A Ukrainian Left under construction on several fronts: The national conference of Sotsialnyi Rukh/Social Movement

Sotsialny Rukh conference

Introduction and translation by Richard Fidler - Catherine Samary is a noted Marxist scholar, based in France, who has written extensively on Eastern Europe in such publications as Le Monde diplomatique. Among her books in English is Yugoslavia Dismembered. The article below is a timely introduction to the fledgling left now beginning to emerge in Ukraine, amidst the war. As Samary notes, this left will be sponsoring an on-line conference on Reconstruction and Justice in Post-War Ukraine on October 21-23. I have translated her report from Contretemps

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A Ukrainian Left under construction on several fronts

By Catherine Samary

On September 17, the Ukrainian socialist NGO Sotsialny Rukh (SR - Social Movement),[1] held a national conference in Kyiv. Far from a simple factual and make-shift report, the aim here is to shed light on the specific profile of this young left, based on how it operates at the heart of Ukrainian society and at odds with the dominant contradictory interpretations of the “Euro-Maidan” (2013-2014) which divide the left and are exploited by Putin. In doing so, it will also be a matter of reprising the long-standing differences within the Marxist left on the role a sovereign Ukraine had in the construction and dismantling of the USSR — also mobilized by Putin to legitimize his “military operation.” In the current context of a war with global implications, we will see that the questions facing SR are far from being only Ukrainian.

I attended the Sotsialny Rukh (SR) conference with two mandates[2] but a single goal, consistent with the positions defended in the various networks in which I participate: to consolidate the internationalist links from below with this new Ukrainian left. Links forged in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014 and renewed in opposition to the Russian war of imperial aggression. Essential links, because they offer precious and fragile resistance to the dominant politics and ideologies that clash within the war and within the current imperialist world order.

This war, seen from Kyiv in mid-September, was both distant and very present: as we know and as we saw in the streets of the city, activities had resumed and seemed “normal” following the strategic withdrawal of Russian troops to the south and east of the country. And yet the war remains there in many ways — in addition to the fall in the standard of living (with an average salary of the order of 400 euros), millions of displaced persons or refugees, job losses, deaths, destruction and multiple forms of violence, especially against women. People were frequently reminded of the war by the emergency sirens that sounded whenever the Russian forces launched missiles although they were in the dark as to which strategic places of the country were being targeted. This happened several times in mid-September, when missiles targeted the hydro-electric power station and its dams in the Krivih Rih mining region, producing destructive floods. This proved to be the cause of the alarm that sounded in Kyiv at midday on September 16, forcing the closure of the bank where we wanted to exchange money. However, we were told that the foreign exchange services, forced to close at the street level, were still operating in the vast gallery set up in the basement, equipped with various shops and offices ensuring the continuity of activities. But in the period when the conference was taking place the alerts were clearly part of a certain “normalcy” in Kyiv: the conversations that had started on the terraces around us continued peacefully that day, like most other activities in the capital.

In the city, two other “traces” of the war were evident. For one thing, all the statues were bundled inside permanent shelters, sometimes covered with an image or a panel indicating the nature of the camouflaged work. For another, the anti-tank barriers erected at the start of the Russian offensive towards Kyiv in late February, were visible here and there, still ready for use but placed along the sides of strategic arteries. Given the way the war has progressed, the entry of tanks and troops into the capital now seems unlikely. Still, the country’s authorities plan to protect some ceremonies against possible missile fire (or remind some international personalities of the reality of the war) by holding them in the basement of the very deep and beautiful Metro of Kyiv (which resembles Moscow’s) — to the great displeasure of the population thereby hampered in its movements. Unfortunately, the very failures of Putin’s armies mean — especially after the setbacks suffered by Moscow in the Donbas and on the bridge that connects Crimea to Russia — real new threats of missile strikes on the major cities and strategic crossroads.

From one conference to another — the social anchoring of SR

But overall, in mid-September, the capital was still operating “normally” in the seventh month of the war, whereas last May the country’s political forces, trade unions, and other associations — as well as diplomats — still had their headquarters in Lviv, having deserted Kyiv following the late February invasion. So it was there that a first activists’ meeting had been co-organized on May 8 by Sotsialny Rukh (SR) and the left-wing European network ENSU.[3]

In Lviv, Ukrainians who were members or sympathizers of SR explained their wartime activities (political, trade-union, feminist, LGBT, ecological, etc.), in addition to their previous activities imposed by the urgent needs of solidarity from below in education and defense of the rights of everyone facing the destruction and social damage of the war. For their part, the ENSU delegates sought to publicize the work of these activists[4] and to organize with them actions combining defense of rights and self-organized humanitarian aid. The organization of trade-union convoys is the emblematic form of this type of action.[5]

The task was to help anchor a political, trade union, feminist left[6] within the overall resistance of Ukrainian society to the war when one of the major characteristics of the disagreements within the Western left is precisely to disregard this Ukrainian society — either by ignoring it (in favor of purely geo-strategic analyses ), or by reducing it to being nothing more than a victim and cannon fodder at the heart of imperialist agendas, or even identifying it solely with the reactionary currents of the dominant Right and extreme Right.

