What Should Be the Attitude of the Left Towards the Movements in the Arab World?

March 15, 2012


This is an informal debate between certain members of Sanhati, centered around the following question: “What should be the attitude of the Left towards the movements in the Arab world?”

1. Deepankar Basu

It seems useful to disentangle two aspects of (or contradictions driving) the situation in Syria and the Arab world in general. These aspects are fleshed out in much more detail in Arab Spring and Imperialism on Sanhati.

The first, and primary, aspect is that all these movements are movements for democratization of their respective societies. One way of stating this is to say that the primary contradiction that is driving these movements in the contradiction between authoritarian regimes and the broad masses of the people.

The second, and secondary, aspect is the reality/possibility of imperialist intervention. One way of stating this is to say that the secondary contradiction that is maturing in these events is the contradiction between imperialism and the broad masses of the people.

If this is a correct characterization then two implications follow immediately.

First: a left response should first and foremost stand in support of the movements for democratization. Any analysis which does not start here would be flawed and one-sided because it would miss the primary contradiction driving the movement.

Second: a left response should be staunchly against any foreign military intervention, especially unilateral interventions. Any analysis that does not emphasize this would be incomplete and incorrect because it forgets the secondary contradiction.

Many on the Left who focus exclusively on the dimension of imperialist intervention make the mistake of missing out the primary contradiction. Those on the left who do not recognize the possibilities of imperialist intervention, and the problems thereof, leave out the secondary contradiction. The mistake of the first group seem to be heavier than the second.


2. Shiv Sethi

I think one should be careful before equating Egypt with Syria. In Egypt a million people descended on Tahrir square in Cairo and hundreds of thousands occupied major squares in large cities like Alexandria. There is little doubt it was a mass movement on a scale we haven’t seen in a while, even though it was without a definite long term political agenda, which probably allowed it to be undermined by relatively minor concessions.

There is little information on the ground to suggest that Syrian movement started this way. It is also unclear the Syrian government is  mostly responsible for the violence in ensuing months. There always were reports of mysterious snipers who shot into the crowd according to the opposition and security personnel according to Syrian government. Even Arab league report identifies an armed entity in Syria.   (The only Western journalist killed in Syria was by the opposition forces,  in a mortar attack close to a rally in support of Assad.)  It doesn’t absolve the Syrian government of  the crime of  taking very repressive measures, e.g.  sending tanks into residential areas. However, the number of dead from both sides remains highly uncertain. International media regularly quotes a number like 5000 while Syrian government sources report violent deaths of 2000 security personnel. Arab league report noted that they did not find evidence of  many reports of shelling by government forces, which got prominent mention on international media.

We can probably disregard  numbers from both sides  at the present. However, the Libyan experience gives us a sense of what to expect. Many human rights organizations went to the security council to seek a resolution against Libya. They banked upon tenuous information which seemed to suggest the Libyan government  is responsible for 6000 killings. This number turned out to be totally unfounded as even amnesty international later admitted.

The choice of Left in such an information vacuum cannot be easy. In my view, the Left should at least unequivocally reject Western intervention.  Chomsky (who else!) has analysed the so-called humanitarian interventions in the past 50 years or so. According to him, there are only two interventions that at least partly served their purported purpose—Indian intervention in Bangladesh in 1971 and Vietnam sending forces to Cambodia in 1979.  In particular, the record of Western countries is particularly poor in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. In fact, these countries are mostly directly responsible for precipitating such a crisis.

The choice of Leftist elements inside Syria is even harder. Some of Mao’s writings from later 1930s might be a guide. At that time China was facing  a full scale Japanese invasion and China also happened to be in the middle of a civil war. Mao writes about complicated alliances his party had built across the country. In some parts, they sided with nationalist forces against imperial forces and in some others they were fighting against these forces. Mao justifies these mind-boggling set of moves on purely  tactical grounds.  But he  is emphatic on one point: the red armies should not lose their identity and remain loyal  to the movement. We don’t even know if such groups exist inside Syria. What seems to dominate Leftist identity inside Syria are state-backed  communist party and their  allied unions. They have an opportunity to gain major concessions from Assad  and they are already trying that. A look at the regional Leftist forces during major social upheavals suggest they have lost rather than gained. In Iran, the Leftist forces backed Islamic regime  against the Shah and played an important role in ushering in the social transformation after Shah’s departure. But they faced repression under Islamic regime. Lebanese communist party was an important force in Lebanon until Israeli attack and civil war in 1980s. Subsequently, they lost ground to Hezbollah. At present, they side with Hezbollah against Israeli aggression but remain a minor voice in the country.

On a purely humanitarian level, a ceasefire accompanied with promise of  amnesty by the government, and followed by negotiated settlement seems like the  way forward. Again the only party that is putting forward comprehensive proposals in this regard is Assad’s government, as clearly and fairly approvingly noted by the Arab league report. This is Libya redux: keep ratcheting up your demand until the other side is left without a choice and then turn around and accuse the other side of being unreasonable.


3. Debarshi Das

The identification of the contradictions may be a tricky business. Depending on the objective conditions the contradiction between the broad mass of people and imperialism may be the principal contradiction. As Shiv has mentioned in China the Communist Party had to change tactics, eventually forming alliance with the Kuomintang to fight an anti-imperialist war with Japan. I am not claiming this set of conditions prevails in MENA countries. What I am trying to emphasise is that one has to be careful in examining the objective conditions of the country to arrive at the stage of identifying the principal contradiction. In many MENA countries, for instance, it is well known that the imperialist interests support the authoritarian regime. In such cases the two contradictions coincide.

Deepankar Basu’s article – http://sanhati.com/articles/4636/


4. Shiv Sethi

I agree with Debarshi. Most MENA countries in which large scale protest have occurred are also strongly allied to imperial powers–Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen.  That leaves out three countries: Libya, Syria, and Iran. Libya has already fallen. Even though imperial powers have not directly intervened in the other two, in more ways than one, the assault against these countries has begun. Syria is already under severe economic sanctions (which is crippling Syrian economy e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17088270), Western press and officials  have  gone into overdrive to denigrate the Syrian regime (using pretty crude methods such as showing wrong maps which amateurs can  prove to be faulty by comparing  with google maps and by not even mentioning the Arab league report), and are directly funding and arming the  opposition  inside (as detailed by e.g. a Guardian article recently). All these directly compromise the sovereignty of Syria and therefore are acts of war. Sanctions against Iran are equally severe. As US official themselves admitted, the recent sanction on Iran’s central bank by Obama, which will allow freezing Iranian assets in the US, is already a declaration of war.

Under these conditions, an opposition that is against the present regime but also respect  national sovereignty  will be forced make at least a tactical alliance with these regimes, just as Mao did.


5. Deepankar Basu

All the movements that comprise the Arab Spring started as movements for democratization; all of the movements still retain that thrust. That is why, I think, these movements express the primary contradiction of the broad masses against authoritarian regimes.

If at some point there is direct military occupation by imperialist powers with the intention of turning the country into a colony, then this could change the primary contradiction into one between imperialism and the broad masses. To my mind, that has not happened in any of the countries that are witnessing the Arab Spring, with the possible exception of Libya (but even this one is doubtful). The fact that most of the authoritarian regimes were backed by this or that imperialist power does not make imperialism the primary contradiction. It is still the local ruling class/elite which wields state power, not a foreign ruling class. Hence, the contradiction of the popular classes with the State is still the primary driver of socio-economic change.

In China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been fighting the Koumintang (KMT) for several years – a reflection of the primary contradiction of Chinese society – before a change in the objective situation called for a tactical alliance. The change in the objective situation was the the direct military intervention (i.e., invasion) by Japan, first in Manchuria and then in the rest of the country. It is then that the CCP initiated the formation of a United Front with the KMT. The tactical alliance did not call for forgetting the original primary contradiction. That struggle was resumed as soon as the Japanese were defeated.

In the case of the Arab Spring, the primary contradiction is not even recognized, tactical alliance or no alliance.


6. Sudipto Muhuri

I think it would be a folly to equate all the movements of Arab spring as movements of democratization. While the movement in Egypt and Tunisia started of as mass movements of democratization, case of Libya was a classic case of imperialist interests disguised as movement of democratization.

To further contend that movements have retained democratic thrust is even further from truth. While the case of Libya is so obvious, with the kind of division of the oil wealth among the imperial power, the western powers testing and demonstrating their war arsenal for potential buyers (such as India) by bombarding and plundering Libya, even for the case of Egypt the earlier  agenda of imperialist power is now being accomodated within the new ruling arrangement out there.

And while direct occupation by colonizers might be the most blatant form of imperialism, it goes without saying that neo-imperialism consists of using the ruling elite ( whether in form of autocratic regime or “democratic” regime) to serve their interest. It does not require direct occupation and probably it is much safer to instill a autocratic regime as a front for the imperialist power or have sham democratic regimes (like Menem era of Argentina and their equivalents in South America, Lech Walesa & Co in eastern europe )  to pursue the imperialist interests. As pointed out by Shiv, the Petras article clearly points out that in all such similar circumstances, “democratization movements” of the orange and other such varieties are systematically used by the imperial powers along with their media. One further thing to note, is that any regime, democratic or otherwise, which does not surrender to the imperialist interest is squeezed financially through series of direct and indirect threats, such as examples of Chile of 70’s, Chavez government, earlier Iraq regime of Saddam or the current Iranian regime. All this obviously leads to discontent among the people and the imperialist powers look for that suitable moment to topple the regime, if required using a “democratic” facade using that discontent created artificially by economic blockades and threats. So all these numerous examples serve to highlight that that the principal contradiction is that between the imperialism and the people. And usually the agents of the imperialists is the ruling classes in the countries of the south.


7. Paul P.

Deepankar, this is a useful way to conceptualize the current trends in the MENA region. I would like to add another significant element that is in my view a key issue – that is the involvement of CIA, MI-6, Mossad, USAID, and a host of front organizations operating in this system.

It is undeniable that these agencies have several decades of experience analyzing popular movements, and it is no stretch to call them experts in regime change. The usual modus operandi is to cultivate leaders/factions within the opposition; establish close working relationship with them; supply them with arms, intelligence, cash; and provide them propaganda cover for their growth and recognition in the international media.  We all have seen similar scripts in Latin America, and more recently in the Haiti coup of 2004, Honduras circa 2009, etc. Libya of course is one of the most blatant and recent example of this. Ignoring this fundamental element which has been historically important renders any analytic framework inadequate.

When this element is considered, we can begin to ask questions about the nature of opposition to regimes. Treating all popular uprisings/demonstrations as automatically worthy of unqualified support may be tempting, and perhaps easy to do from the outside with limited visibility into the dynamics of the movement. In MENA, support in terms of arms, cash, internal destabilization, and propaganda has been intense. In Libya, the man put in charge in the Libyan opposition lived 10 miles from CIA in Langley for 15 years.

Consequences of Western Intervention are Long Term.

Western geo-political interest in MENA is likely regime change in Iran which is also a means for containment of China/Russia through encirclement with military bases. There are of course economic incentives. In countries where Western backed regime change has been successful, the formula is all too familiar: installation of Western allies building on ties established during the uprising, immediate implementation of aggressive neo-liberal reforms, national militarization through defense contracting, and domestic militarization for strengthening ‘internal security’.

It is critical to note that all these changes put into place mechanisms and structures that are usually not reversible sometimes for decades and become solidified into the country’s fabric (eg. Haiti). This means that the consequences of a successful Western backed coup are not only the immediate promotion of bloodshed and shooting down any scope for peaceful reconciliation, but also significant and long term changes for the worse for the economic and social future of the people in the country, as well as negative implications for long term geo-political security of the region. Example, building of military bases, establishing “training programs” for the police (eg. School of Americas).

In this context we can examine your earlier analysis more closely.

The first, and primary, aspect is that all these movements are movements for democratization of their respective societies.

This view does not recognize plurality of movements/factions. It is also too much of a blanket statement. Can we say this about the Libyan opposition – that their first and primary aspect is an urge for democratization? How come the Free Syria Army has so much sophisticated weaponry? Why are they not interested in dialogue – just like the Libyan opposition? While it is true that the region is experiencing tremendous democratic upheaval – it is also true that those factions with more power, money, propaganda, international support can co-opt or overrun other factions – which often may be just popular anger not as well organized.

The primary contradiction that is driving these movements is the contradiction between authoritarian regimes and the broad masses of the people…A left response should first and foremost stand in support of the movements for democratization. Any analysis which does not start here would be flawed and one-sided because it would miss the primary contradiction driving the movement.

I suggest that there may exist internal contradictions within these movements themselves which may be as important as the “primary” contradiction between regimes and people.

Second: a left response should be staunchly against any foreign military intervention, especially unilateral interventions. Any analysis that does not emphasize this would be incomplete and incorrect because it forgets the secondary contradiction.

Many on the Left who focus exclusively on the dimension of imperialist intervention make the mistake of missing out the primary contradiction. Those on the left who do not recognize the possibilities of imperialist intervention, and the problems thereof, leave out the secondary contradiction. The mistake of the first group seem to be heavier than the second.

When the nature of the opposition and the long term regional consequences of Western intervention are considered together, then any potential contradictions within the movements assumes more importance than the contradiction between people and regime. Not recognizing this has serious implications, and in my view is a graver mistake.


8. Shiv Sethi

I quite agree with the position of Sudipto and Paul. As Paul notes: “When the nature of the opposition and the long term regional consequences of Western intervention are considered together, then any potential contradictions within the movements assumes more importance than the contradiction between people and regime. Not recognizing this has serious implications, and in my view is a graver mistake.”

This means western imperialism as a parameter cannot be externalized. Because of historic conditions it could also be a determining factor of  contradictions within the movements  in a country to overthrow an existing social order.  By implication, as noted by both Paul and Sudipto, the characterization of such movements as movements of ‘democratization’ is naive in the extreme, as it overlooks both internal contradiction as well as how these  movements connect with the imperial world order.

I think some of the best evidence of it comes from the breakdown of communist regimes in East Europe. Here at least we can externalize  Western imperialism to at least first order. These states were not under the thumb of Western imperialism for decades. However, by 1970s they  were beginning to get integrated with dominating world order by contracting international debts (which played an important role in the dismantling  of Yugoslavia) and international trade (USSR was an important exporter of commodities and also an importer  e.g. Wheat from the US since 1970s). This, and other reasons,  resulted in the rise of an eminently comparador class in these societies that  realized that it stands to gain far more by completely dismantling  these societies. They used the rhetoric of ‘democratization’ , openness (glasnost), restructuring (perestroika) to push their agenda. It should not be forgotten that the demands of working classes were far more explicit whenever they rose in revolt, e.g. the ship yard workers of Poland in 1980.  In fact they demanded ‘real’ socialism not its destruction (the story of Polish revolt through 80s and 90s is well told by Naomi Klein in her book Shock Doctrine;  as she argues what the workers asked and got were almost exact opposite but they did get some concessions from the capitalist ruling elite in 1990s). We know well the end result. After the breakdown, the social indices in these societies degraded as if they had suffered from a large scale famine, even according to a mainstream medical journal like Lancet. The comparador elements rose to prominence, e.g. Yeltsin. In the name of ‘democracy’,  these countries  got an capitalist oligarchy, broad civil liberties, and an ‘open’ press run by corporates. There was, as expected, a backlash. In less than  a few years, many of these countries elected the very people they had hoped to overthrow. But the name of the game was changed forever. Gone was the alliance of the earlier era, and each of these countries had to fend for itself in a brutal world order.  There was no economic recovery without bowing to the wishes of Western powers. And then this recovery arrived, along with it came colour revolutions. This time around not many were  in doubt what had happened: these were effective coups backed by Western powers. These countries are some of the worst affected after 2008 financial crisis. They have been, for all practical purposes, reduced to semi-colonies of Western countries.

Could the dynamics of  internal contradictions of any of these societies  be simply interpreted  as desire of ‘democratization’ by ‘broad masses’? Could  the role of imperial powers in the transformation of these society be externalized, even though that might have been the approximate initial  condition?


9. Ashok Prasad

Though Shiv and Paul have raised valuable points, I think the key difference is in the importance given to the nature of the regimes we are talking about. I cannot agree with Shiv’s quote from Paul (below). I do not agree that we should argue for tactical alliances with authoritarian regimes, as Shiv suggested in a previous post, or withhold or condemnation of their rulers on the grounds that the oppositional movements in these countries are infiltrated by agents of imperialist countries. Here is what I think.

1. In all of these countries the principal contradiction is between the ruling classes and the people. All of these countries, irrespective of their relation with western imperialism, have undemocratic authoritarian states. The prime mover behind people willing to rebel against these states arises from this fact. To call this position naive is unwarranted.

2. In all of these countries imperialism intervenes directly and indirectly, covertly and overtly, to affect the situation on the ground. In countries allied with it it tries to muzzle the peoples protest, and direct it into “safe” channels. In countries that are against it, it tries to lead it, to take it over.

