Marxist theory

Theory of Permanent, or Uninterrupted, Revolution and Syria


Listen to audio here”


Oaklandsocialist has had a series of articles and pamphlets on the revolution and the counter-revolution in Syria. Part of what’s needed is a general theoretical understanding of what happened with the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution. Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent, or uninterrupted, revolution explains why capitalism can never accomplish in the underdeveloped world what it accomplished in the advanced capitalist countries. How does that apply to Syria? Capitalism has meant crisis and disaster without end in the former colonial world. Wars, mass slaughter, repression, poverty have all been the order of the day. Why has this been so? The theory of permanent revolution helps explain this.

What follows is based in a presentation made to a small group of socialists in Oakland. That presentation was recorded and can be heard above.

We should start by commenting that theory is not some principles derived by contemplating one’s navel. It is just distilled history, so it’s history we have to look to. The history of Syria exemplifies Trotsky’s theory.

The capitalist revolution
In Western Europe, the capitalist class originally played a most revolutionary role. They united the different little feudal fiefdoms into large land masses – the nation states. By doing this, they created large markets needed for the capitalists to develop the factories. They overthrew the feudal landlord aristocracy and redistributed the land to the peasants. In order to be able to develop science and technology they limited the superstitious beliefs (religion) that had dominated feudal society and, as a concession to the masses, they established some limited democratic norms.

But in the colonial world it was different. Capitalism was imposed from the outside – by the colonial invaders. These colonial powers built a base in their colonies from the old landlord classes that were already in existence. Where such a class didn’t exist, they colonialists created it. Then, some of this landlord class developed into a capitalist class, but their ties to the landlord class remained. Because they were tied to both the imperialists and to the old landlord class, they were unable to play the role that had been played in the already developed capitalist world. And because the working class already had its own traditions on a world scale, they lived in perpetual dread of that class.

The peasantry
As for the small farmers – the peasants – they were scattered and also their overriding goal was to get their own land. While they could play a revolutionary role, they could not lead a revolution against imperialism and for a modern, capitalist democracy.

The working class
That task falls to the “proletariat”, the working class. But once started down that road, having seized power, they cannot stop half way. If they do, then the capitalist class will intervene and crush them. They must continue all the way and overthrow capitalism without interruption. Thus the theory of “uninterrupted” or permanent revolution.

But there is another necessary step: Capitalism is a world system. It cannot exist in just one country. Neither can socialism. A socialist revolution can start in one country, but it must spread.

Syria is a case in point.

Ottoman Empire
In the 19th century, what is now Syria was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. In the late 1800s, that empire instituted a land reform that was called Tanzimat. They transferred the land from the state to private landlords. They did this to create a landlord class that, they hoped, would serve as a bulwark against the capitalist revolutions that had swept Europe. So we see already under Ottoman domination the reactionary role of imperialism.

Sykes Picot Accord and French imperialism
The Ottoman Empire was crushed in WW I. Under the Sykes Picot Accord, British and French capitalists worked out which part of the Arab world which of these powers would loot and plunder. The French imperialists got what is now Syria.

The French imperialists actively discouraged industrial development in Syria. They encouraged a society dominated by the large landlords at the top. The landlords were less than 1% of the population but owned more than half of all privately held land. They also dominated all major political, professional and bureaucratic positions.

Under French imperialist rule, the economy revolved around agricultural production for export – mainly to France, of course.

But also under the French, there was a layer of the Syrian elite who traveled to Europe to get a formal education. They returned with some modern capitalist values, including some nationalist values. They wanted to see Syria as a modern and independent capitalist state. But they couldn’t break with their class at home. As Samer Aboud writes in his book Syria, “the elite found that French interests were increasingly inimical to their nationalism… Although the elite had benefitted tremendously from the French… there was a contentious division between the French authorities and the elite that they ruled Syria through.” In other words, the “elite” wanted modernity and independence, but at the same time they were tied to landlordism and to French imperialism.

As for the peasantry: Often in the underdeveloped world, the competition for land plays out through clan and religious loyalties. That is what happened in Syria, whose peasantry was divided along such lines.

So it was left to the working class to lead a revolution. But to do that, they needed to be united in a revolutionary party. Throughout the colonial world, the Communist Parties had come to be the leading parties in the working class. That was true in Syria. But these parties, controlled by the Soviet bureaucracy, were used as a tool by that bureaucracy to further their own interests. Sometimes these interests meshed with the interests of the working class wherever they were based; sometimes not.

In 1948, a traumatic event occurred in the Arab world: The creation of the racist State of Israel. Stalin saw the creation of that state as being a blow to British imperialism and he supported Israel. As a result, so did the Communist Parties throughout the Arab world, including the Syrian Communist Party, which therefore lost all credibility among the Syrian working class.

1950s and beyond
The 1950s saw a series of military coups in Syria and the rise of pan-Arab nationalism. What other form of broader-based solidarity was available, after all? Not pan-Arab working class revolution because of the betrayal of the Arab Communist Parties. In other words, the working class could not find a way to lead the colonial revolution.

As a result, we saw the creation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958. The UAR, and thus Syria, was dominated by Egypt, which played a semi-imperialist role in this arrangement. Due to this, Syria split away in 1961.

The 1960s saw a weak Syrian capitalist class that was unable to lead society and, therefore unable to establish any broad base of support throughout Syria. A similar situation developed throughout the underdeveloped world, including in Latin America from Argentina to Mexico. The result was that a caste – often revolving around the military – rose up. They were linked to the capitalist class but also partly independent from it, and they seized state power.

That is what Bonapartism is, and where – in what part of the former colonial world – has there been an extended and stable capitalist democracy? In India today, for example, the caste system remains and under the sectarian rule of the BJP Hindu sectarian attacks against the Muslim minority is on the increase.

In Syria and throughout the Arab world, the unpopularity of capitalism and the nationalist wishes led to the creation of the Baath Party. The Syrian Baath Party was divided into a radical anti-capitalist wing mainly based on the peasantry, and a more conservative wing mainly based on a layer of military officers and other bureaucrats who were mostly Alawis. (The Alawis themselves have an interesting history: Originally a specially oppressed minority under both Ottoman and French rule, their only means of rising was through the military which a layer of Alawis then tended to dominate.)

Assad dynasty
In 1970, Hafez Assad seized power in a right wing military coup against the left wing of the Baath Party. As Yassin-Kassab and al Shami explain in their book Burning Country: “Gradually an Alawi/military-Sunni/business class started to coalesce.”

During this entire time, in a whole series of countries, we saw similar ruling cliques nationalize large sectors of the economy and also establish state intervention in the economy in the form of limited land reform and state price supports for basic consumer goods. This is what happened in Latin America, in east Asia (India, for example) and also throughout the Arab world, including in Syria. This represented the complete inability of capitalism to develop society. Politically, it was partly based on the existence of the Soviet Union. However, by the late 1980s the collapse of oil prices created a crisis in the Arab world.

And by the late 1990s, as Kassab and al-Shami explain, “right before the death of Hafiz al-Assad, the state was facing potential economic crisis: A desperate need for widespread job creation, the alleviation of oil dependence, economic stagnation, and decreasing standards of living and increasing poverty.”

In the previous period, the regime had been unable to completely break free from imperialism, but it was able to tack back and forth between one imperialist power and another and previously between world imperialism and the Soviet Union. It was able to have a small degree of independence and even present itself as an “anti-imperialist” state.

No longer.

As in other underdeveloped countries, Syria was forced to comply with the economic laws of the “free” market. A mad scramble to loot the state was set off. Naomi Klein well describes this scramble in her seminal book “The Shock Doctrine.” In Syria, Basher Assad opened up the economy to the looting of world finance capital. There was a 50% increase in inequality, leaving half of the wealth in the hands of 5% of the population. By 2004, 30% of the population was living in poverty and 11.4% were living in “extreme poverty”. In the country side, hundreds of thousands of small peasants were forced off the land. They moved to the urban areas, creating huge shanty towns surrounding the cities.

The rich were not suffering, however. As Kassab and al Shami describe it: “During the hot summer months the (water) taps sometimes flowed once a week in poorer areas, while the lawns of the rich remained lush and green.”

As with other states, the process of privatization also meant tremendous wealth for the little clique around Assad, the most notorious of which was Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who came to control an estimated 60% of the Syrian economy according to Kassab and al Shami.

Arab Spring
So, by 2011 Syria was experiencing harsh state repression and massive poverty. It was a revolution waiting to happen. But what form would that revolution take?

Again, Kassab and al-Shami explain about the failure of previous movements in Syria: “Another reason why the traditional opposition failed to build a popular base was its focus on political reform rather than on the increasingly desperate economic situation of ordinary people. The pro-democracy coalition was comprised of nationalists, communists, Marxists, Islamists and liberals. It would have been difficult, therefore, to formulate an economic program on which all could agree. But one was needed, and no serious effort was made to produce it.”

But how could such a program be produced? Capitalism had been a disaster without end for the underdeveloped world, including Syria, but too many of those different political tendencies described above were tied to capitalism. The “Marxists” weren’t really Marxists at all, as the betrayal of the Syrian Communist Party in 1948 showed.

The revolution waiting to happen did happen – in 2011 in the form of the Arab Spring. Originating in Tunisia, it swept through much of the Arab world, including into Syria. There, the first signs of it was a protest by a group of teen agers who spray painted anti-Assad graffiti on a wall. They were arrested, disappeared and a few weeks later their mangled, tortured bodies were dumped on the doorsteps of their families. But this could not stop the unstoppable force of revolution, which spread like wildfire in a drought. And Syria was experiencing a literal as well as a figurative drought.

Local Coordinating Committees
Common to all revolutionary upsurges is the creation of committees to coordinate and drive forward the revolution. We saw that in the Iranian revolution (1978-9) through the shura’s, for example. The most completed form of that was in the Russian Revolution (1917) in which the Russian workers’ councils – the Soviets – ended up taking state power.

In Syria, there was the rise of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC’s). The LCC’s tended to take on the tasks not only of organizing the revolution, but also of the state in general. A report in Harper’s (8/2012) explains: “Courts stopped working, trash piled high on the streets, and the police stayed home. to fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils – farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. they in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized [!]. All around [the town of] Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting – twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought….

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production…. (The) public affairs committee {of} one of the village’s revolutionary council {meets}. {A} mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, ‘This is a revolution of the poor! the rich will have to accept that.’”

For the “poor”, economics – land and bread – are the essentials. But how could the Arab Spring in general, and the Syrian revolution in particular, deal with that? If capitalism meant increasing poverty and repression in even the most developed countries of the capitalist world, how could it possibly satisfy the needs in a country like Syria? The only answer could possibly be to take the commanding heights of the economy under public ownership, not under the control of corrupt cliques like the Assad family and friends, but under the democratic control and management of the working class itself.

In other words, the revolution must be “permanent”; it must be uninterrupted.

This related to another problem: Assad met the revolution with massive repression. This led to increasing desertion of the rank and file of the army over to the side of the revolution. The lower and mid level officers, and even some upper level ones, followed in order to try to control the rank and file. Would the rank and file soldiers remain under their control? The only way to prevent this would have been for them to be actively and systematically recruited into the LCC’s; to elect their own delegates to these LCC’s. While this happened in some cases, there was not a systematic drive to carry this out. Nor could it have happened without a program for “land and bread” to win over the vast mass of the rank and file soldiers. But again, that would have had to mean taking over the commanding heights of the economy and instituting a plan for developing Syria under the democratic control and management of the working class itself.

Had a socialist revolution even started to be carried out in Syria, all the surrounding capitalist states as well as world imperialism would have intervened. But they did this anyway! And such a revolution could have made a direct appeal to the working class in the surrounding countries. In Turkey, for example, there have been all sorts of strikes and worker protests. In Egypt, which was experiencing the same Arab Spring, the powerful working class was playing a huge role. The Saudi working class is largely international, with workers imported from the Philippines, Pakistan and elsewhere. They would have been ripe for such an appeal. Further afield, even in the United States the discontent was being expressed by the Occupy movement.

The pan-Arab rise of the Arab Spring shows the potential for a regional anti-capitalist revolt right from the very start. A revolutionary socialist program and strategy would have been emulated in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as well as elsewhere in the region. (In Egypt, incidentally, the occupations of the town squares created occupy committees which in some ways were similar to the LCC’s in Syria.)

Without such a program, the Syrian revolution was stuck with the worst of both worlds: Imperialist intervention without the direct and systematic support of the revolution within the working class in those countries.

Counter Revolution
As a result, counter revolution swept through Syria. This took the form both of the intervention of the Islamic State (which was encouraged by Assad) and of the Assad regime itself, based on the support mainly of Russian imperialism and Iranian sub-imperialism. US imperialism also gave indirect support to the Assad regime.

How will events play out in Syria? One possibility seems to be that the different imperialist powers carve up Syria as they did the entire Arab world through the Sykes Picot Accord. One section of Syria would remain under Assad rule, with Russian imperialism standing behind him. Another would be controlled by Iranian imperialism. Another by Turkish imperialism and another, in the northeast, by US imperialism. Israeli imperialism would of course retain control over the Golan Heights and seek to expand that control.

That would be an inherently unstable situation, with continued violence and repression.

From here in the United States, though, it’s impossible to really know what the forces on the ground are and how much of the original, great Syrian revolution remains. Right now, it seems they are being herded into Idlib for a final onslaught. Will they be able to successfully resist? In the rest of the country, it seems there is an ethnic cleansing, with populations that Assad hopes will be more loyal to him replacing those driven out. Will they remain loyal? Who knows?

In any case, we must remember that the Arab Spring ushered in a new period of anti-capitalist revolt throughout the world. New such revolts are coming, as the mass strikes in France show. Tremendous shocks are in store. Meanwhile, we must learn the lessons of the Arab Spring in general and of the great Syrian revolution in particular.

We hope that these comments can be a contribution to that process.

Added note:
The Grupo de Estudios Centroamericanos (Central American Study Group) has translated this article into Spanish. It can be found on their blog site here:

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