The following article below was originally published by the Return to the Source news blog:
By Vince Sherman
December 12, 2012
The US State Department’s formal recognition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) is no small occurrence in the imperialist world’s campaign to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To pretend, as many on the US left do, that the US and France have not actively struggled against Assad by materially supporting the rebels is no longer possible, even from a standpoint of technicalities. Arms and ammunition continue to flow to the rebels in Syria, and whether this lethal aid is delivered by the Central Intelligence Agency or puppet regimes in the Persian Gulf makes no difference to the fundamental imperialist mission afoot in Syria.
The US may not launch a military strike in Syria – no small thanks would go to China and Russia for providing material solidarity in the form of military deterrence - but the cruise-missile leftists at The North Star cannot continue to claim that “that, from the standpoint of the U.S.-Israeli alliance, there are no good options or outcomes as a result of the Syrian revolution.” (1)
In response to the chemical weapons allegations that emerged last week from Washington, Pham Binh – the author of “Lybia and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong” – penned another screed denouncing the anti-imperialist left in favor of the rebellion. Binh claims that the threat of military intervention against Syria is empty, but he goes further in his denunciation of anti-imperialism by asserting that the US and Western Europe have a vested interest in seeing Assad remain in power.
Identifying, examining and combating the basic premises of what Takis Fotopoulos calls the “degenerate left” is important in light of the left’s disunity on the question of Syria. Most leftists do not take positions as horrifying as The North Star has, but the rejection of Marxism-Leninism as a means of understanding imperialism has put many on the US left in the camp of the imperialists themselves.
One of the principle reasons for the abandonment of anti-imperialism is the US left’s willingness to engage in China-bashing and not acknowledge China’s important role in world politics. As the second largest economic power in the world, China’s rise has effectively changed the way US imperialism operates and today functions as a counter-weight for aggression in Syria. Though their role is rife with contradictions, identifying China as an enemy, rather than a very important friend, of the global anti-imperialist movement is a dangerous starting point that leads to equally dangerous – and degenerate – conclusions.
China-Bashing & the “Degenerate Left”
There is an incredibly small section of the left in the United States and Western Europe that upholds China as a socialist country (Workers World Party, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, and the Party for Socialism & Liberation are the three Marxist groups of note). There is a slightly larger section of the left that has a positive to ambivalent view of China and Chinese influence, including but not limited to the revisionist Communist Party USA and the left-refoundationist Committee for Correspondence on Democracy and Socialism.
However, the majority of the left in the US holds a partially to wholly negative view of China. Groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the International Marxist Tendency share the same view of China with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the Economist; the view that it is a state capitalist country.
The ISO takes this position even further in labeling China an imperialist power on par with the United States. Even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could find common ground with this stance, given her comment at a summit in Tanzania last year that China pursues a policy of “new colonialism” in Africa. Clinton made these comments without a hint of irony, just as there is no irony to be found in “China’s Record of Imperialism,” an article that appeared in Socialist Worker in 2009.
This is unsurprisingly a view shared by The North Star, which calls China “an essential support – perhaps the essential support – for capitalist domination internationally.” (2) This is important starting point for understanding the theoretical basis for the “degenerate left,” of which The North Star is a part.
Tellingly, Binh’s latest piece is devoid of any mention of the military or political deterrence provided by China and Russia in Syria. In the original piece defending NATO intervention in Libya and Syria, Binh makes mention of China and Russia’s opposition to a Libya-style intervention, saying:
Paradoxically, NATO’s successful campaign in Libya made a future U.S./NATO campaign in Syria less likely. Russia and China are now determined to block any attempt to apply the Libyan model to Syria at the United Nations Security Council and the Obama administration is not willing to defy either of them by taking Bush-style unilateral military action for the time being.
Five months later, the role of China and Russia are worth nary a mention, even as Binh ridicules the anti-imperialist left for responding to new signs of aggression. Instead, the explanation for Washington’s reluctance to directly intervene on behalf of the rebels is reduced to three major points: (1) Washington does not have the troops necessary to invade and occupy Syria, (2) the US Senate is restricting Obama’s ability to launch a no-fly zone, and (3) the US fundamentally does not want to see Assad toppled because the rebellion is pro-Palestinian and Palestinians support the rebellion.
China and Russia’s Role as Counter-Weights to Imperialism
Let’s begin with the second argument about the lack of domestic political support in the US Senate for a no-fly zone. Binh’s argument is laughable given the US, France, and the other imperialist powers already pushed for a no-fly zone through the UN – just as they did a year ago to launch the Libya assault – in June. Had they faced the same abstentions from China and Russia as they did with the Libyan no-fly zone, there is no reason to believe that military intervention would not have occurred already.
However, China and Russia did, in fact, veto the UN Security Council no-fly zone, greatly reducing any perceived international consensus around foreign military operations in Syria. In August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “warned the West not to take unilateral action on Syria, saying that Russia and China agree that violations of international law and the United Nations charter are impermissible.” (3) Both China and Russia continue to trade with Syria and break the West’s sanctions on Assad’s government, with Russia going further to actually aid the Syrian government in the conflict. Both China and Russia continue to call for a political solution to the Syrian crisis and explicitly disavow the Free Syrian Army strategy of seizing power through continued warfare. And both China and Russia have opposed US escalation, including the recent placement of Patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Would China and Russia respond militarily if the West unilaterally intervened in Syria? It’s hard to say, although Russia is far more poised to launch a counter-attack to defend Assad’s government. The most salient point is that China and Russia have exerted their influence as a counter-balance to Western imperialism in Syria. The Western imperialist powers may still militarily intervene in Syria, but rest assured that one of the largest obstacles that has kept them at bay to this date is China and Russia.
What should we make of China and Russia’s abstention during the Libyan no-fly zone debate at the UN in 2011, which facilitated NATO’s barbaric assault on the Libyan people and the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi? I would propose that both China and Russia sum it up as a failure; a passive ‘buyer’s remorse’. Martin Beckford of the Telegraph reported this in the early weeks of NATO’s attack:
China, which frequently faces criticism over its own suppression of democracy movements, said it “regretted” the military action and respected Libya’s sovereignty.
A foreign ministry statement said: “China has noted the latest developments in Libya and expresses regret over the military attacks on Libya.
“We hope Libya can restore stability as soon as possible and avoid further civilian casualties due to an escalation of armed conflict,” it added. (4)
Russia’s reaction was similar. China has rarely used its veto power on the Security Council, and post-1991 Russia has followed that path as well, despite both quietly supporting independent nations like Syria. However, the scale and ferocity of the assault on Libya came to change the position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who summed up their inaction as a failure which they “regret.”
Dumb & Dumber: China-Bashing and Misplaced Cynicism of the Degenerate Left
Binh and those at The North Star will be quick to point to China and Russia’s commercial interests in Syria, along with their close economic relationship with Iran. Yusef Khalil of the ISO described China and Russia’s veto of a no-fly zone over Syria as “[moving] in to protect their own imperialist interests in the region.” (5)
The question of Russia is an equally important topic but one we will have to reserve for another time.
Admittedly, China is Syria’s top trading partner and largest foreign stake-holder in Syrian oil. (6) After the crippling embargoes set by the West, China has continued purchasing Syrian oil and severely undermines the success of ‘sanction warfare’. (6)
However, this inevitable counter-argument is as faulty and ridiculous as the entire premise that China is an imperialist country. Adel al-Toraifi, the Editor-in-Chief of al-Majalla news, unravels the arguments of anyone claiming that China’s stance on Syria is based on economic considerations:
…China has had strong trade relations with Syria, and strong economic cooperation with the Bashar al-Assad regime since 2001, after both parties signed an agreement on economic and technical cooperation; this means that China is Syria’s third most important trading partner. However the volume of trade between the two countries, which amounted to $2.2 billion in 2010, is nothing in comparison to the commercial exchange between China and the Gulf States, which exceeds more than $90 billion per year. Therefore China is not too concerned about the loss of Syria as an economic partner, however the issue is not one of profit or loss or business considerations, particularly as many Chinese interests are served by opposing the US and European movement to bring about regime change in the Middle East. (7)
Claiming that China, a country that by and large has not exercised its veto power on the Security Council, would suddenly go out on a whim and stand by a minor trading partner like Syria defies logic. Just a crude analysis of the basic numbers reveals that China had more than $20 billion in investments with Libya under Qaddafi’s government, almost ten times the amount of investments in Syria. (8)
Is oil a determinant factor for China’s different line on Syria versus Libya? Not even close. Syria is already a very minor oil producing country by Middle Eastern standards, but less than 1% of Syrian oil exports go to China (less than 4,000 barrels per day). (9) China imported more than 150,00 barrels of Libyan oil per day under Qaddafi, or about 37.5 times the amount imported from Syria. (10)
We could continue unraveling the argument of China’s economic self-interest through economic comparisons. For the sake of the reader, though, let’s cut to the chase: China has considerably less of a stake in defending Syria from Western aggression than it did with Libya, and yet the two questions elicited different responses.
