[Marxism] The Syrian uprising and the illusions of the permanent revolution

Joseph Green jgreen at communistvoice.org
Mon Oct 3 11:16:01 MDT 2016

>From the Detroit Workers' Voice list for October 2, 2016:
A reply to some supporters of the permanent revolution

1. Reply to redrave: The reality of the Syrian uprising
vs. the illusions of the permanent revolution
2. Redrave's polemic against the Communist Voice Organization 
3. A list of some CVO articles on the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising

Reply to redrave: The reality of the Syrian uprising
vs. the illusions of the permanent revolution 

By Joseph Green, Communist Voice Organization

A polemic has appeared against the Communist Voice Organization's position on 
Syria. It was written by the Communist Workers' Group of Aotearoa/New 
Zealand, which is a Trotskyist group which calls its website "red rave". By 
putting forward absurdly unrealistic scenarios for Syria, it inadvertently 
shows how useless the theory of "permanent revolution" is in dealing with the 
struggle against the dictator Assad. Redrave denounces as "unconscious 
Assadists" all those who "support the Syrian revolution", but don't see the 
democratic struggle in Syria as a socialist revolution.

So at a time when there's a major fight in the left over the attitude to the 
dictator Assad and whether to support the democratic movement in Syria, 
redrave says that all those who don't agree with the Trotskyist theory of 
"permanent revolution" are really "unconscious Assadists". That's an 
astonishing feat of sectarianism. As those who read the Detroit Workers' 
Voice list know, the DWV list has reprinted statements from Syrian and 
American activists denouncing the US-Russian deal and opposing the Assad 
dictatorship. We have indicated where we have disagreements with these 
statements, but despite our disagreements we have welcomed statements from 
Terry Burke, from prominent Syrian intellectuals, and from a number of 
American activists. Redrave, however, would regard them all as "unconscious 

Redrave insists that the Syrian uprising is a socialist movement. It writes 
that "There can be no victorious bourgeois national revolution anymore unless 
it is a permanent or socialist revolution."

But anyone who looks seriously at the situation in Syria knows that even a 
successful overthrow of Assad will not lead to socialism. It would be of 
immense importance; it would spread political life throughout Syria; and it 
would change the Middle East. It would open the way for class struggle. But 
socialism itself isn't imminent in Syria, or any country at this time.

Redrave, however, insists that one can see "Permanent Revolution in the 
flesh" in Syria, arguing that workers' soviets are being built there. It 
exaggerates beyond measure the nature of the committees and local groups that 
exist in opposition-run areas of Syria, saying that "These are not 
institutions of bourgeois democracy but of workers' democracy. They are the 
result of proto workers communes that if joined up would be the basis for an 
embryonic workers' state. ...  That is why our program in Syria is ... armed 
workers soviets everywhere!"

The Syrian people have shown tremendous initiative in building local 
committees, militias, and groups. They have done so despite half a century of 
enforced political passivity under the Ba'ath dictatorship. They have 
continued to  struggle despite incredible hardships. These are heroic actions 
of the Syrian people, which will never be forgotten.

But the local groups aren't soviets. They are groups that deal with the 
immediate necessity of the democratic uprising, and have a mixed class 
character. Only people with their eye's closed, people drunk on abstract 
dogma, can see this as the spread of armed workers' soviets. The theory of 
"permanent revolution" encourages this wild speculation. It leaves no room 
for considering what these committees really are, what their immediate tasks 
are, or even what is the specific role of socialists in this situation.

Redrave goes on to talk about what it thinks is the true immediate 
perspective for the Syrian struggle. Based on the theory of "permanent 
revolution", it looks forward to the Syrian uprising doing such things as the 

* "fight(ing) the Arab and Kurd national revolutions as one workers' 

* "...the workers and peasants ... split(ting) decisively from their treacherous 
bourgeois and petty-bourgeois class leaders and join(ing) forces with workers 
and peasants of the whole MENA [Middle East and North Africa]."

* "....Iraqi, Egyptian, Palestinian, Kurd, and Iranian workers and peasants ... 
tak(ing) the lead in their own national revolutions against imperialism, and 
turn(ing) them into victorious socialist revolutions."

* A revolutionary bloc in Syria forming that "could unite not only all Arabs 
in Syria, Iraq and Palestine, but the whole of MENA".

* "A permanent revolution in which the Arab workers and peasants unite across 
the whole of MENA to form non-sectarian, democratic, socialist republics in a 
socialist federation with the Kurd and Iranian revolutions."

All this is supposed to be possible right now if only the Syrians have the 
right orientation and leadership. This shows the non-serious rhetoric which 
is encouraged by the theory of "permanent revolution". In reality, the day of 
the socialist revolution will come, but it's not today. It's not 
revolutionary to denounce those who are fighting hard today, because they 
can't accomplish impossible feats. This holds back the movement, rather than 
helping it forward.

Perhaps some people will think that the euphoric, other-worldly assessments 
of redrave are just the musings of some small isolated group, which few other 
Trotskyists would share. But that's not so. Back in 2011, when the Arab 
Spring broke out,  one after another of those Trotskyist groups which 
supported the uprising wrote similar assessments. In articles I wrote at that 
time, such as "Against left-wing doubts in the democratic movement", I quoted 
a number of major Trotskyist groups in this vein. They may have come from 
different Trotskyist tendencies then redrave, but when it came to "permanent 
revolution", they were just as wild then as redrave is now.

For example, back then the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) was 
enthusiastic about the mass upsurge, but stressed that "permanent revolution" 
meant that nothing significant could be accomplished unless there was a 
socialist revolution. Thus it wrote that the next step in Egypt was "a 
conscious struggle for the working class to seize power". With regard to 
Tunisia, LRP exaggerated the nature of the local councils and held that "the 
working class and poor have already taken steps towards overthrowing the 
ruling class and building a government of their own."  Meanwhile "Spark" was 
more realistic about how far the working masses had come. Nevertheless, it 
wrote  that unless there was a "genuine revolution" (its term for socialist 
revolution) in the Arab Spring, the entire struggle will have been useless, 
since it will have served "only to get rid of a handful of elderly dictators 
who would have died anyway, and to give the imperialist powers the 
opportunity to cover up the dictatorships with parliamentarian cloaks." (1)

The fact is that the theory of "permanent revolution" makes it impossible to 
accurately access what type of struggle is taking place. With regard to the 
Arab Spring and the struggle against Assad, it left Trotskyists with four 

1) When a Trotskyist group was enthusiastic about a mass struggle in the Arab 
Spring, it would generally have a euphoric view of what was possible at this 
time and call for the socialist revolution. At this time, the group would 
back up its stand by talking about the "permanent revolution". Well, it's 
true that there will eventually be a new wave of socialist revolutions in the 
world. But it was utter fantasy to believe that socialism was imminent during 
the Arab Spring. One has to analyze seriously the class forces to see what's 
possible, and "permanent revolution" doesn't allow it. It has a 
one-size-fits-all analysis: socialism is supposedly always imminent in any 
mass uprising, if only there is revolutionary leadership.

2. When a Trotskyist group saw that the struggle was facing major setbacks in 
the Middle East and North Africa, and that socialism wasn't imminent, then 
the theory of "permanent revolution" would force it to either denounce the 
struggle or lose interest in it. Some groups would simply stop writing on 
this or that struggle, rather than explain why the struggle hadn't gone 
according to "permanent revolution".  The Spartacist League went even 
further. It couldn't see any possibility of permanent revolution in Libya, 
so, although it said Qaddafi was a "butcher of his 'own' citizens", it gave 
him "military support" anyway. (2)

3. Some Trotskyists have simply ignored the theory of "permanent revolution" 
when writing about Syria. This is especially so for those who have written 
valuable material in defense of the democratic uprising. Ignoring "permanent 
revolution" allows them to deal with the actual circumstances in Syria, 
rather than simply repeating mechanical dogmas.

4. Some pro-Trotskyist activists who support the Syrian uprising want to 
jettison the theory of "permanent revolution". The book "Khiyana: Daesh, the 
Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution" reproaches the large section 
of the left that has betrayed the Syrian people. It's an anthology, and the 
first chapter, entitled "Socialism and the Democratic Wager", was written by 
Assad an-Nar. This seems to be a pseudonym for a group of activists who still 
adhere to a Trotskyist framework, but can't reconcile "permanent revolution" 
with their support for the Syrian uprising. Assad an-Nar writes that "After 
Trotsky's death Permanent Revolution was falsified by reality. ... As a 
coherent current Trotskyism disintegrated, since clinging to Permanent 
Revolution in defiance of the real world led either to a denial of the 
reality of the anti-colonial revolution or the ascription of socialist 
properties to many unlikely candidate social formations (often 

Revolutionaries need to examine the concrete situation and particular 
features of every struggle. "Permanent revolution", however, contemptuously 
regards such assessments as "stageism"; it replaces realistic analysis with a 
dogma that is repeated year after year, for every uprising, no matter how 
times the analysis fails, no matter in how many countries the analysis fails, 
no matter how many times even the Trotskyist group involved has had to back 
off on the predictions of "permanent revolution". The truth is that the 
Trotskyist theory of "permanent revolution" can't deal with the situation 
facing democratic uprisings which aren't going to continue to a socialist 
revolution. For this reason, "permanent revolution" has been a complete bust 
with respect to the Arab Spring and other democratic movements around the 

So it's no accident that redrave was led astray by "permanent revolution". 
Other Trotskyist activists haven't done any better then redrave in applying 
"permanent revolution" to Syria.

Finally, Redrave makes several particular arguments that deserve being 

Redrave complains that I have denounced "Trotsky's Permanent Revolution as 
denigrating the struggle for bourgeois democracy." Redrave says this isn't 
true because it and Trotsky do use the term "democratic". True, but the point 
is that "permanent revolution" says that a democratic struggle won't 
accomplish anything if it doesn't lead immediately to socialist revolution. 
That's what it means to denigrate the democratic struggle.

Redrave claims that I hold that "the bourgeois national democratic revolution 
must be completed before socialist revolution is possible." But I never said 
that.  Redrave is just repeating a century-old polemic among the Trotskyists, 
which has nothing to do with the position of the Communist Voice 
Organization. If, instead, one examined the situation in Syria, one would see 
that, among other things, the working class and the revolutionary movement in 
Syria are just as disorganized as they are elsewhere around the world. Even 
if Assad had been overthrown immediately, the working class was not in a 
position to lead a revolution for socialism. This is a matter of an 
assessment of the class forces and political realities involved, not of 
waiting until there is a perfect bourgeois democracy.

Redrave denounces "stageism", and this leads it to ignore that different 
struggles have their own particular character. Redrave can only imagine two 
particular "stages" or characterizations of a struggle: either "bourgeois 
national democratic revolution" or socialist revolution. There are many more 
concrete situations than that. But Redrave doesn't even have a vocabulary 
that would allow one to discuss the concrete situation in Syria.

It's long past time when the dogmas and jargon of Trotskyism should be 
rejected. It's not only Stalinism, but Trotskyism that is bankrupt with 
respect to the Arab Spring.


(1) "Against left-wing doubts about the democratic movement" by Joseph Green, 
"Communist Voice" #46, November 2011 at 
http://www.communistvoice.org/46cLeftWingDoubts.html. See the section "Dreams 
of immediate socialist revolution" for the references to the LRP and Spark. 
(2) Ibid., the section "Trotskyist 'military support' for Qaddafi". 

Redrave's polemic against the Communist Voice Organization 

Redrave's polemic against the CVO, which I have replied to above, is found in 
its article "Hands off Aleppo! Victory to the Syrian Revolution!" [September 
12, 2016]. The entire text can be found at 
 Below are excerpts that contain the polemic against the Communist Voice 

The short definition of Permanent Revolution is that the bourgeois democratic 
revolution cannot be completed except as a socialist revolution. Hence the 
bourgeois democratic revolution does not represent a stage necessary to 
prepare for socialism. The national democratic revolution becomes a 
continuous, uninterrupted, and hence permanent revolution until it becomes an 
international socialist revolution.

...The Syrian revolutionary war is the advance guard of the Arab Revolution. 
That is why we insist that it is a definitive test of all those who claim to 
lead workers to socialist revolution. This revolution exposes all those 
self-proclaimed Marxists, Leninists, and Trotskyists who fail this test and 
objectively end up in the trenches of the class enemy. They can be 
categorised roughly into two groups. Those who support Assad as an 
anti-imperialist when he is a stooge of both U.S. and Russian imperialism, 
and those who reject Assad as anti-imperialist but fall into the Menshevik 
dogma that Arab workers as not ready for socialism and must fighting 
alongside the national bourgeoisie to complete the national democratic 
revolution to prepare the conditions for socialist revolution.

In the first group are the Blind Assadists who regard the workers as 'not 
ready' for even the struggle for bourgeois democracy because they have been 
replaced by imperialist backed jihadists. ... The most influential are those 
who say that the 'rebels' are no different to the 'jihadists' funded by U.S. 
proxies, Saudia Arabia, Turkey, etc. Hence they draw the conclusion that the 
Assad regime is waging a just anti-imperialist war against US imperialist 
proxies. ...

In the second category are the Unconscious Assadists; those who recognise and 
support the Syrian revolution but do not see the working class as capable of 
socialist revolution without first exhausting the limits of bourgeois 
democracy. This grouping includes Mensheviks, Maoists and Trotskyist 
centrists, though their positions are far from identical. The 
Menshevik/Maoist view is that in the epoch of imperialist decay the bourgeois 
national democratic revolution must be completed before socialist revolution 
is possible. A good example is the US organisation Communist Voice.

