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Anthony Barnett’s Diary: A frog eat frog world, progress in American politics, and Zelensky’s comic timing

I’m confident that Ukrainians will liberate their country: a state that has undergone a national revolution cannot be defeated. 

By Anthony Barnett

I’ve recently returned from six weeks crossing the US, including a week filming progressive politicians and activists in Washington DC, with Aaron White, openDemocracy’s North America editor.

Back in Blighty I was delighted to find plentiful frog spawn in our new pond. Now there are myriads of small tadpoles under the algae I’m battling to control. Last year, a neighbour’s daughter had gently shared their surfeit and as the growing tadpoles become carnivores I feed them raw liver to stop them eating each other. Soon the froglets will begin – and slugs beware! It’s a bewitching metamorphosis.

A new way forward

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine clouded our time in the US. I published my immediate response in the Nation magazine, which has just made Bhaskar Sunkara its president. He founded Jacobin magazine and more recently, in London, he gave Tribune a Lazarus-like rejuvenation. The Nation, however, speaks for a more determined, independent leftism than the Labour tradition Tribune represents, or the post-Leninist socialism of Jacobin, which, Sunkara concludes, has passed into “purgatory”.

By contrast the Nation’s tradition of US progressivism is bursting back to life. Across the US left, people are disheartened by the Senate’s frustration of policies that are fundamental to the rescue of US democracy, and the White House’s lack of anger over its defeats. But they speak for an immense movement, generating creative and ambitious politics, with a sweeping sense of the big picture, popular policies and elected representatives who are capable of defeating Trumpism.

It’s a claim I begin to set out in my new book Taking Control! and one vindicated by filming congressman Jamie Raskin, who led the second impeachment of Donald Trump; Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; and Silicon Valley’s congressman, Ro Khanna – watch out for him in 2024 and beyond. The contrast with Labour’s baleful lack of ideas under Keir Starmer could hardly be greater.

Putin’s Vietnam

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Nonetheless, a widespread fatalism feeds the belief that Putin will be able to impose his will and thereby assist Trump. From the start of the invasion I’ve been confident that Ukrainians will liberate their country. How long this will take is another matter. Yet unless it is cut off from all arms and supplies, a country that has undergone a national revolution cannot be defeated. 

Vietnam showed this. Ben Tre was like Mariupol – it “became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it”. Massacres and rape were widespread. Captives were tortured. Hanoi and North Vietnam were bombed by B-52s and infrastructure was pulverised. President Nixon threatened to use nuclear weapons. And the US lost. Putin will lose too. It doesn’t matter how much territory he seizes, his regime will be unable to sustain the costs of occupying it.

The people’s sitcom

The strength of Ukrainian self-belief can be witnessed in the gloriously enjoyable Servant of the People, the 2015 sitcom in which Volodymyr Zelensky stars as a saintly history teacher whose denunciation of corruption leads him to become a startlingly unprepared president. He plays the lead, which is why he was described as a comedian. But he also led the production company that made the franchise and registered “Servant of the People” as a political party in 2018. Those who head media companies are strategic operators.

In season one the history teacher is inaugurated as president. Discarding the official speech he states: “I know one thing. What you do should never make you feel ashamed to look your children in the eye. Or your parents. Or anyone else. This is something I firmly pledge, fellow Ukrainians.”

Genuinely inspiring, it isn’t satire. It sums up Zelensky’s programme – now tested by war. 

Ukraine in the EU

It will be Europe’s challenge too. After Ukraine secures its victory and is fast-tracked into the EU the repressed revolution of Belarus will rise again to chuck out Alexander Lukashenko and claim its place. Together, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine will combine 90 million people, around a fifth of what will become an enlarged EU. Fully recovered from the loss of “Great Britain”, yet now too cumbersome for the spectre of “ever closer union”, Europe will need to become a continent of national democracies and shared regulation. One able to follow the lead of US progressive politics – provided Trump doesn’t return.

“US Progressives – a new politics is on the move” will go live on openDemocracy on 12 May

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder