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Dayan Jayatilleka

Ph.D., Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation

In the postwar period, Moscow was never a greater center of soft power than during the first years of the Gorbachev term, which is something I witnessed (and commented upon in a Sri Lankan newspaper) at the World Festival of Youth and Students in the Summer of 1985.

By 1987, at the 70th-anniversary celebration of the October Revolution, however, Fidel Castro was already prophesying in his speech that “even if we awake one morning and hear that the Soviet Union has disappeared, we would not be surprised.”

What happened? What unfolded was the strangest thing: originally the Gorbachev project was a reformed, more open socialism, and remained so even until 1991 when its popularity was confirmed at the nationwide referendum of that year — a result which has been almost forgotten by history. What is inexplicable is that the project for reformed socialism did not establish its global alliances with a reformed and reunified left throughout the world, which was perfectly possible and on display at the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1985. Instead it did the exact opposite.

Moscow was at that moment, the capital of a “broad church” or an extended family, ranging from reformists to revolutionaries. It was once again a new Rome. The great historical split between Communists and Social Democrats was being healed and within the USSR and in every nation of the so-called “Eastern bloc,” suppressed currents of the Soviet heritage were rehabilitated and resurfacing, e.g. Bukharin.

There was a new path possible for Russia and the world, through a renovated and reunited Left or a new Center-Left. The old Popular Front could be revised and extended. It was Russia that was the most exciting place and had attracted the most attention in the world at that time. But it was precisely Russia that chose instead as its main partners, not the social democrats, socialists and leftists the world over including among the governments and mainstream oppositions of Europe—which would have been the path to a Common European Home, if ever there was such a path possible--but precisely the Conservatives of the US and UK: Reagan and Thatcher.

It was from these sources and their liberal replacements that the international, strategic and economic signals and ideologies came, completely derailing the Gorbachev experiment, shifting its own ideologues from social democrats to Western or pro-western liberals, and finally unleashing social forces to its right, which eventually displaced the whole experiment and ushered in the 1990s.

How was it possible that any project which thought of itself as on the left, as socialist of whatever persuasion, went not only through an understandable metamorphosis in which right-left and center were thought of obsolete, irrelevant and transcended, but did not embrace as its external partners, its ideological and political counterparts, but embraced as partners, the old Cold Warriors of the hard-right, its opponents?

How could it be thought there would be no misdirection and confusion, not because of a conspiracy nor because the personal chemistry was false but precisely because the game was zero-sum and the basic interests were in the final analysis at variance and incompatible?

I.

In the postwar period, Moscow was never a greater center of soft power than during the first years of the Gorbachev term, which is something I witnessed (and commented upon in a Sri Lankan newspaper) at the World Festival of Youth and Students in the Summer of 1985.

By 1987, at the 70th-anniversary celebration of the October Revolution, however, Fidel Castro was already prophesying in his speech that “even if we awake one morning and hear that the Soviet Union has disappeared, we would not be surprised.”

What happened? What unfolded was the strangest thing: originally the Gorbachev project was a reformed, more open socialism, and remained so even until 1991 when its popularity was confirmed at the nationwide referendum of that year — a result which has been almost forgotten by history. What is inexplicable is that the project for reformed socialism did not establish its global alliances with a reformed and reunified left throughout the world, which was perfectly possible and on display at the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1985. Instead it did the exact opposite.

Dayan Jayatilleka:
Endgame of the Long Cold War

Moscow was at that moment, the capital of a “broad church” or an extended family, ranging from reformists to revolutionaries. It was once again a new Rome. The great historical split between Communists and Social Democrats was being healed and within the USSR and in every nation of the so-called “Eastern bloc,” suppressed currents of the Soviet heritage were rehabilitated and resurfacing, e.g. Bukharin.

There was a new path possible for Russia and the world, through a renovated and reunited Left or a new Center-Left. The old Popular Front could be revised and extended. It was Russia that was the most exciting place and had attracted the most attention in the world at that time. But it was precisely Russia that chose instead as its main partners, not the social democrats, socialists and leftists the world over including among the governments and mainstream oppositions of Europe—which would have been the path to a Common European Home, if ever there was such a path possible--but precisely the Conservatives of the US and UK: Reagan and Thatcher.

It was from these sources and their liberal replacements that the international, strategic and economic signals and ideologies came, completely derailing the Gorbachev experiment, shifting its own ideologues from social democrats to Western or pro-western liberals, and finally unleashing social forces to its right, which eventually displaced the whole experiment and ushered in the 1990s.

