How Russia’s War Broke the Backbone of the European Left

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo

Russia’s war on Ukraine threatens to escalate in ways that imperil all human life. Yet the mainstream reaction is mostly striking for its apathy — and the Left is failing to mobilize against the mounting disaster.

Several people with banners take part in a march to call for the cessation of the war in Ukraine, April 3, 2022, in Madrid, Spain. (Isabel Infantes / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Interview by
Pablo Iglesias

This War Does Not End in Ukraine. The title of Raúl Sánchez Cedillo’s new book certainly sounds like it offers a gloomy perspective on the international fallout of Russia’s war.

In the book — which has appeared in Spanish and German and is forthcoming in English translation — the philosopher and activist discusses the rise of a new political logic he calls the “war regime.” Sánchez Cedillo finds parallels between the bloodbath in Ukraine and the inter-imperialist competition that led to World War I — including its effect in generating fascism.

But the author also warns against a “doomsday” outlook on the conflict, instead insisting that we need collective, global action for peace.

Podemos cofounder Pablo Iglesias, who has called Sánchez Cedillo “one of the most important political analysts in Spain,” interviewed him about the book, the meaning of the “war regime,” and why the Left has struggled to respond to this moment.

Pablo Iglesias

What led you to write this book?

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo

I had been writing articles about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and some editors at Katakrak — the Spanish publisher — suggested expanding them into a book. It was extremely important for me to write about a conflict that will, in all probability, shape the rest of the century, even if we do not yet know exactly how. But we can be certain of one thing: without a far-reaching political and social uprising in Europe, it will turn out for the worse.

A big part of the problem is that nothing really can be ruled out. There is military escalation between blocs that have not only nuclear weapons, but also massive stores of conventional and biological means of causing damage, capable of destruction on an unimaginable scale. The longer this war lasts, the more it will foster further developments of authoritarianism and/or fascism. As if that weren’t enough, this is all happening in the middle of an ongoing energy crisis, at a moment of more and more human migration in response to extreme weather caused by global warming, and as people flee war, hunger, desertification, and shortages of drinking water.

It might seem like I am falling into the kind of catastrophist panic caused by a Eurocentric bias. After decades of watching wars unfurl from a safe distance, Europeans must now rapidly come to terms with a war that has broken out in the middle of our continent — and not just a conventional war, but a hybrid one encompassing information warfare, infrastructural sabotage, and, some sixty years after the Cuban missile crisis, the return of nuclear rhetoric. But this catastrophist stance is not my position. Not at all.

It’s some time already since the capitalist world system entered what Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver called a stage of systemic chaos. From their perspective, this transformation was set in motion by the progressive decline of US hegemony after 1945 — a decline that does not imply, by any means, an actual loss of the hegemonic position. The United States has the largest current account deficit in the world. Since the 1980s, it has suffered a collapse not only of its industrial production (manufacturing), but also of human development, as measured by global indicators.

At the same time, it remains the world’s largest military power without comparison. The United States operates 750 military bases in some eighty countries. It determines the development of humanity through the dominance of the dollar as the world’s most important trade and reserve currency, and through the roles that the US Federal Reserve and Wall Street can play as the largest recipients of current account surpluses from large exporting countries. When we consider these realities, it becomes clear that the existence of the United States as a nation-state ultimately depends on maintaining this hegemony at all costs.

As if that weren’t enough to cause systemic chaos, we also need to consider the turbulences around “peak oil” and the falling profitability of energy extractivism. On the one hand, it is increasingly apparent that critical resources including energy, food, and raw materials are finite. On the other hand, the spirit of contemporary capitalism is shaped by the psychopathic refusal of this fact, embodied in personas like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos.

In my view, the vulnerability of the health care system that became evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, together with increasing climate extremes, make it necessary today to go beyond Arrighi and Silver’s term and to speak of a phase of ecosystemic chaos. What a perfect time for a war between nuclear powers to break out, one that implicates not only the European countries but the whole planet! This is why the book title states that this war does not end in Ukraine.

The brutal fact of Russia’s imperialist invasion cannot be separated from the larger context. And this is why it is ludicrous, if not irresponsible, to believe that the whole thing could be understood as a violation of the UN Charters and the Geneva Convention. If we consider the involved actors and their respective allies, as well as the history of Ukraine itself, we must assume that what is unfolding is the beginning of a world war from the center of Europe, in the middle of an ecological and capitalist systemic crisis. So, there are more than enough urgent reasons, I think, to write this kind of book.

Pablo Iglesias

You talk in the book about a “war regime.” What does this mean?

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo

It refers in a very fundamental way to the deployment of a friend-enemy division in government operations, both domestic and international. In other words, the regime of war becomes applied to relations between parties and political forces, between governments and political and social struggles — in the media and social networks, and in the domain of freedom of expression, rights to assembly, and political demonstration.

In government and political activities, this friend-enemy division implies the elaboration and spread of narratives that accuse a constructed enemy of being responsible for the worsening of a social crisis and its consequences. This “enemy” is even made responsible for harsh policy measures that affect whole populations, ranging from budget cuts and wage suppression to the suspension of climate goals, increases in military funding, and even military intervention.

In the case of Russia, it makes less sense to speak of a war regime in this way. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s coup d’état, the long war in Chechnya has served to consolidate the power of the oligarchs and siloviki (ex-members of Soviet security and defense forces). Since the annexation of Crimea and the support for the “People’s Republics” in the Donbass, it is more accurate to speak of modifications to an existing authoritarian and militarized regime that is growing in power.

With respect to the EU countries, on the other hand, the establishment of a war regime interrupts a period of uncertainty with respect to the ruling order. This arose in the course of the pandemic and in the face of imminent climate crisis, but also in relation to certain political movements in the United States, including Black Lives Matter, the feminist wave starting in 2018, and unionization movements among multiracial coalitions of workers in retail, service, and platform logistics companies. In a sense, this recent conjuncture can be compared to the years following the 2008 crisis. Neoliberalism and its regime of financializing and creating profits out of growing indebtedness in the middle and working class no longer appeared inevitable.

But in comparison to the years following 2008, the situation today is more acute. The economic, social, and psychological effects of the pandemic; the criminal delays in decarbonization; and, no less importantly, the growth of the racist and nationalist right in EU member countries threaten not only EU institutions but also the entire existence of the EU. And all this gave impulse to social welfare–oriented policy like the European Green Deal, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, and the NextGenerationEU funds, as well as EU-level regulations for temporary labor contracts, minimum wages, and false self-employment (the registration of freelancer status for people who are de facto employees of companies, a common practice in logistics and service industries).

There is a connection between the pro-military, pro-confrontation stance of NATO states and new announcements of solutions “from above” to social contradictions. If we fail to recognize this connection, we will not be able to hold ground against the new wave of austerity and authoritarianism promoted in the name of a European project that has been taken over by financial, corporate, political, and media oligarchs. These actors prioritize the war and a permanent state of exception over a New Deal for the present, over any attempt at reformist dialectics between union, feminist, migrant, environmental, and LGBTQ movements that would require abandoning the accumulation of financial capital.

The militaristic response of the EU to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reduced the probability of a truly reformist path in the EU to almost nil. To the contrary, we can observe a process of fiscal, economic, military, and diplomatic federalization [i.e. tightening integration] in the EU. This does not change the structure of financial and corporate power. Rather, it uses the European Commission to coordinate that power in a centralized manner against centrifugal tendencies unleashed by a new wave of austerity, itself a consequence of the raising of interest rates by the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. The latter can only be understood as an oligarchic move to put an end to all post-neoliberal and socialist follies that gained force in the post-pandemic depression and with the need for decarbonization.

In this sense, we cannot underestimate the Kremlin’s long-term strategy. There is an obvious affinity between the reactionary imperialists of the Kremlin and a part of the racist and supremacist right in Europe and the United States. This suggests that the Right will benefit from the explosion of contradictions underway, and this will not be prevented by the hypocritical values upheld by the EU. As we know, the EU has no problem collaborating with the Polish right — whose stance on gender and LGBTQ rights is no different from its Russian counterpart, despite its historical role opposing the Kremlin — or with the likes of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Pablo Iglesias

You devote the first part of the book to examining the origins of the current war in the post-Soviet context. And there, you write about discourses that normalize war dynamics in both military and civilian contexts. Can you say more about this?

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo

In the Russian and Belarusian discourse, but also in what in the book I call “zombie neo-Stalinism” (in Spanish rojipardo, or red-brown, referring to left-wing authoritarian formations), the Russian invasion is considered the inevitable outcome of increasing aggression on the part of NATO since 2004. According to this depiction, Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007 serves as evidence that the Russian government always had peaceful intentions, and that it gave sufficient warning about what could happen if NATO did not end its expansion, and if no new security agreement were reached that would ensure the neutrality of all countries bordering the Russian Federation.

