On Vladimir Putin, Fascism, Neoliberalism, and Anti-Imperialism

(Updated: 23 March 2015)

There is a segment of the Western left that has consistently propped up Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a symbol of anti-imperialism, anti-fascism, anti-neoliberalism, and even anti-capitalism.

This is strange, considering the evidence shows that Putin in fact is an ardent proponent of neoliberal policies, that he engages with imperialist or imperialist-backed powers when it suits his interests, and that he even flirts with fascism.

The International Russian Conservative Forum

Udo Voigt, of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, at the International Russian Conservative Forum in Saint Petersburg on 22 March 2015 CREDIT: AFP/Olga Maltseva

Udo Voigt, of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, at the International Russian Conservative Forum in Saint Petersburg on 22 March 2015
CREDIT: AFP/Olga Maltseva

Approximately 150 representatives from numerous far-right European groups—including several neo-Nazi parties, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn and Germany’s National Democratic Party—gathered in Saint Petersburg on 22 March 2015 for the International Russian Conservative Forum.

AP notes that “far-right groups across Europe have become vocal supporters of Russian President Vladimir.” The fascists were there, AP reports, to “berate the West,” to “promote ‘traditional values,'” and to “strengthen links with right-wing groups across Europe and help shape a common agenda.”

The forum was organized by Rodina (an acronym for “Motherland-National Patriotic Union”), a coalition of far-right, hyper-nationalist Russian organizations.

Rodina has a history of overt racism. In 2005, it ran a televised campaign advertisement depicting dark-skinned Caucasian immigrants eating watermelon, with Caucasus music playing in the background, and then throwing rinds on the ground. A pale Slavic blond woman walks by and a man says in disgust, in reference to the immigrants, “There goes the neighborhood.” Then Rodina leader Dmitry Rogozin tells the dark-skinned men “Get up and pick up after yourselves.” Moscow City Duma Deputy Yury Popov asks one slowly and condescendingly “Do you understand Russian?” The ad concludes with the Rodina logo, along with the text “Let’s clear the city of garbage” and voiceover saying “Let’s clean our city.”

A Rodina representative said the “meeting is the first foundation stone towards constructing the new world that we are obliged to build.”

Nick Griffin, longtime ex-leader of the fascist British National Party, at the International Russian Conservative Forum in Saint Petersburg on 22 March 2015 CREDIT: AFP/Olga Maltseva

Nick Griffin, former longtime leader of the fascist British National Party, at the International Russian Conservative Forum in Saint Petersburg on 22 March 2015
CREDIT: AFP/Olga Maltseva

Nick Griffin, leader of the fascist British National Party from 1999 to 2014, explained: “I see this forum as a way pushing the fight back against liberalism and what we call modernism, the destruction of traditional values including Christianity throughout the modern world.”

Numerous anti-fascist activists were arrested for protesting outside of the forum, while neo-Nazis were welcomed in. At least one was later taken away in an ambulance, after an “interrogation” by officers from the “Centre for Countering Extremism.” Four anti-fascist protesters were forced to spend the night in police custody, in addition to facing administrative charges.

The event may not have been officially sponsored by the Russian government, but the state repressed those who protested it.

This was not an isolated event. Not by any means.

Putin and Fascism

Fred Weir, Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent since 1998, writes “Do fascists truly trouble Putin? Depends which ones you mean.” Weir indicates that Putin often rightfully rails against the terrifying growing influence of fascism in Europe, especially in Ukraine, while “ignor[ing] the increasingly obvious fact that many of the Kremlin’s most ardent supporters are the very same anti-liberal, anti-immigration, right-wing nationalist forces he would seem to be inveighing against.”

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Russia’s SOVA Center in Moscow, an independent watchdog organization that monitors racism and nationalism in Russia, told Weir “Putin is not launching a struggle against fascism in all its forms, but mainly against certain manifestations he sees in countries to the west of us.” He warns that “government policy is moving in a nationalist direction.”

Former Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar in residence Maria Lipman, formerly of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Society and Regions Program, remarks

It’s ironic that while Putin emphasizes the dangers of nationalist forces rebounding in Europe, the actual new militant right-wingers are glowingly pro-Putin. These tend to be the main ones who support Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and send their members to observe pro-Russian elections.

This can’t be seen as coherent anti-fascism, but rather as Putin pursuing his own Russian nation-building project by utilizing some anti-fascist rhetoric.

A Russia/EU flag at a PEGIDA march in Dresden in January 2015

A Russia/EU flag at a PEGIDA march in Dresden in January 2015

The Russian media has consistently presented racist, Islamophobic, fascist movements like PEGIDA, not to mention far-right Euroskeptic movements throughout Europe, in a positive light. PEGIDA marches are full of “pro-Russian verbiage” and even Russian flags. Germany’s The Local reports that the “movement is also deeply pro-Russian,” and that many “of those who participate in the walk carry Russian flags.” They hate the USSR, but understand that “the current Russian regime has nothing in common with the Soviet Union.”

A Russia/Germany flag at a PEGIDA demonstration in January 2015

A Russia/Germany flag at a PEGIDA demonstration in January 2015

Once again, PEGIDA is a far-right, racist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic movement. Its founder dresses up like Hitler. Yet Putin’s government supports it. Russia Insider even wants us to feel bad for the “vilification” of the “Russia-friendly protesters” in PEGIDA.

In spite of its right-wing nationalism, Putin’s government is not itself fascist, in the classical sense. Yet Russia’s support for some fascist movements is a sign that it is, at the very least, opportunistic in its opposition to fascism, willing to exploit fascist movements for its own political ends.

Some have even argued that the Kremlin’s support for fascist movements is not just immaterial. Much has been written about the growing links between Putin’s Russia and the burgeoning neo-fascist movement in Europe. Russian banks have given millions of dollars in loans to France’s far-right Front National party, which was founded by a Holocaust denier.

Europe’s far-right and Putin have gotten cozy, with benefits for both. Pierre Lellouche, a minister of France’s right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (Sarkozy’s party), explained “In Russia today there is a mix of exalting nationalism, exalting the church and Christian values. They are now replacing the red star with the cross, and they are representing themselves as the ultimate barrier against the Islamization of the continent.”

Scholar Sylvain Crepon, who studies far-right movements in Europe, said “Putin is a kind of model for Marine Le Pen,” the leader of the Front National, and the daughter of its Holocaust-denying founder.

NPR notes

The National Front is not alone in its admiration for the strong Russian president.

Nigel Farage, the head of UKIP, Britain’s far-right party, called Putin one of the world leaders he admires most. When Russia annexed Crimea last March, Le Pen and Austria’s far-right FPO party defended the move as legitimate. Putin even invited a handful of European far-right leaders to observe the separatist referendum in Crimea.

The Guardian’s Luke Harding implores us to “beware Russia’s links with Europe’s right.” He writes

In Paris the Front National (FN), founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, has confirmed taking Russian money. The First Czech Russian bank in Moscow has lent the party a whopping 9.4m Euros (£7.4m). Separately Le Pen has revealed he’s borrowed another 2m Euros (£1.6m) from a mysterious company based in Cyprus.

The first loan is logical enough. The FN’s leader, Marine Le Pen, makes no secret of her admiration for Putin; her party has links to senior Kremlin figures including Dmitry Rogozin, now Russia’s deputy prime minister, who in 2005 ran an anti-immigrant campaign under the slogan “Clean Up Moscow’s Trash”.

Even Der Spiegel’s conservative columnist Jan Fleischhauer points out that “Some like to idealize Vladimir Putin as the ideological successor to the left-wing Soviet leaders, but that’s sheer nonsense. His speeches offer clear evidence that his points of reference originate in fascism.” Putin is not “post-communist,” he argues, he is “post-fascist.”

Leading Russian fascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin

Leading Russian fascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin

Putin’s administration also has ties to fascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, whom many see as the unofficial philosopher for the Russian government. Dugin is an outspoken leader of the “National Bolshevism” movement—a deranged, butchered form of socialism that is hyper-nationalist—and the Eurasia Party—a pan-European fascist party.

Red-Brown Alliance

Russia is certainly a target of US imperialism today, and leftists should staunchly oppose Western imperial aggression against Russia. But, at the same time, leftists should be very careful not to whitewash Putin and the current state of the Russian government, which has virtually nothing in common with the Soviet Union and is dominated by reactionary nationalist capitalist politics.

Some leftists have not been so careful. In Ukraine, some ostensible leftists fighting fascists in Ukraine have unfortunately also literally joined ranks with Nazis.

Several Spaniards were arrested in February 2015. They had just returned to Spain after fighting side-by-side with Nazis, on behalf of Russia. They had contacted pro-Russian fighters through Twitter and joined the pro-Russian so-called Donbass International Brigades (named to associate itself with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War). They received neither travel expenses nor a salary, and proudly boasted that they fought aside both Nazis and supposed communists.

They described the pro-Russian fighters: “Half of them are communists and the other half are Nazis. We fought together, communists and Nazis alike … We all want the same: social justice and the liberation of Russia from the Ukrainian invasion.”

