In Defense of Revolutionary Defeatism


The Communist League of Richmond argues for revolutionary defeatism vs campism and other distortions of revolutionary marxism in regards to the Russian invasion of Ukraine


“I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of rite plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight for the ruling class…. I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make it necessary….”

Eugene V. Debs, In What War Shall I Take Up Arms and Fight?

Russian soldiers, most of whom were plucked from the working class, have advanced in Ukraine. They are laying waste to, among other things, working class neighborhoods, and turning life upside down for the people of Ukraine. 

Furthermore, since 2014, the pro-Russian population of Ukraine’s Donbass region has been under assault by neo-Nazi aligned forces. Overall, around 13,000 have been killed, mostly in the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the 8 years leading up to the current hostilities.

What has led the workers of Eastern Europe to massacre each other? It’s far from the first time this region has seen bloodshed. At the end of WWI, nearly all of present day Ukraine changed hands from Russia to Germany.

During World War II, many western Ukrainians came out in support of Germany and openly collaborated with the Nazis. One dedicated collaborator was Stepan Bandera, who led the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). 

Under Bandera’s command, the OUN exterminated over a hundred thousand Jews and Poles, sparing not even the  women and children. Predicting the Nazi defeat, the OUN eventually jumped ship, but Bandera and his troops continued waging guerrilla warfare against Soviets and ethnic minorities in Ukraine until the mid 1950s.

Many of these Ukrainian Nazi collaborators escaped trial and were integrated into Ukrainian and European society under the guidance and protection of US intelligence.

This protection for fascists led to a network of far-right, anti-communist groups in the country. Americans have been subjected to a barrage of propaganda presenting the rulers of Ukraine as blameless heroes, massaging the reputations of even fascist figures like Stepan Bandera.

For the US media, Ukraine is a country that has been abandoned by the world’s governments, forced to go it alone. Too many well-intentioned Americans are nervously watching the news and wondering, “why can’t Biden stop this madness? Why can’t the US government and NATO just do something?” 

But the fact of the matter is that the United States has already played an outsized and malignant role in Ukraine and has done more than its part to bring the world to this crisis.

The United States has funded Kiev’s far-right, fascistic leaders since the 2014 Maidan movement, funneling weapons to them that are used to kill ordinary people in the breakaway regions.

Furthermore, the United States, fearing Russia’s re-emergence as a regional economic rival, encircled Russia with military bases and aggressively expanded NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union. In other words, while an emerging Russian imperialism is the immediate instigator of this phase of the conflict, the United States has done everything in its power to ratchet up tension and provoke a showdown in Ukraine.

This current crisis is not the result of NATO failing to do something— it is at least in part the result of the US government violently pursuing the financial interests of its ruling class. Endless examples from American history, like the Cuban missile crisis, American support for the far-right Contras in Nicaragua in their war against the Soviet allied Sandinistas, and the American invasion of soviet allied Grenada, make it clear that the US would react similarly to any other great power forming a military alliance on our own borders. 

Russia, for its part, claims that it is merely protecting the besieged people of Donetsk and Luhansk.  But mere weeks into the invasion, this excuse hardly holds up. Russia is bombarding and advancing towards Kiev and Kharkhiv, highly populated cities nowhere near the Donbass region. Does anyone truly believe that the Russian ruling class cares about the plight of Russian speakers in the Donbass. That they have any true interest in protecting the people of the republics beyond their utility as cover for a war to reclaim their formally dependent vassal state? Can anyone doubt that the capitalist government of Russia will gladly discard Donetsk and Luhansk the instant they become inconvenient or unnecessary?

  Just as the United States added fuel to the fire, colluded with Ukraine’s rulers, and left Ukrainian working people to suffer the casualties, Russia will likely leave the people of Donbass to deal with the consequences of its invasion.

“Hatred of one’s own government and one’s own bourgeoisie—the sentiment of all class-conscious workers who understand, on the one hand, that war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of imperialism, which they counter by a ‘continuation’ of their hatred of their class enemy, and, on the other hand, that ‘a war against war’ is a banal phrase unless it means a revolution against their own government. Hatred of one’s own government and one’s own bourgeoisie cannot be aroused unless their defeat is desired; one cannot be a sincere opponent of a civil (i.e., class) truce without arousing hatred of one’s own government and bourgeoisie!”

Lenin, The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War

“Neither Russia, nor Germany, nor any other Great Power has the right to claim that it is waging a ‘war of defense’; all the Great Powers are waging an imperialist, capitalist war, a predatory war, a war for the oppression of small and foreign nations, a war for the sake of the profits of the capitalists, who are coining golden profits amounting to billions out of the appalling sufferings of the masses, out of the blood of the proletariat.”

Lenin, Speech Delivered at an International Meeting in Berne

As Leninists we are committed to revolutionary defeatism. Contrary to popular understanding, this does not mean that we “support Russia.” It means we do not support the US state and the ruling class that controls that state.

It means that we reject the class-collaborationist, patriotic, “national unity” demanded by imperialism and war; that we understand that the US is not in this conflict (and with billions in lethal aid sent and punishing sanctions on Russia, the US  is as involved as it can be without dispatching actual troops) because it cares about protecting innocents in Ukraine or because Ukraine “shares our values.”

As Marxists, we see beyond the immediate causes of the current war to the root causes: inter-imperialist rivalry over control of the resources, cheap labor, and the +40 million person  market that Ukraine represents that will either fall to Russian oligarchs or Western billionaires.

Revolutionary defeatism means that we reject the idea that we should fight and die for the interests of our ruling class. It means that while we condemn the Russian capitalist class for its significant role in this war, we recognize that the main enemy is at home, and that since our power comes from our class’s position in the US economy, we can only fight against one of the ruling classes behind this war: our own.

We cannot withhold labor from the Russian ruling class. We cannot overthrow the Russian ruling class. We do not have an army to defend the civilians of Ukraine. “Our” military, like every wing of the US state, is owned by and serves the interests of the US capitalist class. 20 years of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and other endless conflicts have proven that their “help” comes at too high a price.

We must fight to stop the imperialist war and to turn that war into a revolutionary civil war at home, as distant as that prospect seems at the moment.

In short, revolutionary defeatism means we reject the idea that our class and the capitalist class have any interests in common. We condemn their bloodthirsty drive for more territories to exploit, and we will stop them if we can.

We accept that a defeat for our own ruling class weakens that class and its state both at home and abroad and makes our revolutionary project easier. We will not stop our struggle against the US state because it is at war, even though that struggle is bound to undermine the war effort. Instead, we welcome this result and work towards it openly and proudly.

The workers on all sides of an imperialist conflict have more in common with one another than they do with the cynical masters of war who send them out to die and kill. Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe– it is not in the interest of Ukrainian workers to suffer destitution and war in the name of nationalism or in the hope of joining NATO.

The workers of Russia and the United States similarly have absolutely nothing in common with the oligarchic business interests who control their respective governments. Putin is not the reason why life expectancy in the United States has declined, why rents and healthcare premiums are through the roof, and why too many workers risk death by COVID for poverty wages– the American capitalist class is.  

The only rational thing self-respecting workers can do in such a crisis is to refuse to fall in line to kill the working people of another country, and instead to seek to overthrow their own ruling class.

The Russian people have already gotten the message–massive demonstrations have broken out in dozens of cities and thousands have been arrested for opposing their government’s imperialist war. We in the United States and other NATO countries must follow their example: American workers must oppose any further US involvement and demand that the US withdraws itself from the conflict, support the disbanding of NATO, and train our rage on the bosses, landlords, and other capitalists in our own country who have brought us all to the brink of another world war.

We must struggle to organize our class into a force that can stop US imperialism in its tracks. As Washington amplifies its saber rattling, we must be on standby to mobilize against any effort to further interfere. Denmark is following Germany in pledging unprecedented levels of increased military spending that will only go to harden the armies of the capitalists.

We call on the European working class to unite across borders and strike back against capitalist rule. In such times of inter-imperialist conflict, the working class must not make war on their sisters and brothers abroad: we must advance socialist revolution and see to it that our ruling class can never again oppress or exploit.

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