Republished, with permission, from the programme for the Durham Miners Gala on Saturday 9 July. By Simon Pirani
From the moment the Russian army pushed deeper into Ukraine on 24 February, Ukrainian and international trade unions started ferrying humanitarian aid to cities and towns under siege.
Mineworkers’ and railway workers’ unions, and others, organised deliveries of food and medical equipment. Bullet-proof vests, diesel and welding machines for use at the front soon followed.
There was a general call-up to the army, and union organisations have reported the deaths of mineworkers in uniform at the front.
The Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (ITUMU) is prominent among providers of humanitarian aid. The regional organisation in Western Donbass – which has a friendship with the Durham mineworkers going back to the 1990s – has been especially active.
In the first weeks of the war, the ITUMU in Western Donbass organised shelters at Pavlograd for people displaced by the fighting, and raised 100,000 hryvnia (about £2600) for volunteer territorial defence forces that fight alongside the Ukrainian army.
Aid from international trade union organisations, including the Italian Labour Union (UIL) and the US-based Solidarity Centre – who have worked with the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine – has also reached working-class communities that are under attack.
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.
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.
In January 1918, two months after Soviet power was established in Petrograd, one of the Red Guard units tasked with securing that power on the ruins of the Russian empire entered Hlukhiv, just over the Russian-Ukrainian border, north east of Kyiv. The unit was pushed out of Hlukhiv by the counter-revolutionary Ukrainian Baturinskii regiment within weeks – but soon joined forces with a group of Red partisans who had arrived from Kursk in southern Russia, and took the town back. A pogrom ensued. The Baturinskii regiment changed sides, claiming they had only resisted Soviet power because the “Yids” had paid them to. The Red Guards, thus reinforced, rampaged around the town proclaiming “eliminate the bourgeoisie and the Yids!”
How many of the town’s 4000 or so Jews fell victim is unknown, but it was in the hundreds. Newspaper reports and eyewitnessed accounts detailed how, for two and a half days, families were lined up and shot, their houses were ransacked and Jews were thrown from moving trains. One report described how 140 were buried in a mass grave. There is no doubt that Hlukhiv’s newly-established Soviet authorities were complicit. After two days of constant killing, they issued an order, “Red Guards! Enough blood!” – but then authorised looting. The synagogue was destroyed and the Torah ripped up. The head of the local soviet then demanded payment from the Jewish survivors.
“In the case of Hlukhiv”, writes Brendan McGeever, “Soviet power was secured by and through antisemitism” (page 48). Within days of the massacre, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who commanded the Red forces in Ukraine, ordered the recomposition of all Red units in Hlukhiv and surrounding areas; those who resisted were to be shot. McGeever judges that this was “likely” a response to the pogrom. He also shows that the Bolshevik centre in Moscow systematically avoided discussing “Red” pogroms publicly. While Jewish newspapers reported Hlukhiv accurately, larger-circulation Bolshevik newspapers failed to identify the “Red” perpetrators.
The Hlukhiv pogrom was a relatively minor precursor to the ferocious wave of terror unleashed against Ukrainian Jews during the chaotic, multi-sided military conflicts of 1919, in which 1-200,000 died. Those pogroms were the climax of a wave that began in 1917, the year of revolution, and amounted to “the most violent assault on Jewish life in pre-Holocaust modern history” (page 2).
There is no doubt – and McGeever reiterates it throughout his narrative – that the overwhelming majority of victims in Ukraine in 1919 were killed by “White” counter-revolutionary and Ukrainian nationalist forces, or in territory controlled by them. Neither is there any question that the policy of the Bolshevik leadership, rooted firmly in Russian socialist tradition, was what we might today call “zero tolerance”. McGeever traces how that policy played out in practice.
How is it that the Russian revolution, “a moment of emancipation and liberation”, was “for many Jews accompanied by racialised violence on an unprecedented scale” (page 2)? McGeever answers by focusing, on one hand, on the minority of pogroms committed by (at least ostensibly) “Red” forces, and on the other, on the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet institutions’ response. The strengths, he argues, emanated largely from initiatives by Jewish socialists, including many who remained outside the Bolshevik party in 1917 and joined during the civil war.
On 22 July the city court in Petrozavodsk, north-west Russia, sentenced Yuri Dmitriev – a historian of Stalin era repression, who works excavating the remains of political prisoners killed in local camps – to three-and-a-half years in a penal colony.
