Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

John le Carré: A Radical Spy Novelist Playing with the System

March 2, 2019


“I am not a nihilist. I am a humanist. If it is given to us to play a part for the future, we must play it.” – Katya Orlova, The Russia House (1989)

Spanning five decades, from the Cold War to the present, John le Carré’s best-selling collection of spy novels are well-known for the way they immerse the reader in the world of international relations, espionage, and statecraft. The author’s aptitude for transporting his audiences in this way stems at least partly from the six years he worked in British Intelligence, both MI5 and MI6 (1958-1964). Yet, while le Carré—or David Cornwell, to use his given name—was a spy and focuses his literary output mostly on spying and the State intrigue, he shows himself in his fictional writings to also be highly critical of the hegemony of State and capitalism.

In a dialectical sense, le Carré “plays” with his novels to similarly “play” the system: while, at first glance, readers of le Carré are suffused with the ruthless worlds of statist power plays, militarism, and realpolitik, soon they are confronted with grand indictments of the domination of capitalism, imperialism, and the State over humanity. The novelist’s political perspective is generally anti-authoritarian, rationalist, and humanist—like that of Katya Orlova from The Russia House, who is an enthusiast of the anarchist Alexander Herzen, the “father of Russian socialism” and Populism—and it was opposed to both sides of the Cold War during its existence, just as the author has been critical of the persistence of capitalist hegemony that has followed during the past two-plus decades. In a sense, le Carré’s writings may be considered a sort of Trojan Horse within the capitalist citadel, but we can’t be sure exactly how much his subversive attitudes concretely influence or have influenced ongoing or future revolt against the system.

From Call for the Dead (1961) to The Mission Song (2006), le Carré weaves stories and conflicts that lay bare the dehumanization, instrumentalization, and super-exploitation underpinning capitalist society—accomplishing this precisely through gaming the system, by setting such critique within mass-, seemingly mainstream media. Absolute Friends (2003), a novel about two revolutionary anarchists, British and German, may come closest to le Carré’s own views—or if not, we can at least say that he is very sympathetic to such ideas.

To investigate how le Carré presents his social critique in discreet and then increasingly fervent fashion over the course of his career, this essay summarizes the pertinent details of the plots of 11 of the author’s novels, and then passes to a discussion and conclusion about the militant perspectives found therein, being like collectivities of free radicals joyously roaming to destabilize unjust structures.

Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The story of Call for the Dead (1961) revolves around one Samuel Fennan, a former Marxist and Communist Party member working in the British Foreign Office (FO), who unexpectedly dies in his home by gunshot, presumably due to suicide. Yet le Carré’s hero George Smiley, an MI6 officer who had just met with Fennan hours before his death, probes more deeply into the case, only to discover that he was in fact murdered by Hans-Dieter Mundt, a hitman working under Dieter Frey. Dieter is an operative of the Abteilung—the East German Security Service1—and a former radical student of Smiley’s whose father had been killed by the Nazis and who himself concretely resisted Fascism by bursting into the British consulate in Dresden during World War II, demanding that the Allies do more to protect the Jews. The cover-up of Samuel’s murder is assisted by his wife Elsa, who herself is Jewish.

Dieter orders Fennan’s murder out of suspicion that he had become Smiley’s agent after seeing the two together, afraid that the Abteilung’s operation in Britain had been compromised. While Fennan had been sharing intelligence with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a continuation of sorts of his former Marxism and anti-fascism, Smiley discovers that he had to some degree cooled in his fervor for sharing information in the months leading up to his death, possibly reflecting disillusionment with the USSR after its suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This finding leads Smiley to realize that it was really Elsa who was spying for East Germany, and that Samuel had initiated contact with him precisely to raise the point. Although her performance sustaining the lie that Fennan had indeed killed himself does not in the end save her from being sacrificed by Dieter as he tries to escape a trap set by Smiley—one that ends with the East German agent dying at Smiley’s hands, drowned in London’s Thames River—the British spy concludes that her support for the GDR could not be divorced from her desire for world peace as well as her immediate horror at a resurgent, militaristic West Germany. Dieter and Mundt, on the other hand, come in for criticism for their established Lenino-Stalinist tendency to violate the means toward the end of realizing socialism, as seen in their disregard for the lives of Samuel and Elsa Fennan, among others.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) continues depicting the struggle between MI6 and the Abteilung. It opens with the British protagonist, Alec Leamas, head of MI6 in Berlin, watching as an East German agent of his is shot dead while trying to escape the Eastern Sector. This is the fourth agent of Leamas’ murdered in succession by the GDR—precisely on the orders of Mundt, the new head of the Abteilung’s Counter-Espionage division, following his return after having escaped Britain. These killings lead Leamas to be declared useless to British Intelligence, and he falls into a downward spiral of alcoholism and illness. Yet this disregard for self is to some degree feigned, a ploy to attract the attention of the Abteilung within the larger goal of vengeance and the destruction of Mundt. In their conversation discussing this mission, Leamas and Control—MI6 chief—acknowledge the similarity in methods used by the Soviet and Western powers. Referring to Mundt, Control observes:

“‘He is a very distasteful man. Ex-Hitler Youth and all that kind of thing. Not at all the intellectual kind of Communist. A practitioner of the cold war.’

“’Like us,’ Leamas observed drily.”

After formally leaving MI6, Leamas briefly works at a library in London, there to meet the Communist Elizabeth Gold. The two become lovers. Yet Leamas cuts the relationship off to proceed with his mission, which sees him imprisoned for three months for having assaulted a grocer who denied him credit—with all of this being part of his cover. Just after his release, Leamas is recruited by the East Germans, who take him to the Netherlands and then to the GDR to be “debriefed” regarding the secrets he knows. After passing into the GDR, Leamas is interrogated by Fiedler, a prominent German-Jewish member of the Abteilung and the son of Marxist refugees from WWII, who explains to him the Stalinist view that human life is but a means toward the end of the construction of Party Socialism, thus delineating his theoretical differences with Christianity, which the Western authorities putatively follow but in reality utterly ignore.2 Leamas reveals to Fiedler that the latter’s superior, Mundt, is in fact a British agent, and that he was allowed to leave Britain following the various murders he committed after coming to an agreement with MI6, which has been sending him vast quantities of money in exchange for information from the East German State. Mundt becomes aware of this plot to oust him, and orders the arrest of both Leamas and Fiedler—with the latter receiving “special treatment” by Mundt the former Nazi for being Jewish—but not before Fiedler had applied to the State for a warrant to arrest Mundt as an imperialist agent.

Thereafter follows a dramatic tribunal at which Fiedler argues his case, detailing the ease with which Mundt turned to murder “in the name of the people to protect his fascist treachery and advanc[e] his own career,” whereas the defense accuses Fiedler in turn of collaborating with imperialism to undermine GDR security, claiming the prosecution’s evidence to be merely circumstantial. The counter-coup is completed, nonetheless, when Mundt’s counsel calls Liz Gold as a witness—Gold having been mysteriously and suddenly “invited” as a member of the British Communist Party to visit the GDR—to have her reveal how George Smiley in fact had supported her financially following Leamas’ disappearance. Smiley, it would seem, did so specifically to discredit the accusations against Mundt and so allow for the elimination of his subordinate Fiedler, who had been suspecting the British mole for some time. As the tables are turned and Fiedler comes to be the one to be immediately executed, MI6’s “filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin” is revealed. The saved Mundt then provides Leamas and Gold with the means to escape to the West. During this journey, Gold becomes le Carré’s voice, which critiques the authoritarian instrumentalization of life carried on by East and West alike: the supposed opposites are seen to converge in their grossly inhuman behavior, discarding Fiedler to uphold an ex-Nazi double agent. Ultimately, as Leamas and Gold arrive at the Berlin Wall and attempt to scale it, they are shot dead by GDR sentries.

The Karla Trilogy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) concerns the fall of Control and dismissal of Smiley following a botched mission in Czechoslovakia, the ascendancy to top MI6 positions of four officers suspected of being double-agents, and Smiley’s counter-mobilization to investigate and defeat these moles. The text introduces Karla, the Soviet intelligence chief, who is shown to have penetrated MI6 through the recruitment of Bill Haydon, head of London Station. Smiley continues to face off against his Soviet counterpart in the next two volumes of the so-called Karla trilogy.

In The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), le Carré portrays a shaken British Intelligence being resurrected by Smiley, as he focuses on the new MI6 chief’s machinations to avenge the “fall” engineered by Karla through his compromise of Haydon. In his study of Haydon’s treason, Smiley discovers a “gold seam” of half a million dollars run by Karla to a bank in Vientiane, Laos. The journalist Jerry Westerby, an aristocrat by origin and a Southeast Asia correspondent, is dispatched to begin investigating in British-occupied Hong Kong. There, amidst the raging U.S. war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Westerby discovers that the gold seam is being directed to Drake Ko, a prominent exiled Chinese capitalist and former Kuomintang (KMT) conscript, whose brother Nelson, having fought the KMT as a Communist in Shanghai and thereafter studied shipbuilding in the USSR, is a high-ranking insider within the Chinese Defense Ministry and an agent of Karla’s (that is, Soviet intelligence). The gold seam sent to Drake, then, represents the sum to be paid to Nelson if he can manage to escape China. Continuing his investigation, Westerby travels to a Phnom Penh besieged by the Khmer Rouge to learn that Drake had commissioned a Mexican pilot, Ricardo—himself a collaborator with the U.S. military in its wars on the region—to run opium into Red China in exchange for extracting his brother. Though this plan didn’t come to fruition, Westerby suggests to Ricardo that MI6 will use this information to blackmail Drake—and shortly thereafter his fellow journalist Luke is assassinated, having been mistaken for Westerby.

At the same time, MI6 and its CIA “Cousins” learn that Drake is imminently orchestrating a new operation to extract his brother, this time by sea. The Western spy agencies’ plans to instead capture Nelson for exploitative purposes, taken together with Luke’s murder, lead Westerby to rebel and warn Drake as Nelson’s fleet of fishing junks approach the rendezvous point on Po Toi Island, south of Hong Kong. Yet this intervention proves useless, for MI6 and the CIA launch a joint strike involving helicopters to interdict Nelson and kill Westerby just as the former’s sampans reach shore—with the hope of reuniting the brothers thus crushed. Once the honorable schoolboy is eliminated, the CIA proceeds to transfer Nelson to the U.S. for thorough interrogation, and the MI6 chief is awarded retirement for having secured a major agent of Karla’s.

Smiley’s People (1979) brings the titular character out of retirement following the murder in London of General Vladimir, a former Soviet general who had been Smiley’s agent. Vladimir, the Estonian believer in communism, is killed on Karla’s orders after having been written by the Soviet émigré Maria Andreyevna Ostrokova regarding contact she had had with a Soviet agent who suggested that she could soon be reunited with her daughter Alexandra if she would only apply for French citizenship on her behalf. Yet as Smiley discovers through his probe into Vladimir’s murder, this entreaty was made as an unprofessional attempt by Karla himself to secure treatment in Switzerland for his mentally ill daughter Tatiana, alias Alexandra, who was diagnosed politically in the USSR with schizophrenia. In parallel, Tatiana’s own mother and Karla’s mistress had been purged for holding that “history had taken the wrong course” in the Soviet Union, and for not being “obedient to history.” It was presumably to avoid a similar fate for his daughter as a psychical non-conformist that led Karla to smuggle her to a hospital abroad.

As Soviet agents relentlessly pursue Maria Ostrokova to silence her once and for all and so complete the cover-up of General Vladimir’s murder, Smiley mobilizes to counter Karla, ultimately presenting him with an ultimatum whereby he could defect to the West and save his daughter’s life or remain in the Soviet Union as MI6 released this information to the Soviet authorities, inexorably leading to Karla’s destruction and presumably Tatiana’s as well. How ironic that the top Soviet spy master would be compromised through love for his daughter! Smiley and le Carré alike recognize this gambit as representing the utter ruthlessness by which is secured relative superiority and hegemony in the Cold War in particular and international relations generally. This is commentary that clearly critiques the infamous “prisoners’ dilemma” of game theory, which has been used by the ‘experts in legitimation’ to excuse militarism and oppression.

The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) depicts a Mossad operation to use Charlie, a young radical British actress, to penetrate and disrupt a militant group called Palestine Agony, being comprised of two brothers, Salim and Khalil. The context is a series of deadly bombings against Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe ordered by Khalil in reprisal for the ongoing Occupation of Palestine and the intensifying bombardment of the positions of exiled Palestinian groups in Lebanon. Salim and Khalil’s family themselves had been displaced first from Palestine to Jordan, then to Syria, and lastly Lebanon.

Following a new Mossad directive to diversify the identity of its operatives beyond being exclusively Jewish, the Israeli agent Joseph kidnaps Charlie on vacation in Mykonos and transports her to his handlers, Martin Kurtz and Litvak, who exploitatively subject her to interrogation, psychologically manipulating her—an anti-apartheid activist, pacifist, nuclear marcher, anti-vivisectionist, anti-fascist, and critic of Israel—into becoming the very opposite of who she believes herself to be. After having thus been broken, Charlie is guided through her transition by her captor Joseph, who takes the protagonist on a journey of discovery of Palestine, whereby he becomes Salim and she plays the part of his lover.

Though this education is imparted by an Israeli oppressor rather than a Palestinian survivor, le Carré makes clear that the entire colonialist project of Israeli State-building is built on the dispossession of the Palestinian population, and that with each act of counter-violence taken by Palestinian militants, the Israeli military takes the lives of dozens times more Palestinians. Yet her first mission as an Israeli-Palestinian double agent is to drive a car laden with explosives from Greece through Yugoslavia to Austria. This same car explodes after arriving to its destination, while Salim is driving it to Munich with an accomplice.

Fleeing to the UK after this naked assassination, which is entirely consistent with established Israeli policy,3 Charlie learns that she is under investigation by the Home Office for being an Israeli agent—only that, while her house is ransacked by the police, she is allowed to leave the place unharmed. She then activates emergency channels with Khalil’s group, and clandestinely she is sent to Beirut, where she experiences Israeli siege first-hand and commits herself to the Anti-Imperialist Revolution, having become enamored by the beauty of the Palestinians’ sumoud, or steadfastness. Among other things, Charlie’s Commander Tayeh teaches her to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism—echoing Salim and Khalil’s view that anti-Semitism is a Christian invention (as well as Hamad Dabashi’s emphasis on the common Judeo-Islamic philosophical tradition).

After being recalled from Beirut, Charlie finally meets Khalil, who convinces her to accept a mission to assassinate the Jewish Professor Minkel, a public advocate of Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories who does not agree with the Palestinian demand for a single, bi-national State. As he is a “moderate,” Minkel must be eliminated, according to Khalil, who believes in an extreme employment of counter-violence by Palestinians against both Israel and all Jews. Charlie ruthlessly delivers the suitcase-bomb to Minkel before he is scheduled to give a public address, presumably killing him and several others off-stage. Subsequently, Charlie presents Mossad with its coup, for she meets the delighted Khalil again and reveals his position, leading Joseph and company to burst in and kill him in cold blood. Charlie then returns to the UK, where the Mossad has once again made inquiries with the police to ensure that she need fear no prosecution, in addition to giving her access to the inheritance of a recently deceased friend, just as the Israeli war-machine assassinates Tayeh and invades Lebanona development that, as le Carré summarizes, “meant roughly that bulldozers were brought in to bury the bodies and complete what the tanks and artillery bombing raids had started.”

The book’s title is a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s depiction in Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) of Kattrina, one of Anna Fierling’s three children, all of whom perish over the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648): Kattrina most courageously by constantly drumming to inspire the peasants’ defense of the town of Halle from the Emperor’s troops, leading to her targeted assassination.

The Russia House

The Russia House (1989) tells the story of the publisher-spy B. Scott Blair, or Barley, and his intrigues in the USSR with Katya Orlova, a romantic revolutionary, and Yakov Savelyev, a dissident Soviet nuclear physicist known as “Goethe” to his friends. During the gradualist period of glasnost and perestroika overseen by Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1985, Savelyev/Goethe writes a manuscript detailing Soviet military secrets in order to precipitate the collapse of the arms race between the US/NATO and the USSR. Orlova acts as his go-between with Barley, specifying that the first-hand report Goethe has composed reveals Soviet research into the development of particularly atrocious weapons of mass destruction, makes public Soviet strategic nuclear-weapons policy, and explores various other vast ethical failures of the “Red Tsars” in the Cold War. Goethe, whose father was killed while participating in an uprising at the Vorkuta Gulag, is said to primarily be influenced by a certain nineteenth-century Russian known as Vladimir Pecherin, though this may well be a pseudonym for Mikhail Bakunin, for Pecherin “hates [his] native land and avidly await[s] its ruins,” and in the prospect of these “discern[s] the dawn of universal renaissance.”

In seeking to make public the nuclear secrets to which he has special access, Goethe aims at cutting short the Cold War, thus putting an end to the grave threat posed by nuclear weapons amidst highly militaristic competition between the superpowers.iv In this way, he expresses his belief in the revolutionary potential of science without borders—his “frantic dream of unleashing the forces of sanity.”

Barley, whose father was a Fabian socialist publisher who promoted Soviet literature, is a bit of a rogue himself. During his first meeting with Goethe, he tells his counterpart, presumably in good faith, that the Western States consciously accelerated the arms race to try to bankrupt the USSR, and that such imperial militarism in turn served as the pretext for the Soviets to continue “run[ning] a garrison state.” Barley scoffs at the hegemonic Western idea that the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) through nuclear annihilation had “kept the peace” since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pointing to the wars on Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. He expresses clearly his belief that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that does away with militarism, imperialism, and the “elective dictatorship” of parliamentary capitalism. He thus finds a willing partner and co-conspirator in Orlova, as she wishes to “move together to destroy the destruction and castrate the monster we have created”—this, by facilitating the publication of Goethe’s manuscript. Indeed, when faced with Barley’s inquiries into Orlova’s national pride and love for her two children in light of her participation in this plot, the militant replies by saying that she and Goethe prefer the fall of the USSR to the destruction of the world, and that she must think of all the world’s children, not just her own, when considering her choices. Her courageous commitment is likely inspired to some degree by her uncle Matvey, a revolutionary follower of Lev Tolstoy.

The tragic hero Goethe is ultimately discovered by the Soviet authorities and summarily executed. Barley is similarly arrested and imprisoned as a political prisoner, but he escapes death and saves Katya and her family in exchange for divulging secrets of British intelligence to his tormentors.

Modern Trilogy

Le Carré’s Tailor of Panama (1996) is set in a Panama City marred by gross social inequality, with the “cocaine towers” of the financial district overlooking vast swathes of impoverished proletarian districts in this riverine environment. The action takes place after the U.S. invasion (1989-1990) to depose Manuel Noriega—a former CIA agent—in the run-up to the transfer of control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. military to local authorities that occurred in 1999.

Andy Osnard, a former MI6 agent assigned to the country by a revanchist conglomerate of private interests tasked with the mission of preventing the Canal from being sold off to any rivals of the West, coercively recruits Harry Pendel, a British expatriate tailor with a past history of imprisonment in the UK for insurance fraud, into being his source among the Panamanian elite he serves. Threatened by Osnard with having his criminal past revealed to his wife and children, Pendel learns from the Panamanian president of a Japanese plot to purchase the Canal and communicates this to his handler, setting in motion a joint mobilization by the British and U.S. military-security apparatuses to reinvade Panama and thus ensure continued neocolonial control.

Toward this end, Osnard exploits Pendel’s largely invented idea of a “Silent Opposition” to be led by personal friends who previously had organized against Noriega, including the tailor’s assistant Marta and his comrade Mickie. When Mickie in turn takes his life out of fear of returning to political imprisonment after the authorities, having become aware of the propagation of Pendel’s fantasies, increasingly harass him, the U.S. and British use the pretext of his execution for renewed military intervention. Osnard then appropriates for himself the $15 million destined emergently by the U.S. and Britain governments for the operations of the spectral oppositional group, fleeing in a private jet to Switzerland as U.S. attack helicopters initiate their assault on Panama City.

The Constant Gardener (2001) revolves around the partnership of Tessa Abbott, a British radical, and Justin Quayle, a British diplomat stationed in Kenya. The book opens with the announcement that Tessa has been found murdered with her medical colleague, Dr. Bloom, near Lake Turkana. Justin investigates the killings, ultimately discovering that the victims had co-authored a report exposing medical experimentation carried out by KDH, a Western pharmaceutical corporation, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and submitted it to the British government—only to meet precisely this fate as a consequence. Fatally, Justin learns that, while Dr. Bloom sought to publish the findings directly, Tessa had insisted that they go through official channels first, in deference to her husband’s example. She did not consider the possibility that the State might be captured by these same corporate interests.

Quayle determines that dozens of Kenyans had died in the trials for Dypraxa, a tuberculosis drug, and that KDH covered up this “side effect” to press forward with the medication’s development, thus avoiding the costs of redesign and further delay. After all, KDH expected a considerable futures market for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in the twenty-first century. In the end, Quayle makes Tessa and Dr. Bloom’s findings known, exposing the scandal and State-corporate nexus, but meets the same fate they did on the very shores of Lake Turkana.

This work title alludes to Voltaire’s always-germane conclusion to Candide (1759), a parody of optimism à la Leibniz (and, by extension, contemporary conservatives and apologists): “We must cultivate our gardens.”

Sharing affinities with the previous two works, The Mission Song (2006) is centered around the plot of a shadowy international Syndicate nominally dedicated to providing agricultural equipment to African countries which conspires to finance an armed uprising in eastern Congo to plunder the region’s mineral resources: coltan, gold, and oil. Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, who is half-Congolese and a graduate of languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), interprets the planning meeting set up between the Syndicate and representatives of two militias and a trading family from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—Dieudonné, Franco, and Haj, respectively—on a remote island in the North Sea. Naturally, the ruling Rwandan invaders, who have gravely exploited the eastern Congo since overrunning it two decades ago, having fled the coming to a power of a Tutsi-led government that put an end to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by Hutus of Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus, were excluded from this meeting.

The Syndicate proposes to the Congolese warlords staging an insurgency that would disrupt the existing “peace” in order to create a crisis that would result in the installation of the Mwangaza, an aging semi-messianic figure who promises to unite all of Kivu, or eastern Congo, against the Rwandan militias and armies as well as central control from the capital city, Kinshasa. The Mwangaza speaks about installing an interim government that would expel the Rwandans and take control of the airport, mines, and cities of Kivu, though it is clear that, above all, he desires political power, and is willing to endorse the Syndicate’s proposal to amply supply arms, ammunition, and mercenaries toward this end. Indeed, part of the contract negotiated during these talks stipulates that the Syndicate would be granted special investment access after the coup’s success in exchange for its contributions up front to bringing the war about, while the Kinshasa government is to be bought off using the revenue extracted from Kivu’s mines that was supposed to be set aside as “The People’s Portion.”

Salvo does not take this plan lightly, however. He discreetly manages to appropriate seven cassettes of recordings of the meeting and keeps his own notes upon return to London. Then, unsure of whom to turn to, he first approaches Lord Brinkley, a distinguished “friend of Africa” in the British Parliament, with the idea of bringing the plans to light so as to prevent their execution—only to find Brinkley conspiring to have Salvo’s evidence destroyed or secured so that the coup can proceed. After taking leave of Brinkley, though, Salvo and his partner Hannah, a Congolese nurse, approach the Mwangaza’s London-based aide, Baptiste, who completely denies the possibility of the Mwangaza participating in such a plot. Salvo then meets with Mr. Anderson, his contact at MI6 who first assigned him to the clandestine meeting as interpreter, to express his concerns, only to find Anderson reacting much the same way as Brinkley—even going so far as to rationalize the plundering of Africa’s mineral wealth as based on the prerogatives of supposedly more highly civilized European peoples.

Upon escaping from Anderson, Salvo resorts to contacting his ex-wife’s colleague in the press about running the story before the coup is staged, yet he finds that the two most important cassettes have been taken by Hannah to be recorded and sent to Haj to disrupt the plans once and for all. This courageous effort that finally breaks with Salvo’s “misguided loyalty” to the system indeed saves Kivu from a new war, as the mercenaries’ conspiracy is foiled, but it leads Hannah immediately to be deported to Congo, while Salvo is stripped of his British citizenship and placed in a migrant camp similarly to await deportation to central Africa.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends (2003) is likely le Carré’s most openly subversive and radical spy novel. In this work, le Carré depicts the life-long friendship of the British subject Ted Mundy and Sasha, a German anarchist. Mundy, the son of a Scottish military officer and Irish maid born in British-occupied India, begins his “radical reappraisal” of Britain and the Raj in childhood due to the horrors of Partition (1947) and his sense, as suggested later by his father, that the British authorities were largely responsible for these atrocities, and specifically the deaths of the entirety of the family members of his beloved Muslim nurse, Ayah. In adolescence, the protagonist further develops his critical perspective in concert with Dr. Mandelbaum, his radical German-language and cello tutor, who suggests that, “as long as [humanity] is in chains, maybe all good people in the world are also refugees.” The development of Ted’s radical spirit continues precipitously at Oxford University, where he enrolls to deepen his knowledge of German and meets Ilse, his first partner and a militant anarchist. They participate in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the junta of Greek colonels, and then decide to go study together at the Free University of Berlin. The only problem is that Ilse reneges at the last moment, but not before referring Ted to Sasha, a well-known revolutionary in Berlin. As Mundy departs by train from Waterloo Station in London, the narrator regards him and asks:

“Is he an anarchist? It will depend. To be an anarchist one must have a glimmer of hope.”

Certainly, both Mundy’s anarchism and radical hope are considerably nourished upon making the acquaintance of Sasha in Berlin. Listening to Mundy’s answer to the question of what the meaning of revolution is at their first meeting, Sasha at once tells Mundy that “[a]ll authority is irrational” and inquires into his knowledge of Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer’s writings. Their relationship of fraternal love is thus immediately forged, and they become roommates. Le Carré shows how Mundy’s participation in the radical youth movement in Berlin represents an epoch of self-realization for him, as he becomes “part of a brave new family determined to rebuild the world.” Such immersion leads Mundy to rejoice: “So many brothers and sisters everywhere! So many comrades who share the dream!” The author clearly acknowledges that this militant movement, impelled by the children of the Auschwitz generation, sought to purge from the world the “multiple diseases of fascism, capitalism, militarism, consumerism, Nazism, Coca-Colonization, imperialism, and pseudo-democracy.”

At the Free University, Sasha is depicted giving a speech at an action denouncing the Vietnam War, specifically demanding that the Nuremburg Tribunal be reconvened to prosecute the “fascist-imperialist American leadership […] on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.” Le Carré then shows the West German State brutally suppressing the demonstration, with Mundy valiantly rescuing Sasha from the riot police and becoming injured, hospitalized, and deported in the process.

After his formative time in Berlin, Mundy spends some years wandering: he briefly works at a journalist in the East Midlands, until he publishes an unauthorized exposé of labor conditions for Asian workers at a local cannery itself owned by the newspaper’s owner; he tries life as an artist in Taos, New Mexico; he gets married with Kate Andrews, a dedicated Labor Party member who wishes to rout the Trotskyists, Communists, and “closet anarchists” she sees as threatening the Party’s future, and fathers a son with her; and he himself secures employment with the British Council.

As part of this work, Mundy once again meets Sasha in East Germany, and the militant reveals to him intelligence vital to GDR security—a move that speaks to the anarchist’s integration into the State, yet also his continued dialectical commitment to destabilizing it. By sharing this information in turn with MI6 upon return to West Berlin, Mundy himself becomes an agent, and so begins a new phase in this “absolute friendship” whereby Mundy handles Sasha’s efforts to undermine what the latter considers to be the “Red Fascist” State. For Sasha, in so compromising the GDR and the USSR, it is not a matter of serving Western interests, but rather of fighting “tyranny wherever I have found it, with whatever weapons were available to me.”

The conclusion of Absolute Friends is contemporary, set in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mundy mobilizes against this mad plot, encouraging his son to organize protests at his university, but can find no concrete way for himself to do so until Sasha approaches him with a proposal to join a mysterious billionaire known as Mr. Dimitri from the New Planet Foundation in his ploy to supposedly create a global “Counter-University” and advance the revolutionary cause through the creation of “intellectual guerrillas” who will resist the “insane [capitalist] concept of limitless expansion on a limited planet, with permanent conflict as its desired outcome” (orig. emphasis). Yet Dimitri is not all he seems: following 9/11, the CIA claims, he increasingly comes to insist on an “alliance” between European anarchists and Islamist terrorists—given the view imputed to him that “[t]hese Al Qaeda boys have brought off just about everything Mikhail Bakunin ever dreamed of [sic]”—and he uses Mundy to rent out a school in Heidelberg at which the Brit used to teach for the first “demonstration project” for the Counter-University.

Though Mundy increasingly suspects Dimitri, Sasha faithfully does not doubt the sincerity of the project. Ultimately, one evening, as Mundy is preparing the shipments that he understands to be filled with books for the Counter-University’s Heidelberg campus, he realizes that he and Sasha have been set up: he discovers boxes of grenades, bomb-making devices, and so on. Just then, a massive police-military operation descends on the school, and the friends are killed off as putative terrorists who had been planning to attack the U.S. airbase at Heidelberg.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is revealed as enjoying Witness Protection in Montana for having warned the authorities about the radical friends’ non-existent terrorist plot, and the heist is shown as amounting to a “second burning of the Reichstag,” whereby an ex-CIA operative representing a coalition of oil barons, arms dealers, and security executives framed Mundy and Sasha as extremists who were preparing to bomb the air-force base precisely in order to silence the opposition from the German and French States to the U.S. drive to war on Iraq and thus expanded profits for such corporate sectors. Le Carré depicts the Heidelberg siege as blunting the Germans’ criticisms of Bush and company, whereas Russia is seen as capitalizing on the terrorized Zeitgeist to clamp down on protests and intensify its terrible war on Chechnya.

Conclusion: Let’s Start the Avalanche

We can see, then, that le Carré is a very serious and astute thinker and commentator about a number of pressing socio-economic, political, and ethical issues of recent history and our day. Yet it is evident that le Carré wields his critique of Statism, authoritarianism, and exploitation in an ironic fashion: generally speaking, it is not from an external standpoint, such as that of a protester or victim of militarism, that such critique issues in le Carré’s novels, but rather through the operation of the internal dynamics governing the system. Le Carré’s writings are therefore unexpected or “playful” in the sense that, unlike an external critique of the system raised for example by anarchists who want to take down that system, they typically begin from inside the system and move outward, developing into condemnations of the same. Clearly, le Carré’s spy writings are quite apart from those by Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy, novelists who start from within the State-capitalist system and have no wish to critique or overthrow it. This is another reason why the author’s art-works are consciously ironic, for the genre of espionage generally connotes mainstream, statist perspectives, not critical ones.

While le Carré achieves his purposes of entertainment and enlightenment by “playing” in a certain way, the content of his art is clearly very serious. More often than not, the protagonists of his novels serve as martyrs who are sacrificed by the State or capital to ensure stability and expanded profitability in the Cold War and subsequent neoliberal period: there are Samuel and Elsa Fennan in Call for the Dead; Fiedler, Leamas, and Gold in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Jerry, Luke, and Nelson in The Honourable Schoolboy; Salim and Khalil in The Little Drummer Girl; Savelyev in The Russia House; Mickie in The Tailor Panama; Tessa, Dr. Bloom, and Justin in The Constant Gardener; Salvo and Hannah in The Mission Song; and Mundy and Sasha in Absolute Friends. Within his earlier Cold War-era novels, le Carré advances a critique of the bureaucratic “grey men” on both sides, showing the way forward as developing through the courageous and tragic resistance of people like Savelyev and Katya Orlova, who dream of a better world as they labor to undermine the system; a very similar analysis could be made of Absolute Friends. The question which Katya poses to Barley about his intentions to publish Savelyev’s manuscript underpin much of le Carré’s subversive commentary throughout his oeuvre:

“Ask them which is more dangerous to [humanity]: to conform like a slave or resist like a [person]?”

As part of this dynamic of submission versus resistance, le Carré clearly acknowledges the extensive participation of former Nazi officers in the Western intelligence and security services after World War II, and he communicates the hegemonic Western concept that, once Hitler had been defeated, the rest of the West could get back to the “real war” against the Soviet Union and the “Red Menace.” Indeed, Absolute Friends opens with Mundy announcing to his tour group that Britain and the U.S. initially did not oppose Hitler, and indeed saw in him an attack-dog to be unleashed on the Reds. Moreover, our author does not shy from illustrating mainstream British anti-Semitic and bourgeois prejudices or depicting an MI6 officer making a Nazi salute. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré adopts the view of the Palestinian resistance that the Zionist State is fascist and genocidal, and in The Honourable Schoolboy, he has Ricardo’s fellow pilot express the thanotic imperative that drives individual capitalists and the system as a whole:

“hear me? They kill me, they kill Ricardo, they kill you, they kill the whole damn human race!”

In sum, then, le Carré, through his critical plots and his alter egos (Smiley, Gold, Barley, Mundy), examines the violence of despotism, brilliantly revealing the depths of nihilism and destruction for which the ruling class is responsible. In his more contemporary works, our author forthrightly points to the capitalist super-exploitation of the non-Western world, as Western firms and powers mobilize to extract evermore resources through militarism and genocide. The results are plain for all to see, or they should be; keeping these in full view, le Carré denounces the system as a whole. In parallel, he identifies the State’s established tendency to crush the possibilities of liberation, as seen in The Russia House, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, and The Mission Song, and even the authorities’ willingness to exploit radicalism to promote reaction, as we see in The Little Drummer Girl.

Yet le Carré strongly endorses Barley’s view that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that abolishes militarism, imperialism, and capitalism. The author even depicts this type of non-cooperation in a number of his works, especially in his illustration of State officials who defect, rebel, or otherwise sabotage their work. Nonetheless, the critique he raises against the State for instrumentalizing human life applies also to movements resisting oppression: that the Israelis, British, Soviets, or Americans cannot cease violating the means toward the ends they seek does not justify those who oppose them doing the same, even if the revolutionary end is superior to the end of maintaining the status quo. The Little Drummer Girl’s plot makes this clear. Like Lev Tolstoy and Albert Camus, then, le Carré is concerned about the replication of nihilism and authoritarianism within resistance movements, and he advises us—quite rightly, I think—to do all we can to harmonize means and ends. Quite like Tolstoy, le Carré declares through Barley that “[w]e must cut down the grey men inside ourselves, we must burn our grey suits and set our good hearts free, which is the dream of every decent soul, and even—believe it or not—of certain grey men too.”

Works Cited

1 Compare the East German Abteilung with the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi brownshirts, followers of the Strasser brothers, who were purged by the Waffen SS on Hitler’s orders. Is this etymological similitarity between the names of the respective State agencies just coincidental, or actually reflective of red-brown cross-over?

2 Compare Lev Trotsky’s declaration in Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky (1920), published in response to Kautsky’s criticisms of Bolshevik repressiveness and the brutality of the Russian Civil War: “As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’”

3 See Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007), especially ch. 9, “Targeted Assassinations: The Airborne Occupation.”

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Accountability for Assad’s Murder of Marie Colvin: A Precedent for Justice?

February 6, 2019

Colvin RIP

On Thursday, January 31, a U.S. judge found the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad responsible for the targeted assassination of U.S. journalist Marie Colvin in Homs in 2012. A reporter for The Sunday Times, Colvin had been covering the regime’s besiegement of the Baba Amr district of Homs, whose population had rebelled against Assad’s rule as part of the Revolution which had begun in the southern city of Der’aa in March 2011. Though evacuated with other internationals and journalists within days of her arrival as a precautionary measure in light of a threatened regime offensive, Colvin returned with the French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik and British photographer Paul Conroy to the improvised community media center from where they had been reporting. As Conroy describes, he, Colvin, and Ochlik believed that, by reporting on the regime’s besiegement of Baba Amr, they could affect world opinion and bring relief to civilians under fire.  It was from Baba Amr that Colvin courageously went live on CNN, the BBC, ITN News, and Channel 4 News, on February 21, 2012, to belie the Assad regime’s fabrications that its assault on the district was exclusively targeting so-called “terrorists.” It was for this reason that the regime killed her, the very next morning after the broadcast. They triangulated her location via her cell signal due to Colvin’s bravery in broadcasting the devastating truth to the world, murdering her and Ochlik in a targeted artillery strike. As judge Amy Jackson observes in her ruling, Colvin was “specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country.”

