Vladimir Putin chose to meddle in the 2016 election -- and this might be the reason why
Image: Vladimir Putin speaks to 60 Minutes (screen capture)

Alexander Dugin can often sound like a postmodern thinker straight out of late 20th-century Paris. The Russian philosopher, political theorist and far-right ideologue, who has been called everything from “Putin’s brain” to “Putin’s Rasputin,” as well as “the most dangerous philosopher in the world,” makes it no secret that he has carefully studied left-wing thinkers and taken up their theories (and tactics) to advance his own reactionary agenda.

Consider Dugin's thoughts on Marxism, which he describes in his influential book “The Fourth Political Theory” (a kind of manifesto for the contemporary far right that advances a “fourth political theory” beyond liberalism, communism and fascism) as “relevant in terms of its description of liberalism, in identifying the contradictions of capitalism, [and] in its criticism of the bourgeois system.” The “critical potential” of Marxism is useful and applicable, he writes, and “may well be included in the arsenal of the Fourth Political Theory.”

This article originally appeared in Salon.

“Marxism is often correct when it describes its enemy,” continues Dugin, who shares a common enemy with Marxists and thus endorses much of their critique. Marxists call this enemy the bourgeoisie, but Dugin refers to them simply as "liberals," in the traditional sense associated with liberal democracy and capitalism, not in the American usage that denotes center-left members of the Democratic Party. In the Russian philosopher’s account, liberalism is the first of the three political theories of modernity, with the latter two being socialism and/or communism (which challenged liberalism from the left) and fascism (which challenged it from the right).

Liberalism grew out of the Enlightenment, and favors the individual over the collective identity (e.g., national, ethnic, religious, class, etc.) and negative freedom (“freedom from”) over positive freedom (“freedom to”). Dugin describes this conception of liberalism as producing “the most disgusting formula of slavery, inasmuch as it temps man to an insurrection against God, against traditional values, against the moral and spiritual foundations of his people and his culture.” In Dugin’s view, liberalism is an “absolute evil” that must be destroyed. To do this, he is more than ready to employ left-wing critiques of liberalism, capitalism and modernity itself.

This partly explains why Dugin can often sound more like a left-wing radical than a reactionary extremist who longs for the restoration of the Russian Empire. He has employed the theories of postmodernism, for example, to attack objective truth and defend the propaganda that comes from the Russian state. “Everything is relative,” said Dugin in an interview with the BBC in 2016. “In Russia, we could use postmodernity in order to explain to the West that if any truth is relative, we have our special Russian truth. . . . Postmodernism teaches us . . . [that] the truth is a question of belief.”

Dugin similarly advocates a form of cultural relativism, which is associated more with contemporary progressives and leftists than with those on the right. “Societies can be compared, but we cannot state any one of them is objectively better than the others,” he explains, while proposing international relations based on “multipolarity” rather than the current unipolar status quo, with the United States (and its Western allies) as the world’s dominant superpower. In this multipolar world, different “civilizations” (including Russia, or “Eurasia”) would essentially be separate but equal (in theory), while liberal and humanist values would remain strictly Western. According to Dugin, concepts like democracy, human rights, individualism and so on are not universal but uniquely Western values and should not be encouraged or pushed on other cultures, civilizations or societies.

That is a complicated but not altogether incoherent notion, and Dugin manages to sound somewhat progressive even when discussing issues like gender -- at least when he’s not showing off his flagrant homophobia and transphobia. He declares that “behind modernity’s conception of gender, is Western or global patriarchy” and that the “most ‘male-affirming’ [ideology] is the theory of liberalism, as it considers this figure of the rational, rich, adult White male as the norm and as a natural phenomenon.”

Ultimately, however, what Dugin shares most with some on the left is his hostility towards America and the West:

The USA considers itself to be the logical conclusion and peak of Western civilization. But in essence, we are simply dealing with an updated version and continuation of a Western universalism that has been passed down from the Roman Empire, Medieval Christianity, [and] modernity in terms of the Enlightenment and colonisation.

Western society is particularly afflicted with such an ethnocentric approach and ‘universal’ pretensions rooted in its racist and colonialist past . . . the inner nature of such an attitude is rooted in the will to power and paranoid imposition of one’s own identity on the Other. This illness is called Western racism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dugin is eager to form a political alliance with leftists, with whom he shares a common foe -- liberalism and American or Western imperialism -- and has called for “conscious cooperation of the radical Left-wingers and the New Right.” In order to do this, Dugin insists that both sides in this marriage of convenience must “put aside anti-Communist, as well as anti-fascist, prejudices,” which are “the instruments in the hands of liberals and globalists with which they keep their enemies divided.” In other words, to use parlance that will be familiar to some activists, Dugin wants a “Red-Brown alliance” against liberalism.

Dugin’s ideology and political stances can often seem baffling. Although he is frequently labeled a neo-fascist by critics, this seems incorrect for the simple reason that fascism was a modern ideology, whatever else we might say about it. Dugin’s political ideology is, as he puts it, an “unmodern theory” that “completely discards the idea of the irreversibility of history.” This reveals Dugin’s ultimate goal: He wants to destroy modernity and reverse history. Indeed, the very idea of “progress” is offensive and downright evil to Dugin — the work of the anti-Christ. Amazingly, he manages to use the language of the left even when he is disparaging the notion of progress (the foundation of any truly left-wing politics).

The very ideology of progress is racist in its structure. The assertion that the present is better and more fulfilling than the past, and continual assurances that the future will be even better than the present, are discriminations against the past and the present, as well as the humiliation of all those who lived in the past . . . and a violation of the right of the dead.

Progress is the “moral genocide” of past generations, he goes on to say, while calling the idea of modernization equally racist and vile. That Dugin can present such an absurdly reactionary worldview by using the language — and often the theories — of the left should deeply concern any leftist or progressive. Dugin can sometimes come across as a half-mad crackpot, but his impact should not be trivialized. Though Dugin’s personal influence over Vladimir Putin's decisions and policies is exaggerated by the Western media, there is little doubt that his writings have an audience in the Kremlin.

In Dugin's 1997 book, “Foundations of Geopolitics,” for example, which is perceived as highly influential in Russian military circles, he laid out a detailed strategy of how Russia could reassert itself on the international stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among many other recommendations, Dugin suggested that Russia annex Ukraine and encourage Britain’s exit from the European Union (i.e., Brexit), both things that have come true at least in part.

But the most chilling section today is on American politics. Russia, Dugin writes, should “introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S.” It would also make sense, he continues, to “support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”

After reading this, it is hard not to think about Russian interference in the 2016 election and the propaganda machine that the Kremlin has built over the past decade, in a new light. Since the 2016 election, it has become increasingly evident that the Russian government meddled in the American election, engaging in “information warfare” to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.”

Although it is a common view among Democrats that the Kremlin supported Donald Trump because of his politics -- or, as the more paranoid believe, because he was Putin's version of a Manchurian candidate -- this is a misconception. The Kremlin didn’t so much support Trump as support the chaos he represented. As new evidence has come out, it has become clear that Russian agents acting through the internet worked to bolster the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Green Party nominee Jill Stein as well. Again, this was meant to fuel and maximize disorder, not because of any political agreement, clandestine or otherwise.

Ultimately, the entire purpose of the Russian misinformation campaign was to create confusion and to destabilize Western democracy, just as Dugin had advised 20 years earlier. “The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone,” journalist Peter Pomerantsev, author of the 2014 book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia,” has written, “but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted — to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative.” The aim, Pomerantsev writes in another article, is “to confuse rather than convince, to trash the information space so the audience gives up looking for any truth amid the chaos.”

Could Dugin have asked for a better turn of events? Objective truth has become harder and harder to find, while trust in the media (along with other U.S. institutions) is at an all-time low. Truth, as Dugin has said, citing the postmodernists, is relative, and the Western “Enlightenment” narrative promoting progress, science and individual freedom is just one of many narratives. The fact that Russian media organizations like RT and Sputnik News — which has stated that its goal is to point “the way to a multipolar world that respects every country’s national interests, culture, history and traditions” — give a platform to both far-right and left-wing perspectives is hardly surprising, if the primary goal is to muddy the waters and counter Western liberalism at all costs.

Those on the left should be careful not to treat their enemy’s enemy as their friend. Dugin can often sound like a left-winger when discussing things like Western imperialism and racism, or cultural relativism and capitalism. That makes him, along with other reactionaries of his ilk, particularly dangerous. Like anti-capitalist leftists, Dugin and other far-right ideologues reject the neoliberal order and global capitalism — but for completely different reasons.

Reactionaries are anti-modern, and therefore want to restore the status quo ante that preceded the revolutionary changes of the Enlightenment, capitalism and modernity. For a Russian like Dugin, this means restoring the Russian Empire of the czarist era; for an Islamic extremist it means restoring the caliphate; and for an American white supremacist it means the restoration of systemic racism and the creation of an ethno-state.

For any true “progressive,” the status quo (yes, that means "liberalism" and capitalism) is clearly preferable to the status quo ante of feudalism, autocracy, monarchy and theocracy, even if the ultimate goal is to replace the status quo with something better. The idea of a “multipolar” world may sound appealing to many leftists who (rightly) oppose U.S. interventionism and imperialism, but it is ultimately an ideological tool for reactionaries like Dugin, who stand in firm opposition to progressive and democratic values.

Historically, the left has been internationalist and modernist in nature, but today some left-wingers have become, for lack of a better word, “postmodernist.” The French philosopher Jean François Lyotard defined postmodernism as “an incredulity towards metanarratives,” or “Grand Narratives.” From this perspective, the idea of progress and liberation can be seen as nothing more than a Western narrative (just as all “truth” is relative and a matter of belief).

Though the postmodernists were considered left-wing in their time, their movement and theories have arguably gone a long way toward weakening the global left and empowering the far right. Indeed, Pomerantsev has called the modern Russian state a “postmodern dictatorship,” a world of “simulated institutions and simulated narratives, where nothing can ever be said to be genuine, where not only the financial system, but language and ideas, have become corrupted.”

If the left is to succeed in replacing the status quo with something better, then it must create an international movement and reject all the worst impulses of postmodernism and once again get behind what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called the “project of modernity.” Most importantly, leftists must be careful to avoid political alliances (voluntary or involuntary) with reactionary movements or “anti-modern” ideologues like Dugin. If a true progressive believes in the notion of “progress,” then she would sooner defend the status quo than align with political forces that hope to restore some forgotten "golden age."