A misrepresentation of Trotsky on the Ukraine question by a petty bourgeois moralist: A reply to Michael Calderbank

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24/08/2014 by socialistfight

A misrepresentation of Trotsky on the Ukraine question by a petty bourgeois moralist: A reply to Michael Calderbank
By Oliver Coxhead

In a recent post on the social networking site Facebook, LRC executive member and supporter of the ‘Ukrainian Socialist Solidarity’ Michael Calderbank attempted to give political and even revolutionary weight to his reactionary position on the current crisis in Ukraine. Under the entry ‘What Trotsky had to say to the “sectarian muddleheads” who opposed the independence of Ukraine’ we have the following article by Trotsky from 1939 re-posted: Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads. Above the link to Trotsky’s article Calderbank quotes what we must assume he sees as the significant paragraph of the text and the justification for his position and his opposition to those in the Labour movement who take the anti-imperialist/anti-fascist position:

“To speed and facilitate this process, to make possible a genuine brotherhood of the peoples in the future, the advanced workers of Great Russia must even now understand the causes for Ukrainian separatism, as well the latent power and historical lawfulness behind it, and they must without any reservation declare to the Ukrainian people that they are ready to support with all their might the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine in a joint struggle against the autocratic bureaucracy and against imperialism.”

This is Trotsky’s call for Ukrainian independence at a time when Ukraine suffered under the Stalinist bureaucracy, he made it clear though that it must be an independent soviet Ukraine as an ally militarily to the USSR. Later in his article Trotsky states that Ukraine ‘will herself desire and know how to reach the necessary economic agreement with the Soviet Union, just as she herself will be able to conclude the necessary military alliance.’ Trotsky was clear that independence must be bound up with preservation of planned economy and socialised property created by the October revolution and, as such, would mean defence of the gains in the rest of soviet territory despite the rule of the degenerate bureaucracy. The national independence of Soviet Ukraine would mean the plan could be tailored to the needs of the Ukrainian people and not the Kremlin bureaucracy, but they would still support the plan of the rest of the USSR because it would ‘know how to make the necessary economic agreement’ and therefore improve the rationality of the plan. Consequently an independent Soviet Ukraine would not only weaken the Kremlin bureaucracy but also improve the plan for Ukraine and thereby give an impetus to socialist development in the rest of the USSR.

Trotsky was clear that the bureaucracy’s strangulation of the Ukraine had turned many of the masses, such as the peasantry and petty bourgeois as well as workers and emigrants of Ukraine, away from Socialism which they had previously supported. The official Communist movement headed by the Kremlin bureaucracy had no answer to Ukrainian independence as it stifled national expression and implemented disastrous agricultural policies. The loudest voices in favour of Ukrainian independence were the fascists and religious reactionary leaders:

“Of enormous political importance is the sharp turn away from the Soviet Union by Ukrainian democratic elements outside the Soviet Union. When the Ukrainian problem became aggravated early this year communist voices were not heard at all; but the voices of the Ukrainian clericals and National Socialists were loud enough. This means that the proletarian vanguard has let the Ukrainian national movement slip out of its hands and this movement has progressed far on the road to separatism.”

The answer Trotsky stressed was for the revolutionary workers movement to lead the desire for national independence as part of continuing socialist revolution, i.e. the political revolution against the Kremlin bureaucracy. In the case of Ukraine, to demand independence from centralised bureaucratic rule while defending the gains of the revolution and improving them by fulfilling the needs of the local population and to integrate with other soviet republics as part of the ongoing development for socialism. To ignore the desire for independence meant sections of the masses would be driven to bourgeois nationalism and fascism. Trotsky was therefore clear it must be an independent soviet Ukraine. This is in complete opposition to the Ukraine envisaged by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Nazi Stepan Bandera. This position must be seen in the context of its time, the late 1930s on the eve of imperialist war and military threats to the USSR, the world’s first workers’ state.

