Ukraine:Civil War or Revolution

by Aug 4, 2014Amandla Issue 34, Magazine

Russsian bureaucrats have been honestly surprised at the reaction by the official West – they did not expect such anger or unanimous condemnation. European politicians are beside themselves with fury. The mainstream press is relating appalling stories to its readers of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The television shows interviews with Kiev ministers and deputies who tearfully implore Europe to save their country from the enraged bear.

Indeed, the reputation of Putin’s Russia in the West is nothing wonderful – even worse than that of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. But what we are now witnessing is quite outside the bounds of the usual. There was nothing resembling it either during the Cold War, or during the Chechen conflict, or during the clash between Russia and Georgia. We should not even mention the action of Yeltsin in shelling the Russian Parliament; at that time, the liberal West applauded.

In Moscow, people were expecting criticism following the annexation of Crimea. But that was more than a month ago, and the Kremlin authorities have done nothing new since. Several times a day they repeat, like a mantra, words to the effect that they respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine; that they are not about to annex anyone else; that they have called on the West to work out a joint approach with them to the crisis…but the criticism has not ceased. Meanwhile, the more absurd the declarations issued by the present rulers in Kiev, the more avidly and delightedly these have been lapped up. Only after the signing of the Geneva agreement of 17 April between Ukraine, Russia and the West was there a certain softening: the European officials discovered abruptly that in Ukraine it
was ‘necessary to deal with groups that answer neither to Kiev nor to Moscow,’ and it was recognised that ‘clear proof was lacking’ of interference from Moscow. But warnings were issued in every case that if the Russian authorities did not behave themselves, there would soon perhaps be such proof.

The arguments of the Kremlin in this dispute have not worked, and cannot work, for the simple reason that Western politicians for the present are not especially interested in what official Russia is thinking or doing. These politicians know perfectly well that there is no Russian invasion, and this, precisely, is the main international problem for them. To admit as much means admitting that the government in Kiev has gone to war on its own people. To speak of the Donetsk Peoples Republic as an independent political phenomenon is impossible,
since this would require posing the question of the reasons for the popular protest, and listing its demands. The talk of Kremlin agents and of the ubiquitous Russian troops – who are impossible to discover, but who have occupied close to half of Ukraine without firing a shot or even showing themselves on Ukrainian territory – is playing the same propaganda role against the Donetsk republic as was played in the anti-Bolshevik propaganda of 1917 by stories of German spies and of money from the German General Staff.

The point here is not so much to discredit opponents of the present authorities, depicting them as traitors to their country, as it is to conceal the class essence of the movement that has arisen, its social basis. A half-unconscious fear has taken hold of the liberal public, from intellectuals and politicians to decent
and almost progressive bourgeois, and is forcing them to believe the most obvious ravings, to repeat any manifest rubbish, so long as class struggle is neither mentioned nor thought about in any serious way. That is, not class struggle as it is described in learned tomes and depicted by the
best avant-garde cinema, but as it occurs in real life, and as it becomes a fact of practical politics. The new Kiev authorities are directing the same accusations at the anti-Maidan forces in the south-east, and spinning the same conspiratorial theories about them, as Yanukovich’s propaganda employed
a few months back in discussing the Maidan. But all this is now being repeated on a scale ten or a hundred times greater than before, and is taking on completely grotesque forms.

The parallels between the Maidan and the anti-Maidan are quite genuine. Foreign money, of course, has been an element in each case, as has foreign influence. The foreign money flowing to the Maidan was American and Western European, while in the case of the anti- Maidan it has been Russian (or more likely, Russian money has been involved in each instance). The West, though, not only spent many times more money, but invested it far more wisely and effectively. But just as the victory of the Maidan in February was not and could not have been the result of Western political machinations, the successful revolt of hundreds of thousands (and perhaps millions) of people in eastern Ukraine
is not to be explained on the basis of Russian interference. Far more important than the similarities between these two movements, however, have been the differences. The key distinctions to be drawn are not even ideological, though the comparison between the dominant slogans – fascist in the case of the Maidan, demands for social rights in Donetsk, accompanied in the latter case by the singing of the Internationale – deserves unquestionably to be made. The ideological differences ultimately reflect the fundamentally different social nature and class basis of the two movements. Of course, the revolt of the south-east is not only a negation of the Maidan
but also its offspring and continuation, just as October 1917 was simultaneously the offspring and continuation of the February revolution, and its negation. The elemental nature of a revolutionary crisis, once it has spun out of control, draws into its orbit fresh strata
of society, new groups and
classes that earlier have not
taken part in politics.

