Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 21, 2011

Gene Sharp’s goal: liberty in a world of market imperatives

Filed under: Cold War,Egypt,ussr,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

For obvious reasons, the New York Times has hyped the role of Gene Sharp and his co-thinkers in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. By placing much more emphasis on the struggle against “dictatorship”, all sorts of delicate questions about class relations get deemphasized. By making the struggle one against a Ben Ali or a Mubarak rather than the capitalist system, the newspaper of record hopes to steer things in the direction of Corey Aquino “People’s Power” rather than the kind of social transformation that would leave American corporations on the outside looking in, like a bunch of hungry buzzards.

Michael Barker has written eloquently about the dangers of a Philippines type outcome that people like Gene Sharp, a life-long anti-Communist, would hail. Since events are moving rapidly in Egypt toward a class-versus-class showdown, it seems likely in any event that the Sharpies will have anything much to say. The working class understands that market imperatives can constitute just as much of a dictatorship as Mubarak or Ben Ali. As Ellen Meiksins Wood once put it:

To understand the market as imperative, we have to understand not just how people have been able to respond to the capitalist market but how they have been forced to do so. Capitalism doesn’t just allow people to avail themselves of the market in the pursuit of profit. It forces them to enter the market for the most basic conditions of survival and self-reproduction—and that applies to both workers and capitalists.

That force can be excruciating in countries like Egypt.

In any case, it is worth saying a thing or two about their role of Gene Sharp and company in “color revolutions”, understanding of course that red is the only color in the spectrum that is strictly off-limits.

On February 13th, the Times reported that Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old Egyptian civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, and his fellow activists began reading about nonviolent struggles and “were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp.” The article makes clear that flirtation with leftist themes is not unheard of in these circles, despite Sharp’s hatred of anything connected with communism:

The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist—after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

“The Academy of Change [an émigré group in Qatar] is sort of like Karl Marx, and we are like Lenin,” said Basem Fathy, another organizer who sometimes works with the April 6 Youth Movement and is also the project director at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, which receives grants from the United States and focuses on human rights and election-monitoring. During the protesters’ occupation of Tahrir Square, he said, he used his connections to raise about $5,100 from Egyptian businessmen to buy blankets and tents.

The Times followed up with another article three days later that included references to the three figures who have been at the center of controversy around such interventions. There is obviously Gene Sharp himself, the guru of the movement. The article also quotes Stephen Zunes who shares many of Sharp’s views and who has joined forces with Peter Ackerman, another Sharp disciple, who founded the International Institute of Nonviolent Conflict, upon whose advisory board he sits. Ackerman took classes with Sharp as a graduate student in the 1970s. Since Sharp, now in his 80s, is not really in any position to influence events on the ground, he has ceded leadership to his disciple who runs Rockfort Capital Partners, a private equity firm. Ackerman is almost certainly a billionaire. One has to wonder how much currency Sharp’s ideas would have abroad without the venture capitalist’s fiscal support.

In keeping with the flirtation with the left in the earlier NYT article, we read that:

Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty — in the 1950s, he wrote for a publication called “Peace News” and he once worked as personal secretary to A. J. Muste, a noted labor union activist and pacifist — but he insists that he outgrew his own early pacifism and describes himself as “trans-partisan.”

The Muste connection is interesting. In the 1930s, Muste was the leader of a group called the Workers Party that spearheaded major labor struggles. In James P. Cannon’s “History of American Trotskyism” there is a useful discussion of Muste’s importance. When Cannon found his own Trotskyist group growing closer to Muste’s, he broached the subject of a fusion that Muste was agreeable to. The Trotskyists were at that time doing what is called “entryism” in Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party. When they were expelled, they united with Muste as the Socialist Workers Party, reflecting each group’s antecedents.

Eventually Muste abandoned Marxism and became a Christian pacifist. As a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Muste became critical in the formation of the Vietnam antiwar coalitions that would challenge the imperialist war-makers. One crucial difference between Muste and Sharp was their chosen arena of struggle. Muste targeted his own government while Sharp saw his role as providing leadership to struggles elsewhere, particularly in the Soviet bloc countries. During the Korean War Sharp spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector. He also took part in some civil rights protests but from the 1960s onwards his emphasis has been on providing consultation to people in other countries.

Zunes mocks the idea of the elderly Gene Sharp fomenting uprisings in other countries:

“He is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action,” said Stephen Zunes, an expert in that field at the University of San Francisco. “Some of these exaggerated stories of him going around the world and starting revolutions and leading mobs, what a joke. He’s much more into doing the research and the theoretical work than he is in disseminating it.”

That might be true, but if you look at Peter Ackerman’s International Center on Nonviolent Conflict as an extension of Sharp’s empire of peaceful resistance, there is no question about a division of labor. Sharp provided the ideas, Ackerman the money and bodies.

The article takes up Peter Ackerman’s role:

When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr. Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to “protest disrobing” to “disclosing identities of secret agents.”

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said that some activists translated excerpts of Mr. Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of “attacking weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.

Peter Ackerman, a onetime student of Mr. Sharp who founded the nonviolence center and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that “ideas have power.”