In these discourses, everything follows a strategic plan by the United States to suffocate the already minimal diplomatic and economic autonomy of the EU, to weaken a serious contender in the global geopolitical arena, and to clear the way for strategic confrontation with China. Of course, this discourse has various expressions. For example, [former Bolivian president] Evo Morales’s hallucinatory support of Putin as an “anti-imperialist leader,” which in a sense fits a kind of classic realpolitik, should be distinguished from the ongoing shape-shifting of “red-brown” positions — which, to be clear, embody a “leftist” fascism.

The latter represent a convergence of the most resentful, reactionary, racist, and patriarchal affects of residual Stalinism among generations old and young, on the one hand, and, on the other, the national-revolutionary and neo-communitarian stances of people like the French alt-right representative, Alain de Benoist; the “Marxist”-identifying Italian far-right thinker Diego Fusaro; and the Russian anti-communist Aleksandr Dugin, who has been called “Putin’s brain.”

This convergence is characterized by a civilizational idea that represents the symmetric counterpart to the values espoused by the EU and United States: the defense of the nation, of tradition, of the white working class and its supposed linguistic and cultural roots, of the bourgeois family and patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality, and the idea that migrants are “masses” manipulated by “globalist elites” who aim to destroy the nation and its imaginary national working class. There is a terrifying link between the unconcealed anti-communism of Putin, his oligarchs, and siloviki, and the pro-police, militarist, patriarchal, and paranoid Stalinism of the self-identified “anti-imperialist” camp.

With respect to what Putin calls the “Western collective,” we see the flip side of what I just described. As Bill Clinton wrote in the Atlantic shortly after the war began: we did our best to integrate Russia in the club of democratic nations, but it proved impossible. NATO is a military organization for the defense of liberal democracies in Europe, and only a totalitarian power could be against its expansion.

There have been attempts in Europe since the start of the war to forge a new power bloc between neoliberalism and neocolonial Eurocentrism. This is an attempt to bring bourgeois-conservative and Atlantic-oriented formations of the far right — including Giorgia Meloni and the Spanish Vox party — together with traditional social democrats and greens against the emancipatory challenges coming from socialist, communist, and anti-colonial struggles, but also against the pro-Russian extreme right. This comes as no surprise. History shows that dictatorial extremes always win in war, and that there is a demonstrable intimacy between neoliberalism, colonialism, and fascism. In the end, fascisms are always the preferred “provisional solution” for the propertied.

Pablo Iglesias

You write that World War I, not World War II, is the historical comparison that allows us to understand the political present and the current war. Why is that?

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo

The use of analogies of this kind always entails problems and traps, so we need to be careful. For a start, our ears should perk up when we hear both sides of the current war calling each other Nazis and totalitarians. Putin is being characterized as a present-day Hitler, while Zelensky supposedly leads a government that inherited its ideology from the Nazis and is being used by degenerate “globalist elites” to break open and besiege Russia.

This propagandistic cannibalization of World War II makes it difficult to recognize certain aspects of the present that become evident when we consider World War I as a comparison. I’m thinking about the conflict between imperialist blocs over a key country that is itself weakened by a civil war in the context of a war for independence, which in World War I was Serbia; the backdrop of a hegemon, Great Britain, that had entered a period of decline; and the presence of a semi-peripheral power that was fighting for a spot at the center of the world system, Russia.

There are further aspects of World War I that are helpful points of reference for understanding the current war in Ukraine: the moral arrogance with which both sides treat the war as a civilizational crusade, and the simultaneous frivolousness — or, to cite Christopher Clark’s characterization of the political elites in 1914, the “sleepwalking” — with which those in power openly promote military agitation and demand unconditional victory. Another resemblance can be seen in the current portrayal of pacifist stances as defeatist and as siding with the opponent. Logics like this were also operational during World War I, in the superficial suspensions of domestic political conflict in the name of national defense. The “civil truces” of the union sacrée in France and the Burgfrieden in Germany were based on leftist parties abandoning internationalism and class politics, while agreeing to not oppose the government or call to strike.

On the other hand, the analogy between the current war in Ukraine and World War II based on a struggle between democracy and fascism or authoritarianism does not hold. Regrettably, we must acknowledge that fascist tendencies can be observed on both sides, in equal parts.

Pablo Iglesias

The second part of your book describes a correlation between the war regime and new forms of fascism. Could you go into that?

