About the show

A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac is a podcast exploring all things relevant to Socialism today, from the latest scholarship regarding the socialist tradition to socialist reflections on our current moment and where to go from here. Below is a partial prospectus with a subject by subject bibliography.

Written by Lelyn R. Masters with a Memphis Music Soundtrack by Harry Koniditsiotis

Marx’s Epicurianism

Fusaro, Diego. Marx, Epicurus, and the Origins of Historical Materialism. Permanent Press, 2017.

The French and Haitian Revolutions

Davidson, Ian. The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny. Profile Books, 2016.
Furet, François, and Karl Marx. Marx and the French Revolution. University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Israel, Jonathan. Revolutionary ideas: an intellectual history of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton University Press, 2015.
James, Cyril Lionel Robert. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Penguin UK, 2001.
Scott, Julius S. The common wind: Afro-American currents in the age of the Haitian Revolution. Verso Books, 2018.

Not Marx’s Capital

Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Israel, Jonathan I. The Enlightenment that Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. Beacon Press, 1939.

Eternal Life, Abolition and Class

Brooks, Kinitra D. Searching for Sycorax: Black Women's Hauntings of Contemporary Horror. Rutgers University Press, 2018.
Carruthers, Charlene. Unapologetic: A Black, queer, and feminist mandate for radical movements. Beacon Press, 2018.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction In America: An Essay Toward A History Of The Part Which Black Folk Played In The Attempt To Reconstruct Democracy In America, 1860-1880. New York: Russell & Russell [1966, c1935. Print.
Foner, Eric. The second founding: How the civil war and reconstruction remade the constitution. WW Norton & Company, 2019.
Nadler, Steven. "Spinoza's' Ethics': An Introduction." (2006).

World War I, Original Sin and Karl Kautsky

Clark, Christopher M. Iron kingdom: the rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Clark, Christopher. The sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. Penguin UK, 2012.
Donald, Moira. Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900-1924. Yale University Press, 1993.
McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Origins of the First World War. Harvard University Press, 2011.
Spinoza, Baruch. Spinoza: Complete Works. Hackett Publishing, 2002.

Nero, Oreste, Stalin, Trotsky

Deutsher, J. "The prophet armed." (1979).
Deutscher, Isaac. The prophet unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929. Verso, 2003.
Sgambato-Ledoux, Isabelle. Oreste et Néron. Spinoza, Freud et le mal. Classiques Garnier, 2017.
Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian revolution. Haymarket Books, 2008.
Broué, Pierre. Communistes contre Staline. Fayard, 2003.

The Spanish Civil War Reconsidered

Beevor, Anthony. "The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939 (London, 2006), 106–7 and 269–70 and Albertí." La Iglesia en llamas: 277-86.
Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
McKay, Claude. Amiable with Big Teeth. Penguin, 2017.
Morrow, Felix. Revolution & Counter Revolution in Spain. Pathfinder Press, 1974.
Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia/Down and Out in Paris and London. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

A Guide to High Maoism

Isaacs, Harold Robert. The tragedy of the Chinese revolution. Haymarket Books, 2010.
Lovell, Julia. Maoism: A Global History. Random House, 2019.

A History of the Russian Revolution as if Ukraine Mattered

Raleigh, Donald J. Provincial landscapes: local dimensions of Soviet power, 1917-1953. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.
Serge, Victor. Midnight in the Century. New York Review of Books, 2014.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.
Snyder, Timothy, and Tony Judt. Thinking the twentieth century. Random House, 2013.

From the Black Panther Party to Ta Nehisi-Coates, a Vanguard in our time

Bloom, Joshua, Waldo E. Martin Jr, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against empire: The history and politics of the Black Panther Party. Univ of California Press, 2016.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the world and me. Text publishing, 2015.APA
Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to race leaders: Black power and the making of African American politics. U of Minnesota Press, 2007.
McWhorter, Ladelle. Racism and sexual oppression in Anglo-America: A genealogy. Indiana University Press, 2009.
Perry, Ravi K. Black mayors, white majorities: The balancing act of racial politics. U of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Rothstein, Richard. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing, 2017.

The 2016 Election, A Fascist in the White House

Crenshaw, Kimberle, eds. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed The Movement. New York : New Press : 1995.
Gessen, Masha. The future is history: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. Granta Books, 2017.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. "Cyberwar." How Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president (2018).
Lewis, Michael. The fifth risk: undoing democracy. Penguin UK, 2018.
Pomerantsev, Peter. Nothing is true and everything is possible: The surreal heart of the new Russia. Public Affairs, 2014.
Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Tim Duggan Books, 2018.
Wadhia, Shoba Sivaprasad. "National Security, Immigration and the Muslim Bans." Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 75 (2018): 1475.

The Syrian Revolution

Abouzeid, Rania. No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. WW Norton & Company, 2018.
Anderson, Eric A. The role of the military in Syria: the Shishakli years (1949-1954). Diss. 1971.
al-Dik, Majd and Nathalie Bontemps (tr). A l'est de Damas, au bout du monde. Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien: Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien. Don Quichotte, 2016.
Batatu, Hanna. Syria's peasantry, the descendants of its lesser rural notables, and their politics. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Dagher, Sam. Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. Hachette UK, 2019.
Hourani, Albert. A history of the Arab peoples: Updated edition. Faber & Faber, 2013.
Kassab, Elizabeth Suzanne. Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates. Columbia University Press, 2019.
Majed, Ziad. Syrie, la révolution orpheline. Éditions Actes Sud, 2018.
Memmi, Albert. Decolonization and the Decolonized. U of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Memmi, Albert. The colonizer and the colonized. Routledge, 2013.
Minoui, Delphine. Les Passeurs de livres de Daraya: Une biblioteque secrete en Syrie. Editions du Seuil, 2017.
Pearlman, Wendy R. We crossed a bridge and it trembled: Voices from Syria. Custom House, 2017.
Rogan, Eugene. The Arabs: a history. Basic Books, 2012.
Sentence to Hope: A Sa'dallah Wannous Reader. Yale University Press, 2019.
Singh, Naunihal. Seizing power: The strategic logic of military coups. JHU Press, 2014.
Sirees, Nihad. The Silence and the Roar. Pushkin Press, 2013.
Yassin-Kassab, Robin, and Leila Al-Shami. Burning country: Syrians in revolution and war. Pluto Press, 2018.
Yazbek, Samar. The Crossing: My journey to the shattered heart of Syria. Rider Books, 2015.

And Much More!

A Democratic Socialist's Almanac on social media

Episodes

  • Don't Just Stand There

    November 2nd, 2020  |  28 mins 48 secs
    democratic socialists of america, dsa, election 2020, fascism, joe biden, kamala harris, trump

    [This episode was recorded live at Five and Dime at noon on August 14, 2020]
    That’s it for the first season of A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac. Some odds and ends may float up afterwards, some updates or conversations, but further episodes will not add anything essential to what has been said here. The goal was to articulate a particular vision. If success were measured by a change in the attitudes of the bulk of the US left, then I failed, but by that measure failure may have been inevitable. Insofar as existence itself is a kind of victory, then the podcast is a success. Each episode is downloaded by around 150 people. That’s not much, but given that the material, a discussion of the liberal Marx, is dense and niche, and that my promotion skills are limited, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that these ideas are unpopular as such. It’s just that people who think this way don’t find representation in the left press, for reasons I’ve discussed at length in the episodes on Syria and the Ukraine. And for what it’s worth, I’ve always felt that despite the smallness of our reach, we still have a moral obligation to show whoever we can that there is another and a better way.

    We are currently living a very dangerous moment. I do not mean the banal observation that we are now under great physical and political threat, although we are threatened in these ways. I mean that we are under a great moral risk. Our very humanity is at stake in these moments. I’ll come back to the present, but first I’m going to talk a little about people in the past in another part of the world whose experiences are not really so remote now. The problems of everyday people living under fascist domination could become our problems very soon, and I want to discuss them here.

    As WW2 progressed the Nazis relied more and more on Jewish labor because German men were dying in disastrous colonial wars in Eastern Europe. This naturally extended to the mass extermination sites. Often Jews were forced to herd their confreres and coreligionists into gas chambers. This was the case at Belcek. These people followed Nazi orders under threat of death, and if they died in revolt for sure someone else would have done those tasks. I don’t think their situation is a moral one: they don’t really have a choice. When they got a good chance to attempt escape or revolt they did so. They had a range of options that was incredibly narrow, and these options were determined by actions far removed in time and space from them. People who lived under Nazi occupation had a little more agency. They could choose to risk their lives and the lives of their family to rescue Jewish people. In different situations different people found ways to be heroic or not (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA). There are few moral heroes in reality, and they are praiseworthy, but we can’t expect them to present a solution to our problems as they seem to in all the movies. There were people in this story who could easily have made a different choice.

    In the Spring of 1933 Germany had its last free elections. There are many reasons why they were led to this impasse, and I’ve treated them somewhat in an episode of this podcast. Ultimately it boils down to a near universal loss of faith in democracy and in the context of the socialist tradition the crisis took the form of a split in the left about democracy. It’s in those final elections in Weimar Germany that the actions of a decade later were determined, narrowed and captured. Had the left rallied to the democratic Weimar republic, or simply been able to form a government with conservatives, those conservatives may not have felt they needed to lift Hitler into power. As I discuss in the episode on Germany, a dozen conservative governments around Europe blocked fascists from taking power, depending on if they could find support on the left for a democratic coalition. The Jewish staff of German death camps could only choose to work or die, but that circumstance was forced on them by the German electorate who could have done better. The Germans could have avoided the disaster: Ukrainians could not have. Trump supporting Americans will do no better. We are currently living a moment where we have the ability to avoid disaster. If Trump wins a second term our choices narrow down considerably. We’re not just risking our ability to live, but also risking our ability to avoid for our fellow Americans the shame of collaboration, which is much worse. Throughout this podcast I have shown that no one in power is an angel or a devil, and the same is true of us all.

    To say the same thing in different words: before 2016 Republicans weren’t ready to separate masses of immigrant children from their parents, or to end Social Security, or destroy our democratic institutions on behalf of a third rate Russian gangster wannabe. Trump’s support has been steady at 40% according to 538. These people are being groomed to become genuine nazi storm troopers. They don’t seem concerned over the way our retirement homes have become slaughter houses of covid. They don’t seem to mind ending Social Security. If you are disappointed in your family and friends not wearing masks, then please consider what crimes they will be capable of in year 2 or 3 of a second Trump term. Government officials can be coopted, fired, turkey farmed as we saw in Michael Lewis’ work. We can expect local police departments to cooperate with or be replaced with federal agents and as the corruption spreads ultimately the federal government can be expected to allow gangs of brownshirts to operate with impunity. It’s no good organizing a breaklight clinic when federal agents and their white supremacist lackeys are kidnapping our leaders off the street without provocation, when they don’t need probable cause. As Hannah Arendt rightly pointed out, when Nazis lie they are providing justifications for what they intend to do. If it were true that BLM were fascistic Bolsheviks, as Bill Bar has testified in Congress, what would be justified? That is what Trump intends to do. Trump inc. have drafted legislation that would deny antifa of American citizenship. Antifa can be anyone they say it is. Without American citizenship they can torture us, imprison us indefinitely, take our lives, try us as enemy combatants. People who think America is one long continuous exercise of arbitrary power by white supremacists show a failure of imagination. Tulsa would be read by future generations as a prelude to a second Trump term.

    I’m ending a period where I worked exclusively on this podcast so that I can work instead to help elect Joe Biden. I’m not under any illusions that Biden represents a solution to all our woes, but I also don’t think it’s the case that he is just the lesser evil. Joe Biden’s platform, if implemented, would be the most progressive advance in our country since the New Deal. Joe Biden’s long career, which I discuss at length in the final episode, is marked by his blunt honesty about his political positions and a commitment to finding a negotiated solution, however imperfect, to our nation’s problems. He’s a man with a keen understanding of what is politically possible, and he has never misrepresented his political beliefs to win or pander to voters. Many of those beliefs were certain to alienate some progressives. That’s why I’m sure that if it’s in his platform, he sincerely believes in it and thinks it is possible. This fills me with hope. Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, a person who signed on to Sander’s M4A plan, confirms what I said there, that Biden intends to pass a strong redistributive New Deal for racial equality. That’s probably why Michael Moore has called Harris the most progressive VP candidate we have had in our lifetime (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-7Z6Hep9zA). Moore is confused about why Biden would choose Harris because he doesn’t understand Biden. You can listen to my Guide to Biden episode and be a lot smarter than Michael Moore is being in this podcast. But even he is smart enough to know Harris is a progressive, and Biden’s choice is a sign that he’s tacking to the left, that he is listening with an open heart to his critics in the progressive movement. People didn’t notice Biden’s new leftward lean because they didn’t read his platform and are dominated by propaganda.

    As of this writing, Joe Biden has a strong lead in the polls, eleven points is what NPR reported this morning. He has to do better than win, though: he has to win in the electoral college. If the vote count is close in a state with a Republican governor, counting could be ended before all the votes are counted and Trump could win a state where he lost the real vote. If Biden wins with a slight advantage in the electoral college Trump could contest the outcome in court, in a court system he has had an outsized role in shaping. In short, we have a chance though by no means a certainty of victory.

    People say that Biden will just perpetuate the system that got us here. If you mean back to another election where we have a chance to win, then yes it is true Biden will bring us back here. Trump will not: he will end meaningful democracy in a second term. But Biden is not running on the promise of a return to a past condition. In this podcast I have cited the work of a multitude of sociologists, data scientists and socialist organizers from Hajnal, Acharya, McElwee, Bayard Rustin and Stacey Abrams and more to show that moderate popular progressive legislation like the Voting Rights Act has measurable effects fighting racist attitudes. There is consensus in the scholarly community that nothing else has the same impact, not political campaigns, not activism, nothing but moderate progressive legislation. As I highlighted in the episode on the German revolution, Lenin himself believed that supporting moderates against the far right was an essential task for revolutionaries, crucially because he identifies this process is the one where the working class learns its needs and abilities. There is no path to power for socialists that does not require shifting public opinion. That’s how we change the system, and again, Biden is the strongest hope we’ve had in our lifetime to achieve those goals.

    If you spend any amount of time online in left spaces on social media you will find a table of doom with a list of political issues and one column is Trump and the other is Biden. Then the rest of the table is supposed to be their respective political positions. These are all false, superficial, half-true, dumb. First off, no one has a political position that can be summed up in one word. Don’t be lazy: this is serious. Read Biden’s platform before you give yourself the privilege of an opinion about Joe Biden. If there’s some aspect of Biden or his politics that you think I should have addressed but did not, understand I covered the points that were important. There is a lot I studied intensely and then left out, because it was not important or it was based on misinformation. I would encourage you to do more research than you make conclusions, and to understand that far left media is compromised, as I worked in this podcast to show, and that the options in front of us are progress or fascism. Full luxury space communism is not currently on the menu. If we choose progress, then better options open to us.

    I have exhaustively discussed the socialist tradition, and I think shown that there are resources in that tradition for socialists to find a way out of the trap they are currently in. From Marx’s rejection of revolutionary conspiracies to the democratic movement the Bolsheviks rode to power and then betrayed in the Russian Revolution to the discussion of how German Communists aided Hitler’s rise to power by attacking the fledgling Weimar republic to Garcia Oliver’s appeal to Catalan anarchists to support the Spanish Republic against Franco to the failure of Indonesian communists under the influence of Maoism to fight for democracy instead of their abortive coup attempt, I have documented exhaustively how Socialists fail time and again when they abandon democratic values. And here is where the socialists of today are failing. Bernie Sanders lost the primary because he lost the vote, not because of some shadow conspiracy. We have to respect the democratic will of the people, and continue, as Lenin advised, to patiently explain. As I told my comrades on the steps of city hall last May Day, we can no longer put forward the idea that socialism means having a socialist in power. We cannot and should not want to force on the people projects that they reject in open and free elections.

    There are resources in the socialist tradition to affirm democracy and human rights, but it is in no way guaranteed that socialists today will take advantage of them. I can’t say if the socialist movement will be able to reform, but so long as they continue to support candidates running on the Democratic ticket they will have to appeal to the democratically expressed will of the public. If they can stop labeling anyone in the center left an enemy, they may be able to grow. If their attitude continues to be dominated by partisanship they will be handicapped in the struggle, and they will be stuck in the contradiction between the authoritarian and democratic tendencies in the socialist movement. There is always the temptation for Socialists to try and force their will on a public that hasn’t yet agreed to all of their ideas. The vote abstention movement is an act of violence socialists are committing as punishment for people not choosing Bernie Sanders: it is an expression of authoritarianism.

    Let’s call the Trump Presidency what it is: a lynching. The official line of the Democratic Socialists of America is to stand on the sidelines. When Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race the DSA National Political Committee put out a statement reiterating their commitment to the struggle against poverty and racism, while rejecting the most important thing that we need to do now to fight those things: lift Joe Biden into the Presidency(https://www.dsausa.org/statements/beyond-bernie-a-statement-from-the-dsa-national-political-committee/). This is intentional bystanderism. This is standing on the sideline watching a lynching, arms folded. The national organization has encouraged its various locals to act busy doing a lot of other good things that won’t matter if Trump gets a second term. I’m glad if you endorse a winning progressive in a local election, but that’s not going to matter if Trump can claim our nation as his private property. You can’t mutual aid or grass roots organize against a Fascist who has consolidated ultimate executive power and tamed the judiciary.

    Some will say “don’t vote shame me.” How very American to reject an attempt to hold people responsible for something they are doing. Look, you shouldn’t fat shame people because that’s maybe not something they can change. You shouldn’t kink shame people so long as everything is happening between consenting adults. If someone murders someone else in cold blood it makes no sense to say “don’t murder shame me.” Especially when we’re talking about a harm you intend to do to someone else, but haven’t yet. Trying to dissuade you is a good thing. If you are in a swing state and you are voting for Trump or for a third party you are causing harm, and you should be ashamed. Some will say “but I don’t live in a swing state.” Don’t stand on the side during a lynching and pretend there’s nothing you can do. And if you do, don’t try and fool people into believing you are the champion of the downtrodden. Stand up and stop this lynching. Donate to the Biden campaign. Phone bank with the Biden Campaign. Text “organize” to 43367 to get started. Read his damn platform and understand he doesn’t endorse policy he doesn’t believe in and doesn’t think is possible. Understand that the left press is dominated by disinformation and stop spreading it online. Step up and stop this lynching.

    Given the continued domination of the US’ left’s media and thought by the dirtbag left, by Jacobin, by the Glen Greenwalds and Max Blumenthals, the useful idiots at Rolling Stone, by Ryan Grim, Katie Halper, Matt Taibbi, Nathan Robinson and so many others, there is no interest for me in helping to build any of the socialist’s parties as they exist. When these people put forward the argument that a Joe Biden presidency just perpetuates the system that made Trump possible they are claiming that liberal democracy always leads to fascism. Well, liberal democracy leads wherever we want to go because that’s what democracy means, and in each election we can always choose to give up on democracy or to make progress. Once we’ve lost democracy our options narrow. I’ve made the argument that every time socialists give up on democracy they lose. That’s the path they want for us: they want us to give up on democracy and let Trump win, because they claim Biden is no better. They think that the pendulum will swing back to give us socialism. Serious study of fascist movements in Germany (Sheridan-Allen), in Italy (Paxton), in Russia (Gessen, Snyder), in modern Turkey (Temelkuran) tell us that there is no pendulum swing, there is no rock bottom to fascism. Fascism ends when we stand up to it and support democracy, or once it has left the world in utter devestation. You cannot fight fascism by capitulating to fascism.

    I stopped organizing for the DSA when I realized I was building an institution that would actively try and suppress the vote for Joe Biden, whom I expected would win the primary as far back as January of 2020. It was clear from the results of the 2018 midterm that the public wanted to elect moderate democrats. By focusing their criticisms on Biden, and these criticisms are largely unfair and easily debunked with a little effort, the Democratic Socialist’s of America and the far left more generally is objectively helping Donald Trump achieve a second term. I cannot be a part of that. I will not stand to be gaslit anymore, told that Syrian protesters are crisis actors paid by the CIA or that Russian propaganda didn’t suppress the vote for Clinton in 2016, that there were no Bernie Bros posting snake emojis and calling Elizabeth Warren a backstabber, or calling the Senator from California a Cop rather than a progressive prosecutor and champion for equality, which is what Kamala Harris is (https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2020/08/10/kamala-harris-progressive-pioneer-san-francisco-da-column/3334668001/). There have been far too many lies, half truths and assumptions made, far too much conspiracy thinking on the far left, far too much accepted as true because it feels that way and the group all agrees, and a complete rejection of open debate. Real cancel culture is never hearing a dissenting opinion. I’m proving that as I speak because for sure I’ll be canceled after this. I’m not worried because the people cancelling me are vastly outnumbered. One final word to socialists who think Biden is the devil: You can deny the truth. You can ignore it, but each time you do you incur a debt to reality, and reality always collects. With this podcast done, I will now spend my energies actively supporting the Biden campaign. I expect to find a great many friends awaiting me in the Democratic Party, and if the socialists ever get their house in order, they may find us ready to build with them. My name is Lelyn R. Masters, and that’s A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac.

  • Mr. Jennings

    September 1st, 2020  |  56 mins 51 secs

    Mr. Jennings taught me US History in High School.

  • 17. A Guide to Joe Biden

    August 4th, 2020  |  1 hr 5 mins
    civil rights, election 2020, joe biden, violence against women act

    Regardless of whether I agree with Joe Biden’s politics, after reading about him in depth I really like Joe Biden. I did not expect to like Joe Biden. I expected to find him to be an acceptable alternative to Donald Trump. But now I have real hope that a Biden presidency could transform our nation. Hear me out!

    In 2010 Jules Witcover published an excellent biography of Joe Biden entitled: “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.” If you can only read one book about Joe Biden, that should be the one. Biden’s 2007 autobiography “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics” give a little more detail about his motivations at key moments. His 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” is Joe Biden’s telling of the year his son Beau died of cancer and how Biden managed being the Vice President through that. Joe Biden is like FDR in that they both suffered great hardship, and that personal tragedy drove them to seek out compassionate policy. But we should start from the beginning.

    Joe Biden’s childhood was idyllic. Joe was a star athlete throughout childhood, and apparently a fearless little dare devil. He did stunts, like Jackass, except he never got hurt. He had a community that rallied to him and lifted him up. His family was not wealthy, but they were not poor. They were upper middle class, though his Father Biden Sr. suffered a series of business failures and periodic unemployment throughout Joe’s early childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The family is Irish Catholic, and so Biden had temperance drilled into him at a young age. It’s possible Joe Biden has never had an alcoholic drink. His parents seem to have succeeded in instilling in Joe Biden a basic optimism about human nature: the idea that people don’t mean to harm each other really, but they end up doing it on accident seems to be something Joe Biden fundamentally believes in. When Joe was 10 his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware where Biden Sr. got work cleaning boilers. Joe’s family couldn’t afford to send him to private school, but the young athletic teen had ambitions so he did a work study program. He worked as a janitor at the school so he could attend Archmere Academy (Witcover, p. 21). Joe Biden has a stutter, and he was made fun of by other kids and even one of the nuns who taught at his private school. That first experience of being humiliated for something he had no control over seems to inform the rest of his career: it’s probably why he became a civil rights activist.

    Teen Joe Biden hung out at a burger joint called the Charcoal Pit. I just imagine the typical 50s pharmacy hang out where kids would go to have milkshakes after school. Joe Biden was a football star who wanted to become a priest. His mother insisted that he go to college first. The Archmere football team, the Archmere Archers, ended a long losing streak in 1960 thanks in part to Joe’s talents at playing half-back. Wilmington was not as segregated as much of the United States, and the football team had a Black player, Frank Hutchins. One day the owner of the Charcoal Pit refused to serve Frank Hutchins, and in response Joe Biden led the team in a walk out in protest. I’ve been around activist culture for a long time, but I haven’t met anyone who led a protest against racial discrimination in High School. That’s who Joe Biden is. Around this time is when Joe Biden became a lifeguard at a public swimming pool in the Black part of town. Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein. One of the things Coates mentions that makes him optimistic about the current moment is that white people seem to be aware of the racial discrimination that Black people face in America, an awareness that was missing in ‘68. It’s no small thing that Joe Biden was aware of racial discrimination in ‘61. Though he was not throughout his life big on going to protests, he did march in the sixties in support of desegregation (Witcover, p. 31).

    In 1969 Joe Biden was a lawyer working at a fancy law firm Pricket, Ward, Burt and Sanders (Witcover, p.51). It was his first job as a lawyer. One day that year Biden helped write the defense of a company, Catalytic Construction Company. A welder had been badly burned and crippled, but because the worker had not been wearing protective gear the lawsuit failed to get him compensation. Biden decided he didn’t like practicing that kind of law, so he quit and took a much lower paying job as a public defender. Most of his clients were Black. His first case was a robbery, and the defendant, Mr. Earl Larkin, confessed the crime to Biden. Biden had been given one day to prepare to defend Larkin and lost the case. Several years later Biden, then a Senator, was touring a state prison with a reporter. All these inmates recognized Joe Biden, and the reporter quipped that Biden must be a helluva lawyer or something like that, making fun of the fact that many of Biden’s clients were behind bars. Witcover describes what happened next: “an arm reached out and grabbed the reporter, telling him ‘I’ll tell you one thing. Biden will stand up for a black motherfucker, unlike you!’ The inmate, Biden said, was none other than his first client, Earl Larkin.” (p. 55). In 1970 Joe Biden successfully runs for a county council seat. He won by 2,000 votes in an election where Democrats suffered big losses statewide (Wicover, p. 59). Biden made a name for himself on the council for fighting corporate developments, particularly in the oil industry, that threatened the local environment, taking on Shell’s attempts to set up refineries along Delaware’s coastline. (p. 62).

    In 1972 Joe Biden ran for Senate. He was running against a three term incumbent. Delaware is a small state, so Joe Biden was able to engage most of the electorate in a street fight, going door to door. He ran against the Vietnam War, though not against any and all American intervention overseas. He was also against granting amnesty for people who had dodged the draft, and against legalizing marijuana. In other words, there has always been in Joe Biden’s platform something for everyone to hate. But Joe Biden was never able to lie to people for political advantage. He never pandered to the public for personal gain. This will come up again and again in the discussion that follows: you may not like what Joe Biden is saying, but you can be sure he means it. One thing that forces itself on you when you investigate Joe Biden’s political career is that he was in the fight for racial equality before he was a politician, all the way back to High School. It was his strong stand for desegregation that earned him the support of Sonia Sloan. She passed away this past October at the age of 91, and according to her obituary she “was an advocate for Planned Parenthood in Delaware, the ACLU and the YWCA. She also opposed the Vietnam War” (https://www.delawarepublic.org/post/delaware-democratic-activist-sonia-sloan-dies-age-91). Sloan supported every one of Joe Biden’s campaigns over the years, and that started in 1972 when by her recommendation the Council for a Livable World invested $25,000 in Biden’s longshot Senate campaign. They are taking a bet on desegregation, because that’s what Joe Biden is about. Biden was running on a platform of voting rights, civil rights, calling for a national health care program for families in need and a capital gains tax. Regarding his fund raising efforts during that campaign he wrote this: “when I began to show strength adn it looked as though I might win, thirteen multimillionaires from my state invited me to cocktails. The spokesman of the group said, ‘Well, Joe, we would like to ask you a few questions. We know that everybody running for public office feels compelled to talk about tax reform, and we know that you have been talking tax reform, particularly capital gains and gains for millionaires by consequence of unearned income.’ Then one man -as if to say it was just among us- ‘Joe, you really don’t mean what you say about capital gains, do you?’ Again, I knew what the right answer to that question [and it] was worth $20,000 in contributions. I did not give the correct answers… and accordingly I received no money.’” (Wicover, p. 79).

    He won that first senate bid, and before he was even sworn in he suffered a terrible tragedy. His wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident. He almost didn’t serve as Senator, but people convinced him that his country needed him and that diving into the work would help him forget. He kept his house in Delaware, and his sister Valerie moved in to help him take care of his two remaining sons Beau and Hunter. This is when he became notorious for taking Amtrak trains every day early in the evening, around 4pm. He had to get home to be with his family. It meant he didn’t socialize with the other Senators. It meant he wasn’t as popular personally. He would often miss votes on the Senate floor. This is part of what I meant earlier when I said that Joe Biden is someone who has suffered terribly in life, and that this is part of where his compassion comes from. That compassion isn’t fake. It’s not political theatre. Again, you may disagree with him on policy, but I don’t think anyone who looks at Joe Biden’s life can really claim he isn’t motivated by a real desire to serve the public and to be a comfort for those who suffer.

    Before we get into Biden’s political career is as good a moment as any to address the accusation of corruption. It’s a banal commonplace on the left today to call Biden a corporate Democrat, to casually assume that Biden’s political judgements are controlled by corporate interests. We’ve already discussed the David v. Goliath struggles of Biden as a county councilman, and his refusal of quid pro quo arrangements to fund his campaign in 1972. But what about Biden the full grown Senator? Delaware experienced a boom in its banking sector after some key deregulation at the state level in 1980 (Witcover, p. 292). Biden has never served on the Senate’s Banking Committee, though he is obligated to provide constituency services to some of the biggest financial institutions in the world. David Bakerian, the president and CEO of the Delaware Bankers Association describes Biden this way, from Witcover: “we have upward of thirty-five thousand people working in the banking community in Delaware, a very large employment force in a state this small, the largest non farming industry in Delaware. People would say Biden was close to the industry because we were such a large constituency, so whether we were banking or autos, depending on what state it was, he would listen to our concerns and he would vote with us sometimes and not vote with us other times. Joe was always fairly evenhanded. In the same vein, he would not be what I would call an overly probusiness legislator. He was supported generally by the banking industry, but that had more to do with his seniority than with his voting record.” (p. 295). In Biden’s 1996 bid for the Senate Biden’s opponent claimed that the Maryland Bankers National Association had overpaid when Joe Biden sold his house in Wilmington. Biden released the financial records of the deal showing the appraised value was about the same as the price paid (p. 295). Ok, so we don’t have any proof of financial wrongdoing over the span of a 36 year career in the Senate. That doesn’t prove 100% that there never was any. Well, consider that according to the required public statements regarding personal finances, again from Witcover, Biden is “among the least financially secure of all members of the Senate. His home was his most valuable material possession, and he and Jill were living off his Senate salary of about $166,000 a year in 2006 and her smaller salary as a community college teacher” (p. 299). If Biden is bought by corporate interests, then he’s doing it wrong. Let’s talk about Biden’s political career, starting in 1972 as the young civil rights activist and former public defence attorney is beginning the healing process from having lost his wife and child and his first term as a Senator at the same time.

    Within the civil rights movement there was a split about how to desegregate. In an earlier episode we discussed how in 1972 Amiri Baraka and Julian Bond and too many others to mention all met in Gary, Indiana to work out a united political front to advance the interests of Black people at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC). Richard G. Hatcher had become the first Black mayor of Gary in 1967. Hatcher was a lawyer who won a landmark desegregation case in Gary in 1962 (Johnson, p. 102). There were lots of different ideas about how to desegregate. One of these ideas was to take school busing, which in many places was in place to enforce school segregation, and to use busing instead to desegregate schools. The Black Agenda that came out of the 1972 NBPC rejected busing as a tool for desegregation stating that busing was “a bankrupt, suicidal method of desegregating schools, based on the false notion that black children are unable to learn unless they are in the same setting as white children.” (Delmont, p.1). The anti-busing part of the 1972 statement was publicly denounced by many Black leaders including the Congressional Black Caucus (https://www.nytimes.com/1972/05/20/archives/black-convention-eases-busing-and-israeli-stands-but-the-guidelines.html). The civil rights movement was split. Joe Biden opposed busing as a tool for desegregation, preferring progressive measures to help Black people get access to quality housing. To be clear, Biden was for busing to desegregate schools wherever a court mandated it: wherever a court could prove that public policy was creating segregated schools, Biden was all for the courts ordering an end to those policies. But when people were trying to make busing a method to try and desegregate places that were de facto segregated, not by any government policy but just because of history, Biden thought some other kind of policy should be used, namely housing policy, which he thought would get at the root of the matter. He also thought that busing would make white flight worse: that turned out to be true. In ‘72 Biden could see that the public housing blocks that the previous generation of liberal politicians had built were a poverty trap. In his first term in office Biden pushed for housing reform, specifically urban homesteading. He wanted the Federal Housing Administration to take over abandoned homes and sell them cheaply to low income households. In other words, he didn’t want to just bus a lucky few token Black children to another school district, he wanted to give Black families a chance to move into better neighborhoods. It’s a more radical kind of desegregation. The old Democratic establishment, people like Hubert Humphrey, felt that Biden was attacking their accomplishments and feeding the right wing narratives that public housing was a failure. But public housing in the form of large block house tenements was a failure: it’s just that Biden recognized it before any of the old guard democrats. (Biden, PTK, p. 108).

    Much has been made lately of Biden’s friendly relationship with segregationists. Biden wasn’t friends with segregationists because he shared their racialist philosophies. He was friendly with them because that helped him beat their segregationist policies. I’ll talk some about what his approach was and what it accomplished, but first I have to speak with woke white people for a moment. Here’s another PSA:

    Dear woke white people,
    When you block an old friend or family member for saying something racist, you make sure you can never help that person grow or change. You can never convince that person to be even a little less racist. You are claiming the privilege to be able to not have people you know who are racist. But if you can’t have that conversation with them, no one can. You’re letting us all down. Setting boundaries because someone is abusive is one thing, but blocking someone because you get embarrassed by what they say is failing to engage the fight against racism. White people have got to challenge the racism of other white people. Stop blocking people for being racist and start challenging them in a consistent and friendly way, and stop shaming each other for having racist friends. How is racism ever going to be challenged if racists don’t have any nonracist friends? White people, we need to do better. End of PSA.

    Over the course of this podcast I have regularly recalled to the listener that the task of government is to promote the well being of the people and to negotiate differences of opinion. Where governments have failed to represent the will of the people they have suffered illegitimacy, for instance the managed democracy of Germany after 1871, or they have devolved into civil war as in Spain in the 30s. Joe Biden has one political value that is stronger than any other: that is that government shouldn’t represent the interests of any minority but should reflect the consensus opinion of society so far as that is possible. That’s why when he describes his first term in the Senate he describes so emotively how his desk sat between those of the radical Democrat Webster and the state’s rights Calhoun. After 30 years of these two men debating the issue the nation broke out in Civil War. He then discusses how one day in that time he had badmouthed Jesse Helms as heartless, and how Mike Mansfield took him aside to inform him that Helms had several years back adopted a child with cerebral palsy. Mansfield suggested Biden would be more productive as a Senator if he tried to find the good in everyone. Biden: “There was nothing difficult about taking Mansfield’s advice. In the Biden family, even as children, there had always been an assumption of good intentions… Never once has a member of the Biden family purposefully inflicted pain on another. We start with an assumption of goodwill toward one another. The same should hold true in the Senate family, Mansfield was reminding me. It’s probably the single most important piece of advice I got in my career.” (p. 111).

    As for what we gained from the work Democrats did in the 60s and 70s in coalition with people they radically disagreed with on segregation? Well, segregationist Dixiecrats, while they were alienated from the Democratic party at large, remained a powerful force in the Senate through to the 90s. They had seniority, which we discussed the importance of previously in the episode on Black Power. The civil rights Democrats were fighting asymmetric warfare against an entrenched enemy (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/06/28/why-joe-biden-was-right-work-with-segregationists/). When the majority Democrat Senate Chairman Mike Mansfield moved the Civil Rights Act to the floor for a vote in 1964 he was bypassing the dixiecratic Judiciary Committee. That, along with Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the bill was thought of by the Dixiecrats as a betrayal, and so the southern chairmen afterwards formed a bloc that wouldn’t allow the chairman to wield power in that way again. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have passed, by the way, if it had not been for the fact that 27 Republicans voted for it. In 1975 when the Civil Rights Act came up for renewal, Eastman appointed Senator Hart to head the Judiciary Committee to review it, knowing Hart would pass the bill to the Senate for a vote (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/06/biden-segregationist-eastland-talmadge/592228/). Another segregationist Talmadge helped pass food stamps and supported the Watergate investigations. Dixiecrats helped elect Jimmy Carter. And finally, without Biden having made a personal friendship with segregationist Senator Eastland, Biden could not have come to chair the Judiciary committee where as we shall see he likely saved Roe v. Wade by shutting down the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. This was the nature of politics in the 70s: segregationists had seniority and had to be engaged. When Biden was invited to give the eulogy for Strom Thurmond, he was surprised but he went and eulogized Strom Thurmond. In that eulogy, which I link to in the transcripts, Joe Biden declares that Thurmond had sincerely left his racist opinions behind, citing how Thurmond had voted against poll taxes, for the extension of the Voting Rights Act and for the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. day as a national holiday (https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/joebidenstromthurmondeulogy.htm). I think you can try and criticize Biden about whether he made the right trade offs in particular instances, but you cannot fault him for playing the game. The worst outcome would have been to leave the field to the segregationists.

    Biden’s abortion stand is not perfect, but it’s honest. He became a Senator right after Roe v. Wade, and so right away he had to cast votes regarding abortion. He took the stand that women had a legal right in accordance with Roe v. Wade, based on their right to privacy, but he didn’t want public funds going to abortion services. It’s a political stand that he takes on moral grounds, being a devout Catholic, and it was guaranteed to upset everyone. At the same time, you know he means what he says. Throughout the 70s and 80s Biden voted against federal assistance to health insurance that could fund abortions, even in the case of rape and incest. Recently he reversed this stand, and I think it’s of a bigger ideological change in Joe Biden that has been a long time coming. There is a common ideological thread that runs through Biden’s thinking on all of these issues from busing to the Vietnam War to Abortion access: all of these positions imagine that the government should play a small role in peoples’ lives. Government should protect people from corporate abuse and from being forced into unjust wars (more on that later), should ensure equal access to services regardless of race, but shouldn’t try and force people to not be racist (in the case of busing). If people were making morally bad choices, then government could help make drugs illegal or try and improve education and opportunities so women would be less likely to want an abortion. But government wouldn’t make it illegal, or help fund it. I have a criticism of this philosophy, but it’s worth understanding because Biden is going to be our next President, and this seems to have been his philosophy especially early on. The assumption is that if government just makes sure that people aren’t being actively harmed that people should be able to thrive, but offering a helping hand risks playing favorites, which is harmful. The clearest expression of this ideology came out when Biden, as head of the Judiciary committee headed up the hearing to confirm Justice Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. I think it’s around the time of Bork’s nonconfirmation and then Justice Thomas’ confirmation that Biden’s thinking shifts and then we get the Violence Against Women Act. But first let’s talk about Bork.

    In 1987 Joe Biden launched his first campaign for President, and a few days later Justice Powell Jr. announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. President Ronald Reagan put forward Justice Robert Bork to replace Powell. Bork had been Nixon’s solicitor general, the guy who agreed to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Bork was replacing Powell, who after he was appointed by Nixon ended up ruling in favor of liberal causes like abortion rights, affirmative action and the separation of church and state (Witcover, p. 171). All kinds of special interest groups wanted to testify against Bork, but Biden wouldn’t let any of them testify. The nomination process was focused primarily on privacy rights. Biden got Bork to say that because an explicit right to privacy wasn’t written into the constitution that Bork might not have to uphold it on the Supreme Court. Biden was making the point that we all have natural rights, given to us by God. Bork thought we only had rights that were explicitly granted in the constitution. Biden became obsessed with Bork’s nomination to the point that his presidential campaign suffered and failed. It’s clear that at some point Biden made a conscious decision to focus on the Bork nomination and to sacrifice his presidential hopes. Biden argued that if Bork were appointed, with his strict construction of the constitution, that it would change the nature of our government. It was essentially a conservative argument about not making big change happen, but in this case it was being made to guarantee privacy rights, and of course one thinks of Roe v. Wade at this point. Roe v. Wade doesn’t rest on a woman’s rights over her body, but on her right to privacy with her doctor. Struck v. SecDef was the case to take to the Supreme Court to argue that lack of access to abortion impacted women’s equal protection, but it never went to the Supreme Court. It would have been a stronger protection, but instead we have Roe that is based on privacy rights. It’s a whole thing, and I’ll link to a good podcast explaining it (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/on-the-media-body-law-beyond-roe). Biden succeeded in getting Bork’s appointment denied, and in doing so he saved Roe v. Wade and much more. The spot on the Supreme Court was taken later by Justice Kennedy, who is a wild mixed bag of a Justice who deserves his own podcast, and then later because Bush senior had learned from this not to try and appoint justices from the far right, the next vacancy went to Justice Souter. Souter voted in the minority to allow a recount of that election in 2000 where the court let Bush Jr. take the Presidency from Al Gore despite irregularities in Florida, and then later Souter retired basically in protest of how Citizens United was decided. Anyway, Biden’s fight to defeat Bork’s nomination was a major victory for progressives, and it really made Biden develop his political thinking. After Bork, Justices became very tight lipped during their confirmation hearings, with Justice Thomas for instance famously saying during his hearing that he had no opinion about Roe. But in between time Joe Biden began championing a law that addressed women’s oppression as if it were a matter of civil rights. That was the Violence Against Women Act.

    Between Bork and the VAWA the question screams at us: what if formally equal protection under the law were not enough? Bork’s point, that government didn’t have a responsibility to uphold any rights that weren’t explicitly guaranteed in the constitution, was pretty close to the way that Biden had legislated up to that point. The Biden who opposed busing would have had to agree with Bork: maybe it is racist where people live but that’s not for the government to say. Biden opposed de jure racial discrimination, explicit legal discrimination, but not de facto segregation: he thought that if government could level the playing field, but not by much, that racial inequality would go away on its own. But the Violence Against Women Act was different. What I think has shifted is an awareness that, as the recent protests over George Floyd have shown, a majority now have that if government does nothing, then existing inequalities get worse. People who are socially forced into unequal relationships, via systemic racism for instance, when they are treated formally and legally the same way means that those institutional inequalities only get worse. With the VAWA Biden showed that he was coming to this awareness, and that where he could he would want to stand for equality.

    In December of 1989 a man walked into a college classroom in Montreal, separated the class by sex, and shot fourteen women saying that they were all feminists. The event had a deep impact on Joe Biden, whose daughter Ashley was passionate for the cause of abused women, later becoming a social worker (pp. 309-310). Though it had been brewing since the early seventies, the movement against domestic abuse and violence against women had not found its way into meaningful legislation. Right around this time crime was rising precipitously, and it peaked around 1991 (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/crime-trends-1990-2016). At the time, of course, society at large was very concerned about crime (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/6/20/18677998/joe-biden-1994-crime-bill-law-mass-incarceration). In response, the Senate was working on a crime bill, which finally passed in 1994. Crime has fallen every year since. Bernie Sanders supported the Crime Bill. A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the crime bill. Joe Biden, it is said, wrote the crime bill, because Joe Biden oversaw the committee that wrote the crime bill. But contrary to what some people might think, the crime bill didn’t happen because patriarch Joe Biden forced his will on the nation. Everyone supported the crime bill, and it would have happened even if Joe Biden had opposed it. But in that case someone else would have written the crime bill. Joe Biden even opposed the three strikes rule, but Biden couldn’t make just any law he wanted to: this is a democracy. The law gave the states increased funding for police and prisons. But Joe Biden didn’t disengage from the process either, and he was honestly a candidate who had always believed in the fair and firm application of the law, championing the war against drugs through the 70s and 80s. We note in passing that because Biden engaged with the process of passing the crime bill it included a ban on assault weapons, support for addiction treatment and a “safety valve” that would let off first time offenders. But more importantly, Joe Biden decided this was his opportunity to do something about violence against women.

    The Violence Against Women Act provides resources for women suffering from domestic violence and rape, with temporary housing assistance and rape crisis center funding. It’s renewed every 5 years, and the version in 2019 if renewed would end impunity for non-Native perpetrators of violence against Native women. The bill classified violence against women as a hate crime and therefore a civil rights offense. It correctly recognized that the oppression of women by patriarchal violence robs them of equal status with men. In 1995 the Rehnquist Supreme Court struck down that part of the VAWA, which is tragic and something we should fight against by putting a president in the White House who will appoint more enlightened Justices. That being said, let’s focus just for a moment on what Joe Biden’s law meant philosophically. It meant that he saw that if the federal government was going to credibly claim to stand for equal rights for all, then it would have to intervene to stop the behavioral paths, to borrow a concept from Acharya et al (see episode 3), to stop the cycles of violence against vulnerable and oppressed groups. And he was ready to enforce the ending of those patterns of inequality with a large police force. Again, I welcome you to have a philosophical difference with Joe Biden, but I think we have to understand his political work as it is. The 1994 Crime Bill was going to happen with or without Joe Biden: he chose to use it as a vehicle to fight patriarchy. In so doing he was making a strong philosophical break with his previous political path of just keeping the state out of private affairs. These are important changes in political philosophy, and they go a long way to explaining how Joe Biden came to his 2020 platform. Before we talk about that platform we have to talk about his experience in foriegn policy.

    Though Biden sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I want to focus on his work after he became the Chair of that committee in 1987.

    In May of 1980 Yosip Broz Tito died. He was the authoritarian ruler of Yugoslavia: he had led his country on a path independent of the United States and of Soviet Russia. In 2018 Jasmin Mujanovic blessed the world with his book entitled: “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.” The book describes the Balkans as a region that has historically been ruled by local dictators who negotiated their rule with some foriegn power or other, first the Turks and then the Russian. The book stands as a challenge to American and European powers in the region to promote democracy there, and not just repeat the old model of local client to global patron that existed continually in the past. It is also mainly a history of the struggle for democracy there starting after WW2. Quoting from Nick Miller, Mujanovic describes the situation in Yugoslavia after 1980 in these terms: “In short, economic criminality in the 1980s, war crimes int eh 1990s, and contemporary corruption in the Western Balkans should be understood as points along the same continuum. The most recent instances were and remain only the most extreme versions of processes begun in the 1980s and are in many cases perpetrated by exactly the same people. Earlier, when some semblance of a principled democratic opposition still existed, these practices could have been challenged, perhaps even reversed. But by the 1980s the entire structure of the Yugoslave state was beset by the competing, autarchic, and corrupt interests of the various republcian cliques: ‘More devastating for the specific ideology of Yugoslav socialism was the fact that the economic crises of the 1980s provided fuel for increased regionalism (often ethnically constituted) and a further weakening of the federal centre as a decision-making force… By 1986 federal policy-making had essentially ceased.” (p. 65) In the vacuum left by the death of Tito, and in the absence of a strong government response to the democratic will of the people, the people turned to ethno-nationalism and mafia style patriarchs to solve their problems. It is easy to see the resulting wars of the 90s as inevitable, but surely they were not. I highly recommend Mujanovic, and I wish I could spend several podcasts lifting up his work. Here I just wanted to recommend him and us his insight to frame US involvement in Yugoslavia.

    Mujanovic goes on to describe how the US and European powers, when confronted by the social chaos brewing in the former Yugoslavia, decided to negotiate partitions between various ethnic zones. The problem is always that populations are always mixed ethnically, and so polities based on ethnicity immediately confront competing claims over which bits of land belong to whom. Because the premise of ethno-nationalism is that people of different ethnicities shouldn’t have to work together and live together in the same state the whole enterprise finally depends upon ethnic cleansing. Slobodan Milosevic rose to power by being better at consolidating Serbian nationalism than anyone else, and with the help of US Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman.

    As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden was present for disarmament talks in the late 80s that included Tito himself as well as American cold war diplomats like Biden’s foriegn policy mentor Averell Harriman. The priorities then for the US were nuclear disarmament, a mutual drawdown of forces, and keeping Yugoslavia independent of Soviet Russia. Tito cared about Yugoslavian independence, but didn’t have much invested in disarmament. Biden later recalled: “Harriman was teaching me two lessons. One, never accept received wisdom about a foreign country or a foreign leader when you can go and see for yourself. Tito might be a ‘Communist,’ but not all Communists were the same. And two, Harriman wanted me to see the benefits of constant engagement, even with avowed enemies. Don’t trust, he’d say, but engage. Be tough, but engage. By keeping up relations with leaders like Tito, we could nudge them toward change.” (p. 249).

    Biden stood out among his fellow Senators in 1991 when he sounded the alarm about the potential for ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, and because his summary of the situation is so clear and truthful I will quote it at length here: “When I told Senate hearings on the Yugoslav problem in 1991, most of my colleagues thought I was being alarmist. There were small skirmishes breaking out back and forth among the Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, but most folks in the U.S. government insisted this was nothing to get worked up about. Slovenia managed to slip out with its independence. Croatia, with support from its old allies, the germans, declared independence, and in seven months of war that left ten thousand dead, it fought Milosevic to a rough stalemate, although ethnic Serbs held onto the Krajina region and part of eastern Croatia. The situation seemed manageable, though by September 1991 the United Nations was sufficiently concerned that it institute an arms embargo in all of Yugoslavia. Leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina decided to play by the international rules. After consulting with the United Nations and the European Community, the Bosnians held a referendum in march 1992 and voted overwhelmingly to secede from Yugoslavia. Many of the Bosnian Serbs, led by a churlish demagogue named Radovan Karadzic, boycotted the vote- because they hadn’t sufficient numbers to change the outcome-and set up their own rump state within Bosnia. In early april 1992, when the international community officially recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milosevic and Karadzic decided it was time to scrub Bosnia of the Croats and, especially, the Muslims.” (pp. 253-254).

    America was painfully slow to respond to reports of a genocide against Albanians by Milosevic. Everyone who wants a better world, or who wants a world where genocide is abolished, should be reading Samantha Power’s 2019 “The Education of An Idealist.” In it she discusses her work trying to shift American policy from one of accommodating to Milosevic as a reliable partner in the region to a vigorous diplomatic and if need be military intervention to halt the ongoing genocide. Here is how she describes the argument in the State department over the Bosnian war, and over America’s passivity in the face of an evolving human rights catastrophe: “The war raged unabated. Four US diplomats -- George Kenney, Marshall Harris, Jon Western, and Stephen Walker -- had already resigned to protest what they saw as the weakness of the US response to the Bosnian war, the largest wave of resignations over US policy in State Department history… Western and other US officials who resigned had initially tried to change policy from within, but having made no headway, had finally quit. They felt they could no longer be part of a US government that wasn’t doing more, reasoning that they could at least draw media attention to what they saw as America’s moral abdication.” (pp. 60-61).The fact is that at the beginning of the 90s a shift was happening in US policy away from tolerating authoritarian governments that they could work with and towards a more robust advocacy of human rights. Clinton’s failure to intervene in Rwanda changed a lot of peoples’ opinions about American nonintervention. When America finally began bombing Milosevic’s forces in 1999 they were acting against one of their clients a decade too late, but they were stopping an ongoing genocide. That’s what it looks like when an imperialist power, waking up from the cold war, makes an effort to promote democracy and human rights, in part against its former clients. It’s remarkable that Biden was ahead of the curve on America’s responsibility toward the peoples of these countries where the US had helped to lift up tyrants.

    Each country is different, and we could discuss what went right and wrong about the United Nations backed effort to rebuild the Balkans after the wars of the 90s, but I think we have to discuss the successful American intervention in the Balkans, along with the September 11th attacks, to understand why America invaded Iraq in 2003. I would suggest that the relative success of the international community rebuilding states in Croatia and Slovenia (Mujanovic, p.100), is a stark contrast to the failed Bush policies in Iraq. Usually the failure in Iraq is blamed on the invasion itself, but it’s closer to the truth to say that the failure in Iraq was caused by policy failures after the invasion and unforeseeable events in those first years of the American occupation. What matters to us is why Biden supported the invasion of Iraq, and I think there are two main reasons that are not entirely unconvincing. First of all Biden had the example of the successful humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia fresh in mind as a good example of America breaking with a former client state in a progressive way. Secondly, the idea of invading Iraq was incredibly popular after the attacks of September 11th. The tragedy of Iraq did not begin with the American invasion, and the American invasion didn’t mean that subsequent tragedies were inevitable, though it provided an opportunity for bad actors.

    It’s easy for us today to forget the situation the world was right after 9/11. Peter Beinart in his 2008 book “The Good Fight” gives an almost perfect explanation for how the Democrats got suckered into authorizing Bush’s war in Iraq. “For the first year after the attacks, the anti-imperialists wielded little influence. Liberals overwhelmingly backed Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. Polls showed that Democrats were nearly as likely as Republicans to consider terrorism a ‘very serious’ problem, and to consider the United States in a state of war. And in Congress, Democrats backed the Bush administration’s military buildup and urged even greater spending on homeland security and foreign aid. But Democrats were operating from a position of weakness. Although Clinton had shifted liberal views ont eh use of force, he had not erased the GOP’s post-Vietnam advantage on national security. And when foreign policy retook center stage after 9/ll, Americans picked up where the cold war had left off. They not only rallied around their Republican commander in chief, they told pollsters they trusted his party far more to keep them safe. Once Bush successfully overthrew the Taliban, his clout only grew. In the fall of 2002, Bush took his considerable political capital and put it behind an invasion of Iraq… The Clintonites were deeply concerned that any U.S. military action enjoy international support, and their public comments were generally more muted than those of liberal hawks in the media who urged outright war. But on September 12, 2002, when Bush announced he would take Iraq to the Security Council and seek new resolutions requiring it to disarm, he temporarily allayed the Clintonites’ concerns. So when Iraq came up for a vote in Congress a month later - and Bush said he needed congressional support to gain leverage at the UN - the Democratic foreign policy brain trust was broadly sympathetic. And since few congressional Democrats had much national security expertise of their own, the views of that brain trust loomed large… the polls in late 2002 showed Democrats with an edge on domestic issues like health care and Social Security, and Republicans with a massive advantage on national security. With the midterm elections looming, party strategists yearned to remove foreign policy from the campaign. And the only way to do that was to agree with President Bush on Iraq and then change the subject. As Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it, ‘we’d rather have the newspapers filled with discussions of pensions.’ So while Democrats with safe seats mostly voted against the war, the party’s congressional leaders, its vulnerable incumbents, and its likely presidential candidates generally voted yes.” (pp. 173-174). When Witcover interviewed Biden for his biography which appeared in 2010, Biden confessed that he was fooled by the Bush administration, particularly Colin Powell who had convinced him that Bush would likely not go to war so long as Saddam Hussein cooperated with the Security Council. We now know that key advisers to Bush had made up their mind to invade Iraq immediately after 9/11. In that biography we find Biden scrambling to rally the Senate to pass legislation that would allow Bush to go to war to disarm Saddam Hussein only after all options had failed. But such a measure met with opposition from Bush, opposition from House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and even from the usually antiwar Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone, who refused to vote for it in committee. Biden was in the same position that Kautsky was in back in 1914: sitting high enough up in the hierarchy to be responsible but not having any power to shift the course of events. He could only hope that by authorizing the use of force that the Security Council could be leveraged to take real steps to avoid war, and that the Bush administration was not lying when it said that it could still be convinced to try peace. We like to blame the Democrats especially for their votes supporting the war, but that’s only because we forget how many of us Americans were much like them. The war was at the height of its popularity before it began. I happen to think that the worst thing that happened in Iraq was not the invasion, but the subsequent bungling of the state building function. The occupation of Iraq deserves it’s own podcast series, but I think Bush made the same mistake the antiwar movement made: they both thought that a hands off approach would let the Iraqis build their own state. It turns out that was not the case. It turns out that laissez faire was a terrible mistake. Once we were in Iraq Joe Biden had the good sense to support a marshal plan style development project. Instead Bush disbanded the Republican Guard while Iran’s Qassem Sulleiman was transporting his longtime enemy Alqaeda from Afghanistan to Iraq, with lots of Iranian money in their pockets. The resulting civil war was a foregone conclusion at that point, but no one in the Bush administration had a clue. Joe Biden criticized the Bush administration’s lack of planning to rebuild Iraq before, during and after the invasion. At any rate, what’s important about this record is that Biden’s vote to authorize Bush’s war in Iraq doesn’t mean that Biden is a war hawk, it means he responds to the public will, and the more accurate measure of his propensity to engage US troops should be the eight years he spent as Obama’s Vice President. He’s no warmonger, though as in Kosovo I could see him intervening to stop genocide. And I think that’s a good thing.

    That seems to bring us up to the present, and if we can judge from Biden’s platform we can say that his experiences have shifted his politics considerably. One big change that happened recently is that Biden came out against the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment would make it illegal for federal funds to help someone get an abortion. Young Biden would have 100% been for the Hyde Amendment. 2020 Biden is against it. What changed? The common thread in Biden’s ideology is that everyone deserves equal protection under the law: that’s what the 14th amendment says. But Republican trap laws have aimed at making abortion clinics satisfy an impossibly high standard to remain open. The argument then is that poor people are discriminated against because their access to the same care as wealthy people is shut down. Does Biden get that? Does Biden understand the deeper point: that formal legal equality isn’t enough to ensure equal protection? Well, here is how he explained his new rejection of the Hyde Amendment: “If I believe healthcare is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/06/us/politics/joe-biden-hyde-amendment.html). And he’s right. The same shift in Biden after the Bork hearings that brought him to the Violence Against Women Act has worked on Biden. The oppression of women in domestic issues impacts their civil rights, their right to equal protection under the law. It’s not enough to have colorblind law. The state has to intervene to stop parts of society from oppressing other parts of society. That basic idea is carved deep into every aspect of Biden’s 2020 platform. Before I list off some of those policy proposals, I want to remind everyone that Biden doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean, ever: he’s the guy who in the 70s wanted to end the Vietnam war but not grant amnesty for draft dodgers, wanted to improve public housing to desegregate but didn’t support busing. He still doesn’t support busing for de facto segregation. He doesn’t change his position on issues to pander for votes. You might notice that some of these policies are not the most radical, but they are all things that Biden, as a career politician with 36 years of experience in the Senate, believes can be accomplished. As one should expect from the fact that Biden has brought much of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, like AOC, into working groups to develop policy, Joe Biden’s platform leans far to the left (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/05/21/joe-biden-bernie-sanders-work-together-bring-progressives-board/5155900002/). Here is what Biden will do in office.

    (https://www.politico.com/2020-election/candidates-views-on-the-issues/joe-biden/)

    Biden wants to abolish the death penalty and end cash bail. He wants to put an end to higher penalties for crack versus powdered cocaine. He wants to end minimum sentencing and eliminate private prisons. Taken together these policies represent an end to mass incarceration.

    Joe Biden wants to set up a committee to investigate how to implement reparations for slavery, jim crow and mass incarceration.

    Biden wants to offer two years of free college to everyone, make teacher’s salaries competitive to other professions, fix the loan forgiveness program and close down private charter schools, i.e. private schools that get public funding.

    Biden wants citizens united overturned, and since 1974 has pushed for campaign finance reform.

    Biden wants the government to enforce the Affordable Care Act and provide a public option for healthcare, the next step towards single payer.

    Biden is for the Green New Deal. He wants to fund programs that incentivize farmers practicing soil conservation. He wants to tax carbon emissions. He wants to end federal subsidies to oil and gas companies in the form of leases on federal land. Biden wants to modernize our nuclear industry so that it is safer and produces less waste.

    Biden wants to start a program to buy back automatic weapons, wants universal background checks for firearm purchases and a federal firearms registry. This puts Biden firmly to the left of Bernie Sanders on gun control.

    Biden supports paid family and sick leave, something no other Democratic candidate supported. Joe Biden wants a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, something every Democratic candidate supported.

    If anyone was wondering, Joe Biden is still fighting for desegregation. That’s why his platform includes such far reaching reform of housing, attacking red lining and encouraging quality low income housing, specifically working to make sure the poorest no longer pay any more than 30% of their income on housing. It’s not busing, but it takes aim at the root causes of generational inequality. (https://joebiden.com/housing/)

    In this illuminating conversation with Andrew Yang Biden says we need “revolutionary Institutional change.” (minute 17, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/on-the-economy-with-andrew-yang/id1505238447?i=1000474319469). Joe Biden is right about that. In this conversation with Reverend Barber, Joe Biden says that the experience of Covid has shifted peoples’ appreciation for low wage workers, and that this shift has prepared us to address “the underlying fundamental causes of poverty.” (min. 11:30, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/heres-the-deal/id1505238447?i=1000471239570). Joe is right about that. Listen to how Joe Biden opens space for Reverend Barber to talk about his poor people’s campaign: after pointing out that COVID has disproportionately targeted Black people, Joe says: “Why don’t I hush up, as my mama would say.” (minute 2:30) Isn’t it time for a President who models listening to black people? I’ve linked to multiple campaign ads where Biden centers Black voices.

    Like he does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZuxk-tPLmA

    And like he does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBOJg_xvJk0

    And like he does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_uYieJFYcI

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there are no angels or devils in power. In power there are only imperfect people making tradeoffs with limited knowledge. But if you ever said that the Democratic party was the party of the ruling class because it had a pro-business agenda, then you have to now say they are the party of the working class because they all support a $15 minimum wage. It’s more accurate to say that the Democratic Party is not the party either of the ruling class, nor of the working class. They are a liberal party trying to help, not to save, the world. They are not saviors, but neither are we socialists. Having investigated the matter, I find that Joe Biden is not the lesser evil: Joe Biden is a necessary good.

    Bibliography

    Beinart, Peter. The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror. Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2007.

    Biden, Joe. Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose. Macmillan, 2017.

    Biden, Joe. Promises to keep: on life and politics. Random House, 2007.

    Cedric Johnson. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2010.

    Delmont, Matthew F. Why busing failed: Race, media, and the national resistance to school desegregation. Vol. 42. Univ of California Press, 2016.

    Rothstein, Richard. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing, 2017.

    Witcover, Jules. Joe Biden: a life of trial and redemption. Harper Collins, 2010.

    https://www.nytimes.com/1972/05/20/archives/black-convention-eases-busing-and-israeli-stands-but-the-guidelines.html

    https://www.politico.com/2020-election/candidates-views-on-the-issues/joe-biden/

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-new-yorker-radio-hour/id1050430296?i=1000484131250

    Music: Cassandra by Fabian Tell, Answers Lie Within by John Bjork, else Harry

  • 16. Friends and Enemies

    July 30th, 2020  |  54 mins 44 secs

    [correction: At the 2019 DSA National Convention it was proposition 15 that defined the DSA position as Bernie-or-Bust, not proposition 32 as I mis-state in the episode. From the motion to adopt: "Primary motivation: We endorsed Bernie whether or not you agree. But if he fails to gain the Democratic nomination, we need to decide what to do. My reso says we know that the other Democratic Party politicians don’t jive with DSA. Do we want DSA to use our legitimacy to boost one such neoliberal candidate? No. Bernie has a unique ability to move people to action. All I say in this reso is that we’re not going to endorse another Democrat."]

    When I think about why it is that the US far left, the left that was inspired by Noam Chomsky’s post 9-11 dictum that this was chickens coming home to roost, and how after the Syrian revolution began Chomsky and others decided that they couldn’t support the terrorist’s cause no matter how bad the Assad regime was, I realized how hopelessly incomprehensible the world was if you made hatred of the United States your foundation. I don’t mean to say that terrorism is ever justified: I think it fails even on its own premises. But you get a very different kind of politics if you start from the idea of protecting life and humanistic values. In Chomsky’s case he lent ideological support for the 9-11 hijackers and for the genocidaire Bashar al-Assad, and Milosevic before that, because he based his beliefs on the premise that America is always the main thing we have to struggle against. I think the example of the Syrian revolution, it’s betrayal by western intellectuals, sets in stark contrast how the idea of absolute enemies makes it impossible to know one’s own values and hence who one’s actual enemy is.

    Surely one of the best books on politics of 2020 so far is Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. In it, he discusses how group identity is so important to our survival, that it drives our reasoning and beliefs more strongly than facts. He tells some uncomfortable truths about race, about partisanship, about why our problems are intractable if we cannot overcome the reigning polarization, and gives some advice about how to do good work in the increasingly static ideological environment. One insight Klein uplifts for us there is found in the research of the social psychologist and holocaust surviver Henri Tajfel. In 1970 Tajfel published a paper called “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.” In that study Tajfel randomly split up 64 teenage boys into two groups. Each boy was given a small amount of money to hand out to the others as they wished, equipped only with the knowledge of which of the two random groups each belonged to. The boys all gave more money to members of their own group. In a later study Tajfel found the same behavior even if the overall payout was higher if the boys gave money to someone from the other group. From Klein: “they preferred to give their group less so long as it meant the gap between what they got and what the out-group got was bigger… Far from their behavior showing a pure desire to maximize their group’s gains, they often gave their group less to increase the difference between them and the out-group. Far from the money being the prime motivator, ‘it is the winning that seems more important to them,’ wrote Tajfel.” (pp. 54,55). Klein then goes on to discuss the work of Patrick R. Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover discussing the same dynamic at work in politics. People will sacrifice policy gains so that their team can win. This was certainly demonstrated clearly early in the Democratic primary as Bernie Sanders’ most fervent supporters attacked Elizabeth Warren, the closest Democrat to Sanders in policy terms, instead of Joe Biden. Now those same people are attacking Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. These people would rather let a fascist win than admit they lost the primary, would rather take worse policy losses than let their team down.

    On another level, all of this is incredibly familiar. I’m a white southern male progressive, so I have experienced this my whole life: my demographic votes for white supremacy despite the terrible poverty that that politics imposes on us. It’s a case of what I’ve taken to calling localized solidarity. It’s the natural solidarity of people who are joined by familial ties and geographic proximity. I have in my own family people who are not consciously racist, but who tolerate in their close friendships people who are consciously racist. It’s part of small town life that the people you grew up with, the people you can call for help changing a tire or giving you a couch to crash on in an emergency, those people close to you are racists. In that context, being an anti-racist could sever communal ties that are important for survival. It’s the same in the US left: maybe it would help to speak out against the bombing of the Syrian opposition, but it would also mean being socially ostracized by friend groups that have been made over decades. It’s fascinating to me and also deeply disturbing that localized social solidarity so often depends upon and enables active or passive support for dehumanizing narratives that enable violence against vulnerable remote groups. This all came into closer focus for me about halfway through reading Proust’s Search for lost time.

    Some will say that there should be no place for bourgeois literature in a Marxist’s library. On the contrary, it was Balzac that taught Marx what the bourgeois class was, and Lenin famously claimed all of world literature, the whole of humanity’s cultural accomplishments, as the property of even the lowest factory worker. Proust was from a modest middle class background, and he found himself welcomed into high society by virtue of his literary work and wit. Proust was ethnically, though not religiously Jewish, and his depictions of French high society as it rallies to and antisemitic condemnation of Dreyfus are some of the most poignant depictions of social alienation that exist. I say, go young Marxist, go forth and read Proust! And for you Proust heads out there who want to tell me that Proust is about transcending society in communion with nature, and not with a deeper kind of humanity, go read Edward J. Hughes and leave me alone!

    Now, the narrator in The Search for Lost Time, Proust’s masterpiece, is loosely based on Proust himself. The narrator’s close friend, whose name is Swann, meets the narrator by chance as they both try and visit their mutual friends the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes. Swan has just found out that he is gravely ill and will die in a matter of months, and has come to inform his friend the Duke. The Duke and the Duchess are on their way to a party. If they were to take seriously Swan’s illness, it would mean of course that they should forego the party to sit with Swan whom they may never see again. But the pull of their social obligations, their desire to continue being adored in high society, stops the Duke and Duchess not only from staying with Swan but even from acknowledging the seriousness of his condition. The Duke is at that moment in front of his house waiting for the Duchess to join him. Upon hearing of Swan’s illness, the Duke makes all manner of excuses: doctors don’t know anything, and you’ll be fine Swan, and so on. The Duke pretends not to understand or believe Swan regarding his imminent death, and insists that he is late to a party and must hurry away. When the Duchess arrives, she is wearing shoes that the Duke dislikes, so he sends her back to get some new shoes on. She objects that they are running late, and the Duke, with Swan and the narrator still within earshot, tells her not to be ridiculous that they have all the time in the world. Whenever I see someone failing to connect to a deeper sense of humanity because of their immediate superficial social connections, I think about the Duchess’ shoes. For me they represent all the indifference to suffering this world contains.

    One of these indifferences is that of the indifference of the US left to the suffering of the Syrian people. One of these indifferences is that of Maoists to the millions of people Mao intentionally murdered. One of those indifferences is that of white middle America to the plight of the Palestinian people. One of those indifferences is that of the American Palestinian rights movement to the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the Assad regime. All of these people who are content to stand on the sidelines while atrocities are committed in their name, and it’s their nearest kith and kin that holds them there, their social network that blinds them to basic human solidarity, chained against even the simplest acts of compassion and humanity. This is the framing I want to understand American leftism in. We have social bonds to each other as comrades that sometimes blind us to the suffering of people around the world, and it took our utter failure to compel Syrian solidarity from the US left to show me that mechanism. And that was when I felt I needed to understand the history of the US left in a deeper way. This podcast is a testament to that attempt, and an apology to history for our failures.

    Let’s pick up the story of socialist revolution from the moment of its failure in Russia and China. Let’s go back to that moment to understand what the US left learned from it, and what the US left failed to learn from it.

    We have discussed in earlier podcasts the crimes of Stalin and Mao. As a socialist, I consider it irresponsible to not make an accounting for those errors. The response in the American left to the Soviet Union was mixed. Some rejected Stalin as an aberration, as not a true socialist. I think that view is wrong and irresponsible. We do better when we recognize the tendencies in our movement to authoritarianism, because then we are better positioned to fight them. Many decided to give up on socialism altogether given the depth of the failure. I would disagree with that kind of anticommunism because I think that socialism is the logical conclusion of radical democracy and human rights, but I don’t fault people who lived through the horrors of Stalinism for giving up hope, perhaps even hope in humanity itself. Nevertheless, there were groups on the US left that combined the fight against communism as it existed in the world after WW2 with progressive social policies and a commitment to uplifting the working class. Chief among these groups was Americans for Democratic Action [ADA] (Beinart, pp4-5). The ADA made the argument that for the sake of national security America had to champion civil liberties at home and abroad; this was the application of humanism in the context of an international fight against Stalinism, and a recognition that America’s hypocritical system of racial discrimination would have to be dismantled or the fight against tyranny in the world would be lost. At the 1948 Democratic National Convention the ADA fought a hard fight to pass a resolution in support of civil rights. The result of that fight was that pro-segregation Dixie Democrats left the party. The initiative was led by Hubert Humphrey who gave a powerful speech that day: “There can be no hedging… no watering down...To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights -- I say to them, we are 172 years late. To those who say this bill is an infringement on states’ rights, I say… the time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” (Beinart, pp. 11-12). The political machine forged in this way between trade unions and progressives committed to fighting Stalinist communism dominated the Democratic Party for the next two decades. In that time the Democratic Party lost the White House once to Eisenhower. They lifted into the executive Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. We will recall from our discussion of the Black Panther Party that Hubert Humphrey lost in 1968 because of the mistaken impression that he was not against the Vietnam War. In part he was rejected not because of the Vietnam War, which he opposed, but instead because he refused to reject all American intervention because of the experience of the Vietnam War. A cold war liberal like Humphrey could admit to a mistake and change course, but he could not join McGovern and the Maoist left in their anti-Americanism first because such a man believed in the potential the American system held and secondly because doing so meant alienating the working class by feeding right wing talking points that the Democrats were soft on national defense. This difference comes out strikingly when Beinart discusses the differences between Robert Kennedy’s and McCarthy’s positions on the Vietnam war: “The two men had different conceptions of America’s role in the world. Their positions on Vietnam itself were virtually indistinguishable: Both called for an end to bombing and a coalition government in South Vietnam. But McCarthy’s critique went far beyond the war itself: ‘Vietnam,’ he said at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ‘is part of a much larger question, which is, is America going to police the planet?’ In another speech, he blamed the war on ‘a moral mission’ -- dating from the 1950s -- ‘in which we took it upon ourselves to judge the political systems of other nations. I am not entirely convinced,,’ said McCarthy, ‘that Senator Kennedy has entirely renounced that misconception.’.. And he was right not to be convinced. McCarthy was foreshadowing the new liberalism that would emerge after 1968-- which questioned whether America had much to offer the world. Kennedy, by contrast, pledged in his announcement speech that his campaign would be about ‘our right to moral leadership of this planet.’ That right, he was suggesting, was no longer self-evident. But it could still be earned. On June 4, after beating McCarthy in the California primary, Kennedy took the stage at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, and told 1,500 manic, deafening supporters that ‘We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country’ -- defiant words coming from a liberal in 1968. After finishing his speech, he turned, and exited through the hotel’s kitchen, where he was shot three times. Twenty-five hours later, he was dead” (Beinart, pp. 47-48).

    Others on the left, like Sam Marcy the founder of the Workers’ World Party, denied that crimes had been committed, or felt the crimes were exaggerated, or that the crimes were justified or some combination of these three excuses. They combined in their anti-American politics apologetics for Stalin’s crimes, and then later for Mao’s crimes and for Pol Pot’s crimes and for Assad’s crimes more recently, and many other petty dictators around the world’s crimes, with a supposedly antiwar politics that denounced violence only when it was committed by the US government. The root of this politics was Stalin’s idea that there were bourgeois and proletarian nations. The same logic that led Stalin to slaughter the ‘bourgeois’ Polish nation led the antiwar movement to call the resistance to Bashar al-Assad ‘bourgeois.’ This abuse of class categories in the name of cheering on whichever geopolitical actor opposes the United States should remind us of Erlenbusch-Anderson’s discussion of the transposition of racist categories of struggle onto the schematics of class struggle in 19th century Russian political thought. (Erlenbusch-Anderson, p. 56). Erlenbusch-Anderson’s 2018 Genealogy of Terrorism is excellent and informative.

    The Vietnam war resistance of the left lifted anti-anti-communism into leadership (Beinart, p42).

    It was in 1964, with the rise of this anti-war movement, that the left embraced the politics of absolute enemies that had been given its clearest formulation in the thought of the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmidt, thinking of politics as intractable conflict without the possibility of compromise. (Beinart, p.43) Tom Hayden, deciding that anti-Communism was an exaggeration of Stalin’s crimes, made out that if the working class didn’t agree with him then they were wrong. This seemed to be confirmed in the political thinking of the New Left who embraced Herbert Marcuse’s concept of the One Dimensional Man, i.e. that all of modern, western society was sick and had to be opposed by an enlightened clique organized within academia. The future of the left, in Hayden’s opinion, was in fighting any American attempts to contain the Soviet Union and in organizing academics instead of workers. The politics that came out of this move towards a political foundation in the counterculture was undemocratic in essence, a real break from the orthodox Marxism of a generation prior. This is where the left begins its long march into political obscurity. (Beinart, pp 42-43). The New Left combined a rejection of the need to contain communism with an anti-war politics based on the righteousness of third world struggles for independence. Jean Paul-Sartre, that darling of the US left, is quite typical in the way that he never entirely accounted for the error he made in supporting the Soviet Union throughout all of the show trials and revealed crimes, the pogroms against the Poles and the near pogrom of the Jews, even the crushing of the Hungarian workers’ revolt, but instead Sartre simply changed the subject in the 60s to cast himself as a champion of third world struggles against colonialism. The Stalinist and Maoist tendencies stopped talking about the past and cloaked their authoritarianism in opposition to US wars of aggression. By the way, you don’t have to support the US’ war in Vietnam or in Iraq for instance in order to be opposed to Mao’s crimes. Ho Chi-Minh was opposed to Mao’s crimes: if you need to be reminded of that go back to our podcast on Maoism. Peter Beinart’s 2006 book The Good Fight has much to tell us about how the US left became hopelessly confused and politically isolated in the 20th century. Beinart discusses how the ADA was forced by a tide of young activists to turn away from workers, away from anti-communism and towards third worldism. Recall that McCarthy was the candidate who generalized the experience of Vietnam to a global rejection of American intervention. Tragically, the ADA had to choose between an antiwar politics that was as right in the particular as it was dogmatic, and an anticommunism that was right in general but not in the specific.

    “Trying to connect to a new generation, in 1966 the ADA put Lowenstein - then 37 years old - on its board. The following year, it made him vice president. But Lowenstein and his student allies were on a mission to defeat Lyndon Johnson, a mission many ADA labor leaders - who loathed the antiwar movement - adamantly opposed. The organization faced a stark dilemma. Unless it supported McCarthy, it would consign itself to irrelevance among the activist young. But backing him, as Joseph Rauh warned, would split ‘the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance wincet he 1930s.’ On February 10, 1968, in the most important ADA meeting since the Willard Hotel, the National Board voted 65 to 47 to endorse McCarthy’s presidential bid. Within weeks, more than a thousand new members, many of them young, joined the organization. But representatives of the steel workers, the garment workers, and the communication workers all resigned. “The coalition,” one labor leader declared, “is finished.”” (Beinart, p46).

    After the sixties, and the failure of the academia centric student movements, leftists revisited the experience of the Black Panther Party. But instead of seeing there a vanguard that had rallied all of society to the task of ending the Vietnam War, many of them saw the arrival of the primary agent of historical change. The position that the working class had occupied for leftists in the thirties, and that student radicals occupied for Tom Hayden in the sixties, would now be occupied by the colonized subject, the former slave, the FLN in Algeria, the Palestinian, and Mao Tze-Tung. Class analysis, radical Democracy and even Marcuse’s critiques of a one-dimensional society would all take a backseat to campist ideology. Noam Chomsky’s 1968 The New Mandarins is typical of this trend. Chomsky puts forward there the argument that Japanese imperialism was better for China than American imperialism, because the Japanese were more local and had a more natural right to dominate the Chinese people. He would go on to vindicate Slobodan Milosevic’s rights to massacre the ethnic Albanians, and to denounce the US for stopping a genocide in Kosovo. In 2013 we find him arguing against a no-fly zone in Syria. These people have bonds to the anti-American movement that blind them to basic human solidarity. This group is what Michael Berube has called the Manichean Left, because they have embraced a Manichean view according to which there is one group that is absolutely evil, the United States, and another that is absolutely good, any of America’s enemies. Berube’s 2009 The Left At War is a must read in this vein. There’s no way to understand our failure in Syria without a heavy repudiation of the premises of these peoples’ politics, and so far there doesn’t seem to be within their ideology any resource to help them understand their own ghoulish and genocidal failures.

    I want to single out Foucault, because I think he is typical of a particular trend. Foucault went further than anyone else in the 20th century into this search for a motor of historical change, for an agent other than a democratically organized society. His answer to the question “who is the agent of history” was simply the outsider. It didn’t break down along race, class or geopolitical lines, Foucault consistently sided with whoever rejected society as such. That pose allowed Foucault to put himself forward as embodying a kind of objectivity that rejected humanistic values. I read a lot of Foucauldians, and I’ve cited the work in this podcast of Ladelle McWharter and Erlenbusch-Anderson. All of this stuff is fine as history. They talk about history, usually the history of ideas, in a way that tends to capture more of the story than usual. But that’s just the work of history. Usually these writers claim objectivity by taking an orientation of cynicism towards liberal institutions. That’s fine. But the question of whether we should strive to uphold human rights, whether we are pointing out liberal hypocrisy in an attempt to correct it, or whether we are going to discard human rights altogether, that is a question these writers don’t seem to address. And for sure Foucault is deeply indifferent to any thinking about human rights. At best, there is an underlying humanistic value in the work of certain Foucauldians, but it’s never explored for its own sake, never interrogated seriously because that might require a good faith argument for institutions that could defend rights. Foucault more than anyone seems to have given intellectual rigor and focus to the self defeating tendency to disengage from democratic institutions and retreat into an enlightened clique of effete intellectuals. So, you find Foucault in the seventies fetishizing the authoritarian theocracy of Iran. Why not? If power can have no sincere normative foundation, then any authority will do, and an authority that poses as an enemy to the liberal order is best of all. But if we define sovereignty as Spinoza does, as in “sovereign is he who protects the masses,” and by “protect” we must mean the unhypocritical protection from violence committed by the state itself or by foreign powers, protection from hunger and want, protection of the right to democratic participation, then we find Foucault badly wanting. Here is how Foucault defines sovereignty, as explicitly not founded on the rule of law and a discourse of human rights, and I think the Nazi Carl Schmidt would have to agree with him. This quote is from his class notes of 1976 collected and published in English in 2003, which for you Foucault heads out there means it’s after the genealogical turn at the end of a several years long meditation and lecture series on the role of society in politics. Quote:

    “In order to make a concrete analysis of power relations, we must abandon the juridical model of sovereignty. That model in effect presupposes that the individual is a subject with natural rights or primitive powers; it sets itself the task of accounting for the ideal genesis of the State; and finally, it makes the law the basic manifestation of power. We should be trying to study power not on the basis of the primitive terms of the relationship, but on the basis of the relationship itself, to the extent that it is the relationship itself that determines the elements on which it bears: rather than asking ideal subjects what part of themselves or their powers they have surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects, we have to look at how relations of subjugation can manufacture subjects.” In other words, to truly be free, an individual must by Nietzschean will lift themselves above the realm where we mere mortals defend our rights, must build ourselves out of thin air a lawless space where we can transgress. On this account, because no law can be made in the absence of human frailty, then all law is hypocritical and empty of moral value. Real progress on Foucault’s account is not the contestation of norms and institutions, but the indiscriminate destruction of the same in the name of desire without any responsibility to other people. This is the ideology of smug and comfortable academics who do not organize and are not interested in party politics, and this is why we cannot have nice things. Do you want to get fascists? Because this is how you get fascists. Are their Foucauldians who transcend the limits of Foucault’s abortive illiberal politics? Yes. Ladelle Mcwhorter is one of these because her work on racism in the United States draws on the inherently progressive struggle of the Black and LGBTQ community for moral strength, but that orientation doesn’t come from any resource in Foucault’s work and it doesn’t change the fact that in claiming Foucault she is popularizing a thinker whose political commitments are deeply problematic. Both things are true.

    The work of Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington and the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee starting in the late sixties was a striking countervailing force to the rise of the niche subcultural left described above. Michael Kazin’s 2011 book “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” should be required reading for anyone on the left today who wants to understand where we’ve been and where we’re going. Here is how he describes Rustin’s politics: “By the mid-sixties, the master organizer had come to believe that the only way to liberate black Americans was through a popular front -- though as an anti-Communist, he would never have described it that way. ‘We need to choose our allies on the basis of common political objective,’ declared Rustin. This meant strengthening bonds with labor unions, liberal churches, guilt-ridden philanthropists, and sympathetic politicians. With Randolph’s backing, Rustin drew up a blueprint for a new, social-democratic order. His ‘Freedom Budget,” unveiled in the fall of 1966, would have guaranteed to every citizen a job, an annual income, health insurance, good schools, and decent housing - all paid for by a progressive income tax stripped of loopholes for the rich. Rustin counseled his fellow activists not to waste time trying either to soften the hearts of white racists or, like Malcolm X, to scare them ‘into doing the right thing.’ Transform the capitalist order, he counseled, and their hearts will eventually follow.” (p.219). That is wise council.

    There is a story we tell about the sixties. It centers student radicalism as the motor of change, as the center of the resistance to the Vietnam War. I hope at least for those who listen to this podcast carefully, especially the episode about the Black Panther Party, will let that version of the 60s story die. The postscript of that story is the narrative that the hippies all became yuppies and gave up on revolution, but that is the story told from the point of view of the adventurers who saw in activism their chance to be movie stars and action heros. Those people do eventually drop out of the movement the moment they realize that real power is the result of long and thankless work in coalitions of morally imperfect people and with results that help a little but do not work salvation for a fallen nation. But there were other people involved in the protest movement whose commitment was not so facile. These people entered the seventies with an interest in understanding what went wrong and finding a way forward. That was very much the path that was taken by the New American Movement [NAM] and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee [DSOC]. Maurice Isserman’s The Other American is an important and timely read. Anyone involved with the Democratic Socialist’s of America owes it to themselves to read it and become familiar with how the DSA began. Now, DSOC was the organization Michael Harrington built to try and pull Democratic Party politics to the left. In 1976 DSOC had a scant 3,000 members, but it had important connections in the trade union movement. Their campaign in 1976 was called Democratic Agenda, and it succeeded in getting Carter a win in the democratic primary over George Wallace who wanted to revive the racist politics of Dixie Democrats. In 1978, when the left and the trade unions were disillusioned with Carter, DSOC caucused in Memphis, TN with the Democrats urging the party to adopt on its platform a national healthcare system, a government owned gas and oil corporation and full employment. DSOC’s agenda failed, but by a very slim margin. They had proven that a strong plurality favored policies that were more equitable, i.e. better for poor and working people. Isserman cites the contemporary analysis of Hedrick Smith in the New York Times: “The fact that nearly forty percent of the party’s activists were willing to go on record against Mr. Carter on what John C. White, the Party chairman, made a virtual vote of confidence in the President, was firm indication of the schism that has developed between the White House and the liberal wing of the party.” (p. 335). DSOC was modeling a certain kind of political behavior: voting in the lesser evil and then fighting it like the devil.

    The New American Movement had a similar emphasis on popular, democratic mobilizations. From Isserman: “NAM’s history stretched back to the start of the 1970s, when a group of activists and intellectuals influential on the New Left, including Michael Lerner, James Weinstein, and Saughton Lynd, decided to form a successor to SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. This would be a post-student organization, though one heavily influenced by the experiences of student radicals in the 1960s. From the early New Left and the civil rights movement, NAM took an emphasis on the importance of local community organization; from the later New Left it took a mixture of Marxism and feminism. At the same time, NAM discarded the confrontational politics and tempered (if never entirely eliminating) the third world romanticism of the late 1960s.” (p. 347).

    In 1982 DSOC and NAM merged to form the Democratic Socialists of America. On the eve of the 2016 election the DSA had a total membership of around 5,000 people. The excitement that the Bernie Sanders’ campaign of that year generated caused the membership of the DSA to explode, and it now stands at 60,000 members. The late success of the DSA is proof of concept that a political organization can be built around socialist politics, if that politics is oriented towards meeting people where they are and realizing what Michael Harrington would call “the left wing of the possible.” It is deeply unfortunate that the undemocratic left has entered the DSA and distorted its image, and maybe its purpose.

    Back in 2014 when I was a graduate student at Appalachian State I went to an organizers’ training organized by Planned Parenthood. Part of our training was pairing off and telling our partner why we were there. They impressed on us the need to explain to the people we wanted to organize our reason for being there. If we didn’t come out and tell our story, other people would or people would make assumptions about us based on our skin color and gender. That really stuck with me. I’ve always made it a habit when meeting up with comrades to discuss what are we going to do, our practical tasks in the short term, that at some point early on I’ll ask them why they do this. A lot of the time they have to reflect a moment. They have a reason, but they haven’t articulated it yet. It’s absolutely essential to articulate, even if only to yourself, why you are engaged in organising work. And you have to revisit those reasons from time to time. It can be very easy to get caught up in pursuing some temporary goal and lose sight of our values, of why it is we do this. If we lose touch with our values, we can easily be discouraged if things don’t work out the way we want them to. As much as everyone wanted to see a socialist in the White House, by now we know that’s not going to happen. We can’t let what we do next be some unintentional nonsense. We have to connect to our values and work from there in a new situation.

    When I came to Memphis the group was growing, but the membership wasn’t active. There was one guy organizing the meetings, and a lot of other people with good intentions standing around watching him. So, we engaged the membership. We phone banked people to have an open ended conversation about why they do this. What did they expect the Memphis-MidSouth Democratic Socialists of America to accomplish, and how did they imagine themselves contributing to that? We found clarity of purpose, and that translated into intentional action and increased membership engagement. If you asked me why I thought this work was so essential I’d tell you then what I’d tell you now: we need an independent group to help more progressive candidates win, and we need to build that group up so that one day we can run our own candidates on an independent party line. That’s still the goal. If we don’t organize voting blocks to tip the scales in the favor of the most vulnerable, then we’re leaving the battlefield open to the far right. Bernie Sanders was the candidate our group preferred in the primary, but now the choice is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Let’s take a look at the three candidates. The reason why I had to put all this work into these dozen or so podcasts was to drive home the point that there are no saints and sinners, everyone lands somewhere in between. Everyone is a greater or lesser evil or good. I’ve discussed the history of how the left fell into thinking according to a theory of original sin, of absolute enemies. The Democrats, so it is thought, are an absolute enemy who never did anything good for anyone. Here is the kind of politics that thinking gave us.

    In August of 2019 the DSA’s national conference took place, and a majority of delegates voted for resolution 32. Resolution 32 states that if Bernie Sanders isn’t the Democratic candidate in the general election, then the DSA will not endorse a candidate. This is Bernie-or-Bust. Yes, I know that chapters and individuals can endorse whoever they want and still work to elect Joe Biden, but then what’s the point of having a national organization if as a national organization we decide to stand on the sidelines as America struggles against a fascist in the White House. We told the world that if our man doesn’t win, then we will leave them to the mercy of Donald Trump. That is when I stopped trying to bring people into the DSA, because I knew no one who was informed would want to join such an organization. I can’t organize around a group that doesn’t see beating fascism in power as its priority. Such an organization is not worth supporting. The DSA does have the potential to turn that around. It could become the organization that shows up consistently to defend the most vulnerable, even if we don’t like their choice of leadership. I hope it does. I expect some part of it will not. Some part of it will decide that the thing to do is help Trump get elected, by tearing down Biden and even by voting for Trump. I want to talk a little about each of these three men: Trump, Sanders and Biden.
    I don’t know now what the death count will be when this podcast comes out, but its projected that several hundred thousand will die. I have COPD, so I may be among them by the time the podcast comes out. The coronavirus is going to kill a lot of people, and the Trump administration’s handling of that crisis is making it much worse in ways that people cannot avoid. They, their family, friends and loved ones are dying and often being made the cause of death by Trump’s misinformation and lies. However my mother dies, I will mourn, but it’s more painful to know that her gullibility led to Trump being able to sacrifice her to his propaganda war. Multiply that by several hundred thousand nationwide. Add in all the people who will get sick and will live several weeks under the shadow of death.

    The coronavirus is something we can manage, something we could have much better managed. It’s something Trump made a lot worse by doing nothing but warning his close friends to sell off stocks for the entire month of February. Every day he is in office we face the possibility another crisis will arrive that he will make worse. The poor response to the coronavirus isn’t because of capitalism: it’s not because capitalists need profit or workers are oppressed. All of that is perfectly compatible with a strong reaction to a crisis. It’s not in the interests of Capitalists to let large groups of workers to die. The collapse in the realization of profit in the retail sector is something that would have been less bad for capitalists if a stronger response to the crisis had occured. Indonesia is capitalist, and Italy has Universal Health Care. Indonesia has had a good reaction to COVID19, and Italy has not. Trump is the crisis, and people know that. That’s why they are voting for Biden. If the DSA isn’t a part of that, people will see it’s not worth supporting. It pains me terribly to say that, because I’ve given years of my life to building this movement, and I, like you, have had such high hopes after the stunning growth we experienced after 2016. That growth is over now, and our inability to use our organizational strength to oppose Trump is why.

    How do we encourage the left today to help Biden beat Trump. One way to do that is to be fair in our criticisms of Biden, and not to exaggerate his faults or invent any. We can endorse voting for Biden while still calling for better, stronger organizing to fight for better moving forward. Being able to articulate that case is an existential question for our movement: people we want to organize see the threat of Donald Trump very well, and if we don't help beat him we will receive and deserve political isolation. Coronavirus is very bad, but it would have been more manageable under Hillary Clinton. It's a disaster under Trump. There's a strong parallel to be drawn between Trumpers downplaying the risk Coronavirus poses and Bernie-or-Busters downplaying the difference between Biden and Trump.

    Bernie Sanders is an uncompromising independent. When we look back over the history of the US left, of all the terrible controversies and hypocrisies around Stalinism we can summon a certain empathy for those who eschewed the parties and stood on their own. The cost is that Sanders led his believers into the Democratic Party without building an independent organization or voting block. In this sense, Bernie Sanders is a typical leftist of his time combining a manichean anti-imperialism, a heavy emphasis on class awareness but light on race awareness, bereft of any real political accomplishments, happy to heckle those who wield power.

    Joe Biden is a man committed to compromise and to the politically available. In previous podcasts I’ve discussed how the far left turned its back on the American working class, which rightly rejected Communism on Stalin’s terms. As the mass of working America turned to the right, the left stopped voting. Democrats went where the votes were, and Joe Biden was part of that movement to the right. Once he becomes President, Joe Biden is going to find out that there’s no one on the other side to negotiate compromises with. But he will put the judiciary and immigration services back on a legal footing, and if we’re lucky enough to have Kamala Harris as the Attorney General we can expect Trump incorporated to go to jail where they belong.

    Hughes, Edward J. "Proust and Social Spaces." The Cambridge Companion to Proust (2001): 151-167.

    Judt, Tony, and Tony Robert Judt. Past imperfect: French intellectuals, 1944-1956. Univ of California Press, 1992.

    Klein, E. "Why we’re polarized." (2020).

    Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the political: Expanded edition. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    Music: Andreas Boldt, A Never Ending Ocean, else Harry

  • 15. Counterrevolution in Ukraine

    July 28th, 2020  |  1 hr 10 mins
    2016, activism, anarchism, bernie sanders, communism, democratic, hillary clinton, impeachment, lenin, leninism, masha gessen, paul manafort, poland, progressivism, putin, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, solidarity, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, timothy snyder, trotsky, trump, ukraine, victor serge, yanukovich

    [Correction: I tried really hard to say "Ukraine" and not "The Ukraine" but I didn't get every instance. I'm very sorry. It's a hard habit to break. I mean no disrespect. ]

    The fate of Ukraine is now intimately tied to American politics, and oddly American politics seems doomed now precisely because we have failed Ukraine in some important ways. Hopefully by the end of this podcast you’ll understand.
    On January 9 2020 Jacobin published a piece by Christian Parenti entitled “Impeachment Without Class Politics: an Autopsy” reminding us that impeachment and Ukraine don’t matter (https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/impeachment-class-politics-emolument-constitution). Here’s the first line: “The impeachment proceedings are boring and will result in nothing.” Great. Then they repeat the line that impeachment should have targeted something else: emoluments. This is a particularly strong version of this argument, specifically because it is conceivable legally that an impeachment case could have been mounted around emoluments. First of all, this is still whataboutery, according to which if you didn’t do anything about ‘x’ then you shouldn’t do anything about ‘y’ either. Someone got away with murder so we can never again convict murderers. Secondly, to the public impeachment really was about the whole Trump problem, which is why Republicans kept talking about it not being right to try and undo an election this way. They were obviously wrong about that: this is exactly how the founding fathers expected we could undo an election. But the bigger problem I have about this is that it is wrapped up with the idea that Ukraine doesn’t matter. It may not poll high as a concern to middle America, but part of why that is the case is because outlets like Jacobin are working to convince us it’s unimportant. 13,000 Ukrainians have died as of today, in mid February as I write. That matters. None of these people is mentioned in the article entitled “autopsy.” Their deaths merit no record, no investigation. The article does actually mention Ukraine, briefly, twice, once to mention possible Biden corruption, which demonstrably false and a Trumpian talking point. The article mentions Ukraine a second time at the very end calling the issue “sanctimonious, wrapped-in-the-flag, Kabuki theater about national security and Ukraine - a country few Americans know or care about.” When Parenti asks us why class politics weren’t involved in the impeachment articles he is erasing Russian oppression of Ukrainians, because that’s where the class war is located in this issue. As in all wars, it is the working class that fights this one. He’s somehow ignored or never tried to know about the way Putin and Paul Manafort both got rich exploiting Ukrainian labor. Then he aligns himself with Trump’s anti-Ukraine and anti-America line. That’s the tell: it’s more important to him to be anti-American than it is to reflect on the harm done to Ukrainians and to the idea of international working class, or even just human, solidarity. It’s shameful and dangerous that one of the leading left publications is making the argument that lives of people overseas don’t matter. There’s really no way to build a sense of international solidarity, to inspire Americans with a feeling that immigrants deserve rights, when the US left is committed to discounting the lives of Ukrainians. Let’s do better than this: let’s talk about Ukraine.

    After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the west it was expected that free markets would allow the spontaneous development of democratic institutions. Instead in Russia the new wealth would create a kleptocracy that would coalesce around first Yeltsin and then Putin. In Ukraine a set of klans would jostle for power, which was formally exchanged through rigged elections. The European Union became for many a beacon of hope that Ukraine could soon become a full democracy where money couldn’t buy power to flaunt the law, and where elections were not negotiated by a corrupt group of oligarchs. But the mafia state in Russia was a constant roadblock on the way to mass democracy, and from the beginning Trump was there dipping his ladle into the trough of human misery. In 1986 and again in 1996 Trump tried and failed to get a deal to build a luxury hotel in Moscow (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).

    We now know a lot about Trump’s business dealings in Russia, stretching back decades. We learned a lot from Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22 of 2017. Simpson investigated Trump for Fusion GPS, which is the company that produced the Steele Dossier. Trump is a failed businessman. His father earned money running brothels during the gold rush out west, and then buying up real estate in Brooklyn just before the bridge was built increasing the value of land there. Trump’s own enterprises, hotels and casinos kept losing money. He defaulted on many loans, and couldn’t get financing in western banks. So he starts looking for money to invest from Russia just as the market was being opened in the early 90s, and Russians were trying to find a way to get money out to western banks where it could be safe.

    To understand the war in Ukraine today we have to talk about Putin’s rise to power in 1999. That is also where the story of Yanukovich’s rise in Ukrainian politics and later Trump’s rise in American politics begins. (Hensman 67,Gessen 21-42, Horvath p24). In 1999 Putin is still working as a leader in the FSB, and he starts having FSB agents set bombs in apartment buildings so that he can blame it on Chechen rebels to start a war with Chechnya. That’s how he makes himself a big hero and wins the election. It worked. Several hundred Russians were murdered, and over a thousand injured. Even though in one case where the local FSB had not been informed of the plot they actually responded to a report of the bomb and disarmed it, and then later had to change their story about it being a bomb to “oh, it was a training exercise and these were bags of sugar,” everyone in Russia at the time believed it was Chechnyans (Gessen The Man Without a Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin [MWFURVP] pp23-29; Hensman, pp. 65-66). In 2002 an independent commission established by the Russian Duma (a parliament) found, partly based on the testimony of defected FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, that the FSB had been behind the bombings. Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by Russian agents using Polonium in quantities only manufacturable by state powers, with the poison being traced back to KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi who had tea with Litvinenko. Litvinenko was poisoned in London where he lived in exile. At the time Gordon Brown then refused to meet with Putin, though David Cameron later would in an attempt to reset relations with Russia. Note in passing that in part it was Jeremy Corbyn’s very pro-Russian reaction to news of a similar poisoning of Sergei Skripal that in part convinced Labor voters that he did not have their best interests in heart. His reaction to the murder of Litvinenko was the same. Corbyn either didn’t know or didn’t care that Litvinenko had been murdered to hide the FSB’s bombings of Russian citizens in 1999. Either way, what a horrible thing to contribute to the cover up of such a terrible crime. His reaction to Skripal’s murder is proof that he had not reflected on any of this, and he deserved to lose in 2019. The British working class deserved much better. Putin’s war in Chechnya in 2000 was the original “war on terror,” coming as it did a year before the attacks of 9/11. As a result of this manufactured crisis in March of 2000 Putin is elected President. This set the model for what is called “managed democracy,” where a state produces crises whenever there is an election in order to produce the desired outcome.

    Putin had cut his teeth as an FSB agent in the 80s in Germany, and as he watched the Berlin wall torn down, and then later saw protest movements spread across Eastern Europe where former Soviet States were holding referendums where the majority voted to leave the USSR, something shifted into place for Putin. It’s from that time on that Putin saw the CIA in all such popular movements. His views are reflected in Russian propaganda through Russia Today and Sputnik and other sources. When pro-democracy protest movements erupted in Georgia in 2004, Putin and the Russian state media called it a CIA coup. Likewise with the Maidan protests that occured in 2013. Coup. Are there massive protests in Syria? It’s a coup. Srdja Popovic is the activist that led the student movement Otpor! who helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic only escaped conviction for war crimes by dying before the trial could be concluded. Peter Pomerantsev recently interviewed Mr. Popovic: “Srdja Popovic is halfway through explaining to me how to bring down a dictator when he gets a call. It’s a warning about a piece coming out tomorrow claiming he’s connected to the CIA and is behind revolutions in the Middle East. The piece first appeared in an Istanbul daily and then reappeared on a minor Serbian-language website full of pro-Russian conspiracies. From there it moved to a site owned by Christian Orthodox patriots, and it would soon be featured on the front page of one of Serbia’s largest tabloids, which Srdja assumes, is publishing it because conspiracy theories sell rather than because the paper has it in for him personally. After all, he makes for a good story. Recently Russian state TV camera crews turned up at his office among the monolithic Communist concrete cubes of New Belgrade, where it sits between a hairdressing salon and a pastry shop. They tried to force their way in. If they had hoped to find dozens of CIA operatives, they must have been disappointed. Srdja runs a permanent staff of four Serbs, who sit in a neat grey office which would look like an accountant’s, were it not for the multiple posters of the clenched fist that is Srdja’s logo.” (Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda [TNP], p.59). The obsession with the CIA, seeing its secret hand behind every event we can’t or won’t explain, is a kind of structural anti-semitism, in that it doesn’t, at least not always with Putin, name Jews as the originators of the international conspiracy, but it labels all such popular protests as being instigated by a shadowy cabal, sometimes that’s just vaguely refered to as “the West,” “elites,” or “America” or “George Soros,” and in Putin’s version it is more often “the homosexual Western conspiracy.” There’s never any proof but that’s not the point. The point is to make people sitting at home doubt just enough so they don’t want to join the protests. It effectively robs the protestors of their agency, treating human beings like manipulable political objects, just the way some dogmatic Marxist might. This should sound familiar after our episodes on Syria. We’ll find more examples of structural anti-semitism as we continue.
    Here is a quick list of tropes that are typical of Russian propaganda, identified by experts in the field Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder and Peter Pomerantsev. As always, check out the transcript of this podcast for full sources.

    The US is to blame for any attacks against it. (Gessen, p 232)
    American intervention is going to cause World War 3. (Gessen, p. 234)
    Humanism, cosmopolitanism, human rights are always bankrupt concepts and their use is cynical manipulation. (Gessen, p. 234).
    Russia is not imperialist. When it invades its neighbors this is always in self defence. (Gessen, p. 275)
    Pro-democracy revolutions only lead to chaos and civil war. (Pomerantsev, p. 140).
    Because some nations have violated the law, law itself is bankrupt, and so when Russia breaks the law it does so from innocence because it does not pretend to honor the law. (Snyder, p. 143).

    In 2003 Ukraine’s close neighbor Georgia had a revolution that overthrew Russian stooge Eduard Shevardnadze, and in 2004 the Adjara revolution restored Georgian independence from Russia. In 2008 Russia went to war in Georgia to try and restore Russian domination of them; we note this in passing to give an idea of how invested Russia is in keeping its privileged trade relations with its neighbors. This is important to Ukraine, because the Georgian example caused panic in Russia that Ukraine might want meaningful independence also. Also, we’re all good leftists here, so the plight of those oppressed by imperialism moves us. Right? The fate of a place like Georgia or Ukraine is still impacted by Russian internal politics today, and in late 2003 Russian liberals lost the Duma (Horvath p14). In May of 2004 Putin gives a speech blaming the Velvet revolutions on foreign NGOs and George Soros.

    In 2004, as Putin’s man in Ukraine Yanukovich was losing an election to remain as Ukraine’s president, in Russia Putin won another election, going through a period where rhetorically he voiced approval of the EU and NATO. Putin won this election thanks to widespread fraud, which should surprise no one. What is interesting here is that, according to Masha Gessen, the fraud seemed to be committed by a grassroots network of supporters, and not to have been coordinated from above (Gessen, MWAFURVP, p184). She goes into some depth in The Future is History to try and explain the psychology of people who are willing to destroy democracy in exchange for kickbacks, talking about Homo Sovieticus.

    Here is what they did. Over a million people were deleted from voting roles, which also happened in the US in 2016. Ballots arrived at hospitals pre-filled. People were paid to vote a certain way. The old soviet culture of corruption, of quid pro quo, led people to support Putin in this way in order to get kickbacks: in Stalin’s Russia this kind of corruption was a matter of life and death.

    Masha Gessen’s great insight into Russian style fascism is that by increasing the pain people are going through, the regime is able to make them more desperate, more willing to believe the story that nothing could ever have been different, that they must attack their enemies, that they are great.

    In the Summer of 2004 Russia began an aggressive intervention into the Ukrainian elections in an attempt to get Yanukovich elected over the EU friendly Viktor Yuschenko. When Putin calls some political movement a coup, or a conspiracy, it’s the ultimate pot calling the kettle black. Russia sets up a team of what they call “political technologists” in Kiev in 2004. During the months that followed they did extremely poorly manufactured polling designed to favor Yanukovich. They organized speeches by pro-Russian speakers and groups. They were trying to play down the idea that Yanukovich and Medvedev and the whole pro-Putin club were gangsters, kleptocrats. That was made harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a personal vendetta against Georgii Gongadze who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, and even harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a criminal record that included a rape conviction (Horvath, p24). As Yanukovitch’s campaign proposed making Russian the official language of Ukraine, Putin himself came into Ukraine to campaign for him, appearing in a softball interview and presiding over a military parade where he invoked the USSR’s role in fighting Hitler in Ukraine in 1943. Remember how Stalin’s role fighting Hitler in WW2 was used to retroactively whitewash the terrible famine Stalin imposed on Ukrainian peasants in 1932, as punishment for “discrediting socialism”? Well, Russian politicians get a lot of mileage out of what they think ‘Stalin beating Hitler’ can let them justify doing. The other aspects of Stalin’s USSR’s involvement in WW2 get erased from this story, the abandonment of Poland in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the role of the comintern in organizing protests against US entry into WW2 in 1939, the purges and mass murder of Poles after Stalin divided up Eastern Europe with Hitler, the way the vast majority of soviet officials collaborated heavily with Hitler and helped initiate the holocaust to scapegoat Jews for the crimes of the NKVD, all of that is forgotten. Instead, “Stalin beats Hitler” gets trotted out in 2004 to justify Russian neo-liberal domination of the Ukrainian economy, to prevent Ukrainian independence and anti-corruption measures, to sabotage Ukrainian entry into the EU, and much later in 2014 “Stalin beats Hitler” will be used to justify Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas. Many Ukrainians, having an intimate knowledge of that history of Russia’s forcing famine on Ukraine, many of whom still suffer from bad health effects from Chernobyl, have decided that the lesson of history is that they need to shake off Russian domination. When the voting started in 2004 tracksuit wearing thugs attacked voters at polling stations to stop them from voting (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/1477722/Revealed-the-full-story-of-the-Ukrainian-election-fraud.html). Jesus, just saying that out loud I hear how that sounds like something from a Russian gangster movie, but you don’t have to take my word for it, there is a video of the attacks online, and I’ve linked it in the transcript (https://censor.net.ua/en/video_news/461036/local_elections_in_ukraine_police_show_attack_on_polling_station_in_dnipropetrovsk_region_video). There was widespread fraud in this election. Ballots were destroyed. Busloads of Yanukovich supporters went from polling station to polling station, with the same people voting at each station. In some places voters were given pens with disappearing ink! Managed democracy.

    Massive protests broke out in Kiev in 2004 against this clear attack on democracy and the rule of law. This is what has become known as the “Orange Revolution.” The protests, sit-ins and a general strike all worked in the end and a second vote was held. International observers agreed this second election was fair, and the winner by a couple percentage points was Victor Yuschenko. But, you know the old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, poison your enemies. So, that’s what Russia did: they poisoned Yuschenko resulting in his disfigurement. The poisoning was discovered. Yushchenko got skin grafts and served as president of Ukraine until 2010 when Paul Manafort helped get Yanukovich elected.
    In 2008 Putin couldn’t run for a third term legally, so he had his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev become President while Putin became Prime Minister. By that point anyone could tell Putin was still in charge. Masha Gessen describes the system in place in 2008 to assure no candidates independent of the state party could get their names on the ballot: Here “Seryozha” sits in for the incredulous Russian public. “An independent candidate -- one who was not already a member of parliament - was required by new Putin era laws to submit two million voter signatures in order to be registered as a candidate, with no more than fifty thousand signatures coming from any one region of the country. This demanded either a lot of money or a large nationwide grassroots network of activists- preferably both. Many people had tried that year. Garry Kasparov could not even convene the required public meeting of an initial group of supporters, because no one would rent him space for such a meeting, for any amount of money. Boris Nemtsov had dropped out of the race to help another candidate, former prime minister Michail Kasyanov, but Kasyanov’s signatures were arbitrarily thrown out. But here was some guy named Bogdanov, whom no one had ever heard of, who was ostensibly representing a party that had in fact been dormant since the early 1990s, whose political experience consisted of being a part time member of a tiny powerless municipal council, and even this was probably fake - and Seryozha was supposed to pretend to believe that this clown had collected two million signatures?” (Gessen, The Future is History, p289).
    A word about managed democracy. The Russian fascists that Putin gets his ideas from, including Ilyin, Dugin and the Izvestia group, believe that the best nation is one without the law and order of a regular state power. The people’s will is embodied in the person of the leader. Law is defined as his will. If he wants to shoot someone in broad daylight in the middle of the street there is nothing anyone can do. Elections are only held as a ritual whereby the people perform their role legitimizing the power of that leader. Managed Democracy. Putin’s last two decades in power fit this description to a T. Yale Historian Timothy Snyder has noted that the lack of a clear succession principle makes modern Russia unstable, makes the future beyond Putin permanently unimaginable. To justify his holding power in the absence a government authority that could survive him, Putin must tell a story about Russia’s eternal enemies. In Putin’s narrative, those eternal enemies are western and homosexual. The Russian ruling clique has decided that homophobia is the way they are going to mobilize people against Russia’s enemies. They believe this information war will go on forever. As a big middle finger to him, we’re going to talk about recent historical events, things that happen and then stop happening, that exist outside of eternity. We’re going to talk about what is actually happening, about what Russia tries to hide from view by vilifying homosexuals and the United States.
    We know Paul Manafort now as the corrupt manager of Trump’s Presidential campaign starting officially in March of 2016. We all know that Mr. Manafort is currently serving a prison sentence for federal financial crimes. The official line from the Trump team is that the two men met in an elevator in 2015, though its established fact that they were introduced probably decades before by Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn. In 2004 Paul Manafort lived in Trump tower, and in 2006 Trump signed a one-year deal to start building a hotel in Moscow on the site of an old pencil factory, but again nothing was built (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
    In 2010 Paul Manafort was hired to get the disgraced Yanukovich re-elected in Ukraine. Tellingly, part of how Manafort cleaned up Yanukovich in 2010 was convincing the latter to speak Ukrainian. He won reelection in part by promising to sign an association agreement with the European Union. After the election, Manafort continued to lobby for Yanukovich in Washington. Meanwhile Yanukovich stole billions of dollars from Ukraine. Protesters in 2014 found his financial records documenting this abuse in a palace that Yanukovich had built during this period with money stolen from the public. The palace had a 9 hole golf course, a helipad, a floating restaurant, a zoo (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/trumpinc/episodes/trump-inc-ukraine). In August 2016 we found out in the NYT that Manafort was paid 27million dollars from Yanukovich under the table. In Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World, Oliver Bullough describes the real cost of this corruption in sapping hundreds of thousands of dollars from a cancer research center, forcing parents of children with cancer to pay bribes for treatment. The Health Minister had overpaid 300 per cent for HIV and TB drugs in 2012. In 2014 efforts to reform the system were abandoned after the Health ministry in seven months couldn’t find a single supplier that wasn’t corrupt (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n04/vadim-nikitin/kleptocracy). That’s money the Ukrainian working class made being expropriated by an American politician with the result being poor people getting no health care, including children with cancer.
    As the United States was pursuing a reset of relations with Russia, events in Russia were propelling the country towards a war with Ukraine. The Russian economy in the early oughts did well because theirs was an economy based on the export of oil. After the financial crisis of 2008 the price of oil collapsed, and afterwards Russians were less tolerant of the tyranny they lived under. In 2011 Putin’s Russia faked a landslide victory in the lower house of the Rusian parliament. In response 80,000 people protested in Moscow through December. It’s worth quoting Snyder at length [TRU} I can’t help as I read this thinking about how the Czar claimed the Bolsheviks were German agents. “If the Kremlin’s first impulse was to associate democratic opposition with global sodomy, its second was to claim that protestors worked for a foreign power, one whose chief diplomat was female: ‘she gave the signal.’ On December 15, he claimed that the demonstrators were paid. Evidence was not provided and was not the point. If, as Ilyin maintained, voting was just an opening to foreign influence, then Putin’s job was to make up a story about foreign influence and use it to alter domestic politics...But President Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe in 2009, and in 2010 Russia was allowing American forces in Afghanistan. No Russian leader feared a NATO invasion in 2011 or 2012, or even pretended to. In 2012, American leaders believed that they were pursuing a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia. When Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ in March 2012, he was ridiculed. Almost no one in the American public media was paying attention to Moscow...The association between opposition and treason was axiomatic, the only question that of the appropriate punishment. In March, Russian television released a film, described as a ‘documentary,’ which claimed that Russian citizens who took to the streets were paid by devious foreigners. Precisely because Putin had made the Russian state vulnerable, he had to claim that it was his opponents who had done so. Since Putin believed that ‘it would be inadmissible to allow the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change,’ he reserved for himself the right to define views that he did not like as a threat to Russia. From 2012, there was no sense in imagining a worse Russia in the past and a better Russia in the future, mediated by a reforming government in the present. The enmity of the United States and the European Union had to become the premise of Russian politics. Putin had reduced Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment. The only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo.” (Snyder TRU, p 56).

    Putin won another rigged election in 2012. What seems to be significant about this election was that by this point the fraudulent nature of the election was taken for granted, an avowed and established part of the procedure. From Masha Gessen: “On September 25, the preschool mothers were outraged. The previous afternoon, Putin and Medvedev had made a joint announcement: at the next election, scheduled for March 2012, Medvedev would hand the presidency back to Putin and return to his post as prime minister. ‘Can you believe this?’ the mothers asked one another. ‘They don’t even try to keep up appearances anymore.’ They meant the appearance of an election.” (p. 325).
    In the US, not experiencing Occupy Wall Street, events in Russia barely pierced the foggy media bubble. I remember around this time joining protests in solidarity with the Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, Yemenis and that’s it. I don’t remember once hearing a word of solidarity uttered for Russia. US politicians seemed even more clueless. Remember how in the West people thought that opening “free markets” would spontaneously generate democratic governments? Well, that was never true, but people believed it, so to the extent that anyone was paying serious attention to Russia, it was to protect the ability of people to invest money in Russia. But Russians were in the habit of taking whatever they wanted and killing people who got in the way. The result of all this was that to protect commerce, Congress passes the Magnitsky Act in the summer of 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/magnitsky-act-kremlin/535044/). The Magnitsky of the act was an accountant and lawyer who represented William Browder, who invested millions in Russia and was fleeced of his investments by the Russian government mafia. For exposing this corruption, Magnitsky was thrown in jail where he was found dead in 2009. The act freezes the bank accounts of several important Russian oligarchs. This disrupts their efforts to steal money from people investing in Russia, because without western banks as havens into which to launder the money, there’s no way for them to protect their stolen wealth. Now whenever someone tells you there’s no way to stop wealthy people from hiding their money overseas, just remember the Magnitsky Act. Unsurprisingly, Trump has worked to undermine the Magnitsky act, lifting sanctions against Russian oligarchs whenever possible (https://themoscowproject.org/collusion/trump-administration-lifts-sanctions-on-firms-tied-to-deripaska/). By now it should be clear that the Magnitsky Act is going to make it hard for Trump to launder money for Russian oligarchs. In 2013 Trump visits Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and tweets: “TRUMP TOWER MOSCOW is next.” (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).

    2013 was a big year for Ukraine. In 2013 Yanukovich reneges on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and protests erupt centered on the Maidan in Kiev. When police used violence to disperse the student protestors, masses of people joined the protests in december of 2013. These were protests on the same scale as Berlin 1848, Paris 1871, Cairo 2011, or Hama in 2012, and they had much the same goals of democracy and human rights. To get a real feeling for how and why the protests happened, you could do worse than to watch Winter On Fire, an excellent documentary about these events. Here’s how Timothy Snyder describes the protests: “Kyiv is a bilingual capital, something unusual in Europe and unthinkable in Russia and the United States. Europeans, Russians, and Americans rarely considered that everyday bilingualism might bespeak political maturity, and imagined instead that a Ukraine that spoke two languages must be divided into two groups and two halves. “Ethnic Ukrainians” must be a group that acts in one way, and “ethnic Russians” in another. This is about as true as to say that “ethnic Americans” vote Republican. It is more a summary of a politics that defines people by ethnicity, proposing to them an eternity of grievance rather than a politics of the future. In Ukraine, language is a spectrum rather than a line…. Ukrainian citizens on the Maidan spoke as they did in everyday life, using Ukrainian and Russian as it suited them. The revolution was begun by a journalist who used Russian to tell people where to put the camera, and Ukrainian when he spoke in front of it. His famous Facebook post (“Likes don’t count”) was in Russian. On the Maidan, the question of who spoke what language was irrelevant… The politics of this nation [the one forged on the Maidan] were about the rule of law: first the hope that an association agreement with the European Union could reduce corruption, then the determination to prevent the rule of law from disappearing entirely under the waves of state violence. In surveys, protestors most often selected “the defense of the rule of law” as their major goal. The political theory was simple: the state needed civil society to lead it toward Europe, and the state needed Europe to lead it away from corruption. Once the violence began, this political theory expressed itself in more poetic forms. The philosopher Volodymyr Yermolensko wrote, “Europe is also a light at the end of a tunnel. When do you need a light like that? When it is pitch dark all around.” In the meantime, civil society had to work in darkness. Ukrainians did so by forming horizontal networks with no relationship to political parties. As the protestor Ihor Bihun recalled: “There was no fixed membership. There was no hierarchy either.” The political and social activity of the Maidan from December 2013 through February 2014 arose from temporary associations based upon will and skill. The essential idea was that freedom was responsibility. There was thus pedagogy (libraries and schools), security (Samoobrona, or self-defense), external affairs (the council of the Maidan), aid for victims of violence and people seeking missing loved ones (Euromaidan SOS), and anti-propaganda (InfoResist). As the protestor Andrij Bondar remembered, self-organization was a challenge to the dysfunctional Ukrainian state: ‘On the Maidan a Ukrainian civil society of incredible self-organization and solidarity is thriving. On the one hand, this society is internally differentiated: by ideology, language, culture, religion and class, but on the other hand it is united by certain elementary sentiments. We do not need your permission! We are not going to ask you for something! We are not afraid of you! We will do everything ourselves!”’ (Snyder [TRU] pp128-129). Recall that Marx defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as the domination of the state by civil society leading to the dissolution of class differences. We have seldom caught glimpses of that possibility, the possibility of people directly and democratically organizing their own lives, but in the Maidan we got a clear vision of it on the same level as the Paris Commune.
    On the 20th of February, 2014 snipers massacred hundreds of protestors on the Maidan. A few days later Russia prepared its own population for war with Ukraine by broadcasting false reports of Ukrainian atrocities in the Crimea. They made up a story about Ukrainians crucifying a Russian boy (Snyder p.178). The shelled Ukrainian civilian areas, and broadcast news stories about how Ukraine was shelling its own towns (Snyder, p. 172). Russian forces invaded without Russian insignia, then pretended to be local separatist guerillas (Snyder, p. 165).. Russians were bussed in to pretend to be protesters storming county government buildings in order to stage the popular overthrow of local government (Snyder, p 144). When Malaysian flight MH17 was shot down on June 23, 2014, Russia claimed that the plane had fallen because of a Ukrainian missile aimed at the president of Russia, that Ukrainian Jewish air traffic controllers told the plane to fly at a low altitude, or that the CIA had prefilled the plane with corpses in order to slander Russia. None of these things was true, of course. As forensic evidence later showed, MH17 had been shot down by the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade. The plane was flying on an authorized route at a normal altitude (Snyder, pp. 174-175). No wonder Pomerantsev has said that the war existed to create the media phenomenon. Snyder explains that the point of this misinformation war is to destroy the possibility of public sympathy for the victims of Russia’s invasion, which Russian state media called Nazis. “One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences. One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. Once the intellectuals moorings were loosed, it was easy for Russians (and Europeans, and Americans) to latch on to well-funded narratives provided by television, but it was impossible to work one’s way towards an understanding of people in their own setting: to grasp where they were coming from, what they thought they were doing, what sort of future they imagined for themselves. Ukrainians who began by defending a European future found themselves, once the propaganda and the violence began, fighting for a sense that there could be a past, a present, and a future. The Maidan began as Ukrainian citizens sought to find a solution for Ukrainian problems. It ended with Ukrainians trying to remind Europeans and Americans that moments of high emotion require sober thought. Distant observers jumped at the shadows of the story, only to tumble into a void darker than ignorance.” (Snyder, p. 151).
    The Internet Research Agency, which later worked to sell England on Brexit, and later worked to sell the US on Trump, was working hard on social media to convince the world that Russia had to invade Ukraine to defend the Russian minority there, all while Russian officials denied that any such invasion had happened. Russian propaganda, built on structural antisemitism, almost always involves an element of bashing of LGBTQ and invocation of an epic struggle against the US. Although Obama’s February 28th statement of concern about “military movements” in Ukraine was the first time during the crisis that Obama had said anything, and though he was still not doing anything, Russians invoked a war against the west and once again the nobility of “Stalin beats Hitler.” In the light of this history, Russia bombing Syria in 2015, the story of Lisa F., it’s campaigns for Brexit and Trump take on their proper significance: a fascist war waged partly in cyberspace by a Russia spinning out of control, throwing a tantrum because it has possibly losing its colonies.
    The protest movement in Ukraine in the Spring of 2014 succeeded in forcing Yanukovich to resign and in calling for new elections. The new democratically elected government of Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union, though full EU membership is still an uncertain prospect. The European Union itself is an imperfect institution, and deserves a full discussion on its own. I hope it’s obvious from the discussion here and from the previous podcast that the European Union, whatever its role in the Greek debt crisis, is clearly a lifeline for Ukrainian democracy. If the choice is between the EU and being owned by a group of Russian Oligarchs, as is the case in Ukraine, choosing the Oligarchs is clearly the wrong call.

    Probably you have noticed by now that talking about Ukraine inevitably forces us to talk about Trump. In February of 2014, as Ukrainian protestors are dying under sniper fire for wanting a better world, we find Trump on Fox news praising Putin and bragging about his relationship with the Russian oligarch. That very same month that the Izborsk Club put out a memorandum abandoning Yanukovich whom they presumed was to be deposed and declaring that Russia should invade Ukraine, which they did two months later. Trump is the first anti-American president, the first president who is the friend of foreign tyrants. The Izborsk Club is a Russian think tank founded by fascist novelist Alexander Prokhanov, friend of Putin’s. Another member of Izborsk is Tikhon Shevkunov who’s big idea is that Putin is the reincarnation of Volodymr of Rus who first signed the agreement with the Cossacks to back them in their fight for independence from Poland, an agreement that supposedly constitutes Russia’s right to dominate Ukraine. Trump is a big fan.

    During Trump’s presidential campaign he attacked NATO and US sanctions against Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine, all the while pursuing, you guessed it, a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow, something Trump lied about later. In June of 2016 Manafort and Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyers to discuss dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
    Because the Mueller report never found a smoking gun on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, some may have lost sight of the indisputable facts that (1) Trump is a huge Putin stan with clear business interests in Russia, and (2) Russia used enormous military assets in 2016 to help Trump get elected. The resistance to admitting this evidence is one of the greatest threats to our beating Trump in 2020. To admit that Russians influenced our election is to recognize the weaknesses in our society, state, and movement, that led to our democracy being successfully attacked. Facing those weaknesses could strengthen our process and keep Trump from getting a second term. Let’s talk about the Russian hacking of the 2016 election briefly, so that we can better understand why Trump targeted military aid to Ukraine specifically in 2018.
    Sarah Kendzior was writing about the connections between Trump and Putin back in 2015, and she describes the media reaction to her as gaslighting. Gaslighting is when you manipulate someone by telling them they are crazy. Abusers use it against their victims so that the latter will blame themselves for the abuse, or to deny that it is happening. Maybe the media wasn’t so much abusing Kendzior, but they were pretending she was crazy to be drawing out these parallels. You should listen to her podcast “gaslit nation.” (https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/andrea-chalupa/gaslit-nation) There’s a kind of American exceptionalism that says we couldn’t possibly have had an election meaningfully tampered with. I rely on the work of Kathlene Jamieson, who is a professor of communications and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been covering electoral messaging for several decades. Her book Cyberwar is essential to understanding the 2016 election: go out and read it. We have to discuss that book’s main point here just to understand how the Russian misinformation campaign worked in the US.
    Two important things to note: (1) that the email scandals were orchestrated by Russia to provide the framing of the election that made it possible for Trump to win, and (2) the left amplified this propaganda to suppress the vote for Hillary Clinton. There were two email scandals that get conflated. People think that because Clinton used her private computer Russians got DNC emails, but that’s not what happened. No useful intelligence was gathered outside the US from Clinton using her private devices for official business, and she was cleared of all wrong doing in 2019, to very little media attention. That story gets mixed up with the Russian hack of the DNC server that we all found out about in June of 2016, though little attention was paid to it at the time. Again, Americans really did think it far fetched that such a thing could happen. In September 2016, Trump joked that it was probably some 400 lbs. guy sitting on their beds in New Jersey. The fact Trump was making a fat phobic joke didn’t stop the left from laughing along. Then campaign manager of the Clinton campaign Donna Brazile describes what she was told by CrowdStrike, the company who took over their data security after the breach: “The hackers… were sophisticated teams, codenamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear by CrowdStrike. The two bears, Crowdstrike said, came from competing Russian intelligence agencies that had teams working twenty-four hours a day to break into foreign computer systems...Shawn Henry of Crowdstrike said in the Post article: ‘This is a sophisticated foreign intelligence service with a lot of time, a lot of resources, and is interested in targeting the U.S. political system” (Brazile, p28). Russian military officers stole emails from the DNC, and then carefully misquoted them at key moments to frame the electoral race to benefit Trump by suppressing the potential democrat vote.

    On October 7th, 2016 as early voting had started, the Obama administration put out a memorandum about the Russian operation and that Wikileaks was likely a tool alongside DCleaks and Guccifer 2.0 Russia was using to leak stolen material from DNC emails. Half an hour later the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump bragging about being a serial molester of women was released by The Washington Post. Half an hour after that wikileaks dumped a cache of emails stolen from once Clinton campaign manager John Podesta: and these emails formed the basis of the pizzagate conspiracy theory. Social media accounts connected to Russian IP addresses that day were digging up old stories of Hillary Clinton working as a defence attorney in a rape case. The story about the Russian misinformation was completely obscured from the media horizon by Russian misinformation. The framing of the race as between two equally flawed candidates dominated the media throughout the entire month when voting happened in 2016, with the media regularly conflating the hack of the DNC with Clinton’s use of her private computers. In the final debate between Clinton and Trump the mediators repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton about lying and duplicity. Raddatz asked Hillary Clinton: “This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu(ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html). The speech in question finds Clinton praising Lincoln, who is shown in a movie explaining a policy in true but different terms to two different constituencies. As Clinton tries to explain this, Trump quips: “now she’s blaming Lincoln.” The audience laughed at that.

    The false equivalence of Clinton and Trump is driving many today to say that if Bernie Sanders isn’t the democratic candidate in the general election, they will not vote for the democrat. That and the idea that the primary was rigged. If you listen carefully to far left pundits you will notice that according to them the Democratic Party is too weak to win an election but strong enough to rig one, too incompetent to beat Trump, but clever enough to rig the primaries against Sanders. The main problem with this story is that Sanders lost not because the process was rigged, but because fewer people voted for him in the primary. The second problem is that the rules for that convention were set before Sanders entered the primary, and he knew that because he had not been officially a part of the Democratic Party up to then he would be at a disadvantage. When Vox covers this supposed rigging in May of 2016 they are constrained by the facts to say it didn’t happen (https://www.vox.com/2016/5/24/11745232/bernie-sanders-rigged), and then point out that if you count Democrats campaigning against Sanders as rigging a primary then yes it was rigged. Except that is the definition of a system that is not rigged, where everyone can campaign and the rules are agreed upon ahead of time. The left has a serious weakness here that we will get into next podcast as we discuss the 2020 election. Giving specific criticisms of the system is helpful to democracy. Saying the system is hopelessly rigged helped to suppress the vote in a very close election. 70,000 votes in three states go the other way and Trump doesn’t become president. We can and should criticize the Democratic Party, but not without reason. When we fall back on the wrong lessons of the 20th century that we have absolute enemies, in this case the Dems, we then cannot discern who our real enemies are: Donald Trump. In a context where 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US face ethnic cleansing at the hands of a fascist in the White House, we should put aside the purety of our politics and stand up for something greater: basic human solidarity. And all we have to do is admit the truth: the election isn’t rigged (yet) and if we don’t vote for the Democrat we risk losing the basic freedoms that allow us to fight back, free speech and the right to assemble.

    I’ve heard the argument that if we get a President Biden that leaves the system that made Trump in place and then four years later we just get another Trump but worse. First off, if Biden wins the presidency that doesn’t mean that a Trump will win the next election: each election is its own contest. Second, we begin dismantling the fascist movement by denying it the White House. Our failure to see the importance of having a not fascist in the White House in 2016 made us complicit in Trump’s crimes.
    On November 7, 2016 Jacobin Magazine published an article by Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller. It’s a hit piece on Hillary Clinton that framed her evolution on issues such as LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, war and social welfare as her being two-faced (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/hillary-clinton-is-running-for-president). This was precisely the same framing Russia had planted with the emails it leaked to wikileaks, and considering we got Trump as a result, this behavior is completely reckless of the wellbeing of immigrants and poor people who would have clearly suffered less under Clinton. We are seeing all of these same rhetorical devices today, where Bernie Sanders is said to have evolved after his vocal support of and actually voting for the crime bill in 1994, but Warren, after having shifted so radically and decisively around bankruptcy law, is treated like a Republican Manchurian candidate. If the people who don’t think the way we do can’t be trusted to ever genuinely change, then we will never ever convincingly win other people over, and for them there’s no payoff for changing their mind. If you think that pointing out Sanders’ past errors is “unfair” or some kind of an “attack,” then you need to reflect on why you think your favorite person should be beyond criticism. I am not suggesting that we should give any politician a pass, but I am suggesting that in 2016 the left followed the rest of the media in unfairly putting Clinton, a career politician who was wrong in all the same ways society at large was wrong in the last few decades, on the same moral standing as a racist who had bragged about molesting women. That moral equivalence is only possible because the standard we held Clinton to is impossibly higher than the one we held Trump to, and that’s the definition of misogyny. Then we wrongly accused the Democratic Party of rigging the primary, just as we began doing during the primary whenever Sanders lost a state, but never when he won them. Each time we echo Trump’s talking points about a rigged election we are working to suppress the vote and hasten our own doom. This is a strategic disaster, one that may have been understandable in 2016 as a mistake of a still young and isolated socialist movement, but then to repeat that error in 2020 because we haven’t reflected on it would be nearly unforgivable considering the stakes.

    In 2016 the vote for Clinton was suppressed in the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where Clinton lost by margins of 10 or 20 thousand votes (Jamieson, pp 112-114). All of these are states that Obama won in 2012. Nationwide Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump and barely 70,000 fewer votes than Obama had. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/12/29/2016-vs-2012-how-trumps-win-and-clintons-votes-stack-up-to-obama-and-romney/#5e1fcc291661) In other words, Trump didn’t so much win as Clinton lost the election, and she lost because the vote was suppressed by a media climate that was artificially hostile to her.

    This is the point where almost any leftist will chime in with criticisms of Clinton. Whatever those criticisms are that you have in mind, those are not the reasons she lost. Clinton didn’t lose because of her “super predator” comments in 1994 when she wasn’t in any public office but Bernie Sanders voted for the crime bill. Clinton didn’t lose because she promoted workfare. She lost because leftists agreed with Trump supporters that she was two-faced, and if a politician is going to lie that is unforgivable unless that politician is a white man and then it is expected. One of the more ridiculous claims is the so-called Pied-Piper scandal. This is the one where Clinton supposedly helped Trump win the primary. There is absolutely no evidence that the Clinton campaign did anything more than recognize in a leaked (!) email that they should talk about Trump in the media, something that was impossible to avoid given the sensational and racist comments the media was full of from the Trump campaign, which built off of his career in reality TV. Despite all this Clinton won the popular vote. Despite that, people blame her for losing, which is rich coming from people who worked hard to depress the progressive vote in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But it’s a way for people to deflect blame away themselves and from Trump and put it on Clinton.

    Given Trump’s clear pro-Russia politics, given that Russian interference in 2016 helped him win the election by exploiting Americans’ susceptibility to illiberal and misogynist politics, given that the Republican part of the Senate refused to impeach him for having clearly usurped the power of the purse from the congress, given Trump’s refusal to enforce the Magnitisky Act, ignorance of Ukrainian and Russian history seems like a real political liability. The history of Europe turned into a nightmare of cascading mass murder in the early 40s in a conflict that turned mainly around Ukraine. Instead of cheering the democratic movement of the Maidan, many on the US left responded with very dogmatic thinking that said the EU is bad and the enemy of my enemy, Putin, must be good. On July 25, 2019 in a phone call we have all seen in a so-called transcript, Trump tried to shake down the Ukrainian president to coerce the latter into working to effect the election of 2020. We ignored evidence of Russian hacking that came out in the summer of 2016 and lost that election to Trump. Maybe we should pay more attention to Russian disinformation this time, instead of taking the opportunity to own the libs as Doug Henwood has done in our favorite publication Jacobin magazine (https://jacobinmag.com/2019/12/impeachment-donald-trump-nancy-pelosi-democratic-party). If, as Doug Henwood is doing here, your reaction to impeachment is to think that Democrats are trying to distract us from how awful they are, then you’re part of why Trump is going to win in 2020. To focus our criticism on the Democrats in the context of a fascist abuse of executive power is to minimize the threat of Trump and to undermine the only party that can beat him. A better left strategy is to rally to the democratic struggle of the Ukrainians and urge Republicans to support our ally against Russian tyranny. If any of these terrible things Paul Manafort and Trump have helped along in Ukraine mattered to us, if oppressed colonized people or the working class or even just LGBTQ rights really mattered to us, we might have been able to break Republicans away from Trump on grounds of National Security. Republicans have repeatedly, explicitly, used as a defense against impeachment the proposition that people just don’t care about Ukraine. If we understood Ukraine, if we cared, we could have resisted Russian manipulation of our media context. The consequences go far beyond Ukraine and the United States.
    In October of 2019 Trump withdrew US troops from Northeast Syria in a move that threatened Christian minorities and the Kurdish project in Rojava. Even Noam Chomsky was calling this withdrawal of US military forces a disaster. We should have been hammering on this contradiction hard to try and break conservatives away from Trump, and we should have had large protests to demand US troop presence be maintained. But we couldn’t. We have a left today that is constitutionally incapable of such a realistic and humaine politics of solidarity. Instead we have a left that sides with Putin against Clinton and amplifies weaponized Russian misinformation against Ukrainian democracy advocates.

    Works

    Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.

    Bullough, Oliver. Moneyland: why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back. Profile Books, 2018.

    Gessen, Masha. The man without a face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books, 2013.

    Gessen, Masha. The future is history: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. Granta Books, 2017.

    Horvath, Robert. Putin's Preventive Counter-Revolution: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the Spectre of Velvet Revolution. Routledge, 2013.

    Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Cyberwar: how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president: what we don't, can't, and do know. Oxford University Press, 2020.

    Pomerantsev, Peter. Nothing is true and everything is possible: The surreal heart of the new Russia. Public Affairs, 2014.

    Pomerantsev, Peter. This is NOT propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. Hachette UK, 2019.

    Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Tim Duggan Books, 2018.

    Music: Nysno by Sandra Marteleur, else Harry

    Image: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ukrainian-protesters-create-museum-about-protest-180949914/

  • 14. American Imperialism in Syria

    July 23rd, 2020  |  46 mins 52 secs
    albert memmi, answer coalition, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, antiwar, arab spring, assad, barack obama, burning country, cia, code pink, colonialism, decolonization, enlightenment, global war on terror, isis, israel, john kerry, matt taibbi, noam chomsky, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, party for socialist liberation, peace, psl, solidarity, syria, the coup, the middle east, tulsi gabbard

    [update: here is a link to the OPCW report regarding responsibility for the 2014 chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghoutta:   https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020/04/s-1867-2020%28e%29.pdf ] Now that we’ve put Syrian voices first in explaining how the revolution first came about, we should discuss western involvement in Syria through this period. American involvement in Syria in the past decade has not been honorable, but it is not what people think. As with Spain during the 30s, America in 2011 rejected an active foreign policy, having elected Barack Obama in part because he had voted against the war in Iraq. As in Spain the result was the crushing of a progressive movement and a genocide at the hands of an authoritarian ruler.   In previous episodes, my focus was on Syrians, but now I want to discuss what America's response to the Arab Spring in Syria reveals about us, as a nation and as a socialist movement. The weaknesses that reveal themselves in this discussion are crippling our movement, and to be free of them we have to begin the discussion. Let's begin.

    Up until 2011 Bashar al-Assad was considered a potential partner in the region. His father Hafez had helped the US to fight Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war, and as is well known, Bill Clinton used to have terrrorism suspects sent to Syria to be tortured (https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2008/07/31/the-long-dark-war). Sam Dagher remarks on this permissive attitude: “After the Second World War, successive US administrations viewed the newly independent states of the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, including Syria, mainly through the prism of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Washington’s priorities were to secure oil supplies and find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Few of the Middle East’s rising tyrants knew how to exploit this broader geostrategic game better than Hafez al-Assad. By the mid-1970s, Hafez, who was busy enshrining a cultish dictatorship in Syria, received military aid and support from the Soviet Union at the same time that he was getting recognition and financial aid from the US and its rich Gulf Arab allies. There was an unspoken but well-understood quid pro quo with Washington: Hafez was free to do everything he needed to do to maintain his iron grip at home as long as he never waged war against Israel after 1973. Jimmy Carter later called Hafez a ‘strong and moderate’ leader.” Throughout the US’ occupation of Iraq, Bashar al-Assad had allowed foreign Islamist extremists to enter Iraq through Syria. There they joined with Al-Qaeda agents who were being funded by Iran and managed by Qassem Suleimani. When Obama was elected into the office of the President of the United States, Bashar correctly saw an opportunity. “For him [Bashar al-Assad] the real prize was not France or Europe but the United States, where a more momentous change of guard and opportunity occurred. A young senator named Barack Obama had become America’s first black president. Obama regarded Iraq’s invasion as a disastrous mistake and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. He wanted to make a clear break with Bush’s policies, to change America’s image as the world’s sheriff and a cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later. Obama had priorities beyond Middle East regime change. The way Bashar and his allies saw it, Obama seemed like a realist, someone who was not going to hector them about reform and human rights but potentially accept that each country had its particular circumstances and situations… Obama wasted no time in trying to secure Bashar’s and, by extension, Iran’s cooperation in Iraq. He dispatched John Kerry to Damascus in February 2009. The gentlemanly Kerry, a longtime senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, already had one thing in common with Bashar: a towering presence. And to try to develop a personal rapport with Bashar, Kerry came with his wife, Teresa Heinz.” (pp. 147,149). By all accounts John Kerry was completely won over by the Assad charm offensive: “Toward the end of his stay in Damascus, Kerry met Michel Duclos, the French ambassador. Kerry, a fluent French speaker, said he believed he finally had a deal with Bashar on stopping the infiltration of foreign fighters to Iraq and sharing the identities of Al-Qaeda operatives. ‘This is a man we can do business with,’ an upbeat Kerry told Duclos. Kerry was totally beguiled by Asma and Bashar, observed Duclos.” (p. 151). Sam Dagher’s excellent history of the Syrian Revolution, Assad or We Burn the Country, focuses on the decision making process within the Assad regime, which Dagher had special access to through interviews with Manaf Tlaas, close friend with Bashar al-Assad from childhood and the son of Mustapha Tlass who was Hafez al-Assad’s old comrade from their days as cadets in the military academy. Dagher tells how the French government was trying to prepare Manaf to take power in order to keep the regime in place, in case Bashar was rejected by the Syrian ruling class the way Mubarak had been in Egypt, and how despite Manaf’s arguing for reforms as a response to the protest movement, Bashar and company decided to resurrect the Hama manual.

    During the course of the Spring and Summer of 2011 it became clear that the Assad regime intended to use intense violence against protesters, and this created a feedback loop whereby harsher methods inspired bigger protests inspiring harsher methods. The Obama administration, not wishing to lose their partner in Syria, asked Assad to cede power to someone else in his ruling click. Because of Sam Dagher’s work interviewing Manaf Tlass, we know that the French intelligence agencies were grooming Tlass to take over there. Tlass was chosen because he opposed using violence against protestors, preferring to negotiate reforms. If Assad had obeyed Obama’s plea, which was clearly not going to be backed up with serious action, the Baath party would have remained in control of Syria, much as the ruling clique in Egypt remained in power after Mubarrak stepped down.
    One of Obama’s proudest achievements was the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The bulk of US forces, some 140,000 troops, left Iraq in December of 2011. In the next few years, Obama tried desperately to avoid America re-engaging militarily in the region despite the emergence of ISIS over this period. In 2012 ISIS murdered the journalist Jim Foley. In 2013 they killed the journalist Steven Sotlof. In 2014 as ISIS militants gained territory within striking distance of an American diplomatic mission in Erbil, Obama finally authorized limited air strikes against ISIS targets. By that point, American inaction regarding the group was read by regular Iraqis as America supporting ISIS. Richard Stengel, former editor of Time magazine and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Obama, cites polling of Iraqis in 2014: “A majority of Iraqis - Sunni and Shia - actually thought that the U.S. had created ISIS. I asked one intelligence officer why this was. He smiled and replied that most Iraqis say ‘We have seen what you are capable of when you invaded us, and the fact that you are not doing it to them must mean that you are on their side.’” (p. 119).
    In reality, starting in 2012 America had two different programs to arm Syrian rebels, in order to fight ISIS. Syrian rebels, with the exception of a few dozen people, rejected this aid because it came only if the recipients promised not to fight the Assad regime, which Obama hoped to normalize relations with. Most of this military aid went to the Kurds, who have been fighting alongside US forces against ISIS. The main way that the US intervened during the course of the revolution, was the CIA setting itself up as a middle man between rebel groups and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the rebels never received anti-air weapons that could stop the regime’s vicious targeting of civilian areas, though they did receive some anti-tank weapons (Mark Boothroyd: Who are the Syrian Rebels? The Genesis of the Armed Struggle in Syria. From Khiyana, pp. 59-63, 49; Abouzeid, p. 259)). In an interview with Rania Abouzeid, Hamza Shemali, the leader of the Hazm group that received support through the CIA under a program named Sycamore Timber, complained that though their network provided the US with good information about the whereabouts and activities of ISIS leadership, but that the US did nothing with the intelligence, a state of affairs that persisted until 2014 (pp. 273, 313). Hamza Shemali comments: “On September 23, 2014, after years of watching the ascendancy of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, America’s military directly intervened in Syria’s war, striking Islamic State positions and lobbing missiles toward eight locations in Idlib and Aleppo held by the Nusra-affiliated Khorasan Group. The United States had launched its war on ISIS in Iraq on August 8, and expanded it into Syria the following month. Many Syrians wondered why the United States waited until Islamic State was at the height of its power to attack it… In early November, Nusra fighters easily routed Hazm from its main stronghold in Idlib Province, seizing Hazm’s cache of US-supplied weapons, including TOW antitank missiles. The base fell without a fight, and the hundreds of Hazm fighters either escaped to Aleppo, defected to Nusra, or were detained.” (pp. 313-314). If anyone imagines that this financial aid affected the political loyalties of the Syrian resistance, consider that in 2014 when the US began conducting airstrikes against targets in Syria, this very group that received funding from the US loudly criticized the attacks while the Assad regime cheered for them (https://syriadirect.org/news/syria-direct-news-update-9-24-14/). “Various rebel groups condemned US-led airstrikes on the Islamic State and other extremist targets within Syria on Tuesday and Wednesday. Harakat Hazm, a moderate-leaning rebel coalition that has received aid from the United States, called the strikes an act of “aggression towards national sovereignty” in a press release widely circulated Tuesday on social media websites… Meanwhile, the pro-government news network Damascus Now hailed the strikes on Wednesday as a historic moment, in which “happiness was etched on the faces of the majority of Syrians, because they found international support towards eradicating a cancer which has been rooted in the diseased Syrian body,” referring to the rebels.”
    Obama’s hands off attitude about Syria represented well the prevailing mood of the country. The Iraq was was such a debacle that few on the right or left could afford to recommend more military engagement. This is surely the only way to explain how a nation that had rallied to the Global War on Terror could watch its journalists get slaughtered by a rising authoritarian Islamist extremist organization and not clammor for national defense. But in 2013 an event occurred that would test the nation’s pacifist resolve, and then all the left wing supporters of Bashar al-Assad would once again command the national spotlight.

    On the 21st of August, 2013 the Assad regime used Sarin gas to murder nearly 1400 people in the Ghouta, which again was the neighborhood that led the rebellion against the French in 1925 and again in 1945. Just this past April, this is in 2020, a group of inspectors from UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found conclusively that Bashar AlAssad was responsible for the chemical attack in Ghoutta in 2013. They were the first body of inspectors to be granted the authority to assign culpability for this terrible crime. The report is not published yet, but it’s main findings have been reported to the press. Because certain bad actors have made the argument that Syrian rebels perpetrated this terrible crime, it's worth laying out the evidence we have even without the UN’s new report in detail. Bellingcat is an international group doing investigative journalism using the latest technology (https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/2020/01/14/bellingcat-is-hiring-editor-europe-based-part-time/). From publicly available news sources they were able to identify military units who were actively engaged in operations near the Ghouta, within range to deliver the Volcano rockets that conveyed the Sarin Gas and immediately benefiting militarily from the strikes (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2014/07/15/identifying-government-positions-during-the-august-21st-sarin-attacks/). Specifically, Bellingcat was able to confirm eye witness accounts of a group of 15 armored vehicles that took advantage of the immediate aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta to seize the nearby Jobar neighborhood. Because every detail of the attack has been subject to a misinformation campaign, we must point out that the nature of the agent used was verified from 12 samples taken a week after the attack, that the remnants of a Volcano missile found at the center of the attack confirm its use as a conveyance (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2014/07/10/facts-that-have-entered-the-public-domain-about-sarin-syria-and-hexamine/). Further, the Syrian government admitted to owning a stockpile of Hexamine and Isopropyl Alcohol, both items that have to be stored separately until the last moment. After mixing of these components, the resulting Sarin compound cannot be stored beyond a very short term before it eats through any container. Therefore, the facilities required to refine Sarin Gas are likely beyond the means of rebels under siege who lack powdered milk and tea (Majd al-Dik, p. 255). The stories one has to tell to imagine rebels using such an advanced weapon border on science fiction, imagining secret labs in Iraq or smuggling through Turkey, not to mention that the support of the Syrian people has always been essential to the success of the revolution; this is also the article where Belingcat addresses Ted Postol’s attacks on their work, attacks which cite conspiracy theorists who regularly appear on Alex Jones (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/06/21/know-hexamine-syrias-sarin/). Countering the ongoing information war against the Syrian people requires vigilance, and Bellingcat delivers: here’s an article from January of this year further debunking conspiracy theories around the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2020/01/23/the-opcw-douma-leaks-part-3-we-need-to-talk-about-a-false-flag-attack/ and https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/08/30/russian-chem-disinfo-idlib/). Bellingcat has been closely following the regime’s use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people, including four such occasions since 2018 (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/03/15/syrian-forces-bombard-eastern-ghouta-chemical-weapons-fourth-consecutive-time-since-beginning-2018/). People who said that the Syrians gassed themselves were folowing a long tradition of misinformation stretching back to Guernica, where the Nazi’s murdered hundreds of people intentionally bombing civilian areas and Franco said the people of the town had burned down their own buildings.

    The left responded as though the US was about to invade Syria. Their unfortunate response was to spread Russian disinformation about the chemical attacks, slander the Syrian democratic resistance and protest against the US doing anything at all about the slaughter of the Syrian people, even as those Syrian people clamored for a no-fly zone (https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/lefts-hollow-anti-imperialism-over-syria). Since then there have been verifiably half a million Syrian civilians murdered by Assad and around 7 million more forced to flee. The Lebanese Political Scientist and Professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris, Ziad Majed blessed us in 2014 with his deep book “Syrie, La Revolution Orpheline.” If you can read French, you should get a copy. It’s short. And good. The translation here is my work, not the official translation. He comments: “Starting in March of 2011, the Syrian revolution was the object of multiple vilification campaigns coming from various quarters in the Arab and Western world. These included nationalists, right and left. These attacks contributed to the eclipse of the Syrian people and their aspirations. This was exactly what the Assad regime wanted. One must distinguish among these enemies of the revolution. On the one hand were those who pretended to be neutral and would not condemn the crimes of the regime. On the other hand were those, no doubt considering themselves better informed, who theorized gravely about a vast colonialist conspiracy against the “resistance” regime. Still others felt the need to disfigure the meaning of the revolution, to dehumanize Syrians and transform them into “naturally violent” creatures with whom one could not empathize. With racism and xenophobia they refused to recognize Syrians’ rights to live in liberty and dignity.” (Ziad Majed, Syrie la Revolution Orpheline, p.147 - translation mine)
    Sadly, many of the left commentators who fueled this frenzy of lies and anti-solidarity are still with us, and they are not to be trusted. From my perspective as someone who at that point was an active participant in the antiwar movement, here are some of the highlights from the left press during that shameful period.
    In September of 2013 Slavoj Zizek wrote for the guardian that the Syrian revolution was a pseudo-struggle that lacked emancipatory potential. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/06/syria-pseudo-struggle-egypt
    Tariq Ali in 2013 in the London Review of Books repeated Russian and Iranian talking points about the attack somehow not serving Assad, but at the same time insinuates that maybe the US did the attack? Because the US wants an excuse for war? (https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/august/on-intervening-in-syria). But Ali’s piece was just a prelude to what Seymour Hersh published there in December of 2013. Hersh became famous for his work uncovering the Mai Lai massacre in 1969, but he disgraced his legacy in this article when citing unnamed sources he claimed that Syrian rebels had manufactured Sarin gas and then used it on themselves (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v35/n24/seymour-m.-hersh/whose-sarin).

    The World Socialist Website, which I hate to drag like this just because their such an easy target, but first wait, remember when we talked about Capital and there was this socialist group who said that Ta Nehisi-Coates was a bourgeois reactionary? That was the World Socialist Website. [Full quote: “American society is increasingly polarized—not between races, but between classes. In this context, the class basis of the upper-middle class’s obsession with racial and identity politics becomes clearer. This is the reactionary political essence of groups like Black Lives Matter, authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and academics like Keeyanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who push racial politics to better fleece the working class members of their “own” racial groups, and the working class overall.” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/07/pers-o07.html] Anyway, in 2013 they wrote a lack of thinking piece claiming that the whole opposition movement to Assad was a western backed insurgency, and that the chemical weapons attack was being used as an excuse to extend US empire over the energy resources in Syria. (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/03/21/pers-m21.html).
    It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with them that the Party for Socialist Liberation was declaiming supposed US attempts at regime change in Syria going all the way back to 2005 at least. I guess that’s when they started publishing online (https://www.liberationnews.org/tag/syria/page/16/). Throughout 2012 and in the months before the Sarin attack in Ghouta, the PSL was organizing protests against US intervention in Syria. On the day after the attacks, they simply published a link to Russian state TV where Brian Becker was calling this atrocity a staged provocation. The ANSWER coalition is the leading antiwar coalition in the US, formed just after September 11, 2001: ANSWER is really just a front group for the Party for Socialist LIberation. So far I can’t see that their blatant support for the genocidal Bashar al-Assad and parroting of Russian propaganda has lost them an audience on the left, as it should.
    In the early 70s Willis Carto made a name for himself popularising holocaust denial (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/holocaust-denial). Max Blumenthal is a journalist who has been published in the New York Times and The Nation, and he is the Willis Carto of Syrian genocide denial (https://hummusforthought.com/2016/10/05/list-of-rebuttals-to-max-blumenthals-anti-syrian-article/). As late as 2019 he and Rania Khalek visited Assad controlled territory in an attempt to rehabilitate the genocidal regime (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/junket-journalism-shadow-genocide-190914121639788.html). Mainly Blumenthal publishes these days on a Russian propaganda site called The Gray Zone, which is named after a concept in Russian military theory that involves spreading disinformation to tear down democratic institutions. Katie Halper stans Max Blumenthal. Here’s a tweet by her from November 2019:

    https://twitter.com/kthalps/status/1199938185171746816?lang=en

    These people have told endless lies about the Syrian opposition, and named their online news site “Grayzone” after Russian misinformation operation. They cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and should have no place in our media.

    Code Pink led protests against US intervention in Indiana in 2013 with messaging that makes one think they just reused the same signs they had used to protest the Iraq war, as though Iraq and Syria were not distinct in time and space. The protest signs they carried said that they wanted no war based on lies. I guess if you’re a hammer every problem is a nail. (https://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/syria-vote-protests-096415).
    I could continue in this vein for a very long time, but I think that’s enough for one podcast. Suffice it to say, that these “antiwar” activists prefered that Assad be allowed to massacre his people, and they won. As we described in our discussion of the Ukraine, the inability of the US left to see through Russian propaganda, which in the case of Syria so neatly dovetailed with all of the priors that American leftists have about US intervention, that gullibility towards Russian propaganda is still very prominent on the left because as a movement we never came to terms with how wrong we were about Syria.

    These left writers have to be discussed in the context of US action against Syria because they share the responsibility for Obama’s inaction. What’s truly breathtaking in all of this, is that the US left and the Trumpist right wing seem to agree that Obama literally funded and created ISIS (https://theintercept.com/2018/01/29/isis-iraq-war-islamic-state-blowback/ & https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3734124/He-founded-ISIS-Trump-claims-Obama-deserves-credit-creating-Middle-Eastern-terror-army-names-crooked-Hillary-founder.html). The truth is that Obama’s slow, late and halfhearted fight against ISIS allowed them to come about, but that lame response was exactly what the far left wanted of Obama. It didn’t stop them from labeling him an imperialist. But I don’t blame Obama for ISIS.
    It’s closer to the truth to say that ISIS was created by the Assad regime. First of all, Bashar al-Assad’s regime had allowed foreign Islamist extremist fighters to enter Iraq throughout the US occupation, feeding an insurgency there that was funded by Iran. Then as the Assad regime was murdering and jailing peaceful protestors en masse in 2011, it released nearly 1300 Islamists from Sednaya Prison (BC, p.120; Hensman, p. 268; Dagher, p. xix). This was a clear repetition of its tactics in Hama in 1982 when it first murdered peaceful leadership and then used the militant tendency in the Muslim Brotherhood that remained as an excuse to slaughter civilians. Over the course of the revolution, the regime regularly ceded territory to ISIS whilst using ISIS as an excuse to bomb civilian areas (Dagher, pp. 373,374), America throughout the last decade of fighting has imagined it can fight ISIS and keep the regime; this is patently false. In 2015, as Russia began bombing centers of civilian population in Syria, NATO withdrew its Patriot Missiles from Turkey (BC, p.229). That summer Assad bragged publicly that the US voiced public opposition to him but supported him in private (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-assad-idUSKCN0ZG28G). Assad’s army was so diminished by 2016 that the army that was fielded to take back Aleppo consisted in 80% foreign fighters, mainly from Iran (p. 233). Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami note: “On 17th July 2016, following weeks of Russian bombing and ground attacks by Iran-backed militia, the regime captured the Castello Road and thereby placed the liberated city under siege. Russian and Assadist planes upped the war on hospitals, hitting six medical facilities in 24 hours (on 23 and 24 July). The US administration had nothing to say about this. On the contrary, President Obama approved a proposal to coordinate American airstrikes with Russia, against Jabhat al-Nusra… America watched or actively collaborated as Russia, Iran and Assad drove Aleppo into the abyss.” (pp. 227,228). In 2017 the new President Donald Trump was forced by his wife Melania to watch videos of victims of a terrible gas attack by the regime in Khan Sheikhoun. Always impulsive, and moved by the images, Trump ordered that the airbase the attacks originated from be bombed. The air base was given 24 hours warning, so it was evacuated. No one was killed, and the base was operational within another 24 hours. In October of 2019 the US withdrew troops from NorthEast Syria that had been fighting ISIS with Kurdish forces there. Turkish forces promptly invaded, overwhelming formerly Rojavan territory and facilitating the release of ISIS fighters from a jail that Kurdish forces had to abandon to mount a defense against the Turks. Throughout the past decade the US has pursued a policy in Syria that tried to de-escalate the conflict with Russia, maintain the stability of the Assad regime and fight ISIS without fighting the root causes of ISIS. It’s not an honorable record, but at no point did the US instigate protests or give arms or soldiers to a coup attempt. As of this writing the US and Europe have declined to support their NATO ally Turkey in fighting back against Russian and Syrian forces who have been tightening a noose around free Syrians in Idlib. That is the sum of the US’ involvement in Syria that we can know.

    The left hysteria about the Syrian resistance being Islamist Extremists was a sharp 180 degree turn from their rhetoric regarding terrorism during the course of the Iraq war. The line that came down to all of us from Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky was that the September 11 attacks were our come-uppance for the history of US imperialism (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/12/stranger-in-a-strange-land/302349/). So far as I can tell very few committed leftists ever stop to think that maybe a terrorist act cannot really be justified in this way. At some point the terrorist attacks became uncool for the left, and that point was when ISIS and Alqaeda began fighting against Bashar al-Assad.

    The self-same people who would have cheered the resistance of Al-Qaeda to the US occupation in Iraq went on to insist that “terrorists” in Syria did not deserve the protection of Europe and the US. The result today is that there is no resistance to the narrative of the war on terror. Yassin al-Haj Saleh comments:
    “The priorities of the powerful are the powerful priorities. When the US decides the War on Terror is a priority, it becomes an international priority. With this has come a significant transformation; namely, the securitization of politics, whereby politics becomes focused on security operations and confronting terrorist groups or their sleeper cells. What we have here is not a war fought between conventional armies and international coalitions; nor potentially severe political conflicts; but rather the granting of carte blanche to intelligence agencies to treat immigrants and the citizens of other states, particularly those from the Middle East, in a manner that turns them into right-less and homeless Homo Sacers (to borrow Giorgio Agamben’s concept). The Arab Middle East was avant-garde in this sense of securitizing politics; it is after all a paradise for genocidaires, the deprivation of rights, and immunity for crimes; it represents the future of the world in the age of the War on Terror. Today, the world’s political prisoners are Islamists, where yesterday they had been communists…Moreover, mass extermination and fascism are not accidental developments happening far away “over there” in the Middle East. They are a structural product of an international system that has made the War on Terror its grand narrative, and made state violence the antidote. In other words, there is much political evil in the Western and international diagnosis of terrorism as the core political evil. The Obama administration treated Daesh as a greater evil, and worked to recruit Syrians to fight it on condition that they didn’t fight the regime responsible for 90% of the Syrian death toll; an example illustrating how true it is that terrorism is always the evil, and “the state” always the antidote, even when the latter is privatized and genocidal. In effect, the administration denied Syrians’ moral and political agency, their right to decide their own enemy and their country’s greater evil. This is fundamentally anti-democratic; indeed, it is a perpetuation of Assad’s unrestrained criminality by other means.” (The Impossible Revolution, p. 223).
    The left in the US and Europe has won the argument against empire, at least temporarily, by covering over the crimes of Russia and Syria. And now the reigning global order is one where state actors can target civilians with impunity, and this is very bad news for people who don’t have a state power to protect them, like refugees. It is somehow acceptable in the US left to take an attitude of sympathy toward refugees, but at the same time show absolutely no care whatsoever for the circumstances that created those refugees. For instance, almost no one who advocates for Syrian refugees on the US left decries the crimes of the Assad regime or calls for action against it. As Rohini Hensman notes regarding the wave of global sympathy that followed the publishing of the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore near a Turkish resort:

    “Since the picture of Aylan hit headlines across the world, 6 children have been killed in Syria every day -- the majority from barrel bombs and missiles from Syrian government aircraft. But their bloodied and blown apart corpses don’t make the front page of any newspaper. None of the other 10,000 children killed in the fighting have. What broke my heart this week was a cartoon by Neda Kadri, a Syrian artist, that pictured Aylan in heaven being welcomed by children: ‘you are so lucky Aylan! We’re victims of the same war but no one cared about our death.’” (Nolan, 2015, p.I)... the only viable solution to the refugee crisis would be to end the violence that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. That is, however, easier said than done. Ending the Syria crisis would entail, first and foremost, identifying its causes. For some of those who call themselves anti-imperialists, there is only one cause: Western (that is, North American and Western European) imperialism, which is responsible for all the bloodshed…The overall message communicated by the omissions, distortions and outright lies in such accounts is that, firstly, there is no democratic opposition to Assad; and secondly, that it is the West, due to its support for extremist Islamists, that is responsible for most of the current bloodshed in Iraq and Syria, rather than the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias, and the Iranian and Russian forces. These writers cover up the real causes of the massive exodus, enabling the war crimes and crimes against humanity to continue, leading to more deaths, continuing Islamist radicalisation, and the continuing outflow of refugees” (Hensman, pp1,2,5).

    Moreover, this wave of Syrian refugees that occured after Russia began its own bombing campaigns in Syria was part of a broader Russian campaign to undermine the stability of European nations. It was combined with Russian support for far right parties in Germany, for instance, and an intensive propaganda campaign villainizing refugees. Timothy Snyder comments:

    “Facing rising numbers of refugees from war in Syria (as well as migrants fleeing Africa), Merkel took an unexpected position: Germany would accept large numbers of refugees, more than its neighbors, more than her voters would have wished. On September 8, 2015, the German government announced that it planned to take half a million refugees per year. By no coincidence, Russia began bombing Syria three weeks later. Speaking at the United Nations on September 28, 2015, Putin proposed a ‘harmonization’ of Eurasia with the European Union. Russia would bomb Syria to generate refugees, then encourage Europeans to panic. This would help the AfD, and thus make Europe more like Russia. Russian bombs began to fall in Syria the day after Putin spoke. Russian aircraft dropped non-precision (“dumb”) bombs from high altitudes. Even if the targets had been military, non-precision bombing would have guaranteed more destruction and more refugees making their way to Europe. But Russia was not generally targeting ISIS bases. Human rights organizations reported the Russian bombing of mosques, clinics, hospitals, refugee camps, water treatment plants and cities in general. In her decision to accept Syrian refugees, Merkel was motivated by the history of the 1930s, when Nazi Germany made its own Jewish citizens into refugees. The Russian response was in effect to say: If Merkel wants refugees, we will provide them, and use the issue to destroy her government and German democracy. Russia supplied not just the refugees themselves, but also the image of them as terrorists and rapists. On Monday, January 11, 2016, a thirteen-year-old German girl of Russian origin, Lisa F., hesitated to return to their home in Berlin. She had once again had problems in school, and the way her family treated her had aroused the attention of authorities. She went to the house of a nineteen-year-old boy, visited with him and his mother, and stayed the night. Lisa F.’s parents reported her missing to the police. She returned home the next day, without her backpack and cell phone. She told her mother a dramatic story of abduction and rape. The police, following up the report of the missing girl, went to the residence of the friend and found her things. By speaking to her friend and his mother, finding the backpack, and reading text messages, they established where Lisa F. had been. When questioned, Lisa F. told the police what had happened: she had not wanted to go home, and had gone elsewhere. A medical examination confirmed that the story she had told her mother was untrue. A Berlin family drama then played as global news on Russian television. On January 16, 2016, a Saturday, Pervyi Kanal presented a version of what Lisa F. had told her parents: she had been abducted by Muslim refugees and gang-raped for an entire night. This was the first of no fewer than forty segments on Pervyi Kanal about an event that, according to a police investigation, had never taken place. In the televised coverage, photographs were pasted from other places and times to add an element of verisimilitude to the story. The Russian propaganda network Sputnik chimed in with the general speculation that refugee rapists were loose in Germany. On January 17, the extreme-Right National Democratic Party organized a demonstration demanding justice for Lisa F. Although only about a dozen people appeared, one of them was an RT cameraman. His footage appeared on YouTube the same day… The information war against Merkel was taken up openly by the Russian state. The Russian embassy in London tweeted that Germany rolled out the red carpet for refugees and then swept their crimes under the carpet.” (TRU, pp.198-200).
    The Russian ambitions to extend its empire in the Ukraine, as we discuss on the podcast regarding the Ukraine, led Vladimir Putin to attack Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential campaign and helped Donald Trump get elected. I think it’s past time for a robust discussion of how the left came to this historic defeat, not just in terms of being unable to keep a fascist out of the whitehouse, but having helped to put him there. In the next podcast I’ll return to the history of the US left in the 20th century, to tie all the threads together from the very beginning of this podcast to explain this basic problem revealed by the failure of the left on Syria: that the far left has become a tool for Russian fascism.

    Ahmad, Muhhamad Idrees, et al., eds. Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution. Unkant Publishers, 2016.

    Dagher, Sam. Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. Hachette UK, 2019.

    Hennion, Cecile. Le fil de nos vies brisees. Editions Anne Carriere. Paris, 2019.

    Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.

    Majed, Ziad. Syrie, la révolution orpheline. Éditions Actes Sud, 2018.
    Music: Waters Will Flow Again, Gabriel Lewis, else Harry

    About the Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_Committee

    https://pulsemedia.org/2018/04/29/you-arent-antiwar-if-you-arent-anti-assads-war/

  • 13. The Syrian Enlightenment

    July 21st, 2020  |  43 mins 4 secs
    albert memmi, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, arab spring, assad, averroes, cia, colonialism, decolonization, enlightenment, faisal darraj, israel, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, riad saif, saadallah wannous, solidarity, syria, taha hussein, the coup, the middle east

    The Syrian revolution, any revolution, should not serve as a confirmation of received political ideas, but rather as a challenge to all that has heretofore been thought. We are not here to supply Syrians with an ideology that would have succeeded in their situation, but to ourselves be transformed in the light and heat of their actions. Some claim that we as Americans must focus on the enemy at home, but if we ourselves cannot show solidarity, cannot feel the need to understand and work together with those harmed by the same rotten world order we benefit from, then we are not ourselves yet able to meet our problems with the appropriate clarity and purpose. What we say and think about Syria has consequences for Syrians, this is true, but graver yet for the American left is what it means about us that we have spoken so recklessly and thought so little.

    Hama was the catastrophe that defined the state, that created Assad’s Syria.

    A kind of Nakhba occurred in Syria in the 1970s with individual rights being strongly curtailed, and where power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. The culmination of this preventive counter-revolution was the movement against Assad in the 80s, wrongly ascribed as primarily caused by the Muslim Brotherhood, being brutally repressed, as we discussed in the last podcast. Yassin-Kassab and Shami discuss the catastrophe of the early 80s in this way: “Assad’s ‘revolution from above’ involved a general infrastructural modernization as well as grand and ultimately failed projects like the Assad dam on the Euphrates. Most significantly, Assad presided over a massive expansion of the Syrian state. By the 1980s one in every five workers would be employed in the bureaucratic or public sector. The army would grow to over 200,000 men, in addition to the police, various state-Party militias, and at least twelve overlapping security agencies… Assad further outraged his Arabist constituency by supporting Iran against Arab Iraq after 1980, and by joining the US-led coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait in 1990. Economically, though Syria retained its bureaucratic-socialist character, further waves of liberalization were pushed through in response to recurrent debt crises. These policies, alongside an entrenchment of the crony capitalist elite, meant that by the 1990s ‘an upper class [had] emerged both greater in number and wealthier than the bourgeoisie of the pre-Baathist era… ‘Assad’s Syria’ (as state propaganda called it) was fascist in the most correct sense of that word. It sought to replace class conflict with devotion to the absolute state. Following the fascist corporatist model, the peasants and workers unions, the professional associations, the youth and women’s unions, as well as Party and army, were entirely absorbed into the state machinery. A facade of pluralism was provided by the National Progressive Front, set up in 1976, comprising the Baath and nine smaller parties which accepted the Baath’s leadership -- and by the People’s Assembly, where two-thirds of seats were reserved for baathists. Beneath the froth, Syria’s was a one-party system, and the party was controlled by one man. The state cultivated a surveillance society, everyone spying on everyone else and no one secure in position, not even the top generals and security officers. Hafez stood alone at the apex - the Struggling Comrade, the Sanctified One, the Hero of War and Peace - a rarely seen yet omnipresent leader who governed by telephone.” (BC, pp.12-14).

    With the mass murder and razing of Hama in the early 80s, together with massacres and repressions in other places as well, a hard silence fell over Syria. The previous co-opting of Syria’s civil society and the constant threat of violence eradicated any meaningful space for resistance or even a minimum of free expression. Many report being afraid to speak their minds in private, for fear their children might repeat at school what had been said at home resulting in the heads of family disappearing into Assad’s torture camps. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/02/201129103121562395.html. At the same time, the regime ramped up the cult of Assad, compelling the population to attend and participate in mass demonstrations of support for the regime. Sam Dagher recounts Kaled al-Khani’s memory of cowering in a basement with a dozen or so women, old men and small children as the death squad arrived. The crowd was led in a chant of support for Hafez al-Assad that the regime had been forcing people to take up. I’m paraphrasing: “God in heaven your time is done. Assad now takes your place.” (p. 236). That situation, of cowering away from Assad’s forces or his bombs or his chemical weapons, that is an apt metaphor for the situation his rule prepared for the people captured by it. Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar is a classic of dramatized political fiction, on par with Animal Farm or Catch 22. Written on the eve of the revolution, the book vividly describes living conditions in Assad’s Syria. Housewives who couldn’t attend the pro-Assad rally had to tune into it on their television, playing it loudly enough to be heard by their neighbors who would otherwise have to report them. In the afterward to his novel Sirees notes:

    “Is it possible for the silence and the roar to co-exist? The answer is most certainly, yes. In countries ruled by people obsessed with supremacy, authoritarians and those who are crazed by power, the ruler or the leader imposes silence upon all those who dare to think outside the prevailing norm. Silence can be the muffling of one’s voice or the banning of one’s publications, as is the case with Fathi Sheen, the protagonist of this novel. Or it might be the silence of a cell in a political prison or, without trying to unnecessarily frighten anyone, the silence of the grave. But this silence is also accompanied by an expansive roar, one that renders thought impossible. Thought leads to individualization, which is the most powerful enemy of the dictator. People must not think about the leader and how he runs the country; they must simply adore him, want to die for him in their adoration of him. Therefore, the leader creates a roar all around him, forcing people to celebrate him, to roar.” (p. 153). For fear of repression by the regime, Sirees originally staged the drama in an unnamed Arab country, but the afterword to the 2013 English version ends with the author saying “my heart is agonizingly heavy about what is happening in Syria, my homeland.” (p.154).

    In her 2019 book Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates, Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab has gifted us with a masterful accounting of the enlightenment inspired discussion that preceded and inspired the Syrian revolution. In the late 80s several prominent Syrian intellectuals founded a journal entitled “Qadaya wa-shahadat” (Issues and Testimonies). From 1990 to 1992 the journal would issue six volumes. “The major themes of the journal were rationalism, democracy, modernity, modernization, the nahda (the renaissance), national culture, dependency, tradition, and history.” (p. 105). Crucially, Kassab discusses the nahda from its origins in discussions of the ideas of reason, human rights and freedoms that began in the Arabic speaking world before European colonialism (pp. 3, 151). In so doing, she is able to discuss the role of these ideas in the development of the modern Middle East without identifying the ideas with western culture. Too often, enlightenment ideals are considered as essential to one culture, which implies that some cultures are unsuited to human rights. By originating the debate around freedom and democracy in the 19th century, with thinkers like Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), Kassab avoids both the orientalist narrative that imagines Europe saving the Middle East and the orientalist attitude of the noble savage that imagines enlightenment is alien to the Middle East. I want to note again in passing the irony that enlightenment came to Europe from Syria during the crusades, and we imagine enlightenment reaching Syria from France as a foreign influence. Enlightenment ideals are no more European than they are Arab. Both regions struggle to achieve and maintain democratic institutions.

    Syrian enlightenment thinkers all recognized the influence of Taha Hussein. Hussein promoted the ideas that enlightenment required democracy and robust modern education, that religion had to be understood in historical context and that there were no cultures that were better at understanding and affirming enlightenment ideals such as human rights. In Egypt enlightenment figures like Taha Hussein and Murad Wahba were enlisted to promote secularism in the name of the state that arose from the Officers’ coup that catapulted Abdul Nasser into power in 1952. The evolving authoritarian tendency in the Egyptian government put these intellectuals in the horns of a dilemma. They were given paid positions in the Egyptian government and were hence free to criticize traditional religious authority, but on the other hand they couldn’t prepare the kind of popular enlightenment that radical democrats, like Marx, would advocate because doing so would challenge the authority of the government. This is known as Wahba’s paradox. Because secular ideas were closely associated with the Egyptian state, religious reaction was able to pose as a discourse of opposition.

    The situation in Syria was different. Kassab identifies two moments in the Syrian enlightenment: the one Sisyphean and the other Promethian. In Syria two conditions precluded intellectuals from falling into the Wahba Paradox: (1) the Syrian government didn’t hire thinkers who were free to say whatever they wanted (the Wahba paradox comes from the hypocrisy of the intellectual’s claims and government practice), (2) high Assadism was founded on the bones of Hama, on framing opposition as Islamist and using that as an excuse to crush all opposition. In this context, people who asked uncomfortable questions, as Sa’adallah Wannous did in his 1969 play discussing how Hafez al-Assad’s performance in 1967 sacrificed the Palestinian cause for the sake of securing Assad’s own power, such productions were censored. The result was that calls for public education and popular democracy were always framed as opposition discourses. On the other hand, not benefitting, as Hussein and Wahba had, from government support, these thinkers had a more limited audience. The journal Wannous published along with other thinkers like Faysal Darraj stands as a testimony to the quiet work done by these intellectuals. Six issues of Qadaya wa Shahadat (Issues and Testimonies) were published between 1990 and 1992. Faysal Darraj was born in 1942: his family fled Palestine for Damascus in 1948. His work underscores how the post-independence state in Syria and Egypt became authoritarian, oppressing its citizens with inequality, lack of democracy and human rights, and an inauthentic identity that was supposed to be inimical to these values. Crucially, these intellectuals were identifying freedom, democracy and human rights as values independent of cultural origin, items that Arabs aspired to out of basic humanity and not as an expression of occidentalism (Kassab, p. 115). This work was Sisiphean in that it was done not in a real expectation it would cause immediate change, but because in such a situation one cannot do otherwise. In the words of Saadallah Wannous’ address to UNESCO for World Theater Day in 1996: “We are sentenced to hope that what is happening today is not the end of history” (Wannous in Myers & Saab, p. 390). A year after this speech, Wannous died of cancer. Darraj is still alive, and would play an important role in the Promethean moment that followed.

    After Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, there was genuine hope for liberal reforms that could open the space for public expression and democratic reform of the government.

    In mid-August, a few days before Bashar al-Assad’s inaugural address, Riad al-Turk published an important essay in An-Nahar. Unlike the leader of the Syrian Communist Party who swore allegiance to Hafez al-Assad's Baath party, Riad al-Turk refused to give up the independence of his party to the Syrian state, and formed the Syrian Communist Party Political Bureau. For his political opposition to the regime in 1980 Al-Turk was arrested and imprisoned for the next 18 years (Kassab, p. 146). Al-Turk has been called “Syria’s Mandela” (Yassin-Kassab and Shami, p. 21).

    His mid-August of 2000 essay was entitled: “Min gyayr al-mumkin an tadhall suriya mamlakat al samt” (It is not possible that Syria remains the kingdom of silence). Quothe Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab: “The main theme of his article was the fear that had come to dominate life in the country: people fearing the absolute and corrupt power of the regime, and people fearing each other for lack of trust, created by the security agencies through decades of voluntary and involuntary denunciations. Al-Turk called on Syrians to remember their history did not begin with Assad rule and that it would not end with it. He exhorted them to recall the more democratic past, in which even the Baath Party had expressed the genuine will of a certain constituency, unlike the mass party that became a puppet of Assad’s power. He gave the example of the Soviet Communist Party, which eventually collapsed, despite its official massive following. The problem, he wrote, was not Bashar al-Assad the person, but the power mechanisms that made him president, transforming the republic into a hereditary system of family rule. The republic, he recalled, had been built by Syrians struggling against colonialism and foreign interference. It needed to be preserved, not least because it was the only system that could tackle the country’s problems. The first step to reinstating republican democracy was lifting the weight of fear and silence through the peaceful mobilization of all sectors of society.” (pp.146-147).

    In mid-September Riad Seif announced the first of many public fora to discuss potential reform. Hundreds were attracted to the initiative. Around Syria a number of public fora were organized where people debated ideas to reform the country. In September of 2000 a statement calling for democratic rights and the release of political prisoners was published; it is known as the Statement of the 99 (BC, p. 17). It was followed by a similar statement in January of 2001 called the statement of the 1001. The main organizers of the fora were all arrested, and the last of these arrests happened on September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center that day were not the first or last time that the spectacle of violent terrorism would eclipse attempts in Syria at democratic reform.