Until recently political struggle was a privilege of ‘active society’, consisting of the liberal intelligentsia and of the middle classes of the capital, to whose assistance it was always possible to summon a certain number of impassioned members of marginal groups, above
all unemployed young people from western Ukraine. The concept of democracy which many on the left shared, even if in unspoken fashion, with their liberal colleagues was of politics as a business for professionals or as
entertainment for the middle layers. In this play-acting, the mass of working people (not only in the south-east, but
in Kiev as well) were at best assigned the role of voters or of passive spectators, and at worst, that of guinea-pigs to be experimented on. The idea that this
mass of silent and apparently apolitical people, preoccupied with their everyday struggle for survival, could play an active and independent part in events did not enter the heads of the liberal intelligentsia or of political elites of any persuasion. Even today, this idea is perceived by
such people as an impossibility, a far- fetched nightmare.

The revolt of the hooligans

The events of the spring of 2014 had  to happen sooner or later. The precursors to these developments did not even take place in Ukraine, but in Bosnia, where in defiance of all conventions crowds of enraged workers and the unemployed came onto the streets in opposition to the established system, uniting under common slogans and shattering traditional political schemas based
on the division of society into ethno- religious groups. The waves of struggle that have swept through the cities of eastern and southern Ukraine, just like the protests in Bosnia, have sharply altered the sociology of political life. In the forefront have been the masses, with their demands, interests, hopes, illusions and prejudices. They
are categorically unlike the romantic heroes of the children’s books, and their class consciousness was initially at an embryonic level. But once they began to act, they were destined to learn and to understand the science of social struggle.

It must be acknowledged that the experience of the Kiev Maidan did not go to waste. Rising in revolt against the Kiev authorities, the inhabitants of the Ukrainian south-east made use of
the same methods with whose help the right-wing radicals forced the previous regime to submit to their will. Street demonstrations progressed quickly to
the seizure of administrative buildings. But the activists in Donetsk and
Lugansk, refusing to limit themselves to seizing the buildings of the provincial administrations, announced the founding of their own peoples’ republics. While
the peoples’ republic in Lugansk as of mid-April remained mostly a slogan of the mass movement, in Donetsk it soon began taking on the features of an alternative regime. Aiding in this was the seizure of local militia stations and other state facilities. Some of these seizures were carried out by rebellious crowds, but in many cases disciplined armed groups were also involved – former members
of the Berkut police special forces and other Ukrainian law enforcement organs who had been dismissed by the new Kiev government or who had deserted (some units quit the service practically in full strength, taking their weapons and ammunition with them).

The propaganda of official Kiev responded by describing the former officers of their own law enforcement agencies as Russian spetsnaz special forces. But among the population of the Ukrainian south-east, sympathetic to Russia, these accusations did not serve to discredit the revolt, but were more like an advertisement for it. The more the authorities in Kiev and their supporters spoke of direct Russian intervention in the region and even of its ‘occupation’, the more people in the localities concerned joined in the protests.The main trigger for the revolt, however, was not the pro-Russian sympathies of the local population, or even the declared intention of the Kiev rulers of repealing the law that had

given Russian the status
of a ‘regional language’. Discontent had long been building up in the south- east, and the final drop that caused the cup to spill over was the dramatic worsening of the economic crisis that followed the change of government in Kiev. After signing their agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the authorities decreed steep rises in the charges for gas and medicines, and a social explosion became inevitable. In the west of the country and in the capital, growing indignation was restrained for a time through the use of Maiden nationalist rhetoric and anti-Russian propaganda. But when applied to the inhabitants of the east, this method had the reverse effect. Trying to douse the fire in the west, the authorities poured oil on the flames
in the east. ‘I find it hard to believe the change
in my compatriots,’ the resident of the
city of Gorlovka Yegor Voronov wrote
on the Ukrainian site Liva. ‘Only six months ago they were simple common folk who watched television and complained about the bad state of the roads and of the communal services. Now they’re fighters. In several hours by the provincial administration building I didn’t meet a single person who’d come from Russia. The people were from Mariupol, Gorlovka, Dzerzhinsk, Artemovsk, Krasnoarmeysk. Standing next to me were ordinary Donbass residents – the people we travel with every day on the bus, stand next to in the queues, argue with when they leave the door to the stairwell open. They weren’t the Kiev middle class, set apart from the people by their special ‘circumstances’, but everyday workers. And there’s no denying, there are plenty of unemployed in these parts. Here were all the people who for the past month and a half had been ‘begged’ in the private offices and state enterprises to take a cut in their miserable wages. So here’s another conclusion – the more the wages of Donbass residents are cut or squeezed today, the more protestors Kiev will get in the east.’

