Leon Trotsky supported an independent Ukraine

Trotsky Ukraine

In the months before his assassination by a Stalinist agent on August 12, 1940, the great Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote three important articles on the issue of Ukraine. He was then living in exile in Coyoacan, Mexico. So resolutely did Trotsky support Ukraine’s right to independence that these articles probably gave an added impetus to Josef Stalin’s determination to murder his old rival, after the failure of the first assassination attempt in March 1939.

Before these articles appeared, Trotsky had made his view on the Ukrainian issue clear in a media release condemning the Soviet invasion of Poland, which followed the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939. The pact's secret protocol divided Poland between German and Soviet spheres of influence. Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and Stalin followed on September 17. Poland was completely overrun by October 6.

Below are key sections of Trotsky's writings which expose the disorientation of sections of the old revolutionary Left, including some that style themselves as inheritors of the Trotskyist tradition. Turning the real and obvious situation on its head, they characterise Vladimir Putin's aggression against Ukraine as a defence of the Russian Federation against a Western imperialist/NATO conspiracy to encircle it, break it up and fall upon its supposed vast riches. To this end, these individuals and groups ignore the illegality of Russia's aggression against its neighbours and Russia’s atrocities, instead choosing to parrot the Kremlin's talking points. Typically, they are in favour of denying Ukraine weapons, and a “peace” that would allow Putin to consolidate all of his ill-gotten territorial gains.

For me, the most striking thing is that in the face of Trotsky's writings on the Ukraine issue — available in an anthology of Trotsky's writings published by the US Socialist Workers Party in 1969[1] — it is extraordinary that the orthodox Trotskyists from the Socialist Equality Party, linked to the World Socialist Web Site, have taken a position in defence of Putin’s Russia.

They give themselves a small political fig leaf: poor Putin, they explain, was goaded into a “reactionary” invasion by a Western alliance spoiling for a fight. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Ukrainian efforts to get timely assistance from the West testify. Far from being an active conspiracy, NATO was — until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine — a ramshackle alliance that had been run down since the end of the Cold War. It has since, in response to Russia’s aggression, tightened up, toughened up and expanded. As for US foreign policy, it had virtually ignored Putin’s aggression against Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, until the start of what is now termed “the full-scale” war.

First, if Putin's invasion was, as the SEP put it ,“reactionary”, why are they defending Russia and echoing the Kremlin's talking points? In its own terms, their argument is completely illogical.

Secondly, there was, as a matter of fact, no need for the collective West to go to war to gain access to Russian resources, because they already had it. In the normal course of capitalist relations they invested in Russia, set up profitable businesses there and bought Russian resources (notably coal and gas) on favourable terms.

All the Russia apologists ignore Putin’s demonstrated history of aggression, his nostalgia for the Tsarist empire, his ideologists and propagandists’ many statements of intention to restore the old boundaries of that Empire, and his expressed hostility to the Bolsheviks and their original conception of how the issues of language, ethnicity and culture of the many nationalities that had fallen under the Tsarist Empire should be resolved.

For the uninitiated, here's a short primer on the orthodox Trotskyist position in the post-World War II period, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trotskyists divided the non-capitalist states into two groups: the Soviet Union, which was termed a “degenerated workers' state”, and all the other Stalinist-ruled states (including China) as “deformed workers' states.” Both groups had, roughly-speaking, nationalised major property and means of production, and planned economies. But those styled deformed workers’ states were so described because they had been set up on the model of the already degenerated Stalinist USSR.

Orthodox Trotskyists defended nationalised property and planned economies but argued what was necessary in both types of state was a political revolution to sweep away the bureaucracy and establish socialist democracy. Without such a political revolution, Trotsky argued, the ruling bureaucracy would inevitably transform itself into a new capitalist class. Alas, there were no successful political revolutions and, with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia became a fully-fledged capitalist state with a kleptocratic economy dominated by ex-Stalinist bureaucrats. Trotsky's nightmare had come true. At that point, the orthodox Trotskyist program for the states formerly run by Stalinist regimes became defunct.

