Posts Tagged ‘CCP’

Repudiating the Stalinist Legacy: Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part III/III)

November 19, 2018

“In a totally fictitious world, failures need not be recorded, admitted, or remembered. […] Systematic lying to the whole world can be safely carried out only under the conditions of totalitarian rule.” – Hannah Arendt1

Lenin Stalin

Lenin and Stalin in 1922 (courtesy Keystone/Getty Images)

So far, in parts I and II of this response to “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective on Stalin,” we have seen how the “Proles of the Round Table” and their host Breht Ó Séaghdha have systematically lied on their infamous ‘Stalin podcast’ about the history of the Soviet Union, from covering up the Barcelona May Days (1937), the GULAG slave-labor camp system, the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939), and the NKVD’s mass-deportation of Muslim and Buddhist minorities during World War II to declaring mass-death through Stalin’s forced collectivization of the peasantry to have been “extremely successful.” It is clear why Jeremy and Justin confidently present such a fraudulent version of history: were they even to mention any of these realities, it would become clear that their presence as Stalin apologists on a radio show ostensibly dedicated to an examination of “revolutionary left” history and theory would be immediately revealed as absurd. Yet here we are.

In this final third of my critique of this travesty, we will examine Jeremy and Justin’s genocide denial and their enthusiasm for the Moscow Show Trials. In contrast to the “Proles of the Round Table,” we will explore how anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and sexism are essential aspects of the Stalinist legacy. We will then close with some comments about Soviet ecocide and a critical analysis of neo-Stalinist international relations today, which cover for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners.

Holodomor Denial

While the breadth of Jeremy and Justin’s Stalin’s apologia on this interview is quite astounding, few aspects are as vile as their denial of the genocidal Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. Justin is very clear about their view: “there was no mass-famine,” and the idea of Holodomor (the “Great Ukrainian Famine”) is a “myth.” Jeremy jumps in to claim that “Ukrainian nationalists” sought to undermine Stalin and “intentionally starv[e] the Soviet Union.” First, let’s note that, in making the latter claim, Jeremy unwittingly admits that the Soviet Union was imperialist, and should be that way: the implication is that Ukraine and other former colonies of the Tsarist Empire exist to serve Russia, or, in this case, Stalin’s regime. Beyond that, certainly there was famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933: the “Proles of the Round Table” are almost unique among neo-Stalinists, in that, rather than claim that the reported Holodomor death-toll has somehow been exaggerated for political purposes, they claim that it never happened. In so doing, they quite literally ape Stalin’s refusal to accept the reality of famine in Ukraine in spring 1932 upon receiving word of it from Vlas Chubar, Bolshevik leader of Ukraine, after which the General Secretary denied famine relief and banned the use of the word from all official correspondence.2 While climatic conditions played a part, it was arguably the unrealistic quotas for the extraction of grain from the Ukrainian peasantry following in the wake of the “extremely successful” experience of forced collectivization that tipped the peasants into the first famine (spring 1932); once Stalin doubled down on the confiscation of grain and cattle after hearing initial reports of the famine, adding reprisals against those villages that failed to meet production quotas by cutting them off, this exacerbated an already disastrous situation. The result was the death of nearly 4 million Ukrainians, more than 10% of the population, with an additional 1-2 million Caucasians, Russians, and Kazakhs succumbing as well.3 Unsurprisingly, Justin and Jeremy have nothing to say about these Central Asian and Caucasian Muslim victims of famine.

To advance their lies about Ukraine, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on one Grover Furr, a Stalin propagandist who also denies the Holodomor by citing the work of Mark Tauger, a supposed historiographer who actually quite fraudulently argues against the idea that the British Empire or the Soviet Union were responsible for the Great Irish Famine or the Bengal Famine, in the former case, or Holodomor, in the latter. As Louis Proyect has shown, Tauger wants to exclusively blame “environmental conditions” for these devastating catastrophes, and thus hide the role of political economy, power relations, and imperialism. This is the kind of ideology that the “Proles of Round Table” hold up as legitimate historical investigation.

Following the argument of the Jewish Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, originator of the concept of genocide, historian Norman Naimark holds Stalin responsible for genocide, if we consider the term’s original definition, which meant to include social and political groups. In targeting the “kulaks” for elimination and thus provoking the Holodomor, Stalin certainly was genocidal. This conclusion becomes even clearer when we review Stalin’s imperialist policies, his regime’s concurrent purging of most of the Ukrainian Communist Party leadership for their putative “nationalism,” and his August 1932 letter to fellow Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich, in which the General Secretary “set [forth] the goal of turning Ukraine into a real fortress of the USSR, a truly model republic.”4

Apologism for the Moscow Show Trials and Terror

“The insane mass manufacture of corpses is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses.” – Hannah Arendt5

While we have examined the Purges in parts I and II, let us now focus specifically on Justin and Jeremy’s apologism for the infamous Moscow Trials of the “Old Bolsheviks” (1936-1938), which were clearly nothing more than show trials. Justin begins by mistaking the Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev for “Alexander Zinoviev,” a Soviet philosopher, and then mentions Trotsky’s analysis of “Soviet Thermidor” without in any way clarifying its application to Stalinism in power: that is, with reference to its historical antecedent—the French Revolution—whereby the bourgeois Directory seized power after overthrowing the Jacobin leaders Maximilien Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. To be clear, Stalin’s counter-revolution is highly suggestive of the legacy of the Directory—which is not to suggest that either Lenin or Robespierre were revolutionaries. In parallel, the “Proles of the Round Table” will mention Trotsky’s analysis of Stalin’s guilt over Hitler’s rise—written years after his expulsion from the party—and somehow consider this as retroactive criminal evidence for Trotsky’s supposed conspiracy against the General-Secretary-to be (as in the Left and United Opposition). Yet tellingly, they will not present the actual content of Trotsky’s argument: namely, that Stalin’s Comintern policy on “social fascism” facilitated the Nazi takeover of Germany.

Continuing on, Justin states that Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev “recanted” following their joining with Trotsky in the United Opposition to Stalin—but no reason is given as to why. Certainly, as in the case of Nikolai Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev feared for their lives and that of their loved ones, particularly after seeing the example made of Trotsky, who was expelled ignominiously first from the Communist Party, and then the Soviet Union altogether (in 1928). Instead of contemplating such factors, the “Proles of the Round Table” begin to attempt to explain “why […] the Purge [is] beginning to become a necessity [sic].” Attempting to insert a victim-blaming narrative, Justin and Jeremy suggest that not all the “Old Bolsheviks” were “Communists”—meaning Stalinists—and therefore imply the necessity of their liquidation—and, in many cases, that of their families, who were also murdered so as to prevent revenge attacks against the Party emanating from the “clan” of those executed.6

This is a positively ghoulish illogic—one that is reproduced in Jeremy and Justin’s distortions about Bukharin, another victim of the Terror, whom they portray as a “social democrat.” In the first place, Bukharin was not a social democrat. Social democracy is incompatible with dictatorship: as Karl Kautsky, the preeminent theoretician of orthodox Marxism and German Social Democracy, insisted, there can be “no Socialism without democracy.”7 As a “believer in party dictatorship, Bukharin was no democrat”: though he disagreed with Trotsky and Stalin in desiring a continuation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and “peace with the villages” in place of rapid “super-industrialization,” he and his supporters, known as the ‘Right Opposition,’ had no plan to institute a participatory form of government in the Soviet Union.8 Therefore, it would appear that Justin and Jeremy are being rather dishonest about Bukharin’s ideology, claiming that he’s been “waging a counter-revolution for years,” in an attempt to prepare their rationalization of his execution following the Moscow Show Trials of 1938. They make much of Bukharin’s confession to the charges of being an agent of foreign, imperialist powers—but they do not admit the reality that Bukharin confronted credible threats against the lives of his young wife and baby if he failed to confess. As Catherine Evtuhov observes,

“The question of why the falsely accused confessed to the fantastic crimes is not really an intellectual puzzle: Some feared for the lives of loved ones […]. Others were subjected to unbearable torture. A few many may have been convinced of the rightness of false confession for a higher good: the future of communism.”9

Once again, then, we find the “Proles of the Round Table” lying to their audience: referring to Bukharin, they suggest, “it’s not like he had a gun at his head […].” Actually, he most certainly did. Yet such spurious ‘analysis’ of historical events is one with their expressed faith in the official transcripts of Bukharin’s trial, which, in being “thorough,” are somehow to be considered legitimate evidence against him. They mention how the U.S. ambassador to Moscow endorsed the Moscow Show Trials, but fail to note that the U.S. philosopher John Dewey wrote the report Not Guilty in defense of those falsely charged by Stalin.10

For a more honest perspective, consider that Jean-Paul Sartre had by 1947 in Les Temps Modernes identified Stalin’s Soviet Union as a class society based on a “concentration-camp system.”11 According to Hannah Arendt, within totalitarian regimes, “th[e] place of positive laws is taken by total terror.”12 Indeed, the Comintern’s efforts to propagate its top-down vision for “revolution” were greatly hindered by the disillusionment of many Western sympathizers in light of the Terror of the 1930s and, ironically, the execution of many foreign communist leaders who had previously taken refuge in the Soviet Union.13 Alongside killing an astonishing 90% of Soviet trade-union leaders, Stalin ordered the following far-reaching executions:

“The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party fell victim, as did the many other foreign Communists and those who had served in Spain and China. Comintern activists were recalled to Moscow from all over the world and shot. Non-Russian nationalities were assailed; a large segment of the party leadership in Ukraine was annihilated.”14

Imagine framing these sweeping atrocities, as Jeremy does, as the “defense of the Revolution,” and denying that they served the ends of Stalin’s consolidation of power. Imagine unironically claiming that “Stalin was a critic of Stalin: he was able to self-criticize.” Such naked apologism represents nothing more than the regurgitation of Soviet State propaganda and the worship of power.

