Putin: an open letter to Owen Jones

27 Jan

Dear Owen

I’m told that Chavs and The Establishment are well worth a read. You’re admired on the British left and seem a right enough bloke to a Marxist like me. I can’t put it any stronger than that. I saw and heard you on two platforms recently – in Manchester and in Sheffield – and while your heart’s in the right place your words didn’t strike me as deep or incisive, two qualities the left is crying out for right now.

Yesterday you wrote a piece in the Guardian: Putin is a human rights abusing oligarch. The British left must speak out. I disagree with most of it, and am reproducing it in full, annotated with my own comments. You began:

A rightwing authoritarian leader who attacks civil liberties, stigmatises lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, indulges in chauvinistic nationalism, is in bed with rapacious oligarchs, and who is admired by the European and American hard right. Leftwing opposition to Vladimir Putin should be, well, kind of an obvious starting point. Now BBC One’s Panorama has broadcast allegations that the Russian leader has secretly amassed a vast fortune. However accurate, there is no question that Putin is close to oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, who profited as post-Soviet Russia collapsed into economic chaos thanks to western-backed “shock therapy”.

Putin isn’t nice and isn’t PC. To this less than startling revelation you add two allegations: that he (may have) got filthy rich, and rubs shoulders with unsavoury dudes. On the first you hedge your bets with that “however accurate” disclaimer. On the second you show a shaky grasp of realpolitik: a serious though common failing in a socialist. Putin inherited Abromovich and his ilk from the Yeltsin era, and can not exercise power except by negotiating with that oligarchy. No ruler – not even a Henry VIII, Hitler or Stalin – wields absolute power. More serious though is your failure to make very clear that it is because  Putin, unlike Yeltsin, stands up to Washington and NATO that he is detested in the west, whose own billionaires – with maverick exceptions – ensure a daily torrent of anti Putin vitriol. Your failure on this point leads to another: inability to explain why Putin keeps getting elected. Russians may not like  him but, alarmed by wave after wave of eastward advance by NATO, value a man with balls.

Update 13/1/17 – Putin also, notes CounterPunch, “rebuilt the Russian economy, improved the lives of average Russians immensely, and restored a once great nation from global basket case to a major international power”. (Thanks to Dave Hansell for alerting me to this piece.)

nato expansion

Last week, a British public inquiry concluded that ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was likely to have been murdered at the personal behest of Putin. We don’t know exactly who is behind all the murky killings of journalists in Russia, but we know that some of those critical of the government – like Anna Politkovskaya, who courageously opposed Putin’s war in Chechnya – met violent ends.

I don’t know exactly  what you are saying here. More hedge-betting innuendo? But let’s take the worst case scenario, that Vlad did indeed have Litvinenko and Politkovskaya bumped off. That would make him a ruthless bastard, for sure, but it is remiss of you not to make clear that NATO does not push relentlessly eastward out of concern over Putin’s record on human rights. It does, however, benefit from unwitting legitimation conferred by half-baked thinking. Am I suggesting we stay silent where serious abuse is known to have occurred? No. I’m saying denunciations of Putin should be based on thorough investigation, with sources properly checked and vested interest weighed, rather than offered in nudge-wink fashion for relay on Facebook and Twitter till, by weight of repetition and the fact they chime with the greater new cold war narrative, they assume the status of truth incontestable. And that even credible denunciations should be paired not only with denunciations of the west’s hypocrisy but, even more important, of the reckless game NATO is playing in the back yard of a nuclear power.

Putin has become something of an icon for a certain type of western rightwinger. Donald Trump is a fan: when Putin called the rightwing demagogue a “very colourful, talented person”, Trump called it a “great honour” and described Russia’s strongman as “a man highly respected within his own country and beyond”. When challenged on the alleged role of Moscow in the murder of journalists, Trump engaged in what is typically known as “whataboutery” (or the “look over there!” approach to debate), responding: “Our country does plenty of killing also.” Last year, a delegation of French rightwing MPs visited Russia to fight “disinformation from western media”, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front which was given a multimillion-euro loan from a Russian bank – is a Putin fan. Our own Nigel Farage assailed opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, suggesting Putin was “on our side” in the war against terrorism, while Ukip MEP Diane James celebrated him as a strong leader and for being “very nationalist”.

