A Response on Ukraine and “No War But Class War”

Submitted by R Totale on May 15, 2022

The recent text, “No War But Class War: Against State Nationalism and Inter-Imperialist War in Ukraine” is an interesting and worthwhile one, setting out a well-argued case for a particular anarchist position, and I’m glad to see it being circulated. It’s also, in my opinion, seriously flawed, and almost insultingly wrong in some cases. Here are a few notes on the content:

In passing, while not a major point, I was slightly disappointed to see the authors warning against “uncritical “allyship” with any European nationalism.” The anarchist position against all forms of nationalism is a bold and important one, and I’m not sure what the purpose of adding qualifiers to it is, unless to suggest that the nationalism of a Bolsonaro or a Modi is somehow more virtuous and desirable?

More importantly, one of the major planks of their argument is:

…the imperative anarchist, as well as Leftist, platforms continue to insist on – that we “listen” to anarchists in Ukraine – will not address structural issues any more than “listening” to marginalized individuals in the US. It’s not surprising, but it’s still disappointing to see anarchists who deride basic ally politics, in the context of Black and other nonwhite struggles in the US, deploy them in the context of Ukraine.

But if we take a moment to compare “anarchists in Ukraine” and “marginalized individuals,” we can immediately see that one of these categories is not like the other, and anyone trying to equate the two is clearly up to something. One of them describes the overlap of an identity category and a political position, the other is just an identity category. This is an important difference. The true analogy to “listen to marginalized individuals” would be “listen to Ukrainians.”

Such a slogan may be tempting at times, especially when dealing with that variety of US leftist whose understanding of the outside world clearly comes entirely from other US leftists who go on Tucker Carlson sometimes, but it is indeed “basic ally politics,” of the kind that entirely fails to deal with the vast diversity of opinions that will always exist in any identity position.

“Listen to anarchists in Ukraine (and indeed Russia and Belarus),” on the other hand, is a very different position – one that starts out by looking for people who share our basic values and principles, and then seeks to learn from people who have more understanding of their own context than we do. To say that we should listen to them doesn’t mean that we have to turn our brains off and uncritically accept everything they say, but that their positions do deserve serious consideration. And that if someone wrote an article about race where their only engagement with Black anarchists was to talk shit on them, or an article about feminism where women anarchists were only mentioned in order to dismiss them, that might raise a few eyebrows as well.

The authors suggest that to take a position of solidarity with Ukrainian anarchists is to “obscure the struggles within struggles.” I agree with them that such struggles should be a key focus for anarchists, but not about who’s doing the obscuring. As someone who believes that groups such as the Resistance Committee are worth supporting, I’d say that’s at least in part because of the role that they can potentially play in the struggles within the Ukrainian resistance; I’d say that it’s the authors’ position, which seems to operate on a simple equation that “Resistance Committee = the state = Azov” that obscures such struggles.

Another point of agreement is where they write:

As millions of displaced people flee the country, the situation opens a strategic opportunity to attack border enforcement systems and infrastructure, build solidarity structures (as some anarchists already have) that offer transport, shelter, and assistance to refugees, as well as other migrants, and fight for the principles of anti-racism/anti-fascism throughout this process… Now is the perfect time for anarchists to intervene at these chokepoints of social control…

I fully agree that such interventions sound desirable, and it would’ve been good if they could’ve expanded further on the solidarity structures that some anarchists are already building; it’s my understanding that the useful practical projects that exist on the ground tend to be aligned with the ABC Dresden/Operation Solidarity tendency that’s fully supportive of resistance within Ukraine, which would seem to slightly undermine the article’s attempt to set the two things against each other.

Moving on to the question of minimizing fascists, they write “there are fascists on all sides” in scare quotes, presumably to set up a position they’re arguing against rather than something that’s straightforwardly true. There is some truth in the claim that Ukraine’s far-Right has been institutionalised within the Ukrainian state, although even there it’s not clear whether we can say that the Ukrainian far-Right is more institutionalised than in the so-called People’s Republics, and it certainly isn’t the Ukrainian state that has ties to the far-Right paramilitaries accused of massacres in Mali.

More interesting for antifascists is the question of what it means for far-Right forces to be integrated into the state. The authors would presumably argue against anarchists becoming part of the Ukrainian, or any other, state, on the very solid and justifiable grounds that doing so would automatically undermine their autonomy and radicalism. Do we really think that nazis are magically immune to the same pressures and processes? Of course, the contradictions between anarchists and the state are far sharper than those between fascists and the state, but anyone who’s learned even the most basic lessons from the three-way fight approach will realize that the interests of nazis are not identical to those of a neoliberal like Zelensky. The debate around the significance of the Azov battalion and how far it’s been successfully defanged and declawed is certainly not yet settled, but the article doesn’t give much consideration to those questions.

Another flaw of this section is that it seems to take an ahistorical approach, citing sources from all over the last seven or eight years without indicating when they’re from, as if Ukrainian politics had just been proceeding in a single direction this whole time, and without distinguishing between conditions under Porosheko and under Zelensky, or before and after the resignation of Avakov. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking an article seriously that treated the US far-Right as being essentially the same, or heading in the same direction, in 2017, 2020 and today.

This section also contains some of the most explicit arguments against any support for Ukrainian anarchist resistance, on the grounds that the group includes Arsenal Kyiv ultras, and some Arsenal Kyiv ultras called a temporary truce with Nazis and had some cooperation with third-positionists in 2014. To be clear, while I don’t claim to be an expert on how to navigate difficult conditions such as those faced by antifascists during the Maidan, I don’t think that cooperation with “national anarchists” is a good thing; but if we’re going to be making arguments about the Resistance Committee, I’m more interested in hearing about what that group is doing now, rather than about the bad decisions that a subcultural street formation made eight years ago, even if there is some overlap between the two.

Concluding this section, they write:

Not only has any Left or anarchist movement, with any chance of countering the far-Right, been successfully marginalized by neo-Nazis, fascists and the broader far-Right movement since 2014, but also, within the framing of war between the Ukrainian state and the Russian Federation, there are no liberatory horizons. That is the issue. It’s important to be clear about that.

And that is one way of approaching the issue. Another would be this: in 2014, the anarchist movement failed to organise themselves as a serious material force, and were marginalized, with consequences that we can all agree are disastrous. In 2022, the 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… and the authors of “No War…” decide that it’s important to attack them and argue against any support for this effort.

Beginning the next section, they write that the far-Right:

…is, in fact, the tendency positioned to most benefit from war. Given this context, anarchist platforms that insist on supporting the RC and/or the broader military the group is a part of are colluding with neoliberal and ultranationalist war mongering and espousing militarism.

Again, this logic seems twisted to me – the far-Right seem like they’re likely to benefit from the current situation, and so…it’s important to oppose the attempt to form an antifascist force that could contest their narratives and offer an alternative to people who justifiably want to resist Russian imperialism?

They caution that, “The US itself has a history of invasions, proxy wars, regime change “operations” and empowerment of far-Right forces around the world that dwarfs the imperialist aspirations of the Russian Federation under Putin,” but if you’re writing a whole article that attacks the idea of “lesser evilism,” it seems a bit inconsistent to then dig out your evil-measuring equipment to prove that Russia is the lesser evil after all. Bafflingly, they then add that “In fact, through calls for sanctions against Russia, the US is currently disrupting Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and increasing exports of liquefied natural gas.”

No-one except for very self-obsessed Americans thinks that US natural gas is an important factor here. What is the actual argument about “the US… disrupting Europe’s dependence on Russian oil” supposed to be – is it that the US masterminded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine so they’d have an excuse to increase natural gas exports? Or that the war was happening anyway, but that European economic sanctions against Russia are solely down to calls from the US? What would be happening if the US wasn’t making those calls for sanctions, are we supposed to imagine that European governments would all just say “well, one of our major rivals has just launched an invasion of a country that was heading towards membership of our bloc, but that’s no reason to react, we’ll just sit here and not do anything to show disapproval?” This feels like classic imperial narcissism, and it’s slightly astonishing to see someone start off an article by quoting Rosa Luxemburg and then wander into making arguments that only make sense if you forget that European states are imperialist powers with their own interests.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the article is a reflection on the contradictions of Rojava solidarity efforts. As someone whose own tendency to ask awkward questions has often (not always, but often) meant that I’ve been more of a critical observer of than an active participant in Rojava solidarity projects, I would very much like to see North American anarchists making an active effort to engage with the difficult questions that have often gone unanswered around Rojava. Above all else, I’d like to see more engagement with the difficult set of relationships between the PYD/YPG/YPJ, non-Kurdish Syrian revolutionaries, Assad and Russia, which have often been left out in favour of a simple narrative of “Rojava vs ISIS” or “Rojava vs ISIS and Turkey.” (Respect to Hamilton anarchists for being an honorable exception to this.)

