On Putin, the Ukraine War, the United States and Fascism

Photograph Source: Mike Maguire – CC BY 2.0

It has been darkly amusing to watch one Pavlovian “Enemy of Enemy is my Friend” buffoon after another among what CounterPuncher Eric Draitser calls those “terminally online leftists who push a pro-Kremlin narrative about [Ukrainian] Nazis” line up behind Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in the names of anti-imperialism and anti-fascism. No love (and much hate) here for Ukrainian Nazis (however exaggerated their presence and relevance – see below), for Volodymyr “WWIII Please” Zelensky, and for US-NATO imperialism, but Russia today is a monopoly capitalist imperialist state. It has militarily intervened not only on its own borders, as in Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, but also in Syria, Lebanon, and across sub-Saharan Africa. Its profit-lusting oligarchs covet Ukrainian resources – grains, minerals, and ports. Putin makes it explicitly clear that he believes in the pre-Soviet Russian Empire and views Ukraine as an essential component of that empire. Nazis couldn’t win votes from any but a tiny percentage of votes in a national Ukrainian election.

At the same time, as the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley explained on the CounterPunch podcast two weeks ago Putin embodies “classic fascism…ethno-nationalism linked to religion used in a way to justify colonialist enterprise, characteristically carrying out an imperial war.” Asked for his general impression on the Ukraine invasion, Stanley elaborated as follows:

“…Russian nationalists being led by Putin, who is the Russian nationalist, engaged in an aggressive, imperialist war that is a kind of paradigmatic throwback to European fascism…with the Hitler-style 1939 propaganda that the war is supposedly justified by genocide of ethnic Russians. These are classic, not even pretending Nazi tropes to justify colonial invasion and war. …Fascism is paradigmatically an ethno-nationalist, far-right, masculinist/macho, anti-LGBT, anti-feminist movement that is led by a strong masculinist leader who justifies imperialist war and greater empire by national humiliation and fictional claims of aggrievement and declares that the Jews are behind a globalist conspiracy of democracy that has rotted peoples’ minds and left them, in the words of [a leading Russian nationalist’s recent editorial] description of Zelensky, corrupt and decadent. It’s an almost classical paradigmatic of fascism with some hair-splitting on, you know, how you justify the imperial war…not to kill Ukrainians but to assimilate them and pretend their identity never existed in the first place….”

Stanley identifies various ways in which the great white Russian strongman Putin’s political posture and rhetoric match each of the ten main fascist political narratives and characteristics in Stanley’s important and widely read 2018 book How Fascism Works: the mythic notion of a grand national past that must be redeemed from humiliation at the hands of treasonous liberal and left elites and racial, ethnic, and/or cultural minorities; a propaganda of projection wherein the rulers call their enemies what they themselves are (“if you’re a fascist you call other people fascists”); an assault on intellectuals, free thought, and independent media; unreal conspiracy theories and other attacks on truth and coherent thinking; a strong attachment to social hierarchy and inequality, with a superior “Us” standing over an inferior “Them;” bitter and angry claims that one’s favored and superior group is being unjustly victimized; a fierce and curiously lawless commitment to “law and order” aimed at crushing the corruption and anarchy of the evil Others and their elite liberal and left/Marxist allies; hyper-masculinist fear of and hostility to feminism and gay and transgendered rights; an anti-urban sense of the rural countryside as the source of true national and social virtue; exploitation of the populist notion that hard-working people/producers are being shafted by a globalist parasitic financial beast.

It’s not for nothing that the horse-riding dictator and fossil-capitalist Vladimir Putin has long been a manly hero for neofascists within and beyond the US, including sexist, racist, eco-exterminist, and pandemicist degenerates like Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and Viktor Orban, to name some Putin fans of note.

Putin’s fascism has taken concrete form in an imperial war meant to erase another nation and “restore” the lost glory of the Russian fatherland. Putin’s compliant, rubber-stamp Duma has enacted legislation making it a crime punishable by fifteen years (!) in prison to call the Kremlin’s war of invasion either a war or an invasion. Russian antiwar protesters have been swept up by the Russian police state. All independent and alternative media has been shut down in great “antifascist” Russia. Standing on a sidewalk with a flower or a blank sign gets you hauled into a police van in Russia today.

Putin recently went on Russian television (which means Russian state television at this point) to call for national “self-purification” to rid Russia of nefarious “fifth column” war critics. He accused the West of globalist cancel culture. “The Russian people will always be able to differentiate true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like an insect that accidentally flew in and got trapped in your mouth,” Putin said. “I am confident that a necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity and readiness to respond to any challenges.” The use such vile and dehumanizing, even genocidal rhetoric to describe one’s political enemies, calling them scum and likening them to insects, is a classic hallmark of fascist rhetoric from Hitler through Trump.

But you won’t hear the F-word (fascism) being used much in connection with Putin by US media. Bringing up fascism opens more than a few ugly cans of worms relevant to politics and policy in the United States itself, where one of the two major parties (the Republicans) has gone Amerikaner-fascist and other one (the “lying neoliberal [and] warmonger[ing]” Democratic Party) is its Weimar-like appeaser. It raises questions US authorities would prefer unasked in a time when late capitalism is giving rise to late fascism in the core-state West as well as in semi-peripheral nations like Russia, India, and Brazil. As a result, the dominant US “ideological state apparatuses” (Louis Althussar’s term) run with the ideologically vapid and neutral charges of “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism” when it comes to Putin and his regime.

And that does more ideological work for the American ruling class than just obscuring its own toleration and cultivation of fascism in the United States. It also helps the ruling class demonize those who oppose the United States’ savage regime of empire and inequality from the actual socialist and communist, revolutionary, simultaneously anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialist Left. For, as the RCP leader Bob Avakian explains, “speaking of ‘authoritarianism,’ without reference to the actual ideology and political and social content of the ‘authoritarians,’ allows for the pretense that ‘extremists’ of the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ are essentially the same. Thus, with the label of ‘authoritarianism,’ communists can be thrown into the same camp of ‘very bad people’ with fascists—when, in reality, communists are the exact opposite of, and the force most fundamentally opposed to, fascism.”

That’s exactly right. And much the same can be said about the common use of the misleading word totalitarianism. Stripped of specific historical and material-ideological content, ritual denunciations of “autocracy,” “authoritarianism,” and “totalitarianism” let US capitalist-imperialist propagandists at CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post include radical anti-capitalists and (truth be told) even neo-New Deal social democrats like Bernie Sanders. It lets Tom Friedman, Joy Reid, Timothy Snyder, and Anderson Cooper et al. paint anti-capitalist communists like Lenin, Mao, and Che with the crimes of capitalist fascists like Hitler, Mussolini, Trump, Bolsonaro, and Putin.

Another and related ideological device here for Western propagandists is to call fascists “populists.” That misleading habit has the benefit of letting western ideological authorities treat popular solidarity in pursuit of economic equality and concomitant enhanced democracy as brutish and anti-democratic, even dictatorial.

Also problematic in the same vein is western intellectuals’ habit of loosely tossing around the term “strongman,” as if there was no relevant difference between “strongmen” Lenin, Mao, Castro, Che, and Ho Chi Minh (communists all) and Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Tojo, Pinochet, Orban, Trump, Bolsonaro, and Putin (fascists all).

Some of the reluctance to use the word fascist among US ideological elites may reflect the simple and uncomfortable fact that specifically fascist “authoritarianism” and “strongman” rule is an outcome and even a destination of capitalism-imperialism. Fascism is a product of capitalism-imperialism, with which it never breaks even as it abandons previously normative bourgeois-democratic forms of class rule.

The war criminal[1]Putin is no exception. He is indeed very much an outcome of the US-led capitalist West and the US-dominated imperial arm the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He is the predictable and indeed predicted product of US-led Western capitalism-imperialism’s economic and military humiliation of Russia after the Cold War no less than Hitler was the product of partly US-led Western capitalism-imperialism’s economic and military humiliation of Germany after World War One. Putin and Putinism-fascism were made in the USA to no small extent, and it comes with a nuclear arsenal resulting from the disastrous refusal of the United States – the only country to ever to attack civilians (or armed forces) with nuclear weapons – to honor calls for global nuclear disarmament after World War II.


1. Just to be clear: the facts that (a) the US has committed and backs war crimes on a scale beyond what Putin is doing in Ukraine and that (b) the criminal US Empire dwarfs all past and present empires does not mean that (c) Putin is not an imperialist war criminal. Online “social” media is loaded with posts and comments in which left-identified people seem to delight in absolving the fascist imperialist Putin of guilt for the slaughter in Ukraine. That’s pathetic. For Marx’s sake, comrades, try to maintain a moral core while properly assessing the United States’ central role in the creation of the Ukraine Crisis. In case anyone think this observation comes from a perspective that gives a pass to US/NATO imperialism, please see this essay I did a few years ago: “The World Will Not Mourn the Decline of US Hegemony.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).