Posts Tagged ‘Leninism’

Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution

July 25, 2016

Mao Stalin 2

Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction (PM Press, 2016).

Originally published on the Los Angeles section of the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation website

This work, the sixth volume in PM Press’ “Revolutionary Pocketbooks” series, provides a compelling review of the philosophy and historical practices of Maoism before, during, and after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Liu, an organizer with Take Back the Bronx in New York, shows Maoism to be essentially totalitarian—an “internal critique of Stalinism that fails to break with Stalinism.” In parallel to Loren Goldner’s argument in “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” (2012), Liu accuses Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of imposing state-capitalism onto the Chinese masses and, indeed, of preparing the way for the liberalizing reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death—this, precisely by means of the CCP’s repeated suppression of the revolutionary self-organization of peasants and workers, in keeping with the Lenino-Stalinist tradition. Though Liu focuses more on developments within China than international relations, any investigation of Mao’s foreign policies—supporting the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, opening negotiations with Nixon, being among the first countries to recognize Pinochet’s coup in Chile, backing UNITA over the MPLA in Angola—shows the clear error of holding Maoism to be a liberatory philosophy. In this text, Liu analyzes the Chinese Revolution using a libertarian-communist or anarchist perspective.

The origins of Maoism as an insurrectional-peasant ideology owe much to the power of the Stalinist Communist International (Comintern), which, in an effort to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, disastrously ordered the Chinese Communists to ally with the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927, Chiang murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes, leading Mao to undertake the Long March to Yanan and a reorientation toward the Chinese peasantry as a potential mass-base. Although the CCP vastly expanded its presence in rural China by mandating land reforms that largely deposed the landlord class, in turn swelling the ranks of the Red Army, Mao’s cadres in certain cases protected the property of gentry who supported the war against the occupying Japanese power, or who were allied to the KMT, as during the case of the United Front strategy again mandated by Moscow to oppose Japan. In playing this conservative role, the CCP foreshadowed the moment it would replace the bourgeois-feudalist ruling class by capturing the State in the Chinese Revolution (1949). Even at this point, the height of victory, Liu notes that the CCP was unwilling to countenance mass-land seizures by peasants or proletarian self-management in the cities.

Instead, Mao largely followed the Stalinist model of nationalization and expansion of heavy industry and collectivization of agriculture, as outlined and directed by the Party in Five-Year Plans designed in the interests of securing “primitive socialist [i.e., state-capitalist] accumulation,” as previously theorized by the Soviet economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky. In response to the widening class inequalities induced by such developments, Mao in 1956 called for “a hundred flowers to bloom” and manifest popular discontent—or “criticism”—but when “ultra-left” critiques surfaced and mass-strikes broke out in Shanghai, he dismissed such “deviations,” associating them with the “deceived” Hungarian revolutionaries put down by the USSR. The prominent student leader Lin Hsiling expressly identified the CCP as a bureaucracy ruling over the working classes without democracy, and she gained a following for this reason. In response, Mao commenced the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” to purge such critical-intellectual elements together with more conservative forces. Then, the Great Leap Forward (1956-1958), which was launched principally for the purpose of the accumulation of capital, burgeoned China’s industrial and agricultural output as the State extracted evermore from the peasants, tens of millions of whom succumbed to famine conditions.[1] As Liu writes, the hyper-exploitation of the country’s laboring classes implemented by Mao and the CCP caused not only state-capital but also corpses to accumulate. Hence, it is little surprise that, in assessing the revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev about Stalinist atrocities at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956) that would ultimately lead to the Sino-Soviet Split, Mao declared Stalin to have been “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”

