Philip Green
6 min readMar 14, 2022

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The Left and Putin, continued: The Case of DSA

I hate to be harping on my own very limited experience, but a few years ago, while still being on the Editorial Board of The Nation, I became a formal, paid-up member of the Democratic Socialists of America. From the days of Michael Harrington onward (the early 1960s) I had always been a sort of non-joining but committed member–and why not? I am, after all, a democratic socialist.

And yet: The latest issue of The Nation, coincidentally, has an article from its Washington D.C. correspondent. on the criticism the organization has been taking from the political and media world, “Left, Right, and Center,” for its statement on the invasion of Ukraine. I’m only going to take responsibility for the first of those–Bernie Sanders, e.g. (OK, that’s a cheap goal.)

As the correspondent put it, the statement called on the United States to withdraw from NATO to “end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage” for the conflict. The organization “forcefully denounced Russia’s escalation, expressed solidarity with the working classes of Ukraine and Russia, demanded the acceptance of all refugees, and urged an immediate cease-fire and the total withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.” She continues, “It seemed like a totally innocuous position to hold. But during times of war or major international crises, there’s little tolerance for anti-imperialist dissent…….The idea that NATO expansion is among the leading causes of the current crisis is not new, and certainly not a fringe observation,:” and goes on, quite correctly, to call on George Kennan, Senator Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger to back up that assertion.

The piece concludes by quoting an anonymous member of DSA’s International Committee who told The Nation. “We are a US-based socialist organization, and so our primary duty is to oppose our own militarism, our own imperialism, and broadly our own capitalist class. That’s where we have to take a hard position and to call out and recognize the role that we have escalating and fomenting and creating war around the world.”

OK, what’s wrong here? Just about everything; I’m getting angrier with every word I type. If we were discussing what to do about the US role in (and over) Yemen, we’d have some common ground. But as for Ukraine:

To put it plainly, DSA has a political platform, with much of which I sympathize, but that is totally devoid of any ethical or overriding political concerns whatsoever. As a comment on an unprovoked and murderous attack on a sovereign nation, It reeks of an insular sectarianism that makes no connection with real human beings with real needs and interests: rather as though they’re running in an American election as a minor party offering an alternative to both American imperialism and Russian aggression, from a supposedly truly Leftist orientation and a befitting candidate–perhaps Tulsi Gabbard? No, to call up two courses of action in the same paragraph does not make them equivalent.

But forget the abstractions that DSA is against: what does it stand for? In particular, with which actual “working class” does it have “solidarity?” Russia’s, really? Is the uncontrollably brutal Russian Army composed of university drop-outs? Or what about Trump’s white working-class supporters? Are they “the proletariat next time?” There is no recognition here of the strange realignments that are going on around the world in the name of neo-populism and whiteness.

That’s the sloganeering content; the style is to set down a collection of buzz words, as though sending out an anodyne communiqué from some International Conference where eminent men in business suits compare their complaints and grievances before deciding not to do anything.

There are then three serious problems with this sectarianism that poses as a Left rejection of imperialism and capitalism but actually places itself in the long-running tradition of American isolationism, from Burton K. Wheeler and Charles Lindbergh to Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson. (They actually have a throwaway shout-out to Trump.)

First, amidst this rummage sale of declarations, what’s the missing word? Hint: it’s the first word in the organization’s title. . . .Whatever happened to it? How about, “as internationalist democratic socialists our primary duty at this moment is to support a peaceful democracy when it is under violent and destructive attack from a larger authoritarian nation led by an autocrat who is also a world-wide icon for the forces of homophobia, white supremacy, and autocracy: which are also at large in our own society, as well as many of our NATO allies.” There actually is a democratic socialist as the head of government in Germany right now–perhaps DSA would like to consult with him on next steps. Or with Bernie Sanders, for that matter.

Second, the key buzz word that demonstrates the spokespersons’ lack of any of those deeper human feelings is “crisis,” as in “the current crisis.” Nothing more than that. What numbness to the real world. No, it is not merely a “crisis,” it is beyond that a humanitarian catastrophe, a cataclysm caused by one nation and one nation only. What on earth does American imperialism have to do with this?

But third, and perhaps worst of all, there is an historical deafness in this view of invasion that is hard to accept as innocent. You would never know from the invocations of imperialism as the root of this moment, that NATO was founded in 1949, and that at that time the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and half of Germany were controlled by Communist Parties backed up by Soviet forces that intervened when necessary to maintain control; or that the Soviet Union itself contained various of what we might slightingly call “the stans”(not to forget Georgia and Chechnya) and had at various times been absorbed into the Russian Empire–or “Imperium” to use a more suggestive term.

In other words, whatever kind of imperialism you want to call the birth of NATO, it confronted at the very least an equal and threatening imperialism: that of the Soviet Union. Let us not allow that unpleasant fact to disappear from view, as too often happens these days when critiques of “the New Cold War” manage to dispense entirely with the lived experience of the East European nations. (To be a little more concrete, Thomas Meany, who has written quite frighteningly about the fragility of democracy today, has a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Review in which he says that NATO was created to block Soviet expansion. That’s half of the story; it was also created to neutralize Germany, which from the standpoint of the men who created NATO was the source of two terrible World Wars. And it succeeded.)

In effect, to any political statement that insists on the immediate primacy of a campaign that might well be the start of World War III, and features the first unmitigated threat to use battlefield nuclear weapons, the “it’s our fault too” bipartisans in our midst reply with an updated version of the classic 1930s response to critics of the Great Purge in the Soviet Union: “And how about the lynchings in Alabama, Comrade?”

Can I reply with,”And how about the tanks rolling into Budapest, Comrade?”

The worst part about this discussion, finally, is how the words “provoked” or “provocations” creeps into it, along with the invocations of Kennan and Kissinger. So to be clear about this. Against warnings from various sources, counter-balanced by entreaties from various other sources–such as the Baltic States!–NATO’s leaders, including several American Presidents, made the decision to expand. Yes.

That did not provoke the invasion! Nothing provokes the use of destructive force except the immediate threat of a first strike; unless our own existence is at stake. NATO was not posing a first-strike threat, not for one second. It was causing anger: big deal!

No, the threat it posed was that it might act to prevent an imperial expansion by a deranged psychopathic ultra-nationalist who like all psychopaths brooks no opposition. So yes, it was a bad mistake not to understand with whom we were dealing: not a thoughtful and reformist Gorbachev or a clownish and drunken Yeltsin but….Who knew? Lack of insight is a bad thing in decision-makers; but it’s not a war crime. What “set the stage” might be a guide for next time, if there is a next time. But what underlay and “provoked” the criminal behavior of Vladimir Putin was the character of Vladimir Putin. Nothing else.

One Final Note: last week The Nation published, or rather republished, a 2019 piece which argued that the Maidan Revolution that overthrew the Russian puppet Yanukovych and brought about the election of Zelensky as President, was really or at least partially a Nazi coup. That’s the same Zelensky who happens to be one of the only two Jewish heads-of-state in the World. Those powerful Nazis must have made a bad miscalculation. On the other hand, they only got about 1% of that vote. Might well do better in the United States today.

I don’t know what impels a legitimate magazine to publish an outright slander. At a moment when it is absolutely contemptible from just about any standpoint you can take. What’s with the alt-Left? WTF!

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