Response to "Left Internationalism in the Heart of
By Susie Linfield
Dissent Magazine, June 2022
This essay is a response to Aziz
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
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.
brings me to Syria.
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.
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
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?
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.
here. Aziz Rana's reply (also wordy) is available