Consortium News published an article on May 4 by Diana Johnstone, in which she critiqued an article by Tony McKenna, who has asked for the right to reply.
Editor’s Note: Consortium News published an article on May 4 by Diana Johnstone called, “Trotskyist Delusions: Obsessed with Stalin, They See Betrayed Revolutions Everywhere.” In the piece, Johnstone critiqued an article by Tony McKenna, who has asked for the right to reply. We are publishing that reply here, with this disclaimer and notice to our readers that we do not endorse McKenna’s views on Syria. We feel they display a profound misunderstanding of the tragic circumstances in that country. To give just two examples: McKenna’s assertion that it was the Free Syrian Army and other rebels that drove ISIS out of Syria and into Iraq, while ignoring all the many, more powerful forces arrayed against it, such as Syrian, Russian, Iranian, Lebanese, Kurdish and even American and its allied forces (who to some extent fought against ISIS in Syria), is a gross distortion of what has actually happened.
The second example shows the essential error of McKenna and those that agree with him: the failure to understand the nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. His government emerged in the conflict as the far lesser evil to foreign-backed jihadists. Assad has never threatened the West the way ISIS has not only threatened, but attacked it. Assad did not kill Christians, Shia, Yazidi, women and other minorities just because of their identities, the way the jihadists have. McKenna’s assertion that it is Islamophobic to call most rebels in Syria terrorists, while comparing that to Israel labeling all Gazans “Hamas terrorists,” ignores the fact that Gazans and Hamas are resisting an occupation, while ISIS actually ran a particularly brutal occupation of both Syrian and Iraqi territory. He also ignores the role the West and Gulf Arabs played in allowing ISIS to flourish.
I read with some interest Diana Johnstone’s recent article in Consortium News – ‘Trotskyist Delusions: Obsessed with Stalin, They See Betrayed Revolutions Everywhere’ (May 4, 2018) which was a response to an article of my own – ‘Revolution and Counter Revolution in Syria’ (International Socialist Review, March 1, 2018). Johnstone’s article doubles as an attack on me and also a broader ‘critique’ of a ‘delusional’ Trotskyism whose ridiculous ideals have sinister real world consequences; that it to say, they allow said Trotskyists ‘to align…with U.S imperialism. The obsession with permanent revolution ends up providing an ideological alibi for permanent war.’
In the comments section underneath, the same charge was echoed ad infinitum. I am – either consciously or unconsciously – a supporter of Western Imperialism, at least with regard to Syria. This is the crux of the issue, and therefore something I’d like to address.
I do not support US military intervention in Syria. I do not support Israeli intervention in Syria. I was against the recent airstrikes which were launched by the US with backing from Britain and France. But I am also against the Russian and Iranian military interventions which have taken place in Syria. The side I am not against – oddly enough for a ‘delusional Trotskyist’ – are the Syrian people themselves. You know, the same guys who have been strafed, bombed, gassed, burnt, raped, tortured and systematically murdered for a sustained seven year period by their ghoulish dictator and his military apparatus – in collusion, of course, with the cash, weaponry, troops and planes provided by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Now I am going to emphasise the role of these latter state actors over others (shock, gasp – even over Western Imperialism!) because they are the ones who, in bolstering the Assad regime, have turned the country into a smouldering, ashen graveyard. From March 11, 2011, to March 1, 2016, the regime was responsible for 183,827 civilian deaths,which accounts for a catastrophic 94.7 percent of all civilian deaths. UN investigators quite correctly described this as amounting to an ‘extermination’ of the civilian population. This is the regime which Johnstone and her acolytes rally around. Progressive, radical ‘anti-imperialist’ politics at their finest and most fragrant, served up in a batch, with that extra special dash of civilian mass murder.
Then again, perhaps all those dead Syrian civilians were all ISIS sympathisers or the like. Or even if they weren’t, perhaps those civilians had to be killed as collateral damage because they were harbouring rebels of a sinister Islamic fundamentalist bent in their midst. That is certainly what Assad tells us. It is what the Russians would have you believe. Ironic isn’t it? As we watch, in real time, the murderous military machine of the Israeli state mow down unarmed Palestinian protestors taking part in the Great March of Return, Israeli propaganda feeds us a very similar ideological rationale. The ‘great march’ protestors were, in reality, ‘violent fundamentalists’. Or at the very least, they had been infiltrated by ‘violent fundamentalists’, they had been weaponised by Hamas.
Is there any of us that take such claims seriously? And yet, in the case of Syria, we are more easily swayed by such an insidious logic, we readily accept it as reality. We take it as an accomplished fact that the rebels are Islamist fundamentalists, and where and when more secular currents emerge, we take it as given that these will eventually give up the ghost before rabid religious interests. Is the Syrian, predominantly Muslim population, inherently susceptible to the most rabid strains of Islamic fundamentalism? Or could it be that it is precisely this type of assumption, with all its islamophobic connotations, which has led to the lack of support for secular forces in their struggle against Assad.
FSA Smashed ISIS
In late 2013 a coalition of rebel forces of many different political shades (some secular, some religiously fundamentalist), led by the secular inclined Free Syrian Army, took a break from the bloody grapple with their murderous dictator in order to smash ISIS to pieces – driving them from Latakia, Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa, sending the black clad, sword wielding fanatics scurrying back into the Iraqi desert.
