Skip to content

Comprehending the Russian-Ukrainian War

Making use of Marxist history and theory

Paul Le Blanc reviews a critical thread of Marxist theory and history on the right of national self-determination, and the question of Ukraine, concluding that revolutionaries today need to defend the current resistance to the Russian invasion including its rights to seek arms.

In his critique of ultra-left sectarianism, Lenin denounced a tendency to present quotes from Marx as the basis for settling on a tactical orientation to guide us through the complexities of our own time. He insisted that “what is most important, that which constitutes the very gist, the living soul, of Marxism” is “a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” That is certainly the case when we are considering realities so complex as the Russian-Ukrainian War.

I have attempted such a “concrete analysis of a concrete situation” in an 8900-word article entitled “Making Sense of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine” for the online publication Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal. In the final 2400 words of the article, I seek to relate the larger analysis of the invasion to previous Marxist theory and lessons from revolutionary history. I urge readers to consult the first 6500 words of the larger article. At the same time, I am hopeful that my review here of some of the relevant history and theory will be useful for those working to sort things out regarding these momentous developments.

On Self-Determination

The approach advanced here, it should be admitted, is not an original contribution. It is grounded in the orientation that V.I. Lenin outlined in such works as “The Right of Nations to Self Determination” (1914) and “The Revolutionary Proletariat Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1915). As the First World War erupted, some excellent revolutionaries—including Rosa Luxemburg and some comrades in the Bolshevik party—argued that all forms of nationalism are incompatible with working-class internationalism. Lenin sharply took issue with this conclusion. There are different forms of nationalism—some worthy of support, others worthy of denunciation. A distinction must be made between the nationalism (to be opposed) of the imperialist nations and the nationalism (to be supported) of those countries oppressed by imperialism. As he put it in “Socialism and War” (1915), revolutionaries must “unequivocally demand that the socialists of the oppressing countries (of the so-called ‘great’ nations in particular) should recognize and defend the right of the oppressed nations to self-determination.”

After the overthrow of the tsar in early 1917, Lenin was sharply critical of the Russian moderates of the Provisional Government for holding back from recognizing Ukraine’s right to independence. “Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic,” Lenin insisted, “must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of the Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession.” He wryly commented that Russian “friendship” could not be imposed on Ukrainians but could only be won by treating Ukrainians as equals and acknowledging their right to secede from Russia if they chose to do that.

When the Provisional Government was removed by the October 1917 revolution, the socialist government that Lenin now headed affirmed, more than once, “that the right to self-determination belongs to all nations oppressed by tsarism and the Great Russian bourgeoisie, up to and including the right of these nations to secede from Russia.” Flowing from this, the Bolshevik regime declared that “we … recognise the People’s Ukrainian Republic, and its right to secede from Russia or enter into a treaty with the Russian Republic on federal or similar relations between them.” Lenin insisted on recognition “at once, unconditionally and without reservations [of] everything that pertains to the Ukrainian people’s national rights and national independence.”

Serious historians have traced the complexities of what happened next. Despite Lenin’s position on Ukrainian self-determination, comments Hanna Perekhoda, on the ground “the local Bolsheviks were overwhelmed by events for which they were ill-prepared.” In the swirl of the Russian civil war (in which the Ukraine was a central battleground), anti-Bolshevik nationalists seized control of the independence movement. Fighting for their lives, the Bolsheviks on the scene fumbled badly more than once in relation to the question of self-determination, riding roughshod over the formal Bolshevik commitments and driving many Ukrainians into open conflict with the new revolutionary regime. This greatly benefitted the counter-revolutionary White armies of General Anton Denikin.

Throughout 1919, the Red Army battled to reverse this deteriorating situation. Late in the year its commander, Leon Trotsky, issued a proclamation to his troops, re-emphasizing Lenin’s earlier position:

Ukraine is the land of the Ukrainian workers and working peasants. They alone have the right to rule in Ukraine, to govern it and to build a new life in it. (…) Keep this firmly in mind: your task is not to conquer Ukraine but to liberate it. When Denikin’s bands have finally been smashed, the working people of the liberated Ukraine will themselves decide on what terms they are to live with Soviet Russia. We are all sure, and we know, that the working people of Ukraine will declare for the closest fraternal union with us. (…) Long live the free and independent Soviet Ukraine!

The Bolsheviks (now renamed Communists) shifted to this orientation. Lenin authored a resolution making it “incumbent on all party members to use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture (…) suppressed for centuries by Russian Tsarism and the exploiting classes.” Historian Ronald Suny observes: “By the end of that civil war, Ukraine was more or less integrated into the Soviet Union. In the constitution of that early Soviet Union, Ukraine and the other Union republics were given the right to secede without any preconditions.”

“Ukraine was a devastated country at the end of the civil war,” notes Mario Kessler. “The years 1921 and 1922 were marked by a catastrophic famine.” Yet Leninist policy continued even as conditions of civil war and famine were left behind. “The situation began to improve following the constitution the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which Ukraine joined as a founding member in late 1922: the New Economic Policy (NEP) facilitated an economic recovery, the Ukrainian language and culture were promoted, and after the elimination of anti-Semitic legislation, Jewish intellectual culture experienced an unprecedented boom.”

