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Against war in Ukraine and the New Imperialism: A Letter of Solidarity with the Oppressed

Graffiti in the colours of Ukraine’s flag reading: “Peace Love” [Photo Credit: Loco Steve, Flickr]

After a long winter of the covid-19 pandemic, the first glimpses of a coming spring offer a vision of new bloodshed. We have now witnessed more than a week of Russian invasion and war on Ukraine, a stretch of time that will be seen as an undeniable rupture in international relations. Things are moving at an incredibly quick pace on the ground, in cyberspace, and in international space. Despite the imminent invasion of Ukraine being announced by NATO and the US government for several months, it still took – as every war does – many by surprise. Some even say it is the first time after 1945 that Europe has experienced a war, ignoring the wars in Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia. Putting things into a broader perspective, we could call this week a return to the seemingly Cold-Hot-War imperialist paradigm of the past, where only a few superpowers decide about the future of smaller nations and people, a paradigm evident not only in the Cold War but also the period of global competition between the great European empires prior to the First World War. Other echoes of the past seem to confront us too. Putin, for instance, is often depicted as a new Hitler and he himself paints the Ukrainian government as ‘Nazified.’ Though both identifications are false, they demonstrate the growing analogy to 1939 and the start of the Second World War. A better historical analogy, I would rather point to, is 1914 and the onset of the First World War, which will feel even more apt if the war spills over Ukraine’s borders. Though even if the war remains regionally contained, it may become more reminiscent of the post-1991 conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the strings of wars waged by the Russian political-military apparatus in the post-Soviet context in last two decades, which embodies the neofassist ideas of Dugin as the civilisational space of a russkiy Mir. The historical image that perhaps at last is dying is that of Russia as a ‘liberating’/ ‘hero’ nation not only in Europe, but across parts of the global South as well.  

Once we insist on a critical and materialist analysis, then we cannot but oppose the often repeated trope across the media that psychologizes history and pathologizes one personality (here, Putin). It is noteworthy that Putin’s ideological apparatus, at least in foreign policy, has been desperately invested in an increasingly unconvincing anti-imperialist stance of opposing global domination by the US. Syria was the first major standoff of the major superpowers – a proxy war – despite them otherwise being united in a common fight against ISIL. This current Russian ‘anti-imperialist’ stance draws on a long and contentious ideology, dating back to the Soviet Union in the Second World War, and that was carried out in part by anticolonial struggles.  The Soviet Union  was able to promote itself – based on a real and bloody struggle against fascism – as the symbol of the international antifascist struggle. This legacy used to be a cornerstone of the official memory of postwar Europe. Antifascism, however, became substituted by the ideology of anti-totalitarianism, and the specific memory politics of the European Union. Anti-totaltarianism  is based primarily on (new) nationalisms and anti-communism, where Russia (the ‘former Soviet Union’) became the primary enemy, while fascism’s past was reduced to Holocaust remembrance. This memorial shift continues to inform anti-Russian positions today in the West. 

With the war on Ukraine, Russia’s ideological screen, presenting itself as an inheritor of anti-imperialist and antifascist struggles (references to this in Donetsk region are not coincidental), has finally withered away (hopefully also for those on the left who for too long romanticised any ‘anti-Western’ or ‘anti-US’ figures). Let us be crystally clear: Putin does not offer any kind of promise, or even an image of a ‘better world,’ only a world dominated by oligarchic interests, or as some have correctly put it, a world of KGB capitalism. One that in Russia has already without a doubt crushed antifascism, the left, and any democratic opposition in Russia, and if permitted, would do the same outside of Russia as well. One of the tasks of the new left is to shake off the old left’s romanticisation of authoritarian leaders who opposed US hegemony, what has been called the “anti-imperialism of idiots,” and has now finally run out of steam. 

Where can we and should we point to glimpses of hope today? As the title of this piece suggests, our hopes should lie with the oppressed in Ukraine, Russia, and beyond. They are the ones that have the will and hope to oppose the wars in Russia and elsewhere, those who fight for their lives in Ukraine today, those who defend themselves, those who volunteer to organise solidarity networks with everyone fleeing from the war zones, and to all those that despite the weaponization of ethnicity through war, remain deeply committed to the project of social change and peace. 

Yet in articulating those hopes we need to be clear about who started this particular war. I want to argue that this critical left position does not need to be sucked into the mainstream liberal-conservative consensus of a new Europe that geopolitically plays into the hands of US hegemony (see Wolfgang Streeck’s article in the New Left Review). The left needs to reflect on the anti-war legacy and its future horizons in a world increasingly marked by looming environmental and social catastrophes. Such a climate by default mobilises around fear and anxiety. Fear, anxiety, and despair are not some natural response or primary mover of human nature, but are rather symptomatic of a heavily destabilised social fabric after decades of neoliberal reforms and two years of the pandemic. This growing despair offers a dystopian horizon, a clear and short route to war. Now it seems more and more that even a massive world war is a normal answer to (any) conflict for many around the world. The trumpets of war are sounding strong in the recent announcements of NATO and EU members to remilitarise Europe. The current German government has led the way in this regard, proposing the most ambitious military budget yet, 100 billion Euros in 2022 (three times bigger than the Russian one). This injection of cash into the military industry and army will transform Germany into a force for military offence in the years to come. And more arms and calls for arms are popping many corks of champagne in the oil and military industries, wiping away the once common sense that militarisation never has and never will bring greater stability or prevent war.

How then to respond to the oligarchic and geopolitical wars of today and of the future? The short answer is for Russian forces to immediately stop this war and for all so-called superpowers to sit at one table and discuss the future of Ukraine. In the meantime, and part of a longer answer, there is an ever more resolute need for articulating a position for a demilitarised future, one that is not divided on the lines of race and nation, but which rather is class aware and anti-imperialist, and once again non-aligned. One should surely not be cheering on the growing militarism of the whole world’s leadership, especially in the EU, but instead cheering for demilitarisation and an end to the arms race. To think about the end of this war and future wars, one should theoretically and politically rethink the paradigm of peace. If, as Balibar once wrote, the whole Western political philosophy has been deeply ingrained by war, it is time to reorient this towards the paradigm of peace. Immediate concrete steps that can be taken now are to promote a politics of active neutrality that goes beyond military blocs and superpowers, and to rethink the legacy of the non-aligned movement and anti-imperialist struggles.

I would like to conclude by pointing to two warning signs that are weaponizing the situation by imposing openly racialised and nationalistic policies, and are of rising danger for European reality. They present two worrisome trends that evoke a double standard of moralisation prioritising the ‘white’ Western civilisational space and repeating that some lives matter more than others:

Firstly, it is tragic to see that now the European Union is simply and suddenly accepting refugees. Openly conservative politicians are embracing this change as “natural,” stating that these current refugees from Ukraine are coming from the same ‘cultural’ / ‘civilisational’ space. They continue to treat very differently all those who come from elsewhere, greeting them with armed coast guards, barbed wire, batons, and torture on Schengen’s borders. It is also noteworthy that before 2022, in the wars that some European governments openly participated in (most notably in Afghanistan), the climate was openly anti-refugee and anti-migrant. Those coming to the sacred EU were deemed suspicious, a potential threat to our culture, in some eyes even seen as Muslim extremists and terrorists. The whole anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies and rhetoric made the EU a far more extreme and conservative space, allowing the Orbans and Janšas of Europe to all instantly become pro-refugee, to open their borders, and to finance war-torn infrastructures when the refugees come from within Europe. Needless to say, solidarity cannot be reserved only for one “type” of refugees who are more convenient for our own ‘Blut und Boden’ civilisational differentiation. So, for the left, both on the ground and in the parliaments, now is the time to push for a more embracing approach for refugees and migrants, to give the same aid to those from Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria, as is now being given to those from Ukraine, and to exert the same amount of effort to stop the wars there as well.

Secondly, the sanctions were this time implemented on a fast track, targeting industry and even some oligarchs in Russia. However, we have entered into an era of open censorship and a cancel culture 2.0 that aims to cleanse/purify any space of its links to or legacy of the enemy. But how this enemy is defined is an important matter. It is no secret that further and intensified sanctions that aim to exclude anyone on the basis of their passport will have a negative effect, and perhaps give a lasting push to the militarisation and destabilisation of our societies. Rather than stopping the war, such cancelling and sanctioning is presently toughening the authoritarian hand of Putin, lending him a hand in the unification and self-victimisation of ‘Russia,’ and negatively affecting many of those that were before silently or openly critical of him. Where do we draw the line between those who are ‘for us’ or ‘against us’ (some cultural spaces have even removed  plays and concerts of Russian artists from their repertoire, such as Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky). This is the racialised logic of friend/enemy as elaborated by the fascist thinker Carl Schmitt. Are we ready to impose such standards but tainted with class dimension against ALL oligarchs and also to ALL leaders of the “free world” – their supporters, and their wars and occupations as well, practising class awareness and anti-imperial positions? The list of their war crimes is ongoing and endless. Now is the time to decide whether we impose equal ethics (I suggest it to be then refined by the above sentence), or simply follow one that is in line with this or that hegemon / imperial power? In the latter case, the reproduction of future wars is guaranteed, in the former, we stand a chance to articulate a vision of a world that is based on a horizon of demilitarisation. 

Everyone has a right to moral indignation, it is normal to feel anger, anxiety, fear, even despair in the light of this horrific war led by the Russian authorities and the effects it might bring. At the same time, the critical left should not move in lockstep with the facile efforts to unite Europe based on a moral and racialized liberal-conservative consensus. War most often hegemonizes the ideological discourse and tilts it to the right. There is no point to leave the terrain to the consolidation of a strict national/racialised frame. We need to participate in solidarity with the oppressed, organise anti-war campaigns, and find ways to support each other beyond national flags. To really organise for a future peace means to connect demilitarisation to issues of ecology and social justice.

Dr. Gal Kirn is a research associate at the University of Ljubljana, where he leads a research project on the post-Yugoslav transition. He is also a part of international research group Partisan Resistances (University of Grenoble), and is a member of the Left (Levica) party in Slovenia.

By Gal Kirn

Gal Kirn currently lives in Berlin,where he is a postdoctoral fellow in history of media of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In his hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia, he is a member of the Initiative of Democratic Socialism and Workers’-Punks’ University. He co-edited the book Encountering Althusser (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Surfing the Black. Transgressive Moments in Yugoslav Cinema (Jan van Eyck Academie, 2012) and edited the publication Post-Fordism and Its Discontents (JvEAcademie, 2010).