S. Hilgers examines the arguments of the two sides which have emerged on the Left regarding how to conceptualize anti-imperialism in the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Revealing the severe limitations of both, Hilgers proposes an alternative anti-imperialist analysis that reckons with the absence of communist proposals in the context of current interstate conflict and re-centers opposition to the state and the capitalist world-system.
Kharkiv, Feb. 25 2022 (Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)
The current conflict has stirred the age-old antagonism between “anti-campists” and “imperialism of idiots,” or “NATO leftism” and “principled anti-imperialism,” depending on your viewpoint. The side usually aligned with the resistance in the Middle East has rekindled its love for pacifism and international law, sounding like UN spokesmen, while the side usually opposed to armed struggles has found their love for resistance and opposition to any compromises. However, at their root, both approaches – which we shall identify, examine, and criticize – are limited in their horizons. Their limitations are the result of a shared pre-critical methodology, failing to examine phenomena and their movements within their national and international frame in their entirety. There is also a common state loyalism, i.e. not seeking to break with the bourgeois state but instead seeking to manage it in a more “amenable” direction.
Communists must take a principled anti-imperialist position, one which rejects both reflexive support for U.S. ‘democracy’ and those movements which are superficially opposed to U.S. imperial power. Rather, communists must examine the different phenomena, movements, and state behaviors within both their own contexts and their international perspective. In sum, the Left must abandon cross-front alliances and refuse to liquidate itself into the respective factions, be it the liberal West (“red-blueism”) or governments opposed to the U.S. (“red-brownism”).1 Instead, communists should re-center analysis grounded by an assessment of class structures, alliances, and balances of forces, as well as serious investigation of national and international political economy, in order to develop an independent foreign policy based on the potentialities contained within the contradictions of capitalism.
“Imperialism of Idiots”
An examination of the alleged “campist” approach reveals a particular issue: their understanding of anti-imperialism is undetermined, in the sense there is a lack of systematization. Instead, what one finds is that the influence of U.S. / NATO is taken as heuristics for examining the politics of movements. However, what one finds in common is the geopolitical view of the world, i.e. it is characterized by examining the contradictions and antagonisms between states as they are positioned within the international structure; class struggles are examined, however they are only seen as auxiliary to existing struggles by interstate system and to be shaped and exploited by them. We shall examine two examples of what is to be found as revealing the pitfalls of such an approach. First, we shall look at the analysis of Ukraine by political prisoner Şadi Naci Özpolat.2
Özpolat characterizes Russia as being in a position of strategic defensive against U.S. imperialism following the collapse of the USSR as a result of the expansion of NATO, with the rejection of its demands forcing a tactical offensive, i.e. war – a strategy which is “legitimate and justified.” As part of their offensive against Russia, the U.S. orchestrated a coup to install a fascist pro-U.S. government. Özpolat sums up his views with an assertion that according to the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist framework “the main imperialist powers in the world are the American powers,” and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is, therefore, anti-imperialist. It is clear why this is questionable, hopefully. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is only strengthening reaction in Ukraine, while externally it has led to the strengthening of NATO as a unified bloc. Russia could have achieved its goals of neutralizing Ukraine by simply waiting, if that was the goal.
