The Left and Ukraine

February 25, 2023

In Russia and Ukraine Russia-Ukraine War

The Left and Ukraine


Talal Hangari


V. I. Lenin warned more than a century ago of “socialists in words and imperialists in deeds”. The warning remains relevant. A significant part of the left in Britain has capitulated to the ruling class on the Ukraine war, cheering further military escalation and thereby increasing the threat of nuclear disaster.


Silent and Violent


The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs has responded to the war in two ways. One faction has chosen silence. When Keir Starmer threatened eleven MPs with withdrawal of the whip for signing a Stop the War statement critical of Nato (published shortly before the Russian invasion), these MPs retracted their signatures and have remained quiet since. They might make the occasional remark in favour of a negotiated peace, or in support of refugees, but they will not discuss the international situation that led to this war. A sustained critique of U.S. foreign policy or Nato is off limits.


The cowardice of these MPs inheres in their politics: lacking any long-term strategy, they believe that their first priority should be to retain their seats, and they therefore do their best not to upset Starmer. Apart from their interest in keeping their careers, they believe that, by surviving in parliament, they offer the left a voice and influence it would not otherwise have. But since the price of keeping the Labour whip is silence on fundamental questions affecting the future of civilisation, and since they neither oppose Starmer nor disseminate socialist ideas, these MPs turn out to be useless. They accomplish nothing for socialism. Add to this that they have very little prospect of continuing to be parliamentary candidates as the Labour leadership rigs selections against the left, and their quietism amounts to a concession for no advantage.


The other faction of the Socialist Campaign Group has decided to support Ukraine’s “war of liberation” and more British arms shipments. John McDonnell, Nadia Whittome, Clive Lewis, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, and Ian Lavery have signed a Ukraine Solidarity Campaign statement calling for “the defeat of brutal Russian imperialism” and “renewed and expanded solidarity with Ukraine’s resistance”. The statement demands that the British government give Ukraine “all the surplus UK military equipment due to be replaced, especially the 79 Challenger tanks, 170 Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles, all Warrior infantry fighting vehicles, Typhoon fighter aircraft – to help Ukraine win more quickly, with less suffering.”[1] The statement condemns the war crimes of Russian forces; war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces, which have been documented by the UN,[2] are not mentioned.


McDonnell and Lavery’s views appear to have evolved: both initially signed the Stop the War statement, but after retracting their signatures they realised that the ruling class in Britain is driven by a sincere desire to defend liberty and democracy, and to save the Ukrainian people from Russian brutality. In the House of Commons, Russell-Moyle has said that “It is vital that Ukraine wins this war” and added he was “pleased to see Finland and Sweden joining” Nato.[3]


Owen Jones and George Monbiot, the vanguard of revolutionary socialism at the Guardian, have been similarly bellicose. In response to criticism of McDonnell’s support for sending tanks to Ukraine, Jones proclaimed that “Ukraine is fighting a just, defensive war of liberation against a murderous invasion launched by a kleptocratic, chauvinist, far right autocracy. There’s nothing left wing about allowing nations to be conquered and subjugated by oppressors.”[4] Jones added that socialists who oppose arming Ukraine effectively believe that “a country of 41 million should be brutally occupied and conquered against its will by a murderous tyranny.”[5] In a column on the war, Monbiot attacked the “‘anti-imperialist’ left” for “recycling and amplifying Putin’s falsehoods”, counting them “Among the worst disseminators of Kremlin propaganda in the UK”.[6]  It is remarkable that, amidst an unbreakable pro-war consensus, ostensibly leftwing commentators have made it their task to further stigmatise dissent, instead of bringing that dissent to the attention of a public who are presented with only one side of the question.


Some journalists involved with the independent leftwing news service Novara Media have also advocated sending British arms to Ukraine. Speaking to Luke Cooper, a supporter of Ukraine’s war effort, Novara Live host Michael Walker said he was “not against arming Ukraine” but cautioned that “if we’re too gung-ho about it, and if we’re not encouraging compromise, that could actually make peace harder.”[7]


An Imperial War


The notion that the war in Ukraine is a straightforward conflict between good and evil is a fallacy. The charges against Russia – that it is kleptocratic, chauvinist, and in some ways far right – apply no less to Ukraine. Extensive government corruption, the mistreatment of the Russian-speaking minority, and the disproportional influence of far right groups, are all uncontroversial features of Ukrainian politics. Or rather, they were uncontroversial until February 2022, when Ukraine emerged as a Utopia surpassing Plato’s Republic. More importantly, the war is not being fought between Russia and Ukraine. Beneath the surface this is a proxy war, where Ukraine is an instrument, and a sacrificial victim, of U.S. imperial strategy.


Since the 1990s, Washington’s policy has been to encircle Russia by the continual expansion of Nato. Russian leaders throughout this period have consistently expressed fear about Nato’s growth, and have insisted that Nato should not expand up to Russia’s borders. Disregarding all Russian concerns, in 2014 the U.S. supported a protest movement with a conspicuous far right element that overthrew the elected president of Ukraine. Russia responded by annexing Crimea, and the process of integrating Ukraine’s new government into Euro-Atlantic institutions began. In particular, Ukraine was de facto integrated into Nato. Dozens of informed observers, not least prominent members of the U.S. military and diplomatic establishment, warned that this policy would lead to conflict, and quite possibly war. Washington carried on, fully aware that war was a likely outcome. After Russia’s autumn 2021 diplomatic proposals failed to elicit a positive response from Nato – which insisted that Ukraine should retain its right to join the alliance – Ukraine was finally attacked.


