It is interesting to read old Noam Chomsky works, because the passionate indignation felt by serious American leftists around the American assault on Central America in the 1980s is displayed all over these works. It will be remembered that while the Americans gave massive military aid to dictatorships which they viewed as friendly to American interests, they financed guerrillas — terrorists, in the sense that they routinely murdered civilians in order to frighten the general population into withdrawing support from the government, and also in order to encourage the government to use increasing brutality against its populace and thus delegitimise it — in Nicaragua. (As they did elsewhere routinely, but somehow to American leftists doing it to Nicaragua was especially bad.)
Thirty years later, it is equally interesting to observe the absence of any kind of passionate indignation expressed by American leftists about the American assault on Syria in the 2010s. The assault has a certain similarity to the one on Nicaragua. The goal is to install a conservative government reliably friendly to the United States. The method is to train guerrillas and infiltrate them into the country from secure bases in neighbouring countries under US control — Turkey, Lebanon and Israel in the case of Syria, Honduras and Guatemala in the case of Nicaragua. In the Syrian case, admittedly, many of the guerrillas are not Syrian themselves — as was also the case in the guerrilla war which the Americans organised to overthrow the Afghan government in the late 1970s.
The violence is also more brutal. If we are to believe the propaganda, something like 130 000 people have been killed in Syria since 2011. In ten years, the Nicaraguan Contras killed only about 30 000. That suggests that the Syrian violence is nearly ten times more vigorous than the Nicaraguan — although it’s still less violent than what the Americans unleashed on Afghanistan.
So, a bloody imperialist aggressive war aimed at regime change, with Americans cleverly using their wealth to avoid suffering casualties (and even getting other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, Turkey and other satellite states, to stump up the cash). This was not, in the past, a practice which delighted the American and the Western left. But now, there is substantial support for this war on the left (especially the left which exists only behind keyboards on the Internet). What opposition there is from the left is tepid, timid and hedged with apologias and qualifications, in which almost no criticism of the Syrian guerrillas does not first proclaim hostility to the Assad government. Why should it be that it is so hard for the Western left to stand up for its principles thirty years after it seemed so simple?
The Ba’ath oligarchy in Syria is not a pleasing organisation. It is a self-perpetuating ruling elite, controlled headed by the Assad family as if it were little more than a feudal kingdom. Unlike the FLSN in Nicaragua, it appears neither democratic nor liberatory. However, when one compares the Ba’ath oligarchy in Syria with the regimes which are attacking it, especially in the Arabian peninsula, or with the military dictatorship in Egypt or with the terrible chaos in Libya, one notices that the Ba’ath oligarchy is secular, relatively non-sectarian, relatively committed to a developmental agenda, sympathetic to the rights of woman and endeavouring not to crush minorities. It is more tolerant of minorities than the Turkish government, for instance, which is incapable of protecting its Kurds against the wrath of a bigoted and brutal military.
The people whom the Western left are backing (or at least refusing to condemn) in Syria, just like the ones which they treated in the same way in Libya, are not just bigoted and brutal, they’re actually off their chumps. Virtually all are so passionate about being Sunni Muslims (generally of the demented Wahhabi persuasion) that they want to impose Sunni values on everybody — taking particular aim against the Shi’ites (Ba’ath is dominated by Ahmadis who are a faction of the Shi’ites). Their version of Sunni values largely entails the belief that certain categories of people — especially women and non-Muslims — are less than human, and that pursuing certain normal human behaviours renders you less than human and liable for execution — because everybody is so innately corrupt that they have to be stopped from all misbehaviour by main force. The Americans are even sponsoring al-Qaeda in this mess (gaining the bonus that al-Qaeda are now murdering people not only in Syria but also in Iraq, where the Americans wish, in the long run, to overthrow the Shi’ite-dominated government) which shows just how crazed the whole affair is. (Naturally vast amounts of demented nonsense are poured out in the media and in political debate to pretend that demented tribalist theocrats who are murdering modernisers, democrats and patriots are actually liberals — which is justified by endless racist broadsides about how Arabs are not like us.)
It seems obvious that supporting — that failing to condemn — such people undermines everything that the Western left traditionally stands for. Meanwhile, offering any support for the guerrillas whom the Americans and the Saudis and the Israelis are supporting totally undermines the ideals of the Western left. It also plays into the hands of global imperialism and neo-colonialism, which the Western left once considered such a threat that it was (rightly) willing to support unlovely regimes like Ho’s North Vietnam and Sukarno’s Indonesia because they stood up against these sinister forces. What’s going on? What has changed since the 1980s?
The Western left loves to see itself as revolutionary, although it has had no experience of revolutions — the nearest thing to revolution was the half-baked episode of 1968-9, and most veterans of ’68 are senile now. Therefore the Western left has spent its time watching other people experience revolutions, and since 1979 this has almost invariably been revolutions launched by imperialists against the left and the interests of the people. What is happening in Syria is, in a sense, a revolution — a change of government against the will of the government.
It is also, in a sense, a movement of the people — insofar as the people on behalf of whom the “Free Syrian Army” claim to be fighting are in the majority in Syria. Whether those people actually support the “Free Syrian Army” is impossible to tell, but surely if there were overwhelming opposition to the guerrillas they would have been much more completely crushed than they have been. It seems likely, in fact, that most Syrians do not very strongly support either side in principle. Why else, in fact, do people flood out of the country to escape the fighting, rather than joining in on one side or the other? (Admittedly the rare experiences of being occupied by the “Free Syrian Army” seem to have been so unpleasant that they have often been driven back to supporting the Ba’athites.) But in effect, Syria has little tradition of active mass-based politics, and many Syrians appear resigned to the notion that everything is always decided somewhere else, by someone else, without reference to them.
These are legitimate problems which could be considered seriously if the issues were not so clear-cut when the matter is viewed as two evils, one of them enormously greater than the other. However, the Western left amplifies these issues into much larger size than their significance warrants, and then, by buying into the propaganda pumped out by Western puppets such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, convinces itself that this is a people’s war and that we must be on the side of the people. Problem solved! Smugness secured! Let us move on to other matters, such as the hideous homophobia of the evil Putin regime in Russia!
The Western left is so accustomed to losing that it no longer trusts any ideological structure which it has created. It assumes that it can only succeed by following along behind someone else’s bandwagon and thus perhaps gaining some reflected glory. The fact that by doing this it renders itself incapable of providing meaningful support, however, means that it gains no glory at all — who has included the Western left in the battle honours of the Libyan struggle? Nobody, and rightly, because all they provided for that struggle was bad-smelling wind.
All this silly posturing means that the policy of posture and of a degraded form of entryism — “let’s walk along behind the striking workers and see if they’ll allow us to hold one end of their banner!” — has become completely dominant in the Western left. We can see this in South Africa, of course, where the Trotskyites these days provide rhetorical aid to any project which plutocracy comes up with — from smashing the union movement to weakening provincial government and thus undermining democracy. However, in South Africa the Trotskyites still have a legitimacy (however spurious) and a rhetorically radical stance to lend; they are at least a left-wing camouflage under which plutocracy can shelter in order to fool the people. In the rest of the West the Trotskyites have no legitimacy and the plutocracy has no need to conceal itself, so they are reduced to desperately imitating plutocratic slogans in a vain attempt to get attention, like whores who have lost their looks.
These are problems caused largely by circumstances. The collapse of the USSR, along with the intensive resurgence of the power of capital, has demoralised the left to an astonishing extent and rendered it all but impotent. It is understandable, then, that the left should be desperate to try to make it look as if it is relevant, or at least useful, to some or other purpose.
But why should the left become so convinced that imitating the right is the answer? Cowardice, yes, and despair, and frustration, and intellectual bankruptcy, all are there. But, also, there is the fatal belief that somehow history is on the side of the left. Somehow, then, if there is turbulence anywhere, the left will gain by it. The destruction of a moderately conservative system and its replacement by a radically conservative system is seen as a positive affair on the part of the Western left because the radically conservative system cannot possibly survive, for sooner or later the People will rise up and obliterate it.
If you read some of Trotsky’s writings at the time of the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany, he makes a number of more or less sensible predictions about the horror which the Nazis will unleash against the workers, and about how the Nazis will provide a useful screen for capitalist oppression even while they are imposing oppression of their own. But at that time, the Stalinists were shouting that the Nazis were simply a front-organisation for capitalism, just like social democracy, and that therefore there was no difference between the Nazis and the social democrats and the liberals, and therefore, one should fight hard against the social democrats and the liberals — harder, if anything, against them than against the Nazis, because once the Nazis are in power, everybody will realise how bad the situation is and then will overthrow it and universal democratic peace will materialise. Trotsky could see that this was an extraordinarily stupid policy, but it was adhered to by the entire German Communist Party at the time, so that they marched unthinkingly into the hands of the Nazis and thence to Dachau and Buchenwald.
The only thing which has changed is that the old stupid policies were imposed by Stalin, whereas now they are pursued in the name of Trotsky. Trotsky would probably have most of the current crop of Western Trotskyites taken outside and shot, simply as a matter of social hygiene. In most of the countries where the Western left’s policies of “the worse, the better” are applied, however, the business of executing idiotic leftists is taken on by the right with considerable energy and dispatch. Sadly, the smart leftists are eliminated at the same time. And with every convulsion of this kind, the left grows weaker and the right grows stronger, and the voices of the left calling for their own massacre and silencing grow fainter, and fainter, and fainter.