Colvin’s remarkable story is told in two recent films: Under the Wire and A Private War. I will not here be discussing Under the Wire, which is brilliantly reviewed by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in the New York Review of Books here. Instead, I will offer some comments about A Private War, a 2018 dramatization of Colvin’s life, directed by Matthew Heineman and written by Marie Brenner and Arash Amel.

Though Colvin covered armed conflicts for three decades, in A Private War, we follow her in her later assignments to war zones in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It is amidst covering Sri Lanka’s civil war that Colvin suffers a disfiguring injury, leading her to wear a distinctive eye-patch over her left orbit. While there is little sense in the film that Colvin had an anti-imperialist critique of U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the film depicts her dynamic and increasingly humanist approach to journalism, culminating in her martyrdom in Homs in February 2012. During the Libya segment, which takes place shortly after the outbreak of protests against Mua’mmar al-Qaddafi, we see Colvin outright interviewing the autocrat. Though Colvin never had the chance to question Assad—she was no Vanessa Beeley, a neo-fascist propagandist, but rather the Syrian despot’s direct victim—we get the sense that the writers and director are here channeling Assad’s specter through Colvin’s interaction with Qaddafi, given their similarities, from political authoritarianism to inter-personal repulsiveness and sexism, and their common opportunistic use of nationalist, ‘socialist,’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric to legitimize their crimes. It follows logically that both Qaddafi and Assad would present essentially all opposition to their rule as “al-Qaeda” and/or “terrorists,” as they have.

These myriad problematic and questionable characteristics notwithstanding, and regardless of prior close collaboration on the part of both Assad and Qaddafi with imperialism—including intelligence-sharing and the torture of “suspects of interests” to the U.S.—both figures have enjoyed considerable support from “left” pseudo-anti-imperialists, campists, and neo-Stalinists since the Arab uprisings challenged their rule, beginning in 2011. These Stalinist-campists go so far as to praise Assad and his allies for preventing the collapse of his regime, thus avoiding the “Libya model.” Among other claims, they often argue that the chaos resulting from Qaddafi’s overthrow and murder led to the creation of slave markets for Black Africans: and while we certainly should not deny the spread of conditions of slavery after Qaddafi’s fall, neither should we overlook the widespread pre-existing slave markets enabled by the dictator’s racist regime or the mass-detention system for African migrants traversing Libya en route to Europe, a project for which Qaddafi was compensated billions by the European Union. The autocrat knowingly played on neo-colonial and white-supremacist anxieties, promising that he would ‘protect’ Europe from the putative “risk of turning black from illegal immigration,” and even “turn[ing] into Africa [sic].”1

In an ultimately suicidal conciliatory gesture, Qaddafi abandoned his weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs just months after the invasion of Iraqthough it was not until late 2016 that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed the destruction of the last of Libya’s chemical-weapons stockpile. This is to say nothing of the extraction contracts he negotiated with Western energy corporations after the U.S. government subsequently lifted sanctions against his regime in 2004. By the time of his fall in late 2011, ConocoPhillips and Marathon had invested close to $1.5 billion in the country, whereas Hess and Occidental corporations had bought “rights” to several oil fields, such that, by 2008, the labor appropriated by U.S. companies paradoxically accounted for close to one-third of daily oil production in Libya.

Whereas Qaddafi’s regime was defeated through the combination of a popular rebellion aided by NATO intervention and his person summarily executed, Assad’s tyranny still reigns—unfortunately for Syrians, the region, and the world. Indeed, Qaddafi’s fate has signaled to Assad and Kim Jong-Un not to give up their weapons of mass destruction, despite the terms of the Syrian regime’s fraudulent disarmament overseen by the OPCW a year after the August 2013 Ghouta sarin massacre which killed over one thousand Syrians. In Assad’s case, Qaddafi’s destiny no doubt has influenced the Syrian tyrant not to hesitate to use chemical weapons for tactical advantage, or the sheer purpose of terror and collective punishment of civilian populations who reject his rule.

SYRIA-POLITICS-UNREST

The Baba Amr district of Homs in March 2011. (AFP/Shaam News Network)

The film’s concluding chapter in Syria is very moving. The scene is Homs, Syria’s third-largest city by population, following Aleppo and Damascus. After having repudiated Assad’s oppressiveness as the Syrian Revolution spread in early 2011, the people of Homs together with Free Syrian Army units liberated the western district of Baba Amr from regime control. It was here that Colvin arrived with her colleagues in February 2012 during a retaliatory regime offensive on Baba Amr. There, Colvin bore witness to many tragic scenes, including the acute bereavement of a father whose son, being no older than three or four years of age, is killed in the assault. She is also also depicted interviewing a young mother taking refuge with her infant daughter in the “widows’ basement,” under fire from the regime’s ill-named Republican Guard. Colvin’s final tweet reads:

“In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by & I should be hardened by now. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless. As well as cold!”

As Rohini Hensman points out correctly in Indefensible (2018), there is no moral difference between this oppressed Syrian mother and a similarly brutalized Palestinian woman who is besieged by Israel.2 Neither is there is a morally relevant difference between this suffering Syrian child, and a suffering Palestinian child. Therefore, these scenes in the film serve a very critical function in allowing for the possibility that the audience will recognize the confused thinking which many Western pseudo-anti-imperialists advance: namely, that Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is horrific and must be ended immediately, but that Assad’s subjugation of Syrians is less problematic, because his regime is supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ in orientation. For viewers who are not enmeshed in such ideological thinking, these scenes will likely speak to them on a humanist level, and therefore may serve the progressive function of illuminating the Assad regime’s brutality—a necessary prerequisite for demanding justice for the dictator’s vast crimes.

The cries of the bereaved father whom Colvin encounters—”!یا الله,” Ya Allah! (meaning “Oh God”)—recall the young Karl Marx’s critique of religious suffering as the “expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”3 In thusly calling on Allah—who in Islam is believed to represent the qualities of mercy, peace, justice, love, and equity, among others—this Syrian man critiques Assad’s blasphemous violation of these ideal human qualities, as well as the international order’s complicity in the destruction of the country by the regime and his allies.

Watching A Private War, one may feel a great sense of gratitude and respect for those who risk their lives to report on atrocities from conflict zones, so that the world at least knows about war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the atrocious reprisals to which dissidents and their perceived supporters are subjected by fascist regimes, simply for the “crime” of organizing to overthrow dictatorship and oppression. In light of the fate of Syria over the past nearly eight years, and thinking of the fierce discursive struggle regarding happenings there, especially that advanced by “left” conspiracist thinkers who deny Assad’s crimes, it is unclear that mere coverage of the horrors of war will ensure justice or accountability. Moreover, amidst the mass-extermination experienced in Syria since 2011, it would appear that, to focus on the fate of one person—much less a white Westerner—would seem questionable. Yet the regime has murdered numerous international people of conscience, besides Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik: the anarchist Omar Aziz, who inspired the revolutionary model of the Local Coordinating Councils (LCC’s); Dr. Abbas Khan, a British orthopedic surgeon killed in a Damascus prison in late 2013 for volunteering to assist injured Syrian civilians; and the young Syrian-American Leila Shweikani, whom the regime assassinated in late 2016 for rendering aid to civilians in a hospital in Eastern Ghouta—to name just a few.

So the universal can arguably be seen in the particular: that is to say, one can find an illumination of the essential authoritarianism and injustice of capitalism and dictatorship reflected in the contemplation of several individual cases, whether they be martyred U.S. or French journalists, Syrian or Palestinian civilians, or international aid workers.

Following the recent devastation caused by Storm Norma in the Levant, we see that Syrian refugees and internally displaced people are still very much at risk, both in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria proper. The lives of infants and young children are threatened; many have perished due to storm conditions near Deir-Ez-Zor. Amidst the recent moves made to rehabilitate the Assad Regime on a regional level—given the reopening in late December of Bahrain and UAE’s embassies in Damascus, Jordan’s invitation for the Syrian regime to attend the Inter-Arab Parliamentary Union meeting in March, and the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s recent in-person meeting with Assad in Damascus, which took place just days before the start of the ongoing uprising in Sudan—taken together with the regime’s consolidation of territorial control, there is a definite need for accountability and political resistance to such atrocities. To help alleviate suffering, in the U.S., within the electoral sphere, we can advocate for the implementation of the  “Caesar” bill—so named for the Syrian army defector who provided systematic photographic evidence of the mass-extermination of detainees held by regime forces—and for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, at least, we can help support the fundraiser for Med Global, which is providing emergency shelter and other life-saving treatments across the border in Lebanon.

“No justice without accountability.”

MC

1 Emphasis added.

2 Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 284.

3 Emphasis in original.

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

November 19, 2018

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

Lenin Stalin

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

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

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

Holodomor Denial

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

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

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

Apologism for the Moscow Show Trials and Terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repression of Tolstoyan Peasants

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

Life and Labor

Courtesy William Edgerton

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

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

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

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

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

Stalinist Anti-Semitism

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

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

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

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

Stalinist Ultra-Nationalism

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

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

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

Stalinist Patriarchy

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

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

central asian harvest mural

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

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

CA women

Courtesy Catherine Evtuhov et al.

Stalinist Ecocide

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

tank prod

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

Neo-Stalinist International Relations: Siding with Executioners Globally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

central asian imperial sport mural

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

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

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

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

Notes

1Arendt 388, 413.

2Plokhy 250-251.

3Ibid 253-254; Evtuhov 669.

4Evtuhov 675; Plokhy 252 (emphasis added).

5Arendt 447.

6Evtuhov 676.

7Lee 236.

8Evtuhov 642-644.

9Evtuhov 674.

10Ibid 674.

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

12Arendt 464.

13Meyer 102.

14Evtuhov 675.

15Ibid 693.

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

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

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

19Dragunovsky 252-257.

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

21Evtuhov 642.

22Arendt 309n12-13.

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

24Evtuhov 722-723; Szaynok 302-303.

25Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 303.

26Szaynok 310.

27Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 304.

28Evtuhov 728-729; Syaznok 305.

29Arendt xxxix-xl.

30Evtuhov 729.

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

32Evtuhov 721.

33Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 874-881.

34Ibid 879.

35Evtuhov 722-723.

36Ibid 693.

37Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 882 (emphasis in original).

38Evtuhov 716-720.

39Szaynok 305-315.

40Evtuhov 729.

41Ibid 686-687.

42Ibid 711.

43Ibid 671.

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

45Ibid 275

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

47Evtuhov 755.

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

49Arendt 437n124.

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

51Hensman 283.

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

53Hensman 284.

54Arendt 461.

Gaza Massacre Marks 70 Years of Al-Nakba: We Demand Justice!

May 16, 2018

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Today, May 15, 2018, marks 70 years since the founding of Israel and the parallel al-Nakba al-Mustamera, or “ongoing catastrophe,” which this has meant for Palestine’s indigenous Arab population. The ethnic cleansing of between 750,000 and 800,000 Palestinians and the destruction of an estimated 600 Arab villages required for the birth of Israel in 1948 continues to this day, as the Israeli military employs snipers to shoot masses of unarmed Palestinian youth protesters in the open-air prison of Gaza who have joined the Great March of Return to protest against their dispossession and oppression. Just yesterday, as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner celebrated the Trump Regime’s transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, an occupied city, the Israeli Army murdered fifty-nine Palestinians in Gaza, wounding 2,700 others. This brings the total casualties borne by Gazan Palestinians since the beginning of the Great March of Return on March 30 to 107 killed and 12,000 injured.

The list of names of martyred Palestinians shows that most of those killed yesterday were teenagers and young adults, with few even in their 30’s. As Al-Jazeera reports, “at least six are below 18, including one female. Of those wounded, at least 200 are below the age of 18; seventy-eight are women and 11 are journalists.” These statistics alone show the degree of dehumanization suffered by Gazan Palestinian youth due to Occupation and more than a decade of besiegement. They go out to participate in the Great March of Return en masse knowing well that the Israeli military will not hesitate to kill them for demanding their rights.

