Lenin on national rights: Lessons for interpreting the Ukraine war
Few questions of international politics over the past century have seen the Western left as sharply divided as the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the quality of left-wing debate on Ukrainian topics has rarely been high; often, characterisations that demand detailed analysis and proof are presented as self-evident. This lack of rigour has been despite the Ukraine conflict throwing up such important issues for the left as the nature and role of imperialism; the relationship between national rights and the class struggle; and, in cases where the rights of nations must be weighed against the global interests of the proletariat, which of these should take precedence.
The ironies here include the fact that the greatest of all practitioners of socialist revolution left us a rich body of theoretical work that bears integrally on key matters including those noted above. There simply is no good reason why Marxists today, with the writings of Vladimir Lenin at their disposal, should lack clarity on how to analyse the war in Ukraine and answer its challenges.
Lenin, in his pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, provided the classic analysis of developed industrial capitalism and its drive to global dominance. The present writer has addressed Lenin’s concept of imperialism as it pertains to Ukraine and Russia in other texts, and except in summary fashion, this analysis will not be repeated here.
Instead, the purpose of this essay is to examine Lenin’s views on the national question, and to suggest how his ideas on this topic should be applied to present-day Ukraine. Arguably, national feeling — or in the aggressive, exclusivist form it often assumes in capitalist societies, nationalism — is nowhere near as central a factor for explaining the Ukraine war as is the compulsion of imperialism to try to expand its hold to areas of the world that have escaped its grasp. But for all that, Ukrainian national sentiment has been a highly significant element helping to shape developments. In particular, the main NATO powers have had remarkable success in leveraging Ukrainian nationalism as a weapon in their drive to war against Russia.
None of this is to suggest that Lenin’s thoughts on the national question are definitive, or should be applied mechanically to the phenomena we encounter more than a century after he wrote. But if we find that our views and practice radically contradict Lenin’s positions in this area, we need at least to pull up short and prepare for some hard thinking.
Part 1. Lenin’s key positions on the national question
Lenin’s understanding of the “nation” and of national struggle was derived directly from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In Josef Stalin’s 1913 pamphlet Marxism and the National Question, written under Lenin’s close tutelage, the concept of the nation is defined as follows: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”.
This is a relatively strict definition that does not accord “nationhood” to dispersed ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural minorities. The strictness reflects the fact that the Marxist movement, beginning with its founders, has not viewed “nationhood” simply as a vague sense of shared identity. For Marx and Engels, and later for Lenin, national status was historically based and formed by class struggles. Nationhood emerged, in the context of a declining pre-capitalist order, from the efforts by rising capitalist classes to secure the broadest possible sway for their domination and exploitation, while restricting or excluding rivals based in other territories.
The national struggle, for Marxists, is thus bound up indissolubly with the bourgeoisie and capitalism. Stalin in 1913 explained: “The national struggle under the conditions of rising capitalism is a struggle of the bourgeois classes among themselves . . . In its essence it is always a bourgeois struggle, one that is to the advantage and profit mainly of the bourgeoisie.”
A grasp of this point allows us to move on and to list — very briefly, and at the price of a certain schematism — the crucial elements of Lenin’s thinking on the national question:
- Nationalism is not progressive. Only proletarian internationalism is progressive.
- Nevertheless, socialists must recognise and defend the right of nations to self-determination, up to and including the right to secession.
- Democratic demands, including those related to national rights, are a vital part of proletarian struggle. But they are necessarily subordinate to the class struggle itself.
- Socialists should pursue absolute unity with the workers of other nations, and resist the “patriotism” of the bourgeoisie.
- For workers to fight for imperialism is an abomination.
As can be seen, Lenin was emphatic that nations have a genuine existence, and that the left must pay close attention to national allegiances. But a nation, for Lenin, was anything but a soothing bath of fellow feeling; he understood keenly that nations under capitalism were riven by struggles arising out of class oppression.
Only proletarian internationalism is progressive
By the early twentieth century the point had been reached throughout Europe, even in the backward Russian Empire, where the potential of the various national bourgeoisies as forces for progressive change had dwindled to near-insignificance. As Stalin explained in 1913, the national struggle by this time was essentially a struggle by capitalist groupings against one another.
That same year, Lenin stated: “Marxists resolutely oppose nationalism in all its forms, from the crude reactionary nationalism of our ruling circles . . . down to the more or less refined and disguised nationalism of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties.” Against the nationalism of the bourgeoisie, that herded workers into multi-class association with their exploiters, he saw the primary identity of workers as lying in their status as proletarians, compelled to sell their labour power wherever they lived, whatever cultural traditions they embraced, and whatever languages they might speak. Appeals to workers to side with “their” capitalists against capitalists of other countries or ethnicities were a cynically-conceived trap; in essence, Lenin insisted, “It makes no difference to the hired worker whether he is exploited chiefly by the Great-Russian bourgeoisie rather than the non-Russian bourgeoisie, or by the Polish bourgeoisie rather than the Jewish bourgeoisie, etc.”
In place of all forms of nationalism, Lenin explained, Marxism advanced internationalism:
The proletariat . . . supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations.
The class-conscious workers, he argued, “advocate not only the unity, but also the amalgamation of the workers of all nationalities in the struggle against reaction and against bourgeois nationalism in all its forms”.
Socialists must recognise the right of nations to self-determination
Lenin was not only a brilliant theorist, but also a superbly adaptable practical politician. In the combination of flexibility and principle with which he responded to political challenges, he stood apart from many leftists of his time — and notably from the (nonetheless great) Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg.
In the years before World War I, Poland was split between the Russian, German and Austrian empires. Confronted by an assertive movement for Polish self-determination, Luxemburg took a rigid stance. Since the movement was led by elements of the Polish bourgeoisie, she maintained, support for it would amount to making an unacceptable concession to bourgeois nationalism.
Lenin saw this position as a fundamental error. In his view, the principal task of the left in the area of national policy was “to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of people or nations”. Nevertheless, the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation had a “general democratic content” that was directed against oppression, and to which socialists were obliged to give their unconditional support:
Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and most consistent enemies of oppression.
