Behind the Campist Curtain
I wish to begin with a series of questions, the answers to which will be obvious to any red-blooded leftist. Does the United States harbour an insatiable appetite for perpetual warfare? Does it suffer from a fatal attraction to conflicts that history has etched in agonising strokes? Is the US the greatest danger to peace on this planet? Such questions unravel with a visceral and resounding ‘yes!’ and Iraq stands as a symbolic tableau of this tragic saga. Through the years, I have traced the tendrils of American imperialist wars, deciphering the rapacious compulsion among the ‘masters of war’ to conjure adversaries, with Russia and China being the latest spectres on the grand stage of history marking the evils of capitalism and the class struggle opposing it.
In the theatre of recent political intrigue, the 2020 elections bore witness to a morality play, where the alleged Russian election interference met the piercing gaze of journalist Matt Taibbi’s revelations in the ‘Twitter Files.’ Applauding Taibbi’s journalistic prowess, we can unveil the orchestrated panic and manufactured crisis, revealing the contours of a conspiracy theory.
The puppeteers of the high-tech weapons industry, their CEOs and impassive stockholders, together with the beneficiaries in the echelons of US government contractors, continue to revel in opulence derived from the crimson currency of global conflicts. War lobbyists breathe life into the body politic, and to spurn their financial embrace becomes a dance on the precipice of perceived anti-patriotism. Thus, the narrative echoes across the generations as an ancestral refrain. The omnipotent US dollar, a coveted standard in the world’s economic prizes, contends for supremacy with the tacit understanding that its dethroning would render the American empire asunder, consigned to the annals where past empires have crumbled into the dust of oblivion. It is this delicate equilibrium that persists, casting shadows upon the world stage, earning the United States the dubious laurel as one of the gravest threats to global peace.
Yet, despite its ominous reputation, does every action of the United States succumb to the gravity of indefensibility? Should the US support for Ukraine be peremptorily dismissed by the left, because the US war machine and NATO benefit from a Ukrainian victory from a geopolitical and military standpoint?
Let us for a moment suspend our judgment and contemplate the perspectives espoused by Bill Fletcher and colleagues concerning the war in Ukraine:
It’s a basic principle of anti-imperialist politics that ‘our main enemy is at home,’ meaning, in our case, US imperialism and its allies, with all the monstrous crimes against humanity perpetrated by US policies, in our name. However, that has never meant seeing ‘the other side,’ e.g., today’s powers of China or Russia as the main US imperial rivals, as ‘progressive’ in any sense or viewing their crimes as a lesser evil or simply a response to US‘ provocation.’
Dan La Botz observes that, among those who support left-wing ideologies and who define themselves as ‘anti-imperialists,’ there are those who, paradoxically, rally behind oppressive regimes disguised as Communist or Socialist, often turning a blind eye to the proclivity of those regimes to trample on the rights of national minorities, stifle democratic movements, and quash the struggles of workers yearning for a better existence. According to La Botz, those aligning themselves with such authoritarian governments bear the epithets of ‘tankies,’ reminiscent of the Communists who endorsed the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Alternatively, they’re labelled as ‘campists,’ subscribing to the simplistic belief that the world can be neatly cleaved into imperialist and anti-imperialist factions. More recently, they’ve earned the moniker of ‘authoritarian leftists,’ a paradoxical alignment in which purported leftists champion oppressive regimes. Such individuals, often self-identifying as ‘anti-imperialists,’ merit the designation of ‘pseudo-anti-imperialists.’ This term encapsulates their inconsistency in opposing all forms of imperialism. For the sake of brevity, La Botz uses the term ‘campist,’ although he admits that the word ‘pseudo-anti-imperialist’ offers a more accurate portrayal.
La Botz is correct in his vehement condemnation of campism. He advocates instead for a world emancipated from oppression and exploitation. His vision as a democratic socialist extends beyond political dogma, seeking the creation of a society where every individual possesses a voice and vote in shaping their destiny. Civil rights and liberties – embracing freedom of religion, assembly, speech, and press, and liberation from racial and gender subjugation – are indispensable in a socialist crusade. These principles, according to La Botz, not only underpin the struggle for socialism but also lay the groundwork for an authentic socialist society. He further notes that the genesis of internationalism and anti-imperialism intertwine with a commitment to humanistic ideals, guiding us toward a future where humanity collectively triumphs over oppression and inequality.
La Botz writes that it was in the crimson crucible of the Russian Revolution that the concept known today as ‘campism’ was forged, its genesis rooted in the tumultuous history of Soviet Russia. The Bolshevik Party, under the helm of Vladimir Lenin, orchestrated a revolution in October 1917, bequeathing power to the soviets – councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants. This nascent workers’ government garnered global admiration, becoming a beacon for those who envisioned a socialist utopia. Yet, the utopian dreams were soon clouded by the storm of civil wars, foreign invasions, and economic isolation. In the throes of ‘war communism’ during the early 1920s, the power of the workers dwindled, the once-vibrant soviets withering and labour unions weakening. The Bolsheviks, morphing into the Communist Party, crushed political opposition, transforming Soviet Russia into a one-party state.
As recounted by La Botz, the mid-1920s witnessed Joseph Stalin’s ominous ascent, orchestrating a counterrevolution that culminated in dictatorial rule by 1929. La Botz reminds us that Stalin’s regime, characterised by brutal purges and the collectivisation of agriculture, unfolded as a dark saga of oppression and exploitation. When the new Communist ruling class took over, the Russian Revolution’s once-revered internationalism eroded, replaced by a singular allegiance to the Soviet Union and its expansionist pursuits. La Botz emphasises how Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939 and subsequent actions strained Communist Party solidarity. Yet unwavering support persisted but in different guises. The end of World War II saw the Soviet Union’s Red Army ‘liberating’ Eastern European nations while simultaneously subjecting them to Soviet dominance, expanding the realm of the ‘workers’ homeland.’ The Soviet Union and its Communist camp metamorphosed into a perceived anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist alternative to capitalism. The original tenets of international working-class solidarity gave way to a steadfast, cult-like loyalty to the Communist camp. Even as Stalin’s atrocities were laid bare, and the USSR exhibited imperialistic tendencies, supporters clung to their allegiance, birthing the first iteration of campism. This ideological metamorphosis transcended objections and realities, creating a narrative where an iron-clad loyalty to the state eclipsed critique, and the Communist camp emerged as a bastion against capitalism, even in the face of significant internal contradictions.
