Against Left Opportunism: Syria & Anti-Imperialism
The time has come for the left in the United States to make a choice.
Either it can continue to play into the hands of Western imperialism through its bizarre, undying support for the Syrian rebellion, or it can break decisively from opportunism and consistently uphold Syria’s right to self-determination by supporting President Bashar al-Assad.
NATO’s ruthless assault on Libya proved that all of the Western polemics in the world could not conjure a workers revolution into existence that opposed both Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and NATO. It proved that the call to support the rebellion while also condemning Western aggression was worse than taking no position at all. Liberals and opportunists in the US spent more time criticizing Qaddafi than they did organizing actual resistance to the horrific actions of their own government in Libya, and ultimately they supported the Obama administration’s so-called “humanitarian intervention,” if not in words than certainly in deeds.
With President Barack Obama winning a second term handily over Mitt Romney, the administration no longer has the disincentive towards war with Syria and Iran that it did a little over a month ago. Xinhua and RT challenge the narrative put forward by the Western media about the progress of the Syrian rebellion, arguing that they are essentially locked in a stalemate on the ground coupled with a worsening international situation. CNN, on the other hand, runs stories titled “Syria endgame in sight: ‘We welcome this fight'” that claim a rebel victory is within reach.
Washington tipped its hand last week in revealing the purpose of the propaganda war: Accusing a supposedly desperate Assad of planning to use chemical weapons. Imminent victory for the rebellion is an important component of the pro-war narrative because it gives Assad, by all accounts a rational world leader, a motive for planning a patently irrational action. While the US is in a less advantageous position internationally to launch an assault on Syria than they were ten years ago with Iraq, the possibility of invasion has never been greater.
This is the larger context of the US left’s positions, and it’s shocking how little hue and cry there is over imminent war with Syria. Takis Fotopoulos, the famed Greek left-libertarian political philosopher behind the “inclusive democracy” concept, perfectly describes the phenomenon of leftist support, explicit or tacit, for the criminal attacks on countries like Libya and Syria. In the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, he wrote of the “degenerate left” in the United States. We will quote him at some length:
The world mass media controlled by the transnational and Zionist elites, crucially assisted this time by the “alternative” world media (from Aljazeera — which has become the unofficial channel of the “revolutionaries” and the transnational elite — to the Iranian Press TV), have played a very important role in creating the illusion of a monolithic “world against the tyrant”, which was not created during all the previous criminal wars of the transnational elite (see Section 4).
This has had very important implications as regards the stand of the Left (statist, libertarian, Green, etc.), who have mostly sided with the “revolutionaries”, if not with the criminal campaign itself! Furthermore, it has not just been the reformist Left who have sided with the new criminal campaign, as they have done in the past. This time, a very significant part of the anti-systemic Left have also indirectly been in favour of this war, through their support for the so-called “revolutionaries” in Libya. This has created (or perhaps revealed) a new kind of degenerate “Left” who, instead of demystifying the systemic propaganda, as used to be their traditional role, have directly or indirectly been supporting it, justifying the conclusion I derived ten years ago about the end of the traditional antisystemic movements. (1)
We are eager to read Fotopoulos’ new book, Redesigning the Middle East: The Arab “Revolutions”, Counter-Revolution in Iran and Regime Change, which promises to explore this concept further.
The point is, by not putting forth a consistent, unified, principled anti-imperialist position on the Libyan or Syrian question, the left aids and abets Western imperialism. One cannot call the US left’s willingness to hitch its wagon onto any protest movement, regardless of its composition or political context, anything but the most degenerate form of opportunism. Just as in Libya, the Syrian rebellion today has generally worked with the West and its puppet states towards the overthrow of a nationalist, anti-imperialist government since the beginning. Thanks to news services like RT, even Western leftists have had access to this information from day-one, and yet they cannot be bothered to sacrifice some vague notion of “principle” and support Assad and Syrian self-determination. As we will see, this opportunism has run the gamut from outright support to more insidious forms.
Like Libya, Syria Reveals Opportunism in the US Left
A cruise-missile leftist blog called The North Star raised the ire of a number of leftist groups in the US when they posted an article entitled “Lybia and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong.” The piece took left-opportunism to a new level by openly calling on leftists to support the demand by the Syrian opposition for Western imperialist intervention. In subsequent pieces, the author, Pham Binh, heavily criticized the Cliffite-Trotskyite International Socialist Organization (ISO) for “quietly [abandoning] its support for the Libyan revolution once the going got tough and NATO’s F-16s got going.” (2) For Binh, the ISO’s clumsy and ham-handed justification for supporting the Libyan rebels but not the NATO intervention of 2011 was “the anti-imperialism of fools,” but not because they supported the invasion. Rather, Binh criticizes the ISO for not actively supporting the NATO airstrikes to bring down Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s government, claiming that leftists should support the ‘Arab spring’ – itself a completely empty term employed by the West to blur the line between popular uprisings, like those in Egypt and Tunisia, and the imperialist-instigated plots against Libya and Syria – “no matter what side the U.S. government eventually decides to back.” (2)
This bizarre episode of explicit opportunist support for imperialism provoked many strong responses from other left groups around the world. Directly responding to both The North Star and the ISO’s own left-opportunist view of the Syrian question, Mazda Majidi of the Party for Socialism & Liberation (PSL) wrote a fantastic piece for Liberation News entitled “When justifying imperialist intervention “goes wrong” Cruise-missile socialists.”
At Return to the Source, we see no reason to reinvent the wheel, and we unite with the criticisms of Binh’s piece levied by Majidi and the PSL. We encourage any and all Marxist-Leninists interested in this debate to read the aforementioned article.
Unlike Libya, however, the question of the Syrian ‘rebellion’ is still at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism. anti-imperialists must resolutely struggle against the possibility of a Western military invasion of Syrian and rigorously combat the left-opportunist elements – like the ISO and The North Star – which seek to give cover to an invasion.
In terms of honesty, logic, and consistency, The North Star gets high marks. Polemic-trading between The North Star and the ISO should not blur the fact that both of these groups view the so-called ‘Syrian rebellion’ in the same way: a genuine popular people’s movement against the so-called “Assad dictatorship.” This is crucial to understanding the common tie between the ISO and The North Star, which is left-opportunism and social imperialism. Majidi notes this in the PSL’s response, saying that “[they] accept all the same premises: that the Libyan government had no significant base of support and that the revolt was a popular “revolution” with an “understandable” desire for foreign help.” (4)
However, The North Star accepts the logical conclusion of its support for the so-called ‘Syrian rebellion’, while the ISO fallaciously tries to have their cake and eat it too. In perhaps the most bizarre piece put forward by the ISO, author Paul D’Amato presents its position “to support the revolutions in Libya and Syria against dictatorial regimes, while at the same time opposing intervention by the U.S. and its imperialist allies.” He follows up these mutually contradictory positions by saying that “some of us who haven’t lost our heads,” (!) presumably the ISO, “still consider imperialism to be the greatest enemy of both the revolutions of the Arab Spring and national self-determination in the Middle East.” (5)
D’Amato’s seems uncomfortable for the duration of the article as he attempts to distinguish the stance of the ISO from The North Star. The reason for D’Amato’s discomfort is that Binh’s piece on The North Star is just a more honest and logical presentation of the ISO’s own horrendous position: tactical support for imperialism.
It becomes evident in D’Amato’s piece, along with two follow-up pieces further articulating the ISO’s left-opportunist position, that the ISO supports an imaginary ‘rebellion’ in Syria. Lee Sustar of the ISO blatantly denies facts now acknowledged by the Western media in his August 16, 2012 screed entitled “What is the future of the Syrian revolution?” We quote Sustar at some length to give the reader a sense of scale for the ISO’s delusion:
SocialistWorker.org has been among publications on the left that have supported the Syrian revolution while criticizing leading elements of the Syrian National Council (SNC) for their attempts to make alliances with imperialism. Key members of the SNC have called for stepped-up intervention by Western powers, such as military action to establish safe havens for refugees on Syrian territory or the imposition of a no-fly zone to neutralize Assad’s air power.
But for Rees and some others on the left, that’s enough to write off not only the SNC and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but also the Local Coordinating Councils (LCCs) that have organized heroic mass resistance for more than a year and half despite the most savage repression–mass arrests, torture, artillery attacks on civilian areas, massacres and, now, aerial bombardment.
Is it really the case that one of the most inspiring, self-organized revolutionary movements in recent decades has degenerated into a pliable tool of the West? Are we looking at a repeat of Libya, where NATO air strikes played the decisive role in turning the tide in the civil war? Are ultra-sectarian Islamist forces–backed by the Saudis and Qataris–becoming a dominant force?
The answer is no. While imperialist forces are angling to install a post-Assad leadership to their liking–a preferably a military strongman, as Reuters reported–the revolutionary movement has continued to develop in response to the struggle in Syria itself.
Moreover, there are well-documented divisions within the SNC and the FSA–and criticisms of both from grassroots Syrian revolutionary forces on the ground in the LCCs. And does it make any sense to equate an SNC leader who calls for a no-fly zone and meets with State Department officials with a farmer who distributes AK-47s smuggled in from Turkey in order to defend a village from Syrian army tanks?
Notice how Sustar actually avoids answering the serious indictments of the so-called ‘Syrian rebellion’ that he himself brings up via rhetorical questions. All he can muster is some flaccid claim that “the revolutionary movement has continued to develop in response to the struggle in Syria itself,” (?) and that “there are well-documented divisions within the SNC and the [Free Syrian Army].” (6)
Of course there are divisions in the ‘rebellion’! There were the same divisions in Libya between the comparador bourgeois elite and the Islamist elements connected to al-Qaeda. This isn’t the point, though. The point is that both of these interests, which have comfortably coalesced in Syria as they did in Libya, are the unquestionable leading forces for the ‘rebellion’. US officials, who are now openly collaborating with al-Qaeda to bring down the Syrian government, now admit that the radical Islamist network “has advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells.” (7) With several hundred militants operating in Syria, the Associated Press writes that US officials “fear the terrorists could be on the verge of establishing an Iraq-like foothold that would be hard to defeat if rebels oust President Bashar Assad,” a peculiar concern for the US to hold if the ISO’s ‘local coordinating committees’ were in the driver’s seat separate from al-Qaeda and Islamists. (8) In trying to downplay their numbers, Sustar neglects the stark reality that Islamists “are using their experience in coordinating small units of fighters in Afghanistan to win new followers,” allowing them to take control of many so-called ‘independent’ groups of ‘rebels’ that the ISO claims to support. (9)
Even the US government acknowledges divisions in the rebellion. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks in late October that withdrew support for the Syrian National Council (SNC1) reflects Washington’s growing alarm at the presence of al-Qaeda militants on the ground, who have little to no loyalty to the Syrian exile elite. Independent scholar Stephen Gowans explains this phenomenon in a November 2, 2012 article:
Uprisings aimed at overthrowing governments are often divided between militants who do the heavy lifting on the ground and politicians who lead the fight in the political sphere. Outside powers scheme to anoint an acceptable politician as a leader-in-waiting to step into the void if and when the current government is toppled. The leader must be both acceptable to his or her foreign backers and to the militants on the ground. (8)
Gowans goes on to explain that the strong presence of exiled Muslim Brotherhood members – consistent opponents of Assad’s secular Ba’athist government in Syria – prevented the SNC1 from gaining the loyalty of the rebels on the ground. Indeed, the Obama administration and the faux-socialist Hollande government in France have gone back to the drawing board in supporting the rise of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC2), which hopes to garner the loyalty of the various sectarian elements in the Syrian rebellion.
Rest assured, though, Washington’s hesitance to commit to the SNC1 has nothing to do with minimizing a “revolutionary alternative” or the ‘local coordinating committees’ within the Syrian rebellion, as the ISO might claim. Gowans further explains that the impetus to the new SNC2’s formation “is to marginalize the influence of the Jihadists, many though not all of whom have spilled into Syria from other countries, bent on overturning a secular regime led by a president whose Alawi faith they revile as heretical. If the Jihadists can be sidelined, Washington may be able to funnel arms to “acceptable” militant groups, without fear of their being used later against US targets.” (8) Secular, “anti-imperialist” rebel groups are not a substantial factor in Washington’s calculus for intervention, despite what the ISO would have its members believe, because the truly anti-imperialist groups in Syria, like the two communist parties, critically support the Assad government.
Appalling as it may be, The North Star’s position is simply a more honest rendering of the same opportunist position taken by the ISO. It approaches the Syrian question not from a perspective of dialectical materialism, but from a perspective of craven idealism. The opportunists in the US left cannot view the Syrian rebellion in any terms other than a metaphysical struggle against tyranny. They buy wholesale the reports of retaliatory violence by the Syrian security forces in order to characterize Assad as a tyrant, and in doing so, they confound the central contradiction facing the Syrian people: the contradiction between imperialism and national liberation.
Ironically, Leon Trotsky – the ideological godfather of the ISO – may have put it best in a 1938 interview, when he said, “Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers!” (9) It’s a testament to the absurdity of the US left’s opportunism that we now say, in this particular moment, D’Amato and Sustar could learn a lot from reading Trotsky!
Perhaps the most confounding question of all for the ISO is this: Where is their coverage of the ‘Libyan revolution’ now? Now that the rebels that were supposedly independent of the West have ascended to power, what happened to the ISO’s enthusiasm and the phrase-mongering about ‘democratic rights’? An ever-defiant ISO published an attempt at summating the lessons of the ‘Libyan revolution’ shortly after the fall of Tripoli. ISO leader Alan Maass, in an article titled, “Who really won in Libya?” writes, “Qaddafi deserved to be overthrown. But the circumstances of his downfall are an advance for imperialism–which means a setback for the struggle to extend democracy and freedom.” (10)
One almost expects to hear a Homer Simpson-esque “Doh!” at the end of the article, as if to say, what a shame that the US compromised the integrity of another revolution! The ISO did nothing but apologize for the crimes of the Libyan rebels – shamefully downplaying and apologizing for the lynching of black African migrants – and ignore the long-standing evidence that the rebellion was instigated and supported by Western imperialist countries from the beginning. And then they act surprised when NATO attacks Libya at the request of those same rebels for whom they pledged support.
If the ISO had published a thoughtful, reflective piece that asked honest, hard questions about the flaws with their line in Libya, they might have earned a little credibility. Instead, they applied their tautological ideology to Syria and doubled-down on their support for the foreign-backed rebellion, whose ties to the West are even more documented than those of the Libyan rebels.
The ISO may be the most peculiar of all the US left sects, but their position was echoed by countless liberal publications and thinkers, including The Nation, ZNet, and the academic Immanuel Wallerstein. Sadly, these groups and individuals have learned nothing from the Libyan experience and continue to support the Syrian rebellion, even in the face of renewed US aggression.
Opportunism in the Western Left
Although opportunism has led many groups in the US left down the path of social imperialism – socialist in word, imperialism in deed – this perverse trend extends far beyond to the US to many of the so-called “left” groups in Western Europe.
SYRIZA, the Greek coalition of ostensibly leftist groups, has enjoyed the support of many on the US left vis-a-vis the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). The so-called “Coalition of the Radical Left” exposed its opportunism to the people of Greece in its continued acceptance of the Eurozone, despite its verbal commitment to opposing austerity. However, SYRIZA has quietly worked with the other conservative parties in Greece to support the Syrian rebels and argue for Greek intervention into the conflict. On September 12, 2012, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras “expressed his concerns about the developments in Syria and the need for Greece to “intervene” in order for the EU to enhance assistance so Greece can host refugees fleeing the violence in the country.” (11) During the duration of NATO’s attack on Libya, SYRIZA leaders made nary a statement whatsoever and made only a vague reference to the criminal assault in a statement to the Coalition Against NATO/G8 rally on May 20, 2012.
We contrast SYRIZA’s opportunism with the plethora of statements by the KKE against Greek involvement in aggression towards Syria and Iran. (12) KKE consistently upholds proletarian internationalism and is strongly critical of any attempts by its own government to intervene in Syria. SYRIZA, instead, has broken their opportunistic silence during the assault on Libya and crossed the threshold into the territory of social imperialism, calling openly for Greek intervention in Syria.
SYRIZA is but one example of the increasingly prevalent role that so-called “left” parties and movements are playing in supporting imperialism. Much ado was made of France electing a ‘socialist’ President, François Hollande, earlier this year. Playing into the historical trend of social democracy towards supporting imperialism – the major schism in the Second International that Lenin fought against – Hollande has doubled-down on the increasingly hawkish policies of former President Nicholas Sarkozy and supported the Syrian rebels at every juncture. To date, France’s so-called ‘socialist’ government has supported the reactionary terrorist rebellion more prolifically than the United States!
France now delivers money and arms to proxies along the Turkish border that are subsequently funneled to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has primarily directed the terrorist activity of the rebellion in Syria. (13) The Guardian reports that Hollande’s support has even “reached Islamist groups who were desperately short of ammunition and who had increasingly turned for help towards al-Qaida aligned jihadist groups in and around Aleppo.” (13) Going further than the United States, Hollande recognized the SNC1 as the legitimate government of Syria and has called for the Syrian opposition to begin forming a “provisional government.” (14)
Of course, every Marxist-Leninist should expect social-democrats like Hollande and SYRIZA to function as part of the capitalist system. However, the vanguard role that a nominally ‘socialist’ government is playing in spearheading imperialist aggression towards Syria is particularly striking in this period. Hollande and SYRIZA are opportunists, but the similarities in their positions on Syria with elements of the left in the US are incredibly disturbing.
Lenin, Syria, and the Struggle Against Opportunism
As Social-Democratic parties across Europe got behind their own bourgeois governments in lockstep during the First World War, Lenin was one of the harshest critics of what he termed “social chauvanism,” which was the placing of national interests above proletarian internationalism through the use of socialist phrases. Indeed, the distinguishing feature of the Bolsheviks was their consistent opposition to the First World War and the imperialist crimes of their own government.
Reading Lenin’s attacks on social chauvanism in 2012 will draw obvious analogies to SYRIZA, Hollande, and opportunist elements of the US left in the mind of astute readers. We will quote from his 1915 essay, Social Chauvanist Policy Behind a Cover of International Phrases at some length:
To influence the workers, the bourgeois must assume the guise of socialists, Social-Democrats, internationalists, and the like, for otherwise they can exert no influence. The Rabocheye Utro group disguise themselves; they apply plenty of paint and powder, prettify themselves, cast sheep eyes all around, and go the limit! They are ready to sign the Zimmerwald Manifesto a hundred times (a slap in the face for those Zimmerwaldists who signed the Manifesto without combating its timidity or making reservations!) or any other resolution on the imperialist nature of the war, or take any oath of allegiance to “internationalism” and “revolutionism” (“liberation of the country” in the censored press being the equivalent of “revolution” in the underground press), if only—if only they are not prevented from calling upon the workers to participate in the war industries committees, i.e., in practice to participate in the reactionary war of plunder (“a war of defence”).
Only this is action; all the rest is words. Only this is reality; all the rest is phrases. Only this is needed by the police, by the tsarist monarchy, Khvostov and the bourgeoisie. The clever bourgeois in countries that are cleverer are more tolerant of internationalist and socialist phrases if only participation in defence is assured, as is evidenced by comment in the French reactionary press regarding the London Conference of the socialists of the “Triple Entente”. With the socialist gentry, one of these papers said, it’s a kind of tic douloureux, a species of nervous malady which forces people involuntarily to repeat the same gesture, the same muscular movement, the same word. It is for that reason, the paper said, that “our own” socialists cannot speak about anything without repeating the words, “We are internationalists; we stand for social revolution”. This is not dangerous, the bourgeois paper concludes, only a “tic”; what is important to “us” is their stand for the defence of the country.
That is how the clever French and British bourgeois reason. If participation in a war of plunder is defended with phrases about democracy, socialism, etc., is this not to the advantage of rapacious governments, the imperialist bourgeoisie? Is it not to the master’s advantage to keep a lackey who swears to all and sundry that his master loves them, and has dedicated his life to their welfare? (15)
The particulars have changed, but the general opportunist trend that Lenin observed in Social Democratic parties has re-emerged in 2012. Groups like the ISO and intellectuals like Wallerstein assert that their support for the Libyan or Syrian rebels is a part of some greater move towards ‘democracy’ or ‘revolution’. Central to the ISO’s argument for supporting the Libyan rebels, even after the NATO intervention, was constantly repeating the phrase, “Arab Spring,” and waxing on about how the rebellion in Libya was part of a larger revolutionary movement sweeping away “dictators” in the Arab world.
Reality collided with their idealist phrase-mongering, and the ISO tacitly supported the criminal assault on Libya by ruthlessly demonizing Qaddafi, first and foremost. Today, as opportunist groups on the US left call for the toppling of Assad – whether they take the next logical step and call for outright intervention, like The North Star, or veil it, like the ISO – we are witnessing a similar trend.
Just as Lenin and the Bolsheviks combated social chauvanism through ideological struggle, so too much genuine revolutionaries in the US and Western Europe combat the opportunist elements that functionally support US imperialism. There can be no more mixed messages; no more social democrats playing the role of imperialist cheerleaders. The anti-war left in the US must firmly embrace anti-imperialism and begin building resistance to war with Syria that includes upholding Syria’s right to self-determination.
Victory to Assad and the Syrian people!
Hands Off Syria!
For Return to the Source’s essay on supporting nationalist governments, like that of Assad, please refer back to Marxism & Bourgeois Nationalism.
(1) Takis Fotopoulos, The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Winter/Spring 2011, “The pseudo-revolution in Libya and the Degenerate “Left”,” http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/vol7/vol7_no1_takis_Libya_part1_pseudo_revolution.html
(2) Pham Binh, The North Star, July 18, 2012 “The Anti-Imperialism of Fools and the Syrian Spring,” http://bit.ly/OZaabI
(3) Reuters, Published on The Guardian (UK), August 20, 2012, “Barack Obama warns Syria over use of chemical or biological weapons,” http://bit.ly/Qj7N3s
(4) Mazda Majidi, Liberation News, July 17, 2012, “When justifying imperialism ‘goes wrong’: Cruise Missile Socialism,” http://bit.ly/LwSIPl
(5) Paul D’Amato, SocialistWorker, July 16, 2012, “Siding with the greatest purveyor of violence,” http://bit.ly/NY0VLe
(6) Lee Sustar, SocialistWorker, August 16, 2012, “What is the future of the Syrian revolution?” http://bit.ly/PmC19d
(7) Associated Press, August 11, 2012, “US officials: Al-Qaeda spreading in Syria,” http://bit.ly/NZqtqW
(8) Stephen Gowans, what’s left, November 2, 2012, “Will Damascus Survive Washington’s Latest Attempt to Impose a Puppet Government on Syria?” http://bit.ly/U5FnSz
(9) Leon Trotsky, “Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation,” September 1938, http://bit.ly/UpGian
(10) Alan Maass, Socialist Worker, “Who Really Won in Libya?” August 23, 2011, http://bit.ly/qJbLQG
(11) Al Yunaniya, September 12, 2012, “SYRIZA leader says Greece should host refugees from Syria,” http://bit.ly/Z2TqcY
(12) Communist Party of Greece, May 31, 2012, “NATO and EU are Preparing for Bloodshed,” http://bit.ly/K3QgM0
(13) Martin Chulov, The Guardian, December 7, 2012, “France funding Syrian rebels in new push to oust Assad,” http://bit.ly/VoCLdr
(14) Julian Borger, The Guardian, August 27, 2012, “François Hollande calls on Syrian rebels to form provisional government,” http://bit.ly/SJyvXW
(15) VI Lenin, December 1915, Social Chauvanist Policy Behind a Cover of International Phrases, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/dec/21.htm