Against Campism and Nationalism on Ukraine

I haven’t talked much about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine since it occurred, mostly just sharing Ukrainian voices and chastising a now former friend for calling for a NATO enforced no fly zone (e.g. shooting down a nuclear power’s planes). There’s something grotesque about the way slaughter can be turned into posturing discourse among the comfortable while the bombs are falling. The way that horrors in Ukraine and Palestine are so easily turned into abstractions should bring us all up short.

But it doesn’t. For two years now the involvement of the US and NATO in the conflict has drawn out some of the most retrograde campist tendencies in the Left, who seek to turn back the clock on the ascendency of the “Three Way Fight” analysis of antifascists. 

In some ways this abrupt return of monsters once banished helps re-illustrate how starkly unpopular antifa was in the wider Left before the rise of Trump made everyone think they could redefine “antifa” as a populist movement rather than specific practice and analysis. Before liberals thought they could get nonprofit careers as talking heads about “violent extremism,” and before Leftists started trying to slap this “antifa” brand the kids were so into on all their old unrelated projects, antifa stood for a network of researchers and dedicated crews whose emphasis on defeating fascist threats outside the establishment and expelling reactionary creep among leftist spaces often made them marginal and hated.

In particular the now plumbline analysis of Three Way Fight emerged in response to popular Leftist narratives during the Bush years, that downplayed Islamist reaction or even celebrated it as a strike by the global south against the US empire. (Also relevant was the just prior wave of “anti-imperialist” leftist genocide denial around the Balkans.) If the mainstream Left monofocused on bringing down the empire to absurd degrees and simple-mindedly reacted against whatever its dominant narratives were, antifa urged a wider lens in which liberalism and the US empire were just one of our enemies, one that should not entirely eclipse diligently fighting reactionaries with less power or in conflict with the US.

Unfortunately, for the decade and a half between 9/11 and the alt-right wave of 2016, most on the Left still saw fighting with fascists or reactionaries a distraction, or even a counter-productive betrayal of potential allies. And before Rojava’s struggle with ISIS, a certain number on the Left likewise saw ISIS as an irrelevancy, or — worse — noble fighters in a broad coalition of underdogs out to smash the US Empire. The idea that anarchists would volunteer to fight ISIS was unthinkable.

But, after the threat of reactionaries outside of the US establishment power structure became impossible to ignore, this legacy of the Left was eclipsed and many reactionaries screamed in agony. From Alex Jones to Glenn Greenwald, their sense of betrayal was not without historical substance. To many in the 90s, the Left was nothing if not a grand coalition against the US Empire, happily inclusive of the most rank reaction. The best response that could be mustered against fascist or reactionary presence during this era was to squirmingly assert that they must not be serious about opposing the US Empire. If the Left was exclusively and centrally defined by opposing the US Empire, no other response seemed possible. And the more complicated calculus of antifascists made them, by definition, traitors.

One of the most common categories of fascist memes is mocking anarchists as having sided with corporations and “globalism” because we also fight with fascists. If we’re not against the liberal regime to the exclusion of all else, then we must be in its pocket. It’s hard not to listen to the reactionary ramblings of an old marginalized wingnut like Keith McHenry of Food Not Bombs and not have some sympathy for him. The anarchist movement really did “change positions” on things like “Big Medicine.” I remember with painful clarity when a huge majority of the scene was anti-vaccine. Hell, we’ve only just begun to pivot back from rejecting science as a whole. Of course our evolution on this was an update for the better, a shedding off of a simplistic knee-jerk anti-establishment narrative for something more accurate, nuanced, and thus in line with anarchism. But true believers from the 90s like McHenry have had a rough time of it.

There are many such people deeply wedded to the old “one big coalition to destroy the one big enemy” way of thinking, and the Ukraine war has shaken them out. They cannot believe that many of us could resist NATO in the streets of Chicago and then come home and fight against the “national-anarchists” and tankies in our local scenes who likewise oppose NATO. This is, to them, not consistency in anti-authoritarian principles but inconsistency in alliances.

But again, I have some sympathy for them. I really do. And I have consistently expressed sympathies for criticisms of Ukrainian nationalism and anarchist involvement in the military. There are important issues at hand that should not be eclipsed by reactive dismissal of all the bad arguments going around.

This recent piece by Ariane Miéville and José Luis García González, originally published in French, has some flabbergastingly bad arguments but it also makes a number of important points.

It’s quite valid to argue that there are important structural differences between insurgent anarchist participation in World War 2 and anarchist participation under regimented military units in Ukraine. Yes, few would condemn anarchist Maquis and other insurgents for collaborating with allied powers, even accepting commands from them in World War 2. But there is an important strategic distinction to be had between insurgencies where our decentralized proactive approach gives us comparative advantage, and meatgrinders of trench warfare where already few precious anarchist lives are snuffed to almost no impact.

It should be clear that the greatest impact anarchists can have against the atrocities taking place in Ukraine is in Russia, in the sabotage of its war machine. A single railroad connects the Russian Empire across its holdings in Asia to the Siberian peninsula and its length cannot be policed without redirecting significant resources from the Ukrainian front. Those anarchists like BOAK that have targeted such weak spots are incredible heroes who deserve far more support.  When we choose violence, we are best as saboteurs, assassins, and organizers. We certainly have experience building basic needs support for refugees, from medical to food to underground efforts against borders. In contrast I can’t help but feel our talents go to waste running through a bombed out village waiting for hours for commands before dying randomly to mines and artillery fire.

One could go further and ask what proof there is that anarchist participation in the Ukrainian armed forces will actually buy the Ukrainian anarchist movement any standing or reprieve? That bastard Zelenzky was imprisoning anarchists before the invasion; I see no proof whatsoever that the liberal state will remember our sacrifices and honor some kind of compact where each anarchist life lost in the trenches will buy freedom for even one anarchist who would otherwise be arrested and imprisoned.

My concern here is historical. Anarchists have gotten into bed with nationalists before; we have joined national-liberation struggles through commendable solidarity with the oppressed and/or personal desperation, accepting coalition with the underpowered or out-of-power enemy to defeat the big enemy… and every single time we have regretted it. I am quite intimately aware of how many Korean anarchists today renounce their forefathers, evaluating the anarchist collaboration with nationalists against the horrors of Japanese colonialism to be an unforgivable lapse in principle and one whose result was only the empowerment of nationalism. I am also intimately aware of how fascist entryists, the boneheads of the so called “national-anarchists” who spent the 00s trying to infiltrate anarchist spaces, have celebrated and leaned on every example of such collaboration to legitimize their own ideology of fractal borders, parochial communities, and tribal warlords. In particular, I remember well the burst of global fascist enthusiasm and mobilization around the 2014 invasion and the clownishly mistaken allegiances or affinities that some in the US radical left fell into as a response.

Some have argued that, with fascist formations employed on the frontlines by both sides, the best of the bad options is to have the war grind on, hopefully whittling them down, rather than unleashing them back to their countries of origin, but the scale of death of non-fascists in this trade is staggering. And what of the slippage and corruption that inevitably happens when anarchists and fascists fight alongside one another? When there’s talk of former comrades joining Azov for the “mundane” reason that they have better gear and training, one cannot say that these dynamics do not matter. No one in the west can speak to the details or extent, rumors are rumors, perhaps it is only a handful of the usual suspects who have embraced full nationalism. But no matter how well Ukrainian anarchists hold back the fascist creep, we are right to be wary of what might eventually come back to our local communities.

Many anarchists on the ground in Ukraine believe that they can navigate these tensions, that they have no choice but to make the bets they have made. They may be correct; certainly they have more intimate and detailed knowledge of a context and their available choices far beyond my grasp. Similarly, a few anarchists in Palestine believe collaborating under the command of Hamas’ de facto state that folks were rioting against not that long ago, and in geopolitical coalition with Iranian imperialism, is a necessary evil against the genocidal onslaught of Israel. Perhaps they are right as well. Desperation can license concessions. I certainly hope their gambles work out in both cases. A great deal would be licensed if it could truly defeat Russia and Israel. But from the outside perspective the bet seems bad.

While certain demagogues in the Left have screamed invective towards those fighting in Ukraine, or those even in the most tangential or ephemeral way supporting the Ukrainian people, my heart goes out to our Ukrainian comrades. I cannot begin to appreciate the alienation and isolation they must be feeling. But I also cannot pretend that I do not have a sick feeling lurking in my stomach that many of the gambles being made will not turn out well.

Yes, the arrogant west of the anarchist movement has sometimes demonstrated a disgusting entitlement to backseat drive from afar, boxing a distant struggle into familiar conflicts at home, focusing more on scoring points or making grabs for power within our local discursive contexts than extending any meaningful support or compassion. Many of the critiques of hypocrisy and arrogance on the part of western critics are potent. But when a friend gets into a relationship that looks bad, you may be wrong in your outside evaluation — certainly your friend has far more detailed knowledge about the relationship in many respects than you —but you can still be right and as a result you owe them a warning, however perfunctory. 

Maybe the only way to survive the state’s conscription effort and the fascists arming themselves is to allow yourself to get armed too. But war has dangerous incentives that ratchet on their own accord, and the resulting environment silences those who dissent. If a major goal of many anarchists is to not draw overwhelming fire as traitors to the nation, then it can follow that there can be no public bragging, encouragement, or discussion of efforts that would be seen as undermining the war – like helping folks escape conscription. The totalizing narratives that result do not only paper over complexities and necessary subversions, but they create an environment and norms that risk being inherited to new generations of radicals. Compromises have a tendency to take a life of their own.

As things heat up within the dying US empire, I am reminded increasingly of the stories from an anarchist friend of mine who grew up as a Palestinian refugee in the ruins of the Lebanese Civil War. A war where the fight wasn’t three-way, but thirty-ways; where the near-enemy and far-enemy calculus shifted daily, alliances had to be broken and forged without regard for the past but merely for daily survival. I worry that anarchists in the US will live to face similar wrenching problems; where there simply is nothing your neighborhood commune can do but pivot again and again between fighting and allying with other factions. Will we really be able to hold firm against collaboration with the tankie cult run by a rapist that kills homeless kids, when we need more bodies to attack the fascist convoy? Will we accept tactical collaboration with chud militias against the US army? Will we squirm and tolerate the remains of the empire’s forces, when they set up food distribution camps and run missions to hunt down the Wolves of Vinland crew trying to blow up the dam powering our neighborhood’s heating through the winter?

Even if we have certain critiques, even if we step back from making certain concessions, even if we subvert and sabotage certain forces, even if we keep to Three Way Fight, will we find ourselves unable to speak of such? Will the paranoia, desperation, and jingoistic mobilization around us make it impossible to speak freely about certain facts?

Or will we run and hide, leaving our friends and families behind to cling to privileged “normalcy” in some foreign city, justifying survival on the grounds that we’ll be keeping texts and networks alive? Will we watch the desperate complex choices of our sleep-deprived and malnourished friends on the news, and listen to strangers lecture us on how short those choices measure up?

War presents a cascading series of trolley problems of astonishing severity, and our bare hunger for survival can end up eroding how we evaluate them. Even if our comrades in Ukraine have no time for our pontifications and distant evaluations, we should still think quite hard about what they’re going through — not to backseat drive necessarily, but to prepare for our own coming fraught decisions as the US empire shatters.

If you never prepare to be tested on a principle, if you never think through potential challenges and tradeoffs with all their richness, you are more likely to fold.

I don’t think that I would ever wear the uniform of a state. But I have never faced conscription when my country was invaded by a genocidal army. Perhaps the Ukrainian state’s carrot of “if you join an army unit with ‘anarchist’ branding you’ll have some autonomy and control of weapons” would sucker me in. Perhaps it would truly be the best of the bad options. As we’ve covered, escape for conscription-age “men” is not trivial or certain. (Although there are groups working to help escape from conscription… often the same people collaborating with the military in other respects, war is complicated.)

Anarchism is at core a universal stance on power: It’s all bad. This sets our tiny beautiful minority against the entire world at once. Because everyone besides us wants some form of power, thinks some level of authority, some slicing apart of humanity, is justified. Everything we do in the world is thus innately compromised from get-go. We have flexibility to deal with these challenges, but there are still hard lines just as there are always important interrelations between ends and means. Our ideals press hard.

We went through all this before with Rojava, in starkly similar terms, including accepting US & NATO weapons, intel, training, and even airstrikes, on the consequentialist grounds that surviving genocide by ISIS or Ergodan outweighed the negative externalities. For years, as a result, most Marxists derisively referred to Rojava as a US puppet, even encouraging the extermination of its project by Assad.

Now, we are definitely not Marxists, nor something vapid like “non-sectarian leftists,” and it is of course absurd to declare, as a few residual wingnuts of the olden days have, that “the core of our politics is destroying the US.” Of course the US is evil and must be destroyed; this is certainly an important strategic aim we have, that should go without saying – although some liberals need reminding. But why, for instance, would any feminist collapse her politics to destroying merely one select momentary epiphenomenon of patriarchy? The US didn’t invent patriarchy, and for all the ways it contributes to it there is every reason to think even that a world system with the PRC as the global hegemon would be even worse in terms of patriarchal policies. Even if the core of our politics was destroying white supremacy, that wouldn’t destroy racism, imperialism, settler-colonialism, genocide, etc., which predate and extend well beyond whiteness or European culture, to say nothing of the US empire.

The thing about ideals is that while anarchism’s universalism leaves us almost no friends or allies, it avoids locking us into a myopic particularism. We don’t fixate on merely the immediate, but try to view the vaster picture. The point of radicalism, of grasping at the roots, is to be able to see beyond the historically contingent, to recognize the horizons beyond which our rules of thumb can break down.

But at the same time flexibility can simply slide us into new traps.

There was, from the beginning, a tendency of over-deference to Rojava from some corners of the anarchist movement.

My sharpest personal experience of such absurdities was playing host to Paul Z Simons as he, an ardent post-leftist anti-organizationalist, tried to frame Rojava as more in line with Bob Black than Murray Bookchin, desperately trying to convince himself and us of the ideologically impossible out of a bare macho attraction to guns and militancy. “They’re real men!” he rhapsodized at one point, before stumbling on what he’d just said.

This fetishization for militant struggle and the eternal appeal of a colored region on a map, left many failing to recognize the ways it — despite being truly inspiring and overwhelmingly better than Assad, ISIS, or Ergodan — replicates statism and is trapped within the logic of territory and war. The YPG made public threats to murder the families of ISIS members, has been credibly accused of ethnic biases to say nothing of reactionary baseline cultural attitudes, and is collaborating with the bloodsoaked Assad regime. I have earned many enemies pointing these out and refusing to allow anarchists to look away.

The Ukrainian state has gotten into bed with nazis, allowing the Azov Brigade and other fascists a degree of autonomy and funding (yes I’m aware there’s been institutional attempts to massage the leadership and blunt the ideological aspects, but let’s not pretend this goes anywhere far enough). The Ukrainian state runs a border regime that, like all border regimes, is racist and the direct cause of immense suffering. And again, it runs a conscription program.

Those of us who do not cling to historical reenactment fantasies have never forgiven the CNT for conscription; it remains one of the most prominent bullet points anarchists use to prove the CNT abandoned anarchism in the Spanish civil war. If we make apologia for conscription by a full-fledged state, what level of compromises will we happily accept in a US civil war? Will anarchists defend tankie cults conscripting neighborhood kids as an unpleasant necessity? Will we tolerate the neighborhood “mutual aid” assembly as it starts granting to itself the powers of a state?

Yes, extreme situations can license extreme responses. But one of the worst things war does is silence critical evaluations. The “exceptions” that pass without objection become the new norms.

