Ronald G. Suny


We are all “freedom-loving people”

The devastating war in Ukraine potentially threatens everyone on the globe. That threat comes not only from possible expansion of the killing, not simply from nuclear or chemical or biological weapons, but from the example that unrepresentative governments and monied elites are prepared to use any means necessary to prevent the evolution of freedom and a more egalitarian social democracy.

As the war in Ukraine rages, one refrain is heard again and again. The Ukrainians are a “freedom-loving people.” As ordinary Ukrainians and young recruits fight and die to preserve their independence from Russian imperial conquest, the idea of freedom inspires them toward the ultimate sacrifice – the loss of their own lives. Their example has stirred the world; their president has metamorphosed from ridiculed comedian to warrior king; and as civilians die under the blows of Russian rockets, the best and the worst of human effort is displayed nightly on the news

Why has this war struck such a nerve across the globe? Why has the Ukrainian struggle against Russian tanks and missiles captured public attention in a way that the devastation of human life in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia or Sudan, or the short brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020, or the ongoing daily obscenities of the occupation of Palestine or the suppression of Kurdistan has been unable to do? Are not Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians, Kurds, Armenians, and yes, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Turks, and every other people in the world ready to struggle for their rights? What do people mean when they throw around this charged word freedom so frequently, so casually

Freedom, first of all, is widely seen as a goal of human progress, a sign of the desired direction in which civilized societies wish to go. In modern times, which we can define as roughly the two-and-a-half centuries since the European Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions of the 18th century, freedom has come to mean the individual’s, society’s, and the nation’s right to determine as far as possible how they will live their own lives. That is, freedom is about personal, social, and the right to national self-determination within the bounds of what is possible. It is the opposite of what is imposed by imperial rule, autocracy, despotism, racism, and domination by others. Freedom is not a privilege reserved for White Europeans and North Americans, but something that should be available to be enjoyed as well by colonized and post-colonial peoples. 

By any definition freedom presupposes the right to democratic choice, popular sovereignty, and the protection by governments of individual, religious, and cultural rights. Liberals might argue that freedom requires private property and capitalism; socialists might counter that without guarantees of social welfare tat include protection of the most vulnerable no real democracy can exist. Freedom requires, they believe, material security as well as access to education so that meaningful choices can be made to prosper and coexist with others. Conservatives and privileged elites might nod in agreement that freedom is desirable, but they think that it is not worth upsetting the status quo with its attendant privileges of the propertied and powerful. These inequities make real freedom impossible. 

Freedom requires above all the rule of law that guarantees equal treatment of all by legal authorities. Danger to freedom can come from despotic governments. Only lawful and democratic governments can guarantee the preservation of the realm of freedom. But there is another danger to freedom: not from the government but from an unelected (and sometimes elected) aristocracy, the current one based on money. Liberté was the first word in the French Revolution’s triad of slogans, followed by égalité and fraternité. The freedom proclaimed was from domination by kings and aristocrats. The revolution was “bourgeois” in inception and result, against unearned privilege and inherited property, including people as property, and for rewarding people on the basis of work and merit. But nowadays we can observe that in the following centuries and what is starkly evident today, bourgeois freedom embodied in liberal democracies and with the workings of capitalism created new aristocracies – the nobles of money. As the well-known liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin warned, “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.”

Human history moves forward, but glacially. Only occasionally do events turn the world upside down. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is such an event. It is transforming the way Russians and the West think about present dangers and future threats. Freedom remains the goal for both sides, and yet they define freedom in starkly different ways. For the Kremlin freedom requires a kind of total security – from the West, from Ukraine, from people power, that is, from real democracy. The freedom that Putin touts is a freedom for oligarchs and the propertied classes, who speak in the name of the nation and confuse people into believing that what is good for the capitalists and the political elite is good for everyone. Europe and America proclaim that they are defending democracy against autocracy, and their vision is seen by Moscow as threatening the rulers of Russia, who are ready to resist democratic revolutions and even popular protests with censorship, arrests of demonstrators and political opponents, and fabricated news that denies reality.
In many Western countries the concept of freedom has been exalted and debased simultaneously. Freedom is proclaimed as the struggle not to wear masks against Covid, as the right to preserve traditional values against the empowerment of LGBTQ+ people, and as a choice to keep those who differ from oneself out of the country. Building walls rather than opening doors is the perverse way in which freedom is understood by right-wing, conservative, and nativist groups.

All over the world people have expressed through elections and street demonstrations that they want what I define as freedom, which includes self-determination, material security, and competent democratic government that can deliver what ordinary people need. That expression is often combined with populist rage at privileged and powerful elites that they believe have frustrated the demos getting its fair share. Populist and authoritarian nationalism born out of envy and a perverse sense of thwarted justice are the pathology that has arisen from globalized capitalism and the efforts of the propertied to hold on to their ill-gotten gains. 

The devastating war in Ukraine potentially threatens everyone on the globe. That threat comes not only from possible expansion of the killing, not simply from nuclear or chemical or biological weapons, but from the example that unrepresentative governments and monied elites are prepared to use any means necessary to prevent the evolution of freedom and a more egalitarian social democracy. 

President Putin fears the liberal and progressive values that many in the West are ready to fight for, and he has found conservative and reactionary illiberal allies in Europe and Asia from aspiring autocrats like Hungary’s Victor Orban to India’s Narendra Modi. President Biden sees the war in Ukraine as an existential struggle between democracy and autocracy, and by framing it that way he will fulfill his Manichaean, good versus evil, prophecy. America’s liberal and conservative elites are unable to see beyond the world in which they thrive and others suffer. They are quick to blame the current crisis on the other side. 

The war itself is a turning point, certainly, but as the bombs explode, it is clear to me that we are turning toward a new Cold War division of the world frozen in ideological misunderstanding. Once again one wonders: is there light at the end of the tunnel? Who knows? First, we have to find the tunnel.

(March 28, 2022)