The people who have been protesting against the authorities in Donetsk, Lugansk and many other Ukrainian cities have not had any particular knowledge
of politics, or even a clear programme of action. The confusion in their slogans, along with their simultaneous use of religious and Soviet or revolutionary symbols, must undoubtedly offend strict connoisseurs of proletarian ideology. The trouble is that the ideologues themselves have been so immeasurably remote from the masses as to be unable and unwilling not only to instil ‘correct consciousness’ in their ranks, but even to help them make sense of current political questions. While the movement has groped its way spontaneously and with difficulty along its political path, coming up with a general expression of the mood of anti-oligarchic and social protest, the members of the left, except for a few activists in Donetsk and Kharkov, have occupied themselves with abstract discussions in the expanses of the internet.

It was completely predictable that the liberal intelligentsia, both Ukrainian and Russian, should have met the protests of the masses with an outburst of hatred and contempt. The workers who took to the streets came in for a great deal of spiteful name-calling. ‘circumstances’, but everyday workers. And there’s no denying, there are plenty of unemployed in these parts. Here were all the people who for the past month and a half had been ‘begged’ in the private offices and state enterprises to take a cut in their miserable wages. So here’s another conclusion – the more the wages of Donbass residents are cut or squeezed today, the more protestors Kiev will get in the east.’

The people who have been protesting against the authorities in Donetsk, Lugansk and many other Ukrainian cities have not had any particular knowledge
of politics, or even a clear programme of action. The confusion in their slogans, along with their simultaneous use of religious and Soviet or revolutionary symbols, must undoubtedly offend strict connoisseurs of proletarian ideology. The trouble is that the ideologues themselves have been so immeasurably remote from the masses as to be unable and unwilling not only to instil ‘correct consciousness’ in their ranks, but even to help them make sense of current political questions. While the movement has groped its way spontaneously and with difficulty along its political path, coming up with a general expression of the mood of anti-oligarchic and social protest, the members of the left, except for a few activists in Donetsk and Kharkov, have occupied themselves with abstract discussions in the expanses of the internet.

It was completely predictable that the liberal intelligentsia, both Ukrainian and Russian, should have met the protests of the masses with an outburst of hatred and contempt. The workers who took to the streets came in for a great deal of spiteful name-calling. Precisely for this reason, the movement in Donetsk with all its contradictions and even absurdities, such as icons and tricolours alongside the red flag, has provided a first-rate picture of the stage of development out of which workers’ actions arose in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile the Donetsk Republic, if we examine it attentively, recalls more than anything the spontaneous political formations that working people created ‘prior to the advent of historical materialism’.

Before us is the real working class – crude, muddle-headed and devoid of political correctness. Anyone who dislikes the present ideological and cultural state of the class should go and work with the masses. The good thing is that no-one is stopping people going to this crowd with red flags and socialist leaflets (unlike the case with the Maidan, where the flags were torn up, and left agitators were beaten and thrown off the square). The future of the Donetsk Republic remains undecided, and this represents a huge historical opportunity of which there was not even a trace during the Maidan demonstrations, whose leaders could not always control the crowd, but kept rigid and effective control of the political agenda. By contrast, the Donetsk Republic formulates its agenda from below, literally on the run, in response to the public mood and the course of events. Strictly speaking this republic is not even a state – rather, it amounts to a coalition of diverse communities, most of them self-organised.

It is not hard to work out that the reason why the self-organisation of the Donetsk Republic functions relatively well is because the remnants of the old administrative apparatus carry on with their everyday operations as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening, while all the questions of government are reduced ultimately to the organising of defence. But in waging its first battle, the republic has already demonstrated the huge potential of the self-organisation of the masses. Unarmed people succeeded in stopping units of the Ukrainian army and in carrying on agitation with the soldiers, blowing apart the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ that Kiev had initiated. This peaceful resistance will not only go down in history, but will also become an important part of the collective social experience of Ukrainian and Russian workers.

By Boris Kagarlitsky

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