Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 27, 2014

Ukraine is not a chess piece

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 2:38 am


Q. Some people in the western left focus on the right wing and fascists; others seem to ignore them completely. Why?

A. This is more about the western left, and the stereotypes it is so often satisfied with, than about what is going on in Ukraine.

People who see the world in terms of a geopolitical battle between the USA and NATO on one side, and Russia, among others, on the other side, look at Ukraine as a chess piece in this conflict. To them, what is most important is not the development of social and labour movements – in Ukraine, Russia or anywhere else – but which side Ukraine takes in this battle (the west vs Russia). They can not get their heads round the idea of middle class or working class Ukrainians seeing positives in Europe, as opposed to Russia. The answer, they are convinced, must be that Maidan can not be a mass movement in which right wing populists and fascists have gained influence, and therefore it must be a movement inspired by the right, supported materially and ideologically by the USA.

An especially crude version of this view is here. (“In an attempt to pry Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence, the US-EU-NATO alliance has, not for the first time, allied itself with fascists”, etc.) Some of these presumptions were reflected, too, in Seumas Milne’s article in the Guardian here.

On the other side are social democratic supporters of the European ideal, whatever that means to them. They believe that their job is to help bring Ukraine into the European capitalist fold. This meant turning a blind eye to, or playing down, the right wing and fascists’ violence, and emphasising that Maidan is pro-European and therefore inherently progressive. Variants of such views are effectively challenged by Volodymyr Ishchenko of the journal Spil’ne here and here.

There is a great deal of history running through these arguments. I was depressed to see, on Maidan, flags and symbols of the wartime Ukrainian Resistance Army (UPA), some of whose leaders collaborated with the Nazis, and some of whose detachments participated in ethnic cleansing against Jews, Poles and Russians. That symbolism sticks in my gullet; perhaps it’s my Jewish family background. (I felt even sicker in 2010, when the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, pinned a medal on the grandson of UPA leader Stepan Bandera, saying, in effect, “screw any discussion of history among Ukrainians, let’s appeal to the crudest nationalist sentiments”.)

Socialists need to get a historical handle on Ukrainian nationalism. But in order to do so, in my view, we need first to filter out the heavy legacy of Soviet ideology, which still corrodes the 21st century labour movement. That ideology cast the tyrannical Stalinist dictatorship, which in 1932-33 presided over a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, as “socialist”, and all Ukrainian nationalists – whether or not they had any connection with UPA or sympathy for its wartime dealings with the Nazis – as “fascists”. All this is behind some of the stereotypes.

When Yanukovich said he was overthrown by a “fascist coup”, he might even have believed it. In terms of analysis, surely we can do better.



  1. I really hope the best for the Ukrainians. But not as part of the EU. The EU has its plate full integrating Romania and Bulgaria in to the EU and when that is done then integrating Serbia, Macadonia and Albania well keep it busy. The EU does not need to be a bigger than that.

    Comment by Curt — February 27, 2014 @ 6:51 pm

  2. “►On Friday 21 February, the three opposition leaders – Vitalii Klitschko (boxer turned leader of the Udar (= Punch) party), Arseny Yatseniuk (neo-liberal economist, of former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko’s Batkyvshchina party) and Oleh Tiahnybok (leader of the right wing populist Svoboda party) – negotiated a compromise with Yanukovich: presidential elections in December and return of the 2004 constitution (i.e. less power for the president and more for parliament). The talks also involved European foreign ministers, including Pavel Sikorski of Poland who was caught on camera warning Klitschko: “If you don’t support this, you’ll have martial law, the army, you’ll all be dead.”

    ► Klitschko went to the square to ask the crowd to endorse the deal. An activist from the self-defence force grabbed the microphone and said no. If Yanukovich did not leave by the morning, the crowd should go and get him. The crowd roared its approval – and at that point Yanukovich lost his nerve. By Saturday morning 22 February he had abandoned the presidential administration and his obscene dacha at Mezhigorye. By Sunday 23 February Aleksandr Efremov, leader of the Party of Regions (Yanukovich’s party) in parliament, was declaring him a “traitor”. Among Yanukovich’s piles of riches were found documents showing that he had considered an “anti-terrorist operation” using 2500 troops, which could have multiplied the number of victims many times over.””

    Note the role of the EU here in trying to preserve the governing institutions of the Ukraine, fearing the mass movement more than it did Yanukovich. I can’t but help recall Stalin’s warning to Mao in 1947-48 that he shouldn’t cross the Yangtze because of the Americans. As described elsewhere in the article, the support of the Communist Party of the Ukraine for Yanukovich has impaired the ability of the left to organize in opposition to the fascists and neo-Nazis.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 27, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

  3. Beat me to it, and I recommend reading the entire article, in 2 parts. It is one of the most level-headed accounts so far.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — February 27, 2014 @ 10:53 pm

  4. It’s hard to say that it was a populist mass movement that was taken over by a very small group of right wingers. From the beginning the right wing played a noticeable role. Even if you go back to the earlier protest photos you can find the UPA flags. It’s reflected in the fact that Yuschenko, brought to power by the Orange Revolution, promoted Bandera. There is a long history of this as mentioned in the article. Much fo the postwar Ukrainian emigration to America was pro-UPA. There is a major Ukrainian cultural center in a major east coast city with numerous SS Galizien / UPA symbols, like the iron cross. They will not come out and say they are Nazis, as their relationship with the Nazis was mixed. The Nazis saw them as useful slav untermenschen, The CIA used UPA guys after the war as tools, and I assume there has been a longstanding relationship in the Diaspora.

    Generally across the spectrum Ukrainians are not supporters of Bandera, and for that matter there was not a majority for supporting the EU’s loan offer. Fascism or racism was not a particular main demand in Euromaidan. But on the other hand, the “hard right” did play a noticeable role, and continues to do so, as reflected in the appointment of a Svoboda member as Prosecutor General.

    Comment by H. Smith — February 28, 2014 @ 1:53 am

  5. ” . . . . . and I recommend reading the entire article, in 2 parts. It is one of the most level-headed accounts so far.”

    yes, part 2 is impressive and informative as well

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 28, 2014 @ 4:45 am

  6. I ask for some forbearance Louis, from one grumpy old man to another. some ex-members of the SWP (B) who I hold some hopes for posted this very useful interview about Ukraine
    please keep that up for folk to read at least, I disagreed but it looks like my criticisms will not be posted, I leave it up to you if you think what follows by me should remail posted here.
    “A valuable addition to our knowledge on the situation in Ukraine, and if heroism was the key to developing theory then we could all just shut up and follow the comrades who have adopted this position. In terms of purely the internal politics of Russia it is marked by the excellent sentiments, that the main enemy is at home, and we in in the west must surely follow that.
    However the comrades come from various orthodox Trotskyist traditions, so I have to remember that these groups have the most appalling understanding of Fascism and its implications for the working class, and they have demonstrated that in recent decades in European politics time and time again. The formula that fascism is only a major problem for the working class when a crisis so severe that the capitalist class turn over government to the Nazis is madness. Large fascist movements can set back and even stop the development of working class movements if allowed to grow. The talk of debating Nazis has all sort of worrying historical analogies.
    The first problem is this, how, if you are embedded in a movement where the majority see Nazis as the best fighters against a common enemy, can you talk to those workers fearful of the pogroms the Nazis promise. How do you as a comrade go to workers in a factory in the East or Crimea and argue against the growth of Russian nationalism if you were the same basic colours as the ethnic cleansers; Ukrainian nationalism?
    This is of course a bit of an abstraction as there may only be a handful of real Marxists in Ukraine, but then you do you really want to risk smashing this precious handful by exposing them to debate with people sympathetic to extreme nationalism while Nazis look on? There are apparently 45 million people in Ukraine (not many large ethnic minorities remain, the Ukrainian nationalist started to take care of that before the Germans even arrived in WW2), apparently by census 75% are Ukrainian. That the country is roughly evenly divided over the opposition movement shows a substantial number of Ukrainians never supported Maidan (or should we call it Euromaidan as its supporters do?). Kyiv is a city of over 2.5 million, with its hinterland obviously containing many more. Maidan activists were how many? Sometimes a million it’s said in the square, hundred thousand regularly, fifty thousand? A few thousand permanently in the camp. Who can spend weeks in a camp, is it workers clocking on every day to feed their families, or is it a declassed gathering? These are all so basic to understanding whether this is a movement that comrades should risk their lives trying to put themselves at the heart of it. By the way how big does the crowd have to be before we support say the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Turkey, Iran or Venezuela? None of these countries are socialist, all have serious problems in terms of their relationship to their own working classes, so what allows them to be dumped?
    To be blunt it easy for orthodox Trots to get things like this wrong, their class understanding for decades has been sketchy, backing reformism here, peasant movements their as substitutes for working class self-activity. Unfortunately out tendency has been doing this recently, any large group of campers in a city centre becomes the substitute for the working class, with these demos the SWP/ISO can pretend the class struggle continues at a high level, while the class itself continues to retreat.
    The article tries to put the argument that corruption is at the heart of Maidan and that nationalism is secondary, yet the new President, Turchynov, spend his time a few years back destroying all the evidence of Tymoshenko’s corruption. Ukrainians nationalists know all this but at the moment are prepared to live “their” people in power, the Nazis though will use corruption and IMF/EC imposed cuts to build themselves. Talking to them or their soft periphery is not the way to try (on the task may be impossible anyway) to resist their growth. Nationalism is the at the heart of this movement, the article shows how even “pro-Russian” politicians have used Bandera in the past, and I’m comrades that the task of Ukrainian Marxists is to find those Ukrainian workers in the country who are most resistant to it, if they are doing that then they might be able to argue against Russian nationalism in the country as well. I leave aside the Tartar question as it’s a huge issue on its own, but oppressed groups will often, unfortunately, attach themselves to a wing of imperialism, some Kurdish groups is an example of that.”