Across Occupied Palestine, a general strike has been declared for May 15, Nakba Day, both to commemorate and mourn those slain yesterday, and to lament and resist Israel’s accelerating settler-colonial project. Though the internationally accepted “two-state solution”—which has been made impossible by the vast Israeli settlements which colonize the West Bank and East Jerusalem—would leave Palestinians with less than a fourth of historical Palestine, even this demand is too great for the Israeli ultranationalists led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Israel’s fascistic response to the protests in Gaza, which recalls Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and the Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976) massacres in Apartheid South Africa, shows that the Jewish State, backed up by U.S. imperialism, has no intention of allowing the Palestinians even the most basic of concessions. This is the true meaning of Kushner’s announcement that protesters in Gaza are “part of the problem and not part of the solution.” The future faced by Palestinians at the hands of the U.S. and Israel amounts to worsening genocide and/or forcible transfer to Egypt, Jordan, or elsewhere in the region.

Dr. Abu Rayan Ziara, @Medo4Gaza

The Middle Eastern region’s ruling classes are also useless to the Palestinian cause. For decades, they have preached a hollow ethno-religious solidarity with Palestinian refugees, yet none have mobilized against Israel or the U.S. in a serious way; instead, they serve their own interests for profit and repressive stability. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who recently agreed to a ten-year $350 billion arms deal with Trump, and who imports three-fifths of all his weapons from the U.S., infamously declared that Israel has “a right to its land” just days after its military carried out the Land Day Massacre of 17 Gazans on March 30, the first day of the Great March. Land Day, or Yom al-’Ard, is in turn a Palestinian holiday that observes a 1976 massacre by Israel of protesters mobilizing against State expropriation of their lands. Though bin Salman’s enthusiasm for imperialism, as reflected in his war on Yemen and his war-threats against Iran, can be considered extreme, it is hardly distinct from other regional Gulf autocracies that increasingly accommodate the Jewish State; the Jordanian Hashemite monarchy, which maintains friendly relations with Israel; General al-Sisi’s dictatorship in Egypt, which effectively coordinates with Israel in besieging Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula; the Lebanese State, which systematically discriminates against Palestinian refugees; and even and especially the falsely ‘anti-imperialist’ Assad Regime of Syria, which just weeks ago was massively bombarding the Yarmouk refugee camp for Palestinians outside of Damascus.

Though the Islamic Republic of Iran has financed and armed Palestinian resistance movements against Israel for some time, and Hezbollah has posed as a regional counterweight to the Jewish State, defeating it militarily during the 2006 “Summer War,” both have mobilized to crush the Palestinians’ brothers and sisters across the border of the Occupied Golan Heights since the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 by intervening in favor of Assad. Indeed, among the few countries that attended the opening of the U.S. embassy in West Jerusalem yesterday, one finds representatives from several corrupt African states with which Israel has consciously developed military ties to mitigate its international isolation; neo-fascist and Islamophobic central European governments; U.S. client states in Latin America; and the Burmese dictatorship, which last year ethnically cleansed over half a million Rohingya Muslims.

For these reasons, the Palestinian people’s self-emancipation against the horrors of al-Nakba—an urgent, burning task—can only proceed through global support for mass-movements to dismantle and decolonize the imperial, settler-colonial states of the U.S. and Israel. Palestinians have the right to resist colonization by any means necessary, and it is not for us in the West to dictate how people facing genocide should or should not resist. While Israel, Raj Shah, and Bernie Sanders would like to hold Hamas responsible for the mass-murders carried out by the Jewish State, thus mimicking Putin and the Assad Regime’s long-standing tendency to blame the victims of each new bombardment and chemical attack for staging their own deaths, we see this upsurge of resistance as a manifestation of the collective will of occupied Gazans. From our vantage point in the U.S., we see Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as an important tool to support the Palestinian struggle for decolonization. A two-way military embargo on the Jewish State would be an important first step toward justice in historical Palestine.

Finally, we would like to clarify that these murderous attacks by Israel against Palestinians in the Great March of Return and the protests against the embassy opening expose the hypocrisy of those who lecture Palestinians on being non-violent. They ask, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?”, when the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian resistance is nonviolent, and is still met with murderous repression. Palestinians are better than Gandhi, who was racist and misogynistic, in the sense that—being poor, brown, and mostly Muslim—they are despised by liberals internationally, yet they continue to resist without any of the kind of encouragement Gandhi was given by his moderate supporters across the globe, and against far worse odds. Even so, U.S. liberals continue to advocate arming and funding the settler-colonial State that murders Palestinians while hypocritically and condescendingly lecturing Palestinians about nonviolence. Liberals in the U.S. demand that Palestinians resist non-violently, but then won’t condemn Israel when it guns down peaceful, unarmed Palestinians. Mainstream liberal publications mention “clashes” and use the passive voice to report that Palestinians “have been killed,” or worse, that they just “died,” as though inexplicably, or through “natural causes.” In essence, what these colonial-Orientalist commentators are really saying is that Palestinians should passively let Israel exterminate them. We completely reject that gross illogic. Palestine must be free!

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Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

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Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

Palestine

Stop Rohingya Genocide!

October 18, 2017

Courtesy Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The Burmese military that effectively rules the Southeast Asian State of Myanmar is currently engaged in a campaign of intensifying genocide against the country’s Rohingya minority. Of the 1 million Rohingyas who were estimated to have lived in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State before this newest episode of ethnic cleansing, approximately one thousand have been killed and over a half-million displaced in the past two months. These Rohingya refugees, many of whom are women and children, have fled the brutal scorched-earth tactics of the Burmese State for neighboring Bangladesh—although over 100,000 remain internally displaced in Rakhine in perilous conditions.

The Rohingyas of Burma

The dispossessed Rohingyas have confronted mass-murder, torture, and sexual assault and had their homes torched and their crops destroyed. Scores of villages have been burnt to the ground. In addition, the Burmese military has installed a series of landmines adjacent to the Naf River that divides Myanmar from Bangladesh, both to harm those fleeing and to dissuade their return. Why has this happened?

Many observers point to the ethno-religious aspects of this oppressive dynamic. Whereas the Burmese State is largely controlled by majority ethnic Bamars who are Buddhists, the Rohingya minority—considered by the State to be “Bengalis,” as from the region of Bengal that spans India and Bangladesh—are mostly Muslim, with a Hindu minority. While Islam and Buddhism are not mutually hostile to each other, such fault-lines as differing religious identities have been used in this case to prepare and ultimate rationalize the ongoing genocide. British colonialism—with its logic of racialization and bordering—prepared the groundwork for the atrocities unfolding today, as imperialists used Rohingyas during the war against Japan and even at one point promised them independence, a promise later revoked. Since its 1962 takeover in the early post-colonial period following Burmese independence from Britain in 1948, the military has promoted Buddhist nationalism as an ideal and excluded many of the country’s ethnic minorities, none more than the Rohingya. In 1974, the State identified all Rohingyas as foreigners; in 1982, it formally revoked their collective citizenship.

Military “Clearance Operations”

Over the past half-century, the State has systematically starved, enslaved, and massacred the Rohingya people. In response, between the 1970s and August 2017, an estimated 1 million Rohingyas fled Burma/Myanmar, with 168,000 refugees crossing State borders between 2012 and August 2017. In violation of international law, Rohingya refugees have been forcibly repatriated to Rakhine several times over the past 40 years. This time, however, the ethnic cleansing appears to be meant to be final.

In his report on an October 2017 meeting with the U.S. ambassador, General Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese commander accused of ordering the ongoing atrocities, falsifies history by claiming that the Rohingyas are “not native” but rather foreigners who were introduced to the country by British imperialism. Such a self-serving account overlooks the historical presence of Muslims in Rakhine since at least the fifteenth century and conveniently erases the cosmopolitan past in which Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists coexisted without war. Ominously, Aung Hlaing has publicly declared that the ongoing “clearance operations” are meant to resolve “unfinished business” from Burma’s independence. For her part, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, is entirely complicit in these crimes, given her guarding of silence on the current crisis and her past rejection of the idea that the State’s military campaigns in Rakhine constitute ethnic cleansing.

The “Last Asian Frontier” to Capital

Yet however much responsibility for the Rohingya genocide rests with the Burmese military and ruling class, capitalist and imperialist elements play important roles in the oppression of the Rohingyas as well. The power of the Burmese State and military has grown hand-in-hand with the expanding extraction of its fossil-fuel resources and the accelerating opening-up of trade and investment in recent years. Having been relatively unknown to global capitalism, Burma/Myanmar is sometimes considered the “last Asian frontier” for capitalist models of plantation agriculture, deforestation, mega-mining, and the super-exploitation of labor.

Over the past two decades, the State has dispossessed millions of Buddhist peasants of their land to make way for corporate-extractivist projects, and before the current crisis erupted, the State had already awarded a million hectares in Rakhine for “corporate development” schemes. In northern Rakhine, moreover, the State has plans to establish a “special economic zone” with Chinese investors to construct oil and gas pipelines to the tune of $10 billion. When one considers that all burnt land in Burma reverts to State property, the meaning of its military’s “clearing operations” against the Rohingyas becomes clearer. The ferocity of the State’s response to the coordinated guerrilla attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 40 Burmese police stations and a military base in Rakhine on August 25, which provoked the current wave of mass-displacement, shows that the ARSA attack is only a pretext for the State to implement its broadly genocidal designs.

Courtesy Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera

International Complicity in Genocide

Since 1990, China, Russia, Israel, and former Yugoslavian countries have been Burma’s major arms suppliers, while the UK provides training to the Burmese military. In fact, in September 2017, the Israeli State argued before the High Court of Justice that ethics have no place in business or international relations, and that no restrictions should be placed on Israeli arms sales to Burmese security forces. Although the U.S. and the European Union currently observe an embargo on trade in weapons with the country, recent meetings between EU leaders and General Min Aung Hlain suggest that this embargo may well be lifted soon in the interests of profitability.

Moreover, recently at the United Nations, the Trump Regime cynically used accusations of war crimes against the Rohingyas as leverage against the State’s allies, China and Russia. While it is clear that Trump has no actual interest in the Rohingyas as human beings, it bears noting that the Obama administration helped legitimize Suu Kyi and the military junta she serves by suspending sanctions against Burma following her party’s electoral victory in 2015. Of course, overcoming the “barrier” that such sanctions had represented to the expansion of capital serves U.S. imperialist interests as well.

In closing, we condemn the State Terror that has targeted Rohingyas for four decades, leading to the current genocidal catastrophe, and we express our solidarity with those displaced both internally in Burma/Myanmar and as refugees in Bangladesh. We denounce all imperialist and capitalist support for the Burmese junta, whether provided by the U.S., Israel, Russia, or China. We take inspiration from the mutual aid provided by Bangladeshis to the Rohingya refugees, even as that country confronts mass-inundation and disappearance due to rising sea levels that result from capital-induced climate change. We look forward to the potential unification of peasantry and working class across ethnic lines against the Burmese State, and we demand justice.

Never again! Stop Rohingya genocide!

For more information:

Message to the world from Nasima Khatun, a Rohingya (Al Jazeera, 17 Sept. 2017)

Message to the world from Noor Kajol, a Rohingya (Al Jazeera, 15 Sept. 2017)

Message to the world from Begum Jaan, a Rohingya (Al Jazeera, 12 Sept. 2017)

UN: Rohingya in Bangladesh need ‘massive’ assistance (Al Jazeera, 24 Sept. 2017)

Al Jazeera releases virtual reality project on Rohingya (Al Jazeera, 28 Sept. 2017)

‘No pictures, no words can explain Rohingya plight’ (Al Jazeera, 16 Oct. 2017)

Review: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

September 15, 2016

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Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission. Originally published on Sept. 13th, 2016

Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s Foucault and the Iranian Revolution presents a fascinating historical account of the process whereby the despotic Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by the Iranian masses in 1978-79, only to yield a dictatorial Islamist regime led by reactionary clerics. The transition to the Islamic Republic, ruled over by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini, found the unlikely support of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher well-known for his anti-authoritarian critique of Western modernity, who expressed great enthusiasm for the Shi’ite Islamist elements of the Revolution in a number of public articles he wrote about the fall of the Shah, as based on the two visits he made to Iran in 1978.

