Jan 17, 2023

On Fascism and the Three Way Fight (Guest Post)

Editors' note:


The following is a guest post by Paul Bowman. 


The article comes from a much larger set of essays attempting to give some analysis and definition to modern fascism, the broader reactionary currents that fascism often emerges frombut can break from, tooand what kinds of thinking our side needs to develop a working practice of countering fascism. On this last bit, Bowman starts with a comradely review of the three way fight concept of revolutionary antifascism and builds on this with his own experiences, analysis, and estimates.


Bowman came of age in the mid-80s and was a founding member of Leeds Anti-Fascist Action in 1986, remaining active within it until its self-dissolution in 2004 (folding into the 635 Group successor). Over that period Leeds AFA was involved in removing the fascist presence from the city center and at the Leeds United FC football ground, as well as founding the AFA Northern Network, which later became the format for the AFA National Network. Aside from militant anti-fascism he was also involved in groups such as the Class War Federation (UK) and Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) and politically identifies as an anarchist of the especifista tendency.


* * * * *

On Fascism and the Three Way Fight


By Paul Bowman

Clashes between anti-racists, police and members of the neo-nazi National Front in Wales. 
Photo is reproduced solely for educational uses.

I want to thank Three Way Fight for reaching out to me to solicit this article. All the usual disclaimers about whatever you find disagreeable or wrong about it is my fault alone, and not the editors of this blog. I also want to start by saying I dont believe that theory is either right or wrong in any absolute sense, independent of what practical use it is to us in guiding our practice. So I dont think that there is an objectively correct definition of fascism, simply more or less useful ones. 


Because this article is extracted from a  chapter of a much longer draft work[i] Im going to start, however jarringly, with a brief list of points that summarise the ideas or themes of the longer text in the hopes that this will make what follows less puzzling than it might otherwise be. In no particular order then, the summary points of the broader theoretical framework of Ideology and Practice are as follows:


1. A social materialist outlook which rejects idealism and the conceit that ideologies can be separated from practices and social situationa conceit that follows the template of capitalist separation of mental and physical labour. 


2. Methodological collectivismwhich is not the symmetrical inversion of methodological individualism, as collectives are composed of individualswhich holds that the object of study is the dynamics of collectivities. This has certain implications, such as the rejection of psychologising fascism, amongst other things.


3. A three-dimensional distinction of collective processes and shared commons into ideological, political, and cultural categories. And that much of what is commonly called politics is in fact ideology and vice versa. (This is without a doubt the most contentious bit, because it means challenging the generally accepted meaning of common terms, which as a rule is to be avoided like the plague, but sometimes needs must).


4. A historical materialist appreciation of the upside down view of the dominant superstructural or ideological classes, that the ideas and actions of the political, legal, religious, police, military, and philosophical/academical leaders and institutions are the main agents of social changethe superstructure as protagonist of history. The contrary historical materialist view being that the real origins of social change are within the so-called base of society, specifically the class struggle.


5. The so-called political field of bourgeois democratic societies can be categorised into far left, centre left, centre right, and far right. And that logically these four categories all mutually rely on a working definition of centrism as an actual social process, rather than a casual slur.


6. A fundamental distinction between power and counterpower as being not only quantitatively but qualitatively different. The liberal concept of civil society made up of organisations that are neither an extension of the superstructure and bourgeois class rule, nor organs of counterpower, is a delusion.


7. A consequent difference in strategic orientation between protagonistic and antagonistic models of social change, left and right. Centrists being protagonistic more or less by definition and far left and right divided between protagonistic, antagonistic, and confusionist tendencies.


8. That the antagonistic strategy of counterpower is not exclusive to anarchists or the revolutionary left in general, but can be adopted even by radical reformists. In other words, the antagonist left" and revolutionary left are not synonyms because there are ideologically self-identifying revolutionary leftists who are protagonistic or confusionist in strategic orientation, and there are reformists who are antagonistic in their strategy.


9. That militant anti-fascism is a strategy of counterpower and thus an element of the antagonistic left, even if not all participants are necessarily revolutionary leftists.


10. That fascism is a combination of far right ideology with an insurgent politics of counterpower. Not all far right movements are necessarily fascist. A distinction that cannot be made or acted on without properly distinguishing ideology from politics.


That final point is the main job of this article to outline and support as best possible. Again, my apologies for front-loading the article with a litany of abstractions, but hopefully it will illuminate some of what follows. 

Three-way fight concept as opposed to the two-way perspective

The [Popular Front] line, albeit a U-turn from the disastrous Third Period ideology, still persist[ed] in framing fascists as a simple tool or instrument of the bourgeoisie, with no autonomy of their own. In other words, this was also a two-way fight perspective. Significantly, although dressed up in economistic language — the necessity of siding with the “good capitalists” of the manufacturing and “progressive” national bourgeoisie, and their liberal middle class supporters, against the “bad” finance capitalists — effectively aligned Popular Front anti-fascism along the same line as liberal "subjectivist" anti-fascism.

As this article will be published on the Three Way Fight blog, Im going to take familiarity with the concept (as outlined in the About" statement here and the associated basic texts list) as a given. The aspect of the three-way concept I want to focus on is that the struggle between anti-fascists and fascists and the state cannot be conceived as a two way fight, on a political (as opposed to ideological) level. This needs a little unpacking.


Schematically speaking, liberal anti-fascism sees the struggle against fascism as a two-way fight between the defenders of liberal democracy and the fascists and far-right forces that would overthrow it. The reluctance of the police and other state forces to properly repress the enemies of democracy may be seen as a problem (even denounced as “fascist pigs” in the more radlib variants), but essentially the struggle is seen as between the partisans of liberal, anti-racist, egalitarian democracy, against the forces ranged against it. In other words, the struggle is seen primarily as an ideologically motivated one, in which class conflict and capitalist crisis play no agential role. This is the liberal two-way fight perspective.


