Review of Rohini Hensman’s Indefensible: A Challenge to Pseudo-Anti-Imperialism

Are you are incensed by  the lies of so-called anti-imperialist leftists  who defend Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad?  Do you want to engage in international solidarity with struggles for democracy, social justice and revolutionary transformation in countries that have been plagued by imperialist intervention?  Then this book is a must read for you.

Rohini Hensman. Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket, 2018.

Reviewed by Frieda Afary

“The Alliance between neo-Stalinists…and neo-fascists… is a 21st century version of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. “ (p. 52)

“Marx opposed despotism and the great power chauvinism of Tsarist Russia. Putin is a modern czar with designs on the Near East and wants to push the West out. This is what Lenin called inter-imperialist rivalry.” Quoted from Joe Gill, p. 275.

Are you are incensed by the lies of so-called anti-imperialist leftists who defend Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad? Do you want to engage in international solidarity with struggles for democracy, social justice and revolutionary transformation in countries that have been plagued by imperialist intervention? Then this book is a must read for you.

Rohini Hensman, Sri Lankan socialist feminist, labor researcher and author living in India, who has a history of solidarity with international social justice struggles, has provided a rich and well-researched book. She offers mind-opening facts and analyses about actual events in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia and Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and challenges us to think.

In this review, I will examine her book from the vantage point of the following questions: 1. What are the roots of pseudo anti-imperialism? 2. What motivates imperialism in the age of globalization? 3. What can we learn from her case studies of Russia and Ukraine, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Iraq, Syria? 4. How can we redefine anti-imperialism and international solidarity on socialist humanist foundations?

  1. What are the roots of pseudo anti-imperialism?

Hensman begins by asking why some so-called anti-imperialists have ended up repeating the lies of authoritarian rulers? For instance, Seymour Hersch, journalist, denies Bashar Assad’s chemical bombing of innocent Syrian civilians in Syria.   Jill Stein, head of the Green Party, has met with and praised Vladimir Putin. John Pilger, journalist, has dismissed the Ukrainian Maidan movement for democracy as “fascist.” Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange’s links with the Russian state led him to help Donald Trump during his presidential campaign.

According to Hensman, advocates of “pseudo-anti-imperialism” represent three categories:

  1. Those who are “unable to deal with complexity,”   including the possibility of more than one oppressor. For them, the West has to be the only oppressor in all situations. They think that their only task is to oppose U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, they suffer from “west-centrism” and orientalism. They “do not see that people in other parts of the world have agency too and can exercise it to oppress others or fight against oppression.”   (p. 12)
  2. Those who are neo-Stalinists, i.e. apologists for Russian imperialism. Most no longer pretend to be Marxists. Many Maoists think along the same lines.
  3. Tyrants and imperialists who have well-funded and sophisticated state media like Russia Times (RT) and the Iranian Press TV.

She argues that historically, what led to the rise of pseudo anti-imperialism was the transformation of the 1917 Russian revolution into a state capitalist totalitarian state, and Stalin’s effort to promote state capitalism as “socialism in one country.” In the name of “anti-imperialism,” Stalin justified Russia’s own imperialist practices against its non-Russian nationalities and neighboring and East European states. Stalin also justified the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact which granted his state some temporary imperialist gains in exchange for giving Hitler the green light to start World War II.

II.What is imperialism and what motivates it in the age of globalization?

Hensman devotes the first chapter of her work to various theories of imperialism in order to ask what distinguishes imperialism today in a world in which capitalism has become a global phenomenon.

She defines imperialism as “political and sometimes military intervention in another country in order to install or keep in power a regime that acts more in the interests of the imperialist powers than in the interests of any class—even capitalists—in its own country. Its driving force is nationalism in the imperialist country.” (p. 21)

In her view, with the rise of globalization in the 1980s, and the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the USSR in 1991,  imperialism and militarism are no longer of any use to capitalism. They are not useful because global capitalism is characterized by competition between various multinational corporations, and because competition and productivity would be hampered by imperialism and militarism. (p. 40)

However, she asks: “If imperialism is no longer of any use to global capitalism, what explains its persistence?” (p. 47) Hensman argues that one section of capitalists, those involved in the military-industrial complex still have a vested interest in the continuation of imperialism. More importantly,  she argues that the current form of imperialism arises from “the desire to wield power over others, through structures ranging from patriarchy to absolute monarchy to empire, [which] predates capitalism by millennia” (p. 48).   The motivation for imperialism today is mostly ideological.

Thus, Hensman finds Lenin’s book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) less useful for analyzing imperialism today. Lenin’s emphasis that a new feature of imperialism was its export of capital, does not seem appealing to her. It seems outmoded in a world in which emerging economies are exporting capital to the U.S. and Europe.

Hensman asks important questions concerning what is distinctive about imperialism today and whether Lenin’s analysis is relevant.   That is why, it is critically important not to skip over these questions before moving on to the rest of the book.

Lenin’s work, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) was written at the height of the destructive World War I. Rooted in Marx’s discussion of the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation” in Capital, Volume I, his analysis saw the new imperialism as an outgrowth of monopoly capitalism.   Marx had seen capitalism, a system based on alienated labor and value production, as leading to the concentration and centralization of capital in fewer hands and even in the hands of “a single capitalist or a single capitalist corporation” in each country. He had anticipated capitalism leading to monopoly capitalism and war between various monopoly capitalists for the control and domination of capital in order to facilitate extracting more and more surplus value from living labor.

Lenin, in 1917, witnessing the rise of monopoly capitalism and World War I, an inter-imperialist war, was compelled to say that defining imperialism as the search for new markets was not adequate to the new reality. In his view, the new feature of imperialism was its rootedness in monopoly capitalism and monopoly capitalism’s export of capital to (or investment in) places where the rate of profit was higher.   These could be underdeveloped countries where wages were lower and raw materials cheaper, or even developed countries.

Furthermore, even though capitalism in Marx’s view and in Lenin’s view, moved toward monopoly capitalism or the creation of “international capitalist combines,” Lenin like Marx saw competition coexisting with the trend toward the concentration and centralization of capital in fewer hands. That is why he did not think that the globalization of capitalism would make imperialism and militarism useless. On the contrary, he emphasized that it led to more militarism, and greater inter-imperialist wars with short truces in between.

Imperialism may not always be characterized by economic motivations and indeed has ideological motivations as well. However, in today’s globalized capitalism with monopoly capitalism and state capitalism on the rise, imperialism is still mostly motivated by monopoly capitalism’s search for a higher rate of profit or by strategic interests that facilitate its long-term economic dominance.   In the case of the Middle East, these motivations can be seen in China’s One Belt, One Road investment project (also known as the new Silk Road), Russia’s oil, gas and nuclear industry investments,  The U.S.’s investments in the Gulf states and Israel, as well as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates and Iran over control of capital and their competing strategic interests.

Whether one agrees with the entirety of Hensman’s definition of imperialism in the age of globalization or not, it cannot be denied that Hensman’s work offers illuminating research and analyses of the realities of imperialism and inter-imperialist rivalry in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Ukraine.  It is to these facts and analyses that I would now like to turn.

III.Challenging Pseudo-Anti-Imperialist Lies: Russia and Ukraine, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Iraq and Syria

The bulk of Hensman’s book consists of six case studies in which she takes up Russia and Ukraine (1917 to today), Bosnia and Kosovo, Iran, Iraq and Syria with a focus on the period since the end of World War II.     In each case, she unearths pseudo-anti-imperialist lies by giving us an understanding of events as a whole and searching for truth.

In her case study of Russia and Ukraine, she provides essential research on the process of transformation of the Russian Revolution into a state capitalist totalitarian regime under Stalin, Russia’s assault on non-Russian nationalities as well as imperialist wars abroad. She also offers critical facts on Putin as a KGB agent who moved on to become Boris Yeltsin’s right-hand man in the 1990s and established his credentials for presidency by launching a bloody and devastating war on the people of Chechnya.

Pseudo-anti-imperialists who ignore Putin’s authoritarianism, his assassination of democratic dissidents and his imperialism including his attacks on the democracy movement in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea,   are seen by Hensman as no less bad than those who support Trump.

