oDR: Opinion

The Western Left doesn’t understand Putin – or the world outside the US

After Russia’s shelling of Kharkiv, the post-Soviet Left sees all too clearly what has been lacking from the West’s analysis

Volodymyr Artiukh
4 March 2022, 11.59am
‘US-plaining’ of the Russian invasion is not helpful
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Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

Here in the post-Soviet world, we have learned a lot from the Western Left.

By ‘we’, I mean communist, democratic socialist Left anarchist and feminist scholars and activists from Kyiv, Lviv, Minsk, Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, and other places that are plunging into the horrors of war and police violence.

After our own Marxist tradition was degraded and marginalised, we read commentaries on ‘Das Kapital’ in English. After the Soviet Union collapsed, we relied on your analysis of American hegemony, neoliberal forms of capital accumulation, and Western neo-imperialism. We have also been encouraged by Western social movements such as anti-war protests, Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

We appreciate the way you have tried to theorise our corner of the world. You have correctly pointed out that the US has helped to undermine the democratic and economically progressive options of post-Soviet transformation in Russia and elsewhere. And you are right that the US and Europe have failed to create a security environment that includes Russia and other post-Soviet countries.

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Amid Russia’s shelling of Kharkiv, however, the limits to what we can learn from you are clear.

Your knowledge was produced under the conditions of American hegemony, which has reached its limits at Russia’s blood-red lines. The US has lost its ability to represent its interests as common interests for Russia and China. It cannot enforce compliance using military power, and its economic leverage is shrinking. In spite of what many of you claim, Russia is not reacting, adapting or making concessions anymore. It has regained agency and is able to shape the world around it. Russia’s toolkit is different from that of the US. It relies on brute force rather than on soft power and economy. But brute force is a powerful tool, as you know from the US’s own behaviour in Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan and all over the globe. Russia has mimicked the coercive infrastructure of America’s imperialism, if not its liberal democracy and free market.

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But Russia’s mimicry of US imperialism does not mean dependence. Russia has become an autonomous agent. Its actions are determined by its own internal political dynamics, and the consequences of its actions are now contrary to Western interests. Russia shapes the world around it and imposes its own rules in the same way the US has been doing, albeit through other means. The Russian warring elites are able to turn their delusions into the facts on the ground, to make others accept them despite their will. Russia’s delusions are no longer determined by the US or Europe. They are not a reaction – they are a creation.

Having faced the unimaginable, I see how the Western Left has been doing what it does best: analysing American neo-imperialism and the expansion of NATO. But this is not enough: it does not explain the world that is emerging from the ruins of Donbas and Kharkiv’s main square. The world is not exhaustively described as shaped by or reacting to the actions of the US. It has gained dynamics of its own, and the US and Europe is in reactive mode in many areas. You explain the distant causes instead of noticing the emergent trends.

Thus, it strikes me how, when talking about the dramatic processes in our corner of the world, you reduce them to a reaction to the activity of your own governments and business elites. We have learnt all about the US and NATO from you, but this knowledge is not so helpful anymore. Maybe the US has drawn the outline of this board game, but now other players move the chips and add their own contours with a red marker. US-centric explanations are outdated. I have been reading everything written and said on the Left about last year's escalating conflict between the US, Russia and Ukraine. Most of the analysis was terribly off, much worse than many mainstream explanations. Its predictive power was nil.

This is not to accuse the Western Left of ethnocentrism, but to point to its limited perspective. Overwhelmed with the fog of war and psychological stress, I cannot offer a better perspective. I would only call for help in grasping the situation in theoretical terms while incorporating insights from our corner of the world. ‘US-plaining’ is not helpful to us to the extent that you think it is.

Do not let half-baked political positions substitute an analysis of the situation

We need to move beyond both the ruins of Eastern Marxism and our colonisation by Western Marxism. We will make mistakes on the way, and you may accuse us of nationalism, idealism and provincialism. But you should learn from these mistakes: now you, too, are also much more provincial.

You face the challenge of reacting to a war that is not waged by your countries. Given all the theoretical impasses I alluded to above, there is no simple way to frame an anti-war message. One thing remains painfully clear: you can help deal with the consequences of the war by providing assistance to refugees from Ukraine no matter what skin colour or passport they have. You can also pressure your government to cancel Ukraine’s foreign debt and provide humanitarian help.

Do not let half-baked political positions substitute an analysis of the situation. The warning that the ‘main enemy is in your own country’ should not translate into a flawed analysis of the inter-imperialist struggle. At this stage, appeals to dismantle NATO – or, conversely, accept anyone into it – will not help those who suffer under the bombs in Ukraine or in jails in Russia or Belarus. Sloganeering is harmful, as ever. Branding Ukrainians or Russian fascists only makes you part of the problem, not part of the solution.

A new autonomous reality is emerging around Russia, a reality of destruction and harsh repressions, a reality where a nuclear conflict is not unthinkable anymore. Many of us have missed the tendencies leading to this reality. In the fog of war, we do not see clearly the contours of this new reality. Neither do, it seems, the American or European governments. But this new reality will leave the post-Soviet Left with even fewer organisational and theoretical resources. Without you, we will struggle to survive. Without us, you will be closer to the precipice.

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