BOOK REVIEWS: Russia and Belarus in the post-Soviet era

Image from Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images


Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
Svetlana Alexievich
Text Publishing, 2016

Belarus: The Last Soviet Republic
Stewart Parker
Lulu, 2012

‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,’ Marx once said, and that could not be truer of the people of post-Soviet Russia. The people who lived under the Soviet regime, saw its collapse, went through the ‘end of history’ and now live under the autocratic Putin presidency have much to say about the Russian condition, past and present. These past generations are still very much alive and can speak to their experiences, which are in turn nightmarish and joyful, full of great hopes and even greater disappointments.

A broad cross-section of these voices is highlighted in a new book by Svetlana Alexievich, entitled Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. The book consists of conversations and interviews, or, as the author puts it, ‘Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations’ that were conducted between 1991 and 2012. Everyone from architects, technicians, construction workers, veterans, and refugees to Soviet-era Kremlin insiders and former Communist Party members get to speak their mind in this remarkable collection.

Their opinions of the Soviet past are as different as they are contradictory. On the one hand, there is a definite nostalgia and longing for the past from some, yet they are mostly not blind to the brutalities and inhumanity. On the other, those who strongly opposed that bureaucratic social system and were glad to see it go dislike the political, economic and social instability that has since emerged.

What is for sure is that the oppositional, anti-bureaucratic movements that were allowed breathing space as a result of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies were struggling for a future beyond Putin-type tyrants. Many Russians hoped for socialism with a human face, imagining that they would enjoy the same living conditions as Swedish workers, or at least would live in a liberal-democratic utopia.

A construction worker interviewed on Red Square in December 1991 speaks eloquently to this sincere dream:

What did we want? Gentle socialism, humane socialism… And what did we get?… Bloodthirsty capitalism… Black marketeers and money changers have taken power… It’s not what we wanted.

The transition from ‘Communism’ to capitalism is a sore point with many Russians in this book. They largely consider it as primarily benefiting political and economic elites. The old bureaucracy went through a process of recomposition, and newly emerging ruling layers enriched themselves by selling off state assets – leading to the rise of the oligarchs that are such a familiar presence today.

One truly remarkable interview is with Vasily Petrovich, a Communist Party member since 1922. A Red Army soldier in the Civil War and the Second World War, his wife was arrested in 1937 despite her and himself being loyal Party members.

He himself was later imprisoned, spending a month in solitary confinement for the ‘crime’ of not automatically informing on his wife’s fictional disloyalty. She would later die while still imprisoned, and Petrovich would not get back his Party membership until after he had returned from WWII with three decorations and medals.

Despite all this and other immense personal suffering, he still considers himself a communist. Petrovich freely admits that for him communism is a faith and his religion. As he says:

We wanted to create Heaven on Earth. It’s a beautiful but impossible dream, man is not ready for it. He is not yet perfect enough. Well… From Pugachev to the Decembrists, down to Lenin himself, everyone dreamt of equality and brotherhood. Without the idea of fairness, it’ll be a different Russia with different people.

In response to this, his grandson jokes: ‘It’s 1937. Two Old Bolsheviks are sitting in a jail cell. One says to the other, “It looks like we’re not going to live to see communism, but surely our children will!” The other: “Yes, our poor children!”

Petrovich’s last words of the interview are – ‘I want to die a communist. That’s my final wish.’

“Abundance for the fittest”

‘Democracy! That’s a funny word in Russia. “Putin the Democrat” is our shortest joke,’ notes one Russian liberal. He grew up in a dissident family, who distributed samizdat (underground literature passed from reader to reader) and ‘along with them, I read Vasily Grossman… listened to Radio Liberty.’

For him, communism, not just the government which claimed to be representative of the idea but the very idea itself, was a cage, inextricably linked with the gulag and the Terror. He despairs about how half the country dreams of Stalin, with dozens of books and movies made about him which are avidly read and watched. He is also greatly disheartened by what he regards as deviant behaviour on the part of his son.


I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf… I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son goes to the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in the kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto


Despite this, he utterly detests former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the 1990s ‘capitalist revolutionaries’ who ‘ran experiments on living people like they were some kind of mad scientists…’

Far from the democratic paradise he hoped for, the former Stalinist bureaucrats who, under ‘socialism’, who once promised there was a place in the sun for everyone, now sing a different tune. ‘If we live according to Darwin’s laws, we will enjoy abundance. Abundance for the fittest.’

He is incapable of imagining a socialism that was not intrinsically authoritarian and anti-democratic to its core. Thus he sees the interest his son and his friends have in socialist ideas as nothing but a throwback to a past that history itself has wiped away – no matter how radically democratic and anti-Stalinist they and their ideas may be.

One of the last stories is of Tanya Kuleshova, a Moscow student from Belarus, and in her story one senses the author puts hope in people like her for Russia’s future. Belarus under its President, Alexander Lukashenko, is certainly authoritarian, with the liberal press often referring to him as ‘Europe’s last dictator.’

This didn’t deter Tanya however, who went out to the main square in Minsk, the capital, in late 2010 to protest against fraudulent elections with tens of thousands of others. She ended up spending a month in jail for her efforts. State repression also affected her grandfather in Stalin’s time, who kept a little notebook which detailed his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the authorities.

