Strange bedfellows: Putin, the Chomskyite left and the ghosts of the Cold War

So-called radicals who side with the Russian despot on Ukraine are stuck in a poisoned Cold War narrative

Published July 26, 2014 4:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/Anja Niedringhaus/Reuters/RIA Novosti/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Anja Niedringhaus/Reuters/RIA Novosti/Photo collage by Salon)

One of the weirder side effects of the Ukraine crisis and the West’s heated confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been the reappearance of all kinds of complicated ideological rifts and conflicts left over from the Cold War. It’s as if the disease that afflicted and divided the world between 1946 and 1991 went into remission for 20-odd years but was never cured; given the right combination of rising temperatures, demagoguery and widespread confusion, the virus woke up and spread in all directions. Another way of looking at this question is that Cold War fever never abated in America but was diverted to other purposes, most notably the unsatisfying and amorphous “war on terror,” in which the goals, the tactics, the strategy and even the enemy were never entirely clear. In that context, the rise of a renewed Russian imperial power was almost a relief to the powers that be. It was like encountering a high school sweetheart who’s still looking foxy at the 20-year reunion dance.

The principal symptom of Cold War virus is a form of bipolar disorder, an insistence on viewing the world in Manichaean terms, divided into warring camps of good and evil, light and darkness. This seems to be such a fundamental component of human psychology that none of us ever resists it entirely; maybe it's necessary to find absolute moral bedrock somewhere. Among the radical or progressive left, those people most likely to take a critical view of American policy and power, this bipolar disorder has produced many varieties of arcane self-torment and infighting over the years. In the old days, someone on the left was always available to apologize for the worst excesses of Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot or whomever: OK, maybe the Khmer Rouge prison-state wasn’t exactly paradise on earth, but Western aggression was mostly to blame and at least the cadres were fighting Yankee imperialism.

This lamentable tendency to make excuses for the inexcusable, and not infrequently to embrace tinpot tyrants on the flimsiest of ideological grounds, has reappeared alongside other symptoms of Cold War disease. Here’s where my own version of the disorder kicks in, I suppose: I identify with the impulse behind this tendency, but not so much with the results. It’s never a bad thing to be suspicious of the official narrative, as supplied by the State Department and the New York Times, which seeks to present the current Ukrainian crisis as a simplistic confrontation between the “forces of democracy” and the sinister, vodka-infused and quasi-totalitarian Black Hand of Sauron -- I mean Putin. Amid the genuine worldwide shock and grief over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a heinous war crime presumably committed by pro-Russian rebels with Russian-supplied missiles, it takes rigor and courage (not to mention a certain analytical coldness) to observe that we’re not necessarily seeing the bigger picture.

But then it becomes a question of where that rigor leads you, and what bigger picture you think you see. I don’t need to point out to anyone who’s lived through the years since the Berlin Wall came down that the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend. On one hand, radical critics like Noam Chomsky and Stephen F. Cohen are entirely correct to observe that Vladimir Putin is not the incarnation of Absolute Evil, and that the rise of Putin’s version of Russian nationalism came in response to two decades of aggressive American or Euro-American expansion. All the high-minded talk about democracy, I would argue, is a smokescreen used to conceal the real agenda resolutely pursued by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations and their European allies: the extension of the neoliberal economic order – the order presided over by the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – clear across Europe and well beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Putin has rallied the Russian public behind him by convincing them they were under attack from the West, and he was right. But that analysis should not be used to depict his cause or his actions as justifiable or honorable, or to paint him as the misunderstood hero of history.

In fairness, Chomsky has been more cautious and nuanced in his discussion of recent Russian behavior than has Cohen, an eminent scholar of Soviet and Russian history and policy who has become the American intelligentsia’s leading Putin apologist. Some of Chomsky's allies and protégés, including the Russian-born radical journalist André Vltchek, have been far less temperate than he has. (I say this with immense respect: Anytime you describe Noam Chomsky as “more nuanced” than someone else, that other person is in trouble.) As Chomsky has acerbically noted, Russia’s territorial claims to Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, whether you approve of them or not, are more reasonable than the United States’ claim to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, which is based entirely on military might and a doctrine of hemispheric hegemony.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea was clearly a violation of international law, as Chomsky agrees. But the nation that led the illegal invasion of Iraq and is firing drones into Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen and wherever else is really in no position to complain about that. The West is making a big stink over Ukraine not because it actually gives a crap about the Ukrainian people’s democratic yearnings or whatever, but because the Obama administration had effectively claimed that country for Western capitalism and drawn a “red line” at the Russian border. Putin’s decision to cross that line, in the words of Boston Globe columnist Thanassis Cambanis, marked a moment of rupture in “the order that America and its allies have come to rely on since the end of the Cold War.”

Other commentators have observed that as dreadful as the MH17 incident was, the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S. Navy in July 1988 was perhaps more egregious. That plane was still in Iranian airspace, on its ordinary route, and was transmitting normal civilian signals; the missile that struck it was fired from a cruiser that had illegally entered Iranian waters when the two nations, at least nominally, were not at war. Although the U.S. government ultimately paid a financial settlement to families of the passengers, it has never apologized for the incident, which the military officially blamed on a hitherto-unknown psychological condition called “scenario fulfillment.” In English, I think that means that the supposedly well-trained and professional crew of the USS Vincennes collectively screwed the pooch, killing 290 people (including 66 children) in the process.

