August 4, 2015
July 12, 2015
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.
Maybe LRB can line up Ralph Peters for their next piece of garbage about Syria.
June 29, 2015
The failure of the Palestine solidarity movement in the West to follow the lead of the Palestinian movement inside Syria, the vast majority of whom oppose the government despite the costs, in offering solidarity to the Syrian uprising or at least the victims of the situation, is something that will be remembered badly in history, although there is still time to change course. (http://beyondcompromise.com/2014/01/23/declaration-of-a-shared-fate/http://beyondcompromise.com/2014/01/18/while-you-were-neutral-about-yarmouk/).
June 28, 2015
Commentary on Facebook by Sam Charles Hamad: Pro-Assad Druze pulled this fellow out of an ambulance and murdered him as the IDF watched on. He was slandered by Israeli Jews and Israeli Druze, for absolutely no good reason, as being a member of Jabhat an-Nusra, yet his name is Munther Khalil and he was a fighter with the Free Syrian Army. In fact, right-wing Israelis are still slandering him and justifying his murder because some injured Syrian fighter being treated in Israel made sectarian statements in an interview with some Israeli TV channel, which apparently means that murdering any Syrian fighter is perfectly understandable.
June 14, 2015
Below are videos recorded by me and by The Struggle Video News (TSVN) of two closely linked panels at the Left Forum that should be of keen interest to anybody who has been following events in Rojova, Yarmouk, and Syria as a whole. In addition, they amount to a challenge to the pro-Assad left over how to understand the struggle against Baathist tyranny that is now in its fifth year.
The panel I covered was titled “The Syrian Tragedy: Failure of the Left and the Need for a Movement of Solidarity” that featured Yusef Khalil, an ISO member, chaired and spoke the role of counter-revolution in the region both at the hands of the West and local elites. Yasser Munif, an Emerson College professor and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. Joseph Daher, who is a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current living in exile, spoke about the persistence of the grass roots movement in Syria despite all efforts of the Baathist dictatorship and jihadist gangs to wipe it out. Although my video failed to credit her in the introduction, the final speaker was Elisa Marvena, a member in Spain of Solidaridad Global con La Revolution en Syria.
The other panel was titled “The Syrian Revolution, Yarmouk, Rojava: Politics of Solidarity” Yusef Khalil, chaired the meeting and spoke about the rise of ISIS. Emrah Yildiz, a Turkish graduate student at Harvard, gave a wide-ranging talk about the Kurdish struggle in Syria that actually faced the same sort of obstacles that if faced in Turkey. He referred to repression that took place in Syria against the Kurds in the early years of the Erdogan regime that was saluted by Assad as a welcome blow against terrorism. Finally, there were powerful presentations by Talal Alyan Mariam Barghouti, two Palestinian activists, who called out those in the Palestinian solidarity movement who have failed to take a clear stand against the Baathist siege of Yarmouk that has cost the lives of nearly 3000 Palestinians, including 400 who were tortured to death in Assad’s dungeons.
June 8, 2015
Conspiracy theories that “the US fuelled the rise of ISIS”: Why they are a back-handed attack on the Syrian uprising
May 5, 2015
Dr. Gary Leupp,
Ordinarily I don’t pay attention to Baathist propagandists but your CounterPunch article today was so over the top and so screaming out for a rebuttal that I decided to take a few minutes to respond. I can only say that as a tenured professor at Tufts University, you show a blatant disregard for serious and thoughtful analysis based on the facts–probably a function of a hangover from your youthful Maoist past.
Your article relies heavily on the word of one Brad Hoff, an ex-Marine who is the editor of something called LevantReport.org that tells its readers that the “Arab Spring” was a myth and that it was really a secret plot by Washington to foster al-Qaeda type groups in the Middle East. Well, well.
Hoff’s article is an unabashed defense of the “good old days” in Syria when he was able to see “mostly unveiled women wearing European fashions and sporting bright makeup — many of them wearing blue jeans and tight fitting clothes that would be commonplace in American shopping malls on a summer day.” He also was impressed with the “number of restaurant bars and alcohol kiosks clustered around the many city squares” and his ability to “get two varieties of Syrian-made beer, or a few international selections like Heineken or Amstel, with relative ease.” Frankly, this sounds like the sort of item one would read in the Sunday NY Times Travel section but let’s leave it at that.
Once you get past the babes and booze nostalgia, you offer up the Leupp history of the Middle East that is basically a sort of mish-mosh of Bill Maher and vulgar Marxism with repeated denunciations of Washington’s opposition to “secularist” governments in Iraq and Syria. It can all be reduced to your “what if” question: “What if a series of U.S. administrations (influenced to say the least by Israel and its powerful Lobby) hadn’t come to view Baathism as a greater enemy than Islamic fanaticism?”