Worse than silence, however, can be a poisoned debate where reactive thinking leads to polarization.

Perhaps the greatest ally of normalizing ideological compromise around Ukraine has been the return of all-or-nothing thinking in the Left, particularly the return of outright campists using the thinnest pretense of “anti-imperialism.” It’s not just that such erodes our values, it also quickly leads to absurdly inaccurate maps of reality.

In their article Miéville and González write that,

“There are two possibilities: either Putin is an irrational madman, and bringing him to his knees would directly lead to the Third World War and the annihilation of humanity; or the war he has unleashed can, at least in part, be explained by perceived threats also felt by a portion of the Russian population. In any case, the only possible way out is negotiation, a ceasefire.”

This framing is a shockingly ignorant and rhetorically simplistic collapse of geopolitics in ways that should distress any anarchist. There are vast worlds of possibilities between “total madman” and merely “responding to threats.” Just as there is a vast spread of possibilities between nuclear war and effective Ukrainian capitulation. Missing is any notion of Putin’s agency or Russia as a proactive entity. One doesn’t have to believe that someone would slam their fist on the nuclear armageddon button for fun to believe that the Russian state apparatus intends world domination or as near as they can come, and will doggedly pursue further invasions, further devastation, authoritarianism, and genocide. It is totally plausible that a settlement in Ukraine favorable to Russia will help consolidate Putin’s power, provide the war machine time to regroup and rebuild, and lay the groundwork for the next horrific aggression.

Of course some sort of negotiated compromise is inherent; both the Russian and Ukrainian state say they’re open to a compromise, they just disagree on terms. It’s impossible to a priori derive what terms people in Ukraine should accept — like a fait accompli of the war frontier right now, leaving behind those imprisoned in the captured territories — because there’s no objective middle ground. Should the Kanehsata:ke have settled for the de facto borders to their land imposed by Canada? Peace is not necessarily justice. In much the same way that liberals in the US wring their hands with inanities like “both sides are bad, saying nothing else while tens of thousands of children are butchered in Gaza, to simply advocate ceasefire or compromise alone in the abstract, at the exclusion of all other considerations, is not principled. You can’t, as Ward Churchill got us all saying, be neutral on a moving train. And, make no mistake, Russia is driving this train.

This is, obviously, not to warmonger, reject any compromise, or somehow – by recognizing Russia’s proactive and primary role – deny NATO’s proactivity in horrors from Turtle Island to Afghanistan. But there’s a particularly galling narrative popular among abuse apologists that abusers are simply normal people acting out because their normal human needs haven’t been met, or because they have legitimate fears that need to be addressed, and Miéville and González’s cartoonish reduction of Putin’s agency and ideological aspirations leverages this exact sort of simplistic thinking where he is cast as reacting.

Let us be very clear about Putin’s aims. His original goal was to take over the entire territory, purging Ukrainian culture as well as anything in civil society that might pose a threat to his regime. This meant kill lists of activists and dissidents that they were crowdsourcing help with as tanks rolled on Kyiv, but it also meant classic pre-modern European warfare of pillaging, enslavement, and extermination once it became clear the government couldn’t be seized. The horrors documented in captured towns make clear that Ukrainians are to be butchered or forcibly used as canon fodder, while hundreds of thousands of their children are to be “lost” in a clearcut genocidal adoption project — facts that have left the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine starkly polarized against Putin.

To bring Russia back to glory in its rightful place as a world superpower, it must regain domination over all the peoples’ who escaped it during the fall of the USSR, even systematically replace them with Russian settlers as they’ve financed in Crimea. It must exterminate the populations of its occupied territories and steal hundreds of thousands of their children. And of course it means to shatter the West, leaving only weak reactionary puppets or unending civil conflicts. While this may be propagandized in parts of the global south as “multipolarity” — which is potentially an even worse thing, as a network of locally attentive and energetically competing warlords can sometimes be worse than a fumbling Emperor far away — the Russian goal has long been to ultimately take the crown of the US Empire for itself. The nazi-ridden Wagner group’s backing of murderous tyrants across Saharan Africa, for example, has merely traded French imperialism for Russian.

