It would be easy to live in a world of starkly black and white where the good guys and bad guys were obvious. And if you grew up as an anti-imperialist socialist, then the picture seemed quite bleakly clear: the West was bad and all those fighting against it were merely oppressed reactive actors on a global stage, deserving of sympathy and solidarity.
The likes of North Korea, Russia, Iran, Islamic extremists and others are often treated as lacking in autonomy, characterised simply by their defensive reactions to the perceived aggressions of the neoliberal war-hungry west. This so often seems to be the narrative that now festers on parts of the Left.
There’s no point trying to calculate just how many people on the Left are either apologists for, or sympathetic towards, repressive regimes or extremists, but it’s legitimate to state that it’s a sizeable portion. And it isn’t simply confined to low-ranking street activists grumbling with placards about the supposed American undermining of the Syrian state and society. It reaches high, far and wide within the Left. It surrounds the Labour leadership and its allies, with the likes of Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray, John Pilger, John McDonnell and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn himself, all at some point expressing support for causes that they deem deserving of support because of their stances against America and NATO.
The problem with this worldview is that it creates realities where some atrocities are simply politically inconvenient for the Left in the West to talk about. Other acts of imperialism and oppression are rationally explained because they are initiated by actors who hold agendas opposed to the west. The current situations in North Korea and Iran are examples of this, where the Left continuously absolves these deeply regressive states of any responsibility for their actions, under the insistence that they are nudged into deep authoritarianism by the west.
Here, the Left shows solidarity not with the oppressed people of these states – as the Left should – but rather the state machines oppressing them. Consider the outrage the Left holds, rightly, for Saudi Arabia. What is so ideologically and practically different about Iran? Both are theocracies, but one is spared any outrage because it’s usually very critical of the west and is the state for a Muslim minority. North Korea is a state of utter barbarism, where dissent is brutally silenced and people have to project superficial patriotism and love for a state led by a delusional tyrant. Why is the suffering of these people left to deaf ears?
The most harrowing example of the Left abdicating internationalism and defending truly terrible regimes is Syria. Since 2011, the country has been embroiled in a civil war that quickly became a state-sanctioned genocide against the masses, backed of course by Russia – the great freedom-defending, anti-imperialist sentinel of the minorities. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, cities torched and left in ashes, people tortured – yet these Syrians have never received a march of solidarity from groups such as Stop the War, who in fact have pushed in support often of Assad and Putin.
And when criticisms of the atrocities are made, outrageous false equivalencies are offered, where the supposed western arming of rebels and the bombing of some sites can seriously be compared to the war crimes of Assad and Putin. More chillingly, many on the Left push for the Syrians uniting behind Assad – albeit temporarily – to defeat ISIS. Never mind the fact that most Syrian recruits to ISIS do so to fight against Assad. The message here is that the Syrian people should accept a murderous fascist dictator as their leader and not revolt. The same Left who believe Theresa May has no mandate for leadership because she was chosen and not elected, believe that genocide and ethnic cleansing are still not enough to disqualify Assad as state leader.
Here, the actions of Russia are continuously ignored too. The country has long since been revered as the bastion of Socialism, despite perverting the ideology throughout its history with endless massacres and waging atrocities of their own. But they are always either defended or apologised for, because they are seen as the counterpoint to the capitalist USA. It means that Labour frontbenchers like Richard Burgon and other members on the left will gladly appear on channels like RT, supposedly regarding it as the anti-establishment news, ignoring the fact that it is merely the propaganda arm of another imperialist state who appropriate their criticisms of the west for their own agendas. The same applies with Iran and Press TV, where Jeremy Corbyn was infamously paid to appear on. Can you imagine the uproar if Theresa May spoke on Fox News or the Saudi state channel?
The issue here is that many of these lefties believe that the dignity of the state and their rights to sovereignty cannot be threatened by the West and must be respected regardless of what happens, and so often at the expense of human rights. It’s why interventions are frowned upon, possibly as part of some sort of postcolonial guilt, and possibly because they don’t want to play into what Edward Said referred to as ‘orientalism’ where the other side are portrayed as entirely bad. The difference here is that no-one is dismissing North Koreans, Iranians and Russians as people in being bad. But their states are repressive actors, deeply totalitarian and dismissive of any genuine social and progressive change. Where the risk of the dehumanised “other” actually exists is with Muslims, whom the far-right paint as completely alien. Naturally, here the Left defend them (though the same Left resort to Islamophobic slurs when portraying all Syrian rebels as terrorists).
Nor should criticisms of these regimes become catalysts for wars. No-one wants to wage wars with Russia or North Korea or Iran. But fear of war should not become silence when human rights are routinely exploited. To simply excuse these acts and insist that the oppressed people are content with dictatorships is a deeply offensive slur, a bigotry or low expectations where it’s a given that brown people are passive against dictatorships and have no agency of their own. As we saw with the Arab Spring, this is just not true.
So, stop appearing on RT or Press TV, stop holding your tongues over atrocities and dictatorships simply because you can’t work it into a criticism against USA and UK. Western imperialism exists, and has greatly undermined and damaged the Middle East, but that same region has been mercilessly exploited by Russian imperialism. It’s been ravaged by Iran as much as it has by Saudi Arabia. And sometimes we have to accept that not every revolution is a CIA plot, or that not every dictator acts how they do because they were instructed to do so in a secret phone call from the US President. The world is not neatly drawn into lines of western imperialists and everyone else. It’s messy, ugly and far more complicated than we have imagined it to be.