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What of the Ukrainian working class?

What of the Ukrainian working class?


Vinith Kumar

This war that has now seemingly become normalized, thanks to all the noise on news channels, has had all of us wondering what it means for the world at large. Whether it would result in another world war, or if Russia will resort to using nuclear weapons, and so on. The inhuman statistics of people killed, of children killed, has brought so many people to the streets to stop this war. At the outset, I want to say how hopeful it has left so many of us to see and hear people call for the international solidarity of the working class.

During the course of this ongoing war, you must have certainly come across a number of people calling this war, a war of imperialists. And it is indeed a war of imperialists. But a few have gone to the extent of calling this, a war between two white nations. And of course, if one is to attach very literal meaning to white, then sure, this is a war between two white countries. But if one is concerned with what this white personifies, in terms of its class character or ‘supremacy’, then one cannot be hasty with its usage in this war or any war for that matter. Ukraine is not without its contradictions with global capital and in fact, neither is Russia. Russia is an imperialist nation, America is perhaps the father imperialist country, and Ukraine is a monster being birthed. But what of the Ukrainian working class? Are they part of this white nation or are they made invisible? What role do they have in an imperialist war?

But before venturing into the realm of imperialism, perhaps it’s best to understand the Ukrainian working class and I would argue that that is the only way to understand Ukraine too.

A news report published in Eurasianet in 2020, suggests that around 1 million Ukrainians worked in Poland’s agriculture sector in 2019. Another report published by the EU in 2020, mentions that about half of the Ukrainian migrants are from rural Ukraine, while the rural population of Ukraine amounts to only 31% of the total population. And this will clearly tell you that there is a forced over-representation of the Ukrainian rural populace in this crisis.

According to the SSSU survey in 2017, only 58% of migrants were employed before they left Ukraine and of that 58%, almost 70% gave up their jobs due to low wages. The minimum wage in Ukraine is said to be around 190 Euros. Which is about 16000 INR. And securing this too is an uphill task. The negotiating power of labor in Ukraine has been hit badly, and this reflects in the migration data.

All these numbers are a little overwhelming, but they certainly paint a picture of rural Ukraine and the condition of its laborers.

The same report published by the European Union in 2020, specifically mentions that over 29 countries in the world, out of which 7 are neighboring European countries, make over 10% of their GDP from remittances. This migration, which makes up such a large part of Ukraine’s GDP, is a direct result of drastic unemployment, the decline in market growth, the collapse of business enterprises, and so on. And it should come as no surprise then that Ukraine’s laborers are considered to be one of the cheapest in Europe.

A large group of migrant workers from Ukraine is said to be medium to low-skilled. And the EU report says that only 16% of the migrants had higher education at the time. This can be considered as an indicator of the kind of jobs that these migrants can access once in the EU and the kind of money they make.

And apparently, sweatshops in Europe don’t function that differently from those in Bangladesh. A news report published in the DW describes in horrific detail how laborers in Europe’s sweatshops are treated. The same report also suggests that around 1.7 million workers in the garment industry in Eastern Europe live in poverty. And Ukraine’s laborers make up a large part of this statistic.

So when one says that this war is a war between two white nations, and white here referring to a certain class (and maybe non-class) character, where does the Ukrainian working class figure, in all this? Their position compels us to think that the Ukrainian working class has been erased from this war and that there is underlying victimization at play.

Firstly, classifying all Ukrainians as white implies that they consider the idea of Ukraine white. And maybe there is some truth to this too. Rosa Luxemburg was right to point out the brutality of the European conquest and how the realization of this surfaces only when Europe comes under attack.

Only were one suddenly to lose sight of all these happenings and manoeuvres, and to transfer oneself back to the blissful times of the European concert of powers, could one say, for instance, that for forty years we have had uninterrupted peace. This conception, which considers only events on the European continent, does not notice that the very reason why we have had no war in Europe for decades is the fact that international antagonisms have grown infinitely beyond the narrow confines of the European continent, and that European problems and interests are now fought out on the world seas and in the by-corners of Europe.”

Rosa Luxemburg

The war in Ukraine, I suspect, is being portrayed as a war between white people because we are brown.

Sure the working class of these nations is not comparable (in a very specific material sense) to those from the peripheries of global capital. But that does not mean that the working class from these nations make a living on the backs of the working class of the ‘third world’.

The working class of the imperial centers doesn’t have to carry the burden of the super-surplus. This working-class doesn’t sit on the beach watching sunsets; it too, breaks its back working.

And It is becoming increasingly hard to ignore this fetish for victimization on the part of the ‘third world’. This need to constantly characterize the brown people as the ‘poorest’, most oppressed, and so on is not without an agenda. And the most glaring one of which is this distinct line between the white and the black, the white and the brown, and so on.

And perhaps this is why one cannot divorce this from the ‘third worldist’ politics and its manifestation in America or their constant fetishization of culture in the third world, of resistance, of poverty, etc.

So, fundamentally what the third worldist approach does is to characterize the Ukrainian working class as white, and describe them as distinctly different from the working class of say, India, because they are brown.

