Allan Armstrong has written a two-part article, Why has Putin has invaded Ukraine? The first part was posted on bella caledonia and the Irish Left Archive. This has now been amended following the helpful comments from Connor Beaton, Nick Steff and Sairah Tariq. Part 2 has been posted on Allan’s Intfrobel blog. The contents of both parts can be seen below, followed by the Conclusion to Part 2.
WHY HAS PUTIN INVADED UKRAINE?
AN EXAMINATION OF SOME CONTENDING VIEWS
a) Imperialism as a global system
b) The historical role of specific empires within the global system
c) The legacy of Russian imperialism
d) Fascism, Putin and the nature of the Russian state
e) The British Right, Putin, ‘Nazis’ and Fascists
f) Putin’s little helpers 1 – Boris Johnson and the City of London’s ‘Oligarchs United’
g) Putin’s little helpers 2 – the Right Populists and Fascists
h) Putin’s little helpers 3 – The Right’s Left outriders
A SOCIALIST REPUBLICAN ANALYSIS
b) The three components of the International Left and the national backgrounds to the emergence of ‘Internationalism from Below’ politics
c) The challenges of the advocates of ‘Internationalism from Below’ to orthodox Marxism and to Luxemburg and Lenin within the Second International
d) ‘Internationalism from Below’ and political organisation
e) The theoretical contributions of Kazimierz Kelles-Kreuz, James Connolly and Lev Iurkevich to ‘Internationalism from Below’
f) The declaration of World War One – the first testing ground
g) The Easter Rising triggers the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave – the second testing ground
h) The October ‘Russian’ Revolution spills over to Ukraine – the third testing ground
This article has outlined the development of ‘Internationalism from Below’ politics by focussing mainly on three significant contributors, Kazimierz Kelles-Kreuz in Poland, James Connolly in Ireland and Lev Iurkevich in Ukraine. They challenged the two competing orthodoxies found in the Second International, when it came to the ‘National Question’. These were represented by Kaul Kautsky of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, members of the Social Democratic Labour Party of Austria (SDAPO), who have been called Austro-Marxists. These two parties operated in the Hohenzollern German and Hapsburg Austrian empires respectively. The first of these empires was overwhelmingly German by nationality, the second had large German, Hungarian and Slav populations. This led the SPD and SDAPO to adopt different approaches to the ‘National Question’. But common to both was their desire to retain the territorial unity of their empires.
And underpinning such thinking was a deeper Social Democratic theory, advocated by Kautsky in particular. This argued for the ‘progressive’ nature of the assimilation of nationalities, nations and their peoples’ languages under capitalism and imperialism. Both Rosa Luxemburg and later Vladimir Lenin supported Kautsky over this and attacked the Austro-Marxists, who supported greater cultural self-determination. But along with Luxemburg and Lenin, the Austro-Marxists remained strong supporters of the continuation of a single territorial state, the one they hoped to inherit from the empires they lived and worked in.
Luxemburg thought that she was strengthening Kautsky’s theory by abandoning any support for the right of national self-determination (apart from in the pre-capitalist world) in order to speed up assimilation. As somebody from a Jewish background, she had assimilated to both German and Polish-Russian cultures. Lenin, quoting Kautsky, was just as keen a supporter of assimilation, although acknowledging the need for some transitional use of minority languages.
Lenin also argued that support for the right of national self-determination remained important, first in his ‘second’ (and later ‘third’) ‘worlds’ then, after the 1916 Easter Rising, in selected parts of his ‘first world’ too. However, Lenin also thought that as soon as the exploited and oppressed (or later the party claiming to act on their behalf) took power, then this demand became counter-revolutionary. At this point, Lenin shared common ground with the Luxemburg’s Radical Left supporters.
Today, we are far more aware of the importance of maintaining diversity – ecological and human. The first view forms a much sounder basis for a sustainable society than the assumed ‘progressiveness’ of increased capitalist domination of the environment and homogenisation of society, once supported by most Social Democrats, as providing the basis for a future Socialism. We increasingly understand that subjection to capitalist and imperialist conditions leads to environmental degradation with a decline in the number of species and reduced genetic diversity. This threatens humanity with another form of barbarism, previously only associated by many Socialists with increasingly deadly military technologies and wars. So rather than the prospect of severe societal retrogression or human extinction Eco-socialists promote re-diversification in a more environmentally sustainable society.
