September 10, 2013

Syria: A Chemical Romance

Posted in Imperialism, Middle East, War tagged , , , , at 15:04 by Matthijs Krul

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.

April 4, 2013

Book Review: John M. Hobson, “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”

Posted in Asia, Book Review, Europe, History, Imperialism, Politics, Theory, War tagged , , , , , , , at 19:15 by Matthijs Krul

John M. Hobson, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sheffield, is (or ought to be) known for his excellent and trenchant critiques of Eurocentrism in history and political theory. In previous works such as the seminal The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (which I reviewed here), he has exposed how mainstream thought from both left and right in these fields is beholden to Eurocentric conceptions of world history. This expresses itself not just in terms of the subjects considered important. It goes much further than that – Eurocentrism reveals itself often in speaking of European experiences as if they were universal experiences, in granting agency only to European actors and denying it to all others, presenting historical phenomena as the unfolding of a purely European logic with no reciprocal input from ‘the East’, and so forth; never mind outright imperialist, racist, or chauvinist narratives. Hobson has been a serious, scholarly, and systematic foe of such narratives throughout his career, and his books are a great contribution to the struggle, both political and scientific, against Eurocentrism, chauvinism, and racism.

The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 is a systematic historical overview of the major theories and theorists in international relations and their relationship to Eurocentrism. Hobson’s thesis is essentially aimed against the prevailing smug quasi-positivism of IR theory today and its blindness to the reality of Eurocentrism both in present and past practice. Where IR theorists today like to present themselves as being value-free scholars, concerned exclusively with descriptive depictions of the real interactions between state actors and questions of sovereignty and anarchy, Hobson charges them with a great deal of Eurocentric baggage smuggled in through ostensibly neutral terminology. What’s more, Hobson also shows that their reading of their own discipline’s history is one that conveniently erases or elides the roots of the various schools of IR thought in explicitly Eurocentric narratives. To expose this, the book presents a chronological overview of all the major IR theorists, from Kant, Hegel and Montesquieu through Marx and Mill onward to such diverse figures as Karl Pearson, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Adolf Hitler and Woodrow Wilson, and finally onto the present day with the Kagans, Huntingtons, Friedmans and Boots of our time. In each and every case Hobson demonstrates the Eurocentric content of their thought and how it explicitly shaped the development of their theories of state power, sovereignty, and interaction of states, not least as concerns the legitimacy of cultural or economic imperialism and the expansion of Western power. Hobson’s ultimate thesis is to demonstrate that despite its self-conception, almost all of IR theory has, in the final instance, been dedicated in one way or another to one cause: “defending and celebrating the ideal of the West in world politics” (p.345).

Hobson spends hundreds of pages of intelligent, critical, and dense close reading of a considerable number of greater and lesser authors to establish this fact. There is no purpose in recapitulating all his arguments; for that I would heartily recommend reading this excellent critical book. What is worth pointing out is that this work constitutes not just an argument within IR theory about its origins and purpose, but at the same time also takes position in a certain debate regarding the position of liberal, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought in a global perspective. This critical re-reading of the history of ideas, often associated with ‘postcolonial thought’ although not really rightly limited to that, is an important development in the struggle against European/Western chauvinism masquerading as high theory.

But Hobson’s approach to this question in this book is subtle and in many ways better than that of many of his fellow critics. In The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, he makes a number of important distinctions that help us understand the different types or categories of Eurocentric thought prevalent in 18th, 19th, and 20th century political theory. Crucially, Hobson distinguishes basically three axes of viewpoint: racism vs nonracism, imperialism vs anti-imperialism, and paternalism vs anti-paternalism (the last one concerning the need for Europeans to support or intervene peacefully to help achieve Western levels of civilization). As Hobson shows throughout the book, taking up a position along one of these axes by no means implies a given position on the others, nor are they reducible to each other. Contrary to critics such as Thomas McCarthy, Hobson rightly notes that to reduce Eurocentrism and various kinds of imperialist thought to purely a question of ‘veiled racism’ actually allows the Eurocentric, chauvinist thinkers far too much leeway. Someone like Samuel Huntington never writes about race, biology, or heredity anywhere, yet his work is evidently strongly Eurocentric. Equally, one can have out-and-out ‘scientific racist’ thinkers of the fin-de-siècle such as Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who were nonetheless generally opposed to Western imperialist ventures (for example because they would lead to white degeneration, or would stir up dangerous native activity). Hobson’s care to distinguish these different positions, presented in various helpful diagrams and classifications, not only sharpens and improves the political critique of Eurocentrism, but also generally aids in the process of a better understanding of post-Enlightenment thought and attitudes towards questions of empire, race, and political power.

Another important axis of analysis is the question of agency. Hobson includes many authors that would often be considered anti-Eurocentric into his Eurocentric panorama based on this crucial point. Rightly, he judges the various thinkers on Eurocentrism not just by their perception of the correct Western attitudes and actions towards the ‘East’, but also on the degree of agency they accord to the Eastern peoples in their analysis of world politics. Often authors will give full agency only to Europeans, and present the Eastern peoples as fundamentally stagnant, responding only to Western initiatives and changing only insofar as Western activity causes them to do so. They either have no independent agency at all – as in the myth of the eternal, stagnant East – or have only what Hobson calls ‘conditional agency’, that is, they can achieve independent activity only insofar as they become like the West.

Some versions of Eurocentrism, in particular the ones Hobson describes as ‘defensive racism’ or ‘defensive Eurocentrism’ do accord great agency to the East, but only a purely negative and predatory agency. These are the theories of the ‘yellow peril’ type, often presented in terms of the fear of Eastern power, mass migration, and the need to man the Western fortress. One finds this in racist forms in Stoddard, for example, and in nonracist form in Huntington and Lind. In all these cases, sovereignty, the obsession of IR theory, becomes the formal vehicle through which these ideas of agency tend to express themselves. Full sovereignty is only granted Western states; others have either no sovereignty, or gradated sovereignty, depending on their degree of conforming to Western demands and expectations of other states. Even for anti-paternalist anti-imperialist thinkers such as Kant (in his political works) and Smith, this gradation of sovereignty and agency still operated, and for this reason Hobson qualifies them as Eurocentric nonetheless.

What is interesting for the purposes of this blog is how he also shares a great number of Marxist analyses of international relations under this banner. In a lengthy reading of Lenin’s classic work on imperialism, he describes Lenin as Eurocentric despite his strong opposition to either imperialism or paternalistic activities of the West. For, as Hobson points out, despite Lenin’s disapproval of Western imperialism and its rapacious power and destructive effects, he accords virtually no independent ability to resist to the Eastern powers or peoples, let alone any independent initiative or serious interactive role in the process of globalisation. This goes also, in Hobson’s view, for many of the ‘Gramscian’ and ‘world systems’ neo-Marxist theorists of IR, such as Cox and Wallerstein, who are inclined to dismiss the independent Eastern contributions to the development and maintenance of capitalism as a system or are unwilling to grant the subjects of imperialism any other substantial role than as victims. While this depiction as ‘subliminally Eurocentric’, in Hobson’s terms, may be politically hard to swallow for many Marxists, it is difficult to deny that many Marxist theories of global capitalism do develop their ideas from a fundamentally Eurocentric ‘world outlook’ (as the Soviets used to say) in terms of agency, however much they may wish the downfall of Western imperialism and of the capitalist world order itself.

This brings me, however, to some residual problems with John Hobson’s framework. This book is a deeply impressive work of scholarship and critical reading in its own right, and the clear and cogent framework for a more subtle and thorough set of criteria for analyzing Eurocentrism is a great contribution in addition to that. Nonetheless, there remain in my view two problems. The first comes to the fore in his reading of Marx as Eurocentric. There is certainly no doubt that the Marx and Engels of the 1840s and 1850s were Eurocentric and saw imperialism, though they opposed it, as a fundamentally historically progressive force; they believed all nations would have to become part of the unfolding European logic of capitalism, and the sooner it was done with, the better. Hobson does not seem to note any of the vast literature on Marx and Engels’ change in position from the late 1860s or so onwards on these questions, instead taking the Marx of the early journalism on India as canonical for all of Marxism. He not only ignores the work of people such as Kevin B. Anderson on the ideas of the ‘anthropological’ Marx, but uses some dubious sources on his and other works. He takes the work of Bernal on 19th century interpretations of the classical world without criticism, despite these having been refuted at length, and his main source on Marx’s views appears to be an obscure Cold War tract, rather than any of the established scholarship on the question of Marxism’s relationship to the non-European world. This is not fatal just in one or two cases, but it makes one wonder how well he actually knows the scholarly debates around some of the material he references – a (minor) problem I also noted in his book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation.

However, lest that seem mere pedantry, I would argue the case of Marxism points to a deeper problem. I am wholly sympathetic to Hobson’s critique of Eurocentrism and also his useful revisions of the content of that classification. But there remains one element that is not satisfactory. While Hobson is surely right to critique as Eurocentric not just those who explicitly proclaim (in one way or another) the superiority of the West, or of Western institutions per se, there is a problematic that he does not fully explore. Hobson foresees the common counterargument to critiques of Eurocentrism, namely the old refrain that ‘it is Eurocentric because Europe really did become more important’ or ‘because Western values really are better’, etc. Hobson and many other people have shown that these are wrong in empirical terms, as Western history has not been the unfolding of its own immanent logic, Europe has not always been ahead of the East by any criterion imaginable and often only became so through imperialism (and even there with the collaboration of Eastern powers), and so forth. Much of these ideas are based on a thoroughly discredited Eurocentric empirical narrative. But Hobson does not wholly address the problem emerging from the use of Western criteria for historical analysis tout court. He seems to suggest in the book that the use of criteria from the West as universals is itself inherently Eurocentric, and here I would dissent.

It is undoubtedly Eurocentric to conveniently present the world as an opposition between ‘Western’ moral ideas, decent and civilized, versus the barbarism and sadism of the East, and similar tropes. But what to do with ideas that explicitly criticize the West itself according to their criteria also, and that do not present an opposition between the good West and the bad East? Many ideas have been developed in the West, or become globally influential through Western-dominated channels, that are nonetheless not inherently in the service of Western supremacy. Marxism could well be an example of one set such ideas, but there may be various, even perhaps certain liberal ideas. Hobson is right to oppose the empirical narratives of Western hyper-significance as unfounded. But certain ideas may develop universality despite originating or becoming popularized in the West, without thereby necessarily being Eurocentric, and this complicates his schema slightly – though I do not believe it invalidates any of his critiques per se.

This in turn leads to the second problem: Hobson’s understated alternative. In opposition to Eurocentrism, Hobson does not offer us any clear vision of what type of theoretical development, seeing the above contradictions, he would consider non-Eurocentric. He speaks at some length, for example, about the IR tropes of sovereignty and balance of powers as universalizing certain aspects of European experience, and offers as single counterexample the Chinese warring states and their development of a tributary (thereby apparently non-imperialist) empire. This seems a little meagre. More seriously, in the theoretical or methodological sphere he opposes nothing theorized to the Eurocentric flaws: running throughout the book is the counterpart of Eurocentrism in ‘cultural pluralism’ or ‘cultural tolerance’, once described as a substantive equality of sovereignty. But what is cultural pluralism? It seems Hobson wishes to steer us to the familiar Charybdis of an undertheorized ‘cultural relativism’ to avoid the Scylla of Eurocentrism, but this will not do as a substantive proposition. One very easily here falls into the postcolonial trap described by Aijaz Ahmad, where one takes the ‘cultures’ or nations of the ‘East’ as essential givens, and in the name of tolerating and supporting them against the chauvinism of the West, elides the many conflicts and (class) struggles that operate within them. A cultural turn of this sort can quickly turn to a form of quietism or bad faith that does not do the cause of emancipation any good.

Of course, one cannot expect an author to do everything in one book, and Hobson’s other books have provided substantial support for his empirical-historical views on the interaction between East and West as well as some of his ideas on the function and origins of concepts like ‘sovereignty’, the ‘Westphalian order’, etc. To provide a brilliant and learned critique of the type demonstrated in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is a work on par with James Blaut’s brilliant critiques of Eurocentric historiography and the readings of political theory as in the service of power by Corey Robin and Domenico Losurdo, among others. It should be required reading in any Politics or IR course, and is a fundamental corrective and warning to the many who believe that IR is a positive science uninfected by the legacy of Eurocentrism, racism, and imperialism that underpin it. It also implies a subtle and perhaps more interesting critique of ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’ and the way institutions and culture become core categories replacing race and civilization after WWII, while fulfilling the same functions in the narrative of Western triumph. Maintaining clarity and structure with such a huge number of authors and such complicated theoretical oppositions is no mean feat, either. It is therefore wholeheartedly recommended.

December 11, 2012

The Politics of Masculinity in the Afghan war

Posted in Asia, Imperialism, Patriarchy, Politics, Religion, United States, War tagged , , , , , , at 00:21 by Matthijs Krul

In the discussions on the question of anti-imperialism versus the necessity of intervention in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’, the gender dimension has been a much undertheorized one. While I am by no means a scholar of gender studies and barely qualified to speak at length on the topic, it has struck me that in the political dynamic around the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan this dynamic presents itself at least in part in the form of a politics of masculinity. This is true, it seems to me, of many of the major participants in the political and military conflict regardless of which ‘side’ they were on, and with an underlying drive not as dissimilar as has often been suggested. I can do no more than to vaguely sketch out my impression of this politics of masculinity, in the hope that some greater specialist can perhaps correct or elaborate upon this hunch. Nonetheless, I think it is a point worth making, because the interaction between gender and the ideology of politics is a potent one and has been throughout history, and it may serve to deflate somewhat the arrogance and pretensions of the different parties concerned with regard to their own significance and motives. Read the rest of this entry »

June 13, 2012

Uprising in Syria

Posted in Middle East, Politics, War tagged , , , at 23:44 by Matthijs Krul

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.

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