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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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

The class struggle inside energy

February 17, 2022

LARRY LOHMANN continues a discussion about energy and social justice, responding to earlier contributions on People & Nature by Simon Pirani and David Schwartzman, both published on 5 January. You can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here 

Reply to Simon (Disentangling capitalism and physics, energy and electricity, 5 January)

I don’t want to overemphasize any differences Simon and I may turn out to have. From the perspective of capital, the two of us probably look like the same person. On the other hand, developing our mutual (mis)understandings as they play off each other is surely at least one tiny part of our own common project of helping organize for the future.

A Carnot landscape of energy conversion devices. A more complete map of this landscape would have to display the network of borders through which the entropy gradients needed by such devices are maintained, including colonial structures of waste expulsion as well as patriarchal, racial, and class structures of exploitation and appropriation – not to mention other entropy landscapes that this landscape overlays and overlaps

I don’t think that Simon and I differ on the place of the modern energy concept developed during 19th-century industrialism[i] in understanding history. Simon suspects that the concept would not “cover water wheels, windmills, dams and coal-fuelled metalworking in precapitalist societies.” But actually it would and it does. More than that: it’s commonly used even in popular depictions of prehistory (as in the declaration “since humans were humans, we’ve used energy”, from a graphic novel detailing possible low-carbon futures).

There’s nothing wrong with this use of latter-day concepts in examining the past. That’s how the art of history-writing goes forward. Nobody in their right mind would want to talk about another time using only the concepts current among the people who lived in that time. Including, I would argue, those people themselves – if only they had the chance to enter into dialogue with us. My suspicion is that the more curious, open-minded denizens of the 18th century would be challenged, fascinated and perhaps delighted to hear of our (to them) bizarre view that a “horse pulling a treadmill and a coal fire heating a lime kiln [a]re in some sense doing the same thing.” They would want to discuss this more, to find out what the hell we – seemingly reasonable people – were talking about.

The question is the class politics of such translational encounters, hypothetical or actual.

When we in industrialized societies face the 18th-century person, it is not just as people for whom the First Law of Thermodynamics became common sense because we learned it in the science classroom. It is also as inhabitants of a world in which, as a result of two centuries of class struggle, that law is bodied forth in countless ways in which it was not in those earlier times.

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Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity

January 5, 2022

Larry Lohmann’s comments, “And if energy itself is unjust?”, about my article on energy commodification, are really welcome. There is much we agree on: that we have to question whether there is, was or could be such a thing as “energy” that was not commodified and is therefore somehow OK; that the relationship of thermodynamic energy and labour is somehow at the bottom of all this; and that there is much wrong with the way issues such as “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are framed on the “left”.

(Actually I don’t like the term “left”, either, (a) because it obscures the fact that, whatever it might be, it certainly isn’t the motive force of history in the way many of its adherents think, and (b) because it implies that I am part of some entity that doesn’t include most working people, but does include people who think Putin is doing fine in Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad is an “anti imperialist” hero. But I digress.)

One way to take our discussion forward is to focus on four parts of it, where we don’t see things in the same way, or haven’t understood each other. Here goes.

1. How do we define “energy”?

When I read Larry’s comments, I looked back at the introduction to my book Burning Up, where I first used the definition of energy he is questioning. In the introduction, I proposed to use the word “energy” in a way that does not include human labour, as “work done by physical or chemical resources, mobilised by people for that purpose”.

Part of the reason I went for this approach was to try to deal with an issue that Larry raises, that thermodynamic energy and capitalist labour (I’d say, labour under capitalism) are not the same, can not substitute for each other, and are not additive or mergeable as capital would have us think. I would have had to write the book very differently if I wanted not to use the word “energy” at all, or not to use other words, such as “democracy” and “socialism”, that can be inscribed with different, indeed opposite, meanings by people who use them.

Protestors from the Canada Real shanty town in Madrid, saying “light is not a luxury, it’s a right”

It could be said that my definition missed out the way that the concept of “energy” has been imbued with meanings by the social process during which it was first used, i.e. the work of physicists, and the philosophers, economists and others whose work influenced them, at the heart of 19th century British empire-building. And that process has not stood still: the way that the term has been used in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century has added further layers, in particular in terms of “energy” as an extractivist process embedded in imperialist and neo-imperialist relationships. And Larry has said a great deal about the role of “energy” in the battles between capital and labour.

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Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?

January 5, 2022

A contribution to discussion on energy commodification and decommodification, by David Schwartzman

Larry Lohmann’s “And if Energy Itself is Unjust?” is a very interesting article, and it is nice to see thermodynamics revisited in the context of the capitalist physical and political economy. But this article deserves critique.

Illuminating how the science of thermodynamics was born and how energy manifests itself in the context of capitalist economy, as Lohmann does, should not make this science in itself a necessary ideological servant of this economy.

Lohmann’s invocation of the laws of thermodynamics, especially its second law of entropy is pure hybridism, the appropriation of a science into ideological metaphors, following the example of Bruno Latour’s hybridism, so clearly unpacked by Andreas Malm’s 2019 paper “Against Hybridism” (Historical Materialism 27.2 : 156–187). As Malm says:

particularly in our rapidly warming world – we need to sift out the social components from the natural, if we wish to understand the crises and retain the possibility of intervening in them.  

Since there is no scientific explanation of its thermodynamic reference, I take Lohmann’s “flattening of entropy gradients” as a metaphor for the generation of waste and destruction of ecosystems as a result of extraction and creation of technological infrastructure such as solar panels.

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And if energy itself is unjust?

December 17, 2021

A response by Larry Lohmann to the article How Energy was Commodified, and How it Could be Decommodified

The way that industrial capitalism and 19th-century thermodynamic energy – the energy we talk about today – have constituted each other, and what this means for political movements, is something that colleagues and I been struggling to understand, off and on, for many years. So Simon Pirani’s paper How Energy was Commodified, and How it could be Decommodified, was extremely stimulating for me.

I share Simon’s view that understanding energy as commodity and as commons is crucial for the struggles ahead. But his paper also reawakened a certain uneasiness about the way issues of “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are typically framed by the left, especially in the global North.

In August 1842, during a strike in Lancashire, in the UK, against wage cuts by cotton mill owners, workers pulled the boiler plugs from the steam engines. Their action became known as the “plug plot riots”. Photo from Underground Histories

Usually I abbreviate this unease by saying that the issue cannot be only that the distribution of energy is unjust or undemocratic (which it is). Or that structures of extraction, production, distribution, access, governance, planning and use of energy are unjust and undemocratic (which they are). There has to be a lot more. And that without taking account of this “more”, the best-intentioned efforts to address these distributional/administrative/governance/cultural types of issue are eventually going to come to grief (or already have).

Simon’s work helps pin down what some of this “more” is – namely that energy, when treated as a commodity, is always going to have these issues, and that the further step of searching out and linking together existing and potential moves toward energy-as-commons ought to be more integrated into popular strategy.

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Roads to an energy commons

November 18, 2021

Commodification matters, because it is one of the ways that capitalism shapes the technological and social systems that consume energy. A movement towards post-capitalism would, by destroying the social relations of which commodification is part, put an end to it, and pave the way to an energy commons.  

Such a movement would be by far the most effective way of tackling dangerous global warming, because it would enable society to use energy for need, and not for profit.

These arguments are made in a paper published today by People & Nature.  

To early 21st century city people, gas for a stove, electricity for a factory, or fuel for a vehicle, is presented as “energy”. People often refer to “energy” as something that is, or even must be, bought and sold. Actually, that buying and selling is very recent in historical terms, and even now is not ubiquitous.

London demonstration for climate action, 6 November

Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism” is useful here. Marx believed that social relations between people, and the fruits of their collective labour, were presented to them in “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. This was truly weird, he thought; it reminded him of the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. The contradiction between the commodity’s use value and its exchange value in markets was obscured.

This mystification persists today in energy research: the idea of “energy demand” elides the need for energy services (the need for a use value) with the economist’s concept of demand for a commodity.

For thousands of years, humans accessed types of energy – human or animal labour power, or mechanical energy from windmills or water wheels – directly from nature. Fuels became commodities only in the 18th and 19th centuries. As capitalism rose to dominance, it turned labour power into a commodity, and much else besides, including energy sources such as wood and coal.   

The energy carriers associated with the second industrial revolution – electricity and oil – were treated as commodities from the start.

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Looking back to the Russian revolution from the 21st century

November 5, 2021

By Simon Pirani. This article first appeared in Jangaran (Awakening), the multilingual humanist journal   

We are now separated from the Russian revolution by more than a century. The Soviet Union, which that revolution brought into existence, collapsed thirty years ago. But the revolution remains an inspiring example of mass popular action that brought about fundamental social and political change.

It is important to retain in our collective memory just how wide and deep that popular movement was.

The revolution began in St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) in the freezing winter of early 1917, two-and-a-half years into the first world war, in which hundreds of thousands of Russians had already died. Women, ground down by long days at factory jobs and ever-longer bread queues, started the revolt.

Women workers demonstrating in 1917. The banner says: “If woman is a slave, there will be no freedom. Long live the equality of women”

Women workers mounted pickets to make their better-paid male counterparts join their protest. Crowds flooded into the centre of St Petersburg to demonstrate. A key turning point was when the police force, unable to hold back the human tide, called in the army. The conscript soldiers – mostly young men from the countryside who didn’t want to fight for the Russian tsar (emperor) – joined the revolt. The three-hundred-year-old empire collapsed overnight.

After this first revolution in February, and the installation of a provisional government of liberal politicians who had opposed tsarism, the movement accelerated, coalescing around the demand for “bread, peace and land”. “Bread” meant solving the food supply crisis; “peace” meant stopping the war now, not later; and “land” meant justice as a hundred million peasants saw it – that land should belong to those who worked it, not to landlords, church or state.

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Ukraine 1917: socialism and nationalism in a world turned upside down

November 1, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine, 1897-1918, by Marko Bojcun (Brill, 2021, 413 pages)

October 1917: the climax of the revolution we have always called “Russian”, but was so much more. In Petrograd, the old empire’s capital, the provisional government that had ruled since February collapsed and Bolshevik-led workers’ and soldiers’ soviets (councils) took control. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, power fell to the Tsentral’na Rada (central council) that had since the summer pressed for Ukrainian autonomy within the Russian state.

The Rada, like all the parliamentary institutions emerging in the empire’s ruins, sat atop a furious movement – in the army and the countryside as much as the towns – that was beyond its control. In Ukraine, this movement sought an autonomous national government, but in a soviet, not parliamentary form.

In the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, Marko Bojcun writes,

there grew a powerful tendency, cutting across party lines, to support the formation of a government of Ukraine as long as it was based on the councils locally and nationally, and on the condition it maintained solidarity with the Russian Soviet government. It was not a question of simply adapting the Russian experience, but of attempting to build with indigenous social forces on the basis of the institutions of popular representation that the revolution in Ukraine had so far created (page 206).

The councils had recognised the Rada – but on condition that it “recognised them as the local governments and agreed to its own re-election by them” (page 201). Such a reorganisation had been proposed in the Rada itself in June, at an all-Ukrainian congress of workers’ councils in July and a soldiers’ congress in October.

The left wings of the populist Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR) and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers’ Party had urged remaking the Rada as a soviet body during the summer. Then Ukrainian Bolsheviks – and organisations of mostly Russian-speaking workers dominated by them – joined the call: the council of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in Kharkiv in September, and in Kyiv, Katerynoslav, Kremenchuk, Kherson and Odessa in November.

Ukrainian soldiers demonstrating in support of national autonomy, March 1917, St Petersburg

The Mykolaiv council resolved to “enter into constructive relations” with the Rada, the Luhansk council to support it on condition it upheld the decisions of the October soviet congress in Petrograd that had declared soviet power. By Bojcun’s count, “at least seven of the ten most populous cities of Ukraine” favoured sovietising the Rada – implying overwhelming support, since Russian and Jewish populations, who might have been more likely to question national autonomy, were concentrated in the larger cities.

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The Russian revolution: how emancipatory hopes and antisemitic poison overlapped

May 10, 2021

This draft review appears on People & Nature with thanks to Historical Materialism journal, to which it has been submitted for publication, in an upcoming special issue on antisemitism and the fight against it. 

Review by Simon Pirani of Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, by Brendan McGeever (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 247 pages.

Download this article as a PDF

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 funeral of a Jewish pogrom victim, Ukraine 1919

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.

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