Ukraine and the Struggle to be Human

Ukranian-born Marxist humanist, Raya Dunayevskaya (1910–1987)

Over the span of several weeks, I have published a number of articles on the war in Ukraine and with reference to Ukraine in several others dealing with structural racism, fascism and the American political scene. I have forcefully supported Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia’s fully-fledged mass-casualty invasion (it’s not an ‘operation’), stage-managed by its ethnonationalist and imperialist leader, ex-KGB agent and billionaire, Vladimir Putin. I have asserted, hammer and tongs, that Ukraine does not want to become one of China’s most popular client states but wants its future to be contemporaneous with that of Europe. Ukrainians don’t want their subjectivities to be spawned out of the ill-favoured dogmatist culture of neo-Stalinism (where Ukrainians are stripped of their identity and told they are really Russians and that their country does not actually exist), nor do they wish to be absorbed into Putin’s pretence of Russian traditionalism, as epitomised by the philosophy of an Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin or, indeed, Steven Bannon.

Putin’s geopolitical ambitions can be summarised by the words of Paul Mason: ‘to disorganise the West: split NATO, split the EU, split the populations of Western democracies, repudiate all international treaty obligations so that in place of a global order there is a three-player power game between Russia, China and the US (where every four years Putin gets to choose the US president).’ Ukraine’s entire centuries-long independence struggle has been intensified by a streak of Putin’s paranoia since he senses it to be part of a foreign plot driven by calculating Western imperialists seeking to sabotage Mother Russia.

I have condemned Russia’s increasingly indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas that have resulted in a wave of refugees fleeing the fighting and traumatised those left behind, who have been tasked with dragging from the rubble disfigured and dismembered bodies, their melted and gelatinous flesh reminiscent of the horrors of World War II. Whether or not years of Kremlin propaganda have set the stage for atrocities on a scale not witnessed in Europe since the days of Stalin and Hitler remains to be seen. Yes, I have castigated the United States and NATO for their double standards and for NATO moving eastward after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, yes, I have characterised this war as a US proxy war.

But this conflict is being waged as a defensive war on the part of Ukraine. It is also a hybrid war. One feature of hybrid warfare is that its absence of direct armed conflict makes it difficult to discern whether or not you are even in a theatre of war because it does not have to involve lethal kinetic force. In a hybrid war, ‘kinetic’ warfare is combined with ‘non-kinetic’ warfare (i.e., electronic and electromagnetic warfare, information technology as warfare, psychological warfare, disinformation, exploiting ongoing political debates, economic and policy bribery). To claim that Putin merely wants to protect Mother Russia and save Ukraine from itself by eradicating all the Nazis goose-stepping in union along the boulevards to the tune of ‘Erika’ and through the fields of sunflower and maize is a Potemkin village justification for an imperialist invasion. Yes, there are some neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, just as there are in the United States and Europe, and this fact is worthy of condemnation. Nobody denies that. And, true, Zelenskyy is a neoliberal politician who has worked with Ukrainian oligarchs. But bourgeois democracies, as flawed as they are, are better than no democracies. My support for Ukraine’s anarchist/Antifa units, its pro-democracy volunteers, trade unionists and socialists have been duly noted. Ukraine’s pro-democracy movements and those in former Soviet territory terrify Putin. They threaten his hold on totalitarian power. A bevy of self-professed Marxists of various stripes, with more than an air of certainty about them, have, after canvassing some of my work, asked: How can you be a Marxist and not support Putin? Is it because you believe Marx was a humanist? He may have been, they exclaim, but only as a young man. It is important not to forget the extent to which propaganda plays a central role in this war.

Humanism, which has various iterations, is centred on a common principle, human value. Human value, as used by Marx, was not a term he saw as a bourgeois expression but played a role in his critique of political economy that included feudalism and capitalism. Yes, there were some forms of humanism that Marx criticised, but, because Marx recognised man as a social being, the essence of Marx’s work was to oppose all those social relations and forces that dehumanised individuals and groups, including women, the LGBTQ community and people of colour. Seamus Connolly writes:

On the Left, today, many look askance at humanism. They ridicule it, lambast it and castigate it. And, in large swathes, they outlaw it and anyone who wishes to speak of it, neglecting in the process the diverse histories and multifarious traditions of humanism as living systems of thought and practice. Humanism has been many things, it is true: a fig-leaf justification for colonialism; a bourgeois denial of class politics; the belief in an abstract ‘Man’ that squats outside of the world and that denies women, people of colour, lesbians, gays, intersex and disabled peoples the agency and affirmation of their particularity. But humanism has also been the very basis of the attacks on these abominations: from Marx to Dunayevskaya, Césaire to Fanon, Fromm to Kosík, and more. So, what, then, is humanism, considered in relation to Marxism, and why do we profess it?