The second view also questions those Social Democrats who argued that increased human equality was linked to the ending of much human diversity, including ‘minor’ languages and ‘non-historic’ peoples. Thus, many Social Democrats joined imperialist ideologues who thought that such ‘progress’ was inevitable, even when this led to the extinction of particular peoples or cultures and languages.
But now more people recognise that standardisation and linguistic assimilation usually takes place in a destructive manner under capitalist and imperialist conditions. This has contributed to an understanding that the elimination of economic and social inequality is the best means to encourage greater diversity, whether it be cultural or in personal relationships.
Modern-day Communists (who also act as Republican Socialists in the immediate political conditions we face today) look beyond anti-capitalism and the nationalisation promoted by nation states. In the past, some Socialists were prepared to support those incipient nationalities and nations which were being drawn into capitalist relations. Today, though, there is a recognition that there are still indigenous peoples on this planet who have little desire to be subjected to capitalist relations. This we need to support Indigenous struggles defending their land, environments, communities and languages.
And the championing of migrant rights is also very important today. There are an estimated 280 million migrants in the world, making them the fourth largest group, after the Chinese, Indians, and US Americans. We support women and people of all sexualities – LGBT+. We seek to unite our class in its diversity. When support for BIPOC, migrants and LBGT+ is linked to the struggles for the exercise of national self-determination, this represents a civic national approach, which can act as a transition to a word without borders, under changed socio-economic conditions. Thus we can see this as preparing the ground for a more diverse society in the future, .
During an earlier period of history, instead of states privileging particular nationalities as they do today, they were often based on the supremacy of particular religions – Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist or Moslem (Sunni and Shia). But few people today would argue that, in order that people can be secure in the practice of their religion, the state must either enforce territorial supremacy or privilege for their particular religion. And few would have any difficulty in recognising that those who currently are trying to enforce Christian, Jewish and Muslim supremacy or privilege constitute one of the most reactionary forces in the world.
Wherever religious supremacy has been ended in secular states, specific religions have not been eliminated. This has led, not just to a growth in agnosticism, atheism and non-religious humanism, but to a greater diversity of religions. In the future, it is possible to envisage an analogous post nation-state society, where people are free to express their national and linguistic characteristics without the need for a state to privilege their nationality or language over those of others. And under such conditions assimilation and hybridisation would also occur, only it would be voluntary not coerced, as is often the case at present.
Connolly and Kelles-Kreuz were already thinking in terms of defending diversity when they pointed out the destructive role of British, Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian imperialism. They defended the struggles of oppressed nations, nationalities and their languages in the face of imperial pressure. This is what led them to demand, not the reform of existing empires, or the retention of inherited imperial frameworks to advance Socialism, but a Socialist Republican, ‘Internationalism from Below’ break-up of existing empires. This is a key feature of an ‘Internationalism from Below’ approach to politics.
Kelles-Kreuz, before his premature death in 1905, was already taking on not just Kautsky and the Austro-Marxists, but Luxemburg too. Lenin had not yet emerged as a major international figure. Over a decade later, although Iurkevich never came round to advocating the complete break-up of the territory inherited from the Russian empire, he showed how Lenin’s paper support for the right of national self-determination, in the absence of any Socialist organisational commitment, would merely lead to a Great Russian supremacy in a new form. Iurkevich also had a better understanding of the early tsarist forms of empire and their Great Russian continuity under changing economic conditions.
This article has also emphasised that Kelles-Kreuz, Connolly and Iurkevich developed a distinctive organisational practice. For Kelles-Kreuz, this took the form of a defence of PPS sectional autonomy within the SPD, over which he clashed with Luxemburg. Both Connolly and Iurkevich championed the need for independent parties, based on the nations of the oppressed (those denied the right to exercise national self-determination), operating within an International. Connolly clashed with the British Left (SDF/BSP and ILP in particular) and Iurkevich with Lenin and the Bolsheviks over this. These three Socialist Republicans’ organisational practice formed another key feature of an ‘Internationalism from Below’ approach to politics.
Such organisational practice was developed in pre-war struggles, which included the 1904-7 International Revolutionary Wave, World War One (WW1), and the consequent International Revolutionary Wave from 1916. Within these struggles, the advocates of ‘Internationalism from Below’, sometimes worked alongside, and at other times contested, the supporters of the Radical Left (often inspired by Luxemburg) and Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
The last three sections of the second part of this article show how the politics of the three components of the International Left played out after the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, through the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, to the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.
Connolly was to the fore when WW1 broke out. He created a Socialist Republican, Syndicalist, Women’s Suffragist, Cumann na mBan (CnmB) and Irish Republican Brotherhood coalition in Ireland. This was linked to Jim Larkin in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Irish-, Finnish-, and German-American Socialist opposition to the US signing up for WW1. They formed a significant part of the opposition which prevented the USA joining the war until 1917. Connolly and his coalition also played a leading part in undermining Irish recruitment to the British army. This led to the Irish having a lower WW1 death rate than Scotland, Wales or England, when the Irish, along with Scots, had been previously over-represented in the British army.
Connolly was shot after the 1916 Easter Rising and his own Socialist Republican pole of attraction within the wider Republican coalition became marginalised. However, the activities of CnmB activists highlights the possibilities that existed if a specifically Socialist Republican organisation could have been maintained. CnmB campaigned to ensure that Irish Republicanism became linked to ending women’s oppression. It was probably the most committed organisation supporting social Republicanism during the attacks of the ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’ of the Civil War (June 1922 to May 1923).
Following the outbreak WW1, both Lenin and Iurkevich had to live in exile in Switzerland. Luxemburg spent most of the time in German jails. They all tried to develop a new international organisation. Lenin was present at, and Iurkevich was involved in the Zimmerwald and Kienthal International Left conferences in 1915 and 1916. Luxemburg, writing under a pseudonym, could only get occasional contributions smuggled out, particularly her Junius pamphlet. Nevertheless, other Radical Left supporters, e.g. Karl Radek, who had made it into exile, contributed to the debates over the ‘National Question’.
The 1916 Easter Rising, which occurred at the same time as the Kienthal conference, played a major part in the subsequent debates. In the absence of any major Irish contribution, following Connolly’s execution, it was Lenin’s response which contributed most to the thinking of the International Left. But his The Discussion on Self Determination Summed Up was largely confined to a debate between Lenin’s view of national self-determination, the Kautskyites and particularly the Radical Left. On the International Left this work came to be seen as authoritative on the Rising, and Lenin’s most advanced contribution on the wider ‘National Question’.
Of greater significance for the then immediate future, Lenin saw the Rising (and other national and social revolts), which had by now broken out against the brutal effects of the war, or the war itself, as marking the shift to a period of International Socialist Revolution. Therefore, Lenin continued his work to prepare for a new International and to clandestinely build the political organisation in the Tsarist Russian empire, which could contribute to this.
Following the outbreak of the February 1917 Revolution, Lenin transformed the Bolsheviks’ Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic variation of what had previously been orthodox Social Democrats’ recognition of the need for an immediate Democratic Revolution. Now Lenin argued that this should be based on the soviets not parliamentary democracy. These soviets were for both workers and peasants (as well as for soldiers and sailors).
The outbreak of the ‘Russian’ Revolution in February 1917 soon persuaded any wavering Bolsheviks of the reality of International Socialist Revolution. They had also developed an organisation, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (bolshevik) (from 1912) and soon the all-Russia Communist Party (bolshevik) from March 1918, to influence the course of events. And for the wider International Left, the October 1917 Revolution confirmed the old Tsarist Russian empire was now the epicentre of the International Revolutionary Wave.
All three components of the International Left saw the International Revolutionary Wave as the direct consequence of prior capitalist and imperialist developments. These had led to the First World War and the massive ‘blood sacrifices’ demanded of the exploited and oppressed. Those Social Democrats on the Right and Centre had closed down the Second International in order to retreat behind their own ruling classes. Hoping that their own particular ruling class would emerge victorious, they shut up shop, and suspended class politics until the end of the war, waiting for the restoration of ‘normal’ parliamentary politics.
But the outbreak of the International Revolutionary Wave, which spilled over state boundaries, also threatened any return to ‘normal’ parliamentary politics. So now these self-same Social Democrats had to fall in behind Right wing clampdowns, or in the defeated states, e.g. Germany, initiate the Right wing clampdown. These attacks were targeted upon Social Democracy’s previous, but now more disillusioned and angry supporters amongst the exploited and oppressed and the new Communist forces leading them.
And when the International Revolutionary Wave broke out in Russia, the imperial ruling classes, lesser national ruling classes seeking national aggrandisement, and the old Social Democrats, insisted this was merely a local phenomenon, the product only of particular national conditions. Furthermore, they maintained there was no deep discontent (or any that could not be addressed) in their own states. They claimed that any attempts to build international solidarity were down to the machinations of the International Left, or more colloquially just the ‘Bolsheviks’.
One particular role, though, was reserved for those Social Democrats, who had, or still did, share party and trade union organisational membership with the Communists. To undermine their influence, these Social Democrats claimed that Russia was too economically underdeveloped, and hence needed a long period of capitalism before they proceed could to Socialism. This revealed two things, first their own view that Socialism was an affair confined to national states. Secondly, despite being Social Democrats in the economically more developed states which were needed to develop Socialism, they were still remarkably reticent to bring this about when this meant challenging their own ruling class and state.
The ruling classes in the post-WW1 victor nations were prepared to restore ‘normal’ parliamentary politics, but only to a minority of the exploited, those within the dominant state, and certainly not those in their empires. Such excluded territories could be very close to home, as UK state actions showed in Ireland. Here ‘normal’ parliamentary politics (which had never been that normal anyhow) were not restored, since the Irish had temerity to democratically vote to secede from the UK. And the Orange regime in the remnant Northern Ireland proved to be far from normal either. And when it came to Black and Asian migrants and their descendants, they too did not come within the scope of ‘normal’ parliamentary politics but were subjected to vicious attacks in the so-called ‘race riots’ of 1919.
And the ruling classes in the defeated imperial states (e.g. in Germany); those who felt they had not received enough of the victors’ booty (e.g. in Italy); and those ruling classes in nation states looking for further territorial aggrandisement (e.g. Poland and Romania), showed little commitment to ‘normal’ parliamentary politics even within their own states. Instead, they resorted to various forms of Authoritarian Right regimes, including Fascist. Furthermore, the 1929 Great Crash also undermined the economies of the victor states. Growing sections of their ruling classes began to question ‘normal’ parliamentary politics too; just like their equivalents today, following the 2008 Financial Crash.
But during the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, the International Left had never made any claim that Socialism could be successfully built in economically less developed states, or in individual economically developed states for that matter. They all saw the International Socialist Revolution, which toppled the weakest link in the imperialist chain, Tsarist Russia, as providing an example and a trigger for the toppling of other regimes, beginning with those most weakened by WW1.
The International Revolutionary Wave was real, and despite the accusations of the Social Democrats, would have occurred anyway. The job of the International Left was not to manufacture what wasn’t there, but to provide organisational focus leading to the transformation of society, to avoid the repeat of such disasters. Failing this, capitalism would impose its own brutal conditions for the reimposition of order and profitability and prepare for new wars. Following the International Left’s defeat, this is indeed what happened.
After 1919, the International Revolutionary Wave ebbed. It became much more difficult to spread the revolution, turning the infant RSFSR in on itself. However, the advocates of ‘Internationalism from Below’ argued for a different way of relating to the national democratic struggles which had become widespread in this revolutionary wave, especially within the former empires. And the key empire, at the epicentre of this revolutionary wave, was the Tsarist Russian empire. The deeply embedded imperial relationship between Russia and its many constituent nations, nationalities (already existing or embryonic) and indigenous peoples did not disappear because a revolutionary leadership had taken control of its territories. The new Russian SFSR took over many of these territories, and under the new all-Russia CP(b) began to replicate a Great Russian way of handling politics.
