With the war in Ukraine nearing the two-year mark, the Spartacist League/Britain debated the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) at Birkbeck, University of London, on 11 November in order to clarify what constitutes a revolutionary answer to the conflict. The event drew a few dozen people, mostly members and supporters of the SL/B, the BT, the International Bolshevik Tendency (which parted ways with the BT some years ago) and the Platypus clot. To anyone interested in what Marxists should actually do to advance a revolutionary programme in the war — or anything else — it’s clear the Spartacists won the debate hands-down.
In his presentation for the SL/B (printed below, edited for publication), Workers Hammer editor Vincent David defended a proletarian revolutionary orientation, motivating why Ukrainian and Russian workers should turn the guns against their own rulers and how Marxists fight against the obstacles to mobilising workers against imperialism. Speaking first and defending the BT’s support to Russia, Tom Riley let the cat out of the bag: “Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that NATO will suffer defeat at the hands of an insurgent, class-conscious Russian/Ukrainian workers movement, which we would all like to see, I’m sure.” So revolution sounds nice, but we won’t fight for it now. That actually settled the debate. (Readers can watch the entire debate on YouTube and read Riley’s presentation at bolsheviktendency.org.)
Comrade David put several direct challenges to the BT. Failing to respond to any of them, Riley and his supporters tried to shift the terrain to decades-old political differences and supposed ICL “bureaucratism”. This only exposed the BT, which evaluates a revolutionary organisation not by its capacity to guide working-class struggle in key events but by its ability to wield formalistic “Marxism” divorced from class struggle, and how internal political disputes were handled half a century ago.
Discussions at the event and afterwards at the pub marked a break from the ICL’s former practice of avoiding debate with the BT (and others). Our purpose is to further political discussion with the goal of regrouping the forces for international revolution, which currently are tiny and isolated. This course was laid out at the ICL’s Eighth International Conference last summer, where our development of a Trotskyist programme for today required critically re-evaluating our history (see Spartacist [English edition] no 68, September 2023). The BT are clearly outraged by our insistence that we study this history only insofar as it helps to build a revolutionary international in the here and now. As far as the debate goes, that really says it all.
Tom, like many others, sees in our recent correction only material for the past. He is not wrong that a lot of our articles [on Ukraine] from 2014 were closer to his position, so I’m not going to defend them today. But I think what he hasn’t grasped is the real nature of our position and what was really wrong with these articles back in 2014. It’s a sentence he didn’t quote that said, well, there’s no revolutionary party in Ukraine and Russia, so no revolutionary perspective is possible [referring to “U.S. Imperialism Behind Bloody Repression in Ukraine”, Workers Vanguard no 1046, 16 May 2014]. That’s something you echoed in your presentation, so that’s what I’ll answer.
The essential starting point for Marxists regarding the war in Ukraine must be that it is the imperialist system itself — defined today as the US-dominated liberal order — that is responsible for the conflict. Therefore, while this debate is titled “Ukraine war: What strategy for Marxists?”, really the question is: what strategy to defeat imperialism?
In the Ukraine war, we, the Spartacist League, are not neutral: we call on Ukrainian and Russian workers and soldiers to fraternise, turn their guns against their own ruling class, with the aim of transforming this reactionary war between nations into a civil war against the ruling classes. And in the West, our modest forces have fought for the workers movement to take action against the imperialist governments. And we have waged a constant struggle against the pro-imperialist leaders of the workers movement, as well as against the pacifist deceivers, with the aim of building an anti-imperialist and revolutionary leadership of the working class.
So, for us, the cornerstone of a strategy to defeat imperialism rests entirely on putting forward an independent path of struggle for the proletariat against the imperialists and against all bourgeois forces in order to advance the struggle for working-class power. That’s what my presentation will be about, and what I think you haven’t heard so far. In contrast, for the Bolshevik Tendency, their strategy to defeat imperialism rests on supporting a victory of the Russian army in Ukraine. So what I will demonstrate in this presentation is that this position is reactionary and a complete obstacle to building a working-class and revolutionary opposition to NATO and US imperialism. And I will also demonstrate how the BT’s approach to the war completely capitulates to the pro-imperialist leaders of the working class.
Character of the war and Marxist method
Let’s start with the character of the war, that is, what it’s about. The BT’s position is based on the fact that since Russia is not imperialist, and since Ukraine is supported by the imperialist powers, Russia is waging a just war of national defence against imperialism and that a defeat for Ukraine would be a defeat for the imperialists. On a superficial level, this could sound logical. Except that this entire edifice shatters at the first contact with reality.
First, the current war is not about dismembering or Balkanising Russia. Everyone knows that Russia is not fighting for its national sovereignty against an imperialist invasion. This war is not about who will control Russia. It is about who will control Ukraine. On the one side, the Ukrainian government is fighting to keep Ukraine under the boot of NATO, the European Union and the United States. On the other side, Russia is fighting to bring Ukraine into its own sphere of influence. Therefore, this is a war about which gang of thugs, that of the White House or that of the Kremlin, will exploit and dominate Ukraine. In the name of fighting imperialism, the BT is simply supporting one gang of thugs against the other.
Second, the fact that this war is a proxy war between Russia and the US does not mean that Marxists simply support Russia. The US backs all sorts of regimes throughout the world, and Marxists do not simply support any of its opponents. Also, the BT blurs the line between a proxy war and an imperialist war against Russia. For the BT, this is a secondary difference, a nuance. But for anyone who thinks, there is obviously a fundamental difference between NATO supplying weapons to Ukraine and NATO bombing Russian cities and invading Russia. To think otherwise is totally disorienting. The day the United States, the UK and NATO declare war on Russia, it will fundamentally change the character of the war from a regional conflict over who controls Ukraine to a full-scale imperialist war to crush Russia. Believe me, when this happens it will not be necessary to go to panels on “decolonising Russia”. It will be very obvious to everyone.
Thirdly, what appears like a strong argument for the BT is when they say that a defeat of Ukraine would be a blow to the imperialists, and since revolutionaries are for blows against imperialism, we must support Russia. This is a method which consists in putting a plus where the Foreign Office puts a minus. The advantage with this method is that you don’t need to think to actually use it. The disadvantage, however, is that it has nothing to do with the living reality of the class struggle, therefore nothing to do with Marxism. It is simply not true that any blow whatsoever to the imperialists automatically advances the interests of the working class.
In contrast, here is how Marxists must approach the question. The defining feature of our epoch, and the context in which the Ukraine war takes place, is the decline of US hegemony. A growing number of forces are seeking to take advantage of this decline. So the entire question for Marxists, the entire question of our epoch, is whether this decline happens through a spiral of crises, reaction and wars, just as we’re starting to see, or will this decline further the interests of the working class, that is, advance the cause of socialism. This latter option is not a given. It requires the mobilisation of the proletariat as an independent fighting force, armed with a revolutionary leadership.
That is what the simplistic method and geopolitical practice of the BT disappears. The Marxist programme is based not on blindly supporting “blows” to imperialism but on the understanding that the only way to deal a decisive and progressive blow to imperialism is through workers revolution. Therefore, a Marxist approach to the Ukraine war, and a Marxist strategy against imperialism, must be based on furthering the class struggle, on strengthening the unity of the international proletariat and on advancing the struggle for socialist revolution.
But all of this is completely alien to the BT. Because the BT’s strategy to combat imperialism relies not on the revolutionary struggle of the working class but on Russia winning in Ukraine. To better understand how this position is completely anti-Marxist, and frankly chauvinist, one simply has to think about what supporting Russia means in the real world. This is something the BT’s articles, which are full of theoretical abstractions and quotes and which barely mention the working class, never spell out. So let me do it for them.
Reactionary character of pro-Russia position
According to the BT’s position, the task of Ukrainian workers is to support the Russian army and do everything to facilitate the invasion of their own country. In other words, Ukrainian workers are supposed to welcome their own national oppression at the hands of the Russian oligarchs. The national oppression of Ukraine is in no way in the interest of the international working class. Ukrainian workers will never accept this position, which only contributes to discrediting communism in Ukraine and pushes workers into the arms of Zelensky, the wretched Ukrainian nationalists and the imperialist powers.
So what about Russian workers? The BT’s position tells them that they must support the war effort of the Russian government. This means that the BT denounces the most class-conscious workers in Russia, who want to oppose the war and the predatory aims of the Russian oligarchs. And indeed, when workers in Belarus refused to move arms shipments, the BT denounced this.
Furthermore, according to the BT’s line, communists should attack Putin for not having committed enough resources to the invasion of Ukraine. This totally aligns the BT with Russian nationalists who believe that Ukraine is Russia, or that Ukraine does not even exist! The BT’s position completely echoes this. One of their key arguments, which you quoted, is that “revolutionaries” recognise (and I quote) that “Russia’s right to self-defense includes the right to sever Ukraine’s NATO connection”. So for the BT, Russia has not only a “right” to invade its neighbour, but the conquest of Ukraine is a progressive cause! This is simply Great Russian chauvinism. It means educating Russian workers in this spirit.
