Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 2, 2017

Young Assadist academics nursing their wounds

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Justin Podur

Max Ajl

One of the most depressing things about the six years of war in Syria, besides the obvious destruction of life and property, is the trail of intellectual damage left behind by investigative journalists, leftist leaders, and academics who bend the truth or outright lie in order to defend the mafia state. History will certainly remember people such as Seymour Hersh, Theodore Postol, and Tariq Ali as being ethically and intellectually challenged no matter how virtuous they were in the past.

While by no means as well-known as such figures, there are two young scholars who have been carrying Assad’s water since the war began. Justin Podur is an associate professor at York University, where he likely developed ties to Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin of Socialist Register. He has been an outspoken defender of the dictatorship and perhaps the person responsible for posting tweets in the name of Panitch and Gindin’s Socialist Project gloating over Assad’s recent military victories—or the victories of the Russian air force on his behalf. When I complained publicly about such vile material bearing the imprimatur of people like Panitch and Gindin, I was told by Gindin that I should have taken it up with him privately. Perhaps so, but I was deeply troubled by the failure of Socialist Project leaders to monitor a Twitter account in their name and implicitly their failure to stay on top of what was happening in Syria. It is regrettable that in six years of war, not a single article about Syria has appeared in Socialist Register, New Left Review or Monthly Review. Perhaps that is a blessing in disguise since if trouble had been taken to publish one, chances are that the analysis would have been amiss.

The other young scholar is Max Ajl, who is a Ph.D. student at Cornell and whose views on Syria are identical to Podur’s. The two are part of a loose network of Assadists made up of bright young things including Rania Khalek, Ben Norton, and Max Blumenthal. Unlike the latter two just named, Podur and Ajl never needed to cover their tracks. They have been ardent defenders of the war criminal and oligarch from day one.

Yesterday, in doing some research totally unrelated to Syria, I stumbled across Ajl’s name. Out of curiosity, I googled it to see what he was up to and discovered a truly eye-opening conversation that Podur conducted with him on April 29, 2017, as part of something called the Ossington Circle podcast series. It likely gets its name from an avenue in Toronto near York University.

As is the case with Khalek and Norton who have issued similar complaints, Ajl feels wounded by people like me calling him an Assadist. (Blumenthal could care less, probably because he is mostly into the Assadist thing for the money as the trip to Russia on RT’s dime might have indicated.) Podur has a caption at the beginning of the interview: “In this episode of The Ossington Circle, academic, activist, and editor at Jadaliyya Max Ajl discusses the destruction of Syria and the vitriol directed at leftists and Palestine activists who have opposed intervention in Syria.”

Opposed intervention? As I told a long-time Marxmail subscriber and member of the Israeli CP this morning who has the same Assadist POV as the two, “All of us oppose foreign intervention in Syria–starting with me. The USA has to stop bombing Iraq and Syria, as does Russia. Same applies to Israel. The Syrians have to determine their own destiny, not combatants from Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Or from ISIS’s foreign fighters. In fact, if Assad had to rely exclusively on Syrians to do his fighting–including jet pilots, he would have been toppled in 2012.”

It seems that Podur feels “guilty, muted, fumbling, silenced – about opposing imperialism, especially in Syria” and that it’s been “really confusing” for him. And who is responsible for him being hounded into oblivion like Leon Trotsky in the 1930s? It turns out to be Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

When Qatar launched Al Jazeera, who could have predicted that it would end up making life unbearable for the young associate professor and his dissertation student pal. You, see, there was a devious trick behind Al Jazeera. It gained admiration for its stance on Palestine but its real agenda was to advance the foreign policy goals of the reactionary oil sheiks against Syria, Libya, Iran and any other state in the region that dared to stand up to imperialism. Agreeing with Podur, Ajl offers this summary of what has happened:

And so, what we can see since 2011, are a variety of almost formulaic attacks on the left in Syria: “the left isn’t doing this on Syria”; “the left is all Putinites”; “the left is supporting genocide”; “the left has a double standard”; “the left should supply the same standard of Palestine to the Syrian conflict”; “the left is inadequately supporting the revolution”. And at the same time, we have so-called news coverage saying that whatever is occurring in Syria has no foreign help, is not getting support from the US government, there are no sectarian elements, and so forth.

When Ajl refers to news coverage not referring to foreign fighters in Syria, I wonder what newspaper he has been reading. Assuming that Cornell has Lexis-Nexis, he could have made a search on Syria and “foreign fighter” and discovered 990 articles. Here are 10 right off the top:

Assuming that Ajl is smart enough to have become accepted into a school as prestigious as Cornell, how could he come up with something so inarticulate as “the left isn’t doing this on Syria”? What is this supposed to mean? Doing this? Doing what? If he wanted to accurately describe what people like me have been writing, the words would have been: “The majority of the left has been writing propaganda for Assad”. For example, in a Telesur article Ajl wrote in 2015, he claims that “it is Europe which freely exports reactionaries to Syria.” At the time I responded:

I paused over this passage and wondered what Ajl had in mind. Was he saying that the European security forces were lining up fanatics to go build the caliphate that is beheading Christians? I tried to imagine a cop at the airport security gate in Orly spotting a guy in black fatigues with a turban on his head and a beard down to his belly-button. After he pulls him aside for interrogation, the guy shows him an official letter from the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure stating that he had been cleared to wreak havoc in Syria. After seeing this, the cop pats him on the back and sends him on his way.

Ajl complains about Al Jazeera’s bias. It opposed Assad but was “basically silent” about Bahrain during the Arab Spring. Just as you can check Lexis-Nexis on Syria and foreign fighters, you can go to Al Jazeera’s website and do a search on Bahrain and 2011. These are just some of the articles that show up:

I only hope he has more rigorous standards when it comes to his dissertation.

Ajl also resents how people like me (or perhaps me specifically) refer to Assadists like him viewing Syria within the context of a geopolitical chess game. Yes, it is true that this is exactly how most of the left approaches the dictatorship in Damascus. To paraphrase FDR, Assad might be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch if our means the BRICS, the good guys in the cold war, and the Manichean anti-imperialism of sects like the Party for Socialism and Liberation or the Socialist Equality Party.

That’s not the way Ajl sees things. Instead, “it’s about things like state sovereignty – that’s the entire framework of the post-Nazi international juridical order and it’s meant to actually prevent wars of aggression and to allow states to be sovereign, and for political movements to feel that that state sovereignty has social and political meaning.”

Sovereignty? Who the fuck is he kidding? Hafez al-Assad came to power through a military coup and a family dynasty has been ruling Syria since 1970. Yes, we oppose imperialism invading a country to topple a dictator like Manuel Noriega or Saddam Hussein but when an outside power like Russia shores up the Baathist family dynasty, how does that serve Syria’s sovereignty? For true sovereignty to have been respected, there should have never been outside powers meddling in Syria even if they were “invited in” by the dictatorship. That, of course, applied to South Vietnam in the early 60s just as much as it applied to Syria.

For Ajl, any talk about Russian or Iranian intervention in Syria being on the same plane as what the USA did in Indochina is to be rejected. Showing his deep grasp (at least in his mind) of Leninist theory, he writes:

To talk about who is or isn’t imperialist isn’t a question of describing who is or isn’t intervening in Syria, or if you don’t like them or don’t like the side they’re supporting. It should be a theoretical category. It should be a theoretical category that derives from what was going on before, and be used to interpret it and make sense of it, not just opportunistically deployed in order to justify whatever side one’s on.

 So one can go back to 1917 – or earlier – and talk about Lenin’s theory of imperialism or export of capital, and in that case, Russia is not exporting capital to Syria – at the current moment, Iran is expending capital in order to support the Syrian government: there’s loans, I think there are oil shipments that are ongoing. Both countries are supporting the Syrian treasury, extending large credit lines. Calling a post-colonial state – no matter what one wants to say about its political and social track record post-1970 – that called on allied forces to support the state institutions doesn’t strike me as imperialism by any understanding of the word, especially if one actually looks and tries to understand why both Russia and Iran have actually supported it.

The truth is that even if you accept Ajl’s rather superficial understanding of imperialism, this has little bearing on how to judge what Iran and Russia have been up to. For all of the talk about Syria’s sovereignty, there is zero engagement with the country’s class divisions. You really have to scratch your head when it comes to Podur and Ajl’s utter indifference to the economic structures in Syria that have fueled the rebellion. Since Ajl serves an editor at Bassam Haddad’s Jadaliyya, you’d think he might have taken the trouble to read what its founder once wrote about the material conditions that led to the revolt in a MERIP article:

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

Maybe people like Podur and Ajl should reintroduce the term capitalism into their political vocabulary. After all, Lenin did not consider it as a system different from capitalism but only its highest stage.

I learned from the podcast how Max Ajl got the boot from Jacobin, another oozing psychic sore for the young scholar. It seems that when Ajl was the Mideast editor at Jacobin and responsible for the dreck that appeared there from people like Patrick Higgins and Asa Winstanley, he was being “pestered” by a Palestinian professor named Bashir Abu-Manneh to publish Gilbert Achcar. If I had known about this, I would have advised Bashir not to waste his time since this was equivalent to asking Rupert Murdoch to hire Robert Reich to write op-ed columns for the NY Post.

Supposedly this must have gotten Bashir so worked up that “he helped orchestrate a kind of soft coup d’etat” against him at Jacobin. Hmm. Interesting. I never knew the particulars on how Ajl got axed but I was glad to see him go. I obviously don’t have any inside knowledge about what happened there but I suspect that it was more likely that the ISO had influenced Bhaskar Sunkara to reverse the magazine’s rancid position on Syria. As you probably know, the ISO has had a significant presence on the magazine—and thank god for that.

Perhaps Ajl’s grudge got the better of him since he accused Bashir of ending his book on “The Palestinian Novel” with a call for rousing up “support for the US destruction of Syria.” That’s quite a charge but a false one as I found out from Bashir this morning after alerting him to this slander. He sent me a copy of the only reference to Syria in that chapter. You judge for yourself whether Ajl was correct or lying like a rug.

Ajl sees himself as a member of a bloodied but unbowed anti-imperialist minority that has been silenced by the pro-revolution left. As he saw it, his role was to identify what the American government was doing and come out against it. In doing so, he was accused of “denying Arab agency”.

Podur asked how it felt to be told to “shut up” by the likes of me. Ajl replied:

“Yeah, it means “Shut up”, and the people saying “shut up” have been emerging from the woodwork since 2011. They want people to shut up, and that’s the basic agenda.

You can only be left in utter astonishment by people like him and others (Rania Khalek in particular) sounding like they were Leon Trotsky trying to tell the truth about the USSR in 1939 against a sea of Stalinist lies. The truth is just the opposite. Except for Jacobin (which has pretty much dropped the ball on Syria), the ISO, New Politics, and my blog or Clay Claiborne’s, nobody on the left has supported the struggle against Assad.

Let me conclude with a list off the top of my head of magazines and individuals that agree with the two young and wounded academics. (I hope it isn’t fatal.)

  • The Nation
  • Consortium News
  • Alternet
  • Salon
  • Monthly Review
  • London Review of Books
  • New York Review of Books
  • Patrick Cockburn
  • Seymour Hersh
  • Theodore Postol
  • Robert Fisk
  • David Bromwich
  • Tariq Ali
  • Charles Glass
  • Jeffrey Sachs
  • Stephen Kinzer
  • Gareth Porter

I am reminded of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Princess and the Pea”. A prince was looking for a bride but only a true princess would do. So he had a test. He piled 20 mattresses on a bed and a pea underneath the one on the bottom. Princesses tried out the bed and those who slept soundly were cast aside. It was only the last one who complained about the pea making her so uncomfortable that she could not sleep that became his bride. He concluded that any woman with such a low tolerance for annoyance would be a genuine princess.

We are the peas and Max Ajl is the princess.

9 Comments »

  1. Another great take-down of more Assadists. Thank you Louis!

    People in our region will not remember any of these guys’ names, but will remember the failure of a majority of western left. We will remember how the majority of western left abandoned their most basic principles and began sounding like the imperialists, speaking the language of “war on terror” and “spheres of influence”. We will remember that most western leftists came out in defense of a mass murderer who thinks he and his family own an entire country. What a treacherous bunch these people are. Thank you for exposing them. You are doing the western left a huge service.

    Historians of justice, and particularly our historians, will remember true friends of justice, and those who stood with the downtrodden, and against the tyrants who brutalize us.

    Comment by Reza — December 2, 2017 @ 11:37 pm

  2. Max Ajl: Both countries are supporting the Syrian treasury, extending large credit lines. Calling a post-colonial state – no matter what one wants to say about its political and social track record post-1970 – that called on allied forces to support the state institutions doesn’t strike me as imperialism by any understanding of the word

    You don’t need to read thousands of pages to understand the international nation-state system is a food chain. Iran has certainly been a target of US imperialism, but its own conduct in Syria is wannabe-imperialist, just as the Zionist movement started off as would-be military invaders who got lucky with the Balfour Declaration. Micromanaging the population of another country falls under imperialist behavior, I would think.
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/13/irans-syria-project-pushing-population-shifts-to-increase-influence

    “Iran and the regime don’t want any Sunnis between Damascus and Homs and the Lebanese border,” said one senior Lebanese leader. “This represents a historic shift in populations.”

    Comment by andrew r — December 3, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

  3. Along the lines pointed out by andrew r:

    Iran’s Revolutionary Guards reaps economic rewards in Syria
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-iran-idUSKBN1531TO

    Some take-aways:
    “Five memorandums of understanding were signed during a visit by Syrian Prime Minister Emad Khamis to Tehran on Tuesday, including a license for Iran to become a mobile phone service operator in Syria, and phosphate mining contracts.”

    “Analysts said the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a military force that runs a powerful industrial empire in Iran, would benefit from the deals, especially on the mobile network contract. IRGC largely controls telecommunications in Iran.”

    “Apart from military assistance, Syria is increasingly indebted to Iran financially: Tehran opened a $3.5 billion credit line in 2013, and extended it by $1 billion in 2015, which economists say has helped keep the Syrian economy afloat.

    SANA quoted Iran’s vice president Eshaq Jahangiri as saying Tehran was ready to “implement a new credit line between Syrian Trade Bank and Export Development Bank of Iran” to help trade.”

    Exporting finance capital is definitely the thing imperialists do.

    Comment by Reza — December 3, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

  4. The above article by Reuters is from January 2017. Here is another from September of this year, reporting on more contracts signed between Syria and Iran, to rebuild the electric grid:

    Iran strikes deal with Syria to repair power grid
    https://in.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-syria-iran/iran-strikes-deal-with-syria-to-repair-power-grid-idINL5N1LT2VB

    Some take-aways:
    The agreements include: “building a power plant the coastal province Latakia with a capacity of 540 megawatts, Syrian state news agency SANA said.”

    “The agreement also includes rehabilitating a 90-megawatt power station in Deir al-Zor province, where the Syrian army and allied forces have made swift advances against Islamic State in recent days.”

    “Two contracts were also signed, including for Iran to supply power to Aleppo city, which the Syrian military and its allies fully regained last year in a major blow to rebels, SANA said.”

    “Iranian firms are already involved in a series of electricity generation projects in Syria. Iran aims to export electricity and create the biggest power network in the Islamic world by hooking up Iran’s national grid with those of Iraq and Lebanon.

    “Iran said in August that it has exported $58 million worth of goods to Syria in the first four months of this year, marking a 100 percent increase compared with the same period a year ago.”

    Comment by Reza — December 3, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

  5. Thanks Louis Proyect for your work in gathering this document. There are certainly many others who continue to support the Arab Spring amongst the Left who are however disorganized. That is why the new Anti-War movement is being formed in the USA with Stanley Heller and Code Pink. In Québec and Canada I have spoken out against the Assad Alawite Nation-State and it s extra-Syrian backers, for the Direct Democracy Movement which comes out of the Green movement from Libya.

    Comment by abraham Weizfeld Ph.D. — December 3, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

  6. Just for the record, there was one article in Socialist Register 2017 that did discuss the Syrian war, and in a factual way that made no apologia for Assad: Andreas Malm, “Revolution in a warming world: lessons from the Russian to the Syrian revolutions.”

    Comment by jschulman — December 4, 2017 @ 4:32 am

  7. Has Against The Current said much of anything on the struggle against Assad? You’d think they would, in a way that mirrors New Politics.

    Comment by jschulman — December 4, 2017 @ 4:34 am

  8. Thanks, Jason. I’ll have to check it out. I only missed it because it hasn’t shown up when I did a search in the SR website.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 4, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

  9. Has Against The Current said much of anything on the struggle against Assad?

    They’ve had a couple of articles by Gilbert Achcar. That’s about it. Mostly the focus is on opposing ‘US war” in the region. Definitely not in the same vein as John Rees but still lacking in perspective.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 4, 2017 @ 2:30 pm


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