Russian universities: hotbeds of neo-imperialism

May 30, 2009 at 12:21 pm (bloggocks, Cuba, Human rights, Max Dunbar, Russia)

proyectReader Luke has emailed in an exchange between himself and the Unrepentant Marxist Louis Proyect. It was triggered by this long, meandering post about Proyect’s old college. The passage Luke took exception to was this:

[Bard College President] Botstein would seem to share [George] Soros’s missionary complex vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. With money siphoned from developing economies like Thailand’s, Soros has been able to foot the bill for Bard College’s colonizing effort in St. Petersburg, namely Smolny College, which sits next door to the organizing center of the October 1917 revolution–thus bringing the counter-revolution full cycle. Claude Allegre, the former French education minister, expressed misgivings about efforts such as Smolny College: ‘That our students go and study in the United States and Britain is entirely desirable, but that the Americans install their universities throughout the world, all on the same model and with the same courses, is a catastrophe.’ Well, what can one say–that’s just the voice of Old Europe once again. For the New Europe of Donald Rumsfeld, handouts from people like George Soros are eagerly accepted, especially since college professors in the liberated Russia republic average about $65 per month.

To which Luke responded:

This is possibly the silliest thing I have read on a blog since I stopped reading Lenin’s Tomb. Do you know anything about education in Russia? I’m an American student who is studying there this academic year, and can assure you that most Russians are very unhappy with the quality of their higher education, and the very wealthy attempt to send their children abroad to get education in the west. Labeling a liberal arts education the acme of counterrevolution is not only ridiculous but also completely hypocritical for you as a Bard graduate. Calling the creation of a liberal arts college in a country with a notoriously corrupt and inaccessible education system ‘colonial’ is extraordinarily ignorant. I assume you read Russian, since you appear to be able to recognize colonialism in the education system, and would tell me why other Russian professors became so interested in the college’s model?


Luke, I don’t regard a liberal arts education as ‘the acme of counterrevolution’ but I certainly regard George Soros’s philanthropic efforts as counterrevolutionary. Eastern Europe and even gas-rich Russia is economically devastated today largely because of the efforts of the CIA, Soros’s millions and the connivance of the intelligentsia and apparatchiks who calculated that they might be better off under capitalism. If that description offends you, then I invite you to stop reading this blog, just as you stopped reading the blog of my comrade Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb.

Luke gets the discussion back on track: ‘so are you saying now that you don’t regard Smolny as a ‘colonizing effort’? I’m talking specifically about Smolny, not Soros.’

This is where Proyect gets really silly:

Luke, what you should do is look at the political science course directory at Smolny and you will Soros-type preoccupations that would not be found in a normal college such as:

–Closed Institutions: Questions of Human Rights

–Human Rights as Political Theory: Its Emergence, Development, and Current State

–History of Human Rights Activism

–Human Rights Monitoring

–Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia: Scenarios of Post-Soviet Development

Half the courses are taught by Dmitry Dubrovsky, a ‘Human Rights’ activist associated with the ‘color revolution’ type movements that Soros supports. This is a highly politicized department that clearly seeks to influence the intelligentsia in the former Soviet Union along the lines of the Open Society. No other country in the world would have the audacity to open up a college in the US to promote ‘anti-American’ ideology. Could you imagine if the Cuban government funded a new college in the U.S. that had a political science department with courses like ‘On the need for economic justice in America’. It would be shut down immediately. Of course, Soros got away with this crap (until recently) because the Russian government saw the world the way that he did. Putin obviously is too much of a nationalist to put up with the Soros NGO’s but will likely tolerate the Smolny College for the time being.

The comparison with the metaphorical Cuba-US college is laughable given that US academics and students are often extremely critical of American governments. Back to Luke:

I think it’s great that the college offers classes on human rights, and I don’t regard that as colonialism, any more than Cuba’s creation of such a college course would be. The full description of the Human Rights Minor is here, along with actual descriptions of all the courses, which do not look that suspicious, and without actually sitting in a class, I withhold judgment. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Smolny and nothing about ideologically driven courses, if any other Russian speaker can show me where anything that indicates it’s all a stooge system for Soros go ahead. If human rights is an ‘anti-Russian’ ideology, I don’t know what to say, and dismissing these classes as ‘crap’ is an insult.

All Louis can say to that is ‘Luke, apparently you haven’t studied George Soros’s role in Eastern Europe very carefully with respect to ‘human rights’ but I would invite you to read what I wrote here: (Proyect link). Luke presses on:

As I said before, there is nothing in the course descriptions or offerings in the human rights minor that indicate that there is a bias in these specific courses or meddling by Soros. Until you have sat in on one of the classes that is being taught, neither you nor I can pass judgment on what is being taught in the classes.

