Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Ukrainian Marxism

Dear Comrades,

The foremost place in this discussion must belong to the Ukrainian revolutionary Marxists. We shall listen with the greatest attention to their voices. (Trotsky, The Ukrainian Question, 1939)

The Ukrainian question is one of the most important national questions in Europe, and has assumed a growing significance in the current struggle in the USSR. The tragedy of the question, however, is that its importance is coupled with a constant refusal of a large number of Socialists to make even an attempt to understand it. To mention the Ukrainian question is commonly met with the raising of spectres of ‘Ukrainian Bourgeois Nationalism’ and ‘Nazi collaborators’. Sadly, such prejudices run deep, and have a tradition within Marxism as far back as Engels and Luxemburg. With the rise of Stalinism things have worsened to such a scale that it is at times difficult to get a rational and thoughtful discussion on the subject.

The Ukrainian question, to quote Trotsky, is being placed on the “order of the day and this time with redoubled force”. It is therefore vital for Socialists to make a re-examination and to grasp its history and roots. In this sense Revolutionary History could make an important contribution. With this in mind I joined the Editorial Board with the aim of contributing to Volume 3 no.1 covering Stalinism and Communism in Eastern Europe. When I, with the support of a number of others, presented three articles by leading Ukrainian Marxists on the conflict in the Ukraine in the 1940s, unfortunately, the proposal was met with a response as outlined above from a section of the Board, most vocally the Spartacist League. A number of phantoms were raised against publishing the materials of the emigre Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party (URDP) of the 1940s and 1950s, and despite the fact that no credible evidence was presented, their publication was blocked.

Since then, seeing no scope to make a further contribution to the journal, I have not participated further. There were also threats made that if the materials were published the Spartacists would withdraw or cut their order. Either way this would cause serious financial problems, which I was not going to provoke. The controversy has, however, continued along another road with the same result. The slanders against the Ukrainian Marxist tradition have continued and been published in Volume 3, no.2, and more clearly in an official letter of the Spartacist League to be published. It is therefore a point of principle on the part of Revolutionary History that this reply be published, and the true history of the Ukraine and its revolutionary movement are made known to readers. As the allegations made are common misconceptions, the dispute, therefore has wider importance than a mere reply to the Spartacists.

The allegations made are that the three articles were by “protagonists of a Fascistic Ukrainian nationalist group” and a number of quotations are presented to justify this. The URDP is itself accused of apologising for “Fascism in Poland” and crediting it with providing the organisational “nucleus of their own group”. To top that it was stated that the URDP had CIA connections, which the Workers Party (USA) on discovering broke off relations. Since the articles themselves cannot be published in the journal, I will state the facts as best I can.

It is the oldest trick in the Stalinist book to label opponents, especially Socialists, as CIA-backed in an attempt to discredit them. There are, of course, CIA-backed groups, but for Socialists to repeat such slanders without the slightest evidence is to take a dangerous road. Not only was no evidence presented against the URDP, but all the evidence shows otherwise. Little is known amongst Marxists these days about the URDP. The group survived for only 20 years. Formed in the DP camps in Germany, its members were predominantly from the Soviet Ukraine and had not been members of the nationalist movement, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists under Polish occupation. Formed in 1945 the URDP split in 1947 over “defence of the gains of October (1917), collectivisation, and the method of party building”. The left faction published the paper Vpered (Forward) until 1959. [1] In its short life they attempted to continue the Ukrainian Socialist tradition destroyed under Stalin. Whilst holding a theory of state capitalism, they stated in Vpered that: “We exclude now and forever the restoration of private property and private capitalism which is as unacceptable to the Soviet peoples as the restoration of feudalism would be for Western Europe.” [2]

As most of the Ukrainian emigration swung to the right, identifying Socialism with Stalinism, Vpered continued to put forward revolutionary Socialist positions on the key questions of the period. In their paper they republished extensively materials of the revolutionary left in the Ukrainian language. This included writings of Trotsky, Shachtman, Rosdolsky, Cliff and Hal Draper. The URDP held friendly relations with a number of Socialist organisations, most notably the Fourth International, the Workers Party, the Socialist Review Group and the ILP. Both the journals Fourth International and New International published URDP materials. Ivan Majstrenko was invited, amongst others, to the 1950 congress of the International Secretariat of the F1 as the URDP representative, and is described neither by Mandel nor Lambert as some kind of Fascist. [3]

