Trotsky, Ukrainian nationalism and Kosovo

There is widespread support for Kosovar "self-determination" among groups in the broadly defined Trotskyist tradition. In general, these groups view Milosevic and the Serbs as the latest incarnation of Stalin's Greater Russian domination over lesser nationalities. In this schema, what is required is a fight to the death against national chauvinism such as the kind Lenin began to mount against Stalin in the twilight of his life. Lenin saw Stalin's treatment of the Georgian nationality as a violation of the Bolshevism and a retreat into Czarist backwardness. He sought Trotsky's assistance in the fight, which is the subject of Moshe Lewin's "Lenin's Final Struggle." The Trotskyists see their fight against the Yugoslav "Stalinists," especially Milosevic, as squarely in this tradition. This fight is so crucial that it does not even seem to matter to some Trotskyists that their demands to "Arm the KLA" agree with those of the more bellicose members of the NATO coalition.

Although I am no longer a Trotskyist, I suggest that a deeper analysis of Trotsky's writings on these sorts of questions will reveal a more dialectically nuanced understanding of the interrelationship between the self-defense needs of a socialist state and those of lesser nationalities.

A review of Trotsky's treatment of "the Ukraine question", which has been taken by many Trotskyists as ideological justification for their defense of Kosovar nationalism, might suggest a completely different political imperative. The real question is whether Trotsky's call for an "Independent Soviet Ukraine" has that much in common with blanket support for Kosovar self-determination.

This was not Trotsky's final word on the subject of the rights of lesser nationalities. During the Hitler-Stalin pact, territory in Eastern Europe was divided up between the two powers. This had a disorienting effect on the liberal and social democratic left, which was reflected in the positions of the Shachtman-Burnham faction in the SWP. They regarded violation of Finland's sovereignty by both Hitler and Stalin as proof that the two regimes were equally reactionary and villainous. Trotsky argued that the right to national sovereignty in such cases had to be weighed against the broader needs of socialist revolution. Self-determination in this light might be revealed not as an end in itself, but as a tactic used to advance the class-struggle under given objective conditions. I will argue that this elementary truth has been forgotten by the Trotskyist movement, which has elevated "self-determination" into a kind of universal principle, like free elections or the right to organize trade unions. For Marxists, however, there is no universal principle except the need for communism.

Before examining Trotsky's writings on Ukrainian nationalism, it would be useful to review the problems of this 50 million strong nationality in the Soviet Union. Since the Ukraine was the "breadbasket" of the USSR, Stalin's war against the peasantry was felt most grievously in this republic. During the NEP, Stalin and Bukharin backed peasant capitalism while Trotsky urged rapid industrialization based on steep taxation of the wealthier peasant.

>From the very beginning, the so-called "scissors" phenomenon characterized the NEP. Trotsky first drew attention to this phenomenon of rising industrial prices and declining agricultural prices, which appeared graphically as an opened scissors, in the first few years of the NEP. It was attributable to the discrepancy between a shattered state-owned industrial infrastructure and a relatively thriving capitalist agricultural economy. The effect of the "scissors" was to cause the kulak to hoard farm products in an attempt to blackmail the state into cutting the prices of consumer goods. When the kulak hoarded crops, the workers went hungry and misery increased in the towns. This, in brief, was the pattern that would repeat itself until Stalin declared war on the kulaks.

The peasants had discovered that holding grain was more prudent than holding money. The state authorities could not make the peasants budge. At Rostov in the Ukraine the authorities issued an order to have the peasants deliver 25% of all flour delivered to state mills at a fixed price in 1924. The state was able to collect only 1/3 of the grain. The peasants withheld the rest.

Finally, Stalin took action against the peasants and sent armed detachments of Communists into the countryside to break their power. In retaliation, the peasants destroyed their livestock and grain rather than surrender them to the hated Red dictatorship. In the Ukraine such actions precipitated a terrible famine in the years 1931-32. Although the Soviet state had converted most of the large Ukrainian peasant holdings into collective farms, the peasants turned these nominally "socialist" institutions against the demands of the state. Peasants banded together to withhold produce from the state. As their resistance mounted, so did state repression. Moshe Lewin writes:

"Spurred by a flood of orders and pressures, the local agencies now sharply from their alleged 'rotten liberalism' into another batch of 'sharp measures of repression,' as our source put it. Although the limits of an exhausted countryside and poor crops forced the government to lower its demands in many regions (the Ukraine and the Caucasus had their quotas lowered consecutively four times), it still needed a big battle to take the rest. The Ukraine, the North Caucasus, the two Volga regions, and other grain-producing areas, according to archives quoted by a modem author, 'dropped out of the organized influence of the Party and government,' and the government responded by transforming these areas into a vast arena of an unprecedented repressive operation. Stalin, who took over personal command and shaped these policies, called for 'a smashing blow' to be dealt to kolkhozniki, because 'whole squads of them,' as he saw it, 'turned against the Soviet state.' A special Central Committee meeting was held 11 January 1933 to endorse some of the old and to adopt new, measures to keep the countryside under control." ("The Making of the Soviet System", p. 155)

So when a nationalist movement took shape in the Ukraine, is there any doubt that it would have had an anti-Soviet character? The OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) was formed in 1929 and modeled itself after the Russian populist groups of the 1870s. They combined terrorist tactics such as assassination of Bolshevik officials with liberal and Christian pieties.

In October 1938, the Nazis represented themselves as champions of the national rights of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain was only too happy to accede to their demands and the Czech republic was dismembered. In another demagogic display on behalf of lesser nationalities, Hitler took up the cause of the Ukrainian nationalists as well, who were seen as possible allies in a future war against Stalin. In the small and backward Czech province of Carpatho-Ukraine, a demand for autonomy was encouraged by the Nazi regime. John A. Armstrong describes the collaboration between Nazis and Ukrainian nationalists in the Czech republic:

"In October, 1938, the nationalists declared the Carpatho-Ukraine to be a 'free, federated state [in Czechoslovakia],' and eventually Prague recognized its autonomy, although the economically most valuable part was ceded to Hungary. Local Ukrainian nationalists, most of whom were members of, or sympathetic to, the OUN, were organized and excited to more extreme action by OUN leaders who had been living as émigrés in Germany and who had been dispatched to the Carpatho-Ukraine by the OUN directory on the advice of the German intelligence service. A major part of their activities was devoted to forming a para-military organization, the Carpathian Sich, which, they hoped, would form the nucleus of an army of an all-Ukrainian state." ("Ukrainian Nationalism", p. 24)

When Hitler began his invasion of the USSR, the OUN could be counted on as an ally. In the context of the 1930s, anti-Soviet nationalist movements would have had an enormous affinity with each other, especially the Ukrainian movement which defended a people who had absorbed more punishment than most from the Soviet state. The liberal and Christian ideology of the 1920s became replaced with an outspoken fascist belief in the purity of the Ukrainian nation. One OUN leader professed, "Nationalism is based on feelings, which is carried by the racial blood." (ibid., p 38)

OUN leader Richard Iarii was in constant contact with Nazi Admiral Canaris and the Abwehr. In the summer of 1939, OUN militia leader Sushko had organized an auxiliary to the Wehrmacht in its approaching invasion of Poland. Since the Ukrainians were a subject nation in Poland, the nationalists looked forward to war between their Nazi benefactors and the British-backed Polish state.

When war finally broke out between the Nazis and Soviet Union, the Ukrainian nationalists were tossed aside. Their racial ideology precluded any long-lasting alliance between them and what they regarded as an inferior Slavic race. This did not prevent Ukrainian leaders from initially welcoming the invading troops. Reverend John Hyrn'okh, a chaplain of a pro-Nazi Ukrainian militia, wrote a pastoral letter stating that "We greet the victorious German Army as deliverer from the enemy. We render our homage to the government which has been erected. We recognize Mr. Iaroslav Stets'ko [Nazi collaborator] as Head of the State Administration of the Ukraine."

Perhaps if the Nazis had been less ideologically driven, they would have co-opted the Ukrainian nationalists on a permanent basis and defeated the Red Army. In any case, the more pragmatic US ruling class happily dispensed with racial bugaboos and enlisted the Ukrainians once again in the crusade against the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. Ukrainian nationalists in the United States were a key element in the far-right coalition assembled in the World Anticommunist League (WACL), run by General Singlaub. The Ukrainian Cultural Center sent delegates on a regular basis to WACL gatherings and played a leading role blocking the prosecution of suspected Nazi war criminals. When the Stets'ko's settled in the United States, they played a leading role in the anticommunist struggle. Slava Steks'ko is the author of "Captive Nations," which offered a political glossary that included the following entries:

--Anti-Semitism: A smear word used by Communists against those who effectively oppose and expose them.

--Fascist: An anti-Communist

--Nazi or Hitlerite: An active anti-Communist

(Russ Belant, "Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party", p. 72)

When we finally turn to Trotsky's articles on Ukrainian nationalism, we find very little discussion of such matters. There is the possibility that Trotsky was unaware of the role of the OUN. It is more likely, however, that he was interested in making political points against the Stalinists who were primarily responsible for turning them against socialism. Concretely, Trotsky advanced the slogan of "A united, free, and independent workers' and peasants' Soviet Ukraine."

