On the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism

Rohini Hensman’s recently published Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism is an important contribution to the debate that has divided the left since 2011, the year that Syria became a litmus test. For some, support for Bashar al-Assad became tantamount to backing Franco in the Spanish Civil War while others saw my perspective as lending support to the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other reactionary states carrying out the same neoconservative foreign policy that turned Iraq into a failed state.

On practically all other questions, ranging from defending immigrant rights to opposing fracking, the left was fairly unified. The Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka epitomized the contradictions roiling the left. Except for her appearance at an RT conference and his article hailing Assad’s electoral victory in 2014, there was little question that their campaign was a real alternative to both Trump and Clinton.

When I made the case for voting Green, I found that many people who shared my views on Syria felt betrayed. Robin Yassin-Kassab, the co-author of the definitive book on Syria titled “Burning Country”, angrily denounced me on Facebook for supporting “that bitch”. I advised him that such language was sexist and not to be used on my timeline. When he repeated the slur, I had no other recourse but to unfriend him. As is obvious, trying to find unity on the left in such a polarized environment has become difficult.

The polarization deepened in 2014 when the Euromaidan protest became litmus test number two. As was the case with Syria, the overwhelming majority of the left sided with Yanukovych who was seen as a progressive leader ousted by a coup organized and funded by the CIA. When war broke out in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin-backed militias were freedom fighters while Kyiv became a tool of NATO and Western banks. Trying to avoid such geopolitical dualities became difficult, if not impossible.

For those inclined to support Assad and Putin, the primary source of information is electronic media. Over the past seven years, Alternet, Consortium News, CommonDreams, WSWS.org, Global Research and a host of other magazines and blogs have reinforced opinions formed early on. Imperialism was up to its dirty tricks once again and leftists had to rally around “the axis of resistance”. Just as WMDs were the pretext for invading Iraq, so were “false flag” chemical attacks in Syria. Sniper attacks on Euromaidan protesters and the downing of a Dutch airline blamed on Yanukovych’s supporters were likewise debunked as “false flags”. Instead of examining class relations in Syria or Ukraine, the primary focus was placed on finding the Wikileaks document that could serve as a “smoking gun”.

In my view, the debate has suffered from an overreliance on electronic media that is neither fact-checked nor in conformity with scholarly norms. Being “scholarly” does not necessarily mean written by tenured professors. It means providing data to support your arguments. That’s what should be expected from anybody committed to a dispassionate examination of social and economic reality. With the advent of Twitter, the level of serious analysis decreased close to zero, especially when it was amplified a hundred-fold by Russian trolls.

In March 2019, Verso will be publishing Max Blumenthal’s “The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS and Donald Trump”, a book that will clearly make the case for the pro-Assad, pro-Putin side in the debate. I plan to read it as soon as it comes out just as did with Stephen Gowans’s “Washington’s Long War on Syria”. When I was in the Trotskyist movement, a great deal of emphasis was placed on hearing both sides of a debate during preconvention discussion. In a way, it is the same imperative juries must obey when rendering a verdict. The prosecution and the defense must be heard without prejudice. Furthermore, the best cases for either side are likely to be found in old-fashioned books that are generally vetted by professional editors rather than off-the-cuff posts to social media. It might be laborious to read a 300-page book but you will surely be getting something of substance that can’t be found in a 300-character Tweet.

All this is just a way of urging CounterPunch readers to have a look at Rohini Hensman’s new book however they stand on the issues, just as they should read Blumenthal. We are in a very critical period in history when an informed community on the left will be called upon to play a decisive role in both domestic and international affairs. Long after the fighting in Syria and Ukraine has ended, we will still be facing new conflicts in which some fundamental questions should be resolved in advance, most of all what it means to be “anti-imperialist”.

Hensman’s book is a review of what took place in Syria and Ukraine, as well as Yugoslavia, Iran and Iraq. If nothing else, it is a treasure chest of information made possible by a survey of some of the most important books and articles germane to this topic. There are 54 pages of references, ranging from academic literature like Raymond Hinnebusch’s 2001 “Syria: Revolution from Above” to blog articles, including one of mine. Hensman makes sure to reference the other side in the debate, including Iran’s Press TV and Robert Fisk, who she acknowledges as a reliable source on the war in Iraq.

The introduction and first chapter define the problem that motivated her to write “Indefensible”. Growing up in Sri Lanka, she was influenced by her anti-imperialist minded parents who while supporting the decolonization of Ceylon remained opposed to the oppression of Tamils, who had much in common with the Kurds. After independence, the Sinhalese majority abolished the “English only” policies of the colonists but replaced it with “Sinhala only”.

As might be suggested by a book being published by Haymarket, the ISO’s publishing arm, Hensman subscribes to the theory of state capitalism. For state capitalists, Russia became imperialist after Stalin’s rise to power and remained so until now. In a way, this simplifies the analysis since according to this a country like Yugoslavia was never really “socialist” to begin with. For me, this theory was never sufficiently dialectical, especially since it neglected to incorporate the main insight of Marx and Engels that socialism had to be a world system, just as capitalism was.

Despite my differences with the author over what might be an abstruse question, especially with the disappearance of the economic system that prevailed until Yeltsin’s rise to power (whatever you want to call it), I can recommend her treatment of Ukraine, Syria, et al without hesitation in the same way that I embrace much of what is printed in the ISO’s periodicals (with the exception of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua).

In my own writings on Ukraine, I have insisted on the need to examine the struggle inside Lenin’s party on the national question in the early 1920s. If you start with Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked phone call to Geoffrey Pyatt, the US Ambassador to Ukraine, in 2014, you will not get the whole picture. For Ukrainians, colonization did not mean CIA plots. It was instead Russian domination that began under Catherine the Great, continued under Bolshevik rule and persists under Poroshenko, who is reviled by Ukrainians just like Yanukovych before him.

Although I consider myself fairly well-versed in early Soviet history, I was deeply impressed with Hensman’s account of the missed opportunities for equality among nations in the USSR symbolized by the treatment of a Tatar named Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev who joined Lenin’s party as a young man in November 1917. Not long after joining, he wrote articles stressing the need for revolutionaries to take up the cause of oppressed nationalities in the East that necessitated a fight against the “clerical-feudal bourgeoisie”. He considered the Muslim working class as being more open to revolutionary socialism than workers in the West who had benefited to some extent by the super-exploitation of those in Asia. Indeed, the first demonstrations of solidarity with the Russian Revolution in 1917 outside its borders took place in Uyghur villages in Mongolia, a Turkic speaking people related to the Tatars.

In June 1923 Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev became the first victim of a Soviet-style show trial. He was accused of being a political deviant in support of “national communism”. Those like Trotsky and Kamenev who supposedly supported democracy against Stalin’s growing bureaucratic rule did nothing to defend Sultan-Galiev who eventually was shot by a firing squad in 1940.

The national chauvinism that led to his victimization continued through the 1940s, with the entire Tatar nation being removed from Crimea because Stalin saw them as Nazi sympathizers. As was the case with the Ukrainians, any sympathy for the Nazis would have been reduced by respecting national sovereignty but that would have taken a different kind of Communist than Josef Stalin.

Like Stalin, Vladimir Putin viewed Muslims as potential threats to Russian interests. When Chechens tried to win their independence, both Yeltsin and Putin reacted with brute force of the same sort on display in Syria today. Aerial bombardment and artillery fire leveled Grozny just as it has in East Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere. In fact, it was the scorched earth policies being carried out against a small and weak country like Chechnya that made me begin to rethink the question of “anti-imperialism”. When Marxism list subscribers began to regard Putin and the Russian military as counterparts to Fidel Castro fending off an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, I felt the need to go back to the drawing board and review the relationship of the USSR to “lesser nationalities”.

By the time Euromaidan erupted, I had come to the conclusion that the USSR could have been operating as an imperialist power even if I remained unconvinced by state-capitalist theory. When Lenin analyzed imperialism in 1914, he was trying to explain the origins of WWI in terms of monopoly capitalism’s need to export capital. This analysis obviously did not apply to Ukraine. Instead, the relationship between Moscow and Kyiv had changed little since the time of Catherine the Great. As a highly fertile grain-producing region, it helped put bread on tables in Russia. Indeed, this was how empires operated going back to the days of the Roman emperors.

Thankfully, Hensman makes no concessions to the gang in power in Kyiv. Like Yuliya Yurchenko’s “Ukraine and the Empire of Capital” that I reviewed for CounterPunch, she describes a continuation of the oligarchic rule that uses nationalist rhetoric to keep the masses in line just like Putin does in Russia.

Citing Fred Weir’s article in the Christian Science Monitor, she reports that according to the global corruption watchdog Transparency International, Ukraine occupies 142nd place out of 175 countries, somewhere near Uganda and much lower than Nigeria. There are estimates that crooked officials annually drain about 20 percent of Ukraine’s GDP. You might say that ever since independence, Ukraine has been ruled by a series of oligarchs just like Yeltsin. It doesn’t really matter if they spout Ukrainian nationalist rhetoric or claim to be anti-imperialist like Yanukovych—they are all in it for the money. Putin, who came to power to overturn Yeltsin’s kleptocratic rule, ironically does everything in his power to keep Ukraine from enjoying true independence.

Yegor Sobolev, the head of the Ukrainian parliament’s anti-corruption committee has said “We’ve never made any headway against corruption in the past because it totally pervades this society. It’s the biggest problem in Ukraine. Not war, not economic crisis, but corruption. Every judge, cop, general, prosecutor, politician and teacher is accustomed to using his position to line his pockets. And they protect each other. We have a total kleptocratic state.”

Like Ukraine, Syria was mired in corruption and economic inequality but without any opportunity to use parliamentary or extra-parliamentary means to remedy the situation. Even if elections had been a safety valve to preserve dynastic rule, Assad was not willing to take chances. He would destroy the country rather than allow himself to be replaced, even by someone willing to maintain the neoliberal status quo like al-Sisi replacing Mubarak.

As was the case with her treatment of Ukraine, Hensman begins at the beginning rather than on the day that the left discovered Syria—sometime in March 2011 or so. That beginning is in 1951 when a democratic revolution led to the formation of Akram al-Hourani’s government. He was a leader of the Arab Socialist Party that favored land reform, religious tolerance and woman’s rights. Unfortunately, he was overthrown by the Baathist Party in 1963 led by Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad and another military officer named Salah Jadid. From the minute their coup succeeded, the country was transformed into a single-party state. Hafez al-Assad retained some of the pro-peasant policies of Hourani, created a considerable state sector that provided employment for millions, and provided fairly generous social programs for the population. All that came to an end toward the end of his rule as neoliberal policies were instituted to jump-start a sluggish economy. After his death, his son deepened these policies to the point of provoking a massive uprising.

Much of Hensman’s narrative is based on Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami’s “Burning Country” that was written to make the case that there was a genuine revolution taking place in Syria despite the tendency for most on the left to write it off as a jihadist assault on religious pluralism and the generous welfare state comparable to Sweden.

For Syrians, the notion put forward by Stephen Gowans et al that Syria was some sort of socialist utopia rivaling if not besting Kurdish Rojava was a cruel joke. Hensman writes:

Finally, it is an irony that people who see themselves as socialists fail to note the class dimension of the uprising. Janine di Giovanni provides a vivid description of the Damascus elite who support Assad: “[In June 2012,] for several weeks running, I watched the fevered hedonism of the Thursday afternoon pool parties at the Dama Rose Hotel … By lunchtime, women were rushing to hairdressers; the roads leading out of the city … were clogged with luxury cars … Restaurants such as Narenj, which … served traditional Arabic food to the elite, were still packed.” (di Giovanni 2016, 8). By contrast, in 2007 a third of Syrians were living beneath the poverty line, with nearly another third only slightly above this level. Swiss-Syrian socialist activist and scholar Joseph Daher (2016) writes that “even the regime-controlled Syrian General Federation of Trade Unions deplored in 2009 that “the rich have become richer and the poor poorer … (and) low income earners who make up 80 percent of the Syrian population are looking for additional work to support themselves”. He continues, “We must not forget that the popular revolution in Syria began as a result of social economic injustices and widespread poverty, in addition to political issues.”

We are now in the final hours of the seven-year ordeal in which attempts to restore the democratic values of Hourani’s government have been crushed by overwhelming air power and massive intervention by Iran, Hezbollah and Afghan mercenaries. The looming victory against “imperialism” leaves the country in shambles with dismal economic prospects and inescapable environmental disaster.

With Idlib facing certain doom, it is disconcerting to hear some on the left repeating the same sorry rationales for supporting Assad we have heard for seven years. Using the medium ideally suited for this kind of message, Rania Khalek tweeted: “It really is stunning to watch the ‘war on terror’s’ biggest cheerleaders cry about the upcoming defeat of Al Qaeda in Idlib. The same ppl who usually see Al Qaeda behind every corner pretend they’re blind to its existence in the thosands [sic] in Idlib all bc they hate Iran more.”

It is really difficult to make sense out of this brief outburst except to note that she uses the word “Al Qaeda” as a kind of bell to get her fans to begin salivating like Pavlov’s dogs. For all of the hatred directed against neoconservatives by people such as Blumenthal, Khalek and Ben Norton, their discourse reminds me of what I used to hear from Christopher Hitchens in the early 2000s. To destroy the evil jihadists in Idlib might involve collateral damage but that is the cost of suppressing sharia law and terrorism just as it is in Gaza. Just ask Benjamin Netanyahu who is Vladimir Putin’s best friend.

A certain political myopia exists in such quarters. Despite their anti-fascist pretensions, they cannot fathom how Assad’s victory will strengthen reaction throughout the Middle East and Europe. In an interview on Portuguese television, General al-Sisi stated: “The priority is that we support the national armies to impose control over the territory, deal with the extremists, and impose the necessary stability in Libya, Syria and Iraq.” When the interviewer followed up with “When you refer to the National Army in Syria, do you mean the Syrian army?”, the General replied: “Yes.”

Libya is held up as a poster child for what would happen to Syria if the “terrorists” are not nipped in the bud. Naturally, General al-Sisi would be supportive of his fellow General Khalifa Haftar who is trying to restore law and order in Libya in the interests of the Libyan bourgeoisie looking for another strongman to replace Gaddafi. In February, Haftar visited Egypt to further “joint coordination between Egypt and the army leadership in the fight against terrorism”. It seems that Haftar is Russia’s man as well. Sputnik News, which is to Putin as Fox News is to Trump, was beside itself over growing ties between the Kremlin and Libya, at least the part that Haftar controlled. On repeated visits to Moscow, he asked Russia for military aid supplies in order to fight against the Islamists.

With Assad, al-Sisi, Putin and Haftar joining together in a new axis of resistance against Islamists, would anybody be surprised that Netanyahu would apply for membership? In July, Haftar met with an Israeli intelligence officer in Amman, to “deepen security coordination between him and Israel”. Not only does Haftar have these considerable forces in his corner, he can also rely on the backing of France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, as well as the United Arab Emirates.

So, what brings this motley crew together on behalf of General Haftar who is only three degrees of separation from that pillar of anti-imperialism Bashar al-Assad? At the risk of sounding like a vulgar Marxist, I would argue that it is to defend their capitalist interests in the Middle East. If there is anything the capitalist class seeks, it is a stable climate to ensure that investments can produce sizable profits without interference from the unruly masses. In all their heartfelt objection to imperialism, Assad’s supporters on the left seemed to have forgotten that Lenin wrote a book titled “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. If you forget about the capitalism part of his analysis, you don’t get very far.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.