(Former) Communists for Liberal Democracy


Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Yassin Al-Hajj Saleh in the New York Times

Of course, Saleh suffered from the brutality of the Syrian regime and I share many of his criticisms of the Syrian regime although I don’t share his decision to write about Syria in racist anti-Syrian (people) right-wing publications, like An-Nahar and Al-Hayat (the mouthpiece of Prince Khalid Bin Sultan).  But as I read this, one sentence struck me: “incarcerated for being a member of a communist pro-democracy group.”  Mr. Saleh?  Who are you kidding?  Why do Arabs have to assert their pro-democracy credentials when they speak to Western audiences?  I admire the brave Syrian communists that you struggled with against the repressive Syrian state, but you can state with a straight face that the struggle was for “democracy”?  Is this a retroactive revisionism?  Come on.  Arab communists fought for social justice, workers’ victory, the dictatorship of the proletariat, revolution, and liberation but not for democracy.  Of course, now everyone wants democracy, even the lousy Muslim Brotherhood.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Communists Who Can’t Stop Invoking the Discourse of Democracy

There are those former communists in the Arab world who use the discourse on democracy religiously — in every sentence.  It is their way of apologizing to the Right for their past sins.  They are seeking forgiveness.  And some of the hypocritical communists who have officially aligned themselves with the Right, like Karim Muruwwah in Lebanon, now claim that they were struggling for democracy all along, even when they were writing tributes for Joseph Stalin.  I wish they would just shut up.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus.   The notes above were first published in his blog The Angry Arab News Service; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  See, also, As’ad AbuKhalil, “Arab Communism: Some Reasons for Its Fall” (Angry Arab News Service, 26 May 2009).  Cf.  Below is Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s own explanation of the evolution of Marxists into liberal democrats, as told to Robin B. Wright (endnotes omitted and hyperlinks added, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, New York: Penguin, 2009, pp 289-291):

Saleh chuckled when I asked him why the Marxists of the twentieth century have evolved into the most outspoken Middle East democrats in the twenty-first century.

It was, he replied, largely a reaction.  “We originally became Marxists because the first generation of liberals failed to solve the national problems that faced our countries after independence,” he said.

“The majority of Syrians and Egyptians and Iraqis were poor farmers.  In fact, they were more than poor, they were nearly slaves.  But the old liberals of the Arab world, the people who led the struggle for independence against colonial rule, generally came from a class of urban notables — people who were rich and had big landholdings.  They were not interested in agricultural reform.”

“They collapsed completely in Syria in the 1960s.  That’s why the Baathists had an easy victory over them,” he added.

The Baathists, led by Syria’s Alawite minority, identified with the farmers.  Hafez al Assad was of peasant stock from the northern mountains.  He was born in a two-room house without electricity, the ninth of eleven children.  As a child, he worked and played in the fields, and rode a donkey or walked for transport.  The majority of Alawites were poor, rural, and less educated.

Through the Baath Party, the Alawites got their revenge against Sunni Muslims and Christians who lived in the cities and owned much of the land.  The Baathists squeezed out the traditional power brokers — and had their dominance entrenched in law.  Article Fifty-three of Syria’s constitution stipulates that at least one half of the members of the People’s Assembly must be workers and peasants.

“So, since we don’t have a liberal heritage in this region, rehabilitating liberalism and democracy will come mainly from people who were Marxists, people who are more aware of political modernism,” Saleh said.  “Many of us read about the French, British, Italian, and German experiences.  We are historians and thinkers and economists.

“After the Cold War, many became liberals.  Some are liberals today in the same way they were Marxists before,” he added, a smile breaking across his face.  “They would never have criticized the Soviet Union before.  Now, they would never criticize the United States — or at least what it stands for.”

Neither Saleh nor his wife [Samira al Khalil] is active in their respective Communist parties [the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), led by Riyad al-Turk, for Saleh, the Communist Labor Party for Khalil].  And both now oppose radical political upheaval.  “As we have seen in Iraq, ‘regime change’ is easy, but ensuring stability afterwards is very difficult,” Saleh wrote for The New York Times in an article entitled “Don’t Rush the Revolution.”

Despite the authoritarian nature of the Syrian leadership, gradual change is preferable to abrupt change.  A slower pace would not only provide a better chance at avoiding bloodshed, but would give a larger number of Syrians a chance to gain some experience in public affairs, as many have started doing recently by more openly criticizing the regime.

True democracy requires a maturation process with respect to participation.

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