29 January 2022
The group led by Tom Riley that left the IBT in late 2018 to pursue an independent existence eventually launched a new journal in December 2020 (dated “spring 2020”). The introduction to the first issue of Bolshevik, ironically entitled “The Necessity of Revolutionary Leadership,” sought to justify their split and the setting up of a competing organization by misrepresenting our dual defeatist position on rivalries between Western imperialists and Russia over Ukraine, accusing us of support to the West.
We pointed out the dishonesty of this approach in a letter to the editor, to which they replied at length, doubling down on their confused accusations. Despite thanking us for their “first letter to the editor” and the appearance of a second issue of their journal in November 2021, a year has passed and they have still not published it.
We therefore reproduce the January 2021 exchange here: our letter to the editor, their reply and our response pointing to continued misrepresentations, which has received no acknowledgment.
2 January 2021
To the editor, Bolshevik
It is not an auspicious start for a journal aspiring to “call things by their right names” and “speak the truth to the masses” to begin with misrepresenting your former comrades in order to justify your organizational existence.
Your article introducing Bolshevik discusses an internal document we circulated within the IBT to clarify the ongoing debate over Russian imperialism and the conflict in Ukraine. You write:
“The practical implications of our differences became very obvious on 5 March 2014 when leading ‘imps’ [the comrades who have remained in the IBT] released a document calling for ‘the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol).’ The ‘nimps’ [who later split to form the BT] declared that if an attempt was made ‘to forcibly seize the Russian base and assert Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control’ we would ‘side militarily with Crimean resistance and any Russian troops to repel the invaders.’ The ‘imps’ would have been on the other side in such a confrontation.”
—“The Necessity of Revolutionary Leadership”
According to simple logic, your accusation (i.e., that we were “on the other side”) is that we favored “Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control” in Crimea and would have been shooting at you from opposite sides of the barricades in defense of Western imperialism.
In fact, as you well know, from the beginning we advanced a position of dual defeatism toward both Russian and Western imperialism and supported neither side. Your desire to attribute to us a position we have never held required you to quote only a fragment of the sentence from the 5 March 2014 document. Your clumsy slander is easily revealed by placing our words in context. We wrote:
“The international working class has no interest in the victory of either side in the struggle between the West (and their local puppets) and Russia over control of Ukraine. We demand the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol), and of any Western forces or ‘observers’ that may intervene militarily.”
You are also well aware that two months later we wrote a document on Ukraine which includes the following:
“Revolutionaries demand the immediate expulsion of all imperialist military forces/intelligence operatives from Ukraine—a call that, while including those from Russia, in practice mainly refers to those from the Western imperialist countries.”
—“Imperialists Tear Ukraine Apart”
You have been hard-pressed to justify your split from the IBT in 2018, but making the demonstrably false claim that we favored a military bloc with Western imperialism against Russia in 2014 is not likely to help. It does, however, serve as an indication of how seriously readers should take your new journal.
Yours for revolutionary truth,
International Bolshevik Tendency
6 January 2021
Re: Letter to the Editor
Dear Comrade Josh:
Thank you for our first “letter to the editor.” This is also, I believe, the first time any IBT comrade has sought to defend your 2014 call to “expel” Russian forces from their Sevastopol naval base. We have always regarded this demand as a “smoking gun” that highlights the political logic of your mistaken insistence on viewing Russia as an imperialist power.
We regret that you feel we used “clumsy slander” and “misrepresented” your position on Russia’s Crimean base in introducing Bolshevik. This was not the first time we have raised this criticism; it appeared in both our October 2018 statement on dissolving the 1990 fusion with the PRG (“Why Things Fell Apart”) and again in the introduction to our November 2018 pamphlet “Is Russia Imperialist?” It frankly never occurred to us that anyone calling for the “expulsion” of the Russian navy from its historic Black Sea base at the same time as Washington and its Kiev “puppets” (as you described them) were making similar demands would not recognize that they had taken a side in the dispute.
As you may know we have recently published critiques of your “Russian” position in relation to imperialist aggression against both Iran and Venezuela. In a January 2020 talk to the Brock Socialists following the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, we observed:
“We presume that the IBT opposes Russian involvement in Iran, Venezuela and other targets of potential U.S. ‘regime change,’ but they (and others who share their position on Russia) have sometimes been a bit shy about spelling out their position, as we have noted in a couple of postings on our website. We appreciate that it must be awkward to try to explain your position when you know it is going to sound like you have borrowed a few lines and talking points from the State Department. But we suggest that, instead of trying to avoid the issue, the comrades consider reexamining their assumptions about ‘Russian imperialism.’ If tomorrow Iraq was to ask Russia to set up air defense installations, and provide the personnel to operate them, we would consider it to be a sensible precaution against possible U.S./NATO aggression. Would our friends in the IBT agree, or would they oppose such a move on ‘anti-imperialist’ grounds?”
