By Rainer Shea — Nov 3, 2022
Ukraine is the great test for US imperialism’s ability to sway minds to its side. Two decades into a process of decline for Washington’s hegemony, catalyzed by the irrecoverable global blowback from the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, the imperialists have staked their survival in the outcome of the Ukraine war. Not necessarily in whether Kiev wins—that was a lost cause from the start by any honest analysis—but in whether Washington’s most important allies stay loyal to it after Ukraine becomes fully spent as a tool for proxy warfare. The empire can afford to lose its sacrificial puppet regime in Ukraine. It can’t afford to lose the support of Europe.
By provoking Russia into taking action, the imperialists have mended the divisions within the NATO bloc that have been appearing in recent years, as well as fully assimilated the Nordic states into NATO. Yet these “victories” are only momentary, just like the economic damage that the sanctions have done towards Russia. In the long term, the NATO bloc is headed towards a new fissure, one that will be exacerbated by the economic catastrophe that the sanctions have brought upon the European countries. The increased militarization of Scandinavia is no loss to Russia, as the Nordic states were always imperialist satellite states, and their joining the war effort will accelerate their decay. Russia is sure to come out on top within the economic war, simply because it’s proving more resilient than the imperialist bloc and will therefore outlast the spiraling U.S. empire. Imperialism is desperate to see its geopolitical gamble in Ukraine pay off, to weaken Russia enough that these deficits are worthwhile. That’s why its propaganda is working to inculcate us with a certain story about the conflict. A story that can keep us on the side of the destabilization operation that Washington intends to continue running in Ukraine for as long as practically possible.
In this story, the Russian side is essentialized as a malevolent and sinister force, a menace that’s in the wrong no matter the context. The encroachment of NATO upon Russia’s borders, the US coup that happened in Ukraine in 2014, the pro-NATO regime’s stated intentions for ethnically cleansing the Donbas region, the CIA’s support for Ukrainian Nazi militias in tandem with the regime—none of these realities matter within this story. Aside from the NATO expansion, which is presented as itself a response to a supposed threat from Russia, none of these facts are even recognized as real. They’re all classified as lies spun to justify Russia’s imperialist schemes. That Russia is a semi-peripheral country, without the socioeconomic characteristics required to meet the criteria for an imperialist power, is disregarded as well. Simply due to being Russia, and due to not being a US client state, Russia is seen as imperialist.
“Essentialization” is the key word in describing this story, because in order to call Russia the one in the wrong, imperialism’s narrative managers must construct the narrative that Russia fundamentally has a negative role in the world. The only way this would change is if Russia became recolonized, which the imperialists now aim to do by breaking it up in the style of Yugoslavia. To be seen as a positive force in conventional western thought, a country must be governed by a pro-imperialist state. That’s why the northern half of Korea is seen as the evil part of Korea, whereas the south is the “good” half. The equivalent applies to mainland China vs Hong Kong, or to China vs Taiwan. (All of these places are part of the same country, however much the imperialists try to erase this reality.) As soon as a country challenges Washington’s interests, it’s categorized as among the globe’s villains. And as soon as it’s assimilated into the imperial structure, whatever atrocities it commits are whitewashed.
In Ukraine’s case, the country’s assimilation itself has required such atrocities. To make Ukraine, a former Soviet state with deep historical and cultural ties to Russia, into a base for NATO proxy warfare, this history and culture had to be erased. The communist party had to be banned, communists had to be targeted by impune fascist vigilantes, the Russian language had to be barred from use in public life, the population had to be terrorized into submission through spectacular acts of state violence, and recognition of how the Banderite fascists participated in the Holocaust had to be criminalized. The next step would have been the forced relocation of the Donbas Russian speakers, but Russia has thankfully prevented that. The ongoing shellings of the Donbas and the war crimes by Ukrainian forces are futile attempts to bring this genocide to completion.
