Progressive, Anti-Imperialist Democrats of the World, Unite!
The war in Ukraine is not just another conventional conflict in Europe, but a fight for universal values of sovereignty, decolonization, and democracy.
Progressive, Anti-Imperialist Democrats of the World, Unite!
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had the unusual experience of toggling back and forth between two of the greatest democratic revolutions of that era: in South Africa and in the USSR. I was finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Oxford on national liberation movements in southern Africa and focused on how external actors – the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, Portugal, the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, etc. – influenced domestic political change in southern Africa.
I narrowed the thesis down to two counties – Angola and Zimbabwe – in part because the outcome of South Africa was still uncertain. I was based at the University of Zimbabwe for a few summers and traveled to Angola and South Africa for my fieldwork.
I also took trips to the Soviet Union to assess what the Soviets sought to accomplish by supporting African national liberation movements —the MPLA in Angola, ZAPU in Zimbabwe, and the ANC in South Africa. On a trip to Moscow in 1988, I had a meeting at the African Institute. After giving a talk at the institute in bad Russian – I was learning Portuguese at the time, so my Russian had atrophied -- one of the researchers, Tanya Krasnopevtseva, approached me to talk privately. Tanya was the Soviet Union’s leading specialist in Zimbabwe’s revolution. But she had friends in Moscow who were “specialists” – that is, activists -- on the emerging revolution in the Soviet Union. She said if I was interested in revolutions, I should stop with southern Africa and start studying the Soviet revolution.
This all sounded kooky to me initially. But then I met some of Tanya’s friends. Two of them – Viktor Kuzin and Yuri Skupko – worked at Moscow’s African Institute as junior researchers, but their real work was in a non-governmental organization called Democratic Union (DU). Viktor, Yuri, and their DU comrades were revolutionaries. They were pushing for a multi-party political system and the end of the cult of Leninism. Over the next two years, Russia’s democratic movement became bigger and more radical, pushing for free and fair elections, and for the decolonization of the Soviet Union. (You can read my interviews with them in my 1993 book The Troubled Birth of Russian Democracy.)
They also joined forces with nationalist liberation movements in the other 14 republics of the USSR.
As I got to know the leaders of Russia’s democratic movement, they reminded me of the revolutionaries I interviewed for my dissertation on national liberation movements in southern Africa. Both wanted free and fair elections. Both wanted the redistribution of property. Both were against imperialism and for independence and sovereignty. Yes, the Russian revolutionaries wanted independence for Russia from the Soviet empire. Their methods were also similar: mass demonstrations, strikes, and other acts of non-violent civic resistance.
However, they differed in an important way: how they defined friends and enemies as shaped by Cold War divisions structuring world politics at the time. The ANC and South African trade union leaders embraced socialism as their ideology of opposition. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, therefore, was an inspiration for them –and a source of financial assistance. As such, the ANC leaders considered the democratic movements in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic republics, etc. seeking to end the USSR’s one-party rule to be their enemies. Conversely, small d democrats in Moscow considered the ANC to be a communist organization allied with their enemy, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In conversations in Johannesburg, Harare (where many ANC leaders lived in exile), and Moscow, I tried to explain to these two groups of revolutionaries their commonalities and common cause. For example, the similar agendas for creating independent trade unions. South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was the leader of the Congress of the South African Trade Union (COSATU) at that time and we met. COSATU’s agenda and methods looked a lot like those of the Independent Miners Union (NPG) in Russia and Ukraine, whose leader Anatoly Malykhin, I also met back then. I even published an article in a leftist journal in South Africa to try to explain the commonalities.
(Michael McFaul “Workers of the World Unite! Again? Socialist Politics in Post-Communist Russia,” Work in Progress, (Johannesburg, South Africa), No. 76, July/August 1991.)
The aspirations of South African civil society organizations seemed exactly the same as NGOs in Russia.
But I never made much progress. The Cold War dichotomy put these two groups on different sides of the barricade.
Thirty years later, the lingering legacies of the Cold War live on. With his 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Putin launched a new war of imperial conquest. Even before the USSR’s creation, the Russian Empire – yes, this was the official name of the country at the time -- had colonized parts of Ukraine. The global post-World War II decolonization process had finally reached Eurasia and in 1991, Ukraine finally gained its independence. Three decades later, Putin is seeking to reverse it. Imagine the British, French, or Portuguese empires trying to subjugate again India, Algeria, or Angola, thirty years after these former colonies achieved independence. That’s what is happening in Ukraine today. Two days before Putin launched his invasion, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, captured the moment most eloquently:
We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in their yearning for integration with peoples in neighboring states. This is normal and understandable. After all, who does not want to be joined to their brethren and to make common purpose with them?
However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.
We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors. We reject it again today.
Kenya registers its strong concern and opposition to the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. We further strongly condemn the trend in the last few decades of powerful states, including members of this Security Council, breaching international law with little regard.
Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight. It has been assaulted today as it has been by other powerful states in the recent past.
And yet, the Indian government – once a champion of anti-imperialism and decolonization – has remained neutral in this war. Actually, that’s too generous. Since the war began, India has dramatically increased imports of Russian oil, providing finance for Putin’s imperial war. Anti-imperial, democratic South Africa just announced plans to conduct naval exercises with imperial, autocratic Russia. Not all governments and societies in the Global South frame Putin’s war as imperial conquest. That is tragic and wrong.
When I’ve challenged friends and colleagues from India, South Africa, and other countries from the Global South about this hypocrisy, I get two kinds of responses. One is ‘we have our own problems; we don’t have the bandwidth to worry about Ukraine.’ A second is whataboutism. ‘What about U.S. military interventions?’ ‘What about American indifference to annexations elsewhere?’ ‘What about American violations of human rights or support for regimes that violate human rights?’
The first question is a fair one. Not all countries have the resources to aid Ukraine now. My answer is simply to take a moral stance, as a government or as an individual. The United Nations was established in part to try to prevent wars of annexation like World War II. Decolonization and respect for sovereignty were also two core norms at the UN’s founding. Neutrality, therefore, is not a legitimate position when watching a new war of imperial conquest. The way Putin is fighting this war – using deliberate acts of terrorism against non-combatants – is also immoral. As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Regarding whataboutism, my response is two-fold. The first is to acknowledge American unjust wars, foreign policy mistakes, and immoral actions from time to time. Just because I’m an American citizen, does not mean I defend everything my government did and does. I criticize U.S. actions all the time. I’ll devote another essay to comparing and contrasting the U.S. versus Russia’s use of military force because it is a big and important topic that deserves its own essay. That said, I reject the moral equivalency between Putin’s war in Ukraine and American military interventions. The U.S. has not for many decades engaged in annexation or colonization, does not attack democracies, and does not use terrorism deliberately as a method of war.
But let’s say you disagree; you see more parallels between American and Russian uses of military force than I do. How does that excuse Putin’s barbaric war? How do American wrongs justify Russian wrongs today? Two wrongs don’t make a right. If a thief breaks into your house, that does not give you a license to break into your neighbor’s house? If you opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, how can not oppose Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? If you oppose Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory, Turkish occupation of parts of Cyprus, or Morocco seizing Western Sahara, how can you not oppose Russian annexation of Ukrainian land? If you are outraged by Saudi methods of warfare in Yemen, how can you not be opposed to Russian methods of warfare in Ukraine
It’s time we finally retire Cold War frameworks and see the universality of the struggle against imperialism and colonization and for democracy, sovereignty, and human rights.
Anti-imperialists of the world, unite!
Progressives of the world, unite!
Small d democrats of the world, unite!
Let’s all do what we can together to stop Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine.
Thanks for the reminder that we all need to step back and look at the big picture. And it's interesting to consider the concept of neutrality in regard to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You mentioned India, and there's also Switzerland, who's claiming to be neutral but isn't really. The list is long in this regard (if I remember the UN votes or abstentions correctly).
You are absolutely right!
Many believe that we have nothing to do supporting a distant country in their brutal struggle against communism. Unfortunately, they don’t understand the nature of this system that spreads like untreated cancer. We have to do whatever is needed to avoid it spreading to other countries, and eventually reaching us. If we allow it to grow in a few years we’ll have to pay a much, much higher price to contain it.