Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2015

Hugh Roberts: ideological defense attorney for a torture state

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

Hugh Roberts

In keeping with its pro-Assad editorial outlook, the London Review of Books gave Hugh Roberts the job of reviewing a number of books about Syria. Titled “The Hijackers”, it makes the case that the revolution was “hijacked” by jihadists from the get-go and lost its legitimacy as soon as it became “militarized”. Responding to the words of an SNC spokesperson that “nobody wants a war”, Roberts counters with “Plenty of people wanted a war”, most particularly Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Roberts has never written a single scholarly article about Syria. His specialty is Algeria and especially the brutal civil war in which the governing FLN suppressed an Islamist uprising in a sort of foreshadowing of what is taking place now in Syria. In an article for Socialist Register, Roberts faulted Noam Chomsky for believing “The Algerian government is in office because it blocked the democratic election in which it would have lost to mainly Islamic-based groups. That set off the current fighting.”

Well, when the elections took place in December 1991, the Islamist FIS won 189 seats in parliament while the ruling dictatorship’s party got 16 seats. Soon afterwards, the dictatorship decided that the elections were not to its liking and began ruling by the fiat and the fist once again. Thomas Friedman saw the wisdom of the ruling party’s decision by darkly warning about the problem of “freely elected tyrants” in Algeria—those parties that admire Ayatollah Khomeini, not the goons in uniform.

In a review of Roberts’s “The Battlefield: Algeria 1988-2002, Studies in a Broken Polity” in Amazon.com, one reader—awarding the book one star—noted:

Roberts may be an ‘expert’ on Algeria, but throughout most of his book he never really questions the official historical line touted by the military junta in Algiers. The book fails to put forward any convincing explanation for the deaths of over 200,000 people in the civil war. This is especially surprising given the numerous first-hand accounts that have recently appeared concerning atrocities committed by the Algerian security services. Mr. Mohamed Samraoui, a former deputy-director of the secret services, has published a book (“Chronique des annees de sang”) in which he accuses the Algerian generals of having planned the government’s overthrow in the 1992 coup before instigating a counter-revolutionary war against the country’s civilian population.

Meanwhile, Joe Stork writing a generally favorable review in MERIP, did have some quibbles such as how Roberts “dismisses out of hand the idea that the riots of October 1988 were motivated by economic concerns.” Apparently, a NY Times reporter must be counted as just another benighted soul alongside Noam Chomsky who didn’t get Algeria when he reported on November 27, 1988:

Over the last few months, work stoppages have erupted in factories, ports, universities and Government offices as workers, students and white-collar Government employees challenge the Government’s authority and demand better living conditions. Militant members of the Marxist Avant-Garde Socialist Party and various underground Islamic fundamentalist groups have encouraged protests.

In October, the discontent exploded into the bloodiest riots Algerians have known since they won independence from France in 1962 when a brutal war took the lives of between 1 million and 1.5 million Algerians.

In seven days of what many Algerians pointedly call ”the uprising” -likening it to the Palestinian revolt against Israeli rule in the occupied territories – the Algerian Army shot and killed between 150 and 300 people, mostly teen-agers. Hundreds more were wounded, and thousands were arrested. The troubles subsided around Oct. 10, but only after Mr. Benjedid promised to try to make fundamental political changes.

In essence the transformations he wants to make would turn around one issue: how to strip the encrusted 250,000 or so people who control the top of the party of their overwhelming control of every facet of power and politics in Algeria.

Sounds a bit like the troublemakers who took to the streets in Syria in April 2011, doesn’t it? Didn’t they realize that they never had it so good as under benevolent secular and socialist governments like Algeria and Syria’s even if it took a cop’s club to beat that into their thick skulls?

Roberts has problems with the notion that Syria had a “deep state”, a key finding in Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy”, the first of the books he reviews. In his view, this is something that is fairly universal. As he puts it, “The state and the deep state are not two things but all of a piece, in what we call democracies as well as in dictatorships.” That might be true, but we should never be indifferent to the need for democracy over dictatorship if for no other reason that it facilitates challenges to all aspects of the state both within view and in secret. Given Roberts’s blithe acceptance of the FLN’s overturning of the results of the first free election in modern Algeria’s history, one has to doubt his commitment to democracy.

As a master of the justification of the unjustifiable, Roberts uses a curious historical analogy to make the case for Baathist dictatorship. Referring to Hafez al-Assad, he writes:

He rebuilt the armed forces and other state institutions, and even allowed four other political parties of the Syrian left to operate, on condition that they did so as members of a National Progressive Front in which the Baath retained primacy. In short, Assad performed the function in the Syrian national revolution that Cromwell had performed in the English revolution: he stabilised it so that the country could be governed and defended. In the process, he induced the Syrian Baath to concentrate on making Syria itself, at last, a viable state.

Perhaps the fact that Roberts contributed once to Socialist Register indicates that he is familiar with the concept of a bourgeois revolution (even if he calls it a national revolution), a staple of Marxist theory notwithstanding Robert Brenner and company. What a strange way to look at the Baathists who created a family dynasty based on sectarian Alawite interests. Cromwell acted on behalf of the class prerogatives of a rising bourgeoisie, with their emergent state enshrining property rights based on the philosophy of John Locke. By contrast, the Baathist state was one that enshrined the backroom deal, the bribe, favoritism and kleptocracy—all in the name of “socialism”. Indeed, it was exactly this kind of resistance to the norms of bourgeois property rights that fueled the protests against both Roberts’s FLN and the Baath party. Anybody who carries out a rigorous class analysis of 17th century Britain and 20th century Syria can figure this out in a few minutes even if they never went to Oxford like Hugh Roberts.

For Roberts, the national revolution had a need to defend itself against outside powers:

With Assad’s death, autocracy gave way to an oligarchy in which Bashar was the public face of a regime he could not dominate as his father had done. Allowed to make minor reforms and to bring on younger men of his own choosing, he was undoubtedly made aware of red lines that could not be crossed. In this respect Syria resembles Algeria and Yemen, and for that matter Mubarak’s Egypt. All of them have been national security states whose rulers have calculated that liberalising in earnest would compound their already serious national security problems, enabling hostile powers to manipulate the new political parties that liberalisation would bring.

Really? So when the Baathists tortured a Canadian named Maher Arar who the CIA had kidnapped and sent to Syria as part of the “extraordinary rendition” program, they were not concerned about collaborating with a foreign power that was supposedly bent on its destruction? In 1994, Bill Clinton visited Syria for a friendly chat. He was not bothered by the fact that there were 7500 political prisoners at the time, many of them enduring torture that made the CIA look benign by comparison. Apparently Hafez al-Assad must have gotten hoodwinked at the time, giving the green light to the state-controlled media to trumpet this as a “A meeting between the two giants” that will mark “a strategic turning point that will decide the future of the region for years to come.”

If and when Syrians decided to organize to overthrow a dictatorship based on torture, corruption and lies, they would not be allowed to cross Hugh Roberts’s red lines:

It isn’t that such regimes are entirely unreformable. But qualitative political reform can only come about if they are put under sustained pressure by effective movements from below – movements that articulate demands which can be defended as strengthening the state by enhancing its legitimacy…The theoretical possibility of such a thing happening in Syria in 2011 was destroyed almost at once.

That’s quite a formulation: strengthening the state by enhancing its legitimacy. In other words, people who had been subject to torture, arbitrary arrest, economic misery, and all the rest, had to consider how their protests fit into an agenda that enhanced the “legitimacy” of the state that was responsible for their suffering. Amazing.

The Syrians decided to ignore Roberts’s advice after Baathist snipers began killing peaceful protestors. They created the Free Syrian Army that saw as its primary task in the beginning to defend demonstrators from being shot down in the street. But, according to him, jihadists—an obvious threat to Syrian national security that had to be destroyed–soon superseded the FSA. The “hijackers” referred to in the title of his article.

Towards the end of his article, Roberts gets down to brass tacks and begins repeating all the talking points of the pro-Assad left, almost as if he were hosting a show on RT.com or Iran’s Press TV. For those of you accustomed to this sort of thing, there is little to distinguish it from the hysteria over al-Qaeda that dominated the American discourse in 2003 except that this time it is coming from people like Hugh Roberts, David Bromwich, Seymour Hersh and others in the LRB stable rather than Christopher Hitchens or Paul Berman.

He spends about a thousand words exposing Hillary Clinton’s organizing of a cabal to overthrow Bashar al-Assad while neglecting to mention that her boss in the White House never had any intention of removing him as was made abundantly clear in a recent PBS Frontline documentary. For Roberts it matters more that the White House issued empty statements that Assad must go than it did that the CIA was blocking the shipments of MANPADs into Syria for use by the FSA whose cause they supposedly espoused.

When Roberts finally gets around to reviewing Patrick Cockburn’s book on ISIS, he drops any pretense to scholarly impartiality and begins to repeat some of the more frequently invoked and blatant excuses for the Baathist war machine.

He quibbles with Cockburn’s claim that “for America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the caliphate is the ultimate disaster.” Instead, Roberts assures his readers, the West conspired to bring about the rise of ISIS. His evidence? A document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated August 23, 2012 that was published by Judicial Watch, a conservative outfit. This is a document that got what disk jockeys call “heavy rotation” on all the usual websites: Alex Jones’s Infowars, WSWS.org, Global Research, et al. It supposedly proved an American/ISIS connection because it stated “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”

It is rather depressing to see this document taken seriously in a magazine like LRB that can usually be counted upon for intelligent articles on 16th century French poetry, Dadaism, psychoanalysis and the like.

For a powerful refutation of this nonsense, I recommend the Magpie68 blog, where an article titled “Who are the real Godfathers of ISIS?” appeared on June 5th, 2015. It states:

A feeding frenzy has broken out among conspiracy theorists and pro-Assad circles in the wake of the release of a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated August 2012. This was obtained by conservative lobby group, Judicial Watch, seeking ammunition for their campaign against Hilary Clinton in connection with the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. They have made little use of it but others have pounced on it with great enthusiasm.

The Washington Blog ran with the headline “Newly-Declassified U.S. Government Documents: The West Supported the Creation of ISIS” while regular Stop the War (UK) contributor Matt Carr flourished the banner “How the US-helped ISIS Carve its caliphate in Blood across Iraq and Syria” and Guardian journalist Seumas Milne joined in with “Now the Truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” Most recently the normally level-headed US left journal Jacobin has picked up on the theme.

Even more incredibly, Hugh Roberts asks us to take the words of one Ralph Peters seriously:

A second piece of evidence is a map prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters of the US War Academy and published in the Armed Forces Journal in June 2006. It shows a ‘New Middle East’ that, as imagined by Colonel Peters, would annoy most of the region’s current governments. What is striking is that, in place of Iraq and Syria, it suggests there could be three states, an ‘Arab Shia’ state extending up to Baghdad, a ‘Sunni Iraq’ and then ‘Syria’, with the last two shorn of their Kurdish districts, now included in a new state of ‘Free Kurdistan’. On its own the map proves nothing beyond one man’s imagination and the fact that a journal found it interesting enough to print.

To start with, Peters is a retired officer who has no status with the US War Academy today. Second of all, the only places where you can find this map taken seriously is Global Research and the like. Like Roberts, the conspiracists at Global Research view Ralph Peters as some kind of master strategist speaking for the invisible government pulling Obama’s strings.

In reality, Peters is a sort of rightwing geek who writes for the NY Post and other shabby outlets, sounding rather like E. Howard Hunt, one of the men who pulled off the Watergate burglary rather than a master strategist. From Wikipedia:

Peters’s first novel was Bravo Romeo, a spy thriller set in West Germany, and was published in 1981. Since then his novels progressed from futuristic scenarios involving the Red Army to contemporary terrorism and failed state issues. His characters are often presented as military mavericks who have the knowledge and courage to tackle problems others cannot or will not. His novel, The War After Armageddon, was released in 2009. In 2008 he published the non-fiction Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World. He is a regular contributor to the military history magazine, Armchair General Magazine, and he also serves on its Advisory Board.[7]

Maybe LRB can line up Ralph Peters for their next piece of garbage about Syria.


  1. When Proyect talks about the Syrians what he really means is an elite, which sees itself as born to rule and is hand-picked by imperialism to do its dirty work. So when you read the article please substitute the word Syrians for puppet elite.

    Proyect claims Syria is a war machine but this isn’t quite borne out by the facts, such as military spending etc. For example compare the spend and army size of Israel to Syria for a real view of what a war machine looks like. We should also factor in alliances, as a war machine can’t act alone. As Global Firepower say:

    “Not all nations have the luxury of a high spending budget and must therefore rely on affiliations and regional alliances”

    Syria has neither large spending nor significant alliances!

    Anyway, global firepower page is here:


    The biggest war machines become immediately apparent. What is also apparent is that a peaceful world would equate to a fucking catastrophe and the mother of all crises for the USA and its regional partners!

    One of Marx’s greatest weaknesses is the lack of analysis of a world imperialist system. He planned to write on such matters but never really got round to it (other than brief streams of consciousness), which is a good thing as subsequent world history would have surely made it out dated anyway.

    Though he did recognise that the imperialist system, where national dominances prevail, make the normal course of national bourgeois revolutions not run smooth!

    The liberal position is this (and it is just as obscene as anything argued by Assad’s apologists),

    What Syria needs are intellectuals and Western looking Middle Classes who can teach the reactionary mass a thing or 2 about decency and how to run a society (incidentally most Marxists schemas involve such top down notions). Give us the power and we will really crush these rebellious masses! As happened in Libya, that basket case created by the lunatic West.

    But the people have seen liberalism in practice, in Egypt it meant the mass murder of the elected government and the installation of a military junta (can you blame Islamists for having such a low opinion of liberal democracy!). This is the face of national bourgeois revolutions and liberalism outside the core of the imperialist system.

    My argument is that we should support the people’s revolt, warts and all, rather than support the top down solution most in tune with our liberal, secular and Western sensibilities. Which is the basic position of Proyect.

    There is nothing as murderous as secular liberalism when it acts outside core!

    We need to support revolutions from below, even when they are reactionary in appearance, as bottom up revolutions should be allowed the mistakes afforded to the top down ones.

    All power to the ‘Jihadists’!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — July 14, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

  2. Proyect claims Syria is a war machine but this isn’t quite borne out by the facts, such as military spending etc.

    Whatever. Call it a killing machine if you’d prefer but I don’t think you’d be happy with that either given your sorry interventions around this issue.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 14, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

  3. “but I don’t think you’d be happy”

    Well, you got that right.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — July 14, 2015 @ 5:33 pm

  4. Glad you picked up on this Louis. Roberts has been here before over Libya. He always seems to think that there is some miraculous solution to repressive regimes on the rampage if only everyone would follow his advice. His conclusions often contradict his own analysis of the regime in question. (Thanks for the reference to the Algeria article – that looks rather similar). LRB have indicated they may accept a letter from me – but of necessity it is narrowly focused (on who has been “intransigent” in the peace process) – so good to see this broader take.

    Comment by Brian S. — July 15, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

  5. I put down my recently arrived copy of LRB to look up the author of the first review. I get the point of the critique given above. I wonder, however, what Robert Brenner has to do with it? I clashed with him over the arguments made in VIL’s What is to Be Done years ago. He was not impressed with Lenin’s argument. More recently I have read that RB has problems with the economic arguments in Marx’s Capital. Please tell me what you had in mind in your comment on “bourgeois revolution”, “…notwithstanding Robert Brenner and company.” I have a problem with the anti-Marxist Marxists starting with Paul Sweezy and going all the way through to Brenner and others. For years Brenner argued that there was no “tendency of the rate of profit to fall” and even said so in the Foreward to one of his books (no longer listed). I would appreciate it very much if you could tell me what you were referring to in your brief comment on RB. If you want to know where I am coming from politically, you may check out my Amazon page. Thanks! Jon Amsden

    Comment by Jon Amsden — July 21, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

  6. I was referring to Brenner’s theory of the origins of capitalism that entails a rejection of the notion of a bourgeois revolution. Here’s something on all this:


    Comment by louisproyect — July 21, 2015 @ 9:42 pm

  7. Hugh Roberts’ article on Libya on LRB. It looks that he got right there, especially on NATO’s role and “humanitarian intervention.” Yugoslavia is another reminder of “humanitarian intervention” by those who want to look after humanity and save people who are unfit to carry out change by themselves.

    Comment by Nadim Mahjoub — March 3, 2019 @ 12:41 pm

  8. What kind of schmuck are you, Nadim? Neither I nor Gilbert Achcar favored NATO intervention. Go make your point on some other blog that favored NATO intervention.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 3, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

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