On 04/12/22, Democratic Left published “How DSA’ers Can Help Ukraine” by Dan La Botz and Stephen Shalom. In the article, it was suggested that:
“DSA’s Mutual Aid Working Group, while usually focused on mutual aid in local U.S. communities, might add an international dimension to its work by cooperating with groups in Ukraine that also have a mutual aid approach, such as Operation Solidarity. Operation Solidarity is an anarchist network that raises funds to purchase and deliver humanitarian items, military equipment, and medical supplies to Ukraine.”
The article met with backlash. This is an important question to clarify because we are entering a new political period in world politics. The US is no longer the sole superpower. Brazil, Russia, India, and China have all stepped onto the stage of inter-imperial competition
This helps explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All aspiring imperial powers need to prove that they can impose their will on others. The decline of the US empire is emboldening others to flex, putting the world on a path to inter-imperialist war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is only the first example, and we should expect more from Brazil, India, and China. This political period will pose new, complex questions for US socialists and my hope is that this article contributes to our analysis as we face them.
Russia and Ukraine
Criticism of La Botz and Shalom has largely followed two positions, “DSA should be antiwar and therefore not supply weapons,” and “supplying the resistance in Ukraine is the same as arming fascism.” But how do these positions map to the current situation in Ukraine?
First off, it is absolutely true that DSA should be antiwar and that in any instance where a government wants to engage in a war of conquest, we should do everything we can to resist it. My emphasis here is on “government” because, from a Marxist perspective, all governments are fundamentally tools of domination of one class over another. In a capitalist world, governments serve the capitalist class against the working class. Therefore, we should oppose any calls for the US military to insert itself into the invasion of Ukraine against the Russian military, which includes opposing NATO and no-fly zones. The Russian and the US states are both imperialist, looking for conquest and trying to out-maneuver each other.
But what about Ukraine? The history of Ukraine has been one of domination by Russian imperialism, from 1793 – 1991. Some have tried to argue that because the relationship between the two hasn’t always been as violent and extractive as “traditional” colonialism (ex: Spain and Latin America) that the relationship hasn’t been colonial. But from my perspective, colonialism is like any power relationship. The fundamental power dynamic of boss and worker still holds true, even if a given boss happens to be kind and generous. Similarly, colonial relationships aren’t fundamentally about constant violence, they’re about holding power over a territory, whether or not that power is always exercised in its most naked form.
This context is important because this is not a war between two equal powers. This is an invasion of a weaker nation by an imperial power. In addition to that, we have to remember that while socialists should oppose war between governments, we should also support the right of the invaded masses to push out the invaders by any means necessary. For socialists, the question is about the power dynamics in class society. We should be on the side of the exploited and oppressed, especially when one country is invading another.
Tying these two points together, opposition to war of conquest between governments and support for the masses to resist invasion, we get to the point that was made by La Botz and Shalom. They emphasized an interest in having DSA provide financial support through mutual aid groups to Operation Solidarity, which they stated is, “an anarchist network that raises funds to purchase and deliver humanitarian items, military equipment, and medical supplies to Ukraine.” Standing alongside the Ukrainian masses, instead of the Ukrainian state, allows us to focus on the people actually capable of pushing out the invader while doing so on a basis of socialist politics instead of government “campism,” trying to identify the “good vs bad” governments.
To be clear, Operation Solidarity is aiding the “territorial defense battalions” which are all volunteer units, though they are subordinate to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Similarly, the fascist Azov Battalion is also an all volunteer outfit that is subordinate to the National Guard. But the volunteer units need to be understood in the context of the Ukrainian government’s weak military apparatus, forcing it to mobilize the masses in order to actually mount a meaningful defense. It is the fact that the masses are involved in these volunteer units that makes them an important contested space for the far-left to engage.
The Russian Invasion and The Masses of Ukraine
While the last section tried to refute the anti-war opposition to La Botz and Shalom’s article, here I want to refute the idea that supporting the resistance is inherently supporting fascism. To be clear, there is no doubt that the fascist movement has grown in Ukraine. But this does not mean that all Ukrainians are fascists, nor that all resistance fighters are fascists.
We need to zoom out and consider that the Ukrainian masses are just like the masses in any country: politically diverse. Just like in any country, there is a tiny far-left, a tiny far-right, and the vast majority of society bounces back and forth between political poles, mostly gravitating to the political center. Consider that estimates of membership in the Azov Battalion range from 900 – 1500, while “followers” are estimated at 22,500. While that is certainly something to take seriously, it has to be understood in the context of a nation of 41,000,000.
This context is important because, again, the Russian government has invaded the territory of Ukraine. So it is not only fascists that are upset at the Russian government. All sections of Ukrainian society contain individuals that are enraged. Due to the political spectrum of consciousness among the masses, and due to the relative weakness of the Ukrainian military, individual Ukrainians will choose different paths of resistance. Some may choose to join the official military. Others may choose to join volunteer units.
The volunteer units are where ideology plays a more explicit role in terms of agitation and recruitment. Let’s zoom out again and consider what happens to a given society during an invasion. When a country is invaded there is a breakdown of daily routines, economies, and “law and order”. Worse, added to this mix are groups of armed men that are deliberately causing death and destruction. Combined, this all creates a social crisis.
