By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
I never thought I would see anything like the hostility between the American left and Vladimir Putin. For my entire life I have listened to liberal Democrats, academics, and journalists criticize Americans who harbored an “irrational fear” of the former Soviet Union, who “saw Communists under every bed,” who suspected their fellow Americans of being “Communist sympathizers” without credible evidence.
That was Joseph McCarthy’s great sin, we were told, what made him a man “without decency” and a threat to our democratic values.
Yet now the leading liberals are saying the same things about Russia and Putin. They charge him with undermining our elections, of suborning operatives in the Trump campaign for the presidency, of manipulating politics in both Europe and the United States for his and Russia’s advantage.
What happened? When did it become enlightened thinking to see Putin as a villain, when we were told that it was simplistic to view Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev in such simplistic terms; that the cause of international understanding demanded that we learn to look at the world through the eyes of Russian leaders, who justifiably felt threatened by the encircling forces of American capitalism and militarism?
Liberal Democrats will protest that Putin is a dictator; that he is using military force to expand Russian interest in Eastern Europe; that he interfered in our elections; that there is good reason to believe that he assassinates his political opponents.
But didn’t Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro hold as much dictatorial power and use it as ruthlessly as Putin — and they remain hallowed figures in the pantheon of the American left? As we speak, you can find college kids wearing T-shirts bearing their glorified images.
Military aggression? The old Marxist leaders used military force to expand their power to neighboring countries at least as resolutely and effectively as Putin. Ask the Poles and the East Germans, the South Vietnamese, the African countries to which Castro sent Cuban troops to support his favored despots.
But what about our hacked elections?
I suspect savvy liberals will know better than to push this proposition too far. They know about the Comintern, the Communist International established by Stalin to undermine democracies around the world. They know that the direct links between the Communist Party USA and Soviet intelligence have been documented. Informed liberals will concede that there were many American members of the Communist Party working as Soviet spies.
Their case against Joseph McCarthy is based not on whether such individuals existed, but on their conviction that McCarthy accused people of being Soviet collaborators without sufficient proof. Only the liberal counterparts of flat-earthers still maintain that Alger Hiss and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were not Soviet spies.
In fact, the position taken by most liberals in the media and the academy these days is that Hiss and the Rosenbergs worked for the Soviets, but that they were led to do so by idealism, not by any hostility toward their fellow Americans. And that the authorities should have understood that, rather than viewing them as traitors.
But no one with any credibility argues that Stalin and the KGB did not seek to use people like Hiss and the Rosenbergs to influence politics in the United States. Even so, we were prodded by the left in this country to seek detente with the Soviets, to work for a “politics of convergence.” But now the American left is aghast that Putin would dare to meddle in the “sanctity of our democratic elections.”
What did Putin do to lose the affection of the American left? It seems to me clear: He abandoned too many of his Marxist beliefs. To be sure, he is a former member of the KGB. And he is as much of a thug and a ruthless dictator as Joseph Stalin. But Communism is about more than thuggery and despotism.
Marxism also preaches atheism and an end to organized religion. I don’t think it would be accurate to call Putin a Christian, but he has attended services at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and praised the Russian Orthodox Church for its role in Russia’s history, things that Stalin and Khrushchev would never have done.
Marxism is an international movement, calling upon the workers of the world to unite and overthrow their national governments and the capitalist system. Putin is an unabashed Russian nationalist. He does what he does to further Russia’s national interests, not some longed-for “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Putin has reestablished private ownership of industry and privately owned businesses in Russia. Many would argue he did so in a corrupt manner, meant to pad his and his former KGB cronies’ bank accounts, rather than benefit ordinary Russians. Still, Russia is no longer the socialist country that Lenin and Stalin worked to establish.
In a nutshell: Putin is not a secularist, not a one-worlder looking for opportunities to submit Russian policy to the directive of the United Nations, not an egalitarian, not a socialist. And he meddles in American elections not to benefit the transnational ideals of some Soviet agency like the Comintern, but to benefit Russia’s national interests.
You can see why large numbers of American professors, liberal politicians, and the hosts on MSNBC can’t stand the man. He champions beliefs that the American left finds regressive: nationalism, religious belief, private ownership of businesses, a disdain for the politically correct causes of the day.
Please do not misread me. None of this is meant to say that he is a good man and not a danger to the United States. He is a potential enemy. And, as I write this, we don’t know what the consequences from Trump’s surgical strike in Syria will be. The point is only that Putin is the first Russian leader in our lifetimes who has not been treated sympathetically by the liberal establishment in the United States, and that the explanation lies in his rejection of key Marxist beliefs once associated with the Soviet Union.
And, of course, there is also the question of the last United States’ presidential election. The American left was able to look the other way when the former Soviet Union used its American agents to shape American foreign policy during World War II and the Cold War. But they find meddling in Hillary Clinton’s campaign unforgivable. Modern American leftists would never admit it in public, but you can’t help but think that many of them are mumbling to themselves that Joseph Stalin would never have done that to an American disciple of Saul Alinsky.