a journal of modern society & culture

The Alt-Left and Ukraine

Philip Green

In the period following the invasion of Ukraine, I began monitoring the interventions  of what I’m calling the Alt-Left, having been especially struck by the behavior of  The Nation, a periodical with which I’d been associated for many years.  This account proceeds with  some quotations from The Nation, DSA, and several well-known Left intellectuals,  along with  comments in brackets on those statements.

To begin with, two explicitly official editorials  from The Nation’s Editorial Director and Publisher, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, set the tone for everything that followed:

“The Nation condemns the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon the path of diplomacy by attacking and undertaking  ‘special military operations’ in Ukraine. These actions violate international  law and fuel a dangerous escalation of violence….We urge all parties to immediately cease hostilities, de-escalate, and seek a diplomatic solution to mitigate the risk of full-scale war.” 

And, on the Eve:

“Certainly Russia is to blame for the current  crisis, by deploying such a large force within striking range of Ukraine’s border and by issuing ultimatums to the West.  But the West also shares responsibility by rebuffing Moscow’s repeated warnings that deploying NATO forces in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania while promising Ukraine membership in the alliance posed a significant security threat to Russia.”   

The editorial goes on to add that “Ukrainians in the East are already suffering,”and adds that Russia “may face a [costly]  prolonged guerilla war.” .  
It also warns that the “crisis” might be used as an excuse for “military hawks” to raise the Defense budget.

[Have so many euphemisms ever appeared in so few sentences?  Putin the murderous dictator, dedicated to the re-conquest of those areas to which the USSR ceded their independence while denying that the Ukrainians are a people or a state, “abandoned diplomacy.” With respect  to  “diplomacy” and “hostility,” as well as “escalation,” the wording almost explicitly puts Russia and Ukraine on the same footing. The editorials take no notice of the fact that  one is an aggressor with the world’s second-largest military, a large portion of which is sitting on Ukraine’s  border,  and has already mounted two previous invasions of a sovereign state’s territory. ]

In a Washington Post op-ed (May 23rd) Vanden Heuvel doubled down on all these arguments, adding the ugly ad hominem claim that “Before the war ends, many Ukrainians and Russians will die while Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman make fortunes. “ 

From the same period, two other statements from regular contributors. First, Andrew Bacevich: 

“Is the Confrontation Over Ukraine Joe Biden’s “Wag the Dog” Moment?…The people now gunning for a showdown with Putin were gunning for a showdown with Saddam Hussein two decades ago—with the same promises of a happy outcome.”   

[What?  Is the US President who absolutely foreswore any military engagement with the invader of a friendly nation “gunning for a showdown?” Who are “these people?” ]

Then, David Bromwich:

 “Russia responded to the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine by annexing Crimea… Vladimir Putin explained that when he next visited Sebastopol, he would prefer not to be greeted by NATO sailors in the Black Sea”….and he ““clarified his demand” against the expansion of NATO,” a promise that Ukraine will not be admitted.” 

[In truth, there was no “coup” in 2014: this is part of Putin’s own Big Lie, according to which Ukrainian “Nazis”orchestrated the Maidan– which lie The Nation has picked up on more than once. Yes, there were demonstrations and riots against the pro-Russian President. The result of the rebellion, which was preceded by two Russian invasions of Ukrainian territory, was a peaceful transition of power in which the Parliament  turned against the President and fired him–which is the way parliamentary democracies get rid of leaders who’ve “lost their confidence”:  cf., Teresa May, or Neville Chamberlain. 

This was followed by a free and fair election resulting in the accession of  Zelensky–an election in which the Nazi party received 1% of the vote; and in which “Nazi” Ukraine elected the only Jewish leader of a sovereign nation not presiding in Jerusalem.]

So, per Bromwich, Putin  didn’t actually do anything wilful or destructive, but merely “responded” and “explained” and “clarified.” Emulating the O.E.D.,  I’ve tried to create  sentences using those words.  As: “The U.S. responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq.  President Bush explained that Saddam Hussein shared responsibility for the attack.  Colin Powell clarified for the U.N. that Iraq possessed hidden Weapons of Mass Destruction.”  Indeed.]

The Nation also continued its coverage by approvingly publishing  selections from a DSA statement on the invasion. DSA called on the United States to withdraw from NATO to “end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage” for the conflict. It “forcefully denounced Russia’s escalation, expressed solidarity with the working classes of Ukraine and Russia, demanded the acceptance of all refugees, and urged an immediate cease-fire and the total withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.” 

A  spokesperson added that “We are a US-based socialist organization, and so our primary duty is to oppose our own militarism, our own imperialism, and broadly our own capitalist class. That’s where we have to take a hard position and to call out and recognize the role that we have escalating and fomenting and creating war around the world.”

This statement, as quoted in The Nation, moves From “urging” a cease-fire to “anti-imperialist dissent” to “The idea that NATO expansion is among the leading causes of the current crisis.” Thus Russia and its violence wholly disappears from view, and with it any possible understanding of “the current crisis.” 

Highlighting the real-world abstractions of these slogans is the absurdity of the appeal to the “working classes of Ukraine and Russia,” as though these were minutes from a meeting of the Communist International in 1914.  As the politics of barbarism advances around the world, it is surely a  “duty” of any soi-disant democratic organization wherever democracy is besieged, to defend democracy as much as it usefully can.  That is not in contradiction with “working to go beyond capitalism:” as is an abstention from common humanity.

Moreover, you would never know from the invocations of American  imperialism as the root of this moment, that NATO was founded in 1949, and that at that time the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and half of Germany were controlled by Communist Parties backed up by Soviet forces that intervened when necessary to maintain control; or that  the Soviet Union itself contained varieties  of what we slightingly call “the stans” (not to forget Georgia and Chechnya) that  had at various times been absorbed into the Russian Empire–or “Imperium” to use a more suggestive term. 

Whatever kind of imperialism you want to call the birth of NATO, it confronted at the very least an equal and threatening imperialism: that of the Soviet Union.  Let us not allow that unpleasant  fact to disappear from view, as too often happens these days when critiques of “the New Cold War” manage to dispense entirely with the lived experience of European nations..  

In this distribution of blame, it’s often claimed that  NATO was created to block Soviet expansion.  However, that’s only half of the story. It was also created–at the instigation not of Americans, but of British and French leaders,  to neutralize Germany, which from the standpoint of the men who created NATO was the source of two terrible World Wars.  And it succeeded.  (For a thorough and factual review and chronology of NATO’s history, see ‘A Bridge Too Far’ by Fred Kaplan, in the New York Review of Books, April 7, 2022).

Nor would you know that it was not a cabal of American hawks, but rather Václav Haval and Lech Wałęsa who pleaded with President Clinton to support the entry of Eastern European nations into NATO–which he then did.  Nor that NATO troops in Estonia are there expressly at the invitation of the Estonians, who along with the other Baltic states have once again been made quite aware over the past three decades of what it means to be bordered by the Russian empire–regardless of which version of authoritarianism is dedicated to expanding it.

In any event, does Putin really fear a NATO incursion in the Black Sea? None has never been even faintly threatened. In that sense there is no equivalence here.  He has made plain, to anyone listening, that he desires control of Eastern Europe, and considers it Russia’s right; he has called the break-up of the Soviet Union a “disaster” and Ukraine neither a “real” nation nor a “real”people.  That’s plain enough.

In reality, the  ground of conflict here is not even NATO membership, it’s the possibilities of Europeanization, which is profoundly desired by a large majority of the people of Ukraine’s West, and many in the East. And in that respect, what recourse do the people of Ukraine and Moldavia and the Baltic States have against Putin’s self-aggrandizing “significant security interests?”  The Nation did not let George W. Bush get away with such officialese drivel.

To put it bluntly, The Nation has  never had any interest in the views of the nations on Russia’s border.  It’s as though only possession of nuclear weapons conveys equal rights to self-determination, let alone affects the question of whether democracy or tyranny is a better form of government.

In fact The Nation has nothing to say about Ukraine that wouldn’t satisfy Putin, who has along the way “explained,” as I noted above, that the break-up of the Soviet Union was a “disaster” that needs to be rectified. Is anyone at the magazine listening?

In sum, what I am calling the alt-Left is at heart still wedded to the notion that the worst  ills of the world are brought about by the United States; and in particular that  the U.S. rather than the Soviet Union was the primary cause of the original Cold War,  and of whatever may follow the Second. In this perspective, the invasion is almost an afterthought.

To conclude this summation of the Alt-Left  standpoint, here are statements from two leading Left intellectuals, the historian Jackson Lears (in the NYRB), and Noam Chomsky (in The Intercept):

Jackson Lears: 

“(The) US has failed to put  a cease-fire and a neutral Ukraine at the forefront of its policy agenda there…” 

“It has dramatically increased the flow of weapons to Ukraine, which had already been deployed for eight years to suppress the separatist uprising in the Donbas.”

“Meanwhile, the Biden administration has refused to address Russia’s fear of NATO encirclement.”

“US policy prolongs the war and creates the likelihood of a protracted insurgency after a Russian victory, which seems probable at this writing.”

[Pity the poor Russians, facing a protracted insurgency.  Sometimes intellectuals can be truly repellent.]

“How does one negotiate with any potential diplomatic partner while ignoring its security concerns? The answer, of course, is that one does not.”

And, Noam Chomsky:

“One option is to pursue the policy we are now following… to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian [cf., Afterword]. And yes, we can pursue that policy with the possibility of nuclear war. Or we can face the reality that the only alternative is a diplomatic settlement, which will be ugly — it will give Putin and his narrow circle an escape hatch…We know the basic framework is neutralization of Ukraine, some kind of accommodation for the Donbas region, with a high level of autonomy, maybe within some federal structure in Ukraine, and recognizing that, like it or not, Crimea is not on the table. You may not like it, you may not like the fact that there’s a hurricane coming tomorrow, but you can’t stop it by saying, ‘I don’t like hurricanes’ or ‘I don’t recognize hurricanes.’” 

