Left-wing Democrats need to stand up for international law

Paul Mason

Imagine an alt-history of the Spanish Civil War where, after some initial reversals, the anti-fascist side starts winning. They drive back Franco’s armies largely because France, Britain and the USA reject “non-intervention” and send in heavy weapons, offsetting the support coming from Hitler and Mussolini.

In this scenario, does anyone seriously think the global left would have pulled its support for the Republican side because of “imperialist aggression”? Would they have denounced the Spanish conflict as a “proxy war”. Would they have convened an international conference calling for the end of all arms supplies to the anti-fascists in the name of “Peace”? Would they have called for negotiations with Franco, advocating a settlement “acceptable to all”?

You might hope not. But when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, parts of the international far left have done all these things and more.

Nowhere is this more damaging than in the USA, where the influential left organisation the Democratic Socialists of America managed to bounce 30 Democratic lawmakers into “peace” initiative in October, at the exact moment the Republican right was trying to erode Congressional support for US arms to Ukraine.

The letter signed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was quickly withdrawn. But lawmakers aligned with the DSA, most prominently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then defended its call for direct US negotiations with Putin, and a “European security arrangement acceptable to all parties”, claiming these were in line with the Biden administration’s own thinking.

Though the six DSA-aligned members of Congress have condemned the invasion, and voted for the administration’s arms and aid packages, they are operating in the shade of their own activists’ demands to withdraw that support, and being constantly denounced by the overt pro-Kremlin left.

This can’t go on. It’s time for DSA-aligned lawmakers to make a clear political break with the organisation over Ukraine.

Gerard Dalbon, a leading figure in the DSA, recently penned an article justifying its refusal to support Ukraine’s resistance, and complaining about the pressure DSA lawmakers are coming under from the Democratic mainstream and the media. He called for the group to:

“…more effectively coordinate with our electeds and strategize collectively to push a left-wing outlook in the mainstream political sphere”.

But as the evidence mounts of systematic Russian criminality in the conflict, the DSA’s position becomes even less tenable than it was at the start of the conflict. And so does the fence-sitting of the lawmakers.

In this article I outline a case based both on international law and socialist principle for Progressives in Congress lawmakers to enthusiastically support the administration’s line on Ukraine, to stop treating it as an inconvenient side-issue, and to actively mobilise the US labour movement in solidarity with Ukraine.

DSA’s fig-leaf of condemnation

The DSA’s substantive (31 January and 26 February) statements on the Russian attack stated:

  • That Russia’s 24 February invasion is “an illegal act under the United Nations Charter” and to be condemned;
  • That the conflict started because Ukraine’s “lack of implementation” of the 2015 Minsk II agreement, encouraged by the USA;
  • That “imperialist expansionism” by NATO “set the stage for this conflict”, in particular via the 2014 “US backed Maidan coup”;
  • That NATO expansion “violates previous commitments” (i.e. James Baker’s 1990 promise to the USSR that NATO would not expand);
  • That the USA should leave NATO, which is the “major source of increased tensions and military escalation across the region”.

In short, while condemning the invasion as a breach of international law, the DSA has accepted the full panoply of Kremlin-manufactured excuses for it: Minsk II, the James Baker promise, the “Maidan coup” myth and NATO’s alleged expansionism and aggression.

At no point do they acknowledge the binding nature of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, whereby the USA, Russia and UK guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for unilateral nuclear disarmament. And nowhere does the DSA accept that — under the UN Charter — the Ukrainian state has the right to self-defence.

But international law should be the starting point. For regardless of your analysis of NATO — which, incidentally, is not at war with anybody and has actually refused to admit Ukraine — there is a clear left-wing case in law to support Ukraine’s right to resist, its right to receive arms — and the duty of Western governments (and labour movements) to supply them.

Until they clearly acknowledge the facts of the war, and the case for self-defence arising from them, the DSA’s condemnation of the Russian invasion remains, at best, a fig-leaf for inaction. At worst it looks like a cynical cover story for the practical attempt to sabotage US support for Ukraine on the spurious grounds of “anti-imperialism”.

In both cases it allows the DSA to place unwarranted negative pressure on lawmakers who should — like their European counterparts — be taking a lead in advocacy of supplying arms, ammunition, training and intelligence to Ukraine’s anti-fascist resistance.

Do socialists recognise international law?

