Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

A Strange Policy is Reviewed – Support Ukraine’s Resistance Against an Imperialist Russian Invasion “Politically” – But Oppose Giving Arms to the Resisters – A Critique of Irish Left Evasionism

with one comment

International solidarity between socialists and anarchists in Ukraine and Ireland is growing. We are united in a desire to see Russia defeated, which will be a blow to the right everywhere. We are equally united in our opposition to Western imperialism and the global capitalists circling Ukraine ready to exploit the country after the war.

One of the disappointing developments of the war is that so many socialists in the West have failed to offer such solidarity. The group we are most familiar with is People Before Profit, and analysing the think piece published in August 2022 by John Molyneux explains why. We offer this critique of John’s article in the hope that there are members of People Before Profit who can save it from its current convergence with the ‘campists’. We hope this can happen in time to make a difference to the growth of practical solidarity between Irish and Ukrainian socialists.

 

Molyneux’s essay begins with an attempt to categorise the debates among the left into three positions:

1. the ‘campists’ in favour of a Russian victory, 

2. those who are for a Ukrainian victory without reservations about NATO and western imperialism, and

3. those who are neither for a Russian victory nor for one for Western imperialism (‘neutrality’)

 

This schema has been derived by working backwards from John’s understandable desire to portray People Before Profit as fundamentally different to the campists, while doubling down on their criticisms of the Ukrainian resistance. For a supposed Marxist analysis it has a deep and irreperable flaw: it has sprung from the head of its author and not from the reality of the situation. Frankly, the left doesn’t have time to ignore reality in this way any more.

 

A better way to think  of the various positions on the Irish left would be to look at the political formations in Ukraine and see where we all stand in relation to them:

1. there are minority forces who are pro-Russian,

2. there is the Zelensky government and its supporters, who are fighting for independence and whom would ally with NATO, given the choice,

3. and there are those Ukrainian trade unions, socialists and anarchists who are also fighting for independence but who do not trust NATO or the  Western multinationals.

 

The campists in Ireland take their lead directly from the first group, the Russian media and the small (but wealthy and vocal) pro-Russian faction in Ukraine. They do exist and they have their supporters in both Russia and Ukraine. The left in Ireland who are allies of the left in Ukraine also exist. Despite this, we don’t appear in the People Before Profit schema at all, since that schema ignores even the possibility of a Ukrainian victory that is not also a victory for NATO. Consequently, our position, which is that of many Ukrainian socialists and anarchists, does not exist even as a possibility in Molyneux’s calculations despite existing as a matter of fact in both Ukraine and Ireland. At a fundamental level, his entire argument rests on this sleight of hand, which he performs without even attempting to misdirect his audience or explain the omission, perhaps hoping that the very boldness of his deception will force people to swallow it. Molyneux waves away our belief in the possibility of freedom from Russia which is not also submission to NATO, a belief held also by thousands of those fighting in Ukraine and among those Ukrainians displaced to Ireland.

 

On the other hand, the one position on offer in Ireland that has no equivalent at all in Ukraine is that of John Molyneux, which does not exist other than internally to People Before Profit. There are no Ukrainian trade unions or socialist organisations who are ‘neutral’ in this situation in the manner of People Before Profit. No one there who is for independence from Russia also rejects aid or weapons from the West in pursuit of that independence (for obvious reasons). There are precisely no trade unions or socialist organisations in Ukraine that adopt the position of People Before Profit, arguing for ‘peace’ with Russia while its troops remain on Ukrainian soil.

 

Even at their most isolated, in the midst of the Great War, the influence of figures such as Liebknecht and Lenin could still be felt because there were workers and workers’ organisations who agreed with them despite the betrayal of the moderate socialists. On the other hand, It is a strange kind of Marxism that corresponds or appeals to no section at all of the working class, in the manner of Molyneux’s proposals.

 

Molyneux continues his analysis by trying to differentiate himself from the ‘campist’ position by arguing that Russia’s actions are best understood as those of an imperialist power. Under the label of ‘campism’, he criticises the Communist Party of Ireland, the Connolly Youth Movement, and the Workers’ Party for coming up with excuses for Russia. The problem People Before Profit has here is that it is hard to see much clear political water here between themselves and these campists. It is all very well having a superior theory of the class nature of Russia, and a better understanding of Russian imperialism than the campists, but if the practical conclusions you draw from your analysis are the same, then your differences are only verbal and should be put behind you. This in fact has happened in many places, with Trotskyists and their campist, ‘tankie’ foes finding common cause in the struggle to prevent aid getting to Ukraine.

What are these practical conclusions shared between People Before Profit and the campists? People Before Profit speakers, like Bríd Smith TD on Drivetime, (https://www.rte.ie/radio/radio1/clips/22123967) – RTÉ Radio 1 July 22 2022 – emphasise the need for immediate peace talks, implying that Russian territorial gains would be an acceptable outcome to such talks.

People Before Profit rallied to Sabina Coyne-Higgins’ letter on Ukraine which made the same point. They both oppose Western arms going to Ukraine. On these crucial points, they are indistinguishable from the campists. And while Molyneux rightly criticises MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace for their failure to condemn Assad of Syria, on Ukraine those same MEPs sound identical to People Before Profit, and they engage in the same rituals in the Dáil and in the European Parliament to demonstrate their opposition to Zelensky.

 

Why, if People Before Profit have an analysis so superior to that of the campists, do they end up mirroring them so closely  in public? The answer lies in a shared approach, which says that, as well as Russian imperialism, the US and NATO have played an equal part in starting the war. So when the people of Ukraine fight back against the invasion they are being anti-imperialist against Russia, but they are also effectively aiding the US and NATO, and they must be opposed in helping the West in this way because that is the first priority of People Before Profit (opposing the West), not the situation of the Ukrainians.

From the start of this war we at the Irish Marxist Review and in People Before Profit have consistently argued that it has a dual character. It is both an imperialist invasion by Russia, which we condemn un-equivocally, and an inter-imperialist conflict with the US and its allies (principally the UK and the EU) in which we are equally opposed to both sides but have a particular duty to oppose our own government, who are in the US camp.

 

This supposed symmetry between NATO-Ukraine and Russia explains why People Before Profit can have the seemingly contradictory views of saying that it is valid for the Ukrainian resistance to fight the Russian invasion, but that they can’t be supported practically in that fight, but only ‘politically’. Political support without practical aid is just posturing. Marx was not without good reason when he once described such weak and impractical support as “impotence in action.”

To the specific question of what attitude socialists should take to the Ukrainian resistance my answer is that we should support it politically and hope for its victory, and it is perfectly understandable that it will try to get weapons from wherever it can, but we in the West have a duty to oppose our own rulers’ and especially the US’s attempt to use Ukraine to further their own imperial interests and agenda, and the arms deliveries they are making and the sanctions they are imposing are a part of that.

 

The reason why People Before Profit merge into  campism in practice is that their position is carefully tailored so that in their public interventions they can blithely ignore the first half of Molyneux’s stated position (I have yet to see any representative from People Before Profit say to the public that they call for a Ukrainian victory) in order to talk instead exclusively about the second part, about how the West is to blame.

Our view is that yes, victory for Ukraine would be a temporary boost for US imperialism, but that this is less damaging to the international situation for workers than if Russia wins. The difference is that a Ukrainian victory would inspire anti-imperialist struggles everywhere, and show that even a superpower can be defied. This lesson would rebound quickly against the US. Victory for Russia, on the other hand, will boost figures such as Le Pen, Trump, and Bolsonaro, while also providing all the imperial powers, including the US, a model for their future interventions.

 

There have been many situations in the past that parallel this war, and from which we can learn. When the Vietcong fought the US, they took arms from China and Russia. Their victory strengthened those powers with respect to the US, but it also checked imperialism more generally by showing that the US could be beaten. Back in the late 60s and early 70s the left was clear that a victory for Vietnamese nationalism was worth supporting despite the fact that, as Molyneux’s predecessors in the International Socialists pointed out, Ho Chi Min was hostile to the left and would do his best to crush it.

 

As they put it in International Socialism, spring 1968, we have argued ‘for an immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam; necessarily this means support for the NLF and a North Vietnamese victory, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise’.

 

 

Zelensky is a pro-market liberal, sharing many of the beliefs of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. He has introduced anti-trade union legislation under cover of wartime emergency measures. The left in Ukraine are opposed to these but nevertheless continue to fight alongside state forces. Why? Because victory for Russia will crush them along with Zelensky. Victory against Russia will create a potentially revolutionary situation where the people can insist on a massive public program of rebuilding for need not profit after the war. The left can grow after a victory, but they will be buried under the rubble of any defeat.

 

Molyneux argues that there is something bizarre about the left arguing on the topic of arms deliveries, when they are not in a position to deliver a single consignment of rifles. But this argument has other practical consequences, and not only over whether to support the strikes that have broken out as Stalinist-influenced trade unions (in Italy and Greece for example) have tried to stop arms deliveries to Ukraine. Ideologically, to place your emphasis on attacking the West means to ignore the opportunity to build solidarity towards a Ukrainian victory. We may not be in a position to  send arms, but Western trade unions and socialists can and have sent plenty of convoys with materials for our comrades. We can also raise money for them to buy equipment, including arms.

 

There is a trajectory here that means once you adopt the ‘main enemy is at home’ as the sole basis of your position, you evolve away from the actual socialist movement in Ukraine and among Ukrainians in Ireland. Whereas, those of us who see that the importance of a Russian defeat is greater than any benefits to the US can intervene in the mixed crowds of Ukrainians in Ireland to develop solidarity among socialists and strengthen the anti-Western current. That is the reason, for example, left-wingers anti-imperialists will support 24 August 2022 Ukraine Independence Day events across the globe.

People Before Profit can’t do this if they follow Molyneux, because he consistently writes the left out of his portrayal of the people of Ukraine. They don’t exist for him, because they are inconvenient to his argument. He does this on the grounds that workers are often influenced by ruling class ideas and on the basis of a demonstration he observed:

 

After taking part in the International Women’s Day rally on 5 March, I went to the Ukraine solidarity rally at the GPO, precisely in order to ‘listen’ to what Ukrainians and their supporters were saying. I do not know if Conor Kostick was there, the crowd was about 4000–5000 strong, but if he had been he would have heard repeated calls and chants for a no-fly zone to ‘shelter our skies.’ Now, neither PBP nor the entire left can deliver and enforce a no-fly zone, only the US and NATO can do that, and it was they who were being addressed by the rally. Should we, as socialists, have taken up and ‘amplified’ these heartfelt calls (and I am sure they were heartfelt)? Of course not, because as Kostick knows and Gilbert Achcar concedes, that would be to invite all-out war with the most terrible consequences, including for the people of Ukraine. The effect of supporting arms deliveries by ‘our’ governments—whether they be large or small, for the defence of democracy or whatever—is to disarm us, the left, in our opposition to our own rulers.

 

Again, it’s a strange kind of Marxist analysis that treats the people on such a demonstration as an undifferentiated mass. By blending the entire Ukrainian population into a single Zelenskyist bloc, Molyneux can safely  ignore the Ukrainian left. In particular, he ignores those socialists and anarchists – our comrades – who do not call for a no-fly zone or for NATO troops to intervene.

 

Molyneux’s arguments emerge most clearly in his attempt to reply to a feature by Conor Kostick, Evasions on the Left over Ukraine. Molyneux portrays Kostick as writing for a British organisation involved in the Fourth International. He knows perfectly well that Conor Kostick was actually writing for Independent Left, a small Irish party with no such affiliation. In fact, Conor Kostick and John Molyneux were in the same party for decades: the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK and then the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland. Kostick’s article was reproduced internationally by a wide variety of parties of various international affiliations. Surely the situation is now urgent enough for us to be able to get over such petty misdirections to speak clearly when clarity is so urgently needed.

 

In the course of his article, Kostick invites us to consider how we should respond if we found ourselves in a Ukrainian town as a Russian tank column approaches. What, Kostick asks, do our different analyses mean for  people in that situation? Molyneux acknowledges this challenge but then curiously manages to avoid answering it. His focus drifts from providing an answer based on his analysis to make the point instead that workers are often influenced by the ideas of the ruling class, as if no one had noticed that before. He doesn’t say so outright, but the implication is that if people in that situation used Western-supplied weapons to defeat the Russians, they would be in the wrong. For him, it would be better if the Ukrainians were unarmed and defenceless rather than that they take arms from NATO. But if, on the contrary, Molyneux agrees it is acceptable to destroy the approaching convoy with US-delivered HIMARS rather than let it into the town, then his ‘dual nature’ theory simply falls apart, with the recognition that victory over Russian imperialism is more important in that situation than whatever notional benefit might accrue to the US as a result. If Molyneux is indeed saying that Ukrainians should not use Western weapons, then it is no wonder he prefers not to express that idea openly. The consequences of Russian occupation, especially for women and the left, are enough to explain why feminists and LBGTQ+ activists are fighting in the Ukrainian army and why they would shun People Before Profit if they knew that this was the practical consequence of their politics.

 

Molyneux concludes his analysis with pride in the position of People Before Profit:

 

In the years to come there will be ‘Ukraines’ and the like in the South China Sea or the Western Pacific. And in this regard, the analysis of inter-imperialist rivalry deployed by People Before Profit and others will prove immensely more useful than either of the alternatives on offer.

 

If you have an analysis that says there are only campists or pro-western positions as the alternatives on offer, perhaps you can believe that his approach is the best on offer. But if you don’t believe they are the only alternatives, then you will have no use for his analysis at all.

 

Because John Molyneux has not addressed the position, (as articulated by Ukrainian socialists and anarchists and their Irish allies on the left) of being for the defeat of Russia and its complete withdrawal, while promoting working class interests against Zelensky and the agenda of the West – his position is not useful or relevant at all. It is entirely useless in the single most crucial aspect of any supposed Marxist analysis: as a guide to action.

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: