Axioms of the War
— by Justin Paulson

It is difficult to write anything short on Ukraine. Too-brief commentaries incline toward punditry, which of course proliferates whenever war breaks out; it’s been said that nuanced analysis, by contrast, dies swiftly as soon as the first missile is launched. History, too, tends to be erased by the radical presentism demanded by war.

I was asked to comment on what a Marxist or political economic perspective might be on this conflict. Of course one of the sources of punditry is the rush to comment on things for which one has no particular expertise; as I am not an area specialist in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, I would reserve most of my comments on the specificities of the war. Yet two aspects of the situation are quite general, and perhaps axiomatic:

  1.  No matter how you spin it, war is a disaster for working people. This one is no exception. Economists can debate how much capital and infrastructure is destroyed and how much capital growth might eventually be generated in a postwar period of rebuilding (if rebuilding happens), but the corporate bottom line, and that of oligarchs—whether Ukrainian or Russian, American or Canadian—is very different from the ways that the war destroys workers’ lives. That is surely true in Kyiv as much as in the Donbas, and affects the working classes across Russia (including conscripts dying in Ukraine) as much as those of Ukraine itself.
  2. Like most geopolitical conflicts, this is one in which many things are true at once. For example, it is surely true that Russia’s invasion is a brutal, imperialist venture. (On this point, I’m comfortable trusting the Americans who label it as such: after all, they wrote the playbook on imperialist wars of aggression, and know clearly what one looks like.) It is also true that Europe has a longstanding problem of NATO expansion. It is also true that Ukraine has a Nazi problem that has not been adequately addressed; in an era of far-right ascendency across Europe and the Americas it is far from alone in this, but the level at which neo-Nazis and their activities have been normalized in parts of Ukraine, leftwing parties banned, and Nazi collaborators rehabilitated, all under the guise of “decommunization”, is striking, and has been occurring in plain sight for more than a decade. My point is simply that to recognize one of these things neither diminishes nor leads necessarily to another: several things can be true, independently. They are connected only in so far as, e.g., the Azov Battalion currently holding out in Mariupol, and its supporters, serve as “useful idiots” for the warmongers—the existence of their unit making it easier for propagandists to plausibly spin the nature of the conflict for a domestic audience in Russia, and deflect from the dead bodies of workers and non-combatant families. It should go without saying that a successful Russian campaign will not, of course, “denazify” Ukraine, as that was never the point.

As people overseas want to feel like they’re doing something more than watching from afar, public reactions too have been overwhelmed by a rush to simplified and relatively easy performances of support. But the answer to ‘what can I do to make a difference?’ is not so obvious. Symbolic expressions like flying the Ukrainian flag or buying pirogies are everywhere in Ottawa; more material responses have ranged from the ridiculous (as if the Russian war machine were fuelled by LCBO sales of vodka, rather than by sales of oil and gas) to the problematic (such as raising money for the Ukrainian armed forces, an instance in which the military—including its far-right elements—somehow stands in for the civilian victims of the Russian invasion). Calls for direct military intervention by NATO, or a no-fly zone, are dangerously short-sighted, and delusional for anyone seeking to have a future for the planet. Opening the borders to those fleeing the conflict could well be the best expression of solidarity with the war’s displaced and dispossessed, yet here Canadian (and European) sympathy too often rests on the whiteness of the refugees and a politics of “these-ones-are-like-us” exceptionalism. The most rigorous solidarity requires borders to be open to all, which the war in Ukraine only makes more urgent.

 Justin Paulson

Director, Institute of Political Economy, and Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University (