Toronto: Fred Weston speaks on the Syrian uprising

Fresh from his appearance at Fightback’s 2011 national conference, In Defence of Marxism editor Fred Weston spoke at the University of Toronto’s OISE building on May 24 to discuss the Arab Revolution and specifically its effects on Syria.

While the fate of the Assad regime remains uncertain, the widespread revolts that have shaken the country to its foundations are only the beginning of a long process, which Fred put in the context of the wider Arab Revolution.

The bourgeoisie had been completely taken aback by the mass revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Prior to the eruption of popular anger, the Economist had described revolution in Tunisia as unlikely, given that the country was more “Westernized”. By contrast, once Ben Ali was deposed, the BBC stressed the unlikelihood of revolution spreading to Egypt on the conceit that that country was so unlike the West. This racist portrayal of a passive and sedate Arab population, combined with a belief that revolution was purely a phenomenon of the past, gave the bourgeois a sense of false confidence.

The sudden mobilization of the Tunisian and Egyptian proletariat revealed the true balance of power. As Fred outlined, the global working class has actually never been stronger than it is today – both numerically and as a percentage of the population. Many of the Arab countries currently roiled by revolution were actually experiencing China-level economic growth at the time. Yet the distribution of wealth was skewed towards the capitalists and the workers saw no improvement in their standard of living – a worldwide phenomenon. The anger of the working class was already evident in the explosive protests across Europe during the fall of 2010 – the strikes in Spain and Portugal, riots in Greece, and the largest student protest ever in Britain.

This revolutionary turmoil came not as a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky, but was the culmination of decades of economic policy. The past 30 years saw extensive privatization and ruthless cuts to welfare and social services. Bourgeois economists’ worship of the “free market” and supposed contempt for government was utterly discredited in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the bankers were bailed out to the tune of billions by capitalist governments. In the Arab world, the move to privatization accelerated in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, when the state’s role in the economy began to shrink.

The revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, Fred argued, confirmed the Marxist theory of the state. In the 1970s, many leftist groups advocated terrorist methods while genuine Marxists said this would only strengthen the state (e.g. Palestinian use of terrorist methods only strengthened the Zionist state). Under the pressure of a mass movement, the state apparatus can break down. We saw this in Tunisia when a soldier first saluted a coffin, and in Egypt (with its 1.5 million armed men), when the determination of the masses swayed ordinary soldiers.

Bahrain and Libya

Fred briefly touched on the events in Bahrain and Libya. He exposed the hypocrisy of imperialist claims to be “protecting civilians” in Libya with bombing raids, while the United States quietly backed Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Bahrain to quash non-violent protesters. With the U.S. fleet based in Bahrain, much-ballyhooed concerns for “democracy” and “human rights” did not apply.

Quite simply, it was in the imperialists’ interests to intervene in Libya but not in Bahrain, with its more reliable authoritarian regime. On a more strategic level, Libya gave the bourgeoisie the opportunity to intervene militarily in the Arab Revolution, which had caught it completely off-guard.

Where Egypt had led to the idea that all you needed to overthrow an authoritarian government was to go on Facebook and Twiter and gather enough people together in a square, Libya illustrated that it wasn’t so simple. In Libya, regime figures defected early out of a belief that they could channel the revolution towards their own ends. Right from the start, there was a conflict between the revolutionary youth and the interim government, which saw the events in terms of a military struggle.

There is no real difference between the economic policies of Qaddafi and the “rebel” leaders, who would promptly hand over control of Libya’s resources to the imperialists. While the dictators are now gone in Tunisia and Egypt, the regimes they headed are still largely intact. Those in power shuffle the chairs on the deck, but the same powerful economic interests always prevail.


Following the coup that established the Assad regime in the 1970s, Syria pursued the Soviet model of development, which provided some genuine benefits to the population. Syria experienced phenomenal growth rates in its early decades of well over 50%. By the 1980s, this had slowed to 33% growth per annum. Today, it is an anaemic 1%. The masses supported the Syrian government in the 1960s and 70s, when it provided real material benefits and the country’s oil money was partly used to fund social services.

