Arab Left: paying the price for Stalinism
The Arab Spring of 2011 inspired millions around the world through its acts of heroism. But now the revolutions have stalled. In the spirit of solidarity with these movements and communist internationalism, Marcus Halaby takes a critical look at the far left in these countries and Syria in particular
One of the most noticeable features of the Arab revolutions has been the weakness of the organised left and its failure so far to come to the head of movements for democratic rights, provoked by the immiseration of the masses. In one country after another, the left has either been: weak and fragmented as in Egypt; largely absent as an organised force as in Libya; or hamstrung by a policy of adaptation to non-working class forces as in Tunisia and Bahrain.
And this has been despite the central role played in the Arab uprisings by the urban working class, the natural constituency for a politics emphasising economic class struggle, democracy, secularism, women’s rights, and opposition to imperialism and its Israeli ally.
By and large, it has been the Islamists who have benefited politically from the overthrow of the old regimes, even where they played little or no role in leading the initial uprisings. This has simultaneously left the field clear for pro-Western liberals (some connected in various ways to the old order) to pose as the defenders of secularism and democratic freedoms, against the risk that democratisation might advance too far and too soon for the unenlightened masses to make use of it responsibly.
The blame for this weakness of the left belongs partly to the overthrown or embattled Arab dictatorships, which repressed independent workers’ organisations and civil society in such a way that the mosque was often the only legal forum for political expression. Primarily, however, it is because the Arab left is still paying the price for the failure of the two great ideologies that dominated it – Stalinism and Arab nationalism.
The young Arab generation, which has come out onto the streets in the last 18 months, has emerged in a world where the socialist left appears either to be incidental to its concerns or a relic of the order they have risked their lives to overthrow.
This problem has been especially pronounced in Syria. Syria under the kleptocratic Ba’ath party was a Soviet ally for almost four decades. It claims to be a socialist party, presenting its dictatorship as a “resistance regime” fighting Israel and the imperialist West. Syria’s working class movement was largely neutralised or co-opted into the state apparatus a whole decade before President Bashar al-Assad’s neoliberal economic policies demolished his regime’s old base of support in the peasantry and lower middle class.
The last great wave of revolt that swept the Arab world – from the Free Officers’ coup in Egypt in 1952 to the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon in 1975 – largely saw workers’ movements led by pro-Soviet Communist Parties compete for hegemony with nationalist currents emerging from the lower middle class, and exercising an influence over the junior and middle-ranking officers.
Revolution in stages
Acting on a misguided programme derived ultimately from Stalinism, these Communist Parties saw their task not as leading a struggle for power by the working class, but as supporting “progressive” bourgeois and middle class forces in a struggle for national independence.
They theorised this into a view that the emerging revolutions would have to proceed by stages, the first of which would involve a “national” or “democratic” regime that would sweep away foreign influence and the remnants of pre-capitalist social classes, with the struggle for socialism relegated to the distant future.
In practice, this meant that they supported left nationalist military dictators and tried to keep the emergent workers’ movements from challenging their rule – at least so long as these dictators remained friendly to the Soviet Union.
In Iraq this led to the wholesale slaughter of Communists and trade unionists, when their favoured local dictator, Abd al-Karim Qasim, was overthrown from the right in a CIA-backed coup in 1963. In Egypt, it meant that the worker’s movement was bound hand and foot to President Gamal Abdel Nasser, its militants loudly supporting his regime even as they were thrown into its prisons.
As the recently arrested Palestinian-Syrian intellectual Salameh Kaileh has argued, the Arab left consistently hitched its wagon to the more powerful forces of Ba’athism and Nasserism, even when these movements discredited themselves in power.
In Syria, the Communist Party of Khalid Bakdash would prostrate itself to a Ba’athist military regime that was initially often to the left of it on social and economic questions, joining its National Progressive Front (NPF) just as the regime turned to the right in 1970. In return, it received a (heavily circumscribed) legal existence, and a meaningless share in “power”, at the expense of its influence over the masses and its ability to inspire a new generation of intellectuals and youth.
Bakdash would also call in the favours of the Ba’athist regime’s repressive apparatus to deal with rebellions within his own party, producing at least two splits from his party that would later join him in the NPF, further weakening the Syrian left and entrenching Ba’athist rule. Numerous other splits would enter the anti-regime camp, although without entirely abandoning the misguided theory of a “revolution in stages” that lay at the heart of the betrayals of the discredited leaders they left behind.
Of these, two of the most significant have been the Syrian Democratic People’s Party of Riyad al-Turk, currently affiliated to the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), and the Syrian Communist Action Party, whose militants have played a role in the current uprising.
Syrian Revolutionary Left
By contrast, the Syrian Revolutionary Left (SRL), a group close to the Fourth International, has recently published a “Transitional Programme”. It quite rightly identifies the weakness of the left as a result of “the enrolment of the traditional communist movement with the current regime, enabling its brutal repression”.
It criticises the broader Syrian opposition movement, noting that the bourgeois liberal and Islamist-led SNC supports the “militarisation” of the uprising from exile, primarily in order to sidestep its own lack of influence inside the country, and, more dangerously, calls for “external military intervention”.
Equally, it castigates the more “moderate” National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) for advocating a dialogue with the Assad regime, for fear that its precipitous overthrow might trigger a foreign intervention.
By contrast, the SRL notes “the revolutionary groups on the ground, which are leading the movement, emphasise their commitment to the three principles (peaceful revolution; absolute rejection of foreign military intervention; and the determination to overthrow the regime and abstention from dialogue with it)”.
Opposition both to imperialism and to dialogue with the murderous regime are basic principles. It is also correct to recognise that the reduction of the uprising to a purely military struggle means fighting the regime where it is strongest, sidelining the mass struggle and paving the way for the indirect intervention of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia through their sponsorship of a carefully chosen part of the armed opposition.
But it is necessary to call for the arming and organising of the masses for self-defence. Unfortunately the programme’s emphasis on the lingering illusion of the possibility of “peaceful revolution” allows the advocates of imperialist-backed “militarisation” to look like realists.
Moreover, while the SRL’s programme includes a list of economic and social demands aimed at reversing the last ten years of neoliberalism in Syria, it also repeats the notion of a “revolution in stages”, calling for a “general alliance of the democratic and social forces in the face of the dictatorship” to build a “democratic, secular and pluralist state”.
This conflates the need for practical solidarity with all political forces facing repression with the idea that the programme of the revolution should be limited to demands that these forces can support.
The programme of the Watan Coalition, supported by the SRL, goes further, explicitly arguing for a “civil, democratic state, based on law, justice and citizenship” and a revolution “of all the classes and components of the Syrian people”, without making any class-based demands whatsoever.
What is needed is a programme that places the struggle of the working class for the overthrow of capitalism centre stage, in a way that allows the working class to come to the head of the insurgent people as the leading class in the struggle for democratic rights.
Nor is this just a matter of Trotskyist dogmatism. Of all of the Arab revolutions to date, in which the myth has arisen that the “whole people” faced weak regimes with no popular support, it has been in Syria that naked class divisions have been visible earliest, pitting the nouveau riche and a part of the middle class that has benefited from neoliberalism against working class, the urban and rural poor, the youth and the decimated lower middle class.
This programme – of permanent revolution – far from dividing a broad democratic movement, provides the only means by which the people can be united around their most coherent and self-sacrificing component.