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.)
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?