Dissident voices of the international left

Submitted by AWL on 14 August, 2019 - 9:10

In Dissidents of the International Left, Andy Heintz’s first book, he interviews 77 figures from across the international left - many of them, especially those from the global South, notable “dissidents” from what is taken in the USA and Europe to be left “orthodoxy”.

Many of them have not had much hearing in English language publications, though several have been interviewed by or spoken to Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty: Yanar Mohammed, Maryam Namazie, Houzan Mahmoud, Pragna Patel, Marieme Helie Lucas...

Andy Heintz talked with Stephen Wood from Solidarity about his book. Heintz is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Wire, The New Internationalist, Common Dreams, Europe Solidaire, Muftah, Foreign Policy in Focus, CounterVortex, Balkan Witness and Secularism is a Women’s Issue.

The book covers a very broad range of people. How did you go about getting your list together and doing the interviews?

Before I started the book, I didn’t know that many of the people either. I had interviewed some of them for different publications and in a lot of cases I knew who I would like to interview and then I was able to find more people by asking others. I wanted a broad range and it was important to have people from different places and not just Europe and the US.

There is a marked difference between the kind of interviewees in the US and Europe and those in South America, Asia and Africa.

I knew much less about a lot of the activists in those places, so I wanted to give an idea about what is happening there and also show that there are dissidents across these places, and they do not necessarily reflect the views ascribed to them from afar. Showing that there are left wing dissenters in South America is particularly important. Not every critic of Chavismo or Ortega is doing it in order to back US interests in South America. It’s important also to have people realise that feminist activists in Africa and Asia have found the view of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch inconsistent when it comes to non-state actors.

Noam Chomsky is probably the most well-known figure you interviewed.

I have read many of Chomsky’s books and I agree with him on many issues, while differing with him on some positions he has taken. I think Chomsky done a solid job throughout his career of illuminating how US government involvement or outright complicity in war crimes or genocide (Vietnam, East Timor, Cambodia, Turkey, Indonesia, Iraq, El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, etc.) is covered differently than crimes committed by countries that are considered hostile to the United States.

For example, when George W. Bush declared a war on terrorism and declared that you are either with the US government or with the terrorists, it should have been self-evident to the legacy media that, by the US government’s own definition, it has been involved in supporting terrorists in places like Nicaragua, Angola, Haiti and Cuba during the Cold War and the War on Terror.

Yet that falls outside the spectrum of opinion that is usually featured in the mainstream media. Chomsky has been an important alternative voice when it comes to pointing out these double standards.

However, I also wanted to interview him because we differ on the Balkan wars or the Syrian conflict.

You focus largely on Yugoslavia and his views on Srebrenica. Probably a lot of people forget that Chomsky got that quite so wrong. He seems irritated by the questions.

I wanted to ask Chomsky questions about his views on the Balkan Wars because we differ on Bosnia. I felt at the time of the interview, and still feel, the US should have intervened earlier to prevent not only the genocide in Srebrenica, but the also the Serbs’ genocidal behaviour throughout the country, including the hideous murders and rapes happening in Omarska, Keraterm and Trnoploge.

I read Diana Johnstone’s book, but I found it to be too pro-Serb, which was why I didn’t end up finishing the book. I think that it’s important to recognise the meticulous and rigorous work by the International Commission for Missing Persons, which found that 8,100 men and boys were murdered in cold blood in Srebrenica.

I also think Chomsky is correct that similar hideous crimes committed by the US and its allies have not in the past and will not in the future – barring some welcome changes in the global system – be given the same resources and coverage to conduct such an admirable and rigorous an investigation as was conducted by the ICMP.

I think Srebrenica was correctly labelled a genocide. Chomsky also refused to label other crimes committed by US allies, such as the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the massacres in El Salvador, or Turkey’s killings and expulsions of the Kurds as genocides. I think Chomsky, whether you agree with him or not, tends to consistently not use the term genocide because he believes it’s been overly politicised.

While the answers Chomsky provided cleared up some questions I had, it didn’t change my general differences with him over what the US role should have been during the Balkan conflicts. Studying the Balkans helped me to rethink some of my ideas about US intervention and American exceptionalism.

Even though I differ from Workers’ Liberty in that I was opposed to the form NATO intervention took in Kosova, I do believe decisive intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s could have helped prevent Srebrenica and other horrors. I agree with Workers’ Liberty – although this wasn’t always my view – that some form of NATO intervention was warranted in Kosova. While I opposed the bombing of Serbia and the lack of NATO troops on the ground to protect Kosovars, I think a mixture of troops on the ground with a greenlight to protect Kosovars from Serb violence coupled with diplomacy would have warranted support.

Bill Weinberg, whom I share a lot of similar views writes in his section about the non-violent resistance being led by Ibrahim Rugova that was sidelined and ignored.

Later in the book I interview Ed Vulliamy who is one of the reporters who, Chomsky said – according to an interview in the Guardian (which Noam claimed mischaracterised his views) – “happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true”. If that was a correct characterisation of what Chomsky said – and only Chomsky and the interviewer Emma Brockes really know, and they perhaps perceived the interview differently) – then I disagree with Noam.

I thought Ed’s coverage of the Balkan Wars was accurate, compassionate, chilling and heartbreaking at the same time. I appreciated that Ed went out of his way to humanise a group of people whom Milosevic and other hardliners were trying to dehumanise and otherise.

The interviewees cover quite a wide spectrum of opinion: socialists, self-declared anarchists as well as liberal thinkers, NGO workers and activists. But I found the inclusion of Glenn Greenwald perplexing. Glenn Greenwald may be best known for helping to expose the leaked information from Edward Snowden about the work of the NSA. But in more recent years his journalism has been used to apologise for the Assad regime and to try and downplay the role that Russia has played in Syria. He seems to be absolutely an “American exceptionalist”, and a fairly poisonous one.

I don’t think that is fair. I don’t agree with Glenn on everything and we have had very different positions on some issues like Syria. Glenn was against further US intervention, while I thought the Obama administration should have provided Syrian rebels with more anti-aircraft weaponry before Iran and Russia decisively intervened on Assad’s behalf. I think this may have been enough to get Assad overthrown.

My general position on this issue was influenced by talking with Robin Yassin-Kassab and Yassin al-Haj Saleh and reading both men’s excellent books about the Syrian conflict.

I think Glenn has provided some useful criticism of the reporting on Trump’s relationship with Russia. Some of his criticism echoed that of anti-Putin expert Masha Gessen. I think Glenn at times underestimated the importance of some aspects of the Mueller Report, but he also asked some legitimate questions that cast serious doubt on the narrative that Donald Trump was a Russian asset.

I wish he could have been featured more on outlets like MSNBC so he could have challenged the “Russian puppet” narrative. I think the FBI and the legacy media assumed Trump’s refused to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 elections because he was loyal to Putin for some mysterious reason.

I honestly think the real reason is less James Bond-esque. I think Trump is an amoral figure who will use any nefarious person – whether foreign or domestic – if that person can help him get what he wants.

I also think a lot of his refusal to acknowledge the interference is because Trump is so emotionally fragile and self-absorbed that he believes acknowledging the reality that the Russians intervened in the elections to help him win would make his victory seem less legitimate;, therefore he ignores it.

That may well be true. But Greenwald’s downplaying of Russia is not to highlight hypocrisy but to act as an apologist for Russian bombing in Syria and to talk only of possible US aggression against what he considers the legitimate leadership of the Syrian people. In Britain the Stop the War Coalition demonstrated several times against the bombing or proposed bombing of Syria, by which they meant, US and UK intervention. They were silent on Russia. There is a growing trend for Russian imperialist apologism and ideas that originate in the far right and among advocates of Greater Russia being pushed in the labour movement and left here. That is the role that Greenwald helps to play.

I don’t disagree with what you say about organisations like the Stop the War Coalition and the same would apply to groups like ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). We have similar supposedly left-wing people in the United States who opposed the war in Iraq yet say nothing about Putin and Assad’s massive crimes against humanity in Syria. Meredith Tax refers to this type of selective empathy and outrage as imperial narcissism. It’s a kind of inverted form of American exceptionalism.

However, I don’t think its accurate to lump Greenwald in with this group. If you read his past interviews on Democracy Now, he has acknowledged Assad is primarily responsible for the crimes in Syria, which for me separates him from those openly supporting Assad and Putin. I think it’s also important to remember that Greenwald lives in Brazil and now faces attacks as a journalist by President Bolsonaro along with death threats directed at him and his family for his critical reporting of the president and other political figures in Brazil.

The growing convergence between some views on the far right and an isolationist and nationalist left is something we should guard against, but I just don’t think Greenwald falls neatly into this category.

What do you think about the varying views on military intervention in support of the Kurds?

I support the right of the Kurds, the PYD and YPG. in fighting against Daesh and for autonomy. I think it was probably inconceivable that they would ever be given the heavy weaponry they would have needed to be able to take on Turkey, or the regime if it had chosen to crush them.

I supported their right to take up arms so they could defend themselves against one of the most reactionary, fanatical and misogynistic forces in the world.

I think support for the Kurds has been another issue in which the left has started to re-examine its old slogans and think more carefully about what it would mean to call for, or at least not outright oppose, intervention by Western powers, particularly the US.

Several of your interviewees, particularly Bill Weinberg and Meredith Tax, are prominent supporters of what is going on Rojava (the “canton” controlled by the PYD in Northern Syria). Through your questions you provided a relatively nuanced position, recognising both the rights of Kurds to self-determination while remaining critical of some of the conduct of the forces on the ground. In Britain we often get an uncritical championing of the project based on ideas that the PYD have fully embraced the so-called “democratic confederalism” of Murray Bookchin, or that they deserve uncritical support as a continuation of the guerilla tactics of the PKK.

I think Bill and Meredith’s support has been admirably nuanced. Bill has championed the democratic Syrian rebels as well. This is very clearly not a black and white issue.

Can a movement founded as Maoist guerillas and with a very prominent figurehead in Ocalan be won over in mass to the theory of Murray Bookchin? I think time will tell about that. I genuinely feel there are progressive forces in the movement fighting for women’s rights and a multi-ethnic society, and I didn’t feel comfortable criticising them when they were facing an existential threat from Daesh and Turkey.

In the same vein, I felt uncomfortable criticising the Syrian rebels when some groups fought alongside extremist factions against Assad, because I don’t think it’s fair to judge people fighting for their survival.

Is it right to just lump the PKK and the PYD/YPG together as the same movement? I don’t think so. Certainly, a lot of people are inspired by Rojava, particularly in some anarchist and feminist circles. And there are conflicting reports regarding political repression, arrests and so on. The Amnesty report which accused the PYD of detention without trial and discrimination against non-Kurdish forces was then contradicted by the UN.

I do not take an uncritical view, but I am broadly supportive of the movement’s experiments with democratic confederalism along with its embrace of gender equality.

Who is the book aimed at and what do you hope people get from the interviews? How has the response been so far?

I want as many people as possible to read it! I think that it is a good tool for people from a variety of perspectives and hopefully goes some way to providing the start of greater dialogue among the left and talking about the way forward. I think it is increasingly important now to build a healthier left and at least debate our differences.

So far the book has been well received and I hope it starts more conversations and goes some way towards informing people about the different dissident left voices across the world.

It is by no means a perfect book, but I’m honoured by the voices in it and the people who helped make it possible.

Note on AWL and Kosova

Workers’ Liberty did not call for NATO to bomb Serbia in the Kosova war in 1999.

We criticised and refused to join the “Stop The War” marches which said “stop bombing”, but that is not the same thing.
We explained here that: “NATO’s policy... is to ‘cool down’ the region (which in the short term even led them to war). In the process NATO - to a limited extent and for their own reasons - helped the Kosovars.

“That imperialist governments sometimes help the enemies of their enemies should come as no surprise to socialists. During the first world war, for example, the German imperialists attempted to send guns to Irish rebels; Lenin was helped to get back to Russia...

“Should German workers have prevented the shipment of guns to the Irish? or attempted to halt Lenin’s ‘sealed train’? Of course not – and, likewise, socialists should not have protested at any help NATO happened to give the Kosovars”.

Some on the left, such as Red Pepper, opposed the NATO bombing in the name of calling for NATO ground troops against Serbia in Kosova.

We dissented from that view on the grounds that it is neither realistic nor principled for us to seek to give military advice to NATO.

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