Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has split the left into two opposed camps, both of which lay claim to the ideals of internationalism, solidarity, and anti-imperialism. The first, a descendant of Third Worldism, frames the Russian challenge to NATO as an anti-imperialist cause that points toward a multipolar world, one in which the American empire no longer overrides the sovereignty of nations worldwide. The second camp, descended from national independence movements in Eastern Europe, holds that Russia can’t be a bulwark against imperialism because it is itself an empire. In this telling, Ukrainian and Eastern European resistance to Kremlin domination is a force independent of the motives of the NATO elite.

Beneath their apparent antagonism, both camps share the conviction that the threat posed by one imperial juggernaut is sufficient to redeem the actions taken by another, at least to some extent. Whereas the first prioritizes the liberation of the “Third World” (so to speak) from Western domination, the second waves the banner of national liberation from Eurasian despotism. Djene Rhys Bajalan has documented in these pages the intellectual poverty of the anti-Western left. Yet left opposition to Russian imperialism suffers from related defects.

Leftists in the anti-Russian camp claim to distance themselves from the Atlanticist consensus of Western governments, but fail to provide a coherent alternative. Hence, they can’t avoid falling back on elements of the ideology of NATO, which the Ukraine war has salvaged and revitalized—first, because the shock of Russia’s invasion affirmed the West’s convictions about the Other’s savagery and inhumanity; second, because Ukrainians’ valiant fight against the invaders has provided the West with a flattering confirmation of its self-image.

“Eurocentrism isn’t merely one form of ethnocentrism among many.”

Eurocentrism isn’t merely one form of ethnocentrism among many, but a hindrance to any advance beyond the existing global capitalist order. As the Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin argues, Eurocentrism obscures why capitalism appeared in the Western core, and why the management of capitalism has largely remained there. To avoid this mystification, it is necessary to examine how the Atlantic elite sees itself and its enemies and, therefore, to uncover the origins of Orientalism, which still frames the West’s perception of Russia.

In his pathbreaking 1978 study, Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said defined Orientalism as a discursive formation that accompanied and legitimated the rise of European imperialism in Asia and Africa. In Said’s account, Orientalism turned the Orient into an object of both knowledge and domination for Europe. But European power, before and during the Industrial Revolution, wasn’t uniformly distributed across Europe: It was concentrated in the centers of the British and French empires in particular. From its seat at the Western edge of the Eurasian landmass, Europe confronted three different layers of the Orient; the Far East, the Near East, and Eastern Europe.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, French writers in particular elaborated a “Euro-Orientalist” discourse on Eastern Europe, presenting it as an unsettling hybrid of East and West. For Ernest Charrière, Eastern Europe was “another Europe, a half-Asian Europe”; for Cyprien Robert, it was a “vague” land, “the battlefield of Europe and Asia.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau invoked the “inauthenticity of Russian civilization,” and Germaine de Staël asserted that “Slavonic civilization” produced nothing original and was capable only of imitating the West.

While Eastern Europe was regarded as weak and derivative, it was also seen to pose a threat to the West due to its proximity to Russia, a rising power beginning in the 18th century.  British military observer Robert Wilson argued that Russia had opportunistically used the gains of the Napoleonic Wars to gain ascendancy over the surrounding region and had thus “been presented by her rivals with the scepter of universal dominion.” Writing in the 1830s, French politician Saint-Marc Girardin feared that Russian dominance might bring about the defeat of “French liberty” and “English Commerce.” Later in the same century, American writer and historian Henry Adams described Russia as “an inhuman, unstoppable force … a wall of an archaic glacier, fixed, ancient, eternal, and more likely to advance.” Franz von Kuhn, the Austrian minister of war in 1870, warned his fellow Europeans that “we must weaken this giant and confine him to Asia, otherwise the earth will sooner or later be divided up among two powers, the North Americans and the Russians.”

