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War in Syria, confusion among the Irish Left

The ongoing war in Syria – and in particular the role of Russia in the conflict – has once again exposed the utter confusion of the Irish Left over current global events. Such confusion arises out of a response that bases itself not on the in-sights provided by Marxism but on the impulses of liberal humanitarianism. This has been particularly evident in a perspective of the Arab Spring that has exaggerated the revolutionary potential of mobilizations led by the middle classes while downplaying the reactionary nature of Islamism and the role of imperialism.

While all of this may not have been clear at the initial outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 – and while there were certainly other potential scenarios - the actual course of events over the following five years, which has seen the advance of Islamism; the carving up of Libya into armed camps; the restoration of a military junta in Egypt; and the attempt at regime change in Syria – should have produced some reflection and reassessment. However, this did not happen and the Irish Left (and by extension the Irish Anti War Movement) has persisted with a perspective that not only bears no relation to reality but has also lead to the adoption of political positions that are dangerously wrong.

Syria debate

This came out very clearly in the debate on Syria that took place in the Dail in October. This debate – which came at a period when the Syrian military and its allies were making advances around the city of Aleppo – was largely a stream of anti-Russia propaganda as Fine Gael and Fianna Fail sought to outdo each other in condemning its actions. The contrast with the response to US directed investment of the city of Mosul in Iraq could not be sharper. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan said that he had spoken to Russia’s ambassador and left him “in no uncertain terms” about Ireland’s disgust at what was unfolding in Syria. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny also spoke in the debate – emphasising the Irish Government’s “absolute disgust at and abhorrence” at what he claimed where Russian intentions to “obliterate Aleppo.”

However, in denouncing Russia no one could match Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. In language that could have been lifted from the editorials of Skibbereen Eagle he decried Russian “barbarism” and accused its government of committing “genocide” and “war crimes” in Syria. Martin called on the Irish government to review its diplomatic relations with Russia and also criticised the EU for having “gone down the line of appeasement”. This intervention – along with others in the debate - was typical of the pompous and self-important posturing by Irish politicians on international events that we have come to expect

However, what was notable about the debate was the weakness of the left TDs on the issue. When challenged by Micheal Martin over their alleged failure to condemn Russia the reaction was to take offence and offer assurances that this was not the case. Richard Boyd-Barrett of PBP claimed that Martin had “utterly distorted” their position and that they had in fact “repeatedly condemned the barbaric bombing by Russia and the Assad regime against Aleppo”. He suggested that Martin had confused them with “the old Workers’ Party” who “had a very close relationship with Russia and with Stalin.” In contrast they had “always been opposed to Russian imperialism.” Paul Murphy of the AAA also took up this theme, claiming that Martin was only upset “that we are also condemning Western imperialism.” Brid Smith of PBP sought to deflect charges of being pro-Russian by invoking Leon Trotsky as “the one person who stood out and led a movement against Stalin and the barbarism of the Soviet Union in its heyday”.


The fundamental problem with these responses is that – while they talk about imperialism - they fail to understand how it is operating in relation to Syria. They fail to recognise that the aim of US led imperialism is for regime change through support for armed Islamist groups. They also create a false equivalence between the US and the Russia as if they are two imperialist powers battling for influence in the Middle East. But any objective assessment of the relative strengths of the US and Russia and how they operate in the world could not conclude that they are competitors or that Russia is imperialist. The Russian state has its own strategic interests and may find itself in conflict with the US at times but that does not make it an imperialist rival of the US, neither does it make Russia anti-imperialist.

Another problem with the concept of “Russian imperialism” – and this is explicit in the statements by the PBP representatives – is its projection back onto the Soviet Union and even further. The inference is that there is a common thread of imperialism running from the Tsars to the Bolsheviks, then onto Stalin and now Putin. If this really was the case then the Soviet Union was imperialist and those who defended it were defending Russian imperialism. This is why it is such a distortion to invoke Trotsky in support of this perspective. Leon Trotsky, contrary to the claims of Brid Smith, was a defender of the Soviet Union. He did so on the basis that the Soviet Union, despite its Stalinist leadership, was a state and society that was neither capitalist nor imperialist. Trotsky – following in the tradition of Marx and Engels - made a distinction between a nation or society and the regime that ruled over it.


This is a distinction that Marxists have applied not just to the Soviet Union but to other states that have found themselves in conflict with imperialism. One of the best examples of this approach is Trotsky’s defence of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) when it came under attack from Fascist Italy in 1935/36. At this time Ethiopia was ruled over by a feudal monarchy headed by the slave owning emperor Haile Selassie – about as reactionary as regime as could be found. This led to some people on the left to argue that there was no side to be defended and that we should stand aside from “quarrels between dictators”. Trotsky was scathing of those that took such a neutral position, arguing that Marxists should take sides and should be unequivocally for “the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia”. This is because for Marxists “it is not a question of who is better” (Mussolini or Emperor Selassie); rather it is “a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism.” A triumph for Mussolini would result in the “strengthening of imperialism” while the victory of the Selassie would mean “a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole” and boost the revolt of the oppressed peoples. For Trotsky “one must really be completely blind not to see this.”

This approach is still relevant today and can be applied just as well to Syria. Marxists can be for the defeat of the US plan for regime change in Syria without having any illusions in the Baathist regime or its Russia backers. Imperialism is and has always been the greatest enemy of the working class and the oppressed. If it is weakened the cause of labour is therefore more likely to advance. Those – such like the left groups represented in the Dail - who try to balance between imperialism and those it is in conflict with only serve to cause confusion and hinder this advance. Rather than rise to the baiting of the likes of Micheal Martin they should heed the warning of Trinidadian Marxist CLR James that “to come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy.”


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