Posts Tagged ‘Palestine’

Call for the Formation of a Transnational Socialist-Humanist Solidarity Network

April 2, 2019

Dear Friends:

Critical developments around the globe compel the creation of a new type of transnational socialist and anti-authoritarian solidarity network.

Objectively, we are facing the growth of authoritarian capitalist governments, an increasing economic and military competition between the U.S. and China, and the ominous consequences of climate breakdown. In addition, we confront insurgent white-supremacist and other racist ethno-nationalist movements which, similar to ISIS in their extremist views, are willing to employ mass-violence against Muslims, Jews, and other marginalized people.

Subjectively, a new generation of youth is getting interested in socialism because capitalism’s inhumanity and exploitation does not offer it a better future. The Me Too movement challenging sexual abuse is growing among women around the globe and targeting the abuse of women in government, all fields of work, and the family. The Black Lives Matter movement which emerged in the U.S. in response to state-sanctioned police murder and abuse of Black people has struck a chord internationally. There is no lack of popular protests and strikes around the world, from Sudan, Algeria, Iran, and Palestine to Europe, and from China and India to Latin America, Haiti, and the U.S. However, some of these struggles are being crushed by various authoritarian and imperialist forces, and others face the danger of rightwing populism.

In response to these struggles, the international Left has been disappointing. The Syrian revolution was not only crushed by the Assad regime with the help of Russia and Iran. It was also abandoned or rejected by the majority of the international Left. The poor and starving masses in Iran and Venezuela are being told by supposed “socialists” and “peace and justice” advocates that their miseries are only caused by U.S. imperialism and that they have to live with authoritarian regimes like the Islamic Republic or Maduro’s state as the “lesser of the two evils.”

There is no doubt that U.S. imperialism and settler colonialism are the cause of much misery and death in the world both presently in the actions of the Trump administration and historically. Nonetheless, the U.S. is not the only capitalist-imperialist power exploiting and oppressing humanity. We live in a world of various imperialist and sub-imperialist power rivalries. In particular, Chinese and Russian imperialism are competing with U.S. imperialism for global dominance.

In the face of this reality, however, many leftists are rationalizing the actions of authoritarian regimes such as those of Putin in Russia, Assad in Syria, Khamenei in Iran, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Maduro in Venezuela—simply because these governments use the rhetoric of anti-U.S. imperialism. Some socialist observers have named this rationalization or support the “red-brown alliance” which follows the “campist” approach of dividing the world into competing military camps, and negating the role of the working class and oppressed peoples within those “camps.”

Given the evidently sordid and bloody history of U.S. imperialism, many Western leftists justifiably endorse Karl Liebknecht’s declaration, made in 1915 amid the depths of World War I, that “the main enemy is at home.” Liebknecht was expressing what he thought should be the position of socialists in an inter-imperialist war. His statement should not be used as an excuse to abandon working-class struggles around the world. Unfortunately, today, many on the Left have twisted this principle to minimize or deny well-documented chemical-weapons attacks by the Assad regime in Syria; murders of protesters in Russia, Venezuela, and Iran; mass-internment concentration camps such as those holding a million Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region; and other heinous attacks of state violence carried out by regimes that claim to be against U.S. imperialism. Such views greatly violate the core ethical principles of humanism, egalitarianism, and human solidarity with oppressed peoples, and confuse the struggles of workers and the oppressed against capital and the State with inter-imperialist intrigues.

We need a transnational socialist and anti-authoritarian solidarity network that breaks with such careless and undiscerning views of the world and instead sets human emancipation, not inter-imperialist rivalry, as its aim. We need to create a network that offers in-depth analyses, genuine grassroots socialist solidarity, and forums for working out real solutions—such as alternatives to capitalism, tackling climate breakdown, and overcoming patriarchy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

We believe that the essence of socialism is humanism, the idea that human beings have the potential to use their reasoning capacity to move forward, establish intercommunication and relations free of domination and servitude.

The signatories of this call include a variety of socialist and Marxist humanists, anarchists, and anti-authoritarians. We reject the systems that existed in the former USSR and the People’s Republic of China as authoritarian. We oppose capitalism both in private and state form as well as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. We seek humanist, intersectional, and sustainable ecological alternatives to oppression and ecocide.

Please join us in an effort to create a transnational and anti-authoritarian socialist solidarity network with the initial aim of organizing speaking tours and building a speakers’ bureau with a related website aimed at the following:

  1. Concrete expressions of solidarity with ongoing progressive and revolutionary popular struggles on the basis of opposition to capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and xenophobia.
  2. Genuine dialogue and debate on humanist alternatives to capitalism, visions of a free and sustainable society, liberation of women, and LGBT persons, the right to self-determination, and a commitment to truth, reason, and human emancipation.

