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Did Somebody Say Imperialism?: Ukraine Between Analogies
This article is from the forthcoming Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Salvage. Subscribe before 30 June to receive it as the first in your print subscription, or support our work by taking out a digital subscription.
Lenin’s back. Vladimir Putin blamed him for the independence of Ukraine, which Putin promised to reverse in a macabre act of ‘de-communisation’. ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ was Lenin’s term for just this kind of irredentist domination of subject peoples. But as Ukrainians pack their belongings onto trains or patrol makeshift barricades to face their invaders, it is Lenin’s central theoretical category – ‘imperialism’ – which has made an apparently surprising return to the lexicon of Western debate. For two decades, commentators talked of Western ‘interventions’. Even the critics of those wars sometimes called them ‘humanitarian’. Now, such horrible euphemisms are at last objects of mockery in Europe and North America. When Putin speaks of a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine and Russia’s media regulator orders the press not to speak of an invasion, Boris Johnson flatly condemns ‘Russian imperialism’, instead. The real goal, he says, is to extend Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’. Profiles of Russian imperialism and its long history now appear in the Washington Post and in American foreign policy journals.
Of course, Lenin isn’t back. Just as ‘the working class’ no longer exists unless prefixed by the word ‘white’, so ‘imperialism’ is unmentionable until it can be attached to a rival faraway. There is a trap here, where the very word ‘imperialism’ becomes part of the imperialist arsenal. Imperialism is something nasty, crazy foreigners do. ‘We’ act in self-defence, or philanthropically for the good of humankind. All the imperialists play this game. Putin’s terrifying war in Ukraine is pursued, he says, to protect a vulnerable minority in Donbas or to free all Ukrainians from the yoke of the new Hitlers who rule them. It sounds familiar. In Russia, Bush’s bombs over Baghdad and Obama’s over Kabul might be called imperial, but Russian troops bombarding Mariupol and Kharkiv are liberators. In the United States, the story is simply flipped. Some imperialism is emancipatory. It is a fantasy that goes back to the British Empire, indeed to the conquest of the Americas. Criticism of Russian imperialism now comes dipped in this inter-imperialist poison.
Analogies with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century moments abound. ‘Imperialism’ then described a system structured by the competition between roughly equal actors of first or second rank. Large-scale, multi-actor wars were therefore Europe’s norm. As Russian tanks advanced on Ukraine, Time called this ‘The Return of History’. Putin is Peter the Great or Hitler or Stalin. The latest this historical gaze will go is into the 1960s: to comparisons with a Cold War moment of nuclear tension, and the need to resuscitate the traditions of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This is not only a feature of the war in Ukraine. Capital and empire before their late-twentieth-century transformations remain the ground zero for historical references, metaphors and connections drawn today. This tendency is present in analogies between Trump and Hitler; in the widespread use of ‘Victorian’ to describe the poverty and Rees-Moggian pomposity of austerity Britain; in Keynesian calls for a new Bretton Woods arrangement for the global macroeconomy; in David Harvey and Sven-Eric Liedman advertising the relevance of Marx by claiming our moment marks a return to the laissez-faire nineteenth-century he skewered. One founding claim of Salvage is that the 1970s refashioning of the global order – a complex structure of counter-revolution against insurgencies of race and gender and the colonised and imperialised, as well as (and in conjunction with) insurgencies of labour – changed the world more thoroughly than that. There has been a caesura, though ruptures are never total. Ukrainians are being bombarded. The ubiquitous analogies can mislead. We face an interlocking series of crises of the global order, and now the bitter encounter of imperialisms, after the End of History. We must begin again from the beginning: with the work of capturing our own time in thought.
Turn on talk radio and listen for a while. People are frightened. They see, in blanket coverage all across the Western media, a madman unleashing aggression unprovoked. The Guardian wonders whether Putin has succumbed to mental illness. Sky News correspondents are breathless with exhilaration as they film Ukrainians making Molotov cocktails to throw at the occupier. New York Times columnists compete with each other to prove which of them is most willing to ‘Do What Is Necessary’ to put an end to the invasion’s atrocities. Russia broke international law and launched a campaign of wanton aggression, so BBC journalists ask excitedly ‘what is the progress of the resistance?’ They did not ask quite the same questions in Iraq. The British government throws people in prison if they travel to Kurdistan to fight for freedom, but the Foreign Secretary blurts out that volunteers should pick up guns and fly to Ukraine. Other ministers slap her down. Against this backdrop, people feel the pull of that urge to ‘do something’. Concerts by Russian composers or with Russian conductors are cancelled; food is renamed on Western shelves to sound less Russian. None of it is enough. Our governments in London, Washington and Berlin appear pathetic. They fret about excluding Russia from the macrofinancial water cycle, SWIFT, while tanks advance. A prominent and respected British Member of Parliament says, ‘We can expel Russian citizens: all of them’. Exasperated, Joe Biden declares off the cuff that Putin cannot remain in power. The whole dynamic of the coverage yearns for gunfire to meet the gunfire. Facebook and Instagram change their rules to allow users to long openly for the deaths of Russian leaders and soldiers. Some worry about an escalating war, about bombs dropping all over Europe. The choices seem to be dangerous courage or sensible but quisling restraint. A few politicians in the West and a NATO general call for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Ukraine, which would mean aerial warfare between the nuclear powers of NATO and Russia. A grand coalition of Ukrainian human rights organisations echo the call, and then the Ukrainian President does too. A Ukrainian journalist breaks down pleading with the British Prime Minister to send in his bomber planes. The feeling of inaction and inertia is shameful. This is what talk of ‘Russian imperialism’ does throughout Europe and America now.
Listen to these phone-in shows for more than a moment, though, and you start to hear a nervous tension. In everything of which Vladimir Putin stands justly accused – the violation of national sovereignty; the disregard for the United Nations; the assault on a smaller nation that barely stands a chance, if left to fight alone; the tragi-comic language games that treat the attacked as the secret aggressor or call invaders liberators; even the corpses strewn across the streets of Bucha, Ukraine as once they were in Panjwai, Afghanistan and Haditha, Iraq – the mimicry of Western patterns is glaring. The point is clearly not that this makes Putin alright really, or that only Western powers constitute real imperialist threats. But hearing the radio phone-ins, one wants to tug at this tension, to say, ‘at last! Let’s talk about imperialism! Perhaps now you’ll extend the heartfelt desire for national self-determination and opposition to the bombing of hospitals to the people of Afghanistan too, and your admiration for resistance to the people of Palestine too, and do you know Yemenis bleed and die just like Ukrainians, though their murderers belong to the other imperialist camp?’ Look at the list of American soldiers who tortured and massacred in the Cold War and the War on Terror, and one commonality is that none have ever received much more than a rap on the knuckles. The disingenuousness of this humanitarian parade glares.
This might look like whataboutery, or distraction, or the rebellious child’s desire to blame her parents at every opportunity. But concern flows often now from nations of the global South. They suspect that chivalrous fears for imperialism’s victims are not the motive of Western states: the British Home Office covers itself in Ukrainian flags, while immediately refusing to waive visas for despairing Ukrainian refugees. Their sympathy is limited, then, or it is really about something else. When Putin unleashed his first and to date his most violent orgy of imperial devastation in the region, against Chechnya in 1999, he did so with Western support. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Tony Blair responded: ‘The Russians have been subjected to really severe terrorist attacks’. He visited Putin’s hometown to help boost the latter’s election campaign, to protests from Amnesty International. Russia was then an ally, and no less murderous. Since then, as realist analysts from John Mearsheimer to Henry Kissinger have long warned, Ukraine has been victim to a swelling clash between two power blocs. In 2006, Dick Cheney visited Lithuania and said of the pro-American transformation of the Baltic states: ‘What is true in Vilnius is also true in Tbilisi and Kyiv, and true in Minsk, and true in Moscow’. The hunger to spread was paraded publicly. American insistence on eastward NATO expansion – allied to Ukrainian nationalism and its eight-year war against Russian speakers in the eastern Donbas region – opened the space for militaristic rhetorics of both self-defence and humanitarian intervention on Putin’s part.
