By Sebastian Rave, from issue 9 of Socialist World, ISA’s theoretical journal.
The mass demonstrations at the beginning of the Russian invasion, with hundreds of thousands at anti-war demonstrations worldwide, were a great show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine attacked in a brutal invasion. They also gave confidence to anti-war activists in Russia, who bravely defied the repression for weeks. In the initial resistance against the occupation, the Ukrainian masses also played a major role in acts of civil disobedience, like farmers stealing Russian tanks or in unarmed protesters blocking the path of occupying tanks with just their bodies.
But the masses were pushed into the background. In Russia, the regime was able to suppress the movement. In Ukraine, society was militarized, and the fight against the occupation was taken over by the military, heavily armed by NATO allies, and ultimately serving the interests of Ukrainian oligarchs aligned with Western imperialism. In the NATO countries, the bulk of prominent left parties and figures supported every weapons shipment in the name of helping the Ukrainian people and winning self-determination. Of course, the struggle for self-determination is one element of this war. And the wish of Ukrainian people to decide their own fate plays a big role in keeping up the morale of the soldiers that are justifiably seeking to defend their homes.
But it would be naive to believe that all the military aid by NATO members to Ukraine has the goal of Ukrainian independence, human rights, and peace. Every weapon and every penny of financial aid will be recorded, and once the war is over, an invoice will come that maintains Ukraine’s dependence on their “helpful” allies. Instead of self-determination by Ukraine, NATO members want to make sure that there will be a bridgehead right on the border to the Russian rival. That is the motivation of NATO allies, not “democracy” or even the fight against “imperialism” — they just have their own imperialist interests that clash with that of other competing imperialist powers such as Russia.
The main axis of global relations is the conflict between the two superpowers, the U.S. and China and the blocs associated with them, which are competing over geopolitical influence, markets, resources, and capital. These inter-imperialist tensions have increased in the last years of crisis and are the driving force behind the bloody war. The New Cold War is the defining feature of the period we’re living in, and the war in Ukraine is only its first battlefield.
How to Not Fight U.S. Imperialism
Some believe, and this is a position that is even dominant in parts of the neocolonial world, that everything that questions the dominance of U.S. imperialism is a step forward. This is an understandable sentiment, given the history of U.S. interventions, its orchestrated coups, and its brutal wars from Vietnam to Iraq. Many workers are rightfully concerned about NATO expansion and harbour a healthy scepticism towards their rhetoric of “freedom and human rights,” terms that time and time again have served as ideological cover for imperialist plunder and slaughter.
But the people in Hong Kong or the Uyghurs in Xinjiang know that imperialism doesn’t have to come with “stars and stripes.” And the same goes for those in Chechnya, Syria, or now Ukraine, all of whom have been brutalized by a different brand of imperialism. Downplaying or even defending the crimes of Chinese and Russian imperialism will alienate those that suffer the consequences of their policies on a daily basis. This inevitably weakens an international movement’s ability to make vital connections with anti-war activists in Russia, who proved their bravery when they went to the streets defying police repression, and many of whom eventually had to flee their country.
Some may concede that such regimes are far from perfect but argue the benefits of a “multipolar world order” — but how would it be better than a unipolar one? China’s ambitions are not different from those of America. Their interest is not world peace, but dominance over their competitors. They don’t want to liberate the neo-colonies that are now exploited by European or American imperialism, they want to continue the exploitation under their flag and obtain the spoils. Yes, U.S. imperialism needs to be rebuffed — but nothing is won if you simply replace one imperialist ruler with another one.
What is wrong, yet understandable from the viewpoint of leftists in neocolonial countries, becomes bizarre and dangerous coming from leftists in NATO countries. In her speech at one of the traditional Easter peace demonstrations in Potsdam, Sevim Dağdelen, MP of the left party in Germany DIE LINKE, went as far as classifying Germany’s ruling class as a “comprador-bourgeoisie”, i.e. a capitalist class that doesn’t follow its own interests, but is a complete vassal to U.S. imperialism. This gross underestimation of the independent role that German imperialism plays is hazardous, as it leaves the door wide open for right-wing and nationalist elements who want a stronger and more aggressive German imperialism.
