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Of war and revolution: Ukraine

Why is our century worse than any other?

Is it that in the stupor of fear and grief

It has plunged its fingers in the blackest ulcer,

Yet cannot bring relief?

Anna Akhmatova, from Plantain (1919)

Originally published by Autonomies.

“The main enemy is at home!” The slogan is the title of a pamphlet of 1915 by Karl Liebknecht, written to condemn German imperialism. Italy’s engagement in WWI on the side of the side of Britain, France and Russia, its abandonment of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria, is the context of the tract, and against the nationalism that fed war, Liebknecht calls for international working class struggle against all of the instigators of capitalist imperialism.

To then interpret this text, today, in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, as a call to oppose the armed resistance of Ukrainians against the invasion, verges on the foolish, or the grotesque.

To say that “the ongoing war is not a regional war – a particularly fascinating variation on the clash between David and Goliath –, but on the contrary the theatre of a new and much broader confrontation between NATO and the Eastern Block” (Lundi Matin #354, 27/06/2022) is to be blinded by the abstract altitudes of geopolitics. No local or regional struggle, conflict, war – today, more than ever – can remain isolated. There is none that will not tempt the ambitious of rapacious States from endeavouring to influence events, indirectly or directly. This does not however reduce these struggles to mere proxy wars of larger State interests. These latter may of course shape, even determine, outcomes – very often, tragically –, but even in such instances, they cannot even begin to capture all of the desires, hopes, actions, forms of resistance and struggle, of those who directly participate in events.

How many revolts, insurrections, wars of “national liberation”, and so on, expressed passions of freedom, only to be subsequently captured by State forms of control? Should they then all have been dismissed and/or decried? Were the struggles of so many wrong, merely delusional, vain? Only ideological purity can answer this last pair of questions positively. This is however the purity of “beautiful souls”, souls so full of moral grace that they are not of this world.

To argue “that today, when we have been living, for a long time, in the era of globalisation, any form of defence of the borders of the fatherland, any war, any “resistance”, of an inter-classist nature, under the direct control of political and economic national and transnational power, is absolutely dubious” (Lundi Matin #354, 27/06/2022), is to pretend to read events with a clarity that is not possible. That such wars are problematic for all kinds of reasons, no one would deny. The Ukrainian government is by no means angelic and war is inevitably a stage for human barbarism.

But to affirm that all wars, even wars of “resistance”, are “absolutely dubious” in an age of globalisation is a sweeping condemnation that can find no justification on the ground.

Rosa Luxemburg made a very similar argument in her criticism of the collapse of German Social Democracy before its embracing of German patriotism during WWI. Though she spoke not of globalisation, but of “imperialism”, the conclusion was identical. “In the present imperialistic milieu there can be no wars of national self-defence. Every socialist policy that depends upon this determining historic milieu, that is willing to fix its policies in the world whirlpool from the point of view of a single nation, is built upon a foundation of sand.” (The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in the German Social Democracy, 1915)

Lenin’s criticism of the The Junius Pamphlet is germane here, not only in reference to Luxemburg’s pamphlet, but also in relation to some “Left” inspired criticism of support for the Ukranian armed resistance against the Russian invasion, including anarchist:

“Junius is quite right in emphasising the decisive influence of the “imperialist background” of the present war, when he says that behind Serbia there is Russia, “behind Serbian nationalism there is Russian imperialism”; that even if a country like Holland took part in the present war, she too would be waging an imperialist war, because, firstly, Holland would be defending her colonies, and, secondly, she would be an ally of one of the imperialist coalitions. This is indisputable in relation to the present war. And when Junius lays particular emphasis on what to him is the most important point: the struggle against the “phantom of national war, which at present dominates Social-Democratic policy”, we cannot but agree that his reasoning is correct and quite appropriate.

But it would be a mistake to exaggerate this truth; to depart from the Marxian rule to be concrete;   to apply the appraisal of the present war to all wars that are possible under imperialism; to lose sight of the national movements against imperialism. The only argument that can be used in defence of the thesis: “there can be no more national wars” is that the world has been divided up among a handful of “Great” imperialist powers, and, therefore, every war, even if it starts as a national war, is transformed into an imperialist war and affects the interests of one of the imperialist Powers or coalitions (p. 81 of Junius’ pamphlet).

The fallacy of this argument is obvious. Of course, the fundamental proposition of Marxian dialectics is that all boundaries in nature and society are conventional and mobile, that there is not a single phenomenon which cannot under certain conditions be transformed into its opposite. A national war can be transformed into an imperialist war, and vice versa. For example, the wars of the Great French Revolution started as national wars and were such. They were revolutionary wars because they were waged in defence of the Great Revolution against a coalition of counter-revolutionary monarchies. But after Napoleon had created the French Empire by subjugating a number of large, virile, long established national states of Europe, the French national wars became imperialist wars, which in their turn engendered wars for national liberation against Napoleon’s imperialism.

Only a sophist would deny that there is a difference between imperialist war and national war on the grounds that one can be transformed into the other. More than once, even in the history of Greek philosophy, dialectics have served as a bridge to sophistry. We, however, remain dialecticians and combat sophistry, not by a sweeping denial of the possibility of transformation in general, but by concretely analysing a given phenomenon in the circumstances that surround it and in its development.

It is highly improbable that this imperialist war of 1914–16 will be transformed into a national war, because the class that represents progress is the proletariat, which, objectively, is striving to transform this war into civil war against the bourgeoisie; and also because the strength of both coalitions is almost equally balanced, while international finance capital has everywhere created a reactionary bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that such a transformation is impossibleif the European proletariat were to remain impotent for another twenty years; if the present war were to end in victories similar to those achieved by Napoleon, in the subjugation of a number of virile national states; if imperialism outside of Europe (primarily American and Japanese) were to remain in power for another twenty years without a transition to socialism, say, as a result of a Japanese-American war, then a great national war in Europe would be possible. This means that Europe would be thrown back for several decades. This is improbable. But it is not impossible, for to picture world history as advancing smoothly and steadily without sometimes taking gigantic strides backward is undialectical, unscientific and theoretically wrong.

Further, national wars waged by colonial, and semi-colonial countries are not only possible but inevitable in the epoch of imperialism. The colonies and semi-colonies (China, Turkey, Persia) have a population of nearly one billion, i.e., more than half the population of the earth. In these countries the movements for national liberation are either very strong already or are growing and maturing. Every war is a continuation of politics by other means. The national liberation politics of the colonies will inevitably be continued by national wars of the colonies against imperialism. Such wars may lead to an imperialist war between the present “Great” imperialist Powers or they may not; that depends on many circumstances.

For example: England and France were engaged in a seven years war for colonies, i.e., they waged an imperialist war (which is as possible on the basis of slavery, or of primitive capitalism, as on the basis of highly developed modern capitalism). France was defeated and lost part of her colonies. Several years later the North American States started a war for national liberation against England alone. Out of enmity towards England, i.e., in conformity with their own imperialist interests, France and Spain, which still held parts of what are now the United States, concluded friendly treaties with the states that had risen against England. The French forces together with the American defeated the English. Here we have a war for national liberation in which imperialist rivalry is a contributory element of no great importance, which is the opposite of what we have in the   war of 1914–16 (in which the national element in the Austro-Serbian war is of no great importance compared with the all determining imperialist rivalry). This shows how absurd it would be to employ the term imperialism in a stereotyped fashion by deducing from it that national wars are “impossible.” A war for national liberation waged, for example, by an alliance of Persia, India and China against certain imperialist Powers is quite possible and probable, for it follows logically from the national liberation movements now going on in those countries. Whether such a war will be transformed into an imperialist war among the present imperialist Powers will depend on a great many concrete circumstances, and it would be ridiculous to guarantee that these circumstances will arise.

Thirdly, national wars must not be regarded as impossible in the epoch of imperialism even in Europe. The “epoch of imperialism” made the present war an imperialist war; it inevitably engenders (until the advent of socialism) new imperialist war; it transformed the policies of the present Great Powers into thoroughly imperialist policies. But this “epoch” by no means precludes the possibility of national wars, waged, for example, by small (let us assume, annexed or nationally oppressed) states against the imperialist Powers, any more than it precludes the possibility of big national movements in Eastern Europe. With regard to Austria, for example, Junius shows sound judgment in taking into account not only the “economic,” but also the peculiar political situation, in noting Austria’s “inherent lack of vitality” and admitting that “the Hapsburg monarchy is not a political organisation of a bourgeois state, but only a loosely knit syndicate of several cliques of social parasites,” that “historically, the liquidation of Austria-Hungary is merely the continuation of the disintegration of Turkey and at the same time a demand of the historical process of development.” The situation is no better in certain Balkan states and in Russia. And in the event of the “Great Powers” becoming extremely exhausted in the present war, or in the event of a victorious revolution in Russia, national wars, even victorious ones, are quite possible. On the one hand, intervention by the imperialist powers is not possible under all circumstances. On the other hand, when people argue haphazardly that a war waged by a small state against a giant state is hopeless, we must say that a hopeless   war is war nevertheless, and, moreover, certain events within the “giant” states—for example, the beginning of a revolution—may transform a “hopeless” war into a very “hopeful” one.

