The battle for the soul of the Arab revolutions has been transformed by imperial intervention, nowhere more so than in Syria, argues John Rees

The bloody intransigence of the Assad regime and the intervention of the major powers have divided the Syrian opposition. These factors make it impossible for the left to simply repeat the slogans that were applicable in Tunisia and Egypt at the start of the revolutionary process.

The Syrian National Council, in which Syrians based outside the country have considerable influence, is calling for Western intervention. So too are the forces represented by the Free Syrian Army. These forces are not monolithic and they do not necessarily represent those on the ground organising the uprising.

The Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria are more representative and many of the activists in these committees are opposed to Western intervention, pointing to the disastrous consequences of such intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. However, some in these committees have lost credibility by their willingness to talk to the regime.

But these are not the voices being promoted by the West. And these are not the organisations benefiting from Western patronage. As in Libya those the West promotes tend to gain the most publicity. If the West is successful, if they manage to increase their level of intervention either directly or indirectly, then the Syrian revolution runs the risk of being moulded by the West, whether or not most Syrians want it.

This brings us to the fundamental problem with those analyses that see the Syrian revolution as simply a repeat of the Tunisian or Egyptian revolutions or, in some cases, are virtually uncritical of the revolution as if it were already socialist in character. There are two fundamental but linked problems with this approach.

Firstly, it completely ignores the question of political representation inside a revolutionary process. It assumes that all revolutions are led by political formations which directly, honestly and effectively represent the interests of those rank and file activists who are making the revolution.

But of course this is never the case, even in socialist revolutions. An adequate political leadership has to be created in the course of the revolution and other political currents that arise in the revolution but represent class or political interests different to, or opposed to, those of the grassroots can take control of the process.

Another way of saying the same thing is that a revolution shakes the old governmental structure so that power falls in to the streets, but it is by no means inevitable that those political currents that represent the masses will pick it up. In Tunisia the government that has emerged from the first phase of the revolution represents a section of the bourgeoisie (some of whom were in involved in the revolution as a minority current), not the majority of the members of the UGTT union federation, the workers and the poor. In Egypt the contest between revolutionary and reformist currents has not yet been resolved.

In previous democratic revolutions, like South Africa in the 1990s, a democratic capitalist democracy replaced a dictatorship, against the wishes and interests of most of those in the ANC and the unions who had actually done the fighting against the Apartheid dictatorship. Their aim had always been a socialist society. What they got was neo-liberal capitalist democracy.

Marx understood this process. He saw the classic democratic revolutions as a process by which a bourgeois minority replaced the old regime. But precisely because the bourgeoisie was a minority it had to enlist the fighting capacity of all the oppressed classes under universal slogans, most famously ‘liberté, fraternity, egalité’.

But once the old order has been defeated, these forces then turn on the representatives of the most radical forces. Cromwell turned on the Levellers. Robespierre was defeated by the Thermidorians.

As Marx wrote: ‘It is the fate of all revolutions that this union of different classes, which in some degree is always the necessary condition of any revolution, cannot subsist long. No sooner is the victory gained against the common enemy, than the victors become divided amongst themselves into different camps and turn their weapons on each other…’

In modern revolutions a socialist outcome is possible if the workers and the poor develop the political capacity (through workers councils and revolutionary party organisation) that can defeat these bourgeois forces. This was the essential idea behind Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. But where such forces are not strong enough, the old pattern reasserts itself and the possibility of permanent revolution is deflected.

As Tony Cliff wrote in ‘Deflected Permanent Revolution’: ‘Those forces which should lead to a socialist, workers’ revolution according to Trotsky’s theory can lead, in the absence of the revolutionary subject, the proletariat, to its opposite…’

This possibility – and this is the second essential point – is considerably enhanced where the imperial powers are able to intervene, even if intervention does not included military intervention, to boost the standing of forces that may be a minority of the revolution but are still more than capable of dominating it politically.

So not to see the Syrian revolution in it imperial context, but simply pretend that we can judge it by its internal forces, is a category error. Those who cry most about the ‘internationalist’ duty to support the Syrian revolution and refer only to the internal forces of the revolution are precisely those who have forgotten that internationalism must include the imperial dimension, as it affects domestic forces, or else it is simply moralism.

George Lukacs made the point that modern revolutions are ‘no longer struggles against their own feudalism and feudal absolutisms – that is to say implicitly progressive – for they are forced into the context of imperialist rivalry between world powers. Their historical significance, their evaluation, therefore depends on what concrete part they play in in the concrete whole.’

From this it follows that ‘forces that work towards revolution today may very well operate in the reverse direction tomorrow. And it is vital to note that these changes…are determined by the constantly changing relations of the totality of the historical situation and the social forces at work.’

Lenin made the same point when he said: ‘Not infrequently…we find the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations talking of national revolt, while in practice it enters into reactionary compacts with bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation behind the backs of, and against, its own people.’

Those who cry ‘Hail to the Martyrs’ and ‘victory to the revolution’ without analysing imperialism and its influence on democratic revolutions (revolutions that have not yet developed the capacity to become socialist revolutions) are actually weakening our opposition to imperialism. They are handing over the masses in Syria to the leadership of pro-imperialist political currents.

Astoundingly, there is almost no recognition on the left that whereas the normal process of class and political differentiation within the revolution happens after the fall of the dictatorship, as is now happening in Egypt, in the Syrian case imperial intervention has divided the revolutionary forces before the dictator has fallen.

This is what is wrong with those who have a ‘middle position’, who merely say ‘I’m against intervention but I’m for the revolution’. This involves a mechanical separation of imperialism from the domestic alignment of forces inside the Syrian revolution.

Imperialist intervention has divided the Syrian opposition. There is not one opposition camp, but two. One calls for intervention, the other does not. The revolution is divided.

Marxists cannot simply cry ‘victory to the revolution’ as we did in the 18 days of struggle against Mubarak. Over Syria we must say ‘No to Western Intervention’ and ‘Oppose all those in the Syrian revolution who call for Western intervention’. These forces should be exposed in article after article. Then of course we support all those in Syria who, like us, support non-intervention and the overthrow of Assad.

But if we are serious we know that, no matter how much these currents represent the interests of the mass of Syrians, they are not the ones who are at the moment able to set the agenda. That is not their fault and it does not make them less worthy of support. But the best support we can give them is to defeat their enemies: the imperialists and those Syrians who support the imperialists.

For further reading see:

John Rees, Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2006), particularly Chapter 5, ‘Their democracy and ours’.

John Rees, ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Democratic Revolution’ available here:

Tony Cliff, ‘Deflected Permanent Revolution’ available here:

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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