Ukraine and the ‘left’

When on earth will the DSA and ‘the Squad’ come up with a principled position? Daniel Lazare reports on the dismal failings of the US ‘pwogs’

Early last week, 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus - a group that includes at least five self-proclaimed ‘socialists’ - issued an 800-word letter expressing near-total agreement with Joe Biden’s policy in Ukraine:

We write with appreciation for your commitment to Ukraine’s legitimate struggle against Russia’s war of aggression. Your support for the self-defense of an independent, sovereign and democratic state has been supported by Congress, including through various appropriations of military, economic and humanitarian aid in furtherance of this cause. Your administration’s policy was critical to enable the Ukrainian people, through their courageous fighting and heroic sacrifices, to deal a historic military defeat to Russia, forcing Russia to dramatically scale back the stated goals of the invasion.

Russia is thus the aggressor, its behaviour is “outrageous and illegal”, while Nato’s role in sparking the conflict by expanding relentlessly to the east is not even on the radar screen. Or so today’s ‘pwogs’, as ‘political progressives’ are sneeringly known, want us to believe. Presumably, the Biden administration could not have been more pleased by such an unqualified endorsement by the Democratic Party’s ostensible left wing.

But then the letter went over a cliff. It continued:

… we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire. Such a framework would presumably include incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief, and bring together the international community to establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians.1

What - negotiations? Sanctions relief? A solution “acceptable for all parties” - particularly Ukrainians, but Russians too? Fellow Democrats were apoplectic. Susan Wild, a self-described “pro-business” Democrat from western Pennsylvania, said she was “dismayed that some of my colleagues think that we can negotiate with Putin”. Congressman Jake Auchincloss, an ex-marine from Massachusetts, blasted the letter as “an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war”.2 Democratic congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona tweeted: “The way to end a war? Win it quickly. How is it won quickly? By giving Ukraine the weapons to defeat Russia.”3

Even California Democrat Sara Jacobs piled on despite signing the letter back when it was first circulated:

Timing in diplomacy is everything. I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today. We have to continue supporting Ukraine economically and militarily to give them the leverage they need to end this war.4

The upshot: Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, the Progressive Caucus chief, issued a retraction within 24 hours. Accepting full responsibility, while simultaneously trying to shift the blame to her staff, she issued a statement declaring that her old views were no longer operative: “Every war ends with diplomacy,” she said, “and this one will too after Ukrainian victory.”5

Where some may think that ‘jaw, jaw is better than war, war’, the official pwog stance is now ‘war first, talks later’ - provided there is anything left to talk about, once the shooting dies down and the body parts are collected.

It is hard to imagine a more cowardly moment in the history of the left - except that such progressives are not leftists at all, but triangulators whose speciality is positioning themselves one inch away from dead centre, even as the centre continually shifts to the right.

Sanders and AOC

Bernie Sanders, who did not sign the letter but said he agreed with its withdrawal, is typical. Fans cheer when he speaks out in favour of medical care for all, but maintain a discreet silence when it comes to foreign policy - an area in which his views are decidedly mainstream. Over the course of his long career in Washington, he has thus voted in favour of sanctions against Iraq, the Nato bombing of Serbia, the ‘Authorization to Use Military Force’ in the wake of 9/11, and the invasion of Afghanistan.6 To be sure, he voted against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but only after a good deal of wavering.7

The story since then has been more of the same, as he backed Hillary Clinton’s push for regime change in Libya and Syria, and joined the Democratic chorus against Donald Trump’s bid for a total military withdrawal from the latter in 20198 (Trump backed down in the face of overwhelming opposition). Sanders criticised Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for not doing more to combat Islamic State - which, considering their role in fostering Islamic terrorism, is rather like criticising Typhoid Mary for not doing more to combat infectious disease.9

Sanders has also participated in the favourite Democratic sport of Russia-bashing. After a summit meeting in Helsinki in July 2018, when Trump appeared to be overly chummy with Vladimir Putin, he introduced a Senate resolution declaring:

… Trump embarrassed our country, undermined American values and openly sided with Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, against the United States intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Senator John McCain is right when he said it was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”. The damage inflicted by president Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate …10

All this despite zero evidence that Russians interfered in 2016 at all beyond purchasing $44,000 worth of Facebook ads (only some of which were anti-Hillary and none of which special prosecutor Robert Mueller was able to link with the Russian government itself).11

Hence, it is no surprise that Sanders’ only response to the Congressional Progressive Caucus letter was to declare: “I don’t agree with that, and they don’t agree with it, apparently. It was withdrawn today, so it becomes a non-issue.”12 America’s supposed socialist saviour backs imperialist war to the hilt, and that’s all you’ve got to know.

As for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congress’s second most famous ‘socialist’, her record is equally centrist. She opposed Trump’s call for a Syrian withdrawal on the grounds that it “could have catastrophic consequences and risks, laying the ground for immense violence and suffering”,13 and echoed Hillary Clinton’s charge that Trump is Putin’s “puppet”. His “actions have been so destabilizing and destructive,” she wrote, “that the FBI had to open [an] inquiry on whether the most powerful person in the United States is actually working for Russia”.14 Where Sanders called for “severe sanctions on Vladimir Putin and his fellow oligarchs” the day Russian troops entered the Ukraine, AOC went one better by calling for “targeted sanctions” the day before.15 So it is not surprising that she has little appetite for anti-war activities.

DSA mouthpiece

Not that anger against Russia is difficult to understand. After all, Putin’s ‘special military operation’ has imposed immense suffering - not only on Ukrainians, but on his own citizens, by plunging them into a fratricidal conflict for which the Russian military was grossly unprepared. But amid the bloodshed, socialist internationalists reserve their real fury for the United States and its allies, who dismissed Russia’s security concerns out of hand, as they moved to isolate and surround it with a series of hostile states, led first and foremost by a Nato-armed Ukraine. This is just what Democratic foreign-policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski said they should do even before Putin rose to power,16 and the results since then have been all too predictable: a US-backed coup d’état in Kyiv led by far-right nationalists, mounting anger in Moscow, and finally a military explosion, once the Kremlin decided that Nato had gone too far.

For a brief moment, anti-imperialism was also the position of the Democratic Socialists of America. Two days after the February 24 invasion, the DSA’s international committee issued a fiery denunciation calling on “the US to withdraw from Nato and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict”. It added that “the ruling class is trying to build a new world through a dystopic transition, grounded in militarism, imperialism and war”, before winding up with the internationalist battle cry: “No war but class war.”17

This was admirable, since it suggested that members were beginning to move in a revolutionary direction. But the DSA’s response - or, rather, non-response - to the Progressive Caucus’s bizarre reversal on October 24-25 indicates the opposite. Rather than opposing the war, it now wants to dismiss the whole affair with a Bernie-like shrug.

While calling for international solidarity with Haiti against foreign intervention, with Iranian women against the mullahs, with flood-ravaged Pakistanis, and so forth, the organisation has thus maintained complete silence about a scandal in its own backyard. The same goes for Jacobin, the DSA’s semi-official mouthpiece. It has published articles in recent days about everything from Lula’s victory in Brazil to Cate Blanchett’s new movie Tár - but nothing about AOC’s embarrassing reversal.

The reason is clear. If Jacobin wrote about Ocasio-Cortez, it would have to write about the “realignment strategy” developed by DSA founder Michael Harrington, which paved the way for the about-face in the first place. Harrington’s grand idea was that socialists should stop squabbling amid myriad little sects and enter the Democratic Party instead, so they could transform it into a US version of the Labour Party. For British socialists, this may sound tame in the extreme. But for the American left it verges on the utopian, since it would mean that the proletariat would finally have a party that, however reformist, would at least speak in the name of the working class.

But the strategy is a pipedream. Distant relatives of the pro-slavery ‘Democratic-Republican Party’ established by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the early 1790s, today’s Democrats are an amorphous blend of me-too feminists, labour bureaucrats, academics, minority ‘activists’ of various hues, plus assorted culturati from Brooklyn to Hollywood - none of whom have the remotest connection with the working class movement. For even for the most radical - indeed, especially for the most radical - workers are merely another aggrieved group, alongside blacks, Hispanics, gays and women. They are one of many special interests jockeying for position inside the Democratic ‘big tent’.

In reality the party is a “herd of independent minds”, whose only unifying principle is advancing the fortunes of political careerists within its own ranks. Converting it into a Labour Party is impossible. For socialists, Harrington-style ‘entryism’ amounts to little more than liquidation into a shapeless bourgeois mass. The greater the crisis, the more self-dissolution intensifies as well.

This is what the Ukraine debacle shows. After acceding to decades of Nato expansionism, pwogs finally mustered the courage to suggest a mild change of direction - only to scurry for cover, once criticism began to flow. Their position is therefore the same as the Biden administration’s. Instead of democratic socialists, they are now mild liberals, determined to keep their heads down at all costs. If that means going along with the greatest eruption of imperialist militarism since the Vietnam war, then so be it.

After all, who would AOC turn to if she decided to fight it out? The leftwing Democrats known as ‘the Squad’ would not back her, and neither would Bernie or the DSA - they would be too busy huddling with their Nato pals. She would be all alone against the US-Nato war machine and would soon be bulldozed out of the way.

Jacobin and the DSA, of course, cannot stay silent forever. Eventually, they will have to come up with a comment. But whatever it is, it is a sure bet that it will not amount to a break with Sanders or AOC. They are the only political assets the DSA has, so it will have to figure out of a way of justifying the relationship, even if it means justifying the war. It will be interesting to see whether the Harringtonites self-destruct in the same manner as the Robertsonites, Healyites, Mandelites et al, or whether they simply turn into a pinkish version of Americans for Democratic Action (the old liberal pressure group that radicals loved to hate back in the 1960s). Yet the DSA may well wind up in the same boat.

What will it do next - unleash the Freikorps against leftists who persist in taking an anti-Nato stance? Inquiring minds want to know!

  1. progressives.house.gov/_cache/files/5/5/5523c5cc-4028-4c46-8ee1-b56c7101c764/B7B3674EFB12D933EA4A2B97C7405DD4.10-24-22-cpc-letter-for-diplomacy-on-russia-ukraine-conflict.pdf.↩︎

  2. twitter.com/JakeAuch/status/1584727936816803842.↩︎

  3. twitter.com/RepRubenGallego/status/1584609672580894720.↩︎

  4. twitter.com/RepSaraJacobs/status/1584923231882035200.↩︎

  5. progressives.house.gov/2022/10/congressional-progressive-caucus-chair-statement-on-ukraine-letter.↩︎

  6. J St Clair Bernie and the Sandernistas (Petrolia 2016), 13; see also www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/05/15/sand-m15.html.↩︎

  7. www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/sanders-opposition-iraq-war-was-more-complicated-he-presents-n1137541.↩︎

  8. feelthebern.org/bernie-sanders-on-syria.↩︎

  9. www.vox.com/2015/11/19/9762028/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism.↩︎

  10. D Lazare, ‘Subordinate to the bourgeoisie’ Weekly Worker February 29 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1288/subordinate-to-the-bourgeoisie.↩︎

  11. D Lazare, ‘Russiagate and what it says about America’ Weekly Worker August 16 2019: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1264/russiagate-and-what-it-says-about-america.↩︎

  12. www.semafor.com/article/10/25/2022/bernie-sanders-the-house-progressive-caucus-ukraine-letter-was-wrong.↩︎

  13. twitter.com/aoc/status/1181655223921778689.↩︎

  14. twitter.com/aoc/status/1084258311728521216.↩︎

  15. www.sanders.senate.gov/press-releases/news-sanders-statement-on-russian-invasion-of-ukraine; www.leftvoice.org/the-squad-calls-for-u-s-intervention-in-ukraine.↩︎

  16. Z Brzezinski The grand chessboard New York 1997, pp199-202.↩︎

  17. D Lazare, ‘Four anti-war nos’ Weekly Worker March 10 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1386/four-anti-war-nos.↩︎