    Did these ideas inspire the mass protests of 2011? Kassab comments: “Were the moves of the Syrian intelligentsia involved in the Damascus Spring naive, politically unsavvy, and doomed from the outset? Were they isolated acts of an estranged elite, disconnected from people at large? Were the risks taken by speaking up and acting on ideas of civil mobilization worth their while, given the predictable price? Whatever the answers to such questions, events, including the outbreak of massive demonstrations in March 2011, showed that the ideas, moves, and people involved in the Damascus Spring were not disconnected from the general mood of the country. They seem to have been in tune with the pervasive alarm at the deterioration of things politically, economically, and socially, with the urgent need to address that deterioration rationally and publicly, and with the despair and humiliation that kept on growing in large sectors of society. Those ideas, minus the moves, were also there in the 1990s writings of the Sisypheans. To the question ‘Where are the intellectuals?’ so often heard at the outself of protest movements across the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Syria, one should answer by pointing out all those writings (and sometimes moves) produced by Arab critical thinkers during the long years that preceded those movements. I am not arguing that the writings and ideas led to the movements in some causal way. Rather, I am noting the similarity of concerns, yearnings, and endeavors expressed by the writings of the Sisypheans, the moves of the Prometheans, and the demands of the Syrian protesters.” (147-148).

    Protests broke out in Syria in 2011, first in Damascus’ Hareeqa neighborhood that had twice been leveled when it rebelled against the French occupation, and then in Daraa, sparked by the regime jailing and torturing a few teenagers for an act of vandalism. They had tagged a wall with “You’re time is come, doctor,” meaning that Bashar al-Assad would be the next tyrant to fall. Protests began with the simple aim of getting the regime to release the teenagers, but that must have immediately reminded Syrians of all the people they had lost to regime prisons over the years, all of their loved ones still in jail for simply speaking their mind. The social system of mutual spying that had been active for decades means that to protest against the Syrian system of mass incarceration could only mean people were choosing to connect again to each other instead of to the fear they had been living under. People who had never dared to have a political conversation in private now discovered that their friends and neighbors, and even entire cities, all wanted the same thing they wanted: to be free from this regime of death. Each protestor not only had to overcome the fear that they might be killed at the protest, but also the fear that the other people at the protest could denounce them. Protestors had to trust each other, and in risking their lives together they earned that trust. The nation of Syria was stirring to the first task of common governance: the defense of the people from those who would enslave and devour them. Wendy Pearlman is one journalist who made it her business to collect first hand accounts of the early protest movement: “One week after the start of protests in Daraa, tens of thousands joined in demonstrations across the country. The regime’s response -- offering some measures of appeasement while suppressing gatherings with force- sparked further indignation and resolve. A widespread expression captured what this historic moment meant for those who discovered themselves and their nation in its unfolding: Syrians broke the barrier of fear…

    [Shadi an accountant from rural Hama] My first demonstration was better than my wedding day. And when my wife heard me say that, she refused to talk to me for a month…

    [Sana, graphic designer from Damascus] I was very scared on my way to the demonstration. It was night. We put scarves over our faces so the security forces couldn’t recognize us and walked through narrow streets to the square. The square was lit and people were playing music, with drums and flute. I don’t know who grabbed my hands from the left or from the right, but we started singing and dancing and jumping. It was a party to overthrow the regime. At that moment I didn’t care about anything else. I was so happy. It was a moment that I will never forget for the rest of my life: the moment I stood together with strangers, dancing and shouting to overthrow Bashar…
    [Waddah, graduate from Latakia] We got to the street and found about two thousand people demonstrating. I started to cry. I was sorry that I had rejected my nationality. I was sorry that I had insulted these people and said that they were cowards. I thought, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You are my brothers. You are my people. You are extraordinary.” (Pearlman, pp. xxxix-xI, 82-85).

    [Majd al-Dik, a child care social worker] “One day I dared to raise a slogan of my own creation, and I heard thousands of voices take up the refrain. My entire being trembled. I felt that I was respected and valued, despite my not having money or diplomas, the two principle sources of prestige before the revolution” –from A l'est de Damas, au bout du monde: Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien by Mohamed Majd Al Dik [my translation].

    [anonymous] “More people flooded in. Freedom is like a magnet; it attracts the people that have been silenced for too long… The chance is now available to speak up about the duty, to scream in the face of the suppressor, to prove all these identities that have been concealed by a tyrannical iron fist. Speeches were then delivered from the Clock’s platform; a woman takes a turn, then an activist, then a sheikh, then an enthusiastic young man.” –an eye witness describes the protest funeral procession in Homs of 18 April, 2011, from Burning Country, p43

    “Al-Mahmoud Mosque was one of three main ones in town. Curious to see what was happening elsewhere, Suleiman and an older cousin drove to Al-Kabir Mosque…Men were in the courtyard putting on their shoes, others were streaming out barefoot when a single brazen cry shot out: ‘We want freedom!’… The youngster could have been heckled or beaten and handed over to one of the three mukhabarat offices in the town, or to the local Baath Party chapter. Instead, the men outside the mosque, including Suleiman, erupted into the chant. They surged down the main thoroughfare, Revolution Street, named for the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power. Rastan had crossed the regime’s red line. All it took after forty-eight years was a student’s cry.” (from Suleiman’s story in No Turning Back, by Rania Abouzeid, pp7-8.).
    Wherever protests happened, armed units from the army or from one of the dozen or so wings of internal security were summoned to massacre protestors. The forces thus employed were chosen for their ethnic compositions: Alawite and Druze units specifically chosen to massacre protestors in Sunni areas. The Free Syrian Army was formed with defectors who refused to fire on their countrymen, just the same way that the Russian military defected to the side of the revolution against the Czar in 1917.

    We have to discuss the regime’s massacres to understand the methods and reasons for the extreme violence used by the Syrian regime. Assad’s regime was verifiably responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million people since the beginning of the revolution as of 2016 when keeping track became much more difficult ( http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/The_Societys_Holocaust.pdf

    ). Thousands have been shot and bombed at peaceful protests: others have been summarily executed when they refused to fire on protestors. Of the 56 sectarian massacres that have occurred since 2011, 49 have been committed by the regime. Often these massacres were targeted at communities as collective punishment for their assertion of the rights to free speech and assembly. Other times these massacres were directed at minority communities along with the targeting of Sunni religious sites to incite ethnic tension (Burning Country, p.112; and Ziad Majed p.72). Assad’s regime has used rape as a collective punishment ( https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/syria-has-a-massive-rape-crisis/274583/

    ). Starting in August of 2012 the Assad regime began dropping barrel bombs on the civilian populations in free parts of Syria (Yazbek, p. 220). Essentially a barrel filled with sharp metal shrapnel and explosives, the barrel bomb cannot be guided or targeted: it is dropped indiscriminately on civilian areas so that the earthquake of force and painful death and maiming it unleashes can terrorize whoever lives where it is dropped. As Syrians have exhaustively documented, being taken to one of Syria’s jails is a near certain death sentence, as was confirmed in a report by Amnesty International (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/07/up-to-13000-secretly-hanged-in-syrian-jail-says-amnesty). The regime specifically targeted hospitals in rebel held areas, leaving not one available, for instance, to serve a population of 200,000 in the final weeks of the siege and shelling of East Aleppo. Funerals have been targeted because they are sites of protest, yes, but also because they are moments for entire villages and neighborhoods to come together. The violence committed by the Assad regime is not senseless: it is meant to tear apart communities, to shred the public space, to pulverize the social fabric, to silence any voice that is not approved by the state embodied in Bashar al-Assad, and to commit such horrors that entire peoples will be irrevocably divorced. It’s not enough to kill his enemies, Assad has to kill the experience of collective action for freedom and democracy, unleashed by the Arab Spring. Such atrocities are only possible because the world has consigned the Syrian people to the shadows.

    One of the Assad regime’s atrocities was the fostering of religious extremism. Remember how he murdered moderate leaders of the Hama protest movement in the early 80s? He did the same thing on a larger scale after 2011. In the next podcast I will get into foreign involvement in the Syrian revolution, including the US, ISIS, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and so on. I will also go in depth about the Sarin gas attack of 2013. But in this podcast, I want to focus on those most directly affected, on the Syrians who defied Assad.
    Within the zones that were freed from the regime, Syrians established a form of direct democracy that we should hold on par with the Paris Commune. As early as March, 2011 protest leaders began organizing Local Coordinating Committees, soviets where all were equal that became the government in freed areas of Syria (BC, pp. 39,57). These committees were inspired by the writings of Omar Aziz, and in the city they began in, Douma, activists set up women’s centers to advocate against gender discrimination (BC, p. 125). Everything the progressive movement in the United States has been working towards, Syrians also worked towards while simultaneously fighting for the lives against a vicious regime. From Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami:

    “Omar Aziz (fondly known to friends as Abu Kamel) was born in Damascus. An economist, anarchist, husband and father, he returned from exile in 2011 at the age of 63 and committed himself to the revolution. Working with locals to distribute humanitarian aid to suburbs under regime attack, he was inspired by the diverse actions he came across - the various forms of protest as well as the solidarity and mutual aid within and between communities, including voluntary provision of emergency medical and legal support, turning homes into field hospitals, and food collection. He saw in such acts ‘the spirit of the Syrian people’s resistance to the brutality of the system, the systematic killing and destruction of community.’ Aziz believed that protests alone were insufficient to bring about a radical transformation, and that a new society had to be built from the bottom up to challenge authoritarian structures and transform value systems. He produced a paper in the revolution’s eighth month, when the movement was still largely peaceful and before land was liberated, in which he advocated the establishment of local councils.” (BC. p68).
    In Ghouta Majd al-Dik organized child day-care services for war orphans (Majd al-Dik). Countless such grassroots initiatives sprouted up around Syria, filling the vacuum left with the withdrawal of the regime. A whole series of podcasts should be done on just the various diy media initiatives that came about because of the revolution (BC, pp. 61, 163-182). Haitham al-Maleh and Razan Zeitouneh helped to found the Human Rights Association in Syria, which provides legal support to detainees and the families of detainees. Thanks to local organizing around Syria we know how many people were killed by the regime, prior to 2016 (Majd al-Dik, p. 205,). All such organizations were illegal in Syria under a 1958 law against the forming of civil society groups without government permission.

    In Daraya locals collected books for a library: each book had its origin documented so that one day it could be returned to its owner who had evacuated or whose building had been destroyed by regime bombs (Minoui); their story gives us a fascinating view into the intellectual climate in the leadership circles of the revolution. Theirs was the first library free of regime control any of them had ever known. Some of their favorites were the movie Amelie, Ibn Khaldun’s 15th century secular masterpiece on historical change al-Muqadimmah, and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In this revolutionary book club of Daraya, the group experienced an enthusiasm for The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and organized two Skype conferences with experts about the book (Minoui, p.83). Under constant bombing, within a starvation siege, this group was focused on personal growth!

    The typical course of events in the liberated zones involved the regime allowing ISIS to enter and take control, destroying these grassroots efforts in the process, and then escalating bombing campaigns before a negotiated surrender. Those who surrendered were bussed to Idlib, which is today the site of an intense struggle between Turkey and Russia with Syrian civilians in the crossfire. Since 2015 Russia has been targeting Syrian civilians with intensive bombing alongside Syrian chemical attacks to eradicate or expel the Syrian population. The massive wave of refugees that occured in 2015 is a result of this bombardment, and by all indications it was engineered alongside a media campaign to destabilize European governments and lift up the far right there. In his masterful Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder discusses how Russia created this refugee crisis and then coordinated a media campaign at the same time to demonize Syrian refugees, but that’s for the next podcast.

    There are people who, on the rare occasion that they think about Syria, imagine the conflict there occurred because of climate change. It’s fine to point out that poor agricultural yields contributed to people’s general discontent, but leaving the analysis there is inadequate. Agriculture had been industrializing for decades in Syria, with scores of people being robbed of their family farms for several decades. There were neoliberal reforms going on that stripped communities of social services. There was the strain on public services that refugees from Iraq were causing. All of this is true. I want to recall to our listeners Marx’s central insight in Capital Volume 1: that the root of all this evil is treating people as though they were mere objects, mere chess pieces on our board, and not capable of taking actions to affect change in their own lives. I have tried to discuss the Syrian revolution from a different angle: by taking seriously the ideas that drove it forward. I’ve been unearthing here for you the work of enlightenment thinkers within Syria and Egypt throughout the history of the last half century so that you could understand the context the Arab Spring happened in. The Arab Spring happens in a context where ideals of human rights, democracy and freedom are seizing hold of masses of people and compelling them into action. In all the previous podcasts in this series, I have explained why it is that the world’s progressives have fallen into a crisis of faith. We have been criticising liberal hypocrisy without affirming the basic rightness of those values and human rights. The result is that we have stopped championing human rights. There are many of us who haven’t made the step to explicitly give up on human rights as a total con, but there are many in our movement, most spectacularly Tulsi Gabbard, who have done this in practice. One place that the US abandoned in this way in particular is Syria, where we have de facto if not de jure declared liberal values as fundamentally insupportable, and that is the story I want to tell in the next podcast.

    Works

    Abouzeid, Rania. No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. WW Norton & Company, 2018.

    al-Dik, Majd and Nathalie Bontemps (tr). A l'est de Damas, au bout du monde. Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien: Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien. Don Quichotte, 2016.

    Dagher, Sam. Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. Hachette UK, 2019.

    Kassab, Elizabeth Suzanne. Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates. Columbia University Press, 2019.

    Majed, Ziad. Syrie, la révolution orpheline. Éditions Actes Sud, 2018.

    Minoui, Delphine. Les Passeurs de livres de Daraya: Une biblioteque secrete en Syrie. Editions du Seuil, 2017.

    Pearlman, Wendy R. We crossed a bridge and it trembled: Voices from Syria. Custom House, 2017.

    Sentence to Hope: A Sa'dallah Wannous Reader. Yale University Press, 2019.

    Sirees, Nihad. The Silence and the Roar. Pushkin Press, 2013.

    Yassin-Kassab, Robin, and Leila Al-Shami. Burning country: Syrians in revolution and war. Pluto Press, 2018.

    Yazbek, Samar. The Crossing: My journey to the shattered heart of Syria. Rider Books, 2015.

    Music: Reynard Seidel, Uprising, else Harry

  • Joseph Daher

    July 16th, 2020  |  1 hr 8 mins
    anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, arabs, assad, cia, colonialism, decolonization, hezbollah, israel, joseph daher, kurdish, kurds, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, pkk, pyd, solidarity, syria, the ceasar act, the coup, the middle east

    Joseph Daher is an internationalist, a Socialist, a Swiss-Syrian revolutionary and academic working in Switzerland.

    His most recent:

    Syria, We want to live

    http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article6710&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook

    COVID-19 and the Syrian Regime – an Opportunity to Tighten its Authoritarian Control over Society
    http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/beirut/16329-20200708.pdf

    Syria, The Wages of Destruction

    https://bit.ly/392c2lP

    ‘State institutions and regime networks as service providers in Syria’

    https://bit.ly/2YFnhwO

    “Invisible Sanctions: How over-compliance limits humanitarian work on Syria Challenges of Fund Transfer for Non-Profit Organizations Working on Syria”
    English version
    https://impact-csrd.org/r…/Invisible_Sanctions_IMPACT_EN.pdf

    Hezbollah, Neoliberalism and Political Economy

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/politics-and-religion/article/hezbollah-neoliberalism-and-political-economy/3D8D800FDCEA909CD9801976C2C7BE91

    The Syrian Presidential Palace Strengthens its Concentration of Power: The Rift Makhlouf-Assad

    https://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/67027/PB_2020_21_MED.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

    Historical Lessons of the Syrian Revolution – A CRITICAL BALANCE SHEET

    https://spectrejournal.com/historical-lessons-of-the-syrian-revolution/?fbclid=IwAR2iE-31bVv7Nbx4Cz_lJD35jvIz5XSPBq3rerJyM2RUPqFVRhzBgeB52Bk

    Popular protest is back in the Middle East

    http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article6670&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook

    The ‘Caesar Bill’: A step towards accountability in Syria, or a worsening economic crisis?

    https://syriauntold.com/2020/01/27/the-caesar-bill-a-step-towards-accountability-in-syria-or-a-worsening-economic-crisis/

  • 12. The Black Panthers Redux

    July 14th, 2020  |  57 mins 51 secs
    abolition, berniesanders, black reconstruction, bobby seale, bpp, conjure feminism, deep roots, democratic, eric foner, huey newton, memphis, sean mcelwee, socialist, spinoza, stacey abrams, the black panther party, zoltan hajnal

    A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac has finally arrived in our own times. To begin our discussion of where we are and what our tasks are, let me first of all lift up Stacey Abrams. In 2018 Stacey Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia, and when she showed up to vote for herself she was at first denied because the records wrongly showed that she had already voted in absentia. She very narrowly lost that election, but she did use her newly enlarged platform to begin a crusade against voter disenfranchisement. I want to second her prescription: what the present moment calls for is greater democracy, greater voter participation. “We have to expand our vision of who belongs in the big tent of progress, invest in their inclusion, and talk to them about what’s at stake. This formula is no guarantee of triumph - but I can promise that without it, we don’t stand a chance of conquering the future.” (Abrams, p. 220). There is a dogma on the far left that the elections are all rigged, and that we need revolution. When we discussed Lenin, we saw that he organized for revolution in part by engaging in electoral politics. In this episode I’m going to engage with Abrams’ project, evaluate the gains Black Americans have made since the Voting Rights Act, and arrive at an electoral strategy for leftists who want more than just bourgeois reforms. We will begin our discussion with a reprise of our earlier discussion of the Black Panther Party. Let’s dive in…

    We ended our discussion about the Black Panthers with a meditation on the mass support they had and it’s evaporation due to four factors identified by Bloom and Martin in their 2013 masterpiece “Black Against Empire.”

    The Panthers were victims of their own success. Nixon made key capitulations in order to preserve the larger system of white Power. There were four things that led to the BPP’s decline in the early seventies.

    Increased membership along with the killing, jailing and exile of its most experienced cadres led to more and more occasions where inexperienced leaders made mistakes. Using the law and guns to protect a community from a tyrannical state is a difficult thing to do even for highly trained people such as Newton and Seale. The rapid growth of the BPP meant that it was difficult to train all the newcomers in best practices or for them to be fully integrated under a coordinated central command. Telling the story of the BPP is a fraught endeavor, and I apologize because the Party meant so many different things to different people in different places. Furthermore, the FBI was able to exploit the relative inexperience of new cadres along with agents provocateurs to instigate conflicts with other Black power groups like US in California. These FBI instigated feuds were often quite bloody and violent. Many Panthers fled the country, among them Memphis’ own Lorenzo Kombao Erwin who spent time in US jail but also in Cuban jail for protesting the government there.

    Nixon ended the Vietnam War, and with that the Panthers lost the support of the white antiwar movement. It happened so quickly that Panther leader David Hilliard when he gave a speech saying “We say down with the American fascist society!...We will kill Richard Nixon,” was booed offstage in November 1969, because he hadn’t realized the audience was no longer receptive to the idea of overthrowing the US government.
    Nixon opened trade with China, and part of that deal was that Mao would stop supporting the Black Panthers. This was typical of Mao, who as discussed in a previous episode abandoned revolutionary groups in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and so on when those groups had served his geopolitical interests.

    Nixon brought massive numbers of Black people into the public sector, so there was much less generalized poverty in the Black community. The Black middle class that was strengthened in this way was much less interested in violently confronting the US government. I think that clearly the school breakfast programs that started at this time in public schools were part of this effort to undercut the BPP.

    I want to read the last two paragraphs of this book in their entirety because they are so brilliant. The political clarity on display here is striking. The authors reflect on the current political moment. They focus on the inability of any of today’s so-called revolutionaries to appeal to society as a whole, which tells you that the phenonomenon was a mass democratic movement. The book was published in 2013; I leave it to you to decide how applicable this is 7 years later:

    “While minimovements with revolutionary ideologies abound, there is no politically significant revolutionary movement in the United States today because no cadre of revolutionaries has developed ideas and practices that credibly advance the interests of a large segment of the people. Members of revolutionary sects can hawk their newspapers and proselytize on college campuses until they are blue in the face, but they remain politically irrelevant. Islamist insurgencies, with deep political roots abroad, are politically significant, but they lack potential constituencies in the United States. And ironically, at least in the terrorist variant, they tend to reinforce rather than challenge state power domestically because their practices threaten -- rather than build common cause with -- alienated constituencies within the United States.
    No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party and may not happen again for a very long time.” (Bloom, 401).

    The Black Panther Party saw its power expand in the context of lingering segregation, deep racial inequality, and the unpopular war in Vietnam. At the same time, in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the halls of American governance were flooded with Black politicians riding a wave of newly enfranchised Black voters. This effect was magnified as the Democratic Party responded to the disaster of the 1968 Democratic Party convention by reforming the nomination process to be more democratic via the McGovern Fraser Commission. Here is how Bloom and Martin describe this Black entrance into US electoral politics: “Black representation among party delegates more than doubled by 1972, to about 15 percent. Black electoral representation generally ballooned in the early 1970s. Whereas in March of 1969, 1,125 black people held political offices across the United States, by May 1975, the number had more than tripled to 3,499. This figure included 281 black officeholders in state legislative or executive offices, 135 mayors, 305 county executives, 387 judges and elected law enforcement officers, 939 elected board of education members, and 1,438 people holding other elected positions in municipal government.” (p. 348).

    Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In 2007 he gave us “Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics.” In this book he discusses how Black Power revolutionaries adapted to the new environment where Black people were being brought into the traditional power institutions. You should get a copy and read it. Though there was broad consensus around the need for a politics expressive of a common racial solidarity, very real political differences among Black people made the formation of a united front elusive.

    In the first two years of the 70s there was a general aspiration to forming a Black united front. This agenda was developed and promoted at the Atlanta Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and a smaller meeting of Black notables in Chicago in September 1971. These meetings were just preparation for the 1972 National Black Political Convention. The historical context for these events is important.

    Black people had entered the halls of government in a great burst of new democratic access at the same time that the Black Panther Party had successfully mobilized the Black community in the street. Cointel pro had visited white terror on the leadership of the Black radical movement. In 1971 the Cointelpro program was officially disbanded, and the Congressional Black Caucus held hearings that exposed “government lawlessness.” (Johnson, p. 99). The segregationist Dixiecrat Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running in the Democratic Primary for President. Nixon was tearing down Johnson’s War on Poverty. The stakes were high in 1972, and white liberal and left political groups, placated with Nixon’s reduction of forces in Vietnam, were abandoning the Black Panther Party. All of this contributed to a felt need for Black political radicals to find a relationship with the newly elected Black establishment.

    Radicals in the movement were wary of united action with moderate politicians, whom they more and more accused of selling out. Elected Black politicians were interested in slow reform that wouldn’t hurt their chances at reelection. Cedric Johnson identifies three paths that had prominent support in the movement. (Johnson, pp. 90-92).

    First off was the “favorite son” path. Julian Bond was a civil rights activist and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had led voter registration drives in the South throughout the 60s. Later, he served as a representative in the Georgia state legislature. In 1970 he began shopping around an idea called the “favorite son” tactic. The idea was that Black people in each state would run their own candidate in the Democratic Presidential Primary, and that in doing this they would build up a pool of delegates to help them gain leverage in who the Democrats chose as a presidential nomination.

    Second was the possibility of having one Black presidential candidate that all groups would rally behind. This was the idea that Percy Sutton endorsed. Percy Sutton was a freedom rider who later served as a lawyer for Malcolm X. They could point to the relative success of Dick Gregory’s Presidential run in 1968. Dick Gregory, who is a hilarious stand up comic, got 500,000 votes in 1968, which was greater than the margin of the popular vote that Nixon beat Humphrey by. Sutton and others wanted to repeat that experience on a grander scale. It somewhat tarnishes the moment that the candidacy of Shirley Chisolm, the first Black Woman who ever ran for President in a major party primary, was pushed to the side by this still very male dominated movement.

    Third of all, the hard Black Nationalist proposal was to form an independent Black Political Party. This idea was championed by radical activists who had their political education inside the Black Panther Party and other Black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam and US. The literary genius Amiri Baraka led this effort. Julian Bond wasn’t the only Black establishment figure arguing against this idea, but Cedric Johnson makes it seem like he was leading the charge. Bond, correctly as it turned out, perceived that despite the fact of Black people sharing the experience of racial oppression, they also hold a diversity of political opinions. What came out of the Gary congress was not a united political party, or even an institutional coalition. The various parties recognized they had too many differences for that, but they did produce a document, the National Black Political Agenda. The “Gary Declaration” is the introduction to the Black Agenda, and you should all read it. It is a testament to the political aspirations of newly enfranchised people who are finding power, and as important a document to our understanding of the American project as is the Declaration of Independence. Here’s a small excerpt, quoted by Johnson:

    “The Crises we face as Black people are the crises of the entire society. They go deep to the very bones and marrow, to the essential nature of America’s economic, political and cultural systems. They are the natural end product of a society built on the twin foundations of white racism and white capitalism… Our cities are crime haunted dying grounds. Huge sectors of our youth - and countless others - face permanent unemployment. Those of us who work find our paychecks able to purchase less and less. Neither the courts nor the prisons contribute to anything resembling justice or reformation. The schools are unable - or unwilling - to educate our children for the real world of our struggles. Meanwhile, the officially approved epidemic of drugs threatens to wipe out the minds and strength of our best young warriors. Economic, cultural and spiritual depression stalk Black America and the price of survival often appears to be more than we are able to pay.” (p. 107; https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gary-declaration-national-black-political-convention-1972/)

    Essentially, the split in the Black movement came from a tension between radicals and establishment types. Elected officials had to think about what their constituencies, the people who had elected them and the people they represented, wanted them to do and say. Radicals don’t have constituencies, and so they are not responsible to anyone, but then their actions and statements are of less consequence. Here is how Cedric Johnson describes the results of the national convention of 1972:

    “In the months following the convention, the majority of black politicos distanced themselves from the progressive agenda created at the meeting. The 1972 Gary Convention was a shotgun wedding of the radical aspirations of Black Power and conventional modes of politics. This marriage would not last nor would it produce the kinds of offspring that black radicals desired. Although it possessed the aura and rhetoric of movement politics, in essence the Gary Convention was an attempt to form an elite, race brokerage apparatus. To operate effectively, the convention and its subsequent Assembly structure required the discipline and legitimacy of establishment parliamentary bodies. Without the effective means to ensure the support of black politicians - particularly mainstream party regulars - the convention’s agenda could not be an effective bargaining tool with the major parties as the organizers envisioned. Although the strength of radical forces threatened both the legitimacy and the preeminence of old guard civil rights forces and the emergent black political elite, these same radical forces helped to bolster the position of black political moderates within mainstream institutions. Inasmuch as black politicos were in a more advantageous position to negotiate directly with the Democratic Party and major public institutions, they readily established themselves as the chief race brokers in the post-segregation context.” (p. 129). All of this reads as a terrible disaster some 50 years later, now that it is clear that the election of Black people into public office has clearly not helped the wellbeing of Black people very much. We should comment some on how much political representation has helped Black people because the picture is complex. But let’s assert the truth that Black entrance into political life after the voting rights act did not lead to the eradication of racial inequality.

    That’s not just some personal observation, though I expect it is intuitive to my listeners. Zoltan Hajnal is the Associate Dean at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, and he draws on a large body of work that demonstrates racial inequality in America didn’t change much after the large influx of Black politicians into the halls of government after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 2007 saw the publishing of his well researched “Changing White Attitudes toward Black Political Leadership.” Quote: “Despite large gains in the number of black elected officials across the country, there has been only moderate change in basic indicators of African American well-being and, even more importantly, almost no change in various measures of racial inequality. Though black officials have controlled the mayoralty in seven of the ten largest cities in the country and have achieved nearly proportionate representation in the House of Representatives, figures comparing black to white poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment remain largely unchanged.” (Hajnal, p.2). On the other hand, Professor Hajnall’s work does show that having Black people in positions of power has changed the attitudes of White people in a less racist direction, increased White trust in Black leadership somewhat. In 2017 Hajnal struck again, and I highly recommend owning a copy of his “Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics.” You should own a copy, because this book is full of important information and insightful, often counter-intuitive interpretations of the data. Hajnal investigated the relationship between voters’ identities along various axes like race, class, gender and education level, and whether or not voters got what they wanted out of government. He shows that Black people lose the most in our political system, that Black people lose more than do High School dropouts or poor people. The left is fond of saying that corporate interests are what make our society uneven, but as Hajnal points out the wealthy get what they want only about 38% of the time. That’s the same percentage approximately as White people, both groups getting about 6% more of what they want than do Black people. It just so happens that a lot of poor white people also want lower taxes and less public spending. From Hajnal: “The top 10 percent of earners win on policy 37.9 percent of the time, while the top 1 percent win 36.8 percent of the time. This is a better success rate than among the poor [at around 36%], but surprisingly it is not much better… Blacks lose more regularly than Whites regardless of their class status. Among Whites, the income gap is in the expected direction but still small (38.8 percent winners for wealthier Whites vs. 36.9 percent for poorer Whites). Whites win more often at all class levels.” (Hajnal, Dangerously Divided, p. 127). He shows that wealthy Black people get less of what they want out of the political process than poor white people get. He shows that poor white people tend to want the same things that wealthy white people want, which is a good explanation of why we can’t have nice things. And he shows a direct correlation between the increasing losses of the Democratic Party and those of Black people in the course of the last four decades. The more the Democratic Party wins, the more Black people win. The problem is that the influx of Black politicians in the 70s came with such high hopes that the modest gains since then seem unimportant. But those gains were not unimportant. We’ve seen in this podcast over and over again that people who wield power are themselves constrained, that the exercise of power requires trade-offs. Toussaint Louverture accepted that Haiti would be part of France so long as that meant freedom for the former slaves there. The Bolsheviks disastrously had to suppress free speech to protect their political project in 1921. Garcia Oliver urged the Catalan anarchists to surrender their barricades to fight Franco. We have to expect that Black people in power after 1970 were faced with similar problems.

    So, I’m moving on now to the situation that Black politicians have faced when they enter the halls of power, because there are lessons there for anyone concerned with how to get and use power, especially for the socialist audience that I assume is listening.

    At the local level across this nation the arrival of Black people in positions of power in City Hall was met with a wave of state legislation that disempowered cities. In a collection of essays edited by Kate Aronoff that came out in 2020 entitled Democratic Socialism-American Style: we own the future, Bill Fletcher Jr. observes: “Republicans have deployed their bases in rural areas in order to surround municipalities and introduce legislation that blocks the ability of municipalities and counties to introduce reforms...Republican-controlled state legislatures have blocked the ability of municipalities and counties to introduce living-wage increases and environmental reforms without approval from the state legislature.” (pp. 95,96).

    In 2013 Ravi K. Perry blessed us with “Black Mayors White Majorities: the Balancing Act of Racial Politics,” in which he tempers for us the idea that Black mayors didn’t get anything for Black people. Bill Fletcher Jr. discusses how when Harold Washington became the mayor of Chicago a bloc of white city aldermen worked to block his appointments and legislation attempts. Perry helps us nuance this view. Washington didn’t accomplish nothing. He was successful at limited social welfare efforts because he opened city hall to various civic organizations and increased city contracts to minority owned firms from nine to sixty in the span of three years. A similar pattern developed under Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and under Carl Stokes in Cleveland: city contracts to Black owned businesses became a ready vehicle for some limited racial uplift. I think socialists should meditate on that before they begin a blanket denunciation of Black capitalism. Perry goes on to discuss in detail the path of Black mayors in Toledo and Dayton Ohio to demonstrate how Black leaders in White majority cities can rally the public to their agendas by putting forward policies that benefit everyone, not by jettisoning the interests of Black people but by highlighting how programs that benefit Black people benefit everyone, things like increased spending on education. From Perry: “This book explores how two mayors effectively used a new strategy in majority-white contexts. By strategically (and usually rhetorically) linking the needs of African Americans with the interests of whites, these mayors demonstrated that it was no longer political suicide to advocate for black interests” (p. xix).

    The situation for Black congressmen and women is similarly limited. In 2011 Christian R. Grose gave us an important book synthesizing several decades worth of research on how successful Black representatives have been at working for racial uplift. That book is “Congress In Black and White: Race and Representation in Washington and at Home.” The research shows unsurprisingly that Black representatives who serve majority Black districts will vote consistently in the interest of Black people (Grose, p. 16). In the mid-nineties the nation saw a wave of gerrymandering, and many of the Black representatives who had majority Black constituencies suddenly had to win races in majority white districts. This is where it became important as Zoltan Hajnal points out that Black politicians in power, even if they aren’t able to enact change because of whatever political constraints they work under, they still change white peoples’ attitudes just by responding to the public will in a fair way. In several places Black representatives kept their seats despite the gerrymandering, but afterwards they changed how they voted. Black representatives from majority white districts are much less likely to vote in ways that exclusively speak to a Black interest. In fact, in terms of voting behavior there are three factors that affect whether someone will vote with Black interests in mind: (1) the race of the representative has a minor effect, (2) the race of that representative’s constituency has a large effect because politicians like to be re-elected, and (3) if someone belongs to the Democratic Party they are much more likely to vote in the interests of Black people. That third item, the effect of the Democratic Party needs a little explanation, because belonging to the Democratic Party comes with its own limitations and empowerments. A socialist movement that wants to enter the halls of power using the Democratic Party as a vehicle should pay close attention to how Black politicians have navigated this terrain.

    There are three ways that a Congressional representative can wield power. First off, every member of congress provides what is called constituency services. That includes hiring people in the district for their offices, advocating for people in their district, helping them get information about government programs and grants. Constituency services sound like a yawnfest, but it’s important that the public can call their representatives because democracy isn’t just about the vote last time it’s also about the vote next time and it’s good that representatives are responsive to the will of the public in their day to day decision making. And for the most part they are. For Black congressional representatives, one easy win for Black people is just hiring Black people, just as we saw that it was for Black mayors. Hiring people is one place where a representative has nothing constraining what they do, and it turns out that Black representatives definitely hire more Black people than do White representatives regardless of party affiliation.

    Secondly, representatives can vote. Most people will vote along party lines, and the representatives with the most seniority set the priorities for what legislation to put forward. Ranking members of committees are in a position to put forward legislation, and they are also by right of the committees they chair, likely best positioned to help other members of congress get special projects in their districts.

    A lot of money gets apportioned to special programs that are targeted to particular districts, and this is the third way a member of congress can wield power. On the other hand, as just pointed out a representative’s ability to bring home the bacon can depend upon their agreeing to vote along party lines and back committee chairpersons’ legislative proposals. It’s a hierarchy, in other words, and voting is the part that a representative has the least control over. Seniority can provide some amount of space to vote according to one’s conscience. Seniority is what you get if you win enough elections. Winning elections is what you get if you respond to the will of your constituencies. That’s how our democracy works, you’re welcome for the civics lesson!

    Since this podcast is for a far left audience, we have to discuss how bad the Democratic Party is. The Democratic Party is weak. Anyone who has had any dealing with them knows that the party itself is not particularly strong, but I think one of the best portraits of the party in our times was provided by Donna Brazile in her excellent book about the 2016 election entitled “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-Ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” Here is her estimation of the Democratic Party in the wake of the Obama presidency: “I had learned a great deal about the dysfunction inside the party in the last ten hours. As I saw it, we had three Democratic parties: the party of Barack Obama, the party of Hillary Clinton, and this weak little vestige of a party led by Debbie [Wasserman Schulz, then Chair of the DNC] that was doing a very poor job getting people who were not president elected. As I saw it, these three titanic egos -Barack, Hillary, and Debbie- had stripped the party to a shell for their own purposes. Barack never had seen himself as connected to the party. He had not come up through it the way Joe Biden and Hillary had, but had sprung up almost on his own and never had any trouble raising money for his campaigns. He used the party to provide for political expenses like gifts to donors, and political travel, but he also cared deeply about his image. Late into his second term, the party was still playing for his pollster and focus groups. This was not working to strengthen the party. He had left it in debt. Hillary bailed it out so that she could control it, and Debbie went along with all of this because she liked the power and perks of being a chair but not the responsibilities. I know these three did not do this with malice. I knew if you woke any of them up in the middle of the night to ask them how they felt about the Democratic Party they would answer with sincerity that they loved this party and all it had done for the country and for them. Yet they had leached it of its vitality and were continuing to do so. In my three months I was going to do what I could to bring that life back.” (Brazile, pp. 41-42). So, it’s not much of a deep state really. The Democratic Party is just a loose coordination of political campaigns. Democratic politicians are literally only as powerful as the number of votes they can get. The votes of the poor matter as much as the votes of the wealthy, but Black votes matter less, so the research tells us. But why is that?

    Stacey Abrams has a story about Black votes that I think is as good an explanation as any as to why Black people get so little of what they want from the political process in our nation. Because her story gives us a clear political direction for work as socialists, as people committed to collective uplift, I will leave that to the end of this podcast. Let’s consider now the picture all of this paints, the situation that awaits us in the halls of power, if socialists are going to someday find themselves in the halls of power.

    What does all of this mean for those of us who want to transform the world we live in? It means there is no way for us to see radical change come out of our government without convincing the majority of people we are right. Politicians can’t push forward socialist measures, not because of corporate interests, but because their constituencies are resistant to socialist measures. There are no socialists at the top of the hierarchy in the congress because no socialist has won enough elections to get seniority. Because there are no socialists with seniority radical legislation doesn’t get proposed or voted on. The inability of Black representatives to pass things like reparations is not because Democrats are white supremacists, but rather because the Democrats are responsible to the public who up to now doesn’t support reparations. What’s worse, is that there is a kind of inertia inherent to the situation. The representatives that do get elected to fight for greater equality are constrained in all these ways, so they can’t make things suddenly much better overnight. Because people had such high expectations they become disillusioned with the political process, and these historically disenfranchised groups stop participating in the process before anyone can get seniority and pass radical legislation. People who do dedicate their lives to patiently passing what legislation they can in the short term end up with a career of compromise decisions, or with votes that were once popular but aren’t now: like when Bernie Sanders voted for the 1994 Crime Bill, which had overwhelming public support at the time. And then voters judge them on their voting record as if they were free to vote for free Ice Cream but chose Mass incarceration instead, i.e. voters look at their record without considering context or history or anything, especially radicals newly minted. And the politicians that would combine progressive politics with the ability to legislate progressive policies, say if there were suddenly broad popular support for such, get denounced by radicals.

    How can we build power? It’s too big a question for a library of books. It’s a question we have to answer in practice. One thing that could help is if we stopped treating politicians as though they should be our saviors. We should understand and educate and repeat and realize that politicians can only vote according to what society wants in that moment. It should be the work of activists and organizers to move public opinion in a progressive direction: we shouldn’t expect politicians to do that. If we push politicians to do unpopular things, to propose unpopular laws like single payer health care, we sabotage their ability to do anything. They won’t succeed at passing an unpopular law, and then they won’t get re-elected. They will never get seniority, and we’ll never see our legislation put to a vote. There is no path to power for us that does not pass through a successful campaign of persuasion.

    If you’re not reading Sean McElwee, do you even want power? Sean McElwee is a data scientist who studies political change. In 2016 a collection of essays came out from Wicked Problems Collective entitled “What Do We Do About Inequality,” and it included one by Sean McElwee called the Ideological Straight Jacket. It’s dope. You should read it. It’s an update on Marx’s Grundrisse. In that article he discusses all the research showing how rich people believe they deserve to be paid much more than us, though they actually contribute much less to our society, and how because they think inequality is fair they block people from rising in the social hierarchy. If you geek out on sociological research about inequality and political power, you should know Sean McElwee’s work by now. You probably also ought to know about the 2014 Martin and Gilens paper that showed that the wealthier you are the more likely it is that your policy preferences will become law. McElwee points out the thing that most folx don’t know about Martin and Gilens’ findings: that average citizens for the most part agree with economic elites’ policy preferences. But Sean McElwee has a strategy for changing opinions. It turns out that people do not change their minds because of political campaigns. Incremental legislative gains do change people’s minds, and we can get incremental gains if we work to increase voter turnout for moderate Democratic candidates. Maximalist demands set up a cycle of high expectations and disappointment which depresses voter turnout and sabotages long term power building. It’s all here in this article from Vox linked in the transcripts that you should read, being as if you’ve listened this far you probably care about actually getting power for progressive causes (https://www.vox.com/2020/4/17/21224140/bernie-sanders-elizabeth-warren-joe-biden-2020-democratic-primary).

    We are currently going through a period where there is mass unrest, insurrection even, against police brutality and mass incarceration. The oppression itself is not new. The fact that people denounce the oppression is not new either. What is new is that there are strong indications that a large majority of White Americans seem to have found their way to agreeing that Black Lives Matter. We can speculate as to why that is. Zerlina Maxwell, the author of this year’s “The End of White Politics,” speculates that White America could care more now because White people suffering from COVID are experiencing physical pain caused by white supremacy (Minute 41, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/zerlina-maxwell-end-white-politics-how-to-heal-our/id425400236?i=1000480107671). I agree with Mx. Maxwell, and I also want to point out that this democratic mass movement for racial equality is happening in the same country where Bernie Sanders didn’t win the Democratic Primary. Bernie Sanders lost the old fashioned way: he didn’t get enough votes. By a lot. So, people are motivated to act for racial equality, but not convinced they need a socialist President. As noted previously its the feelings of their constituencies that drive voting behavior of members of congress. We saw historically high voter turnout in 2018 and in the primary for moderate democrats. The generation of Democratic politicians, many of them being part of that wave of Black representatives that flooded the halls of government starting in the 70s, people like House majority Whip Jim Clyburn, having spent long decades fighting against Republican gerrymandering and the racial illiteracy of White America, those Democrats who were motivated to become politicians because they saw the Democratic party ditch the racist Dixiecrats, those Democrats now have seniority and a strong public mandate to pass a New Deal for racial equality. It just won’t call itself socialist, and we won’t get to be big fucking heros. And these Democrats are already doing everything they can to respond effectively to this movement. Here’s a list of things the protests following George Floyd’s murder have won, and this is far from exhaustive:

    Murder charges were filed against all four officers involved in killing George Floyd. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/03/george-floyd-police-officers-charges/).
    Congress passed a law that outlaws chokeholds and does away with qualified immunity. Who knows if it will pass, but nothing would prevent legislation like it once we get Trump out of the way.
    After banning the use of chokeholds (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/us/george-floyd-protests.html), Minneapolis has decided to disband its police force and rethink public safety. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/minneapolis-police-abolish.html).
    A Michigan School Board Superintendent was fired for saying that George Floyd was to blame for his own death. (https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/michigan-school-district-superintendent-fired-after-facebook-comments-about-george-floyd.html).
    Here in Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich has announced they are launching a program of restorative justice. (https://www.wmcactionnews5.com/2020/06/22/district-attorney-general-announces-new-community-justice-program/?fbclid=IwAR3XRWQWHMPrRQX_aRab1zj3q2ysqgj34NLuv-Mj9eZeBGdZnLzzQzVsH_0).

    Here is a long list of monuments to Confederates, slavers and white supremacisthat have been taken down worldwide since the murder of George Floyd (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_monuments_and_memorials_removed_during_the_George_Floyd_protests).
    Mississippi has taken the confederate flag off of their state flag.
    A wave of corporate symbolic gestures and substantive actions have shown that capitalists are falling in line to support racial equality (https://justcapital.com/news/notable-corporate-responses-to-the-george-floyd-protests/). Quaker Oats ended Aunt Jemima. Pepsico is going to spend 400 million dollars to promote Black people into management and uplift Black businesses. Adidas has committed to hiring at least 30% of new positions with Black and Latinx people. IBM stopped investing in facial recognition software. Those are just a few, there’s a link to the long list of corporations getting behind this in the transcripts.

    Are Capitalists fundamentally driven by profit? Yes. Does that make them more or less indifferent to inequality? Yes, all else being equal. But also, Democratic politics during a time of general insurrection can mean, in Lenin’s terms, that the ruling class cannot continue to rule in the way it has done. We should welcome these clearly progressive developments, even rejoice in them, and we can do that in a clear eyed understanding that they do not mean we can stop fighting inequality. We can, and we must do both.

    I remember working with Black Lives Matter activists in Bridgeport Connecticut in 2016. I pointed out how rare it was that police officers ever get indicted, and how the courts have decided that the police can get away with murder all they have to do is say they feared for their lives. My point was that we needed a revolution. I’ll never forget the response of one of the Black activists there: he said they knew that already and that if all they could do was make it more expensive, then that was something they needed to get. They were putting in the work so that the Police would have to pay money when they killed a Black person, so that police killing Black people would happen less often. And if I loved Black people then that would be enough for me to want to do the work too. And now Democrats in Congress want to end the qualified immunity that allows Police officers to kill with impunity. If we loved Black people we would try and help Democrats win in November so they can do that.

    I’m saying all of this as we near the end of a podcast about Socialism’s Past, Present and Future because I do believe we are on the cusp of world historic changes. If socialists cling to their cynicism about the Democratic Party and electoral politics, then they will simply be left out of the power arrangement that results. Or even worse, White centered socialists will succeed in suppressing the vote by claiming the system is rigged and this will help Trump win. This movement is bigger than Bernie Sanders, bigger than the Democratic Socialists of American, thank god, because the DSA isn’t big enough at a paltry 70,000 members to lead society. There is a real democratic movement happening that is producing change, that will produce change, and if you are a socialist you should get involved not where socialists are necessarily, but where an honest evaluation of the present opportunities has us positioned to make progress.

    Stacey Abrams is a genius, by the way. She should be governor of Georgia right now. Brian Kemp stole the election in 2018 by a host of underhanded and illegal tactics. Abrams didn’t sue for the position, because doing so would have meant not being able to sue for systemic change. She had a choice between wielding power or helping to reform the system in a more democratic direction. In this year, 2020, Henry Holt and Company published her crucial meditation on our political moment “Our Time Is Now.” You should read this book right now. You should pause this podcast and order the book so you don’t forget. You should read this book before you read Marx’s Capital. The message of the book is simple: political progress today depends on us winning the fight for greater voter participation. She points out here that even though voter suppression targets Black people it hurts all of us. “Voter suppression typically targets the marginalized, the disadvantaged, and the inconvenient… But the effect is broader and exponentially more pronounced. These communities tend to share a common belief that political leaders should pass laws to guarantee equity and justice, and they vote that way. However, the disenfranchisement of individuals and entire populations from democracy through the booby traps of registration, access to the ballot, and ballot counting works to divide groups, often leaving the privileged unscathed by the process but hurt by the outcomes. Representative democracy is a brute force exercise, where who counts matters. Rigging the game affects all the players on the team, even those who are not targeted… In states where voter suppression is common, so too is an aggregation of power in the hands of conservatives who have a shared strategy for stripping away abortion rights… We hear about Russian interference, hacked machines, and more and more people who doubt the system. Abroad, authoritarians and dictators win elections and reshape democracies into parodies of freedom. The same world leaders who once feared disappointing American leaders now use our compromised elections to justify their own behavior. When disinformation campaigns target black and brown voters to scare them away from the polls, the source might as easily be Russian as Republican. Saving democracy is not an overblown call to action- we are in trouble… But we do know what to do. America has always been a crucible for democratic innovation, and our hallmark is our willingness to learn and grow. Fixing our broken democracy stands as a foundational prerequisite to progress. Our work to achieve universal health care access, education parity, social and economic justice and more - they each depend on the fundamental obligation that undergirds them all, eradicating voter suppression and ensuring that our elections are fair fights.” (pp. 123-124). Abrams’ impassioned appeal for a movement for democratic rights recalls to me Marx’s point in 1848 that the revolutionary National Assembly ‘only needed everywhere to counter dictatorially the reactionary encroachments by obsolete Government in order to win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective” (Marik, p.191). Further, Abrams points out that the blue wave of 2018 proved that the demographic changes in American society have ripened, and now all we need to do to produce revolutionary change is engage that democratic process. Key to this effort is reaching out to people Abrams’ calls low propensity voters. These are not swing voters: these are not voters who vote for a different party each election. Low propensity voters are people who voted once and didn’t see dramatic change and therefore decided not to vote again. We have to impress upon people the importance of voting, that the change has been stymied, but that the potential for change is real and is more real now than it has been. Calls to boycott the 2020 election, efforts on the left to suppress the vote for Democrats are going to hurt poor and working and Black people. Anyone who tries to tell you Biden is just as bad as Trump is lying to you. We will be discussing this type of left reactionary in detail in later podcasts, but in our very next episode we are going to discuss the bellwether issue of our generation: The Syrian Revolution. The reactions of the far left to that revolution will reveal to us the priorities and liabilities inherent to the traditional US far left, and help us understand the transformation that will be needed to make the left once again into a powerful and righteous force in the world.

    Bibliography

    Aronoff, Kate, ed. We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. The New Press, 2020.

    Abrams, Stacey. Our Time is Now. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 2020.

    Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.

    Grose, Christian R. Congress in black and white: Race and representation in Washington and at home. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    Hajnal, Zoltan L. Changing white attitudes toward black political leadership. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Hajnal, Zoltan L. Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2007.

    Perry, Ravi K. Black mayors, white majorities: The balancing act of racial politics. U of Nebraska Press, 2013.

    Rothstein, Richard. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing, 2017.

    Wicked Problems Collective. What Do We Do About Inequality? CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/zerlina-maxwell-end-white-politics-how-to-heal-our/id425400236?i=1000480107671

    Music: Walt Adams, Loose Bolts; else Harry Koniditsiotis

  • 11. A Guide to High Maoism

    July 9th, 2020  |  58 mins 51 secs

    I have a few friends and acquaintances who are Maoists, so let me just put this out there: if I say something here about Maoism that is unfair or untrue @ me. For real, I’ll be doing a whole episode of legit corrections. I hope you listen to this all the way through, and give it some serious reflection. And I hope it makes you want to know your own tradition better, because all the times I’ve ever talked to Maoists about what Maoism is, I mostly felt like they didn’t know. It was seriously like talking to someone who had just joined a cult and wasn’t sure what they were allowed to say. Or worse, they claimed it all started in the 80s and felt zero responsibility to understand the history of the man whose name they self identified with. Prove me wrong. Please.
    Christophe Bourseiller once said: “Maoism doesn’t exist. It never has done. That, without a doubt, explains its success.” Let’s talk about Mao.
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    As the 1920s moved along it became increasingly clear that proletarian revolution was not going to spread to western Europe. The failure of the socialist movement to understand changing conditions in Germany, i.e. the arrival of genuine democracy in a coalition government that was distinct from the limited Prussian democracy of the past, had led to the Soviet Union being isolated on the world stage. The Bolsheviks turned their attention east. Their relative ignorance of the new spaces they were entering led first to comedy and then to tragedy. To take just one example, in Uzbekistan, which had a feudal economy, party operatives identified women as the local “proletariat” and campaigned to end women wearing the veil. The Russians pushed reform on locals, who rebelled against this intrusion on custom. The end result was a cultural reaction against modernity and an entrenchment of patriarchal norms (Northrop from Raleigh, pp. 125-145).
    In China capitalist development came from the Europe, and the trade agreements that came along with modernizing production always came at a terrible cost to local wealth and prosperity. In 1921, as the Bolsheviks were facing decisive defeat in Germany and encirclement by capitalist powers they saw in China’s struggle against western imperialism a reflection of their own struggle. China had gone through a nationalist movement and revolution led by Sun Yat-Sen in the early 1910s. The results were mixed, with no centralized power that ruled China. The various regions of China were ruled by various military leaders who made uneven deals with imperialist powers including but not limited to Britain, Japan, France, Germany and Russia.

    Harold Isaacs was an American journalist who became involved in left-wing politics after he moved to China in 1930. He has given us an excellent account of the failure of Bolshevik policies there during the 1920s in his masterful “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.” By the time the Chinese Communist Party was founded by Chen Duxiu in 1921 the nationalist party was practically non-existent. The Russians insisted that their Chinese comrades revive the old nationalist party and submit to its discipline. The communists in China were to defend bourgeois property in order to strengthen the anti-Imperialist struggle, and make sure that workers only struck when doing so would help the new nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek. By tieing the hands of the Chinese Communists in this way the Russians assured that the nationalists would get the upper hand. The organization of the toiling masses to strike against Chiang Kai-Shek’s enemies helped him get the upper hand and unite Manchuria under nationalist Chinese rule. However, the mounting strike wave proved difficult to contain, and the nationalists were not willing to grant concessions to the workers in the form of wage increases or working for fewer hours. Things came to a head in April of 1927. Chiang Kai-Shek was then making a deal with the imperialists to decapitate the working class movement, arresting leaders and then on April 12th leading a massacre of workers in Shanghai. In the weeks leading up to this massacre, Russian Communists ordered their Chinese comrades to disarm, to give up key battle positions and to submit to nationalist authority. The Chinese communists, for their part, had trouble convincing local workers not to assert their prerogatives. It is estimated that some 25,000 workers were killed by nationalists in 1927 (Isaacs, p. 277).

    It’s probable that the Russians didn’t think Chiang Kai-Shek would betray his own countrymen, but it’s also probable that they thought it was a risk they could afford if the payoff was a Chinese state dominated by right wing nationalists that was friendly to Russia and antagonistic to western Imperialism. This was the same period that saw Stalin’s consolidation of power and the pivot from revolutionary internationalism to “socialism in one country,” and it is within that context that we have to understand the Russians’ China policy. They may have honestly been sympathetic to imperialist oppression of the Chinese and simultaneously self interested. If we can get to the Spanish Civil War we will see a more explicit Russian chauvinism, but in China we must speak of mistakes, not intentional sabotage of workers’ ambitions for democracy. On the other hand, those mistakes were made against the advice of Leon Trotsky and others who said that China was ready for a workers’ revolution. You wonder if Stalin ever admitted when he was wrong. Instead of reflecting on the Bolshevik’s failure, as we know in 1927 Stalin expelled from Russia the left opposition. At the same time the Stalinist Comintern took an ultra left turn that urged just what Trotsky had proposed several years prior: a workers’ revolution. But by this time it was too late. Everywhere the communists tried to organize, the workers shunned them for their collaboration with the bloody nationalists. What no one seemed to imagine was that at that moment a young communist organizer working in rural China would soon find a synthesis of nationalism with socialist rhetoric that would captivate the world, take over China in a couple decades and rule there to this day. That young organizer was Mao Tse-Tung.
    Julia Lovell is professor of modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck College, University of London, and in 2019 she gifted the world with her excellent book “Maoism: A Global History.” What’s original about Lovell’s work is the original research she presents about Mao’s support of revolutionaries abroad. That gives us a chance not only to see what Mao said and did, but to also understand how those ideas became different things in different places, and how Mao’s revolution was experienced in those parts of the world where it was successfully exported. In what follows I will retell her version of Mao’s ascent up to the sixties so that we can approach the Vietnam war within the context of Chinese and Vietnamese history. Lovell is brilliant, and you should go read her book. I’m only going to share here some of her work describing the path Maoists in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam took. Then we’ll contrast that view with how we as Americans imagine the Vietnam war, a war which perhaps more than any other event in the 20th century formed American left politics.
    Mao started organizing in rural China in 1925, championing the peasants against the landlords, making alliances with certain peasant notables, organizing a guerilla army. Mao’s activity found a base of support in Hunan province, in the south of China. From the beginning, Mao revelled in violence and terror, earning sharp rebukes from the rest of his party.
    Lovell: “In his ‘Report from Hunan’, Mao particularly celebrated the violent tyranny exercised by the rural lumpenproletariat against local landowners. ‘The only effective way of suppressing the reactionaries is to execute at least one or two in each county… it is necessary to bring about a brief reign of terror in every rural area… to exceed the proper limits.’ Parts of the report seemed almost ecstatic at the violence witnessed. ‘It is wonderful! It is wonderful!” By 1927, Mao - to the horror of his intellectual bosses such as Chen Duxiu, who was deeply unhappy about the levels of violence approved and encouraged by Mao in Hunan - had championed both the military and the rural turn in CCP history… Commanded in 1929 by the Central Committee in Shanghai to disperse the army, he robustly refused: the order was ‘unreal’ and' liquidationist’. The Central Committee responded by accusing him of ‘roving bandit ideology.’” (Lovell, p. 34). None of this should be surprising about a leader who famously said “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Mao was always an anti-intellectual. He emphasized practice over theory in all things, and so one prominent aspect of Maoism worldwide is that often people from the bourgeois class who encounter it drop out of whatever bourgeois occupation their schooling has prepared for them and they go work in a factory or on a farm. Classically, Maoist ideology is formed less by books and scholarship and more by group discussion, sometimes called struggle sessions. This is part of why Maoist ideology can be so difficult to pin down, and why Maoists are often shy about explaining it. The other part of that shyness is all the killing. Part of Maoism is the kind of fortune cookie style aphorisms of the little red book. Here is a small taste:
    “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution, an act of violence by which on class overthrows another.” (Mao, p. 5)
    Lovell takes a statistical approach, surveying the landscape of Maoist ideas and practices from the 1930s to today.

