Syria: How far has the revolution gone?

The revolutionary uprising of the Syrian masses has left many among the Syrian left confused and perplexed. Many of the so called “progressives” and “lefts” have taken a negative attitude towards the revolutionary movements, in some cases going as far as repeating the propaganda of the regime regarding “an imperialist conspiracy”, “Muslim extremists”, and “agent provocateurs”. But all this completely misreads the situation.

A brief overview of historical development

French imperialism colonized Syria after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War One. The French mandate ended in 1946 after a struggle for national independence and the Syrian Arab Republic was formed with its current borders (after separation from Lebanon). After independence, the country had a very turbulent political life and went through a number of military coups. Many governments formed and collapsed and the union with Egypt under Nasser in 1958 broke up after three years. In 1963, the Ba’ath party came to power through a coup involving military and civilian officers. This was followed by a number of intra-Ba’ath party coups leading to the rise of Hafez Al-Asad to power in 1970.

After coming to power, the Ba’ath party (also known as the Socialist Arab Ba’ath Party) proceeded to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy and instituting a centrally planned economy, modelled on that of the Soviet Union. The process was intensified after the arrival of Hafez Al-Asad to power, leading to significant development of industry, agriculture, and services. The sixties and even more the seventies were years of impressive economic growth, providing work opportunities to many young Syrians and raising the standards of living of the Syrian population as a whole. However, due to the fact that what had been built was not a genuine workers’ state based on workers’ democracy, but a terribly bureaucratically caricature of a workers’ state, with all the limitations that this eventually placed on growth, the economy began to slow down in the eighties and the problem became more sever in the nineties after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the year 2000, Hafez Al-Asad died and his son, Bashar, become the president of the country. Since coming to power, the Syrian regime under Bashar has sought to gradually liberalize the economy from state control and introduce the so called “market economy”. This process, however, has been slow and the economy today remains largely in the hands of the state, but with an increasingly growing private sector and which has brought increasingly growing economic and social inequality.

Development of the Syrian State and its nature under the Ba’ath Party

The Syrian masses carried out the colonial revolution with the aim of achieving national independence, uniting the country then divided by French imperialism, and answering the most pressing economic needs of the country. After independence, the state that immediately emerged was a bourgeois democratic state, that is, a capitalist state with a democratic political system. However, this proved extremely unstable, proven by the numerous military coups and abolition of democratic rights on a number of occasions. In addition, the Syrian state failed to attain genuine political sovereignty from the imperialist powers as well as failing to answer the most important economic question for a country with a majority of peasants back then: land reform.

Trotsky long ago explained, in his Theory of the Permanent Revolution, that in the age of imperialism the national bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, in an underdeveloped country is incapable of achieving the historical tasks that the bourgeoisies of Western Europe were able to achieve in the age of the industrial revolution. This is because, in an underdeveloped country, the capitalist class is organically linked with the feudal class, the landowners, and is largely dependent on and dominated by the much more powerful capitalists of the imperialist countries whose interests are often antagonistic to the national interests of the underdeveloped countries. For Trotsky, the proletariat, the working class, was the only class capable of achieving the historical tasks of the bourgeois revolution and from there moving forward to the socialist revolution.

Lenin also understood this very well in 1917 when he waged a struggle against those elements within the leadership of the Bolshevik party, who later on were to become key figures within the Stalinist bureaucracy, and insisted that the Russian working class, and not the Russian bourgeoisie, was the only class capable of achieving the bourgeois democratic tasks of the Russian revolution, while the bulk of the Bolshevik leadership believed that the Russian revolution would be bourgeois with the bourgeoisie playing some kind of a progressive role. The developments of the Russian revolution – as a socialist revolution – proved both Trotsky and Lenin absolutely right.

The Syrian bourgeoisie was no exception. A stable bourgeois democracy, strong national government, and land reform required a strong capitalist class, a class that was non-existent in Syria. The numerous military coups indicated a crisis in Syrian society. They indicated a struggle among different classes of society and even among different sections of the same class, and that no social class was strong enough to lead the nation to stable bourgeois development.

This situation, lasting for years, lead to frustration among many army officers and civilian leaders. They sought a way out, and in the absence of healthy Marxist organizations to lead the struggle, they looked up to mighty Russia and were impressed by its achievements. The bureaucracy in Russia, and other totalitarian Stalinist countries for that matter, represented a caricature of what socialism is. However, the planned nationalized economy proved very effective and far superior to the capitalist market economy. It proved to be very attractive to the Syrian officer caste which had come to power through the coup of 1963. The Soviet system under Stalin had seen enormous economic growth, and thus “stability”, but it also allowed for the development of a privileged layer at the top, the bureaucracy, and all this was combined with the most oppressive methods of government. It was on this basis that the officer caste in Syria proceeded to nationalise the bulk of the economy and to set up a system similar to that in the Soviet Union.

