War, Nationalism, and the Collective
It can happen that the way things go in this big impossible world can be grasped more easily in miniature: for example, in a little country, a little society where the flaws of capitalism are clearly exposed. Take Portugal, situated on the geographical margin of Europe, far from territorial conflicts and the sound of boots. A country where triumphant representative democracy does not hide a massive corruption of social and political institutions, from the smallest town government financed by predatory capitalism (including by Ukrainian and Russian financiers) to the armed forces which sell their weapons on the black market and the crooked politicians, reproducing by spontaneous generation. A country with more than thirty thousand Ukrainian immigrant proletarians, one of whom, Ihor Homenyuk, the border police recently murdered in cold blood at the Lisbon airport, in the course of a banal document check.1 A country where, again recently, the Minister of the Interior provided Russian authorities with the personal information of the few exiles who had demonstrated in front of their embassy in protest against the regime. At the same time, this is a country where, like almost everywhere, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed a fiery stream of tears, protests, and affirmations of solidarity with the Ukrainian people—a country where, like everywhere, hypocrisy wears the mask of virtue. To top it all off was the extraordinary “Abramovich Affair.” The well-known Russian multimillionaire, buyer of football clubs—means of money-laundering—recently became a Portuguese citizen, thanks to one of those Gold Visas that have been sold over the last few years by the local Socialist government to refill the coffers in exchange for an “investment” in real estate. This is how thousands of characters of the same sort have bought, in one go, castles, luxury hotels, city homes, famous vineyards: Russians, Brazilians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Saudis, Americans, and even some French people eager for low-priced sun. The country’s good things are on sale.
To get to the point: Probably denounced by a jealous friend, Roman Abramovich is now in a big mess, or almost … Having been forced to anchor his luxury yachts in Turkey and having escaped assassination attempts by evil-minded people, here he is, pursued by the law in his new country. In reality, to the contrary of what I just said, our man had not bought a Gold Visa. He had simply obtained his new nationality by bringing up his Sephardic ancestry, which gives the right to Portuguese citizenship—yet another recent business for the coffers of the Portuguese state.2 Only, the religious leader of the Jewish community of Porto, who furnished the proofs of affiliation required by the law, had tweaked the file, falsifying papers, and is presently in prison.3 Like an ordinary clandestine immigrant, the unfortunate Abramovich is therefore threatened with the loss of his Portuguese nationality.
These Gold Visas for wealthy and respectable bandits are a precious invention. They provide scientific proof that “nationality” is a commodity built on myth, as fake as the proofs of Sephardic origins provided by Abramovich. The ideas and values carried along by nationalism serve only to subject those who have nothing to those who have everything, to the point of sending the former to die for the interests of the latter.
Unlike war, ridicule and indignation kill no one. Remaining conscious, however, helps us to take a position from which we can stand up to inhumanity, helps us identify the stupidity and mediocrity of those who are dragging us to the abyss.
War, a word that says too much, things that cannot be said. To say the word is already to take a position, as Viktor Klemperer insisted in his study of the political usage of words under totalitarian regimes.4 The formula, “Special Operation,” employed by the Russian regime is a vain attempt to mask the weighty meaning of the word “war” in history and the barbarism it evokes. Curiously, this was not an original coinage, nor one unique to totalitarian regimes: It was employed on other occasions by democratic or authoritarian regimes, during the French war in Algeria and again during the Portuguese colonial war, just to take a few recent examples.
It is not easy to discourse on the barbarism of war while people continue to kill each other, some to defend what they think belongs to them, others to take back what they think ought to belong to them, while thousands go to ground in basements, hide in holes, move painfully on ruined roads dragging their bags with a few necessities, their dazed children among the ruins. We have already seen these images, too often, interchangeable, from former Yugoslavia to Grozny, from Aleppo to Mosul, because there is a continuity in the horror. It is also easy to talk about war, because at moments like those we are now living through emotion dominates, rendering inaudible, unspeakable, even unreadable any attempt to disengage from the crushing barbarism. And still, anyone who wishes to continue to think about the world in a critical way “must seek to take a higher ground, or else sink up to the ears in the first mess you come to,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote in prison on January 26, 1917, as the great butchery of the First World War was underway.5 The difficulty of taking the high ground—that is the first result of the bestiality of a war. Let us try to do it just the same, let us take a few steps, we who find ourselves far from the combats and bombs.
After years of postmodern social theories, calling into question what are considered outdated concepts, we find ourselves today plunged back into the same old din of bombs, deadlier than ever. Soaked, from morning to night, by the great “waste water” of the past, nationalism. Soaked in patriotic speeches with the colors of flags. Captured alive by the Russian military intervention, the mind is naturally seduced by easy talk about the mental state of the head of the Russian regime. It is impossible to escape the link between government, and especially governments with unlimited power, and madness, paranoia. But if this explains one or another decision, we are still far from grasping the deep causes of the war. There remain the discourses centered on geopolitics and relations of force, themselves limited to the surface of capitalism’s dynamic. We know that “geopolitics,” the geography of power relations between nations, has—to the advantage of the ruling classes—replaced analyses based on competition between capitalist forces and the imperialist forms of the system. The theories of geopolitics, distinguishing economics from politics, became dominant after World War I, perfectly matching the Nazi conceptions of the struggle for Lebensraum. The revolutionary communist Karl Korsch was one of the only theoreticians who critiqued the idea of “geopolitics,” a novelty in bourgeois thought which since that time has continued to provide popular explanations of the movements of competitive capitalism.6
People never tire of repeating that the old theoretical schemas no longer allow us to understand war and its causes. One could argue the opposite, argue that in fact war, this war, proves their pertinence. If we are still living in societies organized for the production of profit, based on exploitation, divided into classes with opposed interests, then one cannot see why the causes of war, including this one, could be found anywhere else than in the roots of the capitalist system, in its contradictory reproduction. It is in the foundations of political economy that we can find the bases of an analysis allowing an understanding of the causes of the war. What other path could lead to the “higher ground,” above the terrible events?
As in all the situations in which the fragile equilibrium of inegalitarian and exploitative societies breaks down, even collapses, nothing is clear: black and white become nuanced. When the smoke of explosions spreads, the horizon becomes even more obscure. Questions remain confused. Is it the desire to fight—and, if it so happens, to die—that reigns in Ukraine, the wish not to submit to the hideous regime that dominates the Russian people? To what extent does this rejection of a regime trying to impose itself become, insidiously, a major element of another alienation, submission to another nationalist myth? Sure of herself, an opinion-making editorial writer for a major Spanish newspaper assured us on March 25 that the Ukrainians were fighting not for the right to carry Louis Vuitton handbags, but for freedom. But there are good reasons to think that it is exactly the freedom to carry LV bags that defines the contours of “freedom” in our world. This is to say that those who fight and die will never possess Vuitton bags, and that “freedom” will belong to those who do not fight and who already own those bags and may other good things of that nature.
Another question: is nationalism the origin of war, or—as the Ukrainian case seems to corroborate—is war the barbaric activity that gives an origin and foundation to nationalist thinking and the patriotism that flows from it? This is why this bloody activity offers such a privileged place to reactionary ideas, to xenophobes, to neo-Nazis. In Ukraine. Where (as Yves Segré recently reminded us) these currents play a leading role, there can be no confusion. Segré correctly pointed out that the very people who yesterday never forgot to stress the anti-Semitic bar talk of this or that Yellow Vest today show themselves quite tolerant towards anti-Russian neo-Nazi Ukrainians.7
War does not obscure all questions, and it clarifies others. What could be more indecent than the variable treatment that the Western states reserve for, or rather promise to, refugees from Ukraine? It reveals nakedly the economic interests underlying this sudden care for refugees, from the King of the Netherlands to Airbnb landlords. In a Europe where thousands of refugees from wars carried out by Western powers survive in the streets, sleep under bridges or in the mud of whatever campsite they can find, drown unrescued while seeking refuge or trying to move, the Western states exert themselves to “welcome” and materially aid the refugees from Ukraine. A “welcome” that hardly hides their economic interest in persons considered “white” and “Christian,” immediately exploitable, as a French politician actually put it. The indecency and cynicism here unveils the racist and xenophobic nature of the holders of power and their system. After the lies about the pandemic, here are finally official speeches about “good refugees.” The promises will not be kept, and the time will come when the “good” refugees will confront the true condition of refugees in neoliberal capitalism. Received in a small village not far from the infamous refugee camp of Calais, where “bad refugees” have moldered for years, young women arrived from Ukraine raise their voices to draw attention to the hypocrisy. Are they asking for something in particular from the French government? Yes, they answered: “for all refugees—the Afghans, the Syrians—to be welcomed with the same rights, with the same warmth and empathy as the Ukrainians.”8 This unexpected affirmation of internationalism broke with the stream of warlike discourses. And what could say it better than the posters that for a moment covered up advertisements on the streets of Odessa: “Russian soldiers, stand with us!”9 Humanity does not always give way in the face of horror.
I read recently that Lenin, a writer not usually present when I sit down with a book, once said that politics is always only a concentrated form of economics.10 From this point of view, war is a concentrated form of politics. The man knew where he was at, when it came to politics. So let’s abandon speeches that explain little, that prolong confusion, and try to get closer to the material conditions of social life, the social relations at the base of what is called “the economy.”
Ukraine, then, is today on the way to becoming part of the vast terrain of ruins extending, year after year, over the surface of the planet, meeting in this the same fate as other societies. One more war in these continuing prolongations of the “Cold War,” of which other peoples and populations have suffered the bloody effects, from Bosnia to Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia, from Iraq to Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It seems that the dominant capitalist powers were in thrall to a model: what they could not dominate they destroyed, reducing by that amount the space of capitalist economic globalization.
In a little more than a decade, Ukraine passed from Russian control to dependency on the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the country possesses some of the richest land in the world, it remains profoundly backward and poor. Thirty percent of the population lives in the countryside and around fourteen percent of the labor force cultivates the soil, but agricultural productivity remains very low. At the moment of the political crisis of 2014, the country was deeply in debt to Russia. Unable to repay the debt to its “big brother,” Ukraine turned to the IMF, which agreed to furnish loans necessary to keep the economy afloat.
The urban revolts and the Maidan insurrection of 2014 represented a decisive turning point. We know today that these events permitted reactionary nationalist and xenophobic forces, including small minorities of neo-Nazis, to take an important place in public life, probably out of measure with their actual social importance.11 But, beyond the political fact around which the renaissance of Ukrainian nationalism was structured, Maidan signified above all a rupture with Russia and the beginning of dependence on the Western capitalist economies. One debt followed another. In exchange for its intervention—and with its loans—the IMF imposed, as always, neoliberal policies of privatization and social austerity. We know how this works: wages stagnated, social welfare programs and pensions were attacked, the public services—the crumbling heritage of the old state-capitalist regime—were dismantled, social spending was cut by half in a few years. The privatization policy was concentrated at first on the banking sector, in order to control the corruption and pillage of resources, on agricultural land and mineral resources (especially in the Donbass), to the profit of Western multinational capital. The debt owed Russia was renegotiated, with Germany as mediator, without too much success, and the IMF’s intervention continued up to the start of the war.
For years, Western capitalism had made direct use of the funds of Russian and Ukrainian predators, laundered through channels including soccer teams, real estate, and luxury goods, with some non-negligeable seepage towards parasitic sectors of the Western bourgeoisie. This explains the hypocrisy of today’s discourse on the freezing of oligarch fortunes. It must be remembered that the collapse of state capitalism in Russia gave birth to a monstrously inegalitarian society, where the fraction of the national wealth possessed by the richest people is one of the highest in all the capitalist economies. At the same time, the size of European investments in Russia—which amount to between 50% and 70% of the total—is enormous. If we add to this the importation of Russian gas, we understand the inefficacy of the threats and proposals of sanctions. It was the same in Ukraine, a country where the great majority of the population lives wretchedly; a new bourgeoisie and a modernizing middle class have taken shape in the shadow of great predatory oligarchs like, among others, the very worldly Mr. Kolomoisky, friend and supporter of President Zelensky.12 The image purveyed everywhere of the great bombed-out commercial center in the modern residential neighborhood of the Ukrainian capital speaks also of class relations, of inequality and social injustice. Around the smoking skeleton of the commercial center, the cranes and residential high rises under construction signal the vast real-estate speculation which was underway before the Russian army’s invasion. By all accounts, for the top officers of that army, Vuitton handbags and the major brands of ready-to-wear also represent the Western freedom that they are supposed to fight. How alike they are, the two enemy brothers!
The war can only weaken a Russian economy that is fragile, little diversified, based essentially on the extraction and export of energy and other natural resources, an economy that has practically been stagnating for the last ten years.
Ukraine, with its natural and mineral resources, is an important stake for Western capitalism . Its loss to Russian power had already been announced a dozen years ago. The turning point of Maidan had thrown into relief Russia’s economic weakness compared with the capitalist forces of the West. In this sense, it announced the war to come. Given Russia’s weakness, we are faced not so much with a clash between two imperialisms as with a defensive struggle of a military power without the economic means to accomplish its goal, the defense of its interests threatened by Western capitalism. This is a historically novel situation, which could well give rise to a barbaric chain of events. An eventual end to the battles and the destruction, the possible outcome of ongoing negotiations, would mean the defeat of Russia. Ukrainian “neutrality” may come at the price of accepting its integration into Western capitalism by way of the neoliberal economic policies of the IMF. In any case, on both sides of the front lines the Ukrainian and Russian peoples will be the real losers, in the face of the interests of the bourgeoisie and capitalists involved.
The losers will include those in our societies who will have suffered the massive consequences of this war. The tendency visible in the course of the COVID pandemic—the growth of social inequality and the rapid and generalized impoverishment of the working classes—will be reinforced by the consequences of the war, from inflation to weapons spending. The pandemic provided an occasion for modernized neo-Malthusian ideas, according to which the pandemic had in our era replaced war as a regulator of population. But this idea was based on the illusion that warlike clashes had ended in Europe, despite the precedent of the military intervention in ex-Yugoslavia. Capitalism does not replace its horrors, it accumulates them, creating new ones while recreating the old ones. Above all, it shows that it remains faithful to its old principles. War sits still at the heart of the beast; capitalism carries it in its breast and in its functional logic, with the features it engenders, and which engender it: nationalism, patriotism, racism.
In the system of exploitation, of production for profit, war remains a basic card to be played to “solve” its crises.
In 1936 Antonin Artaud wrote that the man who accepts patriotism is a man who betrays. Patriotism makes the man a traitor to his fellow beings. Europe was then moving quickly towards barbarism. We do not yet see clearly towards what precipices the blind march of capitalism is leading us today. Nevertheless, we can be certain that the resurgence of nationalist and patriotic ideas, their embodiment in mobilizing social forces, is a sign only of new disasters to come.
Just a few years ago, such an evolution did not seem likely. Doubtless, the development of capitalism had always given rise to nationalism, which was always an ingredient of the political forces that legitimate this system, including those of the left, not to mention the upsurges of xenophobic patriotism that marked the path of the communist parties issued from Stalinism. The triumph of neoliberal individualism could make one think that those times were over. The old workers’ movement of parties and trade unions, associated with that nationalistic left, always operating within the limits of the nation-state even while capitalism globalized, insisted that the only possible form of collective action was that organized by these organizations, under the direction of their leaders. Their defeat and decomposition, the crisis of representation and political action, seemed to leave the space of collective behavior empty. Actually, however, new movements erupted in modern societies, seeking to construct another idea of collectivity, based on real democracy, autonomous and emancipatory in opposition to the bureaucratic functioning of the old institutions.
Today, while war in Europe dominates people’s minds and paralyzes their reactions, experts, often coming from that authoritarian left which has always opposed self-emancipation, are eager to suggest—regretfully, of course—that the comeback of nationalism and patriotism, and of military action, is an inevitable collective reaction to individualism and neoliberal egoism. Hatred of the Other and the death wish, we are told, form the only present-day refuge of the collective spirit. In the always up-to-date formula, Socialism or barbarism, we are supposed to choose barbarism, because it remains unrealistic, impossible to call capitalism into question.
Seeking to add nuance to this dead-end realism, others contrast patriotism with nationalism. This is impossible, because there is no patriotism without nationalism. In itself, patriotism makes no sense; it comes to life only with nationalism, which leads inevitably to war. Nationalism, an idea become a social force, has historically shown its capacity to mobilize people to die and make others die. In war, apart from technical capabilities, nationalist mobilization is a determining factor. The Russian army is paying a price for this in Ukraine. On the other hand, in the modern world the idea of nationalism has never led to a change in the social relations of exploitation.
Once the roar of the bombs is over, the dead are buried, and the ruins cleared away, in people’s spirits as well as the land, the people of Ukraine will have to pay the price of the war and the victory of “their” nationalism. They will have won a reinforcement of their identity as a state, but nothing will have changed in their subordination to the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and its allies, to whose class interests they will be even more subjected. At Bukovel, the spas, the boutiques, the luxury hotels, the ski slopes will be full again. The world will not be better off than before, rather the contrary. The poverty of the exploited will be even greater.
Nationalism and patriotism are the most negative, deadly modes of collectivity. They are actually its negation, if by true collectivity we mean the aspiration to human emancipation. The collective creation of social life cannot finally have come down to this unworthy form of treachery, of togetherness against the Other, of joint action in defense of social inequality. Nationalism is the fear of the collective production of emancipation and social equality. If it is coming back with such force at the present day, it is because the forms of emancipatory collectivity are not yet sufficiently strong to take control, to grow. Every war pushes back the time and the possibility of a new world. War proves that the barbaric nature of capitalism has not changed. It is the highest stage of our powerlessness. To go beyond this stage as far as possible is the only struggle fit for us.
Charles Reeve lives and writes in Paris. He is most recently the author of Le Socialisme Sauvage (Paris: L'échappée, 2018), with translations into German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Portuguese (Brazil).
- On recent racist violence and crimes in Portugal, see “Le Portugal face à son passé colonial,” CQFD 191 (October 2020).
- The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Portugal in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; a minority (called “New Christians”) converted to Christianity under duress to be allowed to stay in the country, and were the victims of a savage persecution by the terrible institution of the Inquisition. The “Historical reparations” law of 2015 confers Portuguese nationality on those able to furnish proof of descendance from this Jewish population. Naturally, in our moment of unbridled neoliberalism, this law gave rise to a mass of corruption involving politicians involved in the propagation of this law.
- See Publico, Lisbon, March 18, 2022.
- Viktor Klemperer, LTI, la langue du IIIe Reich (Paris : Pocket, 2003).
- Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Louise Kautsky, in Commencer à vivre humainement. Lettres, ed. Julien Chuzeville, (Paris : Libertalia, 2022), p. 88.
- In 1943 Karl Korsch, analyzed the ideas of the theoreticians of geopolitics, in particular the American Mackinder and the German general Karl Haushofer (who influenced Rudolf Hess and other theoreticians of Nazi expansionism) for the New York journal New Essays ; see also his essay, “The World Historians” (1942).
- Ivan Segré, “Le trio infernal : Poutine, l’OTAN et les néonazis,” Lundi matin.
- Anne Diatkine, “Guerre en Ukraine, Les Dakh Daughters, Vire et revenir,” Libération, March 21, 2022.
- Jean-Baptiste Naudet, “Odessa la rebelle,” L’Observateur, March 10, 2022.
- Lenin’s remark is mentioned in Michael Roberts, “Ukraine : the Economic Consequences of the War,” The Brooklyn Rail, March 2022. This text is the source of the economic data I cite here.
- Little by little, reportage, eye-witness accounts, and analyses are confirming this fact. It goes without saying that to recognize it does not mean accepting the propaganda of the totalitarian Putin regime.
- Florence Aubenas has written a striking portrait of the new Ukrainian bourgeoisie in wartime in Le Monde, March 16, 2022, “Les ‘chanceux’ de Bukovel.” Bukovel is a luxury winter sports resort, the property of a Ukrainian oligarch, where numerous bourgeois, nouveaux riches and similar types have taken refuge since the start of the war. While the bombs fall on the Ukrainian people these collectors of Louis Vuitton handbags feel guilty in luxury hotels.