This was little covered in the press, of course, and, generally speaking, the rebels were given scant financial backing internationally as they conducted their heroic rout. In contrast, entities like ISIS are heavily subsidised by powerful foreign interests. The Russians and Iranians pour billions into the Assad regime. Locked between the snapping jaws of these snarling leviathans, the more secular inclined forces are given little support, and as a result have had their political presence diminished.
And that is why I support the right of the rebels to get arms from wherever they can. That includes, I am afraid to say, the U.S. state – or indeed any other. Does that make me a de facto supporter of Western Imperialism? Let’s consider this. Just imagine being a member of that harrowing number caught between the Scylla of the fundamentalist extremists and the Charybdis of the Assad regime. You are fighting for everything you have ever known and what is more you are fighting with meagre supplies against overwhelming forces, and in the most perilous of circumstances. Surely you would accept arms and money from the devil himself if he offered them, no? For the simplest reason of all. The alternative is annihilation.
Who is the Idealist?
Johnstone’s whole critique of me rests on the fact that I am some sort of ‘head in the clouds, Trotskyist idealist’ who is naïve to the way the real political forces are played out on the ground. But in my view she is the idealist, if she somehow imagines that any rebel in that situation – in the face of an Assad regime which is genocidal in its intent and which has been fortified by billions in Russian arms and support – if she imagines that such a rebel should demur from using more effective and up-to-date weaponry, casting it to one side, on the grounds that it has been provided by the U.S. – and instead abandon themselves to the slaughter.
Then again, I don’t think Johnstone troubles herself to think about the people on the ground all that much. Methodologically speaking, there is a reason for this, and it is revealed in her piece. In her account she mobilizes the figure of the Trotskyist as the bogeyman par excellence; she writes of Trotskyism in the following, withering terms: ‘The Trotskyists keep yearning for a new revolution, just like the Bolshevik revolution. Yes, but the Bolshevik revolution ended in Stalinism.’
I know something about Stalinism. You might even say I wrote the book on it. And in that book I noted the very opposite from that which Johnstone, and so many others, have glibly asserted; I noted that, in fact, the Bolshevik Revolution did not produce Stalinism from within itself. In October 1917 the Bolshevik Party had a political mandate which came from the workers, soldiers, students and a significant proportion of the poorer layers of the peasantry.
Such a mandate was channelled through the ‘soviets’, the workers’ councils which had sprung up in over 300 cities and towns across Russia. In response to the October Revolution, and let me emphasise this – Western Imperialism – in the form of 14 foreign countries including the US, Britain and France, sent its armies into Russia in order to aid and abet the white counter revolution, as the forces of the ex-monarchy, the industrial capitalists and the dispossessed landowners threw everything they could against the new government in a bloody and protracted three year civil war.
In that conflict, the Bolshevik bureaucracy, the government, managed to cling to power, barely, but the workers and radical peasants who had provided the democratic basis for that power had been exsanguinated in the furore of the civil war. The Stalinist dictatorship was the ultimate expression of the centralisation of a bureaucracy which was made bereft of its social basis, a social basis which had withered in the fire of counterrevolution, and isolated and inward looking, that bureaucracy was now only able to retain its power from above – by purely administrative, militaristic and ultimately totalitarian means.
Lenin’s Last Battle
Of course, capitalist ideologues and defenders of the status quo adore the whole Bolshevism inherently leads to totalitarianism–Lenin inevitably begot Stalin, trope. They do so, not because they have any interest in the historical specificities: the decimation of the industrial proletariat, the destruction of the Soviet democracy, foreign invasion, the movement from revolution to counterrevolution which underpinned that historical process. They remain breezily unconcerned that the last battle of Lenin’s life was waged against the encroaching bureaucratic influence of Stalin.
Rather, for them, Bolshevism becomes a cipher. It represents any radical and popular socialist mobilisation which confronts the capitalist system and condemns such an alternative as inevitably destined to mutate into totalitarianism and gulags. The inference, of course, is crystal clear; fundamental change is either utopian or dangerous –ergo capitalism is the only game in town.
For all her anti (U.S.) imperialism, for all her hatred of U.S. capitalism, Johnstone shares this sensibility with pro-capitalist ideologues to a tee. For her too, Bolshevism simply led to Stalinism – the historical specificity, the development of the popular revolution, the process of counterrevolution, the civil war – all these processes are either irrelevant or invisible; we are made to understand by Johnstone that revolution per-se ‘is more a myth than a reality’. Needless to say, such a methodological presupposition bleeds into and thoroughly permeates her analysis of Syria.
For Johnstone, the revolutionary struggle of the Syrian masses is not flagging because they have been pulverized by the forces of a counter-revolutionary state bolstered by Russian imperial power; no the Syrian masses are wanting because just as Bolshevism innately led to Stalinism, so too their struggle must innately and inevitably lead to ‘jihadists taking over the country’. And when you understand, as Johnstone does, that forms of popular power from below are inherently irredeemable, the conclusion flows naturally and easily, and Johnstone does not shy away from stating it. A country ‘such as Syria’ she informs us, is ‘not likely to be “modernized” without a strong ruler.’
In Bashar al-Assad she has found a strong ruler, a strong ruler indeed. And a genocidal one.
Tony McKenna is a novelist, journalist and philosopher whose work has been featured by many publications including ABC Australia, The Huffington Post, New Internationalist, The United Nations, NewStatesman, The Progressive and New Humanist. His first book “Art Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective“, was released by Macmillan in 2015, the second a critically acclaimed biography of Joseph Stalin was published the following year, and in 2017 New Haven Publishing brought out his debut novel “The Dying Light“.