The casual observer might think that Trotskyism has been quite consistent in its views on the Syrian war but in fact there are almost as many positions on the war as there are Trotskyist groups. And this is no accident. Before we look at the stance that various Trotskyist groups have taken on the Syrian war it is useful to provide a brief overview of Trotsky and Trotskyism.
In 1938, Trotsky published the programme of his Fourth International, commonly known as the Transitional Programme.1 Despite its revolutionary rhetoric this programme demonstrated that Trotsky had abandoned the Marxist method and had not learned the lessons of the defeat of the working class in the Revolutionary Wave of 1917-1921. Trotsky failed to recognise that the First World War had provided definitive proof that capitalism had entered its imperialist epoch. Hence forward national liberation movements were impossible because any aspiring nation state would be subject to an international market dominated by the large imperialisms. Because of the centralisation and concentration of capital that had taken place throughout the 19th Century, competition had reached a global scale, and the only way capitalism could now resolve its crisis of over-accumulation would be through a massive devaluation and destruction of capital on a global basis through imperialist world war.
In his Transitional Programme, Trotsky laid out a programme of demands relating to the “backward countries”. He foresaw revolution in the colonial and semi-colonial countries going directly from the democratic to the socialist revolution. This follows from Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The Transitional Programme states: "Democratic slogans, transitional demands and the problems of the socialist revolution are not divided into separate epochs ... the central task is the agrarian revolution i.e. liquidation of feudal heritages, and national independence, i.e. the overthrow of the imperialist yoke. ... The slogan for a national constituent assembly preserves its full force ... the slogan must be indissolubly tied up with the problem of national liberation and agrarian reform..."
Trotsky thought that the Russian revolutions of 1905, February 1917 and October 1917 proved this was applicable to the colonial and semi-colonial countries. All the confusions of Trotskyism on the national question derive from this. According to the Transitional Programme, workers must support the national bourgeoisie in their struggle for national independence; and once this is achieved, they must struggle to overthrow the very national bourgeoisie they had just supported to make the socialist revolution. This was the path that led to the many disasters from the massacre of the proletarian forces in China in 1927 right up to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.2
Through the use of this idealist method, Trotsky’s followers were led to support the imperialist slaughter of the Second World war. Although, as ever, there was no consensus on whom to support amongst Trotsky’s followers. Stalin abandoned the policy of anti-fascism begun in 1935 and entered an almost two year long pact with Hitler in August 1939. This was ended by a Nazi attack on Russia in June 1941 which led to a split among the French Trotskyists over defence of both German and Allied imperialism! While the Révolution Francaise of Mouvement Nationale Révolutionnaire called for “collaboration without oppression” with Hitler; the “Committees of the 4th International” in Verité called for “the defence of the wealth that generations of French workers and peasants have accumulated.” This sorry episode was the first of many unprincipled splits in a movement which never held clear conceptions of the present epoch and its driving forces.
Trotsky was murdered in 1940 without ever having understood the defeat of the proletariat in the 1920s. However, his epigones have continued their counter-revolutionary confusionism to the present day with the “Fourth International” undergoing many and various splits along the way and one group even proclaiming itself to be the “Fifth International”. These so-called “Internationals” are of course nothing of the kind since they are in no way internationalist. Internationalism is the common cause of all workers around the world. This means the overthrow of their respective bourgeoisies, the agent of their exploitation, in every country, and replacing production for profit with production for human need, creating a world human community without borders. Trotskyism, with its united fronts and calls for supporting factions of the bourgeoisie are anathema to this.
Trotsky and his followers failed, and continue to fail, to recognise the fundamental nature of the imperialist epoch – that national bourgeoisies and aspiring national bourgeoisies, can only survive as part of, and are entirely dependent on, the worldwide imperialist nexus. That failure has led them to act as cheerleaders for anti-proletarian national liberation factions and figureheads to this day. While the Soviet Union still existed, it was more straight-forward for Trotskyists to give their support to bourgeois factions and movements, supported by the USSR which they could baptise as “anti-imperialist”. However with the Soviet Union’s demise due to the deepening capitalist crisis it has become more difficult for such movements to pose as revolutionary. A first sign of this was the Iraq war of 1990 when Trotskyists were badly wrong-footed. They had to stop condemning Saddam Hussein as “the butcher of the Kurds” (the formation of a Kurdish state being a favourite leftist cause) and start hailing him as an opponent of US imperialism! Today capitalism has produced more than 60 on-going conflicts in the world. The Syrian war is perhaps the most complex of them all and it is hard to find two Trotskyist groups in the world who agree with each other on whom to support (or not support) in this bloody conflict.
Syria: A Conflict Magnified by Imperialist Discord
The imperialist conflagration in Syria is a tragedy for the working class not only in Syria but also in the rest of the world. The only future for the world working class is if it begins to act as a class of itself and for itself. This means recognising that its chief enemy is its own bourgeoisie. Trotskyism has never supported the only proletarian position possible in imperialist war, namely revolutionary defeatism – “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. This is the Bolshevik position that led to the October Revolution. Despite the counter-revolution in Russia, it remains the only time in history the proletariat has taken state power away from the bourgeoisie for even a short period of time.
The Trotskyist Kaleidoscope
The Syrian war has now been going on for nearly seven and a half years. During this time, as you might expect, the Trotskyists have been continually altering their positions. Today, a majority of Trotskyist groups support one faction or another of the opposition in Syria, even if it is only “critical support”. Some groups take a neutral stance. However, this doesn’t mean they are internationalist, it simply means that a faction hasn’t yet emerged to whom they can give their support. Some of the groups who support the opposition claim it is because there was a “revolution” in Syria that needs to be defended. This is the position of the International Socialist Tendency3 , which says,
“The Syrian Revolution is in a tragic situation. It is attacked on all sides – by the forces of the Assad regime and its regional and international allies, by the open allies of Western imperialism, and by sectarian jihadi groups. Despite their antagonisms, these different forces have a common interest in crushing the original democratic revolutionary movement, which united Syrians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds in the struggle to overthrow the regime.”4
Yet the Syrian “revolution” had no proletarian character whatsoever. The war in Syria saw an initial burst of enthusiasm in the struggle against the regime. People created various committees and councils, but this was not a workers' struggle. Ultimately, as armed gangs took control of what rapidly became a war, enthusiasm and popular involvement died down. Of course some committees remained, but it was armed men giving the orders. The councils that appeared may have been democratic in form but they were not workers’ councils. What invests workers' councils with their revolutionary content is not their democratic form but the fact that they are representative of workers in struggle. As internationalists had stated right from the start there was no progressive side in this war.
The League for the Fifth International (L5I)5 , which also supports the opposition, wrote in 2015, “Certainly, the choice between an IS caliphate or a restored totalitarian Baathist dictatorship is a choice between the plague and cholera.” “The fact that, despite four and a half years of struggle, Syrian revolutionaries are still fighting Bashar al-Assad is as much a testament to their resolve, and to their popular support, as it is to the utter absence of any forces assisting them for much of that time."6 Those fighting Assad can be classed as nationalist and islamist gangs but they are certainly not “revolutionaries”. What “popular support” they may have is not proletarian and the proletariat has nothing to gain by giving them support.
Other groups however, take a neutral stance such as the British based Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.7 This group claims not to support any side although it originally supported the initial protests against the government. It criticises the opposition for sectarianism and criticises the Kurdish PYD for opportunism, authoritarianism and pro-imperialism.
In a resolution on Syria passed by the AWL's National Committee on 31 August 2013 the AWL stated that,
“Assad's regime is the main problem, but we oppose the planned US bombing of Syria. We will not mourn damage and destruction of Assad's military bases. However, informed military opinion is that there is no chance of a one-off operation, such as planned, seriously incapacitating Assad's regime; and in any case we do not want the victory of the opposition military forces, whose dominant character is reactionary and sectarian. Rather we want and work to support the emergence of a Third Camp of democratic and working-class forces between Assad and the main opposition militias. In the meantime, even a rotten peace deal (which socialists could not support) would be better than outright victory for either force.”8
Unfortunately for the AWL, no “democratic” force has emerged in the ensuing five years. And if it had it would not be in the interest of the working class. From the same resolution they say, “The biggest problem in Syria is Assad's policy, not US intervention. We demand Iranian and Hezbollah forces get out of Syria, and condemn Russia's arming of the regime.”9
Does the AWL seriously imagine that the imperialist powers; the US and its Allies, Russia and Iran, would allow an independent democratic Syrian government to come to power? Does it really think that a democratic Syrian government would not be obliged to fall into one or other imperialist camp in order to survive? In the era of imperialist dominance no nation’s struggle is simply anti-imperialist but the product of the support of a rival imperialist. Instead of condemning the Syrian war as an imperialist struggle and opposing it on the basis of class, the AWL mourns the absence of a democratic nationalist gang (one preferably, no doubt, supported by the working class) that it could support, and which would necessarily become a client of the dominant imperialist power.
Russia in Syria
Unsurprisingly, there are Trotskyist Groups that are pro Russia in its involvement in Syria but of course there are also groups that are against Russian involvement. To take just two of them:
Socialist Action10 originally supported the uprising, but now “critically supports” the Russians. In 2012, they said that “the economic exploitation of Syria’s workers and peasants by its ruling class, a class subservient to global capital, and the horrific oppression and murderous policies of the Syrian regime to enforce that exploitation, mean that we stand with the Syrian masses in their uprising against the regime.” But then they say, the US took advantage of Assad’s brutality to try to set up a new regime. “… in the absence of anything resembling a revolutionary leadership, the democratic and popular thrust of the anti-Assad mobilisations rapidly dissipated.” They allege that the US and Gulf monarchies support IS. Although critical of Assad, Socialist Action says, “the removal of Assad’s oppressive capitalist Syrian regime is the sole responsibility of the Syrian people, not US imperialism and its reactionary allied forces.” “Syria’s right to self-determination necessarily includes the right of the Syrian government to seek and accept the support of the militia fighters that are today defending Syria against imperialist intervention in several of its manifestations.”11 Russian military support is therefore, seen by Socialist Action as a defiance of US imperialism and support for Syria’s right to self-determination. But Russia has no interest in an independent Syria. Russia has its own imperialist interests to defend in the region. A Syria free of US imperialism would be a Syria dependent on Russia and Iran.
The International Socialist Organisation12 , on the other hand, is very critical of Russia and Iran and was opposed to the US-Russian-backed negotiations in 2016. The ISO says, “Overwhelmingly, these people (those killed in the war) have been slaughtered by the Assad-Iran-Russia Triple Alliance.” “True, Saudi Arabia has funded jihadis, among other militias, but the Saudis and the US are only the number-three culprit in creating the Syrian disaster. Assad is clearly number one, and his allies are number two.”13
These contrasting positions highlight the absurdity of the idea that Trotskyism is a revolutionary current. In fact, the positions of both groups are equally reactionary. Revolutionaries do not take sides in imperialist wars. Nor do they rank imperialist gangsters in order of barbarity and give their support (“critical” or otherwise) accordingly.
The Kurdish Question
As you might expect, the Kurdish involvement in the war provides a variety of contrary and conflicted positions. Many Trotskyist groups are of course divided over whether to denounce the Kurds as a tool of US imperialism or whether to support them as a “progressive” force. And some have even hailed Rojava as a socialist paradise in the making!
The International Communist League – Fourth International (ICL-FI)14 views the YPG as a US puppet. They say, “The setting up of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) was prepared by a year of joint operations in which the YPG served as proxies for the U.S. military. During that time, as Kurdish forces overran ISIS-controlled villages, they repeatedly carried out communalist expulsions, driving Arabs and Turkmen from their homes.”15
By contrast, The Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT)16 believes that “all revolutionaries must support the right of the Kurdish people for self-determination. We defend the Kurdish people against the reactionary attacks of the Turkish army, Daesh/IS and Iran. But at the same time we criticise the pro-imperialist leadership of the PYD/YPG and the petty-bourgeois ideology of Apoism. We are for a united, socialist Kurdistan from Rojava to Orumiyeh and from Bakhtaran to Qers.”17
In turn, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI)18 critically supports the YPG and Rojava. It says, “The survival of Rojava against attacks from Islamic State is undoubtedly a victory for the left. The Kurdish movement deserves concrete solidarity in its struggle for self-determination, the more so because in Rojava people are trying to construct a progressive alternative.”19
In fact no “progressive alternative” has been or will be built in Rojava. For us as communists, a revolution is a creation of the working class in struggle for its own interests. Within the course of this struggle the working class not only transforms society, but also transforms itself. In Syrian Kurdistan, there was no movement of the working class. Control of the towns in Syrian Kurdistan was taken by an armed group filling the power vacuum when the Syrian Arab Army withdrew. That's not to say that there was no support for the PYD20 as everywhere today nationalism in the Kurdish regions is strong. Local committees were thrown up which took control of the necessary tasks usually undertaken by the municipal level of the state. The armed men have maintained power at the top. Originally the supreme ruling body in Rojava, was the Kurdish Supreme Committee, a body not composed of delegates from lower level committees, but an alliance between two political groups, the PYD, and the Barzani backed KDP. However the two Kurdish nationalist organisations fell out in November 2013. The PYD under the umbrella of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM in its Kurdish acronym unilaterally announced the creation of an interim administration for the region.21 Despite all of the democratic pretence, ultimate control is wielded by nationalist gangs with guns. And a nationalist gang is what the PKK is. The PKK despite a somewhat patchy history with minority groups in Turkey has now set itself up as the defender of the minorities of Kurdistan. This, however, does not apply, and cannot apply to Arabs. Salih Muslim, co-leader of the PYD, on more than one occasion, talked about 'expelling Arabs', and has proclaimed that, “All the villages where they live now belong to the Kurds”. He had to tone this racist rhetoric down to win international (especially US) military support but it shows clearly that a Kurdish state would have involved the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from the Kurdish socialist paradise!
Syrian Government Support
Of course, you would expect there to be some supporters of the Syrian Government amongst the Trotskyist kaleidoscope and you would not be disappointed. The International Committee for the Fourth International22 critically supports the government. It characterizes the war in Syria as a “CIA-backed regime change operation” in pursuit of US political-economic goals. “From the outset, the US proxy war for regime-change was launched with the aim of depriving Moscow and Tehran of their principal ally in the Arab world in preparation for direct confrontation with both countries.”23
For this group then, the Syrian government is striking a blow against US imperialism. We can of course expect no understanding that this benefits Russian and Iranian imperialism in turn. And how it benefits the working class remains a mystery. Although the US based Trotskyist group “Revolutionary Regroupment”24 currently opposes the Syrian government, they have stated that they would support it if the US and its Allies invaded it! This is consistent with the classic leftist argument that there is one imperialist camp, i.e. the US and its Allies and another anti-imperialist camp – everybody else. The fight in Syria today is a fight for imperialist control of the territory. Many of the left of capital prefer not to recognise that Russia and Iran have their own imperialist ambitions in Syria and elsewhere. Some also laughably define China as a “deformed workers’ state” and appear unable or unwilling to recognise that China is a growing imperialist rival to the US.
IS Good / IS Bad
Given that all the factions involved in the Syrian war get some support from one Trotskyist group or another you won’t be surprised to learn that even the Islamic State have their supporters even if that support is “critical”. The League for the 4th International (L4I)25 can say without embarrassment that, “… any blows against imperialist intervention and domination, even by ultra-reactionary forces such as the IS, are in the interests of the working class and oppressed peoples of the world.”26
Similarly, the International Communist League – Fourth International (ICL-FI)27 thinks the YPG is a US puppet but the Islamic State is anti-imperialist. “We have no side in Syria’s squalid civil war between the butcher Assad and various rebel forces dominated by different kinds of Islamists. But we do have a side against the US and other imperialist powers. Thus, while implacable opponents of everything the reactionary cutthroats of ISIS stand for, we take a military side with ISIS when it aims its fire against the imperialist armed forces and their proxies in the region, including the Kurdish nationalist forces in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, while our main opposition is to the imperialists, we also oppose the other capitalist powers, such as Russia and Turkey, involved in Syria and are for all of them to get out.”28
And the International Bolshevik Tendency IBT29 thinks “it is necessary for revolutionaries to side militarily with any indigenous forces (including Islamists) when they are attacked by the US and other imperialists.”30
The cynicism here is truly astounding. Islamic State is a ruthless army of gangsters who have murdered, tortured, robbed, raped and exploited the working class and peasantry; as well as engaged in wanton destruction of the heritage of humanity. How IS can be cheered on as it engages in its genocidal activities simply because “it aims its fire against the imperialist armed forces and their proxies in the region” is beyond our comprehension; and moreover, all this is apparently, “in the interests of the working class and oppressed peoples of the world”!
In a struggle such as the one in Syria where workers and peasants are butchering each other in the name of nationalism and religion, communists do not take sides. Those who do take sides in this war will not contribute in the long term to any progressive victory, but merely to the further ethnic division, and increased militarisation of the region, neither of which will be of benefit to the working class. Yet Trotskyists seem to be trying to outdo each other by taking differing stances of support for competing factions of the bourgeoisie in this conflagration. But this is only to be expected since Trotskyism has always been as unchanging as a chameleon, as consistent as a kaleidoscope.
There is Trotskyist support for the US and its Allies. There is also Trotskyist support for their imperialist rivals Russia and Iran. You can find Trotskyist supporters of the Kurdish groups. There are also, of course, Trotskyist opponents of the Kurds. There are Trotskyists who support the government and those who support the opposition; some do so critically some without reservation. There are those who think the Syrian war is a failed revolution and those who think the revolution is still going on or could be revived. There are even groups who “critically” support Islamic State, those well known champions of the proletariat who have committed genocide and ruthlessly exploited the working class wherever they have been able to dominate. The simple fact that you can find a Trotskyist group, everyone of which claims to be the vanguard of the working class, supporting critically or otherwise one or other faction fighting in the Syrian war demonstrates that Trotskyism is firmly in the bourgeois camp and has nothing to offer the working class.
The International Communist Tendency, of which the CWO is a part, argues that nationalist struggles are simply disguised imperialist struggles and the wars they provoke are imperialist wars. The only response communists can give to imperialist wars is the adoption of the politics of revolutionary defeatism. That is:
Opposition to the war on the basis of class
No support to either side in the struggle
Workers should continue the class struggle against their own bourgeoisie
Workers should give solidarity to workers from the opposing side in their struggle against their own bourgeoisie
The orientation of this policy is towards turning the imperialist war into a class war and the overthrow of bourgeois power. This was the policy adopted by the Bolsheviks during the First World War, which was a decisive step towards the October Revolution. Today it remains the only proletarian response able to open the way to a communist world. No war but the class war.
- 1The original title of the Transitional Programme is “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”. For a fuller analysis of Trotsky and Trotskyism see the CWO pamphlet “Trotsky, Trotskyism, Trotskyists”, subtitled “From Revolution to Reformism”. 4 chapters of it are online as well as two appendices. leftcom.org
- 2In South Africa workers, in particular miners, fought the apartheid regime and spilled their blood serving as the infantry of the African Nationalist bourgeoisie. Once the ANC achieved power it was exploitation as usual for the working class. When miners dared to strike for class demands, at Marikana platinum mine in 2012, the new regime shot them down like rabid dogs. The current president, Ramaphosa was involved in both mobilising miners against the apartheid regime through his role as leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and later in butchering the Marikana strikers in his role as a board member of the mining company Lonmin. Today the situation of the working class is worse than it was under the apartheid regime! For more on this see leftcom.org and a whole host of other articles on our website.
- 3The International Socialist Tendency is a Third Camp Trotskyist international formed over a long period of time between the 60s and 90s. Its leading party is the Socialist Workers Party in the UK of whom Tony Cliff was the chief guru (not to be confused with the SWP in the US).
- 4internationalsocialists.org (2014)
- 5The League for the Fifth International (L5I), is a Trotskyist international formed in 1984. It argues that the original Fourth International broke with true Trotskyism in 1951 when it declared that the Stalinist parties in Eastern Europe were still capable of being reformed.
- 6workerspower.co.uk (2015)
- 7The AWL is a Third Camp Trotskyist party in the UK. It originally formed in 1966 as a split from the group that later became the Militant Tendency. After several mergers and defections, it emerged in its modern form in 1992. AWL holds that the USSR and its satellite states were “bureaucratic collectivist”, the same conclusion that the American Max Shachtman came to after he split from the original Fourth International in 1940, creating the Third Camp.
- 10Socialist Action split from the Socialist Workers Party in 1983 as the SWP abandoned Trotskyism. It is one of the five major US Trotskyist parties today. Semi-affiliated with the USFI, but it disagrees with most other USFI sections on Syria.
- 11socialistaction.blogspot.com (2012), socialistaction.org (2016)
- 12The International Socialist Organisation was formed in 1977. One of the five major US Trotskyist parties. It was the American section of the International Socialist Tendency until 2001, when it was expelled over disagreements on how to view the end of the Cold War.
- 13socialistworker.org (2016), socialistworker.org (2016)
- 14International Communist League – Fourth Internationalist is a split from the International Committee of the Fourth International in 1966. Formerly known as the International Spartacist Tendency. Leading party is the Spartacist League in the US, which had split from the Socialist Workers Party in 1964 after the SWP joined the re-unified FI.
- 15icl-fi.org (2016)
- 16The Revolutionary Communist International Tendency is a split from the League for the Fifth International in 2011. The leading section is in the UK (they simply go by the name RCIT Britain). There is no US section.
- 17Point 9 of RCIT Statement on Kurds thecommunists.net (2016)
- 18The United Secretariat of the Fourth International is the result of the reunification of the original Fourth International in 1963. Calls itself simply the Fourth International, but it’s often called the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (referring to the name of the leadership council from 1963-2003) to distinguish it from other claimants of the “Fourth International” name.
- 19internationalviewpoint.org (2016), internationalviewpoint.org (2016)
- 20PYD stands for Democratic Union Party which is the Syrian franchise of the Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party). Its military wing is the YPG or Peoples Protection Units. For more on this see the accompanying article on our website Revolutionary Defeatism Today: The Bloodbath in Syria
- 21Barzani’s KDP denounced the PYD for harassing its militants and cutting them out of key decisions. See en.wikipedia.org
- 22The International Committee for the Fourth International split from the original Fourth International in 1953 (see introduction). Leading party is the Socialist Equality Party in the US, one of the country’s five major Trotskyist parties, which emerged from a 1964 split from the Socialist Workers Party after the SWP joined the re-unified FI.
- 23wsws.org (2013)
- 24Revolutionary Regroupment seems to be a US based group which also publishes in Portuguese, French and Spanish and is a split from the International Bolshevik Tendency in 2008.
- 25The League for the Fourth International is a minor Trotskyist international formed in 1998. Leading party is the Internationalist Group in the US, which had split from the Spartacist League in 1996. The L4I sees the Spartacists’ ICL-FI as insufficiently devoted to three central principles: maintaining an active and distinctly Trotskyist international, remaining active in the labor movement, and defending the Soviet Union and its satellite states as the lesser evils in the face of capitalism.
- 26internationalist.org (2016)
- 27The International Communist League for the Fourth International is a split from the International Committee of the Fourth International in 1966. Formerly known as the International Spartacist Tendency. Leading party is the Spartacist League in the US, which had split from the Socialist Workers Party in 1964 after the SWP joined the re-unified FI.
- 28icl-fi.org (2016)
- 29The International Bolshevik Tendency is a split from the International Communist League – Fourth International in 1982, accusing the Spartacist League’s leader James Robertson of ruthlessly harassing anyone who posed a threat to his leadership. Leading party is the Bolshevik Tendency in the US.
- 30bolshevik.org (2016)