Deep Contradictions Facing the Global Movement for Human Emancipation: The Middle East

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We live in a time marked by the revolutionary upsurge that began in the Arab world in 2011, followed swiftly by Madison, Madrid, Occupy Wall Street, and then a bit later, by Gezi Park in Turkey, the defense of Kobane, Black Lives Matter, and the Sanders and Corbyn phenomena. During this whole period, tiny Greece has also fought on in the face of many contradictions.

A number of these struggles continue, and new ones are sure to emerge in a world marked by economic stagnation, deepening racism, and ecological danger. A new generation of radical youth has entered the scene, and unlike in the late twentieth century, Marxism is no longer a dirty word to them. The politics of identity may also be retreating somewhat, as the prospect of anti-capitalist unity across racial, gender, and geographic lines is asserting itself.

At the same time, huge defeats and setbacks have also occurred. This has certainly been the case in the Arab world. It is as important to learn from these defeats and setbacks, as it is to learn from the creativity of the mass movements of today. Most radicals ignore our defeats, moving on to the next big thing.

Marxist-Humanists have fought against this attitude. Facing defeat or retrogression can lead to advances in theory that can place the movement on a sounder basis when it revives. Marxist-Humanism in the US emerged from the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya, who, in the face of the great betrayal of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, worked out a new perspective for Marxism, the notion that we had entered a further stage of global capitalism, beyond the monopoly stage, which she and her then-colleague CLR James conceptualized as state-capitalism. This new stage emerged out of the transformation into opposite of the Russian revolution of 1917 under Stalin and the defeat of the German workers movement, which paved the way for the Nazi seizure of power. State-capitalism as a stage crystallized after the Spanish revolution was defeated by fascism, as the Western powers looked on and Stalin’s Russia ultimately betrayed the revolution. Overall, the counter-revolutionary outcomes in Russia and Germany paved the way for the loss of tens of millions in World War 2.

As Hegel wrote in the founding text of modern dialectics, thePhenomenology of Spirit, we should not turn away from difficulty, but engage instead in the “seriousness, suffering, patience, and labor of the negative” (1977, p. 10). Let us do some of that, first by examining the Middle East five years after the Arab revolutions of 2011.

Tunisia and Egypt Five Years Later

In Tunisia, where the Arab revolutions began, a new constitution supports women’s rights, including legislative parity, and bans some forms of religious demagoguery. These hard-won gains were the fruit of several years of struggle by leftists, feminists, and liberals against the local Islamists, who initially seemed poised to assume power after the fall of the vicious but secular Ben Ali dictatorship. Additional gains are occasionally being made, as seen in the February 2016 court decision legalizing Shams, an organization campaigning openly for the decriminalization of homosexuality, a rarity in the Arab world. At the same time, the new democratic order is under attack from radical Tunisian Islamists tied to ISIS, who have launched a number of terrorist attacks on civilians. In response, the state has curtailed civil liberties, equally a danger for democracy.

Such democratic rights, even if maintained, cannot by themselves create a new human society. As the young Marx intoned concerning the difference between merely political and fully human emancipation: “Political emancipation is not the completed contradiction-free form of human emancipation” (“On the Jewish Question,” in Marx, Early Political Writings, edited by Joseph O’Malley, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 34). Thus, in their street demonstrations, the Tunisian revolutionaries of 2011 called for “Bread, Water, and No Ben Ali,” hardly limiting themselves to the political sphere alone.

In early 2016, youth unemployment in Tunisia stood at a shocking 30%. This oppressive situation led to protests, looting, and clashes with police in January 2016 in the very communities where the revolution broke out in 2010-11. The relatively small Marxist left has been involved with some of these protests, leading President Beji Caid Essebsi to call the Marxists as great a danger as Islamist terrorists (Carlotta Gall and Farah Samti, “Tunisian Government Sets Nationwide Curfew Amid Growing Unrest,” New York Times, 1-23-16).

The aging Essebsi has rehabilitated corrupt officials from the old regime, has created a split in his own party by grooming his son as his successor, and has tried to shore up his support by courting the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party. This has led not only to a split within the ruling Nida Tounes Party, but also to a horizontally organized campaign by revolutionary youth to put up “wanted” posters for old regime officials whom Essebsi has been allowing back into the corridors of power (Frédéric Bobin, “En Tunisie, un pastiche de western contre les caciques de l’ancien regime,” Le Monde, 6-10-16).

If the left still has some breathing room in Tunisia, the opposite is the case in Egypt, where, for the past three years, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has carried out a crackdown that goes beyond that of even the harshest days of the Mubarak regime. With continuing military aid from the imperialist U.S. and lavish funding from the subimperialist power Saudi Arabia, Sisi has achieved solid support internationally, at least for now.

As in Tunisia, the 2011 Egypt uprising grounded itself in both economic and political demands, and did so by taking over a large public space, Tahrir Square, forming kind of an alternative society for a few weeks. After the popular uprising spurred the military to oust Mubarak with the promise of a democratic constitution to follow, two years of competition/cooperation ensued between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s second large conservative force. One of its leaders, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president with the support of leftists and nationalists. During this period, many of the young revolutionaries, women as well as men, kept demonstrating on the streets against Morsi, who immediately broke his promises to form an inclusive government once in power.

The Sisi regime is the product of a twin tragedy. First, a mass movement of millions came onto the streets in 2013 to call for Morsi’s ouster, which the military carried out. As General Sisi repressed the Muslim Brotherhood and set up his dictatorship, some leftwing nationalists lent their support. In this sense, the Sisi dictatorship is the product not only of reactionary and retrogressive forces that wanted to turn the clock back, but also of the opportunism of a part of the revolutionary movement itself.

As Marxist scholar Gilbert Achcar put it on the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution: “The problem is that even those forces that I regard as progressive have been oscillating between the old regime and its religious fundamentalist opposition. Ultimately, both the old regime and its religious opposition were deeply opposed to the revolutionary process, and yet the progressive left and liberal forces went switching from an alliance with the latter (the religious opposition) against the former (the old regime) to an alliance with the former against the latter. This oscillation is disastrous” (“Q&A: The terrible illusion of the Arab Spring,” Al Jazeera interview with Achcar, 1-28-16).

If the first tragedy of the Egyptian revolution is a product of the failure of the left to create an independent alternative, and of the naiveté and opportunism of parts of it, Egypt’s second tragedy was rooted in a problem that plagues almost all genuinely — as opposed to statist-authoritarian — revolutionary movements today, the lure of spontaneous forms of organization as a panacea. During the magnificent Tahrir Square occupation of 2011, leftist and independent forces applauded the spontaneous grassroots democracy of the Square, but did not succeed in thinking out the philosophical and organizational issues involved in creating a real revolutionary organization that could become a pole of attraction to challenge the twin forces of reaction, the military and the Islamists. Nor has much progress been made on that score since then.

The Egyptian writer Mahmoud Hussein goes so far as to argue that such occupations can express negativity and rejection, but not a real alternative to the given state of affairs:

A public space can express a rejection of the principle of autocracy. It can, in crystallizing a massive popular will, provoke the actual fall of an autocrat. It is very true that in two and a half years, Tahrir overthrew three successive autocrats, Mubarak, then [General] Tantawi, then Morsi. But it could not by itself offer the country a concrete alternative form of power…. No force emanating from Tahrir Square, and organizationally linked to it, was developing a utopia, a concept [pensée], a collective experience, or an organizational force that would allow it to strive to give direction to the country. (“Cinq ans après, n’oublions pas la révolte de la place Tahrir,” Le Monde, 1-23-16).

This second tragedy, of course, is not Egypt’s alone, but that of the rest of the revolutionary movement around the world today, from Occupy to Gezi Park, where spontaneous forms of organization have become an idée fixe that crowds out clear thinking about what a real alternative to capitalism entails. (I leave aside here all statist and hierarchical solutions put forth in the name of socialism, which are in fact retrogressive in the twenty-first century.)

The Sisi regime remains nervous about even the slightest dissent, as seen in the lockdown last January on the fifth anniversary of the uprising. Small rumblings of dissent can still be heard on occasion. The most recent example was the Sisi’s ceding of two small Red Sea islands to his Saudi backers. In April 2016, after calls from secular leftists, several thousand took to the streets in protest under the slogan, “Freedom for the Brave.” The regime cracked down hard, sentencing 150 people, most of them in their early twenties, to prison terms ranging from two to five years. All evidence suggests that public opinion was on the side of the demonstrators. This in turn suggests that the Sisi regime remains brittle despite all its armed strength.

Syria and Turkey

Returning to the Middle East, we find the most violent contradictions coming to the fore in Syria and Turkey. With the massive deaths in the Syrian civil war, with the persistence of Islamism among the Syrian rebels, and with Erdogan riding high again in Turkey, one part of the global left has simply turned away in despair. A second group has started to back the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance in Syria in the name of anti- (U.S.) imperialism and anti-fundamentalism. It is important to avoid both of these simplistic, undialectical perspectives and instead view Syria and Turkey as imbued with both emancipatory and reactionary forces and ideas.

In Syria, contradictions of all sorts abound: between the murderous Assad regime and the democratic uprising; within the uprising among various factions, some but not all of them religious fundamentalists; among the Assad regime, the uprising, and the Kurdish movement for self-liberation; and among imperialist and subimperialist powers in relationship to all of the above. As Marxist-Humanists, we need to look at the situation with both the harsh realism and the eye for emancipatory forces that one finds in both Hegel and Marx.

The violence of the Syrian civil war dwarfs any other conflict on the planet today, with the overwhelming majority of that violence emanating from the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran. According to the respected Syrian Center for Policy Research, the overall death toll has reached nearly 500,000, double the usual estimates, and another estimate has 60,000 perishing just in Assad’s brutal prisons (Anne Barnard, “Death Toll in Syria War at 470,000, Report Says,” New York Times 2-12-16; “En cinq ans, 60,000 personnes sont mortes dans les prisons du régime syrien,” Le Monde5-22-16).

The death toll’s pace has increased in recent months due to the Russian air attacks on cities and neighborhoods opposed to the regime. Russia has in fact directed little of its fire at ISIS, the supposed target of its intervention. This, plus the tens of thousands of fighters sent by Iran has bolstered the Assad regime in the past year. But even Russia seemed a bit taken aback when Assad declared on June 7, 2016 that he was going to recover “every inch” of Syria’s territory (David Sanger and Rick Gladstone, “Resisting Peace, Assad Pledges to Retake ‘Every Inch’ of Syria,” New York Times 6-8-16). So much for the idea of some type of negotiated settlement, which the U.S, Russia, and other powers have been pushing!

In fact, though, both the U.S. and Russia have goals that are not that dissimilar. As Gilbert Achcar noted in 2015, after the results of the complete destruction of the old regimes of Libya and Iraq, both powers now agree on “preventing the collapse of the Assad regime,” even if the U.S. would like Assad himself to step aside, or at least have some limitation placed upon his power (Ilya Budraitskis, “Interview: Gilbert Achcar on the Russian Military Operation in Syria,” Left East10-15-15). But these powers also fear the war’s continuation, which is doing the same thing, plus sending a sea of refugees into Europe.

At the same time, two sets of emancipatory forces have persisted inside Syria, despite everything. In this regard the most surprising but little-noted event was the emergence on the streets on March 4, during a brief cessation of hostilities, of mass demonstrations by Syrian democratic forces. Thousands took to the streets of some 90 cities, chanting, “The revolution continues,” as well as the old slogan from the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world, “The people want the fall of the regime.” While this was a sign that the original demands of the revolution remain in the hearts of the people, these demonstrations did not approach the mass character of those five years ago (Benjamin Barthe, “En Syrie, le répit dans les combats relance les manifestations anti-Assad,” Le Monde 3-6-16). But it was curious indeed that for one day at least, fundamentalist militias that dominate the armed resistance seemed to recede. There is also some evidence that the revolutionary committees formed back in 2011 maintain some influence, as against Islamists, in places like the Damascus suburb of Ghouta (Benjamin Barthe, “Syrie: dans l’univers fracassé de la Ghouta, la vie s’est organisée,” Le Monde 2-3-16).

The Syrian Kurds constitute the second and better-known emancipatory force amid the carnage in Syria, one that stands openly for grassroots democracy, social justice, and women’s liberation. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (KDP) battled ISIS successfully at two junctures in 2014. In Sinjar Mountain in Iraq, they rescued Yazidis from ISIS murder and sexual slavery when no one else, not even the U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds, would step in. At Kobane in Syria some months later, these Kurdish Marxists dealt ISIS its first real military defeat, with women officers successfully leading some of the attacks on the most misogynist, retrogressive political force on the planet today.

Taking advantage of the weakness of the Assad regime and the disarray of the rebels, the YPG has taken over a whole swathe of territory it calls Rojava, in the northern area bordering Turkey. This has cut off much of ISIS’s supply chain through Turkey. Over the past year, the Kurds have also helped form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a tenuous alliance with some nearby Arab and Turkoman groups. The SDF has also begun to move toward Raqqa, the ISIS capital.

Kurdish relations with the overall Syrian democratic opposition are not good, however. The opposition accuses them with some justice of having on occasion leaned toward Russia and even Assad, while the Kurds point out that the opposition, like the Assad regime, vehemently opposes an autonomous region in the north (Michael Karadjis, “The Kurdish PYD’s Alliance with Russia against Free Aleppo,” Syrian Revolutionary Commentary and Analysis 2-18-16; Saleh Mohamed, “Democracy Left Out in the Cold, New York Times 4-11-16). At the same time, Russia openly supports Kurdish autonomy, and the U.S. does so implicitly. In such a situation, one should give the benefit of the doubt to those who are successfully fighting for autonomy, women’s emancipation, and social justice, while also sounding a note of caution about unsavory alliances. One also has to ask why a revolutionary democratic movement, like the broader Syrian opposition, does not give more consideration to the rights to autonomy of a long-oppressed ethnic minority.

The Kurdish resistance in Syria has also set off a storm inside Turkey. The 2014 siege of Kobane, right on the border with Turkey, galvanized the global left, but it affected Turkish Kurds and leftists with particular force. This led to an alliance between Turkish youth from the 2013 Gezi Park uprising and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which now became a broad vehicle for the aspirations of both of these currents.   The HDP is a legal party sympathetic to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which for many years engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Turkish state. In recent years, however, the PKK has moved toward grassroots democracy and alliance with forces based in the Turkish population.

For a brief period in 2015, it seemed that the HDP, which, in addition to Kurdish aspirations, embraced labor, ecology, feminism, and LGBT rights, had seriously undercut the increasingly authoritarian Islamo-nationalist regime of Erdogan. In the May 2015 elections, the HDP scored 13%, denying Erdogan a parliamentary majority. (See my earlier analysis, “Four Years After the Arab Revolutions: Fighting on Amid Reactionary Retrenchment,” Logos 14: 2-3, Summer 2015.)  Erdogan responded with a harsh crackdown on the Kurdish areas of the southeast and then called another election in November 2015, when he won a clear majority, as the repression kept many away from the polls. After that, Erdogan’s repression became even more violent, and he moved to outlaw the HDP in 2016. He also struck out against even the slightest opposition from academics and intellectuals.

Since the summer of 2015, cities throughout the southeast have seen pitched battles on the streets between PKK youth and the Turkish military, for which they are no match. The Kurdish youth have been led by part of the PKK leadership to believe that they can win in the near term, just like the YPG did against ISIS in Kobane (Allan Kaval, “A Cizre, ‘ville martyre’ des Kurdes de Turquie,” Le Monde 3-15-16). This policy has frayed Kurdish ties with Turkish youth and leftists. In addition, several terrorist attacks in Istanbul by a splinter of the PKK have served to harden Turkish nationalist support for Erdogan.

In the long run, Erdogan’s rule faces dangers, however, whether from outside powers like Russia and the U.S., who see the Syrian Kurds as the only real force that can dislodge ISIS, or at home from the many sectors of society that he has irrevocably alienated. The abortive military coup of July 2016 will surely give the regime even more reasons to crack down, but also indicates some deep social fissures.

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