Revolution and counter-revolution in the Middle East

A crucial test for the Left

A street view from the back of a crowd, many holding white flowers, one person holding up a red rose.
During Syria’s Arab Spring, demonstrators in Banyas wave flowers at the “Friday of Rage” on April 29, 2011. PHOTO: Syrian Freedom
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At this time of worldwide mass protests against repressive regimes, revolutionary socialists face a judgment by the working class. The question is whether or not radicals in imperialist countries will support the struggles of working and dispossessed people who are fighting governments under attack by U.S. imperialism or aligned with Russia. It’s a question raised nowhere more urgently than in the killing fields of Syria and Iran.

Various groups and tendencies are siding with the ruling mullahs of Iran and dictator Bashar Assad of Syria instead of the workers, women, national minorities and young people in these countries who are battling for their basic democratic rights. Their domestic struggles are viewed largely as the product of CIA manipulation and their suffering is brushed aside.

The problem was laid out eloquently by Palestinian-Iranian socialist feminist Daliah Lina in January 2020. “Some ‘Western pro-Assadists’ … [are] willingly turning a blind eye to the butchering of Syrian civilians … These so-called ‘leftists’ … claim that they stand for social justice and equality, yet walk over the dead bodies of 1,500 Iranian protesters, human rights activists, feminists, the queer community, minorities and anyone who strives for peace and self-determination.“

Fighting inequality. Defending all democratic struggles is a principle basic to revolutionary socialism. It was taught by Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin famously called for the right of oppressed nations to self-determination because of the vital importance of supporting every democratic movement of the oppressed. Inequality, whether among nations, classes, races or genders, is the foundation of capitalist super-profits from super-exploitation. This disparity causes crippling divisions within the world’s working class and is why international solidarity among the dispossessed is so important.

Traditional Stalinism. Disregard for democratic struggles among certain groups of socialists is not new, of course. Stalinism and its derivatives, like Maoism, substituted authoritarian rule for workers’ democracy at home and abroad. Stalin slaughtered at least 750,000, by some estimates, and jailed more than a million to overthrow Soviet democracy. Communist parties around the world supported the USSR’s suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Czech Prague Spring of 1968, among many crimes. These parties side with Russia in Syria today and the theocratic bureaucracy in Iran, which has been cracking down on protesters more and more violently since demonstrations began in 2019.

The neo-Stalinists. Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky led the Left Opposition against Stalin, fighting for democracy and international solidarity. But the Trotskyist movement has fractured over the years.

In the U.S., the founders of Workers World Party (WWP), former Trotskyists, sided with the Soviet Union invasion of Hungary. The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) split from WWP in 2004, but has virtually identical politics. Both promote the national interests of capitalist Russia and support Assad.

Socialist Action identifies as Trotskyist but focuses on U.S. imperialism and tends to see popular democratic struggles in underdeveloped countries as CIA tools. It briefly supported the popular movement against Assad, but after the U.S. intervened, it switched sides and called capitalist Russia a “counterbalance” to U.S. imperialism.

The “pink tide” social democratic governments of Latin America, which have themselves come under fire to varying degrees from their own popular movements, usually follow the Communist Party line on international questions and are doing so now.

This backwardness on the Left had tragic consequences as the Arab Spring unfolded in Syria, leaving the genuine democracy movement with little support.

Syrian Spring besieged. In March 2011, protests exploded when 15 adolescents in the city of Daraa were jailed and tortured — and one killed — for painting anti-government graffiti. Demonstrations against this brutality broadened to protest rampant unemployment and political repression. Bashar Assad responded by killing hundreds and jailing thousands. As the movement was forced to defend itself, a civil war emerged. In the confusion, the repressed Kurdish minority was able to establish a degree of autonomy in the northeast and sought arms from the U.S. to fight ISIS. It offered the only nonsectarian sanctuary to many fleeing the fighting.

The war gave an opening to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other right-wing Islamist groups to carve out territory and impose their own despotic rule. This gave the U.S. the excuse to intervene, followed by Russia, Iran and Turkey, each for their own interests.

Many parties, including Maoists, unaligned Marxists, and some Trotskyists declared their neutrality in the course of the war. As a result, some 600,000 people have been killed and up to two-thirds of Syria’s population displaced without major protests around the world.

This is inexcusable, given the appalling human toll, and the responsibility of Leftists to stand with the working class in defeat as well as victory.

International solidarity now! At a recent conference of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), Freedom Socialist Party International Secretary Stephen Durham raised the need for the U.S. antiwar movement to support the Kurds in Syria and workers, youth and women in Iran opposing the regime. He argued that to paint these struggles as tools of the CIA takes agency away from working-class allies.

Jeff Mackler, National Secretary of Socialist Action, answered that, “Of course, if we were in those countries and if we had mass support, we would support their struggles. But we are not there.”

Since when is it necessary for self-respecting socialists to only support on-the-ground struggles when they are leading mass movements? This typifies a certain sectarian attitude and arrogance of some radicals who, in the name of anti-imperialism, exercise what the Iranian socialist Daliah Lina calls “selective empathy.”

History teaches that imperialism, just like all other forms of oppression, will be with us until we overthrow capitalism. The only way to do that is to support all democratic movements, and the radicals fighting within them in every country. Left groups that fail this key test of principle are objectively an obstacle to fundamental change.

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