Before reviewing our respective positions on the Sevastopol base it may be useful to recall how that discussion developed. It began during a 2 March 2014 online chat (relevant excerpts of which are appended) when you posed the following question:
“Russia did not initiate the Ukrainian crisis, and its move to seize Crimea is a reaction to Western imperialism toppling Yanukovych; and it is to defend their base in Crimea; if Russia is not imperialist and their intervention in Crimea is ‘defensive’ against the actions of the West, then why not defend Russian actions?”
Barbara added: “or are we opposed to both?” I responded with an analogy: “If Russia landed troops in Libya to help shoot down NATO planes we would defend them”—suggesting that it was appropriate to support Russian actions aimed at resisting imperialist aggression. I added that we would of course not take sides in a communalist civil war in Ukraine. You responded by observing, not unreasonably, that: “there’s more evidence of a war between Russia and Ukraine (backed by the West) than there is of a civil war”.
No one knew exactly how events were likely to unfold, but it was widely recognized that there was a real possibility of a military clash over possession of the naval base. You suggested that the logic of our position meant siding with Russia in such a conflict. Barbara asked whether we would have a preference as to whether NATO or Russia controlled Ukraine. I responded to Barbara the next day (3 March 2014). We have contrasted the political line of this response to the document you, Barbara and Bill co-signed two days later that proclaimed:
“We demand the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol), and of any Western forces or ‘observers’ that may intervene militarily.”
In the context of a possible imminent clash, anyone demanding “the immediate expulsion” of Russian forces effectively took a side in any conflict. The fact that you included NATO observers etc., in your call does not change that. At the time it seemed entirely possible that the newly-installed U.S. “puppet” regime would launch an attack in an attempt to gain control of the base. This was the context for our statement that in such a confrontation we would side with the Russian military and anyone else resisting attempts “to forcibly seize the Russian base and assert Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control.”
“According to simple logic, your accusation (i.e., that we were ‘on the other side’) is that we favored ‘Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control’ in Crimea and would have been shooting at you from opposite sides of the barricades in defense of Western imperialism.”
We would never accuse you, comrades, of being motivated by a desire to act “in defense of Western imperialism.” But there is a logic to politics. You demanded “the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol)” at a time when the “local puppets” of Western imperialism, as you described them, were making belligerent noises about defending Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” and taking possession of this strategically important military installation. You called for the expulsion of Russian forces from their Crimean base, while we solidarized with those who resisted any such attempt. It seems obvious that these counterposed positions put us on opposite sides of the hypothetical barricades. It is equally obvious that, in a military conflict, those who support a primary strategic objective of one side at the expense of the other can hardly claim to be “defeatist on both sides.”
We are curious whether you still call for the expulsion of Russia from its Black Sea base. This is of course still advocated by NATO, the U.S. State Department, et al. We would be pleased to learn that you have reconsidered your position. We are also interested in any comments you may have on our criticisms re Iran and Venezuela.
for the Bolshevik editorial board
The following is excerpted from our 2 March 2014 online chat:
[5:44:29 PM] Tom R.: [Russian intervention in Crimea] is like Turks backing their guys in Syria
[5:44:36 PM] Tom R.: or Iranians
[5:44:49 PM] Barbara: There are Russian troops on the ground, as we have just established.
[5:44:55 PM] Tom R.: (Iran better analogy as they are opposed to US supported guys)
[5:45:00 PM] Tom R.: fine
[5:45:03 PM] Tom R.: no surprise
[5:45:06 PM] Tom R.: no outrage
[5:45:14 PM] Barbara: The Kiev govt is calling for NATO to come in.
[5:45:30 PM] Josh D: Kiev is calling on NATO to “help”; [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry is flying to Kiev tomorrow
[6:07:11 PM] Josh D: Tom -- certainly Russia did not initiate the Ukrainian crisis, and its move to seize Crimea is a reaction to Western imperialism toppling Yanukovych; and it is to defend their base in Crimea; but if Russia is not imperialist and their intervention in Crimea is “defensive” against the actions of the West, then why not defend Russian actions?
[6:07:17 PM] Barbara: or are we opposed to both?
[6:08:26 PM] Tom R.: If Russia landed troops in Libya to help shoot down NATO planes we would defend them
[6:08:51 PM] Tom R.: IF there is a communalist intra bourg civil war in Ukraine we do not have a side
[6:09:34 PM] Josh D: there’s more evidence of a war between Russia and Ukraine (backed by the West) than there is of a civil war, or as much as
During the 2 March 2014 chat Barbara posed a related question to which Tom replied the next day:
I had left by the time that Barbara was able to reiterate her question (at the end of the transcript). I have appended it and my off the top response:
BD: So, you didn’t answer my question. Do we have a preference who controls Ukraine? Is it better for the international working class that the non-imperialist (by your definition) is in control?
Our preference is for Ukrainians to control Ukraine, i.e., we are for the right of self- determination. But this does not mean that we are committed to maintaining the current frontiers if there is a serious division along communal-quasi national lines. If there is a civil war in Ukraine between two qualitatively similar bourgeois opponents we would not have a side in the abstract, but we would likely not oppose a compact population which wanted to govern itself from seceding—i.e., if the majority of Crimea votes to leave Ukraine we would probably want to support that.
If NATO troops arrive in significant force and were, for example, to act on instructions by the new Ukrainian government and begin to march into Crimea to “liberate” it from Russian occupation (as CNN would put it) i.e., to forcibly seize the Russian base and assert Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control then I expect we would side militarily with Crimean resistance and any Russian troops to repel the invaders. Roughly as we would have had Russian anti-aircraft batteries been sent to Libya to interfere with the “no fly” murderous bombing of that country in defense of Qaddafi’s regime.
However this is highly speculative as NATO does not actually want Ukraine and is very unlikely to risk the atomic incineration of Wall Street, Hollywood etc. which is what a Western imperialist assault on a traditional Russian territory (including a vital Russian military base) would quite possibly result in.
As we are playing an “if” game, I would venture that our method should be the same as the conclusion we came to for Georgia in 2008: if Russia were to try to conquer Ukraine
On 12 March 2014 Christoph submitted a document with the following comment on the Crimean situation:
Russia has increased its presence in the Crimea, an area that allows for the presence of Russian troops due to the ports it has at the Black Sea. It also seems clear that Russia is supporting the local population who are likely to vote for re-joining Russia in the referendum on March 16, and who elected a pro-Russian parliament in their autonomous region. As Marxists we defend the right of the population of Crimea to choose affiliation with Russia. It therefore seems legitimate on more than one level that Russia has a military presence in the area. It certainly does not fit the category of imperialist conquest and annexation.
If Crimea were to secede from Ukraine, and if Ukraine were to attempt to forcibly retain Crimea under their rule, we would side with those forces (Crimean militia, Russian military) that would support the democratic wishes of the population. If this situation came to pass we would side with Russia/Crimea against Ukraine. This would be an application of the rights of nations to self-determination.
12 January 2021
Instead of withdrawing your false claim, you have attempted to defend it. You write: “In the context of a possible imminent clash, anyone demanding ’the immediate expulsion’ of Russian forces effectively took a side in any conflict. The fact that you included NATO observers etc., in your call does not change that.”
It is unfortunate that you seem not to understand how dual defeatism works. The imminence of a conflict does not somehow transform Leninist dual defeatism into “effective” support for one of the sides.
You persist in highlighting only half of the sentence you quote, omitting our equal opposition to the Western imperialists:
“You demanded ’the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol)’ at a time when the ‘local puppets’ of Western imperialism, as you described them, were making belligerent noises about defending Ukraine’s ’territorial integrity’ and taking possession of this strategically important military installation. You called for the expulsion of Russian forces from their Crimean base, while we solidarized with those who resisted any such attempt. It seems obvious that these counterposed positions put us on opposite sides of the hypothetical barricades. It is equally obvious that, in a military conflict, those who support a primary strategic objective of one side at the expense of the other can hardly claim to be ’defeatist on both sides.’”
This is very simple, Tom: we took no side in the Ukrainian civil war, nor in the inter-imperialist struggle to control Crimea. In our definitive article detailing Russia’s re-emergence as an imperialist state, we wrote:
“A majority of Crimeans voted to re-join Russia, and under normal circumstances Marxists would defend their right to do so. However, in the present context, we cannot affirm either the right of Russia to keep Crimea or the right of imperialist-backed Ukraine to retake it—to do so would mean promoting one or the other side in the inter-imperialist conflict between Russia and the West in which revolutionary internationalists should be dual defeatist.”
—“Imperialist Rivalries Escalate,” 1917 No.41
In what you appear to agree was essentially a war between Russia and Ukraine (backed by the West), we were equally opposed to any imperialist forces on the ground. You “solidarized” with Russian forces in Crimea. There is a difference there, but it does not involve us supporting the “local puppets” of Western imperialism in Kiev in the service of a “primary strategic objective” of kicking Russia out of Crimea. You are making that up to justify your sectarian split from the IBT.
Your refusal, or inability, to be honest about the nature of our differences is of a piece with your bizarre rewriting of history in which you claim to have “dissolved” the 28-year-old fusion that formed the IBT. You and I were in the same IBT local—there was no vote to “dissolve” the IBT and resurrect an independent BT. You simply quit and launched a new group with an old name designed to sow confusion.
It is clear that you are unwilling to withdraw your false claim about us because that would weaken your case for leaving the IBT. The origin story you have constructed for your organization does not bear close scrutiny.
Ukraine in Imperialist Vise (1917 No.44)
Imperialists Tear Ukraine Apart (1917 No.41)
Imperialist Rivalries Escalate (1917 No.41)
Split from the IBT (1917 No.41)