Crises hold an important place in Marxist analysis because they tend to be the catalysts for major polarizations, and these polarizations can create revolutionary opportunities. Take the crisis of the pandemic as one example. In the US, the pandemic polarized society so much that it triggered both the largest movement in US history, in the form of the abolitionist uprising, and it also mobilized the far-right to the point that they attempted their own uprising in the US capitol. The point is to highlight that both socialist and fascist movements tend to be children of crises.
The estimates given above of Azov membership are from 2019. While the website used to reference the Azov’s membership was updated this year, I imagine that the invasion has increased those numbers. But it is not a foregone conclusion that only the fascists benefit in this situation. Referencing the US example, organizations of the far-left are also capable of recruiting during this crisis and expanding both political and armed wings of their own. Again, this is why the La Botz and Shalom article motivate for supporting the anarchist Operation Solidarity. It is important that organizations of the far-left are visible and able to organize, by any means necessary, during this crisis.
The main point to drive home is that in an invasion, the hearts and minds of the masses become contested spaces, full of polarization. In Ukraine, we are talking about approximately 41 million hearts and minds. In such a situation, it is the duty of socialists to support the resistance and provide a left-wing pole of attraction to win over as large a section of the polarizing masses as possible. Otherwise, the far-right will be allowed to seize the opportunity alone, which will actually aid fascism and help them grow. As of March 27, it was known that the opportunity for combat experience in Ukraine is attracting recruits from the far-right from around the world. In other words, the far-right is using this as an opportunity to strengthen the international fascist movement. We need to flip the script and figure out how to turn this into an opportunity to build an international anti-fascist movement. That begins with understanding grassroots resistance movements and aiding them.
A History of Gun-running
A final point to make is that some people on social media objected specifically to the idea of a socialist organization helping anyone purchase “military equipment.” While I understand the concern, I think this misses the fact that socialist organizations have a long history of providing material aid to resistance movements. Due to the nature of supplying arms to resistance movements, most records of it are not publicly available (at least, not that I was able to find).
But just as the fight in Ukraine has been used by the far-right to recruit people from around the world, the far-left has historically also found ways to mobilize leftists to supply weapons and recruits as well. When there are protests in the streets, sympathetic people want to join in. When there is armed conflict to win/defend something people believe in, it is also a motivator for people to travel and join in. The most famous that I can think of being the International Brigades that were organized during the Spanish Civil War.
Socialist and anarchist organizations from around the world not only helped fundraise for weapons, they literally helped recruit people from around the world to travel to Spain and fight to the death to defend the democratically elected socialist government from the counter-revolution. While there are various estimates as to how many people were recruited, they tend to hover around 35,000.
Naturally, these are different scenarios. The Spanish Civil War was hoped to become a revolution in itself, against the growing specter of fascism in Europe. There was a massive, organized, mobilized, and armed far-left that was combatting the state and the far-right. Meanwhile, in Ukraine today, we have an ascendant fascist movement that has had an outsized presence in the media in comparison to its actual membership.
But we can’t look at things in a binary way. First, we need to recognize that both examples involve resistance movements. Second, we need to remember that crises create wild vacillations in the consciousness of the masses. The popularity of the far-right today can dialectically flip to become the popularity of the far-left tomorrow. It all depends on whether or not the far-left is able to turn the crisis into an opportunity. If it can, if it is given the support and breathing room to do so, then they hold the potential of turning an imperialist war into civil war.
Karl Marx and War
So far, we’ve tried to reveal the essential context to shape this discussion in a materialist instead of a moralistic way. But what would Karl Marx say about this? An extremely helpful article was written by John Ganz recounting Marx’s support for war in times of defense, such as supporting the French as they were invaded by Germany (triggering the Paris Commune of 1871) and supporting the Polish when they were invaded by Russia. To be clear, “war in times of defense” has to actually mean something. The US claimed it was waging a “defensive war” when it invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. But clearly, the people actually being invaded are the ones actually defending themselves.
Ganz even reminds us that Marx was a vocal supporter of the Northern army in the US civil war. Marx saw in this war tremendous political potential for the masses, especially for the slaves and the emergent working class. Obviously, the revolutionary potential wasn’t fully realized, but what this demonstrates is that socialist politics around war is not simply moralizing about being pro/anti-war. It is more complex and is rooted in the material conditions of a given struggle.
The purpose of this article is to discuss perspectives on how socialists should relate to resistance movements. I expect that in this political period of renewed inter-imperialist competition, this question will continue to re-emerge. While no historical example will ever map perfectly to current conditions, it’s important to look for the similarities across history and use those as guides to help us interpret the new conditions.
History has shown that the far-left has engaged in, and aided, armed resistance movements, so it isn’t anything new to socialist politics. The main question for us now is, are we capable of organizing fundraising for left-wing elements in the Ukrainian resistance? If so, how do we work it into our overall strategy of organizing mutual aid and building connections with left-wing Ukrainian organizers and communities, both in the US and abroad?
The Ukrainian masses are at a terrifying moment in history. But they are fighting bravely to resist the Russian occupation. Meanwhile, there have also been mass demonstrations in Russia against the invasion. While we can’t see the future, these two factors do provide hope in this moment of despair. That hope is what socialists need to build on.
Special thanks to Geoff Guy for insights on this topic.