By Greg Godels

May 9, 2022


Amidst echoes of 1914 and World War I, the political left– far less potent than a century ago– is split between the contestants in a European war.

As in 1914, the rush to pick sides in the conflict in Ukraine clouds all judgment, conjuring the adolescent emotions engaged while witnessing a schoolyard fight. Some on the left portray Ukraine as an innocent victim of a notorious bully and the bully’s long history of belligerence.

Others, long cognizant of the nefarious role of the US and NATO in bringing perceived rivals, renegades, or defiers to their knees, see Russia as the hapless victim of betrayed promises and existential threats.

Those who rush to Ukraine’s defense without qualification display an ignorance of history and the transparent roles of all the players in the global imperialist chess game. They also succumb to the crudest propaganda campaign since the 2003 exaggerations and fabrications employed to sell the Iraq invasion. Their jump onto the Western imperialist bandwagon is, at best, naive beyond hope, at worst, complicit in the aggressive foreign policy of the US and NATO.

Invoking Ukraine’s right to self-determination would seem to have more credibility. But it is necessary to remember how Western imperialism has often twisted the doctrine to fit its own predatory goals. When Vietnam was moving towards independence, the US and its allies artificially created a Republic of Vietnam in the south, basing US support and long war on defending its right of self-determination against “Communist aggression.” The West used the same ruse with mineral-rich Katanga, Kosovo, and oil-rich Cabinda to name a few. Ukraine lost any pretense of self-determination after it underwent a Western-sponsored coup in 2014. Western imperialism is always anxious to defend the spurious right of self-determination of its clients and puppets.

On the other hand, those opposing the unqualified support of “heroic” Ukraine certainly have a case. The aggressive posture of the US and NATO towards Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union is real, though seldom explored by anyone in the monopoly-media commentariat. Surrounding Russia with NATO member states, bases, war-game simulations, and troop deployments is inexplicable, except by attributing hostile intent. Meddling in the civil and political life through unrequested NGOs and bombarding Russia’s citizens with critical, oppositional messages cannot be seen as friendly acts.

Nonetheless, these acts of aggression fall short of military action and do not justify military action by another party. Saber-rattling is qualitatively different from going to war. An invasion is not a justified response.

Also, the proffered notion that the Russian invasion was actually a defensive action to rescue the Russian-speaking citizens of Eastern Ukraine reeks of the same doublespeak that the US and NATO employ with their putrid doctrine of humanitarian interventionism. The shame of this excuse for imperialist aggression does not validate it for Russian use.

A strong case can be made that the Russian leadership was once again drawn into the ‘Brzezinski trap.’ US signals before the invasion were remarkably ambiguous. While the US military and State Department were warning of a Russian build-up and imminent invasion, the usual, expected bellicose warnings were not heard from Washington. Typically, when a great power senses that a rival is threatening, it responds with exaggerated threats of its own, military maneuvers, troop build-ups, heightened alerts, etc. Instead, President Biden gave assurances that the US would not be drawn into a war.

Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, devised a scheme to draw the Soviet Union into a long, bloody, fruitless war in Afghanistan by encouraging and supporting Islamic zealots to destabilize a country on the USSR border.

Similarly, George Bush, the elder, allowed his ambassador to give mixed signals about a US response to Saddam Hussein when Hussein contemplated an invasion of Kuwait. Hussein took the bait, precipitating a US invasion of Iraq.

If it was a trap and the Russian leadership fell for it, then not only was the invasion not justifiable, but it was tragically misguided. The result, to date, has generated greater military, economic, and public pressure on the Russian Federation, a situation that Russian leaders said they wanted to forestall with their action.

Thus, defending Russia’s invasion, despite the context, is defending the indefensible.

Many want to portray Russia as “anti-imperialist,” given its commendable acts of opposition to US aggression in countries like Syria, Cuba, or Venezuela. But as I explained in an earlier article, that is not a helpful way of understanding Russia’s role in the imperialist system and certainly not consistent with V.I. Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Those who harbor this illusion– whether from Cold War nostalgia or a misreading of Lenin’s writings– are attempting to detach today’s Russia from its capitalist economic base and deny that its rulers act on behalf of its capitalist class.

It is possible to grant that Russia objectively acted against US imperialism in militarily aiding Syria while also asserting that the conflict in Ukraine is an imperialist war. That is, the battle raging in Ukraine is, in the final analysis, fought over the material interests of capitalist ruling classes, not the interests of the people of Ukraine or Russia.

The great tragedy is that the broad left– the historical foil to war and imperialism– remains divided, confused, and inactive while a bloody, destructive war rages, threatening to expand and escalate. As the war continues with no resolution, the only winner is US imperialism.

In sharp contrast, over 40 Communist Parties have signed a joint statement —No to the Imperialist War in Ukraine!— affirming that the war in Ukraine is an imperialist war and that the people “have no interest in siding with one or another imperialist or alliance that serves the interests of the monopolies.” The statement recognizes that ending the conflict– “the meat grinder of imperialist war” — is the foremost task and goes further to “demand the closure of military bases, the return home of troops from missions abroad, to strengthen the struggle for the disengagement of the countries from imperialist plans and alliances such as NATO and the EU.”

One signatory– the Greek Communist Party– has led the way by protesting at the US and Russian embassies, organizing mass demonstrations against the war, and leading the effort to stop NATO weapons shipments. Italian labor organizations have also resisted NATO arms shipments.

To the magazine’s credit, the editor of Monthly Review, the influential US left publication demonstrates a similar understanding:

At present, we are once again seeing “an old-style struggle for power” in the form of a war in Ukraine, which has taken on a “ghostly character” because of the presence of thermonuclear weapons on both sides of what… is essentially a “proxy war” between two capitalist states: the United States (along with the whole of NATO) and Russia.

By bringing the threat of nuclear war into sharp focus, Foster shows the folly of those caught in the blame-game, those immobilized by the allure of war pornography spread by monopoly capital’s powerful propaganda machine, and underscores the urgency of stopping the war now. To perhaps the surprise of some, Pope Francis has brought clarity to the war in Ukraine, in earthy, but direct language. Supposedly, he told the Russian Orthodox Patriarch that the Russian church leader should not be “Putin’s altar boy.” While this brought glee from those supporting “Glory to Ukraine” at all costs, he followed up with the charge that the cause of the war might be the “barking of NATO at the door of Russia,” an apt metaphor. The Pope’s blunt analysis supports his commitment to ending the war above all other concerns. He has offered to visit all belligerents and negotiate, the sane way to end hostilities.

While Pope Francis’s position as peacemaker may seem unremarkable, it must be placed against the backdrop of the “just war” concept that has allowed Catholics and church leaders in the past to tailor the Church’s message to please right-wing regimes, war makers, and xenophobia, while appearing doctrinaire.

A recent commentary in The Wall Street Journal explores the Church’s historic relationship to the concept. Francis seems to prefer a just peace to a just war, forestalling its expansion and flirtation with nuclear war.

We can but hope that these sane voices can unite a divided left into vacating the debate hall and returning to the streets to protest an imperialist war and the elites that profit at the expense of the masses. We cannot repeat the mistakes of 1914.