[Note: This article was originally submitted to Jacobin in the hope of initiating a debate among the radical left. It was rejected.]
In a recent article in Jacobin, “What the Left’s Critics Ignore About Military Solutions to Ukraine,” Branko Marcetic argues that the left should oppose Western military aid to Ukraine. Marcetic condemns the Russian invasion and believes the Ukrainians have a right to defend themselves, but he insists they should not get arms from the United States or its allies. His case is quite unconvincing.
The first thing to note about Marcetic’s argument is that several times he says he is criticizing those leftists who call for sending “offensive” weapons to Kyiv. But this is a totally misleading way of putting things. No one on the left has called for the delivery of “offensive” weapons. An offensive weapon would be one that could attack Russia, rather than defend Ukraine. The distinction between such weapons is not always a sharp one, but, for example, antitank and anti-aircraft weapons can be used defensively against Russian forces in or over Ukrainian territory, while intermediate-range ballistic missiles could reach Russia. The transfer of weapons that would enable Ukraine to attack Russia itself has not been proposed by any one on the left. Those leftists who have explicitly discussed offensive weapons have done so precisely to reject their being provided to Ukraine.
Marcetic questions whether Western military aid has actually made any difference, suggesting that the Russian Army’s failures were due simply to its incompetence. Does he really think an unarmed Ukraine could have repelled even an inept Russian invasion? But then, he goes on to argue that
if Western military aid really has prevented a swift Ukrainian defeat against a Russian military not yet fighting at full capacity, then that has also risked simply prolonging the war and Ukrainian suffering, and eventually leading Moscow to ramp up the brutality of its assault as a solution to the stalemate.
It’s true that fighting back always carries the risk of prolonging a war and the suffering. That’s why we would never press the defenders from afar to fight on. This is a decision for the defenders to make themselves: they will bear the consequences and so only they can decide if the dangers of prolonging the fighting outweigh the costs of defeat. We say, however, that if and only if the victims of an unjust attack want to resist, they should be given the means to do so. Marcetic’s view seems to be that it is up to him and other outsiders to decide whether surrender is a better course than resistance. As Volodymyr Artiukh, a Ukrainian socialist and an editor of Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, a leftwing Ukrainian publication, remarked after Russia’s retreat from the towns and villages around Kiev revealed the brutal and systematic massacre of civilians:
This is graphic, but not surprising or something one could not predict. There is also no reason to think this will not repeat in other occupied places. This raises the following question. What is the cost of a ban on supplying weapons to Ukraine’s army that many on the left advocate? I think that it is legitimate to debate the issue of supplying weapons. There are reasons pro and contra.
But those who take a stance should also acknowledge the costs and take the responsibility for such a stance.
And the possible costs are increasingly looking horrendous.
Every time people fighting a just war are provided with the means to defend themselves, there is a danger that it will lead to more suffering. Soviet and Chinese arms to Vietnam gave the North Vietnamese and the NLF the ability to fight on and may, in retrospect, have caused more suffering to the people of Vietnam, than, say, the decision of the Danish government not to have resisted the Nazi invasion of its country in 1940. Any feeling person would be concerned about this, but did this mean that the international left should have called for Moscow and Beijing to stop their arms deliveries to Vietnam, to confine their support to non-military approaches? Or should they have left this decision up to the Vietnamese and backed their right to get the weapons they needed and requested?
Now it might be that at some point in a conflict one has reason to believe that the decision to continue fighting is being made not by the people of the nation under attack but by an elite undemocratically deciding in the name of the people. None of the reporting from Ukraine suggests that Zelensky is compelling the population to fight on against their wishes. And nothing suggests that it is Ukrainian government intransigence in negotiations that is keeping the war going, unless refusing total surrender is intransigence. (Ukraine has offered, in return for international guarantees, to proclaim itself a neutral state, promising not to join any military coalitions or host any foreign military bases or troop contingents and to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, and to resolve issues related to Crimea through negotiations with Russia for a period of 15 years, pledging not to try to resolve these issues by military means.)
But is the call for providing offensive support, practicalities be damned, to a country being invaded or repressed by a larger power really a principle today’s liberal interventionists would apply consistently?
Note again the use of the word “offensive” to describe the weapons. And note his reference to “liberal interventionists” as a way of implying that supporting Ukraine’s right to self-defense somehow necessarily makes you a “liberal interventionist” rather than a socialist internationalist. In any event, however, no one is damning practicalities. No one is proposing taking actions that risk world war. If Marcetic thinks otherwise, he needs to name those who have made such proposals and not imply that this charge applies to those who expressly oppose them.
Marcetic proposes several analogies to support his opposition to U.S. arms for Ukraine. No one, he says, called for China or Russia to deliver weapons to Iraq in 2003, even though we opposed the U.S. invasion. But the reason no one called for external arms to Saddam Hussein is that he was a murderous dictator ruling over a people unwilling to fight on his behalf, as evidenced by the lack of popular opposition to the invasion. In another analogy, Marcetic asks
should the Left abandon its demands for Washington to broker and actually implement a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, and instead push for sending billions of dollars of weapons to Hamas in Gaza?
But this is silly. Weapons should be sent to allow people to defend themselves in a just war only when there is no non-violent way to defend them. In the case of Israel-Palestine, the United States doesn’t have to apply military force against Israel to get it to remove its boot from the Palestinians’ necks. It needs only to stop supporting Israel. If Washington announced that it was going to support Security Council sanctions against Israel and cut off its military aid, it’s hard to imagine Israel continuing its violations of international and humanitarian law. And if Israel did continue, a Security Council resolution authorizing peacekeepers or a no-fly zone over Gaza to protect Palestinians would be appropriate—and possible if Washington, as in this highly unrealistic scenario, changed its position.
There are countless cases where the United States had only to give the word to get its brutal subordinates to desist. So in 1986, it was unnecessary to send arms to the People’s Power protesters in the Philippines calling on Marcos to step down. All that was needed was for a Senator close to Reagan to call the Philippine dictator on the phone and say the time had come to leave. Marcos was on the next plane out of the country.
Marcetic raises the problem of the far-right Azov brigade (and, no surprise, it’s a photo of Azov veterans that accompanies Marcetic’s article). He asks:
What might happen if such groups have ready access to the copious weaponry now spreading through the country? What might it mean for the future of Ukraine’s brittle democracy or even Zelensky’s rule? What could it mean for vulnerable minorities like the Roma and LGBTQ community, both of which have been serially targeted with violence by these groups? How might it impact the prospects for a lasting peace, or at least stability, in the region once the war ends?
But what does Marcetic think it will mean for Ukraine’s brittle democracy if the country is conquered by its more authoritarian neighbor?
What will it mean for Ukraine’s sexual minorities if Kyiv is defeated by an enemy that considers LGBTQ rights to be a weapon used by the West to weaken and destabilize Russia? Societal prejudice has long made life difficult for LGBTQ Ukrainians; nevertheless, Ukraine had been before the war a refuge for LGBTQ people from elsewhere in Eastern Europe. As the co-founder of Ukrainian Pride explained, “If Russia wins, LGBTQ people in Ukraine will lose everything they have achieved in recent years.” This is why many members of Ukraine’s LGBTQ community have been fighting in the Ukrainian army.
Likewise, Roma have indeed been terribly treated in Ukraine, but their view of what a Russian victory would mean for them can be seen in the fact that they are willingly volunteering to defend Ukraine. As Sean Benstead has written:
Despite Putin’s bogus claims of a fascist junta in Kiev, the liberal democratic state—however incompetent and corrupted by institutional prejudice—retains semi-responsive democratic institutions, and at least the promise of a return to a less authoritarian order once peace has returned. To Ukrainian Roma, this is worth defending with their lives. Within the scope of the Ukrainian liberal democratic state, however damaged and dysfunctional, it is still possible to build social movements, benefit from the counsel of human rights organizations, and gain concessions from political and civil institutions.
But of course, neither Roma nor the LGBTQ community nor democratic activists in general can defend the limited rights they have secured if they don’t have weapons.
Ukraine’s left knows all about rightwing violence; they have faced it themselves. But this has not led them to call for Ukraine to be denied arms. Taras Bilous of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organization Sotsialnyi Rukh wrote on Twitter:
Before the war, I did everything I could with this problem. After I showed up at an anti-fascist protest with a picket sign calling for the disbanding of the far-Right Azov regiment (pictured) I was threatened and had to hide for some time.
