Against the Oppressed, the Exploited, and the Ruled: John Rees and Phony Anti-Imperialism

18 Nov

kafranbel-2013-11-08-mother-agnes-main-e1383927915595James Bloodworth’s round-up of the scandal surrounding Stop the War Coalition’s (StWC) invitation to gassacre-denier Mother Agnes is excellent because he gets to the root of why so much of the Western left (including the governments of Cuba and Venezuela) has sided with counter-revolution and fascism in Syria in the name of ‘anti-imperialism’:

In inviting Mother Agnes to speak the Stoppers were simply sticking faithfully to their own ‘anti-imperialist’ worldview — hence why the organisers still see nothing wrong in having selected her as a speaker. It was after all the organisation’s National Officer John Rees who once wrote: ‘Socialists should unconditionally stand with the oppressed against the oppressor, even if the people who run the oppressed country are undemocratic and persecute minorities, like Saddam Hussein.’

So according to Rees, socialists should “unconditionally” stand with tyrants and fascists — provided that as the heads of oppressed nations they have conflicts of interest with imperialist powers. If Rees and StWC applied this consistently, they would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Adolf Hitler during the Second World War; after all, Germany was a nation oppressed by the imperialist Versailles Treaty which imposed significant economic hardships on the German people, limited German military capabilities, and exacted territorial concessions. Rees and StWC would have been the British comrades of the German-American Bund, an organization that demanded the U.S. take a “hands off” stand and stay out of the Second World War.

Imagine being a European Jew in the 1930s and 1940s and how you would feel watching the above “anti-war” rallies and you get some idea of why Syrians reacted the same way when they saw the same kind of embarrassing and utterly bogus anti-war protests staged by StWC in Britain and ANSWER in the U.S.


Bloodworth is right about a great many things but errs fundamentally when he writes:

The Stop the War Coalition are not anti-war; they are a malevolent Leninist front whose leadership has a long record of lining up alongside any movement or tyranny that is sufficiently anti-Western. Mother Agnes would have fitted in very well.

The pro-tyrant ‘anti-imperialism’ that is rampant on the Western far left today is totally at odds with Lenin’s brand of anti-imperialism,  grounded as it was in his concept of the democratic revolution and Marxian class analysis of the social forces in conflict with the imperialist powers. As Lenin put it:

“…it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.”

So whatever mistakes Lenin made during his political career, siding with the emperor of China or the Sultan of the Ottoman empire because they had conflicts with Britain or France was not one of them!

Lenin was no John Rees and John Rees is no Lenin.

Lenin avoided John Rees’s phony anti-imperialism by always basing his standpoint on the interests of the toiling, democratic classes — workers, peasants, petty-proprietors, unemployed, and underemployed — rather than their oppressors and exploiters.

The predominance of non-class anti-imperialism within the Marxist circles is rooted not in the politics of Lenin but in the politics of Stalin and Trotsky, the ideological progenitors of practically all self-identified Marxist trends of the 20th and 21st centuries. (Which of these two men Rees resembles more will be left to the reader to decide.)

Stalin first broke with Lenin’s pro-people and pro-democratic anti-imperialism in 1924, the year Lenin died, writing a book ironically titled Foundations of Leninism:

The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism…

Here, we see the familiar garbage that passes for principled anti-imperialism in this day and age. Given Stalin’s position as titular head of a new ruling class that mercilessly broke strikes and attacked rebellious peasants while at the same time seeking allies in the colonial world against the then-dominant imperialist powers, it should be no surprise that he gutted Lenin’s anti-imperialism of its pro-democratic content and replaced it with autocrat-friendly, anti-imperialist-tyranny-is-OK politics.

Trotsky ultimately ended up in the same place as Stalin did on non-class anti-imperialism but he traveled a profoundly different path.

Trotsky’s starting point was his rejection of Lenin’s concept of the democratic revolution way back in 1905, arguing that the era of democratic, non-socialist revolutions was over and that socialism — meaning the rule of wage laborers by means of collective, democratic economic planning — was the order of the day even in backward, semi-feudal Russia (note: this is an extremely cramped, brief, and therefore necessarily distorted overview of this debate; those interested in it should read the original documents via hyperlinks). Rejecting the notion of  democratic revolution led Trotsky to almost completely dismiss the possibility that national liberation movements in the colonies — short of socialism — could actually win independence (a position held by his contemporaries Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin). After the 1917 revolution in Russia and the spate of movements that won national independence all over Eastern and Central Europe, to his credit Trotsky realized that he was wrong and Lenin was right about the importance of national liberation struggles.

