Author Ross Wolfe

Introduction to the Special Issue on Ukraine

As the horizon of mass revolutionary politics dimmed over the course of the twentieth century, and especially with the dissolution of the ussr, an historical chapter drew to a close. The Soviet Union had long since degenerated into an authoritarian regime, of course, serving the interests of entrenched bureaucratic elites—party apparatchiks and the state nomenklatura—rather than the international proletariat. Nevertheless, its unraveling signaled the final collapse of a project initiated some 75 years prior, amidst a bloody interimperialist war. For communists, the overthrow of tsarism was supposed to serve as the spark that fanned the flames of world revolution. While the expected conflagration did not ultimately come to pass, as bourgeois governments put down the wave of proletarian uprisings that followed World War I and capitalism narrowly survived the economic crises of the interwar period, the geopolitical rivalry between nato and the Warsaw Pact countries defined the balance of power for many decades after World War II. In December 1991, this rivalry resolved itself in favor of the former. “Actually existing socialism,” as it was sometimes called, suddenly ceased to exist.

Salutary pronouncements about the “end of history” were made, though catastrophes did not cease to unfold. Even in the nineties, there was a genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Liberal democracy and the free market enjoyed a few years without major challenges arising to upset the new order, but since 9/11 a sequence of events has steadily eroded the belief that there would be smooth sailing ahead: the War on Terror, which saw the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq; the 2008 financial crisis, leading to austerity in Europe around the issue of sovereign debt; the Arab Spring, which soon turned into an Islamist Winter; finally the Covid-19 pandemic, attended by intermittent lockdowns and supply-chain disruptions. Various movements have sprouted up alongside these, at least nominally opposed to the status quo: from summit-hopping antiglobalization in late nineties and early aughts through the antiwar demonstrations under Bush, from the “movement of squares” in Europe and Occupy in North America through Black Lives Matter protests and annual Women’s Marches. Most of these energies have been harmlessly reabsorbed into business as usual, however, funneled into ngos, online hashtags, and flag emojis. Rightwing and leftwing populism has likewise made a comeback at the ballot box, but in spite of tough rhetoric no one has thus far been able to offer a real alternative to neoliberal policymaking.

Beginning in 2013–2014—though possibly earlier, if one counts the wars in Chechnya back in the early 2000s or the standoff with Georgia in 2008—conflict returned to the states that once comprised the ussr. In the intervening years much had no doubt occurred. Capitalist “shock therapy” led to unemployment, hyperinflation, and dwindling pensions in many former Soviet and Eastern Bloc nations. Alcoholism was rampant, as life expectancies declined precipitously. Ukraine was hit particularly hard, and any gains it built up during the brief boom after 2001 were wiped out by the worldwide downturn after 2008. Political leaders mulled over whether to turn toward Europe in restructuring Ukraine’s economy, or remain within the Russian sphere of regional influence. The Maidan uprising of 2013 ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who initially vacillated but in the end chose the second option. Petro Poroshenko’s nationalist administration succeeded Yanukovych’s, signing onto a more eu-friendly deal, which resulted in conflict with Russia as Crimea was annexed in 2014 and separatists in Donbas and Luhansk received tactical support and training from paramilitaries across the border. The full-scale invasion launched in February by Russia, using its own army, was an escalation of a preexisting conflict. nato has supplied the Ukrainian military throughout. Following the failure of the initial blitzkrieg and a stalled counteroffensive several months hence, things seem to have arrived at a tenuous stalemate.

The current war poses serious questions for Marxist theory. Questions that would have to be practically taken up by a mass revolutionary movement in order to find historical purchase, but which are nevertheless worth reflecting upon. In this spirit, we invited participants to write about four interrelated themes: imperialism and anti-imperialism, national self-determination, defeatism vs. defensism, and geopolitics and phases of capitalism. We’ve also translated a number of articles that touch on these themes in order to paint a fuller picture of the range of thought surrounding the war. Along with the assorted original pieces, they will hopefully enrich subsequent discussions. Of course the present collection of articles should not be regarded as the final word on the matter, and indeed Insurgent Notes welcomes further contributions in response. Readers will notice that this special issue does not push any particular “line,” but instead encourages open debate without acrimony or denunciation. Such debate is all the more important when groups and individuals ostensibly share theoretical and practical premises, yet arrive at opposite conclusions.

For example, some feel that the old slogans (“no war but class war,” “the main enemy is at home”) have either grown stale or lack contemporary application while others still uphold them. My own sympathies fall, perhaps dogmatically, with the orthodoxy of the latter. Despite this, it is useful to reexamine the historical foundations of the defeatist stance and ask whether it ever had the coherence ascribed to it by later revolutionaries. The experience of civil wars in recent decades, from Syria to former Yugoslavia, has for some undermined the validity of the classical position. Anyone seeking to defend its applicability to the war in Ukraine cannot rely on dubious precedents set over a century ago, but must confirm defeatism’s continued salience in the present moment—a task I believe both possible and necessary. Meanwhile, those who prefer to draw their poetry from the future do well to eschew these past disputes and focus on what is novel in the situation.1 Confusion around what is to be done might stem from a very real sense of helplessness, however, the feeling that nothing can be done. But if humanity is to ever be more than a passenger on the runaway train of world history, it must learn how and when to pull the emergency brake.

  1. “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition about the past. Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to dull themselves to their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1851], translated by Clemens Dutt, Collected Works, Volume 11 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1979), 106.↩︎