The left on Ukraine: third camp or no camp?

March 26, 2014 at 9:50 am (AWL, imperialism, internationalism, left, national liberation, posted by JD, Russia, stalinism, Stop The War, SWP)

Above: SW’s “no camp” stance
By Martin Thomas (at the Workers Liberty website):

Many responses from the left to the Ukraine crisis have ignored, sidestepped, or downplayed the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian people.

Yet Ukraine is one of the longest-oppressed large nations in the world. In an article of 1939 where he raised Ukraine’s right to self-determination as an urgent question, Leon Trotsky wrote: “The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many ‘socialists’ and even ‘communists’ have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force”.

The same is true today. If the right of nations to self-determination is important anywhere, it is important in Ukraine. If the axiom that peace and harmony between nations is possible only through mutual recognition of rights to self-determination is valid anywhere, it is valid in Ukraine.

Only a few currents on the left side with Putin, and even those a bit shamefacedly: Counterfire and Stop The War, No2EU, the Morning Star.

Others propose a “plague on all houses” response. The US Socialist Worker (which used to be linked with the British SWP, but has been estranged from it, for unclear reasons, since 2001) puts it most crisply: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, neither Kiev nor Simferopol, but international socialism”.

For sure socialists side with Ukrainian leftists in their fight against the right-wing government in Kiev. But as between Ukraine being dominated by Moscow, and Ukraine being ruled by a government based in Kiev and among the people of Ukraine, our response should not be “neither… nor”. We support Ukraine’s national rights.

Nations’ right to self-determination does not depend on them having a congenial governments. The governments under which most of Britain’s colonies won independence were authoritarian and corrupt. The socialist who responded with the slogan “Neither London nor New Delhi”, or “Neither London nor Cairo”, or “Neither London nor Dublin”, would be a traitor.

The even-handed “plague on all houses” response also leads to a skewed picture of reality. Thus, the official statement from the SWP’s international network includes no call for Ukrainian self-determination, for Russian troops out, or for cancellation of Ukraine’s debt; but it declares:

“The anti-Russian nationalism that is strongest in western Ukraine has deep roots. Russia has dominated Ukraine since independence in 1991…” And for centuries before that!

“The memory of Russian oppression within the USSR is still vivid and reaches even earlier to the independence struggles of the first half of the 20th [century]”. Stalin’s deliberately-sustained mass famine in eastern Ukraine killed millions in 1932-3. There is a deep historical basis to Ukrainian nationalism in eastern Ukraine, and among Russian-speaking Ukrainians, as well as in the West.

“On the other side, many of the millions of Russian speakers identify with Russia”. And many don’t. On the evidence of the referendum in 1991, where 92% of the people, and at least 84% even in the most easterly regions, voted to separate from Russia, most do not.

“One of the first acts of the new Ukrainian government after the fall of Yanukovych was to strip Russian of its status as an official language. This encouraged mass protests in the east of the country”. The parliament voted to reverse the 2012 law making Russian an official language. That was undemocratic — and stupid. The new president vetoed the measure, and it was dropped. Even if passed, it would not have applied in Crimea. Russian had not been an official language in Ukraine (outside Crimea) between 1991 and 2012. The protests in the east (often violent, but not, by most reports, “mass”) were generated by Russian interference, not by the language question.

The “plague on all houses” response is an addled version of the “Third Camp” attitude which AWL has advocated on many issues; but a very addled version.

Usually the SWP argues for “two camps”. Really to oppose US imperialism and its allies, they say, you must to some degree support the US’s adversaries, whether it be the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas in Israel-Palestine, Saddam Hussein and then the sectarian Islamist “resistance” in Iraq, or Milosevic in Kosova. To do otherwise is to be “pro-imperialist”. Support for an independent working-class “third force”, against both the US and allies, and their reactionary opponents, is ruled out.

On Ukraine (as also on Syria) they break from that “two camps” approach, but to an approach which is more “no camp” than “third camp”. (The “no camp” stance has precedents in SWP history, in the wars for independence of Croatia and Bosnia, for example).

Our slogans of Russian troops out and cancelling Ukraine’s debt to the West seek to support the Ukrainian people as a “third camp”. We solidarise with the East European leftists who, on the LeftEast website, call for “the third position [opposed to both Yanukovych and the new Kiev regime]… namely a class perspective”, and appeals to Ukraine’s left “to form a third pole, distinct from today’s Tweedledums and Tweedledees… You are the only ones who can give meaning to the deaths and wounds of the [occupied square in Kiev]”.

Our position is defined primarily by its positive support for those “third poles” — the people of Ukraine, as against Putin’s troops or the IMF and Western government imposing neo-liberal measures; the working-class left in Ukraine, as against the oligarchs and the chauvinists. When we use negative “neither, nor” slogans, we use them as consequences, expressions, or summaries of that positive alignment; and they do not stop us assessing the other “poles” in the political situation in their varied realities.

