Why is the Left Supporting the War in Ukraine?
Hint: It starts with “Anti-” and rhymes with “communism.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine — now in its tenth month with still no end in sight — has divided and fractured the Left. Many on the Left fully support this war — which is essentially a U.S. proxy war with Russia. (Don’t take my word for it: Members of the Biden administration have openly admitted as much.)
“Resistance” Liberals For War
I am not at all surprised that liberals have embraced the Ukraine war. These are the same people, keep in mind, who made nary a peep when Barack Obama expanded and accelerated George W. Bush’s global “war on terror” (and won the Nobel Peace Prize while doing so). They sat back while Obama normalized the use of unmanned predator drones in place of traditional “boots-on-the-ground” combat. And there was no public outcry among Obama’s liberal supporters when he arbitrarily murdered the U.S.-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. (The latter was killed by a drone strike in Yemen while he was eating dinner.)
Furthermore, Russophobia has been a pervasive and growing presence among liberals for the last six years, now. Many liberals still subscribe to the baseless fiction that Russia “intervened” in the 2016 presidential election and swayed the results to Donald Trump. Indeed, liberals hate Russia just as much as the MAGA-Right hates China.
I can guarantee you, had Trump been the president to engage in this proxy war with Russia — one which has been decades in the making — liberals would absolutely oppose it. But since it is a Democrat currently sitting in the White House, and given Joe Biden’s couching of the Ukraine war in the rhetoric of “humanitarianism,” any “anti-war” sentiments liberals might otherwise have are conveniently forgotten.
Liberals and the Democratic Party instead impeached Trump (the first time) for attempting to withhold weapons shipments to Ukraine unless Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky offered him “dirt” on President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. While I remained skeptical at the time that Trump would actually be removed from office, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now places Trump’s initial impeachment into a very different — and far more cynical — context.
As usual, liberals’ hypocrisy is glaring: “Resistance” liberals spent four years denouncing the former president as a “fascist.” (Such accusations were, no doubt, not without justification given Trump’s penchant for authoritarianism. That said, Trump is not, strictly speaking a “fascist.”)
Yet the same people have no qualms whatsoever about supporting actual neo-Nazis in Ukraine. In fact, it has no become highly taboo to even acknowledge the presence of literal Nazis embedded within both the Ukrainian military and the government, even though such facts were widely and routinely reported on in the corporate news media prior to Russia’s invasion.
So, no: I am not at all surprised that liberals are giddy over Biden’s proxy war with Russia. (My bourgeois hometown is still littered with Ukrainian flags, ten months into the war.)
What is surprising — and, indeed, completely demoralizing — is how many self-professed “socialists” and socialist organizations are on board with this war. Sections of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the country’s largest socialist organization, as well as Socialist Alternative, are firmly behind the U.S. war effort in Ukraine. And even those leftists who are not completely gung-ho over the war — those who can at least acknowledge the role of U.S./NATO in fomenting this war — nonetheless express enough waffling and equivocation on the conflict to, wittingly or not, provide a semblance of cover for U.S. imperialism.
These pro-war “socialists” (or “social-chauvinists,” in Marxist lexicon) see the conflict in Ukraine as a noble fight for Ukraine’s “self-determination,” against “Russian imperialism.” They actively downplay the decades-long role NATO and the U.S. have played in provoking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as the far-right characteristics of the Ukrainian government. (“We have Nazis here [in the United States] too,” they blithely retort.) And they are virtually silent about the U.S.-supported Maidan coup in Ukraine, in 2014, which toppled the country’s democratically-elected government and empowered the country’s anti-Russian, far-right extremists, including the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.
But Ukraine is not an independent country. It has not been for the last eight years, now. Ukraine is basically a puppet government of the United States. If these social-chauvinists truly want to “liberate” the people of Ukraine, they should advocate for the complete and immediate disentanglement of Pentagon and Wall Street interests from Ukraine. They should call for the honoring of the Minsk Agreement, the 2015 peace deal which aimed to end the fighting between Kiev and the eastern part of Ukraine.
If Ukraine is such a “free,” and “peaceful” “democracy,” then why has President Zelensky banned all “opposition” political parties in the country, including (and specifically) socialist and communist parties? Why, in 2015, did Ukraine enact a law prohibiting the display of Communist symbols and slogans or the selling of USSR-inspired merchandise? Even singing The Internationale in public can be punishable by five to ten years in prison. And, at the same time that Ukrainian lawmakers have criminalized monuments to communism, they have maintained statues and public monuments to Nazis. Some bastion of liberty!
As for the claim that this is a war against “Russian imperialism,” we must understand that Russia, contrary to liberal talking points, is not an empire. “Imperialism” is not simply the act of one country invading another. Marxists have a specific materialist understanding of imperialism, best defined in Lenin’s essay, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. For Lenin, imperialism is the logical, inevitable outcome of monopoly capitalism.
While Russia may exhibit imperialist characteristics, and Putin likely harbors imperialist ambitions, Russia does not, strictly speaking, meet the criteria of an empire. In many respects, Russia has been actively excluded from possessing the capital, resources, military-power, and land necessary to gain membership to the exclusive Imperial Club.
Instead, these pro-war hawks insist we must “fight to the last Ukrainian,” and continue funneling billions and billions of dollars in military aid to the country. Meanwhile, residents of Flint, Michigan, still do not trust that their water is safe to drink — eight years after former Gov. Rick Snyder allowed the water supply to become contaminated with lead. How this bellicose position differs from that of the Pentagon, or the CEOs of Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin, is entirely unclear.
Left-Wing Anticommunism: An Infantile Disorder
So what is going on here…? Why are so many socialists supporting this war? What accounts for this social-chauvinism on the Left? The answer, I fear, can be summed up in one phrase: Anticommunism. The leftists who have embraced the U.S. proxy war with Russia are almost uniformly from the Trotskyist, “anti-Stalinist” tradition.
Such anticommunism is, of course, entirely misplaced. Both Russia and Ukraine are capitalist countries. (And, indeed, the former country has been capitalist for over 30 years, now — though some of these pro-war socialists write as if the Soviet Union were still alive and well.) Neither the United States, Russia, nor Ukraine can accurately be described as a “democracy.” The average working-class Ukrainian has about as much democratic say in her country as the the working-classes in Russia and America do theirs — which is to say, little to none. But the trend at play here is anticommunist, nonetheless.
Consider the “leftists” who are pushing for further U.S. support for the Ukraine war: Ashley Smith, a member of DSA and co-founder of Tempest magazine, has emerged as one of the biggest cheerleaders for this war. Smith is a former member of the now-defunct International Socialist Organization (ISO)*, which was a Trotskyist group.
While in the ISO, Smith also pushed for the U.S./NATO interventions in Libya and Syria. He advocated for left-wing support for both wars based, again, on the misguided principles of “self-determination,” and “humanitarian” intervention against “brutal dictatorships.” Yet Smith and his comrades in the ISO dismissed the working-class revolutions in Cuba, in Mao’s China, and in the Soviet Union (after 1924), as “top-down” forms of “socialism-from-above,” and “distortions” of “genuine Marxism.”
The Marxist scholar, Michael Parenti, is correct: Left-wing anticommunists like Smith, who cling to a utopian, “pure” vision of socialism, “support every revolution except the ones that succeed.”
Smith savagely condemns figures like Noam Chomsky and Medea Benjamin for having the gall — the nerve! — to call for peaceful negotiations to end the war. Lately, Smith has taken to social media to taunt and mock “tankies” who have voiced opposition to the war in Ukraine. Smith is, certainly, free to disagree with the positions of Marxist-Leninists. But such childish red-baiting is not, in my opinion, a compelling argument for why we should risk nuclear annihilation over this proxy war.
The following are a few of Ashley Smith’s recent anticommunist tweets. Note the persistent pattern of repeating baseless anticommunist talking points regarding the “Holodomor,” and Stalin’s “gulags.”
Cue Accusations of Pro-Putin Sentiments in Three…, Two…, One…
And before you accuse me of being a “Putin apologist,” or a “Russian agent,” or any other such ludicrous charge, let me make absolutely clear: I have no love for Vladimir Putin. He is a mafiaoso capitalist thug. There is nothing democratic, egalitarian, or anti-imperialist about contemporary Russia. (Nor is there any contradiction in arguing that Russia is neither an empire nor anti-imperialist.) Putin’s claim that he invaded Ukraine in order to “de-Nazify” the country — while perhaps containing a sliver of truth — should be taken with a large spoonful of salt, as it were.
But Putin is not, contrary to insipid liberal talking-points, “insane.” He did not merely wake up one morning and, in a fit of unhinged, misplaced anger, decide to launch a war in neighboring Ukraine. In fact, Putin is a completely rational actor with entirely legitimate security concerns. He fears, perhaps not unjustifiably so, that the U.S. will do to him what it did to Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. And, when President Biden makes careless, off-the-cuff statements about such possible regime change, as he did in Warsaw, in March of last year (“For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power!”), it only further confirms Putin’s fears.
Yet, the Russophobia is so intense on the Left that one cannot even acknowledge these basic facts without risk of being labeled a “Russian apologist.” This tendency is, again, quite common among anticommunists. In their “Cold Warrior,” all-or-nothing mindset, you are either “With us,” or “Against us.” Their seeming inability to entertain any iota of nuance or ambiguity is endlessly stunning to behold.
War is Over (If You Want It)
The late, radical historian, Howard Zinn, said it best: “War itself is the enemy of the human race.”
To that end, socialists should demand the following:
- An immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and for both sides to engage in good-faith diplomatic negotiations. This position is in line with majority American opinion on the Ukraine war.
- The dissolution of NATO. The NATO “security” coalition serves no actual humanitarian function. It is an arm of U.S. imperialism. NATO was specifically established to thwart Soviet “aggression.” Socialists should not be defending this antiquated, anticommunist, imperialist coalition.
- An end to Russian sanctions. Sanctions are a form of warfare — not an alternative to it. And sanctions ultimately hurt the poor and working-class. The wealthy elite inevitably find ways around economic sanctions. While I maintain that Russia is not unjustified in its defensive invasion of Ukraine (curious how Israel perpetually maintains the “right to defend itself,” but this right does not, apparently, apply to other countries…), the Russian working-class, nonetheless remains firmly opposed to this war. The working-class people of Russia should not be forced to suffer for what is, essentially, Putin’s war.
- The dismantling of the U.S. empire and the establishment of a socialist alternative that benefits the many — not the wealthy few.
The only war the Left should be engaged in is class-war.
*Full disclosure: I was a dues-paying member of the ISO branch in Portland, Maine from around 2014 until its dissolution in 2019. For me, the ISO was something of a “stepping stone” into socialist activism. I would like to think that my Marxist education has only deepened and matured since then. I now consider myself a Marxist-Leninist — much to the detriment of my former ISO comrades. While I do not necessarily regret my time in the ISO, I can see, in hindsight, how deeply anticommunist the organization was. Since the ISO’s dissolution, most of its members have (rather seamlessly, I must say) joined the DSA.