Michael Brooks and the Meaning of Socialist Internationalism

Michael Brooks’s ability to understand and analyze the similarities among authoritarians across the globe meant that he had little time for narratives that sought to portray non-Western culture as the source of barbarism and authoritarian rule.

Although many will remember Michael Brooks for his advocacy for Brazilian president Lula da Silva, his notion of solidarity was broad.

As numerous people have noted, Michael Brooks was a genuine internationalist whose knowledge and interests transcended national borders and who was able to move beyond the often-parochial élan of the American left. In a media space that all too often fails to recognize the global nature of the fight for human emancipation, Michael sought to link the disparate threads that connected activists for tenant rights and universal health care in the United States with liberation movements across the world. It is this understanding that he brought to his work both on the Majority Report, which he cohosted with Sam Seder, the Michael Brooks Show, and his Weekends broadcast with Jacobin.

Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that his work did not merely fill a niche in left media, but a void, serving to educate a generation of leftists in both the United States and abroad on the interconnected nature of our struggles.

I first got to know Michael after I moved to the United States in 2016, bonding over a shared interest in Middle Eastern affairs and a common experience of living in Turkey during the late 2000s. He had read my work in Jacobin and suggested that we work together in the future. Subsequently, he would invite me on both the Majority Report and the Michael Brooks Show, and we would collaborate on a number of articles, primarily for Jacobin, but also other outlets including Jadaliyya and openDemocracy.

Although many will remember Michael for his advocacy for Brazilian president Lula da Silva, his notion of solidarity was broad and much of our work focused on Turkey, Syria, and Kurdistan. Michael was an ardent defender of Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed leader of Turkey’s left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) and was quick to recognize the significance of the repression of the HDP — a party that brought together Kurds, religious minorities, leftists, LGBT activists, and union organizers — in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consolidation of power. He also understood how the persecution of the HDP in Turkey fit into a broader pattern of global authoritarianism.

Just as he apprehended the connections that bound the global left together, Michael also was keenly aware of the global nature of the reaction against it. He saw how models of authoritarian rule both explicitly and implicitly fed one another. Indeed, in the first piece we authored, written in the aftermath of Erdogan’s security detail’s attack on protesters in Washington in 2017, Michael sought to highlight the similarities between the Erdoğan regime in Turkey and the modern Republican Party in the United States, both in discourse and political practice — a comparison that holds up to this day.

Michael’s ability to understand and analyze the similarities among authoritarians across the globe meant that he had little time for narratives that sought to portray non-Western culture as the source of barbarism and authoritarian rule. He, for example, often turned his acerbic wit on the likes of Sam Harris for their essentialist and ahistorical understanding of the role of Islam in Middle Eastern politics. Rather, he viewed the brutalities in Kashmir, Amazon, Kurdistan, Palestine, and Xinjiang not in isolation, but as manifestations of long-term processes of state consolidation, processes that had parallels in the United States’ genocidal campaigns against the Native Americans and European colonialism.

Michael was also a nuanced and principled thinker. He was able to bring to light American hypocrisy on human rights issues in China and criticize American policy toward countries like Iran and Syria, highlighting the horrific impact of sanctions on those populations, without glorifying regimes in Beijing, Tehran, and Damascus. He was also willing to take bold stands, even when controversial or unpopular.

In the autumn of 2019, US troops were withdrawn from the Syrian-Turkish border, a move that opened the way to a Turkish assault on the left-wing Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria (Rojava). Although an opponent of US militarism and intervention, he came out against the withdrawal, arguing that the destruction of the Rojava experiment that had developed there within the context of the Syrian Civil War at the hands of NATO’s second-largest army would be no victory for the cause of anti-imperialism. This put him at odds with many on the Left who regarded such a position as amounting to a capitulation to American imperialism.

He was also willing to be critical of those he greatly admired. When asked to comment on Ilhan Omar’s failure to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide and her lackluster condemnation of the Turkish invasion of Rojava, he was nervous both because of his awareness of the utterly vile demonization of the Minnesota representative in the right-wing press and the great personal esteem and admiration in which he held her. Yet he did so, a move that meant a lot to both Armenian and Kurdish leftists who felt let down by Omar’s initial position. I cannot attest to the impact of our piece on Omar, but she subsequently did recognize the genocidal nature of the Ottoman campaign against the Armenians in 1915 and had called for the release of Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey.

It is difficult to put into words the sense of loss that one feels at a time like this. The Left has lost a powerful and independent voice, a voice that called on us to look beyond our parochial and petty concerns and look at the bigger picture. As he often said, “be ruthless with systems, be kind to people.” Michael’s passing is a blow to all those whose lives he touched. He was funny, witting, charming, and brilliant. He was a loving son, a doting brother, a loyal friend, and a fiery comrade. He is irreplaceable. But, although his absence will be intensely felt, there is little doubt in my mind that he would want us all to honor him by continuing his work building a more just and humane society.

Farewell paisan, you will be missed.