Syria: A Chemical Romance

This is a repost of my article at The North Star.

All empires produce the same lies. That their enemies (ever changing) are barbarians; that they defend civilization, honor, and morality against the latter’s outrages; that they provide the necessary peace and stability for a world that would fall into chaos absent their muscle; and that any action is justified to this end, however apparently remote from these lofty goals, because of the need to maintain the empire’s ‘credibility’ in the face of its domestic and foreign opposition. This credibility, of course, has nothing to do with what one normally understands by that. It is not a matter of being honest or truthful or transparent in one’s dealings. Empires are never any of these things: a tyrant can be an important ally one day and a cruel enemy of humanity the next, like the erstwhile ruler of Iraq. One can declare that the tyrant of Syria has crossed an internationally recognized moral line by the alleged use of chemical weapons, when one has repeatedly done the same. One can decry the Assad government as oppressive and violent, which it certainly is, and that it kills civilians on a large scale when threatened, which it certainly does, and yet see no harm in an absolute monarchy doing precisely the same thing with the active support of the empire.

Why then care about the empire’s moral denunciations, one way or the other? Empires have no morality, in the end, except to believe that without them things would be worse. This is a truth happily affirmed by the imperialist right, the ‘realists’ who defend it exactly in those terms, as one can read in any book by the likes of Niall Ferguson, Max Boot, and so forth. In this sense, they are more honest than the liberal moralists who take on the burden of the world unasked for, and when so playing the giant Atlas care little about whom they trample underfoot. The only honesty of imperialism is the straightforward presentation of the empire’s interests, but this rarely motivates anyone much. That is why all the ‘realist’ literature has the wink wink, nudge nudge tone of the old boys club: ‘you’re not supposed to say this, of course, but privately, we all know that’… On the other hand the moralist imperialists are possibly even worse, since unlike the realists there is no empirical content to their reasonings at all. The mission civilisatrice is both conclusion and point of departure of their arguments, and the ‘responsibility to protect’, as Freddie de Boer has pointed out, is justified exclusively by counterfactuals that nobody can contest, because they never happened. It is perhaps this cynicism that finally led to the surprising defeat of the British government on its motion for punitive strikes on Syria; a sign perhaps that the antiwar movement has had at least an indirect effect on the ‘credibility’, in the imperialist sense, of such arguments.

Given this, the whole charade about whether chemical weapons have been used and if so, whether by Assad or his subordinates or perhaps somehow by the rebels is rather beside the point. We know already that the regime of Assad has killed tens of thousands and is willing to continue to do so to remain in power, a power which it has used for the purposes of the self-aggrandizement of a long-necked eye doctor and the naked plunder of the country’s produced wealth. As with Assad senior before him, Bashar al-Assad’s pretend ‘anti-imperialism’ fools only those who want to be fooled by it. Even the pretense of a developmental dictatorship, once the rationale for the nationally-oriented middle classes in the Arab world to support the pan-Arabic Ba’ath programme, has faded entirely. Assad makes deals with Israel while pretending to be champion anti-Zionist, and keeps the peace in the Golan Heights. He pretends to be the saviour of the Arab dignity against the empire, just like Saddam Hussein did, while being equally happy to do what the empire wants when this suits his rule, just like Saddam Hussein did. This is illustrated by his enthusiastic participation in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program. (In Saddam’s case, of course, the cooperation consisted of going to war with Iran: a conflict sponsored by the West… with chemical weapons.) Nor is Assad serious about some kind of developmental programme in the style of the 20th century’s ‘postcolonial’ period. On the contrary, like all the other rulers whose predecessors justified their rule in developmental terms, he has given up even this raison d’être in the face of the pressure of the world market, and has undertaken a neoliberal turn of his own; one which maps remarkably well onto the central sites of rebellion against his dictatorship.

The argument about chemical weapons should then be left for what it is. It matters not tremendously whether thousands die through artillery bombardment or through chemical weapons. This is not to say that the ‘international taboo’ on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the desire to rid all states of these should be treated cynically by the left. On the contrary, the effects of such weapons have become all the more visible by the latest incident of their use, and it underlines their fundamentally profoundly anti-human nature. It is all the more significant because due to technological constraints, it is generally (though not universally) a set of weapons only usable by states against their subjects, and this should give us all the more reason to uniformly oppose their existence, let alone their use. But what does deserve to be treated with contempt is the notion of their being such a taboo in the first place, and that the United States and the cruise missile moralists are the correct instruments for enforcing it.

As mentioned, the empire was all too happy for one of the worst tyrants of the last few decades, Saddam Hussein, to have all manner of chemical weapons, as long as he used them on the empire’s foe, Iran. That he promptly turned these weapons on entire peoples who resisted his rule, and that this could be readily foreseen, counted for very little. The very same story applies in Syria, where the UK had no problem permitting the export of the relevant chemicals to the Syrian government even long after the civil war in Syria had begun. (And no such materials are ever sent anywhere without this being a conscious choice of foreign policy, as those suffering the boycotts of the West, like the peoples of Iran and Cuba, can attest.) I have also mentioned the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium by the US in Iraq, and could add the use of the former by Israel in Gaza in 2008 to that. And going further back, was this taboo on chemical weapons not established in the first place because of their large scale use in the First World War – precisely by powers like France, the UK, the US and Germany, who are now the enforcers?

One could of course think they have, wisely, learned from the experience. But the persistence of their supply to third party dictators suggests otherwise. What it suggests is that, like the WMD excuse for the war on Iraq, this obsession with punitive strikes and invasions has little to do with the enforcement of taboos on violence (which are obeyed only in the breach) and everything to do with the shoring up of the ‘credibility’ of the empire – the spirit here is not the melancholia of Wilfred Owen, but the older spirit of quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Who have learned from the experience are the people who suffer the effects of that mentality, the ones who have to endure the notion of missile strikes to liberate them from bombardments, or the generations that suffered the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the players of game theory. It is the empires and their supporters that have a chemical romance, and so do the petty tyrants that now appear as necessary allies, now again as dangerous madmen possessed of powerful weapons, as suits the mood of the day in Washington or London.

The only answer for the left can be, as always, a pox on both their houses. Nothing is sillier than the notion that in such conflicts, it becomes necessary to see one or another party as the instrument of liberation, just because they are the protagonists to the fight. We need not choose between Washington and Damascus, and indeed, it would mean absolutely nothing if we did. From neither, any form of emancipation can be expected except that final emancipation from the flesh that comes from the receiving end of a bomb or bullet. Moreover, as the anti-war coalition in 2003 also showed, the left today does not possess the power to prevent our own states from going to war, let alone that we figure in the calculations of the Syrian Army or the insurgents. It is therefore pointless to engage in grandstanding on behalf of one or another party, and the left habit of ‘upholding’ by means of uncritical whitewashing this or that side in every conflict is as pointless as it is undignified. We should not call on our states to shoot missiles, nor to send arms to the insurgents, about whom we know nothing and whose victory, if it is to have any emancipatory content at all, must take place without NATO armaments in any case. We should also not declare ourselves supporters of the tyrant of Damascus, who inherited his throne from his father (not unlike his rivals in the Gulf). His only claim to rule consists in the proven will of the Assad dynasty to level entire cities, if that’s what it takes to quell any resistance.

As always, it remains right to rebel. One cannot blame the Syrian insurgents, armed and unarmed – and it is worth pointing out that Assad’s brutal repression of unarmed resistance led to the civil war – for rising against a dictatorship that has no more legitimacy than Pinochet did. The interventions from the Gulf states have strengthened immeasurably the position of the religious reactionaries in this struggle. But this should illustrate for the left the futility of expecting regimes explicitly opposed to any emancipatory politics to sustain such politics by means of proxy war, whether Saudi Arabia or the US. What the left can’t usefully do is playing the great game of states, all the more in the absence of any state at all committed to the victory of the remaining left anywhere in the world. In most these countries, the left was only strong insofar as it was entirely beholden to the support of Moscow, and this put them in a great strategic difficulty as soon as actual revolutionary situations were to arise requiring local initiative, or if Moscow’s support were to fall away – as proven by the defeat of the left in Iran in 1979, and its virtual collapse since the fall of the USSR.

Perhaps out of the fires of the present wars in the MENA region, a new left can arise, one that obtains its strength from the struggles in the region itself, not from franchising to this or that foreign movement or international (and this includes, of course, the Trotskyist ones). But the rise of such a left is not helped by grandstanding from socialists abroad, nor from foreign interventions, nor from dressing up every political action or insurgency as being ‘really’ based in the extremely narrow organized industrial working classes of Egypt, Syria, or Iraq. Indeed, in most of the region the pervasive unemployment and unproductivity of labor makes a classically proletarian politics for now impossible: a consequence of the immense weakness of its capital, whose position is further undermined by the strength and activities of the rentier monarchies of the Gulf. All the same, countries full of young, unemployed people without a future are hotbeds for revolt in all of history, all the more so when they’re largely urbanized and not among the most desperately poor of the world. The response to this, triggered by rising food prices and the increasing weakness of the local dictators, has been a (proto-)revolutionary process – not a social revolution in economic relations, but a political process of rising consciousness and opposition to the corrupt and ineffective regimes of the region. The removal of these regimes is the absolute prerequisite for any genuinely revolutionary movement, needless to say.

It should be taken and supported as such, without any illusions about working class revolutionary politics and without the absurd theatre of ‘position taking’ every time foreign powers intervene for or against it. Ultimately, the present conflicts have nothing to do with ‘anti-imperialism’, chemical weapons, or any of these moral tales any more than the European conflicts of 1848 did. Our attitude should be that of 1848 as well: no foreign interventions, no ‘upholding’ or moralism, no overblown expectations. There may still be disagreement as to the means and the right groups to support, as is to be expected when the left is weak and has to substitute empty endorsements for action. But let’s not make this into a moral allegory. That we can oppose the tyrants, oppose the empire, and oppose the weapons of mass destruction they equally peddle in is clear enough, but it is a starting point, not a conclusion. It does not thereby prove the opposition to be the vehicle for socialist emancipation. It can’t be otherwise: there is presently no basis for such a politics. The rebellions of 1848 were all politically justified to the last, but none of them was justified by the historical conditions, and none of them could or did lead to a socialist politics. The same is true for the present 1848, the 1848 of the MENA region. I hope that the current conflicts end better than 1848 did, with its subsequent Bonapartism, though Egypt seems to suggest otherwise. Cynicism is never useful. But only by being honest about the real nature of conditions, precisely as empires and dictators can never be, can the left go beyond the moral tales of chemicals and revolutionaries.

Book Review: Saladin Ahmed, “Throne of the Crescent Moon”

Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is both something new and something very familiar in the genre of fantasy. Inspired as much by the fairytales of medieval Arabia and Persia as by the plot structures of high fantasy, the result is an engaging mixture. Featuring swashbuckling dervishes, powerful alchemists, and a ponderous ghoul hunter looking for retirement as the main protagonist, the book is as fast-paced and full of action as one might demand, and kept me up all night to finish it despite the present ravages of a bad cold virus. To be sure, Ahmed is unembarrassed about the use of classic fantasy tropes, albeit restructured into a loose allegory of the medieval Arab world – but what the book perhaps lacks in depth it more than makes up for in charm. The variegated characters are lively and engaging, although somewhat one-dimensional, and the writing achieves a surprising degree of emotional seriousness for what is a fairly unpretentious fantasy novel. This is aided by the emphasis on the religious dimension of life in the world of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, something traditionally underplayed in action-oriented fantasy. (The religion, of course, is an immediately recognizable adaptation of Islam.) Continue reading “Book Review: Saladin Ahmed, “Throne of the Crescent Moon””

Military Coup in Egypt

It is always difficult for socialists in one part of the world to pronounce on events thousands of miles away – at least without a certain degree of hubris and a certain risk of making oneself ridiculous. This applies perhaps in particular for those countries where the political forms and institutions, immediately apparent to outsiders, do not actually reveal much about the internal political and economic stucture: one can think here of Turkey, Pakistan, and the like. In a sense, it can perhaps be said that generally poor countries are effectively more divided than rich ones. This should come as no surprise given the desperation of poverty, the strength of religious divisions in such places, and the nature of class conflict. Sometimes these divisions are relatively clear and transparent to the outside, but often they are not, and even when properly understood reveal nothing much more than the many contradictions that keep such countries in a social and economic trap of poverty and violence. Egypt seems to fit the latter mold.

Nonetheless, I think it can be useful and justified for Western commentators to speak about events there, even if they know neither the country nor the language very well. There are several reasons for this. The first is owing to the political conclusions drawn by the various progressive forces in the West from events abroad, which makes the struggle over how to interpret these events also a struggle over the political outlook locally. Such arguments by proxy are, as I have argued before, often inherently questionable and misleading, but they are frequent. Secondly, the internationalist and cosmopolitan viewpoint that the current age demands and solidarity with people abroad requires a lively interest in their affairs, including in assessing the successes and mistakes of the progressive movements and parties of the places in question – but without thereby implying that some recipe for success exists in this or that office in London or Chicago. Such certainties are exactly the domain of the world improving free traders in the international economic organizations, and their all-knowing charity has done immeasurable harm. Rather, our perspective should be to see what the events and politics abroad look like to us, and what we can learn from them rather than to telling people far away what to do. But of course any intellectual independence also requires the courage to identify and comment on a mistake when one sees one, even if it is just to unleash a discussion on strategy. Due to its relation to ongoing events, such a strategic discussion can be infinitely more fruitful than overly abstract and general chatter about ‘workers’ parties’, ‘united fronts’ and so forth. But this, too, requires to obtain as much knowledge as possible for an outsider about the place in question, and a critical sifting of the writings and actions of the people on the ground. Continue reading “Military Coup in Egypt”

Israel: The Logic of a Settler State

Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. Who are we that we should argue against their hatred? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza and, before their very eyes we turn into our homestead the land and the villages in which they and their forefathers have lived. We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a home. Let us not shrink back when we see the hatred fermenting and filling the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, who sit all around us. Let us not avert our gaze, so that our hand shall not slip. This is the fate of our generation, the choice of our life – to be prepared and armed, strong and tough – or otherwise, the sword will slip from our fist, and our life will be snuffed out.

– Moshe Dayan, 1956.(1)

This land absorbs the skins of martyrs.
This land promises wheat and stars.
Worship it!
We are its salt and its water.
We are its wound, but a wound that fights.

– Mahmoud Darwish, “Diary of a Palestinian Wound” (1969)

While every conflict has its specificities, it is impossible to understand the nature and trends of the Israeli state without an understanding of the greater logic of which it is but one example. What I mean by this is this: Israel is the most recent and thereby the most contradictory example of the logic of settlerism, of the settler state as a phenomenon in capitalist history. All capitalist states have certain attributes necessary for the expansion and reproduction of the capital relation, such as limitations on workers’ freedom and mobility, a military-industrial complex, territoriality, and enforcement of exploitative relations of production, but settler states are a specific social formation of these that go over and beyond capitalist ‘normality’. The settler state is, in this sense, the most complete and pure outward appearance of the capital-state relationship. When successful, its natural ideology is that of an expansionist, self-confident liberalism; when threatened, its natural ideology is fascism.

The settler state distinguishes itself from the ‘normal’ forms of appearance of the capital-state relationship in several ways. First, that it is a state which even in its historical, embryonic form is already capitalist, and does not have the inheritance of the ‘muck of ages’ of absolutism, feudalism, and so forth. Second, it involves the voluntary transfer of a people from elsewhere into a given land, whether already occupied or not, which in so doing establishes a new social formation both separate from and against the existing one of the settled land. Thirdly, the necessary result of the combination of these factors is the demographic principle of the settler state: its very existence stands or falls by the numerical presence of the settler population as against the tally of the original population(s), as these become, by the very act of the settlement itself, the respective bearers of their social formation in them. In other words, the reproduction of the social formation of the settler society is, as with all societies, dependent on the reproduction of its population; but this principle is elevated to a higher level in the settler society, because rather than the reproduction of the population being the reproduction of the different classes and the whole ensemble of the historical heritage of that particular people, the reproduction of the population takes on a competitive form in and of itself. It is measured not in the ability to reproduce the working class per se, but in the ability to reproduce the settlers over and against the ‘natives’, whoever they may be.

This leads to the fourth principle, which is that the logic of the settler state is therefore necessarily racial and expansionist. Racial, because the settler society reproduces its social formation as a whole, and thereby subsumes its class differences into an artificial unity generated not by the process of nation-building within a given territory, as in the case of the traditional bourgeois process, but by the processes of demographic-military competition with the ‘native’ population, a competition fought out on all physical fronts. This inherently racializes the relationship between the settler population and the ‘natives’, as every settler, regardless of their class, is a guarantee of the survival of a social formation in a territory where this is under threat as a whole; it thereby becomes a question not of class against class, but of people against people, of a struggle over physicality and territoriality rather than over the process of economic production and distribution within the social formation. This is a wholly regressive and vicious throwback to the worst instincts and group behaviors of humanity.

It is also for this reason necessarily expansionist; not just because of the often limited number of settlers in the first periods of the settlement, and the sense of constant danger of extinction by the ‘native’ population, but more importantly because the only possible guarantee for the normalization of the social formation, the eradication of its bad conscience and its sense of ‘having survived’, rests ultimately in the destruction of the ‘native’ population and their rival social formation. Moreover, the struggle against this latter people or peoples itself perpetuates the artificial, racialized unity among the settlers themselves, and is thereby a welcome mechanism for externalizing and staving off the inevitable internal class conflicts the process of normalization entails. Therefore, the logic of the settler state necessarily and inherently contains within itself a drive towards the total fragmentation of the ‘native’ populations and the dissolution of their social bonds, if not their physical extermination as such – in other words, settlerism always means a logic of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

It is not difficult to find in history examples that underline the argument made here, and to demonstrate the particularity of this form of the capital-state relation in the modern world. In the case of the settlement of America, it has often been observed how the British upper class’ refusal to allow settlement to follow its expansionist course beyond the Appalachians was a major factor in the rebellion of the colonists. Indeed, the very same revolution in the United States which inaugurated the great bourgeois revolutionary upheavals of the modern era was an unmitigated disaster for the various indigenous peoples of what is now the USA, as their very physical existence came constantly and repeatedly in contradiction with the logic of American settlerism. The results are well known, and even now, the American counties with large native ‘reservations’ on them are the poorest in the country and have worse social statistics than many developing countries. In Canada and Australia the story was much the same, and in Australia perhaps most genocidal in its completeness, given the very low level of technological development of the various Aboriginal peoples compared to the ‘natives’ elsewhere; whereas in New Zealand the high level of military organization of the Maori and the lower number of settlers had a mildly dampening effect on the full consummation of settlerism. In all these cases, the racial factor was immediately evident from the start and has been since, and in all these cases there has been a clear political economic reality of ‘race burning class’, as J. Sakai put it.

Of course, the various practices and details of the settler logic vary from place to place according to the historical circumstances. In South Africa, the settlers being perpetually a small minority compared to the various indigenous peoples, especially after the completion of the Bantu migrations, compelled a policy of apartheid – a system in which the racially oppressed black workforce were to be kept separate and confined from the white population, lest they overcome them or destroy by ‘dilution’ the demographic basis of their social formation. It was not realistically possible for the native populations to be physically destroyed or fully ethnically cleansed from the majority of the territory, and this made the apartheid system a logical result – at least from the point of view of the settlers. (There were of course rules for ‘coloreds’, the Indian population etc., but these do not affect the larger picture.) The United States had the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery, and imported a great number of involuntary migrants, which created in effect a double settler state with two parallel racialized social formations, one historically progressive and industrial and one historically regressive and agrarian. The inevitable conflict between these was fought out in the American Civil War, with known results. But it should then come as no surprise that the settler logic of society re-established itself with vicious vigor almost immediately afterwards, and the potential for its destruction through radical Reconstruction was quickly lost.

In Israel, the logic of the settler state expresses itself in its most virulent forms. Firstly, the Zionist project of the settlement and colonization of Palestine is a unified whole, as all settlerism must be for it to not collapse under its contradictions. It therefore makes no difference whether it applies to Hebron or to Tel Aviv, in this regard, as in all circumstances the definite characteristics of the settler state described above are in operation and must be in operation. The artificial unity is present in the militarist-racial structure of Israeli society, in particular in its universal conscription, and in the very knowledge that even the continued existence of Arab place-names is a threat to the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’. Its expansionism is clear and obvious. From its modest beginnings the Israeli state has through perpetual war and ethnic cleansing swollen beyond any of its original territorial claims, and it shows no signs whatever of stopping. Its apartheid system expresses the racialization and the demographic factor clearly, and so does the constant talk of the ‘demographic threat’, the refusal to allow any Palestinian right of return and the open talk of deportations and ethnic cleansing, the secular political trend against socio-economic and internal class struggle and towards externalization in the form of further expansion and aggrandizement speak clear language.

Israel here has the misfortune of being the newest settler state, and so its victims can learn from history, even if its own settler population cannot. The very notion of a ‘two state solution’ with its own Arab Palestinian ‘natives’ is a risible one given the parallels between the Israeli consideration of Palestinian treaties and Palestinian land claims and the American treatment of the same relations with the various Native tribes, all of whom eventually ended up in open-air prisons called reservations. Indeed, Gaza, presently being bombed to smithereens, is nothing if not a ‘reservation’ of this type. But the Palestinians are not the only ‘natives’ victimized by settlerism: Israel treats its Druze and Bedouin populations no better, and regardless of the willingness of Druze to serve in its military, they have been systematically expropriated. It is worth noting that the willingness of settlerism to destroy any social formation opposing it on its physical-territorial domain of expansion finds its parallel in its willingness to accept any kind of settler as long as they are willing to underwrite the racial-settler system: one can look here at the history of the Irish and Italian migrants to the US, but even in the case of Israel there have been many Russian, Indian, even Peruvian migrant settlers accepted into the Israeli polity as ‘returning Jews’ whose Jewish identity was deeply spurious or nonexistent.

It is no coincidence that as Israel has become stronger and its logic has expressed itself more fully, it has become ever more fascist and less concerned even with formal equality and democracy – as shown most recently by the restrictive laws forbidding even the commemoration of the Naqba (the original ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians), the exclusion of anti-Zionist groups from parliamentary representation, and the unification between Likud and the fascist organization of Avigdor Lieberman. As I have argued, this trend of the capital-state relation to move away from formal liberalism and into a fascist siege mentality is characteristic of a settler state frustrated in its normalization process. For settler states, this normalization process can only occur on the basis of the destruction of the social formation of its rivals, of the original inhabitants; the US and Australia only even considered reforming the racial ladder system after their physical-demographic security as a settler state and their destruction of all rival social formations was complete. So it is with Israel also, and therefore Israel as a state does not and cannot want peace, whatever individuals within it may fervently hope.

Of course, this analysis is not to claim that such a logic develops wholly on its own, or that there is no agency on the part of the Other to which the settler state opposes itself. Indeed, the civil rights struggle in the United States and the campaigns for recognition on the part of the First Nations in Canada were major and inspirational examples of revolutionary organization on the part of oppressed groups, and it is equally no coincidence that such groups became more radicalized against the whole structure of the racialized capital-state relation of their settler societies as they struggled against them. The Palestinian cause has rightly taken inspiration from these examples, as well as from the resistance against the slightly different settler structure of northern Ireland, and it has in turn become a major emancipatory force of its own.

This is also why it is irredeemably silly when people point to the Palestinian struggle and ask why it garners so much attention and passion compared to the many struggles worldwide, whether in West Papua, in Syria, in Brazil or in Sudan. What such smug distraction misses is the essential role of the struggle against the settler logic. It is not a contingency of history that the US and Israel are so closely connected in alliance that there is ‘no daylight between them’. On the contrary. The hegemonic United States is a settler society and Israel is the only social formation of a similar type planted, in the decolonizing period of modern history, in the middle of the periphery (for want of a better term) and in a land of great religious significance at that. Therefore, much more than all the other such sites of struggle, Israel is a cornerstone of the political world-system. The struggle against Israel is therefore not just a question of the emancipation of the Palestinians, but it is a struggle against settler logic altogether, and through this, a struggle against the political manifestation of the current world order. This makes it a crucial site in the perpetuation of the imperialism of the West as well as in the ‘containment’ of global revolutionary and emancipatory struggles, and this gives it its particular significance.

It is also for this reason that any attempt at a ‘two state solution’ is not just inadequate and impossible, given what has been said about the inherent logic of settler states, but is actively reactionary compared to the enormous victory for revolutionary forces a unified Palestine would be. A single Palestine on the basis of secularism, democracy, and socialism would be transformed from a cornerstone of the capitalist-imperialist world order into a cornerstone of an emancipatory one. The prerequisite for this possibility is the defeat of Israel as a Zionist entity, the defeat of its inherent settler logic (and Zionism is historically just one example of settlerist ideology), and thereby the dissolution of its current social formation into one that is not irredeemably anti-emancipatory. There can be no ‘Zionist left’, no ‘liberal Zionism’, and so forth, for such propositions are incompatible with the practical logic of the settler state. The concept of Israel must die so that a Palestine may live for Jews and Arabs, Druze and Bedouin alike.

1) Cited in: Ghada Karmi, Married To Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (London 2007), p. 3.

Uprising in Syria

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.