Should Syria be a litmus test for the left in the 2016 elections?

Louis Proyect, the author of this piece, is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list, where his various articles first appear. For information on how to subscribe to the list, go here. Active in socialist politics since 1967, he has given workshops on the Internet to community and union groups, as well as moderating a Marxist mailing list on the Internet that can be linked to above. He has also created a small archive of the writings of James M. Blaut, an outstanding scholar and revolutionary. Proyect’s articles, many of which appeared originally as postings to the Marxism list, have appeared in Sozialismus (Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions (Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia). He is also a proud member of the NY Film Critics Online. He also run a blog. He can be reached at lnp3[at]panix.com.

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Louis Proyect

At the risk of alienating people who I have strong affinities with, it is necessary for me to explain why support Jill Stein even though her VP candidate Ajamu Baraka is someone I have described as a “pro-Baathist hack”. I can honestly say that if Baraka had been the presidential candidate, I probably would have endorsed another left candidate even though my support for the Greens would have persisted. As I have made clear for the past two decades or so, there is an urgent need for the American left to form a party to the left of the Democrats. This party might not be the one that leads a socialist revolution but as Trotskyist James P. Cannon once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

In fact, if in the unlikely event that Bernie Sanders would have declared that he was launching such a party, I would have switched my allegiance to it for the simple reason that quantity turns into quality as Plekhanov would have put it. With the millions of dollars and tens of thousands of passionate supporters he could count on, Sanders would have raised the ante considerably in the long and arduous fight against the two-party system.

As it happens, the same complaints about Stein were made against Sanders by my comrades in the pro-Syrian revolution camp, which is to be expected if Syria is a litmus test. I have my own litmus test obviously, which is the need to oppose the Democrats on a principled basis in the same way that the Bolsheviks opposed the Cadets, the Russian version of the Democratic Party.

For example, Jeff Goldsmith, who works with Elliot Higgins’s Bellingcat project, wrote an article for the Middle East Eye about Sanders’s failings on Syria:

The Syrian regime – which Sanders opposes intervening against – is so corporatist, corrupt, and non-democratic that its basic structure shatters Sanders’ entire “getting money out of big politics and restoring democracy” platform. The Assad regime was born and bred from the special interests-laden corruption of the Baath Party in post-Mandate Syria, and functions as a government that controls society through a patronage system paid for by the Assads’ inner circle, which Hafez worked for decades to foster, while suppressing civil society and essentially all political dissent.

Jeff Goldsmith is entirely correct, of course, but the creation of a left party in the USA would have had been a major step forward in confronting capitalist rule. As it happens, Sanders’s accommodation to Assad and his unwillingness to run as an independent go hand in hand. That is the consensus of the American ruling class that Sanders was willing to challenge but only up to a point. Liberal opinion in elite circles is consistent with Obama’s willingness to see the Syrian revolution be drowned in blood and Sanders is definitely at one with it.

You could have seen the same hostility to Jeremy Corbyn who had the crowning bad judgement to make Seumas Milne his press secretary. Seumas, like Baraka, is a pro-Assad propagandist of the worst kind as I pointed out in a September 2015 article where I took issue with his reliance on the Judicial Watch document that “proved” the USA backed the Islamic State—this despite the fact that the document warned that such an eventuality would be a disaster. What? You were expecting Milne to write truthfully?

James Bloodworth is an outspoken British opponent of the Baathist dictatorship who blasted Corbyn in a December 2015 article titled “The bizarre world of Jeremy Corbyn and Stop the War”. As much as I sympathize with any article that details the sordid record of the STWC on Syria, I have to part ways with Bloodworth on the broader questions of capitalist politics. He has a neo-Eustonian outlook that shares Tony Blair’s opposition to Corbyn, even to the point of condemning STWC for showing solidarity with the Sunni resistance to the American occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. Given the inconsistencies of the “anti-imperialist” left, it makes perfect sense that John Rees and company would now adopt a kind of inverse Eustonian outlook with respect to Syria since Russian imperialism is kosher in their calculations. I know, I know. It is difficult to keep track of such gyrations.

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Jill Stein

Returning to the Jill Stein campaign, there are a number of things worth pointing out.

To start with, as I have pointed out before, a search in Nexis for “Jill Stein”, “Green Party” and “Syria” returns zero articles while for “Jill Stein”, “Green Party” and “fracking” returns 18 and “Jill Stein”, “Green Party” and “global warming” returns 21. So this will give you an idea of where her priorities are.

I hate to say it but when I see my Syrian solidarity comrades looking for incriminating quotes from her on Syria, I can’t help but be reminded of the “anti-science” critiques. My general impression is that her opinions on Syria are about the same as Bernie Sanders and hardly ones that she would emphasize in her public talks.

If you go to her official website and look at her platform, there is not a single word about Syria. I should add that the website does not have anything about Ajamu Baraka, which might be a function of it not having been updated yet or—as I suspect—the secondary character of all vice presidential candidates.