Putin’s personal control is predicated upon tapping into widespread nationalist, racist, and chauvinist narratives. He came to power because imperialist wars in Chechnya gave Russian nationalists a sense that Russia was expanding again, on its way to its rightful place ruling the world. Right now Russia blends plumbline contemporary fascist ideology (from myriad directions including most notably Dugin) with an authoritarian kleptocratic state structure and its continued direct grasp of settler colonial imperialist holdings even more vast than the US. This includes horrific repression of anarchists in Russia proper and in its puppet state of Belarus (I strongly encourage every anarchist to read the account of Ihar Alinevich). The Russian empire has been eroding and much of its population fears further erosion, much as the British population feared the loss of their holdings and stature as their empire was in decline.

But the popularity of imperialistic, nationalistic, and fascistic sentiments in Russia, what the authors frame as perceived threats also felt by a portion of the Russian population, do not provide any sort of legitimacy whatsoever. The US population broadly perceives a multitude of threats, some even real; that does not mean negotiation is called for on how much white supremacy to tolerate.

Russian revanchism on its “near abroad” — a region of former conquests it feels entitled to control for eternity — predates Putin and NATO expansion after the cold war. Indeed Russian dreams of imperial conquest of Europe and beyond far predate NATO. It is extremely relevant that there is a long history of slaughter, slavery, genocide, and settler-colonial projects in Ukraine, just as there is in Rojava or Palestine or the US. Every anarchist raised with stories of Makhno and Marusya knows this quite well. These Russian ambitions and entitlements didn’t dissolve or reside — rather they remain widespread to the point where they provide legitimization for Putin.

They must be entirely defeated, of course. For anarchism to triumph Russia must die, not just the US. This means we ultimately do not care that large sections of either population have deep seated anxieties about the loss of their power. Imagine someone saying that the North Vietnamese should make concessions to the US and negotiate a ceasefire early on because the US population is fearful of expanding Soviet influence.

NATO is a military alliance of states. The states involved vary between imperialist genocidal engines that have drenched the world in blood, like the US and France, to relatively underpowered enclaves like Estonia or Finland for whom being under the thumb of NATO has been by far the lesser evil to extermination under Russia. It is a perfectly reasonable evaluation by many in these countries that Russia will be emboldened and strengthened if it permanently wins territory in its war of conquest. Indeed much of the drama since the February 2022 invasion has been internal tensions within NATO, with those countries most threatened by Russia being the most bellicose, while those most safe, like the US, even offering assistance to Putin to keep him in power, providing early proactive intel on dissent in his ranks, because they fear destabilization more than anything else. Internal military documents are quite clear that they don’t want Russia to fall, for fear of fragmentation – they think in terms of draining resources and countering projections, noting correctly that they do not have the capacity for regime change, much less occupation or annihilation. To frame a ceasefire on these terms as a matter of assuaging Russian feelings of existential threat from NATO is proactively blind to reality, and should be completely offensive to anyone with a conscience.

If a nearby state — let’s say Cuba — that suffered from US imperialism and feared a US invasion chose to petition to join a military compact for defense with Russia, even positioning nuclear weapons there, would the US be justified in invading? Would the openness to that defensive agreement on the part of Russia be the “root” cause of the conflict? Should we say that the US simply has a natural “sphere of influence,” and that this must be accepted as a fact about the world?

No, if the US had invaded Cuba outright in response to it asking Russia for closer defense collaboration, we could well imagine Cuban anarchists who had faced severe repression from the Castro regime, taking up arms against the US invaders, even collaborating with state communist forces! We could certainly expect anarchists in the US, Canada and Mexico to escalate armed activity against the US invasion and to collaborate with Cuban forces resisting.

Would they be wrong to do all that? Perhaps. I don’t know.

