Syria and anti-imperialism

August 13, 2012

The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad suffered another blow with the defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who escaped to Jordan in early August, in the latest sign of splits among Syria's rulers. But around the same time, media reports said the Syrian Army was carrying out a ground assault on the city of Aleppo, forcing rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to retreat in some instances.

Thus, the fate of the Syrian civil war still hangs in the balance, nearly a year and a half after the first mass protests against the Assad dictatorship. From early on, the regime made it clear that it intended to drown the revolution in blood--and the resulting violence has helped shift the dynamic of the uprising to a military conflict, with the U.S. and other powerful governments considering covert and open military intervention, while trying to shape the outcome of the battle between the regime and the opposition.

The crisis in Syria has spurred a debate on the international left on how opponents of war and imperialism should approach the situation in all its complexity. In an article for his blog Lenin's Tomb, British socialist Richard Seymour, author of American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism, comments on the left's discussion of the uprising.

THE LONELY hour of the final instance never comes. This seemingly delphic statement has a fairly simple meaning.

Marxists speak of social life being determined "in the last instance" by the economy, by the manner in which people go about producing their means of existence. In capitalist society, this production is structured around a fundamental antagonism, or "contradiction," between capital and labor.

Yet there is no point at which this antagonism appears in its stark simplicity; no mise-en-scene in which the multiple contradictions and determinations that make up a social formation (think of gender, ethnicity, religion, regional divides, culture wars and so on) suddenly step aside and give the stage to the real, fundamental contradiction. The elements of a social formation continue always to have a reciprocal effectivity, so that each element is overdetermined by the whole. The class struggle always has cultural, national, gender, religious, identitarian or other inflections. This is why the "pure" class struggle never arrives, any more than does the "pure" revolution.

Video of Syrian troops in Jisr al-Shughour abusing protesters as they lie bound on the street
Video footage shows Syrian troops abusing protesters as they lie bound on the street

Something like this insight was the basis for much of Lenin's strategic thinking. Writing on the outburst of the Irish rebellion in 1916, he famously said, "Whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is." He went on:

The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it--without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible--and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors.

Even so, "objectively they will attack capital," Lenin wrote. The function of the most advanced workers in this situation was to unify and lead--that is, hegemonize--a "variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle."

Of course, Lenin was discussing the prospects for socialist revolution developing out of a national or bourgeois revolution. In Syria, there is no more immediate prospect of socialism than there was in Egypt or Tunisia. The question of workers' power will be posed by objective circumstances--nothing is more certain. But nothing is less certain than how it will be answered. Nor has the working class or a section of it in any of these revolutions had the politically leading role, even if it has supplied the strategic leverage and overpowering mass of force to differing degrees. But the principle of analysis which I was alluding to surely holds firm: there is no pure revolution.

IN THAT light, I well understand those who talk about the complexity of the Syrian struggle, which is not just one thing, but many things. It is precisely "a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle." This is a process which involves not only a progressive struggle against a dictatorship (in class terms, a workers' struggle against a state-capitalist ruling class), but also all the "prejudices...reactionary fantasies...weaknesses and errors" that workers and "all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements" are motivated by. It is a struggle which activates and acts on not just nationally given contradictions, but regional and global contradictions.

Thus, local antagonisms, such as splits in the Syrian ruling class over the handling of neoliberal reforms, divisions between rich and poor Sunnis, class struggles over the breakdown of the social compact and so on, combine with regional dynamics, such as the Kurdish struggle or Wahabbi anti-Shi'ism, which are in turn partially determined by inter-imperialist rivalry, such as U.S.-Russian antagonisms, and sub-imperialist subventions, such as the orchestration of region-wide counter-revolutionary action by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council or the emergent Turkish regional leadership under the impress of so-called neo-Ottomanism.

This is a revolutionary situation, but like all revolutions it does not take place on one axis alone, nor is every manifestation inherently progressive. The decomposition of the regime (if the latest defection report is true, then it is significant) is a stage in every revolution; but then, so is criminality, social breakdown and tendencies toward the enactment of "reactionary fantasies" by some. This is why the struggle over strategy and political representation within the revolution is so important; but it's also why we on the international left are so divided about it.

These divisions obviously reflect divisions in the Syrian struggle to some extent. But they also run through the Palestinian organizations, due in part to about half a million refugees living in Syria and suffering from Assad's rough brand of hospitality. As a result of this, Hamas has taken a stance against Assad, while groups like the PFLP-GC are split, and several large anti-Assad rallies have been organized in Gaza and the West Bank. This will be exacerbated by the fact that refugees are now being killed by Assad's forces, and some Palestinians are reportedly joining the Syrian struggle. The divisions extend through the Arab left, and right through the left in the imperialist countries.

The ubiquity of this divide is evidence that it does not merely arise due to a peculiarity of local circumstance or doctrine, but is as integral to the situation we are now in as the revolutionary process itself. Of necessity, the global crisis has been not just a crisis of capitalism or of the dominant classes, or of ancient regimes, but also a crisis of the working classes, the left, insurgent movements and established parties of resistance, who have all struggled to adapt. That is just what historical materialism would lead us to expect. A great deal hangs on how we handle these disagreements.

THE DIVISIONS partly comprise disagreements over how to read the accumulating contradictions in this situation, and particularly how to prioritize them: What is the dominant or principal contradiction? It is in this way that I would read some of the criticisms which my last post on Syria received. I am not going to waste my time responding to outright apologists for the Assad regime (take this pitiable Stalinist diatribe for an example). But there were a couple of pieces recently written by John Rees, which illustrate what is at issue.

Rees has a long history of writing about imperialism, for most of the time as an SWP theorist and leader, now as a leader of Counterfire. He identifies his object in Marxist terms, and is thus explicit about what he sees as the order of determinations in this situation, and how this affects the strategic calculus. His latest piece takes issue with some of what I've written, which is part of the reason I'm responding. However, that is actually marginal to his main purpose, so I won't spend too much time on rebuttals. I will simply make the following points.

First, Rees is wrong to situate this debate as one between the antiwar movement and those on the left who support the Syrian revolution. The divide, as I have indicated, is one that runs right through resistant, leftist and anti-imperialist forces across the world. Even sticking with the UK, anyone paying the slightest attention to what people are saying on this knows that there is a large sector of the left which is traditionally antiwar and which is supporting this revolution.

In this connection, Rees is also mistaken to suppose that the debate is between those who think imperialism has a central role in the Middle East, and those who reduce the world system to "nothing, or close to nothing," who would minimize "the contemporary relevance of imperialism," or endorse the "idea that U.S. imperialism is no longer interested in the Middle East, or no longer able to intervene there." To phrase the argument in this way is just not to treat it with the seriousness that it deserves. In general, Rees's argument is overburdened with red herrings of this type.

Second. If Rees is correct to identify imperialism as a central dynamic in the Middle East, I think he nonetheless overstates the coherence of U.S. imperialism and its allies in this situation, and their ability to control events. For example, Rees says in what I think is a symptomatically mechanical way, that "the combination of the Gulf States and Turkey" have become "the forward operating units of U.S., French and UK imperial strategy." Thus, one must conclude, if Turkey is shielding the leadership of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council (SNC), and if the Gulf states are sending weapons to the FSAs, they must be doing so in accord with a U.S., French and UK strategy.

This could, of course, be the case. And certainly the Gulf states, a string of rich metropoles whose peculiar geostrategic advantages have insulated them from the worst of the capitalist crisis and allowed them to play a leading counter-revolutionary role, have in general acted as a conduit for U.S. and European interests in the region. However, these sub-imperialisms have interests of their own which, while tendentially confluent with the strategy of the U.S., follow their own internal dynamics.

Take Saudi Arabia's early support for Assad against the uprisings. When the protests began, the Saudi king announced that he would back Assad against all the "plots." This reflected a longstanding policy of the Saudi regime, which considered Assad a stable ally, but it was obviously not congruent with U.S. policy at the time. Only later did the Saudi kingdom withdraw its ambassador and turn against the regime, long after the struggle had become militarized, followed by other regional monarchies and Gulf states.

As for Turkey, let it not be said that Prime Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Obama's pawn in regional matters, or that their concord on this is anything but temporary. It is true that Erdogan, recently an ally of Assad as of all regional leaders targeted by uprisings, has turned foe since early summer of last year, roughly coincident with the U.S. intervention in Libya. But I would estimate that this is less because Turkey was simply transformed into a forward operating unit of U.S. imperialism than because the same goal of expanding exports and developing its regional leadership that led to support for the embattled regimes now dictated a shift of alliances.

Third. While it is true that the U.S. regained some of its lost initiative through the intervention in Libya, I think that has to be seen as an improvised intervention in the revolutionary process, which seized on a unique set of circumstantial advantages. The goal for Washington planners was, I think, twofold. First it was to contain and neutralize the radical orientation of the Middle East struggles. Second, it was to provide an answer to Tahrir Square, positioning the U.S. on the side of "reform"--albeit gradual reform, managed by trusted elites.

In Libya, it was able to make a client, proxy force out of a bourgeois leadership that had no political rival in the revolution and engineer a direct intervention in the interests of creating a relatively conservative regime which would implement fully the reforms along neoliberal lines first embarked on by Muammar Qaddafi. But it was never certain that this intervention would take place until very shortly before the UN vote. It was a strategic gamble that a very significant section of U.S. imperial planners were resistant to; the realists would have prevailed were it not for Hillary Clinton's tilt on the side of "humanitarian intervention." And this late tilt seems to have been prompted by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy's belligerent push and the successful agreements established between the Libyan opposition leadership and various European governments. In other words, the process was improvised on the hoof, and its rhythms dictated as much by inter-imperial competition as by cooperation.

This is actually what one would expect. As Rees himself noted prior to the global crisis, the long-term tendency is no longer for U.S. capitalist growth to be a rising tide that lifts all boats. Rather, the managers of U.S. capitalism are having to try to slow its competitive decline in ways that often undermine not only its own productive base, but also the bases for global growth. The result is the sharpening of antagonisms and competition between the U.S. and both allies and rivals.

Rees drew attention to the way in which, for example, a reunified Germany set about establishing its own imperialist interests in Yugoslavia, and challenging for hegemony within NATO, thus partially precipitating U.S. attempts to control the Balkan fallout in ways favorable to its own interests. I am not claiming that the same scenario is being reproduced, merely indicating the centrality of competition as a driving factor in imperialist strategy, and thus allowing for the possibility of uncoordinated, autonomous and discordant actions by otherwise allied actors, as well as by rivals.

More generally, I am highlighting the secular decline in U.S. hegemony as a factor in this situation. Rees derides the "notion that the Arab revolutions have produced a post-imperial Middle East"--a notion which seems to have been advanced by precisely no one--but is well aware of the long-term problems that have beset U.S. dominance in Latin America, south-east Asia and the Middle East.

This is important, because Rees seems to treat U.S. imperialist strategy as if it was co-extensive with neoconservative strategy at its most bellicose. Thus, he thinks the current low-level forms of intervention in Syria reflect a long-term priority to depose the Assad regime, rather than an opportunistic attempt by various actors to nudge the situation in a favorable direction. He finds its recent origins in the approach that neoconservatives outlined in the wake of September 11, when Syria was labeled an "axis of evil" state. Since the neoconservatives are not at the moment a faction with any real political power, whereas the old-school realists who reject neoconservative policies (Gates, Brzezinski and so on) have more influence, it seems that Rees is overextending a conjunctural analysis devised for the "war on terror."

Fourth, if Rees does not waste too much time on the concrete specificities of the Syrian struggle, this is largely for methodological reasons. He believes that the principal contradiction in this situation is between the imperialist ruling classes and the dominated societies. Struggles taking place within the dominated societies only act within limits established or imposed by imperialism. And, says Rees, citing Lukács, their historical significance is to be judged based on what concrete part they play in the "concrete whole."

With this precept clearly stated, Rees demonstrates that i) imperialism (by which he means U.S. imperialism and its allies) remains a considerable power in the region, and ii) there is a faction within the revolution which looks to imperialism as a potential partner. On this basis, he judges that the historical significance of the revolution depends on its relationship to imperialism. The pro-imperialist wing, regardless of its ostensibly liberal and democratic aims, is historically regressive; and insofar as it achieves political dominance within the revolution, it becomes a regressive process.

I think this whole argument rests on a shaky methodology. I think the principal contradiction has to be determined by reference to the concrete situation in Syria. Obviously, Rees is right to say that such an analysis must include "the imperial dimension, as it affects domestic forces" (emphasis in original). However, his arguments only gesture at such an analysis, referring very generally to the effect at the level of political representation where there has been a division over the question of allying with imperialism.

Surely there are more penetrating questions one could ask. Such as: How far does U.S. imperialism dictate the rhythms, tactics and politics of the struggle? Has it managed to create a proxy force or a viable client regime-in-waiting? How far has any pro-imperialist wing actually achieved dominance? How far has it marginalized the masses and their aspirations? And therefore, how far has the imperialist contradiction displaced the class contradiction?

His argument in this respect is also undermined by the extremely loose invocation of Lukács' concept of the "concrete whole," or "concrete totality," which he implicitly identifies with imperialism. Imperialism is one set of relations rather than the totality of social relations. And since imperialism here refers to the U.S. and its allies, the "concrete whole" is construed very narrowly indeed. This is a mistake that one would not expect from a renowned Lukács enthusiast.

To judge the Syrian revolution by reference to its effectivity within the "concrete whole" would be to judge it by reference to its effects not only on imperialism (and in this, the focus should be on inter-imperialist rivalry and competition), but also on, for example, a sequence of moribund dictatorships seeking to conserve their position within savagely unjust social formations, on a whole chain of emancipatory struggles stretching from Gaza to Athens, on the ideological and political horizons of masses, on the domestic calculations of global and regional ruling classes, and so on.

Fifth. Rees's main strategic inference is that the left should oppose both Assad and imperialist intervention, but--and this is the critical disagreement--"by extension" this latter means opposing those in the Syrian revolution who are supporting or playing into the hands of imperialism. This means, he says, we must "oppose those within the Syrian revolution who are calling for and taking arms from Western imperialism."

The history of revolutions which have been armed by imperialist powers of one sort or another is quite long, and I see no basis for this a priori stance of opposing revolutions which take arms from imperialism--if you are compelled to fight, you have to get your guns from somewhere. However--and again this is indicative of Rees's lack of attention to detail--as far as we know the actual flow of weapons is very small and light, and is coming not from "Western imperialism" (the U.S. has absolutely refused to send weapons), but from the black markets and some from the Gulf states. The explicit U.S. priority is not to arm the mass movements, but to engineer a split in the Syrian regime out of which a proxy can potentially be constructed. The indiscriminate, "blanket" condemnation of groups taking arms from "Western imperialism" is inappropriate.

IRONICALLY, ALTHOUGH Rees's input seems to accentuate the complexity of the Syrian situation, it has a tendency to oversimplify it; that is, to embrace an analysis which reduces its overall significance to the question of imperialism.

I suggest a different approach. If the strategic priority is to grasp the principal contradiction ("the key link in the chain," etc.) and to bend all of one's words and efforts around that, then that must be derived from the concrete analysis of concrete situations. It just isn't enough to show that U.S. imperialism remains a central force in Middle East politics or to vaguely allude to forms of indirect intervention.

Concretely, the dominant antagonism in Syria--the one around which most of the fighting and repression and insurgency takes place--is that between the regime, a state-capitalist bloc, and the popular masses based in the working class. The main popular forces in the Syrian opposition are neither pawns nor proxies, nor are they under the domination of pawns and proxies. The armed contingent is too diverse, too localized and too disarticulated to be a proxy army, or simply a force of reaction as some claim. Those Turkish-based exile leaders who have looked to imperialist intervention neither control the revolution nor have unrivalled status as its political leadership. By every plausible report, the actual involvement of the imperialist powers has not been very significant; the regional sub-imperialisms are playing a more important role, for some of their own reasons, but even they aren't dominant in this situation.

The principal contradiction is the class antagonism within Syria, and practical activity internationally, including antiwar activism, should be based on this understanding.

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

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