On Syria: against thinking like a state

The carnage in Syria continues. As long as the instability continues, the US and UK are going to be tempted to intervene in some way – as far as I can tell, the latest news is that Hague’s promising to send “non-lethal” aid to the rebels, an offer that they seem to be openly taking the piss out of. The Dutch anarchist communist Rooieravotr has written a good three-part guide to debates on the left about the rebels and the prospect of Western intervention. But, while Rooieravotr’s articles offer a sound, principled perspective on the issues, they fail to mention one important point: the total irrelevance of anything any of us – anarchists, communists, socialists, anti-imperialists, internationalists, whatever – have to say. We can oppose Western intervention, or we can support it, or we can remain neutral: none of those positions will have any effect on what the US and UK do.  It’s a basic point, but it can’t be repeated often enough: citizens do not get to decide what policies states, even democratic states, will choose.  For all its flaws, the movement against the invasion of Iraq was one of the biggest and most impressive mass movements of the last decade; it didn’t stop the invasion of Iraq. And on the other hand, the Kony 2012 campaign was a piece of pro-intervention propaganda much more effective and popular than anything leftist or anarchist friends of the Syrian revolt could hope to produce; but the US hasn’t sent troops in to get rid of Kony, because the Pentagon decided that a major intervention in Uganda wasn’t a good use of resources. If the Pentagon decided that having a large military presence in Uganda would be worthwhile, then troops would be sent in, regardless of what anyone felt about it.
Of course, it’s not totally impossible to stop wars. Resistance to war has sometimes been successful: the Russian Revolution, which pulled Russia out of World War I, was one of the few anti-war movements that’s managed to change the course of history, as was the incomplete revolution which ended Germany’s participation in the war. The movement against the war in Vietnam is widely mythologised, but the war itself was only ended by a complete breakdown of military discipline in the US Army. These kinds of situations are very rare. Short of that kind of total upheaval, we can’t decide what kind of foreign policy “our” state will follow.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do whatever we can to oppose military intervention. The vast majority of people who go on anti-war protests have good intentions, and shouldn’t be written off, and sometimes anti-war protests can develop in promising directions, as when dockworkers across the US struck on May Day 2008 against the war in Iraq. If we can encourage internationalist and direct action ideas among people revolted by the idea of another imperial bloodbath, and do what we can to marginalise respectable liberals and supporters of the Syrian dictatorship, then that’s better than nothing.
Anyway, although we’re a long way off being able to seriously interfere with the UK’s military capabilities, it’s a legitimate ambition for the long-term. It’s a lot less confused than the idea, expressed by Ian Bone about Libya and Pham Binh about Syria, that we should support military aid to “the good guys”. As it is, their ideas are just irrelevant; in any situation where “we”, however you want to define that idea, were powerful enough to actually be able to influence our government, we’d also be powerful enough to start recruiting international brigades to send aid to the most progressive aspects of the rebellion directly, without making demands on the state. If that prospect sounds a very long way away, that’s because it is. Perhaps aspiring politicians, who dream of running a state one day, might find dreaming up hypothetical foreign policies a good use of their time. The rest of us shouldn’t waste too much time on it.
This position of powerlessness isn’t great, but it is liberating in one way: we don’t need to be “realistic” or “pragmatic” or any of the other terms that are used to keep debate within the limits our rulers will accept. Whether we think Assad or Hague is the lesser evil, we don’t need to side with either. Since anything we can do will only have a very very minimal impact on the situation, we don’t need to drop our principles in the name of urgency; there’s no point in making cynical alliances, so we should only support forces that we actually think have the potential to make life better.
Those of us trying to build power from below should always try to do whatever we can to provide support and solidarity for movements with similar goals, including the most progressive elements of the Local Coordinating Committees in Syria. But we should also be realistic about what we can hope to achieve. Cheering up and encouraging fellow workers on a picket line, giving a landlord a bit of headache, making a minor but significant dent in a specific shop’s takings: these goals are realisable. Trying to decide what “our” government should do in Syria is not, and will not be at any point in the near future.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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2 Responses to On Syria: against thinking like a state

  1. Binh says:

    “The most important thing for the Western left to do is to forge close and enduring relationships with revolutionary Syrians living abroad by demonstrating our unequivocal support for their revolution through deeds, through joint work with their communities. … One way to begin building these relationships would be to organize forums and debates over the question of intervention with revolutionary Syrians of various shades of opinion.”

    “Here’s active support: send weapons. Raise and send money. Send cameras. Send truth-finding missions. Send (ahem) volunteers. That’s what we did in Spain in 1936, no? In addition to that, we can add: organize hacktivist collectives to keep the internet up/knock Ghadafi sites down, run livestreams on our socialist Web sites. Both of the latter did happen, but independently of the Western left.”

    These words from my prior article and the comments section demonstrate (http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=1097) that we, the left, *can* have an impact on the outcome of the revolution. Perhaps if you had dug a little deeper into the debate instead of falsely labelling my thinking as “state-like” you might have understood that my main beef with the “anti-imperialist” left in the West is its do-nothing policy.

    We don’t need to be the size of the CNT or have a left that is as big and militant as Greece’s to make links with Syrians. If we ever want to break out of our irrelevance, we should get our asses in gear and start doing some of the above because the world is not waiting for us to get our shit together. Encouraging fellow works on picket lines and giving our landlords a headache isn’t going to cut it.

    • That all sounds legitimate enough, except for the sneering at actual practical class struggle activities at the end, and with the caveat that I think we should be quite careful about which factions within the resistance are worthy of support. But anyway, raising and sending money to comrades in Syria is a long way from the logic of “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… 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… 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… 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.”
      This is clear support for US intervention dressed up as revolutionary thinking. Apart from anything else, the way you just throw around terms like “Syrians” as if all opposition to Assad can be identified with the FSA is problematic as all hell. Are you also glad Uncle Sam gave “Afghans” a whip to whip the Soviet imperialists with? The resistance in Syria is not monolithic, and US aid will strengthen the most reactionary elements within the resistance.
      Also, this: “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.” Mmmhmm. All capitalist and state-capitalist factions are our enemy, whether they hide behind the rhetoric of “national liberation” or not.

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