How was it possible that any project which thought of itself as on the left, as socialist of whatever persuasion, went not only through an understandable metamorphosis in which right-left and center were thought of obsolete, irrelevant and transcended, but did not embrace as its external partners, its ideological and political counterparts, but embraced as partners, the old Cold Warriors of the hard-right, its opponents?

How could it be thought there would be no misdirection and confusion, not because of a conspiracy nor because the personal chemistry was false but precisely because the game was zero-sum and the basic interests were in the final analysis at variance and incompatible?

How is it possible that even if one were to partner with the coldest of Cold Warriors with a view to conversion through convergence and transcendence, one would not take as one’s first and foundational alliance, that with like-minded leftists, socialists, progressives and social democrats? What were the logic and the rationale?

It was the confusion (ideological, philosophical, and political) of the late 1980s that resulted in the capitulation of the 1990s. Far from “depriving the West of an enemy image,” the Gorbachev policies, well-intentioned but poorly thought-through, deprived Russia itself of strategic “sight.” This Utopianism blinded Russia to its real enemies, blinded it to how it was viewed by strategically relentless adversaries, blinded Russia to the reality of a world in which there are very real enemies and contradictions which are irreconcilable, short of the most abject surrender. It is because Marshal Akhromeyev saw this because he saw that the Soviet Union was committing suicide, that he did so. It was the “long Nineties” which started in the late 1980s, that removed the equilibrium in the world, removed the restraints, restrictions, and roadblocks to Western military expansionism, and has brought the world to the brink of war. It is described in Moscow today as a “pre-war” situation.

The Long Nineties has its roots back in the late 1950s. Though the Gorbachevian dubbed their ideas “New Thinking” as distinct from the “old thinking” of critics such as Ligachev, not to mention Nina Andreyeva, the so-called New Thinking was, in fact, the older or oldest thinking, dating back to the 20th Congress and its prolonged afterlife even in the post-Khrushchev period-- a phenomenon the Chinese called “Khrushchevism without Khrushchev”.

II.

We know when it started and who started it, but are we sure why it started and how it prevailed over time? The delusion was that the strategic goal, the very telos of Russia policy should be the search for world peace through negotiations with the United States, over and above and even to the detriment of all other factors and considerations.

It is not that such negotiations were in and of themselves wrong. What was unwise was that they were not seen as tactical but rather as strategic; not seen as buying time and space and exploiting contradictions within the camp of the adversary and even within his very system, as Lenin and Stalin had perceived and practiced it, but as the main strategic path for Russia in the world.

This strategy has now proved delusional and a dangerous diversion. Like a matryoshka doll, it contained within itself another delusion, namely that the Western signatory to such pacts would not extricate themselves from them or just tear them up. Understanding this did not require much. All it took was an awareness of the history of the perfidy of imperialist powers throughout history, ranging from the trail of broken treaties with the native Americans through to the murder of Sandino in 1932 and the open violation of the 1954 Geneva Peace accords regarding Vietnam. Instead, an almost religious leap of faith was made about imperialism—that it had changed in character, and would be a sincere peace partner, in permanence.

Of course, the West was sincere, but to its own essential character as manifested throughout its history. When it perceived that its interests, be it systemic or merely sectional, were no longer served, it merely reneged on agreements.

There was another matryoshka doll within the previous one. This one was illogical. The entire shift of paradigm was based on the assumption that the strength of socialism and the world correlation of forces was such that imperialism would not dare renege on its commitments and become openly warlike. The illogic was that basing itself on this assumption, Russia went on to cut back on its own strength and abandon the policies that had led to the favorable shift in the world correlation of forces.

There were warnings. Molotov kept doing so, but he was laughed at as a diehard, the last of the holdouts, who clung to the old view of imperialism. From 1956, and especially in the so-called Great Debate, the Open Polemics of 1960-1963, and most especially in the 1963 Proposal on the General Line of the World Communist Movement, the Chinese Communists kept warning angrily about the intrinsically aggressive, predatory character of imperialism which could not be changed through compromise and negotiation. On the question of imperialism and negotiations, their pessimism seems to have been proven correct, in the main, or more correct than the optimists.

The next matryoshka doll was the view that the USSR could go it alone with its allies within the socialist camp, even if there was no consensus with China, in the teeth of objections from China and in the face of active antipathy from China. China too would make this mistake later, in relation to the USSR. By “go it alone” or go it with one’s allies but without each other, not only meant in world affairs in general but more specifically and much worse, in relations with the US and the West.

Within this matryoshka doll was another: the notion that the search for negotiations and pacts with the USA was strategically more important than, and on a qualitatively superior plane to the relationship with China. China would make the same mistake with regard to Soviet Russia a decade or so later. While there were partial course corrections along the way, starting with the ouster of Khrushchev following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the dominant—though not always permanent or consistent—paradigm in Russia’s external policy remained, until the Putin Presidency, that of privileging the relationship with the US over that with either the East or the Global South. As history has shown, the US exploited this mistake to the full, played one against the other and is now on the offensive against both.

The last matryoshka doll was the argument or the perspective that domestic relaxation required the relaxation of tensions externally, in the relations with the West, and that this relaxation went beyond the domain of foreign policy into that of strategic and security policy. The political history of the West has proven that it is capable of pairing the most liberal internal policies with the most aggressive external military ones, as the incumbencies of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama have shown. The West has also shown that external militarism and expansionism can go hand in hand with a partial relaxation of foreign policy. In the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and Gorbachev, and Russia under Yeltsin, it was thought that domestic relaxation and external relaxation of strategic and security concerns, were necessary corollaries.

III.

Those who attribute the present state of international relations often described as that of a Cold War, to the ideologies and/or personalities of Presidents Trump and Putin or the nature of their administrations, miss the whole point or cover it up intentionally.

The point is that however different from the present administrations in Washington and Moscow their predecessors were, and however friendly the atmosphere of the equation was, the Western drives were the same unless thwarted by Russian conduct.

Put more explicitly, however liberal, “moderate” and intellectually sophisticated the Western leaderships were, and however non-aggressive, cooperative and even compliant Russian administrations were, the basic policy intentions and drives of US conduct remained the expansion of its global power, especially military power, as a State and the weakening of the Russian State and especially its military power.

The methods were the outward push of US-led military power and presence, irrespective of Russian interests, perceptions and protestations, and the softening up and reduction of Russian power by ideological misdirection, blandishments and pressure.

Whether it was by confrontation or cooptation, whether it was under liberal or conservative administrations, whether it was targeted towards rigid or compliant Russian regimes, the Western perception of its enemy was consistent: the Russian State, whatever the character and conduct of the Russian regime. Western objectives and drives were consistent the target was the Russian state and its strategic power as well as capacities.

So long as the Russian state has the capacity to be a counterweight, it is an enemy—and it was not always understood by Russia that the protection of its own basic, even existential, geopolitical and geostrategic interests meant that Russian military power always had to be of a level that whatever the policy intentions of Russian regimes, Russian power would always constitute an objective threat to the US drive for global over-lordship and would therefore always be perceived as a threat and an enemy.

The global game is objectively zero-sum, and that zero-sum character seems to reflect itself more accurately at the subjective level in the West than in Russia or China.

Why do many nations follow the US, even though it may not approve of US behavior? The common answer is hard power supplemented by soft power, or as Gramsci termed it about the more general phenomenon of capitalism, “hegemony armored by coercion.”

However, the secret of US soft power is not the universalization of Hollywood, Netflix and rock music—all of which are harmless and appealing—nor is it the more ambitious universalization of exceptionalism. The secret of US soft power is that it has never relinquished the desire to lead and the role of leadership.

If you project yourself as a leader, others will follow. For those who oppose such US global leadership, it is not necessary to imitate the US, but it is necessary to compete. It is not necessary to compete on all terrains, but it is absolutely necessary to compete on the terrain of politics. Russia and China have long since abandoned that role of a global political competitor. Russia is a strategic defender while China is an economic competitor. By contrast, political competition means that one authentically projects one’s State and one’s political project or idea as an alternative, counter-hegemonic pole of attraction; an alternative rallying point for the mobilization of political forces, state and non-state, across the planet. But to do that, Russia and China must have a universalist or more simply, a global political project, which the USA has and always did. To put it in the language of an earlier period of political history, Russia and China have long since abandoned this role of “the vanguard.”

This chain of erroneous strategic propositions has to be identified as comprising a paradigm or an episteme. If the current challenge is to be successfully faced it cannot be with the residues of the old paradigm or episteme. There has to be an “epistemological rupture” from the old idealistic-utopian thinking and a “leap” to a synthesis of Realism and Leninism. But what are the mentality and archetype needed to face the new global challenge? Nietzsche argued for “a Caesar with the soul of Christ.” We are told that Lenin had Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” in his private library and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in his Kremlin library. Today, confronting, resisting and prevailing over The Adversary’s project of global encirclement and unipolar domination, needs an elite, a vanguard, a “guardian class” which collectively downloads Lenin’s fusion of cold cerebration and steel political will, combined with the Homeric heroism that Nietzsche celebrated. It would create a “Nietzschean-Lenininian” archetype.

This article reflects the personal views of the Author.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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