A Sorry Excuse

Making excuses for war crimes has a long and ugly history on the far left.

Skulls of young men murdered by the Pol Pot regime in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, on display in a shrine to the dead. Dale Warren / Shutterstock.com

When Peter Handke was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for literature, intellectuals from the former Yugoslavia responded with revulsion. The Austrian writer had a long record of genocide denial, revisionism regarding the Yugoslav Wars, and sordid personal ties to the former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević. Yet Handke was only the latest luminary of the international far left to harbor affection for purportedly anti-imperialist dictators.

Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter, Arundhati Roy, John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Edward S. Herman, Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal: There is no shortage of prominent left-wing academics, journalists, artists and activists who have sought to twist the historical record concerning atrocities and the regimes that perpetrated them. Rather than treating these as outliers, we must come to grips with the causes and purpose of this ugly practice.

Left revisionism has included calling opponents of Milošević’s ultranationalist policies in the 1990s “jihadis,” and repeating this suggestion about all those who have opposed President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. Left revisionists have spread conspiracy theories about a “Nazi putsch” in Ukraine in 2014, and have floated similar claims about the democratic mobilization in Belarus today. A former British member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Claire Fox, was a central player in one of the most notorious disinformation campaigns concerning the Bosnian Genocide, though more recently she has become a Brexit Party stalwart, now headed to the House of Lords. Another recent case of moral bankruptcy on the British left was the anti-Semitic streak in the Labour Party when led by Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist with a penchant for all manner of autocrats. Indeed, large segments of the Western far left find themselves running interference for génocidaires, kleptocrats and dictators.

The origins trace back to Friedrich Engels. Between 1849 and 1852, this foundational thinker of Marxism wrote a series of articles on the fallout of the 1848 revolutions. Like many liberal and socialist radicals of the era, he had hoped that the disparate rebellions against sclerotic European monarchies would cohere into something larger. When structural transformation failed to materialize, Engels blamed not only “reactionary classes and dynasties” but “entire reactionary peoples.” Chief among these were European Slavs, whom he accused of siding with the Austro-Hungarian and Russian imperial regimes against the enlightened revolutionaries.

In an 1849 essay in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Engels unleashed a racist diatribe against the Slavs that concludes with this chilling prediction: “The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.”

In place of Marx’s view of class relations in historical processes, Engels adopted a simpler approach: there are revolutionary peoples and reactionary peoples. That is, those who shared his politics and, on the other side, everyone else. Thus the Marxist demand for class struggle became a policy of extermination against peoples seen to side with empire and capital. The complexity of local politics—not to mention the express views and actions of those involved—were cast aside.

Such rhetoric motivated the forced resettlements of entire ethnic minority populations in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1945. The historian Marko Atilla Hoare notes that this same worldview excused violence against political dissidents and critics of the regime. Socialists around the globe initially deemed the Bolsheviks a heroic vanguard. When the Soviet regime slid into murderous dictatorship, Hoare says, “being on the far left thenceforth largely ceased to be about fighting injustice and instead involved lining up behind Communist regimes—no matter how brutal.” The clearest example of Soviet conflation of ethnic and political characteristics came under Stalin in the Holodomor, the orchestrated famine in Ukraine that killed millions of civilians from 1932 to 1933.

Once the genocidal record of the Stalin regime became ever more evident after his death in 1953, many Western “fellow travelers” still remained committed. When the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, then snuffed out the Prague Spring in 1968, Western Marxists equivocated. Intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre tied themselves in knots to tepidly criticize the Kremlin without abandoning the cause. Others, like the English historian E.H. Carr, simply ignored uncomfortable crimes. But there was no shortage of overt apologists. Marxists who supported the Soviet use of tanks to crush democratic opposition became known scornfully as “tankies”—a term that, tellingly, has regained currency in social media posts, articles and podcasts as contemporary “anti-imperialists” praise Stalin, the Kim dynasty in North Korea, Beijing’s genocidal crackdown on the Uighurs, and other despots.   

The far left vision of foreign affairs is fogged by conspiratorial accounts in which all events embody a simple split: on one side, the American empire and its corrupt proxies; on the other side, noble adversaries, who by opposing the United States are progressive (regardless of what they actually say and do). This false dichotomy helps to explain how the likes of Putin, Assad and Maduro could become cult icons among those parts of the radical left that constantly spread unsupported claims about “false flag operations” and “CIA coups.”

Another troubling trend is that the far left and the far right find common cause in their view of conflicts from Syria to Bosnia to Ukraine. What these seeming opposites share is a commitment to dismantling the liberal-democratic order that has dominated Western politics since 1945. Another joint preference is to use the historical record as a tool of their programs rather than allowing the scholarly record to truthfully represent what happened.

While this kind of revisionism has a long past, its present traces to the crisis of legitimacy facing liberal democracies and international institutions after the tumult of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the 2008 financial crisis. The events of the first decade of this century severely undermined the liberal order in the West, much as World War I and its fallout conditioned what happened after 1918. That dark period reminds us that we must take conspiratorial historical revisionism seriously.

Those committed to progressive values must never tolerate those who downplay tyranny. Salvaging the liberal-democratic project means standing with persecuted peoples, whether in Xinjiang, in Syria, in Belarus, or elsewhere. Anyone who heaps distortions and slander onto the victims must be outed for what they are: an insidious threat, distant from justice and close to their equivalents on the far-right.

Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe. He is the author of the book Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans, and co-host of the podcast Sarajevo Calling.