Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 7, 2018

Diana Johnstone’s attack on Tony McKenna

Filed under: Red-Brown alliance,Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

Beware the dreaded Leon Bronstein

As you might expect, Diana Johnstone starts her Consortium News attack on Tony McKenna’s ISR article about Syria in a way that makes you think she has either not understood what she was reading because of declining intellectual powers or because, having understood it, mischievously misrepresented it.

She objects to Tony’s framing of the term “ideological lynchpin” in the following paragraph:

Much has been made of Western imperial support for the rebels in the early years of the revolution. This has, in fact, been an ideological lynchpin of first the Iranian and then the Russian military interventions as they took the side of the Assad government. Such interventions were framed in the spirit of anticolonial rhetoric in which Iran and Russia purported to come to the aid of a beleaguered state very much at the mercy of a rapacious Western imperialism that was seeking to carve the country up according to the appetites of the US government and the International Monetary Fund.

She tut-tuts Tony for failing to represent the “ideological” justifications of the Iranian and Russian regimes accurately that never said anything about imperialism. Their purpose was merely to defeat Islamic, Wahhabi extremism, not fend off the Rothschild Bank and other greedy Western financiers.

However, if you read Tony’s article as it was intended, it was obvious he was referring to people like John Wight, Mike Whitney and Stephen Gowans who have spent the last seven years trying to make Assad look like Syria’s Fidel Castro, fending off a Bay of Pigs type invasion. You see the words “rapacious Western imperialism” in the paragraph above? It is repeated later in the article and should have been enough to even tip off even the semi-conscious Ms. Johnstone who he was talking about: “Many, on the Communist left in particular, saw these invasions as being part of the last bastion of resistance to the imperial power projected by the United States and the heartlands of global capitalism, and so they failed to recognize that Stalin’s military takeovers represented a form of rapacious imperialism in its own right.” [emphasis added]

For Johnstone, the Saudi/Israeli/American proxy war was all about helping Israel destroy one of its main enemies in the Middle East. As a key player in the “Axis of Resistance”, keeping Assad in power was a sine qua non. She writes, “There are a few alternative hypotheses to Western motives – oil pipelines, imperialist atavism, desire to arouse Islamist extremism to weaken Russia (the Brzezinski gambit) – but none are as coherent as the organic alliance between Israel and the United States, and its NATO sidekicks.”

You sometimes have to wonder whether Johnstone and people like her read anything out of their comfort zone. To start with, the Baathists collaborated with the Zionists to smash Palestinian resistance during the Lebanese Civil War. Tal al-Zaatar, a refugee camp with over 50,000 Palestinian refugees, was besieged by Lebanese fascist militias backed by Hafez al-Assad over a two-month period. The Syrian military and its Phalangist allies machine-gunned refugee columns during civilian evacuation. Others were killed by grenades and knives, and numerous cases of rape followed the fall of the camp on August 12, 1976.

As the civil war in Lebanon dragged on, Syria finally decided to back a faction in the PLO in 1983 that would oust Yasir Arafat and replace him with someone more compliant to Baathist interests. Guess who backed Hafez al-Assad in this operation? None other than Muammar Gaddafi. In recounting Syria’s machinations, Michael Karadjis cites an Israeli official who was close to Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir:

Direct Syrian control of the PLO will be beneficial to us for a number of reasons. … our experience has shown that Syria can keep a firm hand on the Palestinian terrorists if it is in their interests to do so. Despite the fierce rhetoric from Damascus, there has been no attack against us from the Golan Heights for 10 years (Christopher Walker, ‘Israel welcomes prospect of Syrian-controlled PLO’, The Australian, November 11, 1983).

Obviously, the most “rejectionist” wing of the Palestinian movement would laugh at the notion that Syrian rebels were agents of the West acting on behalf of Israel. In February 2012, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya made clear where he stood. “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.” Even when Hamas came under intense pressure from Iran to support Assad, it stubbornly spoke out against the kind of criminality that people like Diana Johnstone defends. When Russian and Syrian jets were bombing hospitals, Hamas issued a statement that said: “We are following with great pain what is happening in Aleppo and the horrific massacres, murders and genocide its people are going through, and condemn it entirely.”

