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Pro-NATO Positions Split a Trotskyist Tendency

The war in Ukraine has led to intense debates on the international socialist Left. In November, the Socialist Labor Party (SEP) of Turkey announced it was breaking with the Socialist Workers Movement (MST) of Argentina, in a serious blow to their common project, the International Socialist League (ISL-LIS). What can we learn from this split?

Nathaniel Flakin

March 10, 2023
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This is not what anti-imperialism looks like

On November 11, the Socialist Labor Party (SEP) of Turkey announced it was leaving the International Socialist League (ISL). Founded in 2020 by a handful of Trotskyist groups, the ISL was initiated by the Socialist Workers Movement (MST) of Argentina. But the war in Ukraine has led to intense debates on the international socialist Left, and the ISL has been one of the first tendencies to split. Wars always test revolutionaries, and the MST and the ISL have clearly stumbled.1We dedicated an entire issue of Left Voice Magazine to debates around the Ukraine war. The four organizations that make up the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U) in Argentina, which include our sister organization, the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS), as well as the MST, all have different positions and have debated these publicly. Unfortunately, that debate is not available in English.

Both the SEP and the MST have issued extensive statements.2See: the statement by the SEP; the response by the MST / ISL; an additional comment by Oleg Vernik of the ISL; and an answer by the SEP. The documents are full of apolitical invective; the MST claims, for example, that the SEP is a “small group, with no insertion or tradition in the working class, essentially student-based and from the well-to-do petty bourgeoisie” — as if they hadn’t recently been comrades. Here, we will briefly summarize the debate and draw some political conclusions from it.

Argentina: MST

From the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, the MST placed itself on the side of the “Ukrainian resistance.” So far, no one has been able to identify any “Ukrainian resistance” that is organizing independently of the right-wing Zelenskyy government. Thus, the MST is on the side of the Ukrainian government. This in turn makes its policy almost indistinguishable from that of Western imperialism and NATO: unlimited support for the Ukrainian camp, aiming for a complete defeat of Russia. While the MST might at times add a slogan against NATO, this has no practical consequences for its politics.

In the view of MST leader Alejandro Bodart, the war in Ukraine is a just war of national liberation against Russian imperialism. The fact that the U.S. government has spent $80 billion on weapons for Ukraine is, in Bodart’s view, secondary to the war’s character. The role of U.S. imperialism would only become relevant if “NATO were to declare war on Russia.” This is a highly formalistic view. The comrade surely knows that most of Washington’s military interventions take place without a formal declaration of war. While the U.S. military has not officially sent its own troops to Ukraine, it is an open secret that NATO forces are already operating inside the country. The U.S. can be a party in the war even while holding back officially. Meanwhile, Russian forces were clearly part of the civil war in Ukraine that began in 2014, even though the Kremlin consistently denied having troops in the country.

Everything about the Ukrainian war effort is controlled via weapons shipments from NATO. As the New Yorker explained, while Zelenskyy’s government would like to attack Crimea, Washington simply refuses to send the necessary missiles. The New York Times adds that U.S. intelligence decides whether Ukrainian strikes can kill particular Russian generals. The two-pronged offensive against Kherson and Kharkiv was conceived at the Pentagon. This is clearly a proxy war with no progressive camp, in which the strategic goal of U.S. imperialism is to weaken Russia and ultimately China. Ukraine depends completely on U.S. weapons shipments — a Ukrainian victory would bring not “liberation” but greater subservience to Western imperialism. Bodart, nonetheless, echoing Biden, would have us believe that Washington is nothing more than a supporting player in this conflict.

As a historical analogy, the MST quotes the example of China’s liberation war against Japan, which began in 1937. Leon Trotsky and internationalists around the world supported this just war by the Chinese people — despite the totally reactionary leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, who had butchered thousands of Chinese communists. Even when the United States began arming the Chinese in 1942, Trotskyists in the United States remained in solidarity with the Chinese war effort. For Bodart, this is exactly the situation in Ukraine. The U.S. Trotskyists, however, did not offer unlimited support. As John G. Wright put it in Fourth International in 1942, the character of the war in China would change if “the relationship of forces has unquestionably shifted in favor of the imperialists” and if “China’s imperialist ‘allies’ establish their domination over China.” While the imperialist support for China in 1942 was not decisive, it is in Ukraine today.

There are even greater problems with the analogy. China was in the midst of an extended revolutionary process. The Chinese people were struggling for their country’s independence from imperialism. The Zelenskyy government, in contrast, aims to integrate Ukraine into the EU and into NATO. This government is, by any measure, leading a pro-imperialist struggle. During the war in China, peasants occupied land and joined the communist forces en masse. This is why Wright could say that their struggle was “merging with the impending socialist revolution.” In Ukraine, the struggle against Russia has seen a constant growth of far-right forces and a ban of any party that is even vaguely left-wing. As part of his government’s pro-imperialist policies, Zelenskyy has eliminated basic workers’ and democratic rights while announcing massive privatizations.

Bodart, unfortunately, seems to have imbibed some of the far-right ideology from the Ukrainian forces he supports. In bizarre statements, he claims that “Stalinism was the other face of Nazism” and that “the Nazi of the East was Stalin.” This is not just a minimization of the Nazi Holocaust. For a Trotskyist, this means ignoring the fundamental role played by the means of production. Trotsky did refer to Hitler and Stalin as “twin stars” revolving around each other — but he made clear that although the two dictators copied certain techniques from each other, they represented opposing social systems: Hitler was the führer of a capitalist state, which needed to be destroyed, whereas Stalin led a bureaucracy on top of a workers’ state that needed to be defended.

Turkey: SEP

What does the SEP of Turkey say about this? Back in June, they expressed their disagreements with the MST around Ukraine, calling for an internationalist class position to the war:

While the revolutionaries in the West oppose the invasion […], they should also expose the expansionism of the NATO bloc and point out the provocative policies that the NATO bloc has followed from the past to the present as the culprit of the war.

In other words, the SEP called for opposition to NATO and to Putin. It pointed out that if revolutionaries call on the working class in the West to support NATO in Ukraine, this can only liquidate the working class as an independent political force. As the SEP says, the MST actually tends to criticize the Biden government from the right, for not sending enough weapons, for not escalating sufficiently, etc. This is, after all, what the “Ukrainian resistance” (i.e., Zelenskyy) is calling for.

Ukrainian self-determination against a totally reactionary invasion is certainly one element of the current war — but it is far from the only one. There is a second war for self-determination being waged by a minority in Ukraine’s East and South, a minority that prefers Russia to NATO, and whose national rights have been trampled by the chauvinist, right-wing Zelenskyy government. (Both of these movements for national liberation have been cynically manipulated by NATO and Russia respectively.) Beyond that, there is also a struggle of the United States to subjugate Ukraine, expand its influence over Eastern Europe, and weaken Russia, which is the context of this war. And ultimately, of course, the U.S. is aiming to weaken China. There is even a struggle within the “Western camp,”  a struggle in which U.S. imperialism is subordinating its traditional allies like Germany to its leadership. To reduce this complex scenario to a question of “self-determination” (but only for pro-Western Ukrainians, apparently), as the MST does, is to align oneself with NATO.

The split occurred when the SEP attempted to publish a further public criticism of the MST’s positions on their joint website. The MST objected that this was for an internal bulletin — and their “league,” the ISL-LIS, was already split.

The SEP of Turkey came from a very different tradition from that of the MST. For decades, they have led a “national Trotskyist” existence in Turkey, with only occasional connections with international forces.3See, for example, the SEP’s relations with the TPR of Argentina. That group, originating as an eccentric split from the PO, has since joined the bourgeois Kirchnerist movement. In 2019, from one day to the next, the SEP declared it was forming a new international organization with the MST.

Observers wondered how the two groups could have any meaningful political agreements. Back in the 2000s, the MST and its allies had been enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez; the SEP, in contrast, had been so critical of Chávez that it would not even defend him against an imperialist invasion. The MST similarly supported the so-called Libyan revolution carried out by NATO bombers, and it was enthusiastic about a “Syrian revolution” whose bourgeois leadership was entirely subordinated to NATO; the SEP, meanwhile, called for an independent position. In short, this split was preprogrammed by the superficial and diplomatic agreements used to form the ISL.

Ukraine: USL

There are, of course, other sections of the ISL — its website lists more than a dozen affiliates. Most of these are tiny MST satellites. 4Besides the SEP and the MST, the one other group that has a real tradition is The Struggle from Pakistan. It comes from yet another tradition. Following the ideas of British Trotskyist Ted Grant, The Struggle worked for decades inside the country’s most corrupt party, the Pakistan People’s Party — whose leader is known as Mr. Ten Percent for his constant bribe requests. The differences between the MST and The Struggle are perhaps even greater than those with the SEP, but that would go beyond the scope of this article. Do both sides realize, for example, that the Struggle refused to oppose Thatcher’s war against Argentina in 1982, declaring Argentina an “imperialist” power? We see how the ISL-LIS functions, however, by the fact that its numerically largest section appears totally indifferent to the Ukraine war and the debates it is causing. The ISL also claims a “Ukrainian section,” the Ukrainian Socialist League (USL), led by Oleg Vernik, who has published his own statement on the split. The SEP argues that Vernik is a problematic figure who sits down with far-right activists and praises Ukrainian fascist and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. They point out that Vernik is active in a union that uses the red-black colors of the fascist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought alongside the Nazis in World War II and is today a symbol of Ukraine’s Far Right.5Vernik responds, rather unconvincingly, that in other countries, black-red flags are used by anarcho-syndicalists. Anyone familiar with Ukrainian politics, however, will know that this is a fascist symbol. These are not isolated slipups either — Vernik has a long record of praising Ukrainian fascists. The SEP demanded that Vernik be expelled from the ISL, but the MST seems to have no problem at all with him.

The problem with Vernik is not simply his sympathies for Ukrainian nationalism. A very quick Google search brings us to Wikipedia and the Marxists Internet Archive, where there is extensive documentation of Vernik’s leading role in one of the strangest frauds in the history of the Trotskyist movement. Vernik and a handful of conspirators, then members of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), simulated more than a dozen different socialist groups in Ukraine. Each of these “groups” would turn to socialists in other countries and ask for support, even traveling to different international conferences under varying names.

Once this years-long con was revealed in 2003, Vernik was expelled from the CWI. Different groups compiled extensive and irrefutable evidence: One can still find photos of Vernik, presenting himself as a delegate of different groups at different international conferences. To this day, he has not acknowledged the fraud, nor apologized to the victims, nor even declared his intention to stop committing frauds in the future. It is rather shocking that the MST accepted such a well-known fraudster without any kind of explanation. Then again, Vernik was simultaneously a member of the Progressive International alongside Bernie Sanders while he was founding this international Trotskyist tendency.

The “Ukrainian Socialist League” is at least the 14th socialist group that Vernik has led. Thirteen of them have been fake. Does this USL even exist? How desperate must the MST leaders be for some simulation of internationalism that they would publicly ally themselves with a nationalist-leaning con man? Would they also create a section with a Nigerian prince who needs help transferring US$5 million?

Lessons

What lessons can be drawn from this episode? A split can be an opportunity for the socialist Left to clarify its positions and reorganize itself. But this requires a serious balance sheet. The ISL split from one day to the next because it was formed on a completely superficial political basis. Both sides still refer positively to an “international organization embodying partial differences.” But as we can see, these “partial differences” were about war, imperialism, and revolutionary strategy. One wonders … what did they actually agree about before proclaiming an international revolutionary organization?

The SEP points out that the MST’s capitulation to imperialist pressures did not fall from the sky. Different organizations in the tradition of Nahuel Moreno have aligned themselves with Western imperialism in the Ukraine war. This political mistake can be traced back to Moreno’s theory of “democratic revolution.” Moreno’s theory — a rejection of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution — says that the working class in autocratic states needs to fight for democracy alongside bourgeois forces before it can fight for socialism on its own. This often leads Moreonist tendencies to align themselves with “democratic” imperialist machinations.6Our tendency emerged from the Moreonist current in 1988, and has published extensive criticisms of the theory of “democratic revolution.” The MST, for example, is on the side of U.S. imperialism in Cuba, in Libya, in Syria, etc. (while at other times they give support to bourgeois “anti-imperialists” such as Hugo Chávez). This support for “democratic” imperialist interventions can only weaken the international working class. The SEP’s criticisms of the MST’s program and strategy are perfectly correct. But then… why did the SEP want to unite with them?

Trotsky’s long campaign to build the Fourth International was based on a search for common answers to the big questions posed by the class struggle. It is not enough to have a very general agreement about the need for socialist revolution. A truly international organization can be built only with a shared understanding of program, strategy, and the most pressing questions of revolutionary politics. That is what we, as the Trotskyist Fraction — Fourth International, attempt to do today. We do not proclaim unity with forces we barely know — and as a result, we do not tend to split with every shift in the political situation. Instead, we try to build up organic internationalism, where different national sections discuss and decide together as an international organization.7This does not preclude limited political agreements with other forces despite clear differences, such as the Workers’ Left Front — Unity (FIT-U), which we form together with the MST.

The MST criticizes the SEP for “national Trotskyism,” and the SEP certainly needs to consider Trotsky’s words from 1930: “A tendency which remains shut-in nationally over a stretch of years, condemns itself irrevocably to degeneration.” Yet the MST is practicing a different form of “national Trotskyism”: it is simulating an international organization with groups that have nothing in common, or might not exist at all. This kind of depoliticizing diplomacy is just another form of “national Trotskyism” — in practice, it means rejecting genuine international organization with common politics. The split between the SEP and the MST appears mostly as a farce: an unserious fusion led to an unserious split. Yet Trotskyists can learn something from what happened here.

Notes

Notes
1 We dedicated an entire issue of Left Voice Magazine to debates around the Ukraine war. The four organizations that make up the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U) in Argentina, which include our sister organization, the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS), as well as the MST, all have different positions and have debated these publicly. Unfortunately, that debate is not available in English.
2 See: the statement by the SEP; the response by the MST / ISL; an additional comment by Oleg Vernik of the ISL; and an answer by the SEP.
3 See, for example, the SEP’s relations with the TPR of Argentina. That group, originating as an eccentric split from the PO, has since joined the bourgeois Kirchnerist movement.
4 Besides the SEP and the MST, the one other group that has a real tradition is The Struggle from Pakistan. It comes from yet another tradition. Following the ideas of British Trotskyist Ted Grant, The Struggle worked for decades inside the country’s most corrupt party, the Pakistan People’s Party — whose leader is known as Mr. Ten Percent for his constant bribe requests. The differences between the MST and The Struggle are perhaps even greater than those with the SEP, but that would go beyond the scope of this article. Do both sides realize, for example, that the Struggle refused to oppose Thatcher’s war against Argentina in 1982, declaring Argentina an “imperialist” power? We see how the ISL-LIS functions, however, by the fact that its numerically largest section appears totally indifferent to the Ukraine war and the debates it is causing.
5 Vernik responds, rather unconvincingly, that in other countries, black-red flags are used by anarcho-syndicalists. Anyone familiar with Ukrainian politics, however, will know that this is a fascist symbol.
6 Our tendency emerged from the Moreonist current in 1988, and has published extensive criticisms of the theory of “democratic revolution.”
7 This does not preclude limited political agreements with other forces despite clear differences, such as the Workers’ Left Front — Unity (FIT-U), which we form together with the MST.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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