On the Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón

February 27, 2015

He died for Anarchy”

Part I of II

First published on Counterpunch, 27 February 2015

Professor Lomnitz, I am most grateful to you for being so kind as to discuss your new collective biography The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014) with me. I wish also to thank my friend Allen Kim for bringing my attention to this marvelous work, which provides an intimate and far-reaching examination of the life of the renowned Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón (1874-1922) and of those closest to him—principally, his brothers Jesús (elder) and Enrique (junior), Librado Rivera, and Práxedis G. Guerrero, all of whom were associates of the Junta Organizadora of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). As a result of his lifelong commitment to social revolution, Ricardo was a political prisoner for much of his life: he spent over a fifth of his lifespan incarcerated, in fact. He died in November 1922 after two years’ imprisonment in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas for having called on his fellow Mexicans to take up arms against both white-supremacists in Texas and Venustiano Carranza’s reactionary army. The life of Magón, like those of his comrades, then, was full of Eros and Thanatos, or revolution and repression.

First things first: please speak to the title you chose for your work, if you would. Do you mean to refer to the processional “return” of Magón’s physical body to Mexico City in the weeks after his death in Leavenworth Prison, or do you perhaps mean to suggest that a resurgence or regeneration of the spirit of the Mexican Liberal Party’s (PLM) anarchist-communist alternative is taking place in our own day, like a Shakespearean or Hegelian apparition—le revenant (“the ghost,” or literally “the returning”) discussed by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx?1

I would like to begin by thanking you for having taken the work and trouble to read The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón. The work of readers is critical and precious, and never easy. So thank you, especially for that.

The title is, as you imply, freighted with meaning. It does, in the first instance, refer to the return of Ricardo to Mexico (as a corpse), and thus implicitly raises the question of the significance of his exile: why did Ricardo return as a (venerated) corpse? Why the disjoint between physical absence and spiritual presence in Mexico? At that level, the title is a nod to the central historical question in the book, which is the relationship between ideology and exile in the Mexican Revolution.

But there is also a second aspect, one you summarized in your question better than I could. And this is the currency of the movement’s concern with mutual aid as both political project and as a biological imperative. Because of this currency—because forms of communistic organization and anarchy are today on the horizon of possibility—the figure of Ricardo has that phantasmic power that you refer to. Yes, of a Shakespearean apparition.

The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón is an important study of the specifically transnational dimensions of the Mexican Revolution—a point you stress explicitly in the introduction to the book, where you point to the revolutionary organizational efforts of the anarchists in the PLM’s Junta Organizadora and their fellow socialists, both Mexican and U.S., as amounting to the “first major grassroots Mexican-American solidarity network.” You describe this history as “the story of a transnational revolutionary network that thought of itself collectively as the servant of an ideal [that] could be told in the mold of Don Quijote—the story of a group of men and women who read books and acted on them […]. Their acts were seen as wild. Like Don Quijote, they seemed to be out of place—utopian—or more precisely, out of time.” Please explain how this unique cast of characters was wild, quixotic, and utopian.

Their acts were seen as wild, as I said, in large part because they were. There is in this milieu an element of sexual revolution and of familial transformation that was wild, for example. This manifests itself in different ways. Elizabeth Trowbridge, a wealthy Bostonian, married Manuel Sarabia, an imprisoned Mexican revoltoso, not before having paid his bail, and she then convinced him to jump bail and flee with her to England in order to escape conviction. Ricardo Flores Magón lived in sin with María Brousse and regarded her daughter as his. Enrique Flores Magón wrote pieces about the ignominy of husbands brutalizing and commanding their wives. Emma Goldman, of course, was a great advocate of birth control, and this was also a position supported explicitly by Enrique and Ricardo in Regeneración. Naturally, too, the members of the Partido Liberal Mexicano were not allowed to marry by the Church. In the United States, many of the Mexican radicals created homes that were composite dwellings, that included both kin and non-kin. So there was also some “wildness” there—the dwelling that was occupied by Enrique and Ricardo and their families, along with a number of other families, outside of Los Angeles can be appropriately described as a commune, and indeed some of the group’s old U.S. and European allies, like socialist Job Harriman, for instance, created agricultural communes in the United States. In addition to this intimate level of “wildness,” there was of course also the political level of wildness—clandestinity, propaganda work, striking, supporting armed revolt, and so on.

I don’t believe that this group saw itself as utopian—they believed that there were real and very immediate possibilities for their ideas, especially once the Mexican Revolution began, during World War I, and in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution. This sense of immanent possibilities declined later. Ricardo did not live that moment, but Enrique certainly did. By the 1940s and 50s, Enrique saw their old ideas as not attainable in the present.

Of course, many contemporaries did believe that the anarchist ideas were utopian. This included some prominent members of the Mexican Liberal Party, and even former members of the Junta. Militants like Juan Sarabia and Antonio Villarreal, who participated actively in the Mexican Revolution, but believed in a kind of gradualism, and in participation in Mexican democratic politics. So the question of whether their strategy was utopian or attainable was very much a matter of debate.

As for being quixotic, this too is complex. Certainly everyone who labels this group “precursors of the Mexican Revolution” thinks of them as quixotic, in the sense of anachronistic—prior to their time, fighting a fight that could not yet be won. This, of course, was not this group’s own sense. But there was another way in which its members might well have seen themselves as quixotic: they spent their lives reading, and acted on what they read. They were not passive readers. Moreover, they invested everything, gave everything up, for the world that they were imagining and creating. In this sense, I think that many of these militants would willingly have identified with Quijote.

You observe that none of the principal U.S. militants affiliated with the “Mexican Cause” were attracted or connected to Mexico—its people, history, or politics—in any special way before coalescing in 1908 to support the PLM’s struggle to overthrow Porfirio Díaz, and that none of them even knew Spanish before that time! Considering the PLM’s denunciations in Regeneración of the outright slavery instituted and overseen by the Porfiriato together with the feminist, proletarian, Christian, and cosmopolitan-internationalist dimensions that would seem to have contributed to the Norteños’ collaboration with the cause—including that of the International Workers of the World (IWW), Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman—would you say their participation in the struggle to have reflected a particular manifestation of the universal struggle for justice?

I certainly would say that, and all of them would have said it, too. Probably without a single exception.

As you explain, one key parallel the PLM group and U.S. supporters of the “Mexican Cause” were wont to draw was between Díaz and the ossified Russian autocracy, headed by the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II. One of the most momentous such parallels came to light through John Kenneth Turner’s investigation of Mexico’s “tropical Siberia,” the Yucatán Peninsula, where hundreds of thousands of Mayas, Yaquis, and Koreans were enslaved. Turner’s exposé, first published as two reports in American Magazine in 1909 and thereafter as Barbarous Mexico (1910), resonated importantly with U.S. audiences, as it illuminated, in your words, “America’s reactionary slaving tradition pushing yet farther south under the shadowy cover of a dictatorship that [the U.S. government and capital] enthusiastically supported” while also bringing to light yet another manifestation of the extermination of Native America—another Trail of Tears, as seen in the lamentable fate of the deported, displaced, and massacred Yaquis. To be honest, when reading this chapter of the text, “The People Were the Sacrifice,” I was reminded of Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2000). Could you speak to the significance of Turner’s work in terms of changing international public opinion about Mexico amidst the hegemonic narrative then advanced by media outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times—owned at that time by William Randolph Hearst and Harrison Gray Otis, respectively, who in turn were the respective beneficiaries of two and one-half million acres of land in Chihuahua and Baja California which Díaz had sold them—toward an analysis that affirmed the Porfiriato as effectively facilitating a “capitalist slave colony”?

Porfirio Díaz had really excellent press in the United States. In part, this was due to the undeniable success of the early years of his dictatorship, when Díaz cobbled together a coalition that allowed the Mexican federal government to quash highway banditry, pay its foreign debt, succeed in importing massive capital, build railways, and consolidate a national market. In part this was due to the incredible influx of U.S. foreign direct investment into Mexico during his long mandate. Historian John Hart has documented that Mexico absorbed more than 60% of the US’s investments abroad, so to defend Díaz was to defend American investments. But there was also a deliberate and very active courting of opinion by Díaz, including, as you say, by giving exceedingly juicy concessions to a couple of prominent moguls: Hearst and Otis.

Changing U.S. opinion on Díaz and Mexico was a pretty tall order. Some of that transformation was beginning to happen thanks to the work of Mexicans in the United States including the members of the PLM, but not only them. Some of the transformation was happening because of Americans’ own sentiments regarding justice and injustice in Mexico—for example, there was some turn of opinion in favor of the Yaqui Indians in Arizona border towns. But John Kenneth Turner deserves a lot of credit for his work—a lot!

First of all, John was able to get his pieces into the mainstream press—the muckraking American Magazine—rather than in the socialist press, which had quite large runs in those days, but to some degree implied preaching to the choir. He was able to do this because he focused so clearly and poignantly on the problem of slavery, and on the extermination of the Indians. And because he was able to do this through first-hand, direct reporting. These are major accomplishments. He had others, too, but this was key to his role in making a scandal out of Mexico.

RFM revised

In discussing the family background of the Flores Magón brothers, you relate how Enrique in his memoir attempts to portray his ancestral paternal line of Aztec nobles as instituting a form of “primitive communism” among the Mazatec-speaking indigenous peasants of Oaxaca they had conquered as a means of alleviating his anxiety over hailing from relative class privilege. This point notwithstanding, it does not seem that Teodoro Flores was as wealthy as Práxedis’ family of origin, for example, considering Ricardo’s teenage compulsion to enter the workforce as a domestic servant in the early 1890’s, following Teodoro’s death and Jesús’ imprisonment for writing articles critical of the Porfiriato. You also show that Enrique papers over his father’s closeness with Díaz and the latter’s participation—indeed!—in the 1876 “Tuxtepec Revolution” which installed Díaz as dictator, preferring instead to recall Teodoro’s previous military service in defense of Mexican sovereignty and Liberalism, as embodied in Benito Juárez’s person and the 1857 Constitution, against the imperialist French invasion forces and their reactionary Mexican affiliates, who avenged Flores’ heroic resistance by murdering his father, mother-in-law, and wife in a cowardly attack on the family ranch in 1865. To what degree do you see Enrique’s selective memory as a normal expression of socio-psychological repression within families—one that is accentuated in this case, to accord with the revolutionism of the Flores Magón brothers? A similar example—if more disturbing for its opportunism—is seen in the credit Enrique takes in his memoirs for commanding the PLM’s 1908 revolt, which in point of fact was led by Práxedis and Francisco Manrique, with Enrique being nowhere remotely near the site of battle.

A complicated question. The question of false Aztec genealogy was not unusual among these militants, and not peculiar to Enrique. Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara also had it, for instance, and I think that it is related to Mexican self-narration in the United States, which tended to take a radically Indianist turn, because American opinion agreed that Spaniards were disgusting and tended to see the Indians as noble. In the case of the Flores Magón brothers, there was also some impetus from within Mexico to present their father as member of an indigenous elite, rather than as an hacendado. As you say, Teodoro was not an hacendado in the way that Práxedis Guerrero or Francisco Manríque’s parents had been.

The rest of the question, though, pertains to the problem of memory within Mexico, and after the Revolution. Enrique survived most of his main peers, and he can be said to have been swallowed by the Revolutionary State and its logic. In the 1930s he was actively involved in shaping an organization of “Precursors of the Mexican Revolution” that received government pensions for services rendered, and he and his wife Teresa Arteaga were amongst those charged with certifying and authenticating who was and who was not a precursor. In the 1940s Enrique wrote weekly for El Nacional, telling the tales of that revolutionary group.

In a context of this kind, the contradictions of the history of the revolution, of the history of the PLM, and of their own family history were not easy to admit to. His break with Ricardo, for instance, was virtually impossible to admit, let alone to explain to a general Mexican audience. So that part of Enrique’s distortions are not simply the typical family distortion. Finally, Enrique in his later years was very prone to somewhat wild story-telling. As I show in the book, though, there was method to his madness.

With reference to Ricardo’s youthful “bohemian” period in Mexico City, you present historian José Valadés’ stress on the importance of this life-stage, when Magón came to know “the reality in which the Mexican people lived”: that “there was no peace, light, or health for the poor.” As Ricardo would write later, “only [ze] who suffers can understand the suffering of others.” Would you say there is a direct line between the experiences Ricardo had during his bohemian phase and the public declaration he would make at the First Liberal Congress in San Luis Potosí (February 1901)—the statement which would make him so famous, and that would echo the definitive shift made by the editors of Regeneración from “independent juridical journalism” to “combative journalism” in late 1900—that “the Diaz administration is a den of thieves”?

Although that portion of the family history is the most difficult to reconstruct—during the 1890s, I mean—I do have the impression that it was formative, as José Valadés claimed. Valadés emphasizes the role that sexual initiation with prostitutes and in the low-class dives that the students frequented had in Ricardo. According to Valadés, Ricardo got some sort of venereal disease then, and it was for this reason that he was unable later to have children. He also believes that intimate knowledge of the miserable lives of Mexico’s prostitutes and their families was important for Ricardo’s political sensibility and education. Valadés had direct conversations with Ricardo’s contemporaries that were not available to me, and I tend to believe his account. If anything, Valadés falls a bit short in his analysis of the influence of the bohemian period on the early Regeneración, for what is obvious is that during that decade, these young men actively fashioned themselves not only after French Revolutionaries, but also after Mexican Liberals. To my mind, Ricardo’s “The Díaz administration is a den of thieves!”, repeated thrice in San Luis Potosí, was a re-enactment of Ignacio Ramírez’s 1836 “God does not exist” (also repeated thrice, in Toluca). The self-fashioning and theatrics of the 1900-01 effervescence was crafted in the Bohemian period.

Pathos certainly grips the story you relate of how Doña Margarita Magón died while her sons Ricardo and Jesús were incarcerated in Belem Prison in Mexico City (1901-2) on the charge of libel for factual claims they had made in Regeneración. In their reports on her death, as you relate, the media of the time claimed Margarita’s anguish over her sons’ ordeal to have precipitated her end—much in the way that Anticleia of The Odyssey expresses that it was “only my loneliness and the force of my affection for you, dear Odysseus, that took my own life away.” In your estimation, how did the reactions of the three brothers differ to this tragedy—the sacrifice “of their most sacred relationship […] for political life,” one which echoed the misfortune visited on Teodoro for his military service opposing the French invaders—especially in the case of Ricardo?