Taking his lead from Marx’s commentaries on Ireland, Lenin stated further:
The working class should be the last to make a fetish of the national question . . . But to brush aside the mass national movements once they have started, and to refuse to support what is progressive in them means, in effect, pandering to nationalistic prejudices, that is, recognising “one’s own nation” as a model nation.
While fighting alongside bourgeois elements against the oppressing power, socialists nevertheless were not to make concessions to the bourgeoisie’s nationalist ambitions. The backing socialists gave could only be to the democratic thrust of specific capitalist policies and actions. It could not include supporting the bourgeoisie’s national exclusiveness.
Lenin’s rejection of Luxemburg’s perspectives had a practical political basis as well. Repudiating the right to self-determination, Lenin pointed out, inevitably meant giving support to the privileges of the dominant nation — with likely dire consequences:
If the proletariat of any one nation gives the slightest support to the privileges of its “own” national bourgeoisie, that will inevitably rouse distrust among the proletariat of another nation; it will weaken the international class solidarity of the workers and divide them, to the delight of the bourgeoisie.
Geographical areas of the state where the population had a distinct character should, in Lenin’s view, be granted extensive self-government — the better to ensure that the national question should not be used by the bourgeoisie to “wedge” the proletariat and break up its unity in struggle:
All areas of the state that are distinguished by social peculiarities or by the national composition of the population must enjoy wide self-government and autonomy, with institutions organised on the basis of universal, equal and secret voting.
To the fury of closet chauvinists on the Russian left, Lenin also insisted that this right to regional self-determination should extend to the right of peoples to secede and set up their own state. “In all their propaganda,” he argued, “the Social-Democrats [that is, members of the main party of the Russian proletariat] must insist on the right of all nationalities to form separate states or to choose freely the state of which they wish to form part”. Unless this right to secession was recognised, he maintained, proletarian internationalism would “remain a meaningless phrase”.
National rights are, ultimately, subordinate to the class struggle itself.
As Lenin observed, during the nineteenth century Marx, “in contrast to the petty-bourgeois democrats”, regarded democratic demands not as absolutes, but as historical expressions of the struggle by the popular masses, led by the bourgeoisie, against feudalism. In this conception, the maturing of capitalism would cause the task of defending and expanding democratic rights to fall increasingly to the proletariat — that unlike the bourgeoisie, did not have material privileges to defend against the mass interest.
Preserving and carrying forward the democratic conquests of the bourgeois era thus came to be fused with the anticapitalist tasks of the proletarian revolution. As Lenin explained, the need, by his time, was to “combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc.” So long as capitalism existed, he noted, these demands could “only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form”.
By the twentieth century the attachment of capitalists to democratic forms was ambivalent at best. Nevertheless, an array of traditions continued to link the bourgeoisie to democratic institutions and practices. This association, perversely, lent the capitalists a definite scope for using the issue of democratic rights as a tool in anti-popular manoeuvres. As Lenin warned, almost any democratic demand can have the potential to “serve . . . under certain conditions, as an instrument of the bourgeoisie for deceiving the workers.”
Many instances of this may be cited. One example, seen repeatedly during struggles since Lenin’s day, has been the use by imperialism of slogans relating to national rights to recruit members of minority nationalities to combat progressive movements.
In Lenin’s view democratic rights, including the right to national self-determination, must be defended resolutely. But they should never be absolutised; occasions will emerge when formal democratic principles and the needs of advancing the proletarian struggle come into conflict. In these circumstances it is the class struggle — as the only guarantee that democratic rights can be secured definitively — that must take precedence.
Socialists should campaign against the “patriotism” of the capitalists
The nationalism of the bourgeoisie — aped by upwardly-aspiring members of the middle class — rests on the competing claims by rival national capitalist classes to sources of profit. To defeat this subterfuge, Lenin urged class-conscious workers to advocate “not only the unity, but also the amalgamation of the workers of all nationalities in the struggle against reaction”. Where workers suffered national oppression, as in cases where their countries had been colonised, their central strategies should include forging “complete, absolute unity (also organisational)” with the workers of the oppressor state.
In every country, Lenin maintained, it was “the duty of the class-conscious proletariat” — and needless to say, of socialists — to “defend [the proletariat’s] class solidarity, its internationalism, and its socialist convictions against the unbridled chauvinism of the ‘patriotic’ bourgeois cliques”. Workers who placed political unity with “their own” bourgeoisie above complete unity with the proletariat of all nations were “acting against their own interests, against the interests of socialism and the interests of democracy”.
At least during peacetime, the social-democratic parties of the Second International (1875–1914) had no trouble rejecting bourgeois patriotism and affirming their commitment to proletarian unity and internationalism. In ringing declarations, gatherings of the International denounced bourgeois calls for workers to rally beneath their respective national flags. In 1912, as World War I approached, an Extraordinary International Congress of the International in Basel unanimously adopted a manifesto that, as Lenin later recalled, “distinctly recognised the imperialist and reactionary nature of that war, declared it criminal for workers of one country to shoot at workers of another country, and proclaimed the approach of the proletarian revolution in connection with that very war”.
Within two years, the bold phrases of the social democrats would be renounced. With few exceptions, the “internationalists” would be revealed as bourgeois-style patriots.
For workers to fight for imperialism is an abomination
Lenin responded to the outbreak of war in 1914 with his characteristic vitriol, sweeping aside the attempts of the contending bourgeoisies at self-justification. Indeed, there was nothing of substance to shift blame from the capitalists of either side. This was not a colonial war between oppressors and oppressed; the antagonists, even tiny Belgium, were all ruthless colonialists. In Lenin’s words, the conflict was “a war of slaveholders . . . designed to preserve and extend slavery”. It was a war between imperialists, and in the case of Germany, France and Britain, between some of the most developed, wealthy countries on the planet. The fact that Germany had invaded and was occupying the northern regions of France determined nothing in essence; if the French bourgeoisie had been able to invade Germany, it would have done so.
