The Confusion on the Left



All “peaces” are or were created or imposed by some war that had “winners” and “losers”

“[…] to decide the dispute that has arisen about the criterion, we must have an accepted criterion by which to judge the dispute; and to have a criterion accepted we must first decide the dispute about the criterion. And when the argument reduces in this way to circular reasoning, finding a criterion becomes impracticable” (Sextus Empiricus, Pyrrhonic hypotyposis).

The real avalanche of the American wars of the XNUMXst century buried the dream of a “liberal-cosmopolitan order” and left the post-Cold War “humanitarian left” without its utopian compass of the “perpetual peace of human rights”. More than that, this true “endless war” brought back the classic debate about the existence of wars that would be “just” or “legitimate”, and other wars that would be “unjust” or “illegitimate”. A debate about “criteria of distinction” that ended up involving thinkers and militants of the left, which lost its main international references after the end of the “binary world” of the Cold War, as was clear in the confusion of the left regarding the War in Ukraine, inside and outside Europe.

War kills and destroys, and is condemned by the majority of peoples, intellectuals and states all over the world. But in the concrete world of real conflicts, things never happen exactly as they do in the world of theory and rhetoric, and even the staunchest pacifists or humanists consider that some wars are legitimate and even necessary. As in the case of the Enlightenment and pacifist German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who even so defended the need for wars as “an indispensable means of advancing culture”, convinced that only when “culture had reached its full development it would be possible to have a perpetual peace beneficial to all”.[1]

Sometimes people forget that, for most of history, war was considered a means and a virtuous goal of valuing peoples and civilizations, and the only authentic way of selecting the "great men", the "winners" and "heroes". ” predestined to lead and govern their peoples. Even in the heyday of Greek philosophy and democracy, which admired peace as a long-term human goal, it continued to glorify its warriors and praise its victorious generals in war, as happened throughout the history of the Roman Empire. It was only Stoic philosophy that broke with this tradition, particularly Roman Stoicism.

It was the Roman consul Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC-43 BC) who first formulated the thesis of the existence of a juridical distinction between “just wars”, fought in “self-defense” or in “legitimate defense”, and which should to be praised, and the “unjust” and “illegitimate wars”, which should be condemned in the name of a new universal value that would be peace. And it was in fact after Cicero that Rome experienced the first great pacifist movement in human history, the radical pacifism of the first two centuries of Christian history. But after this period, the beginning of Christian history, Christians themselves abandoned their pacifism, at the moment when they became the official religion of the Empire.

And it was Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine, 354-430 AD), exactly who took up and defended again Cicero's juridical distinction, creating the new category of "holy wars", "wars fought in the name of God" to convert or slay the heathens and heretics. A thesis that was taken up later by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD), already in the midst of the European Crusades in Palestine. And for more than a thousand years, this was the hegemonic thought of the Church and the rulers of Medieval Europe, between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of Modernity.

At the beginning of the so-called “modernity”, at a time when the European interstate system was being formed, the Dutch jurist and theologian Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) once again defended the existence of “just wars”, based on his conception of “right natural”, but at the same time he was the first to realize that within the new European political system, formed by sovereign national States, it was impossible to have consensus on a common arbitration criterion to resolve conflicts between two or more territorial States that had interests contradictory and exclusive.

The same idea that led his English contemporary, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), to conclude in an even more radical way, that in this new system of political power, the States would be eternal rivals, permanently preparing for war, due to the the absence of an international Leviathan, that is, of a “superior power” capable of formulating and imposing a “single criterion” of arbitration valid for all States included in the international system. After that, for more than three hundred years, the discussion of theorists revolved around these two crucial and congenital problems or questions of the interstate system invented by the Europeans: the “question of criteria” and the question of “global power”.

And several philosophers and political scientists dreamed of the possibility of creating a world government, guided by values, norms and criteria that were universal, and that were managed by some form of “superstate”, “universal state”, or a “ hegemonic power” that would impose its arbitration and thus manage to promote a peace that was universal and lasting. Hence the utopia of an “international order guided by universal rules and institutions”, as defended until today by liberal-cosmopolitans and defenders of a world order based on human rights, as they were conceived and defined from the “Western Enlightenment”. . Although there is “strong historical evidence that it was in the period in which the European utopia of “perpetual peace” was consolidated and the project of a world order based on shared values ​​and institutions was formulated for the first time that the most numerous wars were fought and bloodthirsty of history”.[2]

It was within this same spirit and same Enlightenment movement that European socialism was born, along with its pacifist project that was aborted a few decades later, at a time when the social democratic parties submitted, in the vast majority of cases, to the logic of interests and conflicts of their national states, inside and outside Europe. And the same happened, in a slightly different way, with the Communist Parties created after 1919, which also abandoned their rhetorical pacifism by placing themselves on the side of the foreign policy of the USSR, supporting all the anti-colonialist wars of the Third World, during the twentieth century, and more generally supporting all wars that had an anti-imperialist character.

