The Awakening

As I’ve said and written numerous times, when I started this blog it wasn’t intended to be political. The “BS” it was intended to counter was mostly things that people wrote about Russia, such as wildly exaggerated expat tales and spy fantasies of the Luke Harding variety. Apart from the invasion of Ukraine, one of the main reasons I started tackling Russian state propaganda was because of its lure to the Western left. I saw this as particularly insidious for several reasons.

Firstly, the Russian government, if it is anything, is far-right reactionary in outlook and it has given the bulk of its concrete support to far-right movements around the world. In no way does it care about any of the left’s causes, or any foreigner’s cause, for that matter. Secondly, Russia is in no way a real opposition force to the kind of imperialism that leftists are against. Russia generally wants to benefit from the Western-dominated global economy, but there are some contradictions between the two which have deteriorated to an almost irreconcilable level at this point. Thirdly, the Russian government is actively trying to build what is termed a “red-brown” alliance, i.e. an alliance between far-right and far-left forces. In other words, they want to make “horseshoe theory” a reality. Any leftist with principles and a firm ideological grounding should absolutely abhor such an alliance.

For a few years it seemed as though I was living in a very lonely corner of the political spectrum. Few Western leftists understood anything about Russia or its aims, and they tended to view everything through the lens of “my government = bad, regime my government doesn’t like = good.” Even the more theoretically sound leftists often refused to condemn Russia’s actions out of fear of “doing the imperialists work for them.” The people who live under the regime in Russia and those suffering from its actions abroad be damned.

Thus for me, Russia’s attempts at courting the left are attempts to “lead my people astray,” which in turn leads to the left discrediting and effectively neutralizing itself as a political force, and this is one of the main reasons I got into the “information war.” In fact I’d probably not write so much about their propaganda if they just gave up on trying to dupe the left and stuck with their far-right international confederacy of chuds.

Luckily, it seems that more Western leftists are starting to become hip to the Kremlin’s strategy. Part of the reason might be the increased exposure of Russia’s ties to the far right, including the more extreme organizations like Greece’s Golden Dawn party. Also, despite the fact that Moscow and St. Petersburg have long held international white nationalist and conservative forums, in more recent times these have been getting exposure in the popular media.

Another factor is that it seems some leftists are starting to familiarize themselves with the actual ideology behind those Russians who are trying to build this global red-brown alliance. Recently I just read this interview, which shows how expertise about Russia’s foreign influence on the left is apparently spreading. There are a couple passages I’d like to highlight here.

First, if there’s any major flaw in the article it’s this:

“First and foremost, we must reject the empire’s narrative that Russia is essentially no different from the status it had during the Cold War: that it is the main geopolitical rival of the U.S. and is an aggressive imperialist nation that seeks to swallow up all of its neighbors out of some inherent bloodlust or desire to destroy Reagan’s “city on the hill.” This type of narrative is promoted by the Democratic Party and the neocons of the Republican Party. Anybody on the left needs to take a long hard look in the mirror if they find themselves parroting the ruling class’s talking points on Russia.”

Contrasted with the experts’ far more consistent view, this seems confusing, like a way for their leftist opponents to justify their own position. What does it mean to “parrot the ruling class’ talking points on Russia?” What if the ruling class, with different motives of course, happens to be stating things that are true about Russia? Which talking points should be avoided? Again, this seems like a vulnerability to backsliding. Many unprincipled “anti-imperialists” could hide behind the excuse of not wanting to sound like the ruling class.

The second flaw has to do with the classification of Russia as imperialist.

“It is also important to examine whether Russia actually fits what we understand to be an imperialist power. If we take the standard definition of imperialism as put forth by Lenin in “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” I would say that Russia does not fulfill the definition of an imperialist power: it does not monopolize finance capital, it does not use financial power as a means of power projection or acquiring raw materials.

If anything, Russia is the inverse of that, Russia is a raw material exporter and little more. So in that regard, Russia is almost more colony than colonial power. Though I do believe it is a false impression if you think Russia is merely just an oppressed global south nation like any other, it is certainly not.”

Using Lenin’s definition here is a trap, because Lenin’s theory on imperialism had a huge blindspot- the Russian Empire. And wouldn’t you know it, the authors make the same mistake here because Russia does indeed export capital as a means of power projection, and it did maintain a neo-colonial relationship with at least one very important country- Ukraine. The Russian and Ukrainian economies were extremely integrated prior to the war and this hasn’t really changed significantly after three years of fighting. It’s either ironic, or perhaps totally logical, that they would miss this because Ukraine is where Lenin’s theory of imperialism crashed upon the rocks about a century ago. The Kremlin would certainly like to have the relationship they had with Ukraine among other former Soviet republics, but they have failed in this endeavor for various reasons. One is the inability to diversify the economy away from exporting natural resources, and the other is effective competition from China in Central Asia and the EU in the West.

