Hasn’t communism already failed?

There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent.

Another section from Rescuing the message of The Communist Manifesto

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There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership. There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that aims to supersede it.

This peculiar state of affairs arose because the bourgeoisie was too weak, cowardly or treacherous to carry out its own tasks. Instead, in the first half of the 20th century, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation.

After World War II, the Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union was joined  by a host of other countries in what became ‘the socialist camp’. It included China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia where their own revolutionary forces had taken power, and eastern and central Europe and northern Korea where regimes were established by virtue of Soviet military occupation in the aftermath of the defeat of Germany and Japan. So, by historical accident communists found themselves burdened with the task of raising their societies out of social and economic backwardness. They had to perform the work of capitalism. They had to create an industrial base and a trained workforce virtually from scratch. The “failure of communism” was a consequence of the tardiness, perhaps even failure, of capitalism.

 

“It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent.”

 

Under these conditions the move in a communist direction could only be quite limited and eventually proved unsustainable. They took important preliminary steps but did not achieve the real substance. Industry was placed under state ownership which meant that capitalist industry was expropriated and the new accumulation of private wealth thwarted. At the same time there was a degree of economic security for workers. The system was described as socialism, the first stage on the road to communism. However, the weakness of the proletariat placed severe limits on what could be achieved. With a couple of exceptions in central Europe, it only began to become a significant section of society with the industrialization that followed the revolution. Proletarians were former peasants engaged mainly in the low paid toil that you would expect at this stage of development. They were simply not ready to be a ruling class. There was not the basis for a society based on mutual regard. Enthusiasm and unprompted initiative was limited in these harsh conditions and so there was a heavy reliance on material incentives and top down command with all kinds of perverse results. The freedom and democracy required for the full development of the proletariat was not possible given the intensity of external and internal opposition and the weakness of the revolutionary forces.

Because most work was arduous and repetitive manual labor, and the education level and background of the typical worker left them ill-equipped for involvement in the mental aspects of production, there was a minority who did the thinking and deciding. These were the managers, engineers and officials – generally referred to as ‘cadres’. Members of this elite had a vested interest in entrenching their privileged position and were unlikely to encourage an invasion of their domain as workers became more skilled and educated, and industry more mechanized, nor to willingly start to take upon themselves a share of the more routine forms of labor.

Once career, income and position are the primary impulse, economic results take a second place to empire building, undermining rivals, promoting loyal followers, scamming the system and concealing one’s poor performance from superiors. The opportunity for workers to resist these developments was limited by the lack of freedom and the culture of subordination which drains away confidence and the courage to act. This culture can be very strong even in the absence of political tyranny as we can see in any “liberal” capitalist society. At the same time, one can imagine that, under these conditions, rank and file workers with special abilities or talents would tend to be more interested in escaping the workers’ lot by becoming one of the privileged rather than in struggling against it.

 

“… after a crash industrialization in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was able to defeat the fascist Axis powers through the largest military mobilization in human history. This is something for which the world should be eternally grateful.”

 

Mao Zedong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party until his death in 1976, referred to this process, once fully entrenched and endorsed at the top, as capitalist restoration and those encouraging it as revisionists and capitalist roaders. The Chinese Cultural Revolution that he led in the late 1960s was an attempt to beat back this trend. However, that revolution was sabotaged and defeated, and the capitalist roaders were able to seize supreme power in China after his death.

The Soviet Union and similar regimes in Eastern Europe ended up as a distinctive type of dead-end economically, politically and socially, and their demise in 1989-90 is one of the celebrated advances of the late 20th century. At the same time, by discarding much of the empty and dysfunctional formal shell of socialism and operating more like normal capitalist economies, both China and Vietnam have managed to achieve considerable economic development in recent decades. Cuba is now beginning to take this route. The monstrosity in North Korea survives throught mass terror and the support of the Chinese. All these regimes are an affront to freedom and democracy, and will share the same fate as those in other countries where the capitalist “Communist Parties” have already been overthrown.

 

“This peculiar state of affairs arose because the bourgeoisie was too weak, cowardly or treacherous to carry out its own tasks. Instead, in the first half of the 20th century, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation.”

 

Notwithstanding this grim picture, there were still some significant achievements. In a large part of the world, landlords and feudal relations were swept from the countryside. Industrialization was raised from a very low base and generally outperformed the backward countries in the capitalist camp. Most importantly, after a crash industrialization in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was able to defeat the fascist Axis powers through the largest military mobilization in human history. This is something for which the world should be eternally grateful.

The dilemma faced by 20th century communists was anticipated by Engels in the following passage from chapter 6 of The Peasant War in Germany, published in 1850:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost.

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This discussion of the “failure of communism” in backward countries certainly does not imply that the process of communist revolution would be easy in countries that have reached the developed stage of capitalism. While capitalism has created conditions that make communism possible, there is nothing automatic about it. Indeed it will require an entire epoch of struggle to make the transition to a society based on mutual regard rather than profit. There cannot be any notion of ‘socialism’ that does not see it as a revolutionary transition that is prone to capitalist restoration. The initial threat from the old bourgeoisie is followed by a threat from a new bourgeoisie emerging among cadres, who wave the red flag in order to oppose it.

The initial period of the revolution will have many problems. A large number of people will  be hostile, neutral or lukewarm in their support. New revolutionary governments will be far less experienced than their opponents, and will face many difficulties getting into power and holding onto it. The old management cannot be dispensed with overnight and will be in a position to sabotage output and efforts to change things. Defeat could result from revolutionaries making mistakes or the counter-revolution recovering from temporary disarray.

There has to be a fundamental change in human behavior and the way society operates. The bourgeoisie, and the habits and ways of thinking of its society will prove tenacious, and the proletariat will have to transform itself in the struggle against them.

We will have to learn new ways and cast off old ones. We will have to unlearn passive, submissive and weak-spirited habits engendered by capitalism, and develop the new morality of mutual regard and steadfast resistance to the old forms of behavior. Mutual regard is enlightened self-interest where everyone does the right thing knowing that a large and increasing section of society is doing the same. It will be the basis of morality and what is honorable. We will all share in the ‘pool’ of greater prosperity and good-will that results. Such a culture is totally at odds with capitalism where the rich exploit everyone else and a large number of people are simply thrown on the scrap heap.

Critical for success is the emergence of a large and increasing number of people who see the revolutionary transformation of the conditions around them as a prime mission in life.

Freedom from want and toil – and the capitalist social revolution

From the Communist Manifesto Project‘s pamphlet: Rescuing the Message.

 

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Freedom from want and toil

The industrial revolution that began over two centuries ago is transforming the material conditions of life in ways that make capitalism obsolete. In the most developed regions of the world it is providing something approaching a modest level of material abundance and removing much of the necessary toil from work. These conditions make it possible to contemplate social ownership where the motivation is no longer profit, or some reward derived from it, but rather mutual regard and the satisfaction obtained from labor.

At the moment, the rich countries are home to only 15-20 per cent of the world’s population. However, the middle income countries such as China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Brazil could well achieve high levels of development over the next two or three generations, while the poorer half of the world should catch up later this century or early in the next. The pace of development will depend on a range of factors including the prevalence of political crises, wars and economic depressions.

With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty. Under less developed conditions, the prospect of shared hunger and distress impels those who are in a position to do so to exploit others through plunder, slavery, serfdom or the ownership of the means of production. However, as the average share begins to promise an increasing degree of prosperity, the imperative to fare better than others diminishes. Marx and Engels make this point in part II, section 5 of The German  Ideology:

… this development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored …

Under developed capitalism, mechanization and automation have done much to reduce the odious or toilsome nature of work. Pick and shovel work and carrying heavy loads are things of the past and much of the remaining menial and routine work in the manufacturing and service sectors will be automated in the next generation. The work we are left with will be primarily intellectual in nature and potentially interesting and challenging.

“With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty.”

Some doubt the ability of workers to keep up with the requirements of the new work. Certainly capitalism leaves a lot of workers behind and on the scrap heap. Nevertheless, the level of training of workers is higher than ever and should increase over time. In developed countries about a quarter of young proletarians graduate from university and a similar proportion have other forms of training.

We can also expect improved ability to perform complex work in a future communist society as many of the conditions that cause stunted development are eliminated. These include lack of family support, peer pressure to under-perform and an inadequate education system. Social ownership will end the isolation of education from production and other activities, so uniting learning and doing. Workers will help each other to learn. We will also benefit from an increasing understanding of human development and what causes learning difficulties. And over the longer term we can expect to see artificial improvements through mind-enhancing drugs, genetic engineering (induced evolution) and brain link-ups to computers.

The Capitalist Social Revolution

The dominance of capitalist market relations brings a social as well as an industrial revolution. The outcome is frightful in many ways but vastly better than what it replaces. In particular, the revolution casts off many ancient shackles and replaces them with weaker capitalist ones.

Proletarians are employees not slaves or serfs. As wage workers they only have a contractual arrangement for part of the day with their capitalist master and are free to move from one job to another. Their boss, unlike the peasants’ lord, is probably not the local political chief or magistrate.

Their position in the labor market also frees them from subordination to the extended family, tribe or local community. It provides economic independence and the opportunity to physically escape from these sources of oppression and conservatism.

“Their position in the labor market also frees them from subordination to the extended family, tribe or local community. It provides economic independence and the opportunity to physically escape from these sources of oppression and conservatism.”

The new market-based class relations also raise women from their age old subordinate position. The nuclear family replaces the extended family as the economic unit so that women only have to deal with their freely chosen husband and not his relatives. Then comes the independence of employment for a wage. The changing conditions plus struggles by women lead to the removal of legal discrimination, new divorce laws and various forms of government child support. Even the nuclear family becomes optional. These changes cut away much, although not all, of the legacies of women’s oppression and create the conditions where men and women can begin to understand their differences and similarities, and better meet their mutual needs.

The emergence of capitalism has been accompanied by the bourgeois democratic revolution that brings equality before the law, freedom of speech and assembly, due process and constitutional rule. People now expect these political conditions and feel aggrieved by their absence. They could not imagine being ruled by the bejewelled thugs of earlier times. This provides space for the proletariat to organize itself and for a revolutionary movement to emerge and develop. Although when the capitalists feel sufficiently threatened they dispense with these arrangements. This may involve goons and death squads, a state of emergency,  a military coup or the coming to power of a fascist tyrant. However, such drastic measures cannot permanently put the genie back in the bottle and they are bound to provoke resistance.

Overcoming both submissive and oppressive behavior will be at the core of the struggle for communism.  Individuals will require the boldness to stand up to people who act in a harmful manner either to them or to others, while expecting other people to submit to you is completely at odds with a culture of mutual regard. Overcoming the submissive and oppressive forms of behavior found under capitalism will prove difficult enough. Having to at the same time overcome their far more extreme pre-capitalist forms would be unimaginably difficult.

The experience of constant flux experienced under capitalism is also important for communism. Pre-capitalist societies are static. The way of life in your old age is the same as that in your youth. In keeping with this there are set and unchanging ways of thinking and general acceptance of how things are. Under capitalism there is constant change and increasing uncertainty in the conditions of life and the prevailing ways of thinking. It then becomes possible for people to look at where they are and where they are going. This is expressed well in The Communist Manifesto as follows:

All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.

Rescuing the Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx once said that he was not a Marxist. That was in the 1870s, according to his comrade Frederick Engels writing in 1890. Apparently, Marx found the French Marxists particularly embarrassing. Today, he would find nearly all of them so.

The Communist Manifesto Project has released a 16 page pamphlet, Rescuing the message of The Communist Manifesto: the revolutionary role of capitalism, with a view to rescuing Marxism from the ‘Marxists’ and offering a view of what it means in this century.

Here’s a sampler:

“At the moment when inquiring minds seek to learn about communism they will encounter a range of appalling nonsense from various tiny groups claiming to be communist or Marxist. Some support the regimes in Cuba and China, and there are even the occasional North Korea supporters. The absurd regime in Venezuela inspires many of them. They all cling onto the once true but now outdated view that US imperialism is the main problem in the world today. They oppose external support for the Arab battle for democracy and hold the mainstream view that regime change in Iraq has been a disaster and the fascist Baath Party should have been left in power. These groups never talk about how capitalism is creating the conditions for communism but simply whine about how terrible the system is, and often do this in a reactionary way particularly in their opposition to “corporate globalization” and acceptance of green views on virtually everything. They rarely talk about and scarcely understand communism, and they simply see it as something in never-never land rather than their real purpose. So communism will have to be rediscovered in the face of all kinds of claptrap. This will have to be done by the now very young or the yet to be born. For anyone older it would require too much of a break from their entrenched ways of thinking”.

 

Brexit, Trumpism, Sanders, and the Decrepit State of Capitalism: Against Political Determinism

images capitalism
“Neo-liberalism” has become an excuse by many who self-identify as left-wing to avoid confronting the reality of capitalism as the source of economic stagnation. It’s as though a return to Keynesianism is some kind of answer. There’s nothing new in this situation, as leftists influenced by Marxism have always rejected social democratic (in the sense of labour parties) efforts to keep the zombie system alive.

The following article is a good one for making this point but also for discussion and debate.

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The following article by  Michael Rectenwald is published with permission of With Sober Senses, the on-line publication of Marxist Humanist Initiative.

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There’s a basic article of faith in leftist thought, held especially dearly by most among the U.S. left. It is so entrenched and so seldom challenged that it has attained the status of myth, an unquestioned origin story on par with the Book of Genesis, as the latter must have been regarded within Christendom during the Middle Ages.

The myth goes like this: During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, two arch right-wing and highly potent politicians, rose to power in their respective nations, the U.S. and the U.K. They thereafter began to institute what was for the vast majority a vile and destructive political and economic scheme: “neoliberalism.” Previous to the instalment of this neoliberal scheme, the working class had experienced relative economic improvement, and capitalists seemed happy too (as if we care). But suddenly, and seemingly without cause (although the failure of Keynesianism was apparent in the unprecedented stagflation of the 1970s), these evil political twins, prompted by wizards who formalized the approach, introduced the nefarious ideology of neoliberalism to the world. As cruel and heartless representatives of the capitalist class (which, indeed, they were), they and their supporters caused the Fall from the supposed Paradise of Keynesian reformism that had preceded them. In this mythological version of reality, neoliberalism is understood merely as a set of essentially unwarranted and unusually brutal policies, an ideological and political formation that was hatched in the brains of evil masterminds conspiring in right-wing think tanks, concocted to dupe and punish the vast majority for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

This narrative sounds cartoonish or religious in character, but only because it is – not because I have made it so. It is a typical leftist personification of world-historical forces in lieu of an actual analysis within political economy. It amounts to what I have elsewhere called “political reductionism,” which is similar to whatAndrew Kliman has referred to as “political determinism.” Kliman describes political determinism as such: “They [Keynesians and social democrats] think that the capitalists [and/or their political representatives] control capitalism––not the other way around––so that the system can become something it’s not once different people with different priorities assume control of it.” Thus, if only such people as Reagan and Thatcher had never been elected, or better yet, had never been born …