There’s an implied syllogism here: the right approves of Putin, ergo the left must attack him. First, the premise is flawed. For western imperialism – mainstream right as opposed to extreme or loony right – Putin, for reasons given below, is a significant obstacle. Second, its unspoken conclusion is erroneous. I wrote on this kind of thing in a recent post on cognitive dissonance.

We don’t have to choose between critiquing our own foreign policy and opposing unjust foreign governments

Indeed we don’t, and this takes us to the heart of the matter. During the old cold war there were broadly three views on the left of the Soviet Union. The first and easiest, adopted by the British Labour Party and some of those further to the left, decried the USSR at every turn. It made life easy: didn’t rub up a Sun reading working class the wrong way and, if you were handy with the pen, upped the chances of selling copy to the Guardian. Downside? It was music to the ears of those who pursued cold war not to fight for “our” freedom but because the very existence of the Soviet Union – a sixth of the world’s land mass closed off to Profit – was an anathema they’d risk nuclear holocaust to eliminate.

A second view, less widespread and more ridiculed after the Hungarian Uprising, was of the USSR as a socialist country: if not a workers’ paradise then the nearest thing to it in a world of imperialist hegemony.

A third view, even less widespread, and centred on Leon Trotsky’s vision of a 4th International, was that the USSR and its satellites had been derailed by Stalin’s utopian – and soon to prove dystopian – doctrinal heresy of socialism in one country. At its best this group neither denied the monstrosities of the “degenerate workers’ state” nor played to the gallery in the west. One challenge was to show that, when our own propaganda contrasted the ‘closed’ societies of the Warsaw Pact with the ‘open’ ones of the west, like was not being compared with like. These exercises purported, disingenuously or naively, to compare capitalism in general with socialism in general. In reality they compared a small and grossly atypical sample of capitalist countries – enriched by past and present exploitation of poorer ones – with planned economies deformed not only by Stalinism but by an imperialist world order. Cui bono?  Yet most were taken in, and not just Sun readers. Labour blowhards vied with one another to give “communism” the biggest kicking. Academics, priding themselves on independent mindedness, wrote on the superiority of “open and free” capitalism. Meanwhile this third group, me included, struggled quixotically under the slogan: critical but unconditional defence of the Soviet Union. We too earned ridicule through our bewilderingly arcane differences, mocked and rightly so in the Life of Brian scene about the Judean Peoples’ Front. But for all that, were we so wrong in finding something to defend in that warped parody of socialism? Ask the millions of Russians for whom Free Market Capitalism in the nineties brought near destitution.

Though too young to remember the old cold war, everything you have written here points to your belonging in the first group, where things are nice and warm and we can have it all ways; socialism with a human face.  But, you protest, Putin’s Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. No, but the cold war never ended. Why? Because as Naomi Klein so brilliantly showed in Shock Doctrine, Chapters 10-11, capitalism’s victory in that cold war did not deliver – as it had in Poland – the anticipated goodies. The fruits of privatisation, always intended to flow west, were pocketed by ex KGB: that semi-feudal oligarchy of overnight billionaires you and I loathe. You have to agree though; their robbing of the arch-robbers is funny if you’re in a good enough mood …

The old cold war was about releasing immense Soviet assets to Wall and Threadneedle Streets, while opening up its markets to the same. So is the new one. You think, as had so many leftists during the first cold war, you can pick and choose. I say that’s a pipe dream. I say the task for socialists is to recognise that a war, for now relatively cold, is being played out between rival imperialisms. In the here and now our best hopes – and greatest danger – lie in the fact the American empire is on the wane and can no longer take its exceptionalism for granted. It must reckon with the rise of Russia and China. Since America is still the greatest power on earth, its post 1990 behaviour reckless and terrifying, I’m glad we have Vlad. Let me put this more plainly. Should Washington succeed in replacing him with someone more biddable, it would be a Bad Thing for Russians and for progressives everywhere. Not because Putin’s nice – we agree he isn’t – and not because he’s on the left – ditto – but because America unbridled should scare the pants off each and every one of us.

Sure, the west’s attitude towards Putin is hypocritical. When Putin prosecuted his savage war in Chechnya, there was none of the western outrage later meted out when the Russians annexed the Crimea. Bill Clinton once lavished Putin for having “enormous potential”; Tony Blair, meanwhile, continues to call for the west to work with Putin against Islamic fundamentalism and last year attended a Putin “vanity summit”.

From your opening word I was waiting for the ‘but’. Here it is, starting the next paragraph:

But for the left, opposition to Putin should go without saying. Those who claim the left as a whole is soft on Putin are disingenuous at best: as, indeed, this article illustrates. But why are some silent, or even indulgent? Firstly, some profess a fear that – by critiquing those who are already supposedly bete noires of the west – the left will provide cover for western military expansionism. We become cheerleaders for western foreign policy, in other words, feeding the demonisation of foreign foes that is a necessary precondition for conflict. Secondly, it is seen as hypocritical: look at, say, the calamities of Iraq or Libya. Should we not focus on what our governments get up to, rather than what foreigners get up to elsewhere, which is in any case well covered by the mainstream press and political elite?

You are strawmanning. Those of us who refuse to swallow NATO’s intelligence-insulting drip-feed on Russian ‘aggression’ aren’t accusing you of cheerleading western military expansion. With billionaire owned media at its disposal – and liberal media chasing a centre-ground dragged to the right – western imperialism has no need of your skills on that front. Of more use is your contribution, all the better for being unintended, to the widespread failure of the left to empathise with Russians who face a NATO that pushes relentlessly eastward, meddles on their doorstep and deploys a rhetoric increasingly reminiscent of Reagan’s Empire of Evil speeches.

Yes, there is something rather absurd about the baiting of the anti-war left for not protesting against, say, Putin or North Korea. The baiters are always free to organise their own demonstration (I would be happy to join), and protest movements can only realistically aspire to put pressure on governments at home, whether it be on domestic policies or alliances with human rights abusers abroad (whether that be, say, the head-chopping Saudi exporters of extremism, or Israel’s occupation of Palestine). In democracies, protests that echo the official line of governments are rare. If the west was actively cheering Putin on and arming him to the teeth, we might expect more vociferous opposition.

Here too, your opening word prepared me for the but of the subsequent paragraph:

But for universalists – those of us who believe democracy, freedom, human rights and social justice are universal principles that all humans should enjoy, irrespective of who or where they are – that shouldn’t be good enough. We shouldn’t have to wait for a possible western-Russian alliance in, say, Syria to speak out. We should express our solidarity with Russia’s embattled democrats and leftists. We don’t have to choose between critiquing our own foreign policy and opposing unjust foreign governments …

Indeed we don’t, but when we open our mouths from platforms as privileged as yours we do well to consider whose interests our words are serving.

… In a sense, critics of western foreign policy have more of a responsibility to speak out. While supporters of, for example, the Iraq calamity can be more easily batted away by Putin apologists, nobody can accuse people like me of hypocritically failing to critique western foreign policy …

I agree. My charge is not of hypocrisy but, on this matter, of muddled thinking.

Russia is ruled by a human rights abusing, expansionist, oligarchic regime. The Russian people – and their neighbours – deserve better. And the western left is surely duty-bound to speak out.

I’ll disregard your and their neighbours  as too big a subject for now. (Other than to note that the countries usually cited in this context are Georgia and Ukraine. Both have borders with Russia, and leaders – the latter after a coup with CIA fingerprints all over it – wanting to join an alliance predicated on ‘containing’ Russia. What Washington administration would tolerate anything comparable? Sixty years of Latin American history are rich with examples of exactly what America does, given developments far less threating.) Instead I’ll simply ask you to leave room for a possibility I flagged up earlier: that the Russian people, perfectly aware of Putin’s shortcomings, aren’t as relaxed as you about more dangerous games being played by western capital, for which Russia is unfinished business. Having seen Yeltsin make alarming concessions in Yugoslavia – gaining nothing in return, while unleashing on the world the abjectly failed state of Kosovo – and allow corruption on a scale that threatened national insolvency, many see in Putin the man they need, however grudgingly. What makes you so sure you have the clearer gaze on these matters?

Fraternally yours,

Philip Roddis

Postscript. I’ve tweeted Owen Jones to alert him to this open letter. I’d welcome his comments, and the chance to progress a vitally important discussion in comradely spirit. My criticisms of his arguments may be robust but not, I hope, ad hominem.
PPS Jan 30. Emails to owen.jones@guardian.co.uk (and .com) bounced back. Have posted on his FB page. I’ll leave it there: no wish to hound him; simply invite him to respond to arguments which in fairness he may not have seen. Meanwhile Sam sent a link to this piece in offGuardian. It’s worth a read; not least because, harsher on Jones and easier on Putin than my post, it raises a question I’d seen as a complication too far: Putin’s battles with the oligarchs OJ accuses him of being ‘in bed with’. I should add that offGuardian is a medium I missed in my list of worthy reads in this post . Many have voiced to me a growing dismay at the right turn of the Guardian. There’s a science to that. The liberal media – Graun, Indi, Beeb – occupy the centre ground. But a cluster of circumstances – fall of the USSR and consequent emboldening of capital, realignment of political landscape by Thatcher & Blair, and close ties between government and BBC hating Murdoch – have right-shifted that centre-ground. Guardian (and for that matter Telegraph) still do good stories (Snowden, Wiki, MP expenses) but it’s the overall  or net tone that frames the discourse from which overarching narratives, like that on Putin and Russian ‘aggression’, are woven.

6 thoughts on “Putin: an open letter to Owen Jones

  1. Critical but unconditional support of the Soviet Union? What. The. Hell. Have you heard of Crimean Tatars? Or holodomor? Or the gulags? Or deportation? I’m not sure what makes a Marxist support such a brutal regime.

    • Hi Ellie. We saw, and many of us still do, in the world’s first workers state a planned economy as opposed to the chaos of production driven by profit not human need. To the leaders of the 1917 revolution it was axiomatic that socialism could not be built in one country; that Russia’s Revolution – which, contrary to Marx’s expectation, had not taken place in an advanced capitalism but in the most backward country in Europe – must fail unless revolution also occurred in Britain or Germany. But Marx, though many of his predictions were accurate (tendency to falling profit rate, accelerating crises of capital accumulation and tendency to monopoly) had not foreseen the potential of imperialism (dominance through export of capital) to buy off workers in those advanced capitalisms. Stalin declared that the waiting could not go on, and socialism would be built in one country. That’s an absurdity. You can’t have an island of socialism in a capitalist and imperialist world order. From that point on the horrors got worse. And yes, I know a great deal about the gulags and the oppressiveness within the USSR and its East European replicas. Our support was critical because (a) those states were oppressive and (b) the Stalinist bureaucracies were incapable of defending what was worth defending: viz, the planned economies we supported unconditionally, and whose collapse into the barbarities of free market capitalism is still mourned by tens of millions of Russians.

      I’m as horrified as you by the abuses of those regimes. (The west’s abuses were at arm’s length. Take South Africa, while Wall Street & the Rise of Hitler, though old, is a salutory read.) But it’s important we engage brain as well as heart …

      Any thoughts on the main thrust of my post: that western imperialism is conducting a hideously dangerous and self-serving cold war against Russia? I’d hoped to hear from Owen Jones and tried … email at the Graun … Twitter … his FB page (my courteous request axed by the moderator). So far no success but I welcome your comments.

      Best wishes, Philip

      PS I just read your LSE piece on the Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine EU agreements. This is a subject of interest to me and I’ll want to respond in some depth through a future post. Meanwhile I agree with some of what you say, if I disregard an unquestioning anti-Russian bias and uncritical lack of probing – indeed, mention of – Washington and NATO. In maintaining the pressure on Russia, by the way, I’m inclined to see the EU as the economic and political wing of NATO in Europe. Your thoughts?

      • Ellie has not responded to my questions, though more courteously framed than her own. I tracked down comments by her on Off-Guardian that show a penchant for gratuitously rude one-liners, and a disinclination to engage with detailed argument. She boasts of doing a doctorate on Crimea at LSE but with many well informed people at Off-Guardian (and one or two who behave as badly, from the other side, as she does) such childishness cuts no ice. Meanwhile the aggressive tone of her comment here is paired with her confusing my defence of the USSR’s planned economy with a defence my post makes clear I was not making: that of the Stalinist bureaucrats who grabbed the controls. Hence her left field non sequitur, “how can a marxist defend such a regime?” I’m sure she isn’t stupid but she’s acting stupid. That is forgivable: she is young and this subject generates more heat than light. Mindful of this I’m playing catch up, reading Richard Sakwa’s highly rated “Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlines”. I’ll review soon. The frequently abusive Ukraine/Russia/Putin debates on social media tend to get bogged down in accusation and counter accusation on local specifics. Those matter, of course, but too few on either side see the geopolitical big picture. As for everyone else, we are, to paraphrase Sakwa, sleepwalking through Ukraine into a potentially thermonuclear confrontation.

  2. You seem to have the same problem I’m having in that it’s difficult to walk/talk the middle ground of a situation when people just want to take sides. I understand most of your points about Putin and yet I know that many people either want to vilify him or revere him. It seems very few people say there are some serious issues in Russia AND ‘the West’.

    Thankyou for the read. I can’t claim to understand all of it (I’m not even sure where I sit on the Right-Left spectrum) but I appreciate this piece.

    • Hi Zac, ta for the feedback. I’m not usually located in the middle! And yet … I think you are accurate in a few respects. One, I abhor bad and lazy reasoning of any stripe. Two, I abhor gratuitous discourtesy: a beef as much extension of previous point as moral stance. (Mudslinging when debating serious issues is sloppy as well as rude.) Three, Ukraine has a complex history, leaving ample room for stridently one sided narratives, some with fascist undertones, on such as the Crimea. In practise that last means we can get bogged down in a morass of historic charge and counter charge. True, the big picture is made up of tiny details, but what characterises much of the Ukraine debate is an exclusive focus on local specifics, and a wilful blindness to the bigger picture of imperial rivalry. On the latter, I see America’s dominance, and the dangerous arrogance it licences (with Western Europe in for the ride) as a bigger threat to world peace than anything Putin may or may not be up to.

      • Indeed. It’s essential a debate focuses on logic, rather than slip into nonsense. How infuriating would it be to debate Trump?
        You’re right, Ukraine has a complex history and my opinion on the annexation on Crimea is just that, an opinion, as I accept there are so many things that I do not, and cannot know.
        I do remember very clearly though when the city of Donetsk was being pounded by shelling. The Western Media reported this but in almost every article I read it failed to mention that it was being pounded by the Ukrainian military. I mean, it was obvious to someone with sense.. as the city was under rebel control and to be fair, the Guardian and others reported this in some articles, but I was astounded at the lack of clarity coming from the majority of mainstream newspapers. The Ukrainian military, supported by the West, was shelling one of its’ own cities containing thousands and thousands of innocent civilians inside.

        I’m not qualified to speculate on what Putin may or may not be up to, nor the US for that matter, but I agree that imperialism is alive and kicking and yet somehow cloaked from most people’s eyes. Empires used to be clear to behold right? They could be measured with a stick, but now one has to step back a little to see them (even just to look at the growing membership of NATO like you said); and even then the lines are blurry due to the complexity of modern economies and other factors.

        Still, even though I could bash it all day… I must say that the American Empire may be one of the the nicest empires yet, even if it is the most insidious.

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