Ukraine’s political breakdown and the crisis of the Ukrainian Left

The thing is, in their fight against a corrupt government and its oligarchs, the middle class, the bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, the students, the peasants, the migrant workers and the proletariat from Western and Central Ukraine are appealing to an even more powerful bourgeoisie and to a super-state that is, unlike Ukraine, a subject, rather than an object, of world-historical processes.

This wasn’t just a political crisis anymore; what followed was a revolutionary situation with elements of civil war.

Photo by Ilya Varlamov,

This analysis of the Ukrainian situation by left-wing activist Alexander Pivtorak was written before the Yanukovych government fell. Nonetheless, we believe its questions—about the reasons for the shape and composition of Maidan, and what the attitude of the democratic left ought to be—remain relevant even as the people patrol the streets and start to build a new Ukraine. Translated from the Russian by Katia Zorich and the Russia desk from

Ukraine is not immune to global economical and political processes. In many ways its political crisis is very similar to the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, events in Greece, Turkey, Portugal, and Spain. As in a number of these, the causes of this political crisis were economic.

The situation in Ukraine has basically been like this since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The history of independent Ukraine knows several cases of economic crises transmuting into political ones. These include the “Ukraine without Kuchma” protests, “Rise up, Ukraine!,” the Orange Revolution, and the protests in Vradievka. Proximate causes would vary from the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze to the government-backed electoral fraud in favor of Yanukovych in 2004. The catalyst for the current crisis was the violent police dispersal of protesters demanding European integration on the night of November, 30, 2013.

There is a major difference between the mass anti-government and anti-oligarchic protests in Ukraine on the one hand and southern European countries on the other. If protests in the EU are lead by leftist organizations and activists—trade unions, anarchists, Trotskyists, and leftist communists—with Ukraine it is different. Here leadership has been taken by liberals and nationalists of various kinds, from groups like Udar and Batkivshchyna to Svoboda, the radical right-wing nationalist party, and Right Sector, which is an out and out Nazi group.

Why is this? Why is protest in Europe led by the left, and in Ukraine by the right? In our opinion, the primary causes are these:

1) Stalinism left a strong ideological mark on the Ukraine; its memory is still very much alive. To this day the majority of the population strongly associates Stalinism with socialism, primarily with a negative connotation.

2) It was the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) that initiated the transition from the welfare state of the Khrushchev-Breszhnev era to the neoliberal reforms of the early 1990s. And the first ones to take advantage of the state property privatization that accompanied the reforms were former members of the state administration, i.e. of the CPSU.

3) In the post-Soviet era, the Communist Party of Ukraine, led by Pyotr Symonenko, has been a fake opposition party for the past 20 years. It has prostituted and compromised the reputation of the communist movement in Ukraine, becoming, eventually, the de facto leftist wing of Yanukovich’s Party of Regions. Its VIP-communists live in chic mansions and drive Audies and Mercedes, asserting all the while that they keep a close watch on the interests of the working class.

Is it any wonder then that the nationalists gush into the streets, Lenin is knocked off his pedestal, and there are calls for banning the CPU, as a party, alongside the Party of Regions?

On January 16 the CPU and the Party of Regions passed a set of anti-protest ‘dictatorship laws’ that were to come into force in Kiev and other cities. This wasn’t just a political crisis anymore; what followed was a revolutionary situation with elements of civil war.

So, who’s fighting whom? Class analysis reveals that the struggle is between two major forces. On the one side, oligarchs presiding over financial and industrial monopolies, represented by Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. On the other side, the petty bourgeoisie and middle class, including intellectuals, students, and farmers. Their interests are represented by various groups led by Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, Tyahnybok, and others.

What do the oligarchs want?  They want unlimited access to the power (and budget resources) that guarantee the security of their capital accumulation and surplus value. They also want to keep close ties with Russia and secure its support in repressing the opposition.

And what about the opposition—these decent citizens, artisans, small traders? They want equal rights and a fair game for everyone. They are fighting for democracy and the abolition of tyranny as the main strategy of corrupted authority and its police. One of their goals is to stop the oligarchs from oppressing small businesses. They want to build ties with the EU to have support in their struggle against the oligarchy, the Party of Regions, and, of course, President Yanukovych.

What about the working class? It seems to be left behind. There are no economic advantages for it either way; it doesn’t do the working class any good if the oligarchy remains dominant with the rest of the ruling class, or if the petty bourgeoisie takes over, or if Moscow or Brussels interfere. The Russian-speaking proletariat of southern Ukraine is under an economic knout. What they fear, in the event of a victory for the nationalist opposition, is that to this knout will be added one of Ukrainian nationalism.

Does this mean that the working class has no interest in the current situation? No, it doesn’t. A victory for Euromaidan would, clearly, be a breakthrough for the bourgeoisie. A victory of the oligarchy and the ruling class – or, really, a maintenance of their status quo – would mean a victory for reaction and a delaying of the inevitable.

In fact, the sooner Yanukovych and the ruling party are defeated and Ukraine becomes integrated into the economic and political structures of Europe, the sooner the majority of Ukraine’s working class, petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals will realize one thing: that the crux of the matter lies not in whether the authorities are good or bad, corrupt or honest; nor whether the dominant influence on the country comes from Moscow, Brussels, or even Washington; but in capitalism. It’s capitalism that ceaselessly creates vast wealth for some, and miserable poverty for others; uninterrupted labor for some, and unemployment for others; an endless choice of commodities for some, and an inability to pay for even small things for others; civilization over here, and barbarism over there; it is under capitalism that some become fabulous oligarchs and other become wage slaves, subject to abusive authority and the police state.

Everyone was affected by the crisis that followed the dispersal of Euromaidan’s young protesters by the Berkut riot police on November, 30. Not only the government, but leftists, too.

How should one feel about Maidan?

Should we support it, join the opposition, participate?

After all this movement is run by the ultra-right groups such as Svoboda and the Right Sector.

Should we not support it and stay out of the fight?

After all we’re talking about thousands, even tens and hundreds of thousands of people who occupied Maidan and the streets of Kiev and other cities, demanding an end to the symbiosis of the police state and criminal gangs of the government. They’re fighting for their essential rights and their freedom.

So should we support it? But Svoboda and the Right Sector define the situation as a nationalist revolution. Leftists are beaten up on Maidan, and those who beat them join in chanting: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!”, “Glory to the nation! Death to its enemies!”, “Ukraine above all else!”

So we shouldn’t support it? But what about the human dignity claimed by the participants of the Maidan movement, their fight for democracy, European values, civil rights, freedom and independence? The people out on Maidan feel that the EU flag is just as much their flag as the blue and yellow of Ukraine; the Maidan protesters want to see these flags together, because only then shall Ukraine finally prosper.

You’ll agree it’s confusing, and hard to make up your mind. Only the Stalinists seem to know exactly what to do: “no wonder there’s an openly fascist coup when the authorities are so lenient and submissive. The Nazis know an opportunity when they see one. Yanukovych needs to stop dilly-dallying, declare a state of emergency, get all those fuckers off Maidan, and put its leaders behind the bars for, say, 15 years, so others take the hint.”

As for us, we’re only certain of one thing: in order to pick sides we have to know exactly what we’re dealing with. The national liberation movement wants to turn Maidan into a nationalist revolution, Stalinists and Russian chauvinists see it as a fascist coup, and those who fight for democracy call it an overthrow of the oligarchy. The problem is, Maidan is like a magic cube that somehow includes all of these disparate groups and elements, which constantly move, change positions, and expose different patterns. One possible key to this puzzle could be placing it in a broader historical and international context.

So: Can the protests unfolding in Kyiv and other cities be called a nationalist revolution, as the right wing wants it to be? No, they can’t. The reason is that Ukraine was not a colony inside the USSR. This can be demonstrated by the fact that, twenty years into independence, Ukraine still hasn’t reached the same economic indicators as it enjoyed during Soviet times. And how can we talk about a revolution of national liberation when Ukraine is already an autonomous, independent country?

The era of national liberation movements ended shortly after World War II, when nearly all the former colonies achieved their independence. There have been some national liberation movements since then, but today’s Ukraine is definitely not one of them.

Could this be a fascist coup, then? Decide for yourself, but before you do that, take a look at the Maidan movement manifesto issued on December, 29 of 2013.[1] Do those demands and goals seem fascist to you?

We don’t want to pretend like there are no nationalists, racists, and fascists on Maidan. There are, and their presence is strong; but, let’s be honest, this is no fascist coup. Ukraine’s ultra right groups wouldn’t have any objections to establishing a fascist dictatorship in Ukraine, liquidating the parliament, forcing Ukrainization on the Southeast, erecting monuments to Bandera, Shukhevych, Petliura and other leaders of the nationalist movement all over Crimea, Odessa, Donbas, the Donets Basin, and so on — if they only could. But they lack the strength to do this, and there are neither internal nor external causes for this scenario anyway. There might be a chance for the ultra-right if the EU were to fall apart, but so far it’s dealt with its problems somehow without any dramatic consequences, and even Greece is still a part of it.

Ukraine’s geographical location, trapped between the EU and Russia, would quite literally be the stumbling block for a fascist putsch. This scenario is reactionary and utopian, even more so than a successful socialist revolution, which some naïve quasi-communists and Stalinists still discuss as a possibility.

One is reminded of the old joke: A sign on an elephant’s cage in the zoo says he eats about 50 pounds of bread, 40 pounds of potatoes, 20 pounds of cabbage, 100 pounds of bananas, and so on. Amazed, a visitor asks the zoo keeper: “Would the elephant really eat all that?” “Oh, he’d have no problem eating it. But who’s going to give it to him?”

And so we reach the other option for what’s happening on Maidan: a national-democratic, anti-oligarchic revolution. Or, to put it more carefully, a national-democratic, petty bourgeois, anti-oligarchic mass movement.

We’ve already tackled the question of why it is that the situation has a clearly stronger nationalistic and patriotic character than a leftist and democratic one.  But we should also explain why it’s become a confrontation of Western and Central Ukraine against the Southeast.

The southeastern part of Ukraine, the Russian-speaking part, is the land of heavy industry, with most of its products intended for the export market. Unlike Western Ukraine, it is highly urbanized; with the exception of Kyiv, every city in Ukraine with more than a million residents is in the Southeast. In addition, there are a handful of cities that would easily be considered regional centers in Western and Central parts of Ukraine, but that’s not the case in the Southeast. Makeevka has 356 thousands inhabitants, Mariupol 482 thousands, Krivyi Rih 659 thousands, Dneprodzerzhinsk 254 thousands, and Sevastopol 338 thousands.

Unlike the Southeast, Central and Western Ukraine is primarily a rural region with not much industry at all. Its population prefers Ukranian to Russian, and its small enterprises mostly cater to the local market.

The culture and mentality of people living in Central and Western Ukraine is still dominated by the village, not the city. They are very religious; the Church is a major part of Western Ukrainian life, whereas in the Southeast it has almost no significance at all. Finally, whereas patriotism characterizes the villages of Central and, particularly, Western Ukraine, the Southeast maintains an open, cosmopolitan attitude.

That explains why the current situation feels more like a movement of nationalists and patriots rather than that of national democrats against the oligarchs. Our nationalists are very similar to the Muslim Brotherhood of the Arab Spring, although the Brotherhood’s ideology was more conservative and reactionary than ours.

There’s something else here. Maidan would be an exact replica of the reactionary movement of the Muslim Brotherhood if everything could be brought down to the simple antitheses we’ve been discussing: urban versus rural, heavy industry versus small enterprises, big business versus the petty bourgeoisie, Russian versus Ukrainian, atheists versus the Church, the Communist Party of Ukraine versus Svodoba, and so on.

But that’s not how it is. The thing is, in their fight against a corrupt government and its oligarchs, the middle class, the bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, the students, the peasants, the migrant workers and the proletariat from Western and Central Ukraine are appealing to an even more powerful bourgeoisie and to a super-state that is, unlike Ukraine, a subject, rather than an object, of world-historical processes.

I’m talking, of course, of the EU. Ukraine borders with Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to the west, and it’s no wonder the vicinity and attraction to the bigger power and stronger democracy of the EU is so attractive.

Euromaidan is nationalist and patriotic only in its form. In its actual content, it’s a progressive bourgeois, not to say internationalist, movement aimed at integration.

In politics, one should never judge a book by its cover. For example, the CP led by Pyotr Symonenko call themselves communist revolutionaries when in fact they are conservatives, followers of capitalism in Ukraine and Russia. In the same way, the bourgeois democratic revolutionaries led by Tyahnybok call themselves reactionary nationalists and followers of an outmoded patriotism.

As Marx wrote,  «Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue».

The events of 2013 and 2014 are no exception from this pattern of historical irony: what’s being executed goes contrary to what’s being planned, and the realization of the plan does not match its goals.

The mass movement of the French Revolution was a fight for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but what its participants really accomplished was replacing one set of exploiters with another. In the same way the Stalinist bureaucracy promoted collectivization and industrialization as clearing a ground for socialism, but instead those policies created the initial primitive capital accumulation that set the stage for state capitalism in the USSR.

In the same way our patriots wholeheartedly believe that Euromaidan is a national liberationist revolution, when in fact what they’re really fighting for is Ukraine’s subjugation and the loss of its independence.

It’s best not to interrupt them. The concept of the nation-state as a world-historical subject has become outdated, in Europe and everywhere else. Belief in it will bring nothing but oblivion for those who choose it, be it the Party of Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine, or the Right Sector.

Global bourgeois ideologists have a deeper and and clearer understanding of the Maidan movement and events in Ukraine than the leaders of the movement and the petty bourgeois themselves. The famous American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski said the following recently in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda: « We shouldn’t deal with the Ukrainian problem as an anti-Russian problem. From a historical perspective, it’s better to look at the latest events in Ukraine as the start of a long process which will lead not only to the broadening of Europe, not only to Ukrainian inclusion, but also to Russian inclusion. <..> And the strategic vision of the West should be: ‘We want Ukraine to be in Europe, but not as a weapon against Russia, but as the beginning of a process that eventually will include Russia.’».

Most of Ukraine’s leftists are very concerned with their insignificance and lack of authority in the current situation, as well as in general. We should admit it: our status hasn’t changed much since the left was crushed and defeated by the Stalinists in the 1930s.

The current crisis in Ukraine is a very good chance to come to some conclusions about our situation, to be realistic and see where we are and what our potential is.

And that shall be our advantage. We are not going to see our illusions shattered like those participants of the Maidan movement who genuinely believe in the possibility of building an autonomous nation state with fair trade and incorruptible parliamentary democracy next to such gigantic capitalist conglomerations as the EU and the Customes Union. What bitter disappointment awaits them once they realize that no state that wants to protect the welfare of its citizens will be able to survive in a world where Chinese merchandise sets low prices for everything, including labor.

Our advantage on the left is that, unlike the ideologists, leaders, and participants of Maidan, we already know that. Our goal is to convert this advantage into a strong organizational potential, using the stirred enthusiasm, the people, the energy of Euromaidan. We have to realize that a socialist Ukraine is not possible without the combined efforts of the proletariat in Europe, Ukraine, and Russia. There will be no socialism without this union.

And so I say: Glory to Ukraine!

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