The first question the DSA and its allied lawmakers need to answer is: do socialists recognise international law? For lawmakers this should be a no-brainer since, as members of Congress, they are effectively parties to the USA’s Treaty obligations, including to the UN Charter (ratified by the Senate in 1945).

There is a Leninist position — held by the USSR until the mid-1920s, and by some far-left groups today — which says: international law is merely “bourgeois legality” and therefore a sham; that the rules-based order is a fig-leaf for US imperialist domination; that left (and “anti-imperialist”) governments should therefore utilise what helps them and ignore the parts they don’t like.

It’s clear, however, that DSA don’t accept this: they condemn the invasion as “illegal” under the UN Charter, implicitly recognising the legitimacy and universality of the Charter system. And they’re right to do so: any socialist who is trying to gain power through elections in a democratic state has to acknowledge the legitimacy of state power, of the rule of law, and the existence of international law through a system of binding treaties.

Does Ukraine have the right to self-defence?

This leads to the next question for the DSA: do you support Ukraine’s right of self-defence under the UN Charter? The Progressive Caucus letter clearly did so. But why can’t the DSA?

Article 51 of the UN Charter says that countries that become victims of aggression have the clear right to use force in self-defence. The International Court of Justice reaffirmed that right in the case of Nicaragua vs the USA (1986). Customary international law also accepts that a state has the right to use a proportionate amount of force to resist an attack on its territory.

If the DSA recognises the crime of aggression, then it must — even before we explore what Russia is actually doing in Ukraine — accord Ukraine the right to use force in self-defence, and to seek arms and aid from its allies.

Yet the DSA has never done so. Because to do so would shatter the finely-constructed carapace of hypocrisy covering its actual position, which is to parrot the Kremlin’s justifications for attacking Ukraine and to align with Putin’s (and Trump’s) ultimate aim — the dissolution of NATO.

If you support Ukraine’s right to resist you might still say: the USA should not provide any arms, or provide fewer arms (for cost reasons, or because of its alleged “imperialist” motives). But you would have no case for arguing — as the far left’s Madrid “Peace” conference did on 22 April 2022 — that we should stop arms from all sources (including the left-led governments of Spain, Sweden, Finland and Germany) getting to Ukraine.

Do you accept Ukraine’s “Responsibility to Protect”?

Early in the war it became clear that Russian troops are carrying out war crimes, crimes against humanity and potentially — given the mixture of actions and declared intentions — genocide, according to the definition in the Genocide Convention. And this is no longer at the stage of vague allegations. The European Parliament has formally adopted the demand for:

“the prosecution of the Russian and Belarussian regimes for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and aggression.”

Luckily there is provision under international law for this situation. The 2005 UN World Summit unanimously ratified the Responsibility to Protect declaration, which says a country not only has the right to use force in self-defence but:

“the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means”.

The R2P Declaration not only legitimises Ukraine’s use of force, but the use of force by the international community under the UN Charter, “should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail”.

And that raises even more questions for the DSA and its allied lawmakers:

  • Do you accept there is prima facie evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated by Russia against the people of Ukraine?
  • Do you accept Ukraine has the responsibility to protect its citizens against these crimes through the use of force?
  • Do you accept the USA’s legal right and responsibility to aid it in doing so?
  • Do you support the call, backed by the majority of left, green and social democratic members of the European Parliament, for a tribunal to prosecute the Russian perpetrators of such crimes?

These may seem like “lawyers’ questions”, compared to the breezy generalities the campist left prefers: but they should be the starting point for any progressive lawmaker in the United States Congress. Since the USA is a signatory to the 2005 Declaration, the position of DSA-aligned lawmakers cannot be anything other than to answer: yes.

Which brings us to the question of “imperialism”. For you could accept the evidence of genocide, the responsibility to protect and the need to capture and prosecute Russia’s leaders, yet still reject US support for Ukraine if you could show — as the DSA claims — that the whole conflict was (a) the result of US aggression and (b) essentially an “inter-imperialist war” being fought by proxy. But the facts refute these claims.

Leninism masquerading as pacifism

The basic problem we are up against — from the tankie wing of Die Linke in Germany, to Stop The War in the UK and the DSA in America, is Leninism masquerading as pacifism.

Socialists understand that all wars have a class character. We abhor war, and criticise the militaristic culture that traditional standing armies project into civil society. But we are not pacifists.

The Marxist tradition, for certain, had a theory of just war based around the analysis of the class character of any given conflict.

