Ihave never accepted the idea of a “post-heroic mentality”. I was born in 1960, immediately rebelled against my Catholic education, became a Marxist at 16, joined a mass picket at 19 and at the age of 62 am still fighting: against neoliberalism, totalitarianism, fascism and the surveillance state.
Like my generation, I may have failed, but we have been protagonists: we have fought for ideals against overwhelming odds.
Jürgen Habermas asserts that the existence of nuclear weapons, and the threat of mutually assured destruction, makes just wars fought by conventional means unwinnable. By the same logic, the asymmetric power of the modern bourgeoisie — with its militarised police, its digital surveillance, its global reach — should have made us quit the just social war for the liberation of humanity.
But we did not. As a result, progress occurred, even if the overthrow of capitalism did not.
Habermas argues that Ukraine’s war of self-defence is just, but that the German response has to lie within a range of two extremes: the defeat of Ukraine and the escalation of the conflict to a Third World War, ending in nuclear annihilation.
He is correct. He is also correct to warn the progressive youth, and the Green leadership newly converted from pacifism to armed deterrence, that emotional outrage over Ukraine is not enough.
But he is wrong to conclude that conventional wars against a nuclear-armed opponent cannot be won. And he is wrong to assert that, in the world-historic crisis that began on 24 February, that the “broad pro-dialogue, peace-keeping focus of German policy” can be maintained.
This is not just a war of resistance by once country against aggression by another; and not just a war for ethnic and linguistic survival by Ukrainians against fascist-inspired Russian ethno-nationalism. It is a systemic conflict.
That is what Xi Jin Ping and Vladimir Putin announced on 4 February in their joint declaration at Beijing. There will be no more universal values. There will be a totalitarian world consisting of Russia and China, where all revolts will be legitimately crushed on the grounds that they are foreign inspired. And there will be the West, in decline, strangled by “LGBT capitalism”.
What the Ukraine war means, and what Putin signalled in the two Draft Treaties issued on 17 December 2021, is that Russia reserves the right to decide where the West ends and the totalitarian Russian superstate begins, and wants a wide buffer of neutral states in Eastern Europe with no autonomy or agency.
Habermas is aware of the dangerous logic of his position. He writes, in defence of those like Scholz and Macron who have sought to offer Putin an “off-ramp”:
Unfortunately this is the precise deal being offered by Putin. His chosen method of warfare is barbarity, the rubbleisation of cities, the little noticed ecocide already inflicted in the breakaway portions of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.
His message, not just to Ukrainians but to the democratic populations of the West is: to survive you must accept the existence of a totalitarian ethno-nationalist state in Russia, and its right to play a three-sided great power game, with the resulting cancellation the rules based international order, and the negation of the “Responsibility to Protect” principle Habermas himself invoked over Kosovo.
So there are three wars encapsulated in the wider conflict: a just war of self-defence; a proxy war between American, Russian and Chinese imperialism; and a systemic conflict in which the survival of the West as an alliance of democratic countries, and of universalism as the globally agreed doctrine underpinning international law, is at stake.
Faced with that, our appetite for risk has to rise. The Ukrainian army went to war knowing that, if it begins to win decisively, there is a risk that Putin could launch a tactical nuclear strike, symbolically crossing the nuclear threshold for the first time since Nagasaki.
If there was a “post-heroic mentality” in Western Europe in the 1960s, then by the year 2000 it had morphed into the hubristic notion of the End of History — the idea that there were no alternative systems, no principles left to fight for, and only a hollow-chested humanity, where, as Fukayama predicted, real protagonism could only be experienced by terrorists and outlaws.
Since 2000, when Putin unilaterally altered Russia’s nuclear posture to allow for tactical strikes in conventional warfare, the era of “mutually assured destruction” has been over. Russia has abandoned most of the treaty restraints on its nuclear arsenal and, on 24 February signalled that if the West “interferes” in Ukraine it will face nuclear attack. Russian media have since run wall to wall simulations of such an attack, including an explosion designed to create a tsunami to destroy Ireland and the UK.
That has forced people from all across the political spectrum — from Boris Johnson, his party awash with Russian oligarchic money, to Li Andersson of the radical Finnish Left Alternative — to rethink their assumptions about global security.
Every person living in a democracy is now confronted with the following choices.
If the answer is no, then with every act of resistance we are risking nuclear war, because as Habermas rightly points out, Putin is capable of interpreting any reversal as an existential threat to Russia, and therefore as a legitimate trigger for nuclear strikes. If the answer is yes, then eventually there will be three totalitarian blocs: because if Putin wins in Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, the Baltic States and even Finland will be the next targets for aggression, and the fragile Federal system of the USA will be headed by Putin’s nominee. Our grandparents faced this question in the 1930s. That’s why, in Britain, France and the USA, appeasement of Nazi Germany was not only the preferred position of the right, but the instinct of the working class. Even the Comintern, on Stalin’s orders, fought for a policy of appeasement after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Of course there was not then the prospect of a nuclear winter. But there was the prospect of a hundred Guernicas and — as a few far-sighted commentators understood — the total annihilation of the Jewish people. To many of the people who decided to fight, the risks must have seemed just as existential.