Ukraine: a commentary on Paul Mason’s muddle

The radical journalist Paul Mason has attempted to produce a left-wing defence of the NATO alliance of Western capitalist powers. TONY SAUNOIS, secretary of the Committee for a Workers’ International, responds.

The brutal war in Ukraine, like all wars, has posed crucial issues for the working class in the sharpest way. 

Wars and revolutions are the greatest tests for Marxists and the working class. Unfortunately, many socialists, when confronted with either of these two historic processes, have failed the test. Many abandoned an independent programme for the working class and echo the ideas of the ruling class. The response by many on the left to the current bloody war being fought in Ukraine is no different.

Some have capitulated to the pressures of the ferocious ideological propaganda churned out by their respective ruling classes, and the reformist leaders of the workers’ movements who do not want to challenge capitalism. This path has been trodden on many occasions historically by ‘socialist’ leaders who proved incapable of withstanding the opportunist pressures of capitalism. 

This was the case in the run-up to the world war in 1914 when the leaders of the then mass workers’ social democratic parties betrayed the working class and supported the bourgeoisie in their own country. 

Others, mainly small groups, fall prey to the pitfall of crude ultra-leftism. They merely repeat slogans in a dogmatic way taking no account of the political consciousness of the masses. As a result, they are incapable of opening a dialogue with the working class and winning support for a revolutionary socialist programme. 

At the initial stages of many wars, those who have been able to maintain a principled independent socialist programme and explain it in a skilful way that corresponds to the mood of the working class are often a tiny minority. This was the case in the 1914-18 conflagration, when those who initially opposed the war were reduced to a minority, and a tiny handful of them assembled at the Zimmerwald conference in 1915. Even amongst these small forces, splits and divisions took place. 

At the beginning of any war, it is necessary for socialists to swim against the stream. Frequently, the masses need to experience the bloody consequences of war before the central questions become clarified and the real class interests of those involved revealed. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, “war does not begin with revolution – it ends with it”. Capitalist wars pose many issues. Yet the underlying class antagonisms in society are not resolved during a war. They resurface in a sharper and more polarised manner as the war drags on. 

The current conflict in Ukraine, like all other wars, has resulted in much confusion and provoked debate and differences on the left, including the far left. In Germany, the left party, Die Linke, has been divided between those who are generally supporting the response of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) led German government, apart from its new €100 billion rearmament programme, and those who are either pacifist or criticise Western powers and NATO but are less critical of Putin. In Spain, PODEMOS has meekly followed the position of the Spanish government. 

Others, like the Communist parties of India or Chile, have featured criticism of NATO but limited themselves to calls for ‘peace’ and a ‘diplomatic solution’. Some insignificant small groups, incredibly clinging to the idea that Putin’s capitalist Russia, in some way, still resembles the former USSR with its nationalised planned economy ruled by a Stalinist Bonapartist bureaucracy, lean towards supporting Russia as a means of opposing Western imperialism. News of the collapse of the former USSR and the capitalist restoration in 1991-92 apparently has still not reached them!

This article concentrates on the arguments of Paul Mason, who is known in Britain and has a certain audience internationally as a representative of the ‘left’. Under the false flag of ‘Marxism’, he attempts to give a ‘theoretical’ left cover for the pro-capitalist policies of the likes of the British Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, or the German SPD leader, Olaf Scholz. In his writings on this war, Mason has continued his political journey to the right, acting as an apologist for these pro-capitalist politicians. 

The character of the war

The task of socialists is to understand the class forces involved in any war. It is also necessary to advocate an independent programme that is in the interests of the working class in all the countries involved. The capitalist classes of all countries are motivated by their own economic, political and strategic interests. They have no concern for the interests of the working class or the mass of the population. The current war in Ukraine, in this respect, includes all of these features.

For the working class, capitalist wars offer no solution or way forward. In all wars, there are aggressors and defenders. Which side ‘started’ the war and fired first is not the crucial question in understanding the class interests involved in the conflict. The task is to understand the class dynamics and interests of the forces involved and to defend a programme that corresponds to the interests of the working class. 

In the Ukraine conflict there are many factors that need to be considered. Many of them have unfortunately been ignored or relegated to secondary importance by most capitalist commentators and some of the left. Putin has militarily intervened in Ukraine with the objective of expanding Russia’s sphere of influence in the region and globally. He is driven ideologically by Greater Russian chauvinism and a rejection of Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation. His regime is an authoritarian Bonapartist one, resting on a corrupt form of oligarchical capitalism. 

His drive into Ukraine is part of an attempt to establish a ‘new Russia’ – Novorossiya – to build a greater alliance of Russian dominated states or statelets. Putin is also motivated by a desperate opposition to NATO’s eastwards expansion, which his regime views as a threat to the aspiration to build ‘Novorossiya’ and the ruling elite’s interests. 

