If you try to flee with your family from the war zones in Ukraine, along with hundreds of thousands of others, you will be forcefully divided from your wife, your children and your elderly parents if you are a male between 18 and 60: you are now conscripted to fight the advancing Russian army. If you stay in the cities, you will be subjected to shelling and missiles, allegedly aimed at military targets, but always causing that “collateral damage” which we first heard about in the West’s glorious Gulf War of 1991 – residential blocs, schools and hospitals are destroyed and hundreds of civilians are killed. If you are a Russian soldier, you may have been told that the people of Ukraine would welcome you as a liberator, but you will pay in blood for believing that lie. This is the reality of imperialist war today, and the longer it continues, the bigger will be the toll in death and destruction. The Russian armed forces have shown that they are capable of razing whole cities to the ground, as they did in Chechnya and Syria. The western arms pouring into the Ukraine will magnify the devastation.
An age of darkness
In one of its recent articles on the war in Ukraine, the right wing British newspaper The Daily Telegraph ran the headline The world is sliding into a new Dark Age of poverty, irrationality and war (telegraph.co.uk)
In other words, the fact that we are living in a global system that is sinking in its own decomposition is becoming increasingly hard to conceal. Whether it’s the impact of the global Covid pandemic, the latest dire predictions about the ecological disaster facing the planet, the growing poverty resulting from the economic crisis, the very evident threat posed by the sharpening of inter-imperialist conflicts, or the rise of political and religious forces fuelled by once-marginal apocalyptic legends and conspiracy theories, the Telegraph’s headline is no more or less than a description of reality – even if their opinion writers are hardly looking for the roots of all this in the contradictions of capitalism.
Ever since the collapse of the eastern bloc and the USSR in 1989-91, we have been arguing that a world social system that has already been obsolete since the beginning of the 20th century was entering into a new and final phase in its decline. Against the promise that the end of the “Cold War” would bring about a new world order of peace and prosperity, we insisted that this new phase would be marked by increasing disorder and escalating militarism. The wars in the Balkans in the early 90s, the Gulf war of 1991, the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the pulverisation of Syria, innumerable wars on the African continent, the rise of China as a world power and the revival of Russian imperialism have all confirmed this prognosis. The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a new step in this process, in which the end of the old bloc system has given rise to a frenzied struggle of each against all where formerly subordinate or weakened powers are claiming a new position for themselves in the imperialist pecking order.
The gravity of this new war in Europe
The significance of this new round of open warfare in the European continent cannot be downplayed. The Balkans war already marked the tendency for imperialist chaos to return from the more peripheral regions towards the heartlands of the system, but that was a war “inside” a disintegrating state in which the level of confrontation between major imperialist powers was much less direct. Today we are witnessing a European war between states, and a much more open confrontation between Russia and its western rivals. If the pandemic marked an acceleration of capitalist decomposition at several levels (social, health, ecological, etc), the war in Ukraine is a stark reminder that war has become the way of life of capitalism in its epoch of decadence, and that military tensions and conflicts are spreading and intensifying on a world-wide scale.
The rapidity of Russian’s advance into Ukraine took many well-informed experts by surprise, and we ourselves were unsure that it would come about so quickly and so massively. We don’t think that this was because of any flaws in our basic framework of analysis. On the contrary, it flowed from a hesitation in fully applying this framework, which was already elaborated in the early 90s in certain key texts where we argued that this new phase of decadence would be marked by increasingly chaotic, brutal, and irrational military conflicts. Irrational, that is, even from the point of view of capitalism itself: whereas in its ascendant phase, wars, above all those which paved the way for colonial expansion, brought clear economic benefits for the victors, in the period of decadence war has assumed an increasingly destructive dynamic and the development of a more or less permanent war economy has been a huge drain on the productivity and profits of capital. Even up to the Second World War, however, there were still “winners” at the end of the conflict, in particular the USA and USSR. But in the current phase, wars launched by even the world’s “top” nations have proved to be fiascos at both the military and economic levels. The humiliating withdrawal of the US from Iraq and Afghanistan is clear evidence of this.
In our previous article we pointed out that an invasion or occupation of Ukraine was likely to plunge Russia into a new version of the quagmire it encountered in Afghanistan in the 1980s – and which was a powerful factor in the downfall of the USSR itself. There are already signs that this is the prospect facing the invasion of Ukraine, which has met considerable armed resistance, is unpopular with large segments of Russian society including parts of the ruling class itself, and has provoked a series of retaliatory sanctions from Russia’s main rivals which will certainly deepen the material poverty facing the majority of Russia’s population. At the same time, the western powers are stoking up support for the Ukrainian armed forces, both ideologically and through the supply of weapons and military advice. But despite these predictable consequences, the pressures on Russian imperialism prior to the invasion were daily reducing the possibility that the mobilisation of its forces around Ukraine would stop at a mere show of force. In particular, the refusal of NATO to rule out its eventual expansion into Ukraine could not be tolerated by Putin’s regime, and its invasion has the clear aim of destroying much of Ukraine’s military infrastructure and installing a pro-Russian government. The irrationality of the whole project, linked to an almost messianic vision of restoring the old Russian empire, the strong possibility that it will sooner or later lead to a new fiasco, was never going to deter Putin and those around him from taking the gamble.
Are we heading towards the formation of new imperialist blocs?
On the face of it, Russia is now faced with a “United Front” of the western democracies and a newly vigorous NATO, in which the US is clearly playing a leading role. The US stands to be the main beneficiary if Russia gets bogged down in an unwinnable war in Ukraine, and from the increased cohesion of NATO faced with the common threat of Russian expansionism. This cohesion, however, is fragile: right up to the invasion, both France and Germany were trying to play their own game, emphasising the need for a diplomatic solution and pursuing separate talks with Putin. The opening of hostilities has forced them both to retreat, agreeing on the implementation of sanctions, even when they will hurt their economies much more directly than the USA’s (the example of Germany putting a stop on the Russian energy supplies which it badly needs). But there are also moves being made towards the EU developing its own armed forces, and Germany’s decision to greatly increase its arms budget must also be viewed from this angle. It’s also necessary to recall that the US bourgeoisie itself faces major divisions over its attitude towards Russian power: Biden and the Democrats tend to maintain the traditionally hostile approach towards Russia, but a large part of the Republican party has a very different attitude. Trump in particular could not hide his admiration for Putin’s “genius” when the invasion started…
If we are a long way away from a new US bloc being formed, the Russian adventure has also not marked a step towards the constitution of a Russian-Chinese bloc. Despite recently engaging in joint military exercises, and despite previous expressions of Chinese support for Russia over issues like Syria, on this occasion China has taken its distance from Russia, abstaining on the vote censuring Russia at the UN Security Council and presenting itself as an “honest broker” calling for a cessation of hostilities. And we know that despite sharing common interests in opposition to the US, Russia and China have their own divergencies, notably on the question of China’s “New Silk Road” project. Behind these differences lies Russia’s wariness of subordinating itself to China’s own expansionist ambitions.
Other factors of instability are also playing out in this situation, notably the role played by Turkey, which has on some level been courting Russia in its efforts to upgrade its global status, but which at the same time has come into conflict with Russia over the wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in Libya. Turkey has now threatened to block Russian warships accessing the Black Sea via the Dardanelles Straits, but here again this action will be calculated entirely on the basis of Turkish national interests.
But, as we wrote in our Resolution on the International Situation from the 24th ICC Congress, the fact that international imperialist relations are still marked by centrifugal tendencies “does not mean that we are living in an era of greater safety than in the period of the Cold War, haunted as it was by the threat of a nuclear Armageddon. On the contrary, if the phase of decomposition is marked by a growing loss of control by the bourgeoisie, this also applies to the vast means of destruction – nuclear, conventional, biological and chemical – that has been accumulated by the ruling class, and is now more widely distributed across a far greater number of nation states than in the previous period. While we are not seeing a controlled march towards war led by disciplined military blocs, we cannot rule out the danger of unilateral military outbreaks or even grotesque accidents that would mark a further acceleration of the slide towards barbarism”.
Faced with the deafening international campaign to isolate Russia and the practical measures aimed at blocking its strategy in Ukraine, Putin has put his nuclear defences on high alert. This may only be a thinly-veiled threat at the moment, but the exploited of the world cannot afford to trust in the ultimate reasonableness of any part of the ruling class.
The ideological attack on the working class
To mobilise the population, and above all the working class, for war, the ruling class must launch an ideological attack alongside its bombs and artillery shells. In Russia, it seems that Putin has relied mainly on crude lies about the “Nazis and drug addicts” running Ukraine, and has not invested heavily in building up a national consensus around the war. This could prove to be a miscalculation, because there are rumblings of dissent within his own ruling circles, among intellectuals, and among wider layers of society. There have been a number of street demonstrations and around 6,000 people have been arrested for protesting against the war. There are also reports of demoralisation among a part of the troops sent to Ukraine. But so far there is little sign of a movement against the war based on the working class in Russia, which has been cut off from its revolutionary traditions by decades of Stalinism. In Ukraine itself, the situation facing the working class is even darker: faced with the horror of Russian invasion, the ruling class has to a large extent succeeded in mobilising the population for the defence of the “homeland”, with hundreds of thousands volunteering to resist the invaders with any weapon they can get their hands on. We should not forget that hundreds of thousands have also chosen the flee from the battle zones, but the call to fight for the bourgeois ideals of democracy and nation has certainly been heeded by sections of the proletariat who have thus dissolved themselves into the Ukrainian “people” where the reality of class division is forgotten. The majority of Ukrainian anarchists seem to be providing the extreme left wing of this popular front.
The capacity of the Russian and Ukrainian ruling classes to drag “their” workers to war shows that the international working class is not homogeneous. The situation is different in the main western countries, where for many decades now the bourgeoisie has been confronted with the unwillingness of the working class – despite all its difficulties and set-backs - to sacrifice itself at the altar of imperialist war. Faced with Russia’s increasingly belligerent stance, the ruling class in the West has carefully avoided putting “boots on the ground” and meeting the Kremlin’s adventure with direct military force. But this does not mean that our rulers are passively accepting the situation. On the contrary, we are witnessing the most coordinated ideological pro-war campaign seen for decades, the campaign for “solidarity with Ukraine against Russian aggression”. The press, from right to left, publicises and supports the pro-Ukraine demonstrations, lionising the “Ukrainian resistance” as the standard bearer of the West’s democratic ideals, now under threat from the madman in the Kremlin. And they are not hiding the fact that there will have to be sacrifices – not only because the sanctions against Russian energy supplies will add to the inflationary pressures which are already making it difficult for people to heat their homes, but also because, we are told, that if we want to defend “democracy”, we need to beef up our “defence” spending. As the liberal Observer’s Chief Political Commentator Andrew Rawnsley put it this week:
“Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disarmament that followed, the UK and its neighbours have mainly spent the ‘peace dividend’ on giving ageing populations better healthcare and pensions than they would otherwise have enjoyed. A reluctance to spend more on defence has continued even as China and Russia have become increasingly belligerent. Only a third of Nato’s 30 members are currently meeting the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on their armed forces. Germany, Italy and Spain fall very short of the target.
Liberal democracies urgently need to rediscover the resolve to defend their values against tyranny that they displayed during the cold war. The autocrats in Moscow and Beijing believe that the west is divided, decadent and in decline. They have to be proved wrong. Otherwise, all the rhetoric about freedom is merely noise before defeat”. It could hardly be more explicit: as Hitler put it, you can have guns, or you can have butter, but you can’t have both.
Just as the working class in a number of countries was showing signs of a new willingness to defend its living and working conditions, this massive ideological offensive by the ruling class, this call for sacrifice in the defence of democracy, will be a heavy blow against the potential for the development of class consciousness. But growing evidence that capitalism lives by war can, in the long term, also be a factor in the emergence of an awareness that this whole system, east and west, is indeed “decadent and in decline”, that capitalist social relations must be uprooted from the Earth.
Faced with the current ideological assault, which aims to derail real indignation about the horror we are witnessing in Ukraine into support for imperialist war, the task of the internationalist minorities of the working class will not be an easy one. It begins with responding to all the lies of the ruling class and insisting that, far from sacrificing themselves for the defence of capitalism and its values, the working class must fight tooth and nail in defence of its own working and living conditions. At the same time, it means pointing out that it is through the development of these defensive struggles, and by reflecting as widely as possible on the experience of the proletarian combat, that the working class can renew its links with the revolutionary struggles of the past – above all the struggles of 1917-18 which forced the bourgeoisie to end the First World War. This is the only way to fight against imperialist wars and to prepare the way to ridding humanity of the source of war: the world capitalist order!
 See Ukraine: the worsening of military tensions in Eastern Europe | International Communist Current (internationalism.org); Russia-Ukraine crisis: war is capitalism’s way of life | International Communist Current (internationalism.org)
 This fundamental irrationality of a social system which has no future is of course accompanied by a growing irrationality at the level of ideology and psychology. The current hysteria about Putin’s mental state is based on a half-truth, because Putin is only one example of the kind of leader that has been secreted by the decomposition of capitalism and the growth of populism. Have the media already forgotten the case of Donald Trump?