Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)
Thomas Riggins

The crisis that struck Ukraine last year-- the overthrow of the elected president, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rebellion in the Russian speaking eastern provinces— was the result of problems that had been festering, not only in Ukraine but all along the former frontiers of the USSR since the end of the cold war and the collapse of eastern European socialism over twenty some years previously. 

There were many pressure points and areas of potential conflict along this defunct border. Over the years they became more and more exacerbated mainly as a result of the triumphalist attitude of the US and its allies over the end of the Cold War which they considered as a "victory" of their side over the Russians and their allies.

Meanwhile the Russians and their remaining close allies had considered the end of the Cold War as a cooperative undertaking in which, with western help, the leadership of the USSR would dismantle the Warsaw Pact and replace state socialism with a European style market economy thus eliminating the threat of nuclear war and allowing for the eventual flourishing of a united European civilization stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The "we won, you lost" attitude assumed by the US (and its NATO puppet) along with the EU has led to economic and political actions the Russians and their allies believe threaten their interests and rights. This is the theses of professor Richard Sakwa of Kent University (UK) in his new book Frontline Ukraine. This article will attempt to highlight the fateful steps that have led to the current crisis as professor Sakwa annunciated them (any misinterpretations or errors are mine).

One of the major steps was the growth of NATO right up to borders of Russia after the Russians had been given assurances by the US that that would not happen. The US now argues that the growth of  NATO  was necessary due to the 
security problems along its borders. This overlooks the fact that it is the new borders that are the location of these problems. As Sakwa puts it, “NATO’s existence became justified by the needs to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.” This kind of mendacious logic is typical of the US ’s (and to a lesser extent the EU’s) dealings with Russia. Echoed by the corporate media in the US, it is one of the main reasons the American people are ignorant of the true causes of the Ukraine crisis and for their antipathy toward Russia.

The reason there are so many problems between the US (and its satellites) and Russia is because there are many systemic contradictions between them left over from the end of the Cold War and there has been little, if any, attempt by the West to  seriously try to resolve them by good faith negotiations. When a problem boils over, as in the Ukraine (and earlier in Georgia), all the blame is put on Russia and the solution is framed as the need for the US and the West to make the Russians back down. This, Sakwa points out, only makes the contradictions between the interests of the Russians and the US side worse. 

A major consideration with regard to the West’s relations with Russia is that after the collapse of the USSR Russia was economically in turmoil and politically weak. The West could pretty much do as it wanted as Russia, as well as Ukraine, were dominated by corruption, oligarchs calling the shots, and the need to concentrate on internal problems not foreign affairs.

Russia  was able to economically benefit during the early years of the 2000s, due to high profits of oil, and Putin was able, despite democratic short comings, to curtail the power of the oligarchs, reassert state ownership in many strategic areas of the economy, and reinvigorate the Russian economy and state. This allowed the Russians to reengage in foreign affairs and begin to reassert their perceived interests vis a vis those of the West once they realized it was not part of the West’s intentions to work in partnership with them to peacefully resolve contradictions to the mutual benefit of all concerned. If not a cold war the US was starting a “Cool War.” In contrast Ukraine remained mired in corruption and the control of oligarchs
despite a democratic facade.

Another important point made by Sakwa concerns the makeup of the Ukrainian nation. There are two contradictory views which he calls the monistic and pluralistic views. In short, the monistic view, held by the Ukrainian government and the ultra nationalist faction which dominates western Ukraine is that the country is a unique cultural whole bound together by its national language which has its own historical destiny to fulfill as part of the European continuum and is thus more closely bound to the EU than to Russia which is seen as an alien foreign influence.

The pluralistic view, which dominates in the eastern Russian speaking Ukraine, maintains that the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are related by a common cultural ancestry born of their participation in a common early state and religion (orthodox Christianity since 988 AD). The common state (Kievian Rus) was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in 1240, nevertheless the common cultural unity persists and the three peoples are more closely bound to one another than to the EU and its people. This is admittedly simplified and Sakwa will expand upon it later.

Surveys and polls show that as late as 2005 around 67% of eastern Russian speaking Ukrainians identified with Ukraine as their country and there was no great feeling to join with Russia or become independent. There were major problems, however, which included worries and complaints about the status and use of Russian, negative attitudes towards NATO and no desire to identify with Europe and the West at the expense of Russia. 

All of these issues could have been dealt with democratically within Ukraine by means of parliamentary processes and constitutional guarantees. What has led to the present crisis in Ukraine was the perception by the Russian speaking east that the undemocratic overthrow of the elected government in February 2014 brought to power ultra-nationalist forces that were seeking to force their views on the east and that eastern concerns, beliefs, and rights were being ignored and even abrogated.

This eastern crisis is a separate issue from the Crimea. The Russians in the Crimea were never happy about being separated from Russia due to the fact that in 1954 the USSR transferred the area to Ukrainian administration for purposes of cost efficiency. No one then even dreamed of the possibility that the Crimea would be cut off from Russia in an independent Ukraine. Sakwa points out that the Crimea, after all, "is the heartland of Russian nationhood." 

The annexation of the peninsula  by Russia was welcomed by the majority of people living there and while its return to its motherland set off the storm that has now descended upon US and European relations with Russia (totally provoked by the West and its backing of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Ukraine) it is unlikely to be reversed. The issues in the eastern provinces of Ukraine have to be settled independently of those of the Crimea which is now a part of Russia and likely to remain so. (To be continued.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Prolegomena to Any Future Understanding of the Crisis in Ukraine

Thomas Riggins

The political and military maneuvers now going on in the Ukraine have the potential of escalating out of control. If we don't understand the actual reality that has brought about this crisis there is no hope of being able to prevent this escalation. In order to understand this reality we must refrain from simple minded finger pointing at one side or the other and assigning complete responsibility for the crisis to one of the parties in the dispute, although one side may be disproportionately responsible.

The establishment media in the West (reflecting the position of the US and the EU) seems to have arrived at a consensus that the crisis is the result of a revanchist foreign policy initiative of the Russian Federation and its president Vladimir Putin on the one hand and the aspirations of the Kiev government to build a democratic Ukraine based on the western European model and free of undue Russian influence and domination on the other.

This has been simplified by many to a proxy war between a dictatorial undemocratic Russia out to eventually recreate the defunct USSR's boundaries and the Western democracies led by the US once again called upon to defend the Free World. The phrase "a new cold war" encapsulates this position.

That this is a warped view of the Ukrainian crisis is suggested by a reading of a new book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (Tauris, 2014) by Richard Sakwa, an expert at the University of Kent in the UK. The "Preface" to this book presents the following historical background to the current crisis which goes back many decades to a time before there was any Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation or independent Ukraine.

When the cold war ended with collapse of the Soviet Union and east European "socialism"  there was a possibility of establishing a pan-European order that would have provided for peace and security for all European countries. However, the EU and NATO made no provision for the inclusion of Russia in a common European "defense" alliance. This resulted, according to Sakwa, in numerous "stress points" along the borders of the EU and the former USSR.

One major stress point was the fact that NATO, a military anti-Soviet (anti-Russian) alliance which had faced off against the Warsaw Pact during the cold war, now had lost its raison d'être and with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact should have also come to end. The US however decided not only to keep NATO in existence but to enlarge it-- clearly an aggressive and hostile act no matter how it is presented.

As a result two different visions of Europe's future developed, Sakwa says. The two are that of a "Wider Europe" and a "Greater Europe." The former represents the EU with France and Germany (basically Germany) at the core and its extension eastward incorporating former Warsaw Pact countries and parts of the old USSR. [A 21st century version of Drang nach Osten.]

The latter represents a vision of "one Europe" but is inclusive of all parts of Europe and not dominated by "Brussels, Washington or Moscow." It would be "multi-polar and pluralistic.'' Both Russia and the Ukraine (both pluralistic) would be part of it. This is the vision favored by the Russians. Sakwa says these visions are not necessarily stark alternatives: with good will some kind of synthesis could be reached.

The US and EU have decided against "Greater Europe" and seek to construct the vision of "Wider Europe" leaving the Russians as odd man out. This decision [based on the interests of US and Western capital] and being implemented by stoking old historical grudges going back to the first world war and even earlier, is the background to the current crisis.

The different factions in the Ukraine are  (unscientifically) being associated with colors-- primarily orange, blue, and gold. The Kiev government, backed by the EU and US, is the "orange" faction. Its basic desire is to form an Ukrainian national Slavic government with one official language (Ukrainian), culturally homogeneous and identified as far as possible with the EU and NATO. 

There are millions of Russian speaking Slavs within the boundaries of Ukraine that do not share this orange outlook. They make up the "blue" faction which points out that different regions of the country have different linguistic, cultural and historical experiences and if the Ukraine  is to work these realities have to be taken into consideration and respected. As it stands, the orange and blue factions don't seem suited for co-existence in the same political framework. To make things more complicated both factions are being supported and aided by outside players.

One last major faction is the "gold" faction. This is the faction representing the new billionaires (the oligarchs) that arose out of the collapse of the USSR and through corruption and undemocratic machinations have attained unprecedented political power in the country and can manipulate the Ukrainian "political class." 

Sakwa says the country has produced "no visionary leader" who  has been able to command the loyalty of all these factions  and unite them around a project of successful nation building.

These are, more or less, the major ideas in the preface to Sakwa's book. It will impossible to understand the crisis going in the Ukraine without keeping them in mind. For those who think the crisis is the result of the big bad Putin and Russian "aggression" there is no hope at all of their understanding anything that is going on in Ukraine.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: "The Philosophy of Praxis" from Notre Dame Phiosophicl Reviews

An interesting review by Timo Jütten to which I have added some observations -tr, and used bold to highlight parts of especial interest-- Thomas Riggins

