Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 14, 2017


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,former Soviet Union — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

Corruption and Poverty in Bulgaria

Bykov has described his film as a treatment of the central dilemma facing his country: conscience versus survival. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory” that is closely related to Bykov’s film thematically. Like Nima, Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.

After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.

His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.

Continue reading

April 11, 2017

“Experts” coming to Bashar al-Assad’s rescue

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

On April 5th, I wrote an article just as the Assadists had begun circling the wagons over the sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun. The very first article written in Assad’s defense appeared in Information Clearing House establishing the “false flag” tone that would be repeated endlessly. I predicted that the relatively obscure author of this initial piece would be followed up by people with more authority.

Indeed, if you Google Syria and “false flag”, you will get 556,000 results—most of them linking to conspiracist outlets like 21st Century Wire, The Duran and Zero Hedge. As I have seen in propaganda offensives like these, you can count on such explicitly over-the-top, pro-Assad websites to act as the shock troops in a propaganda offensive, to be followed within months by Seymour Hersh articles in the LRB and other high-toned purveyors of mass murder apologetics.

As surely as night follows day, several high-profile “experts” have come forward to get Assad off the hook and as might be expected, their opinions are getting wide circulation in the Assadist propaganda network.

Patrick Lang

The first one I ran into was a former Defense Intelligence Agency Colonel named Patrick Lang whose “proof” of Assad’s innocence appeared on a blog titled Intel Today. Lang makes assertions without bothering to provide evidence. For example, he claims that there was no sarin gas attack, only the accidental release of toxic chemicals after a Russian jet bombed an al-Nusra arms depot. They included organic phosphates and chlorine that were spread by the wind, killing civilians. You must ask yourself how he knows that this was the case. Who told him that? A little birdie?

Using the mantle of authority, he winds up his spiel:

We know it was not sarin. How? Very simple. The so-called “first responders” handled the victims without gloves. If this had been sarin they would have died. Sarin on the skin will kill you. How do I know? I went through “Live Agent” training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.

This, of course, was the same claim made by Paul Antonopoulos in his Information Clearing House Article. How could it be sarin when first responders treated the victims without wearing protective clothing? In fact, the NY Times reported on first responders becoming ill in the early minutes following the attack but more critically sarin gas quickly loses its toxicity. I understand that Assadists agree with Donald Trump that the NY Times is a purveyor of “fake news” but surely the Center for Disease Control can be trusted: “Because it evaporates so quickly, sarin presents an immediate but short-lived threat.”

Lang’s conversion to the anti-imperialist cause is recent. Only 10 years ago, he was advocating a strike at Iran to end its nuclear program. He told the NY Times:

“You are talking about something in the neighborhood of a thousand strike sorties,” said Mr. Lang. “And it would take all kinds of stuff — air, cruise missiles, multiple restrikes — to make sure you’ve got it all.” Other former officials say fewer bombing runs would be needed.

When he isn’t writing Assadist propaganda, Lang writes fiction (I guess there’s not much difference) about the Civil War. Guess what. His hero is a confederate spy.

Lawrence Wilkerson

Moving right along, we meet Lawrence Wilkerson, another former government official who was Colin Powell’s chief aide during the war on Iraq. Wilkerson was interviewed by Abby Martin on Empire Files, a Telesur program that is in line with Venezuela’s tawdry support for the Assad dictatorship. This interview appeared on the Kremlin-supporting 21st Century Wire as vindicating Assad even though it was conducted in 2015. It has also appeared on Veterans Today, another Assadist outlet.

Oddly enough, Wilkerson describes himself both as a Republican and a firm supporter of Thomas Piketty’s ideas. The first 6 minutes of the interview consists of him reeling off the standard denunciations of US foreign policy and plutocracy that makes him sound like a Green Party candidate but afterwards goes off the rails wehen Martin asks him how he could have written Powell’s infamous WMD speech to the UN.

At 15:00 in the Youtube clip, he directly addresses claims against Assad for using sarin gas. He says that he spoke to everybody he knew in the “intelligence community” if they could confirm Assad had ever used chemical weapons and they all said no. You think maybe Patrick Lang was the first guy he phoned?

While he is speaking, a still image of a Global Research article headlined Syria UN Mission Report Confirms that “Opposition” Rebels Used Chemical Weapons against Civilians and Government Forces appears during Wilkerson’s voice-over. This article claims that the UN documented rebel use of sarin gas just before the East Ghouta attack, which supposedly proves that they used it in there as well but this is falsified by a December 2013 UN report: “However, in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site.” [emphasis added]

It never fails to amaze me that Assadists can advance such easily falsifiable claims. Do they think that everybody operates within their Islamophobic comfort zone?

Scott Ritter

Finally we come to the guy who would seem most trustworthy—Scott Ritter, whose claim to fame was debunking WMD hysteria in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The Huffington Post, a magazine generally free of conspiracy theorizing, allows Ritter to hold forth on Assad’s innocence in an article titled “Wag The Dog — How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump And The American Media”.

Showing utter indifference to documenting his findings, Ritter states:

International investigations of these attacks produced mixed results, with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

For a thorough dismantling of Ritter’s crude conspiracism, I recommend Stanley Heller’s New Politics article.

In journalism school, you supposedly learn that reporting involves answering: who, when, where, why and how. So “who” are the groups conducting international investigations? RT.com? Press TV? Abby Martin? Alex Jones? Paul Antonopoulos? Fuck if I know.

But I would recommend the Wikipedia article on chemical attacks in Syria. A chart indicates that most of them take place in rebel-controlled (or formerly rebel-controlled) areas like Idlib or Homs. The only ones taking place in government-controlled areas are in Jobar, the very locale the UN admits could not be verified.

Ritter offers up the Russian narrative, namely that the jihadists controlling the town were involved in making crude land-mines laced with a mixture of chlorine and white phosphorus that were used in Aleppo. I invite my readers to find a reference to such a weapon ever being used in Aleppo or anywhere else on the planet. Other than Mintpress, RT.com and Sputnik News of course.

Ritter takes aim at the White Helmets, who he claims exploited the sarin gas fatalities to depict Assad as a war criminal. When you are writing this sort of propaganda, smearing these first responders as al-Qaeda operatives is de rigueur.

Moving right along, he refers to townspeople reports of “pungent odors” at the time of the attack. Since sarin gas is odorless, this falsifies the claim that it was used. However, speaking of falsehoods, there is no reference anywhere to odors except in a Wikipedia article that cited a Syria Deeply article to that effect. Apparently, Ritter did not bother to check the Syria Deeply article since it makes zero references to odors. Wikipedia evidently screwed up and Ritter failed to notice that.

Doubling down on his false reporting, Ritter claims that White Helmet first responders also referred to a pungent odor. Good luck trying to find a reference to this anywhere.

