Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 3, 2021

Navalny and the Left

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 11:33 pm
Navalny’s viral video on Putin’s palace (with English subtitles)

As might have been expected, Alexey Navalny has his detractors on the left. Jacobin published an article by Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander titled “Russia’s Trump” that dismissed his intrepid campaigns against corruption. For the authors, he was trying to “drain the swamp” just like Donald Trump. Sakhnin, who was active in the Left Front in Russia before emigrating to Sweden, followed up with a new screed on Jacobin titled “How a Russian Nationalist Named Alexei Navalny Became a Liberal Hero” that facilely attempted to explain away Navalny’s support for Bernie Sanders in the last election rather than Trump. He saw it as a cynical, Machiavellian maneuver rather than a sincere attempt to address social equality in Russia:

From the protest rallies of 2011-13, Navalny learned an important lesson: it is not right-wing nationalist, but left-wing, social populism that brings real popularity among the people. And although he has often been compared to Donald Trump, he has increasingly turned to a social agenda.

You’ll note the use of passive voice. He has often been compared to Donald Trump? No, comrade Sakhnin, it was you who made such a comparison, wasn’t it?

When I was doing some background research on this article, Sakhnin did not even appear on my radar screen. Instead, I looked for articles in the London Review of Books and LeftEast, where a less conspiratorial mindset prevailed. From the LRB, I tracked down two articles by Tony Wood, who has written some great analysis of Putin’s Russia, including a book I reviewed for CounterPunch in 2018. As for LeftEast, a ‘zine published by Eastern European Marxists, I was particularly interested in what Kirill Medvedev had to say in a roundtable discussion titled “Navalny’s Return and Left Strategy”.

Medvedev is a poet, essayist and Marxist activist who I met back in 2013 and took an instant liking to, not only for his political insights but for his work in translating Charles Bukowski into Russian. Medvedev was on tour promoting a documentary on Putin titled “Winter Go Away” that revealed what a sleazy authoritarian he was. The film was a revelation to me:

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.

The meeting opened my eyes to the Russian left that I have identified with ever since. Indeed, I had already made the case for Pussy Riot on CounterPunch a year earlier as women who had much in common with Abby Hoffman. Those leftists who supported their arrest reminded me of how American conservatives got upset over bra-burning during the Nixon presidency, except in this instance they were lining up with the Kremlin rather than the White House.

The articles pointed to three key years that marked different stages of Navalny’s political evolution: 2012, 2018 and 2020. In 2012, Navalny led mass protests against voter fraud; in 2018, he led mass protests again against pension cuts, thus revealing a turn toward questions of inequality; finally, the return to Russia opened up a new stage in the struggle as anger against crony capitalism boiled over.

In a 2012 LRB article titled “There is no Alternative”, Tony Wood reports on Russia just prior to the presidential election. After Putin’s stooge Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term expired, Putin would be eligible to run again. The Russian constitution limits the presidency to two consecutive terms but after having served twice, and a third time by proxy through Medvedev, Putin was bent on maintaining his rule for another four years. Now that he has indicated to tack on another 4 years in 2024, Putin will have been the longest-running head of state in Russia since Brezhnev.

In Chechnya, an election produced bogus numbers that were the reality equivalent of Trump’s fictional claims about being robbed of victory. After 10 percent of its citizens had been killed by Putin’s invasionary force, they didn’t seem to mind. Putin’s United Russia party got 99.5 percent of the vote on the basis of a 98.6 percent turnout. This would even embarrass Assad.

At the time, Wood took note of Alexi Navalny having both assets and liabilities. In some ways, he is a throwback to the kind of idealistic “clean government” characters so typical of Frank Capra movies. He writes, “But what drives him is not hatred of inequality so much as hatred of cheating: in his view, genuine entrepreneurs haven’t flourished as they should in Russia because of ‘Komsomol bastards’ profiting from political clout or personal networks. For him, malversation [corrupt behavior] is a symptom of Russia’s incomplete transition to capitalism, rather than a structural feature of the kind of capitalism the country has.”

