As they deepen their assaults on working people and political rights, the regimes in Moscow and Beijing are trying to silence political opponents by smearing them as “foreign agents.” Washington condemns these two rivals for repression, but has used the very same smears to target and frame up working-class organizations at home.
On Dec. 28, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closing of Memorial International, a long-standing rights organization that has chronicled decades of Stalinist political repression in the Soviet Union. Its archives hold tens of thousands of documents, books and artwork by prisoners spanning decades. The next day, a Moscow court issued a similar ruling against the allied Memorial Human Rights Center, which exposes the Vladimir Putin regime’s crackdown on political rights today. Both verdicts used the pretext that the organizations were “foreign agents” that had failed to properly register with the government as such.
The U.S. government issued a joint statement with the European Union and other allies Dec. 31, denouncing “Russian legislation on ‘foreign agents,’ which further silences independent voices.”
Putin has used the same slander before. His government declared a truck drivers’ union a “foreign agent” after it held a series of strikes to protest Moscow’s onerous anti-working-class tax laws in 2018.
Such smears are not new for Russia’s rulers. Vladimir Lenin and other leaders of the Bolshevik Party that led working people to overturn capitalist rule in 1917 were attacked by czarist officials, who claimed they were in the pay of Germany’s capitalist rulers. The slander failed to undercut growing support for the Bolsheviks during the struggle that brought workers and farmers to power, making the world’s first socialist revolution.
After Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin headed a petty-bourgeois bureaucratic caste that reversed Lenin’s course. It carried through a counterrevolution that was consolidated with show trials of revolutionary leaders from 1936 to 1938, often by using frame-up accusations that these leaders of the 1917 revolution were now fascist “foreign agents.”
For the past 15 years, Memorial has commemorated the more than 750,000 executed victims of these purges. It also has honored those imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulag, a decadeslong system of forced labor camps across Siberia that incarcerated tens of millions of people.
Today Putin is moving to shut down opposition voices as he tries to advance the aims of Russia’s capitalist rulers in extending their grip over what they call the country’s “near abroad” — countries from the former Soviet Union. This included seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. In recent weeks, Moscow has deployed troops on Ukraine’s border, threatening the sovereignty of that country.
Beijing clamps down in Hong Kong
Ever since the 2019 outpouring of millions in the streets of Hong Kong to fight for political rights, China’s rulers have claimed protesters there are “tools of foreign powers.” They imposed a national security law on the city last year to outlaw secession, subversion or collusion with foreign countries. It is the main instrument for Beijing’s drive to criminalize opponents and clamp down on political space needed by working people.
One by one, the central government has closed all media outlets not yet under its thumb. It staged an election in which only pro-Beijing “patriots” could run, resulting in a record-low voter turnout. And it has forced all civil rights groups and independent unions to disband.
A trial of 47 people in Hong Kong accused of a “vicious plot” to subvert the government has been put off until March. Mail with foreign correspondents has been used as grounds for denying most of them bail. The defendants’ “crime” was to contest now-postponed city elections against Beijing’s candidates.
US gov’t uses ‘foreign agent’ slander
The criticism by Washington and its allied governments of these “foreign agent” charges is utter hypocrisy, given their long record using identical slanders at home. Alongside “national security” laws, claims of “foreign” interference have targeted Black rights fighters, union militants and other working-class fighters.
The U.S. rulers passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938, and conducted a series of assaults on labor and anti-war organizations on the eve of the second imperialist world war. The law was put to immediate use. The FBI began an investigation of Socialist Workers Party members under this law, then charged them with “conspiracy to overthrow the government” under the thought-control Smith Act. The rulers used these “foreign agent” registration laws to go after the Communist Party and SWP in the 1950s.
In its historic and successful political and legal battle against the FBI and government spying and disruption in the 1970s and ’80s, the SWP fought to bar the government from using these laws against it.
In the 1941 Smith Act trial in Minneapolis, 18 cadres of the Teamsters union and the SWP were convicted and jailed for campaigning in opposition to Washington’s preparations to enter the second world slaughter. The SWP fights for the same communist program today.
Being an “unregistered foreign agent” was among the charges brought by the FBI in 1998 against five Cuban revolutionaries gathering information about the violent assaults planned by rightist Cuban émigrés in the U.S. against Cuba’s people and government. After up to 16 years in U.S. prisons and an international campaign to win their release, they were freed in 2014.
The vilification of communists and working-class fighters as “foreign agents,” has been echoed in attacks made by one of the U.S. rulers’ two main parties against the other recently. For two years the liberal press, Democratic Party and middle-class left championed a fishing expedition by ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller into sham claims that former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign “colluded” with Moscow. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was indicted by Mueller and convicted under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Like the rulers in Moscow and Beijing, the U.S. capitalist rulers fear the growing refusal of working people to bear the brunt of the gathering global crisis of capitalism and to begin organizing independently of them and their parties. They will continue to use the “foreign agents” and other witch hunt laws to try to break our struggles.