andrew is a communist from Ukraine and author of “Letters from Ukraine,” published in Endnotes (see Part I, Part II, and Part III) and Tous Dehors. This article is based on a presentation given at Woodbine NYC on September 10th.
Wars and crises, in suspending normality and reminding both of the suffering sustaining capitalism and its fragility, have always inspired hope among the revolutionaries.
Ridding ourselves of the weight of dead generations, and being aware of the power of nationalist myths would be the first step towards realising the revolutionary potential of our moment. From our vantage point down the curve of a long economic downturn, brought home with the spiralling energy crisis, in anticipation of an inevitable revolt of frustration, I try to see how might this riddle of history be solved.
To even attempt an analysis of the crisis, first the framing of certain issues has to be clarified: why answering some questions would be a waste of time and why other questions would prove much more productive. Instead of running circles around the old Marxist debates about war and nationalism, we’d do much better by contextualising them and locating our political landscape in the aftermath of the failure of communist movements of the past. Although struggles everywhere today confront the legacy of the old workers’ movement, the post-Soviet space as a material embodiment of the defeat of the communist dream forces us to confront these issues head-on. In justifying the form of inquiry, we will inevitably touch upon the questions of historical content and communist strategy.
First and foremost, conversations trying to work out a unified “Left” response are starting off on the wrong foot. Being able to recognize the weakness of conscious revolutionaries in our time instead of choosing to operate on the plane of geopolitics would allow us to interrogate the prospects for today’s revolution. Understanding the importance of spontaneous action, we would leave vanguardist fantasies behind. A look at historical uprisings would prove the unpredictability of events that produce ruptures, and the “catching up” role of existing organisations. This unpredictability should not be mistaken for total pessimism. If we are to adopt nihilism as our political method, we would see that although there is no way to predict the revolutionary potential of violence, there is a simple way to recognize violence that will only lead us back to the circularity of the domination of myth. Such is the violence directed towards tried and failed goals of nationalist war mobilisation, intended to only manoeuvre the rivers of geopolitical fate. Opposing the naturalising force of myth embodied in law and state is not only a communist attempt to historicize them, but also the communist intention to do away with them.
Discussions around the war in Ukraine too often see their political task as “convincing”, imagining an audience that would solve all of our problems as soon as we are able to think up a reasonable argument, which points to a misrecognition of revolutionary processes. Revolutionary education happens not through convincing, but through siding with the forces of anarchy. A revolutionary rupture does not only involve rapidly changing conditions and a forging of new connections, it also entails a production of new solutions that were impossible to predict beforehand. It is the openness towards this invention of new revolutionary forms of organisation that makes us communist, not flags or slogans: and an action is only revolutionary if in expanding and joining up with other measures, it points towards liberation.
By recognizing the importance of spontaneity and novelty of the revolution, we would be able to leave the mythology of the workers’ movement, which too many conversations these days are sadly bogged down in. Recognizing the historical “lesson” of its disintegration would then mean recognizing the failure of national self-determination. This historical recognition is not to be achieved in the estranged environment of a political or academic vanguard, but to be felt as limits of our sleepy mass movement coming up against the heap of endless reified junk covering our planet. Hopefully, this contribution can serve to echolocate possible paths of liberation in the darkness of the everyday.
In formulating our position on the war, we’d have to understand the origins for most thinking on nations in the wide communist tradition. With Lenin and the social democratic tradition of the time, the national form of politics was justifiable only because it allowed to bring up its content — an industrial economy — from “backward” to “fully developed.” I think it does not bear repeating that industrial modernization is no longer a revolutionary horizon, and the economy and politics do not seem to be so clearly divided. With millions of people plunged into poverty and unemployment, and the remaining industrial base shattered first by deindustrialisation and now war, the capitalist recovery in Ukraine would entail exploitation rising to cosmic scales. The Ukrainian government has been happily showing the way ahead, providing absolutely minimal help to refugees, with no housing programs undertaken whatsoever, cutting “non-essential” budgetary expenses and warning of the winter ahead: everyone is on their own. There is simply no leftist politics to be articulated within the state, all the more so now. Beyond Ukraine, there are millions of broken families due to closed borders, accepted with kindness not extended to the victims of European colonialisms. With the kindness of liberalised systems of refugee settlement, too, they are thrown into gendered and casualised work.
Justifying a surrender to the Ukrainian state and the NATO bloc on the grounds of national self-determination does not only mean that you’re greatly overestimating the influence of the contemporary Left and the potential for liberatory politics within the bounds of a nation-state. It also means that you are dreaming about a better management of this world of ontological nationalities, trying to outpatriot the patriots. Defencist arguments reach complete delusion when proletarians revolting against the rising cost of living all over the Global South are told to weather the storm for Ukraine. Class collaboration is expected to extend beyond Ukraine, “the long march through the institutions” has reached NATO.
Having cleared up the issues of framing, any reasonable analysis would require us to cut through the “softeners”: various excuses that many Leftist publications employ to avoid being confronted with the reality of the situation.
First of all, dropping all the international legalistic nuances, only to once and for all set down the scale of the catastrophe, Russia is conducting genocide in Ukraine. Indiscriminate shelling, often simply directed against civilian infrastructure, deportations, tortures and executions, an association of an entire ethnic group with Nazis deemed for re-education if not destruction. Realising the scale of the atrocities and destructiveness of modern warfare means we won’t harbour any illusions about more weapons solving the problem. I can only hope that the aims and the means of the Russian nationalist expansion are clear to all. With the Russian and Belarussian partisan actions hardly requiring any justification amid their popularity, I would prefer to focus on the “Western” anti-war strategy.
