The Russian invasion of Ukraine revived a series of problems which were lurking beneath the surface of the Left. Although it is nearly impossible to talk about the left as a whole, there are nevertheless some invariants which determine the state of the Left today made visible by the situation in Ukraine.
The left is going through a night of the living dead. It is predominantly comprised of forces which have no political efficiency in fighting to remain alive in the ‘scene’, and at the same time, it pretends to have an understanding of the political reality. This holds true for both political groups and intellectuals. This comes, in part, as a result of a necessary moment of the Western bourgeois expansion. In fact, it is quite an interesting sign - or symptom - of the place the left is in almost any given country today - it is composed of a strong middle class. This composition of the left makes it possible to explain quite a few of its characteristics, including its anti-Americanism, which in a large part is the constitutive element of the left today.
It is peculiar, or so it seems to me, that the anti-American sentiment has grown in the contemporary left in direct proportion to how western the Left itself has become. This middle class, which is leftist, has started to hate its own roots, so to speak, and the anti-American sentiment gets so prevalent, only because it proves that they are not so middle class as it seems. But this is not new. The leftist middle class usually, or as a rule, hate the middle class that it itself is, as if this exaggerated hate would purge it from its own social basis. In a way, the anti-Americans are negatively identified with America. It is because they know that this sentiment is constitutive of their identity that they turn to Putin, who, until now, they barely knew or understood.
What is truly interesting, I think, is to notice that none of the defences of Putin are wholehearted: it is always done from afar, from a certain safe distance. It seems that none of these defenders seem to know what they are doing, they only know that Russia is not America. The left has also supported Assad of Syria, Miloševićof Serbia, insofar as these dictatorial individuals are anti-Americans. But, what is of crucial importance is that the anti-American position comes from an easy position, usually from a safe distance, which is all too easy to take. Many examples come to mind here, both in the political and the intellectual scene. The moment one takes the position of anti-Americanism, as the premise of intellectual, political or/and cultural labour, one loses the sight of the conceptual roots of Americanism, that is to say, one loses the ability to distinguish another “Americanism”, such as Putinism, Erdoganism, and so on.
One of the most hypocritical positions regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the usual left-liberal litany of “terror only breads more terror”, “peace is crucial, the rest can be solved afterwards”, “violence cannot be fought with violence.” The question is: who wants peace? I cannot think of one occupying force which doesn’t want peace – Israel, Russia, Serbia, even the Nazi Germany, they all sincerely want(ed) peace. But, in Ukraine, peace is not an option, as one great philosopher recently declared. Ukrainians do not want peace, they want liberation. Putin, as an invader, wants peace. All the calls for pacifism, or the positions which call for “peace at any cost” are not only depoliticising the cause(s), but ultimately, they are siding with the oppressing forces, be it in the case of the frontal war (like in Ukraine, or in the previous century in the Balkans), or in the other forms of class struggles in the field of economy, politics, culture, etc.
This said, there is always something problematic about returning to the ‘past’ in order to explain our present. One has to only think about the classic way of describing an ongoing difficult situation: one often hears (especially liberals) describing certain situations as “complex.” Russia invaded Ukraine and, according to pundits and peaceniks, we must take into account the “complexity” of the situation in that part of the world, which dates back many decades, if not centuries. I think this is an ideological cover up, which maintains that beyond every situation, there is a hidden element or a deeper meaning, which must be unveiled in order for us to understand current events on proper terms. I am inclined to argue that this very idea of a “deeper historical (or other) meaning” of a given situation is evoked to justify the present, in terms of its crimes, atrocities, and so forth.
Evoking the past is our inability or rather our unreadiness to confront the present. In a way, this is the lesson of Hegel’s thinking; given he is a superficial thinker, all his philosophy is dedicated to emptying out the “beyond" of any substance, doing away with all essentialist dualisms. With regard to Ukraine, the reality is rather simple: Russia invaded the country, has displaced tens of millions of people, and is apparently committing crimes against civilians who are clearly and deliberately targeted. The reality which should be considered is; it is Russia who started the war. Now, of course there are further complications, or “complexities” if you will, but they are no deeper or more complex than brutal “simple” facts.
We have heard similar approaches to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. In order to understand what is happening in the former Yugoslavia, we must go back in history for centuries, we must understand their myths and customs. While being problematic on so many aspects (it is a region of philistines etc., etc), these approaches miss the real of a situation. Myths and other folkloric aspects served an ideological function: when the wars exploded, these myths were brought up (resurrected), to serve as an ideological supplement for what was happening in the present.
Astonishingly, some radical Marxists are arguing for “understanding Putin.” It gets even more bizarre when they call for a new politics of containment, and a new George F. Kennan for our era. It is astonishing to conceive the Russian Federation as a continuation of the Soviet Union. The present Russia is the absolute negation of everything that the Soviet Union stood for, even nominally. Putin, who recently became very fond of giving lectures on history, denounced both the Soviet Union and Lenin, thus distancing himself and the present Russia as far as possible that history. He blamed Lenin for creating the Ukrainian nation, and his attack is directed against the Ukrainian nation, which he refuses to recognise. As he said in February of this year, “Let’s start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, by the Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process began almost immediately after the 1917 revolution.” This is why Russia is not calling the invasion as “war”, but it refers to it as a “special military operation.”
V.I. Lenin was very clear about this, and his book on the right to self-determination is worth recalling and rereading in our predicament, especially with regard to Ukraine. He argues that “those who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.—are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.” This is an incredible aspect of Lenin’s vision: his staunch anti-chauvinistic positions, which are clearly the very opposite of the existing regime in Russia. His demand to the proletariat was explicit: they have to demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nation that “its own” nation oppresses. Unless this is done, any form of internationalism will remain only a meaningless phrase. Class solidarity between workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations, argues Lenin, will be impossible under such circumstances.
This said, one must always be extremely careful about drawing lines of comparisons. In the former Yugoslavia, the war exploded because of the hegemonic aspirations of the Republic of Serbia, which was in fact the reason for the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. One must also be careful with “similarities”, because at one level, everything might be made to resemble something else. This holds for politics, for theory, for culture, and so forth. The mere fact that Putin is referring to the Kosovo war as a “justification” for his invasion of Ukraine speaks about the incompatibilities of two cases.
The war in Ukraine is still ongoing and it doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. It will go on for many months, if not years. It is quite difficult, if not impossible to predict the outcome of any situation. The situation is open and the war goes on, the situation will not get more peaceful, or riskless. As a result of this, we are faced with a real catastrophe, which will only be accelerated. What plays a very important role, however, is the positioning. It is no news to say that the Left is utterly disoriented and lost within its own terrain. It has been said that the Left never misses a chance to miss a chance. The on-going war in Ukraine and the positioning of the Left in that war will have long consequences for the Left itself.