Archive for the ‘Russia/Former Soviet Union’ Category

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.

Review of Robert Lanning’s In the Hotel Abyss, by Ignacio Guerrero

June 29, 2015

hotel abyss

Published by Ignacio Guerrero on Heathwood Press, 25 June 2015

“What is negative is ne
gative until it has passed.”

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

In his newly published In the Hotel Abyss, Robert Lanning presents an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Theodor W. Adorno, the famous twentieth-century critical theorist, aesthetician, and musicologist. In the work’s title and content, Lanning reiterates and expands György Lukács’ charge that Adorno and other like-minded contemporary German philosophers had effectively followed the pessimistic example of Arthur Schopenhauer and metaphorically taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” which affords its guests “the daily sight of the abyss between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art,” thus “enhanc[ing their] pleasure in this elegant comfort.”1 With his colleague Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s predecessor as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (also known as the Frankfurt School) and his writing partner for Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), “Teddy” shares a common theoretical inspiration emanating from Marxism, as reflected in the profound critique he advances of bourgeois social relations, yet he largely rejects the “positive” moment of historical materialism, which foresees the birth of communism through global proletarian uprisings, the “parliamentary road to socialism,” or some combination of the two.

In this sense, Adorno almost merits the accusation of having advanced the paradoxical concept of a “Marxism without the proletariat.” The very opening of his last work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is illustrative in this sense: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” For Adorno the leftist German Jew, the “attempt to change the world miscarried.” If one reflects even for a moment on the vast atrocities and historical errors that marred the twentieth century, the latter claim here cited would certainly be justified—but then one asks, what next? Why the sense that history has ended—that the chance for social revolution or even relative improvement has been “missed,” never to return? Can there be no rebirth of rebellion? Lanning is right to stress that Adorno’s politics are not especially helpful as regards reconstructive anti-systemic action, or praxis. Hence, a palpable conflict can be seen between the constant demand Adorno’s political philosophy makes for negation, following Hegel’s example, and his practical suggestion that corrective action is useless and revolution inconceivable, amidst the putatively “absolute power of capitalism.”2

Lanning argues that Adorno’s political philosophy, though highly critical of capitalism and authority, is excessively negative: his view is that it can be summarized as amounting to “unfettered negativity” (172). Lanning denounces Adorno’s seemingly wholesale rejection of the actuality or even potentiality of proletarian resistance and the development of anti-capitalist and anti-systemic alternatives, in light of the established power of monopoly capitalism and its culture industries. In Adorno’s presentation, as is known, the working-class majorities of capitalist societies are reduced to thoughtless “masses,” both colonized by and integrated into capitalism—supposedly willingly, on this account. Lanning posits that such a point of view leads Adorno inexorably to adopt an “essentially […] defeatist perspective”: “to him the class struggle was already lost” (18, 25). Having repudiated the positive and practical aspects of historical materialism, Adorno concerned himself with specializing in high art and writing in an exceedingly inaccessible style—as in the image of the Grand Hotel Abyss, indeed—and his few forays into social studies suffer from significant methodological problems, in Lanning’s view. Above all, as Lanning emphasizes, Adorno’s theory of social change is basically non-existent, and the sparse work he focuses on this question rather problematic. Overall, the author of In the Hotel Abyss is concerned that Adorno’s readers are left dialectically disempowered, even subject to despair, as they contemplate the vast depravity of capitalism and the lack of resistance to the system that Adorno observes, and upon which he concentrates.

This new volume certainly presents many compelling criticisms of Adorno’s lifework, particularly with regard to the philosopher’s elitism and political aloofness—manifestations, to be sure, of his disregard for the unification of theory and praxis, or his doubts even about the possibility of such—and for this reason merits a great deal of consideration, discussion, and debate. Adorno’s philosophical system had many shortcomings, and Lanning helpfully illuminates a number of the most important ones. Yet some of the critique presented In The Hotel Abyss of the philosopher also reproduces Adorno’s own penchant for exaggeration, overlooking the real contributions he made and continues to make to anti-capitalist struggle.

In the Hotel Abyss: Challenging Adorno

Lanning’s critique of Adorno is at its most incisive in terms of the challenge it presents to those who may hold the critical theorist actually to have been left-wing or revolutionary. The evident disconnect between theory and practice highlighted by Lanning in Adorno’s case is notorious. Like Horkheimer, Adorno favored the total overcoming of bourgeois society—its
determinate negation, taking from Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet he dedicated exceedingly little of his intellectual life-work to theorizing about political action or change, and even less to concretely organizing against the system. While he is well-known for his radical critique of capital, as elaborated perhaps most systematically in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951), Adorno doubtlessly errs in holding dialectical contradiction to come to be effectively arrested within the Iron Cage of monopoly capitalism. Speculatively, Lanning hypothesizes that the theorist’s self-assuredness on this point serves precisely as a means of ignoring the very “working class outside Adorno’s door” (11). Admittedly, the absence of discussion about class struggle or revolutionary political action of any sort in Adorno’s oeuvre is evident, and glaring. Lanning suggests that Adorno would do well to reconsider Hegel, who defined the dialectic fundamentally as movement and development, as in the image of the seed and the blossoming flower or fruit. “Where Adorno sees the acquiescence of the masses to the immediate environment he should also see […] the possibilities for developing the individual’s relation to such powers [of capital] and the possible alternatives in the face of it” (36).

From these legitimate points, Lanning proceeds to take issue with Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics for being too radical, or too demanding: the charge is that Adorno’s critical negativism lends itself to an approach which overlooks the necessary intermediary steps between prevailing conformist resignation and the possible emancipated futures. Adorno “reject[s …] any behavior that appears to be positively oriented to the appearance of advancement, progress, partial resolution or sublation of contradictions” (46). Nothing “short of the complete negativity and annihilation of existing conditions” will do for Adorno. Lanning relates his complaint here about the theorist’s effective ultra-leftism to his claim that Adorno adheres metaphorically to the Jewish Bilderverbot, or the ban on images of the divine, as a negative theology which denies the possibility of something different. He further argues that Adorno’s employment of the Bilderverbot marks a distinct break from the Messianism of Judaism and the Jewish socialist tradition. However, it could be argued instead that Adorno’s use of the Bilderverbot illustrates the very revolutionism of his dialectical method, which must remain negative until global capitalist society is overthrown. On this point, in fact, it would seem more than a bit perplexing to accuse Adorno of being insufficiently messianic or utopian. One need only consult the finale to Minima Moralia:

Knowledge has no light but that that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.3

Violating this liberatory messianic sense, nonetheless, Adorno took a rather problematic view of jazz—one that is consistent with his analysis of the hegemonic culture industries, yet reflective of chauvinism and even racism as well. For Adorno, who first encountered the new musical style in Germany before the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazism (1933) and his forced exile the next year, jazz was “perennial fashion”: supposedly standardized, commodified, and expressive of pseudo-individuality, jazz on Adorno’s account reproduces the subjectification of the masses through diversion, gratification, and integration. Clearly, Adorno did not associate the development of jazz with its African ethnomusical origins, or seem to have much of any familiarity with its relationship to the historical experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. For him, instead, it was an affirmative musical form that in practice served European fascism, particularly in Italy and Germany. Consideration of this viewpoint can help explain Adorno’s disturbing comments in “Farewell to Jazz,” an essay written in response to the ban imposed on jazz and all other expressions of “Negro culture” in Thuringia state following the Nazi accession to power there in 1930. In this piece, Adorno declares characteristically that, “no matter what one wishes to understand about white or Negro jazz, there is nothing to salvage.”4

Rather self-evidently, then, Adorno’s take on jazz is shocking: to portray it as an affirmation of subordination and alienation and thus ignore its historical and ethnographical context is at best to provide a very partial picture, or indeed to openly declare one’s distinct lack of sympathy with the struggles of Black people—that is to say, one’s racism. On this point, Adorno surely merits all the criticism he has received, and more. Furthermore, Lanning makes the important point that to merely dismiss jazz or any other musical style out of hand for the mere fact of its being commodified on the market is to overlook the very real dialectical possibilities that music can have as regards the emergence and expression of attitudes critical of existing power-relations. Lanning’s analysis is similar in terms of Adorno’s research on radio broadcasts in U.S. society, carried out at Princeton University following his emigration to the U.S. in 1938: the refugee intellectual either was not knowledgeable of the extensive contemporary use of the radio to promote the causes of labor and racial equality in his new host country, or did not believe such alternative programming to bear mentioning, in light of the dominance of the capitalist monster.

Additionally, in parallel, Lanning subjects Adorno’s research on authoritarianism and fascist propaganda to critical review. Overseen by Adorno, The Authority Personality (1950) in its methodology and design followed the first study from the Frankfurt School into the political attitudes of German workers during Weimar, as directed by Erich Fromm in 1931. This previous study was never published, due to its politically negative conclusions: it anticipated that the majority of German workers could be expected to go along with Nazism if it came to power, with small minorities being either strongly pro-Nazi or strongly anti-fascist.5 In a similar way, Adorno and company were motivated to examine the psychological potential for fascism in U.S. society, both by investigating it descriptively, as by theorizing its causes, with the activist end of inhibiting its advance. The resulting study, based on interviews with about 2000 formally educated, white, middle-class men and women mostly from northern California, was conducted by presenting participants with questionnaires such as the Anti-Semitism (A-S) Scale, the Ethnocentrism (E) Scale, the Politico-Economic Conservatism (PEC) Scale, and the Fascism (F) Scale. Dividing the results into a bimodal distribution of high-scoring or prejudiced persons and low-scoring or relatively unprejudiced individuals, the study’s authors take heart in their findings that the majority of participants did not betray extreme ethnocentrism. Yet Lanning calls into question the external validity of The Authoritarian Personality, or its statistical generalizability across society as a whole, by noting that Jews and trade-unionists were excluded from participation, to say nothing of people of color. Presumably, a more diverse study sample could have yielded even greater anti-authoritarian conclusions.

Lanning also shows how Adorno’s investigations into the radio broadcasts of U.S. fascist agitator Martin Luther Thomas—investigations that have been considered innovative, given the theorist’s social-psychological conclusion that fascism advances not just through elite manipulation of the people, but also (and perhaps moreso) through working-class or “mass” complicity—themselves converge with the projected situation Thomas praises: that is, that “large sectors of the population” are sympathetic to fascism due to their putative mindlessness and brutalization in labor (133). Lanning here identifies an unfortunate and revealing affinity between Adorno’s conclusions and the irrationalist hopes of pro-fascist agitators: the view that rationality is possible only for a small sector of the population. This insightful point notwithstanding, the author does not in good faith acknowledge that Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality expressly seek to promote reason as a counter-move to the fascist threat.

Lanning is nevertheless correct in identifying the principal methodological problem in Adorno’s account of fascism as being the theorist’s systematic exclusion from consideration of the proletarian, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements actively raging around him, first in Germany and then in the U.S. Adorno does not discuss or ever seem to mention the hundreds of street-battles between the German Social Democrats’ self-defense group, the Reichsbanner, and the German Communist Party’s “Proletarian Hundreds” against the Nazi SA in the years before 1933,6 nor did he dedicate much of any attention to struggles for racial equality during his exile in the U.S. (1938-1945). One wonders how Adorno the radical could have overlooked the latter, having lived years in Harlem on Morningside Heights before his wartime move to Los Angeles. For Lanning, then, much of what Adorno claimed regarding authoritarianism was based on little more than “imagery” and self-serving “esotericism”; worst of all, it has functioned to “denigrate the legitimacy of working-class politics by ignoring [them], thus affirming the non-existence of an historical agent for socialism” (150). The author of In the Hotel Abyss identifies Adorno’s sometimes-colleague Ernst Bloch as a more insightful commentator on these matters, given the latter’s view that, however acquiescent the “masses” may be with capital and authority at any given time, this situation should not be taken as final, but rather should be interpreted as a process that can dialectically be “disrupted and redirected,” as reflected in the Blochian concept of the “Not-Yet.”

Lanning’s concluding chapter focuses specifically on Negative Dialectics, and scrutinizes Adorno’s seemingly circular sociological argumentation. In essence, Lanning’s claim is that Adorno holds history’s dialectical dynamic to have been effectively strangled under late capitalism—hence the view imputed to Adorno that culture and consciousness cannot be other than what they are, and that psychological and material subordination within bourgeois society themselves reproduce capitalist domination. Lanning concludes that Adorno broke from the Marxist tradition and “chose to freeze the relations he observed as real […]. His position is that […] these are insurmountable conditions” (191-2). Though the author of In the Hotel Abyss concedes in passing that parts of Adorno’s critique of reified consciousness have merit, he notes that such criticism itself only reflects the alienation resulting from bourgeois society, and he reiterates the charge that Adorno presents no alternative—thus in fact yielding a significant regression in comparison with Marx’s communist method. In closing, Lanning returns to his chastisement of the critical theorist for the latter’s supposedly boundless negativity as well as his undifferentiated critique of “the masses,” which papers over distinctions in class and the division of labor, and he charges Adorno with limiting resistance to the life of the mind and imagination, as in German Idealism, rather than advancing radical political struggle, as materialism does.

Discussion: Negative Dialectics and Anti-Capitalism

Lanning clearly presents a number of serious charges against Adorno’s critical theory. This reviewer concedes that the philosopher’s essentially theoretical orientation is of little use for the political question of how to displace and possibly overthrow capital and authoritarianism, and the contempt Adorno often expressed in life for workers and common people is profoundly lamentable. Both of these negative aspects can be said to reflect Adorno’s considerable privilege, as the male child of a Jewish wine merchant and a Franco-German artist for whom labor was an unknown experience in youth and early adulthood. It would seem that Lanning has something of a point in hypothesizing that Adorno’s elitism perpetuated itself as a “career-building” experiment in “abstruseness” (13)—though Lanning’s claim that Adorno can justly be portrayed as the forerunner of postmodernism is less tenable, as this academic trend lacks the German theorist’s anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. In addition, Adorno’s highly insensitive and even implicitly racist comments on jazz speak for themselves, and may justly cause those encountering them to reject a thinker with whom they may share other affinities. Yet it would be wrong to hold Adorno to have been an ethnic chauvinist, as ethnocentrism is one of the main critical foci of The Authoritarian Personality. In Minima Moralia, Adorno identifies white supremacism as the basis not only of anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps, but also the repression of people of color in the U.S.: “The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers […]. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom.”7 In this same work, as well, Adorno recalls a childhood memory which complicates the view that his critical theory is irredeemably anti-worker:

In early childhood I saw the first snow-shovellers in thin shabby clothes. Asking about them, I was told they were men without work who were given this job so that they could earn their bread. Serves them right, having to shovel snow, I cried out in rage, bursting uncontrollably into tears.8

Though this passage is ambiguous—it is unclear whether the young Adorno’s emotional reaction is directed against the workers themselves, the injustice they face, or the normalization of such oppression that is expected of him—it at the least shows sympathy for the cause of repudiating class inequality and the realm of necessity. In naturalistic and Freudian terms, moreover, it is significant that this experience took place early in Adorno’s personal development. Of course, the link between the sharing of this memory and a commitment to a concrete syndicalist program is tenuous in Adorno’s case. Similarly, to return to the question of race, one would be hard-pressed to find Adorno expressing support as a public intellectual for contemporary anti-racist and decolonization movements. While Adorno opposed the Vietnam War on a philosophical level, claiming it to carry on the genocidal specter of Auschwitz, he did little to concretely resist it, in contrast to radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, the militant German student movement of the 1960s had arisen largely in response to the Vietnam War and the Federal Republic of Germany’s collaboration with its prosecution, as seen in the U.S. military’s utilization of West German air-bases. The student radicals’ demand that Adorno and Horkheimer publicly come out against the war was one of many that resulted in the conflict which ultimately led to the Institute director’s death on vacations in Switzerland in 1969.

Reading In the Hotel Abyss, it becomes clear how much Lanning dislikes Adorno’s negative-dialectical approach. This disapproval toward the Adornian system may in fact mirror a dismissal of the anti-authoritarianism of Adorno’s seemingly intransigent negativity. In what sense might this be the case? We have seen how Lanning repeatedly rebukes Adorno for his ultra-leftism—his “position […] that capitalism must be completely defeated in all its aspects before the possibility of meaningful change can be considered” (208). One wonders if Lanning realizes he is chastising Adorno here for being faithful to the young Marx’s admonition to engage in the “ruthless criticism of all things existing.” Lanning’s argument against Adorno is thus more than a bit reminiscent of Lenin’s designation of “left-wing communism”—that is, anarchism or syndicalism—as an “infantile disorder”: consider the author’s rejection of Fromm’s designation of expressed political sympathy for Lenin as an historical figure as reflecting an “authoritarian” rather than “radical” attitude within the study on workers in Weimar Germany (144n12). The resort to Lukács for the title and spirit of the work is also telling, given that, while Adorno the unattached intellectual is subjected to critique—no doubt, to repeat, much of it merited—Lukács the advocate of Party Socialism is not.

A fundamental point within Lanning’s argument that bears reconsideration is the author’s very presentation of Adorno’s putatively unrelenting negativity. In his discussions of Bloch and Walter Benjamin, Lanning seeks to depict considerable differences between them and Adorno, when in fact all three held similar political and philosophical views, and greatly influenced one another. While it may be true that Adorno is overall more negative than these two, there certainly are a few positive moments in his oeuvre which anticipate the possibilities of a post-revolutionary society. In his final work, Adorno defines the “objective goal” of dialectics as being the task of “break[ing] out of the context from within.” Further, “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”9 Here, at the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, Adorno posits a vision that is heterotopic to Lanning’s account. Criticizing Schopenhauer’s fatalism and other Kafka-esque manifestations of the belief that the world is irrevocably absurd, Adorno makes the following observations:

However void every trace of otherness in it, however much all happiness is marred by irrevocability: in the breaks that belie identity, entity is still pervaded by the everbroken pledges of that otherness. All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness [humans] are denied, and are denied by themselves […].

What art, notably the art decried as nihilistic, says in refraining from judgments is that everything is not just nothing. If it were, whatever is would be pale, colorless, indifferent. No light falls on [humans] and things without reflecting transcendence. Indelible from the resistance to the fungible world of barter is the resistance of the eye that does not want the colors of the world to fade.10

This utopian underside of Adorno’s thought is similarly expressed in Minima Moralia, where the philosopher presents the following images as an alternative for the possible communist future: “Rien faire comme une bête [Doing nothing, like an animal], lying on the water and looking peacefully into the heavens—’being, nothing else, without any further determination and fulfillment’—might step in place of process, doing, fulfilling, and so truly deliver the promise of dialectical logic, of culminating in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to the fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.”11 Thus we see the selectivity of Lanning’s charge of Adorno’s “endless negativity” (208), and the inaccuracy of the claim that Adorno adhered entirely to the Bilderverbot. In this sense, it is unfortunate as well that Lanning ignores Adorno’s 1969 essay on “Resignation,” which was written in response to the criticisms raised precisely by Lukács and the radical student movement against Adorno and the Institute for Social Research. In this momentous intervention, Adorno defends autonomous thought as resistance and praxis: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker […] is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” As the “universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such,” the “happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity,” and whoever has not let her thought atrophy “has not resigned.”12

Whether one accepts Adorno’s defense of the prioritization of theory over action here or not, consideration of this essay and the other positive dialectical images mentioned above problematizes Lanning’s characterization of Adorno’s thought as being entirely negative. Incidentally, Lanning himself almost unconsciously recognizes this at the outset of his discussion of Negative Dialectics, which he presents as demanding a “second” negation to follow the insufficiently radical “first” negation of capitalism—the Soviet Union, say, or social democracy. Lanning then proceeds to write that the Hegelian “negation of negation” amounts to a “positive moment” (174), but he chooses not to connect Adorno’s thought to this point. On this matter, in point of fact, Adorno’s finale to Minima Moralia bears revisiting: “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”13 From this perspective, the dialectical interplay between the fallenness of bourgeois society and its envisioned inversion in Adorno’s system comes to be seen as having subversive and even hopeful rather than quietistic implications.

The present review will end by raising an important problem in Adorno’s thought that Lanning points to but does not sufficiently develop: the problem of false consciousness and social determination, or who it is that determines social reality. Lanning argues that Adorno’s account of worker or “mass” acceptance of fascism and capitalism represents an exercise in victim-blaming. In Negative Dialectics and other works, Adorno does note that humanity is effectively imprisoned by the system which it reproduces and upholds—in an echo of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, a concept the transcendental Idealist describes as being inhibited by humanity’s “self-imposed immaturity,” which results from “indecision and lack of courage.” Lanning picks up on this, claiming Adorno to have viewed proletarian conformism as willful. While this charge against Adorno is partly true, as far as it goes, it is also too quick, in that it offers no alternative means of thinking through the observed problem of proletarian integration into capitalist society, and how this might be resisted and overcome. Certainly, a great deal of coercion goes into the reproduction of class society, as Adorno recognizes: “Proletarian language is dictated by hunger.”14 Yet one should not simply hold the capitalist game to proceed through the duping of the workers—for such a view removes the personal and collective agency of the subordinated, and all practical possibility of achieving something different. The present discussion on this complicated matter will close here, though the reviewer firstly should like to mention that autonomous Marxism has tried to address these issues in creative ways, in an echo of Étienne de la Boétie’s innovative Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548), and lastly to emphasize that the interrelated problems of conformism and bourgeois destructiveness retain all of their acuity in the present day, nearly a half-century after Adorno’s passing.

1 György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 243.

2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1982), 120.

3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §153 (emphasis added).

4 Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell to Jazz,” in Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 496.

5 Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 23-30.

6 M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 53-84.

7 Adorno, Minima Moralia, §68.

8 Ibid §122.

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge: London, 1973 [1966]), 406.

10 Ibid 403-5 (emphasis added).

11 Adorno, Minima Moralia §100.

12 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289-93.

13 Adorno, Minima Moralia §153.

14 Ibid §65.

New Prologue to Imperiled Life: 2015 Update

May 5, 2015
@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

This is the translation of the new prologue written for the Spanish translation of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe (IAS/AK Press, 2012), entitled Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución, which has just been published by Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica in Mexico City.

Published originally on the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) website, 5 May 2015

“The revolution is for the sake of life, not death.”1
– Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension

I am very glad that this translation is being published in Spanish. It is important that critical writings be shared. Given that Imperiled Life came out nearly three years ago, I see it as necessary here to provide a brief update of some of the most important events that have taken place in these years, particularly with regard to environmental questions—as well as to reflect on the present status of anti-systemic social movements and to make some recommendations for eco-anarchist strategy and praxis.

It is clear that the magnitude of climate change has not diminished, let alone stopped, in the past three years. Instead, it has accelerated at an alarming rate. Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year for planet Earth since official records began at the end of the eighteenth century.2 In terms of average global temperatures, the months of May, June, and August 2014 broke all the previous records.3 In point of fact, the climatologist Don Wuebbles says that last year could have been the hottest year of the last five millennia, while a study published in Science in March 2013 shows us that average global temperatures are at present higher than 90% of those experienced during the entirety of the Holocene geological er. The Holocene began 12,000 years ago, when temperatures stabilized so as to allow for the development of agriculture and the misnomer “civilization.”4 Welcome, then, to the Anthropocene.