If you read the study guide for “Bringing Down a Dictator”, a documentary that Ackerman executive produced, you will find a most interesting discussion point:

The United States government gave over $25 million dollars in aid to Otpor and other opposition groups during the movement against Milosevic. Some of these groups declared themselves to be anti-American. What is the purpose of the US funding of anti-American groups overseas?

While I doubt that Otpor could be considered anti-American, whoever was shrewd enough to write the study guide surely understands the role of people like Stephen Zunes and the importance of funding groups like the April Sixth Movement in Egypt that was trying to overthrow America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, next to the Israelis. People like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are simply too stupid to understand America’s long-term interests in the Middle East. A Mubarak, like a Ferdinand Marcos, presents serious problems to social stability. He had to be replaced even as he was being supported. It is this kind of contradiction that far-sighted people in the ruling class have come to understand, perhaps a function of having read Karl Marx as undergraduates.

Like George Soros, Peter Ackerman is very far-sighted. While Soros sees the wisdom of putting Christian Parenti on the payroll of Open Society, Ackerman chooses Zunes. If you want some credibility on the left, these types of cooptation are essential.

Not content to include Zunes’s dismissal of charges that Sharp is running some kind of private spook network, the article makes the point a second time:

In 2008, Iran featured Mr. Sharp, along with Senator John McCain of Arizona and the Democratic financier George Soros, in an animated propaganda video that accused Mr. Sharp of being the C.I.A. agent “in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries,” an assertion his fellow scholars find ludicrous.

But if you see Ackerman as the instrument of Sharp’s ideas, the idea is not so ludicrous. As I mentioned in an earlier article on the venture capitalist, Ackerman was the former director of Freedom House, a group that was also run at one time by James Woolsey, former director of the CIA.

The New York Times articles on Gene Sharp prompted me to take a fresh look at Peter Ackerman, to see what the rat has been up to. Apparently, his main interest in life, besides making money, is running or serving on the boards of outfits like Freedom House. Sourcewatch  has a very good dossier on Ackerman.

There we learn that Ackerman now sits on the board of Spirit of America, a group that is “dedicated to spreading US influence worldwide, with a particular emphasis on covert cyber-intelligence measures”. In 2005 Trish Schuh wrote an article for Counterpunch that explored its role in the Middle East:

Another Spirit of America governor is Lt General Mike DeLong, Deputy Commander, US Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. DeLong manages a budget of $8.2 billion and “conceived and implemented the Global War on Terrorism, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.” As top Deputy to former General Tommy Franks, DeLong’s listed expertise at places such as the Army War College, the Department of Defense and the Amphibious Warfare School included Artillery, military intelligence, coup détats, supporting democracy.

Ackerman is also on the advisory board of the Cato Institute’s Project on Social Security Choice. Not surprisingly, they claim that “allowing younger workers to privately invest their Social Security taxes through individual accounts will improve Social Security’s rate of return.”

But what difference does it make if their individual accounts at Goldman-Sachs or Merrill-Lynch go up in flames during the next stock market crash? There will always be jobs for the elderly as greeters at Walmart. And if they are unhappy with their fate, they can always vote for the candidate of their choice at the next election even if both candidates favor keeping Social Security as a shell game run by the rich. After all, it could be worse. You might be in a country like Egypt with fraudulent elections. It is much better, isn’t it, to give people a choice? That’s what Gene Sharp and Peter Ackerman have always been about, endeavoring to allow people full liberty in a world of market imperatives.

February 19, 2011

Workers of the world unite

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

Hat tip Kasama Project

February 14, 2011

What is the connection between Otpor and the Egyptian youth movement?

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

On February fourth, I blogged about different aspects of the Egyptian revolution, including its challenge to those who might possibly explain it as fomented by the State Department, the CIA, or Soros-type NGO’s. I wrote:

Ever since the Balkan Wars, many leftists have understandably fallen victim to a kind of mechanical anti-imperialism in which politics is reduced to looking for clues of American support for dissidents overseas. While there is no question that such a methodology works well for Yugoslavia, Lebanon, or Georgia, it cannot do proper justice to the movement against Ahmadinejad in Iran or against Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Imperialism, for its own reasons, will often place money on a horse. It will also place money on two different horses in the same race, in an effort to hedge its bets. Considering how Goldman-Sachs routinely doles out millions to Democrats and Republicans alike in the same presidential race, this should not come as any surprise.

In a remarkable article in the NY Times today (A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History) detailing the origins of the protest movement in Tunisia and Egypt, there’s much more information on the NGO tie-in:

The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya, or Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade, Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been arrested four times…

For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.

The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist—after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

Another influence, several said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of Change, which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work. One of the group’s organizers, Hisham Morsy, was arrested during the Cairo protests and remained in detention.

If you are susceptible to mechanical thinking, the connection to Otpor would automatically lead you to conclude that the revolt in Egypt was tainted. After all, Otpor was in the vanguard to overthrow one of the few opponents of NATO in Eastern Europe, Slobodan Milosevic’s government in Serbia.

