‘Libertarian in spirit’: the Left and Maidan

  • A report on the political conflict in the Ukraine from Kirill Buketov which was carried on People And Nature. It is reproduced by TPQ with permission. Gabriel Levy provides a brief introduction.  

Before the war was the uprising. The military conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government is escalating – and with it the number of casualties, among combatants and civilians. Socialists in Russia and Ukraine are trying to build social and labour movements around internationalist and anti-war principles, participating in so-far-modest efforts to launch a peace movement, and arguing about how best to do so. Central to these discussions are activists’ assessments of the Ukrainian uprising that in February brought down president Viktor Yanukovich, and of the left’s successes and failures in that movement – because it was that uprising that triggered the response by the Russian government, which protected the exiled Yanukovich and annexed Crimea, and by Russian nationalist and fascist forces who joined the armed irregulars that control parts of eastern Ukraine. This report by Kirill Buketov of the Global Labour Institute first appeared in Russian on the Left Opposition site. GL.

Socialists on Maidan, 24 November 2013. The poster says "for a socialist Europe". Photo from Zakhar Popovych, Left Opposition
Socialists on Maidan, 24 November 2013. The poster says “for a socialist Europe”. Photo from Zakhar Popovych, Left Opposition

On 12 April 2014 a conference on The Left and the Maidan was held in Kyiv, which brought together activists from anarchist, socialist and communist organisations that had been involved in the Maidan movement in late 2013 – early 2014. (“Maidan” = square, after Independence Square in Kyiv where the movement began.) The initiative to hold the conference came from the Left Opposition organisation (Liva oppozitsiya), the Centre for the Study of Societies (Tsentr doslydzhennya suspyl’stva), the Centre for Social and Labour Research (Tsentr sotsyal’nikh i trudovykh doslidzhen’) and the social critique magazine Spil’ne (The Commons). It was supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The conference provided an opportunity for left-wing political activists to take stock of their participation in the mass movement, analyse the mistakes they had made, and discuss possible further actions.

The large number of participating activists who represent the various political groups and initiatives evolving as a part of the Maidan movement is in itself clear evidence against the alleged absence of the left in the Maidan movement. The discussion was built around the question of why the left had failed to take some organisational form and become as visible a factor of the Maidan as their right counterparts.

The Left Maidan: the beginning

The Maidan movement was changing rapidly and dramatically with every day. Started as a protest action against the refusal [by Yanukovich] to sign the EU Association Agreement, it was transformed into a movement against the deceitful and corrupt nature of the former government, and then against police violence and attempts to impose antidemocratic laws.

At the initial stage, left activists did not attach much importance to the protests, seeing slogans for European integration as alien to them, and limiting their involvement to infrequent small-scale actions that would put forward social demands and criticise the EU’s anti-social policies.

Yet, the moment the authorities resorted to violence and blood was spilt, the situation changed radically. Things were taking a serious turn; the square was no longer a gathering place for European integration supporters, but became a gathering place for those who opposed tyranny. It was at that moment that the Left’s attitude to the protests changed. Although nobody was prepared for such a turn of events, of course, least of all the left. “Previously, we had been doing some circle work to educate and enlighten people, but we had no experience of taking part in a mass movement and protest actions” (Nina Potarskaya said at the conference).

The public context was changing with breathtaking speed. A general anti-fascist action in Kyiv was scheduled for 19 January 2014, to commemorate Stanislav Markelov and
Maidan, 25 November 2013. The posters say "A world without borders" and "An EU for millions, not for millionaires". Photo from Zakhar Popovych, Left Opposition
Maidan, 25 November 2013. The posters say “A world without borders” and “An EU for millions, not for millionaires”. Photo from Zakhar Popovych, Left Opposition
Anastasia Baburova who were killed in Moscow in 2009. Yet, on that day the police began brutally beating up protestors, which brought more and more people out into the streets. It would have been simply unnatural for the Left to stay away from a movement against police violence. “Combat actions began, and we had to change the format of our activities; indeed, it would be unthinkable to just hop around the square taking pictures with your camera when wounded people fell all around you, people who needed help” (Nina Potarskaya).

Contents and form

The Maidan was a broad democratic movement directed against the corrupt authorities of Yanukovich’s regime, and in terms of its political colouring it, of course, was not left, just as it was not right either. If we are to trust the polls, 93% of the Maidan participants were distant from politics. Only 7% had a political position and belonged to one political group or another. Among those 7%, socialists had their niche.

In this broad mass movement, each of its political wings had a chance to manifest itself and act in line with their own tactics. But, having joined the Maidan later than others, the Ukrainian left found themselves in a predictably weaker position than their opponents from the right. At the same time – unlike, for instance, the Russian left who have constantly been in open street conflict with right extremists and set up their own self-defence structures – Ukrainian socialists proved to be unprepared to oppose blatant aggression and the organised violence of the right.

This forced the left Maidan to fold their black and red banners, turn a blind eye to the presence of right-wing ultras and to adopt the tactics of involvement in the general democratic processes through active agitation within the broad civil movement. “The important thing was to get our message across to people rather than identify oneself [as the left]” (Irina Kogut). “Proclaiming oneself openly as ‘left-wing’ would only serve to provoke violence from the organised right-wing groups, making it impossible to do one’s work” (Nina Potarskaya).

“We made an attempt to announce the formation of the Anarchist Squadron, but 70 uniformed nationalists turned up at the meeting and we had to fold, and start working within the Students’ Assembly” (Bogdan Biletskyi). Yet the Assembly was fully controlled by the anarchist students’ union Direct Action, and all of the Assembly’s slogans were social ones. Socialist agitation was under way at the Assembly, there were lectures, socially relevant films were shown.

The spirit of freedom

So, Maidan was not left-wing in terms of its composition but it was left-wing, libertarian in spirit. It was driven by protest against corruption and tyranny, against humiliation and oppression, by masses of people who felt their dignity had been offended by their rulers’ lies, and who suddenly became aware of themselves as a single nation. It was the emerging protest against their personal enslavement and the aspiration to become free that were bringing more and more people into the Square.
And it was not only the anti-authoritarian motivation and nature of the Maidan that spoke of its left-wing essence, but also its modus operandi. The Maidan used methods that we [the left] traditionally consider to be our own: direct participation, self-organisation, direct actions, rejection of leaders, and a resounding NO to the steering and pacesetting role of parties. “The Maidan led to the toppling of tyranny and triggered the development of direct participation and self-governance, which, in essence, is the socialist way” (Alexey Simvolokov).

Self-organisation sent mediators, both state and political ones, packing. They were rejected. The way that mediators were given the sack pushed the masses to the left, towards society’s greater control over political institutions and the state - (Nadezhda Shevchenko).

At the same time, the totalitarian left, who have become used to leading and steering, did not benefit from the sacking of mediators. The majority of them were critical of the movement. The Communist parties used their mass publications to discredit the Maidan, building upon the idea that the power had been seized by a fascist Junta, while some rushed off to create and support “anti-Maidans” in the south-east of Ukraine.

One of the conference participants titled his presentation The Maidan as a Triumph against Communism, interpreting “communism” in Stalinist terms. This resulted in a big discussion. One can argue about nuances, but the really evident thing was that walking onto the Maidan carrying a portrait of Stalin was not only senseless but also unsafe. By the way, the same applied to carrying a portrait of Hitler as well. The Maidan, by its very nature, had no room for symbols of tyrannies and despotic dictatorships.

The Left Maidan

Those who joined the Maidan protests represented anti-authoritarian, democratic left groups that could not remain uninvolved. “We had to be there; indeed, this protest as such has social roots, it is the result of social problems” (Vladimir Chemeris).

From the very beginning the Maidan had the support of the free trade unions affiliated to the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine. Trade unions are the foundation, the first stage of the working class self-organisation, and we, machine-builders of Dnepropetrovsk, perceived the Maidan as, first and foremost, a social protest. But later on it was the whole country out, taking on the tyranny; the workers who had come with us quickly became politicised - (Alexey Simvolokov).

There were quite a large number of the left on the Maidan and they had opportunities to develop their own initiatives and agitation. Left Oppositionactivists were agitating under a red banner and later prepared a 10-point list of social changes based on Lenin’s April Theses and provisions of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme.

The document was distributed in the Ukrainian language in the Ukrainian House and was approved as a programme that was in line with the interests of the Ukrainian people - (Zakhar Popovich).

“The Women’s Squadron (Zhinocha sotnya) engaged in criticising sexism in the Maidan and agitation against right-wing ideology” (Nina Potarskaya).

The Students’ Assembly was opened in the Ukrainian House on 28 January, and its contents were absolutely left-wing. The Assembly coordinated students’ and youth initiatives, drafted the programme for a Free University, organised protest actions, recruited volunteers to medical aid teams, worked on visual arrangements in the Maidan - (Nina Khodorivska).

One the most important projects implemented by the Maidan Left was the Hospital Watch (Vakhta likaren’). “It was an anti-police project rather than just a humanitarian one” (Irina Kogut). In the hospitals there was a need to organise protection of the wounded and those who had suffered from police violence. Yanukovich’s policemen were seeking such people out in hospitals and mobilisation for their protection became a political issue; the idea behind this work was to give people some experience of resistance to police brutality and to the state. The initiative involved around 25 activists, all of them were leftists and carried out anti-governmental agitation in dozens of Kyiv hospitals. Every day the Hospital Watch was joined by over a hundred volunteers who were constantly replacing each other.

Ideas and self-identification

The main task for the Left in the Maidan was not to identify themselves as such but rather introduce socialist meanings and ideas into the movement. Now we find ourselves bombarded with criticisms and accusations that the Maidan Left have contributed to the right-wing provisional government’s ascent to power. This point is invalid; the Maidan as a phenomenal, broad, mass movement should not be associated with either the new Ukrainian government, or professional politicians, or individual parties which were a part of it. Besides, there are no non-oligarchical leaders in Ukrainian politics and, whatever the outcome of the Maidan, there just would not be any room for the left in any government. Any Ukrainian government would be a right-wing one.

And the left did not work in the Maidan for the sake of oligarchs. They did all they could to involve as many people as possible into various anti-authoritarian forms of public organisation, promoting a critical attitude to the ideas of fascism, homophobia, and sexism, as well as to liberal economic programmes.

About a half of the Maidan Left were anarchists,who never seek taking power or being involved in the authorities. We simply work towards the development of non-governmental institutions as an alternative to the State - (Nina Khodorivska, Irina Kogut).

The Left and the Maidan conference, 12 April
The Left and the Maidan conference, 12 April

The results of this work will surely manifest themselves in the near future, when life has returned to its peaceful course and an enormous mass of workers will feel on their necks the strangling noose of the “economic aid” programmes offered by the international financial institutions.

Historical responsibility of the left: where have we failed?

It is evident that the Maidan became a real challenge to the Ukrainian left. Never in the past has the country experienced such an upsurge of people’s activism resulting from the need to defend their freedoms in the face of the government’s armed aggression. The situation was changing by the minute; there was no time to discuss strategies and tactics; everyone just did what he or she believed to be required. Today, during a respite of sorts, one can critically look back, make an initial analysis of what did not work in order to better prepare for new mass manifestations.

The weakness of the Maidan was insufficient involvement of trade unions and the working class. Only 5-7% of all Maidan participants could be categorised as workers, which, come to think of it, is natural: participation in a public protest is extremely complicated for workers. “Workers work, they cannot afford to stop working and risk losing even that meager income for their families” (Yurii Samoilov).

So, it is quite logical that the bulk of the protest movement was formed by students, pensioners, office clerks, civil servants, small entrepreneurs, etc. Furthermore, none of the Kiev left bothered to start agitation in workplaces, to try to bridge the protests and the workers’ community. The free trade unions’ call for a general political strike just hung in midair.

Next, all the participants pointed out that despite a large number of the left involved in the Maidan there was practically no coordination among them. Having joined the protests later than the right wingers, the left instantly rushed into the thick of it and did not have time to create their own organisational structures – unlike the right-wing sector which managed to do that. “The lack of coordination among the left initiatives – the groups of marxists, social-democrats, and anarchists – was a big problem” (Bogdan Biletskyi).

The third area where the Left have failed to find their bearings has to do with soaring separatist actions in south-eastern Ukraine. Taking into account that protest movements in all regions were based on popular dissatisfaction with the corrupt regime of Yanukovich, and deterioration of people’s social situation – and that Yanukovich was equally hated in the Crimea and in the Volhynia [in north west Ukraine, bordering Poland] – it was the left who were in a position to formulate a programme of a people-friendly social order, that could enjoy equal support throughout Ukraine.

But the Maidan was focused on the idea of national and democratic identity, rather than the idea of social justice. “The Crimean Maidan should have talked to the Crimeans in the language they could understand” (Alexey Arunyan). The lack of loudly proclaimed social demands in the Maidan, demands that could unite the country’s east and west, contributed to the annexation of Crimea and emergence of “anti-Maidans”.

What next?

Whatever turn the situation takes next, it is imperative for the left to consolidate in order to create a left-wing political project so that they could oppose the right-wingers who are now in power and the growth of Ukrainian chauvinism in an organised manner. “We must clearly formulate our position vis-à-vis right-wingers and completely dissociate ourselves from them” (Nadezhda Shevchenko).

This is needed in order to preserve and defend the democratic values of the Maidan, the freedoms that are already being suppressed by the new authorities. “The Maidan quietens down, yet the anti-oligarchic idea has not taken root and people are force-fed with entirely different meanings of the events” (Igor Panyuta). “In fact, the new government itself is the most consistent ‘anti-Maidan’” (Alexey Simvolokov).

The struggle must be continued under social slogans. Popular indignation is already on the rise these days, due to the dramatic deterioration of the social situation. We see spontaneous pickets flaring up at bus stops when people protest against fare rises. There will be more of such social protests in the future and they will grow into a mass social movement. We must be ready for it. And our programme should not be about changing one president for another, but rather changing the whole system of social and economic relations in Ukraine.

Internationalism should underpin all our actions. In any war the working class is used as cannon fodder, while oligarchs get richer on people’s blood and tears. We must agitate against war, formulating this as the most urgent task for the working class of Ukraine and Russia.

Note from the author. These are notes about the conference The Left and the Maidan. The conference heard different, often quite opposite, opinions. The text does not presume to fully cover the conference discussions; rather, it is a number of subjective conclusions of the author that reflect his personal point of view, support for which he found in numerous inputs from the participants. All quotes are made from memory. The author apologises for the impossibility to verify the exact wording of the statements. Translated by Eugene Kuprin, published here 16 June 2014.

The left and Ukraine: some links
The Observer Ukraine blog
The After Maidan facebook page
Ukraine crisis reader – the International Socialist Network (lots of links)
Eastern Ukraine: popular uprising, conspiracy or civil war (N+1 magazine)
Statement of the 19 January committee (Russian anti-fascists)
Divisions on the Russian radical left – Ilya Budraitskis
Friends of the imaginary people – Ivan Ovsyannikov

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