3. The fall of these regimes when it happens is therefore not something that is unproblematic, or is necessarily always a good outcome for the people in the short term sense, or necessarily delivers what the people want, even for movements that are relatively unproblematic in their composition.

4. Given this situation we should not celebrate the movements uncritically without asking .. who is leading them, what are their demands, what will they do after they seize power. At the same time we need to realize that the reason why we are seeing these movements now is because of a genuine desire for change among a section of the people in these countries, that has been propelled by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. It is on the backs of this dissatisfaction that imperialist agents have ridden.

5. I think its is very incorrect, and even retrograde, to argue for a continuation of the old regime, despite its own history, on the grounds of imperialist intervention among those trying to overthrow it. In my opinion this also betrays the genuine left and revolutionaries within the country.  We should celebrate the downfall of the dictators even if they have been opposed to western imperialism and even if we are not very sanguine about who has replaced them .. and we should say that.

6. Imperialism intervenes in every struggle today, especially national determination struggles since it is easier for them to ally with the bourgeoisie in these movements. It is only because the strategic importance of India changed for the USA that we do not discuss its role in the nationality movements in India; a couple of decades ago the situation was different. The fact of imperialist intervention forces us to make distinctions, even criticize the movements for their direction and leadership, to be clear about who our friends and enemies are etc etc. However we cannot use that to ignore the fundamental causes that lead to the movements, which also opens the space for such intervention.

7. This is equally true for the fall of the regimes in Eastern Europe. That certainly led to incredible hardship for the people. But should the left outside have supported these bankrupt regimes?   I think we should have celebrated their fall, even as we warn the people what capitalism and imperialism had in store for them. That is not the same as support for the shock doctrine. The left is often in no position to affect the outcome of a historical process. In such situations we need our analysis to have nuance and we need to realize that we will have to live with contradiction. That may involve hailing the fall of a Gaddafi, even as we point out how he really fell, and who succeeded him, and why its necessary to overthrow them too.


10. Shiv Sethi

I think this discussion is highly asymmetric. Dipankar  and Ashok are claiming something without substantiating their claims. On the other hand, others have come up with counterexamples to disprove these claims.   If you think your point (1) is correct than at least try to give one example of a homogeneous class formation that is up against an ‘authoritarian’ state, and try to follow its dynamics.

Let us start with your point (1). What, I would like to know, is an ‘undemocratic authoritarian’ state? You again return to these categories in point (3), (5) and (7). How were East European regimes ‘bankrupt’?  These East European states might not have allowed  broad civil liberties (e.g. right to protest) or an ‘open’ press. Also  they were surely not the darling of the Left  because they got increasingly dominated by a narrow elite.  But the class alliances they built inside allowed  them to create some of the most progressive (as understood by sections of Liberal left)  states ever built: free education, free health care, assured jobs, zero unemployment, good infrastructure (e.g. public transport), induction  of oppressed nationalist and ethnic minorities into social and political mainstream (e..g Jews, gypsies). Many of these states were industrialized for the first time under USSR domination. One should read some of the glowing UN reports on the performance of these states in 1970s. It is around the same time when a section of the Left railed against these states for being increasingly dominated by a clique, who  reduced  the so-called workers’ state into clientism, working  opaquely and increasingly  using repressive measures. However, the Left never made the mistake of identifying these contradictions as ‘homogeneous’ i.e.  arising from the aspirations of ‘broad masses’ against a repressive regime.  Their demand, as I noted from Poland’s example, were exactly the opposite of  the section which sought greater ‘democratization’ of the society. We know who won. At present, many of the erstwhile members of the ruling elite  of these societies have got rich beyond their belief from the process of dismantling these societies. Or  a section of the very people against whom the people rose have now become the ruling elite, and with tremendous personal wealth, even as the ‘broad masses’ have found themselves impoverished and  extremely vulnerable. If this is what the Left is to support (your point (7) ) then what, I wonder, should the  Left stand against.

Theses similar to Dipankar’s were put forward by many in European left movement in 1950s-60s. For instance, Kildon believed that imperialism and  development of colonial economies were separate issues. Imperialism, he tried to show, was driven by Western militarism, an interest group which gains from military expenditure. For him the battle between the working classes and the ruling elite thus are separated  in imperial countries and ex-colonies.  Or in other words, the principal contradiction for ex-colonies is internal because western militarism is not driven primarily by economic plunder of colonies but rather by the narrow interests of elite at home. In many ways this was also interpreted to mean that a section of the Left in developing countries which puts emphasize on the integral approach to the issue are on the wrong track. They would be well advised to first concentrate on the local issues and leave imperialism to socialist parties in Western countries. In my view this outlook is fundamentally flawed. Quite apart from the fact that it tends to undermine the plunder of colonies, it completely misses the economic basis of neo-colonialism.

The next 50 years or so were to prove this view to be faulty. The rise of neoliberalism, an explicitly imperial project led by its allied institutions such as IMF and  world back, provide irrefutable proof to junk such theses.  In addition, there is a sharp rise in Western militarism  in the past 20 years or so. To postulate that  the principal contradiction is internal at present misses the obvious fact that even the internal conflict is driven mainly by the battle of working classes against neoliberal elite, who have greatly gained in economic and political power in the past 20 years or so and for all intent and purposes are the agents of Western  imperialism. Or if you fight against them sooner or later you will hit the brick wall of Western imperial interests. For instance, can we formulate the ongoing conflict in central India purely in terms of internal contradictions?

It is in light of these facts that we should seek to understand the assault against Libya, Syria, and Iran. For the sake of discussion, let me concede the  point that they were/are authoritarian, repressing sections of local population on a regular basis. But surely such regimes are loved by the West, isn’t it?

