Posts Tagged ‘imperialism’

Exposing and Defeating the Fascist Creep

April 7, 2017

Fascist Creep

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission. Originally published on 7 April 2017

In light of the fact that Donald Trump is president, and that his consigliere Steve Bannon has publicly expressed a favorable view of the Italian fascist and SS enthusiast Julius Evola; considering the possibility that the neofascist Marine Le Pen’s Front National could win the 2017 elections in France; and given the explosive violence targeting Muslims, Jews and people of color in the US since Trump’s election, the time is certainly right to read and widely discuss Alexander Reid Ross’s new book, Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press, 2017).

As the title suggests, Reid Ross is concerned here with the “fascist creep,” which is related to the idea of the “fascist drift,” or the disturbing attraction many 20th-century leftists felt for this new reactionary ideology. Fascists reject mainstream conservatism as decrepit and corrupt (see the contemporary alt-right’s repudiation of the GOP), and while they violently oppose liberalism, socialism and anarchism, they paradoxically wield left-wing notions, such as solidarity and liberation, as part of their ultranationalist schemes for a falsely classless society, which is to be characterized by “natural hierarchy.” Fascism also relies heavily on myth, in the sense that its proponents seek to restore a “golden age” that supposedly existed in the putatively heroic past by means of “national revolution” against the existing liberal-parliamentarian order. This romantic-revolutionary element represents another commonality in the creep between fascism and leftism, considering the nostalgia for the precapitalist “lost paradise” that sometimes drives left-wing passions. In fact, Reid Ross writes that fascists gain ground precisely by deploying “some variant of racial, national, or ethnocentric socialism,” opportunistically inverting the internationalist goals of socialism. Clearly, fascists and leftists differ principally on the question of egalitarianism, with the latter defending equality by organizing against capitalism, the state, borders, patriarchy and racism, while the former use these oppressive systems to reproduce inequality, domination and genocide.

As Reid Ross explains, US fascists rely on the “radical” or far right cesspool of authoritarian nativists, white supremacists, conservative “revolutionaries” and neoconservatives to mainstream their views, recruit, gain popularity and ultimately seize power. Indeed, we now confront a nightmarish playing-out of this scenario with Trump’s rise to power. Yet the situation is distinct in Europe, where fascists have drawn heavily from the revolutionary-leftist tradition to advance their aims. In this sense, Against the Fascist Creep is a clear warning to the left.

Fascist Origins

Reid Ross situates the historical origins of the fascist creep in imperialism, white supremacism and ableism, considering the models that prior Euro-American colonialists had handed down to Hitler and Mussolini, as during the “scramble for Africa” and the genocides of Indigenous peoples. Moreover, there was a clear connection between the Nazis’ mass murder of people with disabilities, the Holocaust (otherwise known as the Shoah), and Hitler’s plans to annihilate the Slavs and other non-Aryan peoples after defeating the Soviet Union. Jew-hatred, or anti-Semitism, characterizes fascism from its beginnings through to its Nazi embodiment and the present. Yet challengingly, Reid Ross demonstrates the “crossover” between fascism and revolutionary causes, such as syndicalism and ecology, as well. The latter is seen in the commonalities among Romanticism, völkisch ultranationalism and nature conservation — for both Hitler and his National Socialism devotee Savitri Devi [an Anglo-European who embraced Hinduism] were vegetarians who loved animals, and the German Democratic Ecology Party has promoted Holocaust denial, while Earth First! has at some times in its history bolstered white supremacism through its appeals to Nordic paganism. The overlap between fascism and syndicalism is illuminated by the example of the original fascist creep, Georges Sorel, a revolutionary enthusiast of the “myth” of the general strike, whom Mussolini would declare as “our master,” and who in turn supported Il Duce. Sorel’s followers, founders of the Cercle Proudhon, emphasized this French anti-Semitic anarchist’s anti-parliamentarianism while downplaying Proudhon’s relative egalitarianism, leading to the paradoxical creation of the ultranationalist idea of national syndicalism that partly inspired Italian Fascism. Reid Ross explains that Mussolini sought to integrate syndicalism into a corporate state while repressing the left and projecting an image of societal regeneration.

As is known, the “demonstration effect” of Mussolini’s seizure of power through the October 1922 March on Rome influenced Hitler and the Nazis to declare “national revolution” and lead the Munich “Beer Hall Putsch” against the Bavarian government. With Hitler imprisoned following this failed uprising, Gregor and Otto Strasser pushed Nazi ideology toward völkisch national socialism, proposing the mass deportation of Jews, the redistribution of property, and syndicalist integration. Following Hitler’s release, tensions raged between these competing factions — the SA (or Brownshirts) and SS (or Blackshirts) — as the Strassers, Ernst Röhm and the SA increasingly became a liability to the German ruling class, which sought to employ the Nazis against the workers. In 1930, Otto Strasser was expelled from the Nazi Party for supporting strikes, and he went on to found the “Black Front” and “Freedom Front” to undermine Hitler, but this “left faction” was eliminated with the SS’s assassination of Röhm, Gregor Strasser and other SA leaders on the Night of Long Knives in July 1934.

Meanwhile, the German Communist Party (KPD) considered a Nazi takeover preferable to the continuation of the Weimar Republic, and even in some ways worked with Hitler to undermine it, echoing the Stalinist conception that the social-democratic opposition was “social fascist.” Nevertheless, one must not overlook the courageous self-defense efforts of the communists and the social democrats in the Red Front Fighters’ Alliance (RFB) and Antifascist Action (AFA), as well as the Reichsbanner, respectively. The rest, from Hitler’s takeover in January 1933 to World War II and the Shoah, is well known history, though Reid Ross’s observation that Nazism in power served capitalism and tradition bears echoing, as it belies the fascist claim to revolutionism and commitment to workers’ interests. This dynamic is reflected well in the substantial investment and political support afforded to Hitler and Francisco Franco by US corporations.

Post-War Fascism

Unfortunately, the defeat of the Axis would not mark the end of fascist intrigue, as Nazi war criminals were rehabilitated in West Germany and served US imperialism in the Cold War. Evola, Otto Strasser and their followers continued to mobilize after WWII, particularly against NATO’s presence in Europe — so as to “liberate” the continent — and in favor of the “strategy of tension” to strengthen state power, as seen in Italy and Latin America. Strasser’s advocacy of a “third position” beyond capitalism and Stalinism influenced fascist and “national communist” movements in France and Italy, while the Evolian Alain de Benoist developed the theoretical underpinnings of the Nouvelle Droite (“New Right”), which opposes equality in favor of apartheid, “difference” and “diversity,” and calls for whites to mobilize pride for their ancestral, pagan past against the ostensible impositions of the Judeo-Christian, liberal-multicultural system.

Transitioning from the Cold War to the present, Reid Ross identifies several continuities between historical and contemporary fascist creep. This plays out in five theaters:

• The “Radical Right”: The non-fascist ethnocentric populism of the far right is crucial in the fascistization process. In the US, this has involved Willis Carto promoting the ideas of global racial apartheid in the Right journal and working with white and Black nationalists to oppose the supposed common enemy of Zionism. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan under David Duke’s leadership, accelerating settler-colonial fantasies about creating a “white homeland” in the Pacific Northwest, and the emergence of the neo-Nazi “Order” terrorist group represent other important historical examples of the cross-over between the far right and fascism in the US. Moreover, the Patriot and Minutemen movements — allies to Pat Buchanan, the Tea Party and Trump — are strongly tied to the idea of private property, while the collaboration of the “Chicago School” of market fanatics with Augusto Pinochet’s fascism is well known. An admirer of Pinochet and Franco, the rabid anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Front National, followers of the Nouvelle Droite, represent the French Radical Right, while the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) — which narrowly lost the 2016 presidential elections — has advanced Holocaust denialism from its beginnings.

The Third Position: Neo-Nazi nostalgia for Strasserism as an alternative to Hitler was diffused in the 1980s through punk music, particularly that of the band Death in June and the general “Rock Against Communism” impetus that arose in response to the “Rock Against Racism” directed at skinheads. Strasserism also informed the White Aryan Resistance’s (WAR) efforts to instigate racial war in the US at this time, particularly in the idea of a “Wolfstadt” to be declared in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Troy Southgate’s concept of “national anarchism,” whereby left and right would unite against the State and create new decentralized societies based on strict racial separation.

• National Bolshevism: Though first suggested by Strasser, the unseemly idea of melding red and brown into “national Bolshevism” took off in Russia and Germany following the collapse of the USSR. The Evolian Alexander Dugin — a major ally of Vladimir Putin’s — hailed the “radically revolutionary and consistent fascist fascism” surging in post-Soviet Russia as ultranationalists mercilessly attacked foreigners in the streets and Boris Yeltsin and Putin leveled Grozny, capital of Chechnya. Fascists from all over Europe joined either side in the Yugoslavian Civil War as well. More recently, Dugin has promoted his “fourth political theory” — an amalgam of fascism, irrationalism and traditionalism — by uniting “anti-imperialists” with “national conservatives.”

• Fascists of the Third Millennium: The 1990s and early 2000s saw neofascist groups continue creeping by infiltrating the anti-globalization, ecology, animal rights and anarchist movements, attempting to reorient them into pro-fascist directions. This phenomenon of entryism has typified the national-anarchist, “pan-secessionist” and “autonomous-nationalist” tendencies (see below). During this time were born Golden Dawn (Greece) and Jobbik (Hungary), while the British National Party (BNP) swelled in popularity; all of these groups follow the Nouvelle Droite and the Third Position.

• Autonomous Nationalism: Perhaps the most bizarre neofascist formation is that of the “autonomous social nationalists,” who mimic their German anarchist predecessors the Autonomen in style and militancy, supporting syndicalism, radical ecology and insurrectional street-fighting tactics against capital and the State — only that they also violently target immigrants, Jews, leftists and Roma, seeking the creation of an “authentic” völkisch future for Germany. Autonomous nationalists have also been active in Bulgaria and Ukraine, particularly during the run-up to the “revolution” that occurred in the latter country in 2014.

Contemporary Fascism and Resistance

In the book’s conclusion, Reid Ross examines several contemporary fascist trends that illustrate the text’s main concerns, including the overlap between the “American Third Position” and the neo-Nazi American Freedom Party vis-à-vis the US libertarian-propertarian movement, the contradictory support and repulsion for Israel expressed by neofascists, the Orientalist impetus for “CounterJihad” and the idea of Occupy Wall Street bringing left and right together against the system. The author also raises the morbidly fascinating tendency of some known white nationalists publicly supporting people of color rebelling against US police as a means of accelerating state collapse. This seemingly contradictory posturing in fact brings up the larger tendency of “pan-secessionism,” which is related to national anarchism, as its proponents seek to support Indigenous revolutionaries, Black militants, white supremacists and radical ecologists in organizing collective secession from the capital-state system. In point of fact, Reid Ross raises the case of Michael Schmidt, a Strasserite third-positionist and formerly well-known syndicalist historian whom the author courageously and rather controversially exposed in September 2015, as typifying these disturbing neoreactionary trends. Reid Ross also rightly identifies the contemporary alt-right’s approach as desiring to deepen the ongoing crisis so that the retrograde ideologies this phenomenon represents can “come out on top,” while knowingly observing — in an echo of Albert Camus — the crossover among post-anarchist nihilism, anti-civilizational deep ecological thought and neoreaction.

Reid Ross’s newest volume is an excellent and disconcerting study of fascism’s origins, development, present and possible futures. Against the Fascist Creep deserves the broadest possible audience. Hopefully, it can help to inspire a new mass movement to resist all authoritarian ideologies, whether emanating from the State or the “autonomous” grassroots. To overcome the severe threat that fascism and neofascism pose to the Earth and its peoples, only mutual aid and cooperation on a vast scale can succeed. We must press forward by struggling militantly against Trumpism, the “radical” right, Third Positionism, “autonomous nationalism” and authoritarian leftism alike. Against these myriad political and philosophical absurdities, let us advance global anti-authoritarian revolution.

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Review: The Anarchist Roots of Geography

March 29, 2017

Springer cover

Originally published on Marx and Philosophy, 28 March 2017

In The Anarchist Roots of Geography, a “proverbial call to nonviolent arms,” Simon Springer discusses some of the past, present, and future relationships between anarchism and geography. He mobilizes the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, and Lev Tolstoy to denounce global capitalism and oppression—declaring, with Kropotkin, that anarchism is “what geography ought to be”—while also affirming the more contemporary approaches of Saul Newman and Todd May, who have advanced the idea of “post-structuralist anarchism” in opposition to classical approaches through a turn to thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others. Springer therefore presents his own perspective as amounting variably to “anarchism without adjectives” or “post-anarchism,” neither of which is the same. The former refers to the synthesist approach favored by Voline and others in opposition to the anarcho-communist Platformism advanced by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, and other exiled militants following the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Post-anarchism, a more recent development, integrates the nihilism, irrationalism, and defeatism of postmodern analyses in expressing opposition to social revolution and universalism as “totalizing narratives.” In this way, while The Anarchist Roots of Geography provides many compelling insights, it itself presents a synthesis of a number of anarchist or anarchistic approaches that cannot so readily be melded together.

Springer’s main project in this volume is to bring geography back to its radical anarchist roots, thus issuing a course correction of sorts beyond those set by the hegemonic presence of Marxists within academic geography departments starting in the late 1960s. The author presents the works of Kropotkin and Reclus as luminous alternatives to the ethnocentrism and state-centricity that has plagued the discipline since its origins. Springer wishes to wield anarchism, defined as the practice of mutual aid with the concern for universal geography in mind, to undermine statism, capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, and speciesism (or anthroparchy). For him, anarchism is the “only meaningful form of postcolonialism” (38), as the State-form effectively continues colonization even after formal independence, and—following Reclus—it must centrally express concern for the integrity of the planetary system by means of nature conservation, vegetarianism, and opposition to animal cruelty. Springer here traces the philosophical arc linking Reclus with social ecology and the animal-rights and animal-liberation movements. The author holds that direct action, cooperation, and prefigurative politics can allow humanity to affiliate by free federation, reestablish equality among humans, rebuild the commons, and overturn the domination of nature. Taking after Proudhon (1840), who analyzed property as originating in the Roman concept of sovereignty, or patriarchal despotism, Springer defines property as violence and calls for insurrection—but not revolution—against oppression. Echoing Reclus, he emphasizes the place of beauty in the struggle, citing Albert Einstein’s view that “[o]ur task” must be to “wide[n] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (137), and he declares the importance of unity for anarchy, in parallel to the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Baruch de Spinoza.

