War fact sheet: rejoinder to Medea Benjamin

15 08 2023

Having just returned from a year in Berlin to my quasi-home in Vermont, I was struck by how quickly the Russo-Ukrainian war has come home with me. Twenty-five minutes up the road from the place where we are summering (before moving into a new home for this coming year) is the home of Bread and Puppet Theatre, a long-time countercultural institution known and loved by many of my fellow Vermonters. Just today, the New York Times published a lovely piece on Bread and Puppet and its founder, 89-year-old puppeteer and breadmaker Peter Schumann.

I have long loved the artistry and aesthetic of Bread and Puppet, as well as the way they have carved out a space in Vermont’s civic life while regularly updating their countercultural roots with their creative critique of militarism, capitalism, and the powers-that-be. They have stood true to their principles for close to six decades now, and certainly since moving to Vermont in the early 1970s. So I was saddened and disconcerted to hear about Peter Schumann’s take on the Russo-Ukrainian war, and that their current summer pageant refers to Ukraine as a “puppet state.” For the millions of Ukrainians fighting for their lives and for their homeland, that characterization is not only deeply offensive; it boggles the mind. You don’t expect pacifist puppeteers to be expressing support for genocide.

This week they are hosting speaker CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin, whose views on the war exemplify this kind of U.S.-blaming and Russia apologism, or “Westsplaining” as East Europeans call it. (Other Leftists call them “Tankies,” in the long tradition of justifying Soviet tanks in Budapest and Prague, and now Russian tanks in Kyiv.)

I’ve prepared a “fact sheet” offering rejoinders to Benjamin’s and her companions’ arguments, which are more or less shared by Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Jeffrey Sachs, Werner Wintersteiner, and other old-school anti-U.S. leftist “Westsplainers.” I plan to bring copies of it with me to Bread & Puppet, and am sharing it here for anyone who finds it useful. You can read it and download it here (click on this sentence).

For some of the ties between these people and organizations that whitewash China, Iran, and Russia, among others, in favor of blanket condemnation of the U.S., see this article in New Lines Magazine. As I’ve argued before (and restated in point 12 of the fact sheet), for anti-imperialism to be genuine, it must be anti-all-imperialisms and not a one-sided anti-my-imperialism-but-fine-with-all-the-others.

I’ll also be bringing the poster shared below, created by New Hampshire artist Bill Brown on promptings I sent him a few days ago. Both the fact sheet and the poster can be shared if you find them useful.

(This post was amended slightly, and a lightly modified poster substituted for the original one, on August 18.)

Another peace is possible

9 06 2023

When one country invades another, with clear intent to take over the other’s territory and end its existence as an independent nation, you don’t ask “both sides” to lay down their arms and negotiate. You ask the invader to leave. This is especially the case when it’s clear thаt the invading force has no intent to leave, and that if the victim country lays down its arms, it will get slaughtered.

At least that is the position taken, rightfully (in my view), by most Ukrainians.

The International Summit for Peace in Ukraine (program here), scheduled to take place in Vienna this weekend, includes elements that are essential to global peace-building, which is a responsibility not only of governments, but of civil society organizations. Co-organizer Werner Wintersteiner’s statement, for instance, which accompanies the proposal for a “Vienna Appeal for Peace in Ukraine,” includes many points that defenders of Ukraine’s freedom should be able to agree with. In this it should be welcomed.

But the event also includes elements that are detrimental to the building of peace, because those elements attempt to blame “both sides” — that is, either Ukraine or the U.S. and NATO, as much as they blame Russia — and to prevent Ukrainians from getting the support they need to protect themselves. Recent comments by Jeffrey Sachs, Noam Chomsky, Medea Benjamin, and others involved, for all their acknowledgments of Ukrainian suffering, repeat Russian talking points that at the very least obfuscate, and at worst try to justify, Russia’s responsibility. In this, the Vienna peace summit should be criticized. (Here’s one version of such a critique.)

The latest development is that activists working to support Ukraine have succeeded in convincing the Austrian Trade Union Federation, or ÖGB, to cancel the conference venue just two days before the conference was scheduled to take place. Summit organizers are angry about this — they accuse the ÖGB of censorship — and are seeking an alternative venue.

How does one make sense of this conflict over how to approach peace in Ukraine?

There are two criteria that are essential to answering this: the question of representation (whose perspectives are represented, and whose aren’t?), and the question of appeasement (whose interests are best served by what’s being proposed?).

Read the rest of this entry »

The anti-Americanist Left

20 03 2023

Re-reading Stephen Velychenko’s 2014 piece on the “Strange Case of Foreign Pro-Kremlin Radical Leftists,” I’m struck by the continuing relevance of his characterization. The following makes for a completely appropriate description of the part of today’s Left that could be considered both Russophilic and Ukrainophobic (I’ve added some punctuation for readability):

Since 1991, pro-Kremlin leftists have been either been silent on or supportive of regimes in China, North Africa, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe, the Congo, fundamentalist Islamists, and Arab Baathists. Now Putin’s government, and pro-Russian neo-Nazi and fascist parties can be added to the list. Activists, workers, indigenous minorities and groups or persons with grievances against, opposed to or miserable due to the above listed governments or groups are ignored or condemned. Alongside the Russophilism, neo-Soviet sympathies, material interest, delusion and ignorance that can account for this double standard among pro-Kremlin leftists, is the anti-Americanism that has overshadowed anti-imperialism in their thinking. [. . .]

Anti-Americanism is a set of beliefs that classifies imperialism as a singular, specific[ally] American rather than global phenomenon, that discounts or ignores competition between imperialists and intra-capitalist rivalries. Anti-Americanism bears little relation to Lenin’s concept of rival imperialist ruling classes divided within and engaged in an unending struggle with one another that dominated classes groups and nations might exploit. Instead, anti-Americanists restrict “imperialism” to the objectives of a corporate-controlled US government that supposedly dominates a bloc without fundamental intra ruling-class differences. Such a perspective leads believers to see the world as a stage for a duel between a capitalist USA and NATO on one side, and capitalist Russia on the other — with possible allies like India, Brazil, and China. On this manichaen stage, Ukraine must remain Russian so the US does not get stronger. Middle or working class Ukrainians who see benefit in the EU, the massive support for the Maidan, a long tradition of Ukrainian anti-colonialism, and the possibility of future support from Ukrainian leftists in the fight against neoliberal capitalism within the EU, have no place on this stage. Nor does the possibility that Ukrainians might prefer the EU to the Russian variant of neoliberal capitalism because experience has shown them the latter is more destructive and rapacious than the former. [. . .]

Such anti-Americanism has little in common with Marx or Trotsky. It has much in common with people who have nothing to do with socialism or marxism like Carl Schmitt, Aleksandr Glaziev, Vladimir Putin and Aleksander Dugin.

The only point which I’m not sure of is whether this part of the Left even considers Russia to be capitalist, at least by their definition of capitalism as necessarily imperialist (and imperialism as necessarily American).

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.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Feminist Initiative: Right to Resist

20 07 2022

The Feminist Initiative Group’s “Right to Resist” Manifesto takes issue with the Feminist Resistance Against War manifesto, arguing that the latter denies Ukrainian women the right to resist.

We, feminists from Ukraine, call on feminists around the world to stand in solidarity with the resistance movement of the Ukrainian people against the predatory, imperialist war unleashed by the Russian Federation. War narratives often portray women* as victims. However, in reality, women* also play a key role in resistance movements, both at the frontline and on the home front: from Algeria to Vietnam, from Syria to Palestine, from Kurdistan to Ukraine.

Its signatories, numbering in the hundreds, call “for an informed assessment of a specific situation instead of abstract geopolitical analysis which ignores the historical, social and political context,” and argue that “Russian aggression undermines the achievements of Ukrainian feminists in the struggle against political and social oppression.”

