The statement below on the war in Ukraine and its implications for the manifold crises of global capitalism was discussed, debated, amended and approved unanimously at a meeting of the International Committee of ISA — our international leadership elected at our World Congress — which took place between 28 March and 1 April in Vienna, Austria.
The war in Ukraine conclusively demonstrates that we have entered a new era in world relations, a shift developing since 2007–09 and further deepened by the COVID pandemic. What are the characteristics of this post-neoliberal era? A key feature is clearly rising imperialist militarism accompanied by the whipping up of nationalism and a rapid break-up of the world into two imperialist-led camps in a new, not-so Cold War. For the past several years we have witnessed the partial decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies, the two largest in the world which have gone from being the drivers of globalization to the drivers of deglobalization. Now we have the rapid, radical decoupling of Russia from Western economies as well as Japan and Australia.
This is an era of profound capitalist decline. The war and the possibility that it could escalate into a more full scale conflict is in itself an admission of irresolvable contradictions. Imperialist countries from China to Germany to the U.S. are literally ramping up the production of their arsenals of death while humanity faces an existential climate crisis that grows worse by the day. The war is a further ecological disaster.
This war also comes during a devastating pandemic that has killed well over 20 million people worldwide and is still raging. China’s zero covid policy is breaking down in the face of the omicron variant. In the West, the ruling class has basically given up after completely failing to contain the epidemic or develop a serious strategy for global vaccination.
On top of this, the underlying crisis of the capitalist economy which predates the pandemic but was exacerbated by it is set to enter a new phase triggered by an energy shock and rapidly rising inflation. Besides the collapse of the Russian economy triggered by vicious Western sanctions, the war could tip Europe and the U.S. into recession. But the impact on the neocolonial world will be far more devastating as food prices rise and the debt crisis worsens. Overall the past two years of pandemic and economic crisis have massively increased inequality on a global scale as well as the level of absolute poverty.
Marxists and imperialism
Marxists today start from opposition to all imperialism, as did Lenin and Trotsky and other internationalists a century ago. They explained how the emergence of imperialism and the dominance of finance capital is a phase of capitalist development, in reality pointing to how the forces of production have developed beyond the capitalist mode of production. Today it could not be clearer how the capitalist nation state is an absolute barrier to the further development of human economy.
We completely oppose Russian imperialism’s invasion of Ukraine which was preceded by Putin’s speech where he blamed the Bolsheviks for Ukraine’s existence and essentially denied the historic reality of the Ukrainian nation. Putin’s utterly reactionary invasion has already created a humanitarian catastrophe with over three million refugees fleeing the country and over six million internally displaced.
Putin claims his goals are to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine. We support the struggle of the Ukrainian people against military occupation but we completely oppose the Zelensky regime which — while it is clearly not fascist — is also reactionary to the core. Both Putin and Zelensky work with the far right in their own countries and internationally. Putin has backed and even bankrolled far right and fascist parties in Europe including Golden Dawn in Greece and the Front National in France, now renamed Rassemblement National (National Rally) while Zelensky is leaning on the neo-Nazi Azov battalion and his regime has rehabilitated World War 2 Nazi collaborators.
The leading role Zelensky has taken in the resistance against Russia’s invasion has made him a hero in the eyes of millions of Ukrainians as well as internationally, helped in no small part by western media propaganda. However, Zelensky is up to his neck with some of the country’s most powerful oligarchs, and has spearheaded measures further impoverishing the majority of Ukrainians. He himself is the owner of offshore companies. Having already clamped down on workers’ rights to organize during his pre-war rule, one of his first measures once the war started was to impose martial law which includes a ban on the right to strike. While not ignoring the illusions that exist, we have to patiently explain that Zelensky and his regime are no friends of ordinary working class Ukrainians.
We also clearly oppose the agenda of U.S. and Western imperialism which through NATO has moved to encircle Russia and helped create the conditions for this war. Now they are pouring war material into the country and imposing unprecedented sanctions against Russia which are a form of collective punishment on the Russian people and an act of war, as well as a warning to China.
We point to working class solidarity as the only force that can prevent the slide towards a far wider conflict that threatens human civilization. While war propaganda has had a significant effect in the West and within Russia itself this will ebb. The mass of the working class is not yet ready to challenge the war but the youth will begin to fight back as the “democratic” pretensions of the West begin to be really exposed and especially as the dire economic consequences of the war begin to be revealed. In Russia we already see glimpses of heroic resistance. Capitalism breeds war but war historically is also the midwife of revolution.
