Richard Wolff Leftsplains the War in Ukraine to Us

by Aaron Williams


Several weeks ago, Richard Wolff, Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts–Amherst, and self-styled Marxist popularizer, published an article entitled “The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine” in Counterpunch and other webzines. The byline for this article notes that it was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute––formerly associated with AlterNet––whose mission is to “[make] the case for the general welfare of American society and the world at large.”

What was not noted, however, is that Wolff was also a frequent contributor to RT-America (also known as Russia Today), until its closure in early March, a week after the Putin regime invaded Ukraine. Apparently Wolff sees no conflict between Economy for All’s mission, making the case for the general welfare of American society, and the mission of RT-America. A channel of RT, it served as a propaganda arm of the Russian government, was publicly financed by it, and was officially designated as a foreign agent. Wolff’s association with an enterprise whose mission was to promote the interests of the Russian/Putin state raises serious questions about whether his “scholarship” is compromised.

It is also noteworthy that, to date, Wolff has not disavowed his association with RT, nor has he decided to refrain from associating with it in the future. This behavior stands in contrast to that of former RT-America correspondent Liz Wahl, who resigned after the Russia/Putin government invaded Ukraine in 2014. Wahl’s explanation at the time for her resignation could also have been made in 2022:

[RT] is promoting the foreign policy of somebody that has just invaded a country…and is then lying about it, is using the media as a tool to fulfill his foreign policy interests. And RT is part of Putin’s propaganda network and it’s very, very troubling in the wake of what is going on in Ukraine today.

Wolff’s leftsplaining of the war in Ukraine stands in contrast to Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s position, which the title of our March 7 editorial, “Ukraine Fights for National Self-Determination Against Russian Imperialism,” made perfectly clear. Recent episodes of Radio Free Humanity have also articulated the Marxist-Humanist position on the war: Episode #65, “Rohini Hensman on Ukraine’s Protracted Struggle for National Liberation”; the news segment in Episode #67; and Episode #68, “Chomsky on Ukraine, and the Universal Grammar of Whataboutism (with Bill Weinberg).” “Chomsky” refers to Noam Chomsky, another leftsplainer.

Let me explain this so that you can understand! [1]

Overview of Wolff’s Article

Wolff begins “The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine” by noting that, over the course of history, the capitalist era has added profit to the list of motives for war. While the profit motive is not the only motive for war, it is the driver for capitalist economic development and expansion on a worldwide scale and its attendant conflicts; hence, profit is the root cause of war.  And then, out of the blue, in the last sentence of the first paragraph, Wolff simply asserts: “The war in Ukraine is the latest chapter in the history of capitalism, empire, and war.” And that is almost all Wolff says about Ukraine for the rest of the article.

Almost, but not quite. Following the first paragraph, Wolff fills in some detail, probably taken from his old Economics 101 and World Business History 101 lectures, about “employees,”  “employers,” “enterprises,” “nations,” world markets, “empires” and war. Then, at the end of paragraph 7,  he writes: “As the competitive new enterprise destroys the old, the same happens with empires. That has been capitalism’s history, and that is what is now being seen in Ukraine.”

To be clear: Wolff is not claiming that Ukraine is an empire. Rather, the US and Russia are the empires operating in Ukraine to which Wolff is referring. He regards Ukraine as a flashpoint, caught between a Russian rock and a US hard place:

U.S. support for Ukraine is an effort to repress another country that challenges U.S. hegemony, namely Russia. And repressing Russia too is a peculiar indirect way to get at the greatest threat to the U.S. capitalist empire, namely China.

Then, after a few more paragraphs of background information, on the history and nature of the economic and political relationships between the US, Russia, and China, we come to this amazing statement:

Ukraine, per se, is not the issue. It is tragically a war-ravaged pawn in a much larger conflict.

In effect, Wolff is saying: Take it on the basis of my leftist credentials––the war in Ukraine is a bi-polar proxy war between “empires,” in which Ukraine and its people are little more than an afterthought.

For Wolff, those are the cold, hard facts of life, however “tragic”:

Perhaps the greatest tragedy lies in not recognizing the responsibility of the capitalist system with its markets of competing enterprises run/dominated by the minorities  we call employers. That system lies at the root of these historic repetitions. The minority employer class controls or is the leadership of the nations that have absorbed and reproduced the competition that capitalism entails.  The majority employee class pays most of the costs on both sides …. A different economic system not driven by the profit motive offers a deeper solution than any on offer at present. [emphases added]

What comes next?  In the next-to-last paragraph, Wolff writes, “Eventually some compromise will end the Ukraine war.” He fails to mention compromise between whom, on what terms, and in whose interests––since Ukraine’s agency has been ruled out by definition, having been designated as a “pawn.”

And, finally, in the last two sentences of the article, Wolff opines:

Perhaps the war in Ukraine can awaken an awareness of its capitalist roots and teach people to explore alternative systemic solutions. If so, this war and the resulting devastation from it could lead to an important turning point that eventually results in some positive outcomes in the future.

Consequently, we are left with little more than pessimism—a “that’s life under capitalism” mentality––though Wolff does see a “Left-First” opportunity to “teach people” about “alternative systemic solutions” (the worker-cooperative enterprises that Wolff endorses?) “that offer a deeper solution than any on offer at present.”[2] Such are the realities of “leftsplaining.”

From Mansplaining, Westsplaining, Leftsplaining to Wolffsplaining?

What is “leftsplaining?” For starters, we need to discuss the term “mansplaining,” a relative newcomer to the English language lexicon. As is generally well known, this term was derived from the lived experience of American author and activist, Rebecca Solnit. In an essay, “Men Explain Things to Me” and a subsequent book of essays that bears the same title, she described her conversations with (some) men. In Solnit’s lived experience, (some) men simply assumed that they needed to explain things to her, even though she already understood what they were explaining, or trying to explain.

Hence, the (slang) word “splain,” whose common-sense definition is “to condescendingly explain something to someone that knows more than [the explainer],” was joined with the word “man” to form the blended word “mansplain.” It came to be defined as “a pejorative term meaning ‘to comment on or explain something … in a condescending, overconfident and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.’” Whether or not the behavior captured by the term “mansplaining” is exhibited exclusively by men, it serves as a heuristic device to categorize at a basic level, though not necessarily explain, observed male behavior in interpersonal relationships.

The term “mansplaining” is also the progenitor of a new term that has recently found application to explanations of the war in Ukraine––“westsplaining.” The EverybodyWiki defines “westsplaining” as “[Western people who] comment on, or explain, something to allegedly ‘less civilized people’ in a condescending, overconfident, often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.”

One example of how this definition has been applied is an article by Jan Smolenski and Jan Dutkiewicz, entitled “The American Pundits Who Can’t Resist ‘Westsplaining’ Ukraine,” that appeared recently in the New Republic. The authors write:

[F]or Eastern European scholars like us, it’s galling to watch the unending stream of Western scholars and pundits condescend to explain the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, often in ways that … ignore voices from the region, treating it as an object rather than a subject of history … Eastern European online circles have started using a new term to describe this phenomenon of people from the Anglosphere loudly foistering their analytical schema and political prescriptions onto the region: westsplaining.

Another article of note is “F*ck Leftist Westsplaining” by Zosia Brom, the editor of Freedom, an online anarchist news journal (whose heritage dates back to Kropotkin). That westsplaining has become such a contentious and controversial issue is further evidenced by the fact that even the Nation has published an article by Linda Mannheim that borrows part of its title from Brom: “F*ck  Leftist Westsplaining: Listening to the Voices of the Central and East European Left.” All of this is indicative of the will and passion to challenge the ideas and actions of those who ignore or justify Russian imperialist aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.

That said, “westsplaining” refers to “Western” explanations of, or justifications for, US and Russian actions with respect to the war in Ukraine (and other geopolitical conflicts), whether these explanations and justifications come from the left or from the right. What it fails to capture are ideas and actions particular to the left. That is where “leftsplaining” comes in. Westsplaining by the left is one type or form of leftsplaining.

The Urban Dictionary defines “leftsplaining“ as

[t]he act when a person on the political left speaks over your point or a nuanced distinction you are trying to make, in order to inform you of the “correct” (and ostensibly only) way to model an opinion or an issue according to the church of social justice.

But this is clearly unsatisfactory. The issue is not reducible to hyperbole and speech acts in debate. Instead, the point is that leftsplaining is explanation of complex economic and political realities characterized by over-simplification, condescension, and inaccuracy or disregard of the truth, as well as by a “Left-First” orientation––which prioritizes “the left’s” leadership over the masses, and substitutes its leadership for their self-activity and self-determination.

Wolff exhibits all of these characteristics of leftsplaining. As we have seen, not only is he overconfident and condescending in his explanation of the nature of capitalism, but his tendency for oversimplification limits his explanation of the war in Ukraine. He selectively omits, among other things, Russian imperialism, the Ukrainian struggle for national self-determination, and the agency of the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom. In simple economic-determinist terms: it’s just about capitalism, stupid!

All that is bad enough, but Wolff’s econo-speak abstractions––such as “costs of war”––leave out the reality of death, rape, privation, property destruction, forced emigration, etc. that are being experienced by real people. In addition, Wolff’s search for “root causes” of the war in Ukraine leads to a type of inevitabilism and pessimism because his search is rooted in a lack of faith in the masses––that is, it is rooted in a belief that people in general do not have the capacity to understand and act without the “teaching” and leadership provided by the Left.[3]

Although leftsplaining, and a particular form of leftsplaining––“Wolffsplaining”––may contain some good insights, they are not based on, nor will they provide, the foundation for a philosophy of revolution that assists in the self-development of the masses in their struggles for freedom and self-actualization in a new society. They are, at best, hindrances.

As  Karl Marx wrote in his 1843 Letter to Ruge,

it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists,’ ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

 F*ck Leftsplaining!


[1] The caption paraphrases another Counterpunch article by Wolff, “Explaining 21st-Century Capitalism in a Way Everyone Can Understand.”

[2] For more about Richard Wolff, including on worker-managed enterprises, see Seth Weiss, “The Narrow Horizon of Richard Wolff’s ‘Socialism.’

[3] The implications of such shortcut thinking are further developed in the following quote from Raya Dunaveyskaya:

Instead of grappling with the working out of a philosophy of liberation for our age, theoreticians look only for “root causes” of oppression. This is good, but hardly good enough. It narrows the whole relationship between causality and freedom; it impedes the dual rhythm of revolution that demands not only the overthrow of the old, but the creation of the new. In place of hewing out a road to total freedom, it gets hemmed in by one form or another of economic determinism. (Raya Dunaveyskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, 2d ed., 1991, p. xxii).


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