Richard Seymour: Hallucinating revolutions, pacifying resistance

While it may stir hopes that a popular rebellion is sweeping away oppression, the Syrian revolt, whatever its origins and proclamations, is hardly that. Its likely destination is a new US client regime in Damascus; its probable outcome the dismantling of what’s left of Syrian socialism, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism. Would that it were all that romantic leftists fervently wish it to be, but a sober look at the rebellion, and recent history, strongly points in another direction.

Following blogger and author Richard Seymour, the views of many leftist who side with the rebels can be summarized as follows:

• All genuine popular liberation movements should be supported.
• The Syrian revolt is a genuine popular liberation movement.
• Western countries are intervening to tilt the balance in favour of an outcome they want.
• There is no sign they can achieve this.

Since few would disagree with the first point, we can move quickly to the second. Is the Syrian revolt “genuine” and is it “popular”?

If by genuine we mean the revolt is intended to advance popular interests, and that it doesn’t represent the pursuit of narrow interests under the guise of achieving popular goals, then the answer must surely be that the rebel movement’s genuineness depends on what section of it we’re talking about.

It’s clear that the aim of exiles in key leadership positions within the Syrian National Council is to turn Syria into a US client regime. The Muslim Brotherhood’s interests are undoubtedly sectarian, as are those of al Qaeda, a recent addition to the rebellion. Unless we pretend these groups are not part of the rebel movement, it cannot be said to be genuine in all its parts. To be sure, some parts of it are, but other parts—and very important ones—aren’t.

Is the rebel movement “popular”?

We don’t know exactly how much support the rebels have, or how much the government has. But we do know that each side appears to be able to count on the backing of significant parts of the Syrian population—the rebels on Sunnis (though less so the Sunni merchant class); the government on religious minorities. If the rebels represent a popular movement, then, inasmuch as the definition of “popular” depends on having the support of a significant part of the population, the forces arrayed against the rebellion are popular as well.

But should a rebel movement be supported simply because it’s popular? By definition, fascist regimes are based on mass support (without it, they’re merely authoritarian.) Most Democratic Party voters—as well as Republican Party ones—are part of the 99 percent. Both parties are popularly supported. Does that mean leftists ought to support them too? The Nazis too had a vaguely progressive section—that part on which the “socialist” in National Socialist German Workers’ Party turned. But its presence didn’t make the Nazis a popular movement for socialism or any less of a tool of capitalist-imperialist interests.

The counter argument here is that none of these popularly supported parties of the right are “genuinely” popular. (While popularly supported, they don’t advance popular goals.) But that gets us back to the question of whether the Syrian rebel movement is homogenous, united in aiming to oust the Assad government for a common purpose. Clearly, it is not.

On the other hand, we might say that the Syrian state isn’t popular, in the sense of its being said to represent narrow class interests, while the rebel movement seeks to overthrow those interests, and therefore is popular by definition. But there’s no evidence that any significant part of the Syrian rebellion is inspired by class interests, except perhaps key parts of the SNC, whose class interests align with those of the banks, corporations and wealthy investors who dominate the US state, media and economy. At best, parts of the rebel movement seek a liberal democracy, which would rapidly dismantle the remaining socialist elements of the Syrian economy. To be sure, Syria has never been socialist in the manner Trotsky’s followers favour—and a number of leftists on the side of the rebels, including Seymour, who Wikipedia notes is a member of the Socialist Workers Party— are devotees of the Russian revolutionary. But a liberal democracy would be even further from their ideal.

Seymour’s third point is that Western countries are intervening to tilt the balance in favour of an outcome they want. Since there’s no secret about this, we can move to point 4.

The fourth point is that there is no sign the West can hijack the rebel movement. There is an obvious objection to this: Were there a good chance Western governments couldn’t tip the outcome in their favour, they would be energetically opposing the rebellion, not ardently supporting it. Seymour’s point may be based, apart from wishful thinking, on the reality that there are large parts of the rebel movement that Washington does not trust, and therefore is reluctant to assist. The CIA’s role—at least that which is admitted to—has been to funnel Saudi- and Qatari-provided arms to the groups Washington wants to come out on top, and away from those it wants to keep from power. But therein lies the reason the United States will assuredly hijack the rebel movement. It will channel military, diplomatic, political, and ideological support to those parts of it that can be trusted to cater to US interests, and this overwhelming support will allow pro-imperialist elements, in time, to dominate the rebellion, if they don’t already. To think otherwise, is to ignore what happens time and again.

A brief example. In the summer of 1982 the Marxian economist Paul Sweezy hailed the rise of Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement as “heartening proof of the ability of the working class….to lead humanity into a socialist future.” [1] Maybe when you’ve lived on a starvation diet for years a discarded four-day old hamburger plucked from a McDonald’s dumpster starts to look like a steak dinner. Solidarity too was termed a genuine popular liberation movement, but it, like so many others so characterized, led, not forward, but backward. We know now that Solidarity’s high-profile supporters—The Wall Street Journal, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—had a better idea of what Solidarity was all about than Sweezy did—to say nothing of much of the anti-Communist left. Those who didn’t have their heads stuck in a utopian cloud saw clearly enough that Solidarity would not lead to “genuine” socialism, but to the breakdown of the Polish state, chaos in the Warsaw Pact, and a step along the road to rolling back Communism; which is what happened, and the decades since have been marked by the deepest reaction. Henry Kissinger recently concluded correctly that the Syrian rebellion “will have to be judged by its destination, not its origin; its outcome, not its proclamations.” Judging Solidarity by its destination and outcomes, we can hardly be optimistic about the Syrian rebellion, nor parts of the left grasping its probable destination.

The reply to this might be, “Well, at least we should support the genuinely popular elements of the rebel movement.” Seymour wants us to do this by seeing to it that arms flow freely to the rebels, as Gilbert Achcar (another follower of Trotsky’s thought), wanted to do with the Libyan rebels. This naively ignores who’s providing the arms, who they’re provided to, and what’s likely to be expected of the recipients in return. The main weapons suppliers, the Saudi and Qatari tyrannies—and who could ask for more convincing supporters of a genuine popular liberation movement?—are not channelling arms to genuine popular liberation groups. Instead, it seems very likely that military support is being heaped upon those sections of the rebellion that are amenable to a post-conflict working arrangement with US-allies Turkey, Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council and to settling in comfortably to a subordinate role to Washington. The idea behind arms flowing freely to “genuinely popular” liberation forces is that Washington backs leftists while the Saudi and Qatari tyrannies arm democrats. The naivety is breathtaking—on par with Sweezy’s embracing Solidarity as heartening proof of an imminent socialist future.

There’s more than a soupcon of absurdity in any discussion among Western leftists of “supporting” the Syrian rebels, since support amounts to nothing more than a rhetorical endorsement without any practical, real-word, consequences. It’s not as if an International Brigade is being assembled (backed by what? Saudi and Qatari money) that fervent anti-Assad leftists of the West can join to show real, meaningful support. Except weren’t the last International Brigades fighting against rebels? And come to think of it, aren’t the Saudis and Qataris backing an international volunteer brigade…of jihadis? If supporting Syria’s rebels meant anything at all, Western leftists would be making their way to Turkish border towns to offer their services to the Free Syrian Army, or the local CIA outfit attached to it. Perhaps a collection can be taken up to raise airfare for Seymour to travel to the nearest FSA recruiting center to put real meat behind his support for Syria’s “genuine popular liberation” movement.

Despite its surface appearance of empty clap-trap, Seymour’s position does have a practical, real-world aim—to neutralize opposition in the West to Western intervention on the side of the rebels by the people who are most likely to mount it—the Western left. Once you accept the argument that the rebels are a genuinely popular liberation movement and that massive outside intervention by imperialist powers won’t tilt the outcome of the rebellion in their favour, then all that’s left to do—as a way of showing solidarity with the rebels—is to raise not a single objection to their receiving aid from your own government. Which means that Seymour, who fancies himself a champion of popular causes against powerful conservative forces, may, on the contrary, be a pacifier of dissent against the most reactionary force around—US-led imperialism.

1. Paul M. Sweezy, “Response to The Line of March Symposium,” Line of March, #12, September/October 1982, 119-122.

18 thoughts on “Richard Seymour: Hallucinating revolutions, pacifying resistance

  1. thanks for your perfect articles – this blog is very nice finding!

    only idiots without any piece of brain in their heads can think that what is called “arab spring” is popular uprising. only those without any knowledge of history, without memory or education can think that those hypocritical jihadis are revolutionaries with noble purposes. but especially this type of “leftists” like so much cartoonish ows movement, pussy riot stupidity, soros funds behind otpor logo and many more absurdities.

    arent they able to distinguish between che and belhadj?

    my mom knew some afghan communists back in 80ies – they were young, smart, enthusiastic men, educating here to help their country – most of them probably dead now.

  2. Absent the “surface appearance” qualification, I agree wholeheartedly with your concluding paragraph.

    Joe Emersberger’s revelation that Mr Seymour is a regular op-ed contributor to the UK Guardian hardly came as a surprise – given the Guardian’s schizophrenic approach to juggle its flagging reputation for reliable truthseeking against an apparent duty to fill its pages with unconvincing propaganda. The Guardian made a halfhearted attempt to salvage some credibility on July 12th when it published a painstakingly researched article by Charlie Skelton in Comment is Free, headlined:

    The Syrian opposition: Who’s doing the talking?
    The media have been too passive when it comes to Syrian opposition sources, without scrutinising their backgrounds and their political connections. Time for a closer look

    On July 13 Comment is Free published a circuitous and fact-free smear of Skelton, penned by Julian Borger, headlined:
    US manipulation of news from Syria is a red herring
    The big picture is clear. A slaughter is under way in Syria, largely carried out by government forces and militias

    Mr Borger’s version of the facts didn’t resonate with many readers or commenters and the Guardian’s brief excursion into the quest for truth went underwater when Mr Skelton’s right of reply was consigned to the comments section as replies made under the handle “MynameisCharlie” below Mr Borger’s article.

    The first appeared on Page 2 of the comments on 13 July 2012 11:18pm.

    A second appeared on Page 6 on 14 July 2012 5:58pm.

    I hope it’s not superfluous to point out that there is a significant difference between the US campaign to make Syria ungovernable and the campaigns against Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other weak, and weakened, states. That difference is the realisation by Russia and China that they can no longer afford to sit on their hands and ponificate from the sidelines. No matter how powerful the US military is perceived by itself and others to be, Russia and China have the ability to respond in kind to any hostile act against them.

  3. Most of these Anglo-American “leftists” in general are one thing at base: the left wing of Anglo-American imperialism.

    Despite all their “antiwar” or “anti-imperialist’ propaganda rhetoric, their underlying political agenda is to cover for the wars of aggression and terrorism committed by America and its allies like Britain, France, and the “democratic” West in general.

    The phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing” comes to mind with these fake antiwar activists–especially in the Anglo imperialist nations.

  4. Well first he means I should learn to spell his name properly “Gilles Deleuze”.

    He was talking about “being” or “becoming” left as a point of perception more than a political platform. That the concept of “majority” is a meaningless way to determine political identity since there is no such thing as a majority, or that what makes up a majority can always be defined randomly. Here you can see him speak about it yourself, with english subs:

  5. “But therein lies the reason the United States will assuredly hijack the rebel movement. ”

    Hijack the rebel movement? NO. They created it.:

    From an April 2011 Washington Post front page article story entitled
    ‘“U.S. Provides Secret Backing to Syrian Opposition”:

    “The State Department has secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups
    and related projects . . . The U.S. money for Syrian opposition
    figures began flowing under President George W. Bush . . in
    2005. The financial backing has continued under President Obama . . .)


    And from a Feb. 2012 NY Times story:

    “But as representatives of 60 countries and international organizations converged on Tunisia on Friday in search of a strategy . . . The need to build a united opposition will be the focus of intense discussions at what has been billed as the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Syria. Fostering some semblance of a unified protest movement, possibly under the umbrella of an exile alliance called the Syrian National Council, will be a theme hovering in the background. . . “They will have a seat at the table as a representative of the Syrian people,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And we think it’s important to have Syrians represented. And the consensus opinion by the Arab League and all the others who are working and planning this conference is that the S.N.C. is a credible representative.”

    Source: After a Year, Deep Divisions Hobble Syria’s Opposition

  6. .Gday Carl.There is no ”honourable exception” to trotskyisms stupidity and anti communism.I suggest you read some of the works of Harpal Brar for some enlightenment on Trotskyism.

  7. even NT calls them ‘islamic extremists'(which is what they are) and admits many arent even syrian
    ‘Two foreign journalists captured by Islamic extremists in Syria and held for a week were rescued by Syrian opposition fighters, one of them said on Friday…Mr. Oerlemans said their captors apparently included no Syrian fighters, but instead jihadists from Bangladesh, Britain, Chechnya and Pakistan…“They were only foreign jihadis; I don’t think there was one Syrian among them,” Mr. Oerlemans said…“They were definitely quite extreme in their religious beliefs,” he said. “All day we were spoken to about the Koran and how they would bring Shariah law to Syria. I don’t think they were Al Qaeda; they seemed too amateurish for that. They said, ‘We’re not Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda is down the road.’”…’

    so UK is now harboring islamic terrorists…some are also Chechnya.

    according to the Bush Doctrine the UK is now a base of terrorism and can be attacked by US forces:

  8. Spot on! As we try to explain to some of our anarchist comrades, all states are not created equal. Clearly, the Assad regime is not a proponent of socialism in the full sense of the word, but the U.S. is the worst of the worst – the greatest threat to freedom and the ultimate survival of the human race! Any “Leftists” who would support U.S./NATO intervention in Syria is at best a fool and at worst a despicable reactionary dressed in sheep’s clothing.

  9. I always felt that the Deluze definition of what/who is “left” is that a left-ist is someone who is for the minority. Since there is no such thing as “majority” that is the concept behind the “populist” and fascist movements, or for the republican party with Nixon’s “silent majority”.
    We are all the minority, in Deluze’s definition.

    I think using the description “popular” for political movements can/should have a negative conotation.

    Interestingly, you report that the Assad government enjoys the support of the religious miniorities, which would speak in the government’s favour.

  10. Ironically, Seymour’s position on Syria is the same as the position of Pro War Leftists such as Christopher Hitchens who supported the Iraq War, who Seymour criticized in his book The Liberal Defence of Murder.

  11. Stephen,
    I certainly agree with your essential claim. In fact, it seems almost incomprehensible that any left-wing or anti-inperialis person could support the Syrian rebels.
    I wonder if you might be over-estimating the degree to which the rebels could be considered popular. Every ay there appears more evidence that al Queda were in this from the beginning. Crudely sectarian slogans were chanted by the rebels at an early point. Some of the opposition supported Assad’s reforms. There has never been a popular or even populist manifesto promulgated by the rebels (which places the a rung below the Lech Walesa crowd). It seems to me to patently obvious that victory by the rebels would entail a struggle between the would-be collaborators with West, on one hand, and the Muslim extremists, on the other.
    What does not seem to me to be obvious is that the rebels will win.
    Thanks for the essay.

  12. ‘We don’t know exactly how much support the rebels have, or how much the government has’

    oh yes we do:
    rally ummayad square 2011

    rally alleppo university 2012

    twitter report: ‘Women in Aleppo are yelling from their windows to the Syrian Military to show them where the FSA/rebels/terrorists are hiding’

    Homs students and teachers thank soldiers

    Assad has miles of support…FSA hgas so little it has to import troops

    NOW can anyone show me where the FSA has this sort of support in syria? seymour should be ashamed of himself…an intellectual unable to think thru this issue!

  13. syria s saudi:
    ‘May God bless our Olympic team in London. They have arrived with their head held high, their flags raised and their loyalty clear!! These are the Syrian WOMEN who are free to do what a man does, free to compete in games and free to equality. Unlike the “Free Syrian Army” who’s loyalties lie to Saudi Arabia and the oppression of women, Syrian women have always had the freedom to express themselves. Syria under Bashar al Assad is the true free Syria. Under the FSA women will have no rights, no freedom, as they will adopt Saudi laws which are not even true Shariaa laws.

    May Allah bless our Syrian Olympic team!

    the left are supporting the repressive salafists..who want top turn secular free syria into wahhabi unfree saudi,,,so whats keeping these intellectuals seeing whats in front of their faces? ideology?

  14. I will have to concur with you. Being more or less a Trotskyite myself, I´m quite amazed by the naiveté in certain quarters when it comes to the character of much of the ”change” going on in the present-day Middle East. What we see with the West destabilizing country after country is a series of stepping-stones in the direction towards a new global conflagration (world war III) with ”democratic” capitalist nations being the principal aggressors (instead of authoritarian ones as in the 30ies). Sooner or later Russia and China will say ”no”, but by then it might be all too late… Bear in mind however that not all ”Trots” seem to be sharing Seymour´s perspective, the World Socialist Website is an honourable exception for example.

  15. The Trotskyist “movement” (I suppose you could call it) has historically had an interesting end result of reactionary politics. From Max Eastman and Max Shachtman to those covered in this article.

    What is baffling to me is the abject denial of supporting US imperialism when it comes to Libya and Syria. I mean, we know for a fact that the “Syrian Free Army” is backed by the U.S., Western Europe, the GCC countries, Israel, and Turkey. Can’t get more blatant than that.

    One fallback position I’ve seen is “Well, what about Russian and Chinese imperialism?”

    You’re quite right though, Stephen. It is total naivety on the part of these reactionaries who claim to be against imperialism. Speaking for myself, when I first came in contact with radical theory and writing, it was understood (or so I thought) that world imperialism’s centre is in the United States. I guess for people like Achcar, Seymour, and others, they missed that memo.

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