    Comment by Harry Monro — March 1, 2014 @ 9:52 am

  7. The article tries to put the argument that corruption is at the heart of Maidan and that nationalism is secondary, yet the new President, Turchynov, spend his time a few years back destroying all the evidence of Tymoshenko’s corruption.

    I don’t understand why this comment is necessary. Isn’t it obvious that Ukraine has a two-party system like the USA or many other bourgeois democracies? You give the people 4 years of misery and then afford them the opportunity of choosing another misery-laden 4 years from the other party. The protest movement was not so much about electing a pro-West party but eliminating an oppressive system. That the choice at the top was a pro-imperialist party versus a pro-Kremlin party does not change the underlying class dynamics. This is a movement against a corrupt and unresponsive oligarchy. Period.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 1, 2014 @ 11:32 am

  8. At the moment those disenfranchised Ukrainians, robbed of their legitimate vote by Oligarchs and imperialists are on the streets protesting that the gangsters who have taken over their country are driven from power.

    The people, who had already spoken in the election, have spoken again and demand that those far right street thugs, their imperialist puppet masters and criminal Oligarchs are got rid of.

    I am sure that all leftists will join me in sending our unconditional support to their noble struggle!

    Those leftists who jump on any pro imperialist bandwagon cannot get their heads round the idea of middle class or working class Ukrainians seeing positives in Russia, as opposed to Europe.

    The answer, they are convinced, must be that because Maidan looks West they must be really enlightened,,and all the right wing stuff is just for affect and really deep down they are all cuddly liberals who love gays and ethnics. And like us all they demand are cheap goods in plentiful supply with no questions asked, and that they don’t allow nasty internet pirates on their land, or go against the global economic interest.

    An especially crude version of this view is here. (“In an attempt to put Ukraine in ‘civilised’ sphere of influence, the oligarchs have, not for the first time, allied itself with the spirit of the enlightenment and moved us all closer to socialism.) Some of these presumptions were reflected, too, in many articles on sites claiming to be unrepentant Marxists.

    When Maidan said they overthrew a “brutal regime”, they might even have believed it. In terms of analysis, surely we can do better?

    Comment by The Man with No name — March 1, 2014 @ 11:38 am

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