Home: Opinion

A betrayal of Ukraine and the Left

Have socialists like Yanis Varoufakis and Jeremy Corbyn got their history wrong?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
11 October 2022, 1.46pm

A petition endorsed by senior figures on the Left is profoundly misconceived Ukraine

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Adam Stoltman / Alamy Stock Photo

‘To All Who Care about Humanity’s and the Planet’s Future’. This is the title of a call to us all, which has just been published in the form of a petition by sincere people on the Left, some of them my friends. It is specifically concerned with bringing peace to Ukraine and preventing war over Taiwan and also addresses how to change the world for good.

But if its perspective is accepted as the Left’s view, it will be a disaster for progressive democrats and the idea of socialism. The call is profoundly misconceived, both with respect to Ukraine and Taiwan, especially Ukraine, and also in the general political analysis it offers.

I say this with regret. One of the main drafters is American law professor Richard Falk, a comrade from the struggle against the US war in Vietnam. His outstanding work helped lay the basis for the development of modern international law and human rights. I’ve worked with and admire two of the lead signatories (see below*). There are 38 of them, including Jeremy Corbyn.

All Who Care says wise things, including a call for “a massive global awakening of human wisdom and energy”. The writers explain: “Important as governments and international institutions are, the initiative for a coherent response to the challenges we face lies largely with the people, with civil society.”

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But it is primarily an intervention in conflicts of the moment, and it is in this respect that it needs to be judged.

On Ukraine, a call for peace that sets out to be principled should state that any threat to use nuclear weapons is an outrage. It does not. It must state that invading other countries is wrong. It does not. It was wrong for the US in Iraq, it is wrong for Israel in Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza, and it must now be reversed in Ukraine.

It is arrogant, and even a touch imperial, to demand Ukraine’s neutrality without making clear that this does not take away its democratic rights

‘All Who Care’ demands that Ukraine be “neutral”. If its neutrality were guaranteed by military commitments from outside to safeguard the country’s independence in a way that satisfied the government in Kyiv, and did not deprive it of weapons for self-defence, then this would be reasonable. Given the risk of a world war, those outside Ukraine have a right to say that it cannot become a base that might be used to threaten Russia, or any other neighbouring country.

But in any such call, tone and attitude are of vital importance: it has to be said respectfully as a request to the Ukrainian people. It is arrogant, and even a touch imperial, to demand the country’s neutrality without also making clear that this does not take away Ukraine’s democratic right to decide what economic and social trajectory it aspires to. Neutrality should not prevent Ukraine from joining the European Union if it so chooses (something even Putin’s Russia seems to have accepted). This, too, needs to be said.

The approach to Ukraine taken by ‘All Who Care’ demands the “phased withdrawal of Russian military forces” and “an end to the delivery of lethal military aid to Ukraine”. Why should the withdrawal be “phased” but not the end of military aid?

The document suggests that the underlying cause of the conflict is “the cynical use of the Ukraine war by great powers intent on pursuing their geopolitical ambitions”. But it was the uncynical resistance of Ukrainians themselves, much to the surprise of both Washington and the Kremlin, that shaped the war. ‘All Who Care’ disregards Ukrainian agency and the commitment of a huge majority of Ukrainians to their country’s integrity and independence. Instead, it frames Ukraine as being manipulated by the US. This echoes Vladimir Putin’s perspective.

What is the thinking that leads the authors and signatories to their conclusion? They sum it up in four short paragraphs which need to be quoted in full:

More troubling still is the toxic relationship between the United States on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. Here lies the key to both conflicts.

What we are seeing is the culmination of decades of gross mismanagement of global security. The United States has been unwilling to accept, let alone adapt to, the rise of China and the re-emergence of Russia. It remains unwilling to break with outdated notions of global dominance – a legacy of the Cold War and the triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A global power shift is taking place. The West-centric world, in which first Europe and then the United States held sway, is giving way to a multi-centric, multi-civilisational world in which other centres of power and influence are demanding to be heard.

Failure to accept this new reality spells immense danger. A new Cold War is now in full swing, which can at any moment mutate into a hot war. In the words of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, “Humanity is one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.

But it is the authors and signatories who are unwilling to face up to new realities of the nature of the regimes now challenging the US, the autonomy of the demands for democracy, especially those led by women, and the way these are responses to the fact of America’s irreversibly diminished role which Washington is certainly aware of.

Historically, they are right: we are caught in the legacy of decades of gross behaviour by the US governing elite. But its ambition failed more than a decade ago. This in turn gave birth to monsters even worse than US hegemony. The problem the world faces is not that the USA has failed to relinquish “outdated notions of global dominance”, it is the struggle over how and by whom its dominance will be replaced.

The US is not innocent nor a mere bystander in this process. Under Joe Biden it is now striving to re-establish global ‘leadership’. But it is doing it from a position of weakness. A recent example of how emaciated US power has become is the behaviour of what historically was its client state, Saudi Arabia. Despite being courted by a humiliating personal visit from the US president, who wanted their help against high energy prices, the Saudis have just cut back production to ensure the opposite.

This is a direct help to Putin as it keeps the price of oil high, as well as being an intervention in the American midterm elections designed to aid Donald Trump and his family by making Biden unpopular.

How did we get to a situation where Washington is so weakened?

A new world: multi-centred and more unequal

In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, President George Bush senior celebrated US “primacy” and boasted that no other country need “dread” its influence. In fact, the USA exercised its post-Cold War supremacy with catastrophic stupidity and greed. Across the Global South, the wealth extraction of colonialism was replaced with the wealth extraction of the ‘Washington consensus’.

In the West itself, the working and middle classes saw their incomes flatline as the financial system transferred riches upwards, generating unparalleled inequality. Russia, in particular, was treated to the most brutal ‘shock therapy’ and its oligarchs were encouraged to loot the country, with the West providing safe havens for their theft. Ordinary Russians suffered a deep, humiliating loss of income and livelihood. The rise and nature of Putin are rooted in the rage this engendered. Only China had the sense and political means to ensure its economy was governed rather than handed over to the ‘freedom’ of Wall Street. It grew exponentially, while its low wages were instrumentalised to break and impoverish the working classes in developed countries.

The rise of China and its admission into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in December 2001 birthed a genuine economic rival to the United States. Meanwhile, the US used the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to occupy Afghanistan and later to invade Iraq, to supervise the world’s second-largest oil deposits and almost encircle Iran. In this way, the world would understand that the US’s unprecedented economic hegemony would be underwritten by an unparalleled military supremacy.

That was then. Unrivalled hubris led to catastrophic humiliation. Five years after the ‘Shock and awe’ of its assault on Baghdad, as it faced strategic defeat in the deserts and mountains on the other side of the globe, the great financial crash of 2008 terminated US primacy. It also put an end to the justification of its ‘neoliberal’ economics – the claim that markets know best. Which in turn undermined the claim that voters are powerless, and the political fatalism essential to its ideological success.

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With Washington’s global dominance shattered, the world became irreversibly ‘multi-centred’, as well as even more unequal. Because the Left had been so systematically marginalised, it was the Right that tolled the bell. Trump gained the leadership of the Republican Party by denouncing the Iraq invasion as “a big fat mistake” that cost the US $2 trillion and benefitted Iran, and excoriating the globalists who had sold out American business and workers. He specifically abjured the ideology, as well as the costs, of US global leadership. He praised Russia, refused to condemn Lukashenko’s the crushing of democracy in Belarus and admired China’s President Xi for his strength.

In his last speech to the United Nations (unless, that is, he is re-elected) he advocated a gangster’s division of the world. He told his fellow leaders: “I have rejected the failed approaches of the past. I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first. That’s OK. That’s what you should be doing.”

In this way, the US ‘accepted’ and adapted’ to the rise of China and the re-emergence of Russia. Only it did so by proclaiming a pluralist modern fascism, built on corruption and surveillance, and expressed in the language of ‘The Godfather’.

The fact that the Biden administration seeks to reverse this while also terminating US efforts at ‘regime change’ in Afghanistan is welcome.

Today, the most pressing danger that humanity faces is the return to the White House of Trump or a Trump clone, who would rig the US system permanently. This is of world importance because once joined by the economic and military weight of a far-Right USA, the global network of authoritarian regimes would enjoy irreversible domination for at least a generation. Xi, Putin and Trump, together with India’s Narendra Modi, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, would ensure that more nations joined them in Trump’s mobster international.

Rejecting the Right: Ukraine on the front line

The front line of resistance to such an outcome is, tragically, Ukraine. It did not ask for this role but was invaded by the Russian president. Ukraine is not just fighting for itself. Our democratic future, too, is at stake in its battle. To defeat Trumpism outside the USA as well as inside, we have to defy and frustrate Putin.

Of course, politically, this is not a clash between socialism and capitalism, but between capitalist democracies with some regard to the rule of law, freedom of speech and an open politics on the one hand, and lawless, oppressive capitalism on the other.

In this situation, the only way forward for the Left, after decades of defeat, is through unconditional support for more rule-based democracy based on universal principles. Without this there is no hope for the democracy of feminism, of racial justice, of a sustainable environment, of a fair economy, of human rights, of participation, pluralism, deliberation and national self-determination. Or, to borrow from the inspiring slogan of the protests in Iran, “Women, life and freedom.”

Some fear a Western victory in Ukraine would take us back to 1992. But younger generations won’t be easily persuaded into believing ‘the market knows best’

This also means that the people of Crimea have the right to decide for themselves whether to be part of Ukraine or Russia, and the people of Taiwan must be free to decide for themselves if they want to be ruled from Beijing.

Some fear a Western victory in Ukraine would take us back 30 years to 1992, with Francis Fukuyama celebrating the triumph of liberalism over history all over again. But the younger generations are not going to be easily persuaded into passivity or believing that ‘the market knows best’. The US has withdrawn from Afghanistan and can be prevented from ever again engaging in ‘regime change’. China is now its economic equal and this cannot be undone. The process in Ukraine is not one of collapse, as in eastern Europe, but the result of decades of effort to slough off the corruptions of Stalinism. Nor are Ukrainians alone. From Iran to Chile the genie of popular agency has shattered the bottle of neoliberal fatalism.

The authors and signatories of ‘All Who Care’ are right to sound the alarm in one important respect. These are very dangerous times that demand wisdom, not glorification or the triumphalism that feeds arms industries.

Our larger aim should be to welcome the emergence of democracy in Russia – maybe the last thing that the Western security establishment actually desires.

The alternative is rule by a mobsters international, which would ensure that the world will fry. It is as important as that.


*Of the 38 supporting signatories, Victoria Brittain, a pioneering editor of coverage of the Global South, is someone I was proud openDemocracy published. I worked with Yanis Varoufakis when I helped a little with the draft of the original DiEM 25 call for democracy in Europe (we discussed this together with the much-missed Rosemary Bechler).

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