The imperialists justify all of these evils if they’re even talked about, by accusing Washington’s challengers of themselves committing atrocities. These fabricated or false flag accounts of human rights violations are nothing more than covers for the real purpose of Washington’s warfare, which is not to advance human wellbeing but to maintain global monopoly capital. Whenever pro-Ukrainian commentators and politicians declare that Ukraine can’t be a fascist state because Zelensky is Jewish, there’s an element of awareness that this argument is fundamentally flawed. Any serious analysis of the post-maidan Ukrainian situation makes it clear that Zelensky is nothing more than a puppet; the real ruling presence in Ukraine is a US-controlled national security state, one that threatened Zelensky into going along with the backing of the Nazi militias after he was elected. Behind every lie by omission NATO’s propagandists tell is a motive to advance imperialism’s interests, which is more important than integrity or a genuine human rights agenda.
Those invested in the atrocity narratives about Washington’s challengers cling to the things the imperialists say not because they’re confused, and could be set on the right path through some simple debunking. They refuse to disbelieve the propaganda because they’ve embraced that centuries-old story that says the colonial powers are fighting for a just cause, and the challengers to these powers are therefore menaces to humanity. Something someone would only want to believe if they have a material stake in maintaining neo-colonial extraction.
When it comes to Russia, there’s a particular historical archetype that imperialism bases its narrative on in order to portray the targeted country as fitting this classification of an international demon. That’s the archetype of the Asiatic Hun, the conqueror from the east who seeks to finally subdue Europe. In the worldview that this archetype inhabits, the countless crimes of European and American imperialism are justified, because the west has supposedly had to become dominant in order to avoid being colonized via the secret genocidal plans of the east. The easterners are always scheming to complete their ancient designs for the west’s demise.
The use of the “orc” slur against Russians by the Ukrainian side proves the power that narrative, specifically of the literary type, has in cultivating this perception. “Orc” is a reference to the repulsive and brutal creatures from Tolkien’s legendarium, who are recruited to serve the forces of evil in their war against the “West.” Tolkien’s intent wasn’t to write an allegory, but he did say that he based the orcs on what he considered the least flattering features among northern and central Asians. They’re the corrupted beings whose role is to advance the schemes of those who oppose beauty, nobility, and the will of the creator. What gives the Ukrainian side’s invocation of Tolkien such popular sway is that the narrative Tolkien created, literarily speaking, is objectively masterful. It presents a narrative about evil undermining itself, told with such detail and poetry that it’s had an impact on millions.
The power of Ukraine’s racist propaganda is that it gets its adherents to project the war against Russia onto the war against evil within Tolkien’s narrative. Stalin called literary writers “the engineers of the human soul,” and this influence they have can be exploited by those with dark agendas. Especially when the authors themselves held beliefs that align with these agendas, consciously or unconsciously.
Another source of literature that pro-Ukrainian propagandists are drawing upon is Orwell, a character who I consider infinitely worse than Tolkien. Tolkien’s prejudices were products of his conditions, whereas Orwell’s were too severe to not mostly come from malicious intent. His work is being used in NATO’s propaganda because like The Lord of the Rings, it tells stories that tap into the heart. This was at least true in my experience before I learned that Orwell was a hypocritical and sexually predatory bigot whose ideas are not “socialist,” but deeply anti-communist. Yet the stories he told have power, at least within minds that haven’t been informed about the untrustworthy character of the person who wrote them or the reactionary nature of what these works say. It’s fitting that such a sketchy individual as Orwell, who portrayed himself as the upholder of justice and integrity while being a treacherous scoundrel, is the definitive literary voice for left anti-communism.
What he did was utilize the emotional capacity of narrative to make anti-Marxism, and even more so anti-Leninism, appear to be objectively correct stances. Today’s NATO propagandists are invoking his works to further these ideas, which are essential for supporting the demonizing story that they’re telling about Russia. The way in which they do this is more complex than how Ukrainian racists invoke orcs; the use of Orwell to advance imperialist propaganda is akin to a psyop, where ideas get skillfully manipulated to make one emotionally bonded to a certain model about how to view the world.
