It Comes Down To Political Practice, It Comes Down to Weapons
The deep divisions in the US left over the Ukraine war can be reduced to a single practical question: Do you support sending weapons to Ukraine?
The answer to that question depends on whether or not you accept the idea that we’re the cops of the world. The two parties accept this without question but the pro-weapons left? Behind a facade of left-sounding words, political practice tells the tale.
Does the pro-weapons pro-war left practice what they preach? Do they raise their own funds to run their own guns or organize their own combat units? Are they at least joining Zelensky’s international legion and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their friends and allies? Hell no, they won’t go! Their practice is to let someone else do the dirty work: that “somebody” is the US military-industrial complex, NATO, but mostly the Ukrainian people they claim to care about.
The pro-weapons left hides their collaboration with NATO behind the seemingly simple idea that “Ukraine has the right to get weapons or seek aid from anywhere they see fit.” Except that “anywhere” does not exist in the real world. Ukraine is not a customer in some free market for weapons. There is a highly structured supply chain for weapons that is a long-standing feature of the US empire and it is directed by the US war machine. The US has dominated the weapons trade since its rise to global power after WWII. Yes, Russia was often in second or third place, but Ukraine will sure not get its weapons from Russia. The only “anywhere” that actually exists is the US government, which is the primary source for weapons transfers to Ukraine.
The other flaw in the “from anywhere they see fit” formula is the assumption that weapons given from the US to Ukraine are simply an exercise in Ukrainian self-determination — not one way it’s incorporated into the US-dominated global order. Self-determination is not a by-product of the world’s largest military alliance, whose standard operating procedure is to turn allies into pawns and proxies. The drill begins with the mandatory weapons trade demanded of all NATO members. The Ukrainian defense minister recently admitted that Ukraine is a NATO proxy trading blood for weapons.
No, the existing international order is not some normal, natural state of affairs whose peace and harmony was disrupted by the “unprovoked” Russian invasion. To believe that, you’d have to ignore decades of historical context, including the obvious expansion of NATO that put missiles and troops on Russia’s borders, military advisors inside Ukraine and the less obvious policy of “full spectrum dominance” by which the US seeks to dominate “everyone, everywhere, all at once.” The neoliberal world order is no more based on free markets than self-determination or peace.
Instead, Ukraine found itself between two great powers with a long history of hostility and rivalry. Its only hope for self-determination would have been to maintain the balancing act of neutrality and diplomacy, playing one power off the other. Ukraine’s Declaration of State Sovereignty in 1990 and the 1996 Constitution claimed neutrality. After the 2014 coup, neutrality was sold off for an unprecedented supply of weapons and money, US/NATO military advisors, and a false sense of security. Using the Minsk II treaty as a cover for war preparations, the Ukrainian ruling class refused to cut a deal with their own citizens in the Donbas — choosing war instead — and the downward spiral to invasion and disaster began. Russia is not without blame for this war, but history shows a long record of provocation by the world’s dominant military power. The fact that it is “our” country and “our” empire makes all the difference, or should.
Once the Ukrainian ruling elites put their fate in the hands of the west, the IMF and big corporations moved in big time. Today, Blackrock — the world’s largest private bank worth some $8 trillion and deeply connected to the Biden Administration— is in charge of the economic reconstruction of Ukraine. They smell $billions waiting to be made by propping up the new Ukraine. Submission to finance capital is the only kind of “self-determination” the neoliberal world order offers, yet the pro-weapons left seems to mistake it for the real deal.
As the Ukraine war threatens to escalate out of control, the position of the pro-war left becomes increasingly indefensible. Press them and many will continue claiming they are anti-imperialists. It’s just that Russian or Chinese imperialism is, according to them, more dangerous. But in practice, they are, we all are, failed anti-imperialists who have not seriously challenged, let alone dismantled, the war machine of our own country. The American War in Vietnam was the last time we even got close. Instead of reckoning with that history, the pro-war left has turned its guns on the empire’s enemies. Their return to a pro-peace position can only be triggered by conditions that will never occur in the actual historical moment we live in.
On some fine and idyllic summer day when the US empire has no rivals; when no other great powers exist; when there are no competing “imperialisms,” when every country abides by the norms of liberalism in their moral judgment — then and only then — will these sunshine anti-imperialists stand against the war machine of their own country. That day will never come again. Until then — climate chaos be damned, class struggle be damned, the risks of world war and nuclear war be damned. Not only has the pro-escalation left assimilated the war-mongers’ gun fetish, but it has also internalized tolerance for collateral damage on a mass scale.