Though she stood up in defence of democracy, she finds that it’s not only the police and the clubs who keep the social order intact:


The people understand everything, but they keep quiet. In exchange, they want decent salaries… to go on a vacation to Turkey. Try talking to them about democracy and human rights – it’s like you’re speaking ancient Greek! Those who lived through Soviet times instantly start saying things like… “There’s one hundred different kinds of salami! What more freedom do we need?” Even today, many people want to go back to the Soviet Union, except with tons of salami.

She notes the hypocrisy of her schooling, where her teachers told her to read Bunin and Tolstoy, as books by those authors ‘save people.’ But as she rightly notes, ‘Why isn’t this the knowledge that’s passed down, instead of the doorknob in the rectum and the plastic bag over the head?’

She still refuses to give up the fight for a better future. As a student in Moscow, she and her friends go to protests together:


I like the faces of the people I see there. They remind me of the faces I saw when we went out on the square in Minsk. That day, I didn’t recognise my city or my people. They were different. Different people.


In the movements of protest and opposition to all the anti-social, anti-democratic, and chauvinist policies of the Russian government, most notably now to Russia’s war in Ukraine, lie the hopes for a more democratic Russia and wider aspirations for socialism and freedom, equality and fraternity.

The lives of left-wing Marxist, socialist, social-democratic and anarchist opponents of the bureaucratic Stalinist machine, and their views and opinions, receive little to no coverage in this book. This is a major oversight. One would never know from this book that there were people in Stalin’s concentration camps who went to their deaths before a firing squad as convinced socialists singing the Internationale. Nor would you learn about the Communist resistance organisation ‘Istinny Trud Lenina’ (Lenin’s True Works) based mainly among students at several Russian universities which was part of an anti-Stalinist youth opposition to the regime.

Despite this limitation, this book is a testament to the lives lived by Russian people in the last century and this one so far, allowing them to speak in their own voice. It is a thoroughly empathetic and human document.

Unhappy families

The tendencies of post-Soviet Russia identified in Alexievich’s book have a uniqueness all of their own; yet while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way as Tolstoy noted in Anna Karenina, the breakup of the Soviet ‘happy family’ of nations produced not entirely dissimilar results in other post-Soviet republics.

Ukraine, among the larger and more developed Soviet republics, found itself in the same boat as Russia, facing an escalation of poverty and inequality amid the cancerous growth of oligarchy in the 90s. Those post-Soviet governments that immediately let the market rip by tearing down all barriers to accumulation (while dismantling Soviet welfare structures) saw an impoverishment of their populations, substantial emigration, a normalisation of unemployment with its concurrent anti-social effects, and a universalisation of precarity.

Belarus managed to avoid sinking to such a state in the 90s, comparatively speaking, despite all the difficulties it faced after the self-immolation of the USSR, especially in its unstable first few years. But it was not able to escape the rising inequalities of the botched Soviet transition to capitalism, despite government policies cushioning against the blows of external market pressures alongside the slow and steady pace of privatisation under President Alexander Lukashenko.

The country seems unlikely to turn that situation around without a substantive shift in its political economy and methods of governance. Hence the relevance of a comparative study of Belarus with Russia. Stewart Parker’s book Belarus: The Last Soviet Republic provides the basis for such a study.

Despite protestations to the contrary, his book is very much an apologia for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the social system of Belarus under his leadership, at least circa 2011. The author attempts to present a balanced tone, though his politics are clear throughout, especially in some of the sources he recommends – crude Stalinist apologia like Ludo Martens book Another View of Stalin.

Besides academic articles and books, unfortunately there is not a great deal of popular history focusing on Belarus, especially of the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Hence, simply for existing, this book is an important reference work, summarising and skimming over the very interesting features of Belarusian history (such as its Soviet period, experience of WWII, the proportionally larger size of partisan resistance in the country compared with other Soviet republics, post-war developments) to reach the period where the USSR collapsed and Lukashenko became President, the real substance of the book.

The Soviet regime struck deep roots in Belarus, and despite repressions in the 1930s retained considerable approval and popularity among the population in the post-war period, or at least largely consensual tolerance if not always active enthusiasm. It was only after the disaster of Chernobyl in which Belarus was directly affected, and the discovery of mass graves in 1988 believed to have been the work of the NKVD between 1937 to 1941 that shook the pro-Soviet consensus of the majority.

Belarus’ transition to capitalism proceeded cautiously and slowly as opposed to the crash-ahead catastrophic measures adopted in Russia and other former Soviet republics. Although generating greater inequalities and opportunities for corruption, the limited and slower pace of privatisations produced a considerably softer blow in Belarus among the population than, for example, Ukraine experienced. Soviet political structures, though somewhat democratised, remained in place, such as the Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers.

A new constitution was adopted in 1994 which created a new post, President of the Republic, in order to bridge the gap between parliament and the Council of Ministers, which had produced deadlock and stagnation in Belarusian politics since the Declaration of Independence as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Many in Belarus hoped for a democratised and reformed USSR – it was only after the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev that independence was proclaimed. Only one member of the Belarusian parliament – Lukashenko – who, in his various jobs up to becoming a member of parliament can be regarded as a Soviet success story, advancing step by step in his career path – voted against the final dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Ironically given his reputation today, Lukashenko in the waning days of the USSR created a group within the parliament called ‘Communists for Democracy’, and favoured greater autonomy for the constituent Soviet national republics; an extremely faint and weak echo of Lenin’s aspirations as outlined in his final years, and reflected in his actions during the Georgian Affair.

Lukashenko: the Stalin of today?