    Let’s list some of the more prominent aspects that have historically characterized Maoism:
    Violence is a good way to get what you want. (pp.26, 95, 131, 170-171, 350).
    Anti- intellectualism (35, 47, 131)
    Feminist aspirations with variable success (37, 106, 116, 202, 267, 288, 291, 293, 334)
    Rigorous internal criticism, frequent purges and a rejection of independent thought (41, 117, 144, 137, 287, 292, 300)
    A Manichean anti-Imperialism (53, 100, 132, 140, 166, 221, 166,154)
    A cult of personality (47, 99, 106, 125, 131, 143, 222, 267)
    Voluntarism, or the idea that just by wanting something you can make it happen (131, 56, 105, 111, 112, 144, 167, 168, 179, 196, 266
    End of list.
    By 1934 the nationalists had Mao’s group cornered, and to escape he had to lead his followers to North western China. Lovell: “The Long March traced a massive, reverse L-shape across some of the country's wildest terrain - the freezing peaks of Tibet, the boggy plains of the far north-west, finally ending in the bleak, crumbly landscapes of Shaanxi - all the while fighting running battles with a pursuing Nationalist army. Of the 80,000 who began the trek, only 8,000 are said to have completed it, settling in a new base area around the town of Yan’an. But Mao - who, at the start of the Long March, was only the lowest ranking member of the politburo - emerged resurgent from the ordeal. During the military crises of the Long March, Mao took over leadership of the army” (pp. 37-38).
    In 1937 war broke out between Japan and China, part of WW2, putting the conflict between Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek on hold. As soon as the Japanese were beaten, in 1945 civil war broke out again. Mao was victorious in 1949 and the nationalists retreated to some islands off the coast, principle of which is Taiwan. Importantly, in the late 30s an American journalist named Edgar Snow lived in Mao’s camp. Snow’s version of the early Maoist movement in China “Red Star Over China” became an international best seller. Snow was in love with Maoism, and believed everything they told him. The picture that he paints in that book is probably exaggeratedly positive for Mao, but just how far that exaggeration goes is up for debate. What’s clear is that the image of Mao put forward in Red Star, of him leading his people in martial contests and ideological struggle sessions, bravely building a new world in defiance of the old, is the part of Maoism that people will likely defend. What they will likely neither mention nor defend is the intentional mass starvation event known as the Great Leap Forward.
    In 1956 Nikkita Khrushchev gave a secret speech, leaked almost immediately, that exposed Stalin’s crimes and repented of them and thereby launched a program of de-Stalinization. Mao utterly rejected this movement and doubled down on what he imagined to be Stalinism. The state expropriated peasant land and at gun point instituted a forced communal lifestyle. Because part of the ideology was the idea that victory is just a matter of will, party officials could not admit failure to collect grain quotas without at the same time confessing their own lack of revolutionary conviction. So, much as in Stalin’s Ukraine, party officials lied about the size of grain harvests, and to do so convincingly had to send all the grain to the capitols leaving nothing behind for the peasants. Lovell: “As its cadres presented fictionalised statistics of vast grain harvests, the state extracted its set quota of his illusory harvest to feed the cities and sell abroad to generate revenue for industrial development. But as the official statistics far exceeded the actual amount being produced, farmers were left with almost nothing. Historians inside and outside China have tracked the horrendous results: tens of millions of deaths from starvation and malnutrition-related disease, as well as from beatings administered by state thugs hoping to extract yet more food from ‘hoarding’ peasants.’” (p. 133). These sacrifices, to the extent that the regime was unable to deny them, were justified to the Chinese people as necessary in order to fulfil China’s predestined place as the leader of world revolution. Mao therefore had to continuously ratchet up tension between himself and the United States to tamp down on domestic unrest.
    In 1950 North Korean forces poured over the 38th parallel in an attempt to reunify Korea. The 38th parallel was the border drawn by the US and the Soviet Union after WW2. North Korea started the Korean war in a surprise attack. Despite early American victories, General MacArthur’s forces were set back when a 400,000 strong army of Chinese volunteers took Seoul in January of 1951 (Lovell, p. 91). Seven thousand Americans were taken prisoner. A prisoner swap was organized, but prisoners were given the choice to repatriate or not. 22,000 of the captured communist soldiers chose not to be repatriated. Twenty three Americans chose to stay in North Korea, citing US racial injustice and communist hospitality as reasons. This set off a hysteria in the United States about China’s supposed ability to brain wash people. It was a load of nonsense, but it stands as a testament to white America’s inability at the time to confront its own racism. We’ll talk more about racism in our next episode about how the Black Panther Party ended the Vietnam War. In 1962 Frank Sinatra starred in a movie based on all of this stuff called the Manchurian Candidate. Despite some very heavy government funding, no one was ever successful inand reprogramming someone. All of that just to avoid telling the hard story of how some American servicemen prefered living in a Communist dictatorship to living in Jim Crow America! Clarence Adams was one of these Americans who stayed in China. Here’s what he said about his experience, from Lovell: “‘The Chinese didn’t brainwash me… They un-brainwashed me… I went to China because I was looking for freedom, a way out of poverty, and to be treated like a human being, instead of something subhuman. I never belonged to the Communist Party. I never became a Chinese citizen, and in no way did I betray my country.’ It was, he insisted, ‘racism at home rather than Chinese propaganda that inspired my decision.’ Adams brought the same questioning rationality to bear on his decision to return to the US in 1966. Although Mao’s China had given him an opportunity to go to university, to travel, to become a translator, he felt his career options were limited. He also missed his family back home and disliked the lack of individualism among Chinese acquaintances.” (pp123-124). As late as February 2013, the Party for Socialist Liberation, a Maoist group in the US, cited Clarence Adams as someone who resisted American imperialism, without mentioning his return to the US and without mentioning the 22,000 captured Communist soldiers who refused to repatriate. This is an example of bending the facts to suit your ideology, something we’ve already mentioned and will come back to regarding the way the US left discusses history. [I feel like more could be said about the difference between 22,000 and 23 choosing to stay….]
    Through the 60s Mao constantly provoked the United States by promoting revolution in the countries all around him. From afar these interventions could be imagined as a real empathy for oppressed people, but when looked at in detail it’s pretty clear that Mao supported revolution if, when and to the degree that it was in his interests, often with disastrous results for his foreign “comrades.” It turns out that open insurrection requires more than revolutionary zeal to be successful, and it isn’t the solution in every case.

    In July 1949 Mao opened the Marxism-Leninism Academy offering one year courses in Maoist revolution (Lovell, p.97). Lowell describes the experience of one of the very first students of the MLA, Mohit Sen, who went on to become an important communist leader in India: “Despite its name, the academy’s curriculum was all about Mao. After a crash course in Chinese - set text: Mao - and now disguised in the blue cotton uniform of a CCP cadre, Sen was dispatched with his two hundred classmates (half of them were Vietnamese; the rest came from the Philippines, Australia, Japan, Thailand and Burma) to Guangdong in the south to witness land reform. The campaign 0 the CCP’s top priority for the countryside in the early 1950s - redistributed some 43 per cent of land to 60 per cent of the farming population though at considerable human cost (at least one million landlords are estimated to have been killed). ‘All through, the unceasing refrain was the power and the glory of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao,’ Sen recalled. A final ‘victory meeting’ was held against the backdrop of a massive portrait of Mao, and to the soundtrack of pledges of eternal loyalty to the chairman and yet more renditions of ‘The East is Red’. ” (p.98). So, that sounds like a death cult to me. Uniforms. Hymns to the leader. Over a million killed. Gross. Sen goes on to describe marathon self criticism sessions lasting weeks during which two students committed suicide, and how Mao used his powerful position to seduce women. Gross. We don’t have time in this podcast to cover the paths of all of these revolutionaries, so we will describe some paradigmatic cases gleaned from Julia Lovell’s own research. Again, this is an excellent book, and you should go read the whole thing.
    Malaysia
    Starting in 1948 Malaysia was under British rule. The arrangement disenfranchised ethnic Chinese living there and that created a natural force of attraction for them to Mao’s China. Britain prevailed upon America to send $1.5 million dollars in aid to the newly formed federation. Chin Peng studied at the MLA and returned to his native Malaysia to start a guerilla war against the British. The British led a counterinsurgency campaign against them that by 1955 had just about beaten the Maoist guerillas. Malaysia got its independence in 1957, throwing doubt on the necessity of Peng’s insurgency. Peng lied about not getting material aid from China. In return for medical services, food, training, weapons and political direction, Peng supplied Mao with a steady stream of propaganda. Another Malayan Maoist revolutionary and close comrade of Peng’s was Ah Cheng. It’s worth quoting Lovell at some length to get an idea of how Mao’s support for the rebels alternated with the geopolitical priorities of Beijing.
    “China’s own national self interest or convenience always trumped revolutionary theory when it came to supporting the MCP [Malaysian Communist Party]. Mao and Zhou Enlai urged the Malayan Communists to negotiate with the British in 1956 to fit the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China]’s new self-projection as a non-interfering source of international harmony; this was to gain leadership kudos with the Afro-Asian and Non-Aligned movements. About a month after the collapse of the Baling talks, in early 1956, Ah Cheng was abruptly summoned late one night to talks with the top CCP leadership: with Mao, Zhou, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping and director of International Liaison Wang Jiaxiang, all squeezed together on a single sofa. Mao began by praising Chin Peng’s defiant response to Tunku Abjul Rahman’s demand that the MCP surender: ‘we would prefer to fight to the last man’. Chin Peng, Pao flattered, was ‘a hero… the word surrender doesn’t exist in the dictionary of us communists’. But then, in an abrupt change of tone, Zhou suggested a surprisingly non-Communist way forward for the struggling MCP. ‘We’ll help set you up in business. Why don’t you get some of your cadres to open a shop in Malaya and we’ll send some goods for you to sell?’ The meeting left Ah Cheng bemused and disappointed; the CCP was clearly trying to give him an exit strategy from a revolution that they had encouraged and even designed in their image, but which no longer suited their geopolitical ambitions.” (p. 105). Nevertheless, in 1961 China felt it needed to champion world revolution again now in belligerent competition with the Soviet Union, so they convinced Chin Peng to wage guerilla war again this time against an independent Malaysia and Singapore. Finally in 1980 Deng Chao Ping stopped aiding the Malaysian guerillas, and a peace was signed in 1989. “Deng was only continuing Mao’s own policy of growing detachment. In talks to re-establish Sino-Malaysian diplomatic relations in 1974, the Malaysian prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, quickly broached the most sensitive issue between the two states, asking Mao to use his influence to shut down the MCP insurgency on the Thai border. ‘Tricky,’ Mao responded. ‘We haven't had any contact with them for many years. Anyway, they don’t listen to us. Don’t worry: they’ll never beat you.’” (pp.105-106). In other words, Mao never had any real confidence that the MLA would take power: he egged them on and encouraged them because it didn’t matter to him what damage they caused or suffered. The important thing was to keep up the story that he was leading an international revolution, because that was the only way for him to keep his hold on power at home. I feel like I’ve known this guy: this abuser who justifies his crappy life skills because he’s a ‘revolutionary.’ I may have been that guy at some point. Yikes. Moving on…
    Indonesia
    Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1945, united under a a charismatic Muslim mystic by the name of Sukarno whose ideology was nationalism with a shade of socialism. Millions of Indonesians had died under Japanese occupation during WW2. What Indonesia came into independence with was therefore a strong military tradition, a broken economy, and a plurality of many different political tendencies including Communist, Islamist and Nationalist. There was an honest attempt at democracy that ended in 1956 when Sukarno announced a dictatorship with the help of the army. The US correctly saw that Sukarto was going to fall into Mao’s orbit and end Indonesia’s burgeoning democratic movement, and sent military forces to Singapore to provide support for rebels in Indonesia. The operation was typical of the CIA in those years: the intelligence it was premised on was faulty and the weapons and ammunition it airlifted in was scooped up by the Indonesian government (Weiner, pp. 164-178). Everyone should have a copy of Tim Weiner’s excellent history of the CIA: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. The result of all this shenanigans in 1957 was that Sukarno ruled Indonesia as a dictator who would occasionally stage rigged elections. Nevertheless his rule had a certain stability and was built on a coalition with the army and the Communist Party of Indonesia [PKI]. The two coalition partners were ill at ease with each other, but the PKI was nevertheless successful at giving workers and peasants in Indonesia a voice and an advocate in the halls of power. Julia Lovell: “By the early 1950s, the party controlled not only the largest national federation of trade unions, but also Indonesia’s largest national farmers’ association, the Barisan Tani Indonesia (Indonesian Peasant Front): the PKI organised rural workers to demand rent reductions and to resist bandits; it distributed seeds, tools, fertiliser and fish eggs; it built wells and schools; it killed hundreds of thousands of field mice. Culture had an important role to play in PKI election campaigns: political messages would be slipped into ‘People's Festivals’, before the singing, dancing and boxing began. The party ran schools, seminars conferences and vast rallies throughout the nation. Thanks to all this work, the PKI won 16 percent of votes in the 1955 national elections, then increased its share of the vote by another million in local elections in 1957. In 1958, the Central Committee began organising ‘go-down’ campaigns, rusticating high-ranking cadres for up to six months at a time among farmers. Indonesian society was saturated with PKI messages. At a time when average newspaper circulation was less than 10,000, the PKI paper ( the People’s Daily) sold 60,000 copies. In 1956 alone, 700,000 copies of party publications rolled off the presses. By 1965, PKI membership stood at around 3.5 million, while the combined membership of its ‘united front’ organisations was perhaps 20 million - a fifth of Indonesia’s population.” (p.163). The problem was that the majority ideology of the PKI was Maoist, and Maoism was not, like Marxism and Leninism proper, an ideology that worked to rally society to the working class to muster protests and strikes to demand democratic participation. Maoism was first of all war. While Marx invoked the dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary armed defense of democratic gains won through nonviolent protest and strikes, Maoism dispensed with protests and strikes and bypassed them for organized armed struggle and permanent dictatorship. Maoism is first of all militarism, and the Indonesians were Maoists without an army. Dipa Aidit was a senior leader of the PKI and a member since 1948 when following a failed uprising many in the party fled to China. From Lowell: “In 1959 and 1961, at the height of the Great Leap Forward and its subsequent famine, respectively, Aidit visited the same model commune in China, where he was given the full propaganda treatment: that the Great Leap Forward and the communes had achieved an economic miracle. Aidit’s Chinese minders deftly concealed the true nature of the commune system - terror, starvation, cannibalism - and reinforced the Indonesians’s enthusiasm for the Maoist experiment… In the voluntarist syle of the Great Leap Forward, Aidit began to eschew the kind of careful, patient mobilisation that had taken place through the 1950s, in favour of statement that emphasised high Maoism’s ‘spirit, resolve and enthusiasm’: ‘The Eight-Year Plan must be replaced by a realistic ‘Plan of Drastic New Action’” In 1963, Beijing published his tract with the self-explanatory title Dare, Dare and Dare Again! Nationalism and audacity became the answer to any problem -geopolitical, economic, social… ” (p. 167, 168). Aidit made an important contribution to high Maoism, because it was Dipa Aidit who first in the Maoist tradition to have the idea that instead of class divisions that cut across national borders, the real struggle was between oppressed and oppressor nations. The idea is much older than Aidit, but its unlikely he was cribbing Narodnik ideas that the Czar was not ethnically Russian as Lev Tikhomorov put forward in 1885 (Erlenbusch-Anderson, p. 58). Maybe it's just very easy during a several weeks long struggle session to devolve from ideas of class war to ideas of race war. Maybe every generation has to climb the hill from tribal identifications of family and ethnicity towards humanism. But I digress.
    Mao was a big fan of Sukarno, and in March of 1964 he offered to give Sukarno ownership of the Indonesian Branch of the Bank of China. The two were BFFs, with Mao cheering Sukarno’s protest withdrawal from the United Nations in early 1965. Sukarno’s nationalization of British and Dutch investments in Indonesia resulted in capital flight, and that resulted in Sukarno becoming more and more dependent on Maoist China for aid. Under pressure from Mao, Sukarno encouraged the PKI to begin organizing a citizens militia. The PKI was soon to have its own army. Impatient for world revolution, the PKI began pushing land reform, often bullying peasants who didn’t cooperate. Indonesian society became balkanized between zones dominated by Communists, Islamists and neither. Lowell comments: “High-level divisions thus translated down to the grass roots. Indonesian society on the eve of September 1965 was fiercely divided between local elites, landowners and religious Muslim leaders, onthe one side, and those either tightly or loosely linked with PKI organisation, on the other. Polarisation in power between the army and PKI led many civilians to seek one or the other as patrons - the rift, or at least the perceived rift, that this generated helped intensify much of the violence of 1965-66. ‘The nation is at a boiling point,’ Aidit told his party. ‘Therefore intensify the revolutionary struggle at all points.’” (p. 172). Sukarno fell ill in August of 1965, and the Indonesian Maoist vanguard sprang into action. In the early hours of September 1, 1965 seven teams of soldiers and students kidnapped six generals and failed to capture the most important one, General Nasution. This was the beginning of an attempted coup by leaders in the PKI. The action had been planned 10 days earlier, and failed to start on the appointed time. Hence what is known as the “September 30th” movement happened on October 1st. The plotters had no radio communication. The couriers they used were all delayed in public transport. No plans were made to feed what soldiers they had, and many of them deserted after a day of going hungry. The action had not been rehearsed. Two of the teams were led by military novices who barely knew how to hold their guns. The Generals were supposed to be forced into fabricating a confession of their own coup plot, and to beg for mercy from Sukarno. Instead, each team killed their General before any confession could be had. Six generals and an adjutant mistakenly kidnapped instead of General Nasution lay dead, shot and bayoneted, at the bottom of a well. The surviving Army staff with General NasutionSuharto in the lead, wasted no time in launching their supporters into reprisals. Before the year was out they had conservatively murdered half a million to a million people.

    Some have said that the coup was ordered from China. Some have said that it was not. Stalinist hack Michael Parenti blames the United States without any supporting evidence (p. 26). It seems true that the army didn’t have to use the failed coup as an excuse to try and cleanse the country of communism. So, for the killings I blame those in the army who actually did the killing. For the coup I blame the leadership in the PKI and elements in the army that aided them. The communists unnecessarily provoked the army at every opportunity, and then prematurely launched a civil war that was probably not necessary to begin with. Given that Indonesia was just another set piece in Mao’s passion play, it is clear that anyone in Indonesia that didn’t want to go through a giant leap forward had to resist the communists. The Indonesian communists did what they did in the faith that only revolutionary zeal was necessary and sufficient to gain the victory, and that the only way forward was war. Even if war was necessary, to rush into something when one could build one’s forces is reckless and irresponsible. The leadership got what they had coming to them, but the people they led deserved better. These were tactics Mao had put forward as universal, but as so often with such things, the tactics worked in Mao’s situation and not in many other situations. But Maoism then was not driven by rational self reflection. From Lovell: “Undaunted by the setback, in August 1966 the Chinese media underlined: ‘To achieve complete victory, the Indonesian revolution must take the road of the Chinese revolution, i.e. adopt as its main form of struggle the armed agrarian revolution of the peasants.’ The PRC told the remaining would-be revolutionaries still in Indonesia to refuse to be ‘pushed around at the whim of the Indonesian reactionary forces… To survive one must carry out struggle… inspired by the invincible thought of Mao Tse-tung and fearless of violence and even of being beheaded.’” At its worst, Maoism is a death cult. The Indonesian workers and peasants didn’t find any victory in being beheaded. Suharto’s dictatorship lasted until his resignation in 1998.

    Vietnam
    Ho Chi Minh began political organizing in China directly after graduating from the University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow in 1924. China had for centuries dominated Vietnam cultural and often politically. Ho came of age as a socialist in the times when Mao was rising, and he and a whole generation of Vietnamese socialists embraced Maoism and its emphasis on peasant insurgency. The Chinese trained the Vietnamese officers who led the fight against the French colonial rule of Vietnam starting in 1946. Mao supplied not just training to the Vietnamese in their fight against the French, he supplied materiel, soldiers and even gave orders at key moments. The terms of French surrender at Geneva in 1954 were negotiated in China’s favor. The Vietnamese communists were still true believers in Maoism, but the fact that the Chinese had dictated to them the acceptance of a Vietnam that was split between North and South at a time when they could have unified the nation was bitterly resented by the Vietnamese.

    Bui Tin was one of Ho’s officers. As recounted by Lovell, here is how he later described the party in those days:

    “The ever increasing amount of military and civilian aid from China enabled the Viet Minh to strengthen its position. But… tension grew… large numbers of Chinese advisers arrived… The friendly, even cosy atmosphere which had previously existed disappeared with talk of orthodox class warfare. Marxism had come to Vietnam via Maoism… What is the Communist Party? It plays the leading role in every aspect of society. It is constant, correct and absolute… The individual is as worthless as a grain of sand, and to be crushed underfoot… Chinese books, films and songs were everywhere… Mao Tse-tung’s song ‘The East is Red’ assumed the status of an official anthem… Only after that came a song in honour of Ho Chi Minh and the Internationale. At the same time, a campaign got underway to encourage the reading and speaking of Chinese while a constant stream of cadres was sent North to study in Peking, Shanghai, Nanking, Nanning and Canton… Having just escaped from the long night of being slaves to the French, we were dazzled by the new light of the Chinese Revolution which was acclaimed as our role model. We accepted everything impetuously and haphazardly without any thought, let alone criticism.” (p. 231).
    Maoism dominated the communists and the anticolonial struggle in Vietnam, and this meant for the peasants red terror and land reform. Nguyen Thi Nam was a Vietnamese revolutionary. She was a wealthy merchant and farmer who gave famine relief during WW2, saved Ho Chi Minh’s regime financially after the collapse in 1945 and urged her two sons to serve militarily against the French. In May of 1953 she was was publicly flogged by party members and later shot by firing squad. Her only crime was her class identity. Her calvary went forward over Ho Chi Minh’s objections. The campaign did mobilize peasants to fight. Lovell comments: “The meetings, the propaganda, the political education mobilised thousands to fight and die on the mountain slopes of Dien Bien Phu. Yet the campaign has also gone down in popular memory as one of the party’s greatest mistakes: for its excessive harshness and fanatical violence, for polarising society between the have-nots and the have-littles. Even a government institution like the Vietnam Institute of Economics stated in 2002 that almost 80 per cent of ‘cruel and bullying landowners’ had been wrongly categorised… The death toll of land reform -- somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 Vietnamese -- was the result of the mechanistic application of Chinese experience imposed by their advisers… Ho Chi Minh was to blame… [but] it was Mao Tsetung who really forced his hand.’” (pp. 233-234).
    Beyond all of this chauvinistic and inhuman cruelty, a major source of resentment for the Vietnamese communists was that Mao’s aid came with the constraint that they not accept Russian aid because Mao considered them a scorned rival for leadership of the ‘world revolution.’ This meant a lack of artillery, tanks and heavy weapons, ensuring that the North Vietnamese would have to fight a long and costly, in terms of lives, guerrilla combat. Nevermind that the Maoists had won their civil war by a combination of guerrilla tactics and more conventional battles. What from the US looked like a david vs. goliath people’s war, was in part a propaganda stunt organized by Mao’s China with the lives and deaths of the Vietnamese as disposable props. One is naturally reminded of the way Stalin bled Spain and diverted solidarity organization for Ethiopia in Harlem: top down socialist authoritarians protect their own interests by betraying the grass roots organizations they manipulate with propaganda and lies.
    Julia Lovell comments: “How on earth were the Vietnamese to win any kind of decisive victory against the Americans and the US-supported South Vietnamese Army without the kind of big guns that the Soviet Union could provide? From the Tet Offensive onwards, the Vietnamesee began to favour attacks on cities, a tactic that Zhou Enlai [Mao’s right hand man] denounced as Soviet, and as an affront to the Maoist strategy of protracted war, of encircling the cities from the countryside. As one of the major shifts of the Cold War began in the late 1960s -- China and North Vietnam moving towards talks with the US -- both suspected each other of selling out to the Americans, and scolded the other accordingly. Above all, the North Vietnamese felt that Chinese rapprochement with the US would remove a crucial deterrent to escalation of the American war effort -- the threat of Chinese intervention. ‘The Chinese government told the US that if it did not threaten or touch China, then China would do nothing to prevent the attacks [on North Vietnam],’ General Giap [] remembered. ‘It was like telling the US that it could bomb Vietnam at will, as long as there was no threat to the Chinese border… We felt that we had been stabbed in the back.’” (pp. 238-239).
    Spurned by the Vietnamese, Mao cultivated Pol Pot in nearby Cambodia. The wave of Vietnamese refugees along with Mao funding a guerilla insurgency destabilized Cambodia. Julia Lovell documents a conversation in 1975 werein Mao recommends mass murder to Pol Pot, and laments that because of ‘rightist forces’ in China Mao was prevented from doing the same in China. Nevertheless, in the organized lawlessness that was the Cultural Revolution in China where Mao gave free reign to various grass roots committees to murder at will, some 2 million people were murdered in the name of fighting degeneration in the party. Somehow in the confusion Mao’s enemies fell and his comrades’ positions were consolidated. In 1975 with Chinese aid, Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia and massacred two million people, often just because they were professionals of some kind. Doctors, lawyers and airplane pilots were targeted because of their class identity.

    To summarize, 10 million people were intentionally starved to death by an undemocratic Maoist government claiming to be acting in the name of “the people.” Another two million were massacred senselessly by the same Maoist state intentionally demolishing the rule of law so they could eradicate internal dissent following the starving of the 10 million people just referenced. The US invades Vietnam to try and halt the spread of this genocidal ideology, leading to instability in Cambodia. Mao took advantage of that instability to lift up Pol Pot into rule over Cambodia, and encouraged him to massacre another two million people because of their class identity. Two million Vietnamese civilians die because of the American invasion. Two hundred thousand American military personnel die in the conflict. Somehow the two hundred thousand Americans get movies made about them, and the millions are pushed into the background as supporting cast.
    I was born in 1978. My step dad fought in Vietnam. That was the conflict that defined his generation. To me these events, if they ever entered my awareness, immediately get sorted into two boxes. In the first box are things that have nothing to do with me. The intentional starvation of Chinese peasants was never presented to me in a movie starring Sean Penn, and their deaths have never inspired in me the same gut wrenching sympathy that I have for Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. In the other box are all the things that as an American I can’t seem to escape being guilty for, though they happened long before my time and without my permission. We all seem to be forever implicated in the suffering of the Vietnamese people. I’m not saying these feelings are good or bad. I’m saying this is the feeling for these events that society gave me. Intellectually I understand this is a kind of trolley problem. The deaths of American military service members should be just as appalling as deaths of Chinese peasants, and if I had a heart the size of the cosmos I would surely feel the death of tens of millions more than the deaths of a couple hundred thousand. I want to be the person that spares the most life, even if that is harder. I don’t think I’m the only American who feels guilt over Vietnam so much more strongly than I do the urgency of opposing the spread of Maoism. What would it mean to really stand in solidarity with the Vietnamese people, caught as they were between two monsters? Maybe in hindsight handing out Mao’s little red books wasn’t particularly helpful, but Maoists in the US at the time didn’t know everything that was going on in China and were adapting what they took to be his ideas to their own context. This was particularly the case with the Black Panthers, who are the topic of our next podcast. They were also betrayed by Mao, but we’ll talk about that next time.
    The decision to go to war in Vietnam had a noble inspiration: it was right to oppose the spread of Maoism. The great tragedy was that the group of advisors around John Kennedy that initiated US involvement there did not understand Ho Chi-Minh, who should have been our strongest ally against Mao. By 1965 Ho Chi-Minh had fallen out with Mao, because Ho Chi-Minh believed in democracy. He thought the US would embrace him as the George Washington of SouthEast Asia. In 1945 Ho wrote a letter, declassified in 1972, to President Truman saying “What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.” (http://www.rationalrevolution.net/war/collection_of_letters_by_ho_chi_.htm). This is Ho in 1966: “I have always been impressed with your country's treatment of the Philippines. You kicked the Spanish out and let the Filipinos develop their own country. You were not looking for real estate, and I admire you for that. I have a government that is organized and ready to go. Your statesmen make eloquent speeches about helping those with self-determination. We are self-determined. Why not help us? Am I any different from Nehru, Quezon- even your own George Washington? I, too, want to set my people free.” (Ibid).
    In the US state department, conventional wisdom held that the US had to support movements of national independence against the communists. Almost no one in that circle imagined that a communist movement could represent that national interest against foreign communist domination, but Ho Chi-Minh was just such a figure (Beinart, p. 30). The Maoists and the Americans disbelieved that socialism was a democratic movement because Stalinists had worked to destroy the democratic tradition in the socialist movement. They had imperfect knowledge based on the supposition that they had absolute enemies with whom they could not negotiate, a supposition that was not based on enough fact. In 1979 China invaded Vietnam, which had found the space to act independently of Mao once the US invasion had left. Mao bombed all the parts of Vietnam that the US had not, further devastating the nation.

    I just want to repeat the moral of the story I led this podcast with. Mao Tse-Tung and Stalin came to the struggles of Vietnam and of Spain as though they would help, but they badly harmed those nations for the sake of their own geopolitical goals. The bird who stayed north was thawed by the cow’s turd, and the birds flapping attracted the cat that killed it. Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy, and not everyone who pulls you out of some shit is your friend.

    Before the Vietnam War part of the US left was committed to anti-communism, afterwards many would shift to an anti-Americanism that tripped over into support for foreign dictators. The result is that while Stalin’s crimes compelled resistance particularly from parts of the left that imagined a socialism that was not authoritarian, that was democratic, that didn’t suppress human rights and civil liberties, figures like the Khomeini in Iran, Milosovic in Yugoslavia and Bashar al-Assad in Syria would be given a pass for their resistance to imperialism. In a later podcast, after a brief detour in the French experience of WW2, we will tell the story of how the Vietnam War buoyed the Stalinist movement in the United States, and drove a wedge between radicals and workers that remains to this day.

    I want to pass on a fable an old professor passed on to me decades ago. It has been a constant touchstone for me in life and in politics. It’s about the bird that didn’t fly south. This one bird wanted to know why the flock moved south in the Fall. She asked every bird she knew, but no one knew why they moved south. No one could tell what happened up North after they moved South. So the bird decided to stay North to find out. The bird started to get really cold, and so she realized she had to fly south. But it was too late, and the bird began to freeze. She fell out of the sky into a farmer’s field where a cow shitted on her. The shit was warm and so she began to thaw out and flap her wings. This was great, and she was about to take off flying when her motions attracted a cat. The cat pulled the bird out of the shit and ate her.
    The moral of the story is that not everyone who shits on you is working against you, and not everyone who pulls you out of some shit is helping you out.
    Peter Beinart tells the story of how anti-communism fell out of fashion in the US left. Left anti-communists were key to advancing civil rights. Reinhold Neibuhr and the Americans for Democratic Action linked in the political discourse expanding rights for Black people with national defence. If America continued to be unjust towards its own citizens, so the reasoning went, it could not lead the fight against communism. These are the people who kicked the racist Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party in 1947. It was the alliance of this kind of liberalism, embodied by J.F.K., with the civil rights movement, embodied in Martin Luther King Jr., which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was the last time that the radical left, committed to civil rights and anticommunism, had broad popularity with the working class.

    All of this came to an end in the 60s. Tom Hayden, a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society [the ADA], led a crusade against anti-communism. This was a major reorientation wherein college students, and not workers, became the agent of history. They framed progressive struggle as that between an enlightened minority, the students, and the majority in the United States. Vietnam was not just a mistake to Hayden and this New Left, it was proof of original sin. It was a vision of America that would fulfil its own prophecy by creating a left that was increasingly isolated from regular Americans. Instead of viewing society as a self contradicting totality, ever dynamic, the New Left saw society as presented in Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, as culturally dominated by capitalist forces. Social change could only happen with the help of an enlightened conspiracy. American leftists of this era were walking the same path as the Blanquists Marx broke with in 1848: the path of small conspiracies of revolutionaries and away from democratic values and mass politics.

    The battle lines on the left in the 1960s were not pro-war and pro-peace. The dividing line was between people who thought the US should end the war in Vietnam, and those who decided that the US had no progressive role to play in the world. Humphrey had waffled somewhat about US involvement in Vietnam, but in the end he lost because unlike McGovern, Humphrey still saw a progressive role for the United States in the world.

    Beinart comments:
    “On September 30, Humphrey finally broke with Johnson on the war, calling for an unconditional halt to bombing. The next day in Nashville, a sign in the crowd read, ‘If you mean it, we’re with you.’ With some antiwar liberals returning to the Democratic fold, Humphrey appealed to working-class whites. In speeches and leaflets written by Tom Kahn, he countered Nixon and Wallace’s cultural appeals with an economic one - blasting them for supporting policies that hurt the workers they supposedly championed. And labor, Humphrey’s old ally, rallied to his cause. By late October, Humphrey had cut Nixon’s lead in half. And as the campaign drew to a close, he seemed to gain ground with each passing day. Despite everything, it looked like the liberal coalition might hang together after all. But in the end, Nixon won by 500,000 votes, less than a single percentage point. Fifteen million Democrats had defected to either Nixon or Wallace. Throughout the 1960s, the left and right had waged a ferocious assault on cold war liberalism - and in 1968, it fell.” (p. 49). Some in this anti-American camp were pacifists. Others opposed the Vietnam war not because the US should have sided with Ho Chi-Minh in his democratic struggle, and not because of civilian casualties, though these became regular talking points. These opposed any US military intervention as such because they believed Americans should fight their own government on the side of Mao’s China and Ho Chi-Minh.

    One of these new anti-anti-communists was Allard Lowenstein.

    Allard Lowenstein had led a drive to register voters in 1963. In 1968 he led the split in the ADA that separated the far left from the largely anti-communist working class. Peter Beinhart tells the tale: “Trying to connect to a new generation, in 1966 the ADA put Lowenstein -then 37 years old - on its board. The following year, it made him vice president. But Lowenstein and his student allies were on a mission to defeat Lyndon Johnson, a mission many ADA labor leaders - who loathed the antiwar movement - adamantly opposed. The organization faced a stark dilemma. Unless it supported McCarthy, it would consign itself to irrelevance among the activist young. But backing him, as Joseph Rauh warned, would split ‘the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance since the 1930s.’ On February 10, 1968, in the most important ADA meeting since the Willard Hotel, the National Board voted 65 to 47 to endorse McCarthy’s presidential bid. Within weeks, more than a thousand new members, many of them young, joined the organization. But representatives of the steel workers, the garment workers, and the communication workers resigned. ‘The coalition,’ one labor leader declared, ‘is finished.’” (p. 46).
    This was the fundamental split between the workers, who saw a strong American military and a commitment to fighting tyranny overseas as important values, and the New Left, anti-American and fundamentally based in academia. The liberal left center is forever navigating between the left accusation that they are Republicans in progressive garb, and accusations from the right that they are not concerned with the safety and security of Americans. These tensions are even more acute after 9/11, but this basic thing has divided the left from working class America ever since the late 60s. Every now and then this far left, which only in 2016 half woke to the need to organize and make their case to society as a whole, has succeeded in upsetting an election between a moderate and a right wing candidate in favor of the right wing candidate, as happened in 1968 to Hubert Humphrey, but they have never produced anything as impactful and grand as the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act. They can spoil an election, but they cannot win on their own. The split where the left chose anti-anti-communism over the working class happened so long ago that almost no one remembers a time when the left had a good relationship with the working class. But if we’re going to succeed as a socialist party, we will have to find a way over, through or around this divide.
    Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
    Beinart, Peter. The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror. Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2007.
    Isaacs, Harold Robert. The tragedy of the Chinese revolution. Haymarket Books, 2010.
    Lovell, Julia. Maoism: A Global History. Random House, 2019.
    Raleigh, Donald J. Provincial landscapes: local dimensions of Soviet power, 1917-1953. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

  • 10. A Short History of Syria

    July 7th, 2020  |  1 hr 4 mins
    albert memmi, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, arabs, assad, cia, colonialism, decolonization, israel, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, solidarity, syria, the coup, the middle east

    Albert Memmi was a Tunisian Jew born in 1920, a philosopher and political thinker educated at the Sorbonne. He was also an activist and revolutionary who fought for Tunisian independence, which was achieved in 1952. The new state of Tunisia made Islam the official religion of state and published several anti-Jewish decrees, so Memmi found himself officially excluded from a state which he had supported before its founding and indeed continued to support. Memmi’s book The Colonizer and the Colonized is a brilliant analysis of the impact of the colonial situation on both the colonized, which he identified with as a Tunisian, and the colonizer, which he identified with as a Jewish Tunisian, which identity gave him a slight privilege relative to his fellow Tunisians in the colonial hierarchy. Since this is a podcast about the US left, before I enter into a discussion of the Middle East, I want to dwell a moment on Memmi’s cutting perceptions of colonizer allyship. Afterwards I’m going to briefly go over the long history of Syria before offering a criticism of the nationalist regime of Hafez al-Assad. By the end of this podcast we will understand why the Arab Spring announced the failure of the anti-colonial project in the Middle East, and why this failure didn’t register with certain western leftists.

    Western leftists typically feel a contradiction between the need to show solidarity with anti-colonial movements and the need to champion human rights when those movements fall short. Terrorism, for instance, is a tactic that causes a lot of damage and harm to civilian populations, and the leftist who feel the need for solidarity with independence movements practicing terrorism has to compartmentalize their politics. In one box is the right to life and liberty. In the other box is the anti-colonial struggle. For the third campist radical there can never be a moment when the right to life in the one box is allowed to peak into the anti-colonialist box. Even paying attention to human rights abuses by third world governments is considered a betrayal. Crucially, Memmi sees in this inability to hold anti-colonialist rebels to the same standard as we hold our own governments as a further form of racism. To imagine that terrorism is a natural event, one completely beyond the ability of colonized people to understand or control or resist, is to frame the colonized subject as subhuman. Like any such relationship where someone, in this case a patronizing western leftist, imagines themselves to have agency while an other, in this case the colonized terrorist, while that other does not, the relationship disfigures the humanity of both. The colonizer ally who decides that what a colonized person does is beyond ethics then has to ascribe to a kind of racial hierarchy where certain peoples, the proletarian nations as some thinkers call them, are allowed to murder indiscriminately, can have legitimate governments who do so, and where certain other governments, western ones, must be held up to perhaps impossibly high standards. This is how Memmi thinks we reached a moment where leftists take a totally permissive attitude towards every nationalist movement worldwide no matter how awful, except Israel whom they imagine should self-immolate. Memmi, as a self described Arab Jew and left Zionist represents a challenge to us about our basic values. He never renounced the cause of Tunisian independence, never championed the rights of one group at the expense of the rights of another and while it is true he supported Israel’s right to self defense he never failed to extend the same to Palestinians and Arabs. He finds that denouncing all tyranny at the same time is less hypocritical than favoring a supposed underdog. What he represents then, is the challenge to morally hypocritical thinking about the conflict as such. To the manichean left, there are proletarian and bourgeois nations, whole nations of angels and devils. It’s not that much different from the absolute enemy/friend thinking of white supremacists. If Bashar al-Assad has to murder Sunnis to stay in power that is fine, but if Israel fails to stop west bank expansion then Israel should be abolished. The naturalization of this hierarchy of legitimate national struggles (Syria) and illegitimate ones (Israel) is a consequence of the original hypocrisy according to which the murder of innocent people is okay if its done by anti-colonialists. The idea that brutal dictatorships in the Middle East are legitimate governments held by a certain kind of US leftist, and the willingness of the US government to lend strategic support to those dictatorships, for instance the longstanding support of Saddam Hussein that ended in the 90s, were both challenged by the Arab Spring. It turns out that Middle Eastern people are not satisfied living under authoritarian governments, and that those governments deployed an anti-semitic rhetoric without really doing much to help the Palestinians. Memmi was particularly well positioned to understand this patronizing version of allyship according to which the anti-colonialist is not subject to any kind of ethical constraint, because Memmi had supported independence and then suffered oppression at the hands of the Tunisian government he helped to establish. I’ll say it again, why not? It never gets old, and I’m not sure it’s been understood: there are no angels or devils in power. In power there are only tradeoffs between values, and the people who have to make those tradeoffs based on limited information. Memmi was able to support an anti-colonial independence movement and at the same time criticize it, and that is a good example to the rest of us. But the US left still seems to see America as an absolute enemy, and sees those who declare themselves America’s enemies as beyond criticism. It’s a superstition, and like the monarchist ideology of the pre-modern period it rests on a conception of the world where political relationships are natural, are fore-ordained, where authority is not about probity or clarity, democracy or popular unity, but based on the authority of persons. And because this new divinely ordained political hierarchy is founded on generalizations, I want to attack it by investigating the specific situation in Syria.

    “The people should not fear their government, read a placard in Cairo’s central Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. Governments should fear their people. The message captured the moment as hundreds of thousands of democracy activists descended on central Cairo… One day in March, a group of rebellious youths painted slogans from the Arab revolutions of 2011 on a wall in Deraa (Syria). The people want the fall of the regime, they proclaimed.” (Rogan, The Arabs, pp. 508,509).

    I wanted to put these voices first, voices from the Egyptian and Syrian revolutions. I’ll be using extensive quotations throughout these episodes on Syria, to lift up the voices of those most directly affected: at the same time, I should give an explanation now of where I’m speaking from. I was born in 1978 in Memphis TN. I graduated from the University of Memphis with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy in 2001, and that Spring I joined the Navy. In the Navy I learned Arabic, and when my enlistment was over in 2008 I lived in Egypt for four months. When the revolution happened there in 2011 it was happening down the street from where I used to live, happening to people who were my friends. It was from that moment I began engaging with politics in a different way. Among other things, this podcast is another attempt to come to terms with that engagement, to make an accounting for it. I was able to translate various articles and statements into and out of Arabic for various revolutionary groups. At the time I felt guilt for having contributed to US wars overseas, and I felt like I was giving something back. Still today, if anyone listening in the revolutionary movement in the Middle East needs translations done please @ me. I’m good at it, and I’ll work for free. This engagement with the Middle East is why I am a socialist. I hope that’s the most I ever have to talk about myself, but I felt my audience deserved an explanation of why I do this work.

    I want to talk about the history of Syria and the Arab Spring in chronological order with attention paid to certain places and their particular history over time. Hopefully, the material is accessible to all, but interesting to those who know the history well. In the passages that follow I have focused somewhat on historical turning points. I think it’s tempting to imagine that the region has been at war for thousands of years when history is presented this way. This is deeply unfortunate. The history shows long periods of stability and peace punctuated by occasionally violent moments of change. The one constant in Syria’s history from ancient times is its contact with the whole world, as a crossroads between east and west. It seems clear now that without the crusades the western enlightenment would have been impossible since the west had long since forgotten and lost Greek philosophy, including our patron saint Epicurus. Averroes’ treatises on Aristotle occasionally broke through in the West, every couple of centuries, resulting in inquisitions and repression. The idea that what happens in the world is not fore-ordained seems coupled permanently with the ability of people to hope for change. Far from being foreign to a Syrian context, it is literally from the Syrians that it comes to Europe. It is deeply ironic that many perceive, inside and outside the Middle East, that cultural modernity, the enlightenment, political rights, are considered alien to the Middle East when that is precisely the land that preserved those ideas for nearly a thousand years. Syria is as much the birthplace of democracy as Greece, for without the former no European would have known the latter. Sitting where it does in the fertile crescent, Syria is the birthplace of civilization and the exact place where the plurality of human cultures has always be forced into encounter. People familiar with the Syrian revolution will find the roots of the oppositions cosmopolitanism in the international trade system which made the Ghoutta, a green suburb of Damascus, fertile territory for a merchants guild under the Ottomans. That guild system, and the relative political and economic independence it developed over centuries from whatever tyrant ruled locally, became the social basis for resistance to French colonialism and later to the Assad dynasty (Battatu, p. 98). Syria is the hinge of world history, and if at this moment Syrian reality seems as grim as the worst moments in that history, we should heed what possibilities it heralds. We’ll start far enough back that we get an idea of what made a place like Syria possible.

    Damascus

    From Hourani: “To the north, the Arabian peninsula joins a second area, the Fertile Crescent: the crescent-shaped land running around the rim of the Hamad or Syrian desert, which is a norther extension of the steppe and desert of Najd. This is a land of ancient and distinctive civilization, overlaid in the western half by those of Greece and Rome, and in the eastern by that of Iran; it was here, rather than in the peninsula, that the specific society and culture of Islam had developed. The wester half of the Fertile Crescent forms an area known to an earlier generation of scholars and travellers as ‘Syria.”... Behind a coastal strip of plain there is a range of highlands, rising in the centre to the mountains of Lebanon and sinking in the south to the hills of Palestine. Beyond them, to the east, lies a hollow, part of the Great Rift which runs through the Dead Sea and the Red Sea into east Africa. Beyond this again is another region of highlands, the great plain or plateau of the interior which changes gradually into the steppe and desert of the Hamad. In some places, ancient systems of irrigation used the water of the Orontes and smaller rivers to maintain fertile oases, in particular that lying around the ancient city of Damascus.” (pp90-91).

    Aleppo

    Hourani: “Syria was linked closely with the rest of the eastern Mediterranean basin, by sea-routes from its ports and by the land-route running along the coast to Egypt… The combination of long-distance trade with the production of a surplus of foodstuffs and raw materials had made possible the growth of large cities, lying in the inner plains but linked with the coast -- Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the centre.” (p91).

    Medina, 629

    Hourani: “When Muhammad died, there was a moment of confusion among his followers. One of their leaders, Abu Bakr, proclaimed to the community: ‘O men, if you worship Muhammad, Muhammad is dead; if you worship God, God is alive.’... Abu Bakr, a follower of the first hour, whose daughter ‘A’isha was wife to the Prophet… and his successors soon found themselves called upon to exercise leadership over a wider range than the Prophet… When he died, the alliances he had made with tribal chiefs threatened to dissolve; some of them now rejected his prophetic claims… Faced with this challenge, the community under Abu Bakr affirmed its authority by military action (the ‘wars of the ridda’); in the process an army was created, and the momentum of action carried it into the frontier regions of the great empires… In the space of a few years, then, the political frontiers of the Near East had been changed and the centre of political life had moved from the rich and populous lands of the Fertile Crescent to a small town lying on the edge of the world of high culture and wealth. The change was so sudden and unexpected that it needs explanation. Evidence uncovered by archaeologists indicates that the prosperity and strength of the Mediterranean world were in decline because of barbarian invasions, failure to maintain terraces and other agricultural works, and the shrinking of the urban market. Both Byzantine and Sasanian Empires had been weakened by epidemics of plague and long wars; the hold of the Byzantines over Syria had been restored only after the defeat of the Sasanians in 629, and was still tenuous. The Arabs who invaded the two empires were not a tribal horde but an organized force… When Mu’awiya died, he was succeeded by his son, who was followed briefly by his own son; after that there was a second period of civil war and the throne passed to another branch of the family. The change was more than one of rulers. The capital of the empire moved to Damascus, a city lying in a countryside able to provide the surplus needed to maintain a court, government and army, and a region from which the eastern Mediterranean coastlands and the land to the east of them could be controlled more easily than from Madina.” (pp 25-26)

    Antioch, 1097

    Maalouf: “On 21 October 1097 shouts rang out from the peak of the citadel of Antioch, then Syria’s largest city: ‘They are here!’ A few layabouts hurried to the ramparts to gawk, but they could see nothing… The Franj [European crusaders] were still a day’s march away…”(pp 17,18)

    “Ibn al-Qalanisi tells us that in Damascus Yaghi-Syan’s son spoke of holy war. But in Syria in the eleventh century, jihad was no more than a slogan brandished by princes in distress. No emir would rush to another’s aid unless he had some personal interest in doing so… Providence seemed unable to decide which of these two exhausted and demoralized armies to favour during that June of 1098. But then an extraordinary event brought about a decision….Sensing that he [Atabeg Karbuqa] was losing control of his troops…[he] asked the Franj for a truce. This merely demolished the last of his prestige in the eyes of his own army and emboldened the enemy. The Franj charged without even responding to his offer… Realizing his mounting isolation, the Atabeg ordered a general retreat, which immediately degenerated into a rout… Most serious of all was that after this day of shame, there was no longer any force in Syria capable of checking the invaders’ advance.” (21,22).

    Ma’arra 1098

    It was 11 December [1098], a pitch-dark night, and the Franj did not yet dare to penetrate the town. The notables of Ma’arra made contact with Bohemond, the new master of Antioch, who was leading the attackers. The Frankish commander promised to spare the lives of the inhabitants if they would stop fighting and withdraw from certain buildings. Desperately placing their trust in his word, the families gathered in the houses and cellars of the city and waited all night in fear. The Franj arrived at dawn. It was carnage. For three days they put people to the sword, killing more than a hundred thousand people and taking many prisoners… In Ma’arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled. The inhabitants of towns and villages near Ma’arra would never read this confession by the Frankish chronicler Dadulph of Caen, but they would never forget what they had seen and heard… (38,39).

    Jerusalem 1099

    Maalouf: “The Franj had taken the holy city on Friday, the twenty-second day of the month of Sha’ban, in the year of the Hegira 492, or 15 July 1099, after a forty-day siege. The exiles still trembled when they spoke of the fall of the city.. Two days later, when the killing stopped, not a single Muslim was left alive within the city walls. Some had taken advantage of the chaos to slip away, escaping through gates battered down by the attackers. Thousands of others lay in pools of blood on the doorsteps of their homes or alongside the mosques...The sack of Jerusalem, starting point of a millenial hostility between Islam and the West, aroused no immediate sensation. It would be nearly half a century before the Arab East would mobilize against the invader, before the call to jihad issued by the qadi of Damascus in the caliph’s diwan would be celebrated in commemoration of the first solemn act of resistance.” (xvi).

    Vienna, 1529

    Maalouf: “If the West had sought, through its successive invasions, to contain the thrust of Islam, the result was exactly the opposite. Not only were the Frankish states of the Middle East uprooted after two centuries of colonization, but the Muslims had so completely gained the upper hand that before long, under the banner of the Ottoman Turks, they would seek to conquer Europe itself. In 1453 they took Constantinople. By 1529 their cavalry was encamped at the walls of Vienna… At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was still the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization. Afterwards, the centre of world history shifted decisively to the West. Is there a cause-and-effect relationship here? Can we go so far as to claim that the Crusades marked the beginning of the rise of Western Europe -- which would gradually come to dominate the world -- and sounded the death knell of Arab civilization? Although not completely false, such an assessment requires some modification. During the years prior to the Crusades, the Arabs suffered from certain ‘weaknesses’ that the Frankish presence exposed, perhaps aggravated, but by no means created. The people of the Prophet had lost control of their own destiny as early as the ninth century. Their leaders were practically all foreigners...The second ‘weakness’ of the Arabs, not unrelated to the first, was their inability to build stable institutions. The Franj succeeded in creating genuine state structures as soon as they arrived in the Middle East. In Jerusalem rulers generally succeeded one another without serious clashes; a council of the kingdom exercised effective control over the policy of the monarch, and the clergy had a recognized role in the workings of power. Nothing of the sort existed in the Muslim states. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war… (261,262) In all domains the Franj learned much in the Arab school, in Syria as in Spain and Sicily. What they learned from the Arabs was indispensable in their subsequent expansion. The heritage of Greek civilization was transmitted to Western Eruope through Arab intermediaries, both translators and continuators. In medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, and architecture, the Franj drew their knowledge from Arabic books, which they assimilated, imitated, and then surpassed. Many words bear testimony to this even today: zenith, nadir, azimuth, algebra, algorithm, [almanac] and more simply, cipher. In the realm of industry, the Europeans first learned and then later improved upon the processes used by the Arabs in paper-making, leather-working, textiles, and the distillation of alcohol and sugar -- two more words borrowed from the Arabic language...Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile -- attitudes that grew steadily worse as the world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued. Modernism became alien. Should cultural and religious identity be affirmed by rejecting this modernism, which the West symbolized? Or, on the contrary, should the road of modernization be embarked upon with resolution, thus risking loss of identity? Neither Iran, nor Turkey, nor the Arab world has ever succeeded in resolving this dilemma. Even today we can observe a lurching alternation between phases of forced Westernization and phases of extremist, strongly xenophobic traditionalism...Today, on the eve of the third millenium, the political and religious leaders of the Arab world constantly refer to Saladin, to the fall of Jerusalem and its recapture. In the popular mind, and in some official discourse too, Israel is regarded as a new Crusader state… It seems clear that the Arab East still sees the West as a natural enemy. Against that enemy, any hostile action -- be it political, military, or based on oil -- is considered no more than legitimate vengeance.” (264-266).

    Baghdad, 1453

    Hourani: “By origin, the Ottoman state was one of the Turkish principalities generated by the expansion of the Saljuqs and of Turkish immigrants westwards into Anatolia. On the disputed and shifting frontier with the byzantine Empire there grew up a number of such principalities, nominally accepting the suzerainty of the Saljuqs but in fact autonomous… By the end of the fourteenth century its forces had crossed the straits into eastern Eruope and expanded rapidly there. Its eastern European empire added to its strength in more than one way. It came into contact and diplomatic relations with the state of Europe, and acquired new sources of manpower: former ruling groups were incorporated into its system of government, and conscripts from Balkan villages were taken into its army... In 1453 it absorbed what was left of the Byzantine Empire and took Constantinople as its new capital, Istanbul. In the east, however, its power was challenged by the Safavids, another rising dynasty of uncertain origin, around whom Turkish tribesmen had gathered. There was a long struggle for control of the frontier regions lying between their main centres of power, eastern Anatolia and Iraq: Baghdad was conquered by the Ottomans in 1534, lost to the Safavids in 1623, and not taken by the Ottomans again until 1638. It was partly as a consequence of the struggle with the Safavids that the Ottomans moved south into the lands of the Mamluk sultanate. Largely because of their superior firepower and military organization, they were able to occupy Syria, Egypt and wester Arabia in 1516-17. The Ottoman Empire was now the principal military and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, and also in the Red Sea, and this brought it into potential conflict with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and the Spaniards in the western Mediterranean. In the Red Sea area its policy was one of defence, to prevent the Portuguese from advancing, but in the Mediterranean it used its naval power to check Spanish expansion and establish a chain of strong points at Algiers itin the 1520s), Tripoli (in the 1550s) and in Tunis (1574), but not further west in Morocco. Maritime warfare continued for some time between Ottomans and Spaniards, but by now Spanish energies were mainly directed towards the new world of America. A more or less stable division of naval power in the Mediterranean grew up, and from 1580 onwards Spain and the Ottomans had peaceful relations.” (pp. 214, 215).

    Aleppo, Damascus, Tripoli, Sayda, 1635

    Hourani: “The Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Damascus and Tripoli had to be controlled directly, because of their tax-revenues, the place of Aleppo in the international trading system, that of Damascus as one of the centres from which the pilgrimage was organized, and that of Jerusalem and Hebron as holy cities… The government in Istanbul was able to retain direct control both by the roads through Anatolia and by sea, but this was limited to the great cities and the grain-producing plains around them, and the ports of the coast. In the mountains and desert, control was more difficult because of the terrain, and less important because the land produced less revenue. It was enough for the Ottoman government to give recognition to local families of lords, provided they collected and transmitted revenue and did not threaten the routes by which trade and armies passed… In the same way, chiefs of pastoral tribes in the Syrian desert, and those lying on the pilgrims’ route to Mecca, were given formal recognition. A policy of manipulation, of setting one family or ane member of a family against another, awas usually sufficient to preserve the balance between imperial and local interests, but sometimes it could be threatened. In the early seventeenth century, a rebellious governor of Aleppo and an over-powerful lord in the Shuf mountains of Lebanon, Fahr al-Din al-Ma’ni (d. 1635) with some encouragement from Italian rulers were able to challenge Ottoman power for a time. Fakhr al-Din was finally captured and executed, and after that the Ottomans established a fourth province with its capital at Sayda, to keep a watch over the lords of Lebanon.” (226).

    Imperialism

    Today when we talk about imperialism it usually involves a discussion of bad faith. For instance, the reasons the USA went to war in Iraq were explicitly containment of WMDs and spreading democracy. We call it imperialism assuming that the reasons given are lies or bad faith beliefs (maybe W. Bush really believed what he was saying). Things were otherwise in 19th century Europe. There were large pro-Imperialist parties, usually liberal in the sense they affirmed limited or even broken democratic systems. Colonies were how they hoped to ease poverty and unemployment, and where the middling classes could get rich. That’s the sort of milieu that supported Napoleon III and his colony in Algeria, and similar dynamics were at work in British ruled India, the US in the Phillipines. These are just a couple of examples. Socialists such as Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw were imperialists, for instance. Usually these imperialisms had a justification in some version of the white man’s burden. These were blatantly racist ideologies whose adherents put forth a straightforward good faith case for imperialism. We’ve discussed elsewhere the kind of racist eugenics ideology that prevailed just before the turn of the 20th century.

    Throughout that century the British were busy invading, occupying and getting kicked out of Mesopotamia and the Levant (greater Syria). In the runup to WW1 Turkey had its strength sapped fighting the Italians in Libya and in the Balkans (Rogan, p 148). Syria remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until the British out of desperation during WW1 enlisted the aid of Arabic speaking princes who had ambitions to finally set up their own independent states, something they had lost under nearly four centuries of Turkish rule. The postwar settlement of Sikes-Picot gave France status in Lebanon and Syria, to manage them and nominally to help them transition into independence. The French didn’t really seem to be offering independence, and at many key points they jailed or killed locals who showed initiative towards building independent local institutions. In 1925 as Abd al-Krim was devastating the Spanish army in Morocco and opening a second front against the French there, nationalists in Syria reckoned the time was right. The French had been administering Syria as a loose confederation. This meant that the Alawites and the Druze in particular had autonomy relative to the peoples all around them. This is typical divide and conquer: as we shall see this will be exactly how the Assad dynasty would later rule. One veteran of an early desperate attempt to fight back French rule in 1920 at Maysalun was Fawzi al-Qawuqji. He was from Hama. Because the French had tried to replace the Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze were already by Spring of 1923 waging guerilla war against the French. Al-Qawuqji in Hama and Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar from Damascus convinced the Druze to escalate their offensive. In return they promised to lead an expansion of the insurrection in Damascus and Hama. With French troops tied down in Morocco fighting Abd al-Krim, so they reasoned, they had a good chance of pushing the French out of Syria. The nation rallied to their cause, with mass demonstrations and with popular support for the guerillas. The French put down the revolt with a disgusting display of extreme violence against civilian populations, shelling civilian areas and massacring noncombatants in insurgent territory. Notably, one of the communities that took heavy casualties was the Ghouta, a fertile valley just to the east of Damascus. The Ghouta was the neighborhood that hosted a 400 year old merchants guild. Projecting ahead some, it was in the Ghouta that Bashar al-Assad killed 1400 people with Sarin nerve agent in 2013. There is something about the Ghouta’s centuries long access to trade, its connections with the rest of the world, its status as a source of wealth independent from the local state, that make it a perennial site of rebellion against tyranny. It is estimated that in three days in October 1925 1500 people were massacred by the French. You have to suspect that locals then told stories about the Franj crusaders who cannibalized the people of Antioch so long ago. Again and again we’ve pointed out that the source of legitimate rule is protecting the masses, and on this score if on nothing else the French had failed. Nevertheless they managed to quell the rebellion in 1926 and stuck around until after WW2. The socialist government under Leon Blum tried to give Syria real independence, but was blocked from debating the matter by the colonial lobby in Paris. Syria felt some of the aftershocks of the French revolution during the war when a restoration government under Vichy’s man Dentz was replaced by the republican De Gaulle with the help of the British army. Even in the colonies, France must have periodic revolutions. The conservatives and colonialists there come directly out of the tradition of rural resistance to the Jacobins, and the decision to nationalize the Catholic Church there just keeps coming back to cause chaos. After WW2 protests erupt anew across Syria, and just as in 1925 the French responded with extreme brutality. And then something remarkable happened. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas did not sit well with the new English Prime Minister. After nearly half a century of patient organizing and being a minor party in coalitions with other political parties, British labor had come into its own.

    Dorrien: “Labour played a significant role in Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government, which set up [Clement] Attlee to become prime minister after the war ended. The Attlee governments of 1945-1951 transformed Britain into a British version of Social Democracy. Labour made health care a fundamental right for all citizens, nationalized one-fifth of the economy, significantly increased the incomes of wage earners, sustained the full employment economy that the war created, instituted progressive income tax and a pension system, abolished antiunion laws, abolished restrictions on the rights of women to own property, established a minimum wage for agricultural workers, and got colonial Britain out of India, Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Palestine.” (Dorrien, p25). We can add to this list of victories convincing France to grant Syrian independence. Labour could do all of these things because it had helped the reactionary Churchill beat Hitler. Attlee was his defence minister. Earning the trust and goodwill of the people by honest debate and wise cooperation has served us better than constantly declaring war on all parties who are not ours. In 1945 the Labour party proved as much by transforming a large part of the world for the better. When I think about Lenin’s theories of imperialism, and then find an instance like this of an imperial country doing something that isn’t favored in the so called iron laws of capitalism, I’m reminded that people have agency, and that affirming that by organizing for a larger democracy opens up the possibility of intentional human action to change the world. To be clear, I don’t think Lenin saw the rules of imperialism as overpowering human agency, but I do think that many of his successors think that. We’ll come back to this.

    As Salhiya (Deir ez-Zor Governorate), 1945

    Rogan: “From his safe house in Salihiyya, President Quwwatli appealed to British officials to intervene. Invoking the 1941 guarantee of Syrian independence, he formally requested the British to intercede with the French to stop the bombardment of Damascus. The Syrian president’s appeal gave Britain legitimate grounds to interfere in French imperial affairs, and they prevailed upon their wartime ally to lift their attack. By the time French guns fell silent, more than four hundred Syrians had been killed, hundreds of private homes had been destroyed, and the building that housed the Syrian parliament had been reduced to rubble by the ferocity of the attack. France’s desperate bid to preserve its empire in the Levant had failed, and nothing could persuade the embittered Syrians to compromise on their long-standing demand for total independence. The French finally admitted defeat in July 1945 and agreed to transfer control of the military and security forces to the independent governments of Syria and Lebanon.” (p. 246).

    Post WW2 Independence

    In his expansive history of the CIA, Time Weiner discusses the US backed military coup in Syria of 1949. President Eisenhower had some racist ideas about Arabs not being able to understand democracy. So, he insisted that the CIA try and find and fund partners in the region who would engage, in Eisenhower’s words, in an Islamic jihad against communism. It’s worth pondering the nature of military coups for a moment. Naunihal Singh has done us a very great service in this regard.

