The Party for Socialism and Liberation on Russia and Ukraine: a critique

Ukrainian soldier at the Battle of Bakhmut during the 2022 Russian invasion. PHOTO:
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Wars are among the greatest tests of Left parties. The task of radicals should be to help working people — on the front lines of every war — figure out what course is in their best interests. Unfortunately, the Left is deeply divided over the war in Ukraine.

The U.S. Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) holds that the USA and its military alliance, NATO, are the primary culprits. This position leads it in practice to back Russia, even though it claims to criticize Putin’s invasion. In doing so, PSL is violating a basic principle of international working-class solidarity: defense of a country and its people under imperialist attack.

PSL presents Russia as the victim, stating “We reserve our strongest condemnation for the U.S. government.” Tellingly, the group does not support Ukraine’s unqualified right to self-defense, notably their right to obtain weapons from wherever they can. In this case, that means the U.S. and NATO countries, Russia’s imperialist opponents.

A binary view of the world. For PSL, the war is solely a proxy battle between the U.S. and Russia, where Washington provoked Moscow by stationing missiles in NATO countries on its borders. This is true as far as it goes. The war in Ukraine is partly a proxy war.

But it is also a war of aggression by Putin, who refuses to recognize the national sovereignty of Ukraine. Despite criticizing this position, PSL never holds this warmonger responsible.

Yankee imperialism is a menace. Both the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and PSL staunchly oppose it. But so is Russian imperialism, a fact that PSL never acknowledges. In the 21st century, the world is no longer dominated by one powerhouse, the USA. Russia, and China, also jockey to capture capitalist markets all over the world. All run roughshod over working people’s struggles.

PSL’s attitude hasn’t changed since a bygone era when the Soviet Union existed. Many leftists, including PSL and FSP, defended the USSR against constant capitalist hostility led by the U.S. But some came to see the world wholly defined by the opposition between the USSR and the Soviet bloc on the one hand and the U.S. and its allies on the other. They became known as “campists” and, over time, came to operate on the false premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They often became apologists for the terrible crimes and policies of Stalin.

The USSR dissolved over three decades ago and Russia became capitalist once again. But PSL is among those who still simplistically divide the world into two battlegrounds and see opponents of the U.S. as anti-imperialist, even when the latter are actually imperialist themselves and repress their own people horribly.

And the influence of Stalinism on PSL leads it to accept or excuse authoritarian rule in these supposedly anti-imperialist states. It sides with the brutal leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, who turned weapons on his own people protesting for democratic rights. It defends the dictatorship of North Korea with its autocratic “Supreme Leader,” Kim Jong Un.

In the same vein, PSL overlooks Putin’s despotism. Backed by the far right, he is an ultranationalist bent on regaining the global reach and power of the former USSR, with the methods of the Czars. He is a homophobe who viciously suppresses antiwar and other dissidents. PSL gives him a pass when they should be supporting the Russian (and Ukrainian) working class against his tyranny and warmongering.

Denying autonomy. Revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin called for the right of oppressed nations, like Ukraine, to decide for themselves whether to be independent. In 1922, before Stalin’s rise to power, it chose to become a republic of the USSR. Putin rejects Lenin’s theory and denies Ukraine’s nationhood. But its sense of national identity stretches back centuries, based on commonalities of culture and tradition, ethnicity, geography, language, and a distinct shared history.

While PSL claims to support Lenin on national self-determination, in practice it denies Ukraine’s right to defend itself. To oppose Ukraine getting weapons from wherever it can means condemning it to Russian victory and domination. Where would weapons come from if not the U.S. and NATO countries? As FSP National Secretary Doug Barnes has said, “Ideally, the international Left would be in a stronger and more united position and could offer arms and brigades to help in the fight, but that’s not the situation right now.”

In the meantime, radicals have a responsibility to side with workers under imperialist attack.

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Read more about the positions of socialists and pacifists on the war in Ukraine:

Why support arms to Ukraine? The FSP’s answer.

I’m a Ukrainian socialist: Here’s why I resist the Russian invasion

Let Ukraine and the world live in peace [statement by Left Radical of Afghanistan]

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