Syria and the Antiwar Tradition
November 3, 2016—There is major disorientation on the left in many Western countries when it comes to Syria and about how antiwar activists should respond to events on the ground in Syria and Iraq. The highly complex nature of the Syrian war involving a multitude of foreign states and non-state actors would, in the best of times, present the left with a real challenge to find political clarity. The fact that this is occurring precisely when the antiwar movement in countries like Canada and the United States are relatively weak only adds to the confusion. The way in which the debate about the Syrian war has been framed and conducted by large parts of the left has been unhelpful to say the least. Some have taken a pro-Assad/pro-Russia anti-imperialist line. This position views the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad as reactionary and driven by U.S. imperialism.
Others frame the debate about the need to support the revolution against ISIS and the Assad regime (or lament the lack of support for the rebels from U.S. imperialism as Gilbert Achcar does.) Sometimes this takes on tangible support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—an armed leftist/feminist Kurdish independence force—or supporting this or that force within the array of groups that make up the anti-Assad/anti-ISIS opposition. There are of course a variety of positions within this frame: some call for active intervention by the West to stop massacres by Assad, others call for arming the rebels or more humanitarian aid, while others equally condemn all sides.
The conflict spreads
The problem with the pro-Assad anti-imperialism position, sometimes referred to as “campist” (a line of thinking that sees the world as divided up into pro and anti-imperial blocs or nations) is obvious. Just because a regime is opposed to American imperialism does not mean all its actions should be reflexively defended. Assad’s regime has too often collaborated with the American state, taken aim at crushing popular movements advocating democracy and workers’ power. There is no doubt his regime has committed war crimes and helped facilitate the rise of ISIS and other reactionary Islamic groups (his regime released key radical Islamist leaders from prison and militarily laid off ISIS and Al Nusra—or as it is called now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—in a bid to weaken other sections of the opposition.)
However, many on the left who reject this campist perspective have themselves offered confusing and at times dangerous perspectives. For example, it would be a point of absurdity to say the Syrian revolution as it was in 2011/2012 looks anything like the quagmire that exists today. There is not simply a four-front war going between Assad’s regime, ISIS, the YPG and the revolutionary rebels. The conflict in Syria has spread throughout the region. The forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria are way more fractured and the footprints of world powers and even regional powers are everywhere. The anti-Assad uprising has collapsed into severe fragmentation, often radicalizing in reactionary directions, and any coherence that may have existed in 2011/2012 has been drowned in blood.
The point here is not to outline exactly what is happening on the ground in Syria, but to note that the way in which sections of the international left are framing this in ways that are completely off the mark in terms a guiding an appropriate response at home.
The left’s antiwar roots
An antiwar movement’s rejection of imperial intervention can never be contingent upon an identification with the political aims of those subjected to imperialism.
Within the Second International prior to the First World War, there were fierce debates in the early years about the nature of colonialism, with some like Eduard Bernstein, arguing that imperial projects undertaken by certain nations, like Britain, were actually progressive because they supposedly expanded democratic and workers’ rights. Bernstein and other socialists, such as August Bebel and Gustav Noske, argued that it was possible to take a position in support of “progressive” colonization.
These arguments were rejected by others in the Second International. They argued that having a socialist colonial policy was a contradiction in terms as the idea that the project of human liberation, socialism, could have anything to do with the domination and control of other peoples was absurd. War and colonialism were not just seen as morally wrong, but as intractable barriers to achieving socialism. These positions carried the day and the Second International passed motions in 1907, 1910, and 1914 that condemned militarism and war. The 1907 Stuttgart resolution laid out clearly why socialists must oppose war:
“Wars are favored by the national prejudices which are systematically cultivated among civilized peoples in the interest of the ruling classes for the purpose of distracting the proletarian masses from their own class tasks as well as from their duties of international solidarity.
“Wars, therefore, are part of the very nature of capitalism; they will cease only when the capitalist system is abolished or when the enormous sacrifices in men and money required by the advance in military technique and the indignation called forth by armaments, drive the peoples to abolish this system.
“For this reason, the proletariat, which contributes most of the soldiers and makes most of the material sacrifices is a natural opponent of war which contradicts its highest goal—the creation of an economic order on a Socialist basis which will bring about the solidarity of all peoples.”
The Second International of course failed in its response to the outbreak of war in Europe in part because it fudged the question of how best to apply antiwar principles. Most sections of the international sided with their own ruling class. They chose to blame the start of the war and its sheer barbarism on other national governments. The same failures permeated not just the socialist movement but that of anarchists and anti-imperialist liberals as well.
The Zimmerwald conference, the dissident rump of the Second International that opposed the war in 1914, provided an alternative orientation to how antiwar activism should understand wars. For the Bolsheviks, who were part of the Zimmerwald Left, this meant turning imperial war into a civil war at home. Others at Zimmerwald argued for calling for immediate peace. The Zimmerwald Left put forth an argument stemming from the Second International that the correct orientation of each national group was to oppose its own ruling class’s drive to war.
This was best summed up by Karl Liebknecht, the only member of the German Reichstag to vote against the war in 1914, in his pamphlet The Main Enemy is at Home!:
“The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.”
The lessons from the failure of the Second International, the Zimmerwald Left and people like Karl Leibknecht have been fundamental to building successful antiwar movements in places like Canada, the United States and Great Britain.
The enemy is at home
Ashley Smith in a recent series of articles on Syria1 argues that the role of the U.S. left is to win over people to a genuine anti-imperialism that opposes Russia and U.S. imperialism equally, while also rejecting the Assad regime. Smith’s main focus seems to be on critiquing other leftists, Russia, and Assad and not on a strategy for building a broad working class movement at home that aims to stop U.S. imperialism.
Corey Oakley writing about how Western leftists should orient to the Syrian war list those who are most culpable for the carnage in order: Assad, Iran, Russia and the West. Oakley uses this ordering to show that the main enemy is actually not at home stating, “If Britain were at war with Russia, ‘the main enemy is at home’ would be a fine slogan for the UK left to raise... In the Syrian context, though, all it does is say to those resisting Assad: ‘Your enemy is not our enemy. Because you are not fighting our government, your plight is not our concern.’”
Oakley’s argument is confused on a number of points. The slogan of the main enemy at home does not say we don’t care about your plight, rather it says our responsibility to internationalism is to stop the imperialism of our own ruling class, precisely because no one else will do it. To frame opposition to war in the abstract—the main enemy is whoever is causing the most amount of death—is actually to shirk the political responsibility for what you can effectively alter, your own government’s actions.
Both Smith and Oakley ultimately confuse the act of building a solidarity movement with the act of building an antiwar movement. The former is about bringing awareness and material support to a group of people. The latter is about stopping your own government’s drive to war. Both are acts of solidarity, but they differ in focus and strategy.
Resisting war and militarism is not just a moral duty but necessary if socialists want to build working-class power. But it is not enough to simply reject war in the abstract. A definitive strategy must be crafted and implemented. To do so without falling into traps of nationalism and racism requires that workers build movements in their own countries against wars fought by their own ruling class.
Speaking out on crimes perpetrated elsewhere is important but prioritizing the fight at home is key, as Chomsky explains:
“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that: namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for two percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that two percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.”
A correct antiwar perspective is not just a moral condemnation of war, but a strategic orientation about how to best resist the drive to imperialism in the given context.
False historical precedence
Some argue, David Graeber and Hilary Benn come immediately to mind, that the situation in Syria mirrors Spain in 1936. For them ISIS equals fascism and the duty of the left is to advocate for our ruling class to militarily support the smashing of this fascist threat, this sometimes is broadened to include Assad’s forces. The operational conclusion of this position is supporting a no fly zone, arming rebel forces, and military collaboration between Western forces and rebels.
The problems with this argument are manifold. ISIS is a product of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The generations of Western imperialism in the region have laid the basis for the entire mess that is the Syrian war. More Western intervention is not just unlikely to solve the issues, it is almost assuredly going to make everything much worse. The anti-Assad forces have degenerated from a popular rebellion into a quagmire of political military forces that in no way resemble the array of forces in revolutionary Spain.
The actual history of the Spanish Civil War and the revolution also has little in common with the situation in Syria. The international left supported their comrades on the ground resisting Franco and fascism by raising funds and organizing volunteers for fighting. The leftist response in Spain and abroad was not to call for British and French intervention, but for those forces to ease the blockade, which was aimed at suffocating the revolutionary forces in Spain (for instance Britain and France went so far as protecting Franco’s naval fleet.)
If the British and French intervened it would have not resulted in a victory for Spanish workers, more likely it would have meant an even speedier destruction of the revolution.
What about Russia?
Workers, the left, and socialists should be horrified by and condemn imperial adventures and war crimes committed elsewhere on the globe. So when the Russians and the Syrian government commit war crimes the left should not feel the need to minimize them or be silent. But that is a different orientation than prioritizing efforts to stop Russian imperialism when you live in America, the UK or Canada. Each of these countries’ political and economic elites are all too eager to denounce Vladimir Putin and ratchet up the tensions with Russia. In the last number of years there has been a marked increase in vitriol directed at Russia by Western leaders.
The media has been in overdrive working to paint Russian President Putin as enemy number one (just look at the cover of last week’s Economist.) War crimes committed by Russian forces in Eastern Aleppo get top coverage, while the media has been next to silent about crimes committed by Western-backed forces in Iraq. Some on the left mirror this line by condemning Russia’s role in Aleppo while staying silent about bombings in Yemen and Mosul. This is nothing short of a criminal betrayal of international solidarity and provides political cover for the American ruling class.
All the while those in the UK and the United States opposing the drive for war have been painted as Assad/Putin apologists (even WikiLeaks is being painted as pro-Putin for leaking Clinton campaign emails.)
This has led to massive disorientation on the left. Some on the left have taken to denouncing figures like Jeremy Corbyn and groups like the Stop the War Coalition in Great Britain for not backing intervention to stop Russian bombing. This disorientation also existed around Libya, where people called for a “humanitarian” intervention to stop Gaddafi’s drive to Benghazi. However, the NATO led intervention has left absolute ruin in that country, just as the Iraq war that started 13 years ago continues in another form.
When the left in the West prioritizes a perspective that the main enemy is Russia, this all too easily leads down the road of bolstering nationalism and the rightwing. It creates the conditions for further imperial adventures and even opens the door to military confrontation with Russia.
There are some on the left (as well as on the right such as Boris Johnson) who argue that key now is to protest outside Russian embassies. But given the heightened tensions and renewed anti-Moscow bent in the U.S., UK and Canada, what positive outcome would that have? Can we seriously argue that Western leftists have the ability to stop Russian bombs? Protests outside the Russian embassy would surely be used by the right to increase the drive to war, not lessen the crimes committed. They would also play into Putin’s hand and make it harder for Russians to build an anti-war movement linked to those in the West.
Uniting around “No War”
In Canada, the focus should be on ensuring the Liberals do not reengage with airstrikes in Syria. It also means demanding the troops be withdrawn from the Middle East and from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, while also advocating for more refugees to be taken in and stopping Canada’s escalating arms trade. In the USA, this means focusing on stopping American involvement (ending the direct bombing in all the countries, pulling out troops, closing bases and stopping the funding of armed groups.) In Russia and Turkey this means supporting those on the ground calling for the end of military engagement in the region.
To be able to build up this perspective does not require political uniformity of those advocating a non-interventionist position. A simple application of a united front principle—all those who advocate for ending the involvement of your own ruling classes are welcome. Obviously major disagreements beyond that narrow political demand exist, but those should be fought separately.
This was precisely how the antiwar movement was built around the Vietnam and Iraq wars. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the rightwing and liberal media tried to paint the anti-war movement as a group of people uncaring or willfully unaware of Saddam’s brutal crimes. People in the movement were routinely called Baathist apologists. Despite these routine slanders a perspective that focused on uniting around opposing the war, not on any other questions, allowed for mass participation in the movement. The terms of the movement were simple: do you oppose the war? If yes, then let’s join forces on that question and debate other political perspectives along the way (this was also the same formula that anti-war movement adopted during the Vietnam war.) What has been lost in the debate around the war in Syria is precisely this perspective.
Imperial involvement always has some sort of humanitarian justification whether that be protecting democracy and the free world in Vietnam or stopping a bloodthirsty tyrant with WMD’s in Iraq. Those on the left who advocate for selective intervention for “humanitarian” reasons fail to realize they don’t direct state policy or war aims—those who put the troops in the field and conduct war have very different reasons for doing so. The drive to war has its own logic and aims, which are very much colored by the needs of capitalism and the interests of the economic and political elites. The left’s call for intervention only provides political cover for the ruling class.
The antiwar movement has drifted far away from the ABC’s of rejecting militarism and imperialism. However confusing and complex the situation is in Iraq and Syria the lessons and traditions of the antiwar movement still provide a path to political clarity and a useful strategic orientation for the left.
David Bush is an editor at RankandFile.ca.
—The Bullet, November 3, 2016
1 Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 16, No. 6 “Anti-Imperialism and the Syrian Revolution,” by Ashley Smith