In 1915, the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, defying the wave of nationalism that had swept Germany at the outbreak of the war, recognised that this European-wide conflict had opened up a new epoch in the history of capitalism, an epoch when the ruthless competition built into the system was now posing humanity with the choice between socialism and barbarism. This war, she wrote, with its massacre of human beings on an industrial scale, was a precise definition of what barbarism means.
But World War One was only the beginning and the barbarity of capitalism soon reached new levels. The war was ended by the resistance of the working class in Russia, Germany and elsewhere, through the mutinies, strikes, and insurrections that, for a brief moment, threatened the very existence of the world capitalist order. But these movements were isolated and crushed; and with the defeat of the working class, which is the only real obstacle to capitalism’s drive to war, the horror of imperialist conflict took on a new quality.
The first imperialist war was still, like the wars of the 19th century, fought mainly on the battlefields. The scale of the killing, proportionate to the dizzying development of technology in the decades leading up to the war, was a shock even to the politicians and military chiefs who had gambled on a short, sharp conflict, “over by Christmas”. But in the wars that succeeded it, the principal victims of warfare would no longer be soldiers in uniform, but the civilian population. The bombing, by German and Italian aircraft, of Guernica in Spain, an event immortalised by Picasso’s tortured figures of women and children, set the tone. At first, the deliberate targeting of civilians from the air was a new shock, something unprecedented, and surely only something the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini could contemplate. But the war in Spain was a rehearsal for a second world war which trebled the death toll of the first and in which the vast majority of its victims would be civilians. Both sides used the tactic of ‘carpet’ bombing to flatten cities, destroy infrastructure, demoralise the population, and – because the bourgeoisie still feared the possibility of a working class uprising against the war – smash the proletarian danger. Increasingly, such tactics were no longer denounced as crimes but defended as the best means to end the conflict and prevent further slaughter – above all by the ‘democratic’ camp. The incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the newly-invented atomic bomb was justified in exactly these terms.
Today, when the leaders of the ‘democratic’ world condemn the Assad regime in Syria and its Russian backers for their relentless, systematic massacre of the civilian population of Aleppo and other cities, we should not forget that they are carrying on what is now an established tradition of capitalist warfare. The deliberate destruction of hospitals and other key infrastructure such as the water supply, the blocking and even bombing of aid convoys: this is modern siege warfare, military tactics learned not only from previous generations of ‘dictators’, but from also from democratic militarists like ‘Bomber’ Harris and Winston Churchill.
Imperialist interests fan the flames in Syria
That is not to say there is nothing exceptional in what is happening in Aleppo. The ‘civil war’ in Syria began as part of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 – with a revolt by a population exasperated by the brutality of the Assad regime. But Assad had learned from the fall of his fellow dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, and responded to the demonstrations with murderous firepower. The determination of the regime to survive and perpetuate its privileges has proved to be unbounded. Assad is prepared to lay waste to entire cities, murder or expel millions of his own citizens, to remain in power. There is here an element of the tyrant’s revenge against those who dare to reject his rule, a plunge into a spiral of destruction which will leave the rulers with little or nothing to rule over. In this sense, the coldly rational calculation behind the terror bombing of Syria’s ‘rebel’ cities has become a new symbol of the growing irrationality of capitalist war.
But the insanity of this war is not limited to Syria. Following the mass shootings of unarmed demonstrators, splits in the Syrian army gave rise to an armed bourgeois opposition, and this rapidly transformed the initial revolt into a military conflict between capitalist camps; this in turn provided the opportunity for a whole number of local and global imperialist powers to intervene for their own squalid reasons. The ethnic and religious divisions that aggravated the conflict inside Syria were exploited by regional powers with their own agendas. Iran, which claims to be the leader of the world’s Shiite Muslims, supports Assad’s ‘Alawite’ regime and backs the direct intervention of the Hezbollah militias from Lebanon. Sunni Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have armed the numerous Islamist gangs which aimed to supplant the ‘moderate’ rebels, including Islamic State itself. Turkey, often on the pretext of striking back against IS, has used the war to step up its onslaught on the Kurdish forces who have made considerable gains in northern Syria.
