Learning to Listen

The third consecutive day of mass protests in Tehran during Iran’s Green Movement, June 15, 2009 (Hamed Saber)

This is an article with a simple argument: that what “internationalism” requires of all leftists is a commitment to listen to comrades abroad. The commitment seems especially important in these grim days. Donald Trump’s flirtation with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and his skepticism about NATO require all leftists to press our own internationalist agenda.

Listening isn’t an easy thing to do, as we can see in a recent and very brave Dissent article by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (Summer 2016). The article, “What Do Syrians Want?,” is a harsh indictment of leftists in the United Kingdom, and the United States, too, who argued against any Western intervention in Syria but never bothered to listen to Syrians. The Syrians we should have listened to were the ones who called themselves democrats and secularists, and what they were saying was that they needed help. Which is why almost no one on the left wanted to listen.

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing. We might have listened to the call for help and decided that the costs of helping were too great or that it was unlikely that any help the United States could bring would actually be helpful. But those are positions that we could only have reached, if we claim to be internationalists, after listening to our Syrian comrades.

For many American leftists, comrades abroad who ask for help are a nuisance; they interfere with our self-absorption. There is a leftist argument, sometimes articulated, more often assumed, which holds that America, the global hegemon, is responsible for most of the bad things that happen in the world. The task of the American left, therefore, is to oppose the activist policies of the hegemon and press for U.S. disengagement from international politics. America is the agent that counts in the world, and we (leftists) are the necessary opposition. Everything else is just peripheral noise.

It is very difficult to acknowledge that there are other agents in the world who are responsible, entirely on their own, for bad things. But there really are other agents—states like Assad’s Syria or Putin’s Russia, for example, and non-state organizations like the Islamic State, Hamas, and Boko Haram. And there are men and women threatened by those other agents who look for help from the hegemon. Idrees Ahmad wants us to listen to them.

It is especially hard to listen when any serious response would require the use of force. Officially, as it were, the left is against American forcefulness—except when we, or at least some of us, find ourselves calling for it. Consider the Yazidis of northern Iraq, designated by the Islamic State for murder and enslavement and rescued—not all of them, but most of them—by the U.S. air force and Kurdish ground troops armed (not well enough) by the United States. Most leftists supported the rescue, or so I think, though without acknowledging that we were glad that the United States had an air force capable of doing what needed to be done. In Congress, if we were there, we would probably have voted against the military budget. Would we have been more comfortable listening to the cry of the Yazidis and thinking, “Well, we would like to help, but we don’t have the planes?”

Our record isn’t so good even when our comrades abroad aren’t asking for military support. Danny Postel’s book, Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran (2006), is a tough polemic against a left that wouldn’t listen to Iranian dissidents who wanted something very different. Consider the case of Shirin Ebadi, author of Iran Awakening and a prominent defender of the regime’s victims (and someone who has herself spent time in Iranian prisons). At a meeting in London, Postel reports, “an antiwar activist [speaking for many other antiwar activists] instructed her that she should not denounce Iran’s human rights record—indeed not discuss it at all—explaining that doing so only plays into the hands of the warmongers.” In fact, Ebadi wasn’t asking for an attack on Iran; she opposes any military intervention; all she wanted was what this “activist” was denying her: solidarity from friends in the United Kingdom.

I was reminded of Leszek Kołakowski’s description of refugees from Czechoslovakia in 1968 being greeted in (West) Germany by “very progressive and absolutely revolutionary leftists with placards saying ‘fascism will not pass.’” The refugees, fascists only in the mind of the revolutionary left, weren’t calling for a “rollback” of the Soviet empire, but they did want German leftists, and others, too, to recognize the brutality of the empire and stand in opposition to it. And they wanted to be welcomed, they should have been welcomed, as heroes of the Prague Spring.

What is actually at issue here is the foreign policy of the left—not of Great Britain or Germany or the United States. What should we be saying and what should our organizations be doing? It is important, of course, to argue about what policies we should be urging on our country’s leaders. But first of all we have to decide what our own policies should be. How should we organize the work of our parties, unions, movements, and even our magazines? Listen now to another Iranian dissident, Akbar Ganji:

We don’t want anything from governments. We are looking to the NGOs. And we want people to know what the Iranian reality is . . . to know what’s going on in Iran. The intellectuals, the media and NGOs in the world have to draw attention to the human rights abuses in Iran. . . . I emphasize: we don’t want intervention, we only want the moral support of the global community for our fight.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? But Postel’s book is a persuasive and sad account of how scarce moral support has been.

The story Postel told in 2006 was repeated a few years later during Iran’s Green Movement (2009), this time even more sadly. President Obama was slow to respond to the massive protests and was brutally attacked by American neoconservatives. But his response was probably right; it was driven by diplomatic considerations of the first importance. His task was to persuade or coerce the Iranian government to give up the effort to produce nuclear weapons, and the men and women in the streets were not going to help him do that. But the left was not constrained in the same way. We should have been actively supporting the protests, publishing the stories of Iranian dissidents, raising money for their organizations, condemning the arrests that came all too soon, holding meetings and marches, signing petitions, picketing Iranian embassies wherever there were embassies and wherever we could mobilize the picketers. In fact, we did almost nothing. Left magazines like the Nation carried strong and sympathetic reports on the uprising and emphatically supported Obama’s caution. But they had little to say about a specifically left response, which wouldn’t have had to be cautious. Some 200 human rights activists (including Noam Chomsky) signed a letter to the secretary general of the UN calling for a Security Council condemnation of the Iranian regime, which was a minimalist response but helpful and right (and a stark contrast to the defense of the regime by “postcolonial” writers and academics who described it as a bulwark against the West). But the large-scale mobilization that the international left, and the American left, should have produced didn’t happen.

“All defenders of human rights,” Shirin Ebadi has written, “are members of a single family.” Is the American left part of the family? We certainly are active and engaged members whenever the violations of human rights can be attributed to our own government. Not so much when other agents are at work. American liberals have a better record, best represented by organizations like Human Rights Watch. Theirs is an internationalism of staff-run NGOs and UN agencies; it is focused on what governments around the world should or shouldn’t do. Ours is an internationalism of parties, unions, and social movements; it is focused on what we should or shouldn’t do. The contrast is important. Human Rights Watch is an excellent organization, doing necessary work, but it doesn’t organize marches and demonstrations or raise money for dissident groups abroad. Instead, it does research and issues reports critical of government behavior. Marches and demonstrations should be the work of the left responding to the call of other leftists.

There are many more examples of our failure to respond, but I want to dwell on one that seems to me especially telling. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was opposed, rightly, I think, by most leftists. And most leftists then went on to oppose the occupation, even if that involved supporting what the editor of New Left Review called “the Iraqi maquis”—the “resistance”—which consisted of religious sectarians and zealots whose politics had nothing to do with the left and who didn’t deserve the comparison with the French maquis of the 1940s. There were, of course, leftist precedents for this sort of thing, one of which I once regarded with amusement, but now recognize as a warning: At the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920, the triumphant Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev called for a “holy war” against Western capitalism. His largely Muslim audience responded with shouts of “Death to the Infidels!” Zinoviev obviously hadn’t found the right comrades abroad. Sometimes “listening” has to be followed by a very firm No. What was necessary in Iraq was a No to the occupation and also to the “resistance.”

It is a sign of the self-absorption of the American (and the Western) left that the first No was readily forthcoming and the second was very hard for many leftists to manage. As a result, it was almost impossible for us to listen to those Iraqis whom we should have recognized immediately as our comrades. For they, even when they were critical of the occupation, were nowhere near as hostile to it as we were. The American overthrow of Saddam Hussein opened space (which is now closing down) for Iraqi democrats, trade unionists, and feminists. Nadje Al-Ali, a German-Iraqi woman who stands considerably to my left—she describes herself as a “transnational feminist anti-militarist”—has written a beautiful account (in the journal Works and Days and also in several books) of the sudden upsurge in feminist work and agitation immediately after the invasion in 2003.

Al-Ali was an opponent of the sanctions regime of the 1990s, of the American invasion, and of the occupation. But she was at the same time fiercely critical of those leftists who supported Saddam (because he was “anti-imperialist”) and who went on to support the “resistance.” She believes, as I do, that leftists frequently have to fight multi-front wars. She has been inspired, she says, by “Iraqi women’s rights activists who are fighting on many fronts simultaneously: a foreign military invasion, capitalist expansion, Islamist extremists, and local patriarchal conservative forces. Their struggles and campaigns deserve . . . more widespread acknowledgment and support.” They certainly do. Why haven’t they gotten that support from American leftists?

The likely answer is suggested by one moment in those “struggles and campaigns.” In 2011, Al-Ali reports, “a considerable number of women activists preferred U.S. and U.K. troops to remain [in Iraq] until the threat of Islamist militancy, random violent attacks, and sectarian violence has been controlled . . .” That’s sensible enough; their lives were at stake. But who on the left was listening? There must have been feminists in the United States who were in touch with their Iraqi sisters, but I can’t recall any discussion on the left of what those sisters wanted from us. I am not prepared to say that we should have called for a postponement of the American withdrawal. But that should certainly have been one policy option that we talked about. Perhaps we didn’t listen to the Iraqi women precisely because we didn’t want to talk about it. What we knew, and all that we knew, was that the war and the occupation together were a great evil, an American crime, which had to end. How could it be a good thing for American soldiers to “control” the country?

The view that it couldn’t be a good thing reflects our inverted nationalism or, better, our self-indulgent preoccupation with what our own country does and with how we feel about what it does. It doesn’t reflect an internationalist commitment or a genuine engagement with other people. In the case of left internationalism, this would have to be an engagement with particular other people, those that I have been calling “our comrades abroad.” Who are they?

In 1955, the Italian novelist, Ignazio Silone, wrote an article for Dissent called “The Choice of Comrades”—this is the choice, he thought, that defines the left. Our comrades, for him, were the oppressed, the poor, people in trouble. I am not sure that’s quite right. Those are the people the left works for, or tries to; we want to give them a voice and a chance to shape their own lives. But the people we work with, our actual comrades, are the men and women among the oppressed, and activists from all social classes, who fight against oppression because they are committed, as we are, to freedom, equality, and democracy. There are other people claiming to act in the name of the oppressed who are not our comrades: vanguard militants, terrorists, and would-be Maximal Leaders—and all their friends and apologists. Those are not the people we have to listen to. But the Syrian democrats, the Iranian dissidents, and the Iraqi feminists—they are our comrades, and we should have been listening; we should be listening right now.

Shouldn’t we also be listening to people on the other side, our opponents, all the men and women we have to argue with—and all the people in the middle, too? Yes, of course, but that’s a different kind of listening, more like studying, trying to figure out what they think, and why, what their grievances are, and their prejudices, and their hopes. We listen to comrades; we do our best to understand the people we want to persuade—and may need to defeat.

A case where leftists pretended to listen may be helpful here. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to boycott Israeli universities, and Israel generally, claims to be a response to a “call” from Palestinian civil society. Western activists listened, we are told, and went into action. In fact, the original call came from two British leftists, Steven and Hilary Rose, in 2002; they were acting on their own, for their own reasons. It wasn’t until 2005 that tactically smarter British leftists asked Palestinian organizations to call for the boycott that was already in place (though not very successful). And who responded? Who is supporting the boycott now? In a Mondoweiss interview (reposted on the Tikkun website, April 29, 2016), Norman Finkelstein, no friend of Israel, answered that question, describing

the myths propagated by the BDS leadership. It claims to represent nearly 200 Palestinian civil society organizations. If there were 20—forget about 200, just 20—such organizations with a real constituency in Palestine, would the third intifada eight months later still have no organizational form? . . . The truth is, “Palestinian civil society” is an illusion. It’s just foreign-financed NGOs—one or two person-outfits—dotting Ramallah’s privileged landscape.

The BDS leaders figured out that “listening” was the right thing to do, so they have (pretty successfully) pretended that that’s what they are doing.

Of course, they should really be listening, and so should we—to comrades in both Palestine and Israel who are committed to freedom, equality, and democracy. That means, to men and women who believe in self-determination for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians, who defend civil rights and civil liberty for all peoples, who oppose the occupation, who support mass action against the occupation, and who reject terrorism. There are a lot of men and women with these views, and some of them might well support a boycott, qualified in this or that way. Actually, only about 50 percent of Palestinians overall support a boycott of Israeli goods, and the number participating in such a boycott is around one-third (according to an August 2015 poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, which is run by a group of Palestinian journalists and researchers; these numbers represent a drop from the previous poll). Among our Palestinian comrades, the number supporting a boycott is probably less than 50 percent, and there will be opponents, too, who are also opposed to the BDS goal of a single state. We should be attentive to the full range of their views.

Let me finish by looking at a current and future political debate among leftists in Europe and the United States. Years ago, when he was a dissident Labourite, Jeremy Corbyn called for the United Kingdom to leave NATO. Now, as leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn doesn’t say such things, but he presumably still believes that NATO should be abandoned—he is, after all, an unusually consistent politician. Much more recently, the Green Party USA adopted a platform calling for the “disbanding” of NATO and “all aggressive military alliances.” And the editors of n+1, our comrades here at home, published a long and very smart review by Richard Beck of a new book by Andrew Bacevich in which Beck argues that the United States should leave NATO. This is certainly an interesting idea, one that would probably find a lot of support among Western leftists. I wouldn’t support it, however, without asking what our comrades on the Polish left think about it—the people who run the magazine Krytyka Polityczna, for example, who are close to Dissent. Listening to them seems an obvious moral and political requirement: they have a lot more at stake than we do. I would guess that they prefer a strong to a weakened or disbanded NATO. But so far as I know, Corbyn never suggested consulting them; nor did Jill Stein, last year’s Green candidate for president; nor does Beck argue for any such consultation. If left internationalism means anything, it means that we should listen to east European leftists, our comrades abroad, before staking out positions on what the U.S. government should do in Europe. After listening, we might disagree, but then we would have to explain our disagreement to our comrades. Listening begins a conversation.

American leftists, like Americans generally, have to learn that it’s not all about us.

Michael Walzer is editor emeritus at Dissent.

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