On November 26, 2000 an article by Roger Cohen titled “Who Really Brought Down Milosevic?” appeared in the Magazine section of the Sunday NY Times. Cohen wrote:

American assistance to Otpor and the 18 parties that ultimately ousted Milosevic is still a highly sensitive subject. But Paul B. McCarthy, an official with the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, is ready to divulge some details. McCarthy sits in Belgrade’s central Moskva Hotel, enjoying the satisfaction of being in a country that had long been off limits to him under Milosevic. When he and his colleagues first heard of Otpor, he says, ”the Fascistic look of that flag with the fist scared some of us.” But these feelings quickly changed…

”And so,” McCarthy says, ”from August 1999 the dollars started to flow to Otpor pretty significantly.” Of the almost $3 million spent by his group in Serbia since September 1998, he says, ”Otpor was certainly the largest recipient.” The money went into Otpor accounts outside Serbia. At the same time, McCarthy held a series of meetings with the movement’s leaders in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and in Szeged and Budapest in Hungary. Homen, at 28 one of Otpor’s senior members, was one of McCarthy’s interlocutors. ”We had a lot of financial help from Western nongovernmental organizations,” Homen says. ”And also some Western governmental organizations.”

The National Endowment for Democracy first came to prominence during Reagan’s war against Nicaragua. It poured millions into the coffers of the anti-Sandinista parties and generally operated as a wing of the counter-revolution. It has tried to destabilize Venezuela and Cuba in the recent past.

If the NED operates as governmental body against states deemed inimical to U.S. interests, Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution seeks more or less the same goals operating as an NGO. Sharp receives major funding from Peter Ackerman, a leveraged buyout operator at Drexel-Burnham in the 1970s who was Sharp’s student at Tufts. Ackerman set up his own NGO with ambitions similar to the Albert Einstein Institution. It calls itself the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and has played a prominent role in “colored revolutions” in the recent past. Venezuelan activist Eva Golinger has written about its role in her own country and elsewhere:

In 1983, the strategy of overthrowing inconvenient governments and calling it “democracy promotion” was born.

Through the creation of a series of quasi-private “foundations”, such as Albert Einstein Institute (AEI), National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House and later the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC), Washington began to filter funding and strategic aid to political parties and groups abroad that promoted US agenda in nations with insubordinate governments.

Behind all these “foundations” and “institutes” is the US Agency for Inter- national Development (USAID), the financial branch of the Department of State. Today, USAID has become a critical part of the security, intelligence and defense axis in Washington. In 2009, the Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative became official doctrine in the US. Now, USAID is the principal entity that promotes the economic and strategic interests of the US across the globe as part of counterinsurgency operations. Its departments dedicated to transition initiatives, reconstruction, conflict management, economic development, governance and democracy are the main venues through which millions of dollars are filtered from Washington to political parties, NGOs, student organizations and movements that promote US agenda worldwide. Wherever a coup d’etat, a colored revolution or a regime change favorable to US interests occurs, USAID and its flow of dollars is there.

How Does a Colored Revolution Work?

The recipe is always the same. Student and youth movements lead the way with a fresh face, attracting others to join in as though it were the fashion, the cool thing to do. There’s always a logo, a color, a marketing strategy. In Serbia, the group OTPOR, which led the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, hit the streets with t-shirts, posters and flags boasting a fist in black and white, their symbol of resistance. In Ukraine, the logo remained the same, but the color changed to orange. In Georgia, it was a rose-colored fist, and in Venezuela, instead of the closed fist, the hands are open, in black and white, to add a little variety.

Given all this irrefutable evidence, how can one possibly distinguish the revolt against Mubarak from Otpor or any other reactionary student/middle-class movement seeking to promote “civil society” and oppose “dictatorship”, even when the targets are like Hugo Chavez who has been elected time after time without using intimidation of any sort?

On first blush, the Egyptian youth movement has the same class composition as Otpor or the anti-Chavez movement in Venezuela. Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing director who has emerged as a leader of the movement, told the Wall Street Journal that after meeting with military leaders: “In summary of our meeting, I trust in the Egyptian army.” This would lead you to think that such middle-class activists are already lining up behind the counter-revolution.

But things are not that simple. In the N.Y. Times article discussed above, we learn that the April 6th Youth Movement has what we in the Trotskyist movement used to call a proletarian orientation:

The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya, or Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade, Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been arrested four times.

By 2008, many of the young organizers had retreated to their computer keyboards and turned into bloggers, attempting to raise support for a wave of isolated labor strikes set off by government privatizations and runaway inflation.

After a strike that March in the city of Mahalla, Egypt, Mr. Maher and his friends called for a nationwide general strike for April 6. To promote it, they set up a Facebook group that became the nexus of their movement, which they were determined to keep independent from any of the established political groups. Bad weather turned the strike into a nonevent in most places, but in Mahalla a demonstration by the workers’ families led to a violent police crackdown — the first major labor confrontation in years.

Just a few months later, after a strike in the Tunisian city of Hawd el-Mongamy, a group of young online organizers followed the same model, setting up what became the Progressive Youth of Tunisia. The organizers in both countries began exchanging their experiences over Facebook. The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” Mr. Maher recalled.

If the ostensible goal of any group supported by Gene Sharp or the NED is to support capitalist stability, this support for workers strikes would defy expectations. This, of course, is not a problem for those Marxists who understand that society is pervaded by what Hegel called contradictions.

In one of the best attempts to explain such phenomena in the Marxist movement, Leon Trotsky’s Learn to Think challenges mechanical attempts to simply reality. He writes:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

Is there any real difference between such a hypothetical situation and the NED or Gene Sharp throwing their support behind the student youth in Egypt? I would say no.

Trotsky’s warning about the need to understand contradiction is one of my favorite quotes from the great Russian revolutionary:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

That is our task as well. We have to orient ourselves independently and not on the basis of the class enemy’s bet-hedging strategies. While it is true that the U.S. has funded Mubarak’s opposition, it has given much more to the Egyptian kleptocracy. In a 2009 article in Foreign Policy (Don’t Give Up on Egypt ), Andrew Albertson and Stephen McInerney pointed out:

The Obama administration has drastically scaled back its financial support for Egyptian activists fighting for political reform. US democracy and governance funding was slashed by 60 percent. From 2004 to 2009, the US spent less than $250M on democracy programs, but $7.8 billion on aid to the Egyptian military.

For those who harp on the 250 million dollars while ignoring the $7.8 billion on aid to the military, my only advice is to “learn to think”.

February 6, 2011

Walk like an Egyptian

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 3:55 am

February 5, 2011

Cairo Intifada

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 1:59 pm

February 4, 2011

Reflections on the Egyptian revolution

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 2:07 am

While sitting idly in jury duty over the past couple of days, it began to dawn on me that events in Egypt provide an excellent case study for evaluation of different hypotheses I’ve seen advanced on the Marxism list and other left-oriented listservs over the past decade or so. (Please excuse the way I have phrased this. This is a function of serving as a sounding board for my wife as she pursued her dissertation for the better part of this same period.)

These are the points that I will be covering in this post in the light of ongoing events in Egypt:

1. Does economic crisis lead to revolutionary upsurges? Why did Egypt erupt now rather than at some other time in the past 30 years or so? What is the relationship between mass suffering and mass protest?

2. Mass action versus bold “exemplary” actions. What is the difference between the battle over Tahrir Square and breaking Starbucks windows?

3. What will lead to fascist bids for power? What conditions could have led to the attack on Tahrir Square, which comes straight of the Nazi Party’s cookbook? Why are such attacks so unlikely in the U.S. now?

4. Was the left wrong to emphasize political Islam as the most likely expression of radical politics in the Middle East?

5. Given the contacts between key activists in Egypt and the American State Department, can we assume that the U.S. is orchestrating events from behind the scenes as was the case in “color revolutions” of the recent past?

6. Does Egypt need a revolutionary party? If so, how can it be built?

Does economic crisis lead to revolutionary upsurges?

The answer to this is yes but with lots of qualifications. In 1929, the American economy collapsed in a way that had not been seen in the past. The normal expectation is that high unemployment would have led to a massive upsurge but the actual outcome for several years was despair and paralysis.

The initial challenges to the system took a good half-decade as momentum grew for the industrial organizing drive in steel, auto, teamsters and other key sectors of the American economy. As workers saw their brothers and sisters achieving breakthroughs, they were inspired to take action themselves.

This in effect is what has happened in the Middle East. Tunisia inspired Egyptians to take action, helped in part by a number of powerful actions against the Mubarak government that were centered in working class communities and that prepared the way for the great explosion this month.

The scorched earth policies of the world bourgeoisie starting in the early 1970s with the triumph of Pinochet and that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union have put working people on the defensive and the organized left feeling impotent. In other words, we have been going through a long retreat similar to that of the immediate post-1929 period. Except for the Bolivarian revolution in Latin America, the ruling class has been on the offensive, not us.

That has begun to change in a major way. While the economic suffering has been something of a constant for close to 40 years, the political response has been muted especially in the industrialized countries. But once a spark ignites dry brush, a mighty flame can ensue. While it would be foolish for me to try to predict the future, it should be clear from what is happening in Egypt today that history can experience what Stephen Jay Gould called punctuated equilibrium. Or as Lenin once put it: “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” (Cited in a Counterpunch article on Egypt by Esam Al-amin.) by In biology, this entails rapid change occurring against a backdrop of long periods of stability. In politics, it amounts to the kind of deep-going radicalization that led to the Russian Revolution, the class battles of the 1930s, and what historians call “the sixties” even though it lasted well into the seventies. My gut tells me that something like this is in the offing.

The battle for Tahrir Square versus breaking Starbucks windows

There has been a most unfortunate tendency among young “anti-globalization” activists or anarchists (obviously there is a big overlap) to romanticize confrontations over control of a fence, violence directed against corporate targets like a bank or Starbucks, or anything that smacks of barricade battles. Such “militancy” is seen as more revolutionary than peaceful protests such as the kind that have in every single case been the intention of trade unionists, NGO’s or other constituencies anxious to put a halt to neoliberal trade treaties or other policies favoring the rich.

A careful study of the unfolding events in Egypt leads to one and only conclusion, namely that the masses prefer to express themselves through massive, peaceful demonstrations. The spectacle of a million anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square is much more revolutionary than any bold or violent action taken by a small and determined minority. Those who have reached anti-capitalist conclusions are best advised to study ways in which they can serve as a catalyst in bringing out such huge numbers of people.

When the masses pour into the streets in such a fashion, they will inevitably encounter counter-revolutionary violence, however. Although the battle for Tahrir Square might have superficial resemblances to “black block” confrontations with the police over the past 10 years or so, there is a key difference. The Tahrir Square militants are fighting for the right to assemble peaceably not to show how tough they are.

They understand that it is through ever-increasingly massive demonstrations involving the bedrock of society that the army will either be neutralized or won over to the revolution. In essence, the mass demonstration is a way to convince fence sitters that they should join the revolution. That is why Mubarak wants to crush the protests. They undermine his authority and that of the Egyptian ruling class.

The most class-conscious elements of the mass movement, what might be called its vanguard, has always understood that violence is necessary but only when it is understood and supported by their social base. The vanguard also understands the need for defensive formulations, tactics that always put the revolutionaries in the position of defending the kind of liberties enshrined in the American Bill of Rights. When Mubarak’s mobs try to drive people from Tahrir Square, it is the right and obligation of fighters for social change to defend the right of assembly even if requires Molotov cocktails to enforce it.

Where does the fascist threat come from?

As I have tried to explain over the years, there was absolutely no fascist threat in the U.S. under Republican presidents, our versions of Hosni Mubarak. While there is very little difference in the way that George W. Bush and Mubarak see the world, Bush would have never sent thousands of his supporters in buses armed with clubs and guns to break up a peace demonstration in 2003. This is not to speak of the unlikely prospects of such violence being directed against working people in the U.S. who have not mounted a serious challenge to capitalist rule since the mid-1970s.

In the face of a massive movement to remove him from power, Mubarak dispatched his police who proved inadequate to the task of forcing hundreds of thousands of demonstrators off the street. In a very real sense, the only force capable of achieving such an objective is the army but given the social ties of soldiers at the lower ranks to the urban and rural poor, it is a risk that can backfire.

That led Mubarak to mobilize what amounts to a paramilitary made up of his party members and bureaucrats with a vested interest in the status quo. They were whipped into a frenzy by Mubarak’s top lieutenants and ordered to go to Tahrir Square and beat the protesters into submission. Such fights took place all throughout the Weimar Republic and were key to Hitler’s rise to power. Even though Mubarak’s thugs were seeking to preserve a reactionary government rather than put one into power, the logic is the same: use brute force to intimidate your enemies on the other side of the class divide.

In the U.S., there is no Tahrir Square that the tea party or other reactionary forces need to attack. The good news in essence is that we are safe for the time being from broken bones or a bullet to the head. The bad news is dialectically related to the good news. In the absence of an insurgent working class, there is no need to organize paramilitaries that seek to break the power of a proletarian and revolutionary mass movement.

What role will political Islam play in the Middle East?

In a December 9, 2007 article titled “Anti-Americans on the March,” the Wall Street Journal reported:

Some of Hezbollah’s biggest fans are in Europe. There, the hard left, demoralized by the collapse of communism, has found new energy, siding with Islamist militants in Lebanon, in Iraq and in a wider campaign against what they see as an American plot to impose unrestrained free-market capitalism.

“We are all Hezbollah now,” read posters carried through London this summer during an antiwar protest march. Earlier, London Mayor Ken Livingston, once known as “Red Ken,” invited a controversial Egyptian cleric to the British capital, arguing that his views have been distorted by the West.

You can only assume that such a “hard left” must have been based more on empiricism than historical materialism. In a few short years, the star of political Islam has lost a lot of its luster. When the U.S. in Iraq bought off the Sunni militias, the balloon deflated almost immediately.

There are obvious exceptions to this tendency, most pronounced in the online publication MRZine that effectively functions as editor Yoshie Furuhashi’s blog. Most recently she has chosen to post an article that claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is playing an “important role in this revolution.” While the author of the article describes himself as a leftist with not much in common with the brotherhood ideologically, such a statement in isolation from more critical analyses gives this religious-political sect respect it ill deserves.

Virtually every report on the brotherhood, except of course from screwballs like Glenn Beck who want to turn it into a handmaiden of global Marxism in order to frighten his viewers in East Jesus, Nebraska into joining the local tea party, describes it as irrelevant. An op-ed in today’s NY Times by anthropologist Scott Atran puts it pretty well:

…the Brotherhood did not arrive at this historical moment with the advantage of wide public favor. Such support as it does have among Egyptians — an often cited figure is 20 percent to 30 percent — is less a matter of true attachment than an accident of circumstance: the many decades of suppression of secular opposition groups that might have countered it. The British, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat all faced the same problem that Hisham Kaseem, a newspaper editor and human rights activist, described playing out under Mr. Mubarak. “If people met in a cafe and talked about things the regime didn’t like, he would just shut down the cafe and arrest us,” Mr. Kaseem said. “But you can’t close mosques, so the Brotherhood survived.”

If Egyptians are given political breathing space, Mr. Kaseem told me, the Brotherhood’s importance will rapidly fade. “In this uprising the Brotherhood is almost invisible,” Mr. Kaseem said, “but not in America and Europe, which fear them as the bogeyman.”

Was the State Department behind the movement to overthrow Mubarak?