No, but then “hurricanes” aren’t determined to kill you for personal satisfaction.

Taken together, these two reflections are remarkable.  As with The Nation’s positions, and DSA’s, they display no interest in the Ukraine and its inhabitants, who become just pawns in a US/Russia “New Cold War.” Who, exactly, according to Noam Chomsky, is the “you” that is supposed to be realistic about “hurricanes?” Would it not be relevant first to find out what President Zelensky  thinks about this solution to the Ukrainian problem, instead of telling him what he ought to think? He was actually elected to make such decisions. And his decision, which by all accounts the mass of Ukrainians have heartily endorsed, is the one recommended by Sun Tzu many centuries ago in The Art of War, “In death ground, fight.” 

But no, from all these sources the language about Russia is exculpatory. In the East, it would seem the “uprising” has been non-violent, apparently occurring without the use of weaponry or Russian assistance; and being innocently separatist despite the fact that even a majority of Russian-identified Easterners oppose separation; and are themselves being punished by the savage attacks on certain Eastern cities. 

As for “neutrality,” There’s a decisive  difference between being “neutral” and pleading your neutrality at the point of a gun.  And it’s not our choice to make.  The time to discuss the Ukraine/Russia relationship was before invading, not after. There is not one scenario in a thousand in which armed aggression was justified.

In this context, at one point  Chomsky refers to the United States as a “rogue state.” I’m not going to argue about that characterization: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, The Horn et al surely might seem to pose a problem for those Left  intellectuals such as myself, who are taking the side of Ukraine; and therefore the U.S. and NATO. Either way, though, that aphorism entails nothing about the unprovoked savaging of Ukraine by Russia.  Is Russia not “a rogue state?”
 
In short, Putin is treated throughout all these statements from which I’ve quoted  as though he’s  merely taken the wrong tack, hasn’t understood the rules of the game or the  stakes; let’s have a do-over.  And then the big Ask: the  almost explicit plea to Ukraine to “cease hostilities” and “de-escalate,” and “seek.” In the entire world there’s only one state engaging  in hostilities and escalating–is self-defense against unleashed destruction escalation? How does the only person to threaten nuclear war since the expansion of nuclear weapons capability manage to get put in the same category as his victims?

Apparently all this even-handedness is justified because  Russia  has a “fear of encirclement”–by whom? The NATO troops in Estonia? This is the language of projection we’re used to hearing from the Right. Over and over, Putin is treated as just another pursuer of “national security,’ and you’d never know that he’s waging a total war of imperial  re-conquest in that effort.  Since when has the Left deserted human values for the “realism” of international politics?

I have two concluding comments about causal and moral reasoning:

First, the trouble with going to “history” for “responsibility” is the absence of any serious thinking about causality. It might be helpful here to consult Aristotle on the difference–and distance–between “immediate causes” and “final causes.” Concretely, in human affairs there’s always a “before,” a carpet that the previous history has been swept under.  

So for Russia, Eastern Europe is supposedly a threat, and must be a cordon sanitaire against those who would use it as a stepping stone for a third invasion of Russia.  But for the nations of Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic States, it’s the other way around: Russia was once the occupying and totalitarian Soviet Union, and Putin seems to be  an appropriate successor.  And no one (except perhaps Nazi Germany) “shares” any responsibility for that. 

Furthermore, with regard to Ukraine itself, it has been threatened and sometimes absorbed by the Russian empire since the 14th Century; and the worst manifestation, that still must live in the historical memories of Ukrainians today, was Stalin’s decision to starve millions of Ukrainian farmers (“Kulaks”) to death in 1931, in order to eliminate their opposition to collectivization.

Second, on the notion of “provocation” to which the apologists often retreat, what one commentator called the “low-hanging fruit of NATO expansion” was indeed provocative.  Still, it’s a serious  mistake to confuse philosophical determinism, the logic of cause and effect in that one always precedes the other, with the actuality of historical determination.  Nothing in human affairs had or has to happen until some actual human being or beings has made it happen.

Rather, as with the tango it takes two be provoked or aggrieved. To note a current example: the Canadian trucker anti-vaxxers were not “provoked” by vaccine mandates, nor discriminated against in any way that would constitute grounds for a genuine grievance. They just happen to be persons who feel no obligation to accept the rule of law wherever they happen to live. As to that, Putin prefers to make his own law. Nothing compelled him to reconstitute the Soviet Empire: that is his megalomania at work. An explanation is not an excuse. 

So finally it was indeed a lack of insight  on the part of decision-makers not to realize the possible outcome of inviting the East European and Baltic States into NATO. But it was the right thing to do; as it turns out, not to do it would have been an open invitation to Putin to reconquer that part of the Soviet Union. 

Philip Green is a former member of the editorial board of The Nation. He taught political science for many years at Smith College. His most recent book is American Democracy: Selected Essays on Theory, Practice, and Critique (2014). His blog is Taking Sides.