WORLD AFFAIRS.  Are the sixties finally coming to Ukraine? The appearance of a New Left movement suggests that the answer may very well be yes. It’s still small and centered in Kyiv, but there’s every reason to think that it could grow and encompass large swathes of the country and its youth. If nothing else, the stultifying nature of the Yanukovych regime—far more dull and authoritarian than anything young Americans, French, or Germans experienced in the 1950s—almost begs for a social movement that rejects the “establishment” and looks for social, cultural, and political alternatives.

One such exemplar of New Left ideas is the student union, Direct Action, established in 2008. It appears to be strongest at the elite Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Kyiv National University and has supporters in a number of cities, including Lviv and Ternopil in the west as well as Zaporizhzhya and Simferopol in the east and south. The student activists, many of whom study political science, philosophy, and the arts, claim to be syndicalists, anarchists, libertarians, and anti-capitalists; they detest the IMF and support sexual liberation and gay rights. Like their historical antecedents in the United States and Western Europe, they draw their ideas from Karl Marx and the “critical theorists” of the 1960s and 1970s and are especially drawn to Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm. They reject Stalin and Soviet communism, but they also reject Ukraine’s existing parties. They view the Communist Party as Stalinist and bureaucratic, the Party of Regions as oligarchic and pro-capitalist, and the national democrats as having a “necrophiliac” relationship to the past.

One of Direct Action’s leading activists, Andrii Movchan, a disillusioned right-wing nationalist who turned sharply left, recently highlighted some of Direct Action’s positions. Their primary goal is “to remove the state from social life.” As Movchan says, “In general, we want to change fundamentally society itself. It’s not just a question of education. There are also problems in the economy, in the system of relations that currently is dominant. Market forces, authoritarianism of all kinds, and alienation in the broadest sense of the word are the fundamental challenges that require a response.”

Movchan rejects violence and hopes that self-organization on the basis of autonomy, consensus, and openness will mobilize supporters. “There should be no secrets among comrades. Backroom agreements, intrigues, and nepotism are all earmarks of bourgeois politics. A revolutionary politics must be maximally open. In other words, the libertarian principles in which we want to ground society must be present even in the everyday activity of the syndicate.” Unsurprisingly, Movchan and his comrades also reject “parliamentary methods of struggle. On the one hand, there is in principle no adequate left party in Ukraine, one that would really defend the rights of students and hired workers; on the other, even if it existed, we see just how striving to attain power deforms the members of a movement. It is at present obvious that parliamentary methods do not work. Parliamentarism has exhausted itself, and people are spiritually and emotionally ready for other forms of organizing life. Today, when people in Spain take to the streets, their first demand is direct democracy.”

One of Kyiv’s best young journalists, Oleksandr Salizhenko, has followed the New Left closely and believes it will grow. As he wrote to me in a private communication (reprinted here with his permission), “the movement is important, as its activists are the most effective in protesting against the ‘innovations’ of [Minister of Education Dmytro] Tabachnyk and the high-handedness of university administrations…. Although they have somewhat naive ideas characteristic of most anarchists, as I follow their activity I notice that their positions are becoming increasingly popular among the young. One can even say that this is the only movement that today is capable of mobilizing students (as opposed to soccer hooligans) for protest. Even some right-wingers are joining them.”

The Ukrainian New Left’s growing popularity is not surprising. Politically, Ukraine is bankrupt. The Orange forces failed to bring about change in 2005–2010, while Yanukovych’s Regionnaires are daily manifesting their incompetence, corruption, and thuggishness. Culturally, Ukraine is deadlocked, unable to move past East-West divides and sterile language debates. Socially, the country is still mired in Soviet habits, ranging from sexism to authoritarianism to passivity. Economically, central planning is a dead end, but free-market capitalism has created far more losers than winners. So why shouldn’t young people who hope for a better future search for inspiration in the ideas and movements that shook the Western world in the 1960s?

They are, of course, unlikely to abolish capitalism and the state and introduce direct democracy. But they should certainly try. At the very least, they might shake things up a bit. And with a little luck, they might even awaken Ukraine’s elites out of their stupor and force them to move the country forward.

Alexander J. Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


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