A Pro-Russian Left?

Leftist Response to Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Sumanta Banerjee

While the war rages on in Ukraine, how is the Left facing the multi-dimensional complex challenges thrown up by the war and the ravages that it is heaping upon its people? The writer Arundhati Roy, in a lighter vein has summed up the Left’s dilemma as “tortuous yoga asanas–some pretty drastic seeing and unseeing–depending on where you have decided to place yourself.” She added: “Many on the Left cannot find it in themselves to call out Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. They believe that Ukrainian outrage against Russia has been entirely confected and cultivated by Western imperialism.” (Re: Stuart Hall Memorial Lecture, September 30, 2022).

The well-known political commentator Achin Vanayik, in a recently published article, has come out with an interesting analysis of the international Leftist response to the war in Ukraine, where he puts the Leftists into four categories. The first group whole-heartedly supports the Russian invasion. The second, while condemning the Russian invasion, generally avoids reference to Ukraine’s ‘right to self-determination.’ The third group urges for immediate peace and end to militarism. The fourth group speaks on behalf of the Ukrainian Left, and Achin Vanaik gives voice to their position in the following words: “We are as much against the US and NATO. But this war is not about Russian security concerns but primarily about its imperialist ambitions. We are fighting this war; we need political, moral, material support and yes a continual supply of weapons, to enable us to effectively resist this military onslaught.” (Re: Achin Vanaik ‘Ukraine: Divisions among the Left’ in The Radical, No. 1; October, 2022.)

 As for the responses of Indian Left to the Ukraine war, one finds that their statements often sound ambivalent–hovering between a rather grudging condemnation of the Russian invasion on the one hand, and mainly blaming the US for the war on the other.

Soon after the Russian invasion, the CPI(ML) Liberation group came out with a statement, saying that it was “deeply concerned at the Russian display of military aggression at the borders of Ukraine,” but at the same time condemned the “ongoing warmongering over Ukraine by the US and UK governments.” It demanded that “NATO must halt its eastward expansion.”

At around the same time, the CPI(M) in a statement dated February 25, expressed its “grave concern at the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It is unfortunate that Russia took military action against Ukraine. There should be an immediate cessation of armed hostilities and the establishment of peace.”

Sometime later, on March 1, the CPI National Secretariat denounced Russian military action in Ukraine and said further advance of the Russian forces must stop and immediate ceasefire declared.

On March 2, 2022, the CPI(Maoist)–a banned party–issued a statement through its spokesperson Abhay, saying: “Russia should stop the war against Ukraine and withdraw its armies from the eastern part of Ukraine… Ukraine should not be made a part of NATO. All areas must be demilitarised.”

Most of these statements by the Indian Left usually echo the same attitude expressed by the various sections of the European Left on the war in Ukraine. They blame it on NATO’s expansionist designs on the borders of Russia. They argue that because of this, a besieged Russia was forced to protect its borders by invading Ukraine. In this Leftist argument, they actually propagate a rather sneaking tendency in favour of Russia–depicting it as a victim of NATO’s expansionist designs.

The facts at the ground level however reveal that Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine, not as if it was facing any immediate military assault on its own territory by NATO. Till now, there is no such evidence in the public domain. In the absence of such proof, we are left with the conclusion that the Russian invasion of Ukraine stemmed from Putin’s aggressive impulse to extend the borders of the Russian territory. Given these circumstances, we have every right to suspect that Putin’s ‘military operation’ in Ukraine, is yet another manifestation of his policy of territorial expansion.

The Indian Left parties, while ignoring these ground level facts, also refuse to condemn the daily killing of thousands of Ukrainian citizens and destruction of their homes by the indiscriminate bombing and missile attacks by Russia. Instead, they come out with mealy-mouthed expressions like “deeply concerned,” or “grave concern,” or request for “the establishment of peace.”

The Indian Left is indulging in a half-hearted criticism of Russian invasion of Ukraine, and is reluctant to condemn Russian atrocities in Ukraine which amount to war crimes that recall US war crimes in Vietnam and other parts of the world all through the last decades.

This Leftist ambivalence towards Russia can be traced to their lingering allegiance to memories of a socialist system which they identified with that country at one time. Yet, despite achievements in removing poverty and equitable distribution of resources, the record of that Soviet system of socialism under Stalin was besmirched by suppression of political dissent and violation of human rights. No wonder that the same Stalinist model of suppression is being followed today in Russia by Putin. He was trained by the KGB–the notorious intelligence and surveillance agency that was shaped by Stalin.

Some sections of the Indian Left while rightly acknowledging the socialist achievements of the Soviet Union, turn a blind eye to its dark side–the days of Stalinist despotic terror (that prevailed in Russia and Eastern Europe for almost half a century). They feel uncomfortable when reminded of that despicable record of atrocities. Similarly, in the case of China, some Leftist sections rightly again praise Mao’s success in eradicating poverty and lifting China as a powerful Communist state in the global arena, but at the same time fight shy when faced with the exposures of devastations brought upon the Chinese people by the same Mao’s adventurist experiments like the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. They do not like to be reminded of those days which besmirch the image of Mao.

A typical instance of such feeling of discomfort is the decision of the CPI(ML) Liberation to expel its veteran member Kavita Krishnan in September this year. Her fault was that she expressed dissent against the party’s official line. She tried to wake up her party comrades from their nostalgic stupor by publicly reminding them of the atrocities committed by the socialist regimes of Stalin-led Russia and Mao-ruled China. Commenting on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, she twitted recently that these two erstwhile socialist regimes were far worse than parliamentary democracies with all their flaws.

Kavita Krishnan’s sweeping statement expressing preference for parliamentary democracies over socialist regimes, can be explained as a knee-jerk reaction against her party’s official line, or as a genuine belief in the superiority of the system of parliamentary democracy.

One can recall the record of parliamentary democracy of the US during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when it persecuted political dissidents and drove out eminent artistes like Charles Chaplin. In fact, coming to think it, this writer often suspects that McCarthy could have borrowed the model set by Stalin in the 1930s to persecute his Russian opponents and dissident intellectuals.The methods look alike.

In the decades that followed, coming to the present times, the system of parliamentary democracy in many countries has earned notoriety for violation of human rights. Persecution of ethnic and religious minorities by racist groups, police atrocities on the poor, imprisonment of political dissidents and whistleblowers, hate speeches in the name of freedom of expression–all these happen regularly under the benign gaze of the rulers of parliamentary democracies in US, UK and the ‘largest democracy’ called India!

In other words, it does not mean that people have to chose the prevailing Western parliamentary democracies (run according to the capitalist economist system of exploitation, but swearing by democratic rhetoric), and bid goodbye to the fading socialist system of equitable distribution of resources (in spite of it being flawed by violation of democratic rights).

Here are Kavita Krishnan’s two messages where she tries to trace the roots of the present conflict to the flaws that were inherent in the system of governance in these two socialist states. In a June 26 tweet, she said: “China is a dystopian nightmare. If any Indian Communist thinks it’s OK for ‘communists’ to rule like this, then they should ask themselves what kind of democracy they’re fighting for in India?” Her next tweet was on July 3, where she said: “How much of the Left is ignorant of–or in wilful denial of this fact? That the ‘miraculous industrialisation of USSR’ under Stalin was possible because of the violent subjugation of Ukraine’s peasants (starvation, execution, exile) and colonial expropriation of Ukraine’s grain.”

How can one disagree with Kavita Krishnan’s blunt comments about Russia and China? Now today, after all the revelations about the Stalinist terror regime in the Soviet Union (exposed by no less a person than the then Soviet President Khrushchev at his party’s 20th Congress in 1957), and the exposure of the disastrous economic and political consequences of Mao’s two experiments, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, shouldn’t the Indian Left re-assess their old understanding of these two states which had often operated in a fascist style under the garb of ‘communism’?

Today, sections of the Left are trying to propel Russia as a power that should be supported to defeat its US rival. But on what political grounds are they defending their choice? This is not a war between two ideologies–socialism and capitalism. It is not a black and white situation, divided between bad guys and good guys–the bad guys according to the Left being the US-backed Ukrainian fighters and the good guys being the Russia soldiers conscripted by Putin.

There are several dimensions to this war over Ukraine that need to be critically examined by the Left instead of taking sides. To start with, both the warring powers, US and Russia belong to the same capitalist camp. Russia under Putin is a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist state which is competing with its capitalist rival USA over occupation of the global economy and territorial spheres of political influence–often through military means. Similarly, China is following a capitalist system in its domestic economy, and an expansionist policy in its foreign affairs. Putin is at least honest enough to shed the garb of socialism. But his political buddy, Xi in his usual hypocritical style, uses the term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ for what actually amounts to ‘socialism with Xi characteristics’–just as happened in the past when socialism was introduced in China with ‘Maoist characteristics,’ and in the Soviet Union with ‘Stalinist characteristics. ’ They were basically authoritarian regimes run under a personality cult.

To be blunt on a sarcastic note, , Xi’s rhetoric of pseudo-socialism is as far removed from the essence of socialism, as the comedian Grouch Marx is from the philosopher Karl Marx , or the gorilla Kingkong from the royal dignitary King Lear ! Although the names sound similar, the growls of the gorilla Kingkong are discordant with the voices of the tragic hero King Lear of Shakespeare’s play. Xi with his megalomaniac growls, and Putin with his neo-Tzarist bluster, are drowning the faint voices of socialism.

The statements made by the various Indian Leftist outfits (referred to above) on the war in Ukraine, sound good enough in newspaper columns. They are however yet to move beyond such pacifist rhetoric, and instead formulate an alternative strategy to demarcate themselves from both the Russian and the US camps. But then, on what ideological and political basis can such an independent strategy be formulated by the Left?

The need for such an alternative Leftist strategy is not confined to the present war in Ukraine, but expands to the wider international area where the Left will have to reformulate its strategy by integrating its goal of socialism with the different aspirations and movements of nationalities, ethnic minorities, feminist demands, environmental concerns that have emerged on a global scale during the last decades.

[Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016)]

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Vol 55, No. 24, Dec 11 - 17, 2022