I just wanted to collect some of my writings, interviews, and podcast shows of recent years so that they can be assessed and accessed in one place. I will provide an update along these lines periodically so long as I continue to write and speak.
To honor the late Melvin Van Peebles after his death last week at the age of 89, I am reprinting here Huey P. Newton’s analysis of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, written for the The Black Panther newspaper in June of 1971. The analysis stands as a supreme example of Newton’s extensive reach as a writer and intellectual, and of the Black Panther Party’s serious dedication to cultural production and criticism. The role of culture in revolution has always been crucial to the development of oppositional thought, a point Amilcar Cabral made repeatedly, referring time and again to the importance of “cultural resistance“:
“Consider these features inherent in an armed liberation struggle: the practice of democracy, of criticism and self criticism, the’ increasing responsibility of populations for the direction of their lives, literacy work, creation of schools and health services, training of cadres from peasant and worker backgrounds—and many other achievements. When we consider these features, we see that the armed liberation struggle is not only a product of culture but also a determinant of culture. This is without doubt for the people the prime recompense for the efforts and sacrifices which war demands. In this perspective it behooves the liberation movement to define clearly the objectives of cultural resistance as an integral and determining part of the struggle.”
Cabral considered cultural resistance “indestructible” and capable of transforming into other forms of resistance–“political, economic, armed”–at any moment. Art in its many forms–literature and poetry, painting and sculpting, music and theatre and cinema–is an indispensable part of any conscious creation of a new and independent culture. The practice of criticism is every bit as essential as the creation of art, because the critic helps to breathe new life into a given work of art and facilitates conversations about it with the spectator.
Sweet Sweetback was Van Peebles’ determined attempt to make a film free from the US studio system, which was embedded in the financial streams, and subject to the ideological influence, of the US imperialist power structure as a whole. He’d had his influences, such as the French New Wave, which he’d picked up during his time writing and filmmaking in France in the early 60s; but he clearly understood that forging a path for radical Black cinema in the United States presented challenges way beyond those the French New Wave confronted. The Black Power movement turned out to be the groundswell he needed. Melvin’s son Mario told the story behind the making of Sweet Sweetback entertainingly in his 2003 film Baadasssss! Indebted and strapped for cash by the time of the film’s release, the elder Van Peebles depended on only two screenings, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta, to generate enough word-of-mouth about Sweet Sweetback to find it distribution. Detroit ultimately came through. Baadasssss! depicts the initial screening there as having been nearly empty, with the owners of the Grand Circus Theatre (now the Detroit Opera House) ready to deem the film a failure and clear it from the marquee, eliminating a scheduled second screening. That is, until a lone Black Panther, who’d attended the nearly empty premiere, brought a massive audience back with him, propelling the film ineradicably into popular and cinematic history. The soundtrack, by a then-unknown Earth, Wind, & Fire, is itself the stuff of lore, living an ongoing hip-hop afterlife in the work of Main Source, KMD, and others.
Just as Sweet Sweetback provided something new in the annals of cinema, Huey P. Newton’s analysis offers a novel response: a kind of extended exercise in Fanonist film criticism. His insights are wide-ranging (look for his incorporation of his analysis of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of the Thin Man”), and it’s hard to imagine many of them appearing in the white-dominated film press, then or now, such as his suggestion that the title character is nondescript and taciturn so as to allow Black audiences to provide their own words for–to audibly participate with–the action unfolding on the screen. Enjoy. -Patrick
Introduction by Bobby Seale
The feeling that I have now that I am back on the scene with Brother Huey P. Newton is one where I remember the time when Brother Huey was always there to interpret the cultural things and symbolic forms and expressions of the people in different forms of art. This was over three and a half years ago, the last time Brother Huey and I were together.
Now that I am back on the scene I have had the chance to be with many righteous Party members and community people. Together we have shared the experience of going to the theatre to see “Sweet Sweetback” the latest movie on the set. Our Minister of Defense, righteous, beautiful Brother Huey P. Newton was there interpreting all the symbolic meanings of the movie, and showing the essence of the real-life experience of the Black community as it is put together in “Sweet Sweetback.”
It seems that it has taken nothing more than the fact that Brother Huey P. Newton is free, and now I find myself free from Jail Number One and out in the larger social prison. But we are with our people in the Black community and Brother Huey P. Newton is now giving forth a profound in-depth analysis, a beautiful revolutionary people’s analysis of “Sweet Sweetback.” He is grasping for us the people all the symbolic meanings of the movie and explaining them to us.
When we have read the analysis given by Brother Huey we should unite as brothers and sisters in the struggle and go back and see “Sweet Sweetback” but not to be entertained, we should do it because we can be educated and our consciousness and understanding can be increased. I am going to see it again with Brother Huey’s analysis as my guide. I hope you will too.
“He Won’t Bleed Me”
The very popular movie produced and directed by Melvin Van Peebles called “Sweet Sweet back’s Baadasssss Song” contains many very important messages for the entire Black community. On many levels Van Peebles is attempting to communicate some crucial ideas, and motivate us to a deeper understanding and then action based upon that understanding. He has certainly made effective use of one of the most popular forms of communication -the movie -and he is dealing in revolutionary terms. The only reason this movie is available to us with its many messages is because Black people have given it their highest support. The corporate capitalist would never let such an important message be given to the community if they were not so greedy. They are so anxious to bleed us for more profits that they either ignore or fail to recognize the many ideas in the film, but because we have supported the movie with our attendance we are able to receive its message.
It is the first truly revolutionary Black film made and it is presented to us by a Black man. Many Black people who have seen the film have missed many of its significant points. I have seen the film several times and I have also talked to about 50 60 others who have seen it and each time I understand more.
When Van Peebles first presented the film he refused to submit it to the Motion Picture Association to be rated because he knew they were not competent to judge its content. He knew the film was not something which would upset the Black community because of its explicitness. He wanted youth and children to see it because he knew they would understand it. Yet the movie was given an “X” rating over his protests, thus making it impossible for the youth to see. But it has a real message for them, for just like “Moo Moo” one of the youthful characters in the movie, they are our future.
Melvin Van Peebles had great difficulty obtaining the funds to make this movie, therefore it is a low-budget movie. In some parts the sound and the lighting are not as good as they might have been if he could have had greater freedom to make the film. I have found that its messages and significance are clearer when I combine viewing the film with listening to the record of the sound track and reading the book. I would urge all of you who want to understand the deep meanings of the movie completely to also buy the record and the book. (NOTE: The book is available in paperback for $1.00, and the record for $5.98. Both may be obtained for $6.00 by sending a check or money order to Lancer Books, 1560 Broadway, New York, N. Y. 10036)
“Sweet Sweetback” blows my mind everytime I talk about it because it is so simple and yet so profound. It shows the robbery which takes place in the Black community and how we are the real victims. Then it shows how the victims must deal with their situation, using many institutions and many approaches. It demonstrates that one of the key routes to our survival and the success of our resistance is unity.
“Sweet Sweetback” does all of this by using many aspects of the community, but in symbolic terms. That is, Van Peebles is showing one thing on the screen but saying something completely different to the audience. In other words he is signifying, and he is signifying some very heavy things. I am going to go through the film and analyze some of the scenes, and then I am going to talk about some of the general ideas put forth in this truly revolutionary movie.
When the movie opens we see the faces of the women; there are young faces and old faces, light faces and dark faces, but in all of them there is a sign of weariness, sadness, but also joy. You soon recognize that the women are in a house of love, a house of prostitution, a house of ill-repute, and of course it is all of these things, depending on what position you are viewing it from. This is the essence of the whole film, the victim and the oppressor looking at things in a much different way, from a different point of view.
The women are tired, yet they are happy. This is because they are feeding a small boy. As you look at the women you see that they are strong and beautiful Black women, definitely African in ancestry and symbolic of Mother Africa. The size of some of their breasts signifies how Africa is potentially the breadbasket of the world. The women are feeding stew to a small boy who is apparently very hungry, and as he downs it they keep offering him more. These women with their large breasts potentially could feed and nourish the world, and if this is so, certainly they have the potential to raise their liberator, for that is what the small boy is, the future of the women, of Black people, liberation.
They are in a house of prostitution not of their own will, but because of the conditions the oppressor makes for us. They are there to survive, and they sell their love to do so, therefore our love is distorted and corrupted with the sale. When you have nothing else left you give up your body, just as when you are starving you might eat your fingers; but it’s the conditions which cause this, not the desire to taste your own blood; you have to survive.
The women standing around the small boy are not saying anything but by continuing to nourish him they are telling him that they can give him more than enough, not only food, but much love. This love is not for sale, so therefore it is uncorrupted, it is pure love, sacred and holy. Even though the boy is weak and has many sores in his face, with the love and nourishment of the women he can become a very strong man. The sores in his face come from malnutrition and poor health, and Van Peebles is signifying the fine line between survival and death. Even though the women can feed him and clear up his malnutrition, they cannot do it freely and totally, because they have to also sell, they have to sell in order to provide.
I have seen small children in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, in West Oakland, in Chicago, and in Harlem with sores on their bodies like those on the boy’s face. That is why we have health and food programs, because we are determined to make them healthy again. The women in the film are doing the same thing. They know he is their future and so they give him love and nourishment that he might become a strong man, but not just a man in the physical sense, but that he might become a liberator.
Next we see the boy is healthy and growing, working as a towel boy in the house of prostitution. Then we see the prostitute making love to him. But this was a scene of pure love and therefore it was a sacred and holy act. Even though it was in a house of prostitution, it was not a distorted or corrupt thing. We see this by the very words the woman uses, because she tells the boy that he ain’t at the photographer to get his picture taken; she tells him to move. In the background we hear religious music, signifying what is happening and what will happen later. First there is “Wade in the Water”, and we recognize that the boy is being baptized; then there is “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” signifying what will happen in the future. The music indicates that this is not a sexual scene, this is a very sacred rite, for the boy, who was nourished to health, is now being baptized into manhood. And the act of love, the giving of manhood, is also bestowing upon the boy the characteristics which will deliver him from very difficult situations. People who look upon this as a sex scene miss the point completely; and people who look upon the movie as a sex movie miss the entire message of the film.
What happens is not a distorted act of prostitution even though it takes place in a house of prostitution. The place is profane because of the oppressive conditions, but so are our communities also oppressed. The Black community is often profane because of the dirtiness there, but this is not caused by the people, they are the victims of a very oppressive system. Yet within the heart of the community, just as in the film, the sacred rite of feeding and nourishing the youth goes on; they are brought to their manhood as liberators.
Van Peebles shows this in the film, because when the love scene is completed, the boy is no longer a boy, he has become a man. He doesn’t have a climax until he reaches an adult age. Even though we may have sexual intercourse as children, we don’t have a climax; it is an introduction which makes it a part of something which is not alien to us. But in the film the climax came at the appropriate time, after he has become a man; that is, he has learned the deep significance of what she was trying to teach him. It wasn’t an act or any mechanical sort of thing, but it was the building of his spirit.
So he grows a moustache while he is having sexual intercourse with her, from about 10 years old he ends up about 25. But as soon as he reaches a climax, that is, as soon as he becomes a man, then he is ready to go out and fight. This is symbolized by his putting on his hat, because when you put on your hat, it symbolizes that you are fixing to go somewhere.
The whole film is centered around movement, his putting on the hat to go, and his running and running. I think this shows the alienation he feels in his position. He is constantly in movement or “in the process”. When you are in process you are always going or preparing to go. These symbols are used very well.
The oppressor would not view the love scene in the same way, because his whole introduction to sex is from a perverted perspective, divorced from his whole being. That is why he rated the film “X”, because what he saw was a sex movie. We know that it is much more than that. He is introduced to sex as something outside of himself, while it is hard for us to remember our first sexual experience. It is not something outside of us. It grows in us as any other part of our personality, and it is very integrated just as our arms, our hand or our breathing. This is why it was very necessary to have this young boy having this relationship in a place that is viewed from the outside as dirty and profane, because our community is also considered dirty and profane.
But we do love and we have holy experiences at the same time that we are being stripped of everything else. Then we sell that holiness in order to survive; but it’s not holiness anymore, it’s transformed by the sale. But nevertheless, the holiness is a part of us, so it serves us. But at the same time the holiness serves us, it remains as dirtiness to the outsider, because he is the cause of the profane conditions of the victims, and also because what he is getting is not love, but the sale of the prostitute.
To the boy she was not a prostitute because there was no money passed, instead she introduced him to the thing that would give him his fullness as a person and his survival in the end. She introduced it to him as a boy because it is said: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) Of course he won’t depart from it, if it becomes an integral part of his personality, because to depart from it is to depart from himself. The women were giving the boy more than simply a survival thing because he was their hope, and this is why they feel happy about the sacrifice they are making. You can see it on their faces when they are feeding him, or at the point of orgasm when the woman tells him that he has a sweet back, and that is where he gets his name. Not only is he baptized into his fullness as a man, he gets his name and his identity in this sacred rite.
Every time after that when Sweetback engages in sex with a sister, it is always an act of survival, and a step towards his liberation. That is why it is important not to view the movie as a sex film or the sexual scenes as actual sex acts. Van Peebles is righteously signifying to us all. The first scene was far from anything sexual, that is why the holy music during the scene. It is only dealing with sexual symbols, the real meaning is far away from anything sexual, and so deep that you have to call it religious.
When Sweetback puts on his hat he does not leave the house, he does not leave the victim’s ghettoes, he graduates and starts to perform there in a freak show. He would simulate sexual intercourse before an audience that paid to observe this scene. He starts out playing the part of a dyke, with false breasts and a beard, but then his fairy godmother comes along, he gets his wish and becomes a man before the audience, taking off his beard and showing his penis -it looks like a missile and shocks the audience.
While this is going on, the cops are harassing Beatle, the owner of the cat house. He has been paying them off and doesn’t want to be bothered, but they want one of his men as a scapegoat arrest. The cops break off their harassment from time to time and go over to observe the freak show, even though they have seen it many times.
Sweetback is now having sexual intercourse with the sister, but there is no holy music because it is not love; it is a performance given in order to survive. He is selling himself to the audience and the cops who are the real freaks. Dylan’s “Ballad of The Thin Man” would apply here, because in the song the freaks go to see the geek who offers them a bone and they don’t know why. But you see the audience or the freaks -including the cops -don’t have to be there. They cause the conditions which make it necessary for people to go to these lengths to survive, and then they pay to see the performance the people put on. They are the real freaks and the people go through the act with real hostility and hatred for the people who cause them to be there in the first place.
There are also Blacks in the audience, and this is a stroke of genius by Van Peebles, because it symbolizes the total blindness of the audience of freaks. They are laughing at a situation, when they are in fact getting their heads cut off. That’s like Dylan’s sword swallower, who in the end will thank the audience for the loan, because they were really there, only they did not know it. The scene shows how far the oppressor will go, because when it is asked if anyone in the audience wants to challenge Sweetback, this white boy couldn’t hold his girlfriend down. The announcer would not let her go out there, because the police were watching.
The police, as I said, are taking payoffs and letting the house exist, and this is an indictment of them. Not only do they cause the conditions, they then pay to go see it, because it is amusing to them. But the freak show is not put on by freaks but by victims. The victim does what he has to do to survive because of his crippled and victimized position. The freak pays him for his laughter and the victim accepts the pay, but with vengeance in mind.
I think that it is ironic and also very symbolic that even while I am writing this, I can look out of my window and see the Oakland Auditorium where the Oakland Police Officers Assoc. is holding its annual circus. I don’t see any Blacks going in. We are realizing more and more that it has always been a circus. They have tried to make a circus of our circumstances and our communities, but our awareness is growing and we are moving toward dealing with the situation in a very decisive manner, just like Sweet Sweetback did.
In the film and in the community the oppressor keeps demanding more and more from the victims -that is why they want one of Beatle’s men. But this is also why the victim with the lowest levels of awareness will be brought into consciousness and revolutionized because he is doing what he is doing in order to survive, but eventually his very survival is at stake. The oppressor won’t even let your acts of survival continue, he tries to totally crush you, so that survival becomes a very revolutionary act. At the point of life and death, all of the hatred for the oppressor is unleashed for survival purposes.
The police in the film really don’t want Sweetback. All they want to do is use him for a cover, because they are going after Moo Moo, the young revolutionary. Sweetback goes along with them because of his low level of consciousness. This is no hard task because when an individual victim acts without awareness of the situation, he is just like the organism that wants to survive. THE UNITY COMES OUT OF CONSCIOUSNESS.
For a short while Moo Moo and Sweetback are handcuffed together, but when the police start to beat the life out of Moo Moo, they separate them and tell Sweetback to stand aside. Sweetback attempts to look away from their beating of Moo Moo.
This shows the arrogance of the aggressor, thinking that he has all the control -his Jehovah complex. He thinks that he has his victims so completely in line, that this freak show performer who is paying them so that he can survive, will have no feelings for another victim.
Sweetback attempts to look away while the police are beating Moo Moo. Just the turning away is showing how much of the time the masses attempt to dismiss the atrocities of the oppressor, even when attempts are made to communicate to them. They will pretend that they are too busy with other things because they are trying to survive; but they fail to realize that their real survival depends upon their social consciousness and therefore unity. The oppressor will demand more and more of them until they will perish without that unity.
At its lowest level, survival is just the organism getting by as an individual person or as an individual family. What they must realize is that the oppressor will not allow that, he will keep demanding more -high unemployment, poor housing, poor health and poor education, and more taxes -until their very death. So they attempt to look away; but because of compassion and their identity with the whole situation, they cannot completely turn their backs, and this is what causes the neurosis of some Blacks.
But through Sweetback, Melvin Van Peebles is righteously signifying, and teaching the people what must really be done to survive. When Sweetback realizes that he cannot turn his back, he takes the handcuffs, the chains which have been used to hold him in slavery and he starts to kick ass. Using his handcuffs as a weapon against the oppressor rather than as the tool of submission, he downs both of the policemen, almost cutting off their heads.
This is a very bloody scene, but it was very important that they showed the blood all the way up his arm. It makes me think of the statement by Frantz Fanon in his book The Wretched of The Earth where he says that the peasant creeps into the settler’s room at night and cracks the settler’s head open. Then the blood spurts across his face, and it is the only baptism he ever remembered.
The Black audiences really respond to this scene, because it is another baptism; but instead of wading in the water as Sweetback did earlier, this is a baptism in the blood. As each blow went down, you could hear the tension being released in the audience, because right at that moment it was a climax for the audience.
One of the few criticisms I have of this film is that there is no religious music behind this scene. This is no more a scene of violence than the earlier baptism was one of sex; it was a growing into manhood. Sweetback grew into a man when he was in bed with that woman and he also grew to be a man when he busted the heads of his oppressors there. When he was with the woman, it was like a holy union, and when he takes the heads of his oppressors, it is like taking the sacrament for the first time. In the first baptism he did not become a whole man because he went into that freak show, but when he is baptized in the blood, he righteously moves on to a higher level, because the next time he is with the police with handcuffs on, he gets away, and the time after than when he is with the police with handcuffs on in that pool hall, he knows what he must do and he does it.
Like I said before, Van Peebles is righteously signifying, because he engages the audience in a climax in the scene when Sweetback downs the police. What he does is equate the most ecstatic moments in the film with the actions he is encouraging the people to engage in, so he is advocating a bloody overthrow, because the victims want to survive.
The next point that Van Peebles develops in the film is the need of the Black community for greater unity, and how the lack of unity will only deliver us into the hands of our oppressors. What happens? Sweetback helps Moo Moo get up, but then Sweetback goes his own way and makes it back to the cat house and there he encounters Beatle. Beatle starts to give him advice, but everybody recognizes that Beatle is not really responding to Sweetback’s situation. Van Peebles gets this point across beautifully. While he is giving this advice, Beatle is sitting on the toilet. He wipes himself, gets up, and without washing his hands, he takes a towel and wipes his face. This is signifying that what is coming out of Beatle’s mouth is the same thing that is coming out the other end -shit and nothing else. Notice that Sweetback never says a word to Beatle, but he does not have to, because Beatle is deaf -he cannot hear what is being said anyway.
When he leaves Beatle the camera shows Sweetback with a terrifying look on his face. He has realized that those he knows best have such a low level of awareness that he cannot expect aid from them. He realizes that the lack of unity is a very hurting thing, and when he walks out of Beatle’s place, he walks right into the hands of the police, who pretend to be nice until they realize that he is not playing the part of the meek victim. Then they work him over thoroughly.
Sweetback is saved by that same community unity he failed to find with Beatle. The people rescue him by pretending to be in need of money, and therefore they offer to wash the car of the police. Instead they are engaging in a very revolutionary act and they save the brother from the oppressor, while at the same time delivering a deadly blow to the police. What Sweetback has done for Moo Moo is repeated for him by the community.
Sweetback is on his own now, but he is locked into a pair of handcuffs. How does he get them off? Through unity. He goes to a woman who he has been with before, and she tells him to beg. This is obviously not the first time this has happened, but Sweetback cannot beg anymore because he has been transformed by the baptism in blood. He needs her at this moment, but sexuality cannot be based on war any longer, it has to be based on love and unity. He makes love to her and after that the handcuffs are off. This signifies that it is the unity between the Black man and the Black woman which is able to liberate them both.
In his first baptism Sweetback acquired the ability to love, but he could only truly love and unify with the woman, when he had done away with the people who made his woman the oppressor’s woman and himself the oppressor’s man. Then they could really have the unity which is symbolic of the liberating love of the Black man and woman.
Sweetback is on his own again, but this time without the handcuffs. In the meantime the film takes us back to the cat house and his old boss Beatle. Beatle is being hassled by the police who want to know where to find Sweetback. Beatle doesn’t really know, but if he did, he would have told them, because Beatle has no consciousness, he is deaf. And to prove how true this is, the police finally deafen him.
Sweetback moves through the community, looking for the assistance he needs to get away. He doesn’t get all that he needs, but he gets all that each can give. At the church he gets a Black Ave Maria and the power sign. The minister recognizes that his religion is a hype, because he tells Sweetback that Moo Moo is giving the people the real religion.
At the gambling den he gets little apparent sympathy. The manager keeps telling him he is a dead man, and he really does not need money. In this scene Van Peebles is again showing the community of the victimized, just like the performers in the freak show, because the manager explains to Sweetback that he cannot make any money on his operation. By the time he gets finished paying off everybody who is exploiting him, he pays a dollar and a dime for every dollar he makes. This is another example of the oppressor demanding more and more of the victims.
But the gambler does what he can -he gives Sweetback a ride. There is some unity, but not enough; and during the ride Sweetback spots Moo Moo, the man he left behind, and they are reunited. This is as it should be, because Sweetback is leaving the community with the person who was the beginning of all this, Moo Moo. They are two unlike characters, but yet they are linked together.
Moo Moo symbolizes the revolutionary who is trying to free the people, his whole program is pointed toward people like Sweetback, community people who are very unaware, yet they are trying to survive. Sweetback then symbolizes the most unconscious persons in the community, people who are sometimes viewed as more worthless than the pimp. Sweetback is not a pimp and would not do as much as a pimp would; he is much less aggressive. A pimp will work at putting girls on the block, watching them, collecting money, beating them and controlling them. He may also steal and deal in dope and so forth. Sweetback won’t do any of this and yet the women love him, because he’s got such a sweet sweet back. He will just stay home and the women will bring him everything he needs. He accepts their goods, but he doesn’t care what they do. So the sweetback is actually more worthless than the pimp on one level, because he won’t take the chances that a pimp would to survive. He has submitted more, almost to the point where he is a vegetable and is just taken care of. So the fact that Sweetback would not stand any more victimization, that he identified with Moo Moo as being one of the victims, and the fact that Moo Moo’s revolutionary program is pointed to the lowest level of consciousness in the community means that even though they are unlike characters, even though Moo Moo is young and Sweetback is older, it is not unlikely that they would be bound together because they are, in fact.
When the gamblers get Sweetback and Moo Moo to the edge of town, they tell Sweetback to buy himself a last supper because he is a dead man. Their level of consciousness is so low that they will help him to a point, but they still believe that ultimately the oppressor will triumph and Sweetback will die.
Sweetback and Moo Moo are determined to survive, however, and they begin their journey. The encounter with the motorcycle gang shows a number of things. First of all it is a triumph of the soul force (which the women gave Sweetback in the first scene) over all the mechanical developments of the oppressor. When he is challenged to a wrestling duel, the gang leader picks up a motorcycle to show brute strength. Then with the knife the gang leader shows how effectively they have mastered this weapon. When the gang leader reveals herself to be a woman, Sweetback knows that she is no match for the weapon he chooses. The gang promises to do them in after she does him in, but in the end “the Pres” is laid out on the ground in complete submission. The Black women showed him the way to liberation and he used his knowledge effectively.
Van Peebles is also signifying other things in the motorcycle gang scene. First of all there is the symbol of the strength of the white woman over the white man -and they don’t even know it. Then there is the symbol of the Aryan -the superior race. The president of the gang is big and robust, the image of white superiority. The only criticism I have here is that her hair should have been blonde rather than reddish, but the idea gets across. The idea also comes across that the people have the ability to triumph over all these symbols of oppression. Unity will save us.
I should point out that in his duel with the Aryon someone has stuck a derby hat and a silly little tie Sweetback It is like a performance, a minstrel show or a cakewalk thing. But Sweetback takes off the derby hat and in that way he tells the others that this is no performance, this is dealing for survival. He deals and he survives, much to their disappointment, and they roar off on their motorcycles, leaving their conquered leader on the floor.
Some of the gang betray Moo Moo and Sweetback telling them that since Sweetback has won the duel, they will take care of him and Moo Moo by giving them shelter in a mountain cabin, they and the police. This cabin contains a pool ball and when the police arrive, Moo Moo and Sweetback are playing pool. When the police enter, Sweetback offers his hands for the cuffs but then moves, using them to down one policeman. But he is without a weapon to deal with the other one and Moo Moo has been shot. Sweetback uses familiar survival techniques, however, because he deals with what he has available to him. The pool cue becomes a spear and he staces the policeman through the chest, and then drills him all the way to the kill of the cue. It is not technology that saves him, it is his ability to use the familiar of the Black community. There is another important message.
The rest of the scene show the unity of the community and its creativity in dealing with survival situations. Sweetback sends Moo Moo on a motorcycle because he is the future. Then he makes it on his feet by himself. He makes his plea to his feet to do their thing and they never fail him. All he has is his feet and one knife, and he gets by.
In the meantime the police are in the conference room and the commissioner tells them he wants the cap killers and niggers. Then he calls the Black policeman aside to apologize. They never say a word during the movie, but in their faces you see that they are dead. They are dead, because they are separated from the community of victims of which they are a part.
The police camp on the entire community. They raid a motel a rip out the eyes of a brother. When they realize that he is not Sweetback their reply is “So What?” Melvin Van Peebles is making it plain that we are all Sweetbacks and we are all united in this victimization. At one point they bring Beatle to the morgue to identify a body Sweetback; they run their games again with some speech about democracy and communism. They use their idea of bourgeois democracy against the community; but Beatle is a deaf man and has been deaf for a long time. In some respects he is also a blind man, because even though he operates a cat house and survives, he cannot read. They are the cause of his problems, he cannot hear, he cannot see, yet they want him to be a “responsible citizen” and help them. We see that Beatle has been subjected to the Biblical dictum: “Wherefore if thy hand and thy foot offend thee, cut them off and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hand or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast if from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire,” (Matthew 18: 8-9)
Van Peebles is continuing to signify and send out messages to the Black community. When Beatle sees that the corpse in the morgue is not Sweetback, be breaks up with joy. He gains his hearing in a sense, and also his sight. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25) We see the message very clearly because the camera immediately switches to a shoe shine stand where the brother is shining the man’s shoes with his ass, and he is really telling the man, for Beatle, what he can do.
So the police go through the community searching for Sweetback, and the people stand as one. They don’t know anything. The message here to the community is to “stop snitching”, there is need for unity, not for revealing our secrets. When I was in the penitentiary I learned the worse crime one inmate can accuse another of is snitching. Van Peebles shows how the community can avoid this and save themselves from their oppressors.
In the meantime we see Sweetback making it through the edges of the city and heading for the desert. He has none of the high-powered technology of the oppressor, but he does have his feet. In one scene we see him going by a large factory, it looks like a chemical plant or something like that. Here you see the drama being symbolized to its fullest. Sweetback with his feet, making it on by the man’s highest manifestation of technological skill, and you realize that this is the drama developing, the soul-force of the people against the technology of the oppressor. The only question is which will win? The answer is given by Sweetback in his plea to his feet, he says:
Come on feet cruise for me come on legs come on run come on feet do your thing who put the bad mouth on me anyway the way I pick em up and put em down even if it got my name on it won’t catch me now.
There is Sweetback’s answer to the oppressor’s technology, even if the bullet has his name on it, it won’t catch him now. Why? Because Sweetback has feet, and they will save him.
This is also the beginning of the dialogue between the running Sweetback and the colored angels. As soon as he hits the desert where the situation is really going to be bad, the colored angels come in and try to discourage him, but he has feet, he has heart, and he has courage, and in the dialogue he resists their discouragement as much as he resists the technology of the police who are always searching.
Now I would like to discuss the movie from a different angle, instead of a scene-by-scene analysis I want to talk about some of the important ideas signified in various scenes. Some of these ideas have been mentioned already, but I think that it is important to re-state them because Melvin Van Peebles uses them so effectively and he is trying to advance our awareness and understanding, so we repeat for added emphasis.
The first key idea or concept which I think the movie presents to us is the need for unity among all the members and institutions within the community of victims. We see the idea of unity between the young and the old beautifully expressed in the love and care which the women give to the young boy, and also in the concern Sweetback expresses for Moo Moo after he realizes that he is truly unified with Moo Moo. You will recall that Sweetback has an actual dialogue at only six points in the movie, three of these points are in relationship to Moo Moo. So the revolutionary and the righteous street brother see their functional unity. When Sweetback first downs the cops and saves Moo Moo. Moo Moo then asks Sweetback where are we going? What does Sweetback say”. “Where did you get that ‘we’ shit?” This indicates that Sweetback does not understand his need for unity with Moo Moo. Yet after his encounter with Beatle, Sweetback realizes that he cannot depend on his boss, the guy he should have been able to depend on, but Moo Moo was somewhere out there being hunted and so was Sweetback -and they were united.
Then when the gamblers are giving Sweetback a ride to the edge of town he spots Moo Moo and he tells his comrades to stop. This is the second time he speaks about the revolutionary. Now when Moo Moo gets in the car he tells the brothers who he is, but they still don’t see their need for unity, because to them he is not Moo Moo, he is the guy who got their partner into trouble. They blame the victim rather than those who victimize him, but this is because of their low level of awareness. Sweetback did that earlier, but he was revolutionized by his awareness of the true situation. Our unity will come out of consciousness, and this is the point of the movie, to raise the consciousness of the Black community.
The movie also demonstrates the functional unity between the present and the future. Once again we see this in the women giving nourishment and love to the boy who is their future -their liberator. If they did not feed him now and give him the strength to survive until his revolutionary consciousness is aroused, then he will not be able to liberate them. So pending the revolution they must do all they can to help him survive.
We also see the unity between the present and the future when Sweetback visits the church. He gets no help but he gets a little more understanding of the true nature of his contribution to the community. The minister tells him that what he did for Moo Moo was the correct thing. He says: “You saved the plant that they were planning to nip in the bud. That’s why the Man’s down on you.” Then later when Sweetback has another chance to escape, but without Moo Moo, he tells the Black motorcyclist to take the young brother instead. The motorcyclist asks Sweetback if he knows what he is doing and he replies: “He’s our future, Brer Take him.”
The movie also demonstrates the value of unity among the entire Black community. This is shown at the very beginning when the movie titles appear indicating that the movie is starring THE BLACK COMMUNITY. There is no here, there is no one outstanding individual, there is the community. At the end there are some names of participants, but it does not even tell what soles they played. This is all an attempt to play down the individualistic approach to our survival in favor of an expression of unity among the entire community.
This unity is also demonstrated by the fact that Sweetback has almost no dialogue in the entire movie. He says hardly anything at all. Why? Because the movie is not starring Sweetback, it is starring the Black community. Most of the audiences at the movie are Black and they talk to the screen. They supply the dialogues, because all of us are Sweetback, we are all in the same predicament of being victims.
This is clearly seen when Sweetback comes back to Beatle for help. Sweetback says nothing, but Beatle lets it come out of both ends. The audience replies to Beatle for Sweetback, and they supply the dialogue. This happens throughout the film. So the thing to do is not just see the film, but also to recognize how you the viewer are also an actor in the film, because you are as much a victim of this oppressive system as Sweetback.
The unity of the community is shown throughout the film and we should get the message the brother is signifying to us. When the community sets the police car afire and saves Sweetback, that is an expression of unity. When they deny ever having seen him in order to permit him to escape, that is an expression of unity. When they raid the motel and rip the brother’s eye out, they say “So what?” when told this is not Sweetback. But it is Sweetback in a sense, because the brother is another victim, like all of us are. When Beatle is rolled up to the morgue and realizes that the body they show him is not Sweetback, he sees his unity as a victim with his brother he failed to help who is also a victim. And Beatle cracks up laughing -they are unified. And in the next scene at the shoeshine stand Van Peebles signifies to the man that he can kiss his ass.
Another expression of unity in the film is the power symbol. When the minister tells Sweetback the significance of the job he has done for Moo Moo, he then says a Black Ave Maria for him, but ends up giving him the power sign -unity. Then when Moo Moo gets on the motorcycle to escape and then leave Sweetback, this is different from their first parting. They give each other a soul shake, so that even though they go separate ways they are unified.
Finally the film demonstrates the importance of unity and love between Black men and women. This is shown again in the scene where the woman makes love to the young boy but in fact baptizes him into his true manhood. Then again when the woman makes love to Sweetback and then gets the handcuffs off him, we see that these are not sex scenes, they are love scenes in a very holy and righteous context. The second woman wants Sweetback to beg, but he can beg no longer because he has been transformed. His baptism in the blood transformed him -he has ripped off his oppressors and he is truly a man; he can never beg again, and he does not.
For a long time the Black community has been a collection of people who survive together in one place, but unity is essential for liberation as well as survival. When we have this unity, the faith of one becomes the faith of another as in the case of Sweetback and Moo Moo. When we have our consciousness increased to the point that we understand this, we will have our unity. But we must understand that the victimizers will always try to prevent this unity.
Another idea the film gets across is the different point of view between the victim and the victimizer. The victimizers cannot accept the reality and truth of the view of the victims, and therefore they say that the victims are always wrong in their view of reality. Indeed, they even go so far as to signify that the victims cannot control and direct their own lives. This is seen first of all in the fact that the film is labeled with an “X” rating. This is an act of the victimizers, trying to control what we shall see, and more than that, trying to say that the ways in which we are forced to survive are profane and dirty. They say that we are like freaks in a show; but we understand that in fact the freaks are those who force us to live in wretched conditions, they may be profane conditions to the oppressors, but we know how to make our conditions a survival situation and we do not see ourselves as profane. The oppressors see Sweetback as a sex film, but if we truly understand ourselves and unify with Sweetback, we will see that the film advocates a bloody overthrow of the oppressor. Melvin Van Peebles is righteously signifying.
The view of the victims is seen in many ways. One of them is in the understanding of Moo Moo and Sweetback. They both know that they are victims, although Moo Moo has not really gotten his complete program together for the community. Yet they seek the same goals of freedom and liberation, and they recognize that sometimes you have to use stern stuff to accomplish your goals. They also recognize that even though the community may not support you entirely, they will support you to a point and that you must go as far as the community will go, and then move out on your own, leading the people to a higher level of consciousness. Sweetback relies on the community much more than Moo Moo, because he understands that revolution is a process, going from A to B to C and so forth, rather than trying to get the people to jump from A to Z.
