Marxism and the war in Donbass

The following analysis, written by Victor Shapinov a leader of the Borotba organization in Ukraine and translated by Workers World contributing editor Greg Butterfield, can be found in full at Below we publish excerpts:

Victor Shapinov

Victor Shapinov

Borotba is often criticized for supporting the Donbass people’s republics, for the fact that our comrades fight in the militia and assist the peaceful nation-building in Lugansk (LC) and Donetsk (DNR). This criticism is heard not only from those former leftists who succumbed to nationalist fervor and supported first Maidan, then Kiev’s war of conquest in the Donbass. Others criticize us and from the standpoint of “Marxist pacifism,” calling themselves “the new Zimmerwald.”

1914 = 2014?

In the First World War of 1914-1918, blocs of imperialist countries of roughly equal strength fought over markets, sources of raw materials and colonies. In 1914, a deadly battle confronted two centers of capital accumulation with their centers in London and Berlin [that] had reached the limits of their geographic expansion in the 1870s, bumping into one another’s frontiers. The last act of this expansion was the rapid division of the African continent between the great powers.

The clash of these divisions of labor (the German-Central European, Anglo-French, American and Japanese) was the economic cause of the First and Second World Wars. After World War II, there was only one such system — headed by the United States. The rightist, neoliberal reaction of Reagan-Thatcher gave this system its finished, current form. At the heart of this system is the Federal Reserve, as the body producing the world’s reserve currency, the IMF, WTO and World Bank.

After 2008, the system entered a period of systemic crisis and gradual decay. As a result of the collapse, the capitalist elites of some countries began to challenge the “rules of the game” set by Washington.

Thus, we do not have two blocs gripped in a deadly showdown (as in 1914), but a brand new situation, with no historical analogues.

Conflicts within the system are related to its internal contradictions, rather than a clash between individual centers of capital accumulation and their systems of division of labor, as it was in 1914 and 1939.

Modern imperialism is a world system

Those who present the conflict in Ukraine as a fight between Russian and U.S. imperialism à la 1914 [err]. Russia and the United States are not comparable in their economic power; they fight in different weight categories. Moreover, there is no “Russian imperialism,” and even “American imperialism” in the sense of 1914 does not exist. There is a hierarchically organized imperialist world system with the United States at the head. There is a Russian capitalist class, which in this structure resides not on the first or even the second “floor,” which tried to raise its “status” in this hierarchy and is now frightened by its own audacity, after meeting resistance from a united West.

In the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian capitalist elite have only responded to the challenges of a rapidly developing situation. This reaction has been halfhearted, contradictory, inconsistent — demonstrating the absence of strategy.

As the situation developed following the coup in Ukraine and the beginning of the uprising in Crimea and the South-East, the Russian leadership faced a difficult dilemma. To not step in and not support the population of Crimea and the South-East meant losing legitimacy in the eyes of its own population. To intervene meant to break with the West, with unpredictable results. In the end, they chose the middle option — intervention in Crimea but not in the South-East.

However, when the uprising in Donbass moved from peaceful to armed, Russia had to offer assistance. It had to, because the military suppression of the rebels with the tacit consent of Russia would be a catastrophic blow to the image of the Russian authorities within the country.

Such support has aroused dissatisfaction and resistance among most of the Russian oligarchy, which dreams not of restoring the Russian Empire, but of a mutually beneficial partnership with the West.

Historical parallel: Ireland 1916

Is it possible to support the republics if the Russian bourgeois regime is trying to instrumentalize the revolt and use it in its own geopolitical interests?

Let’s conduct a historical analogy. The Easter Rising of the Irish Republicans against the British Empire in 1916. All those who call themselves leftists honor this heroic episode of the anti-imperialist struggle of the Irish people.

Meanwhile, one of the major factions of the uprising — the Irish Republican Brotherhood — in 1914, at the beginning of the war, decided to revolt and take any German assistance offered. A representative of the Brotherhood traveled to Germany and obtained approval for such assistance. It wasn’t provided only because the German ship carrying weapons was intercepted at sea by a British submarine.

Lenin unconditionally supported the Irish rebellion, despite the fact that it was much less “proletarian” than the [present-day] revolt in the Donbass. And in those days there were leftists who called the Irish Rebellion a “putsch,” a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing.” Lenin answered them, “Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.”

Despite the apparent support of the Germans, not to mention the fact that the uprising in the rear of the British Empire “played into the hands” of German imperialism, real leftists supported the Irish Republicans. Supported them, despite the fact that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Irish nationalists fought together with socialist James Connolly and his supporters. Of course, Connolly said that a declaration of independence without the formation of a socialist republic would be in vain. But the left in Donbass says this too.

Why doesn’t the Irish example apply to the Donbass, an example from the era of the First World War, which the self-styled “Zimmerwaldists” are so fond of?

But with Donbass, some leftists apply a double standard, diligently looking for excuses to condemn the DNR and the LC, allowing them to take a position of indifferent pacifism. Genuine leftists never held such a position. “Indifference to the struggle is not, therefore, exclusion from the struggle, abstinence or neutrality. Indifference is tacit support of the powerful, the oppressors,” Lenin wrote. Standing aside in a detached posture, the self-styled “Zimmerwaldists” actually side with the Kiev authorities, who are leading a punitive operation against the rebels.

War — continuation of policy by other means

“War is nothing more than the continuation of policy by other means,” wrote the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. This statement is recognized approvingly by the classics of Marxism.

What are the policies continued by Kiev and Donbass?

Policies in Kiev

The policies of Kiev in the civil war are a logical continuation of the policies of the Maidan. This has several components:

  1. “European integration” and subordination to imperialism. The first slogan of the Maidan was so-called “European integration,” which in economic terms means the surrender of Ukrainian markets to European corporations, the transformation of Ukraine into a colony of the European Union as a source of raw materials and disenfranchised migrant worker-slaves. Today, more than a year after the victory of Maidan [the victory of the counterrevolution with pro-fascists in the leadership], the economic results are already being felt so deeply that they cannot be ignored by even the most hard-nosed “Euro-optimists.”The new regime in Kiev also finally abandoned sovereignty and became a puppet state. The solution of the internal conflict within the Kiev regime, between President-oligarch Petro Poroshenko and Governor-oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, came through an appeal to the U.S. Embassy. The handing over of the militarily and logistically strategic Odessa region to the direct control of a U.S protégé, former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, clearly testifies to this.
  1. Neoliberalism. The post-Maidan government has consistently pursued policies dictated by the IMF. All this was openly declared from the rostrum of the Maidan, and the political forces that led the movement have long and consistently favored economic neoliberalism. Movement toward all-out privatization and the systematic destruction of the remnants of the welfare state — that is the essence of the economic policies of the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk regime.
  1. Nationalism and fascism. Nationalists and outright fascists managed to impose their agenda through the Maidan. Our organization wrote in winter 2014: “The undoubted success of the nationalists is due to the fact that, because of their high level of activity, they have managed to impose ideological leadership on the Euromaidan movement. … The rest of the opposition parties did not have a clear-cut ideological line or set of slogans, leaving the neoliberal opposition to adopt the nationalist slogans and nationalist agenda.”Thus, the neoliberal-Nazi alliance was formed. The neoliberals adopted the political program of Ukrainian fascists, and the Nazis agreed with carrying out the neoliberal line in the economy. This alliance was “consecrated” by representatives of imperialism, such as Catherine Ashton, Victoria Nuland and John McCain.Another important point in the fascistization of society after Maidan was the legalization of paramilitary Nazi groups and the integration of the Nazis into the law enforcement agencies of the state.
  1. The violent suppression of political opponents, repression, censorship of the media, banning of communist ideology.
  1. Contempt for the working class, “class racism.” Established on Maidan under the leadership of the oligarchy, the ideology of the social bloc of nationalist intelligentsia and “middle class” petty proprietors has infected the Western Ukrainian “man in the street,” who clearly defines his class enemy: the “cattle” in Donbass. With this “class racism” against the working-class majority of the South-East, the oligarchy rallies broad social strata around itself.These are the main elements of the policy of the new regime in Kiev. This is the class politics of transnational imperialist capital and the Ukrainian capitalist oligarchy, which tries to escape its crisis at the expense of the working class. This policy is based on using the petty bourgeoisie, the so-called “middle class,” as its strike force. In the 1930s, this design of political dictatorship in the interests of big business was called fascism.Policies in Donbass

    Since the statehood of the territories liberated by the rebels of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions is just being established, it is probably too early to draw final conclusions about the policies of the DNR and LC. However, we can highlight some trends.

  1. Anti-fascism. The rebels of all political persuasions definitely characterize the regime established in Kiev after Maidan as fascist. Often without a clear scientific understanding of fascism, they nonetheless reject the following features of the Kiev regime: extreme nationalism, chauvinistic language policy, anti-communism and anti-Sovietism, repression of political opponents, exoneration of Nazi war criminals and collaborators.


  1. Anti-oligarchism. The role of the Ukrainian oligarchy, as the main sponsor and beneficiary of Maidan and the right-nationalist coup, became an essential element of the consciousness of the resistance movement in the South-East. Also, during the winter and spring of 2014, the complete dependence and subordination of the Ukrainian oligarchy to imperialism, headed by the United States, became apparent.In this regard, it can be argued: for the rebels of Donbass and the masses involved in the resistance movement in the South-East, anti-oligarchic slogans are not mere “populism.” This distinguishes the mass progressive movement in the South-East from the mass reactionary movement of Maidan. Some mild anti-oligarchic slogans were also heard on the Maidan, but they did not go beyond the limits inherent in far-right social demagogy and populism — direct proof of this is the election by the pro-Maidan masses of oligarch Poroshenko to the presidency.
  1. Anti-neoliberal policies. An important feature of the internal life of the Donbass republics is the trend towards social-democratic, Keynesian models of economic development, socially oriented state capitalism. While this is only a trend, though an important one, it is the opposite of the economic policy of the Kiev authorities.
  1. Friendship of peoples, internationalism and Russian nationalism. Everyone who has been in the Donbass notes the international character of the region. Dangerous trends of Russian nationalism in response to the Ukrainian chauvinism of the new Kiev authorities have not developed in a serious way (although that danger has been actively exploited by opponents of the people’s republics for propaganda purposes).

Also, there has been no serious development of another danger — clericalization of the resistance movement. This distinguishes the resistance forces from the Maidan, wherein the Greek Catholic Church played a significant role.

These are the main elements of the policy of the people’s republics of Donbass. Of course, this policy is not socialist. But it leaves room for the left, the communists, to participate in such a movement under their own banner, with their own ideas and slogans, without abandoning their own views and program.

Having considered in detail what kind of policies the civil war continues for both sides, we can conclude that this policy is not the same from the point of view of left-wing, anti-capitalist forces.

Just and unjust wars

The attitude of Marxists to war cannot be reduced to the single example of the First World War. Marxists have always supported wars of the oppressed against the oppressors, considering the retreat into pacifism and indifference in the case of a just war to be bourgeois hypocrisy and hidden support for the masters.

Yes, even in the First World War, those socialists who did not disgrace themselves by betrayal, who did not shift into the service of the imperialist governments, were not just for ending the fratricidal war, where workers of one country kill workers of another country for the alien interests of the capitalist elite; these socialists advocated turning the imperialist war into civil war. They said that the oppressed should turn their weapons against their own oppressors, using the mass arming of the people as a tool for social revolution.

The demand for disarmament of the rebel militias is a demand for their surrender, and it is unlikely that the self-styled Zimmerwaldists do not understand this.

Of course, any war means blood and suffering of people, but to stop this war by a complete renunciation of the uprising means that the blood has been spilled in vain. Moreover, it means revenge and repression by the nationalist forces against the population of Donbass.