Dmitriev was found guilty of forced sexual activity with his underage adopted daughter, and cleared of charges of creating pornographic material, possession of weapons and indecent acts. He has always denied all these charges. Taking into account time served, Dmitriev is expected to be freed in November – although the prosecutor had called for a 15-year sentence.
Dmitriev, who was acquitted of similar offences at a previous trial, has won support internationally as a victim of political persecution.
I hope, dear readers, you get time for reflection, rejuvenation and relaxation in the midwinter holidays. If you find yourself reaching for your phone for something to read – then, rather than winding yourself up with news of Boris Johnson’s vileness, go a level more thoughtful: look at those People & Nature articles you missed out on first time round. Here is some stuff that has stood the test of time. Thanks for your interest, and see you all (virtually or really) in the 2020s. GL, 23 December 2019.
There were things in Bastani’s book I really liked: his optimism, and his conviction that any communist society – that is, any society free of exploitation and hierarchy – will be based
From the front cover of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Gollancz edition)
on material abundance. But his ideas about how this might be achieved were unconvincing.
Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), he writes in the concluding chapter, is
a map by which we escape the labyrinth of scarcity and a society built on jobs; the platform from which we can begin to answer the most difficult question of all, of what it means, as [the economist John Maynard] Keynes once put it, to live ‘wisely and agreeably and well’ (p. 243).
Bastani writes that FALC, unlike the world of actually existing neoliberalism,
will not demand constant sacrifices on the altar of profit and growth. Whether it’s ‘paying down the debt for future generations’, as our politicians are so keen to repeat, or growth and rising wages always coming ‘next year’ it’s becoming ever clearer that the good times aren’t coming back. What remains absent, however, is a language able to articulate that which is both accessible and emotionally resonant.
Bastani aspires to provide that language – by identifying political principles for a movement beyond capitalism; by returning abundance to a central place in socialist Read the rest of this entry »
Recent advances in the science of human origins refute racist ideology, writes STEVE DRURY in this guest post
We are in the midst of a resurgence of racism, white supremacism and all the other trappings of right-wing populism, together with growing physical threats from some who adhere to those ideologies. This trend depends on a morass of origin myths, pseudoscience, denialism and conspiracy theory – an “intellectual” foundation that actually permeates more widely than merely in overtly far-right fringe groups. Sadly, it is part of the cultural baggage of a majority.
Yet rapid advances in the science of human origins have been providing powerful refutations of all kinds of nonsense and mindless prejudice.
Britain has long been a relatively quiet repository of day-to-day, casual racism and ideas of supremacy that stem from its former possession of colonies, together with the idea of an
Footprints made by the earliest visitors to Britain 850,000 years ago (Picture: Simon Parfitt, British Museum)
island fortress against all comers, benign or malevolent. So how the “British” and their early culture came into existence is an excellent starting point for countering the insidious backwardness of this politics.
Evidence for the presence of humans in Britain goes back about a million years. For most of that time, however, any occupation was probably temporary. Stone tools are the most durable signs that early humans paid the British landscape a visit, fossil remains being rare and generally just a few fragments.
The earliest known traces occur in ancient river deposits exposed by wave erosion on the Norfolk coastline. Pear-shaped, double-edged stone tools, known as “bifacial axes” (archaeologists are uncertain about how they may have been used) turn up there from time Read the rest of this entry »
The vindictive, cowardly racism that black Britons face on the streets is rooted in empire, the hip-hop artist and writer Akala insists in his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire.
The argument that racism is shaped by imperial oppression, and by class relations – that it doesn’t just appear out of nowhere in people’s heads – runs through the book. And so
Akala. Photo: Alexis Chabala / Two Roads books
does the theme that struggles against empire are a key part of the path to a better world.
“As much as a tendency to dominate, divide and brutalise has been a seeming constant for the past few millennia at least, so too has the tendency of sharing and co-operation, of rebellion against dominant powers and attempts to create a more just order”, Akala writes (p. 148).
“The degree to which humans have secured a more just world has been born out of the struggles against empires as much as anything else.”
Akala recounts the British empire’s crimes – from slavery, through colonialism in Africa to selling weapons to Saudi Arabia for the genocidal onslaught in Yemen right now – and Read the rest of this entry »