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Ukraine's ruling elite desperate to besmirch socialist ideas
Observations following a visit to Ukraine
Pete Glover, a member of the National Union of Teachers executive and Merseyside Socialist Party, recently returned from a visit to the Ukraine. Here he comments on some of the views and sights he encountered.
Given the gravity of the situation in Ukraine the working class must unite and create institutions such as truly independent trade unions and a political party of working people. Unarguably the government of the oligarchs is destroying the livelihoods and pensions of ordinary people.
At the same time, for Marxists, it is also vital to oppose the imperialist designs of America and the EU, as well as Putin's imperialist ambitions, and to defend the rights of all minorities and groups.
The obstacles to socialism are formidable. There is a patriotic, nationalist mood currently sweeping the country in central and western areas. There are Ukrainian flags in many cars and they are flying too from the balconies of a lot of ordinary people's homes in working class districts. But there are also people who believe that this is a war caused by oligarchs and is a smokescreen. However there is no vehicle for this sentiment to take root at present.
In the west of the country the Bandera monuments and museums are prominent. One person I met in the west described the actions of paramilitary ultra-nationalist Lyashko thus: "He is a man that speaks the truth." However, in all the Bandera museums and in all the nationalist propaganda they always downplay Bandera's fascist allies and his party's disgraceful record (the OUN) during the Second World War. Bandera is presented as a sort of Mel Gibson Braveheart, not a fascist collaborator and there is no outright fascist sentiment in the vast majority of people in any part of the country.
Recently the last of the Lenin statues were destroyed. It would be a mistake to believe that these statues have been smashed by a popular anti-Stalinist mood sweeping the people. These statues have stood for many years after the restoration of capitalism in Ukraine. Despite the image of Lenin being bizarrely used by some to promote Russian nationalism there are deeper reasons for this.
There is a need to create a new "Ukrainian" national identity in the image of the new Ukrainian leadership and the very unsteady ruling class of Ukraine. The smashing of the statues and the waving of flags are a symbolic part of the desperate measures calculated to create a new legitimacy for the government and to remove any association, however distant in time, to working class resistance.
The statue smashing is also the work of far-right groups temporarily in the ascendancy - and used crucially but briefly by the Yatseniuk/Tymoshenko/Poroshenko axis to divert a popular movement against the naked oligarchical power of Yanukovych and to impose regime change.
Some on the left have said that the destruction of the statues is part of the lowering of consciousness after the fall of Stalinism. There is a grain of truth in this - but the reality is much more complex, and sinister. The ruling class is desperate to besmirch socialist ideas. Hand in hand with the destruction of the statues of Lenin is an expensive propaganda campaign to also attack the ideas of Leon Trotsky.
The accompanying photos come from an "exhibition" in Maidan Square in Kiev. The associated text consciously distorts history and refers to Bolshevik "colonialism" and the "occupation" of Ukraine in 1917. But pride of place in this so-called history lesson in the heart of Ukraine is given to Leon Trotsky, himself born in Ukraine.
One or two phrases he used during the post-Russian Revolution civil war are twisted beyond all recognition in order to discredit the ideas of Marxism and to ideologically disarm the working class in Ukraine. Of course there is no mention of Trotsky's opposition to Great Russian oppression that can be read in his seminal work calling for Ukrainian independence in 1939.
Although Russian television presents a picture of refugees fleeing to Russia to avoid the advance of the Ukrainian army in the east of Ukraine, there are also many refugees throughout Ukraine. One refugee from Lugansk I spoke with said that families are divided in loyalties but the separatist forces can in no way at all be described as a "people's army", even though they may have the passive support of a section of the population. It is a 'better the devil you know' state of affairs for people throughout the region.
The remnants of Yanukovych's supporters clearly played a role with Russian assistance in the creation of the Donetsk People's Republic, which has, by the way, adopted the colours of imperial Tsarist Russia as its banner. The idea that some on the left adopt - that the separatists of the Donetsk People's Republic should be supported against the Ukrainian government - is completely anti-working class and against everything that socialism stands for. The twin military parades in Kiev and Donetsk underline this in red.
Putin's intervention in Crimea has made many ordinary Ukrainians afraid of his imperial reach over the rest of Ukraine and the involvement of Russian citizens, troops and equipment lead many Ukrainians to support the military campaign in the east as a means to defend the country from a possible Russian invasion. Clearly Russian boots are on the ground in Ukraine even if under the pretence that they are "on leave" from regular army duties in Russia!
Meanwhile inflation soars and the economy spirals downwards along with already desperately low living standards. There has been no hot water in Kiev and other main cities for months. The war is, at present, a distraction for many who see a need to "stabilise" the country. Some believe that although the government has many faults, there is a need to defend the country from Putin's intervention and so judgment is deferred. Meanwhile the casualties mount - over 2,000 are dead. A doctor from a military hospital told me that because of the heavy duty ordnance used in this conflict, injuries sustained by soldiers are "worse than the Soviet-Afghan war".
It is wrong to underplay the far-right elements who constitute a significant spearhead of the armed forces and whose voice far outreach their base in the population (the far-right received derisory votes in the Ukrainian election). These forces do constitute a potentially very serious threat to the working class - in the future - and also a barrier in the creation of a mass working class alternative.
What the Maidan movement has done, however, is to place the ruling elite in Ukraine on very shaky foundations. Yanukovych made very serious mistakes in taking a bite out of all the other oligarchs. His bite was too big, with theft, robbery and vandalism on an epic scale. The oligarchs saw the threat from below and, terrified, decided he had to go.
Although the institutions of the working class are very weak and incomparably so by western European standards, a precedent against rule by the 'few', against elite power, has been set. The creation of mass organisations of the working class could - and in fact will only - be built rapidly under the pressure of revolutionary events and the example of the overthrow of Yanukovych.
Crucially, the Maidan movement was initially begun by the youth and students but was derailed under the leadership of pro-Western oligarchs using elements of the far right. But the example of a tyrant being overthrown has been etched indelibly into the consciousness of the broad masses. The next Maidan will certainly raise the urgent social issues that are temporarily hidden just beneath the surface but waiting to burst asunder the fragile rule of the capitalist class.