Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2016

An open letter to the editors of N+1 on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:04 pm

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N+1 is a journal that is often cited alongside Jacobin in those effusive articles about the young lions of Marxism. I subscribe to both of them even though I can best be described as a toothless geezer on the edge of the pride.

My preference is for N+1 because its Marxism operates more behind the scenes. Too much of Jacobin reads like a plenary talk at a Historical Materialism conference while N+1 is where I learned about the Russian socialist, poet and rock musician Kirill Medvedev who translated Bukowski’s work into Russian—a man after my own heart.

With my expectations for N+1 set so high, I was rather disappointed with the editorial statement in the most recent issue titled “Bernie’s World: What does a left foreign policy look like?” that repeated many of the talking points of the “anti-imperialist” left about Syria. One can certainly understand why the editors would fall short on Syria. With so many other smart magazines like the London Review of Books and Harpers publishing articles that could have been lifted from RT.com, it is difficult to swim against the stream. After all, Bashar al-Assad’s genial, clean-shaven and well-groomed manner is so much easier to take than the unfathomable, bearded “Alluah Akhbar” yelling men in fatigues who would surely launch an attack on the American homeland if given half a chance. If Vogue Magazine was willing to do a profile on the Syrian president and his lovely wife a while back, who are we to quibble? After all, being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals.

The N+1 editors are generally okay with Sanders except on foreign policy. They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are “major donors of the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.”

Well, this is all wrong. In fact, Qatar insisted that it would only give money to al-Nusra if it severed its ties to al Qaeda. When negotiations broke down in 2015, the group continued to finance its own militias in Syria the way it always has, through donations by sympathizers in various Sunni countries, including Qatar. Does this mean that Qatar backs al-Nusra? Only in the sense that the USA backed the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when most of its funding “came from the USA”, especially from Boston’s South End.

Furthermore, the USA does not support al-Nusra. It has bombed the group repeatedly, always making the excuse that it was after the Khorasan—a nonexistent group that supposedly had plans to launch 9/11 type attacks in the USA.

As for Saudi Arabia, it is not supporting ISIS (once again making a distinction between the state and individuals acting on their own initiative) no matter what Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk write. ISIS has declared the royal family to be infidels and has already launched armed attacks from within Iraq. You can read about the growing threat to the Saudi establishment by recruits to the Islamic State who are killing wantonly as the March 31, 2016 NY Times reported:

The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

I recommend two new books on Syria that will clarify the role of such jihadist groups in Syria. One is titled “Burning Country” co-authored by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. The other is “Khiyana”, a collection of articles including one by me but the more relevant one is titled “The Rise of Daesh”, written by Sam Charles Hamad. His research is thoroughgoing and essential for getting past the stereotypes of Saudi Arabia being Dr. Frankenstein to the monster of ISIS:

One of the forces that received generous Saudi funding was the secular nationalist FSA-affiliate Liwa Shuhada Suriya (Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade) led by Jamal Maarouf. Far from Saudi’s funding Daesh when the FSA and Qatar and the Turkish funded Islamic Front launched an offensive against Daesh it was led by a FSA coalition called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front led by Jamal Maarouf. The weapons they used against Daesh on the frontlines were paid for by Saudi Arabia.

The only hard line Salafist group that Saudi has funded is Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) which was a merger of several different Salafi forces initiated by Saudi’s to attempt to deflect both Syrian and foreign Salafi recruits away from the growing threat of Jabhat an-Nusra (which at that time was still what Daesh called itself in Syria before its split). The reason for this was that Jabhat al-Nusra, as with all al-Qaeda ‘franchises’, espouses a virulent and violent anti-Saudi theology and politics.

If given a choice between Sanders and Clinton, the N+1 editors prefer the Bern since nobody could have been worse than Clinton who “sank an early peace deal in Syria to deepen the US proxy war”. This is a reference to the breakdown in talks between her and the Russians in 2012, with Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, who was involved with the talks, blaming Clinton. His revelations made quite a stir last year around this time in the left and liberal press. For example, the Guardian reported: “Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.”

But no peace deal was in the offing, especially one in which Assad would step down in a Yemen-type solution that would leave Assadism without Assad intact. How do I know? Because the Russians said so:

The Kremlin denied a claim by a senior negotiator [Martti Ahtisaari] Wednesday that Russia had offered in 2012 to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down in an “elegant way”, saying it never called for regime change.

“I can only once more repeat that Russia is not involved in changing regimes. Suggesting that someone step aside – elegantly or not – is something Russia has never done,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, quoted by TASS state news agency.

The only other thought I would offer is on the editors’ survey of the Vietnam antiwar movement, which I had significant involvement with.

They criticize the movement for failing to “anchor itself within the party structure”, a clear reference to becoming a wing of the Democratic Party:

But as Daniel Schlozman details in When Movements Anchor Parties, the antiwar movement failed both to anchor itself within the party structure and to create a lasting alternative coalition. No national elected official came out of the movement. On its own, the movement fragmented and radicalized, beset by Nixon’s repression on the one hand and by faltering strategies on the other. The distinction from the labor movement in the 1930s is enormous. At that time, organized labor, gaining in strength and numbers, weighed working outside the Democratic Party against negotiating with the party for legislative gains and legitimacy. Labor chose the latter strategy. The result was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the election of officials who declined to send in troops when workers occupied factories. (This is not to diminish the costs, over time, of being so close to the Democratic Party and blandishments of power, but the benefits were significant.) Nothing comparable occurred with the antiwar movement. By the time its electoral reforms delivered a candidate — George McGovern of McGovern-Fraser — it was too spent a force to work with the candidate. In 1972, McGovern suffered what was then the worst electoral defeat of the postwar era, until Mondale outdid him in 1984.

As it happens, the question of the Democrats and labor organizing in the 1930s is very fresh on my mind after having written about Sanders’s “political revolution” in early March. It turns out that the Mayor of Chicago in 1937 was a Democratic “friend of labor” who was backed by the Communist Party and as such would ostensibly be loath to attack workers. However, when steel workers went on strike, Edward Kelly ordered an attack by the cops that left 10 people dead on Memorial Day. Another 28 were wounded, 9 of them permanently disabled. And Roosevelt, the great friend of labor, was content to utter these words about the police massacre: “A plague on both your houses”.

The Vietnam antiwar movement kept the Democratic Party at arm’s length because it was led by the Trotskyists of the SWP who had a much more class-based understanding of the Democrats than the CPUSA. To make a long story short, the CP, which worked with the SWP and the pacifists in a kind of tripartite coalition that the N+1 article alludes to, was always trying to get the coalition to follow the lead of Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy or George McGovern. If it had been successful, there never would have been a Moratorium or any other mass demonstration. You can take my word on that.

I must say that I got a chuckle out of this wind-up by the editors on the Vietnam antiwar movement:

The narrow demand to end the war in Vietnam meant that once the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the movement had little left to pursue beyond the sunlit quadrangles and back-patting panel discussions of academic life.

Back-patting panel discussions of academic life? Hmmm. Not exactly. Most of the people who provided both the brains and the muscle of the movement were social workers, librarians, cabdrivers, waiters, computer programmers and the like. There were a few figureheads at the top like Noam Chomsky and Douglas Dowd who taught at elite schools but you’d hardly find them at “back-patting panel discussions of academic life”.

Finally, there is some hope in the final paragraphs of the N+1 editorial embodied in its critique of Noam Chomsky who they regard as an exemplary antiwarrior but fault on the basis for a certain kind of kneejerk reaction to conflicts overseas:

Chomsky’s American antistatism — bracing and helpful as it has been — sometimes makes other kinds of internationalism difficult. If the temptation facing one set of political figures is to wake up every morning wondering whom to bomb next, the temptation facing the left is to keep one’s hands clean; to withdraw from the world, taking up an older but no less simplistic approach to foreign policy, isolationism à la George Washington and Ron Paul.

As it happens, the Ron Paul outlook is hegemonic on the left. It boils down to putting a minus where your ruling class puts a plus as Leon Trotsky noted in a 1938 article titled “Learn to Think”. It is the orientation of the libertarian Antiwar.com as well as 99 percent of the material that appears on CounterPunch, Salon, ZNet and other radical or liberal websites.

The only problem with this approach is that it fails to engage with the class struggle inside a country where rebels find themselves on the other side of the barricades from someone like Bashar al-Assad getting pilloried by Nicholas Kristof, et al. We should not develop an orientation to the conflict in Syria based on an NY Times op-ed but on the class forces in motion. That requires reading what the Syrian left has to say, starting with someone like Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a communist who spent 16 years in a Syrian prison:

Perhaps that explains the convergence of right-wing Westerners who were never critical of the colonialist project and continue to believe in the civilizing mission with communists of the transferring scientific consciousness type who are still nostalgic for the Soviet Union, no less a prisonhouse of nations than Tsarist Russia was in the words of Karl Marx.

It is not in concepts like tyranny, despotism or even totalitarianism that we find an explanatory model for the Assad regime. But rather in the concept of colonialism, and its most brutal models in particular. Models based on genocide as it manifested itself in the new world hundreds of years ago and in Russia between the two world wars.


  1. “They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are “major donors of the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.””

    Given that this is objectionable for so many obvious reasons, it is odd that N + 1 came to this conclusion instead.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 30, 2016 @ 4:06 am

  2. Well, they will be answering me in the next issue:

    Dear Louis (if I may),

    Thank you so much for this bracing and intelligent letter. Would it be all right if we put a lightly edited version of it in our next issue? We might, for example, cut straight to your disappointment: gratifying as your kind words are (especially about our hero Medvedev), the critique is what’s at stake. We plan to reply, as you might imagine–but let me say what a pleasure it is to receive a response of this kind. We’re grateful.

    Nikil (for n+1)

    Comment by louisproyect — April 30, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

  3. https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/61710

    Comment by Tony — May 10, 2016 @ 4:42 am

  4. […] (I should start off by saying that N+1 butchered my original blog piece to such an extent that it was practically robbed of its meaning. I suppose that they did this to save space and admittedly it was my mistake to give them permission to run the letter but I urge you to read the original here.) […]

    Pingback by N+1, Syria and the Democratic Party | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 19, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

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