The Academic Discourse of Trotskyism

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In a recent post I ranted about the supposed trotskyist domination of first world marxist academia. This post, however, raised more questions than it answered. Intended to be a piece about the necessity of waging ideological struggle in academia––and using trotskyists/post-trotskyists as an example of a type of marxism that I believed had successfully waged this struggle at the centres of capitalism––it ended up devolving into something of a complaint about a possible trotskyist “gate-keeping”. Thus, two of my faithful readers and comrades were slightly confused about the focus of my argument: when they brought up examples of non-trotskyist first world marxism that was academically influential, and I replied that even these examples were influenced by a trotskyist discourse, it became evident that my messy rant had ended up being about something than it was initially intended. Losing its focus halfway through, it had moved into a territory that I was unwilling at that time to fully address––mainly because it was getting too long and it was not until reading the comments that I realized I was unconsciously addressing something other than what I had set out to write.

Thus, the problem at the end of the entry had nothing to do with the success of trotskyist ideological struggle at the centres of capitalism but, instead, what I meant by this supposed success and why, specifically, I believe that the trotskyist discourse has thoroughly influenced first world academic marxism––even when it claims it is not trotskyist. As one commenter rightfully pointed out: “How can a theory/organization/school of thought still be called ‘Trotskyist’ if it categorically rejects the central ideas of what’s traditionally called Trotskyism? […] you need to be more precise.” Unfortunately, the problem is that I have dreaded writing the type of post that would answer this question even before it was asked. For this question speaks to a deep-seeded problem I have had with the influence of trotskyism that I have censored myself from writing since I began this blog because, my rants about orthodox trotskyite dogmatism notwithstanding, I felt it might be interpreted as “sectarian” regardless of how historically based and thoughtful its intention. While I openly identify as a maoist, I still count people who adhere to various trotskyist and/or post-trotskyist positions, as much as I disagree with them, as fellow travellers and I did not want to be perceived as actively writing screeds against them personally. And yet the questions in that comment string were apt and, because of their aptness, I think it is fair to say that my unwillingness to address this problem for years (despite the odd post here and there) speaks more to my liberalism than a real “anti-sectarianism”––for I should not personalize my critiques of an ideological formation but, rather, proceed with them in a principled manner.


Point being, this trotskyist influence over what can properly be called marxism in the privileged intellectual sphere (that is, the sphere of academia) has irked me for a long time. Indeed, I did not realize how much it irked me until I finished the above cited entry about the supposed trotskyist influence in first world academia and discovered, thanks to the comments, that I was really talking about something else. Indeed, it has irked me so much that I have had to grit my teeth and joke about my feelings towards this type of marxism because I knew––because it is impossible not to know––the power the trotskyist discourse exerts over every type of marxism located in first world academia. Indeed, it is almost impossible to have an argument about the veracity of this discourse because, the moment you criticize it in certain ways, you are treated as heretical by an acceptable academic marxist discourse… even marxists who claim they are critiquing trotskyism will not be amenable to a critique that attacks the very foundations of its claims.


So what do I mean when I speak of a trotskyist discourse that has influenced the way that marxism has developed within first world marxist academia? First of all, I mean that the marxists who came out of the Fourth International, because none of them were involved (nor could they be involved) with any significant and concrete class struggles, engaged themselves primarily in the intellectual sphere and produced a generation or two of marxist academics who set up their headquarters––since they could not set up their headquarters in working class movements dominated by the “Stalinism” they despised––within academia. This was difficult, perhaps even laudable, but not impossible; the bourgeoisie overseeing intellectual privilege, at that point in time, were more amenable to a marxism that was critical of the Soviet Union under Stalin. From this point on, in my opinion and experience, all expressions of theoretical marxism within academia would be influenced, to some extent, by a marxist discourse dominated by trotskyism. Keep in mind that this does not mean that there were gaps in this discourse, because no discourse is fully determining and there are always fissures. The Monthly Review group, as one of the commenters in that jumbled post rightfully pointed out, is one of the main exceptions to this rule. But exceptions aside, trotskyism did set a discourse that any academic marxist would need to address if s/he was able to survive as an academic.


But this must force us to ask just what was the academic discourse initiated by trotskyism? As the commenter and comrade cited three paragraphs above pointed out, how can a discourse be trotskyist even if it claims to not be trotskyist? Just what do I mean by this discourse. I think this discourse, that affects even self-proclaimed non-trotskyist marxist academics, first and foremost means a narrative about Trotsky and Stalin––and thus a narrative about the Bolshevik Revolution––that has become hegemonic in the academia of the centres of capitalism. Indeed, if a marxist academic were to suggest that Trotsky was a “wrecker”, as the international communist movement (excepting that tiny and “fringe” minority of what would become the Fourth International) at the time would see him, and that Stalin was correct when it came to this line struggle, they would (and they have) be treated as a heretic.


The fact that Trotsky is treated as more ethically viable than Stalin is indeed the hallmark of this discourse. The majority of supposedly “independent” marxists will not challenge this dogma––either refusing to engage in this argument, or going so far as to mock anyone who would suggest that Stalin, rather than Trotsky, was correct in this line struggle. The fact that Stalin has been targeted by bourgeois history as some murderous totalitarian is one thing, and the discourse accepted by anti-communists everywhere. But the fact that this same narrative is considered acceptable to marxist academics at the centres of capitalism, when we are usually suspicious of any narrative produced by the ruling class, is the result of a trotskyist discourse that runs parallel to cold war propaganda; it is the influence of trotskyism in the academic spheres that has made it alright for marxists to agree with the anti-communist ideology about the Stalin-era Soviet Union, justifying it according to “marxist” categories. One only needs to look at the work of supposed marxists in academia when it comes to the Stalin versus Trotsky debates following the ascendance of the Fourth International. And any marxist academic need only to compare the names Trotsky and Stalin to their thesis supervisor to understand the force of this discourse.


None of this is to say that Stalin was entirely correct and without fault––in this area, I abide by what the Chinese Communist Party said to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev. Even still, the fact that I think that Stalin properly won the line-struggle against Trotsky in the Soviet Union, that Stalin, despite his faults (which should be criticized), remained the leader of the international communist movement until Mao, is something that is considered non-admissible in today’s academic context. Indeed, the fact that the majority of the world’s oppressed did see Trotsky as a “wrecker” of class struggle after his failed line struggle should be treated as significant and not, as we are now meant to believe, the product of some Stalinist conspiracy. Harry Haywood, after all, speaks of how the line-struggle between Trotsky and Stalin in the Soviet Union was not even close to conspiratorial. Being in Russia at the time, he reports on how the work of Trotsky was disseminated widely, how the entire working class that was literate studied Trotsky’s critiques, how Trotsky himself was a brilliant orator and gave a great defense of his position, but how he still failed and was rejected by the entire international at the time. This was not, as we are now expected to believe, simply a palace coup. But why do we think this? Why, in other words, is it acceptable for marxist academics to ignore this historical fact, to ignore the position of the international communist movement, that would eventually come to see trotskyism as a “fringe” (Haywood’s terms) and disruptive development, when it comes to this significant split?


My point here, however, is only to point out that it is entirely significant that academic marxism now accepts a specific discourse about Stalin and so-called “Stalinism” and that this, more than anything else, is the influence of trotskyism. I treat this as significant because trotskyism’s core dogma is not about the so-called “permanent revolution” but primarily about anti-stalinism. Indeed, it fundamentally defines itself as anti-stalinism more than anything else: orthodox trotskyists attack every communism they despise as “stalinist” and they focus obsessively on a “socialism in one country” that they see as the hallmark of “stalinism”. Moreover, trotskyism is the tradition that is most responsible for inversely theorizing “stalinism” because so-called “stalinists” always claimed they were only “Marxist-Leninist” and that Stalin was just a Leninist revolutionary. Thus, everyone who is a non-trotskyist marxist-leninist, according to trotskyists, is a “stalinist”––especially if they believe that a socialist revolution can be accomplished in a single country without waiting for the workers of the advanced centres to lead the revolution. This obsessive anti-stalinism, then, might be the only dogma of trotskyism. Thus, if it was unsuccessful in making its other theories hegemonic in academia, trotskyism has been successful in this one area: an uncritical anti-Stalin-Trotsky-was-the-victim stance is at the root of the majority of academic marxism.

Thus, regardless of those identifiable concepts that are hallmarks of trotskyism-qua-trotskyism, the discursive identity of trotskyism is that which defines itself first and foremost as a rejection of what it was the first to name as “stalinism”––a theoretical description of marxism that trotskyism first defined. At the time of trotskyism’s emergence from the Fourth International and the construction of its ideological discourse, there was actually no such thing as “stalinism” per se. Rather, those who would be defined as “stalinists”, including Stalin and the entire Comintern, saw themselves as “Marxist-Leninists” (for it was Stalin, we must remember, who initially coined the term Marxism-Leninism) and, inversely, saw trotskyism as not being “Marxist-Leninist”. The coherence of the trotskyist discourse, therefore, primarily focused on setting itself apart of the international communist movement by naming this movement’s mainstream stalinist and then, because they had coined the term, theorizing an ism that the rest of the communist movement (including Stalin) did not see as something that possessed any theoretical significance.

