What revolutionary internationalist defeatism in the ‘Ukrainian’ war really means

by Fredo Corvo and Anibal

Spanish version

Published with the article “Ukrainian anarchists are calling for international support

For us, we don’t only see the proletariat as it is now,
what it believes and how it acts,
but as what it will be forced to do. Or better,
what it can do when put before the test of history.

(Paraphrasing Marx)

At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, some positions appeared that claimed – in words – internationalism and the revolutionary struggle against capital. But in reality, they proposed participation in the war on the side of Ukraine. We have seen this in the U.K., Germany, and in Spain. The arguments used are partly identical to those by some Trotskyists, autonomism Italian style, anarchists participating in the war on the side of Ukraine. As some of these positions came from hitherto proletarian groups and individuals, we found it urgent to discuss with them. We discovered that their impatience, wanting ‘to do something now’ is the counterpart of a missing strategy based on revolutionary internationalist defeatism.1

Lacking class autonomy

Those who have slipped into war participation generally recognize that the war has an inter-imperialist and capitalist character. But they insist again and again that the cause of the Ukrainian resistance deserved consideration since the proletariat, lacking class autonomy, is participating in this resistance to defend itself against the Russian invasion.

Of course, the proletariat in the two parts into which Ukraine has fallen apart shows a dangerous lack of class autonomy. The same is true for the proletariat in Russia and that in the ‘West’ (USA, countries of NATO, AUKUS, and E.U., etc.). In short, the world proletariat lacks class autonomy, even if this is understood in a limited way, as awareness to have different interests than the capitalist class and as the struggle to defend its living situation against the evergrowing attacks by capital. The war in Ukraine actually is not a Ukrainian problem. The war itself is not a national war or a Ukrainian war, or even a war of ‘national liberation. If the latter were true, we should ask if the war is ‘justified’ from the side of Kiev, or that of the Donbas republics, or even both. This war, because it is an inter-imperialist war, as all wars since the beginning of the 20th century, is a problem for the proletariat in all countries. The international proletariat already is paying its price in a deterioration of its living and working situation, in a nearing threat of total nuclear and environmental destruction. Therefore it is a mistake to focus on current events in Ukraine that come to us filtered by war propaganda on both sides, but mostly from ‘our’ bourgeois side. This is even more true if we realize that defeatism is the most difficult on the battleground, both for soldiers and civilians in the war zone. As we see with minimal manifestations by ‘citizens’ in Russia, at the ‘homefront,’ there are more possibilities that could eventually culminate in large-scale industrial mass actions against both the war and its consequences for the workers.

These are some reasons for the need for a revolutionary strategy that doesn’t limit itself to some catchy slogans.

a. Beginning of the Russian invasion

In the beginning of the war (or a war raging Ukraine since 2014, escalating by the 2022 Russian invasion), the will to do something immediately brought many to defend the Ukrainian bourgeois cause of national-popular armed resistance, and particularly its democratic factions, defending providing arms for the Ukrainian defence against Russia and its army, that is, what NATO and ‘own’ Western government are doing. This was falsely understood as ‘positive action’ from ‘understanding’ what the Ukrainians are doing in the face of the Russian invasion. In that period, we didn’t hear much about proletarian internationalism from these war supporters.

Our understanding of the inter-imperialist character of the war, of the imperialist character of both the pro-Western faction of the bourgeoisie of Ukraine, as that of its pro-Russian faction, was considered as ‘meaningless’, and even the rhetoric of a new kind of ‘ultra-red anti-imperialism’, as a moral and political condemnation of proletarians who take up arms to defend themselves against invasion. Throwing away the lessons the communist left learned from previous inter-imperialist wars, Trotskyist reflexes dominated ‘action.’

This actual support of Ukrainian imperialism was presented as supporting the proletariat. The Ukrainian working class was being subjected to a situation in which it could not ‘autonomize itself militarily’ but still needed to defend its living conditions. This support would be ‘critical,’ entirely in the Trotskyist style, helping the militarized proletariat to differentiate itself politically as a precondition to autonomize itself. They concretized this in the idea to give ‘critical’ support to those forces that would serve the establishment of a political regime, ‘as democratic as possible’ [as can be in the imperialist war, as democratic as that of Kerenski in 1917] and, therefore, help them to defeat the forces that oppose that form of political regime. Amid a western war campaign presenting the government Zelenski as defending ‘democracy’ against ‘totalitarianism,’ our war participants presented themselves in the old-fashioned clothes of ultra-red democratism, following the example of the CNT-FAI in 1930-ties Spain and the Rojava-adepts in our times.

