Progressive sentiments amidst reactionary illusions

Gilbert Achcar has strongly objected to being described as a ‘social-imperialist’ in the Weekly Worker. So what is the truth about him? Yassamine Mather investigates

Gilbert Achcar does not fit the description of a stereotypical social-imperialist. First of all, he is passionately pro-Palestinian. His book, The Arabs and the holocaust: the Arab-Israeli war of narratives,1 is a valuable study of the myths created around the formation of the state of Israel. He describes himself as anti-war and indeed his articles written at the time of the US invasion of Iraq were unambiguously anti-war.

Achcar has distanced himself from both conspiracy theorists and those who defend reactionary dictators in the Arab world - those who claim that the enemy of the US is necessarily a friend or that Muslim fundamentalists are the ‘anti-imperialist allies of the international working class’. In Hands Off the People of Iran we have always argued against those who confuse reactionary anti-western rhetoric with anti-imperialism and we recommend Achcar’s article, ‘Eleven theses on the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism’.2 Achcar’s stance on such questions has been consistent. He is also right when he argues against the view held by many on the left that US wars in the Middle East are all to do with oil.

The only time I met Achcar (and shared a platform with him) was at a conference in Lausanne in 2003.3 The main difference in our two approaches lay in my insistence that the left should support the Iranian working class’s call for the overthrow of the capitalist Islamic Republic of Iran. (From memory GA was less critical of Tehran. He emphasised the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam, the latter being the religion of the oppressed, he said.)

Apart from that instance, as far as Iran is concerned, he has made some useful comments: for example, in criticising president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denial, in clarifying the progressive characteristics of the Iranian opposition movement in 20094 and there is no doubt that until 2011 all his writing fell on the right side of the thin line between opposing both imperialism and the Islamic regime, on the one hand, and support for regime change from above, be it in the form of a military intervention or sanctions, on the other.

However, we are all judged by our current political stance and this is where Sarah McDonald, takes issue with Achcar’s position in last week’s Weekly Worker to which he has strongly objected,5 will know the Achcar who came out in support of western intervention in Libya, Mali and Syria. Although Achcar does not sit easily alongside those whose politics is often dictated by their soft attitude towards Israel, such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, at the end of the day his support for military intervention is of a social-imperialist character and, whether he likes it or not, what he has written on Libya, Mali and Syria has been praised and distributed by the Eustonites, the AWL and other social-imperialists. What made his stance on those countries all the more harmful was the fact that it stood in sharp contrast to his previously impeccable anti-war credentials.

Achcar’s recent statements on Libya and Syria have been unambiguous. In relation to Libya he wrote: “Every general rule admits of exceptions. This includes the general rule that UN-authorised military interventions by imperialist powers are purely reactionary ones, and can never achieve a humanitarian or positive purpose.”6

When it came to Syria, he actually advised the opposition on how to go about getting foreign intervention: “… the Syrian opposition must define a clear stance on the issue of foreign military intervention, since it is clear that its position has a major influence on whether or not intervention might take place. The reluctance regarding direct intervention that we see today on the part of western and regional states might change tomorrow if intervention requests made on behalf of the Syrian opposition were to increase. It was the Libyan National Council’s request for international military intervention at the beginning of March that paved the way for the similar request issued by the Arab League, and the subsequent resolution of the UN security council. Had the Libyan opposition opposed direct military intervention in all its forms (instead of just opposing intervention on the ground and requesting air support, as it did), the Arab League would not have sought intervention nor would such action have been sanctioned by the UN.”7

Achcar is right to argue against conspiracy theorists who see opposition movements in Libya, Syria or Iran simply as western plots. These are reactionary rulers - Gaddafi, Assad and Iran’s Islamic regime are all hated by their own population and it is an excellent thing that the youth in all these countries have rebelled. However, regime change in these countries must not only come from below: it should be entirely free of western intervention. Any such intervention would retard human emancipation, which can only take the form of a revolution led by the working class. It should be obvious to all that any imperialist intervention would serve imperialist interests and be directed against those of our class.

Economic crisis

We have to understand the frustration of the population in these countries and their desperate calls for help. But Marxist internationalists cannot look at these instances as isolated events. The uprisings in the Arab countries, including those ruled by ‘rogue’ governments, were not just about fighting dictators (Gaddafi, Assad, Mubarak, Ali ...). They were also related to the savage consequences of the transfer of economic crisis from the central capitalist states to the periphery.

For more than two decades following the collapse of the eastern bloc capitalism’s supremacy was unchallenged. Then in 2008 the economic crisis and the ensuing depression ended the dream. Many of the countries of the Middle East experienced the worst of it, fuelling further discontent, protests and uprisings. In the absence of a revolutionary left and at a time when secular opposition was weak in the Arab world, religious fundamentalism, combined with nationalism, gained support.

Opposition to dictators has always existed, so the dislike for Alawi rulers in a mainly Sunni state (Syria) or the hatred for Gaddafi’s ‘green revolution’ was not new. The same goes for Egypt, where most people were opposed to Mubarak’s dictatorship, and Syria, where the new dynastic dictators were reviled by large sections of the population. However, it was the fall in foreign-currency income from exports and tourism, the flight of industries and capital that lay behind many of the protests. Whatever their slogans, none of the Islamists in or out of power were in favour of a return to small-scale, national production. These countries were and remain part of a global capitalist order and the failure of political Islam to deliver on most of its promises from Egypt to Tunisia is now clear to all.

However, in Libya and Syria the fact that the dictators appeared to be anti-US (they were never anti-western, never mind anti-imperialist) has left the door open for a rainbow of rightwing forces masquerading as a revolutionary opposition. Of course, in both countries and especially in Syria there are genuine revolutionary, secular forces amongst the opposition, but at the moment it does not appear as if such forces have the upper hand. So it would be naive to believe that western intervention at whatever level (short-term no-fly zones, military supplies to the opposition, non-military aid) will have any result other than to strengthen the forces aligned to the reactionary cliques in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf states.

Classic social-imperialist theory argued in the 1990s that the development of capitalism in the periphery might be brutal, but it was necessary and ultimately in the interests of the working class as a class. Later during the invasion of Iraq and its subsequent occupation, the Eustonites and the AWL argued that the US army was protecting the Iraqi working class against barbaric Islamic forces and to call for the withdrawal of troops was therefore irresponsible. In reality, western intervention in Iraq boosted religious sectarianism, paving the way for an Islamic Shia government. It was this phenomenon that helped exacerbate sectarian antagonism between Shia Iran and its Sunni rivals in the Gulf and beyond. A conflict which is, by the way, very relevant to the current civil war in Syria. In addition, the refusal of a section of the left to call for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq was detrimental to the struggles of the British working class against its main enemy, the UK capitalist state.

I should stress that Achcar cannot be associated with support for military intervention in Iraq. However, if we believe that freedom from the current barbaric situation can only be achieved through human emancipation in the imperialist countries as well as the countries of the periphery, and if we equate that emancipation with the victory of the international working class, then we ought to understand why one cannot place our hopes in “exceptions”.

Even though we are living through the relative decline of US global domination, it remains the hegemon capitalist power. So the French/Italian call for military intervention in Libya was pie in the sky until the US got involved. At the end of the day, it is US interests that determine whether intervention is on the cards.

Contrary to what the supporters of intervention say, public opinion in the US, UK and indeed most countries can be manipulated in line with world capital’s current requirements. As far as the United Nations and ‘international law’ are concerned, Marxists should have no illusions in either. We have seen occasional opposition to specific US policies in the UN. However, that body remains part and parcel of the US-dominated world order, an order which sees the security council authorising sanctions, bombing and invasion only when it suits America and its allies.

Anecdotal exaggerated reports about the influence and strength of secular revolutionary forces in Syria (or in the past in Libya) have nothing to do with supporting the Arab revolution. On the contrary, support for a genuine revolutionary process to overthrow Assad requires brutal realism: yes, we have to argue against Iran’s military support for Assad, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the support given to the Syrian opposition by an array of reactionary states ranging from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the US and UK. For sections of the British left the opposition in Syria has been dominated by progressive, secular forces and the working class has played a leading role within it. But everything I have read points to the fact that the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition is divided, with Islamists and other reactionary forces vying for control.


We on the left must be optimistic, but there is no point in being in denial. The sad saga of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt moving from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to welcoming the army coup is an extreme example of where this can lead. Yes, the working class is fighting and there are many strikes. However, illusions in either political Islam or bourgeois democracy remain strong. The proletarian revolution is not just around the corner.

The same is true of Syria. The secular, radical opponents of the Assad regime may tell us that their allies are ‘moderate’ Islamists and that the ‘extremists’ are few and far between, yet almost every report tells us the opposite. Yes, there are democratic and working class forces, including amongst the Kurds, but there are also a large number of al Qa’eda supporters, those aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood and of course the Assad regime is backed by Iran and Hezbollah. There are usually flaws in political analogies, but those employed by Achcar in support of intervention in Libya are frankly ridiculous. Here is what he writes:

“Just for the sake of argument, if we could turn back the wheel of history and go back to the period immediately preceding the Rwandan genocide, would we oppose a UN-authorised, western-led military intervention deployed in order to prevent it? Of course, many would say that the intervention by imperialist/foreign forces risks making a lot of victims. But can anyone in their right mind believe that western powers would have massacred between half a million and a million human beings in 100 days?”8

As Edward S Herman rightly points out in Monthly Review, “Achcar clearly swallows the standard narrative on the Rwanda ‘genocide’, in which the imperialist powers just ‘stood by’ … while the Hutus supposedly massacred between 500,000 and a million Tutsis (and ‘moderate’ Hutus). But in fact the western powers didn’t just stand by: they actively intervened throughout.”9The same is true of Syria and Libya. As in Rwanda, they are part of the problem and can have no part in any solution.



1. London 2010.

2. http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1132.

3. L’Orient dans le sillage de la guerre impérialiste, Lausanne, May 16-17 2003.

4. ‘Leave Iran to shape its own future’, joint letter to The Guardian July 15 2009.

5. ‘Not taking into account the specific conditions’, July 18. In this article Achcar was described as a “social-imperialist”.

6. G Achcar, ‘A legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective’, ZNet, March 25 2011.

7. http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/1652

8. http://mondediplo.com/openpage/libya-a-legitimate-and-necessary-debate-from-an.

9. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/herman080411.html.