Editors’ Note: Below is an expanded version of a presentation which John Reimann, a socialist labor activist in the U.S. gave on November 4, 2017 in Los Angeles at a Left Coast Conference panel on solidarity with Syrian and Iranian progressives. Reimann is a retired carpenter, the former recording secretary of Carpenters Union Local 713 in Alameda County, CA. He was expelled from that union specifically for his role in the 1999 San Francisco Bay Area Carpenters’ wildcat strike. Reimann travelled to Egypt in 2011 to participate in the Arab Spring. He produces the blog, Oakland Socialist (oaklandsocialist.com). He is also on the editorial board of The North Star (thenorthstar.info).
November 12, 2017
Nowhere in the world is the crisis of capitalism – as well as the crisis of the working class – felt more intensely than in Syria. That crisis is felt all the way around the world, including in the United States, where it actually played a role in electing the most reactionary president this country has seen at least since the US Civil War. Therefore, the working class movement – no less socialists within that movement – cannot ignore that crisis in Syria. We must find a way to relate to the struggle against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State and similar forces. However, in order to do so, we have to start by understanding the state of affairs – the objective situation – in which we are working here.
Crisis of both US capitalist and working class
The mainstream of the US capitalist class has largely lost control over its own presidency. This represents the greatest crisis in US capitalism in many, many decades. However, we also have to recognize that the US working class is also in crisis: Now, when it is needed more than ever, the US working class barely even exists as an independent, cohesive force in society. Confusion reigns. That is expressed, for example, by the fact that it is estimated that about 30% of union members voted for Trump. Membership participation in the unions – the only mass organizations of the US working class – is at an extremely low level and alienation from the unions is massive. The union leadership is closer to the employers than ever since the pre-1930s, as expressed by one local union leader here in Oakland who openly said that we have no choice but to remain as “slaves to the financiers”. A local leader of the laborers’ union even said that he could not say his union would oppose building Trump’s wall on the border with Mexico since it means jobs for his members. And this was a Latino leader in a largely Latino union local!
This confusion within the US working class is part of the basis for the confusion within the US socialist movement. The great majority of that movement has adapted to the low level of activity within the unions by turning towards the “progressive” union bureaucrats instead of addressing the membership, even if that membership is not active yet. In doing so, they have lost sight of the entire premise for their own existence: That the liberation of the working class is the task of that class itself. Or, put another way, that the working class is the subject, not the object, of history.
Arab Spring and Global Rebellion Against Capitalist Attacks
Nowhere has recent history seen the potential of the working class more than in the Arab Spring, especially in Syria. There, they rose up against one of the most brutal dictatorships, undeterred by the bullets, the beatings and torture. They even started down the road towards building an alternative to Assad’s capitalist state through the building of the Local Coordinating Committees. That heroism had a global effect; it was not a coincidence that within months it was followed by the Occupy movement here in the United States.
These two movements were part of a global rebellion that followed the economic crisis of 2007/2008. In that period, there was also the strike wave in South Africa, especially among the miners; a strike wave in China, and a couple of years later the election of Syriza in Greece. All of these were rebellions against the attacks of capitalism. However, it seems that the overwhelming majority saw their movements as a fight against the attacks themselves; that they were not fully conscious that what they were dealing with – neoliberal economic attacks and political repression – were simply symptoms of a system in crisis; that the real issue was capitalism itself. Thus, there was a tendency to deal with the symptoms more than the disease itself.
Foreign Policy: An Extension of Domestic Policy
As they say, foreign policy is simply the extension of domestic policy, and that is just as true for socialists as it is for capitalists. The confusion of much of the US socialist movement regarding the role of the US working class is even greater when it comes to international issues, and none more so than the situation in Syria. A whole series of left journalists, including Robert Fisk, Chris Hedges, Glen Greenwald and Noam Chomsky have to one degree or another swallowed the narrative that what is happening in Syria is a repeat of US imperialism’s drive for “regime change” in Iraq. It’s as if they aren’t even reading the news. They don’t see that the overwhelming majority of the intervention of US capitalism has been to shore up the Assad regime.
If anybody has any doubt, they should read the joint statement that Presidents Trump and Putin issued on Nov. 11 after meeting together. In it they “expressed their satisfaction with successful U.S.-Russia enhanced de-confliction efforts.” They “agreed to maintain open military channels of communication between military professionals.” They both agreed that the struggle was against the Islamic State, and the Islamic State alone.
This confusion (at best) leads to all sorts of hypocrisy. Take, for example, the US bombing of Assad’s Shayrat air base, from which Assad flew his planes to drop sarin gas on Khan Sheikhoun. This attack was really for show. They let the Assad regime know about the attack in advance (through warning Assad’s sponsor, the Putin regime). Within 24 hours the air base was back in operation. Of course, the US workers movement, no less socialists, should oppose US military attacks anywhere in the world, including this one. But why was it that so many socialist groups fiercely denounced this attack when they ignored the US bombing of a mosque in Syria just a few weeks earlier? In that attack, after all, some 40 men, women and children were killed by US bombs. Why did so many socialists ignore that attack? And why is it that now these same “socialists” are totally silent about US bombings/war crimes in Raqqa and in Mosul? The only explanation is that those attacks have been carried out in support of the Assad regime and its Russian sponsors.
These same “socialists” are playing into the narrative that Arab people and Muslim people in general are incapable of fighting back, that they are incapable of doing anything more than being the helpless agents of the fascist Islamic State.
This cultural chauvinism of these “socialists” blinds them to such events as the recent “days of rage” in Syria where, even now, in the midst of all this horror, thousands of Syrians came out to protest against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State. In falling prey to this cultural chauvinism, “socialists” in the US make it impossible to actually learn from the Arab Spring.
Local Coordinating Committees
First and foremost is the question of what was the potential for the Local Coordinating Committees? The only way to really answer that question is through conversation with the Syrian revolutionaries who built them – a conversation that would be possible not only by relating to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are now spread throughout the world, but also through the internet. But it is impossible if we have any hint of support for Assad and his sponsors. How could those revolutionaries possibly trust people with that position? And how could those who either overtly or covertly support Assad & Co. even pretend to deal with the Syrian revolutionaries in not only a supportive but even in a respectful way? How could such a dialog be possible with those in the United States and Europe who ignore the crimes against humanity of which Assad & Co. are guilty – the bombings of hospitals, residential neighborhoods and public markets, the use of sarin gas, the mass torture and mass murder and the beginnings of ethnic cleansing?
How can we develop a discussion around the role of the working class in history – not in the abstract but concretely, in relation to the potential of the LCC’s – if we ignore or even justify what is being done by enemies of the working class such as Assad, Putin and Rouhani?
War in new stage?
Meanwhile, with the military defeat of the Islamic State, it seems the war may be entering a new stage. There are reports that the Iranian regime is planning to build a military base in Syria and also is now planning to attack the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria. Once again, the Syrian people will be made to pay the price for this in terms of new bombings of their homes and neighborhoods. While there may be differences within the US capitalist class on the best strategy to pursue regarding their interests in Syria, on one thing they are all united (as are the other imperialist powers): That the Syrian people must be made to pay the price for this war. That they will pay the price in more hunger, more forced displacement, more bloodshed.
As the representatives of all the wings of the US capitalist class, the Democrats and the Republicans have no qualms about this. They include the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, first and foremost Tulsi Gabbard and her allies.
Russian Revolution Centennial
The world just passed the centennial of the Russian Revolution. That revolution shook the entire world and transformed it for good, even though it ultimately degenerated. It should serve not only as an inspiration, but also for the tremendous lessons it can teach, even today 100 years later. In a similar way, the Arab Spring was a beacon of hope for a short time. And there is a connection between these two revolutions; there are similar lessons to be learned from them.
For the moment, it seems that the Syrian revolution is in retreat. From here, some 7,000 miles away, it’s impossible to really know what remains of it. But if there is just one person – only one – in all of Syria who still maintains the original goals of the Arab Spring, then it is that one individual that socialists should support, and in doing so together learn the lessons of this heroic struggle.
That is an essential element in building a socialist movement that is truly independent of all wings of the US capitalist class and their hangers-on, a movement with real roots in the US working class.
More concretely, maybe socialists can start to build a campaign to support our comrades in that part of the world by taking up some specific cases of political prisoners in Syria and in Iran. That would have the benefit of helping build solidarity between the working class struggles in those two countries. I think that is an idea that we should seriously consider.
November 12, 2017