Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 22, 2013

The myth of Vladimir Putin’s progressivism

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

For that segment of the left that thinks more in terms of hegemonic blocs and geopolitical chess games between imperialism and “anti-imperialist” states than classes, Putin is something of an exemplar. Immanuel Wallerstein, perhaps its most respected and principled representative, made the case for Putin in a July 15, 2007 Commentary titled “The Putin Charisma“:

Yes, he has upset a good portion of the intelligentsia, but there is every indication that he is quite popular with most Russians, unlike some other presidents of major states today. It seems that Russians see him as someone who has done much to restore the strength of the Russian state, after what they see as its humiliating deterioration during the Yeltsin era… He has opposed United States plans to install antimissile structures in Poland and the Czech Republic, and has gotten support for his stand (if quiet support) from Western Europe. He has used control of gas and oil exports from Russia itself and from both Central Asian and Caucasian countries not only to obtain greater rent for Russia (and thereby greater world power), but more or less to impose his terms on energy issues on Western Europe.

I imagine that most supporters of Putin on the left would make a case something like this:

1. Oil Populism:

He has taken advantage of Russia’s oil rentier status to fight the poverty and inequality that was a legacy of Yeltsin’s oligarchy-friendly rule. While by no means a socialist, he has something in common with Hugo Chavez who embodied the same economic policy. MRZine, a major outlet of hegemonic bloc theory, published a talk by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov that obviously took him at his word:

It should be no surprise that Russia today is making use of its natural competitive advantages.  It is also investing in its human resources, encouraging innovation, integrating into the global economy, and modernizing its legislation.  Russia wants international stability to underpin its own development.  Accordingly, it is working toward the establishment of a freer and more democratic international order.

Sounds almost Bolivarian, doesn’t it?

2. Anti-Imperialism:

Russia, along with China, is standing up to American imperialism in places like Libya and Syria. Of particular interest is Putin’s steadfast resistance to jihadism wherever it rears its ugly head, especially in Chechnya. For this sector of the left, political Islam has become as much of a bogeyman as it was to people like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens in 2003. The very same “foreign fighters” who went to fight the American occupation in Iraq are now shunned as tools of American imperialism. Russia Today, an English-language news service funded by the government, is widely considered to be a friend of the left, especially those predisposed to the global chess game analysis. An April 20, 2013 piece by Eric Draitser, who blogs at stopimperialism.com, made the case for the Russian government:

As more information comes out regarding the alleged bombers and their ideological leanings, there will undoubtedly be a propaganda assault to shape this narrative in the interests of the United States and the West.  Talking heads will be on television twenty four hours a day explaining to Americans why Chechnya is such a hotbed of terrorism, asking how something like this could happen, etc.  The truth is however, Washington has perpetuated the conflict through its propaganda machine that will now be employed to once again turn friend to enemy.  Perhaps, instead of being the world’s greatest purveyor of terror, using it as a weapon to achieve geostrategic objectives, the United States should actually work with peaceful nations such as Russia to combat terrorism worldwide.

3. Standing up to foreign meddling

Probably the thing that endears Putin to this sector of the left above all is its willingness to suppress the NGO’s that have foisted “color revolutions” on unsuspecting victims everywhere. Unlike other heads of state, Putin has had the balls (the word certainly applies) to shut them down, an act that gladdens the heart of Global Research, a long-standing member of the global chess-game tendency. On July 14, 2012 they published an article by Veronika Krasheninnikova, a staff member of a Russian think tank, that cheered Putin’s crackdown:

In fact, the multibillions of Western funding have profoundly distorted Russian civil society. A marginal pro-American group of NGOs that was pumped up with US dollars like a bodybuilder with steroids – it has gained much muscle and shine. Those few Russians willing to serve foreign interests were provided nice offices, comfortable salaries, printing presses, training, publicity, and political and organizing technology which gave them far more capacity, visibility, and influence that they could possibly have had on their own. Money and spin are the only means to promote unpopular ideas, alien to national interests.

On the other side is the silent majority of people who are squeezed out of the public space. In Western, and also in Russian media, civil society turns out to be represented by Ludmila Alekseyeva (The Helsinki Group) and Boris Nemtsov and Gary Kasparov, rather than by a worker from the Urals, a teacher from Novosibirsk or a farmer from Krasnodar Region.

Yesterday I had the very great fortune to attend a film screening of “Winter Go Away”, a documentary on the 2012 Russian elections that was co-directed by 10 filmmakers, including Anna Moiseenko who was there to speak about the film in the Q&A. Poet and revolutionary Kirill Medvedev, who I have discussed before, was also there to speak about the current situation in Russia.

I can only say that this film is an eye-opener, even to someone like me who has defended Pussy Riot against Putin and tries to keep up with the Russian left. (The film shows the feminist punk rockers being dragged out of the church.) Basically the documentary demonstrates how radical the opposition to Putin was. Despite the pro-capitalist leanings of some of the major opposition figures—from multibillionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to the aforementioned Gary Kasparov (he should stick to chess)—the rank-and-file of the movement are exactly the same kinds of people who occupied Zuccotti Park. Indeed, some of the chants you hear on the demonstrations are directed against Russian capitalism. You see young people heading toward the protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks, etc. The protests have been erroneously described as upper-middle-class temper tantrums funded by George Soros. It takes a huge amount of brass for some leftists to make such an attack when the Putin rallies are staged affairs that make the Republican Party’s look Bolshevik by comparison. Putin’s slogans were mind-numbingly nationalistic, with his well-heeled supporters chanting “Russia, Putin, Victory” at rallies.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is an interview with one Matvey Krylov who has just been released from prison for throwing water at a government official. The interviewer can’t seem to wrap his head around the question of someone going to prison for throwing water at another person. After repeatedly asking Krylov to explain what happened, the young man–who looks just like the sort of person who would have been found camped out in Zuccotti Park–tells him to Google his name. That will tell him all he needs to know. I followed this recommendation and discovered to my delight that my good friends in Chto Delat, a leftwing artist’s collective, has a report on their website:

The Moscow Times November 1, 2011
Water Stunt May Earn 2 Years in Jail
Alexey Eremenko

An opposition activist faces two years in jail for splashing water in the face of a prosecutor who jailed his comrades and allegedly threatened to kill him, the Agora rights group said Monday.

Dmitry Putenikhin, a member of The Other Russia, attacked Alexei Smirnov outside Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court on Friday shortly after it jailed five people, including three fellow activists, for participating in Manezh Square rioting last December.

The verdict has raised eyebrows because the riots were racially charged, while The Other Russia is not a nationalist group. Critics say the authorities chose the organization as a scapegoat.

Putenikhin, also known under the alias Matvei Krylov, did not flee after the attack, explaining to journalists that his actions were “improvised.” A video released by RIA-Novosti showed police brutally detaining him and three other people minutes after the attack.

 During the Q&A, I described the agenda of the global chess-game left to the speakers. Kirill’s response was most edifying. He said that the idea of Putin somehow having a continuation with the “anti-imperialist” USSR is embraced by both the “civil society”, Perestroika wing of the anti-Putin opposition as well as some elements of the Putin camp, except that the former group places a minus where the other group puts a plus.

But what really gave me pause to reflect was his explanation of the driving forces of the opposition to Putin. While people like Kasparov were still stuck in the perestroika mode and limited exclusively to issues such as freedom of speech (as important as they are), the grass roots of the movement has been driven to take action by the neoliberal policies of the Putin regime, especially in health care and education.

The light bulb went on over my head. Wasn’t this the same scenario that played out in Libya? The pro-Qaddafi left was stuck in a time warp that viewed the dictator in the same light as the mid-80s, the head of an oil rentier state dispensing royalties to the masses in a paternalistically dictatorial fashion. When a movement broke out against Qaddafi, who had imposed neoliberal policies for the better part of 20 years, his defenders made the same kinds of arguments being made on Putin’s behalf today.

Just as I have done for Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi before him, I did a search in Nexis (access to which is one of my most valued benefits as a Columbia University retiree) for articles on Putin’s economic policies.

The first significant report of Putin’s intentions appeared in the N.Y. Times on April 2nd, 2000.

The victory of Vladimir V. Putin in the presidential election last Sunday has focused attention on an opulent Moscow building known as Aleksandr House, where a team of liberal-minded economists and other experts has been quietly drafting Mr. Putin’s blueprint for Russia.

German O. Gref, head of the Center for Strategic Research and master of Aleksandr House, confidently predicted this week that by late May Mr. Putin will be ready to release ”a breakthrough scenario envisaging the most radical reforms,” from an overhaul of Russia’s cumbersome tax code to a streamlining of its infamous bureaucracies.

With the exception of tax reform, the contents of the program are still vague and, on critical issues like land reform, still under debate. But the Aleksandr House team — which includes some of Russia’s best-known pro-market reformers — has already firmly established itself as the beachhead of liberal economics in the coming Putin administration.

Four years later, on March 16, 2004, Putin’s aims became clarified as the Guardian reported:

Despite the self-acclaimed miracle of Russia’s economic growth, most citizens still live in grinding poverty and a tenth can barely feed themselves. What little is known about Mr Putin’s domestic plans suggests he does not want to bridge this gap through a greater welfare state but through harsh market reforms.

Professor Oksana Gaman-Golutvina, of the Academy of State Service, said: “Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.”

Mr Putin will reduce VAT and the social security taxes companies pay for each employee, theoretically creating more jobs. Students will have to pay for more of their education, patients for more of their health care.

Rail fares and utility prices will rise astronomically as franchises are sold off.

Roland Nash, the chief strategist at the Renaissance Capital bank, said the reforms would “hit the average Ivan in the pocket”.

Hmmm. Obama is on record as admiring Ronald Reagan. I wonder if he has been studying Vladimir Putin’s presidency in light of this:

Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.


  1. This is what happens when leftists get sidetracked into believing that geopolitical relationships are more important than social ones and class ones. One wonders if some of these leftists have internalized bigoted biases about the Russian people (lazy, ignorant, superstitious, disorderly) as a justification for their positive perspective about Putin.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 22, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

  2. Estes makes an important point. The bankruptcy of Wallerstein’s “Core vs. Periphery” dynamic, hence it’s popularity in the academic milieu, was always the ultimate abandonment of the word “class” in it’s final analysis because that way it’s very convenient when getting invited to international symposiums & so forth. The spectre of Marx, Engels & Lenin need not enter the frey, per se.

    For the academic to concede the zero sum game that in any workplace environment the objective interest of the worker is to get the most amount of wages for the least amount of work while the objective interest of the employer is to extract the maximum amount of labor for the minimum amount of wages, and that this obvious contradiction, that is, this CLASS CONFLICT at the basis of erstwhile mundane social relations, is just too shocking to bourgeois sensibilities to ever assume center stage. Yet that simple antagonism Marx proved to be central to all social relations in the modern world, that is, the motor of history is still class antagonisms and the day somebody disproves that notion is the day that Marx, Engels & Lenin won’t be relevant because there’s been a paradigm shift. I suggest you don’t hold your breath…

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 23, 2013 @ 1:19 am

  3. I should only add: What’s even more important today than the stalwart paradigm of Marx, Engels & Lenin, since they were dead before the advent of Fascism as we know it, even though the White Guard of Russia should be considered proto-Fascists– are the contributions of Leon Trotsky — without which the contributions of the other Big 3 would be unthinkable in the 20th century Imperialist age of wars & revolutions because only Trotsky lived long enough to understand that the concept of Fascism was unthinkable without a broad working class resistance.

    So for example when the spectre of the Russian Red Army organized by Trotsky came to be — only the White Guard armies organized by Kornilov etc. which were created by the bourgeoisie to resist it, combined with the wealth of 13 other Internatinonal armies (like Uncle Sam) to crush it, yet once defeated by Trotsky’s Red Army, which constituted the very 1st defeat of Fascism, that is, the organized bourgeois resistance of working class power.

    This meant that Fascim’s “raison de etat” was the military defeat of working class power. By contrast Fascim’s defeat is the victory of working class power.

    Today that means the defeat of movements like OWS is the victory of Fascism.

    The point is this people. Don’t kid yourselves about what genuine Fascism looks like until you see the working class threatening State Power & then you will know true Fascism is,

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 23, 2013 @ 2:24 am

  4. Yes, he is not a Leftist, he is a type of Peronist or nationalist. He did nationalize Gazprom, which is more than can be said of anything in the U.S. He remains very popular in Russia, even after a long time in the public eye. Electorally he dominates in the poor and rural areas. It’s only in St Petersburgh, which is richer and more ‘Western’ that he drops below or near 50%.

    Comment by purple — April 23, 2013 @ 4:00 am

  5. Two words sum it up: Sam Marcy. His “global class war” theory born out of the monumental defeat of labor has been widely absorbed by the left, even if most of them want nothing to do with the sect he created.

    But, if we’re going to be honest, the roots of Marcy’s theories also lay in Lenin’s victory (vis-a-vis the authority someone who is viewed as a “winner” gets) in his debate with Luxemburg over “national liberation” — back when there was still a very real communist movement in existence internationally.

    The same thing can be said of Stalin’s maneuvering (that gave birth to Castro, Tito, et al’s “non-aligned” bloc and Mao’s “third world”). Geopolitics and national interests in the guise of “communism.”

    No one who gives Marx, Engels or Luxemburg a serious reading could argue that this sort of global “anti-imperialist” cheer leading had anything to do with the internationalist proletarian struggle toward a classless society they promoted. Hell, even Lenin warned against joining up with reactionary regimes and struggles in the “oppressed world,” at least up until he got into power and needed exactly that to steer the Great Russian ship.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — April 23, 2013 @ 6:45 am

  6. Lenin:

    “As communists we will only support the bourgeois freedom movements in the colonial countries if these movements are really revolutionary and if their representatives are not opposed to us training and organising the peasantry in a revolutionary way. If that is no good, then the communists there also have a duty to fight against the reformist bourgeoisie.”


    “With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

    “first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;

    “second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

    “third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.;

    “fourth, the need, in backward countries, to give special support to the peasant movement against the landowners, against landed proprietorship, and against all manifestations or survivals of feudalism, and to strive to lend the peasant movement the most revolutionary character by establishing the closest possible alliance between the West European communist proletariat and the revolutionary peasant movement in the East, in the colonies, and in the backward countries generally. It is particularly necessary to exert every effort to apply the basic principles of the Soviet system in countries where pre-capitalist relations predominate—by setting up “working people’s Soviets”, etc.;

    “fifth, the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form; “

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — April 23, 2013 @ 6:59 am

  7. I wonder where “purple” gets their information. It’s absurd to judge Putin’s “popularity” on the basis of heavily falsified elections or even on the basis of opinion polls, which are also clearly manipulated to create the desired effect. As for Petersburg’s “westernness,” that’s just a myth. Besides, it was Petersburg or, rather, the administration of the city’s first mayor, Yeltsin-era “democrat” Anatoly Sobchak, that unleashed much of the current Russian political elite on the country, including Putin, Medvedev, ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, and ex-economics minister and current Sberbank (state savings bank) head German Gref, to name just a few. Finally, Putin didn’t “nationalize” Gazprom, but merely rolled back its (very) partial privatization under Yeltsin.

    Comment by hecksinductionhour — April 23, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

  8. Richard Estes thinks that people are getting sidetracked into thinking that “geopolitical relationships are more important than social ones and class ones” How are geopolitical relationships *not* another form of the “social” and of “class” writ onto the world stage?

    This seems to be an asocial and classless concept of “geopolitics”. Strangely, it seems a theoretical mirror image of their reputed opponents on the left.

    The critique of the ideology of “hegemonic blocs” that shows that no such thing as “hegemonic blocs” exist in the present world, including that of NATO-Japan, much less that of the U.S. alone, that are actually hegemonic over the whole world system, does not mean we abandon an analysis of imperialism, anti-imperialism and the theory of combined and uneven development, and its corollaries, permanent revolution and the transitional program. This is not to be taken as a “orthodox Trotskyist” statement, as one can’t be part of a historically dead movement. So don’t get distracted by that. Address the theoretical question raised.

    No hegemony, no counter-hegemony either. But there still remains imperialism, and combined/uneven development.

    And wasn’t Wallenstein and his World Systems theory the primary target of that other bete noir, the Political Marxist Robert Brenner, in his “Neo-Smithian Marxism..”?

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — April 25, 2013 @ 8:52 pm

  9. “Richard Estes thinks that people are getting sidetracked into thinking that “geopolitical relationships are more important than social ones and class ones” How are geopolitical relationships *not* another form of the “social” and of “class” writ onto the world stage?”

    Of course, they are, but the problem arises when geopolitical relationships eclipse social and class ones, resulting in a neo-Metternich view of the world. In this instance, Putin’s treatment of his people get lost as his relationships with the US, the EU, China and the BRICs take precedence. Characterizing him as a brake upon US imperial designs (assuming that this is actually true) is one thing, characterizing him and Russia as a kind of socially democratic resistance to the US, with the potential to assist anti-capitalist resistance in the long term is something else (and not very credible). Putin is a willing participant in the global capitalist order, with his own strategy for success. His internal policies are indicative of this. Is a world centered around a Shanghai Cooperative Corporation approach instead of a WTO one really an improvement for workers?

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 25, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

  10. Outside a revolutionary period for the working class, it is in an economically multi-polar or bi-polar world where workers are given a window of opportunity to organize more concretely, and where worker struggles advance the greatest. History has shown this time and again, the first time being those struggles before WWI. That’s the only “good” thing that can be said of the Putin regime, and even here he botches things a lot even by “patriotic” and downright nationalist standards.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — May 2, 2013 @ 5:06 am

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