The horrific war Putin unleashed against Ukraine has also caused collateral damage within the ranks of the left. No sooner had I, and other DiEM25 comrades (including Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein), began campaigning for a peaceful resolution of the war based on the principle of an independent but neutral Ukraine than a charge of ‘Westsplaining’ was levelled at us from Eastern European comrades.
The Accusation: That Western left-wingers (like myself) and liberals condescend to explain Eastern Europe, and its predicament, to Eastern Europeans.
Different oppressions yield different sensitivities: Undoubtedly, each one of us carries different historical baggage. I, being Greek, grew up in a US-led fascist dictatorship within a NATO that collaborated with our fascist rulers. Poles and other Eastern European laboured under a Soviet-communist dictatorship. So, naturally, we, Greek left-wingers, tend to be more critical of NATO, waging criticisms that to Poles and other Eastern Europeans seem out of place. Such differences in perspective are, of course, perfectly natural and legitimate.
Denying Eastern Europeans agency? The main argument of my accusers is that I have denied Eastern Europeans agency, focusing instead on the interests and perspectives of the West, on the one hand, and Putin, on the other. That I suppressed the views and perspectives of Eastern Europeans . The prosecution’s Exhibit A is that I have not acknowledged the fact that significant majorities supported the entry into NATO of Eastern European countries. So, they claim, their entry was democratically legitimised and, thus, it is condescending to say that NATO expanded eastwards when, in reality, it was invited to move eastwards by Eastern Europeans themselves.
I have no doubt that majorities wanted to enter NATO. But, while this is an important factor, it begs the question: Does it mean that I, as a Greek left-winger, have no right to oppose NATO’s eastward expansion just because a majority of Eastern Europeans consented to it? It most certainly does not. Why is condescending for me to say to my friends in Poland, Ukraine etc. that they are wrong to consent to NATO’s expansion? As a Greek left-winger, I often oppose tooth-and-nail views and decisions favoured by a majority of Greeks – it’s called conviction politics, something we should have a lot more of. Unless, of course, those who are charging me with ‘westsplaining’ want to argue that I can contradict what a majority of Greeks want but not what a majority of Eastern Europeans want. But this would, I submit, violate every principle of progressive internationalism. Indeed, the whole point of DiEM25 and of our Progressive International is that we come together as citizens of the world who have a view on every country, not just their own.
Two conflicting hypotheses about NATO and War: My accusers reject my (and many others’) hypothesis that, had the United States and NATO not adopted in the 1990s an aggressive stance against Russia, there would have been no war in the Ukraine today and, more generally, no dangerous tensions in Eastern Europe. They counter-propose their own hypothesis: that, even if NATO had stayed put or even disbanded in the 1990s, Russia would be invading its neighbours – perhaps with greater ferocity.
Like all counterfactuals, these are untestable hypotheses – we shall never know, empirically, what might have happened had NATO not expanded eastwards, beginning with Poland.
Since I cannot convince my accusers that their hypothesis is wrong, and vice versa, I would have expected mutual respect of each other’s argument to prevail. In the same way that it would be inexcusable for me to attach a dismissive label on them, it is unwarranted for them to attach on me the label ‘westplainer’ – unless they truly believe internationalism to mean that local majorities know best or that respect demands that a Greek not only listens to but also agrees with the majority of Poles or Czechs or any other Eastern European people.
If we had managed to hold a rational and comradely dialogue, here is what I would have told them about Putin and NATO: In the same way that the radical centre (e.g., Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi) need the ultra-right (e.g., Orban, Meloni, Le Pen, Vox) in order to get elected and gather support, while the ultra-right needs the inequality the radical centre’s austerian policies generate in order to stir up the discontent that feeds them – similarly, Putin needs NATO and NATO needs Putin.
Left-wingers, in the East, West, North and South should not find any of this hard to digest. Lefti-wingers understand, above all else, the dialectic relationship between cross-border authoritarianisms: Putin needs the Azov Battalion, to justify his cruelty, and the Azov Battalion needs Putin, to justify theirs. Putin rose to unlimited power due to the mass poverty caused, largely, by US-led (through the IMF) callousness in demanding full repayment of the USSR’s debts by a collapsed post-Soviet Russia. NATO justifies its existence as supplier of security, because of the insecurity it helped breed through its expansion – following America’s role in immiserating the majority of Russians.
Enough said on this. As I admitted above, I could be wrong and an honest disagreement on these assessments is legitimate. Name calling between comrades is not.
ON THE SUBSTANCE OF THINGS
Because people are dying and rockets are flying, these debates between left-wingers are a luxury humanity can ill-afford – at least until the war is over. Meanwhile, we need to work toward ending the invasion and effecting an agreed withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
My involvement in this debate began because, from the outset, I advocated for the Independent-Neutral Ukraine solution, in juxtaposition to a Ukraine sticking to a NATO membership aspiration that even the US does not want to fulfil. For my pains I was labelled a ‘westsplainer’. Let’s, for argument’s sake, say that I was wrong – that an independent-neutral Ukraine is not what Ukrainians want. [Even though President Zelensky has now embraced the very proposal I have been advocating for.] What is the alternative that those who dismiss me as ‘yet another westsplainer’ propose? Overthrowing Putin? Are they seriously suggesting that the people of Ukraine should continue to die until Putin is overthrown? Are they seriously declaring a willingness to sacrifice Ukrainians on the altar of some theoretical right to join NATO?
Two brief points with which to conclude:
Eastern Europe will become peaceful and democratic only after the authoritarian, racist autocrats ruling over it are removed – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in the area where the Azov battalion operates etc. NATO will not help with any of this because, either willingly or unwillingly, it feeds these monsters.
Those of us on the left with a long memory, we remember our long tradition of being mortally split by imperialist wars. We remember the 2nd International and how the Great War caused it to split up. We recall how the left never really recovered since then. We must not repeat this. Not calling each other names is an excellent start!