b. The siege of cities

In the face of the Russian siege of cities, and the separation of conscriptable men from their families fleeing abroad to escape the horrors of war, our war supporters stated “The more people join the militias, the more impossible it is for them to be ‘vertically’ controlled or subject to external command (even if they depend on who controls the supply of arms, supplies and everything else).” At that very moment, the Western war propaganda succeeded in using campaigns to collect money and goods for the besieged population in Ukraine and the fugitives (‘women and children first’) to suggest the sending of weapons (of ‘defense’).Our war participants took the lead by insisting on the need to provide the Ukrainian proletariat with the means to defend itself against the Russian invasion, “which are weapons but not only that, all kinds of supplies to be able to resist.”

This was considered not incompatible with promoting the most elementary of proletarian defeatism. The ‘most elementary’ proved to be, very realistically, to call on the proletarians organized in the existing militias to try to organize themselves within them, democratize them, and autonomize them from the army as far as possible.

The ultimate aim, invented for war participation, would be to overthrow the Russian autocracy by helping the Ukrainians to defeat the invasion and establish a liberal-democratic regime. Meanwhile, Biden has revealed by a slip of the tongue his goal of supporting this massacre of the Ukrainian and Russian proletariat: the replacement of Putin with a “democrat”. Fortunately, our little Trotskys assure us that this new regime in Russia must be “as democratized as possible in favor of the civil and political activity of the proletariat.” Those like us, that on the contrary, defended proletarian internationalism were slandered as practical collaborating in facilitating the victory of the Russian army and government.

However, it is clear that the supposed “autonomization” as a “reasonable minimum objective” was only wishful thinking, not something that corresponded to a possibility of workers’ action. It has not happened, and on the contrary, sections of the bourgeois left, particularly anarchists, have become integrated into the service of the nationalist militias, i.e., the opposite has happened of what was imagined possible.

c. The stalemate

At the moment, that became clear that the imagined ‘autonomization’, even in its perverted military and democratic ‘realistic’ way, didn’t take place in the real world of warcraft, the Ukrainian forces defeating the Russian invasion proved to be an illusion as well. At the same time, the Russian army was stuck around Kyiv in the north and failed to conquer Mariupol in the south, hindering the conquest of the whole territory considered its own by the Donbas republics and, of course, the strategically essential coast of the Black Sea. This real stalemate, this long and exhausting war, was precisely the tactical goal of the USA to weaken Russia and undermine the Chinese-Russian alliance. Russia decided to replace its troops from the surroundings of Kiev to conquer the east of the Ukraine and – if possible – the shores of the Black Sea. War propaganda changed. So did the ‘communist’ discourse of the supporters of Ukrainian imperialism.

Suddenly we were told it was incorrect to join interclass militias, let alone state-controlled militias with professional military commanders. Apparently, it was time to talk about class autonomization within the militias, civilian solidarity, and relief organizations, creating aid networks to prepare the ground for turning the guns against the Ukrainian government. And of course, we were accused of proposing to do nothing.

At the beginning of the war, defeatism was hardly mentioned. But in this phase of the war, the population of Ukraine, especially the workers, are becoming tired of a war that goes on and on with immeasurable misery. Now ‘communist’ war participants present a future ‘turning the guns against the Ukrainian government, which would be revolutionary defeatism. But again, an internationalist slogan is perverted to its contrary by presenting participation in the war as a way to end it.

Against these deformations, we said “You keep saying ‘no’ defeatism, but you try to make it concrete … with ambiguity. Nobody here is saying that nothing should be done, but that it should be done on a proper basis, outside the bourgeois framing and its structures”. Instead of ‘being in the now, we should act on a proper proletarian class basis, with a strategy that understands what future developments are possible.

Levels of revolutionary defeatism

The way the revolutionaries bring forward revolutionary defeatism depends on several situations. Historical slogans like The enemy is in our own country, War against the war, that of revolutionary defeatism, etc., offer our broad guidelines in a nutshell. These will be concretized depending on where we can have conversations: in the trenches, or (weapon) industry, amongst proletarians in residential districts, or amongst fugitives. Are these places engaged in open war or not? What is the balance of forces between classes, and how is the influence of war propaganda? And we should understand how in these situations, sentiments, consciousness, and possibilities for action can change. For example, in our discussion with ultra-left war participants, we differentiated between different resistance levels against the war.

