New colonialisms and old questions

November 5, 2015

Russia's military intervention in Syria is escalating a conflict with the U.S.--which is used by some on the left as justification for supporting Russia and the Assad regime in Syria with which it is allied, all in the name of opposing the American empire. Latin American writer Raúl Zibechi argues against abandoning left-wing values of internationalism and anti-imperialism, in an article first published in Spanish at La Jornada and translated by Jazmin Morales.

WHEN VISIBILITY is low because powerful storms cloud your perception of reality, you might want to raise your sights and climb a peak to get a wider view in order to discern the context in which you are operating. In these times, when multiple contradictions and competing interests are crisscrossing the world, it is urgent to sharpen our senses so we can both see far afield and examine our own assumptions.

In times of confusion, ethics often run aground, fundamental points of reference disappear, and something like a sense of "everything goes" sets in. This allows one to support any cause as long as it takes on the biggest enemy, beyond any consideration of principles and values--shortcuts that lead to dead ends. A prime example today is comparing Vladimir Putin to Lenin.

The Russian intervention in Syria is a neocolonial act that places Russia on the same side of history as the U.S., France and England. There is no such thing as good, emancipatory colonialism. As much as the Russian intervention is justified with the argument that it is stopping the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and imperialism's regional offensive, it is no more than a symmetrical action that condemns itself by using exactly the same methods and similar arguments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

The question I consider to be central is: Why are Latin-American leftists raising their voices in support of Putin? Many have clearly placed their hopes for a better world in interventions by great powers like China and Russia, hoping they can stop or defeat hegemonic powers. This is understandable because of all the misdeeds committed by Washington in our region, but it is a strategic error and an ethical deviation.

I would like to illuminate this especially critical situation by appealing to a historical document: the letter to Maurice Thorez, the general secretary of the French Communist Party), written in October 1956 by Aime Cesaire, the great poet and anti-colonial activist and theorist from Martinique.

The text emerged at a critical historical turning point, shortly after the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, where the crimes of Stalinism were reported. It was also the very same month of the Hungarian people's uprising against the pro-Russian bureaucratic regime (leaving thousands dead) and the colonial aggression by France and England against Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Césaire quit the Communist Party after an embarrassing congress in which the leadership was incapable of the smallest self-criticism when faced with the revelation of crimes that it was, in fact, supporting. He was born in Martinique, like Frantz Fanon, where he was Fanon's middle school teacher. He was a poet and founder of the Negritude movement in the 1930s.

In 1950 he wrote Discourse on Colonialism, which had a tremendous impact on Black communities. His letter to Thorez was, in the words of left-wing political theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, the document that best explained and expressed the growing gap between the world communist movement and the various national liberation movements.


I FIND three questions in his letter that illuminate the crisis of values the left is currently facing.

The first is the unwillingness to break with Stalinism. Césaire turns against an ethical relativism that aims to avert the crimes of Stalinism with some mechanical phrase, a cliché that is repeated again and again, saying that Stalin made mistakes. Murdering millions is not a mistake, even if the killing is done in the name of a supposedly just cause.

Most of the left did not create a serious, self-critical balance sheet of Stalinism, nor did it go beyond the figure of Stalin himself as has been written about in these pages. Stalinism emerged from a state-centered model of society and the power of a bureaucracy which became a state bourgeoisie with control over the means of production. This left is still attached to a version of socialism that clings to the same old and outdated model based on the centralized means of production.

The second is that the struggles of the oppressed cannot be treated, Césaire argues, "as part of a more important whole" because there is "uniqueness to our problems that cannot be reduced to any other problem." The struggle against racism, he says, is of a very different nature than the fight of the French worker against French capitalism and it should not simply be considered "a fragment of this struggle."

In this sense, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal struggles strike the same chord. "These forces would," says Césaire, "wither in organizations that are not their own, created for them, created by them and adapted to an objective that only they can determine." Even today, there are those who are unable to understand that women need their own spaces, just like all other oppressed people.

We should, Césaire continues, "distinguish between alliance and subordination," something not commonly done when left-wing parties attempt to assimilate the demands of various issues under a single cause, by means of a sacrosanct unity that does nothing more than homogenize differences, instilling new oppressions.

The third issue that radiates from Césaire's letter, which is of intense interest today, relates to universalism. In other words, it touches on the construction of non-Eurocentric universals, in which the whole is not imposed upon the diversities. "There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the 'universal.'"

We are still far from constructing a "universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars," as Césaire wrote six decades ago.

Whoever opts for supporting symmetrical, albeit left-wing, powers against today's exclusive and hegemonic powers; whoever opposes evil Yankee bombs to good Russian bombs is simply following in the footsteps of Stalinism which attempted to make a clean sweep of the past and wipe out the unique characteristics of different struggles, instead of working for something different, for "a world where many worlds fit."

First published at La Jornada. Translation by Jazmin Morales.

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