Olivier Besancenot: “A form of political paralysis is afflicting the French left regarding the war in Ukraine”

Olivier Besancenot: “A form of political paralysis is afflicting the French left regarding the war in Ukraine”

How to think about the conflict as an anti-capitalist militant? Back from Ukraine, Olivier Besancenot (NPA, New Anticapitalist Party) believes that the progressive forces of the European continent must support more decisively the Ukrainian people, victims of Russian imperialism.

Laurent Geslin e Mathilde Goanec 17 maio 2022, 14:52

After participating in the campaign of Philippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in the last French presidential elections, Olivier Besancenot was in Ukraine from May 3 to May 8. He took part in a delegation organized by the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine and against the war together with representatives of several European leftist parties, including the Ensemble movement. Upon his return, he gave an interview to journalists Laurent Geslin and Mathilde Goanec published in Mediapart which we reproduce below.

Source: MEDIAPART https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/110522/olivier-besancenot-une-forme-de-paralysie-politique-travaille-la-gauche-francaise-sur-la-guerre-en

Why go to Ukraine today, as an activist for a political party?

Olivier Besancenot: We were responding to an invitation from the Social Movement, an organization of the Ukrainian left, in connection with the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine and Against War. We talked with political activists and trade unionists. We also met two feminist collectives (Feminist Worshop and Bilkis), who spoke with great emotion about the situation of women who are raped in the occupation zones, or those who are lured into prostitution rings as they flee the country.

There are also many women engaged in combat, and they bear witness to the sexist reflexes that exist within the Ukrainian battalions. Above all, these women reminded us that this is not about “Russian brothers” attacking other “Ukrainian brothers,” but about Russian soldiers attacking Ukrainian men and women.

What surprised you about this country that the West after all barely knew before the war?

The most surprising thing is to see how active political life continues despite the conflict, with different realities, of course, depending on where you are in the country. Social issues have not disappeared in the fighting. The trade unionists we met, who were involved in the resistance to Putin, continue their struggles against the liberal policies that President Zelensky is touting. His government, for example, is using the context of the war to facilitate layoffs in factories and businesses.

Other environmental activists are protesting the cutting of forests, which had been suspended before the war and have now been reauthorized. These battles are not trivial. From a political point of view, these activists of the Ukrainian left also aim to show the French and European left that Russian aggression has a name: it is an imperialist offensive.

More than thirty years after the fall of the USSR, it is still difficult to claim to be a leftist in Ukraine….

The militants we meet claim to socialism. A law on “de-communization” was passed [in 2015] in Ukraine: all those who refer to communism are considered allies of the Russians, even those who resist the invader. Affirming this political identity, however, makes perfect strategic sense. These militants oppose Russian imperialism and refer to a democratic society that obviously has nothing to do with the bureaucratic and totalitarian systems of the past. They are therefore, in their own way, part of the continuity of an anti-Stalinist left that has always existed in Ukraine, and more broadly in Eastern Europe. They have also established relations with certain independent and dissident socialist groups in Russia, even if this is now very complicated. Many of these Russians are now living in hiding, or have fled abroad.

Is there a legacy of Nestor Makhno, famous anarchist, and of this movement today in Ukraine?

I met two “anti-authoritarian” activists, connected to an anarchist territorial defense battalion, stationed in southern Kiev. Fundraisers are organized all over Europe to bring equipment for this battalion (helmets, drones or bulletproof vests). These fighters have to organize themselves, like many territorial defense units. An appeal has therefore been made to European libertarians and anti-fascists for help.

These activists insist on the need not to be mistaken about the Ukrainian resistance, focusing only on the Azov battalion. The Wagner militias in the Russian camp are of the same kind. They especially emphasize the fact that there are also left-wing activists in the territorial defense units. In the city of Kryvyi Rih, the trade unionists for example sent many of their members to fight in units in the region.

What is the NPA’s position on the war that has been going on in Ukraine since 2014?

Our rule may seem simple: we are on the side of the oppressed, never on the side of the oppressors. My hope, to overcome prejudices and apriorism, is to believe that by starting a direct dialogue with feminist or trade union activists in Ukraine, new sectors of the French social and political left will understand that the Ukrainian left also exists. From railwaymen to railwaymen, from nurses to nurses, from energy workers to energy workers, from academics to academics, concrete solidarities are already being established. In the NPA, we believe that our place is to act in solidarity with peoples who struggle for their emancipation and their freedom, whatever the status of their oppressor.

Imperialism is not an Anglicism, it does not apply only to US policy on the Latin American continent. French imperialism exists, so does Russian imperialism. It is an embodied reality, responding to economic objectives and referring to history. This Russian imperialism goes back to the Tsarist expansionist tendencies that the Bolsheviks had broken after 1917, declaring themselves in favor of the right to self-determination, before the Stalinist counterrevolution. Incidentally, Putin did not forget to oppose Stalin to Lenin when he declared war.

What can this war teach the European left?

