[WSMDiscuss] Left's Response to Ukrainian War

David Watson DWatson at cranbrook.edu
Sun Apr 24 15:32:53 CET 2022

Here is an orthodox anarchist position (hah!) or anarcho-syndicalist position on the war in Ukraine that, despite some minor inaccuracies, I think is worth considering. (To be clear, though I am associated with anarchists, I don’t consider myself an anarchist, and have said so far years. All isms are an argument, and I have enough of those to deal with already. If anything, I guess I am an anarcho-anarchist—unless you are.

Left's Response to the Ukrainian War

From: drwdprice via Utopian Discussion Group <utopian-discussion-group at googlegroups.com<mailto:utopian-discussion-group at googlegroups.com>>

Date: 3/31/2022, 5:01 PM

The Left’s Response to the Ukrainian War

by Wayne Price

Submitted to Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, March 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian resistance, has generated various responses among the U.S. left. Without focusing on specific organizations or individuals, I will discuss these responses, first with a brief comment on the liberals and then on the pro-Putin left and finally on the anarchists.

Most of what can be called the U.S. left is composed of liberals (or "progressives"), who are overwhelmingly supporters of the Democratic Party. I am thinking of readers of the NY Times or Washington Post and the followers of MSNBC, or the watchers of Stephen Colbert’s Late Night tv program. By no means all, but the big majority of these liberals are uncritical supporters of the administration’s policies. They use the horrors which the Russian state has forced upon the Ukrainians to justify all-out support for the U.S. The vast wealth which U.S.

corporations squeeze out of workers of all lands is ignored, as is the enormous U.S. military machine, larger than the next eight governments.

Also ignored is the U.S. military aid to the misogynist Saudi Arabian monarchy. With U.S. help, it has been attacking Yemen for 8 years, creating a humanitarian disaster. Also ignored, hypocritically, is the national oppression of the Palestinian people, by U.S.-backed Israel.

The wars which the U.S. state has waged around the world, the poverty it has caused, the oppressive regimes it has propped up, the global warming it has caused, are all put out of mind in the reflected glory of the brave Ukrainian people.

The "Anti-Imperialist" Pro-Putin Left

Further to the left is the anti-war and anti-imperialist left. These range from certain left-liberals and social democrats to self-described revolutionary socialists. Opposing the Ukrainians, they blame the U.S.

state for the war. They back Vladimir Putin. Their basic conception is that U.S. imperialism is the main or only imperialist power, and any opposition to the U.S. must be supported as "anti-imperialist."

The fallacy should be obvious. While the U.S. society is the biggest imperialist, it is not the only one. In its current form, Russia invaded and smashed Chechnya, invaded Georgia, and (eight years ago) Ukraine, as well as a large intervention in Syria, in alliance with the Syrian dictatorship. Previously, in the form of the Soviet Union, the Russian state incorporated a range of countries inside it, by force (one being Ukraine). It held down a third of Europe as satellites. To maintain its rule, the Soviet Union invaded East Germany (1953), Poland (several times), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968).

So many commentators on all sides of the war discuss it as if the only participants are the U.S. (and its allies) and the Russians. They treat the Ukrainians as passive bystanders in their own history--not as active protagonists, who make their own decisions and who deserve self-determination.

The pro-Putinist left focuses on the U.S. for expanding the NATO military alliance eastward, to the borders of Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has incorporated 14 new states, formerly ruled by the Soviet Union. There was talk of adding Ukraine to NATO, although it was decided against--but the U.S. would not promise that Ukrainian membership would never happen in the future. However, the pro-Russians ignore the motives of the eastern Europeans. Whatever the U.S.’s motivations, the rulers of the eastern European states felt threatened by Russia’s imperialism and wanted a counterweight, which made NATO attractive to them.

What this amounts to is competing imperialisms, each trying to expand its sway and increase its influence. The U.S. expands the NATO alliance.

Russia works to bring former Soviet states under its domination again.

That is how the imperialist world system works. But these "anti-imperialists" place all the blame on the U.S. side.

Those who solely blame the U.S. do not only point to NATO’s expansion.

They claim that Ukraine was going to put up nuclear missiles aimed at Russia, if the invasion had not happened. There is no evidence for this claim. Some who think that the invasion was at least ill-advised still blame the U.S. because it somehow "tricked" Putin into the attack.

Criticisms of Ukraine are also presented to justify the Russian invasion. In reality, Ukraine is a fairly corrupt and limited bourgeois democracy, in which the people had to overthrow the government twice.

There is a right-wing authoritarian and ultra-nationalist movement, which identifies with historical Ukrainian nationalists and even with Nazism. These control a volunteer military unit, the Azov battalion. But the neo-Nazis do not control the government or even have much representation in parliament. The president Zelensky is Jewish. There is also an anti-fascist movement, including anarchists and socialists.

