A few days ago a friend, who unlike me dwells in the Twitter universe, drew my attention to a tweet by Professor Zakes Mda offering his take on the South African connection with Ukraine and the political identity of the Russian Federation. Mda’s terse but incisive insights are not pretty for those inextricably wedded to the glorious past of solidarity with the Soviet Union, no matter what.
The core point of Mda’s tweet is that the Soviet Union is no more and, crucially, its remnant, the Russian Federation is known to be espousing white nationalism at home and abroad as evidenced by financial support to right-wing parties in Europe, including the UK and the US. Today’s Russia is very far from The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that dissolved in 1991.
Unlike the socialist USSR, Russia has become an unapologetic, mainly mixed economy, with an oversized oligarchic disposition. There is a huge substantive difference in the philosophies and political economies between the old USSR and the Russian Federation.
This will come as a shock to those sworn to eternal solidarity with a once-beloved socialist entity that no longer exists. It is blind loyalty and uncritical solidarity. Solidarity, no matter what! (Let’s not forget however that the other end of the spectrum is inhabited by faithfuls who think the West is immaculate, angelic, no matter what. But that’s a story for another day).
Prof Mda’s tweet prompted me to reach back to a thought piece I wrote for the Institute for Global Dialogue a few months ago. It was a rebuttal to an article authored by Professor Alexander V Lukin, who is the head of the International Affairs Department, and head of the International Laboratory on World Order Studies and Regionalism at the National Research Institute/Higher School of Economics in Russia. He is arguably one of the leading academics in Russia whose ideas reflect the dominant thinking in the Russian academy.
In his article titled “The Theory of Universal Racism as a New Version of American Dominance”, he argues that “white racism” is non-existent and “even if it exists, it is only in some remote parts of the United States” while “black racism is much more widespread and gaining momentum”. An extraordinary claim. He also declares with the all-too-familiar refrain of apologists; “affirmative action” is reverse racism.
The article is replete with misunderstandings and misinterpretations that suggest either a lack of knowledge of the subject he is engaging, or wilfully dispensing misinformation. To declare that “affirmative action” is “reverse racism” betrays the level of ignorance and a cheap purchase of the language of die-hard right-wing conservatives who are opposed to any meaningful progress in race relations.
It is shocking to witness an esteemed academic engage in an act of public unclothing that leaves him shorn of any intellectual respectability. Lukin’s distorted conception of racism in the US, for example, can be likened to denying that serfdom existed in Russia under czarist rule and opposition to serfdom was, therefore, ill-advised; in other words, the serfs should have remained passive and suffered peacefully.
His frame of mind should lead him to denounce the Russian Revolution whose ostensible objective was to remove oppressive czarist rule and to end serfdom. It is doubtful if Lukin would appreciate the analogy.
In the last 400 years or so, white supremacy in all its manifestations, legal, institutional and otherwise, has been nothing less than the application of affirmative action in favour of whites. That is what racially discriminatory laws were/are about; they were/are designed to deny equal opportunities to blacks in particular and people of colour more generally.
There is something very twisted or profoundly illogical in equating opposition to a system of oppression to that which prompted the opposition in the first place. In other words, anti-racism is the antithesis of racism. Attempts to make them equivalent are dexterous sophistry or a construction fit to be consigned to the false parallel universe of “alternative facts”.
It is now an open secret that Russia has become a benefactor of far-right and racist political movements around the globe. Most of the active intelligentsia and intellectuals (including Lukin) are funded and cooperate with state apparatuses and now fervently propagate the distorted worldview of the far right. Current Russian political discourse is awash with Orwellian language (comparable to the language and parallel universe of “alternative facts” manufactured in certain quarters in the US) exemplified by flagrant claims that the invasion of Ukraine is in defence of human rights violated by Ukrainian authorities; that the invasion aims at “denazification”.
The predicted outcome of the Ukraine invasion does not bode well, not only for the combatants, but for the whole world. It is delusional to think that anyone, anywhere in the world, would be untouched in the event the war is escalated. We may potentially be faced with a powerful alliance of ultra-right conservatives and religious fundamentalists who will insist on their authority, as Charles Dickens put it, “being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”. Perish the thought!
In a world that is changing rapidly it helps immensely to be agile and have the intellectual capacity to adjust accordingly to keep apace, all along being mindful of the democratic values that undergird our democracy.
It does not help to hold on to ideas that have passed their expiry date and in which those who championed them no longer believe themselves. That those who claim to be non-racialists or anti-racists and anti-capitalists, and yet defend a country that upholds contrary values, is truly mind-blowing. DM