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Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and the Left’s False Anti-Imperialist Crusade

(Uli Deck/AP)

“Through rallying anti-war movements and opposing any Western intervention (including humanitarian missions), many Western socialist intellectuals have, in fact, turned themselves into foot soldiers for authoritarian and undemocratic regimes.”

Western socialist intellectuals have encountered a formidable difficulty in articulating their views on the Left’s approaches to foreign and international policy issues. Challenging imperialism and rejecting oppressive regimes have historically been claimed as the two cardinal principles of left-oriented movements and organizations. However, these very left-oriented organizations and intellectuals have failed to adhere to their simultaneous commitment of challenging the perceived threat of Western imperialism and condemning authoritarian regimes. Due to an excessive fixation on (and preoccupation with) unmasking and excoriating U.S. foreign policy across the globe, many leftist intellectuals have advertently or inadvertently condoned the oppressive and reactionary proclivities of authoritarian (and undemocratic) regimes that have wrapped themselves with the flag of anti-imperialism.

Fiercely opposing U.S. foreign policy—but ignoring anti-democratic tendencies in the so-called anti-imperialist regimes—tends to trivialize socialists’ commitment to promoting democracy and, in fact, lends credence to the arguments by those who have questioned socialism’s compatibility with democratic principles. Due to their ingrained obsession and hostility to U.S. foreign policy, many leftist intellectuals have become ardent apologists for authoritarian regimes, which have utilized nationalism and anti-imperialism slogans to smash and suppress democratic forces in their nations, as well as marginalize minority groups. Through rallying anti-war movements and opposing any Western intervention (including humanitarian missions), many Western socialist intellectuals have, in fact, turned themselves into foot soldiers for authoritarian and undemocratic regimes. 

For the Left as a whole, reconciling anti-imperialism with criticizing oppressive and undemocratic regimes has historically proven to be a challenging task. The 1917 triumph of revolutionary Communist forces in Russia (and the ensuing rise of the Soviet Union as the stronghold of communism) engendered a perplexing climate for socialist and progressive intellectuals in the West. Despite the egregious encroachment into civil political liberty in the Soviet Union, so many of these intellectuals did not conceal their sympathy for the Soviet Union and its satellite allies during the Cold War era. However, these intellectuals did have to face an incisive castigation for condoning the undemocratic and repressive nature of the Soviet state. 

The current pseudo anti-imperialist regimes that are exalted and defended by leftist intellectuals in the West employ market-based principles to run their respective societies. In addition to unleashing a reign of repression as a mechanism to hold the secular and democratic forces in submission within their respective societies, these regimes’ social and economic policies are conducive to serving the local oligarchywhich can hardly be depicted as popular progressive regimes. 

Given the Islamic Revolution in Iran, as well as the recent Arab Spring waves across Middle East and North Africa, leftist intellectuals’ simultaneous commitment to fight both U.S. foreign policy and authoritarian regimes has become a nakedly visible contradiction. As a major political earthquake in the Middle East, the 1979 Iranian Revolution became a testing ground to assess this simultaneous commitment. The 1979 Revolution was hailed by high-ranked intellectuals in the West as an empirical testimony to ingrained Third Word indignation, along with the historical grievances towards the United States and its Western allies for supporting the previous, monarchical regime in Iran; the anti-American slogans prevalent during the Revolution resonated with Western intellectuals’ anti-imperialism crusade.

As such, the Revolution would be interpreted by prominent Western intellectuals with socialist tendencies as a road to enthroning social justice, political liberty, fairness, equality and wealth redistribution. In their writings, these high-caliber academics—such as Edward Said and Richard Falk—praised the Islamic Revolution as a harbinger of equality, justice, liberty, and emancipation for oppressed nations from the yoke Western hegemony. Falk would even look back on the Islamic Revolution as, “a needed new progressive political model that combined compassion for the people as a whole  with a shared spiritual identity.” Similarly, Noam Chomsky, one of left-leaning intellectuals who has galvanized an army of socialist supporters in the West, has catapulted the Islamic regime of Iran to the status of the international fortification against U.S. foreign policy, which, in his view, has sustained a, “‘successful defiance’ to the master of the globe.” Chomsky fails to take into consideration the complexities of national and geopolitical realities in the Middle East (and the world in general), where states engage in surreptitious relations with one another without discarding their declared pugnacity towards each other.

The entire edifice of Chomsky’s elevation of Islamic regime to the status of  an international bulwark against U.S. foreign policy is bound to crumble by the fact that the Islamic regime has, in fact, collaborated with European powers and has gravitated into the bosom of China and Russia, which can hardly be conceptualized as a vestige of national sovereignty. Chomsky, the courageous defender of free speech, has utilized the freedom of expression in the West to shelter the pseudo-anti-imperialist regime in Iran, which, itself, has put a muzzle on Iranian democratic and secular intellectuals. Under the guise of resisting U.S. imperialism, which has been obtusely averred by influential socialist intellectuals in the West, the Islamic regime in Iran has justified establishing imperial relations within Iranian society. In other words, while the Islamic regime labels its own socialists and secular opponents as sell-out agents of imperialism, it has engaged in cooperation with imperial powers whenever it is politically expedient to preserve its own survival. This assertion can be corroborated by the fact that the Islamic regime has remained silent on the suppression of Uyghur Muslims in China, as well as the slaughtering of Chechens in Russia. Ironically, it is the United States—not the hypocritical regime of Iran—that has imposed sanctions on certain Chinese entities that have played a role in Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.

Excessive preoccupation with challenging imperialism has prevented these influential socialist intellectuals from comprehending the authoritarian inclination lurking beneath the Islamic Revolution. It is perplexing to realize how such high profile socialist intellectuals hurriedly jumped onto the bandwagon of the Revolution but failed to detect that Iranian leftists became its prime victims. As the harsh reality of the Islamic Revolution quelling democratic and secular groups began to set in, these Western intellectuals painfully came to realize the fatal flaw in their misguided indulgence of a regime, which was cultivating a reign of terror as a governing method to silence democratic and secular opposition. Contrary to these intellectuals’ hasty jubilation, the political regime that emerged can hardly be characterized as a progressive, anti-imperialist regime; their premature celebration and unconditional endorsement of the Revolution discredited their intellectual insights.

The same pattern has come to prevail in the leftist literature on the spread of socio-political uprisings known as the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa. Instead of providing moral support for popular non-violent uprising in Syria, anti-imperialists on the Left relapsed into their old habit of attacking Western power, which, in turn, engendered a golden opportunity for the Syrian regime and its staunch supporters to turn a peaceful movement for democracy into a military confrontation. As Sam Hamad has observed, Chomsky has—on numerous occasions—attempted to conflate Syrian opposition with ISIS and Al Qaeda. Chomsky has also even evaded describing Russian bloody intervention in support of the Syria regime as an imperialistic venture. Several left-leaned journalists and communist organizations have vehemently striven to characterize the Syrian popular uprising as a geopolitical conflict between Western foreign policy and anti-imperialist forces. This strange depiction of the Syrian regime and its allies as anti-imperialist forces has been conducive to whitewashing the staged massacre of Syrians by the Syrian regime and its allies.

According to Yassin, “it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle…Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate.”

Even Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the British Labour Party, has eschewed denouncing the Assad regime (and its allies) for the indiscriminate slaughtering of Syrian people. Corbyn has, instead, become an obstinate defender of the Islamic regime of Iran and has been suspiciously reticent to comment on the suppression of his Iranian socialist and progressive counterparts. In an open letter to Corbyn, Hamid Taqavi, the leader of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran, called on the British Labour leader to unreservedly support the struggle of oppressed Iranian people against the Islamic regime. Taqavi further warned Corbyn that collaboration with the Islamic regime would never be expunged from the Iranian people’s memory. In addition to defending dictatorial regimes, these Western anti-imperialist socialists have even cast aspersion on any committed progressive and secular intellectual who has bravely castigated these oppressive and despotic regimes for repressing labor movements and secular organizations. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a leading Syrian socialist has deplored the ramifications of Western leftists’ stance on the Syrian uprising. According to Yassin, “it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle…Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate.”

Fighting perceived imperialism but ignoring political repression runs counter to what democracy stands for. Democratically-committed intellectuals should forcefully and consistently rebuke and denounce injustices and oppression, wherever they occur. To be boastfully boisterous whenever the United States and its Western allies conduct military operations in other countries (even under humanitarian missions) but suspiciously remain silent on the suppression and imprisonment of leftist and secular progressive activists in Iran, brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators and the slaughter of innocent Syrians by barrel bombs carried out by Syrian and Russian airplanes, is hard to rationalize. In their struggle against oppression, these committed intellectuals must eschew from providing moral and intellectual support for pseudo anti-imperialist regimes, which insidiously employ “resisting imperialism” as a certified license to oppress their own citizens. Western intellectuals must also reconsider and reassess their anti-imperialist project. Instead of galvanizing political support for the democratic forces in Third World Countries, western socialists’ passionate endeavors to provide intellectual legitimacy for these dictatorial regimes have sadly provided an auspicious atmosphere for reactionary Islamic fundamentalism to flourish throughout the region.

Sirvan Karimi is an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration, York University.

13 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and the Left’s False Anti-Imperialist Crusade

  1. Have you read literally any of Noam Chomsky’s work? Like a single word? His entire premise is that we need to criticize our own governments, you know, the ones we can actually effect, as opposed to patting ourselves on the back like you are doing here while criticizing other people’s governments, whose policies we cannot as easily effect as our own. IE, our priorities should be to stop our own criminal actions before criticizing others. It’s a pretty simple concept actually. It comes from the Bible, you know, the whole “don’t point out a speck in your neighbors eye when there is a stick in yours” thing. Frankly, as someone who has read much of Chomsky’s work, this article borders on infantile. Your characterization of Chomsky’s views on Iran is misleading to the point of being completely untruthful, and you either know this and are lying, or you have read so little of Chomsky’s work that you just looked at a quote somewhere and called it good. The same goes for your claim that Chomsky has conflated the Syrian opposition with ISIS or Al Qaeda. There is no use arguing against this point because it is a blatant falsehood, perhaps he has noted that there are extremist elements in the opposition, which is a claim that is objectively true and has been noted by both right and left wing commentators, but he has also come out strongly in favor of the Kurdish opposition, and other elements of the Syrian Democratic forces. If you can’t engage them in an argument, then just misrepresent their claims and ignore the fact that Chomsky has written chapters upon chapters in many of his books responding to the very same tired criticisms of this article. I have seen criticisms of Chomsky elsewhere that I thought were fair, although I did not agree with them, but this article is completely without substance and deliberately distorts, and fails to address, Chomsky’s central arguments on foreign policy.

      1. If that’s the next evidence you can come up (3rd hand reference that is 8 years old). Maybe you need to read some Chomsky too.

  2. This entire article is jibberish. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt on more than one occasion. Overblown generalizations and ill informed statements about the views of amorphous categories of people are about par for the course these days. So I guess you are keeping with the zeitgeist…

    Try constructive dialog. Referencing the words and actions of people you attack.

    1. I will invite you to carefully read my points. All those assertions have properly been corroborated by reliable sources. Describing iran as a country that has sustained a “successful defiance to the master of globe” are the words of Chomsky himself. Chomsky’s conflation of ISIS with Syrian opposition forces has been asserted by Sam Hamad who is cited in the article. Try to think of those leftist, secular and progressive individuals and groups who are oppressed by the same regimes that are regarded by Chomsky and other socialist intellectuals in the west as anti-imperialist regimes. Fighting imperialism but ignoring repression can safely be described as anti-socialism and anti-democracy.

      1. No offense, but you sound decidedly creepy in your literally unbelievable tendentious insistence. The Iranian Islamist regime exists, has survived a brutal war initiated by Iraq intended by the US to seriously weaken, if not entirely destroy, both states, and needless severe sanctions over the years and decades, and your objection to these historical facts is that clandestinely Iran would make secret deals with some its enemies? What important country in the world has never done that? Are you simplistically saying that the latter possibility negates the former universally accepted realities? Are you saying Iran has not successfully defied the historically and ongoingly imperialist West because it also has made secret deals with the former? Tell that to Libya, or what remains of it, which also defied the West economically and geopolitically while also negotiating with it overtly and clandestinely, until the raison d’etre of Western imperialism finally destroyed its sovereignties altogether.

  3. The world needs United states not only to police the world but also to control the resources in which is being used by so called revolutionary regimes / movements to create war and atrocity around the globe. Every knowledgeable person is well aware of the consequences of not having a deterrent force to limit and deal with the criminality of so called anti west / anti imperialism. One thing is for sure that leftists are not short of excuses to deter the right doings of United States in facing such inhumane regimes. Examples are so many to mention.

    Well done Mr. Karimi

    Please Read-

    1. There really isn’t a need for a global police.. Just think of all he repercussions and hurt that comes with that.. much of what we inflict on the rest of the world. It’s very easy to look through a nationalistic lens… but try looking through another countries/someone else’s

  4. Noam Chomsky:
    “That Iran’s government is a threat to its own population is not in doubt, nor is the fact that like everyone else, Iran seeks to expand its influence. The issue, rather, is Iran’s alleged threat to world order generally.

    What then is that threat? A sensible answer has been provided by U.S. intelligence, which advised Congress in 2010 (nothing has materially changed since) that Iranian military doctrine is strictly “defensive … designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities,” and that “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.” (U.S. intelligence agencies acknowledged in 2007 and 2012 that Iran doesn’t currently have a nuclear weapons program.) For those who wish to rampage freely in the region, a deterrent is an intolerable threat—even worse than “successful defiance.”

    1. he has uncovered a major hole in the platform of socialists and leftists who have faced and have been unable to overcome .

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