Trump’s election, Russiagate and the smear campaign against Julian Assange have deluded and disoriented many “left” organizations.
“I was shocked at the virulent animosity to anything Putin.”
I returned from a delegation to Russia a year ago, so am now more sensitive to the pervasive and persistent anti-Russia propaganda in this country. To prepare for my trip, I read Stephen Cohen’s War with Russia?, which I believe is an unimpeachable source of information. So I was dismayed to learn of his recent death, because he was a voice of reason amidst the salivating war fever. Caitlin Johnstone does justice to his memory: “We should heed the dire warnings that Cohen spent his last breaths issuing. We should...call for détente with Russia and China. We should begin creating an opposition to this world-threatening flirtation with armageddon before it is too late.”
The delegation was led by Sharon Tennison, founder of Center for Citizens Initiatives, which has been taking citizen diplomacy delegations to the USSR and Russia since 1983. On her recent 84th birthday she published a letter about where she sees current US/Russian relations, including the risk of nuclear war. I posted her letter to a listserv of the National Lawyers Guild, an organization I have been a member of for 37 years. Although I have previously exposed the NLG for losing its political compass, I was shocked at the virulent animosity to anything Putin, or even Russian, in the emails it generated.
Unfortunately, this anti-Russia bias is not unique to the Guild. Trump’s election, Russiagate, and the smear campaign against Julian Assange have deluded and disoriented many organizations and individuals with profoundly critical and activist traditions, including thePacifica radio network, Democratic Socialists of America and Democracy Now! Since COVID, China is now in the US crosshairs as well, with increased risk of catastrophe. The intent of this article is to expose this extremely dangerous political tendency, with the Guild as but one example, because it is increasing international hostilities, at our peril. What we desperately need is an anti-war movement.
“China is now in the US crosshairs as well.”
I shared with a retired lawyer and fellow-member of the Russia delegation that a Guild member said I would create more chaos than clarity on the left if I exposed the Guild. She responded “’You will create more chaos than clarity on the Left,’ sounds like old-time, 1930's communism when it was politically incorrect to criticize any defects in the party. Any organization, or any individual, that lacks the backbone to stand up to criticism and to examine itself to see if that criticism is warranted, and to self-correct if it is or to vigorously defend itself if it isn't, is weak, an empty box echoing platitudes it cannot defend.”
Tennison received many positive responses to her birthday letter, such as:
“I thank you for the gift of that wonderfully thoughtful letter!”
“I liked your perspectives on President Putin.”
“I think you make a persuasive case.”
“I am forwarding your message to others.”
Apparently, it’s controversial to publish group emails anonymously without the author’s consent. I told Tennison that the many Guild responses were largely hostile to her point of view and asked if it was ethical to expose them. She said, “I think you should expose them on their ungrounded biases. Tell them to go see the country that was collapsing from communism and then robbed blind by the oligarchs in the 90s, then finally began to get up on its knees by the early 2000s and today is in amazing shape. What do you mean when you ask ‘what are the ethics?’ You should tell the truth! That's the height of ethics!!!”
“You should expose them on their ungrounded biases.”
Guild responses, which echo what many “progressive” groups are saying, include: “This is garbage propaganda... Anyone with a small amount of knowledge of Russia knows this article is absolutely not true. No matter what you think of the current state of our government, we have nothing to gain from Putin. There is nothing admirable about him as a leader and there is nothing admirable about his government. I can't even fathom the motivation for disseminating this....I am hardly a lover of American MSM propaganda, but I am getting tired of seeing knee-jerk reactions to any criticism or negative news about Putin or RT...I don't know if Tennison's piece is propaganda (implying some intent), but it certainly is misguided. I (and probably a fair number of other folks on this list) have not met Putin and am not particularly invested in this debate...move this offlist, or set up a ‘debates about politicians foreign and domestic’ sublist...I was disputing the accuracy of the author's description of Putin's character and questioning why Putin's character is being defended on an NLG listserv.”
A former comrade, who still probably calls himself a socialist, claimed it is an electoral issue: “Riva doesn't give a damn if Trump is re-elected by the electoral college,...She even attacked the NLG for failing to oppose Russia Today having to register as a foreign agent. The discussion is a total turn-off to new and veteran members alike.” Others voiced election concerns: “Support for Putin is support for Trump...When I see an article like this come, apparently, out of the blue and unrelated to the NLG's mission, I wonder who benefits from propping up Putin's character?...It's difficult for me to believe that there are NLG members who want to rehabilitate Putin's image in order to help the Trump Administration...My fears are that the election is the motivation for the email supporting Putin.”
“Support for Putin is support for Trump.”
A Guild member of over 30 years said, “When nonsense like that is sent out by Guild members it contributes to making the Guild irrelevant.” Several others claimed the wisdom of age and Red-rearing: “My own father was in Local 1199 In the 1930s and recruited and covered for the absences of NYC Health workers sent to Spain as medics and ambulance drivers in the Spanish Civil War... what could be more « pinko » than that!...Putin and his boss Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak visited Los Angeles in the 1980s on a visit arranged by the LA-St Petersburg Sister City Committee ( on which I served along with the CEO of Lockheed and other major LA area companies). A fruit of their visit was booking a float in the Rose Parade featuring tourism in St. Petersburg! Can’t make this up!” [What is wrong with that? I wish we could build more sister city relationships in Russia. I recently tried to get San Francisco to consider having a sister city in Russia, and was told it wasn’t a good time to do so.]
Another long-term socialist comrade said “in defending, as you do, Putin and Putin's Russia, you lose credibility with Guild folks who, I suspect, also share our desire to not see a US-Western World conflict with Russia. It is one thing to defend against red-baiting...as one called before HUAC during Vietnam, believe me, I am deeply opposed to red-baiting...it is another to present a picture of Putin which, quite frankly, does not square with reality. (I know, you believe the western press gives us a false picture of Putin. But there are plenty on the left, and in the left media, that have a very different assessment of Putin than the woman writing that letter you sent around.)” It is remarkable that people who challenge my questioning of the groupthink on Russia, refuse to offer a coherent, written counter to my perspective or a defense of the groupthink.
And the younger generation: “These kinds of threads are the reason people unsubscribe from lists and/or are turned away from the NLG altogether. I’m a very new member and am very disheartened to see this exchange from Guild members who set the example for my generation…This is setting a bad precedent for the Next Gen by putting this BS on the NLG List...Well, speaking for myself, this Next Gen member is unsubscribing, having applied my own judgment values and critical thinking skills to the situation...This is a barrier to the Guild's outreach and membership development, and has encouraged me to channel my energy into other organizations.”
“People who challenge my questioning of the groupthink on Russia, refuse to offer a coherent, written counter to my perspective.”
And of course people use the danger of fascism: “Many of us generally support radical or left ideals. With the rise of fascism in this country, now, more than ever, we need to promote inclusion and allyship rather than sectarianism and exclusion?” Does principled debate (let alone simply posting a letter) imply “sectarianism and exclusion” and foreclose “inclusion and allyship?” Others said there is an “expectation that we be collegial” and “good to each other.”
One of the very few positive responses came from a member who recently visited Russia:
“I must say I agree with many of those who criticize Tennison’s piece on Putin — but very much oppose the notion that this list should be reserved for local Guild work. People who are offended by or oppose comments posted by NLG members shouldn’t be able to shut down contentious discussions. It’s easy enough to simply delete a thread that you consider ‘irrelevant’ — although I would hope most Guild members would want to engage in discussion about the countries and leaders that our governing elites and the MSM are attacking in promotion of US imperial power (i.e. Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran, for starters). The Guild is an organization of internationalists — and not limited to local struggles.”
And there was this qualified support: “I agree that we should be very suspect of Red-baiting news stories on general principle...while holding the nuance of resisting authoritarianism includes using a critical lens.”
A democratic organization requires open discussion and voting on controversial positions. Until recently, since its founding in 1937, that occurred at the Guild’s annual conventions. It was through such a process that the Guild improved its position on Palestine. I have no problem being a vocal minority in a democratic organization, but there must be debate for positions to be clear. I have tried, unsuccessfully, several times over the Trump years — and the New McCarthyism — to have such discussions. If there had been, I would have kept these issues internal to the organization. The squashing of debate was the catalyst for my airing dirty laundry, as well as its implications for the broad progressive community.
I was told that I will create “fissure” and “NLG folks will be on the defensive," (about being called out on their anti-Russia bias?) and an old comrade says he will not respect me if I expose the Guild's anti-Russia bias by pulling anonymous quotes from Guild members emails. As to ethics, my Russia delegation comrade says: “Your old comrade favors quashing the truth in order to present a good face. A false face, in fact. Is it ethical to do that? You are in the boat that many of us are struggling to stay afloat in. Going against popular opinion becomes a whole lot more than just a quaint quirk when the stakes are raised — as they are right now with the election in view and the Dems seriously worried. It is getting really nasty out there.”
Riva Enteen is a lifelong peace activist, social worker, lawyer, advocate for justice and editor of "Follow the Money," a collection of Pacifica Radio's Flashpoints Interviews.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]