To assume his role as the storyteller who would be used to essentialize Washington’s challengers as evil, Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell’s real name) first had to internalize the vilifying essentialization of Marxism. The conditions that gave rise to his anti-communism were the early 20th-century environment of division within the global left between reformists and revolutionaries, catalyzed by the intensification of the class struggle with the Russian Revolution. When the generation of communist parties which carried out the first successful worker’s revolutions were formed, the social democrats, a category which Blair fell under, reacted with venom. They conspired to put down the revolution in Germany by assassinating the communist leader Rosa Luxemburg. An event that happened when Orwell was only a teenager, but that set the precedent for the antagonistic relationship that liberal “socialists” like him would have with Marxists from then on.
After his upbringing as a member of the Indian British colonial police, and his evolution into a supporter of the Labour Party, Orwell came to what he described as “the old, true and unpalatable conclusion that a Communist and a Fascist are somewhat nearer to one another than either is to a Democrat.” Which illustrates the essence of the ideological dispute between his strain and genuine socialists: whereas his concept of socialism is compatible with versions of “democracy” that fall within the truncated confines of the bourgeois state, Marxists recognize the bourgeois state must be overthrown and replaced with a truly democratic workers’ state. The perception that such a process is anti-democratic depends on the idea that excluding the bourgeoisie from power is an injustice. Since bourgeois power is inextricably tied in with colonial power, Orwell’s life experience as a benefactor of stolen wealth from the British Raj had to have informed his stance.
This materially motivated loyalty towards the structures of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism is congruent with the kind of “socialism” that Orwell and other left anti-communists represent. This is a “socialism” that incentivizes one to consistently believe the bourgeoisie’s atrocity propaganda against communism and other anti-imperialist forces because from the perspective of someone whose livelihood is based in imperial extraction, any substantial anti-imperialist action is wrong. That’s how you get non-committal “revolutionary” minded individuals like Orwell, who grew disillusioned with the concept of the state due to his experiences with the imperial bureaucracy yet did indispensable propaganda work in aiding the imperialist state.
The way he fought for the empire was by constructing narratives that presented heart-ravaging tragedies about the evils that states are capable of and weaponizing these stories against imperialism’s enemies. In Animal Farm, he told a story of characters who watched as their home became terrorized into submission, and in 1984, he told one of a man who got his humanity systematically beaten out of him until he could no longer think for himself. These stories have deeply resonated with those who are willing to accept the ideological poison that they contain. Which means his novels engage in emotional manipulation to sell a fraudulent account of communist history, one that’s still being used against Russia via the portrayal of Putin as a “Stalinist.” The two stories include stand-in characters for both Trotsky and Stalin, in each case reinforcing the dramatic anti-communist myth of how the Russian revolution was “betrayed” by a power-hungry villain who cast out the hero for staying true to the cause.
Trotskyism, the splinter ideology this narrative represents, isn’t the primary threat to today’s communist movement. But it did produce the neoconservative movement, a development that Orwell’s literary Trotskyism absolutely nurtured. We can see this from the example of Christopher Hitchens, a Trotskyist who was involved in the Cold War era’s virulently anti-Soviet side of “socialist” organizing before he evolved into a neocon. His great ideological inspiration was of course, Orwell.
Trotskyism’s foundational narrative—which is neoconservatism’s foundational narrative by extension—depends on omission and deception. Trotsky, the supposed socialist hero who bourgeois thinkers have propped up for their own purposes, was voted out because he proposed a wildly impractical idea about trying to expand socialism worldwide through sheer military force. It’s easy to see how Trotsky’s ideas gave birth to neoconservatism, with its fixation on using war to spread “democracy.” The slanders against Stalin used by Trotsky’s followers, and by the fascists whose goals align with them, can be refuted by looking at the context behind them. For instance, the miscarriages of justice under Stalin’s leadership were brought about by fascist infiltration of the NKVD; Ukraine’s famine was caused by the petty-bourgeois landowners who destroyed crops to avoid following Stalin’s orders for sharing with the workers; and Stalin requested to step down from his office four times, then was met with demands from his colleagues to keep leading them. These and other details have to be left out to make Animal Farm’s allegorical account of Soviet history add up.
The CIA, which views storytelling’s power as a weapon, naturally latched onto these works, producing an animated film version of Animal Farm and working to propagate 1984 within our discourse on an even broader level. With the coming of the Ukraine propaganda war, this use of Orwell as a tool in the CIA’s cultural manipulation has intensified. This year, the neocon publication The Atlantic used a 1984 analogy to try to discredit the anti-imperialist governmental rhetoric of not just Russia, but China and the DPRK as well, writing: “Though the leaders of these regimes differ in their approach to the past, all three claim that it is their nation that is under threat, and that they must strengthen their military capabilities and ramp up their political control to defend their citizens. ‘Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth,’ Winston is told in Orwell’s novel. The leaders of Russia, China, and North Korea take a similar view, and that has consequences for all of us.”
Of course, the rightists hold this view towards imperialism’s challengers. They believe that the USA is the innocent victim under threat and that it must strengthen its own repressive state to defend itself from supposed foreign subversion. So they assume this cynical mindset is shared by their enemies. What Orwell’s supporting literary mythology for left anti-communism has done is cultivate a leftist version of this pro-imperialist worldview. No mainstream opposition exists to our paradigm of militarism, because the left in the imperial center rejects anti-imperialist arguments.
Last month, House progressives withdrew their letter calling for diplomacy with Russia, and Senator Sanders responded to the arguments from anti-war voices by saying: “Democrats, warmongers? When you have Putin breaking all kinds of international laws, unleashing an incredibly disgusting and horrific level of destruction against the people of Ukraine?” He was lying both by omission, leaving out the context behind why Russia intervened, and lying directly, implicitly portraying Ukraine’s false flag attacks as attributable to Russia. He was also being dishonest in that he was avoiding the argument’s central point, which is that Washington could end the war at any time by negotiating with Russia. But from the default perspective on world affairs within the imperial center, his statement was perfectly banal.
The politicians and pundits who tell such lies will never allow themselves to be confronted in a public forum with all of the facts which discredit the pro-Ukraine stance. They must leave these facts only partially mentioned so that they can deflect with their uniform set of counterarguments. The full picture must remain ever elusive, or else the story they’re telling will be exposed as false.
This story is compatible with imperial center leftists because the alienation from the system these leftists have experienced, where they recognize the evils of capital, the police state, and social injustice, doesn’t change their commitment to upholding their own imperialist interests. They’re glad to project onto our world the scenario which Orwell’s dystopia depicted, where none of the sides in the war are good and all of them are working towards the same oppressive end. They embrace the view that no state is any more worth supporting than another, as this lets them detach from geopolitics. Engaging in an honest analysis on geopolitics would require giving up imperialism’s atrocity narratives, which are indispensable for an imperial chauvinist. So they either remain apathetic towards geopolitics, or come to focus on geopolitics in the opposite way to how anti-imperialists do, becoming more well-versed in pro-imperialist rhetoric.
That’s how you get the most ill-intentioned among these types, the ones who use the atrocity narratives to rationalize working for NATO’s NGOs or leading opportunistic wrecker organizations. The essential goal of these actors is to discredit anti-imperialists, like how Orwell wrote a list of leftists and communists for British intelligence. With hypocrisy so present in our “progressive” movement, with us having supposed radicals in the government who reliably fold when met by pro-NATO backlash, these actors need to maintain a glorifying myth about what their cause stands for. A central part of this myth, aside from the one about them fighting against a bogeyman called “Stalinism,” is that Orwell was a dedicated socialist. If Orwell is lionized as a principled truth teller, his wrecker activities rationalized as a well-intentioned attempt at combating the Soviet menace, those who carry forth his ideas can lay claim to the same honor.
It’s a circular dynamic of self-congratulation, where the school of thought that Orwell represented gets perpetually romanticized by the imperial lackeys who carry it on. A recurring sentiment among them is “Orwell matters,” which was articulated in the title of Hitchens’ book celebrating Orwell’s contributions to what Hitchens saw as the essential elements of western rhetoric. In Why Orwell Matters, Hitchens wrote that “He would appear never to have diluted his opinions in the hope of seeing his byline disseminated to the paying customers; this alone is a clue to why he still matters.” In his essay of the same name, historian Timothy Ash writes about Orwell that “What he abhors, perhaps even more than violence or tyranny, is dishonesty. Marching up and down the frontier between literature and politics, like a sentry for morality, he can spot a double standard at 500 yards in bad light. Does a Tory MP demand freedom for Poland while remaining silent about India? Sentry Orwell fires off a quick round.”
The people struggling against imperialism don’t need allies like Orwell. These “allies” will help them one moment, and betray them the next. I’m not only referring to how Orwell referred in his list to the American black communist singer Paul Robeson as “very anti-white,” but to the overall reactionary nature of the ideas, he put forth. To act as a literary engineer for the human soul, and tell a story where revolutions can only become corrupted if they seriously challenge capital, is to carry out an insidious kind of sabotage against the anti-imperialist cause. The narrative he told makes it easy for left anti-communists to reject the thesis of Lenin’s State and Revolution, this thesis being that a workers state is the only practical way to counter bourgeois power in the age of imperialism. They can project Lenin, and his theoretical successor Stalin, as equivalents to Orwell’s villains, as deceivers who put forth a false analysis to justify their intentions to grab power.
Such a perspective can only come from a place not informed by Marxism. This is because the internal logic of Orwell’s narrative is fundamentally based in fantasy, not in a dialectical (as in scientifically informed) analysis. The motive driving the ruling elite in 1984, and in Animal Farm by extension, is revealed to be not material interest but rather pure power. But that’s not how tyrannical social systems actually form. Subjugation is always motivated, at its core, by desire from the subjugators to ensure a material advantage. The bourgeois state is motivated by this, imperialism is motivated by this, the feudal and slave states of antiquity were motivated by this. What differentiates these systems from communism is that whereas they’re based in the material interests of exploiting minorities, communism is based in the material interest of the currently exploited majority. It seeks to make the proletariat into the new ruling class, which in the long term will bring about the disintegration of the state and the obsolescence of class as a concept.
When worker revolutions have been corrupted, it’s been due to environments existing within the ruling party that allow for the rise of opportunistic individuals and ideas. Not due to those foundational Marxist-Leninist ideas of the workers taking power, and of a state being needed to defend from bourgeois reaction during history’s current stage. These ideas are correct, and when they’re applied incorrectly, the communist movement is capable of learning from the mistakes made. Nikita Khrushchev’s project to dismantle the USSR’s proletariat dictatorship was made possible by a dynamic of insufficient education within the party, where the historical lessons provided by Lenin and Stalin could be discarded on a whim. Khrushchev was allowed to come to the erroneous conclusion that socialism and capitalism could coexist, rationalizing his incorporation of the bourgeoisie into state authority and weakening the state’s role as a class struggle instrument. He was also allowed to tell a series of lies about Stalin’s supposed crimes in order to justify his own opportunistic mission.
We know that this and other mistakes from former socialism are able to be corrected because we’re seeing how Xi Jinping is actively working to make China’s ruling party avoid the USSR’s revisionist errors. He’s identified historical nihilism as the idea that brought down the Soviet bloc, and is making the Communist Party of China committed to upholding the Leninist principle of proletariat dictatorship. This is coming through in how he’s undoing China’s liberalization, redistributing trillions from China’s billionaires as living standards continue to improve and China implements its own green new deal. China, as well as the other socialist countries that have learned lessons from the USSR’s downfall, have vindicated Leninism. The only recourse for the left anti-communists is to try to discredit the socialist projects of these countries.
Using the story Orwell created about Leninism inevitably bringing tyranny, these leftists are joining the neocons in demonizing existing socialism, except with their own spin. They seek to portray China and the other existing socialist states as capitalist states and portray China as imperialist due to the size of its influence. They’re constructing entire alternative accounts of current events in order to interpret our conditions according to this model, creating an analysis about Chinese “neo-colonialism” in Africa and “racial capitalism” in Xinjiang. These are the types of imperialist propaganda that leftists in particular are primed to be persuaded by, because reactionaries don’t have neo-colonialism or racial capitalism on their minds. Those topics are what get attention from individuals who’ve already gained a level of class consciousness.
Which is what makes these kinds of narratives so destructive to the cause of the working class: there are people who could have become revolutionaries but have had their knowledge on liberation theory exploited to divert them toward becoming useful idiots for imperialism. They’ve been persuaded to apply their education about global exploitation and social injustice to serving “humanitarian” imperialism. Or rather the “woke” kind of imperialism, where Washington’s regime change operations are marketed as social equality projects that have the backing of the peoples in the targeted countries.
While operating within this model of viewing the world, actually challenging imperialism is impossible, however much these leftists decry imperialism in the abstract. If they’re not supporting existing socialism, if they’re not supporting anti-imperialist military actions like Operation Z, they’re not committing to the correct side. The same goes for the types of communists who practice Marxism in organizing and theoretical terms, but take a social pacifist stance towards issues like Ukraine. They act like Russia (and other anti-imperialist countries by extension) should not do anything in the face of Washington’s relentless attacks against them. Committing to the correct side in this geopolitical struggle does not entail uncritical support for the states challenging imperialism. It’s simply going by the logic of unified anti-imperialist struggle that Kim Il Sung articulated: “The differences of state socio-political systems, political views or religious beliefs can by no means be an obstacle in the way of joint struggle against U.S. imperialism.”
When Kim said this, he was speaking to the kind of situation that we’re experiencing right now with Russia in Ukraine. Russia’s being a capitalist state does not make it unable to have an anti-imperialist role. To suggest otherwise is to show a lack of concern for the concrete definition of imperialism; imperialism is a particular model of exploitation, and if that model is being disrupted by a state, the state disrupting it is anti-imperialist so long as it isn’t an imperialist power itself. To obscure the definition of imperialism by claiming it applies to Washington’s adversaries, to view the contradictions of anti-imperialist countries as negating their role in combating imperialism or to insist that they shouldn’t be taking action is to not carry on the struggle which Kim represented.
Regardless of what these individuals do, imperialism will fall apart. Washington will continue to sacrifice its European allies in its futile project to destroy Russia, intensifying the contradictions within these states and bringing revolution closer to them. Washington’s support for Nazi terror will continue to undermine its credibility within the Global South, a narrative crisis that will be exacerbated when it becomes clearer that NATO can’t win this war. Russia has still only used over 20% of its potential military capacity. As its mobilization expands, the walls tighten around the Kiev regime; Zelensky has become so obsessively desperate for perpetual aid increases that in a recent call with Biden, he acted inappropriately by jumping to the topic with rude haste, provoking Biden to snap. It’s getting more and more apparent that an unprecedented catastrophe is coming for the imperialists, a catastrophe they doomed themselves to when they decided to poke Russia into intervening.
Those who’ve been intently watching the downward spiral that U.S. imperialism has taken throughout the last two decades knew from the start of this conflict that Washington would come out of it in a worse situation than Russia would. This reality of how vulnerable imperialism has become is why from a global perspective, supporting Operation Z is the most rational stance for a Marxist to take. But from a more local perspective, wherein our foreign policy discourse has undergone a “Ukrainization” that stigmatizes all dissent against the official narrative, there are great costs to backing Russia. One risks losing platforms, connections, and potentially even their current online payment means. On an organizational level, to be pro-Z is to willingly give up a great amount of power. Which, I suspect, is why the Party of Communists USA is the sole communist party in the country to come out in support of Z. The rest of them have either talked about NATO’s responsibility in provoking Russia while disavowing Z, or portrayed Z as an imperialist operation.
The more the globe transitions towards multipolarity, the more the PCUSA’s stance will be vindicated. The leftists and communists who portray both sides in this geopolitical conflict as bad are, to varying degrees, helping prop up imperialism. The more tepid of a challenge the imperialists face, the more damage they can do amid their decline. The ongoing prevalence of Orwell’s ideas won’t save the empire, but they will frustrate the efforts to minimize the harm the empire is doing. In this way, Ukraine is a test not just for the imperialists, but for the anti-imperialists. Which story do you want to go along with? The one that’s prolonging the destruction imperialism is wreaking, or the one that brings imperialism’s extinction closer?