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.

Chomsky on Ukraine

6 03 2022

I have great admiration for Noam Chomsky’s intelligence and for his perseverance in presenting a detailed and informed counterpoint to extant media narratives on international affairs. But that perseverance can become bullishness when it insists upon a version of history that is one-sided and out of dialogue with so many other scholars and historians who study these things.

Chomsky’s recent analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a case in point. It repeats things that are considered myths or at least half-truths by many who study Ukraine — such as the “Nato expansion” trope, which ignores the reasons why post-Soviet and East European states wanted the protection of NATO, and which in the case of Ukraine become painfully obvious. This becomes a debate over the tail wagging the dog: did Russia invade because NATO expanded? Or did NATO expand because of the fear of Russia invading? And even if the first, is NATO’s expansion really a threat to Russia, or just to Putin’s regime, which fears it (and Ukraine’s capacity for democracy) because it fears democracy?

These arguments should be made with more than just a quick nod to those experiencing the current situation on the ground. One of Chomsky’s Ukrainian translators, author and novelist Artem Chapeye, has penned a brief and somewhat angry response to Chomsky here; Taras Bilous’s piece that I shared recently is another response to this line of thought.

Aside from the fact that Chomsky’s analysis feels a million miles away from the reality that Ukrainians (and those who know them and support them) are feeling, there is something deeper in his writing that I would like to address here. This is that Chomsky writes as if we were still stuck in a (just barely) post Cold War world where the US and its allies are globally hegemonic, and in which they are ultimately responsible for all global ills — which they elicit either through their own acts (e.g., Vietnam, the Iraq War, and countless other misguided episodes) or as “blowback” via the agents that arise in response to them (from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and Isis). This is an “anti-imperialism” that recognizes only one empire across the entirety of the last 150 years or so (and it’s not even Hardt and Negri’s globalized “Empire,” which marked an important advance on this kind of thinking).  

The problem is that the world has moved on. The US is no longer the world’s uncontested global hegemon. It may try to be, but it is not likely to recover that status, especially in the wake of Trump and the social divisions that brought the country close to the point of civil war. Its economic superiority has declined, and with global geopolitics being what they are in the late fossil fuel (becoming early green-energy) era, the economic world is clearly more scrambled and multipolar.

Militarily, the US is still the world’s strongest nation, but it relies for its strength on its allies, who are not as reliable as they used to be. China’s and India’s militaries are larger by personnel, and Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal.

The US’s cultural “superiority” — which, as Gramsci showed, is essential to hegemony — has also declined: Hollywood (with its selling of the “American dream”) is hardly all-powerful, popular music comes from everywhere today, and US-led cultural liberalism finds itself entangled in struggles against variations of a cultural conservatism that are arguably, if somewhat inchoately, finding common cause across “civilizational” boundaries. Russia’s information warfare on this front has indeed been powerful in many countries.

Where the US does still maintain a clear edge is with its tech giants — Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, et al. — but these are less American than they are global, and they compete within a global mix in which Chinese (Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, et al), Russian (Yandex, VK), and other companies carve out large swaths of territory, just as China’s Belt and Road Initiative is doing that for infrastructure.

Chomsky and others writing in the classic “anti-imperialist” mode are aware of these things, but they tend to relegate them to the sidelines. This means that they miss the ways in which new alliances, and potential new hegemonies, are emerging. The fact that the populations of China and India alone account for nearly 3 of the world’s 8 billion people, that their economies now make up nearly one quarter of the world’s, and that their relationship to the US-led world order is somewhat uncertain, tells us that things are shifting. The Global South is no longer a pawn and a battlefield for the superpowers of the North. Europe’s role in all of this is also complex and becoming more autonomous from the US’s.

And if the bigger picture is more complicated than Chomsky’s view suggests, the view from the ground is all the more so. Chapeye writes:

“I beg you to listen to the local voices here on the ground, not some sages sitting at the center of global power. Please start your analysis with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess moves.”

Analyzing geopolitics is essential to understanding the world, but it is also a tricky game if it becomes disconnected from the ethics of real-world events. Chomsky follows the political-economic realist’s playbook: What are the material and strategic interests of the powers that be? How have they come to be this way? But that misses the possibilities of the moment and ignores the agency and desire of everyday people, whose actions can reshape the possibilities for tomorrow’s world.

Hall, Bilous: responding to one-sided leftism

28 02 2022

When the world’s pre-eminent Marxist economic geographer, David Harvey, chimes in on an important current topic, many listen. (Some estimate Harvey to be the world’s pre-eminent living geographer, period.) His work from the 1970s to the 1990s was deeply insightful and is still considered required reading, even as it elicited rounds of critique (from feminists, postcolonialists, humanistic geographers, and others) that are still read alongside it.

To his critics, Harvey has always overemphasized the “relations of production” at the expense of cultural questions, and his “Remarks on Recent Events in the [sic] Ukraine” from a few days ago should surprise no one. Its assessment of post cold war geopolitics is partially accurate but one-sided, and a little oblivious to the multipolar disorder of the twenty-first century world. For any scholar familiar with Ukraine or (actual) Ukrainians, Harvey’s “view from space” (the kind of “god’s-eye view” that Donna Haraway had critiqued many years ago) appears somewhat clueless on the ground.

Political economist Derek Hall has written an astute rebuttal titled “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Response to David Harvey.” I recommend it to anyone struggling to reconcile an analysis of capitalist geopolitics with the current situation.

Among the pieces Hall cites is Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous’s “A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv,” which trenchantly critiques the “campism” of many western leftists, whose hyperfocus on “NATO expansion” not only blinds them to the reasons why so many post-Soviet and East European countries clamored for NATO accession after the fall of the USSR, but is generally inadequate to understanding the entangled complexities of today’s world.

The invasion of Ukraine and Ukrainians’ resistance to it presents about as clear a struggle between evil — in the form of a neo-imperialist and in many ways fascist Russian state — and the kind of spirited humanity that political activists of any stripe should recognize as worthy and admirable, or in other words, good. And its human costs are tragic.

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