‘Of course, Soros got away with this crap (until recently) because the Russian government saw the world the way that he did. Putin obviously is too much of a nationalist to put up with the Soros NGO’s but will likely tolerate the Smolny College for the time being.’

That’s funny, because according to here there are discussion going on between the program and the Russian ministry of education about the human rights program, and the Ministry is interested in expanding it to be included at other schools. Could you explain why the Russian government would want to have this spread if it is all just a Soros plot?

Several hours later, Luke adds: ‘You could always just admit that you made a mistake by writing about an educational system and course offerings that you misjudged.’

Only then does Proyect respond:

I am sorry, Luke. I really can’t take you seriously. You don’t show the slightest familiarity with George Soros’s NGO’s, especially their role in Georgia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine and other countries where they push for free market ‘solutions’ that have left people in dire poverty. I asked you to read what I wrote about Soros’s role in Hungary and you evaded me completely, only to pollute this blog with thousands of Russian words that nobody but a Russian or somebody who reads the language can understand. I have no idea whether you are some fan of the capitalist system irked by my taking exception to that system, or a confused left-liberal who really doesn’t understand what Soros means by ‘human rights’, a term that you have an uncritical understanding of. The one thing I got out of Bard College in the early 60s was an ability to think critically. Too bad that young Bardians today, and yourself apparently, have not been trained in that fashion.

I think this is a fascinating look at the problems with doctrinaire anti-imperialism, as well as the position that human rights is a purely Western idea forced upon the baffled natives of ex-slave empires and glorious socialist states.

Luke adds in his email to me:

I just would like to note that I don’t care for Soros or his politics, this is about Louis’s smearing of an educational institution and the human rights activists who have worked and trained there, and those who see it as a model for future human rights education in Russia.

(More Proyect action here.)


  1. luke said,

    don’t forget Proyect’s infamous review of no country for old men:

  2. Conrad Barwa said,

    Proyect acting like a blinkered Marxisant hack. Shocker!

  3. louisproyect said,

    I get it now. Luke is a “decent” troll.

  4. Jenny said,

    I was going to ask Louis where he has issues with his former college: is it the institution entirely or is it simply the president.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Proyect may consider himself an “unrepentent Marxist”, but please don’t take him at his own self-evaluation: as far as I can judge he’s no Marxist at all, but an “anti-imperialist” of the SWP/Seymour variety: two quite different political catagories and traditions.

    Judging by Proyect’s responses to Luke, he’s also a comical throwback to Malcolm Bradbury’s History Man. and at least welcome as the source of a good laugh at the expense of the self-important, pretentious and hypocritical posturings of academic poseurs, charlatans and fake-lefts like himself.

  6. johng said,

    There is no such thing as a Marxist that is also not an anti-imperialist. And there is no such thing as a Marxist that does not critique the attempt to link questions of human rights to market reform in an attempt to derail progressive responses to the crisis of authoritarian regimes. Do you actually still consider yourself a Marxist Jim? Of any kind?

  7. Ridley the Monkey Hanger said,

    On the other hand there are ‘anti-imperialists’ who are not Marxists, a proportion of whom are aligned with all sorts of poisonous and reactionary ideologies, a point which is obvious to anyone who doesn’t spend most of the time eyeballing the inside of their large intestine.

  8. maxdunbar said,

    There is no such thing as a Marxist that is also not an anti-imperialist. And there is no such thing as a Marxist that does not critique the attempt to link questions of human rights to market reform in an attempt to derail progressive responses to the crisis of authoritarian regimes

    I prefer not to subscribe to this very narrow definition of what a Marxist is.

  9. johng said,

    Anti-Imperialism has often been associated with reactionary ideologies. That doesn’t in the least mean that Marxists don’t have a duty to oppose imperialism. In any case, what we are discussing here is a critique of those who believe that the promotion of human rights and the promotion of free market ideology goes togeather. How this is viewed as problematical is mysterious to me. Is it because Russian chauvinism is reactionary and therefore we have to support western neo-liberals as the lessor evil? Its the ‘therefore’ clause I’m puzzled by.

  10. maxdunbar said,

    Marx viewed capitalism as preferable to feudalism, did he not?

  11. johng said,

    As indeed it was. But first of all its rather unclear to me that what you in Russia is a feudal mode of production or indeed that tying struggles for human rights to neo-liberal dogma is the way foward. And secondly Marx’s support for the revolutionary ideologies of the late 18th century against earlier ideologies of feudalism and absolutism were connected to the fact that the system that succeded it created its own grave digger and the potential to overthrow all class societies in which the few benefitted at the expense of the many, of which capitalism was merely for him the perfected form. Even where in some of his earlier writings he grants that despite itself, capitalism bought benefits to those living in earlier forms of class society, his observations on this matter are tied to their inability to overthrow the new system not their opposition to it. This is so axiomatic to his writings that it is rather hard to figure out how anyone can fall into Jim Denham’s version of lesser evilism with respect to global capitalism whilst claiming Marx as an authority.