After independence, Lukashenko was elected chairman of an anti-corruption committee, and it is here he gained popular support and notoriety, using his reputation as an anti-corruption campaigner to catapult himself into the Presidency as the surprise winner of the 1994 elections, in what is regarded (as opposed to later elections) as a legitimate and popular vote.

Because of his retentions of elements of the Soviet system (notably in education and healthcare) and respect for the Soviet past, while continuing to cautiously open up the economy where possible Belarus achieved a political, economic and social stability many of its Eastern European neighbours envied. It also helped that, as Parker acknowledges, ‘the military and police were, and remain, one of Lukashenko’s most loyal bases of support in the country. This comes in no small part from the respect held for him as a former serviceman.’

Lukashenko’s approach to government could be described as ‘crossing the river by touching the stones’ – that is, going ahead steadily, step by step, not taking any great leaps. A Chinese folk saying popularly associated with Deng Xiaoping’s description of his reform efforts, it is arguably more applicable to Belarus under Lukashenko than China under Deng.

However, such a system could only ever be transitory and backward looking – and however slowly it adapted to contemporary economic realities, that is precisely what it did. It has now, to all intents and purposes, run out of steam, not able to offer a future and unable to return to a past that no longer exists. While the Soviet past was once a key reference point for much of the population, younger generations are either too young to remember or never experienced it, relying on tales from parents and grandparents.

It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that the author has simply replaced Stalin with Lukashenko as his lodestar. Parker goes so far as to describe the latter’s motivations, even to this day as essentially socialist and Marxist, downplaying his socially regressive patriarchal authoritarianism and other backward views – one recent example being his initially touting home remedies to deal with COVID-19. Parker evidently considers Lukashenko’s Belarus the best regime in Eastern Europe one could hope for in contemporary conditions as compared with the rest.

While Parker praises Lukashenko for maintaining the sovereignty of Belarus, and indeed Lukashenko played the game of balancing between the EU and Russian interests while remaining more in the Russian orbit better than others (notably the likes of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine), this is now more questionable. Since 2020 we have seen Russia backing the Belarusian state in putting down large domestic protests and strikes after a highly contested election which Lukashenko ‘won’; and Lukashenko’s regime allowing Russian troops and war materials to proceed through Belarus to wage war in Ukraine, which Belarusian rail workers did their best to sabotage. Such events represent the greatest slippage in Lukashenko’s popularity and legitimacy since his inauguration as President in the 90s. The results of other contested elections never produced such a response.

The people of Belarus are in an unenviable position of trying to find an appropriate model of political transformation and economic development that can offer a future beyond simply being subsumed to either Russian hegemony or as a weak, peripheral partner within the EU bloc of states.

For a new internationalism

Anti-authoritarian forces have organised their own international units within the Territorial Defence Force of Ukraine. Image from Resistance Committee.

By DAPHNE LAWLESS. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

I.                Once again, against campism

Fightback proudly positions itself as a socialist internationalist publication. Since 2015, we have set ourselves against what we call campism:

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.[1]

These politics have led a significant section of the activist Left – in Australasia and elsewhere – to endorse the Syrian state’s brutal crushing of the democracy movement; to support Chinese suppression of protests in Hong Kong and attempted genocide of Uighurs; and, most recently, to defend Russia’s incompetent but still deadly military intervention in Ukraine. Or, alternatively, to conduct a shamefaced “whatabout” defence of all those actions – even if they are bad, so the line goes, Western imperialism is always the central issue. Therefore, any uprising or struggle against a State which poses as hostile to the USA/”the West” must be assumed to be part of Western imperialism’s schemes, if not an outright CIA plot. Therefore, we must support “the other guys” – whatever their brutal track record or antipathy to basic human rights, let alone socialism.

Campism, we believe, is based on a fatal misconception about how the global order works. That misconception is that Western imperialism is the basis for global capitalism, rather than the other way around. Once you believe that, then it follows that weakening Western imperialism – towards some kind of capitalist “multipolarity”, with Moscow or Beijing getting the upper hand over Washington, London and Brussels – is the necessary precondition for pushing back against capitalism. Which means judging every single struggle by whether “the West” supports it – if so, we must be against it. As British-Lebanese journalist Joey Ayoub puts it: “The term anti-imperialism became a shorthand for people who actually mean multipolarity. They’re not against imperialism. They just want other powers to do that.”[2]

This sophisticated geopolitics often fails to convince, due to basic human empathy for the oppressed and suffering. The more degraded campists are then forced to resort to what experts in domestic violence call DARVO – Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.[3] This aims to counteract the impulse to solidarity by portraying the apparent victims of violence as in fact the bad guys. Hence, fighters for a Free Syria become “ISIS-like headchoppers”, who gassed their own children to make Russia look bad. Ukraine is not a country with an ugly Nazi subculture – like almost all capitalist nations – but an actual Nazi state which wants to exterminate all Russian-speakers (whose president, interestingly, is a Russian-speaking Jew).[4]

The disinformation required to maintain this bubble of “alternative facts” is readily supplied by Western activists and journalists (and the occasional rock star) who identify as Left-wing, but who – like their counterparts on the Trumpist or anti-vaxxer Right – happily use faked evidence, bad logic, the war propaganda of non-Western authoritarians, or outright smears to support their predetermined geopolitics of “West always to blame”. The campist Left have developed a media culture which resembles nothing less than the “information bubble” in which the Trumpist right or anti-vaxxers live. Journalism from outside the bubble is rejected as “MSM/state lies”, while non-Western state media and shadily-funded attack websites such as The Grayzone, Global Research or MintPress are taken as trustworthy sources.

