Parts of the political left keep stooping lower and lower thanks to the establishment-driven and media-fueled sensationalism over Russia’s supposed meddling in U.S. electoral politics. Nary a day passes without yet another self-styled socialist or radical echoing the mainstream media’s wall-to-wall coverage about how the Kremlin threatens global stability and democracy. From John Reimann’s well-intended but misguided musings, to Louis Proyect’s unhinged personal attacks against anyone deemed insufficiently obsessed with driving Putin out of the Middle East, the reformist and pseudo-socialist left is cranking out a staggering amount of conspiratorial speculations and sleuthing so ponderous and bizarre that it would make Glenn Beck blush.
The roots of this spectacle lie in what one author, putting the concept to quite different purposes in an article published then removed from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, has called “the Syria connection.” Syria, readers of this blog may recall, is home to a brutal prebendal-style dictatorship whose leader has turned to the Russian government (and a variety of other outside parties) for military assistance in reclaiming territory from a largely Islamist-driven and imperialist-equipped insurgency. But for those who, against all the evidence, still hold out hope that a Syrian revolution for democracy persists, Putin has long been public enemy number one. Whatever the dangers of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, it is Putin whose air power is laying waste to whole neighborhoods, whose military is backing a starvation siege of Eastern Ghouta’s militants, along with its 400,000 civilians, in what can best be termed a horrific crime against humanity. The real Syria connection is evident in how the term “Putinism” first acquired widespread currency not in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, but rather after the Russian government stepped up its intervention into eastern Ukraine and then into Syria.
Another year would pass before Clinton, a hawk on Syria, did what many believed unthinkable: she lost. Activists who had earlier turned, even if shame-facedly, to the U.S. government to provide heavier weaponry and other forms of military aid to anti-Assad insurgents were flummoxed. The media, spurred by Democratic strategizing just hours after Trump’s victory, quickly provided an explanatory framework that has enjoyed a near-monopoly on public conversation ever since. It, too, was all Putin’s fault. According to widely circulated conclusions by the U.S. government’s intelligence community, Russian hackers working in concert with the Kremlin broke into the Democratic National Committee’s network and into top Clinton advisor John Podesta’s private Gmail account in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections. Content from these servers, shared via WikiLeaks, exposed the cynical double-dealing and deception integral to all big-time bourgeois political campaigns. Incensed Clinton supporters accused “Russia” of “hacking the election” and executing a carefully coordinated influence-peddling campaign that subverted the democratic process. Since then, especially following Robert Mueller’s pointless indictment of thirteen Russian nationals in February of 2018, the hysteria surrounding Russia’s “meddling” in the election has exploded into a moral panic about Russian bot-farms and social-media manipulation. Even television shows like Showtime’s Homeland, rumored at one time to be a favorite of President Barack Obama’s, have gotten into the act, crafting entire story arcs around Russian interference.
To leftist activists whose political compasses have long been centered on the mythical democratic revolution in Syria, the widespread reporting about Russian interference in the last general election presented them with a clear choice. They could either concede that the creeping specters of Putin and “Putinism,” much like the phantasm of an ongoing “democratic revolution,” were a political tool used by factions of the U.S. ruling class to advance their geopolitical interests, not least of all in Syria. Or they could dig in their heels and go all in with Russiagate, believing that Putin was beginning to expand his anti-democratic campaign from Aleppo to Arlington, Virginia. Sadly, all too many pseudo-socialists have made the latter choice, and their overwrought claims have swelled in magnitude to have all the memorability and good cheer of an out-of-tune orchestral performance on a Russian state visit. Their Russiagate hysteria, rather than resulting from a somber weighing of extant evidence, is closely intertwined with a politically distorted vision that erases or downplays the crimes of U.S. imperialism while inflating the dangers of the U.S.’s primary geopolitical rival in Russia. The Syria connection — how the Syrian conflict is the center of political gravity around which this chauvinist process takes definite shape — is evident in a series of recent hit-pieces alleging the formation of a “red-brown alliance” on Syria-related issues. They nicely encapsulate the disorientation of the quasi-Orientalist and Syria-enchanted political perspective exhibited by troubling numbers of Western leftists.
The “Autocracy” of Firing Feds
Standing tall in that crowd is one Jason “Socialist,” who published a characteristically alarmist blog post on March 18. The author, now a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, maintained that the recent firing of Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, represented “a step toward autocracy.” Deriding leftists who would maintain his fearful apprehensions were about “celebrating the FBI,” the author boldly asserts, “Those who claim to be concerned with those most affected by the depravities of capitalism but are not concerned with preventing Trump’s consolidation of power have not thought through the implications.”
So what are the implications of the firing of McCabe just two days before his announced retirement? The article does not state, but the implication – in keeping with chatter over social media, the infotainment bubble, and the blogosphere – is that it was to thwart the Russia investigation by calling into question McCabe’s testimony regarding the previous firing of FBI Director James Comey. The evidence for this theory, however, is non-existent. Even The New York Times, not exactly a staunch cheerleader for the Trump administration, was forced to concede: “What we know right now is that Mr. Sessions found repeated examples in which Mr. McCabe ‘lacked candor.’ And career officials — not Trump appointees — recommended dismissal. Mr. Sessions accepted that recommendation.” As with the broader claims about the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 elections, then, the only case to be made here is rooted in circumstantial cui bono logic.
Undeterred by the purely speculative foundation of his alarmism, Jason “Socialist” proceeds from his assertion about creeping autocracy to an alarming recommendation on how to combat it. “The most concrete, practical step to at least slow and possibly reverse this is,” he suggests, “for as many Democratic Party politicians to win at the midterms.” For, although “the policies of the Democratic Party paved the way for Trump,” there has now supposedly developed a “discontinuity” between the two entities, with Trump standing for an explicitly racist and autocratic politics, and the Democrats, we are to believe, standing on the other side with (the more progressive because implicitly racist?) non-autocratic politics. You remember those politics, right? The ones that saw President Obama assuming the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process, that saw him deport a record number of undocumented immigrants – totally unrelated to racism, surely! – his unprecedented war on the whistleblowing lifeblood of a minimally healthy press, and of course the massive warrantless collection on the phones calls and electronic communications of every person in the United States, complete with the infrastructure to archive them in perpetuity. Obama inherited his predecessor’s surveillance state measures and succeeded in escalating them, largely because his rapport with the media and his presidential comportment helped him to get away with it. Trump will surely try to continue this tradition, but will meet (and already has met) with much stiffer resistance precisely because of his lack of presidential comportment and his rocky relationship with the mainstream news outlets.
Marxists would look at this trend and recognize it for what it is. It is a long and painful slide, presided over by all the parties of imperialism in the epoch of decay, to erasing the working-class democratic gains to shore up their power amidst rising domestic and international discontent against a system long past its shelf date. Viewed in this way, the problem requires only one solution: the working class, organized independently of all bourgeois programs and parties, to struggle for socialist revolution. What we get from Jason “Socialist” is quite a different vision, one that can perceive Trump’s egotistical personnel shuffling as a radical departure from the rule of law only by amnestying the profoundly disturbing and broad-based trends that occurred, not coincidentally, under the authority of the very party Jason now calls on workers to reward electorally. The contrast between revolutionary Marxism and left-liberal reformism could not be more striking than it is on this issue.
Russiagate I: Trump’s “Collusion” with Russia
Let us now focus on what evidence exists that Donald Trump really is a Black-Hundredist-style menace (as Jason would believe), injected into the Oval Office by a Russian president bent on undermining U.S. bourgeois democracy. To think that he is requires acceptance of the suspicion that he somehow criminally “colluded” or conspired with the Russian government or its agents in a quid pro quo, and that in his attempt to cover-up this grave crime against the U.S.’s beloved sovereignty, he is obstructing the normal functioning of the rule of law. The problem with this theory is that it is not rooted in any evidence or sound legal reasoning. While there can be little doubt that Trump is an insecure, egomaniacal, racist, and sexist lout of dubious intelligence, there is currently no reason to believe he is the Manchurian candidate.
There are three arguments generally made for how Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government. The first involves a meeting that Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump, Jr., conducted with a Russian attorney and several of her associates. The Trump officials attended the meeting with the hope of acquiring damaging political information about Hillary Clinton, a possibility that the Trump business associate who arranged the meeting conveyed to Trump, Jr., beforehand. However, the Russians appeared to be bluffing, since – by all accounts – no such damaging information was provided to the Trump campaign. This did not prevent top-ranking Democrats (including the former vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine) and many many outlets from suggesting that the meeting, followed by a misleading statement issued by Trump, Jr., over social media about the purpose of the meeting, was a smoking gun implicating the Trump campaign in criminal behavior. The meeting, they suggested, was a violation of federal election laws against soliciting campaign contributions (in this case, valuable opposition research) from a foreign national. However, intending or hoping to receive information is not the same as actively soliciting it, and no evidence has surfaced that Trump, Jr., or any other official in the Trump campaign asked Russians for opposition research or anything else. Even if such evidence did exist, the opposition research does not qualify as “anything of value” in the legally defined sense of financial or non-financial assets with convertibility (rather than a use-value, as Marxists would say). In other words, the meeting may have been politically unwise by bourgeois political standards, perhaps even non-criminal “collusion” of sorts, but there exists no evidence that it involved criminal wrongdoing much less a violation of the Constitution or a move toward autocracy.
