Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ukraine and World Revolution in the Modern Epoch

What approach should Marxists take?*
From Stephen Morgan in Brussels

Glancing at some of the online left-wing websites, I was surprised to see how little coverage there's been about events in the Ukraine over the last 3 months. Moreover, on my Twitter sites some on the  left even discounted the significance of the movement and wrote it off as a reactionary event because of the pro-EU demands being put forward. There are certainly many valid criticisms of the democracy movement in the Ukraine, but I think dismissing it as counter-revolutionary would be wrong. It needs to be analysed more closely because it tells something about the nature of revolutionary crises in the modern epoch.

There is no question that this is a tricky issue and that the strength of pro-capitalist sentiments and the presence of nationalist and extreme-right elements is off-putting. But we cannot just ignore or wish away what is happening because it doesn't fit neatly in to our scheme of things. It is no good sitting around and waiting until a revolution led by the workers, supporting left-wing ideas, suddenly lands in our laps.

Unfortunately, revolutions never begin where they should end. They don't start out where we would like them to and then travel in some straight line from General Strike Station to Socialist Terminus. Revolutions usually start off as messy things, in which all sorts of confused and naïve ideas of both a progressive and reactionary character compete against each other. Like all processes, they develop through contradictions, which take them through twists and turns, tunnels and detours and which sometimes lead them into the sidings or even derails them all together. What is sure is that they never fit into the schema we might expect of them.

One theoretical objection which has been made to calling the crisis in the Ukraine revolutionary, is that there hasn't been a dual power situation, because the workers haven't established soviets or workers' councils which act as an alternative power structure to the existing state machine. In my opinion, this is a rather schematic approach that tries to fit uprisings into preconceived models, which come from revolutions which took place in different countries under different circumstances. In particular, it is based on the Russian Revolution of 1917, though similar structures have developed elsewhere to a lesser degree in Germany and Hungary. But, will this always be the case a century later and under different circumstances? I don't think so.

Generally speaking, dual power is a revolutionary situation in which two powers exist in society. On the one side, there is the bourgeoisie, which finds itself unable to rule by its old methods. Its structures of government and its forces of repression continue to exist, but are virtually paralysed and incapable of suppressing the revolution. On the other side, effective power is in the hands of the masses on the streets, but they has not yet been able to completely overthrow the ruling class and replace it with their own alternative system of government. This is precisely the situation in the Ukraine and we have also seen it in the Arab Spring.

Furthermore, dual power can manifest itself in many different ways. The power of the masses may or may not take the form of soviets. It can manifest itself through factory committees, trade unions, armed militias and adhoc opposition bodies formed from among protesters on the streets. In Chile, under Allende, it also took the form of the election of a left socialist government and that could be one variation of dual power in other older capitalist countries as well.

The capitalist class will also try to establish different bodies for organizing a counter-revolution and establishing alternative forms of its rule. If the bourgeoisie is weak, they may try to create governments of “National Unity” and switch from dictatorship to some form of democracy. Or it may create military committees and use fascist organizations to start a civil war against the masses. In certain circumstances, when there is a stalemate in the revolution and neither class is able to overcome the other, the army may also rise above the warring classes in order to pose as an arbiter between them, but with the ultimate aim of subduing the revolutionary movement and defending capitalism.

In the modern epoch, dual power can often be a very protracted process. But it cannot last forever. At a certain point, the masses must either take complete control of society or the ruling class will carry out a counter-revolution. Therefore, dual power is a dynamic manifestation of an unresolved, revolutionary crisis which, depending on concrete circumstances, can take on many different forms for both classes. To reduce dual power to the existence of soviets is an undialectical approach which turns the struggle for power into a lifeless schema

If we were to base our description of dual power on the existence of soviets alone, then we would have to reconsider the Paris Commune as the first seizure of power by the working class, because soviets weren't created there. Similarly, the workers in Egypt in 2011 never created mass soviets, so we would have to conclude that a state of dual power never existed there and, accordingly, no revolution took place in Egypt or anywhere else in the Arab world.

Lenin actually criticized what he called the “fetishism” of the soviets during the Russian Revolution itself. Why? Because at a certain point the soviets had become a barrier to the revolution. Because elections to the soviets hadn't been called for months, their make-up represented the lower level of consciousness which had existed at the beginning of the revolution in February and not the more radical phase which it had entered later.

In fact, the soviets, far from being an alternative power challenging the old regime, had turned into a body which was acting as a prop for its left-overs and were being manipulated to organize counter-revolution. Lenin went so far as to suggest that, in order for the revolution to succeed, it would be necessary to bypass the soviets and go directly to the factory committees, which better represented the power base of the revolution and the actual moods of the workers.

