On the death of Alexei Navalny

With the media and press overwhelmingly owned by the ruling capitalist class in society rather than the working class who are the majority, the truth of international events and their significance is often obscured or hidden from us. The shocking detail of the drive towards the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is routinely downplayed, suppressing the natural sympathy and revulsion many would feel if confronted with the truth.

With the death of the dissident Alexei Navalny in a Russian prison after years of repression by the government of Vladimir Putin, we have an example of the flip side of that coin: an event where we have been swamped with official outpourings of grief and condemnation, in which all polite society is expected to join. Is this outrage justified? Can the official narrative be believed? What should Communists say and do in response?

Hypocrisy

One might question in general why all those tears have been shed. After all, the governments of Europe have for decades supported tyrants and despots from Haiti to Kazakhstan to Saudi Arabia, with little but a passing sigh for the inconvenient dissidents standing up for democracy in those countries.

It might also reasonably be suspected that the death of Navalny presents the governments of NATO countries with a useful propaganda coup against Putin at a time when their proxy war effort in Ukraine is going from bad to worse, its chances of victory receding ever further out of sight.

We know too that our own ruling class is not above detaining and prosecuting people simply for exercising their right to peaceful protest. The hypocrisy of those lionising Navalny will not be lost on the climate protesters currently languishing in Belmarsh prison.

Communists are the only consistent advocates of freedom and democracy. The limited “democracy” which exists under a class society necessarily involves repression in order to keep the majority – the working class – from organising itself and acting as the leading force in society.

Once the day comes when our class takes that step, we will be able to reshape society in the interests of all. That is exactly why representatives of the ruling class, which stands to lose all its power and privilege in such a transformation, will fight tooth and nail against any struggle for a genuine democracy. Their support of pro-democracy activists in other countries is entirely opportunistic and partial.

No friend of the working class

Although you will not hear about it in the various hagiographies and news reports following his death, there is much about Alexei Navalny’s political record that should turn the stomach of any genuine advocate of human freedom.

In 2007, Navalny recorded a video on behalf of the “Russian National Liberation Movement” in which he acted out shooting Muslims and expressed a wish to exterminate “cockroaches”. He later stood as a candidate for Mayor of Moscow on an expressly anti-immigrant platform.

In later years, he reduced his emphasis on anti-migrant rhetoric, but never repudiated it or apologised for it. This uncomfortable contradiction led Amnesty International to briefly revoke his status as a “prisoner of conscience” in 2021. Amnesty then embarrassingly climbed down and reversed its decision, on the pragmatic – not to say opportunistic – basis that it might assist Putin’s regime in its propaganda drive against Navalny and other dissidents.

It is very common, and trite to point out, that many pro-democracy activists under dictatorships like Putin’s do not oppose the capitalist system, and therefore wish to bring about merely a society with the limited formal freedoms of liberal democracy, rather than a society of true freedom.

Navalny belonged in a distinct category, in that he not only failed to oppose the capitalist class, but moreover aided it by seeking to divide the working class along ethnic and religious lines. Immigrants were to be made scapegoats for the decline in living standards which in reality is caused by the capitalist class and its system.

Condemnation without grief

It may therefore seem tempting to take a stance that while we formally oppose Alexei Navalny’s shocking and brutal treatment, we should raise as little outcry as we might if, for example, Tommy Robinson or Nick Griffin suffered a similar fate.

To take this approach would be a mistake. For all that he was a reprehensible human being and an enemy of genuine human freedom, we cannot ignore that Navalny was locked up not for what he got wrong, but what he got right.

Putin’s nationalist and chauvinist regime would certainly not have locked Navalny up merely for being a racist, much less driven him to a lonely death in the Arctic wastes. On the contrary, xenophobia is relatively normal within the manufactured mainstream of Russian politics. It was his tireless advocacy against Putin’s corruption, and for free and fair elections, that resulted in his incarceration and death.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that if we do not steadfastly and loudly oppose repression of this kind, against whoever it may be directed, then it is partisans of our movement and all consistent democrats who can most assuredly expect the same fate. It will always be communists and striking workers who are the first to be met with police batons and riot shields.

Denouncing Navalny’s death as a crime is therefore not primarily a moral question. It does not require us to shed tears. It does not matter that in some limited respects we agree with the utterly hypocritical denunciation voiced by our own country’s ruling class. It is a matter of principled defence of basic democratic rights as well as being a necessary act of self-defence for our movement, and as such is essential.

Honesty all round

None of this implies for a moment that we should suspend our criticisms, or limit what we say so as not to speak ill of the dead. We say on our own behalf that we reject entirely the platform of Navalny and all chauvinists, who will always be our bitter enemies in the fight for the emancipation of humanity without distinction of nation or ethnicity.

We reject, too, the entirely hypocritical programme of our ruling class, which mouths platitudes about freedom and human rights while shoving conscripts into the meat grinder of a pointless war in Ukraine, and preparing for a disastrous future confrontation with China.

Of all the forces in society, Communists alone stand for a society of genuine human freedom, without a state and without social classes. With that goal in mind, we oppose all manifestations of violence and repression by the state, which are always suffered first and foremost by the working class.

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