NOTE from LeftEast Editors: A historical tool of Liberalism is to conflate the left and right as “extreme” to legitimize itself, while obscuring the differences among the positions and goals of left and right. Complementing arguments about the ideological functions of Liberal Antipopulism and pointing back to cold war era ideological uses of the term totalitarianism, Bryan Gigantino here critiques the Liberal conflation of contemporary Russia with Communism, and of left with the right in the US context.
In Anne Applebaum’s recent article in the Atlantic, “The False Romance of Russia”, she addresses the current trend of American conservatives praising Russia and Vladimir Putin. This hodgepodge of ideologues, pundits and politicians within the American and European right wing openly celebrating Russia as a bulwark of “traditionalism” is growing. To further compliment this trend, a piece of Russia’s larger geopolitical strategy is to support right wing parties, politicians and groups in Europe and the United States. However, instead of examining the ideas, politics and histories that underwrite this dynamic, Applebaum suggests it is best understood as follows: a naïve continuity exists between American pro-Soviet leftists of the 20th century and those on the American right today who celebrate Putin’s Russia. She juxtaposes brief reflections on American leftists who admired socialist regimes abroad, with analyses of contemporary American right wing pundits who admire post-Soviet Russia. Applebaum overlooks ideological and political differences of those in question, despite their historically oppositional worldviews. It is reminiscent of the term “totalitarian” – a word weaponized by anti-communists to define both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in order to erase the substance of their differences.
A distorted vestige of Cold War thinking, Applebaum’s engagement with Russia is a mechanism to criticize the left. This is a similar strategy used by the centrist wing of the Democratic Party in the wake of Hilary Clinton’s 2016 election defeat. Clinton’s loss to Trump was blamed entirely on Russian election interference instead of the hollowness of Clintonian liberalism. Similarly, Anne Applebaum instrumentalizes the specter of Russia to reassert a liberal political vision that daily proves to be an unviable solution to the daunting social, political, economic and ecological crises the world faces today. This is all despite the fact that Russia has nothing to do with socialism.
Applebaum focuses on the naivete of American right wing “intellectuals” like Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan, characterizing their sympathies for Putin’s Russia as expressions of their own alienation. She correctly diagnoses the gap between Putin’s Russia as an imagined neo-Traditionalist ethno-state and realities in the country, stating that “if American Christians would find little to cheer for in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, American white nationalists would be disappointed too”. Yet towards the end of the essay she claims “the reality of Russia isn’t the point” but rather:
the American intellectuals who now find themselves alienated from the country that they inhabit aren’t interested in reality they are interested in a fantasy nation, different and distinct from their own hateful country. America, with its complicated social and political as well as ethnic diversity, with its Constitution that ensures we will never, ever all be forced to feel as if “all life is focused in a central purpose”—this America no longer appeals to them at all.
Her concern is the rhetorical use of an imagined Russia by the American right to critique the liberal fundamentals of the United States. As mentioned, Applebaum constructs a continuity between right wing critiques of America that reference Russia and left wing, pro-Soviet criticisms of America from an earlier generation. To drive this point home she reflects on Paul Hollander’s 1981 book about Western leftist intellectuals who found common cause with communist regimes abroad, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. The late Hungarian born anti-communist writer, himself a favorite of Applebaum, is an intellectual darling of the American right. Reactionary fanatic Lee Edwards, former consultant and apologist for American segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, even wrote an obituary for Hollander upon his death. Applebaum uses Political Pilgrims to explain how “estrangement and alienation from their own cultures” is what made certain American intellectuals “highly susceptible to the claims put forward by the leaders and spokesmen of the societies they inspected in the course of these travels”.
Yet this completely ignores the complex and impressive history of communism in the United States and its importance to labor, civil rights, and social struggles throughout the 20th century. One such example, examined by UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley, are the struggles of black communists in Alabama during the Great Depression. In this case, the Soviet Union acted as a source of both support and inspiration for black communists engaged in local struggles for a better life. They utilized Marxist study groups and communist organizing as mechanisms to spread education, mobilize against white terror and fight for better economic conditions. Given that the official position of the Soviet Union in the 1930s was to support black self-determination in the American South, it is no wonder that some living under the depression era tutelage of Jim Crow were inspired by Lenin and Stalin.
But commenting on what 20th century American communists believed and why isn’t Applebaum’s concern. Doing so would demonstrate that the left and right hold oppositional world views. Recent right wing political mobilizations in the United States are testament to this: the far right has been fiercely resisted by socialists, anarchists, communists, anti-fascists and their accomplices – many of whom we could consider the political heirs to previous generations of Americans inspired by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes of the 20th century. This comes into clearer focus when we consider two Russophilic members of the American far right Applebaum chose not to mention.
For instance, take Matthew Heimbach. A figurehead of American white nationalism, he is most infamous for helping organize the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia which ended in a member of the fascist group Vanguard America killing anti-racist Heather Heyer with a car. Heimbach also founded the now effectively defunct Traditionalist Worker’s Party (TWP). This small yet vocal outfit was an activist oriented and ideological attempt to synthesize American white nationalism with European style fascism. Heimbach’s ideas are unique in the American Right in that they are heavily informed by Orthodoxy, one of Christianity’s least popular denominations in the United States. Heimbach has frequently been seen publicly sporting a t-shirt with interwar Christian Orthodox and Romanian fascist Corneliu Condreanu, who led the messianic, antisemitic Legion of Saint Michael the Archangel and Iron Guard. Given the post-Soviet Russian state’s cynical embrace of Orthodoxy, it is no surprise Heimbach has more than once praised Vladimir Putin. But Heimbach’s unique brand of ultra-nationalism finds more intimate common cause not so much with the cynical post-modern statecraft of the Putin regime, but with the ideological Russian far right. Among others, Heimbach takes inspiration from the postmodern, Eurasianist, Russian Orthodox ramblings of anti-Soviet dissident turned Russian public intellectual Aleksander Dugin. Unfortunately, Heimbach has played a key public role in many right wing mobilizations in the United States over the past few years, bringing him and others, albeit momentarily, into the mainstream of American politics.
Applebaum also left out American alt-right superstar Richard Spencer. Though like Heimbach and others he’s receded from the limelight of American politics, this pseudo intellectual, hipster-Goebbels became a rising star via American white nationalism’s rebranding as the “alt-right” during the ascent of Donald Trump. These politics resonated largely as a reaction to recent waves of African American struggles sparked by the 2014 anti-police uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. Spencer’s infamy rests largely on his attempt to add “respectability” and “intellect” to white nationalist politics in America as president of the far right organization the National Policy Institute, as well as the time he got punched in the face by an anti-fascist on camera. On more than one occasion he too publicly applauded Putin and Russia. Yet Spencer also had a direct connection with the Russian ultra-right through his marriage to Nina Kouprianova. While she had her own but similar set of beliefs to Spencer, she translated and promoted the writings of aforementioned postmodern fascist Alexander Dugin. It’s no surprise that this marriage ended in accusations of domestic violence. While Putin himself has had an inconsistent record in dealing with the Russian ultraright, Spencer, like Heimbach and others, openly embraced and promoted not only the aspects of Putin they admired, but also positions of many far right groups within Russia – traditionalism, nationalism, and ethno-racial supremacy. Far from being duped, these ideas and connections serve clear ideological and political purposes, and besides – right wing internationalism is nothing new.
But ultimately, what is Applebaum’s point? Not the reality of Russian life or politics. Not the historical role of the Soviet Union in the ideologies of the left. Not what Putin and post-Soviet Russia mean for activists on the American right. Rather, it is to rhetorically use Russia to make the left and right indistinguishable and undermine those who criticize America and its role in the world. Applebaum’s words speak for themselves:
Most of them know that this fantasy foreign nation they admire seeks to put an end to all of that. It seeks to undermine American democracy, beat back American influence, and curtail American power. But to those who dislike American democracy, despair of American influence, and are angered by American power? That, truly, is the point.
Bryan Gigantino is an independent researcher and writer focused on Soviet History and the post-Soviet world. He has an MA in History from San Francisco State University. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area he now resides in Tbilisi, Georgia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org