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
Andrew Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, Verso, 2014, 252pp., $29.95 (pbk), ISBN 9781781681725.
Reviewed by Timo Jütten, University of Essex
This is a thoroughly revised version of Andrew Feenberg's first book, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (1981).[1] In the Preface to the new version Feenberg writes that he often has looked back to the original version, based on his doctoral dissertation supervised by Herbert Marcuse, "with a mixture of pride and dismay" (viii). On the one hand, Feenberg is proud of the fact that the original volume has helped people understand the complicated arguments of Lukács' History and Class Consciousness. On the other hand, he has long recognized that there were problems with the original version, and in this new one he aims to solve these problems. As someone who has profited from the original volume in the way that justly gives Feenberg pride, I am happy to report that the new version is a very worthy successor and will be indispensable for a new generation of students and scholars as they try to make sense of the intellectual background of Frankfurt School critical theory.
The book can be divided into three parts. Feenberg devotes three chapters each to Marx's early writings and to Lukács' History and Class Consciousness (including some discussion of his recently published defense of this controversial book), and two chapters on how members of the Frankfurt School, in particular Adorno and Marcuse, have taken up and transformed their legacies. There also is a substantial conclusion and an Appendix, which condenses two chapters from the earlier version. Feenberg has thoroughly revised the book throughout. For example, there is a new discussion of the influence of the neo-Kantians on Lukács (e.g., 73-78), a more extended discussion of the Kantian and Hegelian background, and a new focus on the critique of science and technology, which became an important theme in Feenberg's work following the publication of his first book. Finally, the two chapters on the Frankfurt School are all new. I won't be able to do justice to all of this material, so will focus on what I consider to be the book's major strengths.
Students of Frankfurt School critical theory often are confronted with an approach to philosophy that is very alien to the mainstream but can be rendered intelligible, if its Marxist and Lukácsian background is brought to the fore. For example, consider the cryptic opening sentence of Adorno's Negative Dialectics: "Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on, because the moment of its realization was missed."[2] It is with understanding sentences like these that Feenberg's book really helps. Both the obsolescence of philosophy and its possible realization are problems that arise in Marx's early writings and in Lukács' History and Class Consciousness, in the context of a philosophy of praxis that aims to overcome the antinomies identified by modern philosophy through collective social action and to realize the level of rationality that has been attained through theoretical reflection in social practices and institutions. For Marx and for Lukács (who didn't know Marx's early writings when he wrote History and Class Consciousness in 1923 but developed very similar arguments), the German idealist tradition had reached an impasse in Hegel, who thought that the antinomies of modern philosophy had to be resolved by speculative thought. In contrast, Marx and Lukács believed that these antinomies ultimately could not be resolved either critically, as Kant thought, or speculatively, as Hegel thought, but only metacritically. Such a metacritique of philosophy would amount to a "sociological desublimation of the concepts of philosophy" (12). It would demonstrate that seemingly philosophical problems are rooted in social reality, and that only social change will resolve the antinomies. Feenberg's discussion of Lukács' metacritique of philosophy in Chapter Five is particularly insightful. As he explains,
For Lukács, traditional philosophy is in essence philosophy of culture that does not know itself as such. Philosophy reflects on cultural structures -- forms of objectivity -- that it misinterprets as eternal principles disconnected from the accidents of history and social life. (91)
Lukács' discussion applies this insight to a practical and a theoretical antinomy. Considered from a practical perspective, the antinomial conflict between freedom and determinism characterizes the social experience of modern subjects in their everyday lives. Forty years later Adorno would make the same point in his lectures on Kant and in Negative Dialectics.[3] Subjects face a practical antinomy, because their inner sense of agency and freedom is incompatible with the social determinism that they experience as a natural law in modern capitalist society. According to Lukács, Kant's moral philosophy reflects this antinomy, but its proposed resolution, the distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realms, reifies moral freedom and cannot explain how the free subject can act in a world that is governed by the seemingly natural laws of economics. Considered from a theoretical perspective, the antinomial conflict is generated by two incompatible philosophical commitments that concern the nature of our knowledge of reality. On the one hand, the subject stands in a contemplative, passive relationship to the world when it seeks to control it. The world is governed by natural laws that exist independently of the empirical subject, and the subject must comprehend these laws in order to dominate nature[WE HAVE TO GET OVER THE IDEA WE CAN DOMINATE NATURE-tr]. Thus, "the reified is the rational" (97). On the other hand, the subject stands in an active relationship to its world. As a transcendental subject it creates the world by imposing the form of reason onto it, and the intelligibility of the world to the subject is explained by this imposition [THIS IS IDEALISM: MATERIALISM DISCOVERS THE REASON IN NATURE IT DOES NOT IMPOSE IT FROM OUTSIDE-tr]. Lukács traces the philosophical attempts to reconcile these commitments from Kant to Hegel, but, ultimately, he argues that such a reconciliation requires a change of perspective that overcomes the dualism of humanity and nature, history and ontology.
Both the early Marx and Lukács attempt such a reconciliation, and Feenberg devotes Chapters Three and Six to these attempts. These are important parts of the book, because Feenberg grapples with problems in Marx's and Lukács' thought that long have perplexed commentators. The question is whether either operates with a concept of subject-object identity, which denies the ontological independence of nature. Thus Marx seems to argue that humans produce nature through their labour, and that, therefore, "under the appropriate social conditions it will be possible to recognize the essence of nature as human activity" (44). As Feenberg points out, this argument is implausible, because nature is not just raw material for human labour, and labour is not the only way in which humans engage with nature. In any case, Marx abandoned this whole line of thought in his writings immediately following the Manuscripts. Lukács often has been criticized for a similar approach to nature, and Feenberg offers a detailed analysis of History and Class Consciousness that aims to show the mistakes in these criticisms. In particular, he disposes of the "absurd" thesis that nature "is a purely social category, and the natural world therefore has no independence of humanity and human understanding" (129), by showing that Lukács actually talks about our knowledge of nature, rather than about nature itself. Moreover, Feenberg tries to show that Lukács is not committed to the implausible view that there is a specifically capitalist science that is reified and would be replaced by a communist science after the revolution. As I understand Feenberg's argument, science and technology always progress through a dialectic of reification and de-reification. To be sure, under capitalism the reifying aspects of science and technology, which undermine our lived experience of nature, are foregrounded due to capitalism's "formal bias" (145; cf. 166) in favour of an abstract and disembodied approach to nature that focuses on its domination and exploitation. But it is a mistake to believe that a "communist science" would not be reifying. The reification of nature in science differs from the reification of society.
This is an original way of solving a problem that has been discussed in the literature on Lukács and the Frankfurt School.[4] However, it also raises new questions, to which Feenberg could have devoted more space. For example, one may ask how exactly reification comes about and what its relationship is to market exchange in capitalist societies, given that reification and de-reification now seem to be necessary moments of social practice. I think that the concept of formal bias could potentially be extremely fruitful in answering these questions, but it remains underdeveloped in this book.
In Chapters Seven and Eight Feenberg turns to the Frankfurt School, which inherits the legacy of the philosophy of praxis from Marx and Lukács but differs from them on two very important points. First, Adorno and Marcuse place central importance on the domination of nature as a source of social pathologies that affect modern subjects. Second, they formulate their critical theories of society at a time when the "unity of theory and practice" has broken down, that is, when it has become clear that the proletariat in Western Europe is not on the verge of staging a revolution to overthrow capitalism.[The 'unity of theory and practice' boils down to : we should spend as much time thinking about what we are doing as doing in order to avoid antagonistic contradictions-tr]Of course, Adorno's and Marcuse's theories are very different. Feenberg characterizes this difference in terms of the concepts that they inherit from Marx and Lukács. Whereas Adorno takes the theory of commodity fetishism as his starting point, Marcuse's emphasizes the experience of alienation (158, 175). Feenberg's discussion of Adorno suggests that he considers him an outlier in the philosophy of praxis. His negativistic philosophy eschews the appeal to concepts such as emancipation, progress or revolution. Instead, Adorno uses the concept of reification in order to explain why no such appeal is possible. His criticism of identity thinking demonstrates the reification of reason in capitalist society, but it abstains from formulating a positive alternative. As Feenberg puts it, negative dialectics "does not resolve the antinomies but rather identifies them as such and suspends all premature resolutions. It is the logic of immanent critique and not a constructive alternative" (155).
I found Feenberg's discussion of Adorno the least satisfying. Perhaps it is unsurprising that a volume devoted to the philosophy of praxis will find Adorno's approach wanting, but once it is included, it may be worthwhile to explain in more detail what exactly Adorno thought the prospects for political action were, and why he thought that they were so restricted.[5]
Feenberg's discussion of Marcuse is much more sympathetic; he emerges as the true heir of the philosophy of praxis in whose work "the Frankfurt School returns to its sources" (155). More specifically, Marcuse returns to the problem of the reconciliation of humanity and nature. To this end, he elaborates a dereifying attitude, which reveals a dimension of lived nature that is occluded in the merely instrumental attitude that is characteristic of modern subjects who fear nature and aim to dominate it. This dereified dimension includes aspects of nature such as aesthetic beauty and potentialities of development that Marcuse conceives of as objective. The purpose of Marcuse's critical theory is to explain how the restricted instrumental rationality in modern societies prevents modern subjects from having access to this dimension of nature. The liberation of humans and that of nature go hand in hand. It is only once we are freed from capitalism, considered not only as an economic system but also as a comprehensive worldview (180), that we will be free to relate to nature in a non-dominating way. As is well known, Marcuse was much more optimistic than Adorno about the potential for political action to achieve such liberation. Feenberg sides with Marcuse on this question and argues for a conception of social change that does not put its hopes in revolution as it is traditionally conceived but in small-scale local resistance to domination that can create spaces of freedom (219­-20).[WE TRIED THIS-- IT'S CALLED THE 60s AND IT DID NOT WORK. IT IS NO THREAT TO CAPITALIST DOMINATION.-tr] This is partly motivated by the recognition that no large-scale revolution is on the horizon, but also by Feenberg's insight that reification cannot be overcome by a revolutionary event but rather needs to be combatted permanently through ongoing practice.
In conclusion, Feenberg's book is admirable in the clarity that it brings to one of the most complex strands of Marxist thought. It defends the viability of the philosophy of praxis approach and connects it to current concerns about science and technology. I recommend it to everyone interested in these topics or in the intellectual background of Frankfurt School critical theory.

[1] Andrew Feenberg, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (Totowa NJ, Rowman and Littlefield, 1981; paperback edition, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).       
[2] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1966), p. 15 (my translation).
[3] For Adorno’s interpretation of this Antinomy see my "Adorno on Kant, Freedom and Determinism", European Journal of Philosophy 20:4 (2012): 548-74.
[4] See, for example, Steven Vogel, Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Albany NY: SUNY Press, 1996).

[5] For more on this see Fabian Freyenhagen, Adorno’s Practical Philosophy. Living Less Wrongly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and his "Adorno’s Politics: Theory and Praxis in Germany’s 1960s", Philosophy & Social Criticism 40:9 (2014): 867-93.