‘The Russian empire is failing in its own way’

June 1, 2022

A conversation between Simon Pirani and Anthony McIntyre about the Russian war on Ukraine. Reposted, with thanks, from The Pensive Quill

Anthony McIntyre: You have a long-time immersion in Left politics. We know each other almost forty years. On my first trip to London in 1995 you and I visited the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. I have always held to the descriptive potency of Marxism while finding it prescriptively impotent. I distrust the doctrinaire. Whatever about any differences that may exist in our respective outlooks, we continue to view the world broadly through a Marxian lens, which should help anchor the following exchange in Leftist ground. 

Kharkiv, after the Russian assault. Photo from Ukrainska Pravda

You have been writing and commenting a lot about Russia’s war on Ukraine. TPQ runs two or three pieces weekly from People And Nature in the hope of informing the debate and I suppose to some extent shaping it. We would both agree that the Russian offensive war is the supreme international crime. Yet, we have some on the Left – we expect it from the Right – claiming neutrality, adopting the Kissingerian posture during the Iran-Iraq war that it is a pity both sides can’t lose. I suspect in many cases that is a form of cover for their real sympathies probably lying with the Kremlin. They tend to be old tankies who subscribed to the Brezhnev Doctrine and for whatever convoluted reason think this is the same doctrine served up in a modern dish.

Eric Draitser describes much of this as the “fraudulent narratives of the Kremlin disinformation army on the Left.” How do you feel upon observing people on the Left opting out of supporting Ukrainian society in its struggle to essentially survive in face of a military onslaught from a right-wing capitalist authoritarian state?

Simon Pirani: I used to think that the western political establishment blamed the “Kremlin disinformation army” for things that were really its own fault. For example, it blamed Russian cyberwarfare for Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 US election to a quasi-fascist clown – whereas that was largely the result of decades of class warfare by the Democratic Party against working-class people, and blacks in particular, in the US, which eroded what electoral support it had from them. The war in Ukraine has made me rethink this, partly because this “disinformation army” is much closer at hand for me.

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‘The deeper we go into war, the more Putin stands to lose’

April 27, 2022

An Open Letter to my Brazilian friends and colleagues about the invasion of Ukraine, by FRANÇOIS CHESNAIS 

Download this letter as a PDF

In this letter I would like to explain to Brazilian friends and colleagues my position on the war in Ukraine, namely that it is a unilateral aggression by Russia. I received a message from a friend in which I detected the idea that the war can be understood as a legitimate response to a situation created by NATO. This “campist” position is encouraged by the fact that four Latin American countries that are at the forefront of the fight against the United States – Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and El Salvador – abstained in the vote in the UN General Assembly resolution condemning “aggression against Ukraine”. A dozen formerly colonial African countries did the same. The pro-Russia stance taken by the Monthly Review may also encourage the “anti-imperialist/anti-US camp” position.

Members of the independent miners union at the front, 12 April. Photo from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions

A deep hostility towards US imperialism (nurtured by more than a century of history dating back to the invasion of Cuba under President McKinley in 1898), which is shared with many militants of the South American left, risks making some of my friends and colleagues agnostic about, or even tolerant of, the invasion; unclear about its aims; and indifferent to the methods of warfare directed against civilian populations that are employed by the Russian military. Named a “special operation” by Vladimir Putin and his ministers, it is an aggression on the part of Russia with the aim of ousting the Volodymyr Zelensky government from power; perpetuating the separation of the Donbas regions in the east of the country; vassalising the central and western part of the country; and bringing the whole population to heel.

I recognise that my position is shaped by the fact that Russia falls within my geopolitical framework of thought as a European. The Stalinisation of the Comintern at the turn of the 1930s, and the international influence of Stalinism through the vassalisation of the countries of Eastern Europe, meant that revolutionaries in France, as in Italy and Spain, had to deal with powerful Communist Parties bound by the foreign policy of the USSR.

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Russian army unleashes terror in occupied cities

March 24, 2022

On Monday 21 March Russian soldiers fired at demonstrators shouting “go home” in the main square in Kherson, south eastern Ukraine, injuring several people.

Thousands of people have demonstrated with Ukrainian flags every day since the city was occupied on Thursday 3 March.

Monday’s violence began after demonstrators found that the town’s monument to the “heavenly hundred” – Ukrainians who died in the 2014 uprising against former president Viktor Yanukovich – had been defaced.

Russian soldiers versus a demonstrator in Kherson, 21 March. From Vchora’s facebook feed

Someone, presumably Russian soldiers, had spray painted “the ZSU [Ukrainian armed forces] murder children in Donbass” on the monument. People started cleaning off the spray paint, and were attacked with grenades, teargas and live rounds. (The local newspaper Vchora put a film of the incident on line here.)

The resistance to the Russian army in Kherson – a largely Russian-speaking city of 290,000, and the only major city to be occupied – highlights Russia’s deep dilemma in Ukraine. Not only has the population not greeted its army, but mass popular resistance is playing a central part in the military conflict.

Although Russian state TV has broadcast reports of plans to set up a Kherson “people’s republic”, similar to those established in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, these have been rejected by the Kherson regional council.

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Putin has sacrificed Russia’s economy for this war on Ukraine’s people

March 24, 2022

By SIMON PIRANI. Reposted, with thanks, from Truthout

The Russian army, having failed since invading Ukraine to take a single major city, has turned to besieging and bombing civilians, and to terrorizing opponents in the areas it controls.

This ruthless, anti-popular character of the Russian war is the key to understanding what motivated the Kremlin to launch it in the first place, turning upside down its relationship with Western powers, and Russia’s own future, for decades to come.

Demonstrators chanting ‘go home’ while walking towards retreating Russian military vehicles in Kherson

In Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, and other occupied towns in southeastern Ukraine, Russian troops have faced crowds of thousands calling on them to go home. Mayors who refuse to cooperate with the Russian army have reportedly been kidnapped. Along with other Ukrainian activists, they have been taken to Luhansk — one of the two eastern Ukrainian “people’s republics” established with Russian support in 2014 — and reportedly prosecuted there. The “republics,” unrecognized even by Russia until last month, suppress dissent with abductions and arbitrary detention free of meaningful judicial constraint.

The war looks very different to the one Russian President Vladimir Putin described on the day of the invasion. The Russian army would “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine, but there were no plans to occupy or to impose anything by force, he said. Occupation has since become a central focus.

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Is this monstrous war of aggression really between two equal sides?

March 21, 2022

An open letter in response to the Manifesto Against War

Dear comrades,

I write in anger and sorrow about your Manifesto Against War, to which I turned in the hope of learning from you about how we can situate the anti-war movement in the wider struggle against capital.

Enumerating the causes of military conflict, you refer, first, to “the growing rivalry between the greatest imperialist powers”. Third is “Islamic fundamentalism”. But before that, second, comes that “the US government has positioned its military alliance system, NATO, against the Russian Federation to prevent the integration of the defunct Soviet empire’s successor into an enlarged, stable and peaceful European order with mutual security guarantees”.

Demonstrations in Ukrainian cities occupied by the Russian armed forces are part of a people’s war

You don’t explain why you think that, in this age of the deep crisis of the capitalist system – which in your words “unleashes ever more violent struggles for geostrategic zones of influence” – such a “peaceful European order” could ever have been possible.

That hope, embraced by Mikhail Gorbachev and many social democrats in the 1990s, was surely dashed as the economic crises of neoliberalism (1997-98, 2008-09, etc) multiplied, as the Russian bourgeoisie emerged in its 21st-century form on one hand, and the alliance of western powers pursued their murderous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere on the other.

Download this letter as a pdf.

You don’t explain why you name the US government and NATO, and Islamic fundamentalism, as causes of the current war … but not the Russian elite, which actually started it.

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Ukraine: the sources of danger of a wider war

March 21, 2022

More than three weeks into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the dangers of a long-drawn-out conflict, or of a wider war, or both, hang in the air.

To gauge these dangers correctly and to build an effective ant-war movement, it is important to understand the war’s character.

Ukraine’s defensive war is both a war by the state and a “people’s war”, in my view; Russia’s war is an imperialist one, increasingly aimed at the population. I’ve commented on these things elsewhere (e.g. here, here, here). Here I focus on the western powers and their relations with Russia and Ukraine, and the deep crisis of capital that underlies these.

“Women in black”, an action inspired by Feminist Antiwar Resistance at the weekend. Participants in cities across Russia carried white flowers to remember victims of the conflict in Ukraine

Those western powers have levied massive, unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia. Their leaders have stated repeatedly that, while they will supply Ukraine with weapons, they fear an escalation of the conflict and will not introduce a no-fly zone – for which they have been repeatedly denounced by president Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been equally insistent that NATO threatens Russia; his declared war aims include “demilitarisation” of Ukraine and the end of “NATO expansion”.

In the western anti-war movement, the issue of NATO expansion comes up in two ways.

On one hand, politically: post- or proto-Stalinist tendencies, and some others, taking their cue from the Kremlin, not only accept (without much explanation) that NATO expansion is a major threat, but also argue that NATO bears more responsibility than Russia for causing the war (yes, you read that correctly), and is at least as significant a political target as the Kremlin. I have written about these corrupt, damaging arguments elsewhere, and Ukrainian socialists have answered them (e.g. here, here and here).

On the other hand, there is genuine fear that the war could escalate beyond Ukraine, and that the western powers could become involved militarily, producing a disaster even greater than that now enveloping millions of Ukrainians.

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‘No war but the class war’. Not a very useful slogan

March 14, 2022

A guest post by BOB MYERS

In a discussion I took part in last week, a comrade ended a piece he wrote about Ukraine with the following:

The left slips into the two opposing camps quickly (pro-Putin/ pro-independence), and the tiny voices that call for working class unity and system change are hardly heard. What kind of actions – of self-defence, support etc – facilitate that this voice is heard and what kind of actions drown it out or contradict it?

The devil is in the detail. As he says, what kind of actions? But your actions will flow from your understanding of the situation. I want to go back over our experience in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to show that many of the people who started  with “no war but the class war” ended up either totally irrelevant to the working class or even worse, on the side of reaction, because of their  inability to understand the working class kernel wrapped up in a “national flag” shell.

An anti-war demonstrator being detained in Moscow

The problem is that all inter-imperialist wars always contain within them the war between classes.  In each situation, militants have to try to understand how these two different wars are overlaid – and this can be very difficult in situations where the working class has no clear voice of its own.

And trying to unravel these two wars is necessary, not just to write nice “analysis”,  but to know what to do as a working class militant. 

I read  many pieces at present which ask the question, what should workers in Ukraine do, and then proceed to give them advice. I’m not saying thinking about this is forbidden, but it seems back to front.  The Ukrainian worker has made his or her decision, maybe to get out, maybe to stay and fight. Our question, first and foremost, is, what are we going to do in response to their decisions?  But the answer to this is inevitably dependent on the first question – where is the class war within the inter-imperialist war? 

No war but the class war, without real investigation, is meaningless.

I want to stress that the situation in Bosnia in the 1990s was different from Ukraine, and you can not simply transfer our experience of the one on the other.

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Putin’s war is the face of 21st century capitalism. A podcast

March 11, 2022

David Camfield and I spoke about how post-Soviet Russian capitalism folded into the world system, what Vladimir Putin’s drive to establish the strong state has done – from his wars in Chechnya and Syria, to his conflict with Russian business and the invasion of Ukraine – and what it tells us about capitalism in the 21st century. All here on the Victor’s Children podcast. Simon Pirani.

Ukrainians demonstrating in Melitopol this week against the Russian occupation

Russia sacrifices economic goals for military aggression

February 28, 2022

I wrote this last week, and this morning it already looks out of date. Very broad sanctions are being imposed on Russia; Germany and the EU are rushing arms to Ukraine; and Belarus appears to be joining the attack on Ukraine. Nevertheless, the comments about Putinism may be of interest. SP.

Russia’s war in Ukraine will capsize its relations with Europe now, and for the long term. Its valuable trading partnership with Germany has been disrupted; by freezing certification for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Germany has opened a rift that could widen further.

Whatever the Kremlin’s war aims are – and at time of writing they are unclear – it has decided they are worth the sacrifice of Russian capital’s short-term economic interests.

Young Russians demonstrating in London on Sunday. The poster on the left quotes the Ukrainian sailors who told a Russian warship “fuck you” before being killed

Nord Stream 2, a 1,200-kilometre pipeline running from north-west Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, alongside the existing Nord Stream 1 line, is completed, but will perhaps never be used. Both pipelines are owned and operated by Gazprom, Russia’s state-backed energy giant.

For years, German politicians defended the new pipeline in the face of calls from Ukraine to sanction it. Indeed, the chair of Nord Stream’s shareholder committee is the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In July last year, towards the end of Angela Merkel’s term as chancellor, Germany struck a deal with the US – which had previously imposed some sanctions on the project – that allowed it to go ahead.

But on Tuesday, within hours of Russian president Vladimir Putin recognising the separatist self-proclaimed ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, and approving open military support for them, the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced that his government had withdrawn an impact report on the pipeline, meaning that the German regulatory authority cannot approve it.

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Roads to an Energy Commons: a pamphlet

February 17, 2022

Today I am publishing Roads to an Energy Commons, a pamphlet (free to download here). It brings together articles that appeared on peoplenature.org about the role of fossil fuels in capitalist society, and the meaning of “energy” and related concepts. The discussion covered issues about the transition away from fossil fuels, and away from capitalism.

The first article, by Simon Pirani, discussed the way that energy has been turned into a commodity under capitalism, and asked whether and how it could be decommodified. The second article, by Larry Lohmann, argued that the very concept of “energy” had to be challenged more robustly. Further contributions followed, from Larry, Simon and David Schwartzman, who writes on solar energy. The last two articles have been published today, here and here.

While none of us think the last word has been said on these issues, we hope that the discussion will be taken up, and maybe taken in other directions, by others. With the pamphlet we hope to make our conversation accessible to a wider readership. If you wish to contribute, please email peoplenature[at]protonmail.com. 17 February 2022.

Demonstrators for climate justice in Berlin

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