Initiated by Mao to putatively oust bureaucratic rivals and stave off the threat of “capitalist restoration,” the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) brought about a similar dynamic to that induced by the Hundred Flowers Campaign, whereby the CCP summoned revolt from below, only to crush it once it came to threaten Party domination. Whereas the Red Guards called up to defend the Revolution engaged in varying critique of their “black” opponents—the progeny of the deposed feudal-bourgeois class—and CCP cadres proper, workers in Shanghai were inspired to dismiss the local Party leadership and found a “People’s Commune” altogether, leading to the January Revolution of 1967 that spread to several provinces. Though the Commune was defeated through the efforts of Mao and his loyalists, Liu identifies that these developments yielded a distinct “ultra-left” tendency advocating for proletarian organization outside the CCP, “a revolutionary split in the army, and a new revolution in China.” According to Liu, the most prominent crystallization of the ultra-left in the Cultural Revolution found expression in Shengwulian, or the Hunan Provisional Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose member Yang Xiguang wrote the highly influential Whither China?, advocating the establishment of a “People’s Commune of China” and recommending that the working classes organize autonomously against the “‘Red’ capitalist class.” Nevertheless, the CCP redeployed the forces of repression to break up Shengwulian in 1968 and thereafter utilized the State to maintain the domination of labor domestically and support enemies of the Soviet Union—UNITA in Angola, Pinochet in Chile—internationally, all the while moving to normalize relations with the US. Lastly, prior to Mao’s death in 1976, the Shanghai Textbook was published, containing a summary of the Communist leader’s views on the supposed transition to socialism—though in reality, as Liu observes, the text is more concerned with the “proper management of state capitalism.”

In essence, then, we see the arc of the CCP’s developments in history over time, from active collaboration with the bourgeois-nationalists of the KMT to the subsequent replacement of feudalist-capitalist relations of production with state-capitalist ones. While Mao and the CCP may have sought to avoid some of the excesses of Stalinism by introducing more participatory elements such as the mass-line, criticism, and self-criticism into the world of politics, in truth they worked systemically to coopt and repress any possibility of a more radical revolution that would institute self-management and autonomy among the Chinese workers and peasantry—in yet another parallel to the Bolsheviks, against whom arose the Third Revolution championed by insurrectional peasants and workers, from the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovshchina to other devastating rural rebellions, as developed in the Tambov region in response to famine caused by the Red State’s grain-requisition schemes. As Liu summarizes: “Mao subjectively aimed to prevent capitalist restoration [during the Cultural Revolution] but objectively strengthened its hold, preventing the emergence of any force capable of challenging it.” It is not an exaggeration, then, to assert that, just as Khrushchev continued to propagate Stalinist politics after having denounced his predecessor in the “Secret Speech,” Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms do not constitute a total contradiction to Mao’s established approach, either.

Philosophically, Maoism does not go far beyond Stalinist reductionism, as it cannot. On Liu’s account, Mao’s conception of dialectics rationalizes Party substitutionism in place of autonomous proletarian struggle, and claims that the class politics of a given State should be analyzed with reference to the ideology of its leadership, not the actual class makeup of said leadership. It is due to such facile reasoning that Mao’s CCP could so readily judge Khrushchev’s regime as “bourgeois,” as against Stalin’s supposed revolutionism previously. With the progression of the Chinese Revolution, the CCP came to increasingly slander—much like the Bolsheviks—all oppositional forces as reactionary-bourgeois, even and especially if movements like Shengwulian and the Shanghai Commune were far more revolutionary than it was. As Liu notes, the labels “revolutionary” and “reactionary” in Maoist China were usually decided with reference to one’s relationship to the Party, rather than to the actual nature of one’s politics. Finally, one could likely say that Maoist gender politics are preferable to feudalist-capitalist ones, but these cannot easily be separated from the overall imperatives of Maoist state-capitalism—such that autonomist feminism holds greater promise for collective liberation.

In light of these considerations, Liu’s conclusion is quite right: “[f]or revolutionaries who aim at a free anarchist and communist society, Maoism as a whole must be rejected.” As an alternative to Maoism and all other strains of authoritarian socialism which irremediably substitute Party and State in the place of radical proletarian self-activity, today’s revolutionaries should struggle for “forms of mass, federated, armed and directly democratic social organization” at the regional and global levels, working to “maintain and expand rebel territories that allow for revolutionary activity” as much as possible.

[1] See Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

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Truthout Interview with Noam Chomsky on Anarchism, Communism, and Revolution

July 17, 2016
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Courtesy Graham Gordon Ramsay

The following are excerpts from a new interview by C.J. Polychroniou with Noam Chomsky about the history of anarchism and communism, as published on Truthout on 17 July 2016.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, from the late 19th century to the mid or even late 20th century, anarchism and communism represented live and vital movements throughout the Western world, but also in Latin America and certain parts of Asia and Africa. However, the political and ideological landscape seems to have shifted radically by the early to late 1980s to the point that, while resistance to capitalism remains ever present, it is largely localized and devoid of a vision about strategies for the founding of a new socioeconomic order. Why did anarchism and communism flourish at the time they did, and what are the key factors for their transformation from major ideologies to marginalized belief systems?

Noam Chomsky: If we look more closely, I think we find that there are live and vital movements of radical democracy, often with elements of anarchist and communist ideas and participation, during periods of upheaval and turbulence, when — to paraphrase Gramsci — the old is tottering and the new is unborn but is offering tantalizing prospects. […]

Anarchism and communism share close affinities, but have also been mortal enemies since the time of Marx and [Russian anarchist Mikhail] Bakunin. Are their differences purely strategic about the transition from capitalism to socialism or do they also reflect different perspectives about human nature and economic and social relations?

My feeling is that the picture is more nuanced. Thus left anti-Bolshevik Marxism often was quite close to anarcho-syndicalism. Prominent left Marxists, like Karl Korsch, were quite sympathetic to the Spanish anarchist revolution. Daniel Guerin’s book Anarchism verges on left Marxism. During his left period in mid-1917, Lenin’s writings, notably State and Revolution, had a kind of anarchist tinge. There surely were conflicts over tactics and much more fundamental matters. Engels’s critique of anarchism is a famous illustration. Marx had very little to say about post-capitalist society, but the basic thrust of his thinking about long-term goals seems quite compatible with major strains of anarchist thinking and practice. […]

In certain communist circles, a distinction has been drawn between Leninism and Stalinism, while the more orthodox communists have argued that the Soviet Union begun a gradual abandonment of socialism with the rise of Nikita Khrushchev to power. Can you comment on these two points of contention, with special emphasis in the alleged differences between Leninism and Stalinism?

I would place the abandonment of socialism much earlier, under Lenin and Trotsky, at least if socialism is understood to mean at a minimum control by working people over production. The seeds of Stalinism were present in the early Bolshevik years, partly attributable to the exigencies of the civil war and foreign invasion, partly to Leninist ideology. Under Stalin it became a monstrosity.

Faced with the challenges and threats (both internal and external) that it did face following the takeover of power, did the Bolsheviks have any other option than centralizing power, creating an army, and defending the October Revolution by any means necessary?

It is more appropriate, I think, to ask whether the Bolsheviks had any other option for defending their power. By adopting the means they chose, they destroyed the achievements of the popular revolution. Were there alternatives? I think so, but the question takes us into difficult and contested territory. It’s possible, for example, that instead of ignoring Marx’s ideas in his later years about the revolutionary potential of the Russian peasantry, they might have pursued them and offered support for peasant organizing and activism instead of marginalizing it (or worse). And they could have energized rather than undermined the Soviets and factory councils. […]

And how do you see the Maoist revolution? Was China at any point a socialist state?

The “Maoist revolution” was a complex affair. There was a strong popular element in early Chinese Marxism, discussed in illuminating work by Maurice Meisner. William Hinton’s remarkable study Fanshen captures vividly a moment of profound revolutionary change, not just in social practices, but in the mentality and consciousness of the peasants, with party cadres often submitting to popular control, according to his account. Later the totalitarian system was responsible for horrendous crimes, notably the “Great Leap Forward” with its huge death toll, in the tens of millions. Despite these crimes, as economists Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze demonstrate, from independence until 1979, when the Deng reforms began, Chinese programs of rural health and development saved the lives of 100 million people in comparison to India in the same years. What any of this has to do with socialism depends on how one interprets that battered term. […]

Overall, do you regard the collapse of so-called “actually existing socialism” a positive outcome, and, if so, why? In what ways has this development been beneficial to the socialist vision?

When the Soviet Union collapsed I wrote an article describing the events as a small victory for socialism, not only because of the fall of one of the most anti-socialist states in the world, where working people had fewer rights than in the West, but also because it freed the term “socialism” from the burden of being associated in the propaganda systems of East and West with Soviet tyranny — for the East, in order to benefit from the aura of authentic socialism, for the West, in order to demonize the concept.

My argument on what came to be known as “actually existing socialism” has been that the Soviet State attempted since its origins to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people elsewhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize state power.

Since its origins, socialism has meant the liberation of working people from exploitation. As the Marxist theoretician Anton Pannekoek observed, “This goal is not reached and cannot be reached by a new directing and governing class substituting itself for the bourgeoisie,” but can only be “realized by the workers themselves being master over production.” Mastery over production by the producers is the essence of socialism, and means to achieve this end have regularly been devised in periods of revolutionary struggle, against the bitter opposition of the traditional ruling classes and the “revolutionary intellectuals” guided by the common principles of Leninism and Western managerialism, as adapted to changing circumstances. But the essential element of the socialist ideal remains: to convert the means of production into the property of freely associated producers and thus the social property of people who have liberated themselves from exploitation by their master, as a fundamental step towards a broader realm of human freedom. […]

FARJ: “Bakunin, Malatesta y el Debate de la Plataforma”

March 20, 2016

Baku M&M Arshi

Esto es un vínculo a y fragmento de la traducción de “Bakunin, Malatesta y el Debate de la Plataforma,” escrito por integrantes de la Federación Anarquista de Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) y publicado en Anarkismo.  Aunque sí revindicamos y retomamos el argumento en general, denunciamos toda asociación entre la Plataforma y el pensamiento de Michael Schmidt.

“El presente texto – cuyo núcleo fue tomado de la introducción que escribimos para la edición en francés de Anarquismo Social y Organización, de la Federación Anarquista de Rio de Janeiro[1] – tiene por objetivo discutir la cuestión de la organización política específica anarquista, a partir de las contribuciones de Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta y de la “Plataforma Organizacional de la Unión General de los Anarquistas”, escrita por los militantes articulados en torno a la revisa Dielo Truda, entre los cuales se encontraban Nestor Makhno y Piotr Arshinov.[2]

Por tanto, retomaremos contribuciones de Bakunin y de Malatesta y estableceremos un dialogo entre ellos y la Plataforma, similitudes y diferencias entre los anarquistas que defienden un dualismo organizacional y los bolcheviques, y las aproximaciones de Malatesta con la Síntesis, así como el impacto histórico de la Plataforma, que permitirá elucidar las posiciones que vienen siendo difundidas acerca de ese debate.”

Review – The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left

February 9, 2016

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First published on Marx and Philosophy, 8 February 2016

The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique
Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, 2015. 320pp., $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781893638501

In his “Marxist Critique” of The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism, and The Politics of the Pseudo-Left, David North, a high-ranking member within the Trotskyist Fourth International, chairman of the U.S. Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and editor of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), reprints polemical essays (2003-2012) voicing the response of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to the heterodox theoretical suggestions made by fellow travelers Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner to incorporate greater concern for psychology, utopia, gender, and sexuality into the ICFI’s program. Whereas Steiner and Brenner sought to open the Fourth International to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich’s sex-pol approach, North repudiates any such suggestion as beyond the pale and plainly communicates his revulsion with the Frankfurt School as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. To rationalize his dismissal of Critical Theory, he rather baselessly ties its legacy to the rise of postmodernist irrationalism. North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual “deviation” from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse “pseudo-left,” “petty bourgeois,” “anti-Marxist,” even “anti-socialist” politics. To sustain such fantasies, North presents a highly dishonest, even unhinged analysis of the Frankfurt School theorists and theories.

Starting in his Foreword (2015), North clarifies the association he sees among the “anti-materialist and anti-Marxist intellectual tendencies” represented by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and postmodernism, which for him converge to form the “pseudo-left” (v). North facilely groups the Frankfurt School theorists together with the thought of Nietzsche, Sorel, and postmodernists like Foucault, Laclau, and Badiou (vii). Centered on “race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference,” “pseudo-left” approaches have in North’s opinion “come to play a critical role in suppressing opposition to capitalism, by rejecting class […] and by legitimizing imperialist interventions and wars in the name of ‘human rights’” (vii). North cites SYRIZA (Greece) and “the remnants and descendants of the ‘Occupy’ movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies” as typifying “pseudo-leftism” (xxii). He then enumerates the following accusations against the “pseudo-left”:

  • that it rejects Marxism,
  • advances “subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism” in place of historical materialism,
  • opposes class struggle and socialism,
  • denies the centrality of the proletariat and the need for revolution,
  • promotes identity politics,
  • and advances militarism and imperialism (xxii-xxiii, 205).

In his stentorian 2006 letter to Steiner and Brenner, “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consiousness,” North dismisses his counterparts’ attempts to “infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse” into the ICFI’s program, and dismisses the sexual-psychological dimensions of Steiner’s concern for the development of socialist consciousness (24, 30). Almost in passing, in an attempt to discredit Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, North opportunistically claims that these thinkers supported Stalin’s Moscow Trials, yet no evidence is produced for such serious charges (44). North employs the same line against Bloch, who, unlike Adorno and Marcuse, admittedly was a Stalinist for some time: the author hypothesizes that Bloch’s utopianism “has something to do” with the “political swinishness” Bloch evinced during Stalin’s purges (44).

In this essay, North identifies communism as the culmination of Enlightenment materialism and rationalism, while dissociating Steiner and Brenner from Marxism altogether. In North’s words, these latter take after the “demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School,” who for the SEP chairman are supposed to have rejected Marxism and the Enlightenment wholesale (64-9). Turning to a discussion of utopianism, the author indicates that “Utopia […] is not part of a Marxist program” (72, original emphasis). North argues that the relevance of utopia had been superseded even in Marx and Engels’ day (76-80). Yet tellingly, North boasts of Marx and Engels’ “brutally critical” approach toward “any tendency expressing a retreat from these theoretical conquests [they had made]” in the early years of international communism (80).

North then associates utopianism with idealism, presenting a deterministic account of the development of these philosophies, such that socialism remained “utopian” before the onset of industrial capitalism (82-4). He accuses Steiner and Brenner of resurrecting Bernstein’s reformism because Bernstein disagreed with Engels’ repudiation of utopianism, and of sympathizing with Kant due to their concern for morality (98-102).

The author then launches a tirade against Wilhelm Reich, whom he denounces for being “pessimistic” in his analysis of the rise of Nazism (Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933]), an account that challenges the inevitability of revolution under sexually repressive monopoly capitalism (113-21). Against Steiner’s recommendations, North clarifies that contemplation of Reich’s sex-pol “can only result in the worst forms of political disorientation” (114-5).

In “The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner” (2008), the ICFI’s response to Steiner and Brenner’s reply to “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness,” North expounds more invective against the Frankfurt School. Sketching his view of the affinities among Critical Theory, Marxist humanism, and the New Left’s “middle-class radicalism,” North explains his view of how such “pseudo-left” thinking has penetrated the academy: that is, through the efforts of the “ex-radicals” of the 1960s, who putatively propagated an “unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism” (134). He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic” (140, emphasis added). Passing to comment on Steiner’s “apologetic defense” of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), North observes that his counterpart’s affirmation of Marcuse’s account cannot be separated from the critical theorist’s “rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class” (193-5). The author peremptorily concludes by reiterating the charge of “petty-bourgeois” ways of thinking—all the while counterposing the thought of Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles.

In “The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left” (2012), North endorses the continued centrality of Trotsky’s concern for resolving the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” and dismisses accusations of state capitalism raised against the USSR (202-3, 206-7). North contrasts Trotsky’s structured vanguardism to the “petty-bourgeois despair” he sees Adorno and Max Horkheimer advancing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) (207-10). North asserts the revisionist repudiation of reason and the proletariat to be fundamental to the thought of Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and “countless anarchist, post-anarchist, and post-structuralist tendencies,” and he ties together Marcuse’s Freudianism with the “post-Marxist Left” that arose after 1968 (210-9). On North’s account, the affinity that the “petty-bourgeois” and “affluent” left has for heresies such as Critical Theory, post-Marxism, and even postmodernism putatively reflects its “hostility to the struggles of the working class” (219-20, emphasis in original).

Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP.

In assessing North’s account, one must firstly examine the author’s most inflammatory charge: that Adorno and Marcuse “went along” with the Moscow Trials (1936-1938). North provides no evidence for this accusation, though it is quoted without citation in WSWS writer Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno” (2009). North’s source for the accusation is a 1938 letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, identifying Hitler as a capitalist pawn who would soon attack the USSR, expressing his disappointment with the Moscow show trials and Soviet cultural policies, yet concluding that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet” (Wiggershaus 162). This is not definitive proof of North’s charge. The allegation is belied by Adorno’s May 1938 letter to Walter Benjamin, commenting on a meeting with Hans Eisler: “I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of [Nikolai] Bukharin” (Claussen 237-8, emphasis added). Adorno’s biographer explains that Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer all disagreed with Bloch’s support for the Moscow Trials (ibid). Thus is North’s charge against Adorno disarmed. And Marcuse? He mentions the trials in the 1968 preface to Negations: “The last time that freedom, solidarity, and humanity were the goals of a revolutionary struggle was on the battlefields of the Spanish civil war […]. The end of a historical period and the horror of the one to come were announced in the simultaneity of the civil war in Spain and the trials in Moscow” (Marcuse 1968, xv).

While this does not evidence Marcuse’s contemporary views of the Moscow Trials, it speaks for itself. I asked Peter Marcuse, Herbert’s son, what he thought of the accusation that his father had supported or “gone along” with the Moscow Trials: “That’s absurd. Though my father had identified tendencies within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that he felt intended to subvert the Soviet Constitution, he didn’t believe the Moscow Trials were the proper means of dealing with this” (personal conversation, 13 January 2016). North’s accusations against Adorno and Marcuse thus appear baseless.

Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion. While the critical theorists certainly challenged several fundamental points of orthodox Marxism, it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism, as postmodernists do. One cannot reasonably charge the libertarian-socialist revolutionists Marcuse and Benjamin with repudiating the Enlightenment or advancing “irrationalist […] and individualistic” politics.

Regarding the claim that Critical Theory rejects class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat, it bears noting that the various members of the Frankfurt School differed on these questions and shifted their views over time. While Adorno generally disagreed with the historical-materialist view of the proletariat, the same is not true of Benjamin, Marcuse, or the young Horkheimer. Marcuse challenges Marx’s analysis of the proletariat when examining U.S. society in One-Dimensional Man (1964), but by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).

For Adorno, the relationship with the proletariat is complex. In “Society,” one of his final essays, Adorno writes that “[s]ociety remains class struggle, today just as in the period when that concept originated” (Adorno, 272). This quote definitively illustrates the falsehood of North’s accusations and clearly delineates Critical Theory from postmodernism. Though Adorno is no syndicalist, given his decentering of the proletariat as world-historical subject, his negative-dialectical approach remains revolutionary, expanding the Marxian concern with exploitation and class society into an overarching anarchistic critique of domination. Class struggle thus is not “disappeared” in Adorno’s thought, or in Critical Theory, but rather forms one current within a confluence of generalized anti-systemic revolt.

References

Adorno, Theodor W. 1989. “Society,” in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (eds), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge).

Claussen, Detlev 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1968. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1969. An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press).

Wiggershaus, Rolf 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press)

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.

Climate Change and Human Alienation

April 27, 2014

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“El Cuerno de África,” Santi Mazatl  (2011)

Originally published on Dissident Voice, 26 April 2014

“[The] self-alienation [of humanity] has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” – Walter Benjamin, 1936

At the end of last year, the Humanist Workers for Revolutionary Socialism (HWRS) published a provocative position paper which presents their analysis of the climate crisis: “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” Aside from discussing the very real threat which anthropogenic climate disruption poses to humanity and terrestrial nature generally considered, the HWRS in this essay develop a theory of human alienation based on the thought of Karl Marx and Erich Fromm and posit such alienation as the main obstacle for the emergence today of radical mass-movements from below that would check the increasingly fatal trends toward unprecedented levels of suffering and death and global ecocide promised by climate catastrophe. Being Leninists, however, the HWRS recommend “revolutionary” party leadership as a means of directing the alienated masses toward the enacting of anti-capitalist social transformation and the rational mitigation of climate destruction. Clearly, such a recommended solution is highly problematic—yet the HWRS paper presents enough critical points for reflection and contemplation to merit a brief discussion of it here.

To begin, I would like firstly to delineate my agreements with the HWRS writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” I certainly share the view that the capital-induced climate destabilization on hand necessitates a “worldwide revolution” as an equal and opposite corrective reaction (21), and I also hold that the psychical alienation and mutilation imposed by capitalism largely explains the fact that those from below “tolerate […] the constant wars, oppression, greed, cut[t]hroat competition, suffering, and destruction of the environment and this planet that the people in power inflict on the majority around the globe” (7). On the individual and group levels, too, the “only reasonable response” to the depth of the environmental crisis “would be for everyone who is aware of the situation to forget about their personal lives [sic] and immediately start a crusade to stop capitalism’s assault on nature and the entire planet” (18). I agree with the HWRS as well in their concluding thought that all organizations which claim the revolutionary mantle must “place the struggle against climate change […] as the highest priority in [their] program and [their] daily practice,” and that they should toward this end “immediately initiate a massive campaign about the need to overthrow capitalism as our only chance to avert the extinction of the human race, and combine [this] with daily interventions against the effects of ongoing environmental destruction” (30). In addition, the group’s social-psychological analysis of the grip which conformity, adjustment, bourgeois distraction, anxiety, and anomie hold over most people in “advanced” capitalist societal settings represents an intriguing explanation for the marked lack of mass-revolutionary consciousness and praxis vis-à-vis this seemingly quite terminal of threats to human happiness and flourishing and ecological balance. I believe this account—derived from Fromm, who in turn developed his critical, humanistic psychoanalytical approach from a synthesis of Sigmund Freud and the young Marx—to hold some merit, though with some reservations.

These important contributions notwithstanding, the HWRS account suffers from a number of grave issues, in my view. For one, as already mentioned, the grouping adheres to a Leninist/Trotskyist ideology, with all the distortions this implies: a highly delusional account of the historical rise of Stalinism in post-1917 Russia (8-9), a concomitant fetishization of Lenin and Trotsky (21), and the illogical assertion which follows—that only liberation “from above” can succeed in overthrowing capitalism and thus provide humanity and nature a chance of surviving climate chaos (30). Indeed, in Nietzschean (or even Heideggerian) terms, the HWRS resolve their stated concern for the problem of the alienated masses by saying that the possibilities for a post-capitalist, non-ecocidal future can be secured only through rule over the general populace by enlightened individuals who have somehow themselves transcended alienation (30). The HWRS clarify that the overcoming of alienation “cannot take place spontaneously” but must instead be the work of “a revolutionary [sic] party that knows what it is doing [!] and what is needed for victory” (28). Epitomizing dichotomous thinking, the HWRS opportunistically consider the only two options they believes possible in terms of staving off climate catastrophe: that either the global bourgeoisie will take steps to slow down global warming—which it is not doing and will not do—or Leninist parties capable of “leading the masses” will develop and intervene to outcompete the “reformist and centrist” oppositional alternatives and succeed in overthrowing the rule of capital within a quarter-century—that is to say, before climate change supposedly has progressed beyond the point of no return (23, 27).

Besides this highly authoritarian and unsavory political strategy, the HWRS account of human alienation may itself in some ways reify rather than help to illuminate the problem, for the essay presents something of a “locked-in” analysis. This is perhaps best illustrated in the authors’ citation of recent neurological studies which reportedly show that “[t]he brain is wired in a way that makes a person defenseless against the manipulation and demagoguery that are so common in capitalism” (26). If this claim is true—which it obviously is not—then how can the HWRS hope for the emergence of the Leninist vanguard which is heroically to lead humanity beyond capitalism, alienation, and total destruction in the first place? The assertion that “[p]eople are too alienated from life and from themselves to start a worldwide uprising against climate change” (19) is similarly extreme and unscientific. One need only look at the phenomenon of “group events” in China for a counter-example. Granted, the profundity of the climate crisis is truly horrifying, as the HWRS detail in this piece, and it is not as though any significant mass social movement—other than Occupy, in a way—has arisen within the Western world to the challenge of confronting the extent of its horror head-on. Under such conditions, tendencies toward despair and pessimism are natural and to be expected—yet they certainly are not justified as a means of prescribing “party socialism” as the only option available to humanity.

Anti-capitalism, socialism, and communism retain a truly world-historical importance at this late hour, as means of undermining and—it is to be hoped—ultimately tearing down the capitalist system that is without a doubt impelling life on Earth to utter disaster. In this the HWRS make an important point. Yet is simply not true that the chance for global communist revolution will arrive only through the domination of an actionist minority over the “average, backward person” to which the HWRS reduce the human multitudes (25). The writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity” would do well to consult the opening line of the founding principles of the First International (1864), which reads that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Consideration of the embodied history of Leninism and its monster-child Stalinism should be enough to delegitimize the tactics of Trotsky and company for all time.1As an alternative, anarcho-syndicalism, particularly of the ecological variety, holds a great deal more promise with regard to interrupting the fatal tendency toward climate destruction, in terms of both means and ends. Yet to return to Fromm and the issue of alienation, the observed lack of revolutionary activism in terms of climate issues among workers and people in general in industrialized societies may itself well be a reflection of the popular understanding that the State neither represents nor enacts the people’s will, whether on the environment, military spending, social programs, drug policy, or any other critical issue. For their part, U.S. polls from recent years (2012 and 2013) have shown consistent majorities expressing “belief” in anthropogenic climate change and concern for its effects.

Decentralization of power, self-emancipation, and anarchism remain important radical political alternatives to the utter irresponsibility and mindlessness of the global ruling class with regard to anthropogenic climate disruption. Self-management in the workplace—guided by the principles of participatory economics (Parecon), for example—coupled with community control of the political sphere would provide a humanistic alternative to “party socialism” that could well solve for the factors impelling climate catastrophe without threatening to impose a horrid repeat of the totalitarian political oppression for which Leninism has been responsible. The devolution of power to the global demos would indeed represent a recovery of the “lost treasure” of the “revolutionary tradition,” as Hannah Arendt terms the council system.2 Moreover, it would constitute a true political manifestation of Arendt’s concept of natality, the potential birth of a new world—this, in the face of the threat of mass-involuntary suicide.

Nonetheless, as Herbert Marcuse writes at the end of his most pessimistic book, “[n]othing indicates that it will be a good end.”3 In the minor chord, the HWRS does honestly consider the possibility that the climate crisis may already have progressed beyond the point of no return, such that a successful global anti-capitalist revolution in the near term may itself come too late (29-30). Clearly, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds these questions, and we confront the unfortunate reality that humanity will only come to learn the precise truth about these matters upon the conclusion of the next decade or two. Equally clearly, however, no humane alternative exists than to struggle for anarchist, anti-systemic revolution today.

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1To examine the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism with a critical eye, please consult Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (1970) and Gregori Maximov, The Guillotine At Work (1940).

2Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963]), 207-73.

3Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 257.