How Not to Oppose Imperialism

Pro-Putin demo. Brussels, May 2014.

Suppose you learned some new facts about Star Wars, that could shake the narrative that the Rebel Alliance defeated imperial aggression when it destroyed the Death Star. The Rebels,  in their cash-strapped infancy, received money from the National Endowment for Democracy, as American officials saw it as a way to break the Galactic Empire’s monopoly on shipping routes.

Intercepted diplomatic communiqués show the United States later desired a Rebel victory against the Imperial Navy, in order to introduce planetary systems into the global market. Perhaps leftists might begin to look at the Rebels with more suspicion. There are even a few who might go as far as defending the destruction of Alderaan, now that we know it was a focal point for American intervention. Darth Vader, no longer the boogieman, is now acting pragmatically against Western aggression.

This thought experiment allows us to better understand the moral breakdown on the left, when it comes to understanding global power struggles, and human rights, since Russian President Vladimir Putin made it his business to control Ukraine, a binary view that pits an alternative to Washington or Brussels as always preferable, a view that is at once intellectually lazy and insinuates that anyone who disagrees is just not reading behind the headlines.

How else are we to make sense of some of the positions of anti-imperialists in this day and age, when the autocratic leader of the petro-state, employing his own version of the Monroe Doctrine, uses a combination of militarism and debt extraction to control the affairs of another state from which it desires its untapped energy resources?

Or, more pressingly, how are we to understand those who denounce the Kiev government as “neo-Nazi,” because a small number of ministers belong to right-wing parties, but have no concern for the far right parties of Europe, including the anti-Semitic Jobbik of Hungary and Greece’s Golden Dawn, backing Moscow as a counterweight to the European Union? What else could motivate a revolutionary to denounce the new order in Ukraine, because it arose from street protests, rather than the institutional channels of established state power? What is radical about a government that mistreats gays and jails feminist punks in labor camps?

Surely, not everyone on the left has bought into this, but enough have, and this rhetoric has graced the front cover of The Nation, debates on Democracy Now!, the discussion groups associated with Left Business Observer and even inspired Michael Parenti to take his pen to Pravda. And, even if this constitutes a minority view on the American left, it’s enough to call into question the credentials of this side of the political spectrum.

Anti-West demo. Brussels, May 15.
Anti-imperialist demo. Brussels, May 15.

Of course binary anti-imperialism has a long history. Some Western radicals genuinely felt that the Soviet Union was an anti-imperialist power, while others focused their adoration on Mao Zedong’s revolutionary regime in China. Later, others began lionizing leaders in the developing world, including Fidel Castro, and the recently departed Hugo Chavez.

Correcting the historical record on the actual nature of Soviet foreign policy, or Chinese human rights abuses, is not difficult. But even in these cases, it made some sense why some Western leftists, without a full understanding of the brutality of these regimes, would overlook it, and attempt to find revolutionary models to emulate. But, in today’s world, as the nature of authoritarian governments, from Russia to Syria, could not be more clear, ongoing attempts to prop up and justify such regimes by leftists is as deeply disturbing as it is bizarre.

Sticking with the examples of Moscow and Damascus,  both regimes,  in addition to engaging numerous and in some cases horrific violations of human rights, are reactionary in their ideology. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is run by an oil-rich oligarchy, and boasts tremendous levels of inequality and social repression. Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, is driven by crony capitalism, and keeps firmly in place what is a fascist state, run by the military, on behalf of a religious sect.

In neither case is there any objective claim of these leaders fighting for economic justice, grassroots power or a new type of global system. Instead, they are right-wing regimes willing to engage in exceptional violence (in Assad’s case chemical weapons) to maintain their grips on power. If the only thing that makes them appealing to the left is their willingness to snub the United States, than a genuinely leftist foreign policy vision is deservedly dead on arrival.

Others on the left focus instead on spinning elaborate conspiracy theories that always arrive at the same conclusions. Specifically, that the United States is responsible for everything, and that Putin and Assad are acting in response to American aggression. In Ukraine, while some have rightly pointed out the role that the far-right played in the Maidan protests, and how US post-Cold War foreign policy was insensitive to Russia, others attempted to reduce a broad based civil society movement attacking a corrupt regime to another American instigated “coup.” This reductionism both stripped the agency of the left, and progressive forces in Ukraine who helped create Maidan in the first place, and completely ignored Russia’s support for a corrupt, brutal and oligarch-led regime in the country.

The WWII problem.
Belgian anti-fascists, Piazza Schuman.

With Syria, there have been countless theories floated to attempt to prove that Assad was not behind the chemical weapons attacks over the last year. This, despite broad consensus, including from prominent human rights organizations, that the Damascus government was behind the attacks acknowledged in the deal struck by Russia to avert American airstrikes, that led the Assad government to agree to destroy its stockpiles under international supervision. [Recent reports suggest that Assad has been again deploying chemical weapons.]

Also often missing from leftist critique is an understanding of US foreign policy-making. As an example, many point to the role of the National Endowment For Democracy’s role in funding opposition groups in Ukraine, directly equating this activity with CIA orchestrated coups in other countries. While the NED may operate in ways that are offensive to local populations and leaders at times, it does not at all mean that the NED is simply an instrument of  American foreign policy. As the United States had long backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak with weapons sales, foreign aid and strong diplomatic support, it also backed activists who opposed Mubarak. In other words the policy was contradictory and incoherent, not one dimensional and evil. The irony is that leftist critics of US foreign policy often give Washington more credit than it deserves.

It should be obvious that the proper response is to side with ordinary people and their desires rather than the ambitions of state leaders. For example, in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, industrial workers retook the town from the grip of armed pro-Russian separatists, which would be a victory for working class autonomous organizing over nationalism. Thus, it isn’t whether the international left should stand with Kiev over Moscow, but whom in those places s the left should stand with. The answer, as Louis Proyect has pointed out, should clearly be the left, however, diminished, in each of these places.

The struggle has on one side leftists, unionists, ethnic minorities and anti-fascists, with the state and right-wing forces on the other. It’s the same reason why, during an uprising in Tehran, the answer shouldn’t be to side with a national government because it happens to stand against American interests and Zionism, but to side specifically with anyone standing up for liberal society, including the trade unionists of Iran, who too often find themselves in jail cells rather than organizing on the shop floor.

Sadly, left-wing attempts in the past to confront knee-jerk anti-imperialism have just become right-wing capitulation. Christopher Hitchens and other “liberal hawks” may have initially pointed out the folly of defending indefensible tyrants, but ended up enthusiastically backing a bloody, needless crusade. In the end, internationalism is an ideal we can aspire to, whereas simply opposing imperialism is a negative reaction without a solution. The point is pushing forward a vision for the world and supporting your allies in justice and decency. That’s why we stand with the left in Maidan and Luke against the Empire.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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