A small country is repeatedly invaded by a mighty nuclear power. It takes up arms against the invaders, framing its struggle in terms of Islam. The mighty power brands the resistance as terrorists while using massacres and atrocities to subdue them.
Is this Iraq? Afghanistan? No, it is Chechnya, the tiny Caucasus nation occupied by Russia.
The principled anti-imperialist position on this war ought to be a no-brainer. Yet still it divides the Western left.
For these reasons Tony Wood’s Chechnya: The Case for Independence is important. At last someone with serious intellectual credentials on the left – Wood is assistant editor of the journal New Left Review – has written a book length argument against the occupation.
Wood is highly readable and informed, and his footnotes alone are a mass of information. He offers patient and detailed answers to the Kremlin and its apologists, detailing how George Bush and Tony Blair have justified Vladimir Putin’s war as an extension of their own “war on terror”.
But there are also apologists for Putin on the British left. The Morning Star dismissed Wood’s book, arguing that Russia “has set Chechnya on a course of economic recovery”, and that independence was “no doubt encouraged by the Western oil companies”.
The first argument is straight out of Monty Python’s film Life of Brian: “Wonderful race, the Russians! Crucifixion is too good for the Chechens!” We must smash their country so we can then magnanimously claim to be rebuilding it.
The second is almost as bad. As Wood makes clear, Russia’s first assault in 1994 was launched by Boris Yeltsin and his neoliberal reformers, backed to the hilt by Western governments. Was Yeltsin defending “Russian territory” in the name of socialist internationalism? I think not.
However, Wood’s argument does leave some space for the Putinists to breathe.
First, the word “imperialism” doesn’t appear once in the book, which therefore fails to place Russia’s war in a broader context. This is a departure from the original New Left Review article on which the book is based, which referred to Russia’s “Neo-imperialism” and described the resistance as “an anti-colonial struggle comparable to those waged by Europe’s other colonies in Africa or Asia”.
Wood labels the first invasion “Yeltsin’s Vietnam”, but draws back from the implication that Russia is an imperialist power. Russians come across as somehow cut from a different cloth. So police and skinhead pogroms against Caucasus peoples aren’t racist; they are just “xenophobic”.
As a result, the war is explained in terms of a rogue military establishment. This misses the way in which the Russian ruling class has behaved very much like its opponents in the White House, and with the same motives.
This structural oversight leads Wood to make mistakes. He says that Russia’s first invasion was not about crushing independence, because Russia was at the same time fomenting separatism in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnestria. But the point is that these were foreign conflicts, which the Kremlin exploited to undermine the independence of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Finally, Wood entirely ignores the Marxist tradition on critical but unconditional support for national liberation struggles – the tradition that Lenin did so much to develop.
This is an indispensable book in defence of the Chechen struggle, but we need to integrate its insights into a broader critique of the new imperialism.
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