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NATO’s War in Ukraine: Building the Anti-war Movement We Need Requires Clarity

As part of the ongoing debates among socialists on the war in Ukraine, we publish this guest polemic.

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U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Gregory Pyatt in Kyiv, supporting the Maidan protesters, December 11, 2013. (Reuters)

Note: The war in Ukraine raises fundamental questions that revolutionary socialists must debate. For this reason, Left Voice is opening its pages to guest posts about the war that may differ from our position. This guest post is one of these contributions.

When one’s own imperialist government is engaged in military activities against the forces of another capitalist state, revolutionary internationalists have a duty, first and foremost, to try and find ways to turn that conflict into a revolutionary civil war. The Bolsheviks understood this; it’s why the slogan to wage “war on war” was adopted as a response to World War I. It is the understanding of this duty that separates revolutionary Marxists from the centrists and social patriots around the world, including many who pretend to be on the side of the proletariat.

The failure of the U.S. Left, across the board, to organize a sustained effort to oppose its own imperialist government and the NATO military alliance it leads flows directly from this. Even organizations like Left Voice fall prey to overlooking history, to theoretical confusion, and to the kinds of internal contradictions that lead to this result.

Two recent articles help bring this criticism into focus. The first is an unsigned article from Left Voice published on January 20 titled “The U.S. Working Class Must Organize Against the Reactionary War in Ukraine!” which appeared January 20, 2023; it is identified as the text of a statement distributed at the June 2022 Labor Notes conference. The second article, reprinted by Left Voice “as part of the ongoing debates among socialists on the war,” is a statement by the Revolutionary Socialist Organizing Project, Denver Communists, and Seattle Revolutionary Socialists titled “No U.S./NATO Arms to Ukraine!” Both articles express confusion at the historical and theoretical levels, and both are full of factual errors — characteristics that impede taking the practical political steps called for today. 

Both articles also point to the key questions revolutionary internationalists must be able to answer if we are to fulfill our historical task: Who started this war? What is the real “national question” in Ukraine? Who do we want to win?

This Is Not “Putin’s War”

The unsigned Left Voice article referenced above opens with: “It’s been nearly one year since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, starting a war that has brought death and destruction and displaced millions.” This is wrong as history, as theory, and as revolutionary politics practiced within the leading imperialist power of the world. And by attributing its “start” to Putin, it lends credence to the talking point of Western imperialism: that the war in Ukraine is “Putin’s war.”

Events don’t just pop up out of the air, seemingly emerging full-blown from the heads of history’s Minerva. History is a vast matrix of causality, much of which lies hidden from the casual observer or is simply ignored by those who embrace the pragmatic empiricism that has long been the theoretical bane of so much of the Left (especially in the English-speaking countries). The primary aspect of this causality — that one thing leads to another — is class struggle, which is the ultimate driver of history. Marxists employ the tools of historical materialism to examine every side of what causes events.

To attribute “starting” the war to Putin is a perfect example of this sloppy empiricism. What is the real answer to who started the war? Let’s review the history in brief.

The direct relationship between Russia and the United States extends back to the 1867 U.S. purchase of Alaska, but today’s antagonistic relationship begins with an ascendant U.S. imperialism intervening in the civil war after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, when U.S. armed forces landed in 1918 in Murmansk and Archangel — part of an attempt to defeat the planet’s first successful proletarian revolution militarily. This invasion was defeated by the forces of the Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky.

Even before that, but especially after, Russia became the “enemy.” Through the Red Scare and the Palmer raids of the 1920s, radical immigrant workers were labeled “Russian agents.” So, too, were trade union leaders so characterized in the battles of the 1930s. In Churchill’s famed 1946 “Iron Curtain speech,” the menace was “Soviet Russia and its Communist international organization.” It was always Russia as “enemy”: in the 1948 Berlin airlift; the Korean War; the U.S. response to the Cuban Revolution, the “missile crisis,” and the subsequent blockade; the McCarthy hearings and the blacklists; and on and on and on.

The U.S. citizenry has been well and deeply inculcated with a cultural antipathy toward Russia and all things Russian. Although only the United States has employed nuclear weapons, and that it was a U.S. military leader (Air Force General Curtis LeMay) who proposed to “bomb [the Vietnamese] back to the stone age,” the narrative is always that it is the Russians who pose the nuclear threat.

It was always, and remains to this day, an orchestrated attack on our reason, on our ability to see what is before us. Bob Dylan captured it in his 1964 song “With God on Our Side.” Here are some of the lyrics (and here’s the entire song):

I’ve learned to hate the Russians

All through my whole life

If another war comes

It’s them we must fight

To hate them and fear them

To run and to hide

And accept it all bravely

With God on my side

To examine the real matrix of causality — that is, use the method of historical materialist analysis — of course requires more than glib memes or quoting song lyrics. It demands that we examine events on the surface and the underlying forces at play.

This Is U.S. Imperialism’s Ongoing War against Russia

The United States is the leading imperialist power on the planet. NATO plays a primary role as part of U.S. imperialism’s arsenal of aggressive tools it uses in its struggle against competing capitalist countries and blocs. While billing itself as a “defensive alliance,” it is in reality the military arm Western imperialism uses to defend its “right” to extract surplus value from the world’s workers (to be sure, it serves other Western imperialist powers, too, but never against U.S. interests).

Those who try either to downplay this role or tout what appears to be its occasional “humanitarian” missions deny the fundamental nature of imperialism itself: its inherently aggressive characteristics.

NATO was originally designed to counter the influence of the Soviet Union in the period after World War II. Since 1991 and the “collapse” of the Soviet Union, its attention has turned to the Russia that came later. U.S. imperialism has, for the subsequent 30-plus years, attempted to encircle and enrich itself at Russia’s expense, helped along first by the “democratic” reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and then the clownish drunk Boris Yeltsin.

The post-1991 events included a series of movements by capitalist restorationists in the bureaucracies of the former workers’ states of Eastern Europe and the newly independent countries that had made up the Soviet Union. These movements brought to power a series of oligarchic bourgeoisies stretching from the former Czechoslovakia through Yugoslavia and Poland and Ukraine — and, of course, in Russia itself. In some places, this sparked deadly civil wars and humanitarian crises, as in the republics that had comprised Yugoslavia. As outlived Stalinist bureaucracies sought to preserve their privileges in newly emerging capitalist states, and convert themselves into these new bourgeoisies, workers paid a deadly price.

It is critical to understand all the hands that are stained with the blood of these events. U.S. and European imperialism saw in these events what they perceived as their greatest opportunity yet in the twentieth century to exploit the labor and resources of these countries. Imperialism’s actions often provoked deadly outcomes as they worked hand-in-glove with the new national oligarchies to strip Russia and the surrounding states, including Ukraine, of their productive capacities that threatened to compete with Western capital.

Prior to 1991, Ukrainians enjoyed a higher standard of living per capita than the Russian population. After the Soviet “collapse” and Ukrainian independence in August 1991, it experienced hyperinflation and a huge decline in output — which was typical of most of the former Soviet republics. Ukraine’s situation was among the worst; the economy went through a deep depression through the entire decade of the 1990s. By 2022, even with a bit of recovery after 2001, Ukraine had become the poorest country per capita in Europe. 

How bad were things in Ukraine? Consider just the example of pension payments. In Russia in 2014, pensions were four times higher than those in Ukraine. It is no wonder, then, that members of the Russian-speaking community in Crimea (which is mostly Russian speakers) raised the issue of pensions as one of their arguments in support of again becoming part of Russia.

Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism describes in detail how imperialism and its organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank take advantage of any political victory through the mechanisms of debt and accompanying neoliberal economic prescriptions. Russia and Ukraine were both subjected to this modus operandi. It served imperialism quite well in Russia until Vladimir Putin came along and was elected president in March 2000 on a program designed to stop Western imperialism’s pillage of Russian resources. Putin attracted a broad base of support from oligarchs who were more interested in internal capital return on investments than acting as intermediaries for foreign capital, and from a Russian working class battered from a decade of neoliberal policies. (Of course, it almost goes without saying that Putin was not then, nor is he now, a friend of the Russian working class. He has simply replaced foreign pillage with internal pillage.)