To be fair, trotskyist theorists needed to first name and theorize the phenomenon that had caused Trotsky to be expelled from the Soviet Union. This was, after all, the fundamental fact of their identity as trotskyists: if they had named themselves after someone who had been kicked out of the most important revolutionary movement to date, and if they were claiming that Trotsky was the true heir to Lenin’s mantle even though the rest of the world at that time thought otherwise, they had to give a theoretical meaning to that which was claiming they were counter-revolutionary in order to reverse the charge and prove the inverse.

Hence stalinism, a theory that is actually the foundation of trotskyism. Indeed, all of its theories can be seen as a rejection of theories accepted by the rest of the international communist movement at the time which, according to the representatives of the Fourth International, was false communism and that they, in a reversal of what was being said about them, were the guardians of a pure and authentic marxism. Stalinism, then, was not marxism but, rather, an autocratic phenomenon that develops out of a degenerated/deformed workers state: stalinism was “socialism in one country” (a theory it must be pointed out, that is treated as greatly important by trotskyists so as to explain stalinism, but that the supposed stalinists themselves only take seriously when it is applied to them by trotskyists), stalinism is a bureaucratic authoritarianism that has betrayed socialism.

One can argue about the other hallmarks of trotskyism-qua-trotskyism (i.e. “permanent revolution”, Trotsky’s version of the theory of “combined and uneven development”), even dismissing them, without actually setting themselves apart from the foundations of the trotskyist discourse. If one abides by the aforementioned criticism of Stalin, the Soviet Union, and thinks of a “stalinism” in the terms that trotskyism first defined––and indeed needed to define in order to define itself––then one has not really separated oneself from this discourse.

Within first world academic marxism, then, there is often an uncritical consensus that Stalin was a monstrous and totalitarian figure, the greatest problem that actually existing socialism confronted, perhaps even as monstrous as Hitler! And though Badiou has pointed out that the “lumping together of Stalin and Hitler was already a sign of extreme intellectual poverty” (Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 3), this liberal discourse of “totalitarianism” is often uncritically accepted by academic marxists even if they don’t use that term. Indeed, the fact that the story Trotsky tells of the Soviet Union runs parallel to bourgeois historiography is also rarely critiqued; in fact, it is sometimes taken as a badge of pride––”we’re so critical that we can even accept the bourgeois story of ‘our’ crimes as correct.” Well, if this was a qualification for critical thought than we might as well accept the reactionary and ahistorical bullshit promoted in The Black Book of Communism as Marx’s own truth!

This discourse about Stalin and “stalinism” is so hegemonic in academia that to even suggest, in proper academic marxist circles, that maybe Trotsky was more responsible for wrecking the international communist movement than Stalin is generally unwise (and the fact that I am writing this here, where it will probably be read by my academic fears, is something that might possibly affect my already non-existent career prospects). Indeed, to suggest that the discourse of stalinism runs parallel to a cold war discourse about Stalin-as-mass-murderer and that we should be suspicious about these kinds of things is bad for one’s academic health––or at least enough to get yelled at by people who don’t want to believe that their understanding of Stalin era Soviet Union and its supposed crimes is not “progressive” as they somehow and bizarrely want to believe but actually a banal and common belief amongst reactionary historians. Nor does the fact that the vast majority of the world’s communists (meaning those who don’t live at the privileged centres of capitalism) tell themselves a different and more critically nuanced story of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Hell, even leftists living in the former Eastern Bloc who remember that era do not, for some reason, believe what we are supposed to believe here about that period: the Russians who can remember the Stalin era proudly bear his picture on victory day marches, the Eastern Orthodox Church has received an overwhelming requests to make Stalin a saint (this is hilariously ironic), and even in places like the Ukraine where we are told that Stalin personally and intentionally exacted the worst totalitarian policies (a claim initially made by the cold warrior historian Robert Service who has now, in fact, distanced himself from that theory), there is a communist party that tells a more critical story about the famine.

All of this is to say that we must ask ourselves why a certain narrative about Stalin vis-a-vis Trotsky is accepted without much criticism by academic marxists at the centres of capitalism. One only needs to mention the name Stalin without the same hatred as the liberal media and one’s fellow marxist theorists will react with suspicion and ire. And the reason for this reaction cannot solely be blamed on the effects of a bourgeois ideology that has become common sense even for marxist academics (which is also true and must be recognized as partially determinate), because many of these marxist academics pride themselves on their ability to demystify bourgeois ideology. When it comes to demystifying this same ideology when it is applied to the actually existing (and failed) socialisms, however, the same critical analysis is rarely applied: Lenin was good, Stalin was bad, and Mao was just another Stalinist––this is the common narrative that is told about the two world historical communist revolutions, with various permutations, and so we need to note that this is precisely the narrative about these revolutions that was initially told by trotskyism. That is, the willingness to accept that bourgeois propaganda is partially right in these areas, while challenging it thoroughly in every other area, is not accidental. It is a result of the success of trotskyists in waging ideological struggle in academia.

None of this is to say, of course, that Stalin and the failures of the Soviet Union shouldn’t be criticized (they did fail, after all, and so they must be criticized… as Mao should also be criticized), but that those of us who criticize Stalin, and the Soviet Union that he supposedly ruled with an iron fist, from a position other than the one endorsed by trotskyism have a very difficult time making our narrative acceptable in first world academia. Indeed, any attempt to challenge the Trotskyist narrative of Stalin and so-called “stalinism”, even if all we’re trying to do is reject what we see as a critique from the right in order to replace it with a critique from the left, is greeted with asinine charges of being apparatchik of some soviet bureaucracy that no longer exists.

Really, we’re not interested the debates and fights of the Stalin-Trotsky era; actually, we’re kind of annoyed that they still exist. The fact that we’re still forced to focus on this historical division––that it is brought up when some of say to our academic peers that we are maoists––is because trotskyists are primarily obsessed with this division. Their identity, after all, comes from this split (and true to this identity they keep splitting) and so it is the discourse surrounding this split that is the primary legacy of trotskyism’s influence on academic marxism at the centres of capitalism.

And yet fissures in this discourse have already existed and are becoming more noticeable. Today, theorists such as Badiou and Ranciere, who come from a tradition that rejects the importance of the trotskyist narrative, are growing popular. That is, this discourse is no longer as powerful as it once was, though it still possesses a strong influence, and in the entry that inspired this one I was only speaking of its history to date. My intention of naming this discourse, and pointing out is successes, was mainly to encourage Marxist academics who find it unsatisfactory to embark on the same ideological struggle as the trotskyists and establish counter-discourses that complexify a story of actually existing socialism that now has become stale and is revealing its inability to be properly scientific––if its primary explanation of the failure of the Soviet Union and other revolutions is based on personalities, then it is doing little more than retell the bourgeois historian tale of history being made by great individuals. If marxist academia is still focused, whenever it comes to talking about the history of the 20th centuries great revolutions, on the story of Stalin’s monstrosity and Trotsky’s martyrdom, then this is precisely because of the strength of the trotskyist discourse to become common sense. Holes in this common sense are now appearing, but we still need to understand its origin if we are to challenge its dominance.


Hegemony and Class Revolution

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June 26, 2012

Despite its overuse and/or abuse by various theoretical schools, the concept of hegemony developed by Antonio Gramsci is something that I have more and more come to believe is extremely useful for revolutionary communists. Unfortunately, the word has become a synonym for a rather banal, and perhaps even idealist, concept of power employed by post-structuralists and post-modernists. Theorists will speak off-handedly of “the hegemony”, or how they are interested in “counter-hegemony”, or how something is somehow “hegemonic”, and that bad-bad-bad hegemony. (Sometimes, and this is an especially American phenomenon, they will pronounce the word with a hard g––which is really neither here nor there but, for some reason I cannot really explain, bugs the hell out of me.)

We can trace the appropriation and misuse of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, perhaps, to Edward Said’s Orientalism. And though I love Said and feel that Orientalism is a foundational theoretical work, I also feel that it is sadly flawed in so many ways: how it dismisses marxism with a single passage, how it relies too much on Foucault and thus undermines some of its own assertions, and how it somehow thinks that it can blast Gramscian concepts out of their historical materialist context and apply them, as if theory is an all you can eat buffet, in contexts where they do not necessarily belong. Following Said there was an explosion of post-colonial theory that relied heavily on Gramscian concepts but, like Said, did damage to these concepts (hegemony, subaltern) in an attempt to hammer them into a post-structuralist mould.

The post-structuralist obsessive theories of power conditions this misuse of Gramsci. Totalizing power, biopower, power deployed genealogically, always inescapable and ineffable power at the root of even the subject… An idealist notion of power to be sure because this power is something that often appears to be transhistorical, is ultimately not generated by anything except itself (for the subject is a myth, we are told, and cannot produce anything––in truth it is fully produced), and is thus akin to some Platonic form. And when those of us who are critical marxists argue that you cannot speak of power unless you are willing to also qualify its material meaning––is it economic or political, reactionary or progressive?––this anti-marxist critical tradition would have us believe that to even ask these questions is itself the result of discursive power relations. Yes, I know I am simplifying here but I am not interested in taking the piss out of post-modern philosophy. Rather, I am interested in noting how Gramsci has been simplified and appropriated by this theoretical tradition: hegemony becomes a synonym for this idealist concept of power, is thus treated as something malicious (saying the hegemony is often tantamount to saying, for secular post-structuralists, the devil), and counter-hegemony becomes the progressive solution to hegemony.

And yet Gramsci’s theorization of hegemony had nothing to do with this almost moralistic––post-structuralist complaints about the construction of morality notwithstanding––understanding of his concept. Rather, hegemony is a way of understanding the marxist theory of ideology as well as what it means to build a revolutionary movement against capitalism and possible problems encountered in the building of socialism. That is, it is not simply just a theorization of some bare notion of power, some moralistic complaint about the oppressive power, but about the general relationship of power and ideology. Most importantly, and this is why I keep coming back to it in discussions and meditations about concrete organizing, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony concerns real problems encountered in the real world regarding how to build something that is properly revolutionary.

All of this is to say that I’ve found myself relying on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony whenever I’m arguing for the necessity of a revolutionary party and what that might mean concretely, even if I don’t use the word hegemony or the name Gramsci. And when I encounter the word in my students’ readings, not entirely surprised to discover it in a text that is not in the least bit Gramscian let alone marxist, I often feel the need to go to the blackboard and attempt to diagram the basic Gramscian understanding of the concept in order to clarify terms. Perhaps I find myself returning to Gramsci in these instances because my doctoral supervisor was a consummate scholar of Gramsci who, though failing to get me to filter everything through Gramsci in my dissertation, succeeded in lodging Gramscian categories in the back of my mind.

In any case, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony “is a tool intended to answer the question, how does a society manage to create the kind of conformism that makes it run smoothly without the need for state intervention or coercion?” [Esteve Morera, “Antonio Gramsci”, in the Avenel Companion to Modern Social Theory] When it comes to capitalism, this question is meant to interrogate why people are so willing to conform to the terms of capitalism and accept capitalist ideological justification for capitalist oppression as common sense. For Gramsci, the supremacy of the class in power results in:

“the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental social group, a consent that arises ‘historically’ from the prestige (and hence the confidence) which the dominant group derives from its position and function in the mode of production.” [Gramsci, Quaderni 4]

In other words, the ruling ideas of the ruling class become a mirror for the values desired by ruled class. The values of the dominant class are treated as more valuable, because we are socialized to believe that these ideas predominate because they are more valuable, and so are treated as standard of value. Thus, argues Morera in his analysis of Gramsci, “consensus must be understood not simply as the spontaneous willingness of individuals to consent to a moral order, but rather as the set of conditions that make that willingness possible. For hegemony is the organization of a collective will: to create a new hegemony means to organize the will of individuals so that in their free actions they nevertheless choose within permissible limits, limits that are set by the interests of the ruling group.” [I am using Morera for two reasons: he is an important Gramscian; he is also the thesis supervisor who taught me Gramsci.]

This is why the bourgeois order doesn’t need to rely on coercion as the main recourse to maintaining its power. Better that the proletariat consent to bourgeois rule because it treats the bourgeois orders, and bourgeois ideology, as common sense. As Machiavelli argued in The Prince, a text that partially inspired Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, it is better for people to consent to being ruled rather than being coerced––though the threat of coercion (i.e. the police, the military) should always be present in order to dissuade those who might not consent to their domination.

Obviously, when the theory of hegemony is applied to the current order of capitalism it is easy to relegate it to the moralistic category of bad. This is why post-modernists are so obsessed with some half-baked notion of “counter-hegemony” that is somehow not hegemony and instead a quasi notion of anti-power. But the reason why I find Gramsci so important in an organizational sense is that this theory is simply a description of class power and ideology and not at all loaded with the moralistic garbage that it has somehow been forced to adopt.

We need to ask this important question: how did the bourgeoisie successfully become hegemonic? It’s not as if one day it usurped the aristocracy and suddenly its ideas were essentially hegemonic––that is, common sense. People did not consent to its rule, for example, in that sudden and violent moment in one place in the world when a bunch of nobles lost their heads. Nor did this moment of crystallizing bourgeois power happen without the organization of a class force to counter the hegemony of the nobility. Before capitalism, after all, feudalism was hegemonic and people consented to the values of its dominant class. Take feudal Western Europe as an example: the values of the “Great Chain of Being”, the divine right of kings, and everything that now seems like so much garbage was the default common sense. Thus, the rising bourgeois class in various nations could not declare its victory outside of a historical process that, as it gained more power economically, established its world order politically.

So this is what a Gramscian notion of “counter-hegemony” actually means. Not some mundane concept of anti-hegemony, but the process of a class to establish the power of its class rule. It is not as if the ruling tributary classes of Europe stepped aside because the nascent bourgeoisie was already commanding economic power; they didn’t just, one day, all get together with the various bourgeois groups in various states and say “hey, it’s clear that we’re now economically obsolete so we might as well let you take over because capitalism makes more sense.” Even if the relations of production are being outpaced by the forces of production, and a certain ruling class is holding back history, things do not change because of some economic predestiny; nascent capitalist relations and the forces of production they were bringing into being continued for a long time under the political command of a non-capitalist ruling class––a class which needed to be forced off the stage of history in order for the bourgeois order to become complete.

Thus, class hegemony is accomplished through a process of counter-hegemony where a class that does not possess hegemony––a class that is not able to automatically enforce consent––has to pursue its hegemony in order to make its economic order manifest. Bourgeois hegemony is the result of a protracted process of counter-hegemony where those parties militantly organized around bourgeois interests violently placed society under their dictatorship. Violent revolutions, suppressions, negotiations, cultural wars: a political period of transition, built around the economic period of transition, necessary to produce consent.

Which is why the theory of hegemony is not some simple moralistic description of power and its deployment. Because, for Gramsci, the point of looking at bourgeois hegemony was to understand possible proletarian hegemony. If the bourgeoisie’s relations of production are obsolete, and the proletariat is the class that holds an unrealized economic power, then it can only consolidate this power by pursuing its political hegemony. That is, like the bourgeoisie, the proletariat needs to pursue a counter-hegemonic program in order to establish its dictatorship and thus, hopefully, its hegemony. The bourgeois thrives as a ruling class primarily because we consent to its rule; similarly, the proletariat needs to pursue a project that will lead to the same consent, to a scenario where proletarian values displace bourgeois values––just as bourgeois values displaced aristocratic values––and thus become common sense.

This means, contrary to the post-structuralist appropriations of Gramsci, that hegemony is not something that is necessarily malicious but simply a fact about class rule. For Gramsci, then, it was necessary for the proletariat to build class power and hegemony. Most importantly, because of the fact of the current dominant class’ hegemony, any attempt to build a counter-hegemonic process that could ultimately produce a new class hegemony is going to begin by challenging the common sense of the class it seeks to displace––the dominant ideology, the ruling ideas of the ruling class, is going to be a significant problem for any revolutionary movement. And, as Althusser (who in many ways compliments Gramsci) has pointed out, a class struggle on the domain of ideology is part of the work in which any revolutionary party needs to engage if they are to succeed.

Therefore, revolutionary movements need to begin by gathering in those who already question the supposed “common sense” of the ruling class (for every class society has its cracks), those with the so-called “advanced consciousness”, and slowly extending its sphere of counter-hegemony––this is how every revolutionary movement in the twentieth century (and we must remember that Gramsci was a Leninist) has succeeded in becoming a significant revolutionary movement. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and the Peoples Liberation Army under Mao, for example, were the consummation of counter-hegemonic processes.

The problem, however, is in establishing hegemony. It is one thing to displace a ruling class in a moment of revolution; it is quite another to displace its values. Socialism is still, as the maoist turn in revolutionary communism argues, a class struggle; placing the bourgeoisie under a dictatorship does not, anymore than the placing of the French monarchy under the dictatorship of the Jacobins, result in the hegemony of a post-capitalist order. Even still, despite and because of the last great socialist failure, we should be forced to realize that pursuing and finally solving a project of revolutionary hegemony is necessary for communists.

War of Position at the Centres of Capitalism

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July 5, 2012

In the comment section of my previous entry on Gramsci and hegemony, I indicated that I was planning on writing more about the concepts of counter-hegemony and hegemony by focusing on Gramsci’s concept of “the war of position.” Generally, I was interested in expanding on some of the points made in the last two or three paragraphs of the article to discuss the importance of establishing a counter-hegemony of revolutionary forces, specifically at the centres of capitalism where myself and most of my readers live.

Gramsci’s notion of “war of position” is usually defined––contrary to the “war of manoeuvre/movement” [open/frontal warfare] and underground warfare [guerrilla war, and/or the military aspect of peoples war]––as some sort of cultural/intellectual struggle where one class pursues hegemony by establishing some sort of cultural counter-hegemony. It is class warfare where “the superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern [well “modern” in Gramsci’s time] warfare.” [Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 235] We must also note, however, that, for Gramsci, the concept is not just about the limited notion of “cultural hegemony” (a term he never uses but that is ascribed to him, and in my last entry I tried to indicate how hegemony should be understood) but about the moment of passive class warfare that persists when militaries are no longer present––the need to recognize this as still being a moment of war, the need to develop tactics within this strategic moment.

Adopted from Clausewitz’s theories of war and Gramsci’s understanding of Italian history, the concept of “war of position”, therefore, is broader than how it is usually applied––I point I feel I should qualify before employing it connection to counter-hegemony. Unfortunately, Gramsci’s concepts are generally slippery. This is because: a) his theory comes from disorganized prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit; b) the nature of his imprisonment meant that he had to use code words to obscure the obvious political content from prison censors (i.e. the term “philosophy of praxis” is substituted for “communism”, instead of “Lenin” he writes “Ilyich”, etc.). Add to these basic problems the post-modern and post-colonial distortions I discussed in my previous entry on this topic, and poor old Gramsci has had a rough time being fully understood.

Furthermore, the general broadness of the concept “war of position” means that, even without distorting Gramsci, it can have a variety of political interpretations. Those who believe in the theory of insurrection, for example, can use the “war of position” to describe the period of protracted legal struggle that will produce the grounds of insurrection––insurrection, obviously, being a “war of manoeuvre”. In this way, the concept is seen as part of a linear progression: concentrate on a war of position, build up some forces for underground warfare but keep them in reserve, which will lead to an insurrectionary war of movement. But those of us who believe in the theory of Protracted Peoples War will argue that the “war of position” is not just a phase but, because revolutionary warfare should not be understood as linear, a type of warfare that happens before, throughout, and after the military aspect of Peoples War. Although it can be argued that Gramsci might have been more in line with the theory of insurrection (especially since, obviously, the theory of PPW had not yet been given a coherent expression), there are also elements in the Prison Notebooks to suggest otherwise. That is, in order to even enter a phase of strategic defensive we need to accumulate revolutionary forces which is a war of position; during strategic defensive and strategic equilibrium we need to keep waging this war of position outside of underground warfare and wars of movement in order to extend revolutionary hegemony in the superstructure; during the dictatorship of the proletariat the war of position is extremely necessary to prevent capitalism from being reestablished––indeed, we can look at the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution as being a class struggle that was primarily a war of position.

(Indeed, the fact that Gramsci places emphasis on the “war of position” that comes after the success of the “war of manoeuvre”––thus, to reverse Clausewitz’s aphorism, “politics is war by other means”––should make us realize that the concept is not just about building a counter-hegemony before revolution, but about continuing to build hegemony after the state has been seized by a victorious revolution. Thus, Gramsci’s concept of “war of position” often seems more concerned with the passive building of hegemony post-revolutionary war––after a class has seized power––then how it is generally employed in pop-academia. Just as he speaks of the war of position as being something that can produce a war of manoeuvre, Gramsci also speaks of the war of position as being something that can be won by the war of manoeuvre.)

In any case, I want to focus here on understanding “war of position” as it is connected to a phase of accumulating revolutionary forces––the point at which those of us who live at the centres of capitalism find ourselves since we are not even close to a period of strategic defensive, let alone in a period where the dictatorship of the proletariat has been established. Thus, back to the basic definition of the concept that, although I’ve problematized its over-specificity, is what I find most pertinent in this context. That is, the need to build a revolutionary counter-hegemony in order to make revolutionary values and ideas become more compelling than the “common sense” bourgeois values and ideas. Waging this sort of war of position is very important at the centres of capitalism if we are ever to succeed in building a broad-based revolutionary movement; the moment we begin speaking of revolution we are faced with the “common sense” rejection of such a movement––a knee-jerk appeal to the hegemonic ideology of the bourgeoisie––a barrier that is especially strong at the centres of capitalism.

First of all, anyone who grapples seriously with the issue of class revolution will be forced to admit that, contrary to bourgeois and revisionist views of history, such a revolution will by necessity (and indeed tragically) be violent. The class in power is not, as I have argued before, will not peacefully abdicate power and, indeed, possesses institutions (i.e. the police, the military) that are devoted to maintaining its power in those moments when its subjects refuse to consent to its rule. And though revisionists such as Bernstein have argued that revolution can be accomplished through peaceful parliamentary means, those of us who have a critical and scientific understanding of revolutionary history are very much aware that this method leads only to defeat.

Thus, following the first point of the necessity of a violent overthrow of capitalism, revolutionary movements at the centres of capitalism are faced with this secondary problem: if we accept that revolutionary violence is unavoidable, and that if we want to pursue a path of making revolution we have to be aware that this will lead to violent confrontations with the state if it will ever be successful, how do we convince the masses at the centres of capitalism to become part of such a movement? In the global peripheries, after all, the barrier of violence is not really a problem: where people are over-exploited, where they starve to death or live brutal lives because of imperialism, where they are bombed to death just by living their lives––in this context, someone is not going to be afraid of risking their life in a revolutionary movement because they are already risking their lives just by living passively. This is why Samir Amin, among others, has endorsed Lenin’s proposition that revolutionary movements are most likely to spring up at the points of the “weakest link” in the imperialist world system––where the contradictions of capitalism are bare and violent.

At the centres of capitalism, however, the power of bourgeois hegemony often works to convince the masses that there is no need for revolution because their lives are comfortable. (Hence the reason, for example, that some of us uphold the importance of Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy.) And though it is true that this comfortability is generally the result of world imperialism, just pointing out that someone is living a peaceful life because a bunch of people elsewhere are getting starved, worked to death, and bombed into oblivion is not by itself necessarily going to convince people to join a movement that seeks the violent overthrow of capitalism. After all, why overthrow something that, though exploitative, is not experienced at every moment as the violent structure that it is? Why not, in this context, pursue a peaceful strategy of revolution rather than unnecessarily making our lives difficult by a state that is not bombing those of us at the centre? This is why the communist movement at the centres of capitalism is affected by a default opportunism––why Lenin even once argued, long ago, that opportunism was the prime ideology of the global centres––and spends most of its time pursuing reformist strategies and entryism. Violent revolution for people elsewhere, is the formula, but a peaceful strategy for the “advanced workers” at the centres of capitalism.

This opportunistic understanding of revolution, then, is a product of bourgeois hegemony and why, primarily, we need to pursue a “war of position” so as to position the necessity for class revolution as a counter “common sense” to the prevailing attitude of peaceful co-existence and parliamentarism. At this moment any revolutionary movement needs to accumulate people with a revolutionary consciousness. To do this it is necessary to ideological struggle in the cultural milieu in order to popularize revolutionary ideology. And though this struggle must be carried out with other struggles necessary for party building, it is the primary struggle for the building of any revolutionary party. Every party that has built itself historically, after all, has begun with ideological struggle and has only extended the sphere of this struggle to other aspects when it has become powerful enough to be treated as a compelling counter-force by the masses.

Yes, people need to be drawn to an emergent revolutionary movement because of the actions of its cadre (who should be known as serving the people rather than using the people), but unless we are to be guilty of “putting the cart before the horse” we also cannot even be known by our actions until we are first known as a growing counter-hegemony in the ideological sphere. This is why Lenin emphasized the need for a communist newspaper (though not in the sense, it must be pointed out, that certain dogmato-revisionist groups who only sell newspapers and do nothing else understand it). This is also why Gramsci used the analogy of the Catholic church to explain how we properly pursue hegemony by these means. The Catholic church, after all, was clearly hegemonic in Italy at the time Gramsci was writing and, as Gramsci pointed out, had been hegemonic for millennia; and it did not accomplish this hegemony through acts of “Christian charity”. Although the early Christians might have practiced a behaviour that stood in stark contrast to the values of the Roman Empire––and it is true that this gained the movement many adherents––it primarily became hegemonic through ideological proselytization.