To be clear, if you are truly a communist, there is no way whatsoever, in any way, shape, or form, that you “want the same” things as Nazis. If you think you are a leftist and you are fighting on the side of Nazis, you are delusional. This dangerous “red-brown” alliance just empowers fascists — the mortal enemies of leftists.

The absence of powerful genuine leftist anti-imperialist countries, outside of Latin America, has led some ostensible leftists to not only oppose imperialism, but to take a step further and actively defend quasi-fascist forces.

In Syria, it is imperative to oppose Western imperial aggression and the fascistic hyper-reactionary Islamist rebels supported by the Gulf regimes, Turkey, and the CIA, but leftists should also have no illusions about Assad, who has the support of neo-fascists worldwide.

This is also true of Saddam Hussein, another adherent of the Arab nationalist ideology Ba’athism, the architects of which, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, were explicitly influenced by fascism and Nazism.

Likewise, Qadhafi was a repressive dictator who turned toward neoliberalism later in life, as scholar Vijay Prashad has detailed. Qadhafi also ironically banned the Communist Party in his nation and encouraged neighboring countries to do the same, helped the US in its CIA extraordinary rendition torture program, and even worked with the UK to crush dissidents.

One can add Putin to this list of unsavory characters.

In the epilogue to his opus A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, leading historian of fascism Stanley Payne argues there are indeed some striking similarities between European fascists regimes and those of Iraq, Libya, Russia, and more.

Leftists should be very careful treading in these waters, ensuring that they steadfastly oppose US imperialism, but don’t defend hyper-reactionary movements in the process.

Putin the Neoliberal

The idea that Putin opposes neoliberalism, yet alone capitalism, is farcical.

In the abstract of her 2009 article “Soviet-style neoliberalism? Nashi, youth voluntarism and the restructuring of social welfare in Russia,” published in the journal Problems of Post-Communism, University of Massachusetts, Amherst anthropologist Julie Hemment writes

President Vladimir Putin has presided over a sustained mood of backlash against democracy promotion and the international interventions of the nineties. His doctrine of “sovereign democracy” appears to have broken with the liberal/neoliberal models that guided reform in Russia during this period. In this article, I show that something more complex is afoot: the Putin administration has advanced liberalizing reforms at the same time as it has rhetorically distanced itself from them. These contradictions are particularly manifest in the sphere of social welfare. Since 2001, Putin passed a series of liberal-oriented reforms that his nineties predecessors were unable to achieve, for example in pension, health and education reform. He simultaneously advanced certain benefits and greatly increased state spending – for example on “maternal capital” and youth projects. I analyze this dynamic as a Soviet-style neoliberalism that draws on the conceptual resources of liberalizing initiatives at the same time as it articulates forceful resistance to them. Drawing on data gathered in the course of a collaborative project with Russian scholars and youth, this article examines this dynamic and the hybrid social forms these policies give rise to, focusing specifically on provincial programs to promote voluntarism.

Russian marxist scholar Boris Kagarlitsky could hardly agree more. He went so far as to title his 2002 book Russia Under Yeltsin and Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy.

As Moscow State University professor of political economy Aleksandr Buzgalin, a marxist, puts it, Putin defends Russia against Western neoliberals while pushing the same neoliberal policies inside Russia. Buzgalin explains,

[In Russia], there are two types of the protest and two wings of the protest.

One is far-right liberal protest against Putin because Putin is a supporter of one part of oligarchs, one part of Russian big business, interconnected with gas, oil, export of raw materials, and some other spheres where state is strong and where big huge corporations are strong. And, of course, there is business oriented on the West, oriented on their other type of activities. And this type of business is not satisfied with Putin’s policy. Also, in some aspects Putin is supporter of strong Russian state, and … this is not positive for officials, for leaders of NATO and NATO countries.

But from other side, Putin is supporter of right-wing economic and social policy in my country, and during his governing, both as president and as prime minister, we had the same policy. The number of oligarchs increased. In the same time, we had and we have still big problems in education and health care. We have growth of prices for poor people much more than for everybody, for rich people. We have growth of social differentiation. And this is basis for the left protest, protest of the people who wants to have more left policy, who wants to have progressive income tax, who wants to have free-of-charge education and growth of expenditures on education, not on police and KGB and so on. And this is different protest.

That’s why Putin is contradictory person. From one side, he is protector of strong Russian state. From other side, he’s far-right politician.

[Putin] had more than ten years to show that he is defender of interests of majority of Russians. But he showed that he is defender of oligarchs and interest of bureaucracy together with oligarchs, not interests of ordinary Russians.

