The Ukrainian Question for Socialists

By John McDonnell MP

 

Source >> Labour Hub

On the question of Ukraine, we all come to it with a bit of history.

For me, I have a history of opposing, speaking against and voting against illegal invasions of countries from Iraq to the sending of troops into Afghanistan and the bombing of Libya and Syria.

So, with such a consistent track record of opposing illegal wars launched by imperial powers, it is completely understandable why I have opposed and condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and why I have supported arming Ukrainians fighting the invasion of their country.

Solidarity with the Ukrainian Miners

My involvement in Ukraine goes back nearly a decade.

Over the last 50 years I have supported trade union struggles both here and across the globe. I have become known for this solidarity work.

So, it was no surprise that I was approached nine years ago to offer support to the Ukrainian miners striking in opposition to the 50% fall in the real value of their wages that had been imposed by the mining companies.

Mining companies that had fallen into the hands of the profiteering, tax-dodging Russian oligarchs.

I met delegations of miners from the Independent Union of Miners and convened a briefing session for MPs, Labour activists and trade unionists in the Commons.

We picketed the mining company’s AGM hosted by Abramovich, its top shareholder, at the Chelsea Football ground and I raised their cause in Parliament.

The determined campaign by the miners secured a breakthrough with a 20% wage rise.

At this stage a number of us founded the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign and then over the years worked together on trade union campaigns through the Confederation of the Free Trade Unions of Ukraine.

The miners’ union and the federation worked to show that workers’ power, not military power, was the force to overcome chauvinist nationalism and to unite all workers in the struggle to secure social justice and promote a united and multi-ethnic Ukraine.

Founding of the Ukrainian Social Movement

Through the miners I came into contact with Ukrainian socialists, anarchists and anti-fascists, who went on to form the Social Movement.

These, mostly young, people had linked with the independent trade unions in the Maidan protests to back the toppling of the corrupt Russian-backed presidency of Yanukovich and to oppose the growth of the fascist groups.

Active trade unionists formed the base of this putative new socialist party, Sotsialnyi Rukh, joining militants from a variety of left groups, from social democrats to Marxists, feminists, eco-socialists and human rights defenders.

Defining itself as a broad left coalition, the Social Movement’s stated aim is to replace the existing system of oligarchic capitalism with democratic socialism.

Its programme includes socialising the economy through nationalisation and workers’ control, tax justice, equality for all and opposition to imperialism from whatever source.

Opposed to Ukraine joining NATO, nevertheless many of the trade unionists making up this progressive movement are attracted to the legal protection of workers’ rights and human rights that EU membership would provide them.

From Maidan onwards, it was this formation of free trade unions and the Social Movement that has consistently been at the front of supporting progressive, trade union and environmental campaigns, strikes and demonstrations, and has mobilised against any moves by the Zelenskiy government to curtail employment rights, trade union freedoms and civil liberties.

After the annexation of Crimea by Putin and the rise of the separatist campaigns in areas in the Donbas, the Miners Union rejected any nationalist sectarianism and campaigned for workers’ solidarity to overcome division.

When violence took hold in these areas, many of the miners and their families were forced to flee.

Officials of the union were arrested and imprisoned.

Listening to Ukrainian Socialists

As these developments took place, It was natural for me to turn to these comrades and fellow trade unionists to listen to their views on the situation and they were clear about the growing threat from Russia.

Although effectively there had been fighting in the Donbas for eight years, nevertheless before 24th February 2022 when the media was reporting intelligence reports of Russian troops and tanks massing on Ukraine’s borders, I remained sceptical that Putin would be so reckless as to risk launching a full scale invasion.

Events on 24th February 2022 proved me and many others seriously and tragically wrong.

The question then for the socialists and trade unionists in Ukraine was straightforward and immediate.

Do they defend themselves or allow the invasion to succeed?

Calls for a mass mobilisation of an international peace movement to halt the invasion sadly were unrealistic given the speed and ruthlessly violent drive of the invasion and the continuing harsh and brutal repression of a nascent peace movement in Russia.

Ukrainians were faced with the realistic prospect of the subjugation of their country by an imperialist aggressor.

So, they did what I believe many of us also would be forced to do in these circumstances and which we have supported elsewhere where imperialist wars are waged.

My Ukrainian socialist and trade unionist comrades, who believed in nothing more than internationalism, solidarity and peace, joined the territorial force to halt the aggressor.

What else could they do?

For those who question their decision, I simply ask the question what else could they do?

Where non-violent protests against the invaders were attempted, they were met with brutality, arrest, and deportation to filtration camps.

From the evidence emerging, the brutality escalated into indiscriminate killings, torture and rape.

Defence to stem the tide of violent aggression was judged to be the only option for members of the Social Movement and Free Trade Unions to save themselves, their families and their country.

Socialists, trade unionists and peace campaigners in the UK rightfully condemned the invasion and called for peace and for the supply of humanitarian aid, including supporting the opening up of the pathways for Ukrainians fleeing the war and seeking asylum.

Our regret was that successive governments had not recognised the need for opening the borders and providing succour to asylum seekers from the many other warzones across the globe.

This still left the question open whether the left should support the provision of weapons to Ukrainians to defend themselves.

From the outset I could see no other realistic option but to support their right to defend themselves.

Attempts at securing a peace deal, drawing upon those states that had a relationship with Putin, Turkey or India failed to even secure a ceasefire.

The armed resistance by the Ukrainians surprised most commentators by halting the momentum of the immense Russian military.

However, the cost in lives and human suffering, both Ukrainian and Russian, has been appalling.

The War a Year On

The war has now dragged on for a year and the Spring is nearly here and a new Russian offensive is inevitable if it hasn’t indeed commenced already.

With no peace deal in sight and Russian missiles raining down upon Ukrainian towns and cities again, I met on Zoom this week comrades from the Social Movement and the Miners Union once more to ask them their views.

What I have found depressing at times has been the tendency amongst some armchair strategists in the UK to ignore the voices of Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian voices from our own socialist and trade union movement.

In Zoom meetings in which you can hear the sirens sounding the alarm of an incoming missile, I listened to the assessment of the current situation by our socialist comrades and trade union brothers and sisters.

All so firmly want peace, but they do not believe peace can be achieved until the invasion of their country is prevented.

All wanted a Ukraine that was a reunited country based upon respect for the languages and cultures of all its citizens.

They reject what they describe as the imperialism of East or West.

All that I heard from them was a basic argument for self-determination, and for Ukrainians to be allowed to decide their own future.

But to achieve that they had a simple plea, that is to be given the weapons to fend off the next wave of attack from Russia with its missiles and mass land army.

For them this is a defensive war that if successful could force a negotiated settlement.

They see no other way of achieving the political space for an agreement.

They want to return in that peace to ridding their country of the oligarchs that have profiteered from the exploitation of the workers and natural resources of their home.

Thy aim to put socialism on the agenda of Ukraine.

There is nothing they said that I could disagree with.

That is why I have supported the provision of arms to Ukrainians to maintain their defence of their country.

Arguments about What to Do

Many have argued against this and there’s been a bit of the traditional social media vitriolic trolling, but I haven’t heard a convincing argument against supplying the weapons that our Ukrainian comrades need to protect their freedom.

There is the straightforward pacifist position that relies upon people from all sides refusing to fight.

I respect this view but gently say that at present I deeply regret that there is no prospect of that call being listened to in sufficient numbers to halt this war, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to argue the case that no wars would take place if people refused the call to fight.

Some have argued that this is just a proxy war between two imperialist powers, NATO and Russia, and that socialists should have no part in it.

I understand the point but as Taras Bilous has pointed out, it can be argued virtually every war since the Cold War can be seen as a proxy war between imperialist powers, but that hasn’t stopped the left making a judgement about the individual cases and supporting liberation struggles in this context.

For example, the left supported the Vietcong resistance to the American dominance of Vietnam, though the Vietcong were armed by China and Russia.

Others have argued that sending more arms risks escalating the war.

It is true that the arms that are sent are certain to be used.

However, for Ukraine this is a defensive war and the arms argued for are for defence.

What is certain is that a refusal to provide the weapons the Ukrainians need to defend themselves means that the chances of the Russian invasion succeeding are significantly increased.

There would be a peace secured but it would be an unstable peace imposed by the Russian occupying force.

There has been a renewed call for peace negotiations that I wholeheartedly support. Despite attempts by various interlocutors, no talks have been brought about and the prospects of both sides coming together are pretty bleak.

Already years of negotiations over the numerous Minsk protocols demonstrated how difficult it is to secure adherence to a peace agreement. 

Nevertheless, every opportunity should be pursued, no matter how unexpected, including the recent offer from President Lula of Brazil, as long as it is explicitly clear that it will be for Ukrainians to determine the acceptability of any peace agreement.

In the meantime, with no acknowledgement by Putin of even consideration of a ceasefire and with a build-up of Russian troops and weapons and the return of missile fire over Kyiv, the Ukrainians need the weapons to defend themselves against renewed attack, if only to secure the breathing space for talks to start.

There is also a strong pragmatic argument that Putin will not negotiate whilst he sees the prospect of military victory and yet he will also want to avoid the humiliation of a defeat.

In addition to Arms

Ukraine needs more than arms.

The war has devastated its economy and many consider that a Marshall Aid-scale plan is needed to provide basic immediate humanitarian support and to rebuild its physical, industrial and environmental infrastructure when peace is restored.

The aim of the trade unions and the socialists of the Social Movement is to ensure that a peace is created based upon trade union rights, workers’ control and public ownership.

There is a great opening for socialists and trade unionists in the UK to work in solidarity to back our Ukrainian comrades campaign for and build this new Ukraine.

Above all else now though, our duty is to provide the material means by which they will secure that opportunity.


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