Declassified documents published in late 2017 have revealed that Western imperialist leaders had assured the Soviets in 1990 that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” Nevertheless, NATO embarked on a policy of trying to bring the former Eastern European workers’ states into its orbit. It developed a multi-pronged approach to this project, including helping engineer the breakup of Czechoslovakia and promoting ethnic nationalism in Yugoslavia that led to outright butchery. The objective of creating smaller states makes sense: it is much easier to swallow smaller fry than bigger fish.

Picking off smaller states one by one is the ultimate aim of NATO and U.S. imperialism when it comes to the Russian Federation. It is what Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, meant when he first used the phrase “strategic defeat” in March 2022 to describe what he sees unfolding — a term repeated by Julianne Smith, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, last May 20, and again and again by others in the Biden administration. This has been the project of NATO from the beginning of its aggressive push eastward. “Strategic defeat” is a projection of the past strategies and includes regime change.

Such are the major geopolitical forces at play, of which the conflict in Ukraine is a result. It is not something abstract which has been operative regarding Ukraine, and it wasn’t started by Putin. NATO and its principal member, U.S. imperialism, have been quite specific about their intentions since 1991 (and actually before that, but it’s a good point at which to start our timeline).

Speaking of a specific timeline for Ukraine, there is a whole series of events that are important to note. These include the so-called “Orange Revolution in Ukraine from late November 2005 to January 2005, in the aftermath of a presidential election claimed to be marred by massive corruption; President George W. Bush’s vow in 2005 to press for Ukraine to be allowed to start the process of joining NATO; and then the Euromaidan protests that erupted in November 2013 and that culminated in a February 2014 coup — a term we do not use lightly — that installed a handpicked puppet of the United States, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Since 2015, a large body of evidence has emerged that exposes the role of the United States in organizing the events that lead up to the 2014 “regime change” and even in choosing who was to head the coup government. Who could ever forget the infamous leaked recording of the phone call between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in which Nuland says, “Fuck the EU” and clearly identifies “Yats” as the guy the United States wants. And there is the speech delivered by a deputy in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, just days before the Euromaidan protests, in which he revealed that the United States was preparing a civil war in the country and that a coup was being organized from inside the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv — by groups posing as NGOs.

Causality, causality, causality: here is a chain of events that have led the world to a brink of an armed confrontation between two nuclear-armed opponents.

Any leftist in the United States who fails to place the blame for this catastrophe squarely on the shoulders of the imperialist policies of its own capitalist class is ignorant of history. Any leftist in the United States who refuses to do so is willfully denying the facts of history. Some of these leftists choose to become outright pro-imperialist shills, such as Ashley Smith of the Tempest Collective and, more recently Tempest’s Nate Moore, who on February 9 published an argument he claims is “consistent with principled anti-imperialism” for supporting U.S. and NATO arms to Ukraine.

The Real National Question in Ukraine

An important — indeed crucial — part of all this history concerns the national question in Ukraine. Some on the Left, such as Workers’ Voice in the United States and its cousins internationally in the International Workers’ League (IWL; Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores) argue that the struggle for Ukraine’s national liberation is the defining feature of the war. These groups and the rest of the “NATO Left” ignore the real national question in Ukraine — the very question that explains what triggered the civil war and the Russian response. But facts are facts, and nothing of the actual history in any way means support for Putin or the Russian side in the war.

The Maidan coup of 2014 installed a government of Ukrainian ethno-nationalists whose first acts in office were to attempt to outlaw the use of the Russian, Hungarian, and Romanian languages in government services and Ukrainian schools. This attempt to deny the rights of the national minorities (in a country where Russian was the language used globally for communication between the various national groups) was accompanied by physical attacks on the Roma by Ukrainian ethno-fascist groups such as Aidar, C4, the Azov Battalion, and others spawned by the Right Sektor coalition. This led to an uprising in the Donbas and along the Black Sea Coast. Russia’s response was to reintegrate the Crimean peninsula with Russia, home of its Black Sea fleet — what NATO characterizes as an “illegal annexation.”

