Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism is a 2018 Book by Rohini Hensman

Since the end of the bloc confrontation in 1989/90, the world has become as contradictory and confusing as it basically always was. For – especially well-meaning – people looking for ways and opportunities to do and support what is right, this has created serious problems, or more correctly: updated them and made them even more difficult to avoid.

The activist and publicist Rohini Hensman, who comes from Sri Lanka and lives in India, investigates a central aspect of this problem, namely the stubborn clinging of not a few “leftists”, especially in the Anglophone area, to solidarity with states that supposedly stand for socialism and at least for the fight against imperialism.

Anyone who has long wondered why people, despite the upheavals not only in political rhetoric, but also in economic structures and not least in social policy, their former solidarity with the Soviet Union – so problematic for many observers, especially on the left may have been – transferred straight to the Putin regime, which is openly pursuing nationalist goals, will read this book with interest and in the hope of enlightenment.

Hensman places the problem of “pseudo-anti-imperialism” at the center of detailed accounts of the conflict between Ukraine and Crimea, the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the Kosovo war, the dynamics of the Iranian revolution and the subsequent Islamic republic, Iraq since the rise of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein and finally the Syrian conflict.

Her analysis of Iran begins as follows:

Back to 1979, Iranian Stalinists supported Khomeini because of his anti-imperialist rhetoric; but, having consolidated his power with their support, his regime proceeded to slaughter them, along with all dissidents. Since then, pseudo-anti-imperialists’ support for the Islamic state of Iran goes well beyond objecting to threats of military attacks on Iran or to sanctions against the country which hurt ordinary citizens, which should certainly be condemned. In many cases it extends to implicit support for everything the regime does, including its attempts to export its right-wing jihadi project. The rationale is simple: Iran is opposed to the US, therefore supporting the theocratic regime constitutes ‘anti-imperialism’. However, this position denies international solidarity to Iranians opposing Iranian imperialism and struggling for democratic rights and freedoms.

There is almost universal agreement on referring to the upheaval that resulted in the overthrow of Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 as an ‘Islamic revolution’, but in fact it was nothing of the sort. On September 4, 1978, several hundred thousand people demonstrated in Tehran at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. This was a peaceful demonstration in which the crowds, many of them women, appealed to the armed forces not to oppose them. Some called for the restoration of the constitution, and some for a republic. […]

A ban on further marches was then imposed, but on 7 September, the following Thursday, a similar demonstration took place in which an estimated 300,000 people took part. They defied the mollahs’ appeals to stay at home and marched through central Tehran from morning to night. Again, appeals were made to the army. This proved too much for the régime, and on the morning of Friday, 8 September, martial law was declared in Tehran and eleven other cities. Troops clashed with demonstrators in Tehran’s Jaleh Square, and … up to three thousand people were killed.

The bulk of the demonstrators consisted of ‘the urban poor, the people who had come to the cities and had experienced the rough face of the oil boom, enduring food shortages and inflation and paying up to 70 per cent of their income on rent … They were joined in their protests by the merchants of the bazaar, who were traditionally close to the mosque and who had felt their position threatened by the pattern of capitalist development in Iran’ (Halliday 1979, 298). Oil workers, critical to the Iranian economy and foreign exchange earnings, went on strike in October; their demands included ending martial law, the release of political prisoners, and nationalisation of the oil industry.

At the forefront of the uprising were writers, lawyers and opposition politicians demanding the restoration of civil and constitutional liberties. Among these was the new avatar of Mossadegh’s National Front, which in August 1978 issued a twelve-point programme that included a demand for the dissolution of SAVAK (the dreaded secret police), the release of political prisoners, the right of political exiles to return, and the rights to freedom of expression and to form trade unions (Halliday 1979, 296). The religious leaders were split between those like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who advocated an Islamic state, and liberals like Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, who had saved Khomeini’s life by designating him a ‘marja’ (source of emulation) when the shah was about to execute him in 1963 (the constitution did not allow the execution of marjas), but who now demanded a return to constitutional rule.

Some sections of the left, which had faced extreme repression, also began to resurface. The Moscow-linked Tudeh Party and two guerrilla organisations – the People’s Mujahedin (Mojahedin-e Khalq), an Islamic Marxist group, and People’s Fedayeen (Fedayeen-e Khalq), inspired by Mao and Guevara – distributed their literature in the demonstrations. In addition to these and many smaller groups, including Trotskyists and anarchists, was the Unity of Communist Militants (UCM), formed in 1978 and led by Mansoor Hekmat, who criticised all of them for populism and nationalism, believed that state capitalism prevailed in the Soviet Union, and wished to go back to the theory and politics of Marx and Lenin.

This widely disparate coalition, united only by their opposition to the shah, disintegrated as soon as his regime started tottering. Most damagingly, not only did left groups compete with each other and liberal nationalists compete on the basis of personal rivalries, but the Tudeh Party aligned itself with Khomeini against the liberal democrats. A majority faction of the Fedayeen did likewise, while a minority faction, as well as the Mujahedin and smaller left groups, opposed the Islamists.

Why did the Moscow-affiliated Tudeh Party support an Islamist theocrat and oppose liberal democrats? Maziar Behrooz (1999, 137) explains that ‘to some, like the Tudeh and the Fadaiyan Majority, the fact that the [Islamic Republic of Iran] was politically independent and that it (particularly its clerical wing) was often hostile to Western governments, political systems and cultural values, meant that the new state was anti-imperialist and able to pursue a course which might ultimately bring it into the Soviet camp’. They were not deterred by the fact that the theocracy’s definition of ‘anti-imperialism’ simply meant support for an Islamic Iran, and included a commitment to stamp out socialism and Marxism. Support for the Islamic government by some Marxist groups, even after it had turned on the left with a programme of systematic repression, continued up until 1987. As Ali Rahnema and Farhad Nomani (1990, 5) argue, ‘The left’s support facilitated the régime’s campaign against democratic rights and freedoms at home. The left’s lack of theoretical analysis not only played into the hands of the clerical leadership, but provided it with a breathing space to prepare for the eventual liquidation of the left itself’.

In late December 1978, with strikes and street protests paralysing the country, the shah invited Shapour Bakhtiar to form a government. Bakhtiar had held the post of deputy labour minister in the Mossadegh government until it was ousted by the coup, and he spent almost six of the following twenty-five years in jail for activities such as printing anti-regime publications, supporting opposition candidates in elections, and campaigning for secularism and democracy as a member of Mossadegh’s Iran Party and the National Front, of which it was a part. In June 1977, along with fellow National Front leaders Karim Sanjabi and Dariush Forouhar, Bakhtiar released an open letter to the shah demanding an end to despotism and the restoration of rights as mandated by Iran’s constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this was one of the sparks that ignited the revolution. However, he advocated keeping the shah as nominal head of state until a plebiscite had been held on what form the new government should take, leaving open the possibility of a constitutional monarchy. In 1978, he strongly opposed moves to align with Khomeini, at that time in exile near Paris; he is reported to have said that from the cracking of the clergy’s sandals, he heard the sounds of fascism.

If you are a true internationalist you should support struggles against capitalism and authoritarianism wherever they occur in the world. Maybe you have more leverage to support struggles against your own state, but regardless of that you should do your best at least to speak out against oppression.

In a interview, Rohini Hensman explained that she came from an anti-imperialist family in Sri Lanka:

Both my parents were committed anti-imperialists, and they tracked liberation struggles around the world. I grew up in that atmosphere. But that was part of a general support for democracy and against authoritarianism, wherever it came up, including in Sri Lanka itself. So I associated anti-imperialism with anti-authoritarianism and pro-democracy ideas. This is one reason I was so appalled at what was happening after the Syrian revolution.

As a feminist too, I find support for these regimes quite obnoxious. All of them are extremely patriarchal and misogynist—horrific treatment of women, including women political prisoners; torture and rape used as a weapon of war. There was a previous episode which I found equally horrendous, which was the Bosnian genocide. Then, too, there was a section of the left—including some mainstream people like Edward Herman, who was Chomsky’s associate and coworker—coming out very strongly in support of the Serb nationalists. Think of the horrific things: an actual genocide happening that included mass rape; rape camps (something that hadn’t been reported before) as a way to commit genocide that has not even been addressed today. There are victims who are still waiting for some kind of acknowledgment of their experience. So as a feminist I find it really hard to take, this support for these regimes. Both as a long-time anti-imperialist and as a feminist, I find it quite repellent, really, these tendencies.

There is also orientalism. I would go so far as to call it racism. Imagine, there are these huge masses of people coming out in peaceful protest, and you say that they are being manipulated either by Islamists or by imperialists; you don’t give them the benefit of recognizing them as people who want democracy, just like you. No, they’re different. And yes, we find it even among our people, “Third World” people—I find it in India too, this writing off of uprisings as either Islamist or imperialist or both.

Earlier on at least, India was a staunch supporter of Palestine. Many on the left still support Palestine. Part of the problem is that they have followed discourse around the “axis of resistance” and therefore feel that those who claim to be part of the axis of resistance, such as Assad or Khamenei, have to be supported. For one section of the left, that is their motivation for supporting these people. Again, this is crazy, because Assad has actually bombed Palestinians in Syria. There are Palestinian political prisoners in Syria. The fact that he’s doing it to Syrians surely should move one to think: is he really pro-Palestinian if he crushes a democratic uprising this way? Is he supporting democracy?

That is one motivation. Another is a failure to identify with and empathize. In India there is a situation where ethnoreligious minorities, women, workers, the rural poor, and dissidents of all kinds including journalists, intellectuals, academics, human rights defenders—all are being suppressed in various ways. There is a similar situation in Syria, and one would expect that people who are facing this kind of situation in our country would sympathize with and identify with people who are being subjected to the same kinds of oppression elsewhere. But again racism comes in the way. They claim to be opposed to US imperialism; they claim to be against Israeli oppression; therefore you must support the oppressors, not the people rising up against them.

This is very weird, really. That’s why one feels so terrible about what happened in Syria: they are people like us who are being crushed. That’s what I would expect anyone on the left to feel.



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