Arms to Ukraine? To those abusing Trotsky’s words, we say: “Learn to think!”

Vast quantities of arms have been poured into Ukraine from the West following Russia’s invasion in February. Even beforehand, NATO and the US provided the Ukrainian Army with a considerable amount of weapons and training.

There are some on the left who argue it is the ‘duty’ of socialists and trade unionists to support the imperialists in providing ‘lethal aid’, to equip Ukraine in its ‘war of self-determination against Russian imperialism’. A few sophists even drag Leon Trotsky into the argument, twisting his words out of context to justify their class collaborationism.

An article by John Reimann, who writes as the ‘Oakland Socialist’, reproduced on the website Anticapitalist Resistance, is one such example. He accuses “many socialists'' of “mechanically repeating” the phrase of Karl Liebknecht – that the main enemy is at home – “in opposing the NATO nations sending arms to Ukraine.” While that might have been true in the First World War, he says, the situation is different now. “The defeat of Putin’s invasion will be a gain for the working class in Ukraine, in Russia and around the world,” he writes. “That defeat can only happen militarily. For that, Ukraine needs arms and the only source of those arms is the NATO nations.”

First of all, Liebknecht’s phrase is 100 percent correct in relation to Ukraine. The ‘Oakland Socialist’ says nothing in his entire article about the first duty of socialists in the USA: fighting against their own ruling class, the most reactionary force on Earth! In fact, Reimann says socialists should support strengthening NATO, which objectively means strengthening US imperialism, which is also the main driving force behind the Ukrainian war effort. So a victory for Ukraine would also mean a victory for US imperialism, which is absolutely not a gain for the working class in Ukraine, Russia, or anywhere else.

We also point out that many so-called socialists justify dancing to the imperialists’ war drum by mechanically repeating phrases about the right of nations to self-determination. In fact, support for this democratic right should always be contingent on the wider interests of the working class. Clearly, these are not served by the inter-imperialist war being prosecuted in Ukraine, which aside from the bloodshed caused by the fighting has inflicted misery on billions through soaring inflation, food costs, energy bills and so forth.

Putting words in Trotsky’s mouth

The author goes on to cite a 1938 article by Trotsky entitled ‘Learn to Think’, in which “he pointed out that 9 times out of ten we will oppose what ‘our’ capitalists say or do, but there can always be that tenth time. We have to judge the situation based on the actual conditions.”Protestors Keshavrz Boulvard Image DarafshTo give the example of Iran: we should not oppose the movement just because the imperialists support it, but any support should be from our own class point of view / Image: Darafsh

This is a paraphrase. What Trotsky actually says is: “In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie,” but he adds, the workers do so “with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie” (our emphasis).

In other words, we do not arrive at a correct position simply by taking the literal opposite stance of the bourgeoisie. For example, the imperialists offer hypocritical support today for the insurrectionary youth movement in Iran, because of their opposition to the Iranian government. This does not mean that socialists should oppose the movement; on the contrary, we offer our full solidarity and support to the struggle against the reactionary Mullahs’ regime. However, we do so from our own class point of view. We reject attempts by the bourgeoisie, supported by the imperialists, to hijack the movement by installing the ousted Shah’s son as a ‘democratic successor’, and we put forward a programme of revolutionary class struggle by workers and youth against the Islamic Republic.

This stance of class independence is the same taken by Trotsky in ‘Learn to Think’:

“[T]he revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat” (original emphasis).

‘Learn to Think’ poses the hypothetical example of an uprising in colonised Algeria against French imperialism, in which fascist Italy chooses to send arms to the rebels, to strike blows against France. Reimann (claiming to cite Trotsky) says: “socialists should not only support that, they should actively help send those arms to Algeria. Doing so had nothing at all to do with supporting Mussolini. It is similar to the NATO nations sending arms to Ukraine” (our emphasis).”

We will deal with that comparison in a moment, but first let us look at what Trotsky actually says. ‘Learn to Think’ is an excellent demonstration of the flexibility of the Marxist method. Trotsky is responding to ultra-lefts who argued that the attitude of communists towards imperialism should be “the same” in all countries. On the example of fascist Italy sending arms to assist Algerian rebels against France, he says:

“What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case?… Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt…

“At the same time, the French maritime workers, even though not faced with any strike whatsoever, would be compelled to exert every effort to block the shipment of ammunition intended for use against the rebels. Only such a policy on the part of the Italian and French workers constitutes the policy of revolutionary internationalism.”

First of all, we would point out that choosing not to block arms shipments is not the same as calling on one’s own reactionary government to send arms. But nevertheless, as Trotsky explains, in wartime it is not only acceptable but essential that internationalists exploit the differences between the imperialists to their advantage, to the maximum benefit of the international working class.

It is very telling that Reimann omits the class aspect of Trotsky’s argument. If we were talking about a working-class revolution in Ukraine, which overthrew the oligarchs, installed a workers’ government, and then came under attack from Russian imperialism, it might be that the western imperialists would weigh the advantage of supporting the Ukrainian workers’ regime to strike blows against Russia, though we suspect they would be far more reluctant. Our position in this case would be very different. Trotsky illustrates this point with another scenario:

“Let us imagine that in the next European war the Belgian proletariat conquers power sooner than the proletariat of France. Undoubtedly Hitler will try to crush the proletarian Belgium. In order to cover up its own flank, the French bourgeois government might find itself compelled to help the Belgian workers’ government with arms. The Belgian Soviets of course reach for these arms with both hands. But actuated by the principle of defeatism, perhaps the French workers ought to block their bourgeoisie from shipping arms to proletarian Belgium? Only direct traitors or out-and-out idiots can reason thus.

“The French bourgeoisie could send arms to proletarian Belgium only out of fear of the greatest military danger and only in expectation of later crushing the proletarian revolution with their own weapons. To the French workers, on the contrary, proletarian Belgium is the greatest support in the struggle against their own bourgeoisie. The outcome of the struggle would be decided, in the final analysis, by the relationship of forces, into which correct policies enter as a very important factor. The revolutionary party’s first task is to utilise the contradiction between two imperialist countries, France and Germany, in order to save proletarian Belgium.”

There is an important difference here. What is happening in Ukraine is not a revolutionary uprising by an oppressed colony or a case of self-defence by a proletarian regime. Ukraine is headed by a reactionary bourgeois government, which has banned socialist parties, attacks trade unions, oppresses the Russian-speaking minority, has incorporated far-right militias into its national guard, and has waged a brutal civil war against its own people for years. The Ukrainian nationalism underpinning the Euromaidan in 2014 openly celebrates the legacy of Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera, and this permeates the regime today.

blinken and zelensky 2Ukraine is not a revolutionary uprising by an oppressed colony or a case of self-defence by a proletarian regime / Image: U.S. Department of State

The reactionary nature of the government is not in itself enough to obviate support for Ukraine against Russia. For instance, Trotsky poured scorn on the pacifist ILP who described the Italian-Ethiopian war as a conflict between “two rival dictators.” He stated, “If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples.” In short, an Ethiopian victory, despite its reactionary regime, would have been a progressive impetus to struggles by all oppressed peoples, undermined fascism and imperialism, and thus benefited the world revolution.

So the question is, what would be the result of a Ukrainian victory in this war? Whose class interests would be primarily served? Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy is entirely dictated by western and particularly American imperialism. The imperialists do not care about Ukraine’s self determination: they are guided by their own interests. It is no accident that we have not seen the same enthusiasm by the imperialists to aid the Palestinians resist violence from the Israeli state, for example. By the admission of no less than US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, the objective of US imperialism is to deal as much damage to Russia as possible by dragging out this conflict. The Ukrainian army is bristling with weapons shipped by the USA and its allies. It relies heavily on western intelligence and aid.

What we are dealing with is very clearly a proxy war between NATO (led by the US) and Russia, in which Ukrainians are expected to undertake the fighting and dying on behalf of the West. As stated: if Ukraine is victorious, the result will be the strengthening of US imperialism, the most reactionary force on the planet.

The open wound of national chauvinism, torn wider by this war, would be aggravated further still, with a victorious nationalist regime in power, armed and supported by the West, which will oppress the Russian-speaking minority with even more viciousness, as well as continuing to suppress the working class and its organisations. Should Russia win, it will strengthen Putin’s imperialist ambitions, and bolster his reactionary oligarchic regime at home. And in either outcome, the chauvinist hatred between Ukrainians and Russians will reach new heights.

This is a reactionary war on both sides, and any position other than supporting the independent struggle of workers against their warmongering ruling classes in every country simply winds up in national chauvinism of one kind or another. We see a positive example in the form of rail workers in Greece, who in April went on strike in order to prevent the transfer of NATO military hardware to Poland, intended for Ukraine. The 12 unions involved said the following in a statement:

“There should be no involvement of our country in the Ukraine war, which is waged for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the majority. Specifically, we demand there should be no utilisation of our country's railway rolling stock for the transfer of any American-NATO arsenal to neighbouring countries.”

This is the correct position, and shows the capacity of the working class to oppose imperialism through their own strength, and independent action.

Social chauvinism versus internationalism

Trotsky goes on to explain that, in permitting their fascist government to send arms to Algeria, the Italian workers would “call upon the Algerians not to trust their treacherous ‘ally’ and at the same time continue their own irreconcilable struggle against fascism, ‘the main enemy in their own country.’” The opportunist ‘lefts’ backing arms shipments to Ukraine have essentially abandoned the first duty of struggling against their own ruling class. And none of them emphasise Trotsky’s point that the imperialists are only using Ukraine as a pawn in their games. As soon as their support ceases to be expedient, the aid and arms shipments will be dropped. Such is the fate of all small nations under capitalism.

Sweden Turkey NATO Image North Atlantic Treaty OrganizationTo give another example, the Kurds have also been used as a pawn in the imperialists' games / Image: North Atlantic Treaty Organization

One need only look to the Kurds, who were leaned upon by US imperialism to fight ISIS, before being abandoned to the tender mercies of Erdogan. This year, the ruling class of Sweden agreed to hand Kurdish activists over to the Turkish authorities in exchange for Erdogan lifting his veto against Sweden being accepted into NATO.

