Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

What Were Stalin’s Real Crimes? Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part II/III)

November 15, 2018
Fergana

The meaning of forced collectivization: an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

“It is in the nature of ideological politics […] that the real content of the ideology […] which originally had brought about the ‘idea’ […] is devoured by the logic with which the ‘idea’ is carried out.”

– Hannah Arendt1

What’s the biggest problem with the “criticisms” of Stalin raised by the “Proles of the Round Table”? That they are so disingenuous and anemic. One of the three critiques raised—about Spain—in fact isn’t critical of Stalin, while we’ve seen (in part I) how the “criticism” on deportations is entirely misleading. A related question might be to ask how it looks for two presumably white U.S. Americans to criticize Stalin for some (1-2%) of his deportations of ethnic Germans, but not to do so when it comes to the dictator’s mass-deportations of Muslims, Buddhists, and other indigenous peoples. At least Mao Zedong judged Stalin as being “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”2 For Jeremy and Justin, though, Stalin appears to have been at least 90%, if not 95%, right. Maybe we can soon expect the “Proles of the Round Table” Patreon to begin selling wearables proclaiming that “Stalin did nothing wrong.”

Besides the aforementioned Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the May Days, and the mass-deportations of ethnic minorities, let’s now consider five of Stalin’s real crimes.

1. “Socialism in One Country”: Stalinist Ideology

His revision, together with fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, of the tradition of socialist internationalism to the reactionary, ultra-nationalist idea of “socialism in one country.” Stalin and Bukharin arrived at this conclusion to compete against Lev Trotsky’s rival concept of “permanent revolution,” which calls first for a European and then global federation of socialist republics. This Stalinist doctrine, which demanded that the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy be considered first within the Third International (or Comintern), can explain both the General Secretary’s demand to crush the anarchists in Spain in 1937 and his effective facilitation of Hitler’s rise to power by means of the disastrous Comintern policy that considered the social-democratic (that is, non-Stalinist) opposition to Hitler to be “social-fascist.” The General Secretary would only reverse course and endorse a “Popular Front” strategy after Hitler had taken power.3 Stalinist ultra-nationalism finds contemporary purchase among neo-fascist, national-Bolshevik movements, whereas—perhaps ironically—the Comintern doctrine on “social fascism” has echoes today among ultra-leftists disdainful of coalition-building with more moderate political forces (e.g., as in the 2016 U.S. presidential election). Moreover, Stalin’s preference for “socialism in one country” can help us understand the Soviet Union’s continued sale of petroleum to Mussolini following this fascist’s military invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.4 Within this same vein, and anticipating the affinity of today’s neo-Stalinists for campist “analyses” of international relations, Moscow variously supported the feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD) in China, the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Afghan King Amanullah Khan, and Ibn al-Sa’ud (founder of Saudi Arabia) during this time on the grounds that these leaders staunchly opposed the West, despite their great distance from any kind of socialist paradigm.5

Civilizatsia

Courtesy Voline, The Unknown Revolution

2. Stalinist Imperialism

His “Great-Russian” chauvinism, as manifested in his brutally imperialist policies toward ethnic minorities—particularly the deportations of Muslims (as mentioned above in part I)—and other subject-peoples of the former Tsarist empire, whose colonial project Stalin enthusiastically embraced. Though Georgian by origin (his birth name was Ioseb Jughashvili), Stalin (whose Russian nom de guerre means “man of steel”) was “the most ‘Russian’ of the early leaders” who advanced not only “socialism in one country,’ but […] a socialism built on a predominantly Russian foundation.”6 According to Dunayevskaya, Stalin’s “national arrogance” was “as rabid as that of any Tsarist official.”7 In contrast to his mentor and supervisor Vladimir I. Lenin, who at least formally supported the right of self-determination for the oppressed nationalities of the Tsarist empire while greatly violating this principle in practice, Stalin was openly imperialist on the national question: according to the terms of this relationship, the colonies were to be “plundered for raw materials and food to serve the industrialisation of Russia.”8 It therefore remains clear that, under the Soviet Union, “Russia was not a nation state but an empire, an ideological state. Any definition as a nation-state would probably have excluded at least the non-Slavs, and certainly the Muslims.”9 Accordingly, the official history taught in Stalin’s USSR rehabilitated the mythical Tsarist narrative that the Russian “Empire had brought progress and civilisation to backward peoples.”10

Map_of_the_ethnic_groups_living_in_the_Soviet_Union

Ethnographic map of the former Soviet Union. Date unknown

In Georgia, a former Tsarist-era colony located in the Caucasus Mountains, the social-democratic Menshevik Party declared independence in 1918 to found the Georgian Democratic Republic, otherwise known as the Georgian Commune, wherein parliamentary democracy and a relatively collaborative relationship among the peasantry, proletariat, and political leadership lasted for three years, until Stalin and his fellow Georgian Bolshevik Sergo Ordzhonikidze organized a Red Army invasion in 1921 which crushed this courageous experiment in democratic socialism. The errant ex-colony of Georgia was thus forcibly reincorporated into the ex-Tsarist Empire—by then, the “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic,” part of the Soviet Union.11 Besides Georgia, this “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic” would include Azerbaijan and Armenia, which had also been occupied by the Red Army in 1920.12

In the Muslim-majority provinces of Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, the poorest region of the former Tsarist Empire, Lenin and Stalin sided with the interests of the Russian settlers against the Muslim peasantry.13 In Orientalist fashion, the Bolsheviks considered Central Asia’s “Muslims as culturally backward, not really suitable to be communists and needing to be kept under a kind of tutelage.”14 Yet in light of the sustained Basmachi revolt waged by Muslim guerrillas against Soviet imperialism in the first decade after October 1917, Stalin also recognized the significant threat these colonized Muslims could pose to the Soviet Union—hence his active discouragement of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism by means of cutting off the USSR’s Muslims “subjects,” many of them ethnically and linguistically Turkic, from the rest of the Ummah (Islamic global brotherhood or community) abroad. An early 1930’s law punishing unauthorized exit from the USSR made observation of hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, quite impossible.15 The expulsion from the Communist Party (1923) and subsequent imprisonment (1928) of the Volga Tatar Sultan Galiev, a pan-Islamist “national-communist” who envisioned organizing the Turkic Muslims into a fighting force against Western imperialism, followed a similar logic.16

In the Stalinist conception, the numerous subject-peoples of the Soviet Union could be classified hierarchically according to their “stage of development,” as based on their mode of production and whether or not they had a written language, such that supposedly more ‘advanced’ peoples would qualify as ‘nations’ that were granted the status of “Soviet Socialist Republic” (SSR), whereas “less developed” peoples would be granted “Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics” (ASSR), while those without written languages would be placed in “Autonomous Regions” (AR), or “National Territories” (NT). In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, there existed 14 SSR’s, 20 ASSR’s, 8 AR’s, and 10 NT’s in the USSR.17

Soviet_Union_Administrative_Divisions_1989

Map of Soviet administrative subdivisions, 1989. Notice the numerous ASSR subdivisions in Central Asia

This systematic atomization of oppressed nationalities followed Stalin’s “principle of the dual bridgehead,” whereby the State would favor those minorities that could assist the USSR in expanding its reach while repressing other minorities whose existence could serve as a “fifth column” for the USSR’s rivals. In part I of this critique, we saw how this rationale played out in Stalin’s mass-deportations: the General Secretary felt justified in forcibly transferring the Turkic Muslim Meskhetian people, among others, because they were supposedly too close to the Turkish State headed by Kemal Atatürk. Furthermore, this principle can be gleaned in the Soviet Communist Party’s initial favoring of Uzbeks over Tajiks beginning in 1924, followed by a 180° shift in perspective upon the overthrow of Afghanistan’s King Amanullah (a Pashtun) by Bacha-i Saqqao, a Tajik, in 1928—leading to the proclamation of the Tajikistan SSR in 1929.18 The capital city of Dushanbe was subsequently renamed as “Stalinabad.”19 In addition, whereas the Communist Party favored its own Kurdish minority, some of whom included refugees, because it could use them in the future as pawns against Iran and Turkey, it had refused to support Kurdish and Turkmen rebellions abroad against Turkey and Iran in 1925. Above all, Stalin’s nationalities policy achieved its greatest “success” in its complex partition of Turkestan by means of the drawing-up of borders that were defined along ethno-nationalist lines: just look at the region’s current borders (see map above), which are based on those concluded by Stalin’s regime. In thus pitting Central Asia’s mosaic of different ethno-linguistic groups against each other, Stalin definitively laid the pan-Islamist specter to rest.20 Dunayevskaya’s observation here seems apt: it was in Stalin’s “attitude to the many [oppressed] nationalities” that the General Secretary’s “passion for bossing came out in full bloom.”21

Stalin’s imperialist assertion of power over Central Asia, which imposed the collectivization of cattle herds and the nationalization of bazaars and caravans managed by indigenous peoples while promoting Russian settlements, resulted in famine and revolt.22 It involved a high-modernist assault on Islam in the name of emancipating women and remaking traditional patriarchal Turkic social relations, as we shall examine in more detail in the third part of this response.