If in the real movement of classes, there is no effective large-scale resistance of the proletariat, events are dictated by the balance of power between the two imperialist sides in the war. In such a situation of low-level revolutionary internationalist revolutionary defeatism, there will be a lot of reprisals, arrests, torture, and assassinations of its defenders, who would logically seek to flee or camouflage themselves. After a disaster, the bourgeois forces would win.

If there is, however, what can be called a medium level of internationalist revolutionary defeatism, it may happen that the more lucid bourgeois try to stop the war and bring down the government, as in Russia in 1917 and even more in Germany in 1918. These bourgeois forces want, at the same time, a negotiated ‘peace’ with other imperialisms, and to offer an outlet for the feelings of anger, hate, and revenge, especially amongst the workers that have started strikes and hunger marches. This outlet is a regime change; the Tsar, the Kaiser had to go, and democracy and left-bourgeois came into state power. Such a future regime change would open up the question of who is in charge and what is negotiated to stop the war, creating numerous tensions in the bourgeoisie and several positions in the proletariat.

When we have to realize the non-existence of an independent and revolutionary proletariat, we can understand how both certain proletarians and bourgeois in Ukrainian reason are ‘citizens’ who see the destructions and mass killings. As ‘citizens’, they would act on bourgeois foundations. They would adopt pacifist slogans like ‘peace by negotiation’. Of course, even such a bourgeois pacifist position cannot be tolerated by the governing pro-American faction in Kiev nor the pro-Russian faction that governs the Donbas republics, who prefer to spill more blood as their Western and Russian masters demand. In this desperate situation, it is probable that workers who want an end to the war, will struggle for a negotiated ‘peace .’However, our ultra-red war participators at that moment will run the risk defending participation in nationalist militias, which can only defend the government on one side and the pro-Russian bourgeoisie on the other.

The task of communist revolutionaries in such situations is – as in the past – to denounce the bourgeois pacifist forces as ‘social pacifists,’ who defend social peace, peace between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. We oppose this by stimulating proletarian struggles to defend their working and living situation, the development of this class war into a revolution.2

However, our analysis of several situations was not understood, mixing up reality with what to do: “In other words, you propose ‘people’s’ diplomacy for humanitarian reasons and give a significant political victory to the Putinist regime.”

We were not understood when we replied that as revolutionaries, we cannot make our role an appeal to the capitalist sides to negotiate. Still, we must continue to show that the only way is through revolutionary internationalist defeatism and must lead to world revolution.

In applying revolutionary internationalist defeatism, we call upon the proletariat to use any situation in the midst of war to carry out boycott actions, grouping to defend its interests, security, and immediate and future needs. To such actions, we give a revolutionary orientation, which is not limited to pressing for political, economic, or military reforms, actions which do not stop at gaining palliatives. We say that on both sides of the war, this must be done. It is up to those who are directly involved to determine the concrete way.

If today groups of proletarians and pro-revolutionary conscious people try anything in Ukraine, they finally will have to take up arms against their army and militia leaderships, they must break away from and oppose the bodies controlled by the Ukrainian state. We know such a struggle at the war front is complicated. For this reason, we already showed that most possibilities are at the homefront. The same is valid on the Russian side. However, ultra-left war participation tried to do something ‘concretely’: either vague formulations or what served the Ukrainian national-popular resistance, i.e., the Ukrainian state and army, financially and with arms furnished by the NATO side of the war. Now they are looking for more nuances. But before, they were saying what is set out in summary above. They have distorted what internationalist revolutionary defeatism is, making it a caricature and accusing us that since we cannot do anything direct and concrete, we are just repeaters of sectarian phrases of revolutionaries who do not want to get dirty. However, getting dirty was defending the Ukrainian national resistance, which, contrary to what they say, uses the proletariat as cannon fodder and mass of maneuver, as a capitalist cause cannot fail to do. Their interest in conforming to what is possible has led them to put their foot in their mouth to defend a bourgeois cause.

Possible and impossible strategies

Let’s see concretely and in terms of possible/impossible: There are no facts that tell us that groups of proletarians can break away from the militias and fight against them and the state. Therefore, the famous “autonomisation” presented as “concretisation,” is not based on what is possible, but on what is necessary, as is done by the revolutionaries who advocate the application of revolutionary internationalist defeatism. The phrases on “autonomisation” don’t say anything what such autonomization within the militias would mean; they are not concrete at all. We can understand them as making proletarian sections within such militias or civilian bodies of solidarity and support. However, the bourgeoisie is not stupid; it ensures that the proletariat follows the ass of Ukrainian militarist nationalism, which imposes itself with the state terror of the law. Or does autonomization mean to separate from and therefore to clash with these structures, which will obviously react harshly and nationalistically, protected by the state structure that gives them life? This discourse on autonomization is too much rhetoric and too little concrete, avoiding naming what it means to do what is said.

In Spain – as in all Western countries – the bourgeoisie is supporting the Ukrainian side, and it is increasing the exploitation and plunder of the proletariat. Instead of denouncing what is the participation of the war by ‘our’ bourgeoisie, by the enemy at home, who is the ally of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie (or, in the case of China, the ally of the Russian bourgeoisie), our ultra-left war participants leave aside even mentioning the home front. But for communist revolutionaries, the struggle against our own bourgeoisie is a substantial and essential part of the application of internationalist revolutionary defeatism. Everywhere the bourgeoisie is forcing the pace, increasing the level of exploitation in private, collective and state enterprises. Its political and trade union forces encourage workers’ isolation. Its states demand social meekness and nationalist fervour. Market tensions rage in minor and major economies and are transmitted in all directions. Imperialism has to finance and increase militarism, while inflation rises in major capitalist economies and spreads everywhere. As a result, wages erode in their purchasing power, workers’ existential insecurity increases, and unemployment and underemployment rise. In many countries, repercussions are appearing that were previously unthinkable and thought to be far away. Governments are demanding more money for armaments and armies. They all spread alibis and cynicism, and they are cunning. They want to be excused and supported since they are supposedly fighting for causes they claim are favorable for the exploited class. In reality, the main beneficiaries are the capitalist class and its civilization of profit, competition, and plunder, which generates wars everywhere. The international relations of the capitalist economy are necessarily contradictory and catastrophic for the exploited class and the environment.

Everywhere the natural environment is degrading at an ever accelerated pace. The war shows to be an excuse for continuing to use fossil fuel – even using more coal is ‘acceptable’ -, to use pesticides and other harmful chemicals for ‘cheap food’-policy. At the same time, the disasters resulting from the former lower levels of pollution and global warming go on and promise to devastate whole regions with hurricanes, floods, droughts, and insupportable heat.

Their central economic and financial bodies speak of a coming recession and problems in maintaining fiscal pressure, debts, and problems in the “supply and value chains.” Discussions on monetary policy orientations translate their diminishing capacities and the following narrowing of margins of maneuver. Capital is becoming more and more aggressive among itself through a huge competition and against the proletariat, from which it needs to extract more surplus value (work done but not paid), with the most remarkable social consensus favorable to capitalist interests.

There are abundant manifestations of social unrest, and in some cases there are workers’ protests and strikes, like right now in Sri Lanka attacking the seat of government, in Kazakhstan with strikes despite the recent repression led by Russia and the CSTO, with new hunger marches in Argentina during renegotiations on the debt with an IMF loan. The flood disasters in South Africa generate deaths and misery in an already impoverished working class. The war in Yemen claims numerous lives and aggravates the shortage of food and health care, as in Mozambique, Mali, Tigray (Ethiopia). In Myanmar, the bloody military junta wages an internal war, with Chinese support. China received a setback in Pakistan with the coup orchestrated by the CIA, replacing the President who withdrew from Parliament. And in its homeland, China experiences growing resistance from the Shanghai population, tired of the state terror of useless Covid measures.

There is a common thread between everything. On the one hand, the economic pressure on the proletariat both in the countries in open war, and in those that support wars indirectly. On the other hand, the repeated clashes and rivalries between states of imperialist capitalism. It is the task of the revolutionaries to show that this economic pressure on the proletariat results from imperialist participation by the enemy at home in these wars. Therefore the economic attacks are in fact, political attacks, as the struggle of the proletariat against these attacks, is a political class struggle. Probably turning the weapons against the own bourgeoisie will be the result of mass struggles at home against capital and its demands, against the degradation of living and working conditions.

All national capitals are necessarily pitted against each other. The inherent dynamic of globalized capitalism is based on disputes over markets, territories, strategic military control, sources of raw materials and energy, and control of the flow of labor. Imperialist war is not waged for the benefit of the proletariat. The capital and money for all these wars come from our labor. There can be no peace in capitalist society, there has never been, and there never will be. Internationalist revolutionary action must be radical, showing the roots of war and crisis, proposing demands that can extend and unify proletarian struggles, show the consequences of not fighting independently against capital and the need to do so, knowing that there are numerous and dangerous difficulties ahead, but aware that capitalism necessarily engenders these dynamics and other wars, even more dramatic.

Aníbal and Fredo Corvo, 18-04-2022


1 Most of the arguments and proposals for war participation mentioned in this article were brought forward in Spain, but they are not unique.

With regard to the positions we criticise, the case where there has been most polemic has been with Roi Ferreiro (RF) in the framework of the Facebook group “Communism of councils and class autonomy”.To the discussion with RF belong those quotations in quotation marks. Now RF accuses us of distorting his positions, of sectarian and unethical decontextualization.
As the important thing is clarity with regard to the positions at stake, we have edited a text in which a large number of them appear:
Critique of interventionism in favor of one side in the imperialist capitalist war. (Fredo Corvo and Aníbal)
and we have no problem in informing you that the RF itself has presented a dossier in Pdf with what it considers relevant. We have reminded him that some particularly significant parts of this dossier were missing, he has redone it and it can now be viewed at Roi Ferreiro: Some reflections and comments on class politics, with regard to the war in Ukraine and the ultra-left’s approaches. 20 April.2022

2 The role of the historical social-pacifists in the revolutions in Russia and Germany is well-known and a warning for future Kerenskis and Noskes, as is that of lesser-known adventurers that in WW1 volunteered for the front, like Erich Kuttner.

Critique of interventionism in favor of one side in the imperialist capitalist war.
Explanatory presentation

Aníbal and Fredo Corvo have elaborated the text :

What revolutionary internationalist defeatism in the ‘Ukrainian’ war really means. Fredo Corvo and Anibal (see above in English. In Spanish)

where a good part of the arguments and positions that we criticize have been sustained by RF (Roi Ferreiro), with whom we have discussed a lot about the revolutionary attitude to the war in Ukraine, in a Facebook group.
The differences from the beginning were notorious and important and have come to a head-on clash.

RF defended the following:

“We must critically support the forces that can serve the establishment of a political regime as democratic as possible and, therefore, help them to defeat the forces that oppose that form of political regime”.

“Among the minimum objectives right now is to provide the Ukrainian proletariat with the means to defend itself against the Russian invasion, which are weapons but not only that, all kinds of supplies to be able to resist now that a situation of total siege is looming in the big cities. This is not incompatible with promoting the most elementary of proletarian defeatism.”

“It is also a reasonable minimum objective to call on the proletarians organised in the existing militias to try to organise themselves within them, to democratise them (not out of fetishism, but to have a voice of their own and to assert their interests) and to autonomise them from the army as far as possible. And not to return the weapons to the army when the war is over”.

“Any proletarian should support this resistance, although, as I have proposed, there is a case for proletarians to form groups within the militias, to try to democratise them and to separate them organically from the army as much as possible, etc. The more people join the militias, the more impossible it is for them to be “vertically” controlled or subject to external command (even if they depend on who controls the supply of arms, supplies and everything else)”.

For us, his position is not unique, but we have seen how workers’ collectives in various parts of the world questioned or wondered whether to raise the question of internationalist revolutionary defeatism was necessary or whether on the contrary, it was necessary to seek other tactics and different strategies. In fact, the discussion began as a result of debating a text of the Angry Workers Group.
From the beginning, the arguments and methodology of RF have been similar or clearly coinciding with those of Trotskyist tendencies in favor of intervening in defense of the Ukrainian national cause, as well as those of Ukrainian anarchists who have decided to create their militia and insert it into the Ukrainian army for anti-Russian defense, or of individuals from the autonomist milieu who have rejected the defense of revolutionary internationalist defeatism.
We have devoted a lot of space in our publications and in discussions in various media to this problem of revolutionary internationalist defeatism, and that is why we wrote the text, which has provoked a strong response from RF, which has edited its comments on its wall:

Also in the Facebook group Comunismo de Consejos y Autonomía de Clase we have continued the discussion, with crudely confronted positions.
RF was asked to write one or more texts criticizing us, and we would edit them, but he did not want to do so.
Let us see, in addition to the above-mentioned positions of RF, a summary of discussions and texts (all in Spanish):

2 Comments on “What revolutionary internationalist defeatism in the ‘Ukrainian’ war really means

  1. Excellent analysis in the spirit of Marxist internationalistm. Thumbs up!


  2. Pingback: Guerra da Ucrânia: o que vem a seguir? – Crítica Desapiedada & Leftdis – Crítica Desapiedada

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