Arab regimes in the post-independence era have misused the concept of imperialism to the highest levels. Because these regimes assumed power after defeating colonialism, they clung to their hostility against imperialism to justify the consolidation of power and the abandonment of all democratic mechanisms, sinking to the most horrific oppressive practices. One had to wait for the near-complete world dominance of neoliberalism and the post 9/11 wars to witness the return of discussions about imperialism, whether in demonstrations around the world or in academia’s search for a new way to describe it. Lenin’s “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” and Rosa Luxmburg’s “The Accumulation of Capital” were reprinted and Hannah Arendt was taken out of the shell of her work about totalitarianism in order to remind the public of her theory that defines imperialism as a conscious choice made by the bourgeois when the capitalist system is in conflict. Even those who strongly favored the American wars on terror have explicitly used the term “imperialism” in describing what the U.S. needed at that time to ensure its supremacy.
Such misuse surfaced again when the Arab uprisings crossed the borders of Syria—a country governed by a regime labeled as “resistant.” The term flourished at this political moment, exactly as it did after national liberation, since direct occupation is not an option. This time, the warped version of imperialism did not originate with the ruling regimes, but from foreign and Arab leftists who saw the Syrian uprising as an act that serves the imperialist enterprise. Some loudly proclaim that what is happening in Syria is nothing but an imperialist conspiracy led by Western superpowers in collusion with Israel, designed to overthrow the bastion of resistance. Intentionally or not, they repeat the propaganda of the Syrian regime while shaping their argument in contrast to the regime’s rhetoric. In doing so, they excuse themselves from supporting the Syrian uprising, and all other past uprisings, because the outcomes are not guaranteed with regard to the Palestinian cause. In other words, they don’t categorize the Syrian rebels as conspirators, but they withhold any support for them because their uprising will eventually benefit the imperialistic enterprise that supports Zionism. Such people tout the slogan “Palestine is our compass,” despite knowing that the world cannot be seen through one lens. Most likely, they hide behind their support for the Palestinian cause to compensate for the morally reprehensible failure to support a nation of citizens besieged by massacres.
Anti-imperialism groups agree that imperialism is an economic, cultural, and governing system that inflicts harm on the dignity and living standards of most nations under its power. While Lenin’s interest in imperialism originated from his attempts to explain wars launched by superpowers defending the interests of their big companies, the new imperialism coincides with the spreading of neoliberal policies, which restructure national economies to serve the interests of imperialist states and small groups affiliated with them.
But the Syrian people did not need a new imperialistic attack to make them suffer humiliation or economic plunder, or to drive them to change their ways of living and working. When the first small demonstration marched in Old Damascus as a prelude to revolution, perhaps their slogan held significant foreshadowing. The slogan, “Syrian people will not be humiliated,” was a protest against the mistreatment of a citizen by Syrian security forces. Yet individual and general humiliation has increased, while defense of national dignity is carried out by a proxy, Hizbollah, whose role has continually eroded in Syria whenever its military and political involvement deepens in Lebanon.
In addition to rejecting humiliation, later slogans against Rami Makhlof, the financial giant and Bashar Al-Assad’s cousin, were no less significant. The Syrian regime did not wait for an American military intervention to implement its own version of neoliberalism, exactly as it did in implementing its own version of socialism. If imperialism is the driving force of neoliberalism, based on plundering national wealth for the interest of a small group of citizens and a handful of large companies, then the Syrian regime is guilty of this sin, even if it was for the interest of a handful of the Presidential court’s people.
Usually, leftists claim moral superiority. This is likely based on their adoption of rhetoric about protecting the poor from the rich and the marginalized from the dominant. But in asserting that rhetoric, whether it is for Palestine or internationalism, they suffer from terrible moral failure—a failure they embrace with unenviable confidence and claims.
With these words, leftist French singer Jonathan Veira expressed his disappointment over the Soviet attack on Prague in 1968—a disappointment that scarred many European leftists. At that time, Richard Siwiec burned himself during the harvest festival in Warsaw. That was forty-three years before Muhammad Bouazizi carried out the same act of protest in Tunisia. In both cases, someone placed a red star on his hat and stood clapping on the other bank.
What did you come to do, comrade? What are doing here?
In August, at 5 o’clock, darkness falls on Prague.
[This article was originally published on Jadaliyya in Arabic. It was translated into English by Ali Adeeb Alnaemi.]