The policy John McDonnell urged last week is essentially that of the Tory Party and its more belligerent elements

John McDonnell has written a considered article explaining his support for supplying more and more arms to Ukraine in its war against Russian invasion. It echoes points made in an open letter he and a few other Labour MPs signed last week.

Given John’s long record on the left and high standing within the movement his arguments will doubtless receive close attention.

His case boils down to one essential point – Ukrainian socialists and trade unionists want the arms, so they should be given them.

Of course, there is more to his case than that. He condemns the Russian invasion as an illegal act of aggression, and on that Stop the War stands with him. He recognises Ukraine’s right to defend itself, which we have always supported, and is sceptical about utopian plans to end the conflict.

John cites “comrades from the Social Movement and the Miners Union” in Ukraine as calling for more arms to repel continuing Russian invasion. Superficially, it sounds like a plausible reason.

These Ukrainians want “a reunited country based upon respect for the languages and cultures of all its citizens. They reject what they describe as the imperialism of East or West,” John writes.

However, to state the obvious, the arms will not be supplied to Ukrainian leftists and trade unionists. They will be supplied to the Zelensky regime in Kyiv.

This regime has banned a host of left-wing parties, including the Communist Party of Ukraine, Left Opposition, Opposition Platform – For Life, Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialists (Ukraine) and the Union of Left Forces.  Some of these had significant support in the country and considerable parliamentary representation but all have been driven out of political life for being “pro-Russian”.

Their views cannot be taken into consideration on the subject of continuing the war by John or anyone else, since they are suppressed. They may indeed be minority views compared to those of the socialists John speaks to, but that merely highlights the complex relationship of class and national issues in Ukraine, something John will understand from his long and principled campaigning around Ireland.

As it is, their dissent cannot be publicly articulated, and the voices John hears are the only ones permitted.

As for trade unions, Zelensky has signed into law new rules removing all trade union rights and collective bargaining from workers in workplaces of under 250 employees, or around 70% of the total workforce.

Collective bargaining agreements have been scrapped and the unions’ legal right to veto dismissals has been likewise abolished. Allegedly this is to deal with the economic consequences of the Russian invasion, but the law was in fact first proposed in 2021, before the attack.

A last-minute amendment was agreed that limited these provisions for the duration of martial law, however long that may be, but no-one would bet on their repeal thereafter.

These measures are the work of the regime being sustained by NATO, including British, arms. Ukrainian trade unionists and socialists have the right to form a bloc with this authoritarian government if they wish.  It is also true that Russian occupation would be still worse.

However, to write that the “aim of the trade unions and the socialists of the Social Movement is to ensure that a peace is created based upon trade union rights, workers’ control and public ownership” ignores that we are arming a government heading in precisely the opposite direction.  Solidarity with Ukrainian workers and socialists is vital, but it is not the same as solidarity with a Ukrainian regime which has done so much to divide Ukrainians along national and ethnic lines.

It is also a poor basis for the left here to formulate its policy towards war – in 2003 if one had spoken to Ahmed Chalabi or various Kurdish socialists one would have found support for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, as John will recall.  That would not have made it right.

And this is a war which our own government is, in effect, fighting.

John does not address this point – the policy he urges is essentially the same as that of the Tory Party, and its more belligerent elements. He would rightly not give Sunak, Johnson or Truss a minute’s credit on any other political issue. To assume that on the Ukraine war their policy somehow aligns with Ukrainian socialists and workers is illogical.

Sunak et al have of course no interest whatsoever in the rosy progressive perspectives for Ukraine which John sketches. They will back the prevalent authoritarian neoliberalism in Kyiv to the hilt. And it is a fact that those who depend on foreign arms depend also on their suppliers.

Washington and London will call the post-war tune in Ukraine, and it will not be socialist.  Under those circumstances, the claim by John’s interlocutors that they are against “imperialism east or west” is delusional. Like it or not they are aligned with NATO.

Labour MPs are not allowed to breathe a word against NATO by Starmer edict which certainly inhibits any serious attempt to analyse what has much of the markings of a proxy war between rival great powers.

And this is a programme for prolonged war. The arms which John wants dispatched to the front will not arrive there for many months at the earliest, and no expert believes they will actually force a conclusion either.

They will simply prolong the conflict and the suffering. And will they be used solely to stop further Russian incursion and to recover territory recently annexed by Moscow?  Or will they be used to drive on to the Crimea and the Donbas, liberating people who, as The Economist has acknowledged, “do not want to be liberated”?

All that is certain is that the question will not be answered by John, nor by the Ukrainian left, but by Zelensky and ultimately Biden.

There is an alternative, which John only acknowledges in passing.  That is peace negotiations. That is the position championed by China, India, Brazil, South Africa – even Saudi Arabia! In fact, it is what most of the world beyond NATO wants, as well as much of public opinion in Europe and the USA themselves.

Throwing our weight behind that demand is a political imperative for the left, particularly in a country which has played such a prominent part in stoking war and undermining peace negotiations over the last year.

Of course, peace will not by any means be easy to establish. Putin has much to answer for there. Sovereignty for Ukraine as well as self-determination for minorities, and security arrangements that work for all, will be key.

But putting our shoulders to that wheel is to deal with the real issue of the moment – stopping this war before it escalates disastrously – not indulging in speculations about post-war Ukraine.

23 Feb 2023 by Andrew Murray

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