Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 10, 2007

Kanan Makiya

Filed under: cruise missile left,Iraq,war — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

Except for rascals like Christopher Hitchens and Oliver Kamm, most of the pro-war “left” has reversed itself (George Packer, Johann Hari)–without of course abrogating the right of the US to act as world’s cop when the cause is supposedly just (Afghanistan, Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc.) There is also a group that still supports the invasion but keeps a low profile. You will not find them on talk show circuits repeating George W. Bush’s talking points slathered over with references to Camus, Orwell and Koestler. Mostly they have retreated from the public scene and shake their heads at the catastrophe that resulted from “poor planning” and other blunders.

The New York Times Magazine gave a platform to one of them last Sunday: Iraqi intellectual and former Trotskyist Kanan Makiya, who is the author of a number of books with scholarly pretensions that provided fuel for the invasion in 2002 and 2003. In one of Judith Miller’s pro-war propaganda pieces written on January 12, 2003, she described Makiya’s touching faith in George Bush’s promises:

None of the Iraqi participants were willing to discuss precisely what Mr. Bush said. But Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University and a leading Iraqi intellectual, said he was “deeply reassured” by what he called “the president’s intense commitment to a genuinely democratic post-Saddam Iraq” and by Mr. Bush’s determination to press forward not only with “removing Saddam from office, but reconstructing Iraq after a military conflict.”

“Mr. Bush was clearly aware that Iraq was not Afghanistan, and that it has the human and financial resources needed to support democracy,” Mr. Makiya said.

Miller lost her job but Makiya’s career–at least in the US–did not suffer any consequences for such boneheaded statements. He is a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. My advice to people trying to decide where to send their children to college is to take this place off their list.

Not only has Makiya’s political fortunes taken a turn for the worse, so has his health:

Makiya’s life is no longer what it was. In 2003, on returning to Iraq, he reunited with his sweetheart from high-school days, married and took her back to Cambridge. He also found out he has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the same disease that killed Edward Said, the Palestinian-born Columbia University professor and Makiya’s intellectual nemesis.

While it would be impossible to prove this, one wonders if living in such a heavily polluted environment such as Iraq might have led to Mr. Makiya’s cancer. In Houston, Texas, there are 56 percent more incidents of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia for families living in close proximity to the petroleum refineries. Since George W. Bush and his cronies are responsible for the woeful state of both Texas and Iraq today, there is some irony in Makiya being so afflicted.

Said never rested a moment in the final years of his life when he was battling leukemia. He did everything in his power to expose the lies that people like Makiya were churning out on behalf of the Bush White House. In a article that appeared in the November 28, 2002 Al-Ahram titled “Misinformation about Iraq“, Said directed his fire against Makiya:

The most complete version of his plans for Iraq after an American invasion that derive from his current employment as a resident employee of the US Department of State, appears in the November 2002 issue of Prospect, a good liberal British monthly to which I subscribe. Makiya begins his “proposal” by enumerating the extraordinary assumptions behind his arguments, two of which almost by definition are unimaginable. The first is that “the unseating” of Saddam should not occur after a bombing campaign. Makiya must have been living on Mars to imagine that, in the event of a war, a massive bombing attack would not occur even though every single plan circulated for regime change in Iraq has stated explicitly that Iraq would be bombed mercilessly. The second assumption is equally imaginative, since Makiya seems to believe against all evidence that the US is committed to democracy and nation-building in Iraq. Why he thinks that Iraq is like Germany and Japan after World War II (both of which were rebuilt because of the Cold War) is beyond me; besides, he doesn’t once mention the fact that the US is determined to bring down the Iraqi regime because of the country’s oil reserves and because Iraq is an enemy of Israel. So, he starts out by making preposterous assumptions that simply fly in the face of all the evidence.

The New York Times Magazine article was written by Dexter Filkins who might be described as Judith Miller lite. Along with the equally detestable Michael R. Gordon, they have been writing article after article trying to prove that Iran is behind all the troubles in Iraq. Filkins also served as a conduit for Pentagon propaganda in earlier articles blaming al-Qaeda for the insurgency in Iraq. Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported that the military had made a “selective leak” about al-Qaeda leader Zarqawi to Dexter Filkins. The article, making much of a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the Times front page on Feb. 9, 2004. In other words, just the kind of reporter to rely on for an accounting of Makiya’s sins.

Filkins and Makiya alike can hardly avoid talking about the catastrophe that George W. Bush has wrought.

In the buildup to the Iraq war, Makiya, more than any single figure, made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do — to destroy an evil regime and rescue a people from their nightmare of terror and suffering. Not for oil, Makiya argued, and not for some superweapons hidden in the sand, but to satisfy an obligation to our fellow human beings.

If it sounded idealistic, Makiya went even further, arguing that an American invasion of Iraq could clear the ground for Western-style democracy. Years of war and murder had left Iraqis so thoroughly degraded, Makiya argued, that, once freed, they would throw off the tired orthodoxies of Arab politics and, in their despair, look to the West. “The removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein presents the U.S. with a historic opportunity,” Makiya told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in October 2002, “that is as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.” Two months before the war started, in a meeting in the Oval Office, Makiya told President Bush that Iraqis would greet invading American soldiers with “sweets and flowers.”

Now, of course, those dreams are gone, carried away on a tide of blood. The catastrophe in Iraq has thoroughly undermined the idea of democratic change in the Middle East. It has undercut the notion, sustained by the successful interventions in the Balkans, that American military power can achieve humanitarian ends. And it has made Makiya and the others who justified the invasion look reckless and naïve.

Filkins alludes to Makiya’s early Trotskyist connections:

Makiya, who is 58, made the toppling of Saddam Hussein his life’s work, the focus of an idealistic vision that guided him through a life of exile. In the musty yearbooks of Baghdad College, the Jesuit high school where Makiya studied, the photo shows his eyes afire: dark, focused and looking upward. As a student at M.I.T., he strummed Woody Guthrie folk tunes on an old guitar. Makiya threw himself into the Palestinian cause, signed on as a Marxist and then beat a long path back to a philosophy of democracy and human rights.

There are more details about Makiya’s youthful indiscretions in Democratiya, an online magazine that describes itself as pushing for the “renewal of the politics of democratic radicalism.” If your idea of “democratic radicalism” is finding excuses for military interventions in the 3rd World, you are welcome to it. Makiya was interviewed by fellow scoundrel Alan Johnson, who at one time served on the editorial board of New Politics, a “third camp” magazine, before jumping with both feet into the New Labour pro-war camp. Johnson was recently heard from touting the reputation of Henry “Scoop” Jackson, better known as the Senator from Boeing. In answer to Johnson’s question about his background, Makiya includes this information:

I became very active in the anti-war movement, which was burgeoning in the United States. And I was very active in supporting the emerging Palestinian Resistance Movement. I passed through the Nationalist Palestinian groups and I ended up in the Marxist one. All of this happened very rapidly. Within a span of a year I became a Marxist and was attracted to Trotskyist politics. The great influence on me was Emmanuel Farjoun, a member of the Israeli Socialist Organisation, Matzpen. He was also a student at MIT, much older than I. He had enjoyed a socialist training from day dot having grown up in a left socialist kibbutz. It was a revelation for me to meet an Israeli who was critical of his own society. He explained a) basic socialist principles which, of course, were completely new to me, and b) the nature of Israeli society, which was also a revelation for me. We became very, very close friends, almost brothers, for the next twenty-five years. (We fell out over the Iraq war but that’s another story. That’s sad, very sad.)

I started to soak up books and I became active in the Socialist Workers’ Party, the American section of the (Trotskyist) 4th International. I moved to Britain in 1974 and I became active in the International Marxist Group (IMG). I recall there was a Lebanese Trotskyist organisation, remnants of an Iraqi Trotskyist organisation, and some Egyptian and Tunisian Trotskyists. I spent a lot of time in those countries meeting those people, going backwards and forwards to Lebanon. I was a full time political activist.

I have no memory of Makiya but this explanation for his departure from the movement rings a bell:

The Iran-Iraq war broke out. Our former comrades were being imprisoned or killed in Iran. We both left organised Trotskyist politics around that time on the issue of the Iraq-Iran war. The left was saying it was a war with a good side and a bad side. We were saying a plague on both your houses because this is an ugly, nasty war that is not going to lead to progress for anyone, so victory for either side would be a step backward.

Alan Johnson asks him, “Did you find any support for that view among your comrades?”

Kanan Makiya replies:

There were individuals. Bob Langston, I remember, from the Socialist Workers’ Party. Jon Rothschild and others were very sympathetic. But their sympathy was not shared by the leadership. Afsaneh and I resigned over it. We wrote a huge document that explained the whole thing, in the usual fashion.

If I were more of an archivist than I am, I’d try to track down the document. Frankly, I can’t remember the debate or much of the SWP’s politics on Iran. This much I can remember. The Militant newspaper did tend to play up the “radical” side of the Iranian revolution and splashed news about it across the front page, including a big headline about why the students in Iran were justified when they seized the US embassy. One of our comrades, a rather outspoken and narcissistic individual, insisted on selling this newspaper rather aggressively to coal miners after being on the job less than a month. She was forced to leave the job after a rightwing miner hurled a cinder block at her from above.

I have much better memories of Jon Rothschild and Bob Langston. I first met Jon in 1969 when he came to New York from about a year in Paris working with the JCR, the youth group of the French section. Jon had adopted the style (black leather jacket and Gaulois cigarettes) and politics of the Europeans, both of which I found resistible. Langston was quite a bit older and really very intelligent. He was one of the party’s experts on economics and heir to an oil fortune. Every Militant article he ever wrote was stamped by his fecund and original mind, a trait that the party would assiduously avoid as the “turn” deepened in the 1970s.

In trying to explain to Johnson why he broke with the left, Makiya betrays a certain unfamiliarity with Trotsky’s core ideas:

I feel the left that I came from has almost become nationalist. This language of relativism has translated itself into, ‘Well, even if the regime of Saddam Hussein is so nasty, why should we go and liberate it?’ Now that is something you would have got from an American isolationist, back in the old days. You would never have got it from somebody on the left. The positive element which I carried from the Trotskyist movement, from the writings of Trotsky himself, was an internationalist spirit. It was more alive in me, I think, than in many of those who claimed Trotsky’s mantle, but did not practice that internationalism. It is a very sad state of affairs. The left has turned against its own internationalist traditions and thrown away its own universal values. The older left was able to cross boundaries and think across boundaries. That was its strength and its weakness.

If Makiya thought that Trotsky was an “internationalist” in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, or Paul Wolfowitz for that matter, nothing can be further from the truth. The idea that an imperialist power can impose its will on a colonial country in the interests of social justice and democracy is utter nonsense. In the beginning of the war in Iraq, there was much talk about how the neoconservatives were latter-day Trotskyists, in the style alluded to by Makiya above–including an article by Jeet Heer that appeared in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper. I answered this absurd claim as soon as I heard it:

Jeet Heer: As evidence of the continuing intellectual influence of Trotsky, consider the curious fact that some of the books about the Middle East crisis that are causing the greatest stir were written by thinkers deeply shaped by the tradition of the Fourth International.

In seeking advice about Iraqi society, members of the Bush administration (notably Paul D. Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President) frequently consulted Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American intellectual whose book The Republic of Fear is considered to be the definitive analysis of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.

As the journalist Christopher Hitchens notes, Makiya is “known to veterans of the Trotskyist movement as a one-time leading Arab member of the Fourth International.” When speaking about Trotskyism, Hitchens has a voice of authority. Like Makiya, Hitchens is a former Trotskyist who is influential in Washington circles as an advocate for a militantly interventionist policy in the Middle East. Despite his leftism, Hitchens has been invited into the White House as an ad hoc consultant.

My reply: If Makiya’s “Republic of Fear” has anything to do with Trotskyism, except the fact that the author spent some time in the movement as a youth, then one presumes that Saul Bellow’s racist screed “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” must also be linked with Leon Trotsky as well, since Bellow also spent a brief time in the Trotskyist movement. For that matter, one might link orthodox Judaism with Trotskyism since Isaac Deutscher and I were both bar mitzvahed and ate kosher through adolescence.

Other than the fact that Kanan Makiya spent five minutes or so in the Fourth International, there is absolutely nothing to link him to the intellectual and political traditions represented by Leon Trotsky. Consider the interview he gave to an Argentine journalist on September 23, 1938 in which he defended a “fascist” Brazil against a “democratic” Great Britain:

In order to understand correctly the nature of the coming events we must first of all reject … the false … theory that the coming war will be a war between fascism and “democracy.” … I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of that conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally — in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains in Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship.

Or the letter wrote to an English comrade on April 22, 1936 which not only defended feudal Ethiopia against capitalist Italy, but was full of praise for the Negus, ie. Haile Selassie, who made Saddam Hussein look like Martin Luther King Jr. by comparison, and contained the remarkable formulation that “A dictator can also play a very progressive role in history”.

Indeed, the Trotsky of history has much more in common with the reviled Ramsey Clark and WWP than he does with the Cruise Missile “leftists” Heer falsely linked him with.



  1. Grateful for the information, but isn’t the bottom line simply that Makiya is not very bright and not tremendously self-aware or honest?

    Sorry he has leukaemia, though.

    Comment by MFB — October 11, 2007 @ 10:08 am

  2. I enjoy these “gallery of rogue” posts, although this guy has got to be up there in terms of stupidity among ex-leftists.

    Just the fact that he drifted from the International Socialist Tendency founded by Tony Cliff into the 4th International without any explanation whatsoever despite heated debates and controversies between the two on the class nature of Russia (for starters) indicates to me, like MFB said, that this guy is not the brightest bulb in the box.

    I was happy to read that the Matzpen member debated this fool on Iraq and that they had a falling out over the latter’s sycophantic neo-con politics. That was pretty much the one positive element in this whole story.

    Comment by Binh — October 11, 2007 @ 1:30 pm

  3. I don’t agree with makiya on a lot, especially on the war of 2003. But as an Iraqi Trotskyist I understand the contortions he has gone through. The fact is that Kansan is one of very a few people who understand the meaning of the ba’ath experience. Read his work especially Republic of fear and even more especially Cruelty and silence. I have watched many working class Iraqi militants turn to the us invasion not out of misunderstanding but out of sheer despair, not only at the lack of alternative ways of getting rid of the ba’ath but at the lack of solidarity from the left.
    He is flawed and he has ended up in a horrible place politically, but IMHO Kansan is not dishonest. His political tragedy is a
    microcosm of the tragedy of the Iraqi left.

    Comment by Haidar Al Nasseri — June 18, 2010 @ 10:21 am

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