We are left now with the clear case of an imperialist capitalist state, led by a revanchist dictator, invading a smaller nation, which has a robustly functioning democracy, with the undisguised intent of absorbing it and destroying its language, culture and identity.

In reading Trotsky’s Ukraine articles, it is important to note the emphasis he places on the need to empower the unheard mass of the population and to listen to and fruitfully channel their legitimate national aspirations. Without this, nationalist aspirations would flow into reactionary channels. This is in sharp contrast to the raft of open or shamefaced Kremlin supporters who deny the Ukrainian people agency. They are seen as mere pawns in Kissingeresque backroom great-power deals, doomed to more or less rapid national obliteration.

Selecting this brief set of extracts from Trotsky's last writings on Ukraine before his assassination was a difficult task because of the length of the articles and the complexity of the specific historical circumstances of the time at which he was writing. However, I think they make abundantly clear that he would have, in principle, supported Ukraine’s defence of its territory and democracy against Putin's totalitarian fascist Russia.

'Stalin – Temporary Holder of the Ukraine'

The following is a media release by Trotsky issued after September 17, 1939 and probably before October. The original is headed by this note: “The following is a translation of a statement by Leon Trotsky given to the press about the time of the Stalinist invasion of Poland. We reprint it here from the organ of the Mexican section of the Fourth International.– Ed.”

Until very recently the Kremlin, trying to gain the friendship of Warsaw (in the given case to deceive it), declared that the slogan of self -determination for Western Ukrainia (Eastern Galicia) was criminal. The purges and executions in the Soviet Ukraine were provoked mainly by the fact that the Ukrainian revolutionists, against the will of Moscow, aspired to the liberation of Galicia from Polish oppression. Now the Kremlin covers its intervention in Poland with a penitent concern for the “liberation” and “unification” of the Ukraine and White Russian [now, Moldovan] peoples. In reality, the Soviet Ukraine, more than any other part of the Soviet Union, is bound by the ferocious chains of the Muscovite bureaucracy. The aspirations of various sections of the Ukrainian nation for their liberation and independence are completely legitimate and have a very intense character. But these aspirations are directed also against the Kremlin. If the invasion gains its end, the Ukrainian people will find itself “unified,” not in national liberty, but in bureaucratic enslavement.

Facilitating Hitler's Objectives

The Hitlerite press gives absolute approval to the “unification” and “liberation” of the Ukrainians under the claws of the Kremlin. With this Hitler is accomplishing two tasks: first, drawing the Soviet Union into his military orbit; second, taking a further preparatory step on the road towards the solution of his program of a “Greater Ukraine.” Hitler's policy is the following: the establishment of a definite order for his conquests, one after the other, and the creation by each new conquest of a system of “friendships”. At the present stage Hitler concedes the Greater Ukraine to his friend Stalin as a temporary deposit. In the following stage he will pose the question of who is the owner of this Ukraine: Stalin or he, Hitler.

And of course, Hitler went on, after his invasion of the Soviet Union on May 22, 1941 to overrun most of Ukraine with the intention of turning its population into slaves for German colonists.

'The Ukrainian Question'

In this document, published in the US Trotskyist organisation's Socialist Appeal on May 9, 1939, about three months before the outbreak of World War II, Trotsky lays out the issue of Ukraine and its right to independence. He begins:

The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force. The latest aggravation of the Ukrainian question is most intimately bound up with the degeneration of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern, the success of fascism and the approach of the next imperialist war.

He goes on to remark that the Second International completely ignored the Ukrainian question and that even Rosa Luxemburg held a dismissive attitude towards it, and continues:

The Bolshevik Party, not without difficulty and only gradually, under the constant pressure of Lenin, was able to acquire a correct approach to the Ukrainian question. The right to self-determination, that is, to separation, was extended by Lenin equally to the Poles and the Ukrainians. He did not recognise aristocratic nations. Every inclination to evade or postpone the problem of an oppressed nationality he regarded as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism. …

… Every line of Lenin’s letters and proposals, vibrates with an urge to accede as far as possible to those nationalities that have been oppressed in the past. In the proposals and declarations of Stalin, on the contrary, … the most legitimate claims of the oppressed nationalities were declared a manifestation of petty-bourgeoise nationalism. All these symptoms could be observed as early as 1922-23.

