Right now, the contention between the US and Russia is one of the sharpest reflections of major changes in the global balance of forces—economic, political and military. It has come up in two very important ways—the question of the regional war in Syria and the role of the US and Russia in the conflict, and the question of Russian interference in US elections, particularly the 2016 presidential race.
Both these questions are critical, yet difficult to keep a focus on. We are living and struggling in a very chaotic political environment; these issues are complex and hard to follow; and the strident way in which some leftists argue for a one-sided view of them eases the way for many who feel unclear to shrug and turn their attention elsewhere.
Who is our enemy?
We are in the US, still the most powerful imperialist nation in the world, despite massive setbacks punctuating a long decline. Its ruling class, and their government and military are our enemy.
In particular, the reactionary forces led by Trump and mainly embodied in the Republican Party are the immediate enemy. Trump himself is both a symptom of imperial decline and a driver of it. This can be seen in the hollowing out of the State Department and the abrogating of one international agreement and treaty after another. His crimes against the people of this country and those trying to come here hardly need detailing.
Targeting Hillary Clinton as being as bad or worse than Trump, as some do to this day, is a dangerous error. First, she may be a symbol, but she doesn’t dominate the Democratic Party, or even the corporate globalist wing of it, as Trump does the Republicans. Second, the economic policies and the interventionist foreign policy (targeted “regime change” in particular) she has promoted are not, at this moment, the main problem and it is not at all clear that whatever emerges from the Trump era will revert to that norm.
At the same time taking on the immediate enemy first does not mean that anti-Trump sections of the military, the “Clinton/Obama wing” of the Democrats, and economic globalists are strategic allies of the people’s forces.
The deep state, meaning the upper tiers of the permanent federal bureaucracy--including the various police and intelligence services and the Pentagon—and organizations of experts closely tied to them, exists to serve the ruling class and whatever party grouping is in power. Its component parts always fight for self-preservation, usually against each other in turf wars, but in the Trump era will resist efforts to supplant them or shut them down entirely. (Some domestic sections of the government have been shaped by a century and more of mass struggle, and the hollowing out of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, or the Department of Education threaten some hard-won gains.)
The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.
Russia is the most active challenger of US power in the world today, though not the strongest. It is nevertheless an enemy of the world’s people. The rhetoric of the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991 posed it as the sword and shield of the oppressed people of the world (though in practice it was a regional hegemon in the Soviet Bloc, countries whose rulers were subservient to the USSR and depended on the Soviet military to keep them in power). All that is gone, but the antagonism toward old rivals, China, Western Europe and especially the US, remains.
To understand Russia’s global role, it is necessary to look at its domestic situation and understand that its rulers and government are motivated by weakness and revenge.
The Russian economy is unbalanced and in many ways weak. It generally runs a trade surplus, but oil and natural gas account for over 70% of its exports. In recent years falling prices in this sector have severely damaged its economy, undercutting modernization plans and lowering the standard of living of the working class. (Trump’s economic attacks on Iran may save Russia’s economy from a serious crunch by driving up oil prices.)
After that comes military equipment, of which Russia is the world’s second largest supplier. Efforts to build up a strong IT and telecommunications sector have had uneven success. It imports many basic goods, including a lot of food, as well as high-end manufactured goods.
Part of Russia’s problem is that it has a kleptocratic economic/political system. The big capitalists, many of whom are old Soviet-era apparatchiks and their kids, started stealing whole industries as the collapse of the USSR came. Inflation, depression and the destruction of the social safety net followed and the magnates started shipping huge amounts of money out of the country to offshore tax havens and the purchase of real estate and other assets in developed countries, including the US.
The thieving continues to this day. Economist Thomas Piketty’s estimate is that 45% of Russia’s national income goes to the top 10%, a figure equal to that for the US. The billionaires ship so much money overseas that their holdings equal or exceed the annual GDP. The inequality has also, as here, meant immiseration for those in the bottom half. As here, nationalist appeals are employed to justify repression and keep popular backing for the Putin regime up.
The situation is worsened by the style of government, Corruption is rampant at every level. The state is governed by a strong leader, Putin, whose word is law and whose secret police (and the gangsters employed by the ultra-rich) are available to remove impediments to the accumulation of capital (and its offshoring) by those in his good graces. It is a state in which a relatively small role is played by the rule of law (a shibboleth of capitalists in most developed countries, because those laws are created to protect them, their wealth and their system).