Perspectives for the war
We must be quite conditional about how the war will unfold from here because of the number of variables involved. For example getting a clear picture of the situation on the ground is challenging in the midst of relentless war propaganda on all sides. However, it is very clear that Putin and his generals drastically miscalculated in their invasion plans. They expected to be welcomed as liberators among Russian speaking people in Eastern Ukraine but have met ferocious resistance both in Russian speaking cities like Kharkiv as well as in their attempt to encircle Kyiv.
The possibility of war between NATO and Russia is now greater than at any point in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There is already a partial state of war between NATO and Russia as a staggering amount of armaments pours in from NATO countries. This could escalate into a full scale war due to miscalculation, if Russia were to extensively attack NATO supply lines including into Poland or if NATO were rash enough to try to impose a “no fly zone” over part or the whole of Ukraine. Already the Russian forces have attacked a base in Western Ukraine which was clearly a NATO staging post and attacked another target in Western Ukraine with a hypersonic missile.
A broader war between the U.S./NATO and Russia could remain “conventional” but the danger of a nuclear exchange would grow significantly although remaining still unlikely given the potentially devastating consequences for all sides. During the existence of the Soviet Union there were very dangerous moments like the Cuban missile crisis but one enormous limiting factor was that, despite its horrible Stalinist regime, the Soviet Union was not an imperialist country. Its leadership prioritized their own power and feared revolutions and therefore sought accommodation and “peaceful coexistence” with Western imperialism. In reality the situation we have now entered is already more dangerous than any during the first Cold War. To have huge nuclear arsenals in the hands of rapacious reactionary regimes like those of Putin and Xi Jinping as well as senile U.S. imperialism is a concentrated expression of the threat of capitalism to our existence.
Putin’s war plans were based on the experience of the seizure of Crimea and Donetsk/Luhansk in 2014, Russia’s military success in Syria and the calculation that Western imperialism would not intervene directly in Ukraine. Three and a half weeks into the war, the position of NATO and U.S. imperialism has not fundamentally changed. Joe Biden has so far firmly opposed measures like a no fly zone. Yet it has to be noted that the parliaments of NATO members Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia have all recently approved resolutions publicly calling for a no-fly zone. While the weight of these states within NATO remains marginal, this shows that there is a loud minority and that NATO’s “unity” could be further tested as the war goes on. It is also the case that while the bulk of NATO is trying to put the brakes on a direct military intervention, it is doing everything militarily short of one, making that bridge ever easier to cross.
Could Russia lose militarily and what would be the consequences? Clearly the serious miscalculations in Putin’s invasion are now compounded by a ferocious Ukrainian resistance leading to thousands of Russian casualties and morale problems in the Russian military. As of writing, the Russian military has only managed to take control of one of Ukraine’s twenty largest cities. Nevertheless Russia retains overwhelming superiority in firepower. The war has entered a far more brutal stage, following Russia’s playbook in Syria and Chechnya of modern siege warfare. The Russians are also preparing to rely more heavily on mercenaries, 16,000 from Syria so far, brutal thugs like Chechnyan warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and other “irregular” forces.
But even if the Russian military succeeds in seizing key cities after reducing them to rubble, they then face the challenge of occupying the country. Based on what has happened so far, a Ukrainian insurgency could inflict very significant ongoing casualties and ultimately lead the Russian military to be broken as a military force even if the Ukrainians couldn’t outright defeat it, as happened to the U.S. in Vietnam. This combined with economic collapse could provoke mass upheaval in Russia. This“Vietnam scenario” comes with the key difference that the reactionary Ukrainian regime is a proxy of Western imperialism whereas the FNL/NLF in Vietnam rested on a social revolution.
However, the impact of sanctions — including cutting Russia off from the Western financial system, removing trading privileges and Western corporations pulling out of the country — can be contradictory. They are clearly affecting a section of the urban middle class who are linked to the world economy and are more pro-Western but the devaluation of the currency, inflation and the threat of mass unemployment will mainly affect the broad working class. However, in the short term the sanctions can also strengthen the support of sections of the population for the regime as it confirms the narrative that the West is out to destroy Russia.