Regarding Ukraine, see the section on Jeremy and Justin’s Holodomor denial in the third part of this response. Briefly, Jeremy’s Russian-chauvinist attitude toward all matters Ukrainian comes through at a fundamental linguistical level when he refers to Ukraine as “the Ukraine.” This formulation, like the Russian «на Украине» (“in the Ukraine”), is an imperialist way of referring to the country, which is not just a colony of Russia or the Soviet Union (as in, “the Ukrain[ian province]”). The proper way is to refer just to Ukraine, as in the Russian equivalent «в Украине» (“in Ukraine”).

Such attitudes are shared by Ó Séaghdha, who falsely claims Ukraine today to be a “bastion of the far right and neo-Nazism,” just as Justin compares “Ukrainian nationalists” to the U.S.-based Proud Boys. One’s mind is boggled: as of July 2018, the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party had only 6 seats, or 1.3%, in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, while in both rounds of elections held in 2014, Svoboda and Right Sector alike gained less than 5% of the vote.23 In fact, Ukraine has held its first major LGBT Pride marches following the Euromaidan protests which overthrew the Putin-affiliated President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Meanwhile, by focusing on the supposedly ‘fascist’ Ukrainians,24 Ó Séaghdha and his guests deny the global reach of Putin’s neo-Nazism, from his 2014 occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine and his subsequent mass-detention of Crimean Tatar Muslims, including in psychiatric hospitals, to his regime’s criminalization of homosexuality, decriminalization of domestic violence, and genocidal intervention in support of the Assad Regime in Syria—to say nothing of his mutual affinities for the Trump Regime. How ironic is this misrepresentation, then, considering that Ukraine was the “centerpiece of Hitler’s vision of Lebensraum.25

Soviet harvest

A typically socialist-realist depiction of a collective farm celebration, by Arkady Plastov (1937): presumably, this is how neo-Stalinists and ‘Marxist-Leninists’ idealize the outcomes of forcible collectivization in the Soviet Union.

3. Stalinist State-Capitalism

His advocacy and implementation of state capitalism in the Soviet Union, whereby the basic relationship of exploitation between capital and labor persisted after the Russian Revolution, with the difference that capital in this case was managed and expanded by the Communist Party bureaucracy rather than the private capitalist class.26 Upheld by the Army and police, the Soviet economy reduced workers to mere slaves: during the existence of the USSR, workers could not regulate, choose, or control their overseers and administrators, much less anticipate not having any, as through anarcho-syndicalist organization, or autogestion (самоуправление). In the USSR,

“[t]he State [wa]s [the worker’s] only employer. Instead of having thousands of ‘choices,’ as is the case in the nations where private capitalism prevails, in the U.S.S.R. (the U.S.C.R. [Union of State-Capitalist Republics: Voline]) the worker ha[d] only one. Any change of employer [wa]s impossible there.”27

Following the Revolution, “[f]or the Russian workers, […] nothing had changed; they were merely faced by another set of bosses, politicians and indoctrinators.”28

Peasants under Stalin were similarly reduced to serfs, particularly during and following the forced collectivization process that began in 1928. Continuing with the precedent of the Bolshevik policy of “War Communism,” which had involved considerable extraction of grain and the conscription of young men from the peasantry, Stalin declared war on the countryside, expropriating all lands held by these peasants and concentrating these into kolkhozi, or “collective possessions,” and sovkhozi, or State farms, which were to be worked by the peasants in the interests of the State.29 This nationalization did not discriminate between “rich” peasant, or kulak, and poor—in contrast to the misleading presentation Jeremy and Justin make of Stalin’s forcible collectivization campaign. The “Proles of the Round Table” deceptively explain the emergence of the “kulaks” by referring to the Tsarist Interior Minister Peter Stolypin’s land reforms of 1906, while saying nothing about Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” of 1921, which formally reintroduced private property. They also completely misrepresent Stalin’s collectivization policy, which proceeded at the points of bayonets, as a natural outgrowth of the traditional peasant commune (mir or obshchina), which had resisted the Tsarist State for centuries. In fact, it was arguably through Stalinist forcible collectivization that the Russian countryside fell under the control for the first time.30 As peasant resistance to this “total reordering of a rural civilization from the top down” mounted, including an estimated 13,000 “mass disturbances” just in 1930, Stalin’s regime resorted to atrocious counter-insurgent tactics to bring the countryside to heel, including mass-executions, reprisals, and the resulting famines of 1931-1933 in Ukraine, South Russia, and Kazakhstan.31 The Stalinist regime conveniently expanded the definition of exactly who was a “kulak” from a class-based to a political definition, such that even poor peasants who opposed forcible collectivization could be labeled “kulaks” and deported to Siberia, the Far North, and Central Asia, as about 1.8 million peasants were in 1930-1931. As during the numerous other episodes of mass-deportations devised by Stalin, mortality rates among “dekulakized” peasants were high.32

Puzzlingly, the “Proles of the Round Table” claim this collectivization to have been “extremely successful” in providing “stability” by the mid-1930’s, the resistance of at least 120 million peasants to the Terror campaign and the “excess mortality” of between 6 and 13 million people such Terror caused during this period notwithstanding. By precisely which standards can this campaign have said to have been “successful”? The historian Catherine Evtuhov observes: “From any humane perspective, the terrible costs were far greater than the rewards.”33 In contrast, Jeremy and Justin either do not recognize the brutality of the Stalinist regime’s campaign, or they simply explain away mass-death during collectivization as resulting from natural disasters—thus ‘naturalizing’ the Soviet regime’s contributions to famines—and/or “kulak resistance.” By so easily dismissing mass-death, they imply that the millions of poor peasants who were destroyed as a result of forcible collectivization deserved such a fate.

Jeremy and Justin are very insistent on arguing that the deaths associated with collectivization were “not due” to Stalin’s policies—against both logic and evidence. They have nothing to say about Stalin’s reconstitution in 1932 of the Tsarist-era internal-passport system, or propiska, in order to tightly control the movements of the Soviet peasantry and proletariat during forced collectivization. Upon its proclamation in December 1932, such “passportization” was effected and mandated in “towns, urban settlements, district centers, and Machine and Tractor Stations, within 100-kilometer radiuses around certain large towns, in frontier zones, on building sites and state farms”: it thus openly revoked the freedom of movement of the majority of the Soviet population, including peasants and ethnic minorities.34 With this in mind, it would appear that the “Proles of the Round Table” do not to want to concede the possibility—and reality—that Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign involved the oppression and dispossession of many poor peasants, whether these were insurgents against whom the State retaliated for defending their communities against Stalinist incursion or simply peasants whom the parasitic bureaucracy considered mere objects of exploitation and either killed outright or left to die during forcible collectivization—thus reflecting the extent to which internal colonialism characterized the Stalinist State.35