Now we must examine Calderbank’s use or rather misuse of Trotsky’s article today. Firstly, he is of course using it completely in the wrong context; the USSR no longer exists and, obviously, this has thrown back consciousness of many workers’ in Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is independent as a bourgeois republic, not a soviet republic and its borders have altered several times since Trotsky wrote his article. It is not Trotsky who is wrong though but Calderbank who chooses to take the article out of context as justification for adopting an anti-working class position.

In the Ukraine now we have the corrupt but elected government of the oligarch Yanukovych deposed by an unelected coup-government comrpised of ultra-nationalists and Nazi descendent organisations such as Svoboda. Yet these nationalists plan to give up even their bourgeois independence to the imperialists of the EU and United States. We now have the situation where the Ukraine could become another vassal of US imperialism where once it had been a vassal of the Kremlin bureaucracy, a worse prospect! It would of course then become a NATO member, strengthening US imperialism’s military presence right up to the Russian border.

Clearly the imperialism of the US and EU means no true independence for Ukraine. There is more independence under the local capitalists of Yanukovych. Imperialism will mean the domination of Ukraine and Ukrainian workers by the IMF and World Bank as well as US corporations. The economic deals local oligarchs had with Russian capitalists were more beneficial to the population than would be imperialist domination. Russia is not an imperialist country, it is undoubtedly a capitalist one but has offered a better economic deal to Ukraine. The EU offers de-industrialisation, privatisation, wage cuts, social security cuts and debt. Workers in Ukraine can look to Greece, Ireland and Portugal to see their future, behind which is the finance capital and military of the U.S., ever too keen to enforce compliance using local fascist gangs. What sort of independence is that? Calderbank is silent on these facts.

In the Donbass region, focused around Luhgansk and Donetsk, there has been a groundswell of opposition by the working class to the Maidan and its coup-government which includes fascists. Calderbank’s lack of dialectical thinking means that he cannot conclude that today’s officially ‘independent’ Ukraine dominated by oligarchs and facing the domination of US/EU finance capital has developed its own internal movement for regional independence in the face of this imperialist onslaught. Trotsky’s method applied today means support for Ukrainian independence from US/EU imperialism and the self-determination of those regions which are at the forefront of the opposition to imperialism and its fascist gangs. Trotsky warned in the article Calderbank cites as his justification that ‘the very independence of the Ukraine would not be long lived in an imperialist environment’ and that ‘Imperialism can be overthrown only by the proletarian revolution.’ We see the proletariat of eastern Ukraine now in open revolution and expropriating the oligarchs, and Trotsky spoke of the Ukraine as having developed a strong working class: “A powerful and purely Ukrainian proletariat has been created there by the development of industry. It is they who are destined to be the leaders of the Ukrainian people in all their future struggles.”

This same proletariat has its very existence threatened and its own rights in particular the right to speak their first language. As mentioned earlier the borders of Ukraine have altered considerably since 1939 and many Russian speakers live in the east and have intermixed with Ukrainian speakers. The calls for Ukrainian independence and ‘national unity’ by Calderbank and the ‘Ukrainian Socialist Solidarity’ group mean a centralised ultra-nationalist state which suppresses the rights of minorities. Trotsky also had something to say about these opportunist supporters of ‘independence: “Opportunism consists in a passive adaptation to the ruling class and its regime, to that which already exists, including of course, the state boundaries.”

Calderbank and his ilk would rather preserve the state boundaries as they are at the expense of the working class in eastern Ukraine, even though they have expressed their will for autonomy through a referendum on this issue. Opportunists such as Calderbank line up with Svoboda, the US and EU to condemn the working class resistance as ‘terrorist’ and influenced by ‘Russian agents’, yet nothing is mentioned of the fascist terror gangs, CIA agents and mercernaries operating in Ukraine. Finance capital again uses fascism to impose its domination and, unfortunately, many on the left have chosen to support imperialism in the way they did at the start of world war one 100 years ago, exposing themselves now as they did then as liberals and not Marxists at all.

Throughout the debates on this fundamental issue of support for the movement against imperialism in the Donbass, many leftists have been outraged at military methods and personnel being employed by the Donetsk and Luhgansk Peoples’ Republics and the fact some have been kidnapped or tortured. The liberal prejudices of these middle class liberals and individuals such as Calderbank reveal their hostility toward the working class taking up the struggle against imperialism and fascism, in the course of such struggles that would mean enemies real or suspected will be given a hard time. This is a feature of revolution. They moralise about how ‘both sides are as bad’ and such arguments, the ‘moralizing philistine’s favourite method is the lumping of reaction’s conduct with that of revolution’ Trotsky noted about such leftists. (Source: Trotsky, L, Dewey, J, Novack, G, Their Morals and Ours, Pathfinder, 1973, New York, p13)

Of the middle class moralist, Trotsky wrote:

“Understanding neither the origin nor the sense of struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, discovers himself between the two fires, he will consider both belligerent camps with equal hatred. And who are all these democratic moralists? Ideologists of intermediary layers who have fallen, or are in fear of falling between the two fires. The chief traits of the prophets of this type are alienation from the great historical movements, a hardened conservative mentality, smug narrowness, and a most primitive political cowardice.”
(Source: Trotsky, L, Pathfinder, 1973, p14-15)

This is a fitting description for Calderbank and the ‘Ukrainian Socialist Solidarity’ and the social strata they represent, namely the middle class and labour bureaucracy. Meanwhile the working class in the Donbass continues to fight the fascists and imperialists in its quest for survival and self-determination.

One thought on “A misrepresentation of Trotsky on the Ukraine question by a petty bourgeois moralist: A reply to Michael Calderbank

  1. Bridget Dunne says:

    This was the response from Michael Calderbank on the B & H LRC facebook page:
    Yesterday at 11:54am

    A few words of reply to Coxhead’s latest sectarian muddleheadness.

    Historical circumstances and contexts change, of course. But the sectarian muddleheadness Trotsky bemoaned when it comes to a section of the left’s abject failure to understand the significance of the national question in Ukraine remains remarkably persistent and similar. Coxhead’s confused reply, replete with standard-issue sectarian abuse, blatant misrepresentations and peppered with unsubstantiated sociological ascriptions to cover up the evident poverty of argument, is merely an extended exercise for the Socialist Fight group’s craven support for Russian gangster-capitalism and Putin’s hired mercenaries. I won’t resort to such hackneyed methods. In contrast the LRC and the Ukranian Solidarity Campaign base their approach on the independent organisation of the working class in Ukraine, in opposition to the domination of Ukraine by all capitalist and imperialist powers, and for an independent socialist Ukraine. There can be little doubt which approach best reflects the historical method of Trotsky.
    Trotsky’s sectarian critics too, let us not forget, accused him of playing into the hands of imperialism and being a “petit-bourgeois” objectively helping fascism. They argued that since the leadership of the movement for Ukranian independence were nationalists or fascistic that the cause of independence from Moscow could only weaken the working class and help the cause of the imperial powers. Much the same line is now being parrotted by today’s KPU and their sectarian fellow travellers, despite the fact that Moscow is now the seat of an openly capitalist and oligarch-ridden despotism, in no way a progressive counter-weight to the interests of global capital.
    Trotsky could not have made himself clearer: “The great masses of the Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and wish to change it drastically. It is this fact that the revolutionary must, in contrast to the bureaucrat and the sectarian, take as his point of departure”. This still holds. For the great majority of working people in Ukraine, the history of rule by Moscow and its proxies – from Stalin through to the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of oligarchic capitalism –is profoundly tied up with the memory of deliberate mass starvation, national repression and humiliation, and autocratic government. The Maidan was a mass of contradictions politically, but what united millions across Ukraine was the rejection of the bureaucratic/oligarchic regime which attempting to further consolidate its support with the aid of Russia’s capitalism, and the horror at the shooting of unarmed civilian protestors by the increasingly desperate state forces.
    Now, Trotsky was quite right to explain that there was no solution to the national question in Ukraine were such a movement to remain under the leadership of bourgeois-democratic leaders aiming to secure the region in the interests of ramping up capital accumulation. The role of the EU and IMF/World Bank of course pose significant dangers for the Ukranian masses. But the idea that the working class can be united in resistance around support for hired Russian mercenaries fresh from butchery and repression in Chechnya and South Ossetia, leading a socially conservative Orthodox army in defence of a Russian chauvinist concept of Novorossiya, would be comical in its absurdity were the stakes not so serious. It has nothing whatsoever in common with a Marxist approach, has nothing to offer workers across Ukraine, and also sides with the class-enemy of workers in Russia, where the left faces savage repression from Putin’s autocratic- capitalist state forces.