But what this intuition pump leverages and makes apparent is that many US Leftists, even some “anarchists,” still feel instinctive campist geopolitical and regime affinities. Both in the sense of a weird lingering “pan-leftist” identification with Castro’s regime, and in even the most attenuated identification with Putin’s Russia by way of nebulous cold war continuity, and in the sense of an instinctive campism that, ‘we should bullheadedly focus exclusively on always and in all contexts working against our own countries’ and the US in particular because it is presently the most powerful among empires. Never mind what would make sense in that context from the perspective of a global movement that faces many challenges simultaneously.

If NATO did not exist, the Russian attempt to colonize Ukraine would still have happened, and if the Ukrainian state apparatus did not exist during this invasion, Ukrainians would still have fought the genocidal settler-colonialist invaders. If — as might well happen — Zelensky and the Ukrainian state were to order the Ukrainian people to stop fighting, and accept some unjust peace, surely we would recognize the state’s edict as something to be resisted.

I’m not without sympathy for concerns of escalation to nuclear warfare, but would those who think the fighting should stop over such fears side with the Ukrainian state in rounding up or shooting those Ukrainians who continue to fight in defiance of their authority? If the US cuts a deal with Putin to sacrifice or cut up Ukraine, would those screaming about peace at any cost back even US troops helping round up anyone continuing armed struggle? At what point does Putin’s saber rattling become a reason to defer endlessly and completely? If he threatens to lob nukes in response to riots or an anarchist insurgency or a mass uprising at home, should we condemn those?

The spectacle of a number of supposed “anarchists” echoing Russia Today propaganda is bad enough, but when they get warped to the point of dismissive hostility to “color revolutions” (the myth that the US somehow pulls the puppet strings of all popular revolts in countries outside their direct control) they become indistinguishable from Leninists or any other cop-cheering reactionary.

The sheer fact of the matter is that struggle against power everywhere will sometimes be in line with the interests or imperatives of the US. To demand folks await the fall of the US to resist other powers is identical to Communist demands in so many other contexts that we wait for the masses, The Party strategists, or the Withering To Come.

Calla Walsh made the grotesque authoritarianism of campism even more stark when she declared, in a stunningly self-aware statement

If “woman life freedom” succeeded & overthrew the sovereign govt of Iran, there’d be no Axis Of Resistance as we know it to resist US-Zionist imperialism.”

Ultimately Campism is inextricably a statist framework. It doesn’t just treat states as merely the largest loosely congealing patterns in a wider and deeper ecology of power relations, but centers them in a way that slices away all other considerations. Rather than seeing the two hundred or so formally recognized nation-states as an interlocking mesh of gangs, where — in normal workings — as one gang loses power the others rise to take it, the campist sees the US as not different in degree or happenstance but ontologically exceptional. This leads one to abandon critical analysis of the other state power structures but it also inevitably leads to functionally backing those “lesser evils.” 

We can all recognize that an anarchist utilizing the chaos of Russia’s invasion to assassinate notorious Ukrainian cops or fascists would clearly be commendable, but the campist shies away from thinking that a Palestinian anarchist likewise using the chaos of Israel’s invasion to assassinate notorious Hamas cops or islamists would likewise be commendable. In the supposed “axis of resistance” resistance must be crushed.

To be an anarchist is to have far more in common with anarchists in any distant country in the world than with any non-anarchist. And yet the campist does not ground their solidarity or affinity in values, but in the arrangement of pieces in the statist framework of geopolitics and the blinders of immediacy. Often they will even proactively tell you that they have more in common with our Leninist enemies than with us! They see values as secondary to coalitions.

This sort of thinking operates in coalitional all-or-nothings, so that someone supporting Ukrainians using US arms is magically transmuted into saying “don’t attack the US war machine.” As though a person supporting Rojava getting weapons from the US means they should stop simultaneously vandalizing military recruitment offices, blockading Raytheon offices, or fragging officers. That doesn’t even remotely follow!

The Republican Spain and the anarchists of the CNT/FAI had basically two options for armament: the Soviet Union or the capitalist arms manufacturers of the West. Stalin was clearly a catastrophic mistake; trading the plundered gold of the Spanish Empire to the USSR only strengthened its regime for decades and gave them the footing to betray the anarchists and seize power in Spain. In response, many anarchists decided it was clear we’d made the wrong choice and the West was the lesser evil in the strategic calculus. But even supporting the Republican forces buying weapons from Stalin doesn’t mean thinking that anarchists in the Soviet Union should stop bombing Cheka and Bolshevik meetings.

I make these comparisons, to Rojava, to Gaza, to Korea, to Cuba, and to Spain, not because they are absolutely identical situations or to steal some unproblematic or heroic veneer for all Ukrainian anarchists today and all their different choices, but precisely because those other situations should be deeply problematic for anarchists. We should feel tortured about the complexities in those examples. We should think quite critically and recognize enemies and dangers in multiple directions.

In a quite decent panel on the ways western anarchists have failed our Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian anarchists, echoing false propaganda, leveraging privilege imperiously, and failing to supply aid in even more limited ways, one comrade eloquently spoke:

“It’s a strange world where anarchists tell fighting people to lay down their weapons… It is a strange world where capitalist peace is more important than the anarchist fight against dictatorship …It is a strange world where anarchists are laughing during a minute of solidarity with those tortured and murdered by the state… As anarchists we have to be in the places where the world is burning.”

This is true.

It’s a strange and complicated world — one where a minority of “anarchists” somehow feel no shame at acting like Leninists. We do have obligations to press into the heat, to make hard choices. Anarchism means nothing if it does not mean taking proactive responsibility, often living soaked in mud and blood. Still, anarchism also means nothing if we focus on immediate challenges at the exclusion of potential or distant tangles. We are justifiably proud of our movement’s great accomplishment in exposing Marx’s implicit authoritarianism decades before any Marxist was near success in their plans. To make such a critique did not diminish fighting the immediate danger of capitalism, it meant keeping our heads clear. If we cared exclusively about the immediate, about the evil on our doorstep — whether Russian or Yankee — we simply wouldn’t be anarchists. We are at our best when we concern ourselves with many dangers at once, distant ones as well as pressing ones. Not just the pressing danger of the Russian genocidal project, but the danger of nationalist creep and state entanglement. Not just the pressing danger of the US empire, but the other monsters that will quickly rise to take its place.

To live in the mess means making hard choices, but it also means avoiding the reassurances of simple strategies or poisoned alliances. We are always inherently at odds with everyone.

What is so dangerous about the extremities of war is the pull to forget this multipronged fight.

We must avoid the campism that would short-circuit all considerations beyond destroying the US, but so too must we avoid a reflexive underdogism that embraces not just struggle against the subjugation of peoples on national lines but proactive nationalism of the oppressed. The kind of crude ghoulishness that places the national flags of Ukraine, Palestine, or Rojava in a social media bio like one’s rooting for a sports team, or even worse, in such spectacle, ignores the cops to be fought at home – like the liberals who will cheer the Zapatistas but turn you in for fighting.

As I’ve said, one of the worst things about campism is that it reinforces this sort of binary thinking not just in its own ranks but in those who react to it. With every ghastly insult and despicable take, with every hypocrisy or rhetorical bombast, the campist stokes the liberalism they accuse everyone of. When western anarchists sneer at or even physically attack Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian anarchists, the pressure only naturally builds to see more in common with those hiding from the bombs alongside you than some smug French or US anarchist writer. When “anarchists” on twitter declare that we should follow Leninist prescriptions and organize alongside them as good little dupes, their absurdity becomes a pressing near-enemy that obscures the other “anarchists” literally sharing NATO memes.

While it may be hard for some dinosaurs among us to grasp, to fight one evil effectively you often have to fight other evils in conflict with it at the same time.

It’s a strange and complicated world. And we should remember that. Especially those of us who live in relative privilege and peace for now. Because it’s going to get stranger. And while I may not know as much on Ukraine as some, I do know that anyone looking for the relief of coalitions or simple fights is going to make bad evaluations as things grow more complicated.


Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory