Fascism, Putin and the nature of the Russian state

by Allan Armstrong

The mainstream media presentation of the Ukrainian war, in the UK and the Russian Federation, both invoke the Second World War struggle against the Nazis. This should provide a warning that something is seriously amiss here. Yet there is a common feature in their accusations. Neither side means, by opposition to Nazism, opposition to fascism as such. The term ‘Nazi’ has become severed from the essence of what constitutes fascism, only to be used as a term of abuse. Fascism involves the use of brutal extra-constitutional paramilitary forces, and a resort to extreme racism, national and male chauvinism to crush the working class and other exploited groups, who provide a challenge to the existing state.

Fascism, though, can take two different forms. The first form is the restoration of an old political order, after a limited period of bloodletting, e.g. the loyalists in the Ulster Volunteer Force mobilised in support of the Ulster Covenant of 1912, and other loyalists in the pogroms of Irish Nationalists from 1920-23, 1936 and 1969; the White Russian armies and militias used to try and restore the tsar from 1917-18 or the rest of the tsarist regime up to 1920; and the Freikorps in 1919 and the attempted Kapp Putsch in 1920, which tried to restore as much of the Kaiser’s Prussia-Germany as possible.

The more radical form of fascism also resorts to racism, national and male chauvinism, and paramilitary force, but leads to the establishment of a new corporate order, snuffing out all elements of democracy by means of a permanent police state. This form of fascism was first established in 1925 by Benito Mussolini in Italy and then taken further in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in 1933. Under this system, both the capitalist and working classes are coerced to meet the state’s imperial aims, but the owners of certain loyal private companies were still amply rewarded. There have also been hybrid versions of these two forms of fascism, e.g. Spain and Portugal, where the powerful traditional Catholic hierarchy retained an important political role.

The current Putin regime, backed by his United Russia party, sees itself more in the ‘Russia one and indivisible’ restorationist mode. The three main upholders of the old ‘Russia one and indivisible’ were the tsar, the Russian Orthodox patriarchy and the tsarist Russian state machinery. In the face of democratic and socialist challenges, the tsarist regime had also resorted to the extra-constitutional Black Hundred gangs (like the Irish/Ulster Loyalists from 1912, representatives of the earlier extra-constitutional, restorationist form of fascism).

Clearly today, the tsar himself cannot be restored, but Putin sees his own imperial presidency as performing the same role. And although the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t the Russian Federation’s established church, the privileged position given to it by the state-controlled media gives it that de facto status. Its leading Patriarch Kirill, of Moscow and all-Rus (i.e. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus), is a major supporter of Putin and in particular his current war upon Ukraine, including the use of Russian fascist forces. Kirill hopes to eliminate the ‘schismatic’ Ukrainian Orthodox church. This church finally became autocephalous (autonomous) in 2018 under the equally reactionary Patriarch Filaret, who transferred his earlier Russian ultra-nationalism to Ukrainian ultra-nationalism and wants to eliminate the Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine.

But Putin has gone to much greater lengths than the Ukrainian or other European governments to also involve fascists in the running of the state. The far-right Liberal Democratic Party (which despite its name is neither liberal nor democratic) led, until his recent death, by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has been licensed as part of the official ‘opposition’. So has the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). The CPRF’s ideology is not fascist but glorifies the days of Stalin’s USSR. Its Hobbesian strong-state ‘socialism’ is based on party-state control of the economy and society. The CPRF is also concerned about the decline in the number of ethnic Russians, and hence is a supporter of reactionary anti-LGBT+ and anti-abortion laws, so there can be a boost in Russian family numbers. To this end, the CPRF seeks cooperation with Russian Orthodox patriarchy.

Other parties, which could threaten Putin’s power, are dealt with far more brutally, denied access to state-controlled media, their leaders jailed, beaten up or ‘disappeared’. However, Putin’s licensed ‘opposition’, although sometimes feeling his stick, is also wooed by the carrot of access to the state-controlled media and behind-the-scenes funding. The ‘reds’’ own organisations sometimes display three-panelled posters, showing a Russian tsar, Stalin and a Russian Orthodox patriarch. In effect the Putin regime amounts to an institutionalised ‘red’-brown coalition, with the ‘reds’ in a tolerated subordinate position.

