Anti-imperialism after the invasion of Ukraine

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A revision of and recommitment to international solidarity is overdue for US socialists. The specter of a ‘new Cold War’ demands nothing less.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed broader weaknesses in the US left’s capacity for organizing around global issues. 

Currently, much of the US left is embroiled in debates over the war’s causes, who bears moral responsibility for the devastation, and the positions socialists should not be taking. These are important discussions–to which I too hold strong opinions. We should oppose willful ignorance on the part of certain leftists to acknowledge Russian aggression and the media’s infatuation with labeling all leftists critiques of the US the work of pro-Putin ‘tankies’. We should dissect how US foreign policy, in both the long-term and short-term, created the conditions of possibility for this war without framing the Russian decision to undertake a brutal, maximalist invasion as the mechanical or inevitable outcome of NATO encirclement. Similarly, we should be wary of efforts to support Ukraine that bolster opportunistic US militarism through the gleeful impoverishment of working-class Russians, crude anti-Russian hysteria, racist erasure of the victims of US wars, and sanitizing and rehabilitation of US power as a source of protection and stability. 

Yet both the pre-war assessments and response statements to the invasion issued by leading socialist groups, such as the International Committee (IC) of the DSA, have felt insufficient. The IC is right to point to anti-war action, anti-escalation, refugee support, and a negotiated end to the war. Yet in a moment demanding global thinking and solidarity, moral clarity, and concrete plans for political action, the IC’s assessments have been either flawed or vague and seemingly unprepared to meet the current moment. 

My intent is not to ‘call out’ or attack the IC–and I firmly reject the Democrats’ opportunistic pearl-clutching around the DSA’s legitimate position on NATO. Rather, these statements are, I believe, symptomatic of an enervated parochialism in how the broader US left practices anti-imperialism and international solidarity. Two decades of opposing the War on Terror has left socialists in the imperial core with a playbook on ‘global issues’ that is simultaneously both too US-centric and detached from the daily conditions of the US working class. The horrors of the war in Ukraine should be a wake-up call to rethink, collectively, what a commitment to anti-imperialism and international solidarity should look like. These tasks must be undertaken by socialists at the grassroots level, but what follows are some preliminary thoughts.

Anti-imperialism
Yet imperial capitalism both precedes and exceeds the US state, and US hegemony has been defined as much by de-territorial, post-sovereign domination through multinational corporations, non-state actors, and global networks as it has by direct war and conquest. While US hegemony has been essential to imperial capitalism–and the US remains the primary defender and beneficiary of this system–it is a mistake to reduce the latter to the former. 

This moment has revealed the need to move from opposition of the US state to opposition of something like the US-led system of imperial capitalism. That means not only decrying both NATO and Russia but the logic that sustains their destructive contest for dominance. The invasion of Ukraine has inflamed a (heavily lopsided) rivalry between Russia and the US. A more systemic anti-imperialism would anchor its actions in opposition to the commonly shared dynamics of exploitation, militarism, reciprocal escalation, and nuclear catastrophe such rivalries unleash. This perspective also highlights how the Russian invasion has been enabled by the US-led system–through Russia’s mimicry of prior US justifications for war and its 200-year-long articulation of a ‘sphere of influence’ in the Western hemisphere.

This approach is far from novel. From Lenin’s classic articulation of inter-imperial rivalry to leftist leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement and world-system theories of capitalist hegemony, many socialists have undertaken the complex work of articulating visions of anti-imperialism that go beyond a mechanical–and at times exceptionalist and myopic–focus on the hyper-agency of a single state. This framing was more recently exemplified in the statement released by the EZLN (Zapatistas) on the invasion of Ukraine. Their call to “not support one State or the other, but those who fight for life against the system” reflects years of navigating international solidarity in opposition to both US power and other reactionary forces.

US socialists should look to their comrades abroad, past and present, to move beyond a US-centric version of anti-imperialism, the inadequacies of which have been revealed in the past weeks. The fact that US socialists have (in theory at least) more capacity to intervene against the foreign policy of their own state cannot excuse a practice of anti-imperialism that ignores complexity and relies on truisms about the American empire rather than global material conditions.

International solidarity

In a recent essay, Mike Davis reflected on how “almost none of the energies generated by Occupy, BLM and the Sanders campaigns were channeled into rethinking global issues and framing a renewed politics of solidarity.” In the wake of the Russian invasion, it will take a variety of organizing efforts by different groups, including local DSA chapters, to identify what new relations of global support and struggle this moment has made possible. Only through such local action can we better translate broader movement energies into international solidarity, and vice versa.

We already have examples of this work in response to the invasion of Ukraine. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has refused to unload Russian cargo in solidarity with Ukrainian resisters. Other socialists are organizing campaigns to cancel Ukraine’s foreign debt. Mutual aid networks have been erected to care for millions of expected refugees and support both Ukrainian leftists resisting and surviving the invasion and Russian leftists putting their bodies on the line to end the war. Furthermore, racist discrepancies with efforts to support refugees and resistors of US wars should not detach us from these efforts. To the contrary, developing networks of solidarity in this conflict could strengthen our capacity to respond in kind to ongoing (and future) US imperial violence.

Such efforts should be coordinated with a national/international opposition to a new Cold War. Opposing US escalation, skyrocketing defense spending, and opposition to a negotiated peace–-which have always prioritized punishing Russia, not protecting Ukraine-–is essential to these organizing efforts. Furthermore, contra certain socialist takes, we should not view solidarity with Ukrainian resistors as competing with efforts to oppose the coming wave of American militarism. Instead of this zero-sum approach to international solidarity, US socialists should explore how both efforts can build capacity in a mutually reinforcing manner.

To forge this solidarity, international issues cannot remain the province of a small cadre of leftist experts and activists. We should organize through the economic hardship and existential vulnerability that a new Cold War heralds for the US working class. During the War on Terror, which was designed to minimize democratic engagement, socialists understandably struggled to link their anti-war efforts to the daily experiences of those around them. The shared terror of nuclear crises and financial strain resulting from the invasion and US response present new pathways for solidarity-building and international class struggle. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated crises of fossil fuel extraction and climate change, the COVID pandemic, and the gutting of domestic programs to fund militarism. Linking ongoing socialist organizing around these issues to the war in Ukraine will be essential. 

The path to war–-enacted, sustained, and escalated by all states involved–-should be revealed for what it is: the embrace of bloody nationalism and geopolitical, apocalyptic brinkmanship at the expense of the global working class. Leaders in Washington and Moscow are racing towards a new Cold War. Renewed programs of anti-imperialism and international solidarity, that center the wisdom of non-US leftists and link global and local class struggle, must be undertaken as we adapt to a changing, more dangerous world.

By Tracey B.