All of this was reversed, however, after the 1920s victory of Stalin’s faction over his opponents, in the Russian Communist Party. Moving against “nationalist deviations,” in a brutal reversal of Bolshevik policy, Stalin’s policies brought new horrors. In the Ukraine, “forced collectivization of agriculture, economically induced famine, and brutal political persecution,” Kessler recounts, “including starvation of entire territories, the Holodomor (the Ukrainian term for ‘killing by starvation’) cost the lives of at least 4 million people.”

From exile in 1939, Trotsky protested against Stalin’s policies. The Soviet bureaucratic dictatorship, he commented, had “strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia,” but “in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence.”

Of course, much has changed over the past century, but what happened yesterday can still teach us something today. Those who have opposing orientations in our own time will secure different lessons from history. Putin’s position is that the policies of Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Trotsky included) seriously undermined Russian national interests, while Stalin’s policies represented an important correction. Those who are committed to genuine democracy and revolutionary socialism, however, may have more to learn from Lenin and his comrades.

Where the Weapons Come From

If one seriously acknowledges the right of an oppressed nation to self-determination, and therefore to resist invasion from an oppressor nation, then it must be recognized that the oppressed nation has a right to secure weapons for this purpose.

A major point of contention for those opposing armed resistance of Ukrainians against the Russian invasion, however, is that the weapons necessary for such armed resistance are being supplied by Western imperialist powers, especially the United States.

For some, this means that the Ukrainians are doing the bidding of U.S. imperialism, which is seen as the greatest threat to peace and freedom on our planet. Employing the logic that “the enemy of our enemy is our friend,” some conclude that the Putin regime should be supported by all progressives who favor peace and freedom. There are others who do not believe that, but who still oppose the arming of the Ukrainian resistance by Western imperialism.

Anti-imperialists have not always denounced accepting arms from Western imperialist countries.

Woman standing on top of a cannon with her rifle in the air. Spanish Civil War. Barcelona, 1936. Photo by Nationaal Archief.
Woman with a rifle near a canon. Spanish Civil War. Barcelona, 1936. Photo by Nationaal Archief.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, the newly formed Spanish Republic was subjected to a military onslaught by a right-wing coalition supported (and largely armed) by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Republic was defended by a coalition of liberals, socialists, communists (of both Stalinist and anti-Stalinist persuasion), and anarchists—a coalition that was poorly armed. The so-called “Western democracies”—consisting of imperialist countries that included the United States, Britain, and France—imposed an arms embargo on Spain. Since this would give a considerable advantage to the right-wing and fascist forces (receiving plenty of arms from Germany and Italy), the embargo was fiercely denounced by left-wing activists throughout the world. There was widespread agitation for the Western (imperialist) democracies to aid the Spanish Republic.

In the same period, the military forces of Imperial Japan were invading the Chinese Republic, headed by a nationalist dictatorship of Chiang Kai-Shek, which in the late 1930s was compelled to form a United Front with Chinese Communists to oppose the Japanese onslaught. Here too, a campaign was waged (including by left-wing activists throughout the world) to secure military aid from the Western imperialist rivals of Imperial Japan.

It is worth pausing for a moment regarding the Chinese example, since Chiang Kai-shek’s regime certainly did not have the progressive-democratic qualities which many saw in the Spanish Republic. “We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, his party, or the whole ruling class of China,” Trotsky argued at the time. “Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants,” Trotsky acknowledged. “But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. … But today he is struggling.” Trotsky emphasized what he saw as the key point: “If Japan is an imperialist country and if China is the victim of imperialism, we favor China. Japanese patriotism is the hideous mask of worldwide robbery. Chinese patriotism is legitimate and progressive.”

As it turned out, of course, U.S. policymakers who ultimately supplied Chiang Kai-shek were maneuvering to advance U.S. imperial interests in China. But this neither obviates the validity of Trotsky’s point nor was capable of preventing the later advance of the Chinese Revolution.

There are innumerable examples that can be found of revolutionaries, freedom fighters, and leaders of resistance struggles against imperialism securing weapons by any means necessary, even from sources representing the opposite of what one is fighting for. One of the most outstanding examples can be found in the American Revolution of 1775-83, in which money, arms, and direct military support from the French monarchy helped revolutionaries of North America to break free from the British monarchy.

Some argue that imperialist powers providing such assistance are only interested in advancing their own imperial interests, always seeking to manipulate the situation for their own advantage. Absolutely—that is what imperialists always do. It is also true (for example, in the case of the American Revolution) that revolutionaries are also seeking to manipulate the situation (including the aid received) for the advantage of their revolutionary cause. It would have been a mistake for American revolutionaries, in exchange for French assistance, to violate revolutionary principles by integrating themselves into the French Empire—just as it would be a mistake, in my opinion, for revolutionaries of today to integrate themselves into NATO. But it is not a mistake, in a life and death struggle, for freedom fighters to accept weapons from either the French monarchy of 1778 or from nations belonging to NATO in 2023.

In the minds of many, it makes no sense to withhold support because revolutionaries are not getting weapons exclusively from angels. If the cause of revolutionaries and freedom fighters is just, they will be inclined to struggle for victory by any means necessary.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at
And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:


Paul Le Blanc View All

Paul Le Blanc is a longtime socialist scholar and activist.  Among his many books are Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, From Marx to Gramsci, and—most recently—Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution.