Leftists, Liberals, and Ukraine: A Tale of Double Standards

Stephen Velychenko
March 2015

Stephen Lendman (ed.). Flashpoint Ukraine: How the US Drive for Hegemony Risks World War III. Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2014. 269 pp.

Ukraine specialists are quite aware of what some have called the Ukrainophobic ranting of Stephen Cohen.  However, this historian who before 2014 never wrote as much as one scholarly article about Ukraine, yet suddenly felt obliged to pontificate about the country, is not an isolated voice. He is but the tip of an iceberg of distinctly anti- Ukraine and pro-Kremlin liberal and leftist publicists, journalists, commentators, and academics who, although ignorant of Ukraine, its history, and its language, as of 2014 began defending the foreign policy interests of Russia’s ruling class in its former de facto colony.  While their writings are little if at all known by Anglo-American academic specialists on Eastern Europe and Russia, they do figure in the mass media and influence ill-informed popular opinion and policy. They undoubtedly played a role in ensuring there were no mass non-Ukrainian organized demonstrations in any European or North or South American city supporting Maidan even though it was a definite “people power” movement directed against a corrupt puppet regime of a capitalist and imperialist power.1

Pro-Kremlin leftists and liberals seem to think Putin’s Russian neoliberal capitalism preferable to Anglo-American and European neoliberal capitalism and tolerate his imperialist drive to maintain Russian hegemony if not full control over Ukraine. Such people seem to think that the rapacious and destructive greed of big bankers and corporate owners/managers in Russia is preferable to that of their European and American counterparts, even though the former enjoy a degree of independence from governmental regulation that some of the latter can only envy. They see no similarity between Putin and his Eurasianists and George W. Bush and his Neo-cons.  The pro Kremlin leftists do not condemn Putin for turning Russia into a neo-Soviet kleptocratic autocracy or label as imperialist his expansionist wars west and south. Much concerned about the activities of the CIA and NSA, they show no similar concern for the activities of the GRU and FSB.

Since 1991, such leftists have either been silent on or supportive of regimes in China, North Africa, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe, the Congo, and, most recently, fundamentalist Islamists and fascist Arab Baathists. Such leftists ignored issues like the Chernobyl disaster, the North Korean government purchase of submarines from Russia for millions of dollars in 1994 during the height of the country’s famine, and the massacres in Rwanda. Today to this list one can add Putin’s Russia and neo-Nazi and fascist parties – both EU and Russian. Alongside issues such as Russophilism, material interest and simple ignorance, another explanation for this double standard is that such leftists analyze events in terms of anti-Americanism rather than anti-imperialism. This attitude results in condemning Anglo-American and European neoliberal capitalism but not Russian neoliberal capitalism.

Anti-Americanism is a set of beliefs that classifies imperialism as a singular specific American rather than global phenomenon and discounts or ignores competition between imperialists and intra-capitalist rivalries. Anti-Americanism bears little relation to Lenin's concept of many rival imperialist ruling classes divided within and engaged in an unending struggle with one another. Instead, anti-Americanists restrict “imperialism” to a single US dominated bloc without fundamental intra-ruling-class differences.

Such a perspective leads some leftists and liberals to see the world as a stage for a duel between a capitalist USA and NATO on one side, and capitalist Russia on the other. On this Manichean stage, Ukraine must remain Russian, so the US and NATO do not get stronger. Middle or working class Ukrainians who see benefit in the EU, the massive support for the Maidan and the prospect of support from Ukrainian leftists and liberals in the fight against neo liberal capitalism within the EU have no place on this stage. According to this script, those who support EU membership for Ukraine are dupes in a fascist plot, run by the USA and NATO and its new puppet Kyiv “junta” government. Ukrainian national ambitions and independence are synonymous with what these leftists, liberals and Russian rulers call fascism. The fact that EU negotiators and Maidan leaders were urging Yanukovych to remain in power and that he fled of his own volition is ignored. Appalled at the prospect of Anglo- American corporations making money from Ukrainian misery, as they are appalled at how they continue to extract resources from former European colonies, pro-Kremlin leftists and liberals are not appalled by the prospect of the Russian state and its ruling elite continuing to extract resources from its Ukrainian colony – as they have been doing since the 18th century.

The groups here examined include people like Paul Craig Roberts, John Pilger, Oliver Stone, John Helmer, Thomas Hartmann, and Anatol Lieven, who echo the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda on websites like Counterpunch.org, Marxist.com, Greenleft.org, World Socialist Website, Naked Capitalism, Stopimperialism.com, Canadian Dimension, and Globalresearch.ca.  Few of these sites list who finances them. How many are funded by the Kremlin, is unknown.2 These leftists and liberals, contrary to their avowed principles of anti-imperialism and self-determination, pen pro-Kremlin articles that identify the new conservative Ukrainian government containing Russians and Jews and Georgians and Lithuanians, as a fascist “regime” exploiting Russians and “invading” eastern Ukraine – not explaining how a government can invade its own territory and ignoring the Russian troops fighting on Ukrainian territory. These people consider Ukraine in Russia’s “sphere of influence” and that it should stay there. The fact that a majority of Ukrainian citizens prefer not to stay there, and that Russia’s drive for regional hegemony risks starting World War III by breaking international treaties and invading their country, is not considered by any of the Flashpoint authors.

One of these pro-Kremlin anti-Ukrainian publicists, James Petras, owns Clarity Press which, by its titles, appears to be a latter day Progress Publishers.3 In any case, the book is a collection of articles that illustrates how anti-Semitic  “Washington supported putschists” staged a coup d’état more brazen than Mussolini’s and established mob rule (15). The editor sets the tone of the collection in his comments about Washington (that is, the US government): “Millions of corpses attest to its barbarity. Replacing independent governments with subservient pro-Western ones is longstanding US policy” (9). He makes no analogous assertions about Moscow or Petersburg, their corpse count, or their longstanding policies towards neighboring independent governments. Leftists and liberals who would not dream of claiming India or Ireland are “inseparable parts of England’s past” nor hesitate to use the term colonialism when writing about them, nonetheless, in this book write “Ukraine’s history is inseparably part of Russia’s past” and do not use the term colonialism in reference to Russian rule (138). There follow 24 articles by people, who, with the possible exception of perhaps 3 or 4, are not known to have ever written any scholarly article on either Ukraine, or Russia.  While some of them, like Michael Hudson or Michael Parenti, have written serious analytical studies related to America and neo liberal capitalism, the judgment logic and scholarship that they showed in those works are not in evidence in the speculative ramblings on Ukraine that they penned for this book.

Below, I will not itemize all the half-truths, myths, omissions, and outright lies that characterize the anti-Ukrainian diatribes found in this book. I will focus rather on how the authors’ underlying preconceptions and logic contradict their avowed leftist, liberal, and, in some instances, Marxist principles.

When in power, Russian communist leaders were unperturbed by Nazis or fascists as long as they were pro-Russian. Thus, Stalin’s treaties with Fascist Italy (1933) and Nazi Germany (1939) – that obliged Stalin to deliver refugee German communists back to Germany. Those leftists in Europe who thought state control of the economy amounted to socialism dutifully accommodated themselves to these treaties. When Hitler invaded in 1941 and made Nazism and Fascism anti-Russian, Stalin and his associates made “anti-fascism” synonymous with pro-Russian. Their formula did not distinguish between fascism and Nazism and is parroted today by pro-Kremlin leftists and liberals. What is most terrible about Nazis in this formula is less their crimes than their anti-Russian politics. This had profound implications for non-Russians in the USSR opposed to a Kremlin rule that they identified with Russia.

Basically, Stalin’s new formula permitted his representatives and supporters to label all non-Russian opposition fascist and, implicitly, Nazi. This semantic trick discredited such opposition in the eyes of uninformed foreigners much more effectively than the term “anti-Russian” could have done by adding a class characteristic to a national issue. The authors in Flashpoint, accordingly, consider any assertion of Ukrainian national interest “Nazi.” Lendman even goes so far as to quote the Odessa Chabad Rabbi Wolf, whom he misspells as “Wold,” about supposed  endemic “Ukrainian anti-Semitism” – without mentioning that Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi and most all Ukrainian Jews have both supported the Maidan and condemned the Chabad Rabbis for pandering to Putin. Nor does Lendman mention  the Jewish Battalion fighting Russian troops in Donbas.4 This kind of selective omission is characteristic of the entire book.

With the collapse of the USSR, it would have seemed that foreign leftists would no longer support Russia’s neoliberal capitalist government. In any case, most foreign leftists ignored Russia and Ukraine. They broke their silence in 2014 when they condemned Ukraine’s Maidan protests. The pro-Kremlin group does not condemn the Russian government’s annexation of the Crimea, or its sponsorship of separatist anti-Ukrainian Russian neo-Nazi armed gangs in eastern Ukraine. Condemnation of CIA involvement is matched by silence on GRU and FSB subterfuge. Today, pro-Kremlin foreign leftists support Russia’s neo-liberal capitalist government and imperial ambitions like earlier they had supported its declared socialist government. Purporting much concern about exploitation and despoliation, they, like all the Flashpoint authors, have no interest in any evil they cannot link to the US government or corporations, nor in any peoples who suffer from such evil. 

Pro-Kremlin leftists and liberals  who support the anti-colonial violence of the colonized against various American sponsored dictators all over the world,  condemn the anti colonial violence of the colonized against Russian sponsored dictators. Presumably, they would have supported the Ottomans against the Greek revolutionaries in 1821, the French who opposed Algerian independence, the White Rhodesians, and the Northern Ireland Protestant UVF.

Anyone with an elementary knowledge of Marxist theory, that allows nationalism a progressive role at certain times and places, must wonder why so many leftist authors today apply such double standards. If in Turkish ruled Greece, English ruled Ireland, or Japanese ruled Korea, or any colonized country, nationalism was central to the independence movement, and a capitalist national state provided a better context for development than the old empire, then it follows that these factors should play a similar role today. Throughout Asia, Africa, and even Western Europe, communist parties were all associated with national liberation and, to a great degree, had broad support and successes because of that. Ukraine did not have a successful “bourgeois national” revolution during the last two centuries when most other countries did, and its indigenous communist party, that emerged from the Ukrainian left Social Democrats  in 1919 (the Ukrainian Communist Party – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Ukraine, the ruling subsection of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union)) failed to take power in 1919. 

From a Marxist perspective today, Euromaidan arguably constitutes such a bourgeois-led revolution.  Since there was no  organized Ukrainian radical left, while Ukrainians who consider themselves radical Marxists were few and far from the traditions of historical left-wing Ukrainian social democracy, no other alternative was really open. Given that Ukrainians had no anti-imperialist national capitalist class in the past to lead a successful liberation struggle and establish national independence, Marxists today could argue  that, in 2015, if Ukrainian and  radical leftists think they cannot support Poroshenko’s capitalist anti-imperialist government, then they should provisionally at  least not condemn it.  But this is not what is happening and nowhere in the Flashpoint book do its avowed leftist authors even speculate in these terms.

If all imperialisms and colonialisms are evil, then one should expect all leftists and liberals to condemn the Russian variant together with the American, British and French variants. But, as concerns Ukraine, what we see instead is a distinct pro-Kremlin group that supports  the Kremlin’s neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism. Instead of calling attention to the role of the Kremlin in backing a puppet-regime that viciously exploited the majority of the population, ethnic Ukrainian and Russian,  avowed leftists and liberals express solicitous concern only for the interests of Ukraine’s politically Russophile ex-ruling minority, their Kremlin backers and even their neo-Nazi goon squads. While vociferously condemning Ukrainian “fascism,” which few bother to distinguish from Nazism, they remain silent about Putin’s neo-imperialism and the Ukrainian national question. Leftists who do  criticize Moscow’s authoritarian domestic clampdowns remain silent about the enormous political and economic pressure it exercised on Ukraine, thereby provoking the radicalization of Ukrainian liberal nationalism.

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