The following is a summary of the conclusions of a conference “The left and Maidan” held in Kiev on 12-13 April, attended by aligned and non-aligned left activists who had participated in the Maidan. A fuller report is here.
The Maidan began as a protest against the government’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union (EU). It grew into a protest against the government’s dishonesty and corruption. Then it became a protest against police violence and attempts to introduce anti-democratic laws.
At first the left paid little attention to the Maidan. Its demands for integration into the EU were not considered to be left demands. The left restricted itself to occasional small-scale interventions, with a focus on the anti-social policies pursued by the EU.
But when the authorities resorted to violence in January, everything changed — both the character of the protests and also how the left related to it.
It was no longer possible to stand aside, doing no more than “educational” activities and wandering round the square with a camera. But the left had no experience of participating in a mass protest movement.
Never before had the country experienced such a powerful popular uprising. The situation changed by the minute. There was no time to discuss strategy and tactics. Everyone simply did what they thought necessary.
Having been slow to intervene, the left found itself in a weaker position than its opponents on the far right. In addition, unlike in Russia, the Ukrainian left lacks experience of physical self-defence and was therefore unprepared for the organised attacks by the far right.
The left therefore had to abandon its visible symbols — its red flags, its black flags — and focused instead on participation in the general democratic processes, on agitation within the broad civil movement.
What was important was giving a direction to the movement. To have openly identified oneself as a left-winger would have “provoked” attacks by the organised far fight.
A meeting to create an anarchist brigade, for example, was broken up by armed nationalists. The anarchists therefore worked under the umbrella of the “Student Assembly” — which ended up completely under the control of the anarchist student union “Direct Action” and raised purely social demands.
The Maidan was not per se left-wing. If polls are to believed, 93% of participants declared themselves to have no particular politics. But at the same time it was left-wing: it was libertarian, a challenge to the authorities, a protest against corruption, an example of the “ordinary” people suddenly becoming aware of their own collective strength.
Most of the totalitarian left were critics of the Maidan and opposed the forms of direct democracy which it practiced. The Communist Parties used their publications to discredit the Maidan and develop the thesis of a seizure of power by a fascist junta.
It was the anti-authoritarian and democratic left which supported the Maidan. And trade unions, organised in the KVPU (Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine) as well.
The Women’s Group engaged in criticism of sexism in the Maidan and carried out agitation against right-wing ideology. The Student Assembly prepared a programme for a Free University. One of the most important left initiatives was the “Hospital Guard”, which protected wounded people in hospitals from the police. Eventually, over a hundred people were active in it.
The main focus for the Maidan left was to try to introduce socialist ideas into the movement. But now the Maidan Left is criticised for helping bring to power a right-wing government.
This criticism has no basis in reality. The Maidan, as a broad mass movement, had nothing to do with the new government, or professional politicians and political parties.
Around half of the left activists in the Maidan were anarchists. They were not interested in taking power or participating in it. Their goal was to develop different anti-authoritarian forms of social organisation and to build social alternatives to state institutions.
The weak side of the Maidan was the insufficient involvement of the trade unions and the working class. Only around 5% to 7% of participants in the Maidan could be counted as workers.
But this was hardly surprising — workers risked being sacked if they simply walked away from their jobs.
But no-one in the Kiev left showed an interest in conducting agitation in the big workplaces and extending the protest movement specifically into the working class. The call by the free trade unions for a political general strike had no resonance.
There was practically no co-ordination between them. The left simply threw itself into the struggle without creating its own organisational forms — unlike the right.
Another problem was the failure to take account of the separatist initiatives in the south-east of Ukraine.
Given that dissatisfaction with the corrupt regime of Yanukovich and with worsening social conditions lies at the basis of the protest movements in all regions of Ukraine, the left had the chance to draw up a programme of demands which could have been supported throughout Ukraine.
But the Maidan failed to focus on the idea of social justice. Instead its focus was the idea of national-democratic identity. There was a failure to speak to Crimeans in a language accessible to them. This facilitated the breakaway of the Crimea and the emergence of “anti-Maidan” protests.
Many Ukrainian citizens are taking part in “anti-Maidan” protests, opposing the new oligarchy in Kiev, demanding federalisation of the country, attempting to form their own alternative organs of power, calling them “popular”, and attempting to ban right-wing and nationalist parties.
Such developments will be used by the authorities in Kiev and Moscow to shift the general thrust of politics to the right, leaving the left weakened and isolated. The immediate and long-term perspectives of the left depend on its ability to meet this challenge.
Internationalism must be the basis of everything we do. In any war the working class is used as cannon fodder, while the oligarchs grow rich on its blood and tears. We must agitate against war, placing this at the core of our agenda of the working class of Ukraine and Russia.