Putin seems more nervous about the position of the oligarchs right now and the danger of a palace coup than a general revolt. The U.S. is clearly aiming to at least threaten Putin with “regime change” as part of squeezing Russian imperialism. This is a dangerous game as further setbacks could also make Putin more desperate and likely to resort to further military escalation.
There will be increasing pressure for a diplomatic solution because of the enormous danger posed by a possible widening of the war. The Chinese regime, Putin’s key ally, is not interested in an all out war for example. But Putin is very unlikely to agree a deal right now because of the weakness of the Russian military position on the ground. It is possible that negotiations are used by Putin in order to continue bombing while awaiting reinforcements. An eventual deal could be based on Ukraine accepting a “neutral” status and the de-facto partition of the country with a large part of Eastern Ukraine effectively annexed to Russia. Putin would have to accept the Zelensky regime being in charge of a rump state. In return Western sanctions would be at least partially lifted.
The wider impact
The Ukraine war cannot be separated from, nor properly understood, without putting it in the wider context of the global conflict between U.S. and Chinese imperialism. There is no doubt that part of the message that Biden is seeking to send the CCP regime through the “unity” of Western powers, the devastating sanctions on Russia and the river of armaments pouring into Ukraine is to give a warning in general and in particular of what awaits it if it invades Taiwan. A key difference is that Taiwan is of much greater strategic importance to US imperialism than Ukraine. Should a Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan succeed, or in the unlikely event that processes inside Taiwan shift in a decisively pro-China direction, this would pose a decisive challenge to US imperialism’s strategic dominance in the Indo-Pacific, with massive repercussions also for Japanese imperialism, India, and other key regional powers. Such a defeat for the US would signify the end of the American era and the victory of Chinese imperialism in this decisive geopolitical sphere. The war in Ukraine has significantly strengthened pro-US illusions among the masses in Taiwan with a corresponding rise in support for the pro-US DPP government.
And, of course, trying to impose similar sanctions on the Chinese economy would be an entirely different proposition given the role of China in the world economy which is larger than Russia’s by an order of several magnitudes. In reality it would mean a complete collapse of the world economy.
U.S. and Western imperialism have been temporarily strengthened at the start of this war. Western “democratic” propaganda is for now widely accepted in the population in Europe and the U.S. Figures like Macron, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden have been shored up.
This situation will not last. The united front in the West will begin to show cracks because of divergent imperialist interests. This is even more true when it comes to China than with Russia as the German economy, for example, depends to a considerable degree on industrial exports to China. The U.S. has already had difficulty in lining up important “allies” in the Middle East as well as India, who have strong military and trade ties with both sides. Still, however, the war has enormously reinforced the process towards a more solidified Western imperialist front against China, and faster economic decoupling from China’s economy. It is this trend, rather than the internal divisions, which is dominant. The “national unity” phase will tend to break up as the true economic costs of war and which class is meant to pay the bill become clearer for ordinary people.
We have said a number of times that the conflict between U.S. and Chinese imperialism will tend to weaken them both but obviously at any particular time one or the other can gain temporary advantage. U.S. imperialism has a certain advantage right now but the Chinese regime also sees the U.S. being overextended and unable to extricate itself from challenges in other parts of the world after abandoning Afghanistan in order to fully concentrate on the challenge posed by China. And let us not forget that in 2020 China looked as though it had a significant advantage as its economy continued to grow while the U.S. ruling class failed to contain COVID and then faced massive social upheaval.
At the same time we shouldn’t understate the very serious challenges faced in the short term by Xi Jinping’s regime. China’s alliance with Russia is already causing major problems for Xi’s regime because of the war. The regime is also shaken by an economic downturn which could become far worse due to the crisis in the critical property sector but also the catastrophe that awaits if they are forced to abandon “zero covid” policies due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Given that COVID has been basically kept out of mainland China for two years and that the Chinese vaccines are not as effective against Omicron, this means the population of 1.4 billion is facing this threat without significant immunity.
Even if there was a negotiated outcome to the Ukraine war as part of a wider “reset” in U.S./China relations which can’t be excluded, this would be only a temporary respite. There is no road back to the hyper-globalized neoliberal order.
Impact on world economy
The world economy saw its sharpest contraction since the 1930s in 2020 and then a sharp rebound in part because of neo-Keynesian stimulus measures, including trillions pumped into financial markets and lesser sums into the pockets of ordinary people, especially in the advanced capitalist countries. We were told by central bankers and many bourgeois economists that all this was sustainable because of near zero inflation and interest rates but ISA pointed out that such conditions would not be maintained. By the start of this year, this rosy picture was replaced by the highest inflation in 40 years in the U.S. and the highest in 30 years in Europe, and an explosion in energy and food prices globally, driven to a significant degree by global supply chain problems but increasingly embedded in the economy. The idea that inflation is a “temporary” phenomenon has been blown out of the water.
Even before the war began, we pointed to the fragility of the world economy and the likelihood of a major financial crisis triggered by several possible scenarios including the collapse of asset bubbles, especially the massive one in the Chinese real estate sector. We also pointed to the danger of recession being triggered by central banks needing to rapidly raise interest rates.
The one glimmer of hope was that pressure on supply chains was starting to ease. With the war that glimmer of hope is gone. Supply lines from Russia and Ukraine to much of the world have of course been cut off. There is the potential for a doubling or tripling of the cost of container shipping. Supply chain problems will be compounded by the new lockdowns in China in its crucial manufacturing hubs like Shenzhen and Dongguan due to COVID outbreaks.
But the biggest effect of the war on the world economy is likely to be its impact on the price of energy and food. With many Western countries moving to cut off purchases of Russian oil and natural gas and challenges in replacing Russian production, the price of energy is soaring. This is potentially the biggest energy price shock since the mid 1970s which helped trigger a sharp global economic downturn and opened up a period of “stagflation” in Western economies where the economy grew slowly while inflation was high. Stagflation is a very difficult problem to solve through standard bourgeois monetary/fiscal policy measures.
Even though the OECD still projects growth in the global economy for 2022, it has lowered its projection from 4.5% to 3.5% while for the Eurozone it has lowered its projection to just under 3%. The EU’s largest economy, Germany, is most likely already in recession. Many bourgeois economists are now pointing to the very real possibility of recession in a number of key economies being triggered by geopolitical events and the need to rapidly raise interest rates to curb inflation as the Fed has begun doing.
Rising global inflation will also contribute directly to the sovereign debt crisis facing many poor countries which we described in the main world perspectives draft. But it is the sharp rise in food prices that could have the most devastating impact on the masses in large parts of the neocolonial world. Fully 12% of all calories consumed in the world come from Russia and the Ukraine; we can expect “spiraling inflation” for wheat, corn and other agricultural commodities. Prices were already rising before the start of the war due to droughts and high demand as economies emerged from the pandemic. This could open up the biggest food crisis since at least 2008 which in turn was a key factor in the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, and in provoking protests and riots in other regions too
Ukraine is a major wheat supplier to the Middle East and North Africa. As it stands, Lebanon has, at most, one month’s wheat reserves left. The Syrian government has started rationing wheat, bread prices have doubled in Egypt, the Tunisian government has prohibited public officials from commenting on wheat imports and the World Food Program has called the war in Ukraine “a countdown to catastrophe” for Yemen, which heavily relies on grain imports. Major demonstrations have already been triggered by soaring bread and flour prices in Sudan and Iraq. These are only the first signs of the major social crisis and upheavals that are brewing in that region, and which will be replicated elsewhere.
A further shock to the world economy can come if Russia defaults on its sovereign debt although Russian corporate debt is actually much bigger. Although the Putin regime has tried to cushion the effects of being cut out of the global financial system and other sanctions by imposing strict control on domestic banks and Russian corporate foreign exchange holdings as well as preparing to nationalize assets of foreign corporations who have shuttered operations it is predicted that GDP will fall by anything between 6 and 20% this year. Of course the other factor is China’s willingness to act as a partial economic backstop for Russia. This points to the emergence of two financial systems internationally as well as the breakup of global supply chains and the “reshoring” and “near-shoring” of production we have already discussed, trends which will accelerate as a result of the war. These features are very reminiscent of the 1930s which was characterized by ultranationalism, trade embargos and the growth of closed economies (autarky).
Shifts in consciousness
The outbreak of this war, and the new era it heralds for global capitalism, cannot fail to produce profound and dramatic shifts in the consciousness of working-class and young people the world over. Every strata of society, including the bourgeois itself, is currently in the process of attempting to understand the significance of what has taken place and to reconfigure perspectives for the future.
