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Articles on the Ukraine Conflict


Response to "Left Internationalism in the Heart of Empire"
By Susie Linfield
Dissent Magazine, June 2022

This essay is a response to Aziz Rana, Left Internationalism in the Heart of Empire.
Rana's article is interesting, though wordy.

I commend Aziz Rana for his intelligent, sober, and humane essay. I do disagree, however, with particular elements of his piece. Even more, I am troubled by what he ignores: omissions that say much—too much—about the failures of today’s democratic left.

Thankfully, Rana mostly resists the Chomskyan temptation to view the United States as the all-powerful, albeit evil, god who controls foreign affairs. (After Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, does anyone believe that the United States controls the world?) But he falls into this trap in his history of the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s rise was not the consequence of U.S. policies; it emerged from internal Russian politics and history—forces that it would behoove us to understand. Russians are responsible for Putin, just as Americans are responsible for Trump. In the past two decades, Russia has waged five wars: Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, Crimea and the Donbas, and Ukraine (again). This ain’t about NATO.

I am surprised that Rana never mentions Iran (or its kapos, Hezbollah) in his discussion of malign imperial forces in the Middle East. On a moral and political level, it’s impossible to discuss “ongoing imperial violence” without including those two major forces of disruption and death.

Which brings me to Syria.

The Syrian Civil War is the greatest catastrophe, crime, and tragedy of the past decade. It is a crisis to which the U.S. (and Western) left—whether Marxist, anti-imperialist, or democratic—had no answers. Or only bad answers. Rana has previously written about the conflict. (I strongly disagree with his U.S.-centric analysis and his dangerously naïve belief that Bashar al-Assad would ever have countenanced “a peaceful and inclusive end” to the war—as do virtually all of the Syrian dissidents whom I’ve read.) In any case, he ignores the issue here. But it’s too soon to forget—especially since Putin’s playbook in Ukraine is a reprise of his Syrian assault.

Syria was an immensely tortuous conflict—and still is. It was not the Spanish Civil War, or Ukraine. My focus now is not on Obama’s paralysis (Rana and I disagree on that) when faced with systemic torture, urban sieges, attacks on schools and hospitals, barrel bombs, chemical warfare—in short, the death of a nation; instead, I address the response of the left.

Which was, in a word, shameful. On one hand, there were those who, bizarrely, mouthed Russian-Syrian propaganda or became apologists for the Assad regime—described by Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh as a “fascistic . . . dynasty of murderers” that transformed the country into “a hopeless slaughterhouse”; this rogue’s gallery included journalists Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and Seymour Hersh. But the democratic left, with a few exceptions, was little better. Perhaps traumatized by Iraq, perhaps embarrassed by U.S. power, didn’t they—we—look away? Didn’t our thunderous silence essentially say that the revolt against tyranny by a brutally subjugated people was none of our concern? But if that is so: what is? “To be honest . . . I do not know what leftists in the West do,” said al-Haj Saleh, an (anti-Soviet) communist who spent sixteen years in the dungeons of Hafez al-Assad. In the case of Syria, I don’t either. A left that lacks the courage to analyze its impotence and ethical betrayals—that has little sense of what “left internationalism” means in practice—has little hope of resuscitating itself, or of being taken seriously, either within our country or throughout the world. How to move into the future without understanding our past?

Finally, the domestic sphere. Two main demands that Rana cites are open borders (“decriminalizing” is a euphemism) and police and prison abolition. These do not constitute—and never will—a mass democratic program. I challenge Rana (or anyone else) to go to a working-class community, white or black, anywhere in this country, and try to organize around such demands. Recent elections in New York City, Minneapolis, and Newark suggest that they will be highly unsuccessful—and for good reason.

This doesn’t mean that the democratic left should take a solely populist stance and support only what “the people” (however defined) want. But a bit of humility—or even genuine curiosity—would be helpful. The democratic left urgently needs to begin listening to our fellow citizens rather than telling them what—in Rana’s confident words—they “should develop.” Listen to what they fear, listen to what they desire, listen to what they dream. Nobody owes us their trust. We have to earn it.

Originally published here. Aziz Rana's reply (also wordy) is available here.


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