Syria: Lessons from Kronstadt 1921


In Episode 65 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg offers his presentation on the panel “Kronstadt 1921 and the Social Crises of 2021,” part of the online conference Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia, 1921-2021 and Beyond, marking the centenary of the Kronstadt uprising in revolutionary Russia. In March 1921, Russian naval troops mutinied and took over their island garrison as an autonomous zone, in solidarity with striking workers in Petrograd, and to demand greater freedom and power for democratic soviets (worker councils) against the consolidating one-party state of the Bolsheviks. When the uprising was brutally put down, this marked the first time that international leftist forces found themselves on the side of repression rather than rebellion. A century later, all too many on the international “left” similarly find themselves on the side of repression rather than rebellion in Syria. And the dictatorship of Bashar Assad, unlike the Russia of 1921, is by no stretch of the imagination a revolutionary state. Listen on SoundCloud or via Patreon.

Production by Chris Rywalt

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Photo mash-up with images from Rojava Breaking News and RFE/RL

  1. Syria: Lessons from Kronstadt 1921 —text

    “‘Order reigns in Warsaw!’—’Order reigns in Paris!’—’Order reigns in Berlin!’ And so run the reports of the guardians of ‘order’ every half-century, from one center of the world-historical struggle to another. And the rejoicing ‘victors’ do not notice that an ‘order’ which must be periodically maintained by bloody butchery is steadily approaching its historical destiny, its doom… You stupid lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand.”

    So wrote Rosa Luxemburg in her famous essay of January 1919, “Order Reigns in Berlin.” She was assassinated the day after she wrote the essay, just as the last sparks of the Spartacist Revolution were being extinguished. Hence, “Order reigns in Berlin.” Her other historical references were to the Polish national uprising of 1831, brutally put down by Russian troops, and the Paris Commune of 1871, which also began at precisely this time of year 150 years ago—March 18, 1871.

    Up to then—Rosa was writing three years before Kronstadt—leftist forces around the world had always cheered on popular insurrections.

    Kronstadt marked the first time that leftist forces around the world (with exception of anarchists and other dissdident elements) found themselves on the side of repression rather than rebellion. Today, a century later, this seems more and more to be the actual default position of the left—to the point that I’m really not sure in what sense it is still the “left.” The Western left was divided on Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but (again with the exception of some dissident elements), it is no longer even divided on its support for ultra-reactionary dictators.

    Partly, this is a backlash to the “neocons” and their “regime change” hubris, culminating in the disastrous Iraq invasion. But much of the left today cannot distinguish a genuine revolution from an imperial intrigue, and resorts to the kneejerk response of rallying behind dictators in virtually all circumstances.

    The Western left’s response to the Arab Revolution that began in 2011, and really continues today, has generally been an abject failure of solidarity—but nowhere more blatant and egregious than in Syria.

    Ten years ago this week, the Syrian Revolution began with peaceful pro-democracy protests. The first demonstrations broke out in the city of Deraa after local schoolchildren painted a mural depicting scenes and slogans from the recent revolutions in other Arab countries, and were detained and brutalized by the police. The Bashar Assad regime responded to the mounting demonstrations with serial massacres. After months of this, the Free Syrian Army emerged, initially as a self-defense militia to protect protesters. But the situation soon escalated to an armed insurgency. The regime lost control of large areas of the country, and local civil resistance committees backed by the FSA seized control. Assad then escalated to levels of violence rarely seen on Earth since World War II.

    The logic of the regime’s response has always been to terrorize the populace back into submission—and ultimately to destroy society itself in the areas outside regime control. Massive aerial bombardment soon escalated to serial chemical weapons attacks, and massive Russian military intervention to back up the regime.

    The death toll in the war is now estimated at over a half million—with over 100,000 of those the “disappeared” who died in the dictatorship’s prison gulag. A similar number are still believed to be in detention. It has amounted to a campaign of “extermination,” according to a 2016 study by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    Over 13 million have been displaced, nearly half having fled the country as refugees; more in precarious and impoverished camps within the diminishing enclaves of rebel control. Syria has long been the world’s greatest displacement crisis.

