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  • Published in Book Reviews

Kuzmarov and Marciano's analysis of the US media demonisation of Russia warns of the danger of a new cold war, in full historical context, finds Martin Hall

Jeremy Kuzmarov and John Marciano, The Russians are Coming, Again (Monthly Review Press 2018), 237pp.

Reviewing this book in the wake of the Mueller report’s findings, in which no evidence was found that Russia and the Trump presidential campaign colluded to influence the 2016 US election, it is tempting to hope that 2019 will see some self-reflection on the part of the US liberal establishment. This should entail a turning away from the tendency to look to outside actors for the answers to the crisis; specifically, how and why Trump won, and not Hillary Clinton.

However, the report’s findings, which have only so far been released in summary form, do not take a position on obstruction, which has given some establishment Democrats hope that over two years of glancing eastwards for answers to what has happened under their noses will not have been a complete waste of time. A quick read of Jeremy Kuzmarov’s and John Marciano’s short monograph, in particular its sections on media representations of Russia and their historical precedents, might go some way to disavowing them of the belief that the narrative constructed in the last few years is trustworthy.

The book attempts to compare and contrast the current strategy of demonising Russia with its more famous historical counterpart: the Cold War. Their overall position – and hence the book’s subtitle, of course based on Marx’s dictum – is that this new Cold War is playing out as farce, while allowing that it has the potential to unleash tragedy, as the first one did. Its aims are more wide-ranging than simply trying to understand in concrete terms liberal positions on President Putin, instead providing the reader with a macro-analysis in the Chomskyian vein of how consent is manufactured as part of the hegemonising of discourse in the most powerful liberal democracy in the world.

Changing media agendas

The book is divided into six chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. Of particular use is the first chapter, in which the new Cold War is considered, via a close textual analysis of the reporting strategies of the great liberal American papers, in particular the New York Times and, to a lesser degree, the Washington Post. The latter organ is of course strongly associated in the liberal imaginary with speaking truth to power, due to its role in uncovering the Watergate scandal from 1972-74, which was made into a film shortly afterwards: All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976). More importantly, for the comparison being set up by this book’s authors, the paper’s investigative, anti-establishment past was returned to by Steven Spielberg in The Post (2017), which looks at the paper’s attempts in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers, which were classified documents concerning the US’s role in Vietnam. Prior to the Post’s attempts to publish, the Times had published some of the papers, but had been prevented from continuing to do so by a federal court injunction obtained by President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell.

Kuzmarov’s and Marciano’s first chapter, ‘Anti-Russian Hysteria in Propaganda and Fact’ does a good job of shredding that reputation, showing as it does a concerted and venal attack on Russia, beginning from the moment that Putin opposed the Iraq War in 2003. Prior to that, the Times – which we’ll concentrate on, as the authors do – had been quite glowing about the new strongman of Russia, who they saw as a good manager, in line with the managerialist tendency taking hold of western democracies at the time, and an anti-communist. His KGB background, which had been somewhat glossed over in the previous positive articles, started to be used to paint a picture of an autocrat, particularly after he ‘arrested oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky before he was to sell a majority of shares of his Yukos oil company to Exxon-Mobile’ (p.20). The point of this particular example is that it illustrates how the corporate media’s primary interests are two-fold: supporting US capital along with the foreign policy designed to facilitate it.

The new campaign against Russia

The authors then go on to say how negative articles regarding Putin and Russia full stop increased markedly during the Obama years, hitting their peak at the time of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, when the Times supported the so-called Maidan ‘revolution’, designed to remove the pro-Russian president and replace him with a pro-western and pro-EU government. Underneath this supposed democratic push and Putin’s response were a number of forces and causes: fascist and far-right forces; the general push eastwards by Nato following the end of the Cold War, despite promises not to do so; Russian fears regarding ethnic Russians there; lastly, the situation in Syria and the Middle East in general, where Russia supports the Syrian government and Iran.

Much of this was elided from reporting in the US, which preferred to represent this as a simple battle between democracy and authoritarianism. The authors quote a number of Times’ articles painting a picture of Russia as a nefarious rogue state, behind the shooting down of planes, a rigged referendum in the Crimea, and suggesting Russia’s subsequent decision to annex the Crimea was comparable to the Nazi blitzkrieg, while also ignoring the murder by far-right forces of 38 pro-Russian demonstrators (pp.21-3).

The rest of the chapter continues in the same vein, giving examples of, among other things: accusations of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election; the Times’ use of respected academics in inflammatory articles; accusations of fascism and of being in thrall to Soviet-era politics, in the context of the US’s support for dictatorships the world over. Following that, counter-voices are brought to bear, in order to further the authors’ critique of corporate media representations of Russia and its leader. Of particular use here is the debunking of the idea that Putin’s Russia represents a threat to world security.

Comparisons in reporting are also made: at the same time that the Times was giving a huge amount of coverage to Pussy Riot in the context of free speech, the jailing of a nun for four years for protesting at a nuclear site in Tennessee was relegated to the back pages. Another example given is the reporting of atrocities carried out by Assad-Putin forces in Aleppo in Syria compared with the lack of coverage given to similar actions by the US and its allies in Fallujah and Mosul (p.32). To continue with the Middle East for a moment, apposite comparisons are drawn between media coverage in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and contemporary calls for action to be taken against Putin and Russia. Overall, the picture of a new Cold War is expertly drawn and the political context – Nato expansion since the early 1990s – is presented for the reader.

I have spent so long on this chapter because, unfortunately, it is the only one that really discusses the new Cold War in the context of the old one. To be fair, the authors do not make any claims in the introduction to be doing anything different, but that being said, the amount of time given to the US’s position during the Soviet era in comparison to now is instructive and suggests that there is a longer study that could have been written, giving due and equal weight to both periods. On the other hand, a shorter work could have been assembled, with less well-trod roads being taken. This is not to say that the following five chapters are not interesting, politically nuanced or in any way poorly researched; far from it. It is simply that the book is imbalanced, and, to coin a phrase, doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin.

When the Cold War really began

Of course, the Cold War lasted for a considerably longer time than the current anti-Russian propaganda blitz, and there is much more to be said in simple terms, but that doesn’t mean that a greater number of comparisons could not have been made; essentially, other than the occasional paragraph, the remainder of the main body of the work is a ‘pocket history’ (p.60) of the US and Soviet twentieth century, with few references to the contemporary situation. Moreover, with the exception of one or two sections, as suggested above, it does cover familiar ground. Let us move on now to those chapters, giving particular attention to the less familiar events covered.

Chapter Two begins with a discussion of the US’s role in the Russian Civil War and the period immediately after the October Revolution, which is where the authors place the commencement of the Cold War. This is, of course, not the official view, and is of interest for that reason. The orthodox position is that hostilities began following the end of World War Two, and were inextricably linked to the battle for post-war supremacy and President Truman’s attempt to carve out the new world order. The story of President Wilson and other western leaders sending troops to fight against the Bolsheviks is not sufficiently well known, and is certainly of use in dispelling US myths regarding its foreign policy from the late 1940s onwards simply being reactive.

Stories are told of desertions; of Americans not understanding why they were there; of British and French mutinies and of an atmosphere of general lawlessness. This comment from a US officer is of interest: ‘the American war with Russia had no idealism. It was a freebooter’s excursion, depraved and lawless’ (p.52). US support for terrorist groups is also detailed, as is the role of figures who would later be instrumental in setting up the Office for Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. The principal point being made by the authors is that generations of US citizens have been brought up to fear Russian invasion, but the US is the only one of the two countries ever to undertake such a task.

The domestic Cold War

Following on from this relatively brief chapter, the third longer one concerns itself with the origins of the Cold War in the US. There is an attempt here – for an American readership perhaps not familiar with the history – to discuss the Second World War from the point of view of the Soviet Union: its irritation with being left to fight the European war on its own until 1944 and the millions of lives lost; the rejection of proposals for the West’s acceptance of its existing boundaries, including recently acquired Eastern Poland and the Baltic States; a little later, the collapse of the accord formed at Yalta, and Truman’s role in that. The writers are careful to tie everything together to form a narrative, which prevents the book becoming a list of individual anti-left events. What is not provided, as stated above, is comparative sections on the current situation. In that sense, the reader is left to infer these connections.

A particularly useful section is the one on Henry Wallace, Vice President from 1941-45. It begins with a discussion of his removal from the Roosevelt ticket at the 1944 presidential election, and the anti-communist forces involved in that. Wallace proposed a greater role for the United Nations over air bases, at the expense of the US and the UK, the prohibition of the manufacture of atom bombs, and limits of military spending. None of this was likely to go down well in an increasingly expansive US, which was starting to take on its self-appointed role as the world’s policeman. When he later ran against Truman for the Progressive Party, the latter was advised that every effort must be made to associate him with communism (p.66). Wallace’s removal was part of a larger effort to isolate voices for peace in the 1940s.

Justifying American expansion

The rest of the chapter presents a debunking of the dominant narrative of the day, namely that the Soviet Union was expansive and hostile, and fixated on spreading communism. For readers steeped in the history of the left, there is, of course, a certain irony in this myth, as Stalin was the principal proponent of the doctrine of socialism in one country. Such nuances were not part of the discussion in the US, however, and this idea quickly became orthodoxy and continued to be so to a large degree into the 1980s. The reality, as the authors point out, was that the US had emerged from World War Two relatively unscathed and far more powerful than any other nation on earth, so anti-communism at this point was cover for military expansion, and for the pushing of US soft power throughout Europe.

Chapters Four and Five concentrate on the concomitant attack on democracy in the US that effectively functioned as the home front in this ideological war. Much of this story is well-known, and the authors deserve credit for not simply repeating the usual material regarding the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the attacks on Hollywood actors, screenwriters and directors. This story is mentioned, but deftly placed within a bigger picture, one in which science, academic freedom, the growth of the military-industrial complex, attacks on labour, and the loss of media independence are given precedence. Individual victims have subsections dedicated to them, such as the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, and the overall context of McCarthyism is well-drawn.

The growth of the war machine, specifically under Operation Paperclip, in which around 1600 Nazi scientists were recruited, left a legacy of appalling weapons, all justified as part of the technological race that characterised the Cold War in general, but in particular the first couple of decades after World War Two. All of this was achieved under the umbrella of perhaps the single largest manufacturing of consent for a new hegemony in the history of the world. The irony of this is not lost on the authors, as one of the principal narratives created in the Cold War was of an enemy that subjugated the individual, did not allow dissent, and was blindly ideological in the face of the facts.

The war on communism at home, specifically in terms of attacks on the Communist Party, was grossly disproportionate in the context of a party with 32,000 members in a nation of 150 million, and it is estimated that around a quarter of members were actually FBI informants (p.112). The party was even made illegal. All of these attacks on the left weakened the women’s movement and the fight for equal rights for African-Americans as well. As exploitation was effectively made off-limits in American discourse, so too was the fight against oppression impacted. In this climate, the rise of the radical right was tolerated and even encouraged, and a variety of figures who intertwined Christianity with far-right views gained prominence, in so doing connecting communism with anti-religious positions in the minds of many Americans.

Imperial foreign policy

The last chapter concerns US foreign policy, and in particular its war in and on the Global South. The two most well-known examples of this are Korea and Vietnam, but there are many more examples in which the US did not officially declare war, but instead indulged in regime change against democratically elected socialist governments. A particularly grave one for the future direction of the West was the removal in 1973 of Chile’s President Allende and his replacement by the military dictator, Pinochet. As well as the numerous murders that followed on from this, Chile was then used as a laboratory for neoliberalism, in which deregulation, privatisation, low taxes, cuts to public services and the lessening of trade barriers were trialled.

This was the same period in which President Nixon tore up the Bretton Woods agreement and unpegged the dollar from gold. The oil crisis took place the same year and the fightback of capital against labour began in earnest, setting in train the neoliberal period. There were similar attempts to destabilise Cuba, Guatemala and Indonesia, and a selection of Central American wars where far-right forces were funded and trained by the CIA during the Reagan period. Underpinning this throughout was an official narrative that emphasised, in the words of George W. Bush, ‘the victims of Imperial Communism’ (p.163), with the implication being clear: the US must continue to oppose ‘rogue states’ in the Middle East.

Russophobia and domestic crisis

Having spent the last few chapters providing effectively a warning from history, the conclusion does try to bring us back to the present and offers advice on how to avoid a Third World War. It begins by outlining how contemporary Russophobia fulfils a similar role to its historical precedent, which is to affirm American identity and exceptionalism in the context of domestic crises, and in so doing provide a rationale for increasing military expansionism (p.165). Much of the conclusion is a precis of the arguments provided in the book, with a particular emphasis on how relationships with Putin have changed, due to his becoming more assertive, being seen as a threat to elite interests.

The position taken by the authors, quite rightly, is that not only do American attitudes to Russia imperil the planet, but they also narrow political discourse in the US and are therefore directly harmful to the country’s citizens. With the exception of the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America and the movement around Bernie Sanders, US citizens currently have a choice between Trumpism, and a Democrat party beset by Russophobia and paranoia, desperate for any political answer that does not involve looking in the mirror. The authors end with calls for citizens’ campaigns for peace; essentially, a new version of the anti-war movement at the time of Vietnam. This is in line with the voluntarist approach that they align themselves with throughout.

To conclude, this is an enjoyable and thorough book. Unfortunately, there was more (or less, as suggested above) that could have been done. Historical examples could have been connected more strongly to the contemporary situation, in so doing strengthening the argument that what we are seeing is a continuation of historical tactics for the same strategic end: the manufacturing of consent for further expansion of US global power in the context of the increased crisis of capitalism (it is instructive that the crisis set in train in the US in 2008 hardly warrants a mention) and the waning of US power in the face of China.

A warning from history is instructive and certainly of use, but far better would have been a careful and perspicacious joining of the dots that would have provided the reader with the totality of the creation of hegemony in the US. In Gramscian terms, there is a question to be answered regarding the extent to which the current situation is a continuation of the same historic bloc, or whether it is materially and ideologically different. The book leaves that unanswered.