Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism is one of those books that make a reader sigh and say, “At last!” Rohini Hensman is a human rights activist and Marxist from Sri Lanka whose personal history rebukes anyone who tries to dismiss her work as pro-imperialism. Her argument is so many people on the anti-imperialist left are really pseudo-anti-imperialists. They will oppose imperialism and intervention from the West while defending and applauding Russian imperialism, Iranian Islamist imperialism, and the spread of authoritarian oppression.
To make her case, she recounts the history of unrest, revolution, counter-revolution, and intervention in Ukraine, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. She also discusses in lesser detail Chechnya, Libya, and even in the elections in UK, Europe, and the United States. She provides granular detail that makes her case painfully and sometimes grotesquely clear. The oppression, torture, arrest, and murder of people throughout the world seem to be fine with some people so long as the oppressor is Assad, Putin, or other authoritarians. I had to laugh because when I read her main argument, I thought of specific publications and journalists and sure enough, they were named by her late in the book.
Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism is not for the faint of heart. The text is dense with information and much of it is painful and heartbreaking. Hensman does not flinch from the most disturbing details. She is also parsimonious in her writing, using words with precision. This means she can summarize a few chapters of someone’s book in a sentence, saying a lot with few words because each word is chosen so precisely. She assumes you will know what a rentier state is.
I was less interested in getting into the weeds of Marxism than in the history and the failures of those who should be on the side of justice choosing injustice out of reflexive anti-Western imperialism. She points out the need for a truly internationalist commitment to human rights, for people in the Middle East, not just in the West. When the Syrian people protest and demand the end of their government and Iran and Russia step in to prop up Assad, it’s a disgrace that people on the left stand with Assad. She also challenges the anti-imperialist left for their position opposing intervention in Libya. An important distinction she makes that sets her apart from the pseudo-anti-imperialist left is between globalization and neoliberalism. They are not the same, though they are treated as such by many leftists which leads them to support protectionism, a nationalist position that puts workers in other countries in the position of being enemies.
Her prescriptions should be familiar to anyone paying attention. Pursuing the truth and telling the truth including not falling for false narratives pumped into the zeitgeist by troll farms. Making politics about values, about morality and humanity, including fighting for democracy. We must become more internationalist in our values and support global institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the United Nations in pushing for human rights and democracy. Certainly, these institutions are weaker and often more feckless than they should be, in large part because the great powers have hamstrung them from their inception.
I am so glad to have read this book and value the many days I spent reading it. It was not easy, it was hard work and oh-so-painful sometimes, but it was so worth the time. I have been talking about it incessantly to friends and encouraged them to read it, but I will warn anyone thinking of it. It is a commitment. Reading about torture and genocide is not easy. Reading a text with such precision can be challenging. But, wow, it’s worth it.
I received an e-galley of Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism from the publisher through Edelweiss.
- Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism at Haymarket Books
- Rohini Hensman articles