It’s crucial to avoid arguments that rely on the stale adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s equally crucial to remain unswayed by the accusation that you are keeping bad company. As a supporter of the cause of Western Sahara and an opponent of western patronage of Morocco’s occupation, settler-colonisation and de facto annexation, it doesn’t concern me that I am occupying the same ground as, among others, Stalinists and so-called Marxist-Leninists (‘tankies’), the Cuban and Algerian regimes and—strangely enough—neoconservative John Bolton. Similarly, when it comes to solidarity with Ukrainians and their right to self-defence against Russian aggression, I am not bound by the fact that Anne Applebaum—and even Giorgia Meloni—also think it’s a good cause. If you fear taking a position or voicing an opinion because it could provide ammunition to your adversaries or because you don’t want to lumped in with disreputable people, then your thinking has already been done for you.
As a leftist, internationalism is one of my highest values. And the reality of capitalist globalisation is the very thing that makes socialist internationalism possible. Through developments in transport and communications and the internationalisation of the production process and the division of labour, capitalist civilisation interconnects the peoples of the world, bringing the working classes, in particular, into more intimate contact with each other, ending mutual isolation and creating the conditions for a future society in which human beings could live as free individuals without being restricted by race, nation, state or religion. If we’re all members of one world economy, why not also begin to think of ourselves as members of one society?
This internationalist ethos, this longing for a future global society, is why socialists and communists remain hostile towards immigration restrictions, for the simple reason that such restrictions are a betrayal of proletarian fraternity and grant more power to the capitalist nation states to divide and rule the working class on the basis of race and nation.
Internationalism is currently more important than ever, as we grapple with war and revolution—especially in Ukraine, Armenia and Iran. In all three countries, democracy, national self-determination and popular sovereignty are at risk.
When Russia commenced its vicious assault on Ukraine in February 2022, turning what had already been a simmering proxy war since the Maidan revolution of 2014 into an official war, many pundits assumed that Ukraine would simply crumble under the might of the Russian jackboot. Those who favoured providing military aid to the Ukrainians were accused of advocating a tactic that would prolong the war and, in Sohrab Ahmari’s phrasing, indulging “the dream of a hopeless Ukrainian resistance” against a powerful Russian army with an adamantine resolve. This is true only in the most trivial sense—anything that denies Vladimir Putin a cheap, easy and swift victory over Ukrainian civilians and the opportunity to abolish Ukrainian democracy and nationhood necessarily prolongs the war to some extent. But this is not an objection we should take seriously.
The impressive Ukrainian counter-offensives of the late summer, aided by western arms, have allowed Ukrainians to take back large tracts of Russian-occupied territory—reversing formal annexations that Putin attempted to legitimate through bogus referendums—and have demonstrated that the image of the invincible Russian army is a myth. Putin’s soldiers are less like the Red Army of the 1940s and more like an incompetently-led group of bandits. So, although the war is far from over (as the recent terror bombing of Ukrainian infrastructure with drones and missiles has graphically shown), while providing military assistance to Ukraine has slightly prolonged hostilities in the short term, it will probably shorten them in the long term.
Of course, right-wing isolationists and some anti-war leftists in both American and Europe have complained that any expenditure on aid to Ukraine is a theft of taxpayer resources provided by the good people of Mississippi or Stoke-on-Trent. Each new HIMARS means less investment in the decaying heartland. According to them, we should be tending to business in our own backyard instead of subsidising what they call “Zelensky’s war.” However, such critics only seem to apply their zero-sum thinking to the balance between domestic responsibilities and the needs of upholding Ukrainian sovereignty. There are many controversial and expensive government programmes in the US, for example, that cost money that could be spend on social programmes—from the wasteful arsenal of nuclear weapons to extravagant fighter jets that will never be used and the expensive, pointless War on Drugs. But a proposal to cut some of these programmes would lack the cheap appeal that derives from the image of lazy, ungrateful and sinister foreigners feasting on our hard earned largesse. Almost no one has suggested that some of the money put towards Ukraine could be diverted to helping the millions of Pakistanis displaced and beggared by this summer’s massive floods. That argument lacks populist allure.
Any effort to shorten the Ukraine war must also depend on supporting democratic and anti-war forces within Russia. For while Putin is willing to destabilise Russian society and even flirt with the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons for the sake of occupying Ukraine, he will continue to be a menace to Ukrainians and Russians alike. Some pro-Ukraine commentators seem to think that barring Russian draft dodgers from immigrating to the west would be doing Ukraine a favour. On the contrary, we should be denying Putin as much manpower as possible. Russian anti-war dissidents are victims of Putin’s autocracy too and should be offered asylum and solidarity in their struggle against Putin’s autocracy. Wars often arouse nationalist resentment and chauvinism, but internationalists must rise above this. A military or diplomatic defeat of Putin’s regime in Ukraine would benefit Russians themselves as well as Ukrainians—and possibly Belarusians languishing under their Russian-aligned dictatorship, too.
