Hezbollah, Anti-imperialism, and the Compatible Left
A review of Banerjee's "Fighting Imperialism and Authoritarian Regimes: Between the Devil and the Deep Sea" (2003) and Salamey's "Hezbollah, Communitarianism, and Anti-Imperialism" (2019).
"such power and the people who excercised it, embodied a mystique, expressed not simply in guns but in books, uniforms, social behavior and a mass of manufactured products. Only by accepting these things and those who brought them would it be possible to penetrate this mystique and grasp the power which lay behind it" (Chris Clapham, Third World Politics: an introduction, 1985)
The Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, assesses Hezbollah today to be the "most formidable" armed non-state actor in the world. Hezbollah has developed exponentially since the 1980s growing to be the largest political party in the Arab world: spearheading the Axis of Resistance coalition against Zionism and US imperialism [and its Arab allies] in West Asia at large. The political strategy toward Hezbollah has recurrently caused sharp disagreements among the Left in the Arab World and abroad: whereby some would promote anti-imperialist solidarity with the party, and others would explain away the party's anti-imperialist achievements to critique other factors.
In “Fighting Imperialism and Authoritarian Regimes: Between the Devil and the Deep Sea”, Sumanta Banerjee introduces a pertinent debate of leftist circles into academia (2003). Banerjee offers a critique of post-soviet anti-imperialism: contrasting old leftist anti-imperialist liberation movements with contemporary identity-based anti-imperialist liberation movements which presumably fall short of leftist standards of social liberation. He argues that the Left is regressing by uncritically prioritizing the contradiction of imperialism while overlooking other tenants of social liberation which he characterizes as violating “the beliefs and operative norms” of “the Left and democratic forces” (S. Banerjee, 2003, p:183).
The regression and eventual dissolution of the USSR stifled the popularity of socialist ideals and did away with the blanket ideology that most anti-imperialist actors adopted a variant of. It became a notable trend of liberation movements, especially in West Asia, to turn towards their respective cultures for revolutionary inspiration rather than turning to the literature of scientific socialism. The prior leftwing secular character of liberation movements was replaced by cultural indigenous ideologies: the most distinguished among which is Hezbollah.
In his article, Banerjee condemns these non-socialist anti-imperialist movements as 'authoritarian'. He doesn't directly address Hezbollah but poses a critique generally to all non-socialist anti-imperialist actors. He argues that they are hardly any better than their imperialist oppressors such that they too stifle social liberation: thus allegorizing the latter as the ‘Devil’ and the former as the ‘Deep Sea’ (S. Banerjee, 2003, p:184). He adds that the anti-imperialist struggle against US hegemony has been distorted since the time of ‘Che Guevara’ and ‘Nelson Mandela’ (S. Banerjee, 2003, p:183). Many leftists, he argues, have remained uncritically fixated on supporting any party opposing US hegemony regardless of other factors; he theorizes that they have been so blinded by the evils of the Devil that they have obliviously backed up into the embrace of the Deep Sea (S. Banerjee, 2003).
Banerjeee's argument, essentially, challenges the precedence of the struggle against imperialism in leftist lore and activism. The novel significance of his article is that it formulates a topic heatedly debated in vintage cafes and niche pubs and introduces it into academia where it can be scientifically unpacked. While he doesn't address Hezbollah directly, his arguments echo those posed by some leftists against initiatives for political affinity with Hezbollah.
Imad Salamey (2019) comports the aforementioned argument to be point-precise geared toward Hezbollah by introducing the prospect of "communitarianism". Salamey explains in “Hezbollah, Communitarianism, and Anti-Imperialism” that Hezbollah is one byproduct of the global trend of communitarianism (2019). Communitarianism, Salamey explains, arises as a result of the ferocious expansion of capitalism and the equivocal decline of nation-states caused by the curbing of government intervention in favor of laissez-faire market policies (2019).
In the absence of the state’s welfare role, communities turn inwards for a safety net. Hezbollah’s inception in Lebanon came in this context: in light of the Shia community’s social marginalization, the sectarian chaos of the Lebanese civil war, and the recurrent Zionist attacks on the predominantly shia-populated south. Hezbollah arose as the safety net for its immediate community against the ills of capitalism and imperialism.
Salamey explains that communitarianism is rooted in a “primordial cultural solidarity” which undermines the nation-state (2019); In the case of Hezbollah, this underlying cultural solidarity was of that between the Iranian and Lebanese Shias: which was optimized ultimately in the form of the robust alliance between Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolution's Guard Corps.
In addition to unpacking the communitarian basis of Hezbollah, Salamey synthesized the general conception of anti-imperialism in Marxist lore and then presented the two as incompatible. He argues that:
- The Marxist directive for revolution, and by extension anti-imperialist praxis, is premised upon the Westphalian conception of the nation-state (liberation is the liberation of a nation within a state),
- Communitarianism by definition undermines the nation-state, and Hezbollah is manifestly communitarian (primarily because of its substate identity)
- Thus, Hezbollah isn't anti-imperialist (the strive against American imperialism is accidental and not decisively anti-imperialist).
The conclusion of Salamey’s article builds on that of Banerjee’s: leftists in support of Hezbollah under the pretext of anti-imperialist solidarity are violating the ideological beliefs and operative norms of the Left (Salamey, Hezbollah, Communitarianism, and Anti-Imperialism, 2019; Banerjee, Between the Devil and the Deep Sea, 2003). This Post-Soviet Communitarian critique of Hezbollah roughly presents some arguments typically posed by western and westernized leftists denouncing affinity with Hezbollah.
Argument 1: Hezbollah isn’t Leftist
One of the typical discourse narratives posed against affinity with Hezbollah is by wistfully contrasting Hezbollah with romanticized leftist anti-imperialist icons like Che Guevara or Nelson Mandela. While this is an unscientific criticism of Hezbollah that is uncommon among credible Leftist intellectuals or noteworthy parties, it is popular among the contemporary 'woke' left as a to-go-to argument.
The objective of conjuring the picturesque revolutionary experiences of Guevara and Mandela is to undermine Hezbollah’s strive for liberation in contrast. Proponents of such speaking points aim to marginalize Hezbollah’s achievements against Zionist colonialism and Takfiri fascism by putting it in competition with icons like Guevara or Mandela: In an effort to present Hezbollah's anti-imperialist efforts as ‘accidental’ or ‘isolated incidents’ sidelining them in the assessment of Hezbollah’s character.
These speaking points offer no real critique but only employ symbolic smearing to discredit Hezbollah: in an effort to contain Hezbollah’s popularity momentum from extending to the Left-wing in the Arab World and the West. Argument 1 marginalizes Hezbollah’s admirable strife against the Zionist and Takfiri footsoldiers of US imperialism. It conditions support for Hezbollah upon the party's self-identification as a leftist party, factoring out the consequential significance of Hezbollah's strife against the forces of reaction. A bullet that pierces the heart of a colonizing soldier or a fanatic fascist promotes people's liberation regardless of the ideological incentives which motivate the soldier.
Argument 2: Hezbollah isn't Secular
While Argument 1 stands as a strawman argument against leftist solidarity with Hezbollah, other arguments present a more sophisticated version of Argument 1. Primarily, and most commonly, is the argument referring to the Islamic ideology of Hezbollah: an argument that is alluded to by the aforementioned prospect of communitarianism (Salamey, 2019).
It is argued that Leftists can’t stand in solidarity with Hezbollah despite its anti-imperialist practice and stance because of its Islamic ideology. The Shia Islamic 'communitarian' character (or the ‘sectarian’ character of Hezbollah, to put it in the language of Lebanese political discourse), is argued, to devalue Hezbollah’s revolutionary anti-imperialist character.
Proponents of this argument explain that Hezbollah’s strife against Zionists and Takfiris arises from an in-group (shia community) vis-à-vis out-group (non-shia communities) rationale rather than a scientific understanding of imperialism. The scientific conception of imperialism, defined by socialist theorists, explains imperialist violence as the byproduct of the disproportionate accumulation of capital in favor of some nations at the expense of others, which entails the exploitation of the latter by the former for the purposes of maximizing economic interests (Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1917).
Hezbollah, however, isn't sectarian despite adopting a religious ideology and employing religious discourse. The party’s praxis isn't a zero-sum game of competition with other religious groups and this is assessed consequentially (i.e. in terms of results). Even if we were to entertain this faulty accusation and grant the validity of inferring chauvinistic sectarianism from religiosity, Hezbollah’s anti-imperialist character still holds. Assuming that Hezbollah is a “sectarian” communitarian party and interpreting wars in the “middle east”, from an orientalist lens, as irrational wars between different tribes motivated by identitarian chauvinism, Hezbollah’s praxis remains consequentially anti-imperialist praxis. Even if we were to assume that the Party’s wars against Zionists and Takfiris is motivated by an inter-communitarian feud, this doesn't change the fact that (1) Zionists and Takfiris were acting as footsoldiers of Imperialism and (2) Hezbollah’s strife against them was successful and effective.
This line of reasoning is cited by prominent theorists of Scientific Socialism. Marx and Engels hailed the Irish struggle for independence from British colonialism while acknowledging that the Irish liberation movement was prominently led by Catholic clergymen and that the conflict of decolonization had manifested for the Irish fighters as a war for protecting the catholicization of the indigenous population of the Island against the Protestant British invaders (Marx &Engels, On the Irish Question,1867).
Additionally, Stalin, in “Foundations of Leninism” when addressing the monarchist Emir’s efforts for liberation in Afghanistan, emphasized assessing liberation movements according to the results which they yield rather than according to a checklist of democratic standards (1924). “The national movement of the oppressed countries should be appraised not from the point of view of formal democracy, but from the point of view of actual results, as shown by the general balance sheet of the struggle against imperialism. The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican program of the movement, or the existence of a democratic basis of the movement.” (Stalin, 1924).
More so, however, Hezbollah stands as significantly more politically sophisticated than the Irish liberation movement in the 1860s (endorsed by Marx and Engels) or the Afghan Emir's liberation attempt (endorsed by Stalin). The party's religious and cultural ideology doesn’t exclude a scientific conception of imperialism as expressly stated in their 2009 manifesto. In the Chapter on Domination and Hegemony, it reads “Savage capitalism forces - embodied mainly in international monopoly networks of companies that cross the nations and continents, networks of various international establishments especially the financial ones backed by superior military force have led to more contradictions and conflicts - of which not less important - are the conflicts of identities, cultures, civilizations, in addition to the conflicts of poverty and wealth. These savage capitalism forces have turned into mechanisms of sowing dissension and destruction of identities as well as imposing the most dangerous type of cultural, national, economic as well as social theft. Globalization reached its most dangerous facet when it turned into a military one led by those following the Western scheme of domination - of which it was most reflected in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, where the latter’s share was the July 2006 aggression by the ‘Israelis’ ”(2009).
Marxism isn't as vehemently anti-religion as McCarthyists and infantile leftists make it seem. Dominoquo Losurdo unpacks this adequately in “Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History” (2016). He explains that, historically, the classes of society achieved initial awareness of the national question through religion: that It was through religious idioms and prospects that people became conscious of real material contradictions. “Marx and Engels carefully avoided indiscriminate liquidation of movements inspired by religion... Religious affiliation can be experienced very intensely and mobilized effectively in political and historical upheaval, but is not the primary cause of such conflict" (Losurdo, 2016).
In the case of Hezbollah, political theory and praxis of anti-zionism and anti-imperialism was developed in reference to the Epic of Karbala, in which Al-Hussein fought ferociously for justice against the tyranny of Yazid. This cultural narrative is native to the Lebanese Shia even prior to the inception of Hezbollah. The cultural significance and religious rituals of Aashura weren't parachuted from Iran on the eve of the Islamic revolution. Aashura is a historic watershed of Arab history. It symbolizes an indigenous revolution against the tyranny of the Islamic caliphate: the descendants of the Prophet contended the distorted interpretation of Islam which manufactured political legitimacy for tyrant caliphs by triumphing the authentic interpretation of Islam which promotes the normative ideal of justice.
One would dismiss this, citing Marx: "religion is the opiate of the masses" (Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of the Right, 1843). Aashura, however, unlike the religious narratives which promote pacifism referenced by Marx in his opiate metaphor, acted as a catalyst for the masses of the Lebanese Shia community to bear arms against Imperialist projects.
Hezbollah capitalized on the Epic of Aashura which has long been transmitted from generation to generation in this community. The narrative was allegorically projected to contemporary politics following a scientific analysis of the material contradictions as the 2009 manifesto expressly elaborates. The cultural spite against Yazid's injustice and tyranny was evoked by Hezbollah's clergymen to be compared to the hegemony of the US empire, and consequently mobilizing hundreds against the proxies of imperialism. This tactic of mobilization proved exceptionally effective in consolidating the world's most powerful non-state actor, reversing the Arab nation's setback in their struggle against Israeli colonialism, and snuffing out the deviant Takfiri fascist enterprise in the Levant.
"What human consciousness does is try to understand the world. When social life is calm, so are ideologies; when class conflicts come to existence so too do competing ideologies and conscious statements; and only when a revolutionary class arises can revolutionary ideas come into being" (Peter Stillman, Marx Myths and Legends, 2005)
Picturesquely, it is the whispered Islamic idioms that teemed serenity and discipline in the hearts of fighters fortified in Bint Jbeil as they took on the full brunt of the Israeli war machine, and it is the battle cry of “Ya Zaynab” which resounded as Kornet ATGMs flattened Israeli tanks back in 2006.
The Compatible Left
However, acknowledging criticism and engaging in self-criticism is central to the development and optimization of political praxis. A scientific analysis, regardless of the conclusion it's comported towards, is generally beneficial. It introduces theoretical concepts that allow one to think better of complicated issues and theorize about them: like the allegory of the devil and the deep sea (S. Banerjee, 2003) or the trend of 'communitarianism' (I. Salamey, 2019).
In the same context, to frame the discourse and filter critique from smear campaigning, it is notable to introduce a term coined by CIA strategists: The Compatible Left. Which refers to leftist intellectuals and parties coopted by the CIA in an effort to manufacture a Left that is compatible with imperialism. The Compatible Left is also comparable with the Neo-comprador class which James Petras theorizes about in "NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism" (2007). The compatible left is an inconsequential left: it employs leftist lore and language while ensuring that the status quo of imperialism remains robust and unchallenged.