By Sam King
At the Marxism 2023 conference held in Melbourne, April 6-9, long-term Socialist Alternative leader Tom Bramble outlined Socialist Alternative’s thinking on the Ukraine war: victory to NATO against Russia!
This is a report back from the conference session entitled The War in Ukraine and Imperialism, that Bramble presented.
The war, according to Socialist Alternative, should be primarily characterised as a Ukrainian “national liberation struggle” to drive out the “Russian imperialist invasion”.
We were told (without evidence) that the “Ukrainian population” supports this struggle and the consequence of Ukrainian defeat would be “national obliteration” at the hands of “Russian imperialist control”. What is meant by “national obliteration” was not outlined.
Victory to NATO!
Socialist Alternative supports continuing Australian and NATO shipments of arms and military equipment to the Zelenskyy regime in Ukraine.
As Bramble put it, Socialist Alternative is “not opposed to NATO weapons shipments to Ukraine even though we don’t make that demand”. They don’t publicly demand it (as such) because to do so would give the “illusion that our government is pursuing a progressive military policy”. Instead, “we call on Ukrainians to make that demand”.
Socialist Alternative do not support a negotiated peace on any basis other than Ukraine’s 1991 borders. Anything else, they believe, would constitute an imperialist partition of the country that tramples on Ukraine’s national rights. Any negotiations between NATO and Russia should be opposed (!) as only Ukraine (in practice the Zelenskyy regime) has the right to negotiate.
The Socialist Alternative leadership must be aware they support the same outcome to the war as Joe Biden, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Rishi Sunak, Anthony Albanese and almost the entire Western European capitalist ruling class as well as imperialist propaganda outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian.
They believe this is justified because the “predominant” character of the Ukraine War is not a proxy war between NATO and Russia, with Ukraine as the battleground. Rather, it is “predominantly” about Ukrainian national liberation from “Russian Imperialism”.
“Of course”, we were told, the NATO imperialists are trying to achieve their own objectives out of the conflict – but that is not the main issue. The main fight is over national self-determination – a fundamental democratic right of the Ukrainian people that all socialists should support.
It’s worth understanding that this is not a new stance for Socialist Alternative. In the proxy war in Syria started in 2011, Socialist Alternative supported the US-backed side. Similarly, they supported the imperialist backed Libyan opposition that eventually overthrew Muammar Gaddafi under NATO air cover in 2011.
Bramble did not draw attention to it, but Socialist Alternative’s position is nearly the same as that of Socialist Alliance, except that Socialist Alliance has the courage of its convictions and fills the pages of its press with arguments.
No speaker in the discussion spoke against Bramble’s position.
There were many things that detached this discussion from reality. For example, Bramble chose not to mention the role of Nazis in the Ukrainian government and armed forces.
None of Zelenskyy’s domestic opponents that have been disappeared, jailed or banned got mentioned either.
Like the imperialist mass media, no mention was made of the February 2014 coup against the democratically elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych who was negotiating an economic deal with Russia.
The words “Minsk Agreements” passed the lips of no one in the room. Russia’s attempt to negotiate with the US prior to February 2022 and the latter’s refusal to consider Russian security concerns were not mentioned. The abortive March 2022 peace talks between Ukraine and Russia – that were abandoned after the intervention of Boris Johnson – were not mentioned either.
In short, all the key political flashpoints relevant to the debate about whether this is a war “predominantly” about national liberation or, rather, should be “predominantly” understood as a NATO proxy struggle against Russia, was excluded from consideration.
The linchpin of Bramble’s framework was the simple assertion that “Ukrainians” support a Zelenskyy / NATO victory. This claim was made without a single reference to the Russian speaking population living within Ukraine’s 1991 borders.
By all indicators, large sections of that population do not overwhelmingly support a Zelenskyy / NATO victory, but rather a Russian victory. For example, many ethnic Russians and others in the Donbass region have taken up arms on the Russian side. That is why Kiev has not controlled the area since 2014.
According to Bramble, the Donbass and Crimea are part of Ukraine – end of story. But no basis for that conclusion was mentioned. The eight-year Donbass War leading up to February 2022 was not referred to in the session. If the population within Ukrainian’s 1991 borders overwhelmingly support NATO, then why was the 2014 coup necessary?
