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A portrait of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, burning during clashes between rebels and Syrian troops near Aleppo. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

A portrait of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, burning during clashes between rebels and Syrian troops near Aleppo. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

In this introduction to the Russian translation his of article 'Empire and revolution', John Rees argues that the events of the last year have confirmed the analysis it set out

A portrait of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, burning during clashes between rebels and Syrian troops near Aleppo. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty ImagesI'm grateful to the Postglobalisaiton Initiative in Moscow for reprinting Empire and revolution. Our joint work together, both in opposition to the US's attempted intervention in Georgia in 2008 and at this year’s Postglobalisation conference in Tbilisi, has been an important contribution to the international anti-war movement.

Empire and Revolution was written in August 2012 in response to debates on the left about intervention in Syria. This is a useful moment to assess that analysis. The main lines of the analysis were as follows:

I argued, firstly, that although there was an internal dynamic to the Syrian revolution it was increasingly prey to imperialist intervention which was both corroding the revolutionary process and increasingly shaping the direction of events in the region. This argument was in response to those like British blogger Richard Seymour and others on the left who were arguing that ‘there is no reason at this moment to think that imperialist intervention is, or is going to be, the dominant axis determining the outcome and meaning of this process’.

Secondly, I argued that the socialists and anti-war activists primary duty was to confront the imperial goals of the political establishment in their own countries.

Thirdly, I argued that the opposition forces in Syria were not a monolithic bloc and that some of those forces were pro-imperialist.

The events of the last year have provided important confirmation of this analysis. Contrary to those who argued that the US and its allies were not going to attack Syria it became quite clear that the US, British and French governments were very serious about a military strike on Syria.

In August, had the British government managed to secure support in the House of Commons, there would have been an extensive missile strike on Syria lasting some days and aimed at militarily weakening the Assad regime to the extent that the Free Syrian Army offensive, co-ordinated to begin at the same time, would be able to turn the tide against the Syrian army. There can be little further proof needed that the course of events in Syria and the prospects of the FSA are tied to the actions of the US and its allies.

The howls of anger over the US's inability to actually launch the attack that came from General Idris, the leader of the FSA, based in his headquarters in Nato member Turkey, only serve to underline this point. He claimed calling off the attack was ‘a blow to the two-and-a-half-year uprising’.

The fact that the US and its allies have been unable to launch the attack they had planned is, as I have argued elsewhere, a result of three things: the raw experience of millions of people that the war on terror has failed, the resistance of the Afghan and Iraqi people, and 13 years of sustained anti-war campaigning. Britain is one of the centres of sustained anti-war organisation. The imperial project met its first set back here, rather than in the US or France where similar opinion poll majorities against war also exist, is because in the UK anti-war opinion is mobilised and focussed by sustained campaigning.

The victory for the anti-war movement in the UK has had an international effect. It forced President Obama to stay his hand and move towards consulting Congress. This is turn created the room for a diplomatic initiative brokered by Russia to make it even more difficult, though not impossible, for the US to renew the drive to war.

These developments create a new situation in which the anti-war movement can play an important role.

Part of the aim in writing Empire and Revolution was to criticise those who argued that internationalism means having a 'down with everything' position, by which I mean the view that irrespective of national context or the place in the imperial structure of the globe that they find themselves they simply list the evils in the world and demand we condemn them all equally. US intervention is bad; Russian imperialism is bad; Assad is bad and so on in an additive sequence.

What is wrong with this approach is not that these statements are untrue. Indeed, at the level of abstract general analysis, they are all true. The problem comes in not understanding that all activists work in a particular national environment, directly facing their own ruling class and its propaganda machine. These governments and their propaganda are always happy to assert the evil nature of rival imperial powers, large and small. David Cameron is happy to assert that Putin and Assad are evil. Putin is happy to dilate on the evils of US imperialism and so on and so on. To cut through this web it is not effective to simply call out 'a plague on all your houses' because, while this might be generally desirable, it is in practice disarming, and passivity-inducing. More importantly, it leaves us half (or more) agreeing with our own rulers.

It is precisely for this reason that the historic response of anti-imperialists, stretching back to Karl Liebknecht’s and Lenin’s attitude to the First World War, is to assert that the 'main enemy is at home’. That is: we can only be effective by concentrating on combating our own ruling class. As Liebkneckt’s famous leaflet put it:

The main enemy of every people is in their own country! 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’.

Only activists in the UK can be really effective in opposing the UK government. This is a task that no Syrian, Russian or American can do. But if Russians, Americans and Syrians all confront their own ruling class then the combined effect is an internationalist policy. The best aid that we in Britain can give those activists is not verbal opposition to their government but action against ours. This is how the largest ever international demonstration against war, on 15th February 2003, was created.

There is one important qualification to this: no effective radical politics can be conducted if opposition forces beg the imperialists for help. This is why anti-imperialists never supported the Kosovan Liberation Army in the Balkan war: they acted as Nato's ground troops. Neither, despite their long history as an oppressed group, did we support the Iraqi Kurds in 2002: they made themselves proxies of US imperialism. The same can be said of those sections of the Syrian resistance, like the Syrian National Council and the leaders of the FSA, who are mainly under the influence of the US and its local allies.

In almost every imperial conflict some forces among the oppressed imagine that salvation can be found by siding with their enemies’ enemies. This is a policy which always strengthens imperialism and undermines the struggle of the oppressed.

In this new situation our tasks are clear. We in the West must campaign to ensure that the imperial powers cannot return to the war path, that they cannot use manufactured failures in the decommissioning of chemical weapons (of which they hold the world's largest stocks) as a reason to reactivate the missile strike policy. In Russia socialists know only too well the authoritarian and reactionary nature of the Putin regime. They will be the only effective opposition to Putin's imperial policy.

The best chance that the Syrian democratic movement has of success is if we successfully challenge our imperialists and Russian socialists and anti-war activists successfully challenge Putin. Then the peace process and possible ceasefire may begin to lead away from the disastrous militarisation of the Syrian revolution which has led to its corruption by the pro-imperialist leaders of the SNC and the FSA, and to the rise of Islamist groups in the opposition. This process has now led to these two groups fighting each other. This whole process has marginalised those voices in the opposition, like the National Co-ordination Committee and the left, who are against militarisation and bombing.

Tagged under: Middle East
John Rees

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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