This is a particularly extreme example of the geopolitical approach. What we see here is that U.S. influence is taken as the basic category of analysis of imperialism. However, this issue is more widespread and not just found in such gross cases. For example, we see a similar pattern in the article “The Russian ‘Threat to Freedom and Democracy’” by Alexander Gallus.3 Gallus provides an account of the growth of U.S. influence in Eastern Europe, to which the Russian state simply responded – the Russian state’s response, war, is not explained by both internal and external movements of its social formation, but instead a simple reduction to the movements of states. The conclusion is then that the U.S. should take the “security concerns” of Russia seriously and that should be the plank of the Left. This however, amounts to arguing that the Left should advocate for a “responsible” form of U.S. imperialism in conciliation with Russian imperialism – a proposition which is quite fantastical. Instead, Luxemburg is prescient here:
[I]t must draw the conclusion that one can only fight imperialism, war, country robbery, people hawking, breach of the law, violent politics by fighting capitalism, by countering global political genocide with social revolution. But if one seeks a remedy and solution for one’s conflicts within imperialist politics and one wants to resist its storm and stress by simply trying to reduce it to what has already been overcome, then this is not proletarian, but petty-bourgeois, hopeless politics. Basically, this policy is nothing but always the defence of yesterday’s imperialism against today’s imperialism.4
The Russian government is radicalizing more and more – with it burying the post-Soviet environment it was embedded in. It was characterized by a social pact predicated on the depoliticization of the majority of the population in exchange for the hope of an increasing growth of the national income. The government will have to explain why it lost so many men for Ukraine and Donbass, which will only radicalize when the recession because of the sanction regime is felt. This necessitates a politically mobilizationary government with its own imperial-ideological project to continue popular support.5 It is clear that this is already occurring, with the ever increasing heights its media is jumping: it is now not just a minority which is “Banderist,” but a majority of the population which requires large-scale reeducation, as well as destruction of the “Banderist” ideology of separate Ukrainian nationhood. The government has started a train it cannot leave anymore, with government circles fearing that any retreat of troops or overly concessionary negotiations will cause a drop in support, especially among the pro-war middle class.6 Clearly, the Russian side will not come to a compromise; the same applies to the Ukrainian side, where the increasing death toll has led to growing animosity toward any concessionary peace agreement. Ukraine has threatened an end to any negotiations if Mariupol falls and a majority of the population now opposes a peace agreement if it includes abandoning Donbass and Crimea.7
A class-conscious anti-war movement is necessary to achieve peace in this war, as neither actor will move towards peace of their own accord, with the spiral of violence only increasing under the current social regimes. The Left must move beyond appeals to become better managers of their respective states to implement more “responsible” policies, and instead seek to break with the current order. War on war.
On the other hand, one finds ample texts by self-called “anti-campist anti-imperialists”, advocating what they see as the correct politics. This tendency’s central thesis is: “This pro-fascist left seems blind to any form of imperialism that is non-western in origin. It combines identity politics with egoism. Everything that happens is viewed through the prism of what it means for westerners – only white men have the power to make history.”8 For them, anti-imperialism consists in supporting “the many democratic social movements, labor movements, and in some cases socialist movements in myriad countries living under governments that call themselves capitalist or socialist.”9
With regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we see the theme of state loyalism again turn up, as Taras Bilous argues that “argument of the Left should be, that in 2003, other governments did not put enough pressure on the United States over Iraq. Not that it is necessary to exert less pressure on Russia over Ukraine now.”10 However, this is not breaking with the state. Instead, one becomes another arm of it, seeking to push it in a somewhat more left-wing direction.11 This becomes clearer when examining anti-campists advocating that the Left’s focus should be on pressuring governments to increase sanctions on Russia, debt cancellation for Ukraine, and supplying the Ukrainian military with more weapons.12
The “anti-campist left” refuses to examine the relationship of internal struggles to the movement of international categories; to do so would be denying these people “agency.” Any movement which calls for “democracy,” “freedom of speech,” etc. is worth supporting because of basic principles one should uphold. One can see this in Hong Kong – where there is a refusal to mention how the Hong Kong independence movement is structured around nativism in opposition to new immigrants from China, with far-right militants at the forefront of the movement, all because they are fighting for “democracy” against a soon to be instituted Chinese “autocracy.”13 It is a fetishization of capitalist democracy with left-wing colors. It also identifies itself with the nation-state and seeks to implement political shifts from its vantage point – the language of the “we” is evoked. This illusion must be broken, as well as anything else that is in contradiction with a class-conscious movement against war.
Critical Methodology and State Illoyalism
We have examined both approaches as limited, as they simply trail the superficial appearances of capitalism, war, and nation like a pavlovian dog, incapable of breaking with them. However, we must transition from negative critique to positive analysis if we are to be constructive. What we shall propose here is that communists must examine movements critically. What does this mean? Specifically, this means that communists cannot simply look at what movements to support. Rather, they must analyze different movements’ concrete relationship to the class structure, as well as how their goals aim to shift the class structure. Secondly, communists must investigate movements’ relationships to international struggles of classes, states, etc. In the case of Ukraine, it means one must look beyond the superficial element of one side being friendly to the West and another opposed to it, or that one stands for “democracy” and another for “tyranny.”