To put it briefly, the Syrian state under the Ba’ath started not from the model of Russia 1917, but from where the Soviet state had ended up under Stalin. The Syrian regime under Hafez Al-Asad removed all democratic rights and freedoms, imprisoned dissents, stifled the political life of the country, and imposed a one-party political system. It was a contradictory state, very oppressive, but at the same time it had an extremely progressive dimension to it. In the early years of the leadership of Hafez Al-Asad, Syria was able to go forward in leaps and bounds. Landowners were expropriated and farmland was distributed to the peasants, industry was rapidly developed, schools and hospitals were built, universal health and education systems were established, and a strong national government and a strong army were built. This is the key to understanding the stability of the regime. There was genuine support among a significant layer of the population for the progressive economic measures carried out. However, like any other bureaucratically planned economy, the corruption, nepotism, and the mafia-like conduct of the ruling clique soon led to the stifling of the economical life of the country. Growth slowed down and the biggest blow came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, an important political and economic ally of the Syrian regime.

After the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, the Syrian Stalinist bureaucracy, following a similar path to that of China under Deng, sought to carry out a social counter-revolution and transform itself into the new capitalist class. This process took off on a significant scale after Bashar Al-Asad became president after his father’s death. Many measures were taken to “liberalise” the economy and “open up” to the market system. This meant allowing some foreign private banks to operate in the country, encouraging private investment and companies, and most importantly removing some subsidies on basic goods and reducing tariffs on imported goods and reducing state control over foreign trade.

This process, while it has benefited a small minority of the population, has had some catastrophic socioeconomic consequences for vast layers of Syrian society, driving prices up (food, real estate, etc.), bankrupting small local businesses and industries that could not compete with foreign imported products, and pushing the great majority of the middle income layers into poverty conditions. Many of the newly opened private banks, companies (cell phones, for example), and trade firms are owned by relatives of the President and his family or high ranking government bureaucrats, confirming the fact that the old state bureaucracy has been transforming itself into direct owners of the means of production.

Proletarian Bonapartism and the roots of the current crisis

The Syrian Ba’ath regime in the past could be described as “Proletarian Bonapartist”. The concept of Proletarian Bonapartism was developed by the British Marxist theoretician, and founder of the International Marxist Tendency, Ted Grant. The term Bonapartism is taken from the example of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, after the French Revolution, was able to rule in a totalitarian fashion based on balancing between the forces of different classes in society, although in the last analysis defending the rising capitalist system at the time.

It is true that the state needs a class to rest upon. In a capitalist state with bourgeois democracy, the state depends on, and the represents the interests of the capitalist class. In a healthy workers’ state, the state depends on, and represents the interests of the proletariat. However, in the case where no social class is strong enough for the state to rest upon, when the forces of the different social classes in a way cancel out each other, then the state apparatus can achieve a certain level of independence from all social classes. This concept is what Ted Grant refers to as Bonapartism.

Nonetheless, the state cannot gain complete independence from the different classes in society. In the last analysis, a Bonapartist state, although oppressing all classes, has to favour and work in the interests of one class over the others, and this is determined by the economic basis upon which the state rests. If the economy is capitalist, then the state is bourgeois Bonapartist, and protects the interests of the capitalist class; this is the case with Fascism or military-police regimes for example. If the economy is nationalised and centrally planned and the bourgeoisie has been expropriated, but without genuine workers’ democracy, then the state can be described as Proletarian Bonapartist in the sense that it rests on the economic base of a workers’ state, i.e. a centrally planned state owned economy, but where the workers do not have political power. This is the case with Stalinism.

Syrian society prior to the rise to power of Ba’ath party, as outlined above, had been in continuous political crisis. The Syrian bourgeoisie was impotent, too weak and incapable of taking the country forward under either a democratic or a totalitarian capitalist system, and the Syrian proletariat was both small in numbers and, more importantly, lacking a genuine revolutionary Marxist party to lead it to victory. This was the context in which the Ba’ath party was able to come to power and hold on to it for 40 years.

The Ba’ath leadership nationalised the economy not for ideological reasons or because they genuinely believed in or understood Marxism, but because, empirically, they saw it as the only way of overcoming the backwardness of the country and gaining some independence from the imperialist powers. Thus, what was realized in Syria was by no means anything at all resembling true socialism. The economy was not nationalised under the democratic control of the workers, but under the bureaucratic control of the officer caste.

The Syrian regime has managed to skilfully balance between the different classes, trying to please all of them as much as possible, and playing them off against each other. Since the seventies, there has existed a delicate balance of forces between the working class, the peasantry, the petit bourgeoisie of the cities and towns (especially the powerful merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo) and the remnants of some small industrialists and small capitalists. Nevertheless, a Bonapartist regime by its very nature eventually becomes very unstable, especially once it reaches a point where it can no longer develop the productive forces, and thus fails to grant some degree of material benefit to all the various classes it balances between. For example, if a stable bourgeois democratic regime based on the dominant and powerful bourgeoisie can be overthrown by the forces of the proletariat once it enters into crisis, a Bonapartist regime that bases itself not a this or that class, but on a balance of class forces is even more prone to being overthrown.

What we are seeing in Syrian today is not Islamic fundamentalism at work or some kind of “foreign conspiracy”. What we are seeing is the upsetting of the previous class balance of forces due to the economic policies (and their socioeconomic effects) of Bashar Al-Asad in the eleven years of his presidency. Poverty in and of itself is not enough to cause revolution and neither is oppression; otherwise we would have seen a revolution in the days of Hafez Al-Asad. Change – i.e. the passage from one state of things to another – is what causes revolution. The economic policy of the regime in the last decade has only benefited a small section of the working class who could find well paid jobs in the new private sector. The main feature of the period has been the enriching of a relatively thin layer of the petit bourgeoisie in the big cities while marginalizing vast layers of the working class, petit bourgeoisie and the peasantry. This could well explain why the revolutionary movement has been concentrated in the lower income neighbourhoods, suburbs, and smaller towns and villages, while resistance is coming from within areas of the bigger cities and the higher income neighbourhoods.

The revolutionary movement has developed relatively slowly with new layers gradually joining in. This can be explained by two reasons. The first being the lack of leadership with a clear programme, which creates fear and uncertainty especially among certain layers of the middle class who are adopting a reactionary position and could have otherwise been won over to the movement. The second is related to the nature of the revolution itself. Social phenomena, such as revolutions, are similar to natural phenomena. A volcano, left to itself, erupts when just enough pressure has been accumulated inside it, not before, not after. However, if an earthquake hits near a volcano, it could erupt much sooner. The Syrian volcano has definitely been accumulating pressure as dissatisfaction with the increasing social inequality and injustice has been building up. However, at the time when the Tunisian earthquake hit, the majority of Syrian society was not necessarily at boiling point yet. The Tunisian revolution seems to have radicalized certain sections of Syrian society before others, and those in their turn have served to radicalize other strata. But the overall development of the situation seems to suggest that certain layers of Syrian society were caught by surprise and are only coming to terms with the situation gradually.

Lies of the regime

The Syrian regime is exploiting certain fears and prejudices (religious, ethnic, ideological...) to scare the population with the threat of an ominous future if the regime falls. The regime has so far refused to recognize the revolutionary movement. It has been spreading all kinds of lies and rumours about foreign conspiracies and Muslim extremists, and combining its propaganda with barbaric measures of oppression, shooting with live ammunition at protesters, storming neighbourhoods and carrying out mass arrests, besieging cities and towns with tanks and depriving their population of food and water, and even following the injured to hospitals and abducting them or killing them there on the spot. A regime that has to resort to such drastic measures in dealing with a protest movement is one that is clearly senile and decaying to its very roots, a regime that has no hope and no future.

The propaganda of the regime has gone to extremes in talking about an imperialist conspiracy to topple the regime and divide the country into cantons in the interest of Israel and the West. This is ridiculous if one notes how mild the US administration has actually been in its criticism of the regime and how little the imperialist countries have done about the situation in Syria, compared to their direct intervention in Libya or even to their behind-the-scenes manoeuvres in Egypt. Also the Israeli press has many times expressed the fear of the Israeli ruling class of a collapse of the regime and what could follow it. Although the Zionist regime in Israel prides itself at being the “only democracy” in the Middle East it doesn’t seem to be too keen on seeing a despotic regime like that in Syria being toppled. They would rather have a “stable” despot in power next door than the Syrian people having any basic democratic rights. The Turks, another major regional power, have actually been quite supportive of Assad. So where is the foreign inspired conspiracy?

