Growing out of the discussion on Syria in a previous thread, one fellow partisan of the Syrian revolution, using the name Voltairepaine, made series of criticisms of the perspective put forward in my article Imperialist Hands off the Syrian revolution. When composing the reply, I realised that to do the issues justice would require more than just another comment.
For those interested in following the debate, Voltairepaine’s full comment is here.
“Your definition of imperialism is ‘the West’.”
No, imperialism is the form of advanced capitalism that dominates the world today. The productive forces that it gives rise to are international in their social significance, and have a degree of social power that demands that they be subordinated to democratic social control, again on an international level. But in fact they are both largely privately owned and depend on particular very powerful nation states to defend the interests of the ruling classes that command these resources. That is, to defend their predatory interests against political developments in those countries which are its victims, which threaten its interests.
In that regard, Russia as I pointed out is hardly a world player, having a smaller GDP than India. China on the other hand has struggled very hard and by virtue of its natural resources and enormous population together with an state-owned economic system that in some ways has substituted quite effectively for its lack of a cohesive capitalist class (and more recently has been instrumental in developing such a class), appears to be on the verge of joining that exclusive club. But it is not there yet.
Voltairepaine continues his criticism with the following substantial point about Hizbullah and Lebanon:
“Hezbollah was an Iranian project. Funds, arms and training from Iran’s revolutionary Guard corps filtered through to Lebanese Shiaa militants. It was a resistance to an extended Israeli occupation, yes, but equally, it was the empowerment of the Shiaa community and their status as a sect in Lebanon, backed by ‘Al Fakih’ (the Shiaa supreme leader and direct representative of God on earth). Hezbollah was a materialization of Ayatollah Khomeini’s dreams of exporting the Islamic Revolution. On a more grounded level, it was about expanding the re-born Shiaa empire. Lebanese Hezbollah members will tell you this themselves. They’re proud to be part of it. Khomeini’s war with Iraq was also about exporting the Islamic revolution. It failed back then, but Iran’s aims haven’t changed today. This spiritual concept of ‘exporting revolution’ in reality amounts to Iranian military expansion and the securing of a regional status-quo that is protecting the Assad regime.”
But what Voltairepaine describes here could be said about every confessional community that has fought in Lebanon both in and since the civil war in the 1970s. Hizbullah only appears special because of its ideological inspiration by the Iranian Shiite revolution, which no one denies by the way. Its motive for supporting the Syrian regime against the uprising, however, is not that it is a tool of ‘Iranian imperialism’, but simply that it fears the Sunni majority in Syria gaining effective power will marginalise it in the region. Hamas, which has also received considerable aid from Iran, but is itself Sunni, has abandoned the Syrian regime precisely because the Syrian opposition reflects the Sunni majority. These are autonomous forces with their own interests, who make alliances according to perceived interests that can change, not tools of foreign powers. Ultimately, ‘exporting revolution’ does not work, as the history of communism also shows. For a mass movement to arise, it has to base itself on real support among the people of the country it is based in. If that is not there, it will simply fail. Hizb’s success is due to indigenous factors that made its pro-Iran ideology appealing to a lot of Lebanese Shia, not an Iranian plot.
Voltairepaine asks: Do I support human rights? Yes, but I don’t like that term because it implies that all human beings have common interests. I am opposed to degrading or inhuman treatment of any human being, even one who has committed monstrous crimes, who should be dealt with by a proper judicial process whenever possible.
But I would also note that the wealth and economic power of the West gives its population a degree of privilege which the West’s exploitative economic relations with many backward countries undermines for the populations of those countries.
One privilege that we enjoy in the West is a degree of formal democracy and some democratic freedoms. This has been won in general through struggle, though its longeivity, which cannot be taken for granted, is a result of relative affluence. But we still live in a class divided society where the real choices people are offered are massively constrained by class power, where democracy is institutionally corrupted by the economic power of the capitalist ruling class.
Thus we get the situation where all the capitalist parties are seen by the population as being the same, all tools of big capital, who all act the same way in power no matter what they say beforehand, and as a result, increasingly people do not see any point in voting. But that is in a society that has enormous wealth.
Even in advanced countries, democratic gains are insecure, as the 1930s showed. But in backward capitalist countries, this is much more frequently true. Such gains even where they exist are much more liable to be overthrown in the more frequent periods of social instability. The ruling class do not feel secure enough to allow even a properly formal democracy. That is main cause of bourgeois despotisms such as exist in Africa, Asia, Latin America etc. They are actually a sign of capitalism’s weakness, not its strength.
When despotic regimes become the norm, as they have in recent decades in the Arab world, you get conflicts between them. Some such regimes will even get into sustained conflicts with the imperialists, demanding a better place in the international pecking order. Some may even make alliances with ‘enemy’ states such as the USSR or ‘Red’ China (as was) to put pressure on the imperialists for concessions.
In such situations, the imperialists begin loudly talking about ‘human rights’ for those suffering under such regimes, which is rather odd because they never showed any sign of caring about such rights before. What is worse about such talk is that it is their economic exploitation and their system in general that creates the conditions for despotism.
So the answer is, yes, ‘old fashioned’ socialists (as Voltairepaine calls me and others), do support democratic rights, but don’t endorse the concept behind the talk of ‘human rights’ that comes out of the mouths of imperialism and such bodies as the NED, because their real aim is to promote economic exploitation that in fact undermines democratic rights.
Voltairepaine’s talk of socialism being ‘old fashioned’ is a little ironic given his choice of internet name. Voltaire and Tom Paine were admirable figures in the Enlightenment and the era of the great bourgeois revolutions, whose ideas were furnished on a completely different social and economic basis to today. These revolutionary bourgeois figures fought to overthrow the old feudal social order that preceded capitalism and replace it with ‘democracy’ which in their minds was synonymous with the capitalism of free competition, where the enlightened bourgeoisie supposedly had a vested interest in the free play of ideas, political freedom and human rights. That however proved to be something of an idealistic view even in its day, as early capitalism was also tainted with such things as slavery and the birth of racism, as well as rampant and inhuman forms of exploitation as is well known to have been commonplace in England in the 19th Century.
But at least in those days sections of the bourgeoisie did lead some actual revolutionary struggles. It really is naïve in the extreme to believe that today’s US and British ruling classes have anything in common with them. The entire neo-liberal policy throughout the last several decades has been about subordinating all kinds of politics to the dictates of the market. If democracy gets in the way of the market, democracy has to go.
One earlier example of the incompatibility of democracy with neo- liberalism was the Pinochet coup in Chile, where an elected social-democratic government was brutally overthrown after a working class upsurge, in order to subsequently try out economic ‘shock treatment’ on a powerless population. This provided the inspiration and model for further experiments in neo-liberalism, i.e., subordinating every element of society, including ‘democracy’ to the market. The experiement of Pinochet’s Chile was then applied to Britain and the United States in the 1980s, this bourgeois programme being widely exported as it achieved hegemony in the 1980s and 1990s. In the former Soviet bloc, it replaced Stalinist despotism with a facade of democracy where the real power lies with cliques of corrupt oligarchs – which is the basis for the ‘despotism’ that Voltairepaine deplores in Russia.
The systematic imposition of ‘structural adjustment programmes’ on third world governments in the name of the ‘market’ and democracy has led to a situation where throughout Africa and Asia, many governments again simply act as tools of the international financial institutions in imposing privatisations, the destruction of social programmes such as social health care, all in the name of the market and democracy. In Latin America, this has led to a economic collapse, most notably in Argentina a decade, leading to a major backlash reflected in the coming to power of aberrant bourgeois governments hostile to the main elements of neo-liberal policy. But this is something that the high priests of neo-liberal ‘democracy’ in the West regard as anathema, something to be rolled back by whatever means are available when the opportunity arises. Hence the imperialist propaganda campaign against Hugo Chavez’ elected government in Venezuela.
Then there is the recent situation with the Euro, where unelected governments of technocratic bankers have been imposed in Greece and Italy, to make the population pay for a capitalist economic crisis that is more than anything else the result of untrammelled neo-liberalism. For the imperialists, the solution to the failings of neo-liberalism is even more neo-liberalism, with even formal democracy increasingly thrown overboard.
The fact is that capitalism is no longer a system built on free competition and democracy, or anything like it, as Voltaire and Paine no doubt believed it would become. It is rather a system based on monopoly exploitation, and the subordination of politics, including any form of putative ‘democracy’ to monopoly exploitation.
That the imperialists are hostile to the Ba’athist regime in Syria does not make them friends of democratic rights for the masses of the people of Syria or anywhere else in the Arab world. Indeed, their hostility to Assad is not on democratic grounds at all, but in part because the relatively statified economy in Syria is something they would like to privatise as they have done in many other countries.
Not that that is any reason to support Assad’s regime against its own people as the various dead-head Stalinists do, but it is grounds to warn militants and supporters of the Arab spring against being seduced by siren voices of neo-liberal imperialist politicians who are also enemies of democracy, genuine freedom and self-determination for the Arab masses.
To achieve genuine democracy today, you cannot echo the very outdated political programmes of the 18th century bourgeois revolutionaries like Voltaire and Paine. It is comprehensible why partisans of the Arab spring might be inclined to do that, but they are making a strategic error if they do. To achieve democracy today, you have to attack capitalist exploitation and capitalism itself.
How to do this is something that is still to be thrashed out by a renewed revolutionary socialist left. There are some important unresolved questions from the experience of the Russian revolution, which have not as yet been properly addressed by the left. For instance about how to implement attacks on capitalist power in developing countries in alliance with the working class in the advanced/ imperialist countries while avoiding some of the pitfalls experienced in Russia as a result of the revolution becoming isolated in a very backward country. Some elements of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, for instance, need to be revisited and critically re-evaluated in this regard, which is something I intend to write about in due course.