The mythological version of neoliberalism is invoked daily, and most recently in response to such events and political developments as Brexit, Trumpism, and the unprecedented political (albeit thwarted) success of the “socialist” Bernie Sanders. According to journalist Glenn Greenwald, the “leave” outcome of the Brexit referendum registers what should be an expected response to decades of neoliberal policies foisted on the masses by the EU and the British political elite. Along the same lines, Michael Hudson argues, “the whole withdrawal from Europe means withdrawing from austerity… The rejection of eurozone austerity is, essentially, a rejection of the neoliberal plan that the TTIP is supposed to be the capstone of.” Similarly, in the U.S., the appeal of Donald Trump is due at least partially to his feigned and misleading championing of U.S. working-class interests, a working class which, Trump suggests, has been made redundant by lopsided and globalist trade deals and outsourcing/off-shoring, and reduced to the precarity of part-time and/or Uberized piece-meal work or permanent unemployment. As Trump, Sanders, and the left blogosphere see it, these dire consequences are all due to the choices of neoliberal politicos, especially Reagan, the Bushes, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Bernie Sanders’s entire presidential campaign can be summed up simply as: “just say no to neoliberalism.” The “political revolution” that he heralds effectively amounts to a reversal of neoliberal policies and their replacement by progressive ones. According to Sanders, the entire economic fiasco that we have been enduring has been the result of a series of political and policy decisions that have been disastrous for working Americans.

What’s the problem with this narrative, you ask? After all, didn’t Reagan actually begin the defeat of unionism with the breaking of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization’s strike on August 5, 1981, thereby effectively inaugurating the long period of neoliberalism that we have been enduring ever since? Didn’t Bill Clinton, the arch neoliberal Democrat, sign NAFTA into law in 1993, a trade agreement that eviscerated labor and environmental protections, while costing millions their jobs? Didn’t Clinton also repeal the Glass–Steagall Act in 1999, thereby supposedly eventuating the massive financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which we are still reeling from to this day? In short, didn’t political agents actually institute neoliberal policies, policies that continue to disenfranchise and oppress us? And shouldn’t we elect as President someone like Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, or another leftist, who would reverse these policies? Finally (this part of the story is optional in some circles), hasn’t the capitalist class made a killing over the past forty-plus years, while they simply ignored (or some may say, enjoyed) the stagnant wages of the vast majority, the widening gap in income, and the rising tide of poverty? Isn’t there a huge and growing pie from which the majority simply have been excluded to a greater and greater extent? In the short term, don’t we simply need to get a bigger slice and then (perhaps) talk about the whole pie later on?

The problem with this story is that while grossly exaggerating the impact of policies and trade agreements, it excludes a key underlying and primary causative factor of the current instability and malaise. This key factor is necessary not only for diagnosing but also for addressing the conditions that we face today. Keynesian reformers and social democrats, including Bernie Sanders, are either utterly unaware of, attempt to blithely ignore, or otherwise contest this factor. But its existence and effects are undeniable and its implications are enormous. That is, excluded from the standard leftist narrative of neoliberalism is the following: the underlying, decrepit state of capitalism over the past forty-plus years, and the unlikely prospects for a return to robust economic growth in the foreseeable future.

Few thinkers, even among Marxists, seem willing to tell the working class this fundamental fact, and it surely is not going to be acknowledged by major political office holders or campaigners, whose careers depend upon the belief that their particular nostrums or plans will remedy the crisis. Yet neither Trump with his protectionism nor Sanders with his so-called socialism can restore the economy (in the U.S. or beyond) to post-war levels of growth, the kind of growth upon which their promises depend. Likewise, their policies and plans would not ameliorate the conditions of the vast majority. As long as the economic system is capitalism, profit will be the driving factor, and the predicament of capitalism has precisely to do with a loss of confidence in the profitability of investment.

In 1973, an already sluggish world economy bore the immediate effects of the oil-price hike. Although the rate of profit temporarily rose as a result of the inflation brought about by the rise in the price of oil, it resumed its longer-term downward trend after a few years. That trend has continued, with spikes and dips in the interim, to this day. Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall had always been in effect since the inception of industrial capitalism, but since this point in history, insufficient countervailing factors have been available to offset the tendency. Because profit is the driving force of capitalist production, the only incentive for undertaking it and the only long-term source of funds for productive investment, we face unstable and grim economic conditions and prospects. Given the low yields in profit, an effective productive investment boycott has ensued, and since the mid-70s, the worldwide rate of growth has been approximately halved. While there have been relative booms and busts in the interim, these have been due largely to short-term, financially-driven bubbles, and perhaps the introduction of new markets and newly super-exploited labor forces. Nevertheless, the economy has never returned to post-war boom levels.

 

Rectenwald article graph, rvsd, 7.4.16

 

The decades after World War II and those after 1975 reveal strikingly different situations for the world economy, and thus utterly different prospects for Keynesian or social-democratic interventions. Since the mid-70s, as Kliman notes, “the rate of investment (capital accumulation) has fallen and never recovered, debt burdens have increased markedly relative to income, growth of GDP, industrial production, employees’ compensation, and public infrastructure investment were all much slower than during the postwar boom, the average duration of unemployment was higher and the problem of workers dropping out of the labor market was more serious, and there were many, many more burst bubbles and banking, debt, and currency crises.”

