Redefining Anti-imperialism: reviewing Indefensible by Rohini Hensman7 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews, Russia
Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism by Rohini Hensman is another great volume from the Chicago-based publishing house Haymarket Books. Indefensible is a commentary on contemporary international relations with a humanist core. While the manifestations of imperialism might have shifted over the years, the disastrous effects have always been the same – disenfranchisement of the world’s most vulnerable communities. This book is for students of political science who identify as anti-imperialist by opposing Western imperialism but turn a blind eye to dictators in Syria and tyrants in Russia. 

Imperialism is the ideology of ruling over other countries for political and economic control. Many students of political science understand imperialism in the context of European colonialism or the numerous covert operations run by the United States during the Cold War. Students may even self-identify as anti-imperialist after learning of the horrors of the CIA and US government post-World War II. Any country that was not immediately inviting to American interests was accused of communism. 

Hensman cites the example of Iran, Guatemala, and Chile to illustrate this. In Iran, opposition to British ownership of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and oil concession by the Soviet Union led to Mohammad Mossadegh’s creation of the National Front, which was gaining momentum in urban centers including Tehran, and ultimately ended in a coup engineered by both the CIA and British secret service in 1953. 

In Guatemala, multiple coup attempts took place during Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz’s presidencies. The country’s peaceful elections, democratic constitution, and land redistribution to the poor did not match the agenda of the American-financed United Fruit Company, which resulted in a CIA-backed coup in 1954, which led to a succession of far-right military dictatorships and a bloody civil war in Guatemala 1960 – 1996.

In Chile, Salvador Allede’s presidency included the “nationalisation of banking and copper mines, public health care, education, and housing, employment creation, and workers’ rights. He was willing to negotiate the terms of nationalising the telephone companies owned by the US company ITT, but instead the corporation became part of a plot to overthrow him,” which led to the subsequent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Tens of thousands were imprisoned and tortured under Pinochet beginning 1973. 

While the United States bears the brunt of criticism from anti-imperialists, Hensman reminds the reader that imperialism is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. From the Soviet Union towards Afghanistan, Serbia towards Bosnia and then Kosovo, Syria towards its own people, and now Russia towards Ukraine, anti-imperialists have a moral responsibility to stand up to injustice wherever they see it. 

A critical eye on Russia

Indefensible is for scholars of Russia and Eastern Europe who may be interested in contemporary Russian and Chinese imperialism as a suitable rival to classical Western imperialism – as both have attempted to stand up to the American government, past and present. But Hensman warns anti-imperialists who study these regions to fully grasp the history and nuance before condemning a certain style of imperialism and erroneously labeling themselves as anti-imperialist.

In Russia, authoritarian degeneration of the revolution after 1917 began even before Stalin took over the party. The Soviet Union was already following course in becoming a one-party totalitarian state. A systematic war on truth was waged by Stalin to cover up his alliance with Hitler, characterized by a secret non-aggression pact. All of this required crushing dissidents and minorities at every turn. During Putin’s presidency, many of the same actions are being carried out. In 2013, a refurbished Russian imperialism led to the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. An appeal was sent to the UN and EU on behalf of ethnic minorities in Russia saying that, despite Russia’s multi-national population, there are active campaigns to stomp out minorities, eliminate Muslims, and turn all its citizens to monolingual Russian speakers. Hensman writes that “the link between Russian ethnonationalism and imperialism explains why Putin has encouraged the rise of neo-fascist groups carrying out violent attacks on minorities.”

Questioning narratives of the Ukrainian uprising

Like Lenin, Hensman believes that Ukraine is Russia’s Ireland- “‘exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return’”. Maidan was a wave of civil unrest in Ukraine in 2013-2014, prompted by Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s suspension of an EU-Ukraine agreement. Although the Putinist narrative of the Maidan movement is described as a neo-fascist uprising, Hensman cites evidence that proves otherwise. Far-right nationalist parties Svoboda and Right Sector only gained 1 percent of each of the votes cast in the May 2014 presidential election. Pro-Russian parties were also wiped out. While anti-Semites certainly exist in Ukraine, “there have been serious efforts to deal with Ukraine’s anti-Semitic past.” Also, “where the state encourages homophobic violence with its anti-gay legislation,” in Ukraine, on the other hand, “police defended a Kiev gay pride march from violence from the Right Sector, and twenty-five members of the anti-gay militant group were arrested.” Charges of fascism surrounding the Maidan movement simply weren’t sizable enough to be a credible threat, and were overemphasized by Russian media. Hensman further debunks the Putinist narrative about the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which Russian media claimed was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired by a Ukrainian fighter jet. 

Russia’s role in the breakup of Yugoslavia

According to Hensman, Russia is not clean from involvement in the break up of Yugoslavia at the end of the century because they armed the Serbian government, allowing them to commit genocide against Bosnian Muslims. At the core of the crisis was the relationship between Serbian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity. Hensman quotes Trotsky in his understanding of pan-Slavic and Christian Orthodox chauvinism as a “crucial element in Russian tyranny”. While people who claim to be anti-imperialist are mostly critical of Western leaders for their failure to act in the Bosnian genocide, Hensman believes that condemnation does not begin to “explain the way in which pseudo-anti-imperialists acknowledge atrocities by Croats but only against Serbs, and refuse to acknowledge either atrocities by Serbs against Croats or the genocide of Bosnian Muslims.” Those who take on the popular anti-imperialist stance that Bosnians should have been armed during the conflict ignore the harm that Croats inflicted on the Serbs – and vice versa. All of this is just as bad as aligning with the Russian government – which is steeped in denying the genocide of Bosnians. The ongoing genocide denial is a manifestation of Putin’s neo-Stalinist approach to governing and a product of uncritical support for Russian nationalism. 

The antidote to imperialism

Given that interpretations of colonial history rely largely on unchallenged recounts, how should modern audiences contend with anti-imperialism in the current times? Indefensible makes a few suggestions. First, it is to actively pursue truth in journalism and be wary of the “proliferation of nostalgias”: a la Make America Great Again or Russia for Russians

Double standards on behalf of governments is another “symptom of moral degradation”. The author urges us to judge our own leaders as harshly as we judge other governments. This policy goes for condemning international military intervention and condoning brutal dictatorships.

Lastly, scholars should adopt an internationalist attitude. Justice-minded citizens should support freedom struggles abroad. Principled opposition against racism and xenophobia should coexist with a harsh stance against neoliberalism (which Hensman defines as “privatisation of public utilities and public services, attacks on social security and welfare, financial deregulation, procorporate clauses in trade agreements, and assaults on workers’ rights and environmental protections”). Should we fail to oppose totalitarian regimes, we weaken the global opposition to neoliberalism, and “unless we support democracy in other countries, we will face right-wing backlash in our own.” 

The final chapter of Indefensible explores the idea of democratic sovereignty through realigning the United Nations to its original charter of cooperation when solving international problems, democratizing the voting power of “powerful” countries, and prioritizing human rights. Whether or not you agree with Hensman’s suggestions, Indefensible is a very engaging guide that forces any scholar to examine their anti-imperialist rhetoric and to make sure that it is humane, at the very least.

Book details: Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018. It is available to buy here

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