Syria … Univeralism updated

23 May

Like you, I’m appalled by the news from Manchester. My views on its causes are no secret. Now is not the time to restate them.


Why don’t I shut up about Syria? My views aren’t popular and I’m not especially courageous in either the moral or physical sense. I just happen to believe:

  • An injustice of monstrous proportions is being done to its people.
  • The left in the aggressor nations – anarchists and marxists no less than liberals and parliamentary socialists – fail to defend Syria’s elected government. Taking the monolithic narrative of ‘our’ media as indicative of its incontestable truth – as opposed to reflecting how high the stakes are – underpins this failure. But even if Assad were as bad as the billionaire and liberal media claim, that could never – given the scale, nature and purpose of the violence against the secular state he represents – be an acceptable excuse.
  • The violation of Syria could rapidly and literally ‘go nuclear’, yet liberal media have joined the most rabidly rightwing populist press in their silence on its real drivers.
  • The extent to which Joe Public has bought so brazenly deceitful and self serving a narrative – did we learn nothing from Yugoslavia, Iraq or Libya? – is dismaying in itself. All who aspire to a better world and  take the trouble to acquaint themselves with this horror show can only groan and despair at the victory of ignorance over informed views, illogicality over sound epistemology and basics of justice. If we can swallow the media line on this, I ask myself, is there no limit to our credulity?


Fifteen days ago I posted on ‘Monbiot, Jones & Universalism’. That post challenged a simplistic ‘universalism’ whereby, regardless of bigger context and vaguely defined ‘human rights’, abuse is to be condemned wherever it arises. I wasn’t happy with that post and have been tinkering ever since. One problem, bit of a habit with me, lay in trying to say too much in too few words.

The post is now a 3,400 word essay. I’ve changed its title to ‘Universalism in an unfair world’ to reflect the fact that, while still rooted in the context of Monbiot and Jones on Syria, it’s become more generalised. I’ve also added an aside that draws parallels between ‘universalism’ as understood by Jones and Monbiot, and a marxism that’s forgotten the meaning of critical but unconditional defence of imperialised states. I reproduce that aside here:

Two 2013 pieces by Fred Weston are worth reading. These In Defence of Marxism articles make fair points on al-Assad (mainly Hafez) failings. They also set out a sound statement, if dated in its implicit vanguardism, of the case against Stalinism,  ‘stageism’ and ‘socialism in one country’. Given that Trotsky is favourably cited in all this, it’s striking Weston makes no mention of the critical-but-unconditional meme, central to postwar Trotskyism and to my mind one of the more useful legacies of the ill fated Fourth International. If that’s all too estoteric, my basic point is he’s too busy trashing – on grounds I share and with a cogency I’d welcome in other contexts – the anti-imperialist credentials of Ba’athism to see the key to this sorry mess. Regardless of whether Ba’athism is sufficiently anti-imperialist for Fred Weston, it’s sufficiently in the way of imperialism to have incurred the latter’s wrath. Says he:

… [the idea of] the Assad regime as anti-imperialist … can only be sustained if one suffers selective historical amnesia and ignores what the regime has actually done to collaborate with imperialism. In 1976, Hafez Assad invaded refugee camps in Lebanon to suppress Palestinian resistance, coordinating its operations with Israel, and with the full backing of US imperialism. Syria had in fact been called on to intervene by the west (including Kissinger) to prevent the defeat of the right-wing Maronite Christian militias in the civil war that had started in 1975 between progressive secularists, Muslim militias and the PLO. Later, in 1990-91 the regime cooperated in the US attack on Iraq; in 2003 the regime did not lift a finger to defend Iraq against imperialist attack. It withdrew from Lebanon under US pressure.

What’s wrong with this is the implicit demand that an imperialised state behave with anti imperialist consistency to earn the support of the left in imperialist states. But unless he thinks the west attacks Syria because of the failings he lists, and I’m sure he thinks no such thing, Weston makes the very confusion critical but unconditional defence  disentangles. Internationalism begins at home. A key tenet is that imperialised states must be defended from our own imperialism, regardless of Stalinist, nationalist, theocratic or other defects in their worldviews, or failings real or cynically concocted in their leaders. Such defects and failings must be condemned where proven, but always in the context of – yet meticulously decoupled from – unwavering insistence that the prime villain is ‘our’ imperialism.

Why does this matter? Because the left in the global north has a record of capitulation to ferocious dominant narratives. That’s why defence of the Provisional IRA was tougher for British socialists than defence of an ANC whose programme and leadership were equally flawed. (Conversely, it’s why white South Africans in the ANC were truly heroic – likewise Israeli Jews fighting their own apartheid state – and why it was easier to defend the IRA if you were French or American than British.) But in their hostility to Damascus,  western media have set a climate almost as vicious as that created by British media at the height of the ‘troubles’ in the Six Counties. I’m sure Weston, like Jones and Monbiot, does not intend it but his attacks on ‘misguided’ leftists who back Damascus against Washington will add to a narrative of vilification funded by the deepest pockets and driven by the most venal interests. They will be music to Wall Street ears. They’ll also give cover for those on the left more interested in an easy life than in challenging a criminally insane world order at the points of greatest insanity. (Could we not see where Hillary’s No Fly Zones promised to take us? Can we not see where the Donald’s very own capitulation to a Deep State still bent on crushing or balkanising Syria – and some of its elements convinced a ‘limited’ nuclear war with Russia can be won – may yet take us?) In this regard Weston’s marxism serves, objectively, the same ends as Monbiot’s and Jones’s universalism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *