Before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both right-wingers and leftists sought to justify Putin’s actions. Who are they and what are their motives?
In his 1977 work The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics, Ronald Inglehart introduced us to the word, and thus the concept of post-materialism. The central hypothesis of Inglehart’s theory is that human values shift as a direct consequence of economic and material advances in society. As individuals more readily reap the benefits of technology, food, water and shelter; so their outlook shifts from valuing economic and physical security to valuing foremost the freedoms of self-expression and autonomy. It’s not to say that material needs are not still objectively important, but rather that the valuation of them by people is less, because they are now taken for granted. In modern-day western societies, the majority of people enjoy a post-material lifestyle, with time to think about politics, social media, identity, gender, sports and many other modes of self-expression. But can an excess of post-materialism be a bad thing?
In recent years, particularly in the US and UK, the national debate between those who are respectively delineated as on the ‘left’, or on the ‘right’, centres on topics that are irrefragably post-material. Topics such as trans rights, gender identity, pronouns, intersectionality, cancel culture and safe spaces. Who but those individuals with material needs met would have time to discuss such things? Another component that has been screwed into our ‘left vs right’, post-material chasm, is that of ‘black and white’ argumentation. Grey areas: those thrilling middle-grounds paved with questions, doubt, discussion, uncertainty, thought and logic seem to have crumbled under the might of crystalline certainty, ferocious emotion and ‘pick-your-side’ politics. You’re somebody who believes that men and women are completely interchangeable in every way, or you’re a transphobe; you’re somebody who believes that an ‘offensive’ joke should warrant cancelling a comedian, or you’re a bigoted enabler; you’re somebody who thinks speech should be limited in such a way that nobody, anywhere, should ever have to suffer the indignity of being offended, or you’re a racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, people-phobic supremacist.
Why then, with night-and-day differences of opinion on almost every other topic, do significant figures on the left and right converge in agreement when it comes to justifying Vladimir Putin’s expansionist politics. Perhaps least surprising of those among Putin’s pariahs is former US President Donald Trump, a man of whom Christopher Hitchens once said “He’s managed to cover 90% of his head with 30% of his hair”. Addressing an audience at a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser shortly before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Trump praised the senile Russian despot. Putin was “very smart”, Trump remarked with glowing admiration. “I mean, he’s taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart,” gushed the former president. “He’s taking over a country, literally, a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in.” Trump is an aberration in many ways, and he may be the only public figure to actually praise Putin for his illegal invasion. Right-wing media personalities in the US have followed suit at least to the extent that they try to justify Putin’s attack on Ukraine, but their position comes with the added tag of denigrating the left, rather than just buying Putin’s personality for its own sake, as Trump has. On 23rd February Fox News host Laura Ingraham Said “Russia collusion and the tens of millions of dollars spent on that ridiculous Mueller investigation, we’re paying the price right now.” Parroting Trump’s line, she went on to say that she laid “the blame at the feet of the people who tried to hound him (Trump) out of office.”
However, no one has made more effort to propagandise Russia and simultaneously denounce the American left than Fox News’s golden child, Tucker Carlson. He has repeatedly offered himself as an echo chamber for Putin’s pro-war propaganda, suggesting that the ‘real issue’ is that Democrats don’t want Russia to flourish. “Their one and only goal is to hold back the development of Russia,” Carlson said on the 21st of February, adding that Ukraine was simply “a colony with a puppet regime.” Mr Carlson perhaps doesn’t realise that Vladimir Putin has been fulfilling the Democrats’ “only goal” by himself for years. The Russian people deserve far better than their current administration, and a country with far less material wealth could do a great deal better than the regime of personal power that has its noose around Russia. In one of his Tuesday evening broadcasts, Carlson urged his viewers to ask themselves “why do I hate Putin so much”. He went on to make a series of statements designed to compare the Russian dictator with the American left. Saying that Putin has never called him racist or threatened to have him fired for disagreeing with him. Putin has never manufactured a lockdown-inducing pandemic, never taught his children critical race theory or attacked Christianity. So why does Washington, D.C. establishment hate him so much? Again a senseless weaponization of Putin’s very real, material invasion against the post-materialist arguments of some of the American left. Further, Carlson has attacked Canada for deciding to take Russian news channel RT off the air, painting it as a freedom of speech issue (it isn’t), and effectively endorsing Russian propaganda once more.
Some conservative commentators in the UK are also coughing up pro-Russian rhetoric. On Thursday 24th, the first day of the invasion, former Brexit Party and UKIP leader Nigel Farage said that the onslaught was a consequence of NATO and the EU trying to “poke the Russian bear with a stick”. Hardly a surprise coming from the world’s most outspoken Euro-trasher, and long-time friend of Trump. Moreover, in an interview with GB News just over a week before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the conservative journalist Peter Hitchens, with somewhat more decorum and historical knowledge than many other right-wing observers, stated that “In 1991, Russia gave up huge amounts of territory in Europe and Asia, and asked in return only for a promise that NATO would not expand. A promise which was given by the politicians in the west at the time.” This is a fact, and can be checked in the records kept at George Washington University. However, all this land that had to be ‘given up’ was never within Russia’s right to take anyway, most of it being annexed by military force. Further, was this a promise that western politicians had the right to make? Or a promise that Russia had a right to ask for? Is it not for Ukraine, as a sovereign democratic state, to decide where it wants to offer its allegiances?
In slight bafflement, and asking why the current conflict is materialising at all, Peter goes on to say “Everybody knows that Russia exists, it is a country, a state, an economy, it has military power, it has interests, why do people so constantly ignore those interests and treat Russia as if it doesn’t count as a modern nation? – this is the road to war.” Obvious in Peter’s remarks is a deep disapproval of American-European policy. He even says at one point that “Ukraine has been used as a battering ram to smash against Russia”. But the not-so-hidden disdain for western politics, and particularly the US, reached the height of transparency when Peter began to explain how, “Since 1945, aggressive war has been illegal under international law, you can’t simply invade a neighbouring country, all kinds of terrible things will happen to you if you do, and rightly so…though this rule doesn’t apply to the United States, which is allowed to conduct aggressive wars whenever it feels like it.” Which brings us onto the left’s justification of Putin’s war.
Support for Putin’s expansionist politics from the left seems to be a slightly more historic enterprise. The monumental rise of corporate power, capitalism and neo-conservative Republican influence on US foreign policy over the last twenty years has given Marxists and radical leftists new relevance. With this rise comes the notion of anti-Americanism, a framework of beliefs that defines imperialism as a specifically American phenomenon, rather than a global one. Ironically, this bears almost no resemblance to Lenin’s concept of rival imperialist ruling classes competing against one another internationally. Instead, the anti-American left tie the concept of ‘imperialism’ to the intentions of a corporate-controlled US government. Such a stance lures believers into viewing the world as an ideological and physical tug of war between capitalist USA and NATO on one side, and Russia on the other. With various, largely unimportant allies dotted around both. And so, according to the anti-Americanist line, Ukraine has to remain Russian so that the US cannot become more powerful. Further, those Ukrainians who advocate for Ukraine’s membership in the EU are part of an imperialist plot, architected by the US and NATO. Therefore any ambitions of Ukrainian independence are synonymous with what pro-Russia leftists and Russian leaders call ‘fascism’.
In the past, Russian communist leaders who condemned any expressions of Ukrainian national independence as ‘fascist’, had no issue with real Nazis and fascists as long as they claimed to be pro-Russian. This is evidenced by Stalin’s treaties with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in 1933 and 1939, respectively. However when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Nazism and fascism were deemed anti-Russian, and so Stalin made ‘anti-fascism’ synonymous with ‘pro-Russian’. Today, this formulation is still used by Vladimir Putin and his foreign, pro-Kremlin leftist supporters. Stalin’s semantic manipulation had grave consequences for non-Russians living in the USSR who opposed Kremlin rule, as it allowed his supporters to label all of them as fascists, and by extension, Nazis. This is likely why Putin announced that his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine was about ‘denazification’.
Pro-Kremlin leftists are particularly censorious when it comes to US corporate media and government announcements, yet they relax this criticism when faced with Russian government media. Despite being funded and operated by an autocratic, right-wing government, pockets of radical leftists still read and relay the pro-Russian propaganda that is spouted by the official Kremlin outlet. As well as private, right-wing and pro-Russian outlets like Slavyangrad and Vineyardsaker. All of these propaganda channels revel in sharing revolting, anti-Ukrainian stories. For example, in July 2014, the far-right Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, claimed that Ukrainian troops had crucified a child, while Russia Today alleged that the Ukrainian government was indoctrinating children with Nazi slogans and carrying out a mission of ethnic cleansing in the Donbas region. Both stories were read by thousands of people before being exposed as lies and taken down.
As we can see, a cacophony of castigations surrounds the Russia-Ukraine question, and indeed the current invasion. The American right is using it as an opportunity to call out the post-material arguments of the American left, whilst other right-wing commentators, along with radical leftists, blame the ever East-bound, imperialist policies of the EU, NATO and the USA. There is a trend here that seems fairly consistent: support for Putin and his expansionist politics seems to be synonymous with a profound animosity towards the United States. Thus, the largest gland from which Putin supporters draw their venom, might be the one filled with anti-Americanism.
Matthew Norman is a freelance journalist and essayist.