March 7, 2022

US-plaining Is Not Enough. To the Western Left, on Your and Our Mistakes

Volodymyr Artiukh

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.

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, and feminist scholars and activists from Kyiv, Lviv, Minsk, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other places that have been plunged 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 American hegemony, the neoliberal turn in forms of capital accumulation, and Western neo-imperialism. We have also been encouraged by Western social movements, from alter-globalism to antiwar protests, from Occupy to BLM.

We appreciate the way you have 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.

Amidst Russia’s shelling of Kharkiv, however, we see the limits to what we learned from you. That knowledge was produced under conditions of 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 diminishing. In spite of what many of you claim, Russia is not reacting, adapting, making concessions anymore. It has regained agency and 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 soft power and economy coercion. Nevertheless, brute force is a powerful tool, as you know from US actions 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 it, imposes its own rules the way the US has long done, albeit through other means. The sense of derealization that many commentators feel—“this is not happening”—comes from the fact that Russia’s ruling elites have been able to impose their delusions, transform them into facts on the ground, and make others accept them against their will. These delusions are no longer determined by the US or Europe. They are not a reaction, they are an independent creation.

Now facing “the impossible to imagine,” the Western left is doing what it has always done best: analyzing American neo-imperialism and the expansion of NATO. But this is not enough anymore, since it does not explain the world that is emerging from the ruins of Donbass and Kharkiv’s main square. The world is not exhaustively described as shaped by or reacting to the actions of the US. It has gained dynamics of its own, and in many domains, the US and Europe are themselves in a reactive mode. You explain the distant causes instead of noticing the emerging trends.

Thus I’m struck by how, when you talk about the dramatic processes unfolding in our corner of the world, you reduce them to reactions to the actions of your own governments and business elites. We have learned all about the US and NATO from you, but this knowledge is not so helpful anymore. Maybe the US drew the initial outline of this board game, but now other players are moving the pieces and redrawing the outline with a red marker. US-centric explanations are outdated. I have been reading almost everything written and said on the left about the past 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 its limited perspective. Overwhelmed by the fog of war and psychological stress, I cannot offer a better perspective. I can 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. In this corner of the world, we must also emerge from the ruins of Eastern Marxism, and from colonization by Western Marxism. We may make mistakes in this effort, and you may accuse us of nationalism, idealism, provincialism. Learn from these mistakes: now you are also provincial, and you face the temptation to resort to simplistic Manicheanism.

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

Do not let half-baked political positions substitute for analysis of the situation. The insistance that the main enemy is in your country should not translate into a flawed analysis of inter-imperialist struggle. At this stage, appeals to dismantle NATO or, conversely, to accept new countries into the alliance, do not help those who are being bombed in Ukraine, or jailed in Russia and Belarus. Sloganeering is as harmful as ever. Branding Ukrainians or Russians as fascists only makes you part of the problem, not part of the solution. A new autonomous reality has emerged around Russia, a reality of destruction and harsh repression, a reality where nuclear conflict is not unthinkable anymore. Many of us missed the tendencies that have led to this reality. In the fog of war, we do not see clearly the contours of the new. Neither do, 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.

Originally published by the Ukrainian journal Commons. Reprinted with permission.

War & Conflict, Colonialism & Imperialism
Ukraine, Russia

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