Syria’s economic decline paralleled the stagnation of the USSR. Emphasizing that real socialism requires workers’ democracy in addition to a nationalized planned economy, Fred noted that the privileged Syrian bureaucracy became increasingly resented as the country’s economy stalled. Following the Soviet collapse, the Syrian government began taking tentative steps towards a market economy, beginning with private banking in 1991 and later progressing to foreign investment and a stock market.

Assad’s government privatized and passed on the fruits of the country’s wealth to its own cronies. In essence, the Syrian elites strove to emulate the Chinese model, transferring the means of production from public to private ownership. Identical terms were even used – e.g. “social market economy”. Having lost most of its claims to legitimacy, the Syrian regime as it stands today is one of the world’s most brutal. Legions of police are tasked specifically with monitoring the internet for any signs of dissent.

Like the Tunisian Revolution, which began when a young men harassed by the police set himself on fire, the Syrian revolt began with a small event on February 17, when hundreds of bystanders intervened after watching the police harass two motorists. Protests soon swelled to over 1500 and one of the government’s ministers was forced to intervene. Throughout February and March, the movement gradually gained in strength, with the most affected layers being the youth (who constitute 60% of the population) and the poor.

In addition to its use of brute force to repress the protests, the Assad regime has also sought to exploit certain “moderate” dissidents to dampen the revolutionary fervour. The Syrian working class pushes ahead, but the threat posed by reformist elements reflects those of leftists around the world. The task in Syria remains the same as elsewhere: building a mass revolutionary party to provide a programme and leadership for the workers’ movement.

Special brigades have been deployed to put down the Uprising, but the government does not have enough forces to repress the entire country at once. Thus far the protests have largely been confined to individual cities, allowing the security forces to move wherever trouble appears. The lesson is obvious: a truly national movement is necessary to exploit the state’s weakness.

What comes next? Fred theorized that, should the Syrian workers succeed in overthrowing Assad, the resulting government would likely follow the pattern set out by Tunisia and Egypt – probably some form of bourgeois democracy. Yet democracy is only a means to an end, and bourgeois democracy cannot solve the problems faced by Syrians today. Even in the advanced capitalist countries, the system is incapable of alleviating severe unemployment – why would it be any different in Syria?

In order to progress, the protest movements require a solid programme and revolutionary leadership. The means of production must be nationalized under the control of the workers themselves, and a genuine proletarian democracy established. The task of the Marxists is helping youth in the Arab world reach these conclusions and fight for an Arab socialist federation.

Q & A

During the question and answer period, a member of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq asked about the absence of socialist or communist groups in the February protests. While frontline organizers were individual working class activists, mainstream socialist parties seemed closer to the state – a dangerous development when the Iraqi government recently announced its own privatization programme.

Fred responded that when examining a jar, one should not merely read the label, but rather examine the contents inside. The leaders of so-called working class, “socialist” and “communist” parties worldwide are not up to the tasks facing humanity. There is a huge gap between the leadership and the rank-and-file. Reformist leaders came of age at a time when capitalism seemed to be able to offer reforms such as free health care and public education.

Regarding the self-proclaimed socialist/communist parties, Fred reminded his audience of the Stalinist “two-stage theory”, which these corrupted figures used to derail revolutionary situations. By claiming the need to first have a “democratic” revolution before attempting socialism later, and therefore arguing that the working class should ally itself with the “progressive” bourgeoisie now, the Stalinists abort revolutions before they begin.

In order to solve this problem, the working class must change the leadership of its mass organizations. When Fightback supporter Arash Azizi asked what the task of real socialists in Syria should be, Fred called for strikes in all industries, for Syrian youth and workers to occupy the schools and the factories, and for election of workers’ representatives to create an economic programme that will allow the working class to take total control of the country. The pressing need is for a mass revolutionary leadership.

Source: Fightback (Canada)