US-plaining is not enough. To the Western left, on your and our mistakes

01.03.2022
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Volodymyr Artiukh
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Volodymyr Artiukh
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Here in the post-Soviet world, we learned a lot from you. By ‘we’ I mean atomized or loosely organized communist, democratic socialist, left anarchist, feminist scholars, and activists from Kyiv, Lviv, Minsk, Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, and other places that are plunging into the horrors of war and police violence. After our own Marxist tradition underwent sclerotization, degradation, and marginalization, we read commentaries on Das Kapital in English. After the Soviet Union collapsed, we relied on your analysis of the American hegemony, neoliberal turn in the forms of capital accumulation, and Western neo-imperialism. We have also been encouraged by the Western social movements from alterglobalism to the anti-war protests, from Occupy to BLM.

We appreciate the way how you tried to theorize our corner of the world. You have correctly pointed out that the US helped undermine the democratic and economically progressive options of post-Soviet transformation in Russia and elsewhere. You are right that the US and Europe have failed to create a security environment that would include Russia and other post-Soviet countries. Our countries have long been in a position of having to adapt, make concessions, agree to humiliating conditions. You have done this with sympathy verging on romanticization, and we have sometimes condoned it.

 

Russia Ukraine invasion

Smoke rises from a destroyed Russian tank on the side of a road in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on February 26, 2022. | Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images

 

Amidst Russia’s shelling of Kharkiv, however, we see the limits to what we learnt from you. That knowledge was produced under the conditions of the American hegemony, which has reached its limits at Russia’s bloody-red lines. The US lost its ability to represent its interests as common interests for Russia and China, it cannot enforce compliance with military power, and its economic leverage is shrinking. In spite of what many of you claim, Russia is not reacting, adapting, making concessions anymore, it has re-gained agency and it is able to shape the world around it. Russia’s toolkit is different from that of the US, it is not hegemonic, as it relies on brute force rather than on soft power and economy. Nevertheless, brute force is a powerful tool, as you all know from the US behaviour in Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan and all over the globe. Russia has mimicked the coercive infrastructure of America’s imperialism without preserving its hegemonic core.

And yet, this mimicry does not mean dependence. Russia has become an autonomous agent, its actions are determined by its own internal political dynamics, and the consequences of its actions are now contrary to western interests. Russia shapes the world around, imposes its own rules the way the US has been doing, albeit through other means. The sense of derealization that many commentators feel – ‘this is not happening with us’ - comes from the fact that the Russian warring elites are able to impose their delusions, transform them into the facts on the ground, make others accept them despite their will. These delusions are no longer determined by the US or Europe, they are not a reaction, they are creation.

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

 

Ukrainian emergency service personnel carry a body of a victim out of the damaged City Hall building following shelling in Kharkiv, March 1, 2022 | USA today / Pavel Dorogoy, AP 

 

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

This is not to accuse the Western left of ethnocentrism, this is to point to their limited perspective. Overwhelmed with the fog of war and psychological stress, I cannot offer a better perspective. I would only call for help in grasping the situation in theoretical terms while incorporating insights from our corner of the world. US-plaining is not helpful to us to the extent that you think it is. We also need an effort to emerge from the ruins of eastern Marxism and the colonization by the Western Marxism. We make mistakes on this way, and you may accuse us of nationalism, idealism, provincialism. Learn from these mistakes: now you are also much more provincial and you face temptations to resort to simplistic Manicheanism.

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

Do not let half-baked political positions substitute an analysis of the situation. The injunction that the main enemy is in your country should not translate into a flawed analysis of the inter-imperialist struggle. At this stage appeals to dismantle NATO or, conversely, accepting anyone there, will not help those who suffer under the bombs in Ukraine, in jails in Russia or Belarus. Sloganeering is harmful as ever. Branding Ukrainians or Russian fascists only makes you part of the problem, not part of the solution. A new autonomous reality emerges around Russia, a reality of destruction and harsh repressions, a reality where a nuclear conflict is not unthinkable anymore. Many of us have missed the tendencies leading to this reality. In the fog of war, we do not see clearly the contours of the new. Neither do, as it seems, the American or European governments. 

In this reality we, the post-Soviet left, will have incomparably less organizational, theoretical, and simply vital resources. Without you, we will struggle to survive. Without us, you will be closer to the precipice.


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Author: Volodymyr Artiukh.

Translated from English by Yuliia Kulish.

Cover: photo of a TV tower in Kyiv, attacked by Russian troops near the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex on March 1, 2022 | Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine.

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