Saturday, November 21, 2015

Putin's Groupies Versus Stalin's

The barrage of anti-Putin rhetoric that fills the Western air-waves and written media would be almost useless to the powers that be without the demonizing of those who support him across the world.

Yesterday, a US representative on MSNBC inadvertently referred to ‘Russia’ as ‘The Soviet Union’. Whether it was deliberate or a slip of the tongue, the remark shows that anti-Russian propaganda piggybacks comfortably on decades of Anti-Soviet propaganda. But recognizing this only scratches the surface of a dangerous trend: the conflating of individuals who believe Putin is the main adult in the room with traitors, harking back to the days when the American Communist Party supported Joseph Stalin.

In the fifties, Nikita Khruschev denounced Stalin’s crimes in a celebrated speech.  More recently, the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a monument to be built in Moscow commemorating Stalin’s victims - something the US has yet to do with respect to slavery. Yet Americans who defend Putin’s policies are viciously attacked, largely, I believe, because the American public has no notion of history.

The Russian Revolution was did not emerge full-blown from nothing. It followed decades of revolutionary and reformist campaigns against the Tsarist regime among Russian writers and other intellectuals. Based on the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, among others, it posited that if the 99% were empowered instead of the 1%, the Russian people would be better off.

Reams were written to support this claim, but once power had been taken from the Tsar and handed to the ‘Soviets’ or peoples’ councils, the leaders of the revolution realized that the aristocrats and capitalists were not going to take their losses lying down. A five year civil war between ‘White Russia’ and the Communists (or ‘Reds’ ) ensued, backed by the West.
(This is not going to be a history of the Russian Revolution.  I’m merely setting the stage for the thesis of this article.)  Russia emerged from four years of war against Germany alongside the Allied Powers, and an additional five years of civil war to confront its first two challenges: the redistribution of land from large owners to poor, largely illiterate peasants, and the gigantic task of turning a vast, largely agrarian society into a modern, developed country.

American progressives realized that this was a tall order for any government, and were inclined to make allowances for the brutality with which Stalin ruled in the name of the revolution’s promise of equity.  However, temporary cooperation with ‘Uncle Joe’ against Hitler in no way changed Washington’s deep-seated hostility to the system Stalin managed, and almost as soon as the war was over, American progressives were hunted, fired and ostracized by the House un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Fast forward to today, when a growing number of Americans are literally in despair over their government’s behavior, whether vis a vis minorities at home or in foreign policy. While no discriminatory action has as yet been taken against them, they are justifiably cautious about voicing their opinion, bearing in mind the fate of government whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning, and the impossibility for Edward Snowden to return to his country of birth without risking a life sentence for treason. 

And yet, I see a very big difference between those who during the life of the Soviet Union were labelled  ‘fellow travelers’, (those who, while not members of the Communist Party, supported the Russian Revolution”), and those who today consider that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy makes more sense than that of their own government.
Americans who supported the Soviet Union did so because they believed it was a good idea to put power in the hands of the 99%, and they hoped similar events would take place in the United States. (At that time, most Americans still worked a 40 hour week and there was no such thing as time off if you had a baby.) If the Soviet experiment was a failure would imply that the 1% would always be in power everywhere, a fate too awful to accept. Many progressives heard only the positive reports from that faraway land, or believed Stalin’s exactions must somehow be justified.

The situation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is very different.  Twenty-four seven tv and internet news make a significant number of people around the world aware of the major events played out daily across the planet. Although Americans could be much better informed, they are increasingly aware that their government tends to shoot first and ask questions later.  And that it is official policy that no other country can be permitted to become as powerful as we are.

Although Vladimir Putin’s speeches are not published in extenso -  any more than Obama’s - Americans do get a glimpse of his behavior on the world stage. And gradually, as for many other people around the world, it is becoming painfully clear to them that this foreign leader makes a lot more sense than their own. People around the world who have come to support Putin do not do so because they are being fed Russian propaganda, as those who supported Joseph Stalin were. They are infinitely more able to judge the Russian president for themselves than anyone was able judge Stalin, either inside or outside of the Soviet Union.

Thus, the big difference between Putin’s groupies and Stalin’s is that the former have the wherewithal to think for themselves, while the latter did not, and hence could only rely on the Party line. If they come together, it is because they recognize each other across time and space, not because they are members of a monolithic group. Those who support Putin’s approach to international affairs do so because they can see that it makes sense. Seventy years after the founding of the UN, the Russian president wants the world to abide by its charter, in letter and in spirit, while Washington has for decades disparaged both.

President Obama’s assurances that we go to war to protect civilians from their evil governments are as specious as George Bush’s assertions that we went to war to bring democracy to the world.  Now the dance over what to do about ISIS contrasts so vividly with US assertions of strength that Americans don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Unquestioning patriots condemn their government for being unable to beat the other side: thoughtful Americans condemn it for not hearing the other side. Slowly, they are coming to the conclusion that the aims of the 1% are so nefarious that no amount of common sense thinking about right and wrong would change official American behavior.  How could they not look to Putin, who takes every opportunity to insist, even when he feels compelled to act, that differences between nations must be sorted out through negotiation, not war?

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