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Anti-Imperialism Doesn’t Mean Defending Authoritarianism

Socialists must stand resolutely against US imperialism. We also can't turn a blind eye to purportedly leftist states' suppression of political liberties that socialists around the world have fought and died for.

Pro-government supporters gather in Sucre Square during a demonstration against imperialism organized by governing party PSUV (Socialist Party of Venezuela) at Palacio de Miraflores on January 23, 2020 in Caracas, Venezuela. Carolina Cabral / Getty

Lucas Koerner’s recent piece for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, “How Western Left Media Helped Legitimate US Regime Change in Venezuela,” is a leading exemplar of a genre of leftist thought which might be termed “shotgun leftism,” due to its self-professed “uncompromising” commitment to revolutionary movements and states, and harsh “shoot-‘em-up” stance toward anyone deemed to lack such a commitment. This stance is evident in this and other pieces, in which Koerner takes aim at leftist publications such as NACLA and Jacobin, and a growing list of writers, including myself. This style of leftism contains a mix of admirable, questionable, and highly untenable features.

The admirable features are a commitment to grassroots movements and to establishing a participatory and egalitarian socialist society, and a relentless critique of imperialism.

More questionably, shotgun leftists offer “unequivocal” support to governments identified as leftist, revolutionary, and/or anti-imperialist, e.g., Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia under Evo Morales, and Nicaragua, and, in some versions of the genre, any state opposed by the United States. What is questionable is not supporting left/revolutionary states but doing so unequivocally. This can and often does lead to willingness to turn a blind eye to these states’ objectionable, even appalling, actions, including widespread extra-judicial killings and suppression of political liberties that leftists around the world have fought and died for.

What is untenable is shotgun leftists’ willingness to repeatedly, grossly, and at times seemingly deliberately misrepresent, and even fabricate, others’ words. This is problematic, to say the least, in three ways. First, it makes it difficult to trust the veracity of what is said. Second, it inhibits building an effective anti-imperialist movement. And third, it blocks possibilities for open and honest debate.

Koerner argues that leftist writers who criticize Nicolás Maduro legitimate the US project of regime change in Venezuela. This, he says, is the case, irrespective of whether these writers “nominally oppos[e] Washington’s Venezuela policy and its corporate media gendarmerie.” The crux of his argument is this:

While invariably couched in the language of “left” analysis, this coverage weakens domestic opposition to the US and other Western states’ murderous onslaught on the Venezuelan people.

Koerner’s aim of strengthening opposition to US regime change is admirable. And there is nothing wrong with asking if Left criticism of Maduro weakens opposition to US policy. Unfortunately, Koerner’s piece is riddled with distortions. To show this, I examine Koerner’s critiques of my writing on Venezuela, which he has done in three lengthy pieces since 2017.

Consider Koerner’s discussion of my argument (in a February 2018 NACLA/Jacobin piece) that the principle of non-intervention, which I view as inviolable under normal circumstances, can potentially be set aside if a genocide or humanitarian catastrophe is occurring and it can be reasonably determined that foreign action is likely to be more beneficial than harmful. Koerner writes that I “declin[e] to say” that such intervention is justified in Venezuela. This passive construction suggests I may be open to intervention in Venezuela but merely “decline to say” if this is so. This grossly misrepresents my explicit rejection of the idea that the United States has any right to intervene in Venezuela. I write:

It is also crucial to remember that powerful states, particularly the US, often use arguments about “humanitarian intervention” to push imperial projects that have no likelihood (and often no real intention) of addressing social needs. This is clearly the case with Venezuela. US attempts to bring about regime change are not a justifiable exercise in humanitarian interventionism. In fact, past and present US actions are a major . . . reason for the humanitarian crisis Venezuela is facing. A party to a tragedy cannot be trusted with resolving that tragedy.

Later, Koerner addresses my March 2019 Nation article on Venezuela’s devastating blackouts. Koerner writes, “The article contained wild factual inaccuracies, including the claim that Caracas residents were collecting water from the extremely polluted Guaire River.” The “wild factual inaccuracy” is Koerner’s, as I make no such claim. The article includes a photo and caption (chosen by the Nation) reading, “People collect water from a leaking pipeline along the Guaire River during rolling blackouts,” and a text reference to “images of desperate Caracas residents collecting water from leaking pipelines.” There is, of course, an immense difference between water in a pipeline and a polluted river, though if I wrote about this today, I would note that water residents got from pipes was clean water from the Ávila mountain and not sewage water, as the opposition falsely said.

Koerner’s habit of making false statements continues in his discussion of a May 2019 article I wrote for Jacobin. Following a bizarrely worded and inaccurate contention that “The university professor backpedalled on some of his previous claims,” Koerner pens another fabrication: “Hetland appeared to be entirely unaware that the opposition attempted a coup d’etat scarcely three weeks before.” It seems Koerner is “entirely unaware” the article references and condemns “[Juan] Guaidó’s desperate and comically ineffective April 30 coup attempt” and “appalling recent opposition violence.”

There are many more examples of Koerner’s inability or unwillingness to accurately represent what others say, even those he purports to agree with. For instance, Koerner cites opposition economist Francisco Rodríguez’s estimate that Venezuela’s economy contracted 25 percent in 2019, but falsely implies that Rodríguez attributes this entirely to US sanctions. Taken together, these examples demonstrate more than carelessness. They show a willingness to distort others’ words, at times through outright fabrication.

Yet it would be disingenuous to imply everything Koerner says is false. He is correct that many leftists have denounced Maduro’s authoritarianism and human rights abuses. (I cannot, however, find any evidence to support Koerner’s claim of leftists “casting the Maduro government . . . as guilty of much worse human rights violations than the US and its allies.” I have repeatedly noted that whatever its flaws, the Maduro government’s abuses are far less than US-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and elsewhere.)

Unfortunately, the way Koerner addresses the issue of authoritarianism is unproductive. Instead of engaging in good-faith discussion of the merits of the authoritarianism charge, and the concept itself, Koerner resorts to name-calling and more misrepresentation. In Koerner’s eyes, anyone labeling Maduro (and it seems, any leader) authoritarian is an “Orientalist.” In a 2017 piece (criticizing a 2017 article of mine in NACLA), Koerner argues that the concept of authoritarianism resurrects the “civilization versus barbarism” divide, and says those who use the term are “fetishizing liberal democracy.” This latter charge is particularly unfounded, since my article includes these lines:

Yet, the left cannot turn a blind eye to the [Venezuelan] government’s slide into authoritarianism, nor its inept policies. This is not out of an unwarranted blind faith in liberal, representative democracy, but because authoritarian rule is incompatible with the beautiful-albeit-contradictory-and-flawed project of building “participatory and protagonistic democracy,” which Chavismo helped advance.

To be sure, authoritarianism and related terms are frequently used to discredit leftist ideas and movements. Indeed, conservatives have labeled participatory budgeting “totalitarian”! Still, it hardly follows that the concept of authoritarianism is inherently Orientalist or even conservative. In insisting the term be abandoned, Koerner ignores leftists like Rosa Luxemburg and Nicos Poulantzas, who criticize Soviet-style state socialism for its repressive, autocratic character. Koerner also ignores the history of leftist anti-authoritarian movements in Latin America and elsewhere. As with other heavily contested ideas — such as democracy and freedom — the answer to those who misuse the concept is not to abandon it, but to struggle to ensure it serves emancipatory ends. This requires honest debate, which Koerner’s method of exposition is an obstacle to.

One could argue that even if Koerner’s specific claims are dubious, his core argument — Left critique of Maduro weakens domestic opposition to US policy — is valid. Is it? In answering this question, we must distinguish two things Koerner seems to conflate: supporting Maduro and opposing US policy. Koerner is undoubtedly correct that Left criticism of Maduro likely weakens Left support for him. Yet it hardly follows that it inevitably weakens domestic opposition to US Venezuela policy. Indeed, Koerner cites a litany of articles by leftists who criticize Maduro and US policy, showing there is no inherent contradiction between these positions.

Whether Koerner likes it or not, there seems to be a growing number of people wary or outright critical of Maduro and also firmly opposed to US policy in Venezuela. Instead of arguing that one can “truly” oppose US policy only if one “uncompromisingly” supports Maduro, Koerner should support efforts to construct the broadest possible movement against US policy. This means uniting everyone opposed to US policy, regardless of their support for or opposition to Maduro. Needless to say, calling those who criticize Maduro not “real revolutionaries” lacking “integrity” does not seem a good strategy for building the mass movement needed to do this.

One might cite the example of the February 2003 global mobilization against the US war on Iraq, called “the largest protest in human history.” As anyone involved knows, protesters were united in their opposition to a US war, not in support of Saddam Hussein. It’s hard to imagine that millions would have turned out to support Hussein, who I should note is incomparably worse than Maduro.

The final issue is the question of whether — irrespective of strategic considerations — leftists should critique purportedly revolutionary states. The Left’s enemies will, of course, always try to utilize such critique, even of the “friendly” variety, against the Left. One must be aware of this, but it is not a reason to avoid engaging in constructive critique and analysis. The stakes of building a better world — one that is deeply democratic, egalitarian, ecologically sustainable, anti-racist, feminist, decolonial, and more — are too great.

To state the obvious: efforts to construct a better world, in Cuba, the Soviet Union, Chile, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere have encountered serious internal and external obstacles. The only way to figure out how to do better is to analyze these, and other, experiences with a relentlessly critical eye. This necessitates paying close and constant attention to imperialist efforts to crush leftist experiments. But it also demands close and constant attention to the internal failings of emancipatory movements and states. (One should also highlight the successes of these movements and states, as I regularly do.)

In addition to organization and mobilization, critique and honest debate are the Left’s greatest tools. It would be foolhardy in the extreme to seek to change the world without using these tools for the messy, difficult task of trying to understand it as well.