Campism and the War in Ukraine

Image by Kevin Schmid.

Campism generally splits the world into two antagonistic orders, or great ‘camps’ – in simplistic terms, it is the split between the camp of capitalism and the camp of socialism; the great Cold War rivalry between the United States, its NATO allies and (neo)colonies, versus the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics and its Iron Curtain puppet states; today, it’s the imperialist and capitalist West versus the other(s) opposed to Western hegemony – China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela. With these distinctions in mind, reflecting heavily on the original split between capitalism and socialism that constitutes the very foundation of the campist worldview, an important question must be asked – why are some Western socialists and avowed anti-imperialists today proclaiming bourgeois capitalist states like Russia to be fighting for the great camp of socialism?

Arguments made on social media platforms by anonymous commentators, publishings by pro-Putin ‘patriotic socialist’ political formations, and even the Russian communist party all claim that Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine serves the purpose of destabilising US hegemony, challenging imperialist expansion through military organisations like NATO, and disrupting the exploitive Western global economic system. Frankly, these are selective claims that are as dishonest as they are delusional. Moreover, these are grotesquely revisionist and historically unfounded claims, flying disrespectfully in face of the theoretical contributions and revolutionary analysis of Marx and Lenin. We must turn towards historical and political fact in order to debunk such positions, ensuring that the revolutionary and socialist spirit and character of the Marxist tradition are not dishonestly distorted and denigrated to support a reductionist and campist view on the inter-imperialist capitalist rivalry underpinning the Russia-Ukraine war.

To be a part of the ‘socialist camp’ requires fighting for the freedom and liberation of workers – this fact is indispensable; it is integral to classical definitions and articulations of campism. So, with this in mind, is Russia a socialist nation? The short, medium and long answer is no. Russia, today, is a profusely neoconservative capitalist nation under the rulership of a bourgeois nationalist political party and leader; we must note that the nation rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union, welcoming in western finance capital and corporations – McDonald’s, with its famous golden arches, was nefariously plastered all over international media as finance capital’s substitute for victoriously waving one’s national flag over a conquered nation. Previously public-owned state assets, such as control over Russian gas and oil, were corruptly sold off to the country’s parasitic capitalist pro-Putin oligarchs of today[1]. Marx and Lenin would both certainly lament the whitewashing and dishonest legitimisation of such oligarchs, purportedly operating with a ‘socialist character’ by those who falsely claim Russia to be a socialist nation. In sum, the modern Russian state arose through a framework of neoliberalism and privatisation that was overseen by the West and its liberal reformers, such as Boris Yeltsin, 1st President of Russia, a man who also banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)[2].

Russia is, quite simply and very clearly, not socialist. This is a fundamental, rudimentary fact that is overwhelmingly supported by widely available historical evidence and validated by any serious Marxist. Socialism requires workers’ control over the means of production, be it through the state, workers’ councils or any other form of organisation and control. A brief look at Russia and we observe that the means of production are owned and controlled by the bourgeoisie, by the profiteers and owners of business and capital who exploit and pocket the surplus value created by the labour of the Russian proletariat. Movements and organisations for workers’ control over the means of production have largely been either suppressed or co-opted by the national bourgeois state. An example we may consider is the case of Russian communist and Volgograd Mayor Roman Grebennikov switching political allegiance in 2008 from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) to Putin’s ruling United Russia party. What kind of legitimate radical Communist party, one that isn’t in bed with the establishment, has its senior political figures changing their allegiance to join bourgeois, pro-capitalist, anti-communist, conservative political formations?

Moreover, it can be argued that the political activity of the CPRF and other socialist formations in Russian bourgeois politics directly contradicts the writings of Vladimir Lenin – whose legacy they are best positioned to continue, given their cultural, social, linguistic and historical proximity to the heart of Lenin’s activities as well as their access to Soviet archives and publications. Lenin was explicitly clear in his critique of bourgeois politics and participation as radicals; one must look no further than his quarrel with the Mensheviks over whether the revolutionary masses were ‘ready for socialism’ and had enough familiarity and experience with democracy. The Mensheviks believed that as the era of liberal capitalism had just begun in Russia, with the successful bourgeois February revolution toppling the Tsar, more time was needed to develop, prepare, and ready the proletariat for the socialism to come – which, according to the Marxist theory of historical materialism and stages of history, required the rule of the bourgeoisie as a necessary historical precursor to the subsequent rule of the proletariat. As such, the Mensheviks were happy to compromise and temporarily work with the capitalists, liberals, and social democrats of the Provisional Government that nominally controlled Russia following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, seeking to secure provisions for workers’ rights and protect what political gains they could under the new ‘democratic’ order.

Lenin knew this was nonsense, recognising that power truly rested with the Soviets (workers’ councils) rather than the Duma from which the ‘democratic’ bourgeois Provisional Government ruled. He famously went on to lead the successful proletarian October revolution months later. Lenin also explicitly decried bourgeois democracy for what it truly was – a shell for bourgeois interests[3] in The State and Revolution:

“A democratic republic is the best possible shell for capitalism and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell… it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions, or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it”

“To decide once every few years which members of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament – this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in most democratic republics”.

Therefore, with Lenin’s wisdom in mind, communist parties that align their political interests and operate exclusively within the bourgeois-democratic shell and not among the working masses – who should constitute their power base – are acting in opposition to Lenin’s revolutionary theory. It is extremely worrying that the Russian communist party has supported Putin’s national bourgeois war in Ukraine. Reports suggest they have had contact with ultranationalist commanders and militants operating in Eastern Ukraine’s contested regions[4]. The CPRF’s support for capitalist Russia’s imperialist foreign policy – as shown to readers of Professor Luke March’s analysis of the CPRF and its various factions, assessing the impact of the party’s position as “one of the most assiduous supporters of the Russian proxy states in the Donbas, even being the instigator of the Duma law on their recognition in February 2022”[5] – adds further fuel to legitimate concerns around the CPRF’s complicity and enablement of the bourgeois capitalist establishment. Again, that any serious communist party would support a bourgeois nationalist war that has resulted in the conscripting of working-class bodies, tells you all you need to know about the contemporary socialist movement in Russia. The nation is no more socialist than the United States, and there seems to be no serious socialist contender or grounded working-class opposition on the political horizon.

Regarding Russian imperialism, the nation’s involvement in Ukraine goes back many centuries to the imperial Tsarist reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, two towering figures in Russian national and imperial history whose conquests helped shape the borders of modern Russia. Both monarchs recognised the importance of importing ruling cultures, logics, institutions and functions from Western Europe into the backward and decaying Russian aristocracy, with their reigns becoming famed for their ‘modernisation’ – i.e. an aristocratic alliance with the bourgeoisie and the socio-political adoption of the Western European model of imperial expansion, colonial dispossession, labour and resource expropriation, etc. They significantly expanded Russian territory through violence and bloodshed, annexing places with strong political relevance today, such as Crimea, conquered by the mid-18th century. It is undoubtedly of no coincidence that almost three hundred years later, Russia would once again invade, conquer, and annex Crimea in 2014 under President Putin, who even likened himself to Peter the Great[6].

The Russian Empire began to refer to the area known as Ukraine today, including Crimea, as ‘Little Russia’, further reflecting its adoption of the norms of Western European colonisation – imposing names and shaping the cultures and identities of those who were conquered, colonised, exploited, oppressed and dispossessed. As many Ukrainians would proudly point out, their national history extends far beyond the Russian imperialism of the 18th century, with clear Polish and European influences observable today in the country’s architecture, language and culture. Ukraine’s distinct national history and nationhood were indeed even recognised by the likes of Lenin, whose recognition of the above was attacked and decried by Putin as a “mistake” that placed a “time-bomb” under Russia. In Putin’s view, explicitly announcing his condemnation of Lenin to the world during a speech on the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, Lenin was responsible for the “disintegration of our united country”[7]. This fact, once again, calls into question the true allegiance of Russian communists, who seem to be more aligned with the imperialist and anti-Leninist foreign policy of the capitalist Putin than they are with the communist Lenin. Similarly, this extends to pro-Russia campists, who seem happy to align with anti-communists and unconcerned by their legitimisation of anti-Leninist discourses, even as socialists and communists themselves.

For more examples of Russian imperialism, we need not even look beyond Russia’s current imperial borders, which, like the United States, Canada, Australia, and other settler colonial nations, are masked as ‘federal’ borders. Dagestan and Chechnya are two non-orthodox, non-Russian locales that were violently conquered, colonised and incorporated into the Russian Empire following wars and conquests in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both places have, in recent decades, seen a flurry of separatist violence as religious and cultural liberation movements sought freedom and independence from Moscow’s authoritarian rule. The bombing of Grozny during the 2nd Chechen War, the regional capital of Chechnya, had photographs of a particularly nasty and gruesome aftermath circulating through international media coverage. Russian imperialism in Dagestan and Chechnya has spawned, in reaction, violent Islamic extremism following the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed and countless lives lost to the many wars of conquest and subsequent centuries-long iron fist used to maintain Moscow’s rule over what they saw as peripheral regions of their empire.

Sadly, this imperial condition continued throughout Soviet rule, particularly in the post-Lenin era. A prime example of this would be the reign of Joseph Stalin, his forced population transfers of over 171,000 ethnic Koreans to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan[8], alongside his responsibility for the violent excesses of the liquidation of the Kulaks as a class – forming a significant part of the tragic historical event referred to as the Holodomor genocide – joins a long list of Russian imperial atrocities taking place under both Tsarist and Soviet regimes. Bourgeois and Soviet historians disagree on the death toll, but one thing must be agreed by all – even one death is one too many. The point is clear; Russia has an indisputable record, both contemporary and historical, of imperial violence, colonial dispossession, and attacks on civilian populations resisting the rule of a people, culture, language, religion, and civilisation that is foreign to them. Russia’s imperialism can be rightly argued to be dwarfed by the West’s imperialism – hundreds of millions slaughtered and entire continents dispossessed and colonised – but we must not forget that the experience of such violence is subjective. It’s easy to downplay and dismiss Russian imperial genocides and militaristic aggression when you’re not in Ukraine, Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, and other places decimated and permanently shaped by the above.

So what does this mean for the campist positions incorrectly embraced by socialists and anti-imperialists today? Well, a campist view of the world that is characterised (and weakened!) by such naked hypocrisies, historical revisionism, and legitimisation of anti-communists, such as their support for capitalists attacking Lenin; the campist position on the Ukraine war specifically and generally when seeking to understand conflict in the 21st-century world, is one we should not take seriously as principled Marxists. Such views should be dismissed and disregarded for the ahistorical, counter-productive, reductionist takes and assumptions on which they are founded. As this article has shown, the Russian communist party is in bed with the bourgeois nationalist establishment; ‘patriotic socialists’ and similar nationalist heresies of Marxism remain fringe and as alienated by the establishment as they are by serious socialist formations; social media users who call for Ukraine’s total annexation by capitalist Russia, alongside its ethnic cleansing through the derogatory dismissal of Ukrainian culture and nationhood, are anonymous for a reason.

Criticism of Ukraine’s own (ultra)national(ist) bourgeoisie, NATO approachment, the state sanctioning of far-right groups and neo-Nazi iconography and politics, such as that of the notorious Azov battalion, now an incorporated regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, should rightly be discussed, considered, and condemned. To ignore these facts and critiques would be to risk falling into a similarly incorrect campist position. Neo-Nazi whitewashing and right-wing overtures should always be attacked; however, it is an extreme generalisation to suggest the entire Ukrainian state is fascist or aligns with such views. Similarly, this serves to erase the loud voice and resistance of Ukrainian socialists, who are struggling against the rise and empowerment of domestic nationalism alongside their resistance against the Russian invasion.

Finally, we must take into calculation the fact that a brutal invasion and violation of national sovereignty will always lead to right-wing overtures and the empowerment of reactionary groups and ideologies – we witnessed this in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, all places where foreign intervention ended up empowering extremists and reactionaries rather than pre-existing socialist formations. This is especially true in Afghanistan, where the Soviet invasion and the later US occupation both served only to embolden and empower conservative reactionaries like the Taliban, who similarly gained reductionist campist support from Western ‘anti-imperialists’ seeking to counter the US, no matter whom that meant they ended up supporting.

The only position for Marxists and anti-imperialists to take here would be to align our interests with the Ukrainian and Russian working masses – proletarian minds and bodies whose lives have been derailed, whose homes and communities have been decimated, and whose bodies are being conscripted for a war they did not want. A Russian victory will only embolden Putin, his neoconservative bourgeois capitalist regime and the Duginist strategic geopolitical vision for the wider region. Of course, a Ukrainian victory – the liberation of Crimea and the Donbas region from Russian (or proxy) occupation or otherwise – would embolden NATO and strengthen Western regional hegemony, too.

But at least with the latter, Russia’s bourgeoisie would be significantly weakened by this unpopular war, and the class struggle in Ukraine could resume. It is a fact that the class struggle cannot take place under conditions of foreign occupation, so the defence and liberation of Ukraine is a necessity for Ukrainian socialists. Likewise, the weakening of the firm decades-long grip and domestic political hegemony held by the Russian bourgeoisie is a necessary step for the Russian class struggle. The successful defence of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the best possible and most desirable outcome for the fighting, struggling, sweating, toiling, resisting, labouring, and working masses of both nations.

Notes

1. How ‘shock therapy’ created Russian oligarchs and paved the path for Putin : Planet Money : NPR

2. Yeltsin bans Communist Party – UPI Archives

3. The State and Revolution – Chapter 3 (marxists.org)

4. How Russia’s opposition parties are supporting the war against Ukraine | openDemocracy

5. Putin’s War Is Exposing the Cracks in Russia’s Communist Party (jacobin.com)

6. Putin compares Ukraine invasion to Peter the Great’s conquests | The Independent

7. Was Lenin really the architect of modern Ukraine – or is Vladimir Putin rewriting history? (telegraph.co.uk)

8. Why Stalin ordered the forced relocation of ethnic groups – Russia Beyond (rbth.com)

Malick Doucouré is a researcher on Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. He is currently investigating the role of cocoa farmers in Gold Coast anticolonial nationalism, through a MPhil/PhD European & International Studies at King’s College, London.