Ukraine: where are the International Brigades?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second year. Russian atrocities on Ukrainian soil, against the Ukrainian people, continue. The world has borne witness to the brutality of the Russian invasion: the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian homes and infrastructure, Bucha and Mariupol. In the occupied territories, there is looting, rapes, round-ups of dissidents, forced deportations, summary executions, and the separation of Ukrainian children from their parents to be raised as Russians.

We are confronted with the question: what is to be done? More specifically: what should the Western left be doing?

The people of Ukraine have the right to self-determination. It is in their defence of this right that the people of Ukraine fiercely resist the Russian invasion and defend the Ukrainian state, flawed though it may be. The Western left must support the resistance of the Ukrainian people and offer aid wherever possible. This includes raising funds and supplies for Ukrainian refugees and aid workers, sheltering Ukrainian refugees, platforming Ukrainian left voices, providing organisational and material support to the Ukrainian left and organised labour and laying the groundwork for the inevitable fight against the post-war neoliberalisation of a Ukraine become reliant on, and vulnerable to, NATO and the EU and the depredations of their financial vultures. One slogan that Western leftists must advance is the cancellation of all Ukrainian foreign debt, which is essential if Ukraine is not to exchange the Russian yoke for that of the IMF and the World Bank.

What about NATO and Western arms to Ukraine? Ukraine has the right to receive arms from whomever it sees fit to demand them. At present, that means NATO and the West. At any rate, the hue and cry of the fractured left has no bearing whatsoever on the Ukrainian state’s decision to ask for arms or the decision of NATO states to provide them. Such is the nature of toothless demands which tyrants are free to safely ignore.

Perhaps Western leftists find it distasteful that support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion means tacitly approving the enmeshment of Ukraine with NATO - and by proxy, the United States of America - and its imperialist and expansionist agenda.

But it is by necessity that Ukraine has been forced into the arms of NATO. There does not exist a strong and independent international socialist movement that can manifest its solidarity with Ukraine and pose an alternative to NATO by competing with it on the level most pertinent to the Ukrainian resistance against Russian imperialism: the provision of arms, military support and even fighters on the battlefield against the invading Russian armies.

During the Spanish Civil War, France and Britain, following a policy of non-intervention, hampered the Spanish Republican war effort while doing nothing to prevent fascist support to Franco's Nationalists. The Comintern, by then under Stalinist control, sent ample funds, arms and soldiers, and organised the International Brigades - volunteer units of communists and socialists who fought for the Republic. The non-Stalinist international socialist movement also mobilised in support of the contemporaneous Spanish Revolution, forming their own, smaller units of international volunteers. George Orwell, then part of a contingent from the British Independent Labour Party to the Spanish anti-Stalinist Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), saw action against both the Nationalists and the Stalinists.

Where are the International Brigades - not in the Stalinist sense, but in the sense that they are the ultimate praxis of anti-fascist socialist internationalism - today?

It is the weakness of the Western left that has resulted in its ceding of the Ukrainian cause to NATO, who has monopolised international solidarity with Ukraine and twisted it to further its own imperialist ends.

There will be other uprisings and wars of resistance against imperialist oppression in the future. In these crises, where the crumbling status quo presents opportunities for left-wing breakthroughs, whether the Western left can make a meaningful intervention or is relegated to the sidelines depends on their organisational strength and clarity of vision and purpose. If international working-class solidarity is to be more than just an aspiration of the Western left, it must begin the work of building it today.