Economics vs. culture: Ishchenko & his critics

6 02 2023

This is intended as the first in a series of more in-depth posts discussing scholarly perspectives on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It reflects thinking-in-progress, shared for the sake of open discussion and not for scholarly exactitude. (I practice the latter elsewhere.) Responses and corrections are welcome.

Volodymyr Ishchenko has carved out a unique niche as one of the western Left’s go-to voices on all things Ukrainian. His list of articles and interviews in popular venues like Jacobin, New Left Review, Democracy Now, The Guardian, Open Democracy, Socialist Project, PONARS Eurasia, and The Dig runs into the dozens. These appearances in the popular press aren’t undeserved, as his longstanding scholarship on Ukrainian social movements (see this and this) has made him a perceptive and nuanced observer of Ukraine. His perspective has been consistent, and his generous engagement with critics has been noteworthy.

The mixed response to Ishchenko’s recent New Left Review article “Ukrainian Voices?” caps what appears to be a growing rift between Ishchenko and some others on the Ukrainian academic Left, which I attempt to make sense of in this post, as I see important issues at stake in it. (For a few examples of that rift, see here, here, here, and here.)

The article has attracted pushback from a variety of places, including political scientists like Tufts University’s Oxana Shevel and U. of Washington’s Jamie Meyerfeld, who writes:

I fear that leftists embracing this article are doing so for all the wrong reasons. It gives them permission to ignore a broad swath of Ukrainian voices. It gives them permission to dismiss the achievements of Ukraine’s three revolutions, won by tremendous effort and sacrifice. And it gives them permission to maintain their romance with the Soviet Union.

There is a lot going on in these criticisms of Ishchenko. Some of it (like Meyerfeld’s argument) concerns the pragmatics of the impacts one’s statements can have during wartime, impacts that take on acute dimensions when the war becomes genocidal. These are obviously fair concerns, even if they are sometimes voiced in unfair and unfortunate ways (e.g., calling Ishchenko “not a real Ukrainian” because his views are “pro-Russian”; given how diverse Ukrainian political views have been historically, such a claim is not just wrong on both counts, but somewhat ridiculous).

In this sense some, and perhaps much, of the criticism comes from the “identity politics” Ishchenko decries. But there are legitimate disagreements here: Ukrainian identity is what is being attacked by the full-scale Russian invasion, and it is certainly part of what is being defended by so many Ukrainians today. If this is “identity politics” — a term that has taken on multiple connotations in different contexts, and negative ones for parts of the left — then the fight over it will not go away, and Ishchenko’s view that it is a distraction to real political change will remain a minority view among Ukrainians.

Some of the criticism concerns details of left-wing politics in Ukraine, which are somewhat opaque to outsiders. Some in the Ukrainian left perceive Ishchenko as “cater[ing] to Western and Eastern tankie [Stalinist/USSR nostalgic] audiences,” in the words of Nihilist‘s Sergii Kutnii. Getting into the weeds of these debates is not something I’m qualified to do, but it’s notable that those weeds exist and contain multiple sides, which should be recognized for what they are: divisions within the left. They go back a long way: one could, for instance, find similar disagreements between revolutionary socialists, agrarian socialists, social democrats, and several strains of anarchists, anarcho-communists, and anarcho-syndicalists, in the nineteenth century. It shouldn’t be surprising that such differences would emerge today, even if the left appears marginal compared to the mainstream or the nationalist right.

But there’s more going on that I want to address here, and it has to do with a larger and more longstanding divide in left and left-liberal thinking: that over the respective roles of economics and of culture in social change. To get at it will require discussing a few other key voices in the crossover between academic study and popular analysis of Ukraine and its invasion by Russia, which I hope to do in forthcoming posts.

Narrow vs. broad decolonization?

Ishchenko’s recent New Left Review piece is essentially an argument against a “narrow ‘decolonization’ agenda, reduced to anti-Russian and anti-communist identity politics” and in favor of a widened, more “universally relevant” one, in which Ukraine is understood to be a complex society that can draw on multiple legacies.

These legacies are hardly restricted to the primordialist ones beloved by ethnic nationalists (which, to be fair, Ishchenko doesn’t discuss in the article, but he does in many interviews, and scholars of Ukraine would be disingenuous to deny their existence). They also include the mixed legacies of the Soviet era — from the flourishing cultural industries in the 1920s (under “Ukrainization” policies) and the rapid industrialization (for better or worse) of the first few decades to the build-up of the Stalinist police state, the gulags and famine-genocide (Holodomor), and Brezhnev era repressions. Ishchenko does discuss these briefly and makes it clear he wants a more positive assessment of them than has become the norm; this, too, is a legitimate debate that the currently dominant national imaginary — which equates socialism with Stalinism with Russian imperialism — does not allow much room for. What he doesn’t discuss, but could, are the nuances of the pre-Soviet era — among them, the virtues of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ukrainian socialism, anarchism, and social democracy (which some of his leftist critics are well aware of). This could be excused on the point that it’s a short article that doesn’t attempt an exhaustive history of Ukraine.

