Rohini Hensman’s book is a welcome intervention into debates on the international socialist left.
Above all it is a damning indictment of the state of those broad sections of the left, especially in Britain, who have embraced a negative, anti-Western, anti-US, “pseudo-anti-imperialism” — a politics that is also effectively pro-imperialist (of Russia, China, Iran), anti-democratic, anti-liberatory and ultimately anti-working class.
The central locus of the book is the conflict in Syria, where much of the left has been utterly wretched. But Hensman probes deeper, criticising the Russian and Iranian states that oppress their own peoples as well as standing behind Assad. She spares no blows against the Serb imperialists (and Croatian nationalists) who oppressed Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims, nor the Islamist forces that have divided Iraq. She makes some useful asides on the conflict with Gaddafi in Libya (where she backs Gilbert Achcar’s position of not opposing NATO intervention) as well as critical comments on Brexit and in favour of free movement. This is all refreshingly honest and consistent.
The first virtue of Hensman’s book is its straightforward retelling of the course of recent wars, its humane sympathy for the oppressed affected while damning the governments and forces involved in those conflicts.
In the long penultimate chapter on Syria, Hensman outlines the seven-year civil war in Syria, as one of the most devastating conflicts in recent history. Over 10 million people (half the population) have been displaced, with perhaps four million refugees. Probably half a million people have been killed and two million others wounded, including through gas attacks, barrel bombs, extra-judicial shootings, beheadings and other bestial acts of cruelty.
At the centre of this civil war is the Baathist totalitarian rule of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency in 2000. A military-Bonapartist state, bound by family and sectarian ties, broaches no political freedoms, no free trade unions and savage repression. As part of the Arab Spring, on 17 February 2011 demonstrations rallied in Damascus and elsewhere. The regime responded by releasing key Salafist leaders from prison, then conspiring with those forces to suppress the democratic opposition.
This set the stage for a bitter civil war between Assad’s state (backed by its allies in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah), against various stripes of Islamist armies (such as ISIS and al-Nusra) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA, backed by the US).
Hensman makes a strong case for the symbiotic relationship between the Assad regime and ISIS, including open collaboration between their forces both against the FSA and in economic matters such as the Tuweinan gas facility, Deir Ezzor airport and in Aleppo. ISIS funding came mostly from within Syria (not from outside). The juxtaposition of “Assad or the terrorists” is false on two counts: Assad’s regime terrorises the Syrian people with atrocities on a par with ISIS (such as chemical weapons attacks in August 2013 and November 2016); and the regime was in alliance with ISIS for much of the war.
The book shows the extent of outside military intervention in support of Assad. Hezbollah backed the regime from the beginning, while Iran’s IRGC Quds Force was involved from the first year, training fighters inside Iran, Syria and Lebanon. The Assad regime was close to falling in July 2015 when Russia actively increased its support with airstrikes.
Hensman is politically sharp on the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PYD’s model of democratic self-government in Rojava may have gained widespread acclaim, but these experiments took place within the context of a deal brokered by Putin between Assad and the PYD to attack ISIS and the FSA.
Hensman is equally critical of the US, France, Germany and Britain, from their token call for Assad to go and their lukewarm backing of the FSA. She rightly denounces the role of the UN for complicity with Assad’s war crimes. The book champions the resilience of civil society organisations in Syria last year, backed by others in exile such as the Alliance of Middle-East Socialists.
Hensman explains well the roots of the reactionary, imperialist role of various other protagonists who intervened in Syria.
For example how Putin’s brutal wars in Chechnya and later in Ukraine set the copybook for Russia’s support for Assad. The book outlines the terrible role of Serb imperialism in the genocide in Bosnia and later in the attempted ethnic-cleansing of Kosovo. Hensman shows how the Dayton accords froze ethnic sectarianism, while UN forces facilitated the killing of Muslims by Serb and Croat militias.
The book describes the reactionary role played by Khomeini’s regime in Iran drawing out its reactionary stance against women, including legal dress codes, forced marriage, stoning, rape, torture and harassment. Hensman attacks the brutal Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and highlights the emergence of workers’ and women’s organisations in Iraq after he was toppled by US-UK forces in 2003.
Hensman also never loses sight of the US, UK, German, French and other big powers as enemies of the working class in their own countries and everywhere. But she rejects the widely held left view that the reactionary nature of the big powers, mandates silence on other enemies of workers and the oppressed, notably the governments of Russia, Serbia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Hensman tackles the issue of Muslim political activity sensitively — she cannot be accused of Islamophobia. She helpfully distinguishes four categories of Muslim politics: Muslim religious believers who are for secular states; Muslim fundamentalists (‘Salifists’) who want to live in a secular state; political Islamists who want to establish an Islamic state through elections; and political Islamists who want to establish an Islamic state through violence. This seems to be a useful framework for analysing similarities and differences of a range of forces, including Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The really powerful element in this book is the way Hensman skewers the pretentious “pseudo-anti-imperialism” that so damages much of the global left. Readers of Solidarity will enjoy her take-down of so-called left journalists such as Seamus Milne, John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and others. Henman highlights where the organised left has embraced reactionaries in modern conflicts.
• The support of Stalinists and some Trotskyists for Khomeini’s regime in Iran and his subsequent war with Iraq (such as the British SWP in 1987).
• Support for Saddam Hussein against the US-led coalition after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
• The SWP’s evenhanded treatment of nationalities in the former Yugoslavia, failing to recognise the oppression faced by Bosnians and Kosovars and their right to seek arms to fight back in the 1990s.
• The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) refusal to criticise Saddam Hussein in the 2003 war and its subsequent backing for Sunni and Shia militias (particularly al-Sadr), even when they were repressing workers, women and students.
• STWC’s veto on any protests against the Tehran regime in 2009, even when there was a popular movement inside Iran requiring solidarity.
• STWC and CND’s “Hands Off Libya” campaign to oppose Western intervention against Gaddafi in 2011.
• STWC’s invitation to Assad apologist Mother Superior Agnes Mariam de la Croix, November 2013.
There are many more.
Hensman sharply identifies the assumptions behind these stances: “a West-centrism which makes them oblivious to the fact that people in other parts of the world have agency too, and that they can exercise it both to oppress others and to fight against oppression; an Orientalism which refuses to acknowledge that Third World peoples can desire and fight for democratic rights and freedoms taken for granted in the West; and a complete lack of solidarity with people who do undertake such struggles.”
I have some criticisms of Hensman’s book. For example, her treatment of Lenin’s book “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” (1916) is superficial.
She claims that Lenin conflated two distinct phases of imperialism: an older striving by the big powers for colonial territory; with a later phase of finance capital, which dominates through loans, credit, trade rules etc. In fact Lenin’s book has deeper flaws. It was more of a popular summary with sharp political conclusions on the war than it was a coherent theoretical work.
However Hensman is right that Lenin’s book is not an adequate assessment of today’s actual conditions, with a different correlation of national states, multinational corporations and finance bodies. She is right to acknowledge Lenin’s contribution to national liberation across the globe his stance of supporting all the oppressed and opposing all oppressors. Lenin was clear that in his day (as in ours) “the real anti-imperialist force” was “the socialist proletariat” and that Marxists “will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism”.
Hensman appears to hold an anarchist-influenced interpretation of the early Russian revolution, making highly critical remarks of the Lenin-Trotsky regime, implying that it paved the way for Stalin. Worse, she seems to subscribe to the characterisation of Stalinist societies as state capitalist, following the position of the British SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff.
This is unconvincing. Cliff described Russia, China, Cuba etc as societies with different dynamics to Western capitalism, but he called them “state capitalism” only as a badge of convenience. Like other state capitalist theories he failed to get to grips with how these states originated, developed and (mostly) disappeared. Hensman’s embrace of Cliff is doubly incoherent because some of the worst perpetrators of “pseudo-anti-imperialism”, notably the SWP and its spin-offs such as Counterfire that run the Stop the War Coalition, still maintain Cliff’s state capitalist analysis.
But these are differences within a shared framework of consistent democracy and working class internationalism. Hensman rightly roots her analysis in the reality of the contemporary world order: “Capitalism is inherently global, and it has become even more so over the past half-century; unless the opposition to it is equally global, capitalism will always win. Globalising the opposition even to neoliberalism, in the first place, requires organising across national borders, which is facilitated by freedom of movement across those borders. Closing borders, as the far right wants to do, only sabotages the struggle against neoliberalism.”
In the last section, Hensman suggests five ways to fight the reactionary tendencies among the “pseudo-anti-imperialist” left: 1. pursuing the truth and telling the truth; 2. bringing morality and humanity back into politics; 3. fighting for democracy; 4. bringing internationalism centre stage; and 5. pushing for global institutions to promote human rights and democracy.
She is right to right to support the conception of international law (particularly when enforced from below by civil society), but is rather too soft on some existing global bodies for my taste. Similarly the demand for morality is fine if it means class lines, but rather less so if is abstract appeals for justice. The best answer to “pseudo-anti-imperialism” is consistent working class politics. As such, we can wholeheartedly agree with her emphasis on internationalism, democracy and telling truth.
To say what is: that is the collective wisdom of the classical Marxist tradition. It is the common conception from Marx and Engels, to Luxemburg to Zetkin, and from Lenin and Trotsky. Assessing reality and drawing political conclusions from this analysis, not from preconceived formulas or recipes.
Hensman does a great service not only in opting for the right methodology, but carrying it through in her analyses of Syria and other conflicts. This is the only way to face down the “pseudo-anti-imperialism” on the left today.