Rohini Hensman is a Sri Lankan scholar-activist who has long been involved in the labor, feminist, and anti-imperialist movements. Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker interviewed her by email about her recent book, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism.
Could you say a few words about your background and how it has informed your criticism of apologists for authoritarianism and imperialism?
I was born in Sri Lanka, and my parents were socialists who were ardent anti-imperialists. My father was extremely
knowledgeable about anti-imperialist struggles going on all over the world, and both my parents believed it was important to support them. But this was part of an outlook that always supported the oppressed and opposed authoritarianism. For example, my mother stood up for the rights of women and girls, although it was only much later that she called herself a feminist. Both my parents opposed Sinhala nationalism as well as Tamil nationalism (which were extremely authoritarian) and supported workers’ rights. Although they were great admirers of the Chinese revolution, they were also anti-Stalinists, perhaps because Trotskyism was stronger than Stalinism on the Sri Lankan Left. So I grew up critical of both Western imperialism and Stalinism. Later on, as I became independently self-identified as a Marxist and feminist, I became more critical of Maoism than my parents had been. But much of what I learned from them shapes my politics today—for example, that socialists need to confront all imperialisms and not just Western imperialism, and that authoritarian regimes in non-Western countries must be opposed.
You steep your analysis in a long theoretical tradition of anti-imperialist thought. What does this tradition offer us in understanding and responding to ostensibly left-wing apologists for non-Western imperialism?
I mainly draw on Marxist analyses of imperialism in arriving at my own positions. Although Lenin conflated two stages of capitalism when he wrote that finance capital was an integral element of imperialism, I think he was correct when he insisted on the right of Russian colonies to national liberation even after the Russian revolution. He spent the last years of his life in a bitter confrontation with Stalin on this issue, and once he died, Stalin went ahead with his plan to reduce the former colonies of Tsarist Russia, including Georgia and Ukraine, to the status of colonies in the Soviet Union. I see Russia as the most important example of non-Western imperialism, and it’s astonishing to me that people who claim to be Marxists and Leninists completely ignore Lenin’s scathing criticisms of Great Russian chauvinism in post-revolutionary Russia, a chauvinism that assumes Russia has a divine right to dominate the colonies it inherited from tsarism and even move beyond them. This imperialistic nationalism is alive and well in Putin’s Russia. In my view, those who claim to be anti-imperialists but support Russian imperialism and the despotic regimes it sponsors are pseudo-anti-imperialists.
The first time this struck me was when the Arab uprisings started, and I noticed that a section of the Left lumped together the attack on Iraq by U.S.-U.K. imperialism with the uprisings in Libya and Syria, falsely claiming that the uprisings were simply examples of imperialist intervention. This happened despite the fact that we saw huge crowds on television chanting, “The people want the downfall of the regime!” But to this section of the Left, apparently, the peoples of these countries are too backward to fight against an oppressive dictatorship or to want democracy, and those massive crowds simply showed that they were fools being manipulated by Western imperialism and Islamist fundamentalism. This attitude also extends to East European peoples, as in the case of the Maidan movement in Ukraine. In both Syria and Ukraine, they condemned popular uprisings as imperialist interventions but had no objections to the intervention of Russian imperialism to crush the uprisings. What is this if not racism?
I believe that the failure to show any solidarity with these peoples fighting against authoritarianism and imperialism shows a patronizing or even contemptuous attitude to them. The unspoken assumption behind the position that, “We will support you only if you are fighting against Western imperialism,” is that, “The struggles of non-Western peoples are of no importance unless they are opposing our enemies, our states.” There is no feeling that they are part of our own struggle.
What do you think motivates the apologists for authoritarian and imperialist regimes who claim to be on the Left?
I think in some cases it is simply ignorance about what is happening combined with the ways in which these regimes make sophisticated media and social media interventions to propagate their own narrative. In other cases, these apologists are neo-Stalinists who are still stuck in the view that Russia can do no wrong, even though Putin has abandoned all pretense of having any affiliation to Marxism or Leninism and openly aligns himself with the far Right in Russia and around the world.
This section of the Left influences a circle that is much wider than that of old-time Stalinists. Many people who have been involved in opposing Israeli war crimes in Palestine and U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have the attitude that Western imperialism is the main enemy, fall prey to neo-Stalinist propaganda. And I do believe that a few of these neo-Stalinists receive something in return for propagating the half-truths and outright lies of the authoritarian and imperialist regimes they serve.
It seems that this support for authoritarianism leads to a blurring of the line between Left and Right. Do you think this is the case? Is there reason to see this as part of a left-wing authoritarianism that finds affinities with the Right on the issue of imperialism?
Look at the people and parties that admire Bashar al-Assad or have visited him: former KKK leader David Duke, the white supremacists demonstrating at Charlottesville, British National Party leader Nick Griffin, Greek fascists of Golden Dawn, the French National Front, the Belgian Vlaams Belang—all of them are neo-fascists who see their own politics reflected in Assad’s ruthless totalitarian regime. Yet at the same time you find people who are seen to be on the Left, figures like Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, David North and Alex Lantier of the World Socialist Web Site, and Max Blumenthal supporting Assad by spreading his propaganda. You find the same convergence between the extreme Right and people seen to be on the Left like John Pilger supporting Putin’s imperialist annexation of Crimea.
I believe that this section of the Left does not understand that democracy is a precondition of socialism. Thus, anti-democratic counter-revolutions like those carried out by Assad and his allies in Syria and Putin in Ukraine constitute a setback for any prospect of socialism.
How do we combat this tendency?
There are many ways, but I’ll mention just three. The first is to pursue the truth by subjecting everything you hear or read to critical scrutiny, whether it comes from mainstream Western media or sources that are critical of Western media. The second is to understand that democracy is not a gift of the bourgeoisie but something that is fought for and won by working people, that it is an essential step on the road to socialism, and we must do everything in our power to defend and promote it. And the third is that socialism in one country is a pipedream, because capitalism is global. In every country, our own fate depends on the success of anti-authoritarian and anticapitalist struggles in other countries, and therefore international solidarity is a must for all socialists.