What is an anti-imperialist position on Syria?

FRFIUnlike our political opponents the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist Leninist) and Red Youth do not sneak about behind the backs of other groups who profess to be communist but with whom we have differences; we do not seek to hide our differences (like the Communist Party of Britain) but rather we wish to have them out in the open so the points can be debated. Nor do we reduce our political differences with others into personal gossip and rumour mongering. So many on the so-called ‘left’ retreat to the safety of the chat room and online forums to spread gossip and rumour, unable to deal in an honest and upfront manner with political disagreements. Where differences of opinion exist, we aim to deal with the political aspect openly and forthrightly. It is in this spirit that the friendly journal Lalkar has written a critique of the RCG position on Syria which can be read below. We are sure that this open polemic with those who genuinely seek to chart an anti-imperialist path for the revolutionary forces in Britain will be welcomed by all sincere communists and anti-imperialists:

Revolutionary Communist Group: sitting on the Syrian fence

From the very start of the turmoil in Syria, Lalkar, and its sister publication, Proletarian, have been crystal clear in their exposition of the realities of the situation – namely that what the country was facing was not primarily the result of any internal contradictions within Syrian society, but rather an externally directed campaign of aggression and terrorism waged by imperialism, both directly and through its regional surrogates, Turkey, the reactionary Arab states and statelets and the zionist colonial settler state of Israel, against practically the last remaining independent, anti-imperialist state in the Arab region, which, moreover, adheres to a broadly socialist orientation.

Everything that has transpired over the last nearly two years has borne out the accuracy of our analysis all too clearly. As a result, whilst our line of calling for ‘Hands off Syria’ and ‘Victory to Assad’ has remained consistent, and consistently correct, our political opponents in the anti-war and working class movements have had to slither and slide hither and thither as the inexorable unfolding of events has inevitably served to expose and highlight their opportunism.

Thus, for example, the Trotskyites of Counterfire, the main, but not only, source of misleadership and demobilisation in the Stop the War Coalition, took more than a year (not to mention the additional time they had already spent cheering on counter-revolution in Libya) to get off the imperialist fence and concede that the anti-government violence in Syria is essentially reactionary.

Even now, they refuse to prioritise the Syrian crisis in their organised inactivity of pointless protest, rather claiming to focus on a possible future war against Iran, despite the fact that the actual war being waged by imperialism in Syria is not least directed at opening the road to Tehran and, needless to say, reserving their greatest venom for those who draw the logical and correct conclusion that if one is to call for the defeat of imperialist war, one must also call for the victory of those fighting against imperialism – and in Syria this must mean the government and armed forces led by President Assad.

Within the constellation of opportunist trends that refuse to take a clear cut anti-imperialist stand, a particularly crafty and disingenuous role is being played by the Revolutionary Communist group (RCG) and its newspaper Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI).

An article in the current (December 2012/January 2013) issue of FRFI contains some useful information on the dirty role of British imperialism in fomenting the war against Syria and correctly concludes: “For communists in Britain, it is essential to expose and oppose the role of British imperialism. We cannot let there be a repeat of 2011’s imperialist slaughter with no real domestic opposition.”

Yet what is the RCG’s reason for opposing David Cameron’s plans to overtly arm the terrorists in Syria? With a sanctimonious air worthy of a country parson, the comrades inform us:

“Syria’s battlegrounds are already awash with foreign weapons: the Syrian army killing with Russian and Iranian products, and the rebels armed by more than three dozen countries including more than half of the membership of NATO.” (‘Syria: British imperialism takes the centre stage’)

Yet, for Marxists, it should be axiomatic that weapons, and even “killing”, per se, are not the issue. The issue is who is wielding the guns, who is killing and who is being killed and, to sum up it all up, which class interests are being served? As Lenin rightly put it:

“We would cease to be Marxists, we would cease to be socialists in general, if we confined ourselves to the Christian, so to speak, contemplation of the benignity of benign general phrases and refrained from exposing their real political significance.” (‘Bourgeois pacifism and socialist pacifism’, Collected Works, Vol. 23)

Such pious phrases as the above quoted one from the pages of FRFI would, frankly, generally pass almost without notice in the pages of mushy liberalism produced by the various Trotskyite and revisionist groups in Britain.

But the RCG made a name for itself by claiming to stand for the militant defence of national liberation movements and all those fighting imperialism – as the very name of its newspaper seeks to convey.