Ignoring or blithely unaware of this economic reality, leftists mistakenly imagine that “neoliberalism” has merely been the desideratum of wicked politicians, who under the influence of their Wall Street and corporate donors, have maliciously manufactured current economic conditions. But the reverse is actually the case; neoliberalism is a set of policies and an ideology that the ruling class and their political proxies developed in response to the underlying and enduring economic malaise of capitalism. That is, underlying economic conditions have been the driving force of neoliberalism, not politics and ideology. And neoliberalism has not solved the problems that it inherited from Keynesianism. Indeed, history has illustrated time and time again that the various rightist and leftist reformist political or policy programs formulated to resolve the problems produced by capitalism are inadequate to the task.

Unfortunately, for sundry reasons, what has happened in the ideological ambit of left politics amounts to a divorce, a divorce of the “political” from the “economy” in the field of political economy. Rather than the so-called “vulgar Marxist” economic determinism of yore, what we have today has been aptly termed political determinism. Political determinism is the belief that the economy is driven by politics and ideology, rather than the other way around. As long as political determinism prevails on the left, the left’s vision will be myopic and its recommendations will be utterly flawed and useless. Isn’t it about time to tell the working class the truth?

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*Michael Rectenwald is a professor in Global Liberal Studies at New York University. He is the author ofNineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), primary editor of Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age (De Gruyter, 2015), and primary author ofAcademic Writing, Real World Topics (Broadview Press, 2015). His essays have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including the British Journal for the History of Science, Endevour, and George Eliot in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

How the Syrian revolution has transformed me (Budour Hassan)

The following is reprinted from Budour Hassan’s blog Random Shelling.

Comments welcome.

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The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

 

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

 

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

 

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged.

How can one not be inspired by a people rediscovering their voices, transforming folk songs and football chants into revolutionary chants? How can one not be taken aback by protests choreographed in front of tanks?

 

The Syrian geography was much more diverse and rich than that promoted by the regime and the official narrative collapsed as Syrians from the margins reconstructed their own narratives. The Syrian rainbow had many more colors than those permitted by the regime. And Syrians could raise their voices in places other than football stadiums, using their famous victory chant in public squares and streets to curse Hafez al-Assad, the “eternal leader.”

 

If Hafez al-Assad’s name could only be whispered with trembles before 2011, people at last could vociferously curse him and his son, shaking both the physical as well as the symbolic hegemony of this dynasty to its foundations.

 

I could not remain neutral as Syrians redefined the feasible and stretched the boundaries of people power, albeit briefly, during those early months of fatal hope.

Wouldn’t remaining impartial have been an act of treason to anything I claimed to stand for? How could I possibly read out Howard Zinn’s quote “You cannot be neutral on a moving train” to those sitting on the fence on Palestine, while I was doing the same on Syria? The Syrian revolution crumbled the fence from under me. I rediscovered my voice thanks to the mass mobilization I witnessed in Syria. I would listen to clips from Syrian protests, memorize their chants, and repeat them in Palestinian protests. Thinking of the fearlessness of Syrians would immediately make my voice louder and help make me overcome any slight semblance of fear.

 

You do not choose the nationality into which you were born but you don’t have to be bound by its shackles.

My Syrian identity, my sense of belonging to the Syrian revolution, was not forced onto me. I chose to adopt it. I never stepped foot in Syria. It was not until 2013 that I first met a Syrian not from the Occupied Golan Heights in the flesh, face to face. My main way of connecting with Syrians was and remains through social media and Skype. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel Syrian and completely identify with the struggle.

Until 2011, my talk about breaking borders and internationalist solidarity was but a soundbite, mere rhetorics. Thanks to the Syrian uprising, I finally understood what solidarity is really about.

 

I always expected people to support the Palestinian cause without imposing conditions, without preaching or lecturing, without dictating. When the Syrian uprising erupted, I acted exactly like those armchair preaches demanding a jasmine revolution from Palestinians, constantly asking us about the New Gandhi and MLK. But as the revolution went on, I could finally comprehend the true meaning of solidarity from below, a solidarity that is unconditional yet also critical. I saw how people like martyr Omar Aziz applied horizontal self-governance in some of the more conservative and traditional neighborhoods, and I learned from his model.

I learned the meaning of communal solidarity and Palestinian-Syrian togetherness from the Palestinian residents of Daraa refugee camp: they risked their lives to smuggle bread and medicine and break the siege on the rising city of Daraa. It was not just a humanitarian act; it was a political statement and the beginning of the formation of an identity, that of the Palestinian-Syrian revolutionary.

 

Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk, and Zaradasht Wanly, a Syrian youngster from Damascus, were both injured by Israeli occupation forces during “return marches” to the Golan Heights in 2011. Both Khaled and Zaradasht were murdered by the Syrian regime: the former was killed under torture, the latter was shot dead during a peaceful protest.

 

Syrians marched in solidarity with Gaza amid the rubble of their houses destroyed by Syrian regime air strikes. The Syrian Revolutionary Youth put out posters against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Naqab when most of the group’s members were in hiding, jails, exile, or graves.

Such is the solidarity of the oppressed which Syrians turned from rhetorics to practice. How can one not admire it?

 

If the Second Intifada in October 2000 shaped the political consciousness and national identity of an 11-year-old girl who had just left her tiny village to move to the city; the first wave of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 rebirthed a woman making her more confident steps in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, my city, the one I chose to call home, could not by any means be liberated by the oppressors of my people, of Syrians. Jerusalem’s spirit cannot be hijacked by those bombing a hospital carrying its name.

Far from struggling to reconcile my Palestinian and Syrian identity layers, The Syrian uprising made me even more committed to the struggle for Palestinian liberation: the liberation of the land from the occupier and the liberation of the cause from dictators and bandwagoners.

 

And while I parted company with people I once regarded comrades because of their support for the Syrian regime, I also gained new, lifelong friendships that have imbued my world with warmth and strength.

 

I owe so much to the Syrian revolution, which re-created me. I have no status or self-importance or willingness to speak on behalf of anyone, let alone on behalf of the Palestinian people, but I personally owe an apology to the Syrian people. I should have never hesitated in supporting their just cause. I should have never privileged geopolitical concerns over Syrian lives; and I should have never been so naively deceived by the propaganda of the resistance axis.

I owe an apology to a people who, for decades, were trodden upon, silenced, and humiliated in the name of my own cause; to a people whose only encounter with “Palestine” was in a prison dungeon carrying this name; the people who were blamed and mocked for being so docile yet when they did rise up, they were abandoned.

I owe an apology to a people who are blamed for a carnage committed against them, just as we have been, and who have been betrayed by an opposition pretending to represent them, just as we have been, too. I owe an apology to a people cynically called upon to bring an alternative to the Assad regime and Islamists while bombs and missiles fall on their heads. Those same people asking “Where is the alternative?” ignore that Syrians who were ready to offer a progressive vision have either been jailed, killed or displaced by the regime.

One would think that Palestinians know the cynicism behind the question of alternatives that they wouldn’t pose it to another oppressed people fighting to build everything from scratch.

 

Yet despite contradictions, Palestinians and Syrians do share the same yearning for freedom, the same burning desire to live in dignity and the dream to walk in the streets of the Old City of Damascus and the Old City of Jerusalem.

The road we shall cross to get there, though, is not the one that the regime and Hezbollah saturated with Syrian corpses, but one paved with the hands of Palestinian and Syrian freedom fighters: by people who know that their freedom is always incomplete without the freedom of their sisters and brothers.

 

Daesh, the (pseudo) Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution

“The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny”.

My response: WHY for heaven’s sake does this even have to be stated?

The reason is because of the general failure to understand that ‘socialists’ who side with tyrants are not worthy of the name, and that the pseudo-left which has been dominant for decades needs to be called out. I wish the reviewer had used that term rather than seeming to accept that one can oppose democratic revolution and still be on the left.

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The following book review is published with permission of Syria Solidarity UK.

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Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, ed. Jules Alford and Andy Wilson, published by Unkant, London.

Review by Clara Connolly

This book should be required reading for every leftist, as an antidote to the growing mountain of ignorant comment on the subject of Syria. The title Khiyana (betrayal) is an accusing cry; the book is a trenchant denunciation of the Western Left for its abandonment of the principles of internationalism and solidarity in favour of an alignment with the ‘anti imperialist’ camp, a hangover from the geo-politics of the Cold War.

Assad An-Nar, like most of the authors, situates himself on the Marxist left, and his prefatory chapter could be considered a direct response to Tariq Ali’s infamous dismissal of the Arab Spring in What is a Revolution? (Guernica, Sept. 2013). He sets his critique in the context of the changing nature of revolution in an age of global neoliberalism, where post colonial states are collapsing because neoliberal policies have slashed the limited social protections they used to offer. In this world, he says, the principles of self emancipation and of collective and democratic struggle are ‘ideas in search of a subject.’ Ideas about democracy, socialism, and anti-imperialism used to run in the same direction, but now they are counterposed.

With the collapse of the progressive moment of secular Arab nationalism, Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood can rise beyond identity/sectarian politics in resistance to tyranny. Though not necessarily opposed to neoliberalism, they are the voice of those who are excluded from its benefits. Hezbollah’s current role in Syria shows that such movements can swing between revolution and counter revolution without moving in a socialist direction.

The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny. Instead the left has responded by either supporting their favourite dictatorships (the neo Stalinists) or by re-hashing theories of ‘permanent revolution,’ i.e. insisting that revolutions can only end in socialism or defeat (the Trotskyists). Yes, he says, a democratic revolution is possible in these countries, but the outcomes are uncertain; the socialist left, while recognising its marginal role, should not condemn itself to irrelevance by denouncing the struggles for democracy because they are not socialist. Instead he urges the left to make the ‘democratic wager,’ in hope that the outcomes lead to more collective forms of struggle. There is little to lose for socialists, he believes, since neoliberalism has led worldwide to the fatal weakening of working class self-organisation.

The subsequent chapters examine and demolish the standard left myths about the Syrian revolution: the ‘jihadist’ nature of the ‘rebels’; the selective anti imperialism which admires Rojava but has no time for similar experiments in local democracy elsewhere in Syria; the role of regional imperialisms like Iran and Russia in propping up a monstrous regime; and above all the lies and distortions peddled by the institutional left (Stop the War Coalition, and the éminence grise of left journalism like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Seymour Hersh) who place the national interests of states they consider to be in the ‘axis of resistance’ above solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed in those countries.

