IF EVER WE wanted proof that crises on their own do not promote the growth of the Left, we need only look at our world today. We live at the juncture of proliferating crises—environmental, military, economic, social-racial, epidemiological, and more—and yet the international left seems to be AWOL.
Where, for instance, is the global antiwar movement we have desperately needed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? We are talking, of course, of an antiwar movement that condemns Putin’s war and the aggressive expansionism of NATO that helped to provoke it. Yet, mobilization against war has paled in comparison to, say, the worldwide response to the American assault on western Asia in the early 2000s. A mass antiwar movement independent of both NATO imperialism and the Russia/China bloc could challenge imperial machinations on all sides. Crucially, it could also educate, train, and organize thousands upon thousands of activists for the great struggles ahead.
Instead, we lack a movement able to extend meaningful solidarity to the resistance fighters in Ukraine, as well as the brave protesters on the streets of Russia. Thousands of Russians have gone to jail for their antiwar protests, while independent journalists have been muzzled. All of them need and deserve an outpouring of global support as do the small but growing number of Russian troops who refuse to fire on Ukrainian civilians, who have fraternized with them, and who have openly condemned Putin’s war. All of these groups, which have put themselves at extraordinary risk, represent the possibility of a democratic and socialist response to the crisis. But unlike the early 2000s, when millions marched against war in Iraq, we lack a movement today that can make global solidarity a real force.
In the absence of an internationalist antiwar response to the crisis, the political right has been able to promote knee-jerk Russophobia, from the removal of Dostoevsky from university syllabi to mass vodka dumping. And it gets worse: in some cities, there have been people foolish enough to demand the removal of poutine, a Québécois dish, from menus, assuming the dish is named after the Russian leader.
Rather than aiding courageous antiwar Russians, such actions simply isolate and demonize them. And they do no favors to Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination, which is undermined by all actions that weaken and demoralize internationalists in Russia.
Anti-Imperialism and Self-Determination in an Era of Crisis
While the commentariat may be quick to attribute the invasion to the unique civilizational evil of Vladimir Putin, the sources of this war are more complex. Above all, this war is the product of renewed interimperialist competition. Since the Great Recession of 2008–09, national and regional antagonisms have been heating up, most notably in terms of rising tension between the United States and China. Putin, who nurtures dreams of restoring the empire of the Russian czars, has aligned himself with China in these disputes. That’s why, after a month of war in Ukraine, the Russian government cynically declared that it is building a new “democratic world order” with China. If only.
Ukraine is caught between, on one side, a deeply dangerous extension of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its direct ties to American imperialism and, on the other, Russian chauvinism and its commitment to its own sphere of influence as a secondary power aligned with China.
This is why neither Russian domination nor a proxy victory by NATO will do a thing to secure the self-determination of the Ukrainian people, whether Ukrainian or Russian speaking. Nor will Russia or NATO bolster the struggles of other minorities in Ukraine or those of working class and oppressed peoples around the world.
We unconditionally support the right of the Ukrainian people to defend themselves against Russian aggression. Oppressed nations have every right to demand self-determination and doing so in Ukraine is necessary to secure the space for any revolutionary politics. Ukraine has a long and storied history of bearing the brunt of Russian domination, from its economic marginalization to a long history of national oppression under various “Russification” schemes. Whether under the czar, the Stalinist regime, or various post-Soviet leaders, chauvinistic violence against Ukrainians has been a relative constant.
It is certainly true that neonazi forces exist in Ukraine, and we certainly hope to see them crushed. But we are currently in a period in which many uprisings of working class and oppressed people—including those of oppressed nationalities—contain far right elements. We’ve seen this in the US, in Brazil, in France, in India, and beyond in recent years. But in Ukraine this is an indication of both the organized left’s weakness and the US/NATO’s desire to sponsor any force arrayed against Russia. None of this is any excuse for anti-imperialists to support Russia’s imperial ambitions.
Above all, the idea that Putin’s aim is “denazification” is laughable. If the nazis in question are forces like the Azov Battalion, which formed in 2014 precisely to fight proRussian separatists in Donetsk, then the notion that more Russian military presence would subdue them is absurd. While calling for “denazification” out of one side of his mouth, Putin continues to advocate “decommunization” from the other. It is no accident that, according to the Kremlin’s text of his speech, Putin specifically blamed Lenin and the Bolsheviks for the very existence of Ukraine: “As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He is its author and architect,” declared Putin. He added for good measure that invading Ukraine would allow him to “show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”1“Address of the President of the Russian Federation,” February 21, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru.
