More than 100 days have passed since Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine began, which is increasingly resembling a bloody war of attrition and escalating refugee crisis and is very different from the first Russo-Ukrainian conflict in 2014. The abysmal failure of Russia’s initial multidirectional attack from the north, east and south of Ukraine has given way to incremental victories in the Donbas region and the consolidation of a land bridge to Crimea. While ferocious fighting continues and missiles now race toward Kyiv, it’s worthwhile to consider once more some of the ramifications of the war. We can dispense with the accusation that the invasion of Ukraine should be blamed solely on the United States. As Žižek notes,
And now some who call themselves leftists (I wouldn’t) are blaming the West for the fact that US President Joe Biden was right about Putin’s intentions. The argument is well-known: NATO was slowly encircling Russia, fomenting colour revolutions in its near-abroad and ignoring the reasonable fears of a country that had been attacked from the West in the last century. There is, of course, an element of truth here. But saying only this is equivalent to justifying Hitler by blaming the unjust Treaty of Versailles. Worse, it concedes that big powers have the right to spheres of influence, to which all others must submit for the sake of global stability. Putin’s assumption that international relations are a contest of great powers is reflected in his repeated claim that he had no choice but to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
But let’s not let the US off the hook entirely. First, let’s bring into focus the fact that the United States and its allies have, since World War II, initiated brutal wars which have killed two million people or more. These have been direct invasions (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq) or proxy wars (Afghanistan, Nicaragua and El Salvador) undertaken under the pretence of fighting communism or Islamic terrorism, efforts which have sickened left critics like me over the years. US logistical support for brutal dictatorships in Latin America and its training of death squads in the heart of the homeland, such as Fort Benning, Georgia, have turned many against American foreign policy, unmasking it as a pretence to exercise its naked imperial power. For those of us who have worked on behalf of Cuba and Venezuela’s efforts to build socialism, we have scoffed at Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement that we have reached the endpoint of human history – capitalism in its liberal and democratic form. Just as I do not subscribe to the historicist notion that socialism is the inherent and inevitable endpoint of history (since any historical timeline is capable of reversing itself ideologically, and even Benjamin’s Angel of History has been known to tamper with historical inevitability, depending on which way the winds from paradise happened to be blowing), I cannot accept that liberal democratic capitalism has won the playing field.
The arch of social dreaming created by the bend of world history has stopped far short of the socialism that I had hoped for, and still hope for. It remains caught in a time warp that, unlike Rocky Horror’s ‘a jump to the left and then a step to the right’ has been a pelvic thrust into the past, crashing onto Mussolini’s balcony at Sala del Mappamondo overlooking the sunny square of the Piazza Venezia, sending splinters of hate into the forbidding halls of the Reichstag and ending in a graveyard spiral right onto the desk of Donald Trump’s plump post-presidential office above the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago (with apologies to Meat Loaf and Dr Frank N. Furter). In truth, liberal democratic capitalism barely survived the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic collapse of 2007-2008, and is having trouble dragging itself out of the ongoing pandemic, partly as a result of the rising fascism throughout Europe, the transformation of the Republican Party into a fascist party that has disguised itself as right-wing populist under the leadership of Donald Trump, and partly as a result of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia’s stormtroopers which by no means are on a path to inevitable defeat, as much as we would like that to be the case. The authoritarian enemies that Fukuyama thinks are destined for defeat include the leaders of Russia and China and the lesser likes of Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Marine Le Pen of France.
If this is what the end of history and the victory of liberal democratic capitalism looks like, then what do we say to the victims of increasing anti-immigrant racism, what do we say to Black Americans whose voting rights are being scuttled, what do we say to Black Lives Matter activists who are being branded as terrorists, what do we say to the families of schoolchildren who are being slaughtered in their classrooms, to the victims of white supremacist-pro-capitalist-conspiracy-laden-maggoty-MAGA-malcontents who have defined themselves by a perfidious and potted patriotism? I know what we should say: ‘¡Que Se Vayan Todos!’ (‘Out with them all!’). Yes, we support Ukraine in its fight against Russian imperialist aggression, but we do not give in to the ‘ideological fog and gaslighting of Western public opinion behind which a new wave of militarisation is being prepared.’
We do not wish to see a direct clash between Russian and NATO forces. We wish to stop the killing more than we wish to inflict a harsh military defeat on Russia. The American public, caught up in a collective, uncritical fetishization of popular culture, might view this contest through the lens of the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, by the Earp brothers and the Clanton-McLaury gang, with the Russians representing the Clanton-McLaury gang and the Ukrainians representing the heroic Earp brothers. As much as we loved watching Hugh O’Brian, the quick-draw hero of the American West on the 1950s television series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (and the last person John Wayne ever shot dead in the movies), we know that he is not being resurrected from the grave (despite what some QAnon adherents might think) to solve the vicious contest between rival imperialisms. At most, the televised figure of Wyatt Earp – who premiered just a few years after the end of the Korean War – worked to strengthen the view of first time American television viewers that the US always served the interests of victory, peace and justice. Today’s Marvel comic book heroes essentially offer a similar service. As Phil Hearse notes,
In the West, the mountains of racism, violence, misogyny and poverty needed to prop up the status quo are partially exported to the countries of the Global South, economically exploited and brutally bombed and invaded – the victims of imperialism internationally. For huge sections of the population in the West, the reality of imperialist violence and exploitation internationally is hidden away through blinkered news bulletins and the entertainment spectacle. Out of sight, out of mind.
We don’t want to side with NATO in an inter-imperialist war, just as we don’t want to side with Putin’s war machine. We need to be cautious about NATO, even as we support the US sending arms to Ukraine. We can speak about liberalism, but that doesn’t mean left-wing or progressive liberalism. Remember neoliberalism? That’s the kind of democratic liberalism championed by Fukuyama and the right – it’s right-wing pro-American liberalism that he’s talking about – unfettered free markets and constitutional democracy. And as radical teachers, we have spent the last two decades and more writing articles and books about the dangers of neoliberalism, especially as the unchained, unbridled model of deregulated capitalism that quickly turned into austerity capitalism and class decomposition and almost destroyed the public school system.
So, we support the self-determination of Ukraine, but we do not confuse this with support for Western imperialism or its rival imperialisms, Russia and China. The democratic forms of imperialism may be a bit better in some areas than the undemocratic ones, but this in no way should inspire us to label ours as white hat imperialism and the others as black hat imperialism. Hearse writes:
The danger of supporting the ‘democratic’ imperialist powers against the undemocratic ones is twofold. First, it prettifies actually existing liberal capitalism, in which democratic rights are under harsh attack and under pressure from creeping fascism…. Second, backing liberal capitalism ignores its ongoing crisis since the 2007-8 economic collapse, which is heading it rapidly towards new economic slumps which will again strengthen the authoritarian right, as well as – we hope – the radical Left.
And, while critics such as Paul Mason make some very strong points, we cannot afford to abandon a Marxist humanist critique. Because a militarization of Europe and North America is likely to precipitate World War III. Putin is no slur-spewing, vodka gulping drunk when he speaks. He speaks with a rational, pragmatic determination and, if not quite a level-headed clarity, at least a powerful emotive drive to get his point across. We fear his threats if the US sends Ukraine long-range missiles. We fear his threats of retaliatory strikes on Finland if it joins NATO. And we know that Putin is not all bloviation and bluster and jocksniffery. But we should continue to view Ukraine’s fight as a defensive one and support Ukraine with the means to defend itself. Russia does not have to try to obliterate Ukraine. Nobody is holding Putin’s hand to the fire. It is Russia who must refuse to see its fight as one that is against the Nazification of Ukraine because this is a specious accusation that I have addressed in other columns.
While he might ride naked on a unicorn in the minds of many Russians and slay the dragon of American exceptionalism with a fiery sword blessed by Patriarch Kirill, he speaks with a rational, pragmatic, KGB determination. We have been conditioned, after all, to fear the Soviets, and many of us in my generation still view the Russians as Soviets. Nobody cheered more loudly than I when Paul Henderson scored one of the most famous goals in hockey history to give Canada a 6-5 victory against the Soviet Union in the eighth and final game of the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow. (And I admit to watching a rerun of the final game at least once every year, and, if you aren’t a Canadian hockey fan, you probably won’t understand). Back in the day, I could never demonize the Soviets with the same vehemence as many of my fellow Canadians since my father and uncle fought against the Nazis in World War II, and I was all too aware of the crucial importance of the Soviet Union in defeating the Axis powers. I was also reading Trotsky as a young man and considering the merits of socialist internationalism.
Putin’s verbal attacks on western globalization and an American-centric world are all fine and dandy as a bubbling brand of Russo-rhetoric and a species of post-Iron Curtain philippics, but why should a Russian-centric world or a multi-polar world with China and Russia running it like they were co-sharing the helm of the most powerful starship in Starfleet command in a Sino-Russo Federation of Planets be any better? We clearly see its totalitarian side and its disregard for universal human rights. As if Russia isn’t intent on starving Ukraine out of existence! Žižek reports that
As of May 2022, about 25m metric tons of grain are slowly rotting in Odessa, on ships or in silos, since the port is blocked by the Russian navy. ‘The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that millions of people are ‘marching towards starvation’ unless ports in southern Ukraine which have been closed because of the war, are reopened,’ Newsweek reports. Europe now promises to help Ukraine transport the grain by railway and truck – but this is clearly not enough. A step more is needed: a clear demand to open the port for the export of grain, inclusive of sending protective military ships there. It’s not about Ukraine; it’s about the hunger of hundreds of millions in Africa and Asia. Here should the red line be drawn.
Zizek makes a good point when he compares the hypocrisy of the liberal West with that of Russia:
Yes, the liberal west is hypocritical, applying its high standards very selectively. But hypocrisy means you violate the standards you proclaim, and, in this way, you open yourself up to inherent criticism – when we criticize the liberal West, we use its own standards. What Russia is offering is a world without hypocrisy – because it is without global ethical standards, practising just pragmatic ‘respect’ for differences.
He notes that ‘the only way to defend what is worth saving in our liberal tradition is to ruthlessly insist on its universality. The moment we apply double standards, we are no less “pragmatic” than Russia.’
Although current prospects for a negotiated settlement are bleak, a settlement should be our current focus, even if it means armed neutrality status for Ukraine with strong Western security guarantees and provisions for Ukraine to increase its military capabilities to deter future Russian aggression. But it is up to Ukrainians alone to decide the future of their country. Russia’s nationalist semi-dictatorial regime supports numerous organizations of the European right, and there is no gainsaying that democracy worldwide has been weakened as a result. We can only hope that Russia will not deter Ukraine’s democratic aspirations (and hopefully its socialist ones) and that it will pay reparations for the misery and destruction that it has wreaked. Perhaps that is a bit of California dreaming on my part. There is no excuse for celebrating a reinvigorated NATO or militarized Europe as an incentive for a full victory of Ukraine over Russia – a tactic that could, depending on the shifting geopolitical calculus of war – backfire and make Putin even more popular with the Russian people. A negotiated settlement that saves lives must be a priority, without entrenching Russian territorial gains, although it is difficult to imagine that such a settlement is possible in the current stage of the war.
There is no guarantee that a Ukrainian victory will bring us any closer to a socialist alternative to capitalism. Which means we need to listen to Marxist feminists such as Olena Lyubchenko, who has investigated the perils of the Ukrainian nation as it is being remade as white and European by local elites and is being bound by the forces and relations of production ‘through dispossessive IMF loans, energy policies, precarious migrant work opportunities, and remittance dependence.’ Lyubchenko examines the capitalist state in Ukraine, the racializing elements associated with Ukrainian nationalism and the everyday dynamics of social reproduction in Ukraine. She includes Ukraine’s ‘European’ future, ‘and the theatrics of European and North American sympathies against a background of colonial violences elsewhere.’ Further, she notes how ‘Ukraine’s militarization has been intimately linked to austerity measures, effectively displacing the burdens of resisting Russian aggression and preparing the state for a highly unequal process of “Euro-Atlantic” integration onto households and especially women. Militarization, austerity, and aggression in this context act as processes of dispossession and primitive accumulation.’ There is a structural connection, Lyubchenko recognizes, between racialized citizenship and precarity and exclusion for some and security and inclusion for others.’ An important feature of the times that she also acknowledges is the hypocrisy of the West in describing the Ukrainian resistance:
Ukrainian resistance to the Russian military is celebrated as heroic, brave, and democratic, and simultaneously self-determination, national liberation, popular violent resistance elsewhere is not extended the same celebration, instead labelled terrorist, with ‘heroes’ jailed, ‘illegalized,’ and so on. Our responsibility is to ask, ‘why?’ Surely, the circumstances confronting the citizens of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza, Ethiopia are also exceptional? By the end of 2021, the conflict in Yemen alone had caused 377,000 deaths, nearly 70 per cent of them children younger than five. We did not see free toys and food on the Polish border for those women and children, but, rather, tear gas, water cannons, truncheons, police dogs and razor wire.
Lyubchenko will not let us forget that Ukrainian nationalism is a process of a ‘return to Europe’ that is inextricably ‘entangled in historically unequal gendered and racialised relations of global capitalism, as revealed by a global social reproduction perspective.’ This raises important questions about the future of Ukraine’s political project in terms of a Marxist critique of political economy and the structural issues of militarization, nationalism, and austerity. She asks: will Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism ‘translate into building solidarities with anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles and movements in the Global South? This would require rethinking Ukraine as an anti-racist, pluralist, socialist political project from below, and, crucially, a critique of Eurocentrism.’ Lyubchenko ends with the rallying cry: ‘Victory to the working people of Ukraine, solidarity with the Russian anti-war movement!’ And we join her.
Given the rising tide of fascism in Europe and the United States, we hope that a post-war Ukraine will reject any fascist impulses and eventually emerge as a force for a Marxist-humanist approach to international socialism. This has been the dream of many of us with respect to the United States, who hoped that liberation theology and critical pedagogy could play a revolutionary role. And now we find the US lurching towards the right, like a drunken ogre in a children’s nightmare, the discourses of fascism enveloping the porous lifeworld of the cities and countryside. But we will continue to struggle in the face of capitalism’s counsellors of despair, despite our modern aptitude for cynicism and our continuing scepticism about the centrality of altruism and compassion in the road to perfectibility as a human species. Is our faith that the collective efforts of our struggle will be led by our virtues and not our vices and our commitment to building a world absent of value production (monetised wealth) enough to restart our journey to the promised land? Time will tell if we are spitting in the wind. And if other countries will join us in the struggle. The likely scenario is that Ukraine will remain in the grip of its oligarchs, and, while the country will be invited to partake at the banquet of democracy with its new European capitalist counterparts, it may find only scraps of the nourishment for which it had hoped and fought for so valiantly.