The oppressor does not understand this, he does not understand the strength of the will of the people. When the two policemen catch Sweetback after he leaves Beatle’s place, they are friendly because they cannot accept the idea that the community will free itself. So they ask Sweetback how many people were in the ambush? How did they work it? The oppressors cannot accept the idea that the oppressed could do this without a lot of planning, without a large number of people. It was Sweetback and Moo Moo, but to the victimizer it had to be more than that. A difference in point of view, a point of view which is too often used to control us, but we must make our own point of view prevail.
Another difference in point of view is seen with the chains which are used on Sweetback twice in the film. To the oppressor they are the chains which keep us in a submissive position, but each time for Sweetback, the oppressed, they become tools of liberation. We will be even stronger when we learn how to turn the oppressor’s tools against him, rather than submitting to them.
Another idea which Melvin Van Peebles puts across is the uselessness of cultist behavior in our struggle for survival and liberation. In earlier issues of the paper I have talked about the revolutionary cultist, the cultural cultist, and the religious cultist. Van Peebles strikes some heavy blows at the religious and cultural cultists. For example, the minister understands that he is not moving the people toward their true liberation. He tells Sweetback that what he is doing is giving the people a hype, which gives them a little happiness, but he then goes on to say that Moo Moo and the younger guys are laying down the real religion. So this is a blow against those religions in the Black community which do not help people deal with the conditions which drive them to their knees, but instead want to keep the people on their knees.
The strongest blow against cultist behavior, however, is saved for the cultural cultists. We see this in the African garb which the minister is wearing. This is signifying that a lot of cultural nationalism and the meaningless religions in the community are deceiving the people in the same ways.
In another way the film makes this point more strongly and also indicates the true way to liberation. When Sweetback arrives at the gambler’s den, the men around the table are engaged in a conversation. The manager has complained to Sweetback that he cannot even make any money on this operation because he is paying off so many others. Cultural cultists offer many empty solutions to our oppression, and this scene hits at these solutions.
After the manager’s speech one gambler says: “And Africa shall stretch forth her arms,” and then another replies “Yeah, and bring back a bloody stump.” Now we have to understand the true issue in order to see this as a blow at cultural nationalists, who are cultural cultists -with African clothes, bones, and other things, but no way to liberate the people. Cultural cultists, who try to claim that they have the way, often use this scripture to support their ideas: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands into God.” (Psalms 68:31) You can see that what Van Peebles is signifying is that those who use such meaningless arguments to mislead the people have nothing to offer because when they stretch forth their arms, they will draw back a bloody stump. Still, however, Van Peebles does show us how a bloody stump may not be a meaningless thing, if we get out of that cultist bag. How does he do this? He shows the blood on Sweetback’s arms each time he downs the cops. In his first baptism by blood, there is blood all the way up to his elbow. And later when he downs the cops in the poolroom, there is blood up to his elbow again. That is the true route to liberation, stern action when the situation demands that you seize the time, and turn away from cultist behavior.
There is another key idea which comes through repeatedly, and that is the ability of the people to survive even under the harshest conditions. We do this by using the means available to us and never worrying about the fact that we don’t have all the technology that the oppressor has. You will recall that Sweetback was in chains and in the back of the police car when the people “washed” it with gasoline. What did the Brother do? He made it out of the car and then walked right through the police and firemen who were arriving to try and deal with the situation. He walked right through them -he did not panic and run, he just calmly turned a situation of oppression to his advantage.
Later on when Sweetback and Moo Moo had separated for the final time, the Brother was faced with a very difficult situation, and he had very little to carry him through. But when the colored angels began to get down on him, he told them “I got feet.” This was again symbolizing survival. It was not simply that he had feet, however, he also had the ability to use the technology of the oppressor in his own interest. He did not become discouraged because he had no car. Van Peebles could have had him steal a car, but instead he had Sweetback use the basic skills of survival, with nothing but the things he had learned for surviving the oppressor for so many years on the block. He doesn’t have a car, but he rides -on the top of a truck, inside the back of another truck, on a freight train, he uses the oppressor’s technology, but in his own interest.
He also survives by using the system against itself. He meets another traveler and pays him to change clothes and run when he is chased. This throws the police off his trail and helps him survive, but it also means that he ends up with clothes which are much more suitable for his long run across the desert. Later in the film, when he is near the border and the dogs are after him, the two men -the owner of the of the dogs and the police -get into a fight among themselves about whether the dogs will be untied. This is all to Sweetback’s advantage, turning the oppressors against each other, and he makes his escape.
In another way he survives the way that the Black community has always survived, by using the resources at his command even though they are not the resources others would use. Survival forces some very harsh decisions on us. When his wound is causing him to suffer, he urinates upon the earth and uses his own urine to make a mudpack which he applies to the wound -it produces a rapid healing. These are the kinds of home remedies we have long had to use because we could not get proper medical attention. Later, we see him bathing his face in a pool of muddy water. It sustains him. When I saw it I thought of that song which says “I’d rather drink muddy water, and sleep in a hollowed out log, than stay here and be treated like a dirty dog.”
These are survival techniques all the audience can identify with because they realize they are necessary. They don’t identify with the time he catches that lizard and downs it, raw. But this is no different from the times when we had to eat the chitterlings, hog maws, and other foods, not because we wanted to, but because that was all we had to eat. We may deny it, we may not identify with it, but it carried us through. And the point we should understand is that if you do not submit to the oppressor, you may be forced to make some harsh decisions, eat some undesirable foods, but this is better than being well-fed in some social prison.
Sweetback has only one tool with him, his knife, and he uses it very effectively. It reminds me of that point in The Wretched of the Earth where Fanon says that if you don’t have a gun, then a knife will do. He uses his knife to escape at the rock concert, by pretending to be making love to the girl in the bushes. He uses the knife against the lizard. And then when he hears the dogs coming after him, he again pulls it out and he uses it -he really deals. But we should know it would be this way, because earlier in the pool room when he was facing the policeman with a gun what did Sweetback have? A tool the community knows how to use very effectively, a pool cue. But he did not use it to down pool balls, he turned it into a spear and downed the oppressor. You don’t need a gun, what you need is the consciousness of what it will take to survive and prevail in any given situation -and then act accordingly.
So what I have done is given you a scene-by-scene analysis of the movie, then an analysis of some of the major ideas and concepts which the movie puts forth. Now I will show how the movie also raises the consciousness of the community by analyzing it in terms of some aspects of the ideology of the Black Panther Party. We see ideology as a systematic way of thinking about phenomena, not as some set of abstract conclusions. Our approach is one that uses dialectical materialism, which holds that contradictions are the ruling principle of the universe. Everywhere, in all of life, the social forces, the natural forces, and the biological and physical forces, we can find contradictions. What we mean is that in every phenomenon there is a contradiction between opposing forces which struggle to gain domination over each other. We call this the thesis and antithesis, or the unity of the opposites. Because these opposites are both unified and constantly in struggle with one another, they give motion to the matter composing the phenomenon. So we say that matter is constantly in motion, or constantly in a state of transformation. The transformation takes place in a dialectical manner, with the thesis struggling against the antithesis; these are the contradictions. The struggle is resolved in a synthesis, which contains elements of the old contradictions, but is at a higher level, and then a new set of contradictions arises.
The essence of the ideology of the Black Panther Party is that we recognize that matter is constantly in transformation in a dialectical manner. But when we understand this and understand the forces in operation, we can control them and direct them in a manner which is beneficial for the community. Therefore what we want to do is understand the contradictions within every aspect of the Black community and move on them by trying to increase the positive side of each contradiction until it comes to dominate the negative side. This is how we define power -the ability to define phenomena and make them act in a desired manner.
If you understand where the Panther is coming from, you will understand that Sweet Sweetback is a beautiful exemplification of Black Power, for what he does is decide how he wants things to come out and then he makes them act in a desired manner. The movie is also an exemplification of the dialectical analysis and the constant transformation of phenomena. I don’t know whether Melvin Van Peebles was aware of this when he made the movie, but it does have these features, and probably so because the Panther ideology is an extremely effective approach to all phenomena. It gives us lots of insight and understanding.
For example, we say that all phenomena contain contradictions with positive and negative qualities. To control the situation, then, what you must do is increase the positive qualities of any phenomenon until they dominate the negative qualities. Sweetback does this on a number of occasions. Take for example the chains. The handcuffs are definitely negative when they are used to keep him in submission; but when Sweetback realizes that he can ignore the beating of Moo Moo no longer, what is he to use for a weapon? Then the same chains which were used to bind become tools of liberation -their positive qualities are used to overcome their negative qualities. He did this again when he was caught by the police in the pool room -he offered his hands for the chains. Not because he wanted them, but because he realized that this would put the police off their guard, and also give him another weapon to use against them. We see this again, when the police are using helicopters, cars and guns and the radio to track down Sweetback. What does he use? Their technology; but in a positive way -he hitches rides on trucks and trains, and they help to deliver him from the jaws of the monsters who are using the most advanced technology to try and capture him. If we understand dialectical materialism, we will understand more about how to look at both the positive and negative qualities of phenomena so that we can control our destiny.
The film also shows the positive and negative features of community institutions. In other articles I have said that the Black Panther Party was wrong in its blanket condemnations of community institutions, instead of analyzing their qualities. The movie shows the positive and negative features of the church, for example. The minister is saying to Sweetback that he has nothing to offer the community, he can only give the people a hype which will bring them a little bit of happiness in their misery, and he cannot offer Sweetback a hide-out because the police -(“the Man”) knows everything. This shows his negative and reactionary side. At the same time we see his positive and progressive side, because he is operating a withdrawal center where people addicted to drugs can come and dry out. There is no blanket condemnation, he shows the church making a real contribution to the survival of the community. What needs to happen is for people with a higher level of consciousness to increase the positive contribution the church makes until the positive becomes the most important feature of the church, then it will be able to do more for the people.
The same is true in the case of the gambler. He cannot offer Sweetback any money, he is exploiting and he is also exploited, and when the Brother really needs help he has no money to give him. What’s more, the advice he gives is worthless because he says that Sweetback is dead and tells him to get himself a last supper. But there is also a positive quality to the gambler, because he will give Sweetback and Moo Moo a ride for part of the way. Actually he can give them a ride all the way to the border, but he will only give them a ride to the edge of town where they run into the motorcycle gang. But the point is made very well, that you have to work with the people as far as they will go, and not jump too far ahead by forcing them to do things they do not want to do at that particular level of consciousness. So he carries the positive qualities of the gambler as far as they will go, and then strikes out again. This is taking your revolution from point A to point B, rather than trying to jump from A to Z in one step. We have to find out what the people will do and get them to do that much.
The progression of the people as their consciousness increases is shown in the case of Beatle. At first Beatle is an individual surviving at a basic level, running a cat house and then giving up one of his men in order to continue to operate. Then Beatle offers advice which is nothing more than a pile of dung. Next we see Beatle going through the revolutionizing process, because if he knew where Sweetback was, he would have told on him. But because he was deaf before and because he cannot cooperate with the police, they actually deafen him -the conditions revolutionize him. When we next see Beatle it is in the morgue scene and he cracks up as he realizes that Sweetback has escaped they are unified. Beatle has seen that he also is a victim and there can be no cooperation with the oppressor because they will bleed you to death; if you want to live you have to resist. And the shoe shine man uses his ass on the shoes of his oppressor.
There is also a progression within the community. They rescue Sweetback, and aid him as much as they can in his escape, then they become deaf to their oppressors. That is a way of hearing the plea of Sweetback to his feet and giving him enough lead time to let his feet do their job.
The community’s progression is also shown in the transformation of the colored angels. We hear the voices of the community as the police search for Sweetback, but when he reaches the desert we hear the voices of the angels in a dialogue with Sweetback. On the record Melvin Van Peebles refers to this as an opera (an opera is merely a story told in song), and the dialogue between Sweetback and the angels is really Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song. In the book Van Peebles refers to the angels first as colored angels, then he refers to them as Black angels. On the record he refers to them as Reggin (spell it backwards) angels. The point is that the angels are against the interests of Sweetback, but they are transformed, because their interests are in fact the same as his. This is the dialogue with the angels, the baadasssss song:
If you cant beat em join em Thats what they say You talkin bout yesterday You cont go on like that Sweetback Not long as your face is Black Yeah I’m Black and I’m keepin on keepin on the same ole way They bopped your mama They bopped your papa Wont bop me They bopped your sister They bopped your brother They wont bop me THEY BURNED OUR MAMAS THEY BEAT OUR PAPAS THEY TRICKED OUR SISTERS THEY CHAINED OUR BROTHERS WONT BLEED ME WONT BLEED ME WONT BLEED ME They bled your mama They bled your papa But he wont bleed me Use your Black ass from sun to sun Niggers scared and pretend they don’t see Deep down dirty dog scared Just like you Sweetback Just like I used to be Work your Black behind to the gums And you supposed to thomas tell he done You got to thomas Sweetback They bled your brother They bled your sister Yeah but they wont bleed me Progress Sweetback Thats what he wants you to believe No progress Sweetback He aint stopped clubbing us for 400 years And he dont intend to for a million He sure treat us bad Sweetback We can make him do us better Chicken aint nothing but a bird White man aint nothing but a turd Nigger aint shit Get my hands on a trigger You talkin revolution Sweetback I wants get off these knees You talkin revolution Sweetback You cant make it on wings Wheels or steel Sweetback We got feet You cant get away on wings wheels or steel Sweetback Niggers got feet He bled your brother He bled your sister Your brother and your sister too How come it took me so long to see How he get us to use each other Niggers scared We got to get it together if he kicks a brother It gotta he like he kickin your mother They hype you into sopping the Marrow out your own bones Justice is blind Yeah and white too Justice is blind The way she acts she gotta be The man is jive Not too jive to have his game Uptight in your kinky bean Stand tall Sweetback he Aint gonna let you I’m standing tall anyway The man know everything Sweetback The man know everything Then he ought to know Im Tired of him fuckin with me Use your feet baby motherfucka Sweetback He wont bleed me
We can see the transformation of the angels if we see the opera in relationship to the scenes in the movie. When he arrives at the desert, the most difficult and lonesome part of his whole trip, the colored angels chastise and ridicule him. They believe, like the gambler, that he is a dead man and it will only be a matter of time until he is caught. So they signify, about how the Man bopped his brother and sister, how he bled his momma and poppa, and how he will get Sweetback. But Sweetback is determined because he knows they won’t bop him, they won’t bleed him. Why? “I got feet”. All he is signifying is that I can deal, and I can survive.
When he uses his urine mixed with mud to make the pack which heals his wounds, the angels begin to change. They see too that he will survive, so they start to become Black. They recognize that they too are like Sweetback, and they point out that they have been treated bad too, but they have been acting like Uncle Toms. Sweetback is going to get his finger on a trigger, get off his knees, and fight a revolution. So when he makes the mudpack, the Black angels begin to tell him to run, they want him to deal, now, they don’t want him to Tom. They too have been transformed, because Sweetback has increased their positive qualities by showing them it is not necessary to submit all the time. At some point you have got to get off your knees.
Their transformation continues because when the police looses the hound dogs (slave dogs) after Sweetback and he draws his knife, the Black angels begin to sing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” This is the first time we have heard this song since Sweetback’s baptism into his manhood. The growth he experienced the first time this song was sung, the way he learned from those women in the house of prostitution, is going to serve him again. They gave him love and strength because he was their future, their liberator, and now their training is going to serve him, now that he is older. The angels are transformed, and Sweetback survives. This brings us to the end of the movie, and the negation of the negation. At the beginning the community of oppressed was in contradiction with the oppressors. The oppressed were trying to survive, but the oppressors would not permit that, they wanted more. They wanted to bleed them to death and completely dominate them. They wanted to dominate by dividing the community, Sweetback against Moo Moo, Beatle against Sweetback. But this continued oppression led the people to realize that their salvation would only come through unity, and unity would only come through heightened levels of consciousness. So they unify and Sweetback revolts against the oppressors and makes good his escape. Many do not believe he will make it, their consciousness is not as high as his. He is reaching for the stars -making it to the border -but they will only take him to the edge of town.
Sweetback has his high level of consciousness, that is to say, he is a Sweet Sweetback because he has come to understand that freedom, liberation, and the ability to love requires that first of all you have to recapture the holy grail, you have to restore your dignity and manhood by destroying the one who look it from you. When you do that, even if you do not completely escape, you are a dangerous man, because after that the oppressor knows that you will no longer be submissive. Therefore ripping off your oppressor is the first step toward freedom and love.
This understanding did not come easily to Sweetback. He attempted to look away from Moo Moo, and then after rescuing him, he attempted to make it on his own, only to be misled by Beatle. This put him in the situation of a revolutionary, in the sense that he knew then that he could not find a place of refuge within the system without a whole transformation of the conditions of oppression.
I say this because many people think that revolutionaries are made out of some kinds of abstract predicaments. This is not so, they are transformed by a particular set of situations that are sometimes unique to each individual. What brings one person into his revolutionary consciousness is different from what will bring another, but when we reach that point, we realize that we are all unified as victims. That is what happened to Sweetback, Moo Moo, Beatle, the angels and the community in the film. That is why the film stars the Black community -all of us. We must understand our unity and also how we must heighten our consciousness.
So like I said, we have the negation of the negation. The oppressor who wanted to exploit Sweetback and Beatle, ends up beaten by them because they will take his stuff no longer -the negation of the negation. The contradiction between the community, as represented by Sweetback, and the oppressor, as represented by the dogs, has been resolved.
However each synthesis leads to new contradictions. Right until the end Melvin Van Peebles is signifying and conveying a message to us. What is the new contradiction? Sweetback has killed two dogs, but one is still there, refreshing himself in the water mingled with the blood of the other dogs. If Sweetback got two dogs, who is going to get the other? That is the dog we must down. So the movie ends with the words “Watch Out”. This has a dual meaning. It is telling all the many Sweetbacks across the land to watch out for that third dog and be prepared to deal when he shows up. It also says to the oppressor to watch out for the Sweetbacks across the land, because they are coming to collect some dues. Righteously signifying.
When Bobby and I started the Black Panther Party, we wanted to build the Black community, the love, the sacredness, and the unity we need so desperately. This is still our goal and we try to help the community survive by administering our many survival programs. Sweet Sweetback helps to put forth the ideas of what we must do to build that community. We need to see it often and learn from it.
The Tropes of Anti-Anti Imperialism, Part 3: Palestine and the War on Syria
Soldiers of the Arab Liberation Army in 1948, volunteer brigades led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji.
If there is one media phrase of the past decade that most succinctly encapsulates the perils of the atomization of history, it is “Arab Spring.” With its synonyms of newness and awakening, one is compelled, by a single brief phrase, to assume that Arab history was once dead until finally in 2011 it was born again. Let me assume, perhaps generously, that the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic” considers themselves too savvy for this phrase and, like many other exhausted media consumers, they dismiss it as a journalistic cliché. I would still insist that the same logic that assigns seasonal patterns to Arab struggle undergirds the logic of “Cautiously Pessimistic” and the anti-anti imperialist tropes on which they build.
How else am I to understand the sheer exasperation at the fact that, as crowds of refugees flee West Asia to escape harrowing cycles of war, I refer to the precedent of Palestine? “Cautiously Pessimistic” asks: “…why on earth would you bother examining what Syrians have to say about the contemporary situation in Syria when you can just recycle analyses of Palestine, a different country with different forces at play?” Thus, nothing short of dumbfounded, this person cannot help but wonder: What the hell does Palestine have to do with a contemporary war in Syria? Either that, or those who bring up Palestine and US imperialism’s long-stated objective to liquidate its regional supporters–individuals, non-state organizations, as well as states–can expect to be treated as narrowly ideological, hopelessly binary-minded Manicheans willing against all moral decency to “support” (what that word is supposed to mean concretely is up for debate, but that’s a different subject) any old entity claiming hostility towards Israel. (“Cautiously Pessmistic” puts it thusly: “…Syria and other Arab nations are reduced to objects, mere backdrops for the struggle between the Palestinian goodies and the Israeli baddies. ”)
That there is even a question of what Palestine has to teach us about Syria speaks to the victory of the amnesia that allows a phrase as preposterous as “Arab Spring” to flourish. But before I address the enduring relevance of the situation in Palestine, allow me to make a couple preliminary points.
Identity and Authority
The Palestine-related text “Cautiously Pessmistic” deems off-topic, which I encourage everyone to read, was published by Soula Avramidis as she observed the United States’ behavior in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. To Avaramidis, the US appeared to be deliberately destroying Iraqi national institutions across the Arab world. For her, the question of how to explain these actions morphed into a question of who could possibly explain them. Trusting her own historical memory, her remembrances of the struggles of the past, Avramidis turned back to the political education she received about the plight of the Arab world through the collective struggle and studies of the Palestinian Revolution and, more specifically, Al Hadaf (translated: “The Target”), official publication of one of that revolution’s largest parties, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Avramidis’s professed reasons for consulting the authority of Al Hadaf are profoundly important and mirror my own. But first I’ll get “Cautiously Pessimistic’s” superficial objection out of the way: is this source contemporary and Syrian enough to qualify as important or insightful when it comes to the war on Syria?
The fact that this question is even posed, and that the substance of Avramidis’s argument is thereby ignored, reflects a very specific recurring anti-anti imperialist trope in debates about Syria (and earlier about Libya). The underlying presumption is that the pathway to higher wisdom on Syria–the route leading to illuminations of the problem and providing answers about what must be done–rests on the authenticity of one’s sources. At its core, this is an identitarian argument, the problems of which should by now be broadly familiar across the left. When weighing diverse opinions against each other, which opinions should non-Syrians conclude matter? Which “voice” among Syrians is authentic and true?
Should the economic class of a given source be taken into consideration? How about whether the source resides in Syria or among the diaspora? How does a non-Syrian regard divergent interpretations of contemporary Syria from army soldiers versus refugees versus students living abroad–assuming at the same time that Syrians belonging to each of those categories live complex lives and cannot be reduced to those categories? Perhaps most importantly, how do we affirm or deny competing political commitments among Syrians without first acknowledging our own commitments? If that question had any easy answer, there would not be competing political commitments among even Syrians themselves in the first place. Presumably, the Muslim Brotherhood cadres that launched armed warfare against the Syrian state years before 2011 should remind us that Syrian identity, however it may be defined, does not guarantee shared political vision.
I think this point is rather obvious and easy, especially since endless rounds of debate about the specter of “identity politics” overtook leftist internet fora long ago. But there’s something additional worth pointing out about the type of leftist who invokes source authenticity. By deferring to this or that authoritative “voice,” with the implication that identity forms the basis of said authority, the anti-anti imperialist sneakily abrogates responsibility for their own political choices.
Take, for example, the anti-government protest slogans from Iran that “Cautiously Pessimistic” cites: “Let go of Palestine”, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life only for Iran” and “Leave Syria, think about us.” As per “Cautiously Pessimistic,” if I object to the political content of those slogans, I am engaged in providing a “stern imperial purity lecture” to “Iranians.” Judging by this metric, what might we assume about “Cautiously Pessimistic” if we were to learn that these slogans do not even come close to representing majority opinion in Iran? Recent poll results, particularly those referencing “Hezbollah of Lebanon” certainly seem to confirm as much.
By citing these slogans, “Cautiously Pessimistic” has not echoed “authentic” Iranian opinion; rather, they have made a political choice to amplify these particular slogans. It should go without saying that I’d choose to do otherwise. I find nothing encouraging or justice-oriented about the political currents in Iran that blame solidarity efforts with the occupied people of Palestine for Iran’s woes. Rather, I believe support for Palestine registers as a highly reliable indicator for a broader agenda towards liberation and justice.
Arab Palestine, Matrix of Woes
With that basic set of point out of the way, I’ll return to the question I asked above: why did Avramidis refer to the example of Al Hadaf when analyzing the US war on Iraq? It is when addressing this question that I can acknowledge that while identity and experience, those things academics have taken to calling “subjectivities,” do not provide a sufficient basis for authority, they are nonetheless necessary. For Avramidis saw Iraq, a society destroyed by US imperialism, and recalled the experience of Palestine, a society ruined by British colonialism and, later on, by US imperialism.
Avramidis understood in 2005 that Al Hadaf presented a general theory of US imperialism in the Arab world. It was a theory borne out of particular conditions (destruction and ruin), modes of experience (traversing refugee camps), and–this is what really sets the source material apart–collective practice embodied in a national liberation movement. In other words, Palestinian and Arab revolutionaries were indeed in a unique position to understand how US imperialism functioned in their region as they looked around and saw rubble and tents. But their insights are special in part because they did much more than that: they launched a region-wide struggle across the Sykes-Picot borders, which threatened the US-led system of the region and bore the fruit of social revolution. These acknowledgements alone should be enough to dismiss any notion of “imperial purity,” as we find when returning to this analysis the flow of knowledge from refugee camps into the imperial core, only to arrive in the halls of academia years later!
Consideration of this precedent ought to be extensive. The so-called “refugee crisis” of today is tied as much to imperialism now as the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 was tied to British colonialism: both Zionist and Wahhabi militias have gotten their mobilizing resources and firing power from larger imperial powers. It also helps to remember that refugees now confront the same problems Palestinians did before in the early days of the UNRWA, infantilized in bourgeois media as passive victims. Palestinians took the world by surprise when they eventually asserted themselves as a refugee-based national movement.
I want to be very clear on this point. Just as Western colonial powers were fomenting war in West Asia for a century before the 2011 eruptions, neither Arab revolution nor Arab revolutionary analyses is starting from scratch. Just about every State Department lackey and Beltway journalist who says “Arab Spring” beckons you to forget about history. Any promotion of an atomized view of regional history depends on exactly the premise that the knowledge produced by those struggles teaches us nothing and amount to nothing—2011 becomes Year Zero. Instead of interpreting the continuities on which solidarity is based, the anti-anti imperialist atomists points to endless ruptures. I propose that if people instead turn back to history, they find not only over 100 years of Arab resistance to colonialism and imperialism—dating back before the Nakba, before Peel and Balfour, before even Sykes-Picot—but also entire bodies of theory and thought on which to build.
Thus, I refer to the PLO Charter of 1968 because it reminds me of the character of the revolution—anti-colonial and Pan-Arab, necessarily including the Syrian people as an invaluable component of higher struggle and destination—that imperial powers sought to bury. I refer to the DFLP’s rebuke to “false regionalisms” because it reminds me that the US’s and King Hussein’s counterrevolution in Jordan depended on national schisms, the colonial myth that Palestinians and Jordanians are separate peoples. (Perhaps, if King Hussein’s own atomizing ideology had been defeated, the US would not even have a Jordanian base from which to attack Syria today.) I refer to the PFLP’s critique to the US political economy of war because there certainly aren’t any blue-check Twitter wonks orbiting the Atlantic Council, not Charles Lister and sure as hell not Michael Weiss, providing clues as to why the US seems to bomb Syrian (and now Russian) Army forces every time the media declares the beginning of the end of the Syrian war.
I would think that US-based revolutionaries’ theories of the present about their own society might keep something from the high points of struggles past–from Reconstruction, perhaps, or from the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. Then again, given the atomized state of US society itself, it should come as no surprise that, often times, only an atomized view of history is permissible. Hell, many people living in North America probably have a much poorer understanding of their own society than the majority of the rest of world at this point. As more and more fascists go on killing rampages, how many revolutionaries in the US are turning back to the thinkers who struggled against US white supremacy in order to find clues about the present? Who is looking now to Leonard Peltier? Or back in time to Malcolm X and George Jackson? People in the US certainly should. One can admire not only tremendous sacrifices from revolutionaries past—one can also uncover warnings from them. This discovery mission might very well turn a liberal radical, to be prepared for Charlottesville goose-steps rather than merely shocked by them.
It is the same elsewhere. In predicting the fate of the Arab world in 1974, the PFLP implored that “an attempt [was] being made to reverse half a century of Arab colonialism and to install a new order in the Mideast which requires for its implementation… the sanctification of regionalism in the Arab world.” In place of the Pan-Arab vision of a single socialist state, we would get what we see now: “a right-wing alliance under the aegis of the U.S. whose ideology is inspired by a religious fundamentalism based on upper class populist perspectives…” The right-wing militias that the US armed and trained and sent to Syria show the deeds of which that alliance is capable. It additionally comes as no surprise that those who seek to downplay, disguise, or outright hide this right-wing alliance—US support for Saudi Arabia, the CIA and Pentagon weapons programs, the sectarian propaganda campaigns, etc.—do the same about a tradition of struggle that provides still a possible alternative.
It is not, however, a tradition that sanctifies any differences between Palestinians and Syrians. Past Arab liberation struggles have tended to view the region as a whole because the US did the same. From the perspective of US planners, the region itself is a prize for geopolitical reasons. As former US diplomat Eric Edelman recently stated about North Africa and West Asia at a testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “U.S. policymakers have considered access to the region’s energy resources vital for U.S. allies in Europe, and ultimately for the United States itself… Moreover, the region’s strategic location—linking Europe and Asia—made it particularly important from a geopolitical point of view.” Here again is the unique problem of US rule: its intended as well as actual power extends across the world. To paraphrase Mao, revolt in a colonizer country carries a different meaning in a colonized country. For peoples of West Asia to oppose the “enemy at home” à la Karl Liebknecht very much entails opposing an enemy, in the form of US military and economic power, that has invaded their home for purposes of domination and exploitation, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Let us not forget then that the dream of Arab reunification and independence after the age of French and British colonialism preceded the Nakba in Palestine. As the Nakba occurred, thousands of Arabs from across West Asia and North Africa–Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, you name it–mobilized as volunteers for the defense of Palestine, under the belief that no section of the Arab world could be free so long as the West maintained a military base at its Mediterranean edge in the former of a settler-colony. As the effects of Nakba became clear, Syrian intellectual Constantine Zureiq determined that the Zionist movement presented an unprecedented disaster to Arab peoples. Self-sacrificing Arab youth, he determined, must be mobilized. One of his students, a famous Palestinian doctor and revolutionary named George Habash, decreed in his memoirs that Israel’s existence in Palestine was “the matrix of all [Arab peoples’] woes.”
As part of its process of radicalization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared in 1968 that “Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine are two complementary objectives.” The PLO went further: “The destiny of the Arab nation, and indeed Arab existence itself, depend upon the destiny of the Palestine cause. From this interdependence springs the Arab nation’s pursuit of, and striving for, the liberation of Palestine,” concluding that “the liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national (qawmi) duty” aimed at repelling imperialist aggression in the Arab homeland. This rhetoric became living reality. Some of the PFLP’s most famous martyrs were not Palestinian even: Basil al-Kubaisi was Iraqi and Mohammed Boudia was Algerian. When Iraqi and Syrian volunteers for Palestine continued to pour into the ranks of the PFLP in Lebanon in the 1980s, the PFLP did not hand them Marxist pamphlets as they did other international volunteers. Rather, all Arabs received pamphlets on Arab history. Thus, treasures such as Al Hadaf are not simply Palestinian sources. These insights remain the product of collected and collective Arab thought.
Palestine as Analogy
Despite the confusions of “Cautiously Pessimistic,” I am hardly the first or only one to invoke Palestine in relation to the ongoing war in Syria. Indeed, there are even competing suggestions for how knowledge of Palestine might be applied to the Syrian situation. Within the Palestine solidarity movement, competing lists of Palestinian opinion have been proffered as a kind of standardized evidence. A large part of this method of argument–a battle over authenticity, essentially–is the lack of a strong Palestinian national movement for guidance and accountability. This separation is partly attributable to the many forms of normalization made official in the Oslo Accords. It is a separation maintained by US legal warfare.
In the context of arguments about Syria, petitions have been proffered containing Syrian names in effect calling for a complete US invasion of Syria. (I don’t want misleadingly to claim neutrality: I find the lists proffered with names of people living in Palestine and Syria taking a stand against the US war of aggression to be more compelling.) The Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who must by now be the New York Times’ favorite Marxist, succinctly puts the Palestine analogy anti-anti imperialists see in Syria in the following terms: “We are the Palestinians, and the regime is Israeli; the Palestinians are Syrians, and Israel is Assadist.” The formula is meant to evoke the image of a terrorized, unarmed people cruelly victimized by an unrelenting military state. In the case of Saleh, this line of thought logically extends from his long-held analytical premises, in which a major defeat to Zionist settler-colonialism has ultimately posed less of a threat to Arab peoples than local regimes. As written by Suzanne Elizabeth Kassab in Contemporary Arab Thought:
“For [Saleh], the events that followed [the 1967 Naksa], such as the repression in Syria between 1979 and 1982, and the wars waged by Saddam Hussein, were much bigger disasters for Arab peoples than the Six Day War of 1967.”
At least the priorities are made clear. One one level, this reasoning threatens to erase a precious red line in the history of the cause regarding the State of Israel–namely, that Israel is not a legitimate state, that it is rather “the Zionist Entity,” an alien colonial presence in the region that threatens Arab peoples with physical and cultural extermination, to the ends than an entire people native to the land may be violently removed and replaced with European settlers. This difference between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, which is for all of its faults and limitations the product of a bloody independence struggle from French colonialism, manifests under current conditions every time Israel bombs Syria.
I don’t want to suggest that this proposed equivalence between settler-colonial Israel and one Arab man “Assad” (that is, when “Assad,” the one man stand-in for the Syrian state, is not actually said to have been worse for Palestinians) is simply a spontaneous, organic product emanating from various sections of the Palestine solidarity movement. Solidarity efforts with Palestine underwent major changes after the leadership of the national movement surrendered to US imperialism and Zionism in 1993. In the mid-2000s, awareness of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians nonetheless became more popularized. On its own, this popularization was a good thing; it did, however, come with some major challenges.
Rather than look to the history of the national movement for language about and descriptions of the Palestinian issue, many activists informed themselves by consulting corporate and state media networks with “independent” branding: Channel 4 News, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now!, and more recently, The Intercept. Each of these media sites covered aspects of Israeli onslaughts upon the trapped people of Gaza, gaining trust of a new generation of activists prone towards skepticism towards the news branches of Comcast and Viacom, NBC and Fox. Less understood is that these information sources are deeply embedded within the larger political economy of imperialist media, funded by corporate advertisers, the Qatari monarchy (a major weapons and training provider to contras in Syria), US billionaire “foundations,” and the billionaire Pierre Omidyar (regime change funder in Ukraine and Zimbabwe at the very least), respectively. These sites are just a few examples, to which one could add a host of Qatari-, Saudi-, and Turkish-funded media operations sympathetic to the armed contras in Syria.
Each of these media sites also tend to portray the Syrian war as a matter of a powerful state attempting to eliminate relatively powerless bands of armed rebels–or, before that, unarmed peaceful protesters. In this universe, the Syrian Arab Republic must be condemned for launching its own “War on Terror” in the manner of the US and Israel. The armed rebel groups in Syria can be viewed as the “Hamas” of Syria, a shibboleth used only to justify war crimes. In all of these analogies, a depressing irony has emerged. Right at the moment bourgeois media finally began to record at least some of Israel’s brutalities for mass audiences, that very coverage became a weapon with which mass media propagandized against another US-Zionist target.
The Israel-Assad analogy necessarily sidesteps the problem of inequality between nations. To quote an old slogan: “Countries want independence, nations want liberation, people want revolution.” The questions of independence and liberation are tied intimately to that of revolution. While Hamas’s professed principles and vision for Palestinian society is not leftist in the slightest, their actions against Israel serve the ends of justice. As refugees in their own land, Hamas fighters’ armed rebellion not only amounts to self-defense from the racist aggression manifested in Israel’s very existence, but also plays a role in the liberation of the Palestinian people as a whole from colonialism. It is anti-colonial violence strengthening the global fight against imperialism and the racism required by imperialism, the kind theorized by Fanon and eventually, in typically belated fashion, enshrined as a right in international law.
In Syria, where French colonialism was defeated and where there has remained by contrast with other Arab countries relative independence from the US, there wages not only the battle against recolonization, but also a battle over the political future of the country. Every time Ahrar al-Sham, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or Jaysh al-Islam attack civilian centers, they do so with the intent to change Syrian society. We ought to consider those proposed changes should we decide to analogize the Syrian armed forces’ response to Israel or the US: have these groups earned the right to decrease the legal status of Syrian women? Have they earned the right to eradicate ‘Alawis from Syrian lands? The analogy becomes all the more disturbing when we consider that the US and its allies have provided these groups with the materials means to attempt those changes. The mortars fired by Jaysh al-Islam into Damascus bring physical destruction; they are also backed by political programs and ideas. Anti-anti imperialism reaches something of an apotheosis whenever people compare the Syrian Army in Ghouta, an enclave invaded by US-backed contras, to the US-backed Contra State of Israel!
Palestine as Center of Common Struggle
The Israel-Assad analogy also replaces region-wide struggle against a region-wide order with atomistic struggles against “internal” regimes, ensuring the expanded military hegemony of the US and Israel, as the Syrian war has demonstrated. Furthermore, the analogy implies that effective anti-Zionist solidarity with Palestine in the United States can possibly be carried out without an effective antiwar movement against the US’s broader policies in the region.
To see how that would work practically, I can return to a criticism I received from “Cautiously Pessimistic.” To quote myself: “The fact, for example, that left-wing Palestinian organizations were able to hold open strategy conferences in Damascus before the outbreak of war, is not in the slightest way insignificant, for either U.S. imperialists or for anti-imperialists…” And here is the rejoinder to my words: “…is it significant or insignificant that left-wing pro-Palestinian organisations are able to operate openly and hold meetings in the US itself?”
To be clear, I would oppose on principle the CIA pumping right-wing militias with guns to turn city quarters into charnel houses and Captagon factories, even if those militias didn’t hunt leftists. But I must point out what is omitted from this reply to me. The organization in question is not just any leftist Palestinian party. It is the largest, most organized leftist Palestinian faction, the PFLP. The PFLP cannot openly hold meetings in the US because the State Department lists it as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” My critic clearly has as little interest in Palestine as they do in defeating US imperialism, so they likely have never had to confront the effects of the FTO list, which we can simply regard as a stateside manifestation of the repression the US strengthens through its alliances in the Arab world. As I put it in Viewpoint, we are talking about “a region where such organizations are outlawed and forced underground to hide perpetually and flee from the surveillance of absolutist monarchs and unrelenting Israeli occupiers.”
The FTO ban is enforced, too. In fact, you need not even break the unjust laws to encounter FTO-related repression. Look no further for proof than the Antiwar 23, international solidarity activists raided by the FBI before they were delivered subpoenas in September of 2010. The FBI left behind files containing the operation plans for the raids at one of the targeted houses. The contents revealed concern over “material support” specifically for organizations opposed to US imperialism. The first was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-Leninist organization militarily targeted by the US’s Plan Colombia. (Since I am interested in “making connections,” I will use the mention of Colombia to point out that the National Police forces, or Junglas, that the US trained in Colombia are now being deployed by private contractors to fight as mercenaries for the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.) The second was the PFLP. “Have you ever heard of a group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also known as the PFLP?” was one of the questions agents were prompted to ask.
There are several functions to the laws banning the PFLP. One pertains to Palestine specifically. As Charlotte Kates argues, “When the FTO lists were initially created — the first creating financial, the second criminal, penalties for ‘material support’ of the banned organizations — the parties associated with the Palestinian left, most notably the PFLP, were named, no doubt related to those groups’ criticism of the Oslo process and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.” Another function pertains to solidarity organizing with Palestine: “The criminalization of material support to these groups has reshaped Palestinian organizing in the US, segregating those in exile here from their counterparts in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world by creating barriers to common political affiliation and support. With the potential for prosecution looming over politically active Palestinians, a new climate of fear has strongly suppressed organizing.”
For its role in reshaping Palestine organizing, the law effectively does to the Palestine solidarity movement what the US did to the Palestinian national movement. This is to say, it severs “radical” activists from the “moderates,” the easier to isolate and target the former. The fault line between the two—“radical” and “moderate”—can in large part be defined by their distinct attitudes towards the issue of US imperialism. There are several practical factors at play here, all of which have serious implications for how US activists approach the Syrian war.
First, meaningful solidarity with Palestine requires, probably even more than activists targeting Israel itself, meaningful pressure against the US government backed by one simple demand: cut off all aid to Israel. This pressure cannot coalesce without strong coalitions built on local forms of power, nationally coordinated, throughout the US. At the risk of being accused once more of “imperial narcissism,” its existence depends much more on a concrete analysis of conditions in the US than conditions overseas.
Second, we have seen on display since the recent imperialist onslaughts beginning in 2011 an increase in US wars (the expansion of US arms programs in Syria into bombing campaigns, followed by direct military occupation being one prominent example), concomitant with a marked decrease in antiwar activity, owed in no small part to state repression. To the case of the Antiwar 23, we might add the Jacksonville 5, a group of antiwar activists who, when protesting the US bombing of the Syrian government, were infiltrated by a pro-Trump provocateur working in league with the police, badly beaten, and brought up on trumped up charges of incitement to riot. That any strengthening of US powers also strengthens US domestic social control has been obvious since 2001 and the inauguration of the “War on Terror.” This principle holds no less true when wars are fought somewhat differently, as in Syria. Something we should really be worried about in view of domestic repression is how these dimming prospects for antiwar come at a time when Trump is expanding his threats, to countries as geographically disparate as Venezuela and Korea.
Third, any articulation of a positive program around these interlinked issues requires coherence. We cannot call for the end of US arms shipments to Israel on Friday and then cheerlead or look the other way (functionally the same thing) when US arms shipments flow into Syria on Saturday. The simple demand for the US to end arm shipments to Israel provides a basis for an extended demand that it end such shipments to neighboring Syria—although at this point, the demand must be deeper and insist on a full withdrawal of US forces. These are the inescapable conclusions that lead me to propose a deliberate, planned merger between Black and Palestinian liberation movements and what is left of the antiwar movement. Not in a vaguely analogous way, but in a direct material way, their business is undeniably each other’s.
Fourth and finally, if Israel succeeds in Syria, what does that mean for Palestine? On the flip side, if Israel succeeds in liquidating Palestinian resistance, what would that portend for Syria? Once again, in the Syrian war, Israeli oppression is no mere metaphor. Israel maintains an active role. In February, anti-Assad Elizabeth Tsurkov of the ominously-named Israeli think tank “The Forum for Regional Thinking,” and who in my estimation whitewashes the full extent of Israel’s role, nonetheless published an article offering more details about the ways in which Israel is increasing its involvement in Syria. She names specific anti-government militias Israel is supporting in Syria “in the form of weapons, ammunition and money to purchase weapons on the black market”: Liwaa’ Fursan al-Jolan and Firqat Ahrar Nawa. What Tsurkov conveniently leaves out of the article is something that even made it to The New York Times: in October of 2015, Israeli minister Naftali Bennett promised to “introduce a plan…involving ‘several hundreds of millions of shekels’ to create jobs, housing, schools and transportation in the sprawling, green Golan Heights.” It is a plan for settlement expansion into Syria. Naftali called the Syrian war a “rare opportunity” when bragging that Israeli officials hoped to see “10,000 new residents” living in occupied Golan “in five years.”
Another major detail Tsurkov leaves out is the stated hope of Israeli officials to create a proxy force in the occupied Golan in the manner of the “South Lebanon Army” in Lebanon. The SLA makes for a frightening precedent. If Israel succeeds in establishing a Syrian SLA, there will continue to be fierce repression–torture, imprisonment, assassination–of all Golan-based Syrians resisting Zionist occupation. Anti-Zionist coordination between occupied Golan, Sheba’a Farms (in Lebanon), and Northeast Palestine will be strictly monitored and forbidden.
In Syria, the US will coordinate intelligence from their respective zones of occupation (the Golan, East and North Syria); if their war tactics escalate, US jets will make use of Zionist-ruled airspace, and vice versa. In Palestine, the US recently installed a new “permanent” military base. Presumably, this base will serve several purposes: as a base direct military attacks on Lebanon and Syria in the event of a bigger regional war; as an intelligence-gathering center between US and Israeli officials about Palestinian resistance; as a practice location for the close-quarter terrain of small villages, where “informal” networks and methods of resistance tend to emerge; and as “security measure” for any confrontations arising when the US establishes its new embassy in Al Quds, a move designed to hasten the ethnic cleansing of the city’s east side.
Put simply, the cause will not be won without stopping the US’s broader regional agenda. In the true anti-imperialist sense, Palestine is more than an analogy. It is a site of direct confrontation between the colonizer and the colonized in a region-wide war.
In “The Enemy at Home: U.S. Imperialism in Syria” I essentially argue against what I regard as a deeply liberal approach to the war on Syria that atomizes history. What does this mean? The atomizing of history refers to the attempt to shear the events in Syria away from a wider Arab context of struggle against colonialism and imperialism, supplemented by the attempt to forget or suppress memory around the wider patterns of US imperialism across the world and in the Arab world specifically. In atomized history, the US can promote war in a single region for over half a century, and Arab nationalist republics can conspicuously burn while monarchies remain stable, with only an extended series of “isolated incidents” to show for it all. As expected, there has been backlash against my article in some quarters. Most of it is just noise. Nonetheless, the anti-anti imperialist tropes at work in some of that noise have become endemic, so I will address them in a series of posts, in a way that hopefully transcends controversy around a single article and speaks to the wider issues of war and peace today. At the same time, in order to keep matters grounded and for points of clarity, I will occasionally refer back to the only formally written reply I’ve received, an attack that contains all the hallmarks of anti-anti-imperialism: aggressive and arrogant, to be sure, but also specious.
II. False Regionalisms
One means by which anti-anti imperialists deny the existence of a US war on the Syrian Arab Republic is to suggest that the US does not have a larger strategy in West Asia. Instead, there exist a number of “multi-polar” conflicts in which the US may or may not play a significant role. Within these conflicts, US actions are largely contradictory, confused, or improvised. This being the case, categorizing US wars in the region together under a general theory amounts to a series of apples-to-oranges comparisons. Thus, to invoke joint struggle against an apparently non-existent US project does rank injustice to internal relations within Arab states.
One more specific way an anti-anti imperialist may contest arguments about a US project is to rely on a broad principle: as every Marxist knows, the nation-state cannot be a unitary actor because it is a site of political and class struggle. On this premise, those who see a US project at work may be dismissed on grounds of “tankie conspiracism” or whatever other catchy dismissal is sweeping social media. The problem with this trope is that it abuses a true-enough banal abstraction to make a virtue out of unpreparedness. Adopt this line of thinking and you will always be desperately lost and confused. You will always fall behind and you will never catch up. When a state acts with its military, with concrete actions, you will scratch your head without a counter-strategy of your own. You will miss the forms of unity (concrete diplomatic and military actions) that emerge amid contradictions (whatever internal debates produced those actions), for even the most intense tactical debates within imperialism occur within set boundaries.
In Israel, for example, we know that there are always so-called “hardliners” screaming for “Greater Israel.” We know that their sadistic dream has not yet been realized in full. But we also know that Israel as an entity rushes to occupy and colonize when the objective conditions permit, and that armed and popular resistance is the equalizer that compels Israel to retreat. And we know, as both leaks and public policy papers demonstrate, that Zionist state managers draw up long-term contingency plans. Advocates for the atomization of history could never have been prepared for what the objective conditions known as “the Syrian war” have an allowed Israel to pursue: a settler expansion into occupied territories of Syria. Likewise, anti-anti imperialists will continue to flounder when confronted with the question of why US imperialism continues to destroy certain nations (that is, when they are able to acknowledge the destruction at all, of course), and not others.
For the sheer magnitude of this history of US aggression, of which we are witnessing an especially ugly episode, it is worth returning to the pattern of war in West Asia that voices like the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic” insist people keep compartmentalized: the Black September War of 1970; the October War of 1973; the Lebanese War of the 1970s and 1980s; the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; the First Gulf War of 1991; the Second Gulf War of 2003; the July 2006 War on Lebanon; and the 2011-and-after wars on Libya, Syria, and Yemen. In some of these wars, the US provided military aid: to the Jordanian monarchy (against the PLO and allied Arab republics), Israel (against the Egyptian and Syrian states), the Phalangist-led Lebanese state (against the PLO and allied Lebanese National Movement), both Iran and Iraq against each other, Israel again, rebel movements against Arab republics, and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Throughout these wars, the US and its proxies consistently attacked not only revolutionary organizations, but also the populations sympathetic to them. And needless to say, in some of these cases, the US intervened directly with its own military.
That is one extensive list of events. How many lives did those wars destroy, taken together? We have before us a region subjected to constant war, with the US making the violence possible. (And this list is limited, leaving off the prior wars—in Syria 1920, Palestine 1936 and 1948, and the Six Day War of 1967—brought about by the US’s colonial forebears, France and Britain.) One wonders what kind of advisor cautions against recognizing any kind pattern and claims only to see isolated incidents. Better yet, one wonders what kind of observer misses the significance of what that half a century of military aggression has provided for the US in terms of geopolitical control and military hegemony in the year 2018: a new military base in Israel (described by a comrade as a “military base inside of a bigger military base”), doubtlessly installed for use in a coming regional war; an underreported military base in Lebanon; 8,992 troops stationed in Iraq; and several bases hosting US personnel in Saudi Arabia.
This list is not exhaustive. It is nonetheless a list that proves accurate the statement, supplemented as it is by a qualifier, that, “although the United States’ tactical alliances have varied from this pattern at particular conjunctures, and while there have been and continue to exist major tactical disagreements within the U.S. empire about policy in West Asia,” the “general strategic trend” that sees close relations between US and monarchies on the one hand and US military assaults on revolutionary movements on the other holds true. (Elsewhere I have written: “Taken together, the cases of Egypt and Iran demonstrate that the US is not opposed to Arab nationalism per se, but to any and all attempts at independence from its global grip.”) Deliberately ignoring my caveat to launch a bad-faith attack, “Cautiously Pessimistic” writes, “A canny observer may spot an interesting omission from [the list of retrograde monarchies close to the US]–what about Qatar?” Of course, Qatar’s diplomatic isolation is nothing like what faces Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. It has been neither invaded nor occupied. But if we grant that there have been recent diplomatic affronts to Qatar, does engaging more closely with the “tactical exceptions” of US policy, like Qatar at the present moment, tell us anything about the general rule?
Because I present straightforwardly that there have been moments of tactical exception within this well-established pattern of strategic pursuit, it is worth asking what makes these instances exceptions rather than the rule. Why are certain countries burning, and not others? Statements about differing internal political situations and “civil war” will only get you so far. There may be, in just about every country in the world, people who wish to wage an armed rebellion against the central government. But the desire and intent for such thing on behalf of relatively powerless non-state actors does not mean the conditions exist for it to become a reality. For a wide-scale war to transpire against a central government, there needs to be sources of guns and wages for fighters from those who produce or possess large weapons caches and purses. Does there exist, in a given situation, the will and desire of more powerful external actors to bankroll a major war?
In what follows, I will examine two “exceptions” to the rule, Qatar and Egypt. I’ll then conclude with a revision to popular conceptions of the war on Yemen that reduce the US to a mere “supporting role.” In all three cases, I’ll ask what connects them, as component parts of a more generalized US onslaught against the region and its people. Before I do proceed, another caveat: I don’t assume that the strategic project of US imperialism as it stands now–to empower monarchies and Israel as a means to seize resources and geostrategic locations while fomenting permanent war and liquidating all resistance–will last forever. I really can imagine a Vietnam scenario in West Asia, wherein regional revolution and attendant “security breakdowns” produce a mass escape rush of trembling spooks, their ties flopping and shoes slipping and legs dangling as they crawl onto the last choppers from Baghdad with scattered half-shredded embassy documents drifting through the winds behind them. But the Jordanian torture chambers, the Saudi bombings, the US invasions, the very existence of Israel–all point to an ongoing, aggressive, as-yet-undefeated US-led project of destruction-for-profit.
Qatar. It is telling that the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic” does not mention two monumental interrelated reasons for Qatar’s isolation: its continued relations with Iran and Palestine. It must be emphasized that the Qatari state’s intersection with Palestine is much different from Syria’s. Whereas the latter state is the product of a long series of anti-colonial struggles and founded on explicit anti-Zionist ideology, Qatar’s contact came by way of a vacillating Palestinian faction amid inter-regional jockeying and competition. The resulting relationship, however, is no less “material,” even if the support in question is much smaller in scale.
To understand why the connection to Palestinian resistance exists, one must understand some unique qualities of its point of contact, Hamas. The organization began formally in 1987 as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its arrival came in the twilight years of the PLO as a nationally representative institution. There is good reason the Muslim Brotherhood did not gain a popular base in those preceding decades of revolutionary fervor. In the immediate wake of the Nakba, the Muslim Brotherhood emphasized piety to a refugee people demanding national struggle. An amusing account offered by ‘Abd al Qadir gives some perspective: after a massive act of Israeli aggression in 1953, he turned to his organization seeking a plan, only to hear the head of his Muslim Brotherhood branch insist that the proper response was to “pray and give alms.” Al Qadir subsequently left the Brotherhood and joined the Communist Party.
Other Palestinian members of the Muslim Brotherhood found national struggle later on in Fateh, with the most famous instance being the trajectory of Yasser Arafat’s right-hand man, Khalil al-Wazir. After decades of exodus and marginalization, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to re-establish itself as a major political force in Palestine as late as 1987, and it did so as a resistance party—an “Islamic resistance” at the same time beholden to nationalist Palestinian struggle. As PLO fell apart and Fateh lost legitimacy following Oslo, Hamas gained for itself a wide base of support, ranging from pious Muslims to Palestinians more broadly insistent on a resistance platform. This duality in many way shapes the precarious place in which the organization finds itself today.
Before the outbreak of protests in 2011, Hamas leadership was based in Damascus, receiving myriad support from the Syrian Arab Republic. It increased relations with Qatar at a time when the latter was boosting its relation with the Muslim Brotherhood more broadly as an asset for interregional competition, primarily against Saudi Arabia, its main competitive partner in weapons-funneling to anti-government militias into Syria. (It must be noted about Hamas’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood: “Hamas recently distanced itself from the international Brotherhood movement, but its leader affirmed that it remains part of the Brotherhood’s ‘intellectual school…’”) In 2012, Hamas relocated from Damascus to Doha, as the Muslim Brotherhood was then playing a prominent role in the opposition (including armed opposition) to the Syrian Arab Republic, as it had done historically well before 2011. The move just so happened to come before some conciliatory language towards Israel in a revised charter, implicitly sanctioning the existence of Israel in a two-state solution bearing “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967.” Whatever the internal reasons for Hamas’s language, it appeared as political moderation following political realignment towards a Gulf monarchy.
Still nonetheless accountable to supporters who expect resistance to Israeli colonialism, Hamas as recently as February of 2018 sent a warm congratulatory message to the Syrian government for shooting down an Israeli F-16. Once again, the duality of Hamas’s commitments—to both the wider Muslim Brotherhood and to Palestine—produced not only its current balancing act, but also the networks through which it nurtured a changing relationship with Qatar. Among the demands issued to Qatar by Saudi Arabia for an end to the blockade, whose leadership is currently pressuring the PA to concede Palestinian national claims after establishing an open alliance with Israel and receiving a visit from Trump, was to cut its ties to Hamas. Even in this “exception,” the Palestinian issue (especially in its links to Iran, with which Qatar maintained relations) remains paramount.
Egypt. I could do anti-anti imperialist critics one better and mention the case of Egypt. As is well known, Egypt under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser was the beacon of Pan-Arabist hopes for the reunification of Arab peoples under a single socialist state and regional independence from colonialism and imperialism. Today its head of state, General Abdel Fattah Sisi, invites Israeli bombings in Egyptian territory of the Sinai. This is a case of neocolonialism par excellence. The reasons for how this happened is not actually dissimilar to what occurred with the hallowing out of the Palestine Liberation Organization during the Oslo Accords, in order to supplement the creation of another neocolonial entity, the Palestinian Authority. Both cases depended on a conjunction of “external” and “internal” factors.
How does a resistant national formation morph into a consolidated neocolonial regime? Let me start with a framework and then move to specifics. We may note that a hostile external entity, say the United States and/or Israel, sufficiently pummels, through war as one reliable means, the whole of the confrontational entity—national institutions of a resistant entity in all of their variety—in order to weaken the target’s bargaining power, which may be expressed in a number of ways, from unique access to vital commodities to military strength. The resort to war is particularly effective because it mires in violence the one entity capable of holding a given state to account for popular demands: the people.
Once this process of weakening has reached an advanced enough stage, it becomes easy to induce aspiring neocolonial entrepreneurs inside the targeted periphery state with financial prizes and security packages, producing a dependence of the refashioned national bourgeoisie on imperialist powers for both capital (self-enrichment) and guns (increased protection against the poor). The masses of workers are thereafter left scrambling for undignified forms of labor, only to face the brunt of US-made or Israeli-supplied weapons if they get out of line.
Each of these traits were present in the trajectory of the Arab Republic of Egypt from its revolutionary high point between 1956 and 1967, to its subsequent Thermidor culminating in the Camp David Accords of 1979. That period of revolutionary ascent notably began with a major anti-imperialist victory over France, Britain, and Israel upon the successful reclamation of the Suez Canal. It ended with a massive military defeat to Israel in the Six-Day War. In hindsight, it is certainly easy to make critiques of Egyptian leadership by noting how the 1956 victory was attained through the mobilization of popular militias, standing on guard to defend the Egyptian homeland against imperialist invasion, while the 1967 defeat lacked a strategic resort on behalf of the periphery nation to People’s War.
Be that as it may, the 1967 war produced an outcome with long-term political implications that would be compounded by another war in 1973. Together, these wars eroded popular morale enough to aggravate cracks in the ideological hegemony of Arab nationalism. The overall value losses were immense as well. After Egyptian leadership had diverted societal resources to confront a better-equipped perpetual colonial threat in the State of Israel, the Egyptian state encountered a balance-of-payment crisis that bourgeois leadership (Sadat), in taking advantage of weakened resistance nationalism, sought to remedy through new channels of foreign aid. As the Camp David Accords demonstrate to this day, that aid came with political stipulations. While those stipulations carried relatively few consequences for the Egyptian bourgeoisie, they continue to exact a price on both the Egyptian and Palestinian masses.
For the Egyptian masses, the Camp David Accords ushered in a new era of pauperization: decreased or eliminated social services, fewer jobs, and a better-equipped police state. These reflect the wider worldwide trends of neocolonial states following the US’s decision, undertaken during the height of the Vietnam War, to de-link the US dollar from gold, which thereby undercut a global rush to gold and instead forced the world to accept an unlimited flow of US dollars. In Egypt, this process began before the Camp David Accords—it even helped to develop the very bourgeoisie that signed the accords. Ali Kadri writes: “In the early stages of the intifah [“opening up”], remittances from the Gulf exchanged on the black market had a much higher purchasing power and created a work model of earning without effort. In 1976, the dollar black market rate exchanged for five times the official rate.”
The influx of these dollars frustrated the dual exchange rate and “national money creation rose to meet the conversion demands drawn on the black market in favour of foreign wage earners and importers.” As the Egyptian bourgeoisie, including “vast sections of the regime’s bureaucracy,” turned towards those financial markets, they naturally turned away from the prior social pact between society and society that Nasser sought, regardless of the limitations of his rule, to mediate through service programs such as jobs, health, and education. In 1979, as part of the Camp David deal, the US began to deliver an annual aid package of around $2 billion that would help to protect the neocolonial authorities from popular recrimination. The terms of that aid are designed to benefit US weapons manufacturers. As noted by James Gelvin, “The United States does not give money to Egypt for military equipment; it gives the Egyptian military a list of equipment the American government will purchase on its behalf in the United States.” A one time resistance front that Israel once sought to destabilize through war, Egypt has now become a war asset that the US and Israel hope to keep stable.
The price of the Camp David Accords for Palestinians, especially those living in Gaza, remains extreme. The terms of the agreement set down in the course of 1978 ensured that Israel, for its “part” in pretending to give the Sinai over to Egypt, would be granted an increased military edge underwritten by the United States in the form of two additional military bases at Eitam and Etzion in the Negev. (These terms were consecrated in a letter from Ezer Weisman, then Israeli Minister of Defense, signed by US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.) Furthermore, the agreements called for a solution to Palestinian statelessness while conspicuously sidestepping mention of the PLO.
The Palestine National Council, the legislative branch of the PLO, instantly saw the writing on the wall. At its 14th Session in Damascus in 1979, the PNC declared that the Camp David Accords “violate Palestinian, Arab and international legitimacy and pave the way for tighter imperialist and Zionist control over our Arab region and Africa, employing the Egyptian regime, in the context of its alliance with imperialism and Zionism, as a tool for the repression of the Arab and African national liberation movements.” In keeping with acknowledgement of its role linking Southwest Asia to Africa, Ali Kadri argues that the incorporation of Egypt into the imperialist order, the effective elimination of its capacities to resist imperialist and Zionist plots, even enabled “the Congo holocaust” in addition to recent US and Israeli wars on Lebanon and Iraq.
Where lies the common origin between the pauperization of the Egyptian masses and the Palestinian prisoners of Gaza? What is to be gained between Egyptians and Palestinians by ignoring the obvious common link of US support for Egyptian neocolonialism and Israeli settler-colonialism, respectively? Between the agonizing poverty confronting Egyptian society and the barricades surrounding the Palestinians of Gaza, the common denominator is US imperialism.
To reiterate the main point: Sadat’s surrender came after a period of mobilization and struggle. It was a surrender elicited by imperialist war. As Max Ajl has written, US aid offered to Egypt in the Nasser period was initially offered as an inducement to “bridle Egyptian radical nationalism.” Where that did not work for the US and Israel, “war was a means – a successful one – to prevent neighbouring or nearby nations from neutralizing Israeli freedom of action.” Ajl refers to Guy Laron’s quotation of Yizthak Rabin on the eve of the 1967 War to give this tactic clear articulation: “…it is in our mutual interest to deal with [Iraq, Syria, and Egypt]. We should contain Nasser in the southern Arab peninsula, neutralize the Iraqis and screw the Syrians.” Thus, “For Israel, taking land and preventing development were two sides of one coin.” Ajl adds an additional note helpful to our purposes: “Ideology and colonial state-formation provide the parameters within which political actors act.” This explains succinctly how an Arab nationalist ideology alone does not guarantee the substance of what the US establishment (and of course Israel) desires to prevent: independence and resistance.
Yemen: A Brief Revision. Where I have highlighted patterns of US state behavior outside of its borders in general and in West Asia in particular, anti-anti imperialist critics such as the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic” highlight differences, writing: “Iraq, certainly, is a place where the US started a war by invading, and it’s unarguable that, if the US hadn’t invaded in 2003, Iraq would not have been at war then. Libya and Syria, where the US intervened in existing internal conflicts that had already escalated into civil wars, are less clear-cut cases, and in Yemen, the main outside intervention has come from the Saudi military, with the US playing much more of a supporting role.”
There is little need to dwell on the case of Libya. That war was won by the US in the form of regime change. The rebel successes in Benghazi were made possible by an air intervention after NATO, a Cold War creation of the United States, predictably trespassed the bounds of an already-imperialist UN Resolution 1973. Libyan society has since been so profoundly degraded that markets now auction off Black Africans for chattel slavery. Meanwhile, the United States’ AFRICOM project has gained a bridge from the Mediterranean North to West and Central Africa.
When it comes to Yemen, my concern about the propagandistic reduction of the US role compels me to back up slightly and take a longer view. The US was promoting war in Yemen well before its drones arrived. I would therefore like to begin before 2011 and consider the Yemen of yesteryear, namely the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen—Yemen as the groundswell for the Arab world’s sole Marxist government and the base area for region-wide revolution. There is a larger story to be told about that project, which has since been lost to counterrevolution and war. Between 1967, the year the People’s Republic of South Yemen began upon British withdrawal, and the end of the PDRY in 1990, this beautiful peninsula province and Indian Ocean post—origin coast of the common coffee culture today taken for granted the world over—provided almost unconditional sanctuary to countless Arab revolutionaries. George Habash had a particularly deep affection for it, for throughout the brutal Lebanon war years of the 1980s and spiraling rounds of brutal factional disputes, the PLO found for a time a safe zone in Aden in which to mediate disputes and draft agreements. Unsurprisingly, the United States did not share Habash’s affection.
As Fred Halliday wrote in his dissertation about the foreign policy of the PDRY, “while the pattern of east-west conflict in Arabia had, up to 1967, been dominated by the Egyptian-British clash in the south-west corner of the Peninsula, the post-1967 independent regime in Aden now found itself increasingly confronting not Britain but the major power that replaced it in Arabia, namely the USA.” Halliday’s work furthermore gives an account of how the US held a number of strategic initiatives in the Arabian Gulf thwarted by the PDRY’s anti-imperialism, including the presence of its oil monopolies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and its relationship with Saudi Arabia, staked on oil and anticommunism, made ironclad through the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine. Over the years, the US grew further irritated by a number of initiatives undertaken by the PDRY leadership in revolutionary solidarity across the region, from their decision to assist Egypt by blockading crucial Red Sea passage points during the 1973 war to their training camps provided to the PFLP, of which a CIA National Foreign Assessment Center report complained in 1981.
As is typically the case when confronted with recalcitrance, the US crafted reactionary alliances and pursued destabilization of the PDRY. As Salim Rubbiya ‘Ali, President of South Yemen between 1969 and 1978, relayed to US Congressman Paul Findley: “Now, the belief is held by the people of my country that all suffering, all damage caused by subversives is the work of the US government… All military equipment we capture is US equipment, and this makes the people feel the US is behind the attack.” When the PDRY lent support to Egypt in 1973, the US sent it threats in the form of aircraft carriers off the Southern Yemen coast that it kept in place for about a year. A major US escalation came under the Carter Administration, which in 1978 initiated plans to sell the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) $400 million worth of weapons for a war with the PDRY. Through Saudi Arabia baggage services, the US temporarily withheld and then increased arms supply to YAR, headed at this point by the now deceased Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 1980 once Saleh foreswore off pursuing the objective announced in the first foreign policy statement of newly independent South Yemen by Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi in 1969: reunification of Yemen.
The article “The Silent Demise of Democracy: The Role of the Clinton Administration in the 1994 Yemeni Civil War,” written by Carlos A. Parodi and Elizabeth Rexford, provides a window into the US role in Yemen in the 1990s. After Yemeni reunification finally succeeded for a time in May 1990, the new state entity continued to pay the price for any deviation from the US’s vision for the region, particularly when its leadership openly opposed US troop invasions following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and instead advocated an “Arab solution.” When war broke out in 1994 between “Northern” and “Southern” factions of the Yemeni state, US President Bill Clinton and his Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert H. Pelletreau gave full diplomatic support to Saleh’s Northern faction, which had started the war after a Parliamentary session in 1993, carrying out political assassinations against members of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the successor organization of the National Liberation Front that had formed the ruling party of the PDRY until reunification. This support was not accidental. It was in line with the US vision for Yemen: if reunification would happen, it would happen on the condition of the destruction of the remains of the YSP and its radical pro-Palestinian Pan-Arabism. Consistent themes emerge again.
It is worth jumping ahead to the post-2011 war to glimpse how anti-anti imperialists, upon forgetting the premises of a half-century of US intrusion into the Arabian Peninsula, conceptualize the current horrors. The US is playing a “supporting” role in the war on Yemen, we are told. Here is a clear consequence of atomizing history, a dubious description of US operations that reads as if it were ripped straight from a CNN headline. If true, the US still remains culpable for the destruction of Yemen. But one problem among several with this buzz phrase, “supporting role,” is that it says little about why the US is involved at all. At the very best, we are left with the impression that the US, which boasts of the largest military in the world, is led into major famine-inducing and cholera-spreading wars by smaller regional powers. This thinking is not all that much different the way apologists for US imperial aggression in Vietnam have tended to insist was the case with Ngô Đình Diệm and the Republic of Vietnam, or for that matter that the US is dragged into “unnecessary” wars by Israel.
As an explanation, it will not do. Even if the absurd premise of the haplessly misguided behemoth is granted for the sake of argument, it can only be forwarded with an underestimation, whether deliberate or ignorant, of the US contribution. If US involvement in Yemen were a mere matter of happenstance, rather than one of directed strategy, why has the US stepped in, as Stephen Gowans emphasizes, to bomb Yemeni targets directly whenever it has deemed the Saudi Air Force unfit for the task? Why does it go so far as to run the command and control logistics of the war, including providing target locations and training to the Saudi bomber pilots? I suggest instead glancing back at my arguments about the destructive corollary of a national US economy structured on war and then considering that “the Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite warnings from some officials that the United States could be implicated in war crimes for supporting a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.” True to imperial form, US planners knowingly deem it in their interests to pursue acts that destroy human life on a grand scale.
That at least two major US markets subsidized by the US federal government, arms and mercenary firms, as well as the ability of financial firms to bet on the bonds tied to the private corporations that produce them, depend on instability should provide some disturbing clarity about, as I wrote before, “the extent to which this destruction is intrinsic to the entire U.S. imperialist enterprise: that as long as the United States is an empire, there will be smaller and weaker nations reduced to rubble and flames.” If we add to that the fact that the targets of the recent US bombings in question—fighters from Ansar Allah—have made overtures to other anti-Zionist resistance factions across the region and , it is evident once again how “the political imperatives as well as the capital accumulation circuits of the war…remain deeply intertwined.”
The masses of Yemeni people who have declared their solidarity with Palestine with massive street protests in Sana’a amid starvation, disease, and bombs, have apparently not received word that Palestine is a far-off country without major implications for “struggles in their own [country],” as per the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic.” No—it is more accurate to say that they are building on traditions of solidarity, firmly established in their own country’s radical history. I’ll turn to US Congressman Findley’s report-back from a meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammed Salih Mutiyya’ of the PDRY in the 1970s, again quoted in Halliday’s work. Mutiyya’ explicated to Findley the PDRY’s objections the US (as well as his belief that the US had attempted regime change against it):
“He [Mutiyya’] said it was necessary to view the question in context of the whole Arab world. The reason for severance was the Israeli attack on the Beirut airport. Without US support, he said, the attack could not have occurred. Nor could the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and the denial of Palestinian rights to their lands.”
Mutiyya’s words were a repudiation of what the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine came to refer to as “false regionalisms.” A hallmark of US strategy, the DFLP argued, was to promote the impression that Arab peoples divided by colonial borders were distinctly Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, etc. If the US could bring about this impression, struggling peoples of the region would become preoccupied with narrow nationalisms. Arab peoples’ problems would have uncommon roots, isolated and self-contained. As some commentators appear to be baffled as to what the liberation of Palestine has to do with events in Syria, it would appear that this benchmark of US strategy has borne some major successes. Some further addendum of the centrality of the Palestinian issue is required next.
In “The Enemy at Home: U.S. Imperialism in Syria” I essentially argue against what I regard as a deeply liberal approach to the war on Syria that atomizes history. What does this mean? The atomizing of history refers to the attempt to shear the events in Syria away from a wider Arab context of struggle against colonialism and imperialism, supplemented by the attempt to forget or suppress memory around the wider patterns of US imperialism across the world and in the Arab world specifically. In atomized history, the US can promote war in a single region for over half a century, and Arab nationalist republics can conspicuously burn while monarchies remain stable, with only an extended series of “isolated incidents” to show for it all. As expected, there has been backlash against my article in some quarters. Most of it is just noise. Nonetheless, the anti-anti imperialist tropes at work in some of that noise have become endemic, so I will address them in a series of posts, in a way that hopefully transcends controversy around a single article and speaks to the wider issues of war and peace today. At the same time, in order to keep matters grounded and for points of clarity, I will occasionally refer back to the only formally written reply I’ve received, an attack that contains all the hallmarks of anti-anti-imperialism: aggressive and arrogant, to be sure, but also specious.
I. The Rise of Imperialist Internationalism
My most recent writing on the subject of the United States and Syria can be read in Viewpoint Magazine. The article has a targeted audience, a limited scope, and a specific purpose. It addresses English-language readers (and presumably self-identified leftists) generally, but particularly those living in the United States. Its basic purpose is to theorize the role of the US in Syria as a contribution towards the construction of a renewed antiwar movement. The article clearly demarcates these limitations: “How does the destruction in Syria fit into broader historical patterns? How do we situate the war on Syria into the histories of U.S. imperialism, the Arab world (including Palestine), and the relationship between the two? It is only by positing those questions that we can develop the theoretical grounding necessary to build the movements and establish the alliances required to defeat the U.S. war machine in Syria and elsewhere.” Since its publication, I have encountered two forms of critical response (a generous description, I admit), often intertwined. One form, much more rare, criticizes the article on its own terms, for what it actually attempts to accomplish. Another form insists that the article should’ve been about something else. For now, I’ll deal with the latter.
In setting demarcations, I also reveal what the article most certainly is not: a dossier on the subject of “Syria.” (Any such attempt would inevitably fall short, anyways.) If anyone is disinterested in or hostile towards the goal undergirding the entire article as the assumed basis for shared grounds—the necessity of rebuilding an antiwar movement in the United States—then it goes without saying that they’ll have no use for such an article. But for those who are interested in the reconstruction of the antiwar movement, I’ll first address a question that should frankly be considered preposterous: why isn’t this article about Russia, Turkey or Iran, all of which are nation-states with military roles in Syria?
I actually do consider US imperialism uniquely dangerous at this point in history, but we need not even indulge a discussion of Russia’s role in Syria to get the most pressing point on this issue. The fact is, such a question coming from US organizers indicates extreme cognitive dissonance, or at the very least an awesome inability to study US society holistically. The strategy of Trump and his associates to nurture anti-social white nationalist ideology for the purposes of brutal domestic repression and social control represents only one piece of the total problem. The strategy of his ostensible “resistance” in the Democratic Party to stigmatize the nativist Trump for, of all possible offenses, a lack of patriotism only consolidates consent for white supremacy in the form of the US nation-state itself. After all, Trump’s white nationalist strategy merely capitalizes on hundreds of years of settler-colonialism and war, and more recently the racist accumulations arising from the normalization of quotidian state practices such as mass incarceration, ICE deportation, and militarized border control. Both parties of capital have identified their preferred alien enemies of the state: immigrants for the GOP, Russia for the Democrats. It goes without saying that both parties find shared enemies in recalcitrant nations and global competitors to US rule, from Venezuela and Korea to China.
These ultimately complimentary brands of xenophobia do not exclusively circulate in state and media. They stream into, and in turn develop strength from, rhetoric and practices found within the broader US populace. A recent Syria-related demonstration in Washington, DC, provides a glimpse as to where this is all going. A protest event organized February 9th, named “Speak Up for Syria’s Civilians” assembled at the White House to demand “international leadership to protect Syria’s civilians, followed by a march to the Russian Ambassador’s House, holding to account the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The language may be cagey, but it reads like a possible call for war with Russia. Assuming that people who tend to be moved by humanitarian concerns for Syrians are not generally on board with Trump’s overall agenda, we can see in these forms of mobilization the tendency underlining Democratic Party hysteria about Russian subversion towards imperialist reconciliation. For underlying the liberal accusations of disloyalty against Trump, at all times, is the implication that liberals will embrace him once he turns against their preferred military target. (We have already seen this take place, when he ordered the bombing of a Syrian government military target.) As it stands, any contradictions between the two major wings of capital in the United States will be resolved through war—a potentially massive one. Any US leftist who shares priorities with the two wings of capital is only helping to manufacture total consent for white supremacy, spanning from college social justice advocates to Republican Party voters. In the process, these leftists perhaps more than anybody else deliver the coup de grâce against the remains of domestic US opposition to the dictatorship of capital.
Besides, after many years doing antiwar work, I am well aware that the “appropriate” time to discuss US imperialist activities, as they are actually happening, will never actually arrive. US officials, much like Russia-obsessed leftist stalwarts of the “Syrian Revolution,” always invoke some eastern menace in response. More interesting is the ways in which anti-anti imperialists have given leftish-sounding language to similar tactics. For instance, I stand accused, as I have been for years, of “denying the agency” of Syrian people as it is usually phrased in a compulsive nod to recent trends in liberal academia. (As a side note, the word “agency” contains little value if not grounded in Marxist theory; search long enough and you will even come across Columbia University books celebrating the “agency” of footbinding.) The blogger “Cautious Pessimist” uses a different phrase: “Imperial Purity.” The point of both phrases is to suggest that anti-imperialists, in their narcissistic self-absorption, make “everything” about the US. (I must ask, do these people know anti-imperialists outside of the US? There are quite a few, and their hatred for US imperialism could often be described as pure.) The function of this trope is to construct a strawman of anti-imperialists who believe the US is “omnipotent” in order to distract from or downplay what is accurate in their assessments of the powerful capabilities and ill intentions that the US actually does possess.
This trope is not new. Neither is it limited to leftists. It is an argument that has before been voiced by conservative academics and US officials, rendering its arrival on the lips of self-described radicals a perfect death knell for the memory of internationalism. I don’t know what the consensus of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile is in left-wing politics today, given our addled language and abandoned traditions, but there was once a time where leftists widely viewed that event as an unambiguous atrocity committed by CIA, a sinister conspiracy executed by the agents of capital against the Chilean people, consigning them to decades of US-backed junta rule. That lesson was bequeathed to subsequent generations by anti-imperialists of the period who refused at the time to listen to one Dr. James Theberge, Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown’s Center for Strategic and International Studies when he insisted—anticipating the rhetorical evasions of the anti-anti imperialists of today—that blaming Richard Nixon and the CIA were “intemperate and ill-informed claims” reflecting “the paternalistic mentality towards Latin America and the illusion of American omnipotence that is still pervasive in certain circles in the United States.” Theberge might’ve spread disinformation for the CIA, but hey, at least he didn’t deny Chilean agency!
There is no need, however, to go all the way back to 1973 to find examples of this maneuver performed by, let us say, compromised individuals. At a recent speech in Canada, Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice pled that “we” cannot let recent events in Iran “be about Trump or the US,” and that “we ought to speak up foil for its bad behavior and we cannot let the Iranian government have that opportunity.” Here is Rice’s attempt, to turn to another popular phrase “center” Iranian “voices”: “Trump’s remarks about the Iranian protesters were manipulated by the Iranian regime. We must support the pro-democracy sentiments of Iranians. Iran supports terrorism and destabilization.” Since these remarks come from a woman who worked in the highest levels of the very US empire that actually does conspire against Iran with sanctions and war threats, it is safe to read them as demands for enlistment. Some people may hear her words and decide to voluntarily report for duty. Their political prerogatives may be those of the US empire, but they’d at least be transparent. What is unbelievable, and what says a lot about our times, is that because I quote US ruling class actors with the explicit intention to resist their actions I can be accused of “[adopting]…the viewpoint of capital and the state “ by those literally adopting the above-quoted viewpoints of capital and the state!
If anybody is wondering why a US antiwar movement is necessary (to say nothing of an anti-imperialist movement), it is necessary to consider the bigger picture of what’s been lost since its demise. On that note, let me turn to a set of basic observations about the relevance of studying history. On the one hand, history does not contain the capital-A answer to the problems of our world today. On the other hand, history contains the events and processes that led us to the world we inhabit today. If your goal, as an individual or as a collective, is to construct a movement for revolutionary change, history will provide, if not a clear indication of what “worked” and what did not (after all, we continue to live under capitalism), at least a series of indications of what advanced the struggles of the people and simultaneously decreased the power of the ruling class, and vice versa. If we live in the United States, our consideration would then have to become more specific, as an unusual aspect of our struggle against the resident ruling regime is that it is not simply against a state with its coercive apparatuses ruling over the limited territory allotted to it by the nation-state system. Rather, its military power (only one form of its cumulative power) extends to over 800 military bases in over 70 additional countries. To put that in perspective, the total number of outside military bases belonging to Britain, France, and Russia number 30 combined. It helps, I believe, to think of this kind of authority as “imperial sovereignty.”
Our next step would then be to consider if, since the era when imperial authority of this magnitude began to take shape, its power has ever been significantly eroded. We may consider when the US ruling class felt that its grip was slipping. As related by Max Elbaum on the height of the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Henry Kissinger lamented the fact that 250 State Department employees had resigned over imperialist aggression against Vietnam, he fearfully noted that “the entire edifice of government was falling apart.” This domestic crisis of legitimacy for US rulers cast such a long shadow that it still haunts them today, forcing them, wherever possible, to subcontract wars-for-profit to other states and run them in secret. The rulers have even given that lurking shadow a name: “the Vietnam Syndrome.” After the demise of the antiwar movement and the revolutionary fervor that came with it, US officials rejoiced at their ability to launch aggressive wars once again without any major opposition from a maladjusted domestic populace. After decades of bad memories, it was high time get back to the good old days when they ordered genocidal bombing campaigns upon Korea while only having Paul Robeson and a few assorted peace groups to worry about. After US Special Forces successfully burned Panama City to the ground in Operation Just Cause of 1989 and the US Air Force bombed Iraq relentlessly in 1991 with barely a domestic peep to be heard, then President George H.W. Bush effectively declared victory for his class’s counterrevolution: “It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
In surveying this history and the overall tug-of-war between the forces of revolution and counterrevolution contained within it, we might ask about the analyses, alliances, and coalitions that animated the height of the people’s struggles. Put succinctly, the alliances and coalitions at work were internationalist. That word, of course, held a much different meaning than it seems to now, for it indicated then that revolutionaries living in the US would take the actions necessary to inhibit the offensive capabilities of the US military overseas, ever repressive and violent in countries like Vietnam, that oppressed and attacked them at home, in cities like Detroit where quite literally soldiers returning home from carrying out war on Vietnam were ordered to attack Black freedom fighters in July of 1967. What it most certainly did not mean was converging with the geopolitical aims of, and sharing messages and slogans with, the US regime.
At the height of the US antiwar movement, “systemic analysis” was the mode of thought that informed these alliances. “Making connections” was the phrase of the day. This task did not simply involve analogizing varied forms of pain and struggle, although that aspect was certainly important for purposes of mobilization. Just as crucially, it meant identifying the exact state networks and multinational corporations inflicting and profiting from the pain and struggle that must be alleviated through liberation. This latter part is absolutely key. It illustrates the difference between making abstract comparisons and building a plan of action. Through systemic analyses, we identify a common enemy and potential sites of confrontation. We gain the knowledge upon which we are able to construct strategy and devise tactics through the power of organizations and mass movements (and not just as individual commentators on the internet), and in the process make a material contribution to liberation, for ourselves and for others.
The task of making these connections was not only taken up by people’s movements. It was also taken up by the intellectuals and scholars immersed within those movements. For example, in a clear strategic attempt to expand the field of struggle against the most powerful common enemy of the oppressed worldwide, Walter Rodney drew a connection between the US’s war on Vietnam and its earlier campaigns to exterminate Native Americans, writing:
“In recent times, it has become an object of concern to some liberals that the U.S.A. is capable of war crimes of the order of My Lai in Vietnam. But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade.”
Rodney was updating earlier observations made by Marx: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Eduardo Galeano made a similar argument, proposing that the problem of combined and uneven development—the inequality between nations in the global order that enables imperial sovereignty and provides the ability of some states today to invade and dismember other societies—is a structural imbalance built on processes of colonialism dating back upwards of 500 years. Alas, for the opponents of systemic analysis, remembering all of these insights is just an act of romantic yearning. But how could that be when, as I argued in Viewpoint, “the U.S. practice of destroying societies wholesale, as the United States had attempted in Vietnam” continues today? The US ruling class’s wars have not ceased. Depressingly, only our collective resistance has abated.
Part of the issue is that collective resistance requires ideological support. Structural changes in the composition and channels of capital have produced a major ideological crisis. It is essential to consider the depth of that crisis, the possibility that white supremacy and colonial worldviews permeate not only their traditional domains of “conservatives” and “liberals,” but those of the self-described radical left as well. Let us turn to a salient example. The Marx of Walter Rodney has an opposite today in the Marx of, say, Christopher Hitchens. We ought not dismiss what Hitchens, loathsome as he very well was, still has to teach us about the place in which we find ourselves simply because he discredited himself with too blatant an imperialist turn in supporting the invasion of Iraq. No, he believed in that moment that he was acting as an internationalist, which he often claimed to have picked up from his Trotskyist political upbringing. He made his argument on those terms. “There is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism,” Hitchens complained in 2001. “[C]ertainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement.” The Eastern bloc had collapsed, US empire had stood tall, and by 1999, the “anti-globalization” protests in Seattle had convinced Hitchens that anti-systemic movements had become hopelessly reactionary in the face of US-led international capital, a cover for decaying and defensive dictatorships, paranoia, and superstitious bigotries:
“I do remember thinking that [the Port Huron Statement of 1962] had a sort of archaic character to it, exactly the kind of thing that Marx attacked, in fact, in the early critiques of capitalism. What [Students for a Democratic Society] seemed to want was a sort of organic, more rural-based, traditional society, which probably wouldn’t be a good thing if you could have it. But you can’t, so it’s foolish to demand such a thing. This tendency has come out as the leading one in what I can see of the anti-globalization protesters. I hear the word globalization and it sounds to me like a very good idea. I like the sound of it. It sounds innovative and internationalist… The Seattle protesters, I suppose you could say, in some ways came from the left. You couldn’t say they came from the right, although a hysterical aversion to world government and internationalism is a very, very American nativist right-wing mentality.”
This set of observations informed Hitchens’ later support for the US invasion of Iraq. If US-led capitalism was internationalist, it could therefore modernize. It could reduce superstition and deliver enlightenment. We know what US-led capitalism—through NATO, NAFTA, the World Bank, etc.—has wrought: more poverty, more inequality, more violence. And let us not forget that Hitchens didn’t solely claim Thomas Paine and Jefferson as his inspirations; he also claimed Marx. He therefore did not necessarily experience some grand conversion from the left to the right. He was simply following through to the logical conclusions of the “Marxism” in which he believed, and he employed his imperialist reasoning, in the name of teleological progress and historical materialism, well before 2001. “1492 was a very good year and deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto,” Hitchens wrote in 1992, on the centenary of Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, adding:
“…[T]hose who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway . . . [I]t does happen to be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift.”
Well, there you have it! The longtime resident “Marxist” at the left-liberal Nation magazine giving full-throated support to a holocaust, and all the while, at least at the time, a more or less accepted figure of the “left,” until his supposed defection of 2001 when he was met with unprecedented adulation and awards and book sales. It requires imperialism to produce such a variation on Marxism. And how deep really is the ideological separation between Hitchens the “Marxist” and today’s alt-right, when both in their own ways settle on the wisdom of genocide and white European rule? When Hitchens advocated for the US invading Iraq in the name of international solidarity, the problem wasn’t only that the war would produce monumental violence. The problem extended to the larger dangers of re-legitimizing white European rule as a progressive principle, expressed in practice as the right of the US and its European allies to determine the fate of, violate, and destroy other societies. The Marx of Hitchens asserts victory over the Marx of Rodney in the New Imperialist Internationalism when left-liberals like Juan Cole advocate NATO “intervention” in Libya in the name of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades in Spain and the Marxist Gilbert Achcar instructing leftists demand CIA arms flows into North Africa. This is an internationalism opposite that once pursued by the Black Panthers, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.–all true opponents of the system. This new “internationalism,” which repeats the priorities of the State Department, is a grotesque mutation—it is the system itself at work. To reconstruct anti-systemic internationalism, those living inside aggressor nations must return to certain traditions of antiwar activity.
Now, why Syria? If we consider the US war on Syria and the debates around it, we come across several glaring problems, which explain why I find it important to place the fate of Syria into broader historical context. One problem is that the war was efficiently run for years in secret: while US Special Forces amassed in neighboring Turkey and Jordan to arm and train militias to carry out attacks on the Syrian state, it somehow became plausible to insist that there was no war. Another problem is the widespread belief that because of the presence of other state actors in Syria—Russia, Iran, Turkey—revolutionaries in the US may adopt a permissive attitude towards the US role. Or, in the logic of the humanitarian imperialism that has reigned supreme since the 1990s, the belief that the US can possibly act either as a counterweight to “local” repression. Or better yet still, that the US could act as a friend to revolutionary movements. And then there are other popular refrains: the US role in the war has been minor, or that its intention is simply to destroy ISIS. Although these last explanations sometimes come with a disclaimer against formal US intervention, by obfuscating and confusing US strategy and presence, they effectively protect Hitchens’s preferred world wherein core white supremacist imperialism determines the affairs of the colonized periphery states. I would ask readers to imagine the kinds of unspeakable horrors the US empire could get away carte blanche with when these attitudes prevail, but I am afraid those horrors are transpiring now.
In addressing the fact the US continues to attempt destroy societies wholesale, my critics are left two choices: either to downplay the significance of this ongoing practice, or to deny that this practice is ongoing altogether. As we will see, it is not beneath anti-anti imperialists to attempt both.
“During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government.”–Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War
“…in wars of national liberation patriotism is applied internationalism.”–Mao Zedong, “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War”
“What kind of spirit is this that makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people’s liberation as his own? It is the spirit of internationalism, the spirit ofcommunism...”–Mao Zedong, “In Memory of Norman Bethune”
An Aside on the Enduring Importance of the National Question
Capitalist rule has since its inception been defined by crises of nation and class. Where does one end and the other begin? As Cedric Robinson argued in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, the interstate Westphalian system provided competing, unevenly compensated bourgeoisies with separate institutional facilitators of profit accumulation through centralized, territorialized states. Through accompanying “nations,” these bourgeoisies were able to develop foundational myths of blood-and-soil bonds—a sound ideological tool for bourgeois political rule. With the advent of colonialism, the nationalist form of political rule became various bourgeoisies’ simultaneous advantage and weakness. The example Robinson led with in this titanic work was the British colonization of Ireland: in defining the Irish as a “race,” portrayed by the British ruling classes largely as a swarm of brutes and subhuman savages, the British bourgeoisie was for a time able to keep its “own” underclasses under wraps. British workers were given the impression that they were at least superior to the Irish “race.” From Ireland to India to Africa to North America, colonial enterprises would go on to maintain this basic ideological form and method of social control. In Robinson’s own words:
“Colonialism in America had required a different rationale: the Savage. Conveniently… English colonialism had had available to it the savagery of the Irish to draw upon. The notion had traveled well. When the need was for labor, the Irish, the poor of the metropole’s cities, the African and the native American were comfortably herded together under the notion of savagery. When the issue had been the expropriation of the lands of the natives, there was little cause to respect the claims of the savages or to comprehend their resistance as little more than savagery.”
This sweetheart arrangement could not last forever. Eventually these Irish, themselves “infected” by the national ideal, decided they would peel away from British rule on the basis of their own national identity, thus fracturing British accumulation circuits and political strictures. The cause and effect was simple: if the build-up of British industry depended the looting Ireland of resources (investing stolen wealth into its own development projects and feeding its workers with Irish crops) and the intentional de-development of Ireland (preventing any nearby competition), then Irish resistance, both violent and non-violent, slowed or prevented British imperial ambitions, including ambitions elsewhere on the map. Through resistance leading (in prospect) to independence, Ireland could also thereby secure its own ability to industrialize. The dawn of Ireland resistance occurred through the organizing principle of nationalism: in the beginning stages, a cultural project aimed at reclaiming an erased history and a lost language, as an integral component of the struggle to reclaim land. Irish nationalism, and, in its most advanced forms, Irish republicanism and socialism, continues to provide a model for a beautifully recalcitrant anti-colonialism, in the geographic heart of Europe of all places. The freedom fighters of the Easter Rising did not simply light the torch for a 32-county republic; they could scarcely have rendered a better service for humanity as a whole than to distract the British army as its forces launched rapaciously into the inter-imperialist rivalry of the First World War. The honorable cause of Irish independence shows how a national cause may double as an anti-systemic cause, at fundamental odds with the unjust global system, depending on its objective placement within the leading players of that system.
Put another way, the cause of Irish Republicanism, like that of Pan-Arabism, eventually transformed into a simultaneous campaign for a broken homeland’s reunification and against imperialism: blows for the former necessarily serve as blows against the latter, unraveling and weakening the offending system of control by reversing and preventing its achievements and goals. For this very reason, economist Ali Kadri has criticized Arab Communist Parties for historically underestimating the power of the national question in the Arab world. For example, Kadri has argued in the context of the 20th century Arab world that the pro-Soviet Communists in Iraq actually played into Israel’s hands by opposing the formation of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria, a union forged on both nationalist and socialist grounds. This initial Communist Party approach, in actuality less internationalist than the cross-border pan-Arab trends, “underestimated the necessity of anti-Israeli struggle in the region by bowing to the Soviet strategy of detente with the US.” The anti-systemic capacities of these kinds of nationalist projects, which seek to erase colonial borders in order to establish means for independent trade as well as cross-border organizing between workers and peasants, has been helpfully described by Stephen Gowans as part of the “struggle against the international despotism of Wall Street.” Invoking the central argument of Domenico Losurdo’s Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History, Gowans also emphasizes that this current phase of Arab struggle, for national liberation against what should now in 2017 be called recolonization, is a form of class struggle waged on the plane of international relations: “The class struggle fought by Arab nationalists in Syria continues, despite the concerted efforts of Washington, its neo-colonial allies, its Arab satraps, apartheid Israel, and Leftist collaborators, to crush it.”
This is the most essential point lost on those vogue Marxists whose “internationalism” is devoid of anti-colonialism. For these self-described Marxists, anti-colonial nationalism is outdated. In this conception, a struggle such as, say, the Vietnamese Revolution, waged against US imperialism when the USSR was still around as a progressive counterweight, was emblematic insofar it could only fulfill the promises of the 1954 Geneva Accords for a reunified and nominally independent Vietnam. It did not, and indeed could not, deliver “true” socialism; it could only earn Vietnam a place at the Westphalian table, in a thoroughly liberal world system. On the economic question, Vietnam became like so many “postcolonial” states, including even South Africa after its successful struggle against apartheid, a “neoliberal regime” able to exercise some degree of military control over its borders, but unable to prevent the influx of financial capital and the rise of a local crony elite. For proponents of this viewpoint, those leftists defending Syrian sovereignty, whether on pan-Arab grounds or otherwise, are focusing exclusively on political content to the detriment of economic content. These anti-imperialist dinosaurs are thus un-Marxist in their method.
On the contrary, to insist on an arbitrary division between politics and economics is un-Marxist, and it is un-Marxist in a very particular way. This insistence necessarily dismisses everything radical about the discoveries of anti-colonial Marxist leaders historically, from Che Guevara to Thomas Sunkara, Ho Chi Minh to W.E.B. Du Bois. (It has been a habit of some quarters of the left, especially in quarters of the Western left, to argue or imply that these leaders were simply nationalists using Marxism as chimera.) Today this insistence leads to a variety of liberal conclusions about the Arab world: the “Axis of Resistance,” as a phrase describing a geopolitical bloc, is purely a propaganda tic used to hide cynical ambitions either attached to or mirroring the US bloc in its basic ambitions; the settler-colonial implant “Israel” is basically analogous in its violence to “Assad,” the head figure of a postcolonial state; and the struggles within Arab states should be treated as self-contained (even if that means, as aforementioned, analogizing “Israel” to “Assad” while the Zionist air force attacks the Syrian state along with US bomber jets). These types of arguments are remarkable for eliding the history of a very basic set of relations any Marxist ought to want to understand: what was the role of movements from below in the creation of the Axis of Resistance, as a political bloc and as a vocabulary? Why does the Zionist entity have the power to attack Syria without repercussion while the Syrian state is bombed by the US, ostensibly for actions undertaken within its own territories? What is the relationship between what the US is doing in Syria and what it is doing in Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen?
These questions are useful and necessary, and not exhaustive. Another approach for understanding the link between merely “political” anti-imperialism and economics could be to return to the example of Vietnam. If we can forgive the National Liberation Front for not having overthrown capitalism for us, we might be see how profoundly its victory over the United States affected global capitalism. The Vietnamese struggle was largely responsible for forcing the US–today’s inheritor of a 500-plus year legacy of Western colonialism–into a more precarious position of global rule. Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik make clear that this historic victory forced the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system:
“Under that system the U.S. dollar was a reserve currency convertible into gold at the rate of $35 per ounce of gold. By taking advantage of this role of the dollar, the United States ran large current account deficits for maintaining its string of military bases all around the world. (This role also enabled American companies to buy up European firms with dollars printed in the United States but sanctified by the system to be ‘as good as gold.’) As the Vietnam War escalated, the U.S. current account deficit widened, and a torrent of dollars poured out of the United States, even as excess demand pressures appeared in the world economy and increased the rate of inflation to levels that could no longer be ignored (Kaldor 1976). There was therefore a rush to gold, in which President De Gaulle of France took the lead, the gold-dollar link could no longer be sustained, and the Bretton Woods system collapsed.”
True to that early lesson passed down from the Irish, the Vietnamese hampered US imperialism and, as such, the capitalism system itself. In other words, the National Liberation Front bled the United States of both blood and treasure. The blood loss created in the US the most significant social crisis its regime had ever before faced in the combined strength of the antiwar and Black liberation movements. The treasure expended forced the US to improvise a new fiat-based financial system in order to keep its empire afloat. That new system, still in effect today, is remarkable for depending overwhelmingly on one part of the world: West Asia, or “the Middle East.” What might happen to the capitalism system if US imperialism were to suffer a Vietnam-style defeat in that region?
An essay by Atif A. Kabursi and Salim Mansur titled From Sykes-Picot Through Bandung to Oslo: Whither the Arab World? offers some intriguing possible answers to that question. The premise of the essay rests on a reminder that much of what we variously call “globalization” and “neoliberalism” since the 1970s is actually a transition in ruling style in the 500-plus year course of Western colonialism, or “the system of domination and exploitation inaugurated by the conquest of Columbus in the Americas,” which following the Second World War the emergent US empire and its junior partners in Western Europe sought to reclaim against the twin threat of communism and national liberation movements. The 1945 baton-passing to the United States would inaugurate a global economy “underwritten by American power as was the post-Napoleonic order between 1815 and 1914 underwritten by British power.” Similar to how the inter-imperialist war of 1914-1945 pushed Britain and France to a point a financial weakness, the Vietnamese Revolution sapped US resources until its then-figurehead Lyndon B. Johnson “sought to wage the war by indirectly taxing American allies through pressing them to accept an unlimited flow of U.S. dollars.” This maneuver foreshadowed Nixon’s decision to float the US dollar and completely remove it from the gold standard by six years. Charles de Gaulle refused to abide by US commands, and effectively described those commands as a proposal for US global domination so extreme, even the sovereignty of its Atlanticist imperialist partners would be vulnerable to it:
“The fact that many States accept dollars as equivalent to gold, in order to make up for the deficits of any American balance of payments, has enabled the United States to be indebted to foreign countries free of charge. Indeed, what they owe to those countries, they pay, at least in part, in dollars that they themselves can issue as they wish, instead of paying them totally in gold, which has a real value, and which one possesses only if one has earned it. This unilateral facility attributed to America has helped to spread the idea that the dollar is an impartial, international sign of exchange, whereas it is a means of credit appropriated to one state.”
When the Nixon Administration went through with the decision to de-link the US dollar from gold, “the management of international exchange rates (defining the price of other currencies in terms of the U.S. dollar) became a matter of negotiations among the treasuries and central banks of the leading industrial states” with the US dollar now deemed as good as gold in all international transactions. Within this scheme, Kabursi and Mansur argue, “The place of the Middle East and the Arab economy in America’s global standing since 1945 is analogous to the place that India occupied in the British empire during the period of its global hegemony.” The key to this arrangement is well-known: oil. Unable to export much of anything besides war and capital, the US could, through total or near total control of the Arab world, at least monopolize the most essential energy source of the past century, ensuring the empire remain profitable for oil conglomerates and Wall Street speculators.
This privileged position for US currency in the global economy was earned through military blackmail, and subsequently maintained through the same. The supremacy of the US dollar and the ubiquitousness of the US military run hand in hand. And as the US extended its tentacles internationally, forced to make up the difference between its domestic consumptive capacities and its waning industrial output through the theft of the Global South, it has increasingly faced a domestic crisis as well. With the majority of US income tax dollars increasingly flowing towards military subsidizations, and the local US economy increasingly dependent on unsustainable debts and lines of consumer credit, there cannot be a “third way” for US rulers between the military might necessary to maintaining the supremacy of the US dollar and returning job security and livable wages to the US people.
The selection of Donald J. Trump to the role of the US presidency is thus a sign of the general direction of US rule in the coming years. Prior to Trump, the Council on Foreign Relations, managers of international finance traversing many fields from politics to media, had always gotten their preferred candidate in office. Trump was an exception, signaling that some sectors of the bourgeoisie see fit to drop fashionable cloaks of neoliberalism and cosmopolitanism (provided by the Obamas and the Clintons) for international finance and deal with impending unrest through a strategy of brute military confrontation–in other words, the same strategy used by the US to crush rebellion overseas. In a word, routine protests and demonstrations will increasingly be treated as matters of counterinsurgency and Trump’s rhetoric will match this reality. This does not mean that Trump, in contrast to Obama and Clinton, is somehow more honest. He is a liar, but a different kind of liar meant to con a different demographic, his slogan “Make America Great Again” spouted with that hope that it will grab a layer of white Americans to serve as the front lines of domestic repression alongside cops and troops as part of a fascist pact.
In this coming period, what was always the case should become more apparent: the source of oppression and exploitation of workers in the US is the same source of oppression and exploitation of workers the world over, including and especially in the Arab world, the essential link in the chain of US hegemony. Thus, no constructive steps can be taken towards substantive socialism in the US without ending the empire and everything that goes with it, including the US military and the US dollar. Are we ready to invoke and act on the internationalist principles required to bring the end of the empire about? It begins with searching for organized projects underway at every level of possible engagement. In that spirit, we should observe that there already exist coordinated efforts to undermine the dollar among China, Russia, and Venezuela. In the Arab world, this task requires conscious attempts to link up with the organized forces of Arab liberation from US imperialism and Zionism extending from Lebanon and Palestine to Yemen. Our task cannot succeed if we prove incapable of identifying those organized structures, with no locus with which to orient ourselves and our analysis. It will not suffice to insist, as Tony Cliff did (and as do his adherents today), that “the Arab working class is the only power in the Middle East which can stop Zionism and smash imperialism” as if the “Arab working class” were self-evident as an organized front at a time when the US works overtime to divide the class along sectarian lines and to scatter its members among oceans and refugee camps.
The Arab Struggle Against Imperialism in the Age of Trump
Trump’s visit to the Arab world only increased the urgency for those in the West to locate those Arab national structures and nationalist movements taking aim at the common imperialist enemy. Let us pull back and examine his engagements in the Arab world in brief sequence. On April 5, during the very week the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat airbase in Homs, Trump met with King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House. At the meeting, a joint invasion of southern Syria by the combined forces of U.S., U.K., and Jordanian Special Forces was planned. The news passed quietly as these imperial troopers stormed Dara’a, attempted to monopolize the al-Tanf crossing, and began gunning by land for Deir ez-Zor in the east. That last location the US had been eyeing for quite some time. Recall when, in December of 2015, the Syrian government accused the US of firing missiles at a Syrian army camp in Deir ez-Zor. And recall when, in September of 2016 under the Obama regime, the US and the UK bombed an airbase just outside “accidentally” for over an hour, according to CENTCOM’s own report.
The enlistment of Jordanian services had clearly been in the works under Obama. In 2015, the US announced an increase in assistance to Jordan from $660m to $1bn annually for the 2015-2017 period. Much more recently, on May 9th, the Trump regime overruled Turkish objections to arm the Kurdish YPG more aggressively. The plan was two-fold. On the Syrian front, the US and its assorted “rebel” proxies in the southeast would move northward to meet the US and its YPG proxies, effectively forming a crescent of direct US military occupation from the north, through the east, to the south. On the Iraqi front, US military personnel would consolidate border areas. Overall, the US would swallow the land formerly occupied by its ISIS destabilization proxies. The arrival of Russian troops in southern Syria has since slowed this operation. Even more essential was the directive of the Syrian government to move troops back to Deir ez-Zor as it faced an ISIS onslaught—effectively forestalling incoming US troops and eventually breaking the years-long siege of the city maintained by ISIS. This development undoubtedly brought the the Syrian Army and its allies closer to victory, but it would be premature to assume that the war is over, as weapons supplies are still slated to flow into Syria for years to come, albeit through more inscrutable networks than before.
As these Syrian troops were on the move towards Deir ez-Zor, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Moallem called out Jordan’s intrigues. According to SANA: “Al-Moallem said that Jordan’s role form the beginning of the crisis till today is known for us, not to mention the Military Operations Command (MOC), asserting that ‘if the Jordanian forces entered without coordination with the Syrian government they will be considered as hostile forces.’” The involvement of the Jordanian king’s troops in Syria will make clearer the regional alignments–who is progressive and who is reactionary–that Obama so successfully obscured during his presidential tenure, as the embrace between King Abdullah and the Zionist entity becomes more public. The people of Jordan, mostly Palestinian in origin and militantly pro-Palestine in disposition (boasting, for instance, one of the strongest BDS coalitions in the world), recently launched a massive uprising in solidarity with al Quds around the same time that Mohammad Jawawdeh, a 16-year-old Jordanian, was murdered by an Israeli embassy guard just outside of Amman. As The Atlantic quoted one Palestinian in Jordan at the time: “It’s all related, Al Aqsa and the existence of this embassy. The king didn’t do anything while our people were killed… “We as Jordanians are with Jerusalem and Palestine, and we refuse any normalization or engagement with the Zionist government.” The people’s rage was not directly solely at the Zionists, but also at the Jordanian regime. It is, after all, nowadays an open fact that the CIA paid Abdullah’s predecessor, Hussein, in the millions beginning in the early 1970s in return for favors on the Palestinian issue. That Trump works in such a way as to bring this history and set of relationships back to the surface should be celebrated and exploited.
The deal for de-escalation zones have left Syria’s external relations in limbo. Russia’s presence certainly discourages full-blown NATO invasion in the style of Libya. It also suggests the possibility of de facto partition, and Russia’s ongoing open friendly enough relations with the Zionist entity place a question mark on its willingness to back ongoing Arab efforts to expel occupying Zionist forces from Syria. The Syrian government, however, will continue dealing with its own pressures from an anti-Zionist public. On this count, it is important to take note of the Syrian government’s maneuvers, in deed as well as public outreach, since it became apparent that Trump would follow the US establishment directives for destabilization in Syria. In fact, the Syrian leadership anticipated Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia in advance of much of the world—and responded militarily, albeit indirectly and therefore subtly. The pan-Arabist journalist Abdel Bari Atwan published an article on March 17, 2017, arguing that the Syrian decision to attack and down a Zionist jet on that day in Syrian airspace was in fact a riposte to the emerging consensus between Trump and King Salman on the need to address the “Iranian threat.” In undertaking the dangerous decision to attack a Zionist military asset, the Syrian Arab Army was, in Atwan’s estimation, recommitting itself to its fundamental creed in recalling its biggest and primary enemy: the Zionist entity. One might add that the decision signaled a recommitment on the Syrian leadership’s behalf, after some wavering language about the possibility of working with Trump, to not only the Resistance Axis in the region, but to anti-colonialism worldwide. Bashar al-Assad’s April, 2017, interview with Telesur was thus far the most radical critique of colonialism and imperialism he has made in English, ensconced as it was in an internationalist appeal to the peoples of Venezuela and South America, linking their plight to that faced by the peoples of Iran, Russia, and Korea. The times—which is to say, the American war of aggression against Syria—have pushed him further into this direction. His comments amounted to a searing critique of the role of capital in the war to unseat him:
“The American President has no policies. There are policies drawn by the American institutions which control the American regime which are the intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, the big arms and oil companies, and financial institutions, in addition to some other lobbies which influence American decision-making. The American President merely implements these policies, and the evidence is that when Trump tried to move on a different track, during and after his election campaign, he couldn’t. He came under a ferocious attack. As we have seen in the past few week, he changed his rhetoric completely and subjected himself to the terms of the deep American state, or the deep American regime. That’s why it is unrealistic and a complete waste of time to make an assessment of the American President’s foreign policy, for he might say something; but he ultimately does what these institutions dictate to him. This is not new. This has been ongoing American policy for decades.”
The times have also pushed Assad to back up rhetoric with action—which leads us back to the role and strategy of the PFLP to restore to the Palestinian cause its original pan-Arabist content. Again in March, Assad traveled to Tunisia (a site of ongoing popular unrest) to speak to the Popular Front for Tunisian national parties on the pressing need under present conditions to adopt “a collective progressive pan-Arab project through a deep party and social dialogue,” according to SANA. In this iteration, Arabism is understood in traditional terms, but now as an ideological buttress against Wahhabism and sectarianism. The Wahhabists’ war—committed in conjunction with and made possible by imperialism—marks “one of the most dangerous manifestations of the terrorist war waged on Syria and the region,” which “aims at undermining the Arab identity and culture and deforming the concept of affiliation to Arabism and the homeland through disseminating extremist mentality that is based on canceling the other.” Earlier, in July of 2016, Assad had traveled to Lebanon to consult with and address a new coalition of nationalist and leftist organizations, of which the Syrian government is part, calling itself the “Progressive Arab Front.” The point of the conference was to re-affirm the principles of Arabism against the tide of sectarian violence sweeping the region. Parties in the coalition also include Al-Murabitoun (or the Independent Nasserite Movement) and the PFLP.
On April 19th, on the cusp of joining a massive Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, PFLP Secretary General Ahmed Sa’adat explicitly called for conjoining analytically the daily Zionist assaults on Palestine to the imperialist project across the region, most pressingly where direct war has been launched (for our purposes, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen). He spoke on the pressing need to “confront these projects aimed at the liquidation of our national cause.” An essential part of the way out of this crisis, as Sa’adat sees it, is to confirm that “the mobilization of the Palestinian role is capable of providing a real climate for resistance to these projects”—a task to which over 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners committed themselves in voluntarily emptying their stomachs as Irish Republicans as well as past Palestinian resisters have done before. (True to Sa’adat’s Arabist call, the prisoners’ strike extended to Zionist dungeons outside of historic Palestine; Siqdi al-Maqt, the Syrian resister imprisoned for exposing Zionist-al Qaeda coordination in the occupied Golan Heights, has also joined the strike.) Sa’adat added:
“The most prominent, central task which can play a decisive role in this direction is to rebuild the national-democratic movement and its extensions in each country to fill the vacuum that has opened the door to all forms of international intervention in Arab internal affairs. The Progressive Arab Front, launched last year, can be an important step in that direction… building the Arab Progressive Front and expanding its ranks to activate its role on the overall level to bring about integration between the Arab and Palestinian dimensions of the struggle and to mobilize the Arab masses to counter the dissipation of the Arab national movement and rise out of the current impasse of the Arab nation. I hope that the Front’s next national Congress will further develop to awaken and indeed double this role, in proportion to the size of the responsibility placed upon it as an organization and as a national leftist democratic framework.”
On May 15th, on the commemoration date of the Nakba, the Arab Progressive Front released an important statement: “No to a New Baghdad Pact!”—a reference to Trump’s schemes to form an “Arab NATO,” set to include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt. Among the points emphasized in the statement were: a condemnation of the joint US-UK-Jordanian invasion of southern Syria; a warning that the US wants to re-ignite civil war in Lebanon; an affirmation of support for the Palestinian prisoner strike and recent people’s struggles in Tunisia; and words of concern on the dangerous repercussions of Hamas’ revised charter, as what is being called “deal of the century” aims to liquidate the Palestinian cause.
What is “the deal of the century”? Only the latest of many imperialist attempts to liquidate the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian cause, the central nerve point for so many pan-Arab and pan-Islamic aspirations, must be liquidated as even an idea in order for the Zionist entity to live and the American empire to dominate the world free from contestation. Imperialists argue over how to liquidate the Palestinian cause: co-optation or brute force? Oslo was one such attempt at co-optation. On those terms, it was rather brilliant, as it isolated “radical” elements by inviting centrists to the negotiating table. The economic aspect of Oslo, bound within the Paris Protocol, ensured that police duties of the West Bank occupation would fall to the rank-and-file Palestinian soldiery of the Palestinian Authority, armed with American weaponry and unable to imagine upward mobility outside of such ugly work. Oslo nonetheless proved powerless to stop the Intifada. Palestinians continue to resist, sharp and relentless. One of the more insidious ideas hatched for co-optation, to kill the Palestinian Revolution with a whimper rather than a bang, came from Yigal Allon (of Labour and not Likud, it must be noted) in the days of Black September: squelch the two-state solution and replace the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with either “the United Jordanian and Palestinian State” or the “the Federal Republic of Palestine and Jordan.” With such a move, the Zionist movement would persist with its nasty century-long slog to remake the region according to its interests.
And now “the deal of the century,” the Trump regime’s own unique strategy to liquidate the Palestinian cause. According to a report from Middle East Monitor, working from a direct translation from a Hebrew commentary in Haaretz, the plan has gone as follows: first, make a pledge to the Saudi monarchy to support it even more steadfastly against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thereafter, “Saudi Arabia may allow Egypt to have a foothold along the eastern coast of the Red Sea so as to assuage the public outrage in Egypt in the aftermath of the decision by Egyptian President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi to hand over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia.” Egypt would then “concede an area in the north of Sinai to be annexed to the Gaza Strip where a Palestinian state will be established”—thus, the Palestinian pseudo-state, that pathetic scrap of enclosed land perennially dreamt up by Zionist planners eager for Palestinians to shut up and accept their subjugation, will land in Egypt rather than Jordan or the West Bank. Israel’s only role will be to annex its existing settlements in the West Bank and decide which lands in the West Bank are suitable to Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority’s only prescribed job will be to look happy and foolish and offer a salute complete with a “yes, sir!” Of course, the Palestinians will resist still. That deteriorating racist crank Donald Trump assumes Palestinians are as beguiled as the leadership America forced on them; but the narcotic of Oslo could not lull the Palestinian Revolution to slumber, and so neither will this tawdry sequel.
The role of Hamas in this proposed deal is perhaps murky, but as the Progressive Arab Front pointed out, it did not for the moment bode well that the organization’s revised charter “considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.” The real “formula of national consensus” lies at the intersection of liberation and return, and nowhere else. This turn of phrase about the “two-state solution,” unofficially and offhandedly made by Khaled Meshaal over the years, conspicuously came only five years after Meshaal fled Damascus for Doha. Yet the combined Saudi-UAR-Egyptian-Jordan isolation of Doha provided again an opportunity (if a forced one) for Hamas to re-join the Axis of Resistance. The offensive against Qatar was nonetheless consistent with the broad outline of the so-called “Deal of the Century”—if Trump could gain Saudi participation by committing the US to increased covert aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran (the first attack of which occurred on June 7 of this year), then he could gain full Egyptian participation by taking a harder line against the Muslim Brotherhood and all of its affiliates, including Hamas. The future place of Hamas in the Palestinian national movement remains to be seen, especially as it dissolves its government in Gaza based on PA demands. But if Hamas does end up softening the resistance plank of its national program, Palestine Islamic Jihad will be well prepared to take its place as the Islamic cornerstone of that movement. But overall the remaining Palestinian resistance factions will remain jubilant and the US anti-imperialist left will still have to find a way to relate to it.
The Meaning of Solidarity in the Global North
As the mad-scramble for Syria’s east paces on, and the US secures strongholds in Syria for joint military rule of those territories with its Zionist allies, anti-imperialists will have to ask how various grassroots projects can be brought together, namely some kind of marriage between pro-Palestine movements and the scattered remains of the anti-war movement. Because the Arab world lies at the nexus of so many material foundations of US imperial rule worldwide—oil, the dollar, weapons—it is crucial that these joint ventures commit themselves, in the long-term, to the defeat of the US military-political project in the Arab world. In short, a deeper, more serious, more uncompromising internationalism is needed. Pro-Palestinian politics in the United States, still the centerpiece of Arab and Muslim unity at a time of deepening divisions, faces a dilemma. In its earliest stages, Palestinian solidarity in the US was smaller but truer to regional context, Arab nationalist and focused on the liberation of the whole of Palestine. Over the past decade especially, the movement has grown considerably through mass politics imbued with the language of human rights. How to combine the stronger aspects of both of these trends—the militancy of the former and the numbers of the latter? How do those acting and thinking in support of Palestinian human rights go from being critics of Israel and its policies to being actual partisans of the Palestinian and Arab causes? And if that task should prove too arduous in a period of rising reaction, how to create the conditions within a mass movement that can protect, rather than reject, its most radical sub-units?
If anti-imperialists are willing to engage these questions, it should be clear, as a much-needed first order of consensus, that existing attitudes towards Syria among Western leftists are overall poorly devised. The most popular choice for partisan commitment in Syria, the YPG and YPJ, does not challenge the global US-led order, and even increasingly aids and supplements it. YPG’s collaboration with US-Zionist imperialism began as a matter of convenience, wherein the YPG could gain air cover and weaponry in their existential battle with ISIS while the US could gain a military foothold in Northern Syria in the form of Special Forces operators and bases. The relationship slowly began to transform as the YPG began to run favors for the US (and British and French) Special Forces; one report in Le Mondeclaimed that YPG and YPJ fighters went so far as to guard an abandoned Lafarge factory occupied by imperialist troops.
After Trump’s inauguration, the YPG’s support for the US only increased, leaving the realm of mere tactical convenience and actually affecting the subjective politics of PYD leadership. In one interview, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) co-chair Ilhem Ahmed announced that her organization would not allow SDF-held territories to become Iranian “corridors.” The timing of the announcement came suspiciously soon after the commencement of the Trump plan to target and isolate Iran. Further comment from Ahmed, this time to Al-Riyadh newspaper on June 18, described Saudi Arabia as a force for regional stability. What business does the leadership of a Kurdish liberation movement in Syria (and, depending on how wide one’s scope, in Turkey), ostensibly dedicated to socialism, have taking vocal sides in a regional dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran if they do not have the intention of doing the US’s regional bidding, i.e., serving as proxy?
The experience of the YPG and YPJ holds one potential commonality and lesson with that of Zionism: the subjective politics of a given movement—its affirmations and words, whether relating to “socialism” or “revolution”—cannot alone transcend its objective position in the global system. Many of the Zionists who colonized Palestine in 1948 were, after all, self-proclaimed socialists. What is the point of a socialism built on the bones of a so-called “inferior” race if not to build fascism? Some will object to any analogy to Zionism and insist that the Kurds are not imported European settlers, but rather an oppressed people of the region. Yes, the historic plight of the Kurdish people remains real—but even the best intentions can be co-opted by imperialism, sometimes overnight. What’s more, the anti-capitalist value of the Kurdish struggle in NATO-member Turkey remains intact, as the Kurdish struggle remains the lynchpin of left-wing and dissident activity within Turkey’s borders. There is furthermore a proud history of left-wing, pro-Kurdish assistance to the cause of Palestinian liberation. And yet it nonetheless remains true in the case of the YPG and YPJ that a “socialist” enclave run by the US empire, the national head of the global capitalist system, is absurd on its face. Would the communes of Jordan 1970 and Lebanon 1976, or even the communes of today’s Venezuela, hold any anti-systemic value, or any material grounds for Global South solidarity, if they were effectively governed by US military advisors?
Some partisans of the YPG and YPJ still maintain that the Rojava militias recognize the US as the face of capitalism, that the alliance is only temporary. These are nice words sutured to rosy sentiment, but those anti-imperialist forces based in the US are still required to think in terms of the concrete strategy of opposing the US, lest they liquidate their own raison d’être. If a rupture does form between the YPG and the US, as Rex Tillerson seems to anticipate, without an alliance to the Arab nationalists and Muslim resisters of the Resistance Axis, no such defeat of the US military will be possible. In the meantime, the YPG and YPJ are helping the US and its chemical weapons to invade Raqqa, a verifiably non-Kurdish territory, and they continue to expand relations with the regional enemies of Arab liberation, and they deepen the foothold of US and Zionist military presence in Syria, perfectly reminiscent of the KDP protectorate in Northern Iraq–a nightmare scenario with long-term ramification for other peoples in the region, from Palestine to Yemen, Lebanon to Iraq.
“Socialism,” declare the anarchists and democratic socialists. If so, it is “socialism” once more built on the corpses of the Arab masses. And like Zionism, this preferred idea of socialism is a product of national chauvinism among Western leftists, preventing them from searching for strategic allies in the objective conditions in order to build simultaneous wars of attrition against empire, waged internally and externally, through the combined strength of actually existing resistance to imperialism. Those objective forces can include organizations that do not fall under the self-defined “socialist” camp, so long as they effectively work towards the defeat of the United States in the international arena on an anti-colonial basis—a material precondition for substantive socialism, at any rate. Such organizations include Hezbollah in Lebanon and Ansar Allah in Yemen, both of which share necessary animosity towards the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as the main sources of regional reaction; traverse both Islamic and Arab nationalist language in their resistance rhetoric; and consciously work to upend Sykes-Picot borders for both pan-Arab and pan-Islamic alliances.
To embrace their struggles in a resistance capacity is not at all to betray the organized left in the Arab world, for their struggle against the twin reserve forces of imperialism in the Arab world—Zionists and takfiris—serves to protect Arab workers from massacre and reaction. This is a simple, essential principle: there can be no Arab working class to organize and support if the Arab working class is fragmented, scattered, and dead. The Lebanese Communist Party promoted this principle at the height of the 2006 onslaught against Lebanon, even as internal disagreements about social and economic policy persisted between the LCP and Hezbollah: “We agree on liberation of land and nation,” their statement of support to Hezbollah’s resistance read.
The employment of this strategy, with antiwar and antiracist movements once again becoming cornerstones of US left activity, would in the long term identify the United States, as an idea and nation hatched for an imperial rule of white settlers, as enemy territory. In some ways, these politics would mark a return to the Vietnam War era, or even the Vietnam era mentality, through which US revolutionaries actively desire and exploit divisions among US rulers, between the intelligence agencies and various bureaus, and within the Democratic and Republican Parties. Undoubtedly, we must carefully outline the errors of the past and the specificities of the present; more important, we must show patience and engage in mass work, the real key of which is to turn local work internationalist as opposed to trying to impose internationalism as an abstract principle from the top-down. Alas, the practical and mundane aspects of this task, which is where the real work lies, must be the subject of its own future essay. But we must also know, as a general point of reference, where we wish to head. If the US has decided that its continued global domination still depends on crushing revolution in the Arab world, then we must uphold Arab resistance to US domination. We must not, for instance, as so many left-liberal academics have done, mourn the “loss” of Aleppo to the Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah; rather, we must celebrate Hezbollah’s victory, for in Aleppo they delivered disaster to the US and its plans for the region for the third time, following Lebanon in 2000 and 2006. And ultimately, as with the Vietnamese Revolution against the United States before it, we must treat the Arab Revolution as part of our own revolution.
Note: This article mainly deals with the genesis of one major manifestation of organized Arab nationalism, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN). A deeper examination of this subject would require a broader reading, of the left wings of Nasserism, Ba’athism, Fateh, and the various Arab Communist Parties–subjects which I certainly hope to come back to. The information on MAN contained herein is drawn from the tireless work of the revolutionaries, scholars, and journalists who made it a priority to preserve the history of the organization: namely, Mohammed Jamal Barout in Harakat al-Qawamiyeen al-‘Arab:al-Nash’a, al-Tatawur; Hani al-Hindi in al-Harakat al-Qawmiyya al-Arabiyya fi’l Qarn al-Eshrin; Basil al-Kubaisi in The Arab Nationalists Movement 1951-1971: From Pressure Group to Socialist Party; Walid Kazziha in Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and His Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism; Mohsen Ibrahim in Limatha Munathamat al-Eshtirakiyyin al-Lubnaniyyin?; and Abdel Razzaq Takriti in Monsoon Revolution: Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976 and, co-edited with Karma Nabulsi, the Palestinian Revolution website, an invaluable resource. I would like to add a special thank you to Mahmood Najeeb al-Mahmood, whose own research, insights, and advice played a major role in the writing of this post.
In recent decades, especially over the past decade, Arab nationalism has fallen somewhat into disrepute across wide sectors of the Western left. Often reduced to individuals such as Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, Arab nationalism and its many anti-colonial social struggles, not to mention its crucial intersections with Marxism and left-wing politics more broadly, have received undue attention. Something to consider: without Arab nationalism, there could not have been a widely popular Arab left. It is to the Arab left that the global left and the international community of oppressed nations owe their left-wing critique of Zionism, a critique with worldwide anti-systemic implications.
The importance of militant anti-Zionism to an international movement against capitalism cannot be overstated. Despite the recent efforts to criticize Israel solely on the basis of its post-1967 occupations or for its apartheid legal system, anti-Zionism denotes a more complete theoretical basis that accounts for: the financial ties between imperialism and the international Zionist movement that continue to ensure Israel serves as an imperial colony in the heart of the Arab world; Israel’s crimes not only against the Palestinian people, but against all Arab peoples; and finally, Israel’s crimes against the peoples of the Tricontinental (Africa, Asia, the Americas) as a favor-runner for US imperialism.
In short, Zionism and Israel are not the same thing. Israel is an expression of the international Zionist movement and its racist guiding ideology. The international nature of Zionism has been apparent since the early 20th century, when Theodore Herzl made his pitch to Sultan Abdulhamid, Chaim Weizmann to anti-Semitic British statesmen, and the World Zionist Organization to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. This nature remains apparent today, as just last year Mossad found and assassinated Comrade Omar Nayef Zayad, who had been living fugitive years after escape from colonial imprisonment, in a Palestinian embassy in Bulgaria. Of course, any overemphasis on Zionism alone will result in whitewash of imperialism. For the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), international Zionism formed only one-fourth of the total enemy, which must be understood as a whole to be properly confronted. The other three enemies remain Israel, imperialism, and Arab reactionary regimes.
The relationship between Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism is essential. Although Arab Communist parties punched above their weight and cast influence beyond their cadre proportion due to sharp organization practices, the most successful communist and socialist movements in Arab society arose out of some form of Arab nationalism, whether Nasserism or Ba’athism or the unique nationalism posited by the organization I will deal with primarily in this essay, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN). Many Nasserists and Ba’athists (as well as Communists) would go on to make great sacrifices for the Palestinian cause, staffing the cadre ranks of guerrilla factions such as Fateh, Saiqa, and the Palestinian Liberation Army. The reason for this is rather simple: the USSR had during the 1950s discredited (for a time) Marxism and communism with its early recognition of Israel, the creation of which nothing short of disastrous for all of Arab society, a particularly brutal continuation of the colonial processes facing down Arabs since the Sykes-Picot slice-up of their once contiguous homeland.
The pan-Arab vision for the reunification of the Arab homeland has undergone a series of major theoretical changes informed by shifting political contexts since its first articulations, but one constant feature has been acknowledgement of the inextricability of those reunification efforts from the cause for Arab independence from imperialism. Unsurprisingly, imperial powers (the United States, Britain, France) have taken keen note of this development and steadfastly opposed it through a series of measures both overt and covert, economic and military, to ensure the elimination of Arab nationalism and pan-Arab aspirations; those ugly duties have now fallen squarely on the task sheet of Trump as his handlers in the oil monopolies and war industries whisk him from imperial station to station in the Arab world, from one ridiculous pageant show to the next. The knowledge of what Trump is up to, what his sordid visitations signify in the ongoing dialectic of revolution and counterrevolution in the Arab world, remains in the purview pan-Arab proletarians, who so often understand him and the forces moving him a million times more clearly than any think-tank or IR goofball hoarding conference checks in Washington or Doha. It was the Palestinian revolutionary Nayef Hawatmeh who noted in the early 1970s that the United States was pursuing a long-term imperial plan whose completion required the destruction of the “petit-bourgeois nationalist regimes” (meaning Iraq and Syria), a move intended to throw the cause of Arab national liberation into a dark grave.
PLO representatives in Jordan, including Yasser Arafat, Nayef Hawatmeh, and Kamal Nasser.
The attempts of the United States to attack, destabilize, and dethrone independent Arab nationalism date back to the new structural role it took on in the wake of the British empire and French empires’ limited recessions after suffering calamitous blows to their respective economies and militaries during the Second World War. As Britain and France began slowly and reluctantly to vacate their colonies, the United States picked up the repressive slack, at first underwriting British and French control of places like Palestine and Vietnam before eventually taking command of overlord duties altogether. The US’s new strategic plan for West Asia in particular became known as the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” after the administration that designed its initial phases. As Salim Yaqub put it in Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East, “Two issues… Zionism and imperialism, aroused Arab resentment against the West and created opportunities for Soviet encroachment, raising doubts in American minds about Britain’s long-term ability to hold the region for the West.” Chiefly, the US was concerned with safeguarding what had become the most important resource to the world economy: oil.
The regional developments that might be called exceptions to this general rule between the US and Arab nationalism since 1948 involve Egypt and Iran. Through American economic and diplomatic pressure as well as Anwar Sadat’s open willingness to grant concessions, the US was able to turn Egypt totally into a client state, resulting in some of the most extreme betrayals of Palestine made by Arab states, up to and including General Sisi’s on and off attempts to lock Palestinians in Gaza. Iran provides a case in which an Islamic ideological framework supplements attempts to achieve some degree of relative political and economic sovereignty, although it should be noted that Hezbollah in Lebanon—which maintains a critical relationship to the Islamic Republic, ideologically and militarily—has been able to succeed in large part due to its fusion of “Islamist” and Arab nationalist sentiments. Taken together, the cases of Egypt and Iran demonstrate that the US is not opposed to Arab nationalism per se, but to any and all attempts at independence from its global grip.
Despite this caveat, the historic relationship between Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism continues apace, with the diminished but nonetheless living option of pan-Arabism now anchoring a counter-vision for opposition to Sykes-Picot than that provided by Daesh. For example, both the Arab National Front and Daesh (and even the majority Kurdish YPG for that matter) in theory favor the elimination of national borders in the Arab world and the overturn of Sykes-Picot. Nonetheless, these opposing visions could not be any more different in political content, with Daesh endorsing feudalist forms of social organization while objectively serving the interests of capitalism and imperialism. For any socialist and secular pan-Arab parties, as well as for any solidarity actors seeking to facilitate the defeat of imperialism in the region, there remains an old question, dating back to Marx himself, of how to fuse the national question with socialism, which in any event requires a careful and balanced reading of both objective and subjective factors. First we must turn to some basic history of the Arab liberation struggle and the Palestinian liberation struggle that formed within it.
A Test Case: Arab Nationalism and the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN)
Nayef Hawatmeh, Secretary-General of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), offered a simple formula for understanding the presence of Zionism in the Arab world: “…the conflict with the Zionist movement is historically linked to the relationship obtaining between Zionism and imperialism (British imperialism up to 1948, American imperialism after that date). Thus the struggle for the liberation of Palestine is against Zionism and imperialism.” The secret deal between Britain and France on the close of the First World War in 1916, combined with anti-Semitic British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s infamous 1917 declaration, sounded the tocsin across the region for colonization and partition.
Any glance at the map of modern day West Asia combined with a basic working knowledge of Arab society under the Ottoman Empire leads inexorably to the conclusion that the carved regionalisms of Sykes-Picot in the Levant (Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon) were both crimes and absurdities. People boasting longtime business, familial, and cultural links between, say, Damascus and Mosul found themselves divided from each other over night, belonging to separate states. Today one could theoretically drive the distance from Beirut to Baghdad in the span of ten hours. (Imagine the beauty, the scenery!) In reality, one would be unable to do it, hindered by military checkpoints propped up amid war zones. This is the enduring legacy of what Lenin deemed “the agreement of the colonial thieves” after the Bolsheviks discovered the agreement, made in deep secret by British and French conspirators and approved by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, in government archives before publishing a copy of the agreement in Izvestia newspaper on November 24, 1917 for the peoples of the world to see.
Mark Sykes (left) and François Marie Denis Georges-Picot.
None of this is to say that the imperialists should have simply carved land with sharper attention to local conditions. It is only to convey the seriousness of playing around with people’s lives through partition. In fact, it could not even be said that the partition of the Arab homeland occurred without foreknowledge among world powers about the feelings and attitudes among Arab peoples of diverse religious sects. In 1919, in the wake of the Paris Peace Conference, the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey organized a Commission of Enquiry on the conditions and social relations of the non-Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire; it visited Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Anatolia, led by Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane on an appointment from then President Woodrow Wilson. The two men went on a massive opinion-seeking mission. The outcome, known today as the King-Crane Commission, came to near unanimous consensus among inhabitants in the region across “sectarian” lines: “The Moslem and Christian population was practically unanimous against Zionism, usually expressing themselves with great emphasis.” Tellingly, “This question was closely connected with that of the unity of all Syria under one Government.”
The common Zionist refrain about this record of opinion is that anti-Zionism then was as it is now: anti-Semitism. But we should not forget that Zionism had a violent streak as brutalizing as any form of colonialism well before the establishment of Israel. A good example of this violence hit news presses recently, in a Hebrew-language Ha’aretz interview with General Yitzhak Pundak, who bragged to the newspaper about how, after he moved to Northern Palestine in 1930 to become a farmer in an orange grove, he beat his “first” Arab to death with a stick. His supervisor only told him to kill more Arabs. This was Zionism at its heart, another colonizing mission from Europe with the familiar old racist ideologies perfectly intact. Pundak, and so many other early settlers like him busy creating a settler-fortified dual power in historic Palestine throughout the early 20th century, did indeed kill more Arabs, only in a professional capacity, as an army official, after the State of Israel was founded. A good colonizer, Pundak still never forgot his “first” dead Arab; he even kept the stick with which he accomplished the wretched deed.
For many Arab thinkers, these events represented a profound political and existential crisis. Obviously this crisis became further compounded by the establishment of Israel in the Arab heartland of Palestine, founded through ethnic cleansing and outright massacre, founded atop the ruins of an Arab society deeply embedded within the larger Arab world through trade, family, and culture. It was around that last point, culture, that the earliest manifestations of Arab nationalism sought to rally, to promote the advent of national consciousness transcending borders and regionalism in favor of the idea of a shared Arab language, culture, history, and geographic space. A highly important thinker to turn to in this regard is Constantine Zureiq, a history professor at the American University of Beirut who took the occasion of the Nakba to set down a basic strategy for Arab emancipation. In his seminal work “The Meaning of Disaster,” Zureiq called on Arabs to recognize soberly the “terrifying strength” of their enemy. His program emphasized those traits commonly associated with “modernity”: economic and scientific preparedness, a secular political project rooted in the separation of church and state, and national unity staked on a clearly defined Arab being and “the highest mental and spiritual values.”
The importance of Zureiq lay as much in his practical activities as his intellectual and ideological output. Even while he was occupying a place of high importance at the American University of Beirut, serving dutifully in the daily functioning of one of the bourgeoisie’s most hallowed institutions for the dissemination of its ideas, he was in the 1930s living a double life as part of the Leadership Council of a secret organization of radical pan-Arabists known today (when it is known at all) as Tantheem al-Siri, or “The Secret Organization.” Zureiq’s practical activities were inspired by popular unrest, first of all in Palestine, from 1936 to 1939 the site of an intense revolution against British and Zionist colonization efforts and the headquarters of revolt for key Arab leaders such as Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and Amin al-Husseini. Just as formatively for Zureiq, Iraq developed in the 1930s into a veritable test lab for Arab nationalist organizations and movements, culminating in a failed 1941 coup attempt led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani to depose the British-backed government of Nuri Said and King Faisal.
It was there in Iraq that Tantheem al-Siri made its greatest impact. Within its ranks lurked Yusef al-Sabawi, who served as Iraqi Minister of Economics under the short-lived nationalist government of Ghazi bin Faisal, a close associate of Zureiq’s until Ghazi’s untimely death in 1939. The secret society maintained close ties with the revolutionaries in Palestine, where it was initially formed in 1935, delivering one the earliest statements of pan-Arabism. According to Aziz al-Azmeh’s account in his book on Zureiq, titled Constantine Zureiq: ‘Arabi lil Qarn al-‘Ashreen, many of the organizations at the forefront of the struggle in Iraq during World War II maintained strict codes of discipline that ultimately came to influence Zureiq’s manner and style as an educator and thinker. Notably, some of these organizations had ties to German fascism, such as al-Qamadan al-Hadeeda al-Damashqee, or the Damascene Iron Shirts, some of whose members did train with the Hitler Youth and learn German as a third language as part of delegations to Germany. In the streets and underground, the organization emphasized strict personal virtue as the highest principle, along with placing strong emphasis on physical training and gym routines as the substance of necessary manhood. Behind their activities, persistently mobilizing them, was Sami Shawkat, who ended up becoming Prime Minister of Education in Iraq in 1940, using his post to glorify martyrdom and the blood spilled for the sake of national liberation.
Inevitably this history brings discussion back to old Zionist canards about the supposedly organic relationship between Arabism and fascism. It is best to resist any such impulse, and much better to place this iteration of Arabism (subjectively rightist) in context as one moment in a complex evolution of social ideas of an ongoing anti-colonial revolt that eventually ends up firmly entrenched in the subjectivities of the political left. This is the best course for several reasons. First, the Arab revolts of the 1930s and 1940s, like the Irish and Indian national causes, generally lacked contact with the COMINTERN and its descendants, and like those causes, sought aid and succor where it was geopolitically possible, namely from Germany. Again like the Irish and Indian national causes, the Arab cause was nonetheless just, on its own terms, as a rebellion against ruthless, bloodthirsty, and racist authority; none of these causes materially aided and abetted Nazi Germany’s extermination campaigns against European Jews, but were in fact preoccupied with the liberation of their own homelands.
Second, Zureiq himself did not at all subscribe to fascist ideas. A deep believer in freedom of expression and thought, his pan-Arabism functioned as a kind of regional internationalism, a sense inculcated within him at AUB, the campus itself visual evidence of greater possibilities with its cross-section of Arab students coming from Arab lands as distant from Lebanon as Sudan and the Maghreb. Mainly Zureiq maintained from those early organizations the rigid belief in personal discipline. One anecdotal story relayed by al-Azmeh is when he reprimanded his students in the AUB library for desecrating books, which he regarded as borderline sacrosanct objects. He believed in a code, one defined by austerity and sacrifice, twin virtues that would prove important for the historic task of confronting the Zionists after the Nakba. And he believed in two kinds of people, as quoted in an interview book between him and Mahmood Suwayd titled Al-‘uruba wa Falasteen: Hiwar Shamil ma’ Constantine Zureiq: rajal al-fikr, or men of thought, and ‘ahl al-mumarasa, or men of action. As he receded from practical activity, he came to regard himself as a man of thought; his students, of the so-called “Nakba generation,” would be men of action, tutored and encouraged and trained by him.
The practical mobilization of Zureiq’s ideas—the breathing of life into this pan-Arab idea for its material realization—took shape not so much with him personally, but with his students at AUB, among whom were two young aspiring medical practitioners, both Palestinian, named George Habash and Wadi’ Haddad. Habash and Haddad formed with Zureiq a reading group, studying texts by Zureiq and another important early Arab nationalist, Sati’ al-Husri, in which they discussed fervently the problems posed by Zionism and the need for Arab reunification. These discussions led to on-campus organizational efforts from the students. Haddad, with the young Syrian Hani’ al-Hindi, formed in 1948 an organization under the name “al-Urwa al-Wuthqa,” or “the Firmest Bond,” under which they organized demonstrations against the Zionist takeover of Palestine and even called for hunger strikes.
Between 1951 and 1952, Habash and al-Hindi founded “Kata’ib al-Fada’ al-Arabi,” or the Self-Sacrifice Brigades, an outfit dedicated in theory to assassinating Arab leaders the young men deemed responsible for the Nakba. In 1951, they founded the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), along with a Kuwaiti medical student, Ahmed al-Khatib, and an Iraqi student, Hamid Jabouri. Every step of the way, these young men expressed deep compassion and concern for their specifically Arab history and context—a fact often lost when the history of Palestinian liberation is discussed in the West. For one example, “al-Urwa al-Wuthqa” was taken after the name of Mohammed ‘Abdouh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s newspaper published in Paris against the British occupation of Egypt, the title of which was itself a Qu’ranic reference. The name of one of MAN’s newspapers, al-Tha’ar, was also highly contextual. Technically translating to “revenge,” al-tha’ar differs from intiqam, also revenge, insofar as the latter describes a general process of retribution, while the former takes a more localized meaning: to carry out tha’ar is to carry out revenge for something personally stripped from you—a personal vendetta. Such was Palestine for these men after the Nakba, after many of them personally witnessed the ethnic cleansing of their villages as their families were disinherited and banished from their homeland.
al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa, ‘Abdouh’s and al-Afghani’s newspaper.
A few things stand out about early MAN efforts. First, there was its diverse Arab makeup: two Palestinians, a Syrian, a Kuwaiti, and an Iraqi. This would inform the organization’s basic working strategy, for its members to return to their respective countries and establish cells that could coordinate throughout the entire region. Second, there was the overpowering impact, the personal closeness, of the Nakba to them all—one early instance of the central role Palestine and its liberation would play for all Arab nationalist tendencies. For these men, Palestine was sacred, synonymous with politics itself. Habash and Haddad had been among those who personally experienced material loss during the Nakba and had witnessed ethnic cleansing; Hindi had fought in the 1948 war. Finally, there was the importance of the university to MAN’s existence. AUB, founded by American missionaries and to this day run by a board of rich Americans in New York City, serves as a case study of the imperial university becoming weaponized against its funders. For the founding cadre of MAN, AUB provided a space for them—from diverse reaches of the Arab world, deeply affected by the loss of Palestine—to meet each other, become introduced to new ideas, exchange analyses. The same code applied for a young Leila Khaled when she attended at a later date. In her autobiography “My People Shall Live,” Khaled described her hatred for one arrogant American teacher in particular, whom she condemned as a CIA agent in an especially incisive diatribe. She also describes her organizational efforts as part of a MAN cell. Early in the AM hours, when it was relatively safe to do so, she found herself putting up flyers for MAN until a night watchman came across her—no matter, as he soon revealed himself as a member and assisted her efforts.
In steadfast determination to break Arab peoples free from the colonial yoke, that wide-cast matrix of division and control set down by the Sykes-Picot regime, MAN raised a slogan: unity, liberty, vengeance. This was a hardline nationalist movement, largely anticommunist indeed on account of the Soviet Union’s historic complicity in Zionism and drawing inspiration at the time from the 19th century reunification efforts of Germany (one of Marx and Engel’s great political obsessions, it should be remembered) and Italy, in particular following the methods of the Carbonari. That model would not last forever. Nonetheless, MAN’s experiments throughout the 1950s would push the boundaries of the possible. Their cell network was informed by a tightly knit structure and a highly centralized command structure, a solder’s constitution in which members were given orders and expected to follow them. Their tactics were not at all limited to mere confrontation with authorities. Habash and Haddad ran a clinic in Jordan serving refugees. In 1957 Habash ran for parliament in Jordan and failed, but gained considerable confidence among the populace, spending extensive time talking to ordinary people through his campaign.
By the mid-1950s MAN was strategically advancing its propaganda efforts, with Habash publishing in 1954 the magazine al-Rai’ (The Opinion) in Lebanon as well as al-Tha’r. In an attempt to bridge gaps between campus and larger communities, particularly the poor in Arab society, they pitched their message to refugee camps. Their message was provocative, radical; in 1954, Habash was forced to go underground when the Jordanian authorities pursued him. The output of al-Rai’ was initially broadly Arab nationalist, like MAN itself, which attempted (and unsurprisingly failed) to contain threats of eclecticism and internal disputes by ruling against all ideological debates. The character of MAN’s nationalism would change with the titanic ascent of Gamal Abdel Nasser. At first, MAN’s publications were highly critical and skeptical of Nasser’s sincerity—they had after all heard plenty hot anti-Zionist rhetoric from Arab leaders before. Their view became more positive in 1956, when Nasser’s successful seizure of the Suez Canal boosted popular prospects for an anti-colonial Arab nationalism.
The Nasserist Turn
Nasser’s decisive action is sometimes reduced to a phrase or sentence: he nationalized the canal. It cannot be overemphasized just how spectacular and dangerous was the decision and act. On July 26th, Nasser proceeded to give a long, winding speech highlighting the history of British colonialism in Egypt, the continued denial to Egypt to pursue a self-determined path, and the pressing need for liberation. Unbeknownst to the crowd as well as the world powers, Nasser had beforehand privately convened a meeting with the Command Council of the Revolution. These men were Nasser’s trusted cadre, several of whom had been hardened through the experience of the 1948 war and had developed their collective tactical edge through participation in the Free Officers’ Movement against King Farouk in 1952. As Nasser repeatedly uttered his code phrase in his Alexandria address—“Ferdinand des Lesseps,” the name of the French builder of the canal—the Command Council stormed the offices Suez Canal Company as gunmen. The employees were taken hostage. The company’s assets were frozen. The canal was closed to Israeli ships. The people of the region glimpsed a new model of Arab leadership, emphasizing dignity.
Nasser’s actions led directly to popular interest in his ideas, his unique formulations of Arab nationalism, distinct from competing ideologies such as Ba’athism. At the same time, the rise of Nasser represented the mass culmination of Arab nationalists working from below, yet to achieve power themselves, including Ba’athists. Still anti-Zionism, the paramount emphasis on the loss of Palestine and the crime of the Nakba, remained at the forefront of Nasser’s program, at least as a symbol (it would become apparent later on that he lacked an actual strategy to regain the whole of Palestine), as Nasser had fought as a volunteer in the 1948 war for Palestine. In his memoirs about the experience, Nasser wrote eloquently about a shared consensus between him and his comrades that their battalion was severely under-equipped to fight a serious war against a newly coalescing Zionist entity. Here was a moment of clarity at which seismic realizations crystallized into view, mainly that the fate of the Arabs was outside their control, that the scarcity of weapons in Arab soldiers’ hands, the shoddiness of the attempts to deliver those weapons seeming almost deliberate, spelled alarmingly the influence of outside powers over the lives of Nasser, his comrades, and those for whom they intended to fight. Nasser pinpointed the United Nations Security Council, suit-and-tie-clad men ruminating in New York City boardrooms, as one point of power pulling strings, (mis)directing the Arab destiny.
Nasser’s ideas received some formal elaboration in his landmark work Philosophy of the Revolution. This call to action elaborated a historic critique, a review of foreign domination of Egypt dating back to the Mamlouks. In search of a new solution and direction, in consideration of the rich diverse history and the complex cross-societal links that had defined Egypt culturally through the centuries, Nasser drew out his infamous three circles of influence, thus supplying the fertile ground for a new kind of political awakening: the Arab; the Islamic; the African. It is not difficult to imagine in reviewing these spheres the draw of Egypt and Nasser for the Bandung Generation, or why Malcolm X should have made it a point to visit him during his trip to the Arab world, when he discovered for himself the horrors of Zionism and elaborated them to an international audience. With the rise of Nasser, MAN began to recede into the political background, with some elements of the organization convinced that Nasser would deliver the necessary program to liberate Palestine. His “solution” to the “Palestinian question” came in 1964 with the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jerusalem, with Ahmed Shuqeiry of the old Palestinian bourgeoisie sitting as its chairman.
Malcolm X visits the early PLO.
Other quarters of the Palestinian movement were not so convinced by Nasser’s gesture. A cadre formed by Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar, who led the General Union of Palestinian Students, or GUPS, in Cairo), Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), inspired by the Algerian model of liberation through armed struggle, began to run commando operations against the Zionist entity in the 1950s under the name Fateh. In 1969, Fateh would take over the PLO set by Nasser; their political makeup was particularly diverse, and they represented the largest but only a single component of the PLO as a political structure. More important for my purposes here, however, were the transformations of MAN from the years 1964 to 1967, when the organization broke up: its development into regional Marxist offshoots came with its increased exposure to the rest of the colonized world and its creative application of Arab nationalism in the Leninist tradition, combined at last with a class analysis extending from the internal affairs of Arab societies to the entire web of imperialist domination. It is an evolution that attests to the ongoing importance of Arab liberation for any project aiming for imperialism’s downfall.
“The Map of the Entire Arab World”: Mao, Nationalism and the Arab Left
The first event to open up cracks within MAN was the breakup of the union between Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic (UAR), in 1961. Many members had previously held that the creation of the union in 1958 marked a turning point in history that would provide the cure to all maladies afflicting the Arab nation. Within these cracks, the debates that transpired over what exactly went wrong in the short-lived union, entered Mohsen Ibrahim, member of MAN’s Committee of Thought, a figure too often forgotten or ignored in English-language examinations of 20th century Arab history. Ibrahim came out of South Lebanon, what would become a major communist resistance milieu to which even present-day Hezbollah owes a great deal. The core of Ibrahim’s arguments was that the Arab struggle should not fall into “stage-ism” and should instead combine national liberation with a socialist program. As Walid Kazziha quoted Ibrahim in his book Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and His Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism: “The Arab question has come to mean an overall revolutionary concept which is the melting pot of the national, economic, and social ambitions of the progressive Arab masses.” Ibrahim’s emphasis on the centrality of class analysis, along with his comrade Mohammed Kishli, played an important role in defeating anti-Jewish explanations for Zionism that had earlier held some purchase in Arab nationalist circles.
Ibrahim argued for a class-based analysis of inter-Arab relations across the entire region, positing a bourgeois right-wing currents of Arab leadership against petit-bourgeois nationalists. In this survey of inter-Arab affairs, Ibrahim sketched the basic analytical skeleton of which Arab nationalists-turned-communists would later make such extensive use: Arab society, Ibrahim argued, faced a lethal alliance of imperialism (particularly US imperialism), Zionism, and the feudal Arab bourgeoisie, each of them bound essentially together through common class interests. The introduction of Marxist ideas into MAN pitted Ibrahim on one side of an emerging debate with Hawatmeh, who in 1963 had recently been booted from Iraq where he had worked extensively with the Iraqi Communist Party and absorbed their analytical frameworks and knack for organizing. They were in this stage pitted against the “old guard” of MAN, consisting of figures such as al-Khatib and al-Hindi.
According to Kazziha’s account of the open debate that broke out, Habash took the initial stage to defend MAN’s status quo organization model, but (at least to my knowledge) the scattered accounts of MAN leave some ambiguity about what Habash was up to between 1963 and 1967. His main interest lay with forming specifically Palestinian action cells out of the general MAN network; he named the outfits, dedicated mainly to military operations, Youth for Revenge and Heroes of Return. These units, along with Ahmed Jibril’s Palestine Liberation Front, would eventually form the basic foundations of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a party of the Palestinian revolutionary proletariat and peasantry. In its 1969 document “Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine,” the PFLP laid out its vision as an ideological and organizational extension of the Palestinian divisions of the MAN, incorporating a “complete leftist political view of the liberation battle proceeding from and based on scientific socialist theory.” In the early stages of the formation of the PFLP, it was “understood was that the Front would for some time continue to consist of a group of organizations, each of which would maintain its independent existence,” while these varied strands would eventually become united through the same set of educational political materials. The PFLP nonetheless dated its distinction from the MAN to a Central Committee meeting during the “July 1967 session” that declared a socialist vision for liberation. To maintain a sense of continuity as well as break from the MAN, the PFLP called for “the Movement in the service of the Front, and not the Front in the service of the Movement.”
The merits of Arab nationalism in the long-developing establishment of a viable and strong Arab left, in the development of a class-based critique of Zionism and its relationship to US imperialism, in the forging of an actual material challenge to those powers, should be entirely clear from this picture. The first merit of the project has been its scope—Leninist offshoots of MAN cropped up not only in Palestine, but also across the occupied (by British imperialism) Arabian Peninsula. The second merit was popular participation, the organizational efforts towards forwarding the position of women in military and party ranks, not to mention the creation of a durable critic of and (later on) alternative to the main component (Fateh) of the PLO—it is not actually without coincidence that the organizations most sympathetic to the Syrian Arab Republic while it is under siege from imperialism are also most openly hostile to the Oslo negotiations and the farcical “peace process.” Third, as previously mentioned, these organizations’ analytical triumphs, borne through anti-imperialist experience and practice, have been absorbed by the wider global left whenever anti-Zionism is combined to anti-imperialism, as well it should and must be.
The particularities of Arab nationalism served during the MAN period as a safeguard ideology against imperialism until the objective conditions could bridge Arab nationalism to a broader—universalist, even—movement. The conditions that provided such a bridge arose in China, where Mao, not unlike the Arab nationalists of MAN, began to express skepticism of the global role of the USSR, allegedly for its backdoor promises to the United States to curb China’s nuclear capabilities. Publicly, Mao denounced the USSR for its “revisionist” leadership, heralded in his analysis by Khrushchev when denouncing the leadership of Comrade Stalin in the “Secret Speech” of 1956, and condemned it as “social imperialist.” Domestically, China confronted unique problems in its journey from an anti-colonial revolution against Japanese occupation to its construction of socialism: how to build socialism while warding off the threat of imperialist war, i.e., forced de-development?
For Mao, the answer lay in arming the communes of China. As William Hinton put it, “the Americans used all their financial and military might to support, inspire, foster, and preserve… feudal survivals and their comprador offspring” as means to subdue independent capitalist development in China, leading Mao to conclude that only socialist development, directly secured and defended by the bottom layers of society, could be successful against imperialist predations. A necessary part of that process of security and defense would be to foment a mass movement against any elements in the Party seeking to procure future privileged status that the United States could utilize for its own anti-development ends. (The appearance recently of a similar contradiction in Venezuela proves the lasting accuracy and relevance of Mao’s analysis, even if the contradiction has yet to be fully resolved in practice.) In the emergence of explosive conflict in China, between the proletariat and peasantry and the “capitalist-roaders” of the Party bureaucracy, the rejection of revisionism circulated as a twin rejection of the USSR and Liu Shaoqi’s faction of the Chinese Communist Party. These were the politics of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which despite whatever errors did succeed in keeping the flame of global revolution alive at a time when Mao’s faction of the CPC had decided the USSR had opted for an unforgivable “peaceful co-existence” with US imperialism, deemed by them to be China’s greatest threat at the time.
Many of the results of the GPCR were tragic, as both the Chinese side and the USSR side made at least partially valid arguments. The USSR really did, in the period leading up to 1970, assume a relatively conservative foreign policy and thereby betray certain national liberation movements that could not wait, the Arab revolution among them. It cannot be forgotten, especially when studying and honoring the history of Arab revolutionary movements, that it was the GCPR that made the Marxism of the Palestinian Revolution possible. At the same time, Mao’s faction underestimated the importance of the USSR as a global counterweight to the US, containing its unilateral expansionism, both by way of diplomatic power and nuclear capabilities. When China began to treat the USSR as the primary contradiction, a left-opportunist error developed into an objective alliance with US imperialism. This error revealed itself in a number of locales, from Chile to Angola to, indeed, the Arab world. By the mid-1970s, official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maneuvers especially punctured the Marxist-Leninists of the ongoing revolution in Dhufar against Sultanic absolutism and British colonialism, as the PRC strengthened links with Oman for improved oil deals.
Beginning in 1963, as documented in John K. Cooley’s important article “China and the Palestinians,” Zhou Enlai began making trips to Arab countries, carrying a promise: “We are ready to help the Arab nations to regain Palestine. Whenever you are ready, say the word. You will find us ready. We are willing to give you anything and everything; arms and volunteers.” A year later, in 1964, the CCP began delivering weapons to Fateh. Abu Iyad of Fateh described in his memoirs the two visits Yassir Arafat made to Beijing in the years 1964 and 1966. Their visits were not simply limited to practical matters of logistics; the interests of the Palestinian delegation extended all the way to the process of socialist construction, the creation of a new society on the ruins of the old. Abu Iyad thus discussed how on one of their visits they had “asked to visit a commune”; their wish was granted as they descended upon the Chinese inland and ended up “convinced…of the positive role communes played in the country’s development.” Above all, Abu Iyad was “extremely impressed by the Chinese people’s dedication,” whom he deemed the real subjects and agents of the ongoing revolution. On the leadership of the Chinese revolution, he went so far as to remark to Yassir Arafat that “the Prophet Muhammad couldn’t have done better than Mao Zedong.” The Palestinian delegation saw signs of the Sino-Soviet split all over Beijing, including “slogans and posters” denouncing Soviet “social-imperialism.”
Through delegations with the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), Palestinians could visit China with specific pleas and demands. For example, as also related by Cooley, in March 1964, two Palestinians with the AAPSO named Mohammed Khalil and Mohammed Rif’at attended a mass rally for Palestine at which the Chinese leadership blamed the United Nations and the Soviet Union for the loss of the Palestinian homeland and the mass exodus of refugees. The points of emphasis demonstrated as one example the central space that Palestine—as headquarters and fault line of Arab revolution in West Asia—occupied for the Chinese leadership in their tense dispute with Soviet authorities. In March 1965, Mao delivered an address to a visiting PLO delegation, led by then-chairman Ahmed Shuqairy, which put down the basis for Chinese support for the Palestinian cause. Mao determined that both the Chinese and the Palestinian peoples were together Asian peoples, despised by the West, and that “the Arab battle against the West is the battle against Israel.” Mao called on all Arab peoples to boycott the United States. He declared May 15—the date of the establishment of Israel, the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” for Palestinians who remember the occasion as one of ethnic cleansing—“Palestine Solidarity Day.” He further stated that when “when [Arabs] discuss Israel [they must] keep the map of the entire Arab world before [their] eyes,” implying that the Palestinian source of strategic strength is none other than the Arab masses. His words stood as confirmation of the continued utility of at least the pan-Arabist aspirations of MAN and kindred movements that had preceded the arrival of an explicitly Palestinian revolution.
In 1971, as chief Chinese delegate to the United Nations, Chiao Kuan-hua made in New York City a deep and searing critique of the very existence of the State of Israel that echoed the sentiments of the most radical wings of the Palestinian revolution. He declared bluntly that “the intrinsic nature of the Middle East question lies in the aggression against the Palestinian people and the other Arab peoples committed by Israeli Zionism, with the support and connivance of the superpowers.” Significantly, he took the position that no state, and certainly no superpower, had the right to procure a political settlement behind the backs of the Palestinians themselves. The position was especially notable for its staunch opposition to the position of the Soviet Union, which had come to accept UN Resolution 242, within which there lay an acknowledgement of Israel’s existence through proposed respect of its borders.
As George Habash himself said, his real commitment to Marxism developed after he discovered Mao (among others) in Syrian prison. The revolution that the GPCR help gift to the Arab homeland in that period was a beautiful thing. We need not look further for evidence than the pamphlets of the DPFLP, posted and waved throughout the refugee camps of Jordan in 1970: “Long Live the Masses of Jordan! Long Live the Workers and the Students and the Peasants and the Tradesmen and the Women and Men!” To say these calls were made from the camps is to say that they were made from the base of the Palestinian Revolution, in which the revolutionaries successfully established izdwaj al-sulta, their own version of “dual power.”
The Lasting Importance of “Marxism with Asian Characteristics”
My point in returning to the history of MAN is two-fold. First, this history shows the extent to which Marxism, in its most influential incarnations (“Marxism with Asian characteristics,” as Habash called it), was arrived at through anti-Zionist and Arab nationalist frameworks. Second, the Marxist parties into which MAN developed spearheaded revolutions that threatened the very foundations of global capital. In Palestine in particular, the PFLP and DPFLP played major roles in revolts that led to the establishment of revolutionary sovereignties, in Jordan in 1970 and in Lebanon in 1974. We might deem this phenomenon “destabilization,” but as far the international communist movement is concerned, the good kind of destabilization–our kind, inflicted on our terms. In light of those significant advances, we may well ask: How can we evaluate the historic utility of Arab nationalism to organizations like Fateh, the DPFLP, and of course the PFLP? For many of these organizations’ cadres, its ideological value became apparent on the ground, in the day-to-day struggles of mass work, the inglorious and grueling processes of speaking with workers and peasants and attempting to turn them towards the revolution.
Let us return to the example of Jordan in 1970—a site of revolution, then civil war, and eventually regime massacres. In the aftermath of those massacres, the DPFLP put out a summation document titled “September: Counter-Revolution in Jordan” that addressed a range of errors of the revolutionary movement. It also spoke to tactical successes, even if those successes were only partial. Weighing heavy in the minds of the revolutionaries were memories of Nasser and the Free Officers, in Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. In each of those experiences there lay the strength of an idea so powerful it could assist in the splitting of armies and the remaking of states. Their estimation was that in Jordan, “Royal reaction did its best—in every possible way—to isolate the army from nationalist and progressive ideological and political currents.” The pamphlet furthermore added, “Nationalist ideas are taboo, political affiliations are banned, and the nationalist elements inside the army are continually chased and purged.” To chase and purge the nationalist idea, the Jordanian King promoted the cult of the “Divine Right of Kings,” raised the slogan of “God, King and Country,” and other similar superstitions. As many revolutionaries saw it, there existed an ideological counter-weight: “…conscription will expose the army to nationalist currents, multiply nationalist cadres within its ranks and train the people in the use of arms.”
As during the French Revolution, nationalism in this context offered grounds for a ferocious rebuke to the superstitions of monarchy. When we survey the situation confronting Arab societies today, where revolutionary advances have been rolled back so dramatically as imperialism marches onward, we can see set against recolonization the potential power of the return of nationalism, particularly pan-nationalism, as a useful component of a ferocious rebuke to the endless schemes of the imperialists to divide the Arab masses, providing breathing space to those parties upholding the centrality of class analysis. And the threat of superstition has not gone away: the takfiris operating throughout Syria and Iraq employ Wahhabism, the creed of Saudi Arabia, described by Ali Kadri as bestowing “holy powers on commerce and the free market resurrected on the basis of a fabricated history of Islam.” As imperialist schemes proliferate, it becomes necessary for today’s revolutionaries—now in a defensive position—to hold on to an anchor, a defining slogan.
What relevance does this history hold for anti-imperialist and internationalist movements in the imperial core? The very question itself suggests that neither simple criticism nor simple glorification are sufficient. Rather, assuming we are genuinely interested in learning from the struggles with which we wish to link, we must decide what continues to be strategically useful from this history in order to build the necessary alliances for our present moment. For those revolutionaries who maintained their opposition to imperialism and Zionism after the Oslo so-called “Peace Process” from the platform of the Rejectionist Front, that anchor is the common defense of the Arab nation from imperialist machinations, in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, and Yemen. I will explore the enduring importance of this slogan at our present conjuncture in extended detail in Part II.
Note: This post mostly deals with the arguments put forth by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In order to give the subject its due, scholarly work must be done on the historic debates within the broader Palestinian left.
Liberation struggles the world over are deeply indebted to the Palestinian Revolution—about this, there can be little doubt. At the historic height of this revolution—dated roughly between the years 1967 and 1974—Palestine and the Palestinians were either entirely unacknowledged in the Western mainstream, or aggressively vilified. Times have changed, and Palestine now receives some rhetorical nuance in corridors of power and their attached “watchdogs,” the aid agencies and the human rights monitors and so on. On this still relatively recent development, it is helpful to bear two things in mind. First, the entrance of Palestine into the neoliberal field of “concern” (if there is any defining ideological contrivance of the so-called “neoliberal” phase of capital, it is humanitarianism) is the result of struggle, long-plotted and patiently fought. Second, the propaganda around Palestine permeating the West in the 1960s and 70s was borderline totalizing. Few counter-narratives slipped through the cracks. There was blackout, and to raise questions was grounds for a blacklisting.
Of course, in that era Palestine was unique among Arab nations in its proximity to the US-led imperial menace. This was a defining era not only for the Palestinian Revolution, but also for the ascent of American imperialism in the Middle East. The United States government had ingratiated itself among Arab states. Through this process, its monopolies effectively gained control of the region’s oil resources, but besides the scattered military bases and corporate insignia, the American presence lurked in the shadows and its control was cemented indirectly through puppet regimes. In Palestine, the confrontation with imperialism was more direct, taking the form of classic settler-colonialism, replete with actual invaders and full-on ethnic cleansing. The Palestine Liberation Organization recognized clearly this state of affairs, with the organization’s founding charter naming two enemies: Zionism, with which Palestinians came in direct confrontation, and imperialism. Palestine was not alone, the charter affirmed; rather, Palestine was the vanguard of the Arab liberation movement against imperialism.
It made sense that Palestine occupied the position of vanguard, given that the Palestinian homeland had been left decimated by a settler-inflicted catastrophe in 1948. Whereas large portions of the Palestinian people had been forced into refugee camps, and white pseudo-utopias had been constructed on the ruins of Palestinian villages, the Arab states continued to host societies. Undoubtedly these societies were super-exploited by monopolies, but they nonetheless stood as societies—until recently. Over the past fifteen or so years, the traditional sanctions against the Arab republics gave way to all out war as nakbas befell Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, each of which joined Palestine in deliberately sowed destitution. In viewing the media spectacles surrounding these demolitions, one gets a sense of what must have been the climate when the Palestinian Revolution was on the rise and countless truths were inverted. For the external obliterations of Palestine, Iraq, Libya, and Syria alike, the slogans “freedom” and “dignity” were similarly raised in the American press. Nonetheless, throughout each trying era, from the Palestinian Revolution to our current moment, some voices of resistance to both Zionism and imperialism have remained steadfast.
Smearing the Palestinian Left
Among those voices of resilience is that of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which served as the vanguard for the Palestinian Revolution and forced, for a time, the Palestine Liberation Organization—of which it was the second largest member, behind only Yasser Arafat’s Fateh—to adopt a social program breaching the limits of bourgeois nationalism. From the ranks of the PFLP, some of the old voices of the vanguard remain, voices such as Leila Khaled, reduced far too often in activist circles to a T-shirt a la Che Guevara. Khaled, like the organization from which she hails, also happens to offer an ever-evolving analysis of the Middle East, Palestine, and the world in general. When in 2013 she came out in defense of Syrian sovereignty and the Syrian institutions tasked with defending that sovereignty—institutions such as the Syrian Army—she was roundly ignored in the West or aggressively demonized, even by some leftists. On the subject of Syria, Khaled reportedly denounced the Syrian opposition:
“A panel discussion named ‘What is happening in Syria’ was organized by the Turkish Socialist Anew Foundation – Sosyalist Yeniden Kuruluş (SYK) in Istanbul to discuss the events in Syria and one of the participants was Laila Khaled from Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine. Laila Khaled insisted on that the events in Syria cannot be named as ‘revolution’ but, with all their respect to the Syrian people legitimate demands, the armed groups are fighting for a different agenda. Khaled, said that the Syria was under a joint attack of Gulf monarchies and Turkey, and their real aim is in accordance with US regional policy for to secure Israel state. The icon of the liberation movement of the Palestine said that their stand is not for supporting Bashar Al Assad but peoples of Syria who have been supporting the Palestinian in their struggle against the Zionists. She also directly attacks the Turkish foreign policy in the region by saying ‘Those who are hosting the US bases cannot stand with the struggle of Palestinians.’ After her speech many questions were asked and one of them is about Yarmouk Refugee camp. She said FSA with Al Qaeda and gangs attacked the camp, loot the houses of Palestininans [sic] and the offices of the Palestinian political groups. ‘The raids were forcing them to retreat from the camp, and when we demanded Syrian government to stop the raids, they did. But we also called FSA to retreat from the camp but they break their promises. And killed Palestinians who want to return their home’. “
Likewise, the position of the PFLP as an organization towards events in Syria earned them denunciations. Social justice blogs labeled Khaled an “Assadist.” The same sentiment was uttered on left-wing back channels. Some Western leftists went as far as to condemn Arab socialism in whole, with the PFLP apparently serving as exemplar, as “Stalinist,” these brutish Arabs having apparently consecrated their revolutionary movements in original sin, with no “anti-authoritarian” socialist history to call their own, unlike those gracious Europeans whose lessons these simple colonized folks failed to internalize. One of the most egregious instances came in 2011 from one Corey Oakley:
“One of the places the ideology of Stalinism has had the most debilitating impact is the Arab world. The underlying reason for this is that while in the West there was a pre-Stalinist socialist tradition – remnants of which survived Stalinisation in either the Trotskyist, syndicalist or social democratic currents – this was almost non-existent in the Arab world. This meant that Arab socialism was, virtually from the outset, Stalinist. Because of this all the class-collaborationist politics, bureaucratic organisational practices and opportunism that characterised Stalinism in the West were magnified.”
There you have it: these Arabs are even worse than the Western Stalinists they thoughtlessly imitate! This entire approach reeks of the condescension James Connolly noted about British socialists who claimed to support the Irish republican cause, but held consternation at the “sweet innocence” of the movement’s naïve “mistakes” in regards to entities about which the imperial leftist requires swift and uncompromising condemnations. In that case, the imperial leftist litmus test was German imperialism. The British leftist, who concretely benefits from the oppression of the Irish people, conceives of his required form of opposition to Germany as a simple matter of principle and morality having nothing to do with his own relative position. Connolly replied scathingly: “Perhaps after he has been here as many years as he has been days he will begin to understand that the instinct of the slave to take sides with whoever is the enemy of his own particular slave-driver is a healthy instinct, and makes for freedom.” Connolly did not wish to argue that Germany was not an empire; but he refused to develop his political program at the command of his oppressor.
This mode of critique is hardly comradely, and rather carries the tone and mannerisms of a parent lecturing a child, all while reducing successes (if it is even magnanimous to recognize any) and failures to a matter of subjective political line, with little to no attention paid to the conditions in which the movement developed. It is actually quite fitting for the author to praise the “democratic socialism” of the West while assuming a morally superior posture, for our beloved “democratic socialism” tends to bomb their villages. If one has the privilege to avoid the hard choices made by those living under far more desperate circumstances—the privilege of the intellectual, let us say, for whom the world and its history appears to unfold below his or her feet—it is easy for one’s principles to appear superior.
Others chided the PFLP for supposed degeneration. The lack of genuine pollination between left-wing movements that gives rise to such an impression leads to an uncomfortable sense that many of those in the West who did raise Khaled’s visage over the years never intended to take her content seriously. The same could very well be uttered about the Palestinian Revolution as a whole, given the PFLP’s prominent placement within that tradition. The primary reason for such a suspicion is that, as any cursory glance of the PFLP’s past political output demonstrates, their current views of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East are not the product of drastic whims in subjective political line since their foundation in 1967. Rather, these revolutionaries’ guiding principles for theory and practice remain largely intact. What must have changed then are the objective political conditions of the region. The major difference in the Middle East since the era of the Palestinian Revolution is the comparative success of the US-Israeli-Saudi counterrevolution.
A Radical Critique of Arab Conditions
It should go without saying that particular conditions require particular measures. The first issue with the refusal to engage the PFLP is a refusal to recognize the nature of those conditions. The second issue is historical amnesia. It helps then to recount the basic timeline of events between the years 1967 and 1974, and the attitude of the PFLP towards revolution and the wider Arab world.
In order to understand developments in the Middle East between 1967 and 1974, it is necessary to explore the PFLP’s initial program. To explore this program is to answer the question, Why should we care what the PFLP—a Palestinian organization—has to say about Syria? The answer is simple: the PFLP early on distinguished themselves among revolutionary Palestinian organizations, particularly from Fateh, by declaring the business of Arab governments and societies the business of their revolution. In so doing, they developed the original left-wing critique of the Arab bourgeois nationalism that would capture state power in the Arab republics—that is, in Libya, Iraq, and Syria:
“The Arab bourgeoisie has developed armies which are not prepared to sacrifice their own interests or to risk their privileges. Arab militarism has become an apparatus for oppressing revolutionary socialist movements within the Arab states, while at the same time it claims to be staunchly anti-imperialist. Under the guise of the national question, the bourgeoisie has used its armies to strengthen its bureaucratic power over the masses and to prevent the workers and peasants from acquiring political power. So far it has demanded the help of the workers and peasants without organising them or without developing a proletarian ideology. The national bourgeoisie usually comes to power through military coups and without any activity on the part of the masses, as soon as it has captured power it reinforces its bureaucratic position. Through widespread application of terror it is able to talk about revolution while at the same time it suppresses all the revolutionary movements and arrests everyone who tries to advocate revolutionary action. The Arab bourgeoisie has used the question of Palestine to divert the Arab masses from realising their own interests and their own domestic problems. The bourgeoisie always concentrated hopes on a victory outside the state’s boundaries, in Palestine, and in this way they were able to preserve their class interests and their bureaucratic positions.”
Again, the PFLP’s is a critique that has been scarcely improved since its first articulation, and so it should be humbling to any outside observers who figure they have all the answers about the political degeneration of Syria over the past twenty years. Much has been written in the Western press about the human rights violations carried out under Ba’athist states and their mukhabarat—there is that humanitarianism again—and staked any critique of Ba’athism on repression. What is missing, because we are dealing with the bourgeois press here, is the class content of the state that gives rise to particular forms of repression. It is rather banal to call a state authoritarian since every state must exercise authority or dissipate. What is interesting, what is important, is the class for which authority is exercised. In each case of Arab republicanism, military officers committed coup d’etats against hand-picked monarchs who slowed development on behalf of colonial masters. Make no mistake, these were radical republican coups, but in the original bourgeois, and not necessarily proletarian, sense. Thus, these leaders would deliver the goods and the rights of the bourgeois republican tradition, and they would deliver the horrors of the same tradition, which is to say the goods and the horrors of the nation-state itself.
This arrangement struck the nascent Palestinian revolutionary movement as an insufficient compromise. These states might be able to deliver to workers and women, but they could not exist under the command of workers and women. In order for such an arrangement, under the complete sway of the proletariat and the peasantry, to come into existence, there would have to be a qualitative break. In other words, the states built by bourgeois colonials would have to be smashed. Short of such a moment, there could be no engine through which workers could take power. The hardline nationalist military officers who took control of these states upon slaying servant-kings could make greater gestures towards anti-imperialism because they had to defy imperialism to exist in the first place. In establishing republics, they rightfully claimed the bourgeois rule that bourgeois rulers had heretofore denied them. But they could not commit unwaveringly to anti-imperialism because anti-imperialism is only truly in the class interests of the proletariat, the ultimate victims of capitalism. As a result of its vacillating nature, the Arab national bourgeois did, as many cynical imperialist commentators have pointed out, crush Arab revolutionaries, in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
And yet why do these imperialist commentators appear to care about Palestinian revolutionaries more than the Palestinian revolutionaries themselves? After all, the PFLP opposes the machinations against the Syrian government. So too does the PFLP’s comrades in Hezbollah, in a much more direct way, and their protestors have been shot at in the past by Syrian government troops. It would appear then that neither of these organizations require lectures of the nature of the Syrian government, and should even understand it much better than any American. The question could apply even to the founder of the PFLP, George Habash. In 1967, the most radical Syrian government in history, under the leadership of the Marxist-influenced military officer Salah Jadid, arrested and jailed the young Habash. Far from being a grudge-feeder for Habash, this experience enlightened him, as in 1998 he relayed that this event, along with the Six-Day War of 1967, pushed him personally away from the narrow nationalism of the Arab National Movement (the organizational precursor to the PFLP) and towards socialism:
“…my real commitment to Marxism came after the 1967 war. My Marxism grew deeper during my imprisonment in Syria. I am indebted to my jailer, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Jundi, who kept me in solitary confinement for nine or ten months, thinking he would break me. I spent that entire period reading all the collected works of Marx and Engels, of Lenin, also of Ho Chi Minh and Mao. It was after that I wrote the declaration of the [Popular] Front’s second national convention.”
In undertaking the decision to incorporate socialism into its program for national liberation, the PFLP began—somewhat in parallel with the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) and other organizations—to break new social ground in Arab society. While maintaining that their “main field of struggle” was still Palestine, the PFLP sought to challenge the conservative notions of Fateh that this “main field” must constitute the only field of struggle. By 1969, the year the PFLP put down its platform, the organization had come to a conclusion that the phenomena of Zionism, imperialism, and “Arab reaction” were inextricably linked. The links were made explicit by a “chain of plots”; the PFLP called out the Jordanian monarchy specifically. To quote this platform once more:
“The struggle in east Jordan must take the correct path, that of class struggle. The Palestinian struggle must not be used as a means of propping up the Jordanian monarchy. Under the mask of national unity, and the main problem in Jordan is the creation of a Marxist-Leninist party with a clear action programme according to which it can organise the masses and enable them to carry out the national and class struggle. The harmony of the struggle in the two regions, must be realised through coordinating organs whose tasks will be to guarantee reserves inside Palestine and to mobilise the peasants and soldiers in the border-territories.”
By the next year, the Palestinian fadayeen, of which the PFLP constituted a crucial part, were undertaking in Jordan the decision to overthrow the monarchy. It is important to review the events that led up to such a point.
The (Counter)Revolutionary Past
For a period of time in the 1960s, the Arab governments were broadly aligned, at least superficially in favor of the Palestinian guerrilla movement. Although it could be said that funding from the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, had a “moderating” effect on the Fateh wing of the PLO, even these states and the Jordanian monarchy were lending the movement some form of support—the peak of Jordanian support came in 1968, during the Battle of Karameh, a touchstone moment in the development of Palestinian nationalism.
However, as noted by Fuad Jabber, this support “had not been unconditional,” as even the Arab republics of Syria and Iraq had to “weigh the effects of their policies and the fadayeen presence in their countries on the stability of their regimes.” Relations were even tougher with the governments in Lebanon and Jordan, for “although the resistance movement sought sanctuary and territorial control on the Jordanian East Bank—which it largely obtained during 1968-1969—its actual secure base had been in Syria, where its stronghold has taken a political rather than territorial form.” Furthermore, “the commando leadership knew from past experience that a powerful and independent fadayeen would not be tolerated in the long run by the Jordanian and Lebanese regimes for varied reasons.” In the Jordanian case, the monarchy expressed clear concern that fadayeen attacks on Israel would bring about Israeli reprisals on Jordanian territory that would in turn create domestic dissatisfaction.
The fadayeen understood that this worry presaged a possible Jordanian policy of liquidation and extermination against them. At the same time, they understood that Syria, whatever its objections to their movement, was grounded in the Arab nationalist underside to the colonial nation-state infrastructure in the Middle East and thus maintained an interest in attacking the monarchies. The approach of the fadayeen, and of figures like Habash, had to take this contradiction into account, for organizations such as the PFLP, who found themselves appropriating the Maoist notion of “People’s War,” were not in a position to take advantage of a neglected countryside within contiguous territory. Rather, the Palestinian proletariat and peasantry, the subjects of the revolution, found themselves launching war from within refugee camps, scattered across several hostile nation-states with borders between them.
To meet this challenge, Habash let go of any unnecessary animosity towards the Syrian government for its treatment against him (a sacrifice for the revolution, really) and made a calculation: within the “Arab world,” the republics posed a secondary rather than primary contradiction. His calculation was that if the Palestinian fadayeen established themselves in Jordan rather than Syria, they could count on support from the Syrian government to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. Conversely, if the Palestinian fadayeen attempted to overthrow the Syrian government instead or simultaneously, as ultra-left moralism would have it, they would find themselves isolated and therefore suicidal. Habash’s calculation ultimately proved correct, as Syria turned out to be the only Arab government to lend support to the fadayeen when they actually did attempt to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy during the events of Black September in 1970. As the situation for the Arab left grew worse after the failure of Black September, Habash escalated this position. Although conditions had grown worse, Habash refused defeatism and felt compelled to make use of what the movement had left. In 1998, after he had taken up refuge in Damascus, he made the following remarks:
“In the final days of the Lebanese War, Abu ‘Ammar had come to see me at the PFLP office at the headquarters of al-Hadaf, our official organ. He asked to speak to me in private. He asked me: ‘What do you say to us leaving together?’ I asked: ‘Where to?’ He said ‘Tunis or Cyprus.’ I understood what he was thinking. I told him: ‘If you think the revolution is over, I don’t share your opinion. The revolution must go on, even under very difficult circumstances. We must stay, and safeguard national unity and our ties with the only power capable of supporting us now: Syria…”
In reading any possible contradiction with Syria to be secondary under these difficult circumstances, the PFLP was remaining true to its understanding of the primary contradiction with imperialism, a view to which they held consistently true down the years. Quite simply, any advancement of imperialism was an advancement against the Arab nation as a whole; and any advancement against the Arab nation as a whole was an advancement against the Palestinian nation in particular. The PFLP position on the American attacks on Iraq in 1991, forwarded by politburo member Jamil Majdalawi, serves as one example of this consistent anti-imperialism:
‘The Gulf War had two phases. The first phase was the arrival of the U.S. troops in the Gulf. During this very short phase, the PFLP was opposed to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. We felt that Arab unity should not be achieved through force that the Iraqi troops should withdraw from Kuwait. Then there should be an Arab solution to the problem. With this in mind, George Habash visited various Arab states and sought an Arab initiative to solve this crisis. Two principles were central to this initiative: The withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and the right to self-determination for the Kuwaiti people. The second phase of the Gulf War was the advance of U.S. and other Western troops into the Gulf region. During this phase, the PFLP placed a priority on the struggle against the imperialist troops. We felt there could not be a solution which sought to strengthen the imperialist domination over the region.”
When pressed as to whether the PFLP “opportunistically” supported Iraq, as they are often accused of doing now in relation to Syria, Majdalawi offered more background information:
“The relationship between the PFLP and any Arab state is based on the idea that Palestinians and Arabs have common interests. During the Iran-Iraq War, the PFLP’s position was against Iraq. This led the Iraqi government to close all PFLP offices in the country and to expel PFLP members. From 1980 to 1989, there were no contacts at all between the PFLP and Iraq. The presence of the PFLP in Iraq was clandestine. In the 1990s, the PFLP did not receive any benefits from a relationship with Iraq. Iraq is in no position to support other forces. Rather Iraq itself needs support against the imperialist powers.”
Two things stand out about Majdalawi’s remarks here. First, that when he invokes “Iraq,” or when now PFLP statements invoke “Syria,” they are thinking about places, people, countries, and societies, not “regimes” and certainly not individuals. Second, it is clear that the threat of imperialist domination must always be guarded against vigilantly, and that one component of vigilantly guarding against further imperialist domination of the Middle East is not to use past transgressions of a given government as justification for in the present throwing it, and thus the people of the region, to the imperialist wolves.
The Temporary Victory of the Counterrevolution
It is impossible to understand the conditions that led to these decisions without understanding the consolidation of the US-Israeli-Saudi counterrevolution in 1970 and 1971. In hindsight, the decision of the fadayeen to attempt revolution in Jordan might appear brash and irresponsible, but it did not occur without provocation, namely the 1970 Rogers Plan forwarded by the United States. More specifically, the Rogers Plan was, to quote Jaber again, “a presentation by the United States of a new set of proposals for the peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict in June 1970” that would conscript Jordan and, more troublingly, the Arab nationalist government in Egypt into normalizing both Israel and its chief backer, the United States, in the Middle East. In other words, with more incentive to appease the United States, the vacillating national bourgeois state in Egypt would wind up less likely to appease socialist popular sentiment in the region and, by extension, the Palestinian revolutionaries.
It was exactly this discovery about Egypt, signs of which had appeared in advance of 1970, that pushed anti-colonial Arab movements towards a “qualitative break” and towards Marxism-Leninism, as chronicled by Abdel Razzaq Takriti in Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976:
“…it had become increasingly clear that the movement was being treated by Egypt as a tool of its intelligence apparatus as opposed to an arm of coordinated political action…
“The failure of the ‘merger with Nasserism’ policy encourages the transformation of the [Arab National Movement]. Marxism-Leninism in all its non-Soviet varieties became increasingly popular within the movement. Vietnam, Cuba and China were all sources of inspiration, torch-bearing tricontinental nations that seemed to be charting an independent revolutionary path towards social and national liberation…
“In July 1967, George Habash convened a meeting of MAN’s national executive committee that resulted in a report entitled ‘The Arab Revolution in the face of the Battle of Destiny’. It was argued that June’s main stoppage lay in the termination of the war with the military defeat, and the failure to transform it from a conventional conflict into a total war of popular national liberation against all colonialist forces in the Arab world. The Vietnamese experience was cited: what was lacking on the Arab level was a long-term mobilization that could lead to the creation of ‘many Vietnams’ (the phrase was probably borrowed from Che Guevara, who had coined it in February 1967). This was effectively a call for people’s war, something that was defined by General Giap in the following terms: ‘to educate, mobilise, organise and arm the whole people in order that they might take part in the resistance’.”
In this moment, the limits of bourgeois nationalism to the communist cause became apparent; the revolutionaries had do something, and so they struck at the heart of Arab reaction with insufficient forces and weaponry. They struck, and they were crushed.
Comrade Omar Nayef Zayed, political prisoner and struggler for Palestinian freedom, assassinated by the enemy in Bulgaria on February 26, 2016.
Black September, the long-belated confrontation between Arab reaction and the Palestinian Revolution in the streets of Amman, made violently apparent the links the PFLP had analytically drawn between reaction and imperialism. King Hussein in Jordan recognized fearfully the threat of the revolution and ran to Israel and the United States for protection. The contemporary regional role of the United States in the Middle East, as we know it, had been consolidated, along with one more major development, this one concerning Saudi Arabia.
It is well-known that the United States had been eyeing Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves since at least 1945, when a leaked State Department document declared these resources “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” By 1971, the over-leveraged British Empire was no longer the chief imperial power in the region, allowing the United States to assume this very position through the so-called “Nixon Doctrine.” Among the key components of the doctrine were the abandonment of the Breton-Woods system and gold as reserve currency as well as the simultaneous embrace of the fiat system and the US dollar. The United States had evolved from the industrial stage of capital-development it had reached through the American Civil War into an era of acutely advanced finance capital, and it would have been unable to do so without Saudi Arabia. US oil monopolies—Exxon, Texaco, Socal, and Mobile—took control of Aramco and Saudi oilfields. US banks—Citibank and Chase Manhattan, for example—established “off-shore banking units” in the Saudi satellite island Bahrain, where they took advantage of numerous shadow laws to receive enormous tax breaks, especially when dollars began to flow from sky-high oil prices in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 October War.
Of course, each of these developments carried grave implications for the Palestinian Revolution. When Henry Kissinger approached the Saudi royal family with the petrodollar arrangement that made the US financial empire possible—the marking of oil prices in dollars allowing the US cheaper oil importation than the rest of the world and endless cash supplies in the form of global reserve currency—he appealed to Saudi fears of revolutionary sentiments propagated by the likes of the PFLP and the PFLO. (This is a good opportunity to point out the both Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qadhafi had replaced the dollar as the reserve currency before they were taken out.) It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the consolidation of US imperialism in the Middle East and the suppression of the Arab left happened as component aspects of a single whole; historically, the success of the former came out the defeat of the latter. Consequently, all of those who would blame the Arab left for recent events in the Middle East—those sitting critics who would and do reserve special heaps of scorn for the old guard revolutionaries still fighting for an embattled dream—are victim-blaming in the most unforgivable fashion.
Long Live the Palestinian Revolution!
The relative decline of the Palestinian left, after the high period of raw repression, occurred in stages and layers. Some of the decline came as part of the decline of the Palestinian national movement as a whole, from betrayals the PFLP had predicted long ago. The upper stratum of Fateh leadership sought to safeguard their financial holdings in diaspora investments; Seif Dana invokes the particularly revealing case of the Contracting and Trading Industry (CAT). Their politics followed their money, and their capitulation reached an apotheosis in the Oslo agreements, through which Israel outsourced its security work. Some of the decline came out of the alternative program offered by the so-called “Islamists” (a dubious but popular term) such as Hamas, which might have been seen as a welcome change of pace at a time when the national movement appeared to have surrendered. Israel even lent tacit support to progenitors of Hamas, predicting correctly that it would target the Palestinian left before it would target Israel. George Habash took the change in stride, reportedly saying in his years of Damascene twilight that his movement had given liberation a try, and now it had become time to let the religious groups see what they can do.
The PFLP has been self-critical, for instance saying that they had not been enough willing to define socialism for themselves rather than trying loyally to replicate the Soviet model. Another self-criticism is that they did not assign armed struggle a proper role as a supplement to popular struggle. To be certain, criticism is best left to the participants themselves. What is concerning is that a Western left that thinks it is above or beyond solidarity with the PFLP. Perhaps the leap is made from the idea that the organization is not what it once was, to the idea that it ceases to exist. What should be apparent is that it is astonishing to see this organization standing, after facing COINTELPRO-like machinations. And we must remember that the internal questions of Palestinian society and liberation remain to be worked out.
Not even Hamas, ostensibly a “religious” organization, has been able to purge from its program national commitments. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority, that irksome puzzle of neocolonial control, responsible for the collaborations that led to the arrest of Comrade Ahmed Saadat and the assassination of Comrade Omar Nayef Zayad, shows signs of internal cleavage. Only recently a Palestinian Authority staff sergeant “was shot dead when he allegedly opened fire on and wounded three Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint,” a moment Ha’aretz called “the nightmare scenario that has worried Israel for months.” It would be naïve to write the ground troops of the PA off as a potential revolutionary force at a future time. To be sure, the problem they pose for Palestinians is that Israel and America have given them all the weapons. At the same time, the threat they pose for Israel is precisely that they have been given all the weapons. If a dialectic emerges, and the PA’s unsustainable economic model does not deliver to its base enough comfort to overcome the psychological torment of the occupation, there exists in the PFLP a still-standing revolutionary program ready to be consulted anew, with its many political prisoners, including its leader Saadat, serving as models.
Even more recently, Mahmoud Abbas and the PA leadership ordered the freezing of PFLP funds–a provocative gesture undoubtedly taken at the behest of Israel, which fears the PFLP for the strength of its analysis and the scope of its ties, extending through Syria and to Iran. PFLP supporters responded in Gaza by torching images of Abbas. These are messages not-so-subtly exchanged between compradors and revolutionaries, both sides understanding their class loyalties full well.
Palestinian feminist and Palestinian Legislative Council member Khalida Jarrar, arrested and held in administrative detention by Israeli occupation forces on April 2, 2015.
Victims of Propaganda
The great Marxist historian Gerald Horne does something unusual before beginning his lectures. He literally drops to his knees and begins apologizing. He apologizes to Black people, indigenous people, Mexican people—all of those peoples who are “victims of propaganda” as “progressive” and “radical” scholars fail to do their jobs and decline to produce true counter-histories. The PFLP, and Palestinian revolutionaries in general (and Hezbollah for that matter), are such victims, or at the very least such targets. The historiography of the Palestinian left has been written in the West by the open servants of the so-called “security state”; the bourgeois press goes so far as to label the PFLP the precursors in their activities to the nihilistic violence of al Qaeda. We have not seen in English anything close to the history the Palestinian Revolution deserves. Until that history arrives, raising these comrades’ arguments will provide one with few plaudits and not a few accusations of moral barbarism. These Palestinian Marxist-Leninists are those radicals who refused imperialism’s platforms, who did not beg Barack Obama for military favors in front of the White House so that The Washington Post and the think-tank orbit could turn them cuddly. The enemy has, in the words of Mao, painted them as “utterly black and without a single virtue.” To defend their honor is exactly the kind of job a radical must embrace.
Read in full the PFLP’s 1969 document, “Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine,” still the best analysis offered on the relationship between Zionism and imperialism, and Palestinian liberation: http://pflp.ps/english/2012/12/13/strategy-for-the-liberation-of-palestine-february-1969-historical-document-now-available-electronically/
Over the past week, the news media have made noise about the unlikely but certainly not unwelcome prospect of an end to the Syrian war. If the general attack on the Syrian state does end, however, it will not likely bring an end to every arena of conflict in Syria. Among those arenas is that of the much-discussed Kurdish liberation movement. Less commonly discussed are Syrian liberation efforts against Israel waged in occupied Golan Heights. In this arena, the substance of colonialism and resistance are being shaped for the future. It is an arena worthy of serious attention, as it informs other aspects of the war, the region, and the information in circulation.
For starters, those Syrian liberation efforts in the Golan account for much of the context of recent propaganda targeting Hezbollah in the Western press. For unbeknownst to far too many Western observers, including those on the left holding a professed interest in the movement against Israeli settler-colonialism, Hezbollah has continued to focus on building a popular movement against Israel even in Syria, where its presence has been controversial.
In order to get a sharper sense of this context—of both Hezbollah’s continued anti-Zionist mobilization and the media crusades against it—it is helpful to begin with Israel’s latest high-profile assassination carried out in Syria.
Israel’s assassination of stalwart Arab resistance figure Samir Kuntar, carried out on December 19th, 2015 in Jaramana of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, was part of a larger Israeli effort to annex the Golan territories once and for all. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Israel has viewed the consequent destabilization of the country as the perfect opportunity to fulfill these long-held plans. Annexation has been prepared among Israeli state policy-makers, real estate developers, and segments of the Israeli population.
As recently as October of last year, The New York Timesreported that “there is a building boom quietly underway” in occupied Golan. The report further noted that there has been established in Israel an “aggressive development goal” for the territories. In charge of these efforts is Israeli minister Naftalie Bennett, who made the promise to “introduce a plan…involving ‘several hundreds of millions of shekels’ to create jobs, housing, schools and transportation in the sprawling, green Golan Heights.” Bennett declared the war itself a “rare opportunity”—one that would in its initial stages be realized through “10,000 new residents…in five years.”
Running counter to the Israeli operation, the Syrian Arab Army and allied Lebanese Hezbollah have been building a national Arab resistance network—of which Kuntar was a crucial part—in these very territories. If Israel’s aim is to remove Arabs from Golan Heights, a principal aim of the SAA and Hezbollah throughout the war has been to remove Israel from Syria for good and for final.
What exactly was Israel trying to accomplish by assassinating Kuntar? Here it is helpful to look into the background of Kuntar himself. The assignment of Kuntar, working with Hezbollah, to an emerging anti-Zionist front in the Golan Heights marked an effective attempt to resurrect and rekindle the ideals for which Kuntar stood for almost his entire life, namely pan-Arab solidarity. It is the nascent movement in Syria embedded in those ideals—at least to the extent they emphasize unity between sects at a time when imperialism is promoting and fomenting divisions between them—that Israel and allied states, ranging from its backer the United States to the Arab Gulf states, hope to destroy.
The Making of a Martyr
Samir Kuntar was born to a Druze Lebanese family in the village of Abiya in Mount Lebanon. Although the son of a relatively affluent family—his mother a homemaker and his father a chef stationed in Saudi Arabia—the privation he witnessed in the Palestinian refugee camps inspired indignation inside him from a young age onward. In Kuntar’s own words, as part of an interview conducted with Chen Kotes-Bar for The Guardian:
“…My family is Druze, secular and well off. We are three brothers and five sisters. We have a beautiful house that overlooks Beirut, with a view of the airport from the balcony. Occasionally my father took me to Beirut. When I saw the refugee camps, I asked my father what they were. He explained to me, ‘Son, those are Palestinians. The Israelis drove them out of their country, and they’re not allowed to return.”
At age 13, Kuntar joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); members of the organization picked Kuntar up by car on a daily basis for guerrilla training sessions. In short time, Kuntar was running sophisticated resistance operations against Israel. His first major task ended in arrest at the hands of Jordanian mukhabarat, as he and his comrades had been captured while attempting to cross into Israel via the Jordan River. After 11 months in Jordanian prison, Kuntar was released in 1978. Roughly one year later, he embarked with the Palestine Liberation Army upon the mission that would gain him notoriety in both Israel and the Arab world, carrying a reputation for horror in the former and for heroism in the latter.
The operation, named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, ended tragically in the death of a four-year-old girl, Einat Haran. According to Kuntar, the intent of the mission was to enter Israel by sea and swiftly take hostage three or four adults for the purposes of an exchange and the release of Arab political prisoners held by Israel. Kuntar further discussed the details of the ill-fated mission with Kotes-Bar:
“I tried to calm him with gestures. I said to him, ‘Come.’ He started speaking to me in a mixture of Hebrew and English. He held his daughter tightly. The girl did not make a sound. She was wearing pyjamas. I tried to tell him to leave her there, but he did not understand. I tried telling him ‘come.’ But he did not want to come with me. I understood he was trying to give the police time to arrive. He was afraid.
“My comrade, Muhammad Ali, did not understand why we were waiting. I tried explaining to Haran again, using Arabic and hand gestures. He understood, but he was completely unwilling to come with me. I tried to separate him from the little girl. Then I heard shots outside. It was 2.45am. I said, ‘He is delaying us.’
“I grabbed him in a hurry, with the girl in his arms. I said, ‘Yalla, imshi [‘Let’s go, move it’]. We left the building surrounding Haran, who was holding his daughter in his arms, and went to the beach. Haran kept halting and talking, trying to delay us. But we had to get to the boat. They were waiting for us in Lebanon.
“As we approached the rubber dinghy, we heard a lot of voices. Then shots were fired in our direction. We approached the boat from the rocks, and Ali took Danny on board. That’s when they started to shoot at us really hard. I returned fire, but it wasn’t enough. Ali and Danny got off the boat. I ordered everyone to take a position on the rocks and return fire. Danny was behind us. His daughter was near him. Haran waved at the soldiers and called out to them in Hebrew.
“They continued to fire heavily. I ducked down to put a fresh magazine into my rifle. Haran waved again, while they were still firing, and he was wounded.
“The little girl screamed. That was the first time we heard her. That’s it. I don’t remember anything else.
“The battle continued until around 5.30am. Ahmed was wounded in the forehead. Ali was killed. I took five bullets and lost a lot of blood. I was not focused.
“What happened to the girl? During the interrogation they told me, ‘You must admit that you wounded the girl with your rifle.’ I told them, ‘Write whatever you want.’ I did not see anything and I did not hear anything. It was total chaos there. I was focused on the goal. I don’t mind admitting to things that I did. I don’t want to admit to things that I did not do.”
Through the trial and the subsequent sentencing, Kuntar became the target of an obvious frame-up, with the prosecution claiming that he smashed the young girl’s head with the butt of his rifle. In response to this claim, Zvi Sela, who spent time with Kuntar while serving as Chief Intelligence Officer of the Israel Prison service, upheld firmly his belief in the accuracy of Kuntar’s story, telling Ha’aretz,
“We turned Kuntar into God-knows-what – the murderer of Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat. The man who smashed in the girl’s head. That’s nonsense. A story. A fairy tale. He told me he didn’t do it and I believe him. I investigated the event… and in my opinion there is support for the fact that they were killed by fire from the Israeli rescue forces. You can accuse him all you like, but it was obviously the rescue forces that opened fire.”
When Kuntar was finally released from Israeli prison in 2008, it was on account of Operation Truthful Promise, the cross-border raid carried out in 2006, during which several Hezbollah soldiers captured two IDF solders. Hezbollah’s original name for the operation was “Freedom for Samir Kuntar and His Brothers.” On July 16, 2008, Hezbollah returned the bodies of the captured IDF soldiers in exchange for Kuntar and four Hezbollah prisoners. Upon release, Kuntar was the subject of an elaborate welcome-home ceremony in Lebanon attended by Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. He also visited Iran, where he paid respects to the infamous Hezbollah mujahid Imad Mughniyeh, and Syria, where he received from President Bashar al-Assad the Order of Merit (the highest possible Syrian honor) for his anti-Zionist commitment. The Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, memorialized Kuntar.
Flash forward to 2012, as disaster loomed over Syria as the result of a large-scale and sophisticated proxy war launched by a coalition of NATO-aligned states and Israel assumed its role in the war on the Golan Front, along the border with the southeastern tip of Syria. This development provided Kuntar, working under the provision of the Hezbollah commanders who negotiated for his freedom in 2008, with justification to enter Syria. In late 2012, Kuntar took up a position of command within the nascent Syrian National Defence forces, formed with the coordination of and support from the Syrian Army. His mission was to cultivate a national and popular Syrian resistance to Israeli presence in occupied Golan by training and equipping local Syrians.
On July 1st, 2015, Kuntar appeared on the pan-Arab television station al-Mayadeen and spoke publicly about the current state of affairs in occupied Golan. He and his co-panelists challenged the notion that the anti-Zionist campaign coalescing in occupied Golan was specifically Shi’i on account of Hezbollah involvement, or specific to any sect for that matter—the campaign was, Kuntar noted, a Syrian one. As such, a rebuke to the sectarian logic the war in Syria has seemed to take, in accordance with the classic imperialist strategy of divide-and-conquer.
The Return of Pan-Arab Resistance
This series of events should speak well enough to the political tradition to which Kuntar belongs and to the movement he wanted to build. Although less overtly communistic in his politics than some of his comrades, Kuntar nonetheless places firmly in the history of secular pan-Arabism defined significantly by anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, the principles through which his bond with Hezbollah was forged. While Israel becomes concerned over the material networks formed on a military basis, it undoubtedly fears the popular component most, along with any possibility that pan-Arab ideology lead back to socialism. After all, Israel and its allies have spent many years trying to undermine any movements that could potentially pose a challenge to imperialist control of regional resources, (especially those in the past that have declared resources the property of the people). The status of support for this resistance from the Ba’ath Party in Syria, which historically represents a vacillating bourgeois tendency tendency in Arab nationalism, will be largely contingent on Syria’s geopolitical position. But Kuntar noted in his interview with al-Mayadeenthat the resistance in Golan has been set and could not be reversed even if Israel assassinated him.
With principles of pan-Arab solidarity, foundational for regional unity against imperialist predation, the Druze Kuntar’s relationship with the Shi’i Hezbollah may be seen as organic, in defiance of the fear-mongering propaganda campaign Israel has been promulgating towards Golani residents that the resistance campaign is a cover for the forced establishment of Shi’i hegemony.
In light of heavy sectarian incitement since 2011, Nasrallah’s own rhetorical output has relied increasingly on the theme of unity between the sects. To carry out this message, Nasrallah has often relied on pan-Arabist history, themes, and tropes. When condemning Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen, for example, Nasrallah shamed the Saudi leadership as Arabs, pointing out their hypocrisy for naming a military operation against Yemen a “storm,” but never having taken anything close to such action on behalf of Palestine. Thus, pan-Arab solidarity has constituted the ideological grounds on which the Syrian National Defense Forces have been cultivated. And so it was this kind of impulse that Israel was seeking to stymie with the assassination of Kuntar, an operation that mirrored the assassination-by-drone-strike carried out by Israel in occupied Golan against Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of the famed Imad) and other Hezbollah operatives in January of 2015.
Members of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah carry the coffin of Lebanese militant Samir Kantar, who was killed in a suspected Israeli air-raid on his home in the Jaramana district on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 21, 2015. Israel’s justice minister welcomed the death of Kantar but did not claim credit for the air strike in Syria that killed him, which Hezbollah said was an Israeli raid. AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
These assassinations are one side of a “carrot-and-stick” policy, a revolving door of intimidation and enticement, pursued by Israel in occupied Golan, as stated in an important survey of Israel’s history in Golan published in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Akhbar (which has been offering important reportage and commentary unavailable to the majority of English-speaking audiences). The report states that Israel has on the one hand been assassinating and arresting resistance leaders in the area, and on the other hand offering a series of appeasements in order to co-opt ordinary Syrians living there. But Israel has faced a problem: with each assassination of a resistance leader, popular sentiment only swings further and more forcefully towards the option of confrontation with Israel.
The current Israeli policy in occupied Golan was codified in 1981, when a bill called the “Golan Decision” was passed in the Knesset declaring Golan Heights part of “historic Israel.” From the Madrid “peace” talks in 1991, all the way through the 2000 Camp David accords and the 2007 negotiations in Turkey, Golan became a supposed obstacle to “peace” between Israel and Syria. A frequent reference point in official diplomatic peace attempts between Israel and Syria has been the “land-for-peace” formula. Invariably, the negotiation attempts failed, and Syria continues to refuse the legitimacy of Israel as a matter of official policy.
This refusal explains in part Israel’s actions throughout the war on Syria, as it has bombed Syrian Army or allied positions “hundreds of times,” according to war analyst Gary Brecher. Despite increased Israeli military pressure throughout the war, the Syrian government has persisted in its position on Israel. Faisal al-Makdad, Deputy-Foreign Minister of Syria, told al-Akhbar that current Israeli objectives are to force Syria to give up its role in Palestine and Lebanon; he reiterated that Syria would not give up more territory.
Armed sectarian rebel outfits have proliferated at the Israel-Syria border along the Golan. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda outfit in Syria, has an especially firm stronghold there, and Daesh maintains an outpost right at the border. Israel has been citing the Syrian Army’s preoccupation with combatting these armed groups as sound justification for future Israeli rule of the area, arguing to both the United States and citizens of Golan that the Syrian state is far too fractured to secure the Golan. The Syrian state has been destroyed, the Israeli argument goes—there will be no liberation, so it is time to stop waiting.
Only aspects of this story have made it to Western press. For example, on January 13th, 2016, Newsweek published an article by Nour Samaha on how “Golan residents find their loyalties tested.” Samaha’s story did contain one of the more devious tactics Israel has been employing in an attempt to gain loyalty from residents: in order to participate in local municipal elections, the occupied Syrians must become Israeli citizens, an option the vast majority of Golan residents have refused since the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the area. As Samaha writes, “according to a Syrian intelligence source, only 667 Golan Syrians have taken the Israeli nationality since 1981 to date.”
But contrary to the picture painted in Newsweek and in TheNew York Times for that matter, Israel is not simply taking advantage of an opportunity in the form of the war in Syria. Rather, it is actively creating the opportunity by supporting and nourishing the sectarian armed groups with which the Syrian Army finds itself preoccupied. The most intriguing confirmation of this fact came when Israel arrested Druze resident Siqdi Maqdt for “espionage, aiding the enemy during wartime, supporting a terrorist organization, and contact with a foreign agent.” His specific offense was to document through photographs and written reports Israeli contacts with members of Jabhat al-Nusra, information he allegedly passed along to Syrian intelligence officials. Maqt had a resistance history of his own, having spent 27 years between the years 1985 and 2012 in jail on “terrorism” charges. Upon arraignment, Maqdt delivered a simple message to reporters: “I want to bless the Syrian nation, and its proud leader Bashar al-Assad.” Miqdi’s attitude reflects the wider spirit through the Golan now: despite Israel’s mixed approach of strike-and-assuage in order to push Syrians in occupied Golan towards Israel, the pro-Syrian sentiment among Golan residents, the general desire to return to Syria as Syrians, only continues to grow as the organizational capacity of the Syrian National Defence Forces and Hezbollah improves.
Hezbollah’s successes in occupied Golan have certainly played a role in the recent push against the organization emanating from the propaganda engines of the US-led bloc in the Middle East. This bloc includes most prominently Israel and Saudi Arabia, their long-term alliance—historically shrouded in dissimulation practiced by both states—an increasingly public affair bolstered by ever-accumulating shared near-term interests in the capitalist-imperialist order.
On December 24th,2015, the staunchly Zionist publication The Jerusalem Post published an analysis celebrating perceived gains made by Israel in a context extending well outside of the territories of the Golan Heights, within wider Arab opinion. “Kuntar killing boosts Israel’s image among anti-Assad forces,” the headline boasted. The article took note of a Syrian journalist, Faisal al-Qassem, whose disapproving Facebook memorial for Kuntar allegedly “generated tens of thousands of likes and shares.” The article also remarked with satisfaction that al-Qassem compared the “’patriotic’ yet murderous” regimes, taken to mean Arab republics such as the Syrian one, unfavorably with “the so-called ‘treacherous’ Arab governments that look out for their citizens,” taken to mean the Gulf states.
The article further conveyed a message from “a Syrian activist who is affiliated with the southern front of the Free Syrian Army,” who allegedly tweeted: “Thank you to the Israeli heroes who killed one of the most wicked terrorists, the murderer of children and babies. Samir Kuntar, rot in hell.” This elation constituted but one part of FSA output on the matter of Kuntar’s death. On December 24th, 2015, the same publication shared news that “members of the Free Syrian Army” released a video on YouTube taking credit for the killing of Kuntar and denying Hezbollah’s claim that Israel was behind the strike. Referring to Hezbollah as “the Party of Satan,” the FSA members asserted that Hezbollah’s claims about Israeli culpability for Kuntar’s death were in fact propaganda claims intended to downplay the achievements of the FSA.
These mixed messages from the FSA—on the one hand, merely celebrating Israeli involvement in Syria for the Kuntar killing, and on the other hand, claiming to have carried out the Kuntar killing in fulfillment of Israeli aims—are par for the course from an organization that functions under a generalized umbrella header without a centralized command structure and without a clear set of political principles. The history of the FSA in southern Syria has, however, been punctuated by reports about contact and even coordination with the IDF. In September of 2014, The Times of Israelreported that FSA members were making entreaties to Israel that the IDF establish an “anti-Assad no-fly zone” in order to “win the hearts of all Syrians.” In April of 2015, the same newspaper reported that the FSA was now sending Israel well wishes for its annual “Independence Day,” going so far as to hope openly that Israel celebrate its 68th anniversary at an Israeli embassy in Damascus.
Such reports coincided with suggestions that Israel would seek to outfit, in occupied Golan, a proxy force on the order of the South Lebanon Army—the organization with which Hezbollah found itself entrenched in combat in South Lebanon until Israel’s forced withdrawal in 2000. The scattered nature of these reports perhaps casts aspersion in many different directions and upon many different claims, chief among them the claim that Israel really is growing in popularity generally throughout the Arab world and that its on-the-ground positive image is not limited simply to the FSA and allied militias.
But one component remains certain: a hallmark of Israeli strategy is to divide Arab opinion, first of all by turning opinion against its most formidable enemies in the region. The identities of those enemies should be clear, despite countless efforts to obfuscate the issue. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot recently went on the record to say that Hezbollah “today poses the most serious threat to Israel.” On January 14th, The Wall Street Journalconfirmed sentiments long ago circulated by Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, that Israel prefers the “Sunnis” to the “Shi’ites.” This sectarian framing is a cover for the real point, which is geopolitical: Israel would like to increase relations with the Gulf states, as the two entities share a closeness with the United States and an animosity towards Iran. (Indeed, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put it clearly: “If I have to choose between Iran and ISIS—I choose ISIS.”) The Wall Street Journal article quotes Dore Gold, director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry: “Clearly there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region.” The price for this alliance will be continued hostility towards the Palestinian cause on behalf of the Gulf monarchies.
Madaya and the New Anti-Hezbollah Propaganda
True to the needs of this network of interests, a new atrocity-focused “humanitarian” media campaign emerged to target Hezbollah specifically, as opposed to the usual target of these campaigns, the Syrian Army. In one sense, the campaign came as part of a routine, but one example of a larger media habit around Syria in which one round of humanitarian crisis follows another, each additional breakdown demanding with it yet another round of outrage, of calls for some new form of management and intervention, with structural issues like capitalism and imperialism occupying conversational worlds well outside those inhabited by the think-tanks, NGOs, and social scientists in which discursive hegemony around the war is cemented. (Since think-tanks, NGOs and social scientists are crisis managers, it follows that they have a class interest in crises to manage; consequently, there must be democratic pedagogy dedicated to training media consumers to investigate the funding behind campaigns that apparently appear organically out of the ether.) In another sense, the campaign came as the newest addition to the imperial tradition of atrocity propaganda, which reached infamous heights in 1990 with the “incubator babies” testimony of Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ.
Within the first week of 2016, the major US news conduits were reporting that Madaya—a Syrian town near the Lebanese border—was under a hunger-inducing siege so severe that residents were being reduced to eating leaves. Photographs of starving people—many of them later proven to be false and some of them taken from contexts outside of Syria—were furnished by anonymous activists and run on prominent Internet sources ranging from AJ+ (known for running roughly sixty-second clips on complex subject matters) to VICE News. Everywhere the culprit was the same: the “Shi’ite militia” Hezbollah had cut off Madaya and insisted on using starvation as a weapon of war.
The campaign has caught on in presses aimed at Arab audiences. The Middle East Monitorreferred to Madaya as a “concentration camp where Hezbollah starves people to death,” proposing parallels between Hezbollah and Nazis. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—one of the major forces in the Syrian uprising, especially in the early stages—tweeted out an image of Hassan Nasrallah hiding snake-like behind a young civilian with a target painted on his chest. The image was notable for mirroring one of Israel’s most heavily employed psychological operations during its 2006 war with Hezbollah, which showed Nasrallah “hiding while Lebanese civilians are killed by…explosions” and “the Hezbollah leader behind three bound Lebanese civilians.” The image was, therefore, an appropriate visual for the emergent political relations of the Levant.
Before even addressing the specifics of what we know about the situation in Madaya, it is possible to flag this media campaign as explicitly political in its aims, a far cry from a neutral and purely altruistic bout of awareness-raising. After all, as an ongoing site civil and international proxy war, starvation and siege is all too common throughout Syria. One such siege has been inflicted upon the northwestern towns of Foua and Kafayra. Journalist Eva Bartlett, who has reported from Syria extensively over the past two years, attempted to bring attention to the plight of these towns as far back as August of 2015. Journalist Leith Abou Fadel commented that he and others had worked extensively to bring wider attention of Foua and Kafayra, to no avail. The reason for the lack of receptiveness is clear: Foua and Kafayra are mostly Shi’i towns, their humanitarian crises unambiguously caused by the anti-government rebel forces, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Their plight is not politically expedient.
In its official response to media allegations, Hezbollah pointed out that these very organizations control Madaya. The relative lack of attention brought to this fact in the flurries of tweets and news articles produced in English about Madaya is perhaps upon first glance rather curious considering how these two organizations had carried out a joint campaign of massacre and forced conversion against Druze populations after their armed takeover over Idlib. Upon a second glance, the omission should not be so surprising, as Ahrar al-Sham has been given editorial space by The Washington Post, where it modeled itself as a “moderate” organization.
Another claim by Hezbollah related food prices in Madaya. On October 18th of 2015, Hezbollah claimed, “tens of trucks” delivered food aid to the besieged town. The armed groups running the town proceeded to monopolize the food supply and hike the prices. On January 15, Foreign Policy published an article addressing the high food prices—the aspect of Madaya’s siege that makes it “different from Fuaa and Kefraya,” in the words of the article—while still pinning the blame on Hezbollah and refusing to consider the accusations against Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the other armed groups controlling Madaya.
The Foreign Policy article additionally pinned blame on the United Nations, labeling the institution at the very moment it was preparing more food aid to go into Madaya “complicit” with the government in Damascus, leading to the unstated conclusion that moral responsibility for the humanitarian crisis of Syria should fall elsewhere (say, the United States or its preferred NGOs). Significantly, the article’s main source of information is the Syria Campaign, an NGO funded by oil and gas industry billionaire Ayman Asfari, himself a Syrian exile based in Britain. The Syria Campaign manages several other projects; at least two of them—Planet Syria and the White Helmets—openly advocate for military intervention in Syria. The White Helmets, publicized as a civilian network, operates largely in “areas in Aleppo and Idlib controlled by Nusra.” Video footage has circulated on the Internet allegedly showing White Helmet members assisting in an execution.
Conspicuously missing from most English-language discussion of Madaya is the extensive evidence that lends credence to Hezbollah’s claims. There exists video footage featuring testimony from Madaya residents corroborating exactly what Hezbollah has been saying: that is, the anti-government fighters fully control the town’s food supply and charge outrageous prices for the most basic of food items. Even footage released by the BBC features Madaya residents yelling at anti-government rebel fighters, “You are not hungry! We are!”
A ground report from Madaya in al-Akhbar further corroborates claims against the rebels. Madaya residents confirmed al-Akhbar that the armed groups control the distribution of food. In addition to Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra presence, the report stated, there is to a lesser extent a presence of the Free Syrian Army and Daesh, the relationship between each of the organizations complicated by the fact that their membership all come from the area. Furthermore, many families wish to leave the town hosting roughly 23, 000, but are prevented from doing so by roughly 600 armed men. One interviewee told the newspaper that members of the armed groups know the family backgrounds of townspeople and commit acts of revenge.
Hezbollah’s official statement also made the claim that a ceasefire agreement had been worked out the rebels in Madaya, but that “external backers” gave orders to stay put. Who are those external backers? This is the kind of question that the better part of Western coverage of Madaya—indeed, the better part of Western coverage of Syria in general—seems designed to ignore or suppress. Humanitarian crises multiply, demanding a reinvigorated emotional response, while the political roots of the crises remain off-limits, or in the case of Madaya are inverted outright. Goebbels would be proud, really.
What is Next?
As the popular Syrian resistance to Israel, supported by Hezbollah at logistical levels, continues to spread in the occupied Golan, anti-Hezbollah propaganda will continue to flourish in parallel. The prospect of a Syrian front of resistance to Israeli rule clearly worries Zionist state planners for short-term and long-term reasons. On a short-term basis, a successful Syrian resistance will thwart Israeli ambitions to annex Syrian territory. On a long-term basis, it will threaten Israel’s broader regional agenda, particularly on a front Israel had long counted on to be quiet.
As increased attention has been rightly paid to the Palestinian struggle among activist communities in the West over the past decade, it remains crucial to remember a few points. First, that Israel is not exclusively a threat to the Palestinian people—its policies aim to achieve hegemony over the region as whole, slaughtering the heirs to Samir Kuntar by name and face and slaughtering countless other Arabs as a matter of simple imperial course. Second, that Israel’s efforts to destabilize will only sharpen as its political relations with the Gulf States strengthen in a set of bonds. Those bonds are still overwhelmingly formed under the directive of US imperialism. It was not long after Saudi Arabia had announced its “final” decision to invade Syria before backing off and saying it required approval from the “US-led coalition.” This ought to remind us clearly as to the hierarchy of power in the world and allow us to shape our resistance efforts accordingly.
Since the United States assumed its current position as leading world power, and especially since the fall of its chief geopolitical rival the Soviet Union, debate has frequently appeared around the international “human rights regime.” An ideological framework with hegemonic reach, the international human rights regime arose out of the blood and ashes of two world wars spanning the first half of the 20th century. Between the specters of racist massacres of minority populations in Europe (eventually to be defined as genocide) and the totalizing warfare created by international aggressions perpetrated by particular states, most damagingly by Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, the victorious powers of the second world war developed a basic framework for international moral norms enshrined within and protected by a set of laws. This framework, finding ripest expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the newly formed United Nations in December of 1948, quickly fell into multiple crises of credibility.
The first crisis faced by the new legal system was an internal dispute having to do with its aims: would it aspire to protect minority populations from their own governments, within the borders of sovereign nation-states, or would it primarily seek to protect the sovereignty of nation-states, to safeguard the international peace that had been violated with Nazi Germany’s aggressive, war-making invasions? The answer to this question would determine political power, as the various nation-states defining the newly established “rights”—most prominently, the United States and the Soviet Union—sought to leverage those rights in their geopolitical favor.
The second crisis had to do with the very content and definition of rights—where rights come from, what they should provide and for whom. This debate extended to a contest between “negative” rights and “positive” rights, again forwarded by the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively.
The third crisis arose in relation to the unipolar dominance of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union. With no challenge to the US definition of rights and its attendant power to enforce that definition, the very idea of “human rights” fell into a performative contradiction wherein the enforcement of human rights itself became further consolidated as a tool for the systematic violation of those very alleged rights by the self-appointed enforcer.
If we seek to untangle the web of contradictions encompassed by the international human rights regime, we ought to return to earlier eras and compare and contrast the respective legacies carved out by the United States and its major challenger, the Soviet Union, on the major questions pertaining to human rights. Here I will examine the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by examining the debates carried out around it by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Then, I will look at the human rights envisaged and enforced by the United States and the Soviet Union on domestic levels. Finally, I will turn to the contemporary use of “human rights” by the United States ideologically, as it utilizes them to erode the authority of the very entities and texts that gave rise to the international human rights regime in the first place, resulting in what Stephen Gowans recently described as the “international dictatorship of the United States.” Above all, I want to use the occasion to wonder what was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union, consequently asking what could be gained by returning to its conception of human rights.
The Origins of the International Human Rights Regime
The exact locomotive for the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains a source of controversy. One part of the debate—that spearheaded by the West and its ideological schemas—highlights the role of key Western individual activists, their impetus allegedly a moral one. A broader thesis, which allows more room for socio-political and historical explanations, points to widespread revulsion at the aggressive military behavior of Nazi Germany, often interpreted as a symptom of global lawlessness.
Earlier articulations in favor of such a declaration, beginning at the close of the First World War with the League of Nations, cited the precedent of the Armenian genocide, carried out by Ottoman authorities amid the collapse of the empire during World War I. The attention to the Armenian genocide was part of the first alleged justification for a global regime of protection against human rights violations: to form an international defense against the destruction of group minorities. (It is worth pointing out that this expressed purpose potentially contradicts the traditional Enlightenment view of human rights as an inheritance, an inalienable prize, the violation of which occurs in primarily an individualistic capacity.)
For its part in addressing this concern, Japan proposed that the League commit itself to racial equality. Despite some level of support from other states, the great powers forcefully put down the proposal. Indeed, the goal of protecting the collective rights of minority ethnic and religious groups fell into disrepute between the most powerful drafters—the United States and Great Britain—once they realized such a norm could be used against them, entrenched as these two nations were in systems of racial hierarchy tailored to colonial ends. For the United States, the concern was largely domestic as it maintained an anti-Black legal regime that facilitated a high prevalence of white vigilante violence against American citizens of African descent within US borders. For Great Britain, the concern was mainly about its policies in its colonial holdings, including but not limited to Ireland and India.
A turning point emerged for the League-led international system with the disposal of the Weimar Republic and the ascendance in Germany of the Nazi Party, headed by Adolf Hitler. Withdrawing from the League of Nations, Hitler announced Germany’s rejection at the organization’s perceived call for the global assimilation of nations. Germany’s new mission would be dedicated to its own nation, to preserving its superior particularities. As described by Mark Mazower, German publications swiftly began the work of cultivating and spreading the new Nazi ideology:
“Within a short time, the implications of this approach were being drawn out in the legal and political science journals of the new Germany. Denying that international law had any validity, jurists in the Third Reich now argued that ‘the nation comes before humanity’. Each racial group, according to some, possessed its own conception of law, making the idea of a global political society a nonsense.”
Mazower quotes one such journal directly:
“[It is not thereby asserted] that the fundamental moral ideas of the German people are also to be considered as binding upon the so-called international community … It should never, and shall never, be our function to convert by example to German legal notions the negro republic of Liberia, or Abyssinia, or Red Russia, in order to construct a genuine society of nations of universal character.”
The race program embraced by Nazi Germany constituted a virulent form of reaction, fomented at both material and philosophic levels. Germany found itself destroyed and indebted after the First World War. The German ruling class embarked on the creation of a new explanation for world misery, adapted from old style liberalism. Traditional blood-and-soil justifications for the nation-state began to mix in syncretic fashion with scientific racism engineered in the United States, a society itself grounded settler-colonial expansion for the sake of a primitive accumulation staked on the extermination of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African-descended peoples. Germany’s own imperial failures were given scapegoats. Any ideologies and peoples that could be associated with the idea of equality and with the expansion of “rights”—that is, of human rights—allegedly undermined the uniquely tremendous qualities of the German nation. Paradoxically, liberalism was among the new Germany’s targeted ideologies. For liberalism introduced the idea of rights to the modern world made in its image, even if its foundational right to property served as justification for the racist ideologies of the modern world.
Domenico Losurdo has argued that the Nazi ideology embraced by one of Germany’s most widely read and revered philosophers, Martin Heidegger, was also undertaken as an effort to preserve the particularities of the German nation against the universalist ethics of liberalism and its attendant rationalism:
“Modernity is synonymous with subversion, since with its universalist ideologies (liberalism, democracy, communism) it destroys the communitarian and traditional bonds that unite the members of a given people and separates this same people from its territory and history. Inevitably, the critique of modernity ends up also concerning Jews. The black notebooks [by Heidegger] confirm this: present in many countries and attached to urban rather than rural life, Jews are the incarnation of ‘rootlessness’, ‘distance from the soil’ and thus subversion. And again, this attitude is far from surprising to the Heidegger scholar: the 2 October 1929 letter in which the philosopher emphasises the need to oppose ‘growing Judaisation within German spiritual life’, reinforcing this by rooting it in authentically German forces, is already well-known.”
Anti-egalitarianism, used concretely to promote the superiority of the German nation and proposed immunity from the very concept of international law, was thus linked intimately to anti-Semitism. Losurdo emphasizes that Heidegger’s “Judeophobia came at a moment when across the west as a whole, on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a widespread view that the true culprits for the October Revolution were Jews.” In drawing a comparison between the anti-Semitic views of American industry tycoon Henry Ford and those of Heidegger, Losurdo further reminds readers that “the origins of nazism and the ideological motives inspiring it were not exclusively German.” While Nazi reaction desired to destroy liberalism for its theoretical gestures towards equality and rights, its language and ideas would have been inconceivable without liberalism’s paradoxically exclusivist innovations.
Significantly, Losurdo traces the fascist critique of liberalism to Germany’s material devastation, carried out in the name of “imperial universalism” and “universal interventionism,” citing specifically Napolean III’s expansionism and war waged in the name of the “universal” values of “democracy” and of liberal “civilization.” The Second World War ended with a victory for the torch-bearers of that very legacy, even though it was the Soviet Red Army that made the most substantial sacrifices to put an end to the Nazi machine’s relentless race war. When the victorious powers began to plan the new world order, replacing the League of Nations with the United Nations, they established that liberalism would remain the preeminent ideological substructure for the aims of capital, as liberalism—whatever its historic relationship to fascism—had for the moment withstood fascist challenge at both the levels of war and criticism.
The philosophic underpinning for this new world order became the subject of international debate immediately after the war’s end. The substance of those debates reveal the extent to which our contemporary world, insofar as the United Nations serves as a global point of reference, is fundamentally the outcome of an American project. By 1945, the general American desire for “isolationism” had passed. Instead, America would embrace a new universalism in its image. The turn had been presaged in Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941, in which he declared the “supremacy of human rights everywhere” as the task of the future, “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation.”
But as this “supremacy” was being realized through the UN, the new basis for the state of colonial exception to universal human rights was outlined. Britain found itself once again concerned for its policies of racial segregation in South Africa as it yet again balked at the implications for the future. The British leadership still signed on to the project in hopes of enlisting the United States, the emergent superpower with domestic racist policies of its own, as a bulwark of support, seeing plainly that wherever the US went, and whatever it decided to do, it would take the world with it.
Britain’s fears threatened to materialize in several ways. Like Japan before it, China made an intervention, requesting a provision specifically addressing the issue of racial equality. The NAACP used the UN to issue an appeal regarding denial of human rights to African-Americans in the United States. If appeals regarding South Africa were to arise, the leading powers of the UN could point to the organization’s goal not to “impose standards but only to proclaim them.” Soon, however, it became apparent that the relaxed view held by the leading powers towards the plight of Black South Africans did not transfer to the conditions of national minorities in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet bloc stood surest. Human rights were fast becoming the ultimate political weapon. Once more, the final statement would fall to the Americans, who would resolve the nascent contradictions by “posing as defenders of both universal human rights and domestic state rights,” in the words of Mazower, implicitly inscribing within themselves the right to dictate the terms of both categories.
For its part, the Soviet Union abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that the rights were “meaningless without a strong central State in charge of health, education and welfare.” It further charged that the West would use the enumerated rights as a pretext to meddle in the internal affairs of the USSR. In response, the USSR pressed a case for the right of national sovereignty. These concerns—the relative importance of economic social rights as well as national sovereignty—would become ideological fault lines during the ensuing Cold War, as the comparative consequences of the rival worldviews naturally played out in the domestic spheres of both states, the USA and the USSR.
The Cold War over Right
The prominence of the Soviet Union opened up space—with the UN often serving as a vessel for propaganda—within which a Marxist critique of liberalism, and its language of human rights, could be mounted. Indeed, the accusations tossed back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union about “human rights abuses” throughout the 20th century frequently fell into discursive traps. Quite simply, the two countries were speaking two different languages, building arguments upon radically estranged theories. Whereas the United States built a regime on natural law, the Soviet Union constructed one on the basis of class, namely the working class. Whereas the United States prized negative rights and freedom of the individual, the Soviet Union valued positive rights and liberation of the collective. And whereas the United States favored the theory of a diverse marketplace (the wellspring for its theory of democracy), the Soviet Union established its rule on the theory of dialectical materialism. Lying underneath each of these competing notions was the battle between capitalism and socialism.
“What to the proletarian is liberty—the extermination of those bourgeois institutions and relations which hold them in captivity—is necessarily compulsion and restraint to the bourgeois, just as the old bourgeois liberty generated non-liberty for the worker. The two notions of liberty are irreconcilable. Once the proletariat is in power, all attempts to re-establish bourgeois social relations will be attacks on proletarian liberty, and will therefore be repulsed as fiercely as all men repulse attacks on their liberty. This is the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat [emphasis added] and why, with it, there is censorship, ideological acerbity and all the other devices developed by the bourgeois in the evolution of the coercive state which secures its freedom.”
Syzmanski offers an example to illustrate the point, asking in the process, “how does one judge the superiority of right?” Is the right of an upper class doctor to leave to seek higher pay above the right of a worker to receive his services, especially when it is considered that the worker made the doctor’s materially abundant life possible? For adherents to the Western liberal tradition, the answer to the question is likely an axiomatic yes. From the Marxist-Leninist perspective, neither the doctor nor the worker is objectively correct, as they are both acting in their class interests. The normative answer to the question for the Marxist-Leninist thus becomes, the worker is correct, for he belongs to the revolutionary class, the class whose claims in this instance are more progressive on account of that fact that its rule is the imperative of the future. And if the upper class doctor’s perspective had been fulfilled and legitimized by years of bourgeois dictatorial rule (no matter how “democratic” its guises), its standards belonging to the rule of yesterday, the worker’s perspective shall be fulfilled in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“The dictatorship of the proletariat”—a candid phrase. It may be said simply that the bourgeoisie’s ideology (such as its ideology of “human rights”) arose as an emanation of its class needs and existence. One might add that the proletariat equipped with Marxist theory would, as the final revolutionary class, in fact be the first revolutionary class to recognize ideology as a phenomenon by virtue of thinking outside the world it inherited, and thus be able to shape its own world—“the new world,” so to speak—consciously. (Althusser went as far as to argue that “Soviet humanism” marked a “revisionist” turn away from the scientific principles of Marxism for its incorporation of the humanist ideology of the bourgeoisie, for the language of “rights” and “morals,” two primary pillars of humanism, was a dead-end if it stalled the deliverance of the proletariat’s necessary place as the final class in history.) This honest expression of class dictatorship is in actuality intended as an expression of democracy. Syzmanski explains the logic of one-party rule in the Soviet Union:
“It is… argued that it is possible for a single party to be authentically democratic provided it maintains firm roots among the most respected members of the working class and peasantry, who transmit the sentiments and interests of average working people, through the Party’s apparatus, to its leading bodies and hence to all social institutions. This conception of democracy reverts to the original usage of the term as rule by the people, rejecting the contemporary notion, predominant in Western parliamentary democracies, that popular rule is possible only by the more or less open competition of different political parties in periodic elections. The Marxist analysis of such multiparty parliamentary forms is that they can be easily manipulated, through a wide range of instrumental and structural mechanisms, to serve the propertied class and their economic system, while single party working-class based systems are much more responsive to the needs of working-class people, that is, are authentically democratic in the original sense of the term.”
Furthermore, Lambelet outlines why “human rights activists” and dissidents, so often axiomatically supported in the West, would so often be treated as menaces in the USSR:
“Dissent by individuals targeted at the socialist system is seen as an individual action against the people themselves. Because the collective is more important than the individual, the individual who attacks the collective will of the people must be repressed. Thus, dissent against the system contradicts the most basic tenets of socialism and illustrates the ideological necessity for repressing dissent.”
The “human rights movement” would further be seen, in large sections of Soviet society, as disloyal. If the safeguard of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—which is how the 1936 constitution explicitly defined the country’s system—was the State, and the dictatorship of the proletariat was the exercised power of the revolutionary working class, the state was therefore not only the guarantor or protector or promulgator of the people’s rights, but their actual deliverer.
What did those rights look like in themselves? And what did those rights look like in contrast to Western liberal rights? In the realm of political rights, sexism and racism were directly addressed, in sharp contrast to the Western liberal tradition that claims to serve individuals as individuals. The 1936 constitution for the Soviet Union established in Article 123 that all races are equal and, more decisively, that “any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.” Anti-Semitism, a particularly sinister form of racism in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, was banned at even earlier dates. In 1918, for instance, “the Council of People’s Commissars called for the destruction of ‘the anti-Semitic movement at its roots’ by forbidding ‘pogromists and persons inciting to pogroms.’”
On the question of gender, Article 122 stipulated that “the possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.” Similar in spirit, Article 137 established that “women have the right to elect and be elected on equal terms with men.” The progressive rights afforded to women dovetailed with newly won rights for the sundry nationalities that fell under Russian rule, dating back to the pre-revolution days of the Tsar and the Russian Empire.
By the time the Soviet government was established, over one hundred and fifty nationalities fell under its administration. In Central Asia, most of those nationalities held strongly onto feudal and overall patriarchal attitudes towards women’s rights. The trick for the Soviet authorities was to undermine patriarchal practices that held women back as a class without launching an ideological assault on the prevailing Islamic belief system, obviously held to esteem by its adherents. A secular education program was implemented alongside traditional Islamic teaching. According to Anna Louise Strong’s The Stalin Era, in Muslim territories, women “set up welfare clinics where native women unveiled in each other’s presence.” In these spaces, “the rights of women…were discussed.” Additionally, “big public trials were held of husbands who murdered wives; the pressure of the new propaganda gave the death sentence for what old custom had not considered a crime.” Yet, Islam was not attacked as such; rather, the freedom of religion was regarded as a crucial aspect of the right to national self-determination, which would become a defining right of the new Soviet Republic in contrast to the lexicon of rights propagated throughout the West. Upon assuming power, the Bolsheviks issued a statement to Muslim nations:
“Muslims of Russia, Tartars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz and Sarts of Siberia and Tukestan, Chechens and mountain Cossacks! All you, whose mosques and shrines have been destroyed, whose faith and customs have been violated by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia! Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are declared free and inviolable! Build your national life freely and without hindrance. It is your right. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, will be protected by the might of the Revolution, by the councils of workers, soldiers, peasants, deputies!”
Perhaps the most defining feature of the Soviet system of rights was its emphasis on positive rights rather than negative rights. In contrast to the Western system of rights, which foregrounded the right of the individual from violations of the state (violations of speech, religion, the press, etc.—failing to acknowledge the relative usefulness of these rights depending on social class and the ownership of media production), the Soviet system played up the importance of the right of individuals to certain social goods and standards of living. Article 118 of the 1936 Soviet Constitution guaranteed all citizens “the right to work,” along with “the socialist organization of the national economy, the steady growth of the productive forces of Soviet society, the elimination of the possibility of economic crises, and the abolition of unemployment.” Article 119 ensured “the right to rest and leisure” and “the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people.” None of this is to say that the Soviet system forewent negative rights altogether. Personal property was sharply distinguished from private property, and Article 128 affirmed that “the inviolability of the homes of citizens and privacy of correspondence [were] protected by law.”
The updates contained in the 1977 Soviet Constitution were partially caused by abandonment of the political leadership of founding principles of the Soviet state—above all, there was lost a fidelity to the philosophy of dialectical materialism. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was removed from the Constitution, replaced by the phrase “All People’s Government.” Vestiges of the founding principles nonetheless endured, in particular the emphasis on positive rights and social welfare. In fact, the breadth of those rights increased on account of the growth of the country’s productive forces. Article 18 protected the rights of the environment, of the need to “make scientific, rational use of the land and its mineral and water resources, and the plant and animal kingdoms, to preserve the purity of air and water, ensure reproduction of natural wealth, and improve the human environment.” Article 21 pressed for the replacement of human labor with machines. Cultural rights, the deservedness of every human being to the splendors of art, were enumerated, and world peace was listed as an ultimate goal. We should not be allowed to forget that, despite the fact that war in its various forms will be inevitable so long as class war is necessary.
The Global Dictatorship of the United States
In 2010, it was reported that the population of the City of Fallujah in Iraq was suffering from chillingly low rates of infant mortality and shockingly high rates of cancer, leukemia, and deformation, exceeding even “those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.” The suspected culprit behind the rates is depleted uranium and white phosphorous. Concurrently, the nearby Palestinian people find themselves under a sixty-plus year assault, perpetual targets of assassination and siege. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian population languishes in an imperial cage, on their every side either insurmountable walls or harsh sea, with colonial snipers and hovering drones watching their movements to ensure they stay packed like herd animals on the sliver of earth allotted to them. They live in the ruins of refugee camps. The conditions of both these people, the Iraqis and the Palestinians, are owed to the newest overlord of world order: the United States, which purports to continue the old civilizing dream so coveted by Napoleon III before it.
The United Nations, would-be watcher of transgressions against human dignity, was in fact from its beginnings a creature of the hegemonic United States, but never more so after the demise of its Soviet critic. The right of nations to self-determination—a notion protected by national sovereignty—fell out of favor. To prove the point, we need not look further than the UN’s consecration of Zionism, which leads us to the ongoing torment against the Palestinians. (To see evidence of how anti-colonial movements sought to use the UN against the imperialists that created it, we need look no further than UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism and received support from the majority of the world.) Ironically, the Soviet Union counted itself as the first nation to recognize the independence of Israel. When the United States and Israel embraced one another as allies, the new Soviet campaign against Zionist reaction and world imperialism began. And unsurprisingly, the Palestinian position within the UN decreased considerably after the loss of the Soviet Union.
In the face of this empire and its human rights industry, the shadow of the Soviet critique sometimes still appears. The question is asked: how can the arbiter of human rights not only allow the violations against the peoples of Iraq and Palestine, but actually commit them? The United States stands indicted for hypocrisy and “double standards,” they say. But the indictment is myopic. For this empire pursues not double standards, but a single one, destroying its challengers and celebrating its accommodators. After all, if you make the rules, why should you feel compelled to follow them?
Again, as part of that shadow of the Soviet critique, anti-colonial campaigns are waged in the UN arena, with perhaps less vigor than the days of old, but no less importance. And in deciding the UN’s role in the world, the politics of genocide returns in places as disparate as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan. Within the UN, the questions of who killed whom, and how, and how many, are disputed, and while the answers to the question presented as a purely moral venture, the endeavor is entirely political. In the end, the hegemonic determiner of truths will be the decider of right and wrong and the ultimate enforcer of rights. As such, old questions about power and human rights linger. Which right shall reign supreme and lead the way to peace in this world, the global protection against genocide or the protection of sovereignty against imperial aggression? Far too often it is forgotten that our assigned cautionary tale, Nazi Germany (“assigned” insofar as the extermination of the native peoples of North America is not our benchmark, for reasons of politics and historical happenstance), stood guilty of both.
Added to the suffering of Iraq and Palestine is the recent dismemberment of Libya and Syria. The language of genocide was invoked to justify the “responsibility to protect” (“R2P”) Libyans as the claim was furnished in Western media that the Libyan government was planning a city-razing extermination campaign in the eastern city of Benghazi. The actual life-saving military campaign, carried out by NATO with the United States playing a typically pivotal role, revealed the contradiction that had come to dominate the heart of the US’s role as self-anointed savior to the subjugated and violated multitudes, albeit belatedly, after the war’s finish and the Libyan government’s overthrow. NATO, supposedly assigned to a life-saving mission, carried out and enabled many massacres of its own—including massacres specifically targeting a minority population, in this case Black and sub-Saharan African. The attention typically paid to anti-Black racism by progressive outlets amounted to precious little in an instant. In August of 2011, at the tail end of the bombing campaign,The Independent reported that, in the words of an interviewee, “any black African in Libya is open to summary arrest unless he can prove that he was not a member of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.” And how did they “prove” they are not members of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces? Exactly. As debate raged around the NATO intervention and the “people’s revolution” it was supposedly saving, the needs of potential and imagined victims hid the fate of actual victims,an unspeakable propaganda crime for which nobody was made to pay after the media apparatus moved on from its Libya triumphalism to the next subject of NATO interest.
The fate of Libya was, of course, part of a pattern of which Palestine and Iraq were also part. Syria became added to the list as it was reported that, from 2011 onward, the United States was covertly arming “rebel fighters” to carry out attacks against the Syrian government. Perhaps more than ever, the right to self-determination had fallen by the wayside. Based on new political realities—again, in a world without the Soviet Union—the United States had made what appears to be a final decision on the direction of human rights in the world, away from national sovereignty and towards the protection of threatened populations, the truth of those threats decided by none other than the United States. Observing this state of affairs, and noting openly the US policy to arm and train rebel fighters against his government, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja’afari made reference to a commitment on which the US had apparently turned its back, one contained in a document the US had also helped to bring into existence:
“The UN has lost its credibility. The UN has lost a lot of the principles of its founding fathers. The UN of today has nothing to do with the UN of the Charter. This is why everybody has forgotten about the Charter; people do not speak of the Charter. They don’t speak about sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, equality among members. Now they speak about the rule of law, human rights, the environment — because this is very dear to the heart of the private sector: money — partnerships. Now the Secretary-General is focused on partnerships, because he wants to privatize the United Nations.
“The budget of peacekeeping operations is three times higher than the regular budget! Rather than extinguishing the conflicts, and decreasing the number of peacekeeping operations, we have increased the peace-keeping operations. We have right now 36 special political missions, aside from 15 peacekeeping operations. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have any special political missions. This is a new phenomenon. By the way, the special political missions and the peace-keeping operations are not in the Charter. These are some of the ways they are deviating from the Charter itself. Together they consume $7.9 billion per year. And they are solving nothing.”
Re-deploying the old method of using the United Nations as a propaganda forum in which to mount anti-colonial or postcolonial arguments, Jaafari traces his own critique back to the system that triumphed (for the time being) when the Soviet Union folded, that is, capitalism. The new language for human rights, he suggests, is about profits. Saving lives, as it were, has become the latest major money-making scheme.
With “human rights” turned into profits, the void left by the Soviet challenge to the capitalist definition of right becomes more obvious than ever. The Soviet Union once preserved that challenge not simply by presenting arguments at the United Nations, but by offering material backing to actualize broader principles such as national liberation, itself a marker for self-determination. And in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, and Syria (to make only a beginning for a much longer list) self-determination is what continues to be so stringently denied. Lost is the right for a nation to decide what the word “right” even means. Without that ability, whatever other rights we may discover or create become gambits for the powerful, when it is the powerful whose caprices the concept of “human rights” should be designed to prevent if the phrase is to have any meaning at all.
b021122w 22th November 2002 NATO Summit Meeting in Prague, Czech Republic North Atlantic Council Meeting at the level of Heads of State and Government. Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Summit Meeting. – General View
Anti-Imperialism at a Crossroads
As the United States and its NATO coalition planned and executed a bloody proxy assault against Syria, it was exceedingly difficult for a time to find media outlets providing much-needed skepticism about the “revolution” packaging the Western media apparatus had assigned the war. And for that time, Russia Today—as the propaganda outlet of a counter-hegemonic state—provided exactly that service. But as the scope of US-led regime change operations increased, so did the size of the refugee population, adding even more urgency to questions around refugees. As the United States and Europe violated the sovereignty of postcolonial Middle Eastern states at will, they raised their own borders more vigilantly than ever, eager to keep out the “barbarian hordes.” Right-wing culturalist tropes began to be raised about the ostensible threat the dispossessed masses of the Middle East posed to the “traditional values” of “Western civilization.” Among the leading perpetrator circulating those tropes has been Russia Today. Here we see plainly another one of the largest vacancies left by the demise of the Soviet Union.
In the era of the Soviet Union, the flag of anti-imperialism was carried ably by the Soviet bloc, placing the cause firmly into a framework including also anti-racism, the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, and above all, socialism. While there is currently no shortage of movements and even states still upholding these values, it helps us to remember that the bourgeois Russian state that secured power by means of long-percolating counterrevolution, does not reliably propagate such values, even if it differs from the United States dramatically as a social, economic, and political formation. “Health scare in Denmark as refugees bring back diphtheria after 20yr absence,” reads one recent RT headline, framing refugees as a diseased alien force threatening the literal health of the European body politic. Another recent RT article decries “feminist apologetics” for “sexual assault” carried out by “Muslim refugees,” instructing European men to reclaim the masculinity that is the core of Europeanness.
This is fascist ideology spread by RT as a scapegoat, a result of the Russian bourgeoisie’s refusal to lay direct blame for groups like Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra on the highest culprit: the United States. Vladimir Putin has come close enough to naming the US, implying that he certainly knows full well how it works and why. In 2014, at the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin said: “Do you really not understand who is fighting in Syria? They are mercenaries, mostly. Do you understand they are paid money? Mercenaries fight for whichever side pays more. So they arm them and pay them a certain amount. I even know what these amounts are.” But as time has rolled on, the Russian bourgeoisie has pursued a line suggesting the Daesh is out of control of the US, which might have interests of its own in destroying the organization. Although it has objectively served as a counterweight to the US regime change operation in Syria, preserving pieces of a state the US has sought to destroy, the Russian state’s true interests lie at the moment in quite simply upholding sovereignty and the international system at its most elementary level—an aim that in itself ought to be supported in opposition to US lawlessness—and not in confronting either imperialism or capitalism as such, as workers’ states would seek to do.
The result has been at times politically confusing. On the one hand, liberal imperialists have generally been relatively welcoming to refugees, showing public concern for their plight, after having spent years cheering on the destructions of their home countries in the name of “progressive” movements. When they have not opted outright for the role of cheerleader, liberal imperialists have effectively forestalled holistic critique of US imperialism in the age of Obama, and in the process short-circuited militant oppositional movements, insisting that an unapologetic rejection of the US campaigns in Syria and Libya is a disgraceful denial of the “agency” of supposed movements we might otherwise help bring to victory by signaling virtuous concern on the internet. On the other hand, the media role of organizations like RT in fomenting opposition to imperialist regime change threatens to embolden among anti-imperialists nativist elements in the United States and Europe, which reject regime change not out of internationalist solidarity with its victims, but out of a fear that violations of sovereignty threaten cultural homogeneity. Consequently, right-wing “anti-imperialists” are often anti-refugee.
In order to reclaim the internationalist and anti-imperialist legacy bequeathed by Marxism-Leninism, it will be necessary to reiterate and explain that right-wing “anti-imperialists”— Third Positionists, American constitutionalists and libertarians, and so on—are in fact not anti-imperialist at all, only appearing to be anti-imperialist in the face of left media networks in service to the interventionists, from ’68 leftist intellectuals such as Bernard Henri-Levy to old-style Yankee crusaders for the White Man’s Burden such as John McCain. The concretization of regime change as official policy comes out of the demands of finance capital, but there is nonetheless an ongoing debate within imperialism about how it should be managed. It must be kept in mind, for example, that right-wing libertarians in the United States, while objecting to regime change doctrine, wish to save the United States, not to put an end to the settler-colonial prisonhouse of nations built on genocidal property claims. This serves as a major distinction from the goals of communists, one that is often played out at the US-Mexico border, where the defenders of US “sovereignty” form minutemen brigades either killing migrants from Latin America, their homelands torn asunder by US-managed drug wars and coup d’etats, or delivering them to the federal government, which proceeds to throw them in concentration camps. (This scenario points to another contradiction to navigate: “sovereignty” for empires versus sovereignty for empire’s targets.)
The debate within imperialism transpires within the walls of US governance itself. Seymour Hersh’s article “Military to Military” shed a light on this dispute, revealing a miniature mutiny on the part of the US military against the White House and the CIA on Syria policy: “Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.” Members of the Joint Staff, it turned out, had been troubled by the policy to “ignore” the intelligence produced on the political character of the organizations that the US was funding, arming, and training on the ground, and instead wanted to assist the Syrian government in combatting groups like Daesh. This objection mirrored earlier internet memes in which US soldiers, their faces hidden, held up signs declaring that they would not serve in Syria on behalf of al Qaeda, insisting that such a mission does not at all correspond to the reasons why they signed up. Central to this objection is a naïve (but logical from a soldier’s perspective) belief in the stated mission of the US military—a voluntarist belief that the mission has in fact been corrupted by bad apples. When the objection to US support for Israel arises from within the military, those bad apples may be defined as the Zionists, Israelis, Jews, and their lobbies; in the case of support for Deash, the bad apples may be Muslims generally (perhaps Obama specifically, his birth certificate perhaps still believed to be questionable), or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In either case, the bad apples corrupt the mission of all-American WASP good ol’ boys.
The duty of communists is to construct a deeper critique to build a truly revolutionary movement. The foundations of capitalism and private property, and all the forms of oppression and exploitation they have engendered, shall be targeted at root, and eradicated. And the world system and the discourses that capitalism created, around statehood and the rule of law and human rights, will only begin to be replaced when its leading agent has fallen. The serious dialectical materialist thinks as an anti-humanist, knowing full well that humanism and its human rights regime is an invention of the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeoisie. But how the dialectical materialist acts depends on the conditions. The wholesale destruction of human rights in general will be neither possible nor desirable until the conditions which necessitate them are overthrown. In the mean time, proletarian movements may use them without tailing them or depending on them.
The experiences of 20th century actually existing socialism provide us lessons, advice, anchors, to carry out our duty. And for our current dilemma and future dilemmas, the answer will lie in neither liberal interventionism nor nativist reaction, but international socialism.
More suggested reading: “Vulnerable Dignity, Enchained Rights: On a Suggestion by Maximilian Forte,” Red Maistre: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=10855