Things have gotten worse of late, not better. Volodymyr Zelensky’s 2019 landslide election victory in Ukraine marked a partial rowing back of some of the hardline anti-Russianism of the 2014 Maidan moment. His majorities were especially big in Ukraine’s east. He promised a negotiated solution to the war in Donbas. Russia duly replaced its aggressive Ukraine negotiator, Vladislav Surkov, accused of organising snipers to kill protestors in Maidan. But under heavy domestic pressure, Zelensky failed to grant Donbas special status as agreed at the 2019 Normandy Summit, and walked away at the last minute from a 2020 deal with Russia. Russia now claims a frustrating series of Ukrainian failures to meet its obligations under the Minsk II process, though both sides have repeatedly undermined the accords by continuing to fund military operations in Donbas. Ukraine’s President closed three TV channels controlled by Victor Medvedchuk – widely regarded as Putin’s man in Ukraine, but also the leader of the country’s biggest opposition force – and then placed him under house arrest in May 2021. 2021 was a busy year. As Biden and Putin finished a summit in June, Britain sent the HMS Defender warship into Crimean waters – to loud Russian protests, and claims of Russian shots fired and even bombs dopped. The Biden administration signed a Strategic Defence Framework with Ukraine in August, and a Charter on Strategic Partnership in November. Also in November, Russia protested unscheduled NATO drills in the Black Sea, calling them a ‘serious challenge’, then claimed to track four NATO spy planes in twenty-four hours, including an American high-altitude reconnaissance plane over Ukrainian airspace. The United States has given $2.5 billion to Ukraine in military assistance since 2014, on an escalating basis: the figure was $400 million in 2021. Meanwhile, Ukraine was increasing its military cooperation with one of NATO’s most violent member states in the region. After sending armed drones into the former Soviet Union to back its proxy against Russia’s in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, and after confrontations with Russia over Syria, Turkey sold the same TB2 drones to Ukraine – which used them to bomb Russian speakers in Donbas.
America’s prime Cold War strategist, George Kennan, described NATO expansion as a ‘tragic mistake’ as long ago as 1998, warning it would provoke ‘a bad reaction from Russia’. America’s last Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock warned that in extending Cold War tensions, NATO expansion risked provoking nuclear war. Bill Clinton’s Defence Secretary William Perry considered resigning over the issue. For a war that took everyone by surprise, this one was pretty persistently predicted by experts. Russia’s invasion was not a forced response of self-defence, since Ukraine was not preparing an assault on Russia, but it was the foreseeable reaction of a power attempting regional dominance. Why, then, push this escalation? The American intelligence establishment repeatedly told everyone in the weeks leading up to war that this was where we were heading, while insisting they would not change course, so it is striking how little commentary seeks to decipher why they might have desired this outcome.
One possibility is that the consistent bid to provoke of late has been an attempt to inflame Russian aggression in order to cause tensions in an emerging Russia/China bloc. The Chinese state is thought to be nervous about lending full support to the invasive quashing of national sovereignty. Now Western policy-makers and retired generals call on China to mediate, a bizarre moment of trust unless one suspects this is an attempt to prise a wedge between two key allies. Fears of a rising China and uncertainties about how to confront it presently define much geostrategic thinking in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union. Giovanni Arrighi read the 2003 attack on Iraq against that backdrop in his Adam Smith in Beijing, and in Salvage issue ten, Gary Howe presented such a reading of Brexit.
Western sanctions might, of course, produce an effect other than this fissure. Russia is now pushed to share an alternative to SWIFT with China, and likely to rely on China as its major energy export market going forward. Whether the provocation succeeds in isolating Russia internationally is still an open question. Just as Russia is relevant to Beijing in the need for second order members of an imperial bloc, India’s rightwing regime is important to Western imperialism’s ‘pivot’ against China – hence the courting of rival Pakistan by Russia and China, as evidenced by the presence of Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan in Moscow as the invasion was launched. Khan did not last the crisis, and blamed his downfall on it. But India abstained at the UN General Assembly on condemnation of Russia.
Nonetheless, the impressive project in coalition-building behind a punishing wave of sanctions to impoverish ordinary Russians stands as a symbol of enduring American power and influence. Lithuania cancels a shipment of 440,000 Covid vaccines to Bangladesh – the most densely populated nation on earth – in punishment after its government fails to join condemnation of Russia. If such symbols of concerted international disciplining led by NATO are a warning, the intended audience is surely in Beijing more than in Moscow. The United States and the European Union are China’s two biggest trading partners, so the sight of both moving to isolate Russia – with the last key domino, energy independence from Russia, as a stated goal of EU policy now – may cause concerns for Xi Jinping about a precedent. The declining hegemon searches for an encore. ‘A Russian defeat’, writes Francis Fukuyama in a telling recent memo, ‘will make possible a “new birth of freedom”, and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians’. The End of History might get going again. Fukuyama stresses that the ‘war to this point has been a good lesson for China’.
Worsening the dynamic of escalation, the European Union has turned itself now into a proper military bloc, pledging €500 million for military equipment to Ukraine. Their Versailles Declaration draws eerie comparisons with 1919’s Versailles Treaty: then Europe humiliated one of its own with tragic consequences, Emmanuel Macron opines, but now they only assail an outsider. Ursula von der Leyen heralds this military alliance as a new development, and it is (worryingly so), but it is not totally unexpected. The EU’s trajectory as NATO’s second fiddle for confrontation with Russia, evident in the politics of Ukraine’s 2014, joins with the militarisation of its southern borders, the semi-colonial economic punishment of its own periphery and its neo-colonial praxis in dealing with southern and eastern neighbours to make it a veritable bastion for contemporary imperialism. In February 2015, Angela Merkel condemned an Obama plan to send military assistance to Ukraine; the Minsk II peace process was launched in response, fearful of escalation. Now, any such fissures dividing hawks from doves are finally gone, as Germany plans to send its defence budget above 2 per cent of GDP, committing €100 billion in new spending. Not to be outdone, the Biden administration revised its already record-breaking military spending budget to make it yet more record-breaking, with earmarks for additional ‘lethal aid’ – the media’s new favourite euphemism – to Kyiv serving as justification. Germany alone will now spend significantly more on its military than Russia; the US ten times more. Germany has of late taken a less confrontational approach to both Russia and China than policymakers in Washington. So this moment is noteworthy for the speedy coherence of the Western bloc: the coming together, amid a crisis, of disparate actors whose disunity Putin might reasonably have expected. Britain offers a pointed example. After promoting a divorce from the European Union, its Prime Minister sided with the United States in pushing confrontation over emollience in the run-up to war. But once Russia’s invasion began, the British government rushed into unity with other European capitals. Some pro-European British socialists who declared Boris Johnson almost-fascist in recent years can now be found cheering on his anti-Russianism as a European virtue.
Russian imperialism provides the other part of the jigsaw. Under Tsarist censorship, Lenin wrote in 1916 of Russia’s rival Japan as an imperialist power; after the revolution a year later, he admitted he had been hinting at a reference to Russia really. Its objects of imperialist aggression, he said, then included Ukraine as well as Poland and Finland. Lenin placed an empire with a tiny, nascent industrial base in a common category with Britain and the United States since Russia too sought expansion to secure new markets. Today, Russia’s relative weakness might again attract us to this analysis. The ‘spatial fixes’ through which David Harvey reads imperialism are, after all, tools for managing not prosperity but capitalist crisis. Ukraine’s importance to Russian imperialism might grow in these times of stagnation, then. Since the year of global financial crisis and geopolitical confrontation over Georgia in 2008, Russia has never returned to its 6 per cent growth rate of the early 2000s. Ukraine has its economic importance in this tough setup. Indeed, the Maidan protests against the government of Viktor Yanukovich (previously a Governor of Donetsk, he was Ukraine’s only President since independence elected with the support of eastern regions of the nation) were initially entangled with anti-oligarchic, anti-corruption politics in a land where support for NATO was low. The resistance to the predatory incursion of Russian capital only later took on a geopolitical hue. ‘Maidan’ became ‘Euromaidan’. Ukraine is dependent on Russian energy and the transit fees it charges as oil is piped Westward, but Europe’s poorest country is also a major agricultural breadbasket and an industrial centre with an information technology hub in Kharkiv. It remains, as Russia was in the 1990s, torn between warring capitalist fractions who compete to rule. The leaked Pandora Papers show the ostensibly anti-corruption Zelensky hiding large payments from Igor Kolomoisky, an energy tycoon and owner of Ukraine’s biggest bank, whose TV channels launched Zelensky’s career. Ukraine has become a site of contestation between Russian and pro-Western capitalists each seeking control over its market and resources, including the 40 per cent of its economy that operates in the black market. Following 2014’s pivot away from Russia, Ukraine’s GDP shrunk by almost 9 per cent – more than Greece at the height of its recent woes. That was due to the shuttering of trade with Russia, its biggest partner. Kyiv in effect defaulted on $3 billion of debt to Russia, part of the doomed Yanukovich-Putin deal. The International Monetary Fund reacted with a loan of $17.5 billion.
Putin thus faces allied economic and geopolitical aggression through sanctions, NATO enlargement and its associated removal of semi-colonial spheres for the investment of Russian capital. But he faces it in a global context of American decline, signalled by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of imperialism’s puppet government there. Against this backdrop, the Russian state identifies a narrow window of possibility. If the American national security apparatus harbours dim hopes of regime change in Moscow now, Putin surely also understands the openness and urgency of this moment. Russia can accept its encirclement and asphyxiation as a finale of American unipolarity, placing it in a position of weakness as it approaches China for geopolitical partnership, or Russia can act to take advantage of American weakness by imposing itself as a serious imperialist player. This was Putin’s gamble in Syria, which paid off. The result is an interplay of aggressions. NATO expansion was the confluence of Clintonite optimism about an American millennium with strong Eastern European desires for defence against Russia’s pattern of aggression; the Polish state even once mused about acquiring nuclear weapons. That war emerges from such a setup requires no madman in the mix, contrary to most Western reporting. If Putin miscalculated by assuming Kyiv would fall as easily as Kabul, the error was – as Stephen Kotkin puts it – institutional more than psychological; personalist authoritarianism, with power concentrated in two hands, usually leads to poor intelligence since state servants fear delivering unwelcome news to the boss. But given negotiations now proceed in Minsk and Ankara with Ukrainian neutrality, accepting the annexation of Crimea and the autonomy of Donbas all on the table, it is not even clear that this carnage has been the Russian miscalculation that Western commentators rush to diagnose.
In research published just months before the invasion of Ukraine, the leftwing Russian dissident Ilya Matveev suggested that the logic of Russian imperialism changed in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. Marxist traditions, with their emphasis on the driving role of surplus capital in search of markets for profitable investment overseas, were apt to describe the oligarchic partnership between the state and capital in early post-Soviet Russia. Amid recent economic stagnation and a trajectory from oligarchy to Bonapartism, however, traditionally political imperatives have risen in importance. On Matveev’s reading, Russian imperialism is now less usefully analysed through the lens of capital accumulation; its motives are now security and pride for the Russian state, and the rebuilding of a Russian empire. Whether or not we accept this privileging of the political over the economic, such work is helpful in understanding the particular importance of Ukraine – birthplace of the Rus, and so of Novorossiya – to Russian expansionism. At least part of the motive for war now is an ideology of Russian might as the property of an expansive historic civilisation. The conception of Russian security afforded by this tradition involves holding imperial sway, analogous to America’s Monroe Doctrine of intolerance towards other powers supporting proxies in its backyard.
Ideas of ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ offer similarly barbaric ideological foundations to Russia’s rivals. Today, Zelensky asks volunteers to come to Ukraine to defend ‘Europe, and our common civilisational values’. In most of the world, most of the time, that civilisational project is not so defensive. Across Europe and North America, this project is both constantly mentioned and never critically diagnosed, so that the Russian and Chinese ruling classes can be made to look peculiarly frightening for their civilisational self-understanding as ideological legitimation for imperialism.
To speak only of imperialism is to miss the wider context explaining its shifts. Economic stagnation, climatic and epidemiological threats together generate geopolitical tensions now. If deadly viruses can semi-paralyse production as waves of climate refugees flow Northward and Westward and the costs of climate mitigation mount, and if slow energy-diversification demands reliance on oil-producing countries, all while the surpluses that ease the work of facing crises come under secular strain and social conflicts thus agglomerate domestically, this is a new backdrop calling for a new politics. In Germany, ‘energy independence’ from Russia likely means – at least in the short term; the only term that matters at this late hour – increased reliance on bituminous coal; in the United States, ‘isolating Russia’ means a green light to further ramp up the extraction of both oil and natural gas reserves. In the same month that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases yet another desperate plea to cease the burning, fossil-imperialism instead spells a reversal of the already lead-footed attempts at transition. If the rediscovery of direct conflicts between rival imperialisms and its attendant threat of nuclear annihilation weren’t already enough to restart the ticking of the doomsday clock, these machinations and realignments portend potentially catastrophic consequences on the climate front, all while inflation, inequality and low productivity gains provoke immediate cost of living crises. Global blocs thus attain a peculiar importance in defending both the access to surplus-value (here: access to nature’s resources that make it possible) and the political stability of their imperial progenitors.
This is the constellation of contemporary inter-imperialism. It is felt on all those fronts where the minimal comforts of the status quo now creak and falter at the seams, from climate to population. Turkey or Libya outside the European Union’s influence in stemming the migrant flow would mark a major threat: as Poland and the whole bloc found in Belarus. Retaliating against EU sanctions, Putin now threatens to invite the world into Russia with visas to allow people to travel to Belarus and knock on Europe’s door. On a more expansive geopolitical scale, the sudden public softening of American state attitudes to both Venezuela and Iran (where Britain pays a long-demanded debt to secure the release of jailed British nationals and Russia, not the United States, threatens to block the reopening of the JCPOA negotiations process) hint at a grand shift from a moment of unipolar hegemony to inter-imperialist competition: securing energy supplies while isolating Russia may provide the immediate trigger for America’s move from punishing challengers around the world to seeking to integrate them or risk losing them to a Chinese bloc. Economic needs demand geopolitical shifts; those changing economic needs are in turn caused by geopolitical ructions; those ructions reflect pressures of economic, social and ecological crisis. This is the apparent loop of overdeterminations. The ‘conjuncture’ – that category deployed by Louis Althusser to refuse mono-causal histories of modes of production and to understand the Russian Revolution instead as the articulation of political, economic and ideological crises, structured in dominance by capital – is still our most helpful methodological device. Now, though, it develops without an emancipatory pole.
It matters, actually, that Russia is a second order imperial power. The first days of the attack on Ukraine were not as barbaric militarily as America’s ‘shock and awe’ in Baghdad in 2003, and not because Putin is more humanitarian than Bush. Putin’s position is weaker: he sent in troops without a major bombing campaign to paralyse communication and transportation links in the invaded country, and so his troops have stalled, in part because he faces hurdles alien to American imperialism. When he acts aggressively, Putin has to worry about provoking countermeasures from his imperialist rivals. He simply does not have the alarming freedom of manoeuvre that America possessed after 1989. No rivals were likely to cause the dollar to tumble by swift and united action as has first befell the rouble after this invasion, and this is even without spiralling military confrontation through the possible future involvement of other states. It was possible, then, to speak of American imperialism in Iraq without having to look over our collective shoulder to worry too about the dangerous imperialism of America’s rivals. In Ukraine, by contrast, to speak of Russian aggression without reference to other powers is to distort the picture. If Russian imperialism were on the global scale of America’s – if Russia recruited Mexico and sought to recruit Canada to a ‘defensive’ military alliance, with Russian missiles stationed there and pointing towards New York – then for Russian citizens to talk only of American imperialism would be to exacerbate the problem at home. Faced by Ukrainian resistance, Putin turns up the dial of Russia’s aggression in the bombardment of refugees and urban centres, including a hospital and a university. That decision stands somewhere between the hubris of a hegemon and the do-or-die logic of a weaker party.
Pasts that haunt
At least from the age of Napoleon, ‘imperialism’ has named the union of domestic authoritarianism with a spirit of foreign conquest: we still need the work of analysis now to dissect its current underpinnings, but that noxious mix we can already identify and oppose. Against that open generality, the very word ‘imperialism’ is a homage to a more recent past for leftwing writers. It pulls Marxists into the intellectual firmament of the first two decades of the twentieth century, when a novel fusion of state and capitalist power amid the ascent of finance was thought to spur overseas expansion in a bid to defer crises of domestic underconsumption. From the liberal John Hobson to the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, and from moderate Marxists like Rudolf Hilferding and Karl Kautsky to the central place of ‘imperialism’ in Lenin’s debt to the brilliant Bolshevik intellectual Nikolai Bukharin, this was a moment of creative intellectual redefinition and the reexamination of categories in light of a changing world. It was, intellectual historians of the period might now remark, breathless and breathtaking.
In one respect, we are at last back to that future. ‘Imperialism’ for Marx’s generation meant a policy choice enacted by several states, Russia almost the most noxious among them. For Lenin’s comrades, the term instead named a structure of competition into which several states were locked. The use of ‘imperialism’ on the left to describe a problem of overwhelming American dominance was a post-1945 novelty, and the label might now better capture a problem of rivalry between domineering states. The left mostly mocked American insistence that a Russian attack was coming, so now some re-evaluation of the multiplicity of contemporary imperialist actors is due. Each state will frame its violence as forced, and with some foundation; structures constrain agents. Each state will cast its rivals as free agents acting out of pure avarice or insanity, to distance itself from them. At some level, every act of aggression in a tense world system can be understood as pre-emptive defence. When that defence involves the attempt to control other countries or to marshal them behind the orbit of a bigger power, we can diagnose imperialism without the need to pathologise the psychology of its authors. But this definition tells us little by itself: the conjuncture is much more than these general bare bones.
Since the present is difficult to grasp, people love to take refuge in the past. Analogies are one example of that. The West’s favourite, as with all its chosen villains, is to cast Putin as Hitler. The appeal of the Second World War is that in figures like Winston Churchill all the sins of the past can be made to seem like insignificant distractions or appalling relativism; British imperialism, headed by a racist class warrior, saved the world from the worst thing ever. On the other side of the Atlantic the story is altered – American troops saved Europe and stopped the Holocaust – but the myth-making serves the same purpose. These are stories for clean consciences and Manichean moralism. The more obvious analogy is to Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, but there Russian aggression looked different; Imre Nagy in Hungary wanted neutrality, which is what Russia wants for Ukraine now, and twelve years later Dubcek did not even seek to leave the Warsaw Pact. So the imposition of Russian control by sending in the tanks in those cases was perhaps more imperial than in Ukraine today. On the other hand, seen globally this is certainly not like the twentieth century’s long middle, when the purported alignment of one (or two, following the Sino-Soviet split) imperial powers with the history and politics of socialism generated some openings for radicals, in the view of many on the global left. Putin’s favourite European politicians come, it appears, from the far-right, who recognise in him a co-thinker. To suppose that an imperial system transitioning from unipolarity to mushrooming inter-imperialist conflicts might offer hope in any consistent or systematic way is probably to succumb to the ruse of analogy again, to live in the past. Nuclear tensions now do not arrive in a world that also spawns the hope of the Cuban revolution, or anti-colonial struggles from Angola to Vietnam.
Perhaps, then, the solution is to move back still further in the quest for usable pasts? Partly, yes. Ukraine is now, as Belgium was in 1914, subject to the violent designs of an imperial power locked into inter-imperialist conflict. The present inter-imperialist conflagration is constituted by a particular inequality: a globe-straddling power anxious about its ebbing prestige while its rivals seek increasingly to break that structure, which relegates their imperial influence to a lesser rank. That may sound like the Britain-Germany rivalry circa 1890-1914, and doubtless many in Washington now imagine a similarly definitive and similarly short-sighted humiliation for the young imperial pretender, though ideally without the loss of American lives. Ukrainians are to die for them.
The difference, as of now, with 1914-18 is that in Ukraine only one imperialist power is invading a neighbouring country and attempting to crush its sovereignty. This point is not clear-cut – both because Ukraine’s relationship to the self-determination of its Eastern regions has been at least questionable and certainly violent, and because the other imperialist camp has its subtler pressures in Europe and is currently responsible for more devastating violence elsewhere, which receives less attention because (here the parallels to World War II, and to Hitler, become deeply queasy) victims in Europe seem to matter most. But the First World War analogy risks shirking how the scenario would change, massively, if NATO or the European Union launched a full war against Russia now. Why are they so comparably cautious (Biden’s gaffes notwithstanding)? One difference is that, from airspace access to Interpol to military and civilian software and high-technology innovations, states are more reliant today on an architecture of international cooperation whose curtailment can thus provide a strategy of economic war without the risks of soldiers shooting at each other. Sanctions, which killed more civilians in the 1920s and 1930s than the First World War managed to do, are today all the more potent. As such, although American imperialism may be the greatest danger to the world, it is not now the only or the greatest violent danger to the people of Ukraine. ‘Learn to think’, Trotsky said of such moments.
It follows that the old slogans of proletarian internationalism, the left’s finest tradition from the First World War years, should be dusted off and rethought too. ‘The main enemy is at home!’ was the language of Zimmerwald in 1915, when anti-war socialists gathered from across Europe. This vocabulary assumed two things: that every ruling class on the continent was catapaulting its workers into mass death (today, this may quickly become true of the Russian ruling class, which is why anti-war protestors in Russia – dismissed by a Putin ally as ‘gays, lesbians, Trotskyists and left scum’ – have the clearest resonances with Zimmerwald), and secondly that a growing workers’ movement presented the real possibility of breaking the whole imperialist system through revolutionary social transformation. A slogan from the small International Socialist tradition fifty years later, ‘Neither Washington Nor Moscow!’ now attracts more support on the left than it did in Soviet times, but it offers only a good worldview where Zimmerwald’s line proffered a strategy too. And strategies, alas, are pinned to the conjunctures they address.
The main enemy might sometimes still be at home, and for some of the old reasons too: if we want to stop the inter-imperialist intensification that leads to bloodshed, our most useful contribution may be to hold back our ruling classes in Western capitals while working with those in Moscow battling for the same thing there. This is far from obvious. One lesson of 1914 is that each imperialist power can plausibly construct the other as the real menace; German troops were written up in the British press savaging neutral Belgium, to the horror of British socialists, while German socialists were persuaded to vote for a war against Tsarist absolutism with its pogroms for Jews and Siberian exile for dissidents. Following that pattern again in the West is unwise, if we still think Western imperialism is a key cause of this maelstrom in Eastern Europe, and if we note how a failure to propagate that insight at home permits justified horror at ‘our’ state’s imperialist rival to sink unwittingly into boosterism for its imperialist allies. But when socialists everywhere toppling all our rulers in concert looks unlikely, ‘the main enemy’ slogan is transformed into a miserable one, which guards importantly against nationalist illusions but no longer offers firm answers to stop the dying. That would surely render the slogan unrecognisably different to its authors, whose goal was to turn imperialist wars into class wars that would be won sufficiently quickly for the present imperialist war to be ended by new revolutionary administrations. Their slogan is fully coherent only within this argumentative apparatus.
Our condition, then, is unlike this past. A final analogy closes our survey, though it has barely been raised. What if this is not war in 1914, nor 1939, nor Soviet aggression in 1956 or 1968, nor even quite the nuclear confrontations of the Cold War, but 1973? It is too rarely stressed that the partial social revolution that changed our lives, ‘neoliberalism,’ was precipitated by a crisis for the previous order at the level of imperialism. States allied to Israel – from imperial America and Britain to colonial Portugal and settler-colonial South Africa – were the objects of the OPEC boycott that provoked an energy crisis. Oil supplies were then a tool in a global war of position against an imperial bloc, after Arab defeats in the four wars of manoeuvre culminating in 1973. Then, a massive oil price increase rippled across supply chains and choked economies in price rises amid unemployment and slowing growth. Today, the loss of Russian energy supplies threatens to destabilise rocky economies emerging from a pandemic and facing long-run trends of stagnant productivity and living standards while stalking inflation returns from the history books.
The picture looks much like 1973, the last cusp of coming transformation. Once again, threatened destabilisation emerges in the shadow of war: massive economic dislocation (even in Britain, where reliance on Russian gas is minimal, research suggests living standards could fall by £2500 per household) as the consequence of political turmoil. When railway workers in London go on strike, the Daily Telegraph suggests they are in league with Putin. It is an eerily old-fashioned charge, waved at the factory militants of ’70s Britain. In a crisis, enemies of stability and Our Way of Life are to be found across oceans and under the bed. Truly the domestic and the global, the political and the industrial and the economic, are all visibly interlocked. The 1970s analogy is useful in departing the isolated plain of geopolitics, which the predominant analogies discussed above tend to reinforce. As recent work by Quinn Slobodian and Adom Getachew has stressed, the survival of old imperial hierarchies was at stake alongside the maintenance of class hierarchy in the neoliberal counter-revolution. The oil crisis was an occasion to clamp down on a world order where imperial powers could be made so nervous: the succeeding, neoliberal world order included not just Western privatisations but also Southern coups and an international policy and legal architecture for protecting ‘free trade’ and corporate power from the sovereign power of the once-colonised. A grand shift in the organisation of capitalism followed from a polysemic crisis (‘polycrisis’, is Adam Tooze’s helpful frame now), where geopolitical and economic control were co-dependent and co-threatened. Then, American imperialism seized on the crisis and resolved it in the interests of global wealth and power, and American wealth and power. What will be the outcome now? With its geopolitical balance of power open amid economic crisis and cultural fissures, this moment resembles in many ways the global transition to neoliberalism. This is another time of transition, framed by the unravelling of a social, economic, geopolitical and ecological model.
This comparison, more than trenches and full European war, offers a hint about the scale of the present moment. It is still only a hint. 1973 marks the final moment before the making of our present world, so this is the final analogy in which we might take refuge: to a past we more comfortably understand. Unlike the 1970s, this is a grand clash without any inspiring leading actors. Then there was a global labour movement frightening to capitalists, and inspiring struggles everywhere for freedom against empire and patriarchy. Now the old imperial bloc is in the lead, not reactive as in 1973 – Joe Biden announces a ban on all Russian energy imports and a renewed enthusiasm for the expansion of domestic hydrocarbon extraction in US, all before Russia can punish the West by cutting off its supply. This could be, as the historian of sanctions Nicholas Mulder puts it, ‘the first global recession caused by sanctions’.
On local scales no less than global ones, the past overshadows attempts to speak of Ukraine. ‘Self-determination’ is, with ‘imperialism’, the other old Leninist shibboleth complicated by present realities. The historian Aviel Roshwald speaks of ‘sponsored self-determination’, wherein great powers pursue their interests through patronage. Both sides are at it. Western media reports show plucky Ukrainians in Kyiv or Kharkiv with homemade weapons ready to face a mighty aggressor, while Russian media shows interview after interview with children in Donbas painting their own black, blue and red flags and terrified of Ukrainian attacks. Both sides experience themselves as the small sufferer facing more potent aggressors; it is a general rule of thumb that in the politics of confrontation, everyone wants to be a victim. And so the scales get shifted: the big bully is Ukraine harassing vulnerable Donbas, or Russia trampling on small Ukraine, or globe-straddling America using Ukraine as its pawn to demean Russia. Putin was visibly irritated when his own intelligence chief suggested Russia’s policy was to annex Donbas, rather than recognising the threadbare ‘independence’ of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’. The powerful often enlarge their power by presenting themselves as defenders of the weak, who cannot look after themselves; the image of the patriarch in patriarchy is perhaps the most obvious example. Such is the form of Putin’s claim to defend anyone in Ukraine.
Against him, Ukrainian nationalism was forged in the moats and ditches of Cossack fighters. The Khmelnytsky Uprising began in 1648. In Westphalia, this was the year canonically offered as the beginning of national sovereignty in Europe. Khmelnytsky codified in ethnic terms the social tensions between a largely Polish, Catholic nobility governing a Ukrainian peasant population. The expression of social conflicts in ethnic terms has deep costs; Ukrainian aristocrats after the Uprising retained their command over serfs and sway over peasants, and vastly increased their social power by the quashing of their Polish rivals at home. Khmelnytsky is in Jewish history a by-word for the enormous pogrom that accompanied the Uprising. Jews represented the enduring constitutive Other of Ukrainian nationalism as its domineering external threat shifted from Poland to Russia. Jews were in the 1650s identified as traders greasing the wheels of Polish control. In 1917 they became the agents of Russian domination, personified by Trotsky, himself a Ukrainian Jew. A racial conservatism, by which social hierarchies were policed through ethnic identification, was the original mark on the skin of Ukrainian nationalism and so it shaped much of its resulting discourse. The far-right in Ukraine sometimes stressed an invented Jewish-Russian link in 2014 amid protests against pro-Russian politics. Though the anti-NATO left sometimes now concentrates on geopolitics alone in explaining Ukraine’s crisis, this setup has deep local roots. Jews and the Roma proffered twin internal enemies for a domestic politics to complement the outward-facing hostility of anti-Polish and then anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism. A national bloc was cohered behind the nobility, and domestic social tensions found expression through ethnic binaries that also reinforced those vertical communities uniting fiefs and vassals. Pogroms defined Ukrainian relations with a huge Jewish population legally restricted to that territory by the Tsarist Pale of Settlement; the city of Rovno, where the family of one member of our editorial collective lived until they left or were driven out, was 50 per cent Jewish before the Holocaust. In the firmament of nationalist anti-Bolshevism, 100,000 Ukrainian Jews were slaughtered in pogroms in 1918-19 alone.
This was the long road leading an estimated 20,000 Ukrainians to volunteer for the SS: to fight Jewish and Russian domination. Ukraine’s nationalist ‘resistance’ during the Second World War also murdered Jews and hoped for an independent nation in alliance with Hitler. Over one month in the summer of 1941, they worked with German death squads to massacre Jews in Lviv; the Nazis boasted of 7,000 murders. The nationalists’ slogan, the language of the pogromist Stepan Bandera – ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ – now falls readily from the lips of Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen. That same anti-Semitic army, long regarded with some discomfort in Ukraine, was rehabilitated as a force of national heroism after the 2014 Euromaidan protests. Just two months before the end of World War II, with Hitler crumbling, 50,000 Ukrainians could still be found to volunteer for a pro-German army; one of its leading generals, Petro Dyachenko, was commemorated in the Ukrainian parliament in 2015. The call by Western Ukrainians to place their country in the sphere of influence of the ‘civilised’ European Union, which has turned the Mediterranean into a pool of black and brown skeletons, against Russia has its racialised historical baggage. In 2014’s Obama-approved government, the victory lap after the ‘pro-European’ protests, a far-right party operating a racist militia received four ministries including the Ministry of Defence. There is nothing unique in Western patronage here. Across Europe from Portugal to Greece, fascists were cherished by American imperialism as reliable anti-communists after 1945. Now, coming so soon after the supposed protection of Jews wielded in the vilification of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, sagas like these serve to illustrate how Jews remain precarious objects of the defence of a global coalition for whiteness and Westernness.
All of this is readily distorted. Vladimir Putin offers us talking points about ‘Nazis’ supposedly dominant in Ukraine. The real story is quite different. It is a tale of a broad nationalism once honed in the defence of rigid agricultural social hierarchies, as a class project of Ukrainian landowners, while Kyiv and Odessa then birthed much of the cultural and political vanguard of the Russian empire – partially transforming the politics of Ukrainian self-determination. The radical ‘Southern’ wing of the early nineteenth century Decembrists, seeking to remould a feudal and autocratic Russian empire into a republic with land redistribution, were Ukrainian. They too were ‘Westernisers’. This is not a peculiar Nazi enclave. Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi today stands four-square behind its Jewish President. Both insist, rightly, on defending self-determination against an invader. The nationalism that polls well is little different from its cousins in Poland or the Czech Republic, where the far-right also prospers at its margins, and in Hungary the picture is considerably worse.
War, though, is always a radicalising force. The Nazi-linked Azov Battalion was integrated into the Ukrainian army in November 2014, though its founder then yearned openly to ‘lead the white races of the world in a final crusade…against Semite-led Untermenschen’. In March 2020, a militia named after a catechism from Hitler launched a planned, coordinated attack against Roma people in a train station in Kyiv. A Ukrainian government minister accompanied the pogromists. The mastermind of the Right Sector, Dymitro Yarosh, was made a special advisor to the army: these forces were initially crucial to ‘law and order’ in major cities amid revolutionary tumult, then provided some of the manpower for war in the East against Russian speakers. None of that has prevented their recent electoral unpopularity. As the Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko has stressed, the nationalist call to pit ‘civilisation’ against the Russian menace has a reactionary resonance much broader than the neo-Nazi politics included as its hardest edge. Just months after Zelensky imprisoned pro-Russian opposition leader Medvedchuk, the Azov Battalion attacked a bus full of Medvedchuk’s party workers. In January 2022 Ukraine’s President personally declared the fascist militia leader Dmytro Kotsyubaylo a ‘Hero of Ukraine’, among the country’s highest honours. Zelensky and Kotsyubaylo do not have the same politics, but the well of anti-Russianism in Eastern Europe is not progressive, emancipatory anti-colonialism. Zelensky is far from the most enthusiastic drinker from that well. Stressing the presence of the far-right as an organised, conscious force risks missing much of the problem. A far wider nationalist discourse can threaten minorities from Russians to Jews to peace activists to the Roma, while cementing authoritarian neoliberalism. The Ukrainian Ambassador to Britain sees black residents joining the exodus from Ukrainian cities and advocates racial segregation among the refugees.
Meanwhile in Russia, a fascist – Aleksandr Dugin – long had the ear of Vladimir Putin. Neo-Nazi militias fight now on both sides in Donbas; the first separatist Governor in Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev, was once a member of the Russian National Unity paramilitaries whose logo is a thinly disguised swastika. The ethnic supremacist politics of pan-Slavism, national Bolshevism and Orthodox theocracy compete among the separatists, where one group fights under the flag of Nicholas II, Russia’s last Tsar. The lesson here is that East/West binaries obscure a common trend towards identitarian atavism amid the experience of social crisis. Indeed, pro-Russianism in Donbas is so thoroughly the mirror of Western Ukrainian nationalism that in 2015 Donetsk’s then separatist leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, praised the anti-Russian Right Sector for ‘beating up gays’. The Communist Party, barred from Kyiv’s Presidential elections in 2019, was already struck off the rolls in the Donetsk ‘People’s Republic’ in 2014.
If Russia’s friends in the West were once Communists, after the End of all that History the constellation is thoroughly changed. The alternative to technocratic neoliberalism in crisis that aligns with Russian klepto-capitalism returns to the hoary old politics of racial communities and speaks a language of civilisational supremacy in the mode of violent, exclusionary post-imperial sentimentality. The Western left, which distrusts pilfered money from corrupt privatisations laundered clean in nearby property markets, only seem like Putin’s natural bedfellows through an over-historical imagination. In the present, Putin assembles a coalition of admirers among rightwing Evangelicals, white nationalists, and Fox News hosts in the United States, behind a war on LGBT rights with Russian conferences and money to back it. The Russian President attacks the European Union for being too soft on the people it has drowned in the Mediterranean: for failing to defend Christendom from the migrant hordes. The claim that Europe is run by gays and Muslims functions like all the West’s lurid stories about mistresses and second families among Putin’s circle to suggest that the rival civilisation in this inter-imperialist clash is debauched, degenerate and dying. Bulgaria’s neo-Nazi Ataka party sent its leader to Moscow to celebrate Putin’s sixtieth birthday in 2012. Hungary’s Jobbik fascists were then invited to the Duma in 2013. After crisis hit Ukraine in 2014, developments sped up. In October 2014, Russian banks arranged a loan for Marine Le Pen, who called Putin ‘a defender of the Christian heritage of European civilisation’. In 2016, the ruling United Russia party formally allied with Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, releasing a press statement about the perils of immigration in Europe. In 2018, Le Pen’s hardline Islamophobic rival Eric Zemmour promised to be a ‘French Putin’.
Now, though, some of these erstwhile allies are in a quagmire as defending Russia’s war becomes illicit in the West. Far-right Members of the European Parliament refused to vote against condemnation of Putin. Italy’s once-powerful crusader against migrants, Matteo Salvini, no longer wears t-shirts with Putin’s face on them. Communist Parties like those of France and Italy were far from obedient drones for Moscow, they had their own local constituencies and commitments, but at least they were held together by a historic glue of admiration for Red October. Liberal Russophobia may freeze that past, but these contemporary alliances are different. They are built out of some ideological sympathy and some convenience but with Russia too weak to be a guiding, still less dictating figure. After the invasion, though, Putin’s name was cheered at the America First Political Action Conference in Florida, where attendees included the founder of the Proud Boys street gang and a Republican member of Congress who thinks the Rothschilds are funding space lasers. Conspiratorial thinking takes refuge in the illusion of a puppet master, but our real context is more frightening than Putin’s intrigue alone; nationalists on the march everywhere are nourished by the common crises their supporters experience in a world after the rise and fall of emancipatory ambitions.
Once again, and even accounting for the tragedy of Soviet imperialism or for Stalin’s anti-Semitism, Cold War analogies fall short. The language of self-determination is now the plaything of two camps both seeking to sustain openly revanchist politics and oligarchic economics. That is the desert of the present. Obsessed by the past, the left abroad is pulled between two bad poles: seeing in Russia something of the former Soviet Union, at least nominally committed to resetting colonial and imperial injustices, or overcorrecting for that hazardous illusion by making Ukraine into Vietnam to prove that we can hate Russian imperialism as thoroughly as we detest the American kind. The telling structure of desire in both cases is a will to identify with one protagonist, which lends not only a false clarity but a false pride to the judgement of the situation: one side in a war is almost our ideal version of ourselves, on that thinking. The approach encouraged by this perspective is more awkward, since it finds few angels in the mix. The suggestion is not that since racist politics flourishes there, Ukrainians have no right to self-determination; it is rather that the forces consciously championed or effectively boosted by both imperial blocs are harbingers of further devastation. Neither the inter-imperialist championing of Ukraine for NATO’s ends nor its accompanying Ukrainian nationalism holds out much hope. Zelensky’s April statement that an independent Ukraine now would look less like ‘liberal’ Europe and more like militarised Israel offers a telling model. Ukrainian flags fly everywhere in Western capitals now – in London, government buildings in Whitehall have even hoisted them alongside the Union Jack – not because Ukrainians suffer (though they do, horrifically) but because their suffering makes sense within a story of European enlightenment, whose borders must be fortresses against the invading hordes. In this sense at least, Ukraine is now like Israel. Both are cast as frontiers for the civilised world against the wilderness. ‘Barbarians’, was the one word headline the Guardian chose in reporting on the massacre at Bucha. Such a racialised, civilisational story is not the only or the best way to oppose Russian imperialism, but it explains the proclaimed opposition to it from rival imperial powers with their own violent histories and designs. The Russian imperialist project is equally noxious: to place Ukraine under its thumb while sponsoring the politics of civilisational supremacy.
To watch Ukrainians bravely resisting criminal invaders and to know all this too is to experience a tension the left prefers to avoid, opting instead for morality plays with Ukrainians as besieged Spanish Republicans or Russian imperialists as the nerve centre of exciting resistance to America. The focus on Nazis is designed to shock and to exceptionalise, but the truth is a more banal, more familiar misery of kleptocracy and nationalism fused. Anatoli Ulyanov, the prominent Ukrainian artist beaten up for his opposition to Ukrainian nationalism and defence of LGBTQ rights and now living in exile in the United States, summarises the dispensation as follows:
Neocolonialism remains invisible to us. When Crimea is annexed, we understand it: soldiers, guns – classics … But ‘independence’ on IMF loans that our children and their children won’t be able to pay back; Carpathian trees becoming IKEA chairs; the aspiration to join the imperial military bloc NATO, written in the Constitution of our sovereign state – none of this alarms us … This is our way of ‘European integration’ – to pimp our Motherland to ‘the better master’. We keep telling ourselves that it’s not capitalism that brings us to our current problems, but rather the lack of it. So we’re going deeper into the swamps of the market empire, trying to purge ourselves from our past and replace it with the imported present of ‘true capitalism’. This is a casino fever.
We, the dejected hope
There is no mighty ‘we’ that can swing into action now. That is a lesson the left must often learn, and a dreadful one. Vile horrors are plotted and we have barely any means of stopping them; we can work for the doors to open everywhere to refugees, and we must, but stemming the production of refugees is beyond our immediate power. We can call for Ukraine’s noxious foreign debts to be dropped, the product of vampiric 1990s privatisers who represent the economic advance guard of Western imperialism, but that will not save lives or stop the Russian bombing now. When Western citizens see Putin or Assad committing atrocities and say, ‘we must do something’, and when by that they mean bombs or sanctions, they are right to be appalled but they presume an identification with the states in which they live. They also assume an agentic picture of world politics, where a few bad apples are the exception in an international structure whose superior norms can be brought to bear on miscreants. That will not do.
Consider the case of two parliamentarians in two different countries. In Britain, in a House of Commons debate about recognising the State of Palestine the Labour MP Julie Elliott mused innocently enough that self-determination matters in Ramallah just as it does in Kyiv. Don’t make that comparison, other MPs leapt immediately to tell her. It is important that we narrate the crisis in Ukraine through an implausible vacuum of space and time – nowhere else in the world, none of the theatres of American imperialism, may be permitted to intrude on the picture of Western liberty threatened by Russian authoritarianism, and for the same reason we must start the story mere weeks ago with a Russian invasion. In Russia, Mikhail Matveev becomes the first member of the Duma to call on the state to stop the war. He voted for it days earlier, he explains, because he wanted Russia to protect the people of Donetsk and Luhansk from almost eight years of Ukrainian shelling. Elected on the Communist Party ticket but with a more stridently anti-Putinist politics than the Party leadership, he now rightly sees this as an aggressive military venture instead. ‘What took him so long?’, Western observers might well sneer. Our own liberals make the same move time and again though – the absence of imperialism as a category of analysis will do that to you, reading your state’s wars as defensive or humanitarian but never as expansionist self-interest. In Russia and in Britain, in China and in the US, this is a deeply dangerous and utterly pervasive ideological illusion. Lasting, happy peace in Eastern Europe requires demolishing both rival imperialisms, so we do a desperate disservice to that hope if we feed the chauvinist frenzy wherever we live now. It is easy, though, to lose sight of such backdrops when the shooting starts. The claim of politics against humanitarianism is that contexts matter, since they make the massacres happen.
Fourteen thousand Russian heroes in over a hundred Russian cities are arrested for protesting against this shameful war. They are loudly condemned at home as agents of Western imperialism. When a handful of leftwing British Members of Parliament oppose both the Russian state and NATO, the Financial Times calls them ‘pro-Putin.’ (Happily, the ‘pro-Putin left’ is today largely a bad faith invention of Western imperialists. The Morning Star, paper of the Communist Party which sometimes read Russian state violence generously long after 1991, now eloquently excoriates the warmongers in Moscow. The Stop the War Coalition, furiously assailed as a fifth column, sharply condemns Russia’s attack. Bernie Sanders, painted as a Russian sympathiser as far back as his failed primary challenge against Hilary Clinton, issues a statement flawed in its support for sanctions, but crystal clear on its criticisms of the invasion). Dissent means siding with the enemy. Stuck in their inter-imperialist binary, the trigger-happy militarists of each bloc cannot imagine the only hopeful thing in the world: a third camp which fights to defang threatening warmongers everywhere. That camp is noble but puny, though, unless one conjures some other, vaster power sitting behind it: a ‘defensive’ imperial bloc for saving civilisation and all things good. Without that faith, which animates nationalism in every capital now, we are lost. The left, still remembering the revolutionary wave that spread in the embers of the First World War, finds this understandably painful. Who now will pull the mighty trigger to destroy evil and beat the bullies? Refusal to accept our weakness can lead in dangerous directions. We need answers for the abyss, not denialism about the marginality of good actors and the ubiquity of bad ones. To call for a negotiated solution that maintains inter-imperialist peace through guarantees of Ukrainian neutrality, for example, is a kind of despair. Limiting NATO’s spread is no cause for tears, but this suggestion means treating Ukrainians as chess pieces moved, irrespective of their will, into the only position that won’t see them bombarded in a world order of great powers. The communist project once involved faith in the immediate possibility of breaking that mould.
Giving any succour to states impoverishing others with sanctions – as some on the left are tempted to do – is a desperate step, and it entails the worst kind of substitutionism in the face of a felt impotence: substituting for the oppressed and exploited not a revolutionary party but imperialist states, who only make the world less safe and free. Sanctions are of course a form of collective punishment. At the start of last year, 20 per cent of Russians lived in dire poverty, with incomes below subsistence levels. That was just starting to improve; now it will get worse. Eight years of sanctions have hurt the currency and degraded living standards. There is little reason to believe a further debilitating blow to Russian livelihoods will make its citizens any more amenable to their stranglers overseas than has happened in Iran. All it does is promote a dead-end binary that serves sanctioner and sanctioned alike, where the possibilities of internal dissent are chilled by the real pain caused by an overwhelming external enemy and anti-state politics means aligning with those overseas imperialists. Oppressive power here or power faraway become the choices. All the options are conservative. People who see their meagre savings crumble and who shiver or starve, unable to choose both eating and heating, are the civilian victims of a devastating economic war. ‘We are going to provoke the collapse of the Russian economy’, says the French Finance Minister. Visa bans, suspended cultural ties, sporting boycotts and the punishment of Russian academics by isolation all similarly penalise the innocent. Sanctions are already contributing to steep rises in oil and natural gas prices, as well as rising prices for key commodities including corn and wheat and supply chain disruption now that Russian airspace is banned space. The global fallout will include inflation and potentially dire crises of the food supply in the global South. But this is a mode of warfare that avoids American body bags, so it is preferred in Washington (though it will damage American living standards too, not least by raising energy costs and so adding fuel to the inflationary spiral). It is not that such tactics can never be weapons for radicals. Here, though, they are tools of inter-imperialist contestation.
Western observers have sometimes been puzzled by the timing of Putin’s aggression, given the apparent flimsiness of its excuses; Zelensky is not a neo-Nazi and Ukraine is not on the verge of joining NATO. But a similarly persistent escalation in the last days of Washington neoconservatism saw war break out in Georgia in 2008, again with competing claims about the threatened self-determination of small nations traded between imperial camps both seeking to secure a sphere of influence. The strategy of NATO and its member states has been to encircle Russia, immiserating it with sanctions and attempting to weaken a key Chinese ally for the battles ahead. In wealth and global power, Russia remains the obvious underdog when set against America; even among its neighbours, it counts only Belarus firmly within its sphere of influence, with the dictatorship in Kazakhstan as a last hold-out of 1990s inter-imperialist agreement for resource provision. From this position of weakness and given its imperial aspirations, Russia lashes out accordingly. Russia’s actions will make NATO membership a more popular option from Ukraine to Finland, where American bases and the promise of mutual defence might now look like a much-needed safeguard. Nobody should understate the inter-imperialist tragedy of that predicament. There is no democratic right to join NATO, neither in the organisation’s design (new members must be approved: Ukraine has not been) nor on principle, which ought to suggest Afghans and Libyans might be consulted before new weapons are added to the list assailing them. This is a ‘defensive alliance’ that has launched every war in which it has been involved since 9/11. Russia now bolsters NATO, just as NATO bonfire-building has bolstered Russian imperialism. Such is the logic of escalation. This is not, then, a story of West versus East as good versus evil. Merely humiliating Russia would not solve the problem at all.
The central myth sponsored by both imperial blocs now is the illusion of their separation, of their radical differences. American law firms, with teams of advisors for billionaires, have been integral to the reproduction of Russian capitalism. The British Conservative Party Chairman ran a concierge service in Moscow to hug dirty money close. If Russia fails to make interest payments now and defaults on its debt, plenty of Western bond-holders will be watching nervously. They all panic now and, frantic, rush to undo or to hide their decades-long entanglement with Russia. Why are these hypocrites always the first to salute the flag and cry out for war, after profiting from a dirty inter-imperialist peace? Some of them might invest now in soaring defence stocks, of course. Amid much talk of ‘deglobalisation,’ this moment might be its spur: Western vendors of grease for the wheels of Russian corruption hurry into line denouncing Putin’s invasion, and perhaps capital might in the coming years be more disciplined behind states and within the boundaries of rival blocs. Perhaps. The coexistence of rhetorical barbs traded and economic connections long cemented functions as a useful metaphor. It is tempting (since acceding to frenzies is always easier than challenging them) to shout about capitalist hypocrisy now, to tar Western wealth with Russian associations and so to find an anti-capitalist language for pushing the logic of confrontation. Alternatively, we might make inter-imperialist cooperation an instance for highlighting the similarities of the blocs. The goal should not be just to encourage Western banks and businesses on their rush, tails between their legs, to abandon Moscow now. We don’t just want Russian-owned mansions used to house Ukrainian refugees: an image from a shifting, deglobalising capitalism. We want to expropriate all billionaires, irrespective of their national origin. And there is a more specific lesson here about the present.
In 1994, male life expectancy in Russia was fifty-eight. Russia’s politics reflect the demolition of social solidarities; of hopes in stable futures; of structures of expectation and support and care. Nationalism is a fortress of pessimism, where the future looks like a frightening trajectory unless it can revert to the past and where every new and more expansive community feels like a threat. This stuff prospers amid the experience of being battered. Might we all have something to learn from Russia now? People across the West are squeezed and exhausted and jobless and overworked and anxious, with the seas rising and the costs of everything rising and brief spurts of left alternatives apparently extinguished in both Britain and the United States. The politics of an obstinate imperial pride prospers in such settings, as if slapping history’s defeats in the face, married to authoritarian neuroses and chauvinistic hatreds that promise self-love only through bitterness. It is hard to imagine a more apt image for such common miseries than Donbas, which may be the first armed conflict in the world where militias on both sides fight under the banner of the swastika. We live, as Adorno and Césaire and plenty of others long ago insisted, in the shadow of the swastika. Eurostar offers free tickets to Ukrainian refugees, after watching other refugees fall from dinghies and die at sea or freeze to death in trucks right next to those warm trains. It is not that Europeans and Americans admire Ukrainians because they are white; the causal relationship between imperialism and racialisation is almost the opposite. They are white now because they are convenient victims now, and so they may not be white for long. This is a civilisation whose rituals are diamonds for some and human sacrifice for others, in Washington and in Moscow: not rival civilisations but one, and it means barbarism. ‘Imperialism’ describes this single global system, this structure within which every agent operates, rather than describing only individual powers. We pray for its demise, so let us hear no hymns to the Russian state or to ‘the West’, the most violent idea in human history.
There have been many Ukrainians among the ranks of those in the twentieth century who sought to end all that. Mykola Skrypnyk – Bolshevik, Jewish, revolutionary – was at one and the same time a recalcitrant internationalist and the founder of many of the institutions of standardised Ukrainian culture. He championed Ukrainian self-determination as a communist promise, and then he shot himself rather than surrender to Stalin’s counter-attack from Moscow. Another Ukrainian Jew, Maximillien Rubel, in exile and in hiding in Paris under Nazi occupation, began the rich, bold, urgent work of reimagining Marx as a philosopher of freedom. Aleksandra Sokolovskaya was radicalised at Odessa University in 1896, married Leon Trotsky and organised factory workers before she was imprisoned and then deported to Siberia. Stalin sent her back to a freezing labour camp, then had her shot in 1938. The Old Man himself was, of course, a product of Kherson and Odessa. Contrary to the middlebrow commentary of the Anglophone media and of Ukrainian nationalists, in which 1917 represents simply a further iteration of Great Russian oppression, October was as much a Ukrainian as a Russian revolution. The line between reaction and emancipation passes through, and not around, Ukraine – as it does in Russia, as it does in Britain and in America, as it does in every nation. Roman Rozdolsky, the son of Lviv to whom we owe our best understanding of Marx’s Grundrisse, also demolished the young Marx and Engels for their tosh about ‘progressive’ and ‘non-historic’ nations. In the ruthless criticism of idols and the refusal of national tropes, Rozdolsky offers the finest model to us now. Like other champions of dignity clashing with the twentieth century, he survived Stalinist purges and three Nazi concentration camps. He died in exile alone in Detroit in 1967. He did not live to see his work discovered and published posthumously just a year later, amid the global 1968.
It is this other Ukraine that the Banderites and their enablers sought, and seek, to eliminate. Its equivalent will never be found amongst those baying for war in the name of civilisation. Nor will Ukrainians benefit. Khmelnytsky, that founding moment of Ukrainian national glory, ended in accommodation with Russian imperialism to keep Poland at bay. Now American imperialism promises to protect the innocent Ukrainians from Russian designs. History rhymes. Putin and NATO have their common politics of crisis now, descending into culture wars and cold wars and hot wars and the same authoritarian populism that marked the transition into neoliberalism. If we are to transition out of it and into something better, seizing this conjuncture of crisis with immediate solutions that point in the direction of a dignified freedom for all, we must begin by recognising this war as a symptom and a symbol of a wider cataclysm not seen since the 1970s. Economic stagnation, social instability, cultural schisms, political fragility, resource crises, inter-imperial commotion: all coalesce again. Emancipatory forces are drastically weaker now than they were fifty years ago, their previous forms smothered by the resolution to the crisis last time. Somehow we must do better, this time, in recovering and then refounding in a changed world the old traditions of hope that have until now been vanquished.
This article is from the forthcoming Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Salvage. Subscribe before 30 June to receive it as the first in your print subscription, or support our work by taking out a digital subscription.
On Friday 6 May, Salvage LIVE will host Russian scholar and anti-war protester, Ilya Matveev, and Volodymyr Ishchenko, one of the finest Ukrainian analysts of post-Maidan politics, to dissect the new realities of imperialism, in conversation with Salvage Collective member Barnaby Raine. RSVP here.