The authoritarian left goes awry: From the Arab Spring to Latin America

Too often, those on the left equivocate over despotic regimes in order to fit their worldview.

Hugo Chavez has sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even referring to him as 'our brother' [Reuters]

New York, NY – When the recent Occupy movement emerged, I was hoping that it might sweep away the vestiges of the old, authoritarian left that had been a longtime fixture of the US activist scene. Unfortunately, however, this hierarchical left still continues to exert significant influence over both old and new media, and shows no sign of abating. That is a pity, as this particular political tendency – which some might even call Stalinist – has been dragging the rest of the left into the mud and giving fellow radicals a bad name. 

When the hierarchical left encounters a situation that doesn’t fit into its normal frame of reference, it seeks to change the subject.”

The lockstep left’s retrograde tendencies have been placed on particularly vivid display when it comes to the Arab Spring. At the beginning of the revolt, in Tunisia and Egypt, it looked as if local populations might slough off dictatorial rule backed by Washington. The prospect of a breach with the US and its client state Israel provided little reason for the authoritarian left to protest, but as events unfolded further, prominent writers began to run into difficulties.

Unlike Mubarak, who maintained warm ties with Washington, Gaddafi had been at odds with the West until fairly recently. Thus, Libya presented something of a quandary for the authoritarians. When the hierarchical left encounters a situation that doesn’t fit into its normal frame of reference, it seeks to change the subject. Take, for example, Robert Dreyfuss, a columnist for The Nation magazine, who sought to shift attention away from Gaddafi in an effort to focus the reader’s attention on other issues.   

The authoritarian left and the Gaddafi conundrum

To be sure, Dreyfuss concedes in one of his columns, Gaddafi’s departure “can’t be bad, as far as the long-suffering population of Libya is concerned”. He then, however, seeks to discredit the Libyan opposition, implying that it is a mere pawn of NATO and Western interests. In another column, the Nation columnist goes yet further, calling out the Libyan opposition as essentially traitorous dupes who promise to “hand over [Libya’s] oil resources to its Western backers”.

Another Nation columnist, Alexander Cockburn, went much further than Dreyfuss (full disclosure: I once interned for Cockburn, and over the years I have occasionally published articles on Counterpunch, a website which he co-founded). Over the course of the Libya imbroglio, Cockburn sought to minimise the brutality of the Gaddafi regime while again casting aspersions on the opposition and its alleged ties to al-Qaeda. “Gaddafi was scarcely the acme of monstrosity conjured up by Obama or Mrs Clinton or Sarkozy,” Cockburn rather questionably remarked.

In a bizarre twist, the veteran Nation columnist then proceeded to extol the Gaddafi regime for taking care of the Libyan people. “In four decades, Libyans rose from being among the most wretched in Africa to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities,” Cockburn declared, perversely. The Nation writer might have stopped there, but opted to soldier on by calling his readers’ attention to Libya’s buoyant growth rate, literacy levels and life expectancy.

Moral jujitsu on Syria

Syria has also presented a slight moral quandary for the authoritarian left. It is one thing to support the plight of the Egyptian people up against pro-US Mubarak, but Syria does not fit the usual narrative of the hardliners. Though certainly a horribly repressive country, Syria is an Iranian ally and longtime opponent of Israel. In his columns, Dreyfuss sought to navigate the situation by again shifting the readers’ focus away from Bashar al-Assad. 

Hugo Chávez has been dragging the rest of the left into the mud by coming out in support of despotism.”

Charitably, Dreyfuss remarks that it is impossible “to deny that the government of Syria is conducting a brutal, no-holds-barred attack against a nationwide rebellion”. Dreyfuss then, however, goes on to tar the opposition, much as he had in Libya. “Increasingly,” he writes, the rebellion is being “led by armed paramilitary forces and, well, terrorists.”

Cockburn, meanwhile, couldn’t summon up much sympathy for the Syrian opposition or civilians getting shelled in the city of Homs. In an understatement, he declares: “There is no doubt that Assad’s police state is corrupt and brutal”. True to form, however, Cockburn then lays bare his sympathies by seeking to tie the Syrian opposition to al-Qaeda or Gulf sponsors who “are intent on slaughtering the ruling Alawite minority or driving them into the sea”.

Chavez and the mud

Meanwhile, in South America, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has been dragging the rest of the left into the mud by coming out in support of despotism. For years, Chavez has sought to create a so-called multi-polar geopolitical order free of US influence. That is understandable, but if Russia, China and Iran were to dominate the globe, things would be just as bad – if not worse – for peoples around the world. It is unfortunate that Venezuela, a democracy that cannot be compared in the slightest with the various despotisms in the Middle East, has chosen to ally with such retrograde forces.

As early as 2009, Chavez embraced Gaddafi and remarked, bizarrely: “What Simon Bolívar [the great liberator of South American independence against the Spanish] is to the Venezuelan people, Gaddafi is to the Libyan people.” As if these declarations were not preposterous enough, Chavez awarded Gaddafi the Orden del Libertador, Venezuela’s highest civilian decoration, and presented the Libyan leader with a replica of Simon Bolívar’s sword (to see a video of the sword-bearing ceremony, click here).

Libya responded in kind, awarding Chavez the “Gaddafi Human Rights Prize” and naming a football stadium in the Libyan city of Benghazi after the Venezuelan leader (anti-Gaddafi rebels were hardly amused by such tokens of esteem: When the Libyan government eventually lost control over Benghazi, the opposition scrawled over the stadium’s old title in red graffiti and renamed the arena “Martyrs of February” in honour of the memory of people who died fighting to overthrow the country’s dictator).

Venezuela amiss on Libya and Syria

Throughout the conflict in Libya, Chavez viewed the entire imbroglio as mere Western-led destabilisation and defended Gaddafi. Taking a leaf from the authoritarian left, the Venezuelan put down the rebels as “terrorists”. Putting his foot in his mouth, Chavez declared: “I ask God to protect the life of our brother Muammar Gaddafi.” Grateful for Chavez’s friendship, Gaddafi sent his Venezuelan ally a letter thanking him for his diplomatic support. Digging an ever bigger hole for himself, Chavez proclaimed after Gaddafi’s death that the deposed Libyan leader would be remembered as a martyr. Later, Chavez refused to recognise the new rebel government.

Chavez has been little better on Syria. Indeed, Chavez sent a message of solidarity to Assad, even referring to the Syrian dictator at one point as “our brother”. What is more, Chavez has sent oil to the Syrian government. The shipment flies in the face of international efforts to isolate the Assad regime and to prod the dictator to step down from power.

Political correctness run amok

Taking Chavez to account for his ridiculousness is a no-brainer, but the left has been oddly silent on the Arab Spring-Venezuela debacle. In a rather tame interview with, a website sympathetic to the Chavez government, Venezuela expert Greg Wilpert almost seems to make excuses for Chavez’s behaviour, noting that the Venezuelan likes to establish personal rapport with foreign leaders and “negative news reports about that leader leave him completely unimpressed because he knows only too well from personal experience how biased international media can be”.

Far too often, Chomsky is too timid and cautious when it comes to challenging the authoritarian left.”

At another point, when asked about the political repercussions of Chavez’s Middle East diplomacy, Wilpert notes dispassionately and matter-of-factly: “I think the danger of Chavez losing legitimacy, especially among the international left, is significant”. While conceding that Chavez has overlooked “shortcomings” of foreign leaders, Wilpert himself does not put forth his own personal views on the Gaddafi-Chavez controversy.

Noted MIT professor Noam Chomsky, a foreign policy expert whom the left adulates, shares Wilpert’s unfortunate penchant for excessive political correctness. Over the years, Chomsky has drawn the world’s attention to the various misdeeds of the US and its proxies around the world, and for that he deserves credit. Yet far too often, Chomsky is too timid and cautious when it comes to challenging the authoritarian left. That is perplexing, given that Chomsky has stated that he personally identifies with the anti-authoritarian and anarchist tradition in contrast to the hierarchical old guard.

When discussing countries that have fallen afoul of Washington, Chomsky may make bizarre claims, even going so far as to imply that northerners simply don’t have the right to hold an opinion. At other times, the academic may equivocate and nonsensically change the subject by comparing levels of injustice in the Third World to those in the United States. Another preferred Chomsky tactic is to argue that commentators on the left don’t want to join the right in lambasting countries that are critical of the US. Quite right, but one need not agree with Fox News and its right-wing spin machine to bring independent judgment to bear on world events once in a while.

For far too long, the authoritarian left has been spouting its own interpretation of foreign affairs without much protest from other radicals. Such a state of affairs has always been undesirable, but now, as the left seeks to wrestle with the Arab Spring, matters have been brought increasingly to a head. Chomsky, who holds more influence than other commentators, could rectify the situation by wading into tricky debates. Perhaps, instead of publishing yet another analysis of US empire and imperial decline, the MIT professor will finally get off the fence.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, and is the founder of  the Revolutionary Handbook.