After the sudden loss of a revolutionary who inspired and organised young activists in the Middle East, Simon Assaf records Bassem Chit's legacy.
The sudden death from a heart attack of Lebanese revolutionary socialist Bassem Chit is a tremendous blow to our movement. Bassem was a man of immense energy and extraordinary bravery, with a sharp tactical and strategic mind.
I first met him in 2001 when he was a student in a university in north Lebanon. I was invited by the Communist Party to address the students on Seattle and the anti-capitalist movement. Bassem told me that since the campus was under the control of a nasty sectarian party he organised a small group of leftists under the cover of a human rights club. He proudly announced that they had staged the first left wing protest for 30 years in the northern city of Tripoli and that he was summoned to appear at a military tribunal, but refused to attend.
It was not long before he rose to prominence among the small and inexperienced group of activists that were emerging out of the rubble of civil war. Bassem was a child of this war.
His family is from Kfar Killa, a village on the border with Israel that was occupied in 1978. He was raised in the Beirut Shia Muslim neighbourhood of Dahia, but unlike many of his friends, was educated at a Christian school. Many of his close relatives were killed in the wars that engulfed the country, instilling in Bassem a hatred of sectarianism and a determination to see it fall.
He studied the experience of Northern Ireland in order to find an analysis that could fully explain the roots of sectarianism in Lebanon. The dominant idea on the left was that sectarianism was a throwback to the country’s feudal past, and that a “revolution” had to free capitalism from its feudal chains. In this case the role of the left was to make alliances with secular bourgeois parties.
He dedicated himself to studying Lebanon’s history and examined in detail the country’s transition from feudalism to capitalism. He argued that far from sectarianism being a counter to “modernity” it was intrinsic to the development of capitalism, and the secret of its success. By turning this question on its head he set out to prove that in order to destroy the sectarianism you had to destroy the system that created it.
He argued that the Arab regimes, specifically those in Lebanon and Syria, were not the bulwarks against “sectarian chaos”, as many on the left argued, but used it to maintain their rule, and to destroy any movement from below. Bassem understood that the sectarian ideas that dominated many of Lebanon’s labouring classes were in direct conflict with their interests, and when workers entered struggle these ideas would begin to break down.
Having developed these ideas he then sought to put them into practice. This was Bassem at his most creative, and at times with a bravery that verged on the reckless. He decided that in order to test what he believed was growing support for the Palestinians he would organise a solidarity protest in the heart of Christian east Beirut, a stronghold of the far-right Lebanese Forces. The criteria were that only local Christian families would be allowed to participate. It was a great success and proved that there were no longer any no-go areas for the left.
He carried this spirit into the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. As the first bombs began to fall he rallied a group of activists in Martyrs’ Square, along the old sectarian frontlines. As the mainly Shia Muslim refugees arrived, he directed them to schools and parks in Christian (and other) neighbourhoods. It was a stroke of genius. Far from ordinary people chasing the refugees out, they took them in and sheltered them.
The movement he helped to launch and coordinate, known as Samidoun (Steadfastness), grew to become one of the most important in the war. With no foreign funding, or rich backers, Samidoun relied on the solidarity of ordinary people. The organisation reinforced the feeling among the young activists that they could have a substantial impact on events.
Bassem sought to shape these activists into his long-term project, to build the foundations of a revolutionary party. He began to contact trade unions and give voice to the small groups of workers that were going into struggle. Part of his strategy was to combine the comrades of the Fourth International in Lebanon with a new generation of activists and supporters of the Intentional Socialist Tendency. The organisation is known as the Socialist Forum.
He helped to found revolutionary publications, including the monthly magazine Al-Yasari (The Leftist) and the Al-Mansour website, as well as the Arab Marxist theoretical journal Thawra Daema (Permanent Revolution). At the heart of all his work was a rejection of empty rhetoric, and that all ideas had to be proved in practice.
The tremendous events of the Arab Spring gave him this opportunity. Bassem argued that the movement in Lebanon had the chance to embed itself in working class neighbourhoods. He won people to the strategy of local demonstrations rather than a traditional march to parliament. The marches wove through the neighbourhoods drawing thousands of people out of their homes. It proved that revolution was not a pipe dream, but a real possibility if we intervened in events and took initiatives.
On the day he died Bassem was due to address students on Marxism and social classes. He never made the meeting, but his legacy and work continue among the groups of young revolutionaries he inspired.