“Is it only the strength of God/
that can save us from giving ourselves to the night?/
Even the blind mouse who you call the enemy of light/
doesn’t give his throat so easily to the dagger of the night”
One problem with the debate around Syria is that it has actually become “common sense” that Putin and Assad are fighting an “American funded” ISIS. The fact that this is bollocks (they ain’t fighting ISIS and ISIS aren’t American backed) isn’t even the main problem. Neither is the soft “Stalinism without Stalin” of the left who are lining up behind the butchers of the Middle East.
I use the phrase “Stalinism without Stalin” advisedly. In blog posts such as Sukant Chandan’s recent spewing, the argument is explicitly made that Russia is not an imperialist power. In the typical cod theological style of a Stalinist concept chopper, Chandan’s analysis relies on a ninety year old schema to “show” that according to Lenin’s theory of imperialism, Russia by definition cannot be imperialist.
Leaving aside the fact that arguments resting on these kinds of definition shifts are basically the hall mark of a second rate theologian, it strikes me as odd that a brother whose whole raisin d’être is to position himself as “considerably more anti imperialist than yaw” is still rinsing Lenin on what imperialism is. As even Mike MacNair (hardly someone who is a strong black nationalist) has pointed out, the big problem with Lenin’s view of Imperialism is that in claiming that it constitutes a teleological development of capitalism, it obscures the reality that colonialism and imperialism were the sine qua non of the birth of the White capitalist system. Capitalism and the world around us are built on the great acts of enslavement, theft and murder of the birth of capitalist colonialism. That the brother chooses a theoretical concept that obscures this presumably has something to do with the fact that his Russian freinds spent the nineteenth century doing what white folk spent the nineteenth century doing; committing genocide and grotesque acts of colonialism all across Asia and the East.
To be fair, he has been pushing this idiocy for quite some time; it’s just the old shift in objective conditions that has him lined up with baby killing imperialists. The bigger problem is that the “reformist” common sense beyond such left “intellectuals” tends to broadly agree with him. In a long and slightly rambling essay for the ISN, I described the phenomena of “neo reformism” that, although encompassing things like the Green Surge, Scottish independence movement and Corbynmania is actually a broader thing, has only a very porous border separating it from things like the DPAC movement, the freeman-of-the-land inspired anti eviction movements, anonymous and so on.
This millieu is reformist insofar as a fundamental ideological component is the idea that “corruption” of society is the big problem, rather than the system itself. So for instance, the idea around some of the anti eviction movement that there exists a secret law, that the “corruption” of the legal system has hidden, sets them to believe that if they could just change that, the whole system wouldn’t need changing.
A similar thing operates in the consciousness of people who are thinking about Syria. They want to think that Americans (or Israelis) funded and created ISIS. Even though this has been shown, in some eye watering detail, not to be the case. This is because it fits into the narrative of conspiratorial corruption that constitutes a fundamental part of contemporary reformist consciousness.
This kind of reformism also thinks that every international problem is solvable through the medium of international relations; if America created the problem, Russia can solve it. But this is not at all the case, we are witnessing the global imperialist system hitting up against the limits of what it can cope with. Syria, with its repressed core of “non sectarian” sectarianism is being convulsed by the same shock waves that are pulling apart left nationalism and post colonial States all over the region and beyond. As revolutionaries and anti imperialists, we have to recognise that this throws up an opening in which movements from democracy can find purchase and stand in solidarity with them, otherwise we are not worthy to call ourselves by either name.
In the context of Iran, a context obviously more personal to me than Syria, the role of Russian colonialism and Imperialism cannot be understated. In the ninteenth century Russia was the first colonial power to systematically dismember Iran, and the results of that can still be seen in the genocidal wars fought after the fall of the Soviet Union, in Central Asia and the Caucusus.
The port town where my family live, Bandar Anzali, was a colonial creation of the Russians in their bid to properly exploit the fishing and industrial concessions they had forced all over the Caspian. As the arrogant and racist Tsarist officers put it, they had built a town where before there were only “savages, smugglers and malaria”.
Where the people of Syria are going through brutal and bloody Russian led colonialism, the Iranian people have not forgotten this history, as murderous and avaricious as the British or Americans in Iran: after the repression of the Green movement, one of the few tactics left for the brave and lucky ones who could use it was to satirise the official “revolutionary” chants at government sponsored mobilisations. Where the leaders of the marches would chant “death to Israel, death to America”, the people would answer “Marg bar diktator, Marg bar Russeyyeh“, to expose and condemn the Russian interests and support for the regime still at work in the country.
In the Second World War, the allies decided that they could not take the chance that the axis powers would seize Iran; either its oil or its link between the Middle East and then Soviet Central Asia. As a result, they occupied Iran for the third time that century. After overthrowing Reza Shah, and bringing his more pliant son to power, they invaded. Perhaps not invaded, not in principle, not officially. In fact Muhammad Reza Pahlavi “invited them”.
The British occupied the South, the Americans the central zone round Tehran and the Soviets, like the Tsarists before them, occupied the northern provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran and Azerbaijan. Like many of the people of Bandare Anzali, my family where made up of Azerbaijani people who had gone to the newly industrialised pot to trade, or look for work.
When my Grandma was alive she used to tell me how tall her father was. In Iran, that is considered to be a trait of Azeris, especially amongst the supposedly shorter Gilak people around Anzali. But apparently, even in this context Mr. Pavandani was known for his patience (in a family that does a good line in short tempers), his height and the fact that his back was always slightly bent when he stood up.
Apparently he stood up straight until the occupation. When the Russians invaded, his only son, my Great Uncle, was on national service and stationed at the naval port in Anzali. As the allies had been officially welcomed in, the central government’s order was for the Iranian armed forces to stand down, but many of them refused. Over the coming years small outbreaks of guerrilla violence would break out all over the country against the occupiers; fired particularly by the fact that Russian and Britain occupied the parts of the country that they had respectively brutalised the most in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
The commander of the garrison in Anzali was some sort of patriot. Or maybe he was just arrogant. Either way, he decided, like bands all over the country that he would disobey orders and fight the Russians. My Great Uncle went home and told his father that he was participating in the battle. His father is supposed to have begged and pleaded with him not to go, and finally, in what would have been a rare ill tempered moment, cursed him for being foolish. His son left and he never saw him again.
After a brief skirmish the Russians used artillery to completely flatten a section of the port. Family stories are hazy, but the fighting is supposed to have been over over in a night, the Iranians not having modern boats, planes or tanks at the time. My Great Uncle’s body was never recovered. My grandma always said her father never stood up straight again after that. Nor did he have any other sons. In Iran a woman keeps her own surname on marriage, but her children take her husband’s. Which is why when my Grandma died, their where no more Azeri Pavandanis. They ended there, under Russian tanks and Russian bombs, on the waterfront at Anzali.
Maybe the captain, or whoever this officer was who encouraged the sailors to fight, remembered what the Russians had done over the past century. Maybe he remembered them destroying Iranian agriculture, supporting the most backwards sections of the religious establishment with thugs and cash, arming and commanding the cossack brigade who opened fire on the unarmed deputies of Iran’s first parliament, banning Iranians from technical jobs in their own country, murdering civilians, their attempts to starve democracy out of Tabriz and other cities in the North, the attacks and blockades that led up to the great famine that killed nearly a quarter of the population of the northern provinces or their part in what Morgan Shuster called “The Strangling of Persia” and the humiliating treatise of capitulation. Maybe he remembered the generation of heroic rebel leaders who had fought so bravely against the unholy alliance of Russian and British colonial interests, obscurantist clerics and absolutist Shahs.
Maybe he didn’t. I can see that a lot of the kind of people I call “neo reformists”, who think that Putin or whoever is “fixing” the situation in Syria don’t remember either. I can understand that, because they often don’t know what they are talking about. But for those sections of the so-called anti imperialist and socialist movement who are aping this style, no such excuse is legitimate. Not if they pretend to stand in solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East.
We must remember this, and stand with the Syrians who live through it.
Marg bar Russeyeh.