Beer Hall Putsch Leftism: Ukraine & the ISO

First, an admission: After three years of writing Return to the Source sporadically, I’m getting tired of roasting the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and tearing apart their positions. The criticisms of their social chauvinist lines on Libya, Syria, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and other countries targeted by imperialism seem to be popular with readers, evidenced by the hundreds of hits this blog still gets despite a long period of inactivity.

At the same time, all signs point towards the ISO discrediting itself and losing ground with leftists around the country. For instance, it’s hard for me to believe that anyone, except the most die-hard cruise missile ISO member, reads Gilbert Achcar’s recent article, What remains of the Arab Spring? and thinks anything besides, “This is a sad, irrelevant man who can’t recognize reality.” The ISO’s bizarre brand of social imperialism is still dangerous, but it’s discredited itself, most notably with regards to Syria.

I preface with that admission before rounding up all of the evidence necessary to totally dismantle the ISO’s closet support for fascism in Ukraine because I don’t want readers to think I’ll be doing this a lot more. At times, though, the US Trotskyites take a position so egregious that it begs for engagement, if for no other reason than to provide a resource to those actual Marxists around the world committed to battling social imperialists in the people’s movement.

Intervening versus Leadership: ISO support for the fascist opposition in Ukraine

An inflammatory title, but no more inflammatory than an article that appeared in the ISO’s rag, Socialist Worker, on February 5 entitled, What’s at stake in Ukraine? In it, ISO member Sean Larson calls for the Ukrainian left to begin “erecting a left pole within the movement.”

The movement Larson refers to, the ‘Euromaiden’, is an assembly of far-right and neo-fascist opposition groups that have taken to violent street confrontations against the current Ukrainian government, headed by Viktor Yanukovich. The opposition groups have coalesced around the demand for Ukraine to break with the Russian Federation and become closer to Western Europe, with many of the strongest voices calling for Ukraine to join the European Union and become partners in Germany’s imperial project.

There is no question that the Euromaiden protests in Ukraine, which have attracted the vocal support of Republican Senator John McCain, are led and dominated by the far-right, running the gamut from standard anti-Soviet oligarchs to full-on neo-Nazis. Even Larson doesn’t dispute this fact. He just doesn’t think it’s important. From the article:

Despite the relatively small size and disorganization of the revolutionary left in Ukraine–one estimate puts it at no more that a few hundred people–its involvement can be decisive for the future of the struggle. In addition to the pressing need to combat the right in the here and now, the Maidan movement will be a definitive reference point for generations of Ukrainians, so what the left does will resonate into the future, whatever the immediate outcome.

In classic ISO fashion, Larson is so dizzy with the spectacle of people in the streets that he throws out any analysis of objective conditions or the political class leadership of the Euromaiden protests. According to the logic, there are people in the streets, and Larson thinks it’s an opportunity for the left to affect “generations of Ukrainians.”

But how is that consistent with his admission that the Ukrainian left is “no more than a few hundred people,” in the face of tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands called into the streets by the far-right opposition groups? The ISO’s own theory of social change places no emphasis on leading  the mass movement as a working class vanguard, but rather intervening periodically in struggles. This is a bankrupt theory that leads to nasty political lines and even worse practice, evidenced by Ukraine. If the left is only supposed to ‘intervene’ in the mass movement, it follows that any time a big group of people take to the streets, the left categorically must support the demonstrations. The question of leadership isn’t important to Larson or the ISO as a whole because the only role of the left is to intervene, not lead. If the class leadership in Ukraine is run on behalf of the most reactionary wing of the capitalist class and the mass base of the protests are the far-right petty bourgeoisie, it doesn’t really matter to the ISO. It’s still an opportunity to intervene.

Of course, Marxist-Leninists understand that not every large social movement is progressive or worthy of support. The Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy created huge spectacles and demonstrations against their respective failing social democratic governments. Those ‘movements’ were not worthy of support, nor could communists have entered those movements effectively without objectively forming a united front with fascism. And yet this is precisely what Larson and the ISO seem to think the Ukrainian left ought to do.

Larson concedes, “In the most likely scenario–the opposition parties come to power and inevitably fail to deliver what protesters are demanding,” adding that “the presence of a strong left voice during turbulent times will be important in raising the possibility of a real alternative.” He claims that “political democracy” is “the first step,” which he believes will give way to larger demands for nationalization and a steep progressive income tax on the rich. How a tiny left that Larson admits is no more than 100 strong should take a right-wing dominated movement and steer it in that direction – knowing full-well that their support will bring the far-right to power “in the most likely scenario” – we are given no answer.