If Zelenskyy’s military campaign aims for the national liberation of Ukraine then Crimea and the Donbass must be Ukrainian. Are they?
An Australian Marxist expert on the region, Renfrey Clarke, does not think the Donbass is Ukrainian, and he, unlike Bramble, raises supporting arguments for his position. Clarke argues that the history of the Donbass region, including the eight-year Donbass war, has created a national entity that is neither Ukrainian nor Russian, but something else, like Donbassian – though the population is supportive of Russia in this war.
Russian annexation of Donbass, Clarke says, should be supported by socialists abroad and others, as Russian control is more in keeping with the popular aspirations and national character of this region than control from Kiev. This is different from Clarke’s characterisation of the Russian annexation of Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces. He says annexation of these constitutes Russian “war loot”, that should rightfully be settled as part of peace negotiations.
Crimea, Clarke says, never really was Ukrainian, has never had a Ukrainian ethnic majority and – as is well known – was gifted to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. For the left to demand that it be handed back to Ukraine, Clarke says, is to bow down before the niceties of international law – “which is bourgeois law, after all”.
Those wanting an authoritative Marxist examination of the issues can read Clarke’s works which are referenced below.
Would a negotiated peace annexing Crimea, Donbass, Zaporizhia and Kherson to Russia be a worse social and political outcome for the people living in 1991 Ukraine than a NATO victory, or a continuation of this disastrous war? Why?
It seems the basic reason underlying the conclusion that it would be worse is that Russia is considered a more wicked and dangerous enemy than the real imperialist rulers that lead NATO (and our own country). To conclude, as Socialist Alternative do, that the war is about Ukrainian national liberation from Russia it is necessary to assume Russia, in 2023, seeks to colonise or somehow oppress Ukraine.
This is in keeping with much of the imperialist propaganda which asserts that “Putin” (as if he doesn’t represent the Russian bourgeoisie) wants to genocidally destroy Ukraine. However, anyone following events can see that is not the Russian war aim. Russian firepower could have caused massive civilian casualties and physical destruction very quickly if that were a deliberate aim.
Russia’s stated war aims relate to its security concerns, especially to de-nazify and de-militarise Ukraine. The former refers to removal of anti-Russian chauvinists from the government in Kiev. The latter – as Chomsky puts it – is saying that Ukraine does not have the right to place advanced offensive weapons, pointed at Russia, on its territory. This Russian demand is similar, in Chomsky’s example, to the situation in Mexico which has a military, but would never be permitted by the US to place advanced offensive weapons aimed at the US on its border.
What is the evidence the Russian bourgeoisie secretly seeks to colonise Ukraine? Or that it has an interest, intention, or ability to make Ukraine some sort of Russian semi-colony? Bramble provided none.
Bramble’s view is ultimately a social-patriotic (social chauvinist) view that assumes our own rulers are the lesser evil. It lets off the hook the most destructive and oppressive of all regimes – the small group of rich, imperialist countries (including Australia) that oppress and exploit the Global South as whole. The imperialist countries are fighting a united battle since World War Two (in Ukraine and elsewhere) to maintain a global system that has enriched them.
Socialist Alternative’s patriotism is based fundamentally in its adoption of the bourgeois liberal viewpoint that Russia is an imperialist country. This ignores the Marxist view of imperialism as a world system dominated by the exploiter nations (exploiter in the Marxist sense of appropriating surplus-value from exploited countries).
The states with the power to exploit other states are, as a result, the rich ones, like Australia, Western Europe and the United States – but not Russia. In 2021 Russia had a per capita income similar to Mexico, Turkey and China, i.e. less than one quarter of Germany, one fifth of Australia and one sixth of the United States.
If this basic social content of the imperialist system – exploitation through appropriation of the product of workers labour – is not understood, then what becomes front of mind is the political regime that exists in each country. That is, political regimes that are more or less repressive, more or less socially reactionary etc. By overlooking the underlying economic exploitation, any type of militarism looks to the observer to be “imperialist”. The observer ends up with a dictionary, not Marxist, understanding of the word.
But it has almost always been the case since the Second World War that the rich countries, because of their domination of the world system and exploitation of the former colonial countries, have far greater economic resources and wealth at their disposal. This has enabled them to run fairly open, liberal democratic regimes most of the time.
To imagine that Russian victory would create in Ukraine political conditions similar to those in Russia while NATO victory would create those similar to, say, Germany or France is simply to ignore what Ukraine is – an exploited capitalist society, part of the Global South.
The view that imperialist victory in Ukraine would likely achieve better social and political conditions than a victory for Russia – which is also an exploited capitalist society – is to think that more extensive imperialist control over the Global South is a better outcome than imperialist defeat. Such a view ignores the whole history of imperialist exploitation of the less developed countries.
To stand in Melbourne, as Bramble did, and proclaim that Russia – an economically exploited country – is “imperialist”, is a capitulation to the liberal, social chauvinism of the imperialist ruling classes. It actively supports (using socialist terminology) the imperialist states’ military, economic and ideological project to stabilise and continue their global economic dominance.
Bolstering the new McCarthyism
Bramble’s stance is also an abject capitulation to the new McCarthyite atmosphere being whipped up in the imperialist societies which posits Russia (and China) as dangerous and fearsome enemies.
How is Socialist Alternative’s position of publicly calling on the Ukrainians to demand weapons (a demand the Zelenskyy regime already makes) any different from just plainly stating what they mean – “We think that Australian and NATO arms should go to Ukraine”?
To be consistent with this policy, Bramble really needs to argue for massively increased NATO arms supplies and training – because without that, it is inconceivable that Russia will be driven out from Ukraine’s 1991 borders.
Socialist Alternative’s oddly indirect way of expressing their view attempts to avoid the obvious criticism: that their line strengthens Australian imperialism and militarism. According to Bramble (now paraphrasing) ‘we can champion Ukrainian self-defence using NATO weapons without bolstering militarism’.
He argued Australian militarism is not significantly bolstered by Australian support for Ukraine because, in Australia, Ukraine is a sideshow (China is the main game).
Even in Europe, according to Bramble, there is no indication the Ukraine war is creating patriotic fervour among the working class. The “evidence” given for this claim is that there is currently a lot of strike activity occurring in the United Kingdom.
Yes, Bramble really did argue this. Apparently, he thinks that workers who go on strike for better wages and conditions must not be affected by patriotic chauvinism. From this statement it seems Bramble does not know what a strike is, nor a working class.
Surely the history of workers struggles in the imperialist societies shows that workers can be – and often are – both chauvinist and industrially militant. There is nothing inconsistent in chauvinist workers demanding a greater portion of the spoils of imperialism for themselves.
Lenin wrote extensively on this phenomenon, including in his book Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. In fact, he linked the development of an “aristocracy of labour” in the imperialist countries to the consolidation of the imperialist system involving the exploitation of the underdeveloped countries. For these reasons Lenin’s Imperialism book is rejected by Socialist Alternative and excluded from the group’s educational curriculum.
Positively, Bramble does think there might be the capacity to mobilise for protests in Australia against the Federal Government’s increased military spending targeting China. This is an important point. Hopefully there will joint practical work soon.
However, the outcome of the Ukraine War may have another impact in our region. If US imperialism loses its proxy war in Ukraine – having then had its fingers burned politically in Europe – it will be less able and willing to carry out aggression against China. That is another reason Socialist Alternative’s “victory to NATO” is the wrong approach.
Socialist Alternative is careful to state that they are vehemently against NATO and its allies. But no number of statements in the abstract can have any effect in countering their very concrete support for the NATO side in its actual war that is currently ravaging Ukraine.
This report is made from my own notes taken in the session, The Ukraine war and world imperialism, held on April 9th. For greater accountability and clarity, it would be useful if Socialist Alternative publish the recording of Bramble’s speech at its dedicated marxtalks.com.au website. In the meantime, similar, earlier versions of Bramble’s arguments are available in Red Flag.
Works by Renfrey Clarke:
Ukraine, Russia, Imperialism and National Self-determination (2023)
The Catastrophe of Ukrainian Capitalism: How privatisation dispossessed and impoverished the Ukrainian people (Resistance Books, 2022).
The Myth of ‘Russian Imperialism’, In Defense of Lenin’s Analyses
By Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis (2016):
The Donbass in 2014: Ultra-Right Threats, Working-Class Revolt, and Russian Policy
Responses, published in International Critical Thought, Beijing (2014).