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Against infantile realpolitik: Richard Seymour on some left reactions to Ukraine

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By Richard Seymour

March 5, 2014 -- Lenin's Tomb, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- The enemy of your enemy might still be your enemy. Because, complexity. Because, nuance. Because, concrete analysis of concrete situations. How much do I really need to underline this?

I raise the point because the tendency to try to distil the situation in Ukraine into one or at most two relatively simple contradictions is apparent in abundance. Lindsey German's article for Stop the War Coalition (UK) is a classic instance of this. It attempts a "clarification" of the political stakes, largely by way of clearing away complicating clutter and allowing people to see the interests of US imperialism and its allies at work. But in so doing, German's article resorts to utter nonsense and embarrassingly crude reductions.

For example, the article reduces the "colour revolutions" to simple acts of US orchestrated client-installation. This is crass. That the US has intervened in, and attempted to shape the outcome of these revolts is hardly in question. That in some of these revolts, they have played a far more significant role than in others is also not in question. That in Ukraine, this took the form of funding a series of lobbies, think-tanks and "civil society" groups, is also uncontroversial.

However, one would think that socialists, and particularly Marxists, would have more interest in: why masses begin to move; why they respond to particular slogans; why they assemble around particular political leaderships and organisations; and why certain influential layers are able to take command of a situation they neither created nor control. One would expect, surely, some attempt to work out why anyone thought to form "people's councils" and "self-defence forces" in such a situation; why a parallel government was formed in Kiev; why the symbolic targets of popular rage should be a statue of Lenin; why the popular demands should include for a time integration into the EU; and so on. (This is a rather good interview on that subject.) Lindsey German evinces no such interest.

Indeed, while German gestures toward the complexity of the situation, the effect of what she actually says ("historical divisions ... complex and difficult to overcome ... highly contested" etc) is to evoke that complexity as a barrier to understanding. It is so summary, so glancing, that she may as well have said, " it is, after all, a country far away, of which we know little ...". It is not analysis, and it is not internationalism.

And if imperialism is really the only factor that deserves analysis, then the power of Russia and Russian-allied oligarchs in the east to help put Yanukovich in power in the first place, and its considerable economic leverage over that government, ought not to be ignored. Masked Russian troops occupying the Crimea, likewise. Because, and of course this also applies to Syria in ways that German's article obscures, there is more than one imperialism operating in Ukraine.

A logical corollary of the above error, however, is to then reduce the overthrow of Yanukovich to something which the US "oversaw". If all that matters is the analysis of US imperialism in the situation, then the key in this situation is to work out the ways in which the US has power over the situation. Yet there is simply no evidence that the US has had a very significant role, let alone the executive, overseeing role, in deciding the outcome of these struggles.

As Volodymyr Ischenko writes, what we have seen is a genuine mass uprising, "overwhelmingly supported in western and central Ukraine without majority support in the eastern and southern regions, leading to a change of political elites". This change of political elites has led to a right-wing government, fusing neoliberals and nationalists who have no interest in fulfilling any of the class demands of the popular layers of the rebellion. This could and most likely would have happened without the US government lifting a finger.

Perhaps as serious an analytical error as the above, though, is to reduce US imperialist strategy to the manoeuvrings of "neo-cons" who, supposedly, are desperate "for war with the Russians". This is simply vulgar populist drivel on German's part. The neo-conservatives are hardly the currently dominant force within the US government. The dominant foreign policy elites in the Pentagon and State Department are a mixture of realpolitikers and liberal imperialists. Robert Gates and John Kerry are the leading personnel here, and only by the most tortuous logic does either of these two qualify as a neo-conservative. This sort of polemical focus on "neo-cons" doesn't simply evade the question of Russian dominance in Ukraine, but actually shifts the focus away from any analysis of US imperialism. It is soft on imperialism.

A subordinate aspect of this over-simplification of imperialist motives in the region, incidentally, is that the relationship representation of Ukraine's fascists as uncomplicatedly "allies" of the European Union (EU). The major fascist organisation to have gained in these protests, the Svoboda Party, is far from simply pro-EU. It has pro-European to the extent that it is white supremacist, and linked to a series of European fascist parties which are bitter opponents of the EU, and is itself quite explicitly hostile to the EU. The geopolitics of the situation are such that a protest against Russian domination initially took the form of a pro-EU protest (remarkable as that is), but the fascists were always a minority current in it, are a minority in the new government (reactionary though it is), and are most likely not the allies and instruments of the EU agenda in the country.

The key reduction, though, which lies behind everything else, is to limit the analytical and political imperatives to the British left to those of identifying and combating imperialism on the part of the US and its allies. One would think that socialists had never protested the Soviet invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The rationale for this reduction is bizarre. Lindsey German says that those who want to oppose Russian imperialism in Ukraine and Crimea are "ignoring the history and present reality" of the region. She does not say how, but goes on instead to offer this non-sequitur:

The B52 liberals only oppose wars when their own rulers do so, and support the ones carried out by our governments. The job of any anti-war movement is to oppose its own government's role in these wars, and to explain what that government and its allies are up to.

The "job" of an anti-war movement, on this account, is thus to precisely mirror the attitude of the B52 liberals. This goes much further than the old saw that "the main enemy is at home", which obviously would not preclude international solidarity. Ruling out analysis of and opposition to Russian imperialism in this context simply doesn't follow. Perhaps it is a version of the tactic known as "bending the stick", or exaggerating a point in order to counteract entrenched ideas. If this is the case, then it is a particularly debased form of realpolitik, relying as it does upon an extremely cynical view of people as essentially manipulable objects of an elite political strategy. After all, what happens when the situation changes, the imperative changes, and you must suddenly start exaggerating in the other direction? Will people simply accept it, credulously, and forget about how much this new exaggeration jars with previous exaggerations? You see, even as realpolitik, it doesn't work. If everything you say is a predictable exaggeration, then people stop listening to you; you stop being effective.

Presumably, however, there is a theoretical edifice sustaining all this. Lindsey German is, apparently, a Marxist and not some simple-minded libertarian, nor a bombastic Russia Today analyst. But since the theory is impossible to infer from German's polemic, it unfortunately comes across as facile opportunism, and any theory that does now emerge to bolster it -- even should it direct us to seize the 'key link in the chain' -- will tend to look like a post hoc rationalisation.

This is a serious problem, precisely to the extent that US imperialism continues to be the dominant global force that German says it is. There will be further wars, further interventions. But Stop the War, which is at present still the only significant antiwar organisation in the country, is beginning to make a habit of fucking up. Its decision to invite 'Mother Agnes' to its conference, withdrawn under pressure, gracelessly and without a serious political explanation, was one example of such. It resulted in a politically disastrous picket of the same conference by Syrian opposition supporters. Now, Lindsey German has publicly aligned Stop the War with a position that is analytically vacuous, politically derelict, and soft on imperialism. And to expend so much political capital on that, quite unnecessarily, when Russian military intervention is a far more pressing reality than any potential US military intervention... well, that isn't smart realpolitik either.

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