The degenerate left and the right-wing in the US both share a common cynicism for Chinese actions in world affairs. However, the right-wing cynically uses China-bashing as a naked propaganda tactic designed to stir up nativism in the US. The degenerate left, on the other hand, actually seems to believe this farce and repeat the same lies to the detriment of the world anti-imperialist movement.
China-bashing puts the degenerate left just a hop, skip, and a jump from neo-conservatism
China’s foreign policy is a far cry from the critical support given by the Soviet Union to national liberation struggles around the world. In fact, it’s important for anti-imperialists to note and be critical of the foreign policy errors committed by Beijing during the Sino-Soviet Split, which far too many US groups in the New Communist Movement embraced uncritically.
However, the degenerate left lumps China in with the US as a competing imperialist interest in the world with a total neglect of the actual dynamics at play. Because most Western leftists have only witnessed global trade as an affair directed by trans-national corporations, they view China’s role in the world market as part of the same imperialist machine they protest in their own countries. An element of political opportunism plays into this analysis as well when looking at the patently anti-China flames fanned by many trade unions in the US.
The degenerate left’s cynical attitude towards China, even when it does something incredibly laudable like vetoing the no-fly zone resolution, comes primarily from its embrace of anti-China propaganda. The North Star, along with other blogs like Politics in the Zeroes, continue bashing China for the Tiananmen Square “massacre” that even the US admits did not happen. (11) Of course China is always falsely implicated as an imperialist power for their relationship with Tibet, despite the thoroughly feudal and imperialist interests fueling the Free Tibet movement. (12)
For all of its contradictions, China remains a socialist country. The commanding heights of the economy are still controlled by the state, which itself is controlled by the Communist Party and oriented towards working people and peasants. A capitalist sector has developed in China since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms that mirrored Lenin’s own New Economic Policy, but this sector is wholly dependent on the socialist state. And although China is no longer a vocal advocate for world revolution – many would call this revisionism – their line on the Syrian question demonstrates the CCP’s continued commitment to anti-imperialism and independent development.
By rejecting China and the entire socialist experience in the 20th century, the degenerate left already accepts the basic premises of the right-wing and bourgeois elite in the US. Of course it does not stop with just China. If one rejects China as a state capitalist, or even an imperialist state, then one must go further by rejecting bourgeois nationalist states like Assad’s government in Syria or Qaddafi’s government in Libya. Any attempt to support these governments from Western aggression by China, or even Russia, is seen as an inter-imperialist struggle, according to the degenerate left.
With that, the so-called Marxists in the motley crew can dust off Lenin, cite some out-of-context quotes denouncing the Second International, and call it a day. Some, like Binh, skip the Lenin and go straight for Malcolm X, ripping “by any means necessary” so grossly out of context that they use one of the most revolutionary national liberation leaders to justify the very imperialism he fought against. All are smug in their satisfaction that they are opposing tyranny – not even capitalism anymore, but the metaphysical concept of tyranny – on behalf of some imaginary workers movement ‘from below’.
That last point regarding the simplistic and thoroughly anti-dialectical worldview of the degenerate left is very important in understanding its relationship to neo-conservatism. Because Syria is a bourgeois state with a capitalist economy, the degenerate left views Assad’s government and its actions in a political vacuum. There is no dialectical understanding of primary and secondary contradictions, which would reveal that the struggle of oppressed nations against oppressor nations is the principle contradiction facing the Syrian people. Instead, Assad is viewed by the degenerate left the same way Saddam was by the Bush administration: a tyrant who denies his own people freedom and democracy.
According to this worldview, Assad cannot possibly be progressive in any context because he leads a bourgeois state. Nevermind that he is a nationalist at odds with Western imperialism! Nevermind that the Syrian economy is still largely controlled by the state! Nevermind that he supports national liberation struggles in Palestine and Lebanon! He oppresses his people; a particularly condescending phrase towards whatever people happen to be talked about. And of course there is no discussion or differentiation on the sector of people facing repression by the Syrian state (collaborators, imperialist-sympathizers, terrorists).
China also factors into this tautological worldview. For the degenerate left, international solidarity by a state – any state – is categorically impossible because they consider either most or every state to be capitalist.