The rebellion was characterized by the collapse of the Ukrainian armed forces. Most of its sailors joined the Russian fleet, and an estimated 76 percent of the Ukrainian soldiers stationed in eastern and southern Ukraine resigned, reconstituting as the backbone of the two Donbas militias that then undertook the process of destroying the remainder of the Ukrainian military. It is only natural that the greatest part of the Ukrainian armed forces would have been drawn from that area, the country’s population center, and that an attack by a Kyiv-based regime like that of Yatseniuk’s would be met with armed opposition.

It was then that NATO really began to up the ante to prevent the collapse of its Ukrainian project, as the alliance explains: “Since 2014, in the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, cooperation has been intensified in critical areas. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, NATO and Allies have provided unprecedented levels of support.”

Note well the 2014 date. That September, the first set of Minsk Agreements were signed in Belarus aimed at stopping the fighting in the Donbas. The following February, Minsk II was signed in an effort to cement the process, which had not worked well. Angela Merkel and François Holland, the leaders of Germany and France at the time, as well as Petro Poroshenko, who became Ukraine’s president after the interim post-Euromaidan coup was completed, have all affirmed that the Minsk Agreements, which among other things promised autonomy for the Donbas regions and their ethnic Russian majorities, were nothing more than a ruse aimed at giving NATO time to rearm and retrain the Ukrainian army, which had disintegrated under the blows of the militias.

Why so much interest in the Donbas? Remember, we are talking about imperialism here, and its unbreakable aim of pillaging Ukraine’s productive capacities and resources. The Donbas was the industrial center of the country. 

The civil war in Ukraine began when the first shots rang out on Maidan in 2014 and were answered with the armed response of a people whose national rights were threatened. That fight of Russian-speaking Ukrainians has since been joined by the Hungarian and Romanian populations that have been subjected to a form of de facto ethnic cleansing through forced conscription in Hungarian and Romanian areas of Ukraine. It is no wonder, then, that some of the first protests against the war in 2022 were reported in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, where the mothers and wives of men mobilized to act in response to Territorial Guards (like the National Guards in the United States) being sent to fight at the front. These women occupied en masse the regional recruiting centers, demanding that this stop. They also exposed the corruption of recruiters who were allowing those who paid $10,000 to slip quietly across the border to Hungary, thereby avoiding a deadly destiny.

For Marxists, national liberation has a specific meaning and a particularly important role in the revolutionary process of ridding the world of the scourge of capitalism. To NATO, “national liberation” is a talking point. From our Marxist perspective, though, an independent, multinational state such as Ukraine has no more need for its “national liberation” than does Canada or Poland. It has a bourgeoisie that longs for Ukraine to be more like such countries, and hence its orientation to an integrationist perspective with European and U.S imperialism — all the better to exploit the multinational Ukrainian working people. 

The “NATO Left” — groups like the Tempest Collective and Workers’ Voice — ignores the real history of the national question in Ukraine. Some of these groups continue to trade in rank intellectual dishonesty, openly dissembling about NATO’s direct involvement in the war beyond what the Tempest’s Nate Moore keeps referring to as “aid and arms.” We know, for instance, that NATO troops in Poland and in Rammstein, Germany, are actively involved in targeting Russian and Donbas militias, including with drones, through the Starlink system. It has been revealed that NATO advisors are present in Kyiv, embedded within the Zelenskyy government’s military high command. The CIA has an operations center in the U.S. Embassy that has been relocated to Lviv. The British have admitted that they have special forces operating as advisors and trainers at Ukraine’s Mykolaiv naval station. And for all we know, U.S. and other NATO troops may even be on the ground in some numbers, fighting with Ukrainian forces. Why should we believe anything told to us by the U.S. government?

Even NATO admits it’s involved; every successive public statement from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg feels as if it will be the one in which he explicitly references military activity. For now, he keeps repeating that NATO “will not back down” just as the former head of Zelenskyy’s National Defense and Security Council reminds NATO that it “cannot afford for Ukraine to lose.”

All those within the “NATO Left” have situated themselves on the wrong side of the barricades of the international class struggle, arm-in-arm with Stoltenberg, European Commission president Ursula van der Leyen, Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, and all the rest of them. They have become dupes of the imperialists.

Who Do We Want to Win?

In April 2014, Left Voice published a declaration on the crisis in Ukraine from the Trotskyist Fraction – Fourth International (FT–CI), its co-thinkers, which outlined the correct position Marxists adopt in times of conflict between capitalist states. The statement makes very clear the answer to the third question posed at the beginning of the present article.

Who do we want to win? It’s not NATO or its puppet regime in Kyiv. It’s not the Russian capitalist class or its military alliance with some of the former Soviet SSRs. Our solidarity lies not with U.S. imperialism, as it does for the “NATO Left” and those on the Left, such as the Workers’ World Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who see a Russian victory in the current war as something “progressive.” No, it lies squarely with the multinational working classes in Ukraine and Russia. The declaration from 2014 makes this crystal clear and continues to apply today. It is worth quoting from at length:

In the countries of the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the decades of oppression by the regimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the lack of an alternative facilitated pro-capitalist propaganda and the identification of socialism with Stalinism. This in turn led to the development of a reactionary anti-communist ideology which the right-wing extremists and neo-Nazi groups build upon. It is clear however — more than two decades after the collapse of the Stalinist regime and the dissolution of the Soviet Union — that capitalist restoration only means the enrichment of a small minority of oligarchs and deprivation for the broad mass of workers.

Although it looks like a distant perspective today, a progressive solution will only come from a united struggle of the working class against its local exploiters and their imperialist allies, i.e., a position of independence from both the “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” camps.

Therefore we Trotskyists of the FT–CI reaffirm that the only realistic perspective for the independence of Ukraine lies in the expropriation of the oligarchs — the new capitalists that have taken over all the major public enterprises — the cancellation of foreign debt, state control of foreign trade and the nationalization of the banks and the most important economic resources in the service of the workers and poor masses. This means a struggle for a socialist Ukraine of the workers with democratic rights for all ethnic and national groups. This would be a lever for the social revolution in Russia and Europe where the fate of Ukraine will be ultimately decided.

The logic here is the logic of the same revolutionary defeatism encapsulated in the “war on war” slogan of the Bolsheviks more than a century ago. It is not what some on the Left will claim — that we are siding against the Ukrainian masses by calling for the defeat of Ukraine. No, it is the logic of siding with the proletariat, which means the defeat of the bourgeoisies of the countries that are direct combatants.

At the time of the FT–CI statement, the perspective of a socialist revolution in Ukraine looked distant. Today, after nine years of civil and inter-state war, that perspective has come into sharper focus. The signs of a Ukrainian regime that may be close to collapse without direct NATO intervention are many: the mass surrender by Ukrainian troops to avoid their slaughter in the meat grinders of Bakhmut and Lyman; the demonstrations and mass opposition to the forced conscription of Ukrainians whose age of recruitment has been lowered to 16; Zelenskyy’s demand that refugees from the war now in neighboring states be forcibly returned so they can be mobilized as part of the Ukrainian military; and, at the political level, the cleansing of major operatives from the Zelenskyy regime.

The constant demand from Ukraine’s political and military leadership for more, more, and more weapons and money, though, is the most obvious sign. When the conflict began, Ukraine had Europe’s largest army. It has suffered huge numbers of troops killed and wounded in endless “offensives” — no doubt demanded by NATO and often engaged in over the objections of senior staff officers, who would rather preserve their troops than provide Zelenskyy with a militarily meaningless “win” for public relations. It has lost a massive amount of equipment in a war of attrition shaped by the Russians. The very idea pushed nearly every day by the Western media that Russia is being beaten badly flies in the face of reports on the ground from media not linked to Big Capital.

