Caio Andrade
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Translation: Roderic Day

Geopolitics and human rights: from liberal historical revisionism to imperial universalism (2021)

18 minutes | English Português | Latin America

“Modern nations have been able only to disguise slavery in their own countries, but they have imposed it without disguise upon the New World” — Karl Marx [1]


False symmetry and selective memory

Nowadays it is almost commonplace to recognize that the fall of the USSR was a turning point in world history, after which market economy and Western-style democracy became almost unquestionable values. What is less discussed is the extent to which this process controls not only the present, but also dominates our interpretation of the past, and thus our ability to imagine a future.

The official story, incessantly peddled by the winners of the so-called “Cold War,” tells of a 20th century in which democracy marched triumphantly, sowing peace and progress wherever it went, up until it was brutally attacked by twin totalitarian movements completely alien to its tradition: communism and Nazism. Heroically and selflessly, freedom fighters managed to defeat the Nazifascist threat in 1945.

However, the Red enemy remained. It would take another four and a half decades of grueling campaign for the heralds of capitalism to free humanity from the terrible Bolshevik monster. When Boris Yeltsin lowered the Soviet flag for the last time in Russia, it cleared the way for the triumphant resumption of the democratic march, liberal prosperity, market economy, and other organic outcomes of human nature.

My fable here mocks liberal historical revisionism, but it also serves as a starting point for a critical reflection on the subject of human rights. Portrayed by the dominant ideology as Nazism’s twin, communism represents for this worldview a terrible obstacle in the face of an idyllic trajectory that combines the evolution of capitalism with the deepening of democracy and the proliferation of human rights.

Professor Pereira dos Santos thus laments, “it would seem that the dogmatism and the authoritarian thinking of Lenin and Hitler still have followers in Brazil and around the world.” [2] This confused worldview reveals at least two serious mistakes. The first error is the most explicit. He draws a false symmetry between two historical figures who, in reality, played antagonistic roles: Lenin and Hitler. [3] The second is the adopted habit of ignoring the colonial barbarism carried out by the imperialist West.

While Adolf Hitler led the attempt to build a colonial and slave empire based on German racial supremacy, Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov was a champion against racism, exploitation and colonialism. [4] According to Domenico Losurdo, our contemporary understanding of democracy itself is based “on the principle of the attribution of inalienable rights to all individuals, regardless of race, income, and gender,” and this “presupposes overcoming the three major discriminations, all still very much alive on the eve of October 1917.” [5] In other words, the democratic advances achieved in the 20th century are unthinkable without the contributions of the movement triggered by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Why then do so many teachers, academics, journalists and respectable personalities across the entire political spectrum insist on equating the Führer with the Russian revolutionary leader, without even any qualifiers? How can we make sense of the fact that even self-identified socialists and Marxists conform to this broad consensus? The key lies in the way that the relationship between colonialism and Nazism has been deliberately obscured, which has been the focus of many important debates.

For authors immersed in the reality and struggles of the Third World such as Frantz Fanon, the links were impossible to ignore. His question was shared by all of those who were not blind to the violence of real liberalism, and its methods of domination in the imperial periphery: “what is fascism if not colonialism within traditionally colonialist countries?” [6]

Hannah Arendt witnessed the persecution of citizens of Jewish origin in Germany in 1933 personally, and was herself briefly arrested by the Gestapo. Her work developed a critique of anti-Semitism and imperialism. As Losurdo demonstrates, “in early Arendt there was a tendency to use the category of totalitarianism to define the relationship between Nazism and colonialism.” [7]

However, in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, with the advent of the Truman Doctrine, her approach began to center on the supposed similarities between Marxism and Nazifascism. The change is evident in The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951 — the same year that the author obtained her US citizenship. [8] Part III of her work, “Totalitarianism,” appears out of place when compared to the preceding volumes “Anti-Semitism” and “Imperialism.”

The impact of this thesis reverberates even today. The defeat of the Soviet Union exacerbated this tendency, with liberals freely indulging in conservative historical revisionism in order to rewrite the past for the sake of powerful interests in the present. As historian Jones Manoel points out,

These days a basic feature of western hegemonic culture has been erased, made to appear a novel phenomenon of the first half of the 20th century. The racial reading of society was not unique to Nazi Germany. It was the dominant consensus in the West, a referent for the local ruling classes throughout the periphery. Racial supremacy regimes and states with eugenic policies existed in the four corners of the world. The word “racism” itself did not have a negative connotation: it meant the just and necessary separation of the races to avoid the degradation of the white, Aryan, or Nordic-Germanic race. When the Soviet Union criminalized racism in 1936, and further strengthened the cultural, educational and scientific policy of racial equality, it was isolated. It was swimming against the current. [9]

Why is it so uncommon to find comparisons between Hitler and Churchill, a British ruler who considered Asians an inferior race, proceeded to deliberately wipe out millions of Indians and, just before German expansion, expressed sympathy for fasicsm? Or between Hitler and Theodore Roosevelt, an American president who spoke of “racial suicide,” encouraging the procreation of the “best” and inhibiting the “lower races”? Ideologues of the established order play down the crimes against humanity of Western capitalist powers, portraying the “theories” that absolve the liberal West of its horrors between the 19th and 20th centuries as reasonable products of their time, and expunge their remaining guilt by projecting said crimes onto the people who fought against them.

Neocolonial ethics and humanitarian wars

A considerable part of the academic world upholds a vulgarized history of human rights: they come into being as the product of bourgeois French and American revolutions, and proceed to be internationalized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948. It’s not surprising then that, according to this perspective, the diffusion of ethical values ​​goes hand-in-hand with neoliberal globalization.

As Pereira dos Santos argues,

Nowadays, at least since the end of the old world order — that is, the end of bipolarity, the end of the Cold War (1989/92) — human rights appear as a guiding principle not only valid for the West, but as universal ethical values. [10]

Aside from the trivial way in which this describes our economic and geopolitical reality, the esteemed professor is, once again, deeply mistaken. The neoliberal avalanche that characterized the post-1989 world order brought with it incidents that could never be considered ethical or humanitarian: the genocides in Rwanda; conflicts in Angola; the civil war in Congo; the Gulf war; NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia; the conflicts in Chechnya; military clashes in Afghanistan; the attacks of September 11, 2001 and its consequences for the Middle East.

David Harvey accounts for this reality. After evaluating the contradictions between the economic and social rights inscribed in Articles 22 to 25 of the 1948 Declaration, and the political practices of almost all of its signatories, he asserts that “it would be very easy to characterize neoliberalism as an outstanding violator of human rights” and considers that realizing the Articles referred to in fact “would necessitate wide and in some cases revolutionary transformations in the political economy of capitalism.” [11]

Paulo Fagundes Visentini, in turn, analyzing the geopolitical consequences of the socialist defeats in Eastern Europe, explains that “the end of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union, instead of peace, opened space for the emergence of new types of conflicts, that became widespread.” [12] These conflicts defined the last decade of the previous century, and continue to bring chaos and death to different regions of the planet at the beginning of the 21st. [13] Superficially the root causes could not appear more varied: religion, culture, ethnicity, policy, disputes over natural resources, territories, etc. However, if we study them broadly, some patterns begin to emerge. Key among them is the interference of Western powers, always in the name of freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira was one of the most important critics of the policeman role that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attributes to itself. Orchestrated by the Pentagon, this military alliance imposes a kind of global dictatorship that preemptively strikes against any perceived threat to the international order, and intervenes on the behalf of people supposedly unable to solve their own problems. It also unilaterally imposes a future course of action.

According to this author,

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all the presidents of the United States — George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — have waged conventional and unconventional wars in the Balkans and the Middle East, fomented subversion in the countries of the Caucasus, always under the pretext of making the world “safe for democracy.” What democracy? Wherever the United States intervened, with the “specific goal of bringing democracy,” democracy consisted of bombing, destruction, terror, massacres, chaos and humanitarian catastrophes. [14]

We continue to witness this in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, among others. From 2011 to 2014, “humanitarian” operations carried out directly or indirectly by the United States and its allies to bring “democracy” to North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe resulted in hundreds of thousands of corpses, in addition to a profound political, social, and economic destabilization of entire regions.

Libya had the second best Human Development Index (HDI) of the African continent in 2011, when NATO decided to intervene directly in its civil war. The pretext of the so-called Arab Spring was used to bomb the country and annihilate the government of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. After more than seven months of foreign intervention, Gaddafi was captured by the opposition, who tortured and executed the political leader. This process resulted not only in the destruction of a government, but in the collapse of the Libyan national state itself. At least 30,000 people were wiped out during this period and most of the weapons of the overthrown regime ended up in the hands of fundamentalists. [15]

In 2011, Syria became the scene of another violent civil war. Following a series of protests against the government, the Free Syrian Army launched an armed campaign, with the support of the West, to depose President Bashar al-Assad. Two years earlier, Assad had refused to sign an agreement for the construction of the South Pars/North Dome gas pipeline, favoring relations with Russia and Iran. This was contrary to the interests of Sunni tyrannies in the Persian Gulf and, therefore, of NATO. The Islamic State (ISIS) was a beneficiary of this political brinkmanship, and experienced considerable growth in this period. The number of war refugees in the world jumped from 42.5 million in 2011, to a record-breaking 59.5 million in 2014. [16]

Ukraine, for its part, paid a high price for opting out of a closer relationship with the West in 2013. After President Viktor Yanukovych rejected the association agreement with the European Union, Maidan Nezalezhnost was converted into the arena of a “unconventional warfare” against the government. [17] Euromaidan’s less equipped demonstrators carried clubs; the use of Molotov cocktails was also very common from the very beginning. Later they were supplemented by neo-Nazi and paramilitary groups such as the Pravy Sektor. Consummated in 2014, the coup d’etat in Kiev caused hundreds of deaths, tens of thousands of refugees, and counted with the explicit participation of the United States — both through Western NGOs and Institutes, and via the participation of US senators in the acts against Yanukovych, for example. [18]

Sovereignty as a universal right

Who is responsible for deciding which countries are democratic and respect human rights? Almost a sixth of the United States population, 50 million people, suffer from food insecurity. This includes 17 million children. [19] This country — which does not offer a public and universal health care system to its population — is at the top of the global ranking of victims of COVID-19, with more than 350,000 deaths. [20] The USA has the largest prison population in the world, around 2.1 million prisoners. There are no direct elections for president in that country, and there is abundant evidence that the viability of any candidate is subordinate to economic power. Why would that nation be able to define unilaterally when intervention against another country is legitimate?

It is common among so-called liberal democracies to have legal rules that allow the suspension of certain individual freedoms in emergency situations, such as, for example, external threats. However, there are countless historical examples of how the geopolitical maneuvers of these same liberal democracies pose external threats to the people of peripheral countries, forcing them to live under a permanent state of emergency. This occurs when international courts of liberty deliver their verdict, and set the stage for civilizing missions against terrible dictatorships. Neocolonial empires judge other nations’ political regimes using criteria that they do not apply to themselves.

In 1991, a military coup took place in Algeria. The generals who seized power justified the act by claiming that the Islamic front, victorious in the electoral process, endangered the country’s modernization process. The West welcomed the seizure with the logic that the operation prevented the establishment of an obscurantist Islamic regime that would result in huge setbacks, especially for women.

The Soviet Union had used similar assumptions to justify its intervention in Afghanistan a few years earlier, supporting the fight against fundamentalism. At that time, however, the West assessed that the flag of freedom was with the mujahideen, who were given an extraordinary arsenal to face the Red Army and, in the late 1980s, created al-Qaeda. [21]

Pointing out the subordination of certain values ​​to economic and (geo)political interests, and criticizing the ideological instrumentality of human rights on the part of the West, does not necessarily mean denying a universal dimension to morality, or adopting a relativistic stance on it. The denial of the universality of human rights lies precisely in the neo-colonial and racist logic that divides humanity between advanced and inferior peoples, with the full applicability of the notion of rights being exclusive to the former. The stigmatization of peripheral people is the ideology of imperialism par excellence.

The intrusion of great capitalist powers in the internal affairs of peripheral countries strays far afield from any search for the universalization of human rights and democracy. On the contrary, such interference comes from the denial of the universality of fundamental rights, such as sovereignty and self-determination. In other words, from the West’s point of view, sovereignty is not a prerogative of any and all national communities, but only of the self-proclaimed elected nations — superior peoples whose mission is to guide the rest of humanity and defend it from barbarians.

The more the Western powers relativize the sovereignty of other nations, the more they expand their sovereignty. [22] Since the 1990s we’ve witnessed a “universal sovereignty” exercised from Washington, with the European Union as an adjunct that never meaningfully broke with NATO geopolitical alignment.

It is possible that the outcome of the latest White House elections will imply some internal changes in the United States. However, there is no prospect of structural changes on US domestic affairs with Joe Biden, let alone its foreign policy. It was during his tenure as vice president, between 2009 and 2017, that the United States carried out military interventions in Libya and Syria, as well as supporting coups in Honduras, Paraguay, Ukraine, and Brazil.

In his first speech as President-elect of the United States, Biden said: “I believe that, at our best, America is a beacon to the world. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” [23] The reality is that both the example and the power of the United States remain monumental, but at an increasing cost to the rest of humanity, including the working class that lives north of the Rio Grande.

[1] Karl Marx. Miséria da Filosofia: resposta à Filosofia da miséria, do Sr. Proudhon. São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2009. P. 128. 

[2] Alberto Pereira dos Santos. Geografia e Direitos Humanos: uma reflexão em tempo de pandemia Covid-19. RIDH. Bauru, v. 8, n. 2, p. 189-202, jul./dez., 2020. P. 199-200. 

[3] Não é demais lembrar que a falsa simetria entre o comunismo e o nazismo é uma tese compartilhada pela extrema-direita, sendo inclusive utilizada pelo deputado federal Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL/SP) para tentar justificar a criminalização do comunismo através do Projeto de Lei 4425/2020. 

[4] Prashad é enfático em relação ao papel desempenhado pelos comunistas no combate ao Terceiro Reich: “Foi a União Soviética que salvou o mundo do nazismo. Foram os exércitos soviéticos que libertaram a maioria dos campos de concentração nazistas, e foram os soviéticos que entraram em Berlim e acabaram com a guerra”. Vijay Prashad. Estrela Vermelha sobre o Terceiro Mundo. São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2019. P. 124. 

[5] Domenico Losurdo. Guerra e Revolução: o mundo um século após outubro de 1917. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017. P. 336. 

[6] Frantz Fanon. OS Condenados da Terra. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1968. P. 71. 

[7] Domenico Losurdo. O Marxismo Ocidental: como nasceu, como morreu, como pode renascer. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2018. P. 127. 

[8] Hannah Arendt. Origens do Totalitarismo: antissemitismo, imperialismo, totalitarismo. São Paulo: Companhia de Bolso, 2013. 

[9] Jones Manoel. A luta de classes pela memória: raça, classe e Revolução Africana. IN: MANOEL, J. e LANDI, G. (Org.). Revolução Africana: uma antologia do pensamento marxista. São Paulo: Autonomia Literária, 2019. P. 24. 

[10] Alberto Pereira dos Santos. Geografia e educação em direitos humanos na cidade de São Paulo. Geo UERJ, Rio de Janeiro, n. 33, 2018.P. 4. 

[11] David Harvey. Espaços de Esperança. 3ª ed. São Paulo: Loyola, 2009. P. 126. 

[12] Paulo F. Visentini. Século XXI: impasses e conflitos. Porto Alegre: Leitura XXI, 2017. P. 13. 

[13] O balanço de Visentini corrobora a avaliação de Domenico Losurdo, que caracterizou o período entre 1989 e 1999 como “uma década trágica”, refutando os discursos entusiasmados com a queda do Muro de Berlim. Naquela ocasião, “Dissipavam-se as angústias da Guerra Fria junto com o século XX, século horrível iniciado com a Revolução de Outubro e por ela marcado. Teria acabado de vez a história com suas contradições e seus conflitos. Poucos meses depois, teve lugar a invasão do Panamá, precedida de intenso bombardeio, desencadeada sem declaração de guerra e sem aviso prévio: bairros intensamente povoados surpreendidos durante a noite pelas bombas e pelas chamas”. Domenico Losurdo. Colonialismo e Luta Anticolonial: desafios da revolução no século XXI. Organização: Jones Manoel. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020. P. 21. 

[14] Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira. A Desordem Mundial: o espectro da total dominação — guerras por procuração, terror, caos e catástrofes humanitárias. 5ª ed. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2018. P. 513. 

[15] Informações e dados extraídos de Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira. Op. Cit., 2018. 

[16] Idem. 

[17] Andrew Korybko. Guerras Híbridas: das revoluções coloridas aos golpes. São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2018. 

[18] Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira. Op. Cit., 2018. 

[19] Conferir Kennedy Alencar, “Pandemia aumenta fome nos EUA, problema que atinge 50 milhões de pessoas”. [web] 

[20] Conferir El País, “O mapa do coronavírus: como aumentam os casos dia a dia no Brasil e no mundo”. [web] 

[21] Analisando a contradição em tela, Losurdo lembra que “quem decide sobre o estado de exceção suscetível de justificar a suspensão das regras do jogo, é sempre o Ocidente liberal, capitalista e imperialista.” Domenico Losurdo. Fuga da História? A revolução russa e a revolução chinesa vistas de hoje. Rio de Janeiro: Revan, 2004. P. 36. 

[22] Segundo Losurdo, “O universalismo imperial da ‘civilização’ que deve ser expandida em todo o mundo assumiu hoje a feição de universalismo imperial dos direitos humanos, os quais devem ser respeitados em todo canto do planeta; arrogar-se o direito de definir o confim entre civilização e barbárie, isto é, entre respeito e violação de normas universais significa atribuir-se de fato uma soberania universal.” Domenico Losurdo. A Luta de Classes: uma história política e filosófica. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2015. P. 196-197. 

[23] Conferir BBC News Brasil, “Na íntegra, o 1º discurso de Biden como presidente eleito dos EUA”. [web]