Indeed, Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign followed a very clearly state-capitalist rationale, both requiring and (once established) providing mass-labor inputs. Based on the economic theory of Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, Stalin’s massive State project to centralize the peasantry so as to more deeply exploit it represented the phase of “primitive socialist accumulation” that was considered as necessary to finance a rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. In parallel to the colonization of the New World, the enslavement of Africans, and the enclosure of the commons by which capitalism arose as a historical mode of production,36 Preobrazhensky essentially argued that the Soviet State must exploit the peasants and use the surplus value extracted from them to accelerate the growth of capital and industry.37 This brutally mechanistic logic, which has served as the model for similar industrialization processes in countries led by Stalinist bureaucracies such as Maoist China and Ethiopia under the Derg,38 openly exhibits Marxist-Leninism’s fundamental bias against the peasantry, whether “kulak” or otherwise. Such bias was clearly on display on Ó Séaghdha’s podcast, given the embarrassing side-comments about “comrades cuddling” during the horrors of forced collectivization, and Jeremy and Justin’s astonishing conclusion that this collectivization which took the lives of millions of poor peasants had been “extremely successful.” These Stalinists thus appear to have no class analysis of the peasantry, instead considering them all as reactionaries and “capitalists” whose oppression and destruction signifies progress. They malign the peasants and laugh over their corpses while saying nothing about the conditions of “second serfdom”—represented by barshchina (State labor requirements), extraction, and low pay—that formed the basis of Stalinist industrialization.39

Within Soviet class society, according to Voline (writing in 1947), there existed approximately 10 million privileged workers, peasants, functionaries, Bolshevik Party members, police, and soldiers (comprising approximately 6% of the population of the USSR/USCR), as against 160 million effectively enslaved workers and peasants (or 94% of the USSR/USCR’s population).40 The basic structure of the Soviet Union, on Paul Mattick’s account, was “a centrally-directed social order for the perpetuation of the capitalistic divorce of the workers from the means of production and the consequent restoration of Russia as a competing imperialist power.”41 This ‘total State’ “resembled an army in terms of rank and discipline,” and atop it all “lived Stalin, moving between his Kremlin apartment and his heavily guarded dachas. He and his cronies indulged themselves night after night, in between issuing commands and execution orders, feasting and toasting in the manner of gangland chiefs.”42

child labor

The meaning of forcible collectivization: child labor on an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

4. The GULAG Slave-Labor Camp System

The deaths of the conquered are necessary for the conqueror’s peace of mind.” Chinggis Khan: a phrase of which Stalin was fond (Evtuhov 676)

His regime’s founding (in 1930), mass-expansion, and vast utilization of the GULAG slave-labor camp system, known officially as the “State Camp Administration,” which played a central role in the General Secretary’s “Great Purge,” otherwise known as his “Terror.” These purges served the goal of “ensur[ing] the survival of the regime and Stalin’s position as its supreme leader” by eliminating the remaining “General Staff of the [Russian] Revolution” as well as the workers, peasants, and intellectuals who resisted Stalin’s state-capitalist plans.43 The General Secretary’s insistence on obedience, his paranoid vengefulness, his equation of any kind of opposition with treason, and the fear felt by Communists that the Soviet Union was militarily encircled, particularly in light of a newly remilitarized and fascist Germany, can help explain the Terror, which involved the arrest of at least 1.5 million people, the deportation of a half-million to camps, and the execution of hundreds of thousands. The total camp population reached 2.5 million in 1950.44

As Yevgenia Semënovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind attests to, the GULAG system was designed in such a way as to partially recoup the financial losses involved in the mass-imprisonments which followed from Stalin’s Purges of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: instead of summarily being executed or idly rotting away in prison, many detainees were forced to work for the State with little to no material compensation. Ginzburg shows as well that political prisoners suffered greater discrimination in access to health services, nutritional intake, shelter, and types of labor performed in the GULAG, relative to other convict groups: the ‘politicals’ were always assigned hard labor. Many GULAG prisoners died performing slave-labor, whether clearing forests or constructing railroads: such was the fate of numerous enslaved prisoners forced to construct the Moscow-Volga Canal from 1932-1937.45 Within the Magadan camp located in Eastern Siberia where Ginzburg was held, the discrepancy between the housing conditions of Hut No. 8, a “freezing cold” “wild animals’ den” where the female political prisoners lived, and the abodes of those convicted for lesser offenses, in which lived individuals with “healthy complexions and lively faces” enjoying “blankets in check patterns” and “pillows with hemstitched linen covers,” clearly illustrates the discrimination.46 This same dynamic seems to explain the contrast in appearance—and physical comfort—among the female slave-labor teams assigned to the Kilometer 7 work site: the “peasant women” “had managed to keep their own coarse scarves” and some of the “ordinary criminals” had sheepskin coats, while the political prisoners “had not a rag of [their own]” and wore footwear which was “full of holes [and] let in the snow.”47 Ginzburg’s fellow inmate Olga was therefore right to anticipate that Stalin’s regime would expand the use of “hard-labor camps” in the wake of the downfall of NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov in 1939, especially considering that the majority of those imprisoned by Stalin were of prime working age.48

In a reflection of the maxims of Stalinist state-capitalism, Ginzburg reports that the slave-labor system to which she was subjected in the GULAG would dole out food only in proportion to the output that a given team would achieve. For teams like hers comprised of intellectuals and ex-Party officials who lacked experience with manual labor, then, this dynamic would result in a downward spiral of production—and welfare, since they were unable to achieve a basic threshold for production which would allow them access to the very food they needed to maintain and increase production in the future.49 Yet slave-laborers were sometimes provided with food relief if mortality rates were deemed ‘excessive.’50 Ginzburg’s memoirs thus suggest that, as far as political prisoners were concerned, the GULAG system was designed to torment such ‘politicals’ by maintaining them at a minimal level of sustenance, rather than starving or otherwise killing them outright.

On a more positive note, Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought “hope [to] the [inmates of the GULAG] camps,” inspiring both the June 1953 workers’ uprising against Stalinism, which not only overthrew State power in several cities and work-sites in East Germany but also involved workers’ liberation of prisons and concentration camps, and the unprecedented strike by political prisoners at the Vorkuta slave-labor camp which followed just two weeks later.51 Dunayevskaya comments in a manner that remains completely germane today that both of these episodes represented an “unmistakable affirmative” response to the question of whether humanity can “achieve freedom out of the totalitarianism of our age.”52

5. Assassination of Trotsky

What specific characteristics in a man enable him to become the receptacle and the executor of class impulses from an alien class[…]?” – Raya Dunayevskaya53


His ordering of the assassination of Lev Trotsky, as carried out by the Spanish NKVD agent Ramón Mercader in Trotsky’s residence in Coyoacán, Mexico, in August 1940. Whereas there is little love lost between us and the “Old Man,” as Trotsky was known, given his status as the butcher of the Kronstadt Commune, the would-be executioner of Nestor Makhno, an advocate of the militarization of labor, and an apologist for State slavery54—still, Stalin’s brazen attempts to assassinate him in Mexico City not once but twice remain shocking in their brutality to this day. They may well have inspired the commission of similar atrocities on the part of the C.I.A.,55 the Israeli Mossad, and even Mohammed bin Salman’s recent murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

First, on May 24, 1940, the Mexican surrealist and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros led an assassination-squad in an assault on Trotsky’s fortified family residence, which the exiled Bolshevik leader had been granted by Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, who had afforded him asylum and personal protection. Mercader represented Stalin’s back-up plan. Having adopted an elaborate “deep-cover” false identity as “Jacques Mornard,” a Belgian aristocrat unconcerned with political questions, Mercader had seduced and used Sylvia Ageloff, herself a leftist Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn connected through her sisters to Trotsky, for two years to get close enough to facilitate both assassination attempts. While the complicity of “Jacques” in the first plot remained undetected, this was only possible because Siqueiros’ team captured and murdered Trotsky’s young American security guard Robert Sheldon Harte, whom Mercader knew and also used to gain access to Trotsky’s residence in the early morning of May 24. Yet a combination of luck; quick-thinking by Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s wife, who isolated and shielded her partner’s body from the would-be assassin’s bullets; and the imprecise strategy to kill Trotsky that morning ensured his survival.56 Nevertheless, following a dry-run to assassinate Trotsky in his study using an ice-pick on the pretext of discussing a political article he had begun to write, Mercader invited himself back to Trotsky’s residence on the hot summer day of August 20, 1940, to discuss some revisions he had supposedly made to improve the same article. Concealing his ice-pick under a heavy raincoat, Mercader provoked Natalia Sedova’s suspicions about his presentation:

Yes, you don’t look well. Not well at all. Why are you wearing your hat and raincoat? You never wear a hat, and the sun is shining.”57

Nevertheless, despite Natalia Sedova and Trotsky’s own intuitive misgivings, this Stalinist agent did ‘succeed’ in assassinating the exiled Bolshevik that day—precisely by burying an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head from behind, as the “Old Man” was distracted turning the page while reading the very essay Mercader had brought him:

The moment was rehearsed. Wait until he finishes the first page, [NKVD officer] Eitington had coached. Wait until he is turning the page, when he will be most distracted.”58

What a fitting allegory for Leninism and Stalinism: conflict-resolution according to the principle of “might makes right.”59 Trotsky’s fate also openly displays Stalin’s anti-Semitism: in so ruthlessly murdering his primary political rival, a world-renowned Bolshevik leader and Jewish dissident,60 in Coyoacán, which lies approximately 6,000 miles (or 10,000 kilometers) from Moscow—after having exploited Sylvia Ageloff, a fellow Jewish intellectual, to gain access to the desired target—the “Man of Steel” flaunts his attitude toward the relationship between Jews and his false “Revolution.” Mercader’s assassination of Trotsky therefore illuminates the clear continuities between Stalin and the bourgeoisie, in terms of their shared instrumentalization of human life, and the “full-circle” development of the Russian Revolution, proving Voline’s point that “Lenin, Trotsky, and their colleagues [as Stalin’s predecessors] were never revolutionaries. They were only rather brutal reformers, and like all reformers and politicians, always had recourse to the old bourgeois methods, in dealing with both internal and military problems.”61

Notes

1Arendt 472.

2Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), 68).

3Evtuhov 697-698.

4Henry Wolfe, The Imperial Soviets (New York: Doubleday, 1940).

5Alfred Meyer, Communism (New York: Random House, 1984), 92-93.

6E. H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926, vol. 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 195-196.

7Dunayevskaya 318.

8Hensman 36.

9Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 52.

10Hensman 53-60.

11Eric Lee, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921 (London, Zed Books, 2017). See a review here.

12Ibid 160-166.

13Roy 50-51, 83.

14Ibid 50.

15Evtuhov 692.

16Roy 45-46, 52-53, 66.

17Ibid 64-65.

18Roy 67.

19Evtuhov 692.

20Roy 46, 68, 73.

21Dunayevskaya 318.

22Evtuhov 689-690.

23Hensman 88-89.

24This line is disturbingly close to that of the neo-fascist Aleksandr Dugin, who welcomed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine by calling for “genocide… of the race of Ukrainian bastards [sic].” Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep (Chico, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 233.

25Plokhy 259.

26Wayne Price, Anarchism and Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? 3rd ed. (Edmonton, Alberta: Thoughtcrime, 2010), 186-189; Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 282.

27Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 359-361.

28Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 271.

29Voline 372-375.

30Evtuhov 670.

31Ibid 668; Voline 374.

32Evtuhov 668-669.

33Ibid 670.

34For a translation of the text of the December, 1932 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars, see M. Matthews, Soviet Government: a Selection of Official Documents on Internal Policy, J. Cape, 1974, 74-77.

35Hensman 34-35; Plokhy 249-250.

36Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin: London, 1976), 873-904.

37Evtuhov 642.

38Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, Politics and Famine in Ethiopia (Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival, 1985).

39Evtuhov 685.

40Voline 380, 388.

41Mattick 264.

42Evtuhov 688, 730.

43Plokhy 255; Dunayevskaya 320.

44Evtuhov 671, 676, 693, 730.

45Ibid 675, 688.

46Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey Into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (San Diego: Harcourt, 1967), 366, 368.

47Ibid 402.

48Ibid 258.

49Ibid 405-406.

50Ibid 415.

51Dunayaevskaya 325-329.

52Ibid 327-329.

53Ibid 317.

54Ida Mett, “The Kronstadt Commune,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 185-190; Voline 592-600; Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (London: Solidarity, 1970).

55Arendt xxn4.

56John P. Davidson, The Obedient Assassin (Harrison, NY: Delphinium Books, 2014), 48, 193-199.

57Ibid 274.

58Ibid 276.

59Voline 374.

60A dissident relative to Stalinism in power, that is, but not relative to anarchism or libertarian communism.

61Voline 431-432 (emphasis added).

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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”

From Infoshop.org: Depression and Suicide Amongst Radicals and Anarchists

March 16, 2014

blue nude

“Blue Nude,” Pablo Picasso (1902)

This is a link to an important essay by Nihil0 as published on Infoshop.org that deals with issues of depression and suicidality among radical critics of existing society.  As the author writes,

“While a variety of factors contribute to individual instances of suicide and the overall suicide rate, I believe that progressive radicals, anarchists, and social justice activists have somewhat unique psychological factors that can also come into play. Although they are probably just as likely to suffer from problems like social isolation or drug dependency, I believe that those who are informed about the myriad of crises that humanity currently faces are given an extra punctuation in terms of reasons to be dismayed. So, in addition to any personal problems they may have, they are also aware that the world seems to be going to hell in a proverbial handbasket […].

When a progressive radical commits suicide it’s equivalent to a fascist putting another notch in his rifle. It is equivalent to the war machine rolling its tank treads over another freedom fighter. This, I hope, is reason enough for many to avoid death at their own hands.”

Hedges on Moby Dick, fascism, and sublime madness

January 27, 2014

anarchy leads the ppl

This is part of the conclusion to Chris Hedges’s “The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies,” a speech given in Santa Monica, California, in October 2013.  In his comments, Hedges reflects on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as an allegory of prevailing society.

“I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat. And they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. And this is a fight which in the face of the overwhelming forces against us requires us to embrace this sublime madness, to find in acts of rebellion the embers of life, an intrinsic meaning that lies outside of certain success. It is to at once grasp reality and then refuse to allow this reality to paralyze us.”

Hedges closes by quoting Turkish poet Nazim Hekmet’s “On Living.”

II

Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast . . .
Let’s say we’re at the front—
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.

III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Counterpunch report: “Evil is as Evil Does” by Norman Pollock

July 3, 2013

This is a repost of “Evil is as Evil Does,” first published on Counterpunch on 1 July.  It is written by Norman Pollock, author of the forthcoming book Eichmann on the Potomoc (Counterpunch/AK Press, 2013).

Evil is not banal, pace Arendt; it is in this case (the US in the early 21st century) the systemization in government policy of an advanced capitalist society and political economy at the tipping point of structural-ideological senescence, now seemingly treading water because of economic dislocations more long- than short-term in nature, but actually poised—somewhat in desperation—to advance its militarized global expansion in an effort to maintain its unilateral position of world leadership in an international framework of multipolar centers of power, and therefore, objectively, destined ultimately to fail, a trajectory of decline eliciting a political-military response already in the present of an American-style FASCISM, the familiar concentration of wealth consolidated within and protected by an hierarchical societal formation institutionally directed to market fundamentalism and a compliant working class.  In this setting, an America on the brink of totalitarianism, for good and sufficient reason, centuries’-long intervention, a steadily widening internal class-diifferentiation of wealth and power, xenophobia, and, since World War II, an unreasoning anticommunism having  the result, intended or otherwise, of fear and abject conformity, thus muting if not silencing substantive dissent on national priorities, critical thought of ideological valuing of consumerism and capital accumulation, and informed discussion of alternative modes of social-economic development, President Obama is the near-perfect embodiment of a leader prepared to capitalize on historical trends of counterrevolution in America’s foreign policy and informal methods and mechanisms of social control domestically as uniquely representative of ruling-groups’ interests to carry forward a public policy entailing the financialization and militarization (the two nicely conjoined) of American capitalism.  By this token, Obama is hardly a cog in Arendt’s imagined bureaucratic machinery, implying inertness and perhaps a rote cruelness, but an Eichmann of a different complexion, knowingly and actively performing the role of facilitator and/or enabler of the hegemonic paradigm so long taken for granted and inscribed in America’s ideological consciousness, yet—hence the desperation—no longer easily in reach.

