Editor’s note: This analysis from Kavita Krishnan rightfully identifies the way in which Leftists of all stripes have been seduced by the global right-wing’s language of “multipolarity.” Proponents claim a multipolar world is a necessary counterweight to U.S. unipolar hegemony but, in reality, this language often acts as a cover for non-U.S. states’ own capitalist and militarist policies. While we agree with this analysis, especially in the Sinophone context, we identify a key point of disagreement below, namely what Krishnan identifies as the “universally accepted standards of democracy and human rights.”
While there are popular calls across the world for democracy and human rights frameworks are often important stop-gaps against the worst state-led atrocities, the contours and particulars of concepts such as “the universal,” “democracy,” and “human rights” remain rightfully contested in many circles beyond the cynical instrumentalization of right-wing autocrats. Many are understandably wary of the universalization of these terms primarily because of their manipulation by U.S. imperialist ideologues in the service of imperialist war, colonialism, and occupation.
This violent history does not, however, give carte blanche to enemies of the U.S. to do whatever they wish, as Krishnan convincingly argues. Her call to the left to question the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is urgent in the face of Russian imperialist war; the regional and internal colonial aggression of the CCP and Modi’s Hindutva regime; Bolsonaro’s pathetic aping of Trumpist tactics of undermining democratic elections; and resurgent fascist elements in Western Europe, amongst many other troubling developments around the world.
is the compass orienting the Left’s understanding of international relations.
All streams of the Left in India and globally have for long advocated for a
multipolar world as opposed to a unipolar one dominated by the
the same time, multipolarity has become the keystone of the shared language of
global fascisms and authoritarianisms. It is a rallying cry for despots, that
serves to dress up their war on democracy as a war on imperialism. The
deployment of multipolarity to disguise and legitimise despotism is
immeasurably enabled by the ringing endorsement by the global Left of
multipolarity as a welcome expression of anti-imperialist democratisation of
framing its response to political confrontations within or between nation
states as a zero-sum option between endorsing multipolarity or
unipolarity, the Left perpetuates a fiction that even at its best, was always
misleading and inaccurate. But this fiction is positively dangerous today,
serving solely as a narrative and dramatic device to cast fascists and
authoritarians in flattering roles.
unfortunate consequences of the Left’s commitment to a value-free multipolarity
are illustrated very starkly in the case of its response to the Russian invasion
of Ukraine. The global and the Indian Left have legitimised and amplified (to
varying degrees) Russian fascist discourse, by defending the invasion as a
multipolar challenge to US-led unipolar imperialism.
Cutting people out of the equation
30 September, while announcing the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian
provinces, Russian President Vladimir Putin spelt out what multipolarity and democracy
meant in his ideological framework. He defined multipolarity as freedom from
the attempts by Western elites to establish their own “degraded” values of
democracy and human rights as universal values; values “alien” to the vast
majority of people in the West and elsewhere.
rhetorical ploy was to declare that the concepts of a rules-based
order, democracy, and justice are nothing more than ideological and
imperialist impositions by the West, serving merely as pretexts to
violate the sovereignty of other nations.
Putin played to the justifiable outrage at the long list of crimes by Western
countries—including colonialism, imperialism, invasions, occupations,
genocides, and coups—it was easy to forget that his was not a speech
demanding justice and reparations and an end to these crimes. In fact, by
asserting the self-evident fact that the Western governments did not have “any
moral right to weigh in, or even utter a word about democracy,” Putin skillfully
cut people out of the equation.
of the colonised nations are the ones who fought and continue to fight for
freedom. People of the imperialist nations come on the streets to demand
democracy and justice, and protest racism, wars, invasions, occupations
committed by their own governments. But Putin was not supporting
Putin has signalled “like-minded” forces all over the world—far-right,
white-supremacist, racist, anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic political
movements—to support the invasion, as part of a project advantageous to them
all: of overturning the “unipolar hegemony” of universal values of democracy
and human rights and “to gain true freedom, a historical perspective.”
uses a “historical perspective” of his own choice to support a supremacist
version of a Russian “country-civilisation” where laws dehumanise LGBT persons
and where references to historical events are criminalised in the name of
“strengthening (Russia’s) sovereignty.” He asserts Russia’s freedom to deny and
defy the democratic norms and international laws defined “universally” by
bodies like the United Nations. The project of “Eurasian integration,” which
Putin projects as a multipolar challenge to the “imperialist” EU and
western unipolarity, can be properly understood only as a part of his
explicitly anti-democratic ideological and political project. (It is another
matter that the aspect of competition between the US and Russia as Big Powers,
is complicated here by the shared political project represented by
Trump in the US and Putin in Russia.