There is little to no reading as to what constitutes the working class there and the working class here. And so how else can one characterize this approach but to call it a reactionary reading of imperialism?

Surely, the conditions of the working class across the world are not the same, in concrete material terms. But the same logic applies to the development of capitalism too.

Yes, there are a set of contradictions that cannot be universalized in a very literal sense, (laws against caste discrimination in the American universities will tell you otherwise, a story divorced from the fact that those studying in such universities took a plane to America) but that does not mean that the development of capitalism will just stop and take an opposite trajectory, towards something more liberatory. The globalized world is ruled by capital, where all particular contradictions are employed as tools of the ruling class. And we cannot afford to forget that the only weapon against such a ruling class is the international camaraderie of the working class.

And there is little justification for third worldism in today’s context. So many people, in tens of thousands, were left to die, without proper healthcare. So many millions lost jobs, left in the streets, barely making ends meet. And so today we must reinforce that what separates us cannot be some color or whatever that color represents for the ruling classes of the world.

But yes, the working class too, has a sense of nationality. after all its labor relations are grounded in Ukraine. And even when they leave for work as migrants, they do so as Ukrainians,  who speak a certain language and certainly not as ‘world-citizens’. And so, the working class’s internationalism is not that they conveniently forget about their own nationality, and especially not during a time of war. And perhaps it would help to revisit Lenin, in these times of great unrest.

The only correct proletarian slogan is to transform the present imperialist war into a civil war. This transformation flows from all the objective conditions of the current military disaster, and only by systematically propagandizing and agitating in that direction, can the workers’ parties fulfill the obligations they undertook at Basle. – Lenin

Perhaps today we stand at a place of more historical evidence for something that Lenin theorized. All civil wars are national. One cannot define ‘civil’ in this context without a nation.

And so, if the idea of Ukraine is propagated as White, one doesn’t leave much scope for the working class to position itself outside this framework of white.

As Lenin points out in his essay on the National question, even though the national question finds a subordinate position with respect to the labor question, the national question cannot be dismissed.

“Yesterday,” Marx wrote on June 20, 1866, “there was a discussion in the International Council on the present war…. The discussion wound up, as was to be foreseen, with ‘the question of nationality’ in general and the attitude we take towards it…. The representatives of ‘Young France’ (non workers) came out with the announcement that all nationalities and even nations were ‘antiquated prejudices’. Proudhonised Stirnerism…. The whole world waits until the French are ripe for a social revolution…. The English laughed very much when I began my speech by saying that our friend Lafargue and others, who had done away with nationalities, had spoken ‘French’ to us, i. e., a language which nine-tenths of the audience did not understand. I also suggested that by the negation of nationalities he appeared, quite unconsciously, to understand their absorption by the model French nation.”

The conclusion that follows from all these critical remarks of Marx is clear: the working class should be the last to make a fetish of the national question, since the development of capitalism does, not necessarily awaken all nations to independent life. But to brush aside the mass national movements once they have started, and to refuse to support what is progressive in them means, in effect, pandering to nationalistic prejudices, that is, recognising “one’s own nation” as a model nation (or, we would add, one possessing the exclusive privilege of forming a state).

Now, as to the import of wheat and oil from Ukraine, one constantly forgets the condition of the working class in Ukraine in this too. And in attempting to illustrate the impact of the war on the import of wheat or oil or iron, and the consequent impact that it has on the working class here, one also attempts to invisiblize the working class’s struggle in Ukraine before the war. And if one is to apply a Leninist logic to this, it would even seem like there is a very racist, nationalist underpinning here, as if the Ukrainian working class exists only so that we can import oil and wheat as cheap as possible.

If one pays attention to this data and works our way around it, one can see clearly the condition of agriculture and the rural working class. About 15% of the rural population leaves Ukraine to find a job (not a migration for better prospects, but a migration for survival). And of that 15%, about 7% were previously unemployed (if one is to assume that the EU data is accurate). Then this would mean that a staggering 30,613,633 (calculated using the approximate population of Ukraine in 2020) people were unemployed and so migrated to find jobs.

So then one is forced to ask, what wheat and what oil?

If you cannot empathize with the struggles of the working class there, then perhaps you don’t understand the working class here either. Because both are being worked to death by the same global capital that this war represents. One is losing its life in this war, the other is being put to death by what this war represents. It’s not a question of wheat, it’s a question of capital.

Yes, the western media is obnoxious and frankly shameless in saying that Ukraine is Europe, and so this shouldn’t be happening. But we cannot simply succumb to reaction. Ukraine is part of Europe, but the working class of Ukraine is no different from the working class of India or Bangladesh in that they are both chained by capital. Our politics therefore cannot afford to vilify any people. Our struggle is against the ruling class of the whole world and only the international solidarity of the working class can save us.

Death to Imperialism. Death to Puppet-regimes. Death to Capitalism.

Long live the internationalism of the working class.




Vinith Kumar is a member of the Core Team of Ambedkar Reading Group, Dehradun.

Picture courtesy: the internet.