Some are still skeptical, citing the 2014 announcement of the BRICS (“Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa”) New Development Bank. This new bank could representative a movement away from Western-imposed neoliberalism, advocates claim, toward a new form of economic development.

This view is problematic, as it views neoliberal capitalism as a problem solely limited to the West. India in particular has ingratiated itself with neoliberal reforms, plunging its population into even worse poverty (leading to mass suicides). This kneejerk anti-Westernism disguised as anti-imperialism—a kind of almost inverted nationalism, if you will—once again, is exposed as reactionary and non-socialist. Capitalism is a global system, and the capitalist governments of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa have not made a progressive bank to try to destroy global capitalism, but rather simply to better profit from it.

Leftist scholars such as Leo Panitch warn that we should not be so optimistic about the BRICS bank. What the BRICS countries likely want is simply neoliberalism with a new face. “Sure, they want more room for maneuver,” Panitch explains, but within the framework of buying into capitalist globalization and being extremely dependent on it.” We should have no delusions. “These are states that like the United States reflect powerful forces within it,” he says.

In a debate with economist Michael Hudson, Panitch interjects

PANITCH: Michael, no country has privatized more, no ruling class has privatized more than the oligarchy around Putin. They’ve taken that country’s wealth and put it in their back pockets. And even if it is officially still owned by the states, it’s in their back pockets. Let’s not turn Putin and his cronies into the vanguard of a new socialist society, for heaven’s sake.

HUDSON: I cannot argue with that, Leo. You’re absolutely right.

PANITCH: It’s very important we not do this.

I don’t think that one should look at these ruling classes in the Global South with rose-colored glasses, even though we want to be able to recognize the extent to which the American state is indeed the imperial state governing, superintending this global capitalism, and we need to, of course, be critical of it. But that doesn’t mean we need to be naive about what these other states are.

Now, insofar as we might see a break from Russia under pressure from the United States, that would take much more the form of a right-wing nationalism led by this Russian oligarchy than it would be something progressive, unfortunately, given the balance of forces in Russia.

But the main thing is that these countries are not getting off the capitalist globalization bandwagon. They’re looking for more room for maneuver within it.

Putin the “Anti-Imperialist”

Putin has also more than demonstrated that he is happy to work with Western-backed regimes when it suits his interests. In early February 2015, Russia’s ostensibly anti-imperialist leader teamed up with Egypt’s US/Israel-backed dictator Sisi in defense of neoliberalism and bloody state repression in the guise of “counterterrorism.”

As The Independent wryly noted, the two bonded over their mutual hatred of Islamic “terror” and love of opera.

putin and sisi

Middle East Eye reports:

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has hailed the economic and security relationship between Egypt and Russia, and announced the establishment of a “free trade zone” between Egypt and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Speaking at a press conference in Cairo with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Sisi praised the two countries’ cooperation in the fight against a mutual “terrorism” threat.

“Shared values.”

Middle East Monitor also reveals:

Maariv newspaper added that Benjamin Netanyahu has also been promised by Putin that he will block any conference proposed to discuss nuclear disarmament in the Middle East.

Netanyahu, claimed Maariv, is not relying on the US administration’s policy in the Middle East and is convinced that Israel must develop new alliances and enhance its relations with other countries, including Russia. Putin, believes Netanyahu, has an interest in Middle East stability and the confrontation of the threats posed by “extremist Islam”.

Middle East Eye speaks of Putin as the "Russian counterpart" of the brutal, blood-stained Egyptian dictator Sisi. Spot on.

Middle East Eye speaks of Putin as the “Russian counterpart” of the brutal, blood-stained Egyptian dictator Sisi

Apparently yearning to substitute Russia, and not the US, as a close ally and patron of the settler colonialist project of Zionism is “anti-imperialist.” It oppose the US, so it clearly must be.

The fact of the matter is Putin has “anti-imperialist” credentials essentially exclusively because of his rhetoric, just as Obama has “progressive” credentials for his rhetoric.

Liberals genuinely believe Obama is a closet progressive stymied only by obstinate Republicans because they ignore his actions, instead focusing laser-like on what he says, rather than what he does. Similarly, some on the Left genuinely believe Putin is “anti-imperialist” because his rhetoric is anti-Western. This alone is supposed to be seen as “anti-imperialist,” even though the anti-Western rhetoric of many neo-fascists is very similar.

Putin and Israel's far-right Prime Minister Netanyahu, undoubtedly plotting to oppose Western imperialism

Putin and Israel’s far-right Prime Minister Netanyahu, undoubtedly plotting to oppose Western imperialism

An important lesson should be derived from this: Just because someone is anti-Western does not mean they are anti-imperialist; they may very well be reactionary nationalists who oppose multiculturalism, intercultural interaction, feminism and LGBTQ justice, miscegenation, etc., like Europe’s neo-fascists, who are smitten for Putin.

Abandon the Cold War Illogic and Re-Adopt Dialectics

The truth is some self-described “anti-imperialists” are just anti-imperialist insofar as they support regimes that are anti-Western. The only similarities Putin shares with Lenin are that they are both Russian and have the same first name. Any similitudes end there, and are replaced largely by antitheses.

In lieu of critical, marxian analysis of contemporary affairs, this unseemly crowd prefers kneejerk condemnations of anything Western. They are perpetually stuck in the manichaen illogic of the Cold War. They have long discarded dialectics, yet alone internationalism, and prefer a kind of reactionary third-worldist inverted nationalism.

These dogmatists criticize leftists who condemn Putin’s right-wing policies; they accuse them of being “useful idiots” and “shills” for Western imperialism, spreading Washington propaganda. In doing so, they only exemplify undialetical, black-or-white, reactionary thinking.

A Warning from a Russian Leftist

Russian leftists have noted some Western leftist Putin apologetics. PhD candidate and marxist organizer Ilya Matveev penned “A Word to the Wise (On Putin’s ‘Leftism’ and Solidarity with Russians).” I will close with highlights from this important open letter, a warning to fellow international leftists.

I’m writing in English in order to warn my Anglophone friends. There is a whole network of expats in Russia working on the “ideological front” defending Putin, frequently portraying him as an anti-Atlanticist battling NATO and EU hegemony. Many of these people pose as “leftists.” Basically, they are bought-and-paid petty ideologists, no better than our own homegrown Russian journalists and Kremlin think tankers.

Apparently, the Putin regime’s “external” propaganda makes Putin out to be a “leftist” somehow. There are three key points in this portrayal. First, geopolitically, Russia is presented as an alternative to NATO and the EU. Second, politically, Russia is said to be against the neoliberalism imposed by the Atlanticist bloc. Third, culturally, Russia is combating “decadent perversions” such as the LGBT movement (which, again, has been imposed by the west).

In some respects, this is different from what we get here in Russia. Our “internal” propaganda does not focus on Putin’s alleged anti-neoliberalism, since very few people here are receptive to such “leftist” claims. Not so in the west: many people there sincerely believe that Putin is an anti-neoliberal.

What I want to do here is to refute all three points of the Kremlin’s “external” propaganda.

First, geopolitically, Russia is weak and only masquerades as an enemy of the west. It constitutes no regional bloc against western imperialism, as Latin America does. To be a genuine counter-power, you need to have an alternative set of values and an alternative model of the future. Putin’s Russia is far from possessing any real ideological commitments. It engages only in pure opportunism.

Second, politically, Russia is neoliberal through and through. There are neoliberal reforms in the public sector underway, Prime Minister Medvedev’s “technocratic” government is planning more privatizations (!), and not a single person within the government’s financial/economic bloc is an anti-neoliberal, even a moderate one. They are all neoliberal experts trained in the Chicago school of economics.

Third, culturally, Russia might be against “decadent perversions,” but such “perversions” are not what defines the west culturally. LGBT rights are the result of a brave struggle over many generations, not an organic part of western culture. However, if we can speak of “western culture” at all (which is very doubtful), we might very cautiously say that consumerism, a private sphere inhabited by atomized individuals, and the degradation of public virtues (in short, Guy Debord’s “spectacle”) are what define western capitalism. All these things are prevalent here in Russia, even more than in the west itself. Russia is more immersed in private life, and more consumerist than many western countries, and Putin fully supports that. So culturally speaking, he offers no opposition to capital’s creeping influence, and that is the most important thing.

Okay, now that this has been said, should a western observer be a Russophobe, like the notorious blogger La Russophobe, who frequently writes for conservative US media outlets? No. The point is not to attack Russia as such, not to express solidarity with the Russian “people” against the Russia “government.” That is an empty formula used by the likes of John McCain. The point is to educate yourself about alternative political and social forces here in Russia—social movements, independent unions, leftist groups, and the opposition movement as a whole (in all its complexity, with its neoliberal and anti-neoliberal currents). As a leftist, I feel responsible for refuting the crazy idea that Putin is somehow a leftist. However, I also feel responsible for fighting against one-sided Russophobia, which essentially supports the US and EU agendas. Solidarity is very much needed here in Russia, but it should be solidarity coupled with political awareness. It should be against Putin, against neoliberalism and imperialism, but for genuine solidarity with the international left and with social movements across the globe.