Russian leftist Boris Kagarlitsky regards the coups in eastern Ukraine as "real class struggle", but the movement which ousted Yanukovych as reactionary. His analysis does not hold up.
The Maidan protests which brought down the Yanukovich regime earlier this year were the property of a Ukrainian-nationalist movement based on the middle classes. Given its social and class composition, that movement could not have been anything other than reactionary.
This is the starting point of an analysis of recent events in Ukraine put forward by Boris Kagarlitsky, a well-known Russian socialist who first became prominent in the late 1980s and who still enjoys a degree of celebrity status in parts of the western-European left today.
It was not the job of the Ukrainian left to try to intervene in the Maidan, continues Kagarlitsky. Rather the left should have stood apart from the Maidan and challenged it.
By failing to do so, it now “objectively works in the interests of reaction” and has ended up in “the choir of fascists and progromists calling for a bloody massacre of the uprising (in the south-east of Ukraine)”.
That uprising, argues Kagarlitsky, is what “real class struggle” looks like, as opposed to the romanticized version of ‘class struggle’ to be found in “learned books and avant-garde cinema”.
The dominant slogans on the Maidan, writes Kagarlitsky, were fascist, whereas in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) what predominates are demands for social rights, accompanied by the singing of the “Internationale”.
In the DPR “the masses have risen up in genuine revolutionary protest.” The DPR “formulates its agenda from below.” It is “the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order.” It will become “an important part of the collective experience of Ukrainian and Russian workers.”
This movement of “the real working class” is not perfect. It is “rough, not politically correct, and with a lot of confused ideas in their heads.” But only “censorious connoisseurs of proletarian ideology” would take offence at this.
For Kagarlitsky, the DPR provides the left with openings which were absent from the Maidan:
“The good thing is that no-one is stopping people going to this crowd with red flags and socialist leaflets, unlike the Maidan, where the flags were torn up and left agitators were beaten and thrown off the square.”
(Whether the left is in a position to exploit those opportunities is another question. According to Kagarlitsky, after years of “play-acting at political correctness and the observance of minority rights”, the left now “spends its time on abstract discussions on the internet.”)
A similar dichotomy between the ‘bad’ Maidan and the ‘good’ DPR can be found in analyses of some sections of the western-European left, although it is not always clear whether these analyses have been ‘borrowed’ from Kagarlitsky or dreamt up independently of Kagarlitsky.
Kagarlitsky’s analysis of the politics of the Maidan is clearly at odds with the arguments of those left activists who intervened in the protests. Although the latter do not share a single ‘unified’ view, there is certainly a lot of common ground in what they have written about the Maidan:
- The politics of the protests evolved over time, from demands for a closer relationship with the European Union to an eventual challenge to the very existence of the corrupt Yanukovich regime.
- The far right, such as the Right Sector, was a very visible component of the Maidan – they were an organized force and participated in the protests from the outset – but they were not representative of the Maidan as a whole.
- The Right Sector did carry out physical attacks on left-wingers, but this did not make an intervention by the left impossible. Nor did it prevent the left from winning support for social demands which challenged the nationalist politics of the Right Sector and their allies.
- The weakness of the left resulted in the creation of a new government under the control of the Ukrainian neo-liberal right, whose pursuit of a Ukrainian-nationalist agenda has encouraged and deepened divisions within the working class.
As one article on the website of the Russian Socialist Movement puts it:
“From the very beginning it was ordinary people who pushed forward the uprising, genuinely feeling for the first time their own strength. The masses had no confidence in the leaders of the opposition parties, or in politicians in general.”
“(But) having concentrated on combating dictatorship, the revolution turned out to be incapable of formulating a positive programme which could have consolidated Ukrainian society.”
Contrary to the assertion that they belong to “the choir of fascists and progromists calling for a bloody massacre”, the Ukrainian left which intervened in the Maidan has consistently sought to rally forces to a “third camp” which is independent of the competing oligarchic factions.
One does not have to agree with every dot and comma of such analyses to be persuaded that they represent a more accurate (and first-hand) portrayal of the politics, the ‘dynamic’, and the potential of the Maidan than does Kagarlitsky’s dismissal of the same events.
In fact, Kagarlitsky’s ‘analysis’ of the Maidan is rooted in two sectarian abstractions of his own creation:
- The Maidan had to be right-wing because it was a movement of the middle classes, and in countries of the “periphery” where there is no democratic tradition and no strong labour movement, the middle classes, of necessity, orient to the right.
- By encouraging people to participate in the Maidan, the left was guilty of ‘exposing’ them to the ideas of the far right and allowing the latter to build a social basis which they had not enjoyed prior to the Maidan.
The fact that Kagarlitsky accuses the bulk of the Ukrainian left of “spending its time on abstract discussions on the internet” instead of “getting out and doing some work with the masses” merely adds an element of irony to his arguments.
Kagarlitsky likewise counterposes sectarian abstractions to an analysis of reality when he heaps praise on the politics of the self-proclaimed DPR.
