Anti-Imperialist “Support” and Responsibility
“You're playing into the hands of imperialism! We need to support Iran against the USA!”
Anyone who has been around certain sections of the radical left has encountered this attitude at one time or another. For some on the left, it is not enough to oppose US imperialism or its wars, but we need to do more and 'support' every government targeted by the United States. And that 'support' winds up being uncritical support to any government opposed to the United States, no matter how repressive or reactionary it may be.
However, there are a number problems with this type of 'support,' which we can see displayed in the example of Iran (but this example can easily be extended to Syria or others). First of all, such support winds painting the targeted regimes as progressive (which is often undeserved) and conflates the government and the people. Secondly, the history of these regimes is conveniently forgotten and their present progressive rhetoric is taken for reality. Finally, such support is immaterial to the main duty and responsibility of revolutionaries living in the United States – our opposition to imperialism and to see it defeated.
If you turn on MSNBC, Fox News or any other news outlet you will hear the drumbeats of war against Iran mixed in with crude Islamophobia. The United States and its allies call Iran an existential threat to Israel and demand that it forgo any nuclear energy program. And large sectors of the US left, who are rightful repelled by imperialism and war, do not fall for this propaganda. And it should be enough for leftists living in the belly of the beast, that we oppose our government in its imperialist ventures. However, anti-imperialist 'support' goes much further and paints the Iranian government as a progressive anti-imperialist force and ends up condemning anyone who dares to criticize it.
Anti-imperialist 'support' means that the Iranian government's rhetoric is accepted for reality and the populace is ignored. In the case of Iran, there is a powerful and repressive ruling class which uses anti-imperialist phrases. This shields the reality which is that Iranian society is run according to religious laws where women face persecution, denies freedom of speech, bans leftist parties, where strikes by workers are violently broken, and national minorities are oppressed. It does the left no good to condemn those in our own ranks who refuse to ignore or excuse this seamy side of Iran.
Conflating the rulers of Iran with the people there does something very strange as well – it ignores the class struggle within Iran. This is a strange position for leftists to take. 'Support' for Iran means that because of the 'anti-imperialist struggle' which Iran is engaged in, Iranians who strike or demand a secular society and 'must be' agents of imperialism. And it frankly says that Iranians don't have a right to resist or rebel because their rulers play at being anti-imperialist. Class struggle ends up just being for those in the first world.
Now it is true that the US government often feigns sympathy for a secular society or worker rights in Iran. Yet leftists know that US rhetoric is hollow when it comes to the people of Iran or anywhere else, after all the Obama administration supports a theocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia and give millions of dollars in military aid to Colombia which is a grave yard for labor union activists. Yet just because the USA puts a “minus” sign next to something does that mean we have to put a “plus” sign next to it? If that's what leftists do, then our politics and anti-imperialism winds up being reduced to a simple narrative of good and bad guys which neglects reality.
Now, when we 'support' Iran's rulers and accept their claims to be anti-imperialist, we ignore the actual history which proves something quite different. When Iran was ruled by the brutal US-backed Shah monarchy from 1953 to 1979 with his SAVAK secret police, it was not the religious clerics who were primarily targeted or formed the main opposition. It was the secular left. The secular revolutionary left fought the Shah with arms in hand and were tortured in the SAVAK's prisons. Following the Shah's overthrow by a popular revolution in 1979, clerics allied to rich merchants hijacked the revolution and imposed a theocracy. Many Iranian leftists made the mistake of supporting the clerics believing they represented some kind of progressive anti-imperialist force. In the end, the clerics turned on the left, hunting down and slaughtering thousands of them. And if 'support' for Iran means that we ignore or forget what happen to the Iranian left, then we spit on the graves of our martyred dead.
Lest we be accused of being too hard on those who uncritically 'support' opponents of imperialism, it should be added that sometimes those who resist the United States are progressive. For instance, Venezuela and Cuba are revolutionary societies which have brought considerable benefits to the workers and the oppressed. However, even these states are not above criticism and face real problems and challenges. And yet logic of uncritical 'support' means that to even bring these challenges and problems in a friendly spirit is to be denounced somehow serving the interests of US imperialism.
If leftists wind up in the position of 'support' then we neglect critical analysis for each concrete situation and can end up defending the indefensible in the case of Iran. And if the left condmens anyone who dares to disagree with the logic of uncritical 'support' then there is no way we can really build a mass movement that really opposes imperialism. So in the end, what does all this mean? What are we as revolutionaries in the United States supposed to do? Who do we support? Considering the small size of the revolutionary left in the United States, our support for the Iranian or Syrian governments or any other force is ultimately immaterial. It amounts to little more than cheer leading.
None of this means that revolutionaries in the left have no responsibilities of our own. As the German Communist and anti-war activist Karl Liebknecht said when his country was at war, “the main enemy is at home!” It is our job to expose and isolate the machinations of the US ruling class and its push for war. As revolutionaries, we know that despite the public pronouncements of an Obama or a Bush who say that the USA is for freedom and democracy, that is not true. Whether in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iran, Vietnam or Iraq imperialist intervention has never brought any benefit to the local population, but has resulted in blood and death. Imperialist intervention in any country results in massive exploitation, the imposition of docile governments who ensure that those countries remain open for business.
So, as revolutionaries living in the USA, it is our responsibility to oppose 'our own' ruling class and its imperialist intervention. And we can do that without painting every government they target as a knight in shining armor.
Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, LINKS International Journal for Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint and Greenleft Weekly. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is currently working on a book on the French Communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.