Anti-Putinism Is Not McCarthyism

Seth Ackerman assures us in Jacobin that Russiagate Can’t End Well for the Left and he accuses liberals of “using Russiagate to gin up nationalist fervor and anti-Russian paranoia.” Using the McCarthy Era as his predicate, Ackerman says this will backfire.

This is one of the most muddled pieces of political analysis I’ve ever seen.

To establish his baseline, Ackerman goes back to an admission President Harry Truman made in 1948 that the Red Scare was serving as a political distraction. But even this quote doesn’t do the work it is supposed to do. Truman accused the Republicans of “slandering a lot of people that don’t deserve it.” What’s true is that the Democrats were acting defensively and would continue to do so right up until the election of Dwight Eisenhower. There were legitimate reasons for this.

For one, and this should matter to anyone on the left who cares about the truth, we had just gone through a war in which our most important ally was the Soviet Union, run by one of history’s greatest monsters. The American public was not told the truth about Joseph Stalin because telling the truth about Joseph Stalin did not serve the war effort. Leaving the inherent appeal of communism vs. capitalism to the side, no sane person should have wanted to see more people come under Stalin’s thumb. Not only the American public, but the European and global public, needed a corrective to see more accurately what life under Soviet domination actually meant or would mean.

Secondly, we had just entered a terrifying nuclear age and the Russians had stolen enough of our nuclear secrets to build their own atomic weapons. Soon they would master the thermonuclear device.

Thirdly, our World War II ally China had fallen to the communists with negative consequences that are still being felt today.

Fourthly, in 1950 the North Koreans got the go ahead from Stalin and Mao to invade the South and then Chinese intervention assured that we could do no better than reach a stalemate in that conflict.

In this context, concerns about national security, the persistence of totalitarianism and threats to human rights were completely merited, and insofar as some people on the left failed to understand the gulf between the ideals of communism and the actual reality, that was a true problem.

Despite this, the era of McCarthyism set the left in this country back in many unmerited ways, in some cases for good. By joining in the witch hunt for hidden communist sympathies and by allowing left-wing political views to become suspect in general, liberals in that era unwittingly participated in their own loss of power and influence.

It’s this element of that history to which Ackerman is appealing to us now. But enough has changed that pieces don’t fit together in the puzzle.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is in no way left-wing and there is no danger that sympathizing with his government will somehow undermine the left by association. The American organizations that are presently Russophilic are far to the right, including mainly gun rights extremists and (mostly Southern) white nationalists and evangelical Christians.

It’s also highly suspect to argue that liberals are ginning up nationalist fervor and anti-Russian paranoia simply for political gain. No doubt the Democrats saw political gain in exposing the Watergate scandal, but there was the little matter of a burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee to consider. The Russians repeated that crime to much greater effect and now we have a president who is actively undermining NATO and the European Union, refusing to commit to the defense of some of our allies, ending joint military exercises with South Korean on Vladimir Putin’s advice, trashing our partners in Berlin and London, and promoting far right white nationalist parties aligned with Russia throughout Europe. Beyond that, Russia is still seeking to interfere with our elections and threaten our infrastructure while utilizing radioactive weapons, nerve agents and simple assassinations in allied countries to silence and intimidate their critics. In this context, it’s hard to be paranoid when there’s so much to legitimately detest and fear.

For Ackerman, the main threat is that anyone who attacks the establishment from the left will be suspected of having Russian sympathies and that will not only have a chilling effect that divides the left but it will serve as a bludgeon establishmentarians can use to maintain the status quo.

That is indeed a potential problem but one that has more basis in reality than Ackerman would like to admit. He dismisses as laughable the idea that the Russians could drive a wedge between the left or use their influence to promote hard left but unelectable candidates. But, it was Julian Assange himself who requested the DNC documents from Russian intelligence with the argument that they could best be used at the Democratic National Convention to create a wedge between supporters of Bernie Sanders and the party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton.  That the Russians would like to keep tensions high on the left seems beyond dispute, and there’s no question that some people respond to their propaganda like Pavlovian dogs.

Apologists for Putin’s Russia are suspect because Russia has a malign influence and is unambiguously aligned with reactionary forces both here and abroad. If people on the left persist in making excuses for him, then they invite suspicion and scrutiny. In this sense, we can see that people who were soft on Stalinism bore some responsibility for the excesses of the McCarthy Era. Unlike then, however, the spillover effect is highly unlikely to make left-wing economic ideas suspect. It’s more likely to make an NRA membership suspect.

That’s not an excuse for going down a path of “slandering a lot of people that don’t deserve it,” but it also shows no signs of “ending badly for the left.”

Russia is leading a transnational white nationalist movement and has captured our president. If the left is divided on how to respond, that’s on the left to fix.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.