In a short review I can refer only to two further articles in the core of the book; but I cannot resist a passing mention of the glorious satirical piece by M Idrees Ahmad, The Anti-Imperialist Guide to Inaction in Syria. Anyone familiar with debate on Syria will recognise the strategies he lists: ‘Don’t defend Assad, attack his opponents; sympathise selectively; functional doubt where straight denial is risky; defend peace and sovereignty; champion the minorities; talk about ISIS, not Assad; talk about refugees but not the cause of flight,’ etc. Most of these strategies are shared with the establishment and the extreme Right.

Mark Boothroyd describes the responses of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) to Syria, in a case study that echoes the critique in the preface. It has consistently viewed developments through its relation to the US and the UK. In a multi polar world system with competing imperialisms, it persists in viewing events through the prism of the Cold War. The agency of Syrians is erased altogether.

In 2013, STWC opposed the proposed intervention of the UK and when this proposal was defeated in Parliament, it claimed victory; but Boothroyd claims that if the West had really wanted to intervene in Syria it would have done so—its actual strategy is to let the country bleed. I think he underestimates the power of popular protest in democratic countries, and the degree to which STWC was able to tap into post Iraq war weariness. But he is right in pointing out that STWC has missed a trick in failing to expose the real cruelties of the Western role.

In its weaker response to the 2015 intervention against ISIS, STWC has consistently refused to allow oppositional Syrians on its platforms—who have opposed the Coalition campaign against ISIS as useless and counter-productive, but have also proposed more positive measures for the protection of Syrian civilians. Once again, its failure to listen to Syrians has weakened its moral stance even in its own terms—in opposing its own Government.

It could have been different, he believes: the anti war movement could have risen beyond its current ethnocentric, isolationist positions to meet the challenge of changing times, and been a movement to build solidarity with the revolutions in the Middle East.

In The Rise of Daesh in Syria, Sam Charles Hamad attacks the myth of Saudi funding and support for Daesh; instead, in a detailed study, he convincingly shows their deadly rivalry despite their similar ideologies. He demonstrates the origins of Daesh in post invasion Iraq, and its nurture by the sectarian regimes in Iraq and Syria. He shows, by tracing its sources of income, how it is self sustaining. Finally he argues that the current tactics of the west, in fighting Daesh from the air but hampering the oppositions in their fight against the sectarian regimes of Assad and Maliki, are counter-productive. And the left’s narrative is complicit in this.

The book, and particularly its opening chapter, is weakened by a failure to examine more closely such terms as ‘democracy’ and ‘emancipation,’ given their ambivalent history among Marxists; and to analyse the demands of the revolution—Freedom Justice and Dignity—in more detail. This is particularly the case since there is little discussion of class, and no accounts of the role of women in the Syrian revolution, nor of the role of Western women’s peace groups or feminists in relation to Syria. My own recent experience of organising solidarity events with Syrian women suggests that the hostility to, and silencing of, Syrian voices is much less prevalent among feminist organisations than in the left as a whole. The ‘democratic wager’ which is urged upon us might be weighted more favourably with the inclusion of women activists, within Syria and in the West.

When the impossible becomes the inevitable: my memory of the struggle against apartheid

I retired from work, at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, last week. The following is my final blog post as an on-going Public Service employee.

Feel free to add a comment at the museum’s blog site.

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On reflecting on the campaign of solidarity in Australia with the South African oppressed people, it reinforced my view that identifying with, and supporting, the oppressed and those struggling for freedom, is a core left-wing value. It was not just on the issue of South African apartheid that we did this, but on Vietnam too. The left supported the Vietnamese people against US imperialism, just as we supported the South African people against the apartheid regime. Other examples are our solidarity with the Czech and Polish rebels.

It is incomprehensible to me that people and groups that do not support the Syrian people in their struggle against the Assad regime can be in any sense left-wing, no matter how they self-identify and no matter what ‘left’ sounding slogans they shout.

Anyway, here is my final blog post at work.

* * * *

The museum’s Memories of the Struggle exhibition highlights the part played by Australians in solidarity with South Africans against the apartheid regime. It resonates with scores of thousands of us who actively took part in the struggle as grass-roots activists.

From the late 1960s and for most of the 1970s, I was one such activist in Melbourne. I lived and breathed the kind of left-wing politics that opposed apartheid and supported regime change and democratic aspiration there. If I wasn’t printing out and handing out leaflets about it, and sometimes writing them, I was attending working-bees where people designed and made placards and banners for street protests. And, there was hardly a demonstration on the issue in Melbourne that I didn’t attend. To me, it was part of a global revolutionary struggle. (The same applies to the Vietnam War, which loomed larger because of the policy of conscription for the war, and the greater violence against the Vietnamese).

Of course, not all of the Australian opponents of apartheid identified with the left and only a small minority were communists like me. It’s worth noting that while nearly everyone opposed the apartheid system in principle back then, there was strong opposition to Nelson Mandela, who was seen as a communist and a terrorist. He was certainly close to the South African Communist Party and his Spear Movement struck terror into the hearts of the fascists running the regime. To be opposed to apartheid in principle was fine, but to want to do something about it in practical solidarity was ‘going too far’.


Fast forward several decades and in 1994 Mandela is the elected and acclaimed President of a new era in South Africa, one free of apartheid and one in which all people have equal voice in elections. Despite serving 27 years in prison, he properly urges reconciliation rather than revenge. What a man! Governments whose leaders were not forthcoming with solidarity when it was needed now applaud him. The Australian governments of Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke are among the proud exceptions. Celebrities like Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor pose for photos with him. How things change.

That’s what happens when you have History on your side. When the reactionaries, who can seem so powerful, are revealed as the paper tigers that they essentially are. If proof is needed of the maxims that ‘the people make history’, and that ‘wherever there is repression there is resistance’, then South Africa under apartheid provides it. At times, it seemed a hopeless uphill battle. But don’t they all? Until they are won. And then what once seemed impossible suddenly seems inevitable.

When Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, I was so thrilled and overwhelmed that, after my regular fitness run up Mount Ainslie, which rises 800 metres above Canberra, I wanted to repeat the run immediately. I was on such a ‘high’ and carried along by the adrenalin of Mandela’s release and the excitement of South Africa’s prospects as a democracy. Thereafter, running up and down Mount Ainslie twice without stopping became my ‘Mandela Run’.

Their victory was our victory – and my victory too.


Fast forward again, and around 2010 I find myself pondering Mandela’s future. He is now in his early 90s and I feel an urge to write to him, to let him hear from an Australian activist, rather than a leader or celebrity.

I want to share some anecdotes with him – things I experienced directly – and I want to ask him for an autographed photo as a memento.

Sorry, but I can’t find a copy of my letter to him. But from memory, it told him of the following.

At my university in the early 1970s, we had a Chancellor who was on the board of Imperial Chemical Industries which, among other things, manufactured explosives and munitions in South Africa. A mass meeting of a thousand students demanded his resignation. Eventually we won and the Chancellor resigned before his term expired. But what a struggle. We occupied the Administration Building, blockaded the Council members, held mass meetings at least twice a week. And the authorities cracked down severely on us for our lawlessness. Or was it for our effectiveness? John Gorton as Prime Minister had declared that “We shall tolerate dissent so long as it is ineffective”. The student ring-leaders were identified, arrested, fined, suspended from university, lost our Education Department studentships and three of us – yours truly included – gaoled at Pentridge, without sentence or rights of appeal – for contempt of court. (It’s not easy being red).

I wanted Nelson Mandela to know that, in the west, our movement was not just about ‘sex and drugs and rock music’, as it has been condescendingly displayed in popular culture, but about real struggle, repression and resistance. Just as we brought the Vietnam War home in our protests, so too we related the oppression of the apartheid system to our own local targets whenever possible.

I wanted Mandela to know of the police violence deployed by State governments against anti-apartheid protestors. The petite university student, a young girl with whom I was friendly, being thrown face first into a pole by a burly policeman three times her size. The blood pouring from her smashed nose. The State Secretary of the Labor Party in Victoria having a baton thrust into his eye and nearly losing the eye. We knew we were in for a hiding whenever the police started removing their identification badges from their uniforms. Some of the worst police violence I have witnessed took place on protests against apartheid. They were clearly on orders to intimidate us, and batons and boots were their main weapon. But it didn’t work. We knew that the repression we experienced was minor compared to that of our brothers and sisters in South Africa.

I was arrested on one of the demonstrations and convicted of assaulting police. My only regret is that I am unable to explain on official forms that ask whether one has any criminal convictions that my crime was to try to stop a policeman pulling down an anti-apartheid banner held by the front line of a street march. I pushed him with force from behind. Technically: guilty. C’est la vie: c’est la lutte.

I wanted Mandela to know of the funny things too. Like the way in which one of my mates in Brunswick, who worked with my dad in a factory, would come to my place before a demo and we’d listen to Eric Burdon’s album, ‘Every one of us’. It featured an interview with an African-American ex-serviceman talking about racism. It inspired us in our passion, reinforced the sense that we were part of an international movement, and lifted our morale as ‘soldiers’ in a struggle.

And there was the time we tried to stop the Springbok rugby team – when Bob Hawke to his great credit as President of the ACTU intervened against the team’s visit. The police were brutal that day in 1971 but the thousands of assembled protestors at Olympic Park were determined to run onto the field and stop the game. The police cordon around the oval was holding out until it was broken when a group of police moved together to arrest people. I was standing with a comrade who saw the opportunity and said to me, “Quick, Barry! We can jump the fence onto the oval!” We ran forward, together, but at the last moment I lost my nerve. My poor comrade leapt onto the oval only to be grabbed by police. That comrade, incidentally, was Ian MacDonald, later to become a Minister in the State Government of New South Wales.


So I told all this, and more, to Nelson Mandela – ‘Comrade Mandela’ – in my letter.

After a month or so, I received a reply. It was from his secretary, who said that Mandela was now too frail to keep up with such correspondence and no longer sent out autographed photos.

However, the letter had been read to him in full.

And he had liked it.

To me, that was all that mattered.