March 2017Theory

Assessing Russia's threat without demonizing it

Portside has recently hosted several discussions of Russia, the way Trump's apparent or real relationship with Putin illuminates our politics, and the lingering presence of cold-war imagery and emotion in our political discourse (e.g. Norman Soloman, Dan Kovalik). Kurt Stand recently joined others in responding to the first round of discussions in this Portside compilation; his response is reprinted in full below:

Notwithstanding the barrage of news reports concerning the personal nature of Trump's relationship with Russia and the implications of that for his administration's policies, I have very little interest in determining its true nature. That is in part because there is no way of really knowing the truth of various allegations, and in part because the implication of all the coverage is that Russia poses some kind of threat to US democracy.  No doubt Trump's relationship is corrupt because virtually every move he has made in business and politics has reeked of corruption.  But as to intelligence agency accusations about Trump's Russian ties, the articles that have appeared in Intercept, which have challenged the more extreme claims and resulting speculations absent more substantial and supported evidence, seem more measured and grounded than most.  And the framework of contemporary Russian politics is portrayed more usefully in Stephen Cohen's articles in the The Nation then the rehashed fear-laden Cold War narrative that has returned in full force within the media and academia.

More important, however, than trying to understand Russian developments from this distance is trying to meet the challenge that debates over Russia pose for us domestically.  That is, how do we carve out an independent politics on issues where Trump's demagoguery speaks with a superficial resemblance to progressive politics (if there was no resemblance his rhetoric would fall on deaf ears).  This is the case when he opposes NAFTA and the TPP, or calls for a revival of manufacturing and building infrastructure, just as when he supports a better relationship with Russia or calls into question NATO.  We also oppose NAFTA, the TPP, and should oppose NATO and remnants of Cold War anti-Russian politics.  But we do so for opposite and more complex reasons than Trump and his supporters, who proclaim such positions based on an "American first" racist nationalism that is dangerous in the extreme.

And, on that score, as with so much else, the similarity between Trump's use of such issues and that of Italian and German fascism is so direct that it has to have been a conscious choice.  Both the Nazis and Italian Fascists borrowed economic development and job-creating programs that had been put forward by labor and the left; the Nazis, for all of Hitler's bellicosity, also would proclaim that the buildup of military strength would mean that Germany could gain its goals without war.  The Nazis would use Marxist critiques of British colonialism and left-wing critiques of the Versailles Treaty to justify their politics, while visitors to Italy during the early years of Mussolini's rule would be greeted by slogans welcoming them to "Proletarian and Fascist" Italy.

To avoid the trap of allowing misleading rhetoric to dictate our policies, we need to continue to articulate and organize around an alternative world view.  And thus we ought to reject any attempt to oppose Trump by falling into the path of looking toward the US military, the CIA or other intelligence agencies as allies.  There is something very dangerous to democratic politics when critics of right-wing politics turn in that direction -- no matter how corrupt Trump's ties with Russia may be, it is striking and saddening that this has become the dominant talking point in numerous denunciations of him, rather than (for instance) his choice of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.  Trump's illegitimacy as president is defined by his racism, for that explicit racism directly undermines the integrity of our society more than anything else he has said and done.  Moreover, the whole anti-Russia rhetoric is used by some to avoid the real reasons for the Democratic loss in November, or to fail to examine the implications of the Wikileaks revelations (the content ignored when the process of revelation becomes a focus), and thus inhibit the renewal of broad-based progressive opposition.

On the other hand Trump's anti-Cold War rhetoric can be used against him -- just as his anti-Free Trade rhetoric can.  Indeed labor and the left also oppose business-driven trade deals, but we do so by organizing to assert workers' rights, to increase wages, protect the environment, defend immigrant workers and bring an end to US corporate exploitation of nations beyond our borders.  So too, we should strive to have better relations with Russia and yes, we do not need NATO -- but therefore we ought to reduce our arms budget and nuclear arsenal, strengthen the United Nations, cut the military/diplomatic support we give to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, end our wars and armed actions abroad and stop interfering in other countries' internal affairs.

Finally, we need to develop an understanding of Russia that rejects the dichotomy between demonization and uncritical support (just as we could oppose the demonization of Saddam Hussein without thereby becoming supporters of his brutal domestic policies and aggressions).  The mainstream media fail to do so and instead rely on liberal Russian critics who see freedom in neo-liberal terms, supporting free trade and Western models which proved so disastrous to hopes for positive changes in 1991. Interesting in this respect is that Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia's last Communist leader and someone who clearly opposes Putin on domestic politics, nonetheless supports him on most foreign policy issues (e.g., those on Crimea, the Ukraine, NATO).  So too, we can reject the notion that Russian foreign policy seeks to undermine US national security while at the same time standing up as open critics of Putin's domestic repression, to the homophobia and sexism that have become Russian public policy, to growth of inequality and concentrations of wealth there.

More substantive -- and more complex -- is the need as Marxists to look at the dynamics of Soviet history in its positive and negative dimensions, in the meaning of that legacy for Russia today. That way we can best build an historically rooted understanding of socialism (encompassing likewise China and Vietnam), as part of the process of challenging right-wing authoritarianism at home without embracing the "liberal" neo-liberalism that brought us to this point.

 

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