Ukraine inside us: the Italian left at the crossroads


Francesco Brusa

November 11, 2022

The large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Putin's Russia raises the question of whether the left-wing movement in our country has the strength and will to question itself and change its identity, in a direction that is up to the challenges of the present.

One expression would survive Susan Sontag's trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, done in solidarity with the communist resistance to the US invasion of 1965. It was almost a warning that would pervade the 1968 protest movement that shortly afterwards was to spread from the Sorbonne to California: “Carry Vietnam inside yourself.”

This was recalled by, among others, the historian and feminist activist Anna Bravo in an essay at the end of the volume Il '68 sequestrato [“The Kidnapping  of 68”], edited by Guido Crainz and dedicated to the protest movements on “the other side” of the Iron Curtain, which challenge us so much in the pressing present day. Bravo explains how--in addition to the concrete support for the anti-imperialist struggle of the Vietnamese people and the development of the anti-war movement in the United States--the metaphoric expression symbolises the challenge of “transforming oneself, in an internal clash between the part of each person that represents the forces of authoritarianism, the part that embodies the need for liberation, and the part that seeks to escape this dichotomy". A challenge not devoid of contradictions and, if you like, even failures, which nonetheless constitutes one of the most important and genuine legacies of that period and which also contributed to the formation of a new idea of leftism and internationalism in western countries. A challenge, Bravo always says, that must also take into account “people’s suffering, because conditioning influences exist, inner complicity exists, and getting rid of it all can be hard”.

Eight months after the start of what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls “the special operation”, which is nothing but a large-scale invasion of a neighbouring country, complete with annexation of territories, one would like to recall those words once again and replace Vietnam—literally and metaphorically--with Ukraine. Are we capable, that is, of carrying Ukraine inside ourselves and trying to follow all the paths that this statement of principle leads us along? Last Saturday, probably the most well attended demonstration in our country in the last ten to fifteen years took place in Rome: over 100,000 people marched through the centre of the capital to demand peace and an immediate cessation of hostilities.

The platform that launched the initiative saw strong protagonism from the General Confederation of Italian Labour (CGIL), to all intents and purposes the most visible force in the street, and from various pacifist entities such as the Peace and Disarmament Network or Catholic associations such as the Sant'Egidio Community and the Cristian Associations of Italian Workers (ACLI). The communiqué that called the demonstration--unexceptionable from a theoretical point of view--left room, however, for a great dissimilarity of positions and glossed over (probably on purpose)  the main points of division “on the left” during the first moments of the invasion: most importantly, the sending of arms to the Ukrainian state but also judgement on the responsibilities of NATO and the EU in supporting the war (and especially the role that these entities should assume in the conflict) and the kind of support and backing that should be accorded to the resistance of the invaded country (to which, in the communiqué, a generic “respect” is granted).

Left at the crossroads

So much was this so that within the demonstration—without this necessarily having to be considered a negative element—various positions and groupings could coexist, even in marked contrast with each other: from those who see the ongoing conflict as nothing more than a "proxy war" and who therefore consider the disarmament of the "Nazi regime" in Kyiv as the priority action to be pursued (see for example the testimonies collected by Info. aut), to those who, like MicroMega and the Stop the War in Ukraine committee, which saw the demand for the withdrawal of Russian troops as their main objective and set a peremptory 'Putin go home' as their leading slogan. Parallel to this, there were also demonstrations in Milan, where Calenda's third pole dominated the solidarity with Ukraine, leaving room for over-the-top statements with a decidedly warmongering tone, and in Naples, where Gkn and other self-managed groupings placed more emphasis on social demands inherent in the Italian context.

The question then arises: at this moment, does the left movement in our country have the strength and the willpower to question itself and change its identity in a direction that is up to the challenges that the present situation confronts us with? Does it have the capacity to “start from itself”, in the two senses to which this phrase refers, namely, knowing how to carry out the job of self-reflection but at the same time being able to abandon some of its more antiquated preconceptions?

Last Saturday's demonstration perhaps indicates just how much we are at a crossroads, at two different paths that are not easily reconciled. Given the complexity of the situation, but also and above all given the “ideological laziness” displayed by numerous left-wing personalities, associations and collectives (in which they did not want to acknowledge, except in passing, the macroscopic fact of Russian imperialism and Putin's aggressive authoritarianism, eliminating or minimising this variable from any analysis), it would seem legitimate to say that in order to “fill the streets”, to reconstitute a mass movement that aspires to be “for peace”' or “against war”, one cannot escape the vagueness of the proposals and a certain degree of moral ambiguity, so that solidarity with the victims remains something conditional and, at worst, not really felt or merely humanitarian, at best.

This is, moreover, an inevitable consequence when one acts in a purely reactive manner within a general framework in which, however, it is not one's own governments and institutions that are primarily responsible for what is happening (and which marks a clear difference between today's mobilisations and the movement that opposed the war on Iraq in 2003, for example). Indeed, the doubt left by the demonstration in [Rome’s] Piazza di San Giovanni is precisely this: where is the conflict and against whom is it being waged? And, conversely, what principles and values are being defended and against whose attack, exactly?

Saturday's mobilisation and, more generally, the left in Italy today does not seem to be able to express an alternative political programme that is not a return to the past, to the status quo that preceded the outbreak of the conflict and which this same conflict makes unworkable. A “No to War” that is committed and engages with the enemy would require answering questions such as: what kind of democracy do we imagine in the current context - of old and new fascisms - and how is a progressive extension of rights possible? How then do we judge movements that struggle, explicitly, for more democracy? What do we mean by the self-determination of peoples? What is our conception of imperialism in the current global scenario and how do we imagine a common security architecture on the world stage? What foreign policy does the left imagine?

Mutualism, solidarity, resistance

The other path, clearly more in the minority and perhaps more difficult, is that of active solidarity and material support. Shortly after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a number of entities belonging to the left-wing and pacifist area of our country got in touch with Ukrainian anti-authoritarian resistance groups and with the Russian anti-war movement, particularly the feminist movement, trying to imagine initiatives of concrete support and taking a clear stand against the aggression. Social spaces such as Làbas in Bologna, independent trade unions such as Adl Cobas and small groups such as the Brigate Volontarie per l'Emergenza, from a more political and militant perspective, but also NGOs such as Mediterranea Saving Humans, the Orlando association and the Stopthewarnow coalition, with a more humanitarian approach, or finally the European Nonviolent Action Movement, from a creative conflict management perspective, have organised caravans and delegations in the field.

At the same time, an Italian sub-section of the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine was born, which unites militants from various countries to elaborate and relaunch, together with Ukrainian counterparts of the Sotsyalniy Rukh movement, protest campaigns and petitions, such as the one on the cancellation of the country's debt or against the anti-union labour laws passed by Zelensky. These are initiatives that involve an often small number of people, just as it is worth noting that the circles of the Ukrainian “new left” and independent trade unionism (or Russian dissidence of socialist and feminist inspiration) also represent a partial point of view that is not overly influential in the country's context. And yet it is perhaps precisely this “partiality”, however fragmentary and risky, that should constitute the privileged terrain of struggle of an internationalist left and, even before that, a fundamental filter for understanding current events in material and realistic terms.

Because the risk always lurking around the corner is that of "apocalyptic thinking" and maximalism as an alibi for disengagement, in its various declinations: from campist geopolitics to the "hegemonic pacifism" of which Francesca Melandri spoke on these pages, up to the so-called revolutionary defeatism "in the absence of revolutions", inspired in a distorted way by the historical Zimmerwald left, which is re-proposed quite often on the left. Of constantly conjuring up the spectre of World War III or atomic catastrophe, or of treating War with a capital 'W', in absolute terms (passing over the fact that one must first understand this specific war in its peculiarity and even multi-dimensionality)—all as a refusal of positioning and choice.

The fact remains that the opposite of an imperialist aggression with post-fascist traits is resistance, with all the suffering and problems that this entails, and that in such a context peace is built first and foremost with militancy, not with an impossible desertion (or worse, from the Italian point of view, a “desertion by proxy” that one would like to impose on the Ukrainian people). From a progressive and left-wing perspective, and with the privilege of being relatively far from the battlefield, this means knowing how to read and act within the social and political conflict both within the Ukrainian state and “straddling” the East-European countries.

Supporting working men and women, trade unions, feminist movements, LGBT rights groups and all those groupings that oppose Zelensky's line with regard to the ideas of the country to be put into play, but are united in the need to defend territorial integrity; being able to observe and support—in a Europe that is increasingly reorienting itself around conservative nationalisms-- the numerous “dissidencies” active in different contexts: those in Russia protesting against the war, or fleeing from it, the solidarity groups in Belarus that are suffering Lukashenka's repression, the feminist movements in Poland that have been contesting right-wing policies for years, as well as the networks in the Baltic countries that are striving for a dignified reception of refugees and migrants, etc.

In other words, to be able to see--as the Ukrainian militant and researcher Yuliya Yurchenko used to say—"the common class interests that cut across the conflict at an international level”, and to try to give it strength. Which means, in essence, succeeding in posing the question of Ukrainian self-determination as a European question: a Europe that is yet to come and whose near future will also be negotiated by the internationalist left that opposed Putin's war—to the extent that this left will be able to reinvent itself.