I have enormous respect for William Blum, the author of two books on American foreign policy I consider essential, but I part ways with him in his anti-Empire piece on developments in Egypt. Blum writes:

In July of 1975 I went to Portugal because in April of the previous year a bloodless military coup had brought down the US-supported 48-year fascist regime of Portugal, the world’s only remaining colonial power. This was followed by a program centered on nationalization of major industries, workers control, a minimum wage, land reform, and other progressive measures. Military officers in a Western nation who spoke like socialists was science fiction to my American mind, but it had become a reality in Portugal…

Washington and multinational corporate officials who were on the board of directors of the planet were indeed concerned… In 1976 the “Socialist” Party (scarcely further left and no less anti-communist than the US Democratic Party) came to power, heavily financed by the CIA, the Agency also arranging for Western European social-democratic parties to help foot the bill. The Portuguese revolution was dead, stillborn.

The events in Egypt cannot help but remind me of Portugal. Here, there, and everywhere, now and before, the United States of America, as always, is petrified of anything genuinely progressive or socialist, or even too democratic, for that carries the danger of allowing god-knows what kind of non-America-believer taking office.

Ever since the Balkan Wars, many leftists have understandably fallen victim to a kind of mechanical anti-imperialism in which politics is reduced to looking for clues of American support for dissidents overseas. While there is no question that such a methodology works well for Yugoslavia, Lebanon, or Georgia, it cannot do proper justice to the movement against Ahmadinejad in Iran or against Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Imperialism, for its own reasons, will often place money on a horse. It will also place money on two different horses in the same race, in an effort to hedge its bets. Considering how Goldman-Sachs routinely doles out millions to Democrats and Republicans alike in the same presidential race, this should not come as any surprise.

If you are looking for “proof” that the U.S. is orchestrating events in Egypt to bring Mubarak down, one needs go no farther than an article in the dreadful Daily Beast, a repository of inside-the-beltway thinking second to none. There you will find an article by The State Department’s School for Revolutionary Bloggers by Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio who reports:

In December 2008, a prominent Egyptian opposition activist walked through the crowded airport in Cairo. When packing, he had been careful not to leave any evidence of where he was going among his belongings, and in the departure hall, he walked up to a security desk and told the guard to search him. “I am on your watch list,” he said. “So please get this over with so I don’t miss my plane.”

He didn’t.

Three days later, the Egyptian sat in a room on the campus of Columbia’s Law School in Upper Manhattan, listening to presentations from three key staffers from Barack Obama’s social media team: Joe Rospars, Scott Goodstein and Sam Graham-Felsen. Given that the three had just helped the first black man get elected U.S. president, there was a buzz in the air. After all, the three staffers represented the revolutionary potential of new social media tools, and, as Graham-Felsen puts it now, their speeches revolved around how to give “ordinary people the power to connect.”

In the last week, since the eruption of protests in Egypt and the release of more State Department cables by Wikileaks, much has been made of this 2008 meeting, and how it points to “America’s secret backing” of Egyptian “rebel leaders.”

While all sides involved have an interest in either downplaying or emphasizing the political significance of the summit, this was hardly a covert effort. For one thing, organizers openly advertised the summit’s program as well as its keynote speakers who, in addition to Obama’s young social media staff and an outgoing official from George W. Bush’s State Department, also included Whoopi Goldberg, the ABC morning show host—and an unlikely person to invite, if the organizers wanted to fly underneath the radar. (At the time, the conference organizers did protect the activist’s identity to guard against retribution from Egypt’s police state.)

Although the NGO that organized the summit—the Alliance for Youth Movements—did receive funding from the State Department, the event was squarely focused on the power of social media and other connective technology like SMS as an organizing tool—and carried no one particular political agenda, beyond “pushing against repression, oppression, and violent extremism,” according to Stephanie Rudat, a cofounder of AYM.

Now, one can only ask oneself what matters more in power politics. Training in social media or the billions of dollars in military aid that Egypt receives each year? I almost feel idiotic posing the question.

The least that can be said is that these Egyptian youth only met with people like Whoopi Goldberg. Thank goodness they didn’t meet with the CIA that William Blum frets so much about. They might turn out like this legendary tool of American foreign policy:

“I had most contact with what was the civil resistance movement,” Chapman says. “They formed a group to support the revolutionaries, and I had very good contact with them. And I occasionally had contact with the underground itself, the 26th of July Movement. It was great because there was action taking place at all times.”

Some writers have alleged that Chapman covertly aided Castro and his followers, even that he personally directed $50,000 in CIA funds to the rebel group.

Chapman vigorously denies such allegations, saying he was suspicious of Castro and dutifully reported that the Cuban had Communist connections. But Chapman says the CIA officer who immediately preceded him in Santiago, Bill Patterson, was indeed sympathetic to the revolutionary movement, and says he doesn’t rule out the possibility that Patterson may have given Castro’s movement some material support.

read full story

The crisis of leadership

Although I no longer consider myself a Trotskyist, events unfolding in Egypt strike me as close in spirit to those described by Leon Trotsky in “History of the Russian Revolution” despite all the obvious differences. This is a book that I read during the May-June events in France 1968. If you have never read Trotsky’s classic, this is a perfect time to do so since they will illuminate today’s events to an amazing degree, starting with this brief passage:

Throughout the entire day, crowds of people poured from one part of the city to another. They were persistently dispelled by the police, stopped and crowded back by cavalry detachments and occasionally by infantry. Along with shouts of “Down with the police!” was heard oftener and oftener a “Hurrah!” addressed to the Cossacks. That was significant. Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones, and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers. Around the barracks, sentinels, patrols and lines of soldiers stood groups of working men and women exchanging friendly words with the army men. This was a new stage, due to the growth of the strike and the personal meeting of the worker with the army. Such a stage is inevitable in every revolution. But it always seems new, and does in fact occur differently every time: those who have read and written about it do not recognise the thing when they see it.

As a leader of the Russian Revolution, he came away from it with a passionate conviction that a vanguard party was necessary. He understood that if the ruling class has the police, army, bureaucracy, and state apparatus in general at its disposal, the working class needs a centralized political instrument to counter the bosses. If the struggle is dispersed geographically, culturally and politically, it has little chance of succeeding.

What Trotsky did not grasp was the way in such a party is built. He assumed, as most Bolsheviks leaders did, that it was sufficient to adopt a kind of blueprint through the Comintern that could be applied on a worldwide basis. In the hands of Stalin, such a methodology became an instrument of bureaucratic and counter-revolutionary control. In the hands of the Trotskyists, it became a recipe for sectarian disaster.

In actuality, a revolutionary party can only be built out of a mass movement, such as the kind that has been developing in Egypt for some years apparently. It will be necessary for those who struggle on behalf of the working class and against the corrupt, neoliberal state to find a way to unite on the basis of a common denominator that puts extraneous doctrinal matters to the side. Indeed, this task might be the most necessary and demanding since the formation of the Bolshevik party itself.

February 3, 2011

Mubarak following Somoza’s path

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

NY Times February 3, 2011
Gangs Hunt Journalists and Rights Workers

CAIRO — Security forces and gangs chanting in favor of the Egyptian government hunted down journalists at their offices and in the hotels where many had taken refuge on Thursday in a widespread and overt campaign of intimidation aimed at suppressing reports from the capital.

By evening, it appeared that none of the major broadcasters were able to provide live footage of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of antigovernment protests. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya television networks said their journalists had been hounded from the street and from the vantage points above the square where cameras had been placed, and both CNN and BBC appeared to be relying only on taped footage of the square. Jon Williams of the BBC said via Twitter that Egyptian security had seized the news agency’s equipment from the Cairo Hilton “in an attempt to stop us broadcasting.”

The Egyptian state news agency had earlier asked foreign reporters and crews to move out of all the hotels near the square.

The Committee to Protect Journalists was investigating at least two dozen cases of reporters being detained. According to the group, the government told the journalists that they were not being arrested, but rather were being taken into “protective custody.”

Some journalists were attacked so viciously that they required hospitalization. The Fox News Channel said Thursday that two employees, correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Olaf Wiig, had been “severely beaten” on Wednesday. The two men spent a night in the hospital and were released Thursday, but had yet to appear on television.

A reporter for Al Arabiya was beaten by a group of pro-Mubarak demonstrators on Wednesday. His injuries were significant enough that he remains hospitalized, though his condition is not critical, Nakhle El Hage, director of news for the network said.

ABC News said that a group of “angry Egyptian men” carjacked one of its news crews and threatened to behead them.

Representatives of human rights groups were also targeted. Egyptian security police raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, detaining as many as 16 people, including some of the country’s most prominent human rights activists and several foreign researchers. Near Tahrir Square, a group of journalists were stopped in their car on Thursday by a gang of men with knives and turned over to military police, who held them briefly.

The Washington Post said its Cairo bureau chief and a photographer who had been detained were released by Thursday evening. But two other employees — a translator and a driver — remained in custody. Two reporters working for The New York Times were released on Thursday after being detained overnight in Cairo.


* * * *

The Washington Post June 21, 1979, Thursday, Final Edition
ABC-TV Newsman Killed by Nicaraguan Soldier;
By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post Foreign Service

MANAGUA, Nicaragua, June 20, 1979

ABC Television correspondent Bill Stewart, 37, was shot and killed today by a Nicaraguan National Guard soldier while attempting to film war destruction in a Managua neighborhood.

Stewart’s Nicaraguan interperter also was killed in the incident, filmed by eyewitnesses who described it as a deliberate shooting carried out after Stewart had been ordered to kneel.

[Dramatic films of the shooting, made by survivors among the ABC crew, were shown on U.S. television evening news programs.]

Tonight, President Anastasio Somoza offered his condolences and promised a “full investigation.”

The slaying came a day after government radio and a newspaper owned by Somoza attacked foreign reporters covering the civil war here, accusing them of communist sympathies.

[In Washington, President Carter said, “The murder of . . . Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn.” Secretary of State Cyrus Vance asked the U.S. Embassy in Managua and the Nicaraguan government for a full report on the shootings.]

Max Kelly, a personal secretary to Somoza who questioned the ABC crew after Stewart’s death, told them the shooting was the “action of an individual soldier,” ABC sound technician Jim Cefalo said.

Before Somoza’s statement, the Nicaraguan government radio said Stewart’s death was a result of sniper shots by Sandinista rebel guerrillas.