In his book “The Lessons of October,” Trotsky made a point of clarifying how Marxists should view the phenomenon of soviets. It is worth quoting in detail. He warns:
“the young European parties, who have more or less accepted soviets as a “doctrine” and “principle,” always run the danger of treating soviets as a fetish, as some self-sufficing factor in a revolution. Yet, in spite of the enormous advantages of soviets as the organs of struggle for power, there may well be cases where the insurrection may unfold on the basis of other forms of organization (factory committees, trade unions, etc.) and soviets may spring up only during the insurrection itself, or even after it has achieved victory, as organs of state power.”

In fact, during the revolution in Tunisia, it wasn't soviets which became the source of dual power, but the regional trade unions, which were taken over by the workers and became the organizing points of the revolution and the manifestation of dual power.

Lets quote from Trotsky a little more in his book, the Lessons of October.
“Most highly instructive from this standpoint is the struggle which Lenin launched after the July days against the fetishism of the organizational form of soviets.....Lenin indicated the factory committees as the organizations of the struggle for power.....It is very likely that the movement would have proceeded on those lines if it had not been for the Kornilov uprising, which forced the conciliationist soviets to defend themselves and made it possible for the Bolsheviks to imbue them with a new revolutionary vigor, binding them closely to the masses.”

With reference to the revolutionary crises in Germany between 1918-23, Trotsky explained that the German soviets were only “organs of insurrection without an insurrection... organs of state power – without any power.” Consequently, the 3rd International decided against calling for the creation of soviets in Germany and instead looked to the factory committees as the organs of dual power.
Trotsky emphasized that the experience of soviets in Russia “will not be repeated in the proletarian revolutions of the West.” He warns that,

“All these variants must be kept in mind, to safeguard us from falling into organizational fetishism, and so as not to transform the soviets from what they ought to be flexible and living form of struggle into an organizational “principle” imposed upon the movement from the outside.”
To paraphrase the German poet, Goethe, “theory is grey my friend, but the tree of life is ever green.” I think we need to bear this in mind with regard to revolutions in the modern epoch.

Political understanding and class consciousness is often very confused and convoluted at the beginning of revolution and progressive ideas can be mixed up with reactionary ones. Furthermore, as an expression of the polarization of class relations, not only can the far-left gain popularity, but the extreme right usually grows in influence as well. The economic ruin of the middle classes and increasing destitution of the classless, lumpen sections of the population on the fringes of society, will always provide a reservoir for nationalistic and neo-Nazi groups.

We have seen this recently in Greece with dramatic rise in support for the far-right Golden Dawn and, simultaneously, the even greater growth in support for a the radical, left-wing SYRIZA movement. However, the huge wave of strikes and struggles of the Greek workers meant that the Golden Dawn was held back from gaining real mass support. However, in situations where the labour movement doesn't play any independent, mass revolutionary role and no socialist alternative is offered, then it is inevitable that hopes in capitalism remain and support for the extreme-right can grow even far more.

This has been the case in the Ukraine until now, but we shouldn't just write it off as a petty-bourgeois movement in which the working class plays no role or has no interests. Revolutions by nature entail shifts in power between different classes and changes in the role played by different parties and groups. Consciousness develops through contradictions and the interaction of events and ideas can shatter illusions or clarify tasks very quickly. Reactionary ideas can be swept aside with lightning speed under certain circumstances and revolutionaries cannot not afford to be taken unawares.

For example, should the Marxists have turned their backs on the Russian workers at the time of the 1905 Revolution? Lets remember that, at the beginning, the masses were intoxicated by religious and monarchist ideas. When the revolution started, hundreds of thousands of workers and their families marched to the Royal Place lead by a priest and holding religious icons to their breasts. They knelt on their knees before the Tzar, with a petition to plead for his help to alleviate their suffering.

But when the Tzar ordered the Cossacks to massacre the protesters, consciousness changed in a matter of hours and minutes and these same workers began creating armed militias, taking over the factories and setting up soviets. Before then, socialists had been thrown out of workers' meetings and beaten up. But since they didn't write off the working class because of the presence of reactionary moods and, instead, persisted in their efforts to get socialist ideas across, the workers later welcomed them into their organizations and listened enthusiastically to their speeches.

Marxists often have to swim against the tide, even in filthy waters. During the World Wars, the working class was swept away by reactionary nationalist, jingoist and racist ideas and identified their interests with those of the ruling class. But Marxists couldn't wait until more favourable conditions arrived. Had they taken a pacifist position and lectured from the safety of the sidelines, they would never have gained the ear of the masses, much less their respect. Genuine Marxists go wherever the working class is and that meant signing up for the army and heading for the trenches.