Alliances Across Political Camps?
In fact, there are proponents of a left-right coalition against the war, mostly from the right. In some instances in Germany, the splinter-party “Die Basis” (the basis / the foundation / the rank-and-file), a party that was formed in the protests against COVID vaccines and open for members of far-right parties, was explicitly invited to speak at Easter peace marches In the United States, the “Rage Against the War Machine” protest in February included people on the left like Max Blumenthal and Chris Hedges, but also right-wing libertarians like Ron Paul, in an explicit “left-right” alliance.
A mass anti-war movement indeed needs to embrace a wide range of people, groups and views. But the left must always fight for the movement to base its program on the interests of the working class and internationalism. To say that the threat of escalation is “existential” and so requires an alliance across political camps means to sacrifice such a program for the sake of unity with those who base themselves on “national interests” (or worse). When it comes to actual far-right and fascist elements trying to join left-led marches, we need to join forces to kick them out as we and other leftists did in Berlin.
Liberal and centre-left proponents of weapon deliveries to Ukraine use the examples of openly pro-Putin, right-wing, or even fascist elements within the anti-war movement to speak of a “cross front”, a “horseshoe alliance” between right and left. And while there might be a lot of political confusion in the movement against the war, leftists who initiate broad alliances most of the time do not seek to include the far right but rather the conservative forces and sections of the capitalist class that for example, criticize the sanctions against Russia. What these leftists fail to acknowledge is that such forces do not reject sanctions because economic warfare mainly hurts ordinary workers in Russia (and in Europe) — they do so because it harms their profits. When leftists try to conjure up a cross-class alliance with sections of their own bourgeoisie that want to invest in China or buy cheap resources from Russia, this again requires sacrificing anything that speaks to the interests of the working class.
From a different point of view, many on the American right oppose the war in Ukraine because they think it’s the “wrong war.” They want to focus instead on ramping up the direct conflict with China that is indeed the priority of most of the U.S. ruling class.
Campism, that is the ideology of supporting one of the camps, is not a way forward. Those who say that China or Russia are not imperialist or are a lesser evil to Western imperialism are peddling lies. Both camps of this New Cold War, NATO on the one hand, China, Russia, and Iran on the other, are militaristic, repressive, anti-worker, and have only the interests of their respective capitalist classes in mind. The competition between the blocks is the breeding ground for the New Cold War. Every step of escalation of this conflict means death, destruction, and suffering — and as always, ordinary working-class people would have to bear the brunt. In this situation, we support neither side of the inter-imperialist conflict, while fighting for the working class in Ukraine and Russia to have an independent voice.
Cross Class Alliances vs Class Position
Instead, what is needed is an independent class position, that is a position that doesn’t side with one of the imperialist powers, and that puts the interest of working-class people in the centre and not the profit interests of capitalists. Proponents of an anti-war movement that includes bourgeois elements, conservatives or even right-wing nationalists will argue that a movement should be as broad as possible. The cost of such an approach is always political clarity. For example, the “Manifesto for Peace‘’ by Sahra Wagenknecht, a populist figure within DIE LINKE, and second-wave bourgeois feminist Alice Schwarzer, didn’t mention German rearmament and increased spending for the German military. As a reward, a former general spoke at the demonstration, to which 50,000 people came. Wagenknecht’s followers argue that less people would have come if the call had been more left-wing.
But the costs of increased arms spending are being paid by slashing social services. Germany’s finance minister Lindner recently announced cutbacks in all major government departments — explicitly excluding the defence budget. The magazine Der Spiegel recently quoted sources in the Ministry of Defense saying wage increases in the public sector would lessen the scope of necessary investments into the “operational readiness” of the German army, demanding an additional 10 billion Euro annually. Wage increases that are being won are still behind inflation, which has been accelerated by the war, from the shock to global food supply chains to Europe’s energy crisis. Fighting for higher wages to keep up with the increasing cost of living, striking workers will ask themselves what can be done about the root of their problem. If an anti-war movement had concrete answers, it would find a strong ally in the workers’ movement.
The “peace movements‘’ in the tradition of the peace movements in the 80s make the same mistake. They leave out any form of class appeal in order to not scare away the “progressive bourgeois,” the church etc. The only demand they have is that the ruling classes “play by the rules,” honour international treaties, listen to the UN, and that diplomacy should rule. An understandable sentiment to avoid shooting and killing. But to limit your demands to appeals to the ruling class to “get along‘’ with other ruling classes is both completely naive and means leaving the mass of the working class as spectators that can clap or boo at the performance of their rulers but not participate in the play.
Educate, Agitate, Organize
The role of Marxists must be to educate the class about every conceivable political question. Every demonstration that makes vague statements in order to widen its appeal is a wasted opportunity. Questions of war and peace are highly political. People are hungry for answers, for analysis, for solutions. If you refuse to give them arguments, you disarm the peace movement. Right-wing elements will then try to seize the opportunity presented to them in the form of political confusion.
But there’s another danger of having a non-working class perspective. If the working class is not seen as an agent for change, as a historical subject, then you can only rely on the existing powers and ask them for change. The centre-left in the form of “the Squad” in the U.S., the right-wing of DIE LINKE, and other social democrats in fact share the same perspective in this regard with the leadership of the “peace movements”: both see only states and their leaders as political agents. The resulting positions are the opposite from each other. The centre-left makes peace with their ruling class, and agrees to send weapons to the Ukrainian state. The pacifists make appeals to the ruling classes to use diplomacy instead of grenades. None of them take a class position.
What is a class position? To point towards class society, towards capitalism and its competition between nation states, as the root cause for war. To explain that it’s the working class who is not only paying the price for wars, but also has the power to stop them. With its position in production, in logistics, the working class has the capacity to grind the war machine to a halt. We saw a glimpse of that early on when rail workers in Belarus frustrated the war effort by sabotaging the transportation of Russian military supplies, or when Italian dockers refused to load weapons to Ukraine that were marked as “humanitarian aid”.
Workers and the poor make up the majority of those put in uniforms and ordered to shoot their class brothers and sisters on the other side of the trench. Putin’s “partial mobilization” disproportionately targeted oppressed minorities in regions like Dagestan, sending untrained and undersupplied soldiers to brutal conditions at the front where many met an early death. As the war grinds on, the awareness of the chasm between the warmongers in the Kremlin and those doing their bidding will only widen, paving the way for more protests by the families of conscripts, as we saw last September.
The Working Class Can Stop This War
Even if Ukrainian soldiers are motivated to defend their lives and homes against an occupying force, the Ukraine army is also the army of a bourgeois state, with the Zelensky regime as the representative of the oligarch class. His regime rules over a society in which the inequality between rich and poor is only growing as the war grinds on while trade union rights are being attacked. More and more are asking themselves why they need to be sent to play their part in the “war of attrition” over bloody piles of rubble like Bakhmut. Ukrainian men “fit for military service” are being arrested in the streets and dragged to the front against their will. Tens of thousands have fled the country from the draft, some with false passports or disguised as women.
The Ukrainian people have the right to defend themselves from occupation, and we demand the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. But this war, with imperialist powers fighting over Ukraine and turning it into ruins, is not in the interest of Ukrainian people. The best way for them to defend themselves is to take the initiative away from the oligarchs, their politicians and generals, build their own independent political and military force, and make a class appeal to Russian soldiers to refuse to fight, to turn around their guns and go against Putin’s regime. As long as the Ukrainian army stands in the shadow of Western imperialism, however, rank-and-file Russian combatants will not take seriously any calls to down weapons.
The working class has the advantage of being able to organize internationally since its interests do not differ from country to country. Workers in Europe, the U.S., Russia, China, and in Ukraine have a common interest: to lead a safe and peaceful life, to determine their own fate, and to not be oppressed. We have full confidence in the working class being capable of organizing society in a peaceful way. If working-class people had the power, they would organize democratic referendums, overseen by trade unions, in which people can decide what nation they want to belong to. National minorities, like Russian speakers in Ukraine or Tatars in Crimea would be granted the right to speak their language freely and to whatever degree of autonomy or separation they desired.
An international anti-war movement must adopt a simple but clear socialist program. To overthrow the warmongers, i.e. the ruling classes of the imperialist powers, dismantle their destructive military-industrial complexes, convert all military to civilian production, and build a society that replaces competition with solidarity. In other words, achieve sustained peace through a revolution that uproots the causes of imperialist wars and nationalism and builds a socialist world.
How Wars Were Stopped
The ruling classes won’t stop their wars. Only mass movements from below can do that, by threatening the bourgeoisie’s control of society. There is an abundance of historical examples for mass movements that stopped wars. The positions leftists took often played a key role in the success or failure of these movements. We will go back in history to find answers for the questions that are still being asked in the movements today.
A World War Stopped by the Masses From Below
The first major imperialist war, World War I, was one of the most brutal in human history. The mighty social democracies in Europe failed the gigantic test and lined up behind their respective ruling classes. Working class anti-war activists were in a minority, and had to fight against the warmongers and their own “comrades”. One of them, the great revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, was dragged into a criminal court in Germany for instigating anti-war activities in 1914. In her speech for her defence she implicitly called for a general strike:
“We think that wars can only come about as long as the working class either supports them enthusiastically because it considers them justified and necessary, or at least accepts them passively. But once the majority of working people come to the conclusion — and it is precisely the task of Social Democracy to arouse this consciousness and to bring them to this conclusion — when, as I say, the majority of people come to the conclusion that wars are nothing but a barbaric, unsocial, reactionary phenomenon, entirely against the interests of the people, then wars will have become impossible.”
And this is exactly how the war ended. The Russian soldiers and workers overthrew two governments and the whole capitalist system within a few months, refusing to fight the murderous war. Inspired by this, workers and soldiers in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and many other countries, stood up in a massive revolutionary wave. The war had become impossible.
Another war that was stopped through mass struggle was the Vietnam war, which became a flashpoint of the First Cold War. The best-equipped army of the world fought against a poor country with a guerilla army. Materially, Vietnam should not have been able to win the war. But politically, it was only the U.S. who could lose. The people in Vietnam were tired of being colonized by the Japanese, the French, and then by U.S. imperialism, and fought heroically. Their struggle was based on a social revolution which overthrew the capitalists and landlords, albeit a revolution deformed by Stalinism.
In the U.S., a small minority, politicized in the civil rights movement, came out against the war by the mid-60s. Their sit-ins and demonstrations became bigger the longer the war lasted, the more prices exploded due to war inflation, the more conscripted soldiers came back crippled or not at all. The movement began on college campuses but by the early 70s it had spread widely into the working class and became far more radical in character.
The anti-war mood infected the army ranks themselves. Mutinies spread like wildfires, over 900 cases of “fragging” (throwing a grenade into the tent of the military officer) show how intensely the army rank-and-file hated their commanders. After the Tet Offensive, even though it was a military fiasco for the Vietcong, the U.S. army collapsed front and back. At home, strikes and demonstrations were so massive, that even sections of the ruling class pushed for withdrawal, in order to head off a wave of class struggle and social upheaval that threatened to take on revolutionary dimensions. The strongest army in the world was beaten by a guerilla army — and by the anti-war movement in the U.S.