We can apply no rigid schema to how workers’ consciousness will develop. As with our perspectives for the war or for the economy, we make no absolute predictions. At the start of this century, our organization intervened into, and in different places played an important role in, the mass movements that swept the world against the wars in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan. These were wars of a different era. They were not a clash of two relatively well-matched imperialist power blocs. Instead, they represented U.S. imperialism’s (ultimately misplaced) confidence that it was the unchallengeable ruler of the world — that it could insert pliant new regimes in key countries at will, where necessary at the point of a gun. In the eyes of the masses in both the West and in the neocolonial world, there was a reasonably high level of clarity about the aggressive role being played by Western imperialism. Opposition to the war and opposition to Bush, Blair and co were very clearly connected.
This war comes in a thoroughly different context — one of an accelerating division of the world into two spheres. It is therefore in certain ways more akin to the wars of the early 20th century — an inter-imperialist conflict taking place between two competing capitalist blocs. Russia is ultimately, if on the surface initially somewhat tentatively, backed by China. The Zelensky government is conversely backed by Western imperialism.
Especially in the first phase, the war’s inter-imperialist character creates a greater level of confusion and complexity in consciousness than there has been in the face of many recent conflicts. This is also because this confrontation between two imperialist blocs on Ukrainian soil is entangled with and somewhat blurred by legitimate feelings of sympathy for the Ukrainian masses as they face a brutal imperialist invasion and occupation by Russia. Across the world there is fear of the consequences of war and the threat of escalation. There is a broad sense of solidarity with the Ukrainian population, and particularly with the millions of refugees the invasion has so-far created. Yet, while there have been many protests of varying scale across different countries, it would be inaccurate to describe an international anti-war movement as already existing.
The protests that have arguably had the clearest anti-war character have taken place in Russia itself. These have been significant while not being massive, and have so far peaked in the first days following the invasion. Putin’s regime has responded to them with utter brutality. The number of people arrested for publicly opposing the war is estimated at over 15,000 at the time of writing — this figure itself is testament to the mood of anger that clearly exists among a layer of Russian workers and youth.
The Kremlin’s propaganda war has of course influenced the views of the mass of the population. Equally, the regime’s ratcheting up of repression, with 15-year prison sentences for those deemed to be spreading “fake news”, has ensured that access to alternative perspectives is now severely restricted. Independent news outlets based in Russia have been forced to close and foreign media has left the country. At the same time, the combination of Putin’s repression and Western sanctions has made social media sites including Twitter and TikTok extremely difficult to access. Meanwhile Putin is seeking to adopt the playbook of the Iranian regime — using the crushing effect of Western sanctions on the economy, the price for which is always paid by the working class, in order to bolster nationalism and support for his regime.
All of this points to this being, at least in the short term, an extremely difficult period for all opposition forces seeking to build within Russia — especially those aiming to base themselves on workers’ struggle and socialist ideas. But none of that diminishes the fact that the war, especially if it continues to be prolonged and difficult for the Russian regime, will foment mass anger and opposition which can explode from below. Estimates on exact numbers are of course highly contested, but thousands of Russian soldiers have already been killed in this war.
In the West, the war has been used as a shock doctrine in order to implement a drastic increase of military expenses and increase the authority of the state and governments. As in the beginning of many wars, state and media exerts a strong pressure for “national unity” — while elements of “Russophobia” have been whipped up by the western establishments, contributing to a relative spike in anti-Russian attacks and sentiments directed at ordinary Russians living abroad, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe. Left and Green parties previously opposed to arms exports and NATO military actions — such as most of the so-called “squad” in the U.S., left parties in Nordic countries, parts of the Labour left in Britain, Podemos in Spain — have now capitulated on questions like support for sanctions and NATO military aid for Ukraine. It is a measure of their political weakness and lack of confidence in the working class.
The terrible suffering being brought by Russian bombs and bullets contributes to working-class people having a strong sense of horror at what is unfolding, as well as to a high level of solidarity for the war’s victims. In Eastern Europe especially, this sense of solidarity is combined with the very real fear that, unless Putin is forced back, such scenes could engulf their own countries. Understandably, in this context NATO, and to a lesser extent the EU, are seen as offering important protection against such an attack.
As is often the case in war, the early stages of this conflict have brought with them a certain mood of “national unity” and a temporary strengthening of the incumbent governments and politicians — including some who were until recently on the ropes. This includes Biden, who faces difficult midterm elections, and especially Boris Johnson, who seems to have gained a reprieve from what looked like developed plans by his own party to oust him. At this stage, polling suggests a high level of support for sanctions. Even when the potential for it to lead to higher energy prices was pointed out, 79% of Americans said they would support a ban on the import of Russian oil in a recent poll. Meanwhile there is an attempt to use the war to reframe inflation and the cost-of-living crisis as down to “Putin’s price hikes”, as Biden recently put it.