The article in Anticapitalist Resistance strips the class content out of ‘Learn to Think’, which allows the author to draw a photo negative from its conclusions. Put through his muddleheaded mangle, what emerges is something closer to the treacherous opportunism of the leaders of the Second International on the eve of First World War, who lined up behind their respective ruling classes, and joined the war hysteria, with the fig leaf of standing up for ‘poor little Belgium’ or ‘poor little Serbia’.

Some opportunists go further than others, and few have gone further than Paul Mason: erstwhile ‘Marxist’ journalist, who now has designs on becoming a Labour MP. We have written before on Mason’s full-throated support for western imperialism, increased defence spending, and expanding NATO – all in the name of defending ‘democracy’ against Russian ‘fascism’. We will not repeat ourselves here. But on the question of arms, it is illustrative that Mason claims to draw on the experience of the Spanish Revolution.

In an article for New Statesman, entitled ‘The left should lead the case for higher defence spending’, Mason recalls the British international volunteers, fighting on the Republican side, who were slaughtered in the Battle of Jarama by Franco’s troops, having been denied military assistance by the British government. Keen to avoid the sins of the past, he calls on a future Labour government to commit to “faster investment, higher troop numbers [and] more cash” to boost Britain’s armed forces and more effectively ‘defend democracy’.

What he fails to mention is why the British government was committed to this disgraceful policy in Spain. Namely, the imperialists were disinclined to allow their weapons to end up in the hands of the communist, anarchist and radical peasant battalions who were the main combatants against Franco. Unlike the case of arming Ukraine today, whose government the imperialists see as a reliable puppet, the main capitalist powers in the 1930s had no intention of strengthening the armed bodies of the workers and peasants. As Felix Morrow explains: “The so-called democracies of Britain and France did all in their power to help Franco, while masquerading under the hypocritical banner of non-intervention.”

By comparison, the imperialists today are far less concerned with their weapons ending up in the hands of far-right and fascist corps like the Azov Battalion. Just as they were content to put guns at the disposal of the reactionary Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War, though this came back to bite them down the line. Mason has totally abandoned any semblance of a class position. He demands arms for Ukraine from the British state, and openly advocates for the government to invest more heavily in arms, during a cost-of-living crisis where ordinary people are struggling to feed themselves and heat their homes.

Paul Mason War Image Steve Eason FlickrSo-called 'left' figures such as Paul Mason have called for higher defence spending / Image: Steve Eason Flickr

Shamefully, this position was narrowly adopted by the recent TUC congress in Britain, after a motion was brought by the GMB union, calling on the government to invest more heavily in defence spending. Morning Star, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Britain, carried an article by GMB Secretary Gary Smith, calling for the British labour movement to back “the provision of humanitarian aid and military materiel necessary for the defence, and reconstruction, of a sovereign nation that has been invaded by a larger neighbour.”

Steve Turner, former ‘left’ candidate for General Secretary for the Unite union, stated at the congress that while he “shares genuine concerns about aggressive regimes around the world”, he backed the motion because “we need the tools to defend Britain.” The main threat facing the British working class does not come from Putin, but the reactionary government of Rishi Sunak, which is preparing a raft of brutal austerity measures that will wreck the lives of millions of people who are already suffering. The first line of defence from the unions should be in the form of strike action at home, to avert this onslaught.

Some so-called ‘lefts’ have raised the point that Ukrainians, facing death and destruction at the hands of Russian imperialism, have a right to accept arms from whomever offers them. This is the position of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Britain, for example, who passed a motion at their conference stating: “Ukraine has the right to self-determination and the right to defend itself. Ukraine has the right to ask other states for political and military support. We demand the West gives arms which allow Ukraine to defend itself” (our emphasis).

In the abstract, ordinary Ukrainians facing Russian military aggression are indeed entitled to take weapons from whomever they want – but thus far, the imperialists have not required any encouragement from the left and labour movement to send them. This means the only consequence of socialists encouraging their ruling class to send arms is to add their voices to the chorus of warmongering hysteria. Moreover, the bulk of the fighting in Ukraine is not being done by ordinary volunteers, but by the official armed forces, whose leadership has an extremely reactionary character.

Earlier this year, we wrote the following on the Ukrainian national question:

“Under the rule of the ‘patriots’, it is Joe Biden who decides who is going to be in the government, it is the IMF that decides on the economic policies… If you view the whole situation from the point of view of Ukrainian nationalism versus Russian imperialism, you cannot understand anything. Worse than that, you are unable to raise a class-based programme.”

We stand by these words today. Those so-called ‘lefts’ lining up with their imperialists to demand more weapons for Ukraine have abandoned elementary class analysis in favour of reactionary nationalism, dressed up with liberal platitudes about defending ‘democracy’. One way or another, only the independent struggle of the working class is capable of bringing an end to the nightmare of war, national chauvinism and economic misery in Ukraine, Russia and throughout the world.

Our socialist warmongers have no faith in the working class as a revolutionary force capable of putting an end to this disaster and overthrowing capitalism. As they descend into pessimism and class collaboration, we ask them to kindly refrain from putting their weasel words in Trotsky’s mouth.