A recent post of mine on the situation in Syria (http://steveellnersblog.blogspot.com/2018/04/in-conflict-in-syria-there-doesnt-seem.html) led to some interesting and critical comments coming both from those who felt I was too hard on Assad and Russia and those who felt I was letting them off the hook. The position I presented reflects my view of the current situation worldwide. As is often the case, the issue of Syria has to be placed in a broader, in this case global, context. Contextualization is fundamental for the achievement of an objective analysis and evaluation of the Syrian government and others that confront U.S.-promoted intervention, put forward an anti-imperialist discourse, and (in some cases) raise socialist banners, such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and Libya under Gaddafi.
The forces of reaction and conservative movements have not enjoyed such world-wide hegemony at the state and transnational levels since the days of Metternich: throughout Europe, throughout Latin America, the U.S., the Philippines, Australia, etc. As a result, the options for leftist governments are more limited than was the case a decade ago. When Hugo Chávez was president, he counted on the support of Latin America as a whole. Now with Maduro, the situation is the opposite.
As a result, progressive governments see the need to follow a more pragmatic strategy than in the past, and take advantage of allies and semi-allies wherever possible. In this context, I believe that leftists need to occupy a middle ground between two extremes: one is what I call “leftist utopianism” and the other “ultra-pragmatism.” “Leftist utopianism” is characterized by a purist mentality that ignores contexts. It leads nowhere and indeed was rejected by Marx in his polemical writings in opposition to the utopian socialists as well as the Young Hegelians.
“Leftist utopianism” takes an all-or-nothing approach. It thus refrains from attempting to determine the relative seriousness of the errors of progressive governments, and ends up condemning all of them as sell-outs. Such an intransigent position is excessive. Thus, for instance, criticism of the populist policies of progressive governments that go overboard in providing handouts to non-privileged groups cannot be given the same weight as the privatization of strategic sectors of the economy carried out by the right.
Leftist utopianism in the second decade of the twenty-first century manifests itself in the position that condemns Russia and China for their imperialist motivations and, in effect, lumps them in the same category as the U.S. Since Russia and China are not socialist and not even democratic, and have global ambitions, then ipso facto they must be imperialist powers and can’t be any less destructive and harmful than the U.S. But the fact of the matter is that neither of these two countries behaves like the pre-World War I European powers described by Lenin, nor like the U.S. since 1946. Neither Russia nor China has military bases scattered throughout the world and both have provided political and economic support for progressive governments such as Venezuela. Furthermore, China’s and Russia’s bilateral economic deals may favor their own interests but do not attach strings fostering dependence, as in the case of the IMF, World Bank and Washington. In contrast, the U.S. has close and powerful military ties with repressive and reactionary or conservative governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Colombia, and openly promotes regime change against governments they consider contrary to its national interests (as it has done in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Venezuela). Indeed, under Trump, the argument of the need to defend U.S. “national interests” has increasingly become an explicit justification for U.S. intervention abroad.
Another manifestation of “leftist utopianism” and purism is the blanket condemnation of progressive governments that are facing a destabilizing campaign promoted by Washington. This position correctly points to the blunders, excessive pragmatism (or “opportunism”), crass populism and large-scale corruption of these governments, but ends up placing them in the same sack as the opposition closely tied to Washington. In the process, the “leftist utopian” position ignores their positive features. It also fails to recognize that the errors that are being committed by progressive governments are largely overreactions to the aggressive illegal and semi-legal actions of an opposition with immense resources supplied by the local bourgeoisie and foreign powers.
The opposite extreme is “ultra-pragmatism” which refrains from criticizing governments that confront U.S. imperialism. This position has several strands. One is based on an outlook that emphasizes realpolitik. It claims that progressive governments of third-world nations and relatively small ones are impotent in the face of global realities, specifically pressure from the world’s hegemonic superpower, namely the United States. The only viable strategy that can be pursued is the befriending of an emerging superpower, specifically Russia and China. In the face of these global imperatives, the domestic policies of these vulnerable nations are of secondary consideration. A second version of “ultra-pragmatism” is the notion that leftists in the U.S. and elsewhere should refrain from leveling criticism of any nature at progressive governments under siege. Since first world leftists are not citizens of those nations, they have no right to voice criticism. In addition since those governments are under imperialist attack any criticism of them undermines the effort to defend national sovereignty.
I reject the ultra-pragmatic position for various basic reasons. Most important, twenty-first century progressive governments in Latin America have committed serious errors in a democratic context, which are topics of great importance to the left in all democratic nations, both developed and underdeveloped. Even though the errors are often overreactions to disruptive campaigns carried out by the forces of reaction, nevertheless, the errors have to be analyzed and assimilated. Such a learning process is not academic or superfluous, but rather is an overriding imperative. It is not enough for leftists to reject the populist policies of progressive governments with the sole argument that they impede economic development. The reasons progressive governments have reverted to populist policies have to be considered, and realistic alternatives formulated. In short, serious objective analysis of the complex situations facing the left in power is urgently needed and the examination process cannot be the exclusive preserve of the citizens of each respective nation.
In addition, ultra-pragmatism on the left ignores the fact that leftists throughout history have always been characterized by idealistic motivation. The principled positions they assume and their exemplary behavior and sacrifices distinguish them from those located elsewhere on the political spectrum, and have historically been their strong point. There is thus a “pragmatic” reason why corruption and opportunistic behavior in general cannot be condoned or overlooked. Any indecisiveness along those lines discredits the left and robs it of one of its most powerful banners.
Finally, the left cannot lose sight of the fact that China and Russia are merely circumstantial allies. The orthodox communists tend to be more sympathetic to China than Russia. But in the case of both nations, their economic systems are not conducive to international solidarity (in contrast to the efforts of the Cuban government over the last half a century) and their political systems hardly represent role models. The “ultra-pragmatists” sometimes appear to ignore these plain facts.
President Maduro and the Chavista leadership do not serve as a source of inspiration, as did his predecessor Chávez. But contrary to the thinking of “leftist utopianism,” the positive features of Maduro’s government need to be raised not only because they counter the deceptive coverage of the commercial media, but because they enhance the effectiveness of much-needed international solidarity. These “pragmatic” considerations need to be brought into the picture in any discussion over anti-imperialism in the twenty-first century.