Correcting a serious misrepresentation…
On 5 February we received a complaint that Tom Riley’s recent speech on events in the Middle East (which had been posted to our website a few days earlier) seriously misrepresented Socialist Action’s position on Russian involvement in Syria. After reviewing the facts, we retract Riley’s statement that Socialist Action is “oppose[d to] Russia’s military intervention in Syria” as well as his suggestion that “Presumably the Socialist Action…comrades consider [recent attempts by Russian forces to reassert Syrian control over northeast Syria] to be just an inter-imperialist confrontation in which they have no side.” Both of these political characterizations were mistaken as is clear from the 22 October 2019 statement on the recent split in Socialist Action (U.S.) which asserts:
We unconditionally support the right of Syria to self-determination, including its right to request and receive aid and military support from Russia, China, Iran and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah. Indeed, had not Syria sought and received aid from Russia, Iran and others, Syria today would be a U.S. neo-colony.
The same article reported:
In Syria, the SA majority insisted, we demand U.S./NATO Out Now! The SA minority insisted that we add ‘Russia Out Now!’ as well. Had we forces in Syria, the minority would be on the opposite side of the barricades in what they insist is a civil war between the Syrian government and the Syrian people.
SA’s position is clearly counterposed to that of our former comrades in the IBT, who in their 8 January statement refer to “Iran’s imperialist ally Russia,” and call for “Imperialists Out of the Middle East.” We will post a correction to the text of Riley’s remarks removing the false characterizations of SA’s position.
While the SA majority’s rejection of the demand for “Russia Out Now!” is clear and unambiguous, the reasons that delegates to its 2018 conference declared Russia to be “imperialist” have not, as yet, been made public. At a meeting in Toronto in November 2019 Jeff Mackler, SA’s central figure, remarked (at 1:20:58) that “We put in our political resolution, yes, we consider them [China and Russia] imperialist, on a lesser scale, and we didn’t apply a universal formula.”
The “universal formula” comrade Mackler alluded to is presumably the traditional Leninist-Trotskyist attitude of flat opposition to any imperialist military activity in neo-colonial countries. In earlier postings on our website we commented on the reluctance of SA and other leftist groups which characterize Russia as “imperialist,” to offer any explanation for the Kremlin’s role in supporting Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan government against U.S. “regime change” initiatives. We noted that Mackler, in his various writings on the subject, made no attempt “to distinguish between the motivations of Russia and China, on the one hand, and Cuba on the other, for opposing American imperialist aggression against Venezuela.”
…and posing a few questions for Socialist Action
- On Venezuela & ‘Russian Imperialism’
In a polemical account of its recent split, SA reported that its departed minority comrades attempted to introduce some recent activity by “Russian Imperialism” in relation to Venezuela with a 12 April 2019 “Counter-Amendment to the Draft Political Resolution on Venezuela” which noted:
A March 19  meeting in Rome between the U.S. and Russia, in which they aimed to find a common resolution for Venezuela, suggests that the threats to Venezuelan sovereignty come from more than one pole of world imperialism. The introduction of a small cadre of Russian troops indicates that Russia, too, is concerned about its investments and political prestige.
SA saw this as evidence that “the minority’s focus was on attacking the Maduro government and posing the need for Russia and China to cease their aid to Venezuela even though the beleaguered Venezuelan government has requested it!” While it makes sense to focus on the defense of the victim of U.S. aggression, it is hard to see why, if you consider China and Russia to be imperialist powers as SA does, it is not appropriate to mention such a significant fact in an analysis of the overall situation. Is SA’s peculiar reluctance motivated by a desire to avoid offending the sensibilities of its partners in its anti-war coalition-building? Or is it simply an attempt, borne of confusion or perhaps political cowardice, to sidestep the awkward fact that the Kremlin’s reasons for supporting the Venezuelan and Syrian regimes are entirely different from the considerations that motivate actual imperialists?
In a 26 March 2019 posting to our website we pointed out that:
Mackler is quite right that Cuba, along with Russia, Iran and the Chinese deformed workers’ state have all been targeted by the U.S., which openly promotes ‘regime change’ for each of them. It is perhaps significant therefore that he does not attempt to distinguish between the motivations of Russia and China, on the one hand, and Cuba on the other, for opposing American imperialist aggression against Venezuela. Last year Socialist Action correctly noted that Russian support had enabled the Syrian regime to resist U.S. military pressure:
“A sovereign and historically oppressed Syria exercised its right to self-determination when it requested military aid from Russia and others. In point of fact, were it not for Syria’s allies, there is no doubt that uninvited U.S.-backed imperialist troops and the U.S. itself would be occupying Damascus today as neo-colonial conquerors.”
—Socialist Action, 17 March 2018
This does not sound much like how ‘imperialist’ powers usually operate. Presumably the comrades are aware that Russia has no significant profitable investments in either Syria or Venezuela—nor is there much prospect of creating or acquiring such assets in the foreseeable future. Russia’s motivation for supporting these regimes is, in fact, identical to those of Cuba and Iran.
Marxists use “imperialism” as a designation for advanced capitalist powers that economically exploit more backward or dependent countries. If Russian capitalists were involved, on any significant scale, in this sort of activity in Latin America or the Middle East then Russia would qualify as an imperialist power. But in fact there is virtually no such activity taking place, not because Russian capitalists are somehow more virtuous than American or German ones, but because they are unable to successfully compete with their more advanced rivals in exploiting foreign workers. Russia (and China) have an entirely different relationship to the Venezuelan and Syrian regimes than the U.S. and its NATO allies—as Mackler et al implicitly recognize. As we noted in our 26 March 2019 posting:
The Chinese Stalinists and Putin’s bonapartist capitalist regime share an obvious interest (along with the Iranians, Cubans, North Koreans and others on Washington’s hit list) in impeding the U.S. drive for global ‘full spectrum dominance.’ Like the Iranians and Hezbollah, whose fighters actively defended Assad, when Beijing and Moscow provide material support to regimes threatened by U.S. imperialism they do so because they consider it to be in their own self-interest. But their motivations are not that of imperialist predators.
We expressed the hope that:
Perhaps the implicit recognition by SA, Red Flag and the IBT ‘imps’ that their impressionistic designation of Russia as ‘imperialist’ is not a useful analytical framework for understanding developments in Venezuela will lead to some rethinking.
- Socialist Action’s Zig-Zags over Syria & Libya
Socialist Action’s clear repudiation of demands for the removal of Russian troops (and military bases, we presume) from Syria does not align with its claim that Russia, like the U.S., is an imperialist power. Another anomaly is the assertion in its account of its recent split that “SA rejected this minority view that the war in Syria is a civil war.” Refusing to acknowledge this fact can only serve to obscure the historical roots of the conflict, which Riley sketched in a 4 October 2013 talk:
In Syria, the Baathist leadership was repeatedly denounced for ‘massacring their own people.’ Peter Certo, editor of the U.S. journal Foreign Policy In Focus, commented:
“The Assad regime is surely brutal, but make no mistake: this is a civil war, not a one-sided slaughter. Earlier this summer, the [anti-regime] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 43 percent of the 100,000 Syrians thought to have died in this conflict were fighting for Assad, surpassing estimates for both noncombatants and anti-regime forces.”
– 6 September 2013
The bourgeois press has also routinely ignored the fact that the roots of the current conflict in Syria go back at least half a century. During the 1960s, mass protests by the Muslim Brotherhood challenged the ‘atheist‘ Baathist regime and its ‘socialist’ policies, particularly the separation of mosque and state. By the late 1970s this had devolved into a guerrilla war by Islamistmujahedin fighters against the Syrian military (and their Soviet advisers). Ultimately the rebellion was brutally crushed (between six and twenty thousand civilians were killed in the rebel stronghold of Hama in 1982). The Brotherhood was driven underground and its leaders forced into exile until the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, when they reappeared as the core of the largely expatriate, and explicitly pro-imperialist, ‘Syrian National Council’ (SNC). The SNC was supported by the U.S. and its ‘Friends of Syria’ (composed of Turkey, various Gulf state monarchies and former colonial powers).
In Syria, as in Libya, most of the funding and logistical support for the Islamist insurgents has been coordinated with U.S. regional allies, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey helping. Russia is backing the regime with munitions and political support. Assad has also had significant assistance from Shia allies in Iraq and Iran, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Yet despite substantial foreign involvement, the current Syrian conflict remains essentially a power struggle between the Baathist regime and a mélange of oppositional formations within which Islamist groupings have gradually gained ascendance.
The story of the struggle between the traditionalist elements of Syrian society represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the rightist, would-be modernizing Baathists is well known. The SA leadership’s unsophisticated attempt to deny this history, however factionally convenient, will simply not withstand serious examination.
In its 22 October 2019 polemic SA argued:
The war in Syria, including at this moment, is a U.S.-led, NATO and Gulf State monarchy abetted imperialist war against a poor and oppressed nation. SA is not neutral with regard to this war, which has taken the lives of some 500,000 people and driven half of the Syrian people into internal or external exile.
The U.S. has certainly been deeply involved in the conflict, along with various regional allies and vassals, but the axis of the conflict is not simply one of imperialist aggression against a neo-colony like the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The assault on Libya had an essentially similar character—it concluded with a massive NATO bombing campaign ostensibly carried out in support of an uprising initiated by the CIA-connected National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO—see: Defeat the Imperialists! IBT Statement on NATO’s Libya Campaign.)
It is certainly true that “SA is not neutral with regard to this [Syrian] war.” In fact SA was never neutral, although its current position is diametrically opposed to the one it held in 2011 when the conflict commenced. That position is apparently still upheld by SA’s recently departed minority. The SA statement on the split observes:
In contrast to a few years ago when the so-called independent rebel forces, which were supported by the minority, occupied some two-thirds of Syria, today these same ‘rebels,’ whose calling card is the reactionary fundamentalist ideas of Al Qaida, the Nusra Front and related forces in the pay of Saudi Arabia, various Gulf State monarchies and U.S. imperialism, are isolated and defeated.
Complaining that “In this battle, [the SA minority] stated that they favor the ‘Syrian people,’ that is to say, the ‘rebels!’,” the SA leadership coyly fails to acknowledge that they originally held the same position, before changing sides. The May 2011 issue of Socialist Action, which reported the demands of the “Local Coordination Committee” (LCC), portrayed the conflict as a popular revolt, not an “imperialist war against a poor and oppressed nation”:
Protests on April 22  were the occasion for the first public declaration of the Syrian Local Coordination Committee, a coalition of groups. The committee denounced the killings, torture, and arrests, and demanded the release of all political prisoners. It further demanded constitutional reforms to limit presidential terms, increase parliament’s power, and legalize parties other than the Baath.
As in every other Arab country where protests have been met by repression, demands for reform have turned into calls for the regime’s removal. And as in the rest of the region, the regime’s turn to neoliberal economic policies, leading to greater inequality, unemployment, and higher prices, has helped fuel the revolt.
But Assad isn’t fooling the masses, who on April 24  revived a chant used earlier against him: ‘Bashar al-Assad, you traitor, you coward! Take your soldiers to the Golan,’ chiding Assad for turning his forces on his own people instead of recapturing the Golan Heights.
In its 21 August 2011 issue, Socialist Action featured an article entitled “Victory to the Syrian People’s Uprising! US/NATO, Hands Off!” Six months later, the 26 February 2012 issue published a declaration by SA’s Political Committee calling for “Victory to the Uprising!” At that time SA’s leadership depicted the civil war as a popular rising against exploitation:
The economic exploitation of Syria’s workers and peasants by its ruling class, a class subservient to global capital, and the horrific oppression and murderous policies of the Syrian regime to enforce that exploitation, mean that we stand with the Syrian masses in their uprising against the regime.
It would be easy to cite other examples where, initially, Socialist Action claimed to stand “with the Syrian masses…against the regime.” Today the SA leadership stands on the other side, with the Assad regime, and derides their former minority comrades who still claim to “favor the ‘Syrian people,’ that is to say, the ‘rebels!’”
This shift was carried out, as far as we are aware, without either a public accounting or any political explanation. This is not how serious revolutionaries operate. In a 2012 polemic we described SA’s parallel line change on Libya, where it had also initially enthused about the “rebels” led by the CIA-connected NCLO:
Socialist Action…also hailed the Libyan ‘revolution,’ but attempted to give its backing of the TNC [Transitional National Council, to which the NCLO was affiliated] a leftist spin by offering ‘political support in their fight against the quislings who would turn over Libya to imperialist intervention’ (Socialist Action, March 2011). The fact that the TNC quislings were soon actively demanding imperialist intervention presumably contributed to SA’s eventual decision to rethink its position. But as NATO was preparing to go in, Socialist Action (along with the rest of what remains of the late Ernest Mandel’s ‘United Secretariat of the Fourth International’ [USec]), was critical of ‘the role of Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro in their one-sided, if correct, denunciation of imperialism’s interests and intentions in this affair, while denying or ignoring Qaddafi’s repression and murders’ (Ibid.). It is hardly surprising that such left-nationalist or Stalinist bonapartists (whom SA and the USec have fawned over for years) were not particularly concerned by Qaddafi’s anti-democratic transgressions. But at least they understood what the imperialists were up to and did not ascribe a transcendent ‘revolutionary’ dynamic to the TNC.
Socialist Action‘s line change (which they have yet to acknowledge as such) was not made public until after Tripoli had fallen to the TNC/NATO alliance in August .
In response to the line change on Libya:
Ken Hiebert, a long-time USec supporter in Canada who is critical of Socialist Action’s change of position, inquired why—if March 2011 marked the beginning of ‘a six-month imperialist-led onslaught that wrought death and destruction on the Libyan people’—SA was ‘still calling for Victory to the Uprising! as late as April 28, 2011[?] Why is it that only in the September issue of their paper does SA revise its view?’ Hiebert suggests that the logic of SA’s new position means that those groups that wanted to see a victory by Qaddafi’s forces against NATO were ‘more far-sighted than the leadership of SA.’ He also wonders, if ‘the only force that could oppose the imperialist intervention was the Libyan army, shouldn’t we have been supporting the army and it [sic] leadership?’ But thus far, to our knowledge, Socialist Action has not chosen to respond.
To avoid promoting politics that lead to ‘severe defeats’ in future, Socialist Action needs to answer Hiebert’s questions and make an honest accounting of the roots of their original mistake and the process through which they came to reject it. They should also explicitly state that in hindsight they recognize the necessity to side militarily with Qaddafi’s forces against NATO.
Of course there was no such accounting. Had there been, perhaps some SA members might have objected to making exactly the same mistake in Syria, where, after cooling on the official “rebel” leadership in the Syrian National Council (SNC), the SA leadership continued to hold out hope that the “Free Syrian Army” (the SNC’s notional military arm) could still be prevented from coming under imperialist influence. In its 26 February 2012 statement cited above the SA Political Committee wrote:
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….
Revolutionary socialists support the right of the masses and revolutionary groups to mobilize, and indeed, to arm themselves against every dictatorship and especially against the well-armed Bashar al-Assad regime of torture, detention, and murder. We encourage the mass organizations to turn individual or small group defection into a consciously organized splitting of the army, with radicalizing rank-and-file soldiers and lower-rank officers joining neighborhood and workplace-based committees to form self-defense squads for the revolution. These squads would unite not only to oppose the regime but also to prevent the consolidation of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) as a tool of imperialism….
The SA Political Committee speculated that perhaps the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) could provide a counterweight to the overtly pro-imperialist SNC:
Inside Syria the repeated mobilizations, and material, medical, and self-defense support for them, are still in the hands of the LCCs, which, while they are in informal contact with each other, have yet to produce a national structure, much less speak with one political voice.
In a Nov. 2  statement the LCCs stated their opposition to outside intervention, a policy that apparently has not been dropped.
In 2014, in a polemic entitled “Déjà vu All Over Again,” Riley bluntly observed that: “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.” While the SA’s Political Committee was speculating about the possibility of the LCCs opposing the “traitorous heads of the Syrian National Council and the FSA [who] went to Tunis to try to convince U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her ilk to invade…” the LCCs were not only affiliated to the SNC, but their leading figure, Burhan Ghalyoun, was actually serving as SNC president, (a post he held from August 2011 to June 2012). After we pointed this out, the SA leadership neither responded nor issued any correction. Observing that “Socialist Action and its political antecedents have a long history of ‘optimistic’ misrepresentations that end in political embarrassment” Riley concluded that as a rule, “its leaders prefer not to account for the past but instead move on to the next big thing.”