Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 21, 2016

Khiyana: a review

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

“Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution” is required reading, especially for those on the left who never thought that there was a revolution to begin with. For the past five years at least, a debate of sorts has raged on the left about Syria. Unfortunately, the side that implicitly or explicitly supports Bashar al-Assad has simply refused to engage with those on the other side. They pretend that the Syrian people do not exist just as they pretend that the supporters of the revolution do not exist. For the hardened ideologues of the more degraded “anti-imperialist” subculture, we are seen as CIA or Mossad agents even though many of us have been active on the left for decades or longer.

Ultimately, this is the result of bracketing out the class relations within Syria that practically beg for a Marxist analysis. With so much of the left either determined to see the conflict as one involving states rather than class, the results are predictable and all the more so when the rebels are reduced to an undifferentiated clot of “jihadis” or “extremists”. For those willing to see beyond the stereotypes, Khiyana is a good place to start—a book that belongs on shelf next to Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s “Burning Country”.

In broad brush strokes, the book functions as an analysis of the unfolding struggle within Syria as well as a source of critiques of those on the left whose “anti-imperialism” has been built on shaky foundations, namely a refusal to examine the struggle on its own terms or relying on material that distorts it beyond recognition. With that in mind, I would like to focus on two of the book’s key articles.

Sam Charles Hamad’s “The Rise of Daesh in Syria—some Inconvenient Truths” is a fifty-two-page analysis of the Islamic State that effectively debunks the claim that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State. To give you an idea of the need for such a rebuttal, consider the results of a Google search on “Saudi Arabia” and “ISIS” that reaches into the stratosphere: 16,700,000. At the top of the list is an article that is typical. Titled “Saudi Arabia Admits to John Kerry That It Created ISIS… But There is a Twist”, it appeared on the Zero Hedge website, one of the Internet’s prime conspiracy theory outlets. Like most conspiracists, these people are always looking for the gotcha quote or secret document that finally exposes The Truth. In many ways, it is the same kind of mindset that gets fixated on the temperature it takes for aircraft steel to melt. Zero Hedge sees a quote from a 04/20/2016 FT.com article as proof positive that Saudi Arabia created ISIS in response to Obama’s intervention in the region.

After the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to a lightning Isis offensive in 2014, even the late Prince Saud al-Faisal, the respected Saudi foreign minister, remonstrated with John Kerry, US secretary of state, that “Daesh [Isis] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa” — the Tehran-aligned Shia Islamist ruling party of Iraq.

Contrary to conspiracy-monger spin-doctoring, al-Faisal was only making an uncontroversial observation that Daesh got a foothold in Mosul only because the Shi’ite sectarian ruling party was oppressing Sunnis. To assume that “our response” means a confession of guilt by the Saudi monarch is first class idiocy but par for the course.

If you take the trouble to read Hamad’s article (and you should), you will understand the true relationship between not only the Saudi state and Daesh but the state and jihadi type groups in general, including al-Qaeda and its franchise in Syria, the al-Nusra front. Despite the tendency to assume that such Wahhabist groups are spawned by Saudi Arabia because it is a Wahhabist theocracy, Hamad produces a mountain of evidence showing that groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are its deadly enemies.

As opposed to most on the left who sling around terms like Salafist or Wahhabist interchangeably, Hamad takes considerable trouble to root them in the region’s history with the sort of erudition that is necessary to separate fact from fiction. To start with, Wahhabism is a current within Salafi Islam, a revivalist movement that sought to ground worship in the beliefs and practices of first generation Muslims, the as-Salafiyyah (pious forefathers). Mohammad al-Wahhab was an 18th century cleric who allied with the Al-Saud clan that eventually created the forerunner of the modern Saudi state. Warlike from the beginning, it attacked the Shia and Sufi sects as kuffar (unbelievers). So far this sounds just like ISIS, right?

Only if you do not understand that for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Saudi royal family is kuffar as well. That should be obvious at the outset from his belief that he is the new Khalifa, or steward of the Caliphate. The goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic state that honors no national boundaries. As such all states in the Middle East have to be subsumed under its authority, including Saudi Arabia. Muslims will belong to the new Caliphate, not any particular state nor take orders from the government that rules it. In a word, it is anti-national.

In November 2014 al-Baghdadi recorded an audio message declaring his intention to liberate the Saudi people from the Saloul, a derogatory name for the ruling family. Daesh threatened to invade Saudi Arabia from its redoubt in Anbar province. The Saudis placed sufficient weight in this threat to construct a 600-mile wall of the sort that Donald Trump could only admire. Like Trump, the Saudi royal family was deathly afraid of Islamic extremists. Unlike Trump, the Saudi fear was rooted in reality.

Despite Saudi efforts to thwart Daesh, the group has launched guerrilla attacks along the border with Iraq near the city of Arar that involved suicide bombers. But the more serious threat comes from Saudi citizens who have joined Daesh. The attacks are directed against Shia worshippers with the hope of sparking a sectarian war such as the kind that has been tearing apart Iraq and Syria.

Even more contrary to the dominant “anti-imperialist” narrative on Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have supported groups in Syria that have no connection to either ISIS or al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. Specifically, when Daesh and the FSA had a pitched battle in Deraa province, the FSA used weaponry supplied by the Saudis.

The same patterns exist for Qatar and Turkey, two other nations that have the reputation for being responsible for Daesh. Both have instead donated funds and arms to either secular nationalists or Islamists who have been the target of Daesh savagery. As opposed to the reductionist tendencies of the Assadist left, there is an abundance of evidence that such countries have an affinity for the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that was ousted by a military coup in Egypt three years ago for allegedly promoting an Islamist takeover. So who do you think the Saudis backed? The secular-minded military of course. Class always trumps confession, after all.

Hamad concludes his article with an astute observation on the responsibilities of the left today:

Clearly an entity like Daesh, as with all forms of chauvinist ultra-sectarian Salafi Jihadism, it represents a wider phenomenon within the Arab and Sunni Islamic world, but this phenomenon will not be confronted by supporting an order whose brutality, nourishes the roots of these kind of fascistic entities. The order is itself fascistic. These forces feed off one another—the exterminatory logic of Daesh is fed by the continued sectarian slaughter being carried out by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia, while the logic of the Assad regime, with its appropriation of the ‘war on terror’ is most forcefully reinforced by Daesh.

There is a third alternative. And it’s this alternative that the conspiracy narratives about Saudi funding, CIA plots, Gulf proxies and Western-backed rebels, truly seek to obscure. As with the Sahwat against Daesh’s predecessors in Iraq, the Syrian rebels are the only force capable of tackling Daesh and its more destructive root cause, Assad. That is why it is an imperative for all who support these revolutionary forces to expose these craven narratives for what they are.

It is those “craven narratives” that are the subject of Assad an-Nar’s “Socialism and the Democratic Wager”, a forty-page article that serves as a kind of introduction to the articles in Khiyana.

In addition to its critique of Baathist loyalists in Russia, Britain and the USA, it offers a useful theoretical framework for understanding the Syrian revolution, one that differs sharply from the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution that the author argues is a disservice to the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Whatever one makes of the critique, surely there must be an acknowledgement of the failure of those schooled in Trotskyist politics to understand the process—starting with Tariq Ali.

The first paragraph sets the tone for the article’s ambition, which is to re-orient the left to MENA reality:

The narcissism of the left is so thoroughgoing that it now conceives revolution and counterrevolution in terms of its own worn obsessions rather than proceeding from events. Thus the left has become largely irrelevant to the calculations of those actually engaged in revolution. But we proceed differently. Contemporary revolution calls for a reassessment of everything the left has come to believe because the raison d’etre of the left is to serve the social revolution, and this now positively demands such a rethink. Therefore this essay is unashamedly about the contemporary left and its impasse.

In the section titled Permanent Revolution, the article hones in on a theory that practically defines Trotskyism, namely one that started out as a way of understanding the struggle against Czarism that culminated in a socialist revolution but eventually became a kind of universal categorical imperative to be applied to the colonial revolution.

The author argues that the theory has been falsified by events. Colonialism disappeared across the planet without necessarily being the outcome of a 1917 type socialist revolution. Even in the 20s and 30s, countries like Mexico and Turkey were acting independently of imperialism but under a bourgeois leadership. (The article does not mention it but both nations gave political asylum to Leon Trotsky.)

If your condition for providing solidarity is based on conformity to Trotsky’s theory, naturally there will be a tendency to denigrate struggles that don’t measure up to his lofty standards. Although the article does not mention Tariq Ali, this certainly describes his sneering attitude toward the Arab Spring:

In September 2013, just a month after East Ghouta had been attacked with sarin gas by Assad’s military, Ali took to the pages of Guernica to pose the question “What is a Revolution?” His standards are exacting:

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. A brutal civil war with atrocities by both sides is currently being fought. Did the regime use gas or other chemical weapons? We do not know with certainty. The strikes envisaged by the United States are designed to prevent Assad’s military advances from defeating the opposition and re-taking the country. That is what is at stake in Syria.

Whatever else may or may not be happening in Syria, it is far removed from a revolution. Only the most blinkered sectarian fantasist could imagine this to be the case.

You’ll note the utter disregard for what the Muslim Brotherhood meant for Egyptian society–an attempt to have a democratically elected government for the first time in its history. This rather “blinkered sectarian”, if you will, dismissal of a genuine opening for a more democratic phase that the working class and social movements could use for its own advantage was a clear indication that there was not much difference between Ali and the more exotic forms of Trotskyist sectarianism found in the post-Healyite netherworld. This is not to speak of his sarin gas obfuscation. For Ali, Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry et al, the preferred narrative was a “false flag” operation that accepted the possibility that rebels would kill their own women and children in order to spark an American intervention—a cynical excuse for Assad’s savagery widely accepted if not trumpeted by his fan club worldwide. It subtly points to a racist interpretation of Arab fanaticism, namely that they don’t value human life as much as the West.

As opposed to this kind of schematic ultimatism, the Khiyana article restores the question of democracy to its proper place in Marxism. The concluding paragraph is a challenge to the left:

Today we live in the era of democratic revolutions with uncertain consequences. The last four decades or so of neoliberalism was responsible for the decomposition of the working class shaped by the post-war years of economic boom, resulting in its fateful dissolution as a collective subject, though a cursory examination of the balance sheet at least indicates that neoliberalism cannot unravel its own contradictions or the deeper contradictions of global capitalism. The left needs to decide whether to wager on the social and political upheavals of the neoliberal era or stand back and wait for the real world to decide to conform to the old theories. We must make the democratic wager. If the contradictions of the present lead to more collective forms of social struggle then we win. If it does not work, that would prove that socialism had become a utopia and we must simply plunder what we can. Like Pascal’s wager on faith, we win either way.

There is much more than can be said about this article that seeks not only to identify the key issues in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. It throws open a window and allows some fresh air in to defog the cloistered chambers of a Marxism that has grown stale with dogma and its own rectitude. I promise that even if you don’t agree with the author, it will challenge to think more deeply about a conflict that like Spain in the 30s and Vietnam in the 60s forces the left to confront difficult issues with openness and bravery. Nothing short of this will serve us over the long haul for human emancipation.

Khiyana is available from Amazon.com. I also have a few copies left that will not require a sales tax, nor will go toward enriching Jeff Bezos. Contact me at lnp3@panix.com for more information.


  1. A Great collection of essays are presented in this book, which is a very timely intervention that should be read by all. Most importantly, however, those who *should* really read it most likely will shun it at all costs.

    But, let’s hope that this, along with the book ‘Burning Country’, will be the first in a series of interventions that will eventually disabuse the western left of their deeply erroneous political calculations, and let’s hope that the international left will once again incorporate class struggle into their analysis as a principle.

    Comment by Reza — April 22, 2016 @ 10:48 pm

  2. It’s been great to discover your blog which has revived my hope that the left can come up with historically grounded and empirically supported analysis! Don’t let the naysayers get at you and all the best.

    Comment by vhardy88 — April 23, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

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