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Russia Tests the American Left

Members of the Democratic Socialists of America gather on May Day in 2019 in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On February 26, the Democratic Socialists of America issued a statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that also urged the U.S. to exit NATO and “end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.” The suggestion that the U.S. was somehow to blame for Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression was seized on by the DSA’s critics across the ideological spectrum — from the New York Post to Democratic congressional candidate Max Rose — while setting off a round of recriminations and counterstatements among American leftists. Very quickly, the invasion became a test for the anti-war left, both at home and abroad.

It’s worth pointing out at the outset, given the reflex to brand DSA’s statement as the de facto “socialist” take on the situation in Ukraine, that there’s no such thing as a monolithic left. By virtue of its status as the largest socialist organization in America, DSA’s positions attract an outsize degree of attention. The group is linked to a handful of elected officials, including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which might make it seem more influential than it actually is. But even the socialists who do call the organization their political home don’t all agree with the positions it takes in public.

The leftists and progressives I spoke to for this article were unanimous on the question at the heart of this debate. “It is an outrage. Period. Full stop,” said Phyllis Bennis, who directs the New Internationalism program at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. “I think that the main demand at the moment is an immediate cease-fire and a Russian withdrawal.”

“Having said that,” she added, “there are long-standing issues about the role of the U.S. in Europe.”

DSA appears to be guilty mostly of repeating old arguments at a heated moment. The organization had previously called for the U.S. to leave NATO, viewing the transatlantic military alliance as a relic of the Cold War that has lost its purpose and largely serves to further American imperialist ambitions. Biden called Russia’s invasion “unprovoked,” but Bennis believes this is not quite true. “It was provoked. But that provocation did not justify anything close to what Russia did,” she said.

Bennis and the DSA are hardly alone in questioning the wisdom of NATO’s eastward expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has put the U.S. in the position of being obliged to defend quasi-autocratic states like Hungary from attack and placed NATO troops directly on Putin’s borders. “Concerns about NATO expansion are not something that Vladimir Putin just made up recently,” said Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sanders. “There’s 30 years of evidence that this is something that is very concerning to a lot of Russian officials and the Russian political leadership more broadly.” Establishment officials have acknowledged this reality, including Clinton administration Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and current CIA director Bill Burns.

“That’s not to agree with Vladimir Putin’s arguments about NATO,” Duss clarified. “It’s clear from his own speeches now that his aims are much broader, and much more expansive, than just having to do with NATO.”

Where the DSA seems to regularly run into trouble is to focus too heavily on the U.S.–NATO side of the equation. A previous statement released in January by the organization’s International Committee, which castigated “a sensationalist Western media blitz drumming up conflict in the Donbas” region of Ukraine, encountered fierce criticism from leftists abroad. In a piece for openDemocracy, the Ukrainian historian Taras Bilous called the statement “shameful” and observed that it failed “to say a single critical word against Russia.”

There are also elements within the self-identified left that have soft-pedaled Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and history of human rights abuses, as Roane Carey observed in a recent piece for the Intercept. So-called tankies don’t make up the majority of DSA membership or wield much power within the broader left, but they do exist. The “key element in the tankie mindset is the simple-minded assumption that only the U.S. can be imperialist, and thus any country that opposes the U.S. must be supported,” Carey wrote.

Leftists from other countries have been contending with the American tankie for years. A representative for Lausan, a leftist collective based in Hong Kong, said in an email that while “what Russia is doing to Ukraine and what China is doing to Hong Kong/Taiwan are very different, historically and materially speaking,” one thing is clear: “The commonality we share with Ukrainians is having our lives, struggles, and political agency diminished by U.S. leftists who prioritize struggle against the U.S. state above all else.”

“Many in the American left believe resistance can only be shepherded by states that express nominal opposition to the U.S., such as Russia, China, and Iran, regardless of their treatment of their own populations,” the representative added. “Seeing states rather than people as the bulwark against American expansion and imperialism systemically ignores or dismisses histories of dissent, insurrection, and social change that are unconnected to the West.”

And while both DSA and the western anti-war movement cast a skeptical eye toward NATO, some on the international left hold a different view. “In all honesty, a lot of leftists from Eastern and Central Europe are extremely disappointed in western leftists right now,” said Karolina, a Polish activist with the Letjaha network that is organizing vehicle convoys to the Polish border with Ukraine to ferry refugees to safety. Karolina, who spoke to me via Skype and asked to go by her first name only, sees NATO more as a buffer than a provocation. “Basically, when I hear about NATO expansion to the east, I’m like, okay, you know nothing about Eastern Europe,” she said. “Because this narrative strips Eastern Europe of any sort of agency or political power or its own aspirations. It ignores the fact that many countries of the region see NATO and participation in NATO as protection against Russian imperialism.”

The debate over the American left’s response to Ukraine is part of a larger debate about how the DSA can translate its theory of internationalism, which holds that socialism is a movement for the liberation of the working class across all borders, into action. “As much as we are calling for and organizing for material gains for working-class people through programs like Medicare for All, like a Green New Deal, shifting resources away from police and toward real public welfare, they have to be rooted in a transformative vision for the entire world,” said Ashik Siddique, a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.

Ideally, internationalism would offer a legitimate alternative to the foreign policy blob that dominates U.S. institutions. “I think that it’s a real challenge for us as an organization on the broader left to think about how we organize to back up our international positions,” Siddique added. “DSA is just short of 100,000 members in the United States. The reaction to the statement, I think, shows in some ways that we are a threat to the political Establishment, but we still have a long way to go in actually contesting or wielding power.”

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were politically formative for many American leftists, and they fear the U.S. could once again inflame the world. Maybe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be formative, too. “It’s hard when it’s not a war that was initiated by our own country or our own country’s allies,” said Bennis. “It’s more complicated. But we have to be prepared to deal with those complications.”

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Russia’s Invasion Tests the American Left