A Brief Response to Carl Beijer
Why Me, Comrade?
Carl Beijer, who I understand is not just one person but a collective, responded to my recent post about Ukraine with a strange, short piece dotted with invective and name-calling, as if he was personally attacked by what I had said. He loftily refused to take it seriously as analysis and passed over it all pretty quickly, but here is one part that I kind of take exception to:
This entire Ukraine discourse is the product of brutish stupidity. On one side, crank conspiracy theorists who get all of their information about the war from BasedDuginDude69 on Telegram. On the other, smug “I’m completely out of my field, but” liberals who completely reverse their analysis because the new one sounds even prettier. And the only thing they have in common: both hate the anti-imperialist left.
First of all, this application of the word “smug” is strange because it happens in the same breath as criticizing me for being too provisional and openly admitting the limits of my knowledge. This is just kitchen-sinking insulting language regardless of whether or not they add up to a coherent picture. Employed here it sounds like the vitriol of the wounded ego more than the “serious” analyst that he supposedly is and I supposedly am not. For me this has been of the most puzzling part of the response to my piece: the furious anger—in some, even violent hatred—that it has produced in people who claim it has nothing whatsoever to do with what they actually think and believe. Somehow I am both not talking about them at all and directly smearing them in the most terrible way. And I am the biggest war monger of them all for wanting to oppose the aggressor and hoping it failed. It was even said I wanted the war more than Putin just so I would have something to write about: I was supposedly picking on irrelevant cranks and making too much of them, but suddenly, as the writer of an obscure newsletter, I was a bigger villain than Putin!
As to the charge of opportunistic inconsistency, it’s true my perceptions and thoughts do shift: I’m trying to understand what’s going on to the best of my ability, and to think through an emergent and complex situation from several angles. I would not try pass any of my writing as the final word on any subject. But I still think I’m guided by some central premises about the situation.
Where Beijer’s missive turns again from rebuttal into smear is this rhetorical attempt to associate my writing with vulgar pro-Putin propaganda and the conclusion that I “hate the anti-imperialist left.” What’s the purpose of this but to tag me as an enemy? To make me a legitimate object of hatred since I am actually a source of hatred? My main target has always been the far right that has celebrated or apologized for Putin’s war, that looks to his regime as some kind of civilizational champion rather than the obscene farce that it is. The fact is I don’t hate the anti-imperialist left at all, but that’s partly because I pretty much barely see one. For me, an anti-imperialist left worth the name would voice support for self-determination for Ukraine against what even Beijer admits is an imperialist war on the part of Russia. Although he seems personally offended by what I wrote I was not targeting him (them?) I hadn’t actually read Beijer’s writing on the subject before, but looking at it now it’s…not bad? If his purpose here was just to advertise his work, I will add my endorsement. I was pleased to see his post, “What Lenin teaches anti-imperialists about Ukraine” faithfully reconstructs Lenin’s beliefs about imperialism and how they would apply to Russia.
Although Beijer wants to dismiss me as a “humanitarian liberal”—how terrible!—I believe that in supporting Ukraine’s fight I’m following the socialist tradition as well, one that pre-dates Lenin and goes back to the First International’s support of “bourgeois” causes like Polish independence, Italian unification, the Union cause in the American Civil War, and to Marx and Engels’ unqualified support of the bourgeois Third Republic’s defensive war against Prussia. It’s worth recalling their qualified support of imperial powers like France and England in the Crimean War against Russia. In short, I believe socialists should support the forces of popular democracy wherever they stand against reaction. (It’s also worth recalling that in its attempts to crush the revolt in Poland, Russia tried to propagandize itself as the more socially progressive power and the bourgeois and aristocratic Polish rebels as trying to preserve the social status quo: some leftists bought it, Marx and Engels did not.)
Here are my main guiding principles in this matter: I believe that the best way to save lives in the war is to prevent and turn back the advance of Russian forces, who engage in massacres and use indiscriminate fire on civilians as a tactic. I believe that Ukraine’s elected government has mobilized the mass support of its people in a war of genuine national self-defense; I believe the present war is part of Ukraine’s long-term “national uprising,” to quote a phrase of Lenin’s, against Russian domination. I do not believe Ukraine is a mere vassal of the imperialist West. I believe Russia is a reactionary power and it is openly attempting to set itself up as the world leader of reaction, and to crush democrats everywhere both at home and abroad. To call this at other times mere “brutish stupidity” and to deny it seriousness of purpose is not really a contradiction, because Russia represents the rule of capital in its most narrow, cynical, and short-sighted form—the desperate casting about of what amounts to a clique of mere bandits. It’s not hatred of “the anti-imperialist left” that guides my responses here, but hatred of imperialism.