Moreover, there is also a relatively high level of support in many Western countries for more developed military support for the Ukrainian regime, up to and including a “no fly zone”. In Germany, the dramatic overturning of the country’s post-war defense policy, with Olaf Schulz outlining spending that could see the country develop the third highest military budget in the world within five years, has been supported by up to 75% of the population in polling. This mood has also been reflected in some of the very large protests that have taken place in the country against the outbreak of the war. Elsewhere, the relatively small protests that have taken place in the U.S. have often seen popular take up of the slogan “close the skies” — a reference to the demand being pushed by an increasingly militant “pro-world-war three” faction in the Republican party (also present in many right-wing parties across Europe) for the establishment of a no-fly zone.
This mood reflects a feeling that “something needs to be done” to stop the bombing of Ukraine, but is combined with a lack of understanding of the true implications of such an intervention. Its ramifications would include turning this war into a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, with all the attendant dangers of further escalation (including the nuclear threat).
Indeed, there is, for the first time, a marked penetration of the capitalists’ New-Cold-War narrative into the consciousness of a significant layer of working — and middle-class people. The (grossly hypocritical) idea of a global division between “freedom and rule of law” on the one side and “authoritarianism and tyranny” on the other, exerts a pull. This will be a weapon the ruling class will seek to deploy in attempting to enforce social peace domestically. But significant workers’ struggles have continued to be waged since the outbreak of this war. Even at this early stage, there are serious limits to the mood of “national unity” the ruling class is attempting to create.
Among youth, there remains a generalized opposition towards militarism. There is huge anger at the failure of Western governments to both accept and provide for Ukrainian refugees. Many also consciously reject the racist double standards in how those fleeing war and persecution are treated. There is fear of and opposition to the escalation of this war, particularly in the context of the looming nuclear threat. This mood has the potential to become far more important, even dominant, depending on how events develop.
Meanwhile, the mood across much of the neocolonial world is equally confused, though in a different way. The murderous legacy of U.S. imperialism (a well as that of Britain and other colonial powers), which these powers are trying to whitewash through their denunciation of Russia’s role in Ukraine, continues to loom large in workers’ consciousness in many countries, resulting in a much deeper mistrust of NATO, at times combined with certain pro-Russian sympathies. The legacy of the previous Cold War and nostalgic elements towards the ex-USSR are also playing into this — such as the past anti-apartheid stand of the USSR in South Africa and more generally, its calculated support to anti-colonial national liberation movements in parts of the continent. The racist treatment of black and Asian refugees by Ukrainian and Western states, and the grossly different treatment of war victims by western media compared to those in the neo-colonial world, have compounded such sentiments.
Left populist forces, such as the EFF in South Africa, have adopted much of the Kremlin’s line on the conflict. On the other hand, in much of Latin America there is a significant and influential section of the labor movement’s leadership that sympathizes with the Chinese regime. All these factors have played a role in impeding the development of a significant protest movement against the war in the “global south”. Where this is the case, it requires us to explain the role of Putin’s regime, including its pro-capitalist character, and to emphasize the independent role that can be played by working-class people internationally.
Africa is a crucial battleground in the cold war and imperialist conflict. Workers and the poor should have no illusion that Putin’s regime is a viable alternative to Western imperialism in Africa. Russia and China are also anti-working class, imperialist states responsible for fuelling instability and war in neo-colonial countries. The war effects are now likely to exacerbate existing pressures including extreme weather events, decimated economies and armed conflict sustaining poverty, polarisation and mass migration.
Importantly, the war threatens food security in Africa further as the significant Russian and Ukrainian exports of wheat, soy, maize and other grains are disrupted. Egypt, Nigeria and Zimbabwe for example, import between 50% and 80% of their wheat from Russia. The soaring oil and commodity prices provide fertile ground for local governments in alliance with imperialist powers to pursue the acceleration of fossil fuel and commodities extraction, now with added “strategic” and supposedly “green” cover.