Consider the tautology at work here: When China vetoes a no-fly zone resolution, it’s tyrannysupporting tyranny. When China doesn’t veto a no-fly zone resolution in Libya, they are providing “essential support – perhaps the essential support – for capitalist domination internationally.” (2) When Russia positions ships to offset the US’s Patriot missiles in Turkey, it’s an imperialist power looking out for its strategic and commercial interests. If Russia doesn’t oppose Western intervention in Libya, they are silent partners in the imperialist project.
…Or perhaps we have to approach China, and Russia, dialectically by considering their place in relation to imperialism at a given moment in history!
Is it any surprise that several of the Trotskyites from the 20th century, who built their measly political ‘careers’ denouncing every instance of socialism as state capitalism, became neo-conservatives in the Reagan era?* We begin to understand Christopher Hitchens’ disgraceful pro-war line on Iraq when we realize his hatred for all existing socialist countries, which he viewed as capitalist and imperialist powers no better than the US.
Syria, China & the US Left
Military intervention in Syria seems more likely every day. Tragically, the response from the US left seems to grow smaller with every war or military action launched by the Obama administration.
With its significant economic ties to the US and world markets, China could take a more active role in economically pressuring the imperialist powers to not intervene. Ultimately if NATO is dissuaded from a Libya-style intervention over the issue of chemical weapons, Russia’s military presence in the Gulf will probably have more to do with it.
The most salient point is that the degenerate left continues to side with the imperialist powers, whether in word (The North Star) or in deed (the ISO). The US left must discard these bankrupt theories and embrace anti-imperialism if it hopes to build a militant resistance to these criminal attacks; an anti-imperialism that sends a unified message supporting Assad and Syrian self-determination in this period of crisis, as we wrote about this past weekend.
However, the China-bashing of the degenerate left will continue to haunt movements in the US, which find themselves unable to distinguish friend from foe. Russia-bashing, a related topic for another time, also feeds into a simplistic world view alien from the Leninist theory of imperialism. Most assuredly capitalist, Russia is still not an imperialist power and, most importantly, functions as a counterweight to imperialism along with China. Both China and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis have different contradictions, but anti-imperialists would recognize that these two countries have made the subjugation of the Syrian people to Western finance capital more difficult.
Neither China nor Russia are the leaders of the world anti-imperialist movement. That distinction belongs to the masses fighting battling for self-determination and revolution in Colombia, India, Palestine, the Philippines, and all over the world. But the US left must recognize that China is a friend, not an enemy, of the anti-imperialist movement, and it will begin to see questions like Syria much more clearly.
Return to the Source has defended China’s socialist orientation and its role in global trade before, and those interested in a more thorough examination should refer to China & Market Socialism: A Question of State and Revolution.
* By no means should this statement be taken as an indictment on all groups professing ideological heritage to Leon Trotsky. As flawed as we believe many of these groups’ lines and organizing strategies are, there are groups like the Socialist Equality Party have overwhelmingly upheld an anti-imperialist position on Syria.
(1) Pham Binh, The North Star, ““Red Line” or Empty Threat? How the Left Gasses Itself on #Syria,” December 6, 2012, http://bit.ly/RFo9ec
(2) Gabriel Levy, The North Star, “The Trouble With Economic Growth,” October 2, 2012, http://bit.ly/U8zzb7
(3) Reuters, “Russia, China warn West against Syria intervention,” August 21, 2012, http://bit.ly/NhpwI2
(4) Martin Beckford, The Telegraph, “Libya attacks criticised by Arab League, China, Russia and India,” March 21, 2011, http://bit.ly/gS9sHO
(5) Yusef Khalil, Socialist Worker, “A Turning Point in Syria,” May 31, 2012, http://bit.ly/LIFJ7w
(6) Joel Wuthnow, The National Interest, “Why China would intervene in Syria,” July 16, 2012, http://bit.ly/Mzuyjb
(7)Adel al-Toraifi, al-Majalla, “Does China truly support Bashar al-Assad?” February 16, 2012, http://bit.ly/wZsVih
(8) Michael Kan, The African Business Journal, “China’s Investments in Libya,” http://bit.ly/TTv0js
(9) Energy Information Administration, “Country Analysis Briefs: Syria,” Updated August 2011, http://www.eia.gov/cabs/Syria/pdf.pdf
(10) Deborah Brautigam, China in Africa: The Real Story, “China’s Oil Imports From Libya,” March 23, 2011, http://bit.ly/eoRojH
(11) Malcolm Moore, The Telegraph, “Wikileaks: No Bloodshead Inside Tianamen Square, cables claim,” June 4, 2011, http://bit.ly/mxFf3m
(12) Michael Parenti, “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,” January 2007, http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html