In particular, this organisation staked out its political territory by excoriating almost the entire British left for its shameful failure to wholeheartedly support the Irish people’s national liberation struggle. And it took solidarity with the Irish and South African struggles onto the streets in a generally militant and dynamic way. Today, it seeks to mark out similar terrain for itself with its campaigning in solidarity with socialist Cuba.

Why then does the RCG allow itself to slip into this sort of ‘plague on both your houses’ agnosticism, so characteristic of the petit bourgeoisie, in the case of Syria?

An article by the same author, Comrade Toby Harbertson, in the previous (October/November 2012) issue of FRFI sheds some more light on this.

Again, the article contains much that is correct and useful, both in terms of outlining facts concerning imperialist aggression against Syria, as well as in exposing the hopelessly reactionary position of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), the organisation from which the RCG originally emerged. Comrade Harbertson also correctly notes that:

“ When considering Syria, the bottom line for imperialism, given the increasing capitalist crisis, is that it will not allow a politically independent country, which has not fully opened its borders to imperialist capital, and retains a strong military, to remain at the heart of the Middle East .”

Pretty clear one might think. Alas, the analysis of imperialism, and its opponents, goes downhill from that starting point. Having exposed the SWP (largely out of its own mouth) for its reactionary positions down through the decades, from Hungary, through Czechoslovakia, to Poland, Afghanistan and Ireland, the RCG asks: “In the case of Syria, are the SWP supporting reactionary forces once again?”

Alas, the RCG’s answer is not the clear-cut one that one might reasonably expect. In the blink of an eye, this “politically independent country, which has not fully opened its borders to imperialist capital” is transformed into a “ repressive government”, as Comrade Halbertson declares:

“ Popular resistance to the Ba’athist state no doubt exists and it is clear that some Syrian people were, and are, demonstrating against the repressive government .”

Like numerous other opportunist currents, although not the incorrigibly reactionary SWP, which does not even bother, the RCG has to try to square the circle of how these supposed demonstrations against a repressive government have mysteriously mutated into an imperialist war of aggression. Shamefully, the RCG’s contortions on this point lead them to even give partial absolution to the terrorist Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is guilty of countless atrocities:

“ Any popular uprising has been hijacked. In Syria, this process has accelerated in the last few months as earlier attempts such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) lacked structure and gave too much room for hostile and unreliable Salafist and Wahabist groups to challenge for influence .”

The article also asserts that: “The repressive government of Assad and the Ba’athists was complicit with the suffering of the Palestinian people, [and] supported the imperialist invasion of Iraq.” (‘Syria: covert intervention and the failure of the British left’)

In raising such issues, the RCG is revisiting the events of decades ago (which arose from the deep splits among anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East as well as the bourgeois national limitations of the Ba’ath Party) and, in a quite dishonest manner, is presenting them as though they happened only yesterday. Even if they had, what purpose would be served by dwelling on them now, when the country is in a life-and-death fight for its very existence? But in referring to the cases of Palestine and Iraq, the RCG refers to events respectively in the mid to late 1970s and at the beginning of the 1990s, events which our comrades rightly criticised at the time – a time, incidentally, long before the present President Assad came to power.

However, it is one-sided, to say the least, to focus on these (unexplained in the article) events of long ago, without any reference to more recent and more relevant facts concerning Syria’s stance and actions with regard to both Palestine and Iraq.

At least until the last few months, Syria has been home to 11 Palestinian resistance movements. Unlike any of the other Arab countries bordering Palestine, Syria is the one country where the Palestinian population has enjoyed full economic and social rights, including to live where they choose, to build their own homes, to freely choose their occupation or profession, and to enjoy free education and medical care. Syria has been, and remains, an honourable member of the ‘axis of resistance’, providing vital aid to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which inflicted the greatest military defeat on the Israeli aggressors.

With regard to the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, not only was this firmly opposed by Syria – Damascus opened its borders both to Iraqi refugees and to resistance fighters entering Iraq to fight the occupation.

As all of this is doubtless well known to the writers and editors of FRFI, and to the leaders of the RCG, their above quoted formulation is both reactionary and dishonest.

We make these points not because the RCG enjoys any great influence in the movement, but rather because its stubborn refusal to fully settle accounts with its Trotskyite origins leads it again and again to smuggle reactionary ideas into its ostensibly militant and anti-imperialist propaganda and practice, thereby promoting the very opportunism that it so vociferously claims to decry. Such a stance can only serve to misguide honest people and hinder the building of a genuine, strong and united anti-imperialist and communist movement. The good comrades in and around the RCG, and the whole working class movement, deserve better.

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