Concurrent armed conflict remains alongside the destruction of livelihoods to secure market share and profits in the new cold war intensified “scramble for Africa”. This will further increase migration across the continent, fuel refugee crises, human trafficking and can intensify conflict and divisions. In South Africa, the July 2021 food riots gave a glimpse of the boiling anger amongst the masses, and the new escalation in xenophobic violence is a warning of how it can be exploited by reaction if a political alternative based on an international socialist program is not urgently built.
The potential for an international antiwar movement
Increasingly expressed, especially by youth, is a growing understanding that under capitalism we face a future in which the world will be more dangerous, in which the majority of people will be more impoverished, and in which — increasingly — the very survival of much of the earth’s population will be put in jeopardy. This understanding is partly tied to economic reality — it reflects a profound lack of confidence in the system’s ability to provide even people in the most advanced capitalist countries with stable jobs and homes, let alone with rising living standards. But now added to this, as well as to the threat of climate collapse, is the danger of an increasingly widespread and potentially even nuclear global military conflict. This fear will form an important part of workers’ collective psyche from now on.
Such a consciousness is not automatically revolutionary — it can create the potential for despair or “doomerism” as it has become known. But it does point to the deep undermining of the capitalist system in the eyes of working-class people.
An international, anti-war movement, based on a clearer opposition to the imperialist warmongering on all sides is therefore still implicit in the situation. Our role is to fight for such a movement and for its working-class character. That means pointing to the potential role of the trade union movement in mobilizing on the streets, as well as in directly undermining the “war effort”. A glimpse of this potential has already been seen in Britain, Netherlands and Sweden — with workers refusing to unload Russian oil at the docks — and in Italy in the form of strike action in protest against the Russian regime’s invasion.
At the same time, we recognize that young people are likely to be most readily mobilized on the streets, and to be the layer with the most openness, at least initially, to socialist ideas. Anti-war activism, which can also be linked to issues such as climate change (around which anger will grow after the effective dropping of the previous net zero pledges) and/or the treatment of refugees, can be a crucial aspect of our work in the next period.
So will be our socialist feminist work, as attested by many of the protests on March 8, in which anti-war slogans and expressions of solidarity with the victims of the war in Ukraine featured prominently. Women will be among the hardest hit by the rising cost of living, the refugee crisis, the expected explosion of trafficking and gender based violence resulting from the war and the cuts in social expenditure that will come along with the massive increases in military budgets. This war has also exacerbated existing inequalities including that of gender oppression in Ukraine and further afield. Gender violence, already at increased levels world-wide because of the pandemic, is another horrifying aspect of many violent conflicts including historically in Ukraine. There have been reports about sexual violence being used in Ukraine currently. In addition, those fleeing Ukraine (mostly women & children as men have been prevented from leaving the country) are incredibly vulnerable to abuse both from sex traffickers and individuals seeking to exploit refugees for free labour or sex in exchange for accommodation. Reports suggest that from the day immediately following the launching of the invasion there was a notable increase also in people using search terms like “Ukrainian Girls” or “war porn” on major porn sites. Women refugees are also very vulnerable to being exploited for free or cheap labor in the home including housekeeping and care work. This has been made more acute by various governments turning the refugee crisis from a collective and social responsibility into an individualized issue. In addition, rapidly and significantly expanding military budgets will likely come at the expense of other budgets including health and education. It will again be working-class women who will be disproportionately impacted because they already carry the higher share of such work in the home.
In the long run, we should expect this war, and the wider inter-imperialist conflict of which it is part, to further exacerbate class contradictions, to expose the gangsterism of the capitalists, and to drive the masses into struggle as they are forced to bear its costs. Indeed, we should expect the temporary “‘strengthening of the center” that has been evident in the first weeks of the war in Western countries, to give way to the much stronger under-current of polarization which will ultimately be intensified by this crisis. The new age of disorder will have even sharper features of revolution and counter-revolution than the period after the Great Recession of 2008–9. It will create opportunities for the left, including for Marxists. At the same time, it will also generate further space for reaction. Many (far)-right populists, including the likes of Orban and Le Pen are having to try and distance themselves from their former friend, Vladimir Putin. Orban has even been forced to accept over 180,000 Ukrainian refugees, for example. Nonetheless, this will ultimately be a situation from which the forces of nationalism, authoritarianism and right populism will seek to benefit, along with the far right — not least in Ukraine itself.
In the West, bourgeois politicians of all stripes will seek to “out-hawk” each other in relation to Russia and increasingly, China. In Eastern Europe in particular, where an increase in nationalism and at times, national and ethnic conflict, have been an important feature of the “carnival of reaction” which followed the collapse of Stalinism, this war will give a new qualitative boost to nationalism and division. In general in all regions of the world, politicians’ and parties’ positions in relation to the Cold War will assume greater political importance, including at election time.
Our programme in this situation must therefore be constantly subject to discussion and debate, updated regularly to address events as they unfold. Crucially, we continue to have one unified program — the core of which is the same wherever in the world we are intervening. However, the exact presentation of that program, and points to which we lend the greatest emphasis, will inevitably need to be adjusted to suit the varied consciousness that exists in different parts of the world and among different layers of the working class.
In particular, it is vital that in every country where we have a presence, we include prominently in all our material points which expose the role of the national bourgeois of the country in which we are mobilizing and its “side” in the Cold War. In the Western capitalist countries, for example, opposition to NATO militarism and expansionism must always be a central feature of our propaganda, even where this is not currently the mood among the mass of workers. We stand against all military intervention on the part of U.S. and Western imperialism — this includes opposition to the provision of weaponry by NATO powers to the Ukrainian military. This in and of itself increases the threat of the conflict escalating more widely.
In countries on the “other side” of the Cold War, and in the neocolonial world more generally, the bloody role of Putin, as well as of the Chinese regime, must inevitably form a more central part of our focus. We must seek to educate workers and youth about the real nature of the reactionary, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, virulently anti-communist regimes of Putin and Xi, including pointing to their support for counter-revolution in recent years when faced with mass uprisings in Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Belarus. We oppose the dangerous and rapid military build-up that is taking place — again on both sides — and give no justification to either NATO actions, or the regime’s own anti NATO propaganda. We demand the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, Western imperialist troops from Eastern Europe and the dissolution of all military blocks such as NATO.
Karl Liebknecht’s famous line, that “the main enemy is at home”, does not mean that we need not show sensitivity to the consciousness of working-class people. Nor does it mean that we ignore the facts of the very real war-crimes of Putin’s regime. But it does mean that, at all times and in a clear way, we must seek to mobilize workers to struggle in a united way, across borders, against their real enemy. It means that the role of each imperialist bloc must be mercilessly exposed — first and foremost before those who live under it most directly.
This makes it important that, in a skillful way, we bring out the real role of the current sanctions which, far from being a means of applying “peaceful” but effective pressure to Putin, are in fact an act of extremely brutal economic warfare which will overwhelmingly victimize the working class — in Russia but also elsewhere — i.e. the very social force capable to put an end to the ongoing imperialist bloodshed. The question of who is doing what and why is always pertinent. We support all workers’ action against the war and call for strikes and blockades to help prevent the delivery of arms or other equipment that will be used to kill and maim. We also emphasize the potential role of the Russian working class, as the force with the power to bring an end to Putin’s rule as well as his military adventurism.
In Ukraine, we point to the right of workers to arm themselves through their own self-organization. We argue that, ultimately, such working-class forces would need to be mobilized not just to repel the invading army — the ranks of which could be reached based on a class appeal — but against the reactionary Zelensky regime as well as the far-right groups and militias which currently operate underneath it. We stand for the right to self-determination for all nations, and for the guaranteed rights of minorities. What’s more, we point out that any organizations of working-class self-defense would necessarily have to adopt this as their position, both in order to remain united and so as not to be vulnerable to being co-opted or used by forces hostile to the interests of working-class people.
In all the contexts in which we are working, we must increasingly link our demand for an end to militarism to the economic, social and environmental struggles that workers will face, and to the question of socialist change more broadly. A new recessionary crisis could potentially have the effect of temporarily undermining the confidence of workers to fight. But nevertheless the current combination of high inflation, low growth and, crucially, a working class whose experience of the pandemic has emphasized their huge potential power, will set the stage for new and ferocious class battles.
Where governments are seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs, this can be used to point to the potential for nationalization that could save jobs or protect workers. Where military spending is being hiked, we point to the way such resources could be used to house refugees or to increase spending on public services. Where huge funds are being poured into new drilling for fossil fuels, we point to the potential that would exist for a rapid transition towards renewables on the basis of public ownership and democratic planning.
Ultimately, we raise at every opportunity the reality that it is only through workers seizing power internationally that a future of war, conflict and environmental destruction can be averted. We point therefore to the urgent necessity of forging a truly international world party of revolution — one capable of leading the struggle to change the world.