    And the response of the international “left” has literally been to blame the vicitms.

    The consensus position of the American left is now one in support of the Assad regime. First, let us dispense with the requisite and kneejerk disavowal that we inevitably hear: “Oh no, we don’t support the regime, we just oppose US intervention in Syria.” Because that is, quite simply, a lie. When you parrot regime propaganda, when you depict the Syrian opposition as monolithically jihadist and deny the existence of a progressive civil resistance, when you cast doubt on Bashar Assad being behind the serial chemical attacks—you are loaning support to the regime and implicitly justifying its massive attacks on civilian populations. This is objectively support of the Assad regime

    it began with the sectarian left—the ANSWER Coalition, led at its core by the poorly-named Party for Socialism & Liberation (more aptly dubbed the Party for Fascism & Dictatorship), the International Action Center, People’s Power Assemblies, and others. These are all entities which emerged one way or another—as offshoots or front groups—from the Workers World Party, whose origins go back to elements of the Trotskyist movement who supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and subsequently started moving back in a pro-Stalinist direction. Today, these groups actually march with portraits of the genocidal dictator Bashar Assad at their hypocritical “anti-war” rallies.

    But the poison has spit itself throughout the so-called “left” at this point. Noam Chomsky, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), The Nation, Democracy Now when it has featured such “experts” as Seymour Hersh—they have all been guilty of this. Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton of the odious Grayzone rally around any regime that US ostenbly opposes, most notably that of Bashar Assad.

    The crowning irony is that US doesn’t even oppose the Assad Regime in more than words, and increasingly in few and equivocal words at that. The US provided some aid to the Free Syrian Army early in the war—but has actually restrained rebel forces from using this aid to fight Assad, insisting they only use it to fight ISIS and other jihadist forces such as Nusra Front.

    Biden’s recent air-strike on an Iranian base in Syria was among but a small handful of times that the US has bombed forces aligned with the Assad regime—each time to requisite protest from the American “left.” Meanwhile, there was overwhelming silence from “anti-war” (sic) forces in the West over Trump’s virtual destruction of the city Raqqa, despite the massive civilian toll—because in that case, the US was fighting ISIS, not the Assad regime. Even the world media barely paid note to the destruction of Raqqa. This despite the fact that the Assad regime has certainly killed far more Syrians than has ISIS. And Assadist forces have actually re-entered Raqqa for the first tme since 2013 following the city’s US-directed “liberation” four years ago. So the Pentagon, like these “anti-war” fools, is objectively on the side the Assad regime.

    Worse, very recent history is going right down the Orwellian Memory Hole. Most “leftists” think the Syrian Revolution was (and is) CIA astroturf and/or jihadist extremism. Even the anarchist dissidents in the West, supporters of the Rojava autonomous zone in Syria’s northeast, who are inspired by the Kurdish revolutionaries drawing from the anarchist and communalist ideas of Murray Bookchin, know nothing about the similar ideas of Syria’s own Omar Aziz, the Damascus-based anarchist theorist who was an early influence on the general (Arab) Syrian Revolution. He helped shape the model of council-based radical democracy, the people seizing power from below in so-called Local Coordination Committees. He was, of course, detained, and died in Assad’s prisons in 2012. And here I must give big kudos to my Syrian friend and comrade Leila Al Shami for keeping the legacy of Omar Aziz alive. I urge people to Google up her most recent article, “Building alternative futures in the present: the case of Syria’s communes.” But most leftists in the US have never even heard the name of Omar Aziz.

    Now, Russia in 1921 was still a revolutinary state, although even there the capitalist-restorationalist program of Lenin’s New Economic Policy had a lot to do with the context for the Kronstadt uprising. But Assad’s Syria was and is by no means an anti-capitalist or revolutionary state, despite its bandying about of the word “socialist” in Hitlertian manner. Quite to the contrary, it is a deeply reactionary, indeed fascistic and kleptocratic state, and thoroughly a part of the world order that Rosa Luxemburg prophesized was built on sand. That self-identified “leftists” around the world are rallying to the defense of this regime is the most shameful betrayal imaginable.