However, Trotsky did not seem to grasp the internal logic of Lenin’s pro-democratic, pro-people anti-imperialism and advocated the same non-class anti-imperialism as Stalin did from 1924 onwards as evidenced by statements such as this:

“In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of ‘fascist’ Brazil against ‘democratic’ Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy.”

Here, we see that Trotsky believed that the victory of a fascist colony over an imperialist power in a war would give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. If anything, the opposite would be the case — a militarily victorious fascist regime would blunt the consciousness and organization of workers and peasants and give reaction a new lease on life. Certainly that is what happened in Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser successfully defied Israel, France, and Britain for control over the Suez Canal in 1956. Illusions in Nasser and “Arab socialism” proliferated among the masses (and persist to this day in Egypt) to such an extent that communist parties in the region ended up tailing Nasser and Nasserism politically, only to be caught completely by surprise when he crushed them mercilessly as he expanded his power into Syria through the short-lived United Arab Republic.

The price paid by advocates of non-class anti-imperialism in the Third World has always been incredibly high.

Trotsky argued the same anti-imperialism-trumps-class-considerations case with regard to a war between imperialist Britain and colonized India and Mussolini’s fascist Italy and emperor Hailie Selassie’s feudal Ethiopia:

“Should a dictator place himself at the head of the next uprising of the Indian people in order to smash the British yoke – would Maxton then refuse this dictator his support? Yes or no? If not, why does he refuse his support to the Ethiopian ‘dictator’ who is attempting to cast off the Italian yoke?

“If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”

Clearly the rotten apple John Rees did not fall far from the Stalin-Trotsky tree of anti-imperialism. Rees is only half-right when he says, “socialists should unconditionally stand with the oppressed against the oppressor, even if the people who run the oppressed country are undemocratic and persecute minorities, like Saddam Hussein.” He should have said, “socialists should unconditionally stand with the oppressed against the oppressor” and stopped right there. That would at least allowed him to hold onto his moral compass and dignity as a socialist.



11 Responses to “Against the Oppressed, the Exploited, and the Ruled: John Rees and Phony Anti-Imperialism”

  1. pennysimpson2012 November 18, 2013 at 11:48 pm #

    Drat, Have to agree with you! I guess I never read Trotsky on British imperialism. And here I thought staying independent from all those national and international rulers and potential rulers was at the heart of the notion of permanent revolution.

    Cheers, Penny Simpson Desertfire

    • Not George Sabra November 19, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

      Trotsky’s faulty “permanent revolution” has literally nothing to do with the political independence of the working-class movement in national liberation and other bourgeois-democratic struggles. I suggest reading Lenin’s draft theses on the colonial question:

  2. Robert Noonan November 19, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    I think you have misunderstood trotsky’s permanent revolution. In relation to the Brazil analogy, Trotsky means defending (while remaining independant from it) an oppressive regime in a situation where said regime is under imperialist attack. In such conditions, the masses have not entered in conflict with said regime. In Syria however, the masses have started a revolution against the regime and imperialist intervention afterwards, only ecasue imperialism has lost confidence in Assad’s regime in crushing the revolution. Ideally (for imperialism), Imperialism would be able to place a new state (not regime) that would consist of previous regime and some selected members from the ‘rebels’. We must oppose imperialist intervention while also supporting the revolution. What we must demand from imperialism is the arming of rebels and the breaking of sanctions to enable rebels to import arms and defend themselves. The refusal of imperialism to do this shows the true character of imperialism role in this revolution.

    • Not George Sabra November 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      The Trotsky-Stalin brand of anti-imperialism is not directly related to “permanent revolution,” which Trotsky supported and Stalin (and Lenin) rejected. An oppressive, tyrannical regime is by nature in conflict with the masses and defending it in any way means siding with it against the masses even in the midst of a conflict with an imperialist power. Your line would lead you to shoot at NATO’s planes over Libya even as they bombed the tyrant’s tanks that were on their way towards Benghazi to drown the revolution in blood. No thanks!

  3. eternispring March 25, 2015 at 11:53 am #

    John Rees came to Sussex Uni a few months ago to give a talk on Palestine after being invited by our Palestine society there (which I was also a member of), wasn’t planning to confront him during the session as I didn’t want to distract from the topic but somehow the question of Syria came up during the q&a, with the person asking the question saying whether ‘siding with Assad is now a lesser evil’ – to be fair to him Rees didn’t say that they should side with Assad but went with the usual narrative of how the US plan to ‘arm’ the ‘FSA’ had failed miserably leading to the rise of ISIS. Needless to say I had to confront him at this point, where he said ‘If I had to choose between a week imperial power and a strong imperial power – as a matter of fact I would choose neither – but if I *had* to choose (emphasis on ‘had’), I would go with the weaker one’ – alrite lol so if you wouldn’t choose why did you make the point? I commented that I’m sure the Syrians are appreciating that the bombs falling on them are Russian rather than American. (a few minutes of the exchange could be found here).

