First Published: Frontline, Vol. 1, No. 13, December 26, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Frontline Introduction: When South Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down over the USSR September 1, the U. S. government and the U.S. press quickly seized the opportunity to launch a major anti-Soviet propaganda campaign. In this atmosphere, the left press had a difficult but tremendously important responsibility to respond with an anti-imperialist analysis of the incident. On the part of the Guardian newspaper, this challenge was met with an editorial (Sept. 14) that noted the dangers of the U.S. ideological offensive, but nevertheless joined the anti-Soviet chorus–the Guardian called the downing of the airliner “unacceptable” and declared the USSR should be “condemned.”
In the days that followed, a number of left publications, Frontline among them, took issue with the Guardian’s condemnation. Frontline (Sept. 19) warned that the outlook of the Guardian was rooted in a “cavalier attitude toward the defense of socialism” and “a tendency to flinch in the face of bourgeois-promoted prejudice.” Responding to its left critics, the Guardian came to its own defense (Oct. 12) in an editorial entitled “Is It Wrong to Criticize the USSR?”
Because the KAL incident was a strenuous test of the U.S. left’s analytical capacities and ideological preparedness, the struggle over the Guardian’s coverage deserves careful study, particularly because it intersects a crucial and longstanding debate concerning the international role of the Soviet Union. To this end, significant portions of the October 12 Guardian comment are reprinted below, along with the response submitted to the Guardian by Frontline.
Howls of outrage followed the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 7 by the Soviet Union. A response to the deaths of the 269 people aboard? No, it was the reaction of some of the left press to the Guardian’s coverage of the plane incident.
The Guardian editorial (Sept 14) both condemned the shooting down of the plane as a highly dangerous act when the world is on the hair trigger of a nuclear war and, more importantly, hit the reactionary onslaught that Reagan unleashed in response: “Even more disastrous, in the long run, is the new wave of cold war hysteria which the downing of Flight 7 has fueled in the West.” In the editorial and in its later coverage the Guardian criticized the U.S. propaganda campaign and stated “the peace movement can and must resist any efforts by Washington and its allies to derail it” ...
But even if the U.S. is to be blamed for using a civilian plane for spying and provoking this confrontation, the question remains, how should we view the Soviet decision to shoot down the plane? Was it a correct action or a disastrous error?
More broadly, the political point is: Can criticisms of Soviet actions be broached in a period when imperialism is leading the march toward nuclear confrontation? According to these papers, the answer is a resounding “No!” The most forthright expression of this view came in Frontline’s editorial. This is worth studying at some length because of the particular ideological niche the group is attempting to carve out for itself and the implications of this kind of position for the left.
Frontline is quite candid in its views of the downing of the airliner “The Soviet Union was completely justified in shooting it down” and “the Soviet Union should be commended for letting these governments [the U.S. and South Korea] know that they will not be able to get away with such ploys.” In its story on the incident the paper concluded, “The Soviet message to the U.S. and the world–and an important one it is–was quite clear. The Soviet Union is completely prepared, both militarily and ideologically, to stand up to whatever assaults U.S. imperialism will make on it. The peace of the world in the nuclear age may well depend on such resoluteness.”
Such “resoluteness” in some circumstances may in fact jeopardize the peace of the world in the nuclear age. The USSR has the right to defend its territory, including the right to shoot down an intruding spy plane. What we questioned was the judgment involved in exercising this right in this instance.
“A tragedy.” “A catastrophe.” “A mistake.” The Soviet pilots were “trigger happy.” These were not the words of reactionary Western leaders, but of some of the top political leadership and commentators in the Soviet Union. While the USSR officially holds that the responsibility for the deaths of Flight 7’s passengers rests entirely with the U.S., a number of Soviet political leaders have, in public statements and private meetings with journalists, expressed views with more caution than a number of their would-be defenders on the U.S. left...
Criticism of socialist countries is not only acceptable but necessary at times. To argue that criticism of the Soviet Union automatically places one on the side of imperialism tends to stifle useful debate and discussion and prevents the left from learning from its mistakes. The tradition of “knee-jerk” defense of whatever socialist countries do–whether it be the Soviet Union or China or other countries–has a long and dishonorable tradition on the U.S. left Uncritical following of the Soviet Union or China has wreaked havoc on the U.S. left with groups condemned to irrelevancy or dissolution as they pegged their strategies to the foreign policy needs of another country, rather than the concrete conditions they themselves faced.
Frontline builds a defense in advance for its position, arguing that the view “that the left should be wary of a ’knee-jerk defense’ of the Soviet Union which un questioningly accepts the Soviet explana tion of events as accurate” is “usually a line that tends to equate and therefore dismiss the statements of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union as ’self-serving’ and, consequently, untrustworthy.” They say that this view means “that the truth is to be found somewhere in between–in a no-man’s land (or should we say no-class’s land) devoid of ideological partisanship.”
Frontline anchors its own position clearly; “In the present alignment of international class forces the political decisions of the Soviet government are framed by considerations which are in the overall interests of the working class.” The implications of this position are clear: to disagree with Soviet actions places one in a “classless no-man’s land.” One has to choose, either the Soviet Union uncritically or the U.S.
Such a position does have its advantages. It enormously simplifies world events and the class struggle as it is actually unfolding. And it relieves one of the necessity of much thinking or analysis of situations where socialist countries are involved. But the doctrine of infallibility is best left to the Vatican. Soviet actions may very often be “in the overall interests of the working class” but the Soviet Union has also shown itself capable of putting its own national interests above those of the international working class. The Soviet Union must be defended against attacks by imperialism; but such defense does not mean uncritical support for all Soviet actions....
“Is it wrong to criticize the USSR?” the Guardian asks in defense of its position on the Korean plane incident. The question is a dodge that evades the real political and ideological issues at stake in this controversy.
In the first place, the Guardian’s manner of posing the debate avoids grappling with the concrete circumstances which produced it. You seem to have forgotten just what it was you said that invited what you call “howls of outrage” from Frontline and a number of other left newspapers. Your initial editorial, obviously written within a day or two of the Korean plane incident and while the anti-Soviet campaign of the capitalist media was reaching its peak, argued that the Soviet action must be “condemned” even if the plane “was itself engaged in an intelligence mission.”
It is quite disingenuous of you to try to suggest, therefore, that the main thrust of your position was to combat U.S. war propaganda, or that your “criticism” of the USSR was simply of a piece with the doubts voiced by several Soviet citizens whom you cite.
In fact, since your original statement, a growing body of information has become available which makes it abundantly clear that the U.S. version of this incident was totally riddled with lies, that the Soviet Union did not know that the intruding plane was a passenger plane, that Soviet pilots made repeated efforts to force the plane to land, and that the Soviet decision to shoot it down was taken at the last possible moment before the plane left Soviet territory altogether. Analysis from a wide variety of sources–including your own subsequent reports on the events– also strongly suggests that the plane was on some kind of espionage mission.
All this only buttresses our initial criticism that your original editorial was politically irresponsible. For the inexorable logic of your position is that if a U.S. spy mission, operating under cover of a civilian commercial airliner, should penetrate Soviet air space and fly over some of the most sensitive military installations in the country, and if attempts to intercept it and flag it down for a forced landing are ignored, the spy plane should be allowed to leave Soviet territory unharmed.
But what would be the practical consequences of the Guardian’s position? One is that the U.S. would be allowed to retain whatever information it was able to obtain. The other, even more serious, is that the U. S. would be signaled that so long as it used a “civilian” cover for its spying activities, it would be able to proceed with impunity.
In our opinion, these consequences are not acceptable, either from the standpoint of defending peace or pursuing the struggle against imperialism. Permitting the U.S. to acquire detailed information on Soviet defenses or to conclude that it can now engage in spy missions without fear of disruption would be a serious threat to peace and a gain for imperialism because it would embolden Washington–the nerve center of the imperialist system–to assay even more dangerous adventures and provocations in the future. This is why we argued that Soviet resoluteness in this matter was justified and concluded that “the peace of the world in the nuclear age may well depend on such resoluteness.” If, as you admit, “it is U.S. imperialism that is the primary source of war in the world today,” surely you must recognize that a key element-in maintaining peace will be to convince the U.S. ruling class that Soviet military might and “resoluteness” will ensure that there is no profit to be gained from launching a war against the USSR or the other socialist countries–or from threatening a revolutionary movement where the Soviet Union is in a position to back it to the hilt.
In view of the above, the real question is whether or not the Guardian continues to stand by the initial statement which provided the basis for our criticism. Posing the question of whether or not in general it is wrong to criticize the USSR is simply a ploy to avoid the matter at hand. It is your criticism of the USSR in this instance that has been called into question, and you have not dealt with that issue.
Beyond the concrete circumstance of the Korean plane incident, though, there is another level to the debate–namely the assessment one has of the role and function of the USSR in the international class struggle and the world balance of forces. Frontline’s view, for which the Guardian has taken us to task, is that “In the present alignment of international class forces, the political decisions of the Soviet government are framed by considerations which are in the overall interests of the working class.”
This assessment is based on the following propositions:
(1) The Soviet Union is a socialist country; in fact, of all the socialist countries, it is the one in which the socialist mode of production is the most consolidated and developed.
(2) The Soviet Union has an objective class interest in the undermining of the world imperialist system.
(3) The political, economic and military strength of the Soviet Union is, therefore, a crucial part of the arsenal arrayed against imperialism. The protection of that strength is in the objective interest of the socialist camp, the national liberation movements and the working class movements in the capitalist countries.
These are the objective class considerations at play when Soviet policy-makers grapple with the crucial political, economic and military questions before them. Does this mean that every answer they come up with, every decision they make, is the correct one? Hardly. Aside from human error, there are numerous conflicting ideological pulls which can lead the representatives of even an advanced socialist country to incorrect conclusions. But over time, the internal logic of the socialist mode of production and the political requirements of consolidating and developing it operate as a material force for the adjustment of course and the correction of mistakes. As a result, despite numerous mis-assessments and mistakes in the course of its 66-year history, the Soviet Union has consistently functioned on a world scale as a force driving history along a proletarian path.
Put another way, the Soviet Union constitutes an integral and leading component of the world anti-imperialist front.
And here lies the crux of our differences with the Guardian. You attempt to score easy debating points by flaunting your “independence” and accusing others of making a principle of never criticizing the USSR. But beneath this obfuscation is the fact that the Guardian does not believe that there is a single worldwide front against imperialism of which the Soviet Union is an integral part. Consequently, the task of waging a concerted struggle against the knee-jerk anti-Sovietism that is so prevalent on the U. S. left fails to gain any serious place on your political agenda.
This is the real meaning of the “independence” you consistently promote as your greatest virtue: you are “independent” from the responsibility to defend socialism and have abandoned the field on this crucial question of the international class struggle. This is why we criticized the Guardian for seeking truth in a “no-man’s land (or should we say no-class’s land?) devoid of ideological partisanship.”
The Guardian would do better service to the U.S. left if it joined the debate at this level–instead of posing the controversy at the sophomoric level of whether it is wrong to criticize the USSR.