The second “softener” that waters down Leftist positions so that they don’t have to confront difficult choices, the pretentions towards only an “indirect” involvement of the United States, European Union and United Kingdom in the war have to be dropped too. Today, Ukraine is dependent on the West for its basic budgetary and industrial needs and the weapons shipments are following an almost “just-in-time” schedule, reminding of the fragility of the “support”. The Ukrainian government has shown multiple times its inability to negotiate independently and almost every week now proudly reports how the strikes, the targets, and the tactics are chosen by one of the US agencies. The strength of the influence of pro-war Western factions is only rivalled by a growing nationalist movement within Ukraine living off of illusions of national autarky supplying an endless war.
We should pay more attention to the mythology of this nationalist movement. Besides the far right minority completely suffocating any left organisation in Ukraine and making public events of any threat to the present order impossible, there also is the mainstream patriotism. Over the last ten years, Ukrainian nation-building has been undergoing a certain intensification. This intensification is not attributable to the top-down strategy of the government (indeed, most of Ukrainian presidents, ministers, and deputies would prefer a different environment). A careful investigation would yield a picture of a diffuse network of relations of power, not always attached to institutions and constituting and being constituted by local deployments in schools and universities, city squares and street marches, journal debates and youth subcultures. Undertaking such an investigation would mean that we would take seriously the massive popularity of nationalism and look for ways of undermining it, not of acting within it.
Instead of accepting the liberal pretensions of the Euromaidan movement as wholly created by the growing NGO sector, or simply denying its legitimacy on the grounds of popular polling, we need to understand truly popular mobilizations behind nationalist movements. Without disregarding local factors and relative unimportance of these events taken independently, we’d see a network of processes intensifying each other in building nationalist subjectivities. This process of subjectivation happens alongside complete depoliticization: being a fascist or an anarchist in Ukraine is now nothing but being a hooligan, a football ultra. Masked behind this seemingly “post-political” landscape is a massive shift to the right.
One of the expressions of this shift is the construction of nationalist historical memory, which always entails a construction of a certain kind of nationalist future. Praise for Ukrainian fascism in the creation of a heroic symbol of Bandera, romanticization of the noble Cossack as the ur-Ukrainian, a shift in describing the 1917 revolution as a coup and an occupation of eternally defined Ukraine, popular imagination of the Holodomor as a genocide of Ukrainians by Russians instead of as one of contradictory expressions of the industrializing popular post-revolutionary state all make sense when seen as part of a strategy of creation of ontologically innocent and honourable Ukrainians. Ukrainians that are not only always threatened by Russians and internal traitors but usually dangerously close to being betrayed by the West. More importantly for us, it is a counter-insurgent vision that posits the nation-state as a finishing point of history and undermines any revolt as treacherous — as genetically Russian. It is this myth which has driven the anti-looting crackdown in the regions next to the frontlines in the spring and which continues to fuel the hunt for traitors in all the spheres of public life.
The task of revolutionary defeatism is to undermine nationalist myths in practice and to transcend the war-peace binary: only a communist movement would be able to constitute an ever-expanding enemy of imperial warfare, resisting it not through another nationalist mobilisation but by undermining the very conditions of its existence. Instead of calling any resistance untimely and unpatriotic, we must expect outbursts of frustration within the state of emergency. But we shouldn’t be too quick to claim the party of anarchy as communist: war is the greatest motivator of mythical violence, and we must be able to distinguish between a modern pogrom and a universalizing commune.
Revolutionary defeatism is the opposite of a passive project: only by starting from a refusal to defend the state can we start to elaborate the only force capable of halting the war as such. When we claim that wars are unwinnable, we are not claiming the impossibility of a counter-offensive, but the impossibility of liberation through the means of conventional warfare. Leftists joining an army not only dissolve in a sea of conscripts and fascists, but, with their proud proclamations, lend support to the army and geopolitical diplomacy as legitimate tools of solving the problems at hand. And in trying to look for the “reasons” of war, there are no excuses to still operate with assumptions about “natural” nationalities, for we are perfectly aware that colonialisms and fascisms are not prevented by removing their leaders or occupying a country, but by burning the ground they grow from: a world of work, gender, and race.
Hopefully, after these clarifications, it is clear why we should be looking for signs of the smallest revolt against the state and nationalism and trying to understand the possibility of its contagion and spread, beyond the national borders too, as the economic fallout of the war spreads further and further. As exciting as it might be to discuss the possibilities of a (necessary) diplomatic settlement, I have no sides to pick between various factions of the American imperial war machine, a Russian genocidal nationalist movement and Ukrainian government or fascist battalions. The extent of the power of the financialized military complex and the riled up patriotic population involved means that we have to look for possibilities in a different dimension. Instead of hoping for a better “Left” party, we should seek to facilitate and exploit the cases of individual and mass looting, draft evasion and desertion, strikes cutting against all the patriotic bullshit in the atmosphere, both in Ukraine and beyond. By recognizing that the continuation of the status-quo is a continuation of the catastrophe, that a better nation-state cannot possibly serve as a transitory point on the way to revolution, we have to embark on a search for immediate redemption. We should be ready for this investigation to prove difficult and disappointing, but it is necessary.