By Stephen Morgan
At root, the problems over the National Question in the Ukraine are questions of jobs and living standards. This has given rise to divergent misconceptions and misplaced illusions about how to solve these problems. In reality, they are really no more than hopes born out of desperation. Both sections of the population, Ukrainian and Russian speaking, realize that they are staring into an economic abyss and this is propelling them towards separation, in the absence of any other alternative.
These fears have become entangled with the unresolved issues of what Leon Trotsky (a Ukrainian and bilingual, Ukrainian/Russian speaker) called the accumulated insults of centuries of cultural oppression, national exploitation and stilted development - something which the Ukraine has never settled accounts with or recovered from.
Somewhat ironically, in a sense, the Ukraine was the birthplace of the Slavic nation, which gave rise to the Russian state. It was a centre of culture and learning until all this was destroyed by centuries of Mongolian-Tartar rule. This suppressed its natural, free and uninhibited development as a nation. Before it could begin to recover from this historical set back, its natural territories were divided between the empires of Poland-Lithuania, Austria-Hungary and Russia, whose rule continued until modern times.
As in all cases of Imperialist domination, the culture of an oppressed nation suffers from different degrees and forms of assimilation. Having not had the opportunity to properly develop its own culture, the western half of the Ukraine adopted the higher culture of its Western European rulers. Its cities became dominated by people of foreign origin, while “Ukrainianism” survived only amongst the peasants in the countryside, themselves ruled over by a largely foreign nobility.
On the other hand, in the eastern Ukraine, centuries of Russian rule meant its economy and politics came under the domination of Great Russian culture, resulting in the Russification of a large part of the population, which took a linguistic form in the adoption of the Russian language by many ethnic Ukrainians. Many Russians also settled in the eastern Ukraine, but it would be wrong to describe the whole of the east of the country as populated by “Russians” today. With the exception of the Crimea, which only became part of the Ukraine in 1954, a majority of Russophones in the east are Russian-speaking, ethnic Ukrainians and/or bi-lingual Ukrainians, many of whom speak both languages at home, as well as hybrid dialects of the two. Inevitably, Russian is also widely spoken in the capital Kiev and other cities.
The centuries of assimilation, dismemberment and national oppression in the Ukraine manifested itself in the very name of the people and language, which never acquired the characteristic designation of other countries, based on the dominant nationality or ethnic and linguistic group. Instead, the name given to them was the derogatory term of the “borderlands” which is what the “Ukraine” means, thus undermining the people's sense of a clearly-defined, natural identity.
In many ways, the history of a nation can be compared to the life and evolution of an individual. Through the experiences of its development, a people acquires a distinct identity and certain distinguishing characteristics. It matures and, one might say, develops its own “personality.” But to complete this process, it must, just like an individual, eventually become an independent “adult,” sure of itself and its separate identity and capable of standing on its own two feet.
However, the tragedy of the Ukraine is that it was never able to break away from its Imperialist step parents and get the opportunity to mature into an independent nation, with a clear sense of “who it was” and what it constituted. It has only really been an independent nation for the first time, since 1991. Therefore, a considerable amount of the confusion, disequilibrium and insecurity now present in the Ukraine is a manifestation of a nation trying to overcome its retarded development and abusive childhood at the hands of outside powers. What we have in the Ukraine today, is a crisis of self-identity, complicated by problems of a split personality.
This is what makes the crisis over the National Question in this country so sharp and complex. Overcoming this crisis becomes not only a political task, but what might be termed a “socio-psychological” challenge. In the hope of achieving this, the positive efforts on the part of both communities to resolve their problems has to be affirmed. But both communities also have to become aware of aspects of their dysfunctional behaviours and relationships, which are undermining their further development as a nation– one of which is to rely upon others and allow themselves to be manipulated by outside forces. Therefore, the tasks to build trust, which can unify the two parts of the country. To borrow again from psychological terminology, the Ukraine needs to be “whole” if it is to overcome the baggage of the past and mature into a real nation.
We could say that the uprising in the West has been a heroic, though confused attempt to break free of a malevolent and suffocating parent in the form of Russian Imperialism. But its weakness is its tendency to search out a new guardian in the form of the EU and Western capitalism. It has also brought to the fore a dark side of itself in the form of the extreme-right's role in events. In its efforts to be free, it is also making the mistake of trying to disown or suppress the other side of itself, which is the Russian-speaking east. This will be disastrous. By ignoring the need to integrate its two halves into one powerful whole, it is turning against itself and undermining its struggle for real independence.
One example of the dysfunctional behaviour involved, was the new Kiev government's immediate decision to overturn the rights of Russian-speakers to use Russian as an official language in regions, where they are a majority. This act was irresponsible, vindictive and almost childish in character. They say an abused child often later becomes an abuser itself. And this act mimicked the same sort of cultural and national oppression, which the Ukrainian nation as a whole has suffered from at the hands of Imperialist overlords. It has undermined the aim of creating of a genuinely independent and united Ukraine.
The east immediately saw this as a threat to its own identity, rights and independence. In a backlash, the region has turned back towards its perceived protector in the form of Russia, a step as equally misguided as the western half's efforts to be taken under the umbrella of the EU. This, in turn, has forced the west away and exacerbated the division which bedevils the Ukrainian nation. A vicious circle has thus been set in train, which, if not stopped, will mean the regression of the Ukraine back to an earlier state of divided territories once again under the domination of opposing Imperialist powers.
|Ukranian riot police show their new Russian passports|
Russia is, of course, accelerating this process for its own selfish interests, but the EU and the US, which originally was hesitant about the depth of its involvement and the level of its commitment to a new Ukraine, may now be forced to offer a level of protection and sustenance which will encourage the western Ukraine to break away from its other part. So, the question is; has the level of “emotional conflict” now gone too far for the process to be reversed? Difficult to say, but the prognosis looks grim
Are there political demands which could help cut across this regression and eventually turn it around? A critical aspect of this is whether the “patient” feels the advice is doable and feasible. The demands must offer a viable way out of the crisis if they are to have a chance of succeeding. Sometimes, however, that proves impossible, because of the wider circumstances in which events are taking place. With regards to the Ukraine, this means global factors, which I'll come to in a moment, and which we have to admit are not favourable for a successful intervention. Therefore, all we may be able to do, is to plant the seeds of ideas which can blossom, when hopefully more positive circumstances arise in the future.
The first thing to say, however, is that these demands or any political programme is not something to be “forced upon” the Ukrainian people. It can only be the opening of a dialogue about certain suggestions arising from similar situations in history or also the present day, in other parts of the world. These can be helpful, but they do not provide a magic set of demands which work in all circumstances, everywhere. They have to be adapted and some have to be rejected, and the only people who can ultimately decide on what is best is the Ukrainian people themselves through constructive dialogue between members of both communities.
I have found it useful to look back at the modern history of the Ukraine and to study the approach adopted by one of its famous sons, Leon Trotsky. If we are careful to take into account the major differences in the epochs and the specific circumstances in which his demands and political programme for the Ukraine were worked out, then what he says helps to provide us with some useful guidelines.
In the first instance, Trotsky helps explain for us why, particularly in the west of the Ukraine today, we see such animosity towards Moscow. He points out that the causes are to be found in the treatment of Ukrainians under Stalin and we can we can update that today by adding to it the continued existence of neo-Stalinist methods of rule used by Putin, (even though Russia now has a capitalist economy.) In 1939 he wrote,
“The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions, and, in general, all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence.”
He continues, in what could be a very close description of the situation today;
“Not a trace remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the Western Ukrainian masses for the Kremlin........The worker and peasant masses in the Western Ukraine....are in a state of confusion. Where to turn? What to demand? This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques, who express their “nationalism” by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence.”
In the circumstances of the 1930's, a time just as complex, if not more complex than our own, he develops his explanation in the following terms;
“With their eyes turned away from the USSR and failing to receive support and leadership from the international proletariat, the petty bourgeois and even working class masses of the Western Ukraine are falling victim to reactionary demagogy.”
Circumstances today are different in their details, but Trotsky reveals the interrelationship of forces at work then and this gives us a guideline to explore the same sort of reasons for why the Western Ukrainian masses have come under the sway of reactionary forces today.
“With their eyes turned away from the USSR” he says. The USSR may not exist any more, but the Western Ukrainians can still smell its body odour, even if the bureaucracy and oligarchs have changed suits. Just as in the 1930's, the political system in Russia repels them. Today, we can add to this the contradictory effect of the complete collapse of the Soviet system and the former planned economy, which means that the very idea of “socialism” has been compromised and not only among Ukrainians, but among people around the world. The effect has been to throw back consciousness to a point where solutions to economic and political problems can only be conceived of by the masses on the basis of the capitalism, which is considered to be the only viable system. Therefore, any chance of positive attitudes towards Russia on the part of the Western Ukrainians has been delivered a double whammy. Russia stinks of stale Stalinism and while it is now based on a capitalist economy, that highly contradictory combination of facts confuses the whole idea of socialism and makes it seem even less attractive.
The next contributing factor Trotsky mentions, is the failure “to receive support and leadership from the international proletariat.” In the late 1930's, the victories of fascism and the approach of world war had subdued the class struggle internationally. The working class was weakened, confused and leaderless. Today, we are lucky that fascism hasn't scored any recent victories, although that isn't to say that reactionary regimes don't exist and that fascism isn't becoming a dangerous and growing threat, but we haven't seen the colossal defeats of the working class like those it suffered in Italy, Spain and Germany in the 1920s and 30s.