You can reveal the true meaning of the pro-war left’s position against Russia or China or Iran by asking the practical question: “You and what army?” The only honest answer: the armies of the US empire. The sunshine anti-imperialists stand behind the world’s largest military.
Their shared practice unites them in a working political coalition. The Bush-era neo-conservatives, the Democratic party neoliberals, the obedient base of both Republican and Democratic parties, and the humanitarian war crusaders are united with the pro-war left, including factions within the DSA and Green Party. Even some self-described socialists play a role in the pro-war coalition.
That a faction within the Green Party stands for weapons and escalation shows how lost the left can be. Madelyn Hoffman, the co-chair of the Green Party Peace Action Committee, knows what’s at stake:
Peace is one of our single most important values. If we give up on being the party of peace not only do we betray our deepest values but also forfeit our hard-won position as an opposition party.
We Cannot Be Both Pro-war And Pro-worker
So far, the war has strengthened the hand of the entire ruling class which includes some of the most vicious, powerful, and insatiable corporations in the world. Not content with the crushing transfer of wealth over the last fifty years, corporations have taken advantage of the war to jack up prices and maximize profits. At the same time, the Federal Reserve is doing its best to protect corporate power by targeting workers and wages. That is why anyone who claims to support the working class must oppose the war machine. The pro-weapons socialists are walking contradictions and damn fools for giving aid and comfort to the forces waging class warfare.
The pro-weapons left has not attempted to tell us how US involvement in Ukraine is in the interest of the US working class. And, for a good reason: the US working class has no material interests in this war. In fact, the budding labor movement is endangered by the burgeoning war effort. These two things cannot coexist for long. Workers want a voice and economic security, while warmongers want to crush dissent and push the costs of war onto the backs of the working class. Labor leaders must decide which they love more — the war party or the working class.
It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why the US left — which does not have the power to win health care, reproductive rights, free and fair elections, or labor rights — has the strength to summon intense moral indignation about the sins of other countries. We cannot do jack against our bosses or our empire, but boy-o-boy are we going to teach the Russians and Chinese a thing or two about justice and morality.
What accounts for this virtuous global moralism? One source is the culture we inherited from the first settlers. We tend to see life as a moral crusade, not a political struggle: this “frees” us to disregard both history and power. So I ask the pro-weapons left — so weak in America yet so strong in Ukraine — where does your secret superpower come from? I fear it comes from the same source as the weapons.
Maybe after years of losing, the pro-weapons and escalation left want to be winners on the “right side of history?” With over $100 billion already spent on US aid to Ukraine, the pro-weapons left must be popping corks and celebrating! I can’t recall the last time the left won such a huge victory! How did they pressure the US government into adopting such a progressive policy?
War Policy is Domestic Policy
Much of the pro-NATO left has taken this stand to protect its domestic electoral project. If sending weapons is wrong, their political heroes who repeatedly voted without debate for more weapons are also terribly wrong. A narrow choice remains: either admit that the attempts to reform the Democrats have failed or follow their war-mongering leaders to the right. So far, they have chosen the warpath and loyalty to the Democrats. They seem willing to risk everything to do it.
If a wider war comes, history will judge the pro-escalation left harshly — but we cannot wait on disaster. A powerful peace movement will be built first and foremost around unity in practice, not unity in analysis or ideology — just like the pro-war coalition we confront. When working people realize that we, not the ruling classes, pay the price of economic hardship and lives lost, they will turn toward peace. Immediate ceasefire and negotiations remain the best practical demands — demands we make directly to the US government without needing go-betweens who make arms and profit from war. The only “army” we need is the peace movement that we are building. That is genuine self-determination.
To succeed, we must broaden our appeal. The scorched-earth tactics of war accelerate the climate crisis. Climate chaos is the ultimate collateral damage and the surest single threat to life everywhere — on a par with nuclear war. In the end, the pro-weapons left serves the war machine, while the peace movement must serve the people and the planet.
This essay also appeared in Counterpunch.
Wonderful article Richard. I sent an email to Counterpunch over their posting of the Ukraine Solidarity Network’s mission statement and list of “Left” signees. I got a few replies basically in the pro-war position. Shocking to me as a subscriber. I hope you send this to them.
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The quote meme’s familiarity was making my curiosity itch — worse than an earworm — so I had to track it down: Eugen V. Debs’ 1918 Canton Ohio speech.
Thanks! And what a speech! Timeless!