It goes without saying that at Spectre we consider Putin to be right-wing scum, and we are disappointed that some self-proclaimed anti-imperialists have chosen one imperial axis over another. We loudly and unconditionally condemn the Russian act of war. But we also unequivocally condemn calls for US/NATO intervention as a solution, whether in the form of a no-fly zone or more straightforward military presence on the ground. Inviting more forces into Ukraine will only expand and extend the war, and it will strengthen the system of global imperialism.
As for sanctions, the bulk of their financial punishment is levied against ordinary people in Russia. American pundits continue to envision sanctions as targeted instruments affecting oligarchs and the Kremlin, but we know this to be false. Are we to celebrate the evaporation of household savings and the disappearance of pensions as somehow constituting an effective strategy to end war? Sanctions are also politically counterproductive, portraying all Russians as deserving of punishment, which plays right into Putin’s claims that only he cares about the Russian people.
The New Normal: Petro-Capitalism, Environmental Devastation, Refugee Crises, Pandemics
Among the horrifying aspects of the response to war in Ukraine has been the move of governments, particularly in the US, to ramp up the exploitation of fossil fuels—all in an absurd effort to undercut Russia’s energy exports. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Sixth Assessment Report earlier this year, demonstrating conclusively once again the extent to which the effects of global heating are now likely irreversible. As the planet continues to overheat, we need an enormous move to decarbonize energy. Instead, imperialist antagonisms are giving carbon capitalism a new—and terrible—lease on life. Earth will burn and the oceans will rise all in the interests of capitalist rivalries.
And while the planet heats up, more than two years into the Covid–19 pandemic there is no end in sight. Another variant is rapidly spreading throughout Europe and East Asia, among other places. Yet governments are increasingly abdicating any responsibility for a serious global health campaign, backed by economic support for people in need, that might actually address this enduring public health crisis.
Then there is the escalating refugee crisis. For obvious reasons, many eyes are on Ukraine, where images of more than ten million people fleeing missiles and bombed-out cities have shocked so many. But Ukraine represents just one site in the global displacement of many tens of millions of people due to war, poverty, hunger, and climate change. Tens of millions more will be turned into climate refugees in the years ahead. While supporting all efforts to support those fleeing war in Ukraine, we must simultaneously demand the opening of borders and migrant justice for all the displaced and dispossessed of the world.
Once again, the Left seems paralyzed. A global antiwar movement ought to be capable of joining forces with the millions, most of them young, who have rallied and marched in climate strikes around the world. It should be capable of joining hands with migrant justice movements around the world. The issues—war, climate change, displacement, and public health—are clearly interconnected. And the need could not be more urgent for an anti-
capitalist left that unites the opposition to imperial war, human displacement, vaccine apartheid, and environmental destruction.
As Spectre has repeatedly argued, this means rebuilding the capacities of the Left to mobilize in streets, workplaces, communities, and schools. It means revitalizing practices of insurgent activism. In too many parts of the world, the Left has prioritized the often deradicalizing terrain of electoral politics. We are all for using radical socialist electoral campaigns as one component of a fighting revolutionary strategy. But what we have witnessed time after time is the subordination of mass militancy to largely passive electoralism. The most striking recent example was the deliberate winding down of the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020 in favor of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. The results for left politics in the US were disastrous.
Yet the constituency for an insurgent left is still there. Witness the electric effect of the odious Ted Cruz waving around a copy of Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing during the US Senate hearings over the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson. By the next morning this radical text had soared up the bestseller lists in the US, as people rushed to embrace what Cruz had tried to vilify. The millions who marched for racial justice are still there, as are the millions who walked out in the Global Climate Strikes. The workers embracing union drives at Starbucks stores across the US and those who just won the stunning union drive at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island are indicative of the same fighting spirit. As war rages and the planet burns, we need a Left devoted to rekindling that spirit of street- and workplace-based activism and organizing. We need a Left that sets its sights on mass upheaval from below as the only real foundation of socialist insurgence.
That’s what it means to say we have a world to win.