Transcribed from the 16 February 2023 episode of The Fire These Times podcast and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
The fact that the left uses this language, completely shutting its ears to the fact that it has acquired a very dangerous meaning, is really alarming.
Kavita Krishnan: I’m Kavita Krishnan—I’m a Marxist feminist activist in India. For thirty years I belonged to the Communist Party of India – Marxist Leninist. Recently I’ve had a break with that, a few months ago. Ukraine was the catalyst in that break. I’ll talk about that more in the interview.
Promise Li: I’m Promise Li, originally from Hong Kong; I live in Los Angeles now. I’m involved in various movements, most recently as part of a Hong Kong diaspora leftwing group called Lausan Collective, engaged in international solidarity work with movements in Hong Kong and also China. I’m part of other groups, especially socialist groups in the US like Solidarity and, more recently, the Tempest Collective. I also do some tenant organizing in Chinatown in Los Angeles and in various other movement spaces as well.
Romeo Kokriatski: I’m Romeo Kokriatski, the managing editor of the New Voice of Ukraine, one of Ukraine’s only English-language newspapers. I’ve been a Marxist since I was twelve years old, and I’ve managed to claw my way up a traditional media ladder. I also host a podcast called Ukraine Without Hype; it comes out around every two weeks and we discuss the biggest headlines of the week in Ukraine, in English.
Joey Ayoub: For those who don’t know, what is multipolarity? It sounds quite fancy. Why is it a thing that still exists as a concept that folks, especially on the left, are actually willing to defend? And why are we challenging that?
RK: Multipolarity is an evolution of the bipolar world where initially the United States and the Soviet Union were the two global hegemons—after the fall of the Soviet Union, of course, that left just the United States and a “unipolar” world. But due to a combination of the inexorable march of history and some poor mistakes by the US government, the US state has lost some of this unipolar hegemonic status in the world, especially following the disastrous and immoral “war on terror.” As a result, other powers—notably China and Russia—began gaining some of the prominence that the US once solely held. This is the concept we call multipolarity: a world defined by multiple imperial cores instead of just one.
I like to point out that they’re still imperial cores. We’re still talking about countries that want to be empires, or that are empires currently, exerting influence on their neighbors, on their surroundings, and on the globe as a whole. When you break up that hegemonic control into several different parts it just makes it that much harder to organize around and tackle, because these different poles can co-opt resistance. This is what we see very often especially in leftwing defenses of multipolarity: that these separate imperial cores co-opt resistance to American imperialism and promote imperialism of a non-US variety.
PL: One thing that’s important to note is that this faith in multipolarity rests on this understanding of how imperialism works globally. A lot of folks feel that imperialism is mainly vested in the US and the West as geopolitical actors that exert influence over other countries, completely ignoring the fact that global finance exists. International monetary, financial, and other economic organs exist, and we live in a world where more and more nation-states are being recruited as part of this deepening phase of neoliberalism in which more and more things are being privatized, neoliberalized.
There is a lot of research in what people are calling “new state capitalism studies,” Marxist political economy, and other adjacent discourses where we’re looking at mid-sized and regional actors. Let’s leave out China for now, even. There are other nation-states not easily aligned to the different powers, traditionally considered part of the BRICS bloc—Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa—and as an alternate political power to the US and the West. But that’s completely false. A lot of these states are being recruited as victims of the IMF world order, but the national ruling elites in a lot of these countries, especially in the Global South, are working in hand with the Western capitalist ruling class to exploit the working class and other marginalized populations of the Global South.
Our task as socialists, anarchists, leftists, progressives, is to unearth and find these interconnections between nation-states, between different capitalist ruling classes, to see how they’re finding new ways to exploit their own workers. That’s what is missing when we place our faith in multipolarity. By placing faith in multipolarity as it exists today, we’re really only placing faith in a certain new permutation of how global capitalism works.
KK: After these excellent introductions and explanations of what the concept of multipolarity has meant all this while, what I’d like to add is some observations about the way in which that term now has taken on meanings that are not widely acknowledged at all. I would say that these are the dominant ways in which this term is now used.
I have been observing for some time that in Mr. Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s articulation, and in the articulations of the Modi regime in India and various other far-right and authoritarian forces, they say we want a multipolar world not a unipolar world. They say that universal or widely-accepted standards of democracy and human rights are a Western imposition,a unipolar imperialist imposition. So the fight for sovereignty and for anti-imperialism means a rejection of these universal standards.
Mind you this doesn’t apply to small countries, it applies to poles. It doesn’t apply to sections of people or nationalities or anything. It applies to the big powers and to aspiring big powers. What they’re saying is: you get to do what you please, and no one has the right to question you. You can define democracy as good governance. You can define democracy as majoritarianism. You can define human rights as happiness. You can do what you like, and no one should have the right to question you.
This should have always been an alien discourse. It springs from realism—from the Kissinger school. So I cannot understand when and how this became a part of left language. The fact that the left uses this language, completely shutting its ears to the fact that it has acquired a very dangerous meaning, is something really alarming to me.
RK: What these states mean is they want to be able to do whatever they want and they don’t want anyone to criticize them. I’ve noticed that this gets melded into rejecting Western influence or pushing back against US liberal capitalist values. Which, as you noted, Kavita, completely destroys the universality of the values that we all hold and are trying to build a world around. That melding, that confusion of having to reject everything the United States does and wanting to commit atrocities against populations without hearing people complain about it—these two things get confused to the point where I’ve seen people argue that human rights are not a leftist value or shouldn’t be part of the conversation when we’re talking about building a progressive world, because this is a Western concept.
Which is ridiculous. As far as I understood, human rights apply to humans and not a particular nationality or ethnic group. But because of this confusion and its use and promulgation by very well-known fascists like Aleksandr Dugin in Russia, it has become one of the scarier trends on the left in the past ten years.
The discourse of multipolarity actually prevents us from adequately understanding our political conditions in order to fight back against capitalist authoritarian forces, because a lot of leftists have chosen one side of this binary instead of understanding that authoritarianism is manifesting itself in different forms.
JA: A lot of folks who would be otherwise progressive (defending reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, maybe even open borders) have values they would defend “at home” in the US, in India, in Europe, or wherever, but as soon as you cross the border, or you go to a certain part of the world that is filtered through this campist binary, the same people adopt conservative, even far-right politics. It can feel very contradictory.
Why do you think that is? In your experience, why do you think folks still adopt those binaries, if they can’t intellectually defend them?
PL: In my experience, especially organizing in the US, there’s a sense of guilt: being in the imperial core, being white, being American. So Americans’ international analysis ends up being overshadowed by this politics of guilt and is not actually listening to voices on the ground, nor making a clear assessment of political economy or of how power works in the international arena. There’s an urge to center the fact that people in the Global South can govern themselves, and somehow this turns into an uncritical allegiance to these governments and identifying these governments with the people.
Another discourse I’ve heard in recent years is that we can’t call states in the Global South authoritarian even when they are authoritarian, because that’s a racist code word. I think it’s an interesting phenomenon where leftists especially in the West refuse to see and understand critical minorities, especially other leftists—their counterparts in these regions—who are actually doing the work to call these regimes out and to label these regimes for what they are. They place what they see as racist, and what they see as an imposition from the West, over the voices of actual communists, Marxists, and other leftists on the ground.
The US definitely weaponizes the discourse of authoritarianism, orientalizing states like China and other countries in the Global South as if the US is some sort of perfect liberal democracy superior to the values of these crude authoritarianisms. This is obviously false. But the way to address this binary is not to simply side with the other part of the puzzle, but to look at how there’s an uneven rise of authoritarianisms. It’s important to talk about authoritarianism in its unevenness, especially in the last couple of years. We can’t reduce the rise of someone like Trump in an imperfect liberal democracy to the phenomenon of Xi Jinping, Putin, etcetera. Bolsonaro is not the same as Trump, and Trump is not the same as Xi Jinping.
This might seem like arguing over wording, but I do think it is important from a movement perspective. I don’t think a lot of people in the West understand that it’s nearly impossible to build independent organizations at all, to fight in any arena of civil society in a public and open way, when you get to countries like China, Russia, Egypt, and so on. That’s markedly different from the arena of struggle we have in the US and in certain European countries in the West. That’s not to say there are countries in the West that are somehow “better,” but to recognize the actually-existing phenomenon of authoritarianism is diverse, uneven. It produces different kinds of far-right movements and regimes that require different tactics, different analyses. There’s no one-size-fits-all model in terms of how we can address these different authoritarian actors. This is the real conversation we should be having.
The discourse of multipolarity actually prevents us from adequately understanding our political conditions in order to fight back against capitalist authoritarian forces, because a lot of leftists have chosen one side of this binary instead of understanding that authoritarianism is manifesting itself in different forms that require different kinds of pluralistic movements to fight. That should be the start of the conversation. A lot of the left, especially in the West, is not there.
JA: We’re talking with someone from Hong Kong and someone from Ukraine, so I feel it’s almost cruel to explore this, but this is what we see. I mostly work in English, French, and Arabic, so I mostly see it in this part of the world. In SWANA or the Arab-majority world, there are certain tendencies that are similar to this, but they come from a different position. The conclusions are sometimes the same, although they often tend to veer towards helplessness, hopelessness, cynicism, maybe apathy—so not wholeheartedly endorsing Russia but also saying, “We don’t have a dog in this fight.”
Those kinds of arguments come from a very specific positionality, usually from helplessness, because most of the Arab world is simply not democratic, and even the few examples that have some type of democracy are extremely imperfect, to put it very mildly—Lebanon, Tunisia, and so on.
From your experience, Kavita, are there some interesting differences between the Indian left and the US left? And between the Hong Kong left and the Chinese left, for that matter, Promise? And maybe the Ukrainian left and the Russian left, if you want to entertain it that way, Romeo. What are some interesting similarities or differences between different lefts?
KK: Promise was very sharp in explaining how there is guilt and hesitancy in the USA, we shouldn’t say the things that our government is saying, and all of that. But I think that there is a different way we could look at the problem: as a problem of the global left. And while there are differences in position, the basic faultline, the basic fallacy, is something shared in common. A lot of people are talking about the problem of the West making everything all about itself, the left in America making America the source of evil everywhere—of course that’s coming from guilt. But that doesn’t explain why it’s almost worse in the Global South.
The problem in the Global South is that the left is not a tiny segment—yes, it’s a minority; it has different levels of moderate electoral success. But in a country like India it has a pretty large audience compared to that in most countries of the West, so the harm these kinds of attitudes do is substantial. When the rare few consistent democratic voices in a given country legitimize the idea of the “lesser evils” of Putin and Xi and say we have to pull our punches there—this is the better part of the left that I’m describing! There’s also the other part which openly says China and Russia’s rise is excellent, cheerleading for those countries.
There is a problem with the left losing its moorings, in the sense that the left should have its moorings not in these macro-formulas. The idea should be simple: that you support struggles against the ruling classes anywhere, against oppressors anywhere. Why is that hard? Why would you measure out how much solidarity to give, and give less solidarity against what you think of as an “anti-US” power? Why would you invest even to the smallest degree in the survival of oppressive regimes anywhere, invading imperialisms anywhere?
It’s almost like a George Bush style “with us or against us.” The bad faith actors on the left in India are openly saying “You’re a CIA agent” and so on. But if you subtract those, and you look at reasonably good faith people on the left, they also look sad and regretful, and if you are critical of the kind of authoritarianism that there is in China for example, where there isn’t room for struggle and for movements, what they think is that basically you are for liberal democracy, and if you are for liberal democracy then you can’t be on the left, you are not socialist.
This is, to my mind, the farthest you can get from leftism. That is a reactionary value, that there are siloed “civilizations” that are fundamentally different. This is a fascist idea. The fact that it is repeated as some sort of progressive ideology is obscene.
Look, all of us, in all our countries, in the struggles we wage, are fighting to achieve rights which we would call rights in the terms of liberal democracy. All those rights have been won by struggles. They haven’t been given by some liberal regime. Many rights have been won by struggle, especially in India. Civil liberties is something the left has struggled for. The idea of a socialist democracy is very simple—whatever you’re struggling for beyond this has to be better, more democratic than this. It cannot be that you destroy these achievements and then build socialism from anew. That is where the problem comes.
I don’t have a simple answer, because I know that in Marxist-Leninist terms you don’t build on the old state; you destroy the old state and then you build the new. That is where the basic problem arises: the idea that whatever democratic rights are won, whatever democratic institutions are in place, somehow the minute you have a socialist revolution anywhere (and we are very far from that everywhere in the world right now), all democratic rights have to go down, they don’t count. Having rights is bourgeois and all of that. So you create something else and call it democracy.
It’s similar to the discussion in India which prevailed for a long time (and still does on the left) saying that feminism is bourgeois, that we are Marxists and that’s good enough. Feminism is bourgeois? Well, not really. These terms were also used at a time when Marxist feminism itself was a huge and competing force—then they could say there’s bourgeois feminism and then there’s ours, the Marxist movement’s. But it’s not like that anymore. There’s something basic here that is flawed.
RK: For me, one of the clearest examples of this very strange mindset is the support of these authoritarian regimes by people who identify as LGBT, people who are openly trans, or openly homosexual. They’ll turn around and say, “Well, China is doing this, it’s better than the US, their COVID policy is better, they’ve limited homelessness,” and so on. It’s absurd because these are people who don’t have rights in most of the countries that they’re praising. The second they cross that border, there is a high chance they will be arrested if they publicly act the way they act in the West.
You want to destroy your own rights? How do you imagine this happening?
JA: I see resonances of that; I’ve experienced it in Lebanon, and I know it’s an issue in the wider Arab-majority world. I know Palestinian feminists have to deal with this among Palestinians. They say we’ll deal with women’s rights after liberation from Israeli occupation, and we’ll deal with queer rights after that too.
Those arguments have always ended up serving the ruling class, the state, the oppressor. It’s really absurd at this point. I remember a Twitter thread where someone argued that one of the few truly trans-friendly countries in the world is North Korea. I found that incredible. This wasn’t even someone anonymous, but a journalist in the US. I’m just using this as an example, but we’ve seen these things. Even in Qatar—I was baffled during the FIFA world cup that there were some folks actually saying we cannot hold Qatar to the same standards for its treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ rights and so on. Those arguments were perfectly aligned with openly homophobic, transphobic, racist arguments being made by supporters of the Qatar regime who would be considered on the right.
Obviously, the people who get erased are queer Qataris and migrant workers in Qatar, as if they don’t exist.
RK: In fact a Qatari spokesperson was talking to a Western newspaper about the human rights criticism of his government, and his exact words were: you cannot judge us by your Western standards, we’re a different civilization. This is, to my mind, the farthest you can get from leftism. That is a reactionary value, that there are siloed “civilizations” that are fundamentally different. This is a fascist idea. The fact that it is repeated as some sort of progressive ideology is obscene.
JA: Sisi himself in Egypt has also said such things, and it’s really weakened the campaign to support Egyptian political prisoners, as we saw recently with the COP in Cairo and the calls to #FreeAlaa and everyone else. Because that argument has become something near hegemonic. The universalism of human rights before that, with all the flaws of universalism, has receded. I can’t help but feel this is also a way neoliberalism—neoliberal thinking, atomization—has been internalized and reified in “our” spaces.
PL: I want to briefly build on this discussion, this relationship between the left and other progressive movements of marginalized identities—LGBTQ movements, feminist movements, student movements, and so on. And also the notion of socialist democracy, which is a term that should be more discussed. Not social democracy, but revolutionary socialist democracy. What does it mean to imagine socialism as a political system of governance? That isn’t about a one-party system. It isn’t about one enlightened vanguard thrusting its ideals upon others and putting its mold on other movements, but actually a socialist organization and socialist movement that respects the autonomy of different marginalized struggles.
This is going back to what Kavita was saying about how our goal shouldn’t be to abandon the few important advances of bourgeois democracy—it’s actually to extend and maximize them. Bourgeois democracy actually doesn’t guarantee these democratic freedoms. We need socialist democracy to guarantee these freedoms. To bring it back to multipolarity, this is interesting to contrast with the fact that adherents of leftwing multipolarity accuse us of being bourgeois liberals, but in reality their theoretical framework is the one banking on capitalism. Let’s face it: multipolarity is just capitalism. It’s capitalist competition by different states. To them, these national capitalisms are “good thing” about bourgeois democracy; these are what we should be defending. This is a completely perverse logic. It’s taking a step backwards. It’s defending vestiges of feudalism and fascism, of the perversity that comes especially as we enter late capitalism.