In this way, it could even be said that, during the 1991th century, the international communist movement created a new “particular criterion” for defining “just wars” that would be “legitimate” insofar as they fought “American imperialism” in any and all ways. Any place in the world. This clarity ended, however, in XNUMX, with the end of the Soviet Union and the geopolitical bipolarization of the world. The “independence wars” of the former European colonies lost protagonism, and the “imperialist question” of the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXst returned to have a multipolar dimension, complicating the binary map of the war of the old left.

This is how, in the 1990s, at the time of the great “cosmopolitan liberal” celebration, a good part of the left adhered to the “globalitarian utopia”, believing that this was the path and the “Kantian hour” of a world without borders, without national selfishness. , and subjected to a “single criterion” of universal arbitration, guided by respect for Human Rights and submission to the “universal laws” of the market. An entire system of global governance that would be administered through regimes and multilateral institutions under the tutelage of the United Nations, which could order the carrying out of “humanitarian interventions that ended up being carried out or managed, almost all of them, directly or indirectly, by US troops and NATO, which carried out 48 military interventions in the 90s, generally in the name of defending “human rights”.

Even so, this picture worsened and the intensity of wars increased after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the US government declared its “global war on terrorism”, followed by the attack and invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. And after that, there were 20 years of war that literally destroyed seven countries, killed or injured more than a million people, and threw more than five million refugees, predominantly Muslim, on Europe's borders. Left behind, covered by the rubble of the Greater Middle East, was the dream of a world without borders and a peace governed by respect for Human Rights. Incidentally, it was the United States itself that began to define, from 2011, both China and Russia as its main competitors and strategic adversaries, in the dispute with Russia for supremacy within Central Europe, and in the dispute with China for supremacy over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

European social democracy submitted entirely to the American and NATO project, especially in Europe, after the end of the Cold War. But the rest of the international left is still struggling to redefine its “own criteria” for intervention in international politics and for jointly facing the challenge of wars. It seeks to reconcile its humanist, egalitarian and pacifist objectives with a realistic ethical vision of peace and war within the interstate system that was “invented” by Europeans.

Starting with the debate of some fundamental historical assumptions and generalizations that cannot simply be denied or hidden by an act of faith, hope, or utopian blindness. As is the case of the historical verification (i) that there is not and never was an abstract and universal “peace”, separated from specific historical contexts and conflicts, and that all these “peaces” are or were created or imposed by some war that had “winners” and “losers”; (ii) that, for this very reason, there is not and never has been any peace that has been “just” or “entirely just”, because all “peaces” are and will always be “unjust” from the point of view of the defeated, who they are the first to revolt against their former victors at some future time, more or less close; (iii) that, as a consequence, there is not and will never be any criterion for arbitration of interstate conflicts that is entirely neutral or impartial, but that, on the contrary, all these judgment “criteria” will always be committed to the values ​​and objectives from any of the parties involved in the conflict and war; (iv) that, within this interstate system, all its great powers have always been expansive and imperialistic, and for this reason they have always been at war or preparing for wars invariably made in the name of the “legitimate defense” of their strategic interests; (v) that the interstate system has always been and will continue to be hierarchical, and that, for this very reason, the entire “international order” is always – to some extent – ​​a form of legitimation of a certain hierarchy established through war. saw. that there does not exist and will never exist, within the interstate system, an “international order based on consensual and universal rules”, precisely because every international order is hierarchical and asymmetrical; (vii) and that, finally, for all that has already been said, any proposal to change any established international order will always and invariably be seen by the dominant power as a challenge and as a strategic threat to its “right” to define, formulate and impose the “ultimate criterion” of arbitration within the entire system, and in whatever field it may be, legal, economic or military.

If the left does not take into account these aspects of the real history of peace, as it is, and not as the left would like it to be, it will never be able to formulate or have its own and consensual “criteria” for judging the wars that will follow one another in the world. XXI century.[3]

* Jose Luis Fiori Professor at the Graduate Program in International Political Economy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Global power and the new geopolitics of nations (Boitempo).



[1] Kant, I. Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History. In: Reiss, HS (Ed.). Kant Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. two.

[2] Fiori, JL Dialectic of war and peace. In: ___. (ed.). about the war. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 2018. p. 95.

[3] This article was written as a complement to and in response to some questions raised to me regarding my last, more limited article on “European Social Democracy and War”, available at


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