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The Russians are Coming!

Photo by Tom Hilton | CC BY 2.0

These days we see a seemingly odd project taking place in the realms of American liberalism: ferocious insistence that the truly outrageous Donald J. Trump is at his worst when….making peace with our enemies! Has he been brainwashed by Russian and/or North Korean agents, perhaps? Or is this all, perhaps, a crude plan to place Trump Steaks in Trump hotels in heretofore unbidden locations? What kind of madness would lessen the threat of American nukes that keeps us all as safe as we may reasonably hope to be?

The story is old, so old that we need to be reminded of an insight offered myself and others in the lecture classes of historian of empire William Appleman WIlliams, more than fifty yeas ago. As he explained, US policy toward Russia was already, in the nineteenth century approximately what it became after the Russian Revolution. Indeed, as nearly every imperial policy going back thousands of years: chop away at competing empires as persistently as possible, rouse internal divisions while threatening domestic populations into submissions with dark warnings about the evil nature of the competitor-empire peoples.

All this acquired a distinctly modern affect with the rise of the Bolsheviks, of course. The American newspaper headlines of 1919, announcing that in the new Russia, women had been “nationalized,” fairly typified the looniness of the orchestrated response, or alternatively, placed Russia among the barbarian non-white races threatening the West and, almost certainly, its fragile womanhood.

In their new book, The Russians Are Coming. Again: the first cold war as tragedy, the second as farce, Jeremy Kuzamarov and John Marciano, scholar-activists of human rights campaigns for decades, offer details reminding us of how hard American leaders struggled to put across the propaganda, but also how determined they have remained to keep as much of their own aims of conquest as secret as possible. Woodrow Wilson, adopted by the press as the great peacemaker and democrat, naturally kept the invasion of Russia by the US and its far right Russian agents from public eyes. When exposed after its abject failure, the project was described as incidental, unimportant, even accidental, in the same way that the US involvement in Vietnam would be described by affable liberal commentators as unintentional, a good deed gone somehow wrong.

Why did they and their successors persist, across the decades down to the collapse of the East Bloc and beyond, in the insistence upon American innocence? And why did they persist in seemingly fanatical plans to overthrow or, possibly, exterminate the Russians entirely by way of atomic or nuclear weapons? These questions are not so easily answered, because they involve the high-wire maneuvers of powerful men (and a very few women) evidently willing to destroy the world destined, otherwise, to be inherited by their super-rich and super-powerful sons, grandsons and so on into figurative eternity.

I once asked Harry Magdoff, co-editor of Monthly Review, why American leaders of business and the two parties would perpetuate an ecological acceleration downward. Harry answered that the logic was the same as the atomic and nuclear arms race. They could not, in their own terms, do otherwise. Capitalism, our national capitalism, must confront and overcome all other forms of power. Peace, in the real sense of global peace, is (to borrow a phrase from the hawkish Margaret Thatcher) Not An Option.

Thus a deliciously awful issue of Colliers magazine, 1951, analyzed by the authors, drew upon intellectual celebrities far and wide to declare Russian Communism a form of madness, dangerously infectious if not eradicated. Leading liberal Arthur Schlesinger Jr., had earlier declared sympathy for Communism to reveal evidence of neurosis, the cravings of “lonely and frustrated people” (p.128). No wonder Schlesinger was said to have authored the legislation put forward by Senator Hubert Humphrey, during the height of the Cold War, to incarcerate in special prison camps thousands of Americans guilty of….being American Communists.

More to the point today, perhaps, are the curses thrown down from the heights of liberal indignation upon Martin Luther King, Jr, after his repudiation of the War in Vietnam. “An egomaniac…under the sway of the Communists,” black columnist Carl Rowan called him. (p.134)  For the AFL’s George Meany and noted liberals moving rightward, King was mostly an ingrate. Unions had raised money for him, some labor leaders had actually marched with him, if mainly to heighten their own prestige. And now he had betrayed America!

A rehearsal of the US role around the world in the Cold War era brings us sharply toward Noam Chomsky’s conclusion that the Russians had determined to hold onto the security of an impermeable Eastern Bloc, while the American leaders, for their part, regarded the Russians mainly as a barrier to complete control of the Global South. This makes as much sense of the anti-communist obsession as any other single notion, because it brings together modern capitalism and a major source of its  blood-soaked origins: the exploitation of race.

The final chapter begins with C. Wright Mills’s argument that a calamitous World War III was most likely because the US could not accept the threat to hegemony that a command economy offered to the Third World. In the decades since the Soviet collapse, this threat has come to pass in a different fashion, with the rise of counter-hegemonic capitalistic economies in unexpected parts of the world. That the imagined threat would now be laid at the door of the Russians, whose military budget is not a tenth of that of the US, offers one more irony. As does the return of bogeyman anticommunist rhetoric, adjusted to Islam, then specified to Shiites aka Iran.

Kuzmarov and Marciano have delivered a powerful package of ideas in highly readable form. Let’s hope today’s young readers, in particular, will find their way to this book.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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