What you don’t seem to grasp is that both Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad were not quite the secularists you make them out to be. In 1993 Iraq embarked on something called “The Return to Faith Campaign” that promoted Islamic fundamentalism–this was long before George W. Bush’s invasion. As wikipedia reports, “The selling and consumption of alcohol was curtailed by the state” and “Prostitution was deemed illegal and punishable by death.” The Fedayeen Saddam, Iraq’s morality police, were infamous for beheading prostitutes.
So much for the babes and booze in the good old days.
Syria was about the same. Statistically speaking, Hafez al-Assad and his homicidal ophthalmologist son built more mosques than cultural centers, cinemas, and theaters. This is not to speak of the homicidal son releasing the men from prison who would go on to form the backbone of the jihadist militias that are terrorizing Christians and anybody else with a fondness for babes and booze.
I hope that this helps clarify your understanding.
May 3, 2015
Street scenes, ‘democratic’ assemblies, militia fighters and colleges in Rojava – all overshadowed by the leader of one party, the PKK’s Abdullah
(This article was send to me anonymously by “Anti War”. I am forwarding it to my readers not because I necessarily agree with it but because it seems worthy of crossposting. I have not made up my mind about the issues under analysis but expect that this article will provide food for thought.)
In April 2015, a conference was held in Hamburg ‘to introduce the thoughts of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to the international community.’ Silvia Federici was supposed to send a ‘message of greeting’ – just as Toni Negri and Immanuel Wallerstein had at a similar previous conference.† Federici then dropped out. However David Harvey, David Graeber and John Holloway did attend and all three spoke on a stage with a large portrait of Ocalan in the background.†
During the event, held on Ocalan’s birthday, Harvey claimed that Ocalan ‘is waging a struggle for the freedom of all women.’† While Graeber said: ‘He has written the sociology of freedom. … I have some questions and criticisms in the technical dimension, but I agree and appreciate his views.’†
This all raises several questions, such as who exactly is Ocalan and is his political project really as radical as these well-known intellectuals seem to believe?
OCALAN ON VIOLENCE, REVOLUTION AND DEMOCRACY
Abdullah Ocalan is the ideological leader of the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, whose offshoot, the PYD, is the main political force in the Kurdish areas of Syria known as Rojava. Many PYD activists in Rojava have what one eye-witness calls ‘total faith’ in Ocalan and consider him to be, to a certain extent, ‘sacred’.† Indeed, the leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim, has openly admitted that: ‘We apply [Ocalan’s] philosophy and ideology to Syria.’†
This semi-religious attitude to Ocalan goes back to the 1980s and 1990s, well before his imprisonment in Turkey. PKK fighters from these earlier decades say things like: ‘The PKK is in a certain sense identical with its founder, Abdullah Ocalan’ or ‘[Ocalan] doesn’t so much represent the party, as he is the party.’†
When ISIS began threatening Rojava in 2014, the PKK/PYD introduced compulsory military conscription. All PKK/PYD fighters are still ‘trained in political thought’† and, consequently, they still say things like: ‘our ideas are based on the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan’† or ‘these are the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, this is our ideology’†. This deeply Stalinist way of thinking would be a problem even if Ocalan’s ideas were genuinely revolutionary but, like most Stalinists, he has little enthusiasm for social revolution.
To his credit, Ocalan does acknowledge not only the appalling brutality of the Turkish military but also the brutality of the PKK during its war of national liberation against Turkey. For example, he admits that there was ‘unfeeling violence … escalating to the point where we killed the best of our own comrades’† and that ‘young fighters were summarily executed in the mountains.’ He even says that ‘the whole party is guilty; nobody can deny his responsibility.’†
But Ocalan’s admissions now just make it easier to believe long-standing claims that he authorised the execution of many hundreds of people including civilians and dissident PKK members.† To give just one example, an ex-PKK leader has said that ‘there were between 50 and 60 executions just after the 1986 PKK congress. In the end, there was no more room to bury them.’† Ocalan’s admissions are also seriously marred by his repeated attempts to shift the blame for any atrocities away from himself and onto what he describes as ‘gangs within our organisation’†.
This blame-shifting raises even more questions when one reads Ocalan’s claim that ‘young women fighters … [were] forced into the most primitive patriarchal relationships.’† This is a statement that begs to be compared with that of another PKK leader who claimed that it was Ocalan himself who ‘forced dozens of our female comrades to immoral relations’ and that he went so far as to ‘order the murder’ of women who refused to have ‘relations’ with him.† *
Ocalan had his accuser killed so we may never know if there was any truth to these allegations.† We may also never know how genuine Ocalan’s regrets are concerning wars of national liberation. This is especially the case if we consider his assertions that these wars ‘were valid at the time’, that the war against Turkey ‘could have been won’ and that when ‘nationalism [was] flourishing, it was almost treason not to agree with the principles of national liberation.’† But we do know that the failure of the PKK’s war – combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union – led Ocalan to reject not only any continuation of the war but also any sort of violent revolution.
In his Prison Writings he warns that ‘socialist society must not attempt to overcome old structures of state and society by means of violence and force.’ He goes on to say that: ‘It would be a gross contradiction of the nature of the new ideology if force were to be accepted as a means of overthrowing the state – even the most brutal one.’† He also claims that ‘revolutions and violence… cannot abolish [social phenomena]’ (vol.1 p224) and that ‘revolutionary overthrow … does not create sustainable change. In the long run, freedom and justice can only be accomplished within a democratic-confederate dynamic process.’†
These statements are more than just understandable criticisms of violence, they seem to be rejections of any need for social revolution once a Western-style democratic system has been instituted.
Ocalan does claim that such a system will eventually be superseded by ‘a more adaptable administration which will allow even more freedom’. But he also claims that ‘the Western democratic system contains everything needed for solving social problems.’ He even says that, eventually, ‘the right and the left … will come together in the system of democratic civilisation.’†
OCALAN ON MARXISM, ANARCHISM, FEMINISM AND CAPITALISM
Like so many other neo-Stalinists, from Gorbachev to the Eurocommunists, Ocalan combines his enthusiasm for Western-style democracy with a dismissal of Marxism.†
He also rejects anarchism, saying: ‘Anarchism is a capitalist tendency. It is an extreme form of individualism which rejects the state itself.’† He is quite clear that he ‘does not reject nor deny the state’.† Instead, he advocates ‘a lean state as a political institution, which only observes functions in the fields of internal and external security and in the provision of social security.’† **
Few liberals would have too much disagreement with this approach to the state or, indeed, with Ocalan’s approach to feminism. Just like any liberal, he is also quite clear that women’s liberation ‘should have priority over the liberation of … labour.’†
Ocalan does make bold, if somewhat hypocritical, statements about male domination in contemporary society such as: ‘To kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism.’† And women’s participation in the Rojava revolution is a striking example of how women will be central to any social change in the 21st Century. But a genuine women’s revolution would surely require a proletarian women’s movement outside the control of either middle-class activists or the PKK/PYD.
Such a revolution would also require the transcendence of the family. According to one Rojavan human rights worker: ‘Society here is very masculine and very feudal, … there still needs to be a change in the classic family structure if we are ever going to see [women’s role] expand.’† However, despite his criticism of the family, Ocalan still insists that the ‘family is not a social institution that should be overthrown’. Indeed, he even argues that a reformed family is both the ‘most important element’ and ‘the most robust assurance of democratic civilisation.’†
As regards capitalism, Ocalan does argue for a ‘progressive transition from a production based on profit to a production based on sharing.’† But he appears to believe that capitalists ‘never number more than one or two percent of society’† and he even claims that the class war ‘has come to an end’.† He also proposes that the new ‘social order … will allow for individual and collective property’ and that ‘work [will be] remunerated according to its contribution to the entire product.’†
In the programme for the Hamburg conference, John Holloway claims that the Kurdish movement in Rojava is one of ‘the most outstanding examples’ of anti-capitalism.† But these statements by Ocalan instead show a movement whose ideological leader has a very limited understanding of capitalism and no real desire to end the misery of private property and wage labour. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one of the economics ministers in Rojava has openly stated that he wants any cooperatives to compete with private capital.† Meanwhile, the head of Internal Security even said that Rojava is ‘a new market, and everyone can play a role, including the Americans.’†
Ocalan’s solution to every social problem really does seem to be, not anti-capitalist revolution, but democracy. Democracy is certainly preferable to dictatorship. But it makes little sense to say that democracy, even a radical form of direct democracy, is itself a ‘corrective for extreme class divisions’.†
It is, of course, just such extreme class divisions and inequalities, exacerbated by capitalism’s chronic crises and wars, that have led to today’s situation in which so many people have turned to the seemingly revolutionary alternative of ISIS. But from Egypt to Turkey to Iraq, democracy has done little to empower proletarians to push for the radical sharing of wealth that is so urgently needed to end all class divisions and so end the appeal of ISIS.
The PKK say they want to transform the Middle East ‘without the utopian perspective of a world revolution’.† But it is surely only the prospect of an anti-capitalist world revolution that could ever inspire people both to overthrow ISIS and to spread the Rojava revolution across the Middle East.
Such a world revolution would require a political movement that was far more internationalist than the PKK/PYD could ever be, burdened as it is by its deep attachment to Kurdish identity. The PKK/PYD is also burdened by its initial decision to be relatively neutral in the Syrian civil war and by its later decision to ally with the US. No matter how understandable these decisions were, they have discredited the Rojava revolution across the Arab world and made it even more difficult for it to become a starting point for international revolution.
Any talk of international revolution may seem utopian. But the Arab Spring and Occupy movements showed that potentially revolutionary movements are now able to emerge and spread internationally like never before. And a global revolution is still a more realistic prospect than any hope that Rojava’s alliance with Western imperialism will somehow lead to the spread of socialism across the Middle East.
After the victory at Kobane, the PKK/PYD leader, Salih Muslim, visited government officials in London and spoke passionately in favour of an even stronger alliance with the West. He said:
‘We insist on establishing good relations with the US. … We had a martyr who was English. He died in the same trenches as us. … Our martyrs are the most glorious treasure we have. We see them as the crowns, they are crowns and they are light that show our way to peace and freedom. … We want to establish stronger relations with the English, Australians, Germans and Americans. That relation will be nourished by our martyrs’ sacrifice. … Rojava is taking the lead in giving an example of democracy in all of Syria. And our people are proud of that. And you know it is true when you see a British man next to you in the same trench and he becomes a martyr. … [Our] resistance is becoming an example to the world.’†
Despite obvious differences, this overblown rhetoric sounds very much like that of politicians a century ago who extolled ‘English, Australians, Germans and Americans’ to sacrifice themselves for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ in the trenches of the 1914-18 war.
The revolutionaries of the last century made two great errors: one was to support the descent into the imperialist bloodbath of 1914, the other was to support Stalinism. Developing a 21st Century revolutionary politics that avoids any repetition of these disasters will not be easy. Radical intellectuals like Negri, Graeber and Holloway have made important theoretical contributions that can aid this development. But their apparent support for the PKK suggests serious limitations in their political outlook.
Fortunately, younger Kurdish activists are increasingly questioning the authoritarianism of the PKK. If radical intellectuals have any constructive role it is to encourage such attitudes and to avoid giving any credibility to the totalitarian cult around Ocalan.
Capitalism’s present crisis will, sooner or later, compel people to question the entire system more deeply than they are presently doing in Rojava – or, indeed, in other countries where various types of neo-Stalinist have taken power such as South Africa, Venezuela and Greece. Until then, we surely need to keep trying to find ways to support grassroots’ struggles without giving any support to neo-Stalinist politicians – or to imperialism.
All sources can be found by clicking on the † next to the quote or see the version at libcom.org
* Some critics of Ocalan have claimed that his response to such abuse accusations was to say: ‘These girls mentioned. I don’t know, I have relations with thousands of them. … [They] say ‘‘this was attempted to be done to me here’’ or ‘‘this was done to me there’’! These shameless women. … I try to turn every girl into a lover. … If you find me dangerous, don’t get close!’† However, unlike the other Ocalan quotes in this article, I have been unable to find a verifiable version of this quote. I have also been unable to find a second source to confirm claims that the Rojavan authorities ‘prohibit the display of flags and photos of political figures’ other than those of Ocalan and other PKK symbols.†
** The revolutionary hopes engendered by the Arab Spring coincided with a fall in support for Islamist terrorism. Once those hopes were dashed, such terrorism revived and, inevitably, the Rojavan police have now set up an elite anti-terrorist unit just like those of any other capitalist state. (See their Hollywood-style video here.) This development is in some contrast to Graeber’s hopes that the Rojavan police were on the way to, one day, abolishing themselves.†
May 1, 2015
Recently published by Verso Press, Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising” is welcome both as an important document of Syria’s trial by fire as well as an indication of this august publisher’s willingness to break with the pro-Assad consensus that prevails on the left. Although Littell’s chronicle is hardly the work of an FSA partisan, he at least puts a human face on a movement that so many were willing to reduce to one fighter’s shocking act–eating the heart of a fallen Baathist soldier.
Written between January 16 and February 2, 2012, Littell’s notebooks are literally that, a day by day diary of what he saw and what he did in Homs, a city that was a citadel of resistance to Bashar al-Assad, particularly in the working-class neighborhood of Baba ‘Amr, where Littell spent most of his time.