To accommodate fetishizing the Stalinist cult of personality in 2018—harkening back to a 1930’s view which sees the General Secretary as both “hero and father-protector”—Jeremy and Justin are fully prepared to falsify history and deny Stalin’s world-historical crimes.15

Repression of Tolstoyan Peasants

To demonstrate how terribly mistaken this view is, let us briefly consider the testimony of three Tolstoyan peasants who lived and worked in the “Life and Labor Commune,” which was founded in 1921 just outside Moscow and then relocated to Western Siberia in 1931. As Tolstoyans, these peasants followed the Christian anarchist Lev Tolstoy, who had proclaimed altruism, humanism, internationalism, anti-militarism, and vegetarianism in his late novels and essays.16 Yet in 1936, Stalin’s regime retaliated against the Commune for what might be termed excessive ‘idealism’: “You are building communism too soon [sic]; it is too early for you to refuse to support violence and murder,” declared the judge passing sentence on these pacifist stateless communists.17

Life and Labor

Courtesy William Edgerton

Boris Mazurin, a Tolstoyan leader of the “Life and Labor Commune,” writes in his memoirs that NKVD agents arrested several comrades from the Commune on the arbitrary basis of Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code, which was utilized by the State to suppress anyone considered to be a threat. Between 1936 and 1940, sixty-five Tolstoyans detained by the NKVD for being “counter-revolutionaries” never returned; the loss of so many members destabilized the ability of the Commune to continue operating. In addition, more than a hundred male Tolstoyan communards were executed by the Soviet power for refusing military service in World War II.18 Ivan Dragunovsky, another communard whose father Yakov was executed by the State in 1938, elicits the frightful night in October 1937 when NKVD agents came to arrest him and several of his young comrades, most of them never to be seen again, simply because they were Tolstoyans.19

Dimitry Morgachëv, a peasant-intellectual from the “Life and Labor Commune,” recalls his experiences in the Cheremoshniki transfer prison:

“There was terrible despotism in that camp, the kind you might think would be inadmissible in a land of workers and peasants […]. More than thirty years have gone by, and it still makes my flesh crawl when I remember how we lived, not for hours or days but for whole years, in that savage, inhuman life where people died like flies in autumn from the hard labor, from starvation, from the smarting consciousness of our innocence and our undeserved infamy and punishment […]. Could this be done by the representatives of Communist power, whose ideal—the withering away of the state, and a society without violence—was dear to them and to me alike? Could all this be perpetrated by the same people who had grown so indignant about the savagery and arbitrary rule of the tsarist authorities over the common people?20

Defending an Anti-Semitic, Ultra-Nationalist, and Sexist Legacy

By interview’s end, Jeremy, Justin, and Ó Séaghdha all sound quite pleased with themselves. The host praises his guests’ uncritical take on the Soviet Union, which he claims to have represented “a socialist [sic] f*cking powerhouse” that was “so successful at so many things.” Right. That’s just as ideological as Jeremy and Justin’s denial of the charges of anti-Semitism and Russian chauvinism raised against Stalin which Ó Séaghdha meekly poses before the triumphant conclusion. In this section, we will examine Stalin’s anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and misogyny—the latter being a category that goes virtually unmentioned by the “Proles of the Round Table” and Ó Séaghdha.

Stalinist Anti-Semitism

Responding to Ó Séaghdha’s question about Stalin’s anti-Semitism, these “Proles of the Round Table” say that they “don’t know where you get the idea that he was anti-Semitic.” No? Let us count the ways.

  • Vis-à-vis Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky’s United Opposition (1926), Stalin at the least took advantage of the anti-Semitic hatred among Party members directed against these men as Jews to outmaneuver and disarm them and expel Trotsky from the country in 1928;21
  • The matter of conspiring to assassinate Trotsky (1940), exiled in Mexico;
  • The Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet Pact, of August 1939, which partitioned Poland, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before World War II, between the two totalitarian regimes: with the Hitler-Stalin Pact in mind, it’s simply untenable to pretend that Stalin bore no responsibility for the deaths of millions of Polish Jews at the hands of the Nazis, the question of the Comintern’s facilitation of Hitler’s coup to the side for the moment;
  • Tellingly, Hitler clarified that the only man for whom he had “unqualified respect” was “Stalin the genius [sic],” in an echo perhaps of his earlier view (from the 1920’s) that “in our movement the two extremes come together: the Communists from the Left and the officers and the students from the Right,” and reflected as well in his May 1943 declaration that, “in this war bourgeois and revolutionary states are facing each other,” with ‘bourgeois’ meaning ‘Western’ and ‘revolutionary’ [sic] referring to Nazi Germany and the USSR;22
  • The murder of Shlomo (Solomon) Mikhoels in January 1948, as mentioned in part I, and the liquidation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) he had led later that year, resulting in at least twenty death sentences and nearly a hundred others being sent to the GULAG—as the historian Bożena Szaynok confirms, “Stalin personally supervised all activities directed against [the] JAC”;23
  • Gripped by fear and paranoia in the post-war environment regarding the possibility of a third world war, Stalin became increasingly suspicious of all elements considered “disloyal,” and, within the context of Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov’s triumphalist demand for the fetishization of nationalism in culture, his regime launched an anti-Semitic campaign that was first announced in Pravda in January 1949 against the “emissaries of rootless cosmopolitanism,” meaning Soviet Jewish artists and intellectuals, for their supposed Zionism and attendant lack of pride in the Soviet Union, leading often to their being replaced in the State sector by non-Jews, expelled from the Party and their professional organizations, and having their works censored;24
  • Stalinist repression against Yiddish-language newspapers and institutions in the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) located in Birobijan in the Soviet Far East, together with prison and death sentences for JAR leaders, accused of “anti-State activity, espionage, and attempts to create a Jewish state in the USSR”;25
  • In parallel to the shuttering of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the Jewish Labor Bund was dissolved in Soviet-occupied Poland in 1949;26
  • Whereas Stalin’s regime was the first country to recognize Israel in May 1948—in an attempt to undermine British imperial power—Soviet authorities regarded the Rosh Hashanah celebrations in Moscow in August 1948 which coincided with the visit of Israeli envoy Golda Meyerson (later Meir), who was received enthusiastically, as highly disloyal;27
  • The announcement in January 1953 in Pravda of the “discovery” of the supposed “Kremlin doctors’ plot,” whereby dozens of physicians, many of them Jewish, were accused of having conspired with Britain and the U.S. to murder Zhdanov by medical malpractice, and of planning to similarly murder Stalin.28

Thankfully, Stalin died before this vile campaign could escalate into another Purge, this one exclusively targeting Jews. There is ominous evidence of orders for the construction of new concentration camps in the Soviet Far East from early 1953, confirming that Soviet authorities were preparing for a large influx of new political prisoners at a time when few remained after World War II.” For Arendt, this shift from accusing Soviet Jews of Zionism to implicating them in a putative Jewish world conspiracy ultimately signals the true affinities between Hitler and Stalin:

“The open, unashamed adoption of what had become to the whole world the most prominent sign of Nazism was the last compliment Stalin paid to his late colleague and rival in total domination with whom, much to his chagrin, he had not been able to come to a lasting agreement.”29

Stalinist Ultra-Nationalism

We have just seen how, toward the end of his life, Stalin contemptibly promoted open anti-Semitism and may well have been preparing another Holocaust. Yet even before this, as examined in parts I and II, Stalin combined Great Russian chauvinism, authoritarian high modernism, and a continuation of Tsarist imperialism from the beginning of his rule to “stabilize” his control over the Soviet Union and pursue its becoming a superpower. As such, “Stalinism was a deeply conservative structure of privilege for a ruling class that rejected many of the utopian ideals of the [Russian] revolution.”30 The emergence of “national Bolshevism” as Stalinist ideology in the 1930’s owes much to nationalism within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the revision of Marxist principles—as reflected in the catastrophic Comintern policies not only to facilitate Hitler’s rise but also, in seeking to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, to order the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ally with the nationalist-feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD), led by Chiang Kai-Shek, who promptly and murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927.31 Mao bitterly noted Stalin’s refusal to seriously assist the CCP during the Civil War against the GMD.32

In 1934, Stalin, Kaganovich, and Zhdanov mandated nationalist revisions to the Soviet history curricula which would do away with what the General Secretary and his colleagues saw as an excessively “sociological” understanding of history that had, in promoting internationalism since 1917, supposedly failed to promote a unified sense of Soviet identity. Stalin and co. demanded a narrative emphasis on the “progressive interpretation” of centralizing and “state-building” Tsarist heroes such as Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), and an attendant de-emphasis on historically insurgent rebels such as Yemelyan Pugachëv and Stenka Razin; a focus on medieval Rus’ while excluding consideration of medieval Western Europe; and the communication of the ‘lesser evil theory’ to explain Russia’s colonization of Ukraine and Georgia, among other questions.33 According to this rationale, Stalin essentially appealed to a continuity between his regime and the Tsarist Empire for legitimation: as such, Stalinist historiography “virtually ignored the history of Ukrainians and Belorussians, not to mention other, non-Slav peoples of the USSR.”34 This was the age of ‘socialist realism,’ when Soviet novels were written without any conflict, and it was understood that music should be melodious, optimistic, exuberant, and nationalist: hence Zhdanov’s attacks on the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev for their putative “formalism,” which was supposedly related to an imitation of Western modernist styles.35 Indeed, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, which depicts the medieval war in the Baltic region between Nevsky’s forces and the German Teutonic Knights, incorporates classic Stalinist tropes regarding the “urgency of strong leadership, the courage of the Russian people, and the purported sadistic impulses of the German invader.”36 As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick observes, this ideological transformation from a discourse of internationalism to national-Bolshevism reflected Stalinism’s “shift in emphasis from the workers as the vanguard class of the Soviet experiment to the Russian people as its vanguard nation.37

In addition to the invasion and occupation of Georgia; forced collectivization, “dekulakization,” and Holodomor in Ukraine; and counter-insurgency, famine, and the imposition of ethno-linguistic divisions in Central Asia, Stalin was also responsible for occupying and then subordinating the ill-named Eastern European “People’s Democracies” following the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Though these countries remained formally independent of the USSR, they essentially were (with the exception of Yugoslavia) “Sovietized” after WWII, such that Purges and dictatorship rather than self-determination and democratic self-rule followed the end of the war for millions of Eastern Europeans.38 Stalin’s end-of-life anti-Semitic campaign, then, noxiously spread to several of these “People’s Democracies,” particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia.39

Stalinist Patriarchy

Ó Séaghdha begins this interview on an actually promising note: he emphasizes that he wants to get away from the “Great Man of History” narrative when discussing Stalin. As with his parallel introductory comment about combating anti-Semitism, however, this is a purely opportunistic assertion, given that he provides the “Proles of the Round Table” nearly three hours to espouse historical lies that are framed within this very same narrative about the singular importance of the General Secretary.

As a putative “Great Man of History,” it should not therefore be surprising that Stalin was quite a sexist and a traditionalist on the woman’s question: he was after all responsible for advancing an “authoritarian and patriarchal political culture that […] pervaded social relations.”40 In 1930, the Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the Soviet Communist Party, which had been established by Alexandra Kollontai and others to promote female literacy and knowledge about marriage and property rights, was shuttered, and the perspectives of Communist feminists marginalized; in 1936, Stalin’s regime restricted divorce and abortion. Whereas the regime publicly recognized “Heroines of Motherhood” for bearing several children to serve the State, his officials engaged in rape campaigns in the GULAG camps and detention centers as a means of torture and humilation.41 When the Red Army entered Germany, moreover, toward the end of World War II, Soviet troops engaged in mass-rape of “thousands of females of all ages.”42 Additionally, in the wake of M. I. Ryutin’s appeal to depose Stalin in 1932, and following the General Secretary’s reprisals against Ryutin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, his second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, reportedly became very disillusioned with him; when Stalin rudely insulted her one evening at a dinner party, she was found dead the next morning, the result of an apparent suicide.43

central asian harvest mural

A Soviet mosaic in the Uzbek city of Bukhara (Courtesy The Guardian)

In Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, Stalinist high modernism coupled with a paradoxical mix of Soviet feminism, imperialism, and Orientalism led authorities to attempt to promote sexual equality in the region beginning in the late 1920’s. This campaign “threatened a total abrogation of the primordial status system,” and in promoting it, Soviet officials “meant to pose a fundamental challenge to the structure and life style of local communities.”44 Soviet family legislation in Turkestan sought to outlaw polygamy, allow women to divorce their husbands, establish a minimum age for marriage, and prevent arranged marriages, among other things; yet in response, many Muslim men divorced their wives, forcing them onto the streets. When some women employed the new rights afforded them by divorcing their husbands and publicly unveiling themselves, many Muslim men “responded with an explosion of hostility and violence apparently unequaled in scope and intensity until then on any other grounds.”45 Prompted by clerics, many men began persecuting, assaulting, and murdering unveiled women, female activists and their families, and those related to these figures. This conservative backlash resulted not only in the reveiling of unveiled women but also the spread of veiling among women who had not previously been veiled. Even some men who had benefited from Soviet land redistribution turned against the regime after this imposition of sexual equality. Soviet authorities then doubled down against the emergence of such male-supremacist resistance, reconstituting crimes against women as counter-revolutionary, carrying the obligatory penalty of execution; outlawing not only the Islamic veil but all other forms of traditional dress; and beginning to exclude veiled women from Soviet programs. The result of such intensification proved to be rather counter-productive, as many men tended to become more resistant to efforts to emancipate women, more violent, and less cooperative with overall Soviet policy. Ultimately, Soviet officials realized that deeply embedded cultural norms could not be eradicated merely by decree, such that this policy of “feminism from above” was promptly reversed, with accommodation and stability coming to replace the pursuit of fundamental social changes in gender relations.46

CA women

Courtesy Catherine Evtuhov et al.

Stalinist Ecocide

Though this critique of a “Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin is focused primarily on history and politics, I would be remiss not to at least mention some of the environmental depredations resulting from Stalinist industrialization and the USSR’s self-assertion as a superpower. Against Ó Séaghdha’s characterization of Soviet mass-industrialization as representing “proletarian beauty,” these ecological ill-effects range from persistent radioactivity resulting from Soviet nuclear tests, particularly in Kazakhstan, to the near-collapse of the Aral Sea as a viable ecosystem and natural-resource provider secondary to the industrial-scale expansion of cotton production in the USSR, which was based on the mass-diversion of water for irrigation from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers that supply the Aral Sea, together with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the legacy of mass-chemical pollution.47 These lamentable realities provide a stark reminder that “[s]ocieties that have abolished or statized private profit have not escaped the most brutal dimensions of the ecological crisis.”48 Furthermore, a landmark 2013 study regarding historical responsibility for global warming which blames a sum total of 90 companies for fossil-fuel extraction holds investor-owned capitalist energy firms responsible for about one-fifth (21%) of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and Soviet State-owned oil, gas, and coal corporations responsible for just under 9% of total emissions.

tank prod

Soviet women working on wartime production of tanks (courtesy David Goldfrank)

Neo-Stalinist International Relations: Siding with Executioners Globally

“The Nazis were well aware of the protective wall of incredulity which surrounded their enterprise.” – Hannah Arendt49

Besides peddling historical lies to rehabilitate genocidal totalitarians of the past, neo-Stalinists notoriously run interference for authoritarian, neo-fascist, and (sub)imperialist States of today, if they judge them to be sufficiently “anti-imperialist”—by which these opportunists do not mean opposed to imperialism as such , but rather U.S. imperialism. Instead of internalizing Hensman’s critical points that “anti-imperialists [must] oppose all oppression by one country of another” and “understand that socialist internationalism demands solidarity with democratic revolutions, not with the counterrevolutions trying to crush them,” contemporary neo-Stalinists very typically adhere to a “campist” analysis, following Stalin’s identification of “the two camps” at the Potsdam conference of July 1945: the British and U.S. vs. the USSR.50 Overlaying the various complexities of international relations with a manichean worldview, Western neo-Stalinists prioritize Karl Liebknecht’s identification of the main enemy [being] at home”: whereas U.S. imperialism certainly must be opposed, their excessive attachment to this principle leads them often to the fallacious conclusion that popular uprisings against putative enemies of the U.S.—such as the Syrian Revolution, the Iranian revolt of late 2017 and early 2018, or the Ahwazi struggle for justice and self-determination—must be “CIA,” “Gulf,” or “Zionist” conspiracies. Given this framing, which is ideological rather than empirical or materialist, neo-Stalinists will implicitly—and evermore so recently, overtly—provide passive and/or active support for despots such as Bashar al-Assad, (the overthrown and now-defunct) Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, they side with executioners, hence violating the basic responsibility Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky assigned to intellectuals—however much Chomsky himself appears to have violated this principle when it comes to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Muslim Bosniak men and boys by Serbian ultra-nationalists.51 In light of Stalin’s mass-deportation of Muslims during World War II, and considering also the vile, potentially genocidal anti-Semitic campaign launched by the General Secretary toward life’s end, it should be clear how much of a continuity the neo-Stalinist “analysis” of popular uprisings against reactionary, pseudo-anti-imperialist regimes represents relative to Stalin’s own attitude toward “fifth columns” and putatively “disloyal elements.”

Indeed, substituting formulaic scripts for actual investigation, many neo-Stalinists of today completely fail on an analytical level to understand U.S. policy toward Syria. They ignore clear collaboration between the U.S. and the Assad Regime, from Hafez al-Assad’s deployment of 1500 Syrian troops to fight in Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s forces to Bashar al-Assad’s torture of ‘terror suspects’ detained by the U.S. in the ‘War on Terror.’52 Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, the U.S. has not been committed to overthrowing Assad and does not appear ever to have supported the democratic opposition against him. Yet prominent “tankies” in the media, including Ó Séaghdha himself, continue to hold that the U.S. empire seeks Assad’s downfall and his replacement with “Salafi-jihadists.” Yet this is the opposite of what the U.S. or Israel want. The “tank” zeal to blame the Syrian catastrophe on Western imperialism quite clearly overlooks the very obvious imperialist role played there by Russia, especially since September 2015, when Putin intervened decisively to save Assad’s Regime. Neo-Stalinists have nothing to say about the estimated 18,000 Syrian victims of Russian aerial bombardment, or the destruction of entire cities by the Russian air force. To accord with their campist perspective—and, indeed, continuing in their denialist pedigree regarding Stalin’s world-historical crimes—they deny Assad’s vast atrocities, from the extermination of detainees to the numerous occasions on which the Regime has resorted to using chemical weapons.

As such, they lend their support to neo-fascist and genocidal ruling classes, such as the Assad Regime, or as the neo-Stalinist propagandist and “Revolutionary Left Radio” veteran Ajit Singh does with regard to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): in August 2018, he co-authored with Ben Norton an infamous article on the campist disinformation site Grayzone which denies the well-documented mass-internment of indigenous Muslim Uighurs. It is simply a non-sensical piece, given that the official Chinese State newspaper, The Global Times, had already defended the suppression of the Uighurs two weeks before the Grayzone article was published by alluding to the supposed need to prevent the Xinjiang province from becoming “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya.” Moreover, in early October, the Xinjiang government legalized the camps. To date, the Grayzone article’s fraudulent title continues to be “No, the UN Did Not Report China Has ‘Massive Internment Camps’ for Uighur Muslims,” and it does not appear that either Singh or Norton has published an update or a correction; indeed, the article is still live. How telling that these Stalinist ‘journalists’ are comfortable with legitimizing the neo-fascist war on truth, as reflected in Donald Trump’s belittling of “fake news.”

Whereas for most neo-Stalinists, support for Palestinian self-determination against Israeli settler-colonialism is a matter of principle, Hensman clearly identifies their opportunism when she asks:

“How can anyone who feels anguish when Palestinian children are targeted and killed in Gaza not feel anguish when Syrian children are targeted and killed in Aleppo?”53

This pointed question is implicitly raised in the new film A Private War (2018), which shows the American journalist Marie Colvin interviewing a Syrian mother with her young infant daughter in a bomb shelter in Homs in early 2012—sheltering, of course, from the Assad Regime’s indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas. While we would consider it very difficult to deny human solidarity to this oppressed Syrian mother, just the same as an oppressed Palestinian woman, neo-Stalinists are “quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what [they] assum[e] to be the law of History.”54 Everything else, from mass-death in Assad’s dungeons to mass-imprisonment of Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps, are details to them, whether historical or contemporary. Decisively, the CCP’s rationalization of its mass-internment of Muslim Uighurs very closely echoes Stalinist propaganda about and policy toward the supposedly “backward” Muslim peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains: note that Uighur Muslims have been cut off from the Ummah, just as Soviet Muslims were in Stalin’s era, and that the CCP, in seeking to forcibly divorce the Uighur youth from Islam, has consciously sought to suppress Uighur nationalism and the related possibility of independence for Eastern Turkestan, as Xinjiang is also known.

central asian imperial sport mural

A Soviet mosaic in Semey, Kazakhstan (Courtesy The Guardian)

In the U.S., it is the ill-named Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers’ World Party (WWP), together with their front-groups, such as the Act Now to End War and Stop Racism (ANSWER) Coalition and the International Action Center (IAC), that propagate neo-Stalinist and campist approaches to international relations, which inevitably end up translating into passive and/or active support for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners. Yet it is not only the PSL, the WWP, ANSWER, or IAC which do so in the U.S.: just on Sunday, November 11, 2018, in Los Angeles, members of the similarly ill-named Peace and Freedom Party picketed a presentation about the Syrian Revolution and the occupation of Syria by Russia and Iran that was given by the Syrian pro-democratic activist Samir Twair, whose 39-year old brother was murdered by Assad’s forces in the notorious Sednaya prison, and hosted by LA Jews for Peace. While these “tank” trolls’ aggressive booing, hissing, and intimidation of the speaker during his presentation and the discussion which followed was lamentable enough, the sign one of them brought to the event (shown below) itself speaks volumes to the naked opportunism, ruthlessness, and atrocity-denial that today grips a part of the Western so-called left, reflecting the persistence of the shameful Stalinist legacy.

As Theodor W. Adorno observed correctly, “the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”

Screenshot_2018-11-18 Global Anarchy 🏴Ⓥ ( intlibecosoc) Twitter

Notes

1Arendt 388, 413.

2Plokhy 250-251.

3Ibid 253-254; Evtuhov 669.

4Evtuhov 675; Plokhy 252 (emphasis added).

5Arendt 447.

6Evtuhov 676.

7Lee 236.

8Evtuhov 642-644.

9Evtuhov 674.

10Ibid 674.

11Ian H. Birchall, Sartre against Stalinism (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004), 53.

12Arendt 464.

13Meyer 102.

14Evtuhov 675.

15Ibid 693.

16See for example Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), Resurrection (1899), or Hadji Murat (1912).

17Ivan Dragunovsky, “From the Book One of My Lives,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 251.

18Boris Mazurin, “The Life and Labor Commune: A History and Some Reflections,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 91-108; Dimitry Morgachëv, “My Life,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 177.

19Dragunovsky 252-257.

20Morgachëv 166-167, 171 (emphasis added).

21Evtuhov 642.

22Arendt 309n12-13.

23Evtuhov 723; Boena Szaynok, “The Anti-Jewish Policy of the USSR in the Last Decade of Stalin’s Rule and Its Impact of the East European Countries with Special Reference to Poland,” Russian History, 29, nos. 2-4 (2002), 302.

24Evtuhov 722-723; Szaynok 302-303.

25Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 303.

26Szaynok 310.

27Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 304.

28Evtuhov 728-729; Syaznok 305.

29Arendt xxxix-xl.

30Evtuhov 729.

31D. L. Brandenberger and A. M. Dubrovsky, “’The People Need a Tsar’: The Emergence of National Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931-1941,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 50, no. 5 (1998), 873; Liu 8-13.

32Evtuhov 721.

33Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 874-881.

34Ibid 879.

35Evtuhov 722-723.

36Ibid 693.

37Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 882 (emphasis in original).

38Evtuhov 716-720.

39Szaynok 305-315.

40Evtuhov 729.

41Ibid 686-687.

42Ibid 711.

43Ibid 671.

44Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 250.

45Ibid 275

46Ibid 284, 316, 320-325, 351-354.

47Evtuhov 755.

48Jean-Paul Deléage, “Eco-Marxist Critique of Political Economy,” in Is Capitalism Sustainable: Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, ed. Martin O’Connor (New York: Guilford, 1994), 45.

49Arendt 437n124.

50Hensman 15 (emphasis in original); Evtuhov 717.

51Hensman 283.

52Reese Ehrlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 71, 146-149.

53Hensman 284.

54Arendt 461.

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Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution

July 25, 2016

Mao Stalin 2

Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction (PM Press, 2016).

This work, the sixth volume in PM Press’ “Revolutionary Pocketbooks” series, provides a compelling review of the philosophy and historical practices of Maoism before, during, and after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Liu, an organizer with Take Back the Bronx in New York, shows Maoism to be essentially totalitarian—an “internal critique of Stalinism that fails to break with Stalinism.” In parallel to Loren Goldner’s argument in “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” (2012), Liu accuses Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of imposing state-capitalism onto the Chinese masses and, indeed, of preparing the way for the liberalizing reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death—this, precisely by means of the CCP’s repeated suppression of the revolutionary self-organization of peasants and workers, in keeping with the Lenino-Stalinist tradition. Though Liu focuses more on developments within China than international relations, any investigation of Mao’s foreign policies—supporting the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, opening negotiations with Nixon, being among the first countries to recognize Pinochet’s coup in Chile, backing UNITA over the MPLA in Angola—shows the clear error of holding Maoism to be a liberatory philosophy. In this text, Liu analyzes the Chinese Revolution using a libertarian-communist or anarchist perspective.

The origins of Maoism as an insurrectional-peasant ideology owe much to the power of the Stalinist Communist International (Comintern), which, in an effort to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, disastrously ordered the Chinese Communists to ally with the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927, Chiang murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes, leading Mao to undertake the Long March to Yanan and a reorientation toward the Chinese peasantry as a potential mass-base. Although the CCP vastly expanded its presence in rural China by mandating land reforms that largely deposed the landlord class, in turn swelling the ranks of the Red Army, Mao’s cadres in certain cases protected the property of gentry who supported the war against the occupying Japanese power, or who were allied to the KMT, as during the case of the United Front strategy again mandated by Moscow to oppose Japan. In playing this conservative role, the CCP foreshadowed the moment it would replace the bourgeois-feudalist ruling class by capturing the State in the Chinese Revolution (1949). Even at this point, the height of victory, Liu notes that the CCP was unwilling to countenance mass-land seizures by peasants or proletarian self-management in the cities.

Instead, Mao largely followed the Stalinist model of nationalization and expansion of heavy industry and collectivization of agriculture, as outlined and directed by the Party in Five-Year Plans designed in the interests of securing “primitive socialist [i.e., state-capitalist] accumulation,” as previously theorized by the Soviet economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky. In response to the widening class inequalities induced by such developments, Mao in 1956 called for “a hundred flowers to bloom” and manifest popular discontent—or “criticism”—but when “ultra-left” critiques surfaced and mass-strikes broke out in Shanghai, he dismissed such “deviations,” associating them with the “deceived” Hungarian revolutionaries put down by the USSR. The prominent student leader Lin Hsiling expressly identified the CCP as a bureaucracy ruling over the working classes without democracy, and she gained a following for this reason. In response, Mao commenced the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” to purge such critical-intellectual elements together with more conservative forces. Then, the Great Leap Forward (1956-1958), which was launched principally for the purpose of the accumulation of capital, burgeoned China’s industrial and agricultural output as the State extracted evermore from the peasants, tens of millions of whom succumbed to famine conditions.[1] As Liu writes, the hyper-exploitation of the country’s laboring classes implemented by Mao and the CCP caused not only state-capital but also corpses to accumulate. Hence, it is little surprise that, in assessing the revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev about Stalinist atrocities at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956) that would ultimately lead to the Sino-Soviet Split, Mao declared Stalin to have been “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”

Initiated by Mao to putatively oust bureaucratic rivals and stave off the threat of “capitalist restoration,” the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) brought about a similar dynamic to that induced by the Hundred Flowers Campaign, whereby the CCP summoned revolt from below, only to crush it once it came to threaten Party domination. Whereas the Red Guards called up to defend the Revolution engaged in varying critique of their “black” opponents—the progeny of the deposed feudal-bourgeois class—and CCP cadres proper, workers in Shanghai were inspired to dismiss the local Party leadership and found a “People’s Commune” altogether, leading to the January Revolution of 1967 that spread to several provinces. Though the Commune was defeated through the efforts of Mao and his loyalists, Liu identifies that these developments yielded a distinct “ultra-left” tendency advocating for proletarian organization outside the CCP, “a revolutionary split in the army, and a new revolution in China.” According to Liu, the most prominent crystallization of the ultra-left in the Cultural Revolution found expression in Shengwulian, or the Hunan Provisional Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose member Yang Xiguang wrote the highly influential Whither China?, advocating the establishment of a “People’s Commune of China” and recommending that the working classes organize autonomously against the “‘Red’ capitalist class.” Nevertheless, the CCP redeployed the forces of repression to break up Shengwulian in 1968 and thereafter utilized the State to maintain the domination of labor domestically and support enemies of the Soviet Union—UNITA in Angola, Pinochet in Chile—internationally, all the while moving to normalize relations with the US. Lastly, prior to Mao’s death in 1976, the Shanghai Textbook was published, containing a summary of the Communist leader’s views on the supposed transition to socialism—though in reality, as Liu observes, the text is more concerned with the “proper management of state capitalism.”

In essence, then, we see the arc of the CCP’s developments in history over time, from active collaboration with the bourgeois-nationalists of the KMT to the subsequent replacement of feudalist-capitalist relations of production with state-capitalist ones. While Mao and the CCP may have sought to avoid some of the excesses of Stalinism by introducing more participatory elements such as the mass-line, criticism, and self-criticism into the world of politics, in truth they worked systemically to coopt and repress any possibility of a more radical revolution that would institute self-management and autonomy among the Chinese workers and peasantry—in yet another parallel to the Bolsheviks, against whom arose the Third Revolution championed by insurrectional peasants and workers, from the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovshchina to other devastating rural rebellions, as developed in the Tambov region in response to famine caused by the Red State’s grain-requisition schemes. As Liu summarizes: “Mao subjectively aimed to prevent capitalist restoration [during the Cultural Revolution] but objectively strengthened its hold, preventing the emergence of any force capable of challenging it.” It is not an exaggeration, then, to assert that, just as Khrushchev continued to propagate Stalinist politics after having denounced his predecessor in the “Secret Speech,” Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms do not constitute a total contradiction to Mao’s established approach, either.

Philosophically, Maoism does not go far beyond Stalinist reductionism, as it cannot. On Liu’s account, Mao’s conception of dialectics rationalizes Party substitutionism in place of autonomous proletarian struggle, and claims that the class politics of a given State should be analyzed with reference to the ideology of its leadership, not the actual class makeup of said leadership. It is due to such facile reasoning that Mao’s CCP could so readily judge Khrushchev’s regime as “bourgeois,” as against Stalin’s supposed revolutionism previously. With the progression of the Chinese Revolution, the CCP came to increasingly slander—much like the Bolsheviks—all oppositional forces as reactionary-bourgeois, even and especially if movements like Shengwulian and the Shanghai Commune were far more revolutionary than it was. As Liu notes, the labels “revolutionary” and “reactionary” in Maoist China were usually decided with reference to one’s relationship to the Party, rather than to the actual nature of one’s politics. Finally, one could likely say that Maoist gender politics are preferable to feudalist-capitalist ones, but these cannot easily be separated from the overall imperatives of Maoist state-capitalism—such that autonomist feminism holds greater promise for collective liberation.

In light of these considerations, Liu’s conclusion is quite right: “[f]or revolutionaries who aim at a free anarchist and communist society, Maoism as a whole must be rejected.” As an alternative to Maoism and all other strains of authoritarian socialism which irremediably substitute Party and State in the place of radical proletarian self-activity, today’s revolutionaries should struggle for “forms of mass, federated, armed and directly democratic social organization” at the regional and global levels, working to “maintain and expand rebel territories that allow for revolutionary activity” as much as possible.

[1] See Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

Extracts from “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” by Loren Goldner

June 26, 2016

mao

The following are excerpts from Loren Goldner’s “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism.”  Goldner begins this essay quite rightly by stating that “Maoism is a variant of Stalinism.”  This charge becomes clear by examining Maoist China’s response to Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin in the 1956 speech at the Twentieth Soviet Congress; it is further supported by the bizarrely reactionary foreign-policy stances the Maoists took to oppose Soviet foreign policy after the falling-out regarding the questions of Stalinism and “revisionism.”

‘Khruschev’s 1956 speech is often referred to by later Maoists as the triumph of “revisionism” in the Soviet Union. The word “revisionism” is itself ideology run amok, since the main thing that was being “revised” was Stalinist terror, which the Maoists and Marxist-Leninists by implication consider to be the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” There were between 10 and 20 million people in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union in 1956, and presumably their release (for those who survived years of slave labor, often at the Arctic Circle) was part of “revisionism.” For the Maoists, the Khruschev speech is often also identified with the “restoration of capitalism,” showing how superficial their “Marxism” is, with the existence of capitalism being based not on any analysis of real social relationships but on the ideology of this or that leader […].

There was active but local combat between Chinese and Soviet forces along their mutual border in 1969 and, as a result, Mao banned all transit of Soviet material support to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, a ban which remained in effect until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Mao received US President Nixon in Beijing in early 1972, while the United States was raining bombs on North Vietnam […].

Already in 1965, the Chinese regime, based on its prestige as the center of “Marxist-Leninist” opposition to Soviet “revisionism” after the Sino-Soviet split, had encouraged the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) into a close alliance with Indonesia’s populist-nationalist leader, Sukarno. It was an exact repeat of the CCP’s alliance with Chiang kai-shek in 1927, and it ended the same way, in a bloodbath in which 600,000 PKI members and sympathizers were killed in fall 1965 in a military coup, planned with the help of US advisers and academics. Beijing said nothing about the massacre until 1967 (when it complained that the Chinese embassy in Jakarta had been stoned during the events). In 1971, China also openly applauded the bloody suppression of the Trotskyist student movement in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In the same year, it supported (together with the United States and against Soviet ally India), Pakistani dictator Yaya Khan, who oversaw massive repression in Bangladesh when that country (previously part of Pakistan) declared independence […].

This was merely the beginning of the bizarre turn of Maoist world strategy and Chinese foreign policy. The “main enemy” and “greater danger” was no longer the world imperialism centered in the United States, but Soviet “social imperialism.” Thus, when US-backed Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973, China immediately recognized Pinochet and hailed the coup. When South African troops invaded Angola in 1975 after Angolan independence under the pro-Soviet MPLA, China backed South Africa. During the Portuguese Revolution of 1974–75, the Maoist forces there reached out to the far right. Maoist currents throughout western Europe called for the strengthening of NATO against the Soviet threat. China supported Philippine dictator Fernando Marcos in his attempt to crush the Maoist guerrilla movements in that country […].

This bizarre ideological period finally ended in 1978–79, when China, now firmly an ally of the United States, attacked Vietnam and was rudely pushed back by the Vietnamese army under General Giap (of Dien Bien Phu fame). Vietnam, still allied with the Soviet Union, had occupied Cambodia to oust the pro-Maoist Khmer Rouge, who had taken over the country in 1975 and who went on to kill upward of one million people […].

The Shining Path group in Peru, which was similarly crushed by Fujimori, has made a steady comeback there, openly referring to such groups as the Cambodian Khmer Rouge as a model.’

On Climate Satyagraha: Interview with Quincy Saul

April 9, 2015

Published on Counterpunch, 10 April 2015

The socio-ecological catastrophe that is global capitalism is clear for all to see. We are in dire need of an alternative system which does not ceaselessly destroy nature and oppress and impoverish the vast majority of humankind, including our future generations, whose lives may very well be highly constrained if not outright canceled due to prevailing environmental destructiveness. It is in this sense of contemplating and reflecting on alternatives to capitalist depravity that I was fortunate enough recently to discuss the present moment and some of the possible means of displacing hegemonic power with Quincy Saul of Ecosocialist Horizons (EH). Quincy and the rest of the members of this collective have envisioned a compelling means of overcoming the environmental crisis: that is, through climate Satyagraha.

The latest biological studies show a decline of a full half of animal populations on Earth since 1970, and an ever-burgeoning list of species and classes of vertebrates at immediate risk of extinction: a quarter of all marine species, a quarter of all mammals, and nearly half of all amphibians are on the edge.1 Moreover, two independent studies published in Science and Anthropocene Review in January conclude that the present rate of environmental destruction essentially threatens the fate of complex life on the planet.2 Meanwhile, global carbon emissions continue in relentless expansion, with each new year bringing a new broken record, whether in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures, or both. Truly, then, this is a critical moment in human history, one which could lead to utter oblivion, as through the perpetuation of business as usual, or alternately amelioration and emancipation, as through social revolution.

Quincy, could you share your assessment of the global climate-justice movements at present, some seven months after the People’s Climate March (PCM)—a development of which you were famously highly critical—and five months after yet another farcical example of the theater of absurd that is the international climate-negotiation process, as seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru?

Thank you Javier for compiling those statistics. There’s such an immense range of data out there, and it’s important to hone in on the key information. In terms of the climate-justice movement, the problem I see is that the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. So you have this amazing, fearless, courageous work that’s happening on local levels, all over the world—too numerous to even start listing. When it comes to resistance struggle, people are resisting mines, pipelines, and destructive development projects from the Altiplano of Peru to central Indian jungles, the Amazon River, indigenous reservations in the U.S., the factory-cities of China, the Niger Delta—uncountable acts of courage that people are taking to defend their ecosystems and their lives, whether climate change is the central issue, or it’s about defense of a single ecosystem. And then on the prefiguration side, there are people on every continent who are working really hard laying the foundations for the next world-system. Seed-saving, agroecologies—people are combining ancestral productive projects with appropriate technologies, building community resilience, and constructing community democracy in the context of war and natural disaster. So this is hopeful and wonderful work that has be encouraged. But somehow it’s not adding up.

One example I’d pick is this wonderful campaign that’s happening around the island-nation of Palau to create the world’s largest marine reserve. They want to ban commercial fishing in this whole area. It would be an unprecedented development, and it deserves our full support. But if ocean acidification is not addressed at the level of the whole earth-system, then a ban on commercial fishing is not going to save those beautiful marine ecosystems. That’s kind of the problem. The key question is convergence—how all these local movements could add up to something more than the sum of their parts. But what we have now is almost the opposite: when all these groups get together, they add up to something less. So what I wrote in that article is what Al Gore said many years ago: that he couldn’t understand why people weren’t undertaking massive nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns to shut down coal plants. And we’re still not seeing that. Everybody gets together, and it’s less than Al Gore: it’s petitions, it’s rallies, books, movies, advertisements. There isn’t even anything illegal. Not that illegality is the measure of what we should be doing or not doing. But whether we’re talking about the gatherings in New York, Durban, or even Lima, I don’t think it’s much of a difference. Durban and Lima were much more militant than New York, but these actions are still not at all commensurate to the scale of the catastrophe you just illustrated.

Our friend Sky Cohen said to me when I last saw him, “Look, I don’t think anyone is doing the work they should be doing. I mean, Bangladesh is going under water.” He was funny; he said, “Even Subcomandante Marcos isn’t doing enough!” And I resonate with that. Who’s doing enough? I got some criticism for what I wrote, but what’s the balance sheet? I think that now is the time for those who defended the march to speak up. What changed? Was there any payoff for this multimillion-dollar PR campaign? Did we concretely reduce carbon emissions? Did we change the United Nations agenda? Did we put climate change as a question on the map that now has to be addressed? Is it being addressed? All the things they said: “the biggest climate change march ever,” “this changes everything.” Has it? Let’s see. We can measure these things. But we aren’t; I think on some level people are afraid to.

So what is the answer? How do we get the whole to add up to more than the sum of its parts? I don’t have the one answer, but I do think that part of the diagnosis of what’s wrong is that there’s a problem inside of us: I think we lack imagination about what a real movement would look like. I think too many of us identify too much with this Earth-destroying system, such that we can’t imagine what it would be like to make a break from it. This is especially the case in a place like New York City, which epitomizes “empire as a way of life.” The other problem is that we keep chasing the ruling class around to all their conferences. I can’t get over it; when are we going to stop doing this? We know what the outcomes are going to be: they’re going to have a big PR campaign, they’re going to open up new markets for false solutions. We’ve seen this process happen so many times. When are we going to stop just conference-hopping around the world, putting up a big pagoda, and having the “alternative people’s tent”? An alternative precedent was set in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when they made the Cochabamba Declaration, which is still the most radical document out there on climate change, in terms of calling for even less than a 2°C rise in average global temperatures—a 1.5°C cap. They just held their own conference and set their own agenda on their own schedule.

I think these are the key things: We need to stop chasing the ruling class around the world, and we need to build our own autonomous bases of resistance and prefiguration. Again, all this amazing local work, how do we help it converge? How do we help it become more than the sum of its parts? I think the first step is that we have to imagine what that would look like, and that means imagining a break from the system that we’re dependent on. Concretely, how would you not have fossil fuels be part of existence anymore? Not as a consumer decision, but as an ontological life movement?

Recently, I read Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for the End and the Beginning of the World (Ecosocialist Horizons/Autonomedia, 2014), which you helped to edit and write, as I understand. This work is divided into ten chapters or sections, and comes with an appendix listing seemingly hundreds of recommended readings. Could you speak to the vision which led you to put Truth and Dare together, and the hopes you have for it?

Thank you Javier, I’m very honored that you read it. Just to give some credit: I can be blamed for it, because I was the final editor, but I must credit Fred Ho, Seth Tobocman, Joel Kovel, and many other people who sent in suggestions for that curriculum. It was a big collective effort.

The vision? All the literature that was out there about ecosocialism was pretty academic, and we wanted to break out of that. We wanted to break out of the academic perspective and make ecosocialism a perspective that’s available to children, to people who don’t have the time or energy or inclination to read The Enemy of Nature or Imperiled Life or any of the many books out there that illustrate our problems. Specifically, we wanted to give an illustration of how our collective understands ecosocialism, which differs from the way some other groups have put it forward, as you’ve noticed.

Specifically, this comes through in our understanding of gender and the role of patriarchy in the development of capitalism; it comes out in our understanding of indigeneity, which relates to the question of intrinsic value; it comes through our attention to spiritual traditions and their role in emancipatory politics; and in terms of our perspective on questions of revolutionary strategy, where we understand struggle and prefiguration as equally important. So in those four areas, our conception of ecosocialism differs in some ways from what other people are putting out there. We wanted to put all this into an accessible framework. Another part of the vision is that we wanted the artwork to be of high quality. The whole first chapter has no words. We wanted to do that, to draw people in.

In terms of hopes for it, we just hope that it is both useful and inspiring. For rookies, it can be a point of departure to learn about all kinds of things. And for people who already know a lot, if it can inspire them, or maybe give them a new perspective on ecosocialism—even if they disagree with it—hopefully it will help them think more deeply about things. The curriculum at the end includes everything from children’s books to movies to scholarly theoretical texts, so hopefully all ages will find a way to make use of it. We also want to do translations. We have some inroads for Chinese, Spanish, Swahili, and Arabic versions. We hope that people read it and review it.

I particularly liked Paula Hewitt Amram’s illustration of the toad in “The Ecosocialist Horizon”: the panel in question says, “Nature has intrinsic value: it has value independent of us.” It is both telling and ironic that an amphibian should be chosen to depict this point, in light of the sordid fate to which humanity and capitalism—or better, capitalist humanity—has consigned these animals.

There’s this documentary I saw recently about a water struggle on a Diné (Navajo) reservation. They were fighting for their water, and a younger native woman repeated what one of the elders had told her—that actually the water didn’t even belong to the Diné people. The water belongs to the frog.

You highlighted the question of intrinsic value. In one word, what is ecosocialism? It’s socialism plus the intrinsic value of nature: a non-anthropocentric socialism, that’s what we’re going for here. In terms of how we see an ecosocialist horizon, that’s one of the crucial things. We differ from a lot of socialists who have a much more Cartesian outlook about inanimate, “clockwork” nature, here for human use and abuse. So we are breaking from those socialists, but on the other hand we are connecting to every single indigenous tradition on every continent. Perhaps there are very few universal things, yet one of the universal things it that every non-state or pre-state people—whether you call them tribal, indigenous, aboriginal, etc.—have some sense that nature is alive, even if it’s inanimate—that it has value outside of us. And I want to expose some of the socialists on this, because it’s very hip now to pay lip service to indigenous struggles. All socialists do this, and that’s great, a big change over a few decades ago. But in terms of the actual ideology, a lot of these socialists have a paternalistic, condescending attitude toward indigenous cosmovisions—they don’t believe in the Pachamama or in the Great Mystery; they don’t believe that value really exists independent of human labor. They think that this spiritual stuff is some sort of anachronism that will be overcome through social labor on the factory floor. And that’s just a disaster. That’s Manifest Destiny. So what we want is an anti-Manifest Destiny socialism, a non-anthropocentric socialism—not only for the humans, but for the frogs as well. I really want to expose that: If you want to have real solidarity with the first nations, you should pay attention to what they say, not just support them as bodies which just happen to be blocking a pipeline. No, genuine solidarity with first-nation peoples should be built on ideological unity, on a shared belief in and commitment to the defense of intrinsic value of nature.

Last summer, you attended the conference of the Pan-African Network for Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Cape Town, South Africa, and the document which issued forth from this convergence was the “Call for Climate Satyagraha!”  Please speak about the proceedings at this conference, and what you mean by climate Satyagraha.

Thanks for reading. This was a historic conference. It was organized by War Resisters International together with local sponsoring organizations. It was the first fully Pan-African conference on non-violent resistance, in the sense that there had been a few others, but they were smaller and more localized. There were people represented from over 30 countries in Africa, from some 50 countries globally, and from every continent. And everybody came with some kind of a base; people were representing organizations.

We were invited to bring the ecosocialist perspective to conversations around nonviolence and anti-militarism. We did three things: we handed out invitations to a discussion on the draft document of the “Call for Climate Satyagraha; we did a big event, which included speeches, a tribute to Dennis Brutus, who was a very visionary person in terms of ecological struggle and climate change; and several world-class musical acts of local and international musicians. We were also part of a working group that met every day called “Resisting the War on Mother Earth and Reclaiming our Home.” A lot of the Working Group’s time was spent discussing the climate Satyagraha proposal, and refining it.

I’ve read a fair amount about struggles throughout Africa, about historical and contemporary genocides, but I had never really met people from a lot of these places. It changes things when you’re talking to someone from South Kordofan, Darfur, or the DRC. These are people who are here for a conference on nonviolence and peacebuilding, not on climate. And they’re coming from places where there’s not a lot of room for bullshit. Life and death: they’re taking a risk even being there. I was expecting people not to reject the environmental analysis in any way, but just to say, “Well, that isn’t really what we’re working on. This is a good idea I support, but we’re focused on trying to get these two ethnic groups to not kill each other.” But that wasn’t the case. People have a very acute awareness of how environmental factors are going to immediately play out into violent, warlike situations. They have an acute awareness of how climate change is going to precipitate violence in their communities. So to really meet people from these places and to know that whenever you talk about “the climate-justice movement,” you’re not just talking about some activists in New York, Lima, or Durban; you’re talking about these people! It was really transformative for us, to realize that these too are the faces of the climate justice movement, that this is a world-wide struggle which includes everyone.

There was a very positive response from so many people. We approached it with a lot of humility: we handed out our draft, and we said, “This is an invitation to discussion. We’re interested in any feedback or critique you have.” We had to push people to critique, because they were really into the idea from the beginning for the most part. It was, and remains very inspiring and challenging to understand that.

In terms of the idea of Satyagraha, it’s an old idea. It means “to hold onto truth,” “love force,” “truth-power.” There are many different definitions and translations. It’s a method of political struggle, an action and a process, which combines resistance and prefiguration. The Satyagrahi, or the person who engages in Satyagraha, has to embody the principles they’re fighting for. In this sense, I think this is really the antidote to a lot of the dead-end NGO activism in the U.S., where politics is a career. I think it’s this kind of salaried activism that is getting us nowhere. It’s not about going to work with your styrofoam cup of coffee, sitting at your computer all day sending emails, and calling that a climate justice movement. You have to really embody what you’re fighting for. This has a negative and a positive element, a rejection and an affirmation: You have to resist the war on Mother Earth, and you have to embody the alternative, “being the change you want to see in the world.” So I think as a framework, Satyagraha is hugely important. There’s a long history, very complex, in many countries, especially in South Africa and South Asia. I think specifically for people in the US, where we’re very colonized by the NGO activist culture, and its endless divorce of means from ends, it’s liberating for us to think about Satyagraha.

Climate Satyagraha: we need a climate Satyagraha now because 2015 is our deadline! The IPCC has been saying since this 2007, with their Fourth Assessment Report (4AR). In the 4AR, the IPCC said that 2015 is the deadline for a carbon emissions peak if we want to keep a temperature increase below 2°C, which as you know from Cochabamba isn’t even enough. Still, it is a threshold to be recognized, because if you get beyond that point, the various positive feedback loops in the earth-system are triggered, and it all slips out of our hands. So what do we do? We’ve chased the elite, we’ve written petitions, we’ve done everything short of what Al Gore called for, which is actually blocking the production and further use of fossil fuels. So that’s what we need, a mass nonviolent prefigurative resistance movement to keep the oil in the soil. The one strategic element we’re adding is the attention to ports and logistics, as we’ll see in the next question.

To turn to the question of spirituality: Let go of your ego form of the self for a moment and think about the future generations, about what’s going to be left on this planet after you die, and the opportunity that we have now. We have every technical ability to turn the tide. If you read David Schwartzman and a lot of other people—even if they don’t get a lot of publicity—there are actually immense strides in terms of solar technologies that could enable us to contain contain climate catastrophe and also reduce energy poverty. We already have climate catastrophe, but it could get hellishly worse. So we have that opportunity right now, but it’s a year-long opportunity. Next year carbon emissions need to begin a rapid decline. What, then, does it take? We can’t know the future, but we can know the path: I think Satyagraha lights the way forward. We have to hold on to the truth, which is love, which is power: that we can change the course of history.

What it says in Truth and Dare is that we need a convergence. “All of the world’s profound spiritual and revolutionary traditions converge for the preservation of life and beauty, in a world and time in which both are threatened.” Bottom line, all of these forms of organized spirituality value life—all the major world religions. Everybody needs to come together in a struggle against the big multinational corporations and their puppets in government.

As economic and ecological catastrophe continues, breaking-apart societies are going to get pretty ugly, and that ugliness will be expressed though all of our social contradictions, one of which is religion. So I do present a rather “pro-spiritual” line, but I know that Third Reich meant “Kingdom of God.” Religion is not inherently emancipatory in any way. During the decolonization movement in India, they would have big rallies for Hindu-Muslim unity. People of both religions wanted decolonization, and they had some foresight to see that things would get ugly if they didn’t emphasize strongly that they were united on this. And it wasn’t enough, but it also was something. We’ll talk about the Sarvodaya villages in Sri Lanka, some of which have acted as firewalls for the spread of ethnic and religious violence, because the people of those villages stood up to the mobs. Similarly, we must emphasize and educate around inter-faith unity here, as this will be a key part of our resilience to climate change. If we don’t do that type of work more and more, it’s going to get even worse, and it’s already terrible, especially for Muslims in this country.

Clearly, the question of logistics and the prospect of physically blockading the flow of capital is not foreign from current events, in light of the 2015 labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). How do you think labor can be radicalized (or radicalize itself), both in the U.S. and throughout the world, and come to the revolutionary consciousness which is such a necessary prerequisite for engaging in material struggle against climate catastrophe from below? What can you say about the relationship between workers at the point of production and concerned outsiders, such as climate activists and radical intellectuals?

On the first question, I spent a couple of years working in and around organized labor. I worked with the United Electric Workers in Chicago and later I came to New York and worked with a Teamsters local, through a program at the Murphy Institute. These groups I worked with are exceptions to the norm: the United Electric Workers, like the ILWU, are some of the few radical unions left, who paid the price, and their membership got decimated, because they refused to sign Taft-Hartley. I only know in detail the U.S. labor movement. But let’s be honest, there’s not much of a labor movement in this country, unless you call retreat a movement. It’s important to say that, because leftists do a lot of “rah-rah labor movement,” but the only obvious movement is retreat. Union density has been declining for the last several decades, and people are fighting noble defensive struggles, but you can’t necessarily call that a movement.

I think the old answers still hold true: people are radicalized and revolutionized through struggle and collective action. The problem is I think what Guy Debord said, that the representatives of the working class have become the enemies of the working class. We spent a lot of time in the Teamsters fighting our own International reps, and against other mobbed up locals. There are important exceptions, obviously, but there’s really very little collective action or struggle. The labor “movement” is often all about corporate campaigns—meaning a bunch of union staffers doing media smear campaigns against the corporation, and the workers aren’t involved at all. Every few years they have election drives where workers are rounded up to vote for the less anti-union candidate. And then there are Potëmkin organizing drives. Every once in a while, they’ll do a big “Rah-Rah” spectacle. I think that’s what happened in the recent Walmart strike, to be perfectly honest; we were lied to. The whole country was told that workers were striking at Walmart. But go talk with them now; see what’s happening. They haven’t built a movement.

It’s not about building working-class power. The words “working class” barely even appear in mainstream labor movement discourse. It’s about integrating people into the middle class—that’s what they’re trying to do. That’s the state that things are in. But on the brighter side, if you look at labor-movement history, you see that change never comes from the established leadership. The CIO was born in a fist-fight on the floor of the AFL: John Lewis punched William Hutcheson, and the rest is history. Another thing that you see is that union organizing doesn’t come gradually; it always comes in surges. In the late 1920s union density was at a historic low. Within a decade it was the highest in U.S. history. So change is going to come from outside the established union leadership, and it’s going to come suddenly. I think we saw some seeds of that in Wisconsin when the state house was occupied. Who ended the occupation? It was the union leadership; they literally told people to “put down their picket signs and pick up their clipboards.” The people are ready, but the leadership is holding them back.

In terms of the relationship between workers at the point of production and climate activists: I think the novelty in the call for Climate Satyagraha is that we’re not talking about the point of production, but rather about the point of distribution. These are the new commanding heights, the new lynchpin of the global economy, and I don’t think that’s really been grasped by a lot of people—the way global political economy functions structurally today with just-in-time production. When you buy something from Walmart, it’s shipped two hours later from Shenzhen, so that Walmart doesn’t have to stock their shelves with excess product. Capital when not in motion ceases to be capital, so it’s constantly in motion; department stores get restocked several times per day. Then you have these mechanized ports, such that the entire port of Shanghai is run by a handful of workers. It’s an amazing opportunity for an intervention, for workers’ control. Chicago has about a hundred thousand workers in the logistics industry through whose hands pass about 60% of all commodities in North America. A hundred thousand workers is not that many. I think this is the equivalent of the GM Fisher No. 1 Plant that was famously occupied in the 1930s. If you occupy that one plant that none of the rest of the factories can function without, you can shut down the whole supply chain. That’s where the focus has to be.

But let’s be honest, in terms of relations between workers and activists, they’re terrible. With important exceptions, people don’t know each other, and they don’t even speak the same language. I think part of the problem is the climate-activist identity, which I think comes out of the dominant NGO culture. The NGO culture has transformed the way we think about social change over the past 60 years for the worse. Once climate activists and radical intellectuals start speaking a language that the people working in the ports can understand, and once they start leading lives that these people can relate to—instead of just conference-hopping and emailing—as soon as we can concretely build solidarity in door-to-door organizing, then we can see a change. I would emphasize the door-to-door approach. Hardly anyone one does that anymore. That’s the way to organize; you go door-to-door. As soon as the climate activists start doing that in the ports, I think you could see serious results.

I understand that you and David Schwartzman, author of “Solar Communism” (1996), have been working together to concretely propose that the Bolivarian government of Venezuela play a significant role in simultaneously advancing renewable energy and anti-capitalism on the global stage. Please explain how you envision this process unfolding. For me, the contradiction between petrosocialism and ecosocialism is fundamental and daunting. Why do you think the Venezuelan State would champion a dialectical transcendence of the very extractive economy on which it has depended for its power and prestige?

They have to. In 2013, they came out with a new Plan de la Patria, which was the campaign that Chávez ran on for his last reelection. It wasn’t just something that they wrote up in a room. It was a constituent process of creation. Some of the people I spoke to last time I was there said it was almost on the scale of the constituent assembly for the constitution (1999). It was a massive effort to get this document together, and it’s worth reading. Venezuela is the first government in the world to officially call for ecosocialism. So what does that mean? That’s the big question, and that’s literally being determined now at all levels of society. There are people in Venezuela who are counter-revolutionary, people who are opportunistic, people who are very radical. This fight is happening inside the ministries and it’s happening in in the fields—with the Green Revolution being practiced on one side of the street and agroecology on the other. It’s everywhere.

Why would they transcend petrosocialism? In terms of their mandate, they have to. They have a mandate to ensure the “general wellbeing” of all their citizens, in a healthy environment, for all perpetuity. So if they burn all the oil in the Faja del Orinoco—they just discovered a field that may be bigger than Saudi Arabia, though it’s hard to believe these oil predictions—everybody in the country and the whole world is going to be at severe risk. So they can’t. It says in the Plan that ecosocialism is another stage in socialism, where we respect the rhythms and cycles of nature, wherein we learn from indigenous peoples—all the language is in there. So the question is how, and also it’s a question of conscientization, to use Paolo Freire’s term. Ecosocialism has to be expressed at the level of poder popular, and that’s starting to happen.

There are contradictions in the Plan de la Patria, because they call for a coordinated mass-movement for climate justice, yet they also call for increased extraction of natural resources. When I was there for the Fourth Congress of Biological Diversity, this was all being debated. I think Brecht was right when he said, “in the contradiction is the hope.” These are the stages that we have to get through to move forward in a revolutionary process. How do you use oil to get off oil? It’s a huge challenge, and it’s not just a domestic problem—some people were very explicit there, saying quite plainly, “If we stop exporting oil, we get invaded by the Yanquis.” That’s the primary reality; they just prevented a coup!

So how do they do this? They have the mandate, and they’re required to do it based on what the people have asked of their government, and the government is constituted on poder popular. I think they’re better situated to do it than anyone else. Why? Because they’re sitting on a giant gold mine. Just use all that oil money to become the solar-energy hub of the entire world. Bring experts in from all over the world, build up the industry, train cadre in appropriate solar technology, and then send them out all over the world, like the Cubans send doctors. The key, qualitative tipping point that has to be reached in terms of renewable energy, is to build solar panels with solar power, no longer with fossil fuels. Venezuela has the money to start that process. Not only that, they also have the political process and the level of political consciousness among the general population to be able to precipitate something like that. You need it all. You can’t just have good people in government; you can’t just have a mass movement. You need these people situated at all levels to be able to push something like that forward. That’s the context of the proposal that David and I wrote—for people in the grassroots and in the government—for a new Gran Misión to solarize the economy of Venezuela and jumpstart the transition in all the Mercosur countries.

There is a revolutionary process underway in Venezuela, which you can’t necessarily tell without visiting it or studying it in detail. The key thing is, how do we play a role in this? We have to side with the people in Venezuela who are fighting for the ecosocialism that we want, which isn’t the Green Revolution, nor is it the opportunism of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s grassroots democracy built around communes, agroecology, and ancestral cosmovision. Those forces are there to be supported. This is the most important point to make, really. Using existing oil reserves, Venezuela can create a fully solarized economy within the next decade, stop using oil, and moreover provide all the seed money for the same transition in the whole region. The fact that that kind of proposal can potentially be heard and responded to in the mountains, in the jungles, in the barrios, and in the corridors of power in Venezuela is extremely unique.

Returning to the concept of climate Satyagraha, which we know to be a model that is clearly influenced by Gandhi and the Sarvodaya movement: given that you are proposing a “return” to Gandhian strategy, what is your assessment of the legacy of the Sarvodaya (or “common good”) movement during Gandhi’s lifetime and since? Our friend John Clark writes a very friendly account of the movement in The Impossible Community (2013), wherein he notes it to essentially be an anarchist mass-movement, given the stress on direct action, decentralization, ahimsa (non-violence), self-management, and (voluntary) redistribution of lands to the poor peasantry.3 John also discusses Sarvodaya Shramadana, a community-based alternate-development movement that blends Gandhianism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and he likens it even to the Zapatistas’ liberated territories. Yet I do not think that Gandhi’s approach should be considered as being beyond reproach, in light of his numerous critics, both from his day and ours.

Definitely. I recently read B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste that just came out with a long introduction by Arundhati Roy. I learned a lot from this, and I’m a lot more critical of Gandhi than I was before reading that book. In fact, I would go so far to say that the discussion of Satyagraha has to be completely divorced from the person of Gandhi to move forward progressively. Gandhi may have been a political genius but he had big blind spots and prejudices, to say the least. Yet in this complex matrix of contradictions is the path to truth. Gandhi, and Roy credits him with this, got something that Ambedkar didn’t, which is that Ambedkar saw the “liberated future” as an urban metropolis, whereas Gandhi had the vision to see—even if it wasn’t born of a specifically ecological understanding—that the future may lie not so much in a massive urban metropolis but in a return to village economies, as set forth in Hind Swaraj.

I recently got back from Sri Lanka, where I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the Sarvodaya movement, which is inspired by Gandhian ideas. Sarvodaya means “the awakening of all.” A. T. Ariyaratne, the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka, contrasts this to utilitarianism—the philosophy from European liberalism of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Sarvodaya is about everyone, not just the majority. Sarvodaya Shramadana means “the awakening of all through collective work.” Founded i>n 1958, they started by going door-to-door, the way everything starts, by going to people’s houses in a village and talking to them about their lives and their needs. Then they would bring people from the city—Ariyaratne was a college professor, so he brought his students—and they would do this work together with the people of the village. Then someone in the next village heard about it and invited them to come. Fifty years later, there is a network of 15,000 villages, and over 2,000 are self-governing and self-reliant. It is a very unique formation in the whole world.

One of the things that is really compelling is the methodology they’ve developed. They’ve come up with a whole vocabulary for development, so that they’re not always stuck with the Western paradigm. It’s a five-step program: it starts with individual awakening (Purna Paurusodaya), then family awakening (Kutumbodaya), then village awakening (Gramodaya), then national awakening (Deshodaya), and finally world awakening (Vishvodaya). That’s the program. Recently they’ve just started the Deshodaya campaign—that’s how long they’ve taken. There’s a saying that bad news travels fast and good news travels slowly. This is a slowly building movement, and it’s good news! I think part of what appealed to me is about Sarvodaya was the culture—it was such a breath of fresh air! Everyone was so kind and generous. You could tell that everybody had been through a process of really soul-searching for why they’re in this work in the first place. That isn’t something you encounter much in the U.S., where people are involved for all kinds of crazy reasons, which can be a big obstacle to moving forward over the long term.

So it’s a very slow, non-violent revolution. You don’t often hear words like anti-imperialism or anti-capitalism; they don’t always come up. It’s very much rooted in satisfying people’s basic needs, and they’ve defined basic needs democratically. There are some interesting things about this. One is that employment is not included. They don’t think that it’s our purpose here on this planet to have a job. Instead they talk about leading fulfilling lives. Also they say that they are working for a world without poverty or affluence. So there are elements which are very revolutionary, but they don’t rant and rave about it. The politics are all prefigured in what they’re doing. Their conception of a society based on human needs sounds simple, but if you push it to its limits you realize it’s challenging capitalism at the level of the individual, the family, the village, the nation and the world.

It’s really amazing what they’ve built. At this point, about one in twenty people in Sri Lanka has gone through a Sarvodaya training process—about 1 million in a country of 20 million people. They’re everywhere, and they work with everybody. They’ll work with other NGOS, even with USAID, but they don’t get corrupted by it. Their guiding philosophy acts as a force field against the corrosive influences in the mainstream.

Our whole political culture in the U.S. left is built around protest and opposition; resistance and struggle. We’re not used to a politics that starts with meditation, and focuses on working with and caring for our neighbors. These Sarvodaya villages have acted as firewalls to contain the spread of ethnic violence, as I’ve said, so their politics are very real. We have a lot of discussion in the U.S. about what climate resilience. It occurred to me while visiting a self-managed village in Batticaloa, in the wake of a tsunami and a civil war, that the best resilience you can have is community democracy. When disaster strikes, are people going to know each other? Are they going to be able to work together to do things? Resilience is built by going door-to-door and finding out what your neighbors are doing and how to work and live together. So to go back to some of the other questions—I think Sarvodaya challenges us to rethink, what is the revolutionary subject? Who is the real climate justice activist? What does the revolution look like? Fifty years ago, A. T. Ariyaratne said, look, we need a revolution against capitalism and imperialism, but we are taking the long, slow, non-violent path to get there. Now five decades later, they are still on that path. They don’t protest, so they aren’t immediately recognizable as part of the left. But there are millions of people who protest all the time—and how many village economies have they built based on self reliance, democracy, and respect for nature? I was very inspired by what I saw and learned there.

In your critique of the People’s Climate March, entitled “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” you close by invoking the counter-image of the peoples of the U.S. autonomously deciding to overthrow the historical relationship we have maintained with the rest of the world for centuries: that is to say, parasitism and predation. You anticipate that we will abandon our “imperial hubris” and join the revolutionary ecosocialist uprisings of the Global South. How do you envision this transition proceeding in the imperial core of the capitalist world-system, or the “belly of the beast”?

Good question. I think this is the kind of thing that a lot of people haven’t really thought out. As far as I know, Marx and Engels said, “We don’t write recipes for the cooks of the future.”

Or, as they write in The German Ideology: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Right—so we’ll see, and we are seeing. But on the other hand, climate change gives us a deadline, so we have to move a little more quickly here. First of all, this is an empire. It’s different than just any oppressive regime: there’s a major qualitative difference. We have a responsibility not only to our own population to bring it down, but as a matter fact to the entire world, whose emancipation is held back by our failure to overthrow it from the inside.

All empires fall the same way: through reclaiming the land. Sometimes it takes a long time. It took about three hundred years for the Roman Empire to fall. But it started on the peripheries, with people taking the land back. I think there’s no reason to think it will happen any differently here. It has already to some degree begun in the sense of the Monroe Doctrine falling apart. We no longer have any military bases in South America—

Colombia?

Well, Colombia is a U.S. military base. And so is Costa Rica. But the point is that, forty years ago, all these countries had military bases. So this process has begun, but it has to happen in the heartland too.

There’s a contradiction here: because we need more coordination and coming together than ever before, but we also need to break up the empire. So how does that look? That’s the question. For socialists, the question is, do you believe in the Socialist United States? Or is that a contradiction in terms? This is not a nation built on freedom, but on slavery and genocide. Let’s understand that and move forward. There are some wonderful things that happened in this country’s history, and we can continue to honor those things and respect them. The “founding fathers” said some great things—even the North Vietnamese copied their constitution! But the fifty states as we know them are an imperial project. So the people need to reclaim the land. The key element is how do we make sure that these reclamations—these secessions—are progressive. This is really a key thing, because if you look at the progressive things that have happened in our country’s history, it has mostly been federal legislation—Civil Rights, women’s suffrage, and so on. These are not things that the states decided. Grassroots democracy has to prevail over grassroots fascism. So this is a challenge: We need to break up the empire, but make the breaking-up a greater coming-together. We need to realize that the empire actually is in the way of our coming together closer.

This is controversial, but I would say that the vision for revolution in the belly of beast is not one of seizing power; it’s one of exodus. I think that’s very concrete in a coastal city like New York—we literally have to leave, because it’s going under water. So we should immediately, starting now, begin to plan the exodus. Sometimes the exodus is a physical movement; sometimes it doesn’t have to be a relocation. It can be a change in the way of life—a secession from empire as a way of life. Go back and read Exodus. It’s an interesting analogue to our times. Lots of people didn’t want to leave the pyramids; they liked the flesh-pots of empire. We’ve got a lot of nice flesh-pots around here: all the fast food and smartphones. We have to give that up. And along the way, some people are going to want to turn back. They’re going to make a little golden iPhone and worship it.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think that that’s the model: A revolutionary exodus which dismantles the pyramids. My ideal vision would be an ecosocialist confederation of maroon societies. And I think you can actually see the seeds of this starting to grow in places like Troy, New York, in northern Vermont, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—all the places where we’ve organized convergences with Ecosocialist Horizons, we’ve tried to focus on places where the system is already breaking down, and people are already in the midst of building something new. Again, the key question is how to make the breaking-apart of empire a greater coming-together of the people? It’s the same path, we just have to learn how to walk it, and since time is short, to run it.

1 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

2 Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” The Guardian, 15 January 2015.

3 John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 217-45.