At critical times, foreign wars have tested the moral convictions of American leftists and affected the fate of their movement for years to come. The Socialist Party’s opposition to entering the First World War provoked furious state repression but later gained a measure of redemption when Americans learned that U.S. troops had not made the world safe for democracy after all. Leftists proved prescient again in the late 1930s when they rallied to defend the Spanish Republic against a right-wing military and its fascist allies, Italy and Germany. The republic’s defeat emboldened Adolf Hitler to launch what quickly became the Second World War. When, twenty years later, American Communists backed the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, they shoved their party firmly and irrevocably to the margins of political life, which opened up space for the emergence of a New Left that rejected imperial aggressors of all ideological persuasions.
The war in Ukraine has a good chance of turning into another such decisive event. Who to blame for the bloodshed in that country should be obvious: a massive nation led by an authoritarian ruler with one of the world’s largest militaries at his disposal is seeking to conquer and subjugate a smaller and weaker neighbor. In pursuit of that vicious purpose, Vladimir Putin’s soldiers have committed countless rapes and acts of torture. His air force is systematically trying to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy, hoping to undermine its citizens’ will to resist. Yet Ukrainians, with the aid of arms from the United States and other NATO countries, have so far managed to fight this superior force to a stalemate.
A sizeable number of American leftists have embraced an alternate reality. For them, the culprit is NATO’s post–Cold War expansion, fueled by the drive of the U.S. state and capital to bend the world to their desires. The popular author and journalist Chris Hedges cracks that the war in Ukraine “doesn’t make any geopolitical sense, but it’s good for business.” The Green Party condemns the “perpetual war mentality” of the “US foreign policy establishment” and concludes, “There are no good guys in this crisis.”
These critics ignore or dismiss the fact that every nation that joined NATO did so willingly, knowing that Russia was capable of launching the kind of attack now underway in Ukraine. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise, the expansion of NATO may well have been too hasty. But not one of its newer members has done anything to threaten Putin’s regime. And every country that joined the alliance enjoys a democratically elected government. They contrast sharply with the handful of nations, besides Putin’s, that voted against a UN resolution last month demanding the Russians withdraw from Ukraine: Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Nicaragua, Eritrea, and Mali. All but the last are one-party dictatorships, and Mali relies on Russian mercenaries to battle Islamist rebels.
It seems not to bother these leftists that they are making common cause with some of the most atrocious and prominent stalwarts of the Trumpian right. Tucker Carlson routinely bashes the U.S. commitment to Ukraine with lines like “Has Putin ever called me a racist?” while Marjorie Taylor Greene recently declared, “I’m completely against the war in Ukraine. . . . You know who’s driving it? It’s America. America needs to stop pushing the war in Ukraine.”
On February 19, some members of the alliance of right and left staged a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to vent its “Rage Against the War Machine.” Speakers included Ron Paul and Tulsi Gabbard as well as Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2016 nominee for president. Carlson promoted the event on the highest rated “news” show in the history of cable TV. At the Memorial, several protesters flew Russian flags.
To paraphrase August Bebel’s famous line about anti-Semitism, the hostility of those leftists who oppose helping Ukraine is an anti-imperialism of fools—although, unlike past Jew haters, they are fools with good intentions. Wars are always horrible events, no matter who starts them or why. And we on the left should do whatever we can to stop them from starting and end them when they do.
But neither the United States nor its allies forced Putin to invade. In speech after speech, he has made clear his mourning for the loss of the Soviet empire and his firm belief that Ukraine should be part of a revived one, this time sanctified by an Orthodox cross instead of the hammer-and-sickle. As the historian (and my cousin) David A. Bell wrote recently, the United States is not “the only international actor that really matters in the current crisis.” It may have the mightiest war machine, but Biden is not shipping arms to Ukraine in an attempt to subjugate Russia to his will. We should, Bell writes, “judge every international situation on its own terms, considering the actions of all parties, and not just the most powerful one. . . . the horrors Putin has already inflicted on Ukraine, and his long-term goals, are strong reasons . . . for continuing current U.S. policy, despite the attendant costs and risks.”
The monetary cost is obviously not small. By the end of January, the United States had spent $46.6 billion on lethal aid to Ukraine. But as a portion of what our bloated military has available to it every year, that sum is little more than a rounding error. The defense budget in the past fiscal year was close to $2 trillion. The cost of the latest U.S. aircraft carrier ran to $13 billion all by itself. The Navy now has eleven aircraft carriers. Isn’t helping Ukraine defend its right to exist as an independent country a worthier expense?
The debate over the war among American leftists could have an impact on whether the United States keeps sending substantial aid to Ukraine’s armed forces. Progressives wield more influence in the Democratic Party than they have in decades. So far, most have followed the lead of Bernie Sanders in denouncing the Russian onslaught and endorsing the NATO effort to repel it. More Republicans oppose aiding Ukraine than Democrats. But if that changes, public backing for U.S. policy, already slipping after a year of inconclusive fighting, could crumble entirely. A negotiated settlement may be the only way the war ends. But without a strong and consistent policy of support to the government in Kyiv, the agreement would be on Putin’s terms.
One doesn’t have to think the stakes of the conflict in Ukraine are similar to those in the Spanish Civil War to hear echoes from that benighted past. If American leftists take seriously their commitment to self-rule and loathing of foreign aggression, they should shed their ambivalence about supporting Ukraine. But I’ll let a democratic socialist from Ukraine have the last words. “I know that the left tends to look for a nefarious U.S. plot behind everything,” writes the sociologist Alona Liasheva. “Of course, I think it’s important to analyze every conflict to understand all the players, the dynamics, and who’s culpable.” But “In the case of Ukraine, it’s far simpler than many on the left think. Ukraine was attacked by an imperialist army, and as a result we are in a struggle to defend our lives and our very right to exist as a sovereign nation. . . . This is not an abstract question for us. The international left can make a material difference in whether we are able to win or lose.”
Michael Kazin is co-editor emeritus of Dissent. His most recent book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, just came out in paperback.
Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that Medea Benjamin spoke at the Rage Against the War Machine rally. She was scheduled to speak but canceled her talk at the request of Code Pink.