Unlike Ukraine, Armenia is not a western liberal cause célèbre. Armenia isn’t regarded as a fellow member of the European fraternity, assailed by an official enemy. It doesn’t enjoy exorbitant military aid packages from the west. It doesn’t have a reliable ally to come to its aid. But, like Ukraine’s, Armenia’s territory and civilians have been bombarded by the forces of a foul dictatorship (Azerbaijan). The latest events in the region are not simply more ‘clashes’ over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan has taken advantage of the calamitous state of Russia’s forces in Ukraine to strike at Armenia itself. Many western commentators present the Ukraine war as an existential struggle between liberal democracy on the one side and autocracy on the other. Yet there has been a conspicuous silence about the events in Armenia: a democracy assailed by a dictatorship that is on friendly terms with the European Union. Armenia’s economic and military dependence on Russia has been used as reason enough to ignore their plight. Like the hostility to Russian draft dodgers, this is more anti-Russia than pro-democracy and more a pro-western attitude than that of a principled internationalism. Armenians are paying a heavy price—not because the country is supposedly an ally of Russia’s, but because it is a tiny, poor and largely isolated country besieged by a much bigger rival that is backed by two regional powers. Armenia is dependent on Russia for the same reason that the Baltic states are NATO members: it cannot afford not to be. As of now, there is a lull in the conflict, but it will only be a temporary interval before the next round.
While the situations in Armenia and Ukraine are very different, each with their own complexities and uneasy paradoxes, we should uphold the same basic principle in both cases: the national self-determination of Ukrainians and Armenians ought to be affirmed against aggressive, chauvinist forces that seek to disenfranchise them.
Arguably, the most promising development in recent months has been the uprising against the odious theocracy governing lran. The immediate trigger for the protests was the barbaric murder of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurd who was beaten to death by the police for the “crime” of not donning her hijab “properly.” In a string of uprisings across the country, scores of women have defied the hijab mandate: tossing their headscarves into bonfires and bravely displaying their hair as the normal and innocuous endowment of nature that it is. At its root, the protest is not just about hijab, though. It is a rejection of the theocratic regime, a stand for liberty and popular sovereignty against the paternalistic totalitarianism of velayat-e faqih, epitomised by the chants of Down with the Islamic Republic! One can only be heartened by the sight of young Iranians brazenly showing their contempt for the mullahs, acting and behaving as if they were a free people. The regime has responded unsurprisingly by killing several protesters. State reprisals have been especially fierce in Baluchistan and Sistan, two of Iran’s poorest and most marginalised provinces, and at the prestigious Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.
Whether this uprising will evolve into a successful democratic revolution is an open question. The mullahs are still in charge of a cohesive security apparatus, whose felonious minions show no hesitation in butchering Iranians to preserve their regime. For all the bravery and dignity of the Iranian people, they still need a coherent political avenue through which to channel their rebellious energy, if they are to overthrow the mullahs, transform Iranian society and help move Iran and the Middle East into a post-Islamic Republic era. Revolutions, let us not forget, are dangerous. The release of long repressed popular forces will carry all sorts of risks. Yet, they are necessary. Whether they are destined to win or lose, the Iranian people deserve our unequivocal solidarity and support in their struggle for liberty and democracy.
Many regard taking sides in a war as the purview of a moral simpleton, who disregards the ethical ambiguities that necessarily characterise human conflict and sees it only in the language of a morality tale, as a duel between Good and Evil. One is certainly not obliged to pick a side to cheer on in every war, as if one were watching a boxing match. The First World War, for example, was a war of and between empires. It was right not to ‘pick a side’ in that case. But declining to take sides is not the same thing as failing to take a clear position.
War is arguably the most challenging question humanity has faced. With nuclear weaponry, the stakes are graver than in previous epochs. Thus, requiring intense thought and seriousness. Every war that takes place is a symptom of political failure. Yet, a blanket anti-war position can be little different from dogmatic pacifism. A position on one war may not be applicable to a different war. War, after all, is politics by other means and must be assessed and judged politically, as well as morally.
Despite their complexities, when contemplating the current hostilities in Ukraine and Armenia, we should remember George Orwell’s reflections on the Spanish Civil War:
When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war—and in this particular of the intrigues, the persecutions, the lies and the misunderstandings—there is always the temptation to say: “One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral.” In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction.
Feeble neutrality is not good enough here. It does make a difference whether Ukrainians prevail over Putin’s endeavour to terminate their existence. It does make a difference whether Armenians stave off another ethnocide. It does make a difference whether democracy—even bog-standard bourgeois democracy—prevails over theocracy in Iran. We should take sides in these cases as a matter of principle. I intend to uphold that principle, in fidelity to internationalist values.