Even as the military fortunes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine go from bad to worse, the breadth of support that Vladimir Putin is able to command in the west remains impressive. Two striking examples this week.
In the first, Jack McCordick at the New Republic brings us the shocking but no longer surprising story of a number of academics who in America present themselves as liberal defenders of, even martyrs for, freedom of speech. In Europe, however, they magically reappear as supporters of authoritarianism: specifically, in singing the praises of Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán and his agenda of “illiberal democracy” (which, as McCordick points out, is in fact anti-democratic as well).
In McCordick’s words, “What’s so comic about [Peter] Boghossian, [Niall] Ferguson, and [Joshua] Katz’s credulous, historically illiterate P.R. for a would-be autocrat is its incongruity with their self-styling as embattled heirs of Enlightenment rationalism and critique.”
Most of those mentioned do not identify as Republicans or Trumpists, but they neatly fit the category of “anti-anti-Trumpists”: those who, faced with a threat to democracy, choose to direct their ire at those who are pointing out the threat and trying to combat it. So it’s no surprise that their politics transfers easily to support for Orbán’s project.
And while no doubt they do not identify as Putinists either, there’s little practical difference between support for Orbán and support for Putin. Orbán has long been Russia’s most reliable ally within the European Union, and won re-election earlier this year on a promise to stay out of the war in Ukraine. But to parade one’s neutrality as between aggressor and victim is to give aid and comfort to aggression.
That’s also the lesson of the week’s second example, from the opposing ideological stable. Putinism on the right is nothing new, but the war has uncovered a rich vein of pro-Russian sentiment on the left as well. Witness the petition addressed “To All Who Care about Humanity’s and the Planet’s Future.”
Prepared by three veteran leftists, among them Australia’s Joe Camilleri, the petition is endorsed by such luminaries as Victoria Brittain, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Corbyn, Chris Hedges, John Pilger, Jeffrey Sachs and Yanis Varoufakis. They lament “the toxic relationship between the United States on the one hand and China and Russia on the other” – for which they blame, of course, the US, for being “unwilling to accept, let alone adapt to, the rise of China and the re-emergence of Russia,” and “unwilling to break with outdated notions of global dominance.”
This verdict is not balanced by any corresponding criticism of Russia (or China); they note that “The Ukraine conflict is inflicting death, injury, displacement and destruction,” as if it was a sort of free-floating evil produced without any human agency. Similarly, they deplore the threat of nuclear weapons without mentioning which world leader has threatened to use them.
As a result, their proposals for peace in Ukraine are hopelessly unrealistic, being based on a ceasefire in advance of any recognition of the rights and wrongs of the conflict. There is no explicit endorsement of Putin’s territorial claims, but there hardly needs to be: the practical effect would be to give him everything he wants.
As Anthony Barnett writes at Open Democracy, the petition “disregards Ukrainian agency and the commitment of a huge majority of Ukrainians to their country’s integrity and independence. Instead, it frames Ukraine as being manipulated by the US. This echoes Vladimir Putin’s perspective.”
Even the petition’s longer-range goals, which embrace some worthwhile ideals, are curiously deficient: there is no mention of democracy, which underpins the “conflict resolution, civil liberties and human rights” that they claim to be concerned about. Implicitly, they endorse the right of dictatorships and authoritarian states to oppress their own people, free from interference (or “imperial or hegemonic ambitions,” as they would put it) from the rest of the world.
One wonders, irresistibly, what these muddle-headed leftists and the devotees of Trump and Orbán would think of one another. But there’s nothing new about co-operation between far left and far right; we saw it on the streets of Moscow in the early 1990s, when Communists and nationalists united to oppose Boris Yeltsin’s reformism. And we saw echoes of the same thing in Australia at around the same time, when the two made common cause against the Hawke/Keating government’s economic liberalisation.
There’s something particularly horrible, though, about people who let their political hatreds lead them to turn a blind eye to invasion, torture and genocide.