However, the effect of the collapse of Stalinism combined with the long capitalist boom up to 2007 and the complete degeneration of the leaders of the workers parties into unabashed defenders of capitalism, has thrown back the political understanding and class consciousness of the workers around the world. Therefore, the working class today is only now beginning to reawaken, relearn and rebuild it methods of struggle and organization in the face of a new capitalist crisis.
Consequently, although as a result of different causes in the past, we can still make a similar point to Trotsky's, in that another reason why the Western Ukrainians today are falling into the hands of reactionary leaders, is because they haven't received “support and leadership from the international proletariat” - in other words there has not yet been sufficiently large and distinct working class struggles, such as those in earlier epochs, which provided an alternative pole of attraction, in the form of fighting, proletarian socialist movements.
However, that said, the uprising in the Ukraine has been inspired by the democratic revolutions which took place in the Arab Spring. But for exactly the same reasons cited above, those revolutions ended up with confused and contradictory results (such as the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and the recent support for the military in Egypt) and this has been mirrored in the Ukraine, although with its own peculiarities. In a distorted form, however, the democratic revolutions confirm how a mass working class movement along genuine socialist lines could provide “the support and leadership” Trotsky talked of, which would undermine the hold of reactionary forces over the masses in the Ukraine, in the struggle for national independence.
Trotsky also emphasized that in dealing with the complexities of the national question, “we must proceed from facts and not ideal norms.” The aim he said was “to clear a road for the revolution”, “to find a bridge from reaction to revolution.” He chastised ultra-left sectarians, who simply threw out “abstractions” in the form of slogans about world revolution being the only solution and who ignored or denied the importance of the democratic demands for the right of nations to self-determination, including separation. Instead, they insisted on what they thought was the incontrovertible and sacrosanct unity of any existing nation or federation. In reply and precisely on the subject of the Ukraine, Trotsky suggested that instead revolutionaries should approach the Ukrainian people in the following terms,
“Of importance to me is your attitude towards your national destiny and not “socialistic sophistries.” I will support your struggle for independence with all my might” He continued, “Assuredly, the separation of the Ukraine (from the USSR) is a liability as compared with a voluntary and egalitarian federation: but it will be an unquestionable asset as compared with the bureaucratic strangulation of the Ukrainian people.”
Therefore, he said that “The slogan of an independent Ukraine does not signify that the Ukraine will remain forever isolated, but only this, that she will again determine for herself and of her own free will the question of her interrelations with other sections of the Soviet Union and her western neighbours.” Thus, “in order to freely determine her relations with other Soviet republics, in order to process the right of saying yes or no, the Ukraine must return herself to complete freedom of action.”
At that time, the largest part of the Ukraine was within the Soviet Union. Trotsky, therefore raised the slogan for a totally independent Soviet Ukraine. This, however, was also linked to his programme for political revolution in the USSR, to forcibly overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and implement genuine workers democracy and real workers' control and management of industry and the state.
His Ukrainian slogan was correct at that time. He was hardly going to demand a return to an independent capitalist Ukraine! But to repeat that slogan today, exactly in those terms, would be to fall into the same type of sectarian sophistry we mentioned before. To raise the slogan of an independent “Soviet” Ukraine, especially in the west of the county nowadays, wouldn't “clear a road for the revolution,” it would throw an impassable boulder in its way. The word “Soviet” in the Western Ukraine is immediately associated with centralized rule from Moscow. Alternatively, Trotsky also once used the slogan of a “united, free and independent workers' and peasants' Ukraine” and this, I think, would be a better approach to begin from, in order to formulate socialist slogans now.
Also, of course, the situation within the Ukraine itself is different today. The old Western Ukraine and the old Soviet Ukraine are now united in one Ukraine, but the same unresolved issues of nationalism, which existed in the 1930s, remain in a modern form and a different context. Clearly, before we can find “a bridge to the revolution” we have to find a bridge between the two communities.
The eastern Ukraine approximates to the old Soviet Ukraine which existed as part of the old USSR. The complex and confused ties to Russia which linger in the consciousness of east Ukrainians partly stem from the fact that, despite the political dictatorship of Stalinism, the region was industrialized, urbanized and developed under the old Soviet regime. Regardless of its shortcomings, living standards rose until the 1980s and they enjoyed reforms in terms of education, health and full employment. If we take into consideration that the isolation of people in the Soviet Bloc from life outside, meant there was no way to really compare these changes with those in the West, then that progress appeared to be even more substantial than it was and this created a basis of support and goodwill towards the Soviet Union, which continues until today.
However, the more agricultural west of the country never gained as much in this respect and remains generally poorer than the East, which contributes to the sense of discrimination and exploitation it suffered at the hands of Moscow.
For the moment in the Ukraine, the working class finds itself lost in the national revolution. It has no independent slogans and raises only a few specific demands on the socio-economic level. On the political level it has not yet defined its own class identity and therefore has been dragged along and submerged into the general opposition movement in the west. The same is true to some degree in the east, where although class consciousness in general terms is higher, the workers have so far been indistinguishable for the broader masses involved in the pro-Russian protests.
Trotsky insisted that, only by first supporting this broad struggle for democracy and self-determination, could the trust of the masses be gained and a path be cleared for the emergence of an independent working class movement. To have posed the need for a workers' revolution against the right of self-determination would have been ultra-left and would have meant losing the sympathy of the masses and arousing their suspicion of an alternative agenda. The masses would have turned a deaf ear towards the rest of the socialist revolutionaries' demands.
A crucial demand now would be the calling of a united conference of all workers' organizations and trade unions from all over the country, east and west, made up of locally elected rank and file members, instead of bureaucrats, who may have a vested interest in keeping workers divided. A mass rank and file conference should discuss forms of united action by Ukrainian and Russian-speaking workers to save the country from disintegration and to cut across the escalation of sectarian violence, as well as the threat of continued Russian and other foreign intervention. If the working class, who make up the majority of the population across the country, were to stand up and speak with one voice for unity, it would constitute the most powerful force capable of unifying the nation.
The cornerstone of the workers' movement and socialist ideas is based on maximum possible unity. That means the unity of the working class on a national and international basis, the unity of the nation, peoples and groups and the struggle for the union of nation states around the world. However, this doesn't in the least contradict the right of nations or parts of a nation to separation, if they so wish. Sometimes circumstances demand that nations must separate before unity and trust can be rebuilt. However, while categorically upholding this right, both in theory and practice, Marxists would still argue for maximum unity whenever and wherever that is possible or desirable. This, however, might have to include some “compromises.”
Readers of this blog in the Ukraine would have to confirm this, but my impression is that the majority of people in both the eastern and western regions would still not like to see the partition and separation of the country.
However, both communities are driven by an underlying antipathy towards centralization which manifested itself in the west's attitude towards Moscow, but which also showed itself in certain ways in the role of regional cities in the west, like Lviv during the uprising.
People in the east, on the other hand, have lost faith in Kiev and fear rule from the centre, which they see as sectarian and anti-Russian. They also have legitimate fears about the dark role of nationalists and the extreme-right in political affairs there. This is most pronounced in the Crimea because of its ethnic Russian majority, but is also prevalent elsewhere in Russian-speaking regions.
These various fears and doubts over centralized authority have to be addressed before we can find a solution. It may be that, in order to encourage maximum unity and hold the country together, continued nationhood could only be maintained on the basis of the maximum possible decentralization of power and self-government.
The only way to hold the Ukraine together now, could be to pose the demand for a Ukrainian Federation with maximum devolution of powers to the local regions and government units. This might even include such things as autonomous self-government for the ethnic Tartars in the Crimea, if they so wished.
Furthermore, while understanding the fears in the east, it has to be explained that there can be no freedom of will or action and no genuine right to self-determination, if the integrity of Ukraine's borders are violated by Russian military forces. Therefore, we have to unequivocally denounce the invasion of the Crimea by Russian troops or any other part of the Ukraine and demand their immediate withdrawal.
However, if efforts at unity failed, then genuine Marxists would unreservedly uphold the right of regions and ethnic or linguistic groups to separate, if they so wished, probably based on a popular referendum. There can be no hint of support for the forcible retention of any part of the country or group of people within the existing national borders against their own wishes.
However, as Trotsky put it back in 1939, and hardly a word of this needs to be changed,
“The question of the first order is the revolutionary guarantee of the unity and the independence of a workers' and peasants' Ukraine in the struggle against imperialism, on the one hand, and against Moscow Bonapartism on the other.”
Therefore, the demands I would present for discussion are;
* For the unity and independence of the Ukraine based on a voluntary Ukrainian Federation of Regions with maximum devolved powers of self government!
* For equal rights for all ethnic and linguistic groups and minorities!
* For the convening of a national rank and file conference of workers from both Ukrainian and Russian-speaking regions to discuss collective actions in defence of a united Ukraine and workers rights.
* Immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops from unauthorized areas of Ukrainian soil!
* No to corruption! No members of parliament to receive more wages than an average worker!
* No to dictatorship by domestic bureaucrats, oligarchs or the IMF, Imperialist powers and foreign capitalists!
* Aid and interest free loans for farmers and the self-employed based on the nationalization of the banks!
* For social ownership of all major industries, banks and services under the democratic control and self-management of working people!
* For a free and independent Ukraine based on a democratically-run plan of production, distribution and exchange.
* For a Democratic Socialist United States of Europe and Eurasia!
Stephen Morgan, March 3rd, 2014