In terms of CIA connections there is no evidence of any Socialist organisations breaking off relations. Up until the late 1950s, when Vpered ceased publication, it still carried the Labor Action address as its contact point in the USA. In one of the last issues published, Hal Draper, a leading Shachtmanite, can be found writing a special contribution to Vpered. The fact is that Ukrainian Marxists of the 1940s and 1950s had no CIA backing for one simple reason. The CIA was backing up the right wing leadership of the Ukrainian diaspora along with other governments to consolidate their grip on the emigre community. During the McCarthy years the right wing, with overt CIA support, had URDP supporters harassed, blacklisted and arrested. Vpered subscribers were threatened in order to weaken the paper. Isolated from the Ukrainian community, Vpered was forced to cease publication. The only backing Vpered got appears to be from the ILP, who helped print the paper. The group members later gave their support to the Socialist publications Dialoh and Meta, which appeared in the late 1970s.

The other accusation being thrown at the Ukrainian Marxism of this period is that it was pro-Fascist. The Spartacists state that Vepered writers “apologised for Fascism in Poland” and supported the “Fascistic” Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) partisans then active in Ukraine. It is furthermore argued that the URDP saw their roots in such “Fascistic” movements. For so-called opponents of Stalinism this has a lot in common with their methodology. A number of quotations are made to justify this assertion, but again an examination of the materials put to the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History tells another story about both the URDP and its attitude to what are in fact practically two different revolutionary movements in Ukrainian history.

Amongst the articles proposed was an article in Ukrainian from Vpered (May 1949) entitled Nationalism in a Subjugated Nation by Ivan Majstrenko. Now it has to be noted that no translation of the article was supplied, and all that appeared was an English summary from the same issue of Vpered. The article was an analysis of the Ukrainian nationalism from the pre-war OUN in West Ukraine to the later UPA partisans who existed from 1943 to 1956. In examining the OUN the summary states that:

In the conditions of the struggle of this organisation against Polish occupation it was for some time, under Fascistic, at that time ‘admissible’, influences. But Fascism with its ideology of power and rule over others is not specific for the nature of a subjugated nation. Therefore the merit of this organisation was that it reared outside the boundaries of the USSR, cadres of underground fighters.

Note that in the summary the word admissible is a quotation itself, either a bad translation, or is a quote from a rightist justifying the OUN position. But more importantly, it is not in Majstrenko’s article in Ukrainian, which translates as:

Ukrainian nationalism initiated as a defensive progressive movement of an oppressed nation, but because the Ukraine was oppressed not by capitalist imperialism but by the degenerated Russian revolution, and because Ukrainian nationalism began its activity at a time when in Europe the reactionary nationalism of ruling nations (Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Mosley) became fashionable, Ukrainian nationalism fell under its ideological influence. In this way Ukrainian nationalism of the 1930s borrowed an aggressiveness from western ruling nations which was not at all typical of itself ... During the war this ideology was proven completely bankrupt. It was smashed by all of humanity. [4]

In this article Majstrenko at no time apologises for the OUN’s 1930s’ ideology. He is merely explaining it. URDP writers made clear their attitude to this movement. Majstrenko, writing in the New International, argues that:

At any rate, up to the war there were two tendencies within Ukrainian nationalism under Poland: one standing on the platform of the reactionary nationalism of the master nation (Fascism) and seeking support from Nazi Germany, and the other standing on the platform of progressive nationalism of oppressed nations, and approaching the ideology of revolutionary Socialism.

Boris Lewytskyj, another URDP writer, describes the OUN as being unable to “distinguish Russian imperialism from the revolution. It not only did not know, but even consciously assumed a counterrevolutionary position on all questions, programmatic, ideological, and political”. [5] The URDP at no time gave support to the rightist leadership of OUN, which they described as “reactionary”, and says that with the onset of Nazi occupation their “entire arsenal of ideals was proved to be worthless”. In the split that occurred between the left and right of OUN in 1940, the URDP identified with the left, which moved steadily to take on Socialist politics injected into it by the working class, in particular from the Soviet Ukraine. It is this process of transformation that was being described and has been so distorted into appearing as a justification for the rightist positions of the 1930s nationalists.

The period of the unification of the Western Ukraine and the Soviet Ukraine under Nazi occupation saw the massive growth of the nationalist movement, bringing in many Soviet Ukrainian workers. The experience of Soviet reality saw a transformation of the West Ukrainian-based movement to the left with the emergence in 1942 of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). In the article by Holobnychy, which was not published, he states: “Thus we see that nationalism no sooner encountered Soviet realities than it capitulated. Its place was taken by the new ideology of the construction of a true Socialist society, based on true popular, political democracy.” [6]

In the statements and letter in Revolutionary History the UPA is accused of being “Fascistic” for the reason that during the war it waged an armed struggle against not only German occupation but Russian Stalinism. The UPA remains one of the most unknown revolutionary movements in Soviet history, deliberately portrayed by the Stalinists as collaborators, a misconception taken on by many Marxists. Now it has to be pointed out that I never at any time, nor did anyone else, propose publishing UPA material, but that of the analysis of the two Ukrainian Marxists of this movement. In terms of the UPA itself we need only quote from two of its publications. In the Position of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement it states that: “The Soviet order is not a Socialist order, since classes of exploited and exploiters exist in it. The workers of the USSR want neither capitalism nor Stalinist pseudo-Socialism. They aspire to a truly classless society, to a truly popular democracy.” In another UPA publication, Oborona Ukrainy (No.1, 1943), we can read: “Only in an independent Ukrainian state can the social gains of the October Revolution be deepened and strengthened.” Petro Poltava, a leader of this movement, stated clearly that a “return to capitalism in all respects would be a step backwards, a regression”. [7] These are clearly not the views of Fascists.

It is clear from even a slight examination of the views of the URDP and of the nature of the movements in the Ukraine that they were writing about, the allegations brought against them merely repeat the Stalinist falsifications. William Cazenave and Alastair Green go further by attempting to discredit Ivan Majstrenko by insinuating that he held some kind of “Fascistic” views, taking as the evidence his statement: “Will Europe find herself the strength and wisdom to defend her right of primogeniture and her priority against semi-Asiatic Moscow?” This is taken from Majstrenko's pamphlet Bolshevist Bonapartism, which is an analysis of Stalinism outlining a theory of state capitalism [8], notably one of the first versions of this theory from a Marxist who participated in the revolution.

On its own it could appear that Majstrenko is calling for the west to launch a war on the USSR, etc., as a whole. However the pamphlet is arguing clearly the opposite: “This was a formation of state capitalism, led by an anonymous society variable in its composition, but unalterable in its essence, called the USSR. And it is no more in the power of anybody to change such a state of things except through a new national revolution.” More clearly the editors state: “We are convinced that our enemy can never be defeated by the forces of bourgeois democracy.” The fact is that Majstrenko was not the first to describe Russia as “semi-Asiatic”. Both Marx and Engels did. Marx argued “there have been in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe – Russia and Absolutism, the Revolution and Democracy”. And again: “The bloody mire of Mongolian slavery, not the rude glory of the Norman epoch, forms the cradle of Muscovy, and modern Russia is but a metamorphosis of Muscovy.” [9] Majstrenko was applying positions held by many Marxists of pre-Stalinist Russia to Stalinist Russia: “Russia was always the land where Asiatic and European influences clashed”, the European being the revolutionary democracy with whose defeat “the victory of Stalinism signified for Russia the victory of Asiatic influences ... During 20 years of Stalinist rule Marxist teaching became an empty ritual and the Russian imperialist doctrine became predominant. It revived the spirit of Asiatic traditions, in particular unlimited absolutism.” [10]

The fact is that neither the URDP’s politics nor Majstrenko’s have anything in common with ‘Fascism’, but everything in common with revolutionary Marxism. Majstrenko spent his life as a dedicated revolutionary, a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbisty and Ukapisty) and later joined the CP Ukraine (Bolshevik) in the fusion. Throughout the Civil War he was a Red Army fighter against Denikin and the Poles. He was a Communist journalist in the Ukrainian Soviet Government, and was repressed as an oppositionist, spending the years 1936 to 1940 in the gulag. He came to the west via a German slave labour camp where he set about reorganising Ukrainian Marxism, the URDP. It is not a question of “distinguishing between a Russian Fascist from a Communist” but a Ukrainian revolutionary resisting his Russian chauvinist oppressors. Majstrenko is but one of a generation who survived the Stalinist terror in the Ukraine. They deserve recognition for maintaining Marxism, not vilification.

Chris Ford
Supporter of Republican Marxist Bulletin



1. Weta, Volume 2 no.1.

2. Fourth International, September-October 1951.

3. Documents of the Third Congress of the Fourth International.

4. Translation thanks to Marco Bocjun of Ukraine Today.

5. Boris Lewytskyj in Vypered, translated in Meta, Summer 1978.

6. Vsevelod Holubnychy, The Russian Underground, New International, April 1949.

7. Ibid.

8. A. Babenko (pseudonym), Bolshevist Bonapartism, Geneva 1948.

9. Bolshevist Bonapartism.

10. cf. Ian Cummins, Marx and National Movements.

Updated by ETOL: 19.7.2003