Why the political left rejects Ukraine, and how to change it

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

Leftist reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine

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.

The politics of external threats

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. 

How externalism accounts for the Russian invasion

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.

Explanatory versus moral positions

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.

A better framework through societal multiplicity

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.

Societal multiplicity informing political positions

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.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Aleksandra Spalińska
Aleksandra Spalińska
PhD Candidate, Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, University of Warsaw

Aleksandra is a coordinator of the Multiplicity Project.

Her research interests include IR theory and concepts, especially theorising world order and ‘the international’, non-state actors in world politics and IR theory, polity formation theory, and Western anxieties and the interregnum.

She has written book reviews for International Affairs, the Journal of Common Market Studies, and Political Studies Review.

Aleksandra is currently working on a dissertation examining ‘new mediaevalism’ in the study of world politics.

Find out more about Aleksandra's research interests on her ECPR profile.

Twitter @AleksandraSpal3

Mastodon @AlexSpal@mstdn.social

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7 comments on “Why the political left rejects Ukraine, and how to change it”

  1. Writing from Finland, I find it hard to believe that there would be some kind of a unified international "left" anymore, let alone a Marxist one. Few old cranks notwithstanding, here the position of left-wing politicians has quite closely aligned with those from the right. Most of the opposition in Finland has come from hard or extreme right, including conspiracy theorists and the like.

    Though, it would be interesting to know more about the situation in Europe. For instance, I have understood that there has been some conflicts within the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament on this matter. Another example would be France within which the anti-establishment, anti-NATO, anti-EU, and anti-everything sentiment is to my understanding on the rise on both sides of the left-right nexus. Unfortunately, Finnish media coverage is extremely poor on these matters even regarding major European countries.

    As for academia, I cannot really name any serious contemporary scholar who would identify himself or herself as Marxist. Yet, I can name quite a few neorealists who have implicitly or explicitly taken a pro-Kremlin stance.

  2. The author talk about a "left" without giving a definition of it and without sources that can support her statements. As it is, she could be speaking about her leftist friends analysing their dinner talks.

  3. Very, very strange article. It sounds like "to the marxist left, why you don't stop to be marxist and just be liberal pluralists and atlanticists instead?"

    What's the point of this op-ed?

  4. Also... who on the left denied Putin to be nationalist? Also this I feel is a straw-man argument; Marlon is right when they ask: "who are you talking about?"

  5. "Many leftists have been reluctant to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion." and "Despite this, many have not supported Ukraine against the Russian invasion."

    I don't see any concrete reference to this position only to someone who creates a straw-puppet by not referencing anyone. Virtually everyone on the Left supports Ukraine. Only on the radical left there are disparate positions of which one is opposed to military aid for Ukraine - but that is something different from not supporting Ukraine.
    Coming from the left I think that economic interests are often overlooked in explanations for this and other wars.
    I think the author rightly points out that multiple factors matter, but by articulating only that there is a risk of not discerning between the different magnitudes of each factor. Given the current discourse on the war, I think scientists/the left can make the most valuable contribution by articulating some highly important factors (e.g. economic ones) that are currently underexposed rather than making the obvious/banal claim that multiple factors matter.

  6. doesn't even bring up the biggest problem in Ukraine which areliteral Nazi. not a single word about that or Facism there. when you take stuff out of context, of course it looks dumb. but with the combination of this being a proxy-war, the nazis in ukraine, and the undoubtness that Crimea is rightfully russian, it all does make sense why we would be agaisnt the US support. also if you look at the history deeper than just the start of the invasion, it reads much different. or research the US backed coup in Ukraine in 2014. like atleast start there.

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