Many leftists have been reluctant to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion. This reluctance is often linked to their ‘anti-imperialist’ position against the US or to ties to Russia through political sponsorship. Aleksandra Spalińska believes the Marxist/leftist position has deeper roots. She argues that leftists' perspective on world politics is determined by methodological externalism
Marxists and leftists traditionally advocate for the vulnerable and the oppressed. Despite this, many have not supported Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Some take an ‘anti-imperialist’ position against the US. Others might have sentimental ties to Russia, or be linked by communism or political sponsorship. The Marxist/leftist understanding of world politics, however, is determined by methodological externalism. This phenomenon determines leftists' position on the causes of the Russian invasion, and on their opposition to support for Ukraine.
Externalism is the methodological position that emphasises factors external to the state to explain events and processes in world politics. It applies to neorealism in international relations, and to Marxism.
With neorealism, externalism enables scholars to focus on the balance of power, threats to domestic security, and actions to protect self-interest, including appeasing the powerful. In Marxism, externalism manifests in a focus on how external capitalist power structures affect the working classes and domestic economies. In practice, it inspires resistance against neoliberal capitalism and American domination.
Methodological externalism fosters 'anti-imperialist' positions against foreign military support, and denies the political agency of small states
Methodological externalism overlooks internal motivations for political action. It manifests in ‘anti-imperialist’ positions against foreign military support, or proxy wars waged by great powers. In extremis, it leads to the denial of small states' political agency. It also denies the internal factors that motivate great powers’ offensive foreign policies, thus appeasing them. In both cases, it ignores the identity and agency of society, for good or ill.
Externalism undermined the internal factors of aggression and resistance in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. First, it denied Ukrainians’ agency in resistance, including their willpower to defend Ukraine and their national self-determination. Second, it denied that Russia's invasion was premeditated by the Kremlin from within. Third, it denied Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic and imperial vision of Russia, and the spread of imperialist identity in Russian society.
Externalism encouraged inaccurate theories that NATO expansion was the root cause of the invasion, and that American imperialism was being enacted through a proxy war
These denials propagated inaccurate theories that NATO expansion was the root cause of the invasion, and that the US wanted to start a proxy war. They encouraged calls to end the war regardless of Ukrainians' will to fight. They also failed to consider the danger of Russian imperialism for Europe as a whole. Meanwhile, earlier attacks on Ukraine, by ‘separatists’ in Donbas, and by occupying forces in Crimea, have been largely ignored.
The left traditionally speaks up for the working classes and marginalised groups in society, such as people of colour, and against government oppression. Yet externalism has affected leftists' moral judgement on the current conflict, and has encouraged left-wing opposition to military support for Ukraine.
Reactions on the political left to the war in Ukraine, especially in the US, contradict leftists' moral agenda. A left-wing focus on power politics incited calls to appease Russia, despite Ukrainians' spirited fight against the Russian invaders, and their moral right to self-determination.
These calls for appeasement have happened despite growing evidence of Russian atrocities, war crimes, and the intentional spread of disinformation. Leftists traditionally identify with the vulnerable, and advocate for them. But the focus on external threats, rather than morality, have fuelled leftists' support for Russia.
Rather than focusing on external threats, it could be useful for leftist activists and intellectuals to invoke Justin Rosenberg’s idea of societal multiplicity, which focuses on the problem of societal coexistence in international relations research.
Central to his analytical framework is how relations between and among multiple societies create their unique qualities, including identity, history, social development or patterns of interaction with neighbours. Understanding how these qualities develop enables scholars to fully comprehend the long-term coexistence of interacting societies. This wider understanding includes factors of aggression, as well as factors of resistance.
Societal multiplicity allows a nuanced, multi-layered, inter-societal analysis of international dynamics
Societal multiplicity helps explain the agency of small states, as well as great powers' offensive policies. It focuses on interaction, difference, connectedness and exchange between and among societies. Thus, unlike the power-politics approach or critical analysis of economic imperialism, it allows a nuanced and multi-layered analysis of international dynamics which, for Rosenberg, is inter-societal.
This nuanced approach is certainly useful to understand the Russo-Ukrainian war. With societal multiplicity, power hierarchy and foreign influence are no longer the main explanatory factors. Rosenberg’s multiplicity shifts our focus from the politics of external threats to long-term collective coexistence, and its implications for involved societies.
The political left could use Rosenberg’s approach to better understand the long-term dynamics of relations between Ukraine and Russia, and to inform its moral judgement on the Russian invasion. It could also apply to its judgement of Ukraine’s and Russia’s interactions with other societies, including the US and China.