What Ukraine's War Can Teach Us

Sculpture José Resende - Radial Leste, São Paulo photo A. Saggese


Introduction to the newly released book

The war in Ukraine highlighted the political limits of what was left of the movements and critical theories that expelled the war (and wars) from the political and theoretical debate, producing a pacification of Capitalism and the State. Production, work, power relations (man over woman, white over the racialized, the boss over the worker) are discussed, theorized, but in a framework in which the war of conquest and subjugation, the war of Civil war and war between states seem to be part of the XNUMXth century. Revolutions and revolutionaries also appear confined in a past that makes them useless and prevents us from using their strategic knowledge about imperialism and wars.

The result of fifty years of pacification is disorientation in the face of the outbreak of war between imperialisms, agitated by the chronicle, at the mercy of opinion, without a class point of view because they also made classes disappear in the meantime, mistaking the defeat of the class historical working class with the end of the class struggle. Instead, the class struggle intensified, actually being fought but conducted with strategic patience only by the class enemy.

The problem we face is a long effort to reintegrate wars and class struggles as a structural element of capitalism, trying to rebuild a partial point of view on them.

All critical theories have developed a new concept of production (desiring, affective, cognitive, biopolitical, neuronal, drive), at the same time eliminating the fact that, before producing commodities, it needs to “capture and divide” producing classes. Production, work, racial and sexual relations of power presuppose the wars of conquest and subjection that produce women, workers, the colonized and the racialized, citizens who do not exist in nature. The civil war of appropriation of bodies must at the same time affirm the division between owners and non-owners, between those who command and those who obey.

The “peace” obtained there is the peace that the victors impose on the vanquished, the continuation of the war of subjugation by other means (the economy, politics, heterosexuality, racism, law, citizenship). The only effect of capital accumulation will be to aggravate the dualisms that underlie it, creating ever sharper differences in income, wealth and power within the classes of all countries, and growing inequalities in military, political and economic power between states that will lead to to war between imperialisms, which is, in turn, the continuation of the “peace” of politics, economics and biopolitics by other means. War is not the interruption of class struggles, but its continuation in other forms.

In short, it is about the economic-political cycle of neoliberalism that begins and ends with war, which we will deal with in chapters 3 and 4 ˗˗ together with the formation of classes, it is the great impasse of contemporary critical theories for erasing the Karl Marx's watchword, “expropriate the expropriators”, a condition for all radical change. They think it is possible to impose the “common”, forms of life, liberated lives, production of subjectivity and politics of desire, without going through the overthrow of original expropriations.

O 5o The chapter deals with the relationship between accumulation on the world market, the state and imperialist war, of which the conflict in Ukraine is a perfect illustration.

Vladimir I. Lenin offers us a good indication of a method for reading the ongoing war, disarming the obsessively repeated discourse of the aggressor and the aggressor: “The philistine does not understand that war is 'the continuation of politics', limiting himself to to say, therefore, 'the enemy is attacking', 'the enemy is invading my country', without asking why the war is being fought, with which classes, for what political purpose (…). And just as absurd phrases about aggression and defense in general were used to evaluate war, so the same commonplaces used by the philistines were used to evaluate peace, forgetting the concrete historical situation and the concrete reality of the struggle between the imperialist powers. ”.

The reason and the political end are certainly the hegemony of the world market that the United States thought it could easily dominate after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wars lost to export democracy were already a sign that not everyone wanted to live under the “person American". Even more worrying for Uncle Sam is the growth of the great South (the 1st chapter is dedicated to its formidable revolutions and their transformation into capitalisms, although irreducible to Western capitalism), and in particular of China and Russia, which also dislike that the Americans rule the world, because they do not understand with what legitimacy they do it if not through force.

The South reads the war in Ukraine as the spearhead of the project of the "American century" ("the neoconservatives"), of the "Make America Great Again” (Donald Trump), of “Making America run the world once again” (Joe Biden), whose first objective is to weaken Russia, then aiming at China and the entire South. For that reason, for different reasons, they refused to follow the “West”, which they see as a much more dangerous imperialism than the Russian one. They do this in countries that are often emerging from centuries of colonization and that see the United States as the main danger. This is not the feeling of governments, but a generally diffused awareness among the population, as I can testify in the case of Latin America. It seems to me that the South captures better than the West and infamous Europe what is at stake in the war.