    In Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, Singh studied in depth seven of the ten military coups that occured in Ghana after it was granted independence from Great Britain, from 1966 to 1983. “I skip the first attempt because it has already been fairly well documented and omit the last two because they add little original to our theoretical understanding… Ghana was originally chosen as a site for this research because it had a high number of coup attempts that were almost evenly split between successes and failures, which is similar to the distribution of coup outcomes worldwide. It also had a variety of potentially relevant background conditions, with, for example, coup attempts from the top, middle, and bottom of the military hierarchy. In addition, Ghana’s coup attempts were recent enough to make conducting oral history feasible, yet far enough in the past that participants were willing to speak freely about events once I had obtained their trust” (p. 11). We can’t really have absolutely rigorous scientific knowledge of history. There’s no way to rerun events with one or two variables changed to see what difference it would make. There’s no way to know for sure, for instance, whether if JFK were not assassinated we would have stayed in Vietnam as long as we did. We just can’t run experiments that way. However, Singh has gotten remarkably close to finding such a data set, where the same thing is attempted with some perhaps minor changes. Here’s what the data told him.

    A military coup, Singh tells us, is not like an election and not like a military battle. In an election people campaign in the open and then on a given day everyone votes, hopefully anonymously, and everyone agrees to respect the outcome, chosen by some kind of a majority. In a battle there are two camps who have decided ahead of time to fight it out. In a military coup, the outcome is decided by who can convince the majority of the armed forces, not that their platform is preferable, but that the outcome is decided in their favor. Most military forces will take a sit and wait attitude when they are aware of a coup, because the overwhelming impulse is to avoid shedding the blood of one’s compatriots. Coups succeed when they can make a compelling case that they cannot be helpfully resisted. Coups are more likely to succeed from the top because the upper chain of command can hold meetings where they announce the coup to key players. By forcing key players to pick a side in a public forum before any of them have had a chance to discuss matters in private generates a social pressure to support the coup. If the coup conspirators can seize the media early and control the message, then they can easily convince the nation that the coup has succeeded and that resistance is futile. It’s not exactly an election, where people can freely say what they want, nor is it a battle where two sides are clearly differentiated and bloodshed is unavoidable. The general public can influence the outcome of a military coup, if members of the military are given the chance to discuss things with them. We cite the example of the Russian revolution, where long discussion and many votes by popularly organized bodies such as the soviets came before and then blessed after the fact of the Bolsheviks leading parts of the Russian army to seize the Winter Palace. Another example is the failed coup against Charles De Gaulle in 1961. Several retired French generals tried to take over the government to stop the French from withdrawing from their colony in Algeria. The coup attempt had broad support throughout the officer corp. Decisively, De Gaulle was able to go on television to publicly repudiate the generals citing a referendum a few months earlier where the French people had voted to give up the French colony.

    EDIT 2:

    The resulting mobilizations of the Unions and the major political parties convinced the army’s rank and file to side with De Gaulle. It was a military coup that was dominated and defeated by a democratic coalition(Singh, p. 21). Usually, coups succeed or fail based on whether they can create the fact of their success before too much public discussion has occurred. A military coup, Singh tells us, is a coordination game, a contest of who can shape common knowledge the quickest and most convincingly.

    The first thing to notice, but not the last, about the 1949 coup in Syria is that the US supported the victor Adib Shishakly both financially, militarily and diplomatically (Weiner, p. 159). What’s missing from this account is that Shishakly was also supported by the Arab Socialist Party (Nasserist), the Ba’ath party and the Muslim Brotherhood (Anderson, p.10). In the case of Syria, the military was always deeply involved in governance, both from its time under French and Ottoman rule, and as far back as the first Jihad of Abu Baker immediately after the death of the prophet. The French gave Syria its independence in 1945 by handing over control of the army and the intelligence corps. The Shishakli coup was the final of three coups that occured in Syria in 1949. Shishakli was a Syrian Kurd and a Syrian nationalist who had volunteered to fight Israel in 1948. To him and his supporters the coup was necessary to get rid of the government of Husni al-Zaim who had failed in 1948 to get rid of the colonialist state of Israel. Al-Zaim’s government, by the way, apparently had the blessing of the US, but was self initiated.


    Any group aspiring to take power, whether that group is democratic or not, would probably be helping itself if it got the backing of some external power. I’m laying all this out like this not to say that al-Zaim or Shishakli were good people who deserved to rule Syria, or because I agree with the pan-Arabism of the one or the far right Syria first ideology of the second. I want all this to be known because it destroys the two dimensional version of these events people usually put forward, that the US paid money to impose a government on local Arabs (who in this story have no will or agency of their own) in order to support Israel, or the Zionists, or the Wahhabi-Zionists, or whatever other “deep state” surrogate they think controls the US government. The CIA put their hand on the scale in Syria to oppose Stalinist totalitarian communism, and in so doing they put a Syrian nationalist authoritarian in power, someone opposed to Israel but also opposed to Syria combining with Iraq. Like most of these CIA interventions, the US didn’t get everything they wanted, and success hinged largely on how much local support they could count on. After four years in power Shishakli was deposed in another coup, this time backed by Ba’athists, communists and military officers. The fact that civil society was involved in all of these coups shows that regular people were demanding action to change their government, and that they were in part getting what they wanted, and then realizing it wasn’t what they wanted, and then demanding something else. The fact that democratic institutions didn’t materialize is a real failure, but one that cannot be explained because of US intervention. Long term success of a coup installed government still seems to depend largely on whether society will tolerate that government. In 1957 the US tried to promote a coup again, but local Syrian military officers knew the tune already, set up a sting and expelled the plotters. The US then expelled the Syrian ambassador, probably a mistake in hindsight. The resulting decline in American prestige in the region, among other factors, led to local governments welcoming Soviet Russian aid and influence. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the winner of his own military coup that turned out to be very popular for a few decades, coined the term “third world” to designate the aspiration for a coalition of states not beholden to the US nor to the USSR. When Washington found out that Nasser was getting aid from the USSR for his Aswan Dam project, the US withdrew its aid for the project, so Nasser also ends up in the Soviet Union’s orbit. Back in Syria, the new economy was lifting up a class of traditionally lower to middle positioned peasant farmers. This peasant class would struggle through the chaos of these years to take power in Syria, first by a fairly generous redistribution of wealth and later by an intensification of poverty, exploitation, and violent collective punishment.

    In 1999 Hanna Batatu published his now classic ethnographic study of Syria’s ruling class. The regime that coalesced around Hafez al-Assad achieved enduring stability by 1974. Batatu comments: “Out of the nineteen ‘Alawis who filled or fill positions at this level [leadership] of the power structure, no fewer than eleven or 57.9 percent descend from the lesser rural or village notability, which owned land but on a small or middling scale and, while not wealthy, enjoyed influence and prestige among the local peasants. Only three or 15.8 percent are descendants of sharecroppers. In other words, the majority does not come from families at the lower end of the rural income or status ladder.” (p. 225). When the French set up local semi-autonomous zones, such as those for the ‘Alawis and the Druze, they were setting up across the country multiple administrations, with rural notables being elevated to the same level as the urban elites who had occupied privileged places within the Ottoman system. Batatu exhaustively documents how throughout this period the landholdings of these middling class peasant strata increased tenfold (p. 156). The ‘Alawis were historically a very poor economic class, and the French enlisted them heavily in their Troupes Speciales. Moreover, because they didn’t have the same extended networks of social wealth that other Syrians had, ‘Alawis tended to rely on and support the Ba’ath party, whose political fortunes soared in the middle 20th century. The Ba’ath party’s rise to power came about in three successive stages.

    Like most liberation movements in the late 19th and early 20th century the Syrian movement was dominated by socialism and nationalism. Nationalism took the form of the Ba’ath party, and the socialist idea was championed by Akram Hawrani, whose Arab Socialist Party [ASP]had this great slogan “Bring shovel and brush to bury lord and boss.” (Burning Country, p7). In the first stage, from 1945 to 1952, the Ba’ath party had its base of support in the urban centers. These Ba’ath were soft on inherited privilege and hard against foreign intervention. They had a vision of a nationally united Syria, forged in the furnace of European colonialism. The population all around, the peasants and day-laborers of Syria, were embracing socialism in the context of an Ottoman style system that had been balkanized by the French administration. In 1952 these two parties joined forces. Over the next 20 years the Ba’athists would maneuvre to bring more peasant notables into privileged positions and to marginalize the leadership of the increasingly defunct socialist party. By the way, the Syrian Communist Party was dead on arrival throughout this period because they followed Stalin’s dictate that they should support (1) landowners, since Syria was supposedly still fighting for its national independence and should therefore unite under the feudal remnants and (2) the partition of Palestine. This is yet another way the priorities of Moscow undermined the interests of various Communist Party locals around the world. There were always two kinds of nationalism in Syria. One part of the Ba’ath party wanted a state based in the historic levant that was specifically Syrian, and one part always wanted Syria to contribute to a greater Arab state. In 1958 the latter won out and Syria joined Egypt in the United Arab Republic. Abdul Nasser came on too strong for the Syrian Ba’athists, and the experiment fell apart in 1961.

    After the unification of the ASP and the Ba’ath Party in 1952, the latter gradually dominated politics. In the army, the various Sunni ethnic groups competed with each other for influence. Because they outnumbered other groups in the French organized local militia, several ‘Alawis held positions in the high military ranks. Throughout the sixties in the context of the lack of coordination among Sunni groups, the ‘Alawis at the top of the military chain of command used their position to regulate entry into the military academies, and to shift the command structure to benefit themselves in a social context saturated with nepotism. These were not official policies or perhaps even particularly intentional, but in context people clearly had identifications that were important enough for them to embrace corruption of the national institutions to the benefit of their extended family from Latakia for instance. By the end of its second phase, the Ba’ath party was transformed into a party that had its center of mass in the countryside, and the ASP had become a deleverage junior partner. What the socialist party politics achieved in this union was aggressive and far reaching land redistribution. This land redistribution was slow at first, and then through 1968-69 sped up precipitously as Salah Jadid took leadership in coordination with Cairo. Jadid was an ‘Alawite who rose up through the military ranks. Close beneath him in the hierarchy was a young up and comer Hafez al-Assad.

    Hafez al-Assad was the first peasant to become the ruler of Syria. The ‘Alawite religion is surrounded by mystery, with the core tenants being known only to the initiated. Hafez al-Assad was likewise described by many who know him personally as secretive and inscrutable. His family were agricultural laborers, part of an important clan local to Qirdahah, a village in Latakia. Hafez al-Assad’s father ‘Ali Sulayman was a harsh and abusive head of the family. There are rumors that ‘Ali Sulaymann beat Hafez’s older brother Bayat so badly one day for having misspent some money, that Bayat, having been forced to sleep in the barn that night, hung himself in shame. “Hafez al-Assad, who was then only eight years old, is said to have told a friend sometime after his graduation from the military academy: ‘since the day I saw my brother suspended by the neck in the barn, no tear has fallen from my eye.’” (Batatu, p. 195). Having excelled in memorization of the Quran, Hafez was sent away to primary school in Latakia. From there he took the path that many young ‘Alawite men did to better their social standing: he joined the military academy. Sam Dagher writes: “It was fall 1952 when Hafez al-Assad and Mustafa Tlass first met at the military academy in the city of Homs. It was a natural choice for poor, scrappy young men from the provinces like Hafez and Mustafa who were ambitious and politically minded. A ninth-grade education and an entrance exam were all it took to be admitted. Recruits were housed, fed and paid a stipend… Before the academy, Hafez and Mustafa were youth leaders in the Baath Party, which was formed a year after Syria’s independence. The Baath was first and foremost an ideology -- a curious fusion of European philosophies, socialism, Arab nationalism, and Islamic thought, whose theorists were Syrian graduates of the Sorbonne. Its core doctrine was that Arabs must undergo transformation and unification beyond just geographic and political lines; they must shed imperial-era influences and return to their pure essence and virtues. This demanded a rebirth and resurgence, or baath in Arabic. These concepts, along with social equality and redistribution of wealth, appealed to those sidelined by their economic circumstances, like Mustafa, or by belonging to religious minorities, like Hafez. Arab identity was supposed to transcend all cleavages.” (Dagher, p. 22)

    In 1963 Hafez al-Assad and several of his fellow cadets from the military academy, with backing from some of the top brass, posed as an opposition to secession from Egypt and staged a coup. Tanks rolled into Damascus. Hafez secured the nearby airport. The purge that followed lifted more Baathists into power. When the pro-Nasser group realized they had been lied to and betrayed, they led their own coup, which failed. In 1964 the new regime put down revolts in Homs and Hama led by Marwan Hadid, who afterwards was given a death sentence. The sentence was reversed, despite the protestations of Hafez and Mustafa. What followed was deadly court intrigue, with the result that Salah Jadid took power, who as we discussed previously implemented aggressive land redistribution. In June of 1967 Israel invaded the Golan Heights. Hafez al-Assad, despite his experience in military coups, was still inexperienced in combat. On June 10th he issued Communique 66 declaring that Israeli forces had taken the village of Qunaytrah. But Israeli forces were not anywhere near Qunaytrah. When they saw the Syrian tanks retreating, they easily entered and took over the Golan. Hafez al-Assad had led the retreat without having put up a fight. It is possible to explain this action as cowardice or as incompetence. There were unverified reports of Israeli tanks in and around Qunaytrah. It seems likely that Hafez al-Assad didn’t want to risk his tanks in battle when the position of his ruling click was so tenuous at home (Batatu, p. 198-200). In 1973 Hafez al-Assad distinguished himself by taking back part of the Golan from Israel in a war that saw Egypt retake the Sinai peninsula.

    The Arab Socialist Party had begun in 1939, and had its largest base of support in and around Hama. It was incredibly popular, attracting 40,000 people to its congress in 1950. The bonds of solidarity it forged, as well as the culture of resistance, lived on in the Syrian countryside. With the world recession of the 70s added in, this older political movement was bound to butt heads with the authoritarian and corrupt Assad regime.

    In 1979 Egypt concluded a peace treaty with Israel, one which has held to this day, and thereby was removed the potential for a repeat of 1973 when Egypt and Syria joined forces to attack Israel. We have seen how the Baath party was transformed by its merger with the ASP from a party of army officers and urban intellectuals into a mass peasant party. Populations within which individuals and groups may have aspired to socialism, to the democratic control of the means of production, found the path open to them for advancement in the nationalist wing of the Baath. In the early 70s Hafez al-Assad began holding mass rallies where people were coerced into attending and engaging there in worship of Hafez himself. Lisa Wedeen notes: Outlandish declarations of loyalty to Assad increased by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the poor performance of the Syrian economy and Syrians’ perceptions of mismanagement and corruption contributed to growing opposition to the Assad regime.” (p.35). Simultaneously, a campaign of terror was waged by the regime. Thousands were sent to prisons to be tortured. Sam Dagher recounts the events of the late 70s and early 80s through the memories of Hama native and artist Khaled al-Khani:

    “There had been soldiers in khaki green in Hama as far back as Khaled al-Khani could remember. He was barely four years old in 1979 when Hafez al-Assad stepped up the pressure on his hometown. It was common that year to see troops in jeeps and pickup trucks with machine guns racing down Corniche al-Asi -- the riverside promenade with lush parks and giant wooden waterwheels, or norias, used for millennia to scoop water from the deeply carved Orontes river up into aqueducts for irrigation. There was no telling when the heavy footsteps of soldiers would echo through the narrow cobblestone alleyways on their way to arrest people from their homes, shops, and schools. Thousands were sent to the mukhabarat’s torture dungeons and then eastwward to the infamous Tadmor desert prison, described as the “kingdome of death and madness” by a poet held there for five years. The dragnets in Hama often provoked angry protests and general strikes, which then led to more repression by regime forces. While fear and violent confrontation gripped Hama that year, Khaled and his siblings were somewhat shielded from it despite the political activism of their father Hikmat al-Khani, an eye doctor and community leader. Soldiers at checkpoints demanding IDs and searching vehicles were often smiley and playful with little Khaled, a cute and chubby boy with blond hair and blue eyes...Hafez was already enmeshed in the civil war in neighboring Lebanon, and he faced challenges on two fronts at home -- attacks by Islamist unsrugents backed by his rival Baathist regime in Iraq and rising discontent by a large cross section of the population over economic mismanagement, corruption, and an increangly authoritarian rule. The insurgents were part of the Tali’a al-Muqatila, or Fighting Vanguard, a militant splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood party which first emerged in Hama when Baathists took power in 1963… The Muslim Brotherhood was divided over the Vanguards’s campaign, and a wing of the party advocated dialogue with Hafez to convince him to implement real reforms and ease his grip on public life, and to that end it cooperated with the likes of Hikmat al-Khani and Shishakli [Omar al-Shishakli, a famous doctor and the nephew of Adib Shishakli the former ruler of Syria]. But it was precisely such nonviolent collaboration that Hafez felt jeopardized his authority. So Hafez’s overriding strategy was to wage military campaigns against entire cities and towns like Aleppo and Hama from which brotherhood leaders hailed, under the guise of combatting terrorism. There were mass arrests, summary executions, and unspeakable torture in prisons of anyone suspected of having even the remotest link to the Brotherhood; this guilt by association extended to family members, friends and acquantiances. All too often, many people met a tragic demise due to their name, birthplace, or look, or simply because of mistaken identity.” (225-229). In the early months of 1980 the stream of events came to a head, and a wave of strikes and protests begun in Hama soon spread to Aleppo, Baniyas, Homs and Latakia. Omar al-Shishakli was called to a meeting with Mustafa Tlass, Hafez al-Assad’s old friend from military academy days. Al-Shishakli was tortured and murdered. Several other leaders of the peaceful protest movement of 1980 were likewise murdered. Having decapitated the peaceful protest movement, Assad could carry on with the collective punishment of rebellious communities in the name of fighting terrorism. That year he subdued Aleppo, killing 2,000 and arresting another 8,000. In the cold days of early February 1982, Hafez al-Assad encircled Hama. The captains on the ground were mainly Alawite. They rampaged the city in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Estimates of the number of dead range from 10,000 to 25,000. Dozens of neighborhoods were completely razed to the ground. The government’s reckoning of the number of Muslim Brotherhood in the city was no more than 500 (Batatu, p.203). Those who survived often lived under the shadow of the knowledge that their loved ones had been taken to some jail to be tortured indefinitely. Sometimes people came back. Sometimes news of someone’s death came back instead.

    Khaled al-Khani survived, and like many Hama natives he tried to join the Baath party in the hopes of getting into college. A Baath committee came to his high school to interview the potential new recruits. My American audience should imagine junior ROTC. They asked him what his father’s name and profession were. He said that his father had been killed by the army.

    From Sam Dagher: “All six got up, removed their jackets and took turns slapping and punching Khaled. He was knocked to the floor and screamed as he was kicked. The principal rescued him. ‘I am so sorry, gentlemen. Leave it to me, I am going to teach this scoundrel a lesson,’ said the principal as he escorted Khaled out of the room and hid him in his office. Khaled was supposed to say that Islamist terrorists had killed his father. He was supposed to forget those who witnessed his father being captured by regime forces and taken with thousands of other men to the porcelain factory where he was tortured and gruesomely executed. Hamwis [residents of Hama, the birthplace of Arab Socialism] had to live with the regime’s lies even in the privacy of their homes. To cope, many massacre survivors became convinced that Hafez was the nation’s strict yet benevolent father who punished Hama only because he was left with no other choice… The uncontestable truth was that the regime had meticulously planned the assault on Hama in 1982, completely subdued a few hundred Islamist fighters in about ten days, then vengefully massacred thousands of civilians, raped women, looted homes, and razed neighborhoods, and then at the end wanted victims to believe that ‘terrorists’ had done it to them.” (p242).

    Hama, the birthplace of Syria’s socialist movement rose up in the late 70s against the rising authoritarianism. The spirit of solidarity shown in the spreading protest movement is all the best of what democratic socialism should be: people fighting to have a say in what happens in their lives. Syria is a place where the whole world comes together, where Ancient Greek philosophy and algebra were rediscovered by Europe through the crusades. That enlightenment and culture, Assad’s Syria had to kill all of that. And for 30 years it would seem he had. Syria’s isolation in the region after the peace deal between Egypt and Israel is probably part of why Hafez al-Assad refused to intervene militarily when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, displacing half a million people, indiscriminately bombing civilian neighborhoods and intentionally allowing Phalangists to massacre Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila. But as Hanna Battatu rightly points out, this must have deeply offended Syrians who witnessed this refusal to face the Israelis at the same moment that the regime was “cleansing” Hama, Aleppo and a dozen other places and disciplining civil society to never ask for anything better (p. 203).

    After Hama, the Assad regime didn’t face any real threats to its power until 2011. The dual compulsion to rally to worship the cult of Assad and to remain silent about any and all abuses and shortcomings of the regime was the norm for 30 years. It was a time when society was completely dominated by the state. It was a fulfillment of Robespierre’s dream. As we will see, no such arrangement is total, and through the harshest such winter one can still sow the seeds for a new spring.

    We will talk about the US left’s failure to understand Syria, but viewed from a broader lens the western left has failed to fully digest the fact that the Arab Spring that erupted in 2011 was a repudiation of the states that came from the anti-colonial movement in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2006 Albert Memmi’s masterful Decolonization and the Decolonized appeared in English translation, and this book goes a long way towards correcting this failure in leftist thought. “The end of colonization should have brought with it freedom and prosperity. The colonized would give birth to the citizen, master of his political, economic, and cultural destiny. After decades of imposed ignorance, his country, now free, would affirm its sovereignty. Opulent or indigent, it would reap the rewards of its labor, of its soil and subsoil. Once its native genius was given free reign, the use of its recovered language would allow native culture to flourish. Unfortunately, in most cases, the long anticipated period of freedom, won at the cost of terrible suffering, brought with it poverty and corruption, violence, and sometimes chaos.” (p. 120). As we saw in the discussions regarding Capital, the Civil War, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War and all the rest of it: when we discuss a historical epoch, event or conflict in terms of ideological character types, as chess pieces moving around a board with well defined rules, we rob real people of their humanity and agency. When instead of that we consider people’s basic humanity, their ability to make choices given a particular circumstance, and then intensively investigate who they were and why they did what they did, then we always seem to upset the predetermined narratives. Memmi does all of that for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Decolonization, not blaming either side for their own victimization but also not letting anyone off the hook for their disastrous mistakes. Consequently he is able to do something few who write about the Middle East, especially leftists, have attempted: to consider the actions of the various governments in the Middle East and North Africa as equally worthy of criticism, on an equal moral standing with any western government. He is therefore able to discuss the failures of these governments in terms of what the peoples of the Middle East are responsible for, and in terms therefore of what they can do to improve matters. His book Decolonization foretold the Arab Spring, identifying its causes: systemic inequality and corruption. I highly recommend reading Memmi. In this podcast we have discussed the failures of one particular regime, that of Hafez al-Assad, and we’ll return to discuss the revolution against him. But first we want to discuss a form of left nationalism that in some parts of the left leads the way in understanding anti-colonial struggle. We’ll come back to Syria, but first we should enrich our understanding of the state type that is based on the worship of a beknighted leader by coming to terms with high Maoism.

    Anderson, Eric A. The role of the military in Syria: the Shishakli years (1949-1954). Diss. 1971.

    Batatu, Hanna. Syria's peasantry, the descendants of its lesser rural notables, and their politics. Princeton University Press, 1999.

    Hourani, Albert. A history of the Arab peoples: Updated edition. Faber & Faber, 2013.

    Memmi, Albert. Decolonization and the Decolonized. U of Minnesota Press, 2006.

    Memmi, Albert. The colonizer and the colonized. Routledge, 2013.

    Rogan, Eugene. The Arabs: a history. Basic Books, 2012.

    Singh, Naunihal. Seizing power: The strategic logic of military coups. JHU Press, 2014.

    Weiner, Tim. Legacy of ashes: The history of the CIA. Anchor, 2008.

    Yassin-Kassab, Robin, and Leila Al-Shami. Burning country: Syrians in revolution and war. Pluto Press, 2018.PA

  • Catching Up with Paul Buhle

    July 2nd, 2020  |  1 hr 2 mins

    From: https://www.versobooks.com/authors/266-paul-buhle

    "Paul Buhle is the author or editor of more than three-dozen books. Formerly a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, he produces radical comics today. He founded the SDS Journal Radical America and the archive Oral History of the American Left and, with Mari Jo Buhle, is coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin."

    After the interview, seized with esprit de l'escalier, Paul sent me the following in an email:

    "If I had another 15 minutes, i would repeat what CLR told socialists:
    Stop theorizing and look at what is happening, what people are thinking and doing in the streets.
    So:
    Occupy
    BLM 1
    Bernie campaigns
    BLM 2

    These, up to the last, are what made DSA grow ten times its longtime membership, and did so much else.
    We do not yet know about BLM2, but it should be the most important of all.

    Footnote: IT STARTED IN WISCONSIN (an unfortunate name), edited by Mari Jo Buhle and me, is the collective saga of the Wis Uprising of 2011-12, the largest working class movement of my personal experience and the biggest mobilization in front of me since....probably 1970. Huge mobilizations, up to 250,000 folks. No violence. Lots of "Thank You" chants to any speaker.
    We didn't have a chance.
    Which goes to the history of the US Left.
    Which does not negate the struggle or the legacies (the Wis kid of 11 in 2011 is now....20). But reminds us of the power of capital. And the self-defeating weakness of most of the Democratic party structures to offer real alternatives or even mobilize masses to do more than vote."

    Beinart, Peter. The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror. Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2007.

    James, Cyril Lionel Robert. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Penguin UK, 2001.

    Kazin, Michael. American dreamers: How the left changed a nation. Knopf, 2011.

  • 9. The History of the Soviet Union Through Ukrainian Eyes

    June 30th, 2020  |  1 hr 5 mins
    activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, lenin, leninism, poland, progressivism, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, ukraine, victor serge

    Correction: I cannot find anywhere Stalin uses the phrase "internal colonization."
    What Stalin did was colonization, and forcible starvation of millions of people, a world historic moral crime. There are no factual errors in the account presented here, other than this mistake about a phrase. Stalin called his crimes "collectivization," a disgusting euphemism designed to cover over his evil deed. My understanding of Stalin's thinking in this period relies on the work of Timothy Snyder, who discusses this point here at hour 1 minute 12:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA

    There is a particular historical subject that Marxists should think through, and that subject is Poland. Poland was historically carved up between Russia in the East and Prussia in the West. It was the bellwether issue of its time, with all true progressives supporting Polish independence from autocratic Russia. Consider this passage from Marx’s inaugural address to the 1st international. The issue of Poland here is considered on equal footing with the injustice of chattel slavery in North America: ““It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference, with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia; the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is in St. Petersburg, and whose hands are in every Cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics… The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes” - “Inaugural Address” of the First International, 1864 [Anderson, p67] We’ve spoken about the abolition movement and Marx’s place in it, but we haven’t talked about Poland, and its importance to Marx. Our left movement has spent nearly half a century in the wilderness. If anyone reads Marx they do Capital once or twice and that’s it. They don’t know his abolitionism, and they know even less about the history of Marxist ideology and practice in Eastern Europe, in the area between Germany and Russia. This episode is an attempt to remedy this lapse somewhat and to encourage you the listener to take an active interest in this region that has more to do with history than most think. I’m going to discuss the Polish Commonwealth, some of the political consequences of its dissolution which still impact us today and then tell the story of the Russian Revolution from the point of view of one of its satellites: Ukraine.

    Let’s start far enough back that we get a good idea for the circumstances that made a thing like Ukraine possible.

    The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, later known as the Polish Commonwealth, was a republic that dominated Eastern Europe from the late middle ages to the early modern period. It was a republic of landed nobles with an agrarian feudal economy. The nobles voted for a parliament and a king and enjoyed certain rights and protections. The commonwealth was international: among its nobles were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and Slavs, and a large diversity of religions was tolerated. Various ethnic minorities settled in and contributed to the wealth of Poland including the Cossacks, the Tartars and the Jews. In 1772 the Commonwealth was partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania destined to be progressively annexed by Tsaritsa Catherine II, and Polish territory stretching as far east as Warsaw falling under Prussian administration. I’ve never quite understood why anti-colonialist studies never include Eastern Europe: it just seems to be excluded from the history altogether. The story of Poland and Ukraine is where landlocked states like Prussia, the Russians and the Austrians had their colonies, and the holocaust is the culmination of that history.

    In the early days of the Commonwealth, the Ukraine had been divided between the Lithuanian lords around Kiev in the East and the Polish nobility around Galicia in the West, but in 1569 the Lithuanian areas in the south, today’s eastern Ukraine around Bratslav, Kyiv and Volyn’ were ceded to Poland. The Ukrainian territories then at the cusp of modernity were a mix of Orthodox Christianity, Slavic languages and culturally Lithuanian lords now under Polish domination. The Ukraine became a melting pot in early modern Europe, where Polish became the language of high culture, where becoming Catholic was a route into high society and where the older ways of Eastern Orthodox religion and Slavic language became the mark of a newly impoverished lower class. The best book to read on this topic is Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of National. Quote Snyder: “As Germany was divided among Lutheran and Catholic princes, as France massacred its Huguenots, as the Holy Roman Emperor paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, and as even Spain’s formidable power was challenged in the Netherlands and undermined by the Inquisition, Poland-Lithuania alone combined religious toleration, institutional reform, and territorial expansion” (Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations [TRN], p115).

    But the Commonwealth was also still a feudal domain, and Cossacks were refused recognition as lords with voting rights. So, in 1654 they joined forces with Muscovy to wage war on the Polish Commonwealth. So it always is, a nation’s sovereignty and security are always weakened by the inequalities it tolerates among its peoples. The alliance between the Cossacks and the Muscovites gave birth to the myth that Eastern Ukraine belongs to Russia. The war between the Commonwealth and Russia ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo where Russia absorbed much of Eastern Ukraine. To Ukrainians this war was the rising up of the Cossacks to defend their rights and Orthodox religion. From the Russian point of view this was the foundation of a Russian empire. The Cossacks understood their alliance with Muscovy as temporary: Muscovy saw it as a permanent establishment of a divine order. This is important because this historical alliance became the founding myth justifying the Czar’s domination of Ukraine and Crimea: it also became the justification of Putin’s meddling in Ukrainian elections and subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Because Ukrainians opposed this Russian domination, Putin needed to cast the west as his enemy and try to influence our election in 2016. For Putin all of this is necessary because of this treaty long ago in 1654.
    Snyder explains to us how back in the 17th century Muscovy was changed by this encounter with the Cossacks of Kiev: “Thus the transfer of part of Ukraine exposed Muscovy to new ideas. Muscovy inherited, along with Kyiv, Orthodox churchmen formed by the controversies of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Union… In the second half of the seventeenth century, not before, books were translated in Moscow in large numbers. The source languages were Greek, Latin, and Polish, and the translators were churchmen from the Commonwealth… Having adapted to the cultural attraction of western Christianity in the age of Reform, Ukrainian churchmen confronted in Muscovy a state and a church with limited cultural connections to the Byzantium they claimed to embody. Although Kyivan churchmen had never before regarded Moscow as a center of Orthodoxy, they adapted quickly to the new political situation of the second half of the seventeenth century… After Andrusovo, Ukrainian churchmen sought to draw the support of their new sovereign by recasting the history of Muscovy in a way that linked church and state, and dignified their position. Their cooperation with the Muscovite dynasty involved the invention of Russian history. One Ukrainian churchman invented the idea of the ‘transfer’ of the Kyivan princely seat to Moscow, an idea which came to organize Russian national myth and historiography” (Snyder, TRN, p118). Does all of that sound very remote and unrelatable? Well, yes it is remote, but that just goes to show how dumb it is to claim Russia has a right to dominate the Ukraine based on it, but that’s the claim underlying Putin’s current war in the Ukraine.

    After the partitions of Poland of 1772 and 1795 Galicia, a southern part of the Polish Commonwealth, became a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, Austria. In 1783 the Habsburg monarch Joseph II founded a seminary and a university for Greek Catholics, and in the 1830s several seminary students produced a dictionary in the local peasant dialect spoken by Ukrainians there. The Greek Catholic peasants helped suppress the revolution of 1848 in Austria, and in return they were given a limited franchise and formal legal equality. In reality, the Polish aristocracy still dominated local power politics. The Greek Catholic Church became the site of Ukrainian political longing, first for reunification with Russia and a reconnection with Russian dominated Kiev, but more and more for a united Ukrainian nation state. The 19th century saw the unification of Germany and Italy, and a dozen national minorities in Eastern Europe began to develop their own dreams of national sovereignty. At the same time, Austria actively promoted the Ukrainian national aspiration over the Russophilia many Galicians felt. Any such national movement requires a dictionary and a founding set of literary texts. Because Czarist Russia forbade the printing of any such material, the Ukrainian cause was saved by half of it’s imagined geographical area being subject to Austrian rule. Similar literary projects were happening in Polish Prussia around Lithuanian identity, but the Belorussians, who had a distinct language, were not able to produce such a tradition because their entire geography was dominated by Russia. In 1898 the founding literary work of the Ukrainian nation was published: Hrushevs’kyi’s History of Ukraine-Rus’. This book told the story of a people, and was part of a general trend towards mass politics. After the French revolution the dream of democracy, the rumor of popular participation in politics, meant that aspiring leaders of political movements had to find ways to appeal to the masses. It was no longer possible to rule for very long by divine right. The foreign rule of the Polish over the Ukrainians, like that of the Russians over the Belorussians, or the British over the enslaved and native peoples, was often justified by the notion that these peoples had no written history. The History of Ukraine-Rus’ laid out the history of the Ukrainian people. As with so many such projects, a group of intellectuals systematized the language of local people, created literary works from it and then had to try and popularize their productions all in an effort to reveal to people their supposedly innate national identities. The first generation of Ukrainian nationalists were satisfied to promote their interests by agitating for greater minority rights, but frustration with corruption in the Habsburg institutions of power led the next generation to more radical demands. The rise of nationalist ideas accompanied the arrival of socialist politics. In 1890 Ivan Franko, the son of a German blacksmith and a Polish noblewoman “cofounded a peasant Radical Party oriented toward the socialist transformation of Galicia… In 1897 he broke loudly with Polish politics (writing in German) and with Ukrainian politics (writing in Polish). Already a friend of Hrushevs’kyi, Franko now became his protege. On Christmas Eve, 1899, the two men and the other leaders of a new National Democratic party published an appeal to all classes of Ukrainian society for the general endeavor of national sovereignty… By 1900, Franko was an advocate of Ukrainian independence with what he and others of his generation called ‘ethnographic’ borders. Like Franko, many of the leading Galician Ukrainian national activists in 1900 had been socialists ten years before. This was exceedingly common in the Europe of the day, not least in Poland...The general connection between the seemingly contradictory ideas of socialism and nationalism is that the idealistic faith in the yet untried people; the particular impulse that pushed Ukrainian activists from socialism to nationalism was real competition with the Poles. Ukrainians influenced by Drahomanov believed that Ukrainian socialism would arise from the Ukrainian people, Polish socialism from the Polish people, and so on.” (Snyder TRN, pp130-131).

    The Ukraine was a contested battlefield throughout WWI and the Russian Civil War. After the Russian Revolution, Ukrainians felt optimistic enough to declare the existence of an independent state, but such was not their fate. After Lenin’s failed military adventure in Poland, during which the Ukrainians fought with Poland, Poland and Russia signed the treaty of Riga, whereby the Ukraine was divided much as it had been before the war, except whereas before it was divided between Czarist Russia and the Habsburgs, it was now divided between Soviet Russia and Poland. In the middle 20s Stalin brought direction of Ukraine’s economy under the control of the central soviet. All property became state property, and all state property was managed from Moscow. As we pointed out whilst discussing the Russian Revolution as a democratic movement, Stalin was able to exploit the situation of the early 20s to consolidate absolute power. Although the left opposition represented a large part of the Russian population, it lost the contest for power, with disastrous consequences for the Ukraine. But how do we know that the Ukraine’s fate would have been any different if Lenin had lived to see the 30s, or if Trotsky of Rakovsky had gotten the upper hand in 1927? We know what difference it would have made because of Lenin’s final testament.

    1921 in the USSR saw the ban on parties, but it was also the beginning of a long physical decline for Lenin. While he did not seem to comment on the need to revive democratic traditions in the party and in the soviets, Lenin was clearly repulsed by the Russian chauvinism he perceived in Stalin towards the smaller nations that had historically been part of the Russian empire, specifically in Georgia and the Ukraine (Hensman 52-63).

    If Germany was an ideological blindspot for Lenin, his final writings, the so-called Testament that was largely unpublished before 1956, show a Lenin that clearly understood two things: (1) that the socialist revolution would have to spread to Asia, and (2) that the new socialist project would succeed or fail based on how it managed a transition away from Russian Empire. Later, we will discuss American attempts in the 20th century to transition away from Empire. The whole 20th century is the story of unraveling Empire. Lenin urged that Russia should protect the autonomy of Russia’s former possessions. As he declined, Stalin ascended by a series of cunning political maneuvres. As General Secretary, Stalin led a diplomatic effort to force Georgia into economic unification with Russia. In one meeting, Stalin’s envoy Ordzhonikidze, whom I assume history has forgotten bc his name is so difficult to pronounce, physically assaulted his Georgian counterpart. Rohini Hensman writes: “Alarmed by a letter from an old Georgian communist accusing Ordzhonikidze of threatening them, Lenin sent Alexei Rykov to Georgia to investigate. Rykov returned and reported back to Lenin in early December 1922, and Lenin was deeply upset by the ‘image of a Communist governor behaving like a satrap in a conquered country” (Hensman, p55). Lenin stated in no uncertain terms that Russian nationalist chauvinism was the gravest threat to the Communist effort, equal only to the threat posed by Western aggression: “We, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence… That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nations, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question… The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism. “ (Lenin, Letter to the Party Conference, Dec. 30-31 1923, Hensman, p58)

    Instead, Stalin set out in 1928 on a process of forced collectivization in the Ukraine, a decision that would ultimately lead to the deaths by starvation of around 6 million Ukrainians. By 1924 it was clear that the Bolshevik revolution was not going to spread into western Europe. The original Bolshevik line that the revolution would have to spread internationally to succeed seemed to have been decided, and as Stalin got rid of people like Trotsky who wanted greater democracy in the USSR, he began pursuing what was euphemistically called “Socialism in one country.” Behind closed doors Stalin called this policy “internal colonization,” because it was thought that in order for a nation to enter the industrial age it would need to exploit colonies. Because Stalin imagined the Ukraine was internal to the Soviet Union, internal colonization just meant actually colonizing the Ukraine, which of course is just regular imperialism exactly the way that Czarist Russia had occupied the Ukraine since 1772. Collectivization is the name he gave for the process of state seizure of farmland, forcing peasants to work it and then taking the crops as state property. During the Russian Civil War days, from 1918 through 1921, the Bolsheviks had fought against peasant uprisings in an attempt to secure enough food to keep starvation from killing first the factories and then the workers. Peasants who hoarded grain while the peoples of the USSR starved to death were called Kulaks, a word meaning tight fisted. The kulaks were people whose greed exacerbated the generalized starvation engulfing the Slavic world since the Czar had plunged all of Europe into WW1, and Lenin was right to fight against them on a case by case basis. Things had changed by 1930 when Stalin announced his intention of completely liquidating the Kulak class. What he meant by that was mass murder in order to impose state ownership on the whole of the agricultural output. It’s worth dwelling a moment on the nature and scope of Stalin’s crimes, because people often shrug and admit that it was bad without having any idea of how bad it was. Timothy Snyder describes what the policy meant in practice in his excellent book Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin [BL]: “The troika, composed of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state procurator, had the authority to issue rapid and severe verdicts (death, exile) without the right to appeal. Local party members would often make recommendations: ‘At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, ‘we create kulaks as we see fit.’ Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by troikas. In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 people were forcibly transported from Soviet Ukraine as kulaks. Such an action meant about thirty thousand peasant huts emptied one after another, their surprised inhabitants given little or no time to prepare for the unknown. It meant thousands of freezing freight cars, filled with terrified and sick human cargo, bound for destinations in northern European Russia, the Urals, Siberia, or Kazakhstan. It meant gunshots and cries of terror at the last dawn peasants would see at home; it meant frostbite and humiliation on trains, and anguish and resignation as peasants disembarked as slave laborers on the taiga or the steppe… All in all, some three hundred thousand Ukrainians were among the 1.7 million kulaks deported to special settlements in Siberia, European Russia, and Kazakhstan.” (Snyder, BL, pp26-27). Like Robespierre, Stalin was imposing state power on society: this was the culmination and natural outcome of a socialist movement that in the early 20s had given up on democratic organizing and given free reign to its desires to impose “utopia” on humanity from above. Party activists communicated to peasants that Stalin had a 1st Commandment: the grain belongs first of all to the state and after that can be given to the peasants. The peasants knew the 1st commandment was “thou shalt have no God before me,” and they understood the new regime as a reimposition of feudalism by the State. Other examples where the state takes over as the boss in an older labor form include the Italian Republic in southern Italy and the 13th Amendment whereby slavery was outlawed in the US unless someone went to prison. The peasants of Ukraine rose up against the new system of peonage, but the rebellion was crushed. The worst of the repression happened in 1930 after the crop had been planted, and that year’s crop was particularly bountiful. Bad weather and the mass deportation of Ukraine's best farmers assured the next year’s crop yield would be much worse. Stanislaw Kosior reported in August of 1931 that yields would be low, but his superior Lazar Kaganovich told him the problem was theft, so Kosior intensified repression. The peasants, having no choice, met their quota by handing over their seed grain: at that point they were sabotaging the next year’s yield under threat from the state. By July of 1932 party leaders in the Ukraine had successfully communicated to Stalin that a famine had begun there and that Soviet policies were going to make it worse. The documentation of these facts is now indisputable, thanks to the empirical data and private letters made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Stalin decided that if collectivization was failing it was the fault of the peasants, that they should be starved in collective punishment and that above all the problem should be hidden from view of the world lest the reputation of socialism should be tarnished. What a sick joke. Local party leaders in the Ukraine who complained were sacked and deported, and their calls for Red Cross intervention were ignored. Unlike Lenin, who in 1921 asked for and received international aid for famine victims in the USSR, Stalin didn’t see the people’s wellbeing as the source of his right to rule. His right to rule was his power over the truth and over life and death. “Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of success. Resistance to his policies in the Soviet Ukraine, Stalin argued, was of a special sort, perhaps not visible to the imperceptive observer. Opposition was no longer open, for the enemies of socialism were now ‘quiet’ and even ‘holy.’ [here Snyder quotes Stalin] The ‘kulaks of today,’ he said, were ‘gentle people, kind, almost saintly.’ [unquote] People who appeared to be innocent were to be seen as guilty. A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. These were not merely Stalin’s musings in Moscow; this was the ideological line enforced by Molotov and Kaganovich as they traveled through regions of mass death in late 1932.” (Snyder, BL, p41). Such terribly distorted reasoning was only possible in 1932 because over the course of the previous decade the ban on factions had become a permanent institution, because public and even private debate was radically precluded, and everyone who disagreed with Stalin had been sent into exile, including nearly all of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries: Kamenev, Rykov, Rakovsky, Zinoviev and Trotsky. All of these men had opposed Stalin’s plan of forced collectivization. All of them had been labeled enemies. We are far indeed from Marx’s tenure in the garden of Epicurus where events in the heavens have a multitude of explanations, and where this whole plurality of voices is needed to reach an understanding of the world. Stalin isn’t in the same category as the socialists of the Paris Commune who demanded complete freedom of the press.

    In politics we often find we have enemies, but having an enemy shouldn’t become the foundation of our politics. When we replace the foundation of love for the people with the foundation of hatred for our enemies, we end up in this place where Stalin is, we end up justifying any sacrifice, even the people we supposedly love, and we lose our most important ability: to change our mind when confronted with new evidence. What’s more, when we are absolutely set on defeating an enemy rather than on gaining for our loved ones, the logic of the absolute enemy takes over our enemies as well, making compromise impossible. The mass starvation of the Ukraine became a talking point in Hitler’s political campaigns, and fed his rise to power. Stalin would later use the fact that the USSR was invaded by Hitler, and had beaten Hitler back, to retroactively justify the famine in the Ukraine.

    At this point the historical ties between Ukraine and Poland become important. Many Ukrainians began to flee the Ukraine to Poland where they pleaded with Polish authorities to get the word out to the rest of the world and to do something. 85,000 ethnic Poles were murdered in the Soviet Union between 1937 and 1938, under suspicion of plotting against socialism. Foreign nations were considered to exist on the other side of a class line: if someone had a connection to Poland they were thought to have a loyalty to global capitalism as such. This may sound outlandish, but later when we dig into the politics of the Party for Socialist Liberation, the PSL, we will find this same kind of reasoning involving proletariat and bourgeois nations. Though Stalin imagined Poland was plotting against him and against the socialist revolution, Poland was actually trying to find a politics that would let them live side by side with the USSR in peace. Poland didn’t sound the alarm about the Ukrainian famine because they had just signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, who in 1939 repaid them by splitting Poland down the middle, taking the eastern half and letting Hitler take the western half in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In order to cover up the world historical crime of causing the starvation of 6 million Ukrainians, Stalin then tried to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia. In Poland, Hitler and Stalin pursued the same policy on different sides of the border: they murdered anyone who could take part in Polish state building: doctors, lawyers, politicians, professors, writers, scientists. They were fighting a war against reason itself in the name of political projects based not on political compromise but on zero sum thinking where success could only mean the annihilation of one’s enemy. The most well known, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, of these massacres was at Katyn, where 22,000 Poles were systematically slaughtered by an NKVD that had been forged in the forced starvation of Ukraine.
    It’s easy when one talks of millions of deaths to lose all sense of the loss involved. Some half a million Poles were murdered by Stalin in the latter half of the 1930s, and each one of them was a human being with a life and a place in the world. We should tell the story of at least one of them to communicate a little what a catastrophe this was. One of the Poles who was arrested and sent to Stalin’s camps was Jozef Czapski. Czapski was taken because he was an artist and from an aristocratic family. He had the remarkable good luck in his youth to discover Proust as an aspiring artist in Paris starting in 1924. There he encountered and befriended many of the people who had inspired the characters in Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” In the camp where Czapski was taken the inmates, who were mostly scholars of one sort or another, taught each other classes. Czapski taught a class on Proust’s Search for Lost Time. These class notes were later collected, and an English translation was published in 2018. In them Czapski tells the story of the death of Bergotte, a character in Proust’s novel. Bergotte was a writer of popular trash fiction. One day as Bergotte is wandering through an art exhibit he is struck by a painting by the then unknown Vermeer. It is a landscape of several houses on a beach, and Bergotte is particularly taken back by the exquisite attention the artist paid to a certain patch of yellow roofing. The artistic perfection on display, produced in utter isolation and a lack of recognition, confronts Bergotte with the rude realization that the novelist sacrificed the quality of his own art in order to have public appeal. He feels he has cheated himself and his art, and then he dies. The image of Vermeer, the artist committed to creating something of high value in the context of utter isolation closely parallels Czapski’s own experience there in the camps. Czapski would survive the camps and live to a ripe old age. Many other brilliant people did not.

    Hitler’s political project, which we explore in detail elsewhere, involved using the German state to destroy the states of Eastern Europe so that his German people could colonize those lands. He explicitly referenced the history of America’s genocide of native peoples as an example to the Germans of how a great people acts, and he specifically identified the Ukraine as the key to the success of his political enterprise. Ukraine was to become the breadbasket of the new German empire, and it’s people were to be for Germany what Black enslaved people were to the United States. When Hitler’s forces arrived at the furthest East places they could conquer, Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, they found lands that had already suffered Stalin’s so called “internal '' colonization. The people in those nations who had collaborated with Stalin then very actively collaborated with the Nazis, by a vast majority. The crimes of the NKVD were in everyone’s very recent memory, and the Jews were an easy scapegoat. Communists and Nazis both agreed the Jews were to blame, and the former commisar’s in Stalin’s bureaucracy almost every last one of them participated in and often initiated the mass shootings that started the Holocaust. In 1942 Hitler became aware that he would not be able to take Moscow, and he also became aware of the mass shootings of Jews that was being organized by Lithuanian nationalists. It was at that moment when he gives up the idea of sending all the Jews to Siberia or to Mauritania, which had been his idea up to that moment, and settles upon the “final solution.” The image we have of the holocaust, of the death camps, touches on a reality, there really were death execution sites, though typically they did not include barracks or “camps.” The story we get from Hollywood is falsely comforting. The story in popular culture is of death camps and of heros who save Jews from those camps. Half of the people who died in the holocaust were shot, then dumped in mass graves, and the majority of people who had an opportunity to save Jews did not because doing so would put their own lives at risk. It’s crucial that we understand that ordinary people, people like you and me, allowed the holocaust to happen and participated in it because of decisions made that created the situation of the holocaust. Hitler set up camps for his political enemies and for diabled people as part of a eugenicist project in 1933, nearly a whole decade before the holocaust begins. If we think that camps of immigrants in the US are harmless, it is because we have forgotten or never knew this history.

    The Ukraine is the center of WW2, though we remember it being a secondary character or an extra in the drama. More Ukrainians died fighting German fascism than did Americans. Timothy Snyder in this excellent speech (
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTJwCCAF2lA ) from 2017 about Germany’s historical responsibility points out that 3.5 million Ukrainian civilians were murdered by German forces in WW2. Three million Ukrainians died fighting in the Red Army. The Ukraine was the center of Hitler’s colonial project. With the subjugation of the Ukraine under Russia and the mass famine of 1932 fresh in their personal memories, Ukrainian nationalists volunteered to join Fascist gangs in committing the holocaust in order to get the arms to fight later for a Ukrainian nation state. That is not to excuse their crimes, but to understand them. Much of this history was not understood in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but Ukrainians would have remembered them as lived experience following WW2. We rarely ever understand the cold war, or the founding of NATO in this context, as world changing events that ended the destructive Russian domination of Poland that had gone on for several centuries. Instead, the left thinks of NATO as western imperialism embodied. Again, this is not to provide apologetics for the hamfisted antics of the CIA in Eastern Europe, but to understand them. Stalin was objectively an evil man doing evil things, and it was easy to justify illegal actions to fight him. It wasn’t easy to tell that the habit of illegal CIA operations could only undermine America’s claims to legitimacy as a world power and claims to being a democratic society. If time allows, a whole series of podcasts should be done about the history of US interventions in the 20th century. For now, we note these issues in passing, finish briefly telling the history of Ukraine to date, and discuss why it’s important today that the international community defend Ukrainian sovereignty. Considering this long history of Russian and German colonization of the Ukraine, and its terrible consequences, it is stunning to witness the current indifference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that started in 2014! Yeah, I’m calling you out Michael Moore. How dare you belittle the impeachment of Trump, talk about it as though it had no importance, without even mentioning Ukraine, when Ukrainian lives were on the line, when the entire postwar peace in Europe is on the line. We’ll come back around to that.

    Inevitably, a discussion of Ukraine has brought us to the question of what to do in the aftermath of the empire? Hitler and Stalin both sought to found an empire by first dominating the Ukraine. Now Putin is attempting the same thing. After WW2 the Soviet Union annexed large parts of Poland, Eastern Germany, all of Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Romania. In the early 1950s Stalin began gearing up a purge of Jewish people, but to do so parts of the bureaucracy had to be turned against each other in a cycle of mutual recrimination where each party hopes to save themselves by throwing their fellow bureaucrats under the bus. This was the precise mechanism that had led to the Polish purges of the late thirties. By the early 1950s the bureaucrats in the soviet system understood this game, that it meant their doom, and they wisely declined to play it. This does not mean the danger wasn’t real, or that things couldn’t have gone another way. We’ll speak at some length in a later podcast of the shameful role French intellectuals in particular played in providing rhetorical cover for the purges and show trials. Suffice it to say that chief among these traitors was Sartre, who had some idea that a Jewish purge was developing just as he was beginning a strong turn towards support of the Communist cause around 1952. Sartre’s hypocritical silence on this issue is all the more striking because of his previous attention to the problem of European anti-semitism (Judt, Past Imperfect, p184). Timothy Snyder’s account of the rise of fascist ideology we face today, the excellent book The Road to Unfreedom [TRU], includes a vital condensed telling of Ukrainian history under Soviet rule. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians resisted Stalin, it must be admitted with the help of the CIA, throughout the 40s and 50s and were then sent to the gulags. Most of those who survived to see Khrushchev take power in 1953 were released. The Ukraine became a populous center of Soviet industrial production. In the seventies Brezhnev declared that Russia had “really existing socialism” implying that all national differences within the Soviet Union had been transcended, and Ukrainians who resisted cultural erasure in the 70s often were sent to mental hospitals. In 1986 one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters occured in the Ukraine because of the culture of the suppression of the truth that reigned in the Soviet System. If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries on Chernobyl, you should go and do that after this podcast episode. In order to save the USSR from humiliation Gorbachev needlessly exposed millions of Ukrainians to dangerously high doses of radiation. The discussion of this crime among Ukrainians led to a national discussion of the mass starvation of a generation prior, which very similarly had been forced on them to “save the reputation of socialism.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence from the Soviet Union. And this is where we begin to encounter associates of Donald Trump in the story about Ukraine.

    In earlier podcasts I spent a great deal of time discussing the Russian Revolution, and I did that because in Russia socialists came to power and in wielding power found themselves directly in contradictions that we in the USA have not faced. Wielding power as Marxists, as Socialists and as Communists posed the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to our ideals, because sitting in power always demands trade offs and sacrifices. Even if the Russian revolution because of when and where it happened could only have ended in tragedy, especially so, we must learn from it. In tending to these historical issues we can gradually redeem our movement and the socialist project as such. The inability to come to terms with this past has left us vulnerable in the present moment in ways I want to discuss later in this podcast once I’ve developed the background some. We have to reflect on the crimes of Stalin, because we should know our faults better than our opponents do and because those crimes are a part of socialism that we cannot simply disown. I hope that much has been made clear in previous podcasts. The worst crimes were committed from what Tony Judt has called “retroactive necessitarianism,” which is the idea that because we know how history ends, any sacrifice is justified in accelerating our trip there. In conversation with Timothy Snyder, Tony Judt describes the embrace of such ideas in the 20th century as the infinite breaking of eggs in the making of an impossible omelette.

    “This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgement on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information...All the same, for much of the past century many social democrats who would have been horrified to think of themselves as anything other than Marxist - much less as ‘liberal’ - were unable to make the ultimate move into retroactive necessitarianism. In most cases, they had the good fortune to avoid the choice. In Scandinavia, accession to power was open to social democrats without any need to overthrow or repress existing authorities. In Germany, those who were not willing to compromise with constitutional moral constraints took themselves out of the social democratic consensus. In France, the question was irrelevant thanks to the compromises imposed by republican politics and in England it was redundant thanks to the marginality of the radical left. Paradoxically, in all these countries, self-styled Marxists could continue t o tell themselves stories: they could persist in the belief that the Marxist historical narrative informed their actions, without facing the implications of taking that claim seriously. But in other places - of which Russia was the first and exemplary instance - access to power was indeed open to Marxists precisely because of their uncompromising claims upon history and other people. And so, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there was a sharp and enduring schism between those who would not digest the human consequences of their own theories, and those for whom these same consequences were nasty in just the way that had thought they would be, and all the more convincing for that reason: it’s really hard; we’ve really got to make the difficult choices; we have no choice but to do bad things; this is a revolution; if we are in the omelette making business, this is not the moment to coddle the eggs… The kind of truth that a believer was seeking was not testable by reference to contemporary evidence but only to future outcomes. It was always about believing in a future omelet that would justify an infinite number of broken eggs in the present. If you ceased to believe, then you were not simply abandoning a piece of social data which you had apparently misread hitherto; you were abandoning a story that could alone justify any data one wished so long as the future payoff was guaranteed. (Thinking the Twentieth Century. pp. 91,94,97).

    Here at the end of a long meditation on the outcome of a very specific type of socialism, Bolshevism, in a very specific context, Ukraine in the 20th century, right here, this is where I want to situate a discussion of Capital.

    As Tony Judt explained, there’s a version of Capital that reads like a holy text. According to this reading it lays out an inevitable series of events. The story goes something like this. Capitalists are greedy: they need more and more profit. To get more profit they will improve the means of production, automate as much as possible and drive down the value of labor. As labor gets devalued, the wage will fall and living standards will become unsurvivable. The workers will choose to defend their lives, and they will rise up. When the workers rise up they will form a council government that will organize production democratically. The moral of this story is that we should sacrifice everything to accelerate the arrival of these events. What’s even better, since we personally only have one life to live, is that we force as many other people as possible, through persuasion or violence, to sacrifice themselves to accelerate the coming of these events. I have been developing a stronger version of Marx than this: the Marx who wrote Capital to reject the commodification of humanity, but we have to deal with this other Marxism, for which humans are just fodder for the engine of history.

    Finally, let me lift up Victor Serge again. Victor Serge spent his youth as an anarchist in Paris, the son of exiled Russian revolutionaries. Anarchism in Paris at that time was taken by the idea of propaganda of the deed. That meant individual acts of terrorism and/or assassinations of political figures. Several of Serge’s friends received the death penalty for conspiracies, and he was sentenced to 5 years of solitary confinement, though it seems he was guilty of nothing more than having guilty friends. He served 3 years of his sentence and then as German forces threatened France in WW1 he was released. He moved to Spain immediately to take part in the attempted revolution there. In 1919 he moved to Russia to help build the Soviet Union. In the 20s he joined the Left Opposition, and in 1933 he was arrested by the NKVD, an organization he had served in. He spent two years in a gulag in Orenburg, plenty of time to ponder the dark timeline that he had been swept into, plenty of time to ponder the failure of the Bolshevik project. Copyrighted in French in 1939, first appearing in translation in 1981, and then reprinted in 2015 by the New York Review of Books, Midnight in the Century is a stream of consciousness novel about the experience of the left opposition in the gulags. In this book we find the Bolsheviks waxing nostalgic for the days “when there was still freedom in the revolution.” (102). It’s a beautifully written book of historical fiction, full of sadness and hope, and in it the Russian Siberian wilderness plays an important role. Victor Serge is essential reading for understanding how that generation of Bolsheviks who made the revolution, then survived Lenin and were betrayed by Stalin, how they understood their own defeat and what it meant for Europe.

    The book is a personal document about Serge’s experience in the gulag, but it is also a political polemic, explicitly echoing Trotsky’s jeremiads warning Europe about Hitler. For instance, he speaks directly to the idea he knows is pushing the German KPD to boost the German Nazi party against the Social Democrats: the idea that if Nazis get into power then the communists can ride the pendulum back to replace them. As I read this passage I imagine that instead of the Social Democrats he’s describing making a common front with the Democratic Party to kick out Trump. “The only chance for salvation is a common front with Social Democracy and the Reformist trade-unions. It’s madness to expect to win the masses away from their leaders, cough Joe Biden cough when the proletarian spirit has become stabilized within the old parties. And when you yourselves are hardly much better than the people you’re denouncing! Bernie Sanders ... There are still some imbeciles who say that Hitler should be allowed to take power, for he’ll use himself up rapidly, go bankrupt, dissatisfy everybody, open the way for us… The time to fight to the death is before he takes over. Once Hitler has power, he will keep it… Stalin gave Hitler his strength by driving the middle classes away from Communism with the nightmare of forced collectivization, famine, and terror against the technicians. Hitler, by making Europe abandon the hope of socialism, will strengthen Stalin. These grave-diggers were born to understand each other. Enemies and brothers. In Germany, one is burying an aborted democracy, the child of an aborted revolution. In Russia, the other is burying a victorious revolution born of a weak proletariat and left on its own by the rest of the world. Both of them are leading those they serve - the bourgeoisie in Germany, the bureaucracy here at home - toward a catastrophe.” (p. 76).

    In everything I’ve read about the oppositionists, even when they were in the Gulag, is that they never gave up on the power of collective organization and collective thought, aka free expression, to transform the world. And if they were to be buried in Siberia, they were certain that they were the seeds of trees a future generation would shelter under. Before Stalin’s determination to destroy even the memory of them, they remained defiant. Here is one telling bit of dialogue between oppositionists that must surely be based on a real or on several real conversations: “‘We’re right, comrades. Right, like stones are right to be hard, like the grass is right to grow, for the Revolution doesn’t want to die out. Without us, there would be nothing left of it but reinforced concrete, turbines, loudspeakers, uniforms, victims of exploitation, humbugs adn informers. Now you see it, now you don’t! But we’re here - like the ocean floor, and the trick is spoiled!... Let’s rest in the sunshine for a while. Maybe tonight they’ll lock us up int eh cellar of the Security building. Keep that in mind and you’ll savour this sunshine all the more. I’m teaching you wisdom! One day you’ll die down on a cot ina disheartening darkness. Then remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.’ ‘And thought?’ asked Rodion. ‘Thought? Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?’ ‘Midnight’s where we have to live then,’ said Rodion with an odd elation.” (pp. 117,118)

    It’s hard to imagine, but I’m telling you, Victor Serge wrote a stream of consciousness novel about men and women doomed to die unremembered who were convinced their cause would win in the end, and he convinces us in the telling that history will vindicate them. Under the Siberian sky, in a kind of enormous garden, Serge’s writing invokes not despair but the infinite potential in nature, the fact that no matter how dark the path may be the natural world holds up for us the image and example of absolute freedom. There is an infinite series of events of which we make up a finite part. Serge writes about the sky as though he were intentionally orienting us towards infinity. One of the novel’s oppositionists is Ryzhik, and I want to end this episode with a passage where Ryzhik describes the Siberian countryside: “‘On the Yenisey,’ said Ryzhik, ‘it was even more beautiful than here. The earth seemed to light up from within. Even before the snows had melted the grasses came to life and light filtered into the tiniest twig, the tiniest streamlet. You walked on light. The flowers have cool, light colours. Only the stars resemble them. You leave the house one morning, you go out onto the plains, straight ahead, for there’s nothing anywhere, nothing but the horizon and the same horizon beyond the horizon. You’re alone, alone like… Ah! I can’t really say like whom, like what. Well, like a stone at the bottom of a well, and you don’t know what’s happening to you. You want to sing, you feel the earth is on a spree. It’s something marvellous, unique; anything might happen. That’s it, you’re going to turn around, just like that, and there right in front of you, in the emptiness, will be a great happiness. What kind? You have no idea, but it's possible, that’s sure. And you do turn around and you see birds arriving. They’re coming through the sky in clouds. They’re coming with great flapping wings, and the light is climbing, the stones have a luminous polish, there are flowers, the steppe is singing in silence. Nothing happens to you, of course, but everything is possible.” (p. 70).

    Works

    Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

    Czapski, Józef. Lost time : lectures on Proust in a Soviet prison camp. New York Review of Books, 2018.

    Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.

    Serge, Victor. Midnight in the Century. New York Review of Books, 2014.

    Snyder, Timothy, and Tony Judt. Thinking the twentieth century. Random House, 2013.

    Snyder, Timothy. Black earth: The Holocaust as history and warning. Seal Books, 2015.

    Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.

    Snyder, Timothy. On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

    Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Yale University Press, 2002.

    Cover:
    The front page of the Chicago American 1935

    Music:
    Space Noise by Martin Klem
    Calculating Catastrophe by John Barzetti
    Theme by Harry Koniditsiotis

  • 8. The Spanish Civil War in Our Hearts

    June 25th, 2020  |  1 hr 10 mins
    activism, anarchism, cnt-fai, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, karl leibknecht, lenin, leninism, national socialism, progressivism, putin, red brown, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, socialism, socialist, spain, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, the spanish civil war, trotsky, victor serge

    I have a lot of sympathy for the view that the Spanish Civil War was a terrible tragedy. The attempts people make to impose on events a spin that supports their ideological priors are all less convincing the more one knows about the conflict. Nevertheless, imperfect knowledge is not complete ignorance, and there’s a lot to learn from the sad story of the Spanish Republic.

    The Spanish Civil War is an important event in world history, and it deserves the attention it receives and more. It is also a very complex item, so I’m posting a timeline and a list of the cast of characters towards the bottom of the transcripts. I’m going to start by discussing the broader historical context and then stepping through the history itself. Then I’m going to talk a little about the various positions people take about the events in question before rapping up with some general considerations. I won’t have time to discuss the internal politics of the right wing coup or the final days of the Republic. These are also important things to consider, so you should read all the books. I’m going to focus on the socialist and related anarchist movements in Spain and what they meant for socialists in the anglophone world. One excellent politically neutral book that focuses on the military side of the Civil War is Antony Beevor’s 1982 “The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939,” and I lean on it a great deal in the discussion that follows, but if you could only read one book about the Spanish Civil War, to understand the ideas that drove the Republicans, there is no better book than Helen Graham’s 2002 “The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939.” It’s long, but after you’ve read it you actually know something. Helen Graham has done for the Spanish Civil War what Soma Marik did for the Russian Revolution. Most people, when they talk about the Spanish Civil War label all the main groups and figures some ideology or other and use that to explain their behavior, but Helen Graham does the Spanish justice by giving us a deep dive not just into the political identities involved, as we understand them, but into the ideas, innovations, experiences and motivations of groups and individuals. She treats them as living agents making their own history.

    So, from the beginning...

    The defining event in the formation of the Spanish monarchical state was the reconquista, a struggle to reclaim the Iberrian peninsula from the Umayyad Caliphate who took power there in 711 AD. The reconquista required from the Spanish nobles that they orient the economy towards wool production for export in order to get the necessary money to conduct the war. The claiming of peasant land for sheep grazing led to soil erosion and the emisseration of the farming peasantry (Beefor, p4). Catholic ideology, which proscribed usury, prevented the development of a capitalist class in the early modern period, and the discovery of the new world instead of undermining the authority of the Spanish crown reinforced it with a steady stream of silver and gold wealth from the colonies, at least at first. It is said that enough silver was mined from Potosi, in present day Bolivia, to build a bridge from where it was mined in South America to Spain (Galeano). Unlike the wealth that San Domingan Slaves provided to France, the precious metals flowing into Spain didn’t take the form of commodities, so they spurred inflation in Europe which inspired more mercantile activity. All of that wealth that flooded into the mercantile interests of England and France leading to the end of monarchical rule in Europe and the rise of capitalist economies over the old feudal ones, that wealth came from Spanish colonialism and the dispossession of the peasants in support of a war of conquest against the ethnically and religiously othered Muslims. Furthermore, the resulting social hierarchy justified itself with religious zeal, and instead of being undermined by the protestant reformation the Catholic faith in Spain was radicalized and mobilized for an inquisition so terrible it is now known as “the” inquisition. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced the Jewish people living in Spain at the time, some 800,000 people to either convert or leave. Among those who left was the grandfather of Baruch Spinoza who was famously one of a very few people in the 17th century, and one of the first in the modern era, to say that there are no persons destined by god to rule over everyone else. Today that idea is paradigmatic, believed by almost everyone, so I guess the Spinoza family got their revenge somewhat. There’s a good name for a punk band: Spinoza’s Revenge. Please someone make that happen and then I’ll interview you on the podcast maybe if you’re cool.

    Spain had a short lived liberal republic in the early 19th century, with wars flaring up for political freedom every decade or so leading to a managed democracy that favored the nobles, the landlords and a rising class of political bosses (caciques). The Republic that was founded in 1873 was very weak and found it very difficult to resolve any of the tensions in society. There was a steadily growing localist and libertarian movement, accompanied by strong separatist movements in Catalonia and in Basque country. The deep oppression and communal lifestyle of the Spanish peasants made Spain fertile ground for the Anarchist philosophies of Bakunin and Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that the communal peasant way of life he witnessed in the distant, isolated, rural parts of Russia, represented an evolutionary advance that was superior to modern mass culture (McLaughlin, p. 99-108). It’s no wonder that this ideology was popular in rural areas of Spain and Italy, nor is it any wonder why the more industrialized northern Europe was where Marxism and socialism had more of a following. Incidentally, by the time of the Spanish Civil War a lot of these rural Kropotkinists ended up internally displaced and having to move into the cities to find work in factories. Kropotkin overestimated local social bonds, and underestimated how national and international communities are important in peoples’ lives. Indeed, international solidarity was an important part of how Republican Spain defended itself. The importance of the Spanish Civil War for Anarchists is clear: it’s an example of Anarchists in state power, with all the apparent contradictions that includes. The peasant Anarchist ideology, with its millennial faith in the coming collapse of all state power, didn’t stop Catalonians from improving agricultural output in Aragon or from organizing factories and supply chains. If they had started these experiments in peacetime they may have overcome the inefficiency of the new system, but they were only possible because of the war. Their main problem was securing capital investments and trade deals: how would they replace old equipment if they couldn’t borrow money from the banks? For that they needed the Republican state. And slowly through the course of the Spanish Civil War the anarchist leadership began more and more to participate in that state. Unfortunately, because of the lack of hierarchy in the anarchist unions there was no mechanism of accountability when Catalonian anarchists began making compromises with the republic for the sake of the war. In the absence of mediating institutions, elections, recalls and so forth, anarchists who felt betrayed could only take to the barricades, which as we shall see they did eventually.

    Spain at the dawn of the 20th century was 64% illiterate, and 66% of people worked the land in a primitive, labor intensive way (Beevor, p.9). Poverty was so great that half a million people emigrated between 1900 and 1910. They had a king, “lucky” Alfonso 13. Labor relations of the peasants must be understood as nearly feudal, with laborers essentially stuck on the land that was devoted to monocultures for export. Local bosses could demand the local peasants vote according to the interests of the great landlords. This socio-political hierarchy was by and large reinforced by the church, which maintained the idea of a divine order that put the peasants at the bottom. This is why there was such widespread anticlerical feeling. Local communal bonds meant a great deal more than did the Spanish nation to many living in the rural parts of Spain, and this broader social force constrained the Anarchism of the rural peasant, focusing it on the local dimension, and served therefore as a hindrance, though not in all places an insurmountable obstacle, to solidarity actions across regions. The geographical isolation of the peasant villages made it easier for landlords to suppress unrest (Graham, pp. 3-5).

    Spain stayed out of WW1, and made lots of money expanding its industrial productivity to provide for the rest of Europe, which was busy fighting. But production could not keep up with demand and the resulting inflation fell hard on the laboring masses. High unemployment caused mass migration to the cities. In 1923 a military coup lifted Miguel Primo de Rivera into power putting an end to constitutional government. General de Rivera led some important military disasters in Morocco, then a Spanish colony, and pushed forward with costly modernization efforts, the building of highways and hydro-electric dams. The earlier loss of colonies in Cuba and in the Philippines lent to Spanish nationalism all of the resentment of a lost greatness that we find in Germany regarding the loss of WW1, or in France today regarding the loss of Algeria, or in the Southern United States regarding the loss of the Civil War. There was an explosion in the deficit and runaway inflation. Primo enlisted the UGT, basically the socialists’ union, into a system of labor arbitration where state functionaries would arbitrate labor disputes, and this experience may explain some of the aversion to revolution, some of the faith in gradual political reform, that many in the UGT old guard demonstrated throughout the 30s as well as the aversion the anarchist union, the CNT, had to the state formed by the collaboration of socialists and liberals (Graham, p. 13). In 1930 a wave of protests and a general strike swept Primo de Rivera from power. The king fled. A republic was declared with a land-owning lawyer Alcala-Zamora serving as Prime Minister. The fledgling democracy was led by a numerically slight liberal group which depended on the numerically superior Spanish Socialist Party, the PSOE, for its legitimacy (Graham, p. 23). International banks withdrew their money from Spain. In power, the liberals were ineffective at mobilizing mass support and at reforming the old monarchical institutions. The Republic of 1931 was reform minded and decisions were made at the top, and they left implementation to the existing feudal establishment, which promptly sabotaged it.

    Starting in the 1930s alongside big state agricultural developments, peasants rapidly joined trade unions in massive numbers: the two largest of these being the anarchist CNT and the socialist UGT(Graham, p. 6). The two unions roughly represented a strain that rejected participation in state power, the CNT, and one that sought it out, the UGT, but the two parties both held a debate around the issue of participation in the state, and the real differences between the two are to be found in the conditions of their constituencies. The CNT was prevalent on the Eastern coast, while the UGT was more influential in the North, in Asturia and Catalonia, though even these categories are generalizations that only approximate who the people supporting these organizations were. Though the left had achieved the dream of several centuries, a democratic Republic, the right successfully obstructed reform legislation in parliament, with the result that working and poor people felt little relief. Boy does that sound familiar! The impasse impacted the left, and the competing identifications, of communal autonomy versus industrial centralization, created serious divides that would weaken the movement. In the Summer of 1931 the Republic put down a rent strike in Barcelona, convincing many there that the new form of government was much the same as the former oppressive one. The labor arbitration system that the Republic set up did not cover unskilled workers, who were left to be organized by Anarchists of the brave direct action type, people like Buenaventura Durruti and Garcia Oliver in their Los Solidarios who with others led the FAI, the Iberian Anarchist Federation which was a hard Anarchist block within the CNT. Los Solidarios were a kind of “three musketeers” or Robin Hood of Spanish labor struggle through the 20s and 30s. Where’s their feature films, cartoons and comic books. Seriously, if that’s a thing hook me up!

    In December of 1931 a strike in the village of Badajoz descended into a cycle of violence. The Civil Guards, a part of the military dominated by reactionary ideology, killed a local man when they opened fire on striking workers. The locals then lynched several members of the Civil Guard, who retaliated. The General in charge of the Civil Guard was Jose Sanjurjo, a veteran of the Moroccan wars. Sanjurjo was demoted by then Minister of War Manuel Azana, and that is when Sanjurjo began plotting the coup that erupted in 1936. This event occurred in the broader context of expanding public violence between right wing religion and a radicalized left wing movement: it was the era of church burnings. In a move reminiscent of the French National Assembly’s attacks on church power, the Republic suppressed the church subsidy, and just as in France the Catholic church began to advocate disobedience. To be sure, the Catholic church was much more conservative in Spain than it had been in France, but the point remains that people who identified as Catholic did not feel openly hostile to the Republic until the state attacked and demeaned their religion. Laws barring religion in education were propounded from Madrid, but the Republic itself didn’t last long enough to implement them such was the violent reaction they produced. Catholic reaction became an organizing principle attracting small landowners in central Spain in reaction to Republican anticlericalism, and in 1933 CEDA, the Spanish Federation of Right Wing Groups, was formed with a self declared membership of 700,000. Though Catalonia negotiated a limited autonomy from the Madrid government in 1932, negotiations with the more conservative and religious Basque country for a similar arrangement were slowed by mutual mistrust (Graham, pp. 32-33). The Basques eventually supported the Republic, sort of, in 1936 after the experience of having independence completely blocked by the right wing in power.

    The slowness of land reform and inability of the Republican government, which was broke, to respond quickly to the demands of striking workers, who had to be pacified with arms for lack of anything else to give them, eventually led to the Socialist Party splitting from the liberals. The government was premised on ruling coalitions, and the liberals only other potential partner was the conservative CEDA. From this period on, a debate raged within the CNT and the UGT about whether or not to engage in electoral politics at all. Rank and file workers typically did not see a contradiction between direct action and electoral work, but the leadership was split because any time they got close to power, the tradeoffs they had to make made them unpopular. As in Germany, Socialists had participated in a weak government and were blamed for its failures. In response a good number of Anarchists rejected the idea of working with the state power altogether. On top of these problems the socialist party PSOE split over Catalan independence. Catalan socialists split officially from the PSOE and formed the USC, or Catalan Socialist Union. Communists committed to Catalan independence formed the BOC, or Workers and Peasants Bloc. In 1935 the BOC joined with the left oppositionist Trotskyist Izquierda Communista to form the POUM, or Workers Party of Marxist Unification. Leon Trotsky opposed the joining of the left opposition with a nationalist group, so when Stalinists said the POUM was Trotskyist they were wrong and either didn’t investigate the matter or didn’t care. Anyone they disagreed with could be called a Trotskyist, and being a Trotskyist was enough to get you shot. During the period before the Civil War, socialists were in office but their ability to govern was successfully sabotaged by the right wing, and this largely explains why during the civil war it was so difficult to rally to the Republican cause. Broad sectors of society, especially in anarchist Catalonia, did not believe much in the Republic, and even when faced with the immediate threat of Franco it was hard to defend her at times from criticisms from the left some justified and some not. The Republic would be plagued with indiscipline in the ranks of its militias, and that indiscipline no doubt comes in part with the ideological education the liberal failure of the recent past had provided. Attempts to unify left organizations in a single institution, the Workers’ Alliance, failed everywhere except in one place, Asturia. In Asturia, in the North of Spain, because of the massive industry and nearness to ports, the two trade unions’ leaderships in the CNT and the UGT had been forced to work together and this familiarity bred trust.

    In October of 1934 somewhere between 15 and 30,000 workers in Asturia rose up. They occupied government buildings, shot important notables and circulated their own currency (Beevor, p. 31). General Franco was ordered to put down the rebellion. 1000 or so people died, and 30,000 were jailed. The accompanying mass strike was led by Largo Caballero and his Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), though Caballero later denied in court having helped with the uprising. Having left the government the year before, and causing a split in the PSOE, Caballero’s group declared that a Bolshevik revolution was necessary. Unlike the Russians, the Spanish Bolsheviks did not have a mass democratic movement that they could ride into power. Anarchist councils already existed in the Unions, and they were disinclined to wanting to take state power. Caballero has been called the Spanish Lenin, but it is doubtful that Lenin would have been so foolish as to broadcast an intention to seize power while leading a small tendency in a larger political party that preferred to defend private property. Not only that, but disastrously the PSOE did not prepare for a revolution, and as much as anyone were completely unprepared to face the officers coup in 1936. Largo Caballero was all talk (Graham, pp. 45-46). The Stalinist Spanish Communist Party took credit for the Asturia uprising to aid their recruitment, and astonishingly claiming responsibility for the disaster in Asturia did attract recruits. The times were desperate, and people were desperate to try anything. The broader progressive movement correctly saw that the far left revolutionaries were bellicose faineants, that is lazy and irresponsible, and so the idea of a Bolshevik style revolution was itself broadly rejected. Aside from that, the next two years saw a widespread movement to unite the left to beat the conservatives. Personally, I think people in Asturia got tired of all the left infighting and decided to take initiative, believing that Caballero would be able to rally the rest of the coalition to their cause. They were tragically mistaken.

    Though it stirred the passions of revolutionary minded Spaniards, the rebellion in Asturia was a disaster. The conservative government took advantage of the opportunity to suppress the measure of local autonomy Catalonia had. After this uprising, the political right wing, including conservatives, right liberals and fascists, came to identify the socialist cause with top down socialism, with the domination of a small clique, and part of the far left truly seemed to identify with such a project. Another part of the far left rejected top down socialism without envisioning a democratic state. Racist ideology began to mix with the natural revulsion to left wing authoritarianism in the context of a collapse of confidence in democratic institutions. Do you want fascism? Because that’s how you get fascism. More promisingly, in the aftermath of the failed leftwing revolution, the socialist party was able to rally the masses to a new left electoral front. Manuel Azana became a political superstar touring the country in open air mass rallies. Largo Caballero could see that he was discredited, and before he would agree to the organization of a united left electoral strategy he insisted that the Stalinist Communist Party be included, so that he could blame them later when reform didn’t work. I am sure he regretted this decision later when the communists successfully isolated him from the movement through 1937 (Graham,p.64, Beevor, pp. 258). In any event, had the Republic lasted long enough to be reproached for too slow reforms, Caballero would have shared their discredit.

    In February of 1936 Spain had its last free elections for 40 years. The left popular front very narrowly won the elections. With a precarious mandate, the fledgeling democracy was besieged by competing claims. The right wing wanted justice for church burnings, and the left wanted land redistribution. 60,000 Peasants in Badajoz seized land and started working it in the context of a general inability of the market to finance agricultural activity (Beevor, p. 44). Deadly clashes erupted between the Civil Guard, a militarized police force, and peasant groups. Social conditions were reaching a fever pitch of violence, and the Republic didn’t seem capable of playing the role of referee. Looking back it seems clear that the country was on the edge of civil war, but the Republican state found itself unprepared when the ax fell.

    Everywhere around Spain the left was rallying to the idea of unity. Rank and file Spanish laborers and socialists saw no contradiction between electoral work and direct action. And yet, the left leadership remained divided at the top. The socialist party was split between people who wanted a strong central government in Madrid and those who wanted an autonomous Catalan zone. The Stalinists aligned themselves with Catalan Nationalism and Largo Caballero’s revolutionary wing of the PSOE, all while recruiting from young urban and middle class groups. The allure of the Soviet Union came from the image it presented as modern and futuristic. I’m posting a link in the transcripts to some contemporary Soviet art of the period (https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/art-and-the-russian-revolution). Think full luxury space communism, or what people in the 70s thought future space travel would be like. In the Spring of 1936 the Socialist Youth Federation joined the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party (PCE), and they followed Caballero’s political line, which was this: the revolutionaries would block socialists from participating in the government as far as possible so as not to have to take the blame for what that government would do. With no money and no real control over the economy, the Republic was stuck much the same way it was in 1931; for lack of a carrot all it could really offer the masses was the stick. The government thus formed was more afraid of the masses than it was of the right wing in the military, and so they never demilitarized public order. The army was in charge of policing the country, and in not challenging this arrangement, and not having a government that had strong relationships with the democratic masses, it was assured that when the right wing coup came the Republic would be defenseless, or almost. In the first 48 hours after the right wing coup was launched, each little region was dependent on the spontaneous self defense of the workers to fight back the reactionary rebellion.

    In July of 1936 a group of Spanish army officers launched a military coup throughout Spain. The coup should have been easily foiled, but the incompetence of the Spanish Republican state allowed the right wing military coup to gain a foothold. The workers sensed that this was a life or death moment, having seen for themselves in Asturias in 1934 what the right wing generals had in mind for them. The army was in control of public order, and so the coup played out within much of the organized domestic police apparatus. The liberal prime minister Santiago Quiroga refused to arm the workers, which meant that workers were armed in a limited and clandestine manner in a few places. The crucial first few hours were thus wasted by Quiroga who decided to pretend the coup was not so bad instead of arming the workers whom he feared. The earlier failure of the liberal party to organize the lower middle class, the petty bourgeois shopkeepers and so on, meant that these layers of the population had found conservative and Catholic ideology, and in occupied Spain they submitted to the right wing coup. In a military coup soldiers will typically pause before they begin to murder each other, weighing carefully which side is likely to win, and so to succeed would-be coup plotters must create the impression that their victory is a certainty. The coup began on Friday the 17th of July under the command of General Mola in Morocco. In Morocco officers and soldiers were hardened in battle against an insurgent Moroccan population and were easily won over to the cause of the right wing generals. A full 48 hours later the Republican government finally faced the fact that the Army could not be considered loyal, and Jose Giral, having just been pushed into the position of Prime Minister over Quiroga, dissolved the army by decree and finally ordered the Republic’s arsenals should be distributed to the workers. In the meantime all throughout Spain spontaneous clashes occurred as each army unit waivered regarding its loyalties. It’s a good moment to open a map as you listen along, and I’ll link to one in the transcripts (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/europe/spain/). In places where armed workers arrived first, garrisons were easily won over to the side of the Republic, as was the case in Barcelona and Madrid. In places where determined reactionary officers could call their men to order, or seize radio stations, entire units joined the military coup, as happened in otherwise Republican Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo in Asturias (Graham, p. 94). In Valencia the military garrison was split, and so the fighting went on for a full week until the CNT finally got the upper hand (Graham, p.95). More than a third of Spain’s territory passed into the hands of the rebels, in traditional conservative strongholds such as Navarre and Alava, all of Old Castile, and after intense fighting also Galicia (Graham, p. 95). On more than one occasion civilian authorities who assumed they had the army’s loyalty declared their allegiance to the Republic and then were arrested by the rebellion and jailed or more likely shot. The rising failed to capture the Navy. The armies of the right wing coup massacred civilian populations, even in places where there was no resistance to them at all, so as to collectively punish the laboring classes as such for having dreamed of equality (Graham, p. 116). In Navarre 2,789 were executed (Beevor, p. 90). In Badajoz the right wing Lieutenant Yague had the local population collected in the bull rings and shot in batches, killing somewhere between 6 and 12 thousand people over the course of a few days (p. 91). In Seville the rebels murdered 8,000, another 10,000 in Cordoba, and 7,000 in Malaga (pp. 91, 93). An estimated 200,000 people in all were murdered by the right wing armies, compared to some 38,000 victims of the red terror that came after and in response to the right wing’s attacks. Victims of the red terror fell mainly in Madrid and Catalonia during the first few months after the coup (Beevor, p. 87). The nationalists continue to purge society in the decades that followed the fall of the Republic in 1939. Quoted in the Graham, the right wing General Mola explained why: “we have to terrorize, we have to show we are in control by rapidly and ruthlessly eliminating all those who do not think as we do.” (p. 117). As in Russia, white terror expressed itself as arbitrary and total, punishing entire populations, while red terror was by and large retaliatory and focused on the agents of Spain's ongoing millennial brutality against the poor, and oftentimes these agents were priests (Graham, p.85; Beevor, pp. 81-101). We shouldn’t excuse any of these acts of violence, but we owe the victims a good faith effort to objectively understand what happened. The violence of the right was directed from the top, and the violence of the left was resisted by left institutions and leadership. The anarchist union, the CNT for instance over the course of the war increased centralized control of its chapters in part to curb such violence, though it must be admitted their ideological prejudice against institutional authority most likely slowed their hand (Graham, p. 88). Graham comments: “But not only had the military coup fragmented the army. By inducing the collapse of Republican government at every level it also massively facilitated the upsurge in popular political violence which followed that collapse. This sudden explosion was primed by rage at what was seen as the rebels’ attempt to put the clock back to old-regime order by force, after their failure by electoral means. Although the intensity of this post-coup popular political violence varied across Republican territory, it was everywhere instigated by urban workers and landless labourers, who directed it overwhelmingly at the sources and bearers of the ‘old power’- whether material (by destroying property records and land registries) or human (the assassination or brutalisation of priests, Civil Guards, police, estate bailifs, and shopkeepers associated with speculative pricing and other exploitative practices). There is a clear link between post-coup popular violence and per-war conflicts” (Graham, p. 85). In the end, the red terror was a key reason that the Republic fell to the fascists, because it inspired a spontaneous grass roots effort among Catholics in the United States to stop America from intervening to aid the Republic (Beevor, pp. 240-242). By the time clear battle lines were drawn a couple weeks after the beginning of the coup, the Republic had a regular military force of maybe 90,000 men, while the rebellion held a force of 130,000 including 40,000 Army of Africa veterans (Beevor, p. 79).

    Republican Spain at this point was governed as an uncoordinated federation, with most government functions being carried out by local committees, except in Madrid. Though collectivization did occur in some places, it was by no means uniform. In many places property rights were protected. Even if you don’t read any of the excellent books I’m talking about you should watch Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom: about halfway into the movie there is a scene following a republican victory in a small village the local notables debate land collectivization, and that discussion distills so much of the political debate of the time and the century. Across all left organizations, the proximity of Madrid to the rebel armies focused everyone in that region on the need for centralization of government in defense of the free Republic. Across Catalonia the liberation of local peoples from centuries of despotism inspired resistance to the movement in Madrid for centralization. At the same time, Catalonia and Aragon could have declared their independence right then and there, but they didn’t for the sake of facing the common foe (Beevor, p. 106). The war exacerbated the already existing political divisions, but there was a real tension in the coalescing priorities of the Republicans between their immediate situation and their ideological priors. In Catalonia Anarchists became the police. They became the police. The anarchists. In Madrid the socialists patrolled to prevent the spilling of reactionaries’ blood. The world seemed to be tilted on its head. The difficulty of coordinating the local committees and rallying them to the defense of the Republic was a key factor in how the Republic was lost, and without the Republic all of these local initiatives were to be crushed by the reactionaries.

    The Republic had to attempt to form a government that its radical base could believe in, and that is why the complete buffoon Largo Caballero was appointed prime minister on September 4 of 1936 . The loss of Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo cut off a large region in Northern Asturias that would have supported revolutionary change (Graham, p. 129). The red terror had failed to liquidate the ruling class, but had succeeded in alienating it from the Republic and scaring away potential foreign aid. The Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, the PCE took the lead in state building: people who say they were dominated by the comintern are just wrong (Graham, pp.174-181). It was the PCE that welcomed in the Spanish Army Officers who had not supported Franco, giving them a way to acquire some kind of social acceptance in the Republic. They organized the Fifth Regiment which was to be the core of the Republican Army. They set up medical services, nurseries, literacy drives and film showings (Graham, p. 180). They were trying to accomplish what the left liberals and socialists had failed to do in the early 30s: to unite society in a democratic project of reform (Graham, p. 214) . The rivalry between the PCE and the PSOE, that is communists and socialists, has been exaggerated in order to give fodder to an ideological battle in the US and Great Britain, but more on that later. Unfortunately for the most part these PCE initiatives didn’t do much outside of Madrid until later in the war. Look, I’m not a Stalinist, and ultimately I have strong criticisms for what the Stalinist Comintern and the PCE did in Spain. I think you already know I’m not a fan of Stalin if you’ve listened to the other episodes of this podcast. Wait until we tell the story of Ukraine. Seriously just thinking about it right now pisses me off, but the PCE did a lot of good and was somehow allowed to show initiative (not a common thing amongst Stalinists of the period). Criticism is better if it has a legitimate claim to objectivity, and the PCE as a political project was correctly focused on doing whatever it took to beat Franco, not so much taking orders from Moscow as accommodating the comintern where necessary. When in November of 1936 Stalin’s agents in Madrid asked that the Trotsky associated POUM be excluded from the government, the Spaniards accepted the decision without a fight because none of those present were particularly invested in sticking up for a very small party with a base that was Catalan nationalist. In other words the Spanish were not dominated by the comintern: they had their own reasons for abandoning the POUM (Graham, p. 198). Apart from the PCE, the ruling parties in Catalonia and Madrid were still divided over local autonomy and the centralized state, still held a lot of grudges from the bitter decades in the wilderness they had all just passed through. These social divisions would contribute to the doom of the Republic.

    To equip and feed an army requires economics, and economics requires international support typically. The rebellion did not start out with a pre-arranged guarantee of aid from the fascist powers, Mussolini and Hitler, but these figures soon rallied to the side of the Spanish rebellion. Because the Spanish Navy stayed true to the Republic, the insurgent officers had to ask, and promptly received, help from Hitler to transport the Army of Africa into Spain by air. It wasn’t until the summer of 1937 that Franco became the leader of the right wing movement, but long before then he was Hitler’s favorite. Mussolini supplied the rebellion troops and supplies. Hitler supplied airplanes and pilots, who received in this way the training that made them such a powerful force in WW2. Americans were not supposed to aid either side of the conflict, but we now know that Texaco supplied oil to Franco nearly free of charge throughout the war (Hochschild). Despite everything, the rebels could not have won without support from Hitler, Mussolini and Texaco. For nearly a decade in the early 20th century, fascists regularly bombed civilian population centers throughout Europe, beginning in Madrid in August of 1936, nearly 3 years before England and France could find the political will to intervene.

    The European masses were split politically, just as the masses were in Spain. The ruling parties in England and France decided not to help defend Republican Spain, in part because they didn’t want to support a polity they saw as dominated by murderous left wing revolutionaries, and in part because their respective domestic politics favored disengagement from possible foreign interventions. In England there was strong public support for pacifism, and the wounds of WW1 were fresh. France’s government, led by the socialist Leon Blum, supplied some minor material aid to the Republic at first and then stopped. Blum was concerned that supporting Republican Spain might inspire a conservative backlash that could jeopardize his domestic reform program (Graham, p. 125). France at any rate was politically split as always, between reactionaries and radicals who all agreed that the problem was the liberal governments of Europe, with perhaps the Spanish Republic included. Instead of buying weapons through a central authority, the Republic ended up relying on purchasing of weapons piecemeal through representatives of the multiple committees that governed Spain at the time, who were bidding against each other and driving the prices up. Presenting a united authority for purchasing military equipment was part of what drove Madrid in the direction of greater centralization of government functions. The Republic had to grant autonomy to Basque country in order to win their cooperation in the war, but that cooperation only went so far. The Republic had to purchase Basque steel on the open market with cash in hand, and production was not centrally oriented to wartime production until very late, the summer of 1937. Add to all of this the fact that while middling and lower class Basques were won over to fighting a defensive war for the Republic, the large industrialists in Basque country were on Franco’s side and they sabotaged industrial production (Graham, pp. 248-250). The only great power left to help the Spanish Republic was the Soviet Union.

    I want to frame Russian involvement in the Spanish Civil War by discussing briefly the broader picture of Stalin’s geostrategy. Stalin’s main motivation in this period which culminated in the show trials was fear of his enemies. He was afraid the Poles would tell the world about his forced starvation of the Ukraine starting in 1932. He was afraid that Trotsky’s left opposition would challenge his standing as the leader of the communist movement. He was afraid that Germany or Japan were going to invade Russia. He thought that Japan was angling to begin an imperialist project in Ethiopia, and so Stalin helped arm Mussolini as he invaded Ethiopia. In 2017 we were blessed when a great novel of the Harlem Renaissance, a lost masterpiece, was finally published for the first time. Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth is a fictional story resulting from a synthesis of real events. In this book, which you should all go read, McKay tells the story of how in the mid 1930s Harlem was the site of a movement to raise money to aid the Ethiopian war effort against Italian imperialism, and how Stalin’s Communist Party worked to co-opt and then sabotage that movement. It’s a novel, but the story it tells is based on real events. There really was an Ethiopian envoy who spoke to churches in Harlem in a good faith effort to raise money for the defense of Ethiopia. The white dominated CPUSA in New York City really did work to co-opt and undermine those efforts. This gives you a good idea of how the international solidarity networks built off of the prestige of the Russian Revolution became tools in Stalin’s chauvinistic geopolitics. Radicals today are fond of saying that the “so-called” democracies of the world should have resisted fascism in Spain to avoid WW2 (they are right), but they don’t as often say the world should have defended Ethiopia. I don’t know why that is, but it’s remarkable. Stalin saw Spain as an opportunity to potentially gain another soviet satellite, a way to tie down Nazi Germany and Mussollini whom he feared and a way to bleed the rival tendencies in the international communist movement. Though ultimately Russians did end up fighting, Stalin’s policy in Spain was to provide advisors, to organize international brigades recruited from around the world, and to supply weapons, the worst of which were reserved for the anarchists and the independent socialists in the POUM. The political line was that in Spain private property rights had to be protected to win over the Spanish middle class to a defense of the republic. That was not a bad tactic for winning support, and the Spanish Communist Party membership ballooned in this period.

    In October of 1936, just as the first shipments of weapons and tanks from Russia were arriving in Spain, Franco was poised to attack Madrid. Ideological splits on the left had real consequences for the Republic. In the Fall of 1936 Antonio Mije from the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, PCE, urged Largo Caballero of the Socialist Party to have the militias begin digging trenches. Caballero told Mije that Spaniards were too proud to hide in the ground. And that is part of why the Republic lost Toledo (Graham, p. 140). Caballero continued to reject common sense advice if it came from his political rivals. In other instances, events pushed political action. Negrin as Treasurer and President Azana pushed for a greater centralization of authority (a) to slow down and halt the red terror that was ruining any possibility of lifting the practical trade embargo that British and French neutrality effectively imposed on Spain, and (b) to muster a sufficient defense against the far right which was committing genocide in rebel held Spain (Graham, pp. 159-161). Negrin was also pushing to nationalize industry in response to the looming shortages caused by the embargo imposed on Spain via European “neutrality.” In the chaos that followed the coup many locals set up their own police patrols, but these completely informal patrols were soon imitated by opportunists, bandits and fifth column fascist saboteurs. When the Republic forced all such patrols into a formal government institution it was a correct move in the direction of stamping out abuses and affirming democratic accountability by police forces (Graham, p. 162). During the siege of Madrid, with widespread and well founded fears of a fifth column of right wing nationalists ready to murder the Republic, Republican officials tasked with transporting military prisoners massacred 1200 of them at Paracuellos. It doesn’t seem as though they were ordered to do it, but the officials in charge turned a blind eye after first hearing about it (Graham, p.193). The drive to centralize the security apparatus and impose discipline came in response to events like this. These were strong enough reasons for someone like Largo Caballero, the Spanish Lenin, to support the professionalization of the Army, the re-establishment of municipal authorities and the imposition of legal limits on, though not outright abolition of collectivization, and further convinced the anarchist trades union, the CNT, to enter the coalition government taking four cabinet positions (Graham, pp. 163, 164). Juan Negrin, a leader in the Socialist Party, wanted to end land expropriation altogether, but could not for the moment. The rapid gains of the libertarians in August had to be curbed but not ended in November to secure the support of the middle class as the new Republic tried to lead society into a life or death conflict, and at any rate these policies were barely implemented at first.

    In early November the Madrid government made the mistake of relocating from Madrid to Valencia. They assumed that Madrid would fall, and it showed. The move communicated to the world that they didn’t expect to hold Madrid, and if they didn’t hold Madrid they might have lost international recognition. As the ministers of industry and trade, both of them from the anarchist CNT, and one General Asensio, the chief of the general staff (remember that name - General Asensio) were leaving Madrid they were stopped at a checkpoint by the del Rosal column, the largest of the anarchist militias (Alpert, p. 50). The guards at the checkpoint ordered the ministers to return to Madrid or be shot as cowards. The group backtracked and found another route to Valencia.

    In the Battle of Madrid an amateurish force composed of civilian militia, armed workers and foreign volunteers successfully fought back the far superior forces of Franco. General Miaja was put in charge of defense as the government fled, and his briefing had detailed instructions on how to retreat but said nothing of the defense of the city (Graham, p.168). It’s not clear why Miaja didn’t side with the rebels; four years prior he had told Azana that the socialists should all be shot. But the flight of the government had an odd effect on the population, who rallied to the defense of the city with renewed enthusiasm. Miaja was caught up in the general high emotion, and pleased to be so important all of a sudden. He accepted a membership card from the Communist Party, remarking at some point that maybe he could be for the Republic what Franco was for the rebellion. It must be nice to be oblivious in that way. He ended up on the Republican side by chance, but after Madrid his loyalty to the Republican cause was unwavering.

    Buenaventura Durruti began his rebellion at the age of 21 when he joined in a railway workers strike in 1917 (Paz). Durruti was the kind of anarchist who organized assassinations, and he had traveled widely throughout latin America including Cuba. In 1936 he led 3,000 armed men to Madrid in order to defend the city. He died in a senseless gun accident, and the Republic claimed him as a martyr. To bolster the war effort the CNT ascribed to him the slogan, which he never actually said, “We will renounce everything except victory.” (Graham, p. 179).

    In 2016 Houghton Mifflin published Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.” It’s fine. If you want to read about Hemmingway engaging in war tourism and hitting on actresses while he acts tough, then you could read the Hochschild. If you want to actually gain some kind of knowledge about the Spanish Civil War you should skip it and read the Graham. But Hochshild does have all these pleasant little anecdotes to tell, like the time that Paul Robeson sang for soldiers at the front in the frozen battle of Teruel, or the quote from Camus that the title of the book is from. I’ll tell you that quote at the end of the podcast, and then one or two more things from Hochschild and then you can ignore the book entirely and not miss much. In the Battle for Madrid Franco focused his forces on the University City and the Model Prison. Hochschild writes about British volunteers setting up sniping positions in the lecture hall of the Philosophy department and using “the thickest books they could find: metaphysics texts, nineteenth-century German philosophy, and the Encyclopedia Britanica. (In another building, French volunteers were sheltering behind parapets of Kant, Goethe, Voltaire and Pascal).” (Hochschild, p. 84-85). I guess metaphysics is good for something after all!

    It would be wrong to say that Stalin was not invested in a Republican victory, and given the very real threat Hitler posed to the Soviet Union the amount of military aid given to Spain was substantial. Half of Soviet military aircraft production in 1936 went to Spain (Graham, p. 153). People make a big deal of the Soviet Union taking the Spanish gold reserves and then manipulating the exchange rate to double their profits, but at the same time they extended credit to Spain even much later in the war when it was clear Spain was not going to be able to pay them back (ibid). People talk about the communist party’s commissars in the military, but there’s not much actually scandalous about that. The commissars in the Spanish militias predate the special relationship between the comintern and the Republic, because the anarchist peasants in those militias didn’t trust the few Army officers who hadn’t joined Franco’s rebellion (Graham, p. 146). Although Stalin saw Spain as an important place to defeat or stall fascism, which he understood as a threat to his interests, he was obsessed with winning the PR battle to attract help from or at least to not irritate Great Britain and France. If he could draw the great powers into an outright fight against Hitler, then it would help him to better secure his own western border.

    Stalin’s obsession over how he was perceived by the world made him prioritize public relations over real victories. The military advice his agents gave the Republic certainly turned events in this direction. Real battles were waged so as to create real experiences that could more or less fit into exaggerated versions of what really happened. Failures were explained by fictitious conspiracies to sabotage that were often corroborated by testimonies extracted via torture (Beevor, p. 306). The loss of one of the victims of the show trials in particular was an enormous blow to the Republican cause. When Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was purged so were his ideas about military strategy (Beevor, p. 196). It just so happened that Tukhachevsky was a pioneer of what is known as the pincer attack, which was the best strategy given the tank technology of the time. This strategy was the tactic that allies used in WW2 to drive back Hitler. In a pincer attack a concentrated line of tanks rapidly pierces the enemies line and then encircles the enemy. Time and time again the Republican forces would execute a rapid advance and then hunker down instead of completing the encirclement, precisely because Russian officers did not wish to be found guilty of ideological aberration and then die in a show trial. This happened at the battles of Brunette in July of 1937 (Beevor, p.282), Saragossa in August and September of 1937 (Beevor, p. 298), Teruel in December of 1937 (Beevor, p. 316). In the Battle of the Ebro, the Republic rushed troops to the other side of an enormous river where they could not be easily provisioned late in the war when the Nazis clearly had air superiority. The plan was audacious and ruinous and suicidal. In choosing offensives in these places, Russian advisors were trying to win the Public Relations battle to show that the Republic could win. That PR battle was already lost. Americans and Brits were too pacifist, and too ready to believe exaggerated stories about red terror. The French were too divided. Stalin was content to sacrifice the best of the international movement in pointless and doomed engagements to improve his image. Confidence men like Ernest Hemmingway were on board with this agenda, until years later when For Whom the Bell Tolls revealed the terrible truth. Hemmingway lied about the men fighting the Civil War while they died, and by feeding this machine of illusions he bears some responsibility for its consequences, and then “honored” their memory with criticisms after their deaths. Unlike Hemmingway, George Orwell actually fought as an infantryman for the Spanish Republic, was shot in the neck and then returned home to tell the complicated truth, that Spain’s only friend Russia was exploiting the conflict to bleed Stalin’s enemies in the left movement, the anarchists and independent communists. No wonder that discipline was a problem, or that soldiers on the Republican side mutinied when given orders to suicide missions. The Stalinists in Republican Spain soon set up camps for deserters and other political subversives, one of which was called Camp Lukacs, but it wasn’t named after the famous Hungarian Marxist thinker by that name. The purges and show trials followed them to Spain. One of the Russian advisors sent to help the Spanish Republic was Antonov Ovseyenko. Ovseyenko stormed the Winter Palace in 1917. He opposed attempts to break up the anarchist communes in Catalonia, and for his bravery he was recalled to Moscow and executed (Beevor, p. 156). This was around the same time that Stalin’s agents sabotaged an effort to grant Morocco independence in exchange for Moroccan fighters withdrawing from combat against the Republic (Beevor, p. 155). Antony Beevor cites Russian State Archives which show Antonov-Ovseenko was working with the Catalan government and the national committee of Morocco to exchange financial support and independence for Moroccans starting an uprising against Franco. To his discredit, Largo Caballero was cool to the idea. Moroccans were fighting on the side of Franco because he had promised them independence, while the Republic had not wanted to lose its colony. The Moroccans were some of the most feared and skillful soldiers on the field, and Franco encouraged them to commit acts of mass rape as punishment for areas that were sympathetic to the Republic. Stalin didn’t want Moroccan independence because he thought it would upset England and France, whom he was trying to be friendly with. I sympathize with those who say that the Republic needed a revolution against the bourgeoisie, especially when the bourgeoisie were such easy partners with Stalinists who violated every civil right except the property rights of the big landowners.

    Working against the centralizing tendencies was the blossoming of an anarchist project centered in Catalonia.

    The government in Madrid saw these initiatives as a liability. In January of 1937 the Socialist Party and the Communist Party made an alliance so as to better unify and coordinate the defense against Franco (Graham, p. 201). Victorio Codovilla was an Italian who had represented Argentina in the comintern in 1924, and then served as liaison for the comintern in Spain during this period (Drachkovitch, Payne). Codovilla was pushing to unite the PCE and the PSOE against Stalin’s wishes (Graham, p. 205). Stalin didn’t want to exacerbate tensions between the two historically opposed groups. Was the PCE plotting against Caballero as Beevor seems to suggest? Maybe, but Stalin was not. Caballero was playing Stalin’s tune, wooing the great powers with all the right kind of pro-private property talk and policy. Caballero was undermined by his own incompetence, already displayed in his handling of the Asturia crisis in 1934 and confirmed in the poor to negligible defense of Malaga which fell in February of 1937 with a resulting massacre of at least 4,000 civilians at the hands of the reactionaries. Caballero was blamed for appointing Carlos Asensio Cabanillas as chief of the General Staff. Asensio had had 30 militiamen shot for desertion despite them being untrained, and in case you didn’t remember his name he was one of the ministers stopped by a CNT roadblock as they fled Madrid. The anarchists had threatened to shoot Asensio for cowardice if he didn’t return to Madrid. The Malaga disaster plus all the rest of this in Asensio’s past led to popular pressure to have him removed, which happened in February of 1937. Of course Caballero claimed that all of this, including the fall of Malaga, was part of a treasonous plot by the communists, the anarchists, the POUM and so on (Beevor, p. 202): it provides ready material for people of any ideological tendency to find proof that whoever they oppose is wrong about Spain. The common one I’ve seen is that the Stalinists were manipulating the PCE in order to take over the Spanish Republican government. Now, had the Republic won the war Stalin would likely have tried something like that, but if you compare the history of Soviet Ukraine to that of Soviet Poland you will see how important geography and time can be to relative degrees of Stalinist domination (Snyder, p. 369). In the early 50s the Polish communists were able to stop a purge, the so-called Doctor’s purge, that was going on in Moscow from spreading to Poland. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Spain would have been another Ukraine. I could be wrong, but we’ll never know because we cannot replay history with one or two variables changed. Contrary to Beevor, Graham doesn’t see any communist plot against Caballero, and I tend to agree with her. At any rate, she had a lot more resources to draw on for her story in 2002 than Beevor did in 1984, and people who just read what Caballero’s supporters were writing probably got the impression there was a conspiracy against him.

    Catalonia, the region of Spain around Barcelona, was the site of the most audacious social and political experiments. Hochschild gives a pretty good overview of what was happening, complete with the impressions the scene made on Charles and Lois Orr, two Socialists from Kentucky on their honeymoon: “Barcelona’s Ramblas was dazzling,” she wrote... ‘Red, yellow, green and pink handbills and manifestos floated about our feet. Bright lights on… cafes, restaurants, hotels and theaters lit up red or red and black banners saying Confiscated, Collectivized, CNT-FAI or Union of Public Performances.’ Throughout Republican Spain, more than a million urban laborers and some 750,000 peasants were now in businesses or on farms newly controlled by their workers. In towns and cities the 2,000 enterprises involved included not just factories but ranged from warehouses to flower shops. Thousands of big landowners and urban businessmen fled to France. Nowhere had the old order been overturned more thoroughly than in Catalonia, where workers had taken over more than 70 percent of all places of employment. There was still a Catalan regional government, but real power lay in the hands of thousands of workers’ collectives. It seemed to Charles Orr that these collectives ran everything: ‘They opened clinics and hospitals in lush private villas… Every automobile in the street was decorated with the initials and colors of one or another workers’ organization. There were no more private cars.’” (p. 53). The collapse of the state that followed the officers’ coup led in July of 1936 in Catalonia, as it did everywhere in Spain, to a contest for power fought out in the streets. The elites of Catalonia were generally in favor of Catalan independence, and so they supported the workers’ militias in their fight against the ultra centralist rebels. Once the fighting was over, the anarchists found that there was no state authority. What now? Just the previous May the anarchists had held a conference where they “affirmed that each political philosophy should be allowed to develop the form of social coexistence which best suited it” (Beevor, p. 106). In practical terms this seems to have meant developing anarcho-syndicalism where they could and not challenging the liberal government. The President of Catalonia at the time was Lluis Companys, and he publicly declared that the anarchists had all authority in Catalonia, but that if they would still accept his assistance, he would help them fight the reactionaries. In order to unite in the fight against the military rising and to defend themselves from the Marxists in government, CNT leadership acquiesced to sharing power, and on the 21 of July they took up the departments of defence, transport and public order on the Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee, the CAMC (Graham, p.218). Though the threat of Franco was real, it’s meaning was slow to change the libertarian predispositions of Catalans. By September they had agreed to dissolve the Militia Committee and join the Generalitat, and by October they had joined the Madrid government. In the moment after July 1936, with the CNT’s armed forces in control of the physical space, they felt confident that as they partnered with the Generalitat that they would be the senior partners (Graham, p.220). This nonresistance to liberal governance was an explicit rejection of the Leninist idea of creating a dual power and then on Lenin’s version of Leninism riding a democratic upsurge into state power. The system of collectivized production had certain inefficiencies, maybe in better times they could have been worked out. Collectivization certainly got blamed for certain failings that were actually just caused by the war, but the need for centralized planning was felt everywhere and it gave the liberals the advantage of speaking to felt needs as an opposition. What could not be made to happen in a few months in the Fall of 1936 was the establishment of workers councils over and above the organizations that already existed. When Felix Morrow blames the anarchists for selling out the revolution, he is repeating the error of Liebknecht and of the original Blanquists: imagining a small group with nothing more than a correct idea can freeze the waterfall of history and command society. It’s easy to see the political failure of the POUM, their political isolation from the movement, in the wider context of the tragedy of the fall of the Republic, as signifying a path not taken. But the POUM embodied all of these contradictions even in its internal politics. They were right to denounce the show trials, but that hardly helped anyone in the fight against Franco. They did call for revolution, but they also publicly declared that the POUM would “uphold [the middle classes’] economic claims… within the framework of the revolution” (Graham, p. 236) and then also tried to join the liberal Republic, for much the same reasons everyone else did. The mass of the POUM’s support was not loyal to the left opposition or to Andreu Nin, but to the Catalan nationalism of the BOC, the Workers and Peasants Bloc that had joined Nin’s much smaller group in 1935. The former BOC members were loyal to the POUM and BOC leader Joaquin Maurin, who from the beginning of the conflict was in a jail in rebel held territory (p. 236). In these circumstances the POUM could not expect anything beyond political isolation.

    There was hardly any distinction between the Catalan liberal Generalitat and the PSUC, a Catalan nationalist and democratic socialist party headed by Joan Comorera, who saw a merger with the liberal Esquerra as an opportunity to get the upper hand over his rival party, the independent communist POUM. The PSUC experienced an influx of new members, attracting small tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were shocked by certain libertarian excesses, or criminal opportunism depending on your point of view. Peasants were indignant at the CNT’s grain requisitions, and small farmers were resistant to collectivization. This was the majority tendency in Valencia and Catalonia, where collectivization efforts focused on industry (Graham, p. 223). In nearby Aragon some 75% of land was collectivized, and single families were allowed to keep as much land as they could work without hiring labor (Beevor, p. 112). Production in Aragon went up by a fifth. Interestingly, the part of Aragon around Teruel in the west was where the CNT was strongest, and those areas had fallen to Franco. In the more rural Eastern part where there was not previously a strong CNT presence, anarchist militia, not locals, collectivized this land; notwithstanding, they didn’t meet with much opposition. The anarchists outlawed wage labor, and so people accepted collectivization as the new law of the land, until requisitioning began and then people resisted.

    Within the government of Catalonia liberal and communist political power soon overcame the position of the anarchists. This has often been described as a communist and liberal plot backed up by the force of the increasingly powerful comintern backing the Madrid government. This version of events ignores what the Spanish masses were actually doing. There was a growing movement against anarchy because of the terrible war against Franco. The old liberal idea that the state’s purpose is to protect the lives of its citizens was pressing and urgent in the lived experience of the Spanish people, but also the loss of European imports and large parts of Spain’s agricultural potential increased internal displacement of refugees and compounded the food crisis over time. The harvest of 1936 was very good, but it only went so far. The crisis began to sharpen in the first months of 1937. The Stalinist PSUC and the liberal Esquerra, the Catalan counterparts of the PCE and the PSOE, felt the need to centralize food distribution. There was a clear need for rationing, identified by both the CNT and the POUM (Graham, p. 256). Barcelona was overwhelmed by refugees fleeing the horrors of Franco’s Spain. The liberal communist government disbanded the anarchist supply committees, not all of whom were double dealing. They thought that just as in Russia under the New Economic Policy, allowing the peasants to sell their grain on the market would discourage hoarding. There were a few problems with this. Catalonia was a net importer of grain in a market that was now largely cut off from foreign supply. Freeing the grain market hence did nothing to increase supply or reign in speculation, inflation and the expanding of a black market which were already a problem, but the Generalitat became identified with causing these problems. The Catalonian Generalitat finally replaced the supply committees with groups that did not understand local needs and supplied them instead of from product expropriated by anarchist committees, with what the government could afford on the market, which was less and less. When the government did crack down on the black market it sparked further resentment in the population because it meant clearing out street vendors and offending powerful and ancient smuggling interests. Locals in Barcelona might have family in the nearby countryside they could get farm products from, but the refugees from other parts of Spain did not. In order to make the food distribution work well enough to keep most people alive in a fair way, the security apparatus had to be centralized. In March the state consolidated security forces under a single command and outlawed the worker’s patrols, which continued anyway. Disarming the patrols was a slow and occasionally deadly process. To poor people living in Barcelona, these Republican policemen felt exactly the same as the policemen who had helped evict rent strikers before in 1931. The impression grew that the Republic was not worth defending. The split in the Republican forces was coming to a head.

    A protest movement grew, led by the CNT, FAI and the POUM. The situation worsened throughout 1937 reaching a nadir with a large price hike on April 14th. The Catalan police, while investigating the murder of a UGT leader and PSUC member Roldan Cortada arrested several CNT leaders and ended up in a shoot out where they killed Antonio Martin. Martin was a longstanding anarchist, and had gone from being a smuggler to being a CNT customs agent. The increasing political isolation of the anarchists gave the liberal government a foothold to begin closing in on the factory committees. From Graham: “By April 1937 the Generalitat was refusing to certify factory councils’ ownership of exported goods tied up in foreign ports pending the resolution of legal suits lodged by former owners” (p. 264).

    On May 3rd a group of Republican police seized the Telefonica in the Plaza de Cataluna. The Telefonica was the communications hub of the region and the anarchists had occupied it since the coup in July of 1936. Losing the telefonica effectively isolated the CNT from the union control committee and meant they could not directly listen in on conversations between the Catalan Generalitat and the government in Madrid (Beevor, p. 263). Up until that point the Republic had more or less tacitly allowed the Anarchist seizures of property in Catalonia. The Anarchist militias on the Aragon front had to choose between standing guard against Franco on a front that was quiet for the moment, or returning to Barcelona to fight the Republic. That is the Spanish Civil War in microcosm. Within 24 hours word of mouth had mobilized the entire city. Barricades went up all around the center of Barcelona with Catalans, refugees and international volunteers taking sides or ending up on sides almost at random. In reality, the Republic couldn’t stand on its own without the help of the Anarchists, wherever that led politically, but nor could they fight Franco without carefully managing scarce resources, a task made impossible by ongoing anarchy in Catalonia. The version of events according to which Stalin and the liberals crush the anarchists just to win the great powers over to supporting the Republic is only half true: the conflict in Barcelona was driven just as much by local needs and politics. Rather than describing the May days in Barcelona in terms of local pawns in the thrall of the soviet union, Graham describes the divide by its local dimensions: “The political temperature rose further as Roldan Cortada’s funeral turned into a demonstration of state power in the form of a long march past of armed police and troops. While this reflected middle-class fears that the recent violence might herald a return of the feared paseos [anarchist red terror], the blatant rehearsing of the state’s repressive capacity and moral panic inducing editorials in Barcelona’s liberal republican press (including Treball, the PSUC newspaper) were fatal components in the accumulation of social and political tensions… The assault on the Telefonica focused the resisters’ energies on the city centre where all the political and economic machinery of government was concentrated - in close proximity to the most volatile of popular neighborhoods, the Barri xines (literally, ‘Chinese Quarter’), which had long constituted the front line between ‘respectable’ and ‘outcast’ Barcelona. Indeed, the force of the initial May explosion is explicable only if one bears in mind the longstanding connection between the ‘outcast’ city and the CNT. While the appearance of the barricades constituted an act of conscious ‘political’ contestation, the CNT’s direct action was also mediating more amorphous, ‘pre-political’ forms of popular resistance. The CNT was, once again, functioning as a lightning conductor in inner-city Barcelona, transforming both a shared history of persecution and the perception among the city’s marginalised of the connection between state action (public order, food supply and so on) and the brutality of daily life into generalised support for street action as active protest ‘against the state’. This was what confronted liberal Catalonia and its police force in central Barcelona on 4 May.” (pp. 266, 268). What’s more, the CNT controlled anti-aircraft guns from nearby Monjuic Hill, from which they could have bombarded the government buildings in the city center (Graham, pp. 268-274). CNT leadership scrambled to end the crisis without bloodshed. Garcia Oliver, an important anarchist leader during the defense of Barcelona during the July coup and a close comrade of Durruti during the brutally violent labor struggles of the 1920s, gave an impassioned appeal over the radio for a ceasefire. In that speech he discusses arriving in Barcelona and kneeling to kiss the forehead of a fallen anarchist, and then further on kneeling to kiss the forehead of a cop. The speech was believed to be given under duress, or it was mocked as ‘the Legend of the Kiss,’ which was the title of a popular Opera, or it was denounced as a betrayal, but Oliver and his comrades in CNT leadership were working to avoid the very real possibility that Madrid would have to dispatch military units to put down an uprising in Catalonia, a region whose industrial production the Republic could not afford to lose especially as Franco’s forces began making progress in the northern Basque country. In the event, the CNT’s anti-aircraft guns remained silent, and the Republic was spared further mass internal bloodshed. The group in the Telefonica surrendered, and soon enough the city was pacified. The anarchists could not continue their rebellion, because with their leading figures on the other side of the barricades, they had no backup chain of command to direct their activities. On the Aragon front the anarchist line held, barely. CNT action in Barcelona remained defensive, despite the POUM leader Andreu Nin’s active agitation urging the anarchist leaders to side with their rank and file members on the barricades. When it became clear the CNT leaders would not join an open rebellion against Madrid, the POUM also agreed to a ceasefire. Concerning the political path taken by the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War Graham summarizes the process in this way: “Certainly for some the war had reinforced pre-existing views in favour of modifying anarcho-syndicalist practice to allow the incorporation of the CNT within parliamentary politics. But for many more -although they did not consciously moot it, still less articulate it in public - the war’s overwhelming practical imperatives had greatly problematised ideological resistance to centralised forms of organisation. Yet most of these resources remained in liberal hands. This, plus the limited capacity of CNT organisational forms to integrate and centralise, saw the force of attraction exerted by the liberal state over anarcho-syndicalist leaders increase as the war itself escalated. The very real needs of the war effort saw both CNT and FAI leaders increasingly incorporated into the governing machinery of the liberal state, leaving isolated and uncomprehending sectors of their own cadres and social base whose daily experience led them to continue to resist its encroachment.” (Graham, p. 278).

    From early in this podcast, from as far back as the discussion over Louverture’s suppression of the Moise rebellion, I have tried to point out that there are always tradeoffs to be made when one wields power. Our left movement today has no real sense of that because it has not held power in our lifetimes, but there is a history where the left has held power that we can learn from. By studying that history we can better understand power: what it is and how to get it. But we can also learn humility: people in the past, people like Garcia Oliver and Karl Kautsky, were not absolutely free, they could not snap their fingers and create a world where the trade offs they made were entirely pure or free from any downside. But they could make the situation better. They refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. They are not saints, but they are also not devils. It is untenable and unrealistic to continue thinking about politics as if it were a comic book where there are good guys and bad guys. We have to think of the grey areas, and begin being helpers instead of would-be saviors.

    The great powers were not going to come to assist the Republic. In the end the Republic won the battle for the telefonica. Maybe had the anarchists more energetically entered the Madrid government, unified their own police force, centralized production in Catalonia, maybe they could have held onto some of their gains at the expense of other things. Maybe they could have convinced Madrid to expand the guerrilla war against Franco. Maybe the Republic could have held out longer had they chosen a different path, had they chosen to affirm the Anarchist zones prerogatives, or given Morocco its independence, but if that’s the case probably Hitler doesn’t invade Czechoslovakia until Spain is settled anyway and events just get delayed. Or if the Stalinists had sent better or more weapons to Spain, but likely they couldn’t without compromising their own defense against Hitler later. Then they lose Spain and Russia to fascism. Or if French workers had organized a blockade of Hitler’s weapons, but that may have caused a civil war in France whose outcome was deeply uncertain. All of these possibilities seem very unlikely, but they are more likely than that the anarchists should stop being anarchists or that the liberals should stop being liberals in the span of just a few months. We shouldn’t understate the importance of international geopolitics in shaping the conditions the Spanish Civil War was waged under, but we should understand what happened in Spain as being driven by the actions, will and political calculations of Spaniards, who after all were not puppets of Stalin, Churchill, Satan or Trotsky.

    The debate around the Spanish Civil War, and its meaning for the English speaking world is a topic worthy of a whole ‘nother podcast, but the issue basically functions as a Rorschach test. What people say about it usually says more about who they are than it does about real events. Very few commentators on the Spanish Civil War pay close attention to the political debates or ideas that drove the Spanish in the 1930s, and Helen Graham has offered us an antidote to the culturally chauvinistic attitude of left pundits that doesn’t center the Spanish in their own conflict. She rightly points out that centering our own politics, using Spain as an example of why we are right about whatever, without considering what the Spanish thought and did, is a kind of cultural imperialism. In the transcripts I’m linking to a brief talk she gave in 2010 along these lines (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UcoZzWWQIk). The anarchists will say many contradictory things as usual, but mainly they will see in the Spanish events a firm rebuttal of top down socialism, its bankrupt capitulation to bourgeois liberalism. Stalinists will see the failure of anarchist indiscipline. Trotskyists will see a rebuttal of top down socialism, a failure of anarchist indiscipline and a missed opportunity to revive real proletarian revolution against Stalin. The success of the Catalonian communes and Aragon farming collectives, the socialization of the land and factories, really does vindicate the practicality of a certain kind of anarchism. Those communes could not continue to succeed without a connection to a world market, and those factories could not be best mobilized to the war effort without centralization. The Stalinist show trials really did sap the democratic legitimacy of the Republic: the overbearing way the PCE drove decision making, especially regarding where to fight and what to report, really did work to delegitimize the Republic. The Republic and it’s liberal champions lacked a support base both among the Spanish people and the international community. The Trotskyists and the POUM really didn’t have a strong social base, and weren’t going to be able to summon a revolutionary democratic upsurge beyond Catalonia out of thin air. At any rate Largo Caballero had already branded the Leninist idea as a lot of empty verbiage, which it often is. The explosion in the membership of the communist party during its propaganda campaign for bourgeois democracy and the protection of private property really did mobilize the middle class and the youth in support of the Republic. The bourgeois government really did fail to defend itself by arming the workers, who as individuals and small groups were the frontline resistance to the generals coup, especially in the crucial first 24 hours after the coup. The Republic and the left failed in the decades leading up to 1936 to attract key constituencies in the small landowners and shopkeepers, and exacerbated the alienation of Catholics to the Republican project. The Spanish Republic, and what was democratic in it, could have been defended with robust support from liberal England and France, the earlier the better, or even if these international powers had been serious about stopping foreign aid to Franco, but in staging military engagements to lure this aid from England and France the PCE dominated Republic was sabotaging the war effort for the sake of Soviet propaganda. Stalin’s agents did make unnecessary sacrifices of the Republic’s military and materiel for the sake of empty and useless propaganda. The POUM was right to denounce the show trials, which with the murder of Antonov-Ovseyenko, Tukhachevsky and so many others, highlighted the abandonment of civil rights by a communist movement in crisis. All of these things are true. All at the same time.

    Helen Graham distills the problem down to the difficulty the Republic had in “how to instill war consciousness and, linked to that, an idea of the ‘necessary state’ in the differing social constituencies’ (p. 129). The anarchist communes, separatist and revolutionary movements placed competing claims on the Republic that it was ill equipped to mediate given the immediate crisis it was born into. In large part, it was this failure of the Spanish republic to own itself, to have trusted leadership and committed membership that led to its downfall. Those are the subjective conditions for what happened. There was much that the Republic couldn’t change on the international scene. On the world stage there was a collapse of international solidarity: it was not just the French, American and British governments that failed to respond to the Spanish struggle against fascism. The French, American and British people, aside from a tiny minority of brave volunteers who fought for the international brigades, were all split about what to do, if anything, about fascism and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini and about Spain. They were split and polarized and neutralized by a prevailing loss of faith in democratic institutions, an overpowering illiberalism, a growing pessimism regarding democracy and human rights that cut across ideological lines of right and left, and a strong isolationist and pacifist mood. What happens in the world is the most just thing that can be. What the most just world possible is going to be is something we will continue to struggle over, maybe forever. What happens in the world is also a product of what everyone wants, or will put up with. In the 30s everyone wanted a great mass of contradictory things. They got a massive contradictory outcome, and it was not the greater community that benefitted, but rather those whose convictions were the strongest that overcame all the rest. There seem to have been enough people of good will to have been able to resist the fascists, perhaps well enough to prevent all of Europe from erupting into war, if a dozen or so decisions had been made a different way, but the divisions in the international progressive movement ultimately proved insurmountable. The fascists on the other hand demonstrated an unlimited and unwavering solidarity across national differences. The parallels with the present moment could not be more striking.

    Whenever I approach this material I initially feel a little confused. The facts don’t seem to fit whatever narrative I bring to them. And then slowly as I progress a more unified theorem develops, and I feel I’ve learned something about my own politics. I encourage you to do the same: the material will reward whatever time and effort you give to it. Engage with this material, and let it change you. Then come back to it every few years. I leave you with the Camus quote from Hochschild I promised you: “Men of my generation have Spain in our hearts… It was there that they learned… that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.” (Hochschild, p. xvii).

    Timeline

    1931
    monarchy abdicates and military dictatorship ends

    1934

    Asturian Commune defeated

    through January 1936
    defeat leads to the “two black years” of a
    reactionary government

    1936
    February--Popular Front wins national elections
    March--Popular Front elected in France
    July--Franco leads military uprising, seizing control of Morocco

    1937
    February--major offensive against Madrid
    May--uprising in Barcelona
    June--key city of Bilboa captured by Franco

    1938
    April--Franco splits Republic in two

    1939
    January--Barcelona defeated
    February--Britain and France recognize Franco’s government
    March--Madrid surrenders
    April--Republicans unconditionally surrender

    Main Players

    CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo - National
    Confederation of Labour)
    main federation of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions, strongest on the Eastern coast, disinterested altogether in reform

    FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation)
    founded in 1927 as a faction within the CNT to promote a hard Anarchist line

    PCE (Partido Comunista de España - Communist Party of
    Spain)
    The Stalinist CP was very weak at outbreak of civil war, but
    came to dominate popular front government

    PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español - Spanish Socialist
    Workers’ Party)
    A Democratic Socialist party which was split when Largo Caballero announced his support for a ‘Bolshevik’ takeover of power

    PSUC (Partit Socialista Unifacat de Catalunya - Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia)
    Split from the PSOE in favor of Catalonian independence, formed from the union of several smaller parties but mainly from the USC, or Catalan Socialist Union.

    UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores - General Union of Workers)
    PSOE’s union, strongest in the industrial North, split between an old guard that preferred gradual change after suffering a terrible defeat in 1917 and an energetic young leadership (Graham, 8).

    POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - Worker’s Party
    of Marxist Unification)
    Formed by a merger of the Trotskyist Left Opposition with a petty bourgeois Catalan nationalist party

    Works Cited

    Alpert, Michael. The Republican army in the Spanish civil war, 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Hachette UK, 2012.

    Drachkovitch, Milorad M. Biographical dictionary of the Comintern. Hoover Press, 1986.

    Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Hochschild, Adam. Spain in our hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

    McLaughlin, Paul. Anarchism and authority: A philosophical introduction to classical anarchism. Routledge, 2016.

    Payne, Stanley G., and Stanley G. Payne. The Spanish civil war. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Paz, Abel. Durruti in the Spanish revolution. AK Press, 2007.

    Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.

    Art: Spanish Civil War poster “Never” https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/collection/bb06157271

    Music:

    Cloud City by Andres Cantu
    Else by Harry Koniditsiotis

  • Alexander Reid-Ross Discusses Fascism Past and Present

    June 23rd, 2020  |  59 mins 45 secs
    activism, anarchism, assad, berniesanders, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, jacobin, jacobin magazine, karl leibknecht, katie halper, lenin, leninism, limonov, max blumenthal, national socialism, progressivism, putin, red brown, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, southern poverty law center, splc, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, the spanish civil war, trotsky, useful idiots, victor serge

    [extensive fact checking of Reid-Ross' Multi-Polar Spin article at the bottom]

    On April 25th I was blessed to be able to interview Alexander Reid-Ross. Before our interview he was good enough to give written responses to my questions, and those are presented below.

    How would you like to be introduced on the podcast?

    Alexander Reid Ross, PhD candidate at Portland State University and doctoral fellow at Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right

    How is your plague experience going?

    Not bad, home schooling the kid and polishing up my dissertation at the moment.

    How important is leg day?

    It’s a significant factor in a healthy regimen. You don’t want to do leg day until you have confidence in your upper body, but leg day can really help you with some of those other exercises in unexpected ways. Also, you don’t want to give the impression that you’re only there to work on glamour muscles. The fact is that everyone respects leg day, but not everyone can get there, which is fine. It’s important for people to have the freedom in the gym to go at their own pace and live their own lives without trying to fill everyone’s expectations. It’s easy for a gym to fail by not being a good environment for people to grow and live up to their self-image of who they want to be. So the really important thing is that we have different hopes and wants, and we can help each other along the way.

    How did you first get interested in radical politics?

    I had a diverse group of friends in elementary school who helped me open my mind about a lot of things. I always looked up to MLK, and thought civil rights extended to LGQT people who made up the broader community of my friend groups back then. We made an AIDS quilt together, shoplifted from a local grocer, and dumpster dove in back allies because we didn’t have much else to do and no money to spend. When I got the chicken pox in 5th grade, I stayed at home for two weeks listening to Nirvana, Madonna, and Weird Al, and decided that school was a cog in a factory system that churns out stereotypes ill befitting of the complexity of human relationships. So I decided at that young age to try to “be myself,” whatever that meant. I was a sort of mischievous anarchist puck until I got out of college. I read a ton of philosophy and Marxist literature, doing odd jobs until the economic recession put me on the street. I squatted and took up dumpster diving again until I joined the Earth First! Journal and from there worked my way back into academics.

    What is your understanding of how the Nazi party gained power in Germany? What lessons are there for us in that history?

    There’s so much that your historical account articulates that’s true—a lot of blame to go around, for sure. The Depression was perhaps most responsible, because the Nazis existed on that street level and built infrastructure for people disenfranchised from political life. They were a motley fringe, and when unemployment skyrocketed, reality fell apart, and their syncretic mythopoesis provided a way for people to restructure their lives around “self-help.” The Conservatives were the actors who actually facilitated the Nazis’ rise most effectively, and also in a totally haphazard and foolish way. The Center Party and the Peoples Party used the Nazis to try to get the upper hand on one another, while also encouraging the paramilitary forces. The main issue with this cut throat polity is that they didn’t expect or anticipate the future backfire. And lastly, the left became from the start a fractured force that undermined itself at every turn. After the Depression, the public did not trust the SPD, while the KPD worked with the Nazis to undermine both the SPD and the mainstream conservatives. So I think the political situation was frenzied without a lot of clear thinking and with a lot of emphasis on cloak-and-dagger betrayal.

    Paxton writes about a phase of a fascist movement where the leadership is sort of the guest of conservative forces and has to work to somehow expand its power. How far do you think Trump’s movement has gone in expanding its reach?

    I think the Trump case is fascinating, because it skipped the total fascist state phase. It used fascists to enter power, and has aspects that are fascist—particularly visible in immigration policy. It works toward an authoritarian-conservative world system, though, which incorporates international fascist groups. It’s hard to say how much these groups have benefited from Trump. The answer is likely complex. Some fascists have been able to enter prominent positions, but the street-level fascist movement does not think Trump ultimately supports their goals, and some regret supporting him. I think there was an arc where fascist groups tried rearing their ugly face in public at Charlottesville, were disgraced immediately by their own members, and then went into a terrorist phase, which appears to have been unwound by important FBI actions earlier this year. They’re in disarray at this point. Although white nationalists have climbed important structural ladders under Trump, this can also be undone. The important thing now is to repudiate their academic positions, eugenics, and so forth, so that they can’t root into the public consciousness.

    In your personal experience, is the Spanish Civil War still a big deal in radical circles? Do you have a favorite story from the Spanish Civil War?

    The Spanish Civil War was more significant when the left support for the YPG/YPJ returned to that Bookchinite evangelism for veterans of the war and for rescuing its legacy. I had never heard of it until I visited Barcelona in 2008. In Spain, it’s obviously extraordinarily significant. It was also significant in the legacy of post-war revolution and anti-colonialism, as you find autogestion policies in the early years of Algerian independence and elsewhere. The intellectuals who were involved—Hemmingway, Orwell, and Hughes, for instance—left their mark on our aesthetic memory, and its cultural importance can be seen with recent films like Pan’s Labyrinth. Its complexity is also extremely important, and the legacy is often left behind, due to the conflicts that arose within the Popular Front, which was itself a fairly unique model based on important discourses taking place in the mid-1930s that differed from the Second International blocs (like the SFIO-involved Bloc des gauches or the SPD-KPD drama in Germany). In a way, it is more of a wound than a glorious history. And when you look at what has happened in Syria, the splits and factionalism, the sectarianism, I suppose that the comparisons and the relavence of the war remains in the terrible defeats and terror of the left.

    What is your understanding of why the Spanish Republic was lost?

    The easy answer is that Republic was lost because it did not receive support from the Anglo-American alliance, although Hitler and Mussolini sent support to Franco. Sending equipment to the Spanish government, which was being invaded by its own army, would have made a significant difference, and could have forestalled Hitler’s quest to conquer the world, saving millions of lives. Instead the West left ramshackle groups of anarchist militias, Trotskyite subversives, and Stalinists to fend for themselves against a formidable opponent. However, when you get into the granular details of the Falangists and other far-right parties, you will find that, working within the state were serious political agents who sought to devastate the left through brutal violence as well as censure. They chased left-wing politicians out of many towns throughout the country, hounded journalists, and set the stage for the Franquista invasion. And deeper still, Republican agents made huge mistakes, like the political assassination of a highly regarded Catholic politician, Calvo Sotelo, shortly after their greatest electoral victory. There were waves of church burnings and murders of religious leaders, as well, which marked revolutionary excesses that would be used against the Republic in France and the US to prevent intervention. Many people say it was the anarchists or the Stalinists who broke ranks and fought among one another that ultimately destroyed the Republic, but their infighting was also a symptom of the larger fact that they were losing—like dogs cornered who fight themselves instead of the one cornering them—and they lost the war in Madrid after Durutti was shot largely because they were simply outgunned, out-trained, and overwhelmed.

    Who is Andy Ngo?

    He’s a weasly propagandist who masquerades as a journalist while promoting far right extremists. I think his parents were forced into exile from Vietnam, and he is a devout anti-Communist as a result. I do not understand how one would support people who hate refugees with that history, but everyone makes compromises.

    In the whole Andy Ngo saga, what did you learn about the media that surprised you?

    I think Newsweek’s behavior was shocking. They rolled out the red carpet for this professional embellisher and far-right enthusiast. I did not think that they were so incompetent and bad at decision-making.

    What does this episode teach us about how to consider the media we consume?

    I think it showed how the mainstream media is not in fact a monolithic bloc as many on the left believe, supporting some general propaganda model that doesn’t actually function in daily life. There are different media groups with different objectives and opinions, and those are often inscrutable. I am not a media studies scholar so much as I study information networks, so I can’t really speak further on that.

    Why did people call you part of an anarchy-neocon cabal?

    It mostly goes back to my hatred of the lunatic President of the rump state of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, who is a blight on the world. I supported the movements of Arab Spring that opposed dictatorships. In Syria, these movements were non-violent at first, but brutally crushed by Assad. In response, militants formed the Free Syrian Army, a nebulous force that existed in name alone and included a number of different factions. The FSA’s more democratic elements were overshadowed by the Islamists, who had more experience fighting, and as Assad buried hundreds of thousands of civilians in the rubble of barrel bombs, ISIS and the Islamists attacked those democratic forces too. The US refused to intervene to protect the civilians of Syria with a no-bombing zone, allowing Assad to perpetrate gas attacks against rebel-held areas. When in 2016 and 2017, members of the American left began ridiculing the people dying in their thousands, denying the atrocities, and antagonizing humanitarians. By that point, it became too much for me, and I started to investigate the networks that were perpetrating terrible disinformation campaigns. When I published some articles about these people and their collaborators, not out of a desire to intervene but a pure disgust for the contempt of humanity, one of the ringleaders, Max Blumenthal, insisted I was involved in a “cabal of interests” targeting peace activists. He claimed I was engaged in a conspiracy with people I’d never met (or heard of), and insisted that I was trying to push the US into another Iraq War (which I opposed at the time). Anyway, that’s what happens with conspiracy theorists—everyone’s in a cabal to them.

    Can you outline for us the network of geopolitical actors and media outlets pushing conspiracy theories about a new McCarthyism?

    It really kind of started with The Nation and Glenn Greenwald. Fascists often insist they’re targeted by McCarthyism of the left, and Greenwald has been defending them for thirty years or more, so he’s got the experience. When the Democratic National Committee figure Robby Mook stated that the DNC hacks were likely tied to Russian information campaigns, Greenwald tweeted that this was a McCarthyite campaign against Russia. The Nation is involved in an important Russian lobby group in the US, the Committee for East-West Accord, and so went to work pressing this ball up the court. This lobby group and the people tied to it tend to support an axis of geopoliticians who come from right and left and desire a “multipolar world” in opposition to neoliberal “unipolarism,” with Moscow gaining ground as the major power in a Eurasian sphere of influence. Of course, since Moscow wanted Trump in power (and so did Assange), these interests manifested the populist promise of white nationalism in an authoritarian-conservative world system with hack leftist pundits doing the dirty work of making illiberal arguments to prop up a conservative state.

    Major newspapers like the LA Times and the Washington Post hosted editorials by The Nation’s publisher and their allies accusing the Dems of McCarthyism almost immediately, which was crazy. Regardless, a host of state-connected propagandists with bylines in alternative media in the US were able to encourage this discourse with the amplification of Russian state media like RT and Sputnik, all while claiming the mainstream media was implicated, without noting that major newspapers were publishing the same accusations at the time. There was, by October, complete saturation of the media with these claims of McCarthyism against liberals and leftists who criticized Trump for, among other things, denying connections between his campaign and Russian politicos, encouraging Wikileaks hacks, and claiming those hacks were tied to a disinformation campaign centered in Russia.

    In Black Earth Timothy Snyder discusses Hitler’s environmentalism, his obsession with lebensraum and a struggle for scarce resources. What is the connection between Dugin and environmentalism, and what is the appeal of fascism to environmentalism more broadly?

    Dugin explicitly calls for fascists making inroads with “green theorists,” which broadly means greens who endorse a Marxian understanding of political ecology, because he sees these actors (people like me) as focal points for a potentially nativist uprising against liberal capitalism. Dugin holds a weirdly Heideggerian Traditionalist point of view that sees the global economy as a destructive force, and one of his favorite US theorists is John Zerzan. He believes in returning to smaller patriarchal communities not unlike peasant collectives under a powerful, central Imperial ruler (although he may not use that term). The roots of Dugin’s contacts with the US go back to the 1980s third positionist movement with people like Derrick Holland, a reactionary Catholic who supports distributism and the organic food movement, and Roberto Fiore, who was involved in the Italian fascist movement that produced the eco-radical “Hobbit Fest.” Ecological movements since the 19th Century have had sections that involve strange nativist fantasies about “returning to blood and soil,” in which Jews are viewed as the central power over modern urbanism (despite mostly living in poor, rural shtetls at the time), and perfect “Aryans” are viewed as emerging from “rootedness in the land” rather than cross-cultural communication. Fascists view modern conservatives as dominated by Zionist Jews, and see themselves as anti-Semitic missionaries in the quest to reunite the people with their nation in ethno-territorial terms. For this reason, their idea of a “state” is not the same as a nation-state, but more of an updated version of an archaic empire like Tsarism, Kaiserism, and Bonapartism.

    Back in March, 2018 you wrote an article for the SPLC about multipolar spin. Would you tell us what that article was about, and what occurred after it was published?

    The article was about the networks of disinformation purveyors mobilized by Russian media to cast doubt on cases involving Russian interests, like the downing of MH17, the Skripal case, and the use of chemical weapons by Assad. Max Blumenthal, one of the worst actors, threatened to sue the SPLC, insisting that I was involved in a conspiracy against peace activists. The SPLC folded, issuing a retraction and apology, which stated that my article was not removed due to inaccuracies but to the upswelling of resentment that it caused. In short, I presented an actual propaganda model, which was clearly proven by the groups and networks that assembled to oppose my article. However, their networks were too deeply rooted in the left and too powerful for even the SPLC. It was very depressing for many people who want justice for Syrians, myself included. Blumenthal has since threatened a number of publications, like The Guardian and Buzzfeed, if I’m not mistaken, but my article was referenced in a review of his latest screed in the London Times, which found that not only did the book include brazen falsities but that it had “blown a hole” in his publisher’s reputation. And it has. At this point, he is now peddling the right-wing conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is a bioweapon invented by the US and Gates Foundation.

    It’s a little over a month now since we started social distancing, and we have seen far right groups publicly rallying to reopen the economy. What are they thinking? What does Alex Jones gain from these public displays?

    These are really quite small rallies, and they’ve been encouraged by the far right all the way up to the President of the US. They serve multiple purposes, keeping the grift going for right-wing media like Alex Jones to sell his snake oil and make money. They also act as a strategic operation in the ongoing hybrid war against liberals from the far right, which involves disinformation and violent paramilitary threats. These groups, such as Joey Gibson’s Patriot Prayer, make incursions into urban and liberal enclaves in the Pacific Northwest from more rural areas where the Patriot movement is stronger. In doing this, they transfer the feeling of being under siege that is promoted in their own radio shows—i.e., survivalists who believe they are surrounded on all sides by their enemies bring the same paranoia to urban areas by leading violent rallies where they are often outnumbered 2-to-1. Currently, the impact of “stay at home” orders matched with violent paramilitaries in the streets might spread a feeling of being “under siege,” but mostly it makes people frustrated because it’s stupid. People have more freedom than Joey and Alex want us to have, and when the time comes to rise up, rise up they will.

    Among people you know in the radical community, what is the general attitude about the 2020 election?

    It is quite split. There are a number of people who don’t believe it’s important—either way we lose, it’s “lesser of two evils,” down with the system, and so on. There are others who support Trump, like Žižek did in 2016, thinking he will continue to oppose the “Deep State,” and will be better in foreign policy terms than the neoliberals under Biden (won’t attack Iran or Syria or Russia). There are some who are so disenfranchised by Sanders’s failure that they haven’t made up their minds yet—they want to try to push Biden toward the left by remaining as critical of him as Trump, but from the left. This is a petulant strategy in our current conditions. “Trump is building a wall and banning all green cards, but we want free college, so we can’t endorse Biden” is in my view a totally irresponsible position. Sanders, himself, said as much. I don’t support a Popular Front strategy, partly because there are no left-wing groups relevant or smart enough to stand autonomously from the liberals without embarrassing themselves. I support socialism from below, which means taking electoral politics seriously and not in some vulgar “politics of domination,” as Jeet Heer called it. While unions have their problems, and the Democratic Party is not an uncompromised entity by any stretch of the imagination, it is vastly superior to the white nationalism currently riding shotgun on the Trump bandwagon, both in terms of social movement strategy and in terms of real value.

    music by: The Hoarders, Rudy in the Rain and Harry Koniditsiotis

    https://www.haaretz.com/misc/writers/WRITER-1.6007587

    https://hummusforthought.com/2018/03/16/the-multipolar-spin-how-fascists-operationalize-left-wing-resentment/

    https://brockley.blogspot.com/2018/03/fact-checking-splc-on-max-blumenthal.html?m=1

    https://www.boundary2.org/2019/11/alexander-reid-ross-fooling-the-nation-extremism-and-the-pro-russia-disinformation-ecosystem/

    http://workshop-proceedings.icwsm.org/abstract?id=2020_18

    https://faculty.washington.edu/kstarbi/Starbird-et-al-ICWSM-2018-Echosystem-final.pdf

    https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/potemkin-pages-personas-sio-wp.pdf

    https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/2020/02/24/new-report-inside-keep-talking-the-antisemitic-conspiracy-theory-group/

  • 7. The German Revolution, Socialism and Nazism

    June 18th, 2020  |  59 mins 29 secs
    activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, karl leibknecht, lenin, leninism, national socialism, progressivism, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, victor serge

    Some of my listeners, I hope, are committed antifascists, people who show up in public to fight the fash. Welcome, brothers and sisters! I too have counterprotested the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. We deplatform them and deny them a legitimate presence in the public square. This is all for the good. The German SPD also did those things, and they were organised for fighting fascists on a much grander scale than we currently are. What the German SPD failed to do was to block Hitler’s ascent to power politically. Understanding this history is crucial if we are to understand how to work for political progress when the occupant of the White House is an open fascist.

    For the sake of brevity, I’m going to mention here the sources I draw on for my understanding of the German revolution and just make the citations in the transcripts. These books are excellent: Pierre Broue’s The German Revolution reprinted in 2005, a collection edited by Marrius S. Ostrowski called Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution first available in English in 2019, Arthur Rosenburg’s excellent 1936 History of the German Republic [HGR], and for general Prussian history Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom. Do you ever think to yourself Marxists would save themselves a world of error if they would just read a good history of Prussia. Just me? Okay.

    Ferdinand Lasalle founded the General German Workers’ Association, the forerunner of the German SPD, in 1863. Lasalle was a true believer in big government and in the Prussian bureaucracy, and in private he courted Otto von Bismarck because Lassalle was convinced that Bismarck could be persuaded to provide universal suffrage. This was not an unreasonable expectation, as the Prussian state had a long history of progressive reform, but a meaningful vote had proven elusive. In the Prussian Landstag the deputies were chosen by the vote of a college of representatives. The college of representatives was split into three equal parts which were each elected by a different tax bracket. This meant that low income people, the vast majority, could only ever get one third of the vote in the college of representatives which elected their version of the house of representatives. Moreover, Bismarck systematically abused the process to ensure the Landstag remained in conservative hands, favoring the interests of rural constituencies, that is rent collectors (Clark, 560). In such circumstances a movement for radical democracy was necessarily a revolutionary movement, and this is why Marx uses the terms democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat interchangeably (Marik, 191, 208). As discussed in a previous episode, the dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx understood it was an armed force comprised of the working classes that would defend the gains of a democratic revolution. The failure and scandal of Lassalle’s collusion with Bismarck, alongside the Imperialist ideology of the middle German classes, led in Germany to a widespread discrediting of working in Democratic coalitions, and a kind of workers’ chauvinism. Marx and Engels did not realize that the German worker’s movement they had inspired had lost faith in radical Democracy. Arthur Rosenburg comments: “The relation of the Social Democrats to the German middle classes, and in general to all the other groups of the population who were not industrial workers, was indeed very different from what Engels imagined. Engels believed that it would be possible to bridge the gap between the socialist party and the middle classes; social democracy as the only actually progressive party of the nation might then be a real popular movement, capable of attracting ever increasing groups without great effort. Actually the rigid contrast of “bourgeois” and “social democratic” and the isolation of the socialist skilled workers, which could not be removed even by the occasional entry of middle-class individuals into their ranks, already existed at that time...The old social-democratic movement of 1848 had vanished from the political horizon of Europe. Its place was taken, even if very inadequately, by the various socialist parties and groups” (Rosenberg, Democracy and Socialism [D&S], p. 299). Lenin's Leftwing Communism an Infantile Disorder is paradigmatic of Lenin the small 'd' democrat.

    In 1920 when the Bolsheviks were at the peak of their power and prestige, radicals around the world were attempting to repeat the experience of the Russian Revolution, mostly failing. As previously noted, Lenin’s party rode a mass democratic movement into power, but in these other places like Germany, communists set up committees and attempted to seize power with or without a democratic mandate. Though the Bolsheviks were desperate to spread the revolution to avoid the isolation that they ultimately fell into, they tried to convince the international movement to work within democratic parlements where they existed and to address society at large, not just the workers movement. The classic text of Bolshevik strategy that came out of these discussions is Lenin’s Leftwing Communism-an Infantile Disorder. (The word “infantile” would be more accurately translated as “naive” meaning the disorder comes more from the inexperience of the new communist movements than from an inability to mature).

    Lenin’s argument hinges on the insistence that a small party, one that does not represent a large part of society, must realistically assess its reach and not attempt too much too soon. “One must not count in thousands, like the propagandist belonging to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses… we must ask ourselves, not only whether we have convinced the vanguard of the revolutionary class, but also whether the historically effective forces of all class -- positively all the classes in a given society, without exception -- are arrayed in such a way that the decisive battle is at hand…” (351). In a situation where the party has been unable to lead society, unable to capture a plurality with its program, Lenin says that revolutionaries must support liberal bourgeois candidates, that to not do so would be a crime against the proletariat. This orientation was informed by Lenin’s experience organizing for socialism as a party that was outlawed by the Czar. Without the right to free speech and assembly, which the political right wing were constantly threatening, socialists had no path to power.

    Lenin could change strategy in an instant. For instance the slogan of all power to the soviets was his line in April of 1917, but that wasn’t his line in March of 1917, and it wasn’t his line in December of 1917. But when it comes to the electoral strategy of the revolutionary party Lenin is categorical: the Bolsheviks always before 1920 participated in liberal parliaments, and never putting up candidates where doing so could spoil an election against the center left. In the context here “Labour” refers to the moderate center left, and “Liberal” refers to right wingers like Churchill. While Trotskyists have historically rejected the idea that Labor was a bourgeois party, it is clear that Lenin did think that Labor was a bourgeois party, right or wrong (Hicks). Knowing that Lenin thought the Labor party was bourgeois is essential to understanding his electoral strategy laid out here. “If the Hendersons and the Snowdens [center left] reject a bloc with the Communists, the latter will immediately gain by winning the sympathy of the masses and discrediting the Hendersons and Snowdens; if, as a result, we do lose a few parliamentary seats, it is a matter of no significance to us. We would put up our candidates in a very few but absolutely safe constituencies, namely, constituencies where our candidatures would not give any seats to the Liberals [i.e. Churchill] at the expense of the Labour candidates... In September 1917, on the eve of the Soviet revolution, the Bolsheviks put up their candidates for a bourgeois parliament (the Constituent Assembly) and on the day after the Soviet revolution, in November 1917, took part in the elections to this Constituent Assembly.” (346). One should recognize here the utter commitment to democracy that Lenin adopts from Marx in the phrase “give leadership to the masses,” which he urges all mature revolutionaries must do (p. 351). This was the same spirit that moved Marx to write in 1848 that he hoped a revolutionary National Assembly would “win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective” (Marik, 191). Lenin insisted that communists must participate in this way in bourgeois parlements even in contexts where democracy was handicapped by autocracy, under the Czar, and even after a revolutionary seizure of power, after November 1917. What’s of first importance in all of this is that the party participates in educating society, and especially the working class, on the importance of lifting up leadership that is independent of privileged classes. Liberal reformists [Labor] had to be supported where socialists couldn’t win, and the party had to explain in clear terms that such reformists could not be sufficient to the needs of the most vulnerable.

    Overreaching, Lenin argues, means failing to even do what is within one’s ability. “Science demands… that account be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country, and also that the policy should not be determined only by the desires and views, by the degree of class consciousness and the militancy of one group or party alone… It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to ‘rule’ along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemans and Noskes [whom Lenin blamed for the murders of Leibknecht and Luxembourg]. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution: what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support… the fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys… indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdesn defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority...” (pp. 340-343). Let me put a fine point on this by updating Lenin’s formula: if most American workers follow the lead of the Bidens, then socialists must participate in electoral work to help workers see the results of a Biden presidency in practice, and we must help Biden defeat the forces of Donald Trump.

    In a situation where the majority supports not the socialist but the liberal candidate, Lenin said that socialists must support the liberal while loudly criticizing them. This is what he considered meeting society where it was. This is further proof that Lenin believed in democracy as a fundamental value, that he rejected the idea that a small enlightened clique should seize power and impose their will on other people. Considering the history of 20th century socialisms, we should embrace his tactics, unite with the center to smash the right, and build for the moment when our message can be heard: society must rally democratically to the most vulnerable under their own leadership.

    As we saw in Russia in 1917 a network of democratic soviets, which had begun in 1905, fought for power against the Czar and won. In Germany, soviets were not institutions that had similarly sprung up amongst the people because of a governmental vacuum spanning decades. The bulk of the German soviets developed amongst the soldiers and sailors in Germany’s armed services, people who were not motivated by any ideology but rather solely for the purpose of ending the war.

    The situation of German socialists at the end of WW1 was very similar to that of the French revolutionaries of 1789. They inherited the position of state power after the collapse of the former regime. The nation had a military that was organised partially into soviets, but that was completely behind the government. We’ve spoken earlier about how the Prussian state provided a managed democracy where rich peoples’ votes meant more. Underneath that official form of state power was a patchwork of compromises the Kaiser had made with the various regions that were brought under his rule. The cabinet that was tasked with leading the work of forming a government was composed of six socialists, three of each tendency. “Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg represented the Majority Socialists, and Haase, Dittmann and Barth the Independent Socialists. ” [HGR] What kind of government would these socialists produce was the question of the day. Would they create a democratic republic or would they create a soviet style socialist state based on the Russian model?

    There was already at the end of the war a split between socialists who had voted for war bonds and supported the war (the Social Democratic Party, SPD), though as we saw many of these supported military defense of Germany but not expansion, and those who had opposed the war from the beginning (the Independent Social Democratic Party, USPD). The SPD more or less preferred a democratic republic that would respect the property of the big landowners. There is something to the idea that at this juncture the SDP was following the LaSallean line of working within a democracy dominated by the bourgeoisie, with one major difference: the new German state was offering real equality of representation while the Prussian state systematically worked to make sure poor people were not represented.

    The USPD held to what they imagined was the revolutionary aspect of Marxism interpreted now through the lens of the recent Russian revolution. But the context had changed radically, and the ideologues were largely unable to keep up. Under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser and Landstaag the only reasonable position for people who favored democracy was to be a revolutionary. Under a system where there was real democracy, one vote for each person, the Marxist position became ambiguous. It could mean that the working class had to be rallied to defend the democratic republic, or it could mean the time had come for the working class to abolish democracy. It all depended on whether you thought that socialism had to be democratic, had to respect the rights of people who differ from us, or if you thought it could be imposed from above. Within the German far left those who were losing their patience with democratic reform were beginning to favor what they took to be Russian style Soviet rule, the imposition of socialism from above by a minority of supposedly enlightened workers.

    Now, as pointed out in previous episodes, Marx had expected a democratic movement to create republics where all people had a vote and had rights, and he advocated from 1848 onwards that when such a republic came about that it would have to be defended by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Russian experiment showed that if society were organized instead in democratic councils that the state could transition directly into socialism. In the attempt, the Russians ruined democracy by driving the masses out of government by the imposition of minoritarian rule, and ended up with a totalitarian state where a ruling clique owned everything and everyone. The far left fringe in Germany was trying to impose socialism from above without the democratic upswell that had vaulted the Bolsheviks into power to begin with in Russia. The Germans failed badly. Led by Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, they had to go to communities that didn’t have soviets yet and urge them to form soviets. Despite the antidemocratic ideas then circulating in the USPD, these groups were invited to help form the new government. The majority of the population, and of the socialist movement, even a large group among the Sparticists who wanted to end private property, believed that the existing institutions should not be attacked but discouraged through education and reform. For the most part the socialists in Germany wanted to win over the rest of the population. On the far left people believed that if workers were told the truth they would choose to run production democratically, i.e. they would choose socialism. But there was a further left fringe that did not want to wait for society to catch up to their point of view.

    The German communists who split off from the German Social Democratic Party were the first to eschew democratic politics and try to take power as a minoritarian party in 1919. The slur that people leveled at Lenin, that he was anti-democratic, was true of Karl Leibknecht. Germany was the first place where the strategy people thought had worked in Russia was applied somewhere else, and because it was exported without the democratic component it failed. The resulting split in the German socialist movement coupled with an anti-liberal politics, made Germany vulnerable just at the moment when a new ideological virus was spreading throughout Europe. That virus was fascism, the highest form of which was that of the German Nazi party. But to understand how fascism arose and developed in Germany, we have to understand the splits in the socialist party, because it’s out of that wound that the infection would spread.

    I spoke in an earlier podcast about Karl Kautsky being forced to vote for war bonds. Another socialist who was forced to vote for war bonds was Karl Leibknecht, who had been drafted and was part of the soldiers’ soviets movement. Karl Leibknecht played a key role in leading both the split in the socialist movement and the Spartacist uprising in 1919, and what’s clear from his actions throughout this period is that he acted not out of concern for his fellows, nor to mobilize society, but out of guilt over his participation in WW1. Leibknecht more than anyone in the movement was committed to leading Germany into revolution by the Russian method, regardless of whether the circumstances supported it. Though he and his group, the Spartacists, were invited to help form the new government, because the majority of Germany opposed the establishment of soviet style socialism he led a boycott of the republic. The agitations of Leibknecht led to a wave of protests in December 1918, with violence being committed on all sides. The Russians seem to have actively supported this agitation, seemingly oblivious to the different German conditions and the decline of democratic values in the movement. On the last day of 1918 the socialists who could not bear to wait and educate, those who abandoned democracy as such, founded the German Communist Party, the KPD. At this point the USPD withdrew its support for the republic.

    The insurrection on their left imperiled the democratic coalition that the SPD was trying to form. If they were going to stop Germany from devolving into civil war, they had to show that the rules would be applied fairly to all. The KPD would test by open insurrection the SPD’s resolve to defend the republic. In Russia the workers of St. Petersburg could rely on certain parts of the military from the very beginning, and Bolshevik influence in the Russian military expanded throughout this period. In Germany on the other hand, the workers were being called to insurrection against a military that was firmly behind the republic. The departure of the USPD from the republican coalition government had one important exception: Emil Eichhorn was police chief in Berlin. The SPD tried to replace him, but failed. When protests broke out on January 4th in Berlin, they spiraled out of control.

    Broue correctly compares this episode to that of the July days in the Russian Revolution. In July a mass protest movement took place in St. Petersburg that was not supported in the rest of the country. The Bolsheviks helped lead the protesters, who could not be persuaded against marching. Eventually, Trotsky was able to convince the protestors in St. Petersburg in July to disperse. The army arrived a very few hours later, and would have massacred the protesters. The Russian movement in July was not ready to take power nationwide, and the Bolsheviks bided their time. Not so with the Berlin workers led by Leibknecht.

    Workers in Berlin, emboldened perhaps with the knowledge that the local police chief was in their pocket, became increasingly provocative. In fact, a large group of workers was allowed to occupy the police station and arm themselves, and the building had to be retaken by force of arms. Though the rest of the country was not behind the rebellion, they persisted. The SPD in power was facing on one side a sizeable minority to their left that was intent on wrecking their project, and on the right were people eager to see the young democracy fail for their own purposes. Unable to call upon a police force, the Socialists were forced to call upon the army to put down the rebellion.

    Now, the Prussian army was well known for its tendency to flaunt civilian control. Going back probably before 1809 there was a culture in the army of insubordination, particularly to civilian authority, but in 1809 Major von Schill defied the Kaiser and together with Russia attacked Napoleon’s armies. Schill was afterward considered a national hero. Napoleon was so unpopular at that point that the Kaiser had to accept that because of the Major’s initiative Prussia was thereafter at war with France. In 1904 when there was an insurrection in the German colony of Namibia, General Trotha led a genocide against the locals over and against the protestations of the civilian authority there in the person of the Governor Theodor Leutwein. It’s not clear that the Kaiser could really command the army against the will of its generals, and for sure the SDP couldn’t.

    The Freikorps shock troops who arrested Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg took it upon themselves to execute the beloved socialist leaders. The socialists who had ordered the army to put down the insurrection, in particular Gustav Noske, a basket weaver from Brandenburg who had been made into the minister of military affairs, was villainized for the deaths of Leibknecht and Luxembourg. Though no one could ever prove Noske explicitly ordered their deaths, it was always blamed on him. According to this logic, opposing authoritarian socialists with state power will always make someone a traitor to the cause. The entire movement of socialists in Germany for a democratic republic was from this moment forward considered to be enemies of progress, enemies of the international communist movement. When the fascist parties rose up to attack the republic under the social democrats, they would find willing partners in the newly formed German Communist Party [KPD].

    In the years that followed the Spartacus uprising, it was not the policies of the Weimar republic that angered people so much as it was that the poverty of the government crippled implementation. There were guarantees made for workers’ rights, but it didn’t seem to matter much in the context of high unemployment. Germany had to pay hard indemnities to the allies because of its ‘war guilt,’ which is still exaggerated to this day. And it must be said, the standard of living for regular Germans was severely impacted by the loss of its empire. When people lose their privileges, watch out!

    The word “fascist” was coined by Benito Mussolini. It comes from an Italian word that can mean a bundle of items or a group. Mussolini started his political career as a prominent part of the socialist movement in Italy. He was put in jail for five months in 1911 for participating in a demonstration against Italy’s imperialist war in Libya. He translated two works of Kropotkin from Russian into Italian. He combined anarchistic libertarian ideology with a Nietzschean disdain for Judeo-Christian values and rejected the more traditional socialist values of democracy and equality. But as we have seen with the German KPD and the Stalinists, lots of socialists around this time were rejecting democratic values. Mussolini’s path from anarchism to fascism ran through Charles Maurras, George Sorel and the Cercle Proudhon. If you haven’t read Alexander Reid-Ross’ Against the Fascist Creep, then what are you doing with your life? Go read it. Also, if you are interested in the intergenerational cross pollination of fascism into and out of left politics, go read Alexander Reid-Ross. The important thing to understand about Musolini in the context of the aftermath of the German revolution, is that Adolf Hitler got the inspiration for his National Socialist party from Musolini, right down to both of them embracing anarchism.

    Anarchism has a lot of different styles and flavors, and the only thing they really all have in common is the assertion that “you” should not be able to tell “me” what to do, ever. What the various anarchisms fill in the identities of “you” and “me” with determines the character of that anarchism. For Kropotkin the “me” that has to be free from “you” is the communal village. For Musollini and Hitler the “me” that had to be free from any outside control was the ethnically defined nation. They both envisioned a nation without a state. They both hijacked state power for the project of reviving a sense of ethnic nationhood that involved race war over resources. This is the core of fascist ideology: that the real world is just open warfare between racially defined nations for control of resources. Any idea of solidarity across ethnicity, whether that be in socialism or in Christianity or whatever, is just a lie people told you to make you do things you wouldn’t naturally do, things like protect the rights of minorities etc. Early fascist movements grow out of divided or defeated socialist movements and adopt similar rhetoric. Hitler attacked the Jew as the origin of Capitalism and of Communism. Once fascists got into power they never followed through with the socialist part of their program, but they did attack minorities.

    In 1919 a young up and comer failed artist and army veteran named Adolph Hitler joined one of the multiple ultra-right patriotic parties in Germany. He joined the one called the German Workers Party. It seems Hitler was very charismatic, and after he took leadership of the party the renamed it the German National Socialist Workers’ Party. Alexander Reid-Ross does an excellent job at summarizing the moment in 1919 when Hitler’s party get its big break, so I’m going to quote him at length:

    “The government attempted to dissolve the Freikorps, which responded by marching on Berlin. The putsch attempt was named after a civil servant named Wolfgang Kapp and was joined by Ludendorff, Ehrhardt, and Waldemar Pabst, the man responsible for the killing of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. After the military refused to act against the putsch, the government fled Berlin and called a general strike, which led to the end of the coup attempt. However, the general strike turned into an armed uprising, and militant workers in the industrial Ruhr region formed a Red Army, putting the government there under worker control. Although they had refused to move against the Kapp putsch, the military joined the Freikorps against the Red Army of the Ruhr, killing and torturing hundreds of people. The leftists fought back bravely, declaring “No atrocities, no revenge, no punishment; only love for humanity and justice!” But the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ councils ended in bloody oppression. Ensuing economic destabilization compelled the Weimar government to ask France for a delay in payment of war reparations, but Germany was instead met with a coordinated occupation of the Ruhr by the French and Belgian armies in 1922. The Social Democrats and trade unions responded to the occupation with ‘passive resistance,’ and the French authorities expelled 100,000 unionists and state officials, along with their families. The Ruhr crisis and the ensuing political crisis with France created a political opportunity. Hitler seized on the model of Mussolini’s fascism, its populist pageantry, and the showmanship demonstrated in that year’s March on Rome. On the eve of November 8, 1923, Hitler proclaimed a ‘national revolution’ at a crowded meeting in a beer hall in Munich, leading General Ludendorff and other paramilitary members of the ‘Patriotic Movement’ in an abortive putsch attempt on the government of Bavaria. Though the sardonically named ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Munich failed, his ensuing trial gave Hitler an important public platform to espouse his anti-Semitic beliefs. During his light jail sentence, he dictated his political manifesto, Mein Kampf, to his deputy Rudolph Hess.” (pp.51-52). After the beer hall putsch Hitler’s career really takes off, not just in southern Germany where his party originated from, but throughout Prussia as well.

    Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of the typical development of fascist movements. Typically, there is a period of grassroots mobilization. All across Europe, in the wake of failed Russia style coups people saw the left as an authoritarian threat, and part of the impulse of fascism is resistance to that. But also, capitalism was failing working people who turned to national solidarity in the context of a collapse of international solidarity. In Italy and Germany conservative governments faced with insurgent socialism from above movements, economic collapse and governmental disfunction were faced with a choice about whether to partner with far right groups or not. In the 20s and 30s fascists across Europe were reaching for state power, and in all but two instances conservatives successfully resisted them. Conservative governments in Romania, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Denmark, Holland and Norway rejected sharing power with fascists. In Italy in the 20s and in Germany in the 30s, conservatives who had lost any hope of ruling together with left centrists looked to the populist appeals of fascism to shore up their power. We see our own conservative movement split on this subject, with a small but important “never Trump” movement campaigning openly for Joe Biden in a rejection of the far right. What role did socialists play in all this, for better or for worse? We’ll continue to focus on the German case.

    The best book I’ve found detailing the struggle against fascism by the German SDP is William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945. In this book Sheridan-Allen discusses how the fascist movement came to dominate German society by focusing on the experience of a small German town called Northeim in lower Saxony. He shows us the shift this community makes through the 20s and 30s from a place where there is no Nazi party at all, and even a strong Socialist Party, to one where the Nazis are strong enough to put all the socialists in camps. One of the more frightening things I noticed in this history is just how powerful the socialist movement was compared to our movement today. They held state power. Their membership included important community members. They ran electoral campaigns, held rallies and organized sports leagues. They still didn’t keep Hitler out of power.

    In general the fact that the SDP sat in power during a time when the worldwide economy was tanking meant that people blamed them for the bad economy. Fascist governments somehow get more powerful the worse things get, because they can always blame someone else. Democrats, radical or moderate, are responsible for what they do in power. Antidemocrats, fascists and Stalinists don’t have to be particularly cunning to ruin the public’s perception of a government when forces beyond their control like a worldwide economic depression cause the public pain. But the SDP did fail at things they could have done, things within their control, and that’s what I want to focus on to better get a grip on how Socialists can resist fascism.

    Because of their cynical orientation to truth, the Nazis were able to change and craft their message to suit the audience. If the only reality is race war, political ideas just weapons people use in that war. The National Socialists could be all things to all people. They could represent themselves as champions of workers against bosses. They could represent themselves as champions of the nation’s industry. Crucially, they communicated to Germans that they were both progressive and traditional. They had a radical program for change in a context where people were hurting, and they had a message of national greatness. Now, I don’t think we should try and win people over with “America First” rhetoric, but I very often wonder how the far left expected to gain popularity by consistently trashing America. It seems like we could easily communicate that America has great potential from a left perspective. We fail a serious hurdle leaving this emotion for the fascists.

    The Nazis could be incredibly popular with the middle class who was losing their property. The SDP not only didn’t work in government to protect the property of the middle classes, but revelled in their immiseration. Anyone who lost their livelihood could collect unemployment, but people didn’t want to be a burden. People want to contribute to their community and be recognized as contributing something of value. The Nazi party gave people a sense of importance and self worth in ways the SDP could not. The Nazis put forward a rhetoric that blamed socialists for Germany losing WW1 and falling into an economic depression, but that rhetoric stuck because the SDP legitimately couldn’t connect to people beyond a politics of class. It was ultimately a failure of the socialist movement to lead society as a whole that doomed the SDP and Germany. From Sheridan Allen:

    “To the Socialists the Nazis were a threat only insofar as they might attempt an armed coup d’etat. Serious politics was a matter of rational appeals and positive results. Since the NSDAP [the Nazi party] seemed incapable of either, they could not constitute a political threat. Nazi propaganda seemed to illustrate this, for it consistaently pinned two labels on the SPD ‘Marxisten’ and ‘Bonzen’ (approximately, ‘wardheelers,’ with overtones of corruption). The labels are of course contradictory; it is difficult to conceive of fervid radicals who are simultaneously comfortably venal. But effective propaganda need not be logical as long as it foments suspicion, contempt, or hatred. The choice of the two words not only had that effect upon the bourgeoisie, it summed up the dilemma of the Social Democrats precisely. The SPD was not ‘Marxist,’ though it used language that made it appear so. Thus it was doubly encumbered, for it was unwilling to be a revolutionary party at a time when the best defense of democracy may have been social revolution, and secondly, its revolutionary tradition made it incapable of seeking or receiving the support of any but the working class. Furthermore, the SPD’s defense of democracy meant, in practical terms, defense of a status quo which was identified in the minds of most Northeimers with national humiliation and economic ruin...Thus the SPD could not keep the middle classes from flocking to the banners of the NSDAP, for the Nazis were known as real radicals. It was not enough to preach loyalty to democracy or to the Republic. Most Northeimers obviously felt no reason to respond to such an appeal. The way to undercut Nazis was not by blind opposition but by a counterprogram sufficiently attractive to awaken in the hearts of the bourgeoisie the kinds of hopes that the Nazis were able to arouse. Instead, the Social Democrats concentrated on holding the loyalty of the working class and saw the Nazi threat in terms of armed rebellion. Thus, no matter how hard they tried, Northeim’s Socialists did not provide effective opposition to the Nazis.” (pp. 54-55). In other words, the German SDP wasn’t trying to lead all of society, and the parts that didn’t correspond to their idea of agency, anyone who wasn’t a socialist worker, slipped away from them into the ranks of the fascist opposition.

    The communists made the mistake of imagining their rivals the Social Democrats were worse than the fascists. This led them to working with the Fascists at crucial junctures, leading to workers identifying fascism with progress. In March of 1931 the Communists joined forces with the fascists in a campaign to dissolve the Prussian Parliament. In 1932 the KPD helped the Nazis in promoting and supporting a wildcat strike in Berlin. The communist orientation to a politics of class resentment led them to opposing social democracy when they should have been uniting with the SDP to fight fascism. In fact, according to the KPD the social democrats were the main enemy, because they were a roadblock to top-down socialist revolution. The KPD thought somehow that if the Fascists took power, this would allow them to win a greater victory when the pendulum swung back the other way. That is not how history turned out. As it happened the Nazi victory led to WW2 and the holocaust. The German people didn’t so much react to Nazi governance with horror and a return movement to the left as they were exhausted by the war.

    Last year Ece Temelkuran gave us an insightful book about how her country Turkey slid into authoritarianism. Ms. Temelkuran is a veteran of the Gezi Park protest movement of 2013. Her book is entitled “How to Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.” I don’t agree with everything she says, but it’s worth the afternoon or so it takes to read the whole thing. She talks about this myth of a pendulum in regards to Slavoj Zizek, who endorsed Donald Trump in 2016. She talks about how as fascism gains power, there is no rock bottom from which one would have to turn upwards. “During the 2015 elections in Turkey, our post-structuralist anarchist/militant citizen and all those who theorised and believed that there is a political bottom to hit had to physically grapple with government supporters trying to put fake votes in the ballot box. They had thought that this was the lowest life could sink to, until they experienced the referendum of 2017 on extending the government's powers following the failed coup. Once again volunteering to monitor ballot boxes, they soon drew the depressing conclusion that election fraud was even more brazen than the previous time. Although volunteers meticulously monitored the voting process, when the counting began and it became clear that Erdogan would not win, the Higher electoral Board changed the election law from one hour to the next, following pressure from the leader himself, and egregious fake votes for Erdogan were deemed valid. The opposition came to understand that, with the authoritarian regime having seized state powers, even if there were to be a political reawakening, it was almost impossible to stop the political tide with their accustomed political behaviour. They were hurtling down past the new political and moral bottom, unimaginable until it had actually happened. And as for our post-structural anarchist, like half the country who voted against Erdogan in the referendum that made him sole ruler of Turkey, he felt this latest blow would be the death of him. He was not to know that the afterlife would be even worse. The death of our particular anarchist… wasn’t at all accidental. It would have been foreseen much earlier had the progressive opinion leaders of the time not wasted years expecting a political metamorphosis to occur out of the total collapse of politics, and thus been quicker to inform the masses.” (pp.130-131).

    Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of how the various fascist movements historically ended. Fascist movements who successfully entered state power then had to struggle against liberal institutions to maintain and expand that power. They had to overcome legal institutions and norms. By the end of 1932 political differences in Germany had become so polarized, the Nazi agitation so successful in generating a mass base, and the socialist movement so disfunctional that the conservative von Papen government appointed Hitler as the Chancelor in an attempt to establish some kind of order. They saw the Nazi party as a way for them to give the nation direction, and they thought they could use Hitler without him getting the upper hand. This is precisely how Mitch McConnell has handled Donald Trump. In Hitler’s case the arson attack against the Reichstag building in February of 1933 allowed him to successfully persuade President Hindenburg to grant him special emergency powers. This began the final stage of the fascist movement, the stage that only the German movement was able to reach: radicalization. In this stage, Germany began the build up to a war of conquest where they colonized Eastern Europe in the name of German racial supremacy and a war against Bolshevism. Hitler weaponized the German state against the state powers of Eastern Europe in the belief that in the resulting chaos, with the German army occupying these other countries that the German race would awaken to its historical task of dominating other races and eradicating world Jewry. The Trump administration has been struggling to tame the justice department and foil the democratic party’s attempts to contain him, but in a second Trump term the radicalization of his movement will combine with his increasing ability to flaunt the law. There is no world where Trump supporters of today turn on him in his second term: they have to believe his narrative about coronavirus or accept guilt for having imperiled or sacrificed the lives of their family members. The psychological pain in admitting guilt over Trump’s crimes against humanity and democracy would be too great, so the false narrative must be believed, and greater crimes will be called for. This cycle of pain, corruption and degradation continues in this way until Trump’s enemies are all in camps, until America is ethnically cleansed, until a cataclysmic war stops the fascist juggernaut.

    When I first came to socialist politics, I imagined that Fascism came about in Germany because the German revolution had failed. It’s closer to the truth to say that the German revolution succeeded in achieving a democratic republic, but then undemocratic strains in the socialist movement sabotaged that republic, creating the opportunity for Hitler to take power. German communists adopted the false idea of Lenin having successfully imposed socialism from above. If that were possible, they reasoned, then the real obstacle to socialism was democracy itself. The Spartacists and the KPD then believing that down was up and up was down, worked to undermine the democratic government believing falsely that a victory for the fascists would create a pendulum swing back to their side. They did not perceive that the fascist movement once in power could only be stopped by being pushed out of power by conservatives or if allowed to radicalize by the conclusion of a long war between the fascists and bare humanity. They did not have the benefit of hindsight that we do. German socialists attempted what they thought was the Russian route to power, and the reaction to that top down authoritarian socialism was an equally authoritarian right wing movement. Communist abandonment of democratic values and open collaboration with fascists allowed Hitler to take power.

    Ostrowski, Marius S. Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution: Selected Historical Writings. Springer Nature, 2019.

    Paxton, Robert O. The anatomy of fascism. Vintage, 2007.

    Rosenberg, Arthur. A History of the German Republic. Methuen, 1936.

    Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. Beacon Press, 1939.

    Ross, Alexander Reid. Against the fascist creep. Ak Press, 2017.

    Temelkuran, Ece. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. HarperCollins UK, 2019.

    Art: German SDP poster, Weimar Era, "Worker, open your eyes! Vote SDP!" (https://www.akg-images.co.uk/archive/Arbeiter--Augen-auf!-Wahlt-SPD-2UMDHUU7MBJ4.html).

    Music by:

    At High Stakes by Alan Carlson-Green
    Calculating Catastrophe by John Barzetti
    Harry Koniditsiotis