The Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko has an article in the latest New Left Review, which apparently has created a bit of a stir. Its audience is ‘Ukrainian scholars, intellectuals and artists’, who, he says ,‘face a dilemma.’ This dilemma is either to be ‘just another ‘voice’ in a very specific field of institutionalized identity politics in the West’, or ‘to articulate the questions of global relevance, search for their solutions, and contribute to universal human knowledge.’
What it really is, is a ‘J’accuse’ against his pro-Western peers who have stoutly defended the Ukrainian state in the war with Russia, more or less uncritically becoming a willing accomplice beside Western imperialism. It is clearly directed to a small world so it is no surprise that it is seen by some as provocative.
The issue, however, is a decisive one in separating all leftists and Marxists into two broad camps, raising principled political differences that immediately entail taking a side in the war. The obvious emotion aroused faithfully reflects the issues at stake; for both sides it is a question of betrayal.
The sociological jargon and the approach to the issue in terms of identity politics might seem to soften the polemic but you would have to be stupid to miss the point. The dilemma is between identity politics that seeks recognition by western imperialism, so that Ukraine is viewed as really standing up for the freedom the West constantly claims – ‘Ukrainians are more Western than those who live in the West’; or, ‘to voice a universally relevant perspective on Ukraine, no matter how many Ukrainians would sympathize with it.’
The most stinging criticism is of some left Ukrainians, whose support for the project of ‘decolonisation’ of the country involves not much more than ‘abolishing anything related to Russian influence in culture, education and the public sphere.’ Since the support of the pro-war Left in the West for self-determination has no room for any class analysis and becomes purely endorsement of Ukrainian nationalism, this anti-Russian agenda has simply been endorsed.
Since self-determination without any qualification is upheld there can in principle be no opposition to the actions of the Ukrainian state in the war, including its ‘proceeding with privatizations, lowering taxes, scrapping protective labour legislation and favouring ‘transparent’ international corporations over ‘corrupt’ domestic firms. The plans for post-war reconstruction did read not like a programme for building a stronger sovereign state but like a pitch to foreign investors for a start-up.’
This is only the logical consequence of supporting self-determination for an already independent capitalist state, one that is not a colony or subjugated within a foreign empire. The demand simply becomes one for it to be able to make its own political choices; the particular nature of the state regime or the policies it chooses are completely secondary. In truth, this view of many on the Ukrainian left is more a result of material reality – of the strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the Ukrainian state and of Western imperialism. The predominance of the demand for ‘self-determination’ also reflects the weakness of the working class movement in Ukraine and internationally. It should be no surprise if social layers such as ‘scholars, intellectuals and artists’ reflect this.
So, states Ishchenko, ‘national liberation is no longer understood as intrinsically linked to social revolution, challenging the basis of capitalism and imperialism’ and ‘Ukraine’s ‘decolonization’ becomes a version of (national-)identity politics—that is, a politics centered around the affirmation of belonging to a particular essentialized group, with a projected shared experience.’
‘It is not surprising, therefore, that talk of Ukraine’s ‘decolonization’ is so much about symbols and identity, and so little about social transformation. If what is at stake is the defence of the Ukrainian state, what kind of state is it?’
And this is the central question for Ukrainian socialists who support the war and for their allies in the West. How is it possible for socialists to support this state? A capitalist state notoriously corrupt by European standards, which western ‘investors’ still remain extremely wary of entering post-war. A state that gave political and military support to US imperialism and NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; in ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, and ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’. Lots of ‘freedom’ it would seem. We are expected to believe that this same combination is now again defending our freedoms, this time in Europe.
How did the Ukrainian state become the bearer of such a noble mantle that it now inspires Western ‘Marxists’; and how did the US and NATO likewise transform itself – just by doing what it has always done – by confronting the evil Russian empire?
Ishchenko is scathing of this choice – ‘The Western elites are trying to save the fraying international order; the Russian elite is trying to revise it to get a better place in a new one. However, neither can clearly explain how exactly the rest of humanity wins from either outcome.’
The pro-war left can see no independent position for the working class in opposing both the Russian invasion and the Ukrainian state and Western imperialists.
Instead, many pro-war voices in the West have exhorted us to listen to the voices of those Ukrainian leftists who have capitulated to their own state. On this Ishchenko is particularly wounding:
‘ . . . there has been a huge surge of events, panels and sessions related to Ukraine, Russia and the war, and a high demand for ‘Ukrainian voices’ in these discussions. Certainly, Ukrainian scholars, artists and intellectuals should be included in international discussions—and not just about Ukraine. The problem, however, is not the quantity but the quality of such inclusion.’
He goes on:
‘We can already see the tokenism phenomenon, typical of contemporary identity politics, when a symbolic inclusion of ‘Ukrainian voices’ does not mean revising the structures of knowledge aligned with Western elite interests, beyond sharpening their guilt for appeasing Russia. Furthermore, the formalistic representation of tokenized ‘Ukrainian voices’ helps silence other ‘voices’ from Ukraine that are not so easy to instrumentalize. Are we really to believe that the English-speaking, West-connected intellectuals, typically working in Kiev or Lviv, and who often even personally know each other, represent the diversity of the 40-million-strong nation?’
‘The solution is obviously not to include even more ‘voices’ but to break with the fundamentally flawed logic of escalating national-identity politics.’
He concludes: ‘The narrow ‘decolonization’ agenda, reduced to anti-Russian and anti-communist identity politics, only makes it more difficult to voice a universally relevant perspective on Ukraine, no matter how many Ukrainians would sympathize with it.’