Another popular claim repeated by those asserting Trump or his campaign had unlawful political contact with the Russian government involves the indictment of Paul Manafort in October of 2017 on charges of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, conspiring to launder money, and making false statements. They point to this indictment as evidence of a nexus of illegal activity linking Trump’s contacts with the Russian government. The problem with this argument is that Manafort’s indictment involved activities he undertook (on behalf of the Russian-backed Ukrainian government) in 2014 and 2015. That was before he was involved in the Trump campaign, not while he was on the campaign. The efforts to use Manafort’s indictment to link the Trump campaign with illegal political behavior therefore fall flat as well.
The third and probably most common argument, closely related to the post of Jason “Socialist” discussed above, is that Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey constituted a crime—the obstruction of justice. As proponents of this argument put it, Trump feared that the Russiagate noose was tightening around his neck and terminated the director specifically to stop the investigation. The crime is concerning, then, because it shows that Trump will stop at nothing to keep hidden his supposed conspiring with Russia to win the White House. But as two legal scholars at NYU have argued, the case for obstruction at a federal level (the level over which Robert Mueller’s special counsel has purview) requires that Comey’s firing meet a very stringent set of criteria:
“[The] obstructive acts must be directed at a pending “proceeding,” normally a grand jury or judicial proceeding. In other words, Mueller would have to show (1) there was a pending grand jury proceeding at the time, (2) the president knew about those grand jury proceedings, and that even if the president tried to thwart the FBI investigation (3) his action was directed at the grand jury proceedings and (4) likely to affect those proceedings.”
While obstruction of justice is also a crime at the state level, the quest to establish that that the termination of Comey violated the federally defined crime, established by Supreme Court precedent, is – as the scholars put it – an “uphill battle.” Even if we assume the worst of intentions from Comey’s firing, and it is fair to do so, this episode would not necessarily prove anything other than that Trump is a bully who will move to stifle any criticism. Or it may prove a far more plausible theory – one to which the author of this blog subscribes – that the only “collusion” between Trump and Russia has been of a shady financial nature similar to Manafort’s, that it took place long before the 2016 campaign, and that Trump is paranoid about these transactions coming to light. Whatever the case, the possibility that Comey’s termination violated federal laws is slim. The idea that it threatens to plunge the United States into a constitutional crisis endangering the rule of law is even slimmer. Some might even call it fanciful.
After a critical look at the frequently made arguments about Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia, only one conclusion is possible at this point. Considering the man has no discernible scruples or even ideology, Trump may very well have colluded with Putin and engaged in any number of illegal conspiratorial behaviors. But as of yet no evidence has surfaced to substantiate the obsessive, Democrat-fueled speculation that he did so. And even if he did, this may constitute a violation of federal laws. But Marxists do not base their politics off of legality (reminder: the smashing of capitalism is against bourgeois law). What left-ish purveyors of Russiagate hysteria have been unable to do is to show that (a) Trump broke the law (b) in a way that seriously threatens the democratic working-class gains of electoral integrity or the rule of law. Such arguments are as non-existent as the progressive armed factions fighting in Syria.
Russiagate II: Did Russia “Hack the Election”?
So maybe Trump is not exactly doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin and violating scores of laws to cover it up. That does not necessarily mean that workers’ democratic gains are not under threat from abroad. After all, did not numerous intelligence agencies confirm that the Russian government hacked into the DNC computer networks, retrieve a trove of damning documents, and then pass them onto the public through WikiLeaks? Did not Russian bots propagate fake news on social media that disproportionately attacked Clinton? The answer to both question is yes. But what’s not clear at all is the undesirability of the first set of deeds or the significance of the second.
The “hacking” of the election so often invoked by Democrats and their pseudo-left followers referred, at least initially, to the first event. In 2015 and 2016 a hacker (or hackers) going by the name “Guccifer 2.0” launched a series of cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC’s) computer network and was able to access and copy sensitive internal documents and emails from their system. A subsequent forensic analysis by the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike claimed that the pieces of malware used in the attacks were identical to those used in previous attacks launched by a group called “Fancy Bear,” and that Fancy Bear has some unspecified links to the Russian government. The important thing to note here is that their case hinges almost entirely on circumstantial evidence regarding the repeated use of the same malware code, which might very well circulate among hacker groups online. But let’s assume that everything in CrowdStrike’s report is correct. (And that is quite a monumental assumption to make, considering the numerous issues that continue to plague the firm’s supposed findings, part of the reason that it has had to walk back a number of claims in its initial report.)
The result of this assumed Russian infiltration into the DNC’s computer was not the manipulation of voting machines or voter rolls – something the Russian government may have attempted but failed to accomplish, according to unproven assertions made by the ever-reliable FBI. Instead, the hack resulted in the release of 20,000 documents and emails detailing the internal operations of the DNC, especially during the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries. What those documents revealed was an abundance of dirty tricks and overtly biased behavior against Bernie Sanders in violation of the DNC’s own charter. Exposing this undemocratic behavior before the public is, we are to believe, an undemocratic “hacking” of U.S. democracy simply because the exposure is believed to have originated from the Russian government. The blatant xenophobia and chauvinism of this argument is evident in how, if we substituted “Russian government” with “DNC whistleblower,” the argument would not be taken seriously even by the most over-the-top purveyors of the Trump-Putin collusion narrative. The same can be said of the similar phishing-style hack of John Podesta’s Gmail account in the spring of 2016, which resulted in the publication of excerpts from Clinton’s numerous paid, pandering, and private speeches before Wall Street financiers.
Lately, however, the supposed Russian “hacking” of the election has centered on Russian nationals’ use of social media to spread “fake news.” Hand-wringing about this practice reached unprecedented levels in late 2017 and early 2018. It was at this time that Facebook and Twitter admitted that they helped to disseminate thousands of paid political ads and messages linked to Russian “trolls.” The messages, which targeted both Clinton and Trump, were often the product of firms like the recently indicted Internet Research Agency. And in different contexts, they took multiple sides of the same controversial issues, in order to cast the widest possible net for followers, retweets, and “likes.” That is because such firms are generally used for commercial purposes like using fake personae – whose bona fides are established by their contacts on social media – to vouch for the quality of products and services a company who pays for reputation building wishes to sell.
The stories and ads these unique marketing/public relations companies deploy are not even necessarily fake (as can be seen by perusing the Internet Research Agency’s content). Despite the fact that fake news and Russian meddling have become conflated in the public discourse, the reality is that false news stories on social media, which did indeed support Trump about 75% of the time, do not necessarily even come from Russian bots or personae. Moreover, the idea that a relatively insignificant number Russian political ads, or false news stories disseminated by Russians and non-Russians alike, constitute a graver threat to democracy than, say, the servile U.S. news media is as risible as the idea that it somehow constitutes a form of “hacking.” By far the greatest purveyor of division and misinformation throughout the election was the mainstream media, which provided uncensored coverage of many hundreds of hours of vile and racist Trump campaign rallies even as they frequently spun Clinton’s contending campaign as a unifying and progressive alternative. The proliferation of fake news does point to the need for greater literacy in news consumption, but, ironically, this is the achilles heel of the purveyors of the numerous Russiagate narratives.
The conspicuous absence of any evidence that the Russian government or Russians in general had a measurable and anti-democratic effect on the U.S. presidential elections has done absolutely nothing to curtail continuous stream of xenophobic conspiracy theorizing emanating from the Democrats and their pseudo-left followers. In fact, among the far left, Russophobic rhetoric has coalesced into a new line of attack. Recently a veritable cottage industry has sprung up churning out articles that finger Russia and Putin at the nexus of a “red-brown alliance.” In piece after piece, authors connect the dots between ostensible socialists and far-right personalities who have checkered pasts and unseemly political allegiances. The main “socialist” organizations condemned in this supposed major “alliance” are predictably the people around two incredibly small campist groups, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Workers World Party (WWP). They have done joint (and limited) popular-front anti-war work with people opposed to U.S. imperialism for all the wrong reasons, as well as issued propaganda building illusions that third-world and semi-peripheral dictators like Assad and Putin belong in some heroic anti-imperialist camp.
If the purpose of these articles were to criticize such groups in the hopes of encouraging them to renounce their unprincipled cross-class blocs, they would stand as worthy contributions to the workers’ movement. However, that appears not to be their purpose. Instead, they frame opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria as the product of leftists being “operationalized,” as the title of one article explains, into unwitting tools of the “fascist” Putin-Assad tag-team. Note that it is not the WWP or the PSL who are described as “operationalizing”—a deliberately ambiguous term if ever there was one—far-right activists and politicians, although the sorts of evidence provided, such as sharing the same platform at an anti-U.S.-imperialism conference or inviting a right-wing personality onto a left-wing podcast to talk about the history of U.S. interventions abroad, could just as easily be construed in such a manner. Why would the far right be given top billing? Why would the cross-class blocs be described as right-wingers executing a “successful insertion of their ideas into leftist milieus and alternative media outlets” rather than leftists “successfully inserting” their positions into rightist political formations? Why, for instance, is Brian Becker’s talk show not described as his successfully inserting his pseudo-socialist message onto a relatively right-leaning state-propaganda network (Sputnik)?
The answer is crystal clear. By framing the right-wing as the dominant and defining agent in the “alliance,” these articles presuppose and reinforce the unspoken contention that the work in which these leftish activists are engaging is objectively right-wing in its content. And that’s where the Putin piece fits into the puzzle. The far-right, we are told, is not simply “operationalizing” leftists, but is doing so to spread forth the Kremlin’s reactionary political line on Syria and Ukraine. It is not accidental, then, that the subtitle of one of the articles is “Third Positionism, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, and the Western Left.” Through this sleight-of-hand, readers are essentially being told in no uncertain terms that anybody who even partially agrees with Putin’s assessment of Syria – like the idea that virtually all of the armed opposition is under a leadership that is reactionary and potentially even genocidal in nature – is carrying water for Putin and the fascists. Against whom? Well, if it’s the political right that is in charge of these “operations,” you can rest assured that the victims are going to be leftists and their political projects. Which leftists? Well, here is where we return once again to that tired old ritual of implying the existence of, even constructing an entire narrative around, the boldly secular and progressively democratic armed factions supposedly fighting Assad. What is absent, as always, are the names of these militias and their leaders.
Syria as Political Compass
Also absent entirely, except in the names of the pseudo-left front groups being condemned, is any mention of U.S. imperialism or the threat it poses to the region. Being responsible for millions of deaths in the Middle East just in the past three decades is sort of a big deal, and leaves Putin with tons of catching up to do. But it escapes the attention of the authors of these articles. For them, the real action is in Syria and Ukraine, where it is the Russian government, not the United States government, that is doing the heavy military lifting. As pseudo-leftists who have spent years believing that the Syrian conflict is a modern-day Spanish Civil War, they have lost all sense of political proportion, magnifying the rightwing threat of Putin’s politics while downplaying or ignoring the single-greatest reactionary threat in the world today: U.S. imperialism. The objective process unfolding here is one in which pseudo-socialists and other “leftists” are adopting the perspective of their own government, the United States government, who not coincidentally released a brand new National Security Strategy that named Russia (and China), not “terrorism,” as the primary threat facing U.S. interests.
The Syria connection is captured nicely by the Facebook timeline and Twitter feed of Jason “Socialist.” A perusal of the past year of his public posts will reveal a staggering preoccupation with the Syrian conflict, referred to as a “revolution.” What is truly surprising from somebody so justifiably concerned with the suffering and deaths of innocent Syrian civilians is the remarkable silence about what the United Nations has repeatedly referred to as the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world today, the U.S.-backed Saudi war on Yemen. This oversight, certainly having nothing to do with the mysterious invisibility of U.S. imperialism, is shared by others within the third-camp and movementist orbit. On Louis Proyect’s blog, Yemen does not even merit its own category, and it receives only passing mention in a smattering of articles largely devoted to debunking “Assadist propaganda.” The fixation on Putin and Russia also has ramifications for political action at home. While the furor over Russiagate and fake news has given Google and the titan social media networks a pretext to change their algorithms to filter out non-mainstream content (especially left-wing content), people like Jason think that the real threat lies in an “anti-Russiagate left” ignoring war crimes committed by Russia in Syria. As if the Western media were silent about East Ghouta.
The best way of characterizing these odd political priorities, evident from Russiagate to Maroongate, is the imperialist operationalizing of left-wing resentment in a de facto red-blue alliance. To his credit, Jason admits as much, though he tries to wrap it in Marxist verbiage. This trend is the logical conclusion of the real Syria connection, and it deserves the attention of revolutionaries.