Facebook slanders and threats – an echo of politics in Ukraine

Having fought under the banner of communism for my entire adult life, I must say that it is not often that I get branded as an apologist for fascism. But it happened a few days ago, in the context of a discussion about Ukraine.

Fascists and communists stand at opposite poles, the advanced fighting detachments of opposing classes – the working class in the case of the communists, the capitalist class in the case of the fascists. They constitute the elements of those classes who understand that, ultimately, the decay of capitalism will lead to civil war between the classes, and who prepare for that day, each in their own way.

The basis of the false and hysterical accusation of ‘apologist for fascism’ against me was that I agreed with the comments of another person in a Facebook discussion supporting the right of self-determination for Ukraine and exposing the fraud of the ‘people’s republics’ set up by pro-Moscow forces in eastern Ukraine. I dismissed the slander and absented myself from the discussion. (The person who made the accusation seems to have removed those comments later.)

The discussion continued to degenerate after I left, however, to the point where one of the people making the accusation of ‘apologists for fascism’ threatened another participant in the discussion with physical violence: “… next time i see you at uni beat your fascist defending ass as good as it deserves…”

This threat should cause anyone interested in the discussion on Ukraine to stop and think.

Considering all the forms of violence and intimidation faced by workers as they enter the political arena, this little incident may seem relatively unimportant. And on one level, it merely demonstrates the folly of taking part in such public political discussions on Facebook, engaging with people whose starting point and even whose identity is sometimes unknown.

In order to have a useful political debate, there must first be some kind of political goal the participants have in common which sets the parameters of the discussion, such as a shared commitment to defend the interests of the working class. Many Facebook discussions bring together people with no such common ground, with widely differing and opposing goals, in a strange, toxic atmosphere that combines intimate directness with partial anonymity. That, amplified by the fact that comments are often made in haste, ensures that such discussions are often at cross-purposes, and have a strong tendency to degenerate into mutual abuse. Nothing new here.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute this slander and its logical extension into the threat of violence just to the nature of the Facebook medium. For the irresponsible and malicious use of the term ‘fascist’ to slander political opponents and justify the use of violence against them is a central feature of the political struggle in Ukraine today. Recognising this poison, seeing where it comes from and whose interests it serves, can be a useful way of untangling the reality of the Ukraine situation itself.

Maidan, 2014. Photo: Alfred Yaghobzadeh

Maidan, 2014. Photo: Alfred Yaghobzadeh

That the broad, heterogeneous movement in Maidan square which brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovich in February included the participation of rightist and fascist currents is beyond dispute. However, it is another matter entirely to characterise the movement as a whole as fascist, and the mass popular uprising as a fascist coup. That would be as absurd as calling the politically confused and heterogeneous Occupy Wall St movement of 2011 a fascist movement, on the basis that rightist and anti-Semitic currents participated in those demonstrations too.

To label the post-Maidan government in Kiev a ‘fascist junta’, something akin to the regimes of Mussolini or Hitler, is as absurd as pinning the fascist label on the legislature of France, with its elected Front National deputies, or the 12 French cities with FN mayors, or the European Parliament.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

In Ukraine, the false idea of a fascist putsch and a fascist-dominated government in Kiev emanated from Moscow, from the Putin regime, inheritors of the Stalinist political tradition, as it prepared its own act of violence: the invasion and annexation of eastern Ukraine. In the Stalinist school, absurdities present no problem; the big, brazen lie works best. Political leaders in this tradition can tell the world that the heavily-armed professional soldiers occupying Crimea are local volunteers not Russian troops, and later admit that actually they were Russian troops, while simultaneously claiming that the similar-looking troops in east Ukraine are not – all with a straight face.

Boris Kagarlitzky Photo: Skilpaddle

Boris Kagarlitzky
Photo: Skilpaddle

The left incarnation of Stalinist politics in Russia today is Boris Kagarlitsky, whose commentary was reproduced in various left publications. Standing in the Stalinist tradition, Kagarlitsky refuses to recognise the right of Ukraine to self-determination. When in April pro-Russian separatists seized control of some municipal buildings in eastern Ukraine, Kagarlitsky saw “a genuine revolution unfolding.” This was not a mere misreading of the situation, it was the most brazen lie of all, and many people outside of Ukraine were taken in by it. (Kagarlitsky’s Russian-chauvinist views have been effectively critiqued in an article by Zbigniew Kowalewski reproduced here).

Notebook of an Agitator, by James P Cannon. Available from Pathfinder Press

Notebook of an Agitator, by James P Cannon. Available from Pathfinder Press

As James P Cannon, one of the founding leaders of the Communist Party in the US, once wrote, “The Stalinists didn’t invent the art of lying, but they expanded and developed it into a philosophy and a way of life.” (1)

No lie is too big, especially when a crime against the working class requires justification. The Stalin regime in the 1940s accused the entire nation of Crimean Tatars of collaboration with German fascism, and used that lie to justify the forced deportation of the entire population of Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia.