He started slowly, for some reason thought anti-imperialist and economically progressive, such being the power of public relations, liberal political rhetoric, racial identity (as I state elsewhere, as a veteran of civil-rights demonstrations and organizational activity, including helping to forge a civil-rights/antiwar coalition, I am not intimidated by the liberal mindset of political correctness: Obama is not fit to be in the same company as blacks I protested with, or my personal hero Paul Robeson, as well as Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, with whom I was privileged to shake hands, etc. etc.), and hitherto undetected perfidiousness in the 2008 campaign.  Axelrod et. al., with  the candidate’s help, put something over on us—until immediately after the Inauguration when suddenly we could start to take the measure of his appointments, notably, Geithner, at Treasury, Clinton, at State, and national-security advisers, such as Brennan, when it became apparent to those not bedazzled by appearance, Democratic-affiliation, the presumed forced-choice of Neanderthal-like reaction, that underlying continuities of policy and intent with the Bush II administration were not sundered, only deceptively glistened, a liberalization of Rightist practice and policy, as in humanitarian interventionism, same old, same old, illegal intervention, or as in health-care reform to sidetrack and obviate the need for the public option, let alone, single-payer, at the same time rewarding Big Pharma and the insurance companies.

Tragic, in the sense of “deplorable,” because the preponderance of what once had been the Left in America, and still styling itself liberal or progressive, has bought hook, line, and sinker, into this charade of social-welfare politics, peaceable international relations, and broad regulatory constraints on the business system (as well, we appreciate in hindsight, as indifference to, or unawareness of, the utter savaging of civil liberties), but also, tragic, in the more profound sense, in which (a) a protagonist has been defeated by (b) a stronger force, with (c) a sad conclusion exciting (d) pity, where (a) is the people, (b) the present government and its near-predecessors, (c) a terror-struck populace becoming habituated to social control at home and the doctrine of permanent war in foreign affairs, and (d) the eclipse of the nation’s democratic structure, form, and legitimacy, through increased reliance on CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations, armed drones for targeted assassination, stupendous military appropriations coupled with, in both budgetary and ideological terms, the shrinking and weakening of the social safety net—all, the burden of this book, under the “stewardship” of Obama, as a qualitative jump within, or intensification of, the broad historical continuum bequeathed by his predecessors.  Obama is more than a sophisticated version of the hapless Bush II, his very sophistication, aided by the aforementioned liberalization of the extant Right, making him the more dangerous, from the standpoint of war policy and planning (e.g., the Pacific-first strategy for the containment and isolation of China) and government-business relations, a process of deregulation started under Clinton and systematized more adroitly under Obama.  Even Cheney, with all his brashness, could not give more favorable treatment to the oil companies than Salazar of Interior.

This could have been written before the revelations of Edward J. Snowden, but the wide net of surveillance spread over the American people (and also foreign nationals) by the National Security Agency is of such moment as to confirm the political-structural-ideological trends toward an incipient totalitarianism no longer dismissible as ranting, conspiracy-theorization, or other forms of put-down.  The danger is real.  My life had been one of activism.  Here I’m not interested in “solutions,” which, frankly, turn out to be, “Please, Mr. President, don’t you see…,” or, write to your congressperson or senator, or contribute to a New York Times ad, or wave a placard and hope motorists will honk as they drive by.  Obama isn’t listening, nor Brennan, nor Feinstein, nor Clapper, Petraeus, Rice, Power, Rhodes.  The more one approaches on bended knee, pleading, as though to reasonable men and women, the more their appetite is whetted for going further, perhaps an unconsciously-driven sadism, perhaps not, confident that the citizenry’s naivete , apathy, ignorance, or, of course, agreement, provides open space for unrestrained conduct.  Add to a faltering political consciousness, as a decisive mass phenomenon of our time, the bred-into-us submissiveness (as Theodor Adorno, in 1950, described in The Authoritarian Personality, or, my interpretation, the institutionalization of ego-loss or individual’s depersonalization by means of the bludgeoning of sensibility to meet the needs of consumerism and a militaristic mindset), and one readily sees the almost-epistemological foundations (because economic and structural factors must also be taken into account) of popular docility toward and inability to mount, or fear of mounting, criticism about America per se, yet personified by its ruling groups, whether political, economic, military,  and increasingly, their seamless connection.

Obama, deregulation, militarism, a systemic infusion of patriotism through media coverage, sports, even for some, the celebrity culture, as well as the failure to address climate change, unemployment, poverty, mortgage foreclosure, together point to a reification of America as God’s Own Kingdom on Earth and to other nations the Holy Grail for which they are zealously ever in quest (however, not its deficiencies in public policy, such as affecting the social safety net, of which they almost unanimously oppose), or so we are asked to believe.  Reification is a maddening psychological-epistemological process, as measured by an unmediated political consciousness, not subject to screens which filter out adversarial and alternative thinking, projects, values, the product broadly speaking of cultural conditioning, selectively promoted, to satisfy ruling-groups’ needs and goals.  Reification is the materialization of patriotic abstractions, such as freedom and democracy, which themselves have been largely honored in the breach, thus rendering the individual two steps removed from the real world on which critical awareness and heightened political consciousness depend.  He/she introjects (or, if one prefers, internalizes) the very structure of power and affiliated ideas that, in turn, oppresses and/or confines the individual.  Each individual becomes the incarnation of the nation in its mature, monopoly-capitalism form, a walking about in the persona of a mighty armed fortress-state, celebrating the glories of wealth accumulation and the military triumphs of battles won (even keeping a scorecard on opponents’ losses), while fending off as “enemies” domestic and foreign those who dare question “legitimate” Authority, as sanctified primarily by legislation which owes its supposed legitimacy to the existing (and historically, successively replenished and renewed) structural-economic configuration of wealth and power.

Through political-cultural conditioning, then, we absorb the systemic forces, notably, the hierarchical class structure inculcating obedience and passivity, which nullify the very concept of class in its positive guise: the instrument of social protest to achieve goals particular to the class; simply, class self-interest as the organizational base for challenging society’s dominant groups.  This is wholly antithetical to the current practice of shielding the copartnership of government and business, a structural framework of capitalism intended to allow corporations and banks write their own regulations, then transmuted into legislation as the law of the land.  Secretiveness here in the private realm corresponds to classification of government documents in the public, for the Obama Administration a giant repackaging of the Capitalist State for the obvious task of concealment of practices that, with public exposure, would be viewed as confirmatory of a totalitarian direction.  Secrecy is antithetical to democracy, if by the latter we include government by the consent of the governed.  Unless each and every case of classification can be justified by an impartial tribunal (itself now hopeless, given the politicization of the judiciary and of the law itself), classification is a lame pretext for deterring and ultimately suppressing the investigating and publicizing of government wrongdoing and criminality.  Obama’s passion for impaling whistleblowers is by now self-evident.  Edward Snowden is his Osama bin Laden, in both cases the essential fulcrum which enables him to mount an expansion of Executive Power, relatedly, enlarge the military budget, a key to that expanded power, in which militarism (the civilian window dressing for which is counterterrorism, as a parallel and complementary state of mind) forms an integral part, and to ensure completeness of the Obama paradigm of governance thus far, reduce the guarantees of Constitutional rights and attendant civil liberties, as now, the dastardly practice of widespread surveillance of the American public, whose reach encompasses the interlocking networks of “friends and allies” so as to constitute a global menace.

Evil, as I use it here, signifies the institutionalization of class political-structural-military dominance, not, however, as an impersonal force or process, but as the consciously furthered activity of power-groups in American society, determined on the globalization-of-one, a world system of capitalism, US-inspired as to ground rules and controlled as to patterns of trade, investment, and, not least, geopolitical and geostrategic arrangements and principles.  Egocentric, but why also evil?  Let the ghost of the vaporized child in Pakistan answer, the victim of a missile fired from an armed  drone; or, the ghost of the infant in Cuba who died because of medicine denied by the American embargo for a treatable cancer; or the living ghosts in Guantanamo prison who are in a protracted hunger strike in protest against torture and unwarranted imprisonment.  We don’t require disputatious academics dancing on the head of a pin to tell us what evil is.  It is in front of our eyes, and if you need a mailing address, try 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., with instructions to mimeograph copies to be handed out to the national-security advisers on Terror Tuesdays.  Of course, said message will be instantly classified and stamped “Top Secret.”