This is a crucial question for understanding the decisions, and some of the psychological make-up, of the three brothers, which is an issue that concerns me in the book because I find that one tends to impute motivations on actors, regardless of whether or not one claims to have an interest in their psychology. So it’s best to make one’s views on motivations more, rather than less, explicit, if only for the purpose of facilitating debate and the development of alternative views.

Briefly, then, my sense is that Margarita’s death led the eldest of the brothers, Jesús, to abandon the alternative of clandestine politics and any political practice that would land him in jail again. For Jesús, Margarita’s death was in some regards a replay, since Jesús was the first of the brothers to have landed in prison, and the first time that this had happened to him was but four days after Teodoro, the boys’ father, had died. Jesús’s first imprisonment left his mother and his younger brothers unprotected economically—they had to leave their home and change address for lack of resources, and Ricardo briefly took on a job as a servant. After Margarita’s death and Jesús and Ricardo’s release from prison, Jesús married his girlfriend, Clara Wong, worked as a well-established lawyer, and had a prominent political career under both Madero and Victoriano Huerta (as a member of Congress).

Ricardo’s reaction was to continue in the fight to overthrow Díaz to the bitter end. Ricardo came to be known as an ascetic, single-mindedly committed revolutionary amongst his group of friends, and it was this dedication that gained him the leadership of the Junta Organizadora when that group left Mexico in exile. Ricardo never renounced that position. He also never married, and when he did develop an intensely romantic relationship, it was to a woman, María Brousse, who was equally committed to revolution, and who had in fact even volunteered to assassinate a prominent Mexican politician, Enrique Creel, so that Ricardo could be with her and not feel that he was tearing his family asunder.

Finally, Enrique is in some ways the most complex, because of his ambiguous situation. Enrique was not in prison when his mother Margarita died, but, on the contrary, had been in charge of her during her final period, despite his young age. Thus he felt neither the guilt nor the regret of Ricardo or Jesús. However, neither did he benefit from the popular idolization that his brothers got, precise due to their sacrifice. This situation made him oscillate between imitating Jesús’s choices and imitating Ricardo’s. I think that Enrique was a youth that wanted very much to demonstrate that he, too, was capable of any sacrifice—and in fact, later in life, he lost contact with his daughter and son because of an ideological rift with their mother’s father. On the other hand, for some time Enrique harbored the ideal of marriage and return to Mexico. It was the experience of exile, and its practical consequences, that leaned him so decisively in Ricardo’s direction. But after the revolution, I think that he again found a situation that tended more to Jesús’s position.

constitucion ha muerto

The Constitution has died…” (Librado Rivera) On Constitution Day, 4 February 1904, the staff of the radical newspaper El Hijo del Ahuizote gathered to commemorate the death of the 1857 Constitution under Porfirio Díaz.

Let us now please turn to discussing the philosophical and ideological precursors of the anarchist alternative advanced by the PLM and Regeneración. You emphasize the thought of Peter Kropotkin, the “Anarchist Prince”—particularly his scientific investigations of mutual aid—as influencing the theory and practice of the Junta Organizadora. As a reflection of this, writing to María Brousse from Leavenworth in 1920, Magón would argue naturalistically along Kropotkinian lines that selfishness “is the outcome of century upon century of individualistic education and training for the masses,” and that the “primordial human instinct of cooperation and mutual aid has been suppressed in favor of an individualistic education.” Práxedis, for his part, favored the foundation in Mexico of a counter-system of rationalist education for children, following the example of the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer.2 Additionally, you show that the PLM took from the Jacobin example and the Liberal Mexican political tradition it nominally adhered to a strong sense of anticlericalism and a championing of popular democracy. With reference to the Liberal Constitution of 1857, in point of fact, Librado Rivera wrote that “The Constitution has died…”

Another critical precursor of the resurgent Liberal Mexican movement, of course, was the experiences of the so-called “generation of 1892” to which Magón and the other principal Liberals belong. 1892 was the year in which Díaz “won” his third consecutive reelection, leading to student protests that openly defied the Porfiriato, with one action in May organized by students crying “Death to Centralism!” and “Down with Reelection!” Such youthful militancy was repressed in turn, with dozens arrested and threatened with execution—until Magón and several other young comrades were saved from this fate by an “indignant mob [… that] threatened to attack Mexico City’s Municipal Palace, where we were being held as a result of our demonstration against the dictatorship.” As a telling sidenote, Ricardo discloses that that was his “first experience in the struggle”!

As you explain, moreover, those who gravitated toward the PLM in the early 1900’s openly resisted the technocratic group of “cientificos” (“scientists”) who had been empowered by Díaz’s reelection, and they sought to wield Liberalism against its observed corruption into an institutionalized positivism that was friendly to the Porfiriato. Save for Ricardo, in addition, most of the central figures in the PLM were committed Masons, as you detail. Now, it is known that the Junta did not come out openly as anarchist until the manifesto it released on September 23, 1911, following the military defeat of its Baja California campaign and the emergence of dramatic fissures within the PLM itself, as we shall explore in the second part of our conversation. So how did anarchist thought, Jacobinism, and Mexican Liberalism combine to inspire the most radical group within the PLM: that of the libertarian communists Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, Librado Rivera, and Práxedis Guerrero? In addition, do you not think that the anarchist and Jacobin influences contradict themselves in terms of political philosophy, particularly in light of the centralized dictatorship instituted by the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror of 1793-4?

This is a very difficult question. Let me give it a try—but only briefly. Mexican Liberalism, anarchism, and Jacobinism all share the anti-clerical element, and that was one important commonality. The sense that religion—I mean organized religion—was a source of repression and backwardness was common to all three strands; in addition, anarchists felt strongly that religious authority served to reinforce capital, the exploitation of women, the State, and was at the root of the false morality of their society. The three strands also shared in their cult of liberty, and in their deep rejection of slavery and servitude. The slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was very important to all three strands, even if it was interpreted differently by each. That is why the
Marseillaise was also an anarchist hymn.

Naturally, there were fundamental differences beneath these points in common. Mexican Liberals favored private property and were adamantly against corporate property—not only the corporate property of the Church, but also of indigenous communities, whereas the anarchists were very much in favor of corporate communal property. Jacobins shared with anarchists the belief in unmediated and direct popular sovereignty, but Jacobins believed that sovereignty was materialized in control of the State. So that State terror was in some ways a natural consequence of Jacobinism: they used the State against the backward elements of society. Anarchists believed in unmediated popular sovereignty, but not in the State. They favored direct action—taking the means of production and placing them in communitarian control.

Historically speaking, the Porfiriato is known for the economic “progress” it brought, in terms of the growth of industry, the burgeoning of extractivism, and the “opening up” of the Mexican economy (or its outright selling off), with clear parallels to the present situation, ruled over by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Of course, under Díaz, this economic expansion depended critically on widespread chattel slavery alongside the brutal exploitation of putatively “free” labor, as in the case of the striking workers at the Cananea mine in the Sonoran Desert who were violently suppressed by the Mexican Army in summer 1906, leading the PLM to plan and attempt to execute its first revolutionary uprising shortly thereafter. Would you say that the social alternative favored by Ricardo and his comrades represented a true mirror-opposite to the “dark and satanic Mexico” for which Díaz was responsible, in terms of counterposing an agrarian anarcho-communist vision, à la Lev Tolstoy in a way? It would seem that Ricardo’s stress on a strategy of collective direct action separated him radically from the analysis shared by many of his socialist counterparts, who held against Magón that Mexico was not yet “ready” for communism. Plus, you show us that, while imprisoned in Leavenworth in 1919, Enrique defines a “life worth living” as one consisting of the universally egalitarian distribution “of the comforts and scientific advances of today,” as integrated with the purportedly tranquil lives enjoyed by his indigenous grandparents, “working on their communal lands […] free of the master’s yoke.”

The short answer to your question is yes. A more nuanced response would have to include changes in Ricardo’s position. In 1906, the program that the Junta developed, and to which Ricardo also subscribed, was pretty much that of the socialist group—promoting land reform, political and electoral reform, social and political rights for workers, but not the destruction of the state. By 1910, however, and throughout the Mexican Revolution, Ricardo favored direct action and an anarcho-communist vision.

To close this first part of our conversation, let us shift to considering the “rather peculiar” social conditions you identify as necessary for “imagin[ing]” and “striv[ing] for” the prospect of anarchist revolution advanced by the PLM, which for you is “the most radical revolution that the Enlightenment spawned.” The key factors to which you point are labor mobility, migration, exile, and proletarian internationalism, in addition to living-in-common (which you refer to as the “Liberal Joint Family System,” as evinced for example in the Regeneración offices, which were said to resemble a commune, or one of Thomas More’s “hospitals”), as well as a profoundly passionate love for “the people” (el pueblo) and for comrades in the struggle. This latter dynamic is reflected well in the dyadic connections forged between Práxedis and Francisco Manrique and Magón and Librado Rivera. You observe that, in the daily lives of these militant revolutionists, communism was not a utopia but rather “an everyday reality, created by the need to pool resources, […] to explode traditional family structures so as to admit perfect strangers to the most intimate situations, and […] to build transcendental goals in the face of the breakdown of traditional morality, customs, and habits.” You emphasize this dual sense of platonic and conjugal love to have been “much more important to [the anarchists], both as an ideal and as a daily practice, than it was for the Villas and Zapatas, the Obregons and Pascual Orozcos.” Why do you suppose this was the case?

I’ll speak to the significance of love in this movement, and its contrast with revolutionary armies in Mexico. There are ideological reasons for favoring love amongst the anarchists which I won’t get into. What I found more interesting is that the actual social conditions of militancy of the PLM led to developing love relationships—amongst men and women and amongst same-sex friends (whether or not the latter developed into fully erotic relationships).

The PLM developed in clandestinity, and was always subjected to persecution and infiltration by spies and traitors. This meant that trust, deep personal trust, was of critical significance, since you were placing your life and the future of the movement in the hands of another. That is one factor favoring the development of deep personal ties, including love. A second is that the members of the PLM had to rely on enormous self-discipline. They were ascetics, in the sense that they had to work by day and mobilize by night. They needed to save their earnings and invest savings in the cause. They needed to read and to reflect. Reading and writing—which was so important to the anarchists—tended to foment love, in that it was a practice of correspondence. One might say that the movement fostered deep investments in the self and in self-fashioning, and that this favored the development of love. Finally, the communities that the exiles built were based to a large degree on affinity. Because of the intense mobility of this group, it relied on affinity in order, for instance, to find lodging when an individual arrived in a new city, or to find work, or to organize. Solidarity was needed in the everyday, and it was solidarity based on affinity—a factor that also fomented the flourishing of love.

For revolutionaries in Mexico, by contrast, the experience of revolution was like a gale that swept everything in its path. The revolution was popularly represented as la bola—sort of like tumble-weed. Revolutionary armies passed through villages like locusts. Individuals joined the revolutionary army as it passed through. Sometimes they were abducted into armies, either as soldiers or as soldaderas. Connections between men and women were therefore fragile. The lack of marriage bonds was not the product of some deep ideological rejection of the church or of the family as an institution of oppression, but simply a product of displacement and everyday life in the army. Revolutionary leaders tended to have multiple wives—dozens, sometimes. A few of them—Zapata is an example—tended to cement ties to villages by having a local wife or lover. One is hard-put to find relationships comparable, say, to Ricardo and María’s or Enrique and Teresa’s or Librado and Conchita’s or Práxedis’s and Francisco Manrique’s in Mexico’s revolutionary movements. Perhaps the homosocial or homoerotic romantic relationships may have been a little more similar—insofar as you had “war buddies,” and deep reliance and trust amongst close comrades in Mexico, but it is not clear that these involved the sort of deep soul commitments and ideological commonalities that we see in a relationship like that of Práxedis and Manrique, a relationship that was not governed so much by circumstance as by mutual commitment.

1 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994).

2 Práxedis G. Guerrero, Artículos literarios y de combate: pensamientos; crónicas revolucionarias, etc. Placer Armado Ediciones, 2012 (1924), 80-2.

An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War

February 24, 2015
A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

Published originally on Anarkismo

ABSTRACT: The devastating civil war that has followed the popular uprising in Syria which began in March 2011 has to an extent drowned out the legitimate grievances of the civil-protest movement against Assad and Ba’athism. This war has been greatly inflamed by support by the U.S. and Israel along with the reactionary Gulf monarchies for anti-Assad rebels on the one hand, and aid provided to the regime by Iran and Russia on the other. In addition, clearly, this geopolitical dynamic has driven the rise of ISIS/Islamic State, and it informs the new war being waged by the NATO-Arab monarch “coalition.” In contrast to the neoliberal authoritarianism of Assad and the reactionary fanaticism of ISIS and associated rebel-groupings, though, the Kurds of northeastern Syria (Rojava) are working to institute a more or less anti-authoritarian society. Hope may be found in this social model, as in the direct action of the uprising.

“Behold where stands the usurper’s cursèd head. The time is free.”

– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 5, scene 8

The popular uprising in Syria that has demanded the fall of Bashar al-Assad and an end to Ba’athist domination since its beginning in March 2011 poses a number of questions for the international left, particularly anti-authoritarians. For one, the Assad regime has long sought to present itself as an Arab State in steadfast resistance (sumoud) to U.S./Israeli designs in the Middle East, as well as a government that is more representative of Arab public opinion, compared with the various Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is significant, in this sense, that Syria’s official title under Ba’athism has been the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), a name no doubt adopted as a marker of anti-monarchical distinction.1 The SAR’s progressive stance of resistance to monarchy notwithstanding, Syrian Ba’athism is clearly dictatorial, and it uses democratic centralism to attempt to legitimate its rule. As basic reflection on Assad’s response to the initial uprising makes clear, the Ba’athist State is brutally elitist in both theory and practice.

The profundity of horror of the civil war that has followed the popular mobilizations in Syria is evident, and though not all the violence which has now raged for nearly four years can be attributed to the regime, its choice to respond to the explosion of popular protests in 2011 with ruthlessness no doubt precipitated the armed insurgency that subsequently developed against it. The civil war midwived by this conflict between people and State has taken on a decidedly international scope—for to understand events in Syria itself, one must also consider the geopolitical situation, wherein Syria is allied with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as part of the “resistance axis” arrayed against the US, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beyond such considerations, transnational jihadist networks from the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have greatly inflamed the situation, having been born from the flames of this war—though not without considerable foreign support.

