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We Asked: Geopolitics & the Left, Part II

Early communist geopolitical imaginings. Comrade Lenin swipes the filth from the Earth. Russian Civil War poster

In continuing the theme of the conflict between Russia and the West, which we discussed last week, now we turn to the broader issue of a leftist perspective on geopolitics. Even though most of the articles LeftEast publishes deal in one way or another with the transnational connectivities, we have been somewhat reticent about the whole issue of geopolitics. For two reasons. In the first place, because of our method of seeking authors based in or at least with deep knowledge of concrete societies, who would share that knowledge with our readers. If so much news analysis, even on the left, starts with some geopolitical opposition–between Russia and Ukraine, between Russia and the West, between the EU and some individual member, among the sides of involved in the Syrian Civil War–singling out a participant in this conflict as evil (or in a language that is more resonant with us, imperialist/ nationalist) and hence in need of condemnation, we have largely concerned ourselves with social analysis on the ground. In the second place, we have been wary watching sections of the left engage in overly vigorous debates on geopolitical conflicts of which they have very little personal knowledge (except what the above-mentioned media provides) and in which their position is completely irrelevant. Internationalism is one of the key values of the left, but the forms it takes should also matter. And watching the viciousness of some debates, one wonders whether these energies are better spent on class struggle at home. But ultimately, as we cannot completely ignore the question of how interstate relations affect the lives of ordinary people, we asked four comrades for their opinion on what should the left’s position on geopolitics be:

Pavel Kudiukin, а Russian social democrat and co-chair of the labor union University Solidarity

The very term «geopolitics» sounds foreign to leftists, owing to negative historical connotations as well as the worldview and methodological justification of geopolitics, which are foreign to the left. Replacing social and political problems with «eternal», civilization conflicts determined typically by geography hardly helps resolve the problems of the real world and an adequate formulation of leftist strategy.

In choosing an appropriate strategy of course, it is impossible to avoid analyzing the place of every country (or groups of countries) in the global division of labor as well as in military alliances, formal or informal. And of course, national strategies in the struggle for democracy and socialism must be inscribed in a global strategy of leftist cooperation.

Ana Tomičić is a Croatian social anthropologist 

Considering the imperialist history attached to the concept of “geopolitics”, and keeping in mind that it is on criticism that left-wing politics has built a continued relevance at least in the past decades, I see the concept of “critical geopolitics” as a better fit. Traditionally, geopolitics practiced by universities and think-tanks often comes from a particular point of view focusing on the state and relations between states with its first objective being to determine how the state (and national governments) could best exercise its power, extend and/or preserve its influence and how it can position itself in a global order that included all states. Little attention was paid to other levels – either at or below the nation-state level. This lack tends to focus the political debate on financial haggling between states. Critical geopolitics, on the other hand, focuses on why geopolitical analysis cannot be neutral and objective but rather, focused on those – often contradictory – representations of the borders of states, relations between states, even representations of the world. As every political vision of the world is based on a set of beliefs, these beliefs can be developed by individual actors, who try to mobilize people through a set of geographical criteria. The formation of these geopolitical representations can be intentional and expedient, especially when a country seeks to justify its entry into the war. Alternatively, they can also develop over a longer period of time, under the influence of politicians but also movements or journalistic, literary or academic writings. With the replacement of borders by force projections, the replacement of alliances areas by cooperation agreements and norms, the definition of long-term common objectives disappears in favor of the possibility of ad hoc coalitions. Starting from criticizing, the left should engage in proactive geopolitics by integrating actors that are erased from traditional geopolitical considerations (Central Africa, for example) and through the search for a “regional geopolitics” as a necessary mediation.

The many definitions of geopolitics converge mainly on the idea of power rivalries. Critical geopolitics, for example, has shown the extent to which the discipline was first overwhelmingly constructed from a male perspective, representing the world from the point of view of only some countries. These representations define a certain “geopolitical order” and the most powerful ones can exert an enormous influence. More recent research has attempted to bring out a feminist perspective as well as other points of view that represent actors who are themselves engaged in geopolitical conflicts; often those who resist the established order. The geopolitics of women, economic and financial issues, international law, the media and cyberspace are all topics for analysis from a geopolitical point of view. Taking a critical geopolitical perspective is inclusive of all politics. Maybe the time has also come to bridge back issues relating to identity politics and those of power and class and critical geopolitical analysis can serve that objective.

Justus Links is an educator and free-lance writer based in Turkey

One of the many noxious side-effects of imperialism is the anti-imperialism that arises to counter it from the standpoint of the nation-state and its national bourgeoisie. In 2018, the prospect of US military intervention distorts political debates even in countries where it is not really on the table: look how easily Turkish nationalists—both secular and theocratic—discount the emancipatory potential of the Kurdish movement because the tactical alliances between the US and Kurdish fighters in Syria and Northern Iraq (both real alliances and those rumored to have existed in the past) enable them to paint Kurdish groups as Trojan Horses for imperialism. Moreover, this entanglement of anti-imperialist narratives with bloody repression is not new; in the post-Ottoman sphere it is coeval with political modernity itself. If we look at the period from 1915-1923 we see the Turkish armies repelling a military occupation by rapacious foreign powers while also furthering the destruction of national minorities who were seen as their fifth column. The tenacity with which the Turkish mainstream today resists recognizing what happened to the Armenians, Assyrians and Anatolian Greeks reflects how closely the ethnic cleansing of these territories dovetailed with the construction of the nation-states which now frame almost all political debate, including on the Left. And how could it not, given that the institutions that mediate policy discussion are those of the nation-state?

