The weird and wacky world of the far right blogosphere has had a busy fortnight. They pulled out all stops: shocking headlines, capital letters, even the classic homoerotic picture of a topless Putin on a horse. The point of all this frantic activity? To cast as much doubt as possible on the indisputable fact that Bashar al-Assad had unleashed yet another barrage of chemical weapons on the Syrian people.
It’s a trick that was pioneered in 2013 to deflect attention from Assad’s chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The idea is to throw as many accusations and counter-accusations around as possible in the immediate aftermath of an atrocity, and hope some of them become lodged in public consciousness.
The effect is to create the appearance of controversy or legitimate debate, thus transforming a straightforward narrative of mass murder into an issue that is “complex” and “contested”. Those of us who campaign for Palestine have experienced this manoeuvre many times at the hands of Israeli propagandists.
It is obvious why those who support the hard right government of Vladimir Putin – including Marine Le Pen, Steve Bannon and the KKK’s David Duke – would go for this sort of thing. They love a good dictatorship and probably go to sleep dreaming of establishing their own someday. It’s much harder to understand why sections of the left could be drawn in behind this sort of conspiratorial rubbish.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened over the past few years.
Nobody symbolises this coalition of neo-fascists and former leftists more than Sydney University academic Tim Anderson.
Once associated with the anti-war movement, Anderson has now made supporting the Assad dynasty his life’s work. This has involved churning out articles filled with recycled government propaganda, organising conferences and rallies in support of the regime, and even state-sanctioned tours of Syria.
His unique dedication to the cause of tyranny has been rewarded with an exclusive private audience with Bashar himself, the man responsible for the deaths of at least 400,000 Syrians. In a demonstration of the toxic endpoint of this political stance, Anderson also shared a speaking platform with a well-known fascist, Jim Saleam, and stood alongside fascists at a memorial for slain Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov.
Those unfamiliar with the history of Stalinism might reasonably be shocked at this sort of behaviour. The sad truth is that there is a long legacy of Western leftists defending the indefensible in the guise of “opposing imperialism”.
The Cold War taught generations of people – many of whom were more or less well-meaning to begin with – how to defend gulags in the name of communism. All instances of revolutionary struggles in the Soviet bloc were denounced as CIA plots, and millions cheered on the restoration of order by Russian tanks.
There were always dissidents: genuine Marxists who insisted that working class democracy was a precondition for socialist transformation of society, but these groups and individuals were rarely in a position to have a political impact.
There are now no longer any “communist” states left, but the geopolitical lesser-evilism that infected much of the left remains widespread. People like Anderson have convinced themselves that Russia, Iran and Syria represent the only hope of resisting US hegemony in the Middle East.
They’re dead wrong. And by assisting the Syrian regime’s whitewashing of its crimes, they have the blood of thousands on their hands.
The reason this matters, and isn’t just a debate to be had over a beer with mates, is that these issues have huge implications for the type of movements we want to build. This is most immediately obvious with regard to Syrian refugees.
How can Assadists be part of much needed campaigns in solidarity with Syrian refugees when they defend the regime that the vast majority of those refugees have fled? How can they combat Islamophobia in the West when they happily slander every Syrian revolutionary as a “jihadist” or a “headchopper”?
In Sydney last week, this was demonstrated very clearly when a small contingent of Assadists turned up to a rally for refugee rights. They heckled a speaker for criticising the Syrian government’s bombing of civilians and tried to take over the event toward the end of the march. The media surrounded them immediately, seizing the chance to depict the far left as defenders of totalitarianism.
Since then, we have seen multiple articles in the mainstream media attacking Anderson and his pals. While they are valid in pointing out the many problems with his views, we should be wary of attempts to use the disgraceful politics of a dying breed of Stalinist to discredit the genuine left.
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tim Anderson "granted a known fascist a platform to speak at one of his demonstrations". The even in question was organised by the Russian consulate in Sydney.