As against reactionary currents like al-Nusra and ISIS, progressive movements that have emerged from the activist movement against Assad and the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) show promise in terms of anti-authoritarianism, however much their efforts have seem to have been drowned out by the fighting. Above all, it would seem that the Kurdish libertarian-socialist currents which have grown considerably in northeastern Syria—Rojava—in connection with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) show the most promise in terms of social revolution, though the substantial military aid such forces have received from the US and NATO to help break ISIS’ siege of the border town of Kobanê since last September does raise some questions. An additional factor to consider when reflecting on the reported adoption and partial implementation by the PYD and its sister PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) of anarchist Murray Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism is that the Kurds of Rojava have enjoyed autonomy from the Ba’athist state since its withdrawal of troops from the area in 2012. As a comrade pointed out in the question-and-answer period that followed the recent presentation by a representative of the Kurdish Anarchist Forum (KAF) on Rojava at the 2014 London Anachist Bookfair, the more central regions of Syria have borne far more repression and destruction, due to the actions of regime and rebels alike.

In sheer terms of scale, it is overwhelmingly the Sunni majority of Syria that has suffered the most during the uprising and war, in light of the disproportionate number of dead and displaced who belong to this majority community. It has been Sunni neighborhoods and villages that have been the primary targets of the Ba’athist regime’s brutal counter-insurgent strategy, which has involved indiscriminate artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and SCUD missile attacks.2 Different casualty estimates claim between 130,000 and 200,000 people to have been killed in Syria in the past five years, and the UN reports that 9 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war, 3 million across international borders. Clearly, the war in Syria must be taken as among the most devastating ongoing conflicts in the world.

A Brief History of Modern Syria

To begin to make sense of Syria’s uprising and civil war, one must consider the history of the country and region. Excluding consideration of classical antiquity, the rise and spread of Islam, and the domination of the Levant by the Ottoman Empire, a truncated version of Syrian history would begin from the time of European colonization after the First World War, when the defeat of the Ottomans opened the possibility of self-determination for the Arabs who had previously been subjects of Istanbul. Characteristically, however, French and British imperialists decided themselves to appropriate former Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, dividing these into two regions that were demarcated by the infamous Sykes-Picot Line, agreed to in 1916. Thanks in no small part to the dialectically subversive and colonial machinations of T. E. Lawrence, Britain awarded itself Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon. In 1920, when French General Henri Gourard entered Damascus after defeating indigenous forces allied to Faisal bin Hussein—a Hashemite royal, related to the present Jordanian King Abdullah II—he is reported to have repaired to the tomb of the world-historical Kurdish general Salah-ad-din (Saladin), located in the Old City, and to have announced, “We’re back!”3 Such imperial arrogance notwithstanding, French colonialism did not survive long in the Levant, as an Arab-nationalist insurrection led by Sultan Pasha al-Atrash raged from 1925-1927, and mass civil-disobedience demanded respect for the popular will in favor of independence in Lebanon and Syria at the end of World War II.4 Though the French military tried to suppress both major uprisings using disproportionate force, it ultimately was forced to recognize that it had lost control of the Levant, and so granted these countries independence (Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1946)—in a preview of further losses to the French Empire incurred at Dienbienphu in Vietnam and later, during the Algerian Revolution.

Following formal independence and the election to power of Arab-nationalists in Syria, the country joined the Arab League and resisted the expanding Zionist enterprise—though to little avail, in light of the events of May 1948. The Arab Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party was founded in 1946 by Michel Aflaq, a Damascene independent Marxist and pan-Arabist, and it enjoyed electoral successes during Syria’s first decade of independence.5 The country engaged in an unprecedented federation with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt under the aegis of the “United Arab Republic,” though this collaboration lasted only three years (1958-1961). In 1963, the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup, proclaiming the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), but it was not until 1970 that air force commander Hafez al-Assad took power. It was during this time of Assad’s rise that the Syrian Ba’ath Party was purged of its more radical elements.6 Prior to Assad’s takeover, Syria allied itself with the Soviet Union, this being an alliance that has survived the USSR’s collapse: indeed, the ongoing relationship between post-Soviet Russia and the SAR is key to understanding the “balance of forces” in the present conflict, which has been marked by asymmetrical superiority on the part of the regime, at least in the early period of the uprising and war, before the rise of ISIS. In 2011, Syria was Russia’s second largest export-market for arms (a value of $500 million), and Putin sympathizes with Assad’s presentation of the conflict as a struggle against militant Islamists, for this framing has clear echoes of the counter-insurgent campaign he and Yeltsin have pursued in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, during the post-Soviet period.7

Special note should be made of the SAR’s foreign policies, since these have accounted for the relative historical and geographical uniqueness of Syrian Ba’athism, and the legitimacy that has been afforded it within many circles. Assad the elder and Assad the younger have kept up the appearance of making up a key part of the “rejectionist front” against the U.S. and Israel, as seen in the 1973 war Hafez al-Assad launched jointly with Egypt against the Jewish State, and the long-standing material and financial support the regime has provided to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Historically, Syrian Ba’athism has supported the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as provided safe haven for PKK fighters fleeing Turkish military repression across Syria’s northern border.8 Significantly, moreover, Assad had hosted Hamas since 1999, when it was expelled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, until the coming of the uprising, which led the group to break with the Syrian leader, in accordance with the international Muslim Brotherhood’s position of opposition to the regime. Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal ordered the Damascus headquarters to be packed up in January 2012, and since then, Hamas’s HQ-in-exile has tellingly been based in Doha, Qatar!9 Nonetheless, according to the analysis of Ramzy Baroud, Hamas may in fact be considered now as seeking to mend ties with the Shia resistance axis, in light of a lack of alternative sources of support, particularly as regards relations with neighboring Egypt following the junta’s coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in summer 2013. In turn, the SAR’s historical support for Hamas can in some ways be considered an outgrowth of its opposition to Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a conflict that goes back to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). As regards Lebanon, the Ba’athist alliance with Hezbollah cannot be considered as separate from the regime’s close ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, with which the elder Assad quickly allied himself upon its establishment in 1979—however strange the image of a secular dictator embracing a fundamentalist Shi’ite clerical regime may be. In part, of course, the Assads’ alliance with Iran has been driven by the split in Ba’athism between its Syrian and Iraqi branches, a division that took place in 1966: Assad supported Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion, and he even sent 1500 troops to aid coalition forces against Saddam during Desert Storm a decade later.10 Significantly, moreover, with regard to neighboring Lebanon, the SAR sent an invasion-occupation force to the country in 1976, supposedly to reduce tensions in the raging civil war, though tens of thousands of troops remained until they were forced out in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, an act that was widely blamed on the Assad regime. In terms of the politics of occupation, the elder Assad’s support for right-wing Maronite Christian militias against the PLO in the Lebanese Civil War complicated the Ba’athist State’s claim to serve revolutionary ends, even if Israel’s 1982 incursion of Beirut and southern Lebanon was motivated in large part by the prospect of removing Syrian forces from the country.11

Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez following the latter’s death in 2000. The younger Assad (34 at the time) was readily welcomed by the Syrian Parliament, which promptly lowered the minimum age of candidacy for the presidency to accommodate him, and he was “elected” with 97% of the vote in that year. While Bashar al-Assad has no doubt preserved the dictatorial nature of the Ba’athist State, thus carrying over the work of his father, earlier in his reign there was hope that he would bring liberalizing reforms to the SAR. Such hopes were motivated to a degree by the younger Assad’s background, profession, and personal life—he was an opthalmologist, not a military man, and was married to the British-raised daughter of a Sunni surgeon, and for this reason was personally acquainted with life in the United Kingdom.12 The beginning of the younger Assad’s rule thus coincided with the emergence of the ill-fated “Damascus Spring,” a movement that sought to demand that the transition in power from father to son be accompanied by suspension of the State of Emergency Law (live since 1963), the release of political prisoners, and the implementation of liberal electoral reforms. Though Assad ultimately suspended such political reform efforts, he certainly has delivered in neoliberal terms—that is, in terms of serving the domestic and transnational capitalist class. After taking the reigns of the Ba’athist State, the younger Assad opened up the Syrian economy, selling off firms that previously had been State-owned, slashing subsidies for food and energy, and squeezing the financing of social services that had previously benefited the popular classes under the slogan of “Arab socialism.” Besides, in 2001 Assad opened negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).13 As has been noted, these economic reforms were not matched by a parallel opening in politics. According to Alan George, author of Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom (2003), Assad’s reform proposal was for a “China-style economic liberalization.”14 Ironically, and to an extent reflecting a Marxian dialectic, Assad’s neoliberalism has adversely impacted the living standards of the majority of Syrians, particularly rural residents, many of whom would go on to join the burgeoning popular mobilizations against the regime in 2011, even while it was precisely these elements that had constituted Syrian Ba’athism’s primary social base in previous decades.15 Political reform in the SAR would not come until the first month of the uprising, when Assad was forced to announce the suspension of the Emergency Law and a limited amnesty for political prisoners, in addition to granting citizenship to Syria’s 300,000 Kurds, who to that point had been stateless under Ba’athism.

While Assad’s economic policies are neoliberal and orthodox, given their empowerment of a high bourgeois Sunni class that forms a critical pillar of support for Ba’athism—and in this sense, one sees a clear parallel to post-Soviet Russian society, with the oligarchs and grand capitalists who have supported Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s closest allies—he has maintained the SAR’s posturing of resistance to US/Israeli and reactionary-Gulf monarch designs in the Middle East. Assad greatly opposed the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian State has hosted more than a million refugees from that conflict. What is more, Assad facilitated the entry of Sunni jihadists into western Iraq to resist the US occupation.16 Taking these factors into account, and thinking of the SAR’s support for Palestinian and Kurdish resistance movements, a fruitful parallel can perhaps be drawn between Assad and Mu’ammar al-Gadhafi, who during his tenure championed Pan-Africanism and supported guerrilla groups resisting Israel and the West both financially and materially. The difference in fate between these two Arab dictatorships would seem to have to do with timing more than anything else: the unexpected NATO war to topple Qadhafi served as a precedent for Russia and China in terms of any possible repeat-action vis-à-vis Syria at the UN Security Council. After Qadhafi’s ouster, Putin and China would not countenance another opportunistic authorization of use of force by US/NATO forces. In fact, this geopolitical dynamic can to a degree explain the increasingly desperate recourse Obama made in September 2013 to try to commence an open air-bombardment campaign against Assad in the wake of the sarin gas attack in al-Ghouta, outside Damascus: first, POTUS claimed he would—much like his predecessor, on a similar pretext—act unilaterally with force, but he then backed down amidst marked opposition at home and on the international stage. When John Kerry off-handedly observed that the war-drive could be demobilized if Assad gave up his chemicals weapons, Putin’s diplomats jumped at the opportunity, arranging a deal whereby Assad would surrender his non-conventional weapons stocks—though significantly, while not demanding the same of Syria’s Zionist neighbor. This compromise contributed greatly to a de-escalation of tensions, thus averting a Libya-type operation in the Levant, which imaginably would have had similar results in terms of the fate of the regime and Syrian society. Tripoli’s official government has seen it necessary to flee the rampaging fundamentalist Islamists unleashed by NATO; it now bases its operations on a Greek car-ferry off-shore the eastern city of Tobruk.

March 2011: The Beginning of the Uprising

Undoubtedly, many of the initial demonstrations against the regime in 2011 raised legitimate grievances against Ba’athism: its corruption, inequalities, and authoritarianism. As is known, the Syrian uprising came late in the process known as the “Arab Spring,” months after the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen had begun. The popular rebellion started as a response to the imprisonment of several elementary-school boys who had painted the famous saying from the Arab revolts (al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam, “the people want the fall of the regime”) as graffiti on their school in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. When their parents and other local adults mobilized to demand their return, the police are reported to have denied them access, and even threatened that the children would never be seen again. This grave insult to popular dignity catalyzed progressively larger protests in Deraa that ultimately met the bullets of State authorities, in turn leading to the explosion of protests in other parts of the country, first in the traditional anti-Assad bastions of Homs and Hama. (This latter city, comprised of the Sunni majority, was the site of a ghastly repression inflicted by Ba’athist paratroopers in response to an uprising organized there by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982; between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrians were killed.17) Even in Damascus, poor and middle-class individuals and families demonstrated against the regime in the early months of the rebellion, though in Aleppo and Latakia, home to more minorities, protests were less forthcoming.18 In terms of class and geography, the character of the protest movements seems to have been sharply divided between poor rural and urban Syrians, Sunni and secular, from the working classes and middle classes, as arrayed against big business (including and especially the Sunni high bourgeoisie), the military/State apparatus, Alawites, and Assad himself. Christians certainly also have been targeted by chauvinist currents within the opposition, and many have supported the regime from the beginning due to fears of the specter of Islamist domination. Another factor has been the rural-urban divide, with palpable tensions between the better-off, presumably “progressive” urban dwellers of Damascus and the supposedly conservative, peasant background of many regime opponents.19

With reference to this early period of the conflict between people and State, it is important to clearly state that the militaristic and carceral violence imposed by Assad’s regime from above was stark and grossly disproportionate—and arguably, it was consciously so—in light of the detention of ten thousand Syrians in the first six months of the uprising, and a total of nearly sixty-thousand imprisoned since then. Such fascist tactics notwithstanding, regime soldiers and police were attacked and often shot dead at this time as well, most likely by armed Islamist groups who opportunistically took advantage of the destabilization initiated by the popular protests against Assad and Ba’athist domination. Over 100 State security officers were killed in the first month and a half of the uprising, with an additional hundred massacred at Jisr al-Shughour in June 2011. This death-toll on the regime side is certainly orders of magnitude smaller than the number of casualties inflicted on protestors in the early months of the uprising—nearly 2500 are reported to have been killed in the uprising’s first six months alone—but it can help explain the regime’s resort to an iron-fisted response, which its regime propaganda rationalized by playing up the angles of “foreign conspiracy” and “Islamist terrorist gangs.” Assad definitely missed a huge opportunity for de-escalating tensions when he failed to intervene and punish the elements of the security forces who had reacted brutally and contemptuously to the first protests in Deraa, but then again, he may well have believed from the start that only a highly authoritarian approach to dealing with the popular revolt would allow his regime to survive.20

