The best analysis I have found of the Russian-Ukrainian War (RUW), and the international political environment that frames it, was written by George Orwell in 1943: Looking Back On The Spanish War. Related to that analysis are Orwell’s insights, in his 1949 essay Reflections on Gandhi, on the limits of pacifism — which is always an affectation of the bourgeois political Left — when confronted with the urgencies of a Just War. The defensive war being fought now by Ukrainians is a Just War.
In using Orwell’s essays to form an analogy between the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Russian-Ukrainian War of today, I rhetorically equate “Ukraine” with the Spanish Republic (the “Republicans,” the “Loyalists,” the democracy, the “reds”), and I rhetorically equate “Russia” with Francoist forces (the “rebels,” the Falangists, the Fascists, the “whites”). The analogy of 2022 Ukraine to 1930s Spain is not always perfect here, so I will occasionally use the symbol * to remind you of when I especially want to draw your attention to those relationships of analogy.
But first, let me present a summary, by Daphne Lawless, of the arguments within “leftist” circles, about Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia’s continuing aggression. After that I state my position on the war, and then proceed with the exercise in historical analogies, which I proposed at the outset.
Daphne Lawless (15 April 2022):
The really amazing thing is hearing old timer anti-imperialists/peace activists and young tankies alike, making PRECISELY the same arguments for why Russia should be left alone to do its wicked business in Ukraine as their sworn enemies – Zionists – do for Israel’s wicked deeds in occupied Palestine:
“The Ukrainians/Palestinians aren’t angels – in fact, some may even be fascists”,
“Russia/Israel is just defending its borders and its right to protect itself from its aggressive neighbours, who are using Palestine/Ukraine as a cat’s paw”,
“Why don’t Ukrainians/Palestinians just surrender to the stronger army to save lives?”
It’s especially amazing since they were so morally clear about why a regime infinitely more “dodgy” than Ukraine – Saddam’s Iraq or the Taliban’s Afghanistan – would not be improved by imperialist bombs and tanks. And they were right.
But then, they did the same thing in Syria, and in Bosnia – or even in East Timor, where it was explicitly argued that the consequences of Australia/NZ intervention would be much worse than simply leaving the Indonesian army to finish the genocide.
That logic was morally bankrupt then – a parody of the noble slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow”. The idea that actual genocide is tolerable as long as Western imperialism doesn’t get involved is leading to an explicit alliance between communists/socialists and actual fascists – just like it did in the 1930s.
I stand with the rights of ALL oppressed people to resist imperialist aggression and invasion; and for their rights to use ANY MEANS NECESSARY to defend themselves, including buying a fuckton of arms from whomever will sell to them. YES, that means, for example, I defend the Solomon Islands’ right to do a deal with PR China should they choose to do so. To argue otherwise (because it might be of benefit to the imperialism that you, personally, oppose) is to say to those people: “it is better for you to die, for your children to be enslaved/stripped of their culture, than for a certain imperialist power to get any advantage over the other one which happens to be genociding you”.
It is an abstract, inhumane politics which sees only states where there are suffering people. It is a blindspot which is just unchallenged on most of the activist Left, and it is one reason why “normies” have no interest in Left organisations.
MG,Jr. response to Daphne Lawless:
I agree that Daphne Lawless’s statement (above) is superb.
I had a very dear friend, Louis Proyect (RIP) who was the best-informed Marxist I had ever met, and I learned much from him. Besides his encyclopedic knowledge of Marxism (Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, everything) and of international affairs, his outstanding gift as a political analyst was that he never lost sight of the true goal of all such activity: to always relieve human suffering — even if sacrificing one’s ideological consistency was necessary at times. That focus on people first is what set Louis above all the legions of campists, and tankies, and bourgeois recreational Leftists I have seen across the Internet this century.
So, yes, “class analysis” is good, “dialectical materialism” is amusing (the Old Communist who took Jorge Semprún under his wing in the German WWII concentration camp explained it to Jorge: “Dialectical materialism means always landing on your feet”), but it is also materially, factually, historically true that sometimes NATO is good too. You can only see this if you can accept: people over ideology.
About campists and tankies: They obsess so much about what they are “against,” that they blind themselves to what they should be “for.” “Campism” is the modern continuation of Stalinism. “Tankism” is the ignoramus variety of campism.
I am not interested in ideology, I am interested in moral truths that help people generally. Such truths are always beyond the narrow confines of ideology — “political” or “religious” — and in fact are so simple that children and even animals can instinctively understand them. It takes intelligence, education and maturity to be able to find excuses justifying murderous immorality. And it takes intelligence, education and “maturity” to be able to encrust very limited thinking with jargon so as to project a facade of commanding erudition. It is my impression that for most people (even the “smart ones”) that their political awareness boils down to confirmation bias and witch burning.
Daphne stated the facts very clearly. If you cannot agree with them it is not because Daphne is factually in error, but because you are intent to defend an idea you personally identify with, despite it being contradicted by objective reality. This is not uncommon (unfortunately), it is called cognitive dissonance.
George Orwell on the Spanish war [and parallels to Ukraine, and elsewhere, today]:
“The essential horror of army life…is barely affected by the nature of the war you happen to be fighting in. Discipline, for instance, is ultimately the same in all armies. Orders have to be obeyed and enforced by punishment if necessary, the relationship of officer and man has to be the relationship of superior and inferior. The picture of war set forth in books like All Quiet on the Western Front is substantially true. Bullets hurt, corpses stink, men under fire are often so frightened that they wet their trousers. It is true that the social background from which a army springs will colour its training, tactics and general efficiency, and also that the consciousness of being in the right can bolster up morale, though this affects the civilian population more than the troops. (People forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war.) But the laws of nature are not suspended for a “red” army any more than for a “white” one. A louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb, even though the cause you are fighting for happens to be just. Why is it worthwhile to point out anything so obvious? Because the bulk of the British and American intelligentsia were manifestly unaware of it then, and are now.”
— Looking Back on the Spanish War (LBOTSW)
“As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they result rather from money and mere physical safety…We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases. The fact that such a platitude is worth writing down shows what the years of rentier capitalism have done to us.”
“I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish civil war. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the Fascists. But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved solely on the grounds of political predilection. Everybody believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without bothering to examine the evidence. Recently I drew up a table of atrocities during the period between 1918 and the present …there was hardly a single case when the Left and the Right believed in the same stories simultaneously. And stranger yet, at any moment the situation can suddenly reverse itself and yesterday’s proved-to-the-hilt atrocity story can become a ridiculous lie, merely because the political landscape has changed.”
“…the Left, the people who normally pride themselves on their incredulity…”
“The truth, it is felt, becomes untrue when your enemy utters it…But unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen. The fact often adduced as a reason for scepticism — that the same horror stories come up in war after war — merely makes it rather more likely that those stories are true. Evidently they are widespread fantasies, and war provides an opportunity of putting them into practice. Also, although it has ceased to be fashionable to say so, there is little question that what one may roughly call the ‘whites’ [autocracies, conservatives, fascists — MG,Jr.] commit far more and worse atrocities than the ‘reds.’ [democracies, liberals, socialists — MG,Jr.]…The volume of testimony is enormous…These things really happened, and that is the thing to keep one’s eye on.”
“The broad truth about the war [1936-1939 — MG,Jr.] is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world.”
The broad truth about the Russian-Ukrainian War is that the Russian autocracy of Vladimir Putin thought it saw a chance of crushing Ukrainian independence and recolonizing Ukraine, and took it, and the nature of all the other governments around the world can be gauged by their responses to Russia’s aggression, and which responses must certainly arise out of sympathy with or antipathy to Russia’s war goals, because they either mirror or conflict with the closely held political desires of those governments.
“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. [Look up ”Frank Pitcairn” for more about this — MG,Jr.]…I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’…But the broad picture of the war which the Spanish* government presented to the world was not untruthful. The main issues were what it said they were. But as for the Fascists* and their backers, how could they come even as near to the truth as that? How could they possibly mention their real aims? Their version of the war was pure fantasy, and in the circumstances it could not have been otherwise. The only propaganda line open to the Nazis* and Fascists* was to represent themselves as Christian patriots saving Spain* from a Russian [1930s — MG,Jr.] dictatorship. This involved pretending that life in Government Spain* was just one long massacre.”
This is exactly the template of the current Russian propaganda about their war in Ukraine. The bogeyman of a looming Russian (Stalinist) dictatorship in 1930s Spain projected by the Spanish Fascists and their backers (primarily Germany and Italy) has its parallel today in the Russian-Ukrainian War with Vladimir Putin’s propagandistic projection of the bogeyman of a looming Azov Battalion style neo-Nazi dictatorship seizing control of (in fact already controlling) the entire Ukrainian nation. It is remarkable how closely Vladimir Putin’s projection of a casus belli onto Ukraine mirrors the nature of his own regime in Russia.
“This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.”
“But is it perhaps childish or morbid to terrify oneself with visions of a totalitarian future?…Against the shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree, there are in reality only two safeguards. One is that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back, and you consequently can’t violate it in ways that impair military efficiency. The other is that so long as some parts of the earth remain unconquered, the liberal tradition can be kept alive. Let fascism, or possibly even a combination of several fascisms, conquer the whole world, and those two conditions no longer exist. We in England [and America — MG,Jr.] underrate the danger of this kind of thing, because our traditions and our past security have given us a sentimental belief that it all comes right in the end and the thing you most fear never really happens. Nourished for hundreds of years on a literature [movies, for Americans — MG,Jr.] in which Right invariably triumphs in the last chapter, we believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. Pacifism, for instance, is founded largely on this belief. Don’t resist evil, and it will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does? And what instance is there of a modern industrialized state collapsing unless conquered from the outside by military force?”
“In the long run — it is important to remember that it is only in the long run — the working class remains the most reliable enemy of fascism, simply because the working class stands to gain most by a decent reconstruction of society. Unlike other classes or categories, it can’t be permanently bribed. To say this is not to idealise the working class…Time after time, in country after country, the organized working class movements have been crushed by open, illegal violence, and their comrades abroad, linked to them in theoretical solidarity, have simply looked on and done nothing; and underneath this, secret cause of many betrayals, has lain the fact that between white and coloured workers there is not even lip-service to solidarity. Who can believe in the class-conscious international proletariat after the events of the past ten years? To the British working class the massacres of their comrades in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, or wherever it might be seemed less interesting and less important than yesterday’s football match. [Americans behave identically — MG,Jr.] Yet this does not alter the fact that the working class will go on struggling against fascism after the others have caved in. One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections among the intelligentsia, including some of the left-wing political intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against fascism, and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes. They are far-sighted enough to see the odds against them, and moreover they can be bribed — for it is evident that the Nazis think it worth while to bribe intellectuals. With the working class it is the other way about. Too ignorant to see through the trick being played on them, they easily swallow the promises of fascism, yet sooner of later they always take up the struggle again. They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class permanently, the fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do…What are the workers struggling for? Simply for the decent life which they are more and more aware is now technically possible…The common people knew in their bones that the Republic* was their friend and Franco* was their enemy. They knew that they were in the right, because they were fighting for something which the world owed them and was able to give them.”
“When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war…there is always the temptation to say: ‘One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral.’ In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction. The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, blimps [e.g., Donald Trump, Bashar al-Assad, Xi Jinping], and what-not would in itself be enough to show one how the land lay. In essence it was a class war. If it had been won [and this time I hope it will be — MG,Jr.], the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened.”
“The outcome of the Spanish war was settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin — at any rate, not in Spain. After the summer of 1937 those with eyes in their heads realised that the Government could not win the war unless there were some profound change in the international set-up…[dare I say massive weapons transfers to Ukraine and forgiving its foreign debt, dare I say Russia blocked in the UN by its reorganization, dare I say: NATO — MG,Jr.]…The Fascists won [in 1939 — MG,Jr.] because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t. No political strategy can offset that.”
“Whether it was right…to encourage the Spaniards* to go on fighting when they could not win [if unsupported and undersupplied from abroad — MG,Jr.] is a question hard to answer. I myself think it was right, because I believe that it is better even from the point of view of survival to fight and be conquered than to surrender without fighting.”
“When one thinks of all the people who support or have supported fascism, one stands amazed at their diversity…But the clue is really very simple. They are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. Behind all the ballyhoo that is talked about…lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them…The damned impertinence of these politicians, priests, literary men, and what-not who lecture the working-class socialist for his ‘materialism’! All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your child will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done. Not one of those who preach against “materialism” would consider life livable without these things. And how easily that minimum could be attained if we chose to set our minds to it for only twenty years! To raise the standard of living of the whole world to that of Britain would not be a greater undertaking than the war [WWII — MG,Jr.] we have just fought. I don’t claim, and I don’t know who does, that that would solve anything in itself [politically — MG,Jr.]. It is merely that privation and brute labour have to be abolished before the real problems of humanity can be tackled. [We cannot effectively tackle Climate Change until we first ‘Make poverty history,’ as Nelson Mandela said — MG,Jr.]…
“How right the working classes are in their ‘materialism’! How right they are to realise that the belly comes before the soul, not in the scale of values but in point of time! All the considerations that are likely to make one falter — the siren voices of a Petain [or Marine Le Pen — MG,Jr.] or of a Gandhi, the inescapable fact that in order to fight one has to degrade oneself, the equivocal moral position of Britain [and the United States — MG,Jr.], with its democratic phrases and coolie empire, the sinister development of Soviet Russia [and again! — MG,Jr.] the squalid farce of left-wing politics — all this fades away and one sees only the struggle of the gradually awakening common people against the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers. The question is very simple. Shall people…be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner of later, but I want it to be sooner and not later — some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years. That was the real issue of the Spanish war, and the last war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come.”
George Orwell on Gandhi and pacifism:
“Of late years it has been the fashion to talk about Gandhi as though he were not only sympathetic to the Western left-wing movement, but were integrally part of it. Anarchists and pacifists, in particular, have claimed him for their own, noticing only that he was opposed to centralism and State violence and ignoring the other-worldly, anti-humanist tendency of his doctrines. But one should, I think, realize that Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from…But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is ‘higher.’ The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all ‘radicals’ and ‘progressives,’ from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.”
— Reflections on Gandhi [ROG]
“Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not — indeed, since his whole political life centered round a struggle for national independence, he could not — take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war [WWII — MG,Jr.], one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: ‘What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?’ [And since WWII we have been faced with the same question for many other populations: Palestinians, Mayans, Bosnians, Rwandans, East Timorese, Libyans, Syrians, Rohingya, among others, and now in light of the Bucha atrocities, Ukrainians — MG,Jr.] I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I heard plenty of evasions…
“But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer…was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which ‘would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.’ After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly…
“Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths…
“It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the régime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard from again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses could only practice civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukrainian famine, it would make no difference.”
“But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one’s own government, or against an occupying power [on the order of Britain and colonial India — MG,Jr.]: even so, how does one put it into practice internationally?…Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics?”
The extraordinary thing about Orwell is that he so clearly states the obvious about the social conditions of the times, then and now, and which few can even bring themselves to face without excuses, fantasies and lies, if at all.
So, to conclude:
The Ukrainians are fighting a Just War of defense against ongoing Russian aggression, which includes mass atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians.
There is no morally justifiable pacifist response to this war, nor morally justifiable position of neutrality regarding it.
All excuses advanced to justify the Russian aggression in Ukraine, by both Vladimir Putin and “anti-imperialists” opposed only to US-NATO-Western “expansionism,” are complete lies aimed at enforcing inhuman ideologies in the forms of:
Conquest and colonization — Russian imperialism:
the destruction of the Ukrainian state and culture, and the subjugation of its people, and
Ideological consistency over the relief of human suffering:
the opposition by “anti-imperialists” of assistance to Ukraine regardless of how many Ukrainians would die as a result, because those anti-imperialists do not want any weakening of Russian opposition to Washington-consensus geopolitical power, nor any expansion of that power, as a result of any assistance the United States, in particular, might render Ukraine.
Helping Ukraine win its war as quickly as possible is the right thing to do, not just for the benefit of Ukraine, but for the moral and political advancement of the whole world.
“This is the nature of war: by protecting others you save yourself.”
— Seven Samurai (1954)