Perspectives for Revolution in the Middle East – Part Two
As we explained in Part One, the Arab Revolution brought down several despotic regimes, but due to the lack of a clear revolutionary workers’ alternative, the vacuum was filled by Islamist parties. But once in power, these forces soon began to expose their true reactionary nature, and thus prepared the ground for a second wave of mobilisations. How did all this affect Syria and other countries in the region?
We have to look at the particular developments of the Syrian revolution. We have to ask ourselves what was at the base of the revolution. The spark of course came from Egypt and Tunisia and it affected the youth in particular. They mobilised massively – but there was also a certain naivety. Looking at the experiences of Tunisia and Egypt, they thought that mass rallies and occupations of squares would be enough to bring down the Assad regime. They were very courageous movements, but they proved insufficient to topple the regime, which has proved to be far more resilient than the protestors had imagined.
To understand what is happening in Syria we need to look at the transformations that have taken place in the Syrian economy in the recent period. The country has undergone a process of privatisation of former state assets, which has radically changed the nature of the economy.
Most industrial and commercial assets had been nationalised after the coup in the 1960s. With this a series of welfare reforms were also introduced, such as in educational and healthcare. The regime that came into being through the coups in the 1960s was a proletarian Bonapartist regime, i.e. one where the bulk of the economy was state-owned and centrally planned, but where there was no workers’ democracy. It was fundamentally modelled on Soviet Russia under Stalin.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Syrian regime began a process similar in many ways to what we have seen in China. Industries have been privatised, but the new owners are figures that come from within the regime itself. The process started after 1991, but accelerated over the last decade.
If we compare the years 2001-05 (the 9th 5-year plan) to 2006-10 (10th 5-yar plan) we get the following picture. In the first half of the decade the public sector continued to dominate, but there was a change in the way the state owned enterprises functioned. They were transformed into state capitalist enterprises, functioning according to the laws of the market and not of a planned economy. In the second half of the decade the private sector really took off. And by 2007 already 70% of the Syrian economy was in private hands.
This process had a dramatic impact on the living conditions of the masses. We saw increasing social polarisation, with the emergence of an extremely wealthy elite linked to the Alawite regime and growing poverty at the other end of the social spectrum. In 2005, for example, 30% of the population was living below the poverty line (5.3 million people) and of these two million were "food insecure."
Inflation took off in the early 2000s, going from 1.3% in 2003 to 18% in 2007. Basic consumer goods increased by up to 60%. Illiteracy had been virtually eliminated in the past, but was now growing again.
Many on the left cannot understand what is happening: they see things in terms of either black or white, revolution or counterrevolution, imperialist or anti-imperialist. Some talk of the "Arab Spring followed by the Islamist Winter." They see the masses as being backwards and reactionary! They cannot understand how a revolutionary process can be derailed and move in a reactionary direction. We must truly understand and study dialectical materialism if we are to understand these contradictory processes. It is not a linear process! Things can turn into their opposites.
Again, the lack of revolutionary leadership is the key to explaining the mess. Due to the brutality of the regime in Syria, the building of any viable revolutionary party was a much more difficult task than in Egypt, for example.
In these conditions a revolution erupted in Syria, which the Marxists supported. What we have to understand is that although revolutions erupt when the masses ready to move, there is no guarantee that they will succeed. If certain conditions are not met – above all, the existence of a revolutionary leadership – then a revolution can turn into counter-revolution.
We have the historical example of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s for example. The counter-revolution strangled the revolution in two forms: Franco's open fascist revolt, and the "democratic"/Stalinist counterrevolution in the Republican camp. In spite of this in Spain in the 1930s what took place was a revolution. But revolution is not a straightforward process. We cannot expect to see simple, linear, black and white solutions in the absence of the subjective factor, of the mass revolutionary party.
The situation in Syria is now far more complicated. There are many revolutionary youth in Syria still fighting to get rid of Assad. But they do not determine the nature of the opposition to Assad as a whole. We must say what is and explain honestly what has happened. The naive illusions of the early stages of the revolution have been smashed by the reality of the situation. It has now been transformed into a brutal civil war.
Into this situation have stepped Islamist groups, backed and financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other reactionary regimes in the region. These elements have been responsible for slaughtering people simply for being Alawites or Christians, etc. These are not revolutionary forces at all. Their aim is precisely to foment ethnic/religious based conflict. This has pushed many into the arms of Assad. We are for the downfall of Assad, but we cannot give an ounce of support to these reactionary forces. We are against imperialism intervention but also against the reactionary opposition – neither offer anything to the working class, the youth, the poor.
There is a lot of talk in the West about intervening in Syria or arming the anti-Assad forces. But they can see it would not be so easy. They worry about where the weapons would go – as in the Libya/Mali situation. And after the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, they understand that going in is one thing, but holding the situation and preparing an exit strategy is another question altogether.
In this situation the Kurdish question is being raised again. The Kurds have gained de facto autonomy in northern Iraq and in Syria Assad is also trying to exploit the Kurdish question by making some concession to the Syrian Kurds and thereby splitting them from the forces fighting the regime. In this context the Kurdish movement is reviving, and this could spread to Turkey which has a large Kurdish population. It is Assad’s way of hitting back at Turkey. In reality the Kurds are being used and manipulated. The only way the Kurds can achieve genuine nationhood is through a socialist revolution in all the countries they live in, and within a wider Socialist Federation they could achieve self-determination. Under capitalism they suffer the same fate as many peoples in the past, whereby one day they are promised autonomy and even independence but only in order to promote the agenda of this or that imperialist power, only to be later betrayed.
The fact that the Assad regime has played the ethnic card in an attempt to hold on to some base within the country, and that the reactionary regimes in the Gulf have also been fomenting ethnic/religious conflict, poses the real possibility of the breakup of Syria, with all the destabilising effects this would have across the whole region, spilling over into the neighbouring countries.
Civil war in Syria
There is also the concrete possibility of a civil war after the fall of Assad. Sections of the Free Syrian Army have clashed with Jihadist elements that they see as having hijacked their revolution. Because of the lack of a clear revolutionary leadership the situation has become a mess. Had the working class been united around a revolutionary party the situation would have been very different. Purely on a military basis, the opposition forces have found it far more difficult to bring down the Assad regime than they had anticipated. Because of the emergence of reactionary, Islamic fundamentalist forces within the opposition, and with their tactics of provoking ethnic conflict, rather than class struggle, this has meant that the appeal of the opposition within the urban population has been weakened.
What would finally bring down the regime would be a Syria-wide general strike that could paralyse the country. To achieve this would require the presence of a party capable of uniting all the workers and poor around it. This could only be achieved if such a party had a programme that could offer solutions to all the burning economic and social problems that afflict large layers of the population. But because the opposition forces do not have such a programme, then the conflict has inevitably broken down along ethnic/religious lines. At best, the programme of the opposition is for some form of bourgeois democracy and the “free market” which can offer no solution to the workers and poor. This explains why Syria is now bogged down in a sectarian civil war, which could be prolonged and could continue even after the eventual fall of Assad.
We supported the Syrian revolution when it broke out, but we have to explain that things have changed. There is now counter-revolution in the saddle on both sides. We recognise that there are still some revolutionary elements – especially among the youth – in the opposition, but they are overwhelmed by the reactionary elements. We cannot expect things to be black and white, either revolution or counter-revolution. As we have said, revolution and counter-revolution march together, but at some point one must come out dominant, as such a situation cannot last forever. In Syria within a relatively short period of time, the counter-revolutionary elements came out on top. The objective situation does not stand still, but changes over time. Conditions have changed, and therefore so must our analysis. We must state what is. We cannot have a sentimental, romantic approach to the question of revolution and counter-revolution.
Unfortunately, some on the left, including some who claim to be Marxists, always seek which side to support in a conflict. It reminds us of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, where some left groups supported the Serbs and others the Croats. The truth was that there was nothing progressive about the breakup of Yugoslavia and none of those involved in the fighting had anything progressive about them. It was reaction on all sides, as imperialism – particularly German imperialism – manipulated the various peoples that made up the Yugoslav federation to further the interests of capitalism.
Adding to the confusion in Syria was the temporary victory of the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia. At the height of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions we saw the working masses coming out in strength and sweeping away the hated dictators, but, as we have already explained, in the ensuing political vacuum the Islamists stepped in and won the elections. This in turn strengthened the Islamists in Syria.
The fact is that the solution to the crisis in Syria is to be found in Egypt and Tunisia – and perhaps even more so, Iran. No solution can be found within the narrow borders of Syria. Even with a healthy, mass revolutionary socialist party in Syria, the final solution would not be found within Syria itself. Even if there were to be a successful socialist revolution in Syria today, in order for such a revolution to survive it would have to spread beyond its borders, into Turkey, into Iran and beyond. And most importantly, it would require a socialist victory in Egypt, which is the biggest Arab country, with the largest working class, that can give a lead to the workers and youth in the whole of the Middle East.
We must explain all this to the best elements within the Syrian youth. We need to develop a clear Marxist analysis and look at the long-term, explaining the reality of the situation. The Assad regime will eventually collapse, but how it collapses and who brings the regime down is as important as the downfall of the regime itself. In Libya we see the consequences of regime change achieved with the aid of the imperialists – chaos and confusion and the imperialists still manipulating from outside. The problems of the Libyan working people have not been solved; on the contrary they are getting worse. The same will apply to Syria if Assad is overthrown by militias that are aided and backed by the reactionary Gulf States and by the western imperialists.
Nonetheless, eventually the situation will be stabilised and the workers will find their feet. They will begin to organise; trade union organisations will be created by the workers as they move to defend their interests. Eventually the labour movement will emerge as a force as it dawns on the masses that the downfall of the Assad in and of itself will not have solved anything fundamental. Therefore what the most advanced workers and youth must do is prepare for the future in creating a Syrian Marxist opposition. Such an opposition would have a big role to play in the future.
The Arab revolution will be a long drawn out process, with periods of mass mobilisations and surges to the left, followed by periods of temporary lull, when reaction will seem stronger. But the revolution will move forward in one way or another. The reason for that is that there is no solution under capitalism to the fundamental problems such as unemployment, low wages, etc.
The revolution is already moving onto a higher plane in Tunisia and Egypt and it will inevitably spread to other countries. Iraq will be affected; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States will also be affected. All the countries in the region will be affected at some point. The policy of divide and rule applied by western imperialists, by Iran, the Gulf States, etc., dividing society along religious and ethnic sectarian lines throughout the region is an attempt to cut across the class issues. For a period this can work, but eventually the underlying class issues will come to the surface.
Kuwait and Bahrain
Look at Kuwait, where we have seen the biggest demonstrations in history, the 150,000 on the march in October, a march “for dignity”. This was enormous if we consider that Kuwait only has 1.5 million citizens (plus three million immigrants). The movement began as a mild reformist, democratic movement. But it was repressed by the state brutally; activists were rounded up, etc. Thus they are rapidly having to come to terms with the real character of the state.
We see how even a movement which starts out with democratic demands, inevitably leads to class conflict and the need for socialist revolution. We have seen various efforts to buy off the movement, but they cannot bury the revolution. Brutality will only unleash even more anger of the masses. No state can rely solely on its armed security apparatus to survive; they must also provide a minimum of decent living conditions. The Mubarak regime was a clear example of this.
The revolutionary movement in Bahrain is also significant. We saw 100,000 marching in November. In Oman also we have seen a movement. The response of the regime was harsh repression combined with some important concessions.
After Egypt, Iran is another key country in the region, both in terms of overall size and in the strength of its proletariat. We have analyzed the Iranian revolution in the past, following its ebbs and flows. At the moment it is clearly at an ebb, although we have the signs of another wave of revolution.
The economic situation in the country has worsened in the last period and new explosions being prepared. Inflation stands at 26% officially. Industrial production is collapsing. The middle class is bankrupt. Millions of workers are not being paid their wages and class struggle is back on the agenda.
The people at the top of the regime are very worried. The chief of police in Tehran last year even went so far as to ask the media not to show chicken on TV! The reason for this is that chicken has become a luxury good, as it is so expensive, and that for ordinary people to see it on TV could inflame the masses to "take their knives and take their due from the rich." He explained that it could so inflame people that it could lead to another revolution.
The Revolutionary Guards have gone weeks at a time without pay - not a good situation for the regime. We have already seen spontaneous uprisings against the high price of chicken, and of food generally. Factory workers have been organising campaigns against high prices and low wages, demonstrating in front of, and even entering, parliament to complain.
There is an open conflict at the top of the regime. Khamenei blames Ahmedinajad and calls for the end of printing money to curb inflation. Ahmedinajad blames Khamenei for "creating trouble with the West" and wants to print more money as the solution.
In fact, the money supply has risen 7 times in the last 6 years! This is "Quantitative easing" on a grand scale! But he uses it in a populist manner. While he cuts subsidies at the same time he hands out to every Iranian the equivalent of $40 a month. In Tehran that doesn’t amount to much, but in the small villages in the rural areas, it amounts to quite a lot. It is a measure he is using to broaden his base of support in preparation for the forthcoming elections.
The rift between these two camps within the regime is widening by the day. There is constant news about cases of corruption, with arrests at the top. Revolutionary developments are being prepared in Iran. This could, however, be temporarily cut across by a war if there were an attack on Iran, either by Israel or US imperialism. However, such a move would only serve to further destabilise the whole region, as an open military attack on Iran would mean the closing of the Strait of Hormuz (through which 40% of world oil passes) and this would have worldwide consequences for the economy.
All this explains why although there has been much talk of bombing Iran the western imperialists are holding back for fear of the consequences. The same applies to Israel, which has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran, but so far has been held back from doing so. But the situation is so unstable and full of contradictions, with growing social, political and economic turmoil, that an attack cannot be ruled out.
Israel and Palestine
The Palestinians are further away from achieving self-determination than 50 years ago. The "two state solution" has been an abject failure. The so-called "armed struggle" – in reality individual terrorism – has also proven to be a dead end for the Palestinian masses. There is no solution possible within the limits of the present capitalist system or the present narrow borders. That may not be what people want to hear, but it is the truth.
However, this area is also affected by the Arab revolution. We have seen big movements in Gaza, in the West Bank, and within Israel itself. We saw the mass movement in Israel in August 201, with hundreds of thousands protesting for social demands, a tenth of the population on the streets. It was a magnificent movement, which saw banners of Che Guevara and slogans like "walk like an Egyptian." People carried posters of Mubarak, Netanyahu, and Ben Ali together. It clearly showed the class character and contradictions of Israeli society, with workers against the capitalists and imperialists. The movement of 2011 also found a political expression in the recent Israeli elections, with some left parties significantly increasing their vote. There was in fact a weakening of Netanyahu and a polarisation both to the left and the right. This highlights the growing class divide in Israel and is an indication of the class struggle which will inevitably erupt at some stage in the future.
Within the Palestinian population we see a parallel movement to that in the rest of the Arab world. As Fatah collaborated in administering, and de facto policing, the Palestinian population for the imperialists and in particular for Israel, the political vacuum was filled by Hamas. When Hamas emerged as a force and eventually took over the running of Gaza, there was much talk about the Islamist influence among the Palestinian population. Some on the left even saw it as a step forward!
Let us not forget that it was the Mossad itself (the Israeli secret services) that originally funded, fomented, and propped up Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, etc. in Palestine in order to cut across the rise of left currents. This was when the main enemy was seen as the PLO and Fatah. It is the same everywhere. Islamic fundamentalists were promoted in Afghanistan as a counterweight to the Soviet Union’s influence.
The idea that the fundamentalists are somehow "anti-imperialist" is absurd. The Islamic fundamentalists are utterly reactionary and play no progressive role whatsoever. This is now also being confirmed in Gaza, where Hamas is now policing the Palestinians for the Israelis, in the same way that Fatah did in the past. The U.S. are also in collusion with the fundamentalists. Islamic fundamentalism and imperialism are two sides of the same coin.
As in the case of Syria, we cannot have a sentimental approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question. For 50 years, our position that the solution to the Palestinian question lies in class struggle and the building of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East has been attacked and mocked by so many reformist and Stalinist pragmatists, but we have held firm.
We understand that the Israeli Jews fear being literally killed and destroyed by the hostile neighbouring Arab states. This is what drives them into the arms of Netanyahu and co. And so long as groups such as Hamas until recently and the PLO in the past raise the idea of driving out the Jews, rather than weakening the Zionist state, the bulk of the Jewish population is pushed into rallying around the Israeli ruling class, thus strengthening and not weakening Zionism.
Marxists are opposed to the Zionist state. It is a capitalist and imperialist exploitative state like all bourgeois states. But how does one go about bringing an end to this state? For this to be achieved Israel society must be broken down along class lines. This means winning the confidence of the Israeli working class. One of the keys to the situation is the Israeli working class.
This is why we call for one socialist Jewish-Palestinian federal state with autonomy for each group (with the right to have their own schools, use their own language, observe whichever religion they wish, etc.), with Jerusalem as the capital, and with one federal government. Within such a state there would be the free movement of people between the different areas. All this would be part of a voluntary socialist federation of the Middle East, with full rights and autonomy, the right to self-determination for all the peoples of the region based on a socialist economy. By using all the resources available within the region, within a relatively short period of time it would be possible to give jobs, decent wages, food, housing, healthcare, education, to all, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, language, etc. In the process of the revolution itself, the national issues would be clarified. Over time, on the basis of solving the basic economic and social problems, the age-old animosities and recriminations would subside.
On a capitalist basis there is no solution. Even if it were possible to achieve some form of Palestinian state under capitalism, it would not be viable economically, politically or militarily, as it would remain under the domination of Israel. Nothing would be solved within such a state for the ordinary Palestinians.
Marxists take a much broader view of questions and do not limit themselves to finding a solution within the narrow borders of single countries. As we have explained for decades, the revolutions in Egypt and Iran, two key countries in the region, will clarify issues both for the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians. Class struggle will be seen as the answer to their problems.
In this situation we see the criminal and hypocritical role of the Palestinian leaders, of both Hamas and Fatah, the Arab mullahs, sheiks, sultans, monarchs, the Arab League, etc. All of them defend capitalism; all of them foment national conflict, for they see in this a means of defending their own privileged positions.
Unity of the Arab and Israeli working class (including Israeli Arabs) is, therefore, the only way forward, in the struggle against the common enemy. The Israeli ruling class has also been working to cut across class issues in Gaza, where we see the Israeli government and Hamas leaning on each other and in fact helping each other out. When Hamas fires rockets into Israel, as it has done in the recent period, it helps the Israeli government cut across the class issues within Israel, by creating an atmosphere of a besieged country that needs to unite to defend itself. Likewise, when Israel responds to the rocket launches by heavily bombing Gaza it cuts across the radicalisation developing against Hamas among the Palestinians. In this we see how, in spite of all the rhetoric, the leaders of Hamas (and Fatah) have something in common with the Israeli bourgeoisie, fear of class struggle developing in the region.
In the Middle East we see scandalous levels of wealth among the ruling classes of this region. The super-rich live opulent lifestyles in the midst of widespread poverty and want. The ruling elites of these countries are the crudest and most disgusting of ruling elites. They will defend their material interests with everything they have at their disposal. We are seeing this in Syria and other countries, where they are using their immense wealth to promote the most reactionary and backward forces, to divert genuine revolutions down the road of bloody ethnic conflict. These people believe they are a superior breed and that they have a God-given right to rule and that the people at the bottom, the workers, the poor, the unemployed youth, are where they should be. But they are sitting on a powder keg, which is ready to explode. It is precisely the huge contrast between the lives of the super-rich and those of the mass of ordinary working people that renders the situation so explosive.
We are implacably opposed to capitalism and imperialism, and to all the local reactionary regimes in the region. We must also look at the big picture of the class forces in the region and understand that the revolution is far from over, and in countries like Egypt it is in fact reaching a higher stage.
It is a complex situation, with revolution and counterrevolution often marching together. We need a skilful application of the Marxist method to understand what is really happening, to untangle the web of confusion, to separate out the revolutionary elements from the counter-revolutionary.
In general, the perspective is an optimistic one, with growing radicalisation and with the masses learning from each experience. This creates favourable conditions for the spreading of Marxist ideas and for the building of the forces of Marxism in the region. There is no easy road to revolution - but revolution is the only road.
The Arab Revolution is one of the most important events in human history. Millions of people that were in effect slaves are moving into action. But as we explained in advance, a revolution is not a single act drama. It will and must pass through several stages. And the Egyptian proletariat is the key to the Arab Revolution.
In the first stages the masses come out onto the streets, they get a feel of their power; they feel they cannot be stopped, and that the movement they have created will always go forward. There is a feeling of “national unity”, of euphoria, in an almost carnival-like atmosphere.
However, once the dust has settled after the dictators have gone, the masses begin to realise that it's not so easy as they initially thought and that nothing fundamental has been solved. The more advanced layers realise this first, but different layers learn at different speeds.
The elections in Egypt represented the triumph of the more backward masses (rural, peasants, etc.) over the advanced layers (urban, workers, etc.). But these layers too are now learning that the Muslim Brotherhood are a fraud, as they see no improvement in their living conditions. They see that the MB are defending the same basic class interests as the Mubarak regime.
The revolution is in fact now moving to a new stage with a sharp class polarisation taking place. A reaction against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists is beginning. The Islamic parties are being unmasked by their actions. The masses are learning from experience.
Who can doubt that if a party like the Bolshevik Party were present in the situation, the Egyptian workers would be on the verge of taking power? The tragedy is that no such party exists. Therefore the process will take drawn out over a period of years.
In the past, in the period following the Second World War, the colonial revolution produced all kinds of monstrous aberrations. This was because of the delay of the revolution in Europe and North America. But now things are very different, as we see unfolding before us a process of world revolution.
We stand firmly for Trotsky's theory of the Permanent Revolution. Under conditions of imperialism, it is impossible for backward countries to solve the problems of the bourgeois democratic revolution. This has been shown to be entirely correct over the last 70 years. Formal “independence” has solved nothing. They have remained chained to imperialism through economic domination.
Now, however, the Arab Revolution is taking place in the context of a worldwide crisis of capitalism. Revolution has reached the very heart of Europe, with mass mobilisations in many countries. Revolution is on the agenda in the advanced capitalist countries. We see how the Arab Revolution has inspired the masses in the advanced capitalist countries and in turn how revolutionary developments in the advanced capitalist countries give strength to the masses in the former colonial countries.
What we are seeing is a coming together of all the threads of world revolution into one, with the crisis affecting all countries and pushing them in the same direction, towards socialist revolution