After all, an overwhelming number of such regimes are actually supported by Western countries. So the question is: how are these regimes different from other authoritarian regimes? Why is the West against them? Sometimes one get the following answer to this question:  they are against Western powers but that in itself doesn’t make them progressive. Even this is only partly correct. These regimes have gone out of their way to accommodate Western interests in the recent past. Iranian president wrote open placatory letters to the US presidents and Iran  has opened its economy to Western investment in the recent past. Both Gaddafi and Assad  also adopted openly neoliberal policies in the recent past. A fact not often stated is that they were all in the good books of a section of Western elite until not so long ago e.g. Iran under the previous president. So what separates them from others?

A slightly closer look reveals the difference: (a) they certainly  are not under the thumb of imperial powers. Even when they make a concession they often retain the nationalist outlook. The ruling class alliance is led  by this nationalist elite, with strong ties between this elite and a not-too-narrow section of the society, e.g. Iran’s elite has strong base in rural areas.  This ruling elite is fairly conservative and has shunned more radical alternative (except in Libya), resulting in sidelining or brutal suppression of a section of the Left.  But these elite retain social programs  that cater to the needs to a majority by high level of government expenditure, e.g. Syrian oil exports add to government budget not siphoned off by a small group (e.g. Nigeria, the darling of the West). Or the social programs in these countries are run by their own budget not Western ‘aid’ (b) the ruling elite retain strong ties with many progressive movement in the region or even around the world. So powerful was Gaddafi’s image in African continent that even a certified Western stooge like Uganda’s president Museveni wrote in his support during Libyan uprising. Both Syria and Iran support Palestinian movements and Hezbollah, the main bulwark against Israeli aggression in Lebanon. Syria also played an important role in taking  care of nearly 2 million refugees from Iraq.

Western discourse on these regimes often try to portray them as sectarian, e.g. Shia ruling elite of Syria vis-a-vis Sunni majority. Shias Iran against other oppressed minorities, etc. A heritage foundation, an extremely right wing think tank from the US, study on Iran reveals a different picture. This report analyses  the failure of the US to destabilize Iran in spite of its effort to arouse its minorities against the state and reaches an interesting conclusion: Iran is an old country with strong nationalist tradition, just like England and France. Imagine a liberal discourse equating Iran with England and France! Chomsky has often written  on the virtues of reading extreme right wing literature, e.g. WSJ, Financial times, etc. as opposed to Liberal outlets like NYT. And his reasons are simple: extreme right wing will openly talk of their agenda while Liberal will try to needlessly confuse.

Don’t these regimes deserve to be dismantled to usher in socialism? A simple answer to this question would be: yes, of course. But who would do it. The radical  left in these countries is weak and marginalized  and the reformist version is loosely allied to the regimes (e.g. CPM, CPI in India). Would this section gain if the regime is destroyed? May be but the probability is very, very  low  because the regimes cannot be destroyed without external support and external elements will never support these groups. Also these sections cannot  expect support from even the present allies of the regime,  Russia and China or even Iran. International left cannot do anything more than provide moral support at the moment. So what are the choices of the Left in these countries? Should the trade unions  ask for mass strikes and boycotts? Should the peasantry rise in revolt to exploit the weakness of the regime? These choices are not rhetorical because as the  economy of these countries is squeezed by Western countries,  a situation will soon arise when some of these sections are forced to adopt radical measure for their very survival.  But should they do it without calculating what they might get in return? Can’t they see what happened in Libya or Ivory Coast or Gaza or Lebanon, etc.
Would they want to risk the very sovereignty of their countries? Should they collaborate with Western powers? None of them are easy choices. Many groups that openly sides with Western powers in Libya admit they were in fact fighting to regain Libya’s sovereignty from Gaddafi’s regime!

I am not trying a advocate a possible choice the Left  must take at the present because that would require a detailed understanding of the ground reality which I don’t have. But the picture  I have painted is complicated enough that  binary solutions of the kind put forth by Dipankar and you cannot be supported. Roads to disasters are often paved with good intentions. I think a mature political analysis should at least rise above good intentions.


11. Deepankar Basu

It might be useful to distinguish between (a) what we all agree on, and (b) what we disagree about.

POINTS OF AGREEMENT: (1) imperialism is active in the Arab world context, (2) imperialist military intervention (direct or indirect, overt or covert) should be opposed.

POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT: (1) characterizing the primary contradiction, (2) characterizing the mass movement comprising the Arab Spring, and (3) taking a position vis-a-vis the existing regimes in the Arab countries.


The first and second point of disagreement is intimately connected, so let me address these at the same time. I claimed that the primary contradiction driving the mass movements and uprisings in the Arab World is the contradiction between authoritarian regimes (most often neoliberal in economic orientation and dictatorial in political form) and the broad masses; and that the secondary contradiction is the contradiction between imperialism and the broad masses.

My reason for doing this was because of the nature of the demands that were raised by the movements (which allowed me to draw the conclusion about the characterization of the movements as democratic in orientation). Let me give three examples as a response to Shiv’s comment: (1) Tunisia, (2) Egypt, (3) Syria. How do we know the orientation of these movements? I draw on the following statements and analyses:

(1) Here is a statement by the Worker’s Communist Party of Tunisia:

(2) Here is a statement by a coalition of left forces in Egypt (the coalition is made up of the Social Party of Egypt, the Democratic Labour Party, the Popular Socialist Coalition Party, Egypt Communist Party and the Revolutionary Socialists): http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/534

(3) Here is an analysis of the movement in Syria by two left-wing academics:

In this context, the (counter)example of Libya has come up in several responses. This is hardly a novel point because I had flagged Libya right in the first post.

Paul, Sudipto and Shiv have offered the following counter-arguments against the above characterization : (1) imperialism has long term impacts; (2) imperialist powers engage in covert operations to topple regimes that do not serve their interests; (3) in this they often use using a democratic facade; (4) neo-imperialism does not require direct military occupation; (5) there is an economic basis of imperialism; (6) there are many contradictions within the movements in the Arab Spring countries. All these 6 points are correct but they do not contradict the characterization they were meant to.

Regarding (1): The identification of the primary contradiction does not depend on the time horizon of impacts of imperialism.

Regarding (2), (3) and (4): The fact of covert imperialist intervention does not change the fact that the movements comprising the Arab Spring have emerged as democratic movements against (neoliberal) authoritarian regimes and are democratic in orientation.

Regarding (5): Imperialism *always* has an economic basis (dimension). There are scenarios where the contradiction between imperialism and the broad masses is not the primary contradiction (e.g., China in the 1920s & 1930s before the Japanese invasion, contemporary India). Hence, the fact that imperialism has an economic dimension cannot ipso facto make it the primary contradiction.

Regarding (6): Any conjuncture will have many contradictions. That is precisely why it is important to distinguish between which is primary and which is not.

Since there have been many references to Mao, regarding (2), (3), (4) and (6), I can do no better than quote him at length (Source: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_17.htm):

First: why is it important to distinguish between primary (Mao uses the term “principal”) and secondary (Mao uses the term “non-principal”) contradictions:

Hence, if in any process there are a number of contradictions, one of them must be the principal contradiction playing the leading and decisive role, while the rest occupy a secondary and subordinate position. Therefore, in studying any complex process in which there are two or more contradictions, we must devote every effort to funding its principal contradiction. Once this principal contradiction is grasped, all problems can be readily solved. This is the method Marx taught us in his study of capitalist society. Likewise Lenin and Stalin taught us this method when they studied imperialism and the general crisis of capitalism and when they studied the Soviet economy. There are thousands of scholars and men of action who do not understand it, and the result is that, lost in a fog, they are unable to get to the heart of a problem and naturally cannot find a way to resolve its contradictions.

Second: how to use this analysis in the context of foreign invasion versus other forms of imperialist intervention: “In a semi-colonial country such as China, the relationship between the principal contradiction and the non-principal contradictions presents a complicated picture.

Here is the analysis when there is direct military invasion:

When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country, all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. At such a time, the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction, while all the contradictions among the various classes within the country (including what was the principal contradiction, between the feudal system and the great masses of the people) are temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position. So it was in China in the Opium War of 1840, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Yi Ho Tuan War of 1900, and so it is now in the present Sino-Japanese War.

Here is the analysis for other forms of intervention:

But in another situation, the contradictions change position. When imperialism carries on its oppression not by war, but by milder means–political, economic and cultural–the ruling classes in semi-colonial countries capitulate to imperialism, and the two form an alliance for the joint oppression of the masses of the people. At such a time, the masses often resort to civil war against the alliance of imperialism and the feudal classes, while imperialism often employs indirect methods rather than direct action in helping the reactionaries in the semi-colonial countries to oppress the people, and thus the internal contradictions become particularly sharp. This is what happened in China in the Revolutionary War of 1911, the Revolutionary War of 1924-27, and the ten years of Agrarian Revolutionary War after 1997. Wars among the various reactionary ruling groups in the semi-colonial countries, e.g., the wars among the warlords in China, fall into the same category.


There is no doubt in my mind that characterizing the existing regimes as authoritarian, dictatorial is correct. Hence, as Ashok has pointed out, there is no basis to argue for any kind of alliance, strategic or tactical, with the regimes. The mass movements sweeping across the Arab World are *against* these regimes. An early analysis of the political implications of the Arab revolts makes the same point: http://sanhati.com/articles/3223/

SUMMARY: A left position on the Arab Spring should be first and foremost for the democratic movements, and against the regimes, and at the same time be staunchly against imperialist intervention.


12. Shiv Sethi

I think you need to illustrate your claims with examples and define more properly the categories you use. You claim:  “There is no doubt in my mind that characterizing the existing regimes as authoritarian, dictatorial is correct. ” Why? What is an authoritarian, dictatorial  regime?  What are ‘democratic’ aspiration of ‘broad masses’? Aren’t all societies riven by  class conflict? Then how do we identify such aspirations, a point Paul made.

You surely realize that all Left regimes across the time has been categorized as ‘dictatorial’. In fact, Lenin explicitly endorsed what he called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. So a Left discourse should be clear how these categories are used.

Our disagreement is not how principal and secondary contradictions are identified. No one  seriously doubts local contradictions play an important, even paramount,  role in driving a movement. Take  any society from any part of the world and such contradictions can be outlined;  these contradictions are sharp in capitalist states, and even sharper for  the neoliberal states. The point of disagreement, in my view, is not even imperialism. In fact, imperialism has come to be used as a red herring in this discussion.

The point of disagreement is how you analyze an ongoing conflict; when  do you choose to support, conditionally or unconditionally, a given uprising.

Or more importantly, can broad categories be discerned that can be supported uncritically?  Dipankar and Ashok have a recipe for this: yes, because movement is driven by a ‘principal’ contradiction, so, presumably, supporting any of its forms is a step forward.

I totally disagree with this because I think no movement can be analysed without its class content, aspiration of different classes, often pulling it in different directions, overt and covert acts of the ruling elite to co-opt the movement, and finally, and very importantly, the role of external powers. In fact, uncritical support, or even at times,  conditional support can be tantamount to strengthening  the hands of the  ruling elite and the imperial powers.

I think a section of international left has made exactly this mistake. In their enthusiasm to  apply Marxist theory to a set of conflicts they fell unsuspecting into a well-laid trap.

A detailed analysis of any of the so-called Arab spring uprising reveals the presence of this trap. This is the reason why I requested Dipankar to come up with a detailed analysis of  at least one of these conflicts to support his view. This would have allowed him to define more sharply some of the categories he uses. To illustrate how a section of the Left get some things terribly wrong, allowing hope to be a better guide than  informed judgment based on history, I shall start with an article Dipankar approvingly cites (http://sanhati.com/articles/3223/):

“What the rebellions in the Arab world have brought forth is the possibility of resurrecting a solid anti-imperialist block in the Middle East. At the moment, two nations that border the Arab world, Turkey and Iran, are at odds with US and Israeli policy in the region. If progressive forces are to gain power in key Arab states such as Egypt, then the US-Israeli agenda of war and domination could face a serious obstacle. On an interregional scale, the leftist and anti-imperialist governments in Latin America may finally have allies in the new emerging block of Middle Eastern states defiant of US hegemony.”

Turkey at odds with US and Israel in support of Arabs?! Currently, in collaboration with these very regimes, it is involved in  violent overthrow of Syrian regime. Contrast this hope with the analysis of career diplomat Bhadrakumar (I have posted some  of his views before), who saw, with far more clarity, the likely direction of Turkish policy even as Syrian uprising was just  starting. May be Turkey is trying to upstage Assad because Israel and the US want him in place, as as other Leftist writers  Prashad and Wellerstein hold! In my view, a section of the Left appears to have lost  sense of ground realities.

Many of the so-called Left analyses never seemed  to take into account the obvious fact that Arab movements could be co-opted and channeled into directions desired by the ruling elite, who will get away by making minor concessions, as happened in a  large number of countries across the world in the past 30 years where there were similar mass protests. This, it seems to me,  is more or less what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, even if the initial uprising corresponded roughly to the categories Dipankar  defined: an uprising against brutal neoliberal regimes with broad (which also means ill-defined) aspirations.

The case of Egypt  is  illustrative. Even though the scale of the protest was so large, no viable leadership emerged out of the protests with a working-class oriented charter of demand (contrast this with what happened in Latin America in occupy factory movement and the MST movement). This could be because the  main constituents of the opposition were missing in the beginning: Muslim brotherhood and the Left. The Left (and also MB)  duly joined and did come up with many demands, more notably in cities other than Cairo, like tuning  Egypt into  a food-secure country (once a bread basket of the region, Egypt is the largest importer of its main staple wheat at the present) and nationalization of cotton industry. The Left and Muslim Brotherhood were both  involved in the large scale industrial action in cotton factories in 2008. However, even early reports suggested, there were frantic negotiations to co-opt Muslim Brotherhood from early days (I myself tended to reject this as ‘conspiracy theory’ at that time).  To the best of my knowledge, none of the radical demands of the Left ever made it to even the level of negotiation. What was negotiated was the Mubarak’s abdication and elections, overseen by the very military which was the strongest ally of Western power in the political mix of Egypt. In the name of ‘victory’ the broad masses seemed to get  a modicum of civil liberties: right to protest, organize political parties, etc. Muslim Brotherhood, now in cahoots with the military, has become the largest political formation and its elders also serve to dampen the spirits of its more revolutionary youth wing. The situation still remains  fluid, e.g. the promise of Leftist parties (link Dipankar sent) and Egypt’s relation with Israel. However, if early indications are  anything to go by, the way forward seems to be clear: NGOisation of the society with broad civil liberties (this will ensure there is no Tahrir square movement again), Western aid to make minor economic concessions, e.g. regarding food, further opening of economy to attract Western investment but now with greater particiaption of middle classes through laws, etc. All these steps will deepen neoliberalism in Egypt not dismantle it.

Is the Left to celebrate these changes? Not to my mind. Does it allow us to even begin to formulate these dynamics  in terms of principal and secondary conflicts? Not in my view. But much worse, such generalizations are completely missing  what is happening in Syria, or a section of the Left is doing the bidding of imperial powers.


13. Sudipto Muhuri

To see Arab spring in isolation of the  historical processes that have been unfolding in the region  in the last seventy odd years may lead us to misread the current situation. Infact seeing the phenomenon in isolation can lead one to loose track of  the principal contradiction in the region- Imperialism and interference by western powers led by the US. And this prolonged interference of the west had  created the grounds for the flashpoint represented by movements of Arab spring.  And this has manifested itself in direct and indirect ways  in the last one year.

Before going into the specifics of the countries where the effect of the ‘Arab spring’ was felt it might be worthwhile to unravel the nature of western domination in the region.

We find that there are two aspects of the western domination – one which can be understood in  terms  of the economic interest, of securing the huge profits for the multinational companies involved in the oil industry and a larger concern of  energy security for the west and its crucial role in the stability of the global capitalist structure. The other aspect is that in the eyes of the western power bloc, this region is  percieved as a cultural and political threat due to the fact that that it is identified as the seat of muslim world. Often there has been a tendency in many quarters in the west to view this region from the myopic perspective of the so called civilisational clash of West with Islamic civilization.  And this factor has also contributed to the imposition of western hegemony over the region and their attempt to control or/and suppress the political and cultural articulation in the region. The case of Palestine ,where the west has steadfastly backed the Isreali regimes is a case in point.

The bottomline is that this region for the last seventy odd year has been characterized by continuous intervention by imperial powers starting with the British. The whole idea of dividing Palestine and setting up a jewish apartheid state of Israel by driving out the Palestinians was among the initial measures aimed at getting a foothold over the region by the western powers. What followed was a perpetual attempt to control the entire region by funding and backing rulers in this region who would be comply with the direct imperialist interest of controlling the resources in the region. And whenever any of leaders in this region did not dance to the tune of these western interests, they had to pay a price, like in the case of Mossadegh of Iran, who was overthrown and replaced by Shah when he tried to nationalize the oil resources of Iran.

After the end of the cold war era, under the pretext of the so called war on terror, the process of subjugation  has worsened the situation, resulting in the occupation and destruction of Iraq and Agfhanistan. All these events, including the long standing injustices perpetrated against Palestinians created a deep sense of injustice among the people in the region.

