Déjà vu All Over Again

Socialist Action & the ‘Syrian Revolution’

Most of the international left has responded to the civil war in Syria in much the same fashion as they did to the conflict in Libya in 2011. In that case, organizations such as the International Socialist Tendency (IST), the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) and the British Workers Power group—to name only a few—initially hailed the bourgeois-led uprising against Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship as a popular “revolution.”Gradually they adopted more guarded formulations, and ultimately complained that reactionaries had hijacked the ”revolution.”

In Syria, as in Libya, mass opposition to the dictatorship was rapidly hegemonized by dissident elements of the ruling elites and Islamist reactionaries. In both cases, the imperialists played up the atrocities (real and invented) of the government while ignoring or downplaying crimes committed by the insurgents to whom they were providing logistical and political support. The excited self-delusions of the various leftists who insisted on seeing these armed revolts as proto-socialist “revolutions” served only to disorient and confuse those who took them seriously.

The Libyan uprising was initiated by the Transitional National Council (TNC), whose leaders included individuals with longstanding connections to the CIA. The rebel fighters—largely consisting of Islamists and members of disaffected tribes—played only a relatively minor role in the conflict. The decisive blows against Qaddafi’s military and security apparatus were struck by NATO bombers. This awkward fact was ignored by leftist apologists of the supposed “revolution,” who celebrated Qaddafi’s defeat, while simultaneously criticizing the imperialist military intervention that put the insurgents in power (see “Libya & the Left,” 1917 No.34).

Of all the tendencies that hailed the TNC-led “revolution,” only Socialist Action (SA—the U.S. affiliate of the United Secretariat) substantially modified its position when the pro-imperialist character of the rebels could no longer be denied. While not explicitly repudiating its original position (and thereby avoiding the necessity of explaining how it was arrived at in the first place), the shift was obvious in a statement published just after Tripoli fell to TNC/NATO forces:

“Imperialism’s defeat in any confrontation with oppressed nations weakens its capacity for future interventions and opens the door wider for others to follow suit. While revolutionary socialists have every right and obligation to criticize and oppose dictatorships everywhere, these criticisms are subordinate to the defeat of imperialist intervention and war. Revolutionaries are not neutral in such confrontations. We are always for the defeat of the imperialist intervener and would-be colonizer.”
—“Imperialist Victory Is No Gain for Libyan People,” 2 September 2011

The article, by SA’s leader Jeff Mackler, stopped short of advocating military support to Qaddafi’s fighters against the imperialists and their proxies, but it did acknowledge that with the TNC’s ascension to power, “we are compelled to recognize the tragic truth that a severe defeat has been inflicted on the Libyan people.”

This was more than the CWI, IST, IMT et al were capable of, but it did not represent a repudiation of the objectivist methodology which led to interpreting an insurrection by disaffected bourgeois elements as an unfolding revolution. While Socialist Action and its political antecedents have a long history of “optimistic” misrepresentations that end in political embarrassment, its leaders prefer not to account for the past but instead move on to the next big thing. Two weeks prior to Mackler’s characterization of the Libyan TNC’s victory as a “severe defeat” for the masses, an SA speaker in New York was proclaiming: “Long Live the Syrian Revolution!” (“Victory to the Syrian People’s Uprising! US/NATO, Hands Off!,” 21 August 2011).

In a subsequent statement, Socialist Action indicated that it was aware of some important parallels between Syria and Libya:

“as in all the other Arab revolts, the U.S. is encouraging its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, etc.) to encourage Muslim Brotherhood and salafi involvement in the uprising so as to have more pliable clients should Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fall.”
—”Syria uprising is critical to continuing Arab revolt,” 7 September 2011

SA praised those Syrian protesters who rejected calls for imperialist intervention:

“And fortunately, that movement in the streets is maintaining its opposition to intervention. On Aug. 29 [2011] the Local Coordinating Committees [LCCs] in Syria posted a statement on their Facebook page criticizing calls for foreign intervention made by more conservative elements in the Syrian opposition after the taking of Tripoli by NATO.“

Under a subhead entitled, “Class forces in the Syrian revolution,” SA outlined the unambiguously bourgeois program of the LCCs (yet failed to draw the obvious conclusion):

“Like most players in the Syrian rebellion, the LCCs have generally limited themselves to calling for political reform, democratic elections, a revised constitution, etc. A clearly delineated social program addressing the very inequality and exploitation that helped spark the revolt has yet to be produced.

“But what is key is that all accounts depict the LCCs as a widespread, genuinely grassroots phenomenon, in which thousands of youth have initiated, organized, and coordinated protests in every major city and town in the country.”

This is the same impulse that earlier led SA to embrace the Libyan “revolution”—the notion that a mass movement directed against an oppressive regime must somehow have an innately progressive dynamic. The SA statement noted that the most prominent leader of the LCCs was explicitly advocating a cross-class (i.e., bourgeois) bloc:

“Unfortunately, a completely different class perspective on the revolt’s prospects is expressed by Burhan Ghalyoun, the most widely quoted leader of the opposition inside Syria (as opposed to those living outside the country). He said in an interview reprinted in jadaliyya.com that he believes what will be decisive for the revolt is the coming over of ‘businessmen, professionals, manufacturers, and economists’—sectors that are seeking ‘stability’.”

A 26 February 2012 statement by SA’s Political Committee proclaimed: “We support the self-organization of the Syrian masses and encourage the revolutionary elements of the mass movement to build and strengthen organs of mass mobilization and decision-making.” Yet they could cite no evidence of “revolutionary elements” in or around the LCCs having any impact.

In the same statement, SA’s leadership called for the creation of “self-defense squads for the revolution” to “prevent the consolidation of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) as a tool of imperialism, a goal being earnestly pursued by traitorous high-ranking officers in cahoots with the U.S. government.” No such squads materialized, but SA nonetheless continued to support the “revolution” while characterizing the FSA and its political affiliate, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as “pro-imperialist.”

Like other ostensibly Marxist tendencies that portrayed the bourgeois opposition to Assad as “revolutionary,” SA drew a distinction between the overtly pro-imperialist SNC/FSA and the “grassroots” LCCs. Readers of Socialist Action might be surprised to learn that not only were the LCCs affiliated to the SNC, but that, from August 2011 to June 2012, their leading figure, Burhan Ghalyoun, was also president of the SNC. When Ghalyoun was pressured to step down from this position, the LCCs threatened to pull out:

“The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), a network of activists inside and outside Syria, warned the SNC it was drifting away from the spirit of the country’s revolution and threatened to suspend its membership.

“‘We have seen nothing in the past months except political incompetence in the SNC and a total lack of consensus between its vision and that of the revolutionaries,’ the LCC said.”
—Associated Press, 17 May 2012

While the LCCs initially opposed imperialist intervention, they have since reconsidered, and on 1 September 2013 released a statement advocating a large-scale U.S. military strike:

“A limited strike to merely warn Assad today will lead to nothing but his increase in violence, as well as to his complete confidence that no one would prevent him from killing.”

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“Any strike to the regime must aim to paralyze, with care and precision, its Air Forces, artillery, and rockets….As well as being accompanied with continued coordination and enough support to the Syrian opposition, the political and the armed, in order to allow them to organize and develop….”

This is precisely the attitude the Libyan TNC took toward NATO’s air war against Qaddafi. In a statement issued two days after the LCC declaration, Socialist Action denounced the threatened U.S. attack while not only ignoring the LCCs’ overtly pro-imperialist position, but continuing to tout them as a potential soviet-type formation:

“Today these forces, organized largely in Local Coordinating Committees that provide a modicum of defense and significant vital social services to Syria’s beleaguered people, if they prove capable of sinking deep roots into the entire population, can become central to any working-class challenge to Assad’s power, or that of any other tyrant who might follow.”
—“U.S. Hands Off Syria!,” 3 September 2013

The LCCs have not, by all accounts, lacked roots in the localities where they operate, nor can Ghalyoun et al be accused of trying to misrepresent their program. The LCC leadership has no particular problem with production for profit or imperialist intervention: their goal is to rid Syria of Assad, not capitalism. There is therefore no reason to expect the LCCs to transform themselves into an agency of genuinely revolutionary struggle. The socialist potential of the LCCs, like the “Syrian Revolution” which they supposedly embody, is a fantasy touted by fake Marxists who refuse to call things by their right names.