Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 14, 2013

Buyer’s remorse over the Arab Spring

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm


Tariq Ali: not happy with the way things turned out

I was struck by the recent bumper crop of articles complaining about the way things have turned out in the Middle East, a state of affairs most frequently alluded to as the Arab Winter. I imagine that the authors must feel a lot like I did when my thirteenth birthday arrived. When I unwrapped a long rectangular box, it turned out to be a badminton set and not the BB gun I had been expecting. What a bummer.

Going through them in no particular order, Tariq Ali’s “Tariq Ali: What Is A Revolution?” sets the rueful tone. One by one, Ali examines Egypt, Libya and Syria only to conclude that they fail his acid test:

I’ve argued against the position that mass uprisings on their own constitute a revolution, i.e., a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change. The actual size of the crowd is not a determinant—members of a crowd become a revolution only when they have, in their majority, a clear set of social and political aims.

Not to dwell on the prose style of a man who occupies such a lofty post at Verso, but how exactly would “members of a crowd” ever become a revolution? Isn’t this a rather confusing formulation? More ungainly prose follows: “The notion that the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the carrier of a Syrian revolution is as risible as the idea that the Brotherhood was doing the same in Egypt.” Doesn’t Ali review his prose? I guess that once you become a big macher like him or Woody Allen, you tend to rest on your laurels. My only advice to Ali is not to let himself fall asleep.

The article concludes with these portentous words: “Meanwhile, back at home, Obama is promising Republicans that he will facilitate regime change.” Really? I must have missed something. Oh well, the Ali/Fisk/Cockburn school of Mideast journalism is as reliable as a stopped clock. Maybe one day Obama will put the head of the SNC in charge of Syria but it certainly won’t be anybody like the last one who said “Iran’s possession of nuclear capabilities poses no threat to any Sunni but it will be a formidable deterrent to the evil powers that are rushing madly upon the Muslim World.”

Then we have Hugh Roberts’s piece in the latest London Review of Books titled “The Revolution That Wasn’t”. At least the writing is more lucid than Ali’s. The ideas of course are another matter entirely.

Roberts reviews four books about the Arab Spring that reinforce the idea that there were no revolutions at all. Focused mostly on Egypt, Roberts advises his readers:

We shouldn’t reduce 11 February 2011 to a coup. It wasn’t a revolution, but it wasn’t just a coup either. It was a popular rising that lost the initiative because it had no positive agenda or demand. ‘Bread, freedom, social justice’ aren’t political demands, just aspirations and slogans.

Oh well, time to toss my copy of Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” into the garbage bin of history. Roberts’s main complaint besides the lack of a “positive agenda” was the inadequacy of the young professionals and students who spearheaded the protests in Tahrir Square, many of whom eventually hooked up with Tamarrod, the group that collected signatures to remove Morsi.

But not all is lost, as Roberts assures his readers: “The return with a vengeance of the Egyptian army to the centre of government doesn’t, as some have suggested, mean the advent of Mubarakism without Mubarak, since the extreme autonomy of the presidency is no more – this will be true even if Sisi takes the job.” Whew, that’s a relief.

Maybe things were never that bad under Mubarak since we are reminded that during his reign “the press in particular was generally lively, with room for a wide spectrum of opinion, including plenty of criticism of the government.”

Roberts, like Ali and just about every other member in good standing of the Arab Winter club, was sad to see Qaddafi go. He penned an article for LRB last November titled “Who said Gaddafi had to go?” that was a litany of complaints about how bad things turned out. I urge you to read the article but also the letter that a Libyan wrote in reply. It starts as follows:

Only a Libyan who has lived all his life in Gaddafi’s Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya is in a position to point out the many things that Hugh Roberts gets wrong.

Roberts puts Libyans’ per capita income at $12,000. I don’t know where he gets this figure. What I do know, as a Libyan civil servant of more than 15 years, is that the income of the average grade-six government sector employee is 150 Libyan dinars – hardly $100 a month or $1200 a year. A grade-nine employee earns no more than $3000 a year. It isn’t true that Libyans were ‘well fed, housed and schooled’. I remember as a young child in the 1980s having to stand in exhaustingly long queues in front of the state-owned outlet to get the family’s monthly ration of basic food supplies. Good housing and good schooling are unknown to the vast majority of Libyan citizens, who have had to live for generations in the same house and to study in school buildings unfit even for keeping cattle.

You can go here to read the letters, including one from Brian Slocock who dismantled Musa al-Gharbi and ST McNeil’s Counterpunch article alleging that Christians were really the victims of the chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta, not Sunni opponents of the Baathists. You can see the exchange between Slocock and al-Gharbi here.

Going from the not quite sublime to the truly ridiculous, there’s Slavoj Zizek’s piece in the September 6 Guardian titled “Syria is a pseudo-struggle.” Unlike Roberts, Zizek is much less disappointed by the way things turned out in Egypt, so much so that he uses it as a cudgel to beat the Syrians, who lacked “a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt.” He warns that Syria will turn into “another Afghanistan” if al-Assad is overthrown. He poses the question: “So will the US repeat their Afghanistan mistake of arming the future al-Qaida and Taliban cadres?” I hope that Zizek can reach Obama in time to warn him. With rumors blazing over the plans that Obama has to equip the al-Nusrah Front with B-52’s, time’s a wastin’.

The one thing that you can say about “Good Wars, Real or Imagined”, Freddie de Boer’s blog article on the Jacobin website, is that it does not plumb the depths of stupidity found in the others referred to above. Maybe there’s an inverse relationship between your “intellectual capital” and the crap you put out. Unlike Zizek, the Elvis superstar of Marxism according to the Verso publicists, de Boer is a humble graduate student who is far more careful about what he writes. That, of course, comes naturally when you are working on a dissertation.

Framed as a critique of liberal hawks, de Boer’s piece acknowledges that “liberal support for intervention in Syria has been nowhere near as common or as angry as that for war on Iraq.“ That is, of course, until recently with the uproar over the “red line” ultimatum. No surprise there. Unlike what occurred during the Balkan wars, the FSA does not exactly get the kind of press that Muslims got in Bosnia or Kosovo. If the New York Review of Books was falling all over itself 20 years ago on behalf of the poor souls in Sarajevo, nowadays there is nothing about Homs or Aleppo. When it does print an article about Syria, it is something like David Bromwich’s “Stay out of Syria” that accepts the dreadful Carla del Ponte’s assurances that it has been the rebels using sarin gas.

But the biggest chuckle I got out of de Boer’s article was this:

This is all simply to say that civil wars tend to result in chaos and atrocity regardless of who won, and that great powers merely choose winners, and that the short-term requirements of politics have nothing whatsoever to do with the long-term good of actual people.

Funny that a magazine called Jacobin does not appreciate the irony of such a Burkean reflection. In his 1790 “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Edmund Burke wrote:

I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with solidity and property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too; and without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.

This essentially reflects the mood of the authors under consideration here, despite any protestations to the contrary. We are dealing with four men who refuse to understand that when people are crushed by tyrannies, they often react in the most “irrational” and impulsive manner with little regard to how their actions might pan out.

More to the point, all revolutions have turned out badly, let along prerevolutionary outbursts of the kind that amount to the Middle East’s 1905–a kind of dress rehearsal. What planet is Tariq Ali living on? The French Revolution unleashed a reign of terror; the Russian Revolution did so as well. The social and economic gains of the French Revolution took most of a century to win. As late as 1871 the armed rebels embarked on an adventure that left them far worse off than before they started. Russia was in the eyes of many Marxists, Kautsky in particular, an exercise in futility. The forces of production had not ripened. Hadn’t Lenin understood?

My suggestion to these good people is to remember what Zhou Enlai once said about the impact of the French Revolution. His reply? “It is too soon to tell.” Now it turns out that he was being asked about the May-June events of 1968 but no matter. There are lots of former enragés who still feel that it was worth all the turmoil even if there was no revolution. Once upon a time I would have included Tariq Ali among them. Now I am not so sure.


  1. This is fantastic stuff, Louis. I really appreciate all of the work you are doing on this subject.

    It’s been clear to me since Libya that the western Left has given up on all but the most timid forms of resistance. The idea of actual political revolution is sneered at, or, at best, perpetually put off until some magical time when we will have all come to a kind of democratic agreement that, yes, we want a socialist or communist, or anarchist social and economic order. When oppressed peoples then have the temerity to take up arms against their governments, the Left, rather than supporting them in their struggle, does nothing but kvetch and kibitz. Theirs is a pessimism of the will that has functionally neutralized any power to resist authority.

    Comment by Jd Hoff — September 14, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

  2. Exactly. I am so tired of the western left, its endless rediscovery of the wheel, its tiresome quest for a schematized decentralized anti authoritarian pro feminist gay friendly culturally sensitive contract which it imagines will magically evade the contradictions of a living revolutionary movement. And like you, I’m surprised to see Tariq Ali weighing in on the never neverland side of the scale.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — September 14, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

  3. “Now it turns out that he was being asked about the May-June events of 1968 but no matter.”

    Where is the evidence to show that Zhou was talking about 1968 instead of 1789?

    Comment by Bankotsu — September 15, 2013 @ 4:13 am

  4. Trotsky wrote in his history of the Russian revolution: ““The history of a revolution is for us first of all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of their own destiny.… The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis—the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations.”

    A political revolution occurs when the established state power is overturned and overthrown by the masses, so that the ruling elite is out of power and a new popular power is instated. A social revolution occurs when the social relations governing daily life (work, business, schooling, households, culture etc.) are transformed.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — September 15, 2013 @ 7:40 am

  5. Financial TImes June 10, 2011 8:03 pm
    Zhou’s cryptic caution lost in translation

    By Richard McGregor in Washington

    The impact of the French Revolution? “Too early to say.”

    Thus did Zhou Enlai – in responding to questions in the early 1970s about the popular revolt in France almost two centuries earlier – buttress China’s reputation as a far-thinking, patient civilisation.

    The former premier’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.

    The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. Zhou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.

    At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.

    “I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.

    He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.”

    Geremie Barme, of the Australian National University, said Zhou’s quote fitted with the widespread western view of an “oriental obliquity” that thought far into the future and was “somehow profound”. “Whereas, in China, you mostly hear that the leadership is short-sighted, radically pragmatic and anything but subtle,” he said.

    Dr Barme added that Chinese researchers with access to the foreign ministry archives in Beijing said that the records made clear that Zhou was referring to the 1968 riots in Paris.

    The Chinese archives also record Zhou’s conversation as being with Henry Kissinger.

    A spokeswoman for Dr Kissinger said that “he has no precise recollection but that the Freeman version seems much more plausible”.

    Zhou’s cryptic caution also reflected the murderous political climate in Beijing at the time, and the premier would not have risked passing judgment on the radical French Maoists involved in the Paris riots.

    It is not the first time a mis­interpretation of a Chinese leader’s saying has mistakenly entered mainstream parlance.

    Deng Xiaoping, who launched the country’s market reforms, is credited with saying, “To get rich is glorious”, although there is no record that he said it.

    The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 15, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  6. Louis, all I really want to know is this: are Libya’s liberators absolutely certain that they’ve rounded up all of Gaddafi’s sub-Saharan mercenaries? If a single one of these Viagra-fueled maniacs is still on the loose I fear that every achievement of the revolution is in peril.

    Comment by Bill J. — September 15, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

  7. Freddie middlebrow De Boer is very hit-or-miss and often attempts to punch above his weight class, which is his right. (Welcome to blogworld.) But his “Burkean” position regarding the dangers (the futility, even) of sociopolitical revolution comes straight from Frankie Fukuyama’s playbook in 2006, when neo-cons suddenly became repentant ex-neo-cons, apologizing for their imperial arrogance and cultural blindness, for hubristically and myopically thinking that the US could impose democracy on benighted Iraqis, for whom democracy is an alien concept. Since the invasion and occupation was never about democracy (not even liberal parliamentary democracy), and since these neo-con demagogues opportunistically turned ex-neo-cons knew it full well, their discourse was not so much a “Burkean” one about the pitfalls of revolution as it was one about acknowledging the limits of US power. Now that there is something of an ideological convergence going on between the US left and the (paleo-conservative, paleo-libertarian, and “realist”) right regarding US power projection, I think that more and more, opposition to US interventionism will be framed in the the terms that de Boer uses. One problem (among several) with this is that it tends to take “humanitarian intervention” rationales at face value, thus further muddling already muddled analysis and debate

    Comment by John Gulick — September 15, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

  8. Louis, all I really want to know is this: are Libya’s liberators absolutely certain that they’ve rounded up all of Gaddafi’s sub-Saharan mercenaries? If a single one of these Viagra-fueled maniacs is still on the loose I fear that every achievement of the revolution is in peril.

    This will be the swan song of the pro-Qaddafi, pro-Assad troll Bill J. I wonder why such creatures are incapable of anything but feeble-minded baits. Does their stupidity make them susceptible to such affinities or do they become stupid after one too many drinks at the VoltaireNet, Global Research fountain? In any case, I dealt thoroughly with the question of racism in Libya here:


    Comment by louisproyect — September 15, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

  9. Gave up on tariq ali when, together with UFPJ,he ccalled for ‘critical’ support for the Dimocrats in 2004. You know, the same Kerry leading the charge on Syria.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — September 18, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

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