks after the Russian invasion some Marxists crossed the Rubicon: if NATO is a defender of democratic values and the working class should be defending democracy then for national defence socialists an alliance between them in Ukraine is the order of the day – hence they have been found outside Downing Street and last weekend on the outskirts of  Trafalgar Square, calling on the UK and NATO to fuel a war that is part of what is now commonly recognised as an inter-imperialist conflict. The dizzying speed with which this ‘socialist’ embrace of NATO took place was striking and is an object lesson in what can happen if nation is substituted for class. 

Another NATO is not possible

A year ago it was commonly held amongst socialists that NATO is an alliance of the most murderous imperialist nations to date. Over centuries, its leading members having colonised the world, killing tens of millions while looting nations’ wealth and destroying ecologies across the globe. In the 20th century, in pursuit of markets and profits, its leading members fought decolonisation movements and supported military dictatorships that tortured, raped and murdered hundreds of thousands of trade unionists. 

For these reasons, it followed, the working class had no interest in supporting its aims, or calling for NATO to arm anyone or forming an alliance with it. Now some seem to believe the NATO leopard can change its spots. Political journeys to the right that often take decades have recently been completed by national defence socialists in weeks, as they opt to hear no evil, see no evil, or speak no evil about the alliance that supports Ukrainian nationalism.

What NATO presents as a fight for democracy and sovereignty is essentially a struggle for global hegemony through the amassing of regional subordinates. NATO’s object is to weaken Russia, re-open it to western capital and absorb it under its hegemony prior to a struggle for global dominance with China. This means the defeat of Russia in Ukraine – not a peaceful resolution of the war through negotiation – but a war that bleeds Russia dry, creates a Ukrainian vassal state with a neo-liberal economy and gives other regional powers, including the European Union, a lesson in realpolitik. 

The national defence socialists who began the war by arguing that those who opposed calls to arm Ukraine were apologists for Putin and in his camp, now find themselves in the camp of NATO’s imperialist war drive against China.

There is still time to change course and develop an independent working-class perspective – but with the United States more openly imperial policy in full flow and Biden posing as an emerging war-time President to fend off the Republicans in 2024, that time is running short.

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  2. Twitter 4:03pm March 9 2022. []

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3 thoughts on “Not all quiet on the Eastern Front

  1. Agree with this analysis.
    Therefore the demand should be ‘The enemy is at home! Ie, we have to fight our own ruling class as the main contribution to the struggle for socialism world wide.

  2. 180,000 Russian casualties and only 100, 000 UKrainians??????
    Listening to Norwegian sources means you haven’t got a clue what’s going on.
    Real Figures: 16,000-20,000 dead Russian soldiers [ hidden BBC source]
    They’ve given up counting Ukrainian dead soldiers estimated 200,000 to 250,000 DEAD soldiers.
    Check out the Duran and New Atlas websites to get real figures

    1. Hi John

      I wasn’t listening to Norweigan sources, just referencing them with the qualifier below “Even if half that number is true, there must be tens of thousands dead.” You put it at hundreds of thousands – just with many more Ukranian dead than Russian. I am not sure who the hidden BBC source is but know that Duran and New Atlas have a particur take. Finding accurate/reliable figures is always difficult so the Norwegian figure was just a way of pointing out that lots of working class people are being killed on both sides. To me, it does n’t matter what side they are from in the end as I don’t support either side just think the working class should not be the cannon fodder. Hope you can make the discussion tonight.

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