Afary and Anderson observe that, while many progressives and leftists — both in Iran and elsewhere — favored the Revolution against the Shah but could not countenance the notion of an Islamic Republic replacing such despotism, Foucault was less critical toward Khomeini and the possibility of clerical rule. The authors argue that Foucault’s attitude in this sense — rather than signify some aberration or lapse in judgment — indeed follows from his post-structuralist political theorizing, which rejects the Enlightenment and despairs at the historical possibility of emancipation. As such, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution serves as an important warning for Western radicals and intellectuals vis-à-vis revolutionary movements, anti-imperialism and political authoritarianism in the rest of the world. Moreover, it raises questions about the liberatory potential of post-structuralism, detailing how that tendency’s preeminent spokesperson so clearly betrayed Iran’s workers, women, LGBTQ citizens, dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities by romanticizing what French leftist Maxime Rodinson refers to as “a type of archaic fascism.”

In their investigation of Foucault’s relationship with the Iranian Revolution, Afary and Anderson situate the philosopher’s writings within the context of the rejection of modernity he advances in works like Madness and Civilization (1961) and Discipline and Punish (1975). In this way, the authors hold that Foucault privileges pre-modernism, irrationalism and traditionalism — and therefore patriarchal domination. In fact, Foucault was not very attuned to feminist concerns, as is clearly seen in the October 1978 essay, “What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?” Here, the writer uncritically cites the vision of a future Iranian Islamic state in which there would supposedly not be any “inequality with respect to rights” between men and women, but “difference, since there is a natural difference.” Beyond this, in certain ways, the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini can be said to typify the “will to power” developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, the authoritarian irrationalist whose thought was central to Foucault’s worldview, as was that of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi-friendly phenomenologist whose concept of “being toward death” resonated with Foucault. The authors have a point, then, in observing that “Foucault’s affinity with the Iranian Islamists […] may also reveal some of the larger ramifications of his Nietzschean-Heideggerian discourse.”

Psychologically and philosophically, Foucault found the 1978 mass-demonstrations against the Shah that re-enacted the historical drama of the battle of Karbala (680 CE) and the martyrdom there of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad revered by Shi’ites, highly compelling. For Afary and Anderson, Foucault’s attraction to the Iranian Revolution can be explained by the common interests the philosopher shared with many of the insurgents in terms of traditionalism, anti-imperialism and death. During the Revolution, the mourning celebrations of Muharram and Ashura, which commemorate the death of Hussein ibn Ali, his family and followers at the hands of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, saw Shi’ite Islam being interpreted to emphasize the righteousness of masses of people electing to give their lives for the cause of overthrowing the Shah. Indeed, the principal intellectual forerunner of the Iranian Revolution, Ali Shariati, stressed martyrdom as the defining element of Shi’ism: Alavid or “red Shi’ism” (that of Hussein ibn Ali) against Safavid (institutionalized) or “black Shi’ism.” Shariati’s view is that all generations are invited to give up their lives in the struggle if they cannot kill their oppressors.

While Shariati did not live to see the Revolution he inspired, the major uprisings of September 1978 followed his predictions, as scores of protesters were killed in the streets by the Shah’s security forces on “Black Friday” (September 8). Thereafter, general strikes were launched in various industries and the Shah’s end drew precipitously closer. Foucault was deeply struck by these mobilizations involving hundreds of thousands of people, seeing in them the total “other” of established Western society. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the advance of the Revolution through Islamist “political spirituality” led him to disregard the secularist and left-wing elements participating in the movement as less authentic than the expressly Shi’ite protestors, and in fact to declare that the collective political will of the Iranian people was entirely unified by political Islam and a generalized love for the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the aforementioned article regarding Iranian dreams, Foucault also embarrassingly reproduces a line from a cleric stipulating that Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities — Kurds, Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians — would be respected insofar as their lives did not “injure the majority.” This lapse, together with the anti-feminist sentiment Foucault reproduced in the same essay, led an Iranian woman named “Atoussa H.” to call him out publicly. In a letter to Le Nouvel Observateur published in November 1978, Foucault’s critic issued a warning about the philosopher’s romanticization of Islamism and the prospect of an Islamic State in Iran, noting that, “everywhere outside Iran, Islam serves as a cover for feudal or pseudo-revolutionary oppression.” Atoussa H. despaired at the prospect of having the reign of the bloody Shah merely yield to religious fanaticism. Foucault’s public reply to Atoussa H. was condescending and evasive — rather than respond to the woman’s concerns, Foucault accused her feminism of being Orientalist.

In his writings from late 1978, moreover, the intellectual provided significant ideological cover to Khomeinism, claiming the Shi’ite clergy to be non-hierarchical and reassuring his readers that “there will not be a Khomeini party” or a “Khomeini government.” Some months later, after the Shah’s abdication and the “victory” of the Revolution, Foucault announced that “religion’s role was [merely] to open the curtain,” and that now, “the mullahs will disperse.” Meanwhile, Rodinson publicly challenged Foucault’s delusions on Iran in Le Monde, arguing that the domination of the Revolution by clerical elements threatened to merely have one form of despotism be succeeded by another. In parallel, Iranian Marxists and the Fedayeen guerrillas made known their unease at the prospect of the same.

The oppressive nature of the clerical regime that Foucault had helped to legitimize became readily evident after February 1979. Upon his return from exile, Khomeini moved swiftly to overturn established laws protecting women’s rights, and on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1979, he announced that all Iranian women were obligated to wear the chador. Such actions led masses of women to mobilize on the very same day to denounce the incipient dictatorship, declaring ironically that, “In the Dawn of Freedom, We Have No Freedom.” Their courage as women rebelling against a new “revolutionary” order was hailed from afar by Simone de Beauvoir and Raya Dunayevskaya — but not by Foucault. Neither did the philosopher in question speak out after the new regime’s summary executions of political opponents and men accused of homosexuality became evident, to say nothing of the state’s attacks on the Kurds and Baha’is. Such silence led yet another critique of Foucault on Iran to be written, this time by Claudie and Jacques Broyelle. As they argue: “When one is an intellectual, when one works both on and with ‘ideas,’ when one has the freedom […] not to be a sycophantic writer, then one also has some obligations. The first one is to take responsibility for the ideas that one has defended when they are finally realized.”

Foucault’s public response to the Broyelles was as unsatisfying as his response to Atoussa H.: dismissive and opportunistic. While it is true that Foucault came in passing to acknowledge the chauvinistic and nationalistic aspects of the Iranian Revolution — and even questioned in the end whether it could be considered a Revolution, as it had installed a “bloody government of a fundamentalist clergy” — his stance toward Khomeini and the Islamic Republic was “fundamentally a stance of support,” as Afary and Anderson conclude. From June 1979, by which time the regressive nature of theocratic rule had become undeniable, to the time of his death in 1984, Foucault guarded silence on the question of Iran and the Revolution. Never did he recant his previous excitement about Shi’ite Islamism or plead forgiveness, much less express support for the Iranians who suffered so terribly under the very Islamic Republic for which he had served as an unwitting propagandist. On the contrary, Foucault in his writings on Iran advanced reactionary criticisms of human rights, democracy and feminism.

Post-Structuralism and Counterrevolution

The case of a renowned anti-authoritarian Western philosopher legitimizing the coming-to-power of a brutal theocratic ruling class in Iran raises a number of pressing questions. How could this have come to pass? In the first place, Afary and Anderson are right to observe that Foucault failed to grasp that “an anti-Western, religiously based system of power” could be as oppressive as fascism or Stalinism. His lapse in this sense owed in part to his ignorance and romanticization of political Islam in general and the thought of Ayatollah Khomeini in particular — for Khomeini in 1970 had already anticipated the despotism of the Islamic Republic with his text Velayat-e Faqih, which calls for clerical domination of the state. As has been mentioned above, as well, his attitude toward Iran was surely influenced by his affinities with traditionalist, non-Western elements.

In addition, nevertheless, Foucault’s unique philosophical proclivities likely played an important role. Post-structuralism rejects the “grand narratives” of socialism and historical progress, basing itself instead in the nihilist-irrationalist approach of Nietzsche, a thinker who argues in On the Genealogy of Morals that the French Revolution represented the victory of slave morality, ressentiment and the supposed power of “Judea” over Roman virility, centralism and imperialism. It is arguably Foucault’s pseudo-radical innovation of post-structuralism that set him apart from the rest of the global progressive movement on Iran; earlier that decade, in his debate with Noam Chomsky, the philosopher had already rejected anarcho-syndicalism. Moreover, according to Edward Said, he sided with Israel over the Palestinians, losing his close friend Gilles Deleuze in the process. In truth, one need only review Foucault’s shameful attitude toward a clerical-fascist regime that executed more than 20,000 citizens — many of them gay people and guerrillas — during the remainder of Khomeini’s lifetime to see the regressive qualities of his post-structuralism manifesting themselves clearly.

Beyond this, Afary and Anderson do recognize and commend Foucault’s activism and organizing in favor of prisoners, the Polish Solidarity Movement and the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing Stalinist victory in Southeast Asia, but they argue that the Iranian Revolution formed a much more central commitment in the life of the philosopher. Foucault’s delusions regarding Iran mirror the serious errors expressed by several left-wing intellectuals in history — Albert Camus, for example, who rejected Algerian independence from the French Empire, or the numerous thinkers who lent their support to the Soviet Union and Maoist China — and they are well-critiqued by Dunayevskaya’s denunciation of observers of the Iranian Revolution who prioritized anti-imperialism over internal oppression. Such considerations remain very much germane today, particularly with regard to the catastrophe in Syria, where the Islamic Republic has played a most oppressive role together with Russia in propping up the fascistic Assad regime.

Dialectical Light, Nature, Negation: Modern Minima Moralia Project

December 3, 2015

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Published on Heathwood Press, 30 November 2015

 

Nature-History Walk. To take a walking tour within a natural-history museum located in New York City amidst the sixth mass-extinction of life on Earth is to experience the contradictions of reveling in the profundity of natural beauty while consciously or subconsciously bearing witness to capital’s ceaseless war on existence and evolution. It is true that, in contradistinction to most other museum exhibits on display in the heart of empire—by nature affirmative—the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York at least provides some critical perspectives on the profundity of the present environmental crisis: the curators have recognized that we “may” be in the throes of this sixth mass-extinction event. Within the museum’s Hall of Biodiversity is emblazoned a warning made by the politically authoritarian biologist Paul R. Ehrlich: that, in “pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” The AMNH has also promoted Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 investigative volume into this most distressing of realities, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.[1] Yet the spirit of absolute negativity to which the sixth extinction attests hardly can be said to permeate the exhibits within the museum that examine the relationship between nature and humanity: quite naturally, these presentations in no way explicitly recognize the responsibility that capitalism and domination bear for the current ecocidal and suicidal natural-historical trajectory. To a degree, then, the clear link that exists between the social relations imperant in the world outside the museum—as well, indeed, as inside it—and the unmitigated destruction of life on Earth’s continents and oceans can thus only be made intuitively. The unity of all living things—and hence the vast disunity which ecocide implies—can indeed be perceived in the contemplation of the great similarities between the human visitor and the numerous other species on display in the Great Hall of Biodiversity, as in the compelling hall on oceanography, the exhibits on African, Asian, and North American mammals, the Hall of Primates, and the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

As the museum’s displays are directed primarily toward children, and considering the multitudes of minors who visit the museum with their families and on school-trips, it is to be hoped that these children, as well as their adult counterparts, grasp the more subversive meanings that the encounter with life and evolution can yield, activating Eros, biophilia, and—yes—revolutionary sadness in a counter-move to hegemonic brutality and unreason. However, childhood in late capitalism is little more than a preparatory stage for getting along: conformity, adjustment, and alienated labor. The system progressively negates the radical potential of the unintegrated child. For our part, we adults have overwhelmingly abdicated. The coral reefs are in the process of practically all being boiled off, the Arctic is melting, and Amazonia is choked by drought, while every successive year brings record-breaking global temperature rises together with record-breaking aggregate carbon emissions. In the destruction of the life-world has the nightmare of childhood come true.

 

Denial of Affirmation. Theodor W. Adorno writes that “[t]he will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live.”[2] Whether the philosopher meant with this to comment on evolutionary processes as a whole or human social organization more narrowly, it is certainly well-said as a description of existence in late capitalism. The seeming contemporary universality of Android and iPhones in U.S. society, for instance, presupposes the super-exploitation of Chinese proletarians who produce the devices directly, as well as slavery and genocidal wars in central Africa related to control over the extraction of the various minerals necessary for such cellular technologies. The libidinal attachment many of us users have to our smartphones, the means with which we connect, rests precisely on the suicide, suffering, and death of our fellow laborers elsewhere—just as the casual use of air travel for work (or “business”), study, vacations, weddings, funerals, political meetings, and even revolutionary summits implies the destruction of the lives of those imperiled by the droughts, famines, and superstorms brought on by anthropogenic climate disruption, to say nothing of our poor future human generations, or the millions of other species devastated by the cancerous capitalist growth economy. In psychological terms, it would seem that people who are complicit in these systems of oppression regularly repress their participation in them in a parallel manner to the way the thought of death is continuously warded off: that is, to avoid inducing terror and Angst. The solipsism of such interpersonal brutality is reflected as well in the thoughtless and entirely unnecessary consumption of non-human animals and their products for sustenance, as in the utilization of animals for medical ‘research’—whether it is a matter of “testing out” the latest pharmaceutical absurdity, or developing drugs that are actually needed for human welfare. Even if one were to be a strict vegan for whom no medication involving vivisection would be indicated, the vegetables, fruits, and legumes one consumes to maintain one’s constitution are almost invariably cultivated by migrant workers who labor and survive in neo-feudal conditions. Practically the same is true for any new article of clothing one may purchase at present. What is more, those who can regularly afford organic food in the U.S. are usually more economically privileged—while a mass-turn to popular urban agriculture as a progressive-collective movement may not be advisable in many U.S. cities, due to the very accumulated and ongoing pollution spewed by the workplaces, cars, and trucks that underpin the monopolist-capitalist everyday.[3] No individual or individualist solution is possible for such negative realities; clearly, it is capitalism and the domination of nature that are the primary problems. Yet amidst the negative context, one cannot reproach others for adopting positions of personal resistance: for non-cooperation embodies the “Great Refusal” that is radically opposed to consumerism and getting along, with all the vast suffering, exploitation, and destruction these imply. As negations of what exist, the ideas and practices of voluntary simplicity and anarchism, together with the militant minority that strives quixotically to be faithful to these ideals, prefigure the possibility of an entirely different and potentially reconciled world-order, one that humanity in concert is capable of bringing into being. Yet the observed conformist attachment to the dominant values and badly misnamed “goods” handed down by the capitalist system, for example, in mainstream U.S. society, presents a great challenge to this potentially hopeful prospect for transformation—does it not?

 

Historical Climates, Dialectical Light. Disconcerting is the experience of visiting familiar places—cities, states, and regions—and observing how their climates have changed so drastically over the course of just the past ten to fifteen years. Summers in southern California reach much higher temperatures now as compared to the average experienced during my adolescence, while the falls retain the vernal warmth too long in the Pacific Northwest and mid-Atlantic U.S. East Coast. Moreover, there is so little rain, such that wildfires have raged, burning up at least 11 million acres in 2015.[4]

Diagnostic impression: the planet is running a fever that may prove fatal. Featuring a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), 2015 is the hottest year on record, with seven of the first nine months of this year having been the hottest recorded since 1880.[5] The Indonesian peat-bog fires of 2015 can be clearly observed from a satellite a million miles from Earth, and half the myriad tree species of the Amazon are threatened with immediate extinction.[6] The ongoing destruction of life on Earth thus illustrates the world “radiant with triumphant calamity” identified by Max Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947)—together with the “allied […] melancholy hope” Adorno feels “for other stars,” as he expresses in reflections on Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, for “the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised” (1971).[7] Since the time during which such words were written, monopoly capitalism’s “Great Acceleration” has expanded calamity and irrationality to unbounded dimensions, and the fate of human and non-human life is at stake. In this way, the negative hegemonic light which falsely illuminates the world constitutes the inversion of the “Luz” (“Light”) which guided the Mexican anarchist movement as part of the anti-authoritarian syndicalist wing of the International—together with the “Lucha” (“Struggle”) that its constituents recognized as the dialectical means by which to counterpose the emancipatory spectrum of colors: that is, through rationalist education and anarcho-syndicalist federations, inter alia.[8] It is negative-dialectical thought and spirit that seeks the total overturning of atrocity and authority, as both mobilize to ensure the inertial reproduction of the social-property relations impelling self-destruction.

 

Medical-Industrial Waste. Is it not a contradiction for one to work to promote health while acting to degrade human-environmental health—to affirm wanton wastefulness in the provision of healthcare? One thinks of mobile vans that open access to medical services within particularly oppressed communities, but that continuously emit noxious, nauseating, and cancerous gases during their hours of operation. In parallel, the present “best practice” in several U.S. cities seemingly is to run ambulances incessantly on diesel, a known carcinogen.[9] A not dissimilar dynamic governs the driving of personal cars to any work-site, though the contradiction seems most evident in terms of labor, for example, at community clinics—the pollution emitted by workers’ and providers’ commute rains down from the highways onto the very communities whose individuals, particularly children, present to such clinics for treatment of various ailments, many of them indeed related to the normalization of environmental racism and class apartheid within capitalist society. “[A]t no time have all powers been so horribly fettered as [the present], where children go hungry and the hands of the fathers are busy churning out bombs,” writes Horkheimer.[10] Just where do doctors and nurses think all the waste produced by mainstream medical practice goes? To be fair, this problem is in no way limited to the fields of medicine and nursing. Few of us wish to think of the ever-burgeoning landfills filled with plastic and the vast chemical pollution born through production and consumption patterns in the West, the medical-industrial complex, and global capitalism taken as a whole. “Out of sight, out of mind.” This is the dynamic of bourgeois society externalizing its problems to the detriment of the commons—reflected in turn in the frequent compulsion to “just focus on the details,” not the larger picture or world, and never to “get distracted.” According to their own maxims, practitioners of medicine and nursing must firstly do no harm, and it is for this reason that they should resist the “business-as-usual” imperatives of mass-wastefulness together with the rackets trading internationally in wastes, in effect dumping hazardous wastes—medical-industrial and nuclear—on impoverished societies like Haiti, Somalia, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire.[11] Perhaps the increased adoption of the practice of sterilizing medical equipment, as in autoclaves, and the use of vegetable oil-powered mobile vans and ambulances could represent but two facets of elements of a rational transition toward a health-care model instituting a holistic, Hegelian-anarchist perspective, integrating concern for the means to the desired end of collective, social, and terrestrial well-being: an overcoming of the bad present that, in seeking to attend to the wounds and other ailments caused by prevailing power, as by historical circumstances, greatly avoids the generation of new ones in the overall healing process.

 

Locomotive Ride. Global class society, as Walter Benjamin knew, resembles a train headed to disaster.[12] On this ride the passengers are governed by necessity, coercion, distraction, and integration. Intuitively they sense the falsity and danger of the established course, and though they sympathize with the erotic cry of life—the beauty in the lands passed by, as well as nature’s marked recent deadening—their immediate concerns are with particulars, like family, work, and entertainment. By design, some of the cars lack windows with which to even regard the outside world, while in others—particularly the work-sites of the laboring classes—they are shuttered, and external reality ignored. The laborers exhaust, injure, sicken, and kill themselves to keep the engine running, while the members of the upper classes dine in the luxury sleepers. Ubiquitous police, surveillance, and security measures ensure that the system continues on lock. As the train accelerates, those on board increasingly sense the abyss toward which the conductors are driving them. Over the intercom system they are not informed of the train’s route, whether precisely or generally speaking, other than to be told that all is well, that they should soon expect some minor alleviation in their conditions in recognition of their hard work, and not to worry about matters that are the exclusive concern of the administration anyway.

Amidst the directional negativity of this train, dissident groups in the working-class cars regard the given course as increasingly alarming, and they seek to distribute their findings and organize alternatives among the multitude. Even among the privileged there is a minority that concurs with the analysis for general alarm, and these renegade aristocrats surreptitiously share the knowledge to which they are privy with the workers, emphasizing the need to coordinate rebellion. Yet the train evermore accelerates, and a palpable sense of powerlessness and atomization dominates the passengers as a whole. Numerically speaking, most people on board this train would not be expected to favor the course taken by the administration, in light of the terminal consequences that are becoming increasingly evident. But what is to be done practically? Rational-collective choices self-evidently will not assert themselves ex nihilo under the reign of the Iron Cage. In light of the strict established security measures on board the class-divided train, it may well be that the workers cannot at this time storm the engine room to pull the emergency brake directly, as necessary as such a move might be—yet they could refuse their labor and disrupt the train’s route that careens to oblivion. Clearly, such a radical syndicalist approach would not be entirely without its losses, considering the injuries and deaths that would be outrightly inflicted by the police in reprisal to strikes, as well as the question of how non-cooperation would affect the well-being of workers’ children, and the possibility indeed that the rebellion would be crushed altogether. If it did not come at the right time, when would hope for social revolution return?

In the first place, the trajectory of the current course is clear enough. Beyond this, and to the question of the success or failure of the revolution, human history repeatedly demonstrates the anti-systemic activation of Eros under conditions of mass-rebellion.[13] It follows that the sacrifices of the rebels and martyrs of today and tomorrow disrupting the normal functioning of the system in an attempt to avert the destruction of self and Other would pale in comparison to the alternatives—if Eros cannot assert itself.

 

Images of Protest. I will say that the strongest protest-action in which I have participated was the general strike called for by Occupy Oakland on 2 November 2011. Though the strike in fact proved to be far from general, hundreds of thousands took part in rebellion and refusal that day. The climax of the day—which for many protestors likely also represented something of a peak life-experience—came in the late afternoon, as the mass-multitude converged on Oakland’s ports from the east, where the day of action had been based: Oscar Grant Plaza, or Frank Ogawa Plaza. The police could not stop the multitude as it took over the ramps and highways normally dedicated to the movement of capital and goods, pouring into the shipping terminals like alluvial fans. Once the port was taken over, protestors climbed on top of trucks, danced, cheered. Anarchist flags were waved, and one comrade knowingly expressed with a banner that said, “The People are Strong.” The port shut-down was truly a prefiguration of the radical change that could and can be accomplished through the collective organization of those from below—the reordering of the productive apparatus, its occupation and disarticulation. In this sense it was an action that has to my knowledge not been surpassed in scope in the U.S. since—to the detriment of the struggle, clearly, as capital markedly intensifies its destructiveness. Another recent mass-protest effort was made with the People’s Climate March (PCM) of September 2014, but as the organizers of this action in no way wanted to replicate the experience of Occupy, let alone the riots against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle (1999), the march was channeled into a non-threatening route, had no practical target, and made no demands, much less substantive ones.[14] Still, to recognize problems with the PCM’s organization is not to discount the authentic concern evinced by the hundreds of thousands who took part in the actions that day, including a number of explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-systemic contingents. The PCM’s approach was one that bears little in common with radical actions like the Oakland port shut-down and eco-socialist concepts of “Climate Satyagraha.”[15] The “Flood Wall Street” protest that followed the day after the PCM was more clearly in the militant spirit of Oakland, as it aimed to shut down New York’s financial district—though realistically, all we flooders accomplished was to blockade road access to the trading floor, and not to interrupt the normal functioning of capital inside.

Alongside the Oakland port shut-down, two other rebel-experiences I will share include the 2 October 2010 protests in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, and the anti-COP protests in Cancún in December 2010. 2 October, of course, marks the day on which the Mexican military murdered and forcibly disappeared hundreds of students and protestors assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics being hosted in the same city. For this reason this date is commemorated every year in Mexico—and indeed, it was to join the protest-action for the observance of the anniversary in Mexico City in 2014 that the 43 student-teachers from Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared in Iguala by the State. In the highland city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, university students and other youth led the protest in 2010, occupying the main streets, disrupting the existing order, and distributing flyers to inform the public of their actions, in addition to engaging in direct action against symbolic and actual centers of reified power, such as the local headquarters of the National Action Party (PAN) and the transnationally owned OXXO convenience stores. In Cancún three months later, La Via Campesina organized a counter-summit to the official UN summit, COP-16, at which the member-states were supposedly meeting to discuss how to address the problem of climate change—a meeting which Obama did not deign to grace with his presence—and from this alternative summit in downtown Cancún some of the largest counter-mobilizations were organized. The Anti-C@P, a grouping of autonomous youth who proclaimed their opposition both to the COP process and to capitalism, engaged in a number of unpermitted actions in the streets, and had even planned to disrupt official celebrations being held at the luxury hotels on the city’s eastern peninsula, including one featuring the Mexican president, the head of the World Bank, and the owner of Walmart. However, the ubiquitous police check-points erected near the tourist zone dissuaded anti-C@P from following through on these plans. As with the general strike in Oakland proclaimed nearly a year later, and following the mass-action against the Copenhagen COP the year prior, the culmination of rebellion against COP-16 came during a mass-march from downtown Cancún to the Moon Palace several kilometers to the south, where the negotiations were in fact being held. By the end of the several hours-long counter-mobilization, which had been monitored closely by several military helicopters, most protestors were really quite tired. As we finally approached the Moon Palace, the official organizers of the march stopped and organized a rally, while the bolder among us pressed on. Though we did approximate the Moon Palace, eventually we came face-to-face with a police cordon several lines deep. Then suddenly, scores of more riot police appeared from the inauspiciously small building in which they had been hidden, awaiting us. None of us was prepared to resist such a show of force directly, so we retreated back to the rally, hopeful that our spirit of rebellion temporarily beyond the limits of the accepted and given was meaningful.

I can recall a far more desperate spirit during the counter-inauguration demos in Washington, D.C., in January 2005, as those assembled expressed displeasure with the legal continuation of the Bush regime. Access to the parade route was entirely blocked off by fences; police presence was heavy; and snipers could be readily perceived, perched atop several buildings. The presidential limo sped quickly past the section containing the protest block—no doubt just another “focus group” to Bush—what a despotic fool, reminiscent of the tsars. A similarly absurd and negating atmosphere surrounded Israel’s massacres in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009. I can never forget the expressions of rage and pain I encountered on the faces of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem during one of the first few days of the airstrikes and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008. I had entered the Old City and the Occupied Palestinian Territories after having restfully visited Jordan’s Wadi Rum for Christmas. While being driven north from Jerusalem to Nablus, I saw that rocks were strewn on several roads, evidence of direct action taken by Palestinians against the reified, hated power of occupation and destruction. In Nablus itself, a protest camp was established in the dewar, or downtown circle, with the participation of several children (‘otfal), that involved art-making activities, speeches, denunciations, providence of news, publication of the faces of all those martyred. This solidarity arose despite the clear overall tensions between the Fateh-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Palestinian multitude participating in the commemorations and protests evinced a collectivist-humanist concern for the fate of their sisters and brothers suffering under the Israeli bombs in the other major Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than any adherence to divisive political ideologies. The same however cannot be said of the Palestinian Authority forces, who repressed numerous public expressions of sympathy with the people of Gaza, particularly in Ramallah.[16] I recall that on the New Year’s Friday demonstrations in Bi’lin—where the local Palestinian population has been cut off from its agrarian lands due to the erection of the Apartheid Wall—the Israeli forces were especially brutal, opening fire straightaway on the adolescent and youth sections of the weekly communal mobilization to resist colonization, rather than beginning by launching tear-gas grenades first. Among the Palestinians a great rage and outrage could thus readily be gleaned. “How dare they try to take our lives away from us, how dare they treat us like that?”[17] As a negative mirror-image of human rebellion, the cruelty of the occupying force was obvious for all to see.

The seemingly eternal return of negative historical developments in Palestine would re-assert itself most acutely in summer 2014, when the Israeli military once again engaged in a massively murderous campaign in Gaza. In New York, Direct Action for Palestine (DA4P) organized several emergency protest mobilizations in midtown Manhattan directed against the Israeli consulate; a number of banks financing Zionist crimes, including expropriation of land and settlement of the West Bank; and the Diamond District, comprised of numerous jewelry shops owned by Zionist Jews. In this last locale, we protestors encountered the fury of a number of Zionist chauvinists, thoughtlessly and incessantly chanting “Israel!” as we defied them, all the while the State they championed extinguished hundreds and thousands of Palestinian lives. Had it not been for the police cordon accompanying the march, ironically, several of us Palestinian sympathizers would likely have been attacked and injured by this proto-fascist mob. In such a strongly pro-Israeli city, we represented the militant minority opposing itself to authority, authoritarianism, settler-colonialism, and militarism, revindicating the right to rebel against despotism, injustice, domination, and absurdity. Retrospectively, though, in parallel to the counter-protests against COP and Wall Street, one can question whether DA4P concretely helped to stay Israel’s iron fist in any way. As Subcomandate Marcos—now Galeano—movingly observed during the winter 2008-2009 assault: “Is it useful to say something? Do our cries stop even one bomb? Does our word save the life of even one Palestinian?”[18] Yet, as Marcos/Galeano remarks, and as the resistance of Palestinians and their comrades demonstrates, it becomes necessary forthrightly to express one’s repudiation of events once these come to surpass basic principles of humanity so brazenly. “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people” (Adorno).[19]

 

Theses on Repressive Tolerance

1. I am in full agreement with Herbert Marcuse: there can be no right to advocate imperial war, exploitation, racism, sexism, fascism, or genocide.[20] The numerous victims of capital, colonialism, white supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy—prisoners; the institutionalized; racial minorities in the West; women and children; LGBTQ individuals; workers; anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; the millions of non-human animal species; and the biosphere as a whole—demand the overthrow of these systems of domination. Rather than any sense of expediency or conformism, concern for the fate of nature and history brutalized by hegemony must become central to radical ethics and politics today.

2. The concept of tolerance must return to its original sense of being a “weapon for humanity,” moving into the future victorious against the counterparts of the clerical-absolutist regimes of yesteryear.[21] This implies an active counter-movement from below incorporating direct action and dual-power to take down capitalism, militarism, and all other forms of oppression. Marcuse is right to stress that the revolt of the oppressed against the system historically has served to pause the continuum of domination—if only momentarily. One thinks of numerous historical examples illuminating the path: the French Revolution; Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals; the Paris Commune; the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and the Mexican Revolution; the February Revolution, deposing tsarism; the Spanish Revolution of 1936; Rubén Jaramillo, Genaro Vázquez, and Lucio Cabañas, Mexican guerrilleros; the global uprising of 1968; the Gwanju Commune; the Tahrir Commune; the Palestinian Intifada; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN); and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), among many others. As Marcuse observes rightly:

The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions […] only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities […]—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.[22]

[1]     Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2]     Adorno, T. W. (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (p. 229, E. F. N. Jephcott, trans.) London: Verso, 1974.

[3]     Engel-Di Mauro, S. (2014). Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Eco-Social Approach. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan..

[4]     Agence France-Press. (2015, 14 October). “2015 becomes worst US wildfire year on record,” Phys.org. Retrieved 22 October 2015 from http://phys.org/news/2015-10-worst-wildfire-year.html.

[5]     Associated Press. (2015, 21 October). “Warmest September ever points to 2015 being world’s hottest year on record,” Guardian.

[6]     Plait, P. (2015, 27 October). “Indonesia Fires Seen From a Million Miles Away,” Slate. Retrieved 22 November from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/10/27/earth_from_space_indonesian_peat_fires_show_up_in_satellite_photos.html; Carrington, D. (2015, 20 November).“Half of tree species in the Amazon at risk of extinction, say scientists,” Guardian.

[7]     Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (2002/1947/1944). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (p. 1E. Jephcott trans.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; Adorno, T. W. (1993). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (p. 154, E. Jephcott, trans.). Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

[8]     Hart, J. M. (1978). Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class (pp. 111-120). Austin: University of Texas Press This affirmation of Luz/Lucha in no way seeks to overlook its metamorphosis into the House of the Global Worker (COM), which during the Mexican Revolution unfortunately played the reactionary role of serving in the counter-insurgent war waged by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón against the Zapatistas (ibid, pp. 126-135).

[9]     Gani, A. and Nicholson, B. (2015, 28 October). “The 116 things that can give you cancer—the full list,” Guardian.

[10]   Horkheimer, M. (1993). Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Writings (p. 35, G. F. Hunter. trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[11]   Clapp, J. (2000). “Africa and the International Toxic Waste Trade” (pp. 103-124). In The Environment and Development in Africa (M. K. Tesi, ed). Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

[12]   Benjamin, W. (1977). Gesammelte Schriften I/3 (p. 1232). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag..

[13]   Katsiaficas, G. (2012-2013). Asia’s Unknown Uprisings: Volumes 1 and 2. Oakland, California: PM Press.

[14]   Gupta, A. (2014, 19 September). “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,” Counterpunch Retrieved 22 November 2015 from “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,”; Saul, Q (2014, 16 September). “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” Truthout. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26215-like-a-dull-knife-the-peoples-climate-farce.

[15]   Saul, Q. and Sethness Castro, J. (2015, 10 April). “On Climate Satyagraha,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/10/on-climate-satyagraha/.

[16]   Juma’, J. (2012, 3 July). “PA repression feeds flames of Palestinian discontent,” Electronic Intifada. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from https://electronicintifada.net/content/pa-repression-feeds-flames-palestinian-discontent/11456.

[17]   Holloway, J. (2010). “Of Despair and Hope,” Interventionistische Linke. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.dazwischengehen.org/node/669.

[18]   Subcomandante Marcos (2009, 1 February). “Gaza Will Survive,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/02/01/gaza-will-survive/.

[19]   Adorno, op. cit. (1974), p. 233.

[20]   Marcuse, H. (2014). Marxism, Revolution, Utopia: Collected Papers, Volume Six (pp. 293-297D. Kellner and C. Pierce, eds.). London: Routledge, 2014.

[21]   Ibid, pp. 218-221.

[22]   Marcuse, H. (1965). “Repressive Tolerance.” In A Critique of Pure Tolerance (p, 123, R. P. Wolff and B. Moore, Jr., eds.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Talk of a Third Intifada, as Israeli brutality against Palestinians surges yet again

October 11, 2015

Palestinian girl uses a slingshot against Israeli soldiers during clashes near Beit El settlement north of Ramallah, 10 October 2015 (MEE/Shadi Hatim)

A Palestinian female uses a slingshot against Israeli soldiers during clashes near Beit El settlement north of Ramallah, 10 October 2015 (MEE/Shadi Hatim)

During the past 10 days, Israeli security forces and settlers have killed some 20 Palestinians and injured over 1,000 others, in accordance with the findings of Al-Haq, the Red Crescent Society, and the Palestinian Ministry of Health.  This violence has taken place within the context of resurging clashes and youth-led protests against the ongoing Occupation in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem–developments that some have termed the beginnings of a “Third Intifada.”  The repressive responses from the Israeli military have in recent days included airstrikes destroying a family in Gaza City and the use of live ammunition against a Friday demo near the security fence separating Gaza from Israel.  Amnesty International’s Mariam Farah has made the obvious point that these killings of Palestinian protestors amount to extrajudicial executions.  In no small part, the current uprising is against the Palestinian Authority (PA), widely seen as Israel’s collaborator, as much as it is against the Zionist regime proper. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which has hailed the upheaval and called for its intensification, explains its genesis in “the resolve and determination of the Palestinian youth to restore their land and their rights of which they are deprived, and their conviction in the justice of their cause.”  For its part, the Palestinian Progressive Youth Union has advocated the “formation of committees and popular protection groups, as a popular response to the crimes of the settlers for the protection of our people, villages and farms.”

Alternatively, a group of Palestinian professionals, trade-unionists, intellectuals, and political activists has called for the Palestinian Territories to be placed under UN protection as a means of putting an end to the Occupation.

All solidarity with the Palestinian struggle!  Down with settler-colonialism!  Down with chauvinism!  Death to militarism!

Palestinian youth resisting in East Jerusalem. @PFLP

Palestinian youth resisting the Occupation in East Jerusalem. @PFLP

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