Instead, the Left must move beyond illusions about inter-state conflicts or seeing every movement demanding “democracy” as positive, and instead examine what contradictory movements offer a progressive element (i.e. help weaken the powers of capitalism, giving system-openings for non-capitalist paths). The critique of the Russian invasion of Ukraine cannot be reduced to pacifism, as Abdel-Malek has pointed out well:
Violence, armaments were viewed as an ‘evil’ pursuit, and peace, disarmament were considered as a moral, humanistic endeavor. Any attempt at a content analysis of speeches, resolutions, writings and expositions on war, violence, peace or disarmament would reveal a very heavy load of moral considerations and a much lower percentage of power-political analysis.14
This is what breaking with the state means: the Left opens up its own foreign policy. It cannot simply become advocates of pacifism, nor defend any movements which support “democracy” or “freedom.” It must engage in concrete analysis and recognize that it must maneuver between contradictions. For example, Hamas and Ansurallah (“Houthis”) are both backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, a government whose opposition to U.S.-imperialism is only one of opportunism – it has at many other times collaborated with U.S.-imperialism, most prominently in Iraq.15 Nonetheless, they are progressive internally because they are struggling to destroy imperialism, both Hebrew and Saudi Arabian, and opening up spaces of resistance which can be harnessed by progressive forces despite said movement’s politically reactionary content.16 The Left must critique Hamas and Ansurallah, not for “terrorism” or even for being simply conservative ideologically, but for how they themselves limit the ability of their nations to achieve security and freedom: Hamas has been domesticated through being contained within Gaza, and is nowadays largely focused on supplying its own citizens via civil society organizations, which has left it impotent in achieving the destruction of “Israel.” Hamas was able to become the leader of the Palestinian national liberation struggle because it was the most militant, unlike the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had much of its membership captured by the NGO sector, eventually allying itself with the Palestinian Authority (though this has shifted nowadays). Hamas lacks a progressive vision for achieving economic security and independence, which will, in the case of its victory, only allow the subordination of Palestine to foreign imperialism yet again. As such a communist critique should be grounded in a recognition that Hamas and similar forces will not be able to deliver liberation but will short or long cause their own demise and the renewed subjugation of the nation, not that they are simply too militant.
As E.H. Carr summed up masterly, “[t]he moral criterion must not be the ‘aggressive’ or ‘defensive’ character of war, but the nature of change which is being sought and resisted.”17 This is the criterion the Left must follow for an independent foreign policy. With the case of Ukraine, Russia is engaged in an entirely deficient and dead-end project doomed to failure. Maksim Lebskij put it best:
The Kremlin is trying to actively broadcast the idea of the great glorious past of Russians and Ukrainians, but at the same time it completely forgets about the second component – the project of a “great future”. […] [W]e see only an attempt to ride on the traditions of the Great Patriotic War, which cannot become the basis for a stable political structure. The concept of a common future did not exist, and does not exist.18
This war will only help to strengthen reactionary forces in Ukraine, where Zelensky says it is inevitable that the country will become “another Israel” as it militarizes public life.19 In Russia, this will only lead to a more repressive state as well. That the result will be reactionary is not simply a product of Ukraine being backed by reactionary forces, but because Ukraine’s state is predicated upon a liberal-nationalist project. This project is only strengthened by this war, as it serves to reproduce and intensify the exclusions it is built upon, vindicating the narrative of the inherent contradiction of Russianness and Ukrainianness. It has helped strengthen the far-right, reactionary forces who were posing as the most radical version of this new nationalism while being the most activist element of a newly invigorated civil society.20 This has become clear with the common talk of the “orcs” that Ukraine is fighting coming to mind; rhetoric which both naturalizes the conflict and increases the exclusion of Russian people, instead of presenting a vision uniting Ukrainians of all stripes against Russian imperialism.21
The Left must see this as an inter-imperialist war – behind Ukraine stands NATO, as in 1914 behind Serbia stood Russian imperialism. Of course, the Ukrainian people themselves have the right to resist Russian imperialism, just like how if in 1914, had there only been an Austrian invasion of Serbia, it would have been the duty of communists to support its struggle for national liberation.22 But this national liberation struggle has been captured by imperialism, and politically deformed, a natural consequence of allying with imperialism: the same fate which befell the Kosovo Liberation Army, whose alliance with U.S.-imperialism turned it into a criminal enterprise alienated from its people. NATO has shown itself to be unable or unwilling to safeguard national sovereignty, it will simply seek to fight to the last Ukrainian.
The call for more western arm shipments is unhelpful, as these arms come with conditions. Similarly, it would also be unhelpful to call for arms for Ansaruallah or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which some say is the “principled” stance, since these would come with conditions of political opportunism as well. The advocacy of arms for foreign forces as the centre point of agitation would furthermore turn us into a sheep dog of the state, moving the Left away from opposition to the state as the centre of agitation.
The question of actively opposing existing weapon shipments is more interesting, however, as some have put it to the centre of communist agitation. Firstly, it is clear this war is only continuing, and that neither side will cease fighting simply because of less arms – meanwhile, the Left is weakened, and what exists of the “anti-war movement” in Russia is entirely contained within the liberal groups of European Russia, making effective inhibition of the war impractical. Opposing these arms just means less arms for Ukraine, not an end to the war. This is rarely grappled with. Secondly, the call for defeatism is not related to its historical application, as it was so forceful in WW1 because it “offered the workers’ party both the need and the possibility to destroy the coherence of the existing armed forces through anti-war agitation – and thereby to take power.”23 However, in the present war the focus on armed weaponry obscures this military-strategic relevance: the Western population and armed forces at large are uninvolved in the slaughter, so how can such agitation attain mass relevance? More concretely, does this war reshape politics around itself? I do not think it will reshape politics within the imperial core, politically (in foreign policy it will), because the mass of population has no direct involvement in war in the core – as such, the mass basis for class struggle against war will be limited around social democratic demands (demanding that social wealth be spend on social welfare instead of weapons, etc).
With regards to how to approach weapon shipments itself, Ukrainian resistance has the “right to get the weapons it needs for its defense from whatever source available.”24 Nonetheless, the Left should be clear that these arms will only force Ukraine into a position of dependency in relation to the West. Advocating for more arms will only strengthen this dependency without being a solution to the conflict that was created by capitalism, as expelling Russia entirely from Donbass and Crimea is unlikely – nor even would end the war necessarily. Furthermore, one should not fall into illusions that these arms will flow to the “revolutionary” elements within the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF); they will only flow to the most organized elements of the Ukrainian army, i.e. the army itself as well as well-organized and well-trained armed formations like Azov.25 As Taras Bilous says, with his experience in the TDF: “We do not fight, but are constantly trained. And we are forced to report for every fucking cartridge shot. Our officers are shocked, because in 2014 there was nothing like that.”26
The weapons blockade by the West on Bosnia allowed Serbia’s Chetnik forces to butcher the Bosnian people. However, one should be wary of positions on weapons shipments which claim that “imperialist states sometimes do[ing] things for self-interested reasons that also, it turns out, are good things.”27 These weapons are sent to Ukraine to prolong the war and to bloody Russia. NATO has no interest in a political compromise, since Western governments are saying as much, with them warning that Russia will be forced to deal with a “new Chechnya.”28 However, reaching a peace agreement will be hard, as truly neutral states between warring rival camps are rare – with one side, the USA, denying the other even should be treated as one. Ukraine may not join NATO, but neither would Russian tolerate Ukraine as another “Israel,” i.e. a nominally non-NATO but clearly NATO-aligned country. If Ukraine demilitarizes and does not gain US security guarantees, it is practically Russia-aligned. This is an impasse which can not be solved simply by “talking,” with the way the interstate system is structured. The capitalist system offers no immediate way forward, since all these proposals will limit Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for reconciliation of great powers. It is unlikely a referendum will approve a peace agreement within which Ukraine refrains from joining NATO without significant concessions from Russia, concessions that are not forthcoming. Furthermore, unless Russia suffers a total military defeat, it is clear the Russian state would not simply trust Ukraine to abide by any such agreement in exchange for withdrawing its troops, meaning any peace treaty would include continued Russian control of Ukraine.
So what does this all come to? Left praxis in the core must be centered around ways of helping undermine the state, which is in connection with the struggles of Ukrainians: most importantly, it must be connecting Ukrainian refugees to the struggle to destroy the border regime which helps secure global apartheid, something feasible and practical through pushing local areas to declare themselves safe harbors. This is a way “defeatism” can be concretized: the different treatment of Ukrainians from other refugees has to be exposed, while striving to use the commonality in experience to build solidarity among the oppressed in the core, where refuge from destruction, poverty, and hunger is common.29 That common experience is created through the border regime which controls the movement of bodies and prevents people from fleeing the various threats they face. Opposition against this situation must be put to the forefront, as it reproduces the inequality of nations and people.
Secondly, it must build a radical opposition. Left praxis cannot remain on the level of diplomacy and calls for recognizing international law. It must show this war is produced by the movements of capitalism: a state seeking to prevent its own decline through the mass destruction of Ukraine. It must show that no “secure security arrangements” are possible, that calling for such an arrangement is a political dead-end as the state actors will proceed along their own systemic logics, instead of trying to find some “communist” solution to these security dilemmas, which is impossible. The proposal of a neutral, demilitarized Ukraine sounds good on paper, but neither NATO nor Ukraine would agree to this, nor is there any mass basis for such a proposal to agitate around in the core. A simple pacifism is not enough. People have seen the movement against the Iraq War as a model. However this movement itself was liberal – it did not support resistance against U.S.-imperialism and its criticism was that plundered social wealth was being “misused” with the war. Its concerns were more about whites than the Iraqis. A militant, class-based anti-war movement is what is necessary, which recognizes that “war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”30 It must fight against the capitalist world-system itself, not just particular results of its movements.
Liebknecht’s call remains relevant as always: “International proletarian class struggle against international imperialist genocide is the socialist commandment of the hour.”31
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- This distinction is taken up from Voldymyr Ishchenko, though we subsidise “black and brown” for “red-blueism” as it better connonates a connection between leftists and NATO imperialism; substituting black for blue, the colour of NATO and EU. See The Ukrainian Left during and after the Maidan Protests, pp. 94-95.
- https://strana.best/news/386842-vojna-v-ukraine-18-aprelja-novosti-onlajn-svodka.html; https://assets.morningconsult.com/wp-uploads/2022/03/01171558/2202130_crosstabs_MC_WASHINGTON_UKRAINE_Ukrainian_Adults_v1_LM.pdf. See Table 18.6. However polling in Ukraine has clear issues making any results to be taken with a grain of salt. See https://twitter.com/Volod_Ishchenko/status/1502024501483167750?s=20&t=cP0L-ThPOLrLdoO9bNfcnQ and https://focus.ua/politics/511296-vladimir-paniotto-o-tom-pochemu-rossiyane-veryat-putinu?fbclid=IwAR1M6xvGR7Fz_nGyomcLsnLx5mlPIAqBexcwzcMA0GuHVPkMnPrgeN4oRTc.
- It’s also telling the same level of support is not given to Iraqi resistance; no call for victory of Iraqi resistance, foreign aid for it. Simply governments should “pressure” them to be more conciliatory in Iraq. But also, even if they were doing this, their positions on Ukraine would be unhelpful, so the criticism does not centre around that.
- https://commons.com.ua/en/left-west-must-rethink/; https://newpol.org/a-memorandum-on-the-radical-anti-imperialist-position-regarding-the-war-in-ukraine/; https://newpol.org/why-the-left-must-support-arms-for-ukraine/.
- https://libcom.org/article/protests-hk-talk-workers-group; https://libcom.org/article/black-vs-yellow-class-antagonism-and-hong-kongs-umbrella-movement.
- Anouar Abdel Malek, Nation and Revolution: Volume 2 of Social Dialectics.
- Hebrew here is used to emphasise the national character of Israeli nationality. It is taken from Matzpen.
- E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, 191.
- “To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one per cent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a “continuation of the politics” of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e., of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them. The Triple Entente, which is “liberating” Serbia, is selling the interests of Serbian liberty to Italian imperialism in return for the latter’s aid in robbing Austria.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/csi/vi.htm.
- Mike Macnair, Revolutionary Strategy, p. 77.
- Just like people on the left try to “support” the Palestinian national liberation struggle while trying to exclude Hamas, PIJ, etc. from it, ignoring them being an integral portion of the resistance (far more than the PFLP). That’s not to equate Hamas, PIJ, etc. with Azov, Aidar, etc., they are not equatable at all (Azov being more like Daesh), just that you cannot simply pick and choose who you support of a broader struggle so simply.
- https://strana.today/news/386460-britanija-zamorozila-10-mlrd-dollarov-dvukh-biznes-partnerov-abramovicha.html; https://ctrana.online/news/385979-pochemu-boris-dzhonson-priekhal-v-kiev.html; https://www.ft.com/content/d15a3743-f2ae-4710-a305-14f1326e5eb9; https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-60110028.