Hensman’s analysis of the 1979 Iranian revolution offers much detail on how Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used the language of opposition to Western imperialism to gain mass support and systematically destroy the progressive and revolutionary forces in Iran.  She also holds much of the Iranian Left responsible for explicitly or implicitly supporting Khomeini as an “anti-imperialist” and hence facilitating the rise of the Islamic Republic and the transformation of the revolution into a counter-revolution.   The Islamic Republic in turn she shows, began to develop its own imperialist ambitions which also extended to military and political intervention in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen even as the Iranian masses have been increasingly subjected to Western sanctions and poverty.

The case of Bosnia-Herzegovina was the “earliest post-Cold War example of sections of the Left supporting right-wing ethnoreligious nationalism.” (p. 95) Pseudo-anti-imperialists denied that the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo were driven by Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic’s drive to build a “Greater Serbia.”  Hence, In 1992, when Bosnia-Herzegovina held a referendum and declared independence to separate itself from an ongoing war between Serbia and Croatia (whose leader Franjo Tudjman was as nationalistic as Milosevic), many on the Left sided with Serbia.

When the Serbian military and paramilitary forces started a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims as well as people of multiethnic origin, and placed many Muslim women and men in rape camps and concentration camps, leftists such as James Petras continued to side with Milosevic. Petras dismissed the heroic struggle of the Bosnians who wanted to maintain a multi-ethnic identity and labelled them “fundamentalists” and “terrorists.”   (p. 114)

Although NATO and the U.S. had mostly colluded with Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing and only belatedly took military action against Serbia in the face of a world outcry, leftists like Michel Chossudovsky attributed the war to NATO. They claimed that “It was not president Milosevic but NATO that started the war in Yugoslavia.” (p. 112) Even most of those leftists and socialists who did not support Milosevic, simply freed themselves of any responsibility for taking sides and claimed that what was taking place in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo was a “civil war” and not a struggle against genocide and ethnic cleansing. In the words of Hensman, this “is the first time in the post-Soviet world that such a clear convergence between neo-Stalinism and neo fascism is discernible.” (p. 116)

Hensman’s principled opposition to pseudo-anti-imperialism does not mean that she covers up the role of U.S. and Western imperialism. This commitment to tell the truth can be seen in her discussion of the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq.   In both cases she offers much detail on the destructive role of U.S. and Western imperialism which through sanctions and actual military invasions and assaults, directly and indirectly brought about the death of millions of Iraqi civilians.

She also emphasizes that the 2003 U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq actually strengthened Shi’a and Sunni fundamentalism. It increased Iran’s influence in Iraq and facilitated Iranian regional imperialism not only in Iraq but also in Lebanon and Syria. It also created the condition for the rise of “Islamic State”, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda with a particularly strong anti-Shi’a bent. Thus, although claims by Putin and Trump that “Obama and Clinton created ISIS” are indeed ridiculous, Hensman emphasizes that “if we are looking for a smoking gun that implicates U.S. imperialism in the genesis and spread of ISIS, this [U.S. support for the Iranian-backed Shi’a government’s ethnic cleansing of Sunnis] is it.” (p. 173).    It was this situation that led to an alliance between former Baathists and members of Al Qaeda against their common enemies: the U.S. and Shi’a Islamic fundamentalists.   This Baathist and Al Qaeda alliance which became known as the Islamic State, was also facilitated by networks of connections created in U.S. run prisons such as Abu Ghraib.

Having proved her principled opposition to all imperialist powers,   Hensman strongly challenges pseudo-anti-imperialist lies about the Syrian revolution. She examines the 2011 Syrian revolution as a genuine popular uprising against authoritarianism, poverty and injustice. She discusses how the Assad regime used not only sheer brutality, military force, sectarianism, sieges and starvation to destroy the revolution, but also released Jihadists from prison to attack the revolutionaries and later created a symbiotic relationship with ISIS. Thus ISIS was allowed to maintain its headquarters in Raqqa and sold oil and gas to the Assad regime in order to finance their campaign of murder and rape (p. 221)  The Assad regime itself however, remained responsible for 90% of the half million deaths in Syria and most of the internal and external displacement of 12 million out of the country’s population of 24 million.

Hensman challenges the myth that the U.S. or other Western powers wanted to overthrow the Assad regime. At best they wanted Assad to go without ending his regime which they found useful for maintaining “stability” in the region.   (p. 244) Turkey which enjoyed good relations with the Assad regime prior to the Syrian revolution, intervened later to attack the Kurds in the North, and to promote Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brand of religious fundamentalism.   Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which funded the Muslim Brotherhood also did not support the 2011 popular uprising and its goals of social justice.

Hensman provides extensive details on the role of Russian imperialism and Iranian regional imperialism in crushing the Syrian revolution. Iran and Russia both trained the Syrian army and provided it with arms.     Iran provided tens of thousands of Shi’a paramilitary forces, imposed sieges and launched ground assaults.   On September 29, 2015, just at the time when the Assad regime was near collapse, Russia began a campaign of airstrikes at the request of the Iranian regime.   While Russia claimed that its airstrikes were aimed at ISIS, over 90% of its targets were in areas inhabited by the revolutionary and moderate opposition.

For pseudo-anti-imperialists like Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersch, John Pilger, Patrick Cockburn and Max Blumenthal who deny the Assad regime’s use of chemical warfare on civilians, and label all Syrian revolutionaries as Islamic fundamentalists and Jihadists, Hensman has nothing but scorn. They are Westcentric, fail to see that the Syrian people have agency,  attribute all problems to a U.S. plot to overthrow the regime, and do not comprehend the complexities of Syrian society or the internal contradictions of the Syrian revolution. Indeed their superficial understanding of reality which views all developments through the lens of conspiracy theories, has led a section of the anti-imperialist Left to join hands with the Right in opposing democratic revolutions.   This new Red-Brown alliance is ideologically polluting the air, confusing fact with fiction, and contributing to the rise of neo-fascists like Trump in western “liberal democracies”. “Unless this situation changes, the threat of fascist and totalitarian regimes looms over much of the world.” (p. 279)

IV.How can we redefine anti-imperialism and international solidarity on socialist humanist foundations?

For Hensman, countering the threat of global totalitarianism requires pursuing and telling the truth, bringing morality and humanity back into politics, engaging in a revolutionary socialist critique of capitalism, and fighting for democracy instead of seeing socialism as merely the conquest of power by a party.

Promoting revolutionary internationalism in the words of Roman Rosdolsky, Ukranian Marxist, means recognizing that “Far from being ‘by nature without national prejudice,’ the proletariat of every land must first acquire through arduous effort, the internationalist attitude that its general, historical interests demand from it.” (p. 288)   On this question, Hensman also extensively discusses Lenin’s views on the importance of defending the right of oppressed national minorities and oppressed nationalities to self-determination.

She argues that “internationalism must include principled opposition not only to racism and xenophobia against migrant workers but also a theoretical separation of globalization from neoliberalism.” (p. 288).   Simply opposing globalization means that workers of other countries are seen as enemies. This has prevented the Left from countering the nationalism of Trump and other rightwing populists. Instead, the Left needs to say: “You will never succeed in defeating neoliberalism, much less capitalism, unless you join together with workers of other countries.”   (p. 289 )

Hensman justifiably critiques the way in which the Left’s opposition to globalization has been used by the Right to gain support . I would add that the Occupy movement, by limiting the definition of capitalism to free markets and neoliberalism, allowed people like Trump and other nationalist populists like him around the world to use the language of anti-globalization to promote an authoritarian state capitalism as an alternative. The Occupy movement did not challenge capitalism as a mode of production defined by alienated/mechanical labor.   As a result, it did not address the issue of how to overcome the alienation arising from the capitalist mode of production and how that alienation related to racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia. Consequently, opposition to imperialism was once again reduced to simply opposing U.S. imperialism and not imperialism as an outgrowth of capitalism.

Genuine international socialist solidarity requires creating a dialogue and actual connections with struggles against capitalism, racism, sexism and heterosexism in other countries and not only opposing the imperialist actions of one’s own government.  In the case of Iran, a country which is simultaneously subjected to imperialist sanctions/war threats and engages in imperialist intervention in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, it becomes even more important for international solidarity to be based on opposing all imperialist powers and creating a dialogue between the struggles of the oppressed in each country.

Finally, genuine international solidarity on socialist humanist foundations demands that socialists discuss the content of an affirmative humanist alternative to capitalism, patriarchy and racism.

Hopefully, socialist activists who read Hensman’s book and identify with its critique of pseudo-anti-imperialism, will come together around such a discussion.

Frieda Afary

August 28, 2018

Originally published by Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists on September 10, 2018.

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