What’s important is Western leftists’ inability to see and recognize the autonomy of marginalized struggles that don’t neatly fit in the mold of national, state-centered governance in these capitalist regimes. For them, the agency of people of the Global South can only be centered on capitalist governance and embodied in the form of a nation-state. While in reality there are all these different struggles going on that socialists should be also learning more about and learning how to relate to.
I wanted to just touch on one talking point from the campists that I’ve heard a lot: that by criticizing the governance of Global South regimes, we’re actually saying people in the Global South can’t run a country on their own. But why is running a political system reduced to that specific mode of politics? Why isn’t mutual aid on the ground a type of governance, a type of actual self-activity of existing people on the ground? Why isn’t an LGBTQ movement advocating for reforms, creating safe spaces for themselves? Student movements and feminist movements are challenging state power in their own right. Why aren’t these seen as rigorous literal systems of governance, as ways of living? And why is that kind of privilege, so to speak, only reserved for capitalist elites, the ruling classes of these nation-states who in reality should be the locus of our struggle, who movements should always be struggling against?
I firmly believe, as a socialist, a Marxist, whatever, that whenever the revolution comes, movements must continue. Movements, beyond any mass party or socialist organization, must continue as a counterweight to whatever post-revolutionary system can come to exist. These are things that are not addressed, not centered when we use the rubric of multipolarity, over learning form existing struggles of people on the ground.
If you stand with victims of imperialism, you have to stand with victims of all imperialism. Ukraine is a long term colonial victim of greater Russian imperialism, and it continues to be today. That’s what they’re fighting, so you want them to win. Simple.
KK: To think that we can’t hold the countries of the Global South or other nations to the same standards—how is that anti-racism? Ask someone who is part of struggles in the Global South. I’ve been arguing for some time that it’s in fact racist to not take us seriously, those people in these countries who want democracy, who want rights, who are fighting against authoritarian tendencies.
I’ll give you one example which has riled me a lot in recent years. A previous ambassador to India from (of all countries) Germany was in Delhi, and he decided to pay a visit to the national headquarters in Napur of the main fascist organization here, the RSS. The SS in that is not coincidental. This is an organization set up in the 1920s, directly inspired by the fascist movements in Europe. Their foundational leader said so. They said we need to do with Muslims in India what Germany has done with its Jews. The point is, he visited the office—and that wasn’t all. He was photographed paying homage to, bowing down to, offering flowers to a statue of one of these founders, a guy who said Hitler is a good guy and we need to be like him.
I found this so appalling. When he was questioned on it, his answer was very telling. He said the RSS is “part of the mosaic that is India,” and he’d only gone there to understand. What does that say? That’s an orientalist understanding, that this is a “mosaic.” Are you going to say that the KKK is part of the mosaic of America? Would you go visit a neo-Nazi outfit in Germany and offer flowers there and shake hands there, and say it’s part of the mosaic of Germany? You wouldn’t. You are willing to say that in India because you are looking at India as a cultural space above politics, in a way that is civilizational and therefore cannot be the same as “our” countries. That’s racism, not antiracism.
This example shows that it’s not just the left that does this, but when it does—when the left thinks in the same way as the ambassador from Germany, what does that say? The left ends up looking at states rather than people. It’s almost saying that the state equals the people. It’s not making a distinction between a state and what its people are struggling for.
I see that example most clearly in Ukraine. On the left, if you speak about Ukraine they will say Zelenskyy is this-and-that, he is bringing neoliberal policies there and so on. He’s selling Ukraine on Wall Street and so on. I have two responses to that. The first is that of course Zelenskyy represents the government, an elected leader—and then there are people, who are not the same as a government. But second, and equally important I think, is that it’s up to the people of Ukraine to decide what struggles they are going to prioritize and when. What Zelenskyy is doing in the economy is nothing exceptional. It’s what the government of India is doing. It’s what governments all over the world are doing. There are critics of it in Ukraine. The workers of Ukraine may be up against draconian labor laws, or the withdrawal of labor protections. But they are the same workers fighting in the Ukrainian army against an invasion. If the country survives, of course there will be room for all these other struggles.
I find it really strange when the left starts doing this kind of flattening. If your government has been equated with you, what are you left with? You want people to be listening to you and to others in the struggle rather than taking the word of your government for what you represent, right?
RK: That’s exactly right. And it is racist. It’s a dismissal of the experience of Ukrainian leftists to say that we “agree” with the liberal-democratic, bourgeois EU-ification of our country, that everyone’s on board, that everyone in Ukraine wants the same thing. Obviously that’s false. Anyone who has ever met a single other human in their life should know that you put three humans in a room and you’ll get ten opinions. We are a naturally quarreling and bickering bunch. In Ukraine, we will argue and bicker even over things that we agree on.
Especially when it comes to Zelenskyy’s economic politics, the only reason you don’t see more pushback, and part of the reason this is going on, is because we are in a war. I have many comrades who are currently fighting on the front lines, in Bakhmut, in Soledar, and the reason they’re doing that instead of protesting labor laws is because if the country does not exist, all of these arguments would be naught. Russia wants to genocide us. They want to kill us all. It is not the priority to protest against the reduction in labor protections because we’re currently trying to avoid being genocided. People who are dead cannot argue for their rights, as authoritarians around the world have well learned.
This shorthand substitution of a nation-state for the people who live in it is absolutely something I’ve seen and been subjected to. As you said, Kavita, it is incomprehensible. Because most of the progress we’ve made as the left has been via non-state resistance to government policy. In the United States too, that’s the majority of labor rights, that’s the majority of LGBT rights. All of that has specifically been won by movements explicitly resisting what the state is trying to do. When you remove the intellectual space for that to occur, you are consigning entire swathes of people as unworthy of the rights you hold.