Given such an insane context, it should come as little surprise to consider that during the very warm winter of 2014, an entirely unprecedented amount of melting was experienced in Alaska—the result of a temperature spike of between 15 and 20°C (27-36°F) higher than the averages observed for this time of the year at the end of the twentieth century. Similarly, it should be noted that, at the beginning of 2013, the Australian Meteorological Institute saw it necessary to add a new color to its heat-index so as to depict the new temperature extremes raging at that time in the interior of the continent, which reached 54°C (129°F).5 What is more, the Amazon region is currently suffering its worst drought in the past century, the fatal result of global warming in combination with the mass-deforestation of the tropical rainforest.6 At the end of 2013, the Philippines was confronted with the strongest typhoon observed in history, leading to the death of 1,200 people.7 Beyond this, the latest biological data show a decline of a full half of terrestrial animal populations since 1970, and further that 41% of amphibians, 26% of mammals, 13% of birds, and one-fourth of marine species are at immediate risk of extinction.8 As Elizabeth Kolbert details in her eponymous 2014 work, we find ourselves fully immersed within the Sixth Mass Extinction.9

Increasingly more scientists are communicating to us openly about the profound gravity of the environmental crisis. During the forum on “Environment and Alternatives” that took place at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in June 2014, several experts from this institution concluded in unison that the ongoing destruction of the biosphere puts at risk the very existence of humanity, whereas two independent studies published in Science and Anthropocene Review in January 2015 warned that the present rate of environmental degradation imperils complex life on the planet.10  In this sense, the British economist Nicholas Stern, the famous author of the 2006 Stern Report, declared at the start of 2013 that he should have been more direct about the risks that humanity and nature run due to climate catastrophe.11 For its own part, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows in its July 2014 report on the supposed “mitigation” of the climate crisis that the rate of emissions of carbon dioxide has burgeoned in recent decades: while said emissions expanded by 1.3% annually from 1970 to 2000, they increased by 2.2% each year during the first decade of the new millennium, leading to a disturbing annual increase of 3% in the most recent data, for 2010 and 2011.12 What is more, in early 2015, after having evaluated the twin threats of nuclear war and environmental crisis as it does every year, the association of atomic scientists which has run the “Doomsday Clock” since 1947 reported that it believed humanity to have only three minutes left before midnight: that is to say, before annihilation. This new symbolic revision of the time indicates that, in the analysis of these scientists, the present moment is the gravest moment since 1983, when there existed a serious risk that Ronald Reagan would initiate a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.13

t should thus be very clear that capital and authority have no solution for the climate or environmental crises, nor for the multidimensional crisis that is comprised of the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres, beyond the ecological. The Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has since 2012 demonstrated its clear nature: to dawdle and babble on aimlessly amidst such an absolutely severe situation. In 2012 itself, the member-nations met in Doha for COP18, being for this reason the guests of the emir of Qatar. It is emblematic of the farcical nature of the COP that the Qatari emir, together with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the USA, has supported Islamist rebels in Syria that later would form the very basis of the Wahhabi forces of Islamic State (ISIS), and that thousands of migrant workers have lost their lives in recent years in this Gulf kingdom, where gargantuan buildings are constructed, as is evident in the case of the Qatar Foundation Stadium, which is to house the 2022 World Cup.14 As was seen in the experience of this COP in Doha, as well as during COP17 in Durban, South Africa (2011), all the recent UN conferences have left us with utter unreason: in Qatar, the member-nations effectively allowed the Kyoto Protocol to expire, while in terms of COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, nearly 30% of the world’s governments failed to even send ministerial representations.15 The most recent conference in Lima, Peru—COP20—appears to have been little more than preparation for the next meeting, to be held in Paris at the end of this year, where it is to be imagined that international conflicts will surge between the European Union and many Southern countries against the United States, which under the Obama administration has systematically ignored international law in favor of neoliberal deregulation and the false alternative of a “voluntary” climatic regime on the global level.16 In parallel terms, true authoritarianism was seen emanating from the “Citizens’ Revolution” of Rafael Correa during COP20, when several members of the Climate Caravan through Latin America were arrested for having expressed their opposition to the State’s plan to open the Yasuní National Park to oil drilling by Chinese capital.17 With regard to the bilateral accord signed between China and the U.S. at the end of 2014, it is clear that this agreement certainly would not limit the average-global temperature increase to 2°C higher than the average global temperatures which prevailed during preindustrial human history—with this being the level that is said to the “upper limit” before the triggering of a truly global suicide, though even this assessment might be overly optimistic—even if such minimal changes were observed in reality.18  Given the present trajectory of economic expansion that is foreseen for both the People’s Republic of China and the U.S., the chance that such demands would be observed is rather slim.

In light of the gravity of the present situation, we must not resign ourselves to the facts at hand—for, if there is no global social revolution in the near term, there would seem to be no future for the life of humanity and the rest of nature. There exist several historical and contemporary examples of how to mobilize so as to promote and carry out profound changes in society. I agree with Peter Stanchev in holding the neo-Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the anarchistic experiment of the Kurds in Rojava to be stars that illuminate our path toward the possible anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecological future.19  In reflecting on the proposals set forth by the Mexican anarchists Ricardo Flores Magón and Práxedis G. Guerrero a century ago, it is elemental to affirm the place of direct action as a means of achieving social equality and climate justice.20 I would like to call special attention to the proposal made by the Environmental Union Caucus of the International Workers of the World (IWW EUC) for an ecological general strike, which shares many commonalities with the concept of climate Satyagraha that has been advanced by Ecosocialist Horizons.21 In both cases, the idea is that the masses of associated people express their “truth-force” by intervening and interrupting the functioning of the global machine of production and death while they also develop an inclusive, participatory, and liberatory counter-power—a global confederation of humanity instituting ecological self-management.

The question for the moment, then, is how to contribute to the flowering of this global people’s uprising toward happiness, liberation, and Eros, in the words of George Katsiaficas.22 I will leave the final word for the slogan thought up by B. R. Ambedkar, the twentieth-century Dalit social critic: “Educate! Agitate! Organize!”

1 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 56.

2 Suzanne Goldenberg, “2014 officially the hottest year on record,” The Guardian, 16 January 2015.

3 John Vidal, “August was hottest on record worldwide, says Nasa,” The Guardian, 16 September 2014.

4 Goldenberg; Shaun A. Marcott et al., “A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperatures for the Past 11,300 Years,” Science, 8 March 2013. Available online:

5 Robert Scribbler, “Arctic Heat Wave Sets off Hottest Ever Winter-Time Temperatures, Major Melt, Disasters for Coastal and Interior Alaska,” 28 January 2014. Available online: Jon Queally, “Burning ‘Deep Purple’: Australia So Hot New Color Added to Index,” Common Dreams, 8 January 2013.

6 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

7 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

8 Damian Carrington, “Earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF,” The Guardian, 29 September 2014; Robin McKie, “Earth faces ‘sixth extinction’ with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo,” The Guardian, 13 December 2014; Tom Bawden, “A quarter of the world’s marine species in danger of extinction,” The Independent, 30 January 2015.

9 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).

10 Emir Olivares Alonso, “El planeta ante un crisis que pone en riesgo la humanidad,” La Jornada, 4 June 2014; Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” The Guardian, 15 January 2015.

11 Heather Stewart, “Nicholas Stern: ‘I got it wrong on climate change,’” The Guardian, 26 January 2013.

12 Suzanne Goldenberg, “UN: rate of emissions growth nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century,” The Guardian, 11 April 2014.

13 Tom Bawden, “Doomsday clock: We are closer to doom than at any time since the Cold War, say scientists,” The Independent, 22 January 2015.

14 Josh Rogin, “America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS,” The Daily Beast, 14 June 2014; Owen Gibson and Pete Pattisson, “Death toll among Qatar’s 2022 World Cup workers revealed,” The Guardian, 23 December 2014.

15 Sophie Yeo, “Warsaw climate talks: nearly 3 in 10 countries not sending ministers,” The Guardian, 13 November 2013.

16 John Vidal, “Is the Lima deal a travesty of global climate justice?” The Guardian, 15 December 2014.

17 Red Contra la Represión, “Libertad a Cristian Rosendahl Guerrero y contra las agresiones a la Caravana Climatica,” Enlace Zapatista, 14 December 2014; David Hill, “Ecuador pursued China oil deal while pledging to protect Yasuni, papers show,” The Guardian, 19 February 2014.

18 Ibid.

19 Peter Stanchev, “From Chiapas to Rojava—more than just coincidences,” Kurdish Question, 6 February 2015.

20 Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (New York: Zone Books, 2014); Práxedis G. Guerrero, Artículos literarios y de combate: pensamientos; crónicas revolucionarias, etc. Placer Armado Ediciones, 2012 (1924), 28.

21 Elliott Hughes and Steve Ongerth, “Towards an Ecological General Strike: the Earth Day to May Day Assembly and Days of Direct Action,” IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, 30 March 2014. Available online: “Call for Climate Satyagraha!” Ecosocialist Horizons, 3 November 2014. Available online:

22 George Katsiaficas, “Toward a Global People’s Uprising” (2009). Available online:

Publicación de Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución con Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica en México

May 3, 2015

CER portada

Durante la Sexta Feria Anarquista del Libro en México Distrito Federal que tuvo lugar el 25 y 26 de abril, salió a la luz pública la traducción al castellano de mi primer libro, Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución, que originalmente llevaba el título de Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe (Institute for Anarchist Studies/AK Press, 2012).  Gracias a la colaboración de mi madre, quien tradujo el texto, y la voluntad de los compañer@s integrantes de Bloque Libertario y la casa editorial Revuelta Epistémica de publicar la obra, ya está disponible para l@s lectores hispanoparlantes.  La obra se puede pedir a través del sitio web de Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica.  Cuesta $60 pesos mexicanos el ejemplar.

El texto es casi lo mismo que el original, aunque incluye un prólogo nuevo que actualiza la situación ambiental y climatológica en el mundo, cubriendo los tres años que han transcurrido desde la fecha original de publicación.  A continuación, el resumen:

Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución sintetiza los avisos alarmantes procedentes tanto a partir de los análisis de l@s climatolog@s como acerca del estado actual de nuestro planeta Tierra que indican las consecuencias potencialmente terminales del cambio climático que el capitalismo ha impulsado hasta ahora.  A pesar de ello, esta obra reivindica la posibilidad de una salida de emergencia.  En su contemplación de este fenómeno catastrófico en sus vertientes climatológicas, políticas y sociales, Javier Sethness Castro promueve el cambio de nuestra trayectoria historica por medio del pensamiento crítico, y ofrece una visión regeneradora que se inspira en las tradiciones intelectuales ácratas.

“Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución es una disección rabiosa y urgente del sistema económico omnívoro actual, que despiadadamente está conviertiendo el planeta Tierra en un campo de aniquilación.”

— Jeffrey St. Clair, redactor de Counterpunch y de Caso Perdido: Barack Obama y la Política de Ilusión

At the 2015 NYC Anarchist Bookfair: Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

April 12, 2015

MAB MAB poster 1-1

I will be speaking at this year’s New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF), this Saturday, 18 April, at 3:30pm in the New School.  The topic of my comments will be “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  I hope to see you there!  A description follows:

“This talk will examine the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and biographies. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin share an enthusiasm for journalism and the written word in subverting bourgeois society and converge in their views on revolutionary armed struggle, in addition to having both experienced a sordidly tragic fate in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of European Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling I have suggested. With this presentation, I seek to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and then to present some reflections on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today, particularly in terms of ecology, feminism, and global anti-authoritarianism.”


“Come, O Lions! Let Us Cause a Mutiny”: Anarchism and the Subaltern, by Tariq Khan

April 2, 2015

Published on the Institute for Anarchist Studies blog, 2 April 2015

“By marking our own text with the signs of battle, we hope to go a little further towards a more open and self-aware discourse.” – Partha Chatterjee[2]

In the aftermath of the failed revolutions of 1848, the exiled Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin published a pamphlet titled Appeal to the Slavs by a Russian Patriot. Bakunin, not yet an anarchist but already showing anarchistic tendencies, called for the destruction of the Austrian Empire and the establishment of a federation of free Slav republics. Typical to what would later become the anarchist analysis for which he is known, Bakunin asserted that the peasantry was the revolutionary class that would be the decisive force in bringing down capitalism and empire. In reference to the uprisings, Bakunin praised what he called the “revolutionary spirit” of “all those who suffered under the yoke of foreign powers.”[3]He called for greater solidarity among the colonized and warned against doctrinaire ideology:

“The oppression of one is the oppression of all, and we cannot violate the liberty of one being without violating the freedom of all of us. The social question…cannot be resolved either by a preconceived theory or by any isolated system… We must, first, purify our atmosphere and make a complete transformation of our environment, for it corrupts our instincts and our will by constricting our hearts and our minds.”[4]

From its earliest articulations, revolutionary anarchism was not only anticapitalist, but also anti-imperialist and anticolonialist.[5]

The same cannot be said of traditional Marxism. In the Communist Manifesto, which introduced Marxism to the world, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels dismissed the colonial world as the “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries.”[6] Marx and Engels praised bourgeois imperialism for bringing civilization to the world by making “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”[7]Because of Western imperialism and colonialism, wrote Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie has “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”[8]

In traditional Marxist “stages of history” ideology, capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism played an important role. The bourgeoisie was the revolutionary class that destroyed the decaying feudal world and ushered in the modern, bourgeois capitalist world. In the next stage, the proletariat was the revolutionary class, which would eventually destroy the bourgeois order to replace it with socialism, which would after a time lead to the highest stage of socialism; communism. Much of the nonbourgeois world, however, was not yet proletarianized. Peasants and “barbarians” were not yet part of history. They existed outside of history, or worse, futilely worked against the unfolding of history. Peasants, according to the Manifesto, were “not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay, more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.”[9] In order to become part of history, to join those who would make up the revolutionary class, they would first have to be brought up to speed through the process of proletarianization; that is to say, they needed to be transformed by modern industrial capitalist discipline. Capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism, then, were the systems that would assimilate and discipline these supposedly backward people and prepare them to join the ranks of the industrial proletariat.