The predominance of these beliefs – and the unwillingness to openly debate them – led Fightback to withdraw from the Organise Aotearoa project.[5] But contrary to what those not familiar with the activist-Left subculture might suppose, these beliefs are not restricted to those who self-identify as Marxist-Leninists, or even “tankies”. They are the common sense of many veterans of the progressive Left in this country, especially those grouped around The Daily Blog – for example, veteran activist John Minto or former Alliance MP Matt Robson – or this country’s major Left-wing podcast, 1 of 200.[6]

In contrast, Fightback believes that solidarity with all the oppressed and deprived is not only a moral duty, but the basic step in building a global movement to replace capitalism and imperialism. This requires us to see things from the point of view of those struggling for their lives and freedom, not from the viewpoint of which imperialist team might score points. In this sense, our job is not so much to oppose Russia, certainly not to back “the West”, and not even to support “Ukraine”; but to help Ukrainians resisting genocide – and indeed, to oppose their own government when it claws back their rights. We support the Ukrainian struggle despite the Zelenskyy government and the fascist fringe represented by the Azov regiment, just as we support Palestinian struggle despite the reactionary agenda and anti-Semitism of Hamas. Our solidarity lies always and everywhere with the people whose lives and dignity are under attack. Accordingly, Fightback has given material aid to leftist and anti-authoritarian militias resisting Russian aggression, rather than to Ukrainian state forces.

We do not accept the argument that it is “colonialism” or “white saviourism” for activists in the Western states to do anything but oppose “our own state”. On the contrary, we maintain that – despite its pretences at being “anti-colonial” – campism is itself actually a disguised form of Western chauvinism. How else can we describe refusing support to the oppressed fighting back against their oppressors, unless they can be seen to benefit the Western left in its struggle against “its own” ruling class? How else can we describe Ukrainian socialists who defend their right to receive arms (from whatever source) to defend their lives and homes being called “imperialists” or even “Nazis” by well-fed American socialists?[7] Quite apart from being morally repulsive, this tarnishes the reputation, not only of the Western left, but of the very concept of socialism itself, in the eyes of oppressed and exploited people worldwide. What are Ukrainians under fire supposed to think, when reactionaries like Boris Johnson come to their aid, while socialists like Jeremy Corbyn try to “both-sides” the conflict, and excuse Russia’s destruction and pillaging as something that NATO made them do?

We understand that one imperialist power will only help those oppressed by another if by doing so it furthers its own selfish interests. But we do not consider these inter-imperialist wranglings to be the central issue. We do not assume the right to tell any peoples in struggle what forms of help they are permitted to receive, if they want our own support; we might of course warn them that Western help always comes with strings attached, but amazingly enough, they usually already understand that. We reject the campist attempt to pretend that the kleptocrats in Moscow or the bureaucrats in Beijing are allies of the oppressed of the earth – just as we reject its liberal/neoconservative flipside, the belief that Washington bullets and Brussels banks will bring global freedom.

2. What kind of International?

Socialist “internationalism from below” aims to build direct solidarity between the struggles of the working classes and all the oppressed in all countries, on the understanding that replacing this global system requires global co-operation. Given this, the role of activists from the richer imperialist countries is to use their privilege to advocate for, work with and materially help those who are up at the “sharp end” of oppression and exploitation. Which leads to the more important question – what does this actually mean, in practice?

“Internationalism” is one of those buzzwords which virtually everyone on the activist Left will say they agree with. And going back to the International Workingmen’s Association of Marx and Engels (the “First International”), this has meant some kind of formal structure which binds together socialist and working-class organisations in various countries. Such organisation – if properly constituted – can have benefits on both practical and ideological levels. On the practical level, stronger organisations, or those in richer countries, can materially support organisations with greater needs, while the inevitable tendencies of bigger/richer organisations to centre themselves or their own viewpoints can be corrected from the periphery.

On the ideological level, meanwhile, the appeal of combining forces across the globe for research, debate and theory is obvious. An organisation which is small and isolated on its local political scene can get great sustenance not just from being able to call upon the literary and theoretical resources of larger co-thinkers overseas, but from practical friendship and moral support. And all this is much more important in the era of instantaneous global video communication. If Marx or Lenin could do it when the mail from France to Germany took two weeks, why can’t we do it now?

But all this assumes that the International is truly democratic and horizontal. It is far too easy – regardless of whether there is a formally constituted International structure or not – for the biggest or richest organisations, or even a majority of the global tendency – to dictate terms to weaker organisations which need support, thus replicating the structures of imperialism within the socialist movement itself. The classic example of this is the Third International, set up after the Russian Revolution, whose member Communist Parties were forcibly transformed into a network of puppet organisations promoting the USSR’s increasingly cynical foreign policy. Modern Western campists also use their greater wealth and resources to override voices from the periphery who don’t share their own “foreign policy” goals. The so-called “Progressive International”, set up by a coalition between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Greek socialist politician Yanis Varoufakis, has increasingly been guided by campist politics and apologies for both Russian and Chinese imperialism – leading to the loss of its Polish and other Eastern European affiliates.[8]

The last 100 years have given us all kinds of examples of the various ways in which International organisations can become counterproductive. The most familiar to many will be the “sect internationals”, characterised by agreement on an extremely dogmatic set of political beliefs and top-down discipline– either formally (through some kind of global bureaucracy) or informally (by the bigger groups with “clout” bullying and excluding unruly subordinates). Other Internationals, in contrast, go so far in the other direction of pluralism that, while the culture of discussion might be rich, collective action becomes impossible, and collective politics dissolve into a mushy “lowest common denominator”.

So what kind of international do we actually need? I would like to suggest the following principles:

    • It needs to be steered by the principles of global anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. There are no solutions within one country, or which require one nation-state imperialistically dominating others. The goal must be to work towards united global activity. But conversely, member organisations must be working to establish deep roots in their own social struggles and create their own theory based on practice; there is a danger in simply repeating what “the International” says without practical testing.

    • It needs to work on the basis of free federation for practical action. Organisations and members join the International freely and can leave freely. The goal of any centralised publication or “political bureau” is to synthesize the lessons of activity on a global basis, rather than to impose a dogmatic line or act as a “general staff”.

    • It needs to be characterised by international solidarity. Richer/stronger groups within the International must be prepared to help their sibling groups in need, without attempting to assert ideological or practical hegemony.

    • It needs to be able to conduct praxis (activism informed by theory) on a global scale. An International which is not much more than a discussion forum or an email list might be nice, but is not what we need. The International must be capable of operating a “feedback loop” between globally co-ordinating practical action, and elaborating theory based on the lessons of that action.

While the anti-imperialist struggle in Ukraine has produced outraged acts of chauvinism and callous power-worship on the Western left, it has also produced some practical demonstrations of what real internationalism is supposed to look like. The Ukrainian organisation Sotsialny Rukh (Social Movement) has emerged as a powerful voice of the Left under fire.[9] They have forged practical ties with socialists, particularly in Europe, who reject campism and offer practical solidarity – such as the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine, and Razem, the Polish group which left the “Progressive International” in protest at their campist politics.[10] The best thing about this practical solidarity is that it overrides questions of “political identity” or theoretical quibbles; Marxists and social democrats alike support the “anti-authoritarian” (anarchist) militias in combat in Ukraine as represented by Solidarity Collectives.

Moreover, even under fire, Ukrainian comrades are adding to our theoretical understanding of how neoliberalism works around the globe. Sotsialny Rukh activist Taras Bilous, for example, has contributed a cutting analysis of the motivations behind the Zelenskyy government’s moves to smash workers’ rights, which traces it to his political movement being backed by Ukraine’s “middle bourgeoisie” who see their interests opposed to the corruption of the traditionally pro-Russian oligarchs – “the millionaires against the billionaires”.[11] Such theoretical work is head-and-shoulders above the vulgar campist narrative which lumps the Zelenskyy government, the IMF and NATO into an indistinct “pro-imperialist camp”.

Still, this practical solidarity needs to be broadened into a political and theoretical vision that can unite the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist Left across the globe. At the very basic level, the understanding of the bankruptcy of campism that is evident in Ukraine solidarity must be generalised. We have to understand, for example, why even the anti-campist Western Left was more diffident about extending this solidarity to the struggle for a Free Syria; and conversely, why many Western liberals who fly the Ukrainian flag do not offer the same solidarity to the victims of oppression, military brutalization and dehumanization in Palestine. And past that, we need to be able to generalise to a global programme of action which can both inform and be informed by all social struggles.

We need an International. Trans rights, solidarity with the victims of oppression, housing struggle, climate change, war and fascism – not only are all the dangerous issues facing us global issues, but our enemies organise globally.[12] Fightback has been attempting to push towards this for a while. Yet our attempts at making international connections so far have either been rejected by prospective partners who were “just not that into us”; or culminated in pleasant email discussions which went nowhere practical. We implore the internationalist socialists and anti-capitalists in Ukraine, Europe, the United States and elsewhere to urgently come together – firstly, for practical solidarity for the struggles in Ukraine and other peoples under attack by Western as well as non-Western imperialism; and building out of that, to share experiences and build infrastructure that could create a new global unity. A global conference of socialist internationalists – online and in-person – might be a good first practical step.




[4]The most ironic feature of the campist Left is that many of them are dogged supporters of the Palestinian struggle – while using exactly the same rhetorical tropes to dehumanise Syrians, Ukrainians, Uighurs etc. in struggle, that Israel uses against Palestinians. For example, insipid appeals for “peace”, which would simply mean the aggressor dictating terms to their victims, are clearly scorned by campists when it refers to Palestine – who then turn around and say exactly the same thing about Ukraine.


[6]Co-founder of 1 of 200 Branko Marcetic is the author of a series of articles in Jacobin which argue for the West to abandon support for Ukraine (and Taiwan), which have led him into ridicule and contempt from Ukrainian (and Taiwanese) leftists. Co-founder Kyle Church has expressed solidarity with Marcetic’s line on social media.

[7] See thread starting at




[11] See thread starting at

[12] See reporting on fascist internationalism:

Notes on the international question

by TYLER WEST. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy. Reworked from a post on the Notes from South of Nowhere blog.

Ukrainian solidarity demonstration in the United Kingdom

Author’s note: This article has bubbled away in the background since the military coup d’état of the 1st February 2021 in Myanmar, I returned to it but still did not see fit to finish it during the Solomon Islands riots of late November 2021, and again during the great unrest which swept Kazakhstan in January 2022. Each time it has slipped back by the wayside as I simply have not been writing for the length of the pandemic. As I have been writing again of late, and with international events in mind, it seems fit to put this piece to paper, which culminated in an initial publication date of the 28th March 2022. As it has been rewritten repeatedly, I’ve done my best to update it to the current situation and make any necessary edits to the central argument. As a result, the argument may come across a little scattered at points, for which I apologise. At any rate…

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given many on the left pause to reconsider their conceptions of imperialism and priorities on the world stage. An earnest reckoning with what has become a rote-learned and stultifying worldview among the left should be welcomed in these circumstances, such that it allows for a reassessment of world conditions and a new framework to be developed. This reckoning is long overdue, being needed since at least the end of the Cold War, and its absence has muddied prior attempts to find footing in assessing New Zealand’s position in other international events, let alone what a coherent response might be.