With the passage of time and the transition from popular uprising to insurgency and civil war, as spurred on by regime brutality, the regime’s military-police apparatus took increasingly macabre means to suppress the civil uprising: it began employing artillery against rebel positions and civilian areas alike in fall 2011, followed by aerial bombardment in spring 2012, cluster bombs that summer, and then missiles in the fall.21 Though the cities of Hama and Homs have met with great violence from the regime from the beginning of the uprising, Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib, and the suburbs of Damascus have been subjected to as much devastation, if not more. Intriguingly, it would seem that Assad’s commanders have chosen to rely more on artillery and air-power than the infantry and armored divisions to serve the end of repression, due to the greater risks of defection involved in the use of regular ground-troops, who are overwhelmingly Sunni conscripts.22 Indeed, to ensure the loyalty of the military and security services to Assad, the officer class and intelligence agencies are mostly constituted by Alawites.23

After months of initial civil protest against the regime—some currents of which had demanded mere parliamentary reforms at the outset, but then were subsequently radicalized by the regime crackdown, coming to demand no less than the fall of Assad and Ba’athism altogether—the popular-activist movement was eclipsed by the resort to armed struggle, as prosecuted both by Islamist opportunists and more secular rebels, including thousands of defectors from regime forces, a handful of whom proclaimed the foundation of the Free Syria Army (FSA) in June 2011. In addition to army defectors, it is understood that FSA ranks were filled at the beginning as well by volunteer civilian-militants driven to resist the regime by force of arms. In this sense, the beginnings of the FSA must not be conflated with what the FSA subsequently has become, following the pernicious influences the CIA, GCC, and competing Islamist rebels have had on the FSA brigades. In parallel to the FSA’s armed struggle, an important anti-authoritarian development has taken place among the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that have managed regions of Syrian territory from which the regime has been expelled during the war. According to the estimation of Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, the praxis of the LCCs has made the Syrian uprising “the most democratically organized” of all the Arab revolts that began in 2011.24 As a matter of fact, the decision regime forces made early on to dismantle these decentralized units by arresting their principal organizers played an important part in the general shift from civil to armed tactics on the part of increasingly more regime opponents.25

Speaking of the oppositional movements to Assad—besides class considerations, which can again be summarized broadly as pitting the poor and middle classes among the Sunni majority against Sunni capitalists, Alawites, and the regime’s repressive apparatus, religious identification has been a critical factor in the course of the uprising and civil war. Due to the particularities of Syrian Ba’athism, especially the younger Assad’s neoliberal turn, Syria’s rural poor hail overwhelmingly from the Sunni majority (74% of the population), while families and members of the Alawite and Christian minorities (12% and 10%, respectively) have been the most economically privileged groups under Ba’athism, besides the Sunni high bourgeoisie. Though notable exceptions exist to the established trend of Alawite and Christian support for the regime, it generally holds to be true: like the even smaller Druze and Shia minority groups of Syria (4% of the population), Alawites and Christians fear domination by chauvinist interpretations of Islam, like those expressed and affirmed by the majority of the armed groups that have lined up against Assad.26 If one looks to history and especially the present, one can understand such fears: consider the collusion between the Egyptian military and Wahhabis to attack and massacre Coptic Christians after Mubarak’s fall, or ISIS’s ethnic-cleansing operations against Christian Yazidis and Shia in Iraq and eastern Syria.

Islamization of the Anti-Assad Opposition

During this time, early on within the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, the oppositional movement was largely “hijacked” by Islamization and sectarian jihad. The “pro-rebel” narrative on this evolutionary process, which is accepted by some on the left, indeed, is that the regime’s violent repressiveness made a non-violent social transformation of Syria impossible, such that protestors were forced to take up arms. However, as the Angry Arab News Service editor As’ad Abu-Khalil rightly notes, this explanation leaves unclear why the armed insurgency so quickly became dominated by jihadist elements, with the more secular FSA units progressively eclipsed on the battlefield over time. Realizing the fears of many reasonable regime opponents regarding the option for an armed approach to resistance, the option for armed insurgency has brought the imposition of a reified power on the Syrian masses who previously had struggled legitimately against Ba’athist domination, as militarization, sectarianism, and Sunni chauvinism took hold.27 Besides the FSA, one cannot overlook the primacy of reactionary movements like Ahrar al-Sham (Free Islamic Men of the Levant), Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Islamiyya (Islamic Front), Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), and ISIS itself in this second phase of the Syrian saga. All of these groupings have been heavily influenced by Wahhabism, otherwise known as Salafism, or openly endorse it—this being an extremely intolerant and highly authoritarian interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abed al-Wahhab (1703-1792 CE). It is well-known that the opposition driving many of these extremist Sunni groups has been hatred of the SAR’s secularism and the regime’s privileging of Alawites, who are considered by Wahhabis as “nusayris,” or fake Muslims—that is, infidels!

This process toward the militarization and Islamization of the opposition to Syrian Ba’athism has not primarily been an organic Syrian process, as it has undoubtedly been fueled greatly by the influx of thousands of foreign fighters pertaining to these various Islamist gangs and the significant support provided to these in terms of funding, arms, and training by the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S./Israel. The degree to which these outside imperialist interests have provided support to the different currents within the anti-Assad opposition has been variable, yet it has been considerable nonetheless: a “conservative” estimate of the quantity of arms supplied to rebels by the US/GCC has been calculated as amounting to at least 3,500 tons, in acccordance with the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad cites estimates that Qatar has provided between $2 and $6 billion to rebel forces in Syria. Officially, the U.S. gave only “non-lethal aid” to Free Syrian Army units in the first couple years of the civil war, though numerous stockpiles of US-made heavy weapons as well as tanks and armored-personnel personnel carriers have made it into the hands of ISIS—“appropriated,” the story goes, as they were by ISIS from other anti-regime forces, as well as Iraqi Army units, who surrendered Mosul so quickly when confronted with IS hordes this past June. Turkey and Jordan both host CIA bases where arms have been “coordinated” and “moderate rebels” trained. Additionally, it has come to light that Israel provides medical aid to rebel fighters injured by regime forces in southern Syria—recall that the Israeli military shot down a regime jet over the Golan Heights in September 2014 that was bombarding al-Nusra positions, and consider that the Jewish State has bombed Syria on at least six separate occasions since the start of the uprising and civil war, with the most recent coming being just in December 2014.28 With regard to the relationship between ISIS and the GCC, it is not necessarily true that KSA and Qatar State interests have funded ISIS specifically, but the evidence does suggest that private interests from these countries, as well as in Kuwait and the UAE, have been seminal in ISIS’ meteoric rise. Besides, what is ISIS but an extreme expression of the “moderate” rebels that have been openly supported by Qatar and the KSA for years? It would seem that, other than for the Kurds and certain elements within what remains of the FSA, the spectrum of armed resistance to Assad is limited to the far-right dimensions of political thought.

Foreign Factors Prolonging and Intensifying the War: Empire and Climate Catastrophe

The Syrian Civil War has been as bloody as it has been drawn-out principally due to the material and financial support of broadly different imperialisms for the two (or three, or four) sides of the conflict**: Russia and Iran supporting Assad on the one hand, and the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the US/Israel supporting various rebel factions on the other. Shamus Cooke makes this point knowingly on in a July 2013 piece on Truthout, though he does not name the Russian/Iranian support for the SAR as similarly contributing to the war’s prolongation. To an extent, the different constituent parties on the NATO/GCC side would seem to disagree on exactly which oppositional groups to aid and favor, and there has been some speculation that the US and Israel in fact prefer Assad to any Wahhabi or Salafist movement that could follow him, which would likely be allied to forces like ISIS—such that US/Israeli support for the rebels could be argued as seeking simply to install a solidly pro-Western strong man to replace Assad, perhaps someone like FSA General Salim Idris. This end clearly would serve US/Israeli designs for regional hegemony, as it would GCC interests—the excision or neutralization of a major component of the “resistance axis” in the Middle East. Yet this goal seems very illusory at the present time, when the FSA is greatly weakened in terms of the balance of forces in the civil war. Indeed, many former FSA units have reportedly abandoned the brigades to join the more successful Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Besides the ongoing conflict between people and State, the main military conflict at this time is between the regime and ISIS, with the newly forged NATO-Arab monarch coalition’s air-war against ISIS arguably and ironically serving Assad’s strategic objectives in some ways.

Besides the very real arms and cash provided by the NATO/GCC side to the rebels since the beginning of the uprising and civil war, it bears mentioning that the specifically Saudi ideological influence on the rebel-currents predates the current disturbances by decades. Flush with unimaginable wealth yielded by the exploitation of its massive petroleum-deposits in the late twentieth century, the KSA has long prioritized proselytization of its particularly reactionary interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world, with well-known noxious effects. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Deobandi school of Islam among Pashtun refugees in Pakistan was seminal to the success of the Taliban in taking power in war-torn Afghanistan, a society exhausted in 1996 by more than a decade of Soviet occupation and the years of civil war among Afghans that followed Soviet withdrawal. More fundamentally, of course, the Saudis’ matching of funds and arms supplied by the CIA to the mujahideen via Pakistan during the Soviet occupation itself played a critical role in the strengthening of reactionary, fundamentalist forces in the region. The story is not entirely dissimilar in the case of Syria, where Saudi private and public resources have been directed to chauvinist opposition forces that have to varying degrees now melded into ISIS. Moreover, the KSA’s established sectarianism in supporting Sunnis against Shi’ites and thus presumably Iran—see the Saudi invasion of Bahrain in 2011 to suppress the Sunni-Shia popular uprising against the ruling Khalifa dynasty there, itself being Sunni—has further polluted the geopolitical context of the region, such that Sunnis and Shi’ites increasingly face off against one another on religious lines, as in Iraq, rather than organize jointly against the capitalists, monarchs, Zionists, and other authoritarians. The toxic legacy of the KSA’s Wahhabism in terms of suppressing left-wing and humanist alternatives in the Middle East should be clear for all to see.29 In this sense, it is not terribly difficult to see how aspects of the Syrian and foreign opposition to Assad have been framed primarily in religious terms, with political Islam seemingly resonating far more as an identity of resistance to the regime than leftist sentiments. With this said, however, the decline of regional left-wing forces cannot be blamed exclusively on the KSA, for the Assads clearly have contributed to this dynamic as well, as the US, Israel, and Iran have.30

Another critical aspect to consider in terms of imperial power and oil politics is the role that environmental and geographical factors have played in the development of the uprising and civil war. From 2006 to 2011, Syria suffered an unprecedented drought which in all likelihood follows from the observed decline in Mediterranean winter precipitation over the past four decades, a change which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has attributed to global warming. The drought has been far worse than any experienced during the twentieth century, and has even been described as the worst since the onset of agricultural civilization itself in the Near East. As can be imagined, this new ecological situation has worsened poverty, especially for pastoralists and agriculturalists in Syria’s rural regions, and contributed to a mass-migration of these effective environmental refugees. It has been argued that this ecological-demographic shift, which has involved an estimated 1.5 million people, greatly exacerbated anti-Assad sentiments, and that it would indeed act as a “threat-multiplier” as regards the stability of the regime with the coming of the uprising. Yet it must not somehow be thought that Assad is entirely the innocent victim of climatological chance here—or really, more accurately said, the previous and ongoing legacies of mass-carbon pollution by the West—for his liberalization of the economy itself certainly gave monopoly-capital a free hand in exploiting water reserves with abandon, leading to marked falls in water-table levels and thus greater societal vulnerability to turns of events like a devastating drought that in turn is intensified by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).

Coming to the present, and to consideration of what could or should be done, an arms embargo for all parties to the conflict could be one means of de-escalating the Syrian Civil War, as would be the renunciation by the US/Israel of a war-footing against Iran, as Richard Falk recommends, in addition to progress toward transforming the Middle East into a nuclear- and weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone (NWFZ and WMDFZ).31 Admittedly, is difficult to envision how such steps would realistically be implemented, given the established hegemonic interests on both sides of the conflict, both in terms of Syria itself as well as with regard to Iran behind it. So far, the three iterations of the Geneva conferences on Syria’s future and prospects for reconciliation between Assad and the opposition have accomplished little, as Shamus Cooke has reported. By excluding Iran from the talks and continuing to press forward with new funding for the FSA on the order of $500 million, Obama shows his administration’s lack of interest in seriously working toward a cessation of hostilities—in a parallel to the White House’s reactionary standpoint on a number of other pressing global issues, from support for Israel to dismissal of the increasingly radical recommendations of climate scientists. In terms of the humanitarian and political dimensions of the ongoing drought in Syria, this would only seem to show the acute importance of concerted global efforts to radically reduce carbon emissions as a means of reducing the probability of future recurrences of eventualities like this one, or ones far worse indeed, that could imaginably affect billions of lives. As is clear, though, from any contemplation of the theater of the absurd on hand seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru, the global capitalist power-structure is far more interested in upholding its utter irrationality and violence than in dealing in any sort of reasonable fashion with serious existential threats like ACD.

In terms of the war itself, a cease-fire between the regime and rebel forces would be but a minimum demand for progress on the question of Syria’s future. Though such an accord would not resolve issues regarding the ultimate fate of the regime or the importance of demobilization and disarmament—to say nothing of the geopolitical power-struggle—it would seem basic in terms of beginning to attend to the devastation wrought on the Syrian people and the region by this war. Another critical aspect is to ensure that the rights of the country’s minority communities are protected in a future Syria; as has been stated, sectarianism and fears of Sunni majoritarianism have clearly driven many Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shi’ites to side with the regime.32 Granted, it is true that progress toward respect for cultural pluralism, as toward a resolution of the civil war in general, is now greatly complicated by the rise of ISIS, with the strange dynamic being symbolized by the unexpected phenomenon of NATO/GCC air-forces bombing positions within the delimitations of Syrian territory that are controlled by elements of the opposition they previously had supported against Assad.

**The two principal sides are Assad and ISIS, though the FSA could be considered a third front (one that arguably is on the way out), with the popular civil struggle against Ba’athism a fourth.

The Promise of the Rojava Revolution?

