Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 8, 2018

Steve Ellner, Syria, and the “leftist utopians”

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:50 pm

Steve Ellner

On today’s ZNet, there is an article by Steve Ellner titled “Support for Governments Under Imperialist Siege” that begins:

A recent post of mine on the situation in Syria (http://steveellnersblog.blogspot.com/2018/04/in-conflict-in-syria-there-doesnt-seem.html) led to some interesting and critical comments coming both from those who felt I was too hard on Assad and Russia and those who felt I was letting them off the hook. The position I presented reflects my view of the current situation worldwide. As is often the case, the issue of Syria has to be placed in a broader, in this case global, context. Contextualization is fundamental for the achievement of an objective analysis and evaluation of the Syrian government and others that confront U.S.-promoted intervention, put forward an anti-imperialist discourse, and (in some cases) raise socialist banners, such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and Libya under Gaddafi.

As far as I know, there were no “critical comments” on his blog about letting Assad and Russia off the hook, where this ZNet post originated, nor on Twitter. In fact, it is very likely that the only critical comments to ever appear were mine on Facebook where he invited comments on the first article titled “Regarding the Conflict In Syria, There Doesn’t Seem to Be Any Good Guys”. I started off by calling it unadulterated horseshit and when he insisted that I offer some constructive criticisms, I warned about the usefulness of categories like “Good Guys” or “Bad Guys” and provided a link to something I wrote on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution.

In the next day or so, a thread developed with me responding to the toxic Assadist arguments of British economist Alan Freeman and Stansfield Smith, a former Marxmail subscriber and self-styled Cuban revolution supporter who made the same kinds of points you can read in Telesur or Granma most days. After seven years of writing about Syria, I have grown weary of dealing with such people and unfriended Ellner. I had toyed with the idea of writing a critique of his first article but decided I had better things to do. But since his follow-up article is almost certainly a response to what I told him on FB, I decided to answer him now.

In the more recent article, there is possible reference to me as a “leftist utopian”:

“Leftist utopianism” takes an all-or-nothing approach. It thus refrains from attempting to determine the relative seriousness of the errors of progressive governments, and ends up condemning all of them as sell-outs. Such an intransigent position is excessive. Thus, for instance, criticism of the populist policies of progressive governments that go overboard in providing handouts to non-privileged groups cannot be given the same weight as the privatization of strategic sectors of the economy carried out by the right.

If you’ve read my article on “Nicaraguan Contradictions”, you’ll realize that there is nothing “all-or-nothing” about my approach. I argued for taking a dialectical approach to the Ortega government that includes recognizing the benefits it has provided to poor campesinos. In comparing Ortega to Juan Perón, I hoped to convince my readers that left caudillos can make the same kind of difference to the working class that social democratic governments in Europe have made. Perhaps Ellner had Dan La Botz in mind whose “socialism from below” politics and obvious affinity with Samuel Farber are totally different from mine as my defense of the Bolivarian revolution should make clear.

But nobody from the ISO or New Politics offered comments on Ellner’s defense of Assad that appeared in his first article, only me. Let me now turn to that article but not before stating at the outset that Ellner appears to have very little background on Syria or the Middle East. He certainly is a highly-regarded expert on Latin America—and deservedly so—but in the 7 years he has been blogging, the only time he has referred to Syria has been mostly to warn about Trump and Hillary Clinton’s saber-rattling. Except for that, you can read this blithely unaware post from September 26, 2014:

At this point does anybody doubt that ISIS has the resources and willpower and is ruthless and deceptive enough to have used chemical weapons in Syria last year and then blame the Assad government? The United States came close to bombing Syria after accusing the Assad government of employing chemical weapons. Why doesn’t the corporate media revisit that incident in light of what we now know about ISIS? Conclusion: If you want critical analysis, you’re not going to get it from the corporate media.

Since he was obviously referring to the East Ghouta sarin gas attack in 2013 that supposedly crossed Obama’s red line, wasn’t he aware that ISIS had no presence to speak of in the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus? ISIS had a foothold in the north of Syria in places like Palmyra and Raqqa but had been driven out of the south by the FSA and other militias who saw them as Assad’s accomplices. Furthermore, if ISIS had sarin gas, why hadn’t these used it to repel the Shiite militias in Iraq or Assad’s? It is one thing for Ellner to pose insipid questions but it is another for him to not invest in the 15 minutes it would have taken to get up to speed on them before embarrassing himself on his blog.

Returning to the article titled “Regarding the Conflict In Syria, There Doesn’t Seem to Be Any Good Guys”, it starts with an attack on Ramah Kudaimi who had appeared on Democracy Now shortly after Donald Trump had ordered a missile strike on four buildings involved with chemical weapons R&D after the chlorine gas attack on Douma on April seventh.

Because Kudami focused more on Assad’s war crimes than Trump’s show of force (that was preceded by a phone call to the Kremlin and that cost not a single life), Ellner deduced that this meant that “her argument was a cover for support for greater U.S. intervention in order to topple the reviled Assad regime.” Why? It seemed that “Her basic point was that one-shot airstrikes are not enough.” Here is what she actually said:

Once in a while, as Trump did last year, as then Trump did this year, they’ll bomb a regime target—really an empty airfield, an empty chemical weapons factory—and then say, “See, we want Assad gone.” And yet, again and again, their actions have proven that, in fact, they want regime preservation.

Well, isn’t that obvious? Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg that he had no interest in regime change and just before the Douma chemical attack, Trump had cut off all military aid to the rebels. He followed that up this month with cutting off all aid to the White Helmets. So, instead of recognizing the facts that are staring him in the face if not tweaking his nose, Ellner warns darkly about regime change. I suppose this is the direct result of reading Telesur propaganda for 7 years and studiously avoiding anything written by the Syrian or Arab left. When you are fed a steady diet of lies, naturally you will repeat them especially since everybody knows that the Venezuelans and the Cubans are really “Good Guys” in all this.

Ellner is irked that the “commercial media” does not refer to the Islamic Front in Douma as “Bad Guys”, thus implicitly making you feel that if you were clued into their evil, mustache-twirling character, you might have seen the need to subdue them by any means necessary even if it entailed the collateral damage of civilians succumbing to chlorine gas. Too bad that Americans and Brits rely on the warmongering commercial media that a philosopher-king like Steve Ellner can easily debunk:

Typical of the disarray of the anti-Assad forces, the Islamic Front has spurned ties with other rebel organizations grouped in the Syrian National Coalition. Furthermore, the trajectory of the Islamic Front is characterized by extreme factionalism. In addition, Islamic Front leaders have articulated Sunni extremism and abhorrence for Shiites (who they call “Zoroastrians”!) and opposition to democracy. The commercial media tends to gloss over these details.”

In fact, the Islamic Front has been pilloried over and over again in the commercial media, including the Guardian that has the reputation of being the most fiercely committed to regime change. In a December 25, 2015 article, it referred to one of its leaders in the same terms as Ellner:

Alloush’s early propaganda videos were overtly sectarian, urging the expulsion of Shias and Alawites from Damascus. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority, which is nominally part of Shia Islam, and who are considered heretics by Sunni extremists. He was also opposed to the Islamic State terror group, and lost many fighters in battles against the militants.

CNN, another commercial media regime change advocate, made identical points on December 12, 2013, citing Aron Lund, an expert on the various jihadist groups who regarded the Islamic Front as “hardline Islamists influenced by the Salafi school of thought. They want a theocratic state, and are opposed to secularism and Western-style democracy — although they’ve said they can imagine having some sort of elections in a framework of Sharia law.”

In fact, nobody I consider a co-thinker is “for” the Islamic Front. Even the people who are supposedly the worst warmongers like John Kerry saw them as legitimate targets of American bombing.

Ellner concludes this tendentious article with a call for the left to support democracy in Syria but oppose the withdrawal of Russian bombers and foreign fighters from Iran (and implicitly Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well.) But isn’t it this intervention that helps to preserve the Baathist dictatorship? How could Ellner not understand this?

I will be briefer with Ellner’s follow-up article that makes an amalgam of Venezuela, Cuba, Libya and Syria as putting forward an “anti-imperialist discourse” and raising “socialist banners”. Yes, we should never forget those beautiful socialist banners held aloft by Bashar al-Assad, whose cousin Rami Makhlouf controls half the nation’s wealth and hides his profits in Panamanian banks. Isn’t Ellner aware of this? I would have thought that someone who writes scholarly articles referring to permanent revolution in Venezuela would have had a more rigorous approach to these questions but when it comes to the Arab world and North Africa, nothing much surprises me after 7 years of foolishness from journalists and academics alike.

