Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 21, 2011

Gene Sharp’s goal: liberty in a world of market imperatives

Filed under: Cold War,Egypt,ussr,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

Gene Sharp

For obvious reasons, the New York Times has hyped the role of Gene Sharp and his co-thinkers in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. By placing much more emphasis on the struggle against “dictatorship”, all sorts of delicate questions about class relations get deemphasized. By making the struggle one against a Ben Ali or a Mubarak rather than the capitalist system, the newspaper of record hopes to steer things in the direction of Corey Aquino “People’s Power” rather than the kind of social transformation that would leave American corporations on the outside looking in, like a bunch of hungry buzzards.

Michael Barker has written eloquently about the dangers of a Philippines type outcome that people like Gene Sharp, a life-long anti-Communist, would hail. Since events are moving rapidly in Egypt toward a class-versus-class showdown, it seems likely in any event that the Sharpies will have anything much to say. The working class understands that market imperatives can constitute just as much of a dictatorship as Mubarak or Ben Ali. As Ellen Meiksins Wood once put it:

To understand the market as imperative, we have to understand not just how people have been able to respond to the capitalist market but how they have been forced to do so. Capitalism doesn’t just allow people to avail themselves of the market in the pursuit of profit. It forces them to enter the market for the most basic conditions of survival and self-reproduction—and that applies to both workers and capitalists.

That force can be excruciating in countries like Egypt.

In any case, it is worth saying a thing or two about their role of Gene Sharp and company in “color revolutions”, understanding of course that red is the only color in the spectrum that is strictly off-limits.

On February 13th, the Times reported that Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old Egyptian civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, and his fellow activists began reading about nonviolent struggles and “were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp.” The article makes clear that flirtation with leftist themes is not unheard of in these circles, despite Sharp’s hatred of anything connected with communism:

The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist—after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

“The Academy of Change [an émigré group in Qatar] is sort of like Karl Marx, and we are like Lenin,” said Basem Fathy, another organizer who sometimes works with the April 6 Youth Movement and is also the project director at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, which receives grants from the United States and focuses on human rights and election-monitoring. During the protesters’ occupation of Tahrir Square, he said, he used his connections to raise about $5,100 from Egyptian businessmen to buy blankets and tents.

The Times followed up with another article three days later that included references to the three figures who have been at the center of controversy around such interventions. There is obviously Gene Sharp himself, the guru of the movement. The article also quotes Stephen Zunes who shares many of Sharp’s views and who has joined forces with Peter Ackerman, another Sharp disciple, who founded the International Institute of Nonviolent Conflict, upon whose advisory board he sits. Ackerman took classes with Sharp as a graduate student in the 1970s. Since Sharp, now in his 80s, is not really in any position to influence events on the ground, he has ceded leadership to his disciple who runs Rockfort Capital Partners, a private equity firm. Ackerman is almost certainly a billionaire. One has to wonder how much currency Sharp’s ideas would have abroad without the venture capitalist’s fiscal support.

In keeping with the flirtation with the left in the earlier NYT article, we read that:

Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty — in the 1950s, he wrote for a publication called “Peace News” and he once worked as personal secretary to A. J. Muste, a noted labor union activist and pacifist — but he insists that he outgrew his own early pacifism and describes himself as “trans-partisan.”

The Muste connection is interesting. In the 1930s, Muste was the leader of a group called the Workers Party that spearheaded major labor struggles. In James P. Cannon’s “History of American Trotskyism” there is a useful discussion of Muste’s importance. When Cannon found his own Trotskyist group growing closer to Muste’s, he broached the subject of a fusion that Muste was agreeable to. The Trotskyists were at that time doing what is called “entryism” in Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party. When they were expelled, they united with Muste as the Socialist Workers Party, reflecting each group’s antecedents.

Eventually Muste abandoned Marxism and became a Christian pacifist. As a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Muste became critical in the formation of the Vietnam antiwar coalitions that would challenge the imperialist war-makers. One crucial difference between Muste and Sharp was their chosen arena of struggle. Muste targeted his own government while Sharp saw his role as providing leadership to struggles elsewhere, particularly in the Soviet bloc countries. During the Korean War Sharp spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector. He also took part in some civil rights protests but from the 1960s onwards his emphasis has been on providing consultation to people in other countries.

Zunes mocks the idea of the elderly Gene Sharp fomenting uprisings in other countries:

“He is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action,” said Stephen Zunes, an expert in that field at the University of San Francisco. “Some of these exaggerated stories of him going around the world and starting revolutions and leading mobs, what a joke. He’s much more into doing the research and the theoretical work than he is in disseminating it.”

That might be true, but if you look at Peter Ackerman’s International Center on Nonviolent Conflict as an extension of Sharp’s empire of peaceful resistance, there is no question about a division of labor. Sharp provided the ideas, Ackerman the money and bodies.

The article takes up Peter Ackerman’s role:

When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr. Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to “protest disrobing” to “disclosing identities of secret agents.”

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said that some activists translated excerpts of Mr. Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of “attacking weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.

Peter Ackerman, a onetime student of Mr. Sharp who founded the nonviolence center and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that “ideas have power.”

If you read the study guide for “Bringing Down a Dictator”, a documentary that Ackerman executive produced, you will find a most interesting discussion point:

The United States government gave over $25 million dollars in aid to Otpor and other opposition groups during the movement against Milosevic. Some of these groups declared themselves to be anti-American. What is the purpose of the US funding of anti-American groups overseas?

While I doubt that Otpor could be considered anti-American, whoever was shrewd enough to write the study guide surely understands the role of people like Stephen Zunes and the importance of funding groups like the April Sixth Movement in Egypt that was trying to overthrow America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, next to the Israelis. People like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are simply too stupid to understand America’s long-term interests in the Middle East. A Mubarak, like a Ferdinand Marcos, presents serious problems to social stability. He had to be replaced even as he was being supported. It is this kind of contradiction that far-sighted people in the ruling class have come to understand, perhaps a function of having read Karl Marx as undergraduates.

Like George Soros, Peter Ackerman is very far-sighted. While Soros sees the wisdom of putting Christian Parenti on the payroll of Open Society, Ackerman chooses Zunes. If you want some credibility on the left, these types of cooptation are essential.

Not content to include Zunes’s dismissal of charges that Sharp is running some kind of private spook network, the article makes the point a second time:

In 2008, Iran featured Mr. Sharp, along with Senator John McCain of Arizona and the Democratic financier George Soros, in an animated propaganda video that accused Mr. Sharp of being the C.I.A. agent “in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries,” an assertion his fellow scholars find ludicrous.

But if you see Ackerman as the instrument of Sharp’s ideas, the idea is not so ludicrous. As I mentioned in an earlier article on the venture capitalist, Ackerman was the former director of Freedom House, a group that was also run at one time by James Woolsey, former director of the CIA.

The New York Times articles on Gene Sharp prompted me to take a fresh look at Peter Ackerman, to see what the rat has been up to. Apparently, his main interest in life, besides making money, is running or serving on the boards of outfits like Freedom House. Sourcewatch  has a very good dossier on Ackerman.

There we learn that Ackerman now sits on the board of Spirit of America, a group that is “dedicated to spreading US influence worldwide, with a particular emphasis on covert cyber-intelligence measures”. In 2005 Trish Schuh wrote an article for Counterpunch that explored its role in the Middle East:

Another Spirit of America governor is Lt General Mike DeLong, Deputy Commander, US Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. DeLong manages a budget of $8.2 billion and “conceived and implemented the Global War on Terrorism, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.” As top Deputy to former General Tommy Franks, DeLong’s listed expertise at places such as the Army War College, the Department of Defense and the Amphibious Warfare School included Artillery, military intelligence, coup détats, supporting democracy.

Ackerman is also on the advisory board of the Cato Institute’s Project on Social Security Choice. Not surprisingly, they claim that “allowing younger workers to privately invest their Social Security taxes through individual accounts will improve Social Security’s rate of return.”

But what difference does it make if their individual accounts at Goldman-Sachs or Merrill-Lynch go up in flames during the next stock market crash? There will always be jobs for the elderly as greeters at Walmart. And if they are unhappy with their fate, they can always vote for the candidate of their choice at the next election even if both candidates favor keeping Social Security as a shell game run by the rich. After all, it could be worse. You might be in a country like Egypt with fraudulent elections. It is much better, isn’t it, to give people a choice? That’s what Gene Sharp and Peter Ackerman have always been about, endeavoring to allow people full liberty in a world of market imperatives.

October 31, 2010

Engineers of the Soul

Filed under: art,China,Cold War,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

Last Saturday a week ago I went to the opening night reception of an art show titled “Engineers of the Soul” in order to do some videoblogging. Thomas Campbell, a member of the Chto Delat (What is to be done) collective and Marxmailer, suggested that it might be worth my time since his group’s video “The Tower: a Songspiel” was on display there. He wasn’t sure what I would make of the other works there. After seeing them, I am still undecided.

If I had read the gallery notes on the exhibit before going down, I probably would have sounded more like Robert Hughes than Robbie the Robot. As will be obvious from my commentary, the works on display—excepting Chto Delat’s intelligent and artistically fully realized video, mystified me. Now that I have had a chance to read the notes at http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/2010/10/20/engineers-of-the-soul-new-york-city/, I have somewhat a better handle on things.

To start off, my reference to what the artists were trying to say with the Mao and Stalin photos was obviously meant to be a question about the gallery’s intentions rather than the photographers who were government-sanctioned “official” recorders of the Communist power structure. Magdalena Sawon and Tamas Banovich, the owners of Postmasters Gallery, describe themselves this way:

For better or worse Tamas Banovich and I are children of Communism, having grown up in Hungary and Poland respectively. We have always wanted to organize an exhibition that brings together Communism’s past, present, and future and shows artists’ ongoing relationships to power and ideology as they negotiate the treacherous zones of propaganda and dissent.

The moment seems right. With growing political extremism at both ends of the spectrum, Communism is on our collective radar. Since the fall of the Soviet block in the early nineties, we have thought of Communism as the past, yet there are millions of people who are still living under communist regimes and many more who live with its consequences and legacies.

Unlike the Hard Times show I reported on last August, this show was not quite so partisan. Although the curators were not making an anti-Communist statement (how could they by including Chto Delat’s hard-hitting anti-oligarch politics?), they clearly were not indulging themselves in nostalgia for the past.

The show continues until December 4th and is well worth a trip to the westernmost regions of Chelsea for New Yorkers.

And for out-of-towners, I invite you to watch “I Hate You, Karl Marx” below. See if you can make sense of it. I still can’t.

And here, especially recommended, is a performance of “The Tower: a songspiel”. Brilliant stuff.

June 6, 2010

How Germany became divided after WWII: Stalin didn’t do it

Filed under: Cold War,Germany,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 1:29 am

(A discussion about the Berlin Wall broke out in the comments section of my blog posting on John Weeks. That inspired me to post an excellent review of Carolyn Eisenberg’s “Drawing the Line” from the Nation Magazine in 1996, when it was still readable. Nothing can substitute for reading Eisenberg’s book, but Kai Bird’s review comes close.)

Nation Magazine
December 16, 1996

Stalin Didn’t Do It
by KAI BIRD

DRAWING THE LINE
The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949.
By Carolyn Eisenberg
Cambridge. 522 pp. $59.95.

Nothing is inevitable in the course of human events. Yet every historian finds it difficult to persuade readers that what happened all those many years ago was not preordained, that indeed, choices were made which at the time were not necessarily obvious or at all inevitable. This challenge becomes particularly formidable when the historian’s topic is invested with powerful myths cultivated by the state.

Carolyn Eisenberg shatters the central myth at the heart of the origins of the cold war: that the postwar division of Germany was Stalin’s fault. She demonstrates unequivocally that the partition of Germany was “fundamentally an American decision,” strongly opposed by the Soviets. The implications are enormous. Germany’s division led to the rapid division of Europe, condemning not only East Germans but millions throughout Eastern Europe to a forty-year siege. If the responsibility for this cruel separation of a continent into two armed military camps lies with Washington and not Moscow, then the entire canon of the orthodox history of the cold war is called into question.

Eisenberg, a professor of history at Hofstra, took more than a dozen years to produce this exhaustively researched text. Drawing the Line opens with a moving description of the idealistic hopes evoked by the meeting of U.S. and Soviet troops at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945. In the face of a common peril, a Grand Alliance had triumphed over German fascism.

A half-century later, we forget that many Americans had been confident that U.S.-Soviet cooperation could continue in the postwar period despite ideological differences. Even an establishment figure like Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy noted in his diary on April 30, 1945, “It is little wonder that as [the US. and the U.S.S.R.] emerge in their own and in the eyes of everyone else as the two greatest powers that they should walk stiff-legged around the ring a bit.” But McCloy and Secretary of War Henry Stimson believed that with time and hard work a “practical relationship” was possible and desirable. As for Germany, the New Dealers who then prevailed in foreign policy deliberations-Henry Morgenthau Jr., Harry Hopkins, Harry Dexter White, Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes-fully intended to cooperate with the Soviets in administering a “hard peace” in a unified German state. Roosevelt had agreed to a firm program of denazification, deindustrialization and demilitarization. The Soviets would share in the supervision of a jointly occupied German state and be assured a share of reparations.

Then came Harry Truman, who was pretty much an empty vessel when it came to foreign policy. His instincts were erratic, McCloy wrote in his diary after observing him at Potsdam, “He always gives me the impression of too quick judgment.” Roosevelt’s Soviet policies were soon shoved aside. In the judgment of Truman’s influential advisers-Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, John Foster Dulles, George Marshall and James Forrestal- partition was preferable to the uncertainties of cooperating with a difficult wartime ally in a joint occupation of the defeated enemy.

Acheson and his colleagues did not fear the Soviets-they understood that the Soviet system was economically and militarily weak. And that was precisely why Washington could act unilaterally with little risk of provoking a war. “This judgment,” says Eisenberg, “allowed them to make careless calculations, to disregard the Soviet interests with a sense of impunity, and to sacrifice potentially favorable bargains with the expectation of a complete collapse down the road.” And act they did. In violation of Potsdam and Yalta, the Truman Administration fused the British and U.S. occupation zones economically in December 1946, incorporated western Germany into the Marshall Plan in July 1947, implemented a currency reform in June 1948 and convened a parliamentary body in September 1948 for the purpose of creating a formal West German state. Washington also abruptly ended denazification (leaving approximately 640,000 “highly incriminated persons” un- prosecuted), halted deindustrialization and canceled steps already taken to break up the German economic cartels.

Truman’s men feared not an invasion from the east but that the Soviets in their weakened position would offer a deal that could not be easily rejected in a public forum. As Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith wrote in December 1947 to his old friend Dwight Eisenhower, “The difficulty under which we labor is that in spite of our announced position, we really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to; even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements.”

Soviet demands were remarkably consistent. They wanted what they understood the Allies to have promised at Potsdam and Yalta: the $10 billion in reparations; four-power control of the Ruhr Valley; vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In return they’d permit a freely elected German government, modeled along Weimar constitutional lines-a program, Eisenberg observes, that “did not differ appreciably from that previously advanced by liberals in the Roosevelt administration.”

The Soviets began to clamp down on Eastern Europe only in response to the U.S. decision to partition Germany. When they did so, Truman’s men were not at all surprised. When, for instance, Stalin imposed a ground blockade around Berlin after a unilateral American announcement of currency reform in western Germany, veteran diplomat Robert Murphy cabled Washington, “The Berlin blockade, with all its consequences, has had widespread repercussions, most of them favorable.”