Lang, Wilkerson and Ritter loom large on the Assadist “left” because this is a milieu that has little interest in or background in Marxism. For them, everything is a conspiracy. History does not take place because of the class struggle but because secret agents plot to make things happen. If you want to read an article that encapsulates the mindset of these three nitwits, just go to Infowars and you’ll see them beaten by their own game. How we ended up in 2017 with a left mired in conspiracy theories about Syria is up to future historians to unravel. All I can say is that anybody with a functioning brain must break with this shit for the sake of their sanity and for the sake of revolutionary change.


April 8, 2017

The Sarin gas attack in context

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

(A guest post by Amith Gupta.)

After the Syrian dictatorship fired chemical weapons at babies, villagers, and other people who were busy being completely innocent in Idlib last week, I began writing a much longer piece on what I think the role of people who are against imperialism should make of American involvement in that country.

But in the meantime, something else happened. Donald Trump ordered the launch of 60 cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airbase in Homs, ostensibly as a “response” to the killings of over 100 villagers by the Syrian regime. Before I even had the chance to think about it, virtually every antiwar activist I knew was ready to rush to the streets, treating this as an emergency, or even suggesting that this attack was in some way comparable to the US invasion of Iraq. Here is why I think they are wrong on multiple levels.

The Norm Against Chemical Weapons

First and foremost, we should be clear about what Donald Trump and the US regime are actually doing: they are continuing an already-existing campaign of bombing Syria, that has gone on since at least 2014. That bombing campaign has been driven primarily by drones, and has primarily targeted Syrian rebels and rebel-held areas, or ISIS. The strikes have killed numerous innocent people, including the dozens of innocent Muslims praying in a mosque in Aleppo when a single drone strike incinerated them on March 17th. So what changed last night?

There has been an existing norm of international relations since World War I, possibly going back before it, not to use chemical agents. Some argue it was an elitist norm, growing out of a gentlemen’s agreement between European rulers not to use poison, out of their fear of their own assassination. But whatever the reasoning, it took on new meaning after World War I, with the widespread use of mustard gas and the literal fumigation of millions of people. Nor was it limited to combat between the European powers. While Saddam Hussein is often remembered for his use of chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians, it was Winston Churchill who first dropped such weapons on people in Iraq in 1920.

The norm is in some ways comparable to the norm against the use of nuclear weapons. And for that reason, a number of third world states have historically refused to sign the Chemical Weapons ban: chemical weapons are a poor man’s (or poor country’s) nuke. They can be used for deterrence and they can be used by untrained, poorly equipped regimes to kill large numbers of innocents.

That is why, regardless of what one thinks of the weapons, there is a sudden spike in outrage when such weapons are used in the quarters of the strategic planning rooms of countries that normally do not care when innocents die in Syria or Iraq. Nonetheless, the fact that there is an elitist and Western-state-centric strategic norm against the weapons hardly legitimates the sheer depravity of their use. In the furtherance of maintaining this norm, Trump carried out a strike on a Syrian airbase as direct retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.

While Trump cites Obama’s “failure” to do the same thing in 2013, the truth is that previous US strikes have been rationalized on similar grounds. The most analogous strike that comes to mind is the campaign by Bill Clinton to bomb “suspected” chemical weapons production sites in Iraq in 1998. The attack, in my view, was unjustified and was not based on any actual concerns about chemical weapons. Indeed, the weapons inspection program at the time was compromised because it was sharing sensitive intelligence with the US government. Nonetheless, that was how it was rationalized. To the extent there is a comparison between what Trump has just done and US policy in Iraq, it would be that series of strikes.

And like that operation in 1998, it has little to do with “regime change”. At the time, neoconservative voices who had been pressuring Clinton (and Bush before him) to remove Saddam Hussein from power were treated as unhinged extremists. While Clinton may have made concessions to them, neither he nor George H.W. Bush before him did what they wanted: taking out Saddam Hussein.

In 2017, Donald Trump has staked out a similar position. He has rejected outright the possibility of regime change in Syria, with his aides explicitly telling the rest of the world to “accept the political reality” in Syria, a message that may have been interpreted by Assad as license to use chemical weapons, believing the United States would either not attempt to enforce the norm, or that the response to its use would not be significant, as in 1998 in Iraq. Assad, thusfar, has been correct: while Trump struck a military base and continues dangling other options, there is no indication that Donald Trump wants to unseat Bashar Al-Assad, or that the price the latter will pay for the message he sent to the rebels living in Idlib will be anything significant for him.

“Regime Change” and Empty Comparisons to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq

Let’s discuss how, if at all, this strike is comparable to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. That’s an easy one: it isn’t.

In 2002, a President — surrounded by neoconservative advisors who had come into his administration with Cold War-era delusions about the role of American military power — had spent two years discussing with his confidantes how he would take out Saddam Hussein. Emboldened by the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration cherry-picked and fabricated evidence, some extracted from torture, to argue that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to the United States, Israel, and the rest of the world.

He and his neocon lawyers manipulatively interpreted the existing legal machinery from the first Gulf War, namely multiple UN Security Council resolutions, to justify sending 140,000 American soldiers into Iraq with the explicitly stated purpose of deposing Saddam Hussein. In doing so, he escalated American involvement from US sanctions, which had already killed hundreds of thousands of people, to an outright invasion.

Once Saddam Hussein was deposed, the soldiers occupied Iraq for a decade, leaving behind special forces and military bases, and continuing to supply their corrupt allies with millions of dollars in training and weapons aid. While occupying Iraq, US soldiers and private mercenaries protected and maintained a racist, ethnocratic, sectarian system closely resembling the one used by French colonial powers in Lebanon to keep the Iraqi body politic weak while foreign corporations raked in billions — not only from weapons contracts themselves, but by awarding themselves control over the rebuilding process of nearly everything in Iraq and billing themselves exorbitant prices from the Iraqi treasury.

And to maintain this purposely-broken system of foreign domination, the US military carried out a brutal campaign of counter-insurgency encompassing the exploitation of ethnic tensions, the use of white phosphorous bombs, mass expulsions, torture and rape, mass detentions, and other remnants of colonial-era rule.

Over 4 million people have been thusfar displaced from Iraq (it is hard to count because they have been displaced again, and again, and again); over one million people have been killed (so far); and the country is now split between the corrupt and inhuman Iranian-allied militiamen-turned-politicians that the US left in power and a revanchist Sunni extremist death cult known as ISIS. The former grew out of the sectarian system and the decisive blow to Sunni power in 2007 by Shi’ite-aligned militias, and the latter grew out of the systematic disenfranchisement of Sunnis along with a more extreme wing of Al Qaeda that had begun operating in some parts of Iraq only after the US invasion.