As for revolutionary defeatism, what is the perspective for Russia itself? The FT–CI statement quoted above spells this out clearly: a battle in Ukraine for a workers’ government “would be a lever for the social revolution in Russia and Europe where the fate of Ukraine will be ultimately decided.” A revolutionary government of workers and soldiers in Ukraine will be the beacon for the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine for a “cause” in which they do not believe and in which they have no genuine stake. These Russian soldiers, in their hundreds of thousands, will be a transmission belt for the revolutionary ideas of international solidarity and peace, for an anti-oligarchic, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist government in Russia, for a government that will settle a just peace based upon proletarian internationalism. What the Bolsheviks understood about the revolutionary dynamics of World War I and the call for a “war on war” are not fundamentally different a century later.

Antonio Gramsci pointed out long ago that the losers in a military conflict are certain to be faced with a political crisis that matches the magnitude of the military loss. The Zelenskyy regime, operating on the behalf of NATO and Western imperialism, has led the Ukrainian peoples into the abyss of mass slaughter. NATO “cannot afford” a defeat, which means there is no out for them, either politically or militarily. The only salvation for the peoples of Ukraine from either U.S./European imperialist financial domination or a military occupation by the Russian armed forces is that which the statement quoted above pointed to nine years ago: socialist revolution.

Build an Anti-war Movement!

In Ukraine, there are small groups of communists fighting for the overthrow of the Zelenskyy regime, an end to NATO domination of the state, and the end of the war. They are on the only path to a just and lasting solution to the national question. We stand in solidarity with their struggle for a revolutionary government of workers and soldiers, for a government of international proletarian solidarity — no matter how limited that fight may be right now.

Concretely, how can those of us in the imperialist countries best demonstrate that solidarity?

There is a burning need to build an anti-war, anti-imperialist movement today, worldwide. Within that anti-war movement, we have a responsibility to bring the perspective of war on war — that only by turning the wars between capitalist blocs into revolutionary civil wars, waged by the global working class against its oppressors, will war forever be banished from the earth. Only in a socialist world, a world order built on international solidarity, on the sharing of resources, on the promotion of our cultural heritages and common humanity, can we put an end to war once and for all.

Revolutionary Marxists in the United States — in the belly of the imperialist beast — have an extra level of duty and an extra burden of responsibility to take up this task of building such a movement and, in doing so, confronting the NATO Left’s spokespeople and winning to revolutionary internationalism those who today are swayed by their falsehoods. The war in Ukraine is today the defining political event in the world. We have no illusions: the task before us will take an immense effort, with relatively small forces, but it is a task we cannot avoid with excuses about other struggles or because Ukraine is “so far away.” We must put our effort into being a genuine “tribune of the people” — to use Lenin’s words — that seeks to shake off the years of acculturation of people in the United States, the years of looking at the world through the eyes a dominant culture whose precise aims are to block true vision and forestall critical thinking.

On the immediate agenda: action! We should be in the streets, in small numbers at first if necessary, but with the aim of growing into a mass movement that can destroy the edifices of passivity and a learned helplessness.

Let’s bring together the forces of world Trotskyism to debate, in a non-sectarian manner, the way forward — with the objective of beginning to act in unity as quickly as possible.

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Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons joined the Canadian section of the USFI in 1971, after a stint as a journalist who covered the Prague Autumn of 1968, and as political organizer for the New Democratic Youth, the left wing youth group of the Canadian labour party based on the trade unions. Until recently, he was the International Coordinator for Socialist Action/Ligue pour lÁction Socialiste, a Canadian Trotskyist organization excluded from the EUSecFI, and in that capacity attended the founding conference of the Tendency for a Revolutionary International. He has been a wilderness and air ambulance pilot, a trade union organizer, and elected union leader, and for 10 years was an elected member of the Saskatchewan, Canada, provincial legislature representing a heavily unionized, working class constituency. He presently writes political commentary and organizes from a working class barrio in southern Costa Rica.

Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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