Over the last decade or three, many events have attracted temporary interest before subsiding into the maelstrom of world affairs, never to be picked up again. In some instances, this is fair enough, an issue is nominally resolved on its own terms and ceases to demand as much attention. One might take the conflict and immediate aftermath of independence for East Timor, to draw a Pacific example. Attention started to drift away after the worst fighting subsided and had largely shifted elsewhere by the time peacekeepers were sailing over the horizon in 2005. In others, events overcame one another, sometimes in the same theatre. Barely had the two operations which comprised the 2006 Israel-Gaza War begun that events tumbled toward the Israel-Lebanon War in that same year. That is unlikely to happen in the case of this new escalation in Ukraine, but it will happen again in the next case without course correction. Without that correction, the chances of grasping a coherent framework sink toward zero.

Inherited ideas

Part of the problem is theoretical, an inherited idea of imperialism from prior eras of imperial excess stretched poorly onto new conditions. To those who cry of Lenin’s theory it should be said that it is time to pick Lenin up and cast his words upon both the extant conditions of the world and the developments since Lenin’s old wounds stole his final years. The ‘unipolar order’, if it ever really existed, has likely been in decay for as long as the neoliberal order has, which is to say since at least the 2008 Great Financial Crisis (in terms of world conflict, some point between the Russo-Georgian War and the rise and annihilation of the ISIS statelet). Some other order has surely been born, even if we are yet to quantify or name it.

Whether our moment resembles the 1970s, the 1930s, the 1900s, or no prior period at all has been hotly debated for years now. It does not need to be relitigated to be able to say that a great break occurred at some point fairly recently and we have not been able to pinpoint it or sufficiently analyse our current era. We have all, from the most ardent Marxist-Leninist to the most unreconstructed neoconservative, been chasing after history as it tears off in all directions around us. The only question is who has recognised this for what it is, and who is still working on a prewritten script while the stage burns around them.

Perhaps another part of the problem, for New Zealand anyway, is an unintentional parochialism. Some on the left find a set core of overseas causes célèbres and don’t really see fit to pay much attention to anything else, creating a kind of internationalist myopia in which a handful of things take up the entire view and complicating factors or outside events fall by the wayside. This is not a call for each and every individual who concerns themselves with such matters to take all the worlds ills upon their mind, but for the movement (or movement in waiting) to which they belong to perform its job as the social brain which acts to alter the path of history. To be capable of meeting each crisis as it arises with cold-eyed rationality and not forget those crises which slip from world headlines and the popular conscience even as they worsen before our eyes. No one person could be asked to do more than they can, but the movement such that it exists can be asked as a generalised whole to grasp the problem.

The problem of numbers

An unquestionable problem is numbers. The extra-parliamentary and especially the nominally socialist left in this country is small, fragmented, geographically scattered, and lacking in resources. This makes any project or campaign a fraught matter if it doesn’t draw initial support from elsewhere or at least a wide swathe of the extra-parliamentary left. With a raft of domestic issues to deal with, something like the ongoing anti-coup insurgency in Myanmar can slip through the attention cracks. It is not to say constant attention is needed from New Zealand, but the general situation should be kept in mind. This is merely one example. There could be many. Let us choose another.

Consider the Solomon Islands, wracked last November by the worst unrest since the civil war. They are not only a much closer neighbour, but New Zealand troops are still deployed there. How many could confidently say they knew the deployment alongside Australian and Fijian forces was provisionally extended in January to at least the end of March this year? At time of writing, it is entirely possible some new factor pushes out that date further (at time of initial publication, new events have occurred bringing the Solomons back into view). It did not require a laser focus on the Solomons to know that, just the curiosity to keep occasional tabs on the situation. The Solomons case is a useful one, as it serves to act as a lesson for those wanting to learn how inter-imperial competition could rip the bandage off open wounds in the social fabric of otherwise uninvolved countries. Not only that, but it provides that lesson in a close Pacific neighbour to New Zealand.

There could be other cases, Kazakhstan seems obvious, but the point is what keeping in touch with these events means for the New Zealand left. Each is a lesson in class power, in imperial dynamics, in economic flow, in any number of things. More importantly, each is real. The socialist left is richer for being able to monitor the world situation effectively. It helps build the possibility of meaningful relationships with workers across national borders and with ethno-cultural minority workers within our own borders. It is one of the things that allows us to be internationalists.

What is to be done?

So, what of it? Why bring it up at all, what is the point? I would like, if I may, to make some suggestions. I do not presume of myself the power to make a declaration of what should be done and presume it will be so. I’ve never been a fan of that kind of sloganeering, or at least its wild overuse. But if I may outline what I’d like to see, at least it is out there, and I can say I have done that much. Before that, some background is necessary. We must survey where we are and where we stand.

As recently as the 1990s the left-media sphere in New Zealand was large enough that it could include a number of publications dedicated to international events either generally or of a specific focus. A prime example being the Free East Timor Coalition, which published Nettalk through the 1990s. Another might be the “Best Irish Paper in the Pacific”, Saoirse, published over the 1980s-’90s, which existed among a once thriving constellation of Irish focused cultural/political organisations and outlets in New Zealand (many involving the recently late Jimmy O’Dea). The long running CORSO publication Overview kept a consistent eye on international events from the late 1970s through early 2000s. Similar groups exist today but few produce physical or digital periodicals for news and debate, and online forums are patchy and stretched across numerous topics. The tiny handful of socialist publications which exist dedicate some paper & ink to international topics, but their best efforts cannot but amount to a fairly small quantity of coverage. Sporadic publication, diverging editorial lines and formats, and the heavy weight of domestic and theoretical affairs make it an unfair ask on their own.

The existing groups which focus on this conflict or that national oppression are largely scattered and co-operate on an ad hoc basis. The Peace Action groups act as a functional node in the synaptic web of organisations. Their activities, in my opinion, should be commended at every turn. Similar could be said of Global Peace and Justice Aotearoa. It is not that they are insufficient (indeed they do more with very little than most could hope to) but that I am referring to a different kind of activity to their largely activist model. What I think is lacking is a national forum to keep the wider movement, such that it exists, abreast of international events. A point of connection which tallies up the sum total of existing international solidarity organisations in New Zealand and, with some degree of formality and structure, brings together the background coverage of their activities with a place to discuss international affairs generally. Something that can act as a locus for ongoing discussion while its contributors are focused on their own activities, sufficiently in-the-loop to keep abreast of internationalist actions in New Zealand but detached enough from the organising that the forum does not slip away, and the purpose lost.

In a way this is just one component of a wider need for a twofold (partial) solution to manifold problems faced by the New Zealand left. The first is the need for a central catalogue of active organisations of and of interest to the extra-parliamentary left in New Zealand, a resource to which the entire extra-parliamentary left can contribute to and benefit from. Such a resource has existed in part before and been attempted at times throughout the years but has never been fully realised on a national scale. It could go a great way to connect at the level of the organisation, consolidate as social movements, help initiate those newly interested in the left, allay intra-left confusion and organising overload, and provide an agreeable project for cooperation. The second is the need for a number of forums and sub-forums among the extra-parliamentary left on a number of topics which could provide similar benefits to those outlined above for an international & conflict forum, while retaining the structure needed to continue functioning through the contention and infighting inherent to political organisation.

Again, the infrastructure for these forums exists in a patchwork across the country – some of these conceptual forums effectively exist already. But the disconnection and lack of way for someone not already truly deeply embedded in the culture of the extra-parliamentary left to get their feet means that functionally it is as far away as existing solely on the drawing board. This country is in a sweet spot where in theory it is small enough for such infrastructure to exist but large enough for the infrastructure to sustain it to exist as well. It is a matter of cooperating across a geographical and socio-cultural divide which has long, perhaps always, hampered efforts at national coordination among the extra-parliamentary and socialist left. Whether it is possible to overcome such divides is not for me to say, but the thought’s worth entertaining, right?

Book review: Europe’s New Strongman

Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Book title: Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman
Author: Paul Lendvai
Released: 2019
Review by: Byron Clark

While there has hardly been a shortage of strongman leaders for the right to admire in recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stood out. Last year Vox referred to him as “The American right’s favourite strongman”1 and British far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson described him as the “defender of Europe” when appearing on Hungarian television.

In New Zealand Orbán has been praised by the far-right YouTube personality Lee Williams (who has favourably compared the New Conservative party to Orbán’s Fidesz party) and in Australia his support comes not just from the fringes but from mainstream politicians; in 2019 former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in Hungary claiming migrants are “swarming across the borders in Europe”.2 Orbán was also praised by then US president Donald Trump in 2019 for doing a “tremendous job”.3

The biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” is the first book published in English on the topic of the Orbán regime. Paul Lendavi was born in Hungary and is now based in Austria. For this book he has drawn on work from Hungarian journalists and political scientists, making the book in-depth despite its short length. It is written for an international audience and doesn’t require extensive prior knowledge of Hungarian history or politics.

Orbán’s rise to power followed scandals in the centre-left Socialist Party, including financial corruption. While Orbán’s Fidesz regime has been far more corrupt, with Orbán enriching himself using the power he wields as prime minister, the Socialist Party is judged more harshly by voters for the sheer hypocrisy of their corruption; with Orbán’s Fidesz Party it has been expected.

Orbán has used anti-immigrant populism to gain support in one of Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. At a march in Paris following the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, he announced “Zero tolerance against immigrants…As long as I am Prime Minister, and as long as this government is in power, we will not allow Hungary to become the destination of immigrants steered from Brussels.”

His government has erected billboards with messages to refugees – that if they want to come to Hungary they must integrate with Hungarian society, and must not take jobs from Hungarians. These billboards are however written in Hungarian, and are unlikely to be read by any Syrian or Iraqi refugees entering the country- a number which is very small, in part due to the fences erected on the country’s border with Croatia. The billboards are not really there for refugees to read; they are there to implant the idea in the minds of Hungarians that immigrants will steal jobs and refuse to integrate.

The regime has been effective at spreading this xenophobia. Polling cited in the book notes that fear of a terrorist attack from refugees (a statistically unlikely probability) is higher in Hungary than any other European country. More recent polls conducted since the book’s publication show sixty percent of Hungarians have a negative or very negative opinion of immigrants while a similar number (fifty four percent) hold negative or very negative opinions of Muslims.4

“Orbán makes no secret of his satisfaction at the misery of the refugees” writes Lendvai in reference to one of the prime minister’s speeches in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, where Orbán claimed “The crisis offers the opportunity for the national Christian ideology to reign supreme, not only in Hungary but in all of Europe”.

Orbán has also made a bogeyman of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a common figure in far-right conspiracy theories. Orbán, echoing those same theories, claims that Soros is promoting mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While Orbán claims that Muslim migrants will spread anti-Semitism, his rhetoric about Soros (a Jew and Holocaust survivor) comes with a heavy anti-Semitic subtext. Paraphrasing the liberal Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, who have compared the Soros conspiracy theory to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lendvai writes “The world Jew has not been mentioned in the Soros context as there is no need – everybody understands the reference”. Polls cited by Lendvai show almost a third of Hungarians holding anti-Semitic views. Ironically, it was philanthropic work by Soros’ Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights and liberal democracy in Europe after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that funded much of Orbán’s education.

The Fidesz regime in Hungary is likely to remain in power for years to come – in part because of constitutional changes made with the party’s unprecedented two thirds majority in parliament, and extensive gerrymandering – and will serve as inspiration for far-right groups in Europe and even further afield. This book will give readers the broad overview of contemporary Hungary that will help us recognise when politicians in our own countries attempt to come to power on a similar platform of xenophobia and bigotry.





The state of hate in Europe

Image from Rio Times Online

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Written by Byron Clark.

The UK based Hope Not Hate campaign have released their annual report on the state of far-right extremism. While the report’s focus in on Europe there is a New Zealand connection, with the report noting that the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack, which was released last December found that the killer had made at least 16 donations to international far-right groups and people since 2017, including a total of £2,500 to numerous European branches of the Identitarian network Generation Identity.

New Zealand based fascist group Action Zealandia are also mentioned in the context of the British group Patriotic Alternative holding a day of action across the UK to coincide with International Indigenous People’s Day (IPD). The event involved repeating, at a national scale, a strategy the group employed last July where they displayed a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner on the top of Mam Tor, a hill in Derbyshire. Action Zealandia had submitted a photo of their own ‘White Lives Matter’ banner drop in Auckland for the day of action. The overtly white supremacist politics of Action Zealandia have meant that rather than attempting to grow in New Zealand, they have focused on building relationships with fascist groups overseas.

A section of the report looks at the spread of the Qanon conspiracy theory, which began on 4chan and had a distinctly US focus – claiming that Donald Trump was taking on a cabal of satanic child abusers among the “deep state”, the Democratic Party, and various liberal elites in Hollywood and media. In Europe, the conspiracy has taken on local characteristics, In Greece, social media posts use the relevant hashtags to blend Q-narratives with anti-Roma prejudices and racism against black migrants. In Hungary, there is a strong connection between Qanon and antisemitism, with a specific hatred of the Hungarian born billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

There has also been a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, which the far-right has exploited. While the movement started in the US, in Europe it has provoked continent-wide discussions about race, colonialism and imperial legacies. Generation Identity activists in France held an anti-BLM counter protest last June where they unfurled a huge banner reading “Justice for the victims of anti-white racism: #WhiteLivesMatter”. Generation Identity activists in Germany also sought to capitalise on a series of large BLM demonstrations across the country by launching a campaign titled #NiemalsaufKnien (Never on our knees) in response to protestors and politicians kneeling in solidarity with the victims of racial violence.

The report cites The 2020 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute of Economics & Peace, which highlights that we are experiencing a peak of far-right terrorism in the West with 49 registered attacks in 2019, an upwards going trend for five consecutive years. Data for 2020 is not yet available but Hope Not Hate points out that there remains “a large and active terror advocating far-right community.” They note that many terror-related arrests and multiple new groups were formed in 2020, and multiple attacks and attempted attacks occurred in Germany, Norway and the UK- directly inspired by the terrorism in Christchurch.

Polling shows attitudes towards immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities are poor across all eight countries surveyed, but particularly bad in Italy and Hungary.

There are however some positives in the report too. In October, after a trial lasting more than five years, the leadership of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn were found guiltily of running a criminal organisation. That same month, former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party went on trial on kidnapping charges over an incident in 2019 when he prevented 116 migrants from disembarking in Sicily. With a few exceptions, far-right parties in governments have seen a drop in their support.

One of those notable exceptions is the Polish Konfederacja, who won eleven seats in parliament last year with 6.8% of the vote. Konfederacja has used social media to their advantage, gaining more engagement than the social media pages of more mainstream parties. Konfederacja’s links issues of gender and LGBT rights with the reform of the educational system and the rights of parents to educate their children in their own way. Parallels could be drawn here with New Zealand’s New Conservative Party, who grew a sizable Facebook following and focused on “gender ideology” in schools as a major part of their 2020 election campaign. Konfederacja has also attempted to capitalise on the pandemic by criticising measures taken by the government such as restrictions on businesses and movement.

Attempts at rallying support against immigration for example, did not succeed in capturing the public mood.

Elsewhere in Europe the far-right have not had much success with pandemic-related talking points. The spread of Covid19 has shifted migration rhetoric to include the risk to individual health, but the virus has not spread across Europe through the typical refugee and migratory routes. While far right politicians were calling for closing ports in Italy, for example, COVID-19 had already created clusters throughout the country, making anti-migrant rhetoric less effective.

The full report can be read at