The Ukrainian masses are paying a terrible price in blood as a result of the invasion. Putin has resorted to the brutal tactics deployed in Syria and the destruction of Aleppo, or of Grozny in Chechnya in 1999, as his forces have become bogged down and faced more difficulties on the battlefield than anticipated. As Robespierre put it, “people do not like missionaries with bayonets”. Putin underestimated the determination and resolve of the majority of Ukrainians to resist foreign intervention. Superior military strength and developed technology are not enough to secure a rapid victory when confronted with a military and civilian population which is determined to resist a foreign invader. 

Marxists fully support the right of Ukrainian workers and people to defend themselves and fight against foreign invaders. However, the Ukrainian government is a pro-capitalist regime, backed by its own oligarchs. 

Since 2014, successive governments have severely limited the teaching of minority languages, like Russian and Hungarian, in schools and state institutions. These measures oppressed the ethnic Russian population and others, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk. In 2020, Volodymyr Zelensky’s government introduced some of the worst anti-labour laws in any European country, provoking protests from international trade union organisations like the Industrial Global Union. 

The first casualty of war is truth. The Western imperialist powers have responded to this crisis with unrestrained hypocrisy. They have appeared united around NATO in opposing the Russian military intervention. However, divisions are beginning to open between these powers. Their hypocritical denunciations of Russian brutality, without even a footnote regarding the atrocities committed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sarajevo and elsewhere, reveal the double standards of Western imperialism. 

The Western imperialist powers want to check Russian chauvinist expansion, which they perceive as a threat to their various interests. They broke the undertakings they gave to the leadership of the former USSR and expanded NATO membership eastwards since 1991; a move that is viewed as a threat to its interests by the Putin clique in power in Russia. 

These factors are not a justification for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, they are important in order to arrive at a correct analysis of the class interests of the forces involved. 

Defending the democratic and national rights of the Ukrainian people does not mean all of the other factors involved in the conflict can be simply tossed aside. Socialists need to defend an independent programme that is in the interests of the working class and the masses of all the countries involved in this conflict.

Marxism or ‘Starmerism’? 

On March 12 Paul Mason published his tract, Ukraine: Outlines of a Marxist Position, following an article he produced in February under the heading, Learning To Say ‘Goodbye Lenin’. 

Paul Mason has previously published good material attacking capitalism, although never with a programme to break with the profit system. In his writings on the war, however, he has not only continued his political journey to the right, he has also repudiated Lenin and argued a case that is more ‘Starmerism’ than Marxism. 

A few strawmen are set up. He writes: “Once you can accept that ‘humanity is a social construct’ and that ‘history is a process without subject’ you can look at the dead civilians in Mariupol and categorise them as ‘neo-Nazis’; you can look at Eastern Europe’s moves towards NATO membership in the 1990s and call it ‘encirclement’; you can file an entire nation of 41 million people under the category of ‘puppets of the West’.” But who has argued this? Putin? He gives no source. 

Opposing Putin’s intervention into Ukraine does not mean we should close our eyes to the consequences of NATO’s expansion east or the role and interests being pursued by Western imperialism. But then, Mason now sees NATO in a rather more acceptable light. He boasts on Twitter that he was part of a struggle that “decisively won a battle to keep Labour pro-Trident and pro-NATO”. Mason’s political journey to the right has taken him a long way from the sectarian version of Trotskyism, the Workers Power group, which he defended when he was younger. 

Following the invasion, a layer of the population in Ukraine and the West had increased expectations and hopes that NATO could provide some protection and support to the Ukrainian people. However, these hopes are diminishing by the day – especially in Ukraine, as NATO is seen as failing to decisively intervene. 

Despite any temporary illusions which exist in NATO, socialists have a responsibility to skilfully explain the truth and expose the reality of what such institutions represent. The imperialist character of the NATO coalition was clearly shown in the interventions in the Balkans in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011. The catastrophic consequences which have followed illustrate the nature of this military alliance of capitalist powers. The toleration of foreign interventions by NATO member states is shown in the tacit acceptance of de facto Turkish control of northern Cyprus since its 1974 invasion. 

We are told by Mason that for those living in NATO countries, or NATO-aligned states, “there is also a huge opportunity – to redesign NATO as a defensive-only alliance… and to democratise the professional, right-wing dominated security and military machines of the West”. 

Reforming NATO to become an instrument to serve working people is like urging a carnivorous dinosaur to become a vegan overnight. Does Paul Mason seriously believe that these bourgeois institutions – structured and in existence to defend the interests of capitalist states – will be allowed to be reformed in a way as to change their character? Does he really think that the ruling capitalist classes would allow this to take place? 

Rather intemperately, Paul Mason says we should “cease tolerating” the “dissolve NATO rhetoric coming out of the campists, Stalinist and outright pro-CPC groups on the left”. Marxists oppose NATO and capitalist military alliances. Will the ruling class ‘dissolve NATO’? No – the capitalist classes will not do that. Yet would a socialist government break from NATO, a reactionary, capitalist military alliance dominated by US imperialism? Surely, yes – if it was not expelled from the alliance before it could do so. The idea of reforming such institutions aspired to by Mason is a pipe dream. 

The Ukrainian regime 

Mason reflects the political contortions undertaken by many commentators on the ‘left’ during this conflict. Ukraine, he says, is fighting a legitimate war of self-defence against a war of aggression. Genuine Marxism argues that the Ukrainian people have an unquestionable right to defend themselves and their right to exist as an independent nation. 

But what conclusion does Mason, who has never grasped Marxism in a rounded out manner, derive from this? What he does is totally alien to Marx. He proposes a ‘programme’ devoid of any class content. He demands the left should ‘support Ukraine’ and demand ‘their governments’ send arms to Ukraine, support debt relief and support the call for ‘international volunteers’. Yet, for Marxists, the capitalist governments of the West are not ‘our’ governments! Mason’s method means involuntarily lending support, for example, to Johnson in Britain or the Polish government. 

Support Ukraine? But the question is which Ukraine? Due to the war, Zelensky is extremely popular in the West, at this stage, and in Ukraine. The revelations of Russian atrocities have undoubtedly boosted his popularity. Within Ukraine, a mood of ‘national unity’ undoubtedly exists amongst much of the population. This means that any socialists there would need to present an independent programme sensitively and skilfully. However, it is still necessary to explain that we do not support the Ukraine of oligarchs and Zelensky’s pro-capitalist government, and warn against it. 

Marxists fully support the right of the Ukrainian people to defend themselves and fight against the Russian invasion and any threats of ethnic cleansing. It is necessary to raise the need for democratically-run armed defence militias of Ukrainian workers and the wider population to be built. We need to warn against putting any trust in the right-wing regime of Zelensky and to warn the masses against placing confidence or trust in his government or the oligarchs. This needs to be counterposed to what Zelensky initially did prior to the war in allowing the fascistic Azov Battalion to officially form its own unit as a part of the Ukraine army. Such forces, and the Ukraine state, will be turned against Ukrainian workers if they begin to build their own independent trade unions and organisations. This is the same government that has already carried through privatisation and attacked the democratic rights of Ukrainian workers. 

Mason adds a footnote that he hopes will get him off the pro-NATO hook he has hung himself on. He says his approach does not mean “uncritically [my emphasis – TS] supporting the Zelensky government, or its privatisation strategy, or alliances with Ukrainian oligarchs, or its anti-democratic laws”. 

Mason also smuggles in the call to turn the resistance into a movement for social justice. So, he accepts there is a problem with Zelensky’s government. Bravo! But, in reality, Paul Mason wants to mute any criticism of Zelensky’s government or at least postpone it, until after the war. But socialists have a responsibility to speak the truth and warn in advance about the character of any capitalist government. 

Goodbye to Lenin?

Mason says ‘goodbye to Lenin’ and in a flourish of sarcastic asides argues, “we can sit on our hands quoting Lenin, or we can accept the systemic nature of the conflict and take a side in it”. 

The truth is that Paul Mason said goodbye to Lenin a long time ago. Now perhaps he is saying his final farewell. But what is the content of his farewell? 

Putin has also repudiated Lenin. In particular, Putin denounced the revolutionary socialist leader because of the position Lenin defended on the ‘Ukrainian question’ and for “wrongly bringing Ukraine” into existence as a nation. 

Does Mason want to say ‘goodbye’ to Lenin’s uncompromising defence of the right of nations to self-determination? Mason evades even mentioning what Lenin and the Bolsheviks did in relation to Ukraine after the 1917 socialist revolution. It was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who defended the right of nations to self-determination, including Ukraine, in opposition to Great Russian chauvinism. It was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who did not ‘sit on their hands’ but ensured this right was enacted after the revolution, in 1919. Even the mouthpiece of British capitalism, the Financial Times, was recently compelled to concede this fact. 

On this matter, Lenin wrote: “We want a voluntary union of nations – a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another – a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent… only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia”. (Lenin, Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine, December 1919) 

The acceptance of the right to self-determination for Ukraine by the Soviet government in Russia resulted in a coming together of the Ukrainian and Russian working classes. It began to break down the suspicion which existed due to the oppressive Great Russian chauvinism experienced under Czarist Russia. However, the political counter-revolution of the Stalinist bureaucracy, with the chauvinistic and bureaucratic methods of the clique around Stalin, reversed this process. It led to increased suspicion and hostility toward the bureaucratic regime in the Kremlin under Stalin. Ukraine, where the Left Opposition enjoyed considerable support, suffered some of the worst of Stalin’s purges. Millions died having suffered persecution, forced collectivisation and starvation. This left a terrible scar in the minds of the Ukrainian people. The changed situation under Stalin led Trotsky, in 1939, to advocate an independent socialist Soviet Ukraine, as part of a struggle to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and re-establish a workers’ democracy. 