If his critics are correct, however, it’s because the balance struck by Ishchenko misses the mark set by most Ukrainian scholars on the left and in the liberal-democratic mainstream. By overfocusing on the negatives, critics suggest, he has missed the potential for Ukraine to successfully resist the Russian invasion and now misses the more positive potentials in what Ukraine may have to offer the world going forward.

His writing since 2014, for instance, has often contested the narrative of the growth of a “civic nation” emerging from the Euromaidan and the war in Donbas and instead focused on the influence, or what he calls the “extra-parliamentary power,” of the far right. On the face of it, the strong Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion provides clear evidence of this civic nationalism, and it has been documented in research by Olga Onuch and others and summarized in Onuch’s excellent, just-published The Zelensky Effect (co-written with Henry Hale, and about which I hope to say more in the future).

Yet there is something important that Ishchenko gets right in the general picture of a multipolar world in which neoliberal rules still govern far more than they should:

This is what “multipolarity” may look like — the multiplication of national and civilizational identities, defined against each other but lacking any universal potential.

The only way forward in a world of looming crises — climate change, ecological degradation, authoritarian populism, increasing resource wars, et al. — is by locating that “universal potential.” Ishchenko’s argument about today’s decolonization movements is an important one. As he writes,

after the Second World War, the focus was different. At that time, decolonization meant not just the overthrow of the European empires but also, crucially, building new developmentalist states in the ex-colonial countries, with a robust public sector and nationalized industries to replace the imbalances of the colonial economy through import-substitution programmes. The contradictions and failures of such strategies were explored in broadly Marxian terms in theories of under-development, debt-dependency and world-system analysis. Today, “decolonization” is proposed for Ukraine and Russia in a context in which neoliberalism has taken the place of state-developmentalist policies and post-structuralist “postcolonial studies” have displaced theories of neo-imperialist dependency.

The context has changed, and today’s “decolonialism” is different from yesterday’s, to be sure. Many of the mid-century decolonialisms did not proceed according to plan, or at least did not result in the better societies that were envisioned. Some of the reasons for these failures were historical and deeply colonial (the artificial borders imposed by colonizers could hardly have been expected to deliver cohesive new nations), some were neo-colonial (the economic pressures imposed on development by “Washington consensus” lending institutions were too powerful), and some were simply all too human (corruption, once established, is difficult to uproot; or perhaps corruption and nepotism are simply the human condition).

There is also the possibility, however, that the Marxist historical materialism driving so much of dependency theory and world-systems analysis was itself inadequate, and that the post-structuralist, postcolonial, feminist, and other critiques of them were at least partially warranted. This is where Ishchenko’s perspective differs from some of his left-wing critics.

By reducing the evidence for civic nationalism to “identity politics,” Ishchenko appears to be ignoring the more broadly cultural dimensions of the current conflict. This reflects a longer-standing divergence in western left-wing thought — that between economism (or economic determinism), according to which economics trumps all other explanations, and culturalism (or explanatory pluralism, since culturalists rarely deny the role of economics, but only de-emphasize it).

In accounting for Ukraine and Russia today, the question here is whether political-economic or cultural-ideological explanations best account for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and, by extension, to what extent both the invasion and the resistance are motivated by ideology — and specifically by some form of Russian nationalism, imperialism, residual colonialism, or even fascism on Russia’s side, and by civic nationalism, anti-colonialism, ideas or traditions of democracy or “freedom,” et al. on the Ukrainian side.

Of course, ideology is not necessarily separable from economics; even the most diehard classical Marxist or “realist” would acknowledge that ideology is used, often successfully, to push forward a political-economic agenda. The question is over which is the final arbiter — which, “in the final analysis,” offers the best explanation.

Ukrainian identity politics

In mainstream scholarship on Ukraine, cultural factors have arguably taken precedence, with identity factors, histories of colonialism and anti-colonial sentiment, and the attractors of perceived “European” norms — anti-corruption, pluralism, human and civil rights, religious freedom, national self-determination, and so on — playing important roles in accounting for the divergence between Ukraine’s “westernizers” and “easternizers” and recent trends in favor of the former.