The language of the global far-right
language of “multipolarity” and “anti-imperialism” also finds resonance in
Chinese hyper-nationalist totalitarianism.
statement by Putin and Xi in February, shortly before Russia
invaded Ukraine, stated their shared rejection of universally accepted
standards of democracy and human rights, in favour of culturally relativist
definitions of these terms: “A nation can choose such forms and methods of
implementing democracy that would best suit its […] traditions and unique
cultural characteristics […] It is only up to the people of the country to
decide whether their State is a democratic one.” These ideas were explicitly
credited by the statement to “the efforts taken by the Russian side to
establish a just multipolar system of international relations.”
For Xi, the “’universal values” of freedom, democracy, and human rights were used to cause the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, the “colour revolution,” and the “Arab Springs,” all caused by the intervention of the US and the West.” Any people’s movement that demands widely accepted human rights and democracy, is treated as an inherently illegitimate imperialist colour revolution.
The demand for a democracy meeting universal standards, raised by protesters in the China-wide movement against repression in the name of “zero-Covid”, is significant in light of the culturally relativist standards favoured by the government of China. A White Paper in 2021, on “China’s Approach to Democracy, Freedom and Human Rights” defined human rights as “happiness” thanks to welfare and benefits, not as protections from unbridled government power. It conspicuously omits the right to question the government, dissent, or organise freely.
“China-specific” democracy as “good governance” and human rights as “happiness”
allows Xi to justify the suppression of the Uyghur
Muslims. His claim is that concentration camps to “re-educate”
these minorities and remould their practice of Islam so that it is “Chinese in orientation”, has provided “good
governance” and greater “happiness”.
amongst the Hindu-supremacist leadership in India, there are strong echoes of
the fascist and authoritarian discourse of a “multipolar world”–where
civilisational powers will rise again to reassert their old imperialist glory,
and the hegemony of liberal democracy will give way for right-wing nationalism.
Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said admiringly that “in a multipolar world” that
challenges the US, “China has now risen. It is not bothered about what the
world thinks about it. It is pursuing its goal… (returning to the)
expansionism of its past emperors.” Likewise, “In the multipolar world now, Russia
is also playing its game. It is trying to progress by suppressing the West.”
Minister Narendra Modi too has repeatedly attacked human rights defenders as
anti-Indian even as he declares India is the “mother of democracy.” This is
made possible by viewing India’s democracy not through a
“western” lens but as part of its “civilisational ethos.”A note circulated by the government links
India’s democracy with “Hindu culture and civilisation,” “Hindu political
theory”, “Hindu state”, and traditional (and often regressive) caste councils
that enforce caste and gender hierarchies.
ideas also reflect attempts to incorporate Hindu-supremacists
into a global network of far-right and authoritarian forces. The Russian
fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin (much like Putin) states that “Multipolarity […] advocates a
return to the civilizational foundations of each non-western civilization (and
a rejection of) liberal democracy and human rights ideology.”
influence goes both ways. Dugin favours the caste hierarchy as a social model (Dugin
2012). Directly incorporating the brahminical Manusmriti’s values with
international fascism, Dugin sees “the present order of things”, represented by
“human rights, anti-hierarchy, and political correctness” as “Kali Yuga”: a
calamity which brings with it the blending of castes (a miscegenation which in
turn is brought about by women’s freedom, also a calamitous aspect of Kali
Yuga) and the dismantling of hierarchy. He has described Modi’s electoral success as
representing a victory for “multipolarity”, a welcome assertion of “Indian
values,” and a defeat for the hegemony of “liberal democracy and human rights
the Left continues to use “multipolarity” without betraying the slightest
awareness of how fascists and authoritarians couch their own aims in the same
When the left legitimizes the right
language of “multipolarity” is meant to resonate with the global Left. It’s
comforting familiarity seems to prevent the Left—which always did an excellent
job laying bare the lies underpinning the “saving democracy” claims of US
imperialist warmongers—from applying the same critical lens to Putin’s
anti-colonial and anti-imperialist rhetoric.
