Assessing D.S.A.'s Ukraine Statement
Late last month, the Democratic Socialists of America — International Committee issued a statement denouncing the United States and NATO role in the on-going Ukraine crisis, calling “on the US to reverse its ongoing militarization in the region, avoid implementing sanctions against Russia, and uphold internationally agreed upon commitments to end NATO’s expansionist drive to provide guarantees that Ukraine will remain a neutral state.”
Whatever merits identifying NATO as “a mechanism for US-led Western imperialist domination” might have , the communique is notable for its total lack of remark on Russia’s consistently aggressive actions toward the nations in its “near abroad,” the presence of its troops in the Donbas region, its forcible annexation of Crimea, and its amassing of some 100,000 troops on the border of its neighbor. There is no mention of the rights of self-determination of the Ukrainian people. Or any thought of why Ukraine’s democratically-elected government might prefer—even for self-interested reasons—to come under the wing of a Western than a Russian imperialism. It egregiously refers to the Maidan protests that brought down the pro-Moscow government as a “US-backed coup,” essentially taking the Russian line on the issue. There is no mention of Putin’s clear lack of respect for the sovereignty and independence of the Ukrainian people, expressed most clearly in his comment directed at Ukraine’s President Zelensky on Monday, “You may like it, you may not like it — deal with it, my gorgeous.” The ever-prudish New York Times referred to this as part of a “crude Russian rhyme.” The adjective should be “obscene:” the Russian expression — “nravitsya - me nravitsya - terpi moya krasavitsa” — implies rape. Vladimir Putin is apparently much more direct and honest about his intentions with Ukraine than DSA’s International Committee.
The real problem with the statement is its total lack of penetrating analysis or thought on foreign relations, preferring instead to regurgitate clichés of the Cold War, much like its opponents in the national security establishment, except armed with the opposite set of clichés. It could very well be—indeed, it is inevitable—that an honest left-wing appraisal of the present situation would criticize the United States’s and NATO’s behavior in the course of the crisis, and urge diplomatic solutions, and the reduction of tensions. It could very well be that sanctions are counter-productive and destructive. But no honest assessment can just completely ignore the intentions and nature of Putin’s regime. What DSA has produced case does not give confidence that it represents a sophisticated and mature perspective on politics. Presumably the group aspires to one day at least share in governing and forming policy, not just take impotent, oppositional stances like this one. Even just for the sake of broadening the appeal of the group domestically, a total whitewash of Putin’s behavior is unlikely to endear it to anything but the subcultural core, rather than position it as the spokesperson for those in America with left-wing sympathies and hopes in general. Read from the standpoint of both politics and policy, this statement justifies DSA’s opponents’ jibes that it is not a serious political organization at all, just a place for replaying the childish fantasies of a defeated and diminished Left.
What would a real analysis look like? In the first place, it would provide an independent view that clearly delineated the forces at work in the crisis and would labor to give a perspective unlike that of the political establishments in either the United States or Russia. It would seek to develop its policy based on an objective assessment of the situation, that would include some analysis of the nature and conduct of Putin and the Russian state, and the history of Russian imperialist expansion. However compromised by capitalism and imperialism the bourgeois democracies of the West may be, there is no mention anywhere in this statement of the social structure of the Russian state and its cooperation with and reliance on its oligarchy. And for that matter, no consideration of the complex interdependence or relationship of that oligarchy with the ruling classes in the West.
Socialism is supposed to be a movement for the interests of the working class, but nowhere in the statement is there any analysis or thought given to what the concrete interests of the working classes in Ukraine, Russia, or the United States would actually be in this crisis. There is no detailed consideration of which actors represent the more progressive or reactionary forces, except for some stray comments about the presence of the extreme right in the Ukrainian nationalist coalition. These tendentious reminders are not balanced with any consideration of Putin’s encouragement at home and abroad of the most chauvinist and reactionary political tendencies. There is no curiosity as to why the Far Right worldwide looks to Russia and Putin’s regime with hope and admiration. Putin clearly imagines himself in the role of a traditional Russian leader, not only as hegemon of his region but, like the Czars in the 19th century, as the world’s champion of the old principles of authority and order. DSA does not have to become a cheerleader for NATO to realize that its role should be in the progressive opposition to these reactionary forces—indeed, it should always aspire to be leader of that opposition .
To come up with a compelling analysis, I would recommend DSA’s IC first return to Marx and Engels’ writings on Russia in the 19th century, a situation that has more in common with the great power competitions of the present day than the Cold War:
Russia is decidedly a conquering nation, and was so for a century, until the great movement of 1789 called into potent activity an antagonist of formidable nature. We mean the European Revolution, the explosive force of democratic ideas and man’s native thirst for freedom. Since that epoch there have been in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe – Russia and Absolutism, the Revolution and Democracy. For the moment the Revolution seems to be suppressed, but it lives and is feared as deeply as ever. Witness the terror of the reaction at the news of the late rising at Milan. But let Russia get possession of Turkey, and her strength is increased nearly half, and she becomes superior to all the rest of Europe put together. Such an event would be an unspeakable calamity to the revolutionary cause. The maintenance of Turkish independence, or, in case of a possible dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the arrest of the Russian scheme of annexation, is a matter of the highest moment. In this instance the interests of the revolutionary Democracy and of England go hand in hand. Neither can permit the Tsar to make Constantinople one of his capitals, and we shall find that when driven to the wall, the one will resist him as determinedly as the other.
Marx and Engels predicted, correctly that time, that a frustration of Russia’s goals in Crimean War would have revolutionary consequences, and it did, resulting in the emancipation of the serfs. The cause of liberation should always be the lodestar.