South Africa: Internationalism and the Russia-Ukraine war – the hypocrisy of (some of) the left

Putin Ramaphosa

First published at Daily Maverick.

At the heart of any kind of meaningful and serious left politics and ideology is the principle of internationalism. In parallel, at the complementary heart of that internationalism is the belief in and pursuit of human solidarity and dignity centred on those that are oppressed, exploited and suffering regardless of nationality, race, gender, ethnicity and sexual or religious identity. 

In turn, this is underlined by two very basic principles; that the starting point must be to listen to the voices of the affected people, and that the people of all nations, whatever their size and military power, have the right to self-determination and self-defence.

And yet, there are a sizeable number of people – in South Africa and globally – proclaiming (some very loudly and publicly) to be on the left who have hypocritically chosen to selectively apply the principle and practice of internationalism when it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine. In doing so they are not only betraying the workers and poor as well as genuine left activists and organisations within Ukraine, Russia and indeed globally. They are also playing right into the hands of imperial/big power forces as well as right-wing reactionaries, and in the process wreaking untold damage on the credibility of the left among the broader public in their own nations and globally.

In early 2022, a few weeks before Vladimir Putin gave the order for the Russian armed forces to invade Ukraine, Sotsіalniy Rukh (“Social Movement”), a Ukrainian organisation of the democratic socialist left working with independent trade unions and other democratic organisations, issued a public statement entitled “Time for International Anti-War Solidarity”. In it, they called “on the international left to condemn the imperialist policies of the Russian government and to show solidarity with [the] people”.

Crucially, they noted: “Unfortunately, the decline of American imperialism has been accompanied not by the emergence of a more democratic world order, but by the rise of other imperialist predators, fundamentalist and nationalist movements.” As such, “The international left, accustomed to fighting only against Western imperialism, should reconsider its strategy.”

Why? Because condemning “the neoliberal and nationalist policies of the Ukrainian authorities… in no way justify [sic] the imperialist aggression of Russia”.

Because the Kremlin “denies the subjectivity of Ukraine [and] wants to agree on everything with the United States, while completely discarding Ukraine, [which] should not become a bargaining chip in the agreements between the two imperialist states.”

International solidarity

Because, while “not harbouring illusions about the policy of Western governments serving big capital and their own goals… the interests of the Ukrainian working people can be taken into account by them only under the pressure of progressive movements and the public of these countries. The future of the socialist movement in Ukraine depends on international solidarity.”

This is exactly what some left/socialist movements and activists proceeded to do after the Russian invasion. Two examples provide the basic rationale. 

The Brazilian Socialist Left Movement (MES) identified Russia’s actions as those of an “imperialist occupation of a people, of a sovereign, democratic nation” (even with a neoliberal government – just like the ANC) and has “taken the position of supporting the Ukrainian resistance as well as the pacifist and democratic forces and oppressed nations within the Russian Federation who refuse to be used as cannon fodder in this war”.

Sinn Fein, Ireland’s largest party and with a long history of resistance to British colonialism, declared at its congress in November 2022 its full support for Ukraine’s resistance, stating that it “unequivocally condemns any form of imperialism or colonial aggression… the denial of national self-determination and all violations of national sovereignty throughout the world, without exception”. It called for the immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces [and] the complete restoration of the national sovereignty of Ukraine”.

Confirming the consistency of its internationalism, the keynote speaker at the Sinn Fein Congress was Palestinian Omar Barghouti, the founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel.

What the MES and Sinn Fein understand is that the principle and practice of internationalism is foundationally moored in accepting that those, throughout history and into the present who have been caught up in and used as pawns in inter-imperialist geopolitical rivalries and conflicts have their own political subjectivity and the right to decide their own fate. The workers and poor of South Africa know this better than most.  

As the Ukrainian left intellectual-activist Taras Bilous points out, “seeing people as only victims is a very common mistake of the left” and in particular, in respect of Ukraine and other Eastern European nations, “many leftists… still make the mistake of looking at these people only from the perspective of the confrontation between the West and Russia”.

