Brian Slocock has been a socialist and anti-imperialist activist for some 50 years. By training and occupation he is a political scientist (now retired from university teaching). He has no longer been associated with any particular political tendency, but his values and outlook remain firmly on the Gauche de la Gauche.
Interview by Lilia Marsali.
No real anti-imperialism can be built on such regimes – they are simply engines for the oppression of their own people, only too eager to make deals with imperialism when the opportunity arises.
Courtesy of Amel Espoir
1) As an anti-imperialist why should you feel concerned by Syria?
For me real anti-imperialism can only be the anti-imperialism of the people –it must be rooted in broad popular movements for democracy and for the social and economic interests of the popular classes. Perhaps fifty years ago there was some excuse for believing that bourgeois nationalist regimes that were breaking free from colonial domination – the classic case being Nasser in Egypt – could play a progressive role in the world order. But in the modern world regimes of this type have exhausted any progressive potential they might have had and decayed into various forms of authoritarian, kleptocratic capitalism. No real anti-imperialism can be built on such regimes – they are simply engines for the oppression of their own people, only too eager to make deals with imperialism when the opportunity arises.
The Arab Spring represented an important impulse towards clearing away such historical debris, but unfortunately most of these movements have foundered for reasons that are too complex to explore here. In Syria the movement for democracy that began on 15 March 2011 lives on and its flame continues to burn, despite the many problems it has encountered.
2) How do you analyse both French and Belgian anti-imperialists’ political discourse regarding the Syrian conflict ?
The political response to both the Arab spring in general and Syria in particular has been far more positive in France than than in the Anglo-American world. I wrote a blog post a year ago entitled “France: where the left still understands the meaning of solidarity” (http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=4822) in which I highlighted the wide range of actions being taken by the French left – from the PCF, through the alter-mondialistes, to the far left – in sympathy with the Syrian struggle The French left have done some amazing things – like Mediapart’s support for the creation of the opposition radio station Hawa Smart. There is no equivalent in Britain Its rather striking that the bi-lingual Syria specialist and friend of the Syrian revolution, Thomas Pierret, has a public voice in France whereas in Britain, where he works, he is treated as an academic whose voice is rarely heard in public forums.
3) Are the Syrians fighting for the failure of Assad authoritarian regime part of the decolonization process? Why?
The Syrians fighting for the downfall of the Syrian regime are, assessed as a whole, a manifestation of the popular democratic impulse that I referred to above. They were first and foremost a generational movement – expressing the aspirations of a new generation that was no longer stifled by the 40-years of authoritarian rule by the Assad family. As such they were socially diverse, but initiated what became a movement rooted in the popular classes, farmers, rural petit bourgeoisie and workers in particular. This is a movement that expresses the concerns of the “small people” against the narrow capitalist clique that is attached to the Assad regime. Of course the struggle has become complicated, as history always is, by other factors – the objectives of the imperialist powers (which have not at all always been hostile to the regime), the aspirations of regional actors, and the emergence of anti-democratic jihadist forces.
Personally I Don’t think that these factors have yet reached the point where the emancipatory force of the Syrian revolution has been extinguished. But even if it had, there would still be people in Syria fighting the regime who I would regard as comrades – especially in the civil opposition who are nearly always ignored in western discourse,both by western governments and the western left.
4) Is protesting against a non intervention in Syria considered as a political interference and a disrespect to the endangered Syrians who are fighting for their rights and their dignity against a dictator? Why?
I don’t like the term “intervention” – it is a classic “floating signifier” which obscures rather than clarifies rational discourse. Supplying humanitarian aid is “intervention”. We need to approach this question from a concrete perspective, specifying what form of action we are talking about and evaluating it in concrete terms rather than invoking “intervention” as some sort contagious disease that the left must never lay its hands on. I am for the downfall of a powerful and oppressive regime, an almost unique form of regime that is not constrained by any dependence on a social base (which makes it, from a purely scientific point of view, akin to late fascism). So I don’t believe that there is any way of stopping it than by some form of military defeat (at least enough of a defeat to split open its very hard shell). So that means that I am firmly in favour of “intervention” in the form of providing arms to the Syrian opposition – especially those like effective antiaircraft weapons, that are needed to defend civilian populations. Beyond that we enter an area of difficult calculation that I’ll discuss more below.
There is a huge lack of understanding of the Syrian situation in the west, exploited by the false “anti-imperialists” who dominate much of the Anglo-American left. We have to work to clear that out of the way
5) How do you analyse the position of Russia in helping Assad to genocide the Syrians?
Russia’s role is crucial both as supplier of military hardware and, even more important, as a patron that protects Assad from serious international pressure. I think there are two factors influencing Russian policy– on the one hand its regional geo-political interest in retaining what is its oldest surviving ally in the region; on the other, its global geo-political interest in disrupting the US’s efforts to establish international hegemony. Some sections of the western left – especially in Britain – share this latter goal, and it leads them to support Russia over issues such as Syria and the Ukraine. This is a left version of classic “balance of power” reasoning – and in some circumstances I might have some sympathy with it. I would rather see a bi-polar world than a unipolar one, even if the two poles are equally unpleasant. But it is absolutely impermissible from the standpoint of socialist values to sacrifice popular aspirations for democracy on a geopolitical cross. I might be prepared to side with Russia against the US superpower, but I would never side with Russia against genuine popular movements in Syria or anywhere else.
6) What should anti-imperialists do to save the Syrians from this second Holocaust?
A very difficult question. There is a huge lack of understanding of the Syrian situation in the west, exploited by the false “anti-imperialists” who dominate much of the Anglo-American left. We have to work to clear that out of the way. And we can do elementary things like expose the crimes of the regime, promote humanitarian aid, and provide a channel through which the voice of the Syrian civil opposition can be heard. But at the end of the day we must face an unavoidable issue – the future of the Syrian people can only be secured by the downfall of the regime. If that could be achieved by the Syrian opposition itself, it would be marvellous. But after 3 years of conflict a sober balance sheet indicates that is not possible. So the choice we face is as follows: do we leave the Syrian people to face a further 7 years of devastation and butchery (the term that Assad is about to grant himself in his “election”) or do we recognise that in a world not of our choosing principles sometimes have to be adjusted and “second best” solutions accepted. Serious western military intervention against the Assad regime would provide the United States with powerful leverage over the future of Syria and enhance its global hegemonic aspirations. I know too much about the nature of imperialism to accept that prospect with anything but great unease. But as someone who believes that socialism must have at its very heart humanitarian values, how do I weigh 100 000 Syrian lives against that cost? Isn’t it ultimately up to the Syrian people to decide whether or not such a bargain with the devil should be struck?
I don’t think I can resolve such a huge dilemma on my own: I would like to be able to have a serious discussion of this complex issue with comrades who share my values and commitment – but so far I haven’t found a community on the left capable of carrying on such a discussion.