Another reply on Ukraine, war and class war

A Ukrainian antifa mural depicting the Azov battalion and Russian "Z" symbols both crossed out.

The author of "A response on Ukraine" responds to critics of that article. This response first appeared on the Autonomous Action site.

Submitted by R Totale on May 15, 2022

It’s good to see that my article on Ukraine and anti-war/class war positions has provoked a few responses, and I hope that discussion will continue elsewhere. By this point, the most important arguments have probably been made, so there’s a danger that diminishing returns and petty point-scoring might set in; but for what it’s worth, here’s a few comments on the two responses.

One response, from an anarchist who fought in Rojava, is relatively short and straightforward. On a factual note, they dispute whether the Turkish Marxist-Leninist group THKP-C/MLSPB were or are involved in the International Freedom Battalion. Other participants in the IFB, for instance in this interview, do list the MLSPB as one of the IFB’s component groups. Perhaps they’re wrong; but even so, if we exclude the MLSPB altogether, that would still make it a coalition of at least four other Marxist-Leninist groups and two Maoist groups together with Tekosina Anarsist. That is to say, a coalition dominated not just by non-anarchist groups, but by the kinds of groups who, in most situations, we would have no problem identifying as being hostile to anarchism.

To say that the IFB is a coalition primarily dominated by non-anarchist groups is not to say that anarchists are or were wrong to take part in it. But it is to say that it still feels strange to see people holding it up as a more righteous alternative to the supposedly unacceptable compromises made by Ukrainian anarchists.

They also criticize me for failing to mention “the large-scale medical project that the anarchists created and engaged in”. I fully agree that medical and other caring work is important and undervalued in comparison to other, more visible and easily glamorized, forms of militancy. But I can also remember how the IRPGF presented themselves at the time of their foundation. It wasn’t critics of the IRPGF who decided that their introduction video should contain lots of shots of guns and weapons and no mentions of medical work, or indeed that their flag should contain a picture of a gun rather than medical equipment; if former members now think that focus was misguided, that’s fine, but they can’t blame other people for remembering the way that they chose to present themselves.

It might be straying too far from the current discussion, but it would certainly be worthwhile having a broader discussion of the attractions and flaws of militant aesthetics, and what seems to be a tendency among some anarchists to orientate toward groups that fit a certain image of militant struggle, without properly evaluating how far those groups fit with our aims and values. We could ask, for instance, why it is that Abolition Media has taken to running completely uncritical coverage of the Colombian FARC and ELN - not critical analysis of how those groups relate to current struggles within Colombian society, but simply reproducing reports of their actions without comment.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the “anarchist who fought in Rojava” response is what it doesn’t mention - at least six years after these questions were first raised, and in response to an article that explicitly raised the issue, there’s no attempt at an independent anarchist analysis of the relationship between Rojava, non-Kurdish revolutionaries, and Assad. The question of the SDF role in the fall of Aleppo, and what all this means, is still left unaddressed. I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions - “Rojava should have simply simultaneously defeated ISIS, Turkey, Assad and the Russian and Iranian interventions” is a line as simple and as unhelpful as “the Ukrainian working class should simply rise up and overthrow Zelensky and defeat Azov while also fighting off the Russian invasion”. But it’s the fact that they’re difficult and complicated that means that more thoughtful analysis would be welcome, and makes the continued silence so disappointing.

While Turkish Marxist-Leninists and Maoists tended to be militant supporters of Rojava, this line was not echoed by their ideological comrades in other parts of the world. In the US and other Western countries, many tankies were happy to dismiss and attack the entire project, on the grounds that the US and other NATO countries were providing support to the YPG/YPJ, and that told them all they needed to know. For those of us who argued against such simplistic positions then, and were also not convinced by the rejection of any support for Rojava on “no war but the class war” lines, it’s disturbing to see similar lines of argument emerging from anarchists.

The other response, from Mike Gouldhawke, is more substantial. It opens with an expression of disappointment at my criticism of the line warning against “uncritical allyship with any European nationalism”, asking why I would warn against critical thinking. There seems to be a misunderstanding going on here, as I wasn’t objecting to the call for critical thinking, but rather to the decision to introduce a qualifier, as if there are some forms of nationalism where uncritical allyship would be an appropriate response. So we can add Mike Gouldhawke’s reading comprehension skills to the list of things that people are disappointed in. Similarly, the line about Modi and Bolsonaro was an, admittedly provocative, attempt to think through where taking a less critical attitude to non-European nationalisms could lead.

Gouldhawke accuses me of wanting to listen to “arbitrarily-selected individuals” from Ukraine. This glosses over the distinction between individuals and organized collective projects such as Operation Solidarity and the Resistance Committee, which I think is quite an important one, but I think it’s “arbitrarily-selected” that’s the really telling phrase here. For some North American anarchists, those who are not connected to any ongoing networks of international solidarity and action that include participants from former Eastern Bloc countries, and do not have any close connections with anyone working in those countries, or indeed with any groups that include migrants and refugees from those countries, the choice of whether to listen and who to listen to may well be an arbitrary decision. For some people, there’s a bit more at stake.

To give one example, people who were paying careful critical attention to the Network case will understand why some of us have a great deal of respect for ABC Dresden, as a group who have a track record of approaching difficult situations with honesty and integrity, and why we might think of the A2Day collective in Russia as a group who are certainly not willing to silence their criticisms of alleged comrades in the name of false unity.

Other people may not have been paying this kind of attention, and that’s fine. The world is a big and complicated place and you can’t pay attention to everything. There’s nothing wrong with not being familiar with the recent history of the anarchist movement in Russia and Eastern Europe, it just means that you should probably not be writing articles about that subject. To be fair, at some points Gouldhawke seems to be suggesting that the real victims of the war in Ukraine are people living in North America, which is certainly a novel approach, but not a particularly helpful one in my opinion.

Developing the “war in Ukraine is really about North Americans” position, Gouldhawke writes:

“No doubt, those who live in a place likely know more about their context than those outside it. But this applies equally to North America as to Ukraine, since anarchists here likely know more about North American states’ military support for the Ukrainian state, how this plays into expanded militarism here, and the history of military force being deployed here in North America against Black and Indigenous peoples… it’s not clear why this sympathy for people in Ukraine would override sympathy anarchists here feel for all those targeted by North American states and their militarism, both here and abroad, especially if their own people are among those targeted. The Americas are not a sacrifice zone for the supposed greater good somewhere else.”

As far as I can follow this line of argument, it seems to suggest that, when analyzing a war happening elsewhere, the issue of “military force being deployed here in North America” should be a primary concern for North American anarchists. To be clear, I have never said anything endorsing military force being deployed in North America, and I don’t think I’ve seen any Ukrainian anarchists or their supporters doing anything along those lines, so I struggle to see where this particular argument is coming from. If Gouldhawke cannot imagine a way to maintain opposition to one state at home, while also acting in solidarity with those fighting another state elsewhere, I would suggest that might be his own problem rather than a dilemma for the anarchist movement more broadly.

Gouldhawke also questions “[h]ow an autonomous militia could operate in practice in a high-tech war zone involving two official armies (Ukrainian and Russian)”, saying that this point “is not something the response author, or any other anarchist has even mentioned let alone tried to explain, as far as I’ve seen”. In which case I would direct him to try learning more about Rojava, as there are many sources available covering precisely that question.

On the question of mutual aid initiatives and work with migrants, Gouldhawke stresses that anarchists should “separate actually autonomous anarchist initiatives to support migrants from participation in an official military structure”, skipping over the point that, as far as I can tell, the majority of these “autonomous anarchist initiatives” are connected to groups such as ABC Dresden and Operation Solidarity, which are also supportive of military resistance. As of April 19, Operation Solidarity have just started a separate fundraising account solely for refugees and war victims, but again it will still be the same group running both accounts, so it might seem a bit of a stretch to call it autonomous.

Of course, human beings are complicated creatures, and it’s perfectly possible for a single person or group of people to behave in ways that are self-contradictory. But still, the line that “we should support the good autonomous anarchist initiatives, like the work of ABC Dresden and Operation Solidarity, and oppose the bad statists who are aligned with the official military, like ABC Dresden and Operation Solidarity”, seems a bit muddled and confused to me.

Gouldhawke also criticizes me for making “the seemingly grandiose claim that “In 2022, the [Ukrainian] anarchist movement is making a real attempt to constitute a serious material force, one that’s serving as a pole of attraction for other leftists and antifascists,” without any evidence of this actually being the case”. I’m fully willing to admit to my mistake here - as I was drafting the piece, I meant to add in all the supporting links I was thinking of, but in this case I forgot to edit in the link to an interview with Vitaliy Dudin, of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organization Sotsyalnyi Rukh/Social Movement. Having now provided the relevant link, I trust that Gouldhawke will agree that the projects initiated by Ukrainian anarchists do indeed seem to be serving as a pole of attraction for other leftists and antifascists.

He also disputes the characterisation of the Resistance Committee as being a serious material force, sneering that “if a material force crumbles in the face of mere critique and analysis, we might feel the need to consider how forceful and real this material force actually is”. Which is certainly a snappy line, but not one that holds up to a great deal of scrutiny. Whether in Rojava, North America, Ukraine or elsewhere, it’s possible to name any number of examples where liberatory movements have constituted a serious material force, while also facing opposition from much stronger state forces, and so have been in urgent need of all the help they can get. When looking at the Wet’suwet’en facing raids from the Canadian state, or Turkish attacks on Rojava, I would suggest that offering solidarity might be an appropriate response; if someone decided to firstly attempt to undermine those solidarity efforts, and then mock the targeted group for how quickly they “crumble”... well, you can decide for yourself how you would view such a person.

Gouldhawke professes to being baffled by my critique of the conspiracist idea that European sanctions on Russia are really about American natural gas exports, writing that “[o]ne would think that anarchists in the U.S. opposing the U.S. state and American capitalists would be admirable to anarchists abroad instead of repugnant”.

For anyone else who struggles with this idea, a few comparisons. To start off with, it is, I think, now broadly accepted among anarchists and other radicals that “white allies” who insist on making every conversation about them, their privilege and their guilt, are not very helpful, that this particular form of “white people opposing whiteness” is more repugnant than admirable. Similarly, there are U.S. liberals, leftists and perhaps even anarchists who, in the name of opposing the U.S. state, see its hand at work in everything from uncontrollable rowdiness at Black Lives Matter protests to kids setting off fireworks. These people are not very helpful, their focus on the U.S. state is more repugnant than admirable, because it leads them to mis-identify things which are actually separate from it, like insurgent crowds and kids with fireworks, as being about that state.

A similar observation could be made about North American observers who viewed Rojava as really being about the U.S. state and a CIA plot to undermine the sovereignty of Syria; or those who viewed social movements in Hong Kong as really being about the U.S. state and a CIA plot to undermine China; or those who can only understand the 2014 Maidan as being about U.S. intervention, rather than putting in the effort to try and understand the internal tensions within Ukrainian society that led to it.

Returning to the debate around August 2020, Gouldhawke complains about me “equating anti-fascist militancy in the U.S. to “further militarization of a conflict.” However, militancy and militarism are not the same thing. The difference is exactly the one which the author deflects from throughout their whole response, the difference between autonomous groups and the state.”

Again, to describe the situation in the US in late August 2020 as just being about “anti-fascist militancy” means erasing the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings in Kenosha. If we take a more rounded view, and include the killings of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber as part of a situation that people might want to de-escalate, then it becomes easier to see that anarchist analysis cannot be as simple as “state bad, autonomous groups good”. Forces can be autonomous from the state and still be contradictory, or even outright opposed to liberation.

To assess how far a development is genuinely subversive, and how far it can lead to the re-assertion of some forms of hierarchy, is a more complicated challenge; as I’ve mentioned above, I think one question worth bearing in mind is how far it allows all participants in a movement to be fully involved and have their contributions valued, and how far it tends towards a macho glorification of the gun over caring and reproductive work.

There’s not else to add about the remainder of the essay that wouldn’t just be repeating what’s already been said, although I would critique the formulation that “Afghanistan remains one of countless reminders that imperialist states like Canada and the U.S. have only a negative role to play in any part of the world”. Given the relative importance of Russia and Canada in Afghanistan’s history, why put the emphasis on Canada here, why not “imperialist states like the U.S. and Russia” or even “imperialist states like Canada, the U.S. and Russia”?

If Gouldhawke’s understanding of anarchism and internationalism means always talking about Canada as much as possible, and doing his best to avoid uttering any criticism of states that aren’t aligned with Canada, then that’s up to him; but he may find that presents serious difficulties when trying to communicate with comrades outside of North America, if that’s something he has any interest in.