At 2am on Tuesday April 24, the Palestinian-Syrian intellectual and activist Salameh Kaileh was arrested from his home “without explanation,” as his lawyer Anwar Bunni of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research put it. This is not Salameh Kaileh’s first time in a Syrian prison. He was a guest of the Assad family in its several jails for eight years and eleven days in the 1990s.
Born in 1955 in Birzeit in the West Bank (Palestine), Salameh studied in Baghdad (Iraq) and Damascus (Syria). Salameh emerged out of the University of Baghdad in 1979 with a BA in Political Science, already as one of the brightest Marxist thinkers and as a brave fighter for universal freedom. His reputation would soon span across Syria, in Palestine, around the Arab world and elsewhere. He wrote many books on a variety of themes, on imperialism, on Marxism, on the limitations of the Arab nationalism movement, on globalization, on Zionism, and on the legacy of the scientific method. Some of his books (in Arabic) include Arabs and the National Question (1989), Critique of Mainstream Marxism (1990), Imperialism and the Plunder of the World (1992), Socialism or Barbarism (2001), The problems of Marxism in the Arab World (2003), and The Problem of the Arab Nationalist Movement (2005).
Although Arab Nationalism and the Arab resistance movements have received their fair share of criticism, Salameh’s criticism was always from the left-wing and always constructive – it was toward building a new Left force for a freedom movement that would drink deeply from the powerful heritage of Marxism and Communism. Trenchant critiques of the Arab and Palestinian Left, as well as the Marxist Left itself, kept his allies on their toes; as the revolutionary from Guinea-Bissau Amilcar Cabral said, “tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” This was the touchstone of such an intellectual and political project. Salameh’s main critique of the Arab Left was that it consistently played the role of “following the other,” or hitching its wagon to larger social forces such as Arab Nationalist movements and Ba’athism, which ended up discrediting the Marxist Left when these movements came to power. Their failures, in authoritarianism and repressive regimes and in accommodations with the domestic and international bourgeoisie, tarnished the heritage of the Left.
Salameh sharpened his intimate critique of Arab Nationalism and of Marxism by his simultaneous and unrelenting criticism of Western imperialism, the conservative Arab regimes, and centrally, Zionism.
Salameh went to jail in the 1990s when he renewed his criticism of the suffocation of the Ba’ath regime and its collusion with imperialism. Many have forgotten that in the Gulf War of 1991, the Syrian government participated alongside the Grand Coalition of the West against the Iraqi regime. As a gift for this participation, the West turned a blind eye to another round of reprisals by the Assad regime against its domestic opposition (as well as consolidating Syrian power in Lebanon). Salameh went to prison then.
Since his release in the late 1990s, Salameh has continued to fight for a democratic political opening in Syria and in the Arab world in general. When the first demonstration of the current phase took place on March 15, 2010, Marxists such as Salameh were right there in the thick of the struggles. The Syrian Communist Party has lain at the feet of the Assad regime since the 1960s, and has not represented the currents of genuine Marxist dissent and revolution for several generations. Many Syrian Marxists have sought, therefore, alternative platforms to struggle against the mafia-capitalism promoted by the Assad regime. In February of this year, Salameh laid out the potentiality of this uprising for the Left,
“These communists who have been taking part in the uprising believe that bringing the regime down is the main objective, and have no belief in the possibility of reform. They know that the struggle of the poor classes will continue until the replacement of the regime is made by the workers, farmers, and all the public classes, which suffer from a lack of a political representation. This is because there is no answer to their problems except through getting rid of all the liberal parties, and the collapse of the mafia-capitalist governing class, and the traditional bourgeoisie that work within the regime now and aim to control it. This capitalist mafia brought in the Baath Party and made some achievements when they first got to power, but these achievements were captured and this regime is synonymous with the capitalist mafia now. In order to achieve the goals of the uprising today, there must be a new vision based on a Marxist analysis, and that represents the interests of workers and farmers, which, in turn, can allow a new party to be set-up that would undertake a genuinely transformative programme. It is this possibility which has been opened through the uprising. Marxists therefore, must start forming the workers and farmers party, in order to establish a democratic republic, which reflects the public interest.”
Interestingly Salameh, though unequivocal of his support for the Syrian revolution, has criticized for different reasons both the Syrian National Council (mainly external opposition) as well as the National Coordination Council for Democratic Change (mainly internal opposition) as not truly representing the revolutionary masses. For Salameh, these sections of the Opposition are unified by two things: neither of them trusts the capacity of the people to achieve change, and neither of them believe that the Syrian regime can be toppled by the Syrian people. The National Coordination council’s call for reform and dialogue with the regime to achieve change misses the revolutionary moment and aspirations of the people. By lowering the bar, they lost the support of the masses. On the other hand, the SNC’s call for military intervention also belies a lack of belief in the Syrian people to achieve change. Both of those bodies, Salameh added were composed of members who had lost faith in the capacity for revolutionary change and before the March 15th uprising, had done their best to accommodate to the ‘reality’ of the Syrian regime.
It is because Salameh is an independent voice and is an active presence for the future of Syria that the Assad regime decided to muzzle him in custody. That is the only explanation.
This is our statement on the career of Salameh. There is much to be said, and much more to be written. This is also an invitation for others to join us, to sign this statement of appreciation for his work, and to demand that the mafia capitalist regime of Assad immediately release Salameh.