Nevertheless, he has no doubts that social progress requires Ukraine getting arms to defend itself, even if this means that some of the arms will end up in the hands of far-right fighters, who represent a small fraction of Ukraine’s armed forces.
Marcetic goes on to discuss the case of the Spanish civil war. While it made sense for the left to call for sending arms to the Spanish Republic, he says, that’s no argument for arming Ukraine: “the Spanish were fighting fascists, while in this case the outcome of Western policy is indirectly arming fascists.” This is a disgraceful formulation. The Ukrainians are “fighting fascists”—they are trying to repel a brutal, rightwing, imperialist, ethnonationalist invader that denies the existence of their state and their people. And recall that there were rotten folks on the side of the Spanish Republic, and indeed they held a much stronger position in Spain than the small number of fascists do in Ukraine.
But don’t get me wrong, says Marcetic: “That of course doesn’t mean Ukraine isn’t deserving of our solidarity and support, but it does mean one should think carefully about the form that support takes.” Translation: you have our solidarity and support except insofar as it may extend to actually allowing you the means to defend yourself.
Marcetic worries that U.S. and British officials are hoping to turn Ukraine into a repeat of Afghanistan, creating a quagmire for Russia no matter the human cost. So, yes, if Washington or London were forcing weapons on Ukraine despite its wish to surrender, that would be morally unacceptable. But that is the opposite of what is going on. As Gilbert Achcar has noted, “not a single day has passed since the Russian invasion began without the Ukrainian president publicly blaming NATO powers for not sending enough weapons, both quantitatively and qualitatively.”
Can we really say to Ukrainians: for your own good we are going to turn a deaf ear to your pleas for the means of defending yourselves?
Stephen R. Shalom is on the editorial board of New Politics. He is a member of DSA, Internationalism from Below, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
I will support sending arms to Ukraine when the Ukrainian government will abolish conscription and allow the men who want to flee the country to do so. Or force childless women to stay and enlist as well. Equal rights must imply equal duties. This massive instance of sexism is once again getting ignored, as always when the ones being discriminated against are the men. As long as Zelensky thinks that males can be cannon fodder while females can be exempted from the duty to defend the country, I’ll gladly watch the Russians demolish him.
It is quite astonishing that someone would welcome seeing a rabidly sexist aggressor “demolish” its victim because the latter has gender-biased conscription policies. I assume this means you would also have cheered Hitler’s victories, which, after all, were also against countries that had discriminatory conscription policies.
Greetings. I have seen your article somewhere, and upon reading it, I was compelled to write a reply. I’ll try to address some points in hope to make you, as author and others to reflect on things and think.
First few assumptions which author puts forward, which are atrocious from theoretical point of view – and are quite biased:
1. Ukrainians have right to defend themselves.
2. Ukraine is bristle democracy (and as such precious)
Equating the ruling class and state with people (Ukrainians) is just wrong. Framing the argument like this is begging the answer and it is emotionally manipulative. Bourgeois democracy is no way a representative of people. They have willingly and knowingly entered a war and they are sacrificing people for its own interest, interest of the elite.
So yes, like one of the earlier comments said, when Zelensky and his gang lets people out and cancels forced conscription.
In the article, you are also forgetting the begging whole world-system and the beginning of the conflict.
3. The Ukrainians are “fighting fascists”—they are trying to repel a brutal, rightwing, imperialist, ethnonationalist invader that denies the existence of their state and their people.
As many other authors before me pointed out, Russia is not and can’t be imperialist and it is not ethnonationalist. Russia is multiethnic state, which is prosecuting nationalists movements, because it is threat to its (state) exitance UNLIKE Ukraine where you have Nazi formations incorporated into state apparatus, where Nazi ideology is alive and supported by the state. Where Nazi formations have their own institutions including orphanages.
So what we have here is a deliberate manipulation and replacement of of actors.
Every other statement is just manipulation (brutal, invader that denies the existence of their state and their people.)
4. Equating the struggle of Vietnamese with Ukraine.
Is just ludicorus. Equating the struggle of peoples liberation, a social revolution with fascist, nationalist Ukraine. Not much can be said here. Is this intellectual dishonesty?