Primary to Ellner’s distinction between Russia and China on one side and the USA and its partners on the other is that the BRICS powerhouses are not imperialist, thus making their intervention kosher as opposed to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003:

But the fact of the matter is that neither of these two countries behaves like the pre-World War I European powers described by Lenin, nor like the U.S. since 1946. Neither Russia nor China has military bases scattered throughout the world and both have provided political and economic support for progressive governments such as Venezuela. Furthermore, China’s and Russia’s bilateral economic deals may favor their own interests but do not attach strings fostering dependence, as in the case of the IMF, World Bank and Washington.

Actually, Lenin referred to Czarist Russia as imperialist even though it had not a single military base outside its borders and was decidedly third-rate economically compared to Great Britain. I dealt with the question of Russia as imperialist in 2014 and see no reason to take Ellner seriously on this matter, especially since he doesn’t bother to supply any data. A serious scholar like Michael Roberts makes sure to back up his arguments but apparently Ellner views his blog as a place for idle musing.

As for Lenin, this is what he wrote:

Have the socialists of France and Belgium not shown the same kind of treachery? They are excellent at exposing German imperialism, but, unfortunately they are amazingly purblind with regard to British, French, and particularly the barbarous Russian imperialism. They fail to see the disgraceful fact that, for decades on end, the French bourgeoisie have been paying out thousands of millions for the hire of the Black-Hundred gangs of Russian tsarism, and that the latter has been crushing the non-Russian majority in our country, robbing Poland, oppressing the Great Russian workers and peasants, and so on.

—The European War and International Socialism, 1914

If Lenin was alive today, I am sure he would have regarded the Russian aerial bombardment of East Aleppo last year as being just as barbarous.

Ellner takes the “ultra-pragmatists” to task as well. This is the Vanessa Beeley/Max Blumenthal/ANSWER coalition wing of the Assadist left that insists that the rest of the left “should refrain from leveling criticism of any nature at progressive governments under siege.”

All that is well and good but what is “progressive” about Syria? That is what Ellner must address. Just because Syria is ruled by something called the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, it does not mean that it has much in common with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. People like Ellner really need to brush up a bit on the political economy of Syria. There are vast amounts of literature on the topic but obviously outside of his comfort zone. I recommend the two-volume “Syria: from Reform to Revolt”, edited by Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl, that I cited extensively in my article on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution. I also recommend Michael Karadjis’s blog “Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis” that is distinguished by its careful, scholarly approach. I particularly recommend his take on the situation in East Ghouta titled “Ghouta: Issues Behind the Apocalypse: Armed and civil rebellion, Class and Islam” written in March. I also recommend Omar Hassan’s article “The origins of the criminal Assad dynasty” that appeared in the Marxist Left Review last summer, a journal published by Socialist Alternative in Australia. It debunks the idea that there is something “anti-imperialist” about Syria.

Finally, I recommend Tony McKenna’s article in the latest edition of the International Socialist Review, the ISO’s journal. Titled “Revolution and counterrevolution in Syria”, it is the most comprehensive article that will help you get your bearings on a topic that is so poorly understood by the left, including Steve Ellner. Like Ellner, McKenna discusses the two poles of opinion on Syria but one much more rooted in the history of the Marxist left rather than dubious distinctions between utopian/pragmatist or—even worse—good versus bad:

The issue of the Syrian revolution offers up the single most important challenge to the radical and revolutionary Left in many decades. It has provided a test for Marxist thinkers and activists that we have not known the like of since Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the workers’ and students’ councils which emerged in the context of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. And there is a level of parity between these two revolutions in the way the radical Left has responded to both.

The year 1956 provoked a fissure in the radical Left, with many of the old Communist parties of Europe cleaving to the party line and supporting the forces of the USSR. The irony that the Soviet Union was actually murdering the forms of popular, working-class democracy—the soviets—on which it was founded was lost on much of the higher levels of the party bureaucracy, which received both funding and direction from Moscow. But towing the Stalinist line was about more than just material gain and position. The Stalinist bureaucracy had arisen out of the ashes of the proletarian revolution in Russia—and reached its ghastly fruition in a period of revolutionary retreat more broadly. Revolutionary outbreaks of the working class in Germany, Hungary, Italy, and China had all been crushed (sometimes with the active collusion of the Stalinist state), and in the wake of this there lingered a pervasive sense of despair.

The palliative was provided, somewhat perversely, by the existence of the Stalinist state itself. Though it had murdered much of the original Bolshevik vanguard, though it treated the Russian working class with the utmost brutality, it nevertheless decked itself out in the colors and idiom of the proletarian revolution. It presented itself to the world not as a bureaucratic aberration whose power was premised on the wreckage of the worker’s democracy, but as a lonely and fateful entity carrying forth the proletarian flame at a time of the most abiding darkness.

In the aftermath of World War II such a sense of things was heightened. The successful establishment of a genuine worker’s democracy was not forthcoming, and in its absence many communist radicals clung to the image of the non-capitalist USSR as the next best thing, as a challenge to Western hegemony, and the true carrier of the communist tradition. Even Trotsky—who had maintained a lonely and noble opposition to Stalinism for which he would pay with his life—had developed a theoretical justification that would support such a perspective. He and his followers argued that—as Stalinism abolished capitalist social relations in countries by invading them and placing Stalinist bureaucracies at their helm—what the USSR was in fact doing was forming new workers’ states albeit in a “deformed” guise.

If one had to give a brief explanation of Stalinism’s ideological pull then, one could do worse than say it was first and foremost a council of despair—the conviction that socialism could be imposed by an external power from above in a period when the living, breathing possibility of a revolution awakening from below was felt to be either negligible or nonexistent. Of course this was a delusion that worked against the grain of the most fundamental dictum of all Marxist thought—“the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes.”

But what was perhaps even more problematic was that the Left—large sections of which had spent many years orientating themselves toward Stalinism as a form of pseudo salvation from above—was increasingly not equipped to attend to revolutionary upheavals when they did break out from below. So when the USSR suppressed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Communist Party of Great Britain along with a large swathe of Marxists and communist activists, applauded Moscow.

At the same time, however, from this rump—ossified by tradition—a key element began to break away. There were mass resignations and expulsions. Those Trotskyist groups, usually miniscule, maintained their noble opposition to Stalinism and decried the events of Hungary. More broadly, a “new left” began to cohere, one that tended to operate in terms of a more humanistic, anti-Stalinist vision of Marxism. Many such figures gathered around the journal New Left Review. In the 1960s, as these elements began to develop new theoretical perspectives, it must have seemed like a kind of springtime on the left, an airing out of all the dusty, accumulated dogma of ages, the chance to breathe in a new, fresher air.

Decades later, it is notable, with regards to Syria, how depressingly monotone the current Left seems to sound. Almost across the board, its leading figures seem united in the conviction that, though the Assad regime itself is not an unqualifiedly good thing, it nevertheless represents the most progressive force on the ground and is preferable to its adversaries. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, argues that the opposition shows “no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances,” and that any secular resistance has been “more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups.”50

Tariq Ali draws the inevitable conclusion51 from such a perspective—“If you want to fight ISIS, you should be going in and fighting alongside Russia and alongside Assad.”52 Ali is a serious Marxist thinker—part and parcel of that new left of the sixties, which emerged very much in opposition to Stalinism and its emissaries in the European communist parties. In addition, Ali has also been an excellent chronicler of the development of Islamophobia in the context of the ongoing Western military interventions in the Middle East over the course of the last fifteen years.

And yet, one can’t help but feel the logic that underpins his analysis of the Syrian upheaval has both Stalinist and Islamophobic connotations—albeit that he remains oblivious to them. It has Islamophobic connotations in as much as it helps blur the shades of differentiation within the opposition into a single tone of uniform extremism—all those who fight under the banner of Islam are understood as ISIS-influenced combatants or their ilk. And once one has established this—has understood that the forces from below are irredeemably incapable of rising toward more progressive forms of social organization and social struggle—then the door is open to a Stalinist-like logic, an inevitable and fatalistic last resort. The despair that comes from faithlessness in popular power is neatly amended by the masochistic desire for an external force to step into the breach and impose some form of order from above. Enter stage left—Assad and his Iranian and Russian cronies.


1 Comment »

  1. The despair that comes from faithlessness in popular power is neatly amended by the masochistic desire for an external force to step into the breach and impose some form of order from above.

    Well put. This piece complements the one below on the faithless Johnstone & Co., showing how even rather credible (and formerly credible) Left voices are being taken in by the fatalistic, TINA-like, no-alternative-to-Assad way of thinking and by insufficient analysis of what constitutes imperialism.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 9, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

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