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo

It’s not just a correlation, but a kind of causation. Or, at least, a kind of multiplying or accelerating effect. This is a premise of the book, and it also explains the book’s urgency. World War I was the first time that entire economies and populations were transformed into war machines aiming at military and social war. Trenches, chemical weapons, tanks, shells, and “storms of steel” marked a fusion of energies that arose in European political culture and its conservative, colonial, patriarchal, and militarist subjectivity.

The traumatic “experience” of war and the consequences of defeat (in the cases of Germany and Austria-Hungary) are catalysts for the deadly passions and the narratives of what is known as the “conservative revolution.” This is the birthplace of fascist forms. There is an intimate relationship between war, modern machines of warfare, and their effects on bodies and subjectivity. In war machines, which can be both military and social in nature, there is always the risk of war becoming absolute. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called this a “black hole.” When this happens, it becomes a kind of moral emblem, a source of values, to deliver and encounter death, and to anticipate and want catastrophe.

The current war is hybrid, nonlinear, and unrestricted. The establishment of war regimes creates an expansive ecotope in which fascisms linked to military, social, and media/informational warfare machines are able to thrive. This alone is reason enough to stop this war. The paradox of the war propaganda is that it claims to fight totalitarianism and fascism while creating conditions in which new forms of fascism can flourish.

Pablo Iglesias

You argue that pacifism should become the key force in a social and political movement in Europe. But we don’t see anything today that comes close to the antiwar protests that exploded across the continent in 2003. Do you think this will change?

Raúl Sánchez Cedillo

There is something unsettling, and horrifying, about the social mainstream’s apathy toward the current escalation of war — both before and after the Russian invasion. I include here the pro-military enthusiasm of the liberal left in both Europe and the United States, which propagates civilizational warmongering with moral arrogance. These phenomena still need to be analyzed. In Spain, the pacifist movement has long been a strong force in what can be called the social left, and thus the political left. The fight against joining NATO in the early 1980s gave rise to Izquierda Unida, the main coalition of leftist parties in the country.

More importantly, this fight brought younger generations into social movement politics who, starting in 1989, took on the campaign to end compulsory military service. Finally, the movement against the Iraq War was ethically transformative for many Spanish citizens. This paved the way for the (center-left) Zapatero government and the radical democratic movement known as 15-M, which in turn resulted, among many other things, in the Left becoming part of Spain’s current coalition government. So why not now? And why not in Spain?

Let me point out a few things that should be considered, not separately but in their interconnectedness: the brutal nature of the Russian invasion and its media performance; the excellent Ukrainian-US propaganda machine and its social media tentacles; and the fact that no party on the Left in Spain, with the exception of Podemos, is speaking out about the militarization underway in the EU. The EU, of course, is the provider of the funds that prevent social collapse.

I see two factors of paramount importance. For one, the Russian invasion has broken the backbone of the Left. It has divided the Left and accelerated the militaristic transformation of both pro-Atlantic and pro-Russian factions. And secondly, this vulnerability can only be understood if we bear in mind the deep depression and distress that the capitalist management of the COVID-19 pandemic caused in the global psyche, especially with respect to how we perceive the value of life. We can now see the resulting frustration, vengeance, and paranoia, but also attempts to reconnect, heal the body, and rescue love for the common good and cooperation against the absolutism of capitalist profits, property, and power.

The background of this emerging war regime is a planetary capitalism whose rulers are now looking to the limits of earth and its biosphere — a capitalism that is ready to further intensify fiscal austerity, with results that will make life difficult to bear for most human beings. In this context, war comes once again as a solution to social and political contradictions, as a means of imposing “order” both at home and abroad. Resistance to war is inevitable, and I think it will grow in the months to come. But this does not mean resistance will develop as an offensive counterforce.

History teaches us that without an uprising, pacifism has always lost the game. This is why I propose “constituent peace” as a practical political orientation: a meeting point where antiwar resistance, disobedience, desertion, and sabotage are linked to labor, feminist, LGBTQ, anti-colonial, anti-fascist, and ecological struggles, as well as fights for public health and education. This could be a multiple but convergent movement toward an uprising capable of bringing about new forms of people’s power. Our goal in Spain is to build an anti-fascist and emancipatory democracy, breaking the bonds between war, austerity, the concentration of wealth, and authoritarianism. We are aiming for a confederal republic, something that became possible to imagine in the course of the 15-M movement — something new and feasible, not nostalgic. Something that social and political lefts until now have failed to create.