Within the course of the Syrian Civil War, which has self-evidently been so full of darkness, negation, and destruction, one potentially affirming development has been the unfolding of Kurdish autonomy in the northeast of the country, known as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava. There, the PYD and the Kurdish Group of Communities (KCK) have overseen what some observers have hailed as a thoroughgoing social revolution—the “Rojava Revolution”—inspired to some degree by the anarchism of Murray Bookchin. While the revolution is said to have followed Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism, the KCK has referred to its particular praxis as “democratic confederalism,” or “Kurdish communalism.” These changes are in turn said to have reflected the recent internal reorientation of the PKK, with which the YPD and KCK are affiliated, from a traditional Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective seeking national liberation for the Kurds to a more communitarian-anarchist approach reminiscent of that taken by the Zapatistas in southern Mexico. The outcomes that have been reported from KCK communities, particularly thanks to the efforts of the Democratic Society Movement, or Tev-Dem, have been a rise in councilism and direct democracy, an internal supersession of the use of currency and a shift toward cooperative production within the KCK, and a marked emphasis on women’s emancipation and ecological balance.33 Most recently, of course, the fate of the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have been in the minds and hearts of observers from around the world, who have watched as ISIS forces progressively surrounded the city of Kobanê on the Turkish border and besieged it for months on end, leading to the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and concern that the Salafist forces, if victorious, would carry out genocide in the city. Eventually, of course, the US-monarch “coalition” intervened against the ISIS menace as part of the aerial-bombardment campaign it had launched in August 2014: the estimated six hundred imperialist air-strikes targeting ISIS forces in and around Kobanê certainly contributed to the YPG’s victory against the Salafists, which was announced in late January.

The attack by ISIS on PKK affiliates in Rojava—an assault that was ultimately rebuffed by the intervention of NATO air-power—is not the first time these insurgent Kurds have had conflicts with elements opposed to Assad. In late 2012 and early 2013, the PYD and YPG/YPJ were attacked by FSA units, just as they have met with al-Nusra assaults at other times, whereas other FSA brigades have actually supported the YPG/YPJ in defending Kobanê. Relations between the Kurds and the Syrian rebels have not exactly been consistently amicable. In a parallel of sorts to the case with Alawites and Christians, Kurds in Syria—who incidentally are mostly Sunni themselves—have distrusted the mainstream Syrian opposition for being dominated by Arab nationalists who have proven unwilling to clearly ensure the rights of minorities in any post-Assad future for the country.34 A clear parallel can be drawn here with relations between Algerian Arabs and the Berber or Kabyle minority that resides in eastern Algeria, for the Kabyles have resisted trends reflecting Arab chauvinism and centralization of power in significantly militant ways in the half-century following independence from France.35

Nonetheless, despite the socio-political strides made by the PYD, KCK, and YPG/YPJ in Rojava under admittedly non-ideal conditions, skepticism and concerns abound regarding the content and direction of the Rojava Revolution. For one, an anarcho-syndicalist perspective would question the liberal-parliamentary tendencies that certain Kurdish factions have been seen to favor over the councilism of Tev-Dem and the KCK. Anarchists should regard the Rojava experiment truthfully, neither overlooking the trends toward parliamentary social-democracy and centralization in the movement, nor hold it all in utter disdain precisely due to these very tendencies. Beyond that, the recent dénouement in Kobanê, which saw NATO/GCC air-forces launch a continuous four-month bombardment of ISIS positions starting in September, just as the heroic defense had been overwhelmed and the city was in danger of falling, raises questions about the revolutionary character of the self-described Kurdish radicals. If the movement depends on the US military to save it from ISIS, then how anti-imperialist can it really claim to be? On the other hand, one could argue that the US/GCC has a responsibility to protect the town from falling to ISIS forces, given that these hegemonic powers are in fact to varying degrees to blame for the emergence of ISIS—particularly when one considers the constituent parts of the ISIS armory. Nonetheless, and while not overlooking the obvious differences in political orientation between the cases of Rojava and Libya, is this “tactical alliance” between revolution and reaction terribly distinct from the military support given by Obama and the French to the Benghazi rebels who arrayed themselves against Gadhafi? If one welcomes USAF’s intervention to “save” Kobanê, can one really reject the calls made by certain elements in the anti-Assad opposition for a US-enforced no-fly zone over the SAR? David Graeber provoked a great deal of controversy on the left when he suggested in early October—that is, early on within the airstrike campaign—that the West had to provide military assistance to the Kurds in Kobanê, or at least that it should pressure Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to open the border to resupply the embattled YPG/YPJ and allow in Kurdish reinforcements like the Peshmerga—who were in fact allowed to cross over in late October. Whatever one may think about the morality of imperialist air-strikes defending social-revolutionary processes, the truth of the matter is that the Obama administration now has an “in” with the PYD, and it has reportedly entered into direct talks with the group. Admittedly, the problem is a complex dilemma, with no clear answers.

Conclusion: Historical and Philosophical Implications of the Syrian Uprising

To conclude this discussion on Syria, which so far has been steeped in geopolitics, I would like to turn to some historical and philosophical considerations. The Syrian uprising provides yet another example of mass-popular rebellion demanding participation in the political realm; in this sense, it joins the long list of dignified popular insurrections that have aimed at the institution of People’s Power, as George Katsiaficas has chronicled them. To answer the question posed by Nader Hashemi in The Syria Dilemma (2013)—a question he takes from the left-wing and revolutionary historical tradition—the Syrian people do have the right to self-determination, and their struggle against Ba’athism resembles the earlier struggle against French imperial domination in important ways. However, it is highly questionable that the means to this desired end should be those advocated by Hashemi, in accordance with certain factions in the FSA and their civilian counterpart, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: that is, a no-fly zone over the SAR enforced by NATO and the GCC, along with increased financial and military support for the “moderate” rebels.36

Another question to ponder is whether the Syrian people have “inherited” the standpoint of sumoud and resistance from Ba’athism—with this being one of the SAR’s few positive aspects. Though the findings of current opinion polls of Syrians, both located inside the SAR and abroad, whether as refugees or as constituents of the diaspora, are unknown to me, it is to be imagined that they do support the Palestinian struggle and oppose US/Israeli/GCC designs for the region. Furthermore, if given the opportunity, it would be hoped that they carry this resistance to a dialectically higher level than what has been exhibited by the Assads, in support of the global struggle for anti-systemic change. Still, the observed collaboration of elements of the anti-Assad opposition and of the Kurdish revolutionaries with the US/Israel complicates matters, to say nothing of the ties between the far-right facets of the opposition enthralled to Wahhabism and their GCC backers.

In terms of political philosophy, the Syrian uprising and civil war present a number of intriguing ideologies to reflect on. Though clearly atavistic in its desire to re-establish a Caliphate in the Levant, ISIS is not strictly medievalist in its approach, as its sleek videos and propaganda style attest to. Moreover, as Murtaza Hussein has argued, ISIS can be considered as sharing more with Leninism, the Maoist Red Guards, and the Khmer Rouge than the early Muslims, given the theory to which it claims adherence, and which it strives to institute: that is, the liberation of the people (or Umma) from above via extreme violence, as waged by a vanguard group. Indeed, this approach would seem to echo that taken by Sayyid Qutb, a leading early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose “revolutionary” Islamist theory arguably was developed on the foundation of Lenin’s philosophy, with Islam replacing communism as the world-historical resolution to class struggle and human alienation in his account.** On the other hand, the organizational style and underlying philosophies of the YPG and YPJ can be considered to recall Nestor Makhno’s Ukrainian anarchist army, the Makhnovshchina, and the anarcho-syndicalist brigades of the CNT/FAI in the Spanish Revolution. To a lesser extent, certain elements of the FSA could be said to have libertarian elements—not specifically in terms of the political views of many of the affiliated fighters, particularly in light of the mass-defection that has been observed of FSA units going over to groups like al-Nusra and ISIS, but rather in operational style, for the FSA from the beginning was reportedly comprised largely of decentralized and autonomous brigades that resisted an overarching command structure, until this was imposed with the coming of the Supreme Military Command (SMC) in December 2012. At present, according to Patrick Cockburn, FSA commanders receive their marching orders directly from Washington, such that any postulated similarities between the FSA structure and historical anarchist fighting-groups can be said to have been surpassed now in the historical process. As for Assad and Syrian Ba’athism, these can be viewed as variants on the Leninist and Jacobin traditions themselves, if we were to bracket the younger Assad’s neoliberalism for the moment: as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein (and notwithstanding the conflicts between Saddam and the Assads), Ba’athism in the SAR has taken on the form of a secular dictatorship that claims to represent the wishes of the people, both Syrian and Arab as a whole, through a sort of democratic-centralist observation of “the general will,” as conceptualized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Interestingly, it is in this vanguardist sense that Ba’athism and Qutb’s proto-Leninism converge politically, their basic divergence on the role of religion in society notwithstanding. According to its own narrative, Syrian Ba’athism has “stood up” to the supposedly backward and devout attitudes of ordinary Syrians, especially rural folks and Sunnis, and in this way preserved cultural and religious pluralism, relative freedom for women, secularism, resistance to Zionism and US/GCC imperialism, and the “progress” of the Arab nation—or, so the pro-regime argument goes.

I will close by quoting Herbert Marcuse, discussing Walter Benjamin: “To a liberated people, redeemed from oppressive violence, there belongs an emancipated and redeemed nature.”37 While the Syrian uprising and civil war have self-evidently been primarily about social domination and human oppression, the popular struggle and mass-suffering seen in that country can be taken as representative of the times, a microcosm of the brutality visited by late capitalism on humanity and nature alike. Besides the evident human losses involved, the civil war has doubtless also greatly degraded the environment of the Levant, much as other wars have, including that of the Turkish State against the Kurds, as associates of the Cilo-Der Nature Association observe.38 The political struggles in the Levant, which contain liberal, reactionary, fundamentalist, and revolutionary elements aligned against State terror, the police state, and militarism, illuminate the general struggle for a free humanity, which is developing as though embryonically. Without a doubt, the global revolution is made not just for humanity, but also for nature, without which humans cannot live, as the long-standing drought in Syria shows. In fact—again with reference to the recent COP20 conference—the uprising demonstrates what would now seem to be the sole means of interrupting existing trends toward total destruction: that is, direct action, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. Though repulsed, shackled, and beaten, the humanist-insurrectional Geist seen in the Syrian uprising and the Rojava Revolution holds great promise for radical politics today and into the future: the primacy of reason over tradition and authority, an end affirmed in the ninth century by the Baghdadi heretic Ibn al-Rawandi. I will leave the last word for a famous Kurdish saying, which I have learned from anarcha-feminist Dilar Dirik, speaking on “Stateless Democracy”: Berhodan jian-e!” (“Resistance is life!”)

**As Adam Curtis explains in “The Power of Nightmares,” Qutb sought to apply authoritarian-socialist lines of analysis to the study of the Arab masses, who he thought had inauthentically internalized and accepted capitalist, materialist values from the West that fundamentally conflicted with the “truth” of Islam.

A shorter version of this talk was first presented at the November 2014 Boston Anarchist Bookfair.

1Firas Massouh, “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left,” Global Communism (2013), 52.

2Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (London: Routledge, 2013), 57, 192.

3Reese Erlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 48.

4Erlich, 50-57.

5Ibid 60-61.

6Ibid 61; Gilbert Achcar, The People Want, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 173.

7Hokayem 172-4.

8Erlich 172.

9Ibid 209.

10Erlich 146-149, 71.

11Massouh, 60; Erlich 67-68.

12Hokayem 22.

13Ibid 26-27, 43.

14Cited in Massouh, 63.

15Achcar 177.

16Ibid 178.

17Ibid 178-179.

18Hokayem 45-49.

19Ibid 54.

20Ibid 40-41.

21Ibid 57.

22Ibid 58.

23Achcar 174.

24Ibid 182.

25Hokayem 69.

26Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (London: Hurst and Company, 2012), 29-54.

27Hokayem 81.

28Erlich, 250-255.

29Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).

30Massouh, 58-59.

31Richard Falk, “What Should be Done About the Syrian Tragedy?” The Syria Dilemma, eds. Nader Hoshemi and Danny Postel (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013), 61-75.

32Hokayem 11.

33For more details on the KCK’s accomplishments in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), please see TATORT Kurdistan, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology, trans. Janet Biehl (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2013).

34Hokayem 80.

35David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).

36Nader Hashemi, “Syria, Savagery, and Self-Determination: What the Anti-Interventionists are Missing,” The Syria Dilemma, 221-234.

37Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution, and Utopia: Collected Papers. Volume 6, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (London: Routledge, 2014), 126.

38TATORT Kurdistan, 158-60.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Kerala on Human Equality and the Earth as Garden

February 5, 2015

lotus flower

A selection from “The Age of Great Progress” describing the Travancori League, from Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternative-speculative history, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), p. 522:

“The Kerala laughed, looked at Ismail and gestured at the colorful and fragrant fields.  ‘This is the world we want you to help us make,’ he said.  ‘We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons […] and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more qadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more clans, no more caste, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.”

Paul Cezanne, "In the Woods"

Paul Cézanne, “In the Woods”

The First Global Festival for Anti-Capitalist Resistance and Rebellion

January 26, 2015

Organized by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), the first annual Festival Mundial de las Resistencias y Rebeldías contra el Capitalismo, or the Global Festival for Anti-Capitalist Resistance and Rebellion, was held in central and southern Mexico over a two-week period at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015. The event’s subtitle sums up its purpose well: praxWhile those from above destroy, those from below rebuild.” Taken as a whole, this new Festival recalled the different “intergalactic” meetings hosted by the EZLN in Chiapas in the 1990’s, such as the Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism (1996). According to the statistics made known at the event’s close at CIDECI-Unitierra in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, the number of officially registered participants at the Festival came to over 3400 Mexicans, including 1300 individuals belonging to 20 indigenous ethnicities, and 500 foreigners from 49 countries—though the total number of those who attended the Grand Cultural Festival in Mexico City and the EZLN’s year-end festivities at the Oventik caracol at other points over the course of the Festival must be considered as amounting to several times this total. While the Festival generally focused on the numerous problematics faced by Mexico’s various indigenous peoples amidst the power of capital and State—due in no small part, indeed, to the central participation of the CNI in the event—the distressing case of the 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Normal School who were forcibly disappeared by police in Iguala, Guerrero, in late September also took central stage throughout the event.