    but the main confrontation came after the talk, where we were almost reduced to blows lol. It seemed to literally come down to ‘I could not be on the same side as Hillary Clinton or my own government’, and while tbh he was in general an able debator that was just the most shallow argument for such an ‘academic’ and it shocked me at the simplistic audacity of stating it. Before that I confronted him on why Stop the War have shown no solidarity whatsoever with Syria, and why the only time they did anything on the subject was when they ‘stopped’ the war there (Western narcissm to the max), he answered that was because ‘Stop the War were only concerned with British intervention, and there was no British intervention (in the limited meaning of the word that they operate on, ‘direct military intervention’) in Syria. But then why I asked do Stop the War go on solidarity marches for Palestine? There’s certainly no British military intervention there (military operations). For the first time what followed was a panicked obfuscation of how that was different because ‘they were not the organisers of such marches, and were only invited to take part of them’. But this was ridiculous I said and I didn’t leave the issue (first time he appeared weak in argument), the point is that you participated in the marches, regardless of whether or not you *organised* them (who cares about that?). So why do nothing on Syria? The argument then changed ‘which organisers are there for Syria, who you would want us to join? Who do you want us to join, the SNC?’. And while the Syrian solidarity civil society movement is not as strong abroad (as Palestinian, Kurdish etc.) I said this was ridiculous and they know very well that there are organisations they could join if they wanted to.

    but the particular trigger was when responding to my comment that there are different forms of imperialism and they are not as straight forward as ‘direct military intervention’ – imperialism as one writer wrote wanted 1000 massacres in Syria and that was the ‘conspiratorial’ view Syrians and Arabs such as myself had said from the start, that they want to the conflict to be prolonged as much as possible. In short I said that his and his organisation’s understanding of imperialism is completely shallow, Western-centric and simplistic. At this point (thereabouts, memory a bit hazy) you could see he got riled and things really escalated (they were always going to), when he said ‘actually what you’re doing is a typical form of imperialist policy where you’re expecting the West to come in to sort out your problems’.

    Now that was the particular button which he pushed which I was waiting for which he shouldn’t have, and at this point I let loose (to be fair I was already itching for it), said ‘my point isn’t whether I ‘want’ Western intervention or not, that’s always been irrelevant since I’ve long said and continue to say that the West do not want to intervene, that they are happy with the situation and would be happy ultimately with Assad coming out on top of a destroyed country, and that’s exactly the point. The whole point is that those Western governments that you have forever portrayed as ‘itching’ to intervene (to topple Bashar) simply don’t want to, seen by the simplest measures they didn’t take such as arming rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry or arming rebels in anyway properaly at all beyond 16-bullet per fighter (don’t know if you saw that article) crumbs off the table, mostly supplied anyway through Arab countries. Rather my problem was that *his organisation* were portraying the Syrian resistance constantly as mere puppets, terrorists and the reason for what is happening in Syria (and all that line of argument which you know about). My problem was that they were not talking at all about what the Syrian government was doing, who you seem to have forgotten the history of ‘imperialism’ with. That with all their rhetoric they had become simply ‘progressive neoconservatives’ (don’t think I used that term in particular to him though, used others).

    He then said that my anger was actually typical of ’emigre politics’, i said ‘What?’ (as in the Egyptian sense, ‘eih?’ – don’t comprehend). The irony was great (it was a convenient opening for a few things which I was already going to say re identity politics). It seems he thought I was born and raised in England or something, when I lived all my life in the Middle East before going to uni there. I told him that I was getting shot at by Sisi in January of that year, so don’t talk to me about ’emigre politics’ – he responded that he was at Tahrir Square during the 18 days (I wasn’t surprised by that incidentally, was never the point), so don’t talk to me about not taking risks – etc etc . I said ‘fine you were at Tahrir, but that’s irrelevant innit, it wasn’t me who said anything about emigre politics’. But whilst we’re at it I mentioned his Clinton comment again which was microcosm of their ideology, I said that’s what all you guys really are about: identity politics, progressive orientalism, faux anti-imperialists. He tried to laugh it off but couldn’t, and angrily rebutted immediately, etc etc. That’s pretty much it, people were trying to calm the situation and others started talking to him.

    • Democratic Revolution, Syrian Style March 25, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

      Bloody brilliant! Will post a cleaned-up version on my tumblr soonish.


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