He is certainly right to argue that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ working-class revolution, armed with an ideologically and politically perfect programme from the outset, and that militant working-class movements throw up their own leaders who have nothing in common with bourgeois professional politicians.
And he is right to point out that the ‘movement’ in the south-east of Ukraine has emerged at a time when the left has been in a state of political disarray for years (although, one might add, Kargarlitsky’s own arguments are an expression of that disarray).
But none of these truisms contribute anything, to an understanding of the political forces in play in the supposedly “genuine revolutionary protest” which Kagarlitsky has discovered in the south-east of Ukraine.
First and foremost, the “real working class” and “real class struggle” are notable for their absence in the conflicts in south-east Ukraine.
Offices of local authorities have been taken over. So too have television broadcasting stations. But they have not been taken over by the workers themselves. They have been taken over by the ‘militia’ – i.e. some men wearing balaclavas and waving machine guns – of the DPR.
Particularly notable is that where television stations have been seized, they have not been transformed into media open to popular democratic debate. Instead, the goal of the militia has been to close down channels broadcast from Ukraine and switch over to … the pro-Putin output of Russian television!
Protests by DPR supporters have also been staged outside (and, apparently, sometimes inside) banks. Again, though, it is not a case of bank workers themselves challenging their bosses. Nor do the protests focus even vaguely on the role of banks in capitalism.
Instead, where banks have been targeted for protests, it has been on the basis that the oligarchs who own them are part of the western-Ukrainian elite and are supposedly financing the forces of fascism to invade south-east Ukraine.
There have also been (a very few) reports of coalmining directors being forced to resign from their posts. Here too it is not the miners themselves who have forced them to resign because they are bosses, but DPR supporters because they are seen as placemen for Kiev.
It seems that few, if any, attempts have been made to draw the organized working class into the ‘movement’ of the DPR. And where such attempts have been made, they have been singularly unsuccessful.
When DPR supporters intervened in the recent miners’ strike in Krasnodon, for example, to try to rally support for the DPR, miners immediately took the microphone away from them. And Mikhail Volynets, the leader of Independent Miners Union of Ukraine, is a particularly outspoken opponent of the DPR.
(Like any trade union official, Volynets is not necessarily representative of his members. But there is no sign of any broad opposition among miners directed against Volynets for his anti-DPR statements.)
In an internet debate about Kagarlitsky’s defence of the DPR as “the real class struggle” of “the real working class” Kargarlitsky’s translator Renfrey Clarke has written:
“Reading the postings by the Donetsk militants (http://www.rusvesna.su), I'm struck by the fact that the insurgency in south-eastern Ukraine is very much a movement of industrial workers. In the city of Yenakievo, and no doubt elsewhere, miners and steelworkers have adhered to the movement en masse.”
But the rusvena.su (“Russian Spring”) website cited by Clarke provides no evidence of the DPR being the product of real class struggle by the real working class. In fact, any idea of class struggle is spectacularly absent from the pages of this Russian-nationalist website.
The site carries articles which praise the arrival of Cossack and Chechen volunteers to fight in the DPR, which support the re-instatement of Yanukovich as president, and which call for creation of an expanded Russia in which all that would be left of Ukraine would be three regions in the west.
(And whatever might be the degree of support for the DPR in Yenakievo, this is hardly the town most representative of the south-east: it is the home town of Yanukovich.)
Kagarlisky’s assertions that the DPR represents “the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order” and that it “formulates its political agenda from below” do not stand up to scrutiny either.
There is no evidence that the leaders of the DPR enjoy a popular mandate for the positions they hold. There is no evidence of any mechanism whereby the leaders of the DPR can be held to account. There is no sign of any political agenda being drawn up on the basis of mass political participation.
An article on the website of the Ukrainian left Opposition gives the example of the DPR “governor” of the Donets region, Pavel Gubarev, who was ‘elected’, or proclaimed, governor of the entire region at a meeting in the city of Donets attended by around five thousand people, although the region’s population numbers five millions.
When Gubarev (a former member of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity Party) was arrested, his place was taken by Denis Pushilin, appointed to the position by a meeting of the pro-DPR “people’s council” in Slaviansk. This had been set up after a few hundred separatists had taken over the offices of the local authority.
Pushilin worked as a casino croupier, an ad man, and candy salesman before getting a job with the Russian MMM company which carried out the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time. When he ran for the Ukrainian parliament he picked up less than 0.1% of the vote.
The pro-DPR “people’s mayor” of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, is a former factory manager who then set up his own soap-manufacturing business in the city. He says that he took on the position of “people’s mayor” simply at the invitation of local pro-Russian separatists.
A substantial body of evidence indicates that Igor Strelkov, overall commander of the Donbas People’s Militia, is a Russian military intelligence colonel. Even if this is dismissed as propaganda put out by the Kiev authorities, there is no dispute that Strelkov is not a native of the Donbas.
In a recent interview, Strelkov claimed to be a native of Crimea where he created a military unit which, he said, was then “invited” to Sloviansk by local militia. In the same interview he said that half or two thirds of his fighters were Ukrainian nationals (i.e. up to half of them came from outside Ukraine).
Where local ‘coups’ have been carried out, they have been neither produced nor preceded by working-class mobilisations. The seizure of public buildings by armed groups, supported to one degree or another by Russia, has come first. Then, in the name of a spurious ‘anti-fascism’, loyalty to an equally spurious ‘Donets People’s Republic’ is proclaimed.
Leaders who are virtually self-appointed, a military wing which is largely imported (probably, in part, from the Russian military) and a political agenda which owes more to the politics of the Party of the Regions than to any political demands “from below” – this has nothing in common with “the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order.”
This becomes even clearer when one looks at the politics at the core of the DPR, perhaps best summed up by Evgeny Gubrik, commander of the Sloviansk militia: “This is a community of people nostalgic for the Soviet past, a patriotic community. We now stand at the beginning of a Russian millennial renaissance.”
The symbols of the DPR are the Ribbon of St. George and the Guards Ribbon. The former dates back to the reign of the Empress Catherine II. It ceased to be used in 1917 but was revived as a Russian national symbol in 2000. The latter dates from the Second World War, when Stalin created the Order of Glory.
The flag of the DPR bears the name “Donetsk Rus’” (i.e. Donets has ‘really’ always been a part of historic Russia, dating back to the tenth-century state of Kievan Rus’.) The “Russian Spring” website carries on its homepage the slogan “For Novorossiya!” (i.e. the Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia in the nineteenth century should ‘return’ to its previous ‘owners’).
The singing of the “Internationale” and the defence of monuments to Lenin in south-east Ukraine, which Kagarlitsky attaches such importance to, are likewise the expression of Stalinist nostalgia, not revolutionary socialism. And Russian nationalism was, and is, an integral part of Stalinism.
(It surely says something about how seriously the lyrics of the “Internationale” are taken in the south-east when those who sing it are hostile to any idea of a common struggle with the workers of western Ukraine against the supposed “fascist junta” in Kiev.)
On pro-DPR websites, on barricades in front of buildings occupied by DPR supporters, and at meetings organized to rally support for the DPR, Stalinist wartime imagery is used. Along with incessant denunciations of the “fascist” and “Banderite” Kiev “junta”, this creates the illusion that the DPR, like Stalin’s USSR before it, is at war with fascism.
As an article on the Ukrainian “left Opposition” website puts it:
“In every meeting there appear in one form or another the attributes of the time of the Great Patriotic War: St George’s Ribbons, Guards Ribbons, songs of the war years, posters such as “The Mother Country Calls You”, photos of commanders leading their battalions into battle, and so on. The illusion of a just cause is created.”
The political project of the proclamation of the DPR is not an attempt to mobilize the working class on the basis of their class identity. Nor is it a matter of a few “confused ideas” in people’s heads.
It involves an attempt to win working-class support for a Russian-nationalist project aimed at undermining Ukraine’s right to self-determination – either in the form of an ‘independent’ DPR which, in reality, is subordinate to Moscow; or in the form of complete incorporation of the DPR into Russia.
Social demands, it is true, have been raised on some of the protests in the south-east. But as an article on the Russian “Open Left” has put it, they are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, i.e. they are an attempt to draw workers towards pro-Russian separatism, not to mobilize workers in their own class interests.
And even insofar as social demands have been raised, they are insignificant compared with the core drive to break away two or three south-eastern regions from Ukraine (hence the ‘referendum’ of 11th May) and incorporate them into Russia (hence the proposed ‘referendum’ of 18th May).
Despite Putin’s suggestion that last Sunday’s ‘referendum’ should perhaps have been postponed, the leadership of the DPR continue to look to Putin as some kind of force for good, the man who will annex the self-styled DPR into Russia after having pulled off the same feat with the Crimea.
For Kagarlitsky, these are just so many illusions in Putin, an almost inevitable stage in the development of this “genuine revolutionary protest”, and one which soon be transcended as Putin’s supposed inertia disabuses “the real working class” of their illusions.
Kagarlitsky’s translator goes one better, reminding his readers:
“In January 1905 the Russian workers were led by Father Gapon and went out on the morning of Bloody Sunday to plead for the Tsar to recognise the justice of their demands. We all know how that finished up. … The fact that the workers had started out with illusions ceased to decide anything.”
To put it mildly, this is hardly comparing like with like. And what holds true of Renfrey Clarke’s analogy applies even more so to Kagarlitsky’s analysis as a whole.
Kagarlitsky accuses the Ukrainian left of collapsing into subservience to nationalist forces by intervening in the Maidan and failing to support the DPR. In fact, the charge of accommodation to nationalism might be better raised against Kagarlitsky’s paeans of praise for what he calls “the insurgent people of a fraternal country.”
Cartoon illustrating Kagarlitsky’s article on the rabkor.ru website: European Union unleashes forces of fascism, dormant since 1945, against Ukrainians who defend the tradition of the 1941-45 war.
1) “The Logic of the Uprising”, 22/04/14, on the website of rabkor.ru