La Botz goes on to discuss Maoism and Third Worldism as further campist iterations of an alternative to the neoliberal capitalism of the West. In the late 20th century, the roots of contemporary campism took hold with the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989–1992). Faced with the demise of the Soviet Communist camp, some turned to Third Worldist theory as an alternative. This theory advocated supporting the Global South, portraying the struggle as oppressed nations of colour against the imperialistic powers of the wealthier white Global North.
The campists asserted a stark dichotomy, urging alignment with governments governing the proletarian-peasant world, and emphasising race and nationality. White capitalist powers, deemed inherently imperialist, were contrasted with nations of colour, seen as inherently anti-imperialist. This oversimplified perspective ignored internal class divisions. Many campists, rooted in Maoist or Third Worldist ideologies, prioritised opposition to imperialism above all else. The problem, La Botz notes, is that they downplayed or completely dismissed concerns about the political, economic, and social systems of so-called anti-imperialist nations, refusing to scrutinise their authoritarianism or acknowledge their asymmetrical relations of power and exploitation – in short, their exploitation of workers.
Again, this is campist logic, primarily influenced by Maoist principles, which deemed US imperialism as the primary contradiction, overshadowing all other contradictions and finally leading to truncated and muted discussions of democracy, economic reforms, or social justice within the so-called anti-imperialist nations. Critically, as La Botz points out, campists defended regimes like China, Russia, Syria, and Iran, overlooking the authoritarianism and capitalist structures at the gates of those regimes. The oversimplified narrative led to the unfortunate belief that any criticism of these nations aligned with US imperialism. This position did not do justice to the complexity of international relations to imperialism.
Socialist internationalists argue for a non-binary outlook, a more granular and nuanced approach to the withering of the state, grounded in a Marxist humanism, recognising that opposing one form of imperialism doesn’t necessitate supporting another. La Botz notes importantly that the complexities of conflicts in Syria and Nicaragua highlight how different forces, with distinct motivations, may be lumped together under an egregiously misguided anti-imperialist banner.
Authentic Anti-Imperialism Begins with Internationalism
According to La Botz, true anti-imperialism is rooted in internationalism and supports movements for democracy, workers’ rights and social justice globally. It acknowledges the need to critique oppressive regimes within the broader struggle against imperialism, fostering a genuine commitment to liberation and solidarity.
La Botz writes:
Anti-imperialism should begin with internationalism, with support for movements of working people around the world. Opposition to imperialism requires strengthening the movements of workers, peasants, the urban poor, as well as the ruined lower-middle classes throughout the world. We should see the struggle against imperialism as based on the many democratic social movements, labour movements, and, in some cases, socialist movements in myriad countries living under governments that call themselves capitalist or socialist. We as socialists should attempt to support these movements – whether in Argentina or Venezuela, in Iran or Algeria, in Japan or China, in France or the Ukraine [sic] in Germany or Russia – while also helping first in theory and then in practice to bring them together in one international movement for liberation.
One of the main arguments against supporting Ukraine is that it is a country riven by corruption. This was one of the criticisms used against supporting Ukraine during the first few months of Putin’s invasion and is still in wide circulation today. Kuzio responds:
While corruption in Russia was ignored, corruption in Ukraine was exaggerated and presented as a factor in making Ukraine into a weak state. Corruption in Ukraine had no bearing on the stability and national unity of the state or Zelenskyy’s patriotic commitment to defending it. Meanwhile, Americans pointing their fingers at corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere might want to order on Amazon the great book by Casey Michel entitled American Kleptocracy: How the US Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History.
Ukraine and Vietnam
Stephen Shalom and Dan La Botz have pointed out that, during the Vietnam War, one reason used by the left to support Vietnam’s right to defend itself against the United States and receive outside weapons was that ‘the former was a leftist regime and the latter a neoliberal one.’ Shalom and La Botz further note the following:
It’s true that many leftists in the Vietnam antiwar movement considered the DRV and the NLF to embody their Marxist, socialist ideals. Others had no illusions about Ho Chi Minh’s authoritarianism, including his training by Stalin and Mao and his brutal treatment of Vietnamese Trotskyists and anarchists. But despite differences regarding the nature of the regime, the antiwar movement as a whole believed that Vietnam had the right to defend itself from big-power aggression. The movement stood in solidarity with Vietnam’s struggle for independence, even if it was critical of its government. In general, this has been the position of the left over the years. The struggles for independence and self-determination of many colonies, semi-colonies, and former colonies were supported by the left, even though those struggles were not led by leftists.
A second argument used by the US left during the Vietnam War was that ‘the left’s primary obligation is to fight the wrongdoing of its own government.’ It uses this same argument today as to why the US should not be supporting Ukraine since it sees its prime directive as opposing US imperialism at home. Shalom and La Botz respond:
But while, of course, US leftists should always oppose US imperialism, that doesn’t mean that they should define themselves in opposition to whatever position the US government takes in every case. For example, when the US government – for its own reasons, of course – ultimately pushed for the Netherlands to end its colonial rule in Indonesia in 1949, the US left didn’t and shouldn’t have opposed Washington’s position. And who would deny support to the Kurdish movement in Syria against Turkish attack simply because the US government too supports the Kurds? As for the Russian left, surely internationalism cannot mean that it should work to bring the Russian invasion of Ukraine to heel, while the US left should work to deny weapons to the Ukrainian victims of the Russian invasion.