Lenin and Luxemburg understood imperialism as a political-economic reality in which military interventions were just one of the tools that states could use to sustain the exploitation of the global proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Today the Left must militate against imperialism from an internationalist standpoint, not from that of the nation-state. Sadly, this does not mean that the vulgar, cloak-and-dagger manifestations of imperialism can be simply ignored; while left-nationalists in developing countries sometimes exaggerate the centrality of this form of imperialism, in the imperial centers its existence still needs to be brought to peoples’ consciousness. Look at the discourse that US Democratic Party elites have developed in their “resistance” to Trump, whose criticism of the FBI and CIA they present as exhibit A for Trump’s danger to “democracy” and “our Republic.” The party of “resistance” is recasting the dark side of the state as the bulwark of democracy at the very moment that the President they are “resisting” openly appoints a torturer to a major position! The primary political-economic function of any state rests in the exploitation of its own proletariat, and only secondarily can any state claim to protect its proletariat from super-exploitation by other states. Both in imperial centers and in more peripheral countries, we should encourage a healthy skepticism toward the state, cultivating solidarity at the expense of chauvinism.

Pınar Dönmez is a researcher interested in learning more about theories of state, crisis and restructuring, critical theory and dynamics of (de-)politicisation. 

If a geopolitical perspective refers to the reproduction of analyses on the basis of the reification of the state, then then left should reject it. I think the crucial and urgent task, and ever more so today, is to expose the aforementioned modes of mystification of power and class relations in the particular domestic contexts we find ourselves in, be it in Russia, Syria, Turkey or US. And simultaneously assess how these forms of subjugation in class, ethnicity, gender, mobility respects intrinsically relate to the regional and global scales of conflict. I don’t think these scales are separable. The continuously, and at times rapidly, shifting alliances, cooperation and rivalry of the ruling classes and state managers between Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iran, US and Europe as we have been witnessing in the context of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East are testament to the fact that the contradictions and crisis inherent in the current economic and political configurations of class and state power are not being resolved but deepening. This process goes hand in hand with the entrenchment of domestic repression and control in each of these contexts as well.

I feel that in the period ahead, the left everywhere will be pushed further to adopt a critical reflective attitude into its own modes of analysis of these dynamics. It will need to explore ways of coming together to articulate a strong voice for peace and anti-imperialism across multiple geographies while firmly and actively suturing rights struggles[1] addressing the working classes, marginalised, oppressed and displaced peoples and communities as well as progressive social and political forces explicitly. Only then I think will it be possible to acknowledge comprehensively, without any short cuts, the lived experiences, suffering and resistance of those on whom war, repression and austerity politics are imposed and construct alternative strategies collectively with them.

[1] Here ‘rights’ is not understood in the liberal or positivist sense which separate the economic and political nodes of violence and domination but as collective rights conceived in class perspective.

Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist studying social protests in Ukraine. He is a member of the editorial board of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and LeftEast web-magazine, and a lecturer at the Department of Sociology in Kiev Polytechnic Institute.

Since the Soviet collapse, the international politics of the radical left is in even deeper crisis than internal politics. The problem is not even a lack of understanding of what concrete institutions of a just global socialist order could look like or a lack of serious strategy of the world revolution. If in internal politics usually there is a broad consensus on the immediate dangers and which neoliberal reforms the left should resist, and even on the immediate progressive reforms necessary, it is not like this on the international level.

The current international order is deeply unjust and even dysfunctional for solving global problems like the climate change or preventing wars. A vast number of people is affected by the decisions of the First World leaders, while they have absolutely no possibility to influence them except of via their governments (too often dubiously democratic themselves) and only if their country is militarily powerful and/or relatively rich.

In the current confrontation between US, EU and Russia we cannot tell even between the lesser evil among immediate available realistic options of the conflict resolution. Will a more just, democratic and peaceful international order emerge somehow in a way that the modern nation-states in the West previously concentrated power, entangled and incorporated local seniors? Is Putin simply defending his outdated arbitrary privileges and must he be bent or crushed by the historically progressive Western institutions? Not discussing the likelihood of the latter option, it is worth asking why the most important campaign among progressives that support it is not to give every person in the world US citizenship or at least EU member status for every country?

Or will the “multipolar” world be a more progressive option? Essentially, it means replacing American (or potentially Chinese in the future) hegemony with a kind of an international oligarchy of equal great powers respecting each other interests and spheres of influence. But what about the majority of smaller nations, which in this scheme need to be arbitrarily assigned to some “sphere of influence”? Or should we rather defend the old-fashioned national sovereignty for every state? It is obvious that any of these could be only the first step towards some truly democratic unions built by progressive regimes. However, regional alliances like ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of the Americas–editor’s note] had limited impact and appeal uniting relatively poor countries. That is why an actual chance for progressive governments of a country to leave the existing international institutions that are explicitly not about democracy or progressive redistribution at all is so important.

These concrete questions of the actual politics cannot be out-talked with some abstract clichés or infantile proposals about avoiding nation-states altogether. However, the only thing that is clear for now, the very basic common denominator for diverse radical left is resisting all further escalations between imperialist and wanna-be imperialist powers whoever is attempting them under whatever hypocritical rhetoric. Internal politics in the US was as important (if not even more important) reason for this month’s escalation around Syria than any international conflict or even less humanitarian considerations. That is why building a powerful internal opposition to the war is so important. Ironically, such an anti-war stance often results in East European progressive groups looking up to their Western peers for approval.

The lessons from Libya, Syria, Ukraine should have already taught us multiple times that not every anti-American government as well as not every opposition force fighting its police and army were the left allies. The risks of global nuclear escalation are overshadowing any provincial ambitions and pseudo-revolutionary wishful-thinking.


By Rossen Djagalov

Rossen Djagalov is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum.
A comparatist, he recently completed a dissertation on the media history of twentieth-century leftist culture.