In the last two decades, after the collapse of Soviet Union, this  discontent was further fuelled by  the imposition of neoliberal policies dictated by World Bank. These neoliberal  policies led to increasing unemployment and economic hardships of the people in the region. In fact even in countries like Libya and Syria, which for long resisted western intervention in their respective countries, embarked on a path  dictated by world bank. This central contradiction of the people with imperialist forces also led  to general suppression of democratic rights of the people.  And importantly  a Ben Ali or a Mubarak were not merely seen as autocratic ruler, but rather they were seen as symbols for what they represented – agents and stooges of the west and its policies. The aspect of the effect of the structural adjustment program is mentioned in this article:  http://bulatlat.com/main/2011/03/18/benjie-oliveros-what-is-not-being-said-about-the-uprisings-in-north-africa-and-the-middle-east/

This article goes on to state,

“All of these countries have been implementing the IMF-WB imposed Structural Adjustment Program. Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt were even touted as IMF success stories in the 1990s. Tunisia passed a privatization law in 1989, privatized banks and insurance companies in August 1994 and by November 1994 created the Tunis Stock Exchange. Egypt, together with Colombia, was declared as the World Bank’s “top global reformer” in 2010 praising its performance during the previous four years. Egypt implemented aggressively the structural adjustment program beginning in March 1990. Import restrictions were removed and tariff reductions of up to 100 percent were implemented. By 1992, the IMF-WB instructed Egypt to remove its subsidies on basic food stuffs such as sugar and flour. The World Bank was so pleased with Egypt that it established an office in Cairo.

In compliance with the IMF-WB prescriptions, Jordan removed most fuel and agricultural subsidies, passed legislation targeting corruption, and begun tax reform. It liberalized trade by joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2000, signing an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) in 2001, and signing the first bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and an Arab country. Under the terms of the U.S.-Jordan FTA, which was signed in 2001, the United States and Jordan agreed to reduce tariffs toward completely eliminating import duties on nearly all products by 2010. In 1996, Jordan signed an “open skies” agreement with the US.

Yemen signed an agreement with the IMF-WB to implement a structural adjustment program right after the north-south unification in 1990. As part of the agreement, Yemen agreed to remove all subsidies, reduce the budget deficit, and float its currency. And of course, it agreed to liberalize trade and investments and deregulate the economy. When the government rescinded its agreement with Hunt Oil, which had been exploring and producing oil in Marib, a central Yemeni province, for 20 years, the company sued it before the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce in 2005. Hunt Oil was able to continue operations in Marib, which currently produces 120,000 barrels of oil per day.”

So all this cumulative popular discontent against these policies in conjuction with western interference in the region led to the flashpoint of Arab spring. However in the absence of a strong and an organized left, the movement’s direction was defuse. The issues of  cultural imperialism of the west led to a reaction in form of Islamic identity based political mobilization ranging from the Salafists to the Muslim Brotherhood, while the economic aspect of the subjugation of people has been  left unaddressed although the popular anger was against these set of policies which led to the current situation in the region.

Rather it is fair to say that the west managed to preserve its economic stranglehold by allowing for “moderate” Islamic political dispension which left the economic basis of exploitation untouched. In fact for the case of Libya it managed to use this flashpoint to actually depose Gaddafi and have a regime which caters to their interests. This is probably an example of what is mentioned in Shock Doctrine ( by Naomi Klein), where a crisis situation is used for  pushing through neoliberal agenda. Similar attempt is now underway in Syria.

Thus although the imperial forces represented by the west along with its media is trying to portray all this as merely ‘democratization’ movement against an autocracy, in essence the actual democratization is being defanged and straightjacketed into a narrow and hollow sense of the term, while the long standing question of imperialist plunder in the region remains unaltered.

I am listing some useful references in context of this discussion:

French intervention defense with new regime in Libya ;

Algeria and Arab spring

EU stand on Bahrain

US brokered “regime change” in Yemen

French bases in Africa

How Mossadeq was deported

US bases in Jordan

US bases in Yemen

US military bases

Haiti and democracy

French occupation in Senegal

Debt growth in Sub-Saharan Africa

World Bank and Yemen

An article on the connection of world bank SAP and Arab spring including Libyan loan

Syria and World Bank ( privatization since 2000 )

1 Comment »

One Response to “What Should Be the Attitude of the Left Towards the Movements in the Arab World?”

  1. Jeff Blankfort Says:
    March 18th, 2012 at 21:06

    A most interesting and informative discussion but in the end, this statement by Ashrok may be said to sum up the situation: “The left is often in no position to affect the outcome of a historical process. In such situations we need our analysis to have nuance and we need to realize that we will have to live with contradiction. That may involve hailing the fall of a Gaddafi, even as we point out how he really fell, and who succeeded him, and why its necessary to overthrow them too.”

    I would, however, argue with Sudipto who accepts the wide spread notion among the Left that “The whole idea of dividing Palestine and setting up a jewish apartheid state of Israel by driving out the Palestinians was among the initial measures aimed at getting a foothold over the region by the western powers.”

    This would imply that the Zionists were manipulated by the British not the other way around which is what actually occurred and is revealed by British foreign office documents which indicated that the Balfour Declaration was a reward to the Zionists for, what the British believed, was their assistance in getting the US to intervene in the war when it did and thus save them from having to reach a peace accord with Germany. Secondly, the British were establishing their own bases in Egypt, Transjordan, Mesopotamia and Iran and had no need of a Jewish state in Palestine. They could just as well have established another colonial regime in Palestine without the headaches created by the Zionists. See “Palestine Papers 1917-1922,” Doreen Ingrams,Braziler, 1973.

    By 1948, the British were tired of dealing with the Zionists and definitely did not support the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians which followed and the historical record is fairly clear on that.

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