Essentially the only way to understand Green Party problems with Syria (and there are some as this misinformed article would indicate) is to see it in context. The likelihood of Jill Stein or any other leading Green adopting positions on Syria that resemble my own or my comrades is almost zero. People don’t evolve political positions in a vacuum. They tend to rely on the word of the leftist universe in which they dwell. If you get your ideas from The Nation, Salon, CounterPunch, ZNet, Truthout, Consortium News, the LRB, Mondoweiss, CommonDreams, Alternet et al, you will simply find very few articles defending the Syrian rebels. You need to consult websites that are generally not on the radar screen of a Jill Stein such as Pulse Media, magazines like New Politics or books such as “Burning Country” or “Khiyana”. Studies in the sociology of knowledge would probably explain how certain ideas remain beyond the pale but I suspect that to a large extent it can be explained by Islamophobia. With literally thousands of articles describing Syrian rebels as either al-Qaeda or collaborating with its fighters, you end up going along with the crowd. It is also a major problem with some truly retrograde characters taking up the cause of the Syrian rebels, starting with Hillary Clinton who some Syrian solidarity activists regretfully urge a vote for.

There are historical precedents for the tendency of good people (the best actually given the horrors of the Baathist tyranny) to make Syria a litmus test. In 1948 Henry Wallace, a member of FDR’s cabinet, broke with the Democrats and ran as a candidate of the Progressive Party. In my view, this third party bid was the most significant of 20th century history as I tried to point out in an article on the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000.

The Wallace campaign has served as a whipping boy for dogmatic Marxist electoral theorizing, much of which I took seriously when I was in the Trotskyist movement. It was supposed to prove what a dead end middle class electoral politics was, in contrast to the insurmountable power and logic of a Labor Party. Unfortunately, the Labor Party existed only in the realm of propaganda while the Wallace campaign, with all its flaws, existed in the realm of reality.

While most people are aware of Wallace’s resistance to the Cold War and to some of the more egregious anti-union policies of the Democrats and Republicans, it is important to stress the degree to which his campaign embraced the nascent civil rights movement.

 Early in the campaign Wallace went on a tour of the south. True to his party’s principles, he announced in advance that he would neither address segregated audiences nor stay in segregated hotels. This was virtually an unprecedented measure to be taken at the time by a major politician. Wallace paid for it dearly. In a generally hostile study of Henry Wallace, the authors begrudgingly pay their respects to the courage and militancy of the candidate:

 The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: ‘As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.’ If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity.  (Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze)

When I wrote this, I wasn’t thinking much about anti-Stalinist opposition to Henry Wallace but it was not just about rejecting the “bourgeois” character of the Progressive Party along the lines of the World Socialist Website’s vituperative attacks on the Green Party. It was more than that. You have to keep in mind that Henry Wallace’s campaign was influenced to a large extent by the CPUSA’s leading role as well as Wallace’s friendliness to the Kremlin that was a legacy of FDR’s New Deal. By 1948, many people on the left had woken up to the depravities of Stalinism even if not to the extent of the post-Khrushchev revelations. But as is the case today, the consensus was that the USSR was a “socialist country” even if it was authoritarian—in other words given the same kind of leeway as Gaddafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria.

And Henry Wallace was exactly the kind of person who bought into these lies as indicated in a New Yorker article titled “Uncommon Man” dated October 14, 2013.

Wallace was hardly the only politician of the period to form an unduly rosy picture of Stalin’s regime, but he went further than most. In May, 1944, he embarked on a good-will mission to Soviet Asia and China, and during a tour of Siberia he fell for an elaborate Potemkin-village presentation. In his 1946 travelogue, “Soviet Asia Mission,” he wrote admiringly of Red Army choruses, needlepoint artwork, and enlightened farming methods. “The larch were just putting out their first leaves, and Nikishov gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely,” Wallace wrote. He was referring to General Ivan Nikishov, the master of the Kolyma Gulag system. In China, Wallace showed himself more alert to the shortcomings of Chiang Kai-shek. (He did not favor the Communists, though, as he was later accused of doing.) A diplomatic amateur, he was too easily impressed by whichever host responded to his interests or appreciated his gifts, which included a shipment of fifty baby chicks and a glow-in-the-dark portrait of Stalin executed in radioactive paint.

If I had been around in 1948, I would have urged the left to back Henry Wallace despite all this. Whatever flaws he exhibited on Stalin, there was an urgent need back then to create a party to the left of the Democrats that was in favor of civil rights, the CIO, and against the looming Cold War and witch-hunt. When such a party came into existence, there would be other fights necessary to make it an instrument of the rank-and-file rather than the Stalinist hacks but it had to be born first. Instead it was strangled in the cradle just as the Clintonites are trying to do to the Green Party. Make no mistake about it. The fight to defend Jill Stein as a legitimate candidate of the left is necessary, warts and all.

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