Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 25, 2009

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson: flunkies for Ahmadinejad

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm


Edward S. Herman

David Peterson

Over on MRZine you can read a 10,000-word attack by Edward S. Herman and his writing partner David Peterson directed at a statement on Iran made by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.  It is an application of a methodology that has by now become so familiar. Identify the latest target of American destabilization and then try to burnish the reputation of the government under siege. The CPD is the perfect foil for Herman and Peterson since it has a sorry “third camp” record inspired ideologically by leader Joanne Landy’s guru, the late Julius Jacobson. Jacobson put out “New Politics” for many years, a journal with a seething hatred for anything connected with the USSR. So by targeting the CPD, the job is much easier than it would be if they had to deal with the Iranian leftists in exile who are much harder to stigmatize as tools of the U.S. State Department. Indeed, if you go through their 47 footnotes, you will find none that cites an Iranian leftist, a rather breathtaking example of the use of blinders.

The article consists, as might be expected, of one example after another of U.S. meddling in Iranian politics. One paragraph should suffice to show what they are about:

The CPD ignores the existence, let alone the impact, of multiple, large, and overlapping governmental and nongovernmental programs devoted to developing the media and expertise necessary for “democratic movements” in other countries, and to “strengthen the bond between indigenous democratic movements abroad and the people of the United States,” as the National Endowment for Democracy describes its mission.  Despite President Obama’s semi-apologetic admission in his speech at Cairo University the week before Iran’s election that the United States once “played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” USA Today reports that “The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, . . . continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President Bush.”  Part of the purpose of the $15 million Near Eastern Regional Democracy Initiative, a Senate Appropriations committees spokesman told USA Today, “is to expand access to information and communications through the Internet for Iranians.

The other goal of the article is to refute the idea that the elections were rigged. It repeats a number of points that were made early on, including a Western poll that reflected preference for Ahmadinejad. In my view, both things can be true. The elections were marred by fraud and Ahmadinejad was favored by a majority of voters. But the basic flaw in approaching the Iranian elections in this manner is that it accepts the existing parameters. In other words, it assumes that democracy exists because voters had a choice between a “populist” like Ahmadinejad and a “reformist” like Mousavi. They have their own 2-party system over there as well. Why an American leftist would get caught up arguing for the lesser evil over there beggars the imagination.

In Iran the Guardian Council, an unelected body, has the power to disqualify candidates who do not pass their religious/political litmus test. While voters could have chosen from 6 candidates in the latest election, they were out of luck if they preferred one of the 475 others that the clerics had excluded including 42 women. This of course does not even address the question of socialist or secular politicians who are barred from participating openly in Iranian politics. The revolt that began in June might have been sparked by anger over perceived charges of fraud, but they soon evolved into a challenge to the clerical system as a whole. Unfortunately for the street protesters, they will not be accepted as legitimate by characters like James Petras or Edward S. Herman as long as there is a single NGO funded by George Soros or a CIA agent on the ground in Iran that is still functioning.

Herman and Peterson’s methodology only works if you reduce the playing field to imperialist states and those that are under attack from imperialism. As such, these Znet geniuses are analogous in some ways to the Guardian Council in Iran which also decides who gets to play in politics or not. So you are bus drivers in Tehran trying to form a union? Sorry, Herman and Peterson have no interest in your plight as long as George Soros or Freedom House issues statements on your behalf. The implied prescription for the Iranian left is just to disappear, since they give aid and comfort to the “reformist” politicians who are clearly pawns of American imperialism.

There was a time when I identified with what Edward S. Herman was up to politically. During the war in the Balkans, I made the same kinds of points and still feel that they needed to be made for if you compare Ahmadinejad to Milosevic, there is no contest. It is sometimes forgotten that Belgrade had a lively political culture and that Milosevic abided by election results that required a run-off. It was the opposition candidate supported by U.S. imperialism who decided to organize a coup rather than take part in an election in which his victory was not assured. This is not to speak of the economic questions involved with the Serbs trying desperately to hold the crumbling edifice of Titoism together while it was being pounded by Western banks, sanctions, and bombs. The project eventually collapsed because the relationship of forces was so overwhelmingly against it, mirroring what had happened to Sandinista Nicaragua some years earlier. None of this has anything to do with Iran, however, a country whose current government descended from a clerical coup in the early 1980s that had as much animosity toward the left as NATO and the U.S. State Department. Thousands of leftists were murdered, jailed or tortured for simply defending the types of property relations that existed in Tito’s Yugoslavia. The fact that American imperialism resented Iranian control over precious oil resources was sufficient in some circles on the left to give the reactionary clerics a stamp of approval.

It took me a while to figure out that the “anti-imperialist” methodology was lacking, but I owe it to Jared Israel, the creator of the Emperor’s Clothes website, to help me crystallize my thinking. When he was on the Marxism mailing list, he began defending Putin’s war on the Chechens along the same lines as Serb intervention in Kosovo. It was a pretty mechanical exercise, dredging up all the reactionaries who had backed the Chechens in much the same way that Herman and Peterson ferret out tarnished backers of the “Green revolution” in Iran.

It was, of course, the same story in Zimbabwe. You could always find sanctimonious statements on behalf of the domestic opposition there, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, the Mousavi of Zimbabwe. As is the case in Iran, revolutionaries were forced to operate within a limited political space. In the best of all worlds, the Movement for Democracy would have called for land reform rather than opposing it. It would have rejected IMF style neoliberalism, as well. But given the crushing weight of Mugabe’s armed forces and cops, all serving to prop up a deeply corrupt system cloaked in “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, work inside the MDC had to be considered by the Zimbabwean left. Since revolutions almost always involve wresting more and more space for the working class to operate as an independent force, Marxists must consider struggles for greater parliamentary freedom even though our goal is not a parliamentary system. Lenin fought for a more representative Duma in Czarist Russia even though his final goal was to supersede it with workers councils, called Soviets.

On the Greenleft mailing list, there was a comment from Pakistani leftist Farooq Sulehria that caught my eye. It really captured the dynamics of this kind of struggle for democratic rights:

Like any social movement on mass scale, we see convergence of interests. Hence, rivals joining hands (Rafsanjani and Mousavi in fact Rafsanjani was pivotal in helping Khomenai get present position of strength).

The problem is: official Iranian media, official opposition (so called reformists) and western media reduced the whole movement to election fraud.

Yes, it became a pretext. Like recently in Pakistan, democracy movement unfolded by a highly unlikely event i.e. forced retirement of highest judge by General Musharraf. What started as a movement for the restoration of this judge, finally made Musharraf resign. And from day one, this movement was a movement for democracy and not for a single judge regardless what colour every participant was giving it. From far left to orthodox islamists as well as Bhutto’s party (at one stage) joined this movement.

This is what we need to understand. Many say, in Iran, they are seeking cover behind Mousavi. But with the passage of time, slogan raised is: death to dictator (and dictator is grant ayotollah) and a slogan from 1979 (with a slant): Ahmedinejad Pinochet, this is not Chile.


  1. I only know Herman from his writing with Chomsky. It is very sad to see him supporting the reactionary regime of Iran against the people in the streets. What’s up with that? I always thought of Herman as a radical democrat first and foremost.

    Comment by Ed — July 26, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  2. I think it is mostly a function of his lack of familiarity with Marxism and/or socialism. If your politics are strictly “anti-imperialist”, you will not pay much attention to what the Iranian left is saying. After all, they are much more marginal than the Shi’ites who can mobilize millions in the Middle East. But speaking as somebody trying desperately to rebuild the left, I am far more interested in the Marxist left in Iran because without them, the masses will be forced to choose between two brands of clerical politics.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 26, 2009 @ 12:38 am

  3. “The project eventually collapsed because the relationship of forces was so overwhelmingly against it, mirroring what had happened to Sandinista Nicaragua some years earlier.”

    I’d be interested in reading what (if anything) you think could have enabled the revolution in Nicaragua could have done to get out of that situation successfully. Or do you think the objective conditions could only have lead to the result that did actually occur?

    I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to hear your thoughts on that.

    Comment by poxamerikkkana — July 26, 2009 @ 2:33 am

  4. Hi Louis,

    It wasn’t that long ago that you were praising (if I remember right, but Alzeimer’s could be kicking in) Ed Herman (and other of his “+/-” ilk) for applying this same logic to Serbia and Milosevic, and visciously attacking those who did not see the overthrow Milosevic and the support for self-determination for Kosova as some giant CIA conspiracy. Perhaps you need to look back at those debates in the light of these?

    Comment by Terry Townsend — July 26, 2009 @ 3:29 am

  5. To answer #3:


    To answer #4:

    I think I said that it was wrong to treat cases in which the government is worth backing (Cuba, Yugoslavia) differently from those in which it is not (Zimbabwe, Iran). I am opposed to imperialist intervention in all of these countries, but I still regard Milosevic as a decent leader not without flaws. I think that the Greenleft demonization of Milosevic is scandalous although it is almost pointless to bring this up with you.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 26, 2009 @ 3:56 am

  6. If simply opposing what imperialists support, is so brilliant, all sectarians would be considered geniuses; or so I’m told.

    The group that I didn’t expect to support the fundamentalists was the WSWS. They are hard on Chavez, bit support the mullahs.

    OT: Today in Minneapolis, was a celebration of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strike. There were a few of your old comrades there.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — July 26, 2009 @ 5:24 am

  7. I think Herman has declined in the last ten years or so. Most of what he has been written about since then has related to Yugoslavia. For a while he could not write about anything but US involvement in the Balkans. I think he became friends with Diana Johnstone and became obsessed about the Kosovo war. I first read Johnstone, I think in late 98′ in Covert Action Quarterly and found her interesting and convincing to a significant extent but not completely so. I enjoyed Herman’s book “The Myth of the Liberal Media” which I think was published in 99.

    I remember CAQ, after there was a purge of editors and new ones put in, publishing articles arguing that Vladimir Putin was a virtuous nationalist and his war on Chechnya was just and charges of atrocities were fabricaitons and so on. Then there was an article portraying India as virtuous and victims of US plots through Pakistan. Then there was one where they portrayed Laurent Kabila as a virtuous nationalist resisting US backed aggression of Rwanda and Uganda. They had a friendly interview with Kabila.

    I’m uncomfortable with the last part of Herman’s article in the May issue of Z where he called into question the Rwandan genocide. There may be something to what he says but he ignores the fact of extreme anti-Tutsi violence and incitement to pogroms by the Hutu regime in Rwanda before April 1994 as well as well the encouragement of anti-Tutsi feeling before the 1990 RPF offensive started. He seems to imply that the RPF rebellion was all a plot by the US stooges Museveni and Kagami and that the there was no legitimate grieances or fears to motivate the rebellion against the Habyarimana regime:

    “Rwanda and the 1994 Shoot-down Assassination by Our Man (Kagame)

    On April 6, 1994, a plane was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, killing the president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira. This was followed by mass killings, the “Rwanda genocide,” and a closely paralleling conflict between the Rwandan Army associated with the Hutu dominant government of the murdered president Habyarimana and the rebel forces of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Paul Kagame. This assassination and war were the culmination of years of conflict that began with the invasion of Rwanda by elements of the Ugandan army in October 1990. Kagame, who had been Uganda’s head of military intelligence, led the 1990 incursion and his Ugandan forces, most of them Ugandan citizens and Tutsis, many earlier exiled from Rwanda, broke off from the Ugandan Army and became the patriotic RPF.

    This invasion, and the further warfare, ethnic cleansing, and political and military penetration into Rwanda, was supported by the United States—Kagame had actually trained at Fort Leavenworth—and Kagame’s and the RPF’s advances and successes were very much a result of this superpower backing, which flowed into support for the RPF by Kofi Annan and the UN, the IMF and World Bank, and Britain and Belgium. (In this process the United States was deliberately displacing the French from Central Africa, just as it had displaced Britain in the Middle East.) It also meant support of the RPF by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other supposed human rights groups.

    Given U.S. support, the invasion of Rwanda by Uganda in 1990 was never an issue at the UN, just as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 were not issues—in contrast with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which elicited immediate UN condemnation and responsive action. It was also never an issue for HRW, which focused on alleged human rights violations by the government under attack from Uganda and being subjected to serious RPF-based and U.S.-backed subversion from within.

    A problem for Kagame and his U.S. supporters was that Tutsis were only some 15 percent of the Rwanda population and large numbers of Hutus were extremely hostile to the RPF, as the RPF’s invasion and ethnic cleansing in northern Rwanda, and ethnic cleansing by Tutsi forces in Burundi, had created a huge refugee population. Thus, there was no chance that Kagame and the RPF could win a free election, which had been scheduled under a 1993 accord for 1995. Power could be won only by a violent RPF takeover. Isn’t it remarkable that this power was won by Kagame in just three months time in 1994 by violence, thus precluding the need for any free election? Isn’t it amazing that he and his Tutsi army and supporters won such a decisive victory in the face of an alleged “genocide” being carried out by the losers? Isn’t it amazing that all serious evidence points to more Hutus than Tutsis being killed during this high killing period?

    Isn’t it also remarkable that following this Kagame victory, Kagame and Uganda’s Musevemi (another U.S. protégé) have repeatedly invaded the Congo, stealing and helping others steal in a resource rich area, killing vast numbers, but again with no impediment on the part of the United States or “international community”? (For details on these matters, Robin Philpot, Rwanda 1994: Colonialism Dies Hard, http://www.taylor-report.com/Rwanda_1994; Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, Monthly Review Press, forthcoming; keith harmon snow, “Hotel Rwanda: Hollywood and the Holocaust in Central Africa,” November 1, 2007 (www.allthingspass.com).

    This brings me back to the plane shoot-down of April 6, 1996. Again, the convenience of these de facto assassinations for Kagame and the RPF, and its U.S.-UK-Belgian supporters, was noteworthy and remarkable. It precipitated the mass killing that followed over the next several months. In the U.S. mainstream, this was blamed on the Hutus and Hutu government and paramilitaries. But there are acute problems. It was the Hutu head-of-state that was killed and therefore hardly his doing. It was the RPF that won the ensuing conflict in little more than three months, again remarkable if the assassination and aftermath violence was planned by the Hutu government. The United States fought to have UN troops withdrawn from Rwanda just at the time the supposed genocide by the Hutus was getting underway in April 1994, which the Hutu government opposed but Kagame supported. For Samantha Power and other apologists for the standard model—Hutu aggression and genocide, Kagame as reactive and defensive—the United States just “stood by.” But they had armed Kagame, weakened the Rwanda government, and were clearing the ground for the planned coup and takeover by their client. By another remarkable coincidence, just the previous year Tutsi officers in neighboring Burundi assassinated their Hutu head-of-state, Melchior Ndadaye, a development celebrated by the RPF.

    Still more telling, an investigation of the shoot-down by Michael Hourigan, an Australian lawyer employed by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), reported in 1996 that there was compelling evidence provided by three RPF participants that the plane had been shot down by Kagame’s RPF forces. When Hourigan gave this information to Louise Arbour, at that time chief prosecutor for the ICTR, Arbour, after consulting U.S. officials, closed down the investigation and ordered Hourigan to destroy his files, on the ground that investigation of this matter was outside the ICTR’s jurisdiction. This was false, as even Richard Goldstone, the former ICTR prosecutor (and long-time friend of the U.S. State Department), insisted. Subsequently, in 2003, Carla Del Ponte, a successor chief prosecutor of the ICTR, proposed a new investigation of this key 1994 assassination. But she couldn’t persuade Kofi Annan to support her and was soon removed from her position.

    Although this assassination precipitated a celebrated genocide, no Security Council investigation and action has been taken over the ensuing 15 years. This April 1994 event was, as Richard Goldstone stated, “the trigger that started the genocide.” But if the “trigger” was pulled by Our Man Kagame, the entire scenario of a Hutu-planned and implemented genocide is called into question. It follows that given U.S. power, with people in service to that power like Louise Arbour and Kofi Annan (et al.), and with the mass media and human rights intellectuals bamboozled and/or following the flag, any attempts to investigate this shoot-down are quashed and it will not produce any UN Tribunal such as the one just begun in The Hague to deal with the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese leader Rafik al-Hariri.

    The rule remains firm: impunity for the crimes of the United States and its agents and clients, while U.S. and client targets are available for investigations, trials, and punishment in accord with the rule of a politicized system of international (in)justice.

    Comment by Chris Green — July 26, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  8. “Over on MRZine you can read a 10,000-word attack by Edward S. Herman and his writing partner David Peterson directed at a statement on Iran made by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy”

    “…these Znet geniuses…”

    Actually Znet has published the CND statement on Iran, but not Edward Herman and David Petersons’ reply to it (as far as I can tell from reading Znet regularly). So it’s misleading to associate Znet with Herman and Petersons views on Iran.

    Comment by mkearns — July 26, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

  9. I accept #8’s observation. I should have not referred to “Znet geniuses” since that implies that it sanctions Herman and Peterson’s atrocious article. Znet has actually been a very good resource on Iran, although I would have not published the CND statement.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 26, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  10. I’m a bit surprised you defended Tito here, considering you also wrote this: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/07/30/worst-massacre-since-the-end-of-wwii/

    Comment by Jenny — July 26, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

  11. Rather than concentrating on the ideas, ideologies, the commentators seem to concentrate on the actors in this debate, trivialising the whole thing and missing the point.

    Comment by Suzanne de Kuyper — July 26, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

  12. #10 — Jen – If you would have ernestly checked out some of Trotsky’s indispensible classics on the class roots of morality that I linked to you before (eg, Their Morals and Ours; Terrorism & Communism) you wouldn’t be surprised that Lou defends Tito here while criticizing him elsewhere. Like the article you cited says, when judging a so-called war crimes “…Marxists have always used a different criterion. It is less focused on “evil” in the abstract, preferring to look at violence through the prism of history.”

    The point is morality is not eternal, as if originated by God, rather morality is inherently dialectical, as is anything that’s a product of particular social relations in a particular epoch. Thus morality, like social relations, necessarily has an indeterminate character. This truism is why folks like Louis argue that Marxism is absolutely indispensible for making sense of the world; for getting to the truth, and the ultimate goal of the philosopher is to always seek the truth.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 28, 2009 @ 7:01 am

  13. So what’s the justification for killing noncombatants? He didn’t really give any reason at all.

    Comment by Jenny — July 28, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

  14. Marxists don’t justify the killing of non-combatants. Terms like “collateral damage” are coined by entities like the Pentagon. Rather they explain historically why non-combatants are often killed, particularly in Civil Wars, which are typically the sharpest expressions of class conflict.

    As Trotsky explained in “Terrorism & Communism” — written in 1920 when he lead the Red Army in the desperate struggle against 20 foreign armies (which included 10,000 US Marines) that were trying to crush the Bolshevik Revolution —

    “The question of the form of repression, or of its degree, of course, is not one of “principle.” It is a question of expediency. In a revolutionary period, the party which has been thrown from power, which does not reconcile itself with the stability of the ruling class, and which proves this by its desperate struggle against the latter, cannot be terrorized by the threat of imprisonment, as it does not believe in its duration. It is just this simple but decisive fact that explains the widespread recourse to shooting in a civil war.” (Ch.4)

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 29, 2009 @ 12:47 am

  15. I still think the actions of Tito’s partisans would constitute a war crime. If we are going to apply the term to the actions of the U.S., why not also apply it to other parts of the world. Revolutions are different, this was just a case of chasing nazi collaborators out.

    Comment by Jenny — July 29, 2009 @ 1:50 am

  16. Since imperialist war is the greatest crime conceivable — what’s your point?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 29, 2009 @ 3:22 am

  17. My point is that it’s narrow minded and irresponsible to write off these partisan attacks as simply a harmless,inevitable part of warfare. Just because it’s a side you agree with doesn’t mean they are absolved from reponsibility. I want to hear Louis’ explanation however.

    Comment by Jenny — July 29, 2009 @ 7:26 am

  18. Who said that war and its consequences are harmless or inevitable? Why don’t you just admit that you’ve always been, and always will be, a Pacifist.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 29, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  19. Only if you tell me why Tito’s partisans imprisoning innocent people should not be condemned.

    Comment by Jenny — July 29, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

  20. Imprisoning innocent people should always be condemned.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 29, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  21. Good,I’m glad we agree, but Louis seems to avoid explaining how these imprisonments fit into a context.

    Comment by Jenny — July 29, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  22. How does Louis Proyect or anyone else here know who are the “people in the streets” and who are the “reactionaries” in Iran?

    I defy any or all of you to show me how you know which group in Iran are the “real” Iranians. I’m assuming none of you is posting from within Iran, as a native Iranian, who has lived there for at least 30 years or so.

    Comment by Charles F. Oxtrot — August 11, 2009 @ 2:24 am

  23. Jenny’s game of stern concerned schoolmarm is about as tiresome as Rush Limbaugh’s game, and just as sincere.

    Comment by Charles F. Oxtrot — August 11, 2009 @ 2:25 am

  24. F.Oxtrot–how droll.

    Well, Foxtrot, I am a very opinionated fellow. I write about all sorts of countries I have never lived in, from Cuba to South Africa to Yugoslavia. If the spirit moves me, I might even write about the Martians. You’d be better off responding to my points, whether or not I am entitled to make them.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 11, 2009 @ 2:46 am

  25. […] has also come to our attention that a notorious unrepentant Marxist and self-appointed scourge of “flunkies for Ahmadinejad” apparently refused to attend any of the United for Iran protests, curtly dismissing the whole […]

    Pingback by Leftist Forum on Iran » Blog Archive » How Many Leftists Are “United for Iran”? — August 14, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  26. […] Rwanda that would make a 911-Truther blush, but Herman and Peterson (even Louis Proyect calls them “flunkies for Ahmadinejad”) also sneer at the slow-motion genocide in Darfur on the grounds that the fuss-making is all just a […]

    Pingback by Terry Glavin: A short book, long enough to shame the left | Full Comment | National Post — July 14, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  27. Your “decent” friend Milosevic demonized himself by perpetrating terrible crimes. Perhaps you agree with Herman that the Srebrenica massacre never happened?

    Comment by Aaron Carine — August 10, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

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