We propose a speakers’ bureau that would offer a resource list of speakers/topics and coordinate speaking tours which would bring together local, national, and international issues and struggles.

This is an international effort aimed at concrete solidarity work and dialogue on the burning questions of our day, and hopes to prove that the idea of emancipatory socialist solidarity can be credible in theory and practice.

If you agree with these ideas and would like to be part of this effort to form a Transnational Socialist-Humanist Solidarity Network, please contact us at transnationalsolidarity@protonmail.com

Original signatories:

Abou Jaoude, Elias, Software Developer, Lebanon

Al-Kateb, Lara, Syrian socialist feminist

Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists

Al-Saadi, Yazan, Syrian Canadian Writer

Amina, Syria solidarity activist, U.S.

Ayoub, Joey, Writer, editor and researcher, IFEX, Global Voices, Scotland

Botta, Emma Wilde, Independent Socialist Feminist, U.S.

Castro, María, Professor of Spanish and French Studies, U.S.

Chelliah, Lalitha, Maternal and Child Health Nurse – Socialist, Australia

Cuffy, Robert, Socialist Workers’ Alliance, Guyana

Dehkordi, Sara, Manjanigh Collective, Germany

Fareid Eltayeb, Amgad, Spokesperson of Sudan Change Now movement & producer of Sudan Seen blog

Fischer, Dan, Graduate worker, U.S.

Galyon, Shiyam, Syrian American feminist and campaigner

Hensman, Rohini, Writer, independent scholar and author of Indefensible, India

Hirsch, Michael, New Politics Editorial Board member, U.S.

Independent journalist and activist, Argentina

Kaylen, Student, U.S.

La Botz, Dan, Teacher, writer, co-editor of New Politics, U.S.

Language professor, U.S.

Lopez, Rocío, Mexican-American writer, U.S.

LeFage, Shanelle, Climate activist, U.S.

Leonard, Ralph, Writer and student, U.K.

Masjedi, Fatemeh, Iranian feminist and history scholar, Europe

Melcher, Thorne, transgender activist, writer and coder, U.S.

Munif, Yasser, Syrian Sociology Professor, U.S.

Noor, Yalda, Psychologist, U.S.

Petersen-Smith, Khury, Socialist and geographer, U.S.

Ram, Joshua, Writer, U.S.

Ramírez, Krys Méndez, Disability Justice organizer and Ethnic Studies scholar, U.S.

Reid Ross, Alexander, geography professor, and author of Against the Fascist Creep, U.S.

Reimann, John, Former Recording Secretary of Carpenters’ Local 713 and current producer of OaklandSocialist.com blog, U.S.

Rizzo, Mary, Editorial Staff of Le Vocci de la Liberta, Italian blog for the Syrian Revolution, Italy

Ruder, Eric, socialist and journalist, U.S.

Saravi, Jose, writer and translator, Argentina

Schulman, Jason, New York City Democratic Socialists of America

Sethness, Javier, Family Nurse Practitioner and author, U.S.

Shurmand, Azadeh, Iranian women’s studies scholar, Europe

Sloughter, Tristan, Denver Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Soeller, Peter, Anti-fascist activist and writer, U.S.

Smith, Ashley, Socialist writer and activist, U.S.

Weston, Matt, Social Worker, U.S.

Wind, Ella, Middle East Studies scholar and member of Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Zekavat, Sina, Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, Germany

Zuur, Cheryl, former president, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 444, U.S.

Subsequent signatories:

American Studies Professor, Atlanta, U.S.

Bojcun, Marko, independent socialist, UK

Etzbach, Harald, Journalist and Translator, Germany

Grannies4Equality, Dublin, Ireland

Heimbach, Wayne, Member of Service Employees International Union (Retired), U.S.

Heller, Stanley, Host, “The Struggle” Video News, author, The Uprising We Need, U.S. 

Khan, Tulsi Das, India

LeftEast Editorial Collective, Europe

McDonald, David, activist, U.S. 

McBurney, Sandy, Glasgow, Ireland

Modiano, Richard, Executive Director Emeritus, Beyond Baroque Foundation, U.S.

Mola, Mark, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ongerth, Steve, co-founder, IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus*

PhD Student, Lancaster University, UK

Nachawati Rego, Leila, Spanish-Syrian writer and professor of communications, Madrid

Shalom, Stephen R., Editorial Board, New Politics, U.S.

Sutton, Edward, climate activist & member of Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Thomsen, Nicholas, anarchist activist, Australia

(*listed for ID purposes only)

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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.”

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.

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

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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.

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

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

The Insurgent Kingdom of God: On The Politics of Zealot

February 18, 2016

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First published on Anarkismo, 18 February 2016

Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House 2013. 296pp.

Professor Reza Aslan’s Zealot is in large part the story of how the life of Jesus of Nazareth was “revised” ex post facto by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While Jewish themselves, these early Christians wished to break definitively with their mother religion in the wake of the brutal counter-insurgent campaign waged by Rome against the Jewish Revolt that had been launched in Palestine in 66 C.E., only to be finally put down when the Romans destroyed the Temple and ravaged Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Indeed, it was in this year or the very next one that the first Gospel, written by Mark, was composed; the rest of the gospels were written later, between 90 and 120 C.E. Aslan makes clear that the birth of Christianity was not the end sought by Jesus or his closest disciples, including Simon (Peter) and his brother James, but was rather the result of the unflagging efforts of Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, who in his missionary epistles to the Greco-Roman gentiles stressed the divinity of Jesus, thus transforming the rebel-prophet Jesus into Christ the messiah, a “Romanized demigod” (171).

In this way, the ascendancy of Pauline Christianity was largely due to historical circumstance: with the “Jerusalem branch” of Jesus’ followers wiped out by the Roman attack on Jerusalem, Paul’s vision of Jesus was the only one left standing, with the exception of the hypothetical Q document on which Matthew and Luke were based (214). Plus, as Aslan observes, Paul’s views certainly permeate in Luke and John (215). According to the author, this geographical shift from Jerusalem to the Greco-Roman Diaspora implied the opportunistic transformation of the historical zealot Jesus into a pacifist and of the Kingdom of God he had proclaimed into an ethereal matter reserved for the afterlife. As Aslan notes, such conscious manipulation of history cannot be dissociated from the virulence of European Jew-hatred over the past two millennia, as inspired by the evangelists, who portray the Jewish rabble and/or their corrupt leaders as responsible for Christ’s execution, with Pilate merely “washing his hands,” when in fact Jesus was murdered by the State, the occupying power of Rome.

Aslan makes clear that Jesus was crucified for sedition—indeed, that crucifixion was the punishment reserved for political offenders, and that the two prisoners executed alongside Christ on Golgotha were “bandits” (lestai), not “thieves.” The author places Jesus’ rebellion within the context of the times, echoing the demands and fate of similar anti-Roman messianic figures and the movements they led from the century leading up to the general Revolt, such as the bandit chief Hezekiah, Judas the Galilean, “the Samaritan,” and “the Egyptian” (79). Ironically enough, Aslan argues that Jesus was effectively John the Baptist’s disciple, for Christ adopted John’s ascetic-defiant announcement of the Kingdom of God, and even shared the same fate as his master at the hands of the State (80-9).

In addition, the author provides a compelling clarification of Jesus’ well-known proclamation regarding the need to “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render unto God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17/Matthew 22:21/Luke 20:25). Though this line has often been used to rationalize Christian subordination to the State, its meaning is in fact quite revolutionary, as demonstrated by the evangelists’ recording of the audience’s reaction, “amazed at him.” In response to the question posed by the Pharisees or their spies about whether Jews should agree to pay tribute to Rome, Jesus requests to be shown a denarius, an imperial coin, and asks “whose image and inscription hath it?” In response to his listeners’ correct identification, Christ tells the audience that the symbolic coin must be returned to Caesar, to whom it belongs, just as the land of occupied Palestine must be rendered holy, emancipated from the yoke of Roman occupation (76-8). Though the national-liberation zealot movement as represented by the Zealot Party would not formally be founded for another three decades after the death of Christ, Aslan observes that Christ’s view of the denarius and Caesar clearly communicates the prophet’s affinity for the philosophy of that movement. Of course, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand should be interpreted similarly as a fundamental challenge to the established system of clerical-military domination, for “God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders” (119).

Hence, Aslan clearly acknowledges that the “Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120). However, in his discussion of this insurgent concept, Aslan calls into question what is perhaps most radical within Christ’s teachings: the affirmation that the “greatest commandment” is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39). Aslan writes that Jesus’ declaration of this maxim was meant to be applied only to members of the Jewish nation only, and thus should not be understood as a universal humanistic declaration of equality and solidarity (120-2). “There is no reason to consider Jesus’s conception of his neighbors and enemies to have been any more or less expansive than that of any other Jew of his time” (122). To support this claim, Aslan argues that Christ’s clarification that he came not to destroy Mosaic law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) necessarily means that the prophet must have endorsed chauvinist conceptions about peoples other than Jews. However, this claim is somewhat imprecise; it is unclear why Christ’s affirmation of the Golden Rule, if directed primarily toward Jews, could not also dialectically apply to gentiles or humanity in general. Beginning three centuries before Christ, the Stoics had identified the innateness of human equality and the unity of humankind through natural law.1 In parallel, four or five centuries before Christ, Buddha had developed the concept of the common struggle of all suffering beings. Christ’s “new commandment” for his followers to “love one another” (John 13:35) self-evidently shares a great deal with these other egalitarian philosophies.