Anyone familiar with the ISO’s strange brand of politics should recognize this formulation. After all, it was the same claims they made about Libya, Syria and all of the eastern bloc countries after the collapse of socialism. The ISO is never pessimistic about huge street demonstrations, even when all signs point to their support for Western imperialism or, in this case, outright fascism.

Ukraine’s Beer Hall Putsch 

Just who are the opposition forces in Ukraine who took power in the parliament and recently appointed Oleksandr Turchynov as President? There’s a strong policy discouraging re-inventing the wheel on Return to the Source, so I prefer to let some of the best articles speak for themselves. Steven Argue, almost certainly a pen name, writing for Indy Bay lays out the fascist and imperialist connections of the Ukrainian opposition quite well in a January 26, 2014 article called, Imperialists Out of Ukraine! Stop Supporting Neo-Nazis. He writes:

Leading this movement is a three party coalition of what is being called the Euromaiden movement. Prominent in this movement are the neo-Nazis of the so-called Svoboda “Freedom” movement. They received only 10% of the vote in the 2010 elections, but they are well organized with a charismatic leader, Oleh Tyahnybok. Svoboda is not just some fringe element of Euromaiden, Svoboda representatives appear at all press conferences of the Euromaiden movement. The other leaders of Euromaiden have done nothing to distance themselves from this openly neo-Nazi leadership. Nor have their western imperialist backers. In fact, US Senators John McCain (R) and Chris Murphy (D) as bipartisan representatives of US imperialism joined the neo-Nazis on stage at a protest in Kiev to support their cause. These Neo-Nazis of the so-called Svoboda “Freedom” movement are gaining momentum in the streets of Ukraine with western financial and political backing.

The two other major political parties leading Euromaiden are also rightwing capitalist parties. One of these is the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland Party) which is affiliated with conservative and Christian Democratic parties of the west. These parties are of course social conservative religious parties that are anti-socialist and strongly support capitalist austerity and exploitation. The third group in the coalition is the UDAR (Punch) which is led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and led by a Ukrainian émigré in Germany, Vitali Klitschko.

Since January, the far-right opposition gained significant ground with the ouster of President Yanukovich, a Ukrainian style beer hall putsch orchestrated through the parliaments. Although the opposition parties in Ukraine’s parliament appointed Turchynov as speaker and acting President of Ukraine, the continued street movements indicate that the far-right forces leading these protests are not satisfied with a parliamentary solution.

Par for the course for any fascist movement, of course. Seldom do fascist groups rely on parliamentary tactics exclusively or even predominantly. Street gangs made up of de-classed petty bourgeois elements and lumpen proletarians seduced by the rhetoric of far-right nationalism make up the mass base of fascism, which terrorize the working population through street violence and threaten the liberal democratic bourgeois state’s monopoly on violence. Larson doesn’t exactly downplay Svboda’s leadership role in the opposition, but his overtures towards the movement in the streets ignores the very real fascist nightmare taking place on the ground in Kiev. An op-ed from Arutz Sheva, an Israeli national paper that I normally wouldn’t quote but hardly a pro-Russian press outlet, from February 21, 2014 reads:

People who are following the situation in Ukraine, know that the notorious Freedom party looks almost like church choir boys in comparison with 23 more ultra-right radical organizations in Ukraine, several of them recently united into the Right Sector Alliance comprised of highly aggressive militants. The current reality is that those thousands of militants are well equipped with weapons and ammunition and are determined to run the war, according to their leader’s repeated statements. It is those people who have happily taken responsibility for multiple acts of arson, increasing daily terror and limitless violence. It is those people who beat severely a newly appointed official in Volyn, put him on his knees, hand-cuffed him publicly in the city square, and brought his family to stand in front of him. Those people call themselves fighters for freedom. Is this the definition of freedom with which the European leaders are happy?

These are not ‘separate accidental cases’ as we are hearing in some official comments. This is the position and practice of the absolutely real, serious, large, well organized and well prepared sector of the Ukrainian protesters, and this truth shall be realised and acted upon without delay.