But in this three, four, even five sided conflict, the world’s major powers have also been playing their role. The US and Britain have called for Assad to step down and have indirectly supported the armed opposition, both the ‘moderates’ and, via Saudi and Qatar, the Islamists. When IS began, like al Qaida in the previous decade, to bite the hand that feeds it and set itself up as a new and uncontrolled power in Syria and Iraq, a number of western politicians have reconsidered their position, arguing that Assad is actually a ‘lesser evil’ compared to IS. Earlier in the conflict, Obama threatened the Assad regime with military intervention, declaring that the use of chemical weapons against civilians was a line that could not be crossed. But this threat proved empty, and subsequently, the debates in Washington and Westminster have been how to intervene against IS, thus indirectly boosting Assad.
The indecisive US response to the situation in Syria is the product of a long process of decline in its world hegemony, summarised above all by its disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The ‘War on Terror’ unleashed by the Bush administration has only served to foment chaos in the Middle East and has made Islamist terrorism an even greater force than it was before the Twin Towers fell. The war in Iraq proved particularly unpopular in the US and even the gun-toting Trump now proclaims it to have been a disaster. The USA is thus extremely reluctant to get drawn into a new quagmire in the Middle East.
Imperialism abhors a vacuum, and the hesitations of the US provided a resurgent Russia with the chance to reassert itself in a region from which it had been largely expelled by the end of the Cold War. Syria is the last place in the Middle East where Russia hung on to its military bases, and its support for the Assad regime has been constant. But after embarking on a policy – via the wars in Georgia and the Ukraine – of regaining its lost empire in the region of the former USSR, Putin’s Russia is now gambling on increasing its status as a world power by directly intervening in the Syrian conflict. The initial pretext was the need to hit back at IS which was gaining ground in Iraq and Syria, even threatening Russia’s only remaining outlet to the Mediterranean, the naval base at Tartus. To the extent that it was posed as a response to IS, Russian intervention was quietly supported by the US. Following IS atrocities in Paris, France even carried out some joint operations with Russian forces in Syria. But Russian imperialism has shown little interest in attacking IS bases and every interest in propping up an Assad regime that was showing serious signs of collapse. By the simple trick of branding the entire opposition to Assad as terrorists, it has become a major force in Assad’s assault on rebel strongholds, effectively turning the tide of war in favour of Assad. Russian imperialism’s answer to the conflict in Syria is a simple one, entirely in accord with Assad’s methods, and already applied without mercy in Grozny in 1990-2000 in response to the Chechen nationalist movement: reduce the city to rubble and the problem of rebellion is solved.
Russian imperialism makes no secret of its ambitions in the Middle East. “Over the weekend, marking the first anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria, state media was full of bold statements such as ‘Russia proved that it’s nonetheless a superpower’ and ‘Russia has become the main player in this region … The United States, on the other hand, lost its status as first fiddle’.”
The assault on Aleppo, which was raised to new levels following the rapid collapse of the latest cease-fire brokered by the US, has visibly sharpened tensions between Russia and the USA. Reacting to the charge that it is carrying out war crimes in Syria – which is undoubtedly true – Russia has pulled out of peace negotiations over Syria and also from a process aimed at reducing US and Russian stockpiles of plutonium, with Putin placing the most far-reaching conditions on a resumption of talks, including the dropping of sanctions against Russia and substantial reduction of NATO troop concentrations in eastern Europe.
Hypocrisy in the west
Faced with the increasingly brutal policies of the Putin regime at home and abroad, with its retrograde nationalist ideology and crudely lying propaganda, the ‘democratic’ powers in the west do not find it difficult to take the moral high ground. But we have already seen that Russia’s use of terror bombing in Syria has a long pedigree in the west. And the hypocrisy of the democratic states applies equally to their recent and current behaviour. America’s condemnation of Russia for destroying Aleppo and other cities cannot efface the memory of the bombardment of Baghdad in 2003 or the siege of Fallujah in 2004, which also led to thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, even if US bombs and missiles are supposedly ‘smarter’ than their Russian equivalents and thus more focused on purely military targets. Neither should it obscure what Britain has been doing on the quiet in Yemen – supplying the Saudis with weapons in its intervention in a bloody ‘civil war’. A recent report in The Guardian showed that over a million children in Yemen face starvation as a direct result of Saudi blockades and bombing of areas held by Houthi rebels.