Related to the question of Christian, Buddhist, or Stoic egalitarianism is Aslan’s presentation of the Kingdom of God. Aslan intimates that Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God was “neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological,” but rather real and physical, such that Jesus envisioned himself ruling a reconstituted, liberated Israel in God’s name, with the twelve apostles serving as his lieutenant-governors (118-25). The accusation of Christ’s having proclaimed himself King of the Jews (INRI), was, according to the Gospels, the “evidence” for the charge of sedition on which he was executed. Yet Aslan also discusses the translation of a line unique to John that may have been uttered by Christ during his interrogation by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this order [or system]” (John 18:36) (116). Usually translated as not being “of this world”—and hence understood as being reserved for the afterlife—Christ’s “kingdom” in this sense presents a very different vision of social organization, whether we think of the classical eastern Mediterranean or the world of our own day. This is particularly the case if we juxtapose this heretical declaration with the prophet’s condemnation of private property, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7), the parables about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and Lazarus and the wealthy man (Luke 16:19-31), and the apocalyptical vision of Judgment Day, when the rich would be cast into hell, while the oppressed and those promoting mutual aid would be saved (Matthew 25:31-46)—to say nothing of his physical clearing of the Temple in Jerusalem of the money-changers (Mark 11:15-19/Matthew 21:12-17/Luke 19:45-48). Though Aslan recognizes Christ’s revolutionary vision, he does not explicitly acknowledge the Kingdom of God’s proto-communist character or the materialist metaphor of Christ’s healing of the sick free of charge, preferring to associate the former concept with the national-liberation struggle against the Romans and the concept of divine sovereignty. Nevertheless, he describes how Christ’s revolutionism influenced his brother James, known as “the Just,” who too would be executed for championing the cause of the oppressed (197-212).

One final matter to discuss from Aslan’s volume is the author’s dismissal of the evangelists’ imputing to Christ a stance of pacifism and the espousal of non-resistance to evil by violence. In Matthew 5:38-44 and Luke 6:27-29, Jesus includes within his Sermon on the Mount a critique of the established lex talonis stipulating “an eye for an eye” and in its place presents the injunction to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” Aslan rejects these teachings as fabrications, for they contradict his account of Christ’s zealotry; he clarifies his view that Jesus was “no fool” when it came to social change, meaning that he “understood” that force would be necessary to realize the Kingdom of God (120-2). Aslan cites Christ’s statement that he had “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) to support the line of argumentation, though he entirely decontextualizes this statement—with the image of “sword” incidentally being translated in Luke 12:51 as “division” to express the same idea—for in Matthew the very next lines read as follows: “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother […]. He that loveth father or mother [or child] more than me is not worthy of me […]. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:35-8). Hence, while it is evident that Christ’s critique shares much in common with zealotry in terms of the question of the Roman occupation—as reflected, verily, in the prophet’s warning to his apostles that they would likely face execution for joining him—it is far less clear that Jesus agreed with the violent tactics used by zealots against Rome. Indeed, next to the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the calls for non-violent non-cooperation and the harmonization of means and ends are among the most innovative of Christ’s teachings. In this vein, while in no way uncritically advancing pacifism, one wonders if Aslan would also call Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or their followers “fools.”

In sum, Aslan has certainly provided a thought-provoking account of the “life and times” of Jesus of Nazareth. He places one of history’s most fateful personalities directly within the political and economic realities that led him on the path of anti-colonial, proto-socialist rebellion. In so doing, the author implicitly condemns the depoliticized image of Christ that has been propagated by the various institutionalized churches which arose over the past two millennia to officially “represent” Christianity—however fundamentally essentially all of these churches have departed from the essence of Christ’s teachings, summarized by Tolstoy as being the proclamation of “universal brotherhood, the elimination of national distinctions, the abolition of private property, and the strange injunction not to resist evil by violence.”2 As a biographical and philosophical examination of the world-historical Jewish prophet who demanded that his disciples “call no man [their] father upon the Earth [… and] neither be called masters” (Matthew 23:9-10), Zealot bears a great deal of contemplation, discussion, and action.

1Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. Dennis J. Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), 10-16.

2Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Peace Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 134.

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