Liz Fekete: This war demands that we take a global perspective untainted by Eurocentrism

Finding a Voice, Challenging Blind Spots and Group Think

A year after the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, progressive forces across Europe, horrified by the war’s global impact and the threat of nuclear escalation, are at last finding a voice. Up till now, extreme-right parties (Fidesz in Hungary, the League in Italy, Freedom and Democracy in the Czech Republic and Alternative for Germany) have been the loudest voices against the war. Mobilising on the streets against rising energy prices and power shortages, they have presented themselves as the voice of the poor and working class, condemning European ‘liberal elites’ that, in pursuing a strategy of further militarisation, are eroding the living conditions of ordinary (read white) Europeans.

But the far Right’s exploitation of the war for its own nativist ends is not the only problem we face when finding a voice. At the very centre of society,  politicians and the media have been highly effective in establishing a censorious  groupthink which presents the war as a civilisational battle (good versus evil) that can only be won on the battlefield and is necessary to protect western civilisation as we know it. Any critical analysis of the causes and consequences of the war, or the risks of military escalation, is ridiculed as appeasement. All too redolent of the Cold War narrative, this stifling political climate forecloses on attempts to understand the nature of imperialism today. Within this, understanding the history of the Central and Eastern European region, and the Baltic States (CEEBs) which is at the epicentre of the conflict, is essential.

Establishment groupthink also leads to facile dismissal of non-aligned voices today in the Global South which, in resisting being drawn into what is perceived as a world war, starting once again in Europe, assert the primacy of global peace over a heightened militarisation of the conflict.

The Dangers of Eurocentrism

It was all these factors – but also one more – that motivated me to write a piece for the April edition of Race & Class entitled ‘Civilisational racism, ethnonationalism and the clash of civilisations in Ukraine’. But the greatest spur to take up pen was my sadness at the angry disputes breaking out in European anti-fascist circles, usually pivoting on an East-West axis. Instead of uniting around a position that backed Ukraine’s right to self-determination, while resisting all imperialisms, the anti-fascist networks I was linked into were   adopting deeply Eurocentric positions that disappeared the Global South’s long experience of western imperialism.

My piece is an attack on the Eurocentrism that divides the world into a civilisational hierarchy of the enlightened West and the backward tyrannical ‘other’, or, as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, re-divides it, between an ‘idyllic garden of freedom and prosperity’ (Europe) and the ‘jungle’ (much of the world). I argue that civilisational frameworks are not just obscuring the dynamics of global imperialisms today (in which there are multiple actors, and intense rivalries between different states) but smack of absolutism – a feature also of the war on terror – wherein a supposed existential threat to civilisation can only be resolved on the battlefield with military humiliation for one side, and complete victory for another.

I am asking people in the West to consider their blindspots when it comes to acknowledging the inherent racism, violence and civilisational hierarchies of its imperialisms. Such an anti-racist approach encourages us to examine the fine-tuned dissimulation of both Russia and the West in this conflict. By taking an anti-racist lens to the war, we can look at the ways the Russian aggression and the NATO response reflect and create new forms of racism and the rearrangement of imperialism.

The first aspect of this, the creation of new forms of racism, such as civilisational racism, is seen most clearly in the two-tier policy at the Polish-Ukrainian border that marks out non-ethnic Ukrainians, such as Roma and African students fleeing Ukraine, as unworthy of protection. It has also led to the construction by Poland of a 185km steel wall at the Belarus border as ‘part of the fight against Russia’ and it has carried out illegal push backs of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, justified on the basis of the new EU security doctrine that refugees pose a ‘hybrid threat’ when they become tools of a malign power with a determination to destabilise Europe.

Civilisational hierarchies persist at every stage of the asylum process, with Ukrainians the only group of refugees that have ever benefited from the European Commission’s Temporary Protection Directive (which was introduced in 2001 and could have been implemented before that for Syrian refugees). Of course, none of this is the fault of Ukrainian refugees, who have to flee to survive, and nor is life, as migrant workers, under the Temporary Protection Directive, easy.

Imperialism and Ethnonationalism

But what about the rearrangement of imperialism? Make no mistake, the invasion of Ukraine exemplifies the nature of Russian imperial power, and the ways in which it seeks domination of ‘post-Soviet space’. The US unipolar world is under challenge from Russia and other powers, and we are entering a dangerous period of intense inter-imperialist rivalries. But the US still remains the predominant economic and military power in the world. Russian imperialism is backward looking: a revanchist attempt to gain territory through military means in order to return to the borders of the nineteenth-century Tsarist Empire.

One of the things that frustrated me as the war progressed is how the media presents CEEBS countries (apart from Hungary) as plucky little democracies, whereas the reality is far less flattering, with nations defined in ethnic terms (hence the ethnonationalism bit of my title), widespread discrimination against minorities. As progressives, it’s simply impossible to wave the flag for nations that propagate variations of ethnic and Christian nationalism or are ramping up forms of Holocaust Denial. Let us not forget that the Baltic States had the highest murder rate of Jews in Europe and an estimated 1.5 million Jews, a quarter of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust, came from Ukraine. The second part of my article deals with this, giving chapter and verse on the ‘culture wars’ over history and remembrance breaking out in the region, pointing out the danger to the European project as a whole when Holocaust denialism and glorification of nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis become part of mainstream European political culture because of the strategic value of the region to NATO and the US.

A Global Perspective

Which takes me to my final aspect of my article, the part that attempts to foreground the history of the Global South’s experience of imperialism. And it is here where I most take issue with my anti-fascist colleagues, who, in accepting the view that Russian imperialism is so unique that the whole world should prioritise it, are legitimising the attack on countries that chose the path of neutrality. Lithuania for instance cancelled a shipment of 440,000 Covid vaccines to Bangladesh – as punishment for that country’s failure to join the condemnation of Russia. The truth is this is not a war supported by the entire world, as the media would have us believe, unless that is, like Borrell, you mistake the ‘West’ for the civilised world, and consider the rest ‘the jungle’, and therefore outside humanity. Voices in the Global South express the view that they are victims of a civilisational double standard – that this is the same old clash of powers in which their experience of imperialism, as well as their resistance are of little account. It is my belief that this war demands that we take not a European regional perspective but a global perspective untainted by Eurocentrism. It demands that we ask ourselves, ‘what does it mean to be a radical internationalist in the world today’.

Liz Fekete is writing in a personal capacity. She is Director of the Institute of Race Relations.

‘Civilisational racism, ethnonationalism and the clash of imperialisms in Ukraine’ is the lead article in the April 2023 issue of Race & Class. If you would like to pre-order a copy (£6) please contact IRR at Alternatively access a read-only version of the article here.

14 Mar 2023 by Liz Fekete

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