Left hypocrisies

It is unfortunately all too predictable, that some on the left – including here in South Africa – fail to comprehend their hypocrisy in this regard. While consistently, loudly and in this case correctly, calling for imperial nations/the West to stop objectifying the people of the Global South, ignoring their views, dismissing their life experiences, meddling in their sovereign spaces and trying to delegitimise and/or suppress their political and locational struggles, they refuse to apply the same to the majority of workers and poor as well as left forces in both Ukraine and Russia.

Further, many also conveniently suspend their “anti-imperialist” critique when it comes to Putin’s private (but troublesome) Wagner mercenary army and particularly its activities on the African continent in support of “their” dictatorial kleptocracies.

As if that hypocrisy is not bad enough, many go further and double down by airbrushing the historic and contemporary reality of Putin’s regime – just as Stalin did for his regime. Instead of seeing it for what it always has been and continues to be – an imperialist, ultra-nationalist, right-wing, authoritarian, oligarchic, anti-socialist and socially reactionary regime – we get fake and vacuous statements about Putin’s “anti-imperialism” and his regime’s “right” to project Russia’s spheres of influence.

Of course, those same “leftists” would not be caught dead endorsing the US’s “right” to spheres of imperial influence; imagine how that would go down with the masses in Central and South America or the Middle East.

Never mind that these “positions” dovetail very nicely with how conspiracy-loving neo-fascists, white nationalists, ultra-racists and right-wingers the world over (whatever their nationality) “see” Putin’s Russia and the war with Ukraine. The most outrageous aspect of these hypocrisies is that they are a complete abandonment of the very agency of those people and organisations in Russia and Ukraine that embrace progressive ideals and struggle and speak out against militarism, racism, extractivism, ultra-nationalism, patriarchy, homophobia, oligarchic privatisation and for the right to dissent and freedom of expression.

Ukrainian left sociologist Alona Liasheva powerfully reminds us that there is a very basic, fundamental issue at stake for all on the left:

It’s important to analyse every conflict to understand all the players, the dynamics, and who’s culpable, [but] in the case of Ukraine, it’s far simpler than many on the left think. Ukraine was attacked by an imperialist army, and as a result we are in a struggle to defend our lives and our very right to exist as a sovereign nation… this is not an abstract question for us. 

Instead of listening to us about our experience, instead of identifying with our struggle, too many on the left construct complicated narratives about geopolitics, which frankly do not hold up under close examination. The main problem is that 44 million people are being denied their nationhood, political subjectivity, and agency.

The iron hand of Putin’s Kremlin

It is almost beyond belief that some on the left chose to embrace those who are the epitome of everything any self-respecting leftist should dislike while ignoring those who are doing precisely what any self-respecting leftie would do. How deep must one’s head be in the sand if one cannot see one of the most basic of truths for those who live and struggle under the iron hand of Putin’s Kremlin: that is, if one utters or writes even one public word of criticism of Putin and/or his regime, its corruption, its oligarchic capture, its homophobia and its crushing of all meaningful political opposition to its war in Ukraine, one will very soon be either dead or a long-time cellmate with other persons who have dared to do the same.

This reminds me of the 1980s when youthful criticism of the authoritarianism, corruption and betrayal of a radical, anti-capitalist democracy that had spread like cancer throughout the body politic of the Soviet regime was met (by much of the “established” left, including the SA Communist Party) with vitriolic denunciations (and worse) of being “anti-communist” and traitorous supporters of imperialism.

It is sad that almost 40 years later not much seems to have changed except that Putin’s regime makes his more immediate Soviet predecessors look relatively benign.

Russian left political writer and intellectual-activist Ilya Budraitskis gets it absolutely right in arguing that for most Russians (and I would argue for too many on the international left), “The war with Ukraine has only confirmed the division between those nostalgic for the era of USSR’s state power and those for whom being on the left means a commitment to a democratic, anti-authoritarian and forward-looking project.”

In doing so, he reminds us of the central importance of remembering all of our national and global histories. In this case, while those in Russia who are committed to “resist[ing] imperialist aggression by the Russian government [risk] repression and hostility… it’s worth remembering that in 1917… those who called on Russian soldiers to disobey their officers’ orders, against all expectations, came to power and set Ukraine’s current internationally recognised borders”.

Ah… how the ironies of history so beautifully expose hypocrisy.

Dr Dale T. McKinley is a long-time political activist, researcher-writer and lecturer who presently works at the International Labour, Research and Information Group.