U.S. and World Politics

Russia: “The Prison House of Nations”

By Brian Schwartz

Ukraine is an oppressed nation defending itself from the ongoing invasion waged by the Russian armed forces at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his coterie politicians—all serving the interests of an emerging Russian bourgeoisie, yearning to return all the former breakaway republics back to the Great Russian “Prison House of Nations.”

The national question is a confounding aspect of our class struggle program. Comradely written discussion on the national question was a must back in the early part of the 20th century. Again, the difficult national question must be hammered out in the third decade of the 21st century studying the polemics of the great Marxist theorists, while we forge a class-struggle perspective with our own observations, tested against the ever-changing events in this current reactionary war waged by Russia against Ukraine.

Today, some revolutionists of the world socialist movement charge that advocating Ukraine’s independence and supporting her defensive war equates adapting to the side of U.S. and European imperialism with its ever-expanding NATO. A Ukrainian fascist movement that openly embraces Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera, a World War II fascist collaborator, understandably causes many good socialists to recoil from defending Ukraine.

President Putin and the Russian ruling class have had their trysts with the far right. The late Vladimir Zhirinvovski, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, advocated the preservation of Great Russia and the sanctity of the Russian Orthodox Church. Zhirinovsky and the Liberal Democratic Party were every bit as anti-Semitic as the Ukrainian fascists. President Putin awarded him the Order of Alexander Nevsky for meritorious civil service in 2015.

Alexander Barkashov founded the fascist paramilitary organization Russian National Unity. Barkashov authored one of the “ABCs Of A Russian Nationalist.” RNU members sported black shirts with a banner depicting crossed swords with bars placed along the blades to form a swastika. Russian National Unity has gained military experience fighting on the losing side of the 1993 Russian White House siege. Its members, including Barkashov’s son, have fought in the Russian sponsored paramilitaries in occupied Crimea. Barkashov and the RNU, like Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, incorporate anti-Semitism into their ideology.

The Ukrainian and Russian working classes will have to settle accounts with fascist movements the same way the 1917 soldiers and workers of Petrograd united to defeat General Kornilov who sought to crush the Russian provisional government and the workers and soldiers’ soviets supporting it.

Though we recognize the murderous and financial predatory interests of American and European imperialism and that of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and its fascist suitors to collaborate through NATO and the U.S.-dominated world market, there is a necessity to recognize that the struggle of oppressed nations and peoples, sets the Ukrainian and Russian working classes and their middle-class allies upon the potential road to class struggle at this time. The Soviet Union based on planned economy is no more. The Russian bourgeoisie is not waging a war of survival, but a war of expansion so that they don’t have to deal with Ukraine as a nation equal to that of the other capitalist nations Russia competes with in the international marketplace.

At the outbreak of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, March 14, 2022, Marina Ovsyannikov, a journalist for Russian TV Channel 1, crashed the evening news broadcast, Vremya, holding up an antiwar sign, handwritten in both Russian and English, speaking out against the war, and that the Russian government was lying to the people. Journalists in the news industry are people of privilege. Marina Ovsyannikov was groomed for success since her childhood. Her father is Ukrainian, and her mother is Russian. The injustice and false pretense of the Russian invasion and the antiwar sentiments pulsing in the Russian population impacted Marina and gave her the courage to forfeit her career and risk imprisonment with this audacious act against the Russian war. Marina is of the middle-class and her defiance confirms the revolutionary dynamics of the national struggle becoming a springboard to class struggle. I will quote Lenin verbatim on some of the class struggle aspects of national struggle and its participants. In these quotes he’s writing about the crushed Irish Rebellion of 19161:

“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landlords, the church, the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.—to imagine that means repudiating social revolution. Only those who imagine that in one place an army will line up and say, ‘We are for socialism,’ and in another place another army will say, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that this will be the social revolution, only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic opinion, could vilify the Irish Rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch.’23

Lenin’s views on national struggles

As Lenin was defending the 1916 rebellion of the Irish against Great Britain, we can use Lenin’s thoughts quoted above to not vilify the Ukrainian War as an imperialist proxy war but a legitimate war for defense and independence waged by a Ukrainian people who are in a political learning process as they fight.

During the early 20th century, before the Bolshevik-lead Soviets seized power in 1917, Lenin wrote a pamphlet called Critical Remarks on The National Question. Lenin saw through the machinations of imperial powers intervening in the affairs of small nations seeking desperately a way towards independence. Poland, Ukraine, Ireland, and the Jewish people were moving in the direction towards determined national struggles. Titans of Marxist thought, the likes of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Radek, even Martov and Trotsky, to a minor extent, were coming under polemical fire from Lenin. Critical Remarks on the National Question were Lenin’s compiled theoretical observations on the national question from 1913 to the World War I years.

Factions within the Second International4 were unable to differentiate between the nationalism of the oppressed European nations with the nationalism of the great European powers that were marching headlong into World War I. The opponents of nationalism worried that the alliance of the working class with the bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation seeking independence, would put a wedge between them and the international working class.

Some Second Internationalists believed that independence of weak oppressed nations was a utopian fantasy in the era of imperialism. Lenin fired back at this explaining that Norway was able to secede from Sweden in 1905. There were also the capitalist reactionaries who were advocating an end to multiple languages spoken in their respective countries. Lenin pointed out that Switzerland is a successful country in the capitalist sense because their country has many languages spoken to connect with the commercial interests of the international marketplace.

Our American Fourth International5 movement has been ripped to shreds twice over the national question. Once was during the annexation of Finland and a portion of Poland as agreed upon by the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact. Another was the 1999 U.S./NATO invasion of Yugoslavia. During World War II, the greater concern was protecting the Soviet Union, a degenerating worker’s state, from destruction by Nazi Germany. Rather than line up with the world bourgeoisie condemning violations of Poland and Finland’s territories, the Socialist Worker’s Party majority of the early 1940s, agreed with Trotsky, that defense of the Soviet Union subordinated the unfortunate annexation of Poland and Finland’s territories.

In 1999, it was made clear to the world that the plight of the oppressed Kosovar Albanians who lived in an enclave within the old Yugoslavia, was going to serve as a direct pretext for the United States and NATO to occupy Yugoslavia—not by the consent of the Yugoslavian people or its governments—but strictly by the United States and Europe’s own unilateral decision without even a green light from the United Nations. A faction of American socialists chose to regard the Kosovar Albanian’s plight as foremost and they used Lenin’s theories on the right of nations to self-determination to ignore the imminent invasion of U.S. and NATO.

The bigger crisis that overshadowed the Kosovar/Albanian tragedy was the direct occupation of U.S. and European imperialism of a former worker’s state. Serbia (a nation within Yugoslavia) was subjected to bombing of their infra-structure and loss of civilian life by an intensive air campaign waged by the U.S. and NATO. The United States directly occupies old Yugoslavia with a permanent base called Camp Bondsteel. Not calling for U.S. and NATO out of Yugoslavia was a mistaken application of Lenin’s views on the national question.

Rather than Lenin’s observations and polemics pertaining to the events before World War I for the 1999 Serbian vs. Kosovar Albanians, we needed the perspective hammered out by the Fourth International during the Hitler-Stalin Pact. And that was the unconditional defense of a worker’s state which was about to be bombed and occupied by the U.S. and European capitalists, using their military organization, NATO.

As this article is being written during the first weeks of October, the Russian army has been routed out of the East Ukrainian city of Lyman and this after the Russian government held dubious elections in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherzon and Zaporizhshia. Putin and the Russian ruling class he serves, are attempting to call up 300,000 men to fill the depleted ranks lost to fighting the determined Ukrainians. This call-up caused thousands of men to flee Russia and heighten antiwar sentiment amongst the Russian people.

Role of U.S. and European

U.S. and European imperialism are actively supporting this war and NATO now has Sweden in its fold. Lenin wrote these words:

“The General Staffs in the present war (World War I) assiduously strive to utilize all national and revolutionary movements in the camp of their enemy: the Germans utilize the Irish rebellion, the French—the Czech movement, etc. From their own standpoint they are acting quite properly. A serious war would not be treated seriously if advantage were not taken of the slightest weakness of the enemy, if every opportunity that presented itself were not seized, the more so since it is impossible to know beforehand at what moment, where and with what force a powder magazine will ‘explode.’ We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the great liberation war of the proletariat for socialism, we did not know how to utilize every popular movement against each separate disaster caused by imperialism in order to sharpen and extend the crisis. If, on the one hand, we were to declare and to repeat in a thousand keys that we are ‘opposed’ to all national oppression and, on the other hand, we were to describe the heroic revolt of the most mobile and enlightened section of certain classes in an oppressed nation against its oppressors as a ‘putsch,’ we would be sinking to the same stupid level as the Kautskyists6.

“The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various springs of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord, without reverses and defeats. On the other hand, the very fact that revolts break out at different times, in different places, and are of different kinds, guarantees wide scope and depth to the general movement. Only in premature, partial, sporadic, and therefore unsuccessful revolutionary movements do the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare for the general onslaught, in the same way as separate strikes, local and national, mutinies in the army, outbreaks among the peasantry, etc., prepared the way for the general onslaught in 1905.”7

A number of left journalists reporting the events in the Ukraine report accurately on the machinations of U.S. and European imperialism. These journalists see the Ukraine war as a mere proxy war where NATO is using the Ukrainians. What these journalists overlook is the working classes and their allies in both Russia and Ukraine. It is the working classes of these countries that can intervene, bring clarity, and resolve this war cleanly. As leftists, our duty is to be teachers who understand that the workers of the world have an historic duty to displace the capitalist class as a new and temporary ruling class.

Workers unite!

Outcomes do not always go in the working classes’ favor, especially with the greatest defeat ever handed to the international working class, and that is the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Poland, for example, had the union Solidarity, which eventually took state power. We watched sadly as Margaret Thatcher, the hammer against British Labour, was greeted enthusiastically by cheering Polish workers of Solidarity as she sailed into the Gdansk Shipyard in the late 1980s. The Ukrainians have illusions that paradise is waiting for them if they can have a country like France, Germany, and Great Britain where there is seeming abundance, democracy, and freedom of movement without police scrutiny. The great Stalinist shadow made the international revolutionary vanguard’s task increasingly difficult to awaken the working classes to their historic destiny to rule.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being repressed at this present time, Ukraine’s working class is being led by the politicians and military staffs of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie. That is the reality now. There is a historic possibility that the ideas of working-class independence can gain a hearing with not only the Ukrainian and Russian working classes but the working classes of all nations, embracing the old slogan “Workers of the world unite. We have only our chains to lose.”

“Workers of the world unite,” is not a religious mantra but a crying necessity to preserve life on the planet. Palestinians, Iranians, Central Americans, Haitians, peoples of the African continent, Arabs of Yemen along with Ukrainians will not get relief from oppression, violence, or hunger from the international capitalist class.

Russian fossil fuels embargoed from the international market convulses Europe with the specter of rationing. It begs the question: scientists of great knowledge and reputation have warned us of the long-term consequences of fossil fuels and yet the capitalist class can’t help themselves but to ignore the scientists whose forecasts cut into international corporate profit margins. The working class can shut down production, intellectuals and vanguard workers can come together and build revolutionary socialist parties to secure humanity’s survival, setting us on track to live with nature and each other in peace.

1 The Irish Rebellion of 1916—[The Easter Rising] also known as the Easter Rebellion, was an armed insurrection in Ireland during Easter Week in April 1916. The Rising was launched by Irish republicans against British rule in Ireland with the aim of establishing an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was fighting the First World War. It was the most significant uprising in Ireland since the rebellion of 1798 and the first armed conflict of the Irish revolutionary period. Sixteen of the Rising’s leaders were executed from May 1916. The nature of the executions, and subsequent political developments, ultimately contributed to an increase in popular support for Irish independence.

2 A secretly plotted and suddenly executed attempt to overthrow a government.

3 Pages 256-257, Critical Remarks on The National Question, by VI Lenin.

4 The Second International was an organization of socialist and labor parties, formed on July 14, 1889, at two simultaneous Paris meetings in which delegations from twenty countries participated. Wikipedia

5 The Fourth International is a revolutionary socialist international organization consisting of followers of Leon Trotsky, also known as Trotskyists, whose declared goal is the overthrowing of global capitalism and the establishment of world socialism via international revolution.

6 Followers of Karl Johann Kautsky — Karl Johann Kautsky, German: October 16, 1854 17 October 1938) was a Czech-Austrian philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theorist. Kautsky was one of the most authoritative promulgators of orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He was the most important socialist theorist during the years of the Second International. He founded the socialist journal Neue Zeit. Following the war, Kautsky was an outspoken critic of the Bolshevik Revolution, engaging in polemics with Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin on the nature of the Soviet state.

7 ibid P. 259-261