It is when you leave the sphere of abstractions and geopolitics and actually try to apply the simplistic thinking of the BT to living reality that you can fully realise its completely reactionary implications. What Russian workers must understand is precisely that whatever short-term blow a Russian victory would inflict on US policy, it is not worth the price of Russia becoming the oppressor of Ukraine!
The subjugation of Ukraine will not help in any way to free Russia from imperialist encirclement. It will only help bolster the authority of Zelensky and his imperialist masters, who can fraudulently present themselves as the defenders of small nations. More broadly, it spreads nationalist poison in the entire region, further binding workers to their exploiters, be they Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian, etc, thus creating new obstacles to the unity of the working class and to workers revolution. At the end of the day, the one force which will benefit from this is the imperialist powers themselves, who will be able to use this carnival of reaction to strengthen their position in the region.
The way to deal a decisive blow against imperialism in Eastern Europe is through building a common revolutionary front of Ukrainian and Russian workers against their common enemy, the imperialists, and against their respective capitalist classes. If Ukrainian workers defend Russian minorities, fraternise with Russian conscripts and oppose NATO and the US, this will deliver a much greater blow to the Russian capitalists than any of Zelensky’s counteroffensives. If Russian workers take a stand against the oligarchs’ war and against Russian chauvinism and seek revolutionary unity with the Ukrainian workers, this will deliver a much greater blow to NATO and the imperialists than any Russian counteroffensive.
That is the communist strategy to defeat imperialism. That is the orientation we are pursuing. If you think in these terms, it becomes obvious that the BT’s position is a total obstacle to the unity of the working class and to any revolutionary perspective!
Who will defend China: the Kremlin or the working class?
There is another argument used by the BT, which is that a Russian victory would help to defend China, the other deformed workers states and neocolonies against imperialism. I think you called it a basic understanding. I would call this actually a total revision of basic Trotskyism.
Trotsky taught us that the only way to defend workers states like China is by fighting for workers revolutions to overthrow imperialism and for political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is the only way to weaken imperialism and strengthen the position of the proletariat internationally. The further the international socialist revolution progresses, the better protected is China. The weaker the international proletariat is, the more it is subordinated to its exploiters, the more vulnerable is China. This is the simple truth which was repudiated by Stalinism and the doctrine of “socialism in one country”. The position of the BT is actually cut from the same cloth.
As we have seen, support to Russia divides and weakens the proletariat in Eastern Europe and beyond, creating new obstacles to workers revolution. And the BT’s strategy to defend China is not based on the independent mobilisation of Chinese workers against Stalinism and imperialism, nor on the struggle of the workers movement internationally for socialism, but on the military successes of the Russian bourgeoisie in Ukraine. This is the same method which led Stalin to place the fate of the defence of the USSR on the British trade union leaders, on the Guomindang and later on the imperialist powers themselves, with disastrous results.
In the last analysis, the method of the BT is much closer to the advocates of the “multipolar world” who promote the BRICS, Xi Jinping and Putin as anti-imperialist forces. The BT might say they oppose Putin or Xi. But just like the advocates of BRICS, they do not view the struggle against imperialism from the standpoint of an independent proletarian road of struggle. And without this crucial element, whatever criticism of Putin you have, you end up as a left critic of him, in a typical Pabloite manner.
Workers in the West: BT has nothing to offer
Now I want to bring the debate here, to Britain. Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, the leadership of the working class, from the Labour Party to the trade unions, has played a key role in lining up the workers movement behind the interests of British imperialism. The same has been happening in Germany, France, the US. There can be no talk of a Marxist strategy in the Ukraine war or in any war, like in Palestine today, without a ruthless struggle against the pro-imperialist leaders of the workers movement — who Lenin called the social-chauvinists — as well as against the pacifist deceivers and those “leftists” who maintain unity with the social-chauvinists — who Lenin called the opportunists and the centrists.
And it is in this field, even more than in Ukraine, that the political bankruptcy of the BT becomes even more evident. Since the outbreak of the war, the BT has not published a single article attacking the leaders of the working class in Britain for their support to British imperialism! Britain was shaken by a strike wave last year, and the BT has not written a single article on this. While the burning task for communists was to drive a wedge between the working class and the pro-imperialist programme of its leaders, which is what led the strike wave to defeat, the BT stood by and did nothing!
Just contrast this with us. The ICL’s initial declaration on the war in Ukraine attacked frontally all social-chauvinist leaders and pacifists. Our comrades in Germany have been in the forefront of the fight against the pro-NATO and EU supporters in the German left.
And here, despite our modest size, the SL/B threw all its energy into declaring war on the social-chauvinist leaders of the workers movement. We organised a protest against the monarchy and against the union leaders cancelling strikes when the Queen croaked. We launched a campaign to build picket lines against the union leaders sabotaging them. We intervened at the last TUC Congress against the union bureaucrats voting support for more arms to Ukraine and denounced the social-chauvinists and the impotent pacifist opposition of the Stop the War Coalition.
Almost the entire left in this country supports and campaigns for Sharon Graham, the leader of Unite, lauding her as a “militant” while she is a staunch supporter of British imperialism and arms for Ukraine. We have intervened in almost all Trotskyist groups, denouncing them for their support to this social-chauvinist as a betrayal which obstructs working-class action against British imperialism.
Over the last year and a half, we have written a dozen articles exposing how the support of trade union leaders and Labourites to British imperialism, and in particular to Ukraine and now to Israel, is precisely what obstructs both working-class action against the war but also the most minimal economic struggles. We have tirelessly mobilised our small forces in the trade unions to fight for a new leadership of the working class: one that opposes imperialism and organises the day-to-day struggle of our class as part of a broader strategy for workers power.
So, comrades of the Bolshevik Tendency: What have you been doing in the last two years to advance working-class and anti-imperialist struggles in this country? What have you been doing to advance the most crucial task of revolutionaries — that is, to split the working class from its social-chauvinist and pacifist leaders and expose their centrist conciliators? Because even with a position for Russia you could do some of this. If the BT, despite its support to Russia, was fighting like hell against the Sharon Grahams, the Dave Wards and the Mick Lynches and for an anti-imperialist pole in the workers movement, we would have had a couple of united fronts already and we would now have a very different conversation.
But the reality is that you have done none of this. In this way, you are not so different from all the other groups in this country who claim to be for communism, against NATO, against imperialism — for or against Ukraine — but who all agree on one thing: unity with the social-chauvinist and pro-imperialist leaders of the working class! To wage war on such unity is the utmost duty of revolutionaries. That is what Lenin hammered throughout World War I. You say that the Ukraine war was a litmus test for Trotskyists? That is the litmus test! That is what the Spartacist League is doing, and that is what the BT refuses to do.
The other reality, to come full circle, is that your position for a victory to Russia completely undermines this struggle, even if you were to engage in it. For the simple reason that your position means supporting the Russian ruling class’s subjugation of Ukraine. And any class-conscious worker who wants to fight British imperialism also understands that Russia’s war is not progressive and wants to have nothing to do with it, and rightly so. That is the other way in which your position divides the international working class.
Marxism: guide to action
Lastly, and I will conclude on this, while the BT capitulates to Russian nationalism, I do not believe this is the motivation behind your support to Russia. I believe you have arrived at this wrong position because of a wrong method. Because you do not view Marxism as a guide for the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat but rather as sterile and abstract doctrine or formulas and geopolitics.
Now, I’m not trying to be demagogic here. It is true. Your organisation split from the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), before the current war, on a purely analytical question of whether Russia is imperialist, with the IBT believing it is and the BT believing it isn’t. You have thus revealed to the entire world that for you the condition for unity or split in the communist movement was agreement over an analytical description, not over what to fight for, what to do.
Your articles on the war in Ukraine follow this method. They are constructed as a succession of quotes from multiple geopolitical sources or socialist groups, in which you comment on their analysis and you observe their refusal to side with Russia. For you, the analysis is decisive and generates the programme. But for Marxists the programme, that is, what do you fight for and how, drives the analysis. Indeed, in all your articles, never do you make the case as to why and how your position advances the struggle of the working class for its emancipation. But you see, comrades, that is the entire purpose of Marxism: to offer an independent path of struggle for the proletariat.
Today, there is a new war raging in Palestine. And we can talk about 1948, but here’s the thing: you have not even written a thing on the war going on now! You have instead posted a few pictures of yourselves at demonstrations, carrying slogans that are correct in themselves but are totally acceptable to any left-liberal, Palestinian nationalist or social democrat who leads and takes part in these marches. This is not serious. You have to guide the struggle against the current illusions. “Down with Zionist terror” doesn’t combat anything in these marches.
Marxism is a guide to struggle, not for readers circles comparing analyses. You will notice that throughout my presentation, it is on this basis that I exposed your position in the war. That is, that it is a capitulation to the various misleaders of the working class, Ukrainian and Russian nationalists, social-chauvinists, Labourite pacifists, etc and is thus an obstacle to pushing forward the struggles of the working class against world imperialism.