Though Larson makes clear in his piece that Svboda favors a parliamentary approach, this is the same two-dimensional view of fascism that informs the mistaken theory and practice of Trotskyites around the world. In fact, Svboda and the other far-right opposition groups now in power via coalition direct the armed gangs by acting much like an orchestra conductor in the ‘legitimate’ institutions of bourgeois state rule, the parliament. These armed groups, while unpredictable at times, act as the mass base that the newly christened opposition government can and will use to ram its program of EU membership and austerity down the throat of the Ukrainian working class. Eric Draitser, writing for CounterPunch last month, nailed the changing phenomenon and what it means for the rise of fascism in Ukraine in his article, Ukraine and the Rebirth of Fascism. He writes:

While Ukrainian political forces, opposition and government, continue to negotiate, a very different battle is being waged in the streets. Using intimidation and brute force more typical of Hitler’s “Brownshirts” or Mussolini’s “Blackshirts” than a contemporary political movement, these groups have managed to turn a conflict over economic policy and the political allegiances of the country into an existential struggle for the very survival of the nation that these so called “nationalists” claim to love so dearly. The images of Kiev burning, Lviv streets filled with thugs, and other chilling examples of the chaos in the country, illustrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the political negotiation with the Maidan (Kiev’s central square and center of the protests) opposition is now no longer the central issue. Rather, it is the question of Ukrainian fascism and whether it is to be supported or rejected.

That question, posed a month ago by Draitser, has a disturbing answer in the recent events that brought the coalition of far-right opposition groups to power and ousted Yanukovich. The dialectic between street gangs and the parliamentary front of fascism allows parties like Svboda to consolidate their power and fuel the fascist violence on the streets with its rhetoric.

Svboda articulates clear anti-Semitism, admiration for the Nazis, and a willingness to resort to fascist street violence. Palash Ghosh of the International Business Times wrote about their neo-Nazi political orientation back in 2012. Additionally, Tim Stanley of the Telegraph explains:

Take Oleh Tyahnybok, the rather rugged leader of Svboda, which dominates the Western-most provinces of Ukraine. Western media has described him as one of the three most important opposition leaders and he’s met foreign dignitaries like John McCain. He is also a potentially dangerous man. In one infamous speech in 2004, Tyahinybok lashed out at the “Moscow-Jewish mafia” and the “kikes”. In 2005, he wrote an open letter to the President asking him to halt the “criminal activities” of “organised Jewry”. It should be noted that he insists he is not anti-Semitic, simply “pro-Ukrainian” and that he has won prosecutions against him for ethnic hatred.

But Svboda has form. It is a member of the Alliance of European National Movements, along with France’s National Front, the British National Party and Hungary’s Jobbik. Its policies include taking farm land into national ownership and giving to people to hold on a “hereditry basis”. No one who was not born in Ukraine can become a citizen; outsiders cannot adopt Ukrainian children. In 2005, one of the party’s deputies founding the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center. It was later renamed after a German conservative revolutionary. That particular deputy described the Holocaust as “a bright episode in European civilisation” which “strongly warms the hearts of the Palestinian population.

To be certain, Larson and the ISO disavow Svboda and their fascist politics. But Larson advocates for fewer than 100 leftists to try and carve out a space in the same street demonstrations that neo-Nazis like the ones in Svboda lead. When Svboda issues its calls to join the EU and counterpose themselves to former President Yanukovich’s stance – to stay independent and remain aligned with Russia – how is the tiny collection of leftists Larson talks about supposed to distinguish their nuanced position and not get lumped in with the tens of thousands demonstrating for EU membership? There’s no serious answer from Larson or the ISO.

Rising Anti-Semitism as a Fascist Bellweather

In 1989, just before the fall of the Soviet Union – which outlawed anti-Semitism – there were half a million Jews in Ukraine. More than 80% have fled the country since that time, leaving a population of just under 70,000 in the country today. This small minority is becoming increasingly apprehensive and facing Hitlerian rhetoric from the opposition groups that came to power through the Euromaiden protests.

Svboda’s extensive ties to Nazi admirers became evident in the last month as the party, and subsequently the rank-and-file street gangs, began promoting the historical figure Stephen Bandera. Bandera was an ardent anti-communist and anti-Semite who collaborated with the Nazi occupation force and led a massacre of Ukrainian Jews during World War II. Palash Ghosh of the International Business Times wrote in a February 19, 2014 article entitled, Euromaiden: The Dark Shadows of the Far-Right in Ukrainian Protests:

Svoboda glorifies fascist figures and related slogans from Ukraine’s past – on New Year’s Day, 15,000 Svoboda members and their followers marched in honor of controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who fought against the Soviets during the Second World War and had ties to Nazi Germany. His Ukrainian Insurgent Army allegedly took part in the massacre of thousands of Ukrainian Jews and Poles. Tyahnybok [the leading Svboda figurehead] has repeatedly sought inspiration from Ukrainian insurgents who fought in World War II. “They did not fear, but took up their automatic rifles, going into the woods to fight Muscovites, Germans, Jewry and other filth which wanted to take away our Ukrainian nationhood. It’s time to give Ukraine to the Ukrainians,” he said.