It was for this very reason — to publicize the existence of the Ukrainian left working within the popular resistance — that the conference held in Kyiv on September 17 was opened up to members of the Western left’s international solidarity networks in person or over Zoom. But SR had mainly internal aims in mind for the conference. Though unable to hold a “congress” (given wartime constraints on preparation and logistics, it was an opportunity for the organization to assess its strengths and weaknesses and the ways it has been dealing with challenges that are both general and specific to post-Soviet Ukrainian society — in particular, better equipping itself to collectively articulate and promote its political identity in a society where “the left” is synonymous with the Stalinist past and support for Putin’s war and regime.

In the event, Putin’s speeches on the eve of his “military operation” explicitly referred to two major issues dividing the left and which have shaped the political identity of SR: on the one hand, the characterization of the fall of the last so-called “pro-Russian” president of Ukraine in 2013-2014 – Viktor Yanukovych; on the other hand, the “raison d’être” of Ukraine independence.

I will now provide a brief overview of these two questions as a way to better understand Sotsialny Rukh’s profile. For this socialist NGO was created in 2015 on the basis of essential political demarcations that exist even today within the “post-Soviet” left in relation to the Maidan and the counter-Maidan.

The left and Maidan

The Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014 refers to what has been called the “Maidan revolution” — named after the main square in Kyiv which was then the site of demonstrations, confrontations and occupations of public places and buildings which accompanied the fall of President Yanukovych. As we are always reminded by those who defend the thesis of a “fascist coup d’état supported by the West,” he had been democratically re-elected in 2010 as president of Ukraine.[7] However, it was the record of the Yanukovych regime after his 2010 victory and the evolution since then of Ukrainian society[8] and Russia that are central to the differences that have since divided the Ukrainian and international left.

I cannot expand in this article[9] on the background of the 2013 crisis with its various phases, on a Ukrainian society hit hard by the ongoing domination of “its oligarchs and its ‘Troika’” (the IMF, EU and Russia). Let us just state briefly what is often omitted in the reminders: on the one hand, the election of Yanukovych in 2010 came after the very serious financial and banking crisis of 2008-2009 which produced a massive flight of Western capital from Ukraine (which had been attracted by the change of regime of the “Orange Revolution” of 2004), the drastic fall in its GDP and a big increase of its external debt. The country faced a double squeeze: from the IMF and its conditions relayed by the EU in its neo-liberal criteria for “partnership” (increase in energy rates paid by the population, cuts to public services, etc.); and from the relations of domination that Russia tried to impose by wielding the “weapon of gas” (volumes and prices weighing heavily in Ukraine, an essential transit point for Russian gas towards the EU). Yanukovych’s election in 2010 had expressed a kind of mandate in favor of military neutrality and balance in international relations. The oligarchs themselves, including Yanukovych and his family, were pulling out all the stops in the direction of both Russia and the West, in the search for profit. Yanukovych’s democratic election said nothing about his subsequent practices. Basically, it was his unpopularity (like that of his predecessors and successors!) that brought about his downfall — coupled with corruption, anti-social policies and repression.

But it is in this context that the Ukrainian and international left saw the crystallization (after the ordeal of the NATO war over Kosovo in 1999) of contradictory political and geo-strategic visions pertaining to what could be called “neo-campism”[10] — which were extended, recomposed or radicalized in the face of the invasion of Ukraine launched by Putin on February 24, 2022.

The 2013-2014 Ukrainian crisis has thus been described on the one hand as a “democratic revolution” of the “Euro-Maidan” emphasizing the protests against Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the association agreement with the European Union (EU). At the opposite extreme, a part of the radical left in Ukraine and in Europe, has also evoked “Euro-Maidan” but in order to reject it as a whole. In both cases, the effect was to reduce the demonstrations (whether rejoicing or regretting it) to a “pro-European” movement, and to assimilate possible hopes of openings towards the EU with “anti-Russian” positions – in both cases simplistic reductions, erasing the self-organized and popular dimensions of the mobilizations, their rejection of a corrupt oligarchic regime and its repression. In fact, the initial protests against the break in the “partnership” with the EU were weak, but violently repressed. And it was this crackdown that triggered the massive occupation of Maidan Square and infuriated protesters pushing for the overthrow of the president and against compromise measures. And it was these mass mobilizations that produced the fall of the regime through profound rejection of Yanukovych’s family oligarchy, extending deep into his own region (so much so that he had to flee to Russia).

We then saw a convergence of a part of the anti-Stalinist left and neo-Stalinist currents or allies of the deposed president’s Party of Regions in their appraisal of “Euro-Maidan” as a simple instrument of Western capitalist institutions. It is important to stress the extent to which this type of conspiratorial approach has influenced anti-imperialist politics in the post-Soviet era. Not, of course, without kernels of truth: it is well known that the CIA and its organizations deployed considerable resources to corrupt Russian and Polish trade unionists during the crucial phase of the 1980s, a method used in more recent times on bloggers and organizations active within the Arab revolutions. But should this lead to denying the authenticity of popular uprisings — and the possibility that they learn from experience? In Ukraine this was how popular perceptions of the parties evolved between 2004 and 2014 — when the so-called “democratic” parties denouncing corruption in the Orange Revolution in 2004 were discovered to be deeply corrupt themselves. And more generally, as everywhere, we have observed the rise of abstention and mistrust towards the institutional parties, amidst terrible ideological confusion.

The tragedy on the left was and remains, on the one hand, the accumulation of great divisions over how we analyze the Soviet past and, on the other, tremendous ignorance concerning the events and radical transformations of the countries claiming to be socialist.[11] This further reinforced the de facto convergence of a part of this conspiratorial left with the propaganda of the autocratic powers of Russia and other former post-Soviet republics which had a radical fear of aspirations to self-determination (as in Chechnya) or of the real dégagisme [“down with all of them”] of the mass anti-establishment movements, particularly in the 2000s. The conspiratorial interpretation legitimated their turn to repression (as in Stalin’s time): any opposition was attributed to infiltration by “foreign agents.” When this “foreigner” is, moreover, the “main enemy” (imperialist), the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” reinforces support for the Kremlin’s policy in opposition to the “color revolutions”[12] (considered as manipulated by the West) — including that of 2004 in Ukraine or Georgia in 2003, and again in Ukraine in 2014.

The Euro -Maidan of 2013-2014 was seen through this kind of lens, layering on top denunciation of the active role (real but exaggerated in such accounts) of the far-right militias in the popular mobilizations. The overrepresentation of these currents and their influence in the transitional government set up in Ukraine (before the new elections) after the fall and flight of Yanukovych served as “proof” of a “fascist anti-Russian coup d’état backed by the West” — which can be found in Putin’s speech preceding the “military operation” of February 24, 2022. A number of factors buttressed this narrative and heightened concern in the most Russian-speaking regions, in 2014 at least. [13] These included official glorification of the nationalist hero Stepan Bandera (who chose to ally with the Nazis against the Stalinist USSR); the questioning of the 2012 law on languages (adopted under the Yanukovych presidency and giving de facto joint official-language status to Russian and other regionally prevalent languages), and the affirmation of the Ukrainian language as sole official language. [14]

But this did not imply “separatism,[15] still less a war. Even in 2014, in the context of the anti-Maidan mobilizations and real mistrust of Kyiv, the population grouped within the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, dominated (without freedom of expression) by separatist forces, accounted for no more than 20-30% of the Donbas. As for the referendum organized in Crimea (which had an autonomous status within Ukraine) in the presence of the Russian armed forces, it certainly offered the “choice” of joining Russia or Ukraine — but the latter was presented as fascist (and “anti-Russian”). And, in truth, the fundamental issue for Putin was to reclaim Crimea in order to consolidate the military base of Sevastopol there (and the Black Sea fleet within it). By annexing Crimea, Russia violated the protocol it had signed with Ukraine in 1994 in Budapest (in the presence of the United States and Great Britain) according to which it promised to respect Ukraine’s borders in exchange for Russia’s recovery of all its nuclear weapons.[16]

At the same time, for those arguing that the country had experienced a “Western-orchestrated fascist-coup,” it meant that Ukrainian society had brought to power a Nazi government in the 2014 elections, backed by a consolidation of “pro-EU” parties. However, this “thesis” is contradicted by the recurrent difficulty all the institutional parties (particularly on the right and the far right) had in forming majorities or even entering parliament, as well as the successive scandals and crises affecting the Poroshenko presidency (2014-2019). One need search no further for proof of this than the surprise election of the Jewish, Russian-speaking actor, Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, elected on a promise to defeat corruption and to negotiate with Putin for a peaceful settlement of the Donbas conflicts.

The currents that in 2015 formed Sotsialny Rukh took an independent stand in relation to these positions, which received powerful backing from state propaganda bodies. Independent of any power – in Kyiv or Moscow — the approach of SR, however marginal and fragile it may be, is precious for any critical view and internationalist resistance “from below.”

A New Left within the “Revolution of Dignity”

This left in construction had chosen in 2014 to join what it prefers to call a “revolution of dignity” with its aspirations for social justice and its dégagisme then impossible in Russia. Admittedly, this revolutionary dynamic had been unable to challenge an oligarchic system and the movement was traversed by reactionary ideologies. The current that had formed under the name “Left Opposition” fought these tendencies, seeking to turn popular egalitarian aspirations into progressive and anti-fascist responses, criticisms of the neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the EU — associated for example with the Ukrainian debt aggravated after the global and European financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Bringing together activists from various regions of Ukraine and from different political cultures (anarchists, Trotskyists and post-Stalinists especially), this left had also gauged the reasons for the popular mistrust expressed in the anti-Maidan of eastern and southern Ukraine toward the new power in Kyiv. Putin’s policy in 2014 — and since 2022 — has undoubtedly reinforced “anti-Russian “ sentiments but also the defense of a plural Ukraine.[17] This is also true on the left, among the anarchist currents identifying themselves with the fight of the anarchist leader Makhno, but also among the anti-Stalinist Marxists identified with Roman Rosdolsky, founder of the Communist Party in western Ukraine and close to the Trotskyist Left Opposition against Stalin.[18] Putin (in his February 2022 speech) denounced an independent Ukraine as a “creation” of Lenin. The centrality of self-determination of the peoples in the constitution of a free and egalitarian socialist union was fundamentally recognized by Lenin, in particular vis-a-vis the assertion of independent popular Ukraine — initially against the Bolsheviks.[19] But this obviously came into tension with several dimensions of the socialist revolutionary project – how to combine the sovereign rights of the peoples with redistributive planning from rich to less developed regions? What form of democracy to invent, combining individual and collective, social and national rights?[20]

But this entire past and its sources have been largely buried and need peace and democracy to be studied and shared. In the post-Maidan context, anarchists and more generally anti-fascists and anti-imperialists found themselves on both sides of the confrontations in which far-right “pro-Russian” or, on the contrary, virulently “anti-Russian” currents were working — also on both sides. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, a cloak of opaqueness shrouds political labels and concepts inherited from a bygone century.[21] If part of the left supports Putin as being “the enemy of my main enemy” (NATO dominated by the United States), Putin’s “anti-Western” course combines the questioning of all the revolutionary dimensions of the post-October 1917 USSR, support for Stalin’s great-power logic, contempt for any protected and egalitarian social status of workers, women, and LGBT people. And, as he explicitly stated in his speech prior to the February 2022 invasion,[22] an independent Ukraine is for him an artificial and aberrant creation of Lenin and his desire to create the USSR in 1922 on the basis of sovereign states. Global far-right currents can identify with an ethnic approach to the nation and the rejection of the “decadent” West — which should prompt some questioning among those on the left who see in Putin a support against Western imperialism.

The Maidan left that would establish Sotsialny Rukh was therefore led to identify itself in opposition to these various fronts — and therefore very marginal. It was fundamentally the expression of a new generation of activists (the average age is around 30) seeking to critically appropriate the revolutionary heritage of the 20th century while incorporating the contributions of the movements of emancipation (and “intersectional” logics crossing the oppressions of class, gender, ‘race’, sexuality, etc.) as well as environmental protection. Its need to build social roots in an “impure” society and movements and its intellectual references therefore place it at at odds with bookish and dogmatic approaches — without of course providing ready-made answers on subjects open to multiple controversies.

Its anticapitalist convictions, its concrete and critical analysis of Ukrainian society and its critical- Marxist knowledge of the Soviet past protected it from “campist” postures: it challenged as counter-productive (from the point of view of the fight against secessionist forces) the “anti-terrorist operations” of the government of Kyiv against the populations of the Donbas; but at the same time it denounced the role of Moscow and the Ukrainian bureaucratic-military apparatus in crisis behind the pseudo-referendum in Crimea against a “fascist Ukraine,” followed by the self-proclamation of the pseudo “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk (DPR and LPR). It sought to identify popular aspirations common to the whole of Ukraine and hoped for a ceasefire under the control of the OSCE or the UN, the dismantling of all paramilitary forces, and a rejection of any Russian interference as a precondition for updating the Ukrainian constitution on democratic bases and control of its choices and conflicts — against any logic of dividing spheres of influence between Moscow and Washington over and above Ukrainian society.[23]

I met this new and youthful left for the first time in Kyiv in 2013 and 2014, taking part in the debates of the conference it organized on “The left and Maidan.” I am indebted to it for my own articles on these events[24] for an “outlook” associated with its involvement against the current on several fronts at the heart of a “revolution of dignity” — an unfinished and impure revolution opening a phase of hybrid war that was radically transformed into outright war in 2022.

Putin’s Three Russian War Dolls

SR’s position on this war is consistent on the one hand with its analytical and activist approach in the 2013-2022 phase, but also with its commitment to a sovereign Ukraine as a component of a socialist struggle.

It was Putin’s aggression that shifted many questions and hesitations in the direction of the construction of a plural Ukraine — which will have to accept and overcome democratically (in a pluralistic way) its own internal conflicts and its conflicting readings of the dark pages of the past.[25]

Putin himself provided in his speech of February 22[26] the keys to interpreting his drive to war, which became clearer after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. They can be summed up in three nested Russian dolls.

The first is explicitly related to the “Great Russian” discourse of the 19th century on “one Russian people” in three dimensions (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine). Putin opposes it to Lenin’s decision to found the USSR on the basis of a questioning of the Russian Empire (and its relations of oppression), thus on an act of free union signed on an equal basis between republics (of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) recognized as sovereign.

Like the first, the second Russian doll has nothing to do with NATO and feeds on far-right ideologies about the “Russian world” of Eurasia (against the feminist, LGBT and atheist decadence of the rest of the world). Putin fits together various ideologies in his own way. He pragmatically bases them on two projects that accommodate the newly achieved sovereignties of (autocratic and anti-social) post-Soviet non-Russian republics: the Eurasian Economic Union which seeks to counter the projects of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership”; and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mini-NATO, which proved its effectiveness in the face of the social unrest destabilizing the autocratic government in Kazakhstan last year.[27]

Thus comforted in his “own space” of domination, Putin hoped to expand the dimensions of the third doll: his place in the Court of the great powers and facing NATO to negotiate from a position of strength the sharing of “spheres of influence.” The audacity of the Russian offensive (in defense of the imperial and imperialist interests of these projects) was catalyzed by the “brain dead” state of NATO after the painful retreat from Afghanistan and the overt disagreements between the EU, France and Germany on energy issues and relations with Russia. It is therefore not a threat from NATO, but on the contrary, its crisis which provided the basis for an offensive by Putin at the start of 2022 — reinforced by his assessment of the situation in Ukraine. He hoped to secure a boost in domestic popularity analogous to the one he achieved following the annexation of the Crimea.

Zelensky’s attempts to negotiate the fate of Donbas with Putin were met with contempt by the Russian autocrat. But they also confronted the Ukrainian president with threats from his extreme right. Turning then to Biden, he was rebuffed with an explicit refusal to defend Ukraine against threats of Russian intervention. All in all, the popularity of the Ukrainian president had fallen at the end of 2021. This confirmed Putin’s conviction of a fall-and-flight scenario in which Zelensky would be replaced by a Ukrainian Pétain within the framework of a nationwide display of force, especially directed at the capital — with the same type of narrative as for the referendum in Crimea: against a Nazified Ukraine, return to the Russian home.

Sotsialny Rukh and the war

Like the great mass of the Ukrainian population, and President Zelensky, the members of SR opted from the outset to resist the invasion, refusing to disappear in the straightjacket of the Russian doll. This position in no way suppressed their anticapitalist anarcho-communist profile or their critical independence from the Zelensky government. They consider that government to be “the lesser evil” on the Ukrainian political scene, endowed as it is with strong popular legitimacy as an expression of the defense of Ukrainian sovereignty — which implies, in wartime, that the critiques the left formulates must be (likewise) popular, concrete and not contradictory with the commitment to oppose the war.

The violence of the Russian invasion made it obvious even to the most pacifist that they had the right to defend themselves, to refuse to equate the weapons of the aggressor with those necessary for the people who decide to resist and defend their dignity, their rights, their life. Long-standing ties with the Russian Socialist Movement led the way to a common position issued on April 7, 2022[28] that confronted arguments from the Western left:

“We want to address a highly controversial demand, that of military aid to Ukraine. We understand the repercussions of militarization for the progressive left movement worldwide and the left’s resistance to NATO expansion or Western intervention. However, more context is needed to provide a fuller picture.

“First of all, NATO countries provided weapons to Russia despite the 2014 embargo (France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, and Spain). Thus, the discussion about whether weapons sent to the region end up in the right or wrong hands sounds a bit belated. They are already in bad hands, and EU countries would only be righting their earlier wrongs by providing weapons to Ukraine. Moreover, the alternative security guarantees that the Ukrainian government has proposed require the involvement of a number of countries, and probably can be achieved only with their involvement, too.

“Secondly, as numerous articles have emphasized, the Azov regiment is a problem. However, unlike in 2014, the far right is not playing a prominent role in today’s war, which has become a people’s war – and our comrades on the anti-authoritarian left of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus are fighting together against imperialism. As has become clear in the last few days, Russia is trying to compensate for its failure on the ground with air attacks. Air defense will not give Azov any additional power, but it will help Ukraine keep control of its territory and reduce civilian deaths even if negotiations fail.”

All requests for aid (military, material, financial) expressed by SR were accompanied by the rejection of any neo-liberal and anti-social conditions — a position which is also in the platform of the solidarity network ENSU. Witness the slogans and the concrete conduct of two SR campaigns (supported by ENSU), illustrating the reality of this front of social resistance within the fight against Russian aggression: on the one hand the denunciation of the causes and content of the Ukrainian debt (sparing the oligarchs and weighing on the country’s social budgets) accompanied by the demand for its cancellation, particularly in view of the disasters inflicted by the war. But also, the campaign launched more concretely at the trade-union level against the Zelensky government’s laws attacking the social protections inherited from the Soviet era. Always in the background was the question of what Ukraine was building (and rebuilding) in the wake of the war’s destruction. This is the theme of the conference to be held next October 21-23[29]: “[W]hat should the new Ukraine be like? Is there a chance to build a society based on solidarity, justice, and sustainable development? What is to be done with the ruins of the global security system? What is the role of global progressive movements in its restoration?”

These same questions — which challenge the international left without offering simple answers — were at the heart of the resolution adopted[30] by the September 17 conference in Kyiv, which begins as follows:

“The people of Ukraine have been facing hard challenges, yet they have proven their ability to fight for the right to decide on their own fate, and their determination to defend the country and to end the war as soon as possible. The authorities and representatives of market-fundamentalist ideology, together with big business, keep pushing through an economic model focused on benefiting a minority at the expense of the welfare of the absolute majority. In this model, workers are completely subservient to the will of their employers, while social and regulatory functions of the state are abolished for the sake of ‘business needs’, ‘competition’ and ‘free market’.”

Of the three texts put to the vote, the one adopted was the most developed presentation of SR’s identity. But there was little time for debate. The aim of this initial conference was to provide some theses and basic ideas for pursuing the tasks of training and collective development in the next period. Here are the “priorities” that the text puts forward for the reflections and actions of Sotsialnyi Rukh “in the struggle”:

1. Complete victory and security for Ukraine.

The Russian army must be defeated now, this is a prerequisite for the democratic and social development of both our country and the world.

Preserving independence and democracy will require, first and foremost, the development of its own defense capabilities. On this basis, a new international security system must be built to effectively counter any manifestations of imperialist aggression in the world. […]

2. Socially oriented reconstruction of Ukraine.

Neoliberal forces are trying to impose their vision of post-war Ukraine, a country belonging to big business, not to its people, and having neither social protection nor guarantees. Unlike that, we believe it is necessary to advocate for the reconstruction that emphasizes progressive development of the living standards of the majority of the population, and of our social infrastructure, provision of economic guarantees. Reconstruction must be ecological, social, decentralized and democratic, inclusive and feminist. […]

3. Social democratization.

Democratization of all levels of life, eliminating the influence of money and big business on politics, in-creasing the representation and importance of trade unions, national minorities and communities in power and their full involvement in decision-making. […]

4. Identity and inclusiveness.

The new Ukrainian identity, which is being born before our eyes, is multi-ethnic and multicultural, because most Ukrainians, who now defend our country, are at least bilingual. The multilingualism and diversity of Ukrainian national culture must be preserved and developed, focusing on the Ukrainian language becoming a universal means of exchange and production of knowledge in all areas of public life, culture, science, and technology. The entire cultural heritage of humankind should not only become available in Ukrainian, but Ukrainian should also be used to produce advanced works of literature and art, scientific and technical knowledge of a global level.

It is necessary to ensure the development of Ukrainian culture and language in all their diversity, socially oriented Ukrainianization, based on decent and competent public funding of education, publishing, popularization of science, festivals, cultural projects, cinema, etc. […]

5. International solidarity against imperialism and climate catastrophe.

Although Ukraine is the largest country on the European continent, it is thrown to the periphery of regional politics. Having no influence on decision-making, it is reduced to a marketplace for European states.

The growing contradictions between the centers of capital accumulation in the world capitalist system will not stop even after the complete destruction of Russian imperialist power. […]

The climate catastrophe unfolding before our eyes demands urgent action. Humanity must mobilize resources for the immediate and complete rejection of hydrocarbon fuel. […]

The aim of the conference was also to tackle the organizational tasks associated with this program.

The introductory report by the president of SR, the labor rights lawyer Vitalyi Dudin, emphasized that in six months SR had seen its membership double in size,[31] which did not take it out of marginality but posed new challenges for it: the movement had to find ways to function adapted to a greater number of members in their various fields of intervention — trade union, feminist, youth, socio-political research, Commons magazine, social and international media, etc. And, in doing so, it also had to face up to the responsibilities pertaining to its increased influence.

Indeed, SR came into its own as the left that opposes both the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the neo-liberal[32] and anti-democratic policies (for example, the “decommunization” law[33]) of the Zelensky government. This means that the question of political “representation” of workers is acutely posed on the Ukrainian political scene – as it often is elsewhere. Responding to this challenge, the task of building a “party” was raised in two ways. On the one hand, this objective is very much part of the political resolution adopted by the conference, which specifies in the introduction:

“A party is needed to implement an alternative vision of Ukraine — democratic, social, and socialist. This party would protect and unite the working class and the unprivileged, those who now lack political representation and suffer from constant abuse. Such a party must protect the absolute majority of the working population from the employers’ dictate.

“The ultimate goal of such a political force must be the emancipation of humankind and the radical democratization of economic, political, national, and social life.”

In addition, the question of the links between current activity in the trade unions (or social movements) and the party was addressed in a concrete way, after the introductory balance-sheet report. On this specific subject the SR president invited Vasilii Andreev, president of the building trades union, to address the conference. He reported on his experience in beginning to establish the necessary bases for legal recognition of a political party that he sees as an extension of his union. The SR organization has decided to assess more closely, in dialogue with Vasilii Andreev, the programmatic proximity between the two organizations and, on the practical level, to test in the various branches and regions the possibilities for functioning in common.

To follow up on the various tasks, the conference elected a new collective “Council” (or Rada) of seven members — including three linked to trade-union work (including SR president Vitalyi Dudin), three women heavily involved in feminist networks, and one of the organizers of the young “Direct Action” networks in student circles. In all sectors, the conference was a step toward more effective work together in a relationship “of trust,” as emphasized by Vitalyi Dudin. These various types of activities include those begun before the war, associated with the defense of rights (including popular education), but also the various forms of broad self-organization responding in solidarity to the damage and disasters of war — its destruction of jobs and therefore loss of resources, and often of roofs, but also the inadequacy of collective services and the many forms of violence against women.[34]

Dudin’s report itself underscored two tasks that SR will strive to take on. That of “translating” the socialist convictions expressed in the resolution into concrete formulations that are comprehensible, mobilizing, and pointing toward breaks with the existing order (a “transitional” logic, perhaps?). And that of building the confidence needed to function as a “collective intellectual” implementing this type of project. These are tasks challenging all left organizations globally, becoming more complex in their execution as the organization expands. SR is an organization which, while still small in size, is already very diverse (fortunately!) in terms of the political cultures of its members — predominantly eco-anarcho-communist, feminist, LGBT, anti-fascist. These are assets.

But what does it mean, as the texts of SR assert, to be in favor of a “democratic socialism”? The question was raised by one of the comrades present at the conference. And on digging deeper, it turned out that it was the content of the notion of “democratic” that was most problematic for him. Criticism of the Stalinist past has in no way resolved the questions that are asked not only by the Ukrainian left but by all the anticapitalist currents: how to organize the new society (what forms of democracy, and what institutions behind the socialization of planning, the market, ownership?). Moreover, how to move from the struggle in and against the existing system to the construction of other decision-making powers and other eco-communist rights and priorities. And at what levels should we be organized territorially to be credible and efficient? What to expect from the EU? The Ukrainian population has suffered the effects of a radical “peripheralization” in the capitalist order and has come up against the neo-liberal criteria of the EU in the “partnership” relationship established since 2009. The great mass of the population aspires to have the status, rights – and, it hopes, the protections (in every way) — of full membership. This is a debate that SR and its membership have not had in full — but it has begun, and it is a debate that (also) divides the European left. It fits into the global issues raised by the war. The resolution adopted by SR stresses:

“The left in Europe and around the world turned out to be helpless and disoriented when the Russian aggression in Ukraine occurred. Unless the international socialist movement realizes mistakes it has made and builds a new, truly internationalist cooperation and coordination, we simply have no chance of preventing the growth of inter-imperialist struggle in the future.”

The only perspective that opens up margins for progressive resistance against all forms of imperialism is that popular Ukrainian resistance (which makes effective use of the weapons received) will lead to the downfall of Putin. It can do so — by arousing in particular in the Russian Federation and in the former Soviet republics an identification of non-Russian nations with the Ukrainian decolonial cause and more generally a mass refusal to die for a dirty war. It is up to the internationalist left to raise awareness of the similarity of the decolonial challenges facing the Ukrainian and Russian left to those of the peoples of the “global South,” as the Indian feminist and communist Kavita Krishnan points out.[35] The decolonization of the Russian Federation is the key to making credible the agenda for the dissolution of NATO and the CSTO and the debates (initiated by Taras Bilous[36] within Sotsialny Rukh) on the need for another global “security” architecture, rejecting any logic of “blocs” and shared “spheres of influence.”


[1] See their presentation “Who we are?”: https://rev.org.ua/sotsialnyi-rukh-who-we-are/.

[2] I was there, on the one hand, with three other members of the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine, ENSU (https://ukraine-solidarity.eu/ ) and as a member of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA). See the collective report of the four ENSU members who were in Kyiv, https://ukraine-solidarity.eu/to-read/conference-of-social-movement. But I was also mandated to attend by the leadership of the Fourth International to speak on its behalf ; see my intervention https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article7838.

[3] See the reports and videos on the ENSU website, https://ukraine-solidarity.eu/delegation-news.

[4] See the short interview videos recorded by Olivier Besancenot, delegate (with me) in Lviv for the NPA, allowing “a week of solidarity” (and usable in the networks): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLn18G_o1gaSscgpRqi_tbPNV_7MTBA-w6.

[5] See for example on the Solidaires website the inter-union actions for Ukraine: https://solidaires.org/sinforma-et-agir/actualites-et-mobilisations/internationales/un-convoi-intersyndical-pour-lukraine-point- detape/ and, again, internationally this summer toward the Krivih mining site: https://solidaires.org/sinforma-et-agir/actualites-et-mobilisations/internationales/convoi-syndical-en-ukraine/.

[6] Read the Manifesto of Ukrainian feminists “The right to resist,” https://ukraine-solidarity.eu/the-right-to-resist-a-feminist-manifesto.

[7] It is quite true that Yanukovych’s election in 2010 against the so-called pro-Western candidate Yulia Tymoshenko went well — as all international observers testified, unlike the fraud denounced during the 2004 elections: Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, said to be “pro-Russian,” was then for the first time a candidate for the presidency. The “orange revolution” mobilized against corruption and these frauds then forced him to organize a second round, which he lost to the “pro-Western” candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

[8] On the evolution of Ukrainian society between 2013 and 2022 read Daria Saburova, “Questions on Ukraine,” https://lifeonleft.blogspot.com/2022/10/as-putin-escalates-his-war-ukrainians.html. See also Denys Gorbach’s chapter on the political economy of Ukraine in this phase, in (collective book) L’invasion de l’Ukraine — Histoires, conflicts et resistances populaires, La Dispute, 2022.

[9] Read my analysis of “La société ukrainienne entre ses oligarques et sa Troïka” written at the turn of 2014 for the online journal of the Scientific Council of Attac, Les Possibleshttps://france.attac.org/nos-publications/les-possibles/numero-2-hiver-2013-2014/dossier-europe/article/la-societe-ukrainienne-entre-ses.

[10] On the context of the so-called “bi-polar world” at the origin of this notion, its evolution and that of the “anti-imperialists,” particularly in relation to the conflicts in the Middle East, read Gilbert Achcar, https://newpol.org/their-anti-imperialism-and-ours/. On a critique of “campist” approaches to the Kosovo crisis (1999) and that of Ukraine in 2014, see C. Samary, “What internationalism in the context of the Ukrainian crisis? Eyes wide open against one-eyed ‘campisms’,” https://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article38010.

[11] Read in particular, https://www.contretemps.eu/samary-revolution-octet-communisme/.

[12] The term evokes the symbolic color chosen by movements opposing corrupt regimes.

[13] Read the interview with the young historical researcher and editor of the journal Commons, Taras Bilous, a member of SR from the Donbas who explains his activity in the Donbas and the reality of the “people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DPR and LPR),” after Maidan, https://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article63762.

[14] On the evolution of language policy and laws on languages see https://www.axl.cefan.ulaval.ca/europe/ukraine-4pol-minorites.htm#1.

[15] Let us recall what the current war, which is targeting in particular the more Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, underscores: the fact of speaking Russian does not imply a “separatist” political position towards Putin’s Russia. See the results of the referendums on the independence of Ukraine in 1991: more than 80% “for” in the Donbas — and even in Crimea about 55% (the latter obtained a statute of autonomy within the framework of the Ukrainian constitution — as well as, within it, the port of Sevastopol).

