A view of anti-imperialism from the periphery
by Joey Ayoub, Dana El Kurd, Leila Al-Shami, and Romeo Kokriatski
In April 2018, protests were held across the Western world opposing the “war on Syria.” Opposition to this war united groups from both the far left of the political spectrum and the far right. Yet this war that so outraged Westerners was not the genocidal war Syrian President Bashar Al Assad had been conducting for years against the Syrian people; instead protests were in opposition to targeted air strikes against the military capabilities of the regime, which had just carried out a chemical attack and massacre in the Damascus suburbs.
Why were people on the left, who self-defined as “anti-imperialists,” so ready to mobilize to thwart limited military action by Western states against Assad’s military assets and chemical weapons manufacturing facilities, while never mobilizing to oppose the actions of the Syrian regime itself or its Russian and Iranian allies? This was in spite of repeated evidence that these actors were responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Furthermore, these were the same voices that had also failed to support a revolutionary movement in Syria calling for democracy. Was this pseudo-anti-imperialism the “anti-imperialism of idiots” (Al-Shami 2018)? Since that time, this scenario has played out repeatedly in contexts as diverse as Hong Kong and Ukraine, suggesting that the failure of the left to stand with both revolutionary movements and civilians facing extermination, and instead lend support to authoritarian regimes and non-Western imperialisms, is not an aberration. Rather, it is a key feature of the practice of today’s “anti-imperialist” left.
We pose a central question: how can we support oppressed people, even as we deal with our own oppression, while still leaving space to critique geopolitical dynamics and hegemonic powers that take advantage of our struggles? We hope that the perspectives shared in this piece highlight it is possible to do both. It is possible to listen to people on the ground, and build solidarity with them, although their immediate realities clash with geopolitical agendas and imaginations. And it is also possible, and crucial, to remain vigilant to larger geopolitical dynamics. The perspectives on Syria and Ukraine highlight the many contradictions of the so-called anti-imperialism of the left in the Global North, while the perspectives on Palestine and Lebanon build on this assessment to demonstrate the importance of solidarity among oppressed peoples—both to combat the anti-imperialism of idiots, as well as develop a progressive movement more suited to navigating the uncertain future we all face.
Working within reductionist binaries stemming from the Cold War, the anti-imperialist left often divides the world into two belligerent geopolitical blocs, or “good” states and “bad” states. This worldview, often referred to as “campism,” sees the “imperialist camp” as represented by the United States, Europe and Israel and the “anti-imperialist camp” as represented by Russia, China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and others. The latter camp is always supported regardless of the authoritarian nature of its regimes, or the extent of the human rights abuses they carry out. Anyone rhetorically opposing the imperialist camp is seen as allies. Thus, it is often enough for a cause to be rhetorically “supported” by the U.S. for it to be instantly discredited in the eyes of campists. Within this framework, many failed to support the popular revolution which occurred in Syria in 2011, instead throwing their weight behind Syria’s dictator, who was falsely portrayed as resisting U.S.-engineered regime change. The anti-imperialist left took at face value the Syrian regime’s claims that it is one of the last bastions of resistance against Western, and Israeli, hegemony.
This “anti-imperialist” left rejects class struggle or social conflict occurring within states, in favor of prioritizing conflict between states. It is reminiscent of the concept of the “proletarian nation” advocated by fascists in the early twentieth century, where the world is divided into oppressed and oppressing nations. Seeing world events solely through this geopolitical lens means that the authoritarian left feels no qualms about supporting one state over another in an inter-imperialist conflict (real or imagined). Rather than striving for revolutionary social transformation, it is a slide towards the “multipolarism” advocated by fascists such as Aleksander Dugin, where Western hegemony is seen as best challenged by the emergence of other global axes of power. Abandoning internationalist solidarity, they erase voices from the ground and ordinary people are denied any agency. There is no attempt made to understand the local context, history, politics or economy. As such, epistemological imperialism is established, whereby white people in the imperial core set the narrative for the broader globe. Under these conditions, Syria is merely a battleground on which pseudo-anti-imperialists project their own ideology and political struggles.
Through failing to respond to any imperialism which is non-Western in origin, the “anti-imperialist” left has been impotent towards Russian and Iranian imperialisms which remain the key threat to Syrian self-determination. Russia and Iran have given Assad significant diplomatic and financial support. Both countries militarily intervened to save the regime when it was close to collapse and helped to crush the democratic opposition. Assad’s current tenuous grip on power is maintained due to Russia and Iran’s ongoing military presence in the country. Russia has been rewarded for its support with lucrative contracts for gas and oil extraction. For example, Russian company Stroytransgaz, owned by a Kremlin-linked oligarch, has been granted 70 percent of revenues from phosphate production for fifty years. Meanwhile, Iran buys up Syria’s real estate and is populating towns and cities with the families of Iranian-backed Shia militia (Al-Shami 2021). These were once the homes of Sunni opposition communities which Iran helped to forcibly displace, changing demographics along sectarian lines to ensure Assad has a loyal constituency and refugees may never return.
It is true that when Western states militarily intervened in Syria it was primarily in the context of the War on Terror to oust ISIS, not against Assad. Coalition airstrikes completely obliterated the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, and claimed many civilian lives. But this intervention was ignored by the “anti-imperialist” left; civilian lives are expendable, while the military capabilities of the Assad regime are not.
Pseudo-anti-imperialists shared in the dissemination of disinformation to discredit the Syrian opposition and support the regime/Russian narrative. Adopting the War on Terror discourse, they slandered all opposition to Assad as Islamist extremists or foreign-sponsored agents advocating for Western intervention. Massacres were refuted as “staged” and victims were accused of being “crisis actors.” Any military or even non-military aid to the opposition was opposed, preventing them from being able to protect their communities from annihilation. Calls to hold regime figures accountable for war crimes either through sanctions or legal means were rejected, as were calls to establish a “No Fly Zone” to protect civilians from aerial assault. Opposing any intervention to prevent genocide and war crimes under the guise of “anti-imperialism” has rendered the term devoid of meaning and shut down discussion on whether intervention can ever be justified on humanitarian grounds, and under what conditions. By supporting the narrative of the regime and its backers while discrediting those attempting to oppose both domestic fascism and foreign imperialism in the Syrian context, these pseudo-anti-imperialists have facilitated the advance of imperialism and fascism across the globe.
As the latest entrant to the community of decolonizing nations, Ukraine has been assaulted with the usual, common objections to its existence—campist rhetoric, revisionist (or propagandized) history, racist stereotypes, and denial of agency. Many of these objections stem from the immature—or outright manipulative—view of the core and periphery, reorganizing the complicated and complex nature of the planet’s geopolitical features into easily distinguishable binaries of white and black, “good” versus “bad”, worthy-of-support versus “CIA shills.”
While the war brought these aspects to the fore of the global conversation on Ukraine, they first crystallized during the Maidan uprising in 2014, which saw the (now-familiar) imperial narrative of Ukraine as a “Nazi” state gain prominence. How did this relatively unremarkable Eastern European nation gain a moniker other, more outwardly fascist nations avoid—and why has the myth persisted?
The answer lies in the imperial view of the present, past, and future. Imperialists—and here we are referring not only to the warmongers who salivate at the thought of territorial conquest, but also the so-called “anti-imperialist” opposition in Western countries—share a solidarity that transcends political disputes and class divides, but only when there is a “lesser nation” to oppress. In fact, the open imperialism of the Russian elite dovetails nicely with the rejection of “political correctness” taken as a modern reactionary value, which has percolated in popular “left-wing” media.
In dubbing Ukraine a “Nazi” state—imperialists, and those who claim to oppose empire, force a propagandized version of reality on a colonized people. This tactic, doubtless wholly familiar to other peripheralized nations, is then further utilized in the imperialist’s goal of draining support from their victim, reducing their access to sympathy and solidarity in the imperial core.
The reflexive campism of those who claim to uphold “anti-imperialist values” further serves to undermine their stated values, slotting perfectly into the societal myth of their supposed imperialist rivals: that of a clash of “great” civilizations, fighting to secure their own legacies and cultures against “foreign” influence.
This “anti-imperialism of idiots” has resulted in a syncretic ideology, promoted both by imperial state actors and the so-called “anti-imperialists”—that of the “multipolar world.” The direct consequence of a multi-polar world simply implies a series of imperial cores, instead of a single one, and does nothing to fundamentally change the nature of geopolitical relations as a set of relations defined by exploitation of the periphery by the core.
In Ukraine’s case, this is immediately obvious. Critics of Western military support for Ukraine, and Russian propaganda itself, often called Ukraine a “proxy” or “puppet” state of U.S. imperialism, conveniently ignoring both the facts of the case (i.e., Western reluctance after 2014 to uphold Ukraine), as well as the consequences of what that lack of support means. As Syrians and others have long known, the smear of being a “U.S. puppet” has effectively driven discourse on the fundamental nature of these conflicts into irrelevant tangents, obsessed with geopolitical concerns for the states involved, instead of the suffering the people in those states undergo.
In his September 2022 speech, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin put into direct practice the “anti-imperialism of idiots” with his references to Russia’s supposed anti-imperial and decolonial character. This was a bid to win support from other peripheralized nations, and the “anti-imperialists” of the imperial core, thus diluting Ukraine’s anti-imperial argument as part of its defense against continuing Russian imperial aggression. Russia—by all metrics, a reactionary, ethno-chauvinist state—in this way seeks to “unite” right- and left-wing political tendencies.
Not only is this unification ideologically and morally incoherent, but it also proliferates concurrently with similar movements gaining traction in the imperial core, especially in the United States, where movements such as “MAGA communism,” the “dirtbag left,” and “patriotic socialism” have gathered steam, largely on the basis of this attempted left-right synthesis. This complicates international solidarity efforts immensely, as attempts to draw attention to Ukraine’s anti-imperial and decolonial struggle invite critiques of supporting U.S. imperialism instead and further cement the Russian narrative of Ukraine’s artificiality, instead of an expression of agency by the Ukrainian people.
Combating this “anti-imperialism of idiots” is no mere intellectual exercise; for Ukraine, and other peripheralized nations under siege by imperial forces, it is quite literally a question of life and death. However, it is impossible to discount the seed of truth in this otherwise morally bankrupt idea: that supporting Ukraine and, by extension, other related anti-imperial movements does strengthen the global position of the United States, bolstering that empire’s cultural and military hegemony at the expense of the competing imperial cores.
Countering imperialism in a true anti-imperialist manner, given these difficulties, relies at first on honesty. Thus, anti-imperialism must first come to terms with the material world—one in which empires do exist, and often, weakening one strengthens another, intended or not. By being truthful about the consequences of anti-imperial action, anti-imperialists can weaken the common defenses raised by the “anti-imperialism of idiots,” and push for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what is truly needed: transnational solidarity for all oppressed peoples, without care for the geopolitical “great games” that have set the stage.
Palestine is a popular cause among self-proclaimed anti-imperialists in the Global North. Palestinian symbols are in vogue, and the daily transgressions committed by Israeli occupation forces are useful talking points. For this anti-imperialist left, Palestine serves as a very clear, egregious example of the ongoing impact of American imperialism. And this is justifiable, given the historical support of the U.S. for the Israeli state project.
Palestinians themselves also view their cause in this way—as a battleground for a larger struggle against American imperialism. Polling shows Palestinians view the U.S. as the biggest source of threat to the region, even more than their own occupier (El Kurd 2022). The history of the Palestinians in “Third World” internationalist movements is also a point of pride, and the position Palestine occupied during the 1960s and 1970s is often looked back on with a sense of nostalgia and romanticization.
While the rest of the region, and indeed the Global South generally, is coming to grips with the impact of other imperialist powers, a significant segment of Palestinians remain stuck in a time period and geopolitical reality that is long gone. The Palestinian left in particular, especially those in the diaspora (outside of historic Palestine), is dominated by those who remain enthralled with any political power that opposes the U.S. As such, their understanding of “anti-imperialism” has become myopic.
For some, their campism stems from pragmatism. They do not believe Russia/China/Iran are shining beacons of an enlightened and independent world. Rather, their support of such actors comes from the pursuit of whatever is perceived advantageous to Palestinians. Moreover, this viewpoint leaves no space for a long-term vision, one that connects Palestine with people seeking justice and dignity the world over. And at its root, this pragmatism is rooted in self-preservation, first and foremost, as well as the idea that the Palestinian struggle trumps all else—come what may to other peoples and movements for justice. This was the explicit justification for why Palestinian political parties on the “left” and “right” supported Hamas’s decision to normalize relations with the Syrian regime (Ibrahim 2022). This is perhaps understandable for Palestinians currently facing the existential threat of annihilation in historic Palestine but is less understandable for those in more privileged positions, especially in the Global North.
Others, however, have such an understanding of anti-imperialism stemming from a genuine belief in the radicalism of Russia/China/Iran. Arab regimes have always engaged in propaganda, but today the media landscape is increasingly penetrated by ever more sophisticated disinformation. Such efforts come particularly from Russia and its allies and are not specific to Palestinian media (Gelbart 2023). But, coupled with the fact that certain Western leftist voices have remained steadfast in their campist anti-imperialism, and have increasingly dominated social media, this has further impacted the number of “true believers.” The failures of the Arab Spring uprisings, and the further deterioration of the democratic model, have exacerbated these trends.
No matter the motivation of such anti-imperialism, the fact that this remains a strong trend within Palestinian politics has severely impacted the efficacy of the Palestinian national movement and its connected solidarity movements around the world. To be clear, these campists do not represent the vast majority by any means; nevertheless, because they are loud, dominant in online spaces, and increasingly powerful in grassroots organizations (particularly in the diaspora), they play an outsized role in impacting efficacy.
Such campists, despite being so vehemently opposed to the West, are actually only in conversation with it. Thus, this sort of anti-imperialism has meant a reorientation of Palestinians towards actors and spaces in the Global North: the epistemological imperialism, previously mentioned. This comes at the expense of building power regionally with their neighbors and, oftentimes, co-ethnics also engaged in struggles for freedom. Instead, Palestinians alienate Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, and more as they loudly proclaim the primacy of the Palestinian struggle and support the dictators actively murdering their people.
Although not explicitly stated, such a view of the world speaks to a highly problematic assumption: specifically, that Palestine can somehow be excised from the issues of the larger region and achieve independence in a bubble. It is also as if these campists viewed the peoples of their region as completely tangential, without agency, and unworthy of effort in building ties or linking struggles. Such a belief is not only unethical but dangerous, as Palestinians find themselves increasingly isolated.
On 17 October 2019, citizens and residents of Lebanon took to the streets to protest the country’s sectarian system and call for the downfall of the regime. Shortly after, Hezbollah and its allies cracked down on the protesters, often in coordination with state forces. The men sent by these groups became known as shabbiha, a term initially associated with the Assad regime in Syria. Although the Assad regime was forced out of Lebanon in 2005 following the Cedar Revolution, the political culture best embodied by these shabbiha endured in the country, most notably through Hezbollah, the regime’s most powerful ally. Indeed, as Lebanese researcher Ziad Majed notes, Hezbollah became the de facto political heirs of the Assad regime in Lebanon, a political reality which greatly anticipated the group’s own direction and military intervention in Syria post-2012 to protect the Assad regime against the revolution (Majed 2020). Furthermore, although the Lebanese uprising was broader than Hezbollah-related concerns, Hezbollah made it about them, with Nasrallah declaring that they would do everything in their power to protect the sectarian regime (Saab & Ayoub 2020). Accompanying the crackdown was a smear campaign accusing protesters of being paid by foreign embassies (Al-Taffar 2019).
These tactics would be familiar to an Iranian reader as, at the time of writing, the regime most directly responsible for Hezbollah’s power is facing existential threats of its own. Following the brutal murder of Jina Mahsa Amini by Iran’s morality police, people throughout Iran are openly rebelling against the Islamic Republic. Throughout the country, chants of “death to the dictator” can be heard, and representatives of the regime are directly targeted. This uprising reveals how deeply integrated the region has become. The Iranian regime’s tactics have long been exported to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq since Khomeini’s reign and have only gotten more violent since a key regime in that vision, the Assad regime, has been close to collapsing multiple times since 2011. In response, protesters throughout the region should also recognize that we are already linked, and begin to learn from one another.
Due to Lebanon’s own ongoing economic crisis, there has been little opportunity to build solidarity bonds, although potential exists. As with the Palestinian case, there exists a form of Lebanese chauvinism which is hostile to concerns deemed foreign or “Other.” This tendency was directly challenged during the October 2019 uprising, most notably through declarations of solidarity with other struggles. It is best exemplified by the “revolution everywhere” chant in Beirut which has been picked up by Iranian protesters and is itself modeled after a popular Syrian chant.
Campist anti-imperialism is a hindrance to the proliferation of internationalist politics for the simple reason that it essentialises certain struggles above others and often ends up weakening every struggle in the process. Those who support Hezbollah or the Syrian and Iranian regimes in the name of some vague anti-Israel/Saudi Arabia/U.S. erase their victims in the region, and end up associating being pro-Palestine with being in favor of repressive politics. This goes against the declared spirit of the Palestinian cause which places itself on the side of freedom and justice. Ironically, campist anti-imperialism ends up reinforcing the discourse of states like Israel, which already seeks to erase the Palestinian cause by claiming it to be an extension of Iranian geopolitics. As with Palestinians, the Lebanese are also finding themselves increasingly isolated on the world stage, and campism has done nothing but worsen this problem.
This article sought to challenge the dominant discourse on the left, with a view to building solidarity. We hope that the discussion here demonstrates the importance of building solidarity, even in the face of complicated geopolitical dynamics and a myopic “anti-imperialist” left more interested in opposing U.S. hegemony than protecting those most marginalized. We end by noting that writing this article was in itself a collaborative building of solidarity. Indeed, the discussions and ideas exchanged between the authors while developing this piece were extremely generative. We hope that this emphasizes to the reader the importance of such conversations in building solidarity between peoples, even if we are not—at first glance—connected in our struggles, and even when those conversations are difficult. ∎
The image used in this text is by Iryna Zamuruieva and is part of her ongoing “Adonis vernalis dreamings” series. See more collages and read about the project here.
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El Kurd D (2022) Palestinian Perceptions of International Threats. In: Arab Center Washington. Available here.
Gelbart H (2023) The UK Company Spreading Russian Fake News to Millions. BBC News. Available here.
Ibrahim A (2022) Iranian Support Vital for Hamas after Ties Restored with Syria. Al Jazeera. Available here.
Majed Z (2020) The Legacy of Samir Kassir 15 Years On. In: The Fire These Times. Available here.
Saab J, Ayoub J (2020) The Dual Nature of Lebanon’s October 17th Uprising. In: Saab J (ed) A region in revolt: mapping the recent uprisings in North Africa and West Asia. Ottawa: Daraja Press, pp. 103–134.
About the contributors
Joey Ayoub is a PhD researcher at the University of Zurich, editor at Shado Mag and the host of The Fire These Times podcast. He’s Lebanese-Palestinian.
Dana El Kurd is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond. She’s Palestinian-American.
Leila Al-Shami is an activist and coauthor of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. She’s British-Syrian.
Romeo Kokriatski is a managing editor of The New Voice of Ukraine and co-host of the Ukraine without Hype podcast. He’s Ukrainian-American.