Often trapped into reacting to reactionaries, our solidarity can suffer from simplistic thinking such as “the friend of our enemy is our enemy.” The understanding of the United States as the only global power practicing imperialism has been denying crucial solidarities with struggles organized against other imperialisms. Sahar Amarir describes this understanding, in particular in its application to the Syrian Revolution, and the need to fundamentally recenter the colonized self to reach a moment of post-post-colonialism.
Whether in the Western Left, or the North African or West Asian ones, the past decades have seen a tendency to reduce imperialism to an exclusively U.S. phenomenon, a tendency that—when reaching the obsessional level—can be called “tankism.” This rhetoric now largely pervades leftist reflections on foreign policy and structures of oppression, systematically centering the U.S. and European colonizers as the sole recipient of action and thought by the formerly colonized. This has created significant obstacles to building, sustaining or intensifying transnational and international solidarities.
One of the many misconceptions when describing tankism consists in saying that it is merely a movement like any other within the Left, coming with its own issues and strengths. In reality, this perspective sidelines essential and important components of the spirit of anti-imperialism by disregarding the existence and many heritages of non-aligned movements. Countries from the Global South correctly identified the U.S. and the Soviet bloc as two competing imperialisms, yet weren’t in systematic antagonism with either as they were more motivated by their own liberation and the agency of their people.
In parallel to increasingly morally-shattered allied powers, revolutionary movements that are inherently anti-imperialist in their foundations are emerging and gaining in numbers, but are facing growing hostility both domestically and internationally. In that respect, the most telling example remains that of the Syrian revolution. Of all the revolutions that stemmed from the wave of uprisings in North Africa and West Asia from 2011, the Syrian revolution is most certainly one where its progressivist ideals have been the most violently and systematically repressed and disparaged by intellectuals, politicians, rulers, and their militias alike. Its initially peaceful uprising was smeared and described under the false binary of a supposedly reformist and secular regime, fighting against herds of foreign jihadists invading Syria, with the help of the U.S. and NATO. So utterly deprived of any form of political, social or material support, the overwhelmingly peaceful Syrian revolution had to resort to violence out of sheer instinct of survival more than conscious choice, yet still faced a nauseating lack of empathy for it.
After many brutal and horrifying crimes were committed against Syrian civilians who were targeted with chemical weapons by the Assad regime, tankies (those who have fully embraced tankism) denied the attacks, claiming that the attacks occurred but were committed by revolutionaries (supposedly against themselves and loved ones). According to tankism, the Syrian revolutionaries’ arguments attempted to justify a U.S.–NATO invasion of Syria, which in reality never happened. Whenever tankies admitted an attack did occur, they then defended Al-Assad’s regime claiming it targeted the “terrorists,” who in some more imaginative versions of the story were supposedly using civilians as human shields (a well-known trope).
When western powers threatened to act—most notably when Barack Obama designated the use of chemical weapons as “a red line”—it revealed a gap between the lack of consistent outrage at the mass killings of Syrian civilians, and the very loud denunciation of the supposedly looming threat of imperialism. This gap is precisely where the moral compass and dignity of the anti-imperialist Left fell into the shadowy depths of moral relativism and depravity. Anti-imperialism was audible for whoever wanted to hear it, especially among Syrians who were outraged by Obama’s stance and opposed U.S. intervention while denouncing the brutality of the Al-Assad regime. However, a segment of the free Syrian population were not opposed to intervention, insofar as it would be solely to stop barrel bombs and chemical attacks. After years of daily attacks and seeing entire families, villages and towns decimated, this position should not come as a surprise to anyone capable of extending sympathy to fellow human beings.
Even if we may debate the political terms of this position, tankies were quick to dismiss these genuine and desperate cries for help as proof that Syrian revolutionaries were part of a Western plot to overthrow the Syrian regime and to attack Syrian sovereignty. Paradoxically, they never designated the omnipresence of Russian troops and Iran affiliated militias as imperialism, even as Russia controlled a large part of the Syrian coast, port and military bases, while the Iranian affiliated militias controlled over large swathes of Syrian territory.
In 2018, Syrian author and dissident Leila al-Shami bitterly noted in her article “The ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots” that celebrity intellectuals like Noam Chomsky had publicly defended Russian interventionism in Syria, arguing that Russia acted after being called on to do so by the Syrian regime, which presumably disqualifies it from accusations of imperialism. As such, important factions of pro-Palestinian circles suddenly praised Bashar Al-Assad for his supposed support for the Palestinian cause—despite the fact that at the height of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime killed even more Palestinians than Israel had at that time.
This has led to dangerous, dogmatic misunderstandings of crucial anti-imperialist and humanist concepts, as well as enabling counter-revolutionary intellectual alliances to form. On that particular point, Leila al-Shami notes: “This left exhibits deeply authoritarian tendencies, one that places states themselves at the center of political analysis. Solidarity is therefore extended to states (seen as the main actor in a struggle for liberation) rather than oppressed or underprivileged groups in any given society, no matter that state’s tyranny.
After centuries of resistance to imperialism and colonialism, where a wave of struggles culminated into wars of independence and liberation during the mid 20th century, formerly colonized peoples were faced with two major issues to confront. The first was to fully understand what the colonizers had done to them—the centuries of mass plunder, crimes, extermination, and the destruction of local social fabrics. The second was to figure out what they would do with this state of things. Here, we can consider how the first phase after colonialism is very evidently “post-colonialism,” which in and of itself is essentially a reaction to colonialism.
For instance, laying out the basis for our active futures and the importance of our agencies would allow us to have more serious and increasingly urgent discussions about South-South imperialism, such as China’s increasing control of strategic and critical resources and infrastructure in many spaces of the African continent. Although China and its capitalist and exploitative projects on the African continent have gathered more scrutiny and criticism in the past years, China is still shielded in some leftist circles by its perceived capacity to economically confront the U.S, despite the obvious incompatibility of its capitalist model with socialist ideals.
Meanwhile, Iran’s reach across entire swaths of West Asia has not been discussed seriously within the framework of imperialism, due to an obsessive focus on the U.S. imperialist antagonism towards Iran, but most importantly, our inability to systematically prioritize the agency of the people. It is otherwise not an intellectual conundrum to understand that in addition to U.S. imperialism, there is also a local form of imperialism operated by Iran at the expense of other regional populations such as the Kurds, Iraqis, and Syrians, while oppression against minorities in the region didn’t spared Shias, regardless of their denomination and their links or lack thereof with Iran. In Iran itself, people face brutal repression from a ruthless theocratic regime. Unfortunately, the U.S.’ systematic targeting of Iran has insidiously helped normalize tankist stances, in turn feeding an underwhelming support for the very legitimate uprising of the Iranian people.
Post-colonialism has a specific role and place in the histories of our liberations, and it is rather telling and surprising that, even in 2023, some people still refer to our current historical moment as being “post-colonial.” Although imperialism remains ongoing, like the state of our world, its manifestations have evolved. But the continuation of imperial realities is not the sole reason for the persistent use of an anachronic “post-colonialism.” This persistence is also linked to the fact that in our midst, too many continue to define themselves almost exclusively in reaction to colonialism. We should understand the post-colonial moment as a critical analysis of the political and social environment that centers the colonizer, due to the proximity of the colonial period and the need for the colonized to extract that foreign and violent element from their immediate environment. When local voices began to advocate for more systems of accountability, pluralism, and the right to express dissent within their own communities, they were in reality creating the real fertile ground to transition from a state of reaction to a state of action—a state of action that centers the formerly colonized as the main subject and recipient of social, political, and economic progress. This did not occur as a rebuttal of the centering of the colonizer during the post-colonial moment, which was a necessity in the immediate and direct fight against colonization, but rather it is a natural intellectual continuation of it. In that sense, a significant part of those intellectuals and activists were entrenching themselves in a post-post colonial thought.
When we center the U.S. or fixate upon European colonizing powers as the direct object of our stances, positions and policy choices, we further take ourselves away from an introspective and much needed post-post-colonial moment. Subsequently, we take ourselves further away from our search for freedoms by depriving individuals of their agency and denying their legitimate demands for freedom, dignity, and democracy. Aspirations for freedom from Syria, Hong Kong, or Ukraine are slandered and smeared as they disrupt the tankie framework entirely geared towards reaction, solely targeting the United States even at the expense of entire populations. Unlike post-colonialism, which was anchored in a specific temporal context and included reactionarism but did not entirely revolve around it, tankism is reactionary by essence and not by accident. When it focuses primarily on contradicting the United States, its politics does not seek to build a truly revolutionary social project that actually has an empirical analysis of history and power dynamics.
Iraqis could not be less strangers to destructive U.S. destructive interventionism. But when the first generation born after the U.S. invasion of Iraq—including those who were too young to remember its beginnings—rose up and formed the 2019 October Protest movement, they inscribed their vision to center the future and well-being of all Iraqis as their priority. Similarly in February 2019, when the Algerian people joined the spontaneous uprising of the Hirak to call for the overthrow of the political-military establishment, they pioneered the post-post colonial moment in unfathomable ways. The Algerian regime was taken aback, having always waved away the existential threat from foreign actors seeking the destruction of the nation, or alternatively dismissing the Islamist threat that threw the country into a whirlwind of generalized violence and brutality during the Black decade of the 1990s. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands were waving banners, decrying foreign interventionism as much as they rejected the military junta ruling over them, which deprives people of any freedom and prospects.
The West Asian and North African regions do not lack examples of people deciding to reclaim their right to action and not just reaction, and most importantly, their right to be the first and only priority of those actions. Iranian activists who have fought U.S. warmongers seeking a full war against Iran, but have also been vocal supporters of the various Iranian uprisings and staunch critics of the human rights violations of the regime are—much like Algerians and Iraqis—perfectly capable of simultaneously fighting the imperialist narrative outside (against foreign countries denying them agency) and inside (against their own regime denying them agency). Similarly, Afghans have been able to formulate sophisticated critiques against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan while rejecting the rule of the Talibans. This is in contrast to some leftist circles that have gone as far as to paint the Talibans as the legitimate rulers and protectors of the Afghan people, solely because of their staunch antagonism against the U.S..
There is no moral dilemma, intellectual conundrum, or philosophical contradiction in those stances that first and foremost prioritize the agency of formerly colonized people—their ability to vocalize it, as well as the legitimacy of their aspiration to individual and collective freedom and dignity. There is also no deprioritization of the very real pursuit of mere survival for millions of individuals whose lives are directly and tangibly threatened by imperialism. The continuation of post-colonial thinking and struggles lies in a post-post colonial posture that reconciles the body with the spirit, embracing our spiritual, intellectual, and philosophical survival as much as our physical survival, for a shared struggle and future. Formerly colonized people rising up against their regimes—regardless of how anti-U.S. they may or may not be—are proving to us everyday that their legitimate fights for their rights are in direct continuity of what anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles aspired to at their core. There is no anti-imperial struggle possible without the centering of colonized people and their interests, and this does not have to be in contradiction with other people’s or countries’ interests, independently of those countries’ proven or supposed involvement in past or future imperialist endeavors. Most importantly, there are no genuine and efficient bridges of transnational and international solidarities possible outside of that recentering, which realigns our common struggles into one horizon. The multiplicity of imperialism and the various mechanisms of oppression can render us susceptible to oversimplification: just as tankism centering their antagonism towards the U.S. or using state sovereignty as their main unit of analysis has rendered them incapable of solidarity with people in Hong Kong, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine, radical leftists centering anything else than the agency of colonized people and principles of freedom and social justice will inevitably lead to blind spots in our solidarity.
Anti-imperialism is about regaining agency over ourselves, our narratives, our futures, and our aspirations. That is what tankism adamantly refuses to all people reclaiming their right to dignity, if their aspirations dared to accidentally align with or simply be indifferent to the United States or other Western powers, as opposed to being in total opposition to it. It becomes urgent for committed anti-imperialists to recenter the agency and aspirations to freedom, dignity, equality, and social justice of colonized people as their main and unique goal, and break the imperialist circle by fighting all imperialist powers and (re)placing those imperial powers at the periphery of our own destiny. ■