Comments on Ukraine, liberals and the ‘democratic’ and ‘anti-Stalinist’ left


During the past months pro-Kremlin opinion concerning events in Ukraine has been espoused by supposedly “liberal” academics like Nicolas Petro and Stephen Cohen. If people like them think Russian neo-liberal capitalist imperialism is preferable to American neo-liberal capitalist imperialism one may condemn them for it but, they are at least honest if not logically consistent. People are clear about their political leanings.  The Cohens and Petros of this world indicate that Vynnychenko’s 1917 comment about Russian liberalism stopping at the Ukrainian border still has merit. Many EU and US non-Stalinist leftists of various persuasions are also  logically inconsistent.  Like some liberals, they apply one standard to Ukraine and the Kremlin and another to the rest of the world and the White House.  Supporting the ant-colonial violence of the colonized against various American sponsored dictators all over the world, such leftists  condemn or ignore the anti colonial violence of the colonized against Russian-sponsored dictators. Such pro-Kremlin liberal academics and leftists who condemn Euromaidan effectively condone continued Russian hegemony over Ukraine. Some of the latter, however, if not out rightly dishonest seem to have a weak grasp of the Marxism they claim to espouse.

Anton Shekhovtsov reminds us that in 1822 the National Assembly of Greece, then under Ottoman rule, issued a Declaration of Independence.:

“The war which we are carrying on against the Turk ... is not aimed at the advantage of a single part of the Greek people; it is a national war, a holy war, a war the object of which is to reconquer the rights of individual liberty, of property and honour, rights which the civilized people of Europe, our neighbours, enjoy to-day; rights of which the cruel and unheard of tyranny of the Ottomans would deprive us”.

Were this kind of declaration to be written by leaders of a European nation today, the fighters for national independence would  be slammed from two sides. Our democratic and anti-Stalinist Leftists  would dismiss  this declaration for its nationalism. Rightists would condemn the violence against a legitimate state. Both sides would have identified the most extreme and violent element of the national liberation struggle as representative of the entire movement. This is happening today in the media with Ukraine and, in part, is undoubtedly the fruit of the millions Putin has poured into his propaganda machine.

Anyone with an elementary knowledge of Marxist theory, that allows nationalism a progressive role at certain times and places, must wonder why some leftists today apply double standards. If in Turkish ruled Greece, English ruled Ireland, or Japanese ruled Korea, or any colonized country, nationalism was central to the independence movement, and a capitalist national state provided a better context for development than the old empire, then it follows that these factors should play a similar role today. Throughout Asia, Africa, and even western Europe, communist parties were all associated with national liberation and, to a great degree, had broad support and successes because of that. Ukraine did not have a successful “bourgeois national” revolution during the last two centuries when most other countries did, and its indigenous communist party, that emerged from the Ukrainian left Social Democrats  in 1919 (The Ukrainian Communist Party – not to be confused with the ruling subsection of the CPSU the Communist Party of Ukraine),  failed to take power in 1919.

From a Marxist perspective today, Euromaidan arguably constitutes such a bourgeois-led revolution.  There is no organized Ukrainian radical left, however, while Ukrainians who consider themselves radical Marxists are few, and far from the traditions of left-wing Ukrainian social democracy.  Given that Ukrainians had no national capitalist class in the past to lead a successful liberation struggle and establish national independence, it can be argued  that today in 2014 if Ukrainian and indeed all radical leftists think they cannot support this class, then they should provisionally at  least not condemn it.  But this is not what is happening.

If all imperialisms and colonialisms are evil then one should expect declared democratic and anti-Stalinist leftists to condemn  the Russian variant together with the American, British and  French variants.  But, as concerns Ukraine in 2014, what we see instead is explicit or implicit condoning of  the Kremlin’s neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism. Instead of calling attention to the role of the Kremlin in backing a regime that viciously exploits the majority of the population, be they ethnic Ukrainian or Russian, various leftists express solicitous concern only for the interests of the politically Russophile ruling minority. While vociferously condemning Ukrainian “fascism,” which few seem to distinguish from Nazism, they remain silent about Putin’s neo-imperialism and the Ukrainian national question. The same leftists that criticize Moscow’s authoritarian domestic clampdowns remain deafeningly silent about the   enormous political and economic pressure it exercises on Ukraine and thereby provoking the radicalization of Ukrainian liberal nationalism. Even Lenin, it should be remembered, praised anti–imperialist nationalism and accepted the necessity of of a stage of capitalist based bourgeois national independence.

Some of these de facto politically pro-Kremlin leftists must be considered dishonest because they do not openly declare they are funded by the Kremlin.  Anton Skhekhovtsov is currently studying these groups The site organizers to whom Skhekhovtsov refers do not list their sponsors, or claim they are run solely by voluntary contributions. Those aware of the source of their funding are not surprised by their Kremlin style anti-Ukrainianism complete with Stalinist tropes about “anti-Semitism” “fascism” and “chauvinism”  and “sphere of interest.” Those unaware will, of course, be influenced as intended by Putin and his staff while thinking their position is somehow “Marxist.”