It’s important to acknowledge that liberal humanism is different from bourgeois humanism is different from Marxist humanism. But human value is central to all such humanisms. And, as Connolly correctly notes, such value is extended to non-human animals and the environment. Marx’s humanism is famously identified with his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which forms the basis of the philosophy and practice of Marxist-Humanism. Connolly writes:

In seeking to demystify the alienation and fetishism of capitalist life, Marx raised the flag of human value as opposed to value in the sense of exchange value, that is to say, value in its economic sense. Through his analysis of value in political economy – which despite what is claimed by many Marxists today, is clearly inaugurated in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts – Marx unmasks the inversion whereby human value is subsumed by the pursuit of economic value that dictates the labour process as a whole. Under capitalism, as Marx tells us in the Grundrisse, ‘[t]he social character of activities, as well as the social form of the product, and the share of individuals in production … appears as something alien and objective.’ In Capital, too, it is clear that Marx is concerned with unmasking the inversion of subject and object: the objectification of human capacity in alienated labour that denies the need for universality and also for the free association of that labour.

Marx’s concern with social being is intimately bound up with the struggle for freedom. Connolly identifies Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and Giorgio Agamben with today’s cadres of anti-humanist thinkers. What is most striking in this context is the work of Althusser, which, as Connolly writes, ‘shoehorns Marx’s project into a markedly objectivist “science of history” in which individuals are reduced to mere “supports” (Träger) in the division of labour in the different levels of the structure. This fantastic corruption of Marx, in which history is rendered as a process without a subject, reduces the subjectivity of individuals (all individuals) to that which is constructed in ideology: which is to say, hardly a subjectivity at all!’

This is at variance with Marx’s emphasis on the self-activity of the proletariat – the ‘revolutionary compulsions’ that are activated in the struggle for freedom. Alyssa Adamson describes the importance of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Hegelian-Marxist framework (which was the source of her critique of both Stalinism and Maoism) in countering Althusser’s anti-humanist portrayal of Marx:

Contra anti-humanist Louis Althusser, who popularised the idea of a fundamental epistemological break within Marx’s oeuvre between the young humanist Marx of the 1844 manuscripts and the Marx of Capital, Dunayevskaya reads Marx’s theory of alienation as the foundation of his ruthless critique of everything existing through the totality of his works. As she writes in Marxism and Freedom, ‘Marx’s primary theory is a theory of what he first called ‘alienated labour’ then ‘abstract’ or ‘value-producing’ labour. Capitalism begins when the capacity to labor becomes a commodity.… Hence, it is more correct to call the Marxist theory of capital not a labour theory of value, but a value theory of labour.

Central to the functioning of a philosophy of praxis is an emphasis on human agency, subjectivity and the unity of idealism and materialism in relation to the contextual specificity of the political forces at play in any particular place and at any particular historical moment since, as Dunayevskaya points out, humanists need to be able to ‘rise to the challenge of the times.’ Marxist humanists are concerned with enlarging our human capacity to understand the larger world-historical struggles of the times and participate in them, steered by the dialectical movement of theory and practice and the transcendence of mental and manual labour. That is the context in which we need to frame the current war in Ukraine: how can the struggle against Russian tyranny be fervidly animated by a vision of freedom and guided (horizontally) by a philosophy of praxis exemplified by the writings of Marx, a philosophy forged in the crucible of everyday struggle?

What motivates the ‘masses in motion’ (as Dunayevskaya might characterise it) in Ukraine and across the world, as part of the struggle for freedom, democracy and human dignity that yet belongs to the wider dialectics of self and social transformation? Connolly declares that ‘[i]n the manner of the true humanism that Marx himself exhibited, Marxist-Humanism is a praxis wholly open to the world, to what is happening wherever it is happening and is thereby global in a genuine sense.’ He further advocates for ‘the power of Marxist-Humanism to grasp the human expression of the need for universality, and to account for the articulation of this need in the present, as what promises to be a turning point in the battles against our dehumanised reality.’

The question of humanism should not be seen in a negative light as somehow jettisoning science, as if it were a naïve and aerosol approach to human liberation that the mature Marx readily abandoned when he saw the error of his ways. Rather, humanism is the lifeblood of Marx’s protagonistic agency, an agency that was always in dialectical conversation with his understanding of the world and of the possibilities for a non-alienated existence, an existence that is worth struggling for, that is worth fighting for. It is in this spirit that we can stand in solidarity with our comrades in Ukraine who are not just fighting for the right to build their future but fighting for the right to have a future.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Ukraine and the Struggle to be Human. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.