Ukrainian President Zelensky Ukrainian President Zelensky. Photo: RawPixel / Public Domain

In 19 points, Vladimir Unkovski-Korica argues for revitalised anti-war campaigning in the international labour movement

  1. Whoever has seen the latest images from Soledar, the salt mining town Russia claims to have captured in recent days, can have no doubt about how horrific and destructive Russia’s war in Ukraine has been: the place appears utterly flattened.
  2. Although there is debate among military experts about whether the fall of Soledar or nearby Bakhmut to Russian troops (and private mercenaries) has any deeper military significance, both sides have thrown masses of troops and taken massive casualties in recent days and weeks.
  3. More than that, both Russia and the West are signalling a preparedness to escalate the conflict even further. As it has launched yet another missile salvo at civilian infrastructure across Ukraine in the last few days, striking also a civilian apartment building in Dnipro, Russia has been rumoured to be preparing a further mobilisation of 500,000 troops to supplement the recently mobilised 300,000 troops. If that transpires to be the case, any pretence that the ‘special military operation’ is a limited surgical intervention will be clearly dropped.
  4. Meanwhile, momentum is building in the West to send tanks to Ukraine. The West’s proxy war in Russia has already seen the US send dramatically more aid to Ukraine than it has to any country in a year for decades. Just in December, Congress promised a further $50 billion in assistance (on top of the $48 billion sent between Jan and Nov). But sending tanks is taking things to a new level, signalling a readiness to send offensive weapons, which Western leaders have been reluctant to send.
  5. So what’s changed? Why are Russia and the West able to up the stakes, despite the evident economic costs and the spiralling violence? Despite the seeming risks of catastrophic escalation?
  6. A major part of the answer has to be that the domestic costs of the (proxy) war are still containable. Both Moscow and Washington in particular started with a dose of caution in terms of domestic costs and costs to allies. Let’s break that down slightly.
  7. Moscow clearly hoped for a quick victory and did not build up a case for war. But it had ready-made narratives on which it could draw. Having lived in Moscow in 2014-5, I was able to see some of the narratives first-hand: Ukrainian nationalists (and fascists), in cahoots with the US, were oppressing Russians in the Donbas. The scale of Western aid to Ukraine this year served only to confirm the narrative, which is clearly rooted in some kind of reality.
  8. Nevertheless, Moscow shows clear signs of nervousness about its population’s mood. It did not resort to mobilisation until it was shocked by the Kharkiv offensive. It let dissenters leave en masse during the subsequent mobilisation to let out potential protesters. It has brought in draconian anti-labour and anti-democratic (and other reactionary) legislation. It has tried to raise public sector wages with inflation more obviously than Western states and recent reports from Western observers visiting Russia report ‘daily life more or less as normal’.
  9. It tries to manage the public sphere by allowing a nationalist opposition some space. Certainly ire at the Russian military, for example over the Makiivka bombing that saw Russian servicemen stationed en masse in a local vocational school and thus exposed to mass killing by HIMARS rockets, is indeed being directed at the top military brass, but often from the perspective of it not doing well enough to pursue the war successfully. There were even calls for revenge, underlining that the situation is not (yet) on the verge of mass mutiny.
  10. Similarly, in the West has long been reluctant to send offensive weapons like tanks, although the situation is now shifting here too. The UK has now announced it will send 14 Challenger 2 tanks and Poland has also confirmed it is planning to send a similar number of Leopard 2 tanks. In addition to this, France has announced it is sending an undisclosed number of AMX 10-RC Light Combat Tanks in coming months. The change from refusing to contemplate sending such weapons to making public announcements that they will be sent to Ukraine is probably motivated by a careful judgement of public opinion. Is there visible opposition in e.g. Poland to talk of sending Ukraine offensive weapons? No, but then many people in East European states have a historical memory of Russian tanks rolling over their border. What about in the UK, France, Germany?
  11. There is no obvious pro-war mood in Western Europe. Despite the best efforts of the UK establishment, for instance, protests in support of Ukraine have never quite taken off. There is widespread and understandable sympathy with the plight of Ukrainians and people in the UK have responded well to solidarity efforts with refugees etc. But sending tanks? This is untested. Clearly, though, the Sunak government calculates it can get away with it domestically. France is moving in the same direction. Germany is more reluctant – there a poll suggests a majority is against sending tanks.
  12. Across Western Europe, there is rising anger at inflation, energy prices in particular, and there is increasing social strife. The UK is bracing for the biggest strike wave in over 30 years. The government and the establishment are responding with – draconian anti-strike and anti-demonstration legislation, already the most draconian in the EU, press attacks including accusations of collusion with Putin, government attempts at organised scabbing and threats of using the military to scab, a vicious campaign of racism and bigotry aimed at immigrants, shutting down of opposition in the Labour party and the rallying of the TUC to rearmament, etc. In some shape or form, that’s a trend-setter for much of Western Europe.
  13. What is present by its absence? In both Russia and the West, there is no mass anti-war agitation within the labour movement at the moment. That’s not to say that the successes of anti-war movements in the past have not been without effect. There is great scepticism of those in power in many states that have had mass anti-war rallies, e.g. against the Iraq War. Nevertheless, what is palpable is that in Russia as in the US and Europe, there is currently relative confidence among the elites that they can run roughshod over the muted concerns of the many. In Russia, which is directly involved in the war, that absence is more immediately felt. Putin is able to press on in Ukraine for the time being. In the West, the argument is already complicated by the fact that it is a rival imperialist power attacking a smaller neighbour, but there is no effective opposition to a significant military build-up, increased defence spending, unprecedented aid to a belligerent against a direct (albeit much weaker) imperialist rival, etc.
  14. There are longer-term reasons behind this. While many commentators will speak about the objective, structural changes to the world economy as a reason behind the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the effect of 1989 on the labour movement (esp. in Europe) had a major effect on the subjective factor in the labour movement. The collapse of the Soviet bloc was widely understood – erroneously – as a major defeat for the working class, for the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism. The weight of this event upon generations of working class militants and politics in general cannot be underestimated. The hollowing out of social democracy in the West and the collapse of the Soviet-inspired (i.e. Stalinist) communist movement in Europe in particular has allowed for the emergence of what we may term the extreme centre in politics: managing capitalism in this or that way, tinkering, reforming here and there under pressure, but effectively ever more openly ruling from the perspective of the Washington Consensus as it became known in the 1990s – what we may call Keynesianism for the rich. The transformation was not painless – it was in fact very painful, from the defeats of the labour movement in the West in the 1980s to the wholesale depression in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
  15. To simplify massively, there should be no wonder that establishments in the imperialist states are still feeling relatively confident. Open class struggle, e.g. labour strikes, have been at historic lows. Social movements have been vibrant in some places and at times have shaped politics, but society as a whole is still blighted by the ideology of TINA – there is no alternative. In Russia, the 1990s – associated with the most pro-western phase of post-Soviet Russia – were so chaotic and anti-democratic that the Putin years – blessed as they were by high oil prices – have given the regime reservoirs of legitimacy or at least passive acceptance. In the West, the debt-driven growth of the 2000s for a time had a similar effect, complemented by historical memories of the welfare state.
  16. But politics has in fact been far from stable. The ‘extreme centre’ has in fact been unstable, seeing massive outbursts of opposition from a society increasingly insecure, overworked, alienated and unequal. Many of these societal outbursts were characterised by ‘anti-politics’, which has often made them highly manageable by the elites, with vast resources to repress, buy-off, divide-and-rule, etc. From the 5 star movement in Italy to Zelensky in Ukraine. At times, there has been political polarisation to right and left. Where there were Trumps, Orbans, Putins and Le Pens, there have also been Syrizas, Podemoses, Bernies and Corbyns. There have been genuine democratic revolutions and anti-democratic counter-revolutions, and many imitation ‘revolutions’ without much democratic content, in the Balkans, in the former Soviet world, in the Middle East in the last 20 to 30 years. Latin America remains more volatile and political than many places. Potential for things to swing one way or another have existed and remain. The subjective factor to move beyond the limits set by the capitalist system has, however, been weak. 1989. Capitalism has clashed with democracy many times and been able to set the latter’s limits.
  17. So what’s this go to do with Ukraine today? Well, a lot really. After 1989, the Western ruling classes, esp. the US, used the moment to extend their power pre-emptively against rivals. In the US case, relative economic decline could still be off-set or delayed by use of its military supremacy – the unipolar moment, the only superpower left could extend Nato et sim to encircle rivals who were down (Russia) or on their way up but still weaker (China). Nato enlargement to the East was closely linked with EU enlargement to the East. These moves were accompanied by weakening the power of organised labour at home, outsourcing of production where it was cheaper, financial deregulation, just-in-time global production and supply chains, etc, leading to the instability at home which I described and which became ever more obvious after 2008. Incidentally, the year that revanchist Russia was able (on the back of oil production) to assert power in its near abroad and send a message to Nato during the Georgian War. While global capitalism has undergone changes to some extent after 2008, some of the underlying problems remained, and we now see these problems threatening the system: the worldwide pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine with its effects on energy and food prices in particular, and so on are major obstacles to the continuation of global just-in-time production and supply chains. And on the horizon we see the rise of China, and the threat of the emergence of new economic and political but also military blocs arising in international politics.
  18. Many on the left are finding it hard to see the potential of the labour movement to stop wars because the labour movement is currently not showing signs of its power to do so in most countries. Even at its height in countries like the UK, Spain or Italy in 2003, the mass street movement against the war did not see mass strikes to stop it. None of this should stop us from raising concrete arguments for a peaceful and diplomatic solution. If the conditions in (some of) the Western imperialist states are more conducive to the emergence of such an anti-war movement, it should not be surprising that similar movements have faced even greater hurdles elsewhere, like in Russia or China. If the Russian labour movement were stronger, it could stand up to Putin. The Ukrainians (and so many in Eastern Europe) would feel less like they need to rely so much on Washington. Similarly, if Russian labour could see major cleavages in the West, with workers standing up for their own rights and against the war drive of their ruling classes, they would find it easier to break with Putin, as his story of an anti-Russian West would be easier to debunk.
  19. We should not be mechanical, though, and expect the labour movement to be strongest in the strongest capitalist states and weakest where there are more (oppressive) hurdles. Politics is complex and a bit of an art. Let’s also remember some of the basic lessons of 1914 and 1917. Let’s remember the likes of the German Social Democrats in 1914 arguing that the labour movement in Germany should after all not oppose the vote for war credits to the government in the German parliament, since that might let even more reactionary Russia defeat less reactionary Germany – and what would the arrival of Tsarist troops in Berlin mean for the German labour movement? Let’s remember that in the First World War, revolution did not break out in the most advanced capitalist states, but first broke out in less developed Russia (the effects of ‘uneven and combined development’, the ‘weak link in the imperialist chain’), and then swept into Germany and central Europe, and later to Asia, during the 1920s. And finally let’s remember that that revolution was ultimately not led by those who argued things like: oh, but the arrival of the Kaiser’s troops in Petrograd would restore absolutism, which is why we must militarily defend the February revolution’s gains. It was won by the Bolsheviks who opposed the war effort and fought for peace. Let’s not be like the German Social Democrats, let’s not champion the interests of our state, but rather those of our class. If this isn’t our starting point, we will never end the era of TINA. We may even perish in a nuclear holocaust, in this war, or the next.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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