So far, so orthodox, from a class-conscious leftist perspective. The second paragraph here really spells out the heterodoxy of the three-way fight concept compared to an orthodox Marxist perspective. Elsewhere[ii] I related the story of the disastrous Third Period where the consensus of the Communist parties following the Comintern line was that fascism was simply a violent adjunct or auxiliary to the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. That is, the problem or challenge of fascism was subsumed under the two-way fight of the class struggle, as seen through the orthodox Marxist lens. If the Third Period was on the threshold of a new revolutionary period, then all defenders of capitalism — i.e. non-Communists — were equally “fascist,” and those claiming to do so in the name of the workers, i.e. the hated Social Democrats, were the biggest threat of all, before even the Nazis.


After the Nazis came to power and liquidated the German Marxist movement, the Comintern belatedly realised the need to make a drastic U-turn and drop all the “social fascist” BS. The new line, in preparation for coming Popular Front policy, was expressed by the then Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov in the following formulation that “Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capital.” Which is often since referred to as the “Dimitrov line.”


However, the new line, albeit a U-turn from the disastrous Third Period ideology, still persists in framing fascists as a simple tool or instrument of the bourgeoisie, with no autonomy of their own. In other words, this was also a two-way fight perspective. Significantly, although dressed up in economistic language — the necessity of siding with the “good capitalists” of the manufacturing and “progressive” national bourgeoisie, and their liberal middle class supporters, against the “bad” finance capitalists — effectively aligned Popular Front anti-fascism along the same line as liberal "subjectivist" anti-fascism. In the post-war period, this aspect of popular frontism has been criticised at times by the radical left as reformist and opportunist. But these are functionalist or even ad hominem arguments, compared to recognising the structural effect of viewing a three-way fight through two-way fight blinkers. A perspective that constrains you to choosing one side as the “main enemy” and allying with the other as the “lesser evil.”


The failure of the economistic dogmatic doctrine of official Marxism in 1930s Germany led some thinkers, particularly individuals associated with the Frankfurt School, like Wilhelm Reich or Erich Fromm, to retry an analysis of Nazism and fascism by switching to a psychoanalytic framework instead. But in many ways this was a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire, metaphorically speaking, as psychoanalysis was no less of a totalising discourse than the economic determinism of Comintern doctrine. Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism is recognised as a classic of the genre. But it has to be said that despite its seminal role in forming the problematic of “how did the masses come to turn to their own repression,” his proposed answer boils down to sexual repression, which is frankly absurd. Admittedly not as dementedly self-annihilating as the KPD’s “Nach Hitler, uns!” perspective. But that’s a very low bar. Not to mention Reich’s post-war spiral into orgone accumulators and other such woo nonsense. Fromm’s more existential Escape from Freedom has stood the test of time better, but is ultimately no more convincing as an analysis of the causes of the rise to power of Nazism in Germany than Reich’s sexual repression thesis.


If we can now appreciate the relative novelty of the three-way fight perspective, that doesn’t mean that the concept in itself presents a finished analysis. It is a political starting point that demands the elaboration of a worked out strategic, ideological, and theoretical analysis. So I’m going to propose an analytical framework in that general orientation.

Antifascist mobilization. Photo is reproduced solely for educational uses.

Towards a multi-dimensional analysis of fascism

The conservative believes that the traditional order is under threat from subversion and “society must be defended.” The fascist believes that the conservative is too timid to face the truth that there's nothing left worth defending and society can only be re-established by violent insurrection.
My proposed model is a “portable” definition[iii], in that we don’t restrict fascism to a historical phenomenon specific to the 1920–1940 period. The model recognises the significantly protean nature of fascism in its ideological flexibility in terms of perceived main internal enemy, which has historically ranged from anti-communist, anti-Jewish, anti-Black, anti-Islam, you name it, conspiracies of enemies & “traitors.”


The first question of any multi-dimensional model is how many dimensions? Clearly, in order to properly reflect the distinction between ideology and politics, a minimum of two dimensions is required. But I propose that it is impossible to grasp the specificity of fascist energies without including a cultural dimension. "Culture" is a hopelessly ill-defined word and my attempts to give it a more specific meaning here (the collective commons of socially-constructed shared hedonic practicesmusic, food, fashion, sex, sports, dancing, gaming, anything a subculture can be defined by) are obviously arbitrary. 


Let’s start with the big one. Griffin and liberal anti-fascism may be erring in making this the sole dimension, but there’s no denying that it’s a major one.

Dimension 1 — Ideological 

- Far right/anti-centrist/anti-populist


Despite occasional bad faith attempts to pose as being “neither left or right,” fascism is both determinedly outside and against the political centre ground and very much to the right — they are violently opposed not only to socialism, but also to liberalism and democracy. But if all fascists are far right, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all devotees of far right ideologies are fascists. Far right is a relative ideological position defined against the centre ground. When politicians try to drag the Overton window towards a far-right position using conventional electoral means, they are far-right but not fascist. Fascists don’t want even a racially exclusive democracy, but race war and dictatorship — the revolutionary overthrow of the existing electoral representative system. For similar reasons, even though fascists often try to pass themselves off as right-populists for tactical reasons, they distrust and despise “mere populists” as simple opportunists and tail-enders without any real beliefs. As counter-intuitive as it may appear, given the contradictory mess that is fascist ideology, they sincerely believe in the absolute necessity of people having beliefs strong enough to kill and die for.


- Redemptive ultranationalism 


Fascists believe in the nation, but that the nation is currently “fallen” and corrupt and needs a violent, revolutionary rebirth, to remake the social. This is Griffin’s palingenesis. The difference between mere patriotism or “ordinary” nationalism and ultranationalism is qualitative as well as quantitative. It is the fervent belief in the utopian possibilities for a reborn nation as an ideal society. The need for violent redemption is tied intimately to a narrative of national humiliation. “Death to the traitors!” is the rallying cry. There is a deep emotional need for revenge, not just on chosen scapegoats, but for the current social order itself. We have to see the difference between the revolutionary revenge fantasies of the fascist and the conservative’s fear of change. The conservative believes that the traditional order is under threat from subversion and “society must be defended.” The fascist believes that the conservative is too timid to face the truth that there's nothing left worth defending and society can only be re-established by violent insurrection.


- "This is what they took from you"Imagined bereavement for a past solidarity that never was


The idea of a lost golden age of past social solidarity (whether "white" or "national" or other exclusionary far right identitarian category) haunts the present day resentment of the far right. The real relative absence of social solidarity in existing capitalist society is projected backwards into nostalgia for a lost age of cross-class "white" (or other) solidarity. A Kübler-Ross style "stages of grief" of denial, anger, bargaining, despair is the simultaneously experienced turmoil of fascism's emotional monologue. The grand irony being, of course, that this mythical age of cross-class solidarity between bosses and workers on the grounds of shared "whiteness," never really existed. As any knowledge of actual class history will show. 


There is a particular danger here from radical liberal responses to this fascist mourning for a past white solidarity that never was, which is to reinforce that fantasy by, effectively, saying that that imagined past did in fact really exist. Here, strategically, the line must be drawn between militant, class-conscious anti-fascism and the liberal and radical liberal deformations. 


The only sustainable counter to the fantasy of a lost racial or national solidarity that never was, is to build a real class solidarity in the present. Even militant anti-fascism can never be the whole answer to the threat of fascism. Ultimately the positive side of anti-fascist counterpower is to build effective models of functioning class solidarity here in the real world. 


- Conspiratorial by instinct and ideological necessity"Who is 'they'?"


If both liberals and the left mainly persist in seeing the fascist vs anti-fascist struggle as a two-way fight, fascists take the two-way fight perspective to extremes. To do this they rely on conspiratorial narratives of how all the apparently mutually hostile forces ranged against them, from liberals, the left, the state, the oligarchs, the migrant poor, etc., are all part of a united conspiracy against them, the “true people.” These conspiracies don’t have to make any logical sense; they just need to support the main narrative of a two way fight in which they, the fascists, are the forces of good, and all the others are pawns of the darkness. Similarly social conflicts do not arise from “structural” causes (like class conflict) because “structural” doctrines are part of the conspiracy.

Dimension 2 — Political


- Politically insurgent


In this model this political character of fascism as a “revolutionary” force or following the strategy of counterpower — or political “antagonism” in the parlance here — is the real differentia specifica that separates fascists proper from mere adherents of far right ideological beliefs. It doesn’t just need to dream like a duck, it needs to quack like a duck, walk like a duck, swim like a duck, and generally make aggressively duck-like actions to be a duck. Fascist is, as fascist does. “By their deeds shall you know them.” In a collapsing social order (whether that collapse is institutionally real or politically subjective), the fascist ability to project force where the state is no longer able to (or willing to, from a fascist perspective) is the power to transform a “corrupt” society into a new fascist utopia. At the risk of sounding arch or wantonly Deleuzian, it is the strategy of violent reterritorialisation of the terrain of reproduction and civil society that marks out fascism from the far right or populism. 


- Führerprinzip (ultra-factionalism) 


Again following the political typology sketched out in the summary points above, fascist politics compensates for the contradictory and tendentially incoherent character of their conspiracy-addled ideologies by ultra-factional political practices. Leadership and loyalty to leaders is a necessity for fascist group-formation at all levels from smallest to highest. US fascist Louis Beam may have popularised the concept of “leaderless resistance” amongst the American far right in his essay of the same name. But in my definition, politics is the process of forming collective bodies capable of exercising collective agency, and from that specific perspective, isolated cells and lone wolf terror attacks, while generally ideologically inspired, are functionally apolitical. We’ll come back to this in the discussion on incels below. At a movement level, the leadership principle produces the elevation of a maximum leader, demanding ultimate personal loyalty from every member and cast in the role of messianic saviour of the nation. 


Two things must be specified about this characteristic. First, it is not necessarily specific to fascists alone. Most right-wing populist movements also rely on a charismatic saviour/leader figure. Bolsonaro, Trump, Orbán (Modi, not so much) are all charismatic leaders in the right-populist mode, without so far really empowering the fascist fraction of their fanbase. Second, within fascism proper the leadership principle is often in tension or even conflict with the lust for revolutionary counterpower amongst the acolytes. In the late 80s I once had a member of the “Political Soldier” wing of the NF, a self-declared “Strasserite,” declare to us in all seriousness that we couldn’t accuse him of being a Hitler fanboy “…because Hitler was a reactionary who sold out the movement.” Which, within his ideological framework actually made sense (didn’t stop us laughing at him, though). The leadership principle is a pragmatic necessity for a fascist mass movement, but that doesn’t mean that fascists are always happy with their current incumbent Führer, to say the least. And it doesn’t mean that the leadership will not sell out the followers whose muscle brought them to the negotiating table when it’s time to cut a deal with the captains of industry and the armed forces of the permanent state, as the Brownshirts found out to their peril.

Dimension 3 — Cultural


- Cultural machismo and misogyny


Machismo is the cultural glue that binds all the elements of the other dimensions of fascism together. It’s the cultural chauvinist part of ultranationalism. The willingness to kill, indifference to mass death of non-nationals, is not just an ideological value but also a matter of pride and emotional pleasure. The “death cult” aspect lurks within the cultural-hedonic darkness of fascism. Speaking metaphorically, if the toxins in toxic masculinity could be extracted as an essential oil, it would be the engine fuel of the fascist war machine. It goes without saying that this all presupposes the general rightist view of masculine and feminine roles as natural, biologically rooted binaries and essentially unequal.


However, if cultural machismo was as much part and parcel of fascism a century ago as it is today, there have been substantial changes in recent years. Sexism and misogyny used to be combined within the unitary body, behaviour, and speech of an identified individual in the company of their peers. Now the disaggregating effect of online virtual spaces have allowed misogyny to strike out on its own, find its own line of flight and end up dispensing with many of the macho stances that real-world performative masculinity imposed. Now the misanthropic aspect (“sympathy is for the weak”) of machismo is separated from the misogynistic (“sympathy is for p-----s”). Incel beta male culture is emblematic of the cultural forms that could not have existed prior to the new virtual terrains opened by the internet. 


- The aestheticization of politics [sic]


Ever since Walter Benjamin declared, in the epilogue of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life,” the concept of fascism as somehow the “aestheticization of politics” has entered the discourse. The first paragraph of Benjamin’s epilogue is worth quoting in full:


“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.”[iv]


In the rest of the (brief) text of the epilogue, Benjamin goes on to quote Marinetti’s manifesto enthusing over the aesthetics of war and concludes that war and destruction is the inevitable perverse result of the aestheticization in the vein of Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism.” This was a very common perspective in the 1930s for fairly obvious reasons. Today the age of colonial empires is over. The failed US invasions of Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq mean that white supremacists no longer dream of new colonial empires.


If the original context of Benjamin’s concept no longer plays, its evocative resonances are still with us. Fascism does have a culture of victimisation, that narrative of national humiliation mentioned above under the heading of redemptive ultranationalism, which is founded in a specifically identitarian take on “We are nothing and yet we should be everything.” We need to pare Benjamin’s aesthetic dimension from the “high culture” notions of art that haunt the intellectual milieu of his time and the later Frankfurt School, and relocate it solidly in popular shared pleasures (hedonics), like music.


Fascism loves memes and music. Not in the literal sense of specific musical genres, be it Wagner, Skrewdriver, Neofolk, Scandi-death metal or whatever. But because music represents the special power of aesthetics of being able to invoke emotions directly, especially amongst a mass audience. Viral memes can do likewise. And so fascism can use these cultural mediums to inspire and communicate the emotions of fascist desires, hatreds, rages, and ecstatic visions directly. Directly, that is, in a way that is obviously influenced by and channelling ideological values, but not intermediated by them. 

Summing up

As I said at the outset, this article is a shortened extract from a longer text, “Fascism and the Three-Way Fight,”[v] which is a chapter in an unfinished book-length text “Ideology and Practice.” In the original text I preface the proposed model above with an engagement with writers from the 3WF perspective, including Don Hamerquist, J. Sakai, and Matthew Lyons, before presenting my own alternative framework. For brevity, I’ve omitted that critical engagement here, so for anyone further interested in those critiques I’ll redirect you there.


I discussed above the limitations of liberal anti-fascists’ “two-way fight” perspective of the struggle as one in defence of democracy. But for those of us coming from a radical left perspective, we shouldn’t assume that all of the obstacles are coming from the liberal side of the fence. The radical left has its own blindspots and long-lasting misapprehensions. As I’ve argued, in my view one of the most damaging of these is the habit of confusing the ideological with the political. The old sayings “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and “politics makes strange bedfellows” mean that at a basic level we understand that politics can cut crossways to ideology, usually in damaging ways. But leftist discourse tends to conflate the two dynamics, for contingent reasons of our own history. We understand why liberals want to view fascism one-sidedly from a purely ideological viewpoint, because their political solution and only tactic, ultimately, is to call yet again for votes for a bankrupt Democratic zombie neoliberalism. As militant anti-fascists we need to distinguish between the hatefulness of far right ideologies and fascist politics of violent street counterpower. In the struggle for the hearts and minds of the working class, the legitimacy of our direct action tactics is founded on the old maxim that “he who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword.” And for that we need to be able to clearly discriminate between the fascists and the mere haters in a way that can be witnessed and understood by all.


British neo-nazi group, National Action, hold anti-refugee, anti-Islam rally. 
Photo is reproduced solely for educational uses.

[iii] I have taken the term “a portable definition of fascism” from an essay by Geoff Eley, “What is Fascism and Where does it Come From?”, published in History Workshop Journal, Issue 91, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbab003, and at the time of writing, available online at https://academic.oup.com/hwj/article/91/1/1/6329186. Although the term appears earlier in the introductory chapter “Introduction: A Portable Concept of Fascism” by Julia Adeney Thomas, in the 2020 book “Visualizing Fascism: The Twentieth-Century Rise of the Global Right”, doi:10.1215/9781478004387, a collection of essays edited by both herself and Eley.

[v] https://eidgenossen.medium.com/fascism-and-the-three-way-fight-4a05b87a4eec

Photo credits:

1. The Sun, 19 August 2017.

2. The Week Magazine, 2 June 2020. Picture via Getty.

3. The Independent, 17 May 2022.

Jan 8, 2023

Their Anti-Imperialism and Ours (guest post)

by Linda Mann

Editors’ note: Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is now in its eleventh month, and the war has no end in sight. For radicals in the west, the war raises crucial questions about imperialism, national oppression, class conflict, and political responsibility, yet it remains a point of deep disagreement and confusion. Three Way Fight believes that a radical response to the war needs to hold Russia’s right-wing authoritarian regime primarily responsible while also critiquing western powers and Ukraine’s capitalist state for their actions and roles. We’ve posted a compendium of useful “Antifascist Resources on Ukraine” and an in-depth review of Simon Pirani’s thoughtful analysis of the conflict and the developments that shaped it.

Our comrades at the online journal Insurgent Notes recently published a new special issue on Ukraine, and we encourage readers to check it out. Rather than promoting a unitary “line,” the special issue presents a range of perspectives and political positions in order to encourage thoughtful, open debate—in particular on whether western radicals should support Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion or refuse to take sides in a war between capitalist states backed by competing imperialist interests. We believe there are valuable arguments to be made on different sides of this debate, but we ultimately find some arguments more compelling than others.

In the Insurgent Notes special issue, we especially appreciate John Garvey’s “Against the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, for the Successful Resistance of the Ukrainian People,” which argues that Ukrainians “are faced with an existential crisis—perhaps comparable to what the Palestinians have dealt with since 1948,” and “for the moment, the defense of the people cannot be accomplished without the use of the state. If Ukrainians succeed, they will live to fight another day against that state. If Ukraine falls, there will be no fight left to have—there will only be tyranny and prolonged national subjugation.” Exploring debates among Marxists around the First World War, John quotes Rosa Luxemburg’s little-known argument that the working class “must fight for the defense of national identity as a cultural legacy, that has its own right to exist and flourish,” which as John notes “seems to be the essence of the fight that Ukrainians have been conducting.”

In this spirit, we publish below a guest post by Linda Mann titled “Their Anti-Imperialism and Ours,” a review of the book War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict, by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies of the left-liberal group Code Pink. This review criticizes Benjamin and Davies for implicitly justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and uncritically echoing many points of Russian government propaganda about the war. More broadly, “Their Anti-Imperialism and Ours” traces the rise of a “red-brown ‘peace movement’,” which in the name of opposing U.S. and western imperialism serves as apologists for mass killings by Putin’s government and its right-wing authoritarian allies, notably Assad’s government in Syria.

We think Linda Mann’s review is a useful contribution to the discussion and mostly agree with her critique, but the analysis is her own, not necessarily that of Three Way Fight, and we take issue with it on a few points. For example, we think it’s misleading to describe former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as a “Kremlin puppet.” (Simon Pirani argues persuasively that both Yanukovych and his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, were trying to navigate between Russia and the European Union, although they had different leanings.) In particular, we think the review underplays the reality and danger of Ukrainian fascists in the 2014 revolution and in Ukraine since then. It’s not true, as Putin’s supporters claim, that the Ukrainian government or military is run by Nazis or that the 2014 revolution that overthrew President Yanukovych was a western-backed fascist coup. But fascists really did play an important role in the broad-based 2014 revolution, and in the following years they have carried out widespread physical attacks and exercised influence beyond their small numbers, as discussed here and here.

With these caveats, we believe this guest post strengthens understanding of the Ukraine war and the dangers of uncritically supporting opponents of U.S. imperialism.

* * * * *

Their Anti-Imperialism and Ours

A Review of War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict, by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies

By Linda Mann

This article was greatly facilitated by Bill Weinberg’s podcast about the book on Counter Vortex. The level of research in his review of this odious book is phenomenal and he deserves our support.

The most important quote in Benjamin’s and Davies’ book is the following:

“The massive Western [military] support put Russia in a predicament…. In November 2021, Russia still enjoyed ‘escalation dominance,’ meaning that it could bring greater military force to bear than the US or NATO in any war in Ukraine. But Russia’s escalation dominance would keep diminishing as Ukraine’s military was gradually armed and trained up to NATO standards, with or without actual NATO membership.

“This meant that from Russia’s perspective, if they were going to have to fight to defend the Donbas and Crimea, every year they waited to do so would reduce their escalation dominance, tipping the balance in favor of Ukraine and increasing the risk of a potential nuclear war with the US and NATO.

“The United States military was well-aware of the predicament in which it was deliberately placing Russia’s leaders” (pp. 66 – 67).

Medea Benjamin and Nicholas J.S. Davies may think Russia’s war with Ukraine is senseless, but in these 2+ paragraphs they explain quite clearly to the rest of us what is at stake in this war. They also present several clues regarding their own interpretation. One, that the Donbas is Russia’s to defend. They later claim that Luhansk and Donetsk are part of a civil war within Ukraine and that Kyiv was obligated to recognize them as autonomous under the Minsk Accord. But (true to form), Benjamin and Davies never mention that Russia was also obligated to retreat to its borders and refused.

Two, that an aggressive war was on the table from the beginning, that it wasn’t the illegal war Benjamin and Davies admit it is when paying lip service to international law, and that Russia’s ability to wage this war was wrongfully undermined by the West. This is truly the heart and soul of the “NATO did it” argument, by improving Ukraine’s defense posture and reducing Putin’s precious escalation dominance. To wit, “[NATO’s] training helped Ukraine defend itself, but it also meant that the fighting was hard fought and deadly on both sides” (p. 82).

To be clear, this is what we’re really talking about here:

“‘Escalation dominance means you can control the pace of escalation.’ That term has always been used in the past to refer to the ability of the United States to threaten another state with overwhelming retaliation in order to deter it from responding to U.S. force” (Gareth Porter, “Escalation Dominance,” 2007).

Aaron Miles has a good article on escalation dominance as applied to nuclear conflict, which is the bogeyman invoked by Benjamin and Davies in their final point. The statement on nuclear weapons is the most mind blowing of all and hard to process. It means, in essence, that not only is Russia’s war of aggression justified, but that if Russia has to resort to nuclear weapons to win, it’s the fault of the NATO countries that help Ukraine defend itself. It’s worth mentioning that Benjamin and Davies also try to portray a scenario where the US and NATO threatened Russia with a first strike (pp. 77-78). This is based on the refusal of the US to negotiate issues extraneous to the impending invasion in February 2022.

Only two countries have threatened the use of nuclear war in response to losing a war of aggression to a “weaker” power. The second country is Russia in the current war with Ukraine. But the first to do so was the US during its war with Vietnam. These threats came closer to fruition than Russia’s (so far), but no one on the left ever suggested that Vietnam should give up its national liberation struggle as a result. (See Erik Villard, “Did the US Consider using Nuclear Weapons in Vietnam?”)

"You're not an anti-imperialist; you just want different imperialists to win"
Poster by dikleyt

The history of a bad idea

Much of what I will cover here can be found in Anton Shekhovtsov’s Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (Routledge, 2018). His book doesn’t cover the Western left, or leftist ideas at all; it’s a history of Russia primarily set in the Putin era. However, it begins with the development of “Strasserism,” an anti-capitalist current within the Nazi Party and contacts between the far right and the Soviet Union that predate the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Another author writing about the “red-brown'' alliance is Alexander Reid Ross, with his Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press, 2017). It begins in the same interwar period as Shekhovtsov, but it is a history of the US and European left’s contagion by fascist co-optation. Neither of these books are about the so-called “horseshoe theory,” and until recently the situation they describe would have seemed obscure, an anomaly that was isolated to a few nut groups like the LaRouchies. (Lyndon LaRouche was also in contact with many of the same Russian fascists as Western leftists who are referred to in this review.)

It would have been quite possible, in fact usual, for a left political activist of any persuasion (anarchist, Leninist, pacifist, etc.) before 2013 to be completely unaware of phenomena like red-brown alliances, Eurasianism, multipolarity, etc. If asked, they would have quickly replied that Russia was a capitalist country, not a socialist one. The question would have seemed odd due to the fact that Russia was widely recognized, at least during the 90s and early 00s, as a corrupt oligarchy and mafia-run state. People active for several decades were suddenly confronted in the mid 2010s with pro-Assad “peace movements,” Putinist “anti-imperialism.” (I will use quotation marks here on out for these formations.) Opponents to Assad were called terrorists and the opposition to Russia, beginning with Maidan in 2014, were “Nazis.”

When did the rot set in? We could go back 100 years like the above-mentioned books and trace a lot of it to the degeneration of both the SPD (the German Social Democracy) and the Russian Revolution. The US left has been affected by these developments, but the environment that ultimately produced Benjamin’s and Davies’s book began with the Iraq War with some foreshadowing in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Code Pink is an outgrowth of the Iraq War, as is the ANSWER Coalition which organized the massive anti-war demonstrations in 2003-2004. The main apologists for this “ideology” are people like Chris Hedges, Scott Ritter, Colleen Rowley and others who dealt (honorably, in most cases) with post-9/11 era fabrications of pretexts for the Iraq war. The organization VIPS (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity) founded by Ray McGovern is not well known but has become quite prominent in this milieu. But the takeover of major portions of the left beyond the antiwar groups of the Iraq war began when RT (Russia Today) set up shop in the West in 2011. One of the first tests was the gassing of Ghouta, Syria in August of 2013, which was carried out by the Assad government. There was an immediate attempt by RT and its minions to deflect blame onto Saudi-backed rebels. One of the more noteworthy efforts was an article in Mint Press (which is widely believed to be funded by Iran, another Assad ally). It was immediately discredited.

Woman in political march holding sign: "Putin out of Ukraine! NATO out of Europe! USA out of everywhere! War is a crime."
Imperialist aggression has multiple sources, including the USA, US allies, and US opponents.

Indeed, Syria was one of the first major projects of the developing red-brown “peace movement” after the Iraq War. The goal was to isolate Syrians who were being tortured and killed on a mass scale in Assad’s prisons, by his chemical weapons and the carpet bombing by Russia. Normally, if the US isn’t directly involved, there are still activist groups involved in condemning the atrocities, providing material aid and refugee assistance. What happens if a major disinformation campaign replaces all this with an apologist infrastructure for the war criminals?

Anyone who has suspected that nothing the left does makes any difference has been educated by the catastrophic effect of this betrayal. There are only small, local groups on the left in the US that still defend Syrians’ right to rise up against their government and help refugees, such as CISPOS in Minneapolis (Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria) and Syria Solidarity NYC.

In Benjamin’s and Davies’s book, a canned history of Ukraine is presented that echoes Putin’s assertion that Ukraine is not a separate country because it has been occupied by other countries or been part of empires (mainly Russia). It has only known independence since 1991 and during a brief period after the Bolshevik Revolution. This is tantamount to saying that other oppressed nationalities like the Palestinians and Kurds have no right to self-determination.

According to Benjamin and Davies, post-independence Ukraine’s original sin occurred in 2014 when it had an uprising to overthrow a Kremlin puppet named Yanukovich and then held elections that elected Poroshenko as president. These events are presented as a coup by the authors and their co-thinkers in the “peace movement” because Victoria Nuland expressed a preference for Arseniy Yatsenyuk to take over as prime minister during Maidan. “Yats” and Poroshenko were both elected in 2014 and continued in that role until 2016 (Yats) and 2019 (Poroshenko). There is no suggestion by Benjamin and Davies that these elections were unfair, and they admit that Right Sector and Svoboda together earned 2% of the vote. These groups, which made up less than 1% of the Euromaidan demonstrators, had gained prominence when the Berkut (Special Operations Police) under Yanukovich began shooting demonstrators. This isn’t explored in any real detail; there is merely the observation that the demonstrations were no longer peaceful. The outsized role of the fascists was due to their ability to fight the Berkut. Otherwise the demonstrators, who were largely liberals and pacifists, would have been massacred. (See Michael Colborne, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right, p. 30). In all, approximately 130 demonstrators were killed in January and February of 2014, along with an estimated 700+ injured.

But the authors’ problem with Ukraine really dates back to the Orange Revolution of 2004. The same Kremlin puppet was involved that time as well. A common accusation lodged by these “leftists” is that uprisings in countries ruled by autocrats that the US does not favor, are “color revolutions.” The Orange Revolution was one of the earliest of these revolutions, but not the first. The very first in the 21st century was the “Bulldozer Revolution” in Serbia which deposed the genocidal dictator Slobodan Milosevic. This goes a long way to explaining the hostility of the US “peace movement” to color revolutions. This hostility would seem odd because the color revolutions are mass movements that depose dictators in a mostly peaceful manner through electoral politics. It’s unusual for pacifist methods to effect real change in the absence of a mass armed struggle (see Ward Churchill, Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America, 1998), but you’ll never see color revolutions showcased along with Gandhi or the Civil Rights movement and the reason for this is political. Serbia has entered their pantheon of victims because they were bombed by NATO, putting an end to their genocide in the former Yugoslavia just as they were about to reduce Kosovo to rubble. NATO didn’t do this because they are a humanitarian organization and the bombing did kill civilians and damaged infrastructure. Serbia was allowed to conduct its ethnic cleansing and rape camps for several years before Western Europe and the US decided that allowing them to turn Eastern Europe into a mass grave was too disruptive.

Autocratic governments like Russia and China don’t like revolutions in general, which might come as a surprise to the red-brown crowd, but these revolutions in particular are seen as a sneaky plot by Western neoliberals for overthrowing governments without having to go through the hassle of fomenting a Civil War or installing a puppet government. The “peace” and “anti-imperialist” activists solemnly repeat this special pleading by these dictators. Apparently, Otpor, the massive youth group that helped to overthrow Milosevic and have him sent to The Hague, did get money from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. PORA, the mass youth and civic group in Ukraine, consulted with Otpor, but claimed not to have accepted any support, although their successors in Maidan did (according to Benjamin and Davies) receive funding from NED. This brings us to another obsession of the authors and their “anti-imperialist” co thinkers: the purity of the victim and an insistence that poorly armed or unarmed people face the armed state and/or its military without any aid. Anyone who has defended the right of Vietnamese, Nicaraguan, and other Third World victims of US aggression to defend themselves using weapons from sources like the Soviet Union or China will recognize the debate tactics being used here.

Prior to the Orange Revolution, Georgia held the Rose Revolution which led to a peaceful change in leadership in 2003. There were many others, most occurring in the so-called Coalition of Independent States, or countries that became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s obvious why Putin wouldn’t like these revolutions and one reason he doesn’t is that they involved independent political action through mass mobilizations and civic engagement. The receipt of aid doesn’t change this and these groups have the right to accept assistance. In the midst of all this, the Putin regime began to turn to “managed nationalism” through fascist groups, in particular Russkii Obraz. Robert Horvath discusses this in his 2021 book Putin’s Fascists: Russkii Obraz and the Politics of Managed Nationalism in Russia:

“Russkii Obraz was simultaneously collaborating with the state and with some of the most violent and politically extreme elements in Russian society… these divergent engagements were made possible by the Kremlins’s ‘preventive counter- revolution,’ a programme of measures designed to protect Russia from an anti-authoritarian ‘colour revolution’” (p.63).

In December of 2014, members of the Eurasian Youth Union, affiliated with fascist Alexander Dugin’s Eurasia Party, attended a conference in Moscow put on by the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia. Other attendees included representatives of the International Action Center and United National Antiwar Coalition, both associated with the Workers World Party, and the League of the South, a neo-Confederate group in the US. The subject of the meeting was the “Right of Peoples to Self-Determination and Building a Multi-Polar World.” One of the agenda items, UNAC reported, was the “US-backed war against the people of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine.”

The ideological foundations of the red-brown left

To what end does the “red-brown” left labor? We see the means they employ to get there; their shifting rationales, their opportunism, and the utter lack of any empathy for victims of imperialism who are being attacked by powers other than the US. But their ends seem particularly murky and in constant flux. Indeed, they purport to have no goal other than stopping US imperialism. This is a worthy objective but they don’t seem to mind giving other imperialists a boost or at least left cover for their crimes. And caping for Putin, China, Iran, et al. doesn’t even affect US policy other than to make outfits like NATO stronger, as more countries clamor to join and military spending goes through the roof. This latter result of the war is one which Benjamin and Davies spend significant time bemoaning.

The apologists for Putin may spurn theory but this doesn’t mean they have abandoned arguments when advancing their position. Indeed there has been a surfeit of arguments that tend to shift in response to certain events, though often the events driving the shifts aren’t readily apparent. Is the Russo Ukraine war a proxy war or is it an inter-imperialist war? Both of these positions and other shifting arguments are only tangentially related to the events of the war. Instead, they are concocted to add in the US/NATO as combatants and to remove the Ukrainians as autonomous actors. In the early days of this war, some put forward the writings of Karl Liebknecht, a German socialist in the SPD before World War I who, unlike the majority of his party’s deputies, refused to vote for war credits. He declared it was the duty of every Socialist to deny support for their imperialist government. However, he said nothing about supporting the imperialist war aims of a competing government. As the war has dragged on, “proxy war” appears to be the winning argument, albeit a proxy war with only two (or at most three) parties fighting for their own interests. Others have stuck to the “inter-imperialist war” position, meaning that all sides were waging an unjust war, including the side that was attempting to defend itself.

These arguments never recognize material facts such as Russia’s support for fascism and Christian fundamentalism around the globe, though the relatively small number of Ukrainian fascists are given a level of attention that renders invisible the vast numbers who oppose fascism. This is of a piece with their approach to fascism in general. It doesn’t exist (except for Ukraine) because if it did exist globally, as we know it does, they would have to acknowledge all the fascists who admire “anti-imperialist” Assad and Putin. Instead, we are now seeing the beginnings of a red-brown alliance as Code Pink finds common cause with anti-Ukrainian politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Other than occasional lip service to “Russia’s brutal aggression,” acts of oppression, including war crimes, never play a part in red-brown argumentation. What does matter are the geopolitics of imperialist competition and the shifting reality of a war that constantly wreaks havoc on their worldview and leads to a lot of impressionist ideation. Before the war, their political line didn’t seem to ever change. The anti-imperialist landscape involved the victims of US imperialism and the non-existence of victims found in the multipolar world outside of US hegemony. Now, because of this catastrophic act, every day is a new day for these folks. The nostrums of yesterday are quickly discarded as they become disproved on the battlefield or, of all places, the Kremlin. In this way they are a lot like the fascist GOP. Both depend on people not remembering the inconsistencies of the past as they put forward a new operating theory. But they also resemble the communist parties of western capitalist countries during the interwar period when Stalin kept changing the political line and the sheep had to follow.