On the left, meanwhile, analysts and activists like Volodymyr Artiukh, Yuliya Yurchenko, Taras Bilous, Denis Pilash, Zakhar Popovych, Oksana Dutchak, Denys Gorbach, Denys Bondar, Vladyslav Starodubtsev, Oleksiy Radynski, Hanna Perekhoda, and others (several of them affiliated with Sotsialnyi Rukh) have typically included cultural dimensions in their analyses and probed the histories of colonial/anti-colonial relations between Russia and Ukraine as a key component of the current situation. Far from seeing the anti-colonialism of Ukrainian resistance as merely local, they point out its similarities to other forms of anti-colonialism, and also the parallels (even if there are obvious differences) between Russian neo-imperialism and other forms of imperialism. In other words, they see the “universal potential” in the struggle for Ukrainian self-determination.

Moreover, unlike Ishchenko, many of them openly criticize western leftists’ characterizations of the war as “caused by Nato” or by western “adventurism,” seeing these analyses as partial at best, and ultimately inadequate.

The question that divides these views, one might say, is whether the 2014 Maidan “revolution” was, as Ishchenko calls it, a “deficient revolution” — and therefore one not worth supporting or following up on — or if it was an incomplete revolution, and therefore one worth radicalizing. Analogously, is the Ukrainian fight against Russia today merely a predictable defense in an intolerable situation, or it is a worthy fight for something — for the possibility of a better Ukraine (and therefore a better world)? The difference may be one of emphasis, but one senses in the latter group’s (Sotsialnyi Rukh et al’s) efforts a sense of genuine engagement, and perhaps a disappointment at those who analyze critically, “objectively,” from the side, but without explicitly taking sides.

A related point is that Ishchenko speaks somewhat disdainfully of Ukraine’s “pro-Western NGO-ized civil society” (terms he mentions often). For radical democrats, civil society is a value in and of itself. It is a way for people to build “social capital” and experience their own agency, whether in the defense of economic rights (their own or that of others) or various other rights and interests, including those of free expression, gender equality, racial equality, religious freedom, and so on. Aside from fascists and economistic Marxists, most of the political spectrum — liberals, social democrats, anarchists, libertarians, and many conservatives — agrees that these represent forms of liberty in many of its dimensions. For anarchists, building civil-society institutions is part of the “prefigurative politics” that goes into building a non-authoritarian/non-capitalist society.

For Marxist economic determinists, on the other hand, activism that isn’t class-based can only be at best a distraction, and at worst a counter-revolutionary force. 

Russian identity politics

Analyses of Russia show a similar divergence over cultural versus political-economic determinants as well as solutions to the current debacle.

Where others have sought to explain Russia’s descent into its current form of belligerent authoritarianism by referring both to historical disappointments (such as the West’s seeming rejection of Russia, or, from another perspective, Russia’s failure to integrate into Western norms) and to internal political processes (legacies of imperial rule, police-state machinations, and colonial mindsets), Ishchenko — laudably, I think — seeks to identify tangible material determinants. In articles and interviews over the past year, he has analyzed Russia’s motives in historical materialist terms, seeing the war and invasion as an outcome of the political-economic logic of Russia’s “ruling class” of capitalists allied with Vladimir Putin.

In an October article in Jacobin, he wrote,

Our task is precisely to explain how the political and ideological rationales for the invasion reflect the ruling class’s interests. Otherwise, we inevitably end up with crude theories of power for the sake of power or ideological fanaticism. Moreover, it would mean that the Russian ruling class has either been taken hostage by a power-hungry maniac and national chauvinist obsessed with a “historical mission” of restoring Russian greatness, or suffers from an extreme form of false consciousness — sharing Putin’s ideas about the NATO threat and his denial of Ukrainian statehood, leading to policies that are objectively contrary to their interests.

The assumption here is that Russia is ruled by a class of “political capitalists,” not just by a structure conventionally referred to as Putin’s “power vertykal,” and that this class thought (and continue to think) they would benefit materially from the invasion. In that case, ideological explanations for the invasion don’t work; the reasons would have to be economic. Ishchenko says:

With the war, the Russian political capitalists try to eliminate some existential threats with military force and exploit the opportunity to consolidate their rule in a more ideologically-articulated and mobilizationist political regime. What is at stake now is the existence of a sovereign center of capital accumulation in the post-Soviet space. The other outcome is its disintegration and realignment of the post-Soviet elites with the EU, US, and Chinese centers of power.

If on the other hand it is Putin and those closest to him — not an economic class but rather a group of specific people — who rule Russia and distribute that rule via a structure of subordination, then ideological reasons (such as Russian neo-imperialism), or ideology in the service of power, could play an important explanatory role for the invasion. Their power is slipping and needs a motivating force. War provides some of that (since leaders during wartime tend to garner support they otherwise may not); ideology (about the Great Russian nation, and so on) can provide the rest. 

The two explanations work together here. The power structure is, after all, supported by Russia’s vast mineral wealth (especially fossil fuels), military strength (including nuclear arsenal), and authoritarian polity. The analytical question, however, is whether one can understand contemporary Russia without understanding Russian neo-imperialism. This is a similar question to whether it is possible to understand Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s as a simple project of political-economic power — that is, without understanding racism, anti-Semitism, and “Aryan” suprematism.

Is contemporary Russia explainable as a “political capitalist class” pursuing its economic-material goals? Can the motivations of that class, or of Putin himself, be assessed apart from the reasons why these motivations resonate within the larger society? And if they do resonate (which they do), how well do material reasons alone explain that, and to what extent do we need other explanations — cultural, psychological, et al., which account for Russian perceptions of Ukrainians (superiority-inferiority), Russian “wounded pride”, the democratic “deficiencies” of Russian society, colonial/imperial legacies, and so on? (By the same token, was Nazism merely a product of economic need, or were there deeply imbued “complexes” at play that require psychoanalytic, affective, somato-analytic, and cultural-historical explanations to make sense of them?)

It is of course possible to argue that Russians (apart from the few thousand who have protested) still “do not realize” the genocidal scale of the assault on Ukraine, but by this point those arguments fall flat. And as analysts have demonstrated for years, “imperial nationalism” runs deep in Russian society. It’s evident in the writings of ideologists like Aleksandr Dugin (for whom the “Russian idea,” “above all,” must triumph over the West’s “civilization of Satan”) and propagandist engagés like Zakhar Prilepin, and filters into the daily convolutions of media propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov and RT boss Valentyna Simonyan. It builds on a readily available nexus of patriotism and militarism fueled in part by popular culture, in ways eerily similar to the Rambo-era popular culture of the U.S. in the 1980s, but with an acutely genocidal twist. These can be countered only if they are understood.

Furthermore, the acts of some Russian soldiers who, alongside the massive theft of mundane objects like microwaves, television sets, cars, and women’s underwear also stole the relics of Potemkin, the statue of Suvorov, and other cultural objects of the Russian empire, show that Russian neo-imperialism is alive and well among those fleeing situations of danger. Perhaps they thought they’d sell these for big profits, but the fact that they would go to great risks for what are at heart cultural prizes suggests this is a genuinely cultural war and not just a war over material interests.


It’s my sense, as I’ve tried to show, that underlying the differences between Volodymyr Ishchenko’s and other Ukrainian left theorists’ views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a divergence over the role of culture, as opposed to material interests, in accounting for the conflict.

“Culture” is a big and ambiguous word — “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language,” as Raymond Williams famously put it. In the current situation, it includes all those things that do not follow a classically “materialist” line of analysis: personal and collective identities, the affective and emotional contours of those identities, and the ways they have been shaped historically by processes of colonialism and imperialism, the urban-privileging “classism” of Soviet society (which was far from “classless”), ethnic and sexist stereotypes (present in Putinist imaginaries of Ukraine, but which I haven’t touched on here), and histories of anti-authoritarian rebellion (longstanding in Ukraine) and of obsequiousness (similarly longstanding in Russia, with its traditions of tsarism and sobornost’). Today these are all invoked, provoked, and stoked by the day-to-day warfare imposed by the Russian military on Ukrainian people, cities, towns, and villages, and by Russian state propaganda on Russian citizens.

Much more can be said of (and debated over) all these things than I have touched on in this article. But I think they play out also in the ways that the western Left has responded to the war in Ukraine, with more classically Marxist/materialist venues (like Jacobin) showing a greater interest in Ishchenko’s more distanced and “objective” analyses, and more “intersectional” venues (which shade over into the “liberal-left”) presenting a broader range of voices, many of them passionately engaged in on-the-ground defensive struggles, or at the very least impassioned in their pleas on behalf of Ukraine. Proving this point would require a thorough analysis of western responses, which is outside the purview of this article, so this remains a hunch rather than a demonstrated fact.

Whatever the virtues of a materialist explanation of either Russian motivations to invade, Russian motivations to continue the invasion (to near genocidal levels), or Ukrainian motivations to resist it and fight for national self-determination, cultural explanations — focusing on collective identity, psychology (and psychoanalysis), histories of colonialism (and imperialism) and anti-colonial (and -imperial) resistance, and visions of possible futures (in Europe, against Europe, outside of Europe, etc.) — are essential components of a more complete understanding.

And in a world of multiple (rival) imperialisms — imperialisms of fossil capital commingled with intersectional injustices (of race, gender, class, coloniality, and more) self-organizing into what increasingly looks like a global “war ecology” — teasing out the “universal potentials” in struggles for self-determination is a complex matter. Articulating those potentials is an open-ended project for which we have yet to develop adequate interpretive models.

Further reading: Russia

Further reading: Ukraine



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