Why Socialist Appeal can't "learn to think"

In the 1938 article “Learn to think”, Leon Trotsky argued that if fascist Italy sent weapons to aid – for its own malign reasons – nationalist rebels against France in Algeria, socialists in Italy should not oppose and even help that. Opposing such military aid would, he argued, mean betraying the Algerians’ liberation struggle. The relevance to Ukraine now is clear. The Socialist Appeal group, consistent opponents of Ukraine’s war of self-defence and consistent though not uncritical apologists for Russia, has objected to this comparison – at length and with theatrical rhetoric. What are the issues?

In fact Joe Attard’s November 2022 polemic, hotly denying the relevance of this argument in “Learn to think” to the Ukraine conflict, recapitulates exactly the kind of position Trotsky was criticising – opposing aid to a just struggle against imperialist violence on grounds of opposing the ruling class in one’s own country.

The argument in "Learn to think"


Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favour of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

At the same time, the French maritime workers, even though not faced with any strike whatsoever, would be compelled to exert every effort to block the shipment of ammunition intended for use against the rebels. Only such a policy on the part of the Italian and French workers constitutes the policy of revolutionary internationalism.

Does this not signify, however, that the Italian workers moderate their struggle in this case against the fascist regime? Not in the slightest. Fascism renders ‘aid’ to the Algerians only in order to weaken its enemy, France, and to lay its rapacious hand on her colonies. The revolutionary Italian workers do not forget this for a single moment. They call upon the Algerians not to trust their treacherous ‘ally’ and at the same time continue their own irreconcilable struggle against fascism, ‘the main enemy in their own country’. Only in this way can they gain the confidence of the rebels, help the rebellion and strengthen their own revolutionary position.

Note that Trotsky advocates a coherent and consistent internationalist policy for workers' movements around the world – not the idea that the only or dominating task in every given situation, at every given moment, is opposing action by the government of one’s own country.

The whole article is valuable reading. This is how Trotsky explains its fundamental idea:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.


The quality of Joe Attard’s polemic can be measured by the claim at the start of his article that US socialist John Reimann (who has cited “Learn to think”) “says socialists should support strengthening NATO”. The article by Reimann Attard quotes – but doesn’t link to – says nothing even vaguely like that.

Attard tries at some length to tar all those who support Ukraine with supporting NATO, increased UK military spending and so on. He evidently found doing that easier than tackling the arguments of those who oppose Western militarism while supporting Ukraine.

He dismisses the issue of “the right of nations to self-determination” in connection with Ukraine on the grounds that “this democratic right should always be contingent on the wider interests of the working class”. His explanation why this invalidates the need to defend Ukraine’s right to self-determination hinges on declaring, in defiance of facts, that this is an “inter-imperialist war” – and suggesting that the bloodshed and wider global misery caused by the conflict are therefore somehow Ukraine’s responsibility as much as Russia’s.

“… we would point out that choosing not to block arms shipments is not the same as calling on one’s own reactionary government to send arms.” The difference, when what is involved is weapons being sent to a national-rights or democratic struggle rather than direct military action by an outside imperialist state, is hardly one of principle. Moreover demands for military aid to, eg, the UK of today are not quite the same as demands on the Italian (or UK) regime of the 30s, ruling over a colonial empire it was seeking to expand in the world of colonial empires. The UK and other big states allied to Ukraine are capitalist and imperialist and rapacious – but they are not trying to “lay their hands” on Ukraine in the same sense as Russia.

Attard falsely claims that socialists supporting arms for Ukraine refuse to talk about the fact that the Western powers are (of course) supporting Ukraine for their own self-interested reasons.

“.. the imperialists have not required any encouragement from the left and labour movement to send” arms, he claims. In fact Ukraine’s imperialist allies – even the most eager – have consistently dragged their feet over providing it with the kind of weapons and equipment it needs to win, because they do not want Russia to win but fear how Putin might respond and are nervous about a clear-cut Ukrainian victory. This reality disappears beneath Attard’s puffing about “war-mongering hysteria”.

When Attard accuses Ukraine’s allies of “dragging out this conflict”, his implication is that without support for Ukraine there would have been some sort of preferable situation of peace – as opposed to the establishment of “peace” because Putin had successfully subordinated Ukraine (as a prelude to new wars in Ukraine and elsewhere).


He makes great play of the fact Trotsky also imagines a Belgian workers’ state receiving weapons from capitalist France because of a threat from Germany. But the Algerian example Trotsky starts with makes it clear he was very much not only considering military aid to working-class regimes.

Attard then blurs it all together: “What is happening in Ukraine is not a revolutionary uprising by an oppressed colony or a case of self-defence by a proletarian regime.” So there seems to be a broad, inclusive “good” category, into which however Ukraine does not fall.

His justification for this is that Ukraine has a “reactionary bourgeois government”. Attard’s explanation of why it is reactionary is larded with misrepresentation and exaggeration. But Zelenskyy’s government is certainly bourgeois and right-wing.

Zelenskyy is, as Attard points out, attacking Ukraine’s unions (we doubt that he or Socialist Appeal have done anything about it - AWL and other pro-Ukraine socialists have, in cooperation with our comrades in Ukraine). But the Algerian national liberation movement that eventually overthrew French rule created a repressive one-party regime. Should the left have not supported it against France? The Stalinist movement that led Vietnam’s war of national liberation against US imperialism murdered thousands of revolutionary socialists and suppressed all working-class organisations. Was it wrong to support the Vietnamese against the US, and their arming by the Soviet Union and China?

Attard would not argue that. Such inconsistency exists for different reasons in different parts of the left. In the case of the quarter-Stalinist Socialist Appeal, it has extensive illusions in authoritarian or totalitarian “socialist” movements and regimes. Such forces were or are part of the “world revolution”; they constitute “revolutionary uprisings” even when they thoroughly suppress working-class and democratic rights and work for authoritarian dictatorships. Meanwhile Socialist Appeal paints pro-Western neo-liberal Ukraine in the grimmest possible colours, simultaneously ignoring the elements of popular organisation in the Ukrainian struggle.

Why and how Marxists pick sides

This is how Trotsky advocated military support for Spain’s Republican government in the Spanish civil war:

We accuse this government of protecting the rich and starving the poor. This government must be smashed. So long as we are not strong enough to replace it, we are fighting under its command. But on every occasion we express openly our nonconfidence in it…

“... we are fighting under its command”. And this in a situation where Spain, unlike Ukraine now, had a mass revolutionary workers’ movement not far off the possible conquest of power – a movement the Republican government attacked and ultimately suppressed.

Socialists should support the defence and preservation of Ukrainian independence and self-rule just as we supported the defence of even bourgeois democracy against Franco's fascism. In neither case does that imply political support for the government leading the struggle. The point is to preserve and expand the spaces in which the labour movement and its socialist wing can exist and grow and fight.

Attard admits that a reactionary and undemocratic government can lead a legitimate and liberatory struggle, citing Ethiopia in the 1930s (far more reactionary and undemocratic than Zelenskyy's Ukraine). But he dismisses out of hand, with no actual consideration of the issues, the idea that Ukrainian victory could have significant positive consequences.

The defeat of an aggressive and bloody military imperialism, and an increasingly reactionary and repressive Russian regime, one that sponsors dictatorships and far-right movements in many parts of the world, by a mobilisation of its victims could clearly have positive consequences.

Of course Ukrainian victory will not change the basic conditions of global capitalist exploitation and crisis. Yes, “only the independent struggle of the working class is capable of bringing an end to the nightmare of war, national chauvinism, and economic misery in Ukraine, Russia, and throughout the world.”

But the idea that independent working-class politics and struggles can or should advance by dismissing resistance to the kind of oppression and militarism that characterises Russia’s war in Ukraine is ludicrous. And that is exactly what Attard does when he blindly declares “this is a reactionary war on both sides”.

A proxy war?

Instead of thinking seriously about the consequences of various outcomes, Attard pivots to Socialist Appeal’s favourite theme, that Ukraine is a proxy of US and other Western imperialisms: “Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy is entirely dictated by western – and particularly American – imperialism.”

Ukrainian socialists are fighting the subordination of Ukrainian society to Western capitalist-imperialist interests, as well as fighting the Ukrainian ruling class. Unlike Socialist Appeal, they understand that the conquest or subordination of Ukraine by Russian militarism is an even greater and more immediate threat.

The fact is that Socialist Appeal is not very interested in Ukraine or its people, except as a proxy for talking about Western imperialism. Its politics are miles from Trotsky’s insistence (elsewhere) that “what characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude to oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics”.

Concretely, the Ukrainian struggle is less of a proxy for the US or anyone else than, say, the Bangladeshi war of independence (1971) was for the Indian government in its struggle against Pakistan (to a lesser extent the Soviet Union in its struggle against the US and China). Indira Gandhi’s regime supported and helped organise the Bangladeshi resistance to Pakistan from the start, and it only finally triumphed when India invaded.

So would Socialist Appeal dismiss one of the most significant anti-imperialist struggles of the 20th century as fundamentally a proxy for Indian imperialism? If not, why not? Would it have called for India to stop its military support for the Bengalis?

Many other examples could be cited. Attard cites the Kurds; but in doing so demonstrates the opposite of what he seems to want. If he is applying his arguments about Ukraine to the Kurdish struggle, his comments would seem to imply that Kurdish alliances with – and betrayal by – Western imperialists mean the Kurds have forfeited their right to support from the left. Or that international socialists, rather than advocating distrust in Western imperialists, should have simply opposed imperialist help for the Kurds. If he is not suggesting those things, he is not saying very much.

In 2014, when the US bombed ISIS forces besieging the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria, Socialist Appeal did not oppose it or call for the US to stop – perhaps that would have been too embarrassing. In fact it leant towards implying the US was not doing enough… As with so much here, Socialist Appeal seems unphased by inconsistencies and contradictions.


“In the abstract”, Attard declares, “ordinary Ukrainians facing Russian military aggression are indeed entitled to take weapons from whomever they want… [however] the bulk of the fighting in Ukraine is not being done by ordinary volunteers, but by the official armed forces, whose leadership has an extremely reactionary character.”

I doubt Attard is very knowledgeable about the Ukrainian armed forces, but let's accept their leadership is reactionary.

“Ordinary Ukrainians… ordinary volunteers” seems like code – sloppy, confused or deliberately obscuring – for a working-class-based resistance movement. In so far as he has a clear point here, Attard seems to be suggesting defensive or liberation struggles by oppressed or vulnerable nations only have validity if they are dominated by working-class forces. Again, apply this to the Vietnamese struggle, whose leaders aimed not only to win national freedom but to create a totalitarian state without a labour movement...

Attard ignores small but real initiatives by Ukrainian socialists, anarchists and trade unionists to organise their own (not at all ordinary!) units and networks within the Ukrainian military struggle – unsurprisingly, given Socialist Appeal does not care what Ukrainian (and Russian) left-wingers think about the war. More fundamentally it suggests that, since the Ukrainian resistance is dominated by regular bourgeois armed forces, whether the Ukrainians can defend themselves against slaughter and oppression is of no real interest. The idea that it is of little interest – what Trotsky called “nose-picking” in the face of massacres – permeates Attard’s whole article and Socialist Appeal’s whole attitude to the war in Ukraine.