[16] A similar protocol was signed with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Yeltsin’s Russia (thanks to which the USSR had been dismantled), far from being in conflict with NATO, was supported by the United States, which preferred to see all the nuclear weapons of the former USSR under his control.

[17] See, in addition to the cited text by Taras Bilous (note 14), the article by Milan Milakovsky in The Guardian of October 7, 2022: “How Putin lost hearts and minds in eastern Ukraine,” https://www.theguardian.com/ commentisfree/2022/oct/07/vladimir-putin-eastern-ukraine-referendums-russian-moscow.

[18] His critique, Friedrich Engels and the ‘peoples without histories’. The national question in the 1848 revolution, was published in French by Editions Syllepse in 2018 with a preface and introduction of the perspective of his fight and his Marxist writings of great wealth. On the history of Ukraine and the positions of the Bolsheviks, in particular of Lenin and Trotsky in criticism of Stalin, read in particular Zbigniew MarcinKowalewski , “Pour l’indépendance de l’Ukraine soviétique,” Cahiers du socialisme, 2022. [https://lifeonleft.blogspot.com/2022/03/how-ukraine-won-its-independence-in.html]

[19] This point is developed from different angles in two chapters of the collective book, L’invasion de l’Ukraine, La Dispute (2022): the one by Hanna Perekhoda on the Donbas (of which she herself is a native) and mine centered on the issue of self-determination, returning in particular to the divisions traversing the Marxists and the Bolsheviks in particular on the “national questions” at the heart of the past and future socialist project.

[20] These questions were restated — without being resolved — in the Yugoslav experience. I discuss these tensions and issues in the collection Du communisme decolonial à la démocratie des communs, Ed. du Cygne, 2018.

[21] To get a sense of this context, read this enlightening text on ESSF (October 4, 2022) of anarcho-syndicalist activists from eastern Ukraine highlighting the mostly Russian sources of information from western left currents, mostly ignoring the Ukrainian left: http://europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article64195.

[22] Read on this subject in particular Denis Paillard, “Héritage impérial: Poutine et le nationalisme grand russe,” 2022, online text published on his Mediapart blog, then on the Europe solidaire sans frontières websitehttp://europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?auteur530.

[23] Read Taras Bilous, a member of SR previously cited, “Moscow and Washington should not determine Ukraine’s future,” January 2022, https://commons.com.ua/en/moscow-and-washington-should-not-determine-ukraines-future/.

[24] See on my website http://csamary.fr in the section “Dés(ordre) mondial” 2013 et seq., real-time analyses Cf. (February 2014); in particular, reproduced on the Ukrainian site of the Left Opposition, in March 2014, faced with the “hybrid” war in Donbas, “Ukraine : une guerre innommable et des questions sans réponses claires,” http://www.europe- solidaire.org/spip.php?article32912 .

[25] On this level too, one should read the critical view of another young historian, a member of SR, Vladislav Starodubtsev, “Remembrance done wrong. Patriotic Narratives, Left-wing history and constructed imaginations of Ukrainian national remembrance policies,” https://cultures-of-remembrance.com/en/essays/remembrance-done-wrong/.

[26] Vladimir Putin, Address by the President of the Russian Federation, Kremlin.ru [official website of the President of Russia], published February 21 , 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828

[27] See David Teurtrie, “Où en est l’Union économique eurasiatique ? Entre instabilité sociopolitique et ambitions géoéconomiques,” in Thierry de Montbrial (dir.), Ramses 2022. Au-delà du Covid, Dunod, “Hors collection,” Paris, 2021, p. 160-165 et “L’OTSC: une réaffirmation du leadership russe en Eurasie post-soviétique?,” Revue Défense Nationale, 2017, vol. 7, no 802, p. 153-160.

[28] “Against Russian Imperialism,” https://lefteast.org/against-russian-imperialism/.

[29] Watch and listen to the three-day conference on this theme organized in English and Ukrainian by the journal Commons in which members of SR and ENSU will be participating.

[30] https://www.tempestmag.org/2022/10/the-war-and-the-future-of-ukraine-and-the-left-movement/.

[31] About 40 active members (of an estimated total of about 80) were present at the conference and took part in the votes.

[32] See Vitaliy Dudin, “Ukraine’s recovery must benefit the people. The West has other ideas,” https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/ukraine-rebuild-liberal-reforms-trade-unions/.

[33] See SR’s statement against the (supposedly temporary) ban of several parties claiming to be leftist or socialist accused of supporting Putin, https://rev.org.ua/statement-on-temporary-ban-of-some-ukrainian -parts /

[34] See the various campaigns on the ENSU site, including those mentioned at the trade union level; but also, in addition to the support for the Ukrainian Feminist Manifesto previously mentioned (note 6), the European petition supporting the reproductive rights of Ukrainian women in time of war, in particular refugees in Poland and the EU, https://ukraine-solidarity.eu/reproductive -rights/ensu-abortion-petition-all-languages.

[35] Listen to or read her interview on this subject: https://www.democraynow.org/2022/10/6/cpiml_kavita_krishnan_india_russia_ukraine

[36] Taras Bilous, “The War in Ukraine, International Security, and the Left,” https://commons.com.ua/en/war-in-ukraine-international-security-and-left/, in response to Susan Watkins, “An Avoidable War?,” New Left Review, April 2022, https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii133/articles/susan-watkins-an-avoidable-war.