The “no camp” stance, instead, offers only abstract ultimate aims (international socialism) as an evasion.


  1. The left on Ukraine: third camp or no camp? | OzHouse said,

    […] Mar 26 2014 by admin […]

  2. dagmar said,

    Has anyone on the UK far left been quoting Luxemburg on Ukrainian nationalism/demands for self-determination (i.e. dismissing it and them) or is that only something sections of the well-read German Tankie left do?

  3. Babs said,

    I agree with pretty much everything said. Unfortunately the interim Government is made up of centre right neo-liberal types, far right fascists and of course the Euromaiden lot who are in marginal positions and probably the best of the bunch. I don’t think Ethnic Russians and leftists are at all represented.

    Also Ukraine will never be that independent as long as Russia looks at it like a buffer to Western militaries. That’s why a new European security arrangement needs to be drawn up which drastically demilitarise the region. NATO is still significantly more powerful than Russia conventionally and Russia is significantly boosting it’s military capabilities. And the so called Cold War was supposed to have ended in 1991!

    • James Robb said,

      In response to Babs above:
      In the absence of mass revolutionary leadership anywhere in the world, it is absolutely inevitable that the first stirrings of a proletarian movement will throw up reactionary bourgeois governments. No one today judges the events in Russia in 1917 by the bourgeois character of the government thrown up by the February revolution – and in that case, there even existed a revolutionary leadership.
      Eyes on the working class!

      I have written a post summarising Trotsky’s 1938 articles and adding a little history of Great Russian chauvinism under the czars and under Stalin.

      • Rilke said,

        The Imperial powers that contested the revolutionary responses to these ‘reactionary bourgeois governments’ in 1917 were weaker then due to WW1 and international imperialist divisions. That is not the case now. Therefore, to accept the same political content of these ‘reactionary bourgeois governments’ in the hope that the realities of one historical moment will be ‘replayed’ now is either dishonest or deluded. Simply quoting Trotsky will not change the fact that dialectically speaking history has moved on and one revolutionary model will not fit all historical moments.
        By the way, just because Trotsky said something does not make it true or false – there are other criteria for truth statements.
        My own view is inclined to engage with Dostoevsky’s dual attack on the Westerners and Slavophiles; but why bother when Trotsky has already said it all?

  4. justiceforkevinandjenveybaylis said,

  5. Rilke said,

    The use of the term ‘national’ here is deeply flawed. In our era the nation state polity as a means of promoting the dignity and solidarity of peoples has proved wholly inadequate. This is specifically the case when the peoples of these ‘nations’ are under constant intervention from transnational forces and transnational super states. You would be better served using the word ‘peoples’ or the ‘right to self-determination’ of ‘communites’ or ‘peoples’. However, I suspect that you will have subconsciously obscure reasons for suppressing these terms especially as these terms would obviously include Russian ‘people’.
    The conceptual scheme of you conservatiuve idealism actually figures ‘states’ that in reality would be not much more that elaborated IMF Bantustans.

    • James Robb said,

      Rilke – Yes, agreed, history has moved on, and we can not simply apply formulae directly from the Russian revolution of a hundred years ago and expect things to ‘replay’. But whenever we are confronted with a new political situation, it is wise to look at historical precedents and consider what has changed and what has not, because not everything in a new situation is new. My point was not to focus on the similarities between the Ukrainian government of today and the Russian government that emerged in February 1917; the whole point is that in both cases, the reactionary character of those governments was not the key question, what was key was the mobilisation of workers and their allies in the streets. This is what most of the left seems strangely incapable of seeing in Ukraine today.
      And I suppose we can also agree that just because Trotsky said something doesn’t make it true – that’s a fact, albeit a rather trivial one. But in Ukraine we have an immense advantage as we try to come to grips with this question: the fact that two of the greatest revolutionary thinkers of the last century, Lenin and Trotsky, had such deep knowledge of the ‘Ukraine question’ in their time, fought so long and hard to bring the working class vanguard to a correct stance on it, and left a written record of their fight. Lenin was very much in the minority within the Bolshevik party and the international workers movement on this, for a long time. And yet the Bolshevik position on oppressed nationalities was absolutely crucial to the Bolshevik victory in October 1917. Ignore or dismiss this priceless historic heritage at your peril!

  6. Rilke said,

    James, in all honesty all I can say is that I wish what you say was true – from the texture of your writing I sense that you are an honest and intelligent person, Yet I fear that your assetions about the ‘allies’ of the ‘mobilised’ working class is wholly misplaced in this historical instance and emergess from your own sincere longing to see the revolutionary good in a deeply reactionary moment.
    I would also wish to re-state my other point: to attempt to understand the ‘self-determination’ of peoples under the limited conceptual scheme of the ‘national question’ is an error. We need to promote and formulate other forms of human relations beyond the rhetoric and poltical arrangments of the ‘national social’. This is the question we now face and in fact, is the fundmental question that the Ukranian crisis has imposed on all communists.
    Good luck to you!

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