However, if we abandon the point of view of international relations and adopt the point of view of class, the imperialisms of the North, the South and the East are similar, as they all exploit women, workers, immigrants and colonized, repress minorities within their States and appropriate human and material resources outside them. They are governed by mafia oligarchies and not only in the East (in Italy no vote has been held for years because the financial oligarchies occupied the State, in France they organized themselves better and managed to elect a President of the Republic who was a banker), they destroyed what little democracy there was, which it was not a concession of power since it was won by force through struggles, such as universal suffrage.

With conflict eliminated, democracy has disappeared because it is by no means a creature of capitalism. As always, the most hypocritical are the Westerners who, in order to export their model, have not hesitated to demolish it within their own countries. The result is internal fascism, racism and sexism, managing to make Donald Trump, who is already ready to take revenge (or someone for him), reach the White House, while in France, home of human rights, the extreme right won 42% of the vote in the last presidential election.

Ukraine is in no way different from other former Warsaw Pact states such as Hungary, Poland, etc.: right-wing institutional government (with fascist components), in the shadow of oligarchies, neoliberal policies, repression of the “left”, homophobia, sexism , privatization of agricultural land, the country's most important wealth sold to agro-food multinationals and legislation against work. All this under the control and direction of NATO, the United States and England.

Very attentive to national liberation struggles, Lenin said that it is necessary to defend the right to self-determination of nations and national minorities even if they are governed by the right, except in the case of becoming an instrument of imperialism.

But which classes are in play? The classes that direct imperialism operated a progressive strategic integration of capital and the State. Rather than thinking of the state and capital as two separate entities, this book uses the concept of the state-capital two-headed machine. Together they constitute a device that produces, “governs”, wages war, even with internal tensions, when sovereign power and profit do not coincide. They integrate progressively, but without ever identifying themselves. In order to analyze the functioning of these imperialisms and their ruling classes, it is necessary to return (the 5th chapter will be dedicated to the theme) to the definition of capital and the State and the relationship between both, which was caricatured by the discourses on globalization: supremacy of capital on the State, crossing borders, overcoming imperialism, crisis of sovereignty, automatisms of finance.

Despite all having adopted capitalism, the management of the political/economy, State/capital relationship is different in each country. The objectives and the means employed to achieve them are also not the same. We are dealing, therefore, with a multiplicity of centers of political-economic power that, with the worsening ecological, health and economic crises and catastrophes triggered by neoliberal policies, have been fighting for a century to appropriate markets and material and human resources, order to impose its own rules and its own currency.

In short, we still have to deal with the imperialisms, which are confronting each other with weapons, with the economy, with communication, with logistics and with culture, therefore, with “total” war. However, the 1914-18 conflict was already total, in fact, it constitutes, until today, the matrix of what is happening (analysis developed in the 2nd chapter).

The great problem of the oppressed is that the abandonment of revolution and war, which were at the center of the political debate of the XNUMXth century, was accompanied by a renunciation of the concept of class, a capital issue that cannot be addressed in this book (I refer to my book The intolerable of the present, the urgency of the revolution). What we can say is that classes, in addition to capitalists and workers, also include men and women, white and racialized. These dualisms that function in the foci of struggles and organizations are distinct and, therefore, the points of view differ, also about war.

Feminist movements are much more interested in violence, however, if wars are undoubtedly violent, the two concepts do not coincide. Sexual, racial and class violence must be understood and politicized as an individualization of the war of conquest. The debate that grows within feminism about “violence” could open a discourse about the war that certain feminists have already problematized with regard to the war of conquest and subjugation (Wittig, Colette Guillaumin and all materialist feminism, Silvia Federici, Verónica Gago ). At the center of the war are certainly the male impulses, however, if this is true from the Trojan war to the Ukrainian war, then it is a single and same war, running the risk of losing, thus, the specificity and reason wars in the era of imperialism and its monstrous capacity for destruction.

Ecological theory and policy do not take into account the close bond that links total wars to climate and environmental catastrophe (in the 2nd chapter, the relationship of identity and reversibility between production and destruction inaugurated by the First World War is addressed).

The labor movement, which, apart from the unions, practically did not survive the historic defeat suffered between the 60s and 70s, functions as an institution completely integrated into the state-capital machine.

This situation in which the initiative is in the hands of the enemy, in which political movements are in full reconstruction after the 2011 cycle of struggles, could no longer generate a great debate on war, pacifism, rearmament and revolution as it had developed initially and during the Great War. A meaningful class point of view seems to have great difficulty emerging.

Being in favor of ending war does not mean being pacifist: in the history of the oppressed, nothing has ever been achieved through peace. Peace is not something obvious, it must be questioned. What peace do you want? The one that preceded the war and caused it? The peace of the last fifty years of counter-revolution, which was a massacre of the conquests obtained by a century of struggles in the North and the continuation of wars to export Western democracy in the South (in reality, wars of prey, appropriation, extraction)? A peace that resembled the one that was established after the First World War and that the only thing it did was prepare for the Second?

The revolutionaries had a formula that should make us reflect in its simplicity: “War is the continuation of the policy of peace and peace is the continuation of the policies of war”. Translating: wanting peace without abolishing capitalism is absurd or naive, as capitalism does not eliminate war, but intensifies it like no other economic and political system has ever done, propagating it throughout society.

In fact, the very concepts of war and peace are problematic in their opposition: after the First World War, this separation no longer makes much sense because “what is new is the intermediate state between war and peace”. The statement “we have peace when there is no war” is true only in the case of military war, but the “passage to total war consists precisely in the fact that the extra-military sectors of human activity (the economy, propaganda, energies non-combatants) are involved in the fight against the enemy”. In any case, “fighting the effects (the war) while allowing the causes to subsist (capitalism)”, was considered by the revolutionaries as a “fruitless job”, and we are with them.

The risk of the war continuing exists because neither the Russians nor the Americans can lose. But even if they sign the “peace”, we will live within an even more “authoritarian” neoliberalism, managed by even more predatory oligarchies, supported by fascist, racist and sexist forces that will prepare the next war against China, as demonstrated by the crazy rearmament race.

We can say the same about the pacifist demand for disarmament: the war industry and militarism are constitutive elements of capitalism. State, capital and militarism constitute a virtuous circle: militarism has always favored the development of capital and the State, and the latter, in turn, finance the development of militarism.

After the First World War, the war industry was an essential investment for accumulation. It has the same stimulus function as productive investments (war Keynesianism), absorbing the increase in production so that it does not go to “consumption”. In this sense, the war industry is a regulator of the economic cycle, but above all “of the political cycle”.

The war economy we are entering will further increase the share of produced wealth that will go towards armament and will subsequently reduce consumption. In the South, it will no longer be just a contraction in purchasing power, but hunger and an explosion of debt for many of these countries, shortages for others, misery for all the oppressed, a hardening of hierarchies (sexual, racial, class), closure of every political space.

The revolutionary maxim is also valid here according to which “fighting against the effects (the war industry and militarism) while letting the causes subsist (capitalism)” is to miss the mark.

During the outbreak of the First World War, the revolutionary point of view of “transforming the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war” was absolutely in the minority. The majority of the labor movement had joined the national wars, voting war credits and exalting the defense of the homeland. From this rupture, the European labor movement will no longer rise, despite the slogan of politicizing the war, because that is what it is about when we talk about transforming it, that it will lead to the first victorious revolution in the history of the oppressed.

It is not a question of a repetition that copies this formidable strategic knowledge, but of using it as a posture, a point of view, updating it, reconfiguring it, rethinking its contents, not least because it is the only one we have on war. Here I can only raise questions that we will answer collectively if we are able to: what does it mean to politicize war today? In the XNUMXth century, it was considered a privileged terrain of class conflict to put an end to power relations and hierarchies of exploitation.

We cannot think of transforming war as they did in Russia, China and Vietnam, but we must give new content and a new life to the verb transform. “Transforming” war still seems to me an urgent political task. To achieve this transformation, we have to regain what we lost, the strategic principle (the 4th chapter will be devoted to the topic) in order to interpret the war of conquest of the classes, the fact that they are put to work and the inevitable conclusion of the relations of irreconcilable power within the imperialist war. What we need is not so much the productive power of the proletariat as the strategic principle capable of interpreting the class struggle, civil war and imperialist war, of naming the enemy and slaughtering him.

Lenin said, perhaps wisely, that we must “seek to prevent war in every way”, but only if we succeed in “overthrowing” the lords of death. If we do not achieve this, we will continue to be crushed by the general destruction wrought by the war.

Maurizio Lazzarato, sociologist and philosopher, he is a professor at the Université Paris VIII – Vincennes – Saint-Denis. Author, among other books, of The government of inequalities: critique of neoliberal insecurity (edUFSCar).

Translation: Felipe Shimabukuro


Maurizio Lazzarato. What Ukraine's war has to teach us. Translation: Felipe Shimabukuro. São Paulo, n-1editions (https://amzn.to/3OzsbnJ).

On the occasion of the book launch, a debate between the author and Leon Kossovitch, mediated by Jean Tible, is available on the n-1 editions channel: https://www.youtube.com/@n1edicoes .

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