Essay: The Syrian Revolution and its philosophy

November 30, 2014

From the November-December 2014 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

“Perhaps it is only the impulse to derive meaning from events that came at such great human cost, but I have to believe that something was learned in the past few years, about resistance and organization and the unstoppable instinct for freedom—something that cannot be unlearned. What we have all witnessed is less a set of political transformations than an irreversible cultural revolution, the core of which being that passivity is no longer the primary response.”
Talal Alyan, Palestinian writer and activist

When revolution broke out in Tunisia in 2010, it opened a new era of revolution and counter-revolution that shook the world to its foundations. The Arab Spring revolts, the Occupy movement that spread around the world, and which continues today in Hong Kong, marked a fundamentally new moment in history. The greatest heroism, the basest betrayals, and the world-historic battle of ideas, all have challenged every serious revolutionary thinker and activist.

For months, longer than anyone had any right to expect, the people of Syria had one of the most inspiring non-violent freedom movements the world has seen. Week after week, month after month, they came out to demonstrate explicitly in support of freedom, non-sectarianism, and social justice. Week after week, month after month, they were murdered. Yet even today, the grassroots social revolution continues against all odds.

Weekly demonstration in liberated Kafranbel, Syria. Photo courtesy of Syrian Revolution-Kafranbel.

Weekly demonstration in liberated Kafranbel, Syria. Photo courtesy of Syrian Revolution-Kafranbel.

The confrontation between differing classes and worldviews has been most intense in Syria, which makes it the test of world politics—but even more than politics, of philosophy and revolution. The Assad regime has committed genocidal crimes, with over 191,000 dead, over three million refugees in neighboring countries, and almost 6.5 million internally displaced persons. The Revolution has also confronted the threat of religious fascism, from the so-called Islamic State (IS) and others.


What is most vital to grasp about the experience of the Syrian Revolution—which has created its own body of thought—is that the people who set out to transform an oppressive reality into a reality of freedom have had to confront the very essence of our alienated world. They have come face to face not only with capitalism, imperialism and the failure of bourgeois “democracy,” but also with religious fundamentalism, misogyny, and the breakdown of the Left.

The humanist goals of the Revolution have, nonetheless, been made clear over and over, as in these words of activist Rami Jarrah:

“What we need now is coordinated solidarity with citizens of different nations with no boundaries, whether religious, ethnic or cultural. It’s vital that we smash those boundaries. The public opinion is human society. We have a duty to bridge our stories and reality to the humans of our world in all their colors with just as much effort. Otherwise we lose everything. We have respect for all that rise for freedom. We will stand in solidarity with anyone that is oppressed for that reason.

“It was two years ago that we broke the barriers of thought, barriers that denied us the ability to love. We used to whisper amongst one another, terrified of the consequences. It was two years ago we stood for dignity, our chants reverberated in our streets echoing the screams of the silent. It was two years ago that I was born a human, it was that moment that blood filled my veins.”


One of the weekly banners from the grassroots activists of Kafranbel, where the people have made a category of communicating the thought of the Revolution to the world, carried the challenge: “If you are human, you have to care for the Syrian people. If you are human, support us to bring Assad down.”

From Homsi activist Khaled Abu Salah, this statement was addressed to the international community:

“Our casualties were in the 10s, then they reached the 100s, until it reached the point of annihilation as it did in Zabadani, Baba Amr, Karm al-Zeitoun, and the towns and villages of Idlib, Homs, Hama, Damascus, Daraa, and Deir el-Zour. After all this slaughter and these massacres, we ask, do the Syrian people not belong to your community, the human community? Bread alone is not enough for humans to live. But there are people on this earth who are still without bread. They are calling to you, inheritors of the Age of Enlightenment, in the name of the absolute value of human life.”

This unprecedented historic moment compels a deep rethinking of revolutionary ideas, and can illuminate Marx’s Marxism in new ways that can help develop needed solidarity.


As Karl Marx wrote in 1844,

“a social revolution is found to have the point of view of the whole because—even if it were to occur in only one factory district—it represents man’s protest against a dehumanized life, because it starts out from the point of view of a separate real individual, because the community, against the separation of which from himself the individual reacts, is man’s true community, human nature.”

We can see in Syria’s revolutionary humanism what the young Marx of 1843-44 saw in the revolutionary struggles of his day, and which made Hegel’s revolution in philosophy so alive to him that he translated its driving principle, the negation of the negation, as “revolution in permanence.” It is the subjective drive toward freedom becoming so concrete that it finds its natural expression as humanism, what Gramsci called “the absolute humanism of history.” When Marx wrote in 1844, “the individual is the social being,” he was stating that revolution involves a dialectical relationship toward social life in its entirety.

In his 1844 “Draft Plan for a Work on the Modern State,” Marx makes his concept of revolution in permanence the standard for defining the truth of modern democracy, obscured by bourgeois politics. He begins by posing “The history of the origin of the modern state or the French Revolution.” The endpoint he foresees is “Suffrage, the fight for the abolition of the state and of bourgeois society.” The gist of his critique of Hegel, then, is in overcoming the fetish of the state as mediator of social contradiction.

It prefigures Marx’s later singling out of the Paris Commune as the non-state form through which freely associated human beings could strip the fetishism from the commodity form and create a new society in which the free human development of each would be the free development of all. (See “Karl Marx’s ground for organization,” Sept.-Oct 2014 News & Letters and Dunayevskaya’s “1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes.”)

Today, the failure of the bourgeois state to “manage” the perpetual crisis of capitalist society is clear. From Putin’s Russia to the Tea Party-ridden U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, what is offered is exploitation, discrimination, degradation, misery and war. What these state powers have created in Syria—have consciously chosen as the alternative to the overthrow of Assad, their long-time tool, their “stabilizing” force—has given a new lease on life to al-Qaeda and other forces that were marginalized by the Arab Spring uprisings. It has bolstered reaction everywhere.

The need for a revolutionary alternative couldn’t be clearer.


“Even if the Syrian Revolution fails, what will keep it forever a source of courage, hope and faith for mankind is the body of thought, the legacy of consciousness, awareness and sensibility that it has engendered and will generate.”
Alisar Iram, Syrian poet and artist

“The Syrian tragedy embodies the most extreme of human destinies in terms of torture, horror, death, diaspora, rupture, exile, anger, hatred and betrayal, the limitations of mankind and its greatness, crime and sacrifice. For that reason, we have been given an opportunity to reflect upon the fate of that entity called Syria and the fate of humanity in general. It is imperative that we turn this into a practical project today.”
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Syrian Marxist writer

Yassin al-Haj Saleh has pointed out the connection between the Assad regime’s genocide, with the world’s non-response to it, and the genocidal tendency inherent in the so-called primitive accumulation of capital as described by the mature Marx:

“It is not in concepts like tyranny, despotism or even totalitarianism that we find an explanatory model for the Assad regime. But rather in the concept of colonialism, and its most brutal models in particular. Models based on genocide as it manifested itself in the ‘New World’ hundreds of years ago and in Russia between the two world wars.”

This analysis covers various neo-Stalinist and neo-fascist intellectuals and organizations that have lent their support to Assad. But it also covers those who simply can’t grasp the concept of revolution itself, the idea that masses in motion toward freedom can themselves embody historic reason.

Saleh further perceives this drive at work among the religious nihilists of the IS:

“After three years of bitter struggle, some ‘rebels’ fighting against the internal colonial system internalize its logic and exercise a colonial rule whose victims are the same victims of the regime and its most radical opposition.”

This insight illuminates anew a fundamental concept of Marx. Just as the early revolutionary democratic Marx saw the struggle of actual human beings embodied in Hegel’s dialectic of absolute negativity, so the mature Marx saw the absolute contradiction involved in the accumulation of capital. The young Marx had described the ancien regime as representing the concealed deficiency of the modern state,” “the thorn in the flesh of the modern state,” the denial of basic freedoms embodied by revolution.

In Capital, Vol. 1, Marx rather showed the persistence of the so-called primitive accumulation of capital, the violent dispossession of peasant land, the genocide and slavery that built Europe and America. Capitalism in crisis has its tendency to return to just this violence and authoritarianism. It was a much more profound critique. When apologists of the bourgeoisie declared an end to history, Marx demonstrated that the only history left to them was the eternal return of these horrors until “the expropriators are expropriated.”

Syria today is showing the world its own possible future.


By no coincidence, Marx’s late writings also developed further his early insight that the oppression of women shows “the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself.” Between the Assad regime’s use of rape and the hothouse growth of fundamentalism funded from outside Syria, including by Iran, women have been specially targeted by violent counter-revolution. The IS has practiced enslavement, rape (sometimes in the form of forced marriage) and murder (including by stoning). A new low was achieved in an arson attack on the Mazaya Women’s Center in Kafranbel.

Syrian women like human rights activist Razan Zeitounah have been the most principled of revolutionaries, without illusions in any of the armed groups. Women’s freedom has been the proof that the heart of the revolution, its subjectivity, is to be found among the civilian masses disregarded by world powers. This revolutionary subjectivity has remained in opposition to state power maneuverings in principle.

The Syrian Revolution has pushed thought about revolution to a new level. It couldn’t be clearer, now, that the movement has to work out what it is for, and not only what it is against. Syrians have had to fight this out on the ground in countless ways, in opposing Assad, and the IS, and all the state powers that prefer oppression to freedom. They have done this.

It illustrates Dunayevskaya’s point that

“Because our hunger for theory arises from the totality of the present global crisis, Hegel’s Absolute Method becomes irresistible. The fact that even simple journalistic analyses reach for ‘absolutes,’ like the description of our era as one that is an age both of ‘revolution in revolution’ and of ‘counter-revolution within revolution,’ reflects the objective compulsion for a new examination of Hegel’s concept of ‘absolute negativity.’” (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 7)

It’s very doubtful that there will be any future revolution less complex—the rulers will not give up power without exhausting every resource. But in being the most difficult, and the most painful, of contemporary revolutions, the Syrian Revolution has also been the most seriously theoretical.

0 thoughts on “Essay: The Syrian Revolution and its philosophy

  1. It is always refreshing to find such profound thoughts expressed with remarkable clarity, and always at the barracades of revolutionary struggle. Democrats in US office are less afraid of the Republican Senate, however omnivorous in devouring America’s working people they be, than they are afraid of the swelling American awakening to the absolute tyranny of our corporate controlled government. Robert Reich himself knows that 50% of Americans have no economic future. As in Syria, these fishy friends (Democrats and Republicans alike) cannot survive the growing anger of the American people, which the rulers are as sure of as they are sure of the impending climate collapse. Republican disinformation on this is a deliberate lie, told to dumb us down while we die off in genocidal numbers. Syria’s present is, in fact, America’s future. Even if we are all slated to die (a serious question mark now hangs over human survival), the only honorable way to do so is fighting for the future.

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