The Horseshoe and the Lightning Bolt

Why the Left Should Look Beyond the ‘Tankies’ and the ‘Campists’ and Support Ukraine

Much of the revolutionary left is still confused about capitalism. Like many of my comrades, busts and statues of Lenin striding across the firmament of revolutionary history occupied a pride of place on my university office desk. And like many of my comrades, I had some T-shirts emblazoned with the letters USSR, convinced that the Soviet Union’s abolition of private ownership and market anarchy signalled the arrival of socialism. But if that were true, I began to ask, if the abolition of private ownership of the means of production was the lodestar of socialist achievement, then how could socialism be squared with Stalin’s tyranny, the gulags and the development of its totalitarian state? Leon Trotsky helped explain much of that in his book, The Revolution Betrayed, that examined the historical development in the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death in 1924. I made numerous pilgrimages to Trotsky’s Mexican compound turned museum located in the Coyoacán neighbourhood of Mexico City, where Trotsky and his second wife, Natalia Sedova, lived and where Trotsky was murdered by a Stalinist agent wielding an ice pick. I would walk through the gardens of the house and try to imagine what life would have been like for Trotsky during that fateful year. Raya Dunayevskaya was Leon Trotsky’s Russian-language secretary in 1937 during his exile in Mexico but split with him in 1939 during the time of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. She could not fathom how the Soviet Union could be called a ‘workers’ state’ after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which saw the Soviet Union allied with Nazi Germany. But it wasn’t until I read Raya Dunayevskaya’s important work on state capitalism, ‘The Theory of State-Capitalism: The Soviet Union as Capitalist Society,’ that I began to realize that I had not begun to appreciate the profound depth of Marx’s critique of capital fully. The answer was not to be found in property forms or whether the social means of production are state-owned or privately owned, but, as Dunayevskaya (2018) argues, ‘whether they are monopolized and alienated from the direct producers.’

This was a point that I tried to make during an invited talk given to the workers at the IMPA metallurgic factory in Buenos Aires (a factory and cultural centre that was one of the trailblazers in the growing movement of factory takeovers throughout Argentina) when one of the workers claimed that their existence as a factory was a victory for socialism. I replied that reclaiming the factory by the workers from their capitalist employers was a great victory for the workers, but as long as the law of value prevailed, such as seeking market-based solutions to social and economic problems, socialism has not been achieved. (Of course, how to achieve socialism in a global capitalist marketplace is another story altogether!) In other words, the law of value that was driving all capitalist accumulation, whether in the Soviet Union or in the capitalist West, was producing alienated social relations, despite the fact that the collective ownership of the means of production sounded much more like socialism than the private ownership of the means of production. Admittedly collective ownership of the means of production by the state was an achievement over private ownership by businesses and corporations, but there was a price to be paid for being in the thrall of economism, and the Soviet Union paid a heavy price. Because leftists assumed that the Soviet Union was actually a socialist or communist regime, as described by Marx, unaware of Dunayevskaya’s ground-breaking work on state capitalism, they eagerly averted their eyes when it came to the tyranny of Stalin. These leftists’ fondness for the Soviet Union tended to blot out the memory of Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest to crush the national uprising. More recently, they have avoided any discussion of the invasion of Georgia or the attacks on Kazakhstan and Belarus to put down working-class-led pro-democracy movements. And they appear today to distance themselves from Russia’s genocidal campaign against Ukraine, that is, when they are not busy railing against NATO.

Anyone who thinks the perils of state capitalism have diminished since Dunayevskaya first developed her pathbreaking warning about its dangerous consequences must reckon with the fact that ‘almost all of the monetary capital invested by businesses and corporations over the last two years in the entire world was generated by the governments of the US, EU, China, and Japan.’ Capitalist social relations of production – whether cultivated by state-owned entities or privately owned corporations – produce not only profits but alienated social relations among the producers. A failure to understand the perils and proclivities of state capitalism has led to a romantic attachment to the former Soviet Union and a penchant of leftists for campism – a rejection of any and all positions and policies associated with the United States and a support for those powers who oppose the US, often inspired by a melding together in the political imagination of Russia, an authoritarian capitalist-oligarchic state, and the former Soviet Union, a totalitarian communist regime. As Schulman and La Botz maintain in their important article against campism in Socialist Forum, socialists that include Karl Marx, Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg and C.L.R. James had always foregrounded that workers in each country should support those in another in their struggles for democracy and social justice. It is also in the spirit of international working class solidarity and democratic socialist internationalism that we need to reject the inverted nationalism of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and support Ukraine against Russian imperialist aggression.

Speaking of campism, Peter Hudis (2022) cites a recent statement by Bill Fletcher Jr., Bill Gallegos, and Jamala Rogers, who declare:

Much of the debate within the US Left begins – and ends – by looking at the US. The essence of this analysis is that, because the U.S is the main enemy of the world’s people, this must mean that it is the only significant enemy. This is not an analysis. It is sophistry. And a particular sort of sophistry that views the struggles on planet Earth as being between the US and its allies, on the one hand, and those who oppose US imperialism on the other. All other issues are subordinate to this contradiction. Implicit in this analysis is the notion that anyone opposing – verbally or practically – US imperialism must be a friend of the oppressed and, therefore, should be supported.

As far as the US is concerned, Hudis correctly points out that the attempt by the US to weaken Russia by supporting Ukraine is driven by a desire to weaken China’s major ally. China is clearly the major target of US aggression, an indirect target approached through Russia.

I want to be clear that I oppose US imperialism, and NATO, and the neoliberal government of Ukraine. Yet I believe that one can do so and still support Ukraine in its struggle for sovereignty and freedom against the genocidal attacks by Russia. But that’s not how many on the far left see it. Much of the far left blames NATO expansion and US international interventionism for Russia’s invasion and opposes military aid to Ukraine. But it is not only the far left that opposes support for Ukraine; the far right in the US opposes it as well, which is no surprise in the age of Trump. Yes, NATO expansion certainly was a contributing historical factor that led up to the current war. Yet, in no way does it justify Putin’s neo-colonial invasion. Sweden and Finland now want to join NATO. Yes, I thought that NATO should have been disbanded decades ago. And a good way to prevent NATO expansion would be for Russia to call for the immediate withdrawal of all of its troops from Ukraine and Belarus (which puts Russian troops on the border of Poland and Lithuania) and for the left to support pro-democracy forces inside Russia who oppose Putin’s ruthless authoritarian rule. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea if the first troops to be withdrawn were those hundreds of thousands of non-Russian minorities that the ferocious General Armageddon (Sergei Surovikin) sent to the front line to face Ukraine’s crack regiments head-on. Clearly, Ukraine has a right to protect its struggle for self-determination. In fact, socialist internationalism demands it.

There is no denying that the discourse surrounding Russia’s war on Ukraine has created strange bedfellows. Jan Dutkiewicz and Dominik Stecula (2022) have written an article in the highly respected journal, Foreign Policy, that repays a close and careful reading. They point out that the majority of the American public supports Ukraine, but some members of the right have either been making pro-Kremlin talking points, offering anti-Ukrainian disinformation, or opposing sending heavy weapons to the country. On the left, as well, there has been strong opposition to arming Ukraine. Both the right and the left have advocated against banning Russian fossil fuels and are against the US government seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs. This is, to be sure, an ‘uncanny alignment’ of the right and left, between ‘the two ends of the political spectrum,’ which has been called ‘the horseshoe theory of politics’ that was introduced by Jean-Pierre Faye, a French philosopher ‘who believed that the political ideological spectrum – traditionally construed as a linear progression from some form of socialism or democratic collectivism through a bourgeois-liberal centre and on to some form of totalitarianism or fascism – was not a straight line between ever-more-distant political positions but rather something like a horseshoe, with the extremes bending almost magnetically into conjunction with each other.’ Faye was perplexed by the alignment of fascist and communist parties in the early 1930s, which was best illustrated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (commonly known as the Hitler-Stalin pact). Dutkiewicz and Stecula observe that US politics transcends traditional intellectual notions of progressivism or conservatism. Instead, there exist broader forms of populism that are dead set against the party elite, the mainstream establishment, and traditional gatekeepers such as the establishment press (recall when Trump described the mainstream press as ‘the enemy of the people’). There exists, for instance, the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders and the right-wing populism of Trump supporters, both of which seem to unite at the ends of the horseshoe. Russia has found ideological allies in far-right European parties, which has been clear for some time.

What is most disconcerting are the number of pundits on the American right, including members of the Republican Party, who have enthusiastically sided with Russia since the invasion, breaking from the GOP’s anti-Soviet (pre-1989) and anti-Russian (post-1989) position. The party of ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ has seen a shift among a number of its most vocal party members, including Donald Trump, who cite the claim that ‘NATO expansion forced Putin’s hand and led to the invasion.’ But they also make another point that is strongly resonating with the American public during a time of profound inflation, ‘ that money spent on military aid to Ukraine would be better spent on domestic issues, even if those issues include the continued militarization of the US-Mexico border.’ As for the progressives on the left, Dutkiewicz and Stecula describe their positions as follows:

Meanwhile, many on the progressive left – including members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the politicians they support, left-wing academics and essayists, and swaths of self-proclaimed online ‘anti-imperialists’ – have tended to side with the aggressor, Russia (or at least not side with the victim, Ukraine) in one of the clearest examples of colonial aggression in recent memory. Their primary arguments mirror those of the right – NATO expansion and Russia’s legitimate security concerns as a trigger for the war as well as the misuse of funds that could be used to solve domestic problems – but they also express opposition to war full stop and, sometimes, espouse outright support for Russia, all wrapped in the language of opposition to US intervention abroad, often construed as ‘US imperialism.’

And, of course, there are the ‘tankies,’ or communists who defend Stalinism or support authoritarian, militaristic or anti-capitalist regimes. Today, the ‘tankies’ refer ‘to supporters of repressive regimes and… [apply] … primarily to the opinions held by fringe journalists working for opaquely funded alternative news sources who praise dictators, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.’ The tankies have assumed a pro-Moscow position and have pushed the false claim that Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan protest movement was a US-backed coup. GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has made a similar claim. Dutkiewicz and Stecula argue that when pulled together, the ends of the horseshoe reveal ‘not only superficial political similarities on Ukraine but a far deeper, if opportunistic, ideological alignment.’ Dutkiewicz and Stecula observe that ‘the horseshoe regarding Ukraine … has little to do with Ukraine after all. For all their disparate political goals and motivations, what unites the far left and far right is their relationship to US politics.’

Dutkiewicz and Stecula conclude with the following lucid observation. What unites the right is an opposition to what they perceive as the faults of the status quo, including a distrust of the establishment and crude anti-Americanism. The opinions of the right ‘seem to be driven by a profound dislike of the United States as an ethnically and racially diverse democracy, a country where Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, is the law of the land (at least, for now).’ The right supports Putin’s anti-LGBTQ accomplishments and anti-wokeness, making Putin and Russia ‘allies to the MAGA wing of the GOP on that culture war front.’ Also, the right refuses to support Ukraine for the simple reason that it doesn’t want to lend any support to Biden. According to Dutkiewicz and Stecula, these sentiments constitute contrasting motivations of left and right populism that have led both sides to reach the same position.

On the progressive left, Dutkiewicz and Stecula argue that ‘the motivation is less any perceived alignment with Putin’s policies and more just plain distrust of US foreign policy.’ They are mostly in line with the ‘campist’ position:

Many Americans in these political circles are very invested in the narrative that the United States is a bad international actor that has caused a lot of pain abroad through various wars (most notably, but not exclusively: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam). As a result, they reflexively default to the view that whatever the US policy is toward a foreign conflict, it must be self-interested or even imperialist. This is why many leftists end up repeating the pro-Kremlin framing of NATO expansion as unilateral American imperialism and, even more bizarrely, citing figures like Mearsheimer – and even Kissinger, a traditional enemy of the American left – to support their point.

