Ukraine: War as a Means of Social Control

Gabriel Levy with a piece on Ukraine from People And Nature.

In Ukraine the tumultuous social movement of last winter has been overtaken, divided, and almost silenced, by military conflict. It is a sobering contrast to those times in history, for example at the end of the first and second world wars, when military conflict produced social revolts. This article attempts to consider the historical parallels and what they mean for socialists.

The “anti militarist coalition” on the Moscow march on 21 September. (See “about photo”, below.)

Expressions of discontent around social issues continued to spread across Ukraine – including in the eastern regions – after the overthrow of the government Viktor Yanukovich in Kyiv in February. Some of these protests fed into the so-called “anti Maidan” movement. that actually mirrored the Maidan movement in many ways. But on both sides, corrosive nationalism took its toll. In the midst of all this, the armed separatist movement appeared in eastern Ukraine and grew rapidly. The main factor that helped it was the support of the Russian government, which (i) annexed Crimea in March, (ii) gave strong political support to the separatist leaders (who include activists from Russian fascist and extreme nationalist organisations, and mercenaries accused of war crimes in Chechnya) and (iii) allowed large numbers of mercenaries, weapons up to and including tanks and money across the border.

Although Russia has always denied that its army is participating in the conflict, by the end of August a huge amount of evidence had been collected that not only Russian weaponry but Russian soldiers were present. The role of the Russian army was exposed in particular by journalists and human rights organisations in Russia who helped to identify Russians killed in the conflict – whose existence the military authorities tried desperately to hide. (Some reports in English here and here.[1]) The Committee of Soldiers Mothers, who had also stood up to the Yeltsin and Putin governments in protest at the use of young men as cannon fodder in the Chechnya wars, played a prominent part in exposing the undercover military operation in Ukraine – and this week, as a result, one of its leading activists has been detained.

In September a ceasefire was worked out between Ukraine and the separatists, with Russian participation. It has quietened the conflict down but not stopped it; at least 300 people have died since then. It is possible that this peace process will continue, but it seems inevitable that the separatist “republics” will remain – with their arbitrary and violent form of military rule and their extreme right wing politics – indefinitely.

In the language of international politics, this may become a “frozen conflict” used by the Russian elite to destabilise and put pressure on the Ukrainian government – similar to, but on a much larger scale than, that in the Pridnestrovye region of Moldova. In class terms, it means that people in Ukraine’s largest industrial centre will live under something like a military occupation potentially for a long time in to the future. In west and central Ukraine, militarism and fascism may also gain ground. And divisions have opened up between working class people.

The causes

The separatist movement was only able to mount an armed conflict with the Ukrainian state on this scale because of support from the Russian state. The main reason this support was, and is, given is the Russian state’s fear of the movements that developed in Ukraine prior to Yanukovich’s overthrow – the demonstrations on Maidan and the high level of social protest right across Ukraine that accompanied them.

I am not glamourising the Maidan movement. Alongside progressive and democratic ideas there were many reactionary and nationalist ideas among those who took part. (See what I wrote in February here.) But I am saying that the Kremlin looked on these demonstrations with horror, because it showed that collective actions by large numbers of people in the former Soviet space could create situations it could not control. Fear of social movements, whether in Russia or other former Soviet countries, is a hallmark of Putin’s government.

As a result of direct Russian military involvement in the conflict, NATO countries have introduced economic sanctions against Russia and there is now a real conflict between Russia and some of the western powers. But it is a tension within limits. It is a mistake to believe that a new “cold war” is in progress – or that there is somehow something progressive, “anti imperialist” or “anti fascist” in the Kremlin’s actions. (More on that here.) The next section argues that more fully.

A century-long perspective

This year is the centenary of the start of the first world war. That war ended in revolution: the mutiny in the German fleet; in these islands, big movements in Ireland and Scotland; but, above all, the Russian revolution. A central feature of the revolution was the mass desertion from the front by Russian soldiers. They took the slogan of peace, constantly referred to by so many Russian politicians at the time, literally: they picked up their rifles and went home.

It was the willingness of the Bolsheviks to endorse this mass desertion, over which they had little control – just as they endorsed the peasant land seizures, over which they also had little control – that enabled them to take, and hold on to, state power, at the end of 1917.