The fact that the postulate that “there can be no more national wars” is obviously fallacious in theory is not the only reason why we have dealt with this fallacy at length. It would be a very deplorable thing, of course, if the “Lefts” began to be careless in their treatment of Marxian theory, considering that the Third International can be established only on the basis of Marxism, unvulgarised Marxism. But this fallacy is also very harmful in a practical political sense; it gives rise to the stupid propaganda for “disarmament,” as if no other war but reactionary wars are possible; it is the cause of the still more stupid and downright reactionary indifference towards national movements. Such indifference becomes chauvinism when members of “Great” European nations, i.e., nations which oppress a mass of small and colonial peoples, declare with a learned air that “there can be no more national wars!” National wars against the imperialist Powers are not only possible and probable, they are inevitable, they are progressive and revolutionary, although, of course, what is needed for their success is either the combined efforts of an enormous number of the inhabitants of the oppressed countries (hundreds of millions in the example we have taken of India and China), or a particularly favourable combination of circumstances in the international situation (for example, when the intervention of the imperialist Powers is paralysed by exhaustion, by war, by their mutual antagonisms, etc.), or a simultaneous uprising of the proletariat of one of the Great Powers against the bourgeoisie (this latter case stands first in order from the standpoint of what is desirable and advantageous for the victory of the proletariat).” (V. I. Lenin, The Junius Pamphlet, 1916)

While Luxemburg’s “revolutionary defeatism” was seemingly categorical (“Is an invasion really the horror of all horrors, before which all class conflict within the country must subside as though spellbound by some supernatural witchcraft?”), defending a principled objection to the war that would have secured the German Social Democratic Party and the German proletariat as “the lighthouse keeper of socialism and of human emancipation”, Lenin’s version of the same was much more nuanced – some might say, opportunistic. (Simon Hannah, “Revolutionary defeatism, yesterday and today”, Tempest, 19/05/2022)

And without wishing to linger further on the Marxist debate around war and revolution, anarchists were historically confronted by the very same dilemma. For some, anti-militarism was a categorical imperative – as it remains now – while for others, wars of resistance against domination were an obligation. And if the “theory” seemed to be clear in its opposition, anarchist practice always revealed a more complex political reality.

In the three “great revolutions” of European anarchism – the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Revolution –, anarchists never acted alone. They were always part of broader fronts of actors who did not share the anarchist vision, but which by itself did not prevent them from engaging militarily. But then this was the failure of the anarchists, some contend; a judgement whose soundness rests only on the clarity of ideology and hindsight.

Anarchists would also participate in the many European armed resistance movements to Nazi occupation during WWII and post-WWII national liberation movements. (Periodico DiagonalEl Salto DiarioParis-Luttes InfoLibcom.org) Was this too a failure? This is not an apology for armed revolution. The form of destituent politics that we believe lies at the heart of the anarchist tradition fits uncomfortably into virile celebrations of the “taking of power”. However, the acceleration and unpredictability of events in moments of generalised revolt render it impossible to morally plan all possible political actions in such circumstances. Against royal absolutism, 20th century fascism, anti-colonialism, and more, anarchists have engaged violently and militarily against oppression, and they have done so rarely alone and therefore rarely masters of the historical stage. Allies would turn against them, newly emergent constituent institutions appropriate their efforts, and they would be banished in turn. Were they mistaken in initiating and/or joining these struggles? We cannot see how such questions can be answered by a confident yes, if no other reason that moments of rebellion are unpredictable, that even State “led” conflicts very often, or always, escape government control, that people feel, think and act beyond the State edicts (The Guardian, 01/07/2022), and that against violent oppression, outside of retreat, what remains as an ethical posture but resistance?

This is not an argument against pacifism; it is rather an argument for an ethics of revolt, for a way of being in the world that while it cannot dictate any specific action in any and all circumstances, is formed by habits of freedom and equality.

Karl Liebknecht’s pamphlet of 1915 repeats, like a refrain, the statement: “Learn everything, don’t forget anything!” From a distance, and minimally, it is this that we should take from the the events of war and revolution. And Rosa Luxemburg began her pamphlet with the following words: “The scene has changed fundamentally. The six weeks’ march to Paris has grown into a world drama. Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. Bourgeois statecraft is held fast in its own vise. The spirits summoned up can no longer be exorcised.” May these spirits be yet unleashed.

Listen,

whatever you do,

you cannot hide a corpse.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Backbone Flute (1915)

Autonomies also shared a statement under this article by a group of Belarusian anarchists on the war in Ukraine, which we had already published on July 6, 2022:

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