However, in Ukraine, this was challenged by Communists who went beyond Iurkevich and accepted the reality of immediate International Socialist Revolution and the centrality of soviets. The emergence of the Ukrainian Communist Party, (borotbist) – the Borotbists – from the Left of the Ukrainian Social Revolutionary Party in May 1918 was a significant indicator of this. So was the emergence of the Ukrainian Communist Party – the Ukapists in January 1920 from the Left of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labour Party, which Iurkevich had been a member of. Furthermore, such was the impact of the unfolding struggle from below, it impacted directly on the Bolshevik-led Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). Serhii Mazlakh and Versyl’ Shakhrai published their devasting On the Current Situation in Ukraine in January 1919. Shakhrai’s Bolshevik comrade, Georgi Lapchinskii, formed a Federalist Opposition within the CP(b)U before moving over to the Ukapists.
The Ukrainian Communists’ main critique of the Bolsheviks was to oppose their view that national democratic struggles were counter-revolutionary, in the aftermath of the creation of the RSFSR. The RCP(b), including its Radical Left component (e.g. Georgi Pyatakov, Evgenia Bosch and Christian Rakovsky), placed considerable obstacles in the way of providing help to Communists in nearby states where revolution broke out, e.g. in Hungary in June 1919.
We can be far from sure that if the ‘Internationalism from Below’, ‘break-up of empires’ approach had been adopted then the International Revolutionary Wave would have deepened and pushed much further. The imperialists still retained considerable strength in depth, particularly in that burgeoning global power, the USA. So, adopting ‘Internationalism from Below’ politics may have still led to failure, but ‘failing better’ as in the case of the 1871 Paris Commune. This would not have led to the bitter memories of Great Russian oppression being linked to the Left and not just the traditional Right. Or worse, as we are seeing today, following some earlier precedents, a Red-Brown alliance in support of Putin’s ‘Russia One and Indivisible’ imperialism.
But the ‘Internationalism from Below’ politics, originally developed by Kelles-Kreuz, Connolly, Iurkevich, Mazlakh, Shakhrai, Lapchinskii and others, do not just have an historical justification. There has been a growing tendency on a Left in retreat to emphasise ‘pure’ working class politics. Those adopting such thinking often want their politics unsullied by the concerns of the wider oppressed. They accuse them of pursuing ‘identity politics.’ They relegate such issues to a secondary importance. They remain blind to their own promotion of a particular identity politics. When you look at their version of the working class, stripped of other oppressions, it begins to look remarkably white, male and straight and be ‘native’ to its state. But women, LBGT+, BIPOC, members of other nationalities and migrants are members of the working class and often in higher proportions. So, we can only unite our class in its diversity.
Connolly was already saying that the working class and small famers included Irish speakers, and this was to be welcomed and supported. Kelles-Kreuz argued that when Jewish workers wanted to retain the use of the Yiddish language, they also welcomed a wider Yiddish cultural renaissance, and they were helping to create a language of cultural resistance to oppression. And Iurkevich and the Ukrainian Communists thought that by championing the Ukrainian language, rather than passively adopting the language of the oppressor (termed ‘progressive’ assimilation by Kautsky, the Bolsheviks and Radical Left), they were also contributing to communities of resistance.
Thus, championing a Socialist Republican, `Internationalism from Below’ ‘break-up of empire’ politics leads to solidarity with communities of resistance and their support for self-determination. Capitalism is a linked system of exploitation, oppression and alienation, so our answer has to challenge all three through emancipation, liberation and self-determination in its widest sense. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine highlights the necessity to understand this more clearly.
Allan Armstrong, 23.6.22 (updated 28.11.22)
Conclusion to Part 2
- The Conquest of Ukraine and the History of Russian Imperialism by Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski, New Politics
2. On the frontier of whiteness? Expropriation, war and social reproduction in Ukraine by Olena Lyubchenko, LeftEast
3. Ukapism: A Lost Left – Anticolonial Marxism in the Ukrainian Revolution, 1917-25, a review by Chris Ford