For example, Marx and Engels advised left-wing Republican generals in the American Civil War to do what, eventually, Sherman did: namely attack Georgia and torch the South. In 1891, when war loomed between Tsarist Russia and a democratising Germany, Engels advised the German socialists to advocate “war to the death” against Tsarism, on the grounds that a Russian victory would impose conditions in which the German labour movement could not survive.

For Leninists, these subtleties regarding the class issues in wartime were obliterated by the theory of imperialism. During what they called the imperialist epoch — roughly from the late 1890s through to the early 1940s — Marxists adopted the principle of “revolutionary defeatism” in wars between developed-world states.

Since the First World War was simply a war to carve up the colonial world, killing millions of workers in the process, there could be no just outcome. Workers should maintain the class struggle even at the price of military defeat, reject national chauvinism and seek to turn the war into a civil war, said Lenin. Though it led to isolation during the conflict itself, the Leninist position guided revolutions Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany — and commanded strong support among workers in Italy and France.

However, the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s seriously disoriented the Leninist left. Faced with what was effectively a Europe-wide civil war between democratic capitalism and genocidal fascism, numerous left parties insisted — following a mixture of Leninist principles and pacifism — that they could take no side with “their own” democratic ruling elites in the armed resistance to fascism.

The British Independent Labour Party, for example, refused even to support Abyssinia’s fight against invasion by fascist Italy (on the grounds that it was a “proxy war” between imperialists); its leader personally congratulated Neville Chamberlain for signing the 1938 Munich peace deal with Hitler, handing parts of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich. And when war came in 1939, the ILP denounced it as “imperialist” and refused any support to the British war effort.

The Trotskyists took a straight revolutionary defeatist position between the Allies and Nazi Germany in 1939, declaring that the defence of democracy was a “lie”. The Comintern went further, ordering the Communist Party of Britain to condemn the British government as the aggressor and to support the Stalin-Hitler Pact, which destroyed Polish national sovereignty, while agitating for a “people’s peace with Germany”.

The Leninist position, in short, became inoperable when faced with wars where (a) genocide and (b) the danger of the totalitarian destruction of democracy and the survival of the labour movement were at stake. Only the Comintern’s U-turn in 1941, after Hitler invaded the USSR, allowed its militants to become core and respected fighters in Europe’s anti-fascist resistance.

But the price the far-left paid for these mental gyrations was decades of post-war political incoherence. After 1945 nobody except the social-democrats had a coherent story to tell about what they actually did between 1939 and 1945, and why.

It is non-accidental that, today, parties with a strongly rooted social-democratic political philosophy have been at the forefront of the left’s moral rearmament against Putinism. Meanwhile the “son-of-Leninism” tradition has veered from disorientation to outright Kremlin apologism.

Meanwhile, the class questions posed by Russia’s invasion are clear.

What’s at stake for Ukrainian workers?

Wherever Russia has occupied Ukraine — eg in Crimea and the DNR/LNR puppet states formed after of Minsk II — it has banned independent trade unions, tortured and abducted trade union organisers, systematically violated human rights and repressed all independent left organisations.

A Russian victory in this war would mean the end of the Ukrainian labour movement. That’s why the miners I met in Kyiv — bitterly opposed to Zelensky’s social and economic policies — rushed to take up arms as the invasion happened.

For this reason the genuine left movements in Ukraine — Sotsialny Rukh, SD Platform and the anti-authoritarian groups inside the Territorial Defence Brigades— have taken a position of resisting the Russian invasion. So have the independent trade union federations, who have organised their own territorial defence detachments and are receiving aid and military supplies from, amongst others, trade unions and social-democrats across Europe.

In addition, Russia is perpetrating systematic crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Its declared aim is the destruction not just of Ukrainian national sovereignty but of the Ukrainian language and identity.

Snatching tens of thousands of kids and deporting them for forcible adoption, issuing Viagra to soldiers and encouraging them to rape Ukrainian women, banning the Ukrainian language in schools in conquered cities — each of these acts meets the test of “intention plus action” contained in the Genocide Convention. So does the renewed ethnic oppression meted out to Crimea’s Tartar population.

Furthermore, such acts are not random, or the result of a breakdown of discipline. They conform exactly to the classic Russian imperialist ideology and practice, echoed in Putin’s crazed July 2021 essay, whereby Ukraine and its people can only exist as part of a Russian reality.

For certain, the US invasions of Iraq were acts of imperialism. So was the catastrophic attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan. I opposed them on the same principle as I oppose Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

But right now, if you want to use the word “imperialism”, the most classic case of it — an unashamed land grab and genocide by a totalitarian regime — is playing out before your eyes. Any US leftist or progressive calling for its victims to negotiate, or to placate the aggressor with “security guarantees acceptable to all” risks betraying the victims.

As for the the claim that the conflict is a “proxy war”: since 24 February Russia has used no proxies. The charge of waging “proxy war” can only be levelled at Ukraine’s Western supporters — including the USA, NATO and the European Union. Its effect is to deny Ukrainian agency — reducing a legitimate war of self-defence (and ethnic survival) to the status of a subordinate conflict within a wider Great Power rivalry.

Some within the DSA have pointed to the unjustice of this claim: the existence of strategic competition between Russia, China and the USA no more invalidates Ukraine’s resistance than the First World War invalidated the justice of Ireland’s fight for independence. But they’re a beleaguered minority.

Democratic left needs clarity on Ukraine

Since the Bernie Sanders movement appeared, the DSA has functioned as a kind of activist placeholder on the left of the Democratic Party, on the assumption that issues like Ukraine are secondary to the basic task of electing left lawmakers, promoting strikes and community struggles. Some of its activists are among the most consistent fighters for social justice in the USA. But collectively they have failed the test of Ukraine.

The Dalbon article looks like an attempt to double down on the mistakes made during the conflict. It calls for the DSA to go on pressuring AOC, Rashida Tlaib and other DSA-aligned members of Congress to oppose increased military spending; to “call out the free flow of weapons”, counterpose the demand for humanitarian aid to further military assistance, and to soften the sanctions.

It is vital that the lawmakers not only resist this, but push back in the way the left inside Labour, the German SPD and, for example, the Finnish left/social democratic/green coalition has done against pro-Kremlin groups.

Left Democratic lawmakers in the USA have denounced the invasion but sought to limit the effect of sanctions. They voted for the Biden administration’s military aid package, but issued calls for Biden and Zelensky to negotiate short of a total Russian military defeat. In short, they have adhered to a baseline of internationalist principles but exhibited neither realism about the Russian threat to the rules based order, nor enthusiasm about the strategic task, which is to defeat Russia.

When the Progressive Caucus letter was slammed, Ocasio-Cortez appeared to brush aside criticism of it, saying it was broadly in line with thinking inside the administration. Invited to clarify progressive aims in Ukraine, she responded:

“I think that the large asterisk is: Will Russia, is Russia, how can we bring Russia to the table without compromising Ukrainian sovereignty and just core principles of self determination? But that is really what the landscape of diplomacy is about.”

That’s not clarity. It is an open secret that there are backchannel talks between Washington and Moscow. In those talks, I understand, the US has demanded the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and warned Russia of “catastrophic consequences” should it use nuclear weapons.

Absent a change in Russia’s leadership, or strategy, there is no chance of diplomacy achieving a peaceful resolution in line with Ukraine’s self-determination. The best way of achieving that is to enable Ukraine to defeat Russia — which means the enthusiastic supply of long-range weapons, realtime intelligence, training and ammunition.

Lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus face a choice: to stand with European social democrats, in voting for the provision of heavy weapons, unconditional aid to Ukraine, crippling economic sanctions to paralyse the Russian economy, the rearmament and reform of NATO, and the prosecution of Putin’s regime for crimes against humanity — or to go on splitting the difference to appease activists who promote the Kremlin’s justification for war.

Lessons from the European left

In the UK, not a single Labour MP has taken the position advocated by the DSA; nor has any group of left MPs stepped forward to push the demand for “direct negotiations” with Putin, or a “European security arrangement acceptable to all parties” — because they know these things are impossible without betraying their duties under international law and socialist principle to aid the defence of Ukraine.

Last week my Welsh Labour comrades drove a station wagon from Cardiff to Lviv, to hand over to miners from the front line city of Pavlograd, where it will hopefully be converted into a tactical vehicle, as previously delivered trucks have been.

Vladimir Putin is trying to freeze and starve those miners into submission — and the one question they care about is the the one posed Florence Reese’ famous song: which side are you on? There are plenty of others on their side, but where is the American left?

The Biden administration has been exemplary in its support for Ukraine. It’s time for progressives in the Democratic Party to stand alongside their left and social-democratic colleagues in Europe, support Ukraine to the hilt, and sideline those within the DSA who won’t do so.

Republished with permission of the author from HOW TO STOP FASCISM