Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 9, 2016

A return to the question of whether Russia is imperialist

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,mechanical anti-imperialism,Russia — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

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One of the main talking points of the pro-Kremlin left is that Russia is not imperialist. This goes hand in hand with an analysis claiming that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was purely defensive, a move against the genuine imperialists in Washington, London and elsewhere.

The last time I dealt with this question was in June 2014 when I replied to Roger Annis, a tireless defender of Kremlin foreign policy. Annis has once again made the same arguments on Links magazine in Australia in an article co-written by Renfrey Clarke who shares his orientation to Russia. Titled “Perpetrator or victim? Russia and contemporary imperialism”, it rehashes many of the same arguments that are supposedly based on Lenin’s “Imperialism, the final stage of Capitalism”.

As I indicated in a commentary on John Clegg’s article “Capitalism and Slavery”, I find social science definitions of terms like capitalism, socialism and imperialism problematic. To start with, they are describing economic systems that are global in character so when they are used to taxonomically describe a particular country, they are strained to the breaking point. When Trotsky took up the question of whether the USSR was socialist, he answered in terms that defied the formal logic of the social scientist: “To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible.”

When it comes to a term like imperialist as a category that applies to a particular country, there is little doubt that the USA, Great Britain, or Germany qualify. This is made clear in page after page of Lenin’s essay. But using the search tool available on the Marxist Internet Archives, you will find Lenin referring to “Russian imperialism” on many occasions:

Have the socialists of France and Belgium not shown the same kind of treachery? They are excellent at exposing German imperialism, but, unfortunately they are amazingly purblind with regard to British, French, and particularly the barbarous Russian imperialism. They fail to see the disgraceful fact that, for decades on end, the French bourgeoisie have been paying out thousands of millions for the hire of the Black-Hundred gangs of Russian tsarism, and that the latter has been crushing the non-Russian majority in our country, robbing Poland, oppressing the Great Russian workers and peasants, and so on.

The European War and International Socialism, 1914

The attitude of the Soviet Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic to the weak and hitherto oppressed nations is of very pradtical significance for the whole of Asia and for all the colonies of the world, for thousands and millions of people.

I earnestly urge you to devote the closest attention to this question, to exert every effort to set an effective example of comradely relations with the peoples of Turkestan, to demonstrate to them by your actions that we are sincere in our desire to wipe out all traces of Great-Russian imperialism and wage an implacable struggle against world imperialism, headed by British imperialism. You should show the greatest confidence in our Turkestan Commission and adhere strictly to its directives, which have been framed precisely in this spirit by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee.

To the Communists of Turkestan, 1919

You speak about the revolution in Russia, but, Citizens Chernov, Chkheidze, and Tsereteli [Menshevik politicians], you have all studied socialism, and you realise only too well that so jar your revolution has only put the capitalists in power. Is it not trebly insincere, when, in the name of the Russian revolution, which has given power to the Russian imperialist capitalists, you demand of us, Germans, a revolution against the German imperialist capitalists? Does It not look as if your “internationalism”, your “revolutionism” are for foreign consumption only; as if revolution against the capitalists is only for the Germans, while for the Russians (despite the seething revolution in Russia) it is agreement with the capitalists?

Chernov, Chkheidze, and Tsereteli have sunk completely to the level of defending Russian imperialism.

An Unfortunate Document, 1917

This is what crops up when you do a search on the exact term “Russian imperialism”. It is also worth examining “Imperialism, the final stage of Capitalism” to see if there are any references to Russia there. While Lenin takes care to single out British and German domination of the financial sector, even to the point of specifically pointing to Deutsche Bank’s penetration of Russian “holding companies”, he does not let Russia off the hook in chapter six titled “The Division of the world among the great powers”. In a chart titled COLONIAL POSSESSIONS OF THE GREAT POWERS, Russia is in second place behind Britain:

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He even makes comparisons between England and Russia in their pursuit of colonial exploitation:

The British capitalists are exerting every effort to develop cotton growing in their colony, Egypt (in 1904, out of 2,300,000 hectares of land under cultivation, 600,000, or more than one-fourth, were under cotton); the Russians are doing the same in their colony, Turkestan, because in this way they will be in a better position to defeat their foreign competitors, to monopolise the sources of raw materials and form a more economical and profitable textile trust in which all the processes of cotton production and manufacturing will be “combined” and concentrated in the hands of one set of owners.

It is of course of some interest that Lenin refers once again to Turkestan, one of those regions that were seized by Catherine the Great and that were victims of the Great Russian Chauvinism that Lenin fought from his sick bed until the day he died. Like Ukraine, these regions never felt like they were truly free in the USSR. It is most unfortunate that people like Annis and Clarke are essentially seeing things the same way that Stalin did in the 1920s even though they supposedly got their political training in the Trotskyist movement.

On a more fundamental level, I find the term “imperialist” as an adjective for a particular country problematic when it functions in the same way that the term mammal applies to a kind of animal or perennial to a type of flower. A bear is always going to be a mammal while a zinnia will never be a perennial. These are fixed categories. When it comes to social and economic entities, it becomes a lot more problematic. What criteria do we use? Lenin thought that the size of financial holdings was key. For Annis and Clarke, this means that Russia is not a player: “A mass of evidence shows that in terms of the financial instruments ‒ stocks, bonds, derivatives, bank deposits, money-market funds ‒in which wealth is mostly held within modern capitalism, the finance capital of present-day Russia is startlingly weak.”

Let’s look at fascist Italy for comparison’s sake. In the 1930s, the three largest banks had a capitalization of about 500 million lira each. Since one dollar was equal to 20 lira at the time, this meant that they were worth about $25 million each. On the other hand, the five largest banks in the USA were all worth over a billion dollars each in 1935 according to a January 21, 1936 NY Times article. So Italy was not even in their ballpark. Does that mean that Italy was not an imperialist nation?

In fact, it was the very weakness of Japan, Italy and Germany in 1939 that made them more aggressive. When you are top dog, you don’t go out and pick fights with those trying to overtake you as the alpha male after all. You don’t pay them any attention except when they looking to displace you. That’s when you defend your pack. That is why the “pacifist” and “democratic” nations like the USA and Britain could scold the aggressive fascists even though they were far more harmful to people living in vast empires covering the globe.

This brings us to Putin’s Russia. Perhaps finally recognizing that when the Kremlin sent its troops to Donetsk and Luhansk or its bombers to Syria might compromise them in the eyes of a few Marxist malcontents, Annis and Clarke try to excuse this bad behavior. Boys will be boys, after all.

Meanwhile, are Russian interests taken into account when the “rules of the game” of the capitalist world-system are determined? By no means. For years after the dissolving of the USSR, Russian elites held out hopes of joining NATO. Instead, NATO has been expanded to the point where Russia now faces a threatening arc of U.S.-aligned states, on or near its borders, from Turkey to Estonia. The clear goal of imperialist policy is to pressure and intimidate Russia, so as to deepen its peripheralisation and in the longer perspective, to force its break-up.

 In these circumstances, what can one say about the Western denunciations of “Russian imperialism”? Rarely have such fervent protestations been so wide of the mark, or backed by so little substance.

 Does all this matter? If a country uses its armed strength to meddle in affairs outside its borders, doesn’t that make it imperialist per se? The trouble with that line of reasoning is that it quickly leads to absurd conclusions. Countries of the periphery commit armed aggression against one another with horrible regularity. The Ogaden War of 1977-78 began when Somali forces invaded Ethiopia. Did that make Somalia an imperialist power?

This, of course, is what the article is really about, not trying to pin down the exact character of the Russian economy. It is really about what Clausewitz referred to as “warfare being a continuation of politics by other means”. Annis and Clarke essentially view Ukraine’s Euromaidan as an encroachment on legitimate Russian interests in the same way that JFK viewed Soviet missiles in Cuba. Just as was was the case with any former colonial nation seeking support from the Kremlin, Ukraine or any of the Eastern European “buffer states” naturally would have developed an orientation to any global power that could give them some leeway against the Kremlin. Those are the realities of global politics.

Finally, what I found most telling is the comparison with Somalia invading Ethiopia. I wonder if this was subconsciously an admission on the part of Annis and Clarke that they felt guilty serving as Putin’s attorneys. If you want to make comparisons, you start with the fact that Ethiopia—like Tsarist Russia in the 18th century—was a precapitalist empire. The Ethiopian emperors colonized the Oromos to the south and the Eritreans to the north. It also colonized the Ogaden region in between Ethiopia and Somalia that was home to people of Somalian ethnicity and who were practicing Muslims. In 1977, Somalia “invaded Ethiopia” only in the sense that it sought to reassert control over territory that had been seized by Menelik II in the 19th century just as he had conquered the Oromos and the Eritreans.

Very soon the conflict became enmeshed with the Cold War as the USSR gave its backing to the Ethiopian Dergue that supposedly was evolving in a “Marxist-Leninist” direction while Jimmy Carter threw his support behind the Somalians. If your tendency is to choose sides based on who the West was supporting, naturally you would back the Ethiopians even if the Dergue was rapidly transforming itself into a military dictatorship with scant regard for human rights or economic justice.

Interestingly enough, CounterPunch has been a mainstay of the rights of the Ogaden people largely through the various articles published over the years by Graham Peebles such as this:

The ONLF [Ogaden National Liberation Front] is cast as the enemy of the state, and regarded, as all dissenting troublesome groups are, as terrorists. They in fact won 60% of seats and were democratically elected to the regional parliament in the only inclusive open elections to be held, back in 1992. Civilians suspected, however vaguely of supporting the so-called ‘rebels’, are forcibly re-located from their homes. The evacuated villages and settlements, emptied at gunpoint HRW (CP) record, “become no-go areas” and in a further act of state criminality, “civilians who remain behind risk being shot on sight, tortured, or raped if spotted by soldiers”. Children, refugees report are hanged, villages and settlements razed to the ground and cattle stolen to feed soldiers: HRW record (CP), “water sources and wells have [also] been destroyed”. Systematic, strategic methods of violence and intimidation employed by the Ethiopian regime, that has, Genocide Watch (GW) state, “initiated a genocidal campaign against the Ogaden Somali population”.

It is regrettable, of course, that there are so few people writing about Ukraine for CounterPunch who have the political and moral clarity of Graham Peebles who can see through Cold War or New Cold War nostrums of the sort associated with Roger Annis. Neither the Ogaden people nor the Ukrainians are pawns in a chess game. They have a right to national independence and social justice whichever side gives them a momentary advantage in a struggle against the oppressor. If Lenin could come to Russia in a railway car provided by the Kaiser, why would we expect long-suffering colonized peoples to act any differently?

January 2, 2016

Greece as Rashomon

Filed under: Greece,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Like Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, the story of Syriza is also one about a rape told from different, self-serving and contradictory perspectives. For both the sectarian “Leninists” and the anarchists, Tsipras’s failure was ultimately a failure to smash the state and proceed rapidly toward the construction of communism. For post-Keynesians like Jamie Galbraith and Mark Weisbrot, there was a strong identification with Syriza’s general program and approach. When Tsipras finally signed an accord with the bankers that was even more austere than the demands put upon Greece in the beginnings of the negotiations, his supporters blamed the bankers rather then Tsipras for essentially taking the nation hostage. As for the capitalist ideologues at the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, you get more or less the inverse interpretation of the ultraleft. Where they would have seen a plus, the neoliberals instead saw a minus: Greece was a tragedy caused by Tsipras’s anticapitalist hubris.

Since the last version of what happened is so patently absurd, there is no point commenting on it. It is the clash between the first two that interests me especially since they both strike me as undertheorized. Probably the best presentation of the Marxist analysis can be found on Michael Roberts’s blog in an article titled “Greece: Keynes or Marx?” that was written before the infamous deal that amounted to a new round of debt and austerity. Referring to an interview that Sebastian Budgen conducted with Costas Lapavitsas, he finds fault with Lapavitsas’s confession that he remains committed to Keynesianism despite being a sharp critic of Alex Tsipras: “Let me come clean on this. Keynes and Keynesianism, unfortunately, remain the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists, for dealing with issues of policy in the here and now.”

Roberts concludes his article thusly: “The issue for Syriza and the Greek labour movement in June is not whether to break with the euro as such, but to break with capitalist policies and implement socialist measures to reverse austerity and launch a pan-European campaign for change.” I want to return to this question of implementing “socialist measures” later on but for now would dwell at length on a matter that came up in Roberts’s article that has preoccupied me for some time, namely whether repudiating the debt owed to Western banks would have broken the back of austerity, a view shared by Marxists and post-Keynesians alike.

In a way, the question of the Greek debt reminded me of the problems faced by an old friend who was forced to run up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt because illness prevented him from going back to work after he retired. Social security did not leave him enough to pay the rent and medical bills for Parkinson’s treatments, a disease that actually kept him unemployable. His strategy was to go to bankruptcy court and appeal to have the debts written off. This might have offered temporary relief but in the long run he would have run into another financial crunch. It would seem to me that Greece has the same sorts of problems with a chronically backward economy amounting to its Parkinson’s.

As an example of how debt relief can become a kind of panacea for the left, there is Eric Toussaint’s article in CounterPunch titled “Greece: an Alternative”. He writes that a “popular government” would do the following:

Suspend debt payment, organize an audit and radically reduce the debt and its repayment by an act of repudiation (which will necessarily be unilateral), adopt discriminatory measures to protect the people’s savings invested in debt.

This measure and others recommended in a laundry list of radical reforms would be the first stage in establishing 21st century socialism in Greece, one that was inspired by Venezuela’s demonstration that “it is entirely possible to resist the capitalist offensive.” Since his words come from a 2012 speech, we can certainly fault Toussaint for being a flawed seer but more egregiously for being unable to theorize Venezuela properly. It was not socialism that was being built but something owing more to John Kenneth Galbraith as Hugo Chavez would have been the first to admit.

As many of you know, Syriza’s economists were very interested in the Argentine solution to austerity that was facilitated by a kind of debt repudiation in 2001. This matter is taken up in Roberts’s article, where he quotes Lapavitsas on the supposed success of Argentine debt restructuring and peso devaluation: “I hasten to add that in the case of Argentina (though by no means would I suggest that Argentina is a shining beacon for the Left), it is much-maligned and much-misunderstood. What was obtained in that country after default and exit was vastly better than what held before and vastly better than what would have happened had the country continued along the same path, for working people.”

Roberts challenges this assumption:

The breathing space created for Argentina by breaking the dollar peg [an Argexit, in effect] does not seem to have restored the Argentine economy to stable growth. After a few years of a commodity-export led boom, the Argentine economy is back in crisis, despite Keynesian policies adopted by the government. There has been a 6% fall in per capita GDP since 2011.

There’s a lot more to be said about what happened in Argentina in 2001 especially if it is going to be used as a model for a Grexit and debt repudiation. Long before I began writing about Greece, I tried to analyze Argentina’s long-standing economic ills that like my old friend’s Parkinson’s is of a rather chronic nature going back to the British colonization of the 19th century.

To start with, it is important to note that although Argentina defaulted on bond payments in 2002, it eventually agreed upon a debt restructuring that was acceptable to the IMF and major banks in the USA and Europe. Despite a hefty “haircut”, most investors saw them as an opportunity to make a handsome profit especially since interest rates had plummeted to historic laws in “safer” bond markets.

In fact Wall Street banks made a killing in the bond restructuring deals. Goldman Sachs made millions of dollars in fees, as did other blue chip firms. Even if the working class suffered from the devaluation that went along with the 2001 Argexit, the bourgeoisie could toast itself with champagne over the profits that could be enjoyed.

Furthermore, at the very time the terms of the restructuring had been nailed down, Argentina’s economy began to improve dramatically. In September 2005, the nation enjoyed its 37th consecutive month of positive growth. What accounts for this? Notwithstanding the devaluation of the peso in 2001, agricultural exports remained pricey and a rising demand for soybeans and other essential crops lifted the economy. With a government committed to financial austerity, the balance sheets continued to tend more to the black.

Within four years, Argentina appeared to be on top of the world again as the FT reported on July 18, 2005:

The Argentine government this week made a triumphant return to the dollar-denominated debt market, only three and a half years after staging the largest default in world history and less than two months after restarting payments on its private debt.

In the first issue in foreign currency since the default at the end of 2001, investors, led by foreign investment banks, oversubscribed the $500m offer by more than three times. The government set a cut-off point of 7.99 per cent interest on the 2012 bonds, barely more than the price being paid by neighbours Brazil and Uruguay – neither of which have Argentina’s recent history of missed payments.

Argentina has managed to attract so much foreign interest that the treasury expects to make a similar issue in coming months.

All this was taking place when Nestor Kirchner was president. While nobody could possibly confuse this veteran Peronist as an advocate of 21st century socialism, he certainly was seen as part of Latin America’s Pink Tide, so much so that Mark Weisbrot could regard him as having “made an enormous contribution in helping to move Argentina and the region in a progressive direction” shortly after his death.

Like Venezuela, Argentina is no longer considered to be on the front lines of anti-imperialism. Falling commodity prices have made both nations vulnerable to external pressure from lending institutions.

But even if the consequences of debt repudiation were short-lived, why wouldn’t Greece consider similar measures if for no other reason that like my old friend going to bankruptcy court, it would at least spell some relief even if not permanent. Perhaps such a solution might seem worthwhile as long as you ignore the immediate consequences following the devaluation of the peso in 2001. In a 2002 article in the New Left Review titled “Racking Argentina”, David Rock described the calamity that befell the country:

Of Argentina’s population of 37 million, 52 per cent—some 19 million people—now fell below the official poverty line, while 20 per cent, 7.5 million, could no longer afford sufficient food. There were reports of children starving in the impoverished rural province of Tucumán. Unemployment soared to 23 per cent of the workforce, with a further 22 per cent ‘under-employed’—in part-time jobs and seeking further work. Public services disintegrated: hospitals could no longer treat the sick; schools closed, or gave up any attempt to teach. State pensions and public-sector workers’ salaries went unpaid. The construction industry came to a halt. Faced with declining revenues, the federal government had started to issue ‘Lecop’ bonds in lieu of wages. The provinces followed suit, led by Buenos Aires with its patacones, and by early 2002 there were some 4 billion pesos’ worth of local bonds in circulation.

Advocates of a Grexit refer to the short-term suffering that might accompany the devaluation that would attend adoption of a new currency but can they project a recovery based on an uptick in commodity exports? One Greek is skeptical. In a May 16, 2012 blog post titled “Weisbrot and Krugman are Wrong: Greece cannot pull off an Argentina”, Yanis Varoufakis wrote:

While it is quite true that Argentina’s export performance in 2001 was by no means better than Greece’s today, it is crucial to note that Argentina’s export potential in 2001 was vastly superior to that of Greece’s in 2012. By export potential I mean the degree of underutilisation of productive resources whose employment can, potentially, produce goods and services for which there is effective demand. In 2001, Argentina’s farms were woefully underproducing primary commodities that were, at that time, seeing their demand skyrocket. In sharp contrast, idle productive resources in Greece cannot produce much for which there is increasing demand.

Take for instance shipping and tourism, mentioned by Paul Krugman as two potential sources of Greek export growth: Both are in speedy decline! Additionally, whereas in the case of Argentina, its next door neighbour (Brazil) was entering a period of rapid growth, Greece’s neighbours are showing no such signs of vitality. Indeed, our traditional trading partners are also buffeted by recession (pushing down the demand for Greek tourism) while non-EU countries (such as Russia) cannot, and will not, make up the difference to any appreciable degree.

These are the hard facts that all leftists have to deal with, no matter what version of “Rashomon” they put forward. If Argentina was not a suitable model for Greece, could Cuba or the Soviet Union be to one’s liking? For the anarchists and Alex Callnicos, these would be just as unsuitable since nothing could come close to their communist ideal their imagination summoned up. Most Marxists are more inclined to accept the dialectical realities that Marx described in the Critique of the Gotha Program: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

If we are ready to accept a communist society stamped with such birthmarks, does that mean that a communist Greece would have met our expectations? For those of us who had a chance to see Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, we would have gladly accepted a new Greece, warts and all.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of obstacles in our way, starting most importantly with the consciousness of the Greek masses. No matter how desirous readers of the Marxist press were for the abolition of capitalism in Greece, there were worrisome signs that the average Greek was not up to our lofty standards. Leaving aside the polling results on leaving the Eurozone, there were indications that parties standing for communism were simply not that popular no matter how many general strikes or mass demonstrations had taken place on the streets of Athens. As a barometer of revolutionary fervor, votes for Antarsya and the KKE were minimal at best. This leads one to consider the possibility that our anger might be better directed at the taxi driver or barber shop owner who was foolish enough to vote for Tsipras than Tsipras himself.

If by some miracle, the KKE had been voted into office, what would be the outlook for a communist society plus warts (and under such a grotesquely Stalinist sect, they would be plentiful.)

This leads me to an article by William I. Robinson that appeared in Truthout today. I first came across Robinson’s writings in the late 1980s when he was reporting from Nicaragua with his writing partner Kent Norworthy in the Guardian newsweekly in the USA, a newspaper that is sorely missed. Robinson now teaches sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and is a specialist on globalization. His “Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity” is a good starting place for those trying to theorize the struggle against capitalism in a world in which capital has taken wings to fly around the world in a ceaseless quest for profits. Unlike the period that began in Marx’s age and came to a conclusion in the post-Bretton Woods period, today’s bourgeoisie could care less about the “health” of its body politic. If American bridges and railways are falling apart, why should it matter to a hedge fund manager? His only obligation is to his investors and himself.

Robinson’s article is a critique of Thomas Piketty, who is one of those thinkers that is for social justice while rejecting Marx, a problematic stance to say the least. He makes an essential point about the conditions we face today:

Transnationally oriented elites and capitalists captured governments around the world and used states to undertake sweeping restructuring and integration into a new globalized production and financial system. The “neoliberal counterrevolution” opened up vast new opportunities for accumulation. Free trade agreements and financial liberalization lifted state restrictions on cross-border trade and capital flows. Privatization turned over everything from public industries, to educational and health systems, mail service, highways and ports to transnational corporations and provided an investment bonanza to the transnational capitalist class as it concentrated wealth as never before. Labor market reform led to the erosion of regulated labor markets. As workers became “flexible,” they joined the ranks of a new global “precariat” of proletarians who labor under part-time, temporary, informalized, non-unionized, contract and other forms of precarious work.

For those of us trying to build revolutionary parties, it is essential to keep in mind the social and economic realities we face. In the 1970s the American Trotskyist movement made a fatal decision to base its strategies on the supposition that a repeat of the 1930s was in the offing. When reality interfered with that strategy, the party rejected reality and continued on its futile path until it lost 90 percent of its membership.

As opposed to the SWP leadership and virtually all the other sects, Lenin was a master of getting to the heart of underlying socio-economic dynamics. In the early 1900s leading up to the “What is to be Done” conference, he tried to explain that “Economism” was a reflection of the more primitive, handicrafts phase of Russian capitalism when shops were smaller and more isolated. He noticed the great concentration of large factories in major cosmopolitan centers and concluded that a more professional and more generalized approach was needed in line with the changed circumstances.

Economism belonged to Russia’s past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.

Isn’t it about time that Marxists began to explore the organizational forms and strategies that correspond to the world that William Robinson describes? If large-scale industrial plants (Fordism, in other words) are the forms appropriate to the party that Lenin built, should we not be thinking of post-Fordist methods of struggle that use the Internet in the same way that Lenin used Iskra? These are points I have been making for the past twenty years or so and please excuse me in advance for making them as long as I have breath to make them.

December 14, 2015

Radical takes on World War Two

Filed under: Fascism,imperialism/globalization,Syria,war — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

For baby boomers the decision to join a Trotskyist group in the 1960s entailed coming to terms with WWII especially if you were a Jew. Unlike the Maoists (the CP was generally not an option in those wild times), the Trotskyists viewed the war as a continuation of the inter-imperialist disaster of 1914. As someone who became persuaded by Trotsky’s ideas, putting the war into historical context was made easier by the analysis of Ernest Mandel, a Jew and a member of the Belgian resistance during WWII so committed to class politics that he distributed anti-fascist leaflets to German troops whom he regarded as “workers in uniform”.

His 1976 essay “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two” drew distinctions between the allies versus axis conflict and those that involved struggles for self-determination or the right of the USSR to defend itself from counter-revolution by any means necessary.

Ernest Mandel and the authors represented in Donny Gluckstein’s collection Fighting on All Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War are part of a broader current that rose to prominence during the 1960s out of their “revisionist” take on the supposedly Good War. This includes Howard Zinn, whose chapter on WWII in a People’s History of the United States is titled “A People’s War?” and a number of New Leftist historians like Gabriel Kolko and Gar Alperovitz. To a large extent, Lyndon Johnson’s simultaneous embrace of New Deal domestic policies and the genocidal war in Vietnam forced leftist historians to come to terms with FDR’s historical legacy. The war that many of our fathers fought in, including my own who received a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge, had to evaluated in the light of Marx’s “ruthless criticism of the existing order_, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

Donny Gluckstein is the son of Yigael Gluckstein, better known as Tony Cliff—the founder of the British SWP. He is a lecturer at Edinbergh College and a member of the SWP. He is also the author of A People’s History of the Second World War, a book that comes highly recommended based on the evidence of the new collection. I learned about Fighting on All Fronts from Tom O’Lincoln who contributed the article “Australia: A war of racism, imperialism and resistance”. I have known O’Lincoln for nearly twenty years as a cyber-comrade and have deep respect for his scholarship. He is a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, a group that shares the SWP’s general theoretical approach but that is not part of its worldwide tendency. With Tom’s recommendation, I looked forward to reading Fighting on All Fronts since WWII “revisionism” is very close to my heart. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed.

The book is divided into two parts: War in the West and War in the East. While every article is praiseworthy both in terms of the scholarship and the commitment to a class analysis so sorely missing nowadays, I would like to focus on one article from each part to serve as an introduction to a volume that excels from beginning to end.

Janey Stone’s “Jewish Resistance in Eastern Europe” is a stunning treatment of a topic that is of special interest to me as a Jew and a radical. Stone is a Jew whose mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust and who describes herself as an anti-Zionist. It delves into questions that go to the very heart of Jewish identity and survival. As she unravels the conflicting strands of Zionism, collaboration and working-class resistance, Stone tells a story that is simultaneously inspiring and dispiriting.

The brunt of her article is to challenge the idea that Jews went passively to their death in concentration camps, a view reinforced by both mainstream scholarship and popular culture, with “Schindler’s List” depicting Jews as lambs going to the slaughter and needing a Christian savior.

While nobody would apply the term savior to Jan Karski, a Pole and a Christian, his efforts on behalf of Jews would have made an interesting screenplay but arguably one that Hollywood would have dropped like a hot potato given its take on Roosevelt. Stone explains that after Karski prepared a report on the death camps in Eastern Europe that he discovered after penetrating the Warsaw Ghetto disguised as a Ukrainian soldier, he went to FDR to alert him to the impending human disaster. Karski was disappointed to discover that the president was more interested in the status of Polish horses than that of the nation’s Jews.

Ultimately it would be up to the Jews themselves to organize their defense with the Jewish Labor Bund providing most of the leadership. Stone describes the confrontation between Polish fascists who had been terrorizing Jewish shopkeepers and Jewish activists in 1938 that resulted in ambulances being summoned to carry off the battered thugs who had been lured into an ambush.

Stone tackles the stereotypical view of Poles as anti-Semites with copious evidence to the contrary, especially among the working class that was by and large committed to socialist politics. Furthermore, even in the peasantry, which was by no means as progressive as the workers, there was much more anti-Semitism among the wealthy farmers than those toward the bottom. When peasants organized a ten-day general strike in 1937, the Jews offered support. A Bundist youth leader reported: “During the strike you could see bearded Chassidim [religious Jews] on the picket lines along with peasants.”

Given the widespread attention to Hannah Arendt’s contention in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Judenrat (Jewish council) was complicit in the extermination of millions of Jews, Stone’s nuanced treatment of this question is essential reading. Citing Lenni Brenner, whose research into this period is essential, Stone points out that Zionists were selected by the Nazis to staff the Judenrat more than all other political groups combined. The remainder came from the traditional Jewish religious establishment.

Some Judenrat figures were barely distinguishable from the Nazis, including Mordechai Rumkowski from the Lodz Ghetto who ran it as a slave labor camp. However, in most cases the collaborationists simply failed to support the Bundist underground and opposed all forms of struggle.

Despite such treachery, struggles did break out. Bundists were on the front lines but so were Labor Zionists. The Zionist officialdom might have made common cause with the Nazis but the more radical youth groups such as Hashomer Hatzair were willing to fight. However, not every Jew was strong enough to engage in combat. For many, the determination to survive was paramount. Setting up soup kitchens or creating art to raise peoples’ spirits was their way of joining the resistance. Even humor was used as a weapon. A joke made the rounds in this bleak world: A Jewish teacher asks his pupil, “Tell me, Moshe, what would you like to be if you were Hitler’s son?” An orphan was the reply.

Although Jews were most often left to their own devices to fight against the Nazi genocide, there were allies. As stated above, the Poles often acted in solidarity despite the fact that they risked certain death if discovered. Stone singles out Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews that was founded in 1944.

Zegota’s headquarters was the home of a Polish Socialist (Eugenia Wasowska) who had worked closely with the Bund. The organisation held “office hours” twice each week at which time couriers went in and out. Despite the enormous number of people who knew its location, the headquarters were never raided by the Germans. One “branch office” was a fruit and vegetable kiosk operated by Ewa Brzuska, an old woman known to everybody as “Babcia” (Granny). Babcia hid papers and money under the sauerkraut and pickle barrels and always had sacks of potatoes ready to hide Jewish children.

The best known Zegota activist is Irene Sendler, head of the children’s division. A social worker and a socialist, she grew up with close links to the Jewish community and could speak Yiddish. Sendler had protested against anti-Semitism in the 1930s: she deliberately sat with Jews in segregated university lecture halls and nearly got expelled. Irene Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them with false documents and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the ghetto.

Turning to William Crane’s article “Burma: Through two imperialisms to independence”, we are reminded that for many people living in the British Empire, Japan could appear as the lesser evil especially in a place like Burma where George Orwell worked as a cop. In his essay “Shooting an Elephant”, he reflected on the surly natives.

In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

As was the case with India’s Congress Party, resistance to colonialism in Burma was fairly tame with native elites seeking an end to the sort of discrimination that was revealed in Orwell’s complaints. Its vanguard was the Young Man’s Buddhist Association that was founded in 1906 by a British-educated Burmese lawyer.

Eventually the movement grew more militant even if its leadership remained in the hands of the elites who referred to themselves as Thakins, the word for masters. In a new movement that emerged in the 1930s called We Burmans Association, the Thakins drew upon working class support to extract concessions from the British. Like many colonial elites living under British rule, the Burmese nationalists were seduced to some extent by fascist ideology. If “democracy” meant living under the British boot, it was no surprise that rival imperialisms might have a certain appeal.

But another rival to British capitalist democracy had even greater appeal, namely the USSR. In 1939 the first Communist cell was created in Burma under the leadership of an Indian named Narendra Dutt. Despite being a member of this cell, a man named Aung San decided in mid-1940 that an alliance with Japanese imperialism would be more useful for the cause of Burmese independence. He worked closely with Keiji Suzuki, a colonel in the Imperial army who had come to Burma disguised as a businessman and charged with the responsibility of lining up support from nationalists like Aung San, who was the father of Burma’s new president—a reformer who has shown little interest in attacking the deep state that has been in existence for many decades.

Along with other Thakins, Aun San constituted themselves as the Thirty Comrades who became the core of Burma’s wartime armed forces. They received training by the Japanese military in occupied China and began recruiting the men who would join with the Japanese in 1942 in a general assault on British rule. If your yardstick for judging political movements is based on how they lined up in WWII, you will certainly have condemned Aung San on an a priori basis. But as Trotsky pointed out in a 1938 essay titled “Learn to Think”, there are times when workers will find it advantageous to make temporary deals with fascist imperialism rather than its democratic rivals. The only caveat, of course, is that such deals are strictly pragmatic and strictly temporary.

Unfortunately in the case of Burma, the deal was more like a double-deal when the Japanese began their occupation. Aung San and his comrades had exchanged one colonial oppressor for another.

One of the most glaring examples of Japanese disregard for Burmese rights was the construction of a “Death Railway” that became the subject of Pierre Boulle’s novel “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the 1957 film directed by David Lean based on Boulle’s novel. You are probably aware that Alec Guinness played the British prisoner of war who in supervising the work crew made up of POW’s lost sight of its use to the Japanese war effort. He saw the bridge much more in terms of Britain’s “civilizing” role in places like India where railways and telegraphs supposedly outweighed colonial exploitation, even in the eyes of Karl Marx early in his career.

What the film leaves out was the costs of its construction on native lives. For that you need to read William Crane’s article:

The conditions for the native labourers in Burma were equivalent if not worse as they were unprotected by even the semblance of concern for the welfare of POWs. The railway upon its completion had consumed as many as 100,000 lives. But we need to draw no special conclusions about the Japanese psyche from the “Death Railway” or any of their other horrific crimes. For the Japanese were trying to catch up with the “civilised” empires of Britain and France, and in the course of this ended up competing with the death tolls they had accumulated over a much longer period of time during the few years of the war. The railway, like the Shoah in Eastern Europe, was the outcome of this process, the realisation of a dream that “projected Japanese dreams of industrial fortitude, economic robustness, and Asian domination”.

Like Donny Gluckstein’s collection, James Heartfield’s Unpatriotic History of World War Two belongs on the same bookshelf along with Zinn, Kolko and Alperovitz. Written in 2012, it is a close to a 500 page debunking of the Good War mythology that is filled with deep insights into how really bad it was. If the Gluckstein collection focuses more on the progressive movements that coincided with a savage bloodletting, Heartfield’s book concentrates much more on the latter. It would be difficult for anybody to read his book and be taken in by the Greatest Generation balderdash that continues to dominate the mainstream narratives of an inter-imperialist rivalry whose damage to humanity and nature alike remains unparalleled.

As many of you realize, I have been sharply critical of Spiked Online, a website that is the latest permutation of a one-time current on the British left known as the Revolutionary Communist Party that emerged as a split from the group that would become Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party. While I generally found the contrarianism of the RCP problematic, particularly around environmental issues, I must admit that any influence it had on James Heartfield’s willingness to spend years of research to write this book that sticks its finger in the eye of the Good War nonsense is to be commended. With so much of the left ready to see the Russian adventure in Syria as a repeat of the war of liberation led by the Red Army against Nazi barbarism, it is of considerable importance to have a book like the Unpatriotic History in our arsenal.

One of the prime dispensers of WWII patriotic gore is the website Socialist Unity that counts John Wight as one of its primary contributors. At one time I considered it a useful resource for regroupment efforts such as the one that took place when RESPECT was a major player on the British left. But when it became obvious that its more fundamental purpose was to breathe life into the Great War mythology and Labour Party reformism, I realized that one’s attitude toward Winston Churchill remained a litmus test for the left. When Socialist Unity began posting “greatest generation” type nonsense about Churchill, I tried to remind Wight et al that the famine in Bengal was really not that great. Suffice it to say that the take on the famine at Socialist Unity amounted to a kind of genocide denial.

The chief value of Heartfield’s book is its copious documentation on how people such as Roosevelt, Churchill, and even Stalin were no better than the Japanese and Germans around a number of questions, particularly their treatment of working people who were cannon fodder and virtual slaves in wartime production when the elementary right to strike was viewed as treasonous.

Chapter Six of Unpatriotic History is titled “Imperialist War” and makes for essential reading. Like every other chapter, it is filled with revealing data and quotations from the warmakers that hoists them on their own petard. Heartfield cites Leo Amery, The Secretary of State for India:

After all, smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world. It will be no consolation to suggest that Hitler should be replaced by Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek or even an American President if we cease to exercise our power and influence in the world.

While promoted as a benign free trade policy, Roosevelt’s Open Door Policy was a bid to replace Britain as the world’s number one empire as Leo Amery clearly understood. After signing the Atlantic Charter, FDR articulated the kind of paternalism usually associated with his fifth cousin Theodore:

there seems no reason why the principle of trusteeship in private affairs should not be extended to the international field. Trusteeship is based on the principle of unselfish service. For a time at least there are many minor children among the peoples of the world who need trustees in their relations with other nations and peoples.

But the grand prize for overall depravity goes to Winston Churchill based on this account that clearly would have offended his fans at Socialist Unity:

At a Cabinet meeting on 10 November 1943, Prime Minister Churchill said Indians had brought famine on themselves because they were ‘breeding like rabbits’ and so would have to pay the price of their own improvidence. Churchill’s prejudices were backed up by his chief scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, in a letter the following day: ‘This shortage of food is likely to be endemic in a country where the population is always increased until only bare subsistence is possible.’ Cherwell carried on to turn the truth on its head, moaning as if it was Britain that was subsidising India, not the other way around:

After the war India can spend her huge hoards of sterling on buying food and thus increase the population still more, but so long as the war lasts her high birth rate may impose a heavy strain on this country [i.e. Britain] which does not view with Asiatic detachment the pressure of a growing population on limited supplies of food.

Let me conclude with some parting thoughts on the spate of World War Two nostalgia that has followed in the wake of Russian entry into the war on the Syrian people. On September 28th, Vladimir Putin made a speech at the UN proposing a coalition against ISIS similar to the one that united the USA, Britain and the USSR in World War Two.

What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests rather than by ambitions. Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.

John Wight was obviously one person carried away by this rhetoric to the point of swooning. Showing that he would not be taken in by any weak-kneed aversion to the necessary tasks of a war on fascism, he informed his readers at Huffington Post and CounterPunch that firebombing Dresden and barrel-bombing open-air markets in Syria were not game-changers:

Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of war crime. However just as the war crime of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better.

This specious blast of hot air is so filled with bad faith and faulty logic that it would take a year to elaborate on all of its sinister implications. So let me take a minute to nail them down.

To begin with, the war between Germany and the USA was a war between empires. As Leo Amery stated above, “smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world.” The democracy enjoyed by Britain was made possible only by its super-exploitation of India, Kenya, Burmese, Egypt, China, et al. This was obvious to anyone who has read Lenin even if it was lost on an aspiring Colonel Blimp like John Wight.

But the most important insight that can be gleaned by Wight’s invocation of the Good War is its affinity with a figure whose ghost walks across the parapet of the Assadist left, namely Christopher Hitchens. His footprints can be seen in all of the Islamophobic articles that appear on a daily basis from people like Wight, Mike Whitney and Pepe Escobar who recently referred to the anti-Assad fighters as “mongrels”, the kind of epithet that usually rolls off the tongues of Israeli politicians.

In 2008 Hitchens wrote an article titled “WW2, a War Worth Fighting” that essentially sums up the outlook of laptop bombardiers like John Wight and everybody else extolling the air war on Syrian rebels from the safety of their offices in the USA or Great Britain–especially the last sentence that jibes with Wight’s ghoulish musings on Dresden.

Is there any one shared principle or assumption on which our political consensus rests, any value judgment on which we are all essentially agreed? Apart from abstractions such as a general belief in democracy, one would probably get the widest measure of agreement for the proposition that the second world war was a “good war” and one well worth fighting. And if we possess one indelible image of political immorality and cowardice, it is surely the dismal tap-tap-tap of Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella as he turned from signing the Czechs away to Adolf Hitler at Munich. He hoped by this humiliation to avert war, but he was fated to bring his countrymen war on top of humiliation. To the conventional wisdom add the titanic figure of Winston Churchill as the emblem of oratorical defiance and the Horatius who, until American power could be mobilized and deployed, alone barred the bridge to the forces of unalloyed evil. When those forces lay finally defeated, their ghastly handiwork was uncovered to a world that mistakenly thought it had already “supped full of horrors.” The stark evidence of the Final Solution has ever since been enough to dispel most doubts about, say, the wisdom or morality of carpet-bombing German cities.

September 29, 2015

Will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank be any different than the World Bank?

Filed under: Argentina,China,economics,imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

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The day before yesterday an article appeared on the Guardian website that had the aura of a Chinese government press release:

As world leaders met quietly behind the scenes, others lined up to express support for the new development push that aimed to eliminate both poverty and hunger over the next 15 years. They replace a soon-to-expire set of development goals whose limited success was largely due to China’s surge out of poverty over the past decade and a half.

China’s president vowed to help other countries make the same transformation. Xi said China would commit an initial $2bn to establish an assistance fund to meet the post-2015 goals in areas such as education, healthcare and economic development. He said China would seek to increase the fund to $12bn by 2030.

And Xi said China would write off intergovernmental interest-free loans owed to China by the least-developed, small island nations and most heavily debt-burdened countries due this year.

He said China “will continue to increase investment in the least developed countries,” and support global institutions, including the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that is due to launch by the end of the year and is seen as a Chinese alternative to the more western-oriented financial institutions of the World Bank.

After having read and reviewed Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia’s “BRICS: the anti-capitalist critique”, I am more skeptical than ever about Chinese altruism especially the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank referred to in the last paragraph above.

I was also puzzled by the provenance of the article since it was included with others in the category “Sustainable Global Development” that was support4ed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is described as follows:

This website is funded by support provided, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Content is editorially independent and its purpose is to focus on global development, with particular reference to the millennium development goals and their transition into the sustainable development goals from 2015.

All our journalism follows GNM’s published editorial code. The Guardian is committed to open journalism, recognising that the best understanding of the world is achieved when we collaborate, share knowledge, encourage debate, welcome challenge and harness the expertise of specialists and their communities.

I confess that I have as much confidence in this foundation’s commitment to sustainable development as I do in the Windows Operation System, especially for their promotion of the Green Revolution, an application of chemicals to food production that has led to all sorts of problems as I indicated here: https://louisproyect.org/2009/09/20/food-imperialism-norman-borlaug-and-the-green-revolution/

In an article for Huffington Post, Richard Javad Heydarian, the author of the forthcoming “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific State”, casts a skeptical gaze over the Chinese gifts to the developing world, reporting on the Philippines’s encounter with the China EximBank, an entity that the new bank will likely mimic:

Under the Arroyo administration (2001-2010), the Philippines’ National Broadband Network (NBN) signed a $329.5 million contract with China’s ZTE Corp. to upgrade its facilities and communications network. It also signed the $431 million Northrail infrastructure contract, which was awarded to China National Machinery and Industry Corp. (Sinomach) and largely financed by the China EximBank.

The NBN-ZTE venture, however, would be mired in a massive corruption scandal, after investigations revealed huge kickbacks, cost inflations, and irregularities in the contract. Failing to meet laws requiring competitive bidding, the Philippines’ Supreme Court, meanwhile, struck down the Northrail project.

The common perception in the Philippines is that the ZTE and Northrail contracts were some sort of bribe to pressure/persuade the Arroyo administration to compromise on South China Sea and sign up to the controversial and secretive Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) agreement in 2005, which was deemed unconstitutional and in violation of Philippine national patrimony and requirements for transparency and consultations with other branches of the government, particularly the legislature.

During his recent visit to Tokyo, Philippine President Beningo Aquino also complained about the alleged decision of the China EximBank to prematurely demand drawdowns from its Northrail project loan at the risk of default. In short, Aquino suggested that China wanted to punish his government for standing up to China by using its loan payment card.

In a CounterPunch article dated March 6, 2015, Ecuadorian journalist Raul Zibechi considered the possibility that Chinese investments in Latin America could have a different character than what the Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank offered. Initially China was focused on mineral extraction and agricultural commodities such as soybeans but in the more recent period, it has invested in areas that depart from the traditional colonizing relationship between the core and the periphery. They include arms manufacturing in Latin America, which offers the possibility of ancillary benefits to the non-military sector just as was the case with radar after WWII, and infrastructure. He points to the construction of two hydroelectric dams in the Santa Cruz province. One is named the Kirchner after the late President and the other is called the Cepernic after the late governor of the province. Another ostensibly worthwhile project is the upgrade of railway equipment, including cars to renovate dilapidated trains. So how can you be like the old-time Anglo-American imperialists when you are building dams and modernizing the railway system in Argentina? How dare you stand in the way of progress?

If the goal is “sustainable development”, it is doubtful that there is much difference between the World Bank when it comes to hydroelectric dams. The Dialogo Chino website that is dedicated to tracking the impact of Chinese investment in Latin America referred to these dams as “mired in environmental conflict” in a February 13, 2015 article.

Experts claim the maximum level of the Kirchner dam, at the same average level of the Argentino Lake, is unsuitable, increasing the level of the lake and causing tides that will erode the front of the Perito Moreno glacier and stop the traditional blocks of ice breaking off, a phenomenon that attracts thousands of tourists.

The controversy is not without precedent. Across the border in Chile, also in Patagonia, the HidroAysén project would have resulted in the construction of five hydroelectric power plants, two on the River Baker and three on the River Pascua. However, fierce criticism from environmental groups and indigenous communities resulted in a council of ministers rejecting the project last year.

“The dam will be fed from the lake, whose level will rise and fall to meet Buenos Aires’ energy requirements and consumption. The glacier will not be immune to variations and their erosive effects,” argues Gerardo Bartolomé, the engineer at the head of an online petition aiming to ensure the correct environmental studies are carried out for the dams.

Similarly, Juan Pablo Milana, a glaciologist and researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), believes the dams will cause irreversible damage to the Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers.

“The glaciers are already subject to the forces of nature and introducing further changes is complicated. Increasing the level of the Argentino Lake will create a flotation effect. Lower water pressure at the base of the glacier will not only cause detachment of ice but will also change the way it breaks off,” explains Milana.

It seems that the Chinese engineers overseeing the project worked on the Three Gorges Dam so you can get an idea of how much thought has gone into the environmental impact in Argentina.

Finally on the question of Argentina’s rail system. Pardon me for sounding like an unrepentant Marxist but when I hear about improvements to a transportation system that is primarily intended to haul commodities from the interior of a country to its seaports, I reach for my revolver.

This is an article I wrote on the construction of railroads in Argentina in the 19th century as part of a series on the financial crisis in the country back in 2002. Somehow I doubt that China’s intentions are any nobler than Great Britain’s.

The Collapse of Argentina, part one: Railway Imperialism

As the Argentine economic collapse began to deepen, I decided to search for radical or Marxist literature on the country written in English to help me understand the situation better. This proved futile (although I continue to be open to recommendations). Nestor Gorojovsky, an Argentine revolutionary who I have been in touch with on the Internet or by phone for at least five years now, could recommend nothing. (His own efforts at a Marxist overview of Argentine history can be found at: http://www.marxmail.org/archives/january99/argentina.htm.) Not even after posting an inquiry to the H-LatinAmerica list, whose subscribers are exclusively academic specialists, were any recommendations forthcoming.

Taking the bull by the horns, I plan now to fill this gap beginning now with a series of posts based on scholarly material from Columbia University’s library. Although I do plan to review literature on Argentina written in Spanish, most of the source material for my posts will be in English, a language that I am more comfortable with when it comes to higher-level analysis.

My own involvement with Argentina dates back to the mid 1970s when I was drawn into a faction fight within the world Trotskyist movement over political perspectives in Argentina. The two main antagonists in the debate were the late Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard at Coyoacan and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, and the late Ernest Mandel, the renowned Belgian economist who was on the executive committee of the International Secretariat. The Americans and their mostly English-speaking followers (I use the word advisedly) backed a Trotskyist group in Argentina that appeared to be implementing their own orthodox approach.

Led by the late Nahuel Moreno, this group participated in trade union struggles, the student movement and opposed the ultraleftist guerrilla formations that were kidnapping North American executives or hijacking trucks in order to dispense meat and other goods in poor neighborhoods like Marxist Robin Hoods. It was one of these groups that the Mandel faction backed. Although they paid lip service to Trotsky, these Argentine guerrillas organized as the PRT/Combatiente were more interested in applying Regis Debray’s foquismo theory to the urban sector.

My role in all this was to battle the Mandel supporters in Houston, Texas who held a near majority in the branch and whose affinity for guerrilla warfare was open to question. Most were disaffected from the SWP leadership, whose alleged “petty-bourgeois” orientation to the student movement was supposedly leading the party to ruin. A couple of years later, the SWP leadership would go completely overboard in a kind of ‘workerist’ orientation to the trade unions, thus robbing the dissidents of their raison d’etre. By the time this turn had taken place, the SWP and the Fourth International had parted ways. As a local leader of the anti-Mandel faction, I had the opportunity to spend long hours in discussion with Argentine co-thinkers who visited Houston to give reports for our faction. Security was extremely tight in those days and I had to check my 1968 Dodge Dart for bombs before driving any of them to a public engagement.

During that intense struggle, I gained a deep appreciation for the Argentine people, their culture and their revolutionary will. Although I grieve to see their personal suffering today, I am inspired to see them acting collectively for a better country and world. One hopes that their heroic example can begin to erode the “TINA” mood that has affected wide sections of the left since 1990.

In this first post, I want to address the question of Argentina’s “golden age”, a notion that you can find in many left publications or on the Internet. In this version of Argentine history, the country is seen as an exception to the rest of Latin America where conventional notions of “imperialism” and “dependency” might not apply.

For example, British state capitalist theoretician Chris Harman writes:

Argentina is an industrial country, with a higher proportion of its workforce in industry than in Britain. It’s also a country where working people have, within living memory, experienced living standards close to west European levels. It was known as the ‘granary of the world’ at the beginning of the 20th century, with an economy very much like that of Australia, New Zealand or Canada, centred the massive production of foodstuffs on giant capitalist farms for the world market. Relatively high wages made it a magnet for millions of immigrants from Italy and Spain who brought traditions of industrial militancy with them.

Brad DeLong, an economist who held a post in the Clinton administration and who is a ubiquitous figure on leftwing electronic mailing lists, wrote the following on Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L):

As I said quite a while ago, Argentina was a first world country–like Canada, Australia, or New Zealand–up until the 1950s. Arguments that development possibilities were constrained by relative backwardness may work elsewhere: they don’t make *any* sense for Argentina.