In sum, an otherwise functioning third-world dictatorship that was mostly stable was turned into a fractured country in which the norm is large-scale weekly massacres carried out by ethnic militias competing for power within a US-built sectarian state, where civil war and instability has essentially been institutionalized. Nearly 2 decades later, Iraqis are still applying to become refugees from the war, and they continue languishing in refugee camps in Iraq, in Jordan, and elsewhere throughout the region.

Trump’s strike on the Syrian airbase is not even remotely comparable.

As a preliminary distinction: He didn’t lie about the use of weapons of mass destruction. Bashar Al-Assad undeniably sprayed sarin gas at Syrians. The attempts to argue it was someone else strike me as a stomach-turning example of how far people will go to force reality to fit into a Manichean worldview. Virtually all weapons experts from all backgrounds, civilian and military, agreed that the symptoms exhibited by the children in the videos coming from Idlib were the symptoms of sarin. The alternative explanation given by apologists for Assad — that the weapons leaked out of a rebel weapons factory after it was bombed by the Syrian army — have been rejected by all of them, as they point out that sarin would not “leak” but simply burn up in such a scenario. In contrast, Saddam Hussein complied with weapons inspectors and had not used those weapons since the 1980s. There wasn’t any evidence that Saddam Hussein even had any such weapons.

Second: The US isn’t invading Syria. The comparison between a single airstrike and a 140,000-man army is absurd. Likewise, the US was already attacking Syria before this strike: using drones and special forces. Almost all of these strikes have hit rebel groups, signifying that to the extent that the US was already involved in Syria, it was effectively backing up the regime. So unlike the 2003 invasion, which was a dramatic escalation, the US bombing of the Syrian airbase isn’t even an escalation. It is the same level of involvement that the US already had, with the sole difference being that the target was the Syrian government rather than the Syrian government’s opponents — or, as is plenty common with US airstrikes, completely innocent people in Syria. Indeed, a Trump airstrike had struck a mosque in Aleppo only several weeks ago, in which 57 people died. There was no “emergency,” no angry statements, no reaffirmations of our opposition to imperialism. Generally, nobody really cared. They didn’t support it by any means, but the Left also did not rally around it.

So the suggestion that this is an escalation of any kind — let alone an outright invasion or even the precursor to an invasion — does not make any sense. If anything, it is simply a continuation of what the United States was already doing — firing bombs at Syria — with the slight change that instead of hitting worshippers in Aleppo, it hit regime storm troopers at a military base.

Of course, things can always change. Perhaps tonight Donald Trump will order sending 11 billion US soldiers into Syria, and while he is at it, maybe he’ll throw Hillary Clinton in jail. When that happens, call me.

Third, and most importantly: Syria isn’t an already stable country. When the US invaded Iraq, Iraq had an economy roughly the size of Greece — an impressive feat given the character of US sanctions and the war with Iran. Multiple ethnic groups in Iraq lived in relative peace, with Christians and Muslims celebrating each other’s holidays. Mixed-sect marriages and families were not only accepted, but common. The idea that one could be beaten or murdered in the streets of a major Iraqi city for religious/sectarian reasons, or the idea that entire families would be broken up and separated because married partners were from different sects, was so unheard of that the concern was laughed off by apologists for the Iraq invasion when it was brought up by critics in 2002/03.

All of that came crashing down with the US occupation and invasion of Iraq. Can that be said for US airstrikes on the Syrian military? Is it even remotely believable that the people of Syria, suffering on camera for 5 straight years, watching their friends and family die (or kill), disappear, drown, evaporate — that *this* is the point at which there is some sort of emergency for them? The reaction of sudden protests around the US strike on the airbase exposes a schism of disconnect between the actual suffering in Syria and the position of Western anti-war activists. Somehow, their sensors of what is or isn’t an emergency situation prompting statements, walkouts, protests, diplomatic intervention, and outrage, are not actually geared to what is happening in Syria. They are geared to what the US is doing to its dictatorship, its primary tormentor. So let’s talk about that.

The Role of Western Anti-War Activists

It is understandable that people on the Left in Western countries want to primarily focus their efforts on matters for which their own governments are directly responsible. That is laudable: We do not have meaningful control or effect on foreign governments, but we often have direct control over the role of our own, even if it is through something as simple as protesting. The purpose of all forms of activism, lest they be empty humanitarian posturing, are to be directed at those who govern.

And yet, the story that Western leftists have told themselves about Syria and their relationship to that country has not been consistent with this goal. According to the dominant western left narrative, Syrian opposition groups are “contras” that are co-opted or entirely controlled by the West, and the US is backing them as part of a campaign to overthrow the Syrian regime. Under these assumptions, one can see how strikes on the airbase fall into a much larger narrative that the Western left has constructed, in which at any time, the US is about to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad and unleash havoc on the people of Syria.

Of course, the narrative is flawed in numerous ways, the most obvious being that the US hardly needs to do more to unleash havoc (see point 3 in the previous section). But on top of this, to the extent that the US has backed various opposition groups, the support has been partial. Nor did it come with air support or NATO no fly zones. Indeed, even the one politician who had any real intention of imposing such a measure — Hillary Clinton — has backed off the idea. Moreover, the US aid to rebel groups has often come with the intention of splitting those rebel groups against each other — ensuring that none of them have a monopolized power over the rebellion while continuing to weaken ISIS and other jihadist groups that are undermining the US-manufactured ethnocracy in Iraq.

And most importantly, the existing campaign of airstrikes have been almost entirely aimed at the opposition and opposition-held areas, or ISIS. This is, objectively speaking, a manner of *supporting* the Assad regime. Even the introduction of US troops into Syria matches this policy objective of stabilizing Assad’s rule by attacking opposition groups — not the regime.

Some have interpreted our criticisms and drudging up these prior US airstrikes as an allegation of purity: “Why weren’t you out here protesting earlier!? Where have you been!? I’m clearly more principled than you!”

Not quite. The point is not that the US has been striking Syria for years, so there is no reason to get upset now. The point is that the Western Left has chosen exactly the wrong target for its “sympathy”. There is no way to deny the blatant nature of silence when the US struck rebel-held areas and killed hundreds of innocent people. While the Syrian regime continues to have the monopoly on murdering innocent Syrians, US airplanes have been responsible for thousands of innocent deaths in Syria as it is.

The point is that the Western Left did not see an “emergency” until one of those strikes intentionally hit the Syrian army. It is not a question of arriving late to the party. It is a question of which party the Western Left is arriving to. The idea that it constitutes some sort of “emergency” or even something warranting concern that the US has struck not civilians but a legitimate military target belonging to a regime that has gassed innocent people within the prior week sends a very strong message about who “counts” for our sympathy — and who doesn’t.

To give an analogy, many of us on the Left have mobilized around police brutality and state repression carried out by the FBI. But few took to the streets when the FBI killed a member of the right-wing extremist militia that had taken over a wildlife preserve in Oregon during a shoot-out. Likewise, most on the Left would likely mobilize against the NYPD’s policies of Stop-and-Frisk and the numerous police shootings that have taken place in New York. But how many would mobilize in a protest against the NYPD’s policy of deterring child abuse? That is, criticizing the US government is one thing; *why* we criticize it and *what things we mobilize around* are crucial and risk sending exactly the wrong message.

In the last month, no protests took place around the US campaign of drone strikes against Syrian villagers. The drone strikes almost gain greater criticism because of the Brave-New-World-character of the weapon in question, rather than the fact that they are being used to achieve the policy goal of stabilizing Syria by keeping Assad in power. Indeed, the drone wars are often just bunched together based on weapon type (drone) rather than where they are being used and for what purpose (such as in Syria, where they are used against the Opposition). And that is to the extent that there has been any attention to them at all.

In contrast, the mobilization around “US Intervention” against an airstrike retaliating for the use of chemical weapons, combined with the (relative) silence about the ongoing drone war against Syria, sends a fairly strong message about who or what constitutes a “red line” for the Western Left. The red line is not the deaths of Syrians, or even US intervention. It is US intervention targeting the regime, even if it is to maintain the norm against chemical weapons use. Within the 2 years of US war on Syria, why is *this* the point to emphasize? Why are we using the campaign against US intervention to carry water for the regime? Such bombings are, if anything, the silver lining of American overreach in the world. Like the fact that the FBI occassionally stops right-wing extremists, or the Police occasionally stop domestic abuse, or the fact that the NSA occassionally cracks down on a kiddy porn ring, they are an example in which the “bad guys” in power crack down on, well, another “bad guy”. This hardly warrants sympathy, let alone to be the banner of opposition to US involvement in Syria.

More importantly, the narrative around which this line is built ignores the actuality of US involvement in Syria — the actual policy that Western leftists should oppose. That policy has not been one of driving the opposition to overthrow Assad. Rather, that policy has been to use imperial hubris and fancy new air equipment to *prevent* the opposition from doing precisely that, knowing that US interests are better off in the hands of a known tyrant whose capacities are weakened than an unknown and unpredictable one that replaces him.

Indeed, the risks of Syrians overthrowing Assad are immense. What if the Syrian people decide to not only stop, but declassify all the evidence of Syrian regime collaboration with the US government’s international torture campaign? What if the Syrian people elect a government that actively risks liberating the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation? What if the Syrians set up a government that is interested in Arab unity rather than Ba’athism? What if they elect a regime that wants independence for the Kurdish minority? What if they begin spreading these dangerous ideas of democracy, unity, and anti-imperialism into Iraq, Iran, and Palestine? Such risks are those that the United States cannot afford. Hence, the United States must do whatever it can to control the opposition and ensure that a manageable tyrant who spends most of his time killing Syrians rather than Israeli soldiers stays in place, albeit too weak to scuttle regional policy initiatives.

And that is why an anti-interventionist, anti-imperialist movement in the United States should start, first and foremost, by questioning why the United States believes it has the authority to bomb the Syrian opposition and undermine their struggle. Such a movement should not be distracted when, on occassion, the United States needs to discipline its favorite bad option to prevent the use of chemical weapons.


Neo-Nazi leader hails Bashar al-Assad

Filed under: Fascism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:48 am

April 7, 2017

Why Trump acted

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm


Just over a week ago, Trump administration officials had issued statements that essentially caved in to Russian objectives in Syria. Preservation of the Assad regime was now official US policy. Reuters reported on March 30:

The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators.

“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.

Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson had told reporters that the status of Bashar al-Assad would be “decided by the Syrian people”, which was like saying that the fate of Augusto Pinochet would be decided by the Chilean people. Sean Spicer rounded out the Assad can stay brigade: “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

All that changed after Tuesday, April 4th when Syrian Su-22 fighter-bombers launched a Sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, the only area in Syria that was not under government control. Trump’s first response was to blame Obama’s failure to adhere to his “red line” warnings in 2013, when East Ghouta suffered an identical attack. Since Trump warned Obama against taking military action at the time, there’s an element of hypocrisy that goes with the Trump territory. Now he sounded like Nicholas Kristof: “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”

Ever hear the term Pecksniffian? It comes from a Charles Dicken character named Seth Pecksniff, who adopted a holier-than-thou posture. Trump’s words were pure Pecksniff. This is a guy who authorized the bombing of a mosque in Aleppo that left more than 57 people dead, the same number as in Khan Sheihoun. Trump’s excuse was the same as Assad’s—the mosque was a meeting place for al-Qaeda just like Khan Sheihoun. It’s also the same excuse Netanyahu gives when he bombs Gaza, except it is Hamas that is the “bad guys”.

What would make Trump turn on a dime? Since he clearly cares about nobody in the world except himself, his family, and the rich bastards whose interests he upholds as chief executive, there must be something else going on.

I think the “red lines” are worth considering. In September 2013, Obama found a convenient excuse for backing down on his threats after Putin offered an escape clause. In exchange for Assad surrendering his chemical weapons, the USA would not attack Syria. This was a very smart move for Assad since it effectively gave him and his Russian allies carte blanche to throw everything else he had against the rebels from barrel bombs to white phosphorus and cluster bombs.

It is clear to me that Assad saw the statements by the Trump administration as a green light to use Sarin gas once again. For Assad’s supporters on the left, this made no sense since he was winning the war anyhow. That might be true but what sort of restraint would he feel necessary with Donald Trump in the White House?

It was clear that US imperialism could not abide with such an impudent refusal to abide by the terms of the September 2013 agreement. Given the truculent stance of the Trump administration to North Korea and China, it needs to be regarded as a power not to be trifled with. So, Assad miscalculated and got a bloody nose for his efforts.

Despite the worries that the “anti-imperialist” left has over this becoming a “regime change” effort, there are signs that things will return to normal once the Syrian dictator understands that using Sarin gas is a no-no. The USA took great pains to make sure that things were kept under strict control as Salon reported today:

It turns out that President Donald Trump gave a heads up to the Russian government before launching his missile strike against Syria on Thursday night.

“Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis in an official statement. “U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”

In response to the attack, Russia has announced that it will help Syria strengthen its air defenses. It also may have prepared Syrians for the attack by tipping them off, as eyewitnesses observed personnel and equipment being moved from the Shayrat airbase in advance of the attack.

I don’t think that George W. Bush had this kind of arrangement with Saddam Hussein.

The Promise

Filed under: Armenians,Film — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

Armenia’s Trail of Tears

On April 21st, “The Promise” will be opening in New York and then scheduled for nationwide release in 1,500 theaters. It has much in common both politically and artistically with “Bitter Harvest” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on February 24th. That film dealt with Stalin’s brutal imposition of forced collectivization that had the unintended consequence of leaving millions of Ukrainians starving to death. “The Promise” is about how the Young Turks expelled the Armenian population from the desiccated husk of the Ottoman Empire as it began to take shape as modern Turkey during WWI.

As I said in my review of “Bitter Harvest”, neither of these historical events could be compared to the Judeocide since Hitler’s death camps were meant to exterminate a race on an industrialized, assembly-line basis. Although there were mass killings in both Ukraine and eastern Anatolia, most of the deaths were the result of putting a population under such duress that sickness and death were inevitable. I have always thought of the Armenian expulsion as Turkey’s version of Andrew Jackson’s “Trail of Tears”. Did Jackson intend for one-out-of-three Cherokees to perish on their long trek to Oklahoma? If the removal of Indians and Armenians were critical to the formation of a modern state based on “enlightenment values” (the Young Turks strongly identified with the French Revolution), wasn’t there a productivist logic to ethnic cleansing? I reject this kind of argument but at least want to establish that there are both American and Turkish historians who would take great umbrage at the idea of a genocide taking place in their nation.

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April 6, 2017

LIES of the Russian-Syrian regime story on Sarin gas debunked

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Source: LIES of the Russian-Syrian regime story on Sarin gas debunked

Correspondence with Noam Chomsky

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:21 pm

I was responding to Chomsky’s comments in a Democracy Now interview from yesterday:

In 2012, there was an initiative from the Russians, which was not pursued, so we don’t know how serious it was, but it was a proposal to—for a negotiated settlement, in which Assad would be phased out, not immediately. You know, you can’t tell them, “We’re going to murder you. Please negotiate.” That’s not going to work. But some system in which, in the course of negotiations, he would be removed, and some kind of settlement would be made. The West would not accept it, not just the United States. France, England, the United States simply refused to even consider it. At the time, they believed they could overthrow Assad, so they didn’t want to do this, so the war went on. Could it have worked? You never know for sure.

I wrote:

Noam, I understand that you are busy addressing many different topics but your knowledge of Syrian politics is superficial at best.

Yes, in 2015 the Guardian reported on the claim made by former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari that when Vitaly Churkin proposed a deal in 2012 that would have resulted in Assad stepping down in exchange for peace, the USA, Britain and France said no.

I was not surprised to see the Islamophobic left taking this at face value 2 years ago.

Writing for CounterPunch, Peter Lee considered this “an instance of neoliberal ass-covering, as if the Western allies were just waiting for Assad ‘to fall’” while Information Clearing House, a reliably pro-Assad website, reposted the Guardian article with the obvious intention of showing how Putin stood for peace and the West for war. Then there is David Swanson of Lets Try Democracy who concludes: “peace has been carefully avoided at every turn.” (http://davidswanson.org/node/4914)

The only problem is that Churkin was not the ultimate authority on such matters. Much closer to Putin and certainly speaking for him, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated just four months later: “We will not support and cannot support any interference from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”

His response:

Afraid I don’t see your point. I quoted the proposal accurately, made clear that it was not an official proposal, and pointed out correctly that the West refused to explore it, expecting Assad to fall.

I see nothing here that suggests any modification in that comment.

I followed up:

Yes, you don’t see my point.

The 2012 proposal had zero significance. Even the Kremlin dismissed it as bogus:


The Kremlin denied a claim by a senior negotiator Wednesday that Russia had offered in 2012 to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down in an “elegant way”, saying it never called for regime change.

“I can only once more repeat that Russia is not involved in changing regimes. Suggesting that someone step aside – elegantly or not – is something Russia has never done,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, quoted by TASS state news agency.


I haven’t heard back from him.

April 5, 2017

Sarin gas deaths in Khan Sheikhoun: separating fact from fiction

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

As could have been predicted, the Sarin gas incident that left 58 dead in the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun has been compared by various Assadist websites to what they considered a “false flag” operation in East Ghouta in August 2013. And a year before East Ghouta, there was a massacre in Houla in which 108 civilians, including 34 women and 49 children, had their throats slashed by Assad’s death squads. According to German journalist Rainer Hermann, it was actually Sunni extremists killing Alawites, a claim that the Baathist amen corner took up eagerly. Hermann’s reporting was debunked but that hardly made a dent in Assad’s considerable worldwide network of thick-skulled sycophants.

Indeed, if you Google Syria and “false flag”, you will get 556,000 results—most of them linking to conspiracist outlets like 21st Century Wire, The Duran and Zero Hedge. As I have seen in propaganda offensives like these, you can count on such explicitly over-the-top, pro-Assad websites to act as the shock troops in a propaganda offensive, to be followed within months by Seymour Hersh articles in the LRB and other high-toned purveyors of mass murder apologetics.

A template for future articles was written by Paul Antonopoulos. Expect versions of his piece to show up in its original version or plagiarized in places like Moon of Alabama, Global Research, DissidentVoice, et al. I also expect his talking points to be repeated by Rania Khalek, Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal who have indeed insinuated something like this on Twitter.

Titled “Something is Not Adding Up in Idlib Chemical Weapons Attack”, Antonopoulos’s article offers up a howlingly preposterous account of supposedly what really happened in Khan Sheikhoun. The corpses were not really victims of Sarin gas but the corpses of 250 al-Nusra kidnapping victims from the towns of Majdal and Khattab whose images became props in a false flag scenario. As unlikely as this seems, this was the same story concocted by Assadist nun Sister Agnes Maryam about the East Ghouta Sarin gas massacre in 2013. She produced a report that identified its victims as pro-Assad villagers having been killed by jihadists in Latakia who then made a video that was exploited by the rebels in East Ghouta for their own purposes. A plot like this would have been rejected by the producers of “X-Files” but it passes muster in these quarters.

Clearly not even up to speed on Assadist talking points, Antonopoulos refers to a claim by UN weapons inspector Carla del Ponte that there was no evidence that Assad ordered the hit on East Ghouta. I hope this PhD student is more on top of data gathering when he submits his dissertation but del Ponte was rendering a judgement on something altogether different, namely the jihadist use of Sarin gas in Khan al-Assal on March 2013, a full 4 months before East Ghouta. There’s not much point in taking up that case but I will say that del Ponte is not very trustworthy in the eyes of Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, two people who could hardly be charged with backing US imperialism. Referring to the war crimes tribunal against Milosevic, they wrote on May 22, 2000:

On March 15, Mandel sent another complaint to Justice Carla del Ponte, the new chief prosecutor for the tribunal, who replaced Justice Louise Arbour in October. Mandel’s sharply worded letter protests the tribunal’s refusal to investigate NATO’s actions, saying that del Ponte has turned “the investigation into more of a farce than a judicial proceeding.” Mandel’s letter makes a solid case that far from being an independent investigator, the tribunal has conducted itself “as if it were an organ of NATO and not the United Nations.”

Stumbling forward in his bogus investigative reporter mode, Antonopoulos is constrained by parameters set by Assad, whose military issued a statement that the Sarin gas was disseminated accidentally as the result of a bombing raid on a jihadist weapons depot by Su-22 bombers. Unlike East Ghouta, which we were told was a “false flag” mounted by the rebels, Khan Sheikhoun then becomes the unintended product of a bombing raid that only had military purposes.Antonopoulos’s most important argument against the Su-22 being the conveyor of Sarin-laced weapons was this: “Most importantly, the Su-22’s bombs are unique and cannot be filled with any chemical substances, which is different to the bombs dropped from attack helicopters.”

I often wonder if people like Antonopoulos expect their readers to be typical Information Clearing House readers–dimwitted pigs lining up at the propaganda trough. Five minutes of research on the net would tell you that the Su-22 can fire chemical weapons as Saddam Hussein did against Iran and hoped to do in the first Gulf War. Furthermore, it does not take rocket science to retrofit a Syrian Su-22 to fire missiles carrying Sarin gas. That’s what Assad did in August 2013, when his killers fired Volcano rockets laden with Sarin gas. All you need to do is replace the factory-supplied warhead with an oversized warhead. Not a big deal at all.

What is a big deal, however, is producing Sarin gas. You get the impression from reading Antonopoulos that there was something like a warehouse in Khan Sheikhoun that had big bottles of Sarin gas on the sort of racks you see in Home Depot. The problem is that even if they were capable of producing Sarin gas, they would have huge problems storing it.

In a must-read article on Bellingcat by Dan Kaszeta, we learn that Sarin gas is extremely volatile and cannot be stored as the final product used in military strikes since the main chemical reaction that produces Sarin creates one molecule of hydrogen fluoride (HF) for every molecule of Sarin. This hydrogen fluoride byproduct destroys nearly anything the Sarin would be stored in and quickly degrades the Sarin gas itself. The USA and Russia developed technology that could purge HF but have kept it top-secret and proprietary for obvious reasons. Syria certainly does not have that capability and only managed to produce Sarin by combining its ingredients just moments before weaponizing it. Even if the jihadists had such ingredients, it is beyond belief that they had mastered the same technology as the US and Russia to keep them safe and stable over a long shelf-life. Kaszeta writes:

Even assuming that large quantities of both Sarin precursors were located in the same part of the same warehouse (a practice that seems odd), an air-strike is not going to cause the production of large quantities of Sarin. Dropping a bomb on the binary components does not actually provide the correct mechanism for making the nerve agent. It is an infantile argument. One of the precursors is isopropyl alcohol. It would go up in a ball of flame. A very large one. Which has not been in evidence.

He concludes his article with the same observation he made after the East Ghouta attack:

Finally, we are back to the issue of industrial capacity. It takes about 9 kg of difficult to obtain precursor materials to generate the necessary steps to produce Sarin. The ratio is similar with other nerve agents. Having a quantity of any of the nerve agents relies on a sophisticated supply chain of exotic precursors and an industrial base. Are we to seriously believe that one of the rebel factions has expended the vast sums of money and developed this industrial base, somehow not noticed to date and not molested by attack? It seems an unlikely chain of events.

What is even more unbelievable to me is the notion that if al-Nusra or any other merciless Muslim foe of Western civilization of the sort found in films like “American Sniper” or “Zero Dark Thirty” had such a potent WMD, why would they only use them against their own supporters?

Why didn’t the jihadists lob Sarin-bearing rockets into West Aleppo or into the area of Damascus containing government buildings? Instead they tend to use mortars and even clumsy DIY artillery that can certainly kill enemy combatants (and cause collateral damage unfortunately) but not as efficiently as weaponized Sarin. For all the fears about rebels getting their hands on MANPAD’s, how do you explain a warehouse filled with the stuff in Idlib sitting idly? Just go ahead and Google al-Nusra and Sarin and nothing comes up except links to idiotic Seymour Hersh articles about a ratline from Turkey into Syria for Sarin gas. Since he was making a point exactly like Antonopoulos’s, there’s not much to support a case that they are being used against Assad’s military. Why bother with a false flag when you can mount a real flag over enemy territory? With Assad responsible for hundreds of thousands of casualties, what holds back the jihadi? Have they been reading Gandhi speeches?

Finally, there is this mind-numbing stupidity about this being another “regime change” operation. Antonopoulos write:

All evidence suggests this is another false chemical attack allegation made against the government as seen in the Ghouta 2013 attack where the terrorist groups hoped that former President Obama’s “red-line” would be crossed leading to US-intervention in Syria against the government.

What can you say? It is now six years of war and the USA has not mounted a “regime change” operation in the George W. Bush mode. This is like Waiting for Godot. Furthermore, Donald Trump has announced that he has no intention of removing Assad and his Secretary of State has refused to condemn Assad. If believe that this is a government so determined to remove Assad and replace him with one supported by the Sunni poor, you can probably believe anything. That, sadly, is the state of the anti-Imperialist left today—one so corrupt and cynical that it makes Stalinism of the mid-30s look pristine by comparison.


April 3, 2017

Demythologizing Old Bolshevism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev: best taken with a grain of salt

Something has been nagging away at me for the longest time about Lars Lih’s attempt to establish a kind of bloodline for the Bolshevik Party, with Marx begetting Kautsky and Kautsky begetting Lenin like patriarchs in the Old Testament. For those who embrace the heretical theory of Permanent Revolution, the bloodline naturally includes Trotsky. As should be obvious, this sort of pursuit is exactly how we end up sect formations rather than revolutionary parties.

Eric Blanc has written the second in a series of articles arguing against the idea that Lenin somehow dumped his old beliefs that Russia needed a democratic revolution that was “bourgeois in its social and economic substance” rather than socialist as he put it in “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” in favor of something similar to the theory of Permanent Revolution. I am quite used to these arguments by now but what caught my eye is his title “A Revolutionary Line of March: ‘Old Bolshevism’ in Early 1917 Re-Examined”. Line of March, of course, was the name of a Maoist sect in the 1980s founded by Irwin Silber who used to write dogmatic film reviews for the Guardian, a defunct American radical newsweekly. The “line of march” is basically the same concept as “revolutionary continuity”, a term that was bandied about in the Trotskyist movement around the same time. It is a way to establish your sect’s pedigree going back to Karl Marx.

The SWP’s cult leader Jack Barnes came to identical conclusions as Lih and Blanc in the Fall of 1983 when he broke with Trotskyist traditions and defended the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in an article titled “Their Trotsky and Ours”. Like a lot of the crap churned out by the SWP in this period, it is not online. (Contact me if you want a copy.) For Barnes and some non-Stalinist groups like the Democratic Socialist Party (now the Socialist Alliance) in Australia, they saw Lenin’s view of the revolutionary state as “algebraic”. In other words, it could progress so rapidly from a “democratic” to a “socialist” phase that it amounted to the same thing. The darn thing could make your head spin. Whoa there. Supposedly, both Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1960 were solutions to this algebra problem.

For Barnes, dumping Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution was key to becoming integrated into a New International of his florid imagination that included groups like the FSLN, the FMLN and the ANC. I wonder if the fact that Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa are solidly neoliberal under governments led by such formations might cast doubt on the usefulness of Lenin’s slogan (I doubt that it can really be called a theory). In 1959, Castro described the victory over Batista as rejection of what had happened for the better part of a century in Latin America: “Only half a revolution. A compromise, a caricature of a revolution.” I don’t know if this amounts to the same thing as Permanent Revolution but Castro was as determined to break with capitalism that year as Lenin was in 1917.

Obviously, Lih and Blanc have little in common with Jack Barnes. Their interest in the details of Bolshevik history is purely scholarly and mostly of interest to the people who read “Historical Materialism” and “Science and Society” where debates over the finer points of Bolshevik tactics from day to day in 1917 have a certain purchase.

All proportions being guarded, it is interesting that Barnes imposed a bureaucratic gag rule on the SWP membership after this ideological turn that was like the one Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev imposed on the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Basically, agreeing with Lenin’s slogan became a litmus test. If you agreed with Trotsky, you were singled out as an enemy of the party and eventually expelled from the CP in the USSR or Barnes’s minuscule sect.

The Triumvirs (as Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev were known) could not tolerate criticisms of their increasingly bureaucratic and anti-working class policies that were hated at the factory floor level. The NEP had generated class antagonisms and oppositions were forming to restore the democratic norms of 1917 and reallocate more funds to wages and other benefits. Workers assumed that Soviet democracy meant the right to criticize those at the top to win their demands, even if they had been Lenin’s most loyal lieutenants.

Indeed, it was their “legitimacy” as Lenin’s second in command that gave them a cudgel to use against Trotsky, who only joined the Bolsheviks six years earlier. That Lenin had referred to him corrosively, as was customary in Russian Marxist polemics, was to their advantage.

Trotsky first raised his criticisms in a short work titled “The New Course” in December 1923. Chapter five addressed the “line of march” question that he called “tradition” and that I would additionally describe as hide-bound tradition:

The undeniable fact that the most conservative elements of the apparatus are inclined to identify their opinions, their methods, and their mistakes with the “Old Bolshevism,” and seek to identify the criticism of bureaucratism with the destruction of tradition, this fact, I say, is already by itself the incontestable expression of a certain ideological petrifaction.

The shit hit the fan with “The New Course”. Using their control of the apparatus, the Triumvir whipped up a campaign intended to first isolate and then drive out its critics. Whether Barnes consciously looked to the Triumvirs for inspiration, this was the policy he carried out against his critics in the SWP who had the temerity to defend the theory of the Permanent Revolution—most of them veterans of the party who had “tradition” on their side.

A year later, a big fight broke out over Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” in which he addressed the questions posed by Lih and Blanc’s critique. Chapter two is titled “The Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry– in February and October” and gets to the heart of the matter:

Any further movement toward the attainment of power inevitably had to explode the democratic shell, confront the majority of the peasantry with the necessity of following the workers, provide the proletariat with an opportunity to realize a class dictatorship, and thereby place on the agenda – along with a complete and ruthlessly radical democratization of social relations – a purely socialist invasion of the workers’ state into the sphere of capitalist property rights. Under such circumstances, whoever continued to cling to the formula of a “democratic dictatorship” in effect renounced power and led the revolution into a blind alley.

In 1983, Frederick Corney wrote a book that was a collection of Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” and the response of his ideological adversaries. Among them, only Kamenev’s “Leninism or Trotskyism?” can also be read online. You can get a feel for the virulence of the anti-Trotsky campaign (that was a campaign against the masses as well) from these spittle-flecked sentences:

The petty bourgeois elements, in exercising this pressure upon our Party, naturally seek the weakest link in the chain, and as naturally they find this weakest link where people have entered the Party without being assimilated to it, and are possessed by a secret conviction, leaving them no peace, that they are more in the right than the Party, and that it is mere narrow-mindedness on the part of the Party, mere conservatism, tradition and adherence to this or that clique in leading positions, which prevents the Party from learning from its real saviours, such as Comrade Trotsky.

As is generally the case, when you can’t answer a fellow Marxist through data and logic, you can always rely on smearing them as “petty bourgeois”.

In fact, Trotsky did everything he could to avoid giving the appearance that he wanted to take over the Communist Party. In 1923, when Lenin was incapacitated by a series of strokes, he could have used the party leader’s authority to confront the Triumvirs. Lenin had become convinced that Stalin was a Great Russian Chauvinist, who despite his Georgian origins, had treated Georgia and Ukraine as Russia’s colonies. A year earlier, Lenin had written a “Testament”  that minced no words about Stalin. In his private discussions with Trotsky that year, he said that he was preparing a “bombshell” against Stalin and anybody who was in a bloc with him, including Zinoviev and Kamenev.

The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of “nationalist-socialism” (whereas he himself is a real and true “nationalist-socialist”, and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; “offended” nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest- to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades.

Eric Blanc refers to this period as one in which Trotsky was right to oppose bureaucracy. However, that did not excuse being “wedded to Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917, which is clearly contradicted by a wide range of primary sources”. I find this a little difficult to understand. If Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev had a better grasp of the tasks of the Russian Revolution than Trotsky in 1917, how could they end up becoming so determined to destroy its legacy in a series of maneuvers that smacked of back room capitalist politics? If “Old Bolshevism” was so susceptible to bureaucratic degeneration, maybe Trotsky was wise to keep his distance from a “tradition” that discouraged independent and critical thinking. This is a question that Eric Blanc should consider carefully as the author of an article critical of Bolshevik policies toward non-Russian nationalities. I should add that Blanc faults Trotsky for not opening an offensive against Stalin in 1923 over the national question. Whether or not he should be faulted is secondary to coming to terms with the character of “Old Bolshevism”. Trotsky eventually came around on such matters in his articles on Ukraine in the late 1930s after all, while Stalin—the quintessential Old Bolshevik—had the blood of Ukraine’s millions on his hands.

It turns out that the debate over Permanent Revolution did not come to an end after Trotsky’s expulsion and exile. Karl Radek, who had supported Trotsky in 1923, eventually caved in to Stalin like Zinoviev and Kamenev before him and became one of his worst flunkies. In chapter seven of “Permanent Revolution”, Trotsky takes up his defense of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry that the Stalinists were applying rigidly to China.

By 1927, Stalin had abandoned any notion of Lenin’s slogan having an “algebraic” quality. He reverted not just to the Two Tactics article but Second International stagism that posited the need for an extended period of capitalist development in countries like China. If China needed a bourgeois revolution, what better way to bring this about then to put the Communist Party at the disposal of the KMT? At this stage of the game, Plekhanov was the primary influence on Stalin even if he gave lip-service to Lenin’s slogan.

On April 12, 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek carried out a massacre against Chinese working-class revolutionaries in Shanghai that was facilitated by the Kremlin’s alliance with the KMT and the subordination to it of the Chinese CP. Bukharin, who had become Stalin’s chief ideologist in the late 20s before he too was purged and killed, came up with some remarkable formulations. He told the Fifteenth Soviet Party Conference (October 1926) that it was necessary “to maintain a single national revolutionary front” in China as “the commercial-industrial bourgeoisie was at present playing an objectively revolutionary role.” For his part, Stalin warned the Communists about trying to establish Soviets in China.

Despite the tendency to reduce Permanent Revolution into a formula for immediate socialist revolution at all times and under all conditions, Trotsky was quite cautious about the possibilities that existed in China. In the chapter on China in “Permanent Revolution”, Trotsky bears little resemblance to the caricature his adversaries such as Kamenev drew, which at times makes him sound like a Spartacist League member:

Does it follow from what has been said that all the countries of the world, in one way or another, are already today ripe for the socialist revolution? No, this is a false, dead, scholastic, Stalinist-Bukharinist way of putting the question. World economy in its entirety is indubitably ripe for socialism. But this does not mean that every country taken separately is ripe. Then what is to happen with the dictatorship of the proletariat in the various backward countries, in China, India, etc.? To this we answer: History is not made to order. A country can become ‘ripe’ for the dictatorship of the proletariat not only before it is ripe for the independent construction of socialism, but even before it is ripe for far-reaching socialization measures. One must not proceed from a preconceived harmony of social development. The law of uneven development still lives, despite the tender theoretical embraces of Stalin. The force of this law operates not only in the relations of countries to each other, but also in the mutual relationships of the various processes within one and the same country. A reconciliation of the uneven processes of economics and politics can be attained only on a world scale. In particular this means that the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in China cannot be considered exclusively within the limits of Chinese economics and Chinese politics.

I doubt that any of this will have much impact on Eric Blanc who is fully committed to rehabilitating the irredeemable. “Old Bolshevism” was nonsense back in the early 20s and even more so today. If you read Lenin’s “Two Tactics” followed by Trotsky’s “Results and Prospects”, you’ll find the differences striking. This is primarily a function of the articles serving different purposes. Lenin was writing as strategist. As is the case with most of his writings, the concern is over “what is to be done”. If he spent little attention to making the case for a working-class dictatorship over capitalist property relations theoretically, it is because he assumed his readers were familiar with Marxist theory that posited successive and distinct modes of production. Keep in mind that Lenin’s introduction to Marxism came through the writings of Plekhanov.

Plekhanov’s stagism looms large over Lenin’s early work on the development of capitalist agriculture in the Russian countryside that probably articulates more of a classic historical materialist analysis than anything he ever wrote and that catapulted him into the front ranks of Russian Marxism. In works like the 1908 “The Agrarian Question in Russia Towards the Close of the Nineteenth Century”, Lenin described the task of the Russian revolutionary movement:

The agrarian question in Russia towards the close of the nineteenth century has imposed upon the classes of society the task of putting an end to the old feudal past and sweeping clear the landowning system, sweeping clear the whole way for capitalism, for the growth of the productive forces, for the free and open struggle of classes. And this very struggle of classes will determine the manner in which this task will be accomplished.

Clearly, this is not in accord with Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, which constitutes the theoretical basis of Permanent Revolution and conceives of societies existing midway between the major stages of social history and that incorporates features from both. As I began writing about the Brenner thesis, nothing could be more obvious than Western European nations in the 1500s having both feudal and capitalist aspects. As is evidenced in the most recent scholarship on the “transition” debate, scholars such as Alex Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu are indebted to Trotsky’s dialectical understanding of social history even if Lih and Blanc fail to see much use in it. Perhaps their tendency to be so narrowly focused on Bolshevik history has put blinders on them.

This leads me to another point that is poorly understood in these debates. For Lih, there is a tendency to make an amalgam between socialism and the Soviet state. To sustain the idea that Lenin never projected anything more than a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, he cites Lenin’s articles written in April 1917 that only mention socialism in fleeting references and primarily as “steps toward socialism”. He notes approvingly what Menshevik historian Sukhanov said about October 1917 and socialism:

Was there any Socialism in the [Bolshevik] platform? No. I maintain that in a direct form the Bolsheviks never harped to the masses on Socialism as the object and task of a Soviet Government; nor did the masses, in supporting the Bolsheviks, even think about  Socialism … In general the central leaders of Bolshevism were evidently firmly bent on carrying out a Socialist experiment: this was demanded by the logic of the situation. But once again—before the eyes of the masses—they did not dot any of their I’s.

This misses the point entirely. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky were interested in whether Russia would conform to some fixed social science category like “socialism” as October 1917 drew nearer. Instead their focus was on the class nature of the state that ensued. In September 1917, Lenin wrote what was essentially his greatest contribution to Marxist theory: “The State and Revolution”. This was an examination of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which put the emphasis on the character of the state rather than the means of production. This meant the working class becoming the ruling class and putting restrictions on the freedom of other classes to pursue their own agenda both politically and economically. Did this mean that when the soviets became the new state in 1917 that socialism had begun? Keep in mind that Lenin quoted Marx on this question: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It is highly problematic to see the USSR in terms of fixed categories like “capitalist” or “socialist”. In “Revolution Betrayed”, Trotsky tried to define the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Given Trotsky’s superior analytical tools and the example he set of resisting both capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic misrule, it is impossible to sidestep the question of why his movement has failed to gain any traction. This has a lot to do with the movement’s inability to bridge the gap between theory and practical politics, mastery of which Lenin was second to none. In my earlier reference to Lenin being focused on immediate tasks of the mass movement, I would only add that he was far more adroit in movement building—something that was beyond Trotsky’s grasp. Ironically, Trotsky’s organizational principles were adopted from Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” Comintern in 1923 that served both the Triumvir’s need to bureaucratically control the international communist movement as well as Trotsky’s rather purist ideas about building revolutionary parties that have proven sterile.

My advice is to read Trotsky to help you understand class dynamics in the capitalist world and Lenin to help you work with others to build a mass revolutionary movement to transform that world. But best of all, build a new movement that does not worry about a “line of march” or “revolutionary continuity”. It is up to us to rethink Marxism and make it applicable to 21st century realities. In other words—become the New Bolsheviks.

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