Has Putin’s Russia become the head of a new Alt-Right International, the same way twentieth century Russia headed up the Communist International? It sure looks that way.
The historian Paul Hollander’s book Political Pilgrims, which has gone through multiple editions, is a single-volume encyclopedia of twentieth-century political cultism and delusion, mainly on the left, and including leading cultural figures and academics in Western countries. The recital is depressing, yet riveting and essential reading. Figures such as the British sociologists Beatrice and Sidney Webb and the playwright George Bernard Shaw were very knowledgeable about and outraged by the failings of their own societies, and their yearning to believe that all such problems had been solved elsewhere drove them to worship the then-new Soviet Union. Misplaced idealism is a theme that played out over and over again.
But starting in 1939, when Stalin signed a deal to join Hitler in dismembering Poland, the shine began to come off the Soviet Union, though some French intellectuals’ illusions didn’t vanish until Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published in France in the mid-1970s. Pete Seeger apparently woke up to Stalin’s crimes well after the turn of the millennium, just before his death, and Bernie Sanders was praising “da beautiful chandeliers” in the Moscow Metro after a visit there in 1988, just before the Soviet Union collapsed. (Many members of the Russian “working class” were killed building the damn thing, because Stalin was in a hurry to prove that his Communism could create a bigger subway than capitalist New York or Paris, but apparently it is too much to expect the most famous socialist in today’s world to know this history.) Like many others, he learned to transfer his delusions to other supposed utopias, such as Castro’s Cuba, a crush he was still defending in 2020.
But attributing the disgraceful betrayal of everything these people claimed to stand for solely to misplaced idealism does them too much credit. There were also elements of power worship and plain old corruption involved, as the Soviet authorities would ply foreigners willing to spread propaganda for it with plane tickets, fancy food and lodgings in the starving “utopia,” and sometimes willing sexual partners who doubled as KGB spies. The Chinese Communist regime, the North Vietnamese Communist regime, Castro’s Cubans and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas were also delighted to cater to the illusions of the Free World’s fools.
This history is of urgent relevancy today, partly because people like Bernie Sanders refuse to give up their illusions to this day, but also because central figures of the rising “populist” alt-right in the United States and Europe are reenacting this dismal phenomenon on the other side of the political spectrum. It must never be forgotten that Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent in the foreign service, and must have learned very well how to cultivate foreign sympathizers. He has now adapted this expertise to reel in alt-right fish begging for the hook, reaping rewards such as Tucker Carlson giving full-throated support to the apparently impending Russian attack on Ukraine to the millions who watch his Fox News shows, and Marine Le Pen spreading the evil gospel on the French far right. Viktor Orbán, the proudly “illiberal” dictator of the much smaller nation of Hungary, may even be ahead of Putin in the affections of Carlson, Steve Bannon, and their ilk. Most consequentially of all, of course, Trump himself paid endless deference to Putin starting in 2016 for reasons that combined corruption, strongman worship, a wish to trade favors, and, or so it widely believed, blackmail material (“kompromat“) that Putin holds over the Very Stable Genius. Polls show definite signs of ordinary MAGAs following along in this admiration for a tyrannical and aggressive Russia.
How to fight back? As you may have gathered from my quick review of the last century’s left-wing political pilgrims, it is not very easy to pry people loose from delusions they are determined to cling to. Some, such as Arthur Koestler and André Gide, saw what Russia under the commissars was really like and publicly renounced their former Communist faith, to great effect. We may assume some on the alt-right will have a similar awakening. What we must not do is repeat the mistakes of the “Red hunters” of early and mid-20th century America, ginning up xenophobic hysteria, imprisoning and deporting people for their beliefs, and demanding loyalty oaths of teachers and civil servants. These outrages were damaging to American society in and of themselves, and they served to discredit “anti-Communism” in many people’s eyes. That does not mean, however, that we must stand back passively while we wait for the inevitable disillusionment of some true believers. We must use every legal tactic against truly dangerous propagandists like Tucker Carlson, starting by pressuring every single company that advertises on his shows to drop him. There must be no governmental interference with free speech, and no legal holds barred in fighting those who use its privileges to try to undermine and destroy liberty. Needless to say, this also applies to old-fashioned left-wing delusionaries like “Bernie,” who deserve contempt for their willed ignorance.