Banners of Bandera and swastika-style symbols have become a pervasive part of the protests, with opposition street gangs hanging Bandera’s portrait in occupied government buildings. (pictured below)


Expanding on the sinister symbology of the Euromaiden movement, Ghosh continues:

Britain’s Channel 4 News reported that Svoboda originally used a “wolf’s angel” heraldic cross that somewhat resembled the Nazi swastika as its symbol. Limiting its membership to ethnic Ukrainians, Svoboda also had links to a paramilitary organization called Patriots of Ukraine, which has also stepped into the current imbroglio, leading charges against anti-riot police and shouting nationalist slogans like “Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” and “Ukraine above all!”

The rhetoric is gradually becoming reality as street gangs attack Jews. Ukrainian Jews are regularly receiving threats connected with the far-right Euromaiden groups. Tova Dvorin of Arutz Sheva writes on February 22, 2014:

Anti-Semitism in Ukraine has picked up throughout the unrest, which began in late November. In January, unknown assailants stabbed a hareidi man in Kiev as he was making his way home from synagogue on a Friday night; earlier this week, anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed on a Holocaust memorial in the city of Alexandria.

Even before the recent unrest, Jews in the Ukraine have been the targets of anti-Semitic acts.  Last year, the president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress narrowly escaped with his life after a bomb was hurled at his car as it pulled out from an office.

In the wake of the anti-Semitism, local Jews have been careful not to wear a kippah in public and security has increased at Jewish institutions in the city.

And what are the prospects for leftists to take over rallies predicated on hyper-nationalist fascism and anti-Semitism? Not good, according to leftists in Ukraine. Ghosh quotes one in the aforementioned article, who says:

Clearly, Svoboda is now taking advantage of the enormous media attention focused upon the Kiev protests. Sergey Kirichuk, an anti-fascist in Ukraine, told Channel 4 News: “When left-wing groups tried to join the protests they were attacked and beaten by fascists. Svoboda are leading ideologically now. Fascism is like a fashion now, with more and more people getting involved.” The Nation reported that other right-wing parties, including Trident (a group of nationalist soccer hooligans) and an ultra-right wing group called Right Sector have also participated in the Kiev protests.

Right Sector and Trident are more mainstream than Larson and the ISO would like to admit, and if Ukrainian fascism follows the trend of its counterparts, they will only become more important to the opposition as it tries to enforce its agenda. Fascism relies on terrorizing the working class in the most venal and violent ways, and anti-Semitism is a key aspect to this violent ideology. There’s a reason Josef Stalin, the world leader most responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany, called anti-Semitism “one of the last vestiges of cannibalism.”

Imperialism targets Ukraine and the ISO ignores it

The ISO never really wants to think about imperialism because it inconveniences their narrative. They like to roll with big protest movements, even when the evidence is insurmountable that they are imperialist-backed or fascist in character. When it becomes undeniable, like in Libya and increasingly Syria, they like to reinvent reality. The ISO will say things like, “The revolution was hijacked by NATO,” or “Islamists have hijacked the popular movement.” For some reason, the ISO is never correct on their predictions but sure as I write this, they keep making them. Their line on Ukraine is no different.

Why is it that the ISO always seems to come down on the side of the US? They always try to have their cake and eat it too by paying lip service to anti-imperialism, but like Libya and Syria, the movement that Larson believes Ukrainian leftists should support has objectives perfectly in-line with global imperialism. Draitser writes in the above CounterPunch article:

For its part, the United States has strongly come down on the side of the opposition, regardless of its political character. In early December, members of the US ruling establishment such as John McCain and Victoria Nuland were seen at Maidan lending their support to the protesters. However, as the character of the opposition has become apparent in recent days, the US and Western ruling class and its media machine have done little to condemn the fascist upsurge. Instead, their representatives have met with representatives of Right Sector and deemed them to be “no threat.” In other words, the US and its allies have given their tacit approval for the continuation and proliferation of the violence in the name of their ultimate goal: regime change.

Unlike Assad or Qaddafi, Yanukovich could not be considered an anti-imperialist in any credible way. After all, he was prepared to make the same deal with EU membership that the pro-EU elements of the opposition government demand today. Yanukovich’s deal fell through when the Russians offered better terms and the EU insisted on harsh austerity that his regime didn’t believe they could implement. That said, no friend of the people should feel an ounce of joy at the announcement of his departure. Many welcomed the end of the Weimer government in Germany circa-1932, but capitalist rule can become far worse with the presence of a rising fascist movement.

