Against campism: What makes some leftists support Putin?


By Daphne Lawless, Fightback Tāmaki Makarau

At the time of writing, Russian forces are intervening in the civil wars in Ukraine and Syria; supporting the rebellions in the eastern provinces in the first case, and dropping bombs in support of the government of Bashar al-Assad in the second.

While he may have been a general in the old KGB, Vladimir Putin is no socialist. While Russia is formally ‘democratic’, political rights are very limited for anyone not aligned with Putin’s United Russia party. Notoriously, queer communities are persecuted by means of a law against “homosexual propaganda”, and Putin has fought a bloody civil war to quell the independence struggle in the republic of Chechenya. Neo-liberal economics has been used to cut living standards every bit as fiercely as it has in the West.

So why would anyone on the Left support Russia intervening in Ukraine or Syria, any more than they support the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan? Because they do. Leftist magazines like Counterpunch support Russian bombs falling in Syria. Several leftists in Aotearoa/NZ are members of a Facebook group called “Vladimir Putin Fan Club NZ. Putin it right !!” (sic)

Multipolar disorder

Several arguments have been used by such people. Perhaps the most serious is that in favour of a “multipolar world”. The argument is that the current world neoliberal system hinges on the unchallenged hegemony of the “Western” bloc, under the military leadership of the biggest imperial power of the planet, the United States. Therefore, a “multipolar” world would mean more freedom for popular forces to move against the global neoliberal order.

The late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was a great promoter of this idea. Many Western leftists who supported his government’s struggle for the working people and poor at home were left scratching their heads as he toured the world shaking hands and doing deals with the authoritarian leaderships of Russia or China, or Libya’s Qadhafi. He even supported the Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe, which imprisons and tortures socialists, and counted as an ally the Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko, who boasts of “wringing the necks” of the political opposition.

As an isolated leader of a socialist government in a capitalist state, Chávez can’t be blamed for trying to get any help he could. But for those of us without the responsibilities of state power, making a virtue out of necessity is not the basis for a political strategy.

This kind of politics is often called “campism” – in the metaphor that the world is divided into several military “camps”, with the largest being the Western camp led by the United States. Therefore, any government which disagrees with American foreign policy – no matter how oppressive to its own people, or however wedded to neoliberal market economics – can be supported. These governments are even called “anti-imperialist” – as if there were only one imperialism, that of the Western bloc. Those who’ve been watching China’s moves to extend its military reach across East Asia, or its economic power in Africa, have good reason to question that.

When two camps go to war…

The best argument which has been made to explain this thought process is that it’s a left-over from the Cold War, when the world was (at first) divided between the Western/USA bloc under the slogan of “freedom”, and the Eastern/Soviet bloc under the slogan of “peace”. Later, China emerged as the leader of a third bloc under a slogan of “national independence”.

At the time, many Western leftists saw the Soviet Union or China as “workers’ states”, which were a better alternative to capitalism. This led to many twists and turns as local parties and movements jumped around to justify the foreign policy of their preferred foreign “socialist” country. It was an article of faith for such groups that since their preferred country was “socialist”, it could not be imperialist, based on Vladimir Lenin’s analysis that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. Therefore, even when the Soviet Union ransacked eastern Germany’s industrial base after the Second World War, or invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan to support its puppet regimes, this could not be “imperialist” by definition.

In contrast, other socialists refused to take sides. They described themselves as supporters of a “Third Camp” – opposing both the Western/US camp, and the camp of the bureaucratic states claiming to be socialist, with the “camp” of independent working-class action. The Socialist Workers Party in Britain led with the famous slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism”. During the workers’ uprising in Poland in the 1980s, while other socialists were trying to justify a Russian-backed military crackdown on the Solidarity independent union, the SWP’s newspaper headline read: “Russian tanks, Western banks, hands off Solidarity.”

Old slogans

One way to see the love-fest for Putin or other “anti-imperialist” dictatorships is simply a leftover from the days of the Soviet Union. Of course neither Russia nor Syria claim to be any sort of socialist country. But when you’ve spent a long time in the habit of thinking that the real problem in the world is American military hegemony – rather than the global capitalist system which that hegemony really serves – then you can justify any oppressive regime which is anti-American.

The “campists” even still use the old Soviet sloganeering – for example, when they claim that the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine are fighting “fascists” in the Ukrainian government. While there certainly are some vile fascist mobs backing the Kiev regime, the mobs who rule the “Novorossiya” zones are only different in the symbols they use. Like the USA uses “anti-terrorism” as an excuse for conquest today, so did the old Soviet Union use “anti-fascism”; the official name of the Berlin Wall was the “Anti-fascist Protection Barrier”.

One sure sign of a campist mindset is that vile behaviour which is condemned on the other side is condoned on one’s own side, or outright denied. Campists are rightly outraged at the beheadings, sex slavery and other barbaric practices of the Islamist extremist group Da’esh (also known as ISIS). But they keep their mouths shut about the Syrian government’s use of “barrel bombs” and poison gas against opposition forces – even arguing that their chemical attack on Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus was a “false flag” operation.

We are all pawns

The use of the term “false flag” brings up the close alliance of “campism” with conspiracy theory. Campism, which sees the world as something like a “game board” where various governments move their pieces, can’t accept the concept of independent action by oppressed peoples or the working masses. So, every uprising against an “anti-imperialist” government is rejected as a CIA-backed “colour revolution”. It’s no coincidence that RT, the Russian government-backed news channel, promotes American conspiracy theorists who are considered a joke in their own media.

And of course the United States have an interest in overthrowing such governments and replacing them with reliable toadies. But to believe that that nullifies the existence of real grassroots movements within such uprisings is to reject the idea that socialist revolution is possible at all, that everything is secretly manipulated by some government or secret service or other such conspiracy. As one British socialist put it: “If you can’t fight for yourself, either because you are too weak or too isolated the temptation is to look for other forces who can do it for you.”

The kind of mindset which could defend Zimbabwe or North Korea as “anti-imperialist” could end up actually supporting Da’esh, on the basis that the democratic Syrian opposition forces have accepted guns from the West – and this is indeed what at least one group calling itself “communist” has declared. It is the logic that “stability” under a dictatorship is better than a chaotic situation of uprisings – a point of view which should be associated with conservative “realists”, not revolutionary socialists.

The enemy at home?

Other times, you hear the argument that“the main enemy is at home”, and therefore we have to oppose our own governments, not foreign governments. “The main enemy is at home” is a slogan that the German socialist Karl Leibknecht used to oppose the Social Democrats’ sell-out to support the First World War, which was justified with the argument that the Tsar of Russia was a much worse tyrant than the Kaiser of Germany.

But the people using that slogan to support the Syrian or Russian governments on this issue ignore that Liebknecht was opposed to all the imperialist governments fighting in the war. He certainly didn’t support the Russian government of the time any more than he cheered on his own. And of course he supported the Russian Revolution which brought down the Tsar from below – not the German armies on the Eastern Front.

We certainly want to oppose our own government. So we have to oppose New Zealand military intervention in Syria, Ukraine or any other civil conflict, and deny any support for the United States military or any Western-backed coalition – just as we oppose the barbarism of the Russian or Syrian governments or Da’esh. But we can’t let ourselves become useful idiots for any other oppressive regime. To bring up the World War 1 example again, Lenin accepted a train ride from the German regime to get back into Russia; but he certainly never supported the Kaiser as a “lesser evil” to the Tsar.

Neither Labour nor National…

We can find campism not only in foreign politics, but domestic politics. You see this in America with the demands that the socialist Left fall in behind the Democratic candidate – even if that’s the thoroughly imperialist and pro-capitalist Hilary Clinton – because apparently a Republican victory would be worse than a zombie apocalypse.

Similarly in Aotearoa/New Zealand, we see the division of electoral politics into two “camps” – a National-led camp, and “the Left”, being defined as Labour, Greens and New Zealand First. The first two parties are enthusiastically in favour of neoliberal capitalism, and the third support traditional “national” forms of capitalism. None of them has anything to offer the struggle for tino rangatiratanga, real action against climate change or independent workers’ organization – and yet, we are confronted with aggressive demands that we support “the Left” electorally, as if a government of Andrew Little, Winston Peters and James Shaw would be a significant improvement on the John Key regime.

In fact, the over-the-top denunciation of Key – a rather bland merchant banker, interested in entrenching neoliberalism rather than extending it – paradoxically reveals that there is no real difference between the two “camps”. Because that’s the real secret of campism – someone who aggressively demands that you take a side between two evils has an interest in concealing that the two camps are really not that different. Campism is born of weakness and lack of faith in the ability of real popular forces to build their own alternative to Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Damascus, Wellington and all the others. But that is precisely what socialism is supposed to be about.

Special thanks to Sam Charles Hamad and John Game for ideas and research pointers on this topic.

A few helpful links:


  1. I’m not sure how useful this concept of campism is, and whether the SWP’s position can be described as Third Campist, but I’d certainly agree about the disgraceful misuse of the “main enemy is at home” slogan to justify abandoning the Syrian revolution in the face of Assad’s genocide.
    “You wouldn’t have said in Russia in the 70s that the problem in Nicaragua was your government supplying arms to the FSLN. Or that you shouldn’t have demonstrated against the Vietnam War in Russia in the 60s because the main enemy is at home. The Syrian conflict is a revolution in a country allied to the US’ rivals. Of course they will make some propaganda over it, will provide minimal support to the political opposition, so that they will maximise their influence in a post-revolutionary Syria. But they have stopped heavy weapons going to the rebels rather than sent them. Even the weaponry sent by Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been nothing in comparison to that provided by Russia and Iran to Assad, and it is the lack not the excess that concerns Syrians still fleeing or dying from daily barrel bomb attacks.”

  2. )) “While there certainly are some vile fascist mobs backing the Kiev regime, the mobs who rule the “Novorossiya” zones are only different in the symbols they use.” – While one side officially glorifies Nazis and Nazi-collaborators’s side of OUN/UPA in WWII, the other side claims legacy to anti-Hitlerite coalition. That’s Kiev side officially appoints social-nationlists [Nazis] in key positions in the army and police. While the parallels to WWI are partly relevant to current civil conflict in Ukraine, the parallels with WWII are relevant too. And we tend to forget that fascism is mass movement which may involve millions. Was then anti-campism relevant to WWII? Shouldn’t a fascist side in WWII be denounced? Could we say then “While there certainly were some vile fascist mobs backing the Franco regime, the mobs who rule in Barcelona are only different in the symbols they use”?

  3. ” Like the USA uses “anti-terrorism” as an excuse for conquest today, so did the old Soviet Union use “anti-fascism”; the official name of the Berlin Wall was the “Anti-fascist Protection Barrier”.”

    Yea. The Soviet Union ‘conquered’ Nazi Germany. Those poor, poor sods…..

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