If every successful revolutionary movement has begun by pursuing ideological struggle, then a revolutionary movement at the centres of capitalism needs to pursue a heightened ideological struggle because here there is a significant barrier to even thinking about revolution unless it is watered-down with reformist and movementist terminology. While it is harder for revolutionary movements in the periphery to win victories against the imperialist mechanisms that promote the development of underdevelopment, it is easier for revolutionary movements to spring up in these contexts. Conversely, while it is harder for revolutionary movements at the centres of capitalism to build themselves into a significant force, it might be easier to wage a revolutionary struggle in the “belly of the beast” once such a significant force emerges––we do not, after all, have to worry about the problems of New Democratic Revolution, or of building up the forces of production necessary for socialism… we do, however, have to worry about the fact that we lack, by and large, the necessary relations of production.

Hence the need for heightening a “war of position” at the centres of capitalism. On the one hand we need to promote revolutionary ideology so that it becomes popularized, not watered down, and challenges bourgeois “common sense”––we do this by forcing ideological class struggle into all spheres of life and, at the same time, slowly accumulating revolutionary forces who will persist in this agitation and begin building structures of parallel ideology at the margins and in the cracks of the state. On the other hand, we need to break through the ideology that, because of first world welfare capitalist privilege, is incapable of seeing revolution as a necessity. And we must keep in mind that parliamentarism and entryism are ideological traps; in the words of Gramsci, “in political struggle one should not ape the methods of the ruling classes, or one will fall into easy ambushes.” [ibid., 232]

Ideological Class Struggle in Academia?

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July 16, 2012

If there is one thing that trotskyists have been extremely successful at, it is that they have become the official representatives and gate-keepers of marxism in first world academia. Thus, the academic industry of published marxist texts is largely dominated and managed by trotskyist and post-trotskyist intellectuals. Even those popular academic marxists who have rejected trotskyist orthodoxy or semi-orthodoxy are most often people whose understanding of communism has been heavily influenced by a trotskyist style marxism.

As one of my good friends and comrades has pointed out, regardless of the historical disagreements we maoists might have with trotskyism, at the very least we have to admire their ability to wage ideological struggle within the confines of bourgeois academia. At the same time, however, the fact that the already non-hegemonic field of marxist academia is dominated by a trotskyist-influenced interpretation of historical marxism is a serious problem for us academics (who are not the exceptions of Alain Badiou and Jacques Ranciere) whose understanding of marxism emerges from “that other marxism” of a maoist and/or non-western revolutionary communism. Marxism has already been marginalized in first world academia; marxist currents that are not trotskyist-influenced, or at least in accordance with that interpretation of history, are generally marginalized further.

Of course, the reason for this trotskyist academic success at the centres of capitalism makes sense. The so-called “Fourth International” was a eurocentric affair led by first world academics. A marxism that began by distancing itself from the Soviet Union, regardless of its supposedly “nuanced” claims about a deformed workers state, was palatable to a US and European context during the cold war. Then, when other first world marxist intellectuals were aligning themselves with China and other third world revolutions in the 1960s (sometimes going so far as to embark on short-lived and adventurist escapades), trotskyists generally stuck to the sphere of legality and became part of the intellectual establishment. So when the rise of maoism, which crystallized in 1993, meant that the only communists actively pursuing revolution were maoist (or at least maoist inspired), trotskyists, who have done little more than ideological struggle, didn’t have to worry about losing their hold on academia.

Still, the fact remains that a trotskyist-inspired discourse––even if it is no longer precisely “trotskyist”––has been successful in pushing marxism, and thus primarily representing marxism, in the academic terrain at the centres of global capitalism. And though this trotskyist (and/or post-trotskyist) hegemony is annoying for those of us who are excluded and marginalized by its terms, it is still is something worthy of respect. It is definitely more commendable than the more dogmatic offshoots of this tradition whose idea of promoting a more religious version of the same discourse consists only of producing newspapers nobody else wants to read.

Look at those academic marxist-oriented presses, for example, commanded by those trotskyist-influenced intellectuals: Verso and Haymarket Press. They both pump out a lot of books that are important for those of us who are interested in waging what Althusser called “a class struggle on the level of ideology.” Indeed, they publish Althusser and the classics as well as the odd quasi-maoist––the aforementioned Badiou and Ranciere––and maybe a small collection of Mao’s essays… just as long as the introduction is by someone whose writing is convoluted enough that he would end up making maoism seem convoluted (i.e. Zizek). At the same time, while they can afford to be magnanimous, they remain the gate-keepers of academic marxism. They sure as hell can’t lead a revolution, but they know how to wage ideological struggle in academia. (Trotskyist readers, before you send me angry comments, just realize that I’m talking about actual history––it is a factual statement that, while it is true that Trotsky was a leader in the Bolshevik Revolution, no group emerging from the Fourth International has ever initiated or been involved in a significant revolutionary movement.)

So what are we maoist academics/intellectuals supposed to do when it comes to the prospect of publishing and carving out a tiny corner of academic discourse? The easy answer, obviously, would be do nothing because you should be focusing on concrete class struggle. Clearly there is some truth to this position: communists should be trying to figure out what it means to involve oneself in class struggle on a concrete level rather than becoming fully submerged in academic/theoretical work. At the same time, though, fighting to have some sort of ideological representation in the marxist academic sphere is rather important because this sphere, overly dominated as it is by trotsky-esque perspectives, needs to be utilized in order to give some meaning to the concrete struggles of actually existing revolutionary movements and Peoples Wars. We maoists have been known to complain when marxist intellectuals ignore these mass revolutionary movements––from Nepal to India––and yet we are struggling to produce very little to force the existence of these movements into academic discourse. And though it is true that these movements’ success or failure is not dependent on being represented in academia, any representation helps––look, for example, at how much help to the Naxal uprisings that Arundhati Roy (who is not a maoist) has been.

More importantly, if we want to build revolutionary movements in our own social context, one of the ways to popularize said movements is to, in some way (no matter how small), involve ourselves in this class struggle on the level of ideology. Not as a substitution for class struggle itself––not to excuse ourselves from figuring out how to go amongst the masses––but as a way to popularize revolution in the sense conveyed by the concept of the war of position that I discussed in a previous post. In this way, then, I think we can learn from the trotskyists who have been very successful in marking out the boundaries of marxist discourse––even if this is pretty much the only struggle they have waged successfully, it is still an important struggle.

Misconceptions about Maoism

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July 18, 2012

Although maoism has been the most vital form of revolutionary communism in the world since the 1990s, those of us at the centres of capitalism who adopt the identity of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist occasionally have to deal with some very annoying misconceptions about what we believe. When we tell other leftists that we identify as maoist we are sometimes met with bemused expressions, glazed eyes, and curious suspicion. And despite our best efforts, we generally have to deal with the same bizarre assumptions about what we believe. It doesn’t matter how many times we correct these misconceptions, or how successful we are in organizing outside of the boundaries of the mainstream left, the same assumptions continue to be asserted irregardless––sometimes by the same people who have simply ignored everything that we’ve said to begin with. So, while it probably won’t matter one bit, I’ve taken it upon myself to list and again correct some of these erroneous claims about what we maoists believe.

1. Maoists are only concerned with peasant revolution.

This is probably the most common argument levelled against maoists at the centres of capitalism, a claim that keeps being despite all attempts on the part of maoists to argue otherwise. For when people think of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution, the first thing that pops into their heads––if they aren’t reactionaries [see below] is the large-scale peasant movements, the Long March, and the belief that when some of us talk of a “Peoples’ War” we are interested in mobilizing the peasantry. Clearly this allows our critics to dismiss us out-of-hand because, obviously, there is no peasantry in Canada, or the United States, or Western Europe, or etc. Clearly there is no social class at the centres of capitalism that qualifies as the peasantry and so, if maoism is just a peasant marxism, then it wouldn’t make any sense.

So let me say it again: we maoists are not primarily concerned with a universal peasantry that we believe exists in every country. When some of us speak of the importance of Mao’s theory of protracted peoples war and its applicability to our social contexts we are not imagining a scenario where we will disappear into the hills with some active and over-exploited peasantry similar to the peasantry that exists in China. Nor do we believe migrant workers, rural labourers, let alone farmers at the centres of capitalism count as a peasant class. We generally believe that peasants only exist at the peripheries of global capitalism, in semi-feudal societies, and not at the imperial centres. Good lord, I don’t know how many times I have to say this! Stop telling me that I believe in some non-existent Canadian peasantry––I don’t live in a bubble.