The rulers of Russia never forget that they had an empire extending out from their borders and lost it all with the collapse of the USSR. We shouldn’t forget that either. When the Soviet bloc countries broke free, followed by the non-Russian republics in the USSR, US diplomats and leaders pledged that those countries would be remain neutral and not be brought into the EU and NATO. As soon as Russia’s weakness became evident, those pledges were forgotten and Russia’s rulers saw their country surrounded by economic and military alliances formed expressly for its containment.
In response, today Russia’s role in European politics is particularly poisonous. They have worked actively through internet interference, as well as more traditional methods like funneling money, to support the right-wing regimes of Viktor Orbans’ Fidesz party in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland. Russian support has also flowed to Marine LePen’s National Front in France, anti-immigrant forces in the Brexit movement in the UK and scores of smaller racist anti-immigrant electoral parties and groupings all over Europe, some of them openly fascist.
This is, at its heart, an effort to create a Russia-friendly white supremacist bloc within Europe, generally with the closely-related approach of fronting Putin-type macho patriarchs as leaders. Russia stands no chance of dominating Europe in the near future, but their approach is to stir shit up to make trouble for rival imperialisms, like the Germany/France alliance that dominates the EU. And shit-stirring is their approach worldwide.
Syria The nightmarish mess that is Syria today, full of death and destruction with hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered through the Islamic world and beyond, can be immediately traced back to the catastrophic US invasion and occupation of Iraq. (Before that, of course, there was the Iran/Iraq war, where the US supported both sides and also the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The great powers have caused untold havoc in the Middle East for hundreds of years.)
It is not the misery that has befallen the people of Syria that has attracted wide attention in this country, however. It is the fact that the multi-sided war there holds the threat of slipping into a military confrontation between Russia and the US. Both have boots on the ground, advisors to various armed forces of combatants and, riskier still, planes in the air. Twice in a year Trump has threatened major retaliation on the Syrian government--and twice delivered showy one-day rocket barrages at largely symbolic targets.
This is a situation which underlines how desperately we need a revived US peace movement. Yet the challenges of rebuilding have been exacerbated by the presence of small groupings of people who argue two extreme opposing viewpoints about how to understand the situation in Syria.
Let’s start with a couple of basic points:
We are not obliged to uphold either the government and army of Bashar al-Assad or the various armed forces in the constantly splintering and regrouping Syrian opposition. Both have committed war crimes of great magnitude and the military upper hand won by Assad with Russian aid does not portend a period of peace and reconciliation. Our main obligation is to oppose US interference in Syria, both direct and through junior partners like Saudi Arabia and Israel--and demand aid through neutral channels for victims on the ground. In doing so, we should also direct fire at the other outside forces operating there, including Turkey and Iran as well as Russia.
Does this mean there are no good guys in Syria? Of course not. The best known example is the Kurds of Rojava who have created a secular, democratic and woman-empowering community in Kurdish majority areas and directed their main fire at Sunni fundamentalist military forces, even though they deny the sovereignty of the Assad regime in their territory. But, some complain, they have accepted military aid from the US and carried out military operations against ISIS in coordination with the US military.
This was a risky decision, and one that has already started to cost them dearly, when the US shrugged as Turkish troops overran the small Kurdish base area in Afrin. If and when Assad moves to reincorporate Syrian Kurds by armed force, with or without Russian air support, Rojava will likely deserve and need solidarity from folks in the US.
The other main focus where the US/Russia clash is in the news now is “Russiagate,” the Russian intervention--via hacking and social media--in US electoral politics at a time when interest in political matters is higher than it has been in years. The charges that the Trump’s crew colluded in this effort and then worked to cover it up have been the centerpiece of US politics for over a year.
There are some very vocal leftists who argue this is all just a fake issue and something ginned up by the Democratic Party and/or the deep state mainly to explain why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.
In such arguments we hear a layered litany of denials:
1. It didn’t happen. Um, yes, it did. Even the Trump administration admits it, and the pro-Putin Russian language media actually brag about it. The hackers have been identified, the troll farms run by the Russian Internet Research Agency exposed and analyzed.