Not everyone agreed. The military governor of occupied Germany, Gen. Lucius Clay, opposed partition. So did the author of the containment theory, George Kennan. In 1948-49, Kennan vigorously contested both the division and militarization of Europe. In an attempt to preserve access to Eastern Europe he crafted what became known inside the bureaucracy as “Plan A” or “A Program for Germany” to create a unified German state. Both U.S. and Soviet troops would have been required to withdraw to the borders of Germany. U.N.-supervised elections would have created a new all-German government. This reunified Germany would still have participated in the Marshall Plan, which implied, of course, that the German economy would be revived. Plan A was extraordinarily one-sided. The only thing the Soviets would get would be guaranteed access to German exports-and the right to continued participation in the supervision of the German state through a diminished Allied Control Commission. Presumably, Germany would remain demilitarized.

Kennan very much doubted the Soviets would accept a plan requiring them virtually to surrender exclusive powers in eastern Germany for a limited role in supervising a unified German state. But he thought it imperative that the proposal be put on the table; if the Soviets accepted, the impending division of Europe could be avoided.

Astonishingly, the Soviets were not even given a chance to reject Plan A. Instead, the Truman Administration went ahead with unilateral partition. An appalled Kennan wrote Secretary of State Acheson, condemning the “steady and progressive discarding of all possibilities which might really have led to something like the unification of Germany under allied blessing.” He warned that “some day we may pay bitterly for our present unconcern with the possibility of getting the Russians out of the Eastern zone.”

Thus began the cold war, a forty-year conflict for which we all paid, but none more so than the millions in Eastern Europe who were forced to live in police states.

Drawing the Line was largely researched prior to the opening of some relevant archives in Moscow and Berlin. But none of the documents released in the East to date contradict Eisenberg’s view that the Americans unilaterally opted for partition. Nor is she alone in her assessment of the origins and nature of the cold war. Significantly, her thesis has been endorsed by Melvyn Leffler, whose A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (1992) established him as the preeminent chronicler of the period. Leffler flatly states that Eisenberg has “proven her case,” that her findings “will compel a rethinking of basic assumptions about the origins of the Cold War”—this from a historian who has written with great caution about politically charged questions of assigning responsibility.

Even more startling, however, is an essay Leffler wrote in this past summer’s Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the foreign policy establishment, titled “Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened.” Leffler’s survey of the “enemy archives” depicts a paranoid adversary always on the defensive. The Soviets, says Leffler, “did not have pre-conceived plans to make Eastern Europe communist, to support the Chinese communists, or to wage war in Korea.” Stalin had no ‘‘master plan” for Germany, and wished to avoid military conflict with the United States. Indeed, he hoped a policy of Realpolitik would somehow lead to a grudging cooperation between the former wartime allies. Leffler quotes David Holloway-a Stanford professor and author of Stalin and the Bomb (1994)–who studied records of Stalin’s military thinking in the postwar period and concluded, “There is’ no evidence to show that Stalin intended to invade Western Europe, except in the event of a major war.” Certainly, Stalin ran a cruel police state, but Leffler argues that “U.S.words and deeds greatly heightened ambient anxieties and subsequently contributed to the arms race and the expansion of the Cold War into the Third World.” The new archival findings suggest that U.S. policy prolonged the cold war, making it “difficult for potential reformers inside the Kremlin to gain the high ground.” To compound matters, Leffler suggests there were many missed opportunities in the fifties, sixties and seventies when Stalin’s successors might have curtailed the conflict-but the “perceived threat emanating from the United States held them back.” Not surprisingly, Leffler’s article has disconcerted such conservative historians as Richard Pipes and John Lewis Gaddis.

Eisenberg’s book ends in 1949, when the cold war is about to open in earnest. But Leffler’s essay underscores the tragic costs of a conflict that began with the U.S. decision to divide Germany. The most painful consequences, as Eisenberg points out, were “mainly borne by others.” And yet, the tally sheet indirectly includes all those Americans who died in Korea and Vietnam. “In the wreckage of the Cold War,” she concludes, “America has yet to acknowledge responsibility for the structures it has built.”

Kai Bird, a Nation contributing editor, is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy-The Making of the American Establishment (Simon & Schuster) and co-editor, with Lawrence Lifschulk, of Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History & the Smithsonian Controversy, forthcoming from Pamphleteer’s Press.

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