By Greg Godels
December 10, 2019
Will we remember the victory in Syria as a long overdue turning point in the struggle against imperialism and, perhaps, capitalism? Does the defeat of US and NATO machinations and their surrogate combatants in Syria inspire the people of the Middle East to transcend the divisive limits of sectarian grievances and cultural manipulation? Are we seeing the decline of artificially stoked and cruelly fueled national and religious divisiveness and a turn toward economic justice?
Certainly some respected, insightful commentators believe that the Middle East is experiencing unexpected, major realignments (Hallinan) and a decline in sectarian conflict (P. Cockburn).
Patrick Cockburn suggests that the decline of sectarianism is accompanied by “uprisings against corruption,” though he says far too little about the connection.
In fact, the US and Israel have used sectarian divides to combat progressive, nationalist, secular, and even socialist-oriented governments in the Middle East since the 1950s. Secular Arab nationalism, Nasserism, Ba’ath socialism, Palestinian liberation all posed a threat to Israeli apartheid and expansionism and US and European oil imperialism. By stirring the pot of tribal, religious sectarian, and national differences, they were largely successful in reducing the Middle East to a cauldron of disunity, endless conflict, and social backwardness. For most of the latter part of the twentieth century social questions of economic well-being and class justice were deflected. Instead of addressing the basic needs of the people, Middle Eastern rulers were drawn into tragic conflicts over religious, tribal, and national identity. Exploiting these conflicts were the foreign imperialist powers.
But matters may be differently now.
With the Saudis– the well-heeled missionaries of religious, social, and political backwardness– smarting from energy rivalry with their US sponsor and bloodied by a losing war in Yemen, their influence in the neighborhood is reduced. Israel, likewise, is mired in a political crisis and now facing a nearly unified Syria with a powerful ally in Russia, an ally seemingly committed to being a counter to US dominance of the region. And Turkey is racked with its own political instability and increasingly tenuous membership in NATO.
These factors, along with US and NATO imperialism’s defeat in Syria, disrupt decades of senseless, internecine conflict and are allowing neglected questions of the people’s well-being and living standards to rise to the forefront.
The recent and current anti-government risings in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq are a response to the long-ignored class and democracy issues that have been overshadowed by sectarianism. Sparked by aloof policies and fueled by both government indifference and massive poverty and want, millions are fighting to depose those who hold power.
While Patrick Cockburn writes of corruption, it is more than simply bad government that stokes these rebellions. People are opposed to rulers selected by systems designed by the Great powers to legitimize a sectarian balance or to install rule by those trusted by outside forces. They are tired of the concentration of wealth in the hands of elites or the raging torrent of wealth channeled to Western corporations. They are weary of food and power shortages, underemployment and unemployment, sectarian patronage, and poor infrastructure and housing. They are reacting to the widening class divide in these societies. These insurgencies are all suggestive of an emerging class consciousness, a growing anger at those hoarding the wealth and monopolizing undeserved political power.
As welcome as these developments are, they bring many potential problems. No popular and clear-sighted leadership has emerged. The demands that spring forth are often simple and negative: “Down with the existing government!” There is no overarching ideological outlook, little programmatic development, and too few acknowledged leaders. The success of the movement in Sudan shows the importance of a Communist Party broadly and deeply embedded in the popular movements. Communists are engaged in all of the other risings as well. There is a basis for hope that these movements will evolve in an anti-capitalist direction.
Objections have been raised that the anti-government risings may weaken the anti-imperialist movement, particularly where existing governments take anti-imperialist positions against the US and Israel or include anti-imperialist forces within a government coalition. These concerns are especially apt when the long history of US manipulation of movements (like Ukraine yesterday, Hong Kong today) is recognized.
However, solidarity with the people, confidence in the masses, and critical vigilance should be the stance of the revolutionary. All significant change is fraught with risks, laden with uncertainty. Revolutionaries unwilling to venture on an uncharted course are hardly worthy of the name.
While there have been recent setbacks to social democratic and anti-imperialist projects in Central and South America (and staunch resistance in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela), impressive people’s risings in Haiti, Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador have shaken governments and ruling elites. Like their counterparts in the Middle East, they often lack a clear and decisive leadership, but they, nonetheless, reflect deep-seated and profound class antagonisms and a yearning for real democracy.
A bitter distrust of the largely corrupt parliamentary systems peddled as “liberal democracy” also spurs the upsurge in direct and militant mass action. Interestingly, this distrust is shared with millions of working people in the advanced capitalist countries who have, out of desperation, cast votes for demagogic “populist” politicians opportunistically herding dissatisfaction away from bankrupt mainstream parties. Though they both spring from similar causes, the “populist” answer will prove as futile as continued support for the traditional parties that chain the people’s fate to capitalist accumulation.
By any measure, there is mass dissatisfaction throughout the world. In some places, it is transforming into direct, physical confrontation with the state and its organs. The frequency and militancy of these actions is striking. Today, it is the remarkable national strikes to deny Macron’s destruction of pensions in France.
In other places, the fight is less developed; people are struggling to identify the enemy; their efforts are confined to narrow electoral space or misdirected toward “fake” solutions.
Nonetheless, capitalism is presented with an impressive wave of resistance as we enter the next decade. If that wave is to swell, it must be driven by a deeper understanding of the way forward. Old, difficult debates over how national independence, secular unity, and class struggle intertwine are now, again, relevant, urgent and central. It is vital that militants see the fight against imperialism and for a better, more anti-capitalist and democratic life as one and the same.
In addition, lessons must be drawn from the recent treacherous coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia, lessons that raise the enduring questions of the nature of the state, reform, and revolution. In our time, reform and socialism-oriented movements have proven fragile, especially while facing the determined hostility of the powerful US and its allies. As the Guaidó debacle in Venezuela shows, the US will go to any lengths to create and support anti-reform, anti-socialist elements. For over a hundred years, Marxist-Leninist theory has been the anchor of debates over the path to revolutionary change and for its defense. It would be a good place to begin in order to refresh today’s debates.
All signs point to 2020 becoming an interesting, even promising year for revolutionaries!