If Mao organized the peasants in China, and if other revolutionary parties organize peasants, it is because these movements happened in societies where pre-capitalist formations were retained and allowed to flourish under comprador capitalism. Thus, in these contexts, peasants were often the most revolutionary social class––mainly because they were far more numerous than a nascent and underdeveloped proletariat. Hence the maoist concept of semi-feudalism that has to do with these social formations. When it comes to capitalist modes of production like Canada and the US, though, we maoists do not believe that there is anything that can be properly called a peasant social class. Stop telling us that we do when we do not because it’s getting annoying.

Also, stop telling those of us who believe in the theory of Peoples War that this theory is dependent on some non-existent peasantry that you think we want to organize. We don’t. I mean, if they did exist I’m sure we would want to organize them, but just like you we’re pretty sure they don’t exist and so we aren’t trying all that hard to find some class simply because it fits into our romantic social categories. We aren’t imagining that the cities will be surrounded by some imaginary peasant hinterland.

We believe in the necessity of what Mao called a concrete analysis of a concrete situation which is why we think social investigation is important––the same sort of social investigation that led Mao to organize amongst the peasants in China rather than the industrial workers. We are certain, because of social investigation, that there is no peasantry at the centres of capitalism. We are not always so certain, however, that what some marxists refer to as the proletariat is necessarily the hard-core of the proletariat; we think this working class, which will form the advanced embryo of a revolutionary movement, cannot be defined by uncritical formulae derived from nineteenth century thinking. Those who control the means of production and have nothing left to lose but their chains, after all, are no more the unionized industrial working class than they are the non-existent first world peasantry.

2. Maoists are vicious murderers.

If anyone reading this blog still thinks this they should stop reading now. Seriously: if you’ve been a reader for this long and still believe this reactionary shit, you probably should find another hobby blog to read. This is what uncritical reactionaries generally think because of the right-wing garbage that has recently been promoted about the Chinese Revolution and its simply regurgitated cold war propaganda.
But seriously… if you think we’re maoists because we want to murder everyone and the whole world [please note that some of this propaganda relies on taking statements like this out of context and I’m sure some reactionary somewhere is going to wrench several words out of there coherent structure and quote me as saying “we want to murder everyone and the whole world”] then just stop identifying as left-wing now. I’m sure you can have a happier and less confused life identifying as a liberal.

3. Maoists are class collaborationists.

This is the best. Do you know how many times I’ve run into some ortho-Trot and been screamed at based on hir half-baked understanding of Mao’s theory of “New Democracy”. The argument goes as follows: in the Chinese Revolution Mao believed in a class alliance with nascent elements of the national bourgeoisie in order to build the context for socialism… ergo maoism is all about class collaboration. The best is when these same ortho-Trots start yelling about the supposed “maoist” failure in countries such as Indonesia where communists who were somewhat influenced by the Chinese Revolution liquidated themselves in Sukarno’s nationalist project and were destroyed. “EXPLAIN YOUR ACTIONS IN INDONESIA!” they shout at panels, thinking they have made some super brilliant point.

Let’s be clear: 1) we maoists do not believe in some homogenous tradition with a great leader (i.e. Mao) who was always right just as the Prophet Trotsky was always right; 2) maoism was first theorized by the Peruvian revolutionaries in 1988 and then by the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement in 1993 and so did not exist as a theory in these random and confused revolutionary moments you mention––so sorry, you’re talking about moments that have nothing to do with us so stop projecting; 3) you don’t even understand the supposed “maoist” theory you’re attacking in the first place.

The theory of New Democracy, which I won’t get into here, is about how to build a socialist movement in peripheral countries. By grasping the fact that revolutionary delinking is necessary, that it is important to build up the forces necessary for socialism (and that don’t exist in semi-feudal, semi-colonial contexts), the theory argued for an alliance with progressive aspects of the national bourgeoisie. It did not argue for the liquidation of communists within these classes (as, for example, the communists did in Indonesia) but that these classes should be liquidated within the growing sphere of the proletariat. The class in command was what was important and so these other situations you speak of, though you might think they have something to do with either maoism or “Mao Zedong Thought”, are utterly alien to the theory of New Democracy––in Indonesia, for example, it was clear that the “class in command” question wasn’t satisfied so to even bring it up as some sort of argument is laughable. Just as your belief that maoism existed as it does today at the point in time is a joke: please stop projecting us back on the past to fit your bizarre and ahistorical arguments about reality.

4. Maoists are third worldist layabouts.

Since we believe, following Lenin, that revolution is more likely to happen at the weakest link of world capitalism, and that a labour aristocracy is predominant at the centres of capitalism, we are often accused of being Third Worldists who are under the impression that revolution is impossible at the centres of capitalism.

Yes, there is something called Maoism Third Worldism, but it is an offshoot of “Mao Zedong Thought” that emerged before Marxism-Leninism-Maoism was theorized. In other words, most of the worldwide maoist movement doesn’t think that Maoism Third Worldism counts as maoism-proper and some of us find it as asinine as the rest of you. Truthfully, we don’t deny some of its claims; we simply feel that they lack nuance, are not the product of proper social investigation, are undialectical, and are generally the product of theoretical confusion. We generally respect, however, the willingness of Maoist Third Worldists to reassert the problem of the “labour aristocracy”; we just think that its belief in a global Peoples War––where there is no point at organizing at the centres of imperialism, where we should leave revolutionary praxis to third world movements, and where we should just provide these movements with our “brilliant” insights––is itself also a product of first world elitism.

(And again, I emphasize, “maoism” did not appear as a theory until after this “Maoist Third Worldist” ideology emerged. And the latter emerged only in first world countries whereas the former was promoted primarily by the third world countries the latter was supposedly theorized to support.)

Nor does the fact that Maoism Third Worldism is the product of our general theoretical tradition fill us with much trepidation. At least it is a theoretical trajectory that cares about world revolution and is less revisionist than the trajectories in other traditions… It is not, regardless of its problems, entryism.

5. Maoists are uber-dogmatists.

Compared to what? Compared to your movementist dogmatism that dogmatically rejects all talk of a revolutionary party? Seriously, I don’t understand why our tradition is treated as “more dogmatic” than the Troskyism and post-Trotskyism that is the normative fact of communist building in the mainstream left in, say, Toronto. Nor do I understand why it is entirely “dogmatic” to challenge a movementist status quo and suggest we should think of what has worked, historically, for revolutionary movements.

Obviously there are maoists who are dogmatists. But then, to be fair, there are dogmatists in every left-wing tradition. Hell, there are even anarchists who like to think they’re all about being non-dogmatic who are the worst kind of dogmatists precisely because they think they are beyond dogma!

6. Isn’t Maoism something that happened in the 1970s and maybe the early 80s?

As indicated in some of the above categories, the general ignorance of what maoism is and when it emerged allows for people to make all sorts of wild assertions about maoism that actually do not apply to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. If you cannot first define what it is you are critiquing, after all, your critiques will be meaningless.

The intrepid critics of maoism who do not want to the work of actually reading modern maoist texts about theory (it’s not so hard to find the RIM statement online, folks, and it’s just a short overview of the theory of MLM!) like to go back to the Chinese Revolution, provide some messy analysis of what they think happened there [often this falls back on an erroneous reading of the theory of New Democracy, see point 3 above], go on about how it failed [but give the wrong reasons for its failure because you haven’t thoroughly studied said revolution], and then apply these failures upon organic and revolutionary maoist movements happening today.

That maoism thing, we’re supposed to believe, kind of died at the end of the 1970s because China went state capitalist. Even worse, sometimes we’re supposed to accept that the capitalist roaders running the Chinese State are somehow “maoist”, or at least the logical result of “maoism”… Everyone has a good chuckle at how antiquated this maoism is!

But aside from being a critique from the right that is ultimately counter-revolutionary, it really doesn’t apply to maoism. Let me again state, as I have stated many times before (and even in this post), maoism wasn’t theorized until 1988 and 1993. Before that, there was no such thing as “maoism” in a coherent manner: maoists were anti-revisionist communists who supported China over the Soviet Union, there was something called Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought where Mao was treated as a better interpreter of Marxism-Leninism than Stalin, and though there was some indication that people were thinking towards the concept of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism on the whole there was no such thing as “maoism” proper. This is why we maintain that the Chinese Revolution wasn’t a “maoist” revolution but the revolution that produced the theoretical insights that would allow us to theorize maoism; similarly, the Bolshevik Revolution wasn’t a “leninist” revolution but produced the theoretical insights that would lead to theorization of leninism.

Point being, if you’re going to critique maoism at least demonstrate some understanding of when it emerged as a theory rather than going on and on about your bad understanding of the errors of the Chinese Revolution. Maoists also critique the short-comings of the Chinese Revolution, just as Leninists critique the short-comings of the Russian Revolution, so we really aren’t devastated by the insight that these revolutions failed. Clearly they failed; the point, as I have always maintained, is to understand why they failed and what they taught us. (And these failures, it is worth pointing out, aren’t the fantasy failures indicated by the usually bad, orientalist, and ahistorical analyses trotted out by supposedly “left” critiques of the Chinese Revolution [or Russian Revolution, for that matter].) So critiquing what we critique, and what produced the theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in the first place, isn’t really damning… especially if your understanding of history is wonky.

7. Maoists are just anarchists pretending to be communists.

I like this one because it appeals to my anarchist past. Nor can it can be denied that there are a lot of maoists who used to be anarchists… but then again, there are a lot of communists of all marxist stripes who used to be anarchists and vice versa. In any case, this charge is rather amusing because if you ask any dyed-in-the-wool hardcore anarchist if maoists are anarchist they will probably throw a fit of Kronstadt proportions.

Usually this charge is levelled at maoists who are active at the centres of capitalism by marxist groups that are generally suspicious of militancy in their social context, are used to abiding by reformism in practice, and have sometimes gone out of their way to paint anarchist militants as agents provocateurs, adventurists, lumpen who put people in danger, etc. Maoism, being a form of revolutionary communism that disdains reformist practice and thinks communists should not have a gap between theory and practice, believes that the militant practice of anarchists at the centres of capitalism is laudable. The only difference is that we maoists think this practice should be theoretically unified under a militant party organization (but one with a mass-line) so that it can be transformed into revolutionary practice. And this difference, obviously, puts us theoretically at odds with anarchists.

Even still, since anarchists are keeping militancy alive at the centres of capitalism and other communists would prefer to march with labour aristocrats, practice entryism, or have official “parades” where the police are assured they won’t do anything bad, then I’m all for working with anarchists. Maybe it is better to work with honest militants than those whose practice has become either economistic or opportunist.

8. In lieu of peasants, Maoists think the “lumpenproletariat” is the revolutionary subject.

I hear this a lot. It’s like the would-be critics of maoism really have to believe that maoists are opposed to the idea that the proletariat are the grave-diggers of capitalism and so, even in capitalist modes of production where proletarianization is generally complete, we just have to find some other class to be our revolutionary subject. I mean, once we get it into the minds of critics that we do not believe the peasantry is valid social class at the centres of capitalism and we aren’t looking for this non-existent peasantry [see point #1], suddenly we’re being told that we’re focusing on the lumpenproletariat. Similar to hipsters who won’t like a brilliant musician simply because they’re no longer indie, we maoists are trying to be all edgy and different with class: “Hahaha, you’re still into the proletariat––how lame is that?!?!? The lumpen is where it’s at!”

Earlier I posted on the concept of the lumpenproletariat because I was tired of hearing all this garbage about the PCR-RCP being a “lumpen organization”––a charge that, in my opinion, resulted from the following ignorant assumptions: a) the PCR-RCP is maoist and so can’t be into the proletariat; b) it has more worker looking people than my petty bourgeois organization so I’m going to call them lumpen because I don’t want to believe it’s organizing proletarians because only my group can organize proletarians; c) I don’t know what lumpenproletariat means.

As I pointed out in the entry cited above, the “reserve army of labour” and non-unionized workers do not count as “the lumpenproletariat”––but, since I already went into that problem in great detail, I won’t bother repeating myself here. I’ll just content myself with saying that we maoists see the proletariat as the revolutionary subject but that (as asserted in point #1) we think that social investigation is required to locate the most proletarianized part of the working class in any given society.

9. Maoists are macho masculinists because they talk about things like Peoples War.

While it is true that there are maoists who are quite probably macho masculinists, there are macho masculinists in every leftist grouping because, patriarchy being what it is, macho egotism is pretty widespread amongst even the left. But let’s also be clear: the best revolutionary feminist work in the past three decades has been produced by maoists and maoist-influenced thinkers: Hisila Yami’s People’s War and Women’s Liberation, Butch Lee’s Night-Vision, the collected work of Anuradha Ghandy (who was responsible for coining the term “proletarian feminism”), etc.

Unfortunately there is a type of thinking that tries to claim that any talk of violent struggle is somehow “masculine” and thus maoists, who talk about things like “Peoples War”, must also be “masculinist” even if they’re women. This is pretty stupid reformist garbage masquerading as progressive, though, and since we are communists we don’t believe there will be a peaceful revolution; we think, in fact, that it is pretty non-masculinist to have women’s militias (as the People’s War in Nepal, when it was at its height, tried to promote) and we think it might be somewhat offensive to tell these women’s militias that they are “acting like men” when they are fighting to overthrow the terms of their oppression.

10. Maoists are stupid.

On Protracted Peoples War as a Universal Development of Revolutionary Theory

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February 17, 2012

Around a week ago I informed two internet comrades that I wasn’t going to write on the theory of Protracted Peoples War (PPW) as a universal development of revolutionary communist theory anytime soon. The reason I gave for abstaining was, like so many others who have been either intrigued or convinced by the Canadian Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR-RCP) articles (here and here) that have asserted that PPW is the proletarian strategy of revolution even at the centres of world capitalism, I am also waiting for the larger theoretical offering before extrapolating, without requisite theoretical/historical/practical investigation, a larger meaning of the theory from the conceptual germ so far available.

And though I still do not plan to theorize anything more than what has already been presented in the articles cited above, I have recently changed my mind about blogging generally on this issue for two reasons: 1) my recent review of Liebknecht’s Militarism (1907) ended up raising the issue of PPW; 2) asinine and uninformed rejections of PPW in my social context continue to be prevalent despite the failure on the part of those promoting these rejections to understand what is meant by protracted peoples war.
In my entry on Liebknecht I pointed out how the author’s analysis of militarism, and the fact that he places weight on the events of 1905 in Russia (in his words, a “guerrilla” war) as world historical, should lead us to think about the importance of the revolutionary [protracted] process from 1905-1917 rather than focusing solely on October 1917. So I want to emphasize the fact that Liebknecht seemed to understand that the proletariat needed a strategy of revolution to respond to the crushing weight of capitalist militarism––and that “the superiority of the army to the unarmed people, the proletariat” is a “vital question”––which prefaces the theory of the PPW. In the historical examples Liebknecht cites regarding clashes between the militarized bourgeois state and the insurrectionary workers (many of whom had even managed to arm themselves), he claims that in all cases the military power of the state was decisive.

So the “vital question” that Liebknecht raises but fails to answer is: when faced with capitalism militarism (a professional and fully-funded standing army that persists in a pro-militarist ideological context), how does the proletariat prepare itself? “One ought to be prepared for everything,” he writes, and indeed the theoretical strategy of insurrection––banking everything on the insurrectionary moment following a protracted legal struggle––is not preparing for everything; it is only preparing for one moment. Liebknecht also seems to hint, at least in his discussion of Switzerland in 1899 (that he returns to on more than one occasion), that what the proletarian needs is a peoples army––he even uses this term. Still, these are just glimmers of a strategy that would not be theorized, despite being practiced without clear theoretical reflection from 1905-1917 in Russia, until Mao’s theoretical conceptualization of PPW.

Which brings me to my second reason for this post: the inability of critics in my social context to understand or even bother to understand, what is meant by protracted peoples war. The most ludicrous dismissals are the claims that PPW is about forming peasant armies and surrounding the cities from the countryside amidst some sort of agrarian revolution… and since all talk of a powerful “peasant class” in this context is obviously non-sensical, then if this is what we believe we can be dismissed as delusional. Except this is not what we mean.

Then there are the equally wrong-headed charges that those of us who endorse PPW as a universal development of revolutionary theory are “adventurists” who want to start urban guerrilla squads tomorrow and begin shooting it out with the pigs. We are suddenly accused of being theoretically in line with the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades. And though we uphold the legacy of these failed focoist attempts (just as we uphold every legacy of failed revolutionary attempts) this is also not what we mean.

What we do mean by PPW is the answer to the “vital question” raised by Liebknecht (and others, of course, before and after Liebknecht). The theory of Protracted Peoples War is juxtaposed with the theory of Insurrection that takes the moment of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia as more significant than the process from 1905-1917. As was argued in the articles cited above, all attempts to follow the October Road––attempts that failed to grasp the moment of insurrection as only part of a much larger process of PPW––have actually failed. Every attempted insurrection based on the strategy of Insurrection has been crushed despite all arguments that this strategy is the only viable revolutionary method at the centres of capitalism. There is no historical
precedent aside from the October Revolution which, as I have already argued, was actually a protracted process.

Those who argue that PPW does not apply to the centres of capitalism claim that the moment of insurrection must come after a protracted legal struggle. Work in reformist ways only, embed yourself in unions, engage in propaganda to win the hearts and minds of the people… But do not try to figure out how to connect any of this to the formation of a unified peoples army because this is somehow “adventurism”. And though we are not arguing that we are in a stage anywhere close to guerrilla warfare, apparently because we believe it is silly to assume that an untrained mass of workers are just going to have an insurrection one day and the state will not bring about the full crushing might of militarism to stamp it out we are raving revolutionary crazies. But the state has stamped out every attempted rebellion generated by the strategy of Insurrection.

If anything there is another type of “adventurism” in assuming that we’re going to have a grand insurrectionary adventure one day and we’ll arm ourselves like heroic boys in the most vapid pulp fantasies to slay the dragon of capitalism without any preparation beyond legal struggle. Why? Because, like in every boys-own fantasy, we are destined to succeed. No: those of use who believe in PPW argue that a longer and more sober strategic view is required.

Take, for example, the failed Spartacist insurrection in which Liebknecht, over ten years after writing Militarism, participated. [A side point: I still find it rather offensive that a certain marxist cult names itself after an uprising that had nothing to do with its dogmato-revisionist ideology––an uprising whose main theorist would probably have nothing but insulting things to say about this organization that appropriated its name.] True, this insurrection was “premature” but we need to ask ourselves how it would have been made mature? Simply by banking on “the objective conditions” being utterly perfect so that the strategy becomes more of an act of fortune-telling––reading the “economic” signs, the political augurs––or by working to train “the subjective conditions” long in advance? And the insurrectionaries in 1919 Berlin lost everything at this moment, the last gasp of revolution before the onslaught of fascism, and since they were not a peoples army involved in a strategic process of PPW they were unable to dissipate and reassemble. In one go the insurrection was lost, and Spartacist warfare did not continue. Again, one of this is to say I disparage the Spartacist Rebellion: I honour its memory just as I honour the memory of every revolution. My only point is that, like the “adventurism” of the RAF, the Insurrectionary strategy of the Spartacist rebels didn’t work.

I won’t explain the meaning of PPW in further detail because it is better explained, in a different manner, by the previously cited PCR-RCP articles. (It is also explained, in a different manner by theoretical articles produced by the New Italian Communist Party [nPCI], but it is important to note that the nPCI’s conception of PPW may indeed be “adventurist”, at least applied to contexts outside of Italy, because it assumes we are already at an advanced stage of “strategic offensive”.) What I am concerned with now, however, is the psychology of rejection aimed at theories of PPW. That is, why is there a knee-jerk response to the theory of Protracted Peoples War that begins with unfounded dismissal? Why, without investigation, is there this immediate need to speak?

It is important to note that one of the reasons behind the Elections Boycott Campaign, that I supported a year ago, was provided in the PCR-RCP Party Programme in the chapter on Protracted Peoples War. That is, the boycott was partially justified by a need to break from the theory of a protracted legal struggle intrinsic to the strategy of Insurrection. And the knee-jerk response to the Boycott Campaign from some sectors of the mainstream left should tell us something about the knee-jerk response to the theory of PPW.

In two words: default opportunism. As I have argued at various points in this blog, we as the left are affected by a dominant ideology of opportunism that is very strong at the centres of capitalism. This is not a new insight: Lenin already recognized this problem in 1915 and, if anything, it has only become worse. We would rather stick to our in-crowds, preferring to believe that the masses “aren’t ready” for communism, and when we take the public stage participate only in the most reformist movements (and within reformist limits) even if this means tailing or attempting to infiltrate a parliamentary party that hasn’t even been “social democrat”, let alone proletarian, for a very long time.

We are very comfortable with our protracted legal struggle, especially now that its protraction has no end in sight. We can engage in ideological debates within our circles of conversion (which I am perhaps guilty of doing also), sing hosannahs to a distant insurrectionary moment, and imagine that we’ll all spontaneously arm ourselves and achieve victory when the magical moment erupts. Thus, any theory that asks us to consider whether our practice is not enough elicits wild and spurious rejection.

Even as I write this entry I know that it will be dismissed off-hand by perhaps would-be comrades who won’t even bother to engage with or read the arguments. I know this because I know that so many of us fail to grasp arguments that challenge our ideological commitments: I am as guilty of this (and will continue being guilty of this at different moments) as anyone else––when I first encountered the PCR-RCP’s claims about PPW, I must confess, I reacted in a similar manner. It wasn’t until I read their the actual theorization, and engaged with the arguments, that I realized I had never really had an understanding of the meaning of Protracted Peoples War in the first place.

In the end, we should really be asking ourselves this question: if the most important thing for communists is revolution, then why is there such a poverty of actually theorizing how to achieve revolution amongst self-proclaimed communists of all types at the centres of capitalism? Some of us believe that theorizing revolution in Canada has been opened by the aforementioned theorization of PPW, partially for the reasons cited above, and thus, even if it is rejected, it needs to be taken seriously.

Libya and Syria: “When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong”

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Pham Binh. North Star.

Reflexive opposition to Uncle Sam’s machinations abroad
is generally a good thing. It is a progressive instinct that progressively
declined in the 1990s, as presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton deftly deployed the
U.S. military to execute “humanitarian” missions in Somalia, Haiti, and the
Balkans and progressively increased in the 2000s, as Bush Jr. lurched from
quagmire to disaster in transparent empire-building exercises in Afghanistan
and Iraq.

However, what is generally good is not good in every
case. The progressive instinct to oppose anything the U.S. government does
abroad became anything but progressive once the Arab Spring sprang up in Libya
and Syria, countries ruled by dictatorships on Uncle Sam’s hit list. When
American imperialism’s hostility to the Arab Spring took a back seat to its
hostility to the Ghadafi and Assad regimes (their collaboration with Bush Jr.’s
international torture ring notwithstanding), the Western left’s support for the
Arab Spring took a back seat to its hostility to American imperialism.

The moment the Syrian and Libyan revolutions demanded
imperialist airstrikes and arms to neutralize the military advantage enjoyed by
governments over revolutionary peoples, anti-interventionism became
counter-revolutionary because it meant opposing aid to the revolution.
Equivocal positions such as “revolution yes, intervention no” (the one I
defended) were rendered utopian, abstract, and useless as a guide to action by
this turn of events.

“Libyan Winter” Heats Up

To say that the Libyans were fortunate that
anti-interventionists were too weak to block, disrupt, or affect NATO’s
military campaign would be an understatement. Libya would look like Syria today
if the anti-interventionists won at home in the West.

In both cases, the Western left mistakenly prioritized
its anti-imperialist principles over its internationalist duty to aid these
revolutions by any means necessary. By any means necessary presumably includes
aid from imperialist powers or other reactionary forces. If this presumption is
wrong, then we are not for the victory of the oppressed by any means necessary
and should remove those words from our vocabulary in favor of by any means we
in the West deem acceptable.

When the going got tough and the F-16s got going over
Libya, the revolution’s fairweather friends in the West disowned it, claiming
it had been hijacked by NATO. Instead of substantiating this claim with
evidence that NATO successfully pushed the Libyans aside and seized control of
their war against Ghadafi, the Western left instead 1) focused on the alleged
misdeeds of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and 2) hid behind phrases
such as “Libyan Winter” and “civil war,” implying that the Arab Spring in Libya
froze the instant NATO jumped in and that neither the rebels nor Ghadafi
deserved anyone’s support.

Both evasions of the central issue – that NATO’s air
campaign had mass support among revolutionary Libyans which was faithfully
reflected by the NTC’s stand against foreign invasion and for foreign
airstrikes – were very serious methodological mistakes that only a handful of
commentators managed to avoid, Clay Claiborne of Occupy LA being the most
prominent. Far from freezing over, the struggle in Libya became a long hot
summer of multifaceted conflict with international, conventional military,
tribal, and underground dimensions that eventually culminated in Ghadafi’s
grisly execution, raising and personalizing the stakes for Assad.

Anti-imperialists were so focused on the NTC’s
cooperation with NATO, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and repressive
Arab governments that they were as blindsided as Ghadafi was when forces
independent of NTC control – Berber militias in Western Libya and underground
networks in Tripoli – overthrew his regime in a surprise move on August 20. The
NTC that the Western left portrayed as all-powerful due to its CIA and Arab
state patronage was not able to move into Tripoli for weeks afterwards. To this
day, the NTC has not disarmed rebel fighters, contrary to the confident
predictions born of anti-imperial hubris by anti-interventionists who sought to
convince us that the revolution was a mirage and that the West’s pawns chosen
from above were firmly in control of post-Ghadafi Libya.

Broken Records Lead to Broken Crystal Balls

When NATO launched airstrikes in Libya, the
anti-interventionists heard the same pretexts about human rights and freedom
used to justify wars for empire and oil in Afghanistan and Iraq. This identical
stimulus triggered an identical reaction – they used the contradictions and
hypocritical flaws in the official rationales for intervention as the basis for
opposing NