Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 5, 2012

Hamid Dabashi, Vijay Prashad, Syria, and the left

Filed under: mechanical anti-imperialism,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Hamid Dabashi

Vijay Prashad

I would like to call your attention to two important articles on Syria written by leftist scholars based in the U.S. The first is by Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian studies professor in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia. Formerly known as MEALAC, this department is a bastion of anti-imperialist sentiment and closely associated with the postcolonial perspective of the late Edward Said. Dabashi’s article, titled On Syria: Where the Left is right and the Right is wrong, appeared in the February 28 edition of Al Jazeera and includes a critique of a wing of the left that has been backing “anti-imperialist” dictators in the Middle East that will be familiar to my regular readers.

On March 2nd, Vijay Prashad, Professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, replied to Dabashi in an article titled The Left and the People: Extending Hamid Dabashi’s Critique that came as a surprise to me after reading it this morning under the assumption that he would have been on the opposite side of the fence. I had singled Prashad out for criticism in an article I wrote back in April 2011 titled The anti-anti-Qaddafi left. This time I expected him to sell the Syrian opposition short even though in retrospect I must confess that I was casting my net too wide when I linked him with Global Research et al in the first place.

Of course, if I had paid attention to the title of the article to begin with, I would have noticed that he was extending Dabashi’s critique not attacking it. That will learn me to read more carefully in the future, a major challenge given the cataracts I have in both eyes and the macular pucker in the left that makes reading from it virtually impossible. Furthermore, since the article was published in Jadaliyya, a website very close to Dabashi’s viewpoint politically (rather than Counterpunch, for example), I should have figured out that my expectations were in error.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, the pro-Assad left is basically using the same logic as the pro-Obama left without realizing it. Instead of doing a Chicken Little act about Rick Santorum and the Koch brothers, they harp on jihadists in cahoots with the CIA. As bad as Ahmadinejad, al-Assad or Qaddafi are or were, they are lesser evils. If their enemies prevail, the sky will fall. Dabashi puts it this way:

Yes, the Syrian regime might be corrupt and murderous, they consent, but the real danger to the Syrian revolution comes from the US and Saudi Arabia – so they remain at best ambivalent and at worst silent on the criminal Syrian regime. If anyone dares to point to Assad’s murderous spectacle, they accuse him/her of complacency with the US and Saudi Arabia, or else a mere simpleton manipulated by “the Western media”.

The Left contends that what started as genuine protests has now been hijacked by “extremist Sunni groups” inside Syria and by outside forces that extend from the US to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and by extension, the Gulf states – all lining up against Iran and Hezbollah, which, for them, is evidently the forefront of resistance against imperialism. Some on the Left who approve of the Arab Spring even suggest that the Arab revolutionaries ought to develop a strategic alliance with the ruling regime in the Islamic Republic. Yes, they say, the regime in Iran might be murderous towards its own citizens, but it is standing up to imperialism. Again: the moral depravity of the position is informed by its political illiteracy.

So, as should be obvious from the citation above, you have to put a clothespin on your nose and vote for al-Assad on Election Day. Oops, I meant to say Obama.

Prashad’s article starts with a quote that makes his affinities clear as day:

The overall anti-imperialist sentiment remains strong among the Syrian population and the attempts by parts of the Left to smear the entire uprising as a stand-in for imperialism belies a Manichean worldview that badly misunderstands the country’s history. I don’t see any contradiction in opposing intervention and simultaneously being against the Assad regime—which, we need to remember, has embraced neoliberalism and consistently used a rhetoric of ‘anti-imperialism’ to obfuscate a practice of accommodation with both the US and Israel.

–Adam Hanieh, author, Capital and Class in the Gulf Arab States, 2011.

Since this amounts to preaching to the choir, as far as I am concerned, I can only say amen.

To his credit, Prashad is not afraid to name names and kick ass, as we used to put it in the 1960s:

Regarding Syria, the first divide in the Left is in the characterization of the Ba’ath regime. One section, a very small one, takes the view that the Ba’ath regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a revolutionary regime, whose politics is made visible through its position vis-à-vis Israel (anti) and Iran (pro). In this camp (inside Syria) lies the exhausted Syrian Communist Party and (outside Syria) sits the website Global Research. Both the SCP and Global Research take their anti-imperialism into territory that occludes the authoritarianism of imperialism’s adversaries — a classic case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

He also deserves praise for calling attention to the brutality that is being visited on Homs in contradistinction to articles that seek to minimize it, such as Sharmine Narwani’s article Questioning the Syrian “Casualty List” that appeared in Al Akhbar. Narwani’s scare quotes are supposedly given credence by an Arab League’s observers’ mission report:

Importantly, the report further confirms obfuscation of casualty information when it states: “the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”

Since Narwani obviously cherry-picked her “witnesses” in order to prettify al-Assad at the expense of the rebels, she had little interest in bothering to answer the criticisms of the report, especially the one found in the always reliable McClatchy report:

The Arab League’s mission to monitor the bloodshed in Syria was doomed from the start, with some observers seemingly oblivious to the gravity of their assignment and others lacking the expertise to do the job, according to a leaked internal report.

The Arab observers also faced serious dangers, a scarcity of equipment and a fierce Syrian media campaign against them, obstacles that all but assured their inability to get a deep understanding of the crisis that’s on track to becoming the Middle East’s next civil war. The mission was suspended Saturday amid escalating violence.

“Regrettably, some observers thought that their visit to Syria was for pleasure,” wrote the mission chief, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al Dabi, according to the report posted online. “In some instances, experts who were nominated were not qualified for the job, did not have prior experience and were not able to shoulder the responsibility.”

The mission’s problems began upon its arrival in Syria on Dec. 24. Syrian officials immediately confiscated the communications gear of the 166 monitors at the Jordanian border, according to the leaked report. They were left with just 10 satellite phones until the Chinese Embassy intervened with 10 walkie-talkies to help the monitors communicate with one another and their command.

The observers were posted in 15 areas of the country, some of them dangerous conflict zones, but they didn’t have enough body armor or reinforced vehicles. Rental agencies refused to rent vehicles to the monitors, who sometimes ended up overwhelmed among rioting crowds in the mission’s first days, according to the report.

Well, so what if the report was about as reliable as Judith Miller’s NY Times’s articles? They served a political purpose and that’s all that matters.

Prashad offers a different perspective entirely:

Only the most inhumane among us would not see the bombardment of Homs as unconscionable. Those who say this is a Civil War and try to defend the attack on the city forget that even if this were a Civil War and if the regime were actually progressive, it should not bomb civilian neighborhoods in such an indiscriminate manner. The habit of the Ba’ath is to raze cities and call it national integration (this is what al-Assad Senior did in Hama in 1982). No Leftist can be cavalier about Homs.

We should also acknowledge what the Angry Arab has to say on this, since his take on the revolutionaries is in line with the “extremist Sunni groups” talking points:

Today, I saw some of the footage from Baba Amr [a Sunni neighborhood in Homs]. I mean, the firepower that the regime has used against the protesters (armed or unarmed), is so much more deadly and brutal than what it used against Israeli acts of aggression against Syria in the last few decades. Not a bullet was fired against Israel when the latter attacked Syria on numerous occasions. Not one bullet.

Prashad concludes with some proposals for the left to consider in navigating between the Scylla of imperialist intervention and the Charybdis of Ba’athist repression:

If no external military intervention is either forthcoming or to be welcomed, the question for the outside Left is how best to build pressure for a drawdown from the bloodletting that threatens to leave Syria anemic. Is there an effective strategy toward a ceasefire? Should the Left in Russia build pressure on the Putin regime to push the al-Assad government toward a cessation of hostilities in Homs (a cessation is not just a ceasefire, since it means that the troops must withdraw from the city)? Should the Left in the United States and in the other NATO countries build pressure for a less maximalist position in Syria (al-Assad must go)? Such maximalism falsely emboldens the rebellion, whose members believe that this means that the Cruise Missiles are on the way. It also hardens the obduracy of the al-Assad regime, which has everything to lose by stopping its assaults? Has the rebellion already weakened the legitimacy of the Ba’ath regime sufficiently that it has had to make promises that it was unwilling to make previously? It moved its goal posts from an abstract promise of “reform” to “no Ba’ath monopoly on state power” at some future date. If this is so, could a popular momentum build up toward an expedited transfer of power and the establishment of a provisional unity government that is under popular pressure to hold a truly democratic constitutional referendum? The “referendum” held on February 26 in the midst of the violence is not serious. Even the Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that in the absence of peace, constitutional reform is a “theoretical conversation.”

In my view, the only sensible position for the left to take is total opposition to military intervention. In wrestling with the question of whether the left should or should not adopt a “maximalist” position, Prashad in effect forces us to stake out a position that is not necessary for us to take. For example, the left did not need to take a position in 2002 whether Saddam Hussein should step down or not. The most effective slogan for an antiwar movement was “no troops in the Middle East”. This would leave room for all sorts of interpretations of the role of Ba’athism in Syria, including the unfortunately nonsensical position taken by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the group that leads ANSWER.

On their website, they endorse the analysis of Stephen Gowans, a Canadian blogger, who believes:

Apart from Syria’s irritating Washington by allying with Iran, backing Hezbollah, and providing material assistance to Palestinian national liberation movements, the country exhibits a tendency shared by all US regime change targets: a predilection for independent, self-directed, economic development. This is expressed in state-ownership of important industries, subsidies to domestic firms, controls on foreign investment, and subsidization of basic commodities. These measures restrict the profit-making opportunities of US corporations, banks and investors, and since it is their principals who hold sway in Washington, US foreign policy is accordingly shaped to serve their interests.

While Gowans is admittedly an obscure figure (his blog is ranked 4,697,308 by Alexa), his analysis is unfortunately shared by others with much more credibility such as Aijaz Ahmad who views Ba’athism almost as a greater good rather than a lesser evil:

For one thing, Syria is the last remaining representative of Arab nationalism as it used to be understood historically. It still calls itself socialist. Even though it has implemented a great deal of neoliberal reform, the state sector is still dominant. It bans, literally bans, religion from politics. It will not recognize the existence of religious political parties. It is the historic opponent of Israel for a variety of reasons. . . . If you remove Syria, the cordon sanitaire around Israel is complete.  There’s no adversary left. There is then Iran — not sharing a border, not a part of the historical Arab world. Iran gets isolated. And their perception is that both Hezbollah and Hamas will lose enormously. . . . So, Syria has that kind of strategic situation. In the old days, it was very closely aligned with the Socialist Bloc, and some of that kind of alignment still remains. . . .