It’s worth noting that the Feminist Resistance Against War, which was published on March 17, has been signed by 151 signatories as of today. Not a single one of them is based in Ukraine. In contrast, the “Right to Resist” manifesto, as of July 20, is signed by 629 people and 56 organizations, of which at least a few hundred appear to be Ukrainian (judging by names or affiliations).  

The entire manifesto can be read on Spil’ne/Commons.

Dutchak: 10 frustrations

20 07 2022

The excellent Ukrainian left journal Spil’ne/Commons has shared Oksana Dutchak’s “10 Terrible Leftist Arguments against Ukrainian Resistance.” They perfectly capture a lot of the frustrations I’ve heard expressed by Ukrainian leftist activists and scholars engaging with their western and “internationalist” colleagues.

They are recommended reading for all left-leaning westerners. (There is, of course, no implication that right-wing westerners do any better. In the current situation, that idea would be easy to disprove.)

Bojcun: on a new peace strategy

27 03 2022

Jacobin has published an excellent interview with social historian and political economist Marko Bojcun, which covers the history of left-wing social and political movements in Ukraine, the specificities of national and regional identity (including in Donbas), and the prospects for peace today.

In case Jacobin‘s left-wing readership is unfamiliar with what happened to a generation of Ukrainian socialists, some of the details Bojcun provides are worth repeating:

“Ukrainian identity as a choice for self-determination, which grew stronger in the 1920s, in conditions that allowed Ukrainians to enter into political life, was brutally brought to an end in the 1930s and driven underground with the Stalinist purges and the terror. The large majority of all Ukrainian political and cultural leaders were eliminated: 140 out of 142 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine in 1933 ended up in the camps and prisons or executed outright. There was a wipeout of the intelligentsia during the famine of 1932–33, which broke the back of the peasantry as an autonomous political force.”

As for the prospects for peace, Bojcun notes:

“Russia has twenty-one military bases and installations outside of its own borders, eighteen of them in independent ex-Soviet states. These are instruments of the Kremlin as a gendarme of the entire region. Ukraine finds itself caught between two regional military powers protecting their respective regional integration projects. […]

“Ukraine finds itself caught between two regional military powers protecting their respective regional integration projects. […] These two regional integration projects have been expanding for a long time now; it’s now come to a confrontation. […]

“We have to begin with first principles. That firstly means each country has a right to defend itself, but it should withdraw all of its military forces that are outside its own country if it has placed them there. Secondly, it means that we need to disarm, to reduce and eliminate offensive weapons. […] We need to talk about creating a cooperative environment and linking up people, that is to say, civic and social and human rights movements, productive collectives and labor organizations across borders, to build up mutual trust and support rather than relying entirely on governments. […]

“Right now, however, Ukrainians cannot take part in discussions about a durable future peace. That must come later, at war’s end. They are demanding an immediate end to the aggression against them, desperately asking for help from those who say they stand alongside them. […] Our task is to stay with them, build and maintain our links with them, and to demand that Putin’s regime stops the killing. The ties we make with them will lay foundations for in-depth discussions and decisions later about the long-term peace.”

Kravchuk: Cancel Ukraine’s debt

13 03 2022

Jacobin has also interviewed Commons‘s managing editor and economist Oleksandr Kravchuk, who argues forcefully that western countries hoping to aid Ukraine should begin by canceling its foreign debt. An online petition has been started to make this case more broadly known.

While some on the liberal left (rightfully) lament the fact that Ukrainian refugees are treated better than refugees from Africa or the Middle East, Kravchuk reminds readers that Ukraine is “the northern part of the Global South and the poorest country in Europe, fighting for this place with Moldova.” That doesn’t excuse the evident racial discrimination, but putting it in economic terms at least makes the case more complex than the trope that sees Ukrainians as worthy of support because they are “middle-class like us,” “drive the same cars,” and so on.

In a 2015 article in Spil’ne/Commons, Kravchuk had provided a detailed history of Ukraine’s reliance on external debt, including the mechanisms by which debt dependency encouraged social spending cuts and other austerity measures. As Kravchuk notes in the Jacobin interview, “Sooner or later the war will end,” and the requirement of debt servicing will only mean a massive drain on an economy overstretched by the necessity to rebuild both the bombed infrastructure and the countless lives disrupted and displaced by the wreckage.

