In our article on the extreme confusion reigning in the anarchist milieu in response to the war in Ukraine we showed that “Regarding the war in Ukraine, the response from anarchism is extremely dispersed – from open war mongers to calls for international solidarity and united action against the war. In crucial moments of history, notably revolutions and imperialist wars, authentically proletarian elements within anarchism have demarcated themselves from those who have been sucked into the ‘Sacred Union’ and nationalism.”
The same kind of political conflict has also been revealed in the group Angry Workers of the World, which can best be described as a “workerist” group in the tradition of Italian operaisimo, not exactly anarchist but very close to the anarchist milieu in its ideas and methods. As with much of the anarchist milieu, we would place the AWW in what Lenin referred to as the political “marsh”, an unstable zone of transition which includes elements on their way towards proletarian positions on the one hand, and others heading towards the camp of capital on the other, with all kinds of confused positions in between.
In WR 389 we recognised that, in opposition to the left wing of capital, as well as to confusions about the “resistance” in Palestinian neighbourhoods put forward by groups like the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Anarchist Communist Group, the AWW’s statement on the war, was “rather clear in its internationalist stance and provides a lucid rebuttal of any illusions in the mobilisations in the Palestinian neighbourhoods, and the general strike in particular”. But the Ukraine war poses a sterner text for internationalists and it almost immediately provoked sharp divergencies within the AWW, ranging from an open defence of the Ukrainian state (what we call “defencism”) to attempts to maintain internationalist principles and thus to denounce both sides in this imperialist war. The debate, carried out in public on their website, is difficult to follow because few of the contributions to this discussion are signed, and they are scattered around the site; at the same time the arguments in favour of defencism are somewhat convoluted and contradictory, while those broadly in favour of internationalism are by no means free from concessions to leftism and pacifism.
The confused and confusing nature of the debate is recognised in the contribution by KIT, which puts forward the least confused defence of internationalist principles, and is also the only article to be signed:
“To date we have presented a confused picture to our ‘periphery’ who follow the site. If they were expecting a single centrally engineered ‘party line’ then they will have been disappointed and need to look elsewhere, as perhaps they should already have been doing. On the other hand, we have chosen not to make clear to the readers what we are saying/doing collectively or whether there are positions held by different strands. The reality is that, for whatever reason, we are content to publish a series of unascribed articles giving different angles. Militants who relate to us are invited to ‘pay their money and make their choice’”.
This is not the place to develop all our criticisms of the AWW's conception of organisation. But they do see themselves at some level as a political organisation and in other debates have shocked out-and-out anarchists by talking about the need for something like a party in a pre-revolutionary situation. But if a political organisation can’t take a clear, collective position (what KIT disparagingly calls a “a party line”) on a vital question like the war in Ukraine, it’s hard to see what is the point of claiming to be a political organisation at all, i.e. one that is more than a loose collection of individuals and which aims to offer a specific level of clarity on the most important issues facing the class struggle. By the same token, a political organisation can and must publish its internal divergencies when they have reached a certain level of clarity, but the very least it can do in such circumstances is to make it clear who is writing, through the signing of contributions (obviously pseudonyms should be used); and if a position represents that of the organisation or only the comrade that signed the article. By contrast, the AWW’s way of presenting this debate seems tailor-made to obscure lines of disagreement, to avoid direct political confrontation and thus the possibility of real clarification; and this avoidance of confrontation is profoundly linked to the AWW’s semi-anarchist approach to the organisation question.
In our view, the war in Ukraine has thus highlighted the deep flaws in the entire organisational approach of the AWW. But in this article, we will focus on the content of the arguments being put forward, above all because they reflect wider discussions going on in the more politicised layers of the working class.
Defending Ukraine: class war in a ‘national’ shell?
The openly defencist position was developed in particular by the author of the following articles:
- ‘No war but the-class war’. Not a very useful slogan
- ‘On dogmatism’ - In relation to the war in Ukraine
In the first article, the author writes:
“I want to go back over our experience in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to show that many of the people who started with ‘no war but the class war’ ended up either totally irrelevant to the working class or even worse, on the side of reaction, because of their inability to understand the working class kernel wrapped up in a ‘national flag’ shell.
The problem is that all inter-imperialist wars always contain within them the war between classes. In each situation, militants have to try to understand how these two different wars are overlaid – and this can be very difficult in situations where the working class has no clear voice of its own.
And trying to unravel these two wars is necessary, not just to write nice ‘analysis’, but to know what to do as a working class militant.
I read many pieces at present which ask the question, what should workers in Ukraine do, and then proceed to give them advice. I’m not saying thinking about this is forbidden, but it seems back to front. The Ukrainian worker has made his or her decision, maybe to get out, maybe to stay and fight. Our question, first and foremost, is, what are we going to do in response to their decisions? But the answer to this is inevitably dependent on the first question – where is the class war within the inter-imperialist war?
No war but the class war, without real investigation, is meaningless”.
The writer then goes on to argue that “within the imperialist war” in the Balkans, the class war expressed itself in a kind of working class “Commune” in Tuzla, where there was little or no support for the ethnic divisions that were being used to tear ex-Yugoslavia apart, and which thus became a haven for refugees from different ethnic groups. Despite the fact that this opposition to ethnic cleansing was, on the surface, carried out under the banner of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, the fact that the citizens of Tuzla included a strong component of miners and other sectors of the industrial working class is cited to show that this was a real expression of the class war, which made it possible to organise a column of “workers’ aid” to the city, in which the author took part. They go on to say: “After the war we produced a book, a record of our efforts and we called it ‘Taking Sides against ethnic cleansing’. We took sides, while all around us in the UK and Europe people who were guided by ‘No war but the class war’ did nothing but issue sermons about not taking sides and the unity of the working class – empty, meaningless nonsense”. And, while warning that “the situation in Bosnia in the 1990s was different from Ukraine, and you cannot simply transfer our experience of the one on the other”, the conclusion is in fact that you do have to take sides and support the “popular resistance” in Ukraine, in the name of following the “the real movement”. This is shown very clearly in the second article:
“the reality is that the Russian invasion was not met by a coherent working class movement, not anywhere (and it’s curious how the ‘left’ preachers somehow demand/expect Ukrainian workers to act as a coherent class when in the west they themselves are unable to play any significant part in organising a coherent working class movement to fight for its own rights, let alone acting against the invasion).
So what else could most Ukrainian workers do – faced with an invasion that they knew would lead to a brutal and savage occupation (see life in the occupied Donbas)? Yes, some chose to leave, many had already done so – and we should support them too, but most people both couldn’t and wouldn’t….
…Many workers in Ukraine took up arms. Thousands of Ukrainians living in the west went back to fight, and, yes, some left, mostly women and children. But for those who stayed, because there is no significant workers’ movement, they saw no other way but to fight as part of the bourgeois army… For me Ukrainian workers’ resistance to Russian invasion was in their own interest even though they have to fight within the army of the bourgeoisie and increasingly within strategies dictated by the US...”.
Some light on the myth of “popular resistance”, but dimmed by activism
Some of these arguments were answered by the author who published three articles:
- Fragments of a debate amongst angryworkers on the war Ukraine
- On the question of ‘armed-resistance’ - more-thoughts on our discussion about the war in Ukraine
- Working class independence and the war in Ukraine – Thoughts after 100-days of carnage
In answering the argument about “what else can the workers do…”, there is a passage in the third article that stands out:
“There are situations where the subjective and collective development of local workers has been undermined to a degree where they feel compelled to act to the detriment of their longer-term interests as a class. But then, it is not all about the ‘subjective factor’. Local workers in Ukraine might have the best intentions to fight ‘for their freedom’ and ‘self-organise’, but the global constellation of forces will leave them no scope to escape and remain independent on a militaristic and nationalistic spiral of death. Should we patronise them and ‘support their efforts’, despite the fact that we think that their ‘blossom of emancipation’ will be drenched in blood?”
However, despite this spark of clarity, and despite the warning that “While initially the question ‘what would you do if you were in Ukraine’ was productive, it also quickly turned into a bit of a depoliticised dead-end. What can you do if there is no working class movement on the ground?”,the author is not able to criticise the essentially activist approach of the AWW, the search for immediate solutions which ends up blurring class lines. This is most evident in the blatant involvement of the AWW in fronts that include pacifist groups and organisations of the left wing of capital.
Opposition to all forms of pacifism is part of the ABC of revolutionary internationalism. But the author has no objection to the fact that, in their quest for “getting rooted” in the “real movement”, the AWW has “signed up to the call by the Transnational Social Strike Platform as a minimum, though somewhat pacifist, platform of common action, and hope to collaborate practically”.
The ICC was present at a recent meeting in which the AWW shared a platform not only with the TSS but also Plan C, some pro-Ukraine activists, and the Trotskyist Group Workers’ Liberty which calls for workers’ militias to volunteer for the war in Ukraine, along the lines of the International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s – a practice which both the Italian and Dutch Communist Left attacked at the time as a means of enrolling the working class in the course towards the second imperialist world war.
The author is also open about the AWW’s relationship with the leftist site People and Nature, even if they are critical of an article (Ukraine: the sources of danger of a wider war) which presents the war in Ukraine “as a war between unequal sides and tactically supports the continuation of arms supply for Ukraine and the fact that western activists fight against the Russian army”. The author of this article, SP, a well-known Trotskyist writer, is described as a “close comrade”.
We don’t intend to dissect these articles in detail, but we should note that they contain other ambiguities and contradictions, notably around the key question of whether revolutionaries should be “in favour” of the defeat of Russia, which is in reality another route to the defence of Ukraine. So, on the one hand, the author criticises “a certain strand of ‘objective progressivism’ within the left that also reverberates within Angry Workers”. The writer seemingly rejects the argument which is summarised as follows “The defeat of the Russian state will objectively be better for the wider working class. The EU is better than a backward dictatorship. Being part of an advanced economic block with a wider range of democratic rights benefits the possibility for the working class to fight future struggles. In the absence of revolution workers should attach themselves to the capitalist block that provides a better foundation for future struggles”. But this critique then appears to be flatly contradicted in the same article, when the writer also says that “Even from a broader political point of view, we could say that the best possible outcome of the war both for the local and international working class is the defeat of the Russian state as the immediate aggressor, the fall of Putin”.
Finally, the author also seems to accept without question a central idea of the article which rejects the “No War but the Class War” position, i.e. that in Tuzla in the 1990s there was indeed a “workers’ third position”, a working class Commune, even if the article argues that no such proletarian alternative has emerged in the Ukraine war.
A clearer internationalist stance, but the real critique of activism is missing
The writer who signs himself KIT has previously been part of the communist left and his article still shows some significant elements of this tradition, notably when he argues that the revolutionary organisation has to be capable of swimming against the stream when the conditions of the class struggle demand it:
“We talk with working class people to better understand the class’s ‘real movement’. To make meaningful use of those conversations into a better understanding of the class struggle a degree of synthesis takes place with other material including previous analyses and frameworks. Why return to such ‘ABC’? We need to understand why the ‘pro-revolutionary minority’ sometimes needs to stand ‘against the stream’ when the majority of our class comrades, even those most directly involved, interpret the world differently and choose different courses of action. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
The article is rather lucid in refuting the idea of a class war within the national war in Ukraine:
“It is abundantly clear that it would be impossible for any TDF (Territorial Defence Forces) unit to act independently on behalf of working people or minorities. We have already seen the standard ruling class attitude during such a period of militarisation – ‘ensure security and order’ and ‘combat subversive activities’. Any move that contravened the war effort would result in the unit being disarmed and dispersed at the very least. In all probability military execution would be the class punishment. It is clear that the Ukrainian war effort depends on the flow of arms, logistical support, training, cyber warfare and finance from NATO via their member states including those in EU and UK. It is unthinkable that those channels would flow if the end recipients were liable to be beyond the control of the local militarised state.
There is also another misleading fantasy that has been peddled around the possible outcome of militants actively supporting the military conflict. Even when the ‘Ukrainian defencists’ concede that militants joining TSF (Télécoms Sans Frontières??) have temporarily backed away from class struggle an argument has emerged that their presence in such forces sows the seeds for the future social revolution. In fact there is no historic precedent pointing to the likelihood of such an outcome”.
The last point is then backed up by some historical examples which show that the partisan movements which appeared towards the end of World War Two were entirely implicated in the imperialist fronts and contained no potential for being transformed into instruments of social revolution.
But, as with the previous author we mentioned, KIT seems to have no critique of the AWW’s involvement inthe Transnational Social Strike group, judging in particular by his intervention at an online meeting called by the Communist Workers’ Organisation/Internationalist Communist Tendency soon after the beginning of the war, where he called for internationalists to get involved in this pacifist front. And participating in such fronts opens yet another door to the abandonment of class positions.
At the end of our article on internationalism and the conflict in Israel/Palestine, we also noted that the internationalist statements of the ICT and the AWW “seem to have stirred a great deal of online abuse and hatred. But internationalists don’t denounce capitalist wars to be popular. Both in 1914-18 and 1939-45 the internationalist minority who remained firm on their principles faced repression by the state and persecution by nationalist thugs. The defence of internationalism is not judged by its immediate results but by its capacity to provide an orientation which can be taken up in future by movements which really do constitute a proletarian resistance to capitalist war. Thus, those who stood against the dark tide of chauvinism in 1914, like the Bolsheviks and the Spartacists, were preparing the ground for the revolutionary working class uprisings of 1917-18”.
In our view, clarity on the fundamental principles of internationalism also requires clarity on the role of the revolutionary political organisation. In a future article, we will have to return to the link between the AWW’s conception of itself as an organisation and the profound divisions and confusions, and even open betrayals, that have appeared in its ranks in the wake of the war in Ukraine.