5 November 2023
The following text is a lightly edited version of remarks made by an IBT spokesperson on a panel discussion entitled “Understanding the War in Ukraine” at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Canada, on 2 November 2023. The event was sponsored by Local 4207 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Audio available here:
We are pleased for the opportunity to speak at today’s event and I want to thank the organizers and CUPE Local 4207 for sponsoring it.
I want to make three key points about the war in Ukraine: one that addresses the fundamental nature of the conflict; a second that focuses on the key political lesson for socialists in the West; and lastly, how class-struggle militants in the unions can organize actions to oppose the war.
First, the conflict in Ukraine is a reactionary proxy war between NATO-Western imperialist powers and Russia. It is not about “democracy” in Ukraine, or its national independence or territorial integrity. NATO is simply using Ukraine as a pawn to weaken Russia—a rival imperialist power.
The conflict has its origins in NATO’s repeated provocations and encirclement of Russia over the last three decades. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has added 14 new members, all of them former Soviet Bloc states. It now has thousands of troops and personnel deployed in member states on Russia’s border and regularly carries out military exercises in Eastern Europe. In February, NATO will hold the Steadfast Defender military exercise in Europe, “its biggest live joint command exercise since the cold war … assembling more than 40,000 troops.” The exercise is designed to test NATO’s readiness to “repel a Russian invasion” and is “also seen as a key part of demonstrating to Moscow that the alliance is prepared to fight” (Financial Times, 11 September 2023).
The encirclement of Russia has been accompanied by direct US intervention in Ukraine. In 2014, American imperialism supported the Maidan uprising that overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich. This led to the establishment of a Ukrainian-chauvinist government in Kiev, armed and trained by Western imperialism. Since the Maidan events, Kiev has sought to deepen European integration, suppress the political representation and rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east, and impose a conception of national identity that favors the west of the country. Kiev has also refused to implement the Minsk Accords and continues to seek NATO membership. All of this, in addition to Kiev’s military campaign to retake Crimea and the Donbas, is what finally triggered Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine in February 2022 and its subsequent annexation of territories in the disputed Donbas region.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the West has pumped over $200 billion (USD) in propping up its Kiev client. Conservative figures estimate Washington alone has allocated over $100 billion in total aid to Ukraine, the bulk of it military. This includes infantry arms and equipment, heavy artillery, battle tanks and armored carriers, modern fighter aircraft (F-16s), a range of air defense and anti-aircraft missiles, combat drones, and advanced surveillance and radar systems. In July, the Biden administration announced it was sending “Made in the USA” cluster bombs to Ukraine, which are banned by over 100 countries for their indiscriminate killing of civilians. Just last month, Biden requested an additional $61 billion in funding for the US military and intelligence agencies to continue the war in Ukraine.
Canada, a second-tier imperialist power and junior partner to the US, has committed over $9 billion to Ukraine. In September, the government announced another $650 million in military aid. This occurred while Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky was visiting Canada, during which Parliament infamously feted former Waffen-SS member Yarsolav Hunka as “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero.”
The costs of financing the war will eventually be paid for by the working class here at home in the form of austerity and cuts to social programs, healthcare, education, infrastructure, etc. Meanwhile, a select few defense contractors and a handful of corporate parasites on Wall Street and Bay Street are making billions in profits. Those paying the highest price in NATO’s proxy war are of course ordinary Ukrainians and Russians, with about half a million troops (many of them conscripts) from the two countries killed or wounded since the war began. This figure does not even account for the many civilian casualties.
Revolutionaries must articulate a socialist response to the struggle between Western and Russian imperialisms, a conflict that threatens to unleash World War III. That brings me to my second point, that one of the most important political lessons to draw from this war is the understanding that our main enemy is not in Moscow, but in Ottawa. It is not Vladimir Putin, but Justin Trudeau, Pierre Poilievre, and Jagmeet Singh of the left-posturing but pro-imperialist NDP, i.e, the political representatives, in various shades, of the Canadian capitalist class.
The working-class attitude towards reactionary wars waged by one’s own imperialist ruling class was best captured by the great German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht during World War 1 with the slogan: “the main enemy is at home!” A manifesto adopted at the founding conference of the Fourth International in September 1938, just prior to World War 2, explained its significance:
“the main enemy is in one’s own country.… No support to the war makers, but continuation of the class struggle in every situation and utilization of the war crisis for the overthrow of capitalist rule, i.e., the overthrow of the war and of capitalism itself!”
—“Against Imperialist War”
Marxists are for the defeat of all imperialist powers in any direct military confrontation, like the two World Wars, or any proxy war, such as in Ukraine today. While we do not give any support to Putin’s Russia in the war, the IBT is a political organization currently based only in the West, and therefore our main task is to politically expose our “own” imperialist ruling class. Liebknecht’s formula politically guides revolutionary socialists in the West to emphasize the struggle for the defeat of the NATO imperialists, just as Marxists in Russia would emphasize opposition to the Russian ruling class.
This position, associated with not only Liebknecht, but also Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, has come to be known as revolutionary (or dual) defeatism. It is not neutrality or some kind of militant pacifism, but envisions workers in all the belligerent countries calling for the defeat of their own imperialist governments, i.e., “turn their guns around” and aim them at the “main enemy” here at home.
This brings me to my final point, that the conflict in Ukraine and prospects of yet another World War must be actively opposed by the entire workers’ movement. Only the international working class, especially its organized components, like CUPE, has the objective material interest and social power to build a world without poverty, oppression and war, i.e., socialism.
A first step towards that better world begins with class-struggle militants in the trade unions seeking to build opposition to NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine. Such actions might include trade-union sponsored educationals on the war, like this one, that provide opportunities to discuss and debate the conflict. In those industries more directly connected to the war effort (ports, air, rail and transport), workers could “hot-cargo” (i.e., refuse to handle) military supplies destined for Ukraine, and engage in strikes and other labor actions aimed at sabotaging the war effort.
One such action took place last year in Greece, which is a NATO member. In April 2022, rail workers in the port cities of Thessaloniki and Alexandroupoli courageously refused to load NATO arms shipments headed through Greece to Eastern Europe for the war in Ukraine. At the time, the unions representing the workers passed a resolution which stated in part:
“No involvement of our country in the Ukraine war, which is waged for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the majority.… We will not become complicit in the passage of the war machine through the territories of our country.”
—Rizospastis, (official newspaper of the Communist Party of Greece [KKE]), 2 April 2022 [our translation]
This action sent a powerful message of international solidarity to workers in Ukraine, Russia, Eastern Europe and beyond, that workers in the West oppose the imperialist military adventures of our “own” ruling class.
North America also has a proud history of organizing labor actions against imperialist war within recent memory. On May Day 2008, 25,000 dockers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down every port on the US West Coast to protest the imperialist occupation of Iraq. That union action, like in Greece, faced stiff opposition from the bosses who denounced it as “illegal.”
The ILWU, traditionally one of the most militant unions in the United States, has spearheaded a number of exemplary labor actions over the years (see “Class Struggle on the Waterfront”). In the 1970s, ILWU members refused to load US-made military supplies being shipped to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In 1984, they carried out an 11-day “illegal” boycott of cargo from apartheid South Africa. In April 1999, dockers shut down US West Coast ports in support of class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. On May Day 2015, the ILWU shutdown the Port of Oakland to condemn the wave of racist police killings of black and brown people across the US. Unfortunately, the only action we know of taken by the ILWU regarding the Ukraine war has been authorizing its members on the West Coast to refuse to unload Russian cargo—exactly the opposite of what the Western workers’ movement should be doing.
Outside the organized labor movement, all those opposed to imperialist war should seek to organize joint actions against NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine. On 1 October, the IBT was proud to have endorsed and helped build, along with other left organizations in Toronto, a united-front protest demanding an “end NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine!” Actions such as these, though small in size and limited in number, are important initiatives that open up larger opportunities for organizing within the labor movement while challenging pro-war propaganda.
These actions will certainly garner hostility from the capitalist class and their mouth pieces in the mainstream corporate press. They will also be opposed by the official leadership of the workers’ movement (i.e., trade-union bureaucracy and NDP tops), who will no doubt vilify attempts to organize any anti-imperialist labor actions as “pro-Putin.” Their fundamental social function is to act as a transmission belt for the ruling class’ pro-war messaging and promote NATO talking points in the labor movement.
The fight for socialism requires waging a difficult political struggle inside the labor movement for revolutionary politics. This will not happen without the conscious intervention of revolutionaries who are not afraid to speak the truth, no matter how unpopular it may be.
A revolutionary program requires linking opposition to the conflict in Ukraine and imperialist war with a broader program that addresses the many issues working people face (e.g., unemployment, wages, childcare, healthcare, etc.), while pointing toward the need for workers’ power and the socialist transformation of society.
In order for the working class to become conscious of its historic role and mission of ridding the world of capitalism, a Bolshevik-type vanguard party must be built to lead the way forward. We encourage anyone interested in this perspective to connect with our organization, the IBT, and take up the fight for socialism.
Ukraine & the Left (1917 No.45)
Revolutionaries & Imperialist War: IBT study class (1917 No.45)
The Main Enemy is at Home! Protest to end NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine (5 October 2023)
Anti-War Strike: U.S. Dockers Take Historic Step (1917 No.31)