Meanwhile there has been a civil war in eastern Ukraine between the central government and separatists who want their own republics for Russian-speaking, pro-Russian, people. This war has been going on for 8 years and killed some 14 thousand people. The Russian state has been giving military aid, including soldiers, to the separatists. Without this support, the central government would have won by now.

Vladimir Putin has claimed that the Ukrainian government is a puppet of the U.S., composed of Nazis and drug-addicts, formed with the deliberate aim of destroying Russia. He declared that his goal was to "denazify"

Ukraine. U.S. pro-Putinists repeat these lies. Putin has also said, repeatedly, that Ukraine is not really a nation but a part of the Russian people. Ukraine does not deserve a state of its own, he has declared.

It is rather nervy of the Russian rulers to denounce Ukraine as rightist. Putin’s regime has built up right-wing authoritarian ultra-nationalist forces. One such organization is the notorious neo-Nazi Wagner Group. Putin has whipped up anti-LGBT sexual hysteria to justify nationalist hatred of the "West." Putin’s political alliance with right wing forces in the U.S., especially with Donald Trump and his supporters is well known (which is connected to the pro-Putin sympathies of a large swath of Republicans and rightists).

I could go into a lengthy review of the facts about Ukraine, not to mention the civil war in the Donbas region. But this is, to a certain extent, a distraction. The question is not what are the flaws and problems of Ukraine. The question is whether these flaws, however they are understood, justify the Russian invasion! Even if most of these weaknesses and evils were real in Ukraine, they would not justify the Russians sending troops into the country, blowing up cities, massacring the population, and driving the people from their homes, including a quarter of the children.

Almost all leftists opposed the U.S. war on Iraq, despite the reality of the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. They opposed the war on Afghanistan despite the vicious misogyny of the Taliban. Israel’s denial of self-determination to the Palestinians is not okay because of the policies of Hamas or the PLO. The Vietnam-U.S. war was not justified in spite of the Stalinist dictatorship, and state-capitalist economy.

If Ukraine has faults, it is up to the Ukrainian workers and oppressed people to solve them. As a revolutionary anarchist I am not a supporter of the Ukrainian government or of its ruling class of oligarchs. I support the working people, who are being attacked by the Russian military and who are fighting back.

There are also left-liberals and pacifists who do not necessarily support the Russian aggression. They hope to persuade all sides to pull back from the war. In the U.S., this means calling on the administration and NATO to stop sending armaments to the Ukrainians. This sounds very pacific, but if the Russians continue to send arms to their military forces in Ukraine, while NATO stops sending arms, the Ukrainians will become disarmed in the face of a well-equipped enemy. This is simply a formula for the Russians to win.

Other efforts are made to propose demands for negotiations between the parties. But neither the Russians nor the U.S. politicians (nor even Western anti-war activists) have any right to tell Ukrainians what to do. It is for them to decide their future. No doubt there will be negotiations at the end of this nightmare. But it is not the role of an anti-war movement to be negotiators. That is the job of the "statesmen."

Our job is to put as much pressure as possible on all sides based on clear principles. Our demands should be something like Russia Out of Ukraine Now! Defend Ukraine! Don’t Trust NATO!

The Anarchists

By and large, U.S. anarchists abhor the Russian aggression and are sympathetic to Ukrainians, without showing sympathy for the U.S. state and NATO. Their issue is whether to support the Ukrainian people in their resistance to the invasion. In Ukraine, according to reports, the anarchists have almost all looked for ways to participate in the anti-invasion fight. Some have joined community mutual aid groups. Some have joined local volunteer military forces, affiliated with the government. Others have joined the regular army. Various tactics have been tried.

There are U.S. anarchists who are absolute pacifists, and oppose all wars. I leave them aside, since the mainstream tradition of anarchism, for all its hatred of violence, has supported wars of revolution and wars against colonial oppression. That aside, the two main reasons some U.S. anarchists raise for not supporting the Ukrainian struggle are its association with a state and its association with a nation.

Anarchists wish to overturn and end all states and all the ruling classes they defend. Our concern for Ukraine is the defense of the Ukrainian people. It is they who are being bombed and blown up and driven from their homes. And they are fighting back against the Russian invaders in a wide range of ways. A great deal of this resistance is being done through neighborhood and voluntary associations, with initiative from below. But the overall struggle is led by the national Ukrainian state. No doubt Ukrainian anarchists are seeking to persuade people that they do not need this state. But that is the situation right now.

Shall anarchists declare: The Ukrainian cause is just, but since the Ukrainian people are so foolish as to accept a state, we wash our hands of them!? Not unless they become anarchists will we support them against the Russian invasion!? Yet this is the stance of many U.S. anarchists.

This is made worse by the Ukrainian state’s taking aid from NATO. It is allying with Western imperialism and therefore, some say, may not be supported. But if I was in a community self-defense grouping when our city was invaded, and the only way to get arms was from the national state (which had gotten them from other imperialists), I would be in favor of our group taking these arms. I would even favor coordinating with the regular army units, to avoid being shot by "friendly fire."

But as anarchists we would always warn our group and others not to trust the agents of the state nor the imperialists. For example, I do not criticize the Kurds for taking weapons and support from the U.S. But I would have warned them to be wary and distrustful. The U.S. had its own motives and interests. As a result, the Kurds have been repeatedly betrayed and mistreated by their "allies."

In a situation such as the Ukrainian war anarchists should have two

goals: (1) to defend the Ukrainian people and defeat the invaders; and

(2) to spread the ideas of revolutionary anarchism, anti-state socialism, working class independence, and the ultimate goal of overthrowing the state and capitalism and spreading the revolution internationally.

The second goal also gives another reason for working with popular military forces. Rather than only influencing those who are already anarchists, we should want to influence the majority of fellow fighters.

But it is a tactical question of how anarchists should participate in this struggle, in order to do their best to promote their goals.

The Ukrainian Nation

The other reason some anarchists object to defending the Ukrainians is that Ukraine is a "nation" and anarchists are supposed to be against "nations" and "nationalism." Some anarchists argue that there are no such things as "nations," which are only fraudulent social structures set up to distract the workers from their class exploitation. Any concern with national oppression is supposedly the same as "nationalism," which is opposed to anarchist internationalism.

However, the world really is divided into nations. Although created through historical processes, France is real, so is the United States, not to mention Russia and Ukraine. People can be dominated and exploited through the national structure. The Russian missiles falling on the heads of Ukrainians are not killing them for being workers or women or LGBT, but because they are Ukrainians--a category which overlaps with oppressions due to class, gender, and sexual orientation. Class exploitation may be regarded as central to capitalist society (as I think it is), but it props up--and is propped up by--all other oppressions, including national oppression. This is a major part of imperialism.

Recognizing the reality of national oppression does not mean accepting "nationalism." "Nationalism" is a specific program for solving national oppression. It implies the unity of all classes and groupings, including the local capitalist class (or would be new state-capitalist rulers) as well as the exploited workers and peasants, as a bloc under the leadership (of course) of the capitalists and their agents. This may or may not result in an independent nation state. It will not end the domination of that people by the international corporate market or the world politics of the imperialist big states. The only real solution to national oppression is through international revolution by the workers and oppressed--so revolutionary anarchists believe.

The claim that all anarchists reject the defense of oppressed nations from imperialism is simply false. The revolutionary anarchist Michael Bakunin wrote, "Nationality, like individuality, is a natural fact. It denotes the inalienable right of individuals, groups, associations, and regions to their own way of life. And this way of life is the product of a long historical development [a confluence of human beings with a common history, language, and a common cultural background]. And this is why I will always champion the cause of oppressed nationalities struggling to liberate themselves...."

By "nationality...is a natural fact," he meant, not that nationality is a biological fact, but that it is created mostly by unplanned, unpurposive, social history.

Peter Kropotkin wrote, "True internationalism will never be obtained except by the independence of each nationality, little or large, compact or disunited--just as [the essence of] anarchy is in the independence of each individual. If we say, no government of man over man, how can [we] permit the government of conquered nationalities by the conquering nationalities?" Historically, anarchists have repeatedly supported national struggles, participated in them, and organized them--even while raising class liberation and anti-statism. One example was Nester Makhno in the Ukraine during the Russian revolution, who fought for Ukraine’s freedom from Poland, Russia, and Germany--as well as the freedom of the peasants from landlords. Other examples can be cited, such as the support French anarchists gave the Algerians when they fought for independence from France. Anarchists are internationalists, looking forward to a single world of freedom. Anarchists are also decentralists and pluralists. They do not want a culturally and economically homogenized world, ruled from one center, as the Marxists do. Anarchists look forward to a world of various cultures, freely interacting with, and networking with, each other. Some day this will include both Ukraine and Russia.


In the vicious war which the Russian state has levied on the Ukrainian people, there have been a diversity of responses on the left. Liberals have generally cheered on the U.S. state, ignoring the background of U.S. imperialism and aggression in the world. Much of the far-left has instead adopted a pro-Russian posture. They make excuses for Russia’s

invasion: the U.S. expanded NATO; there are Nazis in Ukraine; there has been an internal war in eastern Ukraine; etc. None of these arguments remotely justify Russian actions. But these leftists have learned so well to oppose the evils of U.S. imperialism, that they have lost their moral (and class) bearings. They will not stand with the oppressed, if these are in the wrong "camp."

This is not true of all of the left, by any means. Certain socialists and a section of the anti-war movement have declared that right is on the side of the Ukrainians against the Russians--while still being opposed to U.S. imperialism and NATO. (One example is the milieu around the left-socialist New Politics journal.) Anarchists are divided, with many torn between their hatred of oppression and their opposition to national states and the wars they fight. As this terrible war grinds on, we will have to see how these left-wing politics shake out.

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