Of course Trotsky was calling for an independent socialist Ukraine, because he was specifically a socialist revolutionary from an imperialist state that had overthrown Tsarism, and because Ukraine then fell within the Soviet Union's nationalised property economy, but there is no suggestion by him that, in principle, the right to independence was conditional upon remaining socialist.

We are dealing with a people that has proved its viability, that is numerically equal to the population of France and occupies an exceptionally rich territory which, moreover is of the highest strategical importance.

Under the heading: “Soviet Constitution Admits Right of Self-Determination” Trotsky says this:

But the independence of a United Ukraine would mean the separation of Soviet Ukraine from the USSR, the “friends” of the Kremlin will exclaim in chorus. What is so terrible about that? – we reply. The fervid worship of state boundaries is alien to us. We do not hold the position of a “united and indivisible whole”. After all, even the constitution of the USSR acknowledges the right of its component federated peoples to self-determination, that is, to separation.

Naturally an independent workers' and peasants' Ukraine might subsequently join the Soviet Federation; but voluntarily, on conditions which it itself considers acceptable, which in turn presupposes a revolutionary regeneration of the USSR.

Following this is an explanation of Trotsky's confidence that the various right-wing Ukrainian political factions would be incapable of achieving Ukrainian independence from German, Polish or Hungarian imperialism (and by implication from Stalinist imperialism) and confident predictions that the coming world war would end in the overthrow of Stalinism and socialist revolution across Europe. In hindsight, much of this is pure speculation — that proved to be wrong — and declamatory calls to action. But Trotsky was a revolutionary politician attempting, in a period of Stalinist incumbency, to build a global Marxist party against truly appalling odds. He ends with:

This appears to me, the correct policy in the Ukrainian question. I speak here personally and in my own name. The question must be opened up to international discussion. The foremost place in this discussion must belong to the Ukrainian revolutionary Marxists. We shall listen with the greatest attention to their voices. But they had better make haste. There is little time left for preparation!

'Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads'

Trotsky's May 1939 piece was criticised by the small Oehler group represented by the magazine The Marxist. Despite their relative insignificance, Trotsky took the opportunity to further clarify his position in an article in Socialist Appeal, published in two parts on September 15 and 17, 1939..

Our critic takes as his point of departure the following position: “If the workers in Soviet Ukraine overthrow Stalinism and reestablish a genuine workers’ state, shall they separate from the rest of the Soviet Union? No.” And so forth and so on. “If the workers overthrow Stalinism” … then we shall be able to see more clearly what to do. But Stalinism must first be overthrown. And in order to achieve this, one must not shut one’s eyes to the growth of separatist tendencies in the Ukraine, but rather give them a correct political expression.

Under the heading “Has Stalin Convinced the Ukrainian Masses” Trotsky says:

The federated structure of the Soviet Republic represents a compromise between the centralist requirements of planned economy and the decentralist requirements of the development of nations oppressed in the past. Having constructed a workers’ state on the compromise principle of a federation, the Bolshevik party wrote into the constitution the right of nations to complete separation, indicating thereby that the party did not at all consider the national question as solved once and for all…

Do the broad masses of the Ukrainian people wish to separate from the USSR? It might at first sight appear difficult to answer this question, inasmuch as the Ukrainian people, like all other peoples of the USSR, are deprived of any opportunity to express their will. But the very genesis of the totalitarian regime and its ever more brutal intensification, especially in the Ukraine, are proof that the real will of the Ukrainian masses is irreconcilably hostile to the Soviet bureaucracy. There is no lack of evidence that one of the primary sources of this hostility is the suppression of Ukrainian independence. The nationalist tendencies in the Ukraine erupted violently in 1917-19. The Borotba party expressed these tendencies in the left wing. The most important indication of the success of the Leninist policy in the Ukraine was the fusion of the Ukrainian Bolshevik party with the organisation of the Borotbists

If our critic were capable of thinking politically, he would have surmised without difficulty the arguments of the Stalinists against the slogan of an independent Ukraine: “it negates the position of the defence of the Soviet Union”; “disrupts the unity of the revolutionary masses”; “serves not the interests of revolution but those of imperialism.” In other words, the Stalinists would repeat all three arguments of our author. They will unfailingly do so on the morrow.

The Kremlin bureaucracy tells the Soviet woman: Inasmuch as there is socialism in our country, you must be happy and you must give up abortions (or suffer the penalty). To the Ukrainian they say: Inasmuch as the socialist revolution has solved the national question, it is your duty to be happy in the USSR and to renounce all thought of separation (or face the firing squad).

What does a revolutionary say to the woman? “You will decide yourself whether you want a child: I will defend your right to abortion against the Kremlin police.” To the Ukrainian people he says: “Of importance to me is your attitude toward your national destiny and not the 'socialistic' sophistries of the Kremlin police; I will support your struggle for independence with all my might!”

In this polemic, Trotsky develops complex arguments based on speculation about the probable course of events — much of which did not come true — and his desire to create a revolutionary program for an imagined non-Stalinist Ukrainian revolutionary socialist party of the future. When he uses the term “democracy” here he means capitalist democracy. He writes:

Democracy is degenerating and perishing even in the metropolitan centres. Only the wealthiest colonial empires or especially privileged bourgeois countries are still able to maintain nowadays a regime of democracy and even there it is obviously on the downgrade. There is not the slightest basis for hoping that the comparatively impoverished and backward Ukraine will be able to establish and maintain a regime of democracy. Indeed the very independence of the Ukraine would not be long-lived in an imperialist environment. The example of Czechoslovakia is eloquent enough. As long as the laws of imperialism prevail, the fate of small and intermediate nations will remain unstable and unreliable. Imperialism can be overthrown only by the proletarian revolution.

Internationalising his experience of the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, in which he had played a decisive role, Trotsky envisaged WWII leading inexorably to revolutionary crises across the whole range of world governments, with the major established capitalist democracies degenerating in a repressive direction, but matters did not play out this way. Throughout the war, Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and many other states remained robustly democratic. After the war, the West European nations occupied by the Nazis reemerged as democracies, and an historic decline of direct imperialist colonial rule set in, in some cases by revolutionary war, in other cases peacefully, by withdrawal of the old colonial administrations.

'Democratic Feudalists and the Independence of the Ukraine'

In a Socialist Appeal article published on August 5,1939, Trotsky responded to criticism of his original May 9 article that appeared in the July 12 edition of Alexander Kerensky's periodical Novaya Rossia. Kerensky was the leader of the 1917 Provisional Government in St Petersburg, who was by then resident in the US and supporting Stalin.

The periodical fumes over the fact that I wholeheartedly and completely stand for the support of the Ukrainian people in their struggle for national and state independence. “The separation of the Soviet Ukraine from the U.S.S.R. doesn't embarrass L. Trotsky at all.” Absolutely so! As regards Messrs. Democrats, they are not only embarrassed but deeply roused by the prospect of the separation of the Ukraine. The democratic urge of an oppressed nationality to gain its complete independence cannot fail to arouse the ire of feudalists…

In the sad and sorry days of the February [1917] revolution, the Provisional Government brazenly refused to extend to the Ukrainians not only independence – the Ukrainians did not demand this at that time yet – but also mere autonomy. Messrs. Democrats haggled over the national rights of Ukraine like horse traders. They then took their direct and immediate point of departure the interests of the old Great Russian “masters” of the landlord, bourgeois and democratic type. Today they are translating the very same great and glorious tradition into the language of the emigres.

Gavin Gatenby was a founding member of the Socialist Labour League, forerunner of the Australian Socialist Equality Party. He left the group in 1977 and was subsequently a trade union and environmental activist, public transport advocate, and in his professional life, a wildlife officer and occasional spokesperson for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. 


[1] The Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40), Merit Publishers, New York. Edited by George Breitman and Evelyn Reed, First Edition, June 1969. Library of Congress Catalog Card No, 73-88120