Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2012

Assessing the Russian and Egyptian crackdown on imperialist NGO’s

Filed under: Egypt,mechanical anti-imperialism,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

Spy versus spy

Last month Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, was forced to admit in a BBC documentary that a fake rock was used to spy on Russians. The Independent reported:

A former UK government official has admitted Britain was behind a plot to spy on Russians with a device hidden in a fake rock, it emerged today.

Russia made the allegations in January 2006, but they were not publicly accepted by the UK before now.

Jonathan Powell, then prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, told a BBC documentary: “The spy rock was embarrassing.

The Russian security service, the FSB, linked the rock with claims that British security services were making covert payments to pro-democracy and human rights groups.

Then president Vladimir Putin later introduced a law restricting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from getting funding from foreign governments, causing many to close down.

Cracking down on NGO’s is old news in Russia. Back in 2005, a law was passed that effectively made it impossible for Amnesty International, Greenpeace or any other group with foreign funding to operate in Russia.

Putin has often played the nationalist card, most recently accusing Golos, an electoral watchdog, of being a tool of the West, as the NY Times reported in December:

Golos’s critics in the Russian government say its work is tainted by the money it receives from two American agencies, the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development. A promotional video clip for a report scheduled to be broadcast on Friday on the NTV channel, owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, features images of suitcases stuffed with $100 bills juxtaposed with footage of Golos’s leaders as a portentous voice asks, “Who is behind these ‘independent observers?’ ” A pro-government blogger has posted what appears to be paperwork showing that Golos received $92,653 from the United States government for the month of February.

Global Research, a website run by Michel Chossudovsky who is arguably the planet’s leading exponent of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” line of reasoning, published an article by Eric Walberg on February 9th titled Vladimir Putin and Russia’s “White Revolution” that described the judo-practicing ex-President as a kind of “lesser evil” to the opposition in the street that has been likened to the white wine-drinking/brie-eating crowd on the north side of Tehran that had the unvarnished nerve to oppose Ahmadinejad:

Putin’s statist sovereign democracy – with transparent elections – might not be such a bad alternative to what passes for democracy in much of the West. His new Eurasian Union could help spread a more responsible political governance across the continent. It may not be what the NED has in mind, but it would be welcomed by all the “stan” citizens, not to mention China’s beleaguered Uighurs. This “EU” is striving not towards disintegration and weakness, but towards integration and mutual security, without any need for US/NATO bases and slick NED propaganda.

I date my distrust for this kind of apologetics to 2002 or so when Jared Israel began to post material to Marxmail that elevated Putin into some kind of “anti-imperialist” hero. I could tolerate his over-the-top worship of Milosevic, even though I was sometimes embarrassed to be on the same side of a debate with him against KLA supporters on the left, but something about the pro-Putin propaganda really turned me off. Israel’s articles should sound very familiar to those who have been exposed to this sort of thing on Counterpunch, Global Research, and MRZine:

…the US establishment, and the Empire of which it is a leading part – perhaps we should call it the New World Empire – is very much interested in protecting its current hegemonic position in the world from possible future challenges coming from Eurasia – namely, from the still-nuclear-armed former Soviet Union.

To “strengthen civil society” these fake-democracy funding agencies set up NGOs, newspapers and TV stations and political parties as a Fifth Column to destabilize local societies along vulnerable lines of conflict. Or they inflame regional conflicts in the guise of “peace” and “mediation” groups. Ultimately these Fifth Column groups stage, or attempt to stage coup d’états, always under the guise of democratic reform, thus putting US operatives in power.

This happened in Yugoslavia and Philippines. It was attempted in Belarus and Venezuela. The basis is being laid for such coup d’états all over the former Soviet Union.

Looking back on this period, I’d have to say my instincts were pretty healthy. Within a year or so, Israel had dropped the “anti-imperialist” pose and begun to write articles defending the Likud and calling 9/11 an inside job. There was always something conspiratorial about his mindset and it was a fairly easy transition from hating the KLA to hating Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular. If there is any consolation, he seems to be retired politically.

The Egyptian army has studied Putin’s methods apparently, but is acting even more boldly—throwing Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in jail for working for an NGO that gets overseas funding without the government’s permission. (The LaHoods are Lebanese Christians.)

In today’s N.Y. Times, Thomas Friedman waxes indignantly over this affront:

Sadly, the transitional government in Egypt today appears determined to shoot itself in both feet.

On Sunday, it will put on trial 43 people, including at least 16 U.S. citizens, for allegedly bringing unregistered funds into Egypt to promote democracy without a license. Egypt has every right to control international organizations operating within its borders. But the truth is that when these democracy groups filed their registration papers years ago under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, they were informed that the papers were in order and that approval was pending. The fact that now — after Mubarak has been deposed by a revolution — these groups are being threatened with jail terms for promoting democracy without a license is a very disturbing sign. It tells you how incomplete the “revolution” in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back.

This sordid business makes one weep and wonder how Egypt will ever turn the corner. Egypt is running out of foreign reserves, its currency is falling, inflation is rising and unemployment is rampant. Yet the priority of a few retrograde Mubarak holdovers is to put on trial staffers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are allied with the two main U.S. political parties, as well as from Freedom House and some European groups. Their crime was trying to teach Egypt’s young democrats how to monitor elections and start parties to engage in the very democratic processes that the Egyptian Army set up after Mubarak’s fall. Thousands of Egyptians had participated in their seminars in recent years.

Now if you were a consistent “anti-imperialist”, you’d have to back the Egyptian military, right? That would seem to be the position of Global Research, which has never been afraid of sounding stupid. In an article by Tony Cartalucci titled The US Engineered “Arab Spring”: The NGO Raids in Egypt, we learn that the “Arab Spring” was nothing but a Western conspiracy—not that different it would seem from 9/11:

In January of 2011, we were told that “spontaneous,” “indigenous” uprising had begun sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, in what was hailed as the “Arab Spring.” It would be almost four months before the corporate-media would admit that the US had been behind the uprisings and that they were anything but “spontaneous,” or “indigenous.” In an April 2011 article published by the New York Times titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” it was stated:

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington.

The article would also add, regarding the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED):

The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

Cartalucci informs his readers that other nations are under siege from the West in this fashion, including Thailand, Russia, Myanmar and Malaysia—a virtual rogue’s gallery. Now, to give credit where credit is due, this at least has the merit of consistency: in order to take a position on a conflict between a state and its opponents, all you have to do is determine whom the West supports and then take the opposite position. In the case of Myanmar, Cartalucci is not afraid to stake out a truly absurd position: “’Democracy icon’” Aung San Suu Kyi’s entire political apparatus is US and British funded.” You see, it does not really matter how many peasants and workers have been murdered fighting for a better society. As long as there is US and British funding, that’s all you need to know.

This, I should add, is not the most outrageous position staked out by Global Research. Applying the same logic, Michel Chossudovsky has rendered the verdict that Occupy Wall Street was the American “color revolution”, implying of course that the cops had every right to pepper-spray demonstrators.

If you really want to understand how such people think, there are two important things to keep in mind. Firstly, this is the Stalinism of our age. While the CPUSA and other such groups would never dream of arguing along these lines, something that would isolate them in the “progressive” circles they travel in, this is exactly how Stalinism made the case against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the 1930s. You had the imperialists on one side and “actually existing socialism” on the other. Anybody who failed to “defend” the USSR, which really meant defending every one of Stalin’s twists and turns, was an enemy of the Soviet Union. While few people outside the Stalinist milieu ever accused Trotsky of being on the imperialist payroll, this was the line of attack in the Moscow Trials.

It is easy to understand why some people are enamored with the “follow the money” way of thinking. It saves you from the trouble of dealing with contradiction. Instead of seeing the complex reality of young Egyptians turning to the NED for funding or to Gene Sharp for training, they simply lump them with Georgians, Serbs or any other “color revolution”. Essentially, this is a form of formal logic that most people absorb growing up in bourgeois society. It takes the form of “if a = b, then c”. But what if a is both b and not b? Arrghh. Don’t bother me with complexities…

The other thing to understand is that the conspiratorial mindset is very deeply engrained in some sectors on the left. Do you remember the old Mad Magazine spy versus spy comic? I suppose most of you are too young to remember, but it depicted a world in which spying counted for everything. It was very much tuned in to the zeitgeist that included James Bond novels and Cold War media reports about Soviet spies under every bed.

In such a world, the needs of—for example—Hungarian workers did not count. 1956 was about nothing except Western spooks trying to subvert a “socialist” country. If the reality of working class exploitation under Stalinist bureaucracy got in the way, the best remedy was to sweep it under the rug.

Unfortunately, the only thing that got swept under the rug after more than a half-century of lies, violence and corruption was the socialist experiment itself. Surely we can do better in the 21st century.


  1. This is a real problem here in the Central Valley of California. Back when the green movement erupted in Iran in 2009, I somehow found my way onto a local list with a number of apparent progressives and leftists. I started getting these e-mails by the person who created the list linking to statements by Paul Craig Roberts and Cindy Sheehan to the effect that the movement was CIA and Mossad inspired (Sheehan was more subtle about this than Roberts). I responded by saying that Cindy should know better, that you didn’t need the CIA and the Mossad to tell Iranians that they didn’t like being beaten up by the basiji for doing things like walking down the street holding their girlfriend’s hand. I got a condescending response. I then suggested that he send out an e-mail with a link to a post by Richard Seymour over at Lenin’s Tomb, where leftists on both sides (although mostly hostile to the regime) argued about this issue, so that people on the list could see the countours of the debate. Never got any more e-mails from the guy again. If you dig into it more, you sometimes discover that they believe that the true villain in regard to these CIA/Mossad adventures is, of course, Israel, which is, in their view, pushing an ambivalent US into them, because the US has a past, romanticized virtue that can be recovered while Israel does not.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 22, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

  2. Louis, I agree with much of what you say on this topic re: destructive conspiracy mongering on the Left.

    However, in order to defend the NDI and the IRI, it would seem that you’d need to make a stronger case that these institutions are, overall, beneficial to the Egyptian revolutionaries. Given the history of these institutions, why are you so optimistic?

    It looks like there is a third alternative, independent of 1. Supporting the NGOs or 2. the Egyptian military. That is: 3. Not supporting either side, because both, in their own way, are agents of reaction.

    Comment by JC — February 23, 2012 @ 4:19 am

  3. Why don’t you read a few articles by your ‘friend’ Michael James Barker who has written extensively on NED, NGO, Freedom House and its actors Soros, Trotskyite = Zionist Stephen Zunes and his friend Chomsky.


    Before revealing yourself even further, why don’t you read the following book?
    The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders where many Trotskyites were at the service of CIA fooling gullible people of the Western countries.

    Click to access CIAcultCW.pdf

    Egyptian ‘revolution’ was let by April 6 idiot… then other people, mainly Muslim Brothers join. Therefore, the struggle still continues but the US agents, April 6 wanted people to leave street and leave the politics to idiot from April 6 where people refused…

    Comment by the truth — February 23, 2012 @ 6:49 am

  4. many Trotskyites were at the service of CIA fooling gullible people of the Western countries.

    Yes, good point. James P. Cannon was actually a secret member of the Illuminati.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 23, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  5. I love people who call themselves ‘the truth’. You can always be sure of very incisive commentary.

    Comment by johng — February 23, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

  6. Good post. And JC (3.), I read Louis as not at all defending the NED (and IRI, NDI). Of course they are for all intents and purposes an arm of US foreign policy – the example of Haiti is quite instructive. What he attacks, and rightly so, is the absurd logical leap made by GR etc – that if there is opposition to a government, and this opposition is supported by NED etc., then they conclude that the opposition is therefore created by, or a creature of, NED etc. and hence, the US government.

    What I find most detestable about this approach, besides its intellectual laziness (“Look! The NED is there, nothing further need be said!”), is the way it views everything happening abroad only in its presumed relation to the struggle at home. If President X happens to be a professed enemy of the West, then, according to this logic, legitimate internal opposition to X’s regime is literally held to be impossible. In this way, this crowd burdens the people of the global South with the fruits of our failure to oppose imperialism right here at home.

    It is absolutely one thing to argue that our main focus, as Western leftists, has to be to oppose the attempts of our own governments to interfere and shape events (in Libya, Iran, Syria, Burma etc.) to their advantage – as, for example, Kevin Ovenden does. I agree with that – there is obviously no symmetry at all between the US and, say, Iran; a position of “neither Washington nor Tehran’ would be absurd. It’s different when the argument becomes that the Western left should in addition demand that the main duty of, say, the Syrian oppositionist, also is to oppose Western imperialism, and therefore accept his or her own slaughter with good grace and the iron will not to accept a dime from the NED. That argument, to me, is one of a morally and politically bankrupt left. Finally then there’s a third line of argument that is merely a minor annoyance, namely that those who do not agree with the second line must themselves be motivated by (choose as many as you wish) (a) money (b) their hope for an academic/think tank/NGO position (c) desire to be accepted by their liberal friends (d) secret Zionism or (e) their work for the CIA.

    Comment by christian h. — February 23, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

  7. “What I find most detestable about this approach, besides its intellectual laziness (“Look! The NED is there, nothing further need be said!”), is the way it views everything happening abroad only in its presumed relation to the struggle at home. If President X happens to be a professed enemy of the West, then, according to this logic, legitimate internal opposition to X’s regime is literally held to be impossible. In this way, this crowd burdens the people of the global South with the fruits of our failure to oppose imperialism right here at home.”

    yes, that’s one way of saying it, but I think that is worse than this, because it reduces the people of the global South to an undifferentiated mass of people without the capacity of independent thought and action, stripping them of any historical agency

    in essence, it incorporates the imperialist perspective of past centuries into a perverse, contemporary, purportedly leftist one

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 24, 2012 @ 12:49 am

  8. > Firstly, this is the Stalinism of our age. While the CPUSA and other such groups would never dream of arguing along these lines, something that would isolate them in the “progressive” circles they travel in, this is exactly how Stalinism made the case against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the 1930s.

    That’s not an honest comparison. Charges about Leon Trotsky receiving aid from the Third Reich were patently false. It’s not a matter of having to debate whether maybe an exiled dissident like Trotsky should be allowed some leeway when taking aid from Hitler, because he never got any such aid. While I don’t care much for Chossudovsky’s framework, and I’ve mostly found Eric Walberg to repeat a lot of nonsense, your comparison is still a bit over the top. If Grover Furr one day unearths the stub of a paycheck from Hitler to Trotsky, then we can come back to your analogy. But I don’t expect that Furr will ever come up with such.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — February 24, 2012 @ 1:19 am

  9. Agreement with the basic argument of this post, stated in terms of a different set of circumstances (Libya):

    Rules Of Rebellion
    6 April 2011

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — February 24, 2012 @ 6:35 am

  10. No I don’t think those are the same arguments at all. But Louis I’m sure can speak for himself. Arguing against my enemies enemy is my friend is not the same as supporting campaigns for humanitarian intervention or regarding opposing imperialism as a comical enterprise.

    Comment by johng — February 24, 2012 @ 7:49 am

  11. Incidently there ARE people recycling classic stalinist tropes in relationship to this ‘stalinism of today’ although I don’t think this is particularly important or decisive. I agree with Louis but have called it stalinism without stalinism: stalinism was always a politics of despair and there are people who are in such despair that they see inter-imperialist balancing as a better bet then mass struggle. In some senses this was what stalinism amounted to in the 1930s. There are also people simply inspired by rival ruling class capitalism’s who have no interest in socialism of course: the same was true. But the one’s who see themselves as being on the left…Its truly pathetic. At least a stalinist supported a state that claimed to be socialist even if it wasn’t). To fall into despair because the eastern bloc collapsed was a historical tragedy of misapprehension. To fall into despair because North Korea collapsed would surely just be a kind of comical entertainment for most of us. More tricky in some ways is the case of people whose political pessimism is such that they think the fact that because of inter-imperialist rivalry some states supply arms to people whose struggles deserve support means that that support should be extended to the arms suppliers: or rather the continuation of those supplies is more important then the Arab revolution. Socialists have always opposed imperialism because it is a barrier to revolution. It makes little sense to oppose revolution in the name of opposing imperialism (usually some badly understood version of geo-politics). But that is of course what the Soviet Union encouraged the comintern to do in the 1930s. Its essentially the same politics without the plausibility. More farce then tragedy.

    Comment by johng — February 24, 2012 @ 9:52 am

  12. Hey Louis,

    Thanks for this post. I personally find it to be quite a shame that Walberg is making such silly claims, since in times past I have found his essays to be informative on other issues – albeit usually geopolitics. I translated an article written by the editorial board of Skepsis, a left-leaning (independent) Russian online journal, that did a fairly good job, in my opinion, at explaining popular anger in Russia after the crudely rigged parliamentary elections. MRZine published it here: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/russia151211p.html . I think it is pretty disgraceful that so many on the American/Western left have completely dispensed with dialectical analysis, which as you pointed out would be more “complicated”. Instead, they all seem to be opting for an unthinking, unsophisticated “anti-imperialism” that indeed sees Western agents behind every uprising. *sigh*

    Comment by dermokrat — February 24, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  13. @ dermokrat

    Thank you for the link to your translation of the Skepsis article. I found it very informative.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — February 24, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

  14. Nice piece. The biggest NGO in Egypt is the Egyptian Army subsidised to the tune of $1 billion a year by the good old US of A. As for Stalinism and the Stalinoid sects that Stalined-up during the Cold War, Socialist Unity in England has become their meeting point and the meeting point for all anti-Arab Spring `lefties’. They have even launched a witch hunt in the Palestine Solidarity movement globally, these types, in order to purge it of all those who refuse to recognise the legitimacy of Israel by branding them anti-semites and holocaust deniers thereby jeopardising Fatah’s efforts to get their bantustan recognised as the Palestinian state by the UN and abandon the refugees and Gaza. They got so used to taking their lead and orders from Russia that even after the collapse of the Stalinised state and the re-emegence of an imperialist Russian ruling class it make no difference and they still follow its leader, Putin, like puppy dogs.

    Comment by David Ellis — February 25, 2012 @ 12:15 am

  15. […] This, says Proyect, is unfair. These people, says Proyect, are crass conspiracy theorists. Just because one is working with imperialist agents doesn’t make one an imperialist agent. Nor, indeed, is it right to act against imperialist agents. If you cut imperialist agents, do they not bleed? Grant them their human rights, set them free, says Proyect, they are harmless. […]

    Pingback by Grundrisse (V): When we look in the mirror. « The Shrieking Man — February 28, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  16. I call it “post-stalinism”, because these are not strictly speaking, “Stalinists”, but have adopted a methodology similar in its crudeness. And yes, its content is that it prioritizes interstate geopolitics over the class struggle.

    And the clumsy sarcasm-oozing comment at #15 is a pretty typical mode of reply, usually leading up to the ad hominum smear wherein the target is accused of being an “imperialist agent” themselves, either witting or unwitting, with the final step usually the omission of the “un” prefix. The whole sordid striptease is designed to distract for the fact that the average post-Stalinist lacks either the brains or balls or both to dialectically formulate a coherent perspective – “dialectically formulate” meaning simply one that takes all the contradictions and their interrelationships into account.

    And “Grundrisse” – a title you certainly don’t deserve to appropriate for your own use and that only tops off the knuckle-dragging “logic” on display here with arrogance – in the case of Egypt I very much enjoy watch various imperialist agents cut each up and bleed. But the questions of *why* the U.S. would set one group of agents to topple another agent (Mubarak), only to have those agents themselves toppled by a third U.S. agent – the Egyptian junta – apparently only has an answer beyond the pail of small and lazy minds.

    Comment by Matt — March 1, 2012 @ 12:19 am

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