Chomsky, Ali, and the failure to challenge the authoritarian left

The left sees itself as intellectually superior to the right, but has not done enough to demonstrate it.

Ecuador''s President Correa joined by Belarus'' President Lukashenko attend a news conference at Carondelet Palace in Quito
The leftist government in Quito carried out a strategic alliance with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko [REUTERS]

Is the left so intellectually superior to the right? On balance one would have to say yes but there’s a certain bankrupt and authoritarian streak within the left which has severely undermined the wider movement’s credibility. Ideologically inflexible, the authoritarians rush to embrace most any country or leader who challenges the US, however questionable. What is worse, by pushing a doctrinaire agenda, the authoritarian/sectarian element within the left gives a lot of ammunition to the right, which needless to say never misses an opportunity to score political points or expose underlying vulnerabilities.

A number of recent controversies have served to highlight questionable positions within the left (see, for example, my piece about the authoritarians and the Arab Spring), but now a new imbroglio has stretched political contradictions to their limit. In their zeal to defy the US, some on the left have developed a very problematic association with political throwback Belarus no less, a former Soviet Republic known for its appalling record on human rights.     

The Ecuador connection

Ecuador, a small country in the Andean region of South America, is geographically removed from Belarus. In an unlikely development, however, the populist left government in Quito has carried out a strategic alliance with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko. Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s firebrand president, has long challenged the US and its economic, military and political hegemony in Latin America, and for that he deserves some respect.Yet, in consolidating ties to Belarus, Correa’s foreign policy has taken a very regrettable and unfortunate turn.

Just three months ago, Lukashenko paid a personal visit to Correa in Quito and the two signed a series of cooperation initiatives in areas such as trade, health, science and housing.

More ominously, the two leaders inked a military cooperation agreement. The Ecuadorans were particularly enthusiastic about getting their hands on new security technology which would “help to improve” the work of the armed forces. As part of the agreement, the Belarus “Military and Industrial State Committee” pledged to provide valuable intelligence and carry out joint military exchanges with Ecuador.    

The leftist world view

As I’ve noted before, the Latin populist left has been currying favour with authoritarian regimes for some time, and in this sense Correa has simply followed in the unfortunate steps of others such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Not surprisingly, Ecuador’s objectionable diplomacy hasn’t elicited any response from the international left. The reasons for this aren’t too difficult to fathom: for the authoritarian set, any moves which are aimed at offsetting the power of the US are to be condoned, if not outright welcomed, and Lukashenko has been a stalwart opponent of Washington on the international stage.  

Chomsky holds significant influence and has become something of a cottage industry  [AFP]

Somewhat more surprising, however, is the lack of response from the anti-authoritarian left. Take,for example, Massachussetts Insitute of Technology (MIT) professor Noam Chomsky, a frequent commentator on Latin America and a figure who claims to identify with the anarchist political tradition. A cautious commentator, the professor only criticizes the excesses of Latin populists under extreme duress and hasn’t really published any thought provoking articles over the past twenty years. To be sure, 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, in seeking to avoid controversy at all costs Chomsky has turned into something of an ideologue. Scour the Chomsky web site and you won’t find significant discussion of Belarus or Latin America’s flirtation with outside authoritarian leaders, for that matter.

On the left circuit, Chomsky holds significant influence and has become something of a cottage industry. Therefore, what the MIT professor says – as well as what he doesn’t say – frames the tone and overall scope of political debate. Other commentators take note, such as Tariq Ali, a UK-based political writer who is associated with Verso Books, a publishing hotbed of the sectarian left. Ali also contributes articles to Counterpunch, a web site founded by late Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn which is popular amongst the authoritarian crowd.

Ali, who is a Correa booster, worked as a writer on Oliver Stone’s South of the Border, a rather melodramatic and romanticised film about South America’s leftist presidents. Economist Mark Weisbrot, whose analysis of Correa and populist leaders verges on the sycophantic, also collaborated with Ali on Stone’s film. Perhaps not surprisingly, these same leftist commentators have similarly steered clear of further controversies involving Belarus.   

WikiLeaks and Shamir’s questionable trip to Belarus

Meanwhile, back in Europe, another bizarre and outlandish Belarus drama was unfolding as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange established questionable links of his own with one Israel Shamir. Reportedly, Shamir is a notorious Holocaust denier and “took away copies of (WikiLeaks) cables from Russia and post-Soviet states. According to one insider, he also demanded copies of cables about ‘the Jews’.”

According to the London-based Index on Censorship, Shamir later travelled to Belarus and met with regime officials such as Vladimir Makei, Lukashenko’s Chief of Staff no less. Russian news agency Interfax reported that Shamir introduced himself as WikiLeaks’ ” Russian representative” and claimed to be in possession of a “Belarus dossier”. Afterward, Shamir stayed on in Belarus to “observe” the December 2010 election. When demonstrators took to the streets to protest alleged voter fraud, Lukashenko sent in the state militia to repress protestors. Shamir, meanwhile, penned an article on Counterpunch – the same web site favoured by the likes of Tariq Ali – praising Lukashenko, trouncing critics of the regime, and crowing over WikiLeaks’ exposure of the political opposition in Belarus.

When Index on Censorship asked WikiLeaks whether Shamir had leaked confidential cables to Lukashenko, a member of the group responded tersely, “We have no further reports on this ‘rumour/issue’.” Another told Index: “Obviously it is not approved.” Whatever the case, the Shamir issue cast a dark shadow on WikiLeaks, a group which has otherwise done much to expose the underhanded agenda of US foreign policy. For bringing such sensitive documentation into the public spotlight, Assange merits a lot of credit and indeed countless writers and researchers – myself included – have benefited from such WikiLeaks scoops.

Moreover, in a back and forth over Twitter, Greenwald sought to avoid any discussion about Lukashenko and Correa’s hypocrisy over the issue of diplomatic asylum

On a certain level, however, you’ve got to wonder how Assange got mixed up with the likes of Shamir in the first place (in an ironic postscript, Rafael Correa, who has his own Belarus baggage to explain, recently awarded diplomatic asylum to Assange, a figure who had confronted daunting legal odds whilst in England).


Rather unconvincingly, Assange later sought to distance himself from Shamir, remarking that “WikiLeaks worked with hundreds of journalists… We have no reason to believe these rumours in relation to Belarus are true”. One former WikiLeaks staffer, however, claims that Assange had a “years-long friendship” with Shamir. The staffer says that when “questions were asked” within the organisation about the exact nature of the relationship between Assange and Shamir, “we were told in no uncertain terms that Assange would not condone criticism of his friend”.

Later, whilst in England, Assange began to broadcast his own show, World Tomorrow, on Russian Television (RT). Three months ago, the WikiLeaks founder interviewed Chomsky and Ali, “two giants of the intellectual left”. More recently, Chomsky and Ali have defended Assange, who confronts a difficult legal milieu, though the two avoid discussion of the Belarus affair or Shamir (in fact, both Chomsky and Ali continue to publish articles on Counterpunch, the same web site which earlier featured Shamir).

Correa partisans such as Weisbrot have been similarly silent, while other defenders like Glenn Greenwald even go so far as to self-righteously reject the notion that they should address Belarus. Moreover, in a back and forth over Twitter, Greenwald sought to avoid any discussion about Lukashenko and Correa’s hypocrisy over the issue of diplomatic asylum.

Painful questions for the left

The overall silence on Lukashenko does no service to the left. Not only is the Belarus government politically backward, but the Lukashenko regime has made some very questionable anti-Semitic comments. During a press conference, the Belarus president remarked that problems in the Belarusian town of Bobruisk were directly linked to Jewish activity in the city. In a charming aside, Lukashenko said, “This is a Jewish town, and Jews do not look after the cities in which they live.”

In a move which further alienated the Jewish community, the Belarus president added that Bobruisk was a “pigsty”. Local Jewish groups, who have observed desecration of Jewish cemeteries and the closure of Belarus’ only Jewish university, have grown increasingly alarmed about the rise of anti-Semitism in the country. Lukashenko’s comments bring back painful memories for Belarus’ Jewish community: in World War II, some 800,000 Jews were killed in the country by the Nazis and today only 25,000 remain.

The left sees itself as intellectually superior to the right, but has not done enough to demonstrate superior thoughtfulness and reasoning

There is a disturbing tie-in here with Counterpunch, which in addition to publishing Shamir has also posted other questionable articles with anti-Semitic connotations. Take, for example, this piece which arguably crosses the line, or another post which has ugly undertones. In light of Chomsky’s own personal background, it is highly ironic, and that is putting it mildly, that the professor continues to publish articles on Counterpunch. Indeed, according to this interview, the academic’s own Jewish mother hailed from Belarus.

The left sees itself as intellectually superior to the right, but has not done enough to demonstrate superior thoughtfulness and reasoning. In fact, by dodging the Belarus issue it has committed a tactical error which the right has been all too willing to exploit (witness this article in conservative Commentary magazine). The left, including Chomsky and Ali, must not only deride Washington and US foreign policy but also call out questionable positions and authoritarian tendencies whenever warranted. Failure to do so will result in severe loss of credibility and could provide unwelcome ammunition to the right.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff