Book review: Europe’s New Strongman

Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Book title: Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman
Author: Paul Lendvai
Released: 2019
Review by: Byron Clark

While there has hardly been a shortage of strongman leaders for the right to admire in recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stood out. Last year Vox referred to him as “The American right’s favourite strongman”1 and British far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson described him as the “defender of Europe” when appearing on Hungarian television.

In New Zealand Orbán has been praised by the far-right YouTube personality Lee Williams (who has favourably compared the New Conservative party to Orbán’s Fidesz party) and in Australia his support comes not just from the fringes but from mainstream politicians; in 2019 former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in Hungary claiming migrants are “swarming across the borders in Europe”.2 Orbán was also praised by then US president Donald Trump in 2019 for doing a “tremendous job”.3

The biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” is the first book published in English on the topic of the Orbán regime. Paul Lendavi was born in Hungary and is now based in Austria. For this book he has drawn on work from Hungarian journalists and political scientists, making the book in-depth despite its short length. It is written for an international audience and doesn’t require extensive prior knowledge of Hungarian history or politics.

Orbán’s rise to power followed scandals in the centre-left Socialist Party, including financial corruption. While Orbán’s Fidesz regime has been far more corrupt, with Orbán enriching himself using the power he wields as prime minister, the Socialist Party is judged more harshly by voters for the sheer hypocrisy of their corruption; with Orbán’s Fidesz Party it has been expected.

Orbán has used anti-immigrant populism to gain support in one of Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. At a march in Paris following the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, he announced “Zero tolerance against immigrants…As long as I am Prime Minister, and as long as this government is in power, we will not allow Hungary to become the destination of immigrants steered from Brussels.”

His government has erected billboards with messages to refugees – that if they want to come to Hungary they must integrate with Hungarian society, and must not take jobs from Hungarians. These billboards are however written in Hungarian, and are unlikely to be read by any Syrian or Iraqi refugees entering the country- a number which is very small, in part due to the fences erected on the country’s border with Croatia. The billboards are not really there for refugees to read; they are there to implant the idea in the minds of Hungarians that immigrants will steal jobs and refuse to integrate.

The regime has been effective at spreading this xenophobia. Polling cited in the book notes that fear of a terrorist attack from refugees (a statistically unlikely probability) is higher in Hungary than any other European country. More recent polls conducted since the book’s publication show sixty percent of Hungarians have a negative or very negative opinion of immigrants while a similar number (fifty four percent) hold negative or very negative opinions of Muslims.4

“Orbán makes no secret of his satisfaction at the misery of the refugees” writes Lendvai in reference to one of the prime minister’s speeches in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, where Orbán claimed “The crisis offers the opportunity for the national Christian ideology to reign supreme, not only in Hungary but in all of Europe”.

Orbán has also made a bogeyman of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a common figure in far-right conspiracy theories. Orbán, echoing those same theories, claims that Soros is promoting mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While Orbán claims that Muslim migrants will spread anti-Semitism, his rhetoric about Soros (a Jew and Holocaust survivor) comes with a heavy anti-Semitic subtext. Paraphrasing the liberal Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, who have compared the Soros conspiracy theory to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lendvai writes “The world Jew has not been mentioned in the Soros context as there is no need – everybody understands the reference”. Polls cited by Lendvai show almost a third of Hungarians holding anti-Semitic views. Ironically, it was philanthropic work by Soros’ Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights and liberal democracy in Europe after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that funded much of Orbán’s education.

The Fidesz regime in Hungary is likely to remain in power for years to come – in part because of constitutional changes made with the party’s unprecedented two thirds majority in parliament, and extensive gerrymandering – and will serve as inspiration for far-right groups in Europe and even further afield. This book will give readers the broad overview of contemporary Hungary that will help us recognise when politicians in our own countries attempt to come to power on a similar platform of xenophobia and bigotry.

1 https://www.vox.com/2020/5/21/21256324/viktor-Orbán-hungary-american-conservatives

2 https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/why-australia-s-conservatives-are-finding-friends-in-hungary-20190924-p52uim.html

3 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/13/trump-latest-viktor-Orbán-hungary-prime-minister-white-house

4 https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/europeanstateofhate-polling/

The state of hate in Europe

Image from Rio Times Online

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. Subscribe here.

Written by Byron Clark.

The UK based Hope Not Hate campaign have released their annual report on the state of far-right extremism. While the report’s focus in on Europe there is a New Zealand connection, with the report noting that the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack, which was released last December found that the killer had made at least 16 donations to international far-right groups and people since 2017, including a total of £2,500 to numerous European branches of the Identitarian network Generation Identity.

New Zealand based fascist group Action Zealandia are also mentioned in the context of the British group Patriotic Alternative holding a day of action across the UK to coincide with International Indigenous People’s Day (IPD). The event involved repeating, at a national scale, a strategy the group employed last July where they displayed a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner on the top of Mam Tor, a hill in Derbyshire. Action Zealandia had submitted a photo of their own ‘White Lives Matter’ banner drop in Auckland for the day of action. The overtly white supremacist politics of Action Zealandia have meant that rather than attempting to grow in New Zealand, they have focused on building relationships with fascist groups overseas.

A section of the report looks at the spread of the Qanon conspiracy theory, which began on 4chan and had a distinctly US focus – claiming that Donald Trump was taking on a cabal of satanic child abusers among the “deep state”, the Democratic Party, and various liberal elites in Hollywood and media. In Europe, the conspiracy has taken on local characteristics, In Greece, social media posts use the relevant hashtags to blend Q-narratives with anti-Roma prejudices and racism against black migrants. In Hungary, there is a strong connection between Qanon and antisemitism, with a specific hatred of the Hungarian born billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

There has also been a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, which the far-right has exploited. While the movement started in the US, in Europe it has provoked continent-wide discussions about race, colonialism and imperial legacies. Generation Identity activists in France held an anti-BLM counter protest last June where they unfurled a huge banner reading “Justice for the victims of anti-white racism: #WhiteLivesMatter”. Generation Identity activists in Germany also sought to capitalise on a series of large BLM demonstrations across the country by launching a campaign titled #NiemalsaufKnien (Never on our knees) in response to protestors and politicians kneeling in solidarity with the victims of racial violence.

The report cites The 2020 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute of Economics & Peace, which highlights that we are experiencing a peak of far-right terrorism in the West with 49 registered attacks in 2019, an upwards going trend for five consecutive years. Data for 2020 is not yet available but Hope Not Hate points out that there remains “a large and active terror advocating far-right community.” They note that many terror-related arrests and multiple new groups were formed in 2020, and multiple attacks and attempted attacks occurred in Germany, Norway and the UK- directly inspired by the terrorism in Christchurch.

Polling shows attitudes towards immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities are poor across all eight countries surveyed, but particularly bad in Italy and Hungary.

There are however some positives in the report too. In October, after a trial lasting more than five years, the leadership of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn were found guiltily of running a criminal organisation. That same month, former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party went on trial on kidnapping charges over an incident in 2019 when he prevented 116 migrants from disembarking in Sicily. With a few exceptions, far-right parties in governments have seen a drop in their support.

One of those notable exceptions is the Polish Konfederacja, who won eleven seats in parliament last year with 6.8% of the vote. Konfederacja has used social media to their advantage, gaining more engagement than the social media pages of more mainstream parties. Konfederacja’s links issues of gender and LGBT rights with the reform of the educational system and the rights of parents to educate their children in their own way. Parallels could be drawn here with New Zealand’s New Conservative Party, who grew a sizable Facebook following and focused on “gender ideology” in schools as a major part of their 2020 election campaign. Konfederacja has also attempted to capitalise on the pandemic by criticising measures taken by the government such as restrictions on businesses and movement.

Attempts at rallying support against immigration for example, did not succeed in capturing the public mood.

Elsewhere in Europe the far-right have not had much success with pandemic-related talking points. The spread of Covid19 has shifted migration rhetoric to include the risk to individual health, but the virus has not spread across Europe through the typical refugee and migratory routes. While far right politicians were calling for closing ports in Italy, for example, COVID-19 had already created clusters throughout the country, making anti-migrant rhetoric less effective.

The full report can be read at https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/research/state-of-hate-reports/state-of-hate-europe2021/

Fightback Conference talks online now

In January 2021, Fightback hosted a series of online public talks as a part of our annual conference. Recordings of these talks are now all online at the Where’s My Jetpack podcast:

Unfortunately, the audio files from our most popular session on union and workplace struggle were corrupted. However, you can find interviews with the two speakers on our blog here:

Pasifika people and the New Zealand election

Fijian people queuing to vote in their elections
By SALOTE CAMA. From Fightback’s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html [1]

As New Zealand prepares to go to the polls in September, the debates will often be about how the government will distribute resources, what gets prioritised in this COVID-19 world, the housing crisis, and the ongoing climate crises. I am an indigenous Fijian, living and working in New Zealand, so my experience of New Zealand politics is coloured. Obviously, there are many differences between New Zealand governance and Fijian governance. Fiji is a republic, New Zealand has an MMP system, Fiji is essentially one massive electorate, and many more to name. However, there are similarities as well. Both governments are heavily invested in maintaining their influence in the region, both countries had a failed push for a change to the Union Jack on our flags in the early 2010s, and both governments are institutions built on the foundation of controlling native land for the British colonial administration.

My understanding of politics is coloured by who I am as an indigenous Fijian person, and this is highly tuned into the politics of land. How land is understood is similar in both iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) and Māori cultures, and this is evidenced in the words used in both languages – vanua in vosa vaka Viti and whenua in te reo Māori. For iTaukei land is not just the physical entity – it is what all aspects of life and society are structured around. It informs education, relationships, status, anxieties, and powers. Fears of land alienation was the reason given for Fiji’s first coup d’état. May 14, 1987 saw Dr Timoci Bavadra removed as Fiji’s Prime Minister. The coup was led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka (currently serving as Fiji’s Leader of the Opposition). Two (or three, or three and a half, depending on your count) more coups have since followed, all somewhat related to these same anxieties.

Land alienation is something indigenous peoples around the world have had to grapple with, and this is definitely true when it comes to New Zealand. Fiji, some consider, to be an anomaly. iTaukei, in this case, own roughly 90% of land. This coupled with the fact that, apart from tourism, the Fiji economy is held up by land-intensive industries like agriculture, timber, and sugar. This could indicate that there is a legacy of the British colonial administration, and their “benevolence”. This benevolence is a myth. iTaukei Fijians own the land, but do not control it. They own the land as part of land-owning units called mataqali – a colonial administrative creation. This control is held in an institution called the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB). The TLTB is the current iteration of the administrative process that determines what is done to iTaukei land, and has done so, on behalf of the colonial government, and in turn the Fijian state, since the turn of the twentieth century.

The colonial project in Viti, in Aotearoa, and in the Pacific was – and is – a series of power plays that seek to gain position and influence for the colonial powers. It is interested only in its own protection and its own authority. Our lands were no longer extensions of who we are, but instead a means of production – a means of gaining wealth to prop up colonialism and capitalism. Our lands were also used to take advantage, to sow distrust, to disenfranchise, and to break collectives.

Land is not immediately at the forefront of the current crop of questions that voters are supposedly asking during the New Zealand election campaign. The economy, COVID-19 recovery, the housing crisis, the climate crises: these are what the hoardings dotting fences on busy streets are centred on. Peel back these questions, and you can see that essentially voters are asking what are we prioritising? The New Zealand Labour Party is going into these elections with a wave of political capital, and generally high polling numbers. Its leader, Jacinda Ardern, is the face of a globally recognised “kindness” brand of politics. Its opposition, the New Zealand National Party, is marred by recent bouts of in-fighting, scandals, low polling numbers and a controversial leader in Judith Collins. Some of the strongest Labour seats in the last election are Pasifika strongholds: there is a strong affiliation between Pasifika communities and the Labour Party. The official Labour campaign launch at Auckland’s Town Hall saw a single announcement of policy from the Labour Party – a regurgitation of National Party policy from 2012, albeit with more funding (this funding will be from the unspent wage subsidy funding). What does this mean for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand? Loyalty to a party, flush with political capital, who has given us just one piece of centrist policy with just over a month to the elections.

The traumas of the colonial project in the Pacific are not only being actively ignored, but are being added to. From the military-industrial complex that is demanding war games in the middle of a pandemic in Hawai’i, to Judith Collins dismissing the goals of mana whenua to protect Ihumātao as “nonsense,” to the loud silence of the New Zealand government in the face of the continued oppression of West Papua by the Indonesian government, and the current refusal to support the West Papua Decolonisation Committee at the United Nations – these traumas are painful, complex, and have ever-changing faces.

Maybe the question of what this (election) means for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand is not necessarily a fair, or good question. Pasifika communities in New Zealand are not just invested in the results of the New Zealand elections. We are too diverse and invested to have a solidly satisfying monolithic answer.  Perhaps I am asking too much of a system that sees whenua as just another means that can further entrench capitalism, another means to further promote colonialism. And because it cannot see the whenua as what it really is, it cannot see us as wholly who we are – because the vanua is inherently a part of our being. Our survival as a culture is predicated on the protection of whenua, of fonua, of vanua. This is not a “proper” election issue, nor is it a Labour Party specific issue, and Pasifika people will most likely remain loyal to the Labour Party through the upcoming elections. But in the immortal words of Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi “withdrawal or non-participation is an option open to idealists and cynics… we owe it to … ourselves to deal with the consequences as they are, not as we would like them to be.”


[1] Editor’s note on style: Salote uses the term Pasifika in this article to refer to the various peoples of the Pacific Islands. Elsewhere in this issue we have used the alternative spelling Pasefika (which is from the Samoan language) or simply referred to “Pacific peoples”.

Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html
What’s wrong with this picture?

Introduction: the dream is over

On 8th April 2020, Keir Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the British Labour Party, following that party’s trouncing by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the December 2019 election. On the same day, Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for US president, soon after his disappointing results in the “Super Tuesday” Presidential primary elections which were dominated decisively by centrist former Vice-President Joe Biden.

To be dramatic, we could call this “the day the dream ended”. That dream was one shared by much of the Left over the last ten years: that nascent Left-wing “populist” electoral movements across the world, often arising from protest movements such as Occupy or the demonstrations against austerity in Greece, would arise to defeat both the neoliberal establishment and the rising tide of Right-wing populist, even fascist, movements. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are the names most commonly associated with this movement in English speaking countries, but other movements such as PODEMOS in the Spanish state, or SYRIZA in Greece, have also caused much excitement on the broader Left. The former is currently the junior coalition government partner in Spain, and the latter led the government of Greece from 2015-2019.[1] Further back in history, the “pink tide” governments in Latin America, most famously that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, can also be seen in this category.

So why has this “Left-populist” wave reached such a dead end? And was it a wrong direction to start with?

Bernie Sanders: where was the turnout?

The strongest argument for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was always that “Bernie” was unique in having a mass movement behind him dominated by youth, who were excited and motivated by his social-democratic, anti-establishment message. None of the other, centrist candidates, the argument went, could match the “enthusiasm” and “energy” of the Bernie wave – and if Bernie were to be nominated, this wave would then go on to completely swamp the Trump campaign. Excitable online leftists, such as Will Menaker from the podcast Chapo Trap House, enthused about how the centrist Democrat establishment would soon have to “bend the knee” before the Bernie movement[2], while journalist David Klion was even more optimistic about the future:

As it turned out, there was something of a landslide on “Super Tuesday”, 3rd March 2020, when 14 states held their primaries. Turnout for the Democratic primaries was much higher than in 2016; in states such as Virginia, it doubled.[3] African-Americans, Latin@s and others in working-class suburbs queued for up to 7 hours (due to deliberate underprovision of polling places by Republican state governments) to vote…[4] and the results were excellent for Joe Biden, and disappointing for Bernie Sanders, essentially ending the latter’s chances of winning the nomination.

The immediate counter-reaction from the Sanders camp was to point out that overwhelmingly older voters (tending to support Biden) had turned out, while younger, more Sanders-inclined voters didn’t. But that begs the question. Bernie’s fabled support had not appeared at the polls. Of course, polling times and polling places were inconvenient for young people – exactly as they will be in the November general election. No matter the quality of the Sanders programme, this was powerful negative evidence about his ability to defeat Donald Trump.

One explanation was this was a real-time demonstration of “Cuomo’s Law”. In 2019, the centrist governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, was challenged from the Left by Cynthia Nixon, an actress best known for her role in the TV show Sex and the City. Her campaign was extremely popular on social media, but in the end Cuomo defeated her by 31 points.[5] The social media “buzz” behind Nixon ended up having little relevance to actual elections. Hence, one Twitter user suggested “Cuomo’s Law”: that online politics have nothing to do with real life.[6] That is, the argument was that the Sanders mass movement was only an Internet phenomenon, unable to be translated into ballots going into boxes.

Others have given more substantive political analyses for why the Sanders campaign stalled in the primaries. Journalist Zack Beauchamp argues:

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s theory of victory was simple: An unapologetically socialist politics centering Medicare-for-all and welfare state expansions would unite the working class and turn out young people at unprecedented rates, creating a multiracial, multigenerational coalition that could lead Sanders to the Democratic nomination and the White House… In a 2019 essay in the socialist magazine Jacobin, Princeton professor Matt Karp staked his case for Sanders on the candidate’s ability to win over economically precarious voters by appealing to their common interest.

In the end, this approach failed. It was former Vice President Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who assembled a multiracial working-class coalition in key states like Michigan — where Biden won every single county, regardless of income levels or racial demographics.

Sanders had success in shifting the Democratic Party in his direction on policy. But the strategy for winning power embraced by his partisans depended on a mythologized and out-of-date theory of blue-collar political behavior, one that assumes that a portion of the electorate is crying out for socialism on the basis of their class interest. Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.[7]

Those who really believed that the Sanders campaign was a “political revolution” that would destroy the centrist Clinton/Obama/Biden Democrats as well as the Trumpist Republicans must have been disoriented that Bernie Sanders has joined Joe Biden in rejecting the quite moderate slogan of “Defund the Police”[8]; or when Sanders argues that Biden might turn out to be “the most progressive President since Franklin Roosevelt”.[9] If we believe the analysis of David Atkins, this statement by Sanders (quite wild on the surface) might make some sense:

The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform. Every major candidate in the 2020 field ran either on some version of Medicare for All, or at least a public option and Medicare expansion as a pathway toward it.

Every major candidate proposed much bolder action on climate change than the Obama administration, and major policies to address student debt and college tuition. And on social policy from LGBT rights to criminal justice, the difference between the Democratic Party of today and that of 10 years ago could not be more stark. Most of those advances are due to the hard work of leftists whose tireless advocacy has successfully won the force of moral argument and persuaded mainstream Democratic base voters and independents.[10]

The Democratic Party has moved to at least rhetorically embrace some of the reforms demanded by the ongoing Black Lives Matter uprising.[11] While there is cause for scepticism that fine words in opposition will mean anything if and when Biden makes it into the White House, results from recent Democratic primaries suggest that a new crop of progressive legislators will be joining Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the House of Representatives to push for these ideas.[12] The movement to elect candidates (almost inevitably from within the Democratic Party) who will promote economic justice, universal healthcare and other supportable reforms can and should continue, intersecting with Black Lives Matter and all the other mass movements for justice and dignity.

In contrast, the presidential election is now a simple referendum on the accelerating, murderous and increasingly authoritarian disaster of Trumpism. Biden’s lead in the polls corresponds with more than 160,000 dead in the COVID-19 pandemic due to federal non-response; plain-clothes federal agents snatching protestors off the streets of Portland; Trump’s blatant misuses of power to harass personal enemies, exonerate criminals who happen to be his allies, and attempt to depress voter turnout; levels of graft and self-dealing within the administration which are beginning to disgust many lifelong conservatives and corporate donors; and Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to racism, xenophobia and bloodlust.

Given all of this, Biden’s greyness, “easy-going” persona and appeal to nostalgia is proving extremely popular in the polls, to the point where he hardly seems to need to leave his house to campaign. While Sanders himself has embraced party discipline and swung his full support against Biden, an initial common reaction from his supporters to their defeat was dire prophecies that Biden would fail to motivate voters, and be utterly trounced in the general election by incumbent President Donald Trump. Some, such as the British-based magazine Salvage,[13] but many others online, even concluded that the Democratic Party leadership knows full well that Biden will not and even cannot win against Trump, and that they supported his doomed candidacy because Bernie was seen as a greater threat.

This analysis seems to embody “Cuomo’s Law”, in that it makes perfect sense for a certain online Left bubble, but does not take into account the disconnect between “very online leftists” and the actually-existing masses of working people, who took to the polls despite suppression to make Biden their standard-bearer against Trump.

We must of course fight any beliefs that Democrats in power will do anything better than restoring “capitalist normality”, except under the pressure of a mass movement backed by labour action. The Left has good reason to be repelled by Joe Biden’s moderate-at-best record as a legislator and as Vice President, his appeal to nostalgia for the good old days of bipartisanship, his stutter and verbal gaffes which are wrongly argued by some to be evidence of cognitive decline, and the believable claims of sexual assault against him by ex-staffer Tara Reade (all things that Salvage exaggerates for polemical effect). Similarly, it is important to critique the record of his running mate, Kamala Harris, as Attorney-General of California, who sued to deny trans prisoners health care and in many other ways upheld the very prison-industrial complex that the BLM/George Floyd protests are up against.[14]

It was completely correct for Sanders and Warren to mount a strenuous campaign against the “business as usual, back to normality” retro-neoliberalism presented by Biden and the other centrist candidates – and the activist Left must continue to hold Biden and Harris accountable for both their record and their proposals for office. But Biden showed support where it matters for electoral politics, at the ballot box in the primaries (by a significantly larger margin than Clinton in 2016) against all his Democratic challengers of both centrist and liberal varieties, who had none of the personal problems mentioned above. Moreover, according to the latest polling, Biden is currently also winning it handily against incumbent President Donald Trump – who has all of Biden’s problems, and more besides, in addition to his repulsive personality and increasingly fascistic politics.

This article is being written months before the November election, and it is of course still possible that Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to naked authoritarianism, racist violence and a “culture war” narrative might pull him over the line in the distorted Electoral College. Or, failing that, his attacks on postal voting and attempts to defund the Post Office might become part of a wider movement to discredit or even rig the election, after which he would simply dare Democrats to try to shift him out of the White House. However, the Black, migrant, queer, working-class and other oppressed communities of the United States are not going to be won to an insurrectionist perspective until they have exhausted the electoral route. It is one thing to counsel preparations for mass strikes and insurrection should Trump successfully rig the election; it is a bridge too far, here and now, to suggest giving up on the presidential election altogether. Even in Belarus, the masses waited until after Lukashenko’s rigged election to rise up.