In his essay Paul Mason is silent on the historical context of the national question in Ukraine (yet it is rich with lessons for today’s conflict). He has nothing to say too on another aspect of the current situation – the democratic rights of the ethnic Russian population, a majority of whom are concentrated in the east of the country, and other minorities. 

The conflict in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ has claimed over 15,000 lives since Russian-backed separatist fighters seized government buildings in 2014, and fighting broke out between the military forces in Donetsk and Luhansk and the far-right nationalist Ukrainian militias and Ukrainian state forces. 

Ethnic Russians throughout Ukraine suffered repression by Ukrainian nationalists, including curtailment of their language rights. The peoples of these areas have also been used as pawns by Putin in his strategic aim of establishing Novorossiya. 

The nationalist forces dominating these areas, mainly of a reactionary right-wing character, exploited the aspirations of the ethnic Russians who had suffered from oppression and discrimination by the Ukrainian nationalist regimes in Kyiv. In turn, they were also manipulated by Putin’s regime in Russia. 

The aspirations of the people in these areas have not been allowed to be tested in a democratic manner by any of the forces involved. Some undoubtedly aspire to independence, with links with Russia; others to be a part of Russia; while some may possibly wish to remain within Ukraine. Yet the people of these areas also have a democratic right to decide their future and the form of state or statelet they wish to establish, free from the bayonets of Putin’s Russia or Zelensky’s reactionary right-wing Ukrainian nationalist forces. Silence on these questions is not an ‘outline of a Marxist position’ on Ukraine. 

A socialist programme

The need for a socialist programme in a war situation is crucial to avoid the pitfall of capitulating to the opportunist pressures from the representatives of capitalism and the episodic moods which can develop. In any war, an understandable sentiment to oppose war and demand peace will develop. This is the case in the Ukraine conflict. However, wars are fought for reasons that reflect the political, economic and strategic interests of the different forces and classes involved. As Marxists, one of our roles is to expose what these are in class terms. 

A desire for peace and a ‘diplomatic’ solution is not enough to deal with the root causes of war. It is necessary to confront the causes and interests of the powers involved in any conflict. Some on the left have simply articulated the desire for peace but without dealing with the reality of the interests of the forces involved in the conflict. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), having flip-flopped on what position to adopt, on February 26 issued a statement condemning the Russian intervention and demanding “immediate diplomacy and de-escalation to resolve the crisis”. The DSA statement went on to claim that the Russian invasion is “illegal under the United Nations Charter”. 

The capitalist diplomats reflect the interests of the ruling class of each country, not those of the working class and the mass of the population. They are not motivated by the need to defend the interests of the working class but of the rulers.

The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental body. It is mainly dominated by the interests of the US and Western imperialism. If the big powers cannot get the majority they require in the UN they just brush it aside. The ruling classes are not concerned about UN or bourgeois legality when it conflicts with their own perceived interests. UN ‘legality’ meant nothing to George W Bush and Tony Blair when they obliterated Baghdad. It meant nothing to Putin as his forces marched into Ukraine. 

Any agreement finally reached between Russia and Ukraine, moreover, will not resolve the conflict, especially in the Donbass area and eastern Ukraine. Any paper agreement, as the Minsk Accords in 2014 illustrate, will not resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. On the basis of the continuation of capitalism in Russia and Ukraine, and the role of NATO and Western imperialism, there will be no real, long-term solution to the crisis. The defence of an independent socialist programme is essential to begin to chart a way forward for the workers of Ukraine and Russia. 

Such a programme needs to include the following: 

  • * Stop the war immediately and withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine.
  • * For armed united workers’ defence under democratic control in Ukraine. 
  • * For the building of independent workers’ organisations, trade unions and political parties in Ukraine and Russia.
  • * For full democratic rights in both Russia and Ukraine – freedom of assembly, a free press, the right to form independent trade unions, political parties and the release of all political prisoners
  • * For a democratic workers’ government in Ukraine. 
  • * Down with the Putin regime and for a democratic workers’ government in Russia. 
  • * For the democratic rights of the Ukrainian people to maintain their nation. Defend the right of self-determination for ethnic Russians and all national minorities. Full language and cultural rights for Ukrainians, Russians and other minorities.
  • * No trust in Western powers or their military alliances, including NATO.