Sadly, “No War…” continues the failure to engage with these questions, which is a shame, because learning from the experiences of Syrian revolutionaries might help the authors to be a little less blasé about Russian imperialism. Still, I would be interested to hear more about what they see as the differences between those of anarchist guerrilla forces and the narratives that became dominant in the Rojava solidarity movement.

It does also feel somewhat odd to see, after all the attacks on the Resistance Committee for not being pure enough, the authors championing the International People’s Guerrilla Forces and International Freedom Battalion, while also freely admitting how closely those groups were/are allied with Turkish Maoists and Marxist-Leninists. As though all the criticisms and arguments that anarchists have always made against Maoists and Marxist-Leninists somehow don’t apply to TİKKO or the THKP-C/MLSPB!

As I’ve mentioned, I’d like to hear more about the arguments the authors hint at here, but from what I have seen, I think I’m more convinced by the more limited anti-fascist position that argues that life under the more democratic capitalism of the PYD is preferable to the horrors of ISIS or Assad. That might not be the most inspiring and uncompromising slogan, but some of us found it more convincing than some of the overheated rhetoric coming from IRPGF types that tried to portray a small group of people picking up guns, posing with English-language banners aimed at Western audiences, and making friends with Maoists as a dramatic leap forward in anarchist theory and practice.

Less impressive is their attempt to highlight an alleged double standard by comparing the current situation in the Ukraine to that in the US in August 2020, when Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber was followed by Michael Reinhoehl shooting Aaron Danielson. For some reason, the deaths of Rosenbaum and Huber disappear in their telling, which mainly aims to condemn Crimethinc and other projects for calling for de-escalation in August 2020 while reacting differently today, a supposed double standard that they can only explain through “defensive allegiance to whiteness” (as opposed to the Blackness of Vladimir Putin, perhaps?)

I’m not convinced that it’s possible or helpful to make any direct or straightforward comparisons between the deaths of three anti-racists and one fascist in August 2020 and the current war, but if they really want to go down that route, I’d suggest that one possible explanation for the different reactions might be that in August 2020, the situation was one that had the potential to escalate to further para/military conflict, but that potential escalation could still be prevented; whereas the situation in Ukraine after the Russian invasion had begun was one where a military conflict was ongoing. I’m not convinced that wanting to avoid further militarization of a conflict in one situation, and recognizing that a military conflict is already happening in a different situation, is quite the shocking hypocrisy the authors of “No War…” seem to think it is.

Approaching the conclusion, and almost 4,000 words into their argument, they finally offer a few words of criticism for the Russian state, before issuing one of the stupidest lines of the entire piece: “We can oppose a Russian victory while finding antifascist value in a Ukrainian defeat.”

By way of comparison, in 2001 Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, a regime that anarchists would have little sympathy for. Indeed, if we were getting into evil-measuring, it might well score worse than Ukraine under Zelensky. Can you imagine anyone at the time of the US invasion suggesting that they could find antifascist, or anti-fundamentalist, value in an Afghan defeat, and expecting anarchists to take them seriously? And how well would that stand up today?

To take just a few examples, we’ve seen how the previous Russian occupation of Afghanistan ended up contributing to the strengthening of the brutal reactionaries who formed the Taliban; and then how the American occupation of Afghanistan eventually ended with the Taliban triumphing once again; and how the occupation of Iraq led to the horrors of ISIS finding room to grow. And yet some anarchists can see “antifascist value” in this invasion and occupation. At the risk of being accused of “basic ally politics,” is it any surprise that this antifascist value is less visible to our comrades in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus?

No war but the class war is an important principle, and if we depart from it, whether in Ukraine, Rojava or anywhere else, it’s important to keep it in mind, and to stay open to critiques from those who refuse to cross that particular line. But when those who would advocate for it seem to lapse into apologies for Russian imperialism – whether in the explicit form of “finding antifascist value in a Ukrainian defeat” and putting scare quotes around the very concept of “Russian disinformation,” or the more implicit form of writing long articles about the conflict, antifascism and the far-Right that never once mention Wagner, Rusich, the Russian Orthodox Army, and so on – it becomes harder to take their critiques seriously.

At this point in time, my sympathies are still with those who are trying to organise anarchist and anti-fascist projects within Ukraine that could point in the direction of a less bleak future, whether those take the form of mutual aid efforts or direct resistance to the invasion. Certainly, they’re operating in challenging conditions, ones that make it hard to put our shared principles into practice, but I remain unconvinced by the idea that our comrades in Ukraine, who seem to have the support of those in Belarus and most of the Russian movement, are all just getting it wrong.