Some of the specific suggestions Springer makes for future research into the intersection of anarchism with geography include the following topics:

  • State theory and sovereignty
  • Capital accumulation and flows, land rights, property relations
  • Gentrification, homelessness, housing, environmental justice
  • Labor, logistics, policing, and incarceration geographies
  • Critical geopolitics, geographies of debt and economic crisis, geographies of war and peace, etc.

In advocating an anarchist understanding of geography, Springer seeks to depose the dominance of Marxian and Marxist approaches within the discipline, holding these responsible for the perpetuation of State-centric analyses in place of a geographical exploration of alternatives to the State altogether. Springer argues against Marx’s statism and “dialectical” enthusiasm for colonialism, defending instead the anarchist emphasis on the need for consistency between means and ends. Stating openly that “[f]lirtation with authority has always been a central problem with Marxism” (158), he discusses how anarchists do not share Marx’s positivistic-utilitarian enthusiasm for the centralizing and despotic features of capitalism. In the anarchist view, capitalist exploitation and imperial domination are not considered necessary parts of the Geist. “The means of capitalism and its violences do not justify the eventual end state of communism, nor does this end justify such means” (52). For Springer, then, anarchism is a more integral approach than Marxism, as the former recognizes the multiple dimensions of oppression in opposition to the latter, which is said to focus almost exclusively on class, while misrepresenting anarchism as being opposed only to the State. Springer believes that Marxism allows no space for addressing oppressions outside of exploitation. Moreover, anarchists prescribe action in the here and now, rather than advocating a dialectical waiting period until the “objective conditions” are supposedly ripe.

Indeed, Springer shows how Proudhon’s analyses of property, the State, wage labor, exploitation, and religion were highly influential for Marx, despite the fact that the German Communist was reticent to acknowledge as much. As Proudhon wrote after Marx’s diatribe against him in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847): “The true meaning of Marx’s work is that he regrets that I have thought like him everywhere and that I was the first to say it.”

Springer also communicates the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker’s view that it was Proudhon who first expressed the labor theory of value, and he hypothesizes that it was Kropotkin’s years spent in Siberia which led this anarcho-communist to emphasize a naturalist, decentralized, agrarian, and cooperative vision for the future, in contrast to Marx’s centralist and industrialist-positivist views. For the present and future, the author calls for the creation of radical democracy, which arises when la part sans-part (“the part without part”) intervenes to disturb the established sovereign order, rebuilding the commons where now prevail exclusive spaces, whether they be private or public. Springer particularly endorses Murray Bookchin’s concept of the “Commune of communes” as a restatement of the “continua[l] unfolding” of organization by free federation, and affirms Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualization of struggle to be a means without end, or infinitely demanding (Simon Critchley).

Springer certainly presents several critical contributions to a revolutionary analysis and understanding of geography. Yet as stated before, there are philosophical and political tensions among the variegated sources he calls on to develop his argument. To take one example, he initially affirms the views of several classical anarchist revolutionists but then challenges Neil Smith’s call for a “revival of the revolutionary imperative” against capitalism and the State, preferring instead insurrection—defined as prefiguration, spontaneity, and a Stirnerist sense of disregarding oppressive structures rather than overthrowing them—because revolution is putatively governed by a “totalizing logic” and somehow “ageographical” (68). This questionable understanding of revolution to the side for the moment, it bears clarifying that Max Stirner was a reactionary individualist whose views are incompatible with those of the anarcho-communists. Yet this lapse on Springer’s part is one with his general approach of blurring distinct anarchist philosophies with ones that may seem anarchistic—most prominently, post-structuralism. To return to the question of revolution, the author favorably reproduces Newman’s dismissal of social revolution as a rationalist, Promethean, and authoritarian project, noting that “not everything needs to be remade” and that revolution is inseparable from tyranny (88). This attitude fundamentally contradicts the thought of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, and other anarchist militants. Indeed, absent a commitment to revolutionism, it becomes difficult to claim that “post-structuralist anarchism” is anarchist. The same is true for “post-anarchism,” a category that Springer embraces on multiple occasions in the text. To weld “post-anarchism” together with classical anarchism would require more than passing references to the supposed superiority of more contemporary anti-essentialist perspectives informed by Foucault, Butler, and company. Amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction, the accelerating destabilization of the climate, and Donald Trump’s war on the scientific method, why should we accept post-anarchism’s rejection of science, truth, and ethics? In point of fact, classical anarchism shows itself more appropriate to the times.