Joseph Green of Communist Voice rails against Trotsky's Permanent Revolution 
as denigrating the struggle for bourgeois democracy. Yet Trotsky did not 
reject bourgeois democratic demands such as the right to national 
self-determination, merely by rebranding them 'transitional demands'. He 
rejected the Menshevik division between the 'minimum' and 'maximum' program 
as substituting a pre-ordained stageism for the dialectics of workers taking 
the fight for immediate democratic demands that would be met inevitably by 
imperialist repression, all the way to the socialist insurrection. We will 
see below whether it is Leon Trotsky or Joseph Green who is right in the case 
of the Syrian Revolution.

For Permanent Revolution!

Our task is to expose those who reject or revise Permanent Revolution. For us 
there can be no stage in the national democratic revolution where fighting 
for bourgeois democracy dictates in advance the defence of bourgeois 
parliament. For the proletariat, the defence of bourgeois democracy is 
justified only when it advances the socialist revolution. Whether or not 
workers defend bourgeois parliament is a tactical question that depends on 
the balance of class forces, that is, the advance or retreat of the 

...Already the [Syrian] revolution has built new institutions based on 
popular democracy to administer the territory it occupies. In other words 
here is the Permanent Revolution in the flesh. To defend the immediate 
bourgeois rights to live and of freedom of expression, workers, poor farmers, 
street vendors etc., have created workers rights through their armed struggle 
against "democratic" imperialism and their Syrian dictator Assad!

These are not institutions of bourgeois democracy but of workers' democracy. 
They are the result of proto workers communes that if joined up would be the 
basis for an embryonic workers' state. We do not defend the gains made, or 
respect the loss of life in the revolution so far, by retreating to even the 
most advanced bourgeois democracy, the 'constituent assembly'. In Syria 
voting for bourgeois rights has been replaced by taking them arms in hand 
against the bombs and mercenaries of self-proclaimed 'democratic' 
imperialism. That is why our program in Syria is not for a Constituent 
Assembly but armed workers soviets everywhere!  ...

To do this we have to fight the Arab and Kurd national revolutions as one 
workers' revolution. This is about class not nation. Turkey is carrying the 
can for U.S. and Russia to divide and defeat the workers' revolution and 
create stable pro-imperialist statelets ruled by their bourgeois clients. 
There can be no victorious bourgeois national revolution anymore unless it is 
a permanent or socialist revolution. And socialist revolution in one country 
cannot survive unless it is international.

That is why the Arab and Kurd national revolutions cannot succeed unless the 
workers and peasants who do the fighting split decisively from their 
treacherous bourgeois and petty bourgeois class leaders and join forces with 
workers and peasants of the whole MENA. It is necessary for the ranks of the 
rebels to throw out the FSA and YPG leaders who are collaborating with the 
U.S. and Russia. It is necessary for Iraqi, Egyptian, Palestinian, Kurd, and 
Iranian workers and peasants to take the lead in their own national 
revolutions against imperialism, and turn them into victorious socialist 

They must reject the partition of Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq along sectarian 
lines, and fight for unity along working class lines. We must appeal to 
Turkish workers to reject Erdogan's deals with Russia and the U.S. and join 
forces with the Arab and Kurd masses. We must oppose a new Sykes/Picot in the 
form of a Kerry/Lavrov deal and fight for a victorious Arab revolution hand 
in hand with a Kurd Revolution. If the FSA and PYG stopped fighting one 
another over who controls north Syria and formed a revolutionary bloc, they 
could unite not only all Arabs in Syria, Iraq and Palestine, but the whole of 
MENA against the deals being made by Russia and the U.S. to divide and defeat 
these two revolutions.

We want a permanent revolution in which the Arab workers and peasants unite 
across the whole of MENA to form non-sectarian, democratic, socialist 
republics in  a socialist federation with the Kurd and Iranian revolutions.

[End of excerpts from redrave's polemic] <> 

Some CVO articles on the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising 

For links to articles dealing with the theoretical issues raised above, see 
"On the democratic uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East" at 

For some of the more recent articles on the DWV list about Syria, see

* "American activists denounce the  US-Russian deal" at 

* "The statement of 150 Syrian writers, artists, and journalists against the 
US-Russian deal" at http://www.communistvoice.org/DWV-160924.html.

* "The policies that led to the Syrian civil war" by Frank Arango, Seattle 
Communist Study Group, at http://www.communistvoice.org/DWV-160924.html.

* "Terry Burke exposes the apologists for the Assad dictatorship" at 

* Book Review: "Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian 
Revolution" by Phil West, Seattle Communist Study Group, at 

* "Assad's regime of murder" by Pete Brown, Detroit Worker's Voice, at 

* "Support the Syrian people against the Assad dictatorship" at 
http://www.communistvoice.org/DWV-151021.html.   <>

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write to mail at communistvoice.org.

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