This explains Engels’s racist, imperialistic article “Democratic Pan-Slavism” published in his and Marx’s paper Neue Rheinische Zeitung in February 1849. “Democratic Pan-Slavism” was a direct reply to the anti-imperialist and pro-peasant assertions of Bakunin’s Appeal to the Slavs. Engels scoffed at Bakunin’s talk of justice, humanity, equality, and independence as naïve and sentimental rubbish. He explained that German imperialism was “in the interests of civilization.”[10] Without German conquest, argued Engels, the Slavs would be nothing. “The Austrian Slavs,” for example, “have never had a history of their own” and “they are dependent on the Germans and Magyars for their history, literature, politics, commerce and industry…”[11] As for Bakunin’s denunciation of imperialist violence, Engels replied that such coercion is also necessary to civilization; for “nothing is accomplished in history without force and pitiless ruthlessness, and what indeed would have happened to history if Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon had had the same quality of compassion now appealed to by [Bakunin and his ilk].”[12] In this Engels exhibited that in its earliest articulations, Marxism took for granted an imperialist, Western civilizationist worldview; that is to say, the worldview of the white colonizer.

This unpleasant fact becomes even more apparent in light of Engels’s understanding of the United States’ conquest of Mexico: “And will Bakunin reproach the Americans with this ‘war of conquest’, which admittedly gives a hard knock to his theory based on ‘justice and humanity’, but which was waged simply and solely in the interests of civilization?” For Engels, it was a given that the US conquest of Mexico was part of the march of progress. Thanks to US imperialism, wrote Engels, “magnificent California was snatched from the lazy Mexicans, who did not know what to do with it.”[13] The “energetic Yankees,” he continued, are “opening the Pacific for the first time to actual civilization…”[14] According to Engels, Bakunin’s silly notions of independence and justice were irrelevant in the grand scheme of things: “The ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans [Mexicans] may suffer by this, ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be infringed here and there; but what does that matter against such world-historical events?”[15] For Marx and Engels, Western imperialism was necessary to spread capitalism. Capitalism was necessary to set the stage for socialist revolution. Hence, English colonialism in Asia was necessary for humankind to “fulfill its destiny.”[16] Likewise, French conquest of Algeria was a “fortunate fact for the progress of civilization.”[17]


Over the following decades, Bakunin became a harsh critic of what he saw as Marxist authoritarianism. He rejected Marx’s “stages of history” and the idea that the masses had to be disciplined by capitalism before they were ready for socialism. He despised the contemptuous way that Marx talked about the peasantry and the “lumpenproletariat.” Rather than being inherently counter-revolutionary, these classes of people carried the greatest revolutionary potential by virtue of their numbers, their oppressed positionalities, and by the fact that they were still undisciplined by capitalism and the state. They were “the flower of the proletariat.”[18] By this phrase, wrote Bakunin,

“I mean precisely that eternal ‘meat’ for governments, that great rabble of the people ordinarily designated by Messrs. Marx and Engels by the phrase at once picturesque and contemptuous of ‘lumpenproletariat’, the ‘riff-raff’, that rabble which, being very nearly unpolluted by all bourgeois civilization carries in its heart, in its aspirations, in all necessities and miseries of its collective position, all the germs of the Socialism of the future, and which alone is powerful enough today to inaugurate the Social Revolution and bring it to triumph.”[19]

In light of the stark differences between these two competing visions for socialist revolution, that of Bakunin on one hand and that of Marx and Engels on the other, it is no mystery why in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century up until Lenin, anarchism, not Marxism, was the dominant force in the global radical revolutionary and anticolonial Left. Benedict Anderson writes of this time period that “anarchism, in its characteristically variegated forms, was the dominant element in the self-consciously internationalist radical Left.”[20] He offers that the reason for this is that unlike Marxism, the anarchist movement “did not disdain peasants and agricultural laborers in an age when serious industrial proletariats were mainly confined to Northern Europe.”[21] Further, anarchism “had no theoretical prejudices against ‘small’ and ‘ahistorical’ nationalisms, including those in the colonial world.”[22] Finally, writes Anderson, because of their belief in the immediate revolutionary potential of peasants and anticolonial movements:

Anarchists were also quicker to capitalize on the vast transoceanic migrations of the era. Malatesta [a major Italian anarchist theorist/organizer] spent four years in Buenos Aires – something inconceivable for Marx or Engels, who never left Western Europe. Mayday celebrates the memory of immigrant anarchists – not Marxists – executed in the United States in 1887.[23]

Michael Schmidt similarly asserts that “It is because of this very early and radical challenge to colonialism and imperialism…that the anarchist movement penetrated parts of the world that Marxism did not reach until the 1920s.”[24]


Anarchism played a significant role in the larger world of transnational, anticolonial, anticapitalist struggle in the era. Despite this, until recent years, the vast majority of the Anglophone historiography of anarchism has focused primarily on personalities and organizations in Europe and Anglo-America. Michael Schmidt recognizes some of the major gaps in the historiography:

“A far more important omission is the massive Latin anarchist and anarcho- and revolutionary syndicalist movements, which dominated the organized working classes of Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, and Uruguay… Also excluded are the powerful East Asian anarchist currents. Lastly, there was the key role played by anarchist militants in establishing the first trade unions and articulating the early revolutionary socialist discourse in North and Southern Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, Australasia, South-East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.”[25]

The Ghadar Party alone, which is the most prominent example of South Asian anarchism, “built a world spanning movement that,” writes Schmidt, “not only established roots on the Indian subcontinent in Hindustan and Punjab, but which linked radicals within the Indian Diaspora as far afield as Afghanistan, British East Africa (Uganda and Kenya), British Guiana (Guiana), Burma, Canada, China, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaya (Malaysia), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Panama, the Philippines, Siam (Thailand), Singapore, South Africa, and the USA…”[26] Historian Maia Ramnath has shown that even some of the more iconic figures of Indian independence were influenced by anarchism. Bhagat Singh, for example, read Kropotkin, hung a portrait of Bakunin up in the Naujavan Bharat Sabha headquarters in Lahore, and wrote a series of articles on anarchism for a radical Punjabi monthly.[27]

However, rather than labeling these Indian anti-authoritarians as capital-A Anarchists, Ramnath sees these South Asian radical tendencies as part of a larger intersection of global– antiauthoritarian/anticapitalist/anticolonial/anti-imperialist–radicalism of which anarchism is one component. This way of looking at it is what Ramnath calls “decolonizing anarchism.”[28] One way that Ramnath exemplifies this is in her approach to subaltern studies. Beginning about a century after the death of Marx, Ranajit Guha and a handful of other South Asian scholars launched a Bakuninesque attack on both bourgeois nationalist and Marxist historiographies of South Asia. It would be easy for Western antiauthoritarians to place the subaltern school under the umbrella of anarchism, but Ramnath does vice versa. Rather than try to fit subaltern studies into an anarchist framework, she takes the decolonized approach of placing anarchism within a subaltern studies framework.


In other words, instead of using anarchism to explain subaltern studies, she uses subaltern studies to explain anarchism. In the first chapter of Decolonizing Anarchism, when Ramnath sets out to define anarchism, she turns to Partha Chatterjee’s chapter “The Thematic and the Problematic” in his bookNationalist Thought and the Colonial World. Chatterjee formulates two parts of a social ideology; the thematic, which “refers to an epistemological as well as ethical system which provides a framework of elements and rules for establishing relationships between elements,” and the problematic, which “consists of concrete statements about possibilities justified by reference to the thematic.”[29] In the problematic is an ideology’s “identification of historical possibilities and the practical or programmatic forms of its realization,” and in the thematic

“its justificatory structures, i.e. the nature of the evidence it presents in support of its claims, the rules of inference it relies on to logically relate a statement of the evidence to a structure of arguments, the set of epistemological principles it uses to demonstrate the existence of its claims as historical possibilities, and finally, the set of ethical principles it appeals to in order to assert that those claims are morally justified.”[30]

“The anarchist tradition,” writes Ramnath, “is a discursive field in which the boundaries are defined by a thematic, not a problematic,” which is to say that anarchism “is a thematic larger than any of its myriad manifestations, all of which can be considered anarchism if they refer to that thematic – if they are part of the anarchist conversation.”[31]   She continues, “This is also analogous to contrasting language as [quoting Chatterjee] ‘a language system shared by a given community of speakers’ – that is anarchists – with parole, ‘a concrete speech act of individual speakers’ – that is, what’s said or done by any type of anarchist.”[32] The thematic that defines anarchism’s boundaries, says Ramnath, “is the quest for collective liberation in its most meaningful sense, by maximizing the conditions for autonomy and egalitarian social relationships, sustainable production and reproduction.”[33]

It is appropriate that Ramnath turns to a subaltern studies theorist for a framework to define the boundaries of anarchism. Early subaltern studies in particular shares much common ground, though not consciously so, with the early anarchist theorists. Ranajit Guha’s notion of subaltern consciousness, for example, is strikingly similar to Bakunin’s notion of peasant consciousness. In one of the formative works of the subaltern school–Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India–Ranajit Guha wrote, “To acknowledge the peasant as the maker of his own rebellion is to attribute, as we have done in this work, a consciousness to him.”[34] That consciousness is encapsulated by the word “insurgency.” Insurgency is, said Guha, “the name of that consciousness which informs the activity of the rural masses known as jacquerie, revolt, uprising, etc. or to use their Indian designations – dhing, bidroha, ulgulan, hool, fituri and so on.”[35] Compare this to Bakunin’s notion of peasant consciousness. Bakunin asked, for the masses (Guha’s subaltern classes), “of what does political consciousness consist?” to which he answered, “It can be assured by only one thing – the goddess of revolt.”[36]

Both Guha and Bakunin rejected the Marxist notion of what Hobsbawm called “pre-political people.”[37] Engels described peasant Slavs as not having a history of their own independent of what their imperialist masters imposed on them. Hobsbawm, writing in the Marxist tradition, asserted that “traditional forms of peasant discontent” were “virtually devoid of any explicit ideology, organization, or programme.”[38] Marxists and bourgeois nationalists both saw peasant insurgency as a spontaneous, disorganized, random lashing out of the pre-political and unconscious masses. In Elementary Aspects, Guha showed that peasant insurgency was indeed the expression of peasant consciousness and organization, and that peasant insurgents in India–rather than randomly lashing out–were discriminating in their targets for destruction or inversion. Bakunin likewise noted discrimination of targets, and hence consciousness, in peasant uprisings in Europe. “The Calabrian peasants” for example, wrote Bakunin, “began by looting the castles [estates] and the city mansions of the wealthy bourgeois, but took nothing from the people.”[39]

For Guha, “There was nothing in the militant movements of [India’s] rural masses that was not political. This could hardly have been otherwise under the conditions in which they worked, lived and conceptualized the world.”[40] The material conditions, exploitation, and relationships of stark inequality imposed on them by a variety of forms of authority gave peasants almost no choice but to be politically conscious for the sake of their own survival and dignity. Likewise, Bakunin wrote, “The peasants are made revolutionary by necessity, by the intolerable realities of their lives.”[41]Authoritarian impositions, said Guha, led peasants to develop a negative consciousness. That is to say, “His identity amounted to the sum of his subalternity. In other words, he learnt to recognize himself not by the properties and attributes of his own social being but by a diminution, if not negation, of those of his superiors.”[42] Because of this negative consciousness, insurgency often assumed the form of destruction and inversion of the symbols of authority. Bakunin recognized this same kind of negative consciousness of the peasantry, and he trusted and encouraged it as a progressive force. In one of his most misunderstood, misused, and most quoted lines, Bakunin wrote: “Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!”[43]

Guha and Bakunin both saw the inability to acknowledge peasant consciousness as, in Guha’s words, “elitist as well as erroneous.”[44] Marxist interpretations, Guha continues, have been able to recognize as real and worthwhile only those movements that conform to Marxist theory, or that give the credit to Marxist organizations: “…they err who fail to recognize the trace of consciousness in the apparently unstructured movements of the masses.”[45] Bakunin called for Marxists, and the urban workers Marxists claimed to represent, to “abandon their contemptuous attitude…City workers must overcome their anti-peasant prejudices not only in the interests of the Revolution, or for strategic reasons, but as an act of elementary justice.”[46] If Marxists were to fail to do this, warned Bakunin, then Marx’s claim that peasants are counter-revolutionary would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ruling class, Bakunin explained, have already come to recognize peasant consciousness, and they have learned how to manipulate it to their own ends. If Marxists continue down the path of contempt for the rural masses, it will be to the detriment of all.


These kinds of critiques, shared by anarchists and subalternists, go a long way in explaining why anarchism rather than Marxism, was so influential in the global radical anticolonialist movement in the early twentieth century. The anarchist movement in the era facilitated a transnational anticolonial network, and Indian radicals were very much a part of creating that network. Perhaps the most widely read book that deals with this network is Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags. As insightful as Anderson’s book is, it only gives a picture of a slice of that transnational network. He seems to willfully leave out the United States from the story, and as a result, much is missing, as cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco were vitally important points in that network. The anarcho-syndicalist IWW alone, founded in Chicago in 1905, connected radical antiauthoritarians on every continent.

Har Dayal, founder of the Ghadar party, was active in the IWW before founding Ghadar. Near Oakland, California he founded a training school for anarchist propagandists that he named “the Bakunin Institute.” Not only did the U.S. act as a base for US-Indian radical solidarity, but also it facilitated a type of South-South solidarity as well; for example, in the U.S., the Ghadar Party and the Mexican anarchist PLM movement worked together against their common enemies of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism.[47]

While in U.S., Indian antiauthoritarian radicals developed a uniquely South Asian anarchism that drew on South Asian cultures and traditions as much as it did on Western anarchism. In other words, instead of remaking themselves in anarchism’s image, they remade anarchism in their own image, using anarchism to serve their own anticolonialist ends rather than using their anticolonialism for anarchist ends. They gravitated to anarchism because it was the clearest articulation of their ideas in terms of tactics, theory, and vision for the future; it was fluid enough to accommodate wide diversity (which was highly necessary for any movement attempting to be effective in South Asia), and more than any other movement available to them at the time, it connected them to like-minded radicals around the world facilitating transnational radical solidarity.


[1]Translated from a 1915 Hindustan Ghadar Party leaflet, T.R. Sareen, Select Documents on the Ghadr Party (New Delhi: Mounto, 1994), 174.

[2]Partha Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 52.

[3]Sam Dolgoff, ed., Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 66.

[4]Dolgoff, 68.

[5]Dolgoff, Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism; Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Oakland: AK Press, 2009); Michael Schmidt, Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (Oakland: AK Press, 2013).

[6]Frederic L. Bender, ed., Karl Marx: The Communist Manifesto (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988), 59.



[9]Bender, 64.

[10]David Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (New York: Random House, 1973), 234.

[11]Fernbach, 236–237.

[12]Fernbach, 236.

[13]Fernbach, 230.



[16]Quoted in Schmidt and van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, 311.

[17]Quoted in Ibid.

[18]Michael Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom & the State (London: Freedom Press, 1990), 48.


[20]Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (New York: Verso, 2005), 2.




[24]Schmidt, Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism, 9.

[25]Schmidt, 20.

[26]Schmidt, 20–21.

[27]Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle (Oakland: AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2011), 145.


[29]Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, 38.


[31]Ramnath, 36.

[32]Ibid., 36–37; Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, 39.

[33]Ramnath, 37.

[34]Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), 4.


[36]Dolgoff, 308.

[37]Quoted in Guha, 5.

[38]Quoted in Ibid.

[39]Guha, 191.

[40]Guha 6.

[41]Dolgoff, 191.

[42]Guha, 18.

[43]Dolgoff, 57.

[44]Guha, 4.

[45]Guha, 5.

[46]Dolgoff, 201.

[47]Emily C. Brown, Har Dayal: Hindu Revolutionary and Rationalist (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975), 116; Chaz Bufe and Mitchell Verter, eds., Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magon Reader (Oakland: AK Press, 2005).

“Contra el Capital, la Autoridad y la Iglesia”

March 27, 2015

Sobre la vida y la muerte del compañero Ricardo Flores Magón

Esta es la segunda parte de una entrevista a Claudio Lomnitz acerca de su libro, El Retorno del Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón (The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, Zone Books, 2014). Traducción elaborada por el entrevistador y revisada por María A. Castro.  Publicada en linea en Portal Libertario OACA y Bloque Libertario.

Para continuar con el tema de la última pregunta de la primera parte de nuestra conversación sobre las relaciones profundamente románticas, tanto platónicas como sexuales, que se desarrollaron entre las figuras centrales de la Junta Organizadora del Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) y l@s más cercanos a ell@s, ¿qué papeles jugaron el arte y la belleza en este movimiento? En su capítulo sobre la época bohemia de Magón, “La Bohème,” Ud. observa que la sensibilidad estética estaba íntimamente asociada a la sensibilidad humanista y revolucionaria que sentían l@s militantes que formaban parte de este grupo. De hecho, tal conexión filosófica entre el arte y la revolución social ha sido identificada por Herbert Marcuse y Albert Camus y a G. W. F. Hegel se le conoce por la idea de que el heroismo estético se ve en la responsabilidad en la causa de cambiar el mundo.

Aunque sería difícil responder a tal tipo de pregunta en términos del movimiento en general, dadas las variedades entre sus integrantes, se puede decir que el movimiento en general dependía críticamente de la lectura y la escritura, siendo la belleza una razón fundamental para ganar acceso a la alfabetización. Ricardo era muy explícito en sus cartas en cuanto a la importancia de la palabra, del conversar y del pensar. El insistía que era la conciencia y no la violencia la que verdaderamente llevó a cabo la Revolución, aunque hubo mucho más que la cuestión de la propia revolución. En primer lugar, los contenidos de Regeneración y The Border (La Frontera) incluían mucho arte y belleza y se daba énfasis a la poesía, por ejemplo, además de existir un gran interés en el arte gráfico así como en el reconocimiento de autores y obras literarias. Este énfasis también era crítico en el desarrollo de las afinidades interpersonales, las cuales eran un factor indispensable en la vida social del militante, como vimos en cuanto al amor. 

Había asimismo un principio filosófico involucrado en todo esto, expresado en la idea de que el movimiento sentía que las formas contemporáneas de explotación y opresión estaban degradando a los seres humanos del mundo, y que la belleza era clave para la vocación humana. Para poner un ejemplo, en una carta que escribió desde Leavenworth a Ellen White, Ricardo dijo que “No pude evitar reirme un poco—sólo un poco—pensando en tu inocencia. Tú dices que es supérfluo que yo hable de la Belleza, y lo dices cuando es la Belleza aquéllo que yo amo más que nada.” En términos más filosóficos, y otra vez desde Leavenworth, Ricardo escribió al activista socialista Winnie Branstetter que la humanidad “ha violado la Belleza. Siendo el animal más inteligente, y el más favorecido por la Naturaleza, la [humanidad] ha vivido en la suciedad moral y material.”

Diría que la belleza y el arte eran realidades claves en la formación política de l@s militantes, en la socialización del movimiento, en la definición de las metas del movimiento, en la formación de las afinidades espirituales entre desconocid@s que podían entonces apoyarse el un@ al otr@ de manera espontánea, y en la actitud filosófica que les impulsaba a l@s individu@s a rebelarse en contra de la situación que, en caso contrario, se podría haber naturalizado. Esa es una de las razones por las cuales vemos que vari@s militantes importantes crearon obras artísticas en diferentes periodos de sus vidas. En ciertos casos—como el de Práxedis Guerrero, Juan Sarabia o Santiago de la Hoz, por ejemplo—la poesía se creó en el momento cumbre de sus vidas como organizadores políticos. En otros casos—siendo ésta la dinámica de las obras de teatro de Ricardo—la vuelta hacia la producción artística llega a ser un espacio alternativo hacia la militancia y a organización comunal, en un momento histórico en que la eficacia política a través de la lucha armada revolucionaria había decaido de manera significativa. Pero hablando en general, sí es verdad que vari@s militantes escribían poesía o buscaban formas de expresión artística, incluso para atraer a amantes potenciales.

Para l@s que están más familiarizados con una narrativa reduccionista de la Revolución Mexicana (1910-1920) que da prioridad a la Campaña Anti-Reeleccionista del terrateniente reformista Francisco I. Madero—o, al mínimo, a la oposición maderista inicial a la elección que Díaz había hecho para su vicepresidente en los comicios previstos para el año 1910—podría resultar sorprendente considerar que el PLM organizó varias revueltas armadas en la región fronteriza antes de la Revolución, con la esperanza de catalizar una insurrección popular general en México. La primera revuelta tuvo lugar en 1906, la segunda en 1908, y la tercera siendo todavía la Revolución muy joven, en diciembre del 1910, e igual en Baja California durante el primer semestre de 1911. La revuelta armada más ambiciosa fue la primera, siendo organizada para coincidir con el Día de la Independencia en septiembre del 1906 y con las figuras centrales de la Junta Organizadora en participación activa. La idea era asaltar e invadir tres ciudades mexicanas importantes en la frontera: Ciudad Juárez, Nogales y Jiménez. Lamentablemente, los esfuerzos de la red transnacional de espías causaron que fallara la insurrección, y parte de la Junta fue detenida, mientras que la otra parte se escapó. Desde entonces, Díaz decidió dejar que el Estado estadunidense procesara a los revoltosos por haber violado las leyes de neutralidad que se habían establecido durante la Guerra entre España y EUA, a cambio de la no-intervención del dictador mexicano en ese conflicto. Este fue el cargo por el que Magón y sus camaradas fueron encarcelados de nuevo en 1907 por tres años, castigo por la revuelta que habían planificado. La revuelta de 1908, que consistió en un ataque en contra de Las Palomas, Chihuahua, liderado por Práxedis Guerrero y Francisco Manrique mientras los demás integrantes de la Junta Organizadora estaban encarcelados, parece haber sido desaconsejable, y lo mismo tal vez se podría decir de la revuelta de diciembre del 1910 en la que el mismo Práxedis murió.

Además, tomando en cuenta esta nueva encarcelación de varios de los integrantes claves de la Junta Organizadora, el PLM parecer haber sido eclipsado, en los años antes de la Revolución, por el Maderismo, sistema que proveía un alternativa más incrementalista, familiar y complaciente que la que avanzaba el PLM: Francisco I. Madero (“Don Panchito”) representaba “el Estado de Derecho” y la reforma burguesa-democrática, mientras Magón recalcaba la acción directa, la redistribución de las tierras, la expropriación, y la autoemancipación proletaria. Ud. nos cuenta la historia fascinante en la que Madero se aproximó a Magón para ofrecerle la posición de vicepresidente a su lado—siendo ésta una propuesta que Magón rechazó inmediatamente. Entonces, Ud. nos enseña como fue que Madero se apropió del Ejército Federal de Díaz para regular y vencer las fuerzas Liberales que habían tomado Mexicali y Tijuana en los meses antes de la caída de Díaz en 1911, y después que él activó las relaciones diplomáticas con EUA para exigir que la Junta y varios comandantes del PLM fueran encarcelados de nuevo, tras el repudio de Magón hacia Madero, ¡a no ser que Madero hubiera pedido y recibido apoyo militar a los Liberales en un acto de buena fe hasta ese punto en la Revolución! En este sentido, la traición oportunista de Madero claramente demuestra su compromiso al practicar un arte de gobernar autoritario y Weberiano, y puede explicar la razón por la cual Regeneración llegó a considerarle un “dictador,” un “segundo Porfirio Díaz,” y un “dueño de esclav@s.” ¿Podría Ud. hablar más acerca de los varios dilemas con los cuales el PLM se enfrentó en la fase inicial de la Revolución? Ud. plantea que, tras su división con Madero, el PLM se convirtió en una corriente más marginal en el proceso revolucionario, aunque se pudo liberar para expresar su filosofia ácrata abiertamente. ¿Podría haber sido diferente?

Lo hipotético siempre es difícil. La gente siempre va a debatir si Ricardo se equivocó o no al rebelarse en contra de Madero. Por lo menos, y desde una perspectiva política, su sentido del tiempo no fue aconsejable. Ricardo pronunció que Madero era un traidor mientras que la revuelta en contra de Díaz todavía estaba ardiendo. Esta posición abrió al grupo la acusación de que sus integrantes eran traidores financiados por los científicos y de que hacían trabajo sucio para Diaz. Varios auténticos revolucionarios lo sintieron así, entre ellos simpatizantes anteriores del PLM, como Esteban Baca Calderón y Manuel Diéguez, del caso de Cananea. Puede ser que Ricardo creyera que perdería la confianza si apoyaba a Madero y después se rebelaba en contra de él una vez llegado al poder. No es fácil decirlo con precisión. Pero sí es claro que la Junta bajo el liderazgo de Ricardo carecía de un estrategista militar, y que su posición con relación a Madero, y después con Huerta, Carranza, Villa, y los demás, vulneraba el liderazgo militar que sí tenía en México, dado que siempre necesitaban alianzas. Estas alianzas hicieron posible que la Junta de Los Ángeles considerara a los comandantes PLMistas como traidores. En este sentido, la decisión de Magón en cuanto a Madero aseguró una derrota militar rápida, y quizá también causó una influencia ideológica más amplia y duradera.

Para Magón, la lucha armada era indudablemente una táctica importante, pero considerando su opinión de que el dominio contrarevolucionario se concentraba en la hidra de tres cabezas fatales—el capital, el Estado y el clero—la revolución social, según él, se extendía más alla de la insurrección, y de ahí su idea de que el esfuerzo intelectual de agitación se tenía que mantener para inspirar las acciones militantes directas, tal como se ve en los ejemplares de Regeneración. La decisión de Magón tras el fracaso de 1906 y la encarcelación de ciertos integrantes de la Junta para prevenir que su hermano Enrique participara en la revuelta de 1908 y a partir de allí para asegurar la protección de la integridad física de los intelectuales del PLM provocó un conflicto con Práxedis, quien—a lo mejor de manera más verdaderamente ácrata—sentía que no podía pedir a otr@s que arriesgaran sus vidas en la revuelta armada sin hacer él lo mismo. El joven militante de veintiocho anos murió en la revuelta de diciembre de 1910 en observación de este credo, expiando su culpa por haber sobrevivido a Manrique, quien murió en la revuelta de 1908, siendo éste un caso paralelo al del Subcomandante Pedro del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), quien cayó en la insurrección neozapatista de enero del 1994.

Dada esta diferencia de opinión acerca de la relación entre la teoría y la práctica, Ud. pone de relieve que Práxedis tenía más dudas que Magón en cuanto al uso del odio en la lucha revolucionaria. El dijo en algunos de sus últimos artículos en Regeneración que “sin odio se pueden aniquilar los despotismos,” y que “Vamos a la lucha violenta sin hacer de ella el ideal nuestro, sin soñar en la ejecución de los tiranos como suprema victoria de la justicia. Nuestra violencia no es justicia: es simplemente necesidad.” ¿Y cómo veía Magón el odio? Me gustaría añadir que su presentación de la supuesta falta de comprensión juvenil que le faltaba a Práxedis del “valor de la supervivencia,” corre el riesgo de reflejar un sentido discriminatorio por edad. ¿Cómo ve la acusación?

Tu acusación de “discriminación por edad” en contra de mí probablemente tiene razón. No lo había considerado en ese sentido, pero sí hay un tipo de identificación paterna con respecto a la simpatía que siento en referencia al intento de Ricardo de prevenir que Práxedis fuera a la guerra.

Pero de todas maneras, también es verdad que siento más simpatía por Práxedis que por Ricardo en cuanto a la cuestión del odio. Varios de sus ataques en contra de sus enemig@s, y en contra de sus compañer@s a l@s que llegó a ver como enemig@s, son verdaderamente horripilantes. Se puede comprender la razón por la cual Ricardo odía si se contemplan las numerosas dificultades y sacrificios que él experimentó en la vida, pero eso no hace que su actitud fuera atractiva. Ricardo tenía varias virtudes, pero su promoción del odio no se puede incluir aquí. En cambio, Práxedis tenía más conciencia de este problema, y una de las cosas más bellas de Práxedis es que el escribía sus pensamientos acerca de esta cuestión, y los publicaba en Regeneración.

El odio que Ricardo sentía también tenía que ver con su perspectiva histórica, no sólo con el rencor. Él estaba convencido que vivía en el inicio de la revolución mundial, y no era el único que tenía esa opinión, especialmente tras el comienzo de la Primera Guerra Mundial. En cierto sentido, esta consideración podría justificar hasta cierto punto los contínuos llamamientos que Ricardo hacía por la violencia e incluso por los asesinatos, pero tengo que decir que esta parte de la vida de Ricardo es para mí una de las más problemáticas. Se ven los efectos negativos que tuvo esta orientación tanto en las relaciones interpersonales entre Ricardo y algunas de las personas a quienes él consideraba más confiables, como en la decaida de apoyo a la Revolución por un pueblo que estaba agotado por tanta violencia incesante. Esta fue una de las cosas que Ricardo no vivió directamente, pero esta cuestión es muy relevante para poder comprender lo que Enrique y otr@s Liberales experimentaron cuando volvieron a México tras la Revolución.

Durante el desarrollo de la fase inicial de la Revolución y mientras más integrantes del PLM decidieron juntarse a Madero, la red transnacional que apoyaba la “Causa Mexicana” empezó a deteriorarse, como Ud. nos dice—en parte como respuesta a la agresividad virulenta que Ricardo expresaba hacia varios ex-compañer@s que abandonaron el Liberalismo por Madero. Un componente clave de tal actitud impropia entre camaradas tuvo que ver con el prejuicio evidente que Ricardo tenía en contra de la gente LGBTQ. Él expresó su ira de manera particular en contra de la lesbiana Juana B. Gutiérrez de Mendoza, cuando reveló su homosexualidad públicamente tras su deserción, presentándola como alguien “degenerada” que estaba involucrada en una “lucha contra la Naturaleza.” Igual ocurrió en el caso de Antonio I. Villarreal, quien dejó la Junta Organizadora para unirse al maderismo, y después fue acusado de haber tenido relaciones sexuales con cierto peluquero. A pesar de la “traición” de Gutiérrez de Mendoza, hay que clarificar que ella ayudó a Zapata a escribir el Plan de Ayala (1911/1914) tras su desilusión con el reformismo maderista, mientras que Villarreal el socialista sirvió bajo Madero y en cambio fue nombrado coronel antes de que él fundara una versión en la Ciudad de México de Regeneración (que Magón consideraba “Degeneración” o “Regeneración burguesa”), y luego acusara a Ricardo de haberse vendido.

Sin duda, las “acusaciones” de homosexualidad que Magón perseguía se afiliaron con el conocimiento popular del “Escándalo de los ’41,” operación policiaca en contra de un baile de la clase alta en la Ciudad de México en 1901, evento que resultó en la detención de 41 muchachos que estaban bailando el un@ con el otr@, la mitad vestidos de mujer. La implicación fue que la clase dominante del Porfiriato era afeminada, emasculada y “degenerada,” y que lo que se necesitaba era la regeneración masculina, masculinizando una regeneración ¡patriarcal! Lamentablemente, y con relación al momento actual, una dinámica de tono similar parece operar ahora en Mexico, en relación al Presidente Enrique Peña Nieto y Manuel Velasco Coello, Gobernador del Estado de Chiapas. No hay duda que estos priístas son tiranos, pero se conoce que una corriente entre la oposición en contra de ellos se expresa en términos tales como “putos” putativos, casi en estilo magonista. A partir de esto surgen varias preguntas. En primer lugar, ¿hasta qué punto se reflejaban los prejuicios de la sociedad mexicana en la homofobía de Ricardo? Es evidente que este prejuicio viola la filosofía militante y anti-autoritaria del PLM, siendo si no profundamente transgresiva, dado que sus adherentes “se enfrentaban con el status quo e intentaban crear una alternativa frente a ello.” Otra cosa es preguntarle, ¿cuánto es que Ud. cree que la sociedad mexicana ha avanzado, en términos de la diversidad sexual y de género en el siglo que ha pasado desde la Revolución?

Con toda probabilidad, sería imposible evaluar la profundidad o el alcance de la “homofobía” durante la epoca de Magon. Ese término ni existía en ese entonces, y como Carlos Monsivais ha observado, el “Escándalo de los ’41” fue el primer escándalo homosexual en México (1901). Así que mi respuesta a la primera parte de tu pregunta es tentativa, pero aquí va: Tengo la impresión que Ricardo era más intensamente “homofóbico” que vari@s de sus contemporane@s, y creo que así era por dos razones. La primera tiene que ver con la idea de regeneración en sí— idea que dependía de la perspectiva de que México estaba postrado, humillado, esclavizado, etc. Todas estas ideas minaban la virilidad, lo cual era un valor clave en el movimiento. Esta dinámica no necesariamente lleva al pánico homosexual, pero sí puede contribuir al mismo. Creo que en el caso de Ricardo, sí contribuyó.

Un segundo factor, en mi opinion, fue la gran cantidad de tiempo que Ricardo estuvo encarcelado. Las relaciones homosexuales eran muy comunes en la cárcel, y eso se sabía bien en Mexico. Carlos Roumagnac, el principal criminólogo mexicano, publicó un estudio de “tipos criminales” basado en entrevistas de gran duración en la Prisión de Belem—donde Ricardo había estado internado—y concluyó que casi todos los encarcelados tenían relaciones sexuales entre sí. Los cuentos que contó Antonio Villarreal acerca de las experiencias de la Junta en la prisión federal en Arizona se enfocaban asimismo en esta cuestión. Es posible que Ricardo desarrollara una aversión a los avances sexuales que había experimentado en la cárcel, o tal vez existíera para él un enlace entre la homosexualidad y la debilidad, o también es posible que él fuera homosexual, y que le horrorizara la posibilidad de que su homosexualidad se desvelara. No se puede decir nada definitivo a partir de los documentos históricos, pero creo que se puede decir que sus experiencias en la cárcel fueron relevantes.

Por último, el tercer factor es la utilidad política de la acusación. En la prensa, Ricardo era constantemente atacado, y el solía utilizar cualquier cosa que pudiera para profanar a sus enemig@s. La acusación de homosexualidad le era útil, y él la utilizaba. Diría que no sólo la utilizaba, sino que se satisfacía haciéndolo.

En cuanto a la situación de México en la actualidad, yo diría que la sociedad mexicana ha experimentado transformaciones tremendas en términos de género y relaciones sexuales—tremendas. Aún durante el curso de mi vida, ni hablar de lo que estaba pasando durante el Porfiriato. Ahora si, las ideas de la conspiración homosexual, en particular entre la élite, como las teorías conspiratorias antisemíticas, todavía son comunes. En este sentido, Ricardo era mucho menos pernicioso que algunos teoristas de conspiración contemporáneos, dado que él no creía que México estaba bajo el control de un círculo gay. Creo que el hecho de que Ricardo en general era antinacionalista le conservó en cuanto a las teorias de conspiracion de las cuales hablas—las que dicen que la gente es pura, pero que sus explotadores son una camarilla de malditos perversos. La homofobía de Ricardo se dirigía hacia las personas que él consideraba traidoras, pero ést@s según él habian traicionado una Causa en vez de una nación “pura.”

Dado, como dice Ud., que la revolución ácrata es “la revolución más radical que la Ilustración ha engendrado,” siento curiosidad por saber si Ud. tendría algún comentario acerca de la influencia que el posmodernismo y el posestructuralismo han tenido en la tradición ácrata en las ultimas décadas, como se ve por ejemplo en la propuesta para un “anarquismo posestructuralista.” Como sabrá Ud., ambas escuelas rechazan la Ilustración.

No conozco estas tendencias bien, en cuanto a las posibilidades de hacer tal comentario, aunque creo que hay buenas razones por las cuales el posmodernismo y el posestructuralismo tendrían un interés serio en el anarquismo. Para ilustrar, la crítica del Michel Foucault en cuanto al Estado y la soberanía fácilmente podría resultar en la exploración del anarquismo como espacio político alternativo. Además, el rechazo del posmodernismo hacia el grand récit del progreso podría proveer un amplio espacio para la valoración de l@s campesin@s, l@s artesan@s, y los modos de vida que se diferencian del antiguo romance marxista con el proletariado industrial. Esas conexiones siempre fueron muy importante para l@s ácratas, ya que ell@s no tenían el compromiso de despojar a l@s campesin@s y transformarl@s en mano de obra industrial.

Cuando digo que el anarquismo ha sido la corriente más radical de la Ilustración, quiero resaltar la consigna “Libertad, Igualdad y Fraternidad [o Solidaridad].” Estas palabras tuvieron una gran influencia, una influencia máxima.