They never had to face this situation before, because other victims such as anti-Assad Syrians, Uighurs, Chechens, and various dissidents who could be dismissed as “color revolutionists” never had a fighting chance. Nothing upsets the pacifist applecart like an “unworthy victim” (see below) running afoul of a desired outcome. Ward Churchill diagnosed this problem as follows:

“It is immediately perplexing …that many of North America’s most outspoken advocates of absolute domestic non violence when challenging state power have consistently aligned themselves with the most powerful expressions of armed resistance to the exercise of US power abroad” (Pacifism as Pathology, p. 70).

National liberation struggles have long been the means through which revolutionary desires are expressed in First World countries. This is a legacy of the Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in one country” which dictated that the CPs in first world countries forego revolutionary struggles against their own ruling classes. The same applied to colonial people when their struggle was supported by the Soviet Union. They were to subordinate the class struggle to the national liberation struggle being waged by their own capitalist class. Now the armed struggle they look to for inspiration is Russia’s attack on Ukraine, refashioned as a war against NATO.

* * * * *

Shifting rationales, hidden agendas, these are the universally recognized calling cards of sophistry. Any reviewer, faced with constant omissions, distortions and outright lies, has to dig below the written word and apply the conundrums created by these authors to living situations.

For example, a distinction is often made between wars between sovereign countries and so-called civil wars. Atrocities committed in the first instance are clearly governed by international law and rules of war. The “international community” has found it more difficult to deal with human rights violations by governments against their own people (unless genocide is involved). The UN charter specifically prohibits wars of aggression by its member states, which may be one reason Putin decided to call his war against Ukraine a “special military operation” and criminalized the use of the term “war.” The international left, in contrast, has never had a problem with equating crimes against humanity whether committed by a foreign aggression or a government domestically. Until now. A common justification by the “left” of Russia’s intervention in Syria is that the Assad government requested its assistance in putting down a popular uprising against the repressive government. This can justly be compared to the requests of various client states of the US for “assistance” against their own people. Or the requests for assistance by Belarus and Kazakhstan for Russian assistance in suppressing uprisings in those countries.

Solidarity for refugees (or at least neutrality) has also been a given in left circles. In the midst of a chapter on how “privileged” the Ukrainian refugees were, here’s a particularly noxious statement by Benjamin and Davies regarding refugees in general:

Ukraine proved that, if you have the right (white) skin color, you’ll get sympathetic coverage from the Western media. But it also helps if you’re resisting the right invader” (p. 125).

Syrians didn’t have the right skin color but they did, arguably, have the right aggressor as of 2015, when the Russian bombing campaign began. But this did not avail them in the eyes of the Western “peace movement” because Russia wasn’t an invader. They had become “unworthy victims,” as defined in 1988 by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent (“A Propaganda Model”). As for Ukrainian refugees, who are “worthy victims” with regard to skin color and having Russia as a foreign aggressor, justice would demand that they at least receive sympathy and at least neutrality. But it was more convenient for the “peace movement'' that they be silenced as the Syrians were. In one of the most nauseating instances of “whataboutery,” the authors compare the (to them) more limited bombing by Russia in Ukraine to the US bombing of Iraq. They end by stating that the impunity of US imperialism is to blame for Putin believing he could get away with the same behavior in Ukraine and that any attempt to hold him accountable would be dismissed by the world as part of a double standard. “And that they would be right” (p. 127). The US does enjoy relative impunity (though not complete impunity), but the “peace movement” seems to be isolated in its view that this double standard excuses Russia.

However, there is a large grain of truth to this statement about impunity, though not in the way Benjamin and Davies would have us believe. The reason Putin believed he would escape condemnation for the destruction of Ukraine isn’t that the US did the same thing. It was that he had already destroyed, or damaged, at least three countries prior to the invasion without much notice by much of the world, including the “peace movement.” These were Chechnya (part of Russia), Georgia, and Syria. Additionally, Russia has sent its mercenary army, the Wagner Group, to various countries in the global South where they have committed war crimes against civilians. This was done at the request of the governments, of course, which means they don't “count.”

Putin went to a lot of trouble to convince the world that Ukraine is really part of Russia, which is similar to the magic wand he used successfully in Chechnya, Syria, and South Ossetia in Georgia. It worked with a large part of the Russian population, far right sympathizers in the West (including members of the GOP and alt right groups in the US). It also worked with Benjamin and Davies and their fellow “peace activists.” The latter make a distinction between an “illegal war” (which they admit this was) and a “provoked war” (p. 80). These provocations mainly involved Ukraine acting like an independent country and NATO responding to requests for memberships by countries that have a long history of victimization by Russia. Of course NATO did this after various US politicians had “promised” that NATO wouldn’t. But unlike the Budapest Memorandum (fn. 4), none of the parties to these ”promises” thought to sign an agreement.

To sum up, the real questions are not about methods and arguments of Benjamin and Davies and their followers. It’s their goals we need to examine. This involves some guesswork because, unlike most left organizations, their goals are opaque. The best analyses are by Michael Karadjis and Kavita Krishnan. According to them, the “anti-war” crowd is more concerned with geopolitics than they are about class struggle and international solidarity. This can be seen in one of their primary demands: That the US go around the Ukrainians and negotiate a peace deal with Russia. This really touches all of their main objectives:

  • That Russia be treated as an equal vis a vis other imperialists like the US or China. This includes the right to carve up the world into “spheres of influence” with the big boys.
  • That Ukraine be reduced to a colonized country with no voice regarding its future and no right to autonomy or self defense.
  • And that Russia be allowed to keep what it has stolen.
As Ukraine seizes back more land and the Russian military degrades, the push for these negotiations becomes louder and more desperate. And here we see the final goal: that Russia wins. Because, if Russia loses, this will discredit the “peace” and “anti-imperialist” movements just as surely as if the Syrian uprising had been allowed a chance to defeat Assad and Putin.

December 16, 2022

Photo credits

1. פֿינצטערניש, 
21 February 2022 (CCO 1.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Alisdare Hickson, from Woolwich, UK, 6 March 2022 (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.