It is right to rebel. For anyone of a revolutionary mind, even within bourgeois-Jacobin boundaries, there can be no doubt that this is the beginning of all political wisdom. As Corey Robin has recently narrated in his excellent history of the political right, The Reactionary Mind, the decisive political differentiation has rested since the French Revolution itself on this: the right supporting the power of elites against those rebelling in opposition to it, whereas the left has been on the side of the insurgents.(1) In many societies and many historical cases, things are of course not as simple in practice as an oligarchic and oppressive Ancien Régime opposed by a great mass of popular will. The recent revolts and transformations in the Arab world have proven this. In Tunisia, the situation was still relatively straightforward. In Egypt, the overthrow of the tyrant Mubarak has left the country with a situation where power is precariously balanced between the Jacobins of Tahrir, the army-bureaucratic interest and its ‘temporary’ rule, and the parliamentary power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Libya, the overthrow of Ghadaffi has predictably led to a split of the country among its major geographic division, that between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. But perhaps more significantly, the real power, which grows out of the barrel of a gun, is in the hands of militias located in the desert cities and whose reach does not extend beyond a local military rule in the name of this or that clan, or this or that area. Of course, under such conditions any political or economic developments are stifled until these immediate contradictions are resolved, which almost inevitably requires either a civil war, or a new dictatorship, or both. And then there is the shadow of Iraq, where the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime after Western intervention brought the country years of massacres and sectarian civil strife, its parliamentary government reigning on the most precarious basis, and its the illusory nature of its national unity now shown for what little it practically is.
But it is always easy to point to the chaos of a transition. This is not itself a response befitting revolutionaries. The above cases are by no means all identical in origins, nor in their legitimacy – there is a world of difference between an invasion of Western powers into a country to merely lop off the head of a hated but effective regime, leaving the body politic to fall apart; and on the other hand, an uprising of popular-democratic power, establishing a t least the formal trappings of democratic legitimacy and thereby opening up a political struggle that had been artificially repressed for decades. Iraq is not Tunisia or Egypt. Moreover, the countries themselves are not necessarily similar in their social structure, so the structure of each uprising is not identical any more than overthrowing a monarch in Austria-Hungary was the same as doing so in Russia. Algeria has not too long ago seen a prolonged dirty war between the government and a coalition of shadowy ‘Islamist’ organizations, characterized by massacres with unknown perpetrators, and leading to a climate of terror and stagnation destroying any prospects for extending popular power.
This may well be the future of Syria, on its current course. The Assad regime cannot be overthrown outright, for it has maintained too much support, not least within the army; but the insurgency, largely operating from the northern and eastern areas of the country, supported by various armed columns of disparate origins and ideology, is likely also too strong to be simply quelled. Each has their popularity and their unpopularity; neither provides a clear revolutionary programme capable of resolving the contradiction. “Between equal rights”, Marx said, “force decides”, and this then is sadly the only real prospect. Already, massacres of civilians by mysterious militias, accusations back and forth of atrocities, and the bombardment of cities and neighbourhoods are a daily phenomenon. Effectively, this means civil war, as the Western powers for their own reasons now also allege; and the very fact it is denied by both the government’s supporters and opponents proves its truth. (This paradox is easily explained by the fact both sides have imposed an effective ban, on penalty of death, on the presence of foreign journalists to observe the facts on the ground.) Even if the process towards a domestic war with the full participation of the general population is by no means complete, the strength of each side and the impossibility of a clear resolution on the basis of their demands proves that civil war has become a necessity outcome.
This is tragic, for such wars are often the most bloody, and their resolution into a positive result the most difficult to achieve, with their legacy lingering for decades. But it is important to understand that such a scenario is not the fault of the uprisings as such, and that one cannot condemn the insurgents on the basis of having ‘divided the country’ or the like. The very fact that only force can decide the contradictions of Arab politics is the consequence of the artificial repression of all political movements by decades of tyranny. It is first and foremost the tyrants whose fault the violence is. This is not the fault of the uprisings against oppression. One blames the Czar for the violence of the Russian Revolution, and the intervention of the Whites and the ‘fourteen armies’ for that of the Russian Civil War. This applies not just to Syria, but to Egypt, to Bahrain, to Tunisia, even to Libya. No imperialist intervention can be accepted any more than Western conspiracy can be blamed, precisely because the act itself is legitimate: it is right to rebel.
This does not, of course, tell foreign observers sympathetic to revolutionary politics how to read the evolution of Syrian affairs. Class societies ruled by quasi-monarchical dynasties of tyrants for long periods have one common trait: the more nationally united the tyranny makes them seem, the more divided they really are. In Syria, the Alawite (or Alevite) minority often supports the regime, which belongs to this denomination and has given its elite a strong grip on the country’s political and economic commanding heights. The Sunni majority for this same reason may often oppose it. But the divisions between the south and the north of the country, supporting and opposing the regime respectively, are at least as significant. Moreover, all these are, as always, mediations of the class divide in a capitalist society. With regard to the great imperialist powers, the case is clear enough. Israel and Syria have long been in strife; but the Israeli government knows well enough that like any man without legitimacy, Assad can survive only by making deals, and it will prefer him to the unknown alternative.
The watchword of the Party of Order is always ‘stability’, and this is why the ‘stability’ of tyrants is favored by the likes of Israel over the ‘chaos’ of political struggle. No observer sympathetic to revolutionary politics can be deceived by this – it is identical to the support for the Gulf monarchies by the Western powers, the same ones who now seek Assad’s deposition and an armed intervention in Syria. This does not prove Assad’s virtues, but on the contrary, simply the hypocrisy of the Americans and the Europeans; they have no interest in a Syrian revolution, merely in establishing a new ‘stability’, one favorable to their third remaking of the Middle Eastern map. Russia and China support Assad in turn because of their own desire for a ‘stability’ of lesser powers against the great ones in the West – again no motive or argument that can be of interest to revolutionaries, other than by denouncing it. The affairs of the Syrians must be settled by the Syrians themselves, even if this does mean that “force decides”. It is right to rebel.
Nothing is therefore less coherent than the argument of ‘principled anti-imperialism’. The question is not of supporting this regime or that, in the vain hope that one strengthens revolutionary politics by substituting the imperialism of Russia and China for that of the United States and the European powers. This is to play the game of 1914. It is also the error of the ‘lesser evil’; where a real possibility for a third option, a rejection of the choice between evils, exists, this path must be followed. This is not always the case, but certainly nothing necessitates upholding the rights of the likes of Assad and Ghadaffi. Not just because such a move is strategically ineffective – for any revolutionary politics, the greatest development of the last decade must be this opening up of the political sphere in the Middle East. This is perhaps the world’s most contradictory region in Mao’s sense, and full of potential for a much greater blow against the rule of the exploiting classes and states than would be a rhetorical support for some militarist clique or another. Such a move could only weaken revolutionary forces by making them look opportunistic and ridiculous, without actually affecting events on a broader scale.
But the most important argument is that it rests on a misunderstanding of the potential involved for our Party, for our side – a consistent underestimation of the power of the peoples in rebellion to create their own path, even through the fires of civil war and through the depths of sectarian strife. Indeed, one may make different strategic decisions in terms of rhetoric or domestic opposition, but it is not for us to delineate what Bassam Haddad has called “the threshold of pain“. This is for ‘reason in revolt‘ to do. The very struggle itself, on both sides, will work out the contradictions. Perhaps such an acceptance of violence as a political phenomenon may seem cynical, and it should certainly never be glorified. But this is the nature of revolt, and, as mentioned, revolt is the fault of the oppressors. Perhaps it is cynical, but faith in people’s own ability to take a stand and make a move is less cynical than the cynicism of ‘principled anti-imperialism’. We may then also be spared the cynicism of its opportunistic appeals to vague, unprincipled reformism in the form of bribery on the part of this or that ‘enlightened ruler’, as we heard so often about Ghadaffi. As Haddad has pointed out, “no other contradiction surpasses the one that exists between the state’s professed political-economic principles and its actual policies, regarding matters that concern the left: social justice, equity, class, empowerment, exploitation, labor, peasantry, and so on, especially since 1986”.(2)
Let us be clear then where we draw the line: The Czar is not better than Wilhelm and Wilhelm not better than the Czar; Putin is not better than Obama and Obama not better than Putin; the Islamists are not better than Assad and Assad is not better than the Islamists; but it is right to rebel.
1) Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind (New York, NY 2011).
2) Bassam Haddad, “Hizballah, Development, and the Political Economy of Pain: For Syria, What is ‘Left’ (Part 3)”. Jadaliyya, op cit.