De manera crítica, Ud. menciona que el vegetarianismo era una práctica social innovadora que algun@s integrantes del PLM y l@s estadunidenses que apoyaban la Causa Mexicana adoptaron: es decir, Práxedis Guerrero y Elizabeth Trowbridge. Es de presumir, como escribe Ud., que l@s dos se convirtieron en vegetariani@s para afirmar su amor hacia los animales y repudiar la crueldad y sufrimiento impuestos sin necesidad hacia estos seres, de manera que su rechazo de la injusticia social entre los seres humanos se extendió hacia la esfera de los otros animales y de la naturaleza. Tal vez en esto les habrían influido los ejemplos del ácrata-pacifista Lev Tolstoy y Élisée Reclus, el Communard vegetariano,” algo que también se reflejaba en las sociedades vegetarianas que surgieron durante la revolución social de l@s ácratas españoles, además de entre l@s ácratas-vegetarian@s del movimiento Sarvodaya en India y Sri Lanka.1 Como paralelo a la pregunta que trataba de la emancipación LGBTQ, ¿hasta qué punto ve Ud. progreso o regresión en cuanto a la lucha por los derechos de los animales y su liberación en el momento actual?

Sí, a tu comentario acerca de Tolstoy y Reclus. Creo que la cuestión de los animales y sus derechos es una señal de progreso profundo, y que hoy se extiende mucho más que en la época de Elizabeth y Práxedis, dado que los problemas ambientales y nuestra responsabilidad como sujetos no simplemente de la historia humana, sino de la historia del planeta, actualmente son de un orden distinto al que existía anteriormente. Recuerda que la Revolución Mexicana tuvo lugar antes de que se desarrollaran las bombas átomicas y la energía nuclear. El sentido de que los seres humanos de verdad podían destruir el planeta entero todavía no existía, aunque las ideas de conservar el medio ambiente y oponerse a su destrucción ya existían. Frances Noel, uno de l@s estadunidenses radicales sobre quien escribo, fue un ambientalista que apoyaba la política de conservación en California. Hablando en términos más generales, las cuestiones de salud, aire puro, y medio ambiente formaban parte del discurso entonces no solamente de l@s higienistas y eugenistas, sino que también de l@s organizadores de la clase obrera y l@s reformistas urbanistas. Así que no quiero decir que no existiera el ambientalismo en esa época, sólo que era diferente. Hoy en día, la lucha ambiental tiene una máxima prioridad, mientras que entonces no era así. Esta dinámica causa que el vegetarianismo de un Práxedis o una Elizabeth resulte mucho más interesante, relevante y atractivo actualmente.

Pasando a la consideración de la campaña militar en Baja California (1911)—la lucha armada del PLM más conocida, aunque parece haber sido más un fiasco que una revolución exitosa—Ud. habla de varias problematicas: por ejemplo, que solo un 10 por cien de los insurrectos que “liberaron” a Tijuana eran mexican@s, los demás siendo Wobblies estadunidenses y mercenarios extranjeros. En primer lugar, esta dinámica material resultó en la situación inoportuna en la que los voluntariados anglos con más experiencia militar fueron elegidos oficiales, según los principios ácratas-democráticos, para luchar en la guerra contra l@s mexican@s “leales” a Díaz. Un ejemplo es el caso del aristócrata británico Carl Ap Rhys Pryce, quien anunció sin demora la independencia de Baja California tras la renuncia de Díaz en Ciudad Juárez en mayo del 1911. Junto con las propuestas fantásticas del capitalista “emprendedor” Dick Ferris de colonizar abiertamente la peninsula en interés del capital estadunidense, la decisión de Pryce—que no recibió apoyo ni de la Junta en Los Ángeles, ni de los guerreros Liberales y Wobblies—llevó a vari@s mexican@s a concluir que la campaña Liberal en realidad intentaba facilitar la anexión de Baja California a los EUA, en un paralelo a la pérdida anterior de Tejas, territorio que se convirtió en el Suroeste de EUA tras la guerra iniciada por James K. Polk contra Mexico unos 65 años antes, así que los Liberales eran nada más unos filibusteros, en su opinión.

Esta manera de presentar la campaña en Baja California sirvió para deslegitimizar de inmediato los esfuerzos de los Liberales al, y de hecho facilitó que Madero utilizara las fuerzas federales que había heredado en contra del PLM. Mexicali y Tijuana cayeron antes de pasar un mes después de la caída de Diaz. Aunque la Junta creía que Baja era un punto rojo entre varios, es de imaginarse que este vínculo que se estableció entre el PLM y el separatismo dañó su relación con la opinión pública mexicana. ¿Considera Ud. que Ricardo se equivocó al permanecer lejos de la operación en Baja, o cree que él no fue suficientemente directo para distinguir entre la campaña Liberal y las acusaciones del filibusterismo que se alzaron en su contra, a pesar del énfasis que el ponía en la acción directa y la expropriación revolucionaria? Como observa Ud., este problema es inherente al anarquismo de la Junta Organizadora, que no se preocupaba por la “integridad nacional,” como sí lo hacen los nacionalistas y estatistas.

Esta es una pregunta difícil de responder, dado que no sabemos lo que estaban pensando Ricardo y los otros integrantes de la Junta, y por eso mi respuesta va a ser muy provisional. Es claro que en 1911 Ricardo ni pensaba ni creía que la situación en los Estados Unidos se acercaba a una revolución—aunque tal vez sí así pensaba en el 1917—pero si él pensaba que los Wobblies y socialistas en el Suroeste estadunidense estaban creciendo rápidamente en fuerza y así podrían estar de camino para tomar el poder en esa región en un futuro próximo, podría ser que a él no le importaba si Baja permanecía en Mexico, se convirtiera en una república independente, o fuera anexada a EUA.

Mi impresión es que no le importaba mucho si Baja llegara a ser independiente, pero que sí se oponía totalmente a su anexión a EUA en ese momento. Ya sabes que todo esto es pura conjetura. Según Ricardo, él rechazaba ambas alternativas y quería que la peninsula permaneciera en México, donde debería de estar—pero todo esto salió después de que le acusaron de ser filibustero. Sin duda, creo que a él no le importaba nada cuáles eran los porcentajes de las fuerzas Liberales, entre mexicanos y extranjeros. La lucha era para la liberación de la explotación económica y política, no para la independencia nacional. Ricardo estaba a favor de extenderles la nacionalidad mexicana a l@s extranjer@s que participaron en la Revolución.

¿Debería haberse ido Ricardo a Baja California a ser comandante? Desde el punto de vista de los guerreros que simpatizaban con los Liberales, sí. Al mínimo, debería de haber estado en mejor contacto. La Junta utilizaba a John Kenneth Turner y a Antonio de Pío Araujo como intermediarios, y los insurrectos en Mexicali y Tijuana nunca recibieron la visita de Ricardo, Anselmo Figueroa o Enrique, quienes eran los integrantes principales de la Junta en ese entonces.

Pero de todas maneras, Ricardo y la Junta siempre consideraron que Baja era sólo un frente, no su meta principal. Desde esta perspectiva, tuvo sentido que Ricardo no viajara hacia allá para mandar, dado que Baja estaba muy aislada en esa época, y él no podía haber encabezado un esfuerzo propagandístico allí, en comparación con lo que podía hacer desde Los Ángeles. No obstante, tras la caída de Tijuana, todos los integrantes de la Junta fueron encarcelados, y les mandaron a la isla de McNeil en el estado de Washington. Por esta razón, es posible que pudieran haber logrado mucho más desde Baja California, después de todo.

Enfrentándose con el “avance” de la Revolución, y en particular con el coup d’etat de febrero de 1913 encabezado por el General Victoriano Huerta que mató a Madero y su vicepresidente Pino Suárez—una toma de poder que la Embajada de EUA ayudó a coordinar, como Ud. dice—Regeneración reaccionó, diciendo que tod@s l@s polític@s eran la misma cosa, fueran tiran@s, reformistas burgueses o generales. No obstante, Ud. implica que este tipo de análisis ultra-izquierdista no lo compartía la mayoría de la sociedad mexicana. Entonces, ¿podría hablar acerca de los conflictos entre el anti-autoritarianismo “vanguardista” del PLM y las realidades de los sentimientos populares en cuanto al curso de la Revolución, especialmente en relación con el fin de Madero?

El difamarle a Madero fue un mal error político que reflejó una falta de consideración por los sentimientos populares en el mismo México. O tal vez, como dices, simplemente reflejaba el grado de movimiento vanguardista y su responsabilidad de educar al pueblo y destetar a la humanidad del engaño. Aunque antes de ocurrir el coup, la popularidad de Madero se estaba cuestionando, en ciertas regiones mexicanas—claramente, en el Distrito Federal—su asesinato fue profundamente repudiado. Las críticas que surgieron en Regeneración en contra de Madero, su esposa, y su familia tras sus asesinatos fueron muy insensibles, y podrían haber garantizado que el movimiento se quedara como marginal en cuanto a fuerza política, si no hubiera sido por el hecho de que ya estaba marginalizado en Mexico en ese período en cualquier caso. Recuerda que mientras que derribaron a Madero, la Junta estaba encarcelada en Washington, y varios ex-militantes del PLM se habían unido a otros movimientos, frecuentemente como los bordes más radicales de tales.

Este fallo táctico aparte, al parecer igual había un desprestigio entre los integrantes de la Junta hacia la reforma liberal-democrática, y es por esto que les veían a Huerta y a Madero como la misma cosa. Sí es verdad que eran muy similares en términos económicos, pero Huerta hasta le dio unas concesiones al movimiento sindical para reforzar su régimen. Las posibilidades de la democracia parlamentaria tenían más valor de lo que el PLM reconocía, en mi opinión, incluso para el futuro del movimiento laboral.

¿Qué nos puede decir acerca de las relaciones entre el PLM y otros movimientos insurgentes que se oponían a Madero y a sus sucesores Huerta y Venustiano Carranza: es decir, Emiliano Zapata y el Ejército Libertador del Sur, o Pancho Villa y su División del Norte? Ud. plantea que Zapata simpatizaba con el manifiesto del PLM de septiembre de 1911, y que él tomó el concepto de “Tierra y Libertad” directamente de los Liberales, con las manifestaciones prácticas de la estrategia zapatista avanzando de cierta manera de acuerdo con le llamamiento de Magón hacia la revuelta armada decentralizada y generalizada para expropriar los bienes de la producción. Sin embargo, la situación parecer haber sido muy diferente en el caso de Villa.

Creo que sí es justo decir que el Zapatismo encontró sus ideas principales en el ejemplo de los Liberales, y que el Zapatismo terminó siendo el mejor ejemplo del tipo de política que Ricardo favorecía. Es obvio que la filosofía no era todo, y mucha de la práctica zapatista tenía que ver con las condiciones particulares de la región sureña mexicana, así que no creo que el PLM tiene toda la responsabilidad por lo que el Zapatismo hizo o no hizo. Su influencia filosófica fue muy real, y hubo varios puntos en común entre los dos movimientos. Los problemas del caudillo y del personalismo preocupaban a los integrantes del PLM, pero probablemente no tanto a l@s zapatistas. De todos modos, dado que el Zapatismo no intentaba tomar el poder federal, esta preocupación terminó siendo secundaria.

El PLM tenía una opinión horrible de Villa y ello se relacionaba mucho con su papel en la lucha contra el PLM bajo el mando de Madero, especialmente dado que él era directamente responsable por la muerte de varios de sus compañeros. Las diferencias con Villa igual transcendieron a esa esfera: para Ricardo, Villa era un politiquillo típico: corrupto, sanguinario, autobombástico, comprado por las autoridades estadunidenses primero, y después por quienquiera pagara más…

Aunque la opinión del PLM era muy negativa en contra de Villa, eso no quiere decir que no existía ningun punto de coincidencia con el Villismo, o el Carrancismo. El manifiesto del PLM de 1906 tuvo mucha influencia sobre el proceso revolucionario mexicano. Dado el odio mutuo entre Villa y el PLM, no había muchos ex-militantes PLMistas en su División del Norte, pero sí había varios individuos prominentes que se afiliaron con Carranza durante un tiempo: gente como Antonio Villarreal y Juan Sarabia, quienes fueron protagonistas en el desarrollo de las ideas agrarias de este movimiento.

Ahora, un siglo tras la Revolución, ¿ve Ud. algún movimiento actual que siga el ejemplo de Magón y el PLM? En una entrevista que dio en abril del 1994, el Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (ahora Galeano) del EZLN explícitamente vinculó el neo-Zapatismo con el pensamiento de Ricardo, entre otras figuras históricas mexicanas, mientras que en Rojava, varios acontecimientos en paralelo entre l@s kurd@s han resultado en el florecimiento del “confederalismo democrático” y la autogestión ácrata durante los últimos años. También es claro que Magón sigue siendo un punto de referencia clave para el movimiento social en México hoy en día.

Ricardo Flores Magón fue unos de los pocos ideólogos de estatura en la Revolución Mexicana. Otras figuras importantes, como Luis Cabrera o José Vasconcelos, muy probablemente fueron mejores analistas políticos que Ricardo, pero ellos no fueron visionarios en el sentido de poder imaginar una sociedad verdaderamente diferente. Por eso, no obstante sus varias deficiencias, el pensar y vivir de Ricardo vuelven constantemente. Además, las dimensiones transnacionales, feministas, antiracistas y antinacionalistas eran únicas en el caso de la Revolución, y han sido una gran inspiración para todos los movimientos mexicanos-estadunidenses auténticos, empezando con el movimiento chicano de los 1970s. La influencia del PLM vuelve en los movimientos sociales, como dices, igual que en la vida de los individuos. Sé que me impactaron mucho los escritos de Ricardo cuando los leí por primera vez a los 17 años (¡ya hace muchos anos!), aunque entonces todavía no sabía mucho de la Revolución, y no tenía ningún interés particular en la cuestión.

De manera similar con el caso de otras figuras complicadas, hay personas que dicen haber sido inspirad@s por Ricardo, pero que no avanzan una política que coincide mucho con la suya. Estas diferencias se deberían de reconocer, sin duda, aunque el punto más profundo es que existen movimientos sociales hoy que buscan instaurar varias formas alternativas de autogestión, democracia, e igualdad que han hallado—y que continuarán hallando—mucho que aprender en el pensamiento de Ricardo, igual que en las experiencias colectivas del PLM y de sus amigos y camaradas.

La subida al poder de Huerta en 1913 provocó en Tejas y otras partes de la región fronteriza una crisis que sería fatal para Magón. Como respuesta a la toma del poder de Huerta, Jesús María Rangel, un comandante Liberal muy respetado, organizó un contingente armado que iba a cruzar a Chihuahua para luchar en contra de los Carrancistas, y después avanzar hacia el sur a enfrentarse con el mismo Huerta, pero a estas fuerzas Liberales les impidieron el paso unos cuantos “Texas Rangers” quien les esperaban en la frontera, donde dispararon y detuvieron a los que sobrevivieron. El PLM de inmediato adoptó la causa de los “Mártires de Tejas” y de los supervivientes presos políticos. Después, en 1915, una revuelta mexicana en Tejas que seguía el Plan de San Diego resultó en una contrareacción brutal en contra de l@s mexican@s que vivían o trabajaban en el estado: miles fueron masacrad@s, víctimas de ejecuciones extrajudiciales y arbitrarias cometidas por paramilitares racistas. Tales atrocidades llevaron a Magón a declarar en Regeneración que no eran los rebeldes de San Diego sino que sus ejecutores los que deberían haber sido fusilados. Fue esta declaración, junto con la designación correcta de Ricardo en cuanto a Carranza, la que le consideraría “otro Díaz” y otro “lacayo de la Casa Blanca” en su esfuerzo por “subordinar el proletariado mexicano y entregarlo a la clase capitalista doméstica y extranjera, atado de pies y manos,” además que la llamada que él hizo hacia los mexicanos que luchaban bajo Carranza para convertir a sus comandantes en blanca, fue lo que les costó a él y a Enrique otra encarcelación (1916), hasta que los empeños de Emma Goldman por pagar su fianza les dio un aplazamiento temporal.

Con el comienzo del Temor Rojo, los hermanos Magón fueron perseguidos por las autoridades, y fueron condenados nuevamente en 1918. Ricardo recibió una sentencia por veintiun años, “gracias” a la ampliación del cargo con la nueva violación de la nueva Ley de Espionaje, que se había promulgado el año previo. Tal sentencia representaba pena de muerte para Ricardo, cuya salud ya se estaba deteriorando. De hecho, dos años después de llegar a la Prisión Federal de Leavenworth en Kansas, donde había pedido asistencia médica unas 22 veces, Magón murió debido a un infarto cardíaco. Su muerte tuvo lugar solo días después de que le habían trasladado a una celda más remota que la de Librado Rivera, quien igual estaba encarcelado en Leavenworth por la misma razón que Ricardo. Aunque no hay duda que Venustiano Carranza ordenó el asesinato de Zapata en Chinameca, Morelos, en 1919, es menos claro que el fin de Magón tuvo que ver con una ejecución extrajudicial propia, en vez de negligencia médica, sea a propósito o no. ¿Cree Ud. que le asesinaron a Ricardo?

Personalmente, no creo que a Ricardo le asesinaran, aunque probablemente nunca sabremos de manera positiva si sí o no. Creo que sí hubo negligencia médica consciente en cuanto a las condiciones serias que Ricardo sufría, y que su muerte podría haberse pospuesto o evitado si hubiera recibido la atención médica adecuada, pero no creo que le estrangularon, como dicen.

Sabemos claramente que una de las teorias de su “asesinato” es falsa, como demuestro en el libro, y también sabemos de la negligencia médica. Podría ser que un guardia le asesinara a Ricardo, y estoy seguro que habrá muchas personas que estarían convencidas de esa teoría.

Las razones por las cuales no creo que le asesinaran son, en primer lugar, que Librado Rivera no dijo que a Ricardo le habían asesinado en una carta que escribió a un compañero desde Leavenworth en la que contaba la historia de la muerte de Ricardo, eso en un momento en el cual Librado no sabía lo que se decía fuera de la prisión. Tras su liberación de Leavenworth, sí aceptó la teoría del asesinato de Ricardo, pero ya en ese momento la productividad de esa narrativa estaba clara, así que contradecirla hubiera sido costoso e insensible, dado que, considerándolo de manera profunda, es muy claro que a Ricardo sí le asesinaron sus opresores.

Otra razón por la cual no creo que a Ricardo le mataran es que entiendo que las autoridades estadunidenses ya no le veían como una amenaza, y el gobierno de Obregón estaba a favor de aceptar su retorno a México. Si Obregón no consideraba a Ricardo amenazante, ¿por qué el gobierno estadunidense? Recuerda que Ricardo casi estaba ciego cuando falleció, y de salud estaba muy mala en general. Al final, la muerte de Ricardo fue una vergüenza para el director de Leavenworth, quien había insistido de manera continua que la salud del preso estaba bien. Su muerte resultó en una investigacion directa desde la Procuraduría Federal. En este sentido, no veo mucho motivo allí tampoco.

Yo creo que la narrativa del asesinato de Ricardo fue una manera de expresar el poder de sus ideas subversivas, y de resaltar la represión que él sufrió bajo las autoridades estadunidenses. Las ideas de Ricardo sí que son poderosas, y sí es verdad que le condenaron a la vida encarcelada, dada su resistencia a la conscripción y a la Primera Guerra Mundial, y su anarquismo. Todo eso sí es verdad. La única cosa es que no creo que le asesinara un guardia en Leavenworth—eso, nada más.

Aunque el crepúsculo de la vida de Magón estuvo lleno de pathos, dadas tanto la decaída de Regeneración, como la miseria y marginación experimentadas por los integrantes de la Junta antes de la encarcelación en Leavenworth, y la separación emocional de Enrique, Ud. clarifica que a Ricardo le inspiraba al fin la idea optimista y casi hegeliana que las Revoluciones Mexicanas y Rusas iluminaban el camino adelante para la humanidad, anunciando el comienzo de una transformación social mundial que destruiría el capital y toda autoridad. En una carta escrita en Leavenworth menos de un año antes de su muerte, Ricardo expresa su certidumbre en cuanto al “futuro brillante que [ahora] se abre a la raza humana,” y hasta la identifica como su “consuelo.” Un poco menos de un siglo después, vemos que la crisis multidimensional del orden-mundial capitalista persiste precisamente porque las revoluciones del siglo XX fallaron en desplazar a los enemigos reaccionarios que Magón había identificado desde el escenario de la historia. Considerando el conocimiento íntimo y profundo de la revolución social que Ud. ha recopilado y presentado en El Retorno del Compañero Ricardo Flores Magón, ¿tiene algunas recomendaciones para l@s ácratas y otr@s radicales de hoy en día que quiere compartir?

Gracias por esta pregunta, no sería ésta una pregunta que me hubiera atrevido a hacerme yo mismo. Aquí viene mi respuesta, en tanto en cuanto no me consideran un oráculo délfico. Creo que la parte más emocionante de esta historia y experiencia es la idea de la centralidad del apoyo mútuo. Además, creo que el feminismo del movimiento, su resistencia meticulosa al nacionalismo, su compromiso con el amor, el arte, la belleza, y su crítica hacia el Estado y la religión organizada son todas cosas maravillosas. No estoy de acuerdo con la afinidad del movimiento hacia la violencia o su teoria de la revolución, que simplemente estaba equivocada.

Con relación a la segunda cuestión, Ricardo creía que cada aldea y comunidad en Mexico reproducía una lucha fundamental entre l@s opresores y l@s oprimid@s, y que una chispa revolucionaria tenía la potencia de explotar la situación entera. En este sentido, se puede ver al Ricardo como un precursor del foquismo y Che Guevara—con algunas de las mismas limitaciones de tal teoría y figura histórica, igual. Lo que Ricardo no veía es que los procesos revolucionarios son guerras civiles, y en las guerras civiles, todas las divisiones sociales se pueden movilizar de maneras productivas, políticas y materiales. La dinámica de la guerra no era, como Ricardo lo imaginaba, un tipo de llama de purgatorio que resultara en el sanamiento de la sociedad y el parto del comunismo puro. No, la guerra civil llegó a ser un proceso en el cual se formaban las coaliciones, los liderazgos, y se negociaban la vida y la libertad de los mejores individuos. Sí es claro que hubo victorias mayores en este proceso, pero costó muchísimo, y los resultados no eran lo que los militantes del PLM habían esperado. Por esa razón, vari@s de sus militantes continuaban en la lucha, y continuaban alzándose en armas hasta que por fin les asesinaron las autoridades. Doy el ejemplo de Lázaro Alanís al principio del libro, quien se levantó por primera vez en contra de Porfirio Díaz, después en contra de Madero, y después se opuso a Huerta y Carranza. Por fin fue ejecutado tras haber participado en la Revuelta De la Huerta contra Obregón.

No me convencen mucho las teorias bakuninistas acerca de la violencia. Pero en mi opinión hay una verdad profunda filosófica en varias de las ideas de Kropotkin y otr@s, quienes creían en la primacia del apoyo mútuo. Igual creo que actualmente hay unos medios de comunicación y organización que podrían facilitar la adopción de los ideales ácratas, en comparación con la situación hace un siglo. Es claro que tendría que haber nuev@s teoristas para poder movilizar estos recursos de manera distinta a la que se intentó en generaciones previas.

Gracias de nuevo Javier, por ofrecerme esta conversación, que me ha proveido mucho para contemplar.

1 John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 145-6, 180, 229.

The Guardian Puts Climate Change and Threat to Life On Earth “Front and Centre”

March 9, 2015
"Connection," Antony Gormley

“Connection,” Antony Gormley

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote on Friday about the serious threats faced by life on Earth, contemplation of which has driven his momentous decision as he steps down as editor to focus the work of the Guardian especially on climate change and the eco-crisis–to an even greater degree than the paper has done in the past.  He explains this intensification as an attempt to address the greatest regret he had during the two decades he has edited the paper: “that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.”

As he explains,

“These events that have yet to materialise may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon.

Even when the overwhelming majority of scientists wave a big red flag in the air, they tend to be ignored. Is this new warning too similar to the last? Is it all too frightening to contemplate? Is a collective shrug of fatalism the only rational response?”

While the Guardian is running excerpts from Naomi Klein This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Rusbridger does limit the political scope of his comments in this “call to arms” to divestment campaigns rather than direct action or anti-systemic struggle, though he does specify that the Guardian would cover the radical actions taken on 7 March in London to march on Parliament in the run-up to the Paris climate talks this year, COP21.  Rusbridger deserves credit for this shift to a profound examination of the reality of our imperiled life.

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”


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