A guest post by Jamie Allinson, responding to As'ad AbuKhalil's critique (part 1, 2, 3, 4) of his New Left Project article on the revolution in Syria, 'Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution'.
As'ad AbuKhalil has issued a four-part critique of my piece 'Neither Riyadh nor Tehran' on the blog of the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. This response mostly comprises laboured invective and repetition of points I covered in the original article—such as that the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are interfering in the Syrian revolution, that there is a debate within the Syrian opposition about the military strategy, that arbitrary killings have been carried out by the FSA, the predominance of religious slogans in the revolution, the position of women and so on.
AbuKhalil musters his most direct engagement with what I actually said when he charges with me with 'blatant lying' in my interpretation of an opinion piece in Al-Akhbar. A foolhardy move for the "Angry Arab" to make, given that his entire critique revolves around a (presumably deliberate) misrepresentation of my argument—a misrepresentation that would in AbuKhalil's hyperbolic prose no doubt be rendered a flagrant deception, outrageous invention, scurrilous fabrication or the like. AbuKhalil has spent four articles arguing against my supposed claim that the Syrian revolution is a 'leftist revolution', whatever that means. Nowhere have I written this phrase or made this argument. AbuKhalil simply made it up, attributed it to me and satisfied himself writing four articles directed against this argument of his own invention.
AbuKhalil’s invocation of this straw man indicates not only an inability to engage with an opponent’s real argument, but also the deep political flaw at the heart of his own. I wrote not that the Syrian revolution was a 'leftist' one under leftist leadership, but rather that it was a popular revolution in which leftists were obliged to intervene from a position of unambiguous support. AbuKhalil seems to be unable to distinguish between the two, perhaps imagining that there is such a thing as a purely 'leftist' revolution subject to the appropriate criteria in Los Angeles or London and that anything else is not good enough. What I argued was that the Syrian revolution (as AbuKhalil accepts) began for the same reasons as the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni revolutions and against the same blend of nepotistic, neoliberal capital and tyrannical state that has disfigured most of the Arab world for a generation or more.
Where we seem to differ is my argument that the FSA arose as a defence mechanism of that revolution, not simply as a machination of Gulf and Western powers and that the revolution remains a popular one as evidenced by the continuing demonstrations and self-activity of the Syrian masses. Nowhere did AbuKhalil counter my evidence for these points, except to dismiss Anand Gopal's reports on the grounds that Gopal is a comrade of mine. I am very proud of this fact, and that such a comrade has actually made the effort to enter the Syrian war zone and find out what's going on. AbuKhalil presumably thinks that either Gopal made up what he describes in those reports, or that the people he spoke to did.
AbuKhalil says that Syrians will be unmoved by what either I or my opponents write. Perhaps he is correct. Given that my piece was expressly directed as an intervention on the English-speaking left, it doesn’t seem much of a criticism to make. Nonetheless, at least some Syrians did take enough interest in my argument to translate it into Arabic and circulate it. I say this not to present an image of self-important authenticity that would permit me to declare who is fit to comment on Syria – I’ll leave that to As’ad AbuKhalil – but to demonstrate that the arguments I make are not simply the irrelevant scribblings of some who knows ‘as much about Syria as Trotsky did about New York in his address to the workers and peasants of the Bronx’. Indeed, I would stress that my argument is neither particularly original nor really mine: it is simply based on the position of leftist activists in the Syrian revolution, examples of whom can be found here, here and here.
It is in his treatment of such Syrian leftist activists on the ground that AbuKhalil’s response reaches its nadir. AbuKhalil accuses me of a ‘victory parade’ in presenting the work of the Syrian Revolutionary Left (incidentally, their paper is an offline one, the link I posted having been to a PDF version of the one they distribute) as steering 'the revolution towards the global Permanent Revolution.' This is tosh. Anyone who read my original piece can see that I wrote nothing of the sort – I argued instead that Western leftists should do what they could to support this small group, fighting against the Assad regime and those very same dangers of imperialism and sectarianism with which AbuKhalil charges me. They are indeed a handful. What is AbuKhalil going to do help change that, to increase the space for progressive, anti-sectarian and anti-imperialist politics in the Syrian revolution? To condemn the Syrian revolution because of its allegedly sectarian and pro-imperialist character only then to mock anti-sectarian and anti-imperialist Syrian revolutionaries is shabby stuff. Shabby stuff indeed.
AbuKhalil’s bad faith on this issue reflects his wider position. He informs us that he opposes the Syrian regime and calls for ‘its immediate overthrow’. Well, in the abstract we can all call for whatever we like. In the face of the actually existing overthrow of the Syrian regime by its people, AbuKhalil’s position amounts to calling for its overthrow at some unspecified point in the future, at the hands of people vetted by him for approval. I assume of course that someone committed to the immediate overthrow of the Syrian regime, and witnessing what he acknowledges to have been a ‘promising popular uprising’ would bend every sinew to aid its victory, and only leave the field when it was completely clear that all was lost. With whom in Syria did AbuKhalil conduct such work and what did they do to forfeit their promise in his eyes? Perhaps AbuKhalil should dissolve the Syrian people and elect a new one.
There is an old quotation from Lenin that it has become a cliche to use in circumstances such as these, and which I therefore avoided mentioning in my original article. However, since it seems not to have reached AbuKhalil, amongst others, it bears repeating here:
'To imagine that social revolution is conceivable … without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism", and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism", and that will be a social revolution!…
Whoever expects a "pure" social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.
Jamie Allinson is a researcher specialising in Middle East politics