The war in Ukraine continues to unleash its foul torrent of murder, destruction, rape and suffering, including on refugees trying to escape the fury of the belligerents. The daily images of unrestrained barbarity on the doorstep of Western Europe, the historic centre of capitalism, are so unbearable, so apocalyptic and massive; the stakes on a global scale are so colossal, if only because of the nuclear risks that the conflict poses to humanity, that it is clear that this war represents a remarkable worsening of the global chaos that directly involves and affects all the major imperialist powers.
If the war in Ukraine is the most central and caricatural expression of the dynamic of generalised decay into which capitalism is dragging the world, in particular because it is an event consciously unleashed by the bourgeoisie that will durably and seriously affect the whole of society, it is also part of a convergence of disasters and contradictions that the ruling class is increasingly unable to control:
- the Covid-19 pandemic is far from being under control, as evidenced by the massive and extremely brutal lock-downs in Beijing and Shanghai in China, and the explosion of new 'waves' due to new variants in Europe;
- the economic crisis is now combining inflation, the disorganisation of production chains and the ineluctable slide of the world economy towards recession, which had been momentarily contained by the record injection of subsidies by the Federal Reserve and the ECB;
- the number of refugees fleeing barbarism and misery in Africa, Syria, Libya, Latin America, Asia and now Europe has continued to rise dramatically;
- the inability of the bourgeoisie to achieve the objective of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C is so obvious that even the most optimistic propagandists no longer believe it is possible.
And we could add many more stigmata, such as the explosion of urban violence, individuals falling back on themselves in the face of poverty, the multiplication of delusional "conspiracy theories", corruption, etc.
The war in Ukraine, however, marks a new and enormous plunge into barbarism. In 1991, shortly after the fall of the USSR, in his speech to the nation on the Gulf War, Bush senior promised the advent of a "new world order"; the bourgeoisie sought to persuade the exploited that capitalism had definitively triumphed and bright days lay before us. 30 years later, the promises have vanished, confirming, every day a little more, the stakes that were clearly outlined by the 1st Congress of the Communist International in 1919: "A new epoch is born, the epoch of the breakdown of capital, its internal disintegration, the epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat...The old capitalist ‘order’ has ceased to function; its further existence is out of the question. The final outcome of the capitalist mode of production is chaos".
The war in Ukraine, a giant step into generalised barbarism and chaos
For those who expected a Blitzkrieg-like invasion, starting with the Russian bourgeoisie itself (or at least Putin's clique), as was the case with the Crimean offensive in 2014, these four months of war have shown, on the contrary, that the conflict is going to be a long one. The initial failure of the Russian invasion led to the systematic destruction of cities, such as Mariupol, Severodonetsk or now Lyssychansk, reminiscent of the annihilation of cities such as Grozny (Chechnya), Fallujah (Iraq) or Aleppo (Syria). During the Second World War, the destruction of cities became more and more massive and systematic even though the outcome of the conflict was certain: Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, working-class cities in Germany. In the current conflict, it took only a few weeks to see images of enormous destruction and razed cities.
Thus, contrary to those who claim that war would open up a new cycle of capitalist accumulation, thus signifying the possibility for capitalism to find a "solution" to the crisis, reality shows that war is only a destruction of productive forces, as the Communist Left of France already said in its Report on the International Situation in 1945: “War was the indispensable means for capitalism to open up possibilities for further development, at a time when these possibilities existed and could only be opened up by means of violence. Likewise, the collapse of the capitalist world having historically exhausted all the possibilities of development, finds in modern war, imperialist war, the expression of this collapse which, without opening up any possibility of further development for production, does nothing but to plunge the productive forces into the abyss and to accumulate ruins after ruins at an accelerated rate” . This destruction beginning with the working population itself. Initial estimates of casualties put the death toll in Ukraine at over 50,000, and the number of refugees at around 6 million; Zelensky speaks of 100 Ukrainian soldiers being killed each day and 500 wounded (most of them crippled). On the Russian side, the losses are higher than those of their entire campaign in Afghanistan. Factories, roads and hospitals are burnt to the ground. According to the Kiev Faculty of Economics, $4.5 billion worth of civilian infrastructure is destroyed every week.
The bombing and military occupation near Chernobyl led to fears of radioactive contamination, but the scale of the problem of war and its environmental impact goes far beyond that: "chemical plants were bombed in a particularly vulnerable country. Ukraine occupies 6% of Europe's territory, but contains 35% of its biodiversity, with some 150 protected species and many wetlands" (ANCRAGE). In general: “after the 1918 armistice, tens of tons of shells abandoned by the belligerents continue to release their chemical compounds in the subsoil of the Somme and the Meuse. Millions of mines scattered in Afghanistan or Nigeria permanently contaminate agricultural land and condemn the population to fear and misery, not to mention the atomic arsenal which represents an ecological threat unprecedented in the history of humanity.” Industrial war is the matrix of all pollution (Le coût écologique exorbitant des guerres, un impensé politique - Le Monde)”.
The war’s impact on the economic crisis
As for the impact of the war on the economic crisis, if in the previous crisis of 2008 many workers lost their jobs and some their homes because they could not pay their mortgages, this war directly raises the prospect of famine in many parts of the world, and not only because of the interruption of trade in grain and seeds to the periphery: the threat of hunger directly concerns the most economically fragile populations in the US and other central countries. The bourgeoisie cannot continue to use debt to compensate for the decline in production that has worsened sharply since the pandemic, especially with sustained high inflation and the pressure of militarism brought on by the war in Ukraine. Biden, who had promised $30 billion in support for the economy, is now saying, like all the governments in Europe, that “the good times are over”.
Yet they have no qualms about increasing military spending exorbitantly (which will also keep inflation up). Macron has just declared that France has entered “a war economy”. In Germany, Scholz's social democratic government, with the participation of the Greens, has approved an additional budget of 100 billion euros for rearmament, a historic step not seen since the Second World War. Japan plans to increase its defence budget to 2% of GDP, making it the world's third largest military spender, behind only China, which has increased its spending by 4.7% since 2020 ($293 billion this year) and the US ($801 billion).
Another dimension of the war's impact on the economic crisis is the acceleration of the process of de-globalisation (even if the war itself is not the cause), primarily through the significant damage done to China's geostrategic military and commercial project, its “New Silk Road”. The pandemic had already greatly accelerated the disorganisation of world production and of the trend towards “relocalisation”, but the war has dealt a major new blow: trade routes across the Black Sea were severely disrupted and many companies were forced to leave Russia. The national bourgeoisies of the most de-industrialised countries are already presenting the trend towards relocation as an “opportunity” for employment and the national economy, but the World Trade Organisation has already warned of the dangers of such a process: the race to accumulate raw materials in each nation, far from reducing the insecurity of the economy, risks further disrupting supply chains and significantly slowing down world production. In sum, an increase in every man for himself at the economic level. One need only recall the acts of piracy that states engaged in during the “war of masks” to see this. All of this contributes to the logistical crisis of shortages, producing the apparent paradox that a crisis that originates in widespread overproduction creates shortages of goods. The consequences of the deepening crisis for the working class are already taking the form of the most brutal precariousness and redundancies due to company failures.
It is difficult to know what the state of the pandemic is in Russia and Ukraine. As in 1918 with the so-called “Spanish flu”, the war has certainly considerably worsened the ravages of the infection. However, it is not unreasonable to think that if the bourgeoisie was already unable to contain the pandemic before the war, as witnessed by the fiasco of the Sputnik vaccine, the situation has become totally uncontrollable with the deplorable hygienic conditions imposed by the war and the destruction of the health infrastructure. But the pandemic, although ultimately the product of the deterioration of the system and its sinking into decomposition (which heralds new pandemics in the future), is a phenomenon in the life of capitalism that the ruling class did not consciously decide to unleash. By contrast, war is the result of a conscious decision by the bourgeoisie, its only response to the collapse of capitalism!
The war in Ukraine is an imperialist war
As Rosa Luxemburg had already analysed during the First World War, in the decadence of capitalism, all countries are imperialist. Imperialism is the form taken by capitalism at a particular moment of its evolution, that of its decadence. Each national capital defends its interests tooth and nail on the world stage, even if they do not all have equivalent means at their disposal.
Bourgeois propaganda in Ukraine and in the West denounces the offensive and war crimes of the dictator Putin and, on the Russian side, the “Nazi threat” to Ukraine, just as in the First World War the Allied side called for enlistment against the militarism of the Kaiser, while the opposing camp claimed it was countering the expansionism of the Tsar. During the Second World War, each side also put forward its “legitimate” justifications: anti-fascism against Hitler or the defence of Germany against the crushing weight of war “reparations”.
The bourgeoisie also insists that Ukraine is a small country, a victim of the Russian bear. But behind Ukraine are NATO and the US, and Russia is also trying to seek support from China. As such, the war between Ukraine and Russia is part of a larger conflict between the USA and its declared challenger, China. At the root of the current war is the United States’ desire to reassert its world hegemony, which has been in decline since the collapse of the Stalinist bloc and, more recently, since Bush Jr.’s fiasco in Iraq in 2003 and the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Echoing the way that Bush (Senior) lured Saddam Hussein into a trap in 1991, the US government reported the mobilisation of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, but made it clear that if the threat of invasion were to occur, the US would not intervene, as in Crimea in 2014. For its part, the Russian government could not tolerate Ukraine joining NATO, after the integration into the alliance of a large part of its historical sphere of influence (i.e. Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States). It therefore had no choice but to take the American bait with the initial idea of swift action to veto Ukraine's ambitions. However, US support for Zelensky and its pressure on NATO members to move in the same direction embroiled Russia in a longer than expected war of attrition.
The US government is thus trying to expose the weakness of Russian imperialism, which is not up to the standard of a major world power in the 21st century, and to exhaust it as much as possible. At the same time, the United States has succeeded in imposing its discipline on the European powers, especially in the face of the ambitions towards independence of French imperialism (Macron had declared that “NATO is brain-dead”) and Germany, which have had to absorb the decrease in Russian gas deliveries and the closure of the Russian market for their own goods following the sanctions, but also the cost of the rearmament decided under American pressure. But above all, behind the Ukrainian conflict, the US strategic objective is to weaken its main challenger, Chinese imperialism. The US has succeeded in making it difficult for China to support Russia, making the main Asian power appear an unreliable partner. In addition to also blocking off a very important region for the New Silk Road project, America has made a show of force and “international diplomatic strategy” that is a very explicit warning to Beijing.
In sum, the US has once again not hesitated to unleash a level of chaos that heralds even greater storms in the future, in order to defend its sordid imperialist interests and global leadership. The weakening of Russian imperialism, in the long run, could lead to the disintegration of Russia into various small nuclear-armed imperialisms. Similarly, the bringing of the European powers to heel actually leads to their rearmament, especially Germany, something which has not happened since its defeat in the Second World War. Xi Jinping is seeing his new Silk Roads threatened with blockage and its “strategic ally”, Russia, in deep trouble. The real victim of this war, however, is neither Ukraine, nor Russia, nor China, nor Europe, but the working class, which is being asked, in the West but also all over the world, to make immense sacrifices in the name of the war effort and, at the front, to make the supreme sacrifice of life itself.
The proletariat faced with the war in Ukraine
Since the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, the working class in Ukraine has been trained to take sides in the conflicts between factions of the bourgeoisie, and, since 2014, has been largely mobilised on the front against Russia. Today, workers are sent to the battlefield to serve as cannon fodder, while their families desperately flee the war when they are not slaughtered in cities, hospitals or train stations. The Ukrainian working class is today totally defeated and unable to give a class response to the situation, let alone raise the revolutionary perspective as in Russia or Germany in the First World War.
In Russia, contrary to the speculations of the international press, Putin has not succeeded in imposing a general mobilisation of the population for the war. The proletariat had already avoided being drawn directly into the defence of Russia in the nationalist conflicts that followed the break-up of the former USSR. But the fact that it could not play a conscious role in the collapse of Stalinism in 1990 and got carried away by the democratic campaigns about the “death of communism” weighs on the working class in all the Eastern countries, as the democratic illusions that appeared during the social movement in Poland in 1980 illustrated very clearly. In Russia, the weight of democratism weighs even more heavily now because of the propaganda of the bourgeois factions opposed to Putin's authoritarianism. If isolated minorities like the KRAS heroically defend an internationalist position against the two belligerent camps, the working class in Russia is not in a position to take the initiative of an anti-war struggle in the immediate situation either, although the concrete situation of the struggles, discussions and awareness of the workers in Russia remains to a large extent a mystery.
All this does not mean, however, that the world proletariat is defeated. Its main battalions in Western Europe, where the historical and recent experience of the main struggles against capitalism has accumulated, where its minorities defend and develop their revolutionary political programme, have not so far been dragged into the war. Here too, the anti-communist campaign has been a key factor in the decline in the combativity and consciousness of the proletariat, a loss of class identity; although since 2003 we have seen various occasional attempts to develop a combativity, and the emergence of politicised minorities (even if they remain very few in number).
However, the bourgeoisie of the central countries is leading a major ideological campaign to support the Ukrainian struggle against the dictator Putin, notably with the slogan: “Arms for Ukraine”. The combined effects of the fragility of the working class since 1990 and this campaign lead to demobilisation and a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the gravity of the situation. That's why we shouldn't expect an immediate working class reaction to the war in these countries either.
Even in the First World War, the workers' response that ended the war was the consequence of struggles in the factories at the rear against the misery and sacrifices imposed by the war. In the present situation too, the bourgeoisie is demanding sacrifices in the name of war, starting with energy savings and continuing with wage cuts and redundancies. The working class, especially in the central countries, will be forced to fight to defend its living conditions. It is in this struggle that the conditions for the proletariat to regain its identity and its revolutionary perspective will be forged. In the present situation, this struggle will have to lead to an understanding of the relationship between the sacrifices at the rear and the supreme sacrifice of life at the front.
The intervention of revolutionary groups (and the minorities around them) in the class is indispensable. In the First World War, the internationalist conference in Zimmerwald, censored and initially barely known to the class as a whole, represented a beacon for the world proletariat in the midst of the darkness of the battlefields. Although today the revolutionary groups are much less recognised in the class than they were then, and the situation is different (no generalised war and no defeat of the proletariat), the Zimmerwald method and the defence by the left fractions of the tradition and historical principles of the proletariat which social democracy had betrayed are still very relevant today. The defence of proletarian internationalism and of the heritage of the communist left is indeed the one called for by the "Joint Statement of the groups of the Communist Left" which we are publishing on our website and this International Review.