Archive for the ‘Ukraine’ Category

More Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’: The Enigma of Stalin

February 16, 2015

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In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt notes numerous similarities between Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union under Stalin on the other. In particular, the use of terror – that is, the violent persecution of whole sections of the population – which Arendt sees as the defining characteristic of totalitarianism. (According to Arendt, the Soviet Union became totalitarian in 1930, whereas Nazi Germany didn’t become fully totalitarian until the Second World War.) According to Arendt, the aim of this terror is “total domination”, which will eventually lead to some ultimate goal: in the case of Nazi Germany, “world conquest”; in the case of Stalinist Russia, “world revolution”. I think Arendt was right about the first, but wrong about the second. It seems to me that Stalin pretty much gave up on world revolution after Hitler came to power in Germany (and maybe before then). Whet, then, was Stalin’s aim? Some have suggested that it was rapid industrialization, but Arendt argues that Stalin’s purges actually hampered industrial development. Scientists, engineers, and managers were swept up in the purges, depriving Soviet industry of needed expertise. Others have argued that Stalin was paranoid, although this fails to explain the deep trust that Stalin showed towards Hitler. (Stalin refused to believe his agents when they told him that Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union. According to Krushchev, Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown when he was informed of the attack.)

So, what was Stalin’s aim? It seems he enjoyed wielding power as an end in itself. He persecuted people because he could. At the time of his death, he was planning another massive purge, one that would begin by targeting Jews. It’s hard to see what this could possibly have accomplished. After Stalin’s death, the purge plans were dropped, and the Gulag was emptied out. According to Arendt, the Soviet Union ceased to be totalitarian at this point, reverting to a one-party dictatorship.

One is struck by how much Stalin’s personality drove events in the Soviet Union. As someone who has always been critical of the “Great Man” view of history, I find this troubling. As a Marxist, I have always tried to take as strictly materialist approach to historical events, but there seems to be times when this approach becomes inadequate.

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The Origins of Putinophilia

May 19, 2014

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There is a growing divide in the U.S. Left, between those who simply oppose U.S. intervention in Ukraine, and those who defend, or even praise, Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin. Things haven’t always been like this. If I remember correctly, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, only the Workers World Party and its front groups defended Saddam Hussein. The rest of the left had no illusions about the dictator. I think a change began in the Left after the anti-war movement failed to prevent the invasion. There began to be talk about a “red-brown” strategy, that is, forming alliances with right-wing, or even fascist, groups that claim to be opposed to U.S. imperialism. The thinking was that the Left by itself was not strong enough, or maybe not committed enough, to successfully struggle against imperialism. And if it is permissible to work with groups with terrible politics, then it is permissible to support governments with terrible politics. Thus, it became possible to see any dictator who ran afoul of the US as an ally against imperialism. Gadaffi and Assad were now on our side, according to this view.

Putin has acquired a special place in these people’s eyes. During Russia’s 2008 border war with Georgia, Bush was unable to do anything. Many on the Left saw this as a humiliation for the hated Bush. (Although I suspect that Bush really didn’t care.) So now Putin can do no wrong in their eyes. He can imprison his critics and persecute gays and ethnic minorities, and they will simply explain it away or ignore it. And as Putin has grown a halo, Obama has become the embodiment of pure evil in these people’s eyes. John Pilger, for example, has claimed, on the basis of no evidence, that Obama was plotting to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea and start a war. How can anyone take this seriously?

If the Left is to avoid becoming completely irrelevant, it needs to return to the principled anti-imperialism of the past.

Chicken Little Comes to CounterPunch

May 15, 2014

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John Pilger

The May 14th edition of CounterPunch has an article by John Pilger with the ominous title of A World War is Beckoning. Pilger begins by asking a couple of rhetorical questions:

    Why do we ­tolerate the threat of ­another world war in our name? Why do we allow lies that justify this risk?

Uh, maybe because there is no threat of another world war in our name? I suspect that isn’t the answer that Pilger wants to hear. Later on, he writes:

    For the first time since the Reagan years, the US is ­threatening to take the world to war. With eastern Europe and the Balkans now military outposts of Nato, the last “buffer state” bordering Russia is being torn apart. We in the west are backing neo-Nazis in a country where Ukrainian Nazis backed Hitler.

Pilger needs to get a grip. Placing mild economic sanctions on Russia is not “threatening to take the world to war”.

    Having masterminded the coup in February against the democratically elected government in Kiev, Washington’s planned seizure of Russia’s ­historic, legitimate warm-water naval base in Crimea failed.

There is evidence that the US has meddled in Ukraine’s internal affairs, but it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that the US “masterminded the coup in February”. And he offers no evidence for his amazing claim that US planned to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea. This would have been an act of war, not to mention an incredibly stupid thing to do.

This is an example of the Chicken Little argument that has become popular among the Left in recent years. For the past three years some on the Left have been screaming that Obama wants to go to war with Syria, yet said war has failed to materialize. We need to try to understand what the people in power are actually trying to do, rather than just assume that they have the most evil intentions imaginable.

There is a good deal that the Obama administration can be criticized for in this situation. And too many people in the media have given Obama a pass on this. (Even worse, some of them have urged the president to “get tough” with Putin.) There needs to be a congressional investigation of the role that the State Department and the CIA have played in the recent events in Ukraine. I’m afraid, however, that this will probably never happen. (Because, you know, Benghazi is far more important.)

Funny Business in Ukraine

April 19, 2014

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Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt in Kiev in December.

I strongly urge people to read the transcript of the telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. It is quite revealing of how the leading members of our government view the rest of the world. They casually talk about who should or should not be in the new Ukrainian government, as if they have a right to make such a decision. The question of what the Ukrainian people want is apparently not important to them. And they show a contempt for Europe in general. (“Fuck the EU”. Can you imagine what the reaction here would be if a European diplomat said that about the US?) This is not a minor matter, since Ukraine is now on the verge of civil war, at least partly as a result of the actions of these people.

The US protested about Russia’s tapping of a diplomatic conversation. This is hypocrisy, since the US has tapped the phones of European leaders such as Angela Merkel. However, we should acknowledge that Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has been no better than that of the US. We on the left should not side with imperial powers, but with ordinary people on both sides who are opposed to war and ethnic violence.

I normally don’t dabble in conspiracy theories, but I can’t help but wonder if the recent “Jews must register” hoax in Donetsk was done as a way of getting back at Russia for the embarrassment of the release of the Nuland phone transcript.

Okay, I’ll put away my tinfoil hat now.

Sense and Nonsense about Crimea

March 2, 2014

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The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has predictably created confusion in the West. The New York Times reports:

    Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he consulted on Saturday with Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the committee, about targeted sanctions against individuals in the Putin government and possibly Russian institutions. The proposal could be taken up as early as this week.

    Mr. Corker was one of the few Republicans in September to support a Senate resolution authorizing airstrikes in Syria, and he said the failure of Washington to follow through on those strikes had emboldened Mr. Putin.

    “Ever since the administration threw themselves in his arms in Syria to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out, I think he’s seen weakness,” Mr. Corker said Saturday. “These are the consequences.”

This is a stupid argument. Putin knows perfectly well that the U.S. is not going to attack Russia, for the obvious reason that Russia has nuclear weapons. The idea that Putin would be shitting in his pants if the U.S. had dropped some bombs on Damascus is simply childish. Putin decided to seize an opportunity that the chaos in Ukraine created for him. It’s that simple.

The Guardian isn’t much more helpful. An editorial states:

    What is hard to see, having been so effectively outmanoeuvred over the last two days, is how the US and EU should respond beyond futile expressions of concern and outrage. Equally, it is clear that when western political institutions have attempted to penetrate Russia’s neighbours – the suggestion of Nato expansion in Georgia, and closer EU integration for Ukraine – Moscow has pushed back hard on both occasions.

So, what should we do? They tell us:

    One thing is certain: the current crisis presents the biggest threat to security in Europe since the Balkan wars, and western leaders, including Obama and David Cameron (who has spoken to Putin on the phone), have hardly been impressive in their response, demonstrating a weak grasp on the events unfolding. For now, Putin is ahead of the game. It is time for the international community to catch up.

Well, that’s clear, isn’t it? The international community needs to catch up with Russia – whatever the hell that means.

A few things are clear. Crimea is of no strategic importance to the U.S. Although there are concerns about Crimea’s Tatars, there are no signs of a humanitarian crisis at this point. President Obama can only object to Russia’s seizure of Crimea on the narrow grounds that it violates international law. The problem is that the U.S. regularly violates international law with its drone attacks. And the invasion of Iraq was a violation on a far greater scale than what is currently happening in Crimea. International law is a useful tool that we have thoughtlessly thrown away.