While this slogan outraged the Stalinists and many leftists who regarded the threat of a Nazi invasion as having more importance than the national grievances of the Ukrainians, Trotsky reassured them that an independent Soviet Ukraine would strengthen the USSR because it would have a vested interest in the defense of the socialist status quo. This independent socialist country would be a "mighty southwestern bulwark of the USSR". Even here, Trotsky reserved the final decision to the Ukrainian Marxist movement:

"This appears to me the correct policy on the Ukrainian question. I speak here personally and in my own name. The question must be opened up to international discussion. The foremost place in this discussion must belong to the Ukrainian revolutionary Marxists. We shall listen with the greatest attention to their voices. But they had better make haste. There is little time left for preparation!" (Collected Writings, 1938-1939, p. 307)

Whatever else one might think of this article and others written in the same vein, it certainly is NOT a call for Ukrainian self-determination. Trotsky was not in the habit of issuing such classless calls. He was primarily interested in world revolution and every political slogan was put forward with this final goal in mind. There is absolutely no connection between his approach to the Ukrainian question and today's empty-headed sloganeering on behalf of Kosovar self-determination.

These questions were addressed once again when Trotsky lined up with the James P. Cannon faction in the largest and most respected Trotskyist group in the world, the American Socialist Workers Party. Cannon had found himself on the opposite side of the fence in a debate on the character of the Soviet Union with a faction led by Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and James Burnham. During the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression Pact, vast segments of the American left outside the Communist Party felt betrayed. Nazism and Stalinism seemed to be equally evil, especially in the way that they partitioned smaller and weaker countries that shared the misfortune of being located in between the two powers. Finland especially became a symbol of the victimization of democratic and independent countries by the two evil empires.

It is interesting that when Shachtman is first feeling out his differences with Cannon and Trotsky, he raises the question of the Ukraine. Since Trotsky had declared in favor of an independent Soviet Ukraine, wasn't he violating his own principles by backing the Soviet partition of Finland? In his Nov. 6, 1939 reply to Shachtman, Trotsky explains that the slogan was raised before the Hitler-Stalin pact and suggests implicitly that the new situation might dictate new slogans. In a letter written in the previous month Trotsky makes it clear that the defense of a socialist country supersedes all other considerations: "At Brest-Litovsk the Soviet government sacrificed the national independence of the Ukraine in order to salvage the workers state."

This, of course, was par for the course. The Bolsheviks often compromised the nationalist yearnings of various groups when it advanced the defense of the infant socialist republic. On December 2, 1920 two treaties were signed with Turkey. The first recognized Armenia as a socialist republic while the second treaty constituted a complete surrender to Turkish territorial and other demands, effectively turning Armenia into a rump republic. According to E.H. Carr, "the elimination of an independent Azerbaijan and an independent Armenia was a common interest of Soviet Russia and of Turkey, and paved the way to the much desired agreement between them." ("The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923", V. 3, p. 298)

When we turn to Yugoslavia, all such considerations seem to be absent in the various communiqués of the myriad of far-flung global Trotskyist groups. Tito's Yugoslavia was seen in a totally undialectical manner. It is dismissed as a "Stalinist" country. What's worse, all the economic deals with the West cooked up as a defensive measure against Soviet domination are portrayed as willing concessions to the capitalist system by corrupt Red gangsters. Stalinophobia gets mixed together with ultraleftism here in a stunning fashion. Little respect is paid to the survival instincts of a deeply oppressed people who had struggled to build socialism after their own fashion. When western imperialism exerted pressure on Yugoslavia, the secessionist cracks in the system were welcomed as liberatory by many Trotskyists.

Now that there is very little left of "socialism" in Yugoslavia and Serb bourgeois nationalism is on the rampage, there are few restraints on Trotskyism's tendency to welcome further implosion of the state. Calls for a new multinational socialist Yugoslavia--with a Trotskyist pedigree, one assumes--is mixed with calls for Kosovar separation. These groups seem interested in simultaneously assuaging the prejudices of the middle-class radical movement while upholding Trotskyist orthodoxy, or at least a bowdlerized version of it.

In reality, the issues are identical to what they were during the fight with Shachtman, Burnham and Abern. The difference is that they take place on a terrain where socialism has been thrown totally on the defensive, even much more so than when the Nazis invaded the USSR. The war against Serbia is a proxy war against every vestige of anti-imperialist independence in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is a signal to the Communists in Russia and allied states that Nato will blow them to kingdom come if they threaten the "stability" of the new world order. Poor Kosovo has been dragged into this confrontation, but it is of secondary consequence. Despite the retrograde character of the Serb leadership, its defiance of Nato's war is as important as the defense of Stalingrad in 1942. If Serbia loses, the forces of war and barbarism will simply drive forward with their expansionary agenda. And Russia surely will be the next target.