Even an energetic contrarian like me has to pick his battles and know when to walk away. In the past month alone I’ve withdrawn from polemical discussions online with:
- an Extinction Rebel when he told me rather late in the day that what I’d thought of as a courteous exchange between friends, on whether ecocide is driven by capitalism, had in fact been irking him all the while;
- I saw that a debate which might have been useful – on the relative influence on Marx of (a) exposure as a young man to Hegel’s Logic, and (b) what his materialist analysis of the commodity revealed – was in this case a pissing contest;
- I concluded that another debating partner, a man (unlike my Hegelian) whose sincerity I never doubted, is so lost to sectarianism and mysticism as to render our exchanges a time-sink that wiser heads would have foreseen and avoided.
Welcome to my world, though I’ve given a one-sided account since (a) my interlocutors would no doubt give different versions and (b) many online exchanges do bring greater clarity. In any case there are some polemical burdens a Steel City Stakhanov must shoulder manfully.
This for instance, triggered by a commendable piece in OffGuardian on how the UN’s OPCW is now compromised by senior players too close to Washington. Its focus is the alleged poison gas attack at Douma last year.
A below the line comment by Louis Proyect – film critic, Trotskyist, self styled ‘Unrepentant Marxist’, frequent contributor (and ‘Marxism editor’) in CounterPunch – set the ball rolling.
You’ll see from number of dislikes that Louis Proyect isn’t a hit below the line at OffGuardian, but I’m not one of the downvoters. I dislike the dislike button. I say if a comment displeases us, it’s only right to give our reasons.
NB: Vanessa Beeley, Canadian journalist and prominent supporter of Assad, was described in a tweet by Louis as “too ugly to fuck”.
NB: Trotsky’s ideas on permanent revolution demand their own post. Trotsky – prophet, major theorist, brilliant writer, spellbinding orator and architect of a Red Army which prevailed over counter-revolution and the mercenaries of fourteen foreign powers after three years (1918-21) of horrific ‘civil war’ – was a man in the heroic mould. Only Che Guevara comes close as a thinker and man of action but, as epic dramas go, Trotsky’s was played out on the larger stage
For a lucid setting out and ardent defence of Trotsky and ‘permanent revolution’, I recommend Alan Woods’s In Defence of Marxism lecture, just over an hour long, of April 2017.
As it happens Woods does touch on the Middle East, near the end, in a textbook Trotskyist deprecation – it didn’t have to be this way! – of Ba’athism. Well that, and again I stress my admiration for Trotsky, is an article of faith for his torch bearers. Bloodied but unbowed they sing from the margins that constant refrain of Adele’s.
We could have had it all …
Too often they seek to compensate for lack of their mentor’s breathtaking – at times erroneous, but breathtaking – originality, cogency and predictive power1 by dutifully recycling the same old same olds: analogies drawn from the French Revolution and classical Greece, a secret code for the cognoscenti of Bonapartism andThermidor and epigones.
Stalinist! Bourgeois nationalist! Stagist!
Out they pour, these epithets, bypassing the new thinking – a point Woods explicitly and ably addresses early on, though I’m unconvinced – urgently required in situations far removed from those confronting Trotsky. Regardless of what might have been, we are where we are, and the question implied in point 3 of my initial response to Louis Proyect remains unanswered.
There’s no third game in town, Louis. It’s the last Ba’athism standing – with all its very real flaws. Or it’s imperialism unbridled.
But we must press on …
That reference to Soros and Rothschild is a gibe at conspiracists who deem the world ruled by a Jewish cabal. I’m not one of them and Louis is a mile wide of the mark. I mention this not just because I’d as soon be accused of paedophila or boiling kittens but because his implied smear shows (at best) a man who isn’t listening; a man on autopilot who assumes he has my measure.
As Louis assuredly knows, Lev Davidovitch Bronstein was Jewish and I’ve already stated my admiration. But if we only have a hammer, the saying goes, we see every problem as a nail.
But we must press on …
And there it ended. But on the off chance you haven’t had enough, let me set out some context, starting with my take on Syria. Here’s what I said in 2016. Here in 2017. Here in 2018. And here a few weeks ago.
I can sum up my assessment as follows:
- If the fury rained on one middle east state after another by US-led powers is not pure evil – motivated by oil (supply and production); by opening up state-run economies to Western investors; and by fears of Eurasia rising – then I’ve no idea what evil is.
- Western leaders and mainstream media conceal the venality in two ways. All are party to presenting dubious evidence, and ignoring counterevidence, to manufacture our acquiescence to regime change. And they lie by omission. Other than in niche sources few will read, they conceal the material drivers of ‘our’ wars.
- In 2011 the West turned to the one Ba’athist state still standing. There’s evidence that: (a) Syrians taking to the streets at Daraa did want greater freedom; (b) their protests were hijacked by jihadists, many foreign and with a different agenda; (c) the original protestors then rallied, some with gritted teeth no doubt, to the lawful government of a state they wanted liberalised, not run by Daesh.
- The West – with Israel, Saudi Arabia, lesser Gulf States and Turkey (each with its own and not always complementary motives) – has poured money, arms and logistics into Syria. At first the declared aim was regime change. Now ‘our’ continuing occupation of Syria is sold as war on Isis terror; itself the creation of US-led criminality in Iraq.
- I welcome the interventions of Hezbollah and Russia. Like China, Russia has Islamist problems of its own and, also like China, both motive and means to push back on US exceptionalism. For its part Hezbollah, like Iran, grasps the immediate threat of Sunni fanaticism and, further down the road, of US zeal, hitherto unchecked, for taking out any third world government obstructing its mission to privatise the world. Note: this ‘welcoming’ is entirely pragmatic – somebody has to stop the US-led monster – and in no way to be taken as my believing that any of these parties acts through altruism.
I’ve written scores of posts on this, and a good few on left-liberals like Owen Jones and George Monbiot who, in the words of Jonathan Cook:
repeatedly denies he wants a military attack on Syria. But if he weakly accepts whatever narratives are crafted by those who do – and refuses to subject them to meaningful scrutiny – he is decisively helping to promote such an attack.
But most relevant here is the failure of much – not all2 – of the Trotskyist left to decry loud and clear what is being done to Syria. I cannot forgive its failure to defend a state in the firing line of imperialism’s wrath.
As Libya and Iraq had been.
Here’s an extract from a Workers Power piece of early 2018, featuring a schoolboy howler oft repeated by a far left correctly scathing of US crimes in the region, yet unfathomably willing (like Monbiot in fact) to take at face value the ‘evidence’ used by imperialism, explicitly or by insinuation over time, as casus belli.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes, artillery and barrel bombing helicopters have launched a major assault on the last extensive rebel-held region of Idlib, aided by their Russian allies. It is likely that the offensive aims to concentrate the population into a narrow pocket, subject them to final liquidation or to force them out of the region.
To which I responded:
Workers Power – do your bloody homework! SOHR is the one man band of Rami Abdul Rahman, a disgruntled Syrian who lives in Coventry and hasn’t set foot in Syria since 2003. His methods are opaque to say the least but seem to rely on what I’ll call ‘cascade inquiry’, whereby he phones a handful of pals inside Syria. They in turn phone their pals, who phone theirs. But who are these pals? Rumours abound that Rahman is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, rivals to more recent Saudi backed Wahabbi groups led by Al Qaeda and ISIS, but nevertheless willing to work with Daesh3 to end Syria’s secularism and impose theocratic Sunni rule on Shia, Christian, Druze and Alawi alike. (Nor is there any evidence of widespread Muslim Brotherhood support from Syrian Sunnis, most of whom see Islam and Islamism as poles apart and value their secularist, authoritarian but religiously tolerant state.)
That failure to recognise serious and credible challenges to the evidential building blocks on which Syria’s violation has been sold is, alas, widespread on the far left. It is compounded by equally grave failures of reasoning. Here’s a SWP gem from May 2018
regime apologists have suggested that the April 7 attack never happened, that rebels must have gassed themselves, and that Assad had no reason to stage the attack as the ruling power clearly winning the war.
This logic would hit a wall when asked to explain why Israel uses white phosphorus in Gaza, why the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and why the world’s strongest imperial powers decimate the regions they are fighting against.
Of the three ‘suggestions’ attributed to ‘regime apologists’ in the first paragraph, the only one I’d make with any real confidence is the final one. Which as luck would have it is the one they attack in the second paragraph. Let’s take a closer look at their reasoning.
Why does Israel use white phosphorous in Gaza?
Because it can. It is backed unconditionally (here’s why) by the same West that vilifies Syria. Any breach of the international law Israel and USA routinely flout risks further attacks. And Moscow can be relied on to restrain Damascus from any course that needlessly ups the ante.
Why did the US drop atomic bombs in 1945?
Because it could. And to show the USSR, at dawn of cold war and four years before Stalin got the bomb, what it and it alone could do.4
Why do the world’s strongest imperial powers decimate the regions they are fighting?
How embarrassing to have to spell this out to writers who call themselves marxist! One of the advantages of war is that, along with other factors, it can counteract capital’s inbuilt tendency toward declining rates of profit. The destruction of capital, never more thoroughly than in war, allows the cycle of accumulation to start over.
If that’s too esoteric, too reliant on an understanding of Capital, how about the fact victors call the shots in the reconstruction? Try Naomi Klein’s account in Shock Doctrine of how Haliburton and other US and UK firms made a pretty penny amid the smoking ruins of Iraq.5
Still on the subject of false analogies, it was put to me apropos my post on the Kurds in Syria that the Kurds’ situation parallels that of the Palestinians. I beg to differ:
- The Kurds are nomads – that’s what the k-word means – so a closer analogy is with the Romani. As far as I’m aware no one is suggesting they have their own state in, say, Rajasthan. (Where many live in camps outside towns like Udaipur.) The Palestinians by contrast had clearly delineated terrain where they tilled really existing soil and tended really existing olive trees before being made stateless by the 1948 Nakba.
- Kurds have not been a majority even in territories they claim. The one exception I can think of is Armenia, where their role in the genocide made them a majority! Not that this crime colours my thinking here. I don’t visit the sins of the father on the son, and bear this ethnic group no ill will. I’m looking to a bigger picture is all.
- The context for this analogy was the idea of a ‘Kurdistan’ inside Syria as a Good Thing. It wouldn’t be. It would balkanise Syria the way Israel balkanises the whole region. An analogy quite different is apter: that Kurdistan’s champions can be likened to the well meaning (and often Christian) Zionists of the early twentieth century.
One last example of weak reasoning. In a post two years ago, on ‘universalists’ like Monbiot, I skied off-piste to find this by Fred Weston, writing for In Defence of Marxism:
… [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.
All true, more or less. And all perfectly irrelevant. I wrote:
What’s wrong here (on top of slyly conflating Hafez and Bashar into a single Assad) is the tacit 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 sins 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 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 sorry 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 program and leaders 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.
I should wrap this up. My engagement with Louis came while I was already mulling on why so many groups influenced by Trotsky have got it so badly wrong on the Middle East. I’ve tried to give a simple answer, without straying too far into the simplistic, to a question far from simple.
My answer refers to theory, sound or otherwise; its interpretation and application, correct or otherwise; and evidence, untainted or otherwise. But a confounding variable in these affairs is ego. None of us likes to be proved wrong.
(Trotsky, by the way, was as vain as they come – but there are powerful indicators that, when it really counted, his interest in the truth would trump that vanity.6 )
Ego gets in everywhere. There’s no idea or position – scientific, spiritual, political or other – so pure as to render it immune from hijacking by arrogant self importance. This, I’m afraid, has the capacity to subvert entirely the notion, as dear to revolutionaries as to defenders of scientific method, of truth emerging as victor in a battle of ideas courteously but robustly conducted.7
Which is my way of saying we must all of us – Louis Proyect, George Monbiot and, god forbid, even this Steel City Scribbler – leave room for the very real possibility we’re just plain wrong. Especially on Syria where, as I said to Louis, we’re confronted by a mire of claim and counter claim, a smoke and mirrors, layer-on-layer stack of spin from every direction.
* * *
- While Stalin and Western leaders saw fascism as not qualitatively different from other forms of reaction, Trotsky alone saw in it the rise of something new and terrible. And he alone saw the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as worthless, a thing Hitler would tear up the moment its tactical value expired.
- An honourable exception is the Socialist Equality Party. I’ve no ties to this smithereen from the implosion of Gerry Healy’s WRP but from the start it recognised the nature of imperialism’s wars on the region. On this and other matters I find its WSWS website a useful resource.
- Relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahabbi backed jihad are one of the many things that complicate the Syrian conflict and defy easy analysis. Suffice to say that their respective champions in the region’s two Sunni powers – Erdogan’s Turkey and Saudi Arabia – are vying for the title of Defender of the Faith.
- Those of the quaint but widespread view that the two bombs were dropped to defeat Japan and end WW2 are urged to do a little research on the matter.
- A third reason for “why the world’s strongest imperial powers decimate the regions they are fighting” is that for the military-industrial complex (Eisenhower’s term, not mine) that is America, war is profitable in and of itself. To the delight and enrichment of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing shareholders, the arms economy represents a huge transfer of wealth within the USA from the many to the few.
- I could give a few examples to show that for all his egotism Trotsky, when push came to shove, was more interested in What Is True than in Being Right. But my favourite is that, at a point where he was the most famous man in Russia – up there with Nicholas and Rasputin, and lionised by the Left – he stepped aside for Lenin. In part because he saw in Lenin the greater strategist and theorist; in part because he knew the Russian peasantry and proletariat were not ready to accept a Jewish leader.
- On the capacity of ego to subvert truth I’m indebted to a former Trotskyist, like me a Workers Power escapee, for pointing out another factor at play. It’s easy to laugh, because it is very funny, at that Judean People’s Front scene in Life of Brian. But one reason for all this atomisation, this narcissism of minor differences as Freud put it, is that all are revolutionary currents in a non revolutionary age. Intellectuals far removed from the actualities of class struggle, they have no way of testing out which tiny cult if any has a correct perspective; no way of seeing that X’s programme leads to disaster, Y’s to success. So we have the crowning irony of avowedly materialist groups arguing in a thoroughly idealist context. No good can come of it and it’s no surprise, when we add in both the ego issue and need of youngsters to blow off steam before settling down to ‘real life’, that so many drift by fast lane or slow into the ranks of reaction. Or, as in my case, into ‘petit-bourgeois life stylism’ until a chain of carnage in the middle east combined with other wake up calls to rouse me from my slumber.