Artiukh: Beyond western leftist misconceptions

13 03 2022

Jacobin magazine has published an interview with Ukrainian anthropologist Volodymyr Artiukh, titled “A Ukrainian Socialist Explains Why the Russian Invasion Shouldn’t Have Been a Surprise.” It comes hot on the heels of a piece Artyukh wrote for Ukrainian left magazine Spil’ne/Commons (see “US-splaining is not enough: To the western left, on your and our mistakes“). The Jacobin article is rewarding to see because the U.S. left’s engagement with, or even acknowledgment of the existence of, Ukrainian left-wing intellectuals has been spotty at best, nonexistent at worst.

In his Commons piece, Artiukh argues that for all the useful reading on capitalism and western hegemony the western left has provided, its reflexive desire to cast the current invasion in familiar terms has resulted in failure — an incapacity to understand what, it turns out was, “impossible” for it “to imagine.”

Having faced ‘the impossible to imagine,’ I see how the Western left is doing what it has been doing the best: analysing the American neo-imperialism, the expansion of NATO. It is not enough anymore as it does not explain the world that is emerging from the ruins of Donbas and Kharkiv’s main square. The world is not exhaustively described as shaped by or reacting upon the actions of the US. It has gained dynamics of its own, and the US and Europe is in reactive mode in many areas. You explain the distant causes instead of noticing the emergent trends. [. . .]

I have been reading everything written and said on the left about last year’s escalating conflict between the US, Russia, and Ukraine. Most of it was terribly off, much worse than many mainstream explanations. Its predictive power was nil. [. . .]

Russia has become an autonomous agent, its actions are determined by its own internal political dynamics, and the consequences of its actions are now contrary to western interests. Russia shapes the world around, imposes its own rules the way the US has been doing, albeit through other means. The sense of derealization that many commentators feel – ‘this is not happening with us’ – comes from the fact that the Russian warring elites are able to impose their delusions, transform them into the facts on the ground, make others accept them despite their will. These delusions are no longer determined by the US or Europe, they are not a reaction, they are creation. [. . .]

You face a challenge of reacting to a war that is not waged by your countries.”

Responding to Jacobin‘s questions about Russia’s motives, Artiukh notes:

I think we need to take a break analyzing the US hegemony, because we know pretty much everything about it already, and very little about how Russia came to be like this beyond this cliché caricature that American scholars paint of Putin and Russia.

Some parts of the Left also needs to abandon the idea that Russia is somehow a continuation of the Soviet Union, or that it is the underdog in the imperialist fight that needs to be supported. We need to pay closer attention to what Russian scholars have done. We need to think more deeply about how the Kremlin guys picture themselves, what they imagine is happening around them and what may motivate them beyond what the West imagines is rational. [. . .]

If you listen to Russia’s officials and read their ideological manifestos, if you read people who interpret Russian foreign policy decision makers in the Kremlin — they see these apocalyptic events coming. They see the world changing to the core. They see that we live in the new world and Russia needs to find its place otherwise it will be eaten by these predators, by China or the US. They’re reasoning along the lines of “we need to act now, it’s now or never, there is time and it will either be glorious or we perish.” They also hope that they will join China in a sort of alliance. And they already need to mark their territory. The logic is: “There’s seven bad years ahead, but then we’ll have our hundred years of empire.”

The articles can be read here:



Ukraine Solidarity Campaign: “No to partition!”

10 03 2022

Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, which organizes solidarity with independent socialists and trade unionists in Ukraine, has published a statement penned by Marko Bojcun, author of Toward a Political Economy of Ukraine and The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine, 1897-1918. It addresses the looming possibility that Russia may negotiate peace in exchange for the parts of Ukraine in its current military control.

The full statement, “No to partition! Yes to reunification!”, can be read here.

Skip to toolbar