Shalom and La Botz recount that since the conclusion of World War II, the left, both within the United States and internationally, has consistently supported the struggles of those residing in colonies and neo-colonies. However, this solidarity has not been extended to Ukraine today, primarily due to a lack of information and understanding, despite Ukraine being as much a former colony as others.
The authors also relate that in 1991, Ukrainian citizens emphatically voted for independence from the Soviet Union. With 32 million registered voters (84 per cent of the electorate) participating, over 90 per cent cast their ballots in favour of independence. This sentiment was widespread across the entire country, including Donetsk and Luhansk, except for Crimea (54 per cent) and Sebastopol City (57 per cent). Although Ukrainian nationalism may have waned over the ensuing decades due to economic hardships, it experienced a resurgence in 2014 following Vladimir Putin’s aggressions and has intensified further since Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Ukraine and Palestine
How does the ideology of campism further manifest itself in either endorsing or opposing Ukraine in its conflict with Russia? A notable segment of the American left appears to adopt a stance asserting the right of Palestinians to defend their territory while simultaneously denying a similar entitlement to Ukraine. This prohibition is ostensibly rooted in the perception that Ukrainian resistance is synonymous with NATO expansionism, characterising the war in Ukraine as a mere extension of a US proxy war. Consequently, the valour exhibited by Ukrainians in their resistance is perceived as futile, with Russia deemed destined to triumph in a protracted war of attrition, rendering the sacrifice of Ukrainian lives meaningless.
Notably, when Russia initiated its incursion into Ukraine, a considerable number of Israelis expressed sympathy and admiration for the heroism demonstrated by Ukrainian resistance. The irony, however, is palpable as these same individuals, while rallying in support of Ukraine, seemingly failed to recognise a glaring historical parallel with their own role as occupiers of Palestinian lands. This oversight, though not unexpected, remains a poignant commentary on the complexities of geopolitical allegiances.
It has long been evident that a faction of left-leaning ‘campists’ consistently criticises US support for Ukraine while concurrently endorsing Palestinian resistance against IDF forces. This group holds the IDF and the Israeli government accountable for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and accuses them of international war crimes. An apparent contradiction arises when these very same individuals readily condemn Israeli expansionism in the West Bank but refrain from criticising Russian imperial expansionism, which threatens to annex the entirety of Ukraine into Russia. This intricate web of geopolitical perspectives raises questions about the selectivity of critique and support, revealing the intricate dance of ideology and alliances in the realm of international conflicts.
The stance on Ukraine in the context of the campism described here reveals a glaring inconsistency among many on the US left. While some left factions advocate for the right of Palestinians to defend their homeland, as they should, they paradoxically deny the same right to Ukrainians. This prohibition is often rationalised by framing Ukrainian resistance as a means of furthering NATO expansionism, reducing the resistance of Ukrainians to serving as pawns of the US and NATO. The US is seen as some macabre puppet master pulling all the strings as far as Ukrainian political and military resistance is concerned. The double standard is evident as they hold Israel accountable for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and international war crimes but refrain from criticising Russian imperial expansionism and Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Because the US backs Israel, viewed by much of the US left as a cruel apartheid state, these groups on the left staunchly refuse to support Ukraine because that country is backed by the US. This does not mean that these campist left factions are in unanimous support of Russia, but many do wish for Russia to win on the battlefield since they see this as a victory against US imperialism. I can attest to this personally from my own advocacy for supporting Ukraine.
What Can Be Done
The US public still supports helping Ukraine by a slim majority. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:
Majorities of Americans continue to support providing economic assistance (61%) and sending additional arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government (63%), down slightly from a year ago. About half of Republicans agree.
A narrow majority of Americans say that the $43 billion in weapons, equipment and training that the United States has provided to Ukraine has been worth the cost (53% vs. 45% not worth the cost). Six in 10 Republicans say it has not been worth it.
As in November 2022, about half the public thinks the United States should support Ukraine for as long as it takes, even if it means higher prices for US households (47%). The other half prefers that the United States encourage Ukraine to negotiate even if it loses territory (49%). A majority of Republicans say that the United States should encourage negotiation (66%).
Support for Israel and Ukraine by the US public has created a distorted lens through which geopolitical issues surrounding Ukraine and Palestine are viewed. Mohammed Mhawish writes:
Indeed, for the past week, newspapers, websites and social media have been filled with stories of Ukrainian ‘heroism and resistance’ – stories about soldiers blowing up bridges to delay the approach of Russian tanks and sacrificing themselves in the process, civilians attacking armed vehicles with whatever they have at hand, common people receiving weapons training and digging trenches. If any of these stories took place in Palestine rather than Ukraine, they would, of course, not be perceived as acts of heroism – they would be classified and condemned as ‘terror’.
Clearly, many on the left have failed to see demands for a ‘Free Ukraine’ to be comparable to Palestinian demands for freedom from Israeli oppression. And, tragically, many of the left factions who do not support Ukraine also refuse to denounce Hamas’ attack of October 7.
With all the talk about the illegality of occupations, settler colonialism and the right for sovereign citizens to engage in armed resistance, this narrative of resistance was never applied to Palestine. Mhawish reports:
After Russians entered Ukrainian territory, claiming that Ukraine was never a real country and the land was always Russian, all the Western leaders, media organisations and institutions started to passionately talk about ‘the illegality of occupations’, ‘occupied peoples’ right to armed resistance’, ‘the importance of sovereignty and national autonomy’ – arguments and concepts that they never seriously put forward in defence of Palestinian people and their decades-long struggle for freedom….You cannot think of a ‘historical parallel’ only because you view our struggle not as resistance but as ‘terrorism.’ Terrorism and bravery, it seems, are interchangeable. We fight our oppressors, and we get branded terrorists. Ukrainians do the same, and they get applauded for their courage.
This brings us to another vexing question, which I have addressed in previous articles. Resistance can easily be confused with terrorism. The recent October 7 attacks by Hamas do not constitute, in my mind, a legitimate act of resistance. Butchering families and their children, including infants, kidnapping and murdering civilians is clearly an act of terrorism. It is more redolent of the actions of Nazi death squads known as the Einsatzgruppen during World War II. The attack by Hamas was a terror attack of the most heinous kind. And yes, there is a case to be made that the levelling of schools, hospitals and civilian housing constitutes a war crime. And so does carpet bombing during World War II, the use of poison gas, and torture. The list goes on and on. Charles S. Maier writes, ‘Jus in bello remains at best an asymptotic guideline, never fully to be achieved, often to be hypocritically violated.’
In the swirling vortex of geopolitical discourse, a curious divide emerges among the leftists – a tapestry of perspectives that paints the canvas of their convictions in bold, angry strokes. There exists a faction, hesitant in their solidarity with Ukraine, their trepidation rooted in the bleak prophecy of a protracted conflict morphing into a catastrophic saga, who regards the war as just another unfolding tragedy in the history of US imperialism, a relentless odyssey that will ultimately see Ukraine, weary and bloodied, bowing before the juggernaut of Russia’s overwhelming ground forces, casualties numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Some of these dissenting voices weave a narrative of pragmatic concern for the Ukrainian people, a sombre prediction of their inevitable submission to the brute force of superior military might. It’s a perspective coloured by the spectre of prolonged suffering, a grim portrait that cautions against blind support for a cause seemingly destined for despair.
Yet, in this symphony of discord, other leftists find themselves ensnared in the web of Russian propaganda – a surreal dance where shadows of neo-Nazism and fascism loom large over the Ukrainian landscape. Through the lens of misinformation, they see a nation overrun, not by the desperate cries for freedom, but by the alleged spectres of extremism. Their convictions, entwined with the threads of deception, paint a distorted tableau, obscuring the genuine struggle for autonomy with the brushstrokes of a fabricated conviction that any country that receives military assistance from the US must be denied that same assistance because it only advances the goals of US imperialism and the further imposition of NATO.
There also emerges a more eccentric refrain, resonating with the intellectual cadence of figures like Jordan Peterson. In this peculiar group, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not merely a strategic move on the geopolitical chessboard but a pre-emptive strike against the encroachment of the West’s ‘woke’ culture. Peterson, the mad maestro of contrarian thought, orchestrates a symphony where the clash of armies is but a crescendo in Putin’s anxiety-ridden composition.
According to Jordan Peterson’s cultural perspective, Putin’s aggression is not merely territorial; it’s a desperate defence against the perceived infiltration of gender-neutral pronouns, trans rights, and the rainbow hues of gay pride parades. The argument, though captivating in its audacity, stretches the boundaries of credulity. To attribute a full-scale invasion to the anxiety over pronouns is to dance on the precipice of absurdity (as Peterson is wont to do), even if one were to entertain the notion that linguistic nuances hold the power to shape international conflicts.
Christian nationalists are also frequently sympathetic to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, considering Putin’s anti-LGBTQQIP2SA stance, his macho persona, his professed Christianity and his persistent attacks on the West’s ‘woke’ culture wars. He purports to fear that wokeness will reach the Russian steppe, not only penetrating as far as Siberia, but further into the young minds of Russian youth. Apparently, Jordan avers, Putin’s aggression can be attributed to gay pride parades, trans rights and gender-neutral pronouns. While we can easily see how the spectre of an independent and democratic Ukraine deeply threatens Putin, it’s quite a stretch to believe pronouns are the cause of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, even if we are preposterous enough to believe that gender pronouns are representative of Western cultural decline, as does Peterson.
Amidst these divergent narratives, Bill Fletcher and colleagues advocate for a steadfast stance – one that refuses to sever the ties of solidarity with colonial peoples in their battles against imperialism. It’s an acknowledgment that within the tumult of Ukraine’s struggle, factions fight not only against external aggression but also within the complex terrain of ideological diversity. Zelensky’s government, for all its aspirations for democracy, remains under the critical gaze of those who recognise the undercurrents of neoliberal economic policies shaping its oligarchic foundations.
In this cacophony of perspectives, the left finds itself grappling with the nuanced dance of ideologies, geopolitical intricacies, and the quest for a principled stance that can successfully navigate the turbulent waters of global solidarity. There are those on the left who have not fallen into campism yet are still against support for Ukraine because they see the war as going on for years, as a war of attrition, a war that will only become more disastrous for the Ukrainian people because they will eventually succumb to Russia’s superior number of ground troops after hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides. The stand that these leftists take is a result of what they feel is best for Ukraine. But, at the same time, they are denying Ukraine the right to win a victory for their sovereignty on the battlefield. And they are not accounting for what the Ukrainians themselves desire. No real peace deal can be achieved if Russia is occupying Ukrainian lands. And finally, there are some on the left who have succumbed to Russian propaganda and do believe Ukraine is overrun by neo-Nazis and fascists. While it is true that Ukraine’s past is haunted by the spectre of fascism and neo-Nazism during World War II, it is deeply mistaken to believe that the country is now overrun by neo-Nazis. Much has changed since the days of World War II.
According to Taras Kuzio,
[t]he war in Ukraine pits a vertically structured Russia with a subject population against a horizontally structured Ukraine composed of citizens. During Vladimir Putin’s 22 years ruling Russia as president and prime minister, he has re-Sovietised the country, fanned militarism, promoted a quasi-religious cult of the Great Patriotic War and Joseph Stalin, and destroyed civil society and volunteer groups. In Ukraine, the opposite has taken place in each of these areas. Ukraine has undergone de-Sovietisation since the late 1980s and decommunisation since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, has denigrated Stalin as a tyrant, switched from military celebration of the Great Patriotic War to commemoration of World War II, and built a dynamic civil society and volunteer movement. Ukrainians have organised three popular revolutions since 1990 to demand their rights; Russia’s last revolution was over a hundred years ago.
The Politics of Aggression
Dan La Botz has deftly laid out the contours of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In the grand theatre of his imperialist manoeuvring, Putin’s annexation of Crimea unfolded as a sinister overture, setting the stage for a harrowing conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Putin employed a playbook akin to the one wielded in Crimea.
In Donetsk and Luhansk, La Botz notes how Putin fostered the creation of puppet separatist entities, akin to marionettes dancing to Moscow’s tune. Russian-led militias joined with regular Russian military units to choreograph the capture of government buildings, mirroring the script played out in Crimea. A masquerade of democracy ensued, with phony referendums staged in mid-May, echoing the deceptive echoes of a theatrical performance.
Putin, consumed by his own myth of a celestial Russian force, envisioned a cosmic conquest that would reunite the echoes of the Tsarist Empire. In his mind, the Slavic people would emerge as actors in a new Eurasian narrative, countering the script written by the West. Thus, on February 24, 2022, he unleashed his army upon Ukraine, anticipating a triumphal entry into Kyiv, where his soldiers would be hailed as liberators. Yet, the stage was not set for such a grand finale; the resilient Ukrainians resisted, shattering Putin’s cosmic illusions.
La Botz underscores how Putin, forced to reassess his strategy, resorted to the classical elements of war, unleashing the thunder of artillery and a tempest of airplanes upon Ukraine. A grim overture unfolded, with hospitals, schools, power plants, and residential neighbourhoods bearing the brunt of this orchestrated onslaught, claiming thousands of Ukrainian lives. By the autumn of 2022, however, it became evident that while he could inflict widespread destruction upon Ukraine, defeating it proved a formidable task. The eastern front now echoes with the footsteps of this inundating force, a manifestation of Putin’s desperate bid to script a finale that eludes his grasp.
Ukraine is clearly trying its best to break free from its colonial past. I agree with Bill Fletcher and colleagues that we should not break with colonial peoples in their struggles against imperialism. There are socialist and progressive factions fighting for democracy inside and outside of Ukraine, although Zelensky’s government is admittedly run on neoliberal economic policy.
As Fletcher and colleagues have warned, since 2014, Russia has unleashed a relentless onslaught of violence on its erstwhile dominion, Ukraine, orchestrating the audacious annexation of Crimea, fomenting separatist insurrections in Donetsk and Luhansk, and, with ominous intent, initiating an all-encompassing war on February 24, 2022. This brazen act of aggression, marked by overt annexationist fervour and a trajectory reminiscent of genocide, has compelled the valiant Ukrainian populace to stand in fierce defiance, battling not merely for survival but for the very essence of their nation. The Russian campaign has plunged into the abyss of atrocity, marked by the brutal massacre of civilian enclaves and the heinous abduction of thousands of innocent children.
In a historical continuum spanning over a century, revolutionary democratic socialists have singled themselves out by their ardently championed support of nations asserting their self-determination. In the crucible of anti-colonial wars, they have steadfastly aligned themselves with the struggles of Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, and myriad African nations. Revolutionary democratic socialists have, Fletcher and colleagues maintain, always upheld the inherent right of these nations to procure arms from any available source in their fervent pursuit of national sovereignty against imperialistic forces.
Fletcher and colleagues have also pointed out that this convergence of objectives between imperial powers and socialists is not unprecedented. Amidst the crucible of World War II, a Hitlerian maelstrom that gripped nations like France, Italy, and Poland, individuals across the political spectrum, including many on the left, rose defiantly against the Nazi menace. In their quest for freedom, they sought and, to some extent, acquired the means to resist the Nazi menace, symbolising a powerful and resonant chapter where the interests of imperial powers and socialist ideals briefly intertwined. And, while I believe that the war in Ukraine is like a proxy war in that the US has strategic interests in weakening Ukraine, it is nonetheless important to make a distinction, as Fletcher and colleagues make, between a proxy war and a war of national self-determination as follows:
While Ukraine has been receiving military weapons from the United States and NATO countries, no one has forced the Ukrainians to fight this war, nor could they. The Ukrainians fight for their country of their own free will and at the direction of their elected leadership. This is not a proxy war between great powers but rather a war of national self-determination by an imperfect and neoliberal democracy against an imperialist state. Our socialist principles in support of national self-determination and democracy everywhere should place us on the side of Ukraine.
The Kremlin Maga-Narratives
Taras Kuzio astutely observes the predicament faced by Western scholars, think tank experts, and journalists when confronted with Russia’s military aggression in both 2014 and 2022. Some inadvertently succumbed to the siren call of echoing Kremlin narratives that negate Ukraine’s very existence – an artful stratagem employed by Russia over centuries through a mosaic of direct wars and hybrid methods. The orchestration of Russia’s campaign to efface Ukraine from the global cartography of sovereign nations encompasses a medley of tactics, including the appropriation of Ukraine’s historical narrative, the assertion by Putin that Ukrainian lands, including Crimea, are inherently ‘historically Russian,’ the utilisation of academic orientalism, and the reprimanding of Ukrainians for their nationalistic inclinations. Kuzio delves further into the labyrinth of Western historiography, unveiling its allegiance to a nineteenth-century imperial framework that, through an imperialist lens, casts Ukraine as a historical aberration, emerging in tandem with Russia and Belarus from the tapestry of ‘Kyiv Rus.’ This perspective deliberately diminishes Ukraine’s import within the broader mosaic of Russian historical evolution.
Russian historians, amplifying the notion of Ukraine as intruders laying claim to ‘historically Russian land,’ found resonance among their political counterparts who adamantly refused to acknowledge Ukraine’s sovereign independence. This perspective, in turn, cast its shadow upon Western scholars and policymakers for an extended duration. The European Union, prior to the transformative Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 and the ensuing invasions, grappled with the proclivity to subsume Ukraine under the broader rubric of Russia, an enduring proclivity that echoes through time, according to Kuzio.
Moreover, Western historical lenses often bestowed upon Crimea an inherent Russianness, exerting considerable pressure on Ukrainian leaders to concede its perpetual loss. Zelenskyy’s bold initiative to re-evaluate the Minsk agreements disrupted this narrative, beckoning towards a more expansive comprehension of Crimea’s history that embraces its six centuries under the stewardship of the Crimean Tatars.
Within academic circles, institutions devoted to the former communist world, predominantly steered by Russian scholars who wield considerable influence in post-Soviet studies, act as sentinels of interpretation, discerning gatekeepers, arbiters of what finds its place in the scholarly realm and what is conveniently excluded. This unique dynamic, where Russian experts claim dominion over fourteen former Soviet republics without scrutiny, starkly contrasts with the scepticism routinely applied to claims of expertise in other geopolitical domains, according to Kuzio.
In the realm of media coverage, Kuzio notes that Western journalists, often situated in Moscow, unwittingly perpetuate the narrative that Moscow-based reporters possess unmatched expertise on the entire expanse of the former USSR. This, in turn, reinforces the sway of Western scholars of Russia who, in scrutinising Ukraine through Moscow’s prism, predominantly lean on Russian sources for their analyses.
One of the Kremlin’s semantic webs is to embrace the distorted conflation of the term ‘nationalists’ with that of ‘Nazis.’ This oversimplified lens fails to capture the intricate political landscape of Ukraine, where the moniker ‘nationalist’ is borne by those advocating for independence and EU integration while dissociating themselves from the shadow of the Russian Empire and the so-called ‘Russian World.’
For Kuzio, these distortions have begotten a litany of stereotypes, exaggerations, and misconceptions regarding Ukraine, encapsulated in Western scholars’ assessments of Russia’s purported ability to swiftly conquer Kyiv – a narrative that woefully underestimates Ukraine’s resilience, unity, and the prowess of its armed forces, now supplied with Western weaponry. The failure to discern Ukraine’s unique trajectory perpetuates this misunderstanding, as Western scholars inadvertently overlook the pivotal role played by civil society and popular uprisings in shaping Ukraine’s formidable strength. (For instance, Dan La Botz argues that the Maiden or Dignity Revolution was, in effect, a national democratic revolution, not a movement created by Western powers and Ukrainian Nazis, as some have maintained.)
To remedy these challenges, Kuzio wisely advocates for a profound re-evaluation within the realm of post-Soviet studies and Eurasian affairs. He proposes a strategic relocation of contemporary Ukrainian studies from the confines of Eurasian departments to the embrace of European studies. This transformative shift, he hopes, has the potential to nurture a more autonomous perspective, liberating scholars from antiquated imperial frameworks and fostering a more authentic understanding of Ukraine’s history and distinct identity. But will Kuzio’s efforts, should they come to fruition, be able to reverse the fate of Ukraine should the US fail to continue its support, which is growing more likely if Trump takes the US presidency in 2024?
At the time of this writing the war is not going well for Ukraine. Republicans in Washington are holding up necessary funding for the war effort. If Trump wins the 2024 presidential elections, all funds could stop. Who knows, under Trump, they may even be transferred to Putin. Meanwhile, in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin apparently is looking more confident than ever. Kuzio reports ‘that he was in a particularly messianic mood as he addressed the World Russian People’s Council. Putin proclaimed that Ukrainians and Belarusians are not independent but are, in fact, part of the ‘great Russian nation,’ he declared. According to Putin, an admirer of Stalin, these two nations have been artificially divided from Russia by the ‘separatist illusions’ of the 1991 Soviet collapse.’ Of course, Stalin’s famous predecessor had a very different view of what constitutes a nation:
Lenin did not agree with Stalin’s rigid definition of a nation as a ‘historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture,’ which would have ruled out the rights of many peoples, most notably the Jews’. Lenin put together his principles:
The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.
According to Žižek, ‘Lenin remained faithful to this position to the end: immediately after the October Revolution, when Rosa Luxembourg argued that small nations should be given full sovereignty only if progressive forces would predominate in the new state, Lenin was in favour of an unconditional right to secede. In his last struggle against Stalin’s project for a centralised Soviet Union, Lenin again advocated the unconditional right of small nations to secede (in this case, Georgia was at stake), insisting on the full sovereignty of the national entities that composed the Soviet state – no wonder that, on September 27, 1922, in a letter to the Politburo, Stalin accused Lenin of “national liberalism.”’
In today’s blood-soaked geopolitical theatre, Vladimir Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s right to exist echoes like a discordant symphony, a dissonance carried by the sound of jackboots marching across the international stage, plagued by the gravity of history’s impending judgement on their actions. The denial of Ukraine’s right to exist is a narrative akin to denying a river its right to flow, an attempt to redirect the currents of history that have shaped Ukraine’s identity over centuries. Putin’s words resonate not just as a denial of political sovereignty but as an assault on the very essence of a people’s right to chart their own destiny. Revolutionary, democratic socialists recognise this pattern all too well. So do those whose relatives were victims of the Holodomor.
The metaphorical landscape painted by Putin’s denial is of a reality refracted by vainglorious schemes populated by a malice that grows more intense the longer Putin is denied his ignoble victory, where borders become mere illusions, and national identity is relegated to the whims of a taciturn autocrat. It is akin to denying the sun its right to rise, an attempt to cast Ukraine into the shadows of obscurity.
In the face of Putin’s denial of Ukrainian nationhood, Ukraine stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of a people who refuse to be erased from the map of nations. As Tupac Shakur might put it, Ukraine is like a rose breaking through concrete. Its existence defies the authoritarian gusts that seek to extinguish its flame. In the grand theatre of nations, Putin’s denial of Ukrainian sovereignty may echo only temporarily, but the indomitable spirit of Ukraine persists as a powerful counterpoint, a reminder that the right to exist is an inalienable birthright, not subject to the capricious winds of geopolitical manoeuvring.
Tupac Shakur’s poem about the rose breaking through concrete resonates with the indomitable spirit that characterises Ukraine’s journey. The rose breaking through concrete is a potent metaphor for Ukraine’s ability to endure, adapt, and emerge stronger despite the formidable obstacles in its path. The story of Ukraine becomes a testament to the enduring power of the human spirit when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.
The story is not yet over. Ukraine stands to be tested amid flagging support from its allies. The greatest fear of Ukraine’s military chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, is prolonged trench warfare against the Russian troops with three times the number of men. He describes Russia as ‘‘a feudal state where the cheapest resource is human life. And, for us, … the most expensive thing we have is our people.’
It is crucial that we continue our support for Ukraine. We can support Ukraine and still stand against the imperialist imperatives of the US. We can stand with Ukraine and be critical of Zelensky’s neo-liberal government. The view that helping Ukraine is subjecting Ukraine to the domination of the US and turning it into a pawn of NATO’s Western imperialism is not a valid reason to watch Russia literally erase Ukraine, its people and its culture from the face of the earth. Bill Fletcher and colleagues write:
As consistent rather than selective anti-imperialists, we fully understand that US/NATO military aid to Ukraine is based on the interests of the Western powers, not on supporting ‘democracy against authoritarianism’ or other pretences. The crimes of US imperialism, the dominant global power – in Latin America, in full support of Israel’s war on the Palestinian people and complicity with the most brutal Middle Eastern dictatorships like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and so much more – continue unabated. None of this negates Ukraine’s right to receive military aid from anywhere it can.
In the ongoing conflict, we find ourselves engaged not only in a battle against Russian imperialist aggression but also in steadfast resistance to the encroachment of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. Presently, those aligned with the left ardently champion Ukrainian democracy, acknowledging its limitations and imperfections, even amidst its evolving repressive tendencies. Our advocacy is particularly directed towards supporting the valiant efforts of workers, their unions, feminists, and various left-leaning factions in Ukraine. These advocates find themselves engaged in a dual struggle, combating not only Putin’s autocracy but, as La Botz argues, also resisting Volodymyr Zelensky’s neoliberal policies
Stepping back to perceive the broader panorama and contemplating the enduring ramifications, this conflict transcends immediate geopolitical dynamics. At its core lies the pivotal question of augmenting international solidarity among the toiling masses and the oppressed, united in their collective struggle against the forces of capitalism and imperialism. It is imperative, therefore, that we persist in standing with Ukraine, recognising that our allegiance is driven by a profound commitment to the principles of democracy, human rights, and the broader pursuit of justice.
In the face of the intricate interplay of political forces, our support extends beyond the immediate circumstances, acknowledging the nuanced landscape where the struggle for democracy intertwines with the resistance against oppressive policies, both domestic and foreign. As we navigate these complexities, and there are many, our unwavering solidarity remains a testament to our shared belief in the enduring values that transcend national borders and political affiliations.
In conclusion, the imperative to stand with Ukraine endures, fuelled by a profound recognition that this conflict is emblematic of a larger, global endeavour to foster unity among the disenfranchised and to challenge the hegemony of oppressive systems. It is a call to action resonating with the timeless principles of justice, equality, and the unwavering commitment to safeguarding the rights and aspirations of all those who strive for a more just and equitable world. Just as the left consistently supported earlier struggles for colonial liberation, it should align with the current liberation movement in Ukraine. As Shalom and La Botz rightfully assert, in the 1960s and 1970s, the left demanded, ‘Out Now!’ in the context of Vietnam. Similarly, today, we should direct this slogan to Putin: ‘Out Now!’
The Challenge for the Socialist Left
The post-Maidan administration in Kyiv is unmistakably challenging Russian expansionism by aligning itself with the American sphere of influence and embracing the currents of US-led global capitalism. Socialists must take this challenge head-on.
Kyle Bailey sounds a warning, some of which should be heeded in our efforts to address the socialist left’s political agenda. The last thing we want, according to Bailey, is a protracted war of attrition orchestrated by oligarchic-dominated capitalist factions in collaboration with far-right elements and external imperial powers. To advance the socialist left’s political agenda under the present circumstances, asserts Bailey, it is imperative to establish a robust, independent, and nonaligned antiwar movement capable of garnering widespread support for principles such as democracy, diplomacy and disarmament while staunchly opposing further escalations from either side.
While advocating for Ukrainian self-defence as a prerequisite for meaningful negotiations to end the conflict, I am not convinced that this new movement must also reject in toto the notion of a ‘national liberation war.’ As a condition of a peaceful settlement, I do not see how Russian troops can remain on Ukrainian territory and expect a peaceful settlement. At the very least, this is a condition that is up to the Ukrainians to make. But I do agree with Bailey that socialists should champion an alternative vision of decolonisation grounded in independent working-class and socialist principles. This vision, posits Bailey, should prioritise inclusive socioeconomic and political demands over exclusive cultural grievances, recognise Ukrainians for more than their role in a war against Russia, and acknowledge the country’s state socialist past as more than an externally imposed colonial legacy.
Simultaneously, warns Bailey, the socialist movement must challenge the enduring dominance and integrative influence of the American state and capital. Beyond contesting the adverse effects of sanctions and military expenditures on living standards and the climate crisis, it must challenge the vast and destructive influence wielded by the United States and NATO in fuelling imperialist violence globally through arms sales, nuclear proliferation, and both direct and indirect military interventions. Bailey advocates that instead of adopting Washington’s strategy of reinforcing its informal empire through war, the antiwar movement must assert that the interests of Ukrainian (and Russian) workers are best served by tamping down hostilities and engaging in good-faith negotiations to address crises stemming from the collapse of the USSR.
In Bailey’s words, the political project of the socialist left needs
to grapple with the continued dominance and integrative capacity of the American state and capital. Alongside contesting the negative effects of sanctions and military spending on living standards and the climate emergency, this means opposing the immense destructive primacy of the United States and NATO in stoking imperialist violence around the world through weapons sales, nuclear proliferation, and both direct and indirect armed interventions. Whereas Washington’s strategy to reconstitute its informal empire hinges on war rather than peace, the antiwar movement must show that the interests of Ukrainian (and Russian) workers are best served by de-escalating hostilities and negotiations to address crises rooted in the USSR’s disintegration.
Bailey is resolutely clear that should the left fail to reinvigorate this resolute antiwar movement against the ultramilitarised resurgence of the US empire, it risks being relegated to a mere appendage of NATO while witnessing the destruction of Ukraine. Positions that align with the ideological trajectory of US-led imperial power, glorifying Kyiv’s ‘liberation war’ at the expense of other critical dimensions of the conflict, only reinforce the overall escalatory dynamic. Bailey further notes that such reductionist stances mimic the warmongering perspectives within their own ruling classes, concealing Kyiv’s increasing dependence on American power and obscuring the role of Western foreign policy in supporting far-right, authoritarian, and dictatorial regimes, including those in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel.
Bailey cites Olena Lyubchenko, who has illuminated how the growing association of ‘Ukrainianness’ with ‘Europeanness’ is intricately connected to racialised and gendered dynamics within the framework of capitalist state formation. Lyubchenko argues that local elites increasingly perceive Ukraine’s sovereignty and self-determination as intertwined with integration into ‘fortress Europe,’ shaping the construction of the ‘Ukrainian nation’ as inherently ‘white’ and ‘European.’ This Eurocentric ideology not only elevates presumed norms of European identity while punishing deviations but also divorces the concept of self-determination from its historical foundations in internationalism, anti-fascism, and anti-colonialism.
I agree with Lyubchenko that the concepts of self-determination, anti-fascism and anti-colonialism should not be muted when applied to Ukraine’s struggle against Russian imperialism, and, at the same time, I agree with her that the current war potentiates Ukraine denigrating the worth of non-Western countries and their populations. However, we need to be careful that we don’t patronise Ukrainians as if they are not already aware of the consequences of accepting military support from the United States and Europe and joining the European Union. Comments by Žižek, writing in 2014 and responding to the mass protests in Kyiv against the Yanukovich government, deserve to be quoted at length:
The protests were triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision to prioritise relations with Russia over integration into the European Union. Predictably, many anti-imperialist leftists reacted to the news by patronising the Ukrainians: how deluded they are still to idealise Europe, not to be able to see that joining the EU would just make Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe, sooner or later to go the same way as Greece.
In fact, Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the EU. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems.
Žižek points out, with characteristic insight, that there is a ‘Leninist’ reason to support Ukraine. Žižek explains:
[In]… Lenin’s very last writings, long after he renounced the utopia of State and Revolution, he explored the idea of a modest, ‘realistic’ project for Bolshevism.
Because of the economic under-development and cultural backwardness of the Russian masses, he argues, there is no way for Russia to ‘pass directly to socialism’: all that Soviet power can do is to combine the moderate politics of ‘state capitalism’ with the intense cultural education of the peasant masses – not the brainwashing of propaganda, but a patient, gradual imposition of civilised standards.
Facts and figures revealed ‘what a vast amount of urgent spadework we still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary West European civilised country … We must bear in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not yet extricated ourselves,’ he wrote.
Can we think of the Ukrainian protesters’ reference to Europe as a sign that their goal, too, is ‘to reach the standard of an ordinary Western European civilised country’?
In this intricate narrative woven by Žižek, the inquiry into the essence of the ‘Europe’ invoked by Ukrainian protesters unfolds with multifaceted complexity. Its identity eludes reduction to a singular concept, encompassing nationalist and, at times, even fascist dimensions. Etienne Balibar’s notion of égaliberté, the fusion of freedom and equality, emerges as a distinctively European contribution to global political consciousness, albeit one presently undermined by the very institutions and citizens it seeks to inspire. Between these ideological poles, argues Žižek, lies a precarious faith in European liberal-democratic capitalism. He maintains that the Ukrainian protests have, in a very great sense, become a mirror reflecting Europe’s dual nature – embracing both its emancipatory universalism and a shadowy xenophobia.
Initiating this exploration from the shadows, Žižek delves into the unsettling terrain of dark xenophobia. The rise of Ukrainian nationalist sentiments is contextualised within a global context where, in Europe and elsewhere, ethnic and religious fervours are igniting, and Enlightenment values are in retreat. This narrative prompts us to imagine a society that, while ostensibly upholding modern principles of freedom, equality, and universal rights, gradually hollows out these ideals, rendering them mere lip service. Žižek offers the example of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where Orbán has jettisoned democratic ideals and liberal permissiveness in favour of the coercive power of the state, revealed in his anti-immigrant populism and his overt fascism. Žižek writes:
The issue isn’t whether Ukraine is worthy of Europe and good enough to enter the EU but whether today’s Europe can meet the aspirations of the Ukrainians. If Ukraine ends up with a mixture of ethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism, with oligarchs pulling the strings, it will be as European as Russia (or Hungary) is today. (Too little attention is drawn to the role played by the various groups of oligarchs – the ‘pro-Russian’ ones and the ‘pro-western’ ones – in the events in Ukraine.)
Žižek concludes that true emancipatory politics can only emerge when Europe sheds the decaying remnants of its old self. In addressing the task of defining the new Ukraine, Žižek wisely asserts that such renewal will eventually demand a basic solidarity between Ukrainians and Russians, transcending the manipulated conflicts of nationalist passions orchestrated by Eastern and Western oligarchs. Žižek wrote that in 2014. Such a vision is, therefore, conditional on the existential survival of Ukraine. Before we can reignite such a vision, one that transcends the usual dirty geopolitical games, Ukraine must survive the onslaught of Russian imperialist forces.
It is all well and good to discuss the dangers of Eurocentrism within Ukraine and to warn against the danger of Ukraine becoming unwitting pawns of the US empire. First and foremost, however, it is imperative that we support Ukraine in its war with Russia, including providing it with weapons to defend itself and to win its freedom on the battlefield. Until Russian forces retreat behind Ukraine’s borders, there is much work to be done.