Ukrainian radical leftists who do not get Kremlin financing, nonetheless, take de facto pro-Kremlin anti-Ukrainian positions. Even though they know the Kremlin is controlled, in Marxist terms, by a neo-liberal capitalist neo imperialist government just like the White House. Most often printed in English media are the views of Volodymyr Ishchenko

In his article Ishchenko correctly notes the Euromaidan is not a revolution in so far as its socioeconomic demands have been replaced with the neoliberal capitalist agenda of the new government. Its programme declares the need for "unpopular decisions" on prices and tariffs and readiness to fulfil all the conditions of the International Monetary Fund. Just after he penned his article the new government declared it had begun appointing individual oligarchs as provincial governors. There will be disappointment and impoverishment and an unacceptable encroachment of private interests in public administration. Perhaps de-industrialization. This much is likely.

What Ishchenko overlooks are two other possibilities. One is the possible establishment of  a Keynesian Social Democratic order of the sort the IMF, World Bank, WTO and US government have been systematically destroying the past 20 years wherever they can. Timoshenko in her time promised policies to regulate capital flows and Ukraine’s 1% -- the oligarchs.  Whether this will happen is unknown, but it could happen within a Ukraine allied with the EU if national leaders follow their Polish counterparts, keep the national currency, and if the US IMF and World Bank write-off all Ukraine’s debts – as they did Poland’s.

The second, more likely possibility, is that under a new government within the EU  the pro-Russian section of Ukraine’s  ruling 1% (the Medvedchuks, Kurchenkos and  Kluievs) will be displaced, for the first time in modern Ukrainian history, by a Ukrainian national capitalist class (the Poroshenkos and Kolomoiskys). Should they carry on in the footsteps of the Lehman Brothers and Kenneth Lay within the EU variant of neo-liberal capitalism, such oligarchs would end up jail. Something that did not happen to them after 2004, because Ukraine had no bourgeois revolution or any of its associated rights and liberties. Like it or not, there are differences between capitalisms serious political analysts and politicians cannot ignore. Except for a return to the status quo ante, these two above alternatives are not radical or socialist but they are Ukraine’s only realistic alternatives. Putin’s intervention in the Crimea might spark an international war and the possibility of the fourth alternative -- socialist revolution. Radical leftists might well look forward to and exploit such a situation. But, is this what average Ukrainians desire?

Ishchenko is inexplicably obsessed with a Stalinist notion of “fascism” and the far right. It is true that there are less than intelligent leaders associated with the right (but not extremist right) wing party Svoboda who very stupidly refused trade union activists access to the Maidan stage and even beat up activists. But this should not lead anyone to lose sight of details.  Svoboda, unlike other EU right parties, condemns Russian imperialism. Does Ishchenko think the Ukrainian proletariat benefited from this imperialism? He does not seem to have ever condemned it -- as did the Ukrainian Communist Party during the 1917-22 revolution.  While the Right Sector does have a neo-Nazi fringe – the “White Hammer” and “Social-National Assembly”-- the main group behind it is “Tryzub.”  These people are   neither neo-Nazi, racist nor anti-Semitic. Their ideology is rather national conservative. Svoboda may be more extreme than the French National Front or the Freedom Party of Austria, but it is less extreme than Hungary’s Jobbik, the NPD, Golden Dawn, Tricolour Flame, or the BNP.

Finally, even if certain members of Svoboda are in the current government, one should understand that this government is transitional and will hardly start building a Nazi state. To call de facto conservatives “radical nationalists” or “extremists” is absurd and only adds credence to Putin’s  anti -Ukrainian propaganda. Ukraine’s new bourgeois government must deal with one key problem at hand: Putin’s neo-imperialism and his fifth-column.  Unlike De Gaulle who supported Algerian independence and ultimately refused to support the pro-imperial settler-organized OAS,  Putin has chosen to support the discredited political Russian extremists in Ukraine. And, it is precisely the  anti-Ukrainian  pro-Kremlin policies followed by the Yanukovych regime these groups supported, that generate support for Svoboda – and not any innate right-wing Ukrainian radicalism.

Ishchenko seems to be unaware of these crucial nuances. He offers no viable alternative and thus adds credence to the Kremlin’s neo-imperial aims against independent Ukraine.  Ishschenko does make a statement about an all-national movement against the ruling class, with mass participation from the east and the south of culturally divided Ukraine. This might indeed happen. But only after a viable Ukrainian national state ruled for the historical moment by a national capitalist bourgeois class within the EU has established itself.

Stephen Velychenko is a Research Fellow at the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: the Ukrainian Marxist critique of Russian communist rule in Ukraine 1918-1923 (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming)

The photograph is by Mstyslav Chernov

P.S.  07/03/14 -    Since having submitted this article it became known that none of the Ukrainian independent trade union associations, except the  official KVPU, existing since the 1990s under the same head,  were admitted into the “All-Ukrainian Strike Committee."  Furthermore, the head of this  official union Mykhailo Volynets, together with Vitaliy Klychko, and presumably, Arsenyi Yatseniuk, organized phony soviet-style "strikes" in favour of Euromaidan.

It is my personal opinion that such behavior is intolerable. I would urge all journalists and academics to demand a public apology from Klychko and Iatseniuk and that they, in turn, publically demand the immediate resignation of Volynets and new elections to the KVPU.