In a follow up to his earlier piece critiquing the anti imperialist opposition to the Libyan & Syrian revolutions, Pham Binh responds to those on the Left who disagree.
Fresh off of arguing that North Korea is a live issue for American socialist organizing in the context of Occupy, Paul D’amato takes issue with my argument that the Western left puts itself at odds with revolutionary Syrians by opposing U.S. intervention full stop – no ifs, ands, or buts. Siding with revolutionary Syrians and Libyans regardless of their calls for foreign airstrikes since they do not have an air forces of their own to protect themselves hardly adds up to cheering the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the United States military.
I side with the Arab Spring, no matter what country it spreads to, no matter what dictatorship comes under threat, and no matter what side the U.S. government eventually decides to back. As Clay Claiborne said elsewhere, I did not side with U.S. imperialism on the Libyan revolution, U.S. imperialism sided with me.
The International Socialist Organization (ISO), by contrast, quietly abandoned its support for the Libyan revolution once the going got tough and NATO’s F-16s got going and even went so far to argue that Ghadafi’s overthrow was a “blow to the Arab Spring.” Yes, you read that right! National elections, workers organizing and going on strike (in the oil industry, no less), people launching political parties and organizing protests in Libya are a huge, tremendous, staggering blow to the Arab Spring. Why? Because NATO did not follow the Western left’s example by standing meekly on the sidelines, twiddling its thumbs, while the conflict between revolution and counter-revolution raged.
If only the anti-imperialist left in the West had been strong enough to stop NATO’s planes from bombing Ghadafi’s tanks as they headed towards Benghazi in March of 2011 to do what the Assad regime is doing now to Syrians, if only comrade D’amato had gotten his way, then the Libyan Spring would be in good shape, buried under a pile of bloody corpses no doubt, but with its anti-imperialist credentials safely intact, which, of course, is the important thing in all this.
D’amato is at least perceptive enough to note that my pro-revolution position on Libya has shifted. I opposed NATO’s airstrikes from the outset because I feared that NATO would use the Libyan revolution’s military dependence on NATO to co-opt and destroy the revolution. They certainly tried; Britain demanded the extradition of Libyans while the bullets were still flying but the Libyan National Transitional Council rebuffed the British repeatedly and consistently (after arresting and deporting their SAS goon squad). My fears proved to be unfounded and instead of trying to re-write reality and cherry-pick facts to fit my position, I learned from my mistake and shifted my stance.
If only the ISO and its three-letter counterparts would do the same.
Because nothing positive has ever come from imperialist intervention even by accident, D’amato decides that the notion that there are “widespread freedoms in post-Qaddafi Libya also needs to be challenged” and points to human rights abuses by revolutionary forces. It makes me wonder if he is remotely familiar with the human rights record of the Bolsehvik-led Cheka, the Stalinist-led National Liberation Front in Viet Nam, or that of our very own Founding Fathers who, when they were not lynching rebellious black slaves and exterminating Native Americans, led a revolution against British colonialism and then shot the very debt-ridden farmer-veterans who paid for that victory with their blood, sweat, and tears.
I will concede that D’amato’s judgment on military affairs in foreign countries is superior to mine since he wrote the wonderful book The Meaning of Marxism and is the managing editor of International Socialist Review while I am merely, in his words, a “leftist internet gadfly.” Let us assume he is right to give NATO the credit for the Libyan revolution’s victory because it played a “decisive” role. NATO gets the credit for the final Berber offensive from Western Libya. NATO gets the credit for organizing underground cells (penetrating the ranks of Ghadafi’s secret police) that carefully planned the victorious Tripoli uprising. NATO gets the credit for finding ingenious ways to get around Ghadafi’s internet blackout to livestream the revolution.
The basic problem remains: D’amato’s vitriolic response (aside from the glaring misrepresentations, misquotations, and internal inconsistencies [claiming “there are no accurate figures of total casualties” in Libya and then citing a figure of 20,000 deaths]) is thoroughly NATO-centric and Western-centric. D’amato looks at the question of imperialist intervention into the civil wars sprung by the Arab Spring not from the stand point of the concrete, tactical realities facing first Libyans and now Syrians but from the standpoint of general principles.
The closest he comes to acknowledging this problem with his own position when he writes:
“It is entirely understandable that in the face of the barbarity of the Assad government, there are people in Syria who hope for foreign intervention. But understanding the reasons for such a position is not the same as endorsing it.”
Again, the problem is that D’amato never spells out what precisely it is we are supposed to oppose beyond imperialism (general) and intervention (abstract). He did not mention anything about Russian and Chinese imperialism, both of which are aiding Assad by intervening not only with words but with weapons shipments and diplomatic muscle at the United Nations Security Council.
If we are opposed to U.S. intervention in all cases and forms without exception, then we must say “no” to American small arms shipments to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because that is the form that U.S. intervention is actually taking in Syria today (perhaps D’amato would be happy to learn that the U.S. is refusing to provide logistical aid and heavy weapons to the FSA for now). If we are opposed to U.S. intervention in all cases and forms without exception, then we should try to block those small arms shipments and let the FSA fight tanks with slingshots as the Palestinians have been forced to do because no imperialist power will supply them with arms.
Such an effort on our part would no doubt be greeted warmly by the Assad regime and with total hostility by those who are fighting and dying to put an end to that regime. I never thought I would live to see the day when the ISO in the pages of Socialist Worker embrace such a position alongside the Party for Socialism and Liberation (who says left unity is a pipe dream?).
Then again, tens of millions of people in the Arab world never imagined that they would rid themselves of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Ghadafi, and yet, here we are.
D’amato claims, “Pham bases this argument on seeing some protesters in Syria holding up signs demanding intervention.” Some protestors? To protest today in Syria is risk your life, but setting that dismissive tone aside, D’amato seems to have missed the concrete development of the Syiran revolution where street protestors:
“… named July 29, 2011 “Friday of Your Silence Is Killing Us” and held massive demonstrations across Syria that directed that slogan not only at other Syrians that had yet to join the struggle but to the people of the world as well. The Syria wide mass protests of September 9, 2011 were named the “Friday of International Protection.” That was the first time the movement as a whole put forward an explicit demand for foreign intervention. As Assad’s violence continued unabated on March 16, 2012 the opposition called the protests the “Friday of Immediate Foreign Intervention.”
So while it is true that “[not] everyone who opposes Assad in Syria is demanding U.S. intervention” as D’amato says, the question for him is this: where are all the mass protests in Syria rejecting U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s forces? Where is the “Friday to No CIA Weapons for the FSA”? Where is the “Friday of Please Don’t Bomb Assad’s Compound”? Where is the “Friday of Our Revolution Rejects Foreign Airstrikes on Assad’s Tanks, Artillery, and Helicopters”?
These rhetorical questions make it clear that nobody is “cheering imperialism,” an idiotic claim if there ever was one.
The situation in Syria, as it was in Libya, is one of absolute desperation because both revolutions (for subjective and historical reasons) were not (yet!) able to triumph exclusively through their own efforts over merciless military machines and systems of patronage that ensured enduring minority support for Ghadafi and Assad right up until the bitter, bloody end. We should not be surprised that the Arab left is weak to nonexistent in country after country when their counterparts in the West try to stop airstrikes on counter-revolutionary forces in the name of anti-imperialism.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the Western left slammed the Bush administration for allowing Saddam Hussein to violate the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq to smash rebellious Kurds and Shia with helicopter gunship attacks. Based on the reaction to my article it seems that most Western anti-imperialists today would cheer the Bush administration’s “hands off” policy, Kurds and Shia be damned.
If this what “principled anti-imperialism” means concretely in the real world then it is the anti-imperialism of fools. Applying abstract principles mechanically and without any common sense is the worst thing we can do when lives are on the line, especially the lives of people other than ourselves.
Few revolutions historically have triumphed with zero outside assistance. The Vietnamese got huge amounts of arms and economic aid from the Russians and Chinese in their fight against French and American occupations. The Americans beat the British with arms provided by the French monarchy. Lenin was only able to get back to Russia in 1917 because the German high command approved his transport through Germany; they figured his return would hasten the end of Russia’s participation in World War One, and they figured right. Exclusively by their own efforts the Vietnamese would not have beaten first France and later America, the struggle that gave birth to America might have been aborted, and the Russian Bolsheviks that the ISO idolizes may not have triumphed since Lenin’s return was impossible without the approval of German imperialism. Outside powers in each of these cases played a decisive role in the final progressive outcome.
Revolutionaries have to be prepared to fight for our ends by any means necessary, which includes accepting aid from one set of enemies to fight another and exploiting conflicts between enemies no matter how transient. Surely that is how Lenin saw things when he decided to accept help from the German high command to get home, overturn Russia, and spread revolution to Germany.
John Reed was absolutely right when he wrote:
“Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.”
Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing but take what he gives and use it against him before he has a chance to stab you in the back. If Uncle Sam hands the Syrians a whip to use against Assad, we should not stop Sam; the Syrians can use that whip against Sam once they finish Assad. If Uncle Sam whips Assad in conjunction with Syrian action from below, we should not stop Sam then either because doing so would hurt the Syrians literally and physically.
Sometimes standing firm with revolutionary movements and peoples means setting aside abstractions, ideologies, and so-called principles because they get in the way of victory. Now is one of those times.
Pham Binh is an Occupy Wall Street activist, socialist, and founder of the left unity project The North Star. His writings have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, International Socialist Review, the Indypendent, and Counterpunch. His writings can be found here.
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