Essay: Ukrainian self-determination and idea of freedom

January 24, 2023

From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters

by Ron Kelch

Just before Christmas Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky took an elaborately concealed trip from the hellish battlefield of Bakhmut to Washington, D.C. The quick visit culminated in a speech to the U.S. Congress. To standing ovations, minus MAGA Republicans, Zelensky declared that the very existence of political democracy for all of humanity is at stake in his country’s battle against Vladimir Putin’s genocidal war of conquest.

Zelensky diplomatically shared credit with his hosts for “our…first joint victory,” having “defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.” The greater unsaid truth is that no mere political democracy but the much deeper, more totally participatory, multi-ethnic actions of the whole Ukrainian population created a reality in which, as Zelensky put it, “against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios, Ukraine didn’t fall.”

Ukrainian Trade Unionists organized in the Territorial Defense Force. Photo: Ukraine Solidarity Campaign

When Putin amassed a huge army and triggered a three-sided unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, nary a soul in the world—intelligence and military experts, pundits, political leaders—entertained any hope that Ukrainians would experience anything but a quick and total defeat.

Putin’s massive barrage of artillery and missiles did seize big chunks of the country, turning whole cities like Mariupol into rubble, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Putin’s Russia became a pariah state in “the minds of the world.” Demonstrators came into the streets in tens of thousands in support of Ukraine throughout Europe and the world.

The Ukrainian victory in the battle for Kyiv against a huge land army lined up to put it under siege, was a dazzling moment of resistance against the world’s second largest army. New arms then did start to trickle in to help Ukrainians defend themselves. The arms came from an up to then increasingly fractured but for now, thanks to Putin, united NATO. Ukrainians’ refusal to bow to fear and to the promise and practice of genocide, unless they live under a totalitarian Russian-Christian nationalism imposed by a self-anointed neo-Tsar, became a beacon to ordinary people everywhere. It’s a beacon in a world where democracies have been devolving into similar other-hating fascism, new forms of genocide and ever new alignments for another total war. Still, the prevailing view was that the war would end with Russia destroying the country, and at best result in a stalemate.


The ensuing protracted trench warfare brought new pressure for a negotiated settlement and warnings of “Ukraine fatigue.” But Ukrainians amazed the world again, taking back huge swathes of their country outside Kyiv, the whole of Karkhiv and parts of the Donbas. Tacticians pointed to the Russian army’s faulty logistics as wave upon wave of ill-equipped, ill-trained conscripts were thrown into a meat grinder. The Russian army’s dramatic defeats could no longer be ignored even by Putin’s commentators on Russian national TV. As they urged Putin to use more genocidal weapons and methods, some noted that the demoralization in the army reflected the demoralization in society. They compared the situation to the end of 1916 during World War I a few months before the fall of that original Tsarist regime.

With each liberated zone—Bucha, Izium, Karkhiv, Kherson etc.—Ukrainians carefully documented the extent of war crimes perpetrated by the occupiers—torture, rape, execution of civilians and mass abduction of children.

As for Ukrainian “logistics,” therein lies a still mostly untold story. It is a story of social solidarity of nearly the whole population—farmers bringing and distributing food, chefs cooking meals at the front, all manner of food preparers feeding any they could reach, a web of civilian volunteers provisioning the army, partisan resistance under brutal occupation, women joining up for active combat in record numbers often after losing their spouse to the war, whole cities like Sumy where a spontaneous civilian self-defense held off Putin’s army after the Ukraine regular army and local police left (“How Sumy’s residents kept Russian forces out of their city,” The Guardian, Jan. 2, 2023).

The latest astounding moment, the liberation of the whole city of Kherson, brought the story of a deep, widespread, grassroots resistance that was invaluable in driving out the Russian occupiers (“How Citizen Spies Foiled Putin’s Grand Plan for One Ukrainian City,” The New York Times, Dec. 25, 2022).

Putin’s terrorist state is now launching daily missiles and drone strikes against civilian areas, especially aimed at destroying critical energy and water infrastructure throughout Ukraine, trying to freeze the population in winter. This, as Putin continues his usual genocidal leveling of urban areas with massive artillery barrages. Bakhmut has been under concentrated, nonstop attack since May. The U.S.’s temerity and calibrated drip of arms, barely sufficient for Ukraine to defend itself from annihilation, doesn’t jibe with all the Congressional applause for Zelensky’s declaration of the high stakes in Ukraine, i.e., the very future of democracy itself.

Even now, as the U.S. wants to degrade Putin’s military, it also looks towards a negotiated peace not necessarily in line with the Ukrainian demand for a complete withdrawal of Putin’s forces and especially accountability and restitution for war crimes.


U.S. democracy, for its part, has only barely escaped fully devolving into fascism. Even after two years and carefully laid out proof by the January 6 Committee that Donald Trump was the perpetrator of a multi-pronged coup attempt that came very, very close to succeeding, there is no accountability.

Further, if Trump is sidelined, in the wings is a more vile, disciplined Trumpism in Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, whose fossil fuel loving Christian nationalism surpasses Trump in his deadly rhetoric against LGBT people, cruelty to immigrants seeking asylum, hatred of Dr. Fauci, anti-abortion fanaticism, banning private companies from compelling life-saving vaccines or masks for their employees in the midst of a pandemic, banning critical race theory or teaching the factual history of race and slavery in the U.S. and how it is reflected in today’s reality.

Though the recent election didn’t create an expected wave of support for Republicans, they did barely take the House of Representatives. The House effectively run by the Trumpist, nihilistic fascists will have a forum to spread their bile. They are hell bent to realize their “tear everything down” goal by refusing to raise the debt ceiling to let the government pay its debts, which would be a catastrophe to the U.S. and global economy.

The House Republicans vowed to excommunicate Senators and House members of their party who supported the “bipartisan” $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, which did provide for more aid for Ukraine. However, neither the bill itself nor the agenda of the Democratic-controlled Senate and Presidency portend any return to “normal.”

The $1.7 trillion legislation, finalized just as Zelensky spoke, was a “bipartisan” break with the recent practice of an equal balance between domestic and so-called defense spending. It even failed to reintroduce the child tax credit that in 2021 had momentarily made a big dent in the unconscionable 17% child poverty rate in the U.S.

The defense (war) department budget rose dramatically to $858 billion, even more than President Biden had asked for. Biden’s state-planned war economy includes a new global cold war with China over chip manufacturing capabilities.

Computer chip manufacturing was central to expanding globally integrated capitalist production, pouring the most advanced science and intelligence into animating machines (capital). This has now taken a back seat to preserving that intelligence for the means of destruction, smart bombs and the networks that deliver them.

There is no new normal in the face of global capitalism’s failure to stem the rise of fascism and growing multitudes fleeing and looking for asylum from annihilation from persecution, war, racism, starvation, economic deprivation and devastation due to human-induced climate chaos. Like the 1930s, but with many more flashpoints and tremendously more capacity for destruction, the stalled world economy and growing global immiseration have transformed competition between state-capitalist orbits to production and preparation for total war.


Logo of The Feminist Initiative Group from Ukraine. Photo: Feminist Initiative Group

The absolute abyss, reflected in the multiple crises facing humanity, from the total ecological crisis to marching toward thermonuclear war, demands directly confronting Marx’s unifying humanist idea in all the ways mass movements for freedom are reaching for a new reality.

An opening to Marx’s idea begins by fully appreciating the interconnection Lenin only intimated when he insisted that national self-determination is not only a principle Marxists must uphold but that national self-determination is a “catalyst” for proletarian revolution. That’s why Lenin promoted Ukrainian national self-determination, and attacked Great Russian chauvinism, the echo of Tsarism within Bolshevism, especially in the likes of Stalin, who, wrote Lenin, should be removed immediately.

The ongoing act of creation of Ukrainians’ self-organizing for a new life against the capitalist-imperialist albatross drew in all layers of the population, acting individually and collectively on their passion for independence and freedom from imperial overlords. The new life they have brought to the idea of democracy has a much deeper content than political democracy. Marx’s humanist idea is a future determined by fully realizing that deeper content.

As we put in the March-April 2022 News & Letters:

“The opposite of permanent war is permanent revolution, which does not stop at political freedom and national self-determination. To Karl Marx permanent revolution meant realizing democracy and self-determination in everyday life activity, especially in the capitalist workplace where work is reduced to a mere means to life. Capitalist science goes into the machine—the robot, the algorithm and the machinery of death to dominate and destroy. Science is a lie unless it is one with life and human self-actualization. The absolute opposite of capitalism’s alienated labor—that not only alienates humans from each other, from nature, and from the very activity of creating the things that reflect back innate human capacities—is the Idea of freedom.”


Totality for Marx is no mere accumulation of multiple forces struggling for freedom. Nor can the future be left to intersections between different identities. Marx’s perspective on totality is new beginnings captured through a unifying, open-ended, life-grounded freedom idea.

Our times demand that freedom as a universal be articulated in the face of the multidimensional striving to overcome particular social and material barriers to freedom in everyday life activity. It is reflected in the social solidarity on the ground in Ukraine, and in the women of Iran whose vanguard moment of “Woman, Life, Freedom” has inspired all layers of the population including workers to challenge religious-based totalitarian fascism, Uber workers confronting the inhuman domination of the algorithm or Amazon workers being reduced to robots with which they are forced to compete.

This is not an exhaustive list. For today a critical addition to those Marx-designated “new forces and new passions that arise in the bosom of society” to reconstruct it on a totally new foundation, is the global struggle to save the life-sustaining capacity of the planet. That struggle has reached a new humanist generational, global perspective perhaps best articulated by Greta Thunberg when she said: “All political and economic systems have failed but humanity has not yet failed.”


Freedom, when humans are not alienated from their own life activity, is the specifically human dimension of nature. The idea of freedom, says Marx, distinguishes our species. It is an idea that is directly part of life and nature: the freedom to make an object out of our life activity and to freely determine it whether with respect to the environment or our labor, in all the ways we reproduce our humanity through relations with each other and with nature.

For Marx, all of history is the appropriation of the freedom idea—the specifically human species character—as an act of creation. (See “Marx’s demystified dialectic and the ‘new society,’N&L, Jan.-Feb. 2022.)

Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence is the self-realization of the idea as a process overcoming the “incompleteness” of these acts of creation insofar as they seek immediate “historical justification by seizing on particular moments of the process of development.”

The world has been inspired by the Ukrainians’ act of creation, seizing and organizing their own life activity in the face of the terror and conditions of life under Putin’s totalitarian vision. Bourgeois democracy as the immediate justification doesn’t begin to capture the depth of the Ukrainian act of creation. No particular moments with their immediate justifications exhaust the free creative power of the idea.

Marx’s revolution in permanence is one with recognizing the free creative power of freedom. Revolution in permanence is a universal which never directly merges with any of its given stages, but has become a fully realized and recognized process of development. Our age of absolutes and soured revolutions that have turned into their opposite can settle for no less.

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