Wood is unstinting about Navalny’s nativism, calling it even worse than Putin’s. Obviously, these liabilities are what Sakhnin focus on but in the context of Russian crony capitalism, Navalny’s intransigent opposition to corruption helped to create a fighting mood that would be manifested five years later in the protests over pension “reform”.

That mood erupted into fury in 2018 when the Russian government proposed a pension “reform” that victimized the elderly, already suffering from inadequate income. In a February 2nd, 2019 article titled “Russia’s Oppositions”, you can see Wood becoming convinced that the Navalny scale had begun to tilt in the assets direction. The regime sought to raise the retirement age for both men and women, from 60 and 55 respectively to 65 and 63. Despite 89 percent of the population being opposed to the change, Putin’s popularity continued to soar, likely a result of his seizure of Crimea. While many on the left tried to put a positive spin on Russia’s population benefiting from oil and gas sales, almost seeing Putin as an authoritarian version of Hugo Chavez, the reality for most pensioners was grim.

In the mid-1990s, IMF and World Bank officials pressured Yeltsin government to reduce pension benefits but unpopularity over the first Chechen war made this impossible. In 2002, Putin was able to push them through using a mix of private and state financing that would be the envy of Charles Koch. Tony Wood reports:

In May, an IMF mission to Russia praised the Putin government’s ‘strong macroeconomic policy framework’, but like Kudrin insisted that ‘the focus has to shift to structural reforms to boost productivity and the supply of labour and capital.’ Any increases in spending on health, education and infrastructure, however, ‘should be done without compromising the credibility of the new fiscal rule’. One way of gaining ‘fiscal space’, the IMF helpfully suggested, would be through ‘parametric pension reform’ – in other words, making fewer people eligible to claim one.

In June 2018, Navalny emerged as a key leader of the pension protests. Showing his allegedly cynical, Machiavellian tendencies, he abandoned his own party’s support for pension “reform”. Or maybe, as Wood put it, it was hard to say what motivated him.

Was this a real shift in his thinking, or was it opportunism, a reaction to the unpopularity of such views among the broader Russian electorate? It’s hard to say, just as it’s hard to say whether Navalny’s unwillingness to join forces with other parties is based more on an understandable aversion to being drawn into the deadening embrace of the pseudo-opposition, or on an overriding need to maintain his distinctive political ‘brand’.

Isn’t it possible that Navalny can be a conniving politician at the same time he is reflecting mass pressure against a corrupt and brutal head of state? Looking at his role dialectically, you might say that he was like many figures in the 1930s who adapted to the revolutionary mood of the masses even though their intention was to contain the fire. I speak here of FDR, not that I am comparing Navalny to FDR but only reminding readers that politicians usually have mixed agendas unless they are someone like V.I. Lenin or Fidel Castro. People writing for Jacobin seem to be complaining that he is no Lenin or Castro. Given their general political orientation, one would think they’d be amenable to someone who supported Bernie Sanders in 2019 rather than Donald Trump.

In one of the more perceptive articles on Navalny’s intentions titled “Russia: The Protest Movement is Younger, Poorer, and More Left Wing” written by Ivan Ovsyannikov for LeftEast, you get a feel for the complexities of the relationship between a mass leader with a tarnished past and a population desperate for any actions that could force the knee off its neck.

It’s not just age. The class composition of opposition protests is also changing. If the metropolitan middle class were the predominant participants in the 2011-2012 protests (or, at least appeared so in eyes of most of the population), then the lower classes were entering the political stage in 2017–2018. “The interviews we conducted at Navalny’s rallies show that they had more poor people, young people and poor teenagers. The protest’s rhetoric also shifted to the left. This is connected both with the change in their social composition and with Navalny’s leftward shift. He’s sensitive to and anticipates public sentiment. By shifting from criticizing dictatorship to criticizing oligarchs, he clearly understood that going beyond a narrowly liberal or nationalist fringe would allow him to expand his constituency and become the sole leader of the opposition,” Oleg Zhuravlev believes.

In his concluding paragraph, Ovsyannikov describes a burgeoning radical movement that sees Navalny as a tool rather than someone to be followed blindly. Those in Russia trying to build an anti-capitalist opposition to Putin might consider the need for far more flexibility than the Jacobin authors would permit:

The populist leadership of the modern Russian opposition movement strikingly distinguishes it from protests at the beginning of the decade. However, according to commentators, the situation may change again. “Since social groups in Russia don’t have a clear identity, the protesters are highly susceptible to the rhetoric of leaders.” “But,” Oleg Zhuravlev adds, “I wouldn’t call the Navalny movement personalistic. A great number of people interviewed at his rallies say: ‘We don’t personally like Navalny, but his protests are the only ones around.’ Today, an increasing number of people think not only in emotionally charged moral categories, but also in terms of group interests. It’s possible, there is already a critical questioning of Navalny from the most radical young protesters.”

In August of 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok as was the case with  Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018. In a pattern consistent with chemical attack investigations in Syria, the left was divided over who was responsible. Writing for CounterPunch, Gary Leupp probably spoke for most on the left:

But this attack on Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter (by somebody) is highly useful to those who want to vilify Vladimir Putin, just as the use of chemical weapons in Syria last April (by somebody) was useful for those wanting to further vilify Bashar Assad and justify a U.S. missile strike. Have you noticed that we live in an age of constant disinformation, misinformation and “fake news”?

Using the same ideological template and the same outlet, Roger Harris wrote: “An alternative explanation for this poisoning story is that this is a setup to discredit and weaken an official enemy of the US imperial state. The nation’s newspaper of record has a long history as a faithful mouthpiece of empire. On spinning the Putin-the-Poisoner tale, the Times has been but one voice in the Russo-phobic chorus of western media.”

As was the case with chemical attacks in Syria that both authors tried to discredit, it was left to Eliot Higgins and his staff at Bellingcat to use open source to track down the perpetrators. I recommend “FSB Team of Chemical Weapon Experts Implicated in Alexey Navalny Novichok Poisoning” that was published on December 14, 2020. Using open source, Bellingcat discovered that throughout 2017, and again in 2019 and 2020, Russian agents in a clandestine unit specialized in poisonous substances followed Navalny during his trips across Russia, trailing him on more than 30 overlapping flights to the same destinations. When the Skripals were poisoned, Bellingcat provided evidence of two spooks from the same unit flying into London and ending up suspiciously close to the paths that the father and daughter took. You might call this circumstantial evidence but given Russia’s denial of any wrongdoing in Syrian chemical attacks might lead to the conclusion that this was sufficient to convict them in a war crimes tribunal.

Interviewed by the snake Aaron Maté and showing a novel take on these hit jobs, long-time Russia commentator Fred Weir doubted that Putin was responsible because “First of all, I’m pretty sure that Russian secret services—and I’m posing this as a question, not as a polemic—but Russian secret services, I think, I’m guessing, know how to kill efficiently and without creating a really loud, scandalous trail leading to themselves.” Of course, this begs the question of how one can get their hands on Novichok unless they have ties to the state apparatus just as was the case with sarin gas in Syria. It is unfortunate, I might add, that a journalist like Weir would allow himself to be interviewed on Grayzone.

After recovering from the poison, Navalny returned to Russia fully determined to continue the struggle against Putin. His arrival and his arrest prompted protests far larger than those seen in 2012 and 2018. Now, for the first time, there were important voices on the Marxist left urging a more flexible approach to Navalny that is not based on dredging atrocity tales about his nativism and neoliberal ideas from a decade ago.

In a response to Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander’s “Russia’s Trump” article on Jacobin, Ilya Budraitskis, Ilya Matveev, and Sean Guillory advised a less purist approach. Ironically, they reminded me of how many people concluded that Jacobin and DSA were behind the curve on the BLM protests: “This popular upsurge caught the Russian left flatfooted. Though many committed activists and adherents remain in the movement, repression has weakened it, and disagreements over the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in Ukraine have divided it. How should the Russian left — not to mention the international socialist movement — respond to this upsurge and, especially, its leader?”

Their article is about the best analysis available and a must-read. There is no need for me to recapitulate all of their points but let me cite one of their strongest arguments:

Moreover, Navalny’s campaign has taken strong positions on the Russian economy. He criticizes government authorities not just for being undemocratic but also for creating a predatory system that only profits the top 0.1 percent. While we can’t call him a genuine social democrat, he’s certainly not Trump, whose tax plan greatly benefits the American counterparts of those Navalny attacks in Russia.

I should add that in a EastLeft panel discussion on Navalny, Kirill Medvedev understood Navalny as a transitional figure who it is incumbent on the left to unite with tactically:

But the more convincingly Navalny works with the theme of corruption and the ostentatious consumption of top officials, the more the limits of this rhetoric are exposed in a country like Russia, exhausted by inequality and permeated by class contradictions. Now the situation looks like this: Navalny is showing us the palaces of the rulers, playing with the fire of class resentment, while at the same time (together with his comrades-in-arms) promising businesses complete freedom in the Beautiful Russia of the Future. They say that the problem is not the palaces and gigantic fortunes per se, but where they come from. But of course, with the further development of this populist line, it will no longer be easy to separate the corrupt “friends of Putin” from those whom Navalny calls “honest businessmen,” but whose fortunes are just as huge, and similarly generated by illegal schemes from the 1990s and 2000s and, of course, by over-exploitation of workers. All of this opens up great opportunities for leftist politics, which, with an equally skillful combination of valor and rationality, could produce a far more powerful wave of discontent and a far more coherent program of change than Navalny’s eclectic populism.

“Navalny is showing us the palaces of the ruler” is a reference to the viral video Navalny made about a palace reputedly owned by Putin on the Black Sea. After the controversy broke, one of Putin’s oligarchic pals claimed that it was owned by him rather than Putin. In any case, it probably didn’t matter to the masses, who clearly had the same fury that Ukrainians had when they took a tour of the fallen would-be Putin Yanukovych’s presidential manor.

None of this seems to matter to many on the American left, who are preparing the same tired “anti-imperialist” talking points they’ve used on Ukraine, Syria or any other nation aligned with Russia. Worst of all that I have seen recently is the dreck that Jim Naureckas wrote on Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). His article is basically to smear Navalny with stands he took a decade ago, as is the custom with these crypo-Stalinist scribblers. The last paragraphs should give you a feel:

After telling readers that he has “Nordic good looks, a caustic sense of humor and no political organization,” Troianovski’s predecessor Ellen Barry (12/9/11) related some rather more relevant background:

He has appeared as a speaker alongside neo-Nazis and skinheads, and once starred in a video that compares dark-skinned Caucasus militants to cockroaches. While cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says that in the case of humans, “I recommend a pistol.”

FAIR, as most of my readers are aware, used to be a reputable critic of the bourgeois media but over the past 10 years has pretty much turned into a clone of Grayzone, maybe even getting rubles under the table. Back in 2013, Naureckas took the reporting on Mint Press at face value on the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in 2013 Not long after the Mint Press article appeared under the byline of AP reporter Dale Gavlak, Gavlak screamed bloody murder because she did not write the article, nor did she agree with the analysis. More on the controversy is here. Any investigative reporter would have put in the time and effort to get to the bottom of the story but Naureckas is no reporter, just a cheap propagandist.

Perhaps the intensity of the debate about Navalny has been generated by the facts on the ground. With the largest protests in recent history, he could no longer be ignored. Using bogus charges of embezzlement and parole violations, he now faces a new trial that will result in him being exiled to a prison camp far from the streets of Moscow. Will this amount to putting the genie back into the bottle? It is difficult to day, but one must take into account his ability to connect with the masses. The real power is in their hands. In any case, we are entering a new period in Russian politics that this article hoped to clarify. My advice is to keep your eyes on Russia since as Lenin said (possibly apocryphal), “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen”.

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