In the 1930s, the Stalinist Communist Party of Germany, acting on instructions from Moscow, justified its criminal refusal to join with the social-democratic party in a united front of mutual self-defence against Hitler by labelling the social-democrats as ‘social-fascists’. This loose and irresponsible use of the label ‘fascist’ for factional advantage proved catastrophic. It disoriented the working class in Germany about the true character of fascism and paved the way for Hitler’s victory.

And while these political crimes were being carried out on a mass scale in Europe, the same lies, slanders, and violence were being employed on a smaller scale elsewhere. Writing about the early days of the Left Opposition in the US, Cannon writes, “The first weapon of the Stalinists was slander. The second weapon employed against us was ostracism. The third was gangsterism.” (2)

Left Opposition in the US 1928-31 by James P Cannon. Available from Pathfinder Press.

Left Opposition in the US 1928-31 by James P Cannon. Available from Pathfinder Press.

From 1928 onwards, Cannon documents a series of violent assaults by Stalinist thugs on people selling the Militant newspaper on the streets and attempts to break up political meetings by physical attacks. Cannon quotes some of the justifications used by the Stalinists to justify and encourage this violence: “Dr Markoff, in a speech to the Italian party membership meeting on November 28, said ‘The [Left] Oppositionists are worse than Mussolini and his Fascists. We must beat them politically and physically.’” (3)

An echo of all these elements can be heard in the Facebook discussion: the smearing of opponents in a discussion as supporters of fascists and fascism, the efforts to warn other readers against paying attention to the ‘fascist apologists’, and the logical extension into threats of violence. The purpose of it all is to shut down the discussion. Michael Treen, whose posting of the original article sparked the discussion, added a comment sharply dissociating himself from the threat and condemning it as completely reactionary.

In recent months, Moscow pulled back from its direct military threat to Ukraine. Putin distanced his regime from the fraudulent ‘independence’ referendum organised by the separatists in eastern Ukraine, pulled back the troops massed on the border, and opened talks with the newly-elected government of Petro Poroshenko. Moscow evidently judged that, given the demonstrated lack of popular support for the separatists, the political and military cost of an invasion would be too high.

The truth about eastern Ukraine – that the big majority of the toilers, including the Russian-speakers, supports a unified Ukraine and opposes the actions of the separatists – became a lot clearer for all to see. Separatist leader Igor Girkin/Strelkov’s call for mass support fell on deaf ears. He bemoaned the “hundreds and thousands sitting quietly in front of their TV sets with a mug of beer.”  (further excerpts here)  “Where are these 27,000 volunteers the journalists are talking about? I do not see them,” Strelkov complained.

Even his desperate appeal for Russian troops on the eve of Kiev’s action to re-take Slovyansk went unanswered. The political isolation of the separatists was laid bare. There never had been any “genuine revolution unfolding.” The lie became increasingly difficult to defend against the evidence. This fact, too, drove the Facebook discussion.

Needless to say, it remains necessary for working class fighters to recognise all the various currents in bourgeois politics, including identifying fascist currents and calling them by their correct name. Sometimes the fascists make it easy, identifying themselves with fascist salutes and insignia, including infinite variations on the swastika. More often, a careful and considered examination of their political views and actions is needed. In any case, light-minded use of the word ‘fascist’ as an abusive epithet for someone whose views are different from one’s own has a logic as dangerous as the fascists themselves.

(1) James P Cannon, “The art of lying,” Notebook of an Agitator, Pathfinder Press, p227

(2) James P Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism, Pathfinder Press, p65

(3) James P Cannon, The Left Opposition in the US 1928-31, Pathfinder Press, p64

Link to the Facebook discussion here (if you have the patience). Some comments have been removed by those who posted them.


3 responses to “Facebook slanders and threats – an echo of politics in Ukraine

  1. Three comments have been made in response to this blog on the Facebook page of ‘Group for the Discussion of the Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism by Caleb Maupin. Maupin raises some important ideas, and I would like to respond to them, but I don’t have posting rights on that page. So I have copied them here, together with my responses.

    1. Caleb Maupin: “The Stalin regime in the 1940s accused the entire nation of Crimean Tatars of collaboration with German fascism, and used that lie to justify the forced deportation of the entire population of Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia.” — That is historically inaccurate. During the Second World War, the USSR lost 20 million people. Many different people were relocated as part of the war effort. In fact, the Soviet government rescued millions of Soviet jews from Nazi death camps by relocating them away from invaders. Moving the population around while in a state of war, is the equivalent of fire departments evacuating burning buildings. Its not genocide.

    James Robb: If the deportation had been justified by the military situation, the entire population of Crimea – or at least a large proportion of all nationalities – would have been evacuated, and their return would have been permitted as soon as the military threat receded. Neither of these things happened. Only the Tatars were deported, (along with some Greeks and Bulgarians, but not the Russians) and their return – those who survived the murderous conditions of the deportation – was not permitted until the 1980s. Simultaneously with the deportation, Tatars serving in the Red Army were purged and sent to labour camps. How was this militarily justified? Your attempt to find a plausible alternative explanation for Stalinist genocide simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

    2. Caleb Maupin: “Moscow, from the Putin regime, inheritors of the Stalinist political tradition.” — Putin presides over a capitalist state in a capitalist country. How is he a “Stalinist”? I would expect this kind of silliness in the financial times, but the writer claims to be a Marxist. He should know the difference between the class character of Russia now, and the class character of Russia from 1928-1954 when Stalin led it. Is “Stalinist” just a synonymn for bad?

    James Robb: Not everything changes overnight when property relations change. Political traditions inherited from the past endure long after changes in property relations. For example, when Stalin overturned the Bolshevik policy of support to self-determination of the oppressed nations and implemented a renewed policy of Russification in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere, he drew heavily on the czarist traditions of Russification, long after czarism had been buried. Putin is the continuator of both of these reactionary traditions inherited from previous periods in Russia’s history. He draws on them consciously, such as in his use of the term ‘Novorossiya’ to justify Russia’s supposed territorial claims in the Donbas. He also inherits, for example, institutions such as the police and prison systems which appear little changed from Stalin’s era. The prison warden who greeted Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at Mordovia prison told her, “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.” This statement had a precise meaning, understood by all.

    3. Caleb Maupin: “heavily-armed professional soldiers occupying Crimea are local volunteers not Russian troops.” — Heavily armed Russian troops have been in Crimea since 1991. This was part of the treaty signed with Ukraine when the USSR was dissolved. This author is completely unfamiliar with the situation.

    James Robb: Yes, there were Russian troops in Crimea, at the Russian naval base as permitted by the Russian-Ukraine treaty. Some of these participated in the Russian annexation along with others newly-arrived from Russia. The point is, the troops that seized the Crimean parliament and raised the Russian flag over it were not acting under any treaty, and wore no insignia identifying themselves as being under Russian command. A pretence was maintained by Moscow that these were some kind of spontaneous local militia drawn from the Crimean population, despite all the indications to the contrary. Only after they were fully confident that the annexation was irreversible did the Kremlin admit that they were, in fact, Russian special forces.

  2. James, hope you don’t mind if I “copy and paste” some thoughts I shared where your blog post appeared on Facebook…

    As usual your blog post is well written and offers lots of food for thought. I’m sure you remember as well as I, a point the communist movement made at the time of the first Iraq War. We are proponents of civil discussion and debate, especially within the working class. Among the first to suffer when civil discussion and debate is shut down, are vanguard workers who are often swimming “against the stream” at various times. The outbreak of actual fighting in an imperialist war is often one such time. Appeals to patriotism and national chauvinism are often at their height then and no one is better at mimicking those appeals than trade union officials and their hangers-on who often prefer to turn union meetings then into rallies for “our government” and “our boys.”

    Your point is well taken that, “In order to have a useful political debate, there must first be some kind of political goal the participants have in common which sets the parameters of the discussion, such as a shared commitment to defend the interests of the working class.”

    But one thing that has developed with the rise of social media, as well as other forms of rapid communication among working people, such as email, is that workers, unionists and others who don’t know each other, or don’t know each other well, can find themselves in a discussion of political events, such as those in the Ukraine that you described. (Or any number of other issues.) Even without knowing in advance that everyone reading or participating in the conversation shares a common framework, such discussions in my experience can be useful. But again the value of civil discussion and debate cannot be overemphasized. I’ve often had reason to raise this in Facebook or email exchanges (involving groups of workers). The point is not that we need to be “nice” to one another. The point is that the working class can only work its way through the many challenges we need to face and think about, if civil discussion and respect for the opinions of others is one starting point. Sharp disagreement can also be civil.

    A thought I’ve often shared with fellow workers when we’ve been involved in sharp debate, is that it’s easy to be mutually respectful when we all agree. It is precisely when we disagree that we need to avoid the kind of “name calling” you described. It goes without saying that physical threats, be they on the job or in a discussion on line have no place in the workers movement.

    • Geoff, I do remember the advocacy of civil discussion in the context of war hysteria. I think clarity on this question is one of the particular strengths of the communists in the US, a legacy of the long continuity going back to the early days of the Left Opposition. I was always impressed by the fact that even as they had to defend their meetings against violent attack by Stalinist thugs, chair leg in hand, they would attempt to argue the politics with them at the same time – and in the case of some of the younger and less-corrupted ones, succeeded in winning a few over.

      On the kind of discussions on social media that can be had among largely random collections of people: I have had a few useful discussions under these circumstances, mostly where a common framework (which doesn’t necessarily mean agreement) develops partly by self-selection of the participants and partly by sheer good fortune.

      On the other hand, I have also experienced some dreadful abusive exchanges in situations where I thought a common cause existed but it did not, in fact. This includes one on the FB page of blacklisted workers in the UK which I joined (and seem to recall that I recommended you join – big mistake!) The skills one needs to develop in these situations is judgement about when to walk away, and tight control over one’s urge to have the last word. Having the hide of a rhinoceros would also help. As you say, it can be done, but insistence on respect for the norms of civil discussion is vital.

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