Nevertheless, Putin also permits the existence of Mussolini and Nazi-inspired fascist forces, often financed by particular Russian oligarchs. The Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, runs a mercenary army. This army has acted on behalf of Putin in Syria and now in Ukraine. Its method of operation is very similar to the US-based private mercenary army Blackwater, run by former US naval officer Erik Prince (which also remains quite legal even under ‘liberal’ Joe Biden, despite being illegal under international humanitarian law). These companies’ ‘independence’ also provides their governments the cover of deniability.

But Putin also tolerates the Russia’s most influential full-blown fascist, Aleksandr Dugin, who first organised the National Bolshevik Front, later the Eurasia Party, and became an advisor to the Russian State Duma speaker (who was also a member of Putin’s United Russia). Dugin has called for a new totalitarian Russian Empire to dominate all of Europe and Asia, rejecting ‘Atlanticism’ and “liberal values”.

Clearly such an attempt to create a two-continents-wide Russian imperial order has little more prospect of success than Boris Johnson’s Empire 2.0. But two other Russian billionaire oligarchs, who are ultra-Russian Orthodox, are trying to build an alternative white Christian alliance which stretches around the whole of the northern hemisphere from Chukotka in far north-eastern Siberia, west through the rest of the Russian Federation, on through Europe, across the Atlantic to the USA, Canada and Alaska.

Certainly, such an alliance faces its own major contradictions, since it seeks the cooperation of Russian Orthodox, traditionalist Roman Catholic and Protestant supremacist forces. However, significant well-financed hard-right leaders from each of these Christian denominations are currently prepared to set aside their views of each other as schismatics, heretics and anti-Christs, in order to build an ‘internationalism from above’, pro-patriarchal family, anti-LGBT+ and anti-abortion alliance.

Thus, the far-right, ultra-Russian Orthodox billionaire oligarchs Alexey Komov and Konstantin Malofeev have heavily funded the American Protestant supremacist World Congress of Families (WCF), one of the wealthiest and most influential hard-right organisations in the USA. The WCF promotes laws attacking LGBT+ and abortion rights. This hard right, in states with more liberal social laws, is currently promoting anti-trans legislation and is a main financier behind this campaign. But for the WCF, this is just a first step against gays, lesbians, pro-abortion feminists, progressive lecturers, teachers and others involved in the social welfare sector.

When it comes to others on the far right, Putin keeps his options open, promoting or dumping them to serve the Russian imperialist state as he sees fit. But whatever the Russian Federation’s balance between traditional ‘Russia one and indivisible’ restorationist and fascist Duginist and other far-right forces, it remains an imperialist police state, serving kleptocratic oligarchic interests, taking action well beyond the Russian Federation’s borders. This has included the deployment of Spetsnaz (special operations forces), which have operated in Ukraine from 2014 and in the UK (e.g. the poisoning of double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018) and also the most likely force behind the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 117 on July 2014 over the then separatist-controlled part of Donetsk (of course, the USA has a long record of similar activities abroad, including the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988).

Putin’s little helpers

Although Putin and the Russian Federation, often using ‘independent’ Russian oligarchs, have provided open support and very large sums of money to far-right organisations in Europe and the USA, they have also cultivated some on the left. State-backed RT and Sputnik are two forums given money to promote these links. 

RT has certainly invited hard-right politicians, like Nigel Farage, and several Tory MPs, e.g. Mike Freer, also member of Conservative Friends of Israel, and Johnny Mercer, breaker of the very loose ministerial code regarding second jobs and defender of British soldiers accused of war crimes in Northern Ireland. But RT has also promoted some once identified with the left, including the ultra-unionist George Galloway and the Scottish national populist, former SNP first minister, Alex Salmond. They have hosted their own RT TV shows.

The purpose behind promoting such apparently contradictory politicians is similar to how hedge fund managers operate, buying and shorting assets so they can profit whichever way their investments go. This has helped to promote other Putin objectives, e.g. undermining David Cameron’s UK pro-US, pro-EU government and breaking up potential competition using Brexit to undermine the EU. Although state-owned, the RT programmes’ format is copied from the US hard-right Fox News, and other similar channels.

There has been a long history of ‘official Communist’ flirting with the far-right. In 1922, diplomatic negotiations took place between the USSR and Germany leading to the Rapallo Treaty. This provided a cover for a secret deal with Hans von Seekt, far-right, anti-Semitic leader of the post-war German Reichswehr. Under this deal ships, aeroplanes, artillery, rifles and chemical weapons were produced for the Reichswehr on USSR soil. Leon Trotsky was in favour of this. (Later, von Seekt became a support of Hitler’s Nazis.) Leading Comintern official Karl Radek, along with others, developed a theory which viewed Germany as a victim of imperialism. This did not recognise that far-right Reichswehr officers had no interest in fighting an anti-imperialist war, but were German imperial revanchists, wanting to revive the German Reich, first by dismembering Poland, and later by seeking vengeance against France. In 1923, Radek made overtures to the German fascists under a policy known as the Schlageter Line. These policies followed the ending of the international revolutionary wave. They led to a state-backed National Bolshevism quite prepared to join with the far-right in other states by forming red/brown alliances. In these the ‘reds’ were subordinate, a continuing feature of such alliances today with Putin. And whenever the far-right no longer feel their need, the National Bolshevik ‘left’ are dumped — very brutally so when Hitler tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Unless you are a Putin believer, or trapped by abstract political schemas which, in classic religious and political sect style, try to shoehorn events into preconceived dogmas, then the nature of the Ukraine war is very obvious: Ukraine is the victim of Russian imperialist aggression. In a wider imperialist world dominated by global capitalism, the leaders of Ukraine, like the leaders of every other state, have to try and manoeuvre between the competing imperial powers. There has been a history, led by competing oligarchs in Ukraine, of jostling between Russian and Western imperialism (with a further division on whether to adopt a more pro-EU or pro-US strategy).

There hasn’t been an anti-imperialist struggle in well over a hundred years which did not attract the attention of other imperialist powers looking to weaken their imperialist competitors. Thus, one common feature of all imperialist powers facing anti-imperialist resistance is to lay the blame, not on its own exploitation and oppression, but as something stirred up by other imperialist powers. Those claiming to be on the left who fall into this trap deny the exploited and oppressed any agency and end up as ‘campists’ who tail-end one imperial power or another. And sometimes, this lack of belief can extend to the exploited and oppressed in their own country, looking instead to other imperialist powers to install ‘left’ quisling regimes, as happened over much of Eastern Europe after WW2.

This subordination under global imperialism also goes for some declining imperial powers like the UK, which has been ‘licensed’ by the USA to indulge in some imperial bullying in agreed areas of the world. States can lose even the restricted national self-determination possible under imperialist conditions and become client states; this appears to be what is happening to Lukashenko’s Belarus, as it becomes an open tool for Putin’s Russia. But in relation to the USA, Ukraine is probably as politically independent as Canada. Ukraine and Canada are flawed parliamentary democracies but are not yet client states. And they have yet not travelled as far along the road to national authoritarianism as several other states, including the UK.

Internationalism from below

Socialists across the globe, adopting the principle of ‘internationalism from below’, should support socialists in other states who try to challenge attempts by their ruling classes to worsen workers’ pay and working conditions and undermine the democratic rights of the oppressed (women, LGBT+ and BIPOC). Only an imperialist apologist of the worst order would say that the way forward for any such state with these socio-economic deficits is for an imperialist state to invade, annex and balkanise it. Under such thinking, Putin is allowed to invade Ukraine, impose his own stooge government, and detach selected parts of the state’s territory. Some of the more shame-faced left say they are opposed to Putin’s invasion, but because Ukrainian politicians have asked for NATO and EU membership (neither of which have been granted), the Ukrainian people cannot be allowed to defend themselves and should just accept a Putin/NATO-imposed deal instead.

In the worst scenario, Putin would impose his chosen quisling on a rump Ukraine. Even this, though, would not meet Putin’s original ‘Russia one and indivisible’ war aim, which was the elimination of Ukraine altogether. So unexpected and strong were the initial Ukrainian communities of resistance that Putin appears to have back-tracked to the forced annexation of some Ukrainian territory. And what sort of regimes would be imposed by Putin in those parts of Ukraine which he detached?

The Chechen Republic is run by the political thug Ramzan Kadyriv, with a particularly murderous record. The parts of Donetsk and Luhansk seized by Russian separatists with Putin’s backing in 2015 have been under the control of either the local Russian hard and far right or of Putin appointees. Leonid Pasechnik, president of the breakaway Luhansk Republic, joined Putin’s United Russia party in 2021.

Transnistria is a one-party statelet, run by President Vadim Krasnoselsky, promoted by the Sheriff company oligarchs and backed by the Obnovlenie party, affiliated to Putin’s United Russia. However, unlike some areas where Russian supremacists have been so ‘committed’ to getting the vote out that election or referenda participation rates with a 100%+ turnout have been recorded, the 2020 Transnistria Supreme Council elections, which returned 29 Obnovlenie candidates and three additional Sheriff-backed ‘independents’, only recorded a 28% turnout. But then the 100% clean sweep of all the seats in Transnistria makes it appear that there is some opposition in Putin’s Duma, where other parties can be found.

