By Charlie Kimber
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How war could cause revolt all around the world

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Imperialist war could be turned into class war to fight against greed, hunger and poverty
Issue 2800
Soldiers in eastern Ukraine

War in Ukraine could lead to mass action from below (Picture: Wikicommons/ Ministry of Defense Ukraine)

“Turn the imperialist war into civil war,” wrote Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Grigory Zinoviev during the First World War in 1915. We can look back now and see that two years after that bold statement Russian workers launched an insurrection that shook the world. But what does these Bolsheviks’ statement mean in the context of the Ukraine war today? It certainly applies as a strategy for revolutionaries in the states most directly affected by the fighting. 

The Russian anti-war movement, for example, could grow and fuse with wider working class opposition to president Vladimir Putin and bring down his regime. Rail workers in Belarus who have risked vicious punishment by sabotaging Russian supply lines could return to their movement to bring down dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko.  Workers in Nato countries could revolt against the war drive. That resistance could mesh with the anger over inflation tearing away the value of pay, pensions and benefits. We saw a glimpse of this during the Greek general strike last week. Sections of workers marched with banners calling for jobs, better pay, against racism—and no to war. 

Ukrainian people, while opposing the Russian invasion, could revolt against the Volodymyr Zelensky government’s neoliberal measures and its decision to act as a subordinate partner of Nato. But there’s another very important way the 1915 advice applies. The war is coming home for billions of people far from the battlefields. It has generated terrible shortages of food and crushing price rises. Ukraine and Russia are key exporters of grains and sunflower oil, accounting for about 30 percent of the global wheat trade. The war has led to a sudden shutdown in supply lines.

Global food prices have just hit a new high, rising at the fastest rate in 14 years. The March food price index published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation rose 34 percent year on year, setting the third consecutive monthly record. Meanwhile speculators and manipulators of the markets cash in. The Wall Street Journal newspaper reports price rises “are a windfall for big agricultural companies like Bunge Ltd and Archer Daniels Midland Co that buy and transport crops”. Their shares are up 25 percent and 40 percent respectively. That inevitably means hunger, disease and death. But the shockwave also means revolt—and possibly revolution.

In the summer of 2010 wildfires raged across Russia’s farmland and wheat traders nearly doubled the international price. Furious people launched demonstrations in the Middle East—one of the factors triggering the “Arab Spring” and a chain of revolutionary movements. Today workers and the poor are already marching and striking in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Brazil, Argentina and Peru. And more assaults are coming from the ruling class. Marcello Estevao, in a blog for the World Bank, warns that even before the war, “Close to 60 percent of the poorest countries were already in debt distress.

“In such conditions, history shows, one more surprise is all it takes to touch off a crisis. Over the next 12 months, as many as a dozen developing economies could prove unable to service their debt.” Last week Lebanon’s deputy prime minister Saadeh Al-Shami announced, “The state has gone bankrupt”. In Egypt the country’s food reserves are running low. Its leaders fear a rerun of the 2011 revolution. They are begging for funds from the International Monetary Fund and the Gulf sheikdoms to maintain a subsidised bread programme that reaches 70 million people

As Lenin and Zinoviev wrote, “The war has undoubtedly created the acutest crises and has incredibly intensified the sufferings of the masses.” Moving from food riots to revolution means putting forward an independent position on the war. The “national unity” of support for Nato or the Russian invasion has to be replaced by “war on war”—class war against the architects of hunger and poverty.

  • The quotes in this article from 1915 are from the pamphlet Socialism and War, re-issued by Bookmarks this month. Phone 020 7637 1848 

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