In distinction to the author’s endorsement of post-anarchism, Springer’s Tolstoyan advocacy of a peaceful uprising is intriguing but not entirely clear. The author argues that anarchism typically had a pacifist orientation to social change before Errico Malatesta, Alexander Berkman, and other militants came to publicly endorse tactics of assassination. Springer fails to mention that Kropotkin did so as well, and he misrepresents Emma Goldman’s trajectory as initially being supportive of counter-violence but then coming to pacifism by her life’s end—for the geographer overlooks Goldman’s support for armed struggle in the Spanish Revolution. Like Goldman, Springer is not a strict pacifist in that he allows for violent self-defense and endorses insurrection as forms of “permanent resistance.” Still, he is not very precise in the parameters of violence, nonviolence, and self-defense he discusses. What is clear is that the very possibilities for peace and emancipation require a different society. In this sense, Springer’s citation of Edward Said is poignantly apt: the “stability of the victors and rulers” must be “consider[ed] […] a state of emergency threatening the less fortunate with the danger of complete extinction.” Under the prevailing conditions in which capitalism and militarism indeed threaten human survival and planetary integrity, Springer is correct to emphasize the importance of “perpetual contestation” and “[e]xperimentation in and through space” (3). We must become the horizon!

Review: Critical Marxism in Mexico

November 25, 2016

cmim

Published on Marx and Philosophy25 November 2016

Stefan Gandler’s volume Critical Marxism in Mexico investigates the radical political philosophy of two twentieth-century exiles who became naturalized citizens of Mexico: the Spanish Marxist Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez (1915-2011) and the Ecuadorean leftist Bolívar Echeverría (1914-2010). Focusing on Latin America, this text places at its center the philosophical and practical critique of Eurocentrism. Indeed, the German Gandler envisions the book as being an initial step toward “overcoming Eurocentric bigotry,” and he declares that he is “profoundly convinced that Eurocentrism in its ‘philosophical’ and general forms […] is one of the principal reasons for the current disaster that humanity is living through at the global level,” considering its responsibility for vast material suffering and for repressing alternative forms of social organization. Given that Eurocentrism underpins capitalism, the critique of Eurocentrism in turn forms a central pillar of the “critical Marxism” developed by Sánchez Vázquez and Echeverría, in terms of their repudiation of the racism and positivism evinced at times by Marx, Engels, and many who have claimed Marxism. This alternative Marxism is critical also in that it is anti-Stalinist, non-Marxist-Leninist, relatively libertarian, and non-dogmatic.

Sánchez Vázquez is more practical, more revolutionary, and more based in Marx’s philosophical-humanist early writings than Echeverría, his fellow radical exile who took up residence in Mexico City in 1968, nearly three decades after Sánchez Vázquez arrived there as a refugee fleeing Franco’s victory in Spain. According to Gandler, the trajectory of Sánchez Vázquez’s life demonstrates that of the self-emancipation of a formerly orthodox socialist from intellectual error without his becoming a reformist or apologist or “forgetting the radical critique of everything existing which would be unthinkable without Marx.” For Sánchez Vázquez, theoretical knowledge depends on social transformation through praxis, defined by Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach” as “revolutionary, practical-critical activity.” Theory, in Sánchez Vázquez’s view, “cannot exist […] without reference to praxis.” The Spanish thinker considers Marx’s very emphasis on praxis the German communist’s philosophical revolution, as summarized in the well-known final thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Such immersion in Marx’s early writings strengthened Sánchez Vázquez’s resolve to resist the Soviet Union’s corruption of Marxism, as seen in the philosopher’s critique of Diamat in his 1955 masters thesis, and his resignation from the Communist Party following Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956). The Cuban Revolution, the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring, and the Mexican student movement of 1968 greatly moved Sánchez Vázquez. His doctoral dissertation and book Philosophy of Praxis (1967) provide a libertarian presentation of Marxism that is critical of Marx, Lenin, and their followers. Such an unorthodox interpretation led Sánchez Vázquez to be criticized precisely by Marxist-Leninists such as the Cuban Jorge Luis Acanda Gonzalez, who condemned the thinker in 1988 for denying the “importance of Lenin’s political & philosophical legacy” and advancing “practical and spontaneous conceptions of the revolution.” Yet Sánchez Vázquez’s very stress on praxis—echoing Marx—led him to become one of the foremost intellectuals of emancipation of his time. He engaged with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and focused his late efforts on Marxism and aesthetics, identifying the need for “a new sensibility, a new audience, a new aesthetic attitude” to be cultivated in post-revolutionary Cuba and more broadly. Sánchez Vázquez summarizes his philosophy in his 1985 autobiography, declaring that “socialism […] continues to be a necessary, desirable, and possible alternative.”

In contrast, Echeverría tells Gandler that, while he “agreed fully” with Sánchez Vázquez’s “critical vision of Marxism,” he was not his contemporary’s follower or disciple. Whereas Sánchez Vázquez privileges emancipatory consciousness and praxis, Echeverría focuses more on ordinary consciousness and is skeptical about the possibilities of praxis. For this reason, for him, it is more a “question of discovering political possibilities within alienation.” Influenced by Heidegger, Echeverría traveled to West Germany in 1961 to study with him, for he considered the phenomenologist to be “the true revolutionary” philosopher. Gandler rightly takes issue with Echeverría’s failure to recognize Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the 1933 Nazi takeover of Germany, in parallel to the thinker’s questionable reflections on the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition, Gandler discusses Echeverría’s questionably uncritical stance on the USSR, situating it as being typical of the Latin American left at the time, which considered the Soviet Union a necessary counterbalance to US imperialism. Nonetheless, despite these problematic aspects, Echeverría developed a revolutionary concept of the intellect, which he believed must “abandon the European-bourgeois principles and ideology to complete philosophically the definitive process of decolonization, which is demanded practically by the dominated classes.” In this sense, the Ecuadorean philosopher considered Marxism “the “philosophy of workers’ struggle, the culmination and overcoming of all metaphysical European traditions.”

Yet to the matter of the fall—or, rather, destruction—of the Berlin Wall that took place on November 9, 1989, Gandler criticizes Echeverría for his perceived celebration in the Cuadernos Políticos he edited of the smashing of the “anti-fascist protective barrier,” as it was known in East Germany, on the fifty-first anniversary of Kristallnacht. In contrast to the dominant narrative of that historical event as being liberatory or anti-authoritarian, Gandler frames it as the action of a hysterically reactionary, State-sanctioned mob that sought to tear down an “unwanted monument to the millions” murdered in impunity by the Nazis. This lucid and challenging assessment yields at times in the text to questionable endorsements of the claims made by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) regarding the putatively enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans in the genocide of the European Jews (Ha’Shoah), as based in the idea of an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” supposedly deeply-rooted in German civilization and Christianity. These historical distortions about German participation in the Holocaust have been refuted adroitly by Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in their Nation on Trial (1997), and it is unfortunate to see Gandler resurrect them within a revolutionary analysis of genocide. Nevertheless, continuing in this sense, he shares Echeverría’s moving commentary on the Shoah as being, rather than merely “an accidental holocaust provoked by a madman,” the “result of a failure of the Left itself: the excessive sacrifice to be paid by the social body for the triumph of the anti-communist counter-revolution in the Europe of bourgeois civilization.”

In light of the genocides for which capitalism bears responsibility, the notion of praxis takes on a special urgency. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx defines praxis as revolutionary because it “transforms reality.” The stress that Sánchez Vázquez places on this category echoes that previously made by Gramsci, who referred to Marxism in his Prison Notebooks as the “philosophy of praxis” in order precisely to recognize the centrality of revolutionary activity to this philosophy. Praxis poses a great threat to authority, capital, and the State precisely because it represents the ever-present risk of the “spontaneous rebellion of the oppressed and exploited” beyond the strictures of the Iron Cage. As Gandler declares, “[t]he concept of praxis […] contains an element of rebellion against all those who, from their desk, from the Party headquarters, or from the workers’ fatherland, aspire to lead the activities of the rebels of all countries.”

In parallel to Sánchez Vázquez’s emphasis on praxis, Echeverría contributes to the deepening of a non-dogmatic Marxism by criticizing Marx, Engels, and many of their followers for their ethnocentrism, naïve progressivism, and determinism—this, while dialectically acknowledging the clearly emancipatory and revolutionary analyses pervading Marxian analysis. After all, as Gandler stresses, it was Marx’s horror at “the destruction of human existences, of children, of the populations of entire regions” that led him to “pic[k] up his pen and wr[i]te Capital” (1867). Yet Marx and Engels, particularly early on, held racist views that are not totally inseparable from their overall method: in 1849, after the U.S. defeated Mexico and appropriated the Southwest, Engels hailed the result, which he considered to have been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization,” as California had been “taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it.” Moreover, Marx and Engels employed anti-Slavic prejudice during their struggle against Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists in the First International—doubtless in part in response to Bakunin’s own Germanophobia—while both Marx and Bakunin are known for their anti-Semitic comments, however much worse the latter’s were.

For his part, Echeverría uses Marxist analysis to theorize that the oppressed countries of the Global South are not in a “pre-capitalist phase,” but rather that they have been fully subjected to capitalism since its birth. In this sense, all the world’s countries are capitalist, but the system of accumulation requires differing levels of industrialization and political power for different regions. Moreover, the philosopher takes issues with the deterministic, mechanical interpretation of history that Marx and Engels bequeathed to the world, and he outright claims Revolution to be a modern myth and a mirror-image of bourgeois delusion. Thus, whereas he clearly identifies the twentieth century as the “era of unprecedented genocides and ecocides” and wishes for an egalitarian universalism of all peoples, Echeverría is left with only conceptually envisioning the chance for a non- or post-capitalist modernity.

Echeverría identifies four ethe, or cultural spirits, as upholding Eurocentrism and capitalist modernity.

  • The currently dominant realist ethos, which is associated with Nordic-Protestant Europe, defined as principally engaging in denial regarding the destructiveness of capitalism precisely while it pretends that production and consumption are more important than anything else. It also denies the possibility of an alternative world.
  • The classic ethos, associated with Western Europe, which differs from realism only in terms of its recognition of the tragedy but necessity of capital.
  • The romantic ethos, associated with Central Europe, which supposedly transforms all of life under capitalism into a great adventure wherein entrepreneurs become heroes.
  • The baroque ethos, associated with the Mediterranean region, Catholicism, and the Iberian conquest of the New World, which is said to identify some of the contradictions in capitalist society but not be able to conceive of the possibility of abolishing it.

Perhaps a combination in the surge of realistic-romantic sentiments can help explain the recent election of Trump, bolstered by white nationalism—while Clinton and Obama’s concession speeches could be considered expressions of the classic ethos. Yet Echeverría can justly be critiqued for reducing Romanticism to an approach that naturalizes capitalism and oppression, for it certainly has served to propagate liberatory impulses. Writing in the text’s prologue, Michael Löwy is right to declare that the Romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Morris, Ernst Bloch, and others is hostile to capitalism, not integral to it.

In sum, Gandler has provided his readers an illuminating investigation into critical Marxism, the necessity of praxis, and the critique of Eurocentrism. Yet the question must be raised, as the author does, of just how anti-Eurocentric it is to explore the thought of two intellectuals—one of them Spanish—who focused above all on European writers. This doubt notwithstanding, in a world in which the Western core-imperial societies are lurching evermore to right-wing reaction, fascism, and “open-self destruction,” it may well be the case, as Gandler asserts, that only movements from the periphery will be able to stop the capitalist death-train. It is to be hoped, then, that resistance elements in imperialist countries can join with their international comrades to advance the cause of critical Marxism or libertarian socialism, which “continues to be the most fertile theory for those of us who are convinced of the need to transform the world in which today there exists not only the exploitation and oppression of [humanity] and peoples, but also a mortal risk for the survival of humanity [and nature].”

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

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On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

Chris Hedges: “What It Means to Be a Socialist”

September 24, 2015

This is a selection from Chris Hedges’ recent column, “What It Means to Be a Socialist” (Truthdig, 9/20/15), no doubt written in part as a response to the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) erroneous claim to adhere to this radical political philosophy.

We will, as Friedrich Engels wrote, make a transition to either socialism or barbarism. If we do not dismantle global capitalism we will descend into the Hobbesian chaos of failed states, mass migrations—which we are already witnessing—and endless war. Populations, especially in the global South, will endure misery and high mortality rates caused by collapsing ecosystems and infrastructures on a scale not seen since perhaps the black plague. There can be no accommodation with global capitalism. We will overthrow this system or be crushed by it. And at this moment of crisis we need to remind ourselves what being a socialist means and what it does not mean.

First and foremost, all socialists are unequivocal anti-militarists and anti-imperialists […].

These neoliberal forces are rapidly destroying the earth. Polar ice caps and glaciers are melting. Temperatures and sea levels are rising. Species are going extinct. Floods, monster hurricanes, mega-droughts and wildfires have begun to eat away at the planet. The great mass migrations predicted by climate scientists have begun. And even if we stopped all carbon emissions today we would still endure the effects of catastrophic climate change. Out of the disintegrating order comes the nihilistic violence that always characterizes societies that fall apart—mass shootings at home and religious persecution, beheadings and executions by individuals that neoliberalism and globalism have demonized, attacked and discarded as human refuse.

I cannot promise you we will win. I cannot promise you we will even survive as a species. But I can promise you that an open and sustained defiance of global capitalism and the merchants of death, along with the building of a socialist movement, is our only hope. I am a parent, as are many of you. We have betrayed our children. We have squandered their future. And if we rise up, even if we fail, future generations, and especially those who are most precious to us, will be able to say we tried, that we stood up and fought for life. The call to resistance, which will require civil disobedience and jail time, is finally a call to the moral life. Resistance is not about what we achieve, but about what it allows us to become. In the end, I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.

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.

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

April 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mijail_bakunin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27Subaltern02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

[4]Dolgoff, 68.

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

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

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Bender, 64.

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

[11]Fernbach, 236–237.

[12]Fernbach, 236.

[13]Fernbach, 230.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

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

[17]Quoted in Ibid.

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

[19]Ibid.

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

[21]Ibid.

[22]Ibid.

[23]Ibid.

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

[25]Schmidt, 20.

[26]Schmidt, 20–21.

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

[28]ibid.

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

[30]Ibid.

[31]Ramnath, 36.

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

[33]Ramnath, 37.

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

[35]Ibid.

[36]Dolgoff, 308.

[37]Quoted in Guha, 5.

[38]Quoted in Ibid.

[39]Guha, 191.

[40]Guha 6.

[41]Dolgoff, 191.

[42]Guha, 18.

[43]Dolgoff, 57.

[44]Guha, 4.

[45]Guha, 5.

[46]Dolgoff, 201.

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

In 2014, Israel murdered more Palestinians than in any other year since 1967

March 31, 2015

Israeli armed policemen stand guard behind Palestinian Muslims performing the traditional Friday prayers near the Old City in East Jerusalem

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 2014 was the single-bloodiest year for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since the expansion of the Jewish State’s enterprise in 1967, when it seized the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai from Jordan and Egypt, respectively, through the Six-Day War.  Israeli forces murdered over 2,300 Palestinians and injured more than 17,000 others last year.  Nearly all of these casualties resulted from the State-terror that was “Operation Protective Edge,” which the Likudnik fascists waged against the people of Gaza last summer, alongside the brutal repression of solidarity protests with Gaza emanating from the West Bank and inside the 1948 territories proper, as of mobilizations that were taken by Palestinians to express their outrage at the kidnapping and summary execution of 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir by settler fanatics in July 2014, an atrocity which predated Israel’s commencement of indiscriminate terror-bombings against Gaza by only a few days.  The mass-death and destruction that Israel imposed on the people of Gaza last summer cruelly spanned three of the four weeks of the month of Ramadan last year, leading to the “saddest Eid al-Fitr” celebrated in Palestine to mark the end of Ramadan—the month of revelation and illumination—since the Six-Day War.

Solidarity with the Palestinian people!  Long live the Palestinian struggle!  Down with occupation!  Down with colonialism!  For radical struggle against capital, authority, militarism, and the State!

yom el-3rd

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

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

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

Published originally on Anarkismo

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

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

– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 5, scene 8

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of Modern Syria

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

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

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

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

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

March 2011: The Beginning of the Uprising

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

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

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

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

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

Islamization of the Anti-Assad Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise of the Rojava Revolution?

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

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

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

Conclusion: Historical and Philosophical Implications of the Syrian Uprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4Erlich, 50-57.

5Ibid 60-61.

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

7Hokayem 172-4.

8Erlich 172.

9Ibid 209.

10Erlich 146-149, 71.

11Massouh, 60; Erlich 67-68.

12Hokayem 22.

13Ibid 26-27, 43.

14Cited in Massouh, 63.

15Achcar 177.

16Ibid 178.

17Ibid 178-179.

18Hokayem 45-49.

19Ibid 54.

20Ibid 40-41.

21Ibid 57.

22Ibid 58.

23Achcar 174.

24Ibid 182.

25Hokayem 69.

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

27Hokayem 81.

28Erlich, 250-255.

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

30Massouh, 58-59.

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

32Hokayem 11.

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

34Hokayem 80.

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

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

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

38TATORT Kurdistan, 158-60.

Second Friday Action in New York for Gaza: #NYC2Gaza, Our Liberation is Bound Together

July 27, 2014

On Friday 25 July, hundreds of activists in solidarity with the Palestinian people participated in an action in midtown Manhattan, #NYC2Gaza: Our Liberation is Bound Together.  This was the second demonstration organized on a Friday this month to protest the fascist Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, which began on 8 July.  Israel’s attack has now claimed over 1000 Palestinian lives and forcibly displaced over 130,000.  The action began at the New York Public Library on 42nd St., proceeding to become a protest-tour of various banks that profit from and help finance the Zionist settler-colonial project–particularly the Israel Discount Bank (IDB), which was painted red by activists who staged a die-in in commemoration of the martyrs of Shujaiyya neighborhood in Gaza.  We also marched through the Diamond District on 47th St., where we were confronted by throngs of rabid Zio-fascists.  A much larger mobilization involving thousands of people then took place later that day in Midtown.

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Apart from this action, a recent Gallup poll (22-23 July) investigating US attitudes toward Israel’s current bombardment of Gaza shows youth, women, people of color, and the less formally educated to be in the lead for humanity–a result that should surprise no one.  It is equally unsurprising that white U.S. males should be so supportive of Israeli fascism.

US support or opposition to israel

In terms of analyzing Israel’s crimes in Gaza, it has recently come to light that the military leadership of the Jewish State itself admits that the abduction and murder of the three settler youth outside Khalil last month–the event which sparked the intensification of conflict that ultimately led to the current massacre of Gazans–was not the work of Hamas, despite the fact that the Israeli military arrested over 600 presumed affiliates of the organization in the West Bank following the disappearance of these youth.  Moreover, and significantly, the 8 July report published by the Meir Amit Terrorism and Intelligence Center, a renowned Israeli security “think tank,” notes that Hamas’s rocket-fire began only after Israel killed 6 resistance operatives on the night of 7 July, thus breaking the previously existing ceasefire that had held for 19 months, since the end of Israel’s prior bombing campaign in Gaza (November 2012).  In the weeks between the disappearance of the three youth and the commencement of open hostilities, furthermore, Israel struck some 60 targets in the Gaza Strip.