The key thing is that political conditions are even worse in Putin’s satellite statelets than in the Russian Federation itself. This is the kind future which awaits any further areas of Ukraine which remain under RF occupation.

One Putin apologist is the fading celebrity left Scottish nationalist Tommy Sheridan, currently member of Alex Salmond’s vanity party, Alba. Alba is moving rightwards across the political spectrum on many issues under the cloak of a newly declared republicanism (opposition to the monarchy, not opposition to the UK state’s Crown Powers and the championing of the sovereignty of the people). But even this ‘republicanism’ doesn’t sit well with Alba leader Salmond’s record as one of the most pro-Elizabrit politicians in Scotland. And Salmond the ‘sex pest’ (his defence lawyer’s ‘off-the-record’ words) is now opposing transgender recognition on the grounds of defending women’s ‘safe spaces’! Sheridan, looking for the earliest Scottish indyref2, would also be cock-a-hoop at 92% support in favour of independence, with a large majority in every single constituency, as occurred in Ukraine in 1991 (except Crimea with a small majority where there was also a high abstention rate).

But Sheridan, in his apologetics for Putin’s invasion, has written that “Putin and Russia have acted rationally from their point of view and in response to very real and frightening aggression from the US run NATO”. Yes, NATO has extended its borders and provided arms to Eastern European states, just as Putin has done with the CSTO in Belarus, Central Asia and Syria. But there has been no “frightening aggression”– invading and bombing, say, Kaliningrad or St. Petersburg, close to NATO’s borders. NATO has confined that to the Middle East and Central Asia, where Putin has happily joined in too.

Sheridan also goes on to repeat the Putin accusation of “outrageous internal attacks on Russian speaking people and communities by the Ukrainian security forces, many of whom are openly Nazi enthusiasts”. There have certainly been past attacks on Russian speakers by Ukrainian fascists, but Sheridan cannot explain why an elected Russian-speaking mayor (and formerly anti-Maidan) is the spokesperson for besieged Mariupol. There are certainly no elected pro-Maidan, Ukrainian-speaking mayors in either far right-controlled Donetsk or Lukansk. And what does he think will be the future for any Ukrainian language speakers in areas controlled by the Russian Federation army and the far-right paramilitaries? As ‘Russia one and indivisible’ supporters, they deny the existence of Ukrainians. There is chillingly only one way of making that a reality.

Other Putin left apologists offer different degrees of support for or opposition to Putin over his invasion of Ukraine. Most claim, though, that they are opposed — it’s just that he was provoked by NATO. And presumably if Putin defeats NATO in Ukraine, or if this left can force NATO to offer Putin a deal, he will turn into a pacifist lamb and the Russian Federation will give up being an imperial power – and pigs might fly! Many of these left Putin apologists, such as those in the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party, are also people who campaigned for Brexit, claiming that this would shift politics to the left, providing fertile ground for socialists. So, we should be extremely wary of these socialists’ predictions for Ukraine following any Putin-NATO deal.

When it comes to the democratic right of national self-determination, you either support it globally, or treat it as a cynical ploy only to be exercised by your camp, e.g. US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Principles in 1918. And for those dogmatic socialists who say that the right of self-determination should always be subordinated to the higher principle of socialism, are they seriously arguing that Putin’s Russia is invading Ukraine to bring about socialism?! Putin’s Russian Federation is based on capitalism in the political form of an oligarchical kleptocracy. And if the turbo-charged state capitalist People’s Republic of China invades Taiwan, it will not be to bring about socialism either, but to impose the yuan and bring the Taipei stock exchange in line with those in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, as is already in the process of being enforced in Hong Kong. And those who disagree, if they are not just ‘disappeared’, will end up in the ‘re-education’ camps like those in Xinjiang.

The key thing for socialists is not to be dragged into one imperialist camp or the other. In extending our support to the Ukrainian people against Russian imperialism, we link this, for example, with support for Palestinians and Kurds confronting Western (US plus European) imperialism, Syrians confronting both, and Uighurs and Tibetans confronting Chinese imperialism. Our ‘internationalism from below’ solidarity is our anti-imperialist answer to their competing diplomatic ‘internationalism from above’ imperialist alliances.

This is an edited excerpt from Allan Armstrong’s longer two-part essay on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You can find part one here and part two here.



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