Correspondence with a Syrian socialist
The Syrian left, like the left generally at the moment, is weak and marred by many of the problems familiar with the British left – reformism, nationalism, popular frontism etc.
Nonetheless, the left across the Arab world is beginning to organise and discuss the way forward. Syria is no exception, and communists worldwide can only welcome this extremely positive development. It is an internationalist duty to exchange ideas with our comrades and fellow fighters across the world, to strike up comradely relations and to learn from each other.
The following is correspondence between Ben Lewis (CPGB and Communist Students) and Salameh Kaileh from the Syrian Left Coalition. It was occasioned by a Syrian friend of Communist Students, who suggested that Ben should initiate a discussion with some Syrian comrades about key aspects of revolutionary strategy – not least the Arab national question, the attitudes socialists should adopt towards Syria’s Ba’athist regime, and whether it is possible to achieve ‘socialism in Syria’. We thank comrade Hamada for his assiduous translation work, and Dan for editing the script.
The ‘Arab awakening’ – the mass upsurge of popular protest against hated regimes and increasingly unbearable living conditions – has been a huge source of inspiration for all those who oppose the capitalist system and stand for freedom and equality across the world.
The movements that are being forged in this struggle are quite rightly using the democratic space they have won to discuss strategic ideas – to map out their programmes to take this unrest further and eventually end the rotten, moribund capitalist system.
From conversations with friends from Syria, one of the problems that seems to have arisen within this process is the emergence of ideas that – although they have clearly failed in the past and are often quite absurd in the face of today’s tasks – are nonetheless quite popular and widely-held. They are ideas often linked with ‘official communism’, such as the bizarre idea that the Syrian radical movement should enter into ‘dialogue’ with the murderous regime; that this regime is ‘anti-imperialist’ (when only the mass opposition can be); or that it is possible to bring about socialism in Syria.
It is this latter idea which I have been asked to criticise.
It is first of all worth noting that, in today’s world, not even a national left Keynesian regime could succeed in isolation, and this regime would certainly not lead to socialism. Either there would be flight of capital, imperialist sanctions or internal rebellion by the desperate, starving people. This is even true of an ‘advanced’ or ‘first world’ country like Britain, which imports up to about 60 per cent of its food.
As for socialism, it is international or it is nothing.
Are those who support such a ‘Syrian road’ really arguing that Syria could extricate itself from the global economy and the global division of labour without absolutely dire consequences? Of course, if you are an ‘official communist’ and your model is the Soviet Union, eastern Europe or China in the 1970s or 80s, you would say ‘yes’. But to revamp, to relaunch this national socialism now is a grave error. Do we really want a Syrian version of Albania?
History has definitively shown us that socialism in one country does not lead to communism. The Soviet Union collapsed into chaos, most of eastern Europe is now in the EU or awaiting membership. As for China, it has taken a long and hugely costly road, not least in terms of human suffering, from an extremely backward capitalism to being a kind of colonising semi-colony which supplies the United States with cheap goods. Wherever the Chinese regime is going, it is not to communism.
So the emerging Syrian left should strive for working class unity across the Arab world, across the borders that have been imposed upon it by imperialism.
Arabs are binational. This is even something reflected in the Arabic language itself. There are Moroccans, Yemenis, Egyptians, Jordanians, etc. But there is also a wider Arab identity, which has its origins going back to the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries.
The situation today is broadly analogous to Italy, Poland and Germany in 19th century Europe. The national question remains unresolved.
Arab reunification remains a burning, but unfulfilled task. The fact that Nasser’s short-lived UAR saw the light of day is testimony to mass support for Arab unity. What was a potent sentiment in the 1950s and well into the 1970s needs to be revived in the 21st century in light of the Arab awakening and given a new democratic and class content.
The Syrian workers’ movement needs to take the lead in the fight for pan-Arab unity. This task is inseparable from the struggle for socialist revolution and the formation of mass Marxist parties, first in this or that Arab country and then throughout the Arab world. A Communist Party of Arabia.
We recommend the Marx-Engels idea of making the revolution permanent. The working class is not in a position at the moment to take power in any Arab country. Hence communists want to see not stable government, but an ever widening democratic space available to the working class. Specifically that means demanding free speech, ending censorship, winning the right to publish, the right to form trade unions, co-ops, workers’ defence guards and political parties.
Working class parties must not support any bourgeois or petty bourgeois government. They must constitute themselves as parties of extreme opposition. Only when the workers’ party commands a clear popular majority and can realistically hope to carry out its entire minimum programme can taking part in/forming a government be considered.
Radicals should favour the formation of a democratic, centralised Arab republic – for Marxists, this is the form we envisage for working class rule. This can only happen if first the working class sweeps away the capitalist regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq: that is, the most populous of the Arab countries.
Then there would be a real chance of a world historic rupture with imperialism, a real impetus for revolution across the world and the opening up of a new era in human history.
To begin with, thank you for getting in touch with us. It is very important that Marxists around the world develop their dialog in a situation where imperialism is in a deep and constant crisis, and which has led to uprisings in many countries, and leads us to the development of the international class conflict. It is very necessary to interact with those who are looking forward to a better world, a democratic and socialist world.
There is no doubt that the uprisings have opened up important possibilities to us as Arabs, and maybe to all revolutionaries in the world, and the working class. It is worth mentioning that movements in the Arab World started spontaneously, because of a deep crisis which Marxist parties suffered from, and because of the huge gap between these parties and the workers and farmers. This is because these parties couldn’t understand the current situation, since they misunderstood Marxism itself, and because they followed old Soviet policies, which reflected only the Soviet interest rather than the interests of the global working class. However, current uprisings put forward the question about Marxism’s role in an urgent and important way. It has become very clear that the desired change the working class aims for, starts from the rentier economic structure that was formed during the last couple of decades after the collapse of agriculture and manufacturing, which was built originally in the previous era of nationalist-left parties.
There were a lot of people in Syria who tried to find a replacement to the existing communist parties, since some of these parties have joined in alliance with the regime in Syria, the regime that has turned into a mafia-capitalist dictatorship during the last number of years. Liberalism was adopted to destroy the living standards of a great percentage of the people (around 80%). Farming, manufacturing, education and health care collapsed. The wealth was kept to the minority who were part of the regime’s family. Thus, it was not strange that these parties would defend the regime against the people who are struggling for their rights. Parties also repeated the made up stories of the regime to justify killing demonstrators. On the other hand, some of these parties, including all the opposition liberals and some left parties, went for the reformist path, repeating what has been happening since the year 2000. The ‘reform’ was about moving from dictatorship to a democratic state, regardless of the problems of workers, poor farmers, and all other classes, and also regardless of the uprising against what liberalism brought them. These parties have allied with other nationalist parties in order to put pressure on the regime to deliver democratic reform.
Marxists, however, have not been absent from the uprising since its inception, as the first demonstration on the 15th of March 2010 included a number of them. And this is the case everywhere where something is going on, from Dara’a to Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Derezzor, Lattakia and all other cities and towns. They were either independent Marxists or separate from their communist parties, or even from parties who still defend the regime. A lot of members left their parties recently in disagreement with their line with regards to the regime and the uprising. These people are joining the uprising individually, despite attempts to unite the work of strengthening the Marxist role in the movement, and to have a positive effect on its slogans, as well as to define its demands and develop its technique.
These communists who have been taking part in the uprising believe that bringing the regime down is the main objective, and have no belief in the possibility of reform. They know that the struggle of the poor classes will continue until the replacement of the regime is made by the workers, farmers, and all the public classes which suffer from a lack of a political representation. This is because there is no answer to their problems except through getting rid of all the liberal parties, and the collapse of the mafia-capitalist governing class, and the traditional bourgeoisie that work within the regime now and aim to control it. This capitalist mafia brought in the Baath Party and made some achievements when they first got to power, but these achievements were captured and this regime is synonymous with the capitalist mafia now.
In order to achieve the goals of the uprising today, there must be a new vision based on a Marxist analysis, and that represents the interests of workers and farmers, which, in turn, can allow a new party to be set-up that would undertake a genuinely transformative programme. It is this possibility which has been opened through the uprising.
Marxists therefore, must start forming the workers and farmers party, in order to establish a democratic republic, which reflects the public interest.
There is no doubt that socialism is what we are working for. There is no other way to avoid the world’s crisis without socialism. International socialism is very important, because we are moving to a conflict against capitalism, concentrating on the alliance of the lower classes with the middle class, as well as efforts toward the development of neighbor countries to achieve a modern industrial state of development – and all of this is just an introduction to giving priority to economic and social development whilst concentrating on human needs. We should not stop the ‘movement toward socialism’ and wait for the ideal conditions which allow an international success. There is a controversial issue we must address between national progress and the progress of the world in general.
When studying the experiments of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, we realize the complexity of this issue. Russia achieved modern and industrial development in a socialist experiment. It began as a backward feudal society; bourgeoisies did not care about developing the country into an industrial state like the European bourgeoisie. Therefore, it was important to impose Marxism in Russia, and move the power from the patriarchy of the middle ages to the workers and peasants. That was a must to bring about development in that society. Now that resulted in a lot of confusion, this is true, and we could discuss this later on. Yet, Russia became a modern industrial state, thanks to that experiment, despite the eventual victory of capitalism over there.
We conclude from this that for the development of backward countries, the demand for Marxism is definite, and it will lead to necessary development over time with industry and toward modernity. On the other hand, on the way to socialism in poor societies, imperialism will fight against these efforts, placing them under siege, and even making attempts to invade. However, this threat can be challenged more effectively as the class conflict in the world expands, and the more that greater development becomes realised. Therefore, it is important to advance class conflict, to overthrow capitalism and to prepare for international socialism.
Marxism and the Arabs:
Uprisings across Arabic countries have shown the strong connections between them, and shown an Arabic character everywhere. The national issue in the Arab world is a major one, and it has not been solved yet, just like the situation in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Therefore, the issue of Arab unity, and the problem of the minorities of other nations that share land with the Arabs, are both part of the democratic programme that will unlock progress, and where we could achieve independence from imperialism, put an end to the Zionist state (of course whilst preserving the rights of the Jewish people living there). This has to be in addition to achieving desirable economic development.
The attempts at unity in the fifties were confronted with an imperialist fight against it, because the freedom of the area and the principle of Arab unity which underpinned it would have established an international position that would not serve imperialist interests. The founding of the Zionist state in Palestine was part of that imperialistic policy to destroy unity (by Britain by that time); by establishing a military base which takes the form of a state, a power was created that has destroyed and continues to destroy any attempts at development in the Arab world. Therefore, liberal policies after the liberation of Arabic countries have really advanced the undoing of Arabic solidarity whilst inflaming sectarian and ethnic conflicts between people within countries. People, however, are now responding with great uprisings, and bringing back the dream of having an Arabic world that is united and independent… and socialist too!
The connection between uprisings in Arabic countries today also points toward the rising of the nationalist feelings. Marxists therefore should set up a program for Arabia that represents workers and poor farmers, and that can help them to frame their struggle. That means there is a necessity for a Marxist site in the Arab world (or a Marxist party in the Arab world) that leads the struggle of local and Arab classes to play its role in the conflict against imperialism.
As a result, any step towards recreating a Marxist party in Syria, would mean progress in creating a party that unites the workers of the Arab world, to help in their fight for unity and development – for accomplishing socialism.
The Leadership Issue:
It is only possible to accomplish this programme by struggling against imperialism, and by overthrowing it, because the current situation results from imperialist interests imposed on the geopolitical sphere, which imposes a rentier capitalist economic system, which destroys any attempts to develop industry, agriculture, education and society in general. Capitalism here has always meant activity in rentier sectors (real-estate, services, trading and banking), but never developing any sector like manufacturing or farming. Thereby, capitalists managed to prevent independence, unity and modernity.
In this situation, a Marxist party must play the main role, and launch a programme of development, without relying on the bourgeoisie as previous communist parties did. We believe that the achievement of independence, modernity and unity are all linked in Marxism, which is the historic role of workers and poor farmers, who must also form alliances with the middle class, but without following its logic or being under its control.
We consider Marxism as an approach, and a way of thinking, and synonymous with dialectical materialism. We were civilized with intellectual techniques that allow us to understand reality in a scientific way, the reality as a whole and its changes, as well as its economic formation, the contradictions between its classes, and its history and globalism.
What Marx added in the first place was dialectical materialism, which changed political philosophy and superseded formal logic, and opened up greater understanding of economic laws and truths. Marxism should start from the basis of dialectical materialism, and use it to criticise Marxism itself, as well as use it to understand reality. This way, Marxism avoids dogma, and a return to formal logic.
We believe Marxism is an approach to thinking, as well as a class alignment. And it is the future of humanity.