Nikil Saval, N+1 co-editor
Although not so nearly as well-known as Jacobin, N+1 has been mentioned in tandem with it as the voice of millennial hipster Marxism. For example, Columbia PhD student Timothy Shenk, who is intimately familiar with the terrain, wrote an article in the Nation Magazine titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that states:
Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City—Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others—have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals.
Well, who wouldn’t want a career as a Marxist intellectual unless you were someone like the young Max Horkheimer who wrote: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief”? The older Horkheimer, of course, discovered that banquets and honorary titles were not so bad after all.
While the Nation and Dissent could not be possibly be mistaken as millennial, they certainly have provided a roost for that contingent of young journalists trying to make careers as Marxist intellectuals. Furthermore, as should be obvious by the time you finish reading this article, young and old Marxist intellectual careerists making the rounds in the four magazines are in total agreement over Syria and the Democratic Party.
As readers of my blog will certainly know, Jacobin has been a primary venue of Assadist propaganda. In numerous articles, there are warnings about “regime change” in Syria that would have you believe that Barack Obama was getting ready to intervene in Bush-like fashion to put the rebels in power. Does it matter that it only took three months after Bush and his gang began talking about the need to invade Iraq in January 2003 for the invasion to take place while a war in Syria now goes on for more than five years and no such action has occurred under Obama? Probably not.
Unlike Jacobin, N+1 has been pretty good on Syria with a 2011 article making the case that a genuine revolution was unfolding and one four years later that put the blame on the Baathists for the suffering of Palestinians in Yarmouk. They are both very much worth reading and did not prepare me for an article that appeared in the Spring 2016 edition titled “Bernie’s World”. Stung by what struck me as the kind of material that would appear in Jacobin, I wrote a blog post and cc’d the editors who asked if they could print an edited version as a letter in the Fall 2016 edition with their reply. I am now reproducing excerpts from “Bernie’s World”, my edited reply, their rejoinder and concluding with my rejoinder to theirs.
1. Bernie’s World
(The full version of the N+1 piece can be read at https://nplusonemag.com/issue-25/the-intellectual-situation/bernies-world/. Emphasis added throughout).
But on one significant topic — American foreign policy — Sanders has remained flat-footed. In December, after the shootings in San Bernardino by self-declared supporters of the Islamic State returned the war on terror to the center of the campaign, Sanders refused to answer questions about ISIS and seemed annoyed that reporters had raised the issue at all. On the Syrian conflict he has been at sea. At that month’s Democratic debate he bizarrely referred to Jordan’s King Abdullah as a “hero,” and in January he called Abdullah “one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place.” One doesn’t often hear democratic socialists go out of their way to praise hereditary dictators. Sanders has gone further out of his way, repeatedly suggesting that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “They have got to start putting some skin in the game,” he said in one debate, the theory being that these countries will put up the money and the troops needed to combat extremism in the Middle East, diminishing the American role and thus the opportunity for American malfeasance. Of course the problem is the opposite: both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two of the US’s strongest and least salubrious allies, are already putting lots of money into the Syrian conflict, much of it going to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.
What’s missing isn’t the anti-imperialist Sanders. It’s the antiwar movement he was once part of, and which no longer exists.
ONE REASON WHY the Sixties antiwar movement continues to be a source of both nostalgia and inspiration for the left is that it had genuine radical potential. Having begun as a movement to stop a war, it nearly became a wholesale revolution that reshaped American politics and foreign policy. It was John Kerry, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, who best summed up the movement’s aims: “So when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.” That turning never took place: thirty years after Kerry’s speech, the war on terror commenced in earnest. Kerry voted in 2001 along with his colleagues Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to invade Afghanistan, and in 2002 with Clinton again to invade Iraq. Just as Kerry abjured his antiwar past as the 2004 presidential candidate — he ran as a war hero, not an antiwar hero — the movement, in the long run, fell far short of its hopes.
But as Daniel Schlozman details in When Movements Anchor Parties, the antiwar movement failed both to anchor itself within the party structure and to create a lasting alternative coalition. No national elected official came out of the movement. On its own, the movement fragmented and radicalized, beset by Nixon’s repression on the one hand and by faltering strategies on the other. The distinction from the labor movement in the 1930s is enormous. At that time, organized labor, gaining in strength and numbers, weighed working outside the Democratic Party against negotiating with the party for legislative gains and legitimacy. Labor chose the latter strategy. The result was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the election of officials who declined to send in troops when workers occupied factories. (This is not to diminish the costs, over time, of being so close to the Democratic Party and blandishments of power, but the benefits were significant.) Nothing comparable occurred with the antiwar movement. By the time its electoral reforms delivered a candidate — George McGovern of McGovern-Fraser — it was too spent a force to work with the candidate. In 1972, McGovern suffered what was then the worst electoral defeat of the postwar era, until Mondale outdid him in 1984.
2. My letter
(I should start off by saying that N+1 butchered my original blog piece to such an extent that it was practically robbed of its meaning. I suppose that they did this to save space and admittedly it was my mistake to give them permission to run the letter but I urge you to read the original here.)
I was rather disappointed with your editorial statement on foreign policy (“Bernie’s World”), which repeated many of the talking points of the “anti-imperialist” left about Syria. One can certainly understand why the editors would fall short on Syria. With so many other smart magazines publishing articles that could have been lifted from RT.com, it is difficult to swim against the stream. After all, who would want to be associated with a struggle against Bashar al-Assad, who in his genial clean-shaven and well-groomed manner seems to be much more like us than the unfathomable, bearded Allahu akbar–yelling men in fatigues who would surely launch an attack on the American homeland if given half a chance? If Vogue was willing to run a profile on the Syrian president and his lovely wife a while back, who are we to quibble? After all, being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals.
The editors are generally OK with Sanders except on foreign policy. They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are major donors to “the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.” In fact, Qatar insisted that it would only give money to al-Nusra if the group severed its ties to al Qaeda. When negotiations broke down in 2015, the group continued to finance its own militias in Syria the way it always has, through donations by sympathizers in various Sunni countries, including Qatar. Does this mean that Qatar backs al-Nusra? Only in the sense that the US backed the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when most of its funding came from US citizens, living especially in Boston’s South End. Nor does the US support al-Nusra. The country has bombed the group repeatedly, always making the excuse that it was after the Khorasan — a nonexistent group that supposedly had plans to launch September 11–type attacks in America.
The editors also criticize the Vietnam antiwar movement for failing to “anchor itself within the party structure,” a clear reference to becoming a wing of the Democratic party. In 1937, when Chicago steelworkers went on strike, Mayor Edward Kelly — a Democratic “friend of labor” who was backed by the Communist party and as such would ostensibly be loath to attack workers — ordered an attack by the cops that left ten people dead. The antiwar movement kept the Democratic party at arm’s length because it was led by the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers party, who had a much more class-based understanding of the Democrats than the CPUSA. The CP, which worked with the SWP and the pacifists in a kind of tripartite coalition, was always trying to get the coalition to follow the Democrats’ lead. If it had been successful, there never would have been a Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam or any other mass demonstration. You can take my word on that.
— Louis Proyect
3. The editor replies
Louis Proyect writes that we and others on the left are insufficiently willing to confront Bashar al-Assad because we have been duped by his haircut and a Vogue puff piece that described the dictator and his wife as “wildly democratic.” Not only do we not think that “being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals” — we don’t think this of Obama, either — we can’t find any liberal or left-wing writer who thinks of Assad as “genial.” With their profile, Vogue’s editors executed a flawless caricature of themselves as clueless fashionistas, and that is how the profile was received everywhere. The reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that the piece was taken down from the magazine’s website.
Is the idea that we are “appeasing” Assad? That was the idea the last time the US foreign policy establishment began to dream of ousting a Middle Eastern dictator. In a kind of ritual humiliation, liberals and leftists were required, like kids reciting the Bill of Rights in class, to demonstrate that they understood Saddam’s crimes against humanity before they could voice any objection to America’s military involvement in the region. That we might still be subject to this ritual isn’t surprising, but it is a bummer.
That the US has bombed al Nusra Front groups in Syria on occasion does not mean the US hasn’t also supported al Nusra on occasion. Alternately supporting and attacking various groups and figures (among them, Saddam Hussein) is a recurring motif in the history of US’s military involvement in the Middle East. And while Qatar may also have had a falling-out with the group in 2015, a report from last December described a prisoner swap between al Nusra and Lebanon that Qatari officials encouraged by giving al Nusra $25 million. The US has also tracked shipments of Qatari arms directed to the Islamist groups that further destabilized Libya in the wake of the Western intervention there. Qatar’s relationship with al Nusra has had its ups and downs, but the country has long served as a key source of funds and materials for extremists in the region.
With respect to Bernie Sanders, Proyect does not voice an objection to our claim that for all the candidate’s galvanizing rhetoric on domestic policy, there remains too little distance between his foreign policy views and those of the Democratic party mainstream, especially with respect to the use of force. His efforts to make the party platform use the word occupation when discussing Palestine are welcome, but in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting, his campaign tweeted, “From what is now known, this was a terrorist act by an ISIS sympathizer. That despicable and barbaric organization must be destroyed.” But Omar Mateen had no real connection to ISIS — he sympathized with the group like Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker,” sympathized with Satan. To watch Sanders fall back on this bogus war-on-terror logic is to see the full impoverishment of the Democratic party’s foreign policy thought. Proyect says that the Vietnam-era antiwar movement had good reasons to keep its distance from the party, that to engage more fully would have prevented even a single mass demonstration from taking place. That may be true, and yet the movement’s failure to make a more permanent place for itself in the country’s party politics during the postwar years is a failure — one we hope can be remedied soon.
4. The last word
Perhaps as a result of being fatigued from having made the same arguments dozens of times over the past five years, I did not develop them this go round to the extent where the N+1 editor understood what I was driving at. So let me try again.
The Vogue article was scheduled to appear in the March 2011 issue, the very month when the protests began taking place and when Hillary Clinton was disposed to call Assad a “reformer”. As it happens, the only place where it can be read now is on Gawker, reason enough to hate Peter Thiel for destroying such a fearless website.
It was unfortunate that I focused on the appearance of the Assads when the article was much more about their supposed political assets:
Neither of them believes in charity for the sake of charity. “We have the Iraqi refugees,” says the president. “Everybody is talking about it as a political problem or as welfare, charity. I say it’s neither—it’s about cultural philosophy. We have to help them. That’s why the first thing I did is to allow the Iraqis to go into schools. If they don’t have an education, they will go back as a bomb, in every way: terrorism, extremism, drug dealers, crime. If I have a secular and balanced neighbor, I will be safe.”
When Angelina Jolie came with Brad Pitt for the United Nations in 2009, she was impressed by the first lady’s efforts to encourage empowerment among Iraqi and Palestinian refugees but alarmed by the Assads’ idea of safety.
“My husband was driving us all to lunch,” says Asma al-Assad, “and out of the corner of my eye I could see Brad Pitt was fidgeting. I turned around and asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ ”
“Where’s your security?” asked Pitt.
“So I started teasing him—‘See that old woman on the street? That’s one of them! And that old guy crossing the road?
That’s the other one!’ ” They both laugh.
The president joins in the punch line: “Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!”
In fact, Vogue was simply expressing the dominant viewpoint of the mainstream media in the years just prior to 2011 when Assad unleashed the dogs of war. For example, on March 6, 2009, the Guardian reported:
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has good reason to be pleased. Barely a day goes by without a western politician or envoy knocking on his palace door. Europeans, led by the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy, have been doing it for months. News that two high-level representatives of the Obama administration are heading for Damascus means that Assad’s visitors are getting steadily more important.
Hillary Clinton’s announcement of the impending arrival of officials from the state department and national security council (message: they’re on the same side under this president) was the moment the Syrians have been waiting for – more than the secretary of state’s carefully choreographed public handshake with the influential foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, at the Gaza donors conference in Egypt this week.
In terms of N+1 being unable to find any liberal or left-wing writer who thinks of Assad as “genial”, maybe it is better to analogize the Syrian civil war with the 2016 American elections, one in which the choice is between a “lesser evil” and the dreaded alternative. It is doubtful that anybody on the left, at least that part of it occupied by N+1 and Jacobin is concerned, would consider Hillary Clinton as the second coming of FDR as Obama was mistakenly heralded in 2008 but she is accepted as the lesser evil to Donald Trump unless you are like some CounterPunch contributors such as Andre Vltchek or Paul Craig Roberts.
Essentially, this is how Assad is regarded, as a lesser evil to the Syrian rebels who are reduced to a homogenous glob of Sharia-law supporting head choppers. If Stephen Kinzer would likely never apply the adjective “genial” to Assad, he is still capable of writing articles with the title “On Syria, Thank You Russia” on February 12, 2016. Charles Glass has a particular skill at articulating the lesser evil perspective and even verges on accepting Assad as the greater good in the NY Review of Books, a journal that caters to elite liberal opinion:
The only forces fighting with success against the Assad regime are Sunni Muslim holy warriors who are destroying all that was best in Syria: its mosaic of different sects and ethnic communities—including Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Yazidis, and Kurds, along with Alawites and Sunni Arabs—its heritage of ancient monuments, its ancient manuscripts and Sumerian tablets, its industrial and social infrastructure, and its tolerance of different social customs. “The worst thing is not the violence,” the Armenian Orthodox primate of Syria, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, told me. “It is this new hatred.”
You get the same sort of thing from Jeffrey Sachs and David Bromwich but there’s no point in citing them since I don’t want to induce the same sort of fatigue that I experience writing about Syria.
The N+1 editors feel that I am subjecting them to some sort of ritual in which they are required to denounce Assad, like a “moment of hate” scene from Orwell’s “1984”. If they got that impression, I must apologize since that was not my intention. I only wanted to take exception to their notion that Turkey and Saudi Arabia were backing al-Nusra and ISIS.
I don’t want to waste any bandwidth in exploring this topic at any length and would simply refer you once again to Sam Charles Hamad’s article that I cited in my blog article and repeat what I wrote:
I recommend two new books on Syria that will clarify the role of such jihadist groups in Syria. One is titled “Burning Country” co-authored by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. The other is “Khiyana”, a collection of articles including one by me but the more relevant one is titled “The Rise of Daesh”, written by Sam Charles Hamad. His research is thoroughgoing and essential for getting past the stereotypes of Saudi Arabia being Dr. Frankenstein to the monster of ISIS:
One of the forces that received generous Saudi funding was the secular nationalist FSA-affiliate Liwa Shuhada Suriya (Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade) led by Jamal Maarouf. Far from Saudi’s funding Daesh when the FSA and Qatar and the Turkish funded Islamic Front launched an offensive against Daesh it was led by a FSA coalition called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front led by Jamal Maarouf. The weapons they used against Daesh on the frontlines were paid for by Saudi Arabia.
The only hard line Salafist group that Saudi has funded is Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) which was a merger of several different Salafi forces initiated by Saudi’s to attempt to deflect both Syrian and foreign Salafi recruits away from the growing threat of Jabhat an-Nusra (which at that time was still what Daesh called itself in Syria before its split). The reason for this was that Jabhat al-Nusra, as with all al-Qaeda ‘franchises’, espouses a virulent and violent anti-Saudi theology and politics.
By snipping this material, N+1 lets itself off the hook with a breezy reassurance that “That the US has bombed al Nusra Front groups in Syria on occasion does not mean the US hasn’t also supported al Nusra on occasion.” Whatever. Just tell that to the people of East Aleppo who are now being bombed by F-16s according to some reports because they are harboring the rebranded al-Nusra in the same way that Israeli F-16s bombed Gaza’s schools because they were a haven for Hamas.
Finally, let me turn to the question of the Democratic Party. I have no idea who wrote the reply to my letter but there is a good chance that it was co-editor Nikil Saval, who wrote a book titled “Office Space: The Cubicle Dweller’s History of the American Workplace”.
It seems that Saval was a big-time Sanderista, reporting on his volunteer work for the campaign in the same issue where my letter appeared. Dated April 5th, it is a 7000 word (!) journal titled “Canvassing” about his experiences going door-to-door for Sanders in Philadelphia, where he makes his home.
Saval writes that Sanders is “the first candidate in two generations who is not a neoliberal, the first in decades to call himself a socialist, running as a Democrat but, bless him, not one”. In fact, Sanders registered as a Democrat in 2015 but why quibble. With respect to him calling himself a socialist, so did François Hollande who runs France in the same way that Hillary Clinton will run the USA. It was pretty much precluded that Sanders would ever get the opportunity Hollande got to impose a neoliberal agenda but at least he has the distinction of endorsing Clinton’s right to do so. Everybody knows that allowing Goldman Sachs to have its way beats the gas chambers Donald Trump has in store for Marxist intellectual careerists.
Saval also admits to canvassing for Obama but can’t remember what he said in his favor. Hmm. Repressed memories?
Saval seems to have a thing about the appearance of the people he is canvassing. Is that why he was so insistent on clearing the air on the Vogue article? I hope not. He refers to an elderly woman sucking “from a limp cigarette”, her “open mouth revealing a stretch of missing teeth.” He also meets a “75-year-old toothless Italian American with a buzz cut.” Jeez, I am glad I got a dental implant before going out to Brooklyn for an N+1 cocktail party. The buzz cut, however, I’ll stick with.
After putting up with some frustrating experiences, Saval hits pay dirt:
A 75-year-old white woman who arrives at the door with her two East Asian grandchildren, whom she asks to let me know who she voted for. “BERNIE SANDERS!” they cry in unison, and mawkishly enough I choke back tears. I suddenly feel as if an era of my life were passing. I leave half my packet unfinished and head back to the house.
Well, not being in a position to know the publication schedule of N+1, I wonder if Saval would be as thrilled today as he was when he wrote this article. The Sanderistas gave their hero a hard time at the Democratic Party convention last month for kowtowing to the Clinton campaign. I won’t begrudge Saval for sticking with the Sanders “political revolution” to the bitter end. If it brought him tears of joy, god bless him. It is hard enough being a revolutionary socialist so I can empathize with someone seeking change through the Democratic Party, a fool’s errand if there ever was one.