I don’t claim to have anything to teach on the subject or to lecture. I simply believe that this war is one of the main issues at stake in the refounding of the European radical left. The conflict in Ukraine marks the end of a cycle, that of the capitalists’ “happy globalization. The competition between the blocs has reasserted itself in recent years, and Putin’s Russia hopes to find new ways out of its borders. Rosa Luxemburg explained that wars are often the continuation on the military terrain of a competition that until then had only taken place on the economic terrain. This competition is also being played out in Ukraine, and the outcome of this war will therefore have an impact on social and political forces throughout the world. The situation will not be the same if imperialism wins or loses.

What is your opinion on FI’s (France Insubmisse) position on this conflict and was the issue part of disagreements during discussions with the NPA at the time of the legislative elections?

I have no way of speaking on behalf of FI and I don’t intend to pour out advice. What I do know is that we need a collective movement, as broad and united as possible, to carry out effective solidarity actions with this Ukrainian left. This must go beyond party differences.

Today, the French left suffers from a form of political paralysis: if you are in favor of the withdrawal of Russian troops, you are necessarily an agent of the CIA, and conversely, if you denounce NATO as part of the problem, you are seen as an agent of the FSB. We need to reconnect with the complexity, to understand that something is going on there and that this war is not a shameful affair that we should ignore.

What is your position on arms deliveries to Ukraine and on economic sanctions against Russia? The latter could lead to high inflation in Western countries and ultimately affect the economically weaker populations?

We find it understandable that the Ukrainians are asking for weapons, especially defensive weapons that would allow them to control the skies. Those we talk to there repeat that they do not want forces other than their own to replace the Ukrainian resistance.

On the issue of economic sanctions, we are campaigning to sanction the oligarchs, but this is a long way off. In Britain, in Cyprus, only one hundredth of what could be done has been done.

Ukrainian environmental activists also explain that it is urgent to draw all the consequences, both of our dependence on fossil fuels, on gas, but also of the dangers of nuclear power. Imagine if nuclear power plants were hit during the fighting? The war in Ukraine once again raises the issue of energy transition. Ukrainian trade unionists are proud of their industry, of producing energy, but the latter, within the Social Movement, have nothing against arguing with environmental activists.

The Ukrainians explain today that they want to fight until they win. Some European diplomats, on the other hand, want to put an end to the conflict by finding a way out for Russia. How to make peace and at what price?

It is up to the Ukrainian men and women to decide, not us. We must abandon any paternalistic attitude toward them. The question of a lasting peace concerns everyone, of course, but it involves showing solidarity with the peoples who are the first victims of Putin’s policy, the Ukrainian people and also the Russian people. And time is running out. In fact, the Ukrainians I have seen are not in exactly the same position as at the beginning of the war. The chances of a ceasefire or a settlement are becoming more and more remote as the weeks go by and the crimes add up….

The right to self-determination will probably not consist only of holding a referendum or imposing a military solution. A true democratic process must allow all Ukrainians, in the East and West, to recognize themselves in the solution found. This requires that we let them decide freely about the Ukraine of the future, once the Russian troops have withdrawn. Without being caught between Russian imperialism, which attacked this country, and Western interests. Without having a gun to your head. Without the entire planet that defends its own interests inviting itself to the table to tell them what to do.

In Ukraine, we can feel a desire to “turn the tables,” to organize a “reset” of the country’s political system. The society has organized itself to defend itself, and the people explain that after the war they will have to free themselves from the influence of the oligarchs. The people want to take their destiny into their own hands…

Reset is indeed an expression that I have heard a lot. Many people want to get rid of the oligarchs, once and for all, and put an end to corruption. The question of cancelling the debt imposed on Ukraine is a key issue from this point of view. The idea of the members of the Social Movement is to bring all these social issues to the fore immediately, without waiting for a happy tomorrow. This democratic vitality persists even in times of war.

Among them, you don’t find soldiers going to the front on the one hand and militants nurturing democratic discussions on the other; in fact, these two worlds are closely linked. Some territorial defense units have even created even forms, still very partial. of self-organization.

Sweden and Finland will certainly apply for NATO membership. Are we forced to choose between Russia and NATO, or can we criticize both sides?

We criticize Russia and, of course, NATO, which not only did not disappear after the end of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, but continued to develop, and not for the defense of humanity… NATO will always be part of the problem and not part of the solution.

What do you think about the European Union’s (EU) action in the war in Ukraine?

It is absolutely disgusting to allow refugees to be classified according to their country of origin at EU borders. At the beginning of the war, Prime Minister Jean Castex explained that France could take in 100,000 Ukrainians, and just as well. How many times were we told that the principle of freedom of movement and establishment that we were defending was certainly honorable, but perfectly impractical. For years I have been hearing “we would like to, but it is impossible”.

We have today the sad proof that when the reception of refugees did not work in favor of Afghans, Kurds or Syrians, for example, it was not because the authorities could not, but because they did not want to.

To build another Europe, of workers and peoples, that breaks with liberal treaties, we must start from terribly concrete things. Our comrades in Ukraine are asking for many things and many debates. They want to know the details of what European integration means, in terms of social and democratic rights, for the Eastern European countries that have joined the EU. Indeed, even among the supporters of EU membership, there is no illusion that a collective balance of power will be necessary in any case to achieve emancipatory horizons shared by one and all.

Parlamentares do Movimento Esquerda Socialista (PSOL)


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