Having said that, one has to recognise that the fear of some kind of foreign conspiracy against Syria does have an effect on some layers among the masses; it is not built on nothing. The imperialists have a past legacy of conspiracy in dealing with Syria. For many years the Syrian regime fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and was regarded as a “rogue state” together with the likes of Iran, Libya and North Korea. However, in recent years that had changed. The economy has been opened up to foreign investment. The Syrian regime has collaborated with imperialism in several situations.

In March 2005 US President Bush called on the Syrian regime to pull out its troops from Lebanon after a 30-year presence. By the end of April of the same year the Syrian regime obliged. A year later the famous Baker Report (officially the Iraq Study Group, ISG, Report) concluded that rather than opening up a conflict with Syria and Iran, the US administration should seek the help of these two countries in pacifying Iraq in order to allow a US withdrawal. Bush at the time was not keen on the idea, but the more intelligent and far-sighted of the US bourgeois understood that the Syrian regime could be used to further their interests in the region.

The fact is that the US and some European powers would like to intervene in the country if they could, but the problem is they can’t. They have their hands full in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have now added Libya to their problems, where although they have agreed on a no-fly zone they are very wary of being dragged into an all-out military presence on the ground. Therefore to state that they are the ones stirring events in Syria is absolute absurdity.

It is unfortunate to see some among the left picking up the same line of a foreign conspiracy. This is no accident and is not only a result of confusion. It is to be expected once Marxism is abandoned as a means of understanding the process. The Stalinists especially, long age abandoned genuine Marxism in favour of a so-called National Road to Socialism and “Third Worldism”. Their lack of internationalism and perspective has led them to blame the imperialist countries for everything that goes wrong, in the same manner as the Ba’ath bureaucracy does! They refuse to see that the Syrian revolution is a product of the social and economic contradictions created within Syria itself, and that the Arab revolution is a reflection of the overall crisis of world capitalism.

The other big scarecrow that the secularists, leftists, and so-called “progressives” continually harp on about is that of Islamic Fundamentalism. This is ridiculous given that the Islamists have been nowhere to be seen in this movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood has played absolutely no rule in the events in Syria. All this paranoia about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is totally unjustified. The Syrian government has insisted that these are the ones who have been killing army soldiers during the last two months, but for some reason they cannot get their hands on them. The regime can kill hundreds, arrest thousands, it has an extremely widespread secret police, spying on everyone and yet it cannot get its hands on these supposed Islamists who kill soldiers on the streets of Syrian cities. The idea is laughable. What has to be said, however, is that where Islamic fundamentalism has managed to play a role it has been because of the mistakes of the left and the communists. The most glaring example is Iran, where the fundamentalists were able to hijack the 1979 revolution thanks to the Stalinist two-stage theory which presented the Islamic clergy as somehow a “progressive” force. The irony of the situation, however, is that the same lefts who are paranoid about an “Islamic Syria” are also supporters of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah and think they are progressive, “anti-imperialist” forces! Among these people confusion reigns supreme.

The Syrian revolution is part of the overall revolution sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East. Genuine socialist and communists support this revolution totally. But we also understand that without leadership these revolutions can stall, as was the case in Libya, or they can succeed in overthrowing despots, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, but without removing the whole political and economic system that spawned these dictatorships.

It is true that if the present Syrian regime is overthrown, but no genuine working class leadership emerges, this can lead eventually to “bourgeois democratic” elements coming to the fore who would simply continue in the steps of the Ba’ath regime in opening up further the economy to predatory imperialism. What one has to understand is that even if the present movement should be successfully repressed, it is only a matter of time before another revolutionary movement erupts. This regime is doomed. The question is: what is to replace it, some form of unstable bourgeois-democratic regime or a genuine workers’ democracy?

Therefore there is no place for “neutrality” on the part of Syrian leftists. It is time to decide whether to be on the side of the revolutionaries or the reactionaries. The leftists, communists and socialists should raise the slogans:

  • Down with the Baa’th regime. Immediate resignation of the president and for the bringing to justice of all those responsible for criminal activities;
  • For the formation of a Constituent Assembly that excludes any of the old regime figures;
  • For a new constitution that guarantees maximum democratic rights;
  • Expropriation of the assets and nationalization of the companies that belong to figures within the regime under the democratic control of their workers;
  • The formation of neighbourhood committees for the management of the general affairs of the community and for self-defence;
  • No support for any Islamic fundamentalist groups. The left has to maintain its independence and offer a socialist way out of the present impasse.