  12. maxdunbar said,

    And in English?

  13. johng said,

    Well if your not a Marxist your under no obligation to understand what Marx said. Jim however claims to be. However once again. Yes Marx thought capitalism was more progressive then feudalism. In the first case its hard to see the relevence of this point to contemporary Russia. In the second case he believed that capitalism was progressive because it laid the basis for its own abolition. Those who suffered as a consequence of the development of capitalism and opposed that development were not denounced for resisting the oppression that came togeather with the development of capitalism but were criticised for having no way of overthrowing it and replacing it. Only capitalism itself could get rid of itself. Hence Marx could at one and the same time believe that those who led the revolt against British Rule in India were doomed and at the same time ferociously denounce the vicious repression directed at them by that same British rule. This might be a) too complicated a thought for a liberal to grasp or b) be too unpalatable for a liberal to grapple with. On the other hand of course you may simply be grandstanding. But that is impossible surely…

  14. johng said,

    Or to put it another way Marx would have been quite at home with the thought that the most ignorent peasent besieging Lucknow was worthy of his solidarity whilst the most sophisticated liberal in London demanding blood soaked retaliation was not. Charles Dickens was rather a wonderful representative of the latter incidently, writing heart wringing novels about the deserving poor in London whilst demanding that ‘black savages’ of Northern India be put to the sword for daring to raise their heads. Wilkie Collins had a bit of a falling out with Dickens for daring to suggest that this was a bit much. Does Jim read a lot of Dickens?

  15. johng said,

    Oh and here is Marx to set the record straight. Its short:

  16. maxdunbar said,

    I think Russia is more progressive now (in the Marxist sense) because it’s a basic capitalist society rather than a feudal dictatorship (Tsarism) or totalitarian state (Stalinism) imperialist human rights courses or not. The crux of the matter is: do you think that human rights are an entirely Western elitist construct or do you think there are people outside the West who also support these values?

    This is all assuming for the sake of argument that the most relevant voice on the subject under discussion is that of a dead philosopher rather than living Russian students and teachers.

    It’s neither here nor there (and correct me if I’m wrong) but didn’t Marx see something progressive in John Company’s rule in India?

  17. johng said,

    Max stop trying to have your cake and eat it. If your not interested in Marx and what he actually said, and clearly are not interested in seriously discussing it, then don’t raise the matter, and quickly change the subject when your strategy of seminar surprise backfires on you. My intitial point was to Jim who does (I believe) still claim to be a Marxist. We now seem to have moved on to the idea that ‘human rights’ are ‘an entirely western elitist construct’ which no-one outside the west has ever heard of, which childish nonsense is being imputed to someone who criticised the campaign to associate the campaign for human rights with market reforms.

    The emergence of the idea of Human Rights has a complicated relationship to revolutionaries ideologies of the 17th and 18th centuries on the one hand, and the development of ideas about human equality as they developed in the subsequent two centuries. These arguments about human equality and the kinds of rights associated with this ideal have become part of a contested legacy deriving from the struggles of the last two hundred years which might best be described as political modernity. I know of know country or area of the world which has not been effected by political modernity.

    Do I believe in the existence of ‘political modernity’? It would be rather hard not to. We all live in it.

  18. johng's psychiatrist said,

    This is good therapy for john, he’s doing well. Please nobody mention Jews.

  19. Mapad said,

  20. maxdunbar said,

    I think we’re straying from the point here. Louis Proyect wrote a post suggesting that the presence of courses on human rights, an influential aspect of political philosophy that politics students should and expect to learn about, in Russian universities is some kind of cultural imperialism by the back door. As far as we know, these courses don’t involve the propaganda of bourgeois universalism being forcefed to the bemused serfs but examining the theory and practice with the standard critical eye. Luke and I have been saying, in essence: what is Proyect’s problem with this? What is your problem with this?

    I don’t know how relevant Marx’s work is to that discussion. From what I know of his ideas, I think that he would have preferred a capitalist society of bourgeois universities to the serfdom and totalitarianism that preceded it in Russia.

  21. Jim Denham said,

    John G: ” Marx would have been quite at home with the thought that the most ignorent peasant besieging Lucknow was worthy of his solidarity whilst the most sophisticated liberal in London demanding blood soaked retaliation was not.” You haven’t got a clue, have you?; the quote you present us with at #15, doesn’t quite say that (though it certainly does point to liberal hypocrisy), and anyway is plainly not about imperialism, but colonialism: indeed, was written nearly 50 years before what Lenin called the “age of imperialism.” In fact, Marx rarely used the term “imperialism”, and Lenin was the first Marxist writer to attempt to develop a theory of imperialism as a distinct stage of capitalist development: that started not with his famous pamphlet “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, but with two essays of two decades earlier (‘On the so-called Market Question’ and ‘A Characterisation of Economic Romaticism’), which were intended (to quote Weeks) “to defend Marx’s theory of accumulation against underconsumptionist arguments and thereby develop a theory of the capitalist world market, and to demonstrate the progressive nature of capitalism, in order to criticise utopian socialism.”

    Engels wrote about imperialism more often than Marx did, and John should acquaint himself with “Socialist Imperialism in Java ” (1884), “Defence of Progressive Imperialism in Algeria ” (1848) and “Socialist Colonial Policy” (letter to Kautsky, 1882), which concludes, “One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by doing so. Which of course by no means excludes defensive wars of various kinds…”

    Finall, John has the cheek to ask whether I “still” consider myself a Marxist! I can only echo and paraphrase what the great man himself said, when confronted with some of his own would-be followers: if John G is a representative of authentic Marxism, then “I, at least am not a Marxist.”

    Oh yes, John: I have read Dickens and on balance prefer him to, say, Foucault.

  22. johng said,

    Jim, that is pretty much what he does say actually. And the quote is germane due to the passage which Marx famously wrote on the progressive (despite being stupid and self interested) impact of British imperialism on India (a discussion he conducted as part of a polemic with American liberals who believed that the nice and nasty bits of capitalism could be seperated, with the US representing the nice bits and British colonialism representing the nasty bits). Its well known that he changed his mind about this, referring in capital to the grotesque parody of capitalist property relations introduced by colonialism, but even when he did believe this, the article posted demonstrates his underlying sympathies. Yes writings on Imperialism begin later and I don’t hold Engels too much to account for his backward writings on Algeria. They do not fit into his more general approach to these questions. Are you seriously trying to say that the US is fighting a defensive war against feudalism? Is this actually what you believe?

  23. louisproyect said,

    Are you seriously trying to say that the US is fighting a defensive war against feudalism?

    Of course. Hitchens saw George W. Bush as a kind of Abe Lincoln leading a bourgeois democratic revolution against the slavocracy. This is the party line of such rascals and virtually identical to the Stalinists who defended France’s civilizing role in Algeria against the barbarian FLN. I guess one of the “benefits” of being a member of the AWL is that you learn to put forward this garbage in a more sophisticated version.

  24. louisproyect said,

    I should add that Denham offers up these references to Engels without being concerned that they contradict each other. The 1848 article that defends Harry’s Place type imperialism in Algeria is contradicted by the 1882 letter to Kautsky that he refers us to. In that letter, Engels says that the proletariat “cannot conduct any colonial wars” and mentions Algeria and Egypt specifically as two places that should not be colonized. I should add that the letter refers to people exactly like Geras, Hitchens and Denham, leaving aside the question of course their status as “workers”:

    “You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.”


    This is the Engels worth commemorating, not the Engels of 1848 who–like Marx–had not really given that much thought to colonialism.

  25. maxdunbar said,

    If you read this site regularly (as John does) you’ll find that most of us did not have many illusions about the true motives of the US in going to war, and also that many of us (not me, admittedly) opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  26. louisproyect said,

    also that many of us (not me, admittedly) opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    But nowhere as vehemently as they opposed the antiwar movement. They constitute an anti-antiwar faction in the same sense that Lillian Hellman referred to anti-antifascists in “Scoundrel Time”.

  27. maxdunbar said,

    Well, in the UK at least, the antiwar movement sold itself out to the religious right – the reason why it has been diminished from at least a million in 2003 to a few thousand today.

  28. Jim Denham said,

    Ah, Mr Poyject: you’ve rumbled that the quotes contradict each other. Well done! You win a cigar! No wonder you’re a well-paid academic.

    Since when, Mr Poyject, am I “exactly like Hitchens and Geras”?

    One important difference is that I opposed the Iraq war. Other than that minor detail, of course we’e identical.

    I do, however (as a Marxist would), insist upon opposing and denouncing ignorant, garbage-spouting enemies of human progress and the enlightenment like Seymour, John “G”, yourself and “left” anti-semites like the SWP and their fellow travellers. OK?

  29. louisproyect said,

    Since when, Mr Poyject, am I “exactly like Hitchens and Geras”?

    Well, with the misspelling of my last name, I would say that you are exactly like Hitchens after he’s had 3 glasses of gin. Geras strikes me as somebody who sticks to hot tea in a glass.

    With respect to “human progress” and “enlightenment”, I’d say that you’ve been reading too much Spiked Online, another outfit that identifies with the bosses but more on promoting GM and nuclear power rather than keeping down the unruly native.

  30. maxdunbar said,

    Shorter Proyect:


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