5. “Ukraine has offered, in return for international…”
Again some intellectual dishonesty. They want to discus Sevastopol and Crimea. If that is not a tongue in cheek offer, I do not know what is. It is clear that they do not want an agreement.
All that being said while ignoring, even on the liberal grounds – position, the coups in Ukraine 2004 and 2014, which are from the liberal position wrong.
All that being said, while ignoring the (western) imperialist’s interest in Ukraine, to integrate them into exploitation (resources as well cheap labour), to degrade them into third world country and integrate them into NATO alliance. We can see interest of elite in this course of action, but where is interest of the working people?
Russia has given conditions even before the war started and Ukraine side has disregarded them:
1. Federalization of Ukraine (referendum in regions which want that).
2. Russian language as state language.
3. War neutral Ukraine.
And Ukraine oligarchy with did not concede on those basic and quite understandable conditions.
Peace is only solution. Ukraine should concede and people should stop to suffer for the interest of oligarchs, western and eastern.
“Russia is not and can’t be imperialist”
The logic in this piece is compelling. Certainly it makes no sense to oppose arming Ukraine.
But if we view the goal of the left as educating the larger public, then we should recognize that the larger public already supports sending arms, in fact way beyond what is argued here. E.g., over 30% of the public supports a no-fly zone. Let’s also bear in mind that the US government is already arming Ukraine.
In this context, why is it important for the left to also add its voice to the (legitimate) calls for arms support? Are we calling for more than what the US government is already doing? It seems that strategically speaking, the left in the US ought to be focusing on other things that the US government ought to be doing.
If the left had a clear and correct position on this then there would be no reason to write such an article in New Politics. But given that I was replying to an article (one of many) in Jacobin, the most important left publication in the United States, and given that some leftists in Italy and Greece are blocking arms shipments to Ukraine, it hardly seems like addressing the left is a waste of time.
That’s a fair point
Rivalry in Ukraine: Searching for the Third Camp
The key principle guiding Julie and Phyllis Jacobson’s creation of New Politics was the idea(l) of the Third Camp. This ideal, inseparable from “socialism from below,” demands that we see how choosing the “lesser evil” obscures and marginalizes alternatives, including nascent social and political movements that represent a break with the status quo.
Related to the idea of exploring options and controversy that comes with this process, New Politics was also intended as open forum for debate, a tradition I am proud the journal continues by publishing Steve Shalom’s article, rejected by The Jacobin.
The principle of consistent opposition to imperialism and defense of self-determination, central to the Third Camp, is missing in apologias for the Russian invasion, one of which has been posted as a reply to Steve Shalom’s piece. But the ideal of the Third Camp is also absent in Steve Shalom’s call for socialists to support the U.S. sending arms to Ukraine, without mentioning U.S. involvement in NATO. In fact, the piece implicitly argues for NATO increasing its involvement: He writes, “As Gilbert Achcar has noted, ‘not a single day has passed since the Russian invasion began without the Ukrainian president publicly blaming NATO powers for not sending enough weapons, both quantitatively and qualitatively.’”
Upholding a Third Camp stance might argue for supporting arms to be sent from whatever country can supply them, but it also has to call for dissolution of NATO. In doing so we clarify our aim is to support Ukraine without deepening U.S. imperial power. That was the demand of revolutionary socialists during the Spanish Civil War, and it’s what the Campaign for Peace and Democracy demanded during the war in Bosnia.
The current war has intensified the political consequences and horrors of the U.S./Russia inter-imperialist rivalry, which New Politics took up in its section on the “The Crisis in Ukraine” in Summer 2014 (New Politics Vol. XV No. 1, Whole Number 57). We are in a worse position now than we were in 2014 precisely because the U.S. Left has failed to organize a vibrant peace movement, in part because of the re-emergence of lesser evilism in the form of “campism.”
What Joanne Landy wrote in 2014 in “Ukraine Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Is There a Way Out?” still holds:
The governments of the United States and Russia are attempting to shape events in Ukraine in their own interests, not for the benefit of the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians have long suffered from domination by Moscow, under the Russian czars and later in the Soviet Union, most horrifically under Stalin. With the end of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, millions hoped for freedom and a new beginning. However, the United States and Western Europe exploited the collapse of the Soviet system to expand their own military and economic power, extending NATO into a dozen formerly Communist nations (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania, and Croatia), and, they hoped, into Ukraine and Georgia as well. Equally destructive, the West attempted to use its economic heft, “shock therapy,” and international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to push a brutal capitalism on the people of the former Communist countries.
Steve Shalom asks “Can we really say to Ukrainians: for your own good we are going to turn a deaf ear to your pleas for the means of defending yourselves?” My answer is that we do not turn a deaf ear when we support Ukraine’s right to self-determination in ways that do not strengthen the inter-imperialist rivalry that has led to this bloody war and put the entire world at risk. Moreover, his solution, sending arms without arguing against NATO intensifies the symbiosis between the ruling classes of two imperial powers.
Our challenge as socialists is to support the stunningly courageous anti-war activists in Russia and build an international peace movement in the belly of the other imperial beast. The Left’s and socialists’ failure to organize against growth of our military budget is a moral and political disgrace that has fed the perception that our only options are military intervention and war.
For the ruling classes of the U.S. and Russia protecting and growing their power and wealth are a small price for others to pay in lost and shattered lives, a devastated environment, and the risk of nuclear holocaust. Steve Shalom’s argument for sending arms without criticizing NATO ignores consideration of what happens if/when we fail to break the symbiosis.
As a long time sponsor of New Politics I fully endorse Lois’ position and think it is far more balanced as progressives struggle for a peaceful world.
The U.S. pursuit of NATO expansion after the Cold War, instead of taking the opportunity to pursue a democratic foreign policy and a different sort of security framework, was a moral disgrace and a tragedy. So too was Washington’s pressure to promote capitalism throughout the former Eastern bloc. But these terrible historical facts don’t provide much guidance as to what should be done at this moment, as the Russian military is brutally trying to subjugate Ukraine and its people.
Consider the causes of mass shootings in the United States. If there had been a different approach to mental illness or guns, the incidence of these crimes would have been drastically reduced. But if tomorrow someone starts machine-gunning people in Times Square, I want the police – with all their horrible faults – to intervene to stop the killer. And I wouldn’t feel an obligation to combine my call for the police to act with a demand for the immediate abolition of the police. Our long-term goal is a system of public safety that is democratically controlled and non-racist. To literally abolish the police before we had an alternative system for protecting people in place would mean turning over our communities to criminal gangs. And no one would consider trying to block police cars from getting to Times Square while the shooter was engaged in mass slaughter.
In the same way, I want to see NATO abolished and replaced with a democratic and just means of providing security. But at this moment, when there is no such alternative means of security in existence, and when Putin’s forces are engaged in conquest and slaughter, it is not appropriate to demand the immediate abolition of NATO. Still less is it appropriate to try to interfere with the arms supplies going to Ukraine, as some misguided leftists have done in Italy and Greece.
People being unjustly attacked have the right to defend themselves. Direct involvement of NATO troops or a no-fly zone would risk nuclear war. But the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine is essential to make the right of self-defense a reality. That the arms come (mostly) from NATO countries should not lead us to oppose those arms deliveries.
I am glad Lois Weiner agrees that people under attack are entitled to weapons from anywhere. I believe she is mistaken, however, in thinking our priority right now — as Putin is threatening other countries in Europe — is to demand the immediate end of NATO.
While socialists should never “endorse” NATO, one needs to take account of specific circumstances. We seek to advance democracy and empower those elements within each specific conflict best situated to do so. Most of the time that requires being in militant opposition to U.S. foreign policy. On rare occasions, the interests of the U.S. government may temporarily coincide with our aims. When this overlap occurs, we nevertheless place no trust in the U.S. government, look upon its actions with suspicion, and warn Ukrainian comrades to do the same. What we can and should demand is that the transfer of arms comes with no imperialist strings attached.
Excellently argued. I wish you would expand your response to a full article.
I would also add that there *is* a way for eastern European countries to address their legitimate security needs without NATO, namely for Europe to develop a security infrastructure without the US. After the cold war ended, according to James Baker, “NATO is the mechanism for securing the U.S. presence in Europe. If NATO is liquidated, there will be no such mechanism in Europe.”
That suggests a clear path ahead: a security mechanism independent of the US. This is not utopian. Europe did develop the EU in the economic realm without the US. Why can they not develop something similar on the security front?
To clarify, I think we in the U.S. should demand the US leave NATO. Where does Steve Shalom stand on that?
I am also curious to hear Steve’s position on this question.
To me, it seems that a rational position on NATO would include the following points.
1. The NATO expansion we are now seeing is a great gift given by Putin to NATO.
2. This NATO expansion is a terrible consequence of the war. However, it is also understandable that countries are feeling threatened by Putin’s aggression and seeking NATO membership as a defensive measure. The above holds even though Russian performance in the war thus far has been poor and indicates that Putin’s moral capacity for destruction exceeds his military capacity. Security in international affairs has its own logic.
3. In the long run, there is no contradiction between the dissolution of NATO and addressing the legitimate security needs of European countries. This is not a utopian idea. NATO’s primary purpose post cold-war was to keep the US involved in European affairs, as clarified by James Baker’s statements I quoted above in the thread. Europe could develop a security infrastructure independent of the US, much like the EU in the economic realm. It is also not true that any of the above requires regime change in Russia.
4. The institutional structure of (3) may be like NATO minus the US. Or it may not. That is for Europe to decide.
For what it’s worth, although I was in the IS and identified w/ Third Camp politics, I never really viewed these two sides as equivalent. On the one hand, US imperialism has a four hundred year history of crimes against humanity against native Ameriicans and slaves, agaisnst the populations of Latin America where we installed murderous despots, against the peoples of SE Asia, etc. So it’s done the most damage to the world by far, killing millions. On the other hand, Stalinism is a massively worse system to live under for workers and everyone. Stalinist police states and Russian tanks render self-organization, unions, civil rights, dissent, etc. impossible. From the standpoint of socialist organizing, liberal democracies are obviously the lesser evil, much to be preferred. Given a choice, why would we want the greater evil? In today’s world we cannot equate U.S. and Russian (and Chinese) imperialism under the old slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” As socialists we must absolutely prefer democracy even if its dominated by capitalists, corrupt, etc. (I voted for Biden for the same reason. Republicans and Democrats are both capitalist parties, but certainly in this day and age they’re not politically equivalent.) The masses of the 14 or so ex-satellites feel the same way. That’s why they tore down the Berlin Wall and voted to join the EU and NATO. So “lesser evilsm” should not be dismissed, at least in all cases.
Thus I would caution against characterizing NATO as solely an instrument of US and European ruling classes because that does not grasp the fact that the overwhelming masses of East European citizens, as well as Ukrainians, and now even Swedes and Finns, all desperately want to be in NATO. They poll in favor of NATO membership and they vote for parties that supported NATO membership. Far from “aggressively expanding into East Europe,” NATO was pushing an open door. As historian Don Kalb writes:
“NATO not only pushed quite deliberately towards the East after 1994, it was just as deliberately sucked into it, also, by the passionate requests of Eastern politicians and nations. In truth, people mobilized by the millions to demand or support these nationalist secessions. The peoples’ chain across the Baltics, connecting the Polish and Russian borders over a stretch of more than a thousand kilometers stands as a symbol of such sentiments. Ukraine was not different. There was a referendum on independence in 1992: over 90 percent support, including in the Donbas (where the percentage of supporters was lower but still overwhelming). Nationalism was scripted into the new independent states in the East from the very beginning, including of course the ones that later accessed the EU. That nationalism was anti-communist, anti-Russian, largely liberal-democratic, and, in the spirit of the times, thoroughly neoliberal. It worked by way of reimagining their bourgeois ‘civil democratic’ and ‘morally virtuous’ openings in the interbellum that were cut short by the Second World war, the Soviet occupation, and the establishment of “really existing socialism.”
Popular support for NATO was of course a happy coincidence for western capitalists as it corresponded with their desire to dominate the world and prevent the spread of communism. In result, today NATO stands as a bulwark of both capitalism (which we don’t support) and democracy (which we do support). It’s not one-dimensional. When Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, the MR editors and the rest maintain that NATO is just an imperialist tool and Western imperialism “caused this war” and is the greater evil in this conflict, they’re wrong. On the contrary, the masses of East Europe support NATO, this is indeed a fight for democracies against fascism, and we socialists should unequivocally support (NATO-backed) Ukraine against the greater evil, Putin’s fascist imperialism.
Richard Smith’s critique of how the West compares to totalitarianism isn’t new. Julie Jacobson, defending the Third Camp in an article in 1986, puts the comparison even more sharply: “Bourgeois democracy is the lesser evil to totalitarian collectivism. It is inconceivable that any democratic, socialist, Marxist could think otherwise.” Capitalism and the West in their “democratic garb’ provide “basic liberties and cultural freedoms” that are denied in the East” which allows greater openings for opposing Western imperialism.
Yet if one weighs “all the wickedness” of both sides, which he details, the accumulated weight of U.S. evil “might not be so discernibly different what is piled on the other side.”
Julie observes “We know from experience that the concept of lesser evilism when used as a guiding political principle tends to transform a “lesser” force for evil into something that must be defended almost as if it were a political good.”
The tell-tale omission in Richard Smith’s defense of NATO (and Steve Shalom’s reply to my post) is analysis of how this relates to building a peace movement internationally. How does supporting the US involvement in NATO relate to the Left’s dismal failure to build and sustain a vibrant peace movement, support democratic movements in the East, and in doing so push back against the mistake made by so many courageous activists who helped end Communist rule but saw capitalism and U.S. imperialism as the only alternative to the system they had vanquished?
Readers will find that analysis in Julie’s article, which will be available when we move the archives to NP’s site. In the meantime, Julie’s article can be found here: https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2019-11-21/socialism-and-third-camp
For most leftists, US foreign policy is irredeemably imperialist and NATO is simply an extension and instrument of US imperialism. The centuries-long and violent historical record of US expansionism speaks for itself, as I noted. But the record is not uniformly one-sided. In WWI the US took one side in a war of equivalent capitalist imperialisms. Lenin and Western leftists were correct to say in that case either way the workers lose so “we take no side.”
WWII was different. In that case, most of the left (correctly) supported the Allies against Nazi fascism because if the fascists won that would have been massively worse for workers and everyone. Moreover, at the conclusion of that war the US-led allied powers restored democracy in Germany and installed the first democracy in Japan. Of course those could be said to be in interest of US imperialism since they installed capitalist, not socialist, democracies, and those capitalist democracies were seen to be bulwarks against Stalinist expansion. Be that as it may, they installed democracies and democracies, we’ve always maintained, are preferable for workers and everyone because a) they generally guarantee free elections, free speech, free press, free trade unions, civil rights, habeas corpus, etc.– rights and freedoms that are public goods and worthy of our support for their own sake; and b) because those freedoms and rights, even when not fully enforced for every social group in society, are nevertheless indispensable for leftists to fight for socialism, as well as to fight for minority rights, the environment, etc. The US installation of democracies in the defeated countries was, therefore, a public good, and one which has lasted down to this day. Since 1945 neither Japan nor Germany have threatened or invaded any other country. While the US post-WWII record has generally been a panoramic of imperialist invasions and toppled democracies, the record there too is not entirely evil. Eg. US government sanctions contributed importantly to bringing down the apartheid government of South Africa. And there are other examples of US support of democracy abroad, even if “accidental.”
In my view, the fight against Putin’s neo-fascism is analogous to WWII, and the Western left should absolutely support the Ukrainians’ just defense of their self-determination and unequivocally support their right as Steve argues, for accepting NATO arms.
But to amplify the point made by Don Kalb in the quotation above, I contend that NATO, like US foreign policy, is not simply an evil imperialist tool. Virtually the entire populations of East Europe view NATO as their only military defense against Russian invasion. Now even neutral Sweden and Finland want to join NATO. Thus, like it or not leftist comrades, NATO is both a bulwark of capitalist imperialism but also the bulwark of East European democracies and self-defense. It’s both. East Europe’s armies are, I believe, fully integrated into NATO; it’s their only defense. “Down with NATO” would deny them their own right to self-defense. The left should acknowledge that duality and the fact of mass support for NATO instead of reacting with knee-jerk anti-imperialism.
Comments are showing up in a confusing way. My response above was a reply to Steve Shalom’s response to Lois Weiner.