“Autonomy: An Idea Whose Time Has Come” by Jérôme E. Roos

June 26, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I would like here to share a link and PDF copy of Jérôme E. Roos’ recent essay, “Autonomy: An Idea Whose Time is Come,” as published originally on ROAR (Reflections on a Revolution) on 23 June.  It is a very excellent essay appraising the present situation of anti-systemic struggle and the various promises of autonomous social relations.  It is optimistic, noting that the future possibilities of popular, democratic self-management–as expressed via the council system–lie presently within the diverse set of anti-capitalist modes of being seen throughout the globe.  The author cites the Paris Commune, revolutionary Barcelona (1936), and the example of the Good-Government Councils of the EZLN as “concrete forms” of autonomous examples.

Unfortunately, Roos is mistaken in claiming that the Commune of 1871 held out for almost a year against the French military–far less time than that, just over two months!

In solidarity

Autonomy” (PDF)

One Year On: Under Empire, All Life is Imperiled

May 24, 2013

ILRACC cover

This is my latest published writing, and my first appearance in CounterpunchI wrote it for the one-year anniversary of the publication of Imperiled Life.

—————————————————————————-

“After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it.” – Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Channeling Adorno, it would I think prove difficult today to characterize the prevailing world-situation as anything other than highly negative.  Such an interpretation is arguably seen most readily in reflection on environmental matters—specifically, the ever-worsening climate emergency, not to mention other worrying signs of the ecological devastation wrought by the capitalist system.

Perhaps a short summary of key recent findings on the state of the environment is here in order.  Less than two weeks ago, the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i confirmed that the average global carbon dioxide concentration had reached 400 parts per million (ppm)—more than 50 ppm higher than James Hansen and the eponymous 350.org movement claim to be a safe level, and approximately 120 ppm higher than pre-industrial (or pre-capitalist) concentrations.  According to the Guardian, such CO2 concentrations have not been seen on Earth for the last 3-5 million years, during the Pliocene geological era, which saw an ice-free Arctic, savannahs in northern Africa (where currently the Sahara resides), and sea levels between 25 and 40 meters higher than those which obtain today.  In Professor Andrew Glikson’s estimation, the annual rise of 3 ppm in atmospheric CO2 seen last year (2012-2013) is entirely unprecedented during the past 65 million years; as he writes, “regular river flow conditions such as allowed cultivation and along river valleys since about 7000 years ago, and temperate Mediterranean-type climates allowing extensive farming, could hardly exist under the intense hydrological cycle and heat wave conditions of the Pliocene.”  This should hardly be surprising, given that such atmospheric CO2 levels as those we suffer today have never been seen in the entire history (and prehistory) of Homo sapiens sapiens, though our ancestral Homo habilis arguably did endure them.  Indeed, the Earth’s current average global temperature—a slightly different matter than the atmospheric CO2 level, given lags in the latter’s contribution to the former, in addition to the masking effect of aerosols (SO2 et al.) emitted by industry—has recently been found to surpass 90% of all average global temperatures experienced since the emergence of agriculture some 12,000 years ago—and hence also of “civilization.”  Arguably most worrying is Nafeez Ahmad’s recent citation of a 2011 Science paper which projects that, given the current, unprecedented rate of increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, global average temperatures could rise a full 16°C by the end of the century—that is to say, nearly three times  the worst-case scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 report (a 6°C increase).

Such considerations are no doubt horrific; they are nonetheless reality.  Some other truths manifested of late that can be associated with these trends include the following climatological news and reports: the 260,000 persons, half of them young children, who the UN recently announced to have perished during the 2011 famine in Somalia, itself catalyzed by the region’s worst drought in the past 7 decades; the hundreds of millions who Lord Stern has recently reported can soon be expected to be forcibly displaced from their homelands due to unchecked global warming; the millions who will face starvation in Africa and Asia as agriculture withers under unprecedented heat; the numerous people of Bangladesh who are losing access to freshwater as rising sea levels cause saltwater to intrude into aquifers, or the millions of Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Burmese, and Rohingya threatened by cyclones like Mahasen; the innumerable species, plant and animal, that face destruction and extinction under the projected average global temperature increases promised by climate catastrophe…  The nauseating list goes on indefinitely.

Consideration of these problematics is the focus of my Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, published a year ago now by AK Press in collaboration with the Institute for Anarchist Studies.  Strangely enough, this one-year anniversary of publication is, unlike the case with more joyous occasions, hardly one to be celebrated, for the problems considered within the volume unsurprisingly have only worsened over that time, in keeping with the laws of physics and chemistry.  I would nonetheless continue to vouch for the work’s conclusions: its “diagnosis, prognosis, and remedies,” as mentioned in the preface by my editor Paul Messersmith-Glavin, stem from a social anarchist, anti-systemic perspective on the ecological crisis that I believe to be rational and helpful—insofar as such standards have a place today within political and environmental thought, as I should hope they might.

In structural terms, it should be clear to all honest observers that the climate crisis is the result of the dominance of the capitalist mode of production over the entirety of planet Earth; basing itself fundamentally on ceaseless expansion, the imperatives of capital profoundly contradict the modes of living—cooperative and competitive—observed throughout the world’s various ecosystems.  Capital’s “grow-or-die” maxim resembles that of the cancer cell or a deadly virus more than it does human, animal, or plant life, as theorists from Murray Bookchin to John McMurtry have rightly noted.  As against liberal analyses, then, the State has proved itself to be a mere facilitator of capital’s ecocidal project: consider Obama’s recent profession of enthusiasm for the “development” of the substantial hydrocarbon resources that are believed to reside below the Arctic ice cap, once capitalism has melted that away entirely.  In this vein, David Schwartman is right to cite Michael Klare in his formulation of the U.S. military as constituting the “oil protection service” of transnational capital: imperialism’s long and sordid history of accommodation with its autocratic Gulf petrol-enablers—and its various intrigues and interventions targeting those, from Mossadegh to Qadhafi, who might seek alternative uses of such resources—is well-known.  Recall the Iraq War.

So we cannot look to the State for meaningful assistance in the struggle to overturn the trends which are delivering humanity and Earth’s systems into ruin—as John Holloway notes rightly, the State is “their organization,” referring to the capitalist class.  What of the putative non-governmental organizations which espouse environmental concerns?  Clearly, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and company rightly merit the label of “Gang Green,” in light of their toxic incrementalism and their related willingness to accommodate the very structures which are perpetuating environmental destruction.  Similarly, Cory Morningstar has recently written a legitimate denunciation of Bill McKibben and 350.org on these pages, declaring McKibben’s world-famous yet entirely reformist and thus inadequate organization to represent little more than the “soma of the 21st century,” given its papering over of any critique of capitalism, productivism, militarism, or imperialism.  Essentially, then, what we are faced with is the omnicidal steamroll of the capitalist machine as oiled by the world’s rich and their State, and then the anemic responses from the official “opposition” which has taken it upon itself to attempt to resolve the various environmental crises by doing essentially nothing of substance to achieve those ends.

Thankfully, of course, the story does not end there.  Humanity, as I write in the penultimate paragraph of Imperiled Life, cannot be reduced to the forms of capital and the State; these “do not have the final word.”  We are, then, on a desperate search for radical groupings among the subordinated, or l@s de abajo (“those from below”).  In strategic terms, it would seem that generally to diffuse anti-systemic ecological analyses—assuming these be tied together with humanistic, emancipatory concern for social oppression—remains a crucial task at the present juncture: the counter-hegemonic war of position today retains all of its relevance!  As should be self-evident, of course, efforts seeking merely to “raise consciousness” and metaphorically arm the populace with critical perspectives on the present multi-dimensional crisis should hardly be taken as the end of organizing; rather, such should serve as means to the “happy end” (Ernst Bloch) of a world freed from capitalist and State control, and the attendant looming risk of climate apocalypse.  How these two trends might inter-relate—and whether we can even theoretically hope that they will, this late in the game—is the question on everyone’s minds (or, at least, it should be).  As Allan Stoekl closes his recent review of Adrian Parr’s The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics, summing up the struggle to achieve a post-capitalist ecological society: “But how to get from here to there?”  The question is a burning one.  In this vein, we can turn to Max Horkheimer’s obvious yet crucial point that “[t]he revolution is no good” insofar as it “is not victorious.”[1]

Horkheimer is right: it would indeed seem problematic for thought merely to appeal to airy philosophical abstractions amidst the decidedly pressing matter of capital’s destruction of the world—to speak of the promise of the Hegelian Geist, say, or the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, as managed by an enlightened Leninist vanguard—but I would argue that Hannah Arendt’s conception of natality could prove particularly useful at the present moment.  As I understand, she first introduces this idea at the close of her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), when she counterposes the possibilities of birth to inherited tradition and history, particularly of the imperialist and fascist varieties: “With each new birth, a new beginning is born into the world, a new world has potentially come into being […].  Freedom as an inner capacity of [humanity] is identical with the capacity to begin.”[2]

Arendt expands upon these fragmentary comments on interruption and beginning in her 1958 magnus opus The Human Condition.  Largely repudiating the repressive, fatalistic philosophy of her former mentor Martin Heidegger, she writes the following: “If left to themselves, human affairs can only follow the law of mortality, which is the most certain and the only reliable law of a life spent between birth and death.  It is the faculty of action that interferes with this law because it interrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily life, which in its turn, as we saw, interrupted and interfered with the cycle of the biological life process.  The life span of man [sic] running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that [humans], though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.  Yet just as, from the standpoint of nature, the rectilinear movement of [humanity]‘s life-span between birth and death looks like a peculiar deviation from the common natural rule of cyclical movement, thus action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle […].  The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted.  It is, in other words, the birth of new [people] and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born.  Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope.”[3]

This hope for new beginnings—essentially, for a multiplicity of interventions which, à la Albert Camus and his Rebel, assert to power that it has transgressed vital brightlines, and hence cannot be allowed to continue on its path of destruction (“thus far, and no further”)—accords well with Walter Benjamin’s vision of a “leap into the open sky of history,” or Adorno’s contemplation of “a praxis which could explode the infamous continuum.”[4]  Each of us likely has similar visions, whether waking or unconscious—“fuck the police,” “world peace,” “fire to Babylon,” “there is no planet B.”  It is crucial that we somehow coalesce these anti-systemic passions into a generalized movement to overthrow the totalitarian systems that degrade and abuse humanity and, in a most final sense, threaten to destroy future human generations as well as much of the rest of life—millions of species—on the only planetary system that we know is amenable to its emergence and evolution.  Hope today, then, is not passivity and sedation (as with religion) but rather radical struggle (as in revolution).

While there indeed have been positive signs in the past few years in the direction of the development of what dissident historian George Katsiaficas terms a “global people’s uprising,” clearly such developments have met with distressing limitations, many of them indeed emanating from constituted power—think of the police’s dismantling of the Occupy/Decolonize encampments in the U.S., or the various imperial manipulations of and interventions against the numerous uprisings in the Arab-majority world.  The preferred approach, in my view, remains what György Lukács saw as a “mass rising on behalf of reason,” an idea he took from the 500 million signatures to the 1950 Stockholm Agreement calling for unconditional nuclear disarmament—a tradition we have seen well-illustrated throughout the streets and squares of much of the world in recent memory.[5]

The point, in sum—as well as the hope—is to radicalize and intensify these encouraging social strides from below against the system, to help along the birth of the new—or, as Bloch termed it, the “Not-Yet.”  It is past time to sound the tocsin, whether physically like Jean Paul Marat did to defend the Great French Revolution, or musically like Dmitriy Shostakovich did in defense of the memory and future promise of the 1905 Russian Revolution (as well as other revolutions).  The alarm must be continuous, not so that we grow accustomed to it, but rather so that we never lose sight of the substantial tasks with which we are confronted today, and the anarchist means by which we would most likely best respond to these.  Positively and concretely, I would here reiterate some of the proposals for action made by my comrade Cristian Guerrero nearly a year ago in the run-up to planned counter-protests against the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, México: agitation, indignation, mobilization, direct action, occupation, blockade of capital, popular assembly.

Particularly promising, I would say, is the Industrial Workers of the World’s new conception of the ecological general strike, whereby environmental sanity is to be achieved through the disruption of capitalism’s colonization of the life-world and its replacement with participatory economic models.

————————————————————————————

[1]   Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline: Notes, 1926-1931 and 1959-1969, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 39.

[2]   Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harvest, 1968 [1951]), 465, 473.

[3]   Ibid, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 246-7.

[4]   Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms (trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967), 117.

[5]   György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (Torfaen, Wales: Merlin Press, 1980), 850.

For a revolutionary new year

December 25, 2012

Ecosocialist Holiday!

Statement regarding Anti-Colonial, Anti-Capitalist March in San Francisco

October 8, 2012

As published on Indybay:

“Around 150 people gathered in Justin Herman Plaza [on Saturday, October 6]. They were against everything: the military jets making metal of the air, the hordes of tourists thoughtlessly awing at the spectacular display of death above the city, the office towers and malls hanging above the waterfront, the unrestrained and uninterrupted reign of capitalism, slavery, colonialism, the empire.

At 3:30 pm they left the plaza carrying a banner that read RESIST GENOCIDE – DESTROY WHAT IS CIVILIZED. They headed towards the streets behind the Embarcadero Center mall. The riot police immediately began to follow alongside the march, and just as quickly the first paint bomb was thrown at them. The police declared the march illegal before it had walked a block. Along the route several luxury cars had their windows smashed and their tires deflated. The cops continued to get hit with bright paint as people proceeded towards Market Street.

They attempted to stop the march at one point but were outmaneuvered and the march was able to continue another two blocks. It was not until the police attempted to apprehend a single individual that the march was halted and a brawl began. The police swarmed in, two dozen of them on motorcycles, and began to isolate lone individuals and smaller groups of people. A Starbucks had its windows smashed as people were dispersing and in the end at least 19 people were beaten and arrested as the military jets thundered overhead.

The hordes of enthusiastic and wonderstruck tourists and baseball fans coursed through the metropolis, unaware of what was taking place behind Embarcadero Plaza. The virus that was planted in San Francisco hundreds of years ago was still expanding, neutralizing all resistance, and keeping itself alive. To all those marveling at the war jets in the sky, it is difficult to make sense of a mob of people who are against the colonial system. To be against colonialism, capitalism, and civilization are not popular causes—at least in affluent places like San Francisco wherein most have been convinced by the virus that its glitters are to their benefit. But this was why people went onto the street, and this is why they were attacked so severely.

The Colonial Machine, with their cops, laws, and order, attacked in order to silence our resistance and solidarity with others against a toxic system created to keep us in cages. From the belly of the beast, people rebelled against everything that fuels this empire. Cops attack to maintain order with their guns and badges, people attack with paints to liberate walls and brighten the darkness. There is no freedom in Amerikkka, there is no justice on occupied land. 520 years later, Indigenous people resist genocide and slavery through occupations. Decolonize the Empire, rebel for life. Decolonize the New World, liberate all walls, brighten the darkness.”

Samsara review, textual and visual

September 13, 2012

Samsara (Sanskrit for “suffering”), the sequel to the 1992 film event Baraka (“blessing”), has long been awaited, its treatment of various world-phenomena imagined and fantasized about. Having had the privilege to see the film, I can say that in some ways it is a blessing, following in part from Baraka, and it surely does depict suffering, human and non-human, in a number of forms. It is unclear, though, how interested the filmmakers are in aiding in the struggle to attempt to overcome the vast suffering and destruction caused and upheld by presently dominant hegemony: this follows from the work’s status as a mass money-making scheme—a racket. Of course, Samsara is not only a racket.