But western hypocrisy reaches its highest pitch when it comes to the millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee for their lives, and who now suffer from severe malnutrition in ill-equipped refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon; or, if they try to reach the ‘haven’ of western Europe, they fall into the hands of ruthless human traffickers who push them into perilous crossings of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats. The European Union has shown itself incapable of dealing with what Cameron once referred to as the “swarm” of refugees from Syria and other conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. While some governments, like the German, brandish their ‘welcoming’ policy to those whose labour power they need to exploit, the walls and barbed wire fences have gone up all over Europe. More and more European governments and parties are adapting to or openly espousing the politics of exclusion and scapegoating promulgated by the populist currents. We are witnessing sinister echoes of the massacre of the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, when the democracies wrung their hands over the Nazi persecutions and murders, but did everything they could to close their borders to the victims, taking in no more than a symbolic number of Jewish refugees.
Double-talk and hypocrisy over Syria is not limited to the governing parties. The majority of parties of the ‘left’ have a long history of supporting Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Baathist regime in Syria, alleging that these are, for all their faults, ‘fighting imperialism’, by which they mean the imperialism of the US, Israel or other western states. The ‘Stop the War’ coalition in the UK, for example (in which Jeremy Corbyn has played a leading role for many years) will organise massive demonstrations against Israel’s military incursions into Lebanon and Gaza, under slogans such as ‘We are all Hezbollah’. You will never see them organising an equivalent demonstration against the actions of Assad and the Russians in Syria, which are not only a mirror image of Israeli militarism, but have far surpassed it in levels of death and destruction.
Other activist organisations opt for supporting military action by the USA and the west. The Avaaz group, which specialises in massive online campaigns and petitions, and which opposed the US invasion of Iraq, now argues that the only way to protect the children of Aleppo is to call on Obama, Erdogan, Hollande and May to enforce a no-fly zone in Northern Syria.
Either way, we are asked to support one side or the other in what has become a global imperialist conflict.
The proletarian alternative
For revolutionaries, it is essential to defend the principle of internationalism against every case of imperialist butchery. That means maintaining political independence from all states and proto-state militias, and supporting the struggle of the exploited in all countries against their own bourgeoisies. This principle is not dependent on whether or not the exploited are engaged in open struggle. It is a signpost for the future which must never be lost. In 1914, the internationalists who opposed the war were a very small minority, but stubbornly holding onto class positions, while so many former comrades were rallying to the war effort of their own bourgeoisies, was absolutely essential to the emergence of a massive proletarian struggle against the war two or three years later.
In Syria, there is no doubt that the proletariat is absent from the scene. This is a reflection of the political and numerical weakness of the Syrian working class, which has been unable to stand up against the Assad regime and its various bourgeois opponents. But we can say that the fate of Syria and of the ‘Arab spring’ as a whole sums up the historic situation facing the world working class. Capitalism is in an advanced state of decay and has no future to offer humanity other than repression and war. This has been the response of the ruling class to the various revolts that swept through North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. But this has only been possible because the working class was unable to take the lead in these revolts, unable to propose a different aim and perspective than the democratic illusions which dominated the social movements. And this was a failure not merely of the working class of North Africa and the Middle East, but of the working class in the central countries of capitalism, which has more deeply implanted revolutionary traditions and a long experience in confronting the obstacle of bourgeois democracy.
It is these battalions of the class who are best placed to revive the perspective of proletarian revolution, which remains the only hope for a human future. This is not just wishing for the best. The Arab spring also served as an inspiration to struggles in the central countries, most notably the Indignados revolt in Spain, which went furthest of all the movements of 2011 in posing serious questions about the future of world capitalism and in developing the means of struggle against it. But this was just a glimpse of the possible, a small indication that, despite the steady advance of capitalist barbarism, the proletarian alternative is still alive.
. This is not to denigrate the sincere efforts of many thousands of volunteers in Europe who have tried to offer aid to the refugees, or indeed the truly heroic work of doctors, nurses and rescue workers struggling to save lives in the most appalling conditions in Aleppo and other besieged cities. Very often these efforts begin as spontaneous initiatives which governments and other official forces then try to take under their own control.