The Anti-Capitalist Festival was inaugurated in Mexico state on 21 December, and the comparticiones (“sharings”) followed for two days afterward in two locations in central Mexico. While I was present for neither, I can here relate the reports made ex post facto at CIDECI regarding the goings-on at these spaces. The launch of the comparticiones took place simultaneously in San Francisco Xochicuautla in Mexico state and in Amilcingo, Morelos. San Francisco Xochicuautla has become an emblem of socio-ecological resistance in Mexico lately, as the local indigenous Ñatho peoples have opposed themselves to the imposed plan of building a new private highway on their territory—a project that implies vast deforestation, and which has to date seen State repression meted out on those in opposition—while, as two Nahua CNI delegates from Morelos explained to me as we waited together outside the Zapatista Good-Government Council’s office at Oventik on New Year’s Eve, the case of Amilcingo reflects the problems of domestic and foreign rackets, extractivism, and profit in Mexico, as these exigencies result in the plundering of territory (despojo) and fundamentally violate indigenous autonomy. In Amilcingo, in accordance with the vision set forth in the “Integral Morelos Plan” (PIM) that has been on the books for years, there has been an attempt to construct a natural gas pipeline that would supply a planned thermal power station, this despite the various dangers posed to the integrity of such structures within such a seismically and volcanically active area as Morelos. In Amilcingo, as in San Francisco Xochicuautla, indigenous Nahuas have mobilized to prevent the construction project from being carried through. At both sites on 22-23 December, representatives from indigenous ethnicities represented in the CNI and affiliates of the National and International Sixth—that is to say, those who subscribe to the EZLN’s Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (2005)—made presentations about their struggles, philosophies, and commitments.

In San Francisco Xochicuautla, the Las Abejas Civil Society from the highlands of Chiapas discussed the December 1997 massacre which they suffered at the hands of State-supported paramilitaries—an attack on the community of Acteal in which 45 people, mostly women and children, were murdered, with this number coming ominously close to the number of students currently disappeared from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa—and they described how, though the attack was an act of State terror that should demand international prosecution, the Supreme Court for Justice in the Nation (SCJN) has in recent years instead liberated scores of indigenous men who had been convicted for having participated in the massacre, such that now only 2 out of the 102 individuals who had originally been held for the crime remain incarcerated. Similarly, ejidatarios from San Sebastián Bachajón, Chiapas, reviewed their historical struggle against the state-government’s attempt at privatizing their lands for touristic ends, as at proposing a new highway between San Cristóbal and Palenque—again for purposes of “developing” the tourist sector—in addition to the repression they have faced at the hands of paramilitaries belonging to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, which in addition to dominating the country’s executive, also holds power now in Chiapas in the person of Governor Manuel Velasco Coello, “el Güero,” or “the White Guy”), which has resulted in the murders of two of their comrades in the past couple of years. The Voz del Amate, a group of former and current political prisoners who similarly subscribe to the Sixth Declaration, also shared its experiences in Xochicuautla.

For their part, the Yaquis from northwestern Mexico revindicated their just struggle to prevent the waters of the Yaqui River from being massively diverted in order to supply the burgeoning industries and populations of cities like Hermosillo, Sonora, and they declared themselves in resistance to the systematic violation of their traditional laws and customs, to which they are entitled under international law, particularly the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169. At the first of two days of the Festival’s conclusion at CIDECI, in fact, Mario Luna, a Yaqui political prisoner who has been imprisoned precisely for having led the struggle in defense of the Yaqui River, was allowed to communicate by phone with the assembled: expressing his gratitude to the EZLN and CNI and the indigenous revolutionaries of Xochicuautla and Cherán, Michoacán, he affirmed his people’s right to govern themselves differently, in spite the conscious efforts that have been made to suppress such alternatives; making mention of the horrific fire at the ABC Nursery in Hermosillo which took the lives of 49 children in 2009, Luna announced that, despite his unjust incarceration, he continues firm in his convictions. International adherents to the Sixth Declaration from Argentina denounced the ingression of transgenic crops, the expansion of open-pit mining, and the repressive socio-psychological forgetting of the foundational genocide that took place in that country, while comrades from the Anarchist Federation of France (FA) declared themselves opposed to the degradation of the rights of workers and the destruction of nature. An additional group from Italy that was present described its political work as “anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist,” and in favor of mutual aid and solidarity.

In Amilcingo, the padres de familia (parents) of the disappeared students opened the compartición, naming the principal responsible parties for the atrocities to which their sons have been subjected to be the federal and Guerrero-state governments, the narco-paramilitaries, the Army, and President Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN, from the PRI). Constructively, they proposed the physical occupation of major mass-media outlets in the country as a means of intensifying the calls that have resounded throughout the country these past three months to demand the return with life of their sons. From Tepoztlán, Morelos, CNI delegates discussed the case of another planned highway expansion designed in accordance with the PIM, for which they blame private capital and State together. Hailing from Oaxaca’s Tehuantepc Isthmus, national adherents to the Sixth Declaration spoke to the expropriation of communal property by international firms like Mareña Renewables that have sought to install scores of wind-energy towers in the area in recent years, and they announced a caravan for January 2015 to highlight the problematic of looting and systematic violations of free, prior, and informed consent by these corporations. Other national Sixth adherents who presented at Amilcingo include the Anarchist Black Cross; the environmental wing of #YoSoy132, which declared itself opposed to transgenic maize and the newly approved energy and rural reforms spearheaded by EPN; comrades from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, who denounced the ongoing femicides, militarization, and war-footing for which that city is known, as well as burgeoning oil-extraction and fracking schemes in the region; the “Lucio Cabañas” collective from the Xochimilco campus of the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) of Mexico City, which shared its experiences with police repression following the mobilizations they had undertaken for the disappeared 43 students in November; CACITA Oaxaca, which has for years worked in favor of a generalized adoption of ecologically balanced and appropriate technologies, including bicycle-operated machines and dry bathrooms; as well as an environmentalist grouping from Mexico City that resists attempts to privatize the Chapultepec forests in that city. Internationally, comrades from Ferguson arrived to share their experiences with police brutality and to highlight the effective racial segregation on hand in U.S. society, while Parisian rebels lamented the annihilation of anarchist social spaces which has resulted from processes of gentrification in the French capital; commemorated the life of 21-year old Rémi Fraisse, who was murdered in November during a police clearing of the ZAD (Zone a Défendre) encampment in southwestern France; and detailed the various actions they have taken in solidarity with Ayotzinapa and the political prisoner María Salgado. Representatives from the Norwegian Committee for Solidarity with Latin America similarly explained the concrete actions they had taken of late to protest the criminalization of social protest in Mexico and elsewhere.

Thus was the first part of the Festival completed, with the comparticiones lasting two days in San Francisco Xochicuautla and Amilcingo each. The next phase of the event—part two of five, we can say—took place in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City, at the Lienzo Charro, a stable located near the Guelatao metro station, named for the birthplace in Oaxaca of the celebrated indigenous president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, who repelled the revanchist French invasion of 1862 that sought to install Maximilian von Habsburg as emperor and weakened the hegemony of the Catholic Church over Mexican society, in accordance with his Liberal principles—which are very far from the liberal (or neo-liberal) values known in the U.S.! Indeed, the “Grand Cultural Festival,” which started on 24 December and lasted three days, until the 26th, took place a short walk from the “Cabeza de Juárez,” a huge structure commemorating the Liberal Oaxacan president. Principally, the space at the Lienzo Charro was divided between a massive tianguis cultural—a cultural market of sorts, full of food vendors offering huaraches and tacos; anarchists and other radicals selling books, shirts, and prints; and intellectuals representing Praxis en América Latina, which takes after Marxist-humanism and the thought of Raya Dunayevskaya—and two stages for musical and theatrical performances: one named for Compañero Galeano, a Zapatista support-base (BAEZLN) who was killed in a paramilitary attack on the La Realidad caracol in May 2014, and the other for Compañero David Ruiz García, an Otomi indigenous man who died in a traffic accident after having attended the meeting held between the Zapatistas and the CNI that very same month to mourn Galeano. The Grand Cultural Festival also provided various activities for children, hosted chess and soccer tournaments, and opened space for various workshops addressing such questions as urban gardening, traditional Mexican medicine, eco-villages, prisoners’ rights, digital self-defense, and solidarity economics.

When I arrived to the Festival on the morning of the 24th, the activity on hand on the “Compañero Galeano” stage was a series of speeches made by padres de familia and even by students who had survived the police attack in Iguala of 26 September. At least one father and mother expressed the hope that their sons were in fact still alive, in this way rejecting the official account of the events of 26-27 September which was presented by Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam in early November: that is, that the 43 students had been expeditiously handed over by the Iguala municipal police to the “United Warriors” drug cartel, who subsequently murdered them and incinerated their remains. Omar García, a student-survivor who has become a spokesperson of sorts for the padres de familia, announced that, though the 43 students had been unarmed at the time of the police attack against them and the forcible disappearance which followed, many of the parents now wished that their sons had actually been carrying weapons that night with which to defend themselves. That morning of the 24th, which was marked by strong rains, the padres de familia were organizing their action for that night, Christmas Eve—known as Noche Buena (“The Good Night”) in Spanish—which was to involve a public protest outside the Los Pinos presidential residence. The action, which proceeded despite the rainstorm which raged that night, was meant to demonstrate to the government and Mexican society as a whole that, for the parents of the disappeared, there could be no Noche Buena. At the tianguis that day, I came across a print commemorating the life of Alexander Mora Venancio, 21 years old, the only one of the 43 whose remains have been positively identified by Argentinian forensics experts to date.

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Hasta siempre compañero”: a print commemorating Alexander Mora Venancio, 21 years of age, being the only student among the 43 disappeared whose remains have been positively identified since the police attack of 26 September 2014. The man depicted as holding Alexander’s image is Lucio Cabañas, a guerrillero from Guerrero state who founded the Party of the Poor in 1967.

After this sobering beginning, the Grand Festival Cultural proceeded principally to open space for a multitude of rebellious and revolutionary theater-artists, dancers, and musicians to share their art and vision with the masses of people who came to attend the event, even in spite of the heavy rains on the 24th. That morning, a Nahua man and his comrade provided a thorough public explanation of how the imagery of the Virgen de Guadalupe—originally depicted by a Nahua artist, in fact—preserves and expresses a myriad indigenous symbols, from the stars and flowers which adorn the Virgin’s dress to the waxing moon on which she stands. The duo showed that the iconography of the Virgen communicates the Nahua notion of Tonantzin, or “our beloved mother,” “la madre más primera” (“the first or most important mother”), and as such stands in for la Madre Tierra, Mother Earth. Notable musical artists from that first day of the Cultural Festival included the collaboration between Raíces Libertarias (“Libertarian Roots”) and Mentes Ácratas (“Anarchist Minds”), who melded stirring hip-hop beats with a profound anti-authoritarianism to simultaneously entertain and enrage; Inercia (“Inertia”), a group of young punk rockers who dedicated at least one song to the inertial manner with which humanity would seem to be careening toward eco-apocalypse; and a Chilean rapper who concluded one of his songs using the following lines, palpably referring to the contemporary eco-political situation identified by “Inercia”: “La tierra un infierno / Y la humanidad en cenizas” (“The Earth, an inferno / And humanity in ashes”).

The Grand Cultural Festival continued with musical celebrations on the 25th and 26th as well. The former day, reggae artist El Aaron sang the praises of cannabis while condemning the police (“Policias en helicopteros / Buscando marijuana”), in this way presenting an embodied rebellion against Zapatista rebelliousness: for it is known that all drugs are forbidden in EZLN communities. The all-women’s group Batallones Femininos (“Female Batallions”) provided raps having to do with feminist issues on the evening of the 25th—much as they would do live on Radio Insurgente during the night of the first day of the Festival’s closure at CIDECI just over a week later. Also the same evening from the “Galeano” stage, Sonora Skandalera provided everyone who so desired and could the opportunity to dance to the tune of their joyous music.

In contrast to the first two days, which were open to all, entrance to the third and final day of the Cultural Festival was limited to those who paid 70 pesos to attend a concert that doubled as a fundraiser for the CNI. A number of celebrated Mexican and Latin American groups performed this day, including El Sazón María, Mr. Blaky, Polka Madre, Antidoping, El Poder del Barrio, and others. Among the most impressive artists who performed on this final day was the Mexikan Sound System. Like El Aaron, Mexikan Sound System played a song explicitly dedicated to the legalization of marijuana, and much of the rest of the duo’s oeuvre would seem to be similarly politically radical, discussing State terror, migration, and the drug war. Another one of their songs, “No Te Olvido” (“I Will Not Forget You”), which is dedicated to “all those who have given their lives in the attempt to form a world in which many worlds fit,” features the following gripping refrain: “Pasarán los dias / Pasarán los meses / Pasarán mil anos / Pero no te olvido” (“Though days, months, and even a thousand years may pass, / I will not forget you”). Impressively for an artist who identifies consciously with the reggae musical tradition, Gabo Revuelta, the Mexikan Sound System’s MC, explicitly affirmed sexual diversity in personal comments between songs, both during this performance at Lienzo Charro, as at a subsequent one he did in collaboration with Panchito Rha, Sista Gaby, and Manik B (Al Sentido Kontrario) at El Paliacate Centro Cultural in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. In contrast, Lengualerta, another celebrated Mexican reggae artist who performed at the Grand Festival on the 26th—and in fact dedicated a song to Compañero Galeano, having modified the lyrics of the famous “Hasta Siempre Comandante” song to accommodate the murdered Zapatista—saw a brawl break out at the end of his concert with Al Sentido Kontrario in San Cristóbal a week later, owing to controversy surrounding the place of LGBTQ individuals in his vision for resistance against Babylon.

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The Mexikan Sound System at the Grand Cultural Festival in Mexico City, 26 December 2014.

I left the Cultural Festival early in the mid-afternoon of the 26th to attend a protest-action being organized to mark three months since the forcible disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. The mobilization was massive: having started at the Ángel de la Independencia on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, it proceeded to entirely fill the Monumento a la Revolución (the Monument to the Mexican Revolution). One of the more telling banners I encountered read—as an inversion of René Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum—that “I think, therefore they disappear me.” At the Monumento, padres de familia and student-survivors spoke to a rally of the assembled protestors; one father described how the parents of the disappeared had just been protesting outside the Germany embassy in Mexico City, given that new findings showed that the Iguala municipal police had used Heckler & Koch G-36 assault rifles in their attack on the students on 26 September, while another called on all Mexicans to boycott the upcoming 2015 elections—declaring that in Guerrero state, no elections would be held at all! Alongside the padres de familia, Omar García spoke again, as did another student from Ayotzinapa who had survived the police attack that horrible night, providing details of their ordeal: the caravan of three buses that had been appropriated by the students to raise funds for their participation in the upcoming 2 October protests in Mexico City, which happen every year to commemorate the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 that took the lives of hundreds of student radicals; the sudden encirclement of the caravan as it passed through Iguala, followed by an entirely unprovoked barrage of gunfire from the police against the students; the escape of the students from the first two buses and their tribulations seeking refuge from police and military alike in a local medical clinic, and thereafter in the home of a compassionate elder who agreed to take them in, once the nurses in said clinic had washed their hands of them; and the fate of the third bus, which contained the 43 students who are currently disappeared. Adán Cortés Salas, the 21-year old international relations student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) who became an instant national and international celebrity after interrupting the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malaya Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi on 10 December to call on the pair not to forget Mexico and the disappeared students, also addressed the rally, leading an emotive count-down to 43.

The aura of this protest-action, particularly following the concluding interventions of these two youth, was fraught with trauma and horror; in fact, a number of individuals fainted over the course of the rally’s two hours, provoking calls for assistance from nurses and doctors alike. Leaving the action after hearing of so much negation and re-entering the usual flow of things in downtown Mexico City, I was reminded of an observation made by a survivor of the 2 October 1968 atrocity, as reproduced by Elena Poniatowska in La Noche de Tlatelolco (translated into English as Massacre in Mexico), that, once she had successfully maneuvered through the military barricades surrounding the Plaza de las Tres Culturas—the site of the mass-shooting, that is—and rejoined “normal” society, she felt that she had chanced upon an entirely foreign world, wherein people had little to no concept of what had just happened blocks away. Of course, I do not want to say that the masses of Mexicans one sees in the streets of Mexico City are uncaring or unaware of such shocking crimes as that which took place in Iguala. Still, I felt that I had passed from a place of profound rage, suffering, and dignity—la digna rabia—into the larger world, governed by the vast cruelties of the capitalist everyday.

The third part of the Anti-Capitalist Festival consisted of another compartición, this time held in Monclova, Campeche state, on the Yucatan Peninsula, from 28 to 29 December. There, as at other points during the Festival, 43 empty chairs were set up to commemorate the disappeared students from Ayotzinapa; the Yucatan being a tropical region, moreover, the comparticiones were interrupted on various occasions because of torrential rainfall. Those in attendance at Monclova were told of land-grabs in neighboring Quintana Roo state, where 26,000 hectares have been bought up in recent years by Mennonite families and German, Filipino, and Japanese corporations, leading to a mass-exodus of campesin@s from their formerly communal territories, in a continuation of processes which acutely worsened with the coming into law of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Monclova itself is the site of a civil-resistance movement whose members refuse to pay for electrical energy provided by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), holding out the alternative of a popularly managed energy system that makes electricity available at affordable prices. In this sense, the movement in Monclova, which is comprised of 20 participating communities, echoes the resistance taken up by groupings like PUDEE (Peoples United in Defense of Electricity) in Chiapas, as elsewhere in the country. Beyond this, those participating at the compartición in Monclova heard from representatives from the “La 72” migrant-home in Tenosique, Tabasco, about the “exterminationist policies” overseen by the three levels of the Mexican government as regards the transit of Central American migrant workers through the country toward the USA—such that the Mexican side of the border is reportedly full of mass-graves containing the bodies of such economic (and environmental) refugees. In fact, the Central American mothers who have long organized periodic missions to seek out their children who have gone missing after passing through Mexico en route to el Norte estimate that a full 70,000 migrants have gone missing in the country in the past three decades.

The fourth part of the Festival took place during New Year’s Eve at the EZLN’s Oventik caracol—appropriately given the name “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity”—in the highlands of Chiapas, not far from San Cristóbal. Indeed, the year-end’s event at the caracol can in some sense be considered the climax of the Festival. At Oventik, Zapatistas from the five regional caracoles—La Realidad, La Garrucha, Roberto Barrios, and Morelia, besides Oventik—were present en masse, resting under large tarps to shield themselves from the rain. The thousands of Mexican and international guests who arrived that day were invited to camp in tents, or join the BAEZLN under the tarps if need be—such that, by midnight on 31 December, the Oventik campus had become a veritable tent-city! The size of those gathered at the caracol that night was seemingly even larger than the previous year, when the EZLN celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its 1 January 1994 insurrection. While the legacy of those twenty years (and the thirty since the EZLN’s founding) provided much of the impetus for reflection at last year’s celebration at Oventik, as reflected in Comandanta Hortensia’s speech that night, the case of the disappeared students from Ayotzinapa was the focus this time, with Subcomandante Moisés himself—now the effective “chief” of the EZLN, following Subcomandante Marcos’s “suicide,” as announced in “Between Light and Shadow,” a discourse that was presented before the CNI in La Realidad last May—dedicating a substantial proportion of his comments to the struggles of the students and their parents. In fact, before Sup Moisés’ address, two padres de familia spoke publicly before the multitude assembled at Oventik—one being a mother who believed that her son had in fact been murdered, and the other a father whom I had seen speak both at the Grand Cultural Festival, as at the protest-action on 26 December. The most moving moment of the night—and perhaps of the Anti-Capitalist Festival as a whole—came when Sup Moisés interrupted his discourse to embrace each and every family-member of the disappeared who was standing alongside him on stage. Subsequently, the BAEZLN present followed suit, providing hugs “of tenderness, respect, and admiration.”

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Zapatistas embracing relatives of the 43 disappeared students on New Year’s Eve at the Oventik caracol, following the example of Subcomandante Moisés (pictured at the microphone).

Much like the previous year, live music was performed from the Oventik stage before and after the “political act” which saw Sup Moisés and the padres de familia make their public addresses. This music included various cumbias that brought the BAEZLN and their sympathizers alike to fill the basketball court adjoining the central stage and dance to welcome the change in year. In fact, both the cumbias and dancing continued on through the night until shortly after dawn. In contrast to the case at year’s end 2013, the weather cooperated through most of the night this time, with the rains coming only around 3 or 4am. The next morning, for this reason, Oventik was a veritable mudscape. But that, taken together with the heavy fog which accompanied the mud (lodo, in Spanish, or che, in Tsotsil), did not stop the BAEZLN from continuing with their planned volleyball and basketball tournaments on the morning of 1 January.

The fifth and final act of the Festival took place at CIDECI-Unitierra in San Cristóbal de Las Casas from 2 to 3 January, as has been mentioned. The CIDECI-Unitierra has had a long history of supporting the Zapatistas and various other autonomist-indigenous political movements. (CIDECI itself stands for the Center for Integral Indigenous Education and Training.) Every Thursday evening, indeed, the space’s director, Dr. Raymundo Sánchez, hosts an international seminar for reflection and analysis of current events, considering local, national, and global matters. The second day of the conclusion at CIDECI, then, resembled a typical night at the Unitierra seminars, only taken to a much higher level—for, while the first day of the Festival’s conclusion at CIDECI summarized the three comparticiones that had taken place during the previous two weeks, the second was dedicated to consideration of popular proposals from below and to the left for confronting the hegemony of capital and State. This remarkable exercise in deliberative, participatory democracy was open to any and all registered participants, being adherents to the EZLN’s Sixth Declaration, who wished to share their views.

Though essentially all the proposals made by participants at the closure of the Festival shared a generally radical political analysis, the specific details varied in each case, and though I cannot review all the recommendations that were made, I will mention some of the most illuminating ones. One of the first speakers noted that capitalism is destroying the world, and it was for this reason that she had responded to the calls by the CNI and EZLN to attend the Festival: she posed the fundamental question, “How it is that we will destroy capitalism?” Another participant suggested that we work to report on the situation in Mexico and wherever else the plundering of land and resources is a pressing issue; arguing that we must struggle in the interests of future generations, she designated the State as enemy. A number of attendees separately called for a return to the traditional cultural and political forms of indigenous societies as a means of rejecting capital. Furthermore, a representative from a Mexican collective focusing on disability issues shared his view that disability per se is not a problem, as it is considered in the medical model, but rather that the hardships faced by people with disabilities have to do with social exclusion. Affirming the proposal that has been advanced by some of the padres de familia of the disappeared students, one individual person called on all Mexicans to boycott electoral politics, while another called for a new constituent power to intervene and form a new constitution, toward the end of instituting a “transitional government” in 2018—the very year, incidentally, in which the current Chiapas governor, Manuel Velasco Coello (el Güero), hopes to run and be elected president as the PRI candidate.1 A male in the crowd advocated that we all decolonize our minds specifically by identifying patriarchy as a principal enemy of the Sixth National and International, and engage in direct action against violence against women, which in Mexico is taking on epidemic proportions. Advocating the transcendence of national borders, a representative from CACITA Oaxaca announced a Caravana Mesoamericana para el Buen Vivir (a “Mesoamerican Caravan for Living Well”) that will launch its journey in April of this year—in many ways echoing the mission of the Caravana Climática por América Latina (“the Climate Caravan through Latin America”), which began its action-tour through Mesoamerica and Central and South America in northern Mexico a year ago, only to face repression at the hands of the “revolutionary socialist” government of Rafael Correa days before it had planned to arrive at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with this destination having been the original end-goal sought by the caravaner@s.

Omar García then addressed those assembled at CIDECI, thanking the CNI and EZLN for their support and presenting the proposal that Mexican society be transformed through the participation of everyone from below. An indigenous Purépecha male followed by expressing his rejection of industrial agriculture, while a representative from UAM Xochimilco mentioned the new “Cooperative of 26 September” that will provide space for exchanging seeds. A university instructor openly advocated a general strike to demand the presentation with life of the 43 disappeared students, and another individual called for boycotts against those corporations that are engaged in the looting of the lands and resources of the peoples represented in the CNI. One young activist presented an especially compelling vision for dual power and transition, outlining a vision whereby the national territory is to be divided into a multiplicity of local assemblies that are to meet twice a month and thereafter coordinate through bimonthly regional assemblies and, less periodically, national ones; he identified the minimum objectives of such a strategy to be the reversal of the plundering of lands, the liberation of all political prisoners, and the cessation of femicides, with the ultimate end sought by such action being the very abolition of capital. Affirming vengeance for those massacred by the State, he provoked a general cry from the assembled: “Los compadres masacrados / Serán vengados / Y, ¿quién lo hará? / ¡El pueblo organizado!” (“Our massacred comrades / Will be avenged / But by whom? / By the people, organized.”) Lastly, a Colombian male called on the Sixth National and International to adopt veganism, considering the vast waste of resources implicated in animal agriculture at present, and especially in light of the inescapable suffering of non-human animals who are instrumentalized for the end of human consumption. Taking a page from the more traditionalist political accounts heard earlier, he argued that pre-Hispanic societies consumed far fewer animal products than Latin Americans do now, thanks to the imposition of Spanish dietary preferences through colonial processes.

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Banner of the Anti-Capitalist Festival at CIDECI, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, 3 January 2015.

In closing, the CNI agreed to organize further meetings between the padres de famila and its constituent communities, while the Sixth International pledged to assist in the organization of an international caravan for the parents of the disappeared. The general conclusion was that we must construct social relations outside of capital: autonomy in the countryside, as in the cities, and in the spheres of education, health, communication, politics, and nutrition. Addressing those who might have been disappointed by this conclusion, those assembled at CIDECI declared that “it is not a question of coming up with a grand program for national, global, and intergalactic struggle; […] there are no magical formulas that can change the world. The struggle cannot be reduced to one path, as we ourselves are not just one [but many].” In the official document produced in the final session at CIDECI, those present note rightly that “[i]t will only be through our rebellion and resistance that the death of capital will be born, and a new world brought to life for all.”

1José Gil Olmos e Isaín Mandujano, “Al estilo Peña Nieto, pero con madre vicegobernadora.” Proceso no. 1992 (4 January 2015), 16-19.

“Talk of a Third Intifada” by Ramzy Baroud (Repost)

November 22, 2014

mumia and palestine

Published on Counterpunch and Countercurrents, as elsewhere

When a journalist tries to do a historian’s job, the outcome can be quite interesting. Using history as a side note in a brief news report or political analysis oftentimes does more harm than good. Now imagine if that journalist was not dependable to begin with, even more than it being “interesting”, the outcome runs the risk of becoming a mockery.

Consider the selective historical views offered by New York Times writer Thomas Freidman – exposed in the book “The Imperial Messenger” by Belen Fernandez for his pseudo- intellectual shenanigans, contradictions and constant marketing of the status quo.

In an article entitled, The Third Intifada, published last February, Friedman attempts to explain two of the most consequential events in the collective history of the Palestinian people, if not the whole region: “For a while now I’ve wondered why there’s been no Third Intifada. That is, no third Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, the first of which helped to spur the Oslo peace process and the second of which – with more live ammunition from the Israeli side and suicide bombings from the Palestinian side – led to the breakdown of Oslo.”

Ta-da, there it is: Palestinian history for dummies, by, you know… Friedman. Never mind that the consequences that led to the first uprising in 1987 included the fact that Palestinians were rebelling against the very detached elitist culture, operating from Tunisia, which purported to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people. It was a small clique within the PLO-Fatah leadership that were not even living in Palestine at the time who signed a ruinous, secret agreement in Olso in 1993. And, at the expense of their people’s rightful demands for freedom, this arrangement won them just a few perks. The uprising didn’t help “spur the Oslo peace process”; the ‘process’ was rather introduced, with the support and financing of the United States and others, to crush the intifada, as it did.

While there is some truth to the fact that the second uprising led to the breakdown of Oslo, Friedman’s logic indicates a level of inconsistency on the part of the Palestinian people and their revolts – that they rebelled to bring peace, and they rebelled again to destroy it. Of course, his seemingly harmless interjection there of Israel’s use of live ammunition during the second uprising (as if thousands of Palestinians were not killed and wounded by live ammunition in the first), while Palestinians used suicide bombings – for the uninformed reader, justifies Israel’s choice of weapons.

According to the Israeli rights organization B’Tselem, 1,489 Palestinians were killed during the first intifada (1987-1993) including 304 children. I85 Israelis were reportedly killed including 91 soldiers.

Over 4,000 Palestinians were killed during the second intifada, and over a 1,000 Israelis. However, according to B’Tselem, the high price of death and injury hardly ceased when the second Intifada was arguably over by the end of 2005. In “10 years to the second Intifada,” the Israeli organization reported that: “Israeli security forces killed 6,371 Palestinians, of whom 1,317 were minors. At least 2,996 of the fatalities did not participate in the hostilities when killed. .. An additional 248 were Palestinian police killed in Gaza during operation Cast Lead, and 240 were targets of assassinations.”

