Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2013

Imperialism, counterhegemonic blocs, and the Syrian revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

Just the other day I got email from two old friends who were troubled by my position on Syria that obviously went against the grain of Monthly Review, ZNET, Counterpunch, the British and American antiwar coalitions, and thousands—perhaps millions—of bloggers and leftist websites. Why wasn’t I demanding no American war with Syria? Since I get these sorts of questions all the time, I thought it would be good to answer them publicly.

One of the lessons I learned from my eleven years in the SWP was not to be worried about being in a minority. If only I had the guts to tell the party leadership that they were all wrong in 1977 about a massive working-class radicalization that existed only in their imagination, I probably would have been much happier with myself in the long run even if I had been shunned by fellow members. If you don’t have the courage of your convictions, you should find some other movement besides Marxism.

I may be in a minority on the American left, but am buoyed by the knowledge that most Arabs and Muslims are sickened by Bashar al-Assad and would like to see him overthrown by any means necessary, even with weapons procured from Satan’s grandmother. Except for the “Angry Arab”, there is not a single Arab or Muslim commentator I have run into who has adopted the outlook of the “anti-imperialist” left. I should add that the scare quotes are meant to indicate that Russia is not considered an imperialist power in such quarters.

Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk have at least adopted a “plague on both your houses” position on Syria but then there are those like Saul Landau who wrote that Syrian “restaurants and markets once offered abundant food” without acknowledging that 60 percent of the population makes less than $2 per day or that Syria ranked four places beneath Egypt in the 2010 United Nations Human Development Indicators index. One supposes that a shop window filled with bread and cake might not mollify a street vendor who hasn’t had a square meal in two days. It might even piss them off.

I take my stand with people like Hatem Bazian, who was the first Palestinian to be elected to the Student Union at San Francisco State in the late 80s as a leader of the Progressive Coalition. He was the keynote speaker at last September’s rally for the Syrian revolution in Washington. As a student activist, he took the lead on affirmative action, access to education, anti-apartheid efforts on college campuses, and the Central American Solidarity Movement. He authored resolutions, which were adopted by the USSA national conference in 1991 calling for cutting US aid to Israel and imposing sanctions for its sales of military equipment to apartheid South Africa. After becoming a professor at Berkeley, he drew the ire of Daniel Pipes’s Campus Watch, especially for his support for BDS.

Then there is Robin Yassin-Kassab, the Syrian author of the novel “The Road from Damascus”, and the co-editor of the quarterly journal “Critical Muslim” that will be running my article on the Jews of the Maghreb in the next issue. He blogs at http://qunfuz.com/. I particularly urge people to look at his article titled “Blanket Thinkers” that states:

But how do the blanket thinkers see the situation? For them it’s yet another clear cut case of American imperialist aggression against a noble resistance regime, and once again the people are passive tools.

At best they are passive tools. They are also depicted as wild Muslims, bearded and hijabbed, who do not deserve democracy or rights because they are too backward to use them properly. Give them democracy and they’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, and slaughter the Alawis and drive the Christians to Beirut. The blanket thinkers search for evidence of crimes committed by the popular resistance, and when they find them (usually on very flimsy evidence) they use them to smear the entire movement.

On the very same day I received the email, I noticed a Facebook status update from Richard Drayton, the young academic who wrote “Nature’s Government”, a very fine study of how Britain used scientific research in the 18th and 19th century to advance its imperial interests. He wrote what amounted to a formula. Imperialism foments rebellions in distant lands using the real or imagined discontent of a group of people to find an opening for military intervention. The outcome is always greater suffering and setbacks to the anti-imperialist cause. When I began to post material that questioned some of his assumptions, he took great umbrage and told me that if I wanted to support imperialism, I should do it on my own blog.

To some extent, Drayton was probably upset that he had no answers to some of the points I was making about the character of the non-jihadist Syrian movement. Who would want to waste their time reading the statements of their leaders, like Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib who is on record as stating “Iran’s possession of nuclear capabilities poses no threat to any Sunni but it will be a formidable deterrent to the evil powers that are rushing madly upon the Muslim World”? It was so much easier to view them as indistinguishable from Jonas Savimbi or Adolfo Calero—pliant tools of American imperialism.

I decided to leave Drayton in peace but remained troubled by his utter lack of curiosity about the people who had decided to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Did he have two standards for understanding politics: a rigorous one for his scholarly books and another one much more relaxed for his FB musings? How depressing. Also, his reference to the USA “fomenting” a rebellion in Syria had an odd ring. Where did that term come from I asked myself, stroking my chin. Within a minute or two, I realized that this was exactly how American presidents referred to revolutionary movements in places like Cuba, Vietnam or Nicaragua. The Kremlin was “fomenting” violence in an otherwise abundant, happy and peaceful land.

Strange bedfellows

On my return from Mexico City, I discovered that M.N. Roy lived there during WWI. Furthermore, like Irish freedom fighter Roger Casement, he tried to strike deals with Kaiser Wilhelm to get weapons to liberate his people. During a period of inter-imperialist rivalries, it was not considered a betrayal of socialist principles to look for such opportunities. In Roy’s case, there was the added dimension of his writing the theses on national liberation adopted by the Comintern. How could you cozy up with imperialists and then write such classic statements of Marxist policy?

This is not to speak of V.I. Lenin’s stance with respect to the same bogeymen. In “To the Finland Station”, Edmund Wilson describes the uneasy feelings that some of his comrades had that remind me a bit of what I hear all the time (I should go on record that I am no Lenin, only a Louis Proyect.)

In the train that left the morning of April 8 there were thirty Russian exiles, including not a single Menshevik. They were accompanied by the Swiss socialist Platten, who made himself responsible for the trip, and the Polish socialist Radek. Some of the best of the comrades had been horrified by the indiscretion of Lenin in resorting to the aid of the Germans and making the trip through an enemy country. They came to the station and besieged the travelers, begging them not to go. Lenin got into the train without replying a word.

Even after Hitler took power, some nationalists continued in the same vein, the most notable among them Subhas Chandra Bose who relied on both German and Japanese support for an army that could liberate India. Despite this marriage of convenience, Bose was politically on the left and an admirer of the USSR. Indeed, Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Hitler served his policy aims well as indicated by his 1941 Kabul Thesis written just before he travelled to Germany to consult with the Nazis:

Thus we see pseudo-Leftists who through sheer cowardice avoid a conflict with Imperialism and argue in self-defence that Mr. Winston Churchill (whom we know to be the arch-Imperialist) is the greatest revolutionary going. It has become a fashion with these pseudo-Leftists to call the British Government a revolutionary force because it is fighting the Nazis and Fascists. But they conveniently forget the imperialist character of Britain’s war and also the fact that the greatest revolutionary force in the world, the Soviet Union, has entered into a solemn pact with the Nazi Government.

While some sought advantage by aligning with the axis, others found the allies more amenable to their broader goals. While he would eventually find himself locked in a deadly struggle with American imperialism, Ho Chi Minh had no problem connecting with the OSS during WWII as recounted by William Duiker in his 2000 biography “Ho Chi Minh: a Life”:

While Ho Chi Minh was in Paise attempting to revitalize the Dong Minh Hoi, a U.S. military intelligence officer arrived in Kunming to join the OSS unit there. Captain Archimedes “Al” Patti had served in the European Theater until January 1944, when he was transferred to Washington, D.C., and appointed to the Indochina desk at OSS headquarters. A man of considerable swagger and self-confidence, Patti brought to his task a strong sense of history and an abiding distrust of the French and their legacy in colonial areas. It was from the files in Washington, D.C. that he first became aware of the activities of the Vietminh Front and its mysterious leader, Ho Chi Minh.

The next day, Patti arrived at Debao airport, just north of Jingxi, and after consultation with local AGAS representatives, drove into Jingxi, where he met a Vietminh contact at a local restaurant and was driven to see Ho Chi Minh in a small village about six miles out of town. After delicately feeling out his visitor about his identity and political views, Ho described conditions inside Indochina and pointed out that his movement could provide much useful assistance and information to the Allies if it were in possession of modern weapons, ammunition, and means of communication. At the moment, Ho conceded that the movement was dependent upon a limited amount of equipment captured from the enemy. Patti avoided any commitment, but promised to explore the matter. By his own account, Patti was elated.

Geopolitical players

Within a couple of years, everything changed. Inter-imperialist rivalries were now a thing of the past. The US ruled as the sole dominant superpower with lesser nations serving as vassals that faced a bloc of nations aligned with the USSR. The cold war had begun and the Soviet Union was the unquestioned protector of the colonial revolution even when it was cutting deals with imperialism that, for instance, left Vietnam under French control.

For the most part, the least troubled ties were with the local “progressive” bourgeoisie that was not trying to destroy capitalism but find ways of fostering its development in a postcolonial environment. Among these partnerships, the ones with Nasser’s Egypt, Baathist Syria, Qaddafi’s Libya, and Sukarno’s Indonesia stand out. The Soviet Union was also willing to provide material and diplomatic aid to revolutionary societies like Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. It also aided liberation movements in Africa—most notably the ANC. While the USSR was undemocratic and hardly anybody’s ideal of socialism, its vast resource base and commitment to national liberation, even if half-hearted, meant that the left (except for the state capitalists) would have to consider it as an asset.

Throughout my career as an activist from 1967 to 1990, the USSR was a kind of beacon in the night sky that could be relied upon for pointing in the right direction even if it was off by a few degrees or so. It supplied the heroic Vietnamese with anti-aircraft weapons even if they were a bit dated and incapable of bringing down a B-52, kept the Cuban economy afloat, provided the Sandinistas with tractors and cars, and trained the ANC cadres in guerrilla warfare as described eloquently in Ronnie Kasril’s memoir.

In 1990 all that came to an end, signaled by the deal between the USA and the USSR that left Nicaragua high and dry. After a brief period of perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin’s vicious neoliberal/gangster regime set in, marking the end of an era.

After the contradictions of Yeltsin’s rule became too acute, a new team replaced him headed by Putin. I noticed at the time that many people on the left were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because he not only signaled a retreat from the free market excesses of the past but also for his identification with Milosevic. NATO’s war in Yugoslavia had made Slavophilia fashionable, with Putin seen as the best hope for reversing NATO and Western banking’s incursions into the East.

That would obviously explain the willingness of many on the left to give critical support for Putin’s war in Chechnya. It was fairly easy to link the Chechen rebels to Islamist tendencies funded by the West that constituted a threat to democracy and secularism, such as in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Russia began to be linked with other rising “counterhegemonic” powers that could serve as a counterweight to US imperialism. They may have not been revolutionary societies but at least they were less willing to take their marching orders from the State Department and the Pentagon. In addition to Russia, you had Brazil, India, China, and South Africa—all benign by comparison to Blair’s Britain, a Germany that made war on Yugoslavia, and Berlusconi’s Italy.

In 2007 Immanuel Wallerstein wrote an article titled “The Putin Charisma” that pretty much encapsulated this new-found enthusiasm for counterhegemonic tendencies in Russia:

Even more important however are Putin’s political accomplishments on the world scene. He has resisted, so far successfully, any and all attempts by the United States to obtain United Nations authorization of real punitive action against Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. He has held up any moving forward to independence for Kosovo. To be sure, Russia’s positions have been China’s positions on these questions, so Russia is not alone. But in the 1990s, such strong and so far effective Russian political stands were not thinkable.

Then there are Russia’s dealings with Europe. He has opposed United States plans to install antimissile structures in Poland and the Czech Republic, and has gotten support for his stand (if quiet support) from Western Europe. He has used control of gas and oil exports from Russia itself and from both Central Asian and Caucasian countries not only to obtain greater rent for Russia (and thereby greater world power), but more or less to impose his terms on energy issues on Western Europe.

If a neutral referee were to assign points for Putin’s actions on some scale of positive/negative consequences for Russia, I think a fair observer would have to say that Putin has done well as a geopolitical player.

The key term here is “geopolitical player”. As a grand master of world systems theory, Wallerstein has hardly ever concerned himself with the class struggle and the fight for socialism in a particular country. His main interest is the global chess game with the bad guys playing Black and the good guys White. As such, Syria is only a pawn.

As someone who was fairly vociferous about the role of NATO and Western banks in destroying Yugoslavia, I might have been expected to back Putin. Perhaps my original sin was questioning the right of Putin to turn Grozny into a graveyard. All the elements were in place. I was hostile to the KLA in Kosovo. Why wouldn’t I be just as hostile to the Chechen rebels?

On the Marxmail archives I checked what I was saying back then and was not disappointed to discover that I had that bastard Putin figured out as far back as September 2004. In a thread dealing with the horrible terrorist attack by Chechen rebels that left many schoolchildren dead in Beslan, I had this exchange with a character named David Quarter who epitomized the leftist infatuation with Putin:

David Quarter wrote:
> So because Yelsin and his successor, Putin, are “committed to
> capitalism”, we should side with the U.S. in its drive to control the region,
> and inevitably occupy Russia? (Or are they in the Caucasus simply for the
> vodka?) I was under the impression that Marxists takes sides in conflicts?

Yes, we take sides with the Chechen people against the Putin gang. If
the USA decides to invade Russia in order to liberate the Chechens in
the same fashion that Iraq was invaded in the first Gulf War to
“liberate” the Kuwaitis, we should oppose US war aims which have nothing
to do with liberation. Right now, US opposition to the war against
Chechnya is purely verbal.

Boy, did I get that right: US opposition to the war against Chechnya is purely verbal. At the time, Clinton was reconciled to seeing Chechnya suffer the same scorched earth fate as Syria. In fact, Republicans oppose Obama’s policies in the same way that they opposed Clinton’s back then. They complained about “inaction” but mostly to score points.

Was Putin’s victory over a jihadist movement in Chechnya supposed to be some kind of victory over medieval backwardness and a repudiation of “humanitarian intervention”? One imagines that the same people calling out for “no war in Syria” would have clapped their hands over Putin’s crushing of a similarly inspired rebellion of bearded jihadists seeking to impose Sharia law and the hijab.

Over the past five years or so I have paid much closer attention to developments in Russia, mostly through my affinities with Chto Delat (What is to be Done), a collective of artists who consider Putin a dictatorial brute with loyalties to the country’s billionaires despite his occasional populist demagoguery.

I have come to the conclusion that Putin used the war in Chechnya to consolidate his rule and gradually turn Russia into a police state with a veneer of bourgeois democracy. The refusal of the West to get involved with the war by supplying arms or logistics was obviously the sort of thing that would cheer the “no war with Russia crowd” but in reality the real obligation of ordinary people—as opposed to the Washington establishment—was to offer solidarity with the Chechen people. I am afraid that the same Islamophobia that made solidarity so weak back then is the same problem we are dealing with today. It is tempting for many on the left to write off such movements as “Islamist” when in reality they are revolutionary movements based on class inequality that rally around religious themes. Engels was probably the first Marxist to understand how such plebian religious-based movements operate:

In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century, very positive material class-interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time.

–Peasant Wars in Germany

One of the commentators who has zeroed in on such a dynamic today is Aron Lund, the Swedish author of “Syrian Jihadism” who wrote:

The Syrian civil war is a sectarian conflict – among other things. It is also a conflict along socio-economic and urban-rural lines, a classic countryside jacquerie against an exploitative central government, albeit internally divided by the country’s religious divisions, which cut across other patterns of identity and loyalty. Then there is a political dimension to the struggle, with Bashar el-Assad’s loyalists battling to preserve the current power structure against demands for democratization and economic redistribution.

The growing prominence of Islamist imagery is perhaps more due to its usefulness in Sunni identity politics, than to the ideology itself. Religion is not the driving force of the rebellion, but it is the insurgent movement’s most important common denominator. For Syria’s revolutionaries, Islam functions both as a ready-to-use ideological prism, a sectarian identity marker, and an effective mobilization tool in Sunni Muslim areas – and, of course, as a source of spiritual comfort in wartime. Nir Rosen, an American journalist who has travelled extensively among the Syrian rebels, points out that many insurgents ”were not religious before the uprising, but now pray and are inspired by Islam, which gives them a creed and a discourse.”

The brutal realities of asymmetric warfare

At last count Bashar al-Assad had 900 jet fighters, 135 armored attack helicopters, and 5000 tanks at his disposal. It might be useful to take a close look at the armaments of a MIG-23 fighter, the most prevalent in his air force. Each MIG-23 has two pods of sixteen S-5 rockets. This youtube clip demonstrates the impact of firing just two of these rockets on the town of Rastan:

As it turns out, Rastan is the third largest town in Homs, the region in Syria that has been suffering such air attacks for well over a year. On February 12, 2012 the Guardian reported from the Baba Amr district of Homs, the capital city :

Abu Suleiman was working methodically to wrap the body of a seven-year-old girl in a white shroud. He didn’t flinch as a volley of mortar bombs crashed down only a street away. He has been preparing the dead for burial since the start of the uprising. Last week he had his busiest day.

Carefully, he folded over the white cloth to cover the girl’s curly chestnut hair, matted with blood. He did not clean it off. “If they are killed by a bomb or a bullet, we don’t wash their martyrs’ blood,” he said. He wrote the girl’s name on the shroud, Nuha al-Manal.

“Of course, it a very difficult job,” he added. “Among those I prepared for burial were my son, my son-in-law, my nephew, my neighbour, my friend. But it has to be done. I feel I owe these people something. The least I can do is to wrap them in their shrouds.”

Such long lists of the dead were common in the Baba Amr quarter of Homs. Abu Sufyan had lost a brother, a nephew, an uncle, and, most recently, his mother. A warm and generous man – we had stayed in his house last November – he had become prone to explosions of rage.

He shouted at a hysterical woman in the makeshift hospital. Her son’s foot had been neatly severed by a mortar. Someone was holding it, wrapped in a bloody keffiyeh. She was ululating, clutching her face. “Give us guns so we can defend ourselves,” she wailed, piercingly. Abu Sufyan had no patience with this. “We’ve had a hundred martyrs already today,” he bellowed. “Get out so the doctors can work.”

That’s obviously how most of the 93,000 reported dead in Syria met their fate, from rockets launched by jets or helicopters or long-distance artillery. As Abu Sufyan said, guns were needed to defend people under such an attack. More specifically, MANPAD’s were the only weapon that could turn such a city into a “no fly” zone. One would think that given the White House’s determination to foment a war against the Baathist dictatorship, it would have been doling them out like candy.

On August 22, 2012 the NY Times reported that the USA would not supply them in light of the Afghanistan experience when Stinger missiles went unaccounted for in Afghanistan.  Milton A. Bearden, who ran the C.I.A.’s support for Afghan fighters in the 1980s told the Times: ”The complexity of Syria today makes Afghanistan in 1985 look very simple. Who is the Syrian opposition? Who would these weapons go to?”

As it turns out, the USA and the supposed enemies of the Baathist dictatorship have worked together to block the shipments of such weapons to the rebels as the Wall Street Journal reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said [emphasis added].

“We were told that we need to get our house in order on the ground, and that it wasn’t time yet,” said a rebel representative involved in the delivery.

This does not register on the “no war with Syria” left that would have you believe that the USA had been supplying MANPAD’s all along. I try to imagine what it would mean for a leftist to apply this line if they were a Syrian living in Homs. Here is the scenario. Saeed, a 20 year old graduate student from the Baba Amr district, has just returned home after a year of studying political science in London where he came in contact with members of John Rees’s Counterfire group that recruited him to their particular brand of Marxism, one in which the highest duty of revolutionaries is to prevent imperialism intervening in Syria. Saeed runs into the aforementioned Abu Sufyan on a shelled out street where this conversation ensues:

Abu: Hello, Saeed, how was London?

Saeed: Okay, but I am glad to be home.

Abu: Did you hear that Hassan from down the block was killed last night by a mortar shell?

Saeed: I am sorry to hear that.

Abu: But help might be on the way. The CIA has shown up in Jordan with ten trucks filled with Stinger missiles and other powerful weapons. Allah only knows why the Americans have gotten involved this late in the game but we will now be able to protect our people.

Saeed: But, Abu, we cannot accept those weapons. They are from the American bourgeoisie and will lead to imperialist domination of the Middle East. We need to organize the working class into soviets and fight for socialism and put an end to sectarian warfare against our Shia, Christian and Allawite brothers and sisters.

Of course such a dialog would never take place in the real world. To start with, Obama has only agreed to send small arms to the rebels, which are utterly useless against MIG’s and attack helicopters. But more importantly for the debate on the left, I doubt that anybody in their right mind would tell someone from Homs not to use such weapons no matter who supplied them. It is instead a talking point mostly of currency in the West where it is supposed to serve as some kind of “anti-imperialist” litmus test. With American imperialism showing absolutely no interest in supplying weaponry that can make a real difference in Syria, the agitation of groups like Counterfire amounts to trying to break down an open door.

The Character of the Syrian Revolutionary Movement

To some extent, the “plague on both your houses” stance relies on evidence carefully sifted so as to put the rebels in the worst possible light. The most recent instance was the case of a fifteen-year-old boy being executed by jihadists for blasphemy. Before that there was Abu Sakkar, the fighter who took a bite out of a dead Baathist soldier’s heart. Whenever such violations of human rights take place, the entire revolutionary movement suffers collective punishment. By the same token, MIG or Scud missile attacks on working-class tenements in Aleppo or Damascus are considered normal activities for a government under attack.

Since Syria is such a dangerous place for foreign journalists and since the Baathists either tightly control or outright ban outsiders from reporting, it is not easy to get a handle on what life is like under rebel control.

One of the few detailed reports was filed by Anand Gopal in the August 2012 Harpers, which thankfully is not behind their paywall. While by no stretch of the imagination can it be described as a soviet, this extract from the article should convince you that something was happening there that deserved our support:

Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn’t believe the government’s assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. “It was like a renaissance,” he said, “a new look at life.”

During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. “I saw the burned paper,” he told me, “and tears came to my eyes.” He had been studying for a master’s degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. “Some say Godot is God,” he said, “but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot.”

Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz’s rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village’s revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” He turned to me and explained, “We’ve gone to every house in town and determined what they need”—he pointed at the ledger—“and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public.”

All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

And even as the power of Islamists has escalated, there are still signs that such people committed to democracy and a relative degree of secularism continue to fight for a Syria that reflects their values. In the April 3, 2013 issue of the New Yorker magazine, there’s a report from Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to rebel control, in this instance largely due to jihadist weaponry. Despite being nominally in control of the city, the Islamists face defiance from the city’s democratic-minded citizenry as Rania Abouzeid reports on an argument that took place over the hoisting of a black Islamist flag over the city:

A few days earlier, a massive black flag bearing the shahada had been hoisted atop a flagpole in Raqqa city’s main square, in front of the elegant, multi-arched governorate building. “We will become a target for American drone attacks because of the flag—it’s huge,” said Abu Noor, a wiry young man who worked in a pharmacy by day and at night volunteered to guard the post office near his home against looters. “They’ll think we’re extremist Muslims!” (There haven’t been such strikes in Syria yet, though the possibility is much discussed here.)

“There is no moderate Islam or extremist Islam,” the Jabhat [an Islamist militia] member said calmly. “There is only Islam, and Islam is under attack in the West regardless of whether or not we hoist the banner. Do you think they’re waiting for that banner to hit us?” he said.

Abu Mohammad, an older man in a tan leather jacket and a white galabia (a loose, floor-length robe), interjected: “What we’re saying is, put the flag above your outposts, not in the main square of the city. We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag.”

“This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” said Abu Abdullah, a former English major at the university.

“We are not forcing anything on anyone,” the Jabhat member said. “We offered it as a choice. We did not take down the revolutionary flags in the city—even though we could have.”

Outside, the night air was cool. Warplanes that had been continuously rumbling over the city during the day had retreated, prompting bakeries, shuttered because of the threat of air strikes, to open. Long queues, segregated by gender, quickly formed as night fell, just as they did every night, guarded by armed men with black scarves covering their heads and faces.

“With this banner you have cleaved us from our country Syria,” Abu Moayad said. “Why is it here? We are not an Islamic emirate; we are part of Syria. This is a religious banner, not a country’s flag.”

The Jabhat member leaned forward and looked the older man in the eyes. “This is a lack of self-esteem, something we were conditioned to feel toward our religion by a regime that didn’t let us practice it,” he said. “Do you know how many people a day come to offer loyalty to us, to try and join us?”

At that, Abu Moayad lost his temper. He stood up, moved a few steps across the room toward the young masked man, and wagged a finger in his face: “The Syrian revolution rose up to step on Bashar’s neck, but I swear I am with Bashar against this flag!” he yelled. “That is how strongly I feel about it! You are causing fitna [internal divisions]!”

The young man remained seated. “What did you do for the revolution?” he asked.

“I used to transport ammunition smuggled from Iraq to towns in Raqqa province.”

Returning to the original question raised at the beginning of this article, I am totally opposed to the USA making war with Syria. But if that means organizing a protest against shipments of powerful weapons to the sort of democratic-minded activists described in the Harpers and New Yorker, count me out.

I agree that American imperialism only acts in its own interests. I also remain deeply proud oft my activism against funding of the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s. But in this particular instance the idea of organizing protests in the Ramsey Clark ANSWER coalition fashion against sending weapons to the FSA goes against my socialist principles. The fight against Baathist tyranny is one of the most important taking place in the world today and the left has a stake in the revolutionary struggle against a torturing, murdering, and corrupt dictatorship even if it is not being led by the Rosa Luxemburg brigades.

It is almost completely ruled out that the White House is ready to supply the sorts of weapons that could turn Syria into a graveyard for MIG’s. But if I were a socialist member of Congress (obviously speaking hypothetically), I doubt that I would vote against the shipment of such weapons. Long ago I read a 1938 article by Leon Trotsky called “Learn to Think” that provides a framework for understanding these issues. Trotsky might have had some confused ideas about how to organize a revolutionary party but when it came to dialectical contradictions such as the ones under consideration, he could rise to the occasion.

Trotsky was addressing an ultraleft (as he put it) “principle” that workers must always oppose its own imperialist government’s decision to arm rebels in another country. He offered this as a possible exception to the rule:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

Of course, this article might have seemed a lot less controversial in 1938 when inter-imperialist rivalry was the environment that Marxists operated within. But as I pointed out earlier, those conditions no longer obtain. Instead, we are dealing with American imperialism and its close allies like Britain and Israel facing off against the BRICS and their partners.

What is to be Done

While I can understand why some on the left might quibble over whether Russia is “imperialist” or not, there is a more fundamental way of approaching these problems that cuts across the nation versus nation framework. While these contradictions exist, there is a more fundamental contradiction based on class that demands our attention.

Despite all the sectarian distortions and the departures from civilized norms in Syria over two years of brutal warfare, there is still a revolution taking place there. It might not pose socialist demands but the yearning to live in freedom is one that Marxists should identify with.

If Bashar al-Assad is able to suppress the mass movement, and there is every indication that he will, the net result will be to encourage other powers in the Middle East to drown revolutions in blood. Despite the “support” that Sunni regimes have given to the rebels, there is little doubt that a Morsi or an Erdogan would calculate that a military solution would work for them as well, given a deep-going and irreconcilable crisis.

Finally, I will recount the exchange I had with Anand Gopal at the last Left Forum that might help to shift the discussion away from one centered on the procurement of arms. When I posed the question to him during the discussion period whether the slogan of “no arms to Syria” was one for the left to organize around, his first reaction was to defend the slogan on the basis that further militarization of the conflict would lead only to it looking much more like Afghanistan.

A few minutes later, however, he took a somewhat different tack while not disavowing his earlier statement. He said that the emphasis should be on solidarity with the Syrian revolution. Looking back in retrospect, I am convinced that this is the best position for the left to take.

In order for the left to get up to speed on why this revolution deserves to be supported, I will conclude with a list of websites that I consult on a regular basis in order to make sense of what is happening there and to help us make the case for our Syrian brothers and sisters who are our natural allies in a fight for a more just world.

EA WorldView | A Window On The World: http://eaworldview.com/

Brown Moses Blog: http://brown-moses.blogspot.com/

Syria News | Covering the Crisis: http://beta.syriadeeply.org/

Syrian Freedom: http://syrianfreedomls.tumblr.com/

Syria Freedom Forever: http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com

The Revolting Syrian: http://www.therevoltingsyrian.com/

Robin Yassin-Kassab’s Blog: http://qunfuz.com/

Syria News Wire: http://newsfromsyria.com/


  1. “No arms to Syria” — meaning Assad, or the Free Syrian Army?

    The most striking thing about Western left opposition to the Syrian revolution and the aid it might get from reactionary powers is that this position is totally at odds with the pro-revolution sentiments of the masses of the region, especially the Palestinians:

    Hamas is now calling for Hezbollah — not the U.S. — to get out of Syria:

    But hey, what do brown-skinned people know about making revolutions in their own countries, eh?

    Comment by Pham Binh — June 17, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

  2. You keep referring to the Syria rebellion as a revolution, stressing what you seem to believe are progressive elements among the rebels. Maybe there are (however small their numbers). But how would you like to live there if the mostly fanatical Sunni rebels gain power? Would that be a place hospitable to, or even tolerant of, leftists and atheists? Would it be better than the theocracy in Iran? Since you’ve criticized the U.S. and the imperialists for not doing more to support the rebels, are you now applauding Obama’s new steps to send aid and CIA operatives into Syria? Or are you still criticizing him for not doing more? I give you credit for at least here inserting a few more fine points to what has generally appeared to be a Manichaean, black and white view of the Syrian revolt (good vs. bad). It’s more complicated than that. I take the position that neither side is worth supporting–not that either you or I have anything substantive to offer anyone in the way of support. For myself, I’d be happy to see almost all governments overthrown, including Assad, and that goes for some you would support. But until you can point to a progressive, radical, revolutionary thrust to the Syrian revolt (and you can’t), don’t carry on as if you know more than you do about the real forces in rebellion there. The outcome should be left up to the Syrians to determine. If the Syrian people want an Islamic fundi state instead of the corrupt Baathist regime, that’s their choice. But it is irresponsible and a discredit to the left to excoriate other leftists for not jumping on the Islamist bandwagon and portraying imperialist support as somehow progressive, even if you think the U.S. and NATO should be doing more for the rebels. It looks to me like you’ve joined the leftist war party. A lot of gyrations here to explain away the sad fact that there’s no American antiwar movement anymore? To me, it looks like proof of the irrelevance, naval gazing, and degeneration of much of the American left.

    Comment by David Thorstad — June 17, 2013 @ 7:18 pm

  3. Q: But how would you like to live there if the mostly fanatical Sunni rebels gain power?
    A: Didn’t I make it clear that I was opposed to the Islamists?

    Q: Since you’ve criticized the U.S. and the imperialists for not doing more to support the rebels, are you now applauding Obama’s new steps to send aid and CIA operatives into Syria?
    A: Didn’t I make it clear that the “aid” is next to useless against MIG-23’s?

    Q: Or are you still criticizing him for not doing more?
    A: My goal is to support the revolution against al-Assad. I don’t care where they get their guns from. From Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, a gun show in Alabama, a Montgomery-Ward mail order catalog, the back pages of Field and Stream. It makes no difference to me.

    Q: But until you can point to a progressive, radical, revolutionary thrust to the Syrian revolt (and you can’t), don’t carry on as if you know more than you do about the real forces in rebellion there.
    A: You obviously didn’t read my entire article. Perhaps next time you will when you offer your thoughts.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 17, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

  4. I reread the piece specifically looking for your evidence for a “progressive, radical, revolutionary thrust to the Syrian revolt,” and, sad to say, I still can’t find any. I do find this kind of moralistic advice: “The fight against Baathist tyranny is one of the most important taking place in the world today and the left has a stake in the revolutionary struggle against a torturing, murdering, and corrupt dictatorship even if it is not being led by the Rosa Luxemburg brigades.” One does not need to regard the Baathist regime as worth supporting to see that the absence of “Rosa Luxemburg brigades” (!–or, one might add, any left radical working-class revolutionary brigade of any kind, since even you haven’t been able to point to such a force in the rebellion) hardly turns the rebels, mostly cloaked in quasi-fascistic Islamic fundi fanaticism and visceral hatred of both Shiites and Alawites (a subject you avoid entirely, presumably because for some leftists religion is a side issue of relatively little importance?), into a benign or progressive force worth supporting. Let’s take a hypothetical situation: if the Cuban masses (or the Vietnamese) were to rebel against their regime, would the role of the American left be to urge imperialism to do more to help them overthrow the regime, or would the old slogan “Hands Off Cuba!: be invoked? Maybe you can’t conceive that the masses in those countries could have any reason to want to overthrow their undemocratic regimes. But picking and choosing which revolts against a country’s ruling regime to support when large parts of the masses rise up against it (as a minority is doing in Turkey today, and with good reason) is hardly a consistent approach. I say “NATO and U.S. imperialism: Hands off Syria!” The enemy is at home.

    Comment by David Thorstad — June 17, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

  5. Question: how many of the armed rebels as opposed to rebels as a whole are democratic forces? Will the arms go the democratic forces, in which I would include some the non-fundie religious force? (Note: these are not rhetorical questions. Questions you did not answer in your post that you may well have done the research to know the answers to.) My position is that it would be more valuable for their be a real arms embargo – no Russian arms to Assad nor Western arms to the rebels. But I could be persuaded you are right, especially since you seem to have been proven right on Libya.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — June 17, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

  6. I do wonder whose hands arms would wind up in. The democratic forces you described or the fundies? Who has most of the arms now? Might a better position be to support a real arms embargo – no arms to Assad, none to the rebels?

    Comment by Real Solutions to the Clmate Crisis — June 17, 2013 @ 8:45 pm

  7. I reread the piece specifically looking for your evidence for a “progressive, radical, revolutionary thrust to the Syrian revolt,” and, sad to say, I still can’t find any.

    I can’t waste time with David but urge people to read the article I referred to: http://harpers.org/archive/2012/08/welcome-to-free-syria/. I can only say that it is sad but not unexpected that he sees nothing progressive about such grass roots democracy exercised by poor people.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 17, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

  8. All good points, but I still take a dim view of Uncle Sam getting involved.

    And indeed, the support that Putin receives from many in the American/Western left is disturbing and nonsensical.

    Comment by JTG — June 18, 2013 @ 6:36 am

  9. […] summary these are further reasons why we are deeply sceptical about Louis Proyect’s call  for “solidarity with the Syrian […]

    Pingback by Syria: Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste Calls to Supply Weapons to Free Syrian Army, A Critical Response. | Tendance Coatesy — June 18, 2013 @ 10:34 am

  10. Hey Louis,

    I just sent you a FB friend request and realized you probably had no idea who I am, haha. Anyway, I post over at TNS and occasionally here. I’d love some like minded folks on my news feed. But if you want to keep your FB to peeps you actually know (who could blame you, lol) I definitely wouldn’t be offended!

    Comment by Jon Hawk — June 18, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  11. Here’s a link to another blogger (an Australian Marxist this time) who would side with you on this Louis:


    Comment by Cedric — June 18, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

  12. Excellent piece. The dregs of Stalinism have turned the anti-war movement into a schill for tyrants, the Chinese Stalinist state and Russian imperialism whilst covering for the actual inaction of the West. They should write a book: How I turned three million anti-war marchers into 200 Stalinist trash.

    From the start the left should have been giving unconditional support for the Arab Spring but of course the counter-revolutionary instincts of Stainism even with `really existing socialism’ long buried remain strong. For rthese people, who have always been intensly relaxed about mass murder the rebellions in Libya, Syria, etc were nothing more than CIA/Islamist plots and now they find themselves in the UK in alliance with fascists, Tory righ wingers, New Labour and other vile class forces all this while Hague and Cameron continue the pretence, which they are helping them keep up, that they are serious about aiding the rebellion. The vision of these people is not world socialism but five or six world powers balancing power above the heads of the 7 billion. Now that’s not anti-imperailism.

    For the most cynical take see Joohn Wight’s latest piece on Stalinist Unity in which he claims Syria is the new front line of a global conlict so we’d best abandon the Syrian people and get on board with Putin and Assad and of course Boris and Nick Griffin now too.

    Comment by David Ellis — June 18, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  13. For the most cynical take see Joohn Wight’s latest piece on Stalinist Unity in which he claims Syria is the new front line of a global conlict so we’d best abandon the Syrian people and get on board with Putin and Assad and of course Boris and Nick Griffin now too.

    I’d rather eat a dead dog’s penis.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 18, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

  14. The reason Louis doesn’t answer David Thorstad’s question about who and where are the progressive forces on the rebels side is simple, they don’t exist. The main fighting force of the Free Syrian Army on the ground is Jabhat a-Nursa, a wing of Al-Qaida. They are a bunch of religious fanatics who are also cold blooded sectarian killers. These are the folks who will take over the government if the rebels win. And if they do they will slaughter every non Sunni minority in Syria, not allow women to be educated, and establish a theocratic nightmare of a state.

    Louis says he is willing to be in a minority of 1. He can rest assured that is not the case. Those who support the rebels in Syria and want to set up a Taliban style state in Syria are in the millions. Louis hopes some sort of progressive force in Syria will not allow that to happen if the rebels win, that is a fantasy.

    Ray Markey

    Comment by Ray Markey — June 18, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

  15. The main fighting force of the Free Syrian Army on the ground is Jabhat a-Nursa, a wing of Al-Qaida.


    Yeah, a bunch of dirty terrorists like the IRA that Ray Markey used to back when he was young and radical. Now he is a fat and privileged union bureaucrat. Who are you for, Ray? Quinn or De Blasio?

    Comment by louisproyect — June 19, 2013 @ 12:49 am

  16. During the Cold War the revolutionary socialists had to uphold the political view of the Soviet Union as a degenerate workers state against the black and white dichotomised analysis offered by the ideologues of `really existing socialism’ on the one side and the opportunists of state capitalism on the other. Of course during the long non-revolutionary (at least in the imperialist heartlands) years of the Cold War this was `just’ a principle. In the end both the really existing socialists and the state capitalists gave political cover to the bureaucracy as it restored capitalism failing to bring an independent policy for political revolution to the mass movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They will do the same with Stalinist China when the time comes. Now, as we enter pre-revolutionary situations across the planet we have to plot a course between the `counter hegemonic’ bloc of the remnants of the Stalinist movement and the pro-imperialist opportunism of the liquidators such as the UK’s own AWL which openly supports Zionism and the bogus two-state peace process and wants imperialism to bomb Iran and bring peace to Afghanistan and it is vitally important that we do so. As always for us it is about an independent policy for the working class not tying ourselves and the working class to one bourgeois camp or another.

    On Libya and the imperailist intervention we correctly eschewed the pro-Gadaffi demos of the degenerate StWC in favour of urging the Libyan masses to speed up their struggle to smash his semi-colonial tyranny all the quicker and to be aware of false friends. In Syria we have emphasised the right of the Syrian National Democratic Revolution to acquire arms to defend itself against the Butcher Assad and have pointed out that the only Western intervention there has been so far has been a vicious arms embargo on the rebels. We have rightly been unconditional supporters of the Arab Spring whilst analysing all the potential dangers to it from imperialism, Islamsim and the tyrannical regimes themselves.

    Comment by David Ellis — June 20, 2013 @ 11:04 am

  17. My problem with Louis’s position is that he fails to recognise that most of the Syrian masses are fighting against the rebels. By taking the side of the rebels Louis is against the Syrian masses and is for a rebel puppet army who will have no choice but to impose a brutal dictatorship on Syria. if the imperialist puppets gain power they will have to go house to house to clear out the enemy and the new rebels will react with suicide bombings, Iraq style carnage etc. If the Islamist’s gain power then we have some form of people’s power. But Louis is clearly for the puppet and against the people.

    David Ellis may have a point in that we could view Syria as part of the wider upsurge of protest taking place across the world, but how do we react to these situations? Do we treat Greece, Brazil and Turkey the same as Syria? Do we support rebels fighting both ‘tyranny’ and ‘democracy’? And do we ignore the nature of the rebels themselves?

    Comment by SteveO — June 23, 2013 @ 10:25 am

  18. My problem with Louis’s position is that he fails to recognise that most of the Syrian masses are fighting against the rebels.

    I don’t even want to respond to this except to ask how would you back it up?

    Comment by louisproyect — June 23, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  19. A couple of reasons: statements from those on the ground, analysis from the Syrian Communist Party (here: http://syriareport.net/interview-adel-omar-syrian-communist-party-bakdash/) and the fact that Assad is still in power, despite the millions spent by the imperialists on toppling him. He clearly has the backing of a significant section of the masses, who are obviously not happy at the prospect of either the Islamist’s or your puppets taking power!

    Comment by SteveO — June 23, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

  20. Steve, don’t you know how ridiculous you sound by citing the Syrian Communist Party? You might as well have cited the Baathists. In terms of the millions spent by the imperialists, I don’t know how much good it does unless there are weapons that can neutralize the nearly thousand-strong air force. What are they supposed to do, hurl copies of Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn’s books at the MIG-23’s and armored helicopters?

    Comment by louisproyect — June 23, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  21. It isn’t ridiculous, you cite puppets to support your position.

    I don’t have a problem with the Islamist’s procuring arms and using them. I don’t particularly have a problem with them overthrowing Assad, what I have a problem with is your take on events.

    Comment by SteveO — June 23, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  22. […] how such large chunks of Syrian territory have been taken over by armed opposition. In a blog post from 2013, for instance, Proyect tells how democratic activists were overrun by Wahhabis “largely due to […]

    Pingback by A Response to the “Cruise Missile Left” | Counter Information — September 7, 2015 @ 10:45 pm

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