It is odd that the Left has made the language of polarity its own. The discourse of polarity belongs to the Realist school in international relations. Realism sees the global order in terms of the competition between the foreign policy objectives, assumed to reflect objective “national interests,” of a handful of “poles”—Big Powers or aspiring Big Powers. Realism is fundamentally incompatible with the Marxist view which is premised on the understanding that “national interest,” far from being an objective and value-neutral fact, is defined subjectively by the “political (and therefore moral) character of the leadership strata that shapes and makes foreign policy decisions” (Vanaik 2006).
instance, Vijay Prashad, one of the most prominent enthusiasts and advocates on
the global Left for multipolarity, approvingly observes that
“Russia and China are seeking sovereignty, not global power.” He does not
mention how these powers interpret sovereignty as freedom from
accountability to universal standards of democracy, human rights, and equality.
A recent essay by Communist Party of India
Marxist-Leninist (CPI [ML]) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya presents
similar problems as it explains the party’s decision to balance solidarity with
Ukraine with its preference for multipolarity and its national priority of
resisting fascism in India. (Disclosure: I had been a CPI [ML] activist for
three decades and a member of its Politbureau till I left the party earlier
this year, due to differences that came to a head in the wake of the party’s
lukewarm solidarity for Ukraine.)
formulation is that “Regardless of the internal character of competing global
powers, a multipolar world is certainly more advantageous to progressive forces
and movements worldwide in their quest for reversal of neoliberal policies,
social transformation and political advance.” To restate, the CPI [ML] welcomes
the rise of non-western Big Powers even if they are internally fascist or
authoritarian, because it believes that these powers offer a multipolar
challenge to US unipolarity.
a Left formulation offers no resistance at all to the fascist/authoritarian
projects which describe themselves as champions of anti-imperialist
“multipolarity”. In fact, it offers them a cloak of legitimacy.
Bhattacharya perceives whole-hearted support for Ukrainian resistance as difficult to reconcile with the “national priority” of “fighting fascism in India.” The understanding that the Left’s duties of international solidarity must defer to its perceived “national priority,” is a case of Marxist internationalism being muddied by Realist “national interest,” applied this time not only to nation states but to the national Left parties themselves.
But how is unstinting solidarity with Ukraine against a fascist invasion at odds with fighting fascism in India? Bhattacharya’s reasoning is forced, roundabout, and oblique. He takes a puzzling detour into the need for communist movements to beware of the dangers of “prioritizing the international at the expense of the national situation.” Bhattacharya inaccurately attributes the Communist Party of India’s 1942 mistake of remaining aloof from the Quit India movement to its having prioritised its international commitment to the defeat of fascism in World War II, over its national commitment to overthrowing colonialism by Britain, which was then an ally in the war against fascism.
only plausible purpose of this detour seems to be to make an analogy with the
Indian Left’s current predicament vis a vis the invasion of Ukraine. Since the
Narendra Modi regime’s primary foreign policy alliance is with the US-led West,
it is suggested, the fight against Modi’s fascism would be weakened if Russia,
a “multipolar” rival of the US, was routed by the Ukrainian resistance.
convoluted calculus obscures the simple fact: a defeat for Putin’s fascist
invasion in Ukraine would embolden those fighting to defeat Modi’s fascism in
India. Likewise, a victory for people resisting Xi’s majoritarian tyranny would
inspire those resisting Modi’s majoritarian tyranny in India.
the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice
everywhere.” We weaken our own democratic struggles when we choose to view the
struggles of others through a distorting campist lens. Ours is not a zero-sum
choice between unipolarity versus multipolarity. In every situation, our
choices are clear: we can either support the resistance and survival of the
oppressed—or we can worry about the survival of the oppressor.
the Left takes upon itself a “duty” to support the survival of “multipolar” regimes
(in Russia, China, and for some on the Left, even Iran), it fails in its actual
duty to support people fighting to survive genocide by these regimes. Any
benefit the US might get from its material or military support to such
struggles, is outweighed by far by the benefit of survival for people who would
otherwise face genocide. We would do well to recall that US material and military support to the USSR
in World War II played a part in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Tyrannical regimes construe support for people resisting them, as support for foreign or imperialist “interference” in the “sovereignty” of those regimes. When we on the Left do the same, we serve as enablers and apologists for those tyrannies. Those in life-or-death struggles need us to respect their autonomy and sovereignty to decide what kind of moral/material/military support to demand/accept/reject. The moral compass of the global and Indian Left needs an urgent reset, so that it can correct its disastrous course that finds it on speaking the same language as tyrants.