Lenin poured particular scorn on the efforts by the rival governments to conceal their predatory aims by citing “national liberation” ideology: “The English promise the liberation of Belgium, the Germans of Poland, etc.” Neither the British nor the Germans, though, were offering to liberate their own colonial populations. Perhaps Lenin’s fiercest wrath, however, was reserved for the newly-minted patriots among the social-democratic leaders:
The “defence of the fatherland” slogan in the present war is tantamount to a defence of the “right” of one’s “own” national bourgeoisie to oppress other nations; it is in fact a national liberal-labour policy, an alliance between a negligible section of the workers and their “own” national bourgeoisie, against the mass of the proletarians and the exploited. Socialists who pursue such a policy are in fact chauvinists, social chauvinists . . . The policy of voting for war credits, of joining governments . . . and the like, is a betrayal of socialism.
The war was a catastrophe for the European workers, who were being slaughtered in the trenches. Nevertheless, Lenin also recognised the war as representing a colossal crisis of the capitalist system. The “nationalist stultification” of the proletariat, he maintained, would not be permanent, and the exhaustion of the rival state machines in years of fighting would create unprecedented openings for socialist militants who refused to compromise their beliefs. In the draft resolution he prepared for left-wing delegates at the Zimmerwald conference of anti-war social democrats in August 1915, the Bolshevik leader spelt out his strategic perspective:
It is the duty of socialists, while making use of every means of the working class’s legal struggle, to subordinate each and every of those means to this immediate and most important task . . . to turn the imperialist war between the peoples into a civil war of the oppressed classes against their oppressors.
Within a few years, in Russia, Germany and Hungary, that revolutionary struggle would be under way.
Part 2. Ukrainian destinies
Lenin on Ukraine
Lenin devoted considerable study to Ukraine, and his writings and speeches on this topic are consistent with his general positions on the national question: defence of the right of nations to decide their own destiny; uncompromising hostility to chauvinist attitudes; and insistence on the need to unite workers of all nationalities in joint struggle against capitalist oppression. In June 1917, following the overthrow of tsarism, the newly-convened Ukrainian Central Rada (parliament) passed an Act claiming autonomy for Ukraine within the new Russian state. Lenin’s response was emphatic:
No democrat, let alone a socialist, will venture to deny the complete legitimacy of the Ukraine’s demands . And no democrat can deny the Ukraine’s right to freely secede from Russia . . . Only unqualified recognition of this right can actually break completely and irrevocably with the accursed tsarist past.
In a speech in November 1917, soon after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin again declared:
We have to wipe out that old bloodstained and dirty past when the Russia of the capitalist oppressors acted as the executioner of other peoples . . .
We are going to tell the Ukrainians that as Ukrainians they can go ahead and arrange their life as they see fit. But we are going to stretch out a fraternal hand to the Ukrainian workers and tell them that together with them we are going to fight against their bourgeoisie and ours. Only a socialist alliance of the working people of all countries can remove all ground for national persecution and strife.
Within a few months, the Bolshevik revolution was to find itself locked in a struggle for survival against enemies that included not just the White Russian armies, but also forces sent by a long series of imperialist powers. Ukraine became one of the main theatres of the Russian Civil War. Despite the conflict, and the need to defeat hostile forces based on Ukrainian territory, Lenin maintained his commitment to defending Ukrainian self-determination.
In November 1919, with the Civil War still raging, Lenin drafted a resolution of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) “On Soviet Rule in the Ukraine”. As stated in the resolution, the independence of Ukraine would be recognised, and the Russian Communists would work to establish federal relations with it. All Party members, meanwhile, were instructed to “use every means to help remove barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture.”
Repeatedly, the resolution stressed the right of Ukrainians to be able to use their language in every aspect of their daily lives:
(Russian Communist Party) members on Ukrainian territory must put into practice the right of the working people to study in the Ukrainian language and to speak their native language in all Soviet institutions; they must in every way counteract attempts at Russification that push the Ukrainian language into the background . . . Steps must be taken immediately to ensure that in all Soviet institutions there are sufficient Ukrainian-speaking employees and that in future all employees are able to speak Ukrainian.”
This document was followed in December 1919 by a “Letter to the workers and peasants of the Ukraine”, in which Lenin declared:
We want a voluntary union of nations—a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another—a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent . . .
The ties, federal or other, that would exist between Russia and Ukraine were a question to be decided by an All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets. Meanwhile, Russian Communists were obliged to
. . . repress with the utmost severity the slightest manifestation in our midst of Great-Russian nationalism, for such manifestations, which are a betrayal of communism in general, cause the gravest harm by dividing us from our Ukrainian comrades.
In sum, the Bolshevik leader insisted,
The Communists of Russia and the Ukraine must . . . set the working people of the world an example of a really solid alliance of the workers and peasants of different nations in the fight for Soviet power, for the overthrow of the yoke of the landowners and capitalists, and for a world federal Soviet republic.
Soviet Ukraine after Lenin
As the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine during the 1920s saw a considerable flourishing of its national language and culture, as the Soviet state sought to build unity between the diverse peoples of the USSR through a policy of “indigenisation”. But by the 1930s those times had ended. Under the increasingly unchallenged power of Stalin, the authority of local republican leaderships in the Soviet Union was replaced by centralised control from Moscow, and indigenisation by Russification.
For the Ukrainian people, the Stalin era was to be a traumatic period that included the turmoil of collectivisation, catastrophic famine, and the devastations of renewed war. During the same decades, Ukraine underwent massive industrialisation, eventually becoming one of the most economically developed republics of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s economic advance, however, was not accompanied by the validation and development of its national language and culture. Russian-speaking industrial workers continued to migrate to Ukraine, reinforcing the pattern, inherited from tsarist times, in which the republic’s cities were Russian-speaking islands amid a largely Ukrainian-speaking peasantry. The language of administration, technical production and higher education became solidly Russian.
While the Khrushchev “thaw” from the mid-1950s witnessed a certain relaxation of the pressures on writers and other cultural workers, the Ukrainian language continued to lose ground. A 1958 education reform, by allowing parents to choose the language in which their children were taught, created a strong inducement for the parents to opt for Russian, a good command of which was essential for advancement in the workforce. By the 1960s younger Ukrainian intellectuals were protesting at the marginalisation of the national language and culture, and after the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964, were encountering repression.
