Posts Tagged ‘CIA’

John le Carré: A Radical Spy Novelist Playing with the System

March 2, 2019


“I am not a nihilist. I am a humanist. If it is given to us to play a part for the future, we must play it.” – Katya Orlova, The Russia House (1989)

Spanning five decades, from the Cold War to the present, John le Carré’s best-selling collection of spy novels are well-known for the way they immerse the reader in the world of international relations, espionage, and statecraft. The author’s aptitude for transporting his audiences in this way stems at least partly from the six years he worked in British Intelligence, both MI5 and MI6 (1958-1964). Yet, while le Carré—or David Cornwell, to use his given name—was a spy and focuses his literary output mostly on spying and the State intrigue, he shows himself in his fictional writings to also be highly critical of the hegemony of State and capitalism.

In a dialectical sense, le Carré “plays” with his novels to similarly “play” the system: while, at first glance, readers of le Carré are suffused with the ruthless worlds of statist power plays, militarism, and realpolitik, soon they are confronted with grand indictments of the domination of capitalism, imperialism, and the State over humanity. The novelist’s political perspective is generally anti-authoritarian, rationalist, and humanist—like that of Katya Orlova from The Russia House, who is an enthusiast of the anarchist Alexander Herzen, the “father of Russian socialism” and Populism—and it was opposed to both sides of the Cold War during its existence, just as the author has been critical of the persistence of capitalist hegemony that has followed during the past two-plus decades. In a sense, le Carré’s writings may be considered a sort of Trojan Horse within the capitalist citadel, but we can’t be sure exactly how much his subversive attitudes concretely influence or have influenced ongoing or future revolt against the system.

From Call for the Dead (1961) to The Mission Song (2006), le Carré weaves stories and conflicts that lay bare the dehumanization, instrumentalization, and super-exploitation underpinning capitalist society—accomplishing this precisely through gaming the system, by setting such critique within mass-, seemingly mainstream media. Absolute Friends (2003), a novel about two revolutionary anarchists, British and German, may come closest to le Carré’s own views—or if not, we can at least say that he is very sympathetic to such ideas.

To investigate how le Carré presents his social critique in discreet and then increasingly fervent fashion over the course of his career, this essay summarizes the pertinent details of the plots of 11 of the author’s novels, and then passes to a discussion and conclusion about the militant perspectives found therein, being like collectivities of free radicals joyously roaming to destabilize unjust structures.

Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The story of Call for the Dead (1961) revolves around one Samuel Fennan, a former Marxist and Communist Party member working in the British Foreign Office (FO), who unexpectedly dies in his home by gunshot, presumably due to suicide. Yet le Carré’s hero George Smiley, an MI6 officer who had just met with Fennan hours before his death, probes more deeply into the case, only to discover that he was in fact murdered by Hans-Dieter Mundt, a hitman working under Dieter Frey. Dieter is an operative of the Abteilung—the East German Security Service1—and a former radical student of Smiley’s whose father had been killed by the Nazis and who himself concretely resisted Fascism by bursting into the British consulate in Dresden during World War II, demanding that the Allies do more to protect the Jews. The cover-up of Samuel’s murder is assisted by his wife Elsa, who herself is Jewish.

Dieter orders Fennan’s murder out of suspicion that he had become Smiley’s agent after seeing the two together, afraid that the Abteilung’s operation in Britain had been compromised. While Fennan had been sharing intelligence with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a continuation of sorts of his former Marxism and anti-fascism, Smiley discovers that he had to some degree cooled in his fervor for sharing information in the months leading up to his death, possibly reflecting disillusionment with the USSR after its suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This finding leads Smiley to realize that it was really Elsa who was spying for East Germany, and that Samuel had initiated contact with him precisely to raise the point. Although her performance sustaining the lie that Fennan had indeed killed himself does not in the end save her from being sacrificed by Dieter as he tries to escape a trap set by Smiley—one that ends with the East German agent dying at Smiley’s hands, drowned in London’s Thames River—the British spy concludes that her support for the GDR could not be divorced from her desire for world peace as well as her immediate horror at a resurgent, militaristic West Germany. Dieter and Mundt, on the other hand, come in for criticism for their established Lenino-Stalinist tendency to violate the means toward the end of realizing socialism, as seen in their disregard for the lives of Samuel and Elsa Fennan, among others.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) continues depicting the struggle between MI6 and the Abteilung. It opens with the British protagonist, Alec Leamas, head of MI6 in Berlin, watching as an East German agent of his is shot dead while trying to escape the Eastern Sector. This is the fourth agent of Leamas’ murdered in succession by the GDR—precisely on the orders of Mundt, the new head of the Abteilung’s Counter-Espionage division, following his return after having escaped Britain. These killings lead Leamas to be declared useless to British Intelligence, and he falls into a downward spiral of alcoholism and illness. Yet this disregard for self is to some degree feigned, a ploy to attract the attention of the Abteilung within the larger goal of vengeance and the destruction of Mundt. In their conversation discussing this mission, Leamas and Control—MI6 chief—acknowledge the similarity in methods used by the Soviet and Western powers. Referring to Mundt, Control observes:

“‘He is a very distasteful man. Ex-Hitler Youth and all that kind of thing. Not at all the intellectual kind of Communist. A practitioner of the cold war.’

“’Like us,’ Leamas observed drily.”

After formally leaving MI6, Leamas briefly works at a library in London, there to meet the Communist Elizabeth Gold. The two become lovers. Yet Leamas cuts the relationship off to proceed with his mission, which sees him imprisoned for three months for having assaulted a grocer who denied him credit—with all of this being part of his cover. Just after his release, Leamas is recruited by the East Germans, who take him to the Netherlands and then to the GDR to be “debriefed” regarding the secrets he knows. After passing into the GDR, Leamas is interrogated by Fiedler, a prominent German-Jewish member of the Abteilung and the son of Marxist refugees from WWII, who explains to him the Stalinist view that human life is but a means toward the end of the construction of Party Socialism, thus delineating his theoretical differences with Christianity, which the Western authorities putatively follow but in reality utterly ignore.2 Leamas reveals to Fiedler that the latter’s superior, Mundt, is in fact a British agent, and that he was allowed to leave Britain following the various murders he committed after coming to an agreement with MI6, which has been sending him vast quantities of money in exchange for information from the East German State. Mundt becomes aware of this plot to oust him, and orders the arrest of both Leamas and Fiedler—with the latter receiving “special treatment” by Mundt the former Nazi for being Jewish—but not before Fiedler had applied to the State for a warrant to arrest Mundt as an imperialist agent.

Thereafter follows a dramatic tribunal at which Fiedler argues his case, detailing the ease with which Mundt turned to murder “in the name of the people to protect his fascist treachery and advanc[e] his own career,” whereas the defense accuses Fiedler in turn of collaborating with imperialism to undermine GDR security, claiming the prosecution’s evidence to be merely circumstantial. The counter-coup is completed, nonetheless, when Mundt’s counsel calls Liz Gold as a witness—Gold having been mysteriously and suddenly “invited” as a member of the British Communist Party to visit the GDR—to have her reveal how George Smiley in fact had supported her financially following Leamas’ disappearance. Smiley, it would seem, did so specifically to discredit the accusations against Mundt and so allow for the elimination of his subordinate Fiedler, who had been suspecting the British mole for some time. As the tables are turned and Fiedler comes to be the one to be immediately executed, MI6’s “filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin” is revealed. The saved Mundt then provides Leamas and Gold with the means to escape to the West. During this journey, Gold becomes le Carré’s voice, which critiques the authoritarian instrumentalization of life carried on by East and West alike: the supposed opposites are seen to converge in their grossly inhuman behavior, discarding Fiedler to uphold an ex-Nazi double agent. Ultimately, as Leamas and Gold arrive at the Berlin Wall and attempt to scale it, they are shot dead by GDR sentries.

The Karla Trilogy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) concerns the fall of Control and dismissal of Smiley following a botched mission in Czechoslovakia, the ascendancy to top MI6 positions of four officers suspected of being double-agents, and Smiley’s counter-mobilization to investigate and defeat these moles. The text introduces Karla, the Soviet intelligence chief, who is shown to have penetrated MI6 through the recruitment of Bill Haydon, head of London Station. Smiley continues to face off against his Soviet counterpart in the next two volumes of the so-called Karla trilogy.

In The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), le Carré portrays a shaken British Intelligence being resurrected by Smiley, as he focuses on the new MI6 chief’s machinations to avenge the “fall” engineered by Karla through his compromise of Haydon. In his study of Haydon’s treason, Smiley discovers a “gold seam” of half a million dollars run by Karla to a bank in Vientiane, Laos. The journalist Jerry Westerby, an aristocrat by origin and a Southeast Asia correspondent, is dispatched to begin investigating in British-occupied Hong Kong. There, amidst the raging U.S. war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Westerby discovers that the gold seam is being directed to Drake Ko, a prominent exiled Chinese capitalist and former Kuomintang (KMT) conscript, whose brother Nelson, having fought the KMT as a Communist in Shanghai and thereafter studied shipbuilding in the USSR, is a high-ranking insider within the Chinese Defense Ministry and an agent of Karla’s (that is, Soviet intelligence). The gold seam sent to Drake, then, represents the sum to be paid to Nelson if he can manage to escape China. Continuing his investigation, Westerby travels to a Phnom Penh besieged by the Khmer Rouge to learn that Drake had commissioned a Mexican pilot, Ricardo—himself a collaborator with the U.S. military in its wars on the region—to run opium into Red China in exchange for extracting his brother. Though this plan didn’t come to fruition, Westerby suggests to Ricardo that MI6 will use this information to blackmail Drake—and shortly thereafter his fellow journalist Luke is assassinated, having been mistaken for Westerby.

At the same time, MI6 and its CIA “Cousins” learn that Drake is imminently orchestrating a new operation to extract his brother, this time by sea. The Western spy agencies’ plans to instead capture Nelson for exploitative purposes, taken together with Luke’s murder, lead Westerby to rebel and warn Drake as Nelson’s fleet of fishing junks approach the rendezvous point on Po Toi Island, south of Hong Kong. Yet this intervention proves useless, for MI6 and the CIA launch a joint strike involving helicopters to interdict Nelson and kill Westerby just as the former’s sampans reach shore—with the hope of reuniting the brothers thus crushed. Once the honorable schoolboy is eliminated, the CIA proceeds to transfer Nelson to the U.S. for thorough interrogation, and the MI6 chief is awarded retirement for having secured a major agent of Karla’s.

Smiley’s People (1979) brings the titular character out of retirement following the murder in London of General Vladimir, a former Soviet general who had been Smiley’s agent. Vladimir, the Estonian believer in communism, is killed on Karla’s orders after having been written by the Soviet émigré Maria Andreyevna Ostrokova regarding contact she had had with a Soviet agent who suggested that she could soon be reunited with her daughter Alexandra if she would only apply for French citizenship on her behalf. Yet as Smiley discovers through his probe into Vladimir’s murder, this entreaty was made as an unprofessional attempt by Karla himself to secure treatment in Switzerland for his mentally ill daughter Tatiana, alias Alexandra, who was diagnosed politically in the USSR with schizophrenia. In parallel, Tatiana’s own mother and Karla’s mistress had been purged for holding that “history had taken the wrong course” in the Soviet Union, and for not being “obedient to history.” It was presumably to avoid a similar fate for his daughter as a psychical non-conformist that led Karla to smuggle her to a hospital abroad.

As Soviet agents relentlessly pursue Maria Ostrokova to silence her once and for all and so complete the cover-up of General Vladimir’s murder, Smiley mobilizes to counter Karla, ultimately presenting him with an ultimatum whereby he could defect to the West and save his daughter’s life or remain in the Soviet Union as MI6 released this information to the Soviet authorities, inexorably leading to Karla’s destruction and presumably Tatiana’s as well. How ironic that the top Soviet spy master would be compromised through love for his daughter! Smiley and le Carré alike recognize this gambit as representing the utter ruthlessness by which is secured relative superiority and hegemony in the Cold War in particular and international relations generally. This is commentary that clearly critiques the infamous “prisoners’ dilemma” of game theory, which has been used by the ‘experts in legitimation’ to excuse militarism and oppression.

The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) depicts a Mossad operation to use Charlie, a young radical British actress, to penetrate and disrupt a militant group called Palestine Agony, being comprised of two brothers, Salim and Khalil. The context is a series of deadly bombings against Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe ordered by Khalil in reprisal for the ongoing Occupation of Palestine and the intensifying bombardment of the positions of exiled Palestinian groups in Lebanon. Salim and Khalil’s family themselves had been displaced first from Palestine to Jordan, then to Syria, and lastly Lebanon.

Following a new Mossad directive to diversify the identity of its operatives beyond being exclusively Jewish, the Israeli agent Joseph kidnaps Charlie on vacation in Mykonos and transports her to his handlers, Martin Kurtz and Litvak, who exploitatively subject her to interrogation, psychologically manipulating her—an anti-apartheid activist, pacifist, nuclear marcher, anti-vivisectionist, anti-fascist, and critic of Israel—into becoming the very opposite of who she believes herself to be. After having thus been broken, Charlie is guided through her transition by her captor Joseph, who takes the protagonist on a journey of discovery of Palestine, whereby he becomes Salim and she plays the part of his lover.

Though this education is imparted by an Israeli oppressor rather than a Palestinian survivor, le Carré makes clear that the entire colonialist project of Israeli State-building is built on the dispossession of the Palestinian population, and that with each act of counter-violence taken by Palestinian militants, the Israeli military takes the lives of dozens times more Palestinians. Yet her first mission as an Israeli-Palestinian double agent is to drive a car laden with explosives from Greece through Yugoslavia to Austria. This same car explodes after arriving to its destination, while Salim is driving it to Munich with an accomplice.

Fleeing to the UK after this naked assassination, which is entirely consistent with established Israeli policy,3 Charlie learns that she is under investigation by the Home Office for being an Israeli agent—only that, while her house is ransacked by the police, she is allowed to leave the place unharmed. She then activates emergency channels with Khalil’s group, and clandestinely she is sent to Beirut, where she experiences Israeli siege first-hand and commits herself to the Anti-Imperialist Revolution, having become enamored by the beauty of the Palestinians’ sumoud, or steadfastness. Among other things, Charlie’s Commander Tayeh teaches her to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism—echoing Salim and Khalil’s view that anti-Semitism is a Christian invention (as well as Hamad Dabashi’s emphasis on the common Judeo-Islamic philosophical tradition).

After being recalled from Beirut, Charlie finally meets Khalil, who convinces her to accept a mission to assassinate the Jewish Professor Minkel, a public advocate of Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories who does not agree with the Palestinian demand for a single, bi-national State. As he is a “moderate,” Minkel must be eliminated, according to Khalil, who believes in an extreme employment of counter-violence by Palestinians against both Israel and all Jews. Charlie ruthlessly delivers the suitcase-bomb to Minkel before he is scheduled to give a public address, presumably killing him and several others off-stage. Subsequently, Charlie presents Mossad with its coup, for she meets the delighted Khalil again and reveals his position, leading Joseph and company to burst in and kill him in cold blood. Charlie then returns to the UK, where the Mossad has once again made inquiries with the police to ensure that she need fear no prosecution, in addition to giving her access to the inheritance of a recently deceased friend, just as the Israeli war-machine assassinates Tayeh and invades Lebanona development that, as le Carré summarizes, “meant roughly that bulldozers were brought in to bury the bodies and complete what the tanks and artillery bombing raids had started.”

The book’s title is a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s depiction in Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) of Kattrina, one of Anna Fierling’s three children, all of whom perish over the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648): Kattrina most courageously by constantly drumming to inspire the peasants’ defense of the town of Halle from the Emperor’s troops, leading to her targeted assassination.

The Russia House

The Russia House (1989) tells the story of the publisher-spy B. Scott Blair, or Barley, and his intrigues in the USSR with Katya Orlova, a romantic revolutionary, and Yakov Savelyev, a dissident Soviet nuclear physicist known as “Goethe” to his friends. During the gradualist period of glasnost and perestroika overseen by Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1985, Savelyev/Goethe writes a manuscript detailing Soviet military secrets in order to precipitate the collapse of the arms race between the US/NATO and the USSR. Orlova acts as his go-between with Barley, specifying that the first-hand report Goethe has composed reveals Soviet research into the development of particularly atrocious weapons of mass destruction, makes public Soviet strategic nuclear-weapons policy, and explores various other vast ethical failures of the “Red Tsars” in the Cold War. Goethe, whose father was killed while participating in an uprising at the Vorkuta Gulag, is said to primarily be influenced by a certain nineteenth-century Russian known as Vladimir Pecherin, though this may well be a pseudonym for Mikhail Bakunin, for Pecherin “hates [his] native land and avidly await[s] its ruins,” and in the prospect of these “discern[s] the dawn of universal renaissance.”

In seeking to make public the nuclear secrets to which he has special access, Goethe aims at cutting short the Cold War, thus putting an end to the grave threat posed by nuclear weapons amidst highly militaristic competition between the superpowers.iv In this way, he expresses his belief in the revolutionary potential of science without borders—his “frantic dream of unleashing the forces of sanity.”

Barley, whose father was a Fabian socialist publisher who promoted Soviet literature, is a bit of a rogue himself. During his first meeting with Goethe, he tells his counterpart, presumably in good faith, that the Western States consciously accelerated the arms race to try to bankrupt the USSR, and that such imperial militarism in turn served as the pretext for the Soviets to continue “run[ning] a garrison state.” Barley scoffs at the hegemonic Western idea that the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) through nuclear annihilation had “kept the peace” since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pointing to the wars on Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. He expresses clearly his belief that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that does away with militarism, imperialism, and the “elective dictatorship” of parliamentary capitalism. He thus finds a willing partner and co-conspirator in Orlova, as she wishes to “move together to destroy the destruction and castrate the monster we have created”—this, by facilitating the publication of Goethe’s manuscript. Indeed, when faced with Barley’s inquiries into Orlova’s national pride and love for her two children in light of her participation in this plot, the militant replies by saying that she and Goethe prefer the fall of the USSR to the destruction of the world, and that she must think of all the world’s children, not just her own, when considering her choices. Her courageous commitment is likely inspired to some degree by her uncle Matvey, a revolutionary follower of Lev Tolstoy.

The tragic hero Goethe is ultimately discovered by the Soviet authorities and summarily executed. Barley is similarly arrested and imprisoned as a political prisoner, but he escapes death and saves Katya and her family in exchange for divulging secrets of British intelligence to his tormentors.

Modern Trilogy

Le Carré’s Tailor of Panama (1996) is set in a Panama City marred by gross social inequality, with the “cocaine towers” of the financial district overlooking vast swathes of impoverished proletarian districts in this riverine environment. The action takes place after the U.S. invasion (1989-1990) to depose Manuel Noriega—a former CIA agent—in the run-up to the transfer of control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. military to local authorities that occurred in 1999.

Andy Osnard, a former MI6 agent assigned to the country by a revanchist conglomerate of private interests tasked with the mission of preventing the Canal from being sold off to any rivals of the West, coercively recruits Harry Pendel, a British expatriate tailor with a past history of imprisonment in the UK for insurance fraud, into being his source among the Panamanian elite he serves. Threatened by Osnard with having his criminal past revealed to his wife and children, Pendel learns from the Panamanian president of a Japanese plot to purchase the Canal and communicates this to his handler, setting in motion a joint mobilization by the British and U.S. military-security apparatuses to reinvade Panama and thus ensure continued neocolonial control.

Toward this end, Osnard exploits Pendel’s largely invented idea of a “Silent Opposition” to be led by personal friends who previously had organized against Noriega, including the tailor’s assistant Marta and his comrade Mickie. When Mickie in turn takes his life out of fear of returning to political imprisonment after the authorities, having become aware of the propagation of Pendel’s fantasies, increasingly harass him, the U.S. and British use the pretext of his execution for renewed military intervention. Osnard then appropriates for himself the $15 million destined emergently by the U.S. and Britain governments for the operations of the spectral oppositional group, fleeing in a private jet to Switzerland as U.S. attack helicopters initiate their assault on Panama City.

The Constant Gardener (2001) revolves around the partnership of Tessa Abbott, a British radical, and Justin Quayle, a British diplomat stationed in Kenya. The book opens with the announcement that Tessa has been found murdered with her medical colleague, Dr. Bloom, near Lake Turkana. Justin investigates the killings, ultimately discovering that the victims had co-authored a report exposing medical experimentation carried out by KDH, a Western pharmaceutical corporation, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and submitted it to the British government—only to meet precisely this fate as a consequence. Fatally, Justin learns that, while Dr. Bloom sought to publish the findings directly, Tessa had insisted that they go through official channels first, in deference to her husband’s example. She did not consider the possibility that the State might be captured by these same corporate interests.

Quayle determines that dozens of Kenyans had died in the trials for Dypraxa, a tuberculosis drug, and that KDH covered up this “side effect” to press forward with the medication’s development, thus avoiding the costs of redesign and further delay. After all, KDH expected a considerable futures market for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in the twenty-first century. In the end, Quayle makes Tessa and Dr. Bloom’s findings known, exposing the scandal and State-corporate nexus, but meets the same fate they did on the very shores of Lake Turkana.

This work title alludes to Voltaire’s always-germane conclusion to Candide (1759), a parody of optimism à la Leibniz (and, by extension, contemporary conservatives and apologists): “We must cultivate our gardens.”

Sharing affinities with the previous two works, The Mission Song (2006) is centered around the plot of a shadowy international Syndicate nominally dedicated to providing agricultural equipment to African countries which conspires to finance an armed uprising in eastern Congo to plunder the region’s mineral resources: coltan, gold, and oil. Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, who is half-Congolese and a graduate of languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), interprets the planning meeting set up between the Syndicate and representatives of two militias and a trading family from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—Dieudonné, Franco, and Haj, respectively—on a remote island in the North Sea. Naturally, the ruling Rwandan invaders, who have gravely exploited the eastern Congo since overrunning it two decades ago, having fled the coming to a power of a Tutsi-led government that put an end to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by Hutus of Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus, were excluded from this meeting.

The Syndicate proposes to the Congolese warlords staging an insurgency that would disrupt the existing “peace” in order to create a crisis that would result in the installation of the Mwangaza, an aging semi-messianic figure who promises to unite all of Kivu, or eastern Congo, against the Rwandan militias and armies as well as central control from the capital city, Kinshasa. The Mwangaza speaks about installing an interim government that would expel the Rwandans and take control of the airport, mines, and cities of Kivu, though it is clear that, above all, he desires political power, and is willing to endorse the Syndicate’s proposal to amply supply arms, ammunition, and mercenaries toward this end. Indeed, part of the contract negotiated during these talks stipulates that the Syndicate would be granted special investment access after the coup’s success in exchange for its contributions up front to bringing the war about, while the Kinshasa government is to be bought off using the revenue extracted from Kivu’s mines that was supposed to be set aside as “The People’s Portion.”

Salvo does not take this plan lightly, however. He discreetly manages to appropriate seven cassettes of recordings of the meeting and keeps his own notes upon return to London. Then, unsure of whom to turn to, he first approaches Lord Brinkley, a distinguished “friend of Africa” in the British Parliament, with the idea of bringing the plans to light so as to prevent their execution—only to find Brinkley conspiring to have Salvo’s evidence destroyed or secured so that the coup can proceed. After taking leave of Brinkley, though, Salvo and his partner Hannah, a Congolese nurse, approach the Mwangaza’s London-based aide, Baptiste, who completely denies the possibility of the Mwangaza participating in such a plot. Salvo then meets with Mr. Anderson, his contact at MI6 who first assigned him to the clandestine meeting as interpreter, to express his concerns, only to find Anderson reacting much the same way as Brinkley—even going so far as to rationalize the plundering of Africa’s mineral wealth as based on the prerogatives of supposedly more highly civilized European peoples.

Upon escaping from Anderson, Salvo resorts to contacting his ex-wife’s colleague in the press about running the story before the coup is staged, yet he finds that the two most important cassettes have been taken by Hannah to be recorded and sent to Haj to disrupt the plans once and for all. This courageous effort that finally breaks with Salvo’s “misguided loyalty” to the system indeed saves Kivu from a new war, as the mercenaries’ conspiracy is foiled, but it leads Hannah immediately to be deported to Congo, while Salvo is stripped of his British citizenship and placed in a migrant camp similarly to await deportation to central Africa.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends (2003) is likely le Carré’s most openly subversive and radical spy novel. In this work, le Carré depicts the life-long friendship of the British subject Ted Mundy and Sasha, a German anarchist. Mundy, the son of a Scottish military officer and Irish maid born in British-occupied India, begins his “radical reappraisal” of Britain and the Raj in childhood due to the horrors of Partition (1947) and his sense, as suggested later by his father, that the British authorities were largely responsible for these atrocities, and specifically the deaths of the entirety of the family members of his beloved Muslim nurse, Ayah. In adolescence, the protagonist further develops his critical perspective in concert with Dr. Mandelbaum, his radical German-language and cello tutor, who suggests that, “as long as [humanity] is in chains, maybe all good people in the world are also refugees.” The development of Ted’s radical spirit continues precipitously at Oxford University, where he enrolls to deepen his knowledge of German and meets Ilse, his first partner and a militant anarchist. They participate in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the junta of Greek colonels, and then decide to go study together at the Free University of Berlin. The only problem is that Ilse reneges at the last moment, but not before referring Ted to Sasha, a well-known revolutionary in Berlin. As Mundy departs by train from Waterloo Station in London, the narrator regards him and asks:

“Is he an anarchist? It will depend. To be an anarchist one must have a glimmer of hope.”

Certainly, both Mundy’s anarchism and radical hope are considerably nourished upon making the acquaintance of Sasha in Berlin. Listening to Mundy’s answer to the question of what the meaning of revolution is at their first meeting, Sasha at once tells Mundy that “[a]ll authority is irrational” and inquires into his knowledge of Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer’s writings. Their relationship of fraternal love is thus immediately forged, and they become roommates. Le Carré shows how Mundy’s participation in the radical youth movement in Berlin represents an epoch of self-realization for him, as he becomes “part of a brave new family determined to rebuild the world.” Such immersion leads Mundy to rejoice: “So many brothers and sisters everywhere! So many comrades who share the dream!” The author clearly acknowledges that this militant movement, impelled by the children of the Auschwitz generation, sought to purge from the world the “multiple diseases of fascism, capitalism, militarism, consumerism, Nazism, Coca-Colonization, imperialism, and pseudo-democracy.”

At the Free University, Sasha is depicted giving a speech at an action denouncing the Vietnam War, specifically demanding that the Nuremburg Tribunal be reconvened to prosecute the “fascist-imperialist American leadership […] on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.” Le Carré then shows the West German State brutally suppressing the demonstration, with Mundy valiantly rescuing Sasha from the riot police and becoming injured, hospitalized, and deported in the process.

After his formative time in Berlin, Mundy spends some years wandering: he briefly works at a journalist in the East Midlands, until he publishes an unauthorized exposé of labor conditions for Asian workers at a local cannery itself owned by the newspaper’s owner; he tries life as an artist in Taos, New Mexico; he gets married with Kate Andrews, a dedicated Labor Party member who wishes to rout the Trotskyists, Communists, and “closet anarchists” she sees as threatening the Party’s future, and fathers a son with her; and he himself secures employment with the British Council.

As part of this work, Mundy once again meets Sasha in East Germany, and the militant reveals to him intelligence vital to GDR security—a move that speaks to the anarchist’s integration into the State, yet also his continued dialectical commitment to destabilizing it. By sharing this information in turn with MI6 upon return to West Berlin, Mundy himself becomes an agent, and so begins a new phase in this “absolute friendship” whereby Mundy handles Sasha’s efforts to undermine what the latter considers to be the “Red Fascist” State. For Sasha, in so compromising the GDR and the USSR, it is not a matter of serving Western interests, but rather of fighting “tyranny wherever I have found it, with whatever weapons were available to me.”

The conclusion of Absolute Friends is contemporary, set in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mundy mobilizes against this mad plot, encouraging his son to organize protests at his university, but can find no concrete way for himself to do so until Sasha approaches him with a proposal to join a mysterious billionaire known as Mr. Dimitri from the New Planet Foundation in his ploy to supposedly create a global “Counter-University” and advance the revolutionary cause through the creation of “intellectual guerrillas” who will resist the “insane [capitalist] concept of limitless expansion on a limited planet, with permanent conflict as its desired outcome” (orig. emphasis). Yet Dimitri is not all he seems: following 9/11, the CIA claims, he increasingly comes to insist on an “alliance” between European anarchists and Islamist terrorists—given the view imputed to him that “[t]hese Al Qaeda boys have brought off just about everything Mikhail Bakunin ever dreamed of [sic]”—and he uses Mundy to rent out a school in Heidelberg at which the Brit used to teach for the first “demonstration project” for the Counter-University.

Though Mundy increasingly suspects Dimitri, Sasha faithfully does not doubt the sincerity of the project. Ultimately, one evening, as Mundy is preparing the shipments that he understands to be filled with books for the Counter-University’s Heidelberg campus, he realizes that he and Sasha have been set up: he discovers boxes of grenades, bomb-making devices, and so on. Just then, a massive police-military operation descends on the school, and the friends are killed off as putative terrorists who had been planning to attack the U.S. airbase at Heidelberg.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is revealed as enjoying Witness Protection in Montana for having warned the authorities about the radical friends’ non-existent terrorist plot, and the heist is shown as amounting to a “second burning of the Reichstag,” whereby an ex-CIA operative representing a coalition of oil barons, arms dealers, and security executives framed Mundy and Sasha as extremists who were preparing to bomb the air-force base precisely in order to silence the opposition from the German and French States to the U.S. drive to war on Iraq and thus expanded profits for such corporate sectors. Le Carré depicts the Heidelberg siege as blunting the Germans’ criticisms of Bush and company, whereas Russia is seen as capitalizing on the terrorized Zeitgeist to clamp down on protests and intensify its terrible war on Chechnya.

Conclusion: Let’s Start the Avalanche

We can see, then, that le Carré is a very serious and astute thinker and commentator about a number of pressing socio-economic, political, and ethical issues of recent history and our day. Yet it is evident that le Carré wields his critique of Statism, authoritarianism, and exploitation in an ironic fashion: generally speaking, it is not from an external standpoint, such as that of a protester or victim of militarism, that such critique issues in le Carré’s novels, but rather through the operation of the internal dynamics governing the system. Le Carré’s writings are therefore unexpected or “playful” in the sense that, unlike an external critique of the system raised for example by anarchists who want to take down that system, they typically begin from inside the system and move outward, developing into condemnations of the same. Clearly, le Carré’s spy writings are quite apart from those by Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy, novelists who start from within the State-capitalist system and have no wish to critique or overthrow it. This is another reason why the author’s art-works are consciously ironic, for the genre of espionage generally connotes mainstream, statist perspectives, not critical ones.

While le Carré achieves his purposes of entertainment and enlightenment by “playing” in a certain way, the content of his art is clearly very serious. More often than not, the protagonists of his novels serve as martyrs who are sacrificed by the State or capital to ensure stability and expanded profitability in the Cold War and subsequent neoliberal period: there are Samuel and Elsa Fennan in Call for the Dead; Fiedler, Leamas, and Gold in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Jerry, Luke, and Nelson in The Honourable Schoolboy; Salim and Khalil in The Little Drummer Girl; Savelyev in The Russia House; Mickie in The Tailor Panama; Tessa, Dr. Bloom, and Justin in The Constant Gardener; Salvo and Hannah in The Mission Song; and Mundy and Sasha in Absolute Friends. Within his earlier Cold War-era novels, le Carré advances a critique of the bureaucratic “grey men” on both sides, showing the way forward as developing through the courageous and tragic resistance of people like Savelyev and Katya Orlova, who dream of a better world as they labor to undermine the system; a very similar analysis could be made of Absolute Friends. The question which Katya poses to Barley about his intentions to publish Savelyev’s manuscript underpin much of le Carré’s subversive commentary throughout his oeuvre:

“Ask them which is more dangerous to [humanity]: to conform like a slave or resist like a [person]?”

As part of this dynamic of submission versus resistance, le Carré clearly acknowledges the extensive participation of former Nazi officers in the Western intelligence and security services after World War II, and he communicates the hegemonic Western concept that, once Hitler had been defeated, the rest of the West could get back to the “real war” against the Soviet Union and the “Red Menace.” Indeed, Absolute Friends opens with Mundy announcing to his tour group that Britain and the U.S. initially did not oppose Hitler, and indeed saw in him an attack-dog to be unleashed on the Reds. Moreover, our author does not shy from illustrating mainstream British anti-Semitic and bourgeois prejudices or depicting an MI6 officer making a Nazi salute. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré adopts the view of the Palestinian resistance that the Zionist State is fascist and genocidal, and in The Honourable Schoolboy, he has Ricardo’s fellow pilot express the thanotic imperative that drives individual capitalists and the system as a whole:

“hear me? They kill me, they kill Ricardo, they kill you, they kill the whole damn human race!”

In sum, then, le Carré, through his critical plots and his alter egos (Smiley, Gold, Barley, Mundy), examines the violence of despotism, brilliantly revealing the depths of nihilism and destruction for which the ruling class is responsible. In his more contemporary works, our author forthrightly points to the capitalist super-exploitation of the non-Western world, as Western firms and powers mobilize to extract evermore resources through militarism and genocide. The results are plain for all to see, or they should be; keeping these in full view, le Carré denounces the system as a whole. In parallel, he identifies the State’s established tendency to crush the possibilities of liberation, as seen in The Russia House, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, and The Mission Song, and even the authorities’ willingness to exploit radicalism to promote reaction, as we see in The Little Drummer Girl.

Yet le Carré strongly endorses Barley’s view that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that abolishes militarism, imperialism, and capitalism. The author even depicts this type of non-cooperation in a number of his works, especially in his illustration of State officials who defect, rebel, or otherwise sabotage their work. Nonetheless, the critique he raises against the State for instrumentalizing human life applies also to movements resisting oppression: that the Israelis, British, Soviets, or Americans cannot cease violating the means toward the ends they seek does not justify those who oppose them doing the same, even if the revolutionary end is superior to the end of maintaining the status quo. The Little Drummer Girl’s plot makes this clear. Like Lev Tolstoy and Albert Camus, then, le Carré is concerned about the replication of nihilism and authoritarianism within resistance movements, and he advises us—quite rightly, I think—to do all we can to harmonize means and ends. Quite like Tolstoy, le Carré declares through Barley that “[w]e must cut down the grey men inside ourselves, we must burn our grey suits and set our good hearts free, which is the dream of every decent soul, and even—believe it or not—of certain grey men too.”

Works Cited

1 Compare the East German Abteilung with the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi brownshirts, followers of the Strasser brothers, who were purged by the Waffen SS on Hitler’s orders. Is this etymological similitarity between the names of the respective State agencies just coincidental, or actually reflective of red-brown cross-over?

2 Compare Lev Trotsky’s declaration in Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky (1920), published in response to Kautsky’s criticisms of Bolshevik repressiveness and the brutality of the Russian Civil War: “As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’”

3 See Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007), especially ch. 9, “Targeted Assassinations: The Airborne Occupation.”

What Were Stalin’s Real Crimes? Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part II/III)

November 15, 2018

Fergana

The meaning of forced collectivization: an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

“It is in the nature of ideological politics […] that the real content of the ideology […] which originally had brought about the ‘idea’ […] is devoured by the logic with which the ‘idea’ is carried out.”

– Hannah Arendt1

What’s the biggest problem with the “criticisms” of Stalin raised by the “Proles of the Round Table”? That they are so disingenuous and anemic. One of the three critiques raised—about Spain—in fact isn’t critical of Stalin, while we’ve seen (in part I) how the “criticism” on deportations is entirely misleading. A related question might be to ask how it looks for two presumably white U.S. Americans to criticize Stalin for some (1-2%) of his deportations of ethnic Germans, but not to do so when it comes to the dictator’s mass-deportations of Muslims, Buddhists, and other indigenous peoples. At least Mao Zedong judged Stalin as being “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”2 For Jeremy and Justin, though, Stalin appears to have been at least 90%, if not 95%, right. Maybe we can soon expect the “Proles of the Round Table” Patreon to begin selling wearables proclaiming that “Stalin did nothing wrong.”

Besides the aforementioned Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the May Days, and the mass-deportations of ethnic minorities, let’s now consider five of Stalin’s real crimes.

1. “Socialism in One Country”: Stalinist Ideology

His revision, together with fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, of the tradition of socialist internationalism to the reactionary, ultra-nationalist idea of “socialism in one country.” Stalin and Bukharin arrived at this conclusion to compete against Lev Trotsky’s rival concept of “permanent revolution,” which calls first for a European and then global federation of socialist republics. This Stalinist doctrine, which demanded that the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy be considered first within the Third International (or Comintern), can explain both the General Secretary’s demand to crush the anarchists in Spain in 1937 and his effective facilitation of Hitler’s rise to power by means of the disastrous Comintern policy that considered the social-democratic (that is, non-Stalinist) opposition to Hitler to be “social-fascist.” The General Secretary would only reverse course and endorse a “Popular Front” strategy after Hitler had taken power.3 Stalinist ultra-nationalism finds contemporary purchase among neo-fascist, national-Bolshevik movements, whereas—perhaps ironically—the Comintern doctrine on “social fascism” has echoes today among ultra-leftists disdainful of coalition-building with more moderate political forces (e.g., as in the 2016 U.S. presidential election). Moreover, Stalin’s preference for “socialism in one country” can help us understand the Soviet Union’s continued sale of petroleum to Mussolini following this fascist’s military invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.4 Within this same vein, and anticipating the affinity of today’s neo-Stalinists for campist “analyses” of international relations, Moscow variously supported the feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD) in China, the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Afghan King Amanullah Khan, and Ibn al-Sa’ud (founder of Saudi Arabia) during this time on the grounds that these leaders staunchly opposed the West, despite their great distance from any kind of socialist paradigm.5

Civilizatsia

Courtesy Voline, The Unknown Revolution

2. Stalinist Imperialism

His “Great-Russian” chauvinism, as manifested in his brutally imperialist policies toward ethnic minorities—particularly the deportations of Muslims (as mentioned above in part I)—and other subject-peoples of the former Tsarist empire, whose colonial project Stalin enthusiastically embraced. Though Georgian by origin (his birth name was Ioseb Jughashvili), Stalin (whose Russian nom de guerre means “man of steel”) was “the most ‘Russian’ of the early leaders” who advanced not only “socialism in one country,’ but […] a socialism built on a predominantly Russian foundation.”6 According to Dunayevskaya, Stalin’s “national arrogance” was “as rabid as that of any Tsarist official.”7 In contrast to his mentor and supervisor Vladimir I. Lenin, who at least formally supported the right of self-determination for the oppressed nationalities of the Tsarist empire while greatly violating this principle in practice, Stalin was openly imperialist on the national question: according to the terms of this relationship, the colonies were to be “plundered for raw materials and food to serve the industrialisation of Russia.”8 It therefore remains clear that, under the Soviet Union, “Russia was not a nation state but an empire, an ideological state. Any definition as a nation-state would probably have excluded at least the non-Slavs, and certainly the Muslims.”9 Accordingly, the official history taught in Stalin’s USSR rehabilitated the mythical Tsarist narrative that the Russian “Empire had brought progress and civilisation to backward peoples.”10

Map_of_the_ethnic_groups_living_in_the_Soviet_Union

Ethnographic map of the former Soviet Union. Date unknown

In Georgia, a former Tsarist-era colony located in the Caucasus Mountains, the social-democratic Menshevik Party declared independence in 1918 to found the Georgian Democratic Republic, otherwise known as the Georgian Commune, wherein parliamentary democracy and a relatively collaborative relationship among the peasantry, proletariat, and political leadership lasted for three years, until Stalin and his fellow Georgian Bolshevik Sergo Ordzhonikidze organized a Red Army invasion in 1921 which crushed this courageous experiment in democratic socialism. The errant ex-colony of Georgia was thus forcibly reincorporated into the ex-Tsarist Empire—by then, the “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic,” part of the Soviet Union.11 Besides Georgia, this “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic” would include Azerbaijan and Armenia, which had also been occupied by the Red Army in 1920.12

In the Muslim-majority provinces of Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, the poorest region of the former Tsarist Empire, Lenin and Stalin sided with the interests of the Russian settlers against the Muslim peasantry.13 In Orientalist fashion, the Bolsheviks considered Central Asia’s “Muslims as culturally backward, not really suitable to be communists and needing to be kept under a kind of tutelage.”14 Yet in light of the sustained Basmachi revolt waged by Muslim guerrillas against Soviet imperialism in the first decade after October 1917, Stalin also recognized the significant threat these colonized Muslims could pose to the Soviet Union—hence his active discouragement of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism by means of cutting off the USSR’s Muslims “subjects,” many of them ethnically and linguistically Turkic, from the rest of the Ummah (Islamic global brotherhood or community) abroad. An early 1930’s law punishing unauthorized exit from the USSR made observation of hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, quite impossible.15 The expulsion from the Communist Party (1923) and subsequent imprisonment (1928) of the Volga Tatar Sultan Galiev, a pan-Islamist “national-communist” who envisioned organizing the Turkic Muslims into a fighting force against Western imperialism, followed a similar logic.16

In the Stalinist conception, the numerous subject-peoples of the Soviet Union could be classified hierarchically according to their “stage of development,” as based on their mode of production and whether or not they had a written language, such that supposedly more ‘advanced’ peoples would qualify as ‘nations’ that were granted the status of “Soviet Socialist Republic” (SSR), whereas “less developed” peoples would be granted “Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics” (ASSR), while those without written languages would be placed in “Autonomous Regions” (AR), or “National Territories” (NT). In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, there existed 14 SSR’s, 20 ASSR’s, 8 AR’s, and 10 NT’s in the USSR.17

Soviet_Union_Administrative_Divisions_1989

Map of Soviet administrative subdivisions, 1989. Notice the numerous ASSR subdivisions in Central Asia

This systematic atomization of oppressed nationalities followed Stalin’s “principle of the dual bridgehead,” whereby the State would favor those minorities that could assist the USSR in expanding its reach while repressing other minorities whose existence could serve as a “fifth column” for the USSR’s rivals. In part I of this critique, we saw how this rationale played out in Stalin’s mass-deportations: the General Secretary felt justified in forcibly transferring the Turkic Muslim Meskhetian people, among others, because they were supposedly too close to the Turkish State headed by Kemal Atatürk. Furthermore, this principle can be gleaned in the Soviet Communist Party’s initial favoring of Uzbeks over Tajiks beginning in 1924, followed by a 180° shift in perspective upon the overthrow of Afghanistan’s King Amanullah (a Pashtun) by Bacha-i Saqqao, a Tajik, in 1928—leading to the proclamation of the Tajikistan SSR in 1929.18 The capital city of Dushanbe was subsequently renamed as “Stalinabad.”19 In addition, whereas the Communist Party favored its own Kurdish minority, some of whom included refugees, because it could use them in the future as pawns against Iran and Turkey, it had refused to support Kurdish and Turkmen rebellions abroad against Turkey and Iran in 1925. Above all, Stalin’s nationalities policy achieved its greatest “success” in its complex partition of Turkestan by means of the drawing-up of borders that were defined along ethno-nationalist lines: just look at the region’s current borders (see map above), which are based on those concluded by Stalin’s regime. In thus pitting Central Asia’s mosaic of different ethno-linguistic groups against each other, Stalin definitively laid the pan-Islamist specter to rest.20 Dunayevskaya’s observation here seems apt: it was in Stalin’s “attitude to the many [oppressed] nationalities” that the General Secretary’s “passion for bossing came out in full bloom.”21

soviet imperial mural

A Soviet mosaic in Karaghandy, Kazakhstan (Courtesy The Guardian)

Stalin’s imperialist assertion of power over Central Asia, which imposed the collectivization of cattle herds and the nationalization of bazaars and caravans managed by indigenous peoples while promoting Russian settlements, resulted in famine and revolt.22 It involved a high-modernist assault on Islam in the name of emancipating women and remaking traditional patriarchal Turkic social relations, as we shall examine in more detail in the third part of this response.

Regarding Ukraine, see the section on Jeremy and Justin’s Holodomor denial in the third part of this response. Briefly, Jeremy’s Russian-chauvinist attitude toward all matters Ukrainian comes through at a fundamental linguistical level when he refers to Ukraine as “the Ukraine.” This formulation, like the Russian «на Украине» (“in the Ukraine”), is an imperialist way of referring to the country, which is not just a colony of Russia or the Soviet Union (as in, “the Ukrain[ian province]”). The proper way is to refer just to Ukraine, as in the Russian equivalent «в Украине» (“in Ukraine”).

Such attitudes are shared by Ó Séaghdha, who falsely claims Ukraine today to be a “bastion of the far right and neo-Nazism,” just as Justin compares “Ukrainian nationalists” to the U.S.-based Proud Boys. One’s mind is boggled: as of July 2018, the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party had only 6 seats, or 1.3%, in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, while in both rounds of elections held in 2014, Svoboda and Right Sector alike gained less than 5% of the vote.23 In fact, Ukraine has held its first major LGBT Pride marches following the Euromaidan protests which overthrew the Putin-affiliated President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Meanwhile, by focusing on the supposedly ‘fascist’ Ukrainians,24 Ó Séaghdha and his guests deny the global reach of Putin’s neo-Nazism, from his 2014 occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine and his subsequent mass-detention of Crimean Tatar Muslims, including in psychiatric hospitals, to his regime’s criminalization of homosexuality, decriminalization of domestic violence, and genocidal intervention in support of the Assad Regime in Syria—to say nothing of his mutual affinities for the Trump Regime. How ironic is this misrepresentation, then, considering that Ukraine was the “centerpiece of Hitler’s vision of Lebensraum.25

Soviet harvest

A typically socialist-realist depiction of a collective farm celebration, by Arkady Plastov (1937): presumably, this is how neo-Stalinists and ‘Marxist-Leninists’ idealize the outcomes of forcible collectivization in the Soviet Union.

3. Stalinist State-Capitalism

His advocacy and implementation of state capitalism in the Soviet Union, whereby the basic relationship of exploitation between capital and labor persisted after the Russian Revolution, with the difference that capital in this case was managed and expanded by the Communist Party bureaucracy rather than the private capitalist class.26 Upheld by the Army and police, the Soviet economy reduced workers to mere slaves: during the existence of the USSR, workers could not regulate, choose, or control their overseers and administrators, much less anticipate not having any, as through anarcho-syndicalist organization, or autogestion (самоуправление). In the USSR,

“[t]he State [wa]s [the worker’s] only employer. Instead of having thousands of ‘choices,’ as is the case in the nations where private capitalism prevails, in the U.S.S.R. (the U.S.C.R. [Union of State-Capitalist Republics: Voline]) the worker ha[d] only one. Any change of employer [wa]s impossible there.”27

Following the Revolution, “[f]or the Russian workers, […] nothing had changed; they were merely faced by another set of bosses, politicians and indoctrinators.”28

Peasants under Stalin were similarly reduced to serfs, particularly during and following the forced collectivization process that began in 1928. Continuing with the precedent of the Bolshevik policy of “War Communism,” which had involved considerable extraction of grain and the conscription of young men from the peasantry, Stalin declared war on the countryside, expropriating all lands held by these peasants and concentrating these into kolkhozi, or “collective possessions,” and sovkhozi, or State farms, which were to be worked by the peasants in the interests of the State.29 This nationalization did not discriminate between “rich” peasant, or kulak, and poor—in contrast to the misleading presentation Jeremy and Justin make of Stalin’s forcible collectivization campaign. The “Proles of the Round Table” deceptively explain the emergence of the “kulaks” by referring to the Tsarist Interior Minister Peter Stolypin’s land reforms of 1906, while saying nothing about Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” of 1921, which formally reintroduced private property. They also completely misrepresent Stalin’s collectivization policy, which proceeded at the points of bayonets, as a natural outgrowth of the traditional peasant commune (mir or obshchina), which had resisted the Tsarist State for centuries. In fact, it was arguably through Stalinist forcible collectivization that the Russian countryside fell under the control for the first time.30 As peasant resistance to this “total reordering of a rural civilization from the top down” mounted, including an estimated 13,000 “mass disturbances” just in 1930, Stalin’s regime resorted to atrocious counter-insurgent tactics to bring the countryside to heel, including mass-executions, reprisals, and the resulting famines of 1931-1933 in Ukraine, South Russia, and Kazakhstan.31 The Stalinist regime conveniently expanded the definition of exactly who was a “kulak” from a class-based to a political definition, such that even poor peasants who opposed forcible collectivization could be labeled “kulaks” and deported to Siberia, the Far North, and Central Asia, as about 1.8 million peasants were in 1930-1931. As during the numerous other episodes of mass-deportations devised by Stalin, mortality rates among “dekulakized” peasants were high.32

Puzzlingly, the “Proles of the Round Table” claim this collectivization to have been “extremely successful” in providing “stability” by the mid-1930’s, the resistance of at least 120 million peasants to the Terror campaign and the “excess mortality” of between 6 and 13 million people such Terror caused during this period notwithstanding. By precisely which standards can this campaign have said to have been “successful”? The historian Catherine Evtuhov observes: “From any humane perspective, the terrible costs were far greater than the rewards.”33 In contrast, Jeremy and Justin either do not recognize the brutality of the Stalinist regime’s campaign, or they simply explain away mass-death during collectivization as resulting from natural disasters—thus ‘naturalizing’ the Soviet regime’s contributions to famines—and/or “kulak resistance.” By so easily dismissing mass-death, they imply that the millions of poor peasants who were destroyed as a result of forcible collectivization deserved such a fate.

Jeremy and Justin are very insistent on arguing that the deaths associated with collectivization were “not due” to Stalin’s policies—against both logic and evidence. They have nothing to say about Stalin’s reconstitution in 1932 of the Tsarist-era internal-passport system, or propiska, in order to tightly control the movements of the Soviet peasantry and proletariat during forced collectivization. Upon its proclamation in December 1932, such “passportization” was effected and mandated in “towns, urban settlements, district centers, and Machine and Tractor Stations, within 100-kilometer radiuses around certain large towns, in frontier zones, on building sites and state farms”: it thus openly revoked the freedom of movement of the majority of the Soviet population, including peasants and ethnic minorities.34 With this in mind, it would appear that the “Proles of the Round Table” do not to want to concede the possibility—and reality—that Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign involved the oppression and dispossession of many poor peasants, whether these were insurgents against whom the State retaliated for defending their communities against Stalinist incursion or simply peasants whom the parasitic bureaucracy considered mere objects of exploitation and either killed outright or left to die during forcible collectivization—thus reflecting the extent to which internal colonialism characterized the Stalinist State.35

Indeed, Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign followed a very clearly state-capitalist rationale, both requiring and (once established) providing mass-labor inputs. Based on the economic theory of Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, Stalin’s massive State project to centralize the peasantry so as to more deeply exploit it represented the phase of “primitive socialist accumulation” that was considered as necessary to finance a rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. In parallel to the colonization of the New World, the enslavement of Africans, and the enclosure of the commons by which capitalism arose as a historical mode of production,36 Preobrazhensky essentially argued that the Soviet State must exploit the peasants and use the surplus value extracted from them to accelerate the growth of capital and industry.37 This brutally mechanistic logic, which has served as the model for similar industrialization processes in countries led by Stalinist bureaucracies such as Maoist China and Ethiopia under the Derg,38 openly exhibits Marxist-Leninism’s fundamental bias against the peasantry, whether “kulak” or otherwise. Such bias was clearly on display on Ó Séaghdha’s podcast, given the embarrassing side-comments about “comrades cuddling” during the horrors of forced collectivization, and Jeremy and Justin’s astonishing conclusion that this collectivization which took the lives of millions of poor peasants had been “extremely successful.” These Stalinists thus appear to have no class analysis of the peasantry, instead considering them all as reactionaries and “capitalists” whose oppression and destruction signifies progress. They malign the peasants and laugh over their corpses while saying nothing about the conditions of “second serfdom”—represented by barshchina (State labor requirements), extraction, and low pay—that formed the basis of Stalinist industrialization.39

Within Soviet class society, according to Voline (writing in 1947), there existed approximately 10 million privileged workers, peasants, functionaries, Bolshevik Party members, police, and soldiers (comprising approximately 6% of the population of the USSR/USCR), as against 160 million effectively enslaved workers and peasants (or 94% of the USSR/USCR’s population).40 The basic structure of the Soviet Union, on Paul Mattick’s account, was “a centrally-directed social order for the perpetuation of the capitalistic divorce of the workers from the means of production and the consequent restoration of Russia as a competing imperialist power.”41 This ‘total State’ “resembled an army in terms of rank and discipline,” and atop it all “lived Stalin, moving between his Kremlin apartment and his heavily guarded dachas. He and his cronies indulged themselves night after night, in between issuing commands and execution orders, feasting and toasting in the manner of gangland chiefs.”42

child labor

The meaning of forcible collectivization: child labor on an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

4. The GULAG Slave-Labor Camp System

The deaths of the conquered are necessary for the conqueror’s peace of mind.” Chinggis Khan: a phrase of which Stalin was fond (Evtuhov 676)

His regime’s founding (in 1930), mass-expansion, and vast utilization of the GULAG slave-labor camp system, known officially as the “State Camp Administration,” which played a central role in the General Secretary’s “Great Purge,” otherwise known as his “Terror.” These purges served the goal of “ensur[ing] the survival of the regime and Stalin’s position as its supreme leader” by eliminating the remaining “General Staff of the [Russian] Revolution” as well as the workers, peasants, and intellectuals who resisted Stalin’s state-capitalist plans.43 The General Secretary’s insistence on obedience, his paranoid vengefulness, his equation of any kind of opposition with treason, and the fear felt by Communists that the Soviet Union was militarily encircled, particularly in light of a newly remilitarized and fascist Germany, can help explain the Terror, which involved the arrest of at least 1.5 million people, the deportation of a half-million to camps, and the execution of hundreds of thousands. The total camp population reached 2.5 million in 1950.44

As Yevgenia Semënovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind attests to, the GULAG system was designed in such a way as to partially recoup the financial losses involved in the mass-imprisonments which followed from Stalin’s Purges of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: instead of summarily being executed or idly rotting away in prison, many detainees were forced to work for the State with little to no material compensation. Ginzburg shows as well that political prisoners suffered greater discrimination in access to health services, nutritional intake, shelter, and types of labor performed in the GULAG, relative to other convict groups: the ‘politicals’ were always assigned hard labor. Many GULAG prisoners died performing slave-labor, whether clearing forests or constructing railroads: such was the fate of numerous enslaved prisoners forced to construct the Moscow-Volga Canal from 1932-1937.45 Within the Magadan camp located in Eastern Siberia where Ginzburg was held, the discrepancy between the housing conditions of Hut No. 8, a “freezing cold” “wild animals’ den” where the female political prisoners lived, and the abodes of those convicted for lesser offenses, in which lived individuals with “healthy complexions and lively faces” enjoying “blankets in check patterns” and “pillows with hemstitched linen covers,” clearly illustrates the discrimination.46 This same dynamic seems to explain the contrast in appearance—and physical comfort—among the female slave-labor teams assigned to the Kilometer 7 work site: the “peasant women” “had managed to keep their own coarse scarves” and some of the “ordinary criminals” had sheepskin coats, while the political prisoners “had not a rag of [their own]” and wore footwear which was “full of holes [and] let in the snow.”47 Ginzburg’s fellow inmate Olga was therefore right to anticipate that Stalin’s regime would expand the use of “hard-labor camps” in the wake of the downfall of NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov in 1939, especially considering that the majority of those imprisoned by Stalin were of prime working age.48

In a reflection of the maxims of Stalinist state-capitalism, Ginzburg reports that the slave-labor system to which she was subjected in the GULAG would dole out food only in proportion to the output that a given team would achieve. For teams like hers comprised of intellectuals and ex-Party officials who lacked experience with manual labor, then, this dynamic would result in a downward spiral of production—and welfare, since they were unable to achieve a basic threshold for production which would allow them access to the very food they needed to maintain and increase production in the future.49 Yet slave-laborers were sometimes provided with food relief if mortality rates were deemed ‘excessive.’50 Ginzburg’s memoirs thus suggest that, as far as political prisoners were concerned, the GULAG system was designed to torment such ‘politicals’ by maintaining them at a minimal level of sustenance, rather than starving or otherwise killing them outright.

On a more positive note, Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought “hope [to] the [inmates of the GULAG] camps,” inspiring both the June 1953 workers’ uprising against Stalinism, which not only overthrew State power in several cities and work-sites in East Germany but also involved workers’ liberation of prisons and concentration camps, and the unprecedented strike by political prisoners at the Vorkuta slave-labor camp which followed just two weeks later.51 Dunayevskaya comments in a manner that remains completely germane today that both of these episodes represented an “unmistakable affirmative” response to the question of whether humanity can “achieve freedom out of the totalitarianism of our age.”52

5. Assassination of Trotsky

What specific characteristics in a man enable him to become the receptacle and the executor of class impulses from an alien class[…]?” – Raya Dunayevskaya53


His ordering of the assassination of Lev Trotsky, as carried out by the Spanish NKVD agent Ramón Mercader in Trotsky’s residence in Coyoacán, Mexico, in August 1940. Whereas there is little love lost between us and the “Old Man,” as Trotsky was known, given his status as the butcher of the Kronstadt Commune, the would-be executioner of Nestor Makhno, an advocate of the militarization of labor, and an apologist for State slavery54—still, Stalin’s brazen attempts to assassinate him in Mexico City not once but twice remain shocking in their brutality to this day. They may well have inspired the commission of similar atrocities on the part of the C.I.A.,55 the Israeli Mossad, and even Mohammed bin Salman’s recent murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

First, on May 24, 1940, the Mexican surrealist and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros led an assassination-squad in an assault on Trotsky’s fortified family residence, which the exiled Bolshevik leader had been granted by Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, who had afforded him asylum and personal protection. Mercader represented Stalin’s back-up plan. Having adopted an elaborate “deep-cover” false identity as “Jacques Mornard,” a Belgian aristocrat unconcerned with political questions, Mercader had seduced and used Sylvia Ageloff, herself a leftist Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn connected through her sisters to Trotsky, for two years to get close enough to facilitate both assassination attempts. While the complicity of “Jacques” in the first plot remained undetected, this was only possible because Siqueiros’ team captured and murdered Trotsky’s young American security guard Robert Sheldon Harte, whom Mercader knew and also used to gain access to Trotsky’s residence in the early morning of May 24. Yet a combination of luck; quick-thinking by Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s wife, who isolated and shielded her partner’s body from the would-be assassin’s bullets; and the imprecise strategy to kill Trotsky that morning ensured his survival.56 Nevertheless, following a dry-run to assassinate Trotsky in his study using an ice-pick on the pretext of discussing a political article he had begun to write, Mercader invited himself back to Trotsky’s residence on the hot summer day of August 20, 1940, to discuss some revisions he had supposedly made to improve the same article. Concealing his ice-pick under a heavy raincoat, Mercader provoked Natalia Sedova’s suspicions about his presentation:

Yes, you don’t look well. Not well at all. Why are you wearing your hat and raincoat? You never wear a hat, and the sun is shining.”57

Nevertheless, despite Natalia Sedova and Trotsky’s own intuitive misgivings, this Stalinist agent did ‘succeed’ in assassinating the exiled Bolshevik that day—precisely by burying an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head from behind, as the “Old Man” was distracted turning the page while reading the very essay Mercader had brought him:

The moment was rehearsed. Wait until he finishes the first page, [NKVD officer] Eitington had coached. Wait until he is turning the page, when he will be most distracted.”58

What a fitting allegory for Leninism and Stalinism: conflict-resolution according to the principle of “might makes right.”59 Trotsky’s fate also openly displays Stalin’s anti-Semitism: in so ruthlessly murdering his primary political rival, a world-renowned Bolshevik leader and Jewish dissident,60 in Coyoacán, which lies approximately 6,000 miles (or 10,000 kilometers) from Moscow—after having exploited Sylvia Ageloff, a fellow Jewish intellectual, to gain access to the desired target—the “Man of Steel” flaunts his attitude toward the relationship between Jews and his false “Revolution.” Mercader’s assassination of Trotsky therefore illuminates the clear continuities between Stalin and the bourgeoisie, in terms of their shared instrumentalization of human life, and the “full-circle” development of the Russian Revolution, proving Voline’s point that “Lenin, Trotsky, and their colleagues [as Stalin’s predecessors] were never revolutionaries. They were only rather brutal reformers, and like all reformers and politicians, always had recourse to the old bourgeois methods, in dealing with both internal and military problems.”61

Notes

1Arendt 472.

2Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), 68).

3Evtuhov 697-698.

4Henry Wolfe, The Imperial Soviets (New York: Doubleday, 1940).

5Alfred Meyer, Communism (New York: Random House, 1984), 92-93.

6E. H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926, vol. 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 195-196.

7Dunayevskaya 318.

8Hensman 36.

9Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 52.

10Hensman 53-60.

11Eric Lee, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921 (London, Zed Books, 2017). See a review here.

12Ibid 160-166.

13Roy 50-51, 83.

14Ibid 50.

15Evtuhov 692.

16Roy 45-46, 52-53, 66.

17Ibid 64-65.

18Roy 67.

19Evtuhov 692.

20Roy 46, 68, 73.

21Dunayevskaya 318.

22Evtuhov 689-690.

23Hensman 88-89.

24This line is disturbingly close to that of the neo-fascist Aleksandr Dugin, who welcomed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine by calling for “genocide… of the race of Ukrainian bastards [sic].” Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep (Chico, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 233.

25Plokhy 259.

26Wayne Price, Anarchism and Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? 3rd ed. (Edmonton, Alberta: Thoughtcrime, 2010), 186-189; Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 282.

27Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 359-361.

28Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 271.

29Voline 372-375.

30Evtuhov 670.

31Ibid 668; Voline 374.

32Evtuhov 668-669.

33Ibid 670.

34For a translation of the text of the December, 1932 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars, see M. Matthews, Soviet Government: a Selection of Official Documents on Internal Policy, J. Cape, 1974, 74-77.

35Hensman 34-35; Plokhy 249-250.

36Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin: London, 1976), 873-904.

37Evtuhov 642.

38Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, Politics and Famine in Ethiopia (Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival, 1985).

39Evtuhov 685.

40Voline 380, 388.

41Mattick 264.

42Evtuhov 688, 730.

43Plokhy 255; Dunayevskaya 320.

44Evtuhov 671, 676, 693, 730.

45Ibid 675, 688.

46Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey Into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (San Diego: Harcourt, 1967), 366, 368.

47Ibid 402.

48Ibid 258.

49Ibid 405-406.

50Ibid 415.

51Dunayaevskaya 325-329.

52Ibid 327-329.

53Ibid 317.

54Ida Mett, “The Kronstadt Commune,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 185-190; Voline 592-600; Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (London: Solidarity, 1970).

55Arendt xxn4.

56John P. Davidson, The Obedient Assassin (Harrison, NY: Delphinium Books, 2014), 48, 193-199.

57Ibid 274.

58Ibid 276.

59Voline 374.

60A dissident relative to Stalinism in power, that is, but not relative to anarchism or libertarian communism.

61Voline 431-432 (emphasis added).

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War

February 24, 2015

A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

Published originally on Anarkismo

ABSTRACT: The devastating civil war that has followed the popular uprising in Syria which began in March 2011 has to an extent drowned out the legitimate grievances of the civil-protest movement against Assad and Ba’athism. This war has been greatly inflamed by support by the U.S. and Israel along with the reactionary Gulf monarchies for anti-Assad rebels on the one hand, and aid provided to the regime by Iran and Russia on the other. In addition, clearly, this geopolitical dynamic has driven the rise of ISIS/Islamic State, and it informs the new war being waged by the NATO-Arab monarch “coalition.” In contrast to the neoliberal authoritarianism of Assad and the reactionary fanaticism of ISIS and associated rebel-groupings, though, the Kurds of northeastern Syria (Rojava) are working to institute a more or less anti-authoritarian society. Hope may be found in this social model, as in the direct action of the uprising.

“Behold where stands the usurper’s cursèd head. The time is free.”

– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 5, scene 8

The popular uprising in Syria that has demanded the fall of Bashar al-Assad and an end to Ba’athist domination since its beginning in March 2011 poses a number of questions for the international left, particularly anti-authoritarians. For one, the Assad regime has long sought to present itself as an Arab State in steadfast resistance (sumoud) to U.S./Israeli designs in the Middle East, as well as a government that is more representative of Arab public opinion, compared with the various Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is significant, in this sense, that Syria’s official title under Ba’athism has been the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), a name no doubt adopted as a marker of anti-monarchical distinction.1 The SAR’s progressive stance of resistance to monarchy notwithstanding, Syrian Ba’athism is clearly dictatorial, and it uses democratic centralism to attempt to legitimate its rule. As basic reflection on Assad’s response to the initial uprising makes clear, the Ba’athist State is brutally elitist in both theory and practice.

The profundity of horror of the civil war that has followed the popular mobilizations in Syria is evident, and though not all the violence which has now raged for nearly four years can be attributed to the regime, its choice to respond to the explosion of popular protests in 2011 with ruthlessness no doubt precipitated the armed insurgency that subsequently developed against it. The civil war midwived by this conflict between people and State has taken on a decidedly international scope—for to understand events in Syria itself, one must also consider the geopolitical situation, wherein Syria is allied with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as part of the “resistance axis” arrayed against the US, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beyond such considerations, transnational jihadist networks from the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have greatly inflamed the situation, having been born from the flames of this war—though not without considerable foreign support.

As against reactionary currents like al-Nusra and ISIS, progressive movements that have emerged from the activist movement against Assad and the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) show promise in terms of anti-authoritarianism, however much their efforts have seem to have been drowned out by the fighting. Above all, it would seem that the Kurdish libertarian-socialist currents which have grown considerably in northeastern Syria—Rojava—in connection with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) show the most promise in terms of social revolution, though the substantial military aid such forces have received from the US and NATO to help break ISIS’ siege of the border town of Kobanê since last September does raise some questions. An additional factor to consider when reflecting on the reported adoption and partial implementation by the PYD and its sister PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) of anarchist Murray Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism is that the Kurds of Rojava have enjoyed autonomy from the Ba’athist state since its withdrawal of troops from the area in 2012. As a comrade pointed out in the question-and-answer period that followed the recent presentation by a representative of the Kurdish Anarchist Forum (KAF) on Rojava at the 2014 London Anachist Bookfair, the more central regions of Syria have borne far more repression and destruction, due to the actions of regime and rebels alike.

In sheer terms of scale, it is overwhelmingly the Sunni majority of Syria that has suffered the most during the uprising and war, in light of the disproportionate number of dead and displaced who belong to this majority community. It has been Sunni neighborhoods and villages that have been the primary targets of the Ba’athist regime’s brutal counter-insurgent strategy, which has involved indiscriminate artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and SCUD missile attacks.2 Different casualty estimates claim between 130,000 and 200,000 people to have been killed in Syria in the past five years, and the UN reports that 9 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war, 3 million across international borders. Clearly, the war in Syria must be taken as among the most devastating ongoing conflicts in the world.

A Brief History of Modern Syria

To begin to make sense of Syria’s uprising and civil war, one must consider the history of the country and region. Excluding consideration of classical antiquity, the rise and spread of Islam, and the domination of the Levant by the Ottoman Empire, a truncated version of Syrian history would begin from the time of European colonization after the First World War, when the defeat of the Ottomans opened the possibility of self-determination for the Arabs who had previously been subjects of Istanbul. Characteristically, however, French and British imperialists decided themselves to appropriate former Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, dividing these into two regions that were demarcated by the infamous Sykes-Picot Line, agreed to in 1916. Thanks in no small part to the dialectically subversive and colonial machinations of T. E. Lawrence, Britain awarded itself Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon. In 1920, when French General Henri Gourard entered Damascus after defeating indigenous forces allied to Faisal bin Hussein—a Hashemite royal, related to the present Jordanian King Abdullah II—he is reported to have repaired to the tomb of the world-historical Kurdish general Salah-ad-din (Saladin), located in the Old City, and to have announced, “We’re back!”3 Such imperial arrogance notwithstanding, French colonialism did not survive long in the Levant, as an Arab-nationalist insurrection led by Sultan Pasha al-Atrash raged from 1925-1927, and mass civil-disobedience demanded respect for the popular will in favor of independence in Lebanon and Syria at the end of World War II.4 Though the French military tried to suppress both major uprisings using disproportionate force, it ultimately was forced to recognize that it had lost control of the Levant, and so granted these countries independence (Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1946)—in a preview of further losses to the French Empire incurred at Dienbienphu in Vietnam and later, during the Algerian Revolution.

Following formal independence and the election to power of Arab-nationalists in Syria, the country joined the Arab League and resisted the expanding Zionist enterprise—though to little avail, in light of the events of May 1948. The Arab Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party was founded in 1946 by Michel Aflaq, a Damascene independent Marxist and pan-Arabist, and it enjoyed electoral successes during Syria’s first decade of independence.5 The country engaged in an unprecedented federation with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt under the aegis of the “United Arab Republic,” though this collaboration lasted only three years (1958-1961). In 1963, the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup, proclaiming the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), but it was not until 1970 that air force commander Hafez al-Assad took power. It was during this time of Assad’s rise that the Syrian Ba’ath Party was purged of its more radical elements.6 Prior to Assad’s takeover, Syria allied itself with the Soviet Union, this being an alliance that has survived the USSR’s collapse: indeed, the ongoing relationship between post-Soviet Russia and the SAR is key to understanding the “balance of forces” in the present conflict, which has been marked by asymmetrical superiority on the part of the regime, at least in the early period of the uprising and war, before the rise of ISIS. In 2011, Syria was Russia’s second largest export-market for arms (a value of $500 million), and Putin sympathizes with Assad’s presentation of the conflict as a struggle against militant Islamists, for this framing has clear echoes of the counter-insurgent campaign he and Yeltsin have pursued in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, during the post-Soviet period.7

Special note should be made of the SAR’s foreign policies, since these have accounted for the relative historical and geographical uniqueness of Syrian Ba’athism, and the legitimacy that has been afforded it within many circles. Assad the elder and Assad the younger have kept up the appearance of making up a key part of the “rejectionist front” against the U.S. and Israel, as seen in the 1973 war Hafez al-Assad launched jointly with Egypt against the Jewish State, and the long-standing material and financial support the regime has provided to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Historically, Syrian Ba’athism has supported the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as provided safe haven for PKK fighters fleeing Turkish military repression across Syria’s northern border.8 Significantly, moreover, Assad had hosted Hamas since 1999, when it was expelled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, until the coming of the uprising, which led the group to break with the Syrian leader, in accordance with the international Muslim Brotherhood’s position of opposition to the regime. Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal ordered the Damascus headquarters to be packed up in January 2012, and since then, Hamas’s HQ-in-exile has tellingly been based in Doha, Qatar!9 Nonetheless, according to the analysis of Ramzy Baroud, Hamas may in fact be considered now as seeking to mend ties with the Shia resistance axis, in light of a lack of alternative sources of support, particularly as regards relations with neighboring Egypt following the junta’s coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in summer 2013. In turn, the SAR’s historical support for Hamas can in some ways be considered an outgrowth of its opposition to Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a conflict that goes back to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). As regards Lebanon, the Ba’athist alliance with Hezbollah cannot be considered as separate from the regime’s close ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, with which the elder Assad quickly allied himself upon its establishment in 1979—however strange the image of a secular dictator embracing a fundamentalist Shi’ite clerical regime may be. In part, of course, the Assads’ alliance with Iran has been driven by the split in Ba’athism between its Syrian and Iraqi branches, a division that took place in 1966: Assad supported Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion, and he even sent 1500 troops to aid coalition forces against Saddam during Desert Storm a decade later.10 Significantly, moreover, with regard to neighboring Lebanon, the SAR sent an invasion-occupation force to the country in 1976, supposedly to reduce tensions in the raging civil war, though tens of thousands of troops remained until they were forced out in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, an act that was widely blamed on the Assad regime. In terms of the politics of occupation, the elder Assad’s support for right-wing Maronite Christian militias against the PLO in the Lebanese Civil War complicated the Ba’athist State’s claim to serve revolutionary ends, even if Israel’s 1982 incursion of Beirut and southern Lebanon was motivated in large part by the prospect of removing Syrian forces from the country.11

Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez following the latter’s death in 2000. The younger Assad (34 at the time) was readily welcomed by the Syrian Parliament, which promptly lowered the minimum age of candidacy for the presidency to accommodate him, and he was “elected” with 97% of the vote in that year. While Bashar al-Assad has no doubt preserved the dictatorial nature of the Ba’athist State, thus carrying over the work of his father, earlier in his reign there was hope that he would bring liberalizing reforms to the SAR. Such hopes were motivated to a degree by the younger Assad’s background, profession, and personal life—he was an opthalmologist, not a military man, and was married to the British-raised daughter of a Sunni surgeon, and for this reason was personally acquainted with life in the United Kingdom.12 The beginning of the younger Assad’s rule thus coincided with the emergence of the ill-fated “Damascus Spring,” a movement that sought to demand that the transition in power from father to son be accompanied by suspension of the State of Emergency Law (live since 1963), the release of political prisoners, and the implementation of liberal electoral reforms. Though Assad ultimately suspended such political reform efforts, he certainly has delivered in neoliberal terms—that is, in terms of serving the domestic and transnational capitalist class. After taking the reigns of the Ba’athist State, the younger Assad opened up the Syrian economy, selling off firms that previously had been State-owned, slashing subsidies for food and energy, and squeezing the financing of social services that had previously benefited the popular classes under the slogan of “Arab socialism.” Besides, in 2001 Assad opened negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).13 As has been noted, these economic reforms were not matched by a parallel opening in politics. According to Alan George, author of Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom (2003), Assad’s reform proposal was for a “China-style economic liberalization.”14 Ironically, and to an extent reflecting a Marxian dialectic, Assad’s neoliberalism has adversely impacted the living standards of the majority of Syrians, particularly rural residents, many of whom would go on to join the burgeoning popular mobilizations against the regime in 2011, even while it was precisely these elements that had constituted Syrian Ba’athism’s primary social base in previous decades.15 Political reform in the SAR would not come until the first month of the uprising, when Assad was forced to announce the suspension of the Emergency Law and a limited amnesty for political prisoners, in addition to granting citizenship to Syria’s 300,000 Kurds, who to that point had been stateless under Ba’athism.

While Assad’s economic policies are neoliberal and orthodox, given their empowerment of a high bourgeois Sunni class that forms a critical pillar of support for Ba’athism—and in this sense, one sees a clear parallel to post-Soviet Russian society, with the oligarchs and grand capitalists who have supported Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s closest allies—he has maintained the SAR’s posturing of resistance to US/Israeli and reactionary-Gulf monarch designs in the Middle East. Assad greatly opposed the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian State has hosted more than a million refugees from that conflict. What is more, Assad facilitated the entry of Sunni jihadists into western Iraq to resist the US occupation.16 Taking these factors into account, and thinking of the SAR’s support for Palestinian and Kurdish resistance movements, a fruitful parallel can perhaps be drawn between Assad and Mu’ammar al-Gadhafi, who during his tenure championed Pan-Africanism and supported guerrilla groups resisting Israel and the West both financially and materially. The difference in fate between these two Arab dictatorships would seem to have to do with timing more than anything else: the unexpected NATO war to topple Qadhafi served as a precedent for Russia and China in terms of any possible repeat-action vis-à-vis Syria at the UN Security Council. After Qadhafi’s ouster, Putin and China would not countenance another opportunistic authorization of use of force by US/NATO forces. In fact, this geopolitical dynamic can to a degree explain the increasingly desperate recourse Obama made in September 2013 to try to commence an open air-bombardment campaign against Assad in the wake of the sarin gas attack in al-Ghouta, outside Damascus: first, POTUS claimed he would—much like his predecessor, on a similar pretext—act unilaterally with force, but he then backed down amidst marked opposition at home and on the international stage. When John Kerry off-handedly observed that the war-drive could be demobilized if Assad gave up his chemicals weapons, Putin’s diplomats jumped at the opportunity, arranging a deal whereby Assad would surrender his non-conventional weapons stocks—though significantly, while not demanding the same of Syria’s Zionist neighbor. This compromise contributed greatly to a de-escalation of tensions, thus averting a Libya-type operation in the Levant, which imaginably would have had similar results in terms of the fate of the regime and Syrian society. Tripoli’s official government has seen it necessary to flee the rampaging fundamentalist Islamists unleashed by NATO; it now bases its operations on a Greek car-ferry off-shore the eastern city of Tobruk.

March 2011: The Beginning of the Uprising

Undoubtedly, many of the initial demonstrations against the regime in 2011 raised legitimate grievances against Ba’athism: its corruption, inequalities, and authoritarianism. As is known, the Syrian uprising came late in the process known as the “Arab Spring,” months after the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen had begun. The popular rebellion started as a response to the imprisonment of several elementary-school boys who had painted the famous saying from the Arab revolts (al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam, “the people want the fall of the regime”) as graffiti on their school in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. When their parents and other local adults mobilized to demand their return, the police are reported to have denied them access, and even threatened that the children would never be seen again. This grave insult to popular dignity catalyzed progressively larger protests in Deraa that ultimately met the bullets of State authorities, in turn leading to the explosion of protests in other parts of the country, first in the traditional anti-Assad bastions of Homs and Hama. (This latter city, comprised of the Sunni majority, was the site of a ghastly repression inflicted by Ba’athist paratroopers in response to an uprising organized there by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982; between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrians were killed.17) Even in Damascus, poor and middle-class individuals and families demonstrated against the regime in the early months of the rebellion, though in Aleppo and Latakia, home to more minorities, protests were less forthcoming.18 In terms of class and geography, the character of the protest movements seems to have been sharply divided between poor rural and urban Syrians, Sunni and secular, from the working classes and middle classes, as arrayed against big business (including and especially the Sunni high bourgeoisie), the military/State apparatus, Alawites, and Assad himself. Christians certainly also have been targeted by chauvinist currents within the opposition, and many have supported the regime from the beginning due to fears of the specter of Islamist domination. Another factor has been the rural-urban divide, with palpable tensions between the better-off, presumably “progressive” urban dwellers of Damascus and the supposedly conservative, peasant background of many regime opponents.19

With reference to this early period of the conflict between people and State, it is important to clearly state that the militaristic and carceral violence imposed by Assad’s regime from above was stark and grossly disproportionate—and arguably, it was consciously so—in light of the detention of ten thousand Syrians in the first six months of the uprising, and a total of nearly sixty-thousand imprisoned since then. Such fascist tactics notwithstanding, regime soldiers and police were attacked and often shot dead at this time as well, most likely by armed Islamist groups who opportunistically took advantage of the destabilization initiated by the popular protests against Assad and Ba’athist domination. Over 100 State security officers were killed in the first month and a half of the uprising, with an additional hundred massacred at Jisr al-Shughour in June 2011. This death-toll on the regime side is certainly orders of magnitude smaller than the number of casualties inflicted on protestors in the early months of the uprising—nearly 2500 are reported to have been killed in the uprising’s first six months alone—but it can help explain the regime’s resort to an iron-fisted response, which its regime propaganda rationalized by playing up the angles of “foreign conspiracy” and “Islamist terrorist gangs.” Assad definitely missed a huge opportunity for de-escalating tensions when he failed to intervene and punish the elements of the security forces who had reacted brutally and contemptuously to the first protests in Deraa, but then again, he may well have believed from the start that only a highly authoritarian approach to dealing with the popular revolt would allow his regime to survive.20

With the passage of time and the transition from popular uprising to insurgency and civil war, as spurred on by regime brutality, the regime’s military-police apparatus took increasingly macabre means to suppress the civil uprising: it began employing artillery against rebel positions and civilian areas alike in fall 2011, followed by aerial bombardment in spring 2012, cluster bombs that summer, and then missiles in the fall.21 Though the cities of Hama and Homs have met with great violence from the regime from the beginning of the uprising, Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib, and the suburbs of Damascus have been subjected to as much devastation, if not more. Intriguingly, it would seem that Assad’s commanders have chosen to rely more on artillery and air-power than the infantry and armored divisions to serve the end of repression, due to the greater risks of defection involved in the use of regular ground-troops, who are overwhelmingly Sunni conscripts.22 Indeed, to ensure the loyalty of the military and security services to Assad, the officer class and intelligence agencies are mostly constituted by Alawites.23

After months of initial civil protest against the regime—some currents of which had demanded mere parliamentary reforms at the outset, but then were subsequently radicalized by the regime crackdown, coming to demand no less than the fall of Assad and Ba’athism altogether—the popular-activist movement was eclipsed by the resort to armed struggle, as prosecuted both by Islamist opportunists and more secular rebels, including thousands of defectors from regime forces, a handful of whom proclaimed the foundation of the Free Syria Army (FSA) in June 2011. In addition to army defectors, it is understood that FSA ranks were filled at the beginning as well by volunteer civilian-militants driven to resist the regime by force of arms. In this sense, the beginnings of the FSA must not be conflated with what the FSA subsequently has become, following the pernicious influences the CIA, GCC, and competing Islamist rebels have had on the FSA brigades. In parallel to the FSA’s armed struggle, an important anti-authoritarian development has taken place among the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that have managed regions of Syrian territory from which the regime has been expelled during the war. According to the estimation of Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, the praxis of the LCCs has made the Syrian uprising “the most democratically organized” of all the Arab revolts that began in 2011.24 As a matter of fact, the decision regime forces made early on to dismantle these decentralized units by arresting their principal organizers played an important part in the general shift from civil to armed tactics on the part of increasingly more regime opponents.25

Speaking of the oppositional movements to Assad—besides class considerations, which can again be summarized broadly as pitting the poor and middle classes among the Sunni majority against Sunni capitalists, Alawites, and the regime’s repressive apparatus, religious identification has been a critical factor in the course of the uprising and civil war. Due to the particularities of Syrian Ba’athism, especially the younger Assad’s neoliberal turn, Syria’s rural poor hail overwhelmingly from the Sunni majority (74% of the population), while families and members of the Alawite and Christian minorities (12% and 10%, respectively) have been the most economically privileged groups under Ba’athism, besides the Sunni high bourgeoisie. Though notable exceptions exist to the established trend of Alawite and Christian support for the regime, it generally holds to be true: like the even smaller Druze and Shia minority groups of Syria (4% of the population), Alawites and Christians fear domination by chauvinist interpretations of Islam, like those expressed and affirmed by the majority of the armed groups that have lined up against Assad.26 If one looks to history and especially the present, one can understand such fears: consider the collusion between the Egyptian military and Wahhabis to attack and massacre Coptic Christians after Mubarak’s fall, or ISIS’s ethnic-cleansing operations against Christian Yazidis and Shia in Iraq and eastern Syria.

Islamization of the Anti-Assad Opposition

During this time, early on within the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, the oppositional movement was largely “hijacked” by Islamization and sectarian jihad. The “pro-rebel” narrative on this evolutionary process, which is accepted by some on the left, indeed, is that the regime’s violent repressiveness made a non-violent social transformation of Syria impossible, such that protestors were forced to take up arms. However, as the Angry Arab News Service editor As’ad Abu-Khalil rightly notes, this explanation leaves unclear why the armed insurgency so quickly became dominated by jihadist elements, with the more secular FSA units progressively eclipsed on the battlefield over time. Realizing the fears of many reasonable regime opponents regarding the option for an armed approach to resistance, the option for armed insurgency has brought the imposition of a reified power on the Syrian masses who previously had struggled legitimately against Ba’athist domination, as militarization, sectarianism, and Sunni chauvinism took hold.27 Besides the FSA, one cannot overlook the primacy of reactionary movements like Ahrar al-Sham (Free Islamic Men of the Levant), Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Islamiyya (Islamic Front), Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), and ISIS itself in this second phase of the Syrian saga. All of these groupings have been heavily influenced by Wahhabism, otherwise known as Salafism, or openly endorse it—this being an extremely intolerant and highly authoritarian interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abed al-Wahhab (1703-1792 CE). It is well-known that the opposition driving many of these extremist Sunni groups has been hatred of the SAR’s secularism and the regime’s privileging of Alawites, who are considered by Wahhabis as “nusayris,” or fake Muslims—that is, infidels!

This process toward the militarization and Islamization of the opposition to Syrian Ba’athism has not primarily been an organic Syrian process, as it has undoubtedly been fueled greatly by the influx of thousands of foreign fighters pertaining to these various Islamist gangs and the significant support provided to these in terms of funding, arms, and training by the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S./Israel. The degree to which these outside imperialist interests have provided support to the different currents within the anti-Assad opposition has been variable, yet it has been considerable nonetheless: a “conservative” estimate of the quantity of arms supplied to rebels by the US/GCC has been calculated as amounting to at least 3,500 tons, in acccordance with the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad cites estimates that Qatar has provided between $2 and $6 billion to rebel forces in Syria. Officially, the U.S. gave only “non-lethal aid” to Free Syrian Army units in the first couple years of the civil war, though numerous stockpiles of US-made heavy weapons as well as tanks and armored-personnel personnel carriers have made it into the hands of ISIS—“appropriated,” the story goes, as they were by ISIS from other anti-regime forces, as well as Iraqi Army units, who surrendered Mosul so quickly when confronted with IS hordes this past June. Turkey and Jordan both host CIA bases where arms have been “coordinated” and “moderate rebels” trained. Additionally, it has come to light that Israel provides medical aid to rebel fighters injured by regime forces in southern Syria—recall that the Israeli military shot down a regime jet over the Golan Heights in September 2014 that was bombarding al-Nusra positions, and consider that the Jewish State has bombed Syria on at least six separate occasions since the start of the uprising and civil war, with the most recent coming being just in December 2014.28 With regard to the relationship between ISIS and the GCC, it is not necessarily true that KSA and Qatar State interests have funded ISIS specifically, but the evidence does suggest that private interests from these countries, as well as in Kuwait and the UAE, have been seminal in ISIS’ meteoric rise. Besides, what is ISIS but an extreme expression of the “moderate” rebels that have been openly supported by Qatar and the KSA for years? It would seem that, other than for the Kurds and certain elements within what remains of the FSA, the spectrum of armed resistance to Assad is limited to the far-right dimensions of political thought.

Foreign Factors Prolonging and Intensifying the War: Empire and Climate Catastrophe

The Syrian Civil War has been as bloody as it has been drawn-out principally due to the material and financial support of broadly different imperialisms for the two (or three, or four) sides of the conflict**: Russia and Iran supporting Assad on the one hand, and the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the US/Israel supporting various rebel factions on the other. Shamus Cooke makes this point knowingly on in a July 2013 piece on Truthout, though he does not name the Russian/Iranian support for the SAR as similarly contributing to the war’s prolongation. To an extent, the different constituent parties on the NATO/GCC side would seem to disagree on exactly which oppositional groups to aid and favor, and there has been some speculation that the US and Israel in fact prefer Assad to any Wahhabi or Salafist movement that could follow him, which would likely be allied to forces like ISIS—such that US/Israeli support for the rebels could be argued as seeking simply to install a solidly pro-Western strong man to replace Assad, perhaps someone like FSA General Salim Idris. This end clearly would serve US/Israeli designs for regional hegemony, as it would GCC interests—the excision or neutralization of a major component of the “resistance axis” in the Middle East. Yet this goal seems very illusory at the present time, when the FSA is greatly weakened in terms of the balance of forces in the civil war. Indeed, many former FSA units have reportedly abandoned the brigades to join the more successful Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Besides the ongoing conflict between people and State, the main military conflict at this time is between the regime and ISIS, with the newly forged NATO-Arab monarch coalition’s air-war against ISIS arguably and ironically serving Assad’s strategic objectives in some ways.

Besides the very real arms and cash provided by the NATO/GCC side to the rebels since the beginning of the uprising and civil war, it bears mentioning that the specifically Saudi ideological influence on the rebel-currents predates the current disturbances by decades. Flush with unimaginable wealth yielded by the exploitation of its massive petroleum-deposits in the late twentieth century, the KSA has long prioritized proselytization of its particularly reactionary interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world, with well-known noxious effects. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Deobandi school of Islam among Pashtun refugees in Pakistan was seminal to the success of the Taliban in taking power in war-torn Afghanistan, a society exhausted in 1996 by more than a decade of Soviet occupation and the years of civil war among Afghans that followed Soviet withdrawal. More fundamentally, of course, the Saudis’ matching of funds and arms supplied by the CIA to the mujahideen via Pakistan during the Soviet occupation itself played a critical role in the strengthening of reactionary, fundamentalist forces in the region. The story is not entirely dissimilar in the case of Syria, where Saudi private and public resources have been directed to chauvinist opposition forces that have to varying degrees now melded into ISIS. Moreover, the KSA’s established sectarianism in supporting Sunnis against Shi’ites and thus presumably Iran—see the Saudi invasion of Bahrain in 2011 to suppress the Sunni-Shia popular uprising against the ruling Khalifa dynasty there, itself being Sunni—has further polluted the geopolitical context of the region, such that Sunnis and Shi’ites increasingly face off against one another on religious lines, as in Iraq, rather than organize jointly against the capitalists, monarchs, Zionists, and other authoritarians. The toxic legacy of the KSA’s Wahhabism in terms of suppressing left-wing and humanist alternatives in the Middle East should be clear for all to see.29 In this sense, it is not terribly difficult to see how aspects of the Syrian and foreign opposition to Assad have been framed primarily in religious terms, with political Islam seemingly resonating far more as an identity of resistance to the regime than leftist sentiments. With this said, however, the decline of regional left-wing forces cannot be blamed exclusively on the KSA, for the Assads clearly have contributed to this dynamic as well, as the US, Israel, and Iran have.30

Another critical aspect to consider in terms of imperial power and oil politics is the role that environmental and geographical factors have played in the development of the uprising and civil war. From 2006 to 2011, Syria suffered an unprecedented drought which in all likelihood follows from the observed decline in Mediterranean winter precipitation over the past four decades, a change which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has attributed to global warming. The drought has been far worse than any experienced during the twentieth century, and has even been described as the worst since the onset of agricultural civilization itself in the Near East. As can be imagined, this new ecological situation has worsened poverty, especially for pastoralists and agriculturalists in Syria’s rural regions, and contributed to a mass-migration of these effective environmental refugees. It has been argued that this ecological-demographic shift, which has involved an estimated 1.5 million people, greatly exacerbated anti-Assad sentiments, and that it would indeed act as a “threat-multiplier” as regards the stability of the regime with the coming of the uprising. Yet it must not somehow be thought that Assad is entirely the innocent victim of climatological chance here—or really, more accurately said, the previous and ongoing legacies of mass-carbon pollution by the West—for his liberalization of the economy itself certainly gave monopoly-capital a free hand in exploiting water reserves with abandon, leading to marked falls in water-table levels and thus greater societal vulnerability to turns of events like a devastating drought that in turn is intensified by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).

Coming to the present, and to consideration of what could or should be done, an arms embargo for all parties to the conflict could be one means of de-escalating the Syrian Civil War, as would be the renunciation by the US/Israel of a war-footing against Iran, as Richard Falk recommends, in addition to progress toward transforming the Middle East into a nuclear- and weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone (NWFZ and WMDFZ).31 Admittedly, is difficult to envision how such steps would realistically be implemented, given the established hegemonic interests on both sides of the conflict, both in terms of Syria itself as well as with regard to Iran behind it. So far, the three iterations of the Geneva conferences on Syria’s future and prospects for reconciliation between Assad and the opposition have accomplished little, as Shamus Cooke has reported. By excluding Iran from the talks and continuing to press forward with new funding for the FSA on the order of $500 million, Obama shows his administration’s lack of interest in seriously working toward a cessation of hostilities—in a parallel to the White House’s reactionary standpoint on a number of other pressing global issues, from support for Israel to dismissal of the increasingly radical recommendations of climate scientists. In terms of the humanitarian and political dimensions of the ongoing drought in Syria, this would only seem to show the acute importance of concerted global efforts to radically reduce carbon emissions as a means of reducing the probability of future recurrences of eventualities like this one, or ones far worse indeed, that could imaginably affect billions of lives. As is clear, though, from any contemplation of the theater of the absurd on hand seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru, the global capitalist power-structure is far more interested in upholding its utter irrationality and violence than in dealing in any sort of reasonable fashion with serious existential threats like ACD.

In terms of the war itself, a cease-fire between the regime and rebel forces would be but a minimum demand for progress on the question of Syria’s future. Though such an accord would not resolve issues regarding the ultimate fate of the regime or the importance of demobilization and disarmament—to say nothing of the geopolitical power-struggle—it would seem basic in terms of beginning to attend to the devastation wrought on the Syrian people and the region by this war. Another critical aspect is to ensure that the rights of the country’s minority communities are protected in a future Syria; as has been stated, sectarianism and fears of Sunni majoritarianism have clearly driven many Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shi’ites to side with the regime.32 Granted, it is true that progress toward respect for cultural pluralism, as toward a resolution of the civil war in general, is now greatly complicated by the rise of ISIS, with the strange dynamic being symbolized by the unexpected phenomenon of NATO/GCC air-forces bombing positions within the delimitations of Syrian territory that are controlled by elements of the opposition they previously had supported against Assad.

**The two principal sides are Assad and ISIS, though the FSA could be considered a third front (one that arguably is on the way out), with the popular civil struggle against Ba’athism a fourth.

The Promise of the Rojava Revolution?

Within the course of the Syrian Civil War, which has self-evidently been so full of darkness, negation, and destruction, one potentially affirming development has been the unfolding of Kurdish autonomy in the northeast of the country, known as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava. There, the PYD and the Kurdish Group of Communities (KCK) have overseen what some observers have hailed as a thoroughgoing social revolution—the “Rojava Revolution”—inspired to some degree by the anarchism of Murray Bookchin. While the revolution is said to have followed Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism, the KCK has referred to its particular praxis as “democratic confederalism,” or “Kurdish communalism.” These changes are in turn said to have reflected the recent internal reorientation of the PKK, with which the YPD and KCK are affiliated, from a traditional Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective seeking national liberation for the Kurds to a more communitarian-anarchist approach reminiscent of that taken by the Zapatistas in southern Mexico. The outcomes that have been reported from KCK communities, particularly thanks to the efforts of the Democratic Society Movement, or Tev-Dem, have been a rise in councilism and direct democracy, an internal supersession of the use of currency and a shift toward cooperative production within the KCK, and a marked emphasis on women’s emancipation and ecological balance.33 Most recently, of course, the fate of the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have been in the minds and hearts of observers from around the world, who have watched as ISIS forces progressively surrounded the city of Kobanê on the Turkish border and besieged it for months on end, leading to the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and concern that the Salafist forces, if victorious, would carry out genocide in the city. Eventually, of course, the US-monarch “coalition” intervened against the ISIS menace as part of the aerial-bombardment campaign it had launched in August 2014: the estimated six hundred imperialist air-strikes targeting ISIS forces in and around Kobanê certainly contributed to the YPG’s victory against the Salafists, which was announced in late January.

The attack by ISIS on PKK affiliates in Rojava—an assault that was ultimately rebuffed by the intervention of NATO air-power—is not the first time these insurgent Kurds have had conflicts with elements opposed to Assad. In late 2012 and early 2013, the PYD and YPG/YPJ were attacked by FSA units, just as they have met with al-Nusra assaults at other times, whereas other FSA brigades have actually supported the YPG/YPJ in defending Kobanê. Relations between the Kurds and the Syrian rebels have not exactly been consistently amicable. In a parallel of sorts to the case with Alawites and Christians, Kurds in Syria—who incidentally are mostly Sunni themselves—have distrusted the mainstream Syrian opposition for being dominated by Arab nationalists who have proven unwilling to clearly ensure the rights of minorities in any post-Assad future for the country.34 A clear parallel can be drawn here with relations between Algerian Arabs and the Berber or Kabyle minority that resides in eastern Algeria, for the Kabyles have resisted trends reflecting Arab chauvinism and centralization of power in significantly militant ways in the half-century following independence from France.35

Nonetheless, despite the socio-political strides made by the PYD, KCK, and YPG/YPJ in Rojava under admittedly non-ideal conditions, skepticism and concerns abound regarding the content and direction of the Rojava Revolution. For one, an anarcho-syndicalist perspective would question the liberal-parliamentary tendencies that certain Kurdish factions have been seen to favor over the councilism of Tev-Dem and the KCK. Anarchists should regard the Rojava experiment truthfully, neither overlooking the trends toward parliamentary social-democracy and centralization in the movement, nor hold it all in utter disdain precisely due to these very tendencies. Beyond that, the recent dénouement in Kobanê, which saw NATO/GCC air-forces launch a continuous four-month bombardment of ISIS positions starting in September, just as the heroic defense had been overwhelmed and the city was in danger of falling, raises questions about the revolutionary character of the self-described Kurdish radicals. If the movement depends on the US military to save it from ISIS, then how anti-imperialist can it really claim to be? On the other hand, one could argue that the US/GCC has a responsibility to protect the town from falling to ISIS forces, given that these hegemonic powers are in fact to varying degrees to blame for the emergence of ISIS—particularly when one considers the constituent parts of the ISIS armory. Nonetheless, and while not overlooking the obvious differences in political orientation between the cases of Rojava and Libya, is this “tactical alliance” between revolution and reaction terribly distinct from the military support given by Obama and the French to the Benghazi rebels who arrayed themselves against Gadhafi? If one welcomes USAF’s intervention to “save” Kobanê, can one really reject the calls made by certain elements in the anti-Assad opposition for a US-enforced no-fly zone over the SAR? David Graeber provoked a great deal of controversy on the left when he suggested in early October—that is, early on within the airstrike campaign—that the West had to provide military assistance to the Kurds in Kobanê, or at least that it should pressure Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to open the border to resupply the embattled YPG/YPJ and allow in Kurdish reinforcements like the Peshmerga—who were in fact allowed to cross over in late October. Whatever one may think about the morality of imperialist air-strikes defending social-revolutionary processes, the truth of the matter is that the Obama administration now has an “in” with the PYD, and it has reportedly entered into direct talks with the group. Admittedly, the problem is a complex dilemma, with no clear answers.

Conclusion: Historical and Philosophical Implications of the Syrian Uprising

To conclude this discussion on Syria, which so far has been steeped in geopolitics, I would like to turn to some historical and philosophical considerations. The Syrian uprising provides yet another example of mass-popular rebellion demanding participation in the political realm; in this sense, it joins the long list of dignified popular insurrections that have aimed at the institution of People’s Power, as George Katsiaficas has chronicled them. To answer the question posed by Nader Hashemi in The Syria Dilemma (2013)—a question he takes from the left-wing and revolutionary historical tradition—the Syrian people do have the right to self-determination, and their struggle against Ba’athism resembles the earlier struggle against French imperial domination in important ways. However, it is highly questionable that the means to this desired end should be those advocated by Hashemi, in accordance with certain factions in the FSA and their civilian counterpart, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: that is, a no-fly zone over the SAR enforced by NATO and the GCC, along with increased financial and military support for the “moderate” rebels.36

Another question to ponder is whether the Syrian people have “inherited” the standpoint of sumoud and resistance from Ba’athism—with this being one of the SAR’s few positive aspects. Though the findings of current opinion polls of Syrians, both located inside the SAR and abroad, whether as refugees or as constituents of the diaspora, are unknown to me, it is to be imagined that they do support the Palestinian struggle and oppose US/Israeli/GCC designs for the region. Furthermore, if given the opportunity, it would be hoped that they carry this resistance to a dialectically higher level than what has been exhibited by the Assads, in support of the global struggle for anti-systemic change. Still, the observed collaboration of elements of the anti-Assad opposition and of the Kurdish revolutionaries with the US/Israel complicates matters, to say nothing of the ties between the far-right facets of the opposition enthralled to Wahhabism and their GCC backers.

In terms of political philosophy, the Syrian uprising and civil war present a number of intriguing ideologies to reflect on. Though clearly atavistic in its desire to re-establish a Caliphate in the Levant, ISIS is not strictly medievalist in its approach, as its sleek videos and propaganda style attest to. Moreover, as Murtaza Hussein has argued, ISIS can be considered as sharing more with Leninism, the Maoist Red Guards, and the Khmer Rouge than the early Muslims, given the theory to which it claims adherence, and which it strives to institute: that is, the liberation of the people (or Umma) from above via extreme violence, as waged by a vanguard group. Indeed, this approach would seem to echo that taken by Sayyid Qutb, a leading early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose “revolutionary” Islamist theory arguably was developed on the foundation of Lenin’s philosophy, with Islam replacing communism as the world-historical resolution to class struggle and human alienation in his account.** On the other hand, the organizational style and underlying philosophies of the YPG and YPJ can be considered to recall Nestor Makhno’s Ukrainian anarchist army, the Makhnovshchina, and the anarcho-syndicalist brigades of the CNT/FAI in the Spanish Revolution. To a lesser extent, certain elements of the FSA could be said to have libertarian elements—not specifically in terms of the political views of many of the affiliated fighters, particularly in light of the mass-defection that has been observed of FSA units going over to groups like al-Nusra and ISIS, but rather in operational style, for the FSA from the beginning was reportedly comprised largely of decentralized and autonomous brigades that resisted an overarching command structure, until this was imposed with the coming of the Supreme Military Command (SMC) in December 2012. At present, according to Patrick Cockburn, FSA commanders receive their marching orders directly from Washington, such that any postulated similarities between the FSA structure and historical anarchist fighting-groups can be said to have been surpassed now in the historical process. As for Assad and Syrian Ba’athism, these can be viewed as variants on the Leninist and Jacobin traditions themselves, if we were to bracket the younger Assad’s neoliberalism for the moment: as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein (and notwithstanding the conflicts between Saddam and the Assads), Ba’athism in the SAR has taken on the form of a secular dictatorship that claims to represent the wishes of the people, both Syrian and Arab as a whole, through a sort of democratic-centralist observation of “the general will,” as conceptualized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Interestingly, it is in this vanguardist sense that Ba’athism and Qutb’s proto-Leninism converge politically, their basic divergence on the role of religion in society notwithstanding. According to its own narrative, Syrian Ba’athism has “stood up” to the supposedly backward and devout attitudes of ordinary Syrians, especially rural folks and Sunnis, and in this way preserved cultural and religious pluralism, relative freedom for women, secularism, resistance to Zionism and US/GCC imperialism, and the “progress” of the Arab nation—or, so the pro-regime argument goes.

I will close by quoting Herbert Marcuse, discussing Walter Benjamin: “To a liberated people, redeemed from oppressive violence, there belongs an emancipated and redeemed nature.”37 While the Syrian uprising and civil war have self-evidently been primarily about social domination and human oppression, the popular struggle and mass-suffering seen in that country can be taken as representative of the times, a microcosm of the brutality visited by late capitalism on humanity and nature alike. Besides the evident human losses involved, the civil war has doubtless also greatly degraded the environment of the Levant, much as other wars have, including that of the Turkish State against the Kurds, as associates of the Cilo-Der Nature Association observe.38 The political struggles in the Levant, which contain liberal, reactionary, fundamentalist, and revolutionary elements aligned against State terror, the police state, and militarism, illuminate the general struggle for a free humanity, which is developing as though embryonically. Without a doubt, the global revolution is made not just for humanity, but also for nature, without which humans cannot live, as the long-standing drought in Syria shows. In fact—again with reference to the recent COP20 conference—the uprising demonstrates what would now seem to be the sole means of interrupting existing trends toward total destruction: that is, direct action, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. Though repulsed, shackled, and beaten, the humanist-insurrectional Geist seen in the Syrian uprising and the Rojava Revolution holds great promise for radical politics today and into the future: the primacy of reason over tradition and authority, an end affirmed in the ninth century by the Baghdadi heretic Ibn al-Rawandi. I will leave the last word for a famous Kurdish saying, which I have learned from anarcha-feminist Dilar Dirik, speaking on “Stateless Democracy”: Berhodan jian-e!” (“Resistance is life!”)

**As Adam Curtis explains in “The Power of Nightmares,” Qutb sought to apply authoritarian-socialist lines of analysis to the study of the Arab masses, who he thought had inauthentically internalized and accepted capitalist, materialist values from the West that fundamentally conflicted with the “truth” of Islam.

A shorter version of this talk was first presented at the November 2014 Boston Anarchist Bookfair.

1Firas Massouh, “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left,” Global Communism (2013), 52.

2Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (London: Routledge, 2013), 57, 192.

3Reese Erlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 48.

4Erlich, 50-57.

5Ibid 60-61.

6Ibid 61; Gilbert Achcar, The People Want, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 173.

7Hokayem 172-4.

8Erlich 172.

9Ibid 209.

10Erlich 146-149, 71.

11Massouh, 60; Erlich 67-68.

12Hokayem 22.

13Ibid 26-27, 43.

14Cited in Massouh, 63.

15Achcar 177.

16Ibid 178.

17Ibid 178-179.

18Hokayem 45-49.

19Ibid 54.

20Ibid 40-41.

21Ibid 57.

22Ibid 58.

23Achcar 174.

24Ibid 182.

25Hokayem 69.

26Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (London: Hurst and Company, 2012), 29-54.

27Hokayem 81.

28Erlich, 250-255.

29Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).

30Massouh, 58-59.

31Richard Falk, “What Should be Done About the Syrian Tragedy?” The Syria Dilemma, eds. Nader Hoshemi and Danny Postel (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013), 61-75.

32Hokayem 11.

33For more details on the KCK’s accomplishments in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), please see TATORT Kurdistan, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology, trans. Janet Biehl (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2013).

34Hokayem 80.

35David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).

36Nader Hashemi, “Syria, Savagery, and Self-Determination: What the Anti-Interventionists are Missing,” The Syria Dilemma, 221-234.

37Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution, and Utopia: Collected Papers. Volume 6, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (London: Routledge, 2014), 126.

38TATORT Kurdistan, 158-60.