Von Kuhn’s prophecy was, of course, fulfilled in the 20th century, and at this point, Euro-Orientalism helped shape the consensus that led to the Cold War. George Kennan’s 1946 long telegram on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” a foundational document of US Cold War policy, was saturated with Euro-Orientalism. According to Kennan, Soviet leaders were too fanatical, insecure, and jealous to be negotiated with, because they didn’t adhere to Anglo-Saxon traditions of compromise. The Russian mind was the product of another environment, a world created through “centuries of obscure battles between nomadic forces over the stretches of a vast unfortified plain,” in which “circumspection, flexibility, and deception are the valuable qualities.” Kennan not only orientalized the Soviet leadership, but the entire population living under it, describing the Russian people as “an amorphous mass.” The Soviet workers, he claimed, lacked “the general culture of production and technical self-respect which characterizes the skilled worker of the West.”

Contemporary Western attitudes on Russia draw on another set of longstanding civilizational distinctions in addition to the tradition of Euro-Orientalism: what the historian Jonathan Scott has called “Maritime Orientalism,” which posits an essential contrast between liberty-loving island nations and despotic terrestrial empires. According to this view, versions of which extend all the way back to the imperial archipelago states of ancient Greece, civilization is oceanic and barbarism is continental. During the rise of modern trade and industry, Britain, the Netherlands, and other maritime powers asserted their civilizational superiority based on their relationship with the sea. Simultaneously, North Americans on the other side of the Atlantic developed their own brand of “Mayflower Maritime Orientalism,” also known as American Exceptionalism. (Contemporary US coastal elitism and disdain for backwards and barbaric “flyover country” is another variation on these themes).

It is hardly surprising that such views were congenial to those who forged the Atlanticist consensus. Two years before the establishment of NATO, Cold War intellectual Walter Lippmann resurrected Maritime Orientalist discourse in a series of essays that critiqued George Kennan’s containment policy. In those essays, Lippmann attempted to draw the map of the nations of the Atlantic Community, with the aim of distinguishing between the “natural” and “unnatural” allies of the United States. According to Lippmann, “the natural allies are the nations of Western Europe and the Americas, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.” Meanwhile, he consigned large areas of Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe, to the “unnatural allies” camp. He criticized the “terrestrial” bias of Kennan’s containment policy, which focused on finding allies in the nations at the perimeter of the Soviet “continental” empire and disregarded American sea and air power.

The onset of the Cold War inaugurated a new phase in the evolution of Euro-Orientalism in which despotism was seen as both an external geopolitical threat and a corrosive force capable of eroding the West from within. In one of the foundational texts of the era, George Orwell’s 1984, the superstate of Oceania, the imagined successor of the Anglo-American empire, is no longer the “freedom-loving” type of maritime power the early ideologues of Atlanticism were invoking around the same time Orwell was writing. Oceania might span both sides of the Atlantic, and its power might be based upon colossal floating fortresses in all the oceans of the world, but it was still a totalitarian regime.

Orwell’s 1949 novel was the fruit of a pessimistic turn in the author’s political convictions. After serving in the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War, he became alienated by Stalinist tyranny and took part in a broad intellectual shift in the West from anti-fascism to anti-communism, under a banner of a new political outlook: anti-totalitarianism. This intellectual current didn’t provide answers to the crisis of Stalinism, but directly consolidated it. Indeed, anti-totalitarianism participated alongside Stalinism in the liquidation of historical possibilities—but from the liberal Atlanticist perspective.

Western anti-totalitarian triumphalism against Nazism and Fascism mirrored the Stalinist triumphalism over the same enemy in the “Great Patriotic War.” For anti-totalitarian thinkers, like George Orwell, George Kennan, Hannah Ardent, and Arthur Koestler, Nazism and fascism weren’t the logical conclusion of Europe’s internal political and economic crisis, because those totalitarian ideologies were inherently “un-Western.” Hitler might have been geographically inside Europe, but his barbarous actions belonged to the non-European world. Once again, Euro-Orientalism proved useful for casting the internal enemy as an outsider.

For the anti-totalitarian thinker of the postwar era, fascist, Nazi, and communist ideologies were all equally harmful, and the quest for a classless society was as bad as theories of racial superiority; both, moreover, represented a divorce from the “Western scientific rational and moral mind,” and a relapse into the pre-scientific irrationality of the oriental mind. In short, “totalitarianism” is the offspring of an unholy matrimony between age-old “oriental despotism” and modern Western propaganda, surveillance, and policing technology.

