War in Ukraine: What can the labour movement do?

By Eric Byl, first published in ‘Lutte Socialiste’/’De Linkse Socialist’, monthly papers of PSL/LSP (our sister organisation in Belgium

At least 9,000 Ukrainian and 15,000 Russian soldiers have reportedly been killed. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed or wounded. Fourteen million Ukrainians have fled and countless families have been torn apart. Cities and villages have been reduced to rubble. Internationally, energy and food supplies are in jeopardy. In spite of floods, droughts and forest fires, fossil fuels and nuclear energy are once again on the rise. “Stagflation” and an international recession now seem inevitable and armament and militarism herald more of the same. For LSP-PSL (ISA in Belgium), only the labour movement can offer a way out of the catastrophe. We explain why and how.

War is the continuation of politics by other means. Ukraine has become a battlefield where the big imperialist powers let their struggle for hegemony be fought out. No solution can be expected from them, or from their allies. Even if they reach a rotten compromise, the war will flare up again once the armed forces have recovered, if the situation does not already escalate further now.

The invasion was intended to brutally shift the balance of forces, as it had developed over the past decades, in favour of the Russian oligarchy. Since the restoration of capitalism, its sphere of influence has been continuously encroached upon by competitors, primarily by Western imperialism. Whatever Russia undertook, this trend only seemed to intensify, culminating in a series of ‘colour revolutions’ in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005).

An era of geopolitical tensions

After the Great Recession of 2008/9, the Eurozone entered an existential crisis. The EU has been torn apart by internal divisions, reaching a preliminary climax with Brexit. All European states are experiencing polarisation, the resurgence of national divisions and the undermining of their traditional institutions and parties as a result of decades of neoliberal attacks on living standards.

The US is also divided and weakened. The Republican party is now controlled by the totally erratic populist Trump. The Democratic party is no longer able to credibly present itself as the leader of the nation. Internationally, the weakening of US imperialism manifested itself in the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, after which the Taliban seized power with lightning speed.

At the same time, China has become the main challenger to the hegemony of US imperialism. International division of labour and globalisation have boosted the process of combined development through exchange and imitation. Under capitalism, however, this happens not in a harmonious but a chaotic, uneven way that inevitably leads to tensions and explains why capitalism ultimately means war.

The US and China are entangled in a contest for technology, armaments, spheres of influence, diplomatic relations and so on. Unless the cold war rhetoric takes on a life of its own, a direct military confrontation is unlikely in the short term. China could not take that on yet and there is, of course, nuclear deterrence, but in the meantime, the cold war between the two capitalist powers has become so dominant that it is a crucial factor in all world events. The sanctions against the Putin regime and NATO arms deliveries to Ukraine are also a warning to China about Taiwan.

For the Putin regime, these circumstances and the ‘no limits’ partnership with Xi Jinping created an exceptional opportunity. If it ever wanted to draw a line in the sand and play a role as a superpower in the future, now was the time. This was probably also reinforced by the fact that in Syria, Belarus and Kazakhstan, the Putin regime managed to keep Assad, Lukashenko and Tokayev in the saddle.

Putin’s intended blitz war, however, has since run aground in trench warfare. Instead of dividing the West, the invasion has revitalised NATO with sharply increased military spending, a multiplication of troops in Europe and NATO expansion into Sweden and Finland. In the Donbas region, Russian troops are digging in for the winter and in the south, the Ukrainian army’s announced counter-offensive has been stalled for over a month. An end is nowhere in sight.

Cold war and imperialist annexation

Despite superior firepower, the Russian troops have encountered fierce resistance. Western arms deliveries and intelligence play an important part in this, but above all, it’s due to the fact that this inter-imperialist war is also — and this is how it is mainly seen by the Ukrainian working class — an aggressive imperialist war of annexation.

This perception explains why many Western host families initially took in Ukrainian refugees as a sign of solidarity. For the same reasons, a real anti-war movement has not yet developed. For many, the main concern now is to stop Putin, and although they are rightly sceptical about the intentions of the West — even more so in the former colonial countries — this is also expressed, against their better judgment, in acceptance of the sanctions, arms deliveries, increased military spending and expansion of NATO, all of which ISA firmly opposes.

Thanks to the glimmer of hope that the meaningful resistance to the war in Russia itself represented at the beginning of the war, there was initially sympathy in several countries for the call for a massive international anti-war movement, but without a translation of this sentiment into active mobilisation. Meanwhile, the anti-war movement in Russia was driven underground. Participants ended up in prison, fled abroad or are keeping quiet. That glimmer of hope has thus disappeared. In Russia, the anti-war movement will have to restructure and focus on the working class that suffers most from inflation and job losses and where support for the war is less pronounced than among the better-off.

A strategy and programme for the labour movement in times of war

Zelensky was elected in 2019 as an anti-establishment candidate who would fight corruption. Under his government, large companies were privatised, a pro-capitalist labour law was voted in, the minimum wage was frozen and education and healthcare were commercialised. Before the war, his approval rating had plummeted to 30% but it has now recovered to very high levels after rejecting the US offer to flee the Russian invasion. For now, the Ukrainian nation is united behind Zelensky in the fight to oust the occupier.

But while Ukrainian soldiers fight to protect their land, their homes and communities from Russian occupation, the government and the military mainly defend the right to exploitation by the oligarchs who believe that their interests are best served by a pro-Western policy, against attempts by the Russian regime to challenge that right in its own interests. That choice manifests itself at all levels.

Foremost by inviting Western imperialism which, while wanting to weaken Russia to the point where it cannot contemplate further military adventures, and at the same time weakening a Chinese ally, does not want to drive the Putin regime into a position where it would resort to nuclear weapons. Zelensky’s war campaign is also not at all aimed at influencing the demoralised Russian troops. On the contrary, just as Putin is banning Ukrainian symbols and music in Russia, Russian culture is also being suppressed in Ukraine and all opposition parties have been banned.

It is not Zelensky and the army command but the motivation of the Ukrainian people and soldiers that is the decisive factor in resisting the occupation. If the workers’ movement were able to organise and control that motivation, a lot would become possible.

We therefore support every step, however small, that challenges the bourgeois nature of the army in Ukraine and asserts the independence of the working class, whether it be the distribution of a workers-soldiers newspaper, the free election of soldiers’ representatives to supervise conditions in the trenches, the democratic election of officers or the formation of local committees of soldiers and local residents to supervise military operations.

The arsenal of the labour movement also includes meetings, strikes and civil disobedience. The protest by the fire brigade in Enerhodar and the walkout by workers at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear site illustrate the potential for this. If organised on a broad scale and systematically, it would have a huge effect on the demoralised Russian forces.

The oligarchs and their political representatives are calling for national unity, but are waging a one-sided class war to realise their wildest dreams. UkrOboronProm, a state-owned consortium of 20 defence companies in Ukraine that makes huge profits, is being transformed into a shareholder company in preparation for privatisation. The privatisation of 200 mainly food companies is announced for September. In July, a new labour law was rushed through parliament, restricting the rights of 70% of workers, and the pension reform, devised before the war, is now being implemented at an accelerated pace. Unemployment is at 35% and a $20 billion loan is being negotiated with the IMF.

The production of arms, food and medicines should not serve the super-profits of the oligarchs and certainly not in wartime. The workers and oppressed should seize it and put it under workers’ control for a production and distribution plan in the interest of the people. With the help of the international working class, the outflow of capital from Ukraine should be traced and seized. Inflation, speculation and corruption can be fought by workers’ and neighbourhood committees to regulate prices, expel speculators and supervise all government contracts to prevent bribery.

The new Labour Law should be abolished. To fight unemployment, a general reduction of working hours without loss of pay should be implemented. Workers who are drafted into the army or lose their jobs because of the war should be paid their full wages by the company. If companies can prove after opening the books that they cannot pay this, a state fund financed by a special war tax on the rich should intervene. Any attempt to use the war to undermine pensions, incomes, working and living conditions must be rejected.

All production capacity and financial resources should be mobilised to defend communities, homes and workplaces as effectively as possible and to begin reconstruction as soon as possible on the same principles. Bosses who refuse community takeover as part of such a national plan must be expropriated. This programme is only an indication of the type of war programme that the labour movement needs in order to meet the challenges. Nothing close to it can be expected from anything other than a workers’ government.

Such a programme will initially be greeted with indifference or even hostility. Either a victory for the Putin regime or for Zelensky and western imperialism would lead to more aggression at home and abroad. We cannot support either one. Much more likely, however, is a long drawn-out war with no outright winner, in which class distinctions become increasingly clear. War is a highly concentrated form of politics, with reason it is sometimes called the “midwife of revolution”, and a golden rule of warfare is that one can never attack a revolution with any chance of success. If the workers’ movement in Ukraine embraced the above programme with an explicit call for fraternisation towards the Russian soldiers and workers, it would not only have a tremendous effect on them but would also trigger the required anti-war movement worldwide. The international labour movement would undoubtedly mobilise for the cancellation of debts incurred during the war.

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