Ukraine and the ethical uncertainty of war

Joe Webb, Papering Over the Cracks, 1976

So that the Alexanders, Carnots, Humberts, and others should not be murdered, but it should be explained to them that they are themselves murderers, and, chiefly, they should not be allowed to kill people: men should refuse to murder at their command.

If people do not yet act in this way, it is only because Governments, to maintain themselves, diligently exercise a hypnotic influence upon the people. And, therefore, we may help to prevent people killing either Kings or one another, not by killing- murder only increases the hypnotism- but by arousing people from their hypnotic condition.

Leo Tolstoy, Though shalt not kill

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.

What I object to is the intellectual cowardice of people who are objectively and to some extent emotionally pro-Fascist, but who don’t care to say so and take refuge behind the formula ‘I am just as anti-fascist as anyone, but—’. The result of this is that so-called peace propaganda is just as dishonest and intellectually disgusting as war propaganda. Like war propaganda, it concentrates on putting forward a ‘case’, obscuring the opponent’s point of view and avoiding awkward questions.

George Orwell, Pacifism and the War

There is nothing to be celebrated in modern war. The total mobilisation or militarisation that it calls upon, of resources and their extraction, knowledge and technologies, production, media and myths, population, transforms the whole of a society into an instrument of generalised creative destruction. Older notions bound to specific spaces and times of war and its virtues, such as a battlefield, soldier and civilian, courage and comradeship, war and peace, fall away, to be replaced by a permanent war against everything that would undermine and/or ruin the conditions required for sustaining social life.

The Marxist concept of primitive accumulation, which was limited by Marx both to the violent separation of large numbers of people from their means of subsistence and their mobilisation for and concentration in industrial labour, and to the pre-history of capitalism, remains instructive if extended to the whole of nature’s many “energetic resources” (human and non-human, animate and inanimate) and as contemporaneous with all capitalist social forms. Capitalism is thus in a permanent state of war, a war on life, on different forms of life and different forms of human life, thereby engendering all of the violent hierarchies (e.g., anthropocentrism, sexism, classism, racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism and colonialism, etc.) necessary to secure the production of commodities (material and immaterial) and their consumption. The cost of the latter is so great that the many must contribute to it without benefit, or even by their deaths. Creation walks hand in hand with destruction – there is no consumption without it. And for this same reason, any generalised freedom and equality would sound the death knell of the same.

Politics under such an “economic” regime cannot be anything other than the management of life, of labour and desire, on a scale and with an intensity unprecedented in human history. In other words, capitalism is fundamentally state dependent and state centred, for only the violence exercised by a state can provide the conditions required for the production and re-production of capitalist social relations. A capitalism unbound would spiral off into self-annihilation, by undoing those very conditions. The state ties it down, territorialises it, in a tense but unavoidable relation. And consequently war is an inevitable feature of capitalist societies, not as politics by another means, but as the very essence of politics, whether “domestic” or “foreign”. And as today’s global capitalist economy can only exacerbate inequalities, its immediate politics of survival assumes the guise of extreme nationalism, vomiting up all of the rotting ideological carcases of a past which some naively thought to have been buried.    

Wars between States and those of class, race, and gender have always accompanied Capital’s development because, on the basis of primitive accumulation, they are the conditions of its existence. The formation of classes (of workers, slaves and the colonized, women) implies an extra-economic violence that founds domination as well as a violence that preserves it, stabilizing and reproducing the relations between victor and vanquished. There is no Capital without class war, race war, gender war, and without the State, which possesses the force and means of waging them! War and wars are not external realities, but are constitutive of the relation of Capital … . (Maurizio Lazzarato, “War, Capitalism, Ecology”)[1]

It is against this background, we are told, that one must read the war in Ukraine.

To believe that Russia is the cause of a potential third world war is like believing the assassination in Sarajevo was the cause of the first. It is intellectual and political laziness.

A century ago, Rosa Luxemburg had already grasped the impossibility of completing the globalization of capital, and thus the inevitability of imperial war: Capital, “having a tendency to become a world form, breaks itself over its incapacity to actually become this world form of production.” It cannot become global capital because it depends on the Nation-State as much for its realization of surplus-value and the appropriation thereof (private property is guaranteed by its laws and force) as for its “regulation.” As Deleuze and Guattari put it, without the State, Capital would send its flows to the moon.

The machine of accumulation and its tendency to ceaselessly expand (the world market) rests on a tension between State and Capital, even though both fully participate in its function. Capital expresses a “tendency to become global” that cannot be fulfilled, for it has neither the political nor military force necessary for its ambitions. The State, by contrast, exercises these two powers, but its foundation is territorial, with borders and rival States. It is useless to oppose Capital (with its entirely relative immanence) to the State (with its very real sovereignty), since they always act in concert.

The failure of contemporary globalization is very similar to the failure of the preceding globalization between the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. This one, too, can only end in war, for when finance capital collapses, States and their armies will advance to compete for hegemony over the world market.

The current global “disorder” (a multiplicity of centers of power constituted by large spaces, but at the center of which there are always States) that the Americans would like to reduce to an impossible imperial order (impossible because it has already failed), risks descending into a still greater chaos regardless of who comes out victorious.

In place of cosmopolitanism, the great globalization has only been able to produce identitarian logics since Capital, in order not to collapse after the financial debacle of 2008, carrying capitalist “civilization” off with it, had to nestle itself under the protective wing of the State, which itself can only live off identity: nationalism, fascism, racism, sexism.

In capitalism, differences do not differentiate themselves by producing unpredictable novelties (as the philosophy of difference either ingeniously or irresponsibly asserts), but become polarized (inequalities in income, assets, schooling, health, etc.) to the point that they become contradictions. Failing to transform themselves into oppositions to the State/capital machine, they are fixed into identities at the center of which one always finds the white man. Nationalist, racist, and sexist identities are the largely fulfilled conditions of the production of war subjectivities. The anti-Russian hysteria unleashed by the media, the racist hatred by which they distinguish combattants and victims alike (whites from nonwhites) was anticipated by a long labor of the “symbolic” destruction of subjectivity that cultivated a fascist becoming primed with excitement for war.

We are nearing the completion of a process that began a little over a century ago, picking up speed over the last 70 years: the closure of all “public space,” the saturation of each and every aspect of individual and collective life by private property. This is a process of a completely different scope than the “sanitary dictatorship” invoked by Agamben. The state of emergency is the normality that must necessarily accompany the identity of production and destruction because it has been progressing since the start of the 20th century, embedding itself in the State/Capital machine whose promises of peace and prosperity last only as long as a “belle époque.”

Even a superficial analysis of capitalism and its history is enough to understand that, after a very short period of euphoria (the belle époque of the turn of the century, and later of the 1980s and 1990s) during which capitalism seemed to triumph over all contradictions, it has only war and fascism left by which it can overcome its impasses.

“Prosperity for all” has turned into an enormous concentration of wealth for a few people, into financial devastation and fights to the death for economic hegemony and access to resources. The exchange of obedience for the conservation of life that, since Hobbes, the State was supposed to guarantee against the dangers of the “war of all against all” is here doubly refuted: by the orchestration of massacres of industrial war, and by the extinction of the human species already well underway. (Maurizio Lazzarato, “War, Capitalism, Ecology”)

And yet the picture outlined seems flawed, for the political conclusion that is drawn from it is disturbingly incomplete: In capitalism, individuals are simultaneously reluctant “accomplices” of destruction, since they produce destruction by laboring and consuming, and victims of exploitation and domination since they are forced to manufacture catastrophe. We have no other alternative than to break these bonds of subordination that objectively render us accomplices, to extract ourselves from these relations of labor and consumption — that is to say, to see the refusal of work and consumption to its conclusion. (Maurizio Lazzarato, “War, Capitalism, Ecology”)

To cease to work and to consume, in what might be called a radicalisation of the old revolutionary strike, would undermine capitalism; indeed, if generalised and prolonged, the latter would collapse. Yet no such scenario is obviously imminent. And before the urgency and tragedy of war, it is true but impotent, much like an equally old slogan: “No war but class war!”[2]

Anarchists and anarchism, politically, have fared poorly in times of war. Militarism and patriotism are at the antipodes of what they consider to be a free society. War, inter-state war, is the violent expression of sovereignty, of wealth and authority, hardly the concerns of anarchists who have historically struggled against both. But political struggle against war may also involve war, and thus the dilemma of the divorce between means and ends inevitably arises. How can a peaceful, free and egalitarian world be born of violence?

No real theoretical or a priori answer to this question is possible and the reason is that any such answer will itself be divorced from the density and turmoil of ethical life. This is not to condemn pacifism, for it is by no means evident that pacifist methods are ever given the chance to be creatively explored and tested. The martial music of state-centred and military solutions quickly drown out alternatives.

But nor is this to reject violence, even state-centred and militarised. The call for “class war” rings hollow in the absence of any organised “class consciousness”. Yes, it is what our political desire calls out for – against, for example, both Putin’s Russia and NATO –, and it may be of comfort to “revolutionaries” watching from a distance the wars of others, but on the ground, in Ukraine, what meaning can it have?


Pramen  06/04/2022

Over the past month you have seen that our team publishes information extremely rarely, and on the site itself news almost does not appear. This is due directly to the events taking place in Ukraine. Some of our comrades are involved in one form or another in the fight against the Russian invasion, and the focus of our collective has shifted to just that. Not on the publication of articles and political perspectives, but on the practical use of our skills against the “Russian world”. The very Russian world, which the Belarussian dictatorship is a representative of.

We fight not for the Ukrainian state, corrupt politicians or big business. Our struggle is primarily aimed at the protection of the people from the atrocities of the Russian dictatorship. And we believe that right now every anarchist from Belarus, Ukraine or Russia should make every possible effort to fight Putin’s fascism, which is marching all over the planet under the symbols Z and V.

This does not mean that you have to join the territorial defense here and now and take up arms. There are many tasks that are important to the existence of the resistance. Join this struggle – there can be no neutral position in this situation. The fight against Lukashenko’s dictatorship is directly related to the destruction of the Putin regime.

Our struggle is not a battle for the borders of this or that state. We do not want new presidents who would be able to solve all problems. We want a world where people decide how to live and how to rebuild their country, and where social and economic systems are built so that there can be no more oligarchs or new dictators.

For a world without wars, state and capitalism


This statement from the Belarus anarchist collective Pramen carries with it all of the political complexity of the war in Ukraine, without falling into the morality of beautiful souls – pacifism –, or that of patriotism. An impossible equilibrium, some will say, but then so too is all ethical life.

In 1914, with the beginning of WWI, Peter Kropotkin in a letter to Gustav Steffen, a Swedish Academic, wrote:

I consider that the duty of everyone who cherishes the idea of human progress altogether, and especially those that were inscribed by the European proletarians on the banner of the International Workingmen’s Association, is to do everything in one’s power, according to one’s capacities, to crush down the invasion of the Germans into Western Europe.[4]

He would go on to draft with others and sign the anarchist Manifesto of the Sixteen of 1916 in support of the war against Germany:

We have been deeply conscience that German aggression was a threat—a threat now carried out—not only against our hopes for emancipation, but against all human evolution. That is why we, anarchists, anti-militarists, enemies of war, passionate partisans of peace and the fraternity of peoples, are ranged on the side of the resistance, and why we have not felt obliged to separate our fate from that of the rest of the population. We don’t believe it necessary to insist that we would have preferred to see that population take the care for its defense in its own hands. This having been impossible, there was nothing but to suffer that which could not be changed. And with those who fight we reckon that, unless the German population, coming back to the sanest notions of justice and of right, finally refuses to serve any longer as an instrument of the projects of pan-German political domination, there can be no question of peace. Without doubt, despite the war, despite the murders, we do not forget that we are internationalists, that we want the union of peoples and the disappearance of borders. But it is because we want the reconciliation of peoples, including the German people, that we think that they must resist an aggressor who represents the destruction of all our hopes of liberation.[5]

Kropotkin and the subsequent Manifesto would be condemned by other anarchists, from Errico Malatesta[6] to Emma Goldman, as a violation of anarchist principles. In the anarchist Anti-War Manifesto of 1915, we read:

For there never has been and is no doubt—and today’s horrific events reinforce this confidence—that war is permanently incubating within the existing body of society and that armed conflict, be it specific or general, in the colonies or in Europe, is the natural consequence and necessary, inescapable destiny of a regime founded upon the economic inequality of its citizens, relying upon the unbridled clash of interests, and placing the world of labor under the narrow, painful oversight of a minority of parasites who hold both political power and economic might. War was inevitable; from whatever quarter, it simply had to come. Not for nothing has the last half-century been spent on feverish preparation of the most formidable armaments and every passing day seen the death budgets swell. Continual refinement of war materials, every mind and every will kept constantly geared towards ever-better organization of the military machine—scarcely the way to work for peace.

So it is naive and puerile, once the causes and the occasions of strife have been multiplied, to try to define the degree of blame attaching to such and such a government. No distinction is possible between offensive wars and defensive wars.[7]

Or, to quote once again the essay by Maurizio Lazzarato:

Wars do not break out in capitalism because of some mean and nasty autocrats on one side and kind and friendly democrats on the other. (Maurizio Lazzarato, “War, Capitalism, Ecology”)

In both the 1915 Manifesto and Lazzarato’s text, we read that wars break out because of the internal logic of “state-capitalism”. The two documents may start from distinct conceptual and political emphases, however both positions share the view that the different sides in inter-state war are morally neutral, that is, they are not struggles between good and evil individuals, between emancipatory and oppressive political orders, but agencies thrown into conflict by the interests and needs of extra-individual forces of competing state-capitalist actors, all of which should be contested. And if there are no sides to take, then none should be assumed.

But are there not wars carried out by “nasty autocrats”? Is the Ukrainian government morally equivalent to Putin’s? If there are rarely innocents in war – and never is innocence preserved in war –, as the recent history of Ukraine and Russia testify to[8], surely there is a government, a government leader, a dictator, who ordered the invasion of Ukraine; an invasion whose goals remain unclear, but which may include the “erasure” of Ukrainians and more?[9] And is to live under a dictatorship equivalent to living under a liberal-representative “democracy”? Without celebrating the latter, without reducing it to an abstract concept, to oppose to dictatorships, without denying that contemporary democracies carry the seeds of authoritarianism, fascism, in their bosom, without ignoring all of the complex forms of social control which are not reducible to state action and which are thus transversal to different kinds of states under capitalism, life under authoritarian political regimes is less desirable than under contemporary “democracies”. To state otherwise is naivety or cynicism.

Not all state politics are the same, however much they are bound to an increasingly global political-social order – capitalism – that is inherently violent. And if states do differ, at least in their degree of authoritarianism and domination, that is in large part due to the struggles of those from below that have forced back the hands of states. To simply view them all as politically identical is to forget and efface the “tradition of the oppressed”.

Without declaring that Ukraine has become an anti-fascist nation, we share and conclude with a statement made by the Antiauthoritarians for International Solidarity:

The stronger the iron fist, the weaker its grip on the facts. The arrogance of the invader failed to consider that there will always be people willing to defend the territory they inhabit. The Ukrainian resistance we look to is not that of the regular army or that of the far-right paramilitary formations (already recruited by both sides). Rather, it is that of those who have chosen to resist, in every form and fashion, in order to defend their lives and their land, or simply to hold open the possibility of fighting again tomorrow.[10]

[1] “War, Capitalism, Ecology: Why can’t Bruno Latour understand anything about them?”, Maurizio Lazzarato, 04/02/2022, Ill Will. See also: Marizio Lazzarato, “La guerra en Ucrania”, 04/03/2022, Disenso. For a similar line of argument, see: Charles Reeve, “Contre le collectif mortifère de nationalisme. La guerre et le capitalisme”, Lundi Matin, #334, 11/04/2022.

[2] For examples of reiterations of this slogan, see: No War but Class War (blog); “Resolución del Comité Confederal de la CGT sobre el conflicto bélico entre Ucrania y Rusia”, CGT Spain; “Declaración de CNT contra la guerra en Ucrania y el militarismo”, CNT Spain; “Against the war, for global solidarity”, International of Anarchist Federations.

[3] “We and the War”, Pramen, 06/04/2022.

[4] Peter Kropotkin, “Kropotkin Letter to Steffen on WWI”, Anarchist Library.

[5] The Manifesto of the Sixteen (1916), Anarchist Library.

[6] Errico Malatesta, “Anarchists Have Forgotten Their Principles”, Anarchist Library.

[7] The Anarchist International Anti-War Manifesto (1915), Anarchist Library.

[8] “A Very Long Winter”, Liasons, The New Inquiry, 28/02/2022.

[9] For an example of the toxic and ultimately genocidal thought that surrounds Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, see for example: Timofey Sergeytsev, “What Russia should do with Ukraine”, 03/04/2022; Alexander Dugin, “Victory or Nothing”, 13/04/2022,; Alexander Dugin, “Alexander Dugin speaking on the Ukraine conflict”, YouTube, 03/04/2022.

[10] From “Twelve Theses on the War Underway”, Antiauthoritarians for International Solidarity, 25/03/2022, Ill Will.

For an excellent article on Peter Kropotkin’s anti-militarism and his siding with the allies during WWI, see: Peter Ryley, “The Manifesto of the Sixteen: Kropotkin’s rejection of anti-war anarchism and his critique of the politics of peace”, in Anarchism, 1914–18: Internationalism, Anti-militarism and War, eds. Ruth Kinna and Matthew Adams. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017. (click here)

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1 Response to Ukraine and the ethical uncertainty of war

  1. eric d. meyer says:

    I do not believe the Russian attack on Ukraine and the Ukrainian resistance can be explained by a Marxist-Leninist analysis (Imperialism the Final Stage of Capitalism), nor can it be solved by spurious appeals to anti-statist anti-capitalist anarchism. The Russian attack on Ukraine was motivated by the attempt of a sovereign state with imperialist-fascist tendencies to assert its monopoly on violence over a territory it falsely regards as its own under nationalistic ethnic criteria (ala Alexander Dugin’s Russian Eurasianism). The Ukrainian resistance is motivated by the emotional appeal of a romantic ethnic nationalism in defense of a territory it regards as its own due to world-historical factors dating from the emergence of the modern nation-state (which may or may not be plausible). The horrible thing at this point however is that many innocent people will suffer and die because neither side is willing to back down from its propagandistic appeals to romantic ethnic nationalism or to negotiate a cease-fire that will bring about a lasting peace between them (Ukrainians and Russians both).

    At the same time neither side can realistically hope to achieve its supposed objective (domination and hegemony over the contested territory) by gaining a monopoly on violence that will be accepted by the civilian population after the war crimes and atrocities committed against them. Therefore the only plausible solution to the Russian Ukraine conflict is that the UN the EU and US NATO should apply the highest level diplomatic (and military) pressure to compel both sides to negotiate an immediate halt to the war. But it appears that the West (the EU and US-NATO) believe they have created a ‘bear trap’ for the Russian army in Ukraine and instead of pressuring a negotiated settlement are simply supplying the Ukrainians with sufficient weapons to turn the conflict into a self-perpetuating frozen war without the prospect of actually winning the war. (And here I must remind everyone of the Obama/Biden strategy in Syria, which was to pull the Russians into a frozen conflict in support of the al-Assad regime while supplying the Syrian opposition with only enough weapons to fight and not to win, resulting in the deaths of at least 500,000 Syrian civilians.)

    The West the EU and US-NATO evidently believes (?) that they can destabilize Russia and bring down Putin by prolonging the Russian-Ukraine war indefinitely until the Russian economy breaks down (economic warfare) and Putin falls. But in actuality the Russian People are rallying behind Putin against the West and Western propaganda only serves to crush Russian dissidence and prolong the war. Further, it is now clear that the Biden administration will take no action to defend and protect Ukrainian civilians or to stop the Russia-Ukraine war. And as an American citizen, I only add that after twenty or thirty years of the US war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Syria and Libya, which everyone somehow has suddenly forgotten about…), I am ashamed that my own nation is perhaps a greater offender against international law and the security and peace of nations than Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation, and apparently has no other motive in the current situation than to create propaganda against the Russian Federation with the complicity of the Western broadcast media and with the dubious goal of bringing down Putin at the expense of the suffering and death of many thousands of Ukrainian civilians caught in the trap.

    And so I must again argue that the only solution to the Russian-Ukraine war is for the United Nations and the US NATO to enforce the terms of international law in the Post-Westphalian world-system, which requires that aggressive actions by sovereign nations against other sovereign nations be stopped by the coordinated action of all other sovereign nations against the aggressor and that innocent civilians be given the absolute right under international law to peace and security within their borders, while all disputes between sovereign nations must be resolved by all possible diplomatic (and not military) means. Only when the sovereign nations of the world met within an international parliamentary governmental system finally agree (or are compelled to agree) to abide by international law will here be a cessation of world wars and the guarantee of civil and human rights for innocent civilians within those sovereign nations. And only then (if ever) will it be even remotely plausible to speak of a utopian socialist/communist system beyond capitalism or of communities able to coexist peacefully together without the constant recourse to a sovereign monopoly on violence to enforce the rule of international civil and human rights law.

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