But hang on – I’m not actually arguing that it’s meaningful to debate which of these two calamitous mistakes was worse. They were both unforgivable. There’s a not-so-hidden danger in all this relativistic historical context, which can slide way too easily into a sort of upside-down left-wing jingoism, the faith that no matter what the “other side” does, it’s always morally superior because at least it’s not American. This can lead to judgments that are, let’s say, partly understandable, like the overly romantic radical-chic view of Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba and so on, and also to hair-raising miscalculations, like the passionate defenses of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge offered by prominent Southeast Asia scholars during the 1970s. Stephen Cohen, in his roles as a professor at NYU and Princeton and a longtime contributor to the Nation, was for many years a forceful and articulate opponent of the Reaganite “hawk” tendency in U.S. foreign policy, and a supporter of dissidents and reformers within the Soviet Union. In the Putin era, Cohen seems to have tumbled into a rhetorical snare of his own devising, rather like Pooh and Piglet falling into the Heffalump trap.

Cohen continues to raise valid questions about balance and bias; I don’t have the expertise to evaluate his recent claims that the Ukrainian military has committed war crimes that the West has chosen to ignore, but it’s not implausible. But as Cathy Young has detailed in extended Cohen takedowns for Slate and the Daily Beast, he has also taken to repeating the Russian government’s propaganda talking points on the Ukraine conflict, most of which fall somewhere between highly dubious and flat-out fabrication. At this point, Cohen pretty much refuses to utter or even countenance any critical remarks about Putin, not on gay rights or freedom of the press or the oligarchic concentration of power and money or anything else. He has expressed amazement that anyone would blame the Russian government for the 2006 murder of dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and he made a series of false and disgraceful comments about the Pussy Riot case, suggesting that the activist punk band were pornographic provocateurs who got off lightly: “In 82 countries they would have been executed.”

Cohen’s current predicament, and to a lesser extent Chomsky’s, is a geopolitical cognate to Nietzsche’s famous maxim about what can happen if you battle monsters and gaze into the abyss. Spend too much time focused on the Manichaean worldview of Cold War disorder -- the belief that there are only two sides, and if one of them is evil the other must be good -- and it sucks you in at last. Personally, I’m inclined to think that anytime somebody stands up on a barrel with a flag waving behind them and proclaims, Dick Cheney-style, that you’re either with us or against us, the correct answer is almost always: “Well, I’m against you, at any rate.”

Our brains are capacious; we contain multitudes. There’s no reason we can’t resist both sides of a false dichotomy. We can see that the disastrous consequences of U.S. foreign policy – which are also the policies of the global capitalist elite -- created the context for the Ukrainian crisis and that Putin is a latter-day czar who has resuscitated the most odious and repressive features of the Soviet era, but without the universal healthcare or the free universities. Radical commentator Nikolas Kozloff quotes a left-anarchist Ukrainian group urging Westerners to get over the “so-called anti-imperialism” that produces Cohen-style Putin-smooching. A real “independent yet radical politics,” he adds, would forge international solidarity between those who oppose the drone war and the security state in the U.S. and those who oppose autocratic rule in both Moscow and Kiev.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek does not mention Cohen or Chomsky by name in his provocative essay on the Ukraine crisis and the Stalinist roots of Putin’s neo-nationalism, published in May in the London Review of Books. But Žižek’s target is very much the “so-called anti-imperialism” of the desiccated Western left, blinded and choked by the ideological dust storms of the Cold War. He imagines such doctrinaire radicals viewing the Ukrainian street protesters who drove out the pro-Russian Yanukovych government with condescension: “How deluded they are still to idealize Europe.” In fact, Žižek argues, Ukrainians were not naive about the danger and uncertainty ahead. (And if they were then, they definitely aren't now.) A genuine Western left devoted to emancipatory politics should find inspiration in the Ukrainian people's decision to turn away from the “dark legacy resuscitated by Putin,” from xenophobic Russian nationalism and the czarist-Stalinist project of empire-building.

Žižek sees Putin as the substantive and symbolic heir to Stalin but not to Lenin, a distinction that may seem purely academic but may also help to explain the current situation. Stalin built the Soviet state into a world power (Žižek believes Lenin would have favored a more decentralized approach) and built an international cult around his image as the revolutionary strongman standing tall against capitalism, the best friend of the global proletariat. Putin is a fish-eyed man in an Italian suit who has no such aspirations and no interest in the workers of the world -- but he does want to restore Russian power. His tiny clique of left-wing defenders is the dimmest possible parody of Stalin's worldwide movement, and their efforts to imagine his craven power politics as actions in a world-historical drama are a desperate projection. Tyrant that he is, Putin doesn't even register on the scale of historical atrocity that culminates with Joe Stalin, so you can't call his Western apologists evil or dreadfully misguided, as Stalin's supporters were. They're mostly just depressing.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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