Updated: Mar 26
In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and permanently changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe. The reaction among Western governments has been overwhelming support for Ukraine and a broad condemnation of Russian aggression. However, certain political personalities of the left were much more forgiving. For instance, when Germany was debating on sending military aid to Ukraine in April 2022, the leftist party Die Linke voted against the proposal, arguing that it would lead to “further escalation.” Similarly, in the United States, four Republicans and four Democrats countered legislation that would seize the assets of Russian oligarchs in America; chief among them were Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is associated with the American far-right, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a progressive politician and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. The fact that the members of the left are willing to cooperate with the reactionaries over Moscow illustrates a problem of leftist views on foreign policy
The indifference of Europe and America’s political left to Moscow’s hostility can be attributed to its history of political struggle. The left’s present-day disregard for the Kremlin’s horrific actions in Ukraine is due to the faulty association that Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union, still carries the torch of the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement against the capitalist West. In 1919, the manifesto of the Communist International was published after having been drafted by communists across Europe. In it, there is an acknowledgement of the global exploitation of the proletariat and calls for the masses of the world to overthrow national oppression “under the banner of the workers’ Soviets.” This document has made it clear that it was from Moscow that the struggle against capitalism and imperialism would be spearheaded owing to it being the setting of the first successful revolution against the capitalist machine. Despite this, there was always the sense that leftism was an internationalist struggle that transcends national interests, as written in the manifesto itself: “We summon the working men and women of all countries to unite under the communist banner under which the first great victories have already been won.” One could even go as far back as Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party when he famously proclaimed: “Workingmen of all countries Unite!.” This transnational aspect of the socialist and communist movements was slowly replaced by the statist and internally-focused doctrine of Joseph Stalin’s “Socialism in One Country.”
Indeed, the internationalist spirit of the Left has eroded at a time when it is more needed by the movement than ever amidst the spread of neoliberal globalization. Rather than standing in solidarity with persecuted left-wing political movements across the world, so-called “leftists” are taking a stand with their oppressors and jailers. Prominent “leftists,” such as author Noam Chomsky, are quick to defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by stating that Kyiv is merely a geopolitical pawn in the greater power politics strategy of the United States. All the while President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on Sergei Udaltsov and other members of the Left Front, a coalition of Russian left-wing political parties, gathered no such attention. There are other “left-wing” personalities in commentary and activist circles who have, in the same spirit as Chomsky’s, affirmed the position that Ukraine is a mere vessel for the imperialist power that is the United States.
This, however, is a fundamental error in reading the situation. If the current state of political affairs in Ukraine is a Western imperialist project, then what goals would it further achieve in its supposed “threat” or further “subjugation” of Russia? Would it entail the positioning of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military bases and perhaps nuclear weapons in Ukraine? This is unlikely considering that NATO had denied that it would position nuclear weapons in Finland, which, along with Sweden, will be the newest member of the alliance after the War in Ukraine convinced national political leaders of the importance of NATO membership. The alliance had also positioned its nuclear arsenal away from NATO members that bordered Russia. Apart from this, Ukraine joining either NATO or the European Union (EU) would not affect Russia’s military capability to launch a nuclear strike; Moscow could authorize launches either from Russian land or through nuclear submarines without any hindrances and, should NATO use Ukraine as a staging point to invade Russia, there would be no doubt that such actions would result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons; an event that both sides would not want due to mutual annihilation.
So what then is the point of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Chomsky and other “leftists” would like to erroneously justify? The answer is the very phenomenon that the political left has strived to go against - imperialism. In a speech just before the invasion, Putin had claimed that Ukraine was a creation of the Bolsheviks that intended to divide Russia; that Ukraine and its people were really Russians. Things could not be farther from the truth, considering that the people who had initially inhabited modern-day Ukraine had no desire to integrate with Muscovite Russia in the 16th through the 18th centuries. Even if it were true, this outright historical revisionism of Ukrainian identity is reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s justification for the invasion of Poland, Austria, and parts of Czechoslovakia due to these countries having German-speaking populations. Perhaps the ambassador of Kenya to the United Nations puts it well in stating that, even if a people were to be divided by borders, it does not justify war. How these so-called “leftists” have refused to learn from history is a failure of their comprehension and an illustration of the pro-Moscow bias among “leftist” circles that, unfortunately, remains a legacy of the Cold War.
In recognition of Marx’s internationalist outlook for the left-wing movement, one cannot simply justify imperialism, regardless of the color of the flag, while also remaining a leftist. To be a leftist is to renounce imperialism in all its forms and recognize that it is a product of the economic processes that continue to influence society and politics. Thankfully, the left still has figures, such as Slavoj Zizek, who is keen on recognizing that the left has strayed away from its internationalist foundations and is turning towards a fascistic vision of global society, run by the world’s autocrats and oligarchs. To save leftism from decaying into fascism and justifying imperialist autocracies, it must stray away from it; move away from the socialist grandeur that was the Soviet Union, and learn to recognize that, as long as national interests remain front and center of foreign policy without the consideration of the interests of the wider proletariat, leftists must resist foreign policies that aim to subjugate entire peoples to an imperial core.