There are other possible breakdowns of these numbers, which would be essential to understanding the nature of popular Palestinian revolts. The victims come from diverse backgrounds: refugee camps, villages, small towns and cities. Until Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, 2008-09, the numbers were almost equally divided between Gaza and the West Bank. Some of the victims were Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Israeli bullets and shells targeted a whole range of people, starting with bystanders, to un-armed protesters, stone throwers, armed fighters, community activists, political leaders, militant leaders, men, women, children, and so on.

In some tragic way, the Israeli responses to Palestinian uprisings is the best validation of the popular nature of the intifada, which goes against every claim made by Israeli leaders that say intifadas are staged and manipulated for specific political ends.

For years, many journalists have busied themselves asking or trying to answer questions regarding the anticipated Third Intifada. Some did so in earnest, others misleadingly, as in the NBC News report: Palestinian Violence Targets Israelis: Has Third Intifada Begun? Few took a stab at objectivity with mixed results as in CNN’s: In Jerusalem, the ‘auto intifada’ is far from an uprising.

But most of them, using a supercilious approach to understanding the Palestinian collective, failed to understand what an uprising is in the first place.

Even the somewhat sensible approach that explains an intifada as popular outrage resulting from the lack of political horizon can, although at times unwittingly, seem distorted.

It is interesting that hardly any had the astuteness to predict previous uprisings. True, violence can be foreseen to some degree, but the collective course of action of a whole nation that is separated by impossible geographical, political, factional and other divides, is not so easy to analyze in merely a few sentences, let alone predict.

There were numerous incidents in the past that never culminated into an “intifada”, although they seem to unite various sectors of Palestinian society, and where a degree of violence was also a prominent feature. They failed because intifadas are not a call for violence agreed upon by a number of people that would constitute a critical mass. Intifadas, although often articulated with a clear set of demands, are not driven by a clear political agenda either.

Palestinians lead an uprising in 1936 against the British Mandate government in Palestine, when the latter did its most to empower Zionists to establish a ‘Jewish state’, and deny Palestinians any political aspiration for independence, thus negating the very spirit of the UN mandate. The uprising turned into a revolt, the outcome of which was the rise of political consciousness among all segments of Palestinian society. A Palestinian identity, which existed for generations, was crystallized in a meaningful and much greater cohesion than ever before.

If examined through a rigid political equation, the 1936-39 Intifada failed, but its success was the unification of an identity that was fragmented purposely or by circumstance. Later intifadas achieved similar results. The 1987 Intifada reclaimed the Palestinian struggle by a young, vibrant generation that was based in Palestine itself, unifying more than the identity of the people, but their narrative as well. The 2000 Intifada challenged the ahistorical anomaly of Oslo, which seemed like a major divergence from the course of resistance championed by every Palestinian generation since 1936.

Although Intifadas affect the course of politics, they are hardly meant as political statements per se. They are unconcerned with the belittling depictions of most journalists and politicians. They are a comprehensive, remarkable and uncompromising process that, regardless of their impact on political discourses, are meant to “shake off”, and defiantly challenge all the factors that contribute to the oppression of a nation. This is not about “violence targeting Israelis”, or its collaborators among Palestinians. It is the awakening of a whole society, joined by a painstaking attempt at redrawing all priorities as a step forward on the path of liberation, in both the cerebral and actual sense.

And considering the numerous variables at play, only the Palestinian people can tell us when they are ready for an intifada – because, essentially it belongs to them, and them alone.

Ursula Le Guin on Art, Resistance, and Change: National Book Award 2014

November 22, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin’s comments to accept the 2014 National Book Award’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

“Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

At the 2014 Boston Anarchist Bookfair: An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War

November 11, 2014

babf-logo-192px

My proposal for an “Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War” has been accepted by the Boston Anarchist Bookfair collective this year.  I will be speaking on the matter at the very end of the bookfair, which spans two days–from 3:30-4:30pm on Monday, 24 November.

A (now slightly dated) précis follows:

“The popular uprising in Syria that has demanded the fall of Bashar al-Assad and an end to Ba’athist domination since its beginning in March 2011 poses a number of questions for the international left, particularly anarchists. For one, the Assad regime has long sought to present itself as an Arab state in steadfast resistance to U.S./Israeli designs in the Middle East, as well as a government that is more representative of Arab public opinion, compared with the various Gulf monarchies. Yet Assad’s regime is bourgeois and highly authoritarian, as is clearly evinced by the disproportionate force with which the regime has met its opponents, as reported by opposition sources and international media.

Undoubtedly, many of the initial demonstrations raised legitimate grievances against the Assad dynasty, and the class character of the protest movements only confirms this. Still, one must not ignore the religious and sectarian aspects of the uprising, which have largely pitted the majority Sunni population against the Alawite and Christian minorities whom Ba’athism has protected and privileged. Moreover, the oppositional movement arguably was “hijacked” by Islamization and jihad, as fueled greatly by the influx of foreign fighters and the significant support in terms of funding, arms, and training as provided to rebels by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S./Israel. Most obviously, this dynamic has been key to the recent emergence of ISIS/Islamic State, and it drives the new war being waged by the NATO-Arab monarch “coalition.”

This talk, then, will examine the history and practice of Syrian Ba’athism, the course of the uprising from 2011 to present, the meteoric rise of ISIS, and the promising anti-authoritarian example being instituted by Kurds in northeastern Syria (Rojava), an anarchistic experiment that is now radically threatened by Islamic State forces.”

“The Politics of Total Liberation” — Now Available in English!

November 11, 2014

intlibecosoc:

It is unfortunate that this book costs as much as it does….

Originally posted on Dr. Steve Best:

My most recent book, “The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century,” hitherto available only in German, is now available in English for purchase (PDF download or hardcopy book), on the Palgrave Macmillan site, and other sites such as Amazon.com.

9781137471116

I am honored that celebrated animal rights author, Norm Phelps, wrote the Foreword to the book, and here is the critical praise on the back cover:

“This is an extraordinary book that shatters all safe spaces found among the debris, torture, genocide, and despair scattered throughout history by the so-called march towards progress.” –Peter McLaren, Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Chapman University, USA, Author of Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution

“For at least the last half century, a biocentric revolution has been unfolding against the destructive tyranny of anthropocentrism — a revolution guided by the natural laws of ecology against…

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Revolutionary Feminist Kurdish Guerrilleras: Female “State” vs. Islamic State

October 1, 2014

This is a new documentary produced by 60 Minutes Australia that simultaneously explores the hardship imposed on Kurds of Western Kurdistan (Rojava) at the hands of the fascist Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) as well as the revolutionary resilience of the Kurdish self-defense forces (YPG), particularly as expressed by the female-led Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).  Though the program is nominally made by 60 Minutes, it is in actual fact less than half of that in length; additionally, its given title, “Female State,” is rather problematic, given in the first instance that the Kurds–like the Palestinians–have no State to speak of, and especially in light of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) significant reorientation in recent years from a traditional Lenino-Stalinist political perspective stressing national independence to one that approximates social anarchism through autonomous means, or what the revolutionary Kurds themselves call “democratic confederalism.”

The Kurds of Rojava–located in northeastern Syria, if we prefer to speak of geographical in statist terms–have suffered immensely in recent months at the hands of the Islamic State, which seeks to ethnically cleanse the region of the generally secular, anti-authoritarian local population and so gain direct access to the border with Turkey, thus facilitating the further flow of arms and cash that critics suspect has been abetted by the Islamist AKP government in Ankara.  The present reality is that approximately 200,000 Kurds have fled Rojava for Turkey in the past few weeks, with the Kurdish canton of Kobanê radically threatened by Islamic State forces, equipped with tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons they expropriated from the Iraqi Army which they defeated in Mosul in June, to say nothing of the arms they have stolen from other elements of the anti-Assad opposition or–indeed–received as gifts from Obama’s reactionary Gulf monarch allies.

As Sardar Saadi notes in ROAR Mag, the revolutionary Kurds associated with the YPG/YPJ in many ways echo the inspirational model of anti-authoritarian self-determination provided to the world by the EZLN from Chiapas, Mexico.  This 60 Minutes documentary is a self-explanatory testament to the militant courage exhibited by the feminist guerrilleras of the YPJ.  

Truly, are not the guerrilleras of Kobanê a clear manifestation of the anti-systemic Weltgeist (“World Mind”) today?

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Map of ISIS advance toward Kobanê and Turkish border, September 2014

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Kurdish guerrilleras coordinate strategy

Counterpunch repost: “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis” by Rob Urie

September 27, 2014
"Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American." (from Rob Urie, "Hank Paulson Does Global Warming," Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

“Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American.” (from Rob Urie, “Hank Paulson Does Global Warming,” Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

Note: the following are selections from Rob Urie’s latest piece, “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis,” published on Counterpunch, 26 September 2014

“Such now is the place of the early twenty-first century U.S. with systemically generated polices accumulating toward self-inflicted Armageddon and threatening to take the rest of the world with it. In the same week that saw renewed war for oil in Iraq and Syria it was reported that the Obama administration is rebuilding the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In this same week that saw the largest climate resolution demonstration in history a series of dim shills for empire, a/k/a ‘leaders,’ went before the United Nations to offer the statistics of misdirection, ten times more than, thirty percent less than, that in context confirm the truism that something times nothing is nothing […].

With his recent misdirection on renewed war against Iraq and Syria and climate crisis the precise question of whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama is the most cynical person who ever lived remains irrelevant. The social ontology that suggested difference, as well as the words of the man himself, back into his fact as President of American empire. His assertion that IS (Islamic State) and Khorasans represent a direct threat to Americans places it in the set of all direct threats to Americans that has around 300,000 thousand dying every year from preventable medical errors. Climate crisis poses greater risks than any Mr. Obama will ever factually address. And his duplicity in undermining climate ‘negotiations’ in 2010 and 2014 while publicly proclaiming support is now a matter of public record.

Remarkably, or perhaps not so much, the Western commenting class is content with technocratic discourse on military tactics and ‘sectarian’ divisions in Iraq and Syria playing into the diversion that U.S. and ‘coalition’ actions have ‘political,’ as opposed to economic, basis. This isn’t to dismiss political consequences, but they are borne of economic motivations — the unifying theme between wars in the Middle East and climate crisis is oil. The U.S. is bombing oil fields ‘held’ by IS in Syria under the rationale that oil is the ‘currency’ it is funding itself with. Oil, munitions and credit default swaps are the currency the U.S. funds itself with.

Matters that are ‘externally’ related like wars for economic resources and climate crisis risk confusing ‘the issues’ that respective ‘experts’ find unsatisfying in their combined dimension. But discursive silos make addressing joint causes of global catastrophe in imperial capitalism impossible. The true threat that IS poses is in exposing oil as the currency of empire. Oil ties to political power through its economic power and it ties to military power through its fact as fuel for the machinery of war. Climate chaos, along with a century or more of slaughter and destruction for oil, is the concentrated product of empire […].

[T]he oceanic dead zones that surround capitalist economies are their own fact and metaphor for the Western creation of land-based dead zones through wars of conquest and slaughter for economic resources. Petroleum-based agricultural run-off and the dumping of massive quantities of consumer and industrial garbage create these oceanic dead zones. The misdirection of lip-service paid to greenhouse gas emissions while ignoring the other detritus of consumer and industrial ‘culture’ is to reframe global catastrophe as technocratic wrangling over ‘parts per million’ when the problem is political economy of death and destruction. Source: National Geographic.

The American tendency of personalizing the political leads to permanent misdiagnosis of the genesis of Western political dysfunction. Attributing Barack Obama’s pro-war, pro-Wall Street, anti-environmental policies to the man himself is to get it backwards. These policies serve his constituency. This constituency — Wall Street, arms manufacturers and extractive industries, determine the policies. Mr. Obama has his job as President through his ability to keep his nominal constituency of liberals and progressives on board with policies of permanent war, use of state power to deliver ever more economic resources to the already wealthy and end-times environmental policies. So will the political mis-leadership that follows him no matter their political Party.

What President Barack Obama’s actual policies have demonstrated — drone murders, surveillance and repression, persistent economic chicanery in favor of the already wealthy, war wherever the U.S. can find it and undermining all efforts at environmental reconciliation, is that the political space he occupies, the moderate center, is the true radical fringe when viewed through the lens of the continued existence of a ‘world’ that includes the rest of us. Rebuilding the largest nuclear arsenal in the world in 2014 is insane. There exists no conceivable explanation — bluff, taunt, economic stimulus, etc. that could frame the decision as the product of anything but a radically deranged system run amok, a genocide-suicide machine running on auto-pilot […].

If / when it comes, resolution in any of these dimensions will be brought about through acts against the corporatist moderates in Washington, London and Brussels, against Wall Street, the arms manufacturers and the extractive industries. Until these are gotten out of the way there is no hope for resolution. Divestment will not be effective — there are infinite sources of funding for industries that can turn guaranteed profits and even for those that can’t. Fracking is a financing and trading scam — the actual gas taken out of the ground doesn’t even pay for itself in the aggregate. Cap-and-trade requires a developed infrastructure of regulations; inspectors and global coordination that will never come into being because the economic interests being ‘regulated’ are the same ones developing these policies […].

The governments of the West are currently pulling out all of the stops to frighten people into supporting yet another war for oil resources in the Middle East. The threat of ‘terrorism’ is a cynical diversion and nothing more. Thirteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001relevant portions of the investigation report laying blame on Saudi Arabia for the attacks remain redacted. Terrorism in the Middle East is state sponsored misdirection. True terror is having children that you cannot feed because bankers destroyed the economy. True terror is having fracking companies destroy your farm’s water supply and having no alternate source. True terror is having global warming raise sea levels to bury the island where you and everyone you know live. True terror is having a U.S. ‘humanitarian intervention’ bomb your village / town / city / country into the Stone Age to make way for a new pipeline.

The American Empire is in the death throes of decline. The powers that be are increasingly desperate and this makes them increasingly dangerous. Fracking, nuclear weapons, bombing Afghan wedding parties and banker scams is all that this leadership knows how to do. Resolution within Western political economy is decades past possible. People can divert themselves with incremental reform but consider this: the ‘evolution, not revolution’ crowd now has about four decades of devolution to answer for. Nuclear weapons? In 2014? Really? Really?


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