JA: When we talk about the fetishization of the state, it divides the world into “spheres of influence.” I literally think of it like the board game Risk. Some British leftists for example have literally said that in the “contest” between America and Russia in Ukraine (which is how they would frame it), we have to be sensitive to Russia’s “sphere of influence.” It comes from a very realpolitik, conservative, even isolationist worldview. Socialism for me and fascism for you. Or democracy for me and fascism for you. It’s bizarre.
But it’s a tendency that’s very common, going back thirty, forty, fifty years—is it still a hiccup from the Cold War? Is it just a reification, a recycling of that sort of binary, but instead of two we now have four or five or six? Or is something else happening? Let me phrase it this way: is there any class analysis in that sort of framework? And if there isn’t class analysis, what makes it left? I’m against class reductionism, we should be intersectional. But if there isn’t class analysis, what is it?
PL: To go through a few “good faith” arguments made by defenders of multipolarity that I’ve heard: no, it’s not that socialism is somehow crystallized in these nation-states; it’s that having more nation-states allied with each other, and not just having the US as a single dominant power, opens up the conditions for revolutionary struggle more. All these different imperialists will have less power, so there’s more room for progressive movements to come up. Romeo has of course already attacked the logic of this.
Another thing I’ve heard is justifying the logic by saying, “Look at all the decolonization movements after World War Two.” As in, World War Two, because of all these imperialists fighting each other, opened up space for decolonization and anti-colonial movements to emerge. But—did you forget about World War Two? Do you not understand what happened in those wars? There were class-based workers movements that took advantage of what they could to restore and promote anti-colonial change. But it’s ridiculous to call for a return to the conditions of something like World War Two in order to somehow unlock the potential for decolonization. No, as leftists we stand behind decolonization and anti-colonial movements—we don’t call for multipolar conflict in order to unlock those struggles. As Kavita was saying, that’s purely a world of formulas and dogmas. That leads us further into destruction.
Even for people who are victims of the far right in India, for instance the Muslim community, the idea is that America is killing Muslims. They don’t even know how many Muslims Putin has killed or displaced. No clue at all. The left has a real job here, to counter misinformation and propose ways we can actually help.
I’m going to flag this last example because it was recently in the news: Lula’s victory in Brazil. Obviously, yeah, the PT beating Bolsonaro is good. That’s great. I’m glad Bolsonaro didn’t win. And I’m sure there are a lot of progressive reforms under Lula’s regime. We have yet to see what type of administration he’ll have. It’s a very broad coalition. But that’s all to say: the victories in Brazil or Chile do not automatically translate to what’s happening in movements in China, or Iran, or Russia, where antiwar and feminist movements and workers movements are being crushed. When we talk about multipolarity, we can’t just say, “Look at Lula, look at Brazil.” Literally the point of multipolarity—I’m thinking on the same terms as them now—is that you have to take all the poles together. You can’t just point and say, “That pole’s doing well!”
What about Chinese movements, Iranian movements, Russian movements, Ukrainian movements? You can’t ignore that. That’s just bad faith analysis. We need a balance sheet as socialists, as Marxists. We can’t just bank on the victories that we like and ignore the other ones. This is the model they’re promoting: they’re saying that multipolarity somehow strengthens movements throughout the world, and empirically speaking that is not true.
KK: For the left, this is a strange kind of choice, to present our choices in terms of international positioning, as a choice between multipolarity or unipolarity. That is itself a false, bad-faith way of putting it.
Whenever America acts imperially in any way, you would support people fighting against that. You want those who are fighting against American imperialism to win. Now, unless you think that the regimes of Russia or China are being attacked by American imperialism and therefore you need them to survive and fight, why on Earth would you have any degree of investment in their survival? Iran as well, by the way. In India there are sections of the left that are absolutely silent on Iran, during the movement in Iran right now, because what happens if the movement achieves its goals and gets rid of the Islamic Republic? That would be regime change!
If you stand with victims of imperialism, you have to stand with victims of all imperialism. Ukraine is a long term colonial victim of greater Russian imperialism, and it continues to be today. That’s what they’re fighting, so you want them to win. Simple. For the left, the assumption of this kind of choice means relieving yourself of the responsibility to stand in meaningful solidarity with those struggling.
Let me give you an example from the organization I just parted with. They’re not the obvious ones who say Putin is wonderful and Ukraine is Nazi or whatever. What they say is, “But Kavita, what other position can we take? We already said we stand with Ukraine.” And I say that is a formal position which you’re backing with an analysis that says Russia and Ukraine are both bleeding while the war is benefiting America, so the war should end, we want peace. How is peace going to be achieved? Through negotiations. And what are negotiations going to mean? You won’t say anything about that. It means Ukraine giving up whole swathes of territory. And its people—what happens to its people?
What would meaningful solidarity look like? It could look like what you do in terms of meaningful solidarity with Palestine, for instance. My comrades would also ask, “What can we do beyond issuing a statement?” Well, what do we do in terms of Palestine? We campaign to tell people information about what’s happening there, and we campaign against disinformation, against Israeli propaganda. We do that, in active terms. So why would we not do that about Ukraine?
Also, this isn’t an issue or a debate just inside the left. In India, the entire public sphere is absolutely saturated with Russian propaganda. Not just on the far right and left. Even for people who are victims of the far right in India, for instance the Muslim community, the idea is that America is killing Muslims. They don’t even know how many Muslims Putin has killed or displaced. No clue at all. The left has a real job here, to counter misinformation and propose ways we can actually help. One big way is to engage in the information war in India on behalf of Ukraine.
What we were saying earlier about the idea of civilizational values and how you can’t impose the same standards on Qatar or India or whatever—that also is exactly what these fascists, the multipolarists, are saying right now. That’s what they mean by multipolarity. Unipolarity means universal values. Multipolarity means that you can’t impose your ideas of equality on us! And in fact, values of equality are an elite imposition even in your own country, so the movements against that imposition are wonderful movements in your country. When the left thinks in these terms they don’t realize that they’re saying exactly what not just the far right in Qatar says, but what the far right across the world says.
RK: In the Indian example, one of the RSS’s big things has been pushing and promoting the idea that caste is something foundational to Indian society. You would never have a leftist that openly agrees that castes are good. But that is what you are saying if you are a leftist who says we should have a multipolar world and support the Global South or non-US hegemons against the US. What you are in effect saying, at least in the case of India, is: “I think caste is good and we should have a caste-based society in India.” For Russia, what you’re saying is: “I believe that we should kill all LGBT people.” For China, you’re saying, “I believe everyone should be Han and speak Mandarin and there shouldn’t be any dialects.”
When you look at the actual results, the practical meaning implied by supporting this concept of a multipolar world, is that you’re just supporting fascism. You’re just supporting every single fascist policy that every single fascist regime is trying to impose on their own populations. From that perspective it becomes obviously absurd to even imagine that this can somehow be a progressive idea or create space for decolonial and socialist movements. How does promoting fascist policy open space for Marxism? I’ve never been too clear on that.
This is something I really wanted to bring up in the case of Ukraine. When the war started, journalists and media personalities in Ukraine were deluged by media requests from India. In the beginning we were very happy to do them; obviously the war was just starting, we needed to start making sure the Ukrainian narrative has space, that the information space is not immediately dominated completely by Russian propaganda. So we started talking to these Indian media outlets, and we very quickly realized that not only were the Indian media that spoke to us not interested in interrogating the causes behind this conflict, or critically analyzing why the full-scale invasion occurred, or how Ukraine is a victim of imperialist aggression for hundreds of years. Instead they just wanted to have the picture of a Ukrainian and a Russian screaming at each other.
As Ukrainians we were not interested in that. There’s now an unspoken agreement with every single media personality and journalist in Ukraine that we don’t talk to Indian stations at all. We see that their information space uncritically repeats Russian propaganda and Russian claims, without any analysis, and if there is a Ukrainian counterpoint it’s not presented in a way that centers Ukraine as the victim of aggression. It’s simply placed as “Well, this person disagrees”—which brings an equality to this conflict which does not exist. Russia and Ukraine are not equal subjects in the mysterious war that has just appeared.
That’s another thing I’ve noticed, not only but primarily in leftist spaces: the idea that war just descended. It came out of nowhere. There was no war and then the cloud of war, like a thunderstorm or a hurricane, lowered onto Ukrainian territory. No. War is not weather. War is not the mysterious reverberations of the ether or anything like that. It is a specific action taken by humans against other humans. “Ukraine is bleeding; Russia is bleeding…” Russia isn’t bleeding, Russia attacked. Russia invaded. What do you mean Russia is bleeding? They can stop bleeding any time by leaving and not shooting us. Then we don’t have a reason to shoot them. It’s very simple.
It drives me insane the way people treat war as some kind of atmospheric disturbance instead of concerted human action. This applies to quite a number of other things, I’ve noticed, in the wider world as well beyond war. LGBT oppression, religious oppression. These are all very often presented as things that are unavoidable or a consequence of nature, instead of human agency. I don’t know how these beliefs propagate on the left or how they maintain coherency. On the slightest analysis it is prima facia absurd.
We need to look at these interconnections, such that “neither Washington nor Beijing” is not just unrealistic or idealistic, but actually the most practical way to fight multipolar imperialism and capitalism. We need to link these struggles together.
KK: I want to quickly comment on what Romeo mentioned about India. First about the television: it’s not just you guys. I, and several others like me, have stopped going on mainstream Indian television since 2015, because this is exactly what you describe—just not about Ukraine and Russia. What they want is someone who is Muslim and a hateful Hindu, or someone who is anti-Modi and someone who is pro-Modi screaming at each other, with the anchor sitting in judgment and periodically turning the bad guy silent (and the bad guy is us), and lecturing them. That’s of course not new.
But the other thing about caste that you mentioned—that is so central. When I began reading Dugin, I found that Dugin quite centrally and repeatedly says that anti-hierarchy ideology is something we need to dislodge, and in those passages he uses the terms of the caste system of India. He quotes other previous fascists like Julius Evola to say that today the world is in what is called Kali Yuga. Kali Yuga in Hindu terms means a catastrophic overturning of the correct hierarchies, of the good order of society, where the oppressed castes rule, where women are on top. That’s the catastrophe. And he uses that term!
I kept trying to ask people in India: how can you not be interested in this? How can it not bother you that part of Indian fascist language is now being incorporated into a global fascist language, the kind that Steve Bannon listens to, the kind that others in between Dugin and Bannon are listening to and using?
JA: The phrase regime change was mentioned earlier—I’ve found the discourse around that term very interesting, because what is a revolution? The Haitian and French revolutions were regime changes, the Russian revolution 1917 was a regime change. The Arab Spring’s main slogan was “The People Want the Downfall of the Regime” (Ash-shab yureed isqat an-nizam), and this was not meant metaphorically.
When people took to the streets in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq (and now in Iran more recently, but that’s a different context), what they were calling for when they say “We want the downfall of the regime” is not metaphorical. In Iran they are literally saying “Death to the Dictator.” They are not saying this as a figure of speech. They are saying death to the dictator. They are saying regime change. They are saying the current regime needs to go.
When Ukrainians say that Putin has to go, he cannot stay…the hesitancy is palpable. The silences are palpable. It’s almost like if he goes, our worldview cannot be sustained. This is what I’m trying to get at. There seems to be a sense of fragility. The current world order already feels fragile. Obviously there are climate-related fears, and anxieties of thing falling apart and catastrophes, and at least part of the story is that we need some sense of stability. We want license to stop thinking about it. That’s dangerous.
I wanted to get into two final points. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts: what do you see as the role of diasporas in all of this? We’ve seen the Palestinian diaspora, when it is active organizing around the question of Palestine and the occupation, colonization, apartheid—it tends to be very reactive. When Israel is launching bombing campaigns or assassinating journalists and all of that, then maybe they take to the streets and protest. It’s reacting to current events. The Indian diaspora that I’ve become familiar with in the UK and the US has gone to the right and far-right; many are BJP nationalists. We’ve seen this with Trump’s association with the BJP and the Indian diaspora in the US.
How do you reconcile with the role of the diaspora? In my case I am now part of the diaspora; Promise, you are as well. Where do you see these dynamics fit in with the conversation we’ve been having?
PL: A very clear reason why Hong Kong, Chinese, Tibetan, and Uighur diasporas (and other diasporas from the Xinjiang region) are important is people can’t do things. We can’t organize independently, openly, publicly that much any more. Hong Kong is a new site and victim of that. We are entering a new stage where any minor protest or dissent expressed online (not even on the streets anymore) could trigger national security laws.
That means diaspora is a very important site for organizing, for rebuilding an oppositional movement. Thinking in terms of the left, the Chinese government has very unique experience in terms of silencing independent movements. They’ve been in a position where they were a rising anti-colonial and worker-centered movement, and they know exactly what it means to suppress that. Since Tienanmen they’ve become very smart in doing that with minimal public bloodshed. They very strategically take out organizers and labor struggles. Silence and disappear a couple people; you don’t need mass killings like Iran or Russia. You do just enough so that there is not a movement. I don’t think people understand how effective it has been in doing that.
So the idea of an independent movement-oriented left has really died out, for generations. It’s contained into very small minorities. People don’t even know what it means to be on the left in that sense. When you say “left” in Hong Kong, people will usually think you mean the government. Just discursively there’s a lot of stuff you have to dig through. For people it’s just liberalism and communism (which is authoritarianism). The diaspora is an important space where people, especially from China and from Hong Kong, get exposed to different struggles. One example that is brewing is Chinese international student participation in the recent labor strikes in the University of California system, which is the largest higher-ed strike in US history.
What does it mean for these students to be exposed to new kinds of movement traditions, to new communities of struggle? How does that reshape their own political consciousness, and what can these people bring back? These are questions the diaspora can be thinking about. And this provides the groundwork for us to start thinking about going back to the problem of action, what Kavita was saying just now about comrades asking, “What can we do, actually?” about Ukraine or Russia—people ask the same things about China. “Oh, we can’t do anything because of Sinophobia and US-China tensions, what can you suggest, what can we actually do?” To which I suggest a bunch of stuff that people like to ignore.
Some of these things include looking at the intersections of international capital. Where do US and Chinese capital intersect? A very concrete example is highrise super-gentrifying housing development projects in places like New York that are bankrolled by loans from Chinese state capital. That’s a concrete site of intervention, where Chinese and US capital and developers, Chinese banks, are coming into contact, and there’s nothing abstract about it. This is a movement to build around, to energize diaspora communities (which are often not very leftwing) into the left, to bridge those struggles with leftwing struggles, anti-gentrification struggles.
Another example is the Chinese international student strike. What does it mean to think about the intersections of these different struggles? The usual response to this is that it isn’t very realistic. But in order to fight capitalism in its totality, in its many interconnections, we do need to look at these interconnections, such that “neither Washington nor Beijing” is not just unrealistic or idealistic, but actually the most practical way to fight multipolar imperialism and capitalism. We need to link these struggles together.
The truth is, we’re always linking struggles together. This is just an excuse. Whenever we do organizing, it’s not like we’re only going to talk about race and not housing. We never do that. Why can’t we do the same when it comes to different nation-states intersecting together, different capitalist classes intersecting together? The diaspora here has a very critical role in terms of bridging all of these things and taking not only new political traditions back home to re-energize things, but to continue the struggle abroad. Because again, one “good” thing about globalization is that now Chinese state power isn’t just contained within the mainland. It’s about its investments abroad, and how it draws power from all these different sites abroad.
These are concrete opportunities to put Chinese diaspora in conversation with Indigenous people fighting Chinese-funded agribusinesses in Brazil and the Amazon. There’s an explosion of possibilities that aren’t abstract. It’s in fact very highly concrete. And the diaspora becomes the key motor in bridging these connections together.
How can you not look at this in terms of geopolitics? Is it a coincidence that so many regimes in this neighborhood are actively Islamophobic? Is there no connection between them? Can you find no way of thinking about this beyond your specific national case?
RK: I grew up in both the South Asian diaspora community in the US as well as the post-Soviet or Ukrainian diaspora communities, and a lot of these tendencies I’ve seen develop throughout my lifetime. As you mentioned, Joey, a lot of the Indian diaspora communities are—we can call them conservative, I suppose, to be polite. At the very least they push forward candidates that have been endorsed by the BJP; they very often attend temples which are funded by the BJP or RSS; and historically there has been the trend of migrant communities becoming more conservative as their status in their new country solidifies. As they gain more social acceptance, they often start ossifying and barring the way to other immigrants, which will necessarily push them right.
For the Desi community in particular, what I’ve seen is the BJP and a whole homegrown industry of Hindu con men (to be very impolite about it), these gurus and spiritual guys who come over and see money-making opportunities. Because one of the biggest things that migrant communities abroad face is they have a homesickness, basically: you’re alienated from your home nation, the food is different, the money is different—
Our power went out.
JA: We thought this might happen. Romeo is in Kyiv. Let’s see what we’re going to do. It’s okay.
There is this argument on the left: “We can deal with this criticism later, we can deal with this weakness, this critique, after liberation” (whatever that means). What do you make of that argument? How have you, in your experiences, responded? What do you do with that?
I wanted to slowly wrap up, but what do you do with that argument, Kavita and Promise?
PL: My response to this isn’t very original: if the left doesn’t take the initiative to critically reflect on our own history, our past and our present, and our mistakes and errors, we’re going to repeat the same mistakes in the future. If we genuinely want to transform society and transform reality and build a better world, then we need to take ownership and account for those mistakes. If we don’t do it, the rightwing is going to do it. And it’s socialism or barbarism. This is what it means to know when to draw the line, when movements have turned all the way to the right for things we shouldn’t support. I think the left should be critical and reflective of when certain movements or regimes are unsalvageable and we need to rebuild again.
Saying “this is not the time to critique” means there’s never a right time to critique. The US is always going to take advantage of unrest to try to “do regime change,” to stir things up against a regime and promote its own agenda. That risk is always going to be there. The logical conclusion of the campists’ argument is that we don’t do anything, that we have no praxis, no plan for revolution, for solidarity. That, to me, is completely anti-internationalist. We need to find ways to empower existing movements that are happening on the ground, because while people on the Western left are busy sitting there, there are existing movements, there are people doing stuff on the ground.
The task for the Western left isn’t to judge whether this is the right timing or not to support these struggles, it’s to look at how we can support these struggles in the best way possible so as not to reproduce Western imperialist rhetoric while at the same time empowering these struggles to actually take power, to challenge power on their own terms and together with us.
This rhetoric of “now is not the time to critique” has historically made room for disaster among the left. This is a classic Stalinist tactic. “Oh, it’s Western capitalism, we can’t talk about our internal errors.” The logical conclusion of that is that anyone who raises these internal errors—if we don’t have a culture of helpfully talking through them—are going to be cast out as enemies and excluded, killed, and we’ll be repeating exactly the same mistakes that we’ve seen in the twentieth century. And why would we want to do that, as the left?
The left needs a balance sheet of our failures and mistakes of the past—and also our successes. And to choose very carefully what we should keep amplifying and extending, and what we should drop and forget, and leave in the dustbin of history.
KK: In India, it has been really hard for me. I’m still in the process of trying to understand why there was so much hostility, even on the best of the Indian left, towards taking what should have been an intuitively, perfectly normal position of solidarity for Syria, Ukraine—people’s movements, basically—without ifs, buts, and all kinds of strange calculations.
The barrier is on two counts. One is that the left itself is really not comfortable confronting the history of Ukraine in particular. That would mean having to confront, in specific details, the legacy of Stalinism. And while parts of the left, like the party I was with, will say, “We do not defend Stalin’s crimes” (or what they call “mistakes”), there’s no willingness to discuss which mistakes. What are you calling the mistakes? How big were those mistakes? Who were the victims of those mistakes? This is not about your relationship with Stalin’s history. This is about what happened to people who were harmed by those policies and decisions and crimes.
Likewise in China now. The party I was with just carried a long critique of the Chinese Communist Party’s latest party congress document. It says a lot of things about human rights violations and this and that—all of that. But what is the conclusion? “China is moving away from socialism and is growing into capitalism,” and there’s a sarcastic line about “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” What does that mean?
It really is not about your assessment of how socialist or not-socialist it is. That’s your problem! What you should be worrying about is what happens to the people who are affected by this regime. How socialist you think it is or isn’t is like talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. That is neither here nor there! Where is your assessment of the harm that is done? What can you do to support those people harmed by this regime?
And it’s not just inside China. China is funding and enabling the Myanmar military. In India, Islamophobia is boiled up by the fact that you have it in Myanmar, you have it in China. Those who talk about geopolitics—how can you not look at this in terms of geopolitics? Is it a coincidence that so many regimes in this neighborhood are actively Islamophobic? Is there no connection between them? Can you find no way of thinking about this beyond your specific national case? These are the questions that we need to ask.
I’m wondering what would happen if we could bring into this conversation good-faith people (let’s not bring in the outright bad-faith Vijay Prashads and so on) who are in a more honest place but are taking these positions and imagining that these are the correct positions? What if we were to bring them into a conversation? I have failed, inside India, to bring them inside this conversation. But what if there were an attempt on the part of people thinking about this beyond India to come and say, look, we want to hear from you about the struggles that you are very legitimately waging in India, and then beyond that we would also like to speak to you about how you see those struggles in connection with the world. We are reading things you’ve written and we have some questions about them, and we can have a civil conversation about this which may move the needle forward a little bit. That’s the only thing I can think of which may help to dislodge ourselves from this really damaging place the left is stuck in.
Just one last thing: my Trotskyist friends in other countries talk about “Stalinist” parties in the Global South. But these are not obsolete parties. These are parties that are leading very important, genuine struggles. So you have to take them seriously. You can’t just write them off as out-dated parties that are so obsolete that they don’t count. We have to think about how to reach out to them, how to make them think about what they’re saying.
JA: Thanks for that. This is a hopeful note to end this fascinating conversation on. This was a fantastic chat, and I’m sure we’ll do something again soon.
KK: Thank you! It was great meeting everyone here, at least virtually.
PL: Thank you so much.
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