With a life of anti-fascist and anti-war activism in my rear-view mirror, alarmingly I find myself at fifty staring at the green shoots of fascism in my headlights.
This is not where I expected to be. As with many ‘progressives’, I tend toward optimism when viewing our political future, but am hampered by pessimism when I recall history. This isn’t a an optimism in the sense that somehow, ‘it will all be fine’ but a necessary mental framework to engage with and promote better outcomes. You could call me an optimistic pessimist, I’ll wear it.
The recent invasion of Ukraine by card carrying fascist Vladimir Putin, has thrown the political left into utter disarray.
It’s not that we of the left of politics needed anymore disunity. Traditionally the ‘left’ fight each other for power and ideology as much as they fight the ‘right’ of politics for power and influence. However, recently orchestrated propaganda has further riven the left with ‘anti-establishment’ narratives surrounding the vexed Anti-Vax issues, mandate debates, New World Order conspiracies such as Agenda 21 and other compelling rabbit holes for the cynically minded. Thankfully as ‘living with covid’ (or dying from it if you are medically vulnerable) becomes our new normal, such absurd distractions have waned in importance and no longer suck all the air out of important debates about our political trajectory.
And then Putin invaded Ukraine – again
I was born in Dunedin in the early 1970’s during a mostly distant Cold War. I say mostly because of Bikini Atoll, Russian sailors at the port and Dad being friends with nice old Jim Moody (who was Dunner’s CIA rep for the area back then).
In the mid 70’s due to intimidation and threats from local reactionary forces (‘we know where your kids ride their bikes’), my leftist activist parents moved us to the London where my mother was born (on the day the UN was founded) and where many family members were based.
My late childhood and early teens were transfixed by a much more proximate Cold War in the UK of the 1980s. At 12 I opted to study Russian (as that was a language one might be required to speak one day) and even visited the USSR on a subsidised school trip. The trip was cheaper for us as a low-income household and also because Intourist – the branch of the KGB which handled visitors, provided cheap tickets to British state school kids.
By the time I was 16 I had burnt the US flag outside their embassy in Grosvenor Square, I’d been arrested inside Alconbury Airbase (then a US controlled NATO facility) and been involved in numerous actions with Youth CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) to blockade nuclear submarine bases amongst other things.
My activism shifted in these times to embrace anti-racist and anti-fascist action. Many of us in the mid 80’s in Britain had had enough of the overtly racist status quo. Movements like RAR (Rock Against Racism), conflicts like the Brixton riots and a number of other events converged on us young Brits to galvanise dissent and action. Being descended from a Polish-Jewish grandfather on my mother’s side may well have made me more prone to see anti-fascism and anti-racism as integral in striving for a better future.
Fast-forwarding to our present time. I find myself no longer arguing the obvious threat of ultra-nationalism, totalitarianism and racism with people on the extreme right of politics, but now with many of my friends on the left. This inversion begs the question’s ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘how do we counter this narrative?’
I can understand ‘dyed in the wool’ older Marxists that cling to fond memories of supposed Soviet Utopias. My dad is one at times – sorry Pop. He remains one of the 10,000 odd subscribers to The Morning Star (a British Marxist newspaper). Jeremy Corbyn is a great example of someone from this cohort who hasn’t had a new idea since the late 70’s. My younger self marched beside him on a few occasions as he remains my local MP in London. Great activist, crap leader.
The question is, why do soo many leftist see the US as the only empire worth opposing?
I believe the answer lies in the ubiquity of false historical narratives, lefty tribalism and a lack of understanding of contemporary events in context.
The Soviet collapse which began in 1989 heralded enormous changes to the geo-political landscape of Europe and latterly the rest of the world.
Freed nations sought to establish their identity, amongst them Ukraine who in exchange for security guarantees, surrendered it’s nuclear arsenal under assurances from Gorbachev that their new sovereignty would be respected by the emerging democratic Russian state. With an 83% turnout, 71.4% of Ukrainians voted for independence from Russia.
Transition was not an easy matter for the Russian economy and its much reduced sphere of direct influence. Kleptomaniacs ravaged the bones of the state in a frenzy of privatisation and this chaos led to the eventual appointment in 1999 of ‘strongman’ and present day Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
Now let us get to those apologists that seem to preoccupy this jaded anti-fascist.
Central to the argument offered by those that seek to apportion blame for the attempted destruction of the sovereign state of Ukraine on variously ’NATO’, ‘The US Empire’ and indeed ‘corrupt Nazis supporting Ukrainian sovereignty ’ and that assurances were given to Gorbachev in 1996 that NATO would not expand and Russia would not be triggered into reflexive re-arming and become a oppositional monolith to Europe’s smaller states bordering the largest country on earth. Ie ‘NATO made him do it’
This argument is inherently flawed – Gorbachev premised the demand for NATO to remain static and received unwritten assurances, on the basis of a new and democratic Russia that would, like most democracies, be forever mired in incrementalism and the politics of centrism demanded by competing political entities fighting for the hearts and minds of their electorate every four or so years.
Putin had other ideas
With almost immediate collapse of Russia into disfunction under the permanently pissed Yeltsin, power was handed (not electorally) to Putin and his cronies drawn from the ’Siloviki’, otherwise known as the intelligence wing of the KGB/FSB. This event has had enormous implications.
The premised ‘democratic Russia’ vanished almost as soon as it was born and it would be anti-historical to suggest that Putin’s power grab was entirely a result of NATO expansion. Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic became NATO members in the same year, driven by the chaos on their doorstep and hawkish US zealots. Membership came to these nations immediately before Putin’s appointment. Russian-backing of Serbian ethno-nationalist aims set Europe on edge and only NATO bombing put an to Serbian ambiton.
Putin’s ascendency was mainly an act of internal stabilisation from Yeltsin with a view that Putin, ‘a tough guy’, would aggressively suppress Chechen independence and end the ongoing war that was bleeding the Kremlin’s coffers to avoid another Afghanistan. He didn’t waste time. Levelling Grozny and slaughtering tens of thousands of Chechens, he installed Ramsan Kadyrov and ended any hope for Chechens of self-determination. Russian Imperialism in ascendency.
Another misconception is that Putin pines for a renewed Soviet sphere of influence. Putin is a devotee of the Russia fascist philosopher Vladimir Ilyin. He is also an admirer of Tsar Vladimir the Great who conceived the Russian state (tragically for the Ukrainians in Kyiv). Vladimir eventually rejected paganism and became the founder of greater Russia via conquest to encompass Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Putin is understood to loath the apparatchiks that in his view ‘sold out’ the USSR. My Polish Great grandfather’s father served in the Russian army in Tzarist Poland which may now be Putin’s sights.
The key ingredients of fascism can be described as an authoritarian regime defined by an ethnically supremacist society. Power is held by an elite ruling class that is entirely supported by capital interests and with divine sanction of the church that enforces ‘tradition’ and a regime that rejects any need for progressive rights usually subjugating women and minority interests. Russia under Putin has decriminalised domestic abuse, has banned LGBTQ+ participation in society, persecutes ethnic minorities and has crushed all dissent.
These policies are entirely consistent with Putin’s modern aide d’ camp Alexander Dugin. A former lecturer turned United Russia MP in the Duma, Dugin is often referred to as Putin’s Brain. This maybe be overestimating his direct influence but even a cursory look at Dugin’s writing would indicate that he is a fascist ideologue and his prestige in Putin’s Regime is clear.
Central to leftist apologists for Putinism/Russian Fascism, is the idea that the now notorious Azov Battalion is a ‘Nazi’ force and must be indicative of Kyiv’s slavish vassal status to US/NATO interests and therefore Ukraine poses an existential threat to Russia.
This is almost too absurd to discuss when considering 2% of Ukrainians voted for far-right parties in the last election, Russia has the 2nd largest standing army in the world and Azov is a small force within the much larger Ukrainian army. But let’s give it some air eh?
Azov may or may not have purged neo-Nazis from its ranks (probably not) and indeed is an inheritor of a longstanding pro-fascist tradition in Ukraine that dates back to before WWII. During the war Ukrainian fascists collaborated enthusiastically with the SS, variously fighting Russians and killing Jews. For context, Ukrainian partisans fought Nazis and didn’t kill Jews.
Azov numbers around 2500 troops and grew from an early base of far-right football fans into a paramilitary force after the Russian invasion of Crimea. The important word in that sentence is ‘after’. In 2014 the Ukrainian military was described as decrepit by most analysts. After Russian invasion the armed forces expanded with US aid to around 200,000 troops making Azov around 1% of the armed force of Ukraine.
Bearing all of this in mind maybe it’s time to consider the wider question: who is the fascist group that matters here? Russia, vast economic and military power under the absolute control of a fundamentalist Orthodox leader who sees his destiny as aligned with a 9th Century warlord turned Tsar or a small convenient fascist faction in a country beset by fascist aggression historically and recently, that is in an existential struggle with its most notorious enemy (google ‘Holodomor’ for perspective).
Putin’s claims of victimhood clearly echo excuses offered by Israel in defence of its own oppressive militarism.
I.e.: ‘We are surrounded by enemies intent on our destruction’, ‘We have a right to establish an ethno-religious state that exclude the rights of others’, and crucially ‘we have a historical claim to territory now infested with people we wish to replace’. How can my leftist comrades oppose Israeli racist nationalism but offer the same excuses to explain Putin’s aggression? Baffling stuff.
The question of lack of global support is often raised in defence of Putin with many citing Indian and Chinese neutrality as an indication that half the world doesn’t support Ukraine – Chinese policy is determined by one person and can hardly be seen as ‘popular’ support, Modi’s India falls largely into the same category.
WW3! I hear you cry. Mutually assured destruction remains as much a compelling deterrent as it ever did and WWII was abetted by appeasing fascists not by immediately stopping them in their tracks.
Maybe the ‘fascist’ we need to consider is the invisible hand of US imperialism?
Opposing US imperialism doesn’t not require endorsing or excusing Russian fascist expansion.
Since the appalling illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the left has rightly in my view been preoccupied with opposing US Imperialism. Clearly these wars were unjust and largely waged to serve economic and political interests of the USA, Britain and others including Saudi Arabia Pakistan and some EU member states. These wars are now largely concluded and were both military and political failures for the invaders.
These wars can’t be seen in isolation, however, and any student of US history will tell you about the changed tack of the US that arrived at the end of what is often termed ‘The American Century’. Isolation and soft power is now the go-to for successive administrations – Obama, Trump and Biden all following the same trajectory. Sporadic airstrikes against perceived ’threats’ occasionally assassinating enemies but avoiding ‘boots on the ground’. Call it ‘imperialism lite’ if you like.
Not so for our boy Vlad!. Area bombardment of high-density cities is way beyond ‘lite’. The vacuum created by reduced US enthusiasm for direct intervention led to Russia leaping into the void as seen in Syria where Russian forces levelled Aleppo with the same tactics and vigour and disregard for ‘collateral’ damage that was seen in Grozny. Georgia and Azerbaijan can also testify to Russia’s differing attitude to ‘boots on the ground’ from that of a more sheepish US regime. I am in no way advocating for US intervention but military aid and supply for Ukraine is not the same thing as direct intervention. Would we on the left have opposed crucial Chinese arms supply to the Vietnamese resisting US invasion? In what that nation terms ‘The American War’, Vietnam arguably would not have successfully resisted the US without a constant supply of munitions and arms from friendly nations keen on seeing US imperialism stopped in its tracks.
The final question that remains is ‘is this a matter of the lesser of 2 evils?’
The short answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’.
The longer one is that when considering any armed conflict, realpolitik is the only currency that matters. Truth dies in war, propaganda is generated by both sides and must be considered and critiqued but also understood to be viable weapons in conflict. When fascism is on the rise across the globe as seen in the autocratic advances under Modi in India, the erosion of democracy in Hungary under Putin ally Orban, the strident authoritarianism of Xi in China who is rapidly establishing a neo-Maoist cult around himself and is committing genocide in the Xinjiang, the recent near miss in French elections for the Putin funded far-right candidate of Marine Le Pen and very likely re-election of Donald Trump in the next electoral US cycle that has even prompted a report from neighbouring Canadian Intelligence services advising their government to prepare for an authoritarian neighbour in the near future – Gilead awaits.
We on the left must not get bound up in whataboutism and consideration for Putin’s ‘mindset’. We must oppose, fight, and de-platform Putin and his active and tacit supporters. In war there is no neutral position when confronting the authoritarian advance. There is also no discounting fascist action by offering up the reasoning of the aggressor. There is no room for excusing an aggressive, expansionist, fascist and his armies on the march. There is only resistance. #NoPasaran