WHAT DISTINGUISHES OUR PARTY: The political continuity which goes from Marx to Lenin, to the foundation of the Communist Party of Italy (Livorno, 1921); the struggle of the Communist Left against the degeneration of the Communist International, against the theory of „socialism in one country“, against the Stalinist counter-revolution; the rejection of the Popular Fronts and the Resistance Blocs; the difficult task of restoring the revolutionary doctrine and organization in close interrelationship with the working class, against all personal and electoral politics.

1949. Only four years had passed since the last act of worldwide butchery, and the furious winds of war were blowing again across Europe. The famous walls had yet to be built, but there were already discussions as to whether the security of New York and San Francisco should be shored up by risking the lives of the German proletariat on the banks of the Rhine or the Elba. Almost eighty years on, the location has changed: will democracy, peace and stars-and-stripes liberty be defended on the banks of the Dnieper or, more modestly, along the European-Atlantic axis from Gdansk to Konstanz? The world eagerly awaits the outcome of the war unleashed in Ukraine: will the endless Russian armoured columns stop in Donets, or will they plough on through to Odessa or Transnistria? Will the Baltic States be attacked? And what of Scandinavia?

Much has been said about the suffering of the Ukrainian population during heated televised debates, but very little has been forthcoming about the real causes of a war proclaimed to be “at the heart of Europe”. A war which, in terms of crimes committed against the population, is in no way inferior to those where Capital – eastern or western, it matters not – has lain waste to populations in every corner of the globe over the last twenty years.

Let us take a closer look at a question our press has been dealing with over recent years[1].


Ukraine has a surface area slightly superior to that of France. In 2002 it counted almost 50 million inhabitants: that number has shrunk to 44 million today. The country is almost entirely made up of flatlands, bordered by two modest uplands: to the west, the Podolian Upland, flanked by the Dnieper; and to the east, the Donets Plateau. The north is primarily made up of pine trees and birches; wooded steppes prevail in the centre; and the south is a steppe of highly fertile, black subsoil whose cereal crops are a major economic resource for the country.

Eighty per cent of the population is Ukrainian; the rest is mostly Russian, concentrated in eastern cities and the Crimea. The population has gone down by approximately 6 million over the last 20 years. Migration to central Europe – illegal at first, then authorized – and Russians returning to Russia following Ukrainian independence in 1991, are the main reasons for this reduction.

The urban population makes up about 70% of the overall total. Agriculture is very important for the economy: about 16% of the total labour force works in agriculture (especially cereal crops, as mentioned before). The minerals industry is of great importance too: extensive deposits of coal and iron can be found in the Donets basin, or Donbas; to the west, in the Lviv Oblast (or province), there is oil and natural gas.

Ukraine is the sixth largest producer of iron in the world. Coal would be of great importance were it not for the mining costs and obsolete facilities. The supply of energy for industrial activities would normally depend on coal but, as the sector is in crisis, Russian oil and gas have become vital.

Industry occupies 19% of the labour force: first and foremost, iron and steel, then the automobile industry and farm machinery. The tertiary sector provides about 65% of the population with work, including tourism in the Black Sea area and, in particular, the Crimea.

From 1600 to the Crimean War

Ukraine’s “open” morphology, its geographical location (the continental north and the maritime south), and the richness of its subsoil have always made it an object of interest to its neighbours. Before all others, Poland (with changing fortunes Poland and the Cossacks would battle things out for decades between the 17th and 18th centuries) and Tsarist Russia. An agreement between the two countries in 1667 saw the country divided into two: territories on the right of the Dnieper went to Poland, those on the left to Russia. In its efforts to become an independent state, this would be the leit-motif of Ukrainian history over recent centuries: the fight to free itself of both, perhaps resorting to assistance from the Ottoman Turks. Following the second partition of Poland in 1793, the whole of Ukraine came under the control of the Tsar.

Gradually, from that moment on, a kind of independent-spirited anti-Russian nationalism began to grow in Ukraine, especially in the second half of the 19th century. The Tsar’s decision to impose restrictions on the use of the Ukrainian language (mostly spoken in the western provinces, on the borders with Poland, Moldova and Romania) was a major factor in this development.

Letters sent by Marx and Engels to Russian correspondents reveal that they thought the process of Russian – and, in part, Ukrainian – industrialisation was a result of the Tsarist defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56). This military fact meant that the empire – too backward economically to be able to resist the might of western powers – was compelled on the one hand to support industrial development centrally, while eliminating serfdom (1861) on the other, thereby setting off the process of modernisation which would be followed by the freeing up of a salaried labour force to work in the first great factories.

The origins of the national question

After the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Ukraine obtained independence in March. However, with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), which brought about the end of the war between revolutionary Russia and Germany, the Central Powers gained complete control of the entire region. The newly formed national government was overthrown by a Berlin-backed coup d’état, but the new government only remained in power until November the same year.

In his writings of February-October 1917, Lenin persistently asks Kerenski’s provisional Russian government to recognize “its elementary democratic duty” (note, en passant, the precise language: the content of the bourgeois revolution in Russia was democratic, not communist) to grant autonomy and complete freedom of secession to Ukraine. Clearly, the nationalist and communist movements converged, although the former supported a bourgeois revolution, and the latter an anti-bourgeois revolution. Both could temporarily form an alliance against the remnants of a pre-capitalist economy and society, provided the communist movement maintained itself completely independent from the nationalists in terms of its programme, its ultimate aims, its organization and its mode of operation, a necessary, long-recognized and well known position that had been reiterated time and again.

It should be mentioned that the Ukraine nationalist movement enjoyed little popularity among the vast majority of the population, whether they were they industrial workers (for the most part of Russian origin) or members of the mostly illiterate peasant class, largely uninterested in nationalistic celebrations of the native language. Right or wrong, most of them felt “pro-Russian”. The national Ukraine movement enjoyed more success among members of certain elements of the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie (priests, teachers, artisans and writers), especially abroad, in Austria. The movement was closer to populism and anarchism than Marxism as a result of these characteristics and, ultimately, it was partly because of these characteristics of social and economic backwardness that an anarchist-led anti-Bolshevik struggle would evolve in Ukraine for a couple of years.

The national Ukraine movement was certainly spurred by a series of Tsarist laws, introduced as long ago as 1870, imposing restrictions on the distribution of Ukraine newspapers and literature. These laws were relaxed in the advent of the 1905 revolution, but were reintroduced with a vengeance in 1914. But such restrictions held no sway over the illiterate peasantry or those workers of Greater Russia origins. So it wasn’t long before the bourgeois national autonomist movement set off in search of foreign backing (first Austria, then Germany and finally Poland), thus completely discrediting itself in the eyes of the masses. Furthermore, the laws of the market imposed very strict ties between Ukraine and Russia.

From the Revolution to Stalinism

The revolution of February 1917 saw, in Ukraine, the formation of the “Rada”, a kind of parliamentary body that grouped together nationalists, social democrats and social-revolutionaries. Despite its lack of political clout, it put feelers out to the provisional Government in Petersburg, asking for autonomy but without separating from Russia. Following the October Revolution the Rada proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic, albeit within the Federation.

The Rada was an expression of the bourgeois national movement. In the summer of 1917 strong Soviets were set up all over the country and, after the October Revolution, the Workers’ Soviet and the Soldiers’ Soviet were merged, to all effects creating a political centre in opposition to the Rada. The Rada fostered the reorganization of the White Army along the banks of the Don and gave the go-ahead to military operations against the Red Guard.

After Brest-Litovsk, the Soviet Government decided to recognize the Ukrainian People’s Republic in accordance with the staunchly defended principles of self-determination, but it issued an ultimatum requiring that the Rada cease all hostilities. Failure to agree would signify they were at war. The next day the Rada asked for help from France and then England. Russia responded by occupying Kiev and removing the Rada, an move that provoked the immediate intervention of the German army, which re-took Kiev. A German puppet government was established and promptly set about filling the empty Berlin warehouses with grain. 

Germany was forced to abandon any pretensions to Ukraine following its defeat in 1918. The nationalists sought to regain some sort of influence and asked the French for support, although this was limited more to words than deeds. This power vacuum led to the Bolsheviks (with Pyatakov) organizing a provisional Ukraine government of workers and peasants in the east of the country, widely supported by the people. Kiev was soon re-conquered too. It was in this context, between 1918 and 1921, that the military operations of the “anarcho-communists” under Makhno took effect. Makhno’s forces were successively – and sometimes simultaneously – engaged in conflict against the Rada, Deniken’s White Army and the Bolsheviks.

In turning to Poland for military help against the Bolshevik government, the Ukrainian nationalists played their last card. On one side this meant the country being newly invaded for a period lasting a little less than two months, up until the Poles were definitively defeated; on the other it signified the end of bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalism, totally discredited in the eyes of the peasant masses who always had bones to pick with the Polish landowners who had mercilessly exploited them for so long. From this moment the Bolshevik party would be the guarantor of Ukrainian independence and self-determination.

The Ukrainian Bolshevik government was in a cleft stick. It could immediately begin a process of integration with Russia or – and this was Lenin’s line – it could marry the principles of self-determination and set in motion the process towards national independence. In December 1918 a party conference was organized in Moscow to discuss a motion put forth by Lenin regarding the social, economic and administrative situation of Ukraine: office workers and officials would have to know Ukraine language; the large estates would have to be shared among the peasants, and grain commandeering would only take place in exceptional circumstances; and the sovchoz, or state-owned farms, would be kept to a minimum. The paradoxical nature of the Ukraine question lies also in the fact that this motion was approved by the majority of Russians, but rustled the feathers of Ukrainian Bolsheviks, who favoured a kind of  “Russianalisation” of the country, and believed the policy adopted towards the peasants conceded too much to the local social-revolutionaries.

Following Lenin’s death, disagreements between the peasant masses and the urban proletariat became more acute and, years later, under Stalinism, would lead to economic catastrophe. Indeed, the “collectivisation” of agriculture (a fallacy because the means of production and the produce of single families remained, at least in part, private property) coincided with a dramatic fall in cereal crop production and the slaughter of livestock (“Stalin’s Famine” or the Holodomor, 1932-33). Intimidated by rumours that herds of livestock would be confiscated by the state, the peasants preferred to do the butchering themselves. The Famine is thought to have killed tens of millions of people, most of them Ukrainians.

Ukraine today

For historical and geographical reasons, Ukraine has never managed to be a completely autonomous nation, not even after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. It’s easy prey for any type of imperialism and for financial capital bound up with raw materials and, especially, armaments: strategically and politically speaking, the Baltic area, the Black Sea and the Caucasus are of great interest. De facto and from the perspective of governments, it is an area that acts as an interface for the supply of Russian gas to Europe by means of innumerable gas pipelines: hence its current strategic importance.

Privatisation has favoured the rise of “oligarchies” powerful enough to control the market ganglions. On one side Ukraine is dependent on the energy that arrives from Russia; on the other it is attracted to the USA militarily, and to Europe economically. There are three trends within Ukraine’s bourgeoisie: pro-Russia, pro-western and nationalist. The last two were in some way confused in the so called “Orange Revolution”, which was more or less designed with a view to re-negotiating raw material costs with Russia before developing and offering itself up (along the lines of the Baltic nations supported by the USA) to the Europeans, and Germany in particular.

Rising internal tensions among bourgeois power groups only served to confirm how vitally important the southern coast of the country was to Russia. As was true during the two World Wars, the Crimea plays a crucial role in the control of the Caucasus to the east and, to the south, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean – an area that has become one of the centres of imperialist conflict since 2014. Now that this has become dramatically clear during the current conflict, there can be no doubt that the Balkanization process in Ukraine – the act of its being divided up and torn apart into at least two or three spheres of influence – will presently become reality.

The Ukrainian economy was already tottering prior to the collapse of Russia, and went into meltdown over the next two decades, save a slight two-year recovery between 2004 and 2006. Financial help in the shape of the IMF was used to cover military expenditure. Government estimates (2014) claim that coal production decreased by 50%, and 64 mines out of 104 had to be closed down, resulting in 100,000 unemployed. Oil production went down by 15%; the chemicals industry lost 25%, and inflation soared to 20%. The war for the Crimea was a godsend for the most powerful families of local oligarchs like Poroshenko, “the king of chocolate”, who took advantage of the situation to finance the formation of volunteer battalions, active in the east of the country against pro-Russian separatists and, at the same time, suspected of destroying mines and workshops belonging to Akhmetov, “the king of mines and steel”. It isn’t easy to follow the manoeuvrings of these industrial-financial-political power groups within the country and, indeed, these machinations would be of little interest were it not for the fact that we can see the fingerprints of certain foreign financial-political-military empires all over them.

The fact that Europe suffers from a lack of raw materials and energy resources should have made some kind of collaboration with Russia a natural choice. The USA wasn’t keen and sought to make life difficult, with the European Union taking a dim view of the American sanctions applied against Russia in the wake of the attack on the Crimea. Even before annexing the Crimea, the Russian government (in the interests of skilled merchants, and all ears when it came to any kind of collaboration with the bourgeoisie and capital, no matter its colour...) put forward a proposal to transform the current customs union between Russia and some countries of the ex-USSR into a Eurasian Economic Union: a free trading zone from the Atlantic to the Pacific, of which the European Union would have been an integral part.

In those circumstances Italian politician, Romano Prodi (only one of many European voices to speak out against the USA) wrote: “Without commenting on the usefulness or necessity of sanctions, it is nonetheless fitting to emphasize the asymmetry of their consequences, seeing as American exports to Russia are still increasing – in complete contrast to those of Europe – notwithstanding the 50% devaluation of the rouble against the dollar”[2].

In that period Russia had kick-started official and semi-official talks to convince the EU to reject the free trade agreement with the United States and enter the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union that had been brought into force on 1st January 2014, and included Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Despite the failure of the talks, Germany (through Chancellor Angela Merkel in a TV interview in August of that year) declared: “A solution must be found that will not damage Russia... If Ukraine were to enter the Eurasian Union, the European Union wouldn’t see this as a casus belli”.  Lest it be forgotten, less than three years earlier work had begun on the huge gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 (NS2) which, paired up with NS1, would guarantee Europe (in primis Germany) most of the energy required for the continental economy. The chancellor’s words are not dissimilar to those of a horse trader...

The current war

Bearing in mind the far from recent and growing economic difficulties afflicting the entire international productive sphere – recurring trade crises, the ever greater challenge of investing masses of surplus value extorted on a planetary level in bogus financial capitals, the necessity of finding productive sectors that be still able to guarantee decent profit margins (and where, if not, in the military industry?) – it can come as no surprise to learn that wars break out wherever the vice-like grip of the crisis is most acute. Russia’s productive apparatus is weak, and for some time now it has been seeking to clap its hands on Ukraine’s most industrially advanced region, the Donbas, inventing “cultural” reasons for its annexation (“culture” never fails to come to the aid of lords and masters...). And Ukraine, preferring to put itself in the hands of western capitals, fares no better: inflation rose from 8.4% in April 2021 to 13.7% in March 2022, interest rates remain above 10%; entire mining and productive sectors are paralysed and, together with extensive areas of territory, are likely to be lost.

In the light of the difficulties facing the two countries, no wonder the USA and its trusted allies (including, of course, the UK) have been licking their lips and, on one side, strengthening economic and financial relations with Ukraine, and on the other, exerting greater military pressure on Russia.

Since 1990, OTAN borders have shifted east to the tune of more than 1000km, especially after 1997 when a number of “sovereign” states made their territories available to Atlantic Alliance military bases. Seeing the whole western coast of the Black Sea, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles occupied by hostile installations must have been a bitter pill for the Russians to swallow in particular. Not to mention the goods, wheeler-dealers, money and “stars and stripes” culture attempting to filter their way through from the other side of the Black Sea (Georgia).

The European Commission’s reply to Russia’s efforts to create a Eurasian union was to establish a pact with certain individual states (first and foremost Ukraine, but also Moldova and Georgia) whose economies would be progressively integrated into the internal market of the EU. For Russia all of this meant: less control of space which had fallen under western military control; and less control over the market following the increasingly conspicuous arrival of industrial and commercial capitals in countries which Moscow had considered its own.

Far from being caused by the action of a “madman” (the same old song repeated ad infinitum by western democracies), the current war is the logical conclusion to the prolonged tensions created by two opposing blocks of capitalist interests.

The gas pipelines question

In this context the numerous gas pipelines coming from the Baltic, in eastern Europe, to the Mediterranean, via any number of different channels, have become the determining factor in present and future balances (or imbalances) of economic power worldwide. The grandiose Nord Stream 2 project (NS1’s twin) was much wanted by both Russia and Germany, although it left many shaking their heads in France and the USA. Its aim was to transport gas directly from Russia via the Baltic Sea, reducing considerably the need to cross the Ukraine (annual capacity of 100 billion cubic metres), which earns roughly 3.5 billion dollars a year[3]. The American Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (no less!) has had the construction of the gas pipeline blocked since the end of 2019, and anyone daring to go back to work on it will be threatened with sanctions: a modus operandi worthy of Dick Turpin as far as Russian and German capitals are concerned, and a clear sign of support to Ukrainian administrators.

The NS2 question has thus laid bare where the real balance of power lies, as far as each single state involved in the affair is concerned, and their capacity for reaction. It has also revealed some profound differences among the European states, and between some of these and the United States. The war has served to confirm the tensions and increased nervousness within a German government very firmly in the dock. It has had to swallow an extremely bitter pill over the blocking of its initiatives in the strategic and crucially important energy sector; not to mention its having to send unwanted “military aid” to Ukraine (as little as possible: no point upsetting its Muscovite commercial ally!). Its only consolation is to have approved an increase in military spending (which the whole world judged to be huge), a real boost for certain sectors of the industry in crisis. But is the enemy in the east or the west?

Provisional conclusion

The war in Ukraine contains important lessons for all.

The first regards the way in which “aggressors” and the “aggressed” brandish their weapons to assemble their “own” populations beneath flags such as “defence of the homeland”, “human rights”, “the sacred values of freedom and autonomy” and, for those who have it, “the sacred flame of democracy”. They do so, on the one hand, by putting to fire and the sword the lands they cherish and those whom they have come to “liberate”; the others plead with their own proletariat to take up arms and defend “the violated soil of the homeland” in the name of the most dishonest form of nationalism. Then there are the self-interested onlookers who don’t want the war in their own back yard but prefer organizing it in somebody else’s; or, even better, have it waged on behalf of the “sacred values of democracy.” All this while business is booming, with weapons and money wherever you look: all this while the blood of innocent peoples is being shed.

The second lesson regards the predictable outcome of the war. Years ago we had published some detailed articles demonstrating how the Balkanisation of Ukraine would necessarily be the result of economic conflict between the different actors[4]. The current war will only confirm this, creating scenarios of an even graver nature in the near future.

The third is the result of the changing balances of power on the world stage: the role that will probably be taken on by China. In this context we may consider the recent (September 2021) undersigning of the Aukus military pact by the USA, the UK and Australia, after months of secret negotiations. The aim of the agreement is to “defend” (there we go again: si vis pacem, para bellum, or, if you want peace, prepare the war) against Chinese economic (but not only) activism in the Indo-Pacific area. Over recent decades, the usual “security reasons” have convinced Chinese governments to create a chain of commercial cum-military ports along routes to the west (from Sittwe in Myanmar to Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan, just down the road from the border with Iran, and others of lesser note). Readers may note some similarity between the stipulation of the Aukus pact mentioned beforehand, whose purpose is to form a cordon sanitaire around Chinese initiatives undertaken on the seas and the Indo-Pacific coasts; and the pincer movement patiently put in place by OTAN (the longa manus, or long hand, of America) around the southern and western borders with Russia! The likelihood of a more binding strategic-military-economic alliance between Russia and China will depend on how the world economic crisis evolves. But the feeling is we won’t have to wait long to find out.

The fourth and most painful cause for reflection is the lack of an organized class response to the excessive ideological, economic and military power of the global bourgeoisie when confronted with the unheard of sufferings it causes the proletariat worldwide with every economic and military crisis. We know the reasons very well, and for over fifty years we’ve been expounding them on the pages of our press: the spiked iron heel of democracy, Fascism and Stalinism, allies in their suppression of any attempted rebellion, barring the way to what might constitute even the slightest hint of a class movement. The only way forward (arduous it’s true, but the only way nonetheless) consists of destroying social peace in every country, denying any kind of credit to the war waged by Capital and finding once again the flag of class defeatism in the name of proletarian internationalism.


[1] Among others, “Ucraina: i destini della rivoluzione arancione”, il programma comunista, n.6/2004; “In Ucraina, neutrali e ingaggiati”, il programma comunista, n. 3/2015.

[2] In the Italian daily Il Messaggero, 4 January 2015.

[3] K. Westphal, M. Pastukhova, J.M. Pepe, “Nord Stream 2: Leverage Against Russia? Point of View”, 14.09.2020, in Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, German–Institute for International and Security Affairs, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/.

[4] “Ucraina: i predatori imperialisti e il proletariato”, il programma comunista n. 3 e 4/2014; “Ucraina: guerra e nazionalismi”, ibid. n. 2/2015.

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