Ukraine soldiers sitting on a tank

Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armoured vehicle near the recently retaken town of Lyman in Donetsk region on October 6, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

(Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP)

On Disagreements Between Left Comrades Over the War in Ukraine

Here is a letter written as a courteous yet hopefully instructive reply to criticism by Anthony Barnett.

Anthony Burnett, a friend, comrade and collaborator, just published an article in openDemocracy, a splendid and much loved source of progressive ideas and material, to which he alerted me in a mail reading: "Dear Yanis, we disagree but in solidarity!" Since Anthony's article mentions me, along with Jeremy Corbyn, in its subtitle, here I am, responding in the spirit of solidarity, affection and goodwill.

Anthony's article was in response to a petition I gladly co-signed that, in the face of a New Cold War and a collapsing climate, called for an immediate end to the war in Ukraine, for the aversion of another war over Taiwan, for the de-escalation of the New Cold War engulfing, primarily, the United States and China and, lastly, for a genuine global Green New Deal. That petition, it is perhaps helpful to note, was in the spirit of The Athens Declaration which I, Jeremy Corbyn and Ece Temelkuran issued on 13th May 2022 on behalf of DiEM25 and the Progressive International.

* * *

Dear Anthony,

Whenever you and I debate anything, the hardest part is to disentangle the things we agree on from our genuine differences. So, let me begin by pointing out four of your points with which I agree before homing in on our one major disagreement:

  1. "Any threat to use nuclear weapons is an outrage".

Obviously. Whether it is a panicky Putin who issues such threats, or North Korea, or the United States perpetually refusing to rule out a first strike, we must condemn every nuclear threat and any attempt to normalise nuclear weapon use.

  1. "Invading other countries is wrong... it is wrong for Israel in Palestine's West Bank and Gaza, and it must now be reversed in Ukraine."

Absolutely. This is how I put the same point on 5th March in an article entitled What we must do in the face of Putin's criminal invasion of Ukraine: "When a country or region is invaded, I am overcome by one duty: To take the side of the people facing troops with direct orders to violate their homes, to bombard their neighbourhoods, to destroy the circumstances of their lives. Without hesitation. Unconditionally."

  1. "If [Ukrainian] neutrality were guaranteed by military commitments from outside to safeguard the country's independence in a way that satisfied the government in Kyiv, and did not deprive it of weapons for self-defence, then this would be reasonable."

Agreed. Here is the same idea as I put it in my aforementioned 5th March article: "[I]t must be an agreement guaranteed jointly by Washington and Moscow, guaranteeing an independent and neutral Ukraine as part of a broader agreement that de-escalates tensions with the Baltics, Poland, around the Black Sea, across Europe."

  1. "Neutrality should not prevent Ukraine from joining the European Union if it so chooses (something even Putin's Russia seems to have accepted). This, too, needs to be said."

This is also my position. From the first moment Putin invaded Ukraine, I have been arguing that to stand with Ukraine should mean, amongst other things, a commitment to empowering Ukrainians to integrate, if this is what they want, with Western Europe in the same way that Austria did during the Cold War: militarily neutral but with a boisterous democracy, strong economy, full political independence, and freedom "to truck, barter and exchange" with anyone they want.

  1. You warn leftists, like myself, of the danger that, while discussing Ukraine and the manner in which Russia, the USA and NATO are exploiting the war, we should avoid denying "Ukrainian agency and the commitment of a huge majority of Ukrainians to their country's integrity and independence."

How can I disagree? As a Greek, I have had a gutful of Anglo-European orientalist, weaponised condescension that sought to explain to us Greeks our predicament - with a view to getting us to accept our 'lot'. However, this is not an argument - as I am sure you agree - that we Greeks have never been manipulated by the Great Powers or, indeed, that non-Greeks like your good self should not have an opinion on Greek politics; including your right to tell me that I am wrong on Greek matters or even that I have been led astray. Maintaining the right balance between (A) respecting the agency of those in the eye of some distant storm and (B) defending our right, as internationalists, to treat another nation's war or crisis as our own, is both hard and crucial - as I tried to explain in another article back in March entitled Westsplainers? Or genuine comrades?

* * *

Dear Anthony,

You chide our petition for not re-stating all the points above, focusing instead on the need for a new non-aligned Peace movement. I say 're-stating' because these points were included in the preceding Athens Declaration, co-authored by Jeremy Corbyn, Ece Temelkuran and myself, whose opening lines were:

"We stand with the people of Ukraine, as we stand with every people suffering invasion, displacement and occupation. We demand an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian forces, and a comprehensive Peace Treaty guaranteed by the European Union, the United States and Russia in the context of the United Nations."

Should our latest petition have repeated these points? You think it should. We felt that, since brevity helps drive any petition, it was best to focus on stressing that more war, even if it is just, is not the answer to an endless European war (Ukraine) or to the US-China tensions over Taiwan or the South China Seas shipping routes. Which brings me to the one major disagreement between us.

You are suggesting that the left must consider the United States a fading imperialist superpower which, despite its criminal past (from Vietnam and Pinochet to Iraq and its support of the Saudis etc.), is now democracy's only remaining defender against China, Putin, the Tehran theocracy etc. This is the crux of our difference. I beg to differ both on your diagnosis (that the United States is a fading, weakened superpower) and your prescription (that the left must see the US as an ally against orchestrated misanthropy).

In my estimation, the latest, inflationary, phase of the never-ending post-2008 economic crisis has reinforced US hegemony (and the power of Wall Street) over Western working classes and the developing world alike, while the war in Ukraine has wrecked all remaining hope of a sovereign EU that adopts an independent European foreign policy. As for the idea of the US being our ally against autocracy, my view is precisely the opposite: US policy is actively helping breed monsters to this day (from Putin in the 1990s to Bolsonaro more recently and, now, Meloni's post-fascist government) while - as I am typing this - my comrade Julian Assange is rotting in Belmarsh, at the behest of the Biden administration, for having opened our eyes to US war crimes committed in our name and behind our backs.

I could, of course, be wrong and I am sure you would have interesting rejoinders to offer. Thus, I would very much welcome a debate which would enable me to hear your reaction to my understanding of the New Cold War; for example, that China is too rich a socio-economic experiment to be either castigated as an imperialist autocracy or to be celebrated as a socialist success story; that Taiwan and Ukraine are profoundly different cases (since both Taipei and Beijing have traditionally claimed to represent the 'true' China); that Biden's humiliation by the Saudis is nothing new (Remember how Saddam Hussein, also a US stooge for a long while, bit the hand that fed him?) etc. etc.

* * *

I shall close this letter with a comment close to my heart. It concerns our duty, as friends and comrades, to educate younger progressives on how to disagree with one another. Over the years, painfully aware of the left's tendency to allow disagreements to degenerate into civil wars, I have endeavoured to desist from deploying inflammatory language when referring to comrades' views I disagree with. Comrades like us must take a lead in demonstrating that it is possible vociferously to disagree without speaking of 'betrayal' or painting comrades we disagree with as (historically, analytically, strategically etc.) naive. From this prism, the title and subtitle of your article was, I submit, not helpful.

To end on a high note, and on a belief that unites us, I shall quote approvingly and in full your closing lines: "Our larger aim should be to welcome the emergence of democracy in Russia - maybe the last thing that the Western security establishment actually desires. The alternative is rule by a mobsters international, which would ensure that the world will fry. It is as important as that."

In solidarity, as ever

Yanis Varoufakis

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