One of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels is called Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And sometimes deaths are like that—however painful, they are expected and perhaps (though not in the case of the García Márquez story) mark the conclusion of a fulfilled life.
But sometimes a death leaves you quite unreconciled, raging at the injustice of the world. This was what I felt when I heard on Wednesday last week of the death of the Lebanese revolutionary socialist Bassem Chit. He was only 34 when a heart attack struck him down.
I had known Bassem since the early 2000s. It was a time of political renewal, in Lebanon as elsewhere, as a new generation of activists sought to confront capitalist globalisation and George W Bush’s war drive in the Middle East.
Bassem was one of a group of young socialists in Beirut who gravitated around the politics of the International Socialist Tendency (IST)—the international revolutionary current to which the Socialist Workers Party belongs.
Politics is necessarily complicated in Lebanon because of the sectarian carve-up between different religious denominations. Always in the background is the memory of the terrible civil war that devastated Lebanon between 1975 and 1990.
The civil war ended with Lebanon being reduced almost to a dependency of Syria (from which it had been carved out by French imperialism). The most powerful domestic political force is Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist movement closely aligned to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
When Assad reacted to the popular revolution that exploded in Syria in 2011 by launching a sectarian civil war, huge numbers of Syrians fled to Lebanon. Many fear this war could spread to Lebanon, igniting another bloody confrontation.
Given Hizbollah’s active support for Assad, speaking up for the Syrian Revolution is a dangerous thing to do in Lebanon. But this didn’t hold Bassem back. He didn’t flinch from showing practical as well as verbal solidarity.
Bassem brought to all the perplexities and intricacies of Lebanon and Syria a lucidity that came, not simply from clarity of analysis, but also from firmness of principle.
His opposition to sectarianism was profound, with deep personal roots. His family came from a village close to the border with Israel, where sectarian divisions were exploited by the colonial powers, by Lebanon’s rulers, and recently by the Syrians and the Israelis.
When Bassem spoke—as he did, for example, at the SWP’s Marxism 2014 festival last summer, he always wove together a grasp of factual detail with his command of broader theoretical and political perspectives. One always learned from him.
There was a quality about Bassem that I can only describe as sweetness. I don’t mean this in a sentimental sense—he was unrelenting against the class enemy, comparing Assad to the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. But there was something exceptional about the serenity with which Bassem approached concrete issues that reflected his confidence in himself and in his politics.
This serenity shouldn’t be confused with passivity. Bassem was an activist, who worked relentlessly to unite workers in Lebanon across the sectarian divisions.
He was one of the founders of the Socialist Forum, where supporters of the IS Tendency and the Fourth International in Lebanon are united in a common organisation.
Bassem was also an animating figure of the journal Permanent Revolution. This brings together revolutionary Marxists throughout the Arab world, and has had a significant impact in the couple of years since it was founded. I was looking forward to working with him in the cooperation Bassem proposed with the theoretical journal I edit, International Socialism.
Bassem’s death is a tremendous blow to his friends, and family, and comrades. But it’s hard to overstate the political loss the revolutionary left in the Middle East has suffered.
He was just entering his prime and beginning to exert his talents for intellectual analysis and political leadership.
We are going to miss Bassem terribly. But all we can do is continue on the road that we shared with him for a while. He would expect nothing less.