Dutkiewicz and Stecula decry both these positions as cases of naïve anti-interventionism, as chauvinistic, US-centric and possibly racist positions for ignoring the reasons why post-Soviet Slavic states such as Poland have for decades wanted to join NATO, depriving these countries of ‘any agency in charting their own futures.’ They argue that the US accords itself the exclusive right to dictate the terms of the cease-fire to both Russia and Ukraine, and believes ‘that the United States has the power and right to parcel out Ukrainian land in exchange for peace in Ukraine. In the heart of this perverse leftist anti-imperialism lies the un-imperial impulse to wield imperial power but only, ostensibly, in the name of peace – no matter the will of the locals.’

In their final analysis, Dutkiewicz and Stecula account for the magnetic attraction the right and left of the horseshoe have for each other on the generalized inability of Americans to hold coherent ideological viewpoints. They maintain that the ideas of right and left-wing populists ‘foments a contrarianism’ that ‘pushes people inward, toward an isolationism rooted in the belief that when the United States gets involved abroad, it does so in the interests of the country’s political or business elite.’ For the authors, ‘the contrasting motivations of left and right populists lead both sides to reach the same position: one that ‘both-sides’ the war in Ukraine, denies Ukrainians agency, and plays right into Putin’s hands. And this, despite the fact that there is nothing inherent in either far-right or far-left thought that leads to support for Russia or opposition to the plight of Ukrainians.’

Peter Hudis is one of the most pre-eminent Marxist thinkers writing today. He served as the secretary for Raya Dunayevskaya for many years. He observes, correctly, in my view, that the central problem with the response of much of the left on the war against Ukraine is its anti-humanist nature. He writes:

Focusing primarily on property forms and market relations obscures the real problem of capitalism – and leads to an impoverished notion of socialism. The real problem is the ‘peculiar social character of labour that defines the capitalist mode of production. This refers to labour that is forced to produce commodities according to the average amount of time necessary to do so on the world market. Marx calls this ‘socially necessary labour time.’ If your labour produces a commodity within this average time frame, it counts as a source of value; if it fails to do so, it is not considered valuable at all. This is why domestic or reproductive labour is so undervalued in modern society. We remain trapped within capitalism so long as its form of labour is not replaced by new human relations, beginning but not ending at the point of production, in which ‘time becomes the space for human development.’ It does not matter whether labour is owned by private individuals and corporations (as with neoliberalism) or by statist and public entities (as with Keynesian welfare states and Stalinist regimes). As Marx wrote, ‘Although private property [and the free market] appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labour, it is rather its consequence.’

We are facing enough dilemmas in the United States, and the reactionary and oftentimes pubertal reactions of the ‘tankies’ and the ‘campists’ are not helping matters with respect to garnering support for Ukraine. We are facing headlong Christian nationalism’s racialized nativism; the social reproduction of discriminatory social, political, and historical hierarchies of value reflecting a white supremacist conception of national identity; an election police force that has been fashioned by Governor Ron DeSantis to address the non-existent epidemic of voter fraud as part of his fever dream to be appointed the next J. Edgar Hoover in charge of a Ministry of Truth, a Ministry of Peace, a Ministry of Love, and a Ministry of Plenty; a nationalist politics baked in the swindle of state capitalism; and a fascist Republican Party that denies its ideological allegiance to the demolition of democracy. Jason Stanley offers a crucial insight here: ‘For a fascist party to triumph, it must attract support from people who, if asked, would loudly deny that they share its ideology. This need not be so difficult: voters merely have to be persuaded that democracy is no longer serving their interests.’ Republicans who would deny their affiliation with Trump’s behaviour and policies, yet who have clearly been persuaded that democracy serves the interests of Democrats over the Republicans, have made the transition to fascism without even realizing it. The far right is so sutured into a universe of make-believe that those governed by reason and evidence-based truth stand little chance of competing with domestic fascist networks and entering into any relationship that resembles a reasoned and robust dialogue. The foremost priority of these right-wingers is to punish and humiliate, not to govern – and many of them insist that they are not aligned with any political factions or ideologies and are ardent followers of Jesus Christ. And just when we need history to give us a wake-up call, Republicans are waging a full-throated assault on the teaching of history in our schools.

We tend to forget important lessons. Jason Stanley cites Robert O. Paxton, who reminds us that ‘the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism is American: The Ku Klux Klan….’ He also prompts us to recall that Hitler looked to the early American settlers’ genocide of the continent’s native peoples in the name of ‘Manifest Destiny’ as a model for his own pursuit of Lebensraum (territorial expansion). And Timothy Snyder warns us in his book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, that we are closer to Hitler’s world than we think and that Hitler had hoped to recreate the slavery regime in the American Antebellum South in Ukraine.’ If the ‘tankies’ and the ‘campists’ have their way, Hitler’s dream for Ukraine just might get realized.

The social structures of the internet’s digital world have enabled the creation of a digital social universe that entails access to entire cultures of socialization waiting to be born–and reborn. Some resemble those cultures that permeated vast constituencies groomed by fear and retaliation during the zeitgeist of the 1930s – constituencies that helped forge subjective formations within various populations of the Third Reich using multiple synergy effects. These included spreading wild and untamed conspiracies about the Jews, broadcasting Nazi speeches on the radio and public loudspeakers; creating organizations like the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls that fostered Nazi racist and hyper-masculinist ideals; spreading vile and hateful images and ideas about Jews in magazines, films, cartoons, and other media; brandishing torches at political rallies; burning buildings, synagogues and Torah scrolls; reviving occult symbols and a ‘neo-pagan ‘religion of the blood’ with Adolf Hitler as the supreme godlike figurehead; and identifying with Norse myths and symbols. Palingenetic ultranationalism – the myth of a nation that is fading away and has to enforce its rebirth through extraordinary efforts  – remains the core feature of digital fascism, and when we apply it to American politics, it reverberates ideologically with the idea of the rise of a white, ethno-nationalist populace whose sword arm is wielded in defence of an America under siege by dangerous Black and immigrant interlopers. Clearly, we need a restructuring of the state capitalist modes of production and circulation that can uproot the basis of class society based on a philosophy of revolution grounded in the creativity of the masses. This was Dunayevskaya’s dream, and it can be ours.

The real issue we are forgetting in our debates surrounding the war is the importance of creating a viable alternative to capitalism. This means more than developing critiques of neoliberalism. Since a defeat of neoliberalism does not, in Hudis’ words, ‘annul the logic of capital, which also prevails where there is no free market.’ He writes that ‘Socialism is not about organizing exchange in order to ‘fairly’ redistribute surplus value; it is about abolishing value production by uprooting capitalism’s specific social form of labour. The negation must itself be negated.’ How, then, can we reconstruct Marxism on a humanistic basis? How can we move away from vanguard parties that mirror the hierarchies of the bourgeois state? How can we unchain the dialectic in our everyday encounters? How can we create a social universe in which the value form of labour is abolished and war, in turn, recedes from the precipice of history? How can the horseshoe view of politics turn into a lightning bolt, linking our creative endeavours to those of Marx’s critique of capitalism? These are challenges that must be salvaged from the scattered gasps and groans of war. It is time for poets to return from Purgatory to follow the exit wounds into the blood-red silence that marks the last battle. In the meantime, the war in Ukraine continues when it need not have ever started. There are no ‘passing-bells for these who die as cattle’ on the battlefield. As Wilfred Owen has immortalised, there is ‘only the monstrous anger of the guns.’

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). The Horseshoe and the Lightning Bolt: Why the Left Should Look Beyond the ‘Tankies’ and the ‘Campists’ and Support Ukraine. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.