The War in Ukraine is a Class War
The battle against Putin and his oligarchs shows how the building blocks of self-determination, internationalism and global economic integration can strengthen global class unity
A followup to my Friday post with a deeper historical dive on how the left should approach “imperialism” in the post-Cold War era
One political line of the anti-war left is “No War but Class War,” a way of dismissing support for all military conflict as a distraction by the capitalist elites from the real business of challenges from within by workers in all nations.
The sentiment has a real resonance given the malevolence and profiteering motivating most wars, with World War I being the historic example of a useless war more about large power grabs for real estate than any principle. Many socialists around the world refused to participate in that war – the leader of the US Socialist Party Eugene Debs went to jail in protest – and since then, there has been a long history of anti-imperialism on the left challenging their nations’ participation in war as serving elite interests. The lies and oil interests driving the U.S. war in Iraq is just the most recent version of that kind of imperial adventurism that reinforced the cynicism of many.
However, as Ukrainian leftist Taras Bilous wrote this past week in “A letter to the Western Left from Kyiv”, even as his city was under assault from Putin’s invasion, that cynicism can degenerate into what he labeled the “anti-imperialism of idiots.” Bilous criticizes people who are so fixated on critiquing the US for its historic sins that they can’t condemn a clear injustice like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. (Bilous names names and points to the particularly horrendous statement by DSA’s International Committee which he rightly calls “shameful.”)
Ideological Contradictions in Modern Military Conflicts
It's not just that Russia’s war on Ukraine is so obviously aggressive and evil that it takes a particular kind of ideological blinder to find excuses to blame anyone but Putin for it.
The reality is that multiple wars over the last hundred years have combined both imperial interests AND principled aims that often served working-class and anti-colonial aims as well, those impulses battling it out in internal politics within the US and Western nations as well as in global international relations.
If World War I was the prototype of nihilistic, imperial war-making, World War II was the embodiment of the “Good War” where the goal was the defeat of an unquestioned evil – one reason so many apologetics for war reach for the Hitler analogy since it evokes that sense of uncomplicated justification for war. But even WWII had its internal contradictions, as war profiteering strengthened capital in the US on one hand and, on the other, socialist labor leaders like Sidney Hillman, who helped found the CIO, would in no way protest the war but in fact would help administer it, in the case of Hillman as an appointed leader in the War Production Board administering the wartime economy and strengthening labor rights in wartime industries.
Globally, that war would lead to restoring the colonial possessions of France and Britain – but also set in motion the political and ideological forces that would strengthen anti-colonial movements around the world. The Cold War itself would see the Soviet Union and the United States supporting murderous proxy wars and suppressing independence movements, but also supporting other anti-colonial movements as part of their global competition with each other for ideological allies.
Many of the historic divisions within the socialist movement, Social Democrats vs Communists, Trotskyist versus Maoists, were tied up in strategic debates over these contradictions and the balance of harms in supporting one side or another in various military conflicts during the Cold War.
In a Post-Cold War World, Putin is the Embodiment of Oligarchic Capital
With the particular US/Soviet divide fading with the end of the Cold War, one reason that there should be a consensus on supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion is that Putin at this point embodies pretty much every evil of capitalist oligarchy the left has ever envisioned.
And for those who had whatever attachment to the Soviet Union (I had little personally), they should especially hate Putin for his active role in liquidating whatever good the Bolshevik Revolution did in reducing the inequality of the Czarist era. In a radically short time, Putin helped liquidate that Soviet patrimony into the hands of himself and his corrupt oligarch cronies, as the chart below by economist Gabriel Zucman emphasizes.
Add in that current Russian wealth is overwhelmingly the product of fossil fuels driving climate change, opposing more power by the Russian state should be the priority of every green-minded socialist on earth.
Putin’s Imperialist Ambitions
But the reason the defense of Ukraine is a class war not just on pure economistic grounds but because it is about defeating the purest imperial war aims possible by Russia, in the original left definition of that term. Putin himself largely defined his war aims in his speech on February 22, 2022 in such terms. As Branko Milanović wrote in this analysis, Putin’s goal is explicitly reversing Lenin’s breakup of the Czarist Russia empire a century ago - and attacking Lenin’s ideals of challenging “imperialism”, the language of which would reverberate in anti-colonial movements throughout the century.
Whatever your opinion of the ultimate Bolshevik project, almost anyone on the left or even liberal side of the spectrum thought their replacement of Russian chauvinist imperialism with an acknowledged multi-ethnic state was an advance. The very name of the new nation, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (plural), emphasized that ideologically the goal was to allow different ethnic nations a degree of autonomy within a non-ethnic union of nations. Lenin’s goal in this post-imperial project had some similarities with Woodrow Wilson’s promotion of nation-states replacing former empires at the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson’s League of Nations was to be the route to unity among those nations replacing the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, just like the Soviet Union was to be the unifying glue for the nationalities of the former Czarist empire. (Both would fail in those goals as dictatorships entrenched themselves in the Soviet Union and across the European continent).
But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the paper independence of its various nationalist republics gave way to actual nations that declared independence. As Milanović notes, Putin’s speech implicitly questions the legitimacy of all those new nations in favor of a restoration of a Russian empire. Why, Putin asks in his speech, “was it necessary to satisfy the endlessly increasing nationalist ambitions of different parts of the former [Russian] empire?” Putin’s speech is a rejection of those ambitions, with the ambitions of Ukrainians for their own nation in particular dismissed.
So the fight for Ukraine is the fight for the very original essence of anti-imperialism.
The Challenge of Balancing Self-Determination and International Unity
Coming out of the debate on nationalism and imperialism a century ago, the challenge for the Left has been balancing ethnic self-determination with a commitment to building an internationalism that could challenge global corporate power. While some saw any recognition of race or ethnicity as a distraction from building class unity - and that continues in some quarters - most recognized that any socialist demands for equality were likely to start with demands mediated by the defense of one’s national or ethnic community - even if the goal was not to stop there.
As well, any defense of nation-state self-determination by the left was counterbalanced by demands for respecting the rights of ethnic minorities within those national boundaries. This early focus on the “national question” was one reason socialists and communists took civil rights in the United States more seriously than most liberals did for much of the early 20th century, as I wrote about here.
This is where the nationalism of the Right is starkly different, which sees the nation-state as the endpoint, with all internal minorities expected to conform to and be subordinate to the dominant ethnic group. All multi-national institutions from the League of Nations to the United Nations are treated as suspect by most right-wing nationalists for this reason. For many corporate interests, internal oppression of minorities and global divisions between nations are seen as useful features in undermining any attempt at global democratic controls on capital power.
Notably, Putin has been a prime funder of that kind of racist nationalism in Europe, as I detailed in my last Ukraine piece, the reason the Trumpist Right is so appreciative of Putin. Promoting a right-wing ideology that rejects collective security, rejects minority rights, and is tolerant of border “adjustments” by force to better align national borders with ethnic aspirations, all serve Putin’s ambitions.
A point for the left has always been not to reify national borders on purely racial or ethnic lines, since all borders are artificial and include multiple ethnic and racial groups. They are impossible to “adjust” to represent any “pure” nationalism, so the ultimate goal is to transcend them through multi-national institutions.
The Kenya ambassador to the UN criticized Russia’s complaint of its people being divided across the Ukraine border by comparing it to the “unsatisfying” borders left behind by European colonialism in Africa. While he noted that the desire for “integration” of peoples was understandable, it was best pursued for Africans through international institutions like the Organization for African Unity and the United Nations - and implied such international integration was the best resolution for Ukraine. "We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires,” he argued, “in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression"
The demand by some on the left to “resolve” the current crisis by restricting Ukraine to the constraints of its own borders, foreswearing any integration with the rest of Europe, goes against every shred of anti-imperialist internationalism the left has stood for in the last century. Pacifying the imperialist demands of Russia is a poor justification for that betrayal of Ukraine.
Aside from leaving Ukraine a sitting duck for future aggression by Russia, it would leave Ukraine boiling in its own internal ethnic conflicts. Ukrainian Taras Bilous in the piece cited earlier detailed the ethnic divisions in his own family - a father involved with the far-Right militias in Donbas and a grandfather supporting Putin - so blocking the possibility of internationalism would just let those conflicts fester. The desire of Ukraine to integrate with other nations in one the left should be championing.
Ukraine has officially asked to join the European Union, which leaves the issue of also joining NATO. The enmity of some on the left to NATO seems odd, since it’s sins are usually the sins of the United States in its aggressive wars over the years, which would likely still have happened under different auspices whether NATO existed or not.
What is true is that for the members of NATO - who spent much of the half-century before its formation butchering each others’ populations, it has embodied a pan-European attempt to transcend the ethnic divisions within Europe and helped prevent war upon each other. The desire of Ukraine and other countries to join that is understandable. NATO’s biggest problem, as I argued on Friday, is its restriction to being merely European and North Atlantic and not extending more globally, since the United Nations with its Russian veto is unlikely to play any effective role as an alternative. Reforming and expanding NATO seems a more viable avenue to greater global collective security than starting afresh. Biden pulling out of a wrong-headed war in Afghanistan and marshaling global support beyond NATO in the challenge to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is part of the template for reforms toward a broader global consensus for collective security.
What’s Missing is Integrating Global Economic Security with Collective Security
However, a purely military-based collective security is not enough since it will not be the vehicle for addressing the deep economic inequality driving so much global conflict to begin with.
The nexus of people like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn in their ties to both Putin and Trump is the story of the corporate alliances and racist authoritarianism beating back demands for justice globally. You can’t separate Trump’s antipathy to collective security from his promotion of trade wars and anti-immigrant policies that also divide populations.
Even with Ukraine facing invasion, you see Trumpists like Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance stoking that resentment in the name of racist nationalism.
The left needs a global program to redirect that nationalist conflict and resentment into challenges to global oligarchy. As I argued in this post, we are only likely to beat back the Trumpist nationalist politics here and abroad if we build a “framework for long-term global cooperation to preserve jobs and redistribute growth from the elite to workers globally…”
In many ways, Biden is quietly making significant moves in that direction - far more than I suspected he would when he was elected. The response to Russia is focused not on punishing the Russian people but on punishing the oligarchs who undergird his rule. Biden is building a trade policy, as I outlined in this Nation article, that is moving beyond the failed corporate trade deals of the past to focus on cross-border cooperation to strengthen union power in places like Mexico as the route to also raising wages here at home.
As Biden builds global cooperation to support Ukraine, there has been little commentary that this follows Biden negotiating his global deal with 130 countries to establish a minimum corporate tax, a dry run in building the collective agreements on corporate accountability now being deployed against those Russian oligarchs.
This emphasizes that tighter collective agreements that can effectively punish elite actors propping up belligerent regimes are one of the most effective non-military means to guarantee collective security. On the left, we need to make the case that the global trade and financial accountability tools that can help fight global economic inequality also can stop military conflict by cutting off the financial resources that fund it.
The more our collective interests in raising wage standards, protecting global public health, and stopping climate change are integrated seamlessly into collective security institutions, the harder it will be for regimes bent on war to violate international norms. Getting there will hardly be simple, but the battle against Putin’s oligarchs is a demonstration of how global class unity can be a weapon to stop military aggression.