What Spain in 1936 Teaches Us About Syria in 2015

There is a mild schism forming on the Left between pro-Assad and anti-Assad thinkers. The anti-Assad group calls the pro-group stooges for Russian expansionism and Baathist brutality while the pro-side calls the anti-group imperialist infiltrators.

I have looked at both sides of the ledger with a degree of interest and find both points wholly unsatisfactory. Is it possible that both sides are right? Indeed, I do think so.

The reality is that this debate comes down to a very Old Left theoretical split, the one between Lenin and Trotsky regarding national liberation. The most vivd example of this difference that comes to my mind is the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, which was lost because of Stalinist actions against Trotskyist and anarchist groups created a terminal schism within the Republic. We can see in Spain that feud also came down to a difference between Permanent Revolution and the Leninist two stage theory. Lest I be accused of Euro-centrism, the similarities are more than just passing. Unlike China, which also went through a similar civil war that included a two-stage schematic and was besieged by the fascist ally Imperial Japan, Syria bears some resemblance to Spain in terms of landmass and developmental progression, whereas China was a massive expanse that included some of the most bustling metropolitan cities in some areas while others were feudal peasant enclaves that were barely touched by the modern world and ruled by feudal warlords.

The outlines of this debate are reasonably simple. Trotsky, in his Menshevik period, began to develop the idea that socialist revolution needed to be an immediate goal and that the industrialized nations, particularly Germany, were going to be central to worldwide revolution. Leaving aside the frankly useless debate about whether Lenin became a Trotskyist or the Trotsky became a Leninist, it is clear the two engaged in some sort of synthesis that said the Russian Revolution would only succeed if Germany followed suit and came to their aid. What happened to the Soviet Union when this failed was a stagnation that promised demise from the outset.

By contrast, Stalin formulated in his extremely readable and certainly valuable Of Marxism and the National Question that the struggle of colonial anti-imperialists, even if they are not socialist, has the capability to be an aid to the Communist struggle. By undermining imperialism, a Gandhi or Mandela short circuits the flow of capital, providing an opportunity for socialist advancement. Lenin embraced this logic wholeheartedly and made it a part of Bolshevik praxis. This also underlies the notion of Socialism in One Country, which said the building of socialism in the USSR would lead to a later Communist epoch.

In Spain, both theories came into bloody combat. The Trotskyists and anarcho-syndicalists believed the revolution and war were inseparable whereas the Stalinists said that the war would require the revolution be put on hold until Franco was defeated. As a result, the CP became the party of the bourgeoisie and middle classes while the Trots and anarchists became the vanguard of the peasants. Of course, leaving out the whole issue of Stalin’s narcissism and the accusation that the Trotskyists were in league with Fascism is a major omission. But there was some tenuous theoretical debate there also.

What we are seeing now on the Left regarding Syria is very much like this. Some see the anti-imperial struggle of the Baathists as an important one to support, while others think this is simply daft when one recalls the brutal Baathist polices toward the various Leftist groups of the region. The operative point to emphasize is that the Syrian government has never been and will never be pro-Communist. In reality, they have a pretty problematic record with the Syrian Communists.

So when one comes across pro-Assad Leftists who support the Russian moves in Syria, one cannot help recognizing the echoes of what was written by Joseph Stalin in The Foundations of Leninism:

The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism… For the same reasons, the struggle that the Egyptians merchants and bourgeois intellectuals are waging for the independence of Egypt is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the bourgeois origin and bourgeois title of the leaders of Egyptian national movement, despite the fact that they are opposed to socialism… There is no need to mention the national movement in other, larger, colonial and dependent countries, such as India and China, every step of which along the road to liberation, even if it runs counter to the demands of formal democracy, is a steam-hammer blow at imperialism, i.e., is undoubtedly a revolutionary step.

I am merely a semi-regular viewer of media venues such as RT. Yet I cannot help to wonder if perhaps the Left agitation they engage in on their English language broadcasts bears some of the ideological coordinates of this brand of Marxism-Leninism.

What buttresses this point moreso for me is the level of support the Communist Party of the Russian Federation has expressed for Putin and Assad, as was the case in this September 2013 statement by Chairman Gennady Zyuganov:

The CPRF has repeatedly insisted that interference into the internal affairs of Syria – a sovereign country and a UN member-state is unacceptable. We demand that the USA and its satellites should put an end to their attempts to overthrow the legitimate government of Bashar Assad.

Leaving aside the rather difficult discussion of whether the successor of the old Soviet Communist Party has degenerated into a type of chauvinism under the heading of ‘National Bolshevism’, one is forced to ask if this is indicative of a real dedication to Marxist principles or a reverence to realpolitik, wherein the Communists have developed a tenuous coalition with Putin to help both create some semblance of unity in Russia and maintain their own political standing. Or could it perhaps be both, an instance of what a Hegelian would call a contradiction? These are very tough questions that cannot be answered by simplistic conspiracy theorizing or black and white dichotomies. In reading the recent work by Sam Husseini, it seems obvious rejection of this easy way of seeing politics is becoming stigmatized.

However, it would also be a mistake to say this perspective was the only Leftist Russian opinion. On September 13, 2015, the Trotskyist-aligned editors of the Russian socialist website OpenLeft.Ru wrote the following:

[T]he Kremlin’s tactical course can be seen as a continuation of its struggle for a “fairer multipolar world”, in which international relations are not regulated by normative principles of liberalism and Human Rights, but through the mutual recognition of interests and cooperation on concrete questions. It is precisely on these conditions that, through a pragmatic coalition in Syria, Russia is attempting to reintegrate itself into the world order, simultaneously changing the rules of the game.

So the real consequences of Russian foreign policy, despite Russia’s constant criticisms of the “hypocrisy of humanitarian interventions”, are no better than the same humanitarian interventions. The victims of the Syrian regime are far greater than those of ISIS. Support for Assad is support for a dictator who has turned the military apparatus of his country into an effective machine for the obliteration of its own population. However much Lavrov and [Putin’s press secretary] Peskov make passive-aggressive criticisms of “western hypocrisy”, Russia is at least as responsible for what is happening in Syria as western states.

And the Kremlin’s demonstrative refusal to take any part in solving the refugee crisis is truly hypocritical. By suggesting that the countries of the EU deal with the consequences of a crisis which it has done so much to create in Syria, Putin’s Russia feels it has the “last laugh”. The drama of 100,000s of people losing their homes is presented in Peskov’s announcements as an elegant lesson, subordinated to the Kremlin’s foreign policy towards its “western partners”.

As I said, it goes back to Trotskyism as opposed to Leninism in some degree.

Meanwhile, the October 2, 2015 piece by Joshua Frank is not the only one expressing this viewpoint. Daphne Lawless wrote on November 5, 2015 a piece titled Against Campism: What Makes Some Leftists Support Putin?:

[W]hy would anyone on the Left support Russia intervening in Ukraine or Syria, any more than they support the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan?… Several arguments have been used by such people. Perhaps the most serious is that in favour of a “multipolar world”. The argument is that the current world neoliberal system hinges on the unchallenged hegemony of the “Western” bloc, under the military leadership of the biggest imperial power of the planet, the United States. Therefore, a “multipolar” world would mean more freedom for popular forces to move against the global neoliberal order.

The late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was a great promoter of this idea. Many Western leftists who supported his government’s struggle for the working people and poor at home were left scratching their heads as he toured the world shaking hands and doing deals with the authoritarian leaderships of Russia or China, or Libya’s Qadhafi. He even supported the Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe, which imprisons and tortures socialists, and counted as an ally the Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko, who boasts of “wringing the necks” of the political opposition… This kind of politics is often called “campism” – in the metaphor that the world is divided into several military “camps”, with the largest being the Western camp led by the United States. Therefore, any government which disagrees with American foreign policy – no matter how oppressive to its own people, or however wedded to neoliberal market economics – can be supported. These governments are even called “anti-imperialist” – as if there were only one imperialism, that of the Western bloc.

This choice of the word ‘camp’ is a deliberate reference back to the old Cold War verbiage of NATO vs. Warsaw Pact camps. It is difficult to parse through this because the old Cold Warriors in the West used verbiage like ‘Soviet imperialism’ to frame the suppression of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, Soviet outreach to Africa, or the invasion of Afghanistan as a direct mirror of Western imperialism in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Latin America. One also finds this passage echoes what Trotsky wrote in 1938 about the national question:

[A]ll speculative arguments of this sort and raising bogies of impending national calamities for the sake of supporting this or that imperialist bourgeoisie flow from the tacit rejection of the revolutionary perspective and a revolutionary policy… If the proletariat suffers without end the leadership of social-imperialists and communo-chauvinists;…if the horrors of war do not drive the workers and soldiers to rebellion; if the colonial peoples continue to bleed patiently in the interests of the slaveholders, then under these conditions the level of civilization will inevitably be lowered and the general retrogression and decomposition may again place national wars on the order of the day for Europe. But then we, or rather our sons, will have to determine their policy in relation to future wars on the basis of the new situation. Today we proceed not from the perspective of decline but that of revolution. We are defeatists at the expense of the imperialists and not at the expense of the proletariat. We do not link the question of the fate of the Czechs, Belgians, French and Germans as nations with episodic shifts of military fronts during a new brawl of the imperialists, but with the uprising of the proletariat and its victory over all the imperialists. We look forward and not backward.

I find myself unable to personally judge which theory I fully agree with, in part because I think Stalin and Trotsky were equally at fault for the brutality of the Soviet government and in part because there are situations where one and not the other theory has more tenability. In the age of late capitalism, where one can get wireless internet service and cell phone coverage at the farthest reaches of the globe, does the two-stage theory, which gives credit to non-socialist national liberation movements, have as much credibility as the Permanent Revolution?

I think, regardless of one’s opinion, it is vital to give precedence to writers like Leila Al Shami, who wrote in a blog post on November 7, 2015:

Its now been five weeks since Russia began its bombing campaign in support of the fascist regime in Syria, transforming a struggle against domestic tyranny into resistance against foreign invasion and occupation. The discourse used to justify Russia’s intervention is just an extension of the ‘War on Terror’. The Americans invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan on the pretext of ‘fighting terrorism’, thus creating more terrorism and extremism, and now the Russians and Iranians are doing the same in Syria. The difference is that many of those who vocally opposed the first war on terror now remain silent or actively support this latest incarnation… And the main targets of Russia’s imperialist adventures have not been the Daesh (ISIS) fascists. Instead Russia’s military might is directed at Syria’s resistance militias and civilians living in liberated zones which have become death camps under the state’s scorched earth tactics and crippling blockades. It’s the working class suburbs and rural districts of Hama and Idlib, those that raged so fiercely against the regime, that are today being pounded by Russian airstrikes. The people attacked in Homs are those who defeated Daesh a year ago… On 2 October the Local Coordination Committees released a statement condemning the Russian aggression and calling upon “all revolutionary forces and factions to unite by any means”… [I]n Douma where one elderly man declares: “Syria is for us, not for the house of Assad, not for Russia, not for Iran, not for Lebanon”. There are plenty of Syrians who believe in self-determination, who still struggle for a life of dignity free from all totalitarianisms. Meanwhile the authoritarian left continues to occupy itself with the chess game of states and the struggle for regional hegemony … and the blood of Syrians flows.

It seems clear, following the disclosures via WikiLeaks, that American imperialism has used the Syrian war to justify trying to further the neoliberal project in the historic Levant. Richard Silverstein’s April 30, 2015 story ISIS Shells Israeli-Occupied Golan, IDF Holds Fire suggests there is at least some level of coordination in military forces. Yet just as Stalin made the mistake of backing Chiang Kai-shek, perhaps the Left must be cautious about backing Assad blindly. Is it possible to oppose both Baathism and imperialism? Considering revelations that show Putin offered to oust Assad some years ago, that could be tenable. In aggregating these stories, I have tried to merely present a variety of opinions in a non-judgmental fashion. Wars are complex monstrosities that cannot be easily framed. The loss of the Spanish Civil War in part was caused by a strict dichotomy that said all anti-Stalinists were by default fascists. The POUM and the CNT-FAI were purged and killed for political dissent rather than opposition to Franco. Is that also coming to fruition here?

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.