In any case, the question of Trump rigging the election would be also faced by a Sanders-led ticket. Right now, Biden is ahead by an average of more than 7 points in opinion polls, a level Clinton in 2016 never reached.[15] Arguments that Bernie Sanders would be in a better position to lead opposition to Trump had he won the nomination are unfalsifiable and therefore useless. Leftists who have gone from cheerleading Sanders’ left-electoral programme to counselling electoral nihilism seem more interested in finding an excuse, any excuse, not to vote for Biden and Harris than in seriously building mass politics. A more useful reaction to the Sanders defeat is probably this:

Bernie collecting millions of campaign dollars from young, unemployed & marginalized people, just to bow out, endorse Biden & stand against defunding police—which is the start of abolition— is a good reminder that career politicians are not for you. Righteousness is w/ the people.[16]

Meanwhile, in Britain…

When Fightback wrote about Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in 2017, after British Labour’s much better than expected result in the parliamentary election of that year, we credited this success to the Corbyn leadership’s successful “fudge” on Brexit, refusing to take a clear Remain or Leave position.[17]

However, by December 2019, the benefits of ambiguity had dissolved. As the actual deadline for a final decision on Brexit drew nearer, it became clear that the Conservative government would take a “hard Brexit” (cutting all ties to the EU) as an excuse for a bonfire of laws on worker protection, human rights and even the National Health Service. This was surely the time to squarely stand for cancelling or at least delaying Brexit, rather than to continue to pretend that this issue was a distraction. Former Scottish Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika argues:

The huge mistake that we made over Brexit was at the end, it didn’t matter what our position was, it was so confusing. We  tried to be all things to all people and we were like nothing to anybody, it was just the worst of all worlds.[18]

A commission of inquiry into Labour’s defeat discovered, according to a report in The Guardian, that:

Helped by their clear “Get Brexit done” message, the Conservatives succeeded in turning out 2 million previous non-voters, accounting for two thirds of the increase in their vote share….

… Corbyn’s leadership was a “significant factor” in the 2019 result. His public approval ratings collapsed at around the time a group of Labour MPs including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna left to found the Independent Group, citing antisemitism within Labour and its Brexit policy.

The report says: “‘Stop Jeremy Corbyn’ was a major driver of the Conservatives’ success across all their key groups including previous non-voters, and among all the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories.”

Had Corbyn been as popular in December as he was two years earlier, Labour’s vote share could have been 6 percentage points higher, the analysis finds.

When it came to Labour’s radical manifesto, launched at an upbeat rally in Birmingham, the analysis found that individual policies were popular, but doubts about the leadership stoked a perception that the package as a whole was not deliverable.[19]

The response heard very often on the Left is that Jeremy Corbyn was defeated  by smears in the fanatically Right-wing British press, and sabotage by centrist and “Blairite” rebels in his own caucus. It’s undisputed that, like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn was running against much of his own party, never mind the Tories. But to accept this “stab-in-the-back legend” as the main explanation serves to deflect any criticism of Corbyn and his movement, thus making it impossible for the movement to learn from its mistakes and to self-correct.

To a large extent, the Corbyn takeover of the Labour Party was the victory of the “activist Left” in Britain. This may be hard to imagine from Australia or New Zealand, two countries in which there is no longer any significant class-struggle, strongly social-democratic tendency in our Labo(u)r Parties.[20] But the “hard Left” in the British Labour Party, which had been ruthlessly excluded from the leading bodies of the party and of the union movement for 30 years, jumped at the new rules for electing the leader which came into force in 2015, making it a simple “one member, one vote” decision by all party members[21], which enabled Corbyn to do an “end run” around his institutional opponents and pull off a shock victory.[22]

But this strength was also its weakness. Many commentators in America have noted the problems that the US radical Left, having been confined to a campus-based subculture for decades, have had with having to adapt their language to the mass politics needed to win elections. The “anti-Semitism scandal” which bedevilled Corbyn’s tenure as leader can be seen from one angle as an example of this.[23]

Jeremy Corbyn had long been one of the most prominent advocates of Palestinian liberation in the British Labour Party. It should be no surprise, then, that his leadership of the Labour Party brought certain very problematic aspects of the Western pro-Palestinian movement into mainstream politics. Whether Corbyn personally holds anti-Semitic beliefs, even unconsciously, is irrelevant to the issue of his defence of a notorious mural using anti-Semitic tropes,[24] or his laying of a wreath in front of the grave of a PLO leader who authorised the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes[25], and the reactions which these provoked among British Jews, which were of course gleefully promoted by the Tory press. The Corbyn leadership’s reproduction of the activist Left’s usual rhetorical moves against accusations of anti-Semitism – denials, defensiveness, and accusations of bad faith – were ineffective and even counterproductive in the mainstream media arena.[26]

Editor of politics.co.uk Ian Dunt argues that anti-Semitism in British Labour

was allowed to take root and spread because people who were not anti-Semitic relegated it to secondary importance. Defending Corbyn was the chief moral requirement. Everything else could be sacrificed in order to secure that aim. It was, at its heart, a matter of priorities.[27]

It is probably best to see Corbyn’s tolerance for the expression of anti-Semitic tropes by his supporters within Labour in the context of his foreign policy, which was his major focus before he became Labour leader.[28] Corbyn’s foreign policy has always been, in common with most the British activist Left, a “campist” one – the benefit of the doubt has always been with those forces in geopolitical opposition to the Western states and to Israel.

Corbyn’s categorization of the armed opposition to the Assad dictatorship in Syria as “jihadis” and “Salafists”[29] could have come right out of a Russian Foreign Ministry press release. But for ordinary British voters, perhaps more shocking was his attempt to cast doubt upon the responsibility of Russian spooks for the nerve-gas poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal on British soil.[30] Before he became leader, Corbyn sponsored a Parliamentary motion which denied that Serbian forces had committed genocide in Kosovo[31], and claimed to recognize “the hand of Israel” in a jihadi attack against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula in 2012.[32]

As I explained in my 2015 article Against Campism[33], over much of the activist Left in Western countries, healthy suspicion of Western “humanitarian” motives for military interventions has collapsed into denial and conspiracy theory when it comes to crimes committed by non-Western states. The deep intertwining of the issues of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem with Corbyn’s campist foreign policy is particularly clear in the case of Corbyn’s defence of his staunch supporter, Chris Williamson MP. Williamson was suspended from the Labour Party for denying that there was any anti-Semitism problem; but he was also a promoter of pro-Assad conspiracy theories and chemical warfare denial.[34] Former Labour councillor Adam Langlaben argues that the Corbyn movement’s penchant for conspiracy theory (in foreign policy, in their dealings with the media, and in their reactions to intra-party opposition) inevitably led them to anti-Semitic tropes.[35]

It is also no coincidence that two of Corbyn’s closest allies, Seumas Milne[36] and Andrew Murray, were political veterans of the section of British Communism which has historically promoted Soviet and later Russian foreign policy aims. Murray in particular was associated closely with the Morning Star newspaper[37], which ran a front-page article cheering the murderous Assad regime’s recapture of free Aleppo as a “liberation”[38] and, more recently, dived into TERF politics.[39] Corbyn himself wrote a notable article in the Morning Star, before he became Leader, apologizing for Russia’s invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine as being provoked by NATO.[40]

It may be shocking to a broad audience that many within the activist Left would argue that there was nothing wrong, and certainly nothing anti-Semitic, about most of the above positions. The stock line is that because George W. Bush and Tony Blair lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then any Western/Israeli reports of atrocities must be treated with the deepest suspicion.[41] But as I pointed out in my 2018 article The Red-Brown Zombie Plague[42], denial of inconvenient truths by yelling “hoax” or “fake news” is precisely what we ridicule Trump fans or other Right-wing partisans for doing.

We can briefly summarize that Jeremy Corbyn took the actually-existing British activist Left movements – with all their positive and negative features – right into the heart of mainstream politics. When these contradictions were inevitably exposed by the capitalist press, voters rejected Corbyn personally – despite his generally supportable social-democratic platform. Corbyn’s campist foreign policy (and his “whataboutery” about anti-Semitism on his own side) is pretty standard for much of the activist Left in Western countries; but when it “hit the big time” in Britain, it appeared grotesque to mainstream voters and discredited his positive and supportable anti-austerity politics. Former Labour MP Ann Turley claims that her canvassing led her to believe that only 20% of Labour voters switching to Conservative were motivated by Brexit; the remainder, by anti-Corbyn sentiment[43].

A few years ago, a New Zealand Twitter user suggested that there is a definite constituency in elections for “soft-left but sensible ideas, if not attached to someone with a rap sheet that makes [voters] hate them”.[44] British socialists who want to rebuild an electoral challenge must examine how Jeremy Corbyn accumulated precisely such a “rap sheet”.

The theory of populism: Laclau and Mouffe

Though this article treats both Corbyn’s and Sanders’ movements as varieties of “Left-populism”, we have to pause here to emphasise the differences between them. These movements were very different, they had very different politics and social compositions, and they came to a “dead end” for very different reasons. To use shorthand, the Sanders campaign discovered the limits of “class-first” social democracy in an era of extreme racial and ethnic polarization; whereas the Corbyn campaign discovered that campist foreign policy, currently the common sense of the activist Left, was an easy target when playing in the political “big leagues”, and that reacting with denial, bluster, whataboutery, and claims of conspiracy didn’t help.

The biggest academic names which have featured over the last 30 years or so in recommending a “Left-populist” form of organisation have been the partnership of Argentinian Ernesto Laclau and Belgian Chantal Mouffe. Describing themselves as “post-Marxists”, their starting point is that – in the era of neoliberal globalisation – the industrial working class around which Marxist hopes had been traditionally built can no longer be the basis for a revolutionary or even a reformist challenge to the status quo, at least in Western countries. The challenge, therefore, is to build a new kind of popular majority to challenge austerity, imperialism and oppression. Though Laclau is now deceased, Mouffe carries on their work.

Laclau and Mouffe’s theories – most famously expressed in their joint work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) – make a lot of sense in an era where traditional working-class organisations and communities have collapsed, and in which “intersectional” politics of race, gender, sexuality and migration status have come to the fore. However, I intend to argue that the Corbyn and Sanders movements – and at a further remove, the more successful movements behind SYRIZA in Greece and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela – demonstrate serious flaws in Left-populist politics as practiced over the last 20 years, which I believe can be shown to be inherent in the populist method of organisation itself as described by Laclau and Mouffe.

The problems of populism 1: Potato sacks and dear leaders

Everyone interested in making sense of modern politics should read Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.[45] In 1848, Louis Bonaparte (nephew of the French revolutionary general and later Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) became President of the French Republic because all the squabbling factions of the ruling class – monarchist, republican, conservative and liberal – saw him as a harmless clown who could be used and discarded. By 1852, after four years of constant fighting between these factions, President Bonaparte was able to ride a popular wave of resentment and exasperation, firstly, to carry out a coup to give himself dictatorial powers, then to make himself “Emperor Napoleon III”, in imitation of his uncle (which gave rise to Marx’s famous dictum about history repeating, first as tragedy then as farce).

Marx points out that Bonaparte’s social base was not the Parisian working class, but the French peasantry– an atomised social layer who could only be unified in the sense that potatoes are unified by putting them into a sack. This “sack” was the cult of the Bonaparte name and nostalgia for the First Empire (something we might today call “Make France Great Again”?) and a feeling of what we would now call “anti-politics” – the sentiment ¡Que se vayan todos! (They can all get out!) of the Argentinian uprising of 2002.[46] In another sense, Bonaparte and his successors repeated the successful formula of Julius Caesar, who was supported by ancient Rome’s poor and socially-excluded free citizens in overthrowing the traditional aristocracy and making himself Dictator for Life, allowing his successors to become Emperors.

Modern populist politics of both Left and Right varieties inherits this “potatoes in a sack” method of organisation, where horizontal solidarity between people and groups within the movement is less important than vertical loyalty to a unifying slogan, programme, or Leader. In his book On Populist Reason (Verso Books, 2004), Ernesto Laclau argues that an individual leader upon whom many different sectors of society can project their hopes and dreams is in fact a vital aspect of the populist style of organising:

An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader. (Kindle location 1728)

A less jargony way of phrasing this would be: an individual Leader becomes a logical necessity for holding together a broad movement composed of many different groups with their own demands.[47] But the problem here is that a political leader is not only a point of unity, and a symbol; he or she is a real person with real political authority, and the two aspects of this role contradict each other. Although Left populism assembles a different set of groups under a different programme and a different personality than Right-populism, a Leader who is a symbolic unifying figure is very hard to seriously challenge from within the movement – leading to an essentially authoritarian relationship between leader and led.

Laclau himself speaks later in this book about Juan Perón, the former Argentine president who became the leader of a vast and very diverse populist movement while he was exiled during the 1960s. At this time, Perón himself compared himself to the Pope – a symbol of unity and reverence. However, after Perón returned to Argentina in the 1970s – and especially after he was re-elected President – he became an actual political leader who had to make decisions which outraged either the left-wing or right-wing parts of his coalition, or both. His movement quickly dissolved, occasionally erupting into fatal violence between factions (Kindle location 3709).

Similarly, Left dissidents from the Greece Left-populist movement SYRIZA have claimed that as the organisation got closer to power, it was progressively

turn[ed…] into a leader-centred party… The aim was to move from a militant party of the left, with a strong culture of internal debate, heterogeneity, involvement in social movements and mobilizations, to a party with a passive membership which could be more easily manipulated by the centre, and keener to identify with the figure of the leader.[48]

Another SYRIZA dissident suggested that this was accomplished through mechanisms of “direct democracy” which had the appearance of giving power to the grassroots but in fact concentrated power at the top. It was suggested that the same thing was happening in Spain’s PODEMOS.[49] This has uncanny parallels to the way Louis Bonaparte, as President and later as Emperor, used periodic referendums to give legitimacy to his dictatorship.

Certainly the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns both contained a minority (with an outsized presence on social media) which took on a “personality cult” aspect, intolerant of any criticism of the Leader. But an outsized role for the personality of the Leader goes hand-in-hand with a political emptiness among the “potatoes” in the populist sack – the various factions end up with very little in common except for what “team” they’re on. In Adam Langlaben’s words:

There’s no such thing as Corbynism, because Corbyn never said anything of substance. He enabled whatever he says to be so vague, that it allows his supporters to decide whatever they want, and to give his supporters permission to say and do whatever they want, because there was [sic] no red lines, he wasn’t saying yes or no to anything.[50]

The fact that all these populist movements have ended up in failure – even the ones which have taken State power – show a problem with not only this inherent authoritarian dynamic, but also a problem with its horizon – that is, the greatest extent to which it can be successful. In practice, this horizon has turned out to be at best a militant form of social democracy – a strong welfare state which guarantees certain economic benefits and political rights to all citizens, standing against the powers of “the market” and of foreign imperialism, as at the high point of Hugo Chávez’s administration in Venezuela.

But, as explored by American revolutionary Hal Draper in The Two Souls of Socialism,[51]this model is counterposed to socialism as in workers’ power expressed through grassroots democracy, involving the abolition of capitalist social and economic relations altogether. Too many modern-day “revolutionaries” seem to have forgotten there’s a difference between these two meanings of “socialism”. Hence nonsense propaganda like Jeremy Corbyn’s face photoshopped into old Soviet or Maoist propaganda posters, or – my personal favourite – Bernie Sanders depicted as Che Guevara on T-shirts – while Corbyn was calling for more funding for police and border guards,[52] and Bernie Sanders hardly challenged the Democrat consensus on imperialist foreign policy.

In the days when Hugo Chávez was President of Venezuela, many on the Left argued that a Left-populist, anti-imperialist State leadership would open the door for revolution from below. Sadly, this didn’t happen; and now, Chávez’s successors have made sure that it never will, having moved to the model of an authoritarian clientelist state in which capitalists who become “friends of the regime” are protected.[53] A top-down movement based around a leader with an exceptional personality, which is what populist movements tend to become in practice, cannot bring about an end to exploitation and oppression. Mistaking authoritarian, though Left-leaning, populism for socialist democracy is a mistake that the organised Left has made over and over again throughout history.

Moreover, a movement based on the personality of the Leader will find it increasingly difficult to correct the Leader when he (and it is usually a “he”) makes a wrong turn – or even to accept criticism in good faith. Ian Dunt describes the reaction of the Corbyn camp to criticism:

Out they came, every time. The loyalist ranks, where Corbyn’s survival mattered more than anything, and all that challenged him was by definition a conspiracy. First the anonymous Twitter accounts, then the ones with large followings, then the big hitters, the Corbyn supporters who appear on TV debate programmes – the whole weird cottage industry of faith-based political defensiveness. All working to chisel away at the seriousness of what was happening, to make the people targeted feel that they were somehow in the wrong.[54]

One shorthand for this kind of knee-jerk “defence of the Leader” is “Stan culture”. “Stan” is a term for a deranged, obsessed fan (from an Eminem song), and the nastiest Corbyn and Sanders supporters on social media have sometimes acted like participants in one of the infamous feuds within popular entertainment fan cultures, rather than political activists.

Apart from the issue with the possibility of democratically holding the Leader to account, in a populist movement, real power is wielded by who can get closest to the Leader to influence him in the “right” direction. Thus, we saw a rush by socialists in the UK and the US to get onto the front seats of the Corbyn and Sanders bandwagons; even worse, in the UK, to create the repulsive illusion of a “left-wing Brexit”. It should not be surprising, however, to watch “leaders” of the revolutionary Left set aside their principles to go in this direction. This is in practice how this author has watched the revolutionary movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand work over the last 15 years – tailing popular demands or leaders and giving up political clarity in favour of “influence” over the leaders of centrist or even conservative forces.

The evidence of all the Left-populist movements that gave us so much hope over the last 25 years repeat this sorry story. To an extent, it doesn’t matter whether Hugo Chávez really supported Russian and Chinese imperialism and dictators like Mugabe or Lukashenko; whether Jeremy Corbyn really thought Russia were on the right side in Syria, or whether anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was no big deal; or whether Bernie Sanders agreed with a “class reductionist” approach that ignored Black Lives Matter and similar movements in favour of cultivating white populist reactionaries like Joe Rogan. But a decisive number of important people around them certainly did, and were able to act in the name of The Leader – names like Milne or Murray in Britain, David Sirota or Briahna Joy Gray in the US, or Diosdado Cabello in Venezuela. Philadelphia antifascist Gwen Snyder argues, with respect to Sanders and the “dirtbag left”:

his campaign staff urged him to lean into it. It wasn’t his base, he had much broader appeal. He just had exactly the wrong people whispering in his ear and encouraging him to play to exactly the wrong audience, an audience that reviled the rest of his coalition.[55]

The problems of populism 2: Red-Brown confusion

Although far from a communist horizon, strong-state social democracy might still sound like an improvement for most people compared to corporate-led global neoliberalism, let alone authoritarian Right-wing populism. But the more serious problem is that Left-populism – with its majoritarian, “we are the 99%” rhetoric, based on a division between the people and the Establishment/the elites – has in practice reproduced the one-sided opposition to liberals/neoliberals/centrism which I discussed in my 2016 article Against Conservative Leftism.[56] This has opened the door to de facto or even explicit alliances with Right-populists or even fascists against neoliberal globalism.

One particular subset of the Left-populist movements – commonly known as the “Dirtbag Left” in the United States, to use the self-description of the podcast Chapo Trap House – argue that the Trump electorate can be won to social democracy by class reductionism – restricting the movement to solely “bread-and-butter” economic demands for higher wages and social welfare, completely rejecting questions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and immigration as “divisive” or even “neoliberal”.

The argument seems to be that Donald Trump’s mass support is open to being converted to a social-democratic or even socialist platform, as long as it does not evoke the dreaded “Identity Politics”. Racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia do not need to be confronted separately, in this light – in fact, they should not be, as doing so would alienate “the white working class” (read: white men with a “blue-collar” cultural identity) from socialist politics. Bernie Sanders, according to this analysis, gave too much away to “IdPol”. Ironically, this runs directly against Laclau and Mouffe’s proposals for Left-populism; this does not involve unifying disparate groups and integrating their demands under the common banner of “the People”, but one (privileged) part of “the People” imposing dominance over the rest. As one Twitter user put it, “they would sell out every POC and every LGBT+ person to not pay college loans”.[57]

This is often accompanied by an assertion that Trump ran to the “left” of Clinton in 2016, in particular that he promised to end foreign wars. If this were true, then a Trump pivot to anti-imperialism and social-democratic economics would make as much sense as anything. But in fact, Trump did precisely the opposite, demanding that the US commit even more vicious war crimes, such as murdering the families of “terrorists”.[58] A similar assertion is that many people who voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 did so for the same reasons that Leftists opposed Clinton: her responsibility for neoliberalism, austerity and imperialist wars. This is often combined with an assertion that Trump’s support base are “white working class” – precisely the kind of constituency that a Left-populist movement would dream of mobilizing.

One example of “Trump is the lesser evil” rhetoric. Whether sincerely held or a Trumpist making mischief, this kind of talk is dangerous.

In reality, even if Donald Trump is not a literal fascist, he is at the very least “fash-curious”. He has built a movement (almost a cult) out of open expression of white privilege and resentment. His target audience is not the working classes or the oppressed, but the downwardly mobile, formerly privileged (overwhelmingly white and male) middle-classes and skilled workers. These are the layers who have been atomised and dispersed by neoliberal capitalism, and have lost some of their relative privilege over various layers whom they see as “beneath them” (blacks, Muslims, migrants, uppity women, queer and trans people). They direct their resentment towards the latter, while continuing their hero-worship of the billionaire class who have grown fat off their suffering.[59]

All the evidence points to Trump’s voters being much more motivated by racism, misogyny, and 25 years of Right-led conspiracy theory which has sought to convict Hillary Clinton of corruption, murder, and literally sacrificing children to the Devil. All analyses of Trump’s support show that it skews very heavily towards wealthier white (male) voters; though 52% of white women voters plumped for Trump in 2016, recent evidence suggests that this has plummeted, rendering the misogyny of the Trump movement even more stark.[60] Even worse, the same is true of the Bernie Sanders vote from 2016: as left-wing pollster Sean McElwee put it, “the white working-class voters that Sanders won were mostly anti-Clinton voters”.[61] As David Atkins puts it, the evidence of the Sanders campaign shows that “unlike leftist policy more broadly, this theory of the electorate has utterly failed.”[62]

Similar confusion was apparent among Left-populists who wishfully declared that the 2016 vote for Brexit was “a multi-ethnic working class uprising against the elites”. In fact – as for a Trump vote – the best predictor of a Brexit vote was being white.[63] This shows an incapacity of the existing Left-populist movement to tell the difference between radical and reactionary opposition to the status quo. If the Revolution only means “the masses in motion”, then any mass movement with a popular leadership which threatens the neoliberal establishment (from Left or Right) is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Rather than building a different power bloc among the excluded masses with its own programme, as Laclau and Mouffe suggest, this kind of “populism” skips over class analysis (which would involve an up-to-date analysis of how the contemporary globalised neoliberal economy works, where value is being produced, etc), in favour of drawing a dividing line between “the elite and the masses” based on cultural features. “The people”, in this kind of “Left Populism”, are all those who do not share the cultural signifiers of the upwardly-mobile middle class; or alternatively, display the cultural features of the manual working class which existed before the neoliberal era began. This is a conservative, even traditionalist, understanding of politics, which benefits from the prevailing drift to the radical Right, rather than opposing it.

Even worse, this envy of the success of Right-wing populism creates an irresistible temptation to “join them if you can’t beat them”. As opposed to a “horizontal” form of building a mass movement, which would ally all the oppressed and exploited on the basis of solidarity, it seems that Left-wing populism seeks to combat its Right-wing equivalent by appealing to the same base – downwardly mobile formerly privileged layers (particularly white, blue-collar men) who have lost out in the era of globalised neoliberalism.

This confusion of Left-wing and Right-wing oppositions to globalised neoliberalism opens the door to the embrace by a Left-populist movement of socially conservative and “campist” politics, even fascist-infected Red-Brown politics. Alongside this often comes a defence of authoritarian nationalist regimes which are (supposedly) opposed to US imperialism, such as Russia, China and Syria. A tell-tale sign of this kind of Red-Brown populism in the US is adamant insistence that the investigation into Russian state collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign is some kind of hoax. Well-known promoters of this kind of politics include American-Brazilian journalist Glenn Greenwald and Irish writer Angela Nagle, who have actually appeared on the show of extreme-Right FOX News host Tucker Carlson to agree with him about the horrors of neoliberalism and identity politics.

Lebanese activist and journalist Joey Ayoub puts it colourfully and succinctly:

if the ‘populist left’ has common grounds with fascism the ‘populist left’ can fuck right off and there’s absolutely no reason to waste any time listening to three white people debating whether common ground can be found with those who want to erase our existence.[64]

The problems of populism 3: Trump Envy

The role of a kind of resentment, or even sadism, in populist politics of both Left and Right is vital here. It’s no coincidence that many people who promote these kinds of politics have previously expressed the wish for a “tough guy socialism”, which, to misuse an old expression of Trotsky, “really wants to tear the bourgeoisie’s head off”. The British socialist writer Richard Seymour, now an editor of Salvage magazine, used to talk on his blog Lenin’s Tomb about how Corbyn was too “nice” and he needed supporters who would leverage “hate” and even “sadism” against the conservative Right and neoliberal centre.[65]

It might even be said that modern Left populism suffers from “Trump Envy”. Quite apart from the need pointed out by Laclau to have a leader-figure as a binding force for a populist coalition, many Left-wing activists have the desire for someone in this role who will be just as rude, aggressive, abusive and transgressive as Donald Trump but for “good purposes”, “from the Left”. If a mass movement against the neoliberal establishment is what is required – never mind its politics or its class composition – it’s easy to imagine that supporters of the Trump movement (or the Brexit movement, or similar manifestations in other countries) could be turned “to our side”, if they were offered the same aggressive macho leadership but with a different programme.

Left-populism shares with its Right-wing sibling a certain joy in transgression, in (at least verbal) violence – which tracks with what Laclau says in On Populist Reason about the vital role played by emotions, rather than strictly rational analysis, in cohering a populist bloc (Kindle location 1925). The Black Lives Matter uprisings show that retaliatory aggression and violence against the oppressor class are a part of any vital mass movement. However, the real problem comes when this aggression is directed horizontally – or even “downward”, towards a social layer which the movement considers “beneath” it. This goes beyond intemperate attacks on centrist Democrats and the neoliberal establishment, and even the usual excesses of intra-movement conflict, to become a kind of half-spoken political strategy, of abuse as a feature of the movement, a “perk” of belonging.

As explored above, factions of the Corbyn and Sanders movements in the US and the UK went down the path of Conservative Leftism in rejecting “intersectionality” as a neoliberal piety – and this has combined with the pleasure in transgression or sadism mentioned above, to emerge as racist, misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic abuse, justified as being “from the Left” when delivered against acceptable targets. For example, Gwen Snyder, a strong supporter of the Sanders campaign, became the target of sustained harassment (escalating to death threats) for pointing out issues of misogynist behaviour within Bernie fandom, and the Red-Brown drift among fans of “Dirtbag Left” podcasts.[66] The Bernie Sanders campaign itself (not Sanders himself) proudly touted an endorsement from Joe Rogan, a pop-culture podcaster who is flamboyantly transphobic and otherwise bigoted.[67]

Another curious phenomenon is people who hold much better Left politics than the “Dirtbags”, even though they quite rightly despise Trump and almost everything he stands for, defending Trump, or at least seeing him as a lesser evil, against “the Establishment/elites”. For example, they agree with Trump that he is being unfairly attacked by a “Deep State”; law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel and other people within the US state who are opposed, not so much to Trump’s politics, but to his disregard for the norms and conventions of the US bourgeois state, or even its laws and Constitution – something that many Left-populists regard as a positive feature, if only he would use it “for good”.

This is amplified by the way in which, as mentioned above, the US activist Left has concentrated over the years on attacking liberals, neoliberals, and “the Dems” as its first priority. And who is better at really “triggering the libs” than Trump? Disturbingly, and as in 2016, many Left-wing figures attack the Democrats in terms which are so similar to those coming from the Trump campaign that it is often impossible to tell the difference; this is the same process that Gwen Snyder identifies whereby the “Dirtbag Left” serves to “launder” fascist memes for a Left-wing audience.[68]

This phenomenon of Left-populism taking a “lesser evil” approach to Right-populism against the neoliberal establishment has become a meme to the point where it now has a name. In the same way that anything that comes after “I’m not racist, but…” is going to be racist, a Leftist who says “Mr Trump, who I do not support…” is about to support Trump against the Deep State or the neoliberal Democratic Party.

These Left populists oppose this putative sabotage, not because they like Trump’s politics, far from it… but because they imagine the State apparatus doing the same thing to a putative President Sanders (or on the model of what the Chilean state actually did to Salvador Allende in the 1970s). Similarly, many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to discredit the mainstream media as irredeemably biased against their candidate, in very similar terms to Trump and his “fake news” slogan – with the same purpose, to discredit any criticism of Dear Leader, whether valid or not. This is a logical consequence of a horizon of victory which envisions a popular Leader taking control of the State machinery “for good purposes”, rather than a popular movement dismantling it.

This sneaking sympathy by Leftists for Trump against “neoliberal elites” leads to what can only be described as wish fulfilment fantasies, that Trump may one day “pivot” to the Left, if he sees it in his electoral interests to do so. The Twitter account “Shitty Outflanking Takes” collects arguments from Leftists that Trump will, someday soon, start promoting social-democratic causes such as Medicare for All, forgiving student debt, criminal justice reform, or even ending American overseas military adventures, to “outflank” the neoliberal Democrats and win a working-class base.[69] If Trump is politically empty – if he just wants power and will say or do anything to get re-elected – and, as much of the US asserts, the “Dems” and the “GOP” are no different – why should Trump not adopt the Bernie Sanders programme in total? An interesting reply would be: if that were true, why did Sanders not run as a Republican?


To summarize, we have sketched out three categories of problems with Left-populism in practice. Firstly, there are problems inherent in the populist political method as sketched out by Laclau and Mouffe. Chief among this is the contradiction between a populist leader’s symbolic unifying role and their actual role in strategy and tactics; the fact that the urge to “defend the Leader” might make self-correction in the movement impossible; and the way in which those around the Leader can use their role as his “biggest supporters” to justify atrocious politics[70]. Both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns developed a “Stan culture”, targeting centrists or even insufficiently enthusiastic supporters of The Leader as the main enemy.

Secondly: there is also the problem that problem that Left Populism and Right populism are – as Laclau says – the same method used for different ends, and we have seen a steady stream in practice of Leftists who enthusiastically back the former often end up backing the latter because they have lost the ability to tell the difference, or remember why it’s a vital one.. There is even the phenomenon of “Dirtbag Leftism”  which seeks to throw out the inheritance of 50 years of intersectional struggle in favour of trying to restore a white, male, traditionalist audience for social democracy – which is contrary to what Laclau and Mouffe would see as populism altogether, and forgets that 1960s social democracy wasn’t so great either, which is why it was rejected by the Beatnik, Hippie and Punk movements.

Thirdly: there is a real problem of Trump Envy, the belief that what the movement needs is a “left-wing version” of the Trump phenomenon, or even a hope of Trump “outflanking” the Democrats to the left on economic populism. This includes a distressing number of “Lefties” who delight in the same kind of mob cruelty and aggressive disregard for inconvenient realities which characterise Trump’s and other Right-populist movements.

Laclau’s argument is that a Leader figure who can unify atomised and conflicting social layers in an anti-establishment movement is an essential element in populism. The worst possible form such a movement can take on, of course, is fascism. At best, it can take power in the capitalist state – but historical evidence suggests that, from there, it can only retain power through conciliation with global capitalism and turning on its own supporters. Populist movements have successfully changed the balance of power within class society – but never abolished it. For “post-Marxists” like Laclau and Mouffe, the latter might not even be possible.

Direct action gets the goods

One way out of this problem might be, not to reject the Left populist strategy, but firstly, to recognize it as necessary but insufficient to provoke a fundamental change in society; and secondly, to reject primarily electoral populism of the Corbyn/Sanders/SYRIZA variety.

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings. This is similar to how the defeat of the movements of the 1970s, and the election of Right-populists Reagan and Thatcher in the US and UK, was followed by insurgent broad-Left electoral campaigns by Tony Benn, Jesse Jackson and their like.

British left academic Harry Pitts argues that the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party was in fact

the legacy of the anti-austerity social movements after the crisis. Their ultimate failure, I guess, you know, and their fragmentation, the turn of a lot of the people involved in that towards a more electoralist parliamentary route.[71]

In majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems like the United States or the United Kingdom, Left-wing electoral populism can only act as a “spoiler”, attempting to take away enough votes from the more liberal of the major parties to be able to dictate terms upon it; unless, of course, it succeeds in taking over the liberal/centre-Left major party from within. The former is grossly irresponsible when the Right no longer wants a nastier version of capitalist normality, but the mass repeal of democratic rights and the welfare state in a fascist or Pinochet-style programme. As Fightback has argued repeatedly, this is the same fatal mistake made by the Stalinised Communists of the 1930s who saw no difference between Hitler and capitalist normality.

“Third Period” politics being reborn in real time on social media

The latter runs up against the logical problem of how to successfully dominate a party mostly composed of people you despise. The Chapo “bend the knee” slogan would never have worked in practice for Bernie Sanders inside the US Democrats, just as the Labour Party caucus and apparatus never “bent the knee” to Jeremy Corbyn – which is of course exactly what Corbyn’s die-hard supporters complain about. The alternative – to purge the liberals and moderates from the party – does not seem a plausible step forward to winning electoral contests. The failure mode of both these approaches is the electoral nihilism condemned above; of asserting that neoliberal capitalist normality is no different than fascism, that it won’t be allowed to win anyway, that electoral politics are a waste of time if “Our Guy” isn’t on the ballot.

The lessons of Chávez in Venezuela and SYRIZA in Greece show that when a Left-populist movement seizes state power and confronts international capitalism, there is a period of stalemate followed by slow but inevitable capitulation. Come to think of it, this is also the legacy of Stalinism. My personal suggestion would be to concentrate on building a real Left-populist movement for protagonistic, intersectional democracy – while fully embracing a vote for “our preferred enemy” in elections. The question is whether we would prefer to be on the streets in 2021 demanding social reforms and police abolition from President Biden, or defending the remnants of freedom of speech and assembly from an emboldened President Trump and fascist mobs.

This is of course the dreaded “lesser (or least) evil” strategy, as criticised (though not rejected) by Hal Draper.[72] But anyone who argues that it is possible for a party or candidate to actually win a bourgeois election contest while not becoming some form of evil – that is, without making compromises with capital and social layers which support it – can be charitably advised to “get real”. Encouraging people to believe that voting for a Left-wing social democratic politician is actually “The Revolution” – the “Bernie in a Ché hat” phenomenon – while demonizing other centrist or reformist candidates and tendencies, means – once the compromises begin – setting up the movement for massive disappointment, abstention from the fight against fascist, or even drifting in a Trumpist or fascist direction, fuelled by hatred of “liberals/moderates” above all else.

In any case, as we’ve seen above, voting is secondary in terms of social transformation, or even a “consolation prize” once mass direct-action or protest movements fail. It seems strange that Corbyn or Sanders supporters should depict their leaders in the same terms as Communist revolutionaries, breathing fire on the hated “liberals” all the time, while at the same time placing their hopes for social change on winning elections in the bourgeois state. In fact, Gwen Snyder argues that an approach that prioritises direct action might have spin-off benefits for electoral work:

centering direct action organizing is more productive than centering electoral work when it comes to focusing our energies. Direct action changes minds and wins hearts and makes people realize their power. When people’s hearts & minds are changed, when folks realize that their action makes a difference and that they hold real power when organized, they’re much more likely to be open to coalition-building around a candidate with bolder positions when it comes time to talk elections.[73]

We might counterpose to electoral populism the concept of protagonistic democracy – a situation where working people take matters into their own hands to create a better world. Such a form of direct-action populism would necessarily require its unifying slogans and its (symbolic and practical) leadership to reflect intersectional politics – identifying and building commonalities between different axes of oppression, rather than privileging one part of the coalition above others. The “conservative Left” strategies discussed above, which centre the “traditional” (white, cishet, male) working class as the face of struggle, offer no path forward but the netherworld of Red-Brown reaction.

The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, not to mention the current “Black Lives Matter” uprisings in the United States[74], give us recent examples of direct-action populist movements. Syria’s democratic movement gives examples of the kind of unifying slogans which make connections rather than fudge differences – ‘Syria is one’ sought to counter sectarianism by assembling a people under the signifier of free Syria, combined with the transnational slogan ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’ (which has re-emerged in BLM protests). In contrast, while the Arab Spring was drowned in blood, Occupy reached its own dead end due to a confused political project whose slogan (“We are the 99%”) and practice did not draw sharp lines against conspiracy theories, misogyny and even fascism. The latter is, as we’ve seen above, a danger inherent in the populist method which must be strongly guarded against; which suggests a vital role for anti-capitalist political centres within such movements.

As this article is written, the BLM movement has quickly overtaken the Bernie Sanders phenomenon politically and is enacting a form of protagonistic democracy on the streets, under the violent repression of Trump’s fash-curious USA. It has gone far beyond the original coalition between Black communities acting in self-defence and white radicals; the white “moms and dads” who stood against Trump’s snatch squads in Portland in late July are a sign of a populist movement which is really taking off. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders himself is united with his apparent polar opposites, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, in making verbal gestures of support for the movement, while refusing the demand to “Defund the Police” (let alone abolish it). Some of the dead-end “anti-liberal” Left have been reduced to repeating lukewarm versions of Trump’s slurs against Joe Biden, or fantasies about Trump “outflanking” the Democrats. American journalist Josh Messite comments on this inability to realise when they’ve lost:

if Bernie and Corbyn both achieved massive electoral wins and enacted sweeping reforms, I would have had to shift my thinking on organizing priorities and the path to power. instead Bernie and Corbyn both lost, and yet the people who pushed for that strategy haven’t changed a bit.[75]

Just recently, a major left-wing blog in Ireland ran an appeal for a new electoral coalition between the various socialist factions.[76] Left-populism has its dangers and has not yet fulfilled its promise, though I am not willing to agree that it was a mistake altogether. My argument, though, is that a primarily electoral Left-populism has proved itself to be a comprehensive dead-end.


[1]              Fightback previously published an analysis of SYRIZA’s own dead end – https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[2]              https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/22/chapo-trap-house-podcast-dirtbag-left-takes-aim-at-clinton-supporters

[3]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/4/21164518/super-tuesday-results-voter-turnout

[4]              https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/super-tuesday-results-2020-primary-texas-voter-suppression-lines-long-wait-queues-a9373886.html

[5]              https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/nyregion/andrew-cuomo-cynthia-nixon-wins-governors-race.html

[6]              https://twitter.com/marcushjohnson/status/1240117667287228416

[7]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[8]              https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sanders-says-i-dont-agree-with-to-abolish-police-departments

[9]              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieFL8StRyJo&feature=youtu.be

[10]             https://www.inquirer.com/columnists/attytood/trump-presidential-election-joe-biden-democrat-hillary-clinton-misogyny-20200702.html

[11]             https://www.vox.com/21299730/george-floyd-democratic-party-joe-biden-black-lives-matter-protests-2020-identity-politics; https://www.wonkette.com/joe-biden-wants-to-be-your-fdr

[12]             https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/24/progressives-primary-justice-democrats-338488

[13]             https://salvage.zone/articles/salvage-perspectives-8-comrades-this-is-madness

[14]             https://www.out.com/news-opinion/2019/1/22/kamala-harris-takes-responsibility-opposing-trans-surgeries

[15]             See https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_biden-6247.html for up-to-date figures.

[16]             https://twitter.com/yohannabeee/status/1271155114569424896

[17]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/

[18]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/episode-3-transcription/

[19]             https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/18/dysfunctional-toxic-culture-led-to-labour-defeat-major-report-finds

[20]             If an equivalent of the Corbyn or Sanders movements exist in mainstream politics in Australasia, it’s in the Green parties.

[21]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Labour_Party_leadership_election_(UK)

[22]             This appeal of a leader-figure over the heads of representative or intermediary bodies to an atomised mass of individuals is an essential feature of populist politics, as we will explore further below.

[23]             In what follows, I will attempt to analyse, not Jeremy Corbyn as a person, but the movement which he led and to some extent embodied.

[24]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/08/01/10842/

[25]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corbyn_wreath-laying_controversy

[26]             https://theconversation.com/labour-and-anti-semitism-these-are-the-roots-of-the-problem-on-the-left-94923

[27]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[28]             Journalist Jonathan Freedland suggests that Corbyn enjoyed the reputation of “being the foreign minister of the Left” (https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/)

[29]             https://jeremycorbyn.org.uk/articles/jeremy-corbyns-speech-against-military-intervention-in-syria/

[30]             https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-russia-spy-nerve-agent-iraq-war-wmd-labour-theresa-may-a8256021.html

[31]             https://balkaninsight.com/2015/08/17/uk-labour-frontrunner-queried-on-kosovo-motion-08-17-2015/

[32]             https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/uk-labour-leader-corbyn-voices-conspiracy-theory-against-israel-in-2012-563714

[33]             https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/

[34]             https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2018/08/labour-can-be-jo-cox-s-party-or-chris-williamson-s-it-cannot-be-both

[35]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[36]             https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2015/10/i-wanted-believe-jeremy-corbyn-i-cant-believe-seumas-milne

[37]             Short, shameful confession: the author of this article wrote a piece on New Zealand politics for the Morning Star in 2014. I don’t remember their politics being so bad at that point.

[38]             https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/morning-star-labour-mps-aleppo_uk_584f2931e4b0b7ff851db424

[39]             https://metro.co.uk/2020/02/23/newspaper-apologises-transphobic-cartoon-sparks-outrage-12287799/

[40]             https://web.archive.org/web/20150923060138/http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-972b-Nato-belligerence-endangers-us-all

[41]             As recently replicated by the extremely pro-China Socialist Action group within British Labour: http://www.socialistaction.net/2020/08/12/the-left-should-not-be-taken-in-by-us-wmd-lies-this-time-about-uyghers/

[42]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[43]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/24/episode-2-transcription/

[44]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/10/19/aucklands-no-choice-elections-blue-greens-and-conservative-leftists/

[45]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/

[46]             https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/feb/06/global-recession-backlash

[47]             Some of the diagrams in On Populist Reason which illustrate Laclau’s theory of building unity in a populist movement between different social forces depict these forces as ovals… that is, potato-shaped.

[48]             https://newleftreview.org/issues/II97/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-syriza-s-rise-and-fall.pdf

[49]             https://isreview.org/issue/100/reflections-our-experience-syriza

[50]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[51]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/index.htm

[52]             https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2017/05/28/corbyn-pledges-increased-staffing-levels-at-security-and-intelligence-agencies/

[53]             https://socialistworker.org/2017/07/13/being-honest-about-venezuela

[54]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[55]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1294068877522014208

[56]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/02/15/against-conservative-leftism/

[57]             https://twitter.com/NickRup/status/1278128227274371072

[58]             https://www.mediamatters.org/donald-trump/myth-donald-dove-shows-perils-gullible-press

[59]             https://www.thedailybeast.com/anti-establishment-americas-new-syphilitic-politics-of-the-far-left-and-alt-right

[60]             https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-06-26/behind-trumps-sharp-slump-white-women-who-stuck-with-him-before-are-abandoning-him-now

[61]             https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[62]             https://washingtonmonthly.com/2020/04/11/leftist-policy-didnt-lose-marxist-electoral-theory-did/

[63]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0176268018301320

[64]             https://twitter.com/joeyayoub/status/1276194859167121408

[65]             http://www.leninology.co.uk/2015/06/yes-you-can-hate-rich.html; http://www.leninology.co.uk/2016/06/in-praise-of-hate.html

[66]             See thread beginning at https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1249712403404783618

[67]             https://www.forbes.com/sites/dawnstaceyennis/2020/01/26/joe-rogans-endorsement-the-stain-on-bernie-sanders-that-some-voters-think-makes-him-more-attractive/

[68]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288588513601040384

[69]             https://twitter.com/mtwidns

[70]             Those familiar with the theories of Jacques Lacan may recognize the psychoanalytic concept of “The Name of the Father” at work here.

[71]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/episode-7-transcription/

[72]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1967/01/lesser.htm

[73]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288144108431773696. The importance of direct mass action in changing mass consciousness – rather than leaving it to elected politicians or professional organisers – was also raised by US union organiser Jane McAlevey in No Shortcuts, a book I reviewed in Fightback last year: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/01/13/book-review-no-shortcuts/

[74]             Some wags have dubbed it the “ACAB Spring” (All Cops Are Bastards).

[75]             https://twitter.com/JoshMessite/status/1276318659984703489

[76]             https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2020/07/09/the-old-world-is-dying-and-the-new-world-struggles-to-be-born-call-the-midwife-ireland-needs-a-new-left-party/

Zombie Stalinism: 25 years later, who wants the Berlin Wall back?

honecker

This piece was originally printed on the IS Network (UK) website on the 18th November 2014.

We reprint it in light of the lapsing of that original post, aswell as our own convergence with the analysis of Stalinism and ‘campism’ (see for example Daphne Lawless’ Against Campism: What makes some leftists support Putin?).

Twenty-five years on, how has the fall of the Berlin Wall affected our analysis of Soviet Russia? How has what we have learnt changed our analysis of post-’89 Eastern Europe, Russia and the current situation in Ukraine?

The deepest discussions in the international workers’ movement about the relationship between dictatorship and democracy happened in the years after 1917 and either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1980s, revolutionary Marxists faced a growing crisis of Stalinist power in the East, and of the Stalinist parties in the West. Unlike the 1930s or 1940s, the failure of the Stalinist states to deliver democratic rights was more visible to many workers than capitalism’s failings. That, coupled with the low level of class consciousness, meant that many aspirations of working people and our allies could easily be channelled into social democracy and other pro-capitalist avenues. The way that the USSR and the other Stalinist states misrepresented the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant that workers rejected it both East and West.

In the 1980s, working people around the world were looking for alternatives to the dogmas of Stalinism. Stalinism was the root of elitist schemes in which a paternalist and monolithic party excluded workers from power, on the premise that freedom of discussion opened up the possibilities for counter-revolutionary ideas. Because it reflected the common sense of the post-war imperialism, this notion spread beyond the Stalinist parties and into parts of the social democratic and revolutionary Marxist movements.

The search for alternatives took place largely outside these parties and flowed into the social movements. In the East and the West, class consciousness was deeply stratified and uneven. Struggles spilled out in many directions, picking up the movements and leaderships to hand, like flood waters flowing down the path of least resistance.

The paucity of open, democratic and accessible organisations on the left had two results. First, the anti-Stalinist movements had to find direction independently, much as early feminist movements rejected by the western Communist parties found their ways into the social movements: the Stalinist narrative saw independent movements only as counter-revolutionary. Second, the left could not learn from those movements if it failed to recruit from them.

Schemas and dogmas, however, were not the sole preserve of Stalinists. Many revolutionary Marxists equated socialism with states that used nationalisation to deprive imperialism of a toehold, regardless of the concrete power of the working class. That blind spot meant that some socialists found themselves quite adrift. Some ended up supporting state-capitalist enterprises that operated in order to intensify the profit system. Many found themselves disoriented when working class movements confronted states that opposed a larger imperialism or defended nationalised property. They focused attention on the crimes of imperialism, but failed to make solidarity with the masses when they confronted governments which simultaneously excluded imperialism and the people from power. This acquiescence to the repressive secret-police apparatus of the Stalinist states meant that some socialists underestimated the degree to which the Stalinist co-option of socialist rhetoric would channel working class struggles into trade union, church and democratic movements.

Some comrades found themselves caught in the political dead-end that Ernest Mandel, the pre-eminent leader of the post-war Fourth International, called “campism”. Writing in 1983, Mandel criticised those who subordinated the interests of the working class and the revolution to the interests of defending the camp of states that opposed Western imperialism. He pointed out that the bureaucratic leaderships of these states were often mortal enemies of national liberation movements and working class struggles.

This campist viewpoint was widespead in the Trotskyist movement, notably in the English-speaking countries, as well as in the social democratic and Communist parties. In 1986, for example, the US SWP wrote that the progressive character of the Russian states was “a far more weighty factor for the world revolution than the obstacles represented by the Stalinist bureaucracies”. Mandel’s position was the opposite: “The counter-revolutionary role of the Soviet bureaucracy weighs more heavily on world history than the objective positive effects.”

These dogmas made much of the left unable to understand the developments of the anti-Stalinist movements, and the reality of the new movements’ fragile foundations led many on the left into quite disoriented positions.

The fall of the Berlin Wall remains a useful yardstick for revolutionaries. The working class moves imperfectly, and works with the ideas and the leaders it has to hand. The left must celebrate and learn from its imperfect legacies, from the NHS to the unfinished struggle for equality and unity in Germany.


On the 20th anniversary Gareth Dale wrote in the International Socialism journal to remind us of  the revolutionary nature of the movement for unification in East Germany. Those struggles are outlined well in his trio of books on the end of the DDR. However, Dale showed an appreciation of his readers when he wrote, “Readers of this journal are unlikely to be participating in the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the ‘transition to capitalism’ in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s easy to see why.”

Ironically it is Gregor Gysi, spokesperson of Germany’s ex-Stalinist party, who struck a more useful note on the 25th anniversary. Speaking last week, he reminded the Bundestag that the fall of the Wall was a victory for the masses: they confronted a dictatorship and defeated it in order to fight for democracy.

The challenge for the left is to celebrate the fall of the Wall as a progressive, revolutionary accomplishment of the German working class. The East German masses took up the ideas they had to hand: pacifism and trade unionism. The peace movement provided the initial core for the New Forum, a movement eventually backed by 200,000 East Germans. It argued for participatory democracy to reshape society but, partly because the trade unions were state organs, it mobilised workers through a grassroots movement rather than through the workplace.

That said, trade union militancy has deep roots in Germany, which had been warped by the DDR to meet the needs of the state. With the movements for democracy came new labour struggles and the foundation of independent trade unions, starting in East Berlin, encouraged by the positive experience of the independent Solidarity union in Poland. There were also unsuccessful attempts to move the New Forum into the workplaces by demanding a general strike, as Linda Fuller mentions in her book Where Was the Working Class? Mathieu Denis and Gareth Dale have also written convincingly about the role of workers in the movement: something removed from pro-capitalist and campist narratives about reunification. We should not deny the mass, revolutionary nature of these movements because of the later failure to defend and extend the social state, or because of the collapse of heavy industry on both sides of the former border. The ‘counter-revolution’ in East Germany did not happen in 1989, but before the establishment of the DDR itself. The creation of the DDR, far from creating socialism, had replaced one brutal, repressive dictatorship with another.

Nor, as John Rees does, should we view the outcome of reunification primarily as a matter of shifting walls between camps of states. In Rees’s opinion, the mass movement in 1989 was doomed because of the absence of socialist ideas. On the Counterfire website, he writes, “When Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned his East German satellite there was no social force that could resist the embrace of right wing West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. German unification would be a Western annexation, not the beginning of a social revolution…  The neoliberal offensive that took a huge step forward in Germany in 1989 has created a wall between the rich and the poor that is higher than ever, and more difficult to cross.”

This view is mistaken. Echoing Dale’s 2009 article in International Socialism, the revolutionary struggle in East Germany is discounted because of the prior absence of the ideal social force: a working class with revolutionary socialist ideas. The outcome is measured only in the partial attenuation of inequality between West and East, and the geopolitical defeat of Russia. For Rees, it seems, the development, success and memory of mass movements that ended the Stalinist dictatorships are nothing when weighed up against the expansion of NATO.

The same must be said of other struggles. Campism is alive and well, most clearly in relation to Ukraine and Syria. Some socialists have cultivated the absurdity of seeing Putin, leader of the Russian plutocracy that has used IMF diktats to suck wealth out of Russia, and his allies as governing an anti-imperialist bloc of states. The revolutionary struggles of the Syrian workers and peasants against the Syrian dictatorship are discounted by these comrades because US imperialism finds it expedient to oppose dictators who are independent of its sphere of control. In Ukraine, with a different constellation, some comrades are championing reactionary ultra-nationalists in the Donbass against a mass democratic movement. The nationwide Maidan movement took the path of demanding democratic rights and legal protections against corruption and oligarchical power. Because that movement mistakenly believed that an association with the EU was the most effective path towards those victories, some socialists discount the positive nature of the mass movements because one faction of imperialists benefits.

The reality is that mass movements do not always arise in the form of a working class acting consciously for itself. Whatever the level of class consciousness, factions of imperialism will try to co-opt, channel the course of and benefit from progressive movements. Transforming these capitalist factions into blocs whose interests outweigh progressive working class movements leads us to not celebrate the masses’ victories, but eventually to see them as counterproductive struggles which should be subordinated to the interests of neoliberal elites in Russia, Syria and elsewhere.

Socialists must learn different lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall. The working class and its allies will never have perfect self-consciousness. Our task is to support its forward movement, preparing for the reality of the uneven and unknown path ahead, and never to mourn partial victories.

Ernest Mandel on state campism:

What lies today behind the argument of the ‘international relationship of forces’ is in reality the strategy of ‘state campism’, which tends to subordinate the interests of the working class and the revolution in a given country to the interests of defending this or that workers’ state, or the so-called ‘socialist camp’ of states in its totality. We do not accept that subordination in any shape or form – again not for ‘dogmatic’ reasons, but because history has proven again and again that any victorious spread of revolution strengthens the international situation of any and all workers’ states, because it weakens imperialism and international capitalism. Reciprocally, the defeat of revolution in any country, whatever may have been its origins or the pretexts for which it was sacrificed, weakens the international situation of the workers’ states and the working class.

So in reality, those who defend revolutionary self-restraint and self-limitation (including in Poland) do not defend the interests of the working class, the workers’ states, world socialism or world peace. They defend the interests and material privileges of the labour bureaucracy, even if this defence finds its ideological roots in the ‘dialectic of partial conquests’. In the bureaucratised workers’ states, these layers have become a monstrous ossified caste which rules despotically over society and oppresses the great majority of the working class. In open conflicts with that working class, they do not defend the workers’ state. They defend their privileges and their monopoly in the exercise of power, which are barriers on the way forward towards socialism. Likewise, when they oppose the international extension of the revolution, including with ‘pacifist’ arguments of the type ‘We do not want to provoke imperialism into launching war’ or ‘Destabilisation undermines peace’, they do not serve the interests of the workers’ state, of world socialism or of world peace. They serve the particular, conservative, anti-socialist interests of the bureaucracy. So there is no reason whatsoever to yield to these reactionary strategies and arguments.

Sources

Dale, Gareth, ‘A short autumn of utopia: The East German revolution of 1989’, International Socialism 124 (autumn 2009), http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=581&issue=124

Denis, Mathieu, ‘Labor in the Collapse of the GDR and Reunification: A Crucial, Yet Overlooked Actor’, doctoral dissertation, http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/dissertationen/denis-mathieu-2007-05-31/PDF/denis.pdf

Fuller, Linda, Where Was the Working Class?, University of Illinois Press, 1999

Mandel, Ernest, ‘The Threat of Nuclear War and the Struggle for Socialism’, New Left Review http://bit.ly/Campism

Rees, John, ‘Berlin: the wall that came down and the walls that went up’, http://www.counterfire.org/articles/analysis/17510-berlin-the-wall-that-came-down-and-the-walls-that-went-up

Syrian revolution pamphlet successfully crowdfunded

free syria

Fightback are pleased to announce we have successfully met our goal of raising $1,000 for our upcoming pamphlet Syria: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. The pamphlet will be published in both electronic and printed forms, and in English and Arabic.

In Syria today, Assad and his lackeys are flattening entire neighbourhoods, so this little collection of writing seems like a small contribution in terms of solidarity.

However, ugly lies about Syria have become a commonplace, infecting even the left which claims to be a bastion of solidarity. We therefore consider it important to tell the truth about Syria, as an absolute minimum commitment of anyone who believes in democracy and self-determination.

The pamphlet will feature five articles, including reviews of the books The Impossible Revolution and Burning Country, and an interview with Syrian Australian artist Miream Salameh (alongside featuring Salameh’s artwork).

The campaign closes on March 14th, so there is still time if you’d like to contribute and receive a copy.

Funds raised will go directly to production and distribution costs, including translation. Sincere thanks to all who have pledged.

Click here here for PledgeMe campaign

Crowdfunding campaign for Syria pamphlet launched

idlib-kafranbel-protest

“The people want the fall of the regime – الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎.”

Having emerged from the Tunisian revolution and the wider ‘Arab Spring’, this slogan played a role in setting off the Syrian revolution when a group of youths were ‘disappeared’ for grafitiing it in the city of Dara’a. Citizens from many faiths mobilised in the streets of Syria, calling for democratic reform, before Assad’s military repression set off the ongoing crisis we see today – the greatest refugee crisis in a generation.

However, misinformation about the Syrian revolution abounds. You don’t have to go far on the internet to find claims that the Syrian revolution was a CIA conspiracy from the start – a claim made by Chris Trotter on New Zealand’s most popular left blog.

As put in the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, “the start of solidarity is correcting the narrative.” Fightback therefore seeks to help correct the narrative with a collection of articles on the Syrian revolution. The pamphlet will contain five articles by Fightback members, including two book reviews, an interview with a resettled Syrian Australian, and other analysis.

Rather than making grand uninformed claims about the war, this material seeks to engage with work by Syrian revolutionaries, and encourage wider engagement.

The pamphlet will be published in both English and Arabic, and in both electronic and printed forms.

Funds will go towards design, printing, mailout, and translation of articles.

كتيب حول سوريا: الثورة والثورة المضادة باللغة الإنجليزية والعربية

إن شعار الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام“. بعد أن خرج من الثورة التونسية و وبشكل اوسع من الربيع العربي، لعب دوراً في إنطلاقة الثورة السورية وذلك عندما تم اعتقال مجموعة من الشبان بسبب كتابة هذا الشعار على جدران مدينة درعا. احتشد المواطنون من مختلف الأديان في شوارع سوريا ، داعين إلى الإصلاح الديمقراطي ، قبل أن يؤدي القمع العسكري للأسد إلى الأزمة الحالية التي نشهدها اليوم وهي أكبر أزمة لاجئين لهذا الجيل.

إن المعلومات الخاطئة حول الثورة السورية هي معلومات زاخرة، وليس علينا الذهاب بعيدا على الانترنت للعثور على مزاعم بأن الثورة السورية هي مؤامرة من قبل سي آي إي وكالة الاستخبارات المركزية الأميركية” – وهو ادعاء قدمه مارتين برادبري ، مدون اليسارالأكثر شعبية في نيوزيلندا.

وكما ورد في كتاب الأرض المحروقة: سوريا في الثورة والحربيبدأ التضامن في تصحيح السرد ومنظمة فايت باك دافعتسعى للمساعدة في ذلك من خلال طرح كتيب لمجموعة من المقالات حول الثورة السورية.

يحتوي هذا الكتيب على خمس مقالات من أعضاء حزب فايت باك دافع، تتضمن هذه المقالات مراجعة لكتابين ومقابلة مع سورية استرالية تم توطينها وتحليلات أخرى. فبدلا من تقديم ادعاءات كبيرة غير معلنة عن الحرب، تسعى هذه المادة الى الانخراط في العمل مع الثوريين السوريين وتشجيع المشاركة على نطاق أوسع.

سيتم نشر الكتيب باللغتين الإنجليزية والعربية ، وفي كلتي النماذج الإلكترونية والمطبوعة.

سوف يستخدم المال من أجل التصميم والطباعة والبريد وترجمة المقالات.

Please click here to donate and promote

Why I no longer support #changethedate

Aboriginals communities stage a protest on Australia Day

This article is reprinted from the Aboriginal-led website IndigenousX. Please consider donating to their patreon.

This will also be reprinted in our upcoming magazine on theme of ‘International Perspectives.’ You can subscribe to our magazine here.

You want a day to celebrate Australia. I want an Australia that’s worth celebrating.

In the past I have supported the #changethedate campaign.

Until recently, when you searched ‘change the date’ on Google in Australia the first entry was even an article I wrote a few years back titled ‘Why we should change the date ofAustralia Day’.

It is still the most successful article on this website, by far.

I had hoped that there were enough Australians who would agree that celebrating Invasion is a pretty shit thing to do, and that changing the date could provide a catalyst for creating a country worthy of celebration. However, after seeing the rise of the #changethedate campaign I have come to the opinion that there are too many people who seem to think that the problem with Australia Day rests solely on the day we celebrate it, not with what we are celebrating.

I don’t really feel that Australia, where we sit right now, is worth celebrating.

Not just the actions of 230 years ago, or a century ago, or 50 or even 15 years ago that are problematic.

It is those things that exist today that are so problematic that I couldn’t in good faith celebrate our nation as a whole. A lot of that is tied up in our denial of history and our collective refusal to make any meaningful steps to reconcile it, but it extends beyond that too.

A simple observation would be to point out that there are only two events where we can be guaranteed to see white people wearing flag capes – on Australia Day and at neo-Nazi rallies.

Moving an overly politicised and problematic day to another date won’t change that.

A country that is content with Indigenous incarceration rates sometimes going up to as high as 100% in individual prisons, even though we represent 3% of the population, is not one I really want to celebrate anyway, regardless of what date it is on.

Especially not when you look at those incarcerated often dealing with issues of FASD, severe hearing loss, intergenerational trauma, or abuse at the hands of the state.

Many people whose only real crime is being poor; poor in a country made wealthy of the backs of Indigenous peoples’ dispossession, exploitation and exclusion from the opportunities created within colony.

A country that refuses to ever hold authorities to account for the deaths of Indigenous people in custody is one that does not deserve a party.

And that’s just scratching the surface of issues to do with incarceration. There are countless other issues in countless other areas across the colony in health, education, media, housing… you name it.

We have people homeless on their homelands while billions have been ripped out of those same lands through mining.

We have communities whose water is poisoned.

People who are routinely punished for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.

We have people whose languages were stolen from their parents and grandparents and today we act like teaching people their languages in school would somehow be doing them a disservice.

We have corporates who we applaud for hiring Indigenous people even if the government has to pay them to do it.

We acknowledge the traditional owners at events, but we don’t acknowledge what happened to change them from ‘owners’ to ‘traditional owners’.

How many of us even know what happened right under our feet to make that change? In detail. Do you know the names? Do you know the sacred sites and the massacre sites?

How can we acknowledge what we don’t even know?

That is not to say that there aren’t amazing and beautiful people, places and actions all across Australia that are worthy of celebration, but most of those things for me exist in spite of the colonial project, not because of it.

We have wonderful slogans of a fair go for all, or of being a lucky country. For years we have had politicians ignore racism by calling Australia ‘the most successful multicultural country on earth’, but now that they are trying to move away from the spirit of multiculturalism to a more open admittance that the Australian-ness of any non-white migrant is always conditional, and that their citizenship can and will be withdrawn at a minute’s notice. In this environment even the lie of being multicultural has needed to be downgraded to ‘the most successful migrant nation’.

These are the lies Australia tells itself, not to aspire to a greater future, but to deny our past and our present. This is why we changed the International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and made it Harmony Day instead. Not because we had eliminated racial discrimination, but because we wanted to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

This is what Australia does with its symbolic gestures. It uses them to pretend that no further changes are required.

And that is why I cannot in good conscience support #changethedate anymore. If public pressure for changing the date grows to sufficient level I don’t doubt that the major parties would do a 180 to support it. But because it would be a responsive vote grab rather than reflecting any sincerely belief or aspirations for a better country, they would continue to dismiss and undermine Indigenous aspirations and to avoid the tough questions of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

So, change the country first, and then we can talk about a date.

Show me a country with a Treaty or Treaties that are robust. A country with meaningful Indigenous representation in decision making that affects us, at the local and the national level.

Show a me a country where the greatest areas for Indigenous representation aren’t in prisons, child removal, and suicide.

Show me a country that acknowledges not just its white supremacist origins, but it’s current state. A country that fights to eradicate racism and understands that we must be eternally vigilant against its resurgence once it is removed.

Show me a country that I can be proud of, that I can teach my children to be proud of, where they can grow up confident in the knowledge that this country doesn’t see their very existence as a problem to be solved, and then I will talk about what could be a good date in the calendar year to throw a party for how awesome the country is. Because right now, I just don’t see a country worth celebrating, and I’m not willing to change the date in the hopes that it might come next year, or the year after that.

Every year more and media orgs at large plays #changethedate for clicks and sensationalism rather than to highlight issues or foster dialogue. Political parties pounce on it with such breathtaking hypocrisy that in the same breath they talk about being a free country and in the next about forcing local councils to hold celebrations and about dress codes for citizenship ceremonies. They hide behind a faux support of migrants to mask their support for white nationalism.

And for the record, the 26th of January will always remain Invasion Day, and Survival Day, and a Day of Mourning, because #LestWeForget.

Hopefully though, one day, Australia might become a country that I could celebrate, but only if we name the changes that need to occur, and we work towards achieving them. Changing the date is one of the final steps one that list, not one of the first.

But even then, the goal should not be so that we can ‘reconcile’, or that we can all have a party together some day on a given date. It needs to be less about appeasing white guilt and more about supporting Indigenous empowerment.

The goal is a country that does not treat Indigenous people as a threat but instead recognises and respects the unique status of Indigenous peoples in Australia, and strives to weave that in to the national identity, decision making processes, and day to day life of the colony – even where that means some Indigenous people choose to withdraw from the communities and institutions that have so long rejected and disenfranchised us and create our own instead.

Luke Pearson is the founder of IndigenousX.

It’s not about ‘regime change’: A brief history of US intervention in Syria

trump putin

By Ani White.

Chomsky’s criticism of US withdrawal from Kurdish-held territory poses a strange contradiction; why have so many on the left accused Syrian Arab rebels of being US proxies, while either supporting or remaining silent on the far more consistent US support of the Kurdish SDF against ISIS?

Given the widespread misinformation about Syria, a basic rundown of the facts about US involvement is necessary. This is a very brief outline of well-known facts about the war – for a more detailed analysis of the various forces involved, the work of Michael Karadjis is particularly recommended.

The dominant narrative on the left holds that US involvement in Syria is an attempt at ‘regime change.’ As highlighted by Karadjis, this is in contradiction with the statements of US officials:

  • In 2016, declaring that the US was “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry added that the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”

  • In March 2017, Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was.”

  • The same month, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, noted that “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities. With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

  • In July 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified that the only fight in Syria is with ISIS, that Assad’s future is Russia’s issue, and he essentially called the regime allies: “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another …”

  • Following the one-off US strike on an empty Assadist air-base after Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, US National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that the US had no concern with the fact that the base was being used to bomb Syrians again the very next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and far from “regime change”, the US desired a “change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.” [note: not a change in the nature of the regime, a change in the nature of the Assad regime].

  • Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but now the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, US policy was to wait for an eventual “free election” under Assad: “The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership.”

  • Even before his most recent, more blatant, statement, [Trump’s special envoy to Syria Jim Jeffrey] had already made a similar statement in his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, declaring that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behaviour of the Syrian government … this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.”1

 

However, it’s not enough to take officials at their word. Do these claims contradict the actual practice of US intervention? Well, no.

The USA has continuously attacked ISIS-held territory since 2014, killing thousands of civilians.2 Meanwhile, two direct actions against Assad – an airfield bombing in 2017, and a chemical weapons factory bombing in 2018 – killed nobody, and both sought to warn the regime against chemical weapons attacks, rather than remove it from power per se. These two actions prompted widespread protests in the Anglosphere, while continuous US attacks on ISIS-held territory prompted silence, or in some cases support (see the open letter to the US to ‘defend Rojava’ signed by David Harvey, David Graeber and Noam Chomsky among others). If the USA sought to remove Assad from power, why not bomb Damascus? Why focus primarily on ISIS-held territory?

Crucially, the war began not with US involvement, but with an independent popular regional rebellion (against both US-backed states and ‘anti-imperialist’ ones), that was militarily attacked by Assad. In August 2012, Obama famously stated that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was a “red line” that if crossed would invite direct US intervention. Yet in 2013, the Obama administration backed down from a threatened bombing campaign after Assad’s use of chemical weapons in East Ghouta killed 1,400 people.3

Although the USA offered some assistance to the Syrian rebels, this was limited. The Assad regime was able to rain death on the rebels from the sky, while rebels were limited to ground forces, so to beat Assad they would have needed aerial support or weaponry. Yet the CIA specifically blocked Saudi Arabia from providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons,45 and the USA did not implement a No Fly Zone. While the reasons for this are murky, they may include the fact that US policy was an ad hoc response to a volatile situation, that many rebels were anti-Zionist and hard to control, and/or the ‘realist’ policy of the Obama administration. Obama infamously mocked the rebels as “farmers or dentists” and said training them would take a lot of time and resources,6 showing a lukewarm attitude to the situation.

Finally, in 2014, ISIS intervention in the Syrian war triggered expanded US involvement. Contrary to narratives which reduce the Syrian revolution to ISIS, the group formed in Iraq, recruited internationally, and opportunistically intervened in the Syrian war as an occupying force – 3 years into the conflict. In September 2014, Congress approved a $500 million expansion of funding for US involvement, focused on equipping rebels to fight ISIS.7 A number of rebels left the training programme after it specifically placed a condition on trainees that they only fight ISIS and not Assad’s forces.8 This led to the US swivel towards supporting the Kurdish forces, which increasingly reached a detente with Assad against their common enemy ISIS. The USA also began bombing ISIS-held territory. In July 2017, Trump ceased arming Syrian rebels.9

US forces would not directly intervene against Assad until 2017, after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. At this point Trump warned Assad and Putin of the attack, allowing them to evacuate the targeted airfield. This was a symbolic action, at most a warning against further chemical weapons attacks. Again, if the intention was to take out Assad, the USA could have rained death on Damascus rather than Raqqa.

In sum, US policy in Syria since at least 2015 has focused primarily on fighting ISIS, while remaining complicit with Assad. This is not a defence of US policy; complicity with Assad is a bad thing. Trump’s recent claim that “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work” is a logical extension of this policy.

As for why so many leftists falsely characterise the intervention as a ‘regime change’ effort, a few factors seem salient:

  • Reducing a complex situation to an easily understandable one.

  • Relatedly, failing to catch up with a shift in geopolitics whereby the Trump and Putin administrations increasingly converge around reactionary politics.

  • Most fundamentally, solidarity with states rather than people; Assad is imagined to have ‘sovereignty’ despite obviously fake elections, while the Syrian people are secondary.

Those who still identify with the left must catch up with reality; we risk irrelevance at best, and siding with reaction at worst.