2. Maybe it did happen, but it didn’t have any effect on the outcome of the election. That probably can’t be conclusively proved or disproved. The exposures of Cambridge Analytica and the Mercers which have followed in the wake of the Russiagate investigation suggest that the weaponization of social media has had deeper effects beyond shifting some votes and discouraging others, like amplifying the legitimation of fake news and information bubbles.
3. Okay, maybe it could have had some effect, but the US has been interfering in other nations’ elections forever.
True and the left has opposed that too, and will continue to. Still, let’s acknowledge the Russians are currently doing a better job, if only because their clear goal is simply to shit-stir. More importantly, this doesn’t mean we have no obligation or even right to expose and denounce it. If we are against both the systematic empowering of a white nationalist bloc in this country and a deadly serious ongoing campaign to disenfranchise people of color and suppress their votes, how can we ignore the Russian contribution to this?
A New Cold War?
Though the US is still the biggest dog on the world scene, its power has been declining for many years. Some argue that the media and politicians’ targeting of Russia around election interference and Syria is an effort to revive the Cold War as a rallying point to build national unity here.
Such a recasting of the world is unworkable for a number of reasons. First, the world itself is not subject to being divided into two blocs as it was when the Cold War took shape. While no power seems likely to unseat the US from its tottering throne in the near term, China is actually the best positioned to extend its influence globally and is systematically going about doing that. Europe is no longer dependent on the US and cooperates with it most of the time but also pursues its own interests and opportunities. We live in a multi-polar and unstable world. Things can and will change quickly.
Second, in this situation the ruling class is unlikely to unify on such an approach. Many see the long-term threat to US imperialism as being a rising China, with Russia as a sideshow. Third, the reactionary base of Trump’s Republican Party tends to like Putin’s Russia as a beacon of whiteness in a diverse world and might be reluctant to turn on it, despite a century worth of anti-Russia propaganda permeating US culture.
For the rest of the masses in this country (and in the world), the concern is less about Cold War 2 than about the possibility of World War 3. Objectively, of course, an all-out shooting war and/or a nuclear exchange is not in anyone’s interest, but people sense that bluster and errors of judgment could trigger such a thing. Trump’s obvious emotional instability and cognitive shortcomings remind people of this danger on a regular basis. So too does the posturing of Democratic pols and pundits who seem intent on torpedoing any moves toward peace and reunification in Korea, seemingly just to deprive Trump of a talking point.
Putin as Sign of the Times
The nature of Trump’s peculiar bromance with Putin and Russia has been the source of much speculation (and enough memes to fill a server farm). Is he a Russian puppet--a Manchurian candidate or subject to blackmail by kompromat or by the threat of bankruptcy? Is he just listening to whatever favorite is whispering in his ear? Any of these is possible, but other things are going on below the surface.
Trump, with his authoritarian bent, clearly finds the power Putin exercises in Russia attractive and admirable. But the rise of that kind of patriarchal strongman ruler is a phenomenon of this period. The rapidly shifting world stage calls such rulers into power or, to be more precise, provides openings for them to arise. Old governing structures, even the seemingly stable ones based on bourgeois democratic norms, seem not up to the disruptions caused by such deeply rooted phenomena as environmental crisis, untrammeled global flows of money capital, the penetration of societies by social media, and extreme income inequality.
Rulers like Xi Jinping in China and Modi in India, along with lesser lookalikes like Erdogan in Turkey and Sisi in Egypt are trying to cobble together systems which can keep their countries stabilized, their ruling elites wealthy and their mass bases satisfied or at least quiescent. Trump’s affinity for this crew is fed by his contempt for bourgeois democratic norms and laws, which is shared by his base and by the politicians of the Republican Party which brought him to power and which he has taken control of. We Need A Peace Movement
Real news, fake news, enemy news, people’s news.
How do we work our way through all this to help us have an internationalist Perspective and block our rulers from damaging the interests the other peoples and nations, while we are engaging the in the everyday fight for survival and justice in our communities, our unions, our class?
People around the world are in motion, but there is no socialist beacon, country or leader, and there's not enough interchange between the movements in various countries that could be categorized as left populist or socialist.
In the U.S., the resistance to the Trumpist nativism, racism and scapegoating, shows many crucial convergences among different sectors of the people's movements. New waves of activists, including some left or social movement- identified folks who wouldn't touch electoral politics before Trump, along with many people of all ages totally new to politics, are becoming involved in working to oust Republican (and some Democratic) right-wing pols. They are willing to work within Democratic Party structures, but are also drawn to local and state-based affiliates of Our Revolution and Working Families Party, and other networks and formations that challenge corporate liberal domination. There is a distrust of the DNC, but not a clear strategy for the way forward.
A socialist current is growing, notable especially in the thousands of younger people who are joining Democratic Socialists of America, along with a recognition of the need to move from protest to power. This is coupled with an approach that makes ongoing struggles in the people’s interest central to the fight for power while uniting as many as possible in this fight.
There's broad awareness of the intersections of class, race and gender oppression and more cross-fertilization around demands and tactics, from the Fight for 15 to Black Lives Matter to #MeToo to sanctuary cities, to the March for our Lives. We need an orientation that moves this forward and prepares our movements so that as international issues come to the front we are aligned, and strengthened, not split and weakened.
Searching for context for our international approach—one that encompasses the particular duties of opposing US interventions while not offering cover for any autocrats who the US regime defines as enemies--we are inclined toward a traditional favorite: a peace movement. "Anti-war" doesn't seem quite right because we don't see any sector of U.S. ruling class (which is not very cohesive at this time, a matter for further analysis) with a concerted thrust toward anything beyond proxies, special forces advisers, drones, surgical strikes, or other limited interventions—all of which we must oppose, but which most people don't think of as the US going to war.
There is a solid foundation already in place, the anti–war movement/peace movement we have had all along, with groups like Peace Action, Veterans for Peace, Code Pink, Pax Christi, US Labor Against the War, War Resisters League and others. More focused groups have been the main motor of Palestine support and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, the most successful international solidarity work in the US over the last decade.
At the same time, what we have is not enough, obviously. Newer forces, like About Face: Veterans Against War and Women Cross DMZ, which played a crucial role in recent positive developments in Korea, will bring new approaches, new tactics, new forces.
A peace movement evokes the legacy of Dr. King, who broadened his practice from combating racism to include opposing the US war against Vietnam. In his vision, peace is not merely the absence of all-out war, but the elimination of structural violence and subjugation. It means ending the triple evils of racism, militarism, and materialism. It encompasses lowering US military spending and raising support of domestic social services and infrastructure, shutting down US bases around the world, stopping US soft interventions and violations of other countries' self-determination, ending US support of repressive regimes, opposing US arm sales and military aid and reorienting our economy. This message is reflected in and being renewed by the Poor People’s Campaign, which draws directly on Dr. King’s legacy.
A peace movement encourages us to stand against moves by other powers to undercut chances for peace: Russia arming and fueling civil wars in countries on its borders and threatening military intervention: the Saudi/Emirates axis which includes Sunni armed groups intervening in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen (often in alliance with Israel). This movement must stand for the right of all nations to control their own natural resources and develop sustainable economies.
It extends to supporting the rights of the unprecedented number of people displaced by warfare, and growing environmental disaster. We live in a world full of death and suffering, and potential disaster, on a scale which has the potential to match or exceed any seen before on this planet.
On the domestic front, a key task is building stronger programmatic and practical unity of peace efforts with environmental justice struggles, which are grappling with the other major threat to world's peoples--climate change-induced ecological catastrophe. There is strong historical precedent for this in the global upsurge that followed the nuclear plant meltdowns at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl.
The 1980s alliance of environmental forces with seasoned opponents of nuclear weapons produced some of the largest protests the world has ever seen.
A call for peace resonates with upsurges like the school walk-outs and national marches against gun violence.
It is also a clear and important way to differentiate ourselves from, pressure and curb Democratic politicians with whom we might ally on some issues, but who are often just as hawkish as Republicans or worse, as their contemptible attempts to talk tough about North Korea show.
Throughout all this runs the imperative of exposing fake news and finding better ways to develop our analyses of international developments and share them with people in our workplaces and communities.
We look forward to all comments and thoughts about how we can do this work together. Peace out.