Plenty of articles outline the West’s interest in Ukraine, which revolutionaries in the US ought to review. It has everything to do with US plans to counter Russian influence in eastern Europe and German imperial plans to expand its neo-colonial project, the EU, eastward. Seumas Milne writes in the Guardian:

It’s that historic faultline at the heart of Ukraine that the west has been trying to exploit to roll back Russian influence since the 1990s, including a concerted attempt to draw Ukraine into Nato. The Orange revolution leaders were encouraged to send Ukrainian troops into Iraq and Afghanistan as a sweetener.

Nato’s eastward expansion was halted by the Georgian war of 2008 and Yanukovych’s later election on a platform of non-alignment. But any doubt that the EU’s effort to woo Ukraine is closely connected with western military strategy was dispelled today by Nato’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who declared that the abortive pact with Ukraine would have been “a major boost to Euro-Atlantic security“.

Which helps to explain why politicians like John Kerry and William Hague have been so fierce in their condemnation of Ukrainian police violence – which has already left several dead – while maintaining such studied restraint over the killing of thousands of protesters in Egypt since last year’s coup.

The US and the ISO seem to have one big point in common: Neither seem to mind that the Euromaiden movement is fascist. Again, Draitser explains the historical connection between fascist groups and US imperialism, of which Ukraine is the latest chapter in a long sordid story:

In an attempt to pry Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence, the US-EU-NATO alliance has, not for the first time, allied itself with fascists. Of course, for decades, millions in Latin America were disappeared or murdered by fascist paramilitary forces armed and supported by the United States. The mujahideen of Afghanistan, which later transmogrified into Al Qaeda, also extreme ideological reactionaries, were created and financed by the United States for the purposes of destabilizing Russia. And of course, there is the painful reality of Libya and, most recently Syria, where the United States and its allies finance and support extremist jihadis against a government that has refused to align with the US and Israel. There is a disturbing pattern here that has never been lost on keen political observers: the United States always makes common cause with right wing extremists and fascists for geopolitical gain.

Ultimately, that same disturbing pattern could be said of the ISO. This is an organization that makes common cause with imperialism and now explicitly advocates a united front with fascism. With Yanukovich out of power, we should expect the ISO to begin criticizing the very opposition groups that took power from the Euromaiden movement – the movement they called on leftists in Ukraine to support.

Far worse, we should expect the situation in Ukraine to deteriorate further, with greater street violence and even more inflammatory calls by the right-wing and fascist parties ruling in parliament. The Euromaiden movement has more in common with the fascist street violence of the Venezuelan opposition than it does with the Occupy Wall Street movement or Tahrir Square in Egypt. It’s never in the interests of working people to see fascism rise to power. If the ISO isn’t willing to issue a strong, anti-fascist call of solidarity, the actual Marxists in the United States and elsewhere ought to.


On a related note, I want to encourage any and all of my readers to read through J. Sakai’s 2002 essay, The Shock of Recognition: Looking at Hamerquist’s Fascism & Anti-FascismThis is an incredibly disturbing piece that looks at the way in which fascism gains a mass base and counterposes itself, sometimes, as more populist than the left. It’s a piece that revolutionaries in the US need to read, especially given the continued presence of Golden Dawn in Greece, the Euromaiden protests in Ukraine, and even simpler far-right protest movements like the Tea Party in the US. Sakai wrote his essay in 2002, just after 9/11 and just before the war in Iraq. It’s obviously written with an eye toward then-President George W. Bush as a fascist – a real concern for some at the time, but also clearly wrong – but the questions it raises are so disturbingly relevant today that it makes one wonder if the essay were written yesterday.

I’m not going to raise these questions in this post, but I would like readers to post their thoughts on the essay in the context of Ukraine and other far-right movements.

Posted on February 24, 2014, in Anti-Imperialism, Europe, Miscellaneous, Ukraine and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. the red star delight

    Why is it that the ISO supports these reactionary movements? Are they just not materialist? Do they get caught up in the moment and think that all protesters are right?

    I’m very confused by this.

  2. hi nice article except saying the iso and others support who ever gets out in the street that is not true . when the irish republican movement was both armed and having mass protests . the iso was some times silent some times condemning the armed republican movement against british and usa colonialism

  3. Just want to say your article is as astonishing. The clearness for your put up is simply excellent and i can think you are a
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  1. Pingback: More on Fascism in Ukraine & the ISO | Return to the Source

  2. Pingback: Beer Hall Putsch “Leftism”: Ukraine & the ISO | Toilers' Struggle

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