Socialist Action: Time to Own Up
‘Russian Imperialism’ & Flip-flops on Syria and Libya
On 18 February 2020 we retracted an assertion that Socialist Action (SA) “opposed” Russian involvement in Syria. In doing so we quoted the following from SA’s 22 October 2019 statement:
“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 SA statement reported an internal factional dispute with a recently departed minority:
“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.”
Our former comrades in the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) who, like SA, characterize Russia as “imperialist,” published a statement on 8 January 2020 which referred to “Iran’s imperialist ally Russia” and called for “Imperialists Out of the Middle East.” We mistakenly presumed that, because they shared the same premise, the IBT and SA would draw similar conclusions and oppose Russian “imperialist” intervention in semi-colonial regions like the Middle East.
While the SA comrades clearly reject the slogan “Russia Out Now!” we have yet to see any explanation of why they consider Russia (and China) to be “imperialist” powers. In July 2019, in a summary of the “central ideas” contained in the main resolution adopted at SA’s October 2018 national convention, Jeff Mackler wrote:
“‘China,’ the resolution asserts, is ‘a major and growing imperialist power in its own right, but considerably less developed in key areas than the U.S.’ (See Keith Leslie’s ‘China: A New Imperialist Power,’ soon to be published by Socialist Action.) Russia too, the resolution holds, is an imperialist nation ‘of considerably less weight in the world economy and in many other respects.’”
—socialistaction.org, 13 June, 2019
As far as we are aware Socialist Action neither published Leslie’s pamphlet nor provided any other rationale for characterizing China and Russia as “imperialists.” Leslie seems to be aligned with the minority which left SA in October 2019, in part over the issue of Russian forces in Syria. A month after the split, Mackler spoke in Toronto and made it clear that the group’s position had not changed: (at 1:20:58) “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.”
Comrade Mackler did not explain what he meant by a “universal formula,” but we presume this was a reference to the longstanding Leninist-Trotskyist policy of flat opposition to imperialist military activity in any neo-colonial country. In previous postings on our website we observed that SA, and other groups that label Russia “imperialist,” tend to avoid discussing the Kremlin’s role in opposing U.S. “regime change” initiatives in Venezuela, Iran and elsewhere. We also noted that Mackler and other SA comrades have failed “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.” Could this be because they recognize that the position is mistaken? If so, we suggest they own up.
In our 18 February 2020 statement correcting the mischaracterization of SA’s position on Russian intervention in the Middle East, we posed a few questions which have not been answered:
- On Venezuela & ‘Russian Imperialism’
In a polemical account of a 2019 split, SA reported that one disputed issue was the attempt by the departed minority to include “Russian Imperialism” as posing a threat to Venezuela. On 12 April 2019 the minority put forward a “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.”
The SA leadership rejected the proposed amendment which it interpreted 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!” It is of course the duty of revolutionaries to defend Venezuela against U.S. aggression, but this does not preclude addressing the role of other “imperialist” powers (a description that SA mistakenly applies to Russia and the Chinese deformed workers’ state). As Russia and China are factors in Venezuela’s attempts to resist American pressure, why not discuss their role in a political resolution on the question? Could this be an attempt to avoid offending some of its partners in its anti-war coalition? Or is it simply an attempt, borne of some combination of confusion and political cowardice, to avoid having to acknowledge that the Kremlin’s attempts to prop up the Venezuelan and Syrian regimes is motivated by entirely different considerations than those that impel the U.S. imperialists and their allies to bring them down?
In a 26 March 2019 posting (reprinted in Bolshevik No. 1) we observed:
“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 designate “imperialism” as the economic exploitation of backward or dependent countries by advanced capitalist powers. If Russian capitalists were involved in such activity on a significant scale in Latin America or the Middle East then it would make sense to describe Russia as an imperialist power. But Russian capitalists are too backward to be able to successfully compete with their more advanced American or German 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 comrade Mackler et al implicitly acknowledge. In our 26 March 2019 posting we pointed out:
“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 suggested 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.”
- Syria & Libya: SA embraced pro-imperialist ‘rebels’
Socialist Action’s rejection of the call for the removal of Russian troops (and presumably military bases) from Syria does not align with its position that Russia is an imperialist power, like the U.S. Its departed minority, which at least drew the logical conclusion from the incorrect premise regarding Russian “imperialism,” also correctly asserted that, fundamentally, the Syrian conflict is a civil war. According to their 22 October 2019 statement ”SA rejected this minority view that the war in Syria is a civil war.” In a 4 October 2013 talk, Tom Riley of the BT provided the following sketch of the historical roots of the conflict :
“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 Islamist mujahedin 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 protracted struggle between the rightist, modernizing Baathists and traditionalist layers of Syrian society represented by the Muslim Brotherhood is widely acknowledged by every competent authority. The SA leadership’s attempt to deny this history, however factionally convenient, will not withstand serious examination.
The 22 October 2019 polemic characterized the Syrian conflict as an imperialist war:
“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.”
American imperialism and its various regional allies and vassals have been heavily involved in the struggle, but the axis of the conflict, unlike the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, is not simply a case of imperialist aggression against a neo-colony. The U.S.-inspired assault on Libya which concluded with a massive NATO bombing campaign was another case of imperialist aggression against a neocolonial country. In that case the imperialists cynically pretended to be acting in support of a popular 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 true that “SA is not neutral with regard to this [Syrian] war.” Indeed, it was never neutral; yet its current posture is diametrically opposed to its position in 2011 when the conflict began, which SA’s departed minority apparently continues to uphold. In its statement on the split the SA leadership 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.”
Noting that “In this battle, [the SA minority] stated that they favor the ‘Syrian people,’ that is to say, the ‘rebels!’,” the SA leadership coyly avoids mentioning the fact that it originally took the same position, before changing sides. In May 2011 Socialist Action reported the demands of the “Local Coordination Committee” (LCC) and depicted the conflict as a popular revolt against an oppressive regime:
“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.”
Socialist Action featured an article entitled “Victory to the Syrian People’s Uprising! US/NATO, Hands Off!” in its 21 August 2011 issue. Six months later, the Political Committee of Socialist Action was calling for “Victory to the Uprising!” and portraying 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.”
—Socialist Action, 26 February 2012
Anyone who takes the time can find various other examples from this period in which Socialist Action claimed to stand “with the Syrian masses…against the regime.” But since then the SA leadership switched sides and now stands with the Assad regime. This flip-flop was executed, as far as we know, without any political explanation or public accounting. No serious revolutionary organization operates in this fashion.
In a 2012 polemic we commented on a similarly cynical reversal of position on Libya, where it had 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 .”
At the time of the Libya flip-flop:
“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 Socialist Action neither answered Hiebert’s questions nor undertook any serious accounting of how they had gone so far wrong about Libya. Had any such reckoning been undertaken then perhaps some SA members might have objected to exactly the same grossly opportunist flip-flop a few years later in Syria. After cooling on the Syrian National Council (SNC), Mackler and the rest of SA’s leadership speculated that perhaps the “Free Syrian Army” (the SNC’s notional military arm) might be rescued for the putative “revolution” and prevented from coming under imperialist influence. The SA Political Committee’s 26 February 2012 statement declared:
“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 followed this up with the pious hope that the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) might somehow provide a counterweight to the 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,” we 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 that the LCCs might break with 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…”, in fact the leading figure in the LCCs—Burhan Ghalyoun—was serving as SNC president, (a post he held from August 2011 to June 2012). When we pointed this out, the SA leadership did not respond, nor did they issue any correction. Observing that “Socialist Action and its political antecedents have a long history of ‘optimistic’ misrepresentations that end in political embarrassment” we noted that, as a rule, “its leaders prefer not to account for the past but instead move on to the next big thing.”