Very often, discussions by 21st century activists tend to focus on the retreat, defeat and reversal of the revolution – Kronshtadt, the rise of Stalinism and all the rest – and we forget what a tremendous step forward the revolution itself was, what a huge release of creative energy took place, what a turning-point was marked by the active participation of millions of people in trying to remake the world in a new way.

I think it’s possible to interpret the decades that followed, very briefly and sketchily, as follows. The revolutionary wave at the end of the first world war was followed by the 1930s slump, the rise of fascism and the second world war – and that again ended with a huge wave of social struggles. That post-war wave was, generally speaking, contained via the domination of the workers’ movement in the richest countries by social democracy and Stalinism, and by the arrangements that evolved between the Soviet Union and the capitalist powers to divide Europe, divide the working class and contain and control it on each side of the “iron curtain”.

This Cold War system evolved – with its two “great powers”, the threat of nuclear war, and a social compromise with workers on each side – as a system of social control … not only in the Soviet Union and the USA, but also in other countries, for example those in the Middle East whose leaders manoeuvred between the western and eastern blocs. This system broke down in 1989-91 with the collapse of the Stalinist bloc. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries, new forms of social control had to be put together – and it is the continuation of that process that is now unfolding in eastern Ukraine.

It is important to keep in mind the position of the Russian elite. Russia is being integrated into the world capitalist economy as an exporter of raw materials, i.e. in a role subordinate to the most developed capitalist economies. Its economy, its exports and its state finances are completely dominated by revenues from the sale of oil, gas and various metals. Manufacturing and processing industries have progressed in a very patchy way in post-Soviet times, and the elite has concentrated on dividing up the spoils from commodities exports.

To make up for its economically subordinate position, for its failure to regain status as the second superpower, the Russian elite has desperately tried to compensate by strengthening its hold on the former Soviet space by political and military means. This is not only about controlling the elites of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, but also about disciplining the working class. The Russian elite’s role has very fittingly been described as that of a gendarme (here). This is to my mind the best way of understanding its prosecution of its murderous wars against separatism in Chechnya, and for separatism in eastern Ukraine – in both cases, with the full complement of torture and savagery undertaken not only by uniformed soldiers, but also by irregular armed formations.

The breakdown of the Cold War system of social control has also meant that social and labour struggles of the last quarter of a century, both in former Soviet countries and elsewhere, have taken place under very different conditions from those of the 1960s and 70s. In the last five years, since the economic crisis of 2008-09, we have seen an enormous wave of social struggles and national conflicts – I am thinking particularly of the “north African spring” and Syria, as well as Ukraine – that seem to be different from the movements I have mentioned during and after the first world war or the second world war.

These movements of recent years have not resulted in deep-going social change. We have not seen a release of creative energy, and a development of radical ideas and ways of organising, such as that experienced by Russia in the first few years after the 1917 revolution … not even in Egypt, where the largest popular revolt took place. On the other hand, the mechanisms of social control imposed after the second world war – through social democracy and the welfare state in western Europe, and through the Stalinist bureaucratic system in eastern Europe and the USSR – are not operating in the way that they operated at that time.

One horrible consequence of this has been that in the face of social movements, elites have resorted to much cruder and violent methods of social control. This is at least part of the explanation for what has happened both in eastern Ukraine and in Syria. Huge amounts of weapons and money have poured in to so-called civil wars that in many respects are proxy wars between capitalist states. The heaviest price in terms of deaths and injuries is paid by the civilian population.

But another side to this is that social and labour movements of today are developing under conditions where the mechanisms of social control operated by Stalinism and social democracy are severely weakened. This is not automatically good news, but for communists and socialists it opens up different kinds of potential, and different kinds of problems.

For a start, the social movements of today are often influenced by different ideologies and different organisations, and use different symbols, from those of 30 or 40 years ago. This is inevitable, given the historical crisis of Stalinism and social democracy. The dangers for communists are to think either that we need simply to re-hash those slogans and policies from previous generations, or that we can simply throw historical experience in the bin and start again. Neither of those approaches work, in my view. I think communist organisations will successfully develop by working over the experience of the past but finding ways of advancing our ideas in the present changed conditions.

I don’t claim to have answers to the question of how we do this, but here are some ideas about how war shapes that question.

Social movements at a time of war: three points

1. One consequence of the war in Ukraine is that some so-called “lefts” have openly supported the separatist regimes established by gangs of armed fascists and other thugs. To my mind, this is a turning-point in the politics of these Stalinist (and some Trotskyist) groups. The logic is that if people have guns and they are on the opposite side from the USA, they deserve support. The fact that this is done in the name of “anti fascism” – an argument that dovetails completely with Kremlin propaganda that the Ukrainian government is fascist – makes it all the more obscene.

What events in Ukraine have reminded us is that, once working class people are armed with baseball bats and revolvers – let alone heavy artillery – and are turned against each other, it’s already very very late to start thinking of ways to promote social struggles. It is bad enough that some so-called socialists participate in this. It is worse that other so-called socialists sit in other countries, far away from the violence and the hurt that it brings to working class people, and not only applaud this activity but also use it to justify political alignment with the Kremlin.

Recognising war and military conflict as a means of social control means acknowledging its disastrous impact on social and labour movements. The widespread availability of lethal weapons in society amounts to a new type of hierarchy – of the armed against the unarmed – that reinforces the hierarchies of state against civilian population, capitalist class against working class and men against women.

News from eastern Ukraine – where protesters face shooting into demonstrations by unidentified thugs, and grenade attacks on their homes – confirms this. (See some reports that I have posted today here.) So does the situation in western Ukraine, according to friends and comrades there who say that many households now have guns and that there is mounting pressure on young men, from both the state and extreme nationalists, to join the military conflict in the east.

2. War inevitably deepens splits in the workers’ movement. A depressing recent example was that of the independent miners’ union, one of the first unions to emerge during the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship in 1989-90 and still one of the best organised. In June the branch of the union in Donetsk – where most of the mines are closed, and many have been flooded and ruined in the course of the military conflict – issued a statement supported the Kyiv government’s “anti terrorist operation” against the “Donetsk People’s Republic”. What made the statement especially problematic in my view was that it denounced trade unionists in Kyiv who had protested against the government’s plans to take austerity measures including a public sector wage freeze, on the grounds that the funds were needed for military action.

What a classic victory for our enemies: an organisation representing workers under seige by the pro-Russian military dictators turning against those representing workers in central and western Ukraine. Even workers’ organisations built up over long periods of time can very quickly be divided, and solidarity between them wrecked, in war conditions.

There are some examples of community and worker organisation independently of the state and armed formations: the protesters who have taken to the streets of several eastern Ukrainian towns this month, the miners at Kriviy Rih who called for the formation of working-class self-defence units, and others. Unfortunately these remain few and far between. But this, and only this, can be the place to start to build social movements.

3. For communists and socialists (however more exactly defined), anti-militarism needs to be at the centre of our activity. In Russia and Ukraine this is a very concrete issue: socialist organisations there are thinking about how to support not only community mobilisations mentioned above but also e.g. soldiers who refuse to serve, and the families of those wounded or killed in conflict who are then denied support from the state.

A heartening step forward was taken by a wide array of socialist and anarchist groups in Moscow, who joined the huge anti-war march in Moscow on 21 September in an “anti militarist coalition”. Their slogans included “Capitalism causes all wars. This one too” and “Profit for the oligarchs; medals for the generals; bodies for soldiers’ mothers”. The coalition called for the release of Aleksandr Kolchenko, the anti-fascist activist imprisoned by the Russian authorities in Crimea, as well as anti-fascists jailed in Moscow following the protest movement of 2011-12. (Report here, Russian only.)

Every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes, Karl Marx once said. In Ukraine, the real movement is now trying to break the shackles of war and militarism with which its feet have been chained to the floor.

This article is based on a talk I gave at the Anarchist Book Fair in London on 18 August 2014, at a session arranged by the Real World War I group. GL.

About the photo. The “anti militarist coalition” on the Moscow march grouped behind a banner, painted by the left-wing Ukrainian artist David Chichkan, with the words “malenkaya poBEDAnosnaya voina”. It’s a pun: the whole phrase means “a small victorious war”; the highlighted bit, “BEDA”, means “misfortune”. Photo from the Avtonomnoe Deistvie web site (

■ See also: “Ukraine: truce the least bad option” and “Social protest and repression in Donbass

[1] The Euromaidan Press site is clearly aligned with the Kyiv government. But I am sure of the veracity of this report: I have read many articles in Novaya Gazeta and other Russian newspapers where the information first appeared. GL.

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