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.)

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The Ukrainian left and the war

15 11 2022

Спільне/Commons has gathered some voices from the Ukrainian left on what they have been doing during the Russian invasion. You can read them in their forum on Resistance and Solidarity: Ukrainian Leftists in the War with Russia.

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.”

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.

Anarchist perspectives: Ukraine as “an island of freedom”

7 03 2022

Since UKR-TAZ was partly inspired by the idea of a “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” which comes from anarcho-surrealist writer Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson), and since anarchism has some history in Ukrainian political thought, identified especially with early twentieth century revolutionary Nestor Makhno, it’s fair for me to share an anarchist perspective on the current situation in Ukraine.

War and Anarchists: Anti-Authoritarian Perspectives in Ukraine,” written in February by an anonymous collective of Ukrainian anti-authoritarian leftists (and published by the autonomists at Crimethinc), provides a detailed history of anarchist theory and practice in Ukraine’s last decade. The following paragraph summarizes the authors’ position on the current resistance to Russian invasion and occupation:

Anarchists in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia mostly support Ukrainian independence directly or implicitly. This is because, even with all the national hysteria, corruption, and a large number of Nazis, compared to Russia and the countries controlled by it, Ukraine looks like an island of freedom. This country retains such “unique phenomena” in the post-Soviet region as the replaceability of the president, a parliament that has more than nominal power, and the right to peaceful assembly; in some cases, factoring in additional attention from society, the courts sometimes even function according to their professed protocol. To say that this is preferable to the situation in Russia is not to say anything new. As Bakunin wrote, “We are firmly convinced that the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy.”

[. . .]

Is it worth it to fight the Russian troops in the case of an invasion? We believe that the answer is yes. The options that Ukrainian anarchists are considering at the present moment include joining the armed forces of Ukraine, engaging in territorial defense, partisanship, and volunteering.

Ukraine is now at the forefront of the struggle against Russian imperialism.

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.

Nihilist vs. Kagarlitsky

22 04 2015

Russophone leftists provide a “take-down” of prominent Russian left-wing intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky, translated here.  Kagarlitsky has been an influential voice on Western Left understandings of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Nihilist arose from the ashes of Left Affair (Liva Sprava).

Maidan & the Left: “Libertarian in spirit”

16 06 2014

In a report on the recent conference “The Left and the Maidan,” held in Kyiv in April, Russian trade unionist Kirill Buketov (of the Global Labour Institute and the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers) provides a detailed overview of the role of the political left in the Maidan movement.

Buketov argues that while the Maidan cannot be adequately described as either left-wing or right-wing in its political character — according to polls, “93% of the Maidan participants were distant from politics” and only 7% “had a political position and belonged to one political group or another” — in spirit it was “left-wing” and “libertarian.”

“Driven by protest against corruption and tyranny, against humiliation and oppression, by masses of people who felt their dignity had been offended by their rulers’ lies,”

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