John Bargeron, a U.S. vice consul in Nicaragua charged with facilitating shipment of Stewart’s body to the United States, was heard telling the ABC crew that “this is a war of murder. It was a normal execution. Nicaraguans are killed like that everyday.”

According to Cefalo, who witnessed the shooting, the incident began when the ABC team, traveling in a clearly marked press van, approached a National Guard patrol in the eastern Managua neighborhood of El Riguero.

Stewart and his interpreter, Juan Espinosa, got out of the van and walked toward a soldier with their hands raised, carrying a white flag and government-issued press credentials, Cefalo said.

As the soldier approached them, his rifle raised, Stewart went down on his knees with hands up, Cefalo told reporters in an emotional, hastily called news conference.

“He stepped back and motioned . . . It looked like he told [Stewart] to put his hands behind his back. Bill started to comply, and the guard stepped back, put the rifle to [Stewart’s] head and shot once.”

A quiet man whom colleagues described as a “good reporter who was extremely cautious,” Stewart arrived here from his home in New York June 10. A veteran correspondent, married with no children, he covered the revolution in Iran and civil war in Lebanon.

Stewart’s death pointed up the growing antogonism between the beleaguered Nicaraguan government and army and the foreign press corps covering the civil war.

The government has repeatedly accused the foreign press, including reporters from the United States, Europe and other Latin American countries, of distorting the situation here in its description of strong public support for the anti-Somoza insurrection led by Sandinista National Liberation Front guerrillas.

Tuesday, the government radio network began broadcasting charges that foreign reporters were part of an “international Communist conspiracy” to topple Somoza and install a Marxist government. An article in the Somoza-owned newspaper Novedades Tuesday accused the international press of “criminal silence” about what it called Sandinista Communists.

None of the correspondents who have been coming to Nicaraguan in the past two years has ever told the truth,” the paper said, “either because they are paid by or are part of the vast net of Communist propaganda.”

In a meeting with reporters this evening, Somoza said, “I ask you as president of Nicaragua and as supreme commander of the armed forces to accept my most deep condolences” for what he termed an “unforgivable and isolated incident.”

“I ask you to understand that I really feel for the death of Bill Stewart,” Somoza said. “I never wanted it to happen in Nicaragua.”

Somoza said those held responsible would be punished under the “full weight of the law.” He asked ABC to provide a military court with a copy of film cameraman Jack Clark shot of the execution.

Representatives of all three American television networks said their crews would leave in the morning on an evacuation plane provided by the U.S. Air Force.

Ironically, a number of correspondents who also covered an outbreak of civil war here in September have noted a more cooperative attitude on the part of National Guard soldiers. In September, reporters who attempted to talk with Guards on patrol or at checkpoints were often pushed and shoved or threatened at gunpoint and ordered to leave.

Since large numbers of reporters began arriving here after the Sandinistas renewed their offensive three weeks ago, Guard soldiers have been noticeably more cordial and helpful.

Cefalo said that the El Riguero neighborhood, which the guerrillas apparently already had left, was quiet and gunfire could be heard only in the far distance.

“In the first area we came to,” Cefalo said, “the Guards were quite pleasant. They assisted us and at one point asked if we would take pictures of them showing how their morale was up. One of them had a guitar and they all sand and we shot it.”

“They told us they had another outpost several blocks away,” he said. As they approached this second group of soldiers at a deserted rebel barricade on a dirt road through the low income neighborhood, “Bill felt that rather than drive up to them and make them nervous, he would walk up with the interpreter and explain what we were doing.”

As the two got out of the van, Cefalo said, a Guard motioned for them to go back. “The interpreter told them we meant no harm and walked ahead.” Cefalo said he then looked up from his equipment “and saw Bill on his knees with his hands raised.”

He said Espinosa, the interpreter, was taken behind a nearby building and shot. Although the rest of the crew had remained in the van several yards from the two on foot and could not hear conversations that went on, Cefalo said he believed the soldier accused the interpreter of being a guerrilla.

A number of soldiers standing behind the one who shot did not interfere, Cefalo said, and “there seemed no great concern about it.” The other crew members were then instructed to come forward and show their credentials. They were told they could take Stewart’s body in the van and they left without further comment from the soldiers.

Back at the hotel, Stewart’s body lay in the back of the van, blood seeping out onto the pavement, while reporters gathered somberly. In the lobby, a large group of Nicaraguan government officials who have moved into the hotel for security stood with their families and bodyguards.

The two groups have tried to avoid each other over the past week as tension has grown in the city.

One Nicaraguan standing with the officials walked over to a group of correspondents and said angrily, “You people didn’t make this much of a fuss when Pedro Pablo Espinoza was killed.” Espinoza, a Novedades columnist, was reportedly executed by guerrillas last week inside a Managua barrio.

Stewart, who was based in New York, had been with ABC since 1976. While covering the Iranian revolution, he had an exclusive interview with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in which Khomeini defined his concept of the Islamic republic he is now forming.

Before joining ABC, Stewart worked as a reporter and commentator for television stations in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New York. He was a graduate of Ohio State University and earned a master’s degree at Columbia University.

January 31, 2011

Egyptian protestor speaks out

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Roots of the Egyptian revolutionary movement

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

January 30, 2011

Egyptian revolt

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 1:48 pm
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