Johnstone’s article concludes with a broadside against Trotskyism in terms that should be familiar. It is identical to the arguments I have heard from Stephen Gowans and even Johnstone’s occasional writing partner, the physicist Jean Bricmont. Basically, it boils down to justifying strongmen like Stalin or the various nationalist politicians that the Kremlin supported during the Cold War, including the Assads, Gaddafi, et al. She writes:

Socialism or communism was above all a rallying cry meaning independence and “modernization” – which is indeed what the Bolshevik revolution turned out to be. If the Bolshevik revolution turned Stalinist, maybe it was in part because a strong repressive leader was the only way to save “the revolution” from its internal and external enemies. There is no evidence that, had he defeated Stalin, Trotsky would have been more tender-hearted.

Countries that are deeply divided ideologically and ethnically, such as Syria, are not likely to be “modernized” without a strong ruler.

Actually, this is the same analysis put forward by Kremlinologist Adam Ulam who analogized the USSR with the bourgeois revolutions that carried out primitive accumulation in order to incubate modern capitalist states. It fetishizes hydroelectric dams, subway systems, superhighways, military prowess, et al as the chief accomplishments of the USSR—barely understanding that this is the same criteria by which you can judge both Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt as well.

If you are familiar with Lenin’s writings, you’d understand that this was the last thing on his mind just before his death. Nine months he succumbed to a stroke, he wrote an article titled “On Cooperation” that projected the most humane, logical and socialist path forward for the USSR:

At present we have to realize that the cooperatives system is a social system we must now give more than ordinary assistance, and we must actually give that assistance. But it must be it assistance in the real sense of the word, i.e., it will not be enough to interpret it to mean assistance for any kind of cooperative trade; by assistance we must mean aid to cooperative trade in which really large masses of the population actually take part. It is certainly a correct form of assistance to give a bonus to peasants who take part in cooperative trade; but the whole point is to verify the nature of this participation, to verify the awareness behind it, and to verify its quality. Strictly speaking, when a cooperator goes to a village and opens a cooperative store, the people take no part in this whenever; but at the same time guided by their own interests they will hasten to try to take part in it.

Furthermore, he understood that the biggest threat to the development of socialism around this time was Stalin’s bureaucratic tendencies that culminated in the forced collectivization. Written just a couple of months before “On Cooperation”, Lenin called for the removal of Stalin as General Secretary in a letter to the CP Congress. Primarily, this was motivated by Stalin’s treatment of the Georgian Republic that was typical of Great Russian chauvinism even if Stalin was from Georgia himself. Lenin wrote:

I think it is unnecessary to explain this to Bolsheviks, to Communists, in greater detail. And I think that in the present instance, as far as the Georgian nation is concerned, we have a typical case in which a genuinely proletarian attitude makes profound caution, thoughtfulness and a readiness to compromise a matter of necessity for us. 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.

Like the Cold War liberals, Johnstone views Stalin as the natural outcome of the Russian Revolution. Despite Lenin’s insistence that peasant cooperatives be organized on a voluntary basis and the need to oppose national chauvinism, she champions the very behavior that would have gotten Stalin deposed in 1923.

Johnstone is mesmerized by modernizing industrialization and by the value of strong men carrying it out even though it has zero to do with the original vision of Karl Marx whose 200th birthday we celebrated 2 days ago. She certainly would have backed Stalin against the Georgians in 1923 just as she supports Putin against Ukraine today.

Like a lot of people who were radicalized in the 60s, Johnstone developed a reverence for Stalinist strong men as a way of overcompensating for LBJ, Nixon, et al. Totally alienated by American society, she became infatuated with men like Assad, Putin, Gaddafi and anybody else who was pilloried in the bourgeois press. Like the fraternity boys who kept posters of Ronald Reagan chopping wood on dorm room walls, her heart flutters for Vladimir Putin and anybody else who embodies her romantic idealization of men and women on horseback.

This would include Marine Le Pen, the ultraright Islamophobe that she described once as “basically on the left”. When people came out to protest Donald Trump’s viciously racist immigration crackdown, Johnstone described them with as much malice as Ann Coulter: “Whatever they think or feel, the largely youthful anti-Trump protesters in the streets create an image of hedonistic consumer society’s spoiled brats who throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want.”

Most people with their head screwed on right understand that Le Pen is a nativist just like all the other scum that are rising to the surface in Europe, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Nigel Farage in England. In 2017, Johnstone decided that the real issue in the French election was national sovereignty and who better to defend it than Marine Le Pen? After all, Johnstone states that “Le Pen insists that all French citizens deserve equal treatment regardless of their origins, race or religion.” Oh, how nice. This politician said that if she was elected, she’d stop all immigration to France.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Johnstone’s article appeared in The UNZ Review as well as Consortium News except there it had a most revealing subtitle: “Obsessed with Stalin, the disciples of Leon Bronstein see betrayed revolutions everywhere”. Leon Bronstein? What the fuck? Is Johnstone okay with that? Now, if it was me, I wouldn’t allow UNZ to publish anything I wrote, especially since Ron Unz, the guy who runs it, is a disgusting rightwing pig. In 2016, he wrote an article titled “American Pravda: The KKK and Mass Racial Killings” that posed the question why there was so much attention paid to lynchings when Communism was responsible for the death of millions. He also took exception to a string of racist cop killings by pointing out that the victims were “bad guys”. He describes Trayvon Martin as a “violent young thug” and Michael Brown as “a gigantic, thuggish criminal”.

There is something sad about these journalists who made their reputation in the 60s and 70s and who are now hell-bent on destroying it, even if unintentionally. There is something compulsive about the behavior as if such self-destructiveness stems from some deep psychological need to be connected to vicious criminals like Assad. In the 1930s, much of the left flocked to Stalin like a moth to a flame. Today we see much of the left lining up with Putin and Assad from the same sort of political abnormal psychology. Tony McKenna’s article was a useful corrective to the cesspool of lies these sorts of people bathe in. The fact that Johnstone took the trouble to attack it just confirms its value.


  1. Johnstone has long represented Russian govt. views. She lied about Serbian ethic cleansing and massacres in Kosovo. I remembers her articles well.

    Comment by Les Evenchick — May 7, 2018 @ 8:54 pm

  2. I wouldn’t expect anything better from a practitioner of the red brown alliance like Johnstone.

    Comment by oaklandsocialist — May 8, 2018 @ 1:21 am

  3. People like Johnstone don’t really hate capitalism. They just hate the U.S. Not the same thing, of course.

    Comment by jschulman — May 8, 2018 @ 2:22 am

  4. Much of the Left has descended into invariable defense of “negative peace,” as Dr. King termed it. That’s not leftism. Saudi Arabia has peace. Russia has peace. They’re both plutocracies.

    Comment by Tyler — May 8, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

  5. […] Diana Johnstone’s attack on Tony McKenna. […]

    Pingback by Syria: *The* Issue for the International Left. | Tendance Coatesy — May 9, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

  6. I’d never heard of Tony McKenna, but, despite any shortcomings in Diana Johnstone’s critique of lefty support to imperialism by some ex-Trots and Schachtmanites like the ISO, this book makes some of her same arguments: A book that undermines the liberal/lefty support for imperialist assault on Syria. DT


    Linked to the “moderate rebel” narrative was one that preceded it: that those who rose up against the government were frustrated civil libertarians and youthful democracy-lovers. What Gowans instead shows, repeatedly, is that the opposition to the government was primarily composed of and led by conservative Sunni Islamist forces. Nowhere was “democracy” listed as a goal of the Free Syrian Army (p. 144). The FSA’s base of support was entirely Sunni—is the argument then that only Sunnis value democracy? The main line of opposition was and always has been between the secular nationalist government and the Islamic right. In 2012, the US Defense Intelligence Agency basically confirmed as much (p. 99).
    And I like this swipe at “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, who acts like a lawyer for U.S. imperialism and complains that the U.S. hasn’t sent Manpads to Islamist fascists in Syria:

    To be very blunt, and this question is not directed against Gowans: does Syria exist to satisfy dogmatic demands in exchange for certification from those US Marxists who have never held power and thus know nothing about actual responsibility? (Worst among the latter are those Yankee-centric bigots claiming to be “unrepentant Marxists” but who think, “if it’s in The New York Times then it’s the truth”.) US Marxists in particular have an overweening sense of their centrality to the world, when they are beyond marginal at home. Perhaps their role as peripheral spectators in domestic politics is what has them casting about overseas for a mission to fulfill their frustrated ambitions. At the very least, Gowans could have turned the issue back on fellow Marxists: if their socialism, in the US, is purely ideology without actual praxis, then how is it not just an object of worship rather than something that is down to earth?

    Comment by David Thorstad — May 11, 2018 @ 6:10 pm

  7. David, it is really sad to see you endorsing a nitwit like Gowans who rips things out of context as I pointed out in my CounterPunch review of his crappy book:

    To prove that Syria was a serene socialist oasis standing apart from a region in the throes of legitimate uprisings during the Arab Spring like Tunisia, Gowans cites a variety of reporters in the mainstream media, whose credentials would appear impeccable. Who, after all, would question the journalistic integrity of Time Magazine, heaven forfend?

    Gowans cites an article written by Time Magazine’s Rania Abouzeid on March 25, 2011 that testifies to the placid atmosphere of the socialist republic: “there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President.” If Gowans had taken the trouble to read a dispatch from Abouzeid filed exactly a month later, he might have concluded that Israel bribed her to write a bunch of fibs:

    In 2011, Hafez’s son and political heir Bashar Assad seems to be following in his father’s footsteps, responding to calls for greater freedom with crushing force. Yet Syria 2011 is not Syria 1982. The regime is still ruthless, but this time the rebellion is not restricted to one city or one sect. The constant stream of amateur video spilling over social media is also documenting events — despite the regime’s best efforts to smother information by banning journalists — and suggesting that, if there is not a future reckoning, there will at least be a future record.

    Contrary to perceptions that the FSA upheld democratic values, Gowans links it to all the other Islamist groups that were trying to turn Syria back to the 11th century. We learn that Patrick Seale, a respected analyst of Middle East affairs, referred to the FSA as “an entirely Sunni Arab phenomenon.” And as such, it was in Gowan’s view ripping apart the fabric of religious tolerance the Assads had so assiduously weaved while delivering the Syrian people from medieval darkness. If you take the trouble to read the very article cited by Gowans to prove that a healthy socialist state was being undermined by a viral infection, you will discover the same indictment of the regime made by Rania Abouzeid:

    This is not to suggest that the present rebellion is driven only by religious motives and sectarian hate. Although these are real enough, other grievances have piled up over the past decades: the ravages of youth unemployment; the brutality of Syria’s security services; the domination of key centres of economic, military and political life by the minority Alawi community; the blatant consumerism of a privileged class, grown rich on state patronage, in sharp contrast with the hardship suffered by the mass of the population, including in particular the inhabitants of the ‘poverty belt’ around Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. These deprived suburbs are largely the result of inward migration from the long-neglected countryside, which in the past decade has suffered catastrophic losses from a drought of unprecedented severity.

    Perhaps the most glaring example of Gowans’s dodgy cherry-picking habits was a reference to a New York Times article that found Syria “immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world” in the spring of 2011. In keeping with his analysis of Syria as being threatened by germs, Gowans found the article as proof that Syria was “distemper-free” until the dastardly Salafist jihadis got a foothold. But if you take the trouble to read the Times article, you’ll notice that he excised the beginning and conclusion to the sentence he cited so as to give it the opposite meaning:

    Syria, a police state known for its brutal suppression of any public protests, seemed immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world until the past week, when demonstrations took place in several cities. The southern town of Dara’a, where citizens were outraged by the arrest of more than a dozen schoolchildren, has seen the largest protests by far. Thousands took to the streets on Sunday, as they have for several days now.

    I try to understand the mentality of people like Stephen Gowans. Did he expect his readers not to double-check his sources? Perhaps, he simply lifted the quote from another article floating around the Internet that had already carried out surgery on the sentence. That’s giving him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, given the pattern of his citations, it appears rather that he is so committed to flattering the dictatorship in Damascus that he hoped nobody would notice that he put rouge on the vampire’s cheeks.


    Comment by louisproyect — May 11, 2018 @ 6:25 pm

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