One might hope that if Vijay Prashad ever runs into countryman Aijaz Ahmad at a conference, he might inform the highly respected theorist that Ba’athism and Arab nationalism are not synonymous based on a bit of historical recollection found in his article:

Much of the Left recognizes that the Ba’ath regime is neither anti-imperialist nor anti-capitalist. It recognizes that al-Assad’s government has most often played the border guard for Israel, and undoubtedly evokes no revolutionary good feelings amongst the Palestinians in either Lebanon or the West Bank (perhaps a small current in Gaza, until Hamas’ Ismail Haniya threw his support with the Syrian people against the al-Assad regime). Among the Palestinian Left the fundamental break with Syria took place during its betrayal of their cause in its invasion of Lebanon in 1975. Most of the Left is also aware that the Ba’ath Party was the enemy of both Nasserism (which banned the Ba’ath during the union of Syria and Egypt between 1958 and 1961) and the original Syrian Communist Party (when it was in its heyday before the military coup in 1961).

Perhaps the collapse of the USSR is something that Aijaz Ahmad, Stephen Gowans and the Party for Socialism and Liberation have not gotten over. Considering Ahmad’s rather quaint use of the term “Socialist Bloc”, one gets a distinct of “Ostalgia”—something that is well and good when it means a hatred for capitalism but highly dubious when it comes for changing the world. In a new century, 21st century socialism has to proceed on the basis that democracy and socialism are intertwined.

For far too long, the left has used a yardstick in which “state ownership” trumps freedom. If the “state sector” is dominant in Syria, what does this mean if people lack the freedom to decide how the wealth of society should be used?

One of the major contributions of the Occupy movement—no doubt a function of the role of anarchists as midwives—has been its emphasis on democracy and its obvious affinity with the Tahrir Square protests. While I remain skeptical whether the experience at Zuccotti Square really amounts to a harbinger of a future society, I do embrace the idea that decision-making must be made “horizontally” as the anarchists put it—or “from below” as others on the left put it.

This is the basis of our future struggles, not nostalgia for a “Socialist Bloc” that collapsed for the very reason Syria is such a tempting target for imperialism. When an authoritarian state ignores the will of the people, or does not even allow the minority of a population to argue in favor of policies that might eventually be embraced by the majority, its moral claim to speak in the name of the nation soon evaporates. Not only is democracy necessary for the construction of socialism, it is necessary for the anti-imperialist defense of the nation. Bashar al-Assad’s greatest shortcoming is that in the name of anti-imperialism, he is laying down a red carpet for its possible triumph.


  1. “In my view, the only sensible position for the left to take is total opposition to military intervention.” And what if the Syrian revolutionaries ask for some form of aid as the Libyans did (airstrikes, no-fly zone)?

    Comment by Binh — March 5, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

  2. Good question, Binh. I have the feeling, however, that it is almost academic since the West shows little inclination to get involved.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 5, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

  3. Prashad, toward the end of his article, I think gets to the heart of the politics here for the Left: “We have to be vigilant on two fronts: (1) to not let our anti-imperialism lead to the defense of authoritarian regimes in the region and (2) to not let our enthusiasm for rebellion lead to cheering on the cruise missiles from US warships. These two sirens should worry us as we make our hesitant way alongside the rebirth of a New Left in the Arab world.”

    Comment by Rick — March 5, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  4. Louis: I know we have butted heads at another site, so I just wanted to let you know how much I agreed with your posting here.


    Also it is interesting to see that you have a soft spot for the contributions of certain kinds of anarchists! (I tease; I’m sorry.) !!

    Comment by Marq Dyeth — March 5, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

  5. Prashad: “We have to be vigilant on two fronts: (1) to not let our anti-imperialism lead to the defense of authoritarian regimes in the region and (2) to not let our enthusiasm for rebellion lead to cheering on the cruise missiles from US warships.”

    Inevitably, arms will be introduced by outside actors: Iran and Russia (possibly China) will supply the Syrian Government; Qatar and Saudi Arabia will (are?) probably supply (supplying?) small arms quietly to select rebelling factions. The two opposing outside concerns are the domino theory of anti-imperialism (held by some regimes opposed to US hegemony), and the worldwide popular sympathy with rebellion against dictatorship.

    The domino theory here is the one animating the Russians and Chinese to use their UN veto power to stop a potentially runaway trend of international (i.e., UN-NATO) interventions of regime change triggered by autocracies (and near autocracies) making war on their restive captive populations to suppress aspirations for political freedom (“democracy”).

    The concerns of thoughtful sympathizers of popular liberation will be:
    1, reducing harm to the Syrian people in revolt, and because of the extreme violence used by the Syrian government against its unarmed people it has lost legitimacy in the eyes of sympathizers who agree with supplying arms to opposition forces; and
    2, that arms supplied by outside sympathizers not empower anti-democratic oppositional factions now suppressed by the Assad government and who would be just as autocratic in power if they had the opportunity.

    Since all governments always act in their self interest, any action, overt or covert, taken by any government (e.g., to supply or embargo arms) will be in its perceived interests regardless of whatever other effects it might have (e.g., “humanitarian”). So, if US-led forces intervene it is in the interests of US hegemony, if the US policy is one of non-intervention it is because this serves the needs of promoting US hegemony. Mentally, one can “oppose” US hegemony (or imperialism) but it will proceed nevertheless.

    I find it preferable to ask what US policy would be more beneficial to the democracy-prone portion of the Syrian population? One can easily see these options:
    1, overt and substantive support of the Assad government (a logical possibility for the U.S. that is politically impossible);
    2, military intervention for regime change (pure war);
    3, formal non-intervention with quiet acquiescence to the suppling of arms (by third parties) to certain oppositional factions (covert war);
    4, strict non-intervention (exactly what it says, de facto pro Assad, if universally observed then Assad cleans up).

    Options 1, 2 and 4 have exact definitions; option 3 can cover a lot of territory. So, I see option 3 as inevitable, the question is: in what form, or to what degree? Note that option 3 threads its way between the Scylla and Charybdis Prashad urges us to avoid.

    I discount international tactics of “pure diplomacy” and face-saving trade-war procedures (“sanctions”) as having any effect of changing the behavior of authoritarian governments within their domains.

    Given the above, I am curious if those who follow Prashad’s line of thinking will allow themselves to arrive at some version of option 3.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — March 6, 2012 @ 6:29 am

  6. Lou: You are right that the same Stalinists giving uncritical support to Assad’s blood bath are the same giving uncritical support to the imperialist Obama but to crudely identify the two errors simply makes the former villainy look a bit more acceptable in the eyes of the masses. `So the people who support Assad also support Obama?’ `We’d better support Assad then.’ Kind of thing. Your argument in this variation helps the Stalinists. After the Syrian revolt has been crushed the Stalinists who are now hysterically banging on about the dangers of imperialist intervention will say: `Obama didn’t intervene.’ As if that is a good thing that Obama stood by and allowed a blood bath so that power balancing between Stalinism’s disgusting friends and US imperialism could take place unhindered. So that the world could be re-carved up above the heads of the masses. The starting point for us must be the Arab Spring not anti-imperialism though of course we never loose sight of the self-serving, reactionary, anti-human nature of imperialism and never cease to expose it.

    The people of Libya were right to take advantage of the UN-backed NATO intervention to press home their anti-Gadaffi revolt and terminate his regime whilst we were right to remind them of the true nature of imperialism. That is not the end of the question of course. As for Syria, US-imperialism has accumulated unprecedented global wealth and military power at the expense of the rest of the world. Is it right that Obama sits back and allows the blood bath at Homs to proceed unhindered when they could stop it? Perhaps we should pose the issues differently? The victory of the anti-war movement was to knock back US unilateralism and we don’t want to see it return (though of course it will and never really goes away) but on this occasion we should be pointing out that the only meaningful big power intervention in Syria so far has come from Russian imperialism and the Chinese Stalinist police who blocked the UN resolution giving Assad the green light for murder.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 6, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  7. Another aspect of this too is that the same `oh so ultra anti-imperialist Stalinists’ supporting Assad’s creation of a Lake of Blood today would have been demanding the US open a second front in Europe even while it was obvious that the US was waiting for the Soviet Union to be seriously perhaps fatally damaged, for the British Empire to be dumped in the dustbin of history, for Europe to exhaust itself and couldn’t give a damn about the death camps, before making its move. They shouted about how imperialism failed to intervene in Spain in the 30s, (they still see Churchill as a huge hero) how it ignored the Rwandan massacre but never really explain how it caused it, and demand that the `hated’-UN recognise the repulsive rump PA bantustan in the West Bank as a sovereign nation.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 6, 2012 @ 11:18 am

  8. Our analysis should start with our understanding that `imperialism doesn’t do humanitarianism’, if it does it is by default and if did we wouldn’t oppose it. Even the ultras have realised this and have stopped trying to condemn the intervention in Libya and what they see as a potential intervention in Syria on principle but by inventing all sorts weird and wonderful stories of atrocities that the real imperialists would be proud of and by blackguarding the Arab Spring in the most vile of ways. Not that we approach these things with rose tinted spectacles but we do know that the Arab Spring has the potential to be the most progressive thing to happen on this planet for many, many moons.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 6, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  9. Last go for now: If Assad wasn’t one of their disgusting allies the Stalinists would be not only condemning his action but the failure of the West to step in. As it is they are comparing Assad’s butchery of civilians and castration of children to the Bolshevik’s righteous crushing of the military captors of Kronstad who threatened to hand back a strategic naval port to the White Russians and their imperial backers in order to justify it. They really are prepared to rationalise this merciless killing by any means possible. They are complicit in the murders, the sniping, the torture chambers, the blood lust, the whole gory business. It is such a disaster that these elements have not yet been driven out of the labour movement but most of the self-styled Trots have themselves been Stalinised (they are nearly all Gramscians) and have become often even bigger apologists for the tyrants than the Stalinists themselves.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 6, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

  10. “the Assad regime.. has embraced neoliberalism and consistently used a rhetoric of ‘anti-imperialism’ to obfuscate a practice of accommodation with both the US and Israel…”

    Absolutely – remember the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen rendered to Syria by the US for the express purpose of having him tortured.

    I have heard the Syrian ambassador to the US (a cosmopolitan, persuasive guy) defend this by asking us to imagine how a country like Syria, designated as an enemy by the US, could refuse a request by the US. Some truth to that, but the fact remains that Assad’s Syria is a place you can go when you want someone tortured.

    Prashad is a sharp analyst (his book on ‘darker nations’ is great) and his pieces should always get a closely considered look.

    Comment by jp — March 6, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  11. some on the ground reporting form Syria: http://www.lrb.co.uk/2012/03/01/jonathan-littell/syrian-notebooks

    London Review of Books is an excellent resource – a lot of subscriber-only content, but also a lot of no-cost articles

    Comment by jp — March 6, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

  12. Proyect: “In my view, the only sensible position for the left to take is total opposition to military intervention.”

    Binh ”And what if the Syrian revolutionaries ask for some form of aid as the Libyans did (airstrikes, no-fly zone)?

    Proyect “Good question, Binh. I have the feeling, however, that it is almost academic since the West shows little inclination to get involved.”

    Good question; wrong answer.

    1- The West has shown *every inclination* to get involved.
    The SNC has already been recognised as the”legitimate representative” of the Syrian people by the USA, Britain and France.
    They haven’t said *the* legitimate representative, because it has almost no support within the country!
    This is a clear statement of intent.

    2- The West has many ways to intervene besides sending in ground-troops.
    John McCain has called for US bombing to create a “Safe Zone” near the Turkish border for the FSA.
    The “Guardian” even has a poll on this question today.

    This is reminiscent of the way that the question of the Libyan no-fly zone was floated last year.
    Arms can be delivered by the West’s proxies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar & Turkey.

    3- The “Syrian revolutionaries” include people who have genuine grievances and want to end the autocratic rule of Assad family.
    But it’s well known that one section of the opposition, the Syrian National Congress is linked to imperialism.
    They may have “revolutionary” methods, but reactionary aims.

    The SNC is a coalition between borgeois exiles and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    They, in turn, are linked to the Free Syrian Army leadership, based in Turkey.

    It’s these forces who will be provided with more arms, not anyone seen who’s seen as a threat to the West.
    If they get them, they’ll do what the “Libyan revolutionaries” did to Tawergha and Sirte.

    No Marxist would give these people any support.

    Comment by prianikoff — March 6, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  13. No Marxist would give these people any support.

    Prianakoff, you really are a crypto-Stalinist idiot.

    I always wondered why you hung around Socialist Unity so much. In the last few months, I have begun to understand why.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 6, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

  14. These arguments all depend on whether the most important thing for you is what you oppose, or what you wish to promote: negative or affirmative advocacy.

    If opposition to US imperialism is paramount, then how any government and UN policy action affects the population (in this case of Syria) is immaterial. All that matters is that actions which coincide with the imperialist interests of the U.S. be opposed. Whoever wins and whatever else happens as a consequence of a successful opposition to US imperialism is by definition “good.”

    Hamid Debashi called such advocates “statists,” people whose interest is exclusively in control of the power of the state, not in the lives of the population. Debashi clearly showed that statists can be of a leftist and rightist variety: people interested in a top-down imposition of ideology. The statist anti-imperialism described above is leftist statism, a.k.a. “Stalinism.” The rightist variety of statism would be the straightforward imperialism of a McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt (and their political heirs today who back Wall Street, and Israel, militarily).

    An affirmative advocacy for greater popular political freedom, and security, is often known as “liberation,” or “democracy.” Such advocacy would naturally oppose occupations, and imperialist invasions that subjugate (again, or further) the population. However, it would also naturally support foreign interventions (as in Spain during the Civil War) that aided popular efforts to defend and expand popular political freedoms. Such acceptance (by the people rebelling) of foreign assistance during liberation struggles is usually quite aware that altruism is only a small part of their foreign partner’s motivation. But, first things first: win the revolution, then afterward consolidate domestic control of the country by escorting the foreign forces (and their policy initiatives) out. In a crisis of survival, one has to prioritize tasks and goals into those of essential immediacy and those that are longer range, which longer range could be as short as weeks, even days, in the heat of battle (study martial arts to experience this truth).

    Vijay Prashad’s follow-up to Debashi’s article is just his way of creeping up to affirmative advocacy of popular political freedom. Such an affirmative orientation would lead one to avoid the two problems Prashad pointed to: either defending dictatorships (specifically those US imperialism opposes), or mindlessly cheering on US military interventions against governments at war with their populations. If you focus on the people (bottom-up) instead of the state (top-down), you will find the right political stance, with this caveat: you must be willing to accept that no ideology (even yours) will universally align with the right action of the moment in every instance. Put people first, and ideas second. “The word was made for man, not man for the word.”

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — March 6, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

  15. This is actually very worthwhile stuff: its good that people are grappling with how to relate to this situation without obviously falling into two great big elephant traps that loom in front of the left over this issue.

    Trap number one has already claimed those who are basically defending the Assad regime against its own people or even in some cases cheering for the regime in a particularly grotesque manner. The rationale for this in most cases is utter unbelief that any mass action such as this could have a progressive direction without being bureaucratically led by some formation that conforms to a particular kind of sterile, highly controlled paradigm. Such people don’t rule out support for an popular revolt such as this in theory, but when it is against this particular regime, the only (fading) remaining ‘anti-imperialist’ regime in the Arab world, then the sounds of knees jerking into line is deafening.

    Trap number two of course as mentioned above is to cheer for US missiles when they start to be fired, or demand military intervention. I think the non-Stalinist, anti-imperialist left is coming under enormous pressure to do this and it must be resisted at all costs even if it does result in anger and accusations of betrayal from supporters of the uprising who have no worked out approach to Western imperialism, or who don’t accept that whole concept.

    If we capitulate on that, we end up de-facto joining the so-called ‘decent left’, since if opposition to imperialist intervention ceases to be a principle it becomes purely a matter of pragmatism and what may be gained by supporting it. That is a slippery slope indeed and leads where Hitchens went.

    These are twin roads to different hells, and we have to avoid both. One way to avoid it, though I admit it is still a bit abstract, is spelled out in my article Imperialist Hands off the Syrian Revolution which has also had some level of discussion on some of these questions.This fleshes out the fact that the imperialists evidently have developed something of a counter-revolutionary strategy aimed at undermining the Arab revolution as a whole. In brief, their aim is to refurbish some authority in the Middle East by turning the pan-Arab revolution into a crusade to overthrow their traditional enemies, the ‘radical’ regimes such as Syria and Libya (maybe with some knock on further afield outside the Arab sphere proper, i.e. Iran) while using the whole exercise to refurbish their own friendly regimes and give them a ‘democratic’ facelift.

    But that the way to counter that is not what the various Stalinists are doing and criminally betraying the masses by backing Assad’s butchery, as have the denizens of that sad Stalinoid nest of vipers called ‘Socialist Unity’ in the UK.

    Rather it is by propagating the need for pan-Arab revolution, by pushing the regional dimension of this, against the Balkanisation that is a key part of the root cause of all these despotisms including the ‘radical’ ones, and trying to promote the need for that unifying idea and perspective as part of what solidarity work the left is able to do with Syria and elsewhere in the Arab spring.

    Comment by redscribe — March 6, 2012 @ 11:54 pm

  16. “Good question, Binh. I have the feeling, however, that it is almost academic since the West shows little inclination to get involved.”

    I thought this about Libya one week before the bombs started dropping. Rest assured, they’re already involved, the question is how and what, not if.

    The issues involved go back to Libya and the rest of the Arab Spring, as I outlined earlier here:

    Instead of “total opposition to intervention,” the socialist left internationally should focus on “intervening” from below, marching on Syrian embassies, organizing food/aid/weapons/water to get into places like Homs. The left’s response today leads me to believe that if the Spanish Civil War happened today most of our comrades would be against arming the republic much less sending volunteers.

    Comment by Binh — March 7, 2012 @ 5:14 am

  17. Binh: “If the Spanish Civil War happened today most of our comrades would be against arming the republic much less sending volunteers.”

    Yes, indeed, attitudes have changed since the last Great Depression. Those were hungry times; these are times of excess fat and plenty of Soma, we are living in a Zardoz bubble that has sprung a leak, the Era of Spoiled Brats is losing its fizz. “Our comrades” referred to in the quote above are no doubt leftist intellectuals in the high HDI nations, who share a widely popular (and comfortable) view in this regard, but feel a need to continually justify themselves about it; “the world’s contented spectators.”



    Comment by manuelgarciajr — March 7, 2012 @ 6:32 am

  18. Re: #5.

    It’s option #3 for the Obama Administration.

    Syrian Opposition To Receive Direct US Aid

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — March 7, 2012 @ 6:56 am

  19. re #14
    Try answering any of the points I made with evidence.

    The argument that I’m a “crypto stalinist” is laughable coming from you.
    But it’s certainly typical of your modus operandi.
    Whenever you lack political arguments, you resort to florid abuse.
    As you do nothing beyond the internet you can make these absurd accusations.

    People like Ellis and “Redscribe” weren’t banned from SU, because they were “Trotskyists”, which is highly debatable, but because they supported Gilad Atzmon and attacked a majority vote of the PSC to expel a holocaust denier from one of its branches.
    “Redscribe” then tried to justify this on the basis of “progressive nationalism”, claiming it would isolate them in the Arab World.

    Nor have you ever been banned from SU, nor has the Socialist party, the SWP, “Permanent Revolution” (which calls for arming the FSA) etc.
    Maybe you’re hoping that starting a flame war will attract a few more customers to that home for ageing ex-SWP’er exchaing press clippings known as Marxmail?

    Comment by prianikoff — March 7, 2012 @ 9:06 am

  20. We all know that imperialism is incapable of acting out of univeral humanitarian concerns but it is more than capable of appearing to act on them when it suits its self-serving ends. Much as a police man will occasionally arrest a rich man or Putin knock off a rogue oligarch.

    Those who say that the main question is to prevent imperialist intervention into the blood bath at Homs rather than to support the democratic struggle of the Syrian people and the Arab Spring in general are using ultra-left rhetoric to oppose revolution. Even if the West did get involved and there does not appear to have ever been a remote possibility of it we should not oppose it but continue to support the Syrian people against Assad unless and until the intervention goes obviously beyond what it claims to be. The only imperialist intervention there has been so far has come from the Russian imperialists backed by the Chinese Stalinist police state scabs and that gave an enormous impulse to the Assad regime’s violence. The West is happy at this time to to cynically conced Syria to the Russian sphere of influence in the name of horse-trading and power balancing.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 7, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  21. Three million people took to the streets of London to protest what was obviously a war of conquest against Iraq. 200 StWC usurpers of that movement stood outside the US embassy to shout their support for Gadaffi. The masses can tell the difference but the oh so experienced politicos cannot? But of course they can really. They are cynically serving a boss other than the international working classes whilst pretending to speak for socialism. They are stricken with a similar curse to that which afflicts the world bourgeoisie. They have to pretend to be serving the whole of society whilst only serving themselves.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 7, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  22. “People like Ellis and “Redscribe” weren’t banned from SU, because they were “Trotskyists”, which is highly debatable, but because they supported Gilad Atzmon and attacked a majority vote of the PSC to expel a holocaust denier from one of its branches.
    “Redscribe” then tried to justify this on the basis of “progressive nationalism”, claiming it would isolate them in the Arab World.”

    Laughable. Prianikoff’s idea of ‘progressive nationalism’ is Assad butchering the population of Syrian cities, in a manner that Robert Fisk compares to Srebrenica. I think he will find that the Syrian regime, whose butchery he supports, denies the holocaust and actively promoted holocaust denial throughout the Arab world.

    My view is that a particular group of people in the Palestinian solidarity movement, most of whom are actually Jewish by the way, should be debated fraternally about their views on this because their views are an emotional overreaction to the crimes of their own government (i.e the Israeli government). Prianikoff, who supports Assad’s butchery, can certainly not be accused of any ’emotional overreaction’ to anyone’s crimes, can he?

    By the way, anyone who wants to know my views on the Jewish question can see them laid out systematically here. Let’s see prianikoff argue that this is in any way anti-semitic, which is what he is really insinuating.

    Comment by redscribe — March 7, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

  23. #23 quoting redscribe: “Prianikoff’s idea of ‘progressive nationalism’ is Assad butchering the population of Syrian cities”

    No it’s not, as anyone who searches these threads for my comments will soon find out:-




    The discussion about Gilad Atzmon on SU is here:-

    It was prompted by the expulsion of one Frances Clarke Lowes from Brighton and Hove PSC, a decision taken nem-con and ratified by the National PSC. Only the ultra-stalinists of Harpal Brar’s CPGB-ML seem to have actively opposed this decision.
    Atzmon decided to publish a highly edited version of Clarke-Lowe’s views on his web-site.

    Comment by prianikoff — March 7, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

  24. “Atzmon decided to publish a highly edited version of Clarke-Lowe’s views on his web-site.”

    Presumably then Prianikoff will have no difficulty in producing the full, un-edited version of his views for the public to examine.

    Comment by redscribe — March 7, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

  25. Ok, so reading through this, Prianikoff’s position on Syria is not as bad as I thought it was. He is not actually cheering for butchery full-throated like some of his partners in crime at Socialist Unity. Though this is the logic of his position, he is perhaps a little squeamish about giving Assad full on support to crush the uprising – or at least being seen to do so.

    So why does he repeat the smears of the Stalinists at SU who do support Assad gung-ho? And why intervene on a thread about Syria to engage in off-topic denunciation of people who were discussing … Syria? Why is he trying to spread Newman’s demented Stalinist poison to other parts of the blogosphere?

    One interesting point also is that Tony Greenstein, who is the person who (mistakenly in my view) is the most vocal organiser of the campaign against Gilad Atzmon, criticised Andy Newman for his banning of me from Socialist Unity on a falsified basis.

    If Tony Greenstein could not stomach Newman’s behaviour, why does Prianikoff, claiming to be a Trotskyist, support exclusions by Stalinists backed up by lies?

    Comment by redscribe — March 7, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

  26. I actually got a criticism of what I wrote about Azmon about a half-hour ago that I plan to respond to tomorrow. That being said, whatever Redscribe’s position it is pretty capricious to ban someone from Socialist Unity for being open to Atzmon’s ideas. These blogs work best when they are open discussions. I have only banned about 3 or 4 people out of several hundred commentators since I began blogging.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 7, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

  27. #26 Why on earth would I promote the ideas of a holocaust denier who was expelled from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign?
    I hope he ends up staggering along Brighton seafront talking to the seagulls.
    The editor of a blog has the right to exclude whoever they want to.
    I neither supported, nor criticised yours.

    Comment by prianikoff — March 8, 2012 @ 7:52 am

  28. “The editor of a blog has the right to exclude whoever they want to.”

    Indeed he does. But it is rather fraudulent to use a name like ‘Socialist Unity’, which implies a public space for all trends of socialist thought, and then treat it as personal property.

    No-one asked Prianikoff to promote anyone’s ideas. Merely to substantiate an allegation he made against a third party of some kind of fraudulent editing.

    Comment by redscribe — March 8, 2012 @ 8:31 am

  29. “As it is they are comparing Assad’s butchery of civilians and castration of children to the Bolshevik’s righteous crushing of the military captors of Kronstad who threatened to hand back a strategic naval port to the White Russians and their imperial backers in order to justify it.”

    Simply a lie. Krondstadt consistently rejected moves to join up with the Whites. The mispresentation of the uprising was an important in the consolidation of the bureaucracy. But its irrelevant in any event.
    From what I read Priankoff laughly opposes Assad being overthrown “from the right”. Difficult to see how that’s possible. As for the rest of the SU gang, they love a good bloodbath.

    Comment by billj — March 9, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  30. Prianikoff: I was excluded from SU for Holocaust Denial which is something I have never nor ever will do. Ironically this was by one of the foremost apologists for the Iranian theocracy and its President Ahmedinejad who actually is a holocaust denier. To my mind you are one of the most repulsive stalinists on SU as you cover most of it in Trotskyist verbiage.

    Billj: the scum on SU who are normally hysterical in their denunciation of the Red Army’s legitimate and heroic recapture of the military port of Kronstadt are now trying to justify Assad’s brutal butchery of civilians by it. Trouble with you is you are an incontinent sectarian who cannot tell the difference.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 9, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

  31. `The mispresentation of the uprising was an important in the consolidation of the bureaucracy. But its irrelevant in any event.’

    BillJ continues with his petit bourgeois lie that the roots of Stalinism are in Leninism and that Trotskyism is simply a version of Leninism. The bureaucracy consolidated itself through the withdrawal of the working class from the political field due to exhaustion at fighting the Whites and their imperial backers. The Kronstadters were taking advantage of the beginnings of this retreat not the Bolshevik internationalists but your hatred is aimed almost exclusively at revolutionary socialism these days. I predict a New Labour future full of opportuinist potential for you or maybe anonymity in some anarchist sect. Who knows, who cares?

    Comment by David Ellis — March 9, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

  32. `Krondstadt consistently rejected moves to join up with the Whites.’

    Gee, how big of them.

    Priankoff you old Stalinist: what do you think of the resolution passed by your Stalinist chums in the StWC to hold a converence opposing `humanitarian intervention’ on the grounds of cost?

    Comment by David Ellis — March 9, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

  33. While you are at it Priankoff: tell us if you voted for the SWP’s motion at the StWC which gave political cover to the Stalinist’s support for Assad’s blood bath.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 9, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  34. `Why on earth would I promote the ideas of a holocaust denier who was expelled from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign?’

    You are such a fucking arse hole. Of course Atzmon is obviously a nazi, anti-semite isn’t he? You clown. The leader of a multi-ethnic Jazz band born in Tel Aviv to Jewish parents is so obviously a nazi. You zionist fucking cunt. Is it surprising that people of Jewish origin or even Jews born in Israel that become sympathetic to the Palestinians should start to question the Zionists on their version of the holocaust that they manipulate and revise daily to justify their crimes? Personally I think Atzmon and Co go to far on this but it doesn’t make me put two plus two together and make 500 for whatever self-serving witch hunting reason you are doing it and I suspect it is to do with clearing out all those who refuse to legitimise the existence of Israel from the Palestine solidarity movement so that fatah can sell their betryal of the refugees.

    Comment by David Ellis — March 9, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

  35. After reading numerous Marxist twits debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the masses of Syrian people are being murdered by the genocidal Assad regime! There is little difference between this atrocity and Stalin’s forced starvation and murder of the Kulaks during the 1930’s mass collectivization of agriculture. Rather than create a democratically ruled state, a “nation of the people,” the regime murders them to perpetuate its hold on power! Many nations have endured long deadly and violent revolutions, before deposing autocrats. For the Americans, it took eight years; for the France, much longer; for other nations, it is an ongoing process.

    Should the West conduct a “humanitarian” intervention, certain to be seen by many as “imperialism?”

    The likely answer is no, given that the opposition to the regime is divided, not unified, has recently been added to by the opportunistic al-Qaeda and is currently too poorly armed to be effective. But that can change, if the opposition unifies and Arab League arms are introduced in sufficient quantity. It seems that every opportunist wants a piece of Syria, except the Israelis who already have one, but are willing to return it in return for a negotiated peace. Iran, in particular, wants it as a conduit for its arms shipments and support for proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, which have left and abandoned Syria over its genocidal policies.

    Who is likely to win this contest of competing empires over Syria? I don’t know, but I know who the losers are!

    They are the Syrian people being murdered by the thousands!

    Comment by Mike 71 — March 10, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  36. I’ve just watched a rather extraordinary inteview with Prasad on Democracy Now about his forthcoming book “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter”. He concludes it by claiming that the Russians and Chinese grounds for blocking the Security Council resolution on Syria was that it did not “say specifically that this resolution is not under chapter 7 article 42.” (the article that provides for UN military intervention.
    But the draft resolution quite specifically stated: “nothing in this resolution authorizes measures under Article 42 of the Charter.”
    He argues, quite rightly, that the debate over Syria would be usefully informed by a serious balance sheet of the Libyan experience, and his book is supposed to offer that, But the fact that he can pontificate about the UN resolution without having read it does not bode well for the accuracy of his reading of Libya.
    The book is not out until June – I wonder if anyone had an advance sighting of its contents?

    Comment by Brian. O. — March 19, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  37. New comment by someone too young to understand the party splits and sagas being referred to, and please, I don’t want to quite yet.

    I bought Vijay Prashad’s book a day ago at Bluestockings Bookstore in NYC (if it is available there it should be at all independent bookstores everywhere; is on sale at publisher http://www.akpress.com). Vijay Prashad compellingly lists names of CIA-paid assets in the leadership of the so-called Libyan rebels. “Rebels” that were only there because the U.S.A. was paying them a large amount of money and providing plane tickets for them to be there. Mahdi al-Harat was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize Tripoli, and given even more to dole out on the ground there. General Khalifa Hifter spent the last two decades with the CIA and is now leading military.

    And what was first thing new Libyan “leadership” did? Privatize oil, renegotiate plum deals with foreign oil companies and set up a new bank to allow the dollar to dominate. Yeah, some “people’s revolution.” This book blew my mind how detailed it is and so many specific details. I will definitely have to read it again. Very, very recommended. Now I’m thinking about Libya all the time. How could our tax dollars be used to re-colonize Africa so blatantly? Why will my friends only talk about Iraq and Afghanistan? It looks like many aspects are being repeated in Syria (overblown reports of widespread rape and massacres of civilians only to be revealed as “it didn’t happen” later & photos of groups of French & European military in Syria now & U.S./French/British boots-on-the-ground, despite Obama’s stories otherwise).

    I’m not talking pro Gaddafi or Assad, just the human rights of the Libya and Syrian people to determine their own future and control their own resources. If the Syrian Free Army is sheltered in U.S. ally Turkey and built by the NATO/Libyan forces it built, it doesn’t seem like it would be very committed to the Syrian people. And why primarily protest outside the Syrian embassy, if the fighting forces in Syria aren’t indigenous? Is there any groups doing protests outside Turkish or U.S. embassies? I very much want to come. Is Hamid Dabashi or Vijay Prashad speaking anywhere?

    Thank you, teachers.

    Comment by cyberstreets (@cyberstreets) — May 8, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

  38. […] I was surprised to find, as early as 2011, many Leftist activists in Canada and elsewhere openly supporting the regime.  This was strange, witnessing those same voices who showed solidarity with […]

    Pingback by Syria and the Left Split – whatisleftdotnet — December 10, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

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