Like Baraka, Samsara is stunning in its portrayal of various manifestations of the natural and social beauty of Earth. Worthy of experience in this sense are the timescapes of arid climes set to the music of Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, or the depiction of Buddhist monks creating art at the opening of the film, signaled by a trumpet blast, presumably in Nepal or Tibet.

Beyond illustrating some of the positive and beautiful aspects of life and human society, Fricke in Samsara definitely also recognizes the social exclusion and structural violence of existing capitalist society: the film shows African cities and extensive “slums” in the Philippines, following similar coverage in Baraka of the favelas of Brazil and homeless people everywhere. Fricke also includes a few shots of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, he spends considerable time depicting the highly mechanized and hierarchical industrial-production regimes ruled by automation that are responsible for mass human alienation: a stand-in for this entire system could well be Fricke’s close-ups of bionic Asian human look-alikes, which are very close to their models in appearance but without the power of speech. Samsara is further testament to the inanity and absurdity of the totality of capitalist production: an extended sequence depicts the alarming assembly and production of weapons, armaments, bullets. Fricke then shows different males of color bearing small arms—different than in Baraka, in this film he omits treatment of imperial war-machines (bomber-jets, etc.), instead going here for historically colonized peoples who are shown as engaging in armed struggle without that positionality being situated within the violence of the reign of capital.

In the parts depicting African cities (Lagos, perhaps?), Fricke concentrates on the enormity of electronic waste exported to these materially impoverished communities—a capitalist trade-practice similar to the exchange of hazardous/nuclear waste, imperial war, and the arms trade. Samsara includes a sequence on impoverished peoples wading through landfills for objects to find and sell, in the struggle to ensure their social reproduction as well as that of those to whom they are attached. In Baraka a similar scene depicts South Asian females doing similarly, in a strong repudiation of capitalism:

One wonders (I wonder) how Ron Fricke and co. compensate the impoverished peoples they portray in these films. Beyond this, I ask precisely what Fricke is doing depicting a ritual performed in a Filipino prisoner whereby the imprisoned engage in elaborate dance for the pleasure of their overseers? Does Fricke mean to be critical of this practice, and/or the prison and the carceral system at large? As is evident to those who have seen Baraka, Samsara too carries a high risk of colonialism.

In keeeping with these considerations, the film’s introductory sequence closes with a fetishistic panning of the sarcophagus of one of the Egyptian pharoahs (Tutankhamun?), rising from the inferior tip of his phallic beard to take in and revel the youth’s facial beauty—or at least, its representation by the artists who adorned the pharoanic funeral-mask. In general terms, there is in Fricke’s film a special focus on pyramidal, inegalitarian structures, whether architectural and physical or more abstractly social: prominent in terms of the former are the Giza pyramids, Dubai, Gothic churches, the Vatican, Bagan temples, the Blue Mosque (Istanbul), and Mecca’s al-Ka’aba.

The film generally has an Asiatic focus, and unfortunately seems entirely to lack recordings from Mexico and Mesoamerica, and depicts little from the two continents of Abya Yala. In the segments from China, scores of children are shown practicing Shao lin kung fu, following the commands of an off-screen master, while compatriot workers separately are depicted as engaging in similar martial-exercise activities in preparation for labor in the factory. Near the film’s beginning, adults in Ma’asai bands are seen to be living convivially, proud of the infants of the newly born generations they share with the camera. The framing of these various others by Fricke is very particular: for example, there is no acknowledgment made in Samsara of the dire environmental conditions suffered in recent memory by the Ma’asai and the Turkana of northern Kenya—drought, desertification, death—for which imperial societies can be said to be responsible due to climate change. Similarly uncritical, Fricke’s take on religion in the film is not in any sense one suggestive of the desire to break with religiosity; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism are instead taken as an integral aspects of human development over the millennia, seminal contributors to the historical expression of beauty.

Against these mindless suggestions, those who oppose patriarchy can for example hold the processions in Mecca critically, noting for one the total exclusion of females from the areas adjoining the Ka’aba, just as the children trained in kung fu can exercise their skills in defense of their lives and that of humanity and the chance for revolution.

One remarkable part of Samsara is an extended sequence near the film’s end regarding the brutalization of non-human animals—chickens, cows, pigs—that are slaughtered for human consumption. Fricke includes harrowing scenes of decapitated pigs being carried down an assembly line for further processing; he shows the sadness of a sow giving of her body to her newborn piglets—behavior that normally would aid in their survival and flourishing, were they not imprisoned later to have their lives destroyed to satisfy brutish human tastes. The scene by which this disturbing act opens shows the saddening harvest of chickens from their overcrowded pen, as operated by a machine which efficiently and coldly sucks one bird at a time into a tube destined for some off-screen location in the slaughterhouse. Indeed, this very scene, like the sequence taken as a whole, follows from Fricke’s similar depiction in Baraka of the methodical, systematic burning-off of the beaks of chicks destined to cohabitate in industrial-agricultural conditions, until they were to be slaughtered—their beaks forcibly being removed so as to prevent the overcrowded chicken population from killing each other in a craze, and so averting “capital losses.”

Close in time to the animal-slaughter sequence, Fricke in Samsara also shares a segment of film on the industrial production of white-skinned, female-bodied sex models, with their immense breasts and putatively arousing face makeup. No connection is made by Fricke as to who the buyers of such commodities might be—whether Euro-American, Asian, and so on—but, juxtaposed with the scenes of the brutality of animal slaughter, the inclusion of this treatment of patriarchy could well be taken as a strong indictment on Fricke’s part of social relations which promote objectification—commodification, but more than this: domination, in general. It is to be hoped that viewers will consider adopting and advancing vegetarianism and anarcha-feminism after watching Samsara, however divergent this may be from the filmmakers’ likely goals.

Unlike Baraka, Fricke’s new film does not dedicate much of the film’s reel to the depiction of imperialist-capitalist societies—other than flybys of the financial district of downtown Los Angeles that seem more celebratory than critical. While Fricke does not show viewers some of the many destructive realities that arrangements like Los Angeles demand in the present—Iraq is entirely absent from Samsara—we ourselves can conceive of the vast scope of world-alienation these entail, recalling a myriad of images and moments not depicted by Fricke: the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill; the devastation of the Niger Delta; the degradation of the Amazon rainforest (shown in Baraka); the destruction prosecuted by U.S. imperialism since 1992, particularly in the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq; the fate of the Arctic sea ice; the dying oceans.

Samsara is not the environmentalist Home (2010), nor is it Werner Herzog’s haunting Lessons of Darkness (1992); it is not much of a profound investigation or consideration of the phenomenon of catastrophe, a perennial and central feature of late capitalism—as our present world shows. An art-work which comes to mind that can serve as Samsara‘sfoil of sorts is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The World for World is Forest (1972), a novel which depicts the life of the Athshean humanoids who reside on an entirely forested planet that is progressively destroyed, its residents enslaved and murdered, following attempted colonization of Athshe (simultaneously “forest” and “world” in the tongue of its indigenous peoples) by humans from Earth. This brutalization comes to an end only with the generalized rebellion of the Athsheans against the infrastructure of systematic oppression—an image which the contemplation of history also suggests to us, as in France in 1789, Saint Domingue/Haiti in 1790, France again in 1871, Russia 1905 and 1917 (February), Spain in 1936, and so on. The various insurrectional attempts made by the colonized and formerly colonized peoples of the South of course also belongs to this tradition—this doing-other and -against in relation to capitalism and domination.

Clearly, Samsara and its developers have limitations; they are not revolutionaries, nor do I think the film can be considered revolutionary art. As already noted, it is at least in part—if not largely—the work of a racket, one that unsurprisingly does not focus its lens on some of potential means by which we can conceive of liberation from the ills it does consider—insurrection, mass-general strike, blockade of capital, agitation, revolt, revolution. The importance of the film in my opinion can be found in its celebration of beauty on the one hand and its examination of the mass-collective nature of human society on the other. This latter consideration in particular is critical for the present, as mass-action by the subordinated—the constituents of existing society—could against conformity and passivity be activated toward the end of intervening and resolving many of the serious problems illuminated by Samsara, as well as the numerous others we can think of using experience, knowledge, and mind.