Chomsky, Greenwald, and left apologists for Russia look very foolish now
Ukrainian advances should destroy any remaining vestige of the left's support for Putin.
By Noah Berlatsky
The left should be thrilled that Vladimir Putin, authoritarian fascist imperialist, has suffered a stunning defeat in Ukraine. And most of the left is. But some loud progressive voices (or voices that at least used to be regarded by many as progressive) have run propaganda cover for Putin throughout the war — propaganda cover that’s even more craven now that Ukraine seems capable of winning the conflict outright.
In a stunning surprise offensive last week, Ukraine routed Russian forces in the eastern province of Kharkiv. They recaptured 270 square miles and liberated numerous key towns which had been occupied by Russians for months. The victory has been so stunning that many analysts believe, as Foreign Policy puts it, “a Ukrainian victory — rather than a defensive stalemate — is genuinely possible, if still a long way off.”
There have even been cracks in Putin’s absolute suppression of internal Russian dissent. Thirty Russian municipal deputies called for his resignation. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a key Putin ally, criticized the Russian army for its poor showing.
It’s a tough time for anti-anti-Putinism
Ukraine’s successes have made right wing Putin apologists look like fools, bounders, and quislings. Tucker Carlson, all-purpose fascist shill, has constantly insisted that Putin’s victory is inevitable — refusing to change his line even after the most recent defeat.
Former Trump aide and fascist mouthpiece Steve Bannon praised the viciously homophobic and nightmarishly authoritarian Putin as “anti-woke.” Like other white nationalists, Bannon hoped a Putin victory would signal the downfall of the decadent west. Instead, the supposedly decadent Ukrainian military is in the process of handing fascism yet another historical defeat.
Putin has also, unfortunately, had apologists on the left. Generally, these voices have been more circumspect than those on the right. But they’ve still engaged in a lot of moral equivocation and encouraged surrender.
Longtime progressive hero Noam Chomsky, for example, acknowledged that Putin’s invasion was wrong. But he's also insisted that Putin was provoked by NATO expansion, as if invading a neighbor is in any way a reasonable response when they threaten to sign a treaty you don't like. Chomsky also quickly called for a move “towards a negotiated settlement,” even though it was clear immediately that Putin, sans resistance, would not settle for anything but conquering the country.
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The Democratic Socialists of America similarly condemned the Russian invasion. But their statement did not mention Putin by name, made no statement of solidarity with Ukrainian resistance, uttered both-sidesy noises about a diplomatic solution, and condemned the US for “imperialist expansion,” even though it was Putin who literally invaded his neighbor.
Glenn Greenwald, an erstwhile progressive who now mostly launders far right talking points, has been even less circumspect. He’s spread outright propaganda about (nonexistent) Ukrainian biolabs and cheered on Russian gains during the earlier part of the war. (His twitter feed has been silent on Russia’s recent reverses.)
Progressives opposed to US aid to Ukraine, and to Ukrainian resistance, have largely argued that only a quick peace could, in Chomsky’s words, “save Ukraine from a grim fate.” But as liberated Ukrainians celebrate in the street, it’s hard not to notice that they were saved from the grim fate of occupation by a military victory, not by surrender to Putin’s terms.
Appeasement of fascist authoritarians is bad
The problem here is a confusion of anti-war and anti-imperialist commitments — a confusion that is very dangerous. Progressives should oppose imperial wars of aggression. They should lobby for restraint on American spending which promotes such wars.
But we need to be careful that a blanket opposition to all violence isn’t turned into a blanket opposition to anticolonial and antifascist resistance. In World War II, it’s worth remembering, the fascist America First movement billed itself as an opponent of war and intervention.
Chomsky himself, in discussing the Palestinian occupation, has argued that we need to support “the right of people to struggle against racist and colonialist regimes.” War is bleak and ugly. But so is life under violent occupation. Insisting that occupied and invaded people respond only with nonviolence isn’t anti-imperialist. It isn’t even really anti-violence, since such a stance effectively declares opposition to violent imperialism illegitimate. Do those on the left who rushed to call for a negotiated settlement really think that all resistance movements everywhere should acquiesce in invasion? Do they really believe that violent resistance to violent conditions is never justified? Would anti-imperialism or justice really be advanced if the US and the international community had withheld aid, and Ukraine was now a Russian colony?
Putin launched a war of colonial aggression. Ukraine, with international help, has shown Russia, and the world, just how costly wars of colonial aggression can be. That’s a useful reminder to all would-be invaders. If you oppose imperialism (and you should!) there’s a lot of reason to celebrate here.
There’s also strong reasons for those on the left to be happy, in particular, about Putin’s defeat. As mentioned above, Putin’s homophobic authoritarian oligarchy has been a major ideological inspiration for global white supremacists, christofascists, and scumbags. Russia has also been a source of material and logistical support for these groups. Putin has provided funding to far right parties in France, Italy, Austria, and Spain. He sent $188 million between 2009 and 2018 to homophobic parties and organization. And of course, according to bipartisan intelligence assessment, Putin interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help Donald Trump win the presidency.
Putin nurtures far right candidates, parties, and organizations in order to advance Russian interests. Those interests, from his perspective, include undermining international human rights initiatives, targeting LGBT people, expanding Russia’s borders, and generally making the world safe for fascism, oligarchy, and imperialism.
All of these goals should be anathema to anyone on the left who believes in democracy, freedom, anti-imperial struggle, women’s rights, queer rights, or worker’s power. If you’re on the left, Putin wants to destroy you and everything you’re fighting for. Ukrainian victories are not just for Ukraine. To the extent that victory over Russia weakens Putin, it’s a victory for democracy and for the global left.
The allure of Russian propaganda to a certain segment of the left
The argument here isn’t particularly complicated. Fascist authoritarian imperial oligarchs are bad. When they lose, that’s a good thing. So why have portions of the left been so susceptible to transparent, obviously garbage Russian propaganda?
One problem is that the left’s inability to decrease militarism and imperialism at the national level for decades has led some to reach out to the right in hopes of building an anti-establishment isolationist coalition. The inevitable result is that left foreign policy spaces and communities have been thoroughly compromised by bad actors like Greenwald and Max Blumenthal, whose fanbases include many crossover Tucker Carlson stans, and who have few actual commitments to social justice, antifascism, or democracy.
Another problem, I think, is that for many people who live in imperial centers, colonialism is not a material reality, but an imaginative metaphor. As scholar David M. Higgins explains in Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-victimhood, colonial narratives are everywhere in popular culture, whether it’s big purple Thanos invading earth to spread genocide like dust or misogynist men’s rights activists insisting that they live in a Matrix-like cognitive prison under feminist occupation.
Vicarious experiences of oppression are thoroughly commodified and disseminated among people who aren’t actually experiencing direct colonial oppression. People on the left can buy into this just like people on the right. And if you identify your own oppressor as the US government, it’s easy to conflate that government with all colonial oppression. Whichever side the US takes then becomes the bad guys, and the enemy — even when they’re murderous authoritarian nationalists like Putin or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — becomes the resistance.
There’s unfortunately no easy path back to principle and antifascism for the Putin-apologist left. Hopefully, Russia’s humiliating defeat will lead some people to reconsider the leadership and insight of those who insisted that occupation and colonial rule was inevitable, and therefore preferable.
Going forward, it would help if some of these left spaces rigorously rejected provisional alliances or coalitions with the right. Tucker Carlson, Rand Paul, and their ilk may occasionally make vague gestures towards anti-imperialism. But so did Charles Lindbergh. Fascists aren’t your friends, and for obvious reasons they’re not going to be a helpful addition to an antifascist coalition. And if your anti-imperialism isn’t antifascist, it’s worthless.
Finally, it’s worth emphasizing the value of straightforward solidarity. Chomsky is pretty clearly well-intentioned; he wants what’s best for Ukraine. But he gets so tangled in his own talking points about NATO expansionism and his own obsession with US hegemony that he misses the main point. Russia invaded; Ukrainians resisted. When colonized people resist, you should support them. Insisting you know better than those directly affected is presumptuous. It’s also imperialist. The left should avoid it.
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