But to the interviewee’s credit, that last sentence about Russia not being oppressed is spot on.

Later in the interview, we see a very interesting theory put forth, and I think it is a helpful one, even if it does have a small flaw. Here is the relevant excerpt.

“The reason for this is not only to further Russia’s political interests, but also to create a parallel to what the U.S. has in Russia. In Russia, the bourgeois liberal is anti-Putin/pro-U.S., anti-Russian media/pro-Western media. And so what the Russians seek to do is to create their variant of a “fifth column” (which is the term they use in Russian media to refer to those anti-Russian liberals) to create anti-U.S. liberals, communists, socialists and fascists. They want to be able to cultivate their own online army. And they are succeeding very well.”

First of all I have to take issue with the phrase, “what the U.S. has in Russia.” This is essentially accepting the Kremlin’s narrative, that opposition to the Kremlin is cultivated by outsiders and that it’s not motivated by people’s justifiable grievances with the system. If the left is going to climb out of this outdated view of the world, it needs to start by acknowledging the agency of people in other countries. One reason left politics are so scorned in Ukraine, for example, is because when ordinary Ukrainians called out for solidarity at Maidan, much of the world left just regurgitated the Russian propaganda they’d heard, and condemned them as neo-Nazis. Despite the fact that many Ukrainians hold generally progressive views (at least far more progressive than the pro-Russian Ukrainians), the Western left basically embarrassed itself and side with their enemy without any real investigation.

Second, who are these bourgeois liberals in Russia he’s talking about? Much of the opposition in Russia consists of ordinary working people or small business owners. There are certainly wealthier elements in Russian society who can see an incentive in the replacement of Putin’s neo-feudal model of capitalism, but if we’re using the term bourgeois to mean the ruling class in Russia- they are pro-Putin. You can’t be in Russia’s ruling class without being on Putin’s side.

This being said, it’s important to see things from the perspective of the Russian geopolitical strategists. They do believe that the opposition is a “fifth column” created by the West, and the Russian opposition is also a very big tent movement, with ethno-nationalists sharing the same space as LGBT activists and other liberals. This composition is also similar to that of Euromaidan as well. If we’re speaking about Russian strategy, what the strategists believe is relevant, no matter how delusional or inaccurate such beliefs may be.

As such, the interviewee is probably onto something by suggesting that Russia wants to create this big tent “opposition” movement, a large movement of people who are categorically opposed to their own government no matter what it does. If it appealed only to the left or to the right, it wouldn’t gain the numbers to have an effect, but if it appeals to the whole radical spectrum, then it’s another story.

Does Dugin dream of this fifth column overthrowing the government in some kind of Russian-inspired “color revolution?” It’s certainly possible in his delusional mind. But while such a scenario is entirely imaginary, a large “fifth column” can still aid Russian foreign policy goals by amplifying and repeating its propaganda. This can be effective because typically Russian propaganda is not about getting people to push for pro-Kremlin policies, but rather to get them to oppose the policies they don’t like. Given (often justifiable) attitudes in America these days, it’s very easy to convince people that their government shouldn’t be doing something.

In any case, it’s good to see the left is starting to wake up to Russia’s strategy. I think you’ll see this develop most rapidly in the US and Canada. On the other side of the pond things will be more difficult. Various Communist parties with their heads too far up their 20th century asses seem to struggle with the very idea that Russia has nothing to do with the Soviet Union, which was an abject failure for all intents and purposes, and those who do acknowledge this still suffer from the delusion that it’s somehow “opposing American imperialism.” On the other hand, we have an advantage when it comes to waking them up, because oftentimes these parties and organizations are located in countries where the Russians are quite openly supporting their mortal enemies from the far-right.

As the interviewee says- we are fighting a two-front struggle. But changing the world was never going to be easy.

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18 thoughts on “The Awakening

  1. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    Such a tease Jim! One article! IME the big issue in which the ‘left’, on both sides of the Atlantic, is falling for Russia’s games is Syria. Look at how much of them have fallen for the conspiracism undoubtedly stoked by the Kremlin over the White Helmets. What they do not seem to be doing anymore, and I think this holds true widely across Europe, is doing the same over Ukraine. There has been a noticeable ratcheting down of support for Russia’s games, thoughof course if Nato is mentioned they parrot the ‘Nato moving threateningly East’ line.

    My bet would be if you surveyed European left media on Ukraine you’d find as a subject its almost disappeared.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This process isn’t going to be fast. Look at how even these two guys have trouble breaking with the idea that maybe, just maybe, their own governments might occasionally say things about Russia that are true.

      What they fail to realize is that even if they think Russia isn’t a rival of the United States, even if they actually controlled the United States and decided to implement policy based on that assumption, the Russians DO think the US is their rival and will act accordingly. The fact is that in a capitalist world, countries are going to be in competition in one way or another. Trying to turn the US isolationist is just allowing some other great power a vacuum to fill, and unlike the US and other Western countries, the rivals like Russia, China, and Iran don’t care about elections or popular opinion.

      Reply
    2. Makhno

      Making blanket determinations on “the left” positions on these matters is rather problematic, as the actual views are somewhat more nuanced.

      On the subject of Ukraine the “far” left was largely split on this issue, with many of the largest leftist groups, in the UK at least, categorically opposing Russia’s actions. In Syria as well a large proportion of the left supported both the initial Syrian revolution and continues to support groups opposed to Assad where they are effective (e.g. the YPG), whilst also being rightly wary of large scale military intervention.

      Of course, mythologising about events in both Syria and Ukraine is not the preserve of the left by any means, and the right and centre are just as guilty, both in terms of the existence of an effective “moderate” opposition to Assad and the potential effectiveness of large-scale military intervention.

      The right and centre are also just as likely to turn a blind eye to the actions of despots as certain sectors of the left. The quantitative difference is that the former tend to do so when it is perceived as bolstering their own ruling economic and political classes, whereas the latter tend to do so when it is perceived as opposing it. Putin, Assad and Gaddafi were all the beneficiaries of a certain degree of support or at least tolerance from centre-right and nominally centre-left governments if they saw it as in their interests (political in most cases, personal in the case of Gerhard Shchroder and his nice stipend from Gazprom). The cynicism and hypocrisy of the right and centre in these matters does much to bolster the readiness of sections of the left to buy into the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” narrative.

      Of course, both these positions are morally indefensible and in the long term utterly self-defeating. Although one has the advantage of holding global military and economic power, and is therefore arguably much more damaging, whereas the other is simply deeply disappointing.

      Reply
      1. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

        That is not my memory of the left in the UK over Ukraine in 2014. By far the largest force is the Stop the War Coalition and they were effectively backing the ‘Peoples Republics’. Much of the rest was either adopting a ‘both sides’ narrative, assuming either Nato or the EU must have promoted it or said nothing, and overall i saw endless stuff about the Maidan being run by fascists. This led to the miniscule actual left forces in Ukraine doing stuff in English to explain basic sh&t to them, and others. Yes there were lefties doing good, especial ones with ties to Ukraine’s unions, but in big scheme of things they were drowned out by the megaphone of people like Pilger and Seumas Milne and the Morning Star.

      2. Makhno

        “That is not my memory of the left in the UK over Ukraine in 2014.”

        Memory is not 20/20 and is subject to confirmation bias. As looks likely to be the case here.

        STWC is not representative of the left as a whole, and position-wise is only representative of Counterfire, and not necessarily its members. I would also question whether it is “by far the largest group”. It’s certainly one of the most vocal, and spends lots of money on branding and placards, but beyond this I haven’t seen any figures. I would suspect that the various splits and spats in far left politics as a whole and its increasingly neo-Stalinist turn have contributed to its numbers being a good deal lower than in its mid-2000s heyday. Milne is a twat and Pilger is insane.

        As far as the “organised” far left goes, the split of the more well known (putting it advisedly) organisations could be said to go along these lines with regard to Russia’s actions:

        Pro:
        Counterfire
        CPB/Morning Star
        Socialist Fight
        Workers Power
        Socialist Appeal

        Anti:
        SWP (as well as the generally short lived groupuscules that formed after the Comrade Delta meltdown)
        CPGB
        Socialist Party
        Socialist Resistance
        RS21
        AWL

        Whilst of course this isn’t exhaustive (and I would admit to pretty much despising all of these orgs aside from the last 3 on the list), it is a better rule of thumb than utilising confirmation bias. I would certainly never claim that no one on the left was guilty of Putin apologism (and when it happens it’s a constant source of frustration) it simply isn’t true that there was a broad consensus.

        I would also add that taking a sceptical position towards the actions of Nato countries ≠ supporting Russia. The former are no more altruistic actors than the latter when the mood takes them. My own view, for what its worth, was that the Nato/EU respose was bumbling and badly handled, but not particularly interventionist.

  2. Mike Freyrie

    A fine distinction should also be made between the radical left, on which you´re spot on, and parties of social-democratic inspiration. More often than not they´re willing to come to terms with Russia´s aggressions in name of some pale imitation of Ostpolitik. Don´t get me wrong, dialogue is preferrable to confrontation, but at this point in time it would just play in the hands of the Kremlin and confirm the notion that it can just do whatever they please inside an arbitrary “sphere of influence”.
    This isn´t to say that they´re the only ones to do it, but it seems a little disingenous if you pledged to help the worst off and are firmly Europhile.

    Reply
    1. Shalcker

      Alternative to “spheres of influence” is “everyone fights wherever they please”.

      That is, full-on meddling by everyone interested anytime anything happens that allows it; kind of like free-for-all that happened in Ukraine in 2014, with that whole “Fuck the EU” by US (with them getting “their buy” into prime minister seat), separate plan for early elections by EU foreign ministers, and then Russia just taking Crimea because actions of those two others weakened executive branch enough to get paralysed and don’t resist anything.

      Reply
      1. Shalcker

        Well, “noone meddles in anything” is clearly impossible (and not even necessarily desireable for many reasons), so it is all about levels of meddling that are acceptable or not acceptable, and reasons behind them.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Well see the problem with that is that Putin has long preached about “not meddling in the affairs of other countries.” He’s actually told Oliver Stone that Russia never does this. But it’s clear he believes he has the right to meddle in the affairs of other countries when it pleases him.

        Also like I said, what you offer is a false dichotomy. The alternative is a system like that which the liberals advocate, only it’s not a capitalist system so it is not based in hypocrisy. I’m talking about a system rooted in international law, a “rules-based” world. The dominant liberal world order says it’s possible, but they’ve shown again and again that they cannot achieve it. A global socialist movement can.

      3. Makhno

        “Alternative to “spheres of influence” is “everyone fights wherever they please”.”

        That’s a neat way to justify any American interference in its near abroad, including the Bay of Pigs, supporting the Contras and destabilising governments and supporting torture regimes across Latin America and the Caribbean.

        Bullshit neorealist, reactionary stuff. You can’t oppose some forms of capitalist imperialism from regional hegemons and support others.

      4. Shalcker

        Your “alternative” to me looks like ” Alternative to current hypocritical imperialist system is non-hypocritical imperialist system – ‘We meddle because we can for our own good, resist if you want to be crushed, accommodate us if you want to live peacefully, we’re your only bulwark against meddling by other imperial powers’ “, codified in international law (which itself was written to accommodate “imperial powers” and prevent all-out conflict, not subvert them or promote some progressive values).

        …well, so far we’re certainly moving in that direction, not toward global socialist movement.

      5. Jim Kovpak Post author

        The thing about the hypocritical liberal world order, is that for all its faults, it’s superior to Russia’s backward 19th century proposal. The only problem is they are limited by the contradictions of their capitalist system. This can be corrected.

      6. Makhno

        “‘We meddle because we can for our own good, resist if you want to be crushed, accommodate us if you want to live peacefully, we’re your only bulwark against meddling by other imperial powers’”

        Which is, of course, the core component of a system whereby larger and more powerful countries have “spheres of influence”, which is a system you seem to support.

      7. Shalcker

        I don’t exactly see how “global socialist movement” can actually prevent this meddling; as such it is probably better to regulate it rather then deny it still exists.

  3. Rory

    Russia’s a perfect fit for that Lenin definition of imperialism, if you look at how Moscow behaves in relation to Siberia or Russian ethnic minorities. Pumping out natural resources, kicking locals off their land and polluting the environment, all to feed the old imperial cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The way the Kremlin uses Kadyrov to keep troublesome natives in line is straight out of the British Raj’s playbook.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      That was Lenin’s blindspot on imperialism. Whereas he was categorically against the British and French empires, and never suggested that people’s of those empires join a single British or French Communist party, he referred to Russia as a “multi-national state,” and insisted on a monopoly of power for the Bolshevik party. Some concessions were made later, but this was never really dealt with and thus they were rolled back. No surprise that Russian nationalism came back in force by the late 30’s and became very open during the war.

      Reply

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