Russia has not been a great power for decades. It remains, however, a formidable military power, and an important ally of China. U.S. national security officials consider China the only country that poses a real challenge to U.S. hegemony. The provocation of Russia therefore has China as its final target. Encircling Russia while stoking up fears of Chinese aggression, Chinese spying, and Chinese economic domination, are unambiguous steps toward a new Cold War. This political context is crucial for understanding the war in Ukraine; to ignore it is to become a cheerleader for American imperial designs. Yet this context is continually omitted, or downplayed, by leftwing advocates of arming Ukraine.


The nature of this war is clarified by the fact that, at the same time as the U.S. and Nato arm Ukraine, they have opposed a diplomatic settlement. Just a few weeks into the invasion, Russia and Ukraine reached the outlines of a settlement that would have ended the war and, at least for the moment, taken the world back from the precipice of a nuclear conflagration. Boris Johnson then visited Ukraine and told President Zelensky not to make peace. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who mediated between Russia and Ukraine during the early part of the war, has said publicly that, while he thought “there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire”, Western countries “blocked” an agreement. This deeply sinister policy of sacrificing Ukrainians to weaken Russia should be rejected. Instead, the Socialist Campaign Group, the Guardian left, and others, remain silent, or call for more weapons to flood into Ukraine, oblivious or indifferent to the reasons why the ruling class is arming Ukraine.


The pro-war left argues that it is necessary to arm Ukraine so that, by performing better on the battlefield, Ukraine will be able to reach a more favourable settlement with Russia. But the outlines of a settlement tolerable to both sides had already been reached before the invasion and remained possible after it. Before and after Russia’s invasion, Nato rejected a peace agreement. Should the war be prolonged indefinitely in the hope that Ukraine will receive marginally better terms than those already proposed? How many Ukrainians should die before diplomacy is prioritised? It is also possible that prolonging the war will not lead to a more favourable settlement at all, but simply the destruction of Ukraine as infrastructure and homes are bombed, thus wiping out Ukrainian society, even if the state is formally left intact.


It is delusional to argue that Ukraine might not only hold out, but can defeat a bordering nuclear-armed state with a far greater population and a thorough commitment to waging this war. Russia has long regarded Western military encroachment in Ukraine as an existential threat to its security. The call for Ukrainian victory from the comfort of the House of Commons is a call for prolonging a pointless war, with devastating consequences for Ukrainians and for millions of people globally suffering from the war’s economic effects.


Socialist Priorities


The CPGB, and some other small socialist organisations, have put forward the slogan that the main enemy is at home. The pro-war left responds that the main enemy is Russia: they attacked Ukraine; they are at fault. But no war can be understood merely by reference to the playground standard of who started it; that is, who fired the first shot. Consider the view of Serbian socialists on the First World War, expressed here in a 1915 letter by Dusan Popovic:


For us it was clear that, as far as the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was concerned, our country was obviously in a defensive position. Austria had been carrying on a policy of conquest against Serbia long before the latter became an independent state. As for the assassination at Sarajevo, the blame doubtless lies with the Serbian authorities. Hence, in formal terms, part of the responsibility for provoking the war falls on Serbia. But basically Serbia is defending its life and its independence, which Austria was constantly threatening even before the Sarajevo assassination. And if Social Democracy had a legitimate right to vote for war anywhere, then certainly that was the case in Serbia above all.


However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Serbia and Austria was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal, European war, and this latter – we were profoundly convinced of this – could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character. As a result, we – being a part of the great socialist, proletarian International – considered that it was our bounden duty to oppose the war resolutely. We did not want to cause any discord in the attitudes of the sections of the International, and yet it is precisely through our position that we have, contrary to our intentions, caused such discord, for, alas!, almost all the other socialist parties have voted for this war![8]


Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her 1915 Junius Pamphlet that the Serbian socialists who voted against war credits “enrolled their names in letters of gold in the annals of the international socialist movement”. No war, even one that is apparently defensive, can be separated from the broader international situation and the interests of competing powers. In the context of an escalating imperial confrontation, the question of who fired the first shot on this or that front becomes comparatively superficial.


There is another problem. The pro-war left contends that the socialist position, which calls on ordinary people in every belligerent country to fight their own warmongers, is hopeless. There is not going to be a revolution or even effective anti-war efforts in the U.S., or Britain, or Ukraine, or Russia, any time soon. They are right on this point: the international socialist movement is too weak to affect the course of events. Even in countries where socialists enjoy many civil liberties, like Britain, the socialist movement is disorganised, sectarian, and ineffective. The pro-war left therefore reasons that, because the international working class will not help themselves, the left ought to support arming Ukraine as the realistic solution.


This argument does not clarify whether, in principle, the pro-war left supports mass action against the warmongers of every belligerent country. If the pro-war left accepts the idea that the main enemy is at home in principle, then it should recognise the urgency of organising the very weak British left into a force which has at least some influence over events, and which can agitate against the war and against the ruling class. The first step would be a genuine socialist party – not a sect.


If the pro-war left does not believe that the main enemy is at home, then the argument that socialists are unrealistic pretends to be about tactics when it is really about principles. The pro-war principle says that the main enemy is Russia, which amounts to supporting U.S. grand strategy and a new Cold War against China, as well as the outcomes such a war entails for the future of civilisation. Ultimately, of course, what socialists say will be irrelevant until socialists organise themselves into a party with the power to intervene in political struggles.




[3] HC Deb. 6 July 2022, vol 717, cols 886-887.

[4] Tweet, 9.2.23.

[5] Tweet, 9.2.23.

[6] ‘We must confront Russian propaganda – even when it comes from those we respect’, Guardian, 2 March 2022.

[7] Novara Live 8.2.23, accessible at

[8] Emphasis mine.