Richard Heller examines just why, despite all evidence of their tyrannical nature, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping occupy a place in the minds of people claiming to be 'progressive'. 

I made the mistake some years ago of sending a caustic letter to the Stop The War organization which protests selectively against any military activity by our country and its allies (that is unfair, but not terribly). Organisations like Stop The War do not do irony even when you set the dial to caustic and I have been on their mailing list ever since as a presumed supporter. I am too idle to ask them to remove me and in any case it is good to remind oneself why so many good causes flounder when they get taken up by groups like them.

Stop The War outdid itself with its latest letter which asked me to help them protest against "Western aggression towards Russia and China". I had not noticed this before, but perhaps there is a rival organisation called Spot The War which can show where on their immense frontiers the Russians and the Chinese are beating back a treacherous Western attack.

I was raised in a left-wing progressive household in the 1950s and 1960s and I regularly listened to visitors active in politics since the 1930s and 1940s who defended Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, the Soviet Union and Communist China. I can understand such behaviour in the 1930s and 1940s. Progressive people in the 1930s desperately wanted an alliance with Stalin's Russia against Hitler and they got it in 1941, although not by choice of Stalin, who had helped Hitler conquer Western Europe and was continuing to help him fight Britain with supplies of essential raw materials, especially oil (hours before Hitler's invasion of Russia, the usual train service, laden with freight, travelled from Moscow to Berlin).

Mao was not nearly so well-known but his propagandists did a good job for him among Western progressives – peasant-loving, land-reforming, honest, patriotic – and he showed up well against Chiang Kai-Shek's increasingly corrupt and extortionate Nationalist regime (for all its faults, Chiang's regime did far more fighting against Japan than Mao's, something ignored by progressives then and since).

In the 1950s and 1960s I can still understand, if not forgive, the appeal of Stalin and his successors and Mao Tse-Tung to Western progressives. It required a terrible moral blindness towards the suffering they caused by their incompetence and outright crimes. But it was just about possible to imagine that they were 'on the right side of history' as forces for progress and socialism, and therefore defend them, excuse them and even put over their point of view in Western political, cultural and academic life.

I can see no excuse for progressive people to provide the same services now for Putin or Xi Jinping. Their regimes have no 'progressive' characteristics whatever. China is a totalitarian tyranny where human rights are virtually extinct, whose people are subject to a huge apparatus of surveillance and control. Russia is a gangster state built on violence and corruption. Both show extremes of inequality, and operate a far more ruthless form of capitalism than anything in the West condemned by progressives, in which workers have no rights and the only check on the accumulation of wealth is the demand of the ruling regime for a share of it.

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So why do any progressives help Putin, Xi and all kinds of other international despots?

I think I understand why. After being forced to listen for nearly seventy years I have identified certain common elements in the mindset of too many Western progressives. I see them again in Stop The War. Again, I might be unfair but not by very much.

One: Western capitalism (and the militarism necessarily associated with it) is the enemy of progress in the world and the ultimate reason for all suffering in the world.

Two: any enemy of Western capitalism (and militarism) must be a progressive force.

Three: any criticism of any enemy of Western capitalism (and militarism) is anti-progressive and any critics are agents or dupes of Western capitalism (and militarism).

Four: if any progressive government or movement fails to achieve its goals or causes actual suffering that is due to the hostility of Western capitalism (and militarism).

But most important for these kinds of progressives is number five: within any progressive campaign the relief of any actual victims of oppression or suffering is less important than the demonstration of superior virtue, intellectual or ideological acuity over other people or factions in the campaign.

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