If views like these are meant to support a kind of Argentine exception to the Leninist concept of imperialism or its subsequent elaborations such as the Baran-Sweezy theory of monopoly capitalism, they are mistaken. They would fail to see Argentina’s role in the world capitalist system, which–despite favorable moments–has been that of victim of imperialism. Comparisons with the USA, Canada, etc. are specious, even if in a given year income or other statistics were comparable. The *structural* questions are far more important for understanding Argentina. Despite the presence of European immigrants, industrialization, national independence, the lack of feudal-like latifundias, etc., Argentina had much more in common with direct colonies in the 19th century like India.

Specifically, one of the main factors that led to Argentine dependency was its reliance on British capital and expertise for the construction of railways in the 19th century. Just as was the case in India, these steam-driven showplaces of modernization did nothing but drain the country of capital and force it into a secondary role in the world economy.

If one is a Marx “literalist,” there can obviously be a lot of confusion about the introduction of railways into Argentina or India, especially when Marx wrote:

I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expense the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But when you have once introduced machinery into locomotion of a country, which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railways system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.” (“The Future Results of British Rule in India,” NY Daily Tribune, Aug. 8, 1853)

In contrast to these early hopeful writings, before Marxism had developed an understanding of the negative role of imperialism, the historical record demonstrates that foreign owned railways did not lead dependent countries to become anything like the those of the investors, engineers and builders from the core. Rather than serving as a catalyst for Argentine industry, they did nothing except enrich British finance capital, the nefarious Barings Bank in particular. For a scholarly treatment of this subject, we can turn to Alejandro Bendaña’s 1979 PhD dissertation “British Capital and Argentine Dependence 1816-1914”. (Bendaña was a senior level Sandinista official who served as ‘responsable’ with Tecnica, the volunteer organization I was involved with in the 1980s. He continues to participate in the radical movement, nowadays with the Center for International Studies in Managua and the Jubilee Campaign against 3rd world debt.)

The most important sector of the Argentine ruling class in the 19th century was the ‘estancieros’, or ranchers. From 1820 onwards, they began to develop an alliance with British capital, which was seen as strategic for the goal of exploiting the country’s land-based riches. Arising from within its ranks, Juan Manuel de Rosas emerged as the primary spokesman for this class. British merchants played an important role in guaranteeing the Argentine rancher access to world markets. Smiling benignly on this interdependence, the British consul wrote:

the manufactures of Great Britain are becoming articles of prime necessity. The gaucho is everywhere clothed in them. Take his whole equipment – examine everything about him – and what is there not of raw hide that is not British? If his wife has a gown, ten to one that it is made at Manchester; the camp-kettle in which he cooks his food, the earthenware he eats from, the knife, his poncho, spurs, bit, all are imported from England. . . Who enables him to purchase these articles? Who buys his master’s hides, and enables that master to employ and pay him? Who but the foreign trader. Stop the trade with foreign nations, and how long would it be before the gaucho would be reduced to the state of the Indian of the Pampas, fed on his beef and horse-flesh, and clothed in the skins of wild beasts? (Bendaña, p. 34)

However, one important piece was missing from this jigsaw puzzle. Unless a modern railway system was introduced into the country, Argentine goods would be not as competitive with those of countries which could deliver beef, hides, and etc. to seaports in a much shorter time over rail rather than horse-back. Furthermore, unless workers and managers could make reasonably quick trips over rail between cities and rural points of production, the entire system would lack the kind of internal cohesion that other capitalist countries enjoyed. From the standpoint of classical economics, one would think that it would be to the mutual benefit of English and Argentine capitalist classes to develop a kind of partnership. Instead, what transpired has much more in common with the con games of the 1990s in which Wall Street banks got rich at the expense of the Argentine people. Except, in the 19th century, it was Barings Bank rather than Goldman-Sachs that was doing the robbing.

To look after its interests in this vastly ambitious railroad-building enterprise, the Argentine government named North American William Wheelwright as its agent. They were overly optimistic. After making the rounds in British banking houses, Wheelwright said in 1863 that a deal could be done only on the following basis:

–The land grant must be doubled (land adjacent to the tracks given free to the railroad company.)

–45 percent of the railroad revenue would be counted as working expenses.

–The profit ceiling would be raised to 15 percent, more than triple the norm.

–Most importantly, the expropriation clause would be eliminated.

Although the Argentine ruling class and its British partners were committed to liberalism in the economic sphere (the model for 1980s-90s neoliberalism), this loan-sharking deal had nothing to do with free market principles. Such concessions could only reflect the internal weaknesses of a bourgeoisie that relied on cattle ranching, as opposed to the British ruling class that had accumulated vast amounts of capital through manufacturing, and then finance.

When the shares for Central Rail, the new British-owned railroad, sold sluggishly, the bankers demanded further concessions. No longer would working expenses be limited to 45 percent, they would be *whatever the company accountants said they were*. So, not only do you get concessions forced down the throat of the Argentine government, you get an 1860s version of the kind of accounting that Arthur Anderson did on behalf of the Enron crooks.

To make sure that all the Central shares got sold, the British investors demanded that the Argentine government buy 2000 shares, which is a little bit like asking someone being hijacked to drive the truck. An Argentine Minister glumly commented:

We are faced with having to lower our heads for all these demands and any other ones that may be put before us given our nation’s need for the railway’s benefits and our own incapacity to secure these by any other means. (Bendaña, p. 93)

Finally, in the May of 1870, 17 years after the original conception and 7 years after work began, the first locomotive arrived in Córdoba. Over the course of the 1870s, the Argentine state provided nearly 40 percent of the guaranteed profits for the new railroad. In a nutshell, the wealth of the country was being drained to make sure that British investors enjoyed super-profits. Furthermore, the British enterprise was tax-exempt. This turned out to be a bonanza for the Central Argentine Land Company that came into existence in 1871. Unlike the railroad, commercial exploitation within land claim areas were far less risky and had no particular claim to the kind of tax-exempt status enjoyed by large-scale capital projects. Once again, the weak Argentine bourgeoisie had been given an offer that it couldn’t refuse.

With British technological superiority, one might at least hope that the new railway would provide adequate service. As it turned out, the Argentine people had ended up with a Yugo rather than a Rolls-Royce. Public complaints about service and rates grew legion.

Central was just the first in a series of white elephants. Next came the Northern, the Eastern, and the Great Western Railways, all financed by the British and all imposing larcenous penalties on the people of Argentina. A government audit revealed that the East Argentine railroad was marked by an excess of employees (exclusively English at high salaries), overly generous salaries for company directors, inadequate rolling stock, dubious accounting procedures, and bloated operating costs.

When such exploitation operates in open view, one might ask why the Argentine capitalists did not rebel. After all, if one is committed to national development, then one must allow oneself the ultimate weapon against foreign exploiters: expropriation. Unfortunately, except for the urban middle-class, such calls were not made. As is the case today, the dominant fraction of the national bourgeoisie lost its nerve. And like today, the ideological excuse for inaction was a commitment to the “free market.” The estancieros regarded their own economic well-being as synonymous with the extension of railway lines made possible by foreign investment.

When the harsh reality of British theft collided with the delusional schemas of the local bourgeoisie, voices of dissent began to be heard in parliament. Why couldn’t the nation redeem itself through seizure of properties that were based on criminality to begin with? Even the conservative “La Nación” asked in 1872:

Can and should the state build all railways itself and expropriate existing ones? We do not believe that the benefits of state railways should necessarily carry us to the latter consequence . . . Although the country cannot afford expropriation now or for many years to come, there may come a day when revenue and necessity may, possessed of means and facing a need for new lines, expropriation might become convenient. (Bendaña, p. 152)

Skilled as they were in keeping the natives at bay, the British turned to one defense after another. They bribed ministers, congressmen and railroad bureau officials to vote against nationalist legislation or to look the other way when laws were being broken. When this proved insufficient, the British were not above gunboat diplomacy. In late 1875, the British bank in Rosario suddenly demanded immediate repayment of railroad notes as part of a maneuver to destroy local financial competitors. When the nationalist-minded local governor in Santa Fe sided with his countrymen, the British sent their navy to blockade the city. Buenos Aires caved in to the show of force and the British won their demands without a shot being fired. Bendaña cites H. S. Ferns’s “Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century”:

“prosperity had created a nation of boosters, and the porteños (Buenos Aires elites) looked at the Governor of Santa Fe as Pierpont Morgan might have regarded William Jennings Bryan.” (p. 258)

By 1913, Great Britain owned 95.8 percent of all private railways in Argentina. That amounted to 60.2 percent of total British investment in the country. The economic consequences on the nation were enormous. Arturo Castaño, a legislative deputy and rail expert, warned:

“the more the railways extend themselves, the greater will be the economic disruptions, and the greater will be the migration to the cities from the provinces. A third of our national production is absorbed by the railways, without the Executive being able to intervene in rate-making due to an administrative system which favors the companies.”

Indeed, when foreign capitalists absorb a THIRD of national production, the question of imperialism has to be addressed.

The railway era lasted about a century. The first 3 decades, from 1830 to 1860, were a time of rapid expansion in the imperial centers. The spread of railways into Asia, Africa and Latin America did not produce concomitant benefits. Although Cecil Rhodes characterized railroads as “philanthropy plus 5 percent,” the profits were always far higher and the progress realized in countries such as Argentina was far less than advertised.

In my next post, I will take up the question of Juan Perón and his legacy.

September 18, 2015

BRICS: the anti-capitalist critique

Filed under: Counterpunch,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Thick as BRICS: an Illusory Alternative to Neoliberalism

Author of Revitalizing Marxist Theory for Today’s Capitalism and other books written in defense of classical Marxism, University of Manitoba professor Radhika Desai probably spoke for the majority of the left when she wrote a Guardian op-ed piece titled “The Brics are building a challenge to western economic supremacy”. Key to this challenge was the creation of a Development Bank that can serve as an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank. As she put it:

The Brics countries do have a mortar that binds them: their common experience, and rejection, of the neoliberal development model of the past several decades and the western-dominated IMF and the World Bank that still advocate it. Their rapid development over the previous couple of decades was despite, not because of, this. Countries whose governments were able and willing to resist this model developed faster.

At the heart of her analysis is the notion of “development”, a term somewhat distinct from the socialist aspirations of earlier generations but one clearly in sync with a chastened left that while not quite agreeing with Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, does see some good in putting people to work on state-sponsored projects that generate tax revenues and raise the standard of living. If it isn’t socialism, at least it is some kind of New Deal. If a capitalism based on “neoliberalism” is to be avoided at all costs, why not opt for a more progressive and humane capitalism that is the “lesser evil”? If this sounds like the argument that some activists make for voting for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders, you may be on to something.

At least some people resting on the foundations of Marxism disagree with Desai. In a newly published collection of articles by Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia titled BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, you can find powerful arguments making the case that this supposed alternative to neoliberalism is no alternative at all. Whatever your stance on this debate, you would be well served by reading this book since it will enable you to make an informed political decision. It should be added that Pluto Press has published both Radhika Desai and this new book so they deserve kudos for helping the left keep abreast of important theoretical challenges.

Read full article

August 23, 2015

“Anti-imperialist” schemas versus BRICS reality

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization,mechanical anti-imperialism — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

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Mike Whitney: The dollar is toast. The IMF is toast. The US debt market (US Treasuries) is toast.  The institutions that support US power are crumbling before our very eyes. The BRICS have had enough; enough war, enough Wall Street, enough meddling and hypocrisy and austerity and lecturing. This is farewell.

UJUH: South Africa is pushing two high profile candidates into the top leadership layer of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB).

These two are Tito Mboweni who has been appointed as the Non-Executive Director to the Board of the BRICS New Development Bank and Lesley Maasdorp who has been nominated to become one of four Vice Presidents of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB).

When the World Economic Forum named Maasdorp as a Young Global Leader in 2007, he was already a matured leader. This is after serving the ANC’s economic desk in the pre 1994 era and then graduating into public service. He served as a special advisor to the minister of labour, Tito Mboweni. He then moved to become deputy director in the department of public enterprises where he oversaw major state assets restructuring and privatisation of the time. Maasdorp broke into the top business league in the mid 2000s with positions at different intervals that included; President of Bank of America Merrill Lynch for Southern Africa, Vice Chairman of Barclays Capital and Absa Capital and International Adviser to Goldman Sachs.

Andre Vltchek: “Among the BRICS, there is no place for countries that are siding with the colonialist powers, as there is no place for those nations that are tormenting and sacrificing their own people. For now it is still just an acronym of the countries, its members. But soon, who knows, it may be interpreted as the Broad Revolutionary Internationalist Causeway towards Socialism.”

RT.com: While investors drop Greece like a hot potato Russian and Chinese companies plan to take part in the privatization of Greek state assets, considering them a good investment.

Russia’s leading gas producer Gazprom is considering taking part in the privatization of the Greek gas company DEPA and grid operator DESFA. The Greek Government is currently inviting bids for DEPA, but it plans to keep 34% of DESFA, Reuter reports.

Experts estimate a controlling stake in DEPA would cost about $1.5 billion.

In June 2014, I wrote a commentary on the question of Russian imperialism, making the case that even if it didn’t meet the yardstick established by Lenin in 1914, it was still imperialist in the same sense that Japan was in the 1930s or for that matter Czarist Russia, which colonized nations on its borders. On the other side of the debate, Roger Annis maintained that there are no significant Russian or Chinese banks so how can they be imperialist?

That may be the case but the New Development Bank is projected to be a competitor to the World Bank and a major financier of 3rd world development projects that would supposedly put the interests of the people over profits. Somehow this does not seem to square with Marx’s theory of capitalism but that would not seem to deter people like Mike Whitney and especially Andre Vltchek who views China as following its own rules and not that of a Westerner like Karl Marx: “Only the Western thinkers can define such things as ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’, not Asians, and ‘Chinese socialism’ means nothing to them; it is just a pose, a charade.”

For many BRICS has a totemic quality, as if there could be such a thing as “good capitalism” as opposed to the demonic, mustache-twirling variety found on Wall Street or London’s financial district. I was reminded of that just today when Ron Jacobs forwarded an interview with Thomas Mountain to Marxmail. Mountain turns out to be a former member of Robert Avakian’s cult who retains a soft spot in his heart for China as if the old-time spirit of Maoism lingered on:

Chinese aid has built more schools, hospitals, water and electric infrastructure than all the western governments and the UN combined, and is set to do much more if the present programs that have been announced are implemented. China recognizes that Africa needs educated and skilled personnel to help develop African resources and it is in China’s interest to help make this happen. Again, doing this is a long term investment that will pay off for China, both in good will and in their companies’ bottom lines.

So maybe colonialism is not such a bad thing as long as it has Chinese characteristics? Well, maybe Mountain had the early writings of Karl Marx in mind who thought that the British colonization of India had some benefits: “The political unity of India, more consolidated, and extending farther than it ever did under the Great Moguls, was the first condition of its regeneration. That unity, imposed by the British sword, will now be strengthened and perpetuated by the electric telegraph.” (Of course, years later Marx explicitly renounced these views and equated British rule to grand larceny.)

Is this far-fetched? Comparing China to Victorian England? Not if you read what Nick Turse has to say about the Chinese presence in newly independent South Sudan:

Hungry for energy reserves, minerals, and other raw materials to fuel its domestic growth, China’s Export-Import Bank and other state-controlled entities regularly offer financing for railroads, highways, and other major infrastructure projects, often tied to the use of Chinese companies and workers. In exchange, China expects long-term supplies of needed natural resources. Such relationships have exploded in the new century with its African trade jumping from $10 billion to an estimated $200 billion, which far exceeds that of the United States or any European country. It has now been Africa’s largest trading partner for the last five years and boasts of having struck $400 billion worth of deals in African construction projects which have already yielded almost 1,400 miles of railroad track and nearly 2,200 miles of highways.

A civil war in South Sudan has recently imperiled China’s interests. It was forced to withdraw 300 oil workers when forces hostile to the government threatened them. As an indication of the UN’s willingness to come to the aid of stability whenever the natives get too restless, just as was the case in the Congo in Lumumba’s time, the Blue Helmets are there to “keep the peace”. It is of some significance that China has sent detachments of the PLA to help them out.

For those who like their politics kept simple if not stupid, the whole idea of the BRICS is to counter the power of Wall Street. That being the case, can I make a pitch for being able to handle complexity? Like understanding that Lloyd Blankfein is just fine with BRICS (obviously the two honchos from South Africa with ties to Goldman joining the new BRICS bank serving as all the evidence you should need). Turns out the scumbag-in-chief of Goldman-Sachs went over to China to give his blessing to the New Development Bank at Tsinghua University. You can watch him chatting it up with the dean of the business school here, a chap named Qian Yingyi:

Qian doesn’t seem to understand that the BRICS countries are on a collision course with Western financial interests, at least based on the evidence of the men he has appointed to the business school’s advisory board: Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook, Citigroup Inc.’s Michael Corbat, Blackstone Group’s Steve Schwarzman, Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein and Carlyle Group’s co-founder David Rubenstein.

So the obvious question is whether this business about rival hegemonic blocs, with the West being Evil and the BRICS being Good, makes any sense with Goldman-Sachs’s bromance with someone like Qian Yingyi. Of course, we should never forget that it was a Goldman-Sachs big-shot who first got gung-ho on this development, even coining the term BRIC (before South Africa was added.) Jim O’Neill wrote “Building Better Global Economic BRICs” in 2001. It is mostly a call for figuring out how to make money in emerging markets and contains none of the hysterical warnings about how Wall Street is threatened by a new white-horse riding hegemon.

One of the interesting theoretical questions that arises out of all this is whether the old understanding of imperialist rivalry based on 1914 and 1940 make much sense in understanding today’s world. I would offer this as a potential research topic. WWI and WWII were ignited by rival nationalist agendas in line with defending capitalist industry. Protectionism via tariffs was the name of the game.

But over the past 30 years or so, capital is much less interested in building walls around local industry, as the hollowed out shells of Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh would indicate.

In a brief chat with Patrick Bond at the Rosa Luxemburg conference in NYC this weekend, I raised the question of whether Lenin’s much-heralded book on imperialism is that useful in understanding today’s world. He suggested that Rosa Luxemburg’s writings are more relevant in many ways. Hmmm. Given her affinity with David Harvey’s analysis, which places an emphasis on capital’s ability to take flight and move wherever a profit can be made, that’s something that makes a lot of fucking sense.

June 15, 2015

Is it really 1914 all over again?

Filed under: cults,imperialism/globalization,oil,Russia — louisproyect @ 10:10 pm

This is the probably going to be the last reply to cult leader David North whose WSWS.org website warned readers that nuclear war was imminent because a Pentagon official named Robert Scher told Congress that the USA could “could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia”, referring to any weapon that was in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by the USA and the USSR in 1987. For North, the crux of the matter was establishing that the word “attack” came out of Scher’s mouth when it was not audible in the Youtube clip.

I never had any big issues with that word one way or the other since my analysis that was based on the objective economic conditions differed radically from that of the Socialist Equality Party and any number of groups or websites constantly warning about WWIII. (A search of WSWS.org reveals 3,350 articles containing the phrase “nuclear war” going back to 1998 when one titled “Risking a Nuclear War” about India and Pakistan can be found.)

The Armageddon brigade includes Global Research that reposted the WSWS.org article and the libertarian Antiwar.com website of Justin Raimondo, who like many others in the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party lines up with the ultraleft on this matter as has been the case ever since the rightwing internationally has thrown in its lot with the Kremlin. Frankly, it is very difficult to distinguish between what Golden Dawn and North’s cult have said about Ukraine.

For Raimondo, David North, and other assorted hysterics along this ultraleft-libertarian-fascist axis, the danger of nuclear war exists because Washington is out of control and ready to make reckless decisions that will result in the deployment of nuclear missiles that will effectively end life on earth. Raimondo put this this way:

Yes, that’s how crazy the warlords of Washington are: in their demented calculus, nuclear war is just another “option.”

North said about the same thing in a July 2014 article titled “Are You Ready for Nuclear War” that had all the urgency of a Pentecostal tract urging believers to prepare for Armageddon. He likened it to events that took place a century earlier:

A hundred years ago this week, World War I was launched by small cabals of ministers, monarchs, and business interests throughout Europe, whose decision to risk everything on victory in war led to deaths numbering in the tens of millions. Today, similar forces are setting into motion a drive to a conflagration that could lead to the destruction of the planet.

Of course, it is possible to stoke the fears of the naïve reader when you summon up images of a sneak attack on Russia taking place in the next month or so as if the USA might follow Japan’s example from December 7th 1941.

That being said, one might feel a bit anxious if you interpreted Scher’s comments as a departure from American policy. As I stated (and still believe), the imperialist strategy is based on Mutually Assured Destruction. All nuclear powers consider their arms to be of a defensive nature since a first use would trigger a literal Armageddon that would rob the ruling classes of their privileges and status. It would be a suicidal act only conceivable in a scenario in which the stakes were enormous, such as the Cuban missile crisis that occurred during the depths of the Cold War but as I will point out later, the same conditions do not exist today.

But, more importantly, is the threat of a first strike something new? Did Scher introduce a new and much more dangerous element in American arms policy? A cursory search of Nexis reveals that a “first strike” has been part of imperialist calculations for the longest time.

While we associate such madness with the Reagan administration, Democrats have embraced it as well. In fact it goes back to Jimmy Carter, the “wimp” who Reagan replaced. The NY Times reported on August 6, 1980:

The Carter Administration has adopted a new strategy for nuclear war that gives priority to attacking military targets in the Soviet Union rather than to destroying cities and industrial complexes, Government officials said today.

The revised policy, the officials said, requires American forces to be able to undertake precise, limited nuclear strikes against military facilities in the Soviet Union, including missile bases and troop concentrations. They said it also calls for the United States to develop the capacity to threaten Soviet political leaders in their underground shelters in time of war.

In a nutshell, all Robert Scher was doing is reaffirming nuclear war policy that has existed for the past 35 years.

It continues with Bill Clinton. On November 24, 1998 the NY Times reported:

As NATO defines the new strategy it will unveil on its 50th anniversary next year, Germany’s new Government of Social Democrats and Greens has irked the United States by tentatively suggesting that NATO should renounce the possible first use of nuclear weapons.

The United States is firmly opposed to any change in the doctrine allowing first use of nuclear weapons, arguing that it proved an effective deterrent during the cold war and remains one today against new threats like chemical weapons.

Four years later it should not come as a big surprise that George W. Bush was totally committed to a “first use” policy as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 12, 2002:

A secret Pentagon report which reveals plans for a “first-strike” nuclear arsenal reverses decades of American military thinking which effectively defined nuclear warheads as weapons of last resort. It also indicates just how far the Bush Administration is prepared to go to entrench America’s role as the self-appointed global policeman that its military power affords. So dangerous are nuclear weapons to the very continuance of life on Earth that their existence has long been justified because of their power to “deter”, not to defeat. The “Nuclear Posture Review”, however, details plans to integrate nuclear and conventional weapons, develop “bunker-busting” nuclear warheads, and specifically target seven nations. Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria are listed with Russia, China and North Korea as possible nuclear targets.The complex moral, political and strategic questions raised in each of these cases might not trouble the United States, but it will surely unsettle even its closest allies.

One would not expect Obama, a big fan of the Reagan presidency, to retreat from a “first use” policy. The Wall Street Journal reported on April 6, 2010:

The Obama administration will release a new national nuclear-weapons strategy Tuesday that makes only modest changes to U.S. nuclear forces, leaving intact the longstanding U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons first, even against non-nuclear nations.

But the new policy will narrow potential U.S. nuclear targets, and for the first time makes explicit the goal of making deterrence of a nuclear strike the “sole objective” of U.S. nuclear weapons, a senior Obama administration official said Monday.

So if you are going to single out Robert Scher for war mongering, you at least need to understand that he was simply telling the Congressmen what they (and our ultraleftist friends) should have already known. Based on the analysis of David North and Justin Raimondo, we have been on the eve of destruction going on for at least 35 years and counting.

Now it just might be a coincidence but the warnings about WWIII tend to crop up whenever some former colony of the USSR gets on the wrong side of the Kremlin. Back in 2008 when Georgia and Russia were at war over the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, you could read exactly the same sorts of articles from the Armageddon brigade. Global Research invoked 1914 just as WSWS.org did in the above-cited article:

So far, each step in the Caucasus drama has put the conflict on a yet higher plane of danger. The next step will no longer be just about the Caucasus, or even Europe. In 1914 it was the “Guns of August” that initiated the Great War. This time the Guns of August 2008 could be the detonator of World War III and a nuclear holocaust of unspeakable horror.

Nobody talks about South Ossetia or Abkhazia today because Russia was able to achieve its goals without any big obstacles put in its path by NATO. Global Research insisted that “Ossetia has been an important strategic base near the Turkish and Iranian frontiers since the days of the czars” as if the geopolitical imperatives of the late 19th century remain intact.

Of course, if you were serious about the threat of imperialist war, you might want to take the trouble to analyze the world economy as Lenin did when he wrote “Imperialism, the highest stage of Capitalism”. If you are going to invoke 1914, there is after all an expectation that you can make the case that there are irreconcilable conflicts between the West and Russia that can only be resolved by a new world war.

I would only warn you that if you are looking for such an analysis on the WSWS.org website, you will be wasting your time. The tab “World Economy” will point you to articles about “How the richest one percent controls nearly half of global wealth”, etc. but nothing remotely resembling the sort of analysis Lenin carried out. I should add that there’s nothing wrong with writing denunciations of rich people but you don’t really need WSWS.org for that. Huffington Post does as good a job, if not better.

If you are serious about the conflict between the West and Russia having assumed the dimensions of 1914 (or 1940), you are obligated to back up your analysis with data. It would have to examine FDI flows in Eastern Europe and Russia and other economic trends that would lead to the conclusion that war is inevitable. If you want to understand why Japan launched a “first strike” against the US navy in Pearl Harbor, you might want to consult chapter four of Michael Zezima’s Saving Private Power: the hidden history of ‘The Good War’, where he writes:

The build-up to Pearl Harbor began two decades prior to the attack when, in 1922, the U.S., Britain, and Japan agreed that the Japanese navy would not be allowed more than 60 percent of the capital ship tonnage of the other two powers. As resentment grew within Japan over this decidedly inequitable agreement, that same year the United States Supreme Court declared Japanese immigrants ineligible for American citizenship. This decision was followed a year later by the Supreme Court upholding a California and Washington ruling denying Japanese the right to own property. A third judicial strike was dealt in 1924 with the Exclusion Act which virtually banned all Asian immigration. Finally, in 1930, when the London Naval Treaty denied Japan naval hegemony in its own waters, the groundwork for war (and “surprise attacks”) had been laid.

Upon realizing that Japan textiles were outproducing Lancashire mills, the British Empire (including India, Australia, Burma, etc.) raised the tariff on Japanese exports by 25 percent.

Within a few years, the Dutch followed suit in Indonesia and the West Indies, with the U.S. (in Cuba and the Philippines) not far behind. This led to the Japanese (correctly) claiming encirclement by the “ABCD” (American, British, Chinese, and Dutch) powers.

Such moves, combined with Japan’s expanding colonial designs, says Kenneth C. Davis, made “a clash between Japan and the United States and the other Western nations over control of the economy and resources of the Far East and Pacific…bound to happen.”

Is anything like this taking place between the USA and Russia? If so, it would probably come as surprise to the most powerful oil executives in the world. This is from the Kremlin, straight out of the horse’s mouth so to speak:

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Shaking hands with the CEO of Exxon-Mobil

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, friends and colleagues,

I am very happy to welcome you to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Without a doubt, energy has always been one of the key strategic sectors in the world economy and very much remains so today.

The first steps in this direction are already being taken. Rosneft and ExxonMobil have created a research and development centre for Arctic technologies. I will take this opportunity to also congratulate the winners of the Global Energy Prize awarded today. This year, it was awarded to Japanese scientist Akira Yoshino and Russian researcher Vladimir Fortov. I must note that basic research in the field of energy is what lays the foundation for the future of energy security in our nation and the world overall.

Today, several new documents were signed at this forum on partnerships between Rosneft and international oil and gas companies ExxonMobil, Statoil and Eni (I am happy to see our old friends here today and to greet them), as well as an agreement on technological partnership with General Electric and agreements on the principles of supplying LNG.

This is basically a new era in cooperation the essence of which, as regards our interaction with strategic partners, is to move away from just importing raw materials to establishing full-fledged cooperation in production and technology.

This was a speech given just two years ago. It is a good place to start if you are trying to understand whether we are 5 minutes away from nuclear Armageddon. The conflict in Ukraine, just as was the case in Georgia, raises tensions and leads to saber-rattling.

If you are serious about removing the threat of nuclear war, you have to create a world in which the Russian oligarchs and their pals at Exxon-Mobil do not have the power to exploit the working class and use violence to achieve their ends. Oil companies use their influence over governments in places like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria to make war on their own people and those in bordering territories, as Yemen would indicate.

Russia is just as capable of wreaking havoc on defenseless people as its support for the genocidal policies in Chechnya and Syria would point out. In order to have a world in which social justice and peace prevail, we have to build an international movement that is based on class struggle politics but that rejects the sectarianism that hobbles progress toward that end.

While I doubt that anybody who takes these goals seriously would waste their time joining a bizarre, conspiracy-minded cult-sect like the Social Equality Party, there is a need to understand how they operate and why they ultimately lead to political and personal ruin. My suggestion to David North and company is to continue writing articles that rail against economic inequality since someone here or there might need reminding of that. But for those of us trying to build revolutionary parties based on the kind of rigorous economic analysis that distinguished Lenin or Trotsky, another path awaits us.

April 24, 2015

The Political Economy of Fashion

Filed under: fashion,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm
The True Costs of an Aesthetic

The Political Economy of Fashion

by LOUIS PROYECT

Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in aChronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

read full article

February 5, 2015

Thistle and the Drone

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,Islam,Islamophobia,war — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

This review appeared originally in Critical Muslim #10 under the title “Tribal Islam”, which is useful as a way of explaining what is largely missing from the analysis of the Taliban, Boko Haram, and other Islamist armed groups, namely their tribal origins. Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is required reading for anybody trying to understand the deeper roots of such groups, particularly those who trying to develop a Marxist analysis. Akbar Ahmed is a mainstream social scientist but his research is first-rate.

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.

The drone in the title needs no explanation except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: “predator drone”.

The thistle required more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel “Hadji Murad” that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the 19th century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.

Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.

While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

In chapter three, titled “Bin Laden’s Dilemma: Balancing Tribal and Islamic Identity”, we learn that the al-Qaeda leader admitted to an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks were not sanctioned by the Quran but based on a need to “get even”: ”We treat others like they treat us. Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.” As someone who has studied Native American tribes for some two decades, this has a very familiar ring. The Comanches, the Sioux, and the Apache lived by this credo. While they were always loyal to their own clans and treated outsiders with hospitality if they came in good faith, woe betide the aggressor who took the life of a fellow tribesman.

Ahmed elaborates on the connection between American Indians and Muslim tribal peoples in chapter six titled “How to Win the War on Terror”, citing Benjamin Franklin who saw the tribes of the Northeast as paragons of democracy and freedom:

The Indian Men, when young, are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counselors; for all their Government is by Counsel, or Advice, of the sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study Oratory; the best speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the Memory of Public Transactions. These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural and honorable. Having few Artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.

Unfortunately, this is where I have to part company with Akbar Ahmed’s analysis since he gives far too much credit to the founders of the American republic whose treatment of the tribal peoples might ostensibly serve as a guide to Pakistan’s relations with the Pakhtun in Waziristan. Despite the respect that Franklin held for native peoples, the behavior of the American industrialists and plantation owners that followed him were governed by the need to safeguard private property. The American Indian was simply not allowed to live as hunters in the Great Plains as they had in the past since cattle generated far more profit than the free roaming Bison.

Even on the basis of words, there were problems indicated early on. Ahmed cites Thomas Jefferson favorably as arguing against “an augmentation of military force proportioned to our extension of frontier.” However, this is the same Thomas Jefferson who proposed removal of the Cherokee Indians from the Southeast to west of the Mississippi, a policy finally carried by Andrew Jackson in the “trail of tears”. To show that he meant business, Jefferson told Secretary of War General Henry Dearborn “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”

To a large extent, Ahmed’s hope that the White House can be persuaded of the counter-productiveness of drone attacks rests on a view of American history much more in accord with its rulers’ self-portrait than Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ahmed details his meetings with both the Bush administration and Obama’s on how to deal with terrorism, an invitation that would only be extended to someone who tends toward an “inside the beltway” perspective. No matter the limitations of such an outlook, the world would certainly be better off if the Obama administration adopted his proposals on a wholesale basis. For that matter, it would also be far better off if Obama’s campaign promises going back to 2008 had been adopted, promises that convinced some that the Islamophobia of years past would be abandoned. Those hopes now seem vain, especially with the White House’s indifference to the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing murderous attacks on Syrian neighborhoods in the name of defeating “extremists”.

“The Thistle and the Drone” is not only a stunning analysis that will allow you to see the “war on terror” in a new way; it will also have lasting value as a reference book that can be drawn upon for its scholarly citations and baseline for considering “trouble spots” like Somalia, Mali, and Libya. As someone who has more than a glancing familiarity with these nations, Ahmed’s book went a long way to clearing away the lingering fog.

My interest in Somalia and Mali was heightened by the need to provide some historical background on two films (I am a long-time critic whose reviews appear on Rotten Tomatoes website). The first was “Captain Phillips”, a narrative film based on Somali pirates seizing a cargo ship. My research persuaded me that the stiffest resistance to the pirates came from the Islamic Sharia Courts that saw such crimes as “haram”, or against Islam. It was this Islamic coalition that America and its Ethiopian and Kenyan allies were determined to crush as part of the war on terror. The second film was “Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary on the Tuareg who have been in a struggle with the Malian state. They are regarded as a jihadist threat rather than a proud people asserting tribal claims for sovereignty and demanding social and economic justice.

Despite Ahmed’s admiration for tribal values, he is no romantic when it comes to Somalia’s clans that he blames for most of the country’s recent troubles. Under Siad Barre’s “socialist” dictatorship, all expressions of tribal identity were suppressed. As was the case with Libya’s Gaddafi, the centralizing state was for all practical purposes the instrument of clan rule in and of itself. Siad Barre ruled on behalf of the Darod Marehand subclan and Gaddafi on behalf of the Gadafa, a Western tribe that tried to bring the Benghazi-based Cyrenaica tribe under its thumb.

The implosion of clan-based warlordism led Islamists to seize power in Somalia in a manner reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the Sharia Court government was toppled by the West and its African allies, the struggle took an even sharper Islamist turn under the auspices of Al Shabab (“the youth”), a group that was responsible for the terrorist attack on a Kenya shopping mall in September 2013.

Since Washington regards Al Shabab as an al-Qaeda affiliate, it has deployed drone attacks at them, often victimizing innocent herdsmen. Like Afghanistan, Somalia seems destined to be part of a senseless “war on terrorism” when the only real solution to its problems—a Sharia based government willing and able to resolve contradictions between its rival clans—had been eliminated.

Mali threatens to become another example of unceasing warfare against a jihadist threat with the Tuareg serving as victims of an American crusade incapable of making critical distinctions between genuine enemies and those unfortunate enough to be wrongly perceived as such. No other people are less deserving of this treatment than the Tuareg, who, like the Kurds, were victims of circumstances far too frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa. French and English colonialism left behind states that did not map to the traditional tribal structures. Furthermore, if you belonged to a tribe that straddled multiple state entities, you were powerless to defend your interests as a people. Regarded by the state of Mali as bothersome nomads, the Tuareg were forced to rely on themselves and their heterodox Islamic beliefs in which the men wore the veils and the women bright and colorful garments.

The French were determined to assimilate the Tuaregs as farmers, something that was as inimical to their values as it was to the Sioux and the Comanches. When Mali gained independence, the drive to assimilate kept apace. The military rulers banned the Tuareg language just as the Kemalists would ban the Kurdish language. In all of these postcolonial states, there was a tragic and unnecessary urge to follow in the footsteps of the colonizer. If you were Islamic in your beliefs and lived according to thousand-year-old tribal norms, your suffering was magnified when you were unfortunate enough to live within the borders of a “modernizing” non-Islamic state like the USSR. Stalinist oppression of its Caucasian Islamic citizens went to genocidal extremes.

The government of Mali was determined to bring the nomads under control, from poisoning their wells to killing their herds. After many years of suffering and neglect, the Tuaregs rose up against their oppressor. In early 2012 the Tuaregs took control of a vast region of northern Mali the size of France. Viewing the Malian state as a firm defender of “law and order”, the U.S. attempted to aid its troops with C-130 transports of arms and supplies. There are two main Tuareg rebel forces in the area, one carrying the banner of tribalism and the other al-Qaeda’s Black Flag. There are worrisome signs that Washington lacks the capability to distinguish between the two. It has called upon the Algerian government to provide military aid to Mali in the name of fighting al-Qaeda but it is likely that the bullets will be fired at Tuaregs whatever banner they carry. The Algerians have been merciless against the Berbers, the Tuareg’s northern cousins, so one must regard any alliance between Mali and Algeria as inimical to the rights of Islamic tribesmen once again.

Let me conclude with some thoughts on Libya, which should not be construed as a criticism of Ahmed’s research. Since I lack his expertise and those of the research team that worked under his direction, I only offer this in the same way that I would pose a question to a speaker at a conference who has just delivered a powerful and informative lecture.

“The Thistle and the Drone” treats Libya almost as an example of a clan-divided society after the fashion of Somalia. But I have been under the impression that such tribalism has always been exaggerated. In an interview I conducted with a young Libyan who took part in the rebellion, I was assured that there are no real tribes in Libya now. He claims that he has no idea what tribe he belongs to and that population flows from one city to another has largely eroded tribal society, mostly through unforced assimilation.

However, there are still centripetal tendencies in Libya that threaten the country’s future. Are they tribal? Can a modernizing state based on the will of all its citizens be created in a timely enough fashion to preempt a Somalia type evolution? A lot rests on such an outcome and one can only hope that scholars like Akbar Ahmed can help provide the insights necessary to help move the struggle forward.

August 31, 2014

Ukraine, NATO and imperialism

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,NATO,Russia,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

A Google search on “Ukraine”, “NATO” and “imperialism” results in 493,000 hits. Right off the top, there’s a Youtube clip of Rick Rozoff who runs the “Stop NATO” Yahoo mailing list and is an old hand at this, followed by other old hands such as Eric Draitser, Global Research, the Spartacist League, and the World Socialist Website. Most of the nearly half-million articles make the same talking points. WSWS.org is typical:

Can anyone seriously believe that Washington did not expect that Russia, at the very minimum, would deploy military forces to secure control of Crimea—a part of Russia until 1954, the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and its sole access point into the Mediterranean? Or that Washington knew Russia would not simply turn the other cheek as the installation of an extreme rightwing government in Ukraine, in which xenophobic nationalists exert immense influence, transformed the country into the new forward base for NATO forces, armed with missiles, on the very border of Russia?

Nobody could ever mistake Rozoff, Draitser or Global Research for Marxists, but one does have to wonder how self-described Trotskyists as the Spartacist League and WSWS.org would have so little interest in understanding why Eastern European nations would gravitate toward NATO. If you were the head of state in a country that had been invaded by Russian tanks in the past, your options are rather limited in terms of alliances after you’ve left the Kremlin’s orbit. One doubts that the Martians can be relied upon, no matter the prowess on display in “War of the Worlds”.

In 1999, three new nations were added to NATO, the first additions since 1982. They were Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. For those whose historical memory goes back further than EuroMaidan, it is not so difficult to figure out why they would hook up with NATO. All had been invaded by Russian tanks “defending socialism” against imperialist aggression.

Under the serene and wise leadership of Mátyás Rákosi, Hungary was proceeding rapidly toward communism in the 1950s, occasionally having to rein in agents of imperialism. According to Wikipedia, they were a motley crew:

Under Rákosi’s reign, the Security Police (ÁVH) began a series of purges, first within the Communist Party to end opposition to Rákosi’s reign. The victims were labeled as “Titoists,” “western agents,” or “Trotskyists” for as little a crime as spending time in the west to participate in the Spanish Civil War or for being Jewish (labeled as “Zionist agents”). In total, about half of all the middle and lower level party officials-at least 7,000 people-were purged.

When the revolution of 1956 broke out, the British Communist Party sent a trusted reporter to Hungary expecting articles of the Rick Rozoff and Eric Draitser variety. Imagine their disappointment when Peter Fryer joined the counter-revolution:

There were Gestapo-like torture chambers with whips and gallows and instruments for crushing people’s limbs. There were tiny punishment cells. There were piles of letters from abroad, intercepted for censorship. There were batteries of tape recorders to take down telephone conversations. There were prostitutes retained as police spies and agents provocateurs. And the young brutes who made up this strong arm of the people’s democratic State were paid – according to documents found on their dead bodies – 3,000 to 4,000 forints a month as men, 9,000 to 12,000 as officers: three to twelve times the average wage. Plus luxurious flats while thousands in Budapest lived cramped in slums and cellars.

Surely Dryer should have understood that stern measures were required against Spanish Civil War veterans and rootless cosmopolitans.

Largely decided at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, the USSR won the right to create “buffer states” that would protect it against another imperialist invasion, or more specifically another German invasion. Like Daniel Goldhagen, the Soviet tyrant considered Nazism to be a kind of essential expression of the German Geist. Feelings of hatred directed against all things German filtered down to the Red Army grunt who thought himself justified in raping German women on a massive scale. In a book on this blot on Soviet history, Anthony Beevor quoted a Russian fighter: “Our soldiers’ behaviour towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!.”

In exchange for the buffer states, Stalin agreed to rein in the Communist Parties in places where they had considerable strength: Italy, France and Greece. In Greece the consequences of this policy were particularly harmful. After Stalin tossed the Greek CP overboard, the Greek bourgeoisie was rewarded with 25 years of stability. When the workers got uppity, they got the back of the hand just like the Hungarian workers. While Greece and Hungary rested on rival social systems, they both knew how to keep the rabble at bay.

If not for Stalinism, the world would look a lot different today. A socialist Italy, France or Greece would have had much more importance than a socialist Hungary since the pre-existing democratic rights would have militated against Stalinist ambitions. As Fryer points out, Hungary was a dictatorship except for a brief period: “Hungary has never known democracy, except for four and a half quite abnormal months at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, under the bourgeois-democratic government of Károlyi.”

From the day that the buffer states were created, the citizens suffered under dictatorship and economic privation. While the Warsaw Pact was not about extracting profits, Eastern Europe economies had to put up with bureaucratic inefficiencies that were both unnecessary and pain-inducing, particularly in Czechoslovakia, a country that was relatively advanced. When Dubcek proposed a series of economic changes that might be described as technocratic but that remained consistent with socialist principles, the pro-Kremlin wing of the CP attacked him as an agent of imperialism. When Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and re-imposed hardline Stalinist political and economic rules, a layer of the intelligentsia decided that if socialism with a human face was not possible, then you might as well opt for liberal capitalism. The most notable example was Vaclav Havel, who became president after the country left the Soviet fold. In other words, the primary driving force behind Czechoslovakia’s lining up with imperialism and NATO was Stalinist obduracy.

It might have been expected that Boris Yeltsin would have little problem with the former buffer states joining NATO since he was as willing to satisfy Western imperialism’s interests as a member of Congress. So much so in fact that he wrote a letter in December 1991 raising the possibility that Russia join NATO.

The letter stated: “This will contribute to creating a climate of mutual understanding and trust, strengthening stability and cooperation on the European continent. We consider these relations to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels. Today we are raising a question of Russia’s membership in NATO, however regarding it as a long-term political aim.”

Now our “anti-imperialist” friends might write this off as to be expected from a tool of Western interests. But not so fast. He changed his tune just four years later, sounding positively Putinesque. In 1996 he complained that the expansion of NATO as “an attempt to keep the foreign policy mechanisms and the mentality of ‘Cold War’ times.”

Whether or not Yeltsin would have been up to the kind of stiff resistance to NATO expansion as his successor Vladimir Putin is difficult to determine. However, when it came to Chechnya both leaders showed that they were ready to shove the country back into the Stone Age to protect Russian interests.

In contrast to Eastern Europe, the Kremlin has been far more willing to both wage open warfare and to ally with the West in the former Soviet Republics of the southern Caucasus, with Chechnya being the most extreme example. The Party of Socialism and Liberation went the furthest in linking the Chechen revolt to NATO’s expansion, writing in 2004:

If it were to succeed in separation from Russia, Chechnya would join the league of former Soviet lands that are now “hosts” to U.S. and NATO occupation, and whose wealth is exploited for foreign profiteers.

Few could have imagined in the 1980s that today U.S. and NATO would occupy former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kirgizistan, and Georgia, which borders Chechnya and whose pro-U.S. government is playing a key role in the struggles taking place.

One doubts that the PSL ever took the trouble to follow up on this analysis, but the presence of American troops in Uzbekistan did not exactly generate the kind of response from Putin one might expect given this gloomy prognosis. Uzbekistan has an enormous NATO base that has been key for the war in Afghanistan. Furthermore, as long as these former Soviet republics were part of the “war on terror”, Putin had no problem with a NATO presence as the NY Times reported a month after the 9/11 attacks:

Today, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, Mr. Putin seemed to signal a far more flexible approach to enlargement. ”If NATO takes on a different shape and is becoming a political organization, of course, we would reconsider our position with regard to such expansion, if we are to feel involved in the processes,” Mr. Putin said.

”They keep saying that NATO is becoming more political than military,” Mr. Putin added. ”We are looking at this (and) watching this process. If this is to be so, it would change things considerably,” he said.

Mr. Putin has moved swiftly since the terror attacks to lend his support to the West. Most strikingly, he dropped Russian objections to the deployment of American and other NATO counterterrorism forces in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Russia’s Central Asian sphere of influence.

He has already extracted a price for his help. Within days, the United States and Germany lined up behind a Kremlin demand that rebels in Chechnya lay down their arms, notably omitting criticism of human rights abuses there by Russians.

You will note that the West had little problem with the Russians solving the “Chechen problem” in the way that it saw fit. For those who are still expecting the USA to go to war in Syria for “regime change” as pursuant to Samantha Power type “human rights” ideology, it would be useful to review what happened to Chechnya. With both the White House and the Kremlin acting on pragmatic grounds, there’s little reason to expect a penny to be wasted on reversing the biggest humanitarian crisis in decades.

Unless you are one of those people who still take Russian press conferences seriously, there’s little reason to believe that the Kremlin is intervening in Ukraine for fear of NATO encirclement.

Long after Yeltsin had departed from the scene (leaving aside how he eventually put some distance between himself and the West, arguably under pressure from his military), the Kremlin continued to see NATO in terms far less apocalyptic than the “anti-imperialist” left as the EUObserver reported on January 4, 2009:

Russia does not rule out NATO membership at some point in the future, but for the moment it prefers to keep co-operation on a practical, limited level, Moscow’s envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told EUobserver.

“There is no such necessity at this moment, but we cannot rule out this opportunity in the future,” Mr Rogozin said in a phone interview on Tuesday (31 March), one day after Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Russia should join the military alliance, if it meets the membership criteria.

Ironically, the obstacle to joining NATO was not primarily over the occasional flare-ups of the sort that took place in Yugoslavia or Georgia but whether or not NATO was the appropriate place for a Great Power:

“Great powers don’t join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power,” the Russian ambassador stressed.

He said Russia wanted to be NATO’s “partner,” provided the alliance took into account Moscow’s “interest” – a catchphrase alluding to NATO enlargement to its neighbouring Ukraine and Georgia, which it fiercely opposes.

Well, who can blame Rogozin? Interests are paramount when it comes to Great Powers. Kissinger said it best: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

For reasons we can only guess at, Russia sees the carve-up of Ukraine in its interests. It now seems bent on either annexing Donbas in the way that Crimea was annexed or keeping Kyiv in a constant state of turmoil so that it will eventually accede to a state of affairs that allows de facto separation of Donbas.

Anton Shekhovtsov, a PhD student at the UCL in London, has a very useful blog for keeping track of what is happening in Ukraine if you are looking for an alternative to WSWS.org, Global Research et al. Of course, I imagine that if you prefer being spoon-fed from RT.com, you’d probably not be here in the first place. Here’s from his latest post, titled “The ‘Ukraine crisis’ is a long-planned operation” that should make clear that fearing encirclement was not what drove Kremlin policy:

For the Russian authorities, the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine that brought to power pro-Western governments in 2003-2004 was a sign that these countries were willing to leave the Russian sphere of influence choosing liberal democracy over semi-authoritarian kleptocracy. President Vladimir Putin perceived these revolutions as a direct threat to his rule: if Russian citizens see that post-Soviet countries such as Georgia and Ukraine can successfully modernize and democratize, then they may want the same for Russia – and this would dramatically undermine the authoritarian regime that Putin and his elites have built. Hence, Putin’s task was to subvert democratic governments in the neighbouring countries to prevent them from successful modernization.

In the past one could possibly understand why the Western left would have a tough time making up its mind what was the lesser evil, Stalinist authoritarianism that at least provided a social safety net or liberal capitalist democracy that at least opened up the possibility for a genuine socialist movement to develop and eventually take power. But how does one explain a left that seems so anxious to see the Ukraine return to the state of affairs that prevailed under Yanukovych and the Party of Regions?

Under Yanukovych, you had police repression and economic insecurity. For all of the blather about how bad life in Ukraine would become if it became tied to the EU, there’s plenty of evidence that for the average Ukrainian things couldn’t be much worse than they were in 2011, as the Kyiv Post reported:

Ukraine is on the verge of another wave of labor and intellectual potential losses, expert from the Razumkov Center and former First Deputy Labor and Social Policy Minister Pavlo Rozenko has said. During a press conference on Nov. 14, the expert said that employment does not protect a person from poverty in Ukraine nowadays.

Rozenko also said that, according to recent data, 23% of families in which all members have jobs, and 37% of families in which only one member is employed, are below the poverty line.

The poverty risk is even higher for families with children. According to the expert, 26% of families with one child, 39% of families with two children, and over 70% of families with four and more children are living in poverty.

Meanwhile, while this state of affairs existed, Yanukovych—Putin’s golden boy—lived like this. No wonder the country rose up.

 

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