When they were there, they pursued a two-pronged tactic. In war, to stay alive soldiers depend on solidarity and the preparedness of everyone to fight the best they can. Therefore, Marxists couldn't step aside from the battle. Instead they had to show themselves to be the best soldiers. In doing so, they won the respect of the other troops, who then more inclined to listen to their propaganda about the nature of the Imperialist war and the need for international revolution.

Swimming against the stream will frequently be a feature of Marxist work in the modern epoch. Revolutions will be more messy and protracted than the past, because the situation today is much more complicated. This not the 1920's or even the 1970's. The ideas of socialism have been marginalized and distorted. The old Stalinist dictatorships and the collapse of the planned economies has undermined and besmirched socialism.

That, together with the prolonged capitalist boom, has reinforced illusions in capitalism, which is seen as the only viable socio-economic system. This situation has been reinforced by the fact that the leadership of all the old workers' parties have degenerated into unashamed advocates and servants of capitalism. Consequently, the lack of genuine mass workers' parties based on socialist ideas has created an ideological vacuum, into which all sorts of confused ideas and unusual movements will be poured.

In the old capitalist countries, class consciousness and political understanding has never been as low since the very inception of the workers' movement some 150 years ago. It is as though the working class has lost its memory and many of the basic axioms of class struggle and organization are having to be relearned again.

A similar situation exists in the former Stalinist states like the Ukraine. These workers haven't had genuine independent organizations, such as trade unions or mass workers parties for more than 50-70 years. Class consciousness and political understanding has been thrown backwards by the experience of the bureaucratic dictatorships and its gross caricature of socialism, followed by the victory of capitalism over the planned economy.

In the underdeveloped world, where the recent boom has industrialised these economies and created a mass working class for the first time, the situation is also very similar to the middle of the 19th century. The workers are discovering their interests and identity as a class and are in the process of drawing conclusions about the need for independent labour organizations, unions and workers parties.

In these circumstances, everywhere around the world, we can expect the development of class consciousness and socialist beliefs to take a protracted, contradictory and confused path. For example, we have already seen the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab Revolutions and the degeneration of some of them into civil wars. In Thailand, we have witnessed the widespread illusions in the monarchy, to the extent that, at one point, both sides called a truce to celebrate the King's birthday. In Bangladesh, where we have seen major strike movements heralding the awakening of the working class, we also saw how the sectarian, Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party carried out pogroms of minority Hindus and, at the same time, called a general strike in protest at the execution of one of its leaders, convicted of crimes aginst humanity during the 1971 war of independence.

Marxists have to begin with the level of consciousness which exists and not what we would like it to be. We don't wait on a distant bank until the workers forge a way through the river of revolution and join us on the other side with all the right conclusions drawn. We have to build a bridge for them to cross over to the socialism. This is why Trotsky suggested the use of a transitional programme, which would gain the ear of the masses by taking the positive demands they raise, regardless of their illusions in capitalism, and linking them to the need for a transformation of society.

At the same time, Marxists must prove themselves to be the most resolute fighters for reforms, while patiently explaining that reforms can never be permanently won, as long as capitalism exits. This applies to both the economic and political demands raised in countries like Bangladesh, Thailand or Egypt and should be applied to the movement in the Ukraine, as well?

Marxist have to be part of the protests and on the barricades, regardless of whether the nationalists, monarchists, extreme-right and pro-capitalist elements are there. Of course, Marxists fight as a separate group and don't hesitate to expose the reactionary forces. But they must also be the best fighters in order to gain the respect of the wider masses, who are then more likely to listen to their warnings about reactionary ideas and their proposals for a socialist alternative.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels stated that Communists were the most consistent and determined fighters for democracy. When the democratic revolutions broke out in Europe in 1848, they didn't just ignore them because they weren't socialist in character or because the working class didn't play an independent role and harboured illusions in the bourgeoisie. They intervened in this movement to defend democratic rights. Friedrich Engels himself actually went to fight in the military battles in the German territories of Baden and the Palatinate.

In 1848, a key issue for Marx and Engels was to use the events of the bourgeois democratic revolutions to raise the consciousness of the emergent working class about the need for independent action and organization. They also insisted that the role of socialists was not to create their own parties to compete with or substitute themselves for genuine mass workers' parties, but to use all their efforts to build them and the movement in general. The germ of an independent workers movement was present within the class collaborationist character of the 1848 revolutions and it is also there in the present uprising in the Ukraine.

It would definitely be wrong to see it as purely some middle class movement heavily influenced by nationalist and extreme right movements. There are certainly no shortage of them, but we also need to be careful of the slant given by the capitalist media. It sensationalizes the role of the far-right to sell papers and form political opinions.

One of the key extreme-right group involved in Maidan Independence Square is Pravy Sektor. Although able to claim tens of thousands of supporters on it social media page, it admitted that only about 300 of its members were involved in the demonstrations, that is in protests amounting to hundreds of thousands of people. Furthermore, the Pravy Sektor group is made up mostly of Russian speakers. In fact, it opposes the pro-EU demands of demonstrators, denounces the European Union and its “totalitarian liberalism” and calls for a “national revolution” instead.

Many media reporters also only talk with participants who speak English and, consequently, come from the middle classes. They also want to play down the working class character of the events and play up the middle class nature of the democratic movement, just as it did in the Arab Spring. Therefore, we could fall into the trap of ignoring the real composition of the demonstrations.

The bulk of the protesters are ordinary people unassociated with the extreme-right and many come from the working class. A young woman who had been in the Independence Square for months explained that “for her it was the reason to break with an unsatisfactory former life working as a baby-sitter for wealthy people. Those people,"  she said "they think 'she's not our class.' They think there are only stupid people here."

We also have to take into account that the west of the country where the pro-EU movement is based is much poorer than the pro-Russian eastern part. For example, in Ternopil, a city of ¼ million in the west of the country, the average salary is $267 per month, compared to $453 in the eastern industrial heartland of Donetsk. Below is a comparison of income by region.

Many workers from the west have marched as independent contingents in the protests, such as the miners and railway workers. These two groups are the founders of the independent trade union association in the west called the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) and it is not accidental that the Coordination Committee for the protests is based in the union's national headquarters in Kiev. Although it is still small compared to the old Stalinist unions in the east.

Even so, KVPU members have been widely involved in the protests, saying they are fighting for the right to freedom of assembly and organization and against the persecution of free trade unionists. Furthermore they have used their participation to complain about the government owing some $313.4 million in social payments and causing a three-month delay in salaries for public employees.
Clearly, class consciousness hasn't been totally lost in the pro-EU camp, especially with regard to the super-rich. Speaking at the platform in the Maiden protests, the KPVU President, Mikhailo Volynets said, “The problem in Ukraine.... is that a few oligarchs control everything for their own profit.”

Despite the obvious illusions in the EU, below the surface there is an understanding of what dangers come with it. While KVPU members adopted a resolution at their November congress calling for the government to sign the EU agreement, they also expressed their fear at the probable IMF’s austerity demands. Volynets said, “We strongly believe that closer ties to the EU will benefit our members. Unfortunately, the IMF demanded economic reforms would hurt average families in Ukraine, and undercut worker and human rights.”

Furthermore, it is not only liberals and nationalists who are leading the movement. In the important western city of Lviv, where protesters have control of the town and where authorities have said that their police will fight any security forces or troops sent by the national government, the leader of the uprising is Andrii Sokolov, who describes himself as a trade unionist and social democrat.

We also need to take into account that the situation among Russian-speaking workers in the east is also confused. Alongside popularity for Putin and illusions in Russian Imperialism, many associate closer economic ties with Russia with some form of socialism. There is nostalgia for the old Soviet days, when jobs and wages were guaranteed, while, at the same time, there is considerable hatred towards the new oligarchs. The ideas of socialism based on genuine workers' democracy and internationalism would capture the imagination of many workers in the east if explained in a skilful way. Moreover, the potential power of the Ukrainian working class is enormous. The east of the country is the largest, most highly concentrated industrial region in the world.

Clearly, the situation in the Ukraine is not at all hopeless for Marxists. There is definitely a potential audience for anti-capitalist and socialist ideas.  Below the contradictory moods and misconceptions over the EU and Russia, the distorted underlying consciousness is that there can only be an international solution to the economic and political problems of the Ukraine. That is very positive. It gives a basis for Marxist to explain the need for international socialism.

Even Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently stated that it was “Russia’s ambition to create a unified economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” He continued, “When we will achieve all our plans regarding the Customs Union and the future Eurasian Union, I’m convinced that we will move toward putting in place the common economic space between Eurasia and the EU.” Marxists couldn't agree more, except that it would mean the expropriation of the oligarchs, the destruction of the rule of the bureaucrats and the introduction of a Eurasian plan of production under real, democratic worker's control and management.

The key task at hand is to encourage the further development of an independent workers' movement, stressing the separate interests of the workers from the bourgeoisie, undermining the false hopes in EU bureaucrats, as well as the illusions in Russian Imperialists. In particular, there is an urgent need for an independent, all-Ukrainian Labour Party based on both geographical areas and both linguistic groups. 

*  The four paragraphs following the one beginning "One theoretical objection" (para 4) were added on Feb 7th. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the best theoretical pieces I have read in a long time!