How do we confront the right?

April 10, 2014

Stavroula Harissis and brian bean set the record straight about a Chicago demonstration.

AFTER A Chicago rally held in conjunction with the March 22 International Day Against Fascism and Racism, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization's (FRSO) report about the event criticized the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for "largely agreeing" with the fascists.

This is an offensive statement that flies in the face of the ISO's history over four decades. Indeed, it was ISO members who initiated the anti-fascist demonstration in Chicago on March 22.

But it is no surprise that FRSO's reporting on this action would stoop to such distortions. Ultimately, its slander of the ISO is connected to FRSO's own support for any dictatorship that finds itself in disagreement with the U.S. government. But the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend--a point we will return to below.

THESE ARE the facts about the March 22 demonstration. Initially, the plan was to reach out to a handful of left groups and individuals for a rally in front of the Greek consulate, and to focus on connecting the fight against fascism in Greece--one of the main sources of the call for the day of action--to the struggle against racism in the U.S.

Speaking out against fascism outside the Greek consulate in Chicago
Speaking out against fascism outside the Greek consulate in Chicago

With events coming to a head in Ukraine and the visible presence of far-right and fascist groups in the new government, as well as in the Euromaidan movement that brought this government to power, we wanted to draw attention to this danger--so we decided to start the rally at the Ukraine consulate, and then march to the Greek consulate.

This elicited a response from the Ukraine community in Chicago that underlined the political complexities of the current situation and the implications for antifascist organizing.

By the time our group of about 30 demonstrators arrived at the consulate, there were nearly 100 people already gathered for a counter-demonstration. Their signs had anti-Russian slogans equating Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler and saying "Hands off Ukraine."

Among a handful of flags in the crowd were those of Svoboda and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, two of the far-right organizations we were there to speak out against. But it was also clear that this crowd was not a solid gang of neo-Nazi thugs. Most of the signs and chants put forward nothing other than opposition to Russian military intervention and aggression. Needless to say, FRSO's conduct at the rally, as well as their reporting on it, ignored this.

As's coverage has explained, neither Russia nor the European Union (EU) nor the U.S. government are looking out for the interests of the people of Ukraine. The ultranationalists in Ukraine are making common cause with the EU and the U.S.--but that is no excuse for supporting their imperial rival in Russia.

And while the fascists may oppose Russia's imperial aims, their program is to combine noxious appeals to xenophobia and mass murder with a staunch defense of capitalism. This will only further impoverish the mass of Ukraine's working class, as did the neoliberal policies pursued by the pro-Russian government that collapsed this winter.

Our demonstration stayed on the other side of the street from the consulate, but a number of the counter-protesters came over to confront us. Most either denied there was any fascist presence in Ukraine or attempted to downplay its influence. This is a dangerous attitude to take: There are representatives of far-right and fascist parties in the new government--they say so openly and are poised to do serious damage.

But that doesn't make everyone who does not acknowledge the role the fascists have played in Ukraine a Nazi. Yet this is precisely the message that FRSO and the Workers World Party (WWP) were adamant about sending.

One WWP member in particular attempted to shout down any Ukraine-American who tried to speak--to the point of getting physically aggressive with one woman and having to be pulled back by two organizers. He later evoked the Holodomor--the genocidal famine inflicted on Ukraine by Joseph Stalin's USSR regime in 1932-33, at a cost of millions of deaths--yelling across the street at the counter-protesters, "Stalin should have finished the job and killed you all."

Such attitudes are not only deplorable on their face, but are clearly poisonous to building a broader movement against fascism. They will only drive people to support nationalism if the "left" is seen as advocates of mass murder.

At the same time, FRSO's signs and chants at the rally called only for "No U.S. Intervention in Ukraine," and made no criticism of Russia. On the contrary, they carried signs reading "Crimea Has Spoken"--as if the annexation of Crimea was not connected to the strengthening Russia's imperial interests. This defense of Russian imperialism was not only completely out of step with the stated purpose of the demonstration, but it served to further incite a nationalist response from the counter-demonstration. Thus, the message about the true dangers of fascism in Ukraine was lost.

Once we marched to the Greek consulate, we were able to have a decent demonstration in the true spirit of the International Day Against Fascism and Racism. Speakers addressed the growth of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece and made connections to racism in the U.S. The day ended with a performance by local musicians leading us in a lively interpretation of Woody Guthrie's "All You Fascists Bound to Lose."

THE FRSO/WWP attitude toward Ukraine is nothing new. They have a long history of supporting any regime that presents even rhetorical opposition to U.S. imperialism. Thus, these groups insist it is impossible to oppose U.S. intervention without supporting the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Muammar el-Qaddafi. Vladimir Putin's Russia fits right in.

FRSO and WWP portray themselves as tribunes of people's liberation, but they have published glowing obituaries for North Korea's Kim Jong-il and celebrated the crushing of mass movements for democracy and justice, such as the Chinese regime's bloody repression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.

In the current situation, they claim Russia isn't acting out of imperial interests--as if Russia, home to some of the world's most rapacious billionaires, carried out its military takeover of Crimea and ongoing threats of further intervention out of genuine humanitarian concerns. This flies in the face of the obvious economic and military objectives driving Russia's behavior--control over the network of natural gas pipelines that extend across Ukraine to Russia's biggest export market, Western Europe, and its strategically important naval base on the Black Sea.

Imperialism isn't just another way of saying "U.S. militarism." It is a Marxist concept to describe the rivalry between the most powerful economies and governments. An imperialist competition is taking place over Ukraine, with the U.S. and EU in conflict with Russia over geopolitical hegemony, and control of markets and resources. FRSO and WWP only see one side of this competition.

What does this have to do with opposing fascism? Members of the ISO, FRSO and WWP attended the March 22 demonstration to oppose the far right and fascists, including in Ukraine. The question is not, of course, whether one or another of these organizations secretly agrees with fascists, despite what they say, but rather how the fascists can be defeated.

FRSO and WWP believe that opponents of the far right must side with Vladimir Putin's Russia--even though Putin's government has long collaborated with outright fascists in Russia itself, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the vice chairman of the State Duma during most of Putin's reign.

These two organizations accept Russia's propaganda that the entire Euromaidan movement was nothing but a fascist coup, backed by the U.S. and EU--which denies the legitimate grievances of the mass of people in Ukraine, west and east, against the corrupt regime of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and the super-rich oligarchs it served.

The left in the U.S. should not portray Russia as a "lesser evil" to the fascists or the U.S. and EU, any more than the people of Ukraine should see ultra-nationalism as a lesser evil to Russian imperialism. We must reject these false choices.

The events in Chicago provided a perfect illustration of why such an approach is more than just wrong-headed, but counterproductive to building a struggle against the right. Championing Russian imperialism allows the right to win support by posing as defenders of ordinary people in Ukraine against the violence and repression of Russia and the domestic oligarchs aligned with it.

Fascists twist legitimate anger at economic deprivation into false solutions, such as scapegoating immigrants and defending the fatherland. What is needed in Ukraine is a genuine left movement that can unite working people against these economic policies, as well as challenging the fascists. That alternative must be independent of imperialism in any form--and can only come from below.

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