    In short, Trotsky’s understanding that only support for an independent socialist Ukraine, lead by the Ukranian workers themselves, offers any real hope for a satisfactory resolution. To be absolutely clear, this perspective involves clear opposition to the Kiev government and bourgeois nationalist forces, together with an opposition the intervention of all imperialisms and oligarchic interests.
    The extent of Coxhead’s lies and misrepresenations of the USS campaign and its supporters can be gathered from even the most cursory reading of its latest campaign statement.

    STOP THE RUSSO-UKRAINE WAR
    Draft Statement by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (UK)
    Pro-Russian para-militaries are surrounded in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk but peace in Ukraine is far from certain, the remaining inhabitants are in a perilous position. Since April more than 1,543 military and civilians have been killed, some 4,396 confirmed wounded, across Ukraine there are up to 400,000 internally displaced persons.
    The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (USC) declares its solidarity with the Ukrainian labour movement that stands for unity and all efforts to reinstate peace. USC supports the anti-war movement in Russia and demands the release of all political prisoners and an end to the repression in Russia.
    To stop the war USC campaigns for the following as path to for independence, peace and democracy:
    • for the self-determination Ukraine as a whole, free from the intrigues and corporate business-interests of Russia and the western powers
    • for an immediate ceasefire by all opposing armed forces, including irregular forces,
    • for the deployment of neutral observers to monitor ceasefire lines, and the opening of humanitarian corridors supervised by bodies such as the Red Cross
    • for the immediate withdrawal of Russian and pro-Russian para-military forces from Ukraine,
    • military personnel and civilians detained as a result of the hostilities to be either exchanged or released under the supervision of the Red Cross.
    • the creation of a wide demilitarized zone around Ukraine’s borders.
    • return to barracks of the Ukrainian armed forces, disbandment and of removal of radical nationalist organisations from positions in the Government of Ukraine, the Armed Forces and the interior ministry organs.
    • the restoration of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea with a democratic referendum on the status of Crimea.
    • a leading role for trade unions and community organisations, independent of oligarchs and radical nationalists, in sustaining peace in Donbas
    • for an independent inquiry into the violence and killings at the Kyiv and the Odessa trade union buildings, those responsible for war crimes and extra-judicial killings be brought to justice.
    • creation of an all-Ukraine system of autonomous, local self-government and abolition of regional governors
    • for a neutral Ukraine, cessation of NATO involvement in Ukraine, repeal Yanukovych’s program of cooperation with NATO
    • the restoration of the Budapest Treaty and recognition of Ukraine as a united, nuclear free, neutral state.
    • For the cancellation of all IMF and EU debt and payment of reparations by Russia for the reconstruction of Donbas.
    USC calls for full solidarity with the Ukrainian labour movement, and not those who would seek to divide workers to serve the vested interests of rival powers.

    We oppose the attempt of Russian imperialism to dominate Ukraine, just as we oppose the efforts of Western and American imperialism to do the same thing.

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