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Workers Vanguard No. 1097

7 October 2016

ISO on Syria

Pimps for U.S. Imperialism

For five years, the U.S. imperialists and a host of lesser powers have been stirring the Syrian cauldron, inflicting unspeakable suffering on the peoples of Syria. Today, much of the country is a wasteland, hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered and more than half the population has been driven from their homes, either as internally displaced persons or as refugees abroad.

As Marxists, we fight for a socialist federation of the Near East based on proletarian revolutions that sweep away the capitalist rulers of the region. We say the international proletariat has no side in the Syrian civil war between the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, rooted in the Alawite religious minority, and the various rebel groups dominated by different Sunni Islamists, some of which are backed by the U.S. But working people have a side against the U.S. and other imperialist powers such as Britain and France. Thus, while implacable opponents of everything the reactionary cutthroats of the Islamic State (ISIS) stand for, we take a military side with ISIS when it aims its fire against the imperialist armed forces and their proxies in the region, including the Kurdish nationalist forces in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, we also oppose the other capitalist powers involved in Syria—such as Russia, Iran and Turkey—and demand that they get out.

Our political position is framed by the Marxist understanding that U.S. imperialism is the greatest enemy of the world’s workers and oppressed. In standing for the defense of ISIS against the blows of the imperialists, we recognize that any setback for Washington coincides with the interests of the international proletariat, both in the Near East and, crucially, here in the U.S. We aim to turn the multi-sided disillusionment and anger of working people in the U.S. into class struggle against their capitalist rulers. It is through such struggle that the proletariat can be won to the need to build a revolutionary workers party that will lead the fight for socialist revolution to destroy the imperialist beast from within.

This Marxist understanding is rejected by reformist groups like the Stalinoid Workers World Party (WWP) and Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). Denying the possibility of international proletarian revolution, both groups are virtually uncritical of Assad’s capitalist regime, falsely painting his dictatorship as progressive and anti-imperialist. For all their anti-imperialist posturing, both WWP and PSL have many times found themselves on the same side as U.S. imperialism. WWP celebrated the 2008 election of Barack Obama, who has continued and intensified U.S. military intervention in the Near East. More recently, both groups cheered on the Kurdish nationalists who in late 2014 were combating ISIS in Kobani, even as these nationalists were acting as the ground troops for the U.S.

And then there is the thoroughly wretched International Socialist Organization (ISO), historically allied with the international tendency led by the late Tony Cliff. The ISO recently ran an article by Ashley Smith titled “Anti-Imperialism and the Syrian Revolution” (, 25 August), which is essentially an apologia for U.S. imperialism. Smith’s article criticizes, among others, WWP and PSL for their support to Assad. But what the ISO counterposes to this is support to the “democratic” rebels, and through them, to the U.S., the world’s foremost imperialist power.

While claiming to stand against U.S. intervention in Syria, the ISO, in fact, complains that the U.S. has not intervened enough. According to the ISO, Assad is still in power “thanks in no small measure to the fact that the U.S., while accepting some supplying of the rebels, denied these forces the heavy weaponry they pleaded for to stop the regime’s assault.” Later in the article, Smith bemoans the fact that early in the civil war “the U.S. blocked the shipment of heavy weaponry, such as anti-aircraft systems, that would have strengthened secular and democratic forces that have borne the brunt of the Assad regime’s terror.”

The ISO deceitfully paints the Sunni Islamist-dominated rebellion in Syria as a “popular struggle against dictatorship and for democracy.” To be sure, the Cliffites have long had a certain penchant for Islamic fundamentalism, having, for example, supported the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2012 (only to then support the military coup against it a year later when its rule proved to be unpopular). In Syria, the ISO has embraced some deeply reactionary Islamic fundamentalist forces. One of the slogans of what the ISO calls the “Syrian Revolution” was: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to their graves!”

For the ISO, the alpha and omega of all struggle is “democracy.” There is no such thing as abstract democracy, which always has a class content. Capitalist democracy is the dictatorship of the capitalist class over the working class and oppressed. For genuine Marxists, the starting point is the class line: what furthers the cause of the working class and the struggle for its rule, which on an international basis would lay the material groundwork for a classless, stateless communist society. This requires, first and foremost, the political independence of the working class from all agencies of the bourgeois order—such as the Assad regime and, most certainly, U.S. imperialism.

In his article on Syria, Smith attacks hawk Hillary Clinton from the right. He notes that “she calls for the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria, and some of her advisers support air strikes against the Assad regime for the stated aiming [sic] of stopping attacks on civilians.” “But,” Smith then goes on to lament, “Clinton certainly does not support the original aspirations of the Syrian Revolution” because, “at most,” she and Obama advocate “a negotiated solution that preserves the core of the Syrian state.” The ISO’s article is essentially a call to arms for U.S. imperialism to increase its support of the rebels in Syria.

The ISO goes so far as to claim that “the U.S. retreated in general from outright regime change as its strategy in the Middle East after the failure of its invasion and occupation of Iraq.” Tell that to Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi! In 2011, in an operation heavily pushed by Clinton, the U.S. and NATO intervened in support of Libyan rebels against Qaddafi, resulting in his lynching that October. Like it does in Syria today, the ISO then supported the Libyan opposition, sundry forces that included Islamists, monarchists and CIA assets that from the beginning appealed for imperialist military intervention. We had no side in the Libyan civil war, but once the U.S. and European imperialists intervened we declared, “Defend Libya Against Imperialist Attack!”

Today, Libya is in the throes of chaos as Islamist and tribal factions compete for control of this oil-rich country. All these forces are hostile to the interests of working people and the oppressed. At the same time, the imperialist-installed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its current allies are acting as the proxy ground troops of U.S. imperialism as it pursues ISIS forces in Surt (Sirte), against which the U.S. has launched over 200 airstrikes since early August. The tribal forces that now claim adherence to ISIS truly stand in the tradition of these cutthroats, having carried out numerous atrocities, including the February 2015 beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic migrant laborers in Surt. But as opponents of U.S. imperialism, we stand for the military defense of ISIS forces in Surt against the U.S. and its GNA proxies.

Anti-Communism Is at the Root

In his article, Smith writes, “How could opponents of U.S. imperialism end up supporting a dictator [Assad].... The answer starts with the Stalinist left’s support of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China during the Cold War era. It supported those state capitalist dictatorships not only as opponents of U.S. imperialism, but as positive models of socialism.” Rather, one should ask, how could the supposed socialists of the ISO end up embracing U.S. imperialism? The answer starts with their abandonment of the defense of the Soviet Union and the bureaucratically deformed workers states. The ISO was founded on virulent anti-Communist hostility to the Soviet Union, home of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the world’s first and only successful workers revolution. Rejecting defense of the workers states inevitably leads to embracing one’s “own” ruling class.

The October Revolution of 1917 was the shaping political event of the 20th century. The seizure of state power by the working class led to the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist exploiters, laying the basis for a planned collectivized economy. But in the context of unprecedented devastation caused by World War I followed by nearly four years of civil war, continued isolation and economic backwardness, a conservative bureaucratic caste under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was able to seize political power from Soviet workers beginning in 1923-24. This was a political, not a social, counterrevolution. The Stalinist bureaucracy continued to rest parasitically on the proletarian property forms created by the October Revolution. The bureaucracy’s false dogma of building “socialism in one country,” its conciliation of imperialism and its systematic erosion of the political consciousness of the Soviet working class ultimately paved the way for capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92.

Through all those years, genuine Trotskyists fought for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution. Based on our defense of the gains of the Russian Revolution and our program for new October Revolutions around the world, we fought for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and replace it with a regime based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism. This is the program we pursue today toward the remaining deformed workers states: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.

For his part, the ISO’s political godfather, Tony Cliff, broke from the Trotskyist movement in 1950, opposing defense of North Korea and China against U.S. and British imperialism in their counterrevolutionary Korean War. Cliff would go on to found what later became the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which was allied with the ISO until the early 2000s. In the U.S., the ISO’s precursors emerged from the followers of Max Shachtman, who broke from Trotskyism in 1940 and would quickly go on to reject the Soviet Union as a workers state. Where Shachtman called the Soviet Union a “bureaucratic collectivist” state, Cliff labeled it “state capitalist.” But the aim was the same: to renounce defense of the October Revolution.

In his article, Smith writes that those who argue that “the U.S. government is pulling the strings in the rebellion in Syria” display an arrogant dismissal “of the capacity of exploited and oppressed people to fight for liberation.” In reality, it is the ISO and its forefathers that have a long history of not only dismissing but opposing the struggles of the exploited and oppressed for liberation. Following the peasant-based 1949 Chinese Revolution, which liberated that country from capitalist rule, Shachtman signed a declaration denouncing the Chinese Communists titled, “Stalinism Is Not Socialism,” which was translated into Chinese. His Labor Action (28 September 1953) proudly boasted: “This leaflet had been dropped over China by U.S. bombers in May 1950 presumably through the sponsorship of the State Department.”

The ISO was founded in 1977, when these descendents of Shachtman allied themselves to the British SWP and formally adopted Cliff’s “state capitalist” line. During the Cold War, the Cliffites claimed to be “third campist” against both the U.S. and Soviet Union. In reality, the “neither Washington nor Moscow” crowd has always found itself in the camp of Washington whenever there has been a hard counterposition between imperialism and the degenerated and deformed workers states.

The Cliffites supported all manner of reactionary forces opposed to the Stalinists in power—from the sadistic, CIA-backed Afghan mujahedin who butchered school teachers for teaching girls to read to the Vatican-backed, anti-Communist, anti-Jewish and anti-woman Solidarność movement in Poland. In August 1991, when Boris Yeltsin’s imperialist-backed forces of counterrevolution staged a coup in Moscow, the Cliffites triumphantly proclaimed: “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker [Britain], 31 August 1991).

Today, the ISO paints Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a continuation of the Soviet Union, with Smith writing that “Russia—profoundly weakened since its defeat in the Cold War a quarter century ago—is reasserting its imperial power through its all-out support for the Assad regime.” Post-Soviet Russia is a capitalist state. That the ISO has joined the U.S. rulers’ current anti-Russia hysteria is predictable and fits neatly with the Democratic Party circles that they inhabit.

For Smith, the main enemy in Syria is Assad and “Russian imperialism.” Russia is not imperialist but rather a regional power that inherited the nuclear arsenal and industrial infrastructure of the former Soviet Union (see “Is Russia Imperialist?” WV No. 1071, 10 July 2015). Such is the ISO’s vitriol against Russia that Smith even attacks the presidential candidates of the bourgeois Green Party to whom the ISO is giving electoral support this November. He complains that Jill Stein and her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, “have appeared on Russia’s state-sponsored, English-language RT television network to speak in opposition to U.S. war crimes, while remaining silent about Putin’s and Assad’s atrocities.”

The Syrian civil war has seen plenty of atrocities committed against civilians from all sides, from minorities slaughtered or driven out of their villages and towns by various rebels to the bombing of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces. But the greatest enemy of the Syrian masses is U.S. imperialism, whose wars across the Near East, including airstrikes in Syria, have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. As for the Green Party, it is hardly an opponent of U.S. imperialism. Stein’s election platform calls for cutting in half the U.S. military budget, which is many times more than the combined total of all its imperialist rivals. So Stein is for fewer bombs than Hillary, but is nonetheless dedicated to preserving an arsenal to enforce the predatory and murderous interests of America’s rulers abroad.

The ISO’s grotesque line on the Syrian civil war did not fall out of the sky. Its origins lie not in Syria or the Near East. Rather, it is the continuation of their repeated abject capitulation to and support for U.S. imperialism, originating in their unbridled hostility to the Soviet Union. Having time and again supported “democratic” imperialism against Soviet “totalitarianism,” it is hardly a stretch for the ISO to stand on the side of U.S. imperialism in Syria in the name of “democracy.”


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