The previous installment of this series analyzed, criticized, and contextualized one of the more sophisticated attempts at constructing a theory of state capitalism. Part of the context was an impressionistic empiricism. Those in the “third camp” tradition tend to conflate the political or economic suppression of workers with an underlying system of class exploitation, just as they tend to read into any instance of workers in motion an underlying and socially progressive political program. While the first component of third-camp politics is fading from the political landscape, the second is more prominent than ever. So much so that it informs the politics even of ostensibly Trotskyist groups that have never embraced theories of state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism. This might prompt the question of why a theory of deformed workers’ states deserves the attention it has received on this blog.
The answer would point not only to the obvious political implications of refusing to identify Cuba or China as deformed workers’ states, but also to the underlying methodology that produces conclusions about the existence or even possibility of deformed workers’ states. If third campism is an acute expression of a naïve and undialectical spontaneism, as I hope to demonstrate in this blog post, then a proper analysis of deformed workers’ states is similarly a concentrated manifestation of the ability to develop programmatically sound conclusions from the multi-layered and often internally contradictory ebbs and flows of concrete struggles. Soviet defensists have often repeated Trotsky’s expression that “those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones.” Onto which can be tacked the adage: “what was once old will be new again.” The specific gains of which Trotsky wrote have almost been completely extinguished from the globe. But when they are achieved once more, through a methodologically Marxist political praxis, the issue will arise once again of how to understand instances of political degeneration, of steps backward, and how to resist them without in the process destroying progressive gains with which they will invariably be bound up.
Long-term success in the class struggle requires programmatic clarity, combined with a leadership with the ingenuity and creativity to adapt clear principles to concrete situations. To do so moves us far beyond the realm of following workers in motion, wherever they may go, and into the realm of analyzing where workers are moving to, what has consciously driven them there, and how their consciousness relates to the lower-level hydraulics of the class struggle. The case of the Syrian conflict will prove an instructive case study in this regard. After the violent crackdown of largely non-violent demonstrations against Bashar Al Assad’s Ba’athist regime in the spring of 2011, the conflict took an increasingly ominous turn as various segments of the opposition scrambled to arm themselves in what was an incipient civil war. Militias formed consisting of working-class, petty-bourgeois and lumpen fighters under the leadership of various religious leaders, defecting officers from Assad’s military, and in some cases other local or foreign “strong men.” Since then, the conflict has continued to evolve, dividing ostensibly Trotskyist organizations. The revolutionary Marxist approach to take in regards to the ongoing violence in Syria will become clear only after analyzing the general principles Marxists in apply in assessing a political movement, then applying them to what has happened and continues to happen on the ground in the cauldron of the Syrian civil war.
Democracy and Program
The Marxist method of evaluating political movements is to place them within the context of class forces fighting for specific programs of change. Those working-class political movements that are fighting to improve their own or other workers’ lives – no matter how small the reform they are pushing – deserve support. Those that harm the working class, by either binding it more strongly to the leadership of the capitalists or by exacerbating divisions within the proletariat, do not. The same guidelines also hold for “pro-democracy” movements. “Democracy!” is a slogan, not a political program. And the essential task for Marxists is to determine what any such push for “democracy” or expansion of voting procedures means in class terms in any given context. As Lenin said of the need to flesh out the class substance of democracy:
“If we are not to mock at common sense and history, it is obvious that we cannot speak of ‘pure democracy’ as long as different classes exist; we can only speak of class democracy. (Let us say in parenthesis that ‘pure democracy’ is not only an ignorant phrase, revealing a lack of understanding both of the class struggle and of the nature of the state, but also a thrice-empty phrase, since in communist society democracy will wither away in the process of changing and becoming a habit, but will never be ‘pure’ democracy.)”
In keeping with Lenin, Marxists support proletarian democracy, and reforms within bourgeois democracy that strengthen the position of the proletariat in the class struggle against the bourgeoisie. A mobilized working-class pushing for and winning universal franchise against an autocratic capitalist state is a class gain, even if those workers still harbor bourgeois illusions. Marxists would therefore support that struggle on an independent class basis, warning workers aligned to various bourgeois-led factions on the need to rely on their own powers to maximize the effectiveness of their new voting rights. The win in question is not the right to check a box on a piece of paper per se (“pure democracy,” abstracted from context), but the winning of a weapon by which the class, as a class, can gauge its extra-parliamentary power and obstruct capitalist state attacks against their livelihoods. It is for this reason that Marxists do not “advise,” through the ballot box or otherwise, that the bourgeois state undertake any other policy changes that do not represent a net advance in the struggle of the working class or specially oppressed. At best, doing so would represent a step sideways. At worst, it would risk deepening sectoral divisions within the working-class, or of building parliamentarist illusions in the perfectability of the capitalist state. Wonkish calibrations of that sort are tantamount to re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking Titanic. Marxists do not aim to manage the capitalist state. They aim to replace it.
The struggle for democracy was near and dear to the hearts of Marx and Engels, but only because of its programmatic class content. In the nineteenth century, at both the leadership and grassroots levels, the push for democracy had universalizing aspirations, was anti-clerical and anti-monarchical, and was a cudgel used by the working class to secure all-around improvements to their lives. (For a good discussion of Marx and Engels’ involvement in the democratic struggles of their day, see August Nimtz’s Marx & Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough. For an overview of the working class’s decisive contribution to the establishment of bourgeois democracy, see Goeff Eley’s Forging Democracy and Rusechemeyers, Stevens, and Stevens’ Capitalist Development and Democracy. In the American context, Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic gives a history of the link between the growth of New York City’s working-class and struggles for the franchise there.)
When democracy is understood in this way, it becomes clear why the Bolsheviks moved to dissolve the “democratically elected” Constituent Assembly after state power had shifted to the qualitatively superior soviets of workers and peasants. Or why Trotskyists oppose “pro-democracy” movements within workers’ states, when “democracy” is a clear Trojan horse through which to advance unapologetically capitalist-restorationist political programs. Or why – as we will discuss in the next section – Marxists would not support a movement for enfranchisement along sectarian lines with the goal of imposing a far-right program of religious and political persecution of other segments of the working class. Unlike in cases where workers are struggling for directly economic class gains (e.g. a higher minimum wage) under a parasitic petty-bourgeois union leadership restraining the full power of the workers’ demands and organizations, the question of leadership in fighting for democracy is determinative of what political meaning “democracy” even has for the movement. Misleadership would play a constitutive role for the movement, not a parasitic one. Without analyzing the programmatic context within which the word is being used, Marxists are unable to assess whether a struggle is worth undertaking or supporting.
The Syrian Civil War
Assessing struggles in the present requires understanding how they have developed through time. Rarely do they accelerate from 0 to 60 overnight. Even non-revolutionary movements take time and resources to organize into forces capable of creating substantial political change. Typically, they begin as sporadic or even semi-spontaneous demonstrations based loosely around one or two demands. Over time these demonstrations can proliferate in time and place, and coalesce into a larger campaign that then can coordinate under a wider strategic vision of what to do about the basic political structures in society, of why and how to change them— or what was alluded to above as a political program. Sociologists sometimes employ fancy academese to describe this process, with references to “protest cycles” and “level shift.”
How this process unfolded in Syria in 2011 is instructive. The demonstrations against Assad that began there in March of 2011 were a diffusion of the Arab Spring protests that had begun in Tunisia in late 2010 and in Egypt in January 2011, leading to the toppling of both countries’ governments by February of 2011. Syrians had reason to hate the Ba’athist head of state, who inherited his father’s presidency in 2000. Economic reforms from the 1970s onward whittled the public sector of the economy, shrinking the number of government jobs available to struggling Syrians even as smaller producers in Syria’s agricultural sector were squeezed off the land by environmentally destructive practices (resulting in soil erosion, salinization, etc.), mechanization, increasing centralization of ownership by well-connected urbanites who exploited the privatization (“intifah”) of land in the 1990s, and perhaps most important of all, a major draught that afflicted the countryside from 2007 to 2010 (see Syria from Reform to Revolt, Vol. 1, esp. ch. 2, for a good discussion of the agricultural backdrop to unrest).
Politically the picture was equally bleak. The Assad regime, once anticipated to be a potentially bold leader of a “Damascus Spring” in 2000 and 2001, left his father’s method of governance mostly intact. His two most important holdover strategies have consisted of tight control of the political culture, imposed through single-party albeit secular rule backed by an expansive internal security apparatus (the Political Security Directorate or Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi, frequently staffed, in predictably prebendal style, by close Assad friends or relatives). The other strategy has been the continuation of divide-and-rule among the Muslims sects within Syrian society (in contrast to the U.S., where “race” has been the central mechanism for accomplishing this strategy). Assad comes from the Alawite branch of Shia Islam, which constitutes only about 13% of the population though it enjoys much of the government largesse. The remaining 87% is composed of 68% Sunni, 3% non-Alawi Shia (or “Shi’ite”), 11% Christian, and 3% Druze, and 2% other. Protecting this religious diversity has been a priority for Assad and his privileged minority sect, but it has come at the cost of inflaming religious hatred among the majority Sunni population who – while making up most of the rank-and-file Ba’ath party, and enjoying some of the now-dwindling perks from the expansion of Syria’s public sector in the 1960s and early 1970s – were underrepresented at the top echelons of the government. These animosities, which go back to French administrators’ decision to favor the Alawaites, spilled over into open revolt by the Sunni-based Muslim Brotherhood in 1976-1982, leading to the massacre of between 10,000-25,000 residents in the city of Hama. And despite attempts by Assad’s father to mollify the Sunni population by integrating them more thoroughly into the government’s patronage networks, these perks have largely gone to local elites who were perceived as strategically important in controlling the populations of their own hometowns. No matter how the Assad dynasty might try, its efforts at bourgeois nation building have left a massive class chasm that only proletarian revolution can remedy.
Into this international and domestic context stepped the Syrian masses in early 2011. In early March protests against Assad erupted in the cities of Homs, Aleppo, Baniyas, Qamlishi and Damascus. There, small but growing numbers of chanting, sign-carrying Syrians called for the end to the regime’s “emergency law” that had been in effect since 1963, the ouster of corrupt billionaire Assad cronies from position of government authority, the release of political prisoners, food assistance, and even the stepping down of Assad himself. Other acts of resistance took subtler forms, like anti-Assad graffiti linking Assad’s fate with that of the recently deposed Mubarak regime. The slogans raised tended to be couched in terms of “dignity” (karama) and “freedom” (hurriya). Although there has been some debate about the character of these protests, whether they were sectarian or non-sectarian, peaceful or violent, it is clear that at least some of the protestors operated according to principles of non-violent resistance and were seeking to establish a secular democratic regime. Some may not have been quite so peaceful, as reports have indicated that even before the initial protests, radical Islamist insurgents were already arming and planning to oust the Assad regime. Certainly the early protests would have been a prime opportunity for these far-right elements to stir up a hornet’s nest.
Assad’s response to these protests was a combination of carrot and stick. By April he had lifted the emergency law, increased public sector wages, shortened the length of mandatory army service, and fired government officials. He also, in a telling gesture to the religious overtones of the discontent, removed the ban on women wearing the “niqab” or full face veil—a long-standing complaint of the country’s conservative Muslim opposition. Such concessions paled in comparison to the stick. Assad’s reprisals against demonstrators were swift and brutal. His security forces attacked protestors with water cannons, tear gas, and in some cases even live ammunition and missiles. The ensuing civilian deaths, growing in number by the day, prompted outrage and spurred additional rounds of protests, leading to still more arrests and government violence.
As the regime deployed its stick ever more forcefully, it risked the defection of officers sympathetic to the plight or political demands of the protestors. The first left their posts in April, when incipient signs of armed militia resistance were developing in cities throughout the country. And in July former officers in Assad’s armed forces, already exercising de facto leadership over various militias, announced the formation of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) whose stated purpose was the overthrow of the Assad regime. Soon after, the flow of arms began coming in from regional powers, most notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia – both countries with overwhelmingly Sunni populations. This development was quickly followed by the formation of the Syrian Opposition Council (later the Syrian National Council [SNC]), which signed a pact to unite with the FSA in March of 2012, and whose leading figures have long-standing ties to the U.S. government and prestigious U.S. think tanks. The next year, at the latest, the European Union and the U.S. government began funding, training, and supplying logistical support to the FSA. As it did so, the U.S. government, from its “operations room” in Turkey, encouraged the FSA to coordinate more closely with radical Islamist groupings.
After two years of carnage, the Assad regime had inflicted far more civilian casualties than opposition forces, but had sustained more casualties than those forces on an almost two-to-one basis. Still, Assad defied widespread Western expectations by remaining in power. It was becoming clear that Assad was in it for the long haul. A significant portion of the population, including a clear majority of his armed forces, remained loyal to his regime. The reason it proved so resilient compared to Mubarak’s in Egypt or Ben Ali’s in Tunisia was Assad’s greater success in striking what one author has called an “autocratic bargain” consisting of numerous “buy-ins” through which Assad and his father had skillfully integrated and balanced large segments of the population into the regime. These took the form of religious protection (of Christians, Alawites or even secular Sunnis), economic incentives (hefty public salaries or preferential access to privatized land or industry), and the promise of greater political power (notably through the military, which was strategically layered with loyalists balanced among different sects).
Also facilitating Assad’s hold on power was the opposition’s lack of unity, even in spite of a semblance of coordination at the top of the FSA or SNC. Far from being conducted on the basis of a clear political program, the slogans and aspirations of the Syrian population fighting Assad were variegated and overshadowed by loyalty networks similar to those that characterized the Assad government, but instead based on other factors besides vertical chains of political prestige or economic clout. As Joshua Landis, the leading U.S. academic expert on Syria has explained:
“Nationalism is not a strong enough identity to bind the people of Libya, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq together. Or the Palestinians, for that matter. Instead, subnational and supranational identities emerged among the people of each country to undermine common national sentiment. Loyalty to clan, village, region, tribe and religion have bedeviled the Arab uprisings. This is why the opposition movements in Libya or Syria have been so fragmented. It is why thousands of militias formed in Syria. The US was powerless to unite them.”
In keeping with this reality, the general slogans deployed by the oppositionists (e.g., “dignity” or “freedom”) were so widely adopted, according to Landis, because “Islamists, who wanted a caliphate or Sharia law, could use them as readily as liberals who shared western values.” Although very early on in the uprising the political content of the so-called “revolution” had not been determined one way or the other, it was clear that secular opposition forces by 2012 had been decisively hegemonized by imperialist powers or regional proxies with their own U.S.-aligned albeit sectarian motives of, among other things, wanting to shut down Shia weapons deliveries from Iran to Hezbollah via Assad. In a political culture in which “gifting” carries with it expectations of political loyalty, financial and logistical assistance was enough to ensure that whatever “democracy” might have prevailed in Syria in its second year of civil war, it was one that would have been defined in the equally bad terms either of sectarianism, with no compulsion to respect the democratic rights of the much-smaller religious minorities, or of the full embrace of semi-colonial status, much to the liking of the increasingly out-maneuvered largest foreign direct investor in the Syrian economy (the European Union). Or it may even have taken the form of both, as has played out in Iraq.
The next stage of the conflict began in 2013. Opposition forces radicalized along religious lines, resulting in the splintering and marginalization of the FSA. As early as December of that year, the BBC was already observing, “The Free Syrian Army [FSA] is gradually losing its role in the ongoing military conflict in Syria as Islamic fighters expand and bring most of the ‘liberated’ regions under their control.” The report continued:
“Colonel Malik al-Kurdi, former deputy leader of the FSA, attributed the weakness of the FSA to ‘the lack of any specific ideology other than the toppling of the regime.’ He told Al-Sharq al-Awsat: ‘This allowed the emergence of several ideologies on a fundamentalist Islamic basis.’ He added: ‘These ideologies received huge support from regional parties. The regime, for its part, benefited from them to market itself in the Western world.’”
The result has been the proliferation of fundamentalist Islamist sects whose methods of suppressing workers and leftist activists are as barbaric, if less efficient, than Assad’s. Among these groups are the deceptively named “Assistance Front for the People of Syria,” the Saudi-supported “Brigade of Islam,” “Al Nusra”, and most notoriously of all the “Islamic State” (ISIL/ISIS). The latter came to occupy headlines across the West beginning in 2014, as the group scooped up large chunks of Syrian territory. The speed with this occurred was attributable largely to disorganization and lack of political vision by the more moderate forces on the ground. In a situation where an existing and essentially homegrown political ideology had been cultivated by years of sectarian fighting in neighboring Iraq, the greater unity and fighting effectiveness of the Islamist cut-throat militias were understandable.
Ramping up its intervention into this bloody state of affairs was the Russian government, traditionally a patron to Syria during the Soviet years, and now seeking to offset NATO’s growing reach by strengthening its own sphere of influence. It had long supplied Assad with military equipment and, during the civil war, logistical assistance. But by 2015, it had begun performing airstrikes. Concomitantly the United States government, embarrassed by setbacks in its support of various oppositionist groupings, and pressed by the gains of ISIS, has mostly limited its involvement to a small number of “military advisors” and to airstrikes against Islamist oppositionists. To make matters more complicated, the Kurdish regions of Eastern Syria exploited Assad’s preoccupation with quelling unrest closer to Damascus and other strategically vital cities. Under the Democratic Union Party (“PYD” in Kurdish), they have declared their own “democratic confederalist” territory (Rojava – the subject of a later blog post), which has staked its survival on strategic subordination to the United States military.
Since 2015 Russia has largely managed to assist Assad in retaking key cities (most notably Aleppo). At present his victory over oppositionists seems more likely than not, Pyrrhic as it may be. At the same time, the US and its imperialist allies are still operating according to a contradictory hybrid of tactics that are drawn from two different stages of the conflict: one where the US and its allies, earlier, were committed to funding anti-Assad militia groups, even if sectarian-Islamist in ideology, to pursue regime change; and the second, where the U.S. government has subsequently retreated from that strategy, opting instead to focus on defeating ISIS, while continuing to fund other opposition groups.
The muddled and uncertain nature of U.S. strategy on the ground is evident in the latest turn of events. In early April 2017 the U.S. government bombed an air field belonging to the Syrian government and emphasized the imminent demise of the “Assad era,” even as it has steadfastly refused to commit to greater intervention. In all likelihood, the paralysis and mixed signals being sent out are a reflection of competing factions within the U.S. government itself. On one side are the hawks of both parties who exerted intense pressure on Obama to impose no-fly zones and even commit greater ground forces to removing Assad. In the present administration, this is reflected in the milquetoast establishment outlook of advisors such as Jared Kushner and Dina Powell, while on the other are the more unconventional “America-firsters” represented most clearly in the persona of Steve Bannon, who opposed the latest round of bombings. Trump, in a role he seems to revel in, is a wildcard. If it is any indication for the future direction of U.S. policy, Kushner’s stock seems to have risen, while Bannon’s is cratering. Meanwhile, in Syria, the violence and devastation continue. The dissolution of what potential existed in the initial uprising underscores a fundamentally important point. Bourgeois nationalism for the workers of Syria and around the world is the road to hell. The only consistent fighters against imperialism or the ravages of bourgeois reaction posturing against it is an independently moving working class.
What Role for Marxists?
The complexity of the Syrian civil war leaves revolutionary Marxists with no simple answers. But a few basic starting points should go without saying. They are for the defeat of all imperialist forces. They stand against genocide or the mass slaughter of civilians by either the Syrian government or by sectarian cut-throat Islamist militias of the kind that have torn Libya apart. They also stand in support of any movement for secular democracy to unite and improve the lives of all workers, ideally in the form of an incipient workers’ government that has ousted Assad and subdued Islamist insurgents.
All these principles seem obvious enough. Things become trickier, though, when we shift from the realm of what we want to see happen and into the realm of what is actually happening. Here is the leadership task, that of translating starting general principles into reality through assessing what is actually happening and responding to it as effectively as we can.
Third-camp, movementist Trotskyist groups have attempted to do precisely this, and one clear trend has emerged. They have universally extolled the Syrian civil war as “revolution” for “democracy.” The International Socialist Organization (ISO) has published extensively about the Syrian civil war, describing it as “a popular revolution against a dictatorship.” Inconvenienced by the undeniable mass of sectarian bloodshed occurring on the ground, the ISO wrote this phenomenon off as little more than the result of Assad’s machinations. “[T]he Assad regime prefers its enemies to be the jihadis, rather than the popular uprising,” a long-standing member of the group editorialized, “because it’s easier for the regime to mobilize political support for a war against religious fundamentalists.” It is true that at the opening stages of the uprising, Assad preferred an easy target—bloodthirsty religious zealots that could help him consolidate his secular base, which is potentially one reason he released imprisoned Islamists as the uprising began (though another reason is that conservative oppositionists were demanding the release). There is, then, some truth to the ISO’s one-sided finger-pointing, but it is dangerous in its simplicity. It implies that Assad is the singular obstacle to secular democracy as a class gain, and thereby pushes independent class struggle into the background. Additionally, it ignores the reality of the strings that were undoubtedly attached to the assistance that whatever significant secular forces on the ground received back before the revolution entered its overwhelmingly Islamist phase several years ago. But why let reality get in the way of a good slogan?
Echoing the ISO’s third-camp ebullience, the smaller but more theoretically astute League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) published several articles in 2013 and 2014 touting the civil war as a “popular democratic revolution.” Ignoring the pre-Arab-Spring history of Syrian culture and society as vital context shaping the uprising, the left-Shachtmanites fell into the unfortunate movementist trap of conflating a slogan with a program: “The mass movement has drawn support from among all of Syria’s religious, national and ethnic groups; it declared its opposition to sectarianism from the beginning with its slogan “One, One, One – the Syrian People are One!” But how often was the slogan deployed? Where? By whom? When did it disappear, or does it persist to this day? As for the slogan itself, what program is it invoking? One people for a secular democracy to strengthen the working class? One people under Sunni-Islamist rule? One people in rejecting Assad so that warring Islamist groups can fight out which group will replace him? One people, under U.S. guidance, to pursue rapid privatization of state-owned enterprises at the behest of U.S. transnationals? One people that includes Kurds denied the right to self-determination and total political autonomy?
The LRP provided no evidentiary elaboration to resolve these ambiguities, and instead joined the ISO in implying that sectarianism was overwhelmingly if not exclusively the consequence of Assad’s direct manipulations following the outbreak of protests—or of foreign fighters, like Hezbollah, acting on his behalf. “Assad did everything possible to encourage the spread of jihadists,” the group contended, “as a counter to the secular democratic revolutionary forces and as an excuse for massive repression.” No doubt. But if one were to read the LRP’s articles, one would get little-to-no sense – apart from one fleeting reference to Assad’s use of patronage networks – that such sectarianism was endogenous to the daily experiences of Syrian workers as well. There is no indication that attempts by state actors to produce and reproduce intra-working-class prejudices can only be effective if workers themselves put these ideas into practice, in Syria and elsewhere, at least in limited ways. The sectarian uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood against Assad’s father in the late 1970s and early 1980s would be a case in point, but it is conveniently missing from the LRP’s narrative, as is the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood were early participants and supporters of the anti-Assad protests, having received backing in previous years from the U.S. government. Also missing was any discussion of existing armed “secular” and anti-imperialist oppositionist groups on the ground capable of actually shaping the course of events. In ignoring these crucial details, the LRP could celebrate Syrian popular movements as essentially and spontaneously progressive from a class perspective. But in the absence of specifics, the celebration rings hollow.
In response the proponents of the so-called “Syrian revolution,” tend to fall back on a modified version of the supposedly anti-imperialist “campist” arguments (distinct from third campism) that groups like the Workers World Party (WWP) peddle to support third-world dictators against their working classes. We might even it call “campism in a single country.” The biggest threat to the Syrian civilians, going by the numbers alone, is obviously the well-armed and professionally organized Assad regime. It is therefore incumbent on revolutionary Marxists, the argument goes, to prioritize the defeat of Assad by domestic opposition forces in order to protect civilians while opposing imperialism. So even if the workers are not exactly revolutionary socialists schooled in Marxism, even if their political slogans and goals are steeped in religious—even sectarian—rhetoric, we should at the very least not be overly critical of them as they fumble their way spontaneously along the pre-ordained path of permanent revolution. Assad is one camp, the most dangerous camp, so any opposing domestic camp should enjoy a kind of immunity, at least in terms of emphasis.
As with all campist arguments, program takes a back seat to a Manichean worldview of good versus evil. By contrast, Marxists do not sympathize with attacks against Assad performed on the basis of the cut-throat reactionary program of ISIS, or of the Al-Nusra front, or any other sectarian group that – once in power – will represent a situation analogous to the undemocratic/sectarian divide and rule strategy used by Saddam in Iraq and by Assad in Syria. The essential strategic issue is very much whether the blows being struck against Assad are being struck by a force that is advancing a class gain, which Marxists definitely would support even if that class gain is not socialist in consequences, or whether it is a blow being struck to advance a force that will be no more democratic, or perhaps even less so, than the status quo. Marxists do not pick between genocides and bloodbaths that cut along sectarian lines among the working class, just because one genocide might result in fewer deaths than the others.
It is unarguable to anybody who has consulted the evidence that, especially in the early period of the civil war (2011-2012), there were politically engaged Syrians who genuinely desired a secular and democratic Syria. Some might be persisting in their work to this day, if they have not fled the country in fear of their lives. In the epoch of imperialism, though, the pressing issue for Marxists is that of leadership. As explained above, misleadership in struggles for democracy plays a constitutive rather than a parasitic role in the movement. How Syria’s secular-democratic forces were organized and who was leading them are not questions that can be overlooked through spontaneist sleights of hand. So the question stands: what forces on the ground in Syria are organized independent of a leadership compromised by imperialist patronage, and fighting along non-sectarian lines for the secular democratic rights of Syrians? Certainly nameless, faceless people hold these views and aspirations in Syria. But unless and until they organize into a force capable of competing with their sectarian and Ba’athist rivals, cheering for a “Syrian revolution” that Marxists should get behind is premature. And calls for “democracy,” “freedom,” and “revolution” remain abstract and diffuse slogans with absolutely zero real traction on the ground.
Instead of acknowledging that these are the options we are effectively working with on the ground, there is a tendency among movementists to create fictional narratives to line up with our aspirations. Narratives about a Syrian people that speak with one voice against Assad’s minority government. Or Syrians who are engaged in a democratic revolutionary movement to oust Assad, albeit one that is cloaked in a gossamer veneer of religious rhetoric. Such people invent conditions in their head to match their political program or aspirations. Marxists translate their program of socialist revolution to the conditions. Marx’s definition of communism as necessarily encompassing “the real movement” applies in more ways than one.
Program is paramount for Marxists. As Lenin argued more than a century ago in What Is To Be Done? (1902), workers do not arrive at socialist consciousness simply from the experience of being in motion or suffering the daily violence meted out by capitalism. Experience does not necessarily translate into the correct, or even a progressive, political program. The assumption of leadership by workers who are able to lead the way forward, rather than sideways or backwards, is a critical component of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The line of march requires patient and dedicated work beside other non-revolutionary workers on a principled basis. But it also requires being able to assess the essence of movements, their leaderships and concrete demands, in order to determine whether their destination is something worth fighting for in the first place.
The position of movementists on the Syrian civil war is utterly inadequate, just as it is on the question of deformed workers’ states. Beguiled by surface appearances, relatively unconcerned with the specifics of political program or of leadership, these Marxists can cut a dashing figure. They appeal especially to inexperienced youth looking immediately to get their feet wet in leftish-sounding movements, or to those wanting to distance themselves from the negative aspects of twentieth-century Marxist politics. Nonetheless, when push comes to shove, movementist Marxists will prove unable to lead the working class to victory.