To make sense of Ukraine, we need to bring the class back in

poenaruViktor Yanukovich started his career as a thug and he remained a thug as a political leader. His regime was corrupt, patriarchal, authoritarian, inefficient and class-biased. He definitely had to go.

But whoever is cheering his departure following Saturday’s vote of the Ukrainian Rada is plainly mistaken. He was deposed not as a result of a popular uprising but following backdoor machinations and hidden politicking. The Ukrainian people in general and those protesting in Maidan for weeks were excluded from the wheeling and dealing, even though they were the first to take the bullet of the President’s thuggish way of dealing with protests. Therefore, events in Ukraine largely resemble a coup d’etat and not a democratic or socialist revolution.

While no one should care much for the deposed Yanukovich, there are many issues that need to be critically confronted. Sweeping them under the carpet and celebrating the victory of the people against a corrupt puppet of the corrupt oligarchs is theoretically weak and politically reactionary.

Two aspects seem to have been suddenly forgotten. First, Yanukovich was a democratically elected president. As an election observer in Kiev during the vote in 2010, I remember the consensus among all international observers of different stripes that the elections were free and fair and carried a wide degree of legitimacy. Yanukovich roundly defeated Tymoshenko and her style of politics. While not every one was happy, few contested the result. Following the negotiations on Friday, Yanukovich agreed to stay on an electoral path and heeded to the request of protesters to call early elections in November. While I normally do not think high of the liberal-democratic idea of election cycles and representative democracy, it remains preferable to forced governmental overtaking conduced through non-transparent political maneuvers by sections of the political elites with no popular mandate. The situation in Ukraine is pretty similar to the one in Egypt where the army backed a coup against a democratically elected president. What followed, naturally, was more authoritarianism and discretionary abuse of state power and not more popular democracy and people’s control. Therefore, what we witness is the following paradox carefully hidden by cynicism: while rhetorically the power of the people on the streets is cherished, in practice they are de facto excluded from any political decision. They are reduced to passive masses, either called to oppose the old government or to cheer the new one. This is worse than casting a ballot and playing the good old democracy game.

A second point that is also forgotten is that these protests did not start as a tout court reaction to Yanukovich’s rule and they did not have direct social roots or objectives. Their pretext was the refusal of Yanukovich’s administration to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Without a shadow of doubt, the Agreement was detrimental to Ukraine and offered little benefits to ordinary Ukrainian citizens. But beyond this theoretical point, the fact remains that Yanukovich acted in consonance with the majority of his voters –the industrial and peasant constituencies of East Ukraine – that would simply lose out if the Agreement were signed. Corrupt and inefficient as his regime was, Yanukovich’s presidency represented, at least minimally, concrete interests of a large section of the Ukrainian post-communist working class. I see no concern regarding the political representation of these people who are now forced to accept a political decision taken in Kiev by virtue of force. On the left, by casually accepting the deposition of Yanukovich because he was corrupt, we simply accept the language and politics of the liberal-conservative local and international forces and forfeit the language of class and class politics. For sure, Yanukovich was no working class hero, but his ousting from power should compel us to bring forth with even more urgency a class perspective that has been utterly absent. The cultural talk that identifies a fundamental split between two Ukraines and the conservative discourse that speaks only of (equally) corrupt leaders and oligarchs, undergirded by a racist tone that opposes the civilized EU to the authoritarian, dictatorial Russia, were successful in obliterating class categories and with them concrete people having particular interests.

Unfortunately, many observers, including left-leaning ones, got sidetracked by these ideological mystifications. They instinctively sided with people in Maidan but forgot to note that this was not a class-based movement having concrete social aims. The composition of the protest was more heterogeneous, its message murky or quite conservative before it finally descended into plain reactionary, religious and extremist hysteria. What is more, the strength of the neofascist and extreme right factions was downplayed or only registered en passé, without noticing that in fact these groups were the presiding force over the Maidan and even opposition leaders had little or no control over them. Despite the clear message from anarchist and left-wing voices about their violent tactics and appalling political goals, their role is still neglected. Following the collapse of the central power in Kiev, the rumor is that parts of these militias will be integrated into the official structures of the police. The links between the extreme right and the police in Ukraine will be as strong as those in Greece, where the Golden Dawn acted with impunity for many years through police protection.

Immediately following Saturday’s events, there were broadly two forms of reactions. First, there was the conservative celebration of the so-called victory, cherishing these events as proper fulfillment of the 2004 Orange Revolution. However, when Victoria Neuland, Yulia Tymoshenko or Manuel Barroso salute people’s mobilization, one must know something is deeply suspicious.  Secondly, there was the liberal reaction, which, while largely agreeing with Yanukovich’s ousting, nonetheless raised some concerns regarding the manner in which it was accomplished, especially regarding the good old liberal principle of the separation of state powers. Others got trapped into geopolitical speculations.


As usual, what was missing was the third position I suggested above: namely a class perspective. The fact remains that with or without Yanukovich the working people in Ukraine continue to be divided along ethnic and cultural lines, artificially created by political entrepreneurs, which are subsequently mobilized for ruling class interests.  The ousting of Yanukovich does little to change this situation either by bringing back class categories or by enabling the emergence of leftist political parties able to carry out class politics from bottom-up. Rather, the new situation empowers the neo-fascist thugs and their political sponsors –local and international – who now roam the streets seeking political vengeance and the uprooting of any possible leftist opposition.

Therefore, the truly critical stance for people on the left is neither to take sides in this conflict, nor to just simply take a safe distance from it by proclaiming that the two sides are similar. Rather, one should vehemently criticize the Madian and especially its actual, practical political outcomes. Instead of simply fetishizing the mere presence of people in the streets – as conservatives like to do – a critical perspective should question the very social basis and political aims of mass gatherings. As Lenin once wrote, one should never make theoretical concessions for the sake of popularity. This remains an even more stringent task today.