The most notable expression of these restive moods took the form of the writings — later published abroad as the book Internationalism or Russification? — of the literary critic Ivan Dziuba. A Marxist-Leninist, a Communist Party member, and a Donbass native who had grown up speaking Russian, Dziuba originally directed his protest exclusively to prominent Ukrainian members of the party leadership. The republic’s national traditions and knowledge of the historic past, Dziuba argued, were “gradually being lost due to a total lack of national education in school and in society in general”:
Ukrainian national culture is being kept in a rather provincial position and is practically treated as “second-rate”; its great past achievements are poorly disseminated in society. The Ukrainian language has also been pushed into the background and is not really used in the cities of the Ukraine.
The malaise, Dziuba argued, had its political roots in a refusal by party leaders to base their approach to the national question on the Marxist-Leninist heritage:
The nation is going through a crisis . . . this crisis has resulted from the violation of the Leninist nationalities policy, from its replacement by Stalin’s Great-Power policy and Khrushchev’s pragmatism, all irreconcilable with scientific communism.
The sidelining of Ukrainian language and culture, however, would not be reversed while the Soviet Union endured. For his protest, Dziuba in the 1970s served a year and a half in prison.
Nation and class in independent Ukraine
The classic Marxist analysis of nationalism, as explained earlier, sees it as having originated historically as a reflection of the political needs of the rising bourgeois class. This has also been true of nationalism under restored capitalist rule in independent Ukraine since 1991. Superimposed on these needs of the Ukrainian capitalists, however, has been a further element: the strategic requirements of imperialism. These foreign-based needs have distorted the functioning of bourgeois power in modern Ukraine, at times overwhelming local capitalist interests. In the last few years, indeed, the imposing of Western strategic agendas on Ukraine has brought the country to disaster.
To grasp the interplay of nation and class in modern Ukraine we need to reflect that the country’s nationhood, while unquestionably real, has come laden with enormous contradictions. Different regions of Ukraine have emerged out of dramatically varied historical experiences, and are also relatively distinct in linguistic and cultural terms. During the years between 1918 and 1939 the westernmost provinces were mostly under Polish rule. Local Ukrainian nationalist currents in this region were radicalised by the denial of self-determination, and gaining additional fuel from contact with the ideas of Italian and German fascism, fed on antagonisms that pitted Ukrainian bourgeois elements against Polish and Jewish competitors.
The years of German occupation between 1941 and 1944 saw sections of the Ukrainian nationalist movement collaborate with Nazi forces in persecuting — and often murdering — Poles, Jews and Russians. Then between 1945 and 1954 remaining nationalists received arms and funding from the CIA to wage a bloody guerrilla insurgency against the Soviet authorities. Though repressed, the nationalist movement in western Ukraine returned to life after independence as a virulent ultra-right nationalist current.
Southern and Eastern Ukraine also have a distinct history. A sparsely populated outlier of the Ottoman Empire before being conquered by Russian armies in the second half of the eighteenth century, these regions were then taken over mostly by landowners from the Russian gentry, who brought with them large numbers of their serfs. An ethnically mixed population arose, speaking Ukrainian and Russian. From the 1860s this population became still more diverse, as industrial development in the region brought further waves of migrants.
Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian national feeling at the time of independence in 1991 had a sharply variegated character in different parts of the country. In the western provinces, which were something of a rural backwater, the overwhelmingly Ukrainian-speaking population viewed their region, according to one account, as “an agent of national unity and keeper of the true faith of Ukraine”. By contrast, urban residents in the central provinces, and especially in the heavily industrialised east and south, typically showed a much less pronounced sense of Ukrainian identity. Many used the Ukrainian and Russian languages interchangeably, or spoke a patois of the two. Often, people who regarded themselves as ethnically Ukrainian also expressed pride at belonging to a broader identity that they shared with Russians and others. As late as 1999 a British expert on Ukraine was to note that more than 30 per cent of respondents to opinion surveys considered the country’s independence “a great misfortune, in so far as it meant the end of the USSR”. A further 20 per cent lamented independent statehood as “an unnatural break in the unity of the east Slavic peoples”. Moods of interethnic solidarity, strong among workers in Ukraine during the later Soviet period, were thus to survive for decades after independence.
Popular national feeling, this indicates, cannot be regarded as the key factor precipitating Ukraine’s break with the USSR. The primary reason has to be seen as the need of members of the Ukrainian nomenklatura — that is, the republican party-state authorities, together with leading industrial managers — to shore up their positions in anticipation of battles with the central Soviet apparatus over control of state property. By the late 1980s the members of the nomenklatura in Ukraine, as in the USSR generally, had abandoned any thought of building socialism, and were seeking to turn their administration of the economy into outright capitalist ownership. Implicit in this goal was the need of the Ukraine-based bureaucrats and managers to make their collective hold on state assets within the republican borders unassailable.
Formal steps toward independence began on July 16, 1990 when the Ukrainian parliament overwhelmingly adopted a Declaration of State Sovereignty proclaiming that Ukrainian laws took precedence over those of the USSR. The months that followed saw Ukraine’s proto-capitalists, using their control of the mass media, aggressively market the ideas of Ukrainian nationalism and the demand for comprehensive independence. Most Ukrainians, though accepting the need for reforms, remained unconvinced that their bonds with the other peoples of the Soviet expanse should be broken. In the referendum called by the Soviet authorities for March 17, 1991, Ukrainians were asked: “Do you agree that Ukraine should be part of a Union of Soviet Sovereign States on the basis of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine.” Some 81.7 per cent of voters indicated “yes”.
Nevertheless, the republican-based bureaucracies throughout the USSR were by this time actively dismantling the structures of Soviet power. In August 1991 the Ukrainian parliament voted to declare complete independence. By this time the republic’s economy was in free fall, with many workers unpaid and store shelves empty of goods. Encouraged by politicians and the media to blame the Moscow authorities, Ukrainians in a plebiscite on December 1, 1991 confirmed the declaration of independence, with a favourable vote of 92.3 per cent.
For the new Ukrainian bourgeoisie, as it cohered out of the earlier administrative potentates, enterprise directors and mafia chieftains, forging the sense of exclusive nationality that would bind the working class to “its” capitalists was certain to be problematic. Meanwhile, the economic collapse continued as the controllers of wealth, privatising assets to themselves, tried and failed to improvise the institutions of a functioning capitalism. Destitute and often hungry, workers, as the 1990s advanced, came broadly to recognise their new rulers as thieves and swindlers. Except in the coal-mining Donbass region, this did not result in large outbursts of working-class resistance. Nevertheless, the popular mood of contempt for the reconstituted capitalism, and for those who profited from it, presented the bourgeoisie with the need for ideological distractions. Two main forces offered their services: one was the “westernising” liberal intelligentsia, while the other was the nationalist ultra-right.
Ukraine’s liberals in the final Soviet years had nurtured huge illusions in capitalism and in what it could do for them. The shape the system assumed — corrupt, rapacious and dysfunctional — came as a horrifying shock. Reduced in many cases to poverty, Ukraine’s big-city “middle layers” looked for an explanation, and in many cases, decided they had found it in the persistence within their country’s society of attitudes, practices and institutions which they identified as “Soviet” — or more crudely, as “Russian”.
Subtleties of this kind were mainly lost on the ultra-nationalists, who loathed Russians much as they despised Jews — on the basis of fascinated memories of ethnic vengeance meted out by Ukrainian fascist militias during World War II. The great majority of Ukrainians, however, had no time for fascists, and for many years outfits such as the Social-National Party — later renamed as Svoboda (“Freedom”) — would gain only a tiny sliver of the vote in national elections.
Adherence to an exclusivist nationalism remained a relative exception in Ukraine around the beginning of the new century. The earlier-cited British study observed that in the late 1990s fewer than 9 per cent of Ukrainian citizens appeared to subscribe to a hard-line nationalist narrative, understood as agreement that Ukraine had “won its independence in 1991 as a result of centuries of national-liberation struggle”. Antagonism to Russia or Russians was also relatively uncommon. Survey data of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology show that consistently from 2008 to 2013 between 80 and 90 per cent of Ukrainian citizens rated Russia as “good”, and only about 10 per cent as “bad”. In polling by the institute in January 2010, some 66 per cent of respondents considered that Ukraine and Russia “should be independent, but friendly states — with open borders, no visas or customs”. A further 22 per cent believed the countries should unite into one state, while only 8 per cent supported conventional border arrangements, with visas and customs.
It can be seen that as late as 2013, for all the memories of tsarist and Soviet denial of Ukrainian rights, forces hostile to good relations between Ukraine and Russia still faced a battle to overcome an embedded familiarity and goodwill. Ukraine’s ultra-right nationalists and small liberal-westernising currents could never have achieved this on their own. Engineering the rift also required concerted work, over several decades, by well-funded outsiders.
In a notorious April 2014 interview, US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland boasted that the US had “invested some $5 billion in Ukraine since 1991” in supporting “the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to have a strong, democratic government”. Much of this sum was spent by the US National Endowment for Democracy, a congress-funded offshoot of the CIA that in its publicity statements credited itself with having been “a proud partner of Ukraine’s civil society groups, media outlets, and human rights defenders since 1989”. Between 2014 and 2022, the NED granted $22,394,281 in the form of 334 awards to Ukrainian organisations. Ukrainian groups and individuals were thus being groomed with US money to align them with Western perspectives and to steer public opinion in ways hostile to Russia.
In the view of Ukrainian liberals, salvation for the country lay not just in rejecting “Russian” attitudes and practices, but in a wholesale shift of diplomatic and economic ties away from Russia and toward the European Union. “Joining Europe” would supposedly see the corruption, violence and general poor management of Ukrainian business transformed, while Western firms would invest in the country, taking advantage of its skilled workforce and low wages. In the EU, the process of Ukrainian integration with the West was mostly envisaged in reverse order: before Ukraine could “join Europe”, stringent Western-dictated reforms would first have to tame the criminalised Ukrainian “oligarchs” who controlled business and politics, and subject government finances to a neoliberal “order”.
The attitude of the oligarchs to integration with the West was ambivalent. Efforts to create a law-governed business culture would cut across their accustomed methods, which they understood, justifiably, as the only ones that could bring quick profits in a chaotically insecure environment. At the same time, the oligarchs were guarding against sudden dispossession by buying up assets in Western countries. These assets needed the protection from EU investigators that quasi-legal practice, and a reputation for sympathy with the West, might bring.
The categorising of Ukrainian oligarchs during the early years of the new century as having been “pro-Western” or “pro-Russian” is simplistic and largely meaningless. Nevertheless, some oligarchic factions sought to win liberal support through calling for integration with the EU. In 2004–2005 the “Orange Revolution”, through mobilising the Kyiv “middle layers” and with support from “westernising” oligarchs, culminated in the electoral victory of pro-EU President Viktor Yushchenko. In this setting, nationalist moods gained still more ground among Ukraine’s liberal intelligentsia. These moods had a schizoid quality: while championing Ukrainian identity and declaiming against Russian influences, the liberals extolled the West even when its actions amounted to undisguised plunder. Ukraine by the time of the Orange Revolution was being sustained by emergency Western loans, the conditions for which included the imposing of harsh neoliberal measures whose cost was borne in the first instance by the working population. At the same time as the country was being stripped of ever-greater sums in debt-service payments, its authorities were being robbed of effective control over domestic policy.
Meanwhile, the response by the ultra-right to the westernising push was no less contradictory. The nationalism of the ultra-right currents, focused on old grievances, had traditionally been directed against Poles as well as Russians. Nevertheless, the overriding antagonism toward Russia felt by the ultra-right brought it into a bizarre alliance with big-city liberals. This convergence was to be cemented late in 2013 on central Kyiv’s Independence Square — the Maidan.
Nationalism and imperialism in post-Maidan Ukraine
Sparking the first demonstrations of the Maidan revolt in November 2013 was the decision by then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign the Association Agreement that his administration had negotiated with the EU. While beginning a process of tariff reductions and opening the way for eventual membership in the European trade bloc, the agreement would have imposed ruthless austerity measures that Yanukovych judged politically unfeasible. Instead, he accepted a $15 billion loan, accompanied by concessions on natural gas prices, offered by the Putin administration in Moscow. This move enraged Ukrainian nationalist opinion, though arguably, a more crucial factor bringing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets was popular fury at the Yanukovych administration’s mind-bending corruption. Whatever the case, hard-right nationalists, many of whom had travelled from western Ukraine, came to dominate the semi-permanent camp in Maidan. Any hope that Yanukovych might have had of manoeuvring his way through the crisis faded as key figures within Ukraine’s capitalist elite turned against him.
Yanukovych fled from Kyiv on February 22, 2014, and the events that followed are too widely known to require detailed recounting here. In March, Russian troops took over strongpoints in Ukraine’s Crimean Autonomous Republic. The Crimean parliament then voted to declare independence and, following an overwhelming referendum vote, the territory was joined to Russia. Moves by the new right-wing nationalist government in Kyiv to impose blanket use of the Ukrainian language in official business helped spur a popular revolt during April in the Donbass provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk; a refusal by the Kyiv authorities to negotiate on demands for regional autonomy then set in train what was to become an eight-year war, fought by the Donbass rebels with Russian support.
Russia’s moves during the months after the Maidan were reactive in nature, with causes whose roots lay in US and NATO pressures that for many years had aimed at weakening Russia and installing a compliant pro-Western regime in the Kremlin. Only rarely was this context of escalating Western menaces against Russia understood by Ukrainians. Amid a media-stoked atmosphere of collective grievance, the number of Ukrainian citizens admitting to positive feelings for Russia fell precipitously.
Large numbers of Ukrainians were now ready to view Russia as a military threat. In reality, the Russian leaders were profoundly reluctant to see the fighting in the Donbass expand into a war between the two countries. Between 2014 and the final weeks of 2021, Russian diplomats worked persistently to limit tensions and convince the Ukrainian authorities to adhere to the terms of the Minsk II peace accords. The series of nationalist governments in Kyiv, meanwhile, set out to secure admission for Ukraine to NATO. As Russian spokespeople had made clear over many years, Ukrainian membership in the Western military pact was a “red line” for Moscow, viewed as posing an existential security threat.
In earlier times, support for joining NATO had been a fringe position among the Ukrainian public. Polling by the Gallup organisation in 2008 had found that only 15 per cent of Ukrainians viewed NATO as “protection”, compared to 43 per cent who regarded the bloc as a threat. Nevertheless, a NATO summit the same year, ignoring these sentiments, had declared bluntly that Ukraine would receive membership.
In the course of 2014, the earlier popular opposition in Ukraine to joining NATO reversed itself. Over the following years, repeated Russian efforts to secure peace in the Donbass would be scornfully rebuffed, while the NATO powers funded and supplied Ukrainian governments in constructing one of the largest armies in Europe. The preparations were being made for a large-scale war.
Part 3. Lenin’s ideas and the present-day conflict in Ukraine
As noted earlier, Lenin interpreted World War I as the result of a massive crisis of the world capitalism of his time. Today’s war in Ukraine deserves to be viewed as the outcome of a far more developed, and hence more fundamental, crisis of the imperialist order.
In 1997 the profitability of capital in the world’s major economies began a decades-long slide that, with fluctuations, was to see its level sink to all-time lows. The same period witnessed the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008; the Great Recession of 2008-2009; the “Long Depression” from 2009 until 2017; and then the COVID crash of 2020-2021. During the same years the Chinese economy continued its rapid growth, eventually becoming the largest in the world when measured at Purchasing Price Parity.
We are entitled to see close links between these developments and the fact that NATO in 1999 began moving into Eastern Europe, with further expansion over the next decades despite vehement Russian protests. Global capital, it can be seen, has responded to the decline in profits by multiplying its pressures against countries that have resisted subjection to its dictates. The foremost target has been Russia, but recent years have shown that the threats to Russia are merely preparation for aggression against China as well.
Many will object that Russia is “just as much” an imperialist power as the leading countries of the NATO bloc. A thoughtful application of Lenin’s ideas, however, shows this not to be the case.
Russia: imperialist state or target of imperialism?
As is well known, Lenin characterised the Russian Empire during World War I as an imperialist belligerent. Workers, he recognised, had no cause to defend a state machine that dominated a vast colonial empire stretching from Poland to the Chinese border. But Lenin’s characterisation of tsarist Russia as imperialist, he acknowledged, featured powerful contradictions.
Russia at the time remained heavily underdeveloped, with no more than islands of advanced industry. It was also, Lenin noted, “entirely dependent, economically, on the power of the imperialist finance capital of the ‘rich’ bourgeois countries.” In writings in 1915 and 1916, he described the Russian imperialism of the time as “feudal” and “medieval”. Clearly, he viewed it not as a modern capitalist imperialism, but as a holdover from an earlier system. It might be said that for Lenin, Russian imperialism bore comparison not with German or French imperialism but with that of the Ottoman Empire.
During this same period, Lenin was making an intensive study of the advanced capitalist imperialism that had consolidated itself over the preceding decades. His 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism is a classic work whose main lines of analysis have remained compelling as the system has matured. Especially prescient was Lenin’s identification of monopolism as modern imperialism’s central mechanism.
Today, the tight “First World” monopoly of the most profitable areas of the world capitalist economy (including high-tech research and design, key areas of high-end manufacturing, as well as finance and marketing) enforces an extreme global division of wealth that features a vast gulf between the “golden billion” dwellers in the advanced capitalist countries and the large majority of humanity. This gulf remains unbridgeable even for the more developed areas of the “global South”, crucially because the mechanisms of today’s imperialism include a massive, continuing transfer of wealth from poor countries to rich via unequal trading exchange.
Properly speaking, there is no reason why the place of present-day Russia within world capitalism should be controversial, at least among people who claim a regard for Lenin’s ideas. Russia’s 2022 GDP per capita at Purchasing Price Parity, according to World Bank figures, was barely one-fifth of that in the US. Russian export trade rests heavily on sales of relatively unsophisticated goods, especially raw materials and energy carriers. Labour productivity in Russia in 2020, according to OECD figures, was only about 37 per cent of that in the US; this points to a strong net flow of value out of Russia to the developed West, by way of unequal exchange. Except in the area of arms manufacturing, Russian industrial technology is relatively backward, and if certain categories of arms exports are excepted, any suggestion that Russia shares significantly in the super-profits from the developed-country monopoly of high technology is absurd. Russia’s finance capital is small, as are its foreign investments. These and many other indicators locate Russia not with the imperialist countries at the core of the capitalist world-system, but in the system’s “semi-periphery”, along with such other “upper tier” countries of the global South as Brazil, Mexico and Turkey. The gap in wealth and power that separates this “upper tier” from the imperialist countries is, of course, more like a chasm.
Speaking of “Russian imperialism” presents no problem for liberal empiricists, who feel no need to base their definitions on material evidence of this kind. For such people, if Russia sends its forces across the borders of a less powerful neighbour then regardless of the strategic context, Russia is “imperialist”. It seems lost on liberal thinkers that this logic would also brand as “imperialist” a whole list of poor and dependent states (Morocco, Iraq, Indonesia and Pakistan among others) that over the decades have invaded and tried to subjugate outside territories.
For Lenin, by contrast, imperialism was “the highest stage of capitalism”, and as such, a quality of the wealthiest, most advanced capitalist countries. In his 1920 preface to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin speaks of “a handful (less than one-tenth of the inhabitants of the globe . . .) of exceptionally rich and powerful states which plunder the whole world.” Anyone who suggests that today’s Russia is an “exceptionally rich and powerful” country, manifesting the “highest stage” of capitalist development, simply makes a spectacle of their ignorance.
Solidarity across the trench lines?
For all the above, it remains true that to conventional ways of thinking many of Lenin’s perspectives might seem as ill-matched to today’s Ukraine and to the current war as if they had been beamed in from another planet. In particular, the idea that Ukrainian and Russian workers could make common cause with one another might seem fantastical. Unless, that is, one had watched a recent news clip of Ukrainian soldiers in a front-line dugout reflecting on their small chances of surviving the coming days of combat, and had been struck by the fact that the soldiers were talking with the journalist in Russian. In this war, the interests and even the language of the workers in the opposing trenches are closely allied if not identical.
Lenin’s concepts, it follows, are not as remote from the realities of the Ukraine war as may be thought. That is not to deny that the experience and thinking of today’s workers in Ukraine and Russia are very different from those of the proletarians about whom Lenin theorised during the years leading up to the 1917 revolution. The working class in imperial Russia during that period was small, but it had an impressive experience of labour militancy and, in the Bolshevik Party, possessed at least the nucleus of a revolutionary left leadership. Ukraine’s working class is large, but in recent years its organisations, long denatured politically, have been constricted by anti-labour legislation. The class-struggle left in the country has been outlawed and destroyed. In Russia, the situation is little different.
In Ukraine in particular, working-class consciousness will have to be rebuilt from a molecular level. Nevertheless, the crisis of Ukrainian capitalism is absolute, as is the system’s incompatibility with the interests of working people. There simply are no capitalist solutions to the dilemmas of Ukrainian workers and soldiers, or to the most immediate of these dilemmas: a fratricidal war that the Ukrainians are being made to wage for imperialism. The only answers are classically Leninist, in the first instance, a mass refusal to fight in the conflict or to expedite its continuation.
Strictly speaking, bringing the war to a quick close is vital not only for workers, in or out of uniform, but for the very survival of the Ukrainian people. According to government figures, the country’s population peaked at 52.2 million in 1993, and by 2021 had shrunk to 43.5 million. Data from 2019 suggest that as many as 9 million citizens at that time worked abroad for at least part of each year, with large numbers in semi-permanent exile. If net outmigration of around 10 million people since the beginning of 2022 is also taken into account, estimates that as few as 27 million Ukrainians remain inside the country are quite plausible. Of those who have left, few can be considered likely to return. The result is a continuing demographic catastrophe that has few modern parallels.
Adding to the urgency of stopping the war is the fact that for the Ukrainian side, the fighting has reached a bloody impasse. In an article on September 26, 2023, US journalist Seymour Hersh drew on unnamed US intelligence sources to state that in Ukraine’s much-touted Zaporizhzhia offensive, “the reality is that Volodymyr Zelensky’s battered army no longer has any chance of a victory.” Losses in the offensive, Hersh observed, had been “staggering”. As one US intelligence official told him, “Russia has won. There is no Ukrainian offensive any more”. Significantly, the same official continued: “The truth is if the Ukrainian army is ordered to continue the offensive, the army would mutiny. The soldiers aren’t willing to die any more”.
By the final days of September 2023, military bloggers were acknowledging that the initiative in the war was swinging in the direction of the Russians, as heavy losses of armoured vehicles had forced the Ukrainians to switch to a strategy based on attacks by small, poorly protected infantry squads. Strong Russian superiority in artillery and drones, increased numbers of Russian infantry and the near-complete destruction of Ukrainian air power now suggested that Russian offensives, once launched, could count on steady progress. Nevertheless, and as Hersh reported, government leaders in Kyiv and Washington showed “no interest in talks that could lead to an end to the slaughter”.
Whether Ukraine survives as a viable nation can now be seen to depend on whether the NATO countries, and above all the United States, persist in trying to impose “forever war” on Russia, with Ukraine assigned the role of supplying the flesh, the blood and the battlefields. Russian spokespeople have regularly indicated a readiness to discuss a peace settlement, and the general terms they suggest have not shifted during the course of the fighting. A foreseeable peace treaty would involve the ceding to Russia of a broad land bridge to Crimea; demilitarisation of Ukraine to the point where it could not pose an armed threat; permanent neutralisation of the country, with an internationally guaranteed ban on its joining NATO; and a long-overdue purge of fascist and other ultra-right elements from the Ukrainian armed forces, police, and general state apparatus.
Complaints that such a peace deal would make unacceptable incursions on Ukraine’s national rights fall rather flat if one considers the fate that has already overtaken the country under the suzerainty of Western capital. Ukraine’s foreign debt is now close to 60 per cent of its GDP, implying decades of future poverty under the dictates of international lending agencies. For meaningful purposes, Ukraine long ago lost its ability to decide either its internal or foreign policies. Today, its independence is no more than a technicality.
An eventual peace settlement could, of course, be much more onerous for Ukraine than the relatively bearable terms outlined above. When Russian spokespeople stress that their country’s motivations are defensive, they are not lying; this is the irresistible message that flows from any serious study of Russia’s diplomacy over the decades since NATO’s march to the east began. But if a “forever war” strategy on the part of NATO means that the Russians are forced to bear continuous losses while spending years advancing through central Ukraine, there will be little appetite in Moscow for giving captured territory back. The result could see Ukraine finish up as a landlocked rump state, its population depleted, its main industrial areas lost, and its remaining economy devastated.
It can be seen that for Ukrainians, the increasingly certain outcome of following the seductions of imperialism is something close to national extinction. Considered in this light, the Leninist call for workers and soldiers to engage in class-based revolt ceases to appear far-fetched. Instead, it becomes a simple statement of political necessity.
Integral to Lenin’s methodology, meanwhile, is the need to transcend national frameworks and to think in terms of the global class struggle. Here, we may conclude that if a broad-based rebellion by Ukrainian workers and soldiers were to force an end to NATO’s war, the effect on workers’ struggles in many parts of the global South would be electrifying. Conversely, the effect if Russia were to be defeated in Ukraine would be seriously demoralising, while imperialism would be emboldened in seeking to enforce its wider global interests. In the crosshairs of the giants of world capitalism, other states that, like Russia, have resisted imperial dictates — Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and, above all, China would be next.
Lenin, as we know, insisted that national rights should be scrupulously respected. But as we should also recall, he regarded issues of national rights as necessarily subordinate to the interests of the class struggle. If resisting the advance of imperialism on a world scale is not a class-struggle issue, there is no such thing.
Revolutionary tasks for Russian proletarians
A Leninist analysis of the war in Ukraine, must, of course, include examining the role and historic tasks of the Russian proletariat. Here, it has to be understood that although both armies in the Ukraine conflict are made up essentially of workers, the two sides are not equivalent in the broader scheme. The Russian state and its worker-soldiers are resisting imperialism, while the Ukrainian state fights as imperialism’s proxy.
Although the Russian capitalist state is combating imperialism, it is the struggle against imperialism that is progressive, not Putin and the Russian oligarchs. Russian workers need to fight alongside Putin and the state apparatus he heads for one reason alone: because imperialism is an incomparably more powerful and dangerous enemy of working people, in Russia and globally, than Putin and the oligarchs could ever be.
At the same time, the capitalist nature of Russia’s government means that those who support the country’s fight against imperialism should not, in principle, accept responsibility for any of the specific actions of Putin and his cohorts. Going to war is the capitalist, not the proletarian, way of dealing with foreign policy quandaries. The working-class (and Leninist) mode of struggle against imperialism is quite different, not in the first place military but political.
To counter imperialist threats directed through Ukraine, a workers’ government in Russia would begin by mobilising its social base to bring a definitive end to the political power of the Russian oligarchs, to seize their capital, and to redirect it into useful investment able to improve the lives of the masses. The impact of this revolutionary example on Ukrainian workers can be imagined — and it would be multiplied by deliberate agitation designed to undercut Ukrainian nationalism, while forging an alliance of workers in both countries against imperialist aggression.
There is, of course, no chance that the Putin administration will take up such policies; its complete loyalty is to Russia’s super-rich. In present circumstances, any attempt by workers in Russia to propagandise in favour of this “full” program of anti-capitalist resistance to the threats from imperialism will be swiftly crushed. Nevertheless, there are actions that Russian workers and progressives can pursue even now, initiatives that embarrass the regime while complicating its repressions. It is still possible for Russians to reject and denounce chauvinism; to demand that the millions of Ukrainians in Russia, including prisoners of war, be treated decently; and to condemn the denial by the Ukrainian authorities of elementary workers’ rights. It is still possible for Russians to denounce the NATO countries for instrumentalising Ukrainian nationalism to pursue a war drive against Russia that has never served the interests of most Ukrainians.
One characteristic of wars, however, is that they can alter consciousness on a mass scale and with startling speed. Dissident talk on the part of isolated worker militants may be readily silenced, but the same may not be true of ideas that infect an army brigade. Meanwhile, the contradictions for Russian soldiers of waging war on Russian speakers who, like them, may well be the children of Soviet workers do not need spelling out.
Ultimately, the capitalist nature of the Putin regime, along with its ideological reliance on Russian nationalism, acts to subvert Russia’s resistance to imperialism. The logic of this situation is that in the minds of Russian workers and soldiers, both capitalist and nationalist ideology will in time be weakened and transcended.
In recent months the Russian military has done well out of assigning a radio frequency on which Ukrainian soldiers — and units of up to platoon size — can arrange to surrender and thus avoid near-certain slaughter. We may reflect on how much more effective the Russian offer would be if it included not just safety and food, but a future role in helping to construct a multinational workers’ commonwealth.
 Perhaps the most striking example is that of the Hmong people of Vietnam and Laos, tens of thousands of whom were recruited by the US in the 1960s to fight against the Vietnamese Revolution.
 Dieter Nohlen and Philip Stöver. Elections in Europe: a data handbook. Nomos, 2010, p. 1985.
 The efforts by the Putin administration to settle the Donbass conflict and avoid a widened war in Ukraine are recounted in detail by US Professor Jeffrey Sachs. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vl0Y_ETTTf4
 https://web.archive.org/web/20200714204022/; http://www.summitbucharest.gov.ro/en/doc_202.html
 These and other characteristics of today’s imperialism receive insightful treatment in the writings on Lenin’s theory by political economist Sam King. See: https://vuir.vu.edu.au/37770/
 An extensive study of Russia’s economic and social indicators, and of the country’s place within global capitalism, is at: https://links.org.au/myth-russian-imperialism-defence-lenins-analyses
 These points correspond to the main demands put forward by Russian spokespeople as a basis for peace talks. See: https://www.newsweek.com/full-lists-demands-russia-ukraine-have-made-end-war-1769742