Totalitarianism is a coinage of the postwar era, but the concept of oriental despotism, upon which it draws, goes back to the same era in which Orientalism was being formulated more broadly. In his 1748 book The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu generalized the term in an attempt to distinguish between constitutional governments and despotic regimes ruling through fear and violence, in which the subjects themselves were effectively the property of the despot. The theory of oriental despotism assumes that peoples of the Orient have an instinctive inclination toward enslavement; they are to be blamed for their conditions, because they are naturally “unfree.”

Writing three decades after Montesqieu, the Indologist Abraham Anquetil-Duperron refuted the theory of his fellow Frenchman. Drawing on evidence gathered during his travels, Anquetil-Duperron documented that the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and the Mughal Empire all possessed rational and complex legal systems. Nonetheless, the theory of oriental despotism was rehashed to suit the exigencies of the Cold War. Karl August Wittfogel was an ex-Marxist Sinologist who gave a materialist explanation for oriental despotism, according to which this phenomenon emerged in ancient hydraulic empires, which had central control over major river basins, irrigation systems, and agriculture. In the 20th century, modern Western technologies allowed Russia and China to turn from classical oriental despotic empires into totalitarian states that controlled not only water and agriculture, but all aspects of life.

Cold War anti-totalitarianism was the more elegant and academic version of McCarthyite anti-communism. In an alarmist and apocalyptic fashion, Arthur Koestler declared that the theory and practice of totalitarianism are the greatest threat faced in all recorded history. Hannah Arendt declared that for the first time in history, “absolute evil” had appeared, and “history itself” was threatened with destruction. Anti-totalitarianism orientalized socialism and Marxism, turning them into a deviation from Western thought, an irrational ideology of collectivist domination embraced by primitive Eastern peoples.

Which brings us back to our own time. Atlantic Orientalism entered its most recent historical phase amid the triumphalism that attended the fall of the Berlin Wall, the final stronghold of totalitarianism. Despite having defeated the enemy that provided its raison d’être, NATO not only continued to exist after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact but was expanded after the Cold War. Its bloat revealed the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the new Western-led global order. The West claimed to have come out on top at the “end of history” due to the inherent, universally acknowledged superiority of its economic and political system, yet its hegemony still relied on the sheer military dominance exercised by Washington and its European satraps.

Under such conditions, NATO expansion is not an exclusively rational security phenomenon, but a civilizational and identitarian one. Such expansionism is legitimized by the Eastern European yearning to join NATO, which has its origins in the late-Soviet desire to join “the West.” Contemporary Ukrainian and East European state ideology isn’t so much anti-Soviet as late Soviet, similar to the Eurocentric ideology of Soviet elites and populists who took Mikhail Gorbachev’s ambiguous call “to join the civilized nations” as a signal to disentangle themselves from the regressive, barbarous East and South and claim their place in a civilizational hierarchy with “the West” as its pinnacle. (Conversely, this may account for why Asians, Africans, and Arabs aren’t eager to take sides in the current conflict.)

“Those on the left who side with Russia are trapped in their own civilizational discourse.”

Eurocentrism under capitalism has indeed become a quasi-religious ideology, which works under the domain of the church of late-liberal civil society, and believes in the divine figure of the Western human, “Homo Occidentalis” or “Homo Economicus,” the subject who has reached the highest possible form of enjoyment of bourgeois rights, therefore becoming more purely human and superior to “Homo Orientalis” or “Homo Sovieticus.”

Those on the left who side with Russia are trapped in their own civilizational discourse, which has created an image of an irredeemable West—an image that is, in the final analysis, as much a historical dead-end as the opposite belief in an “eternal Orient.” Faith in the possibility of the West’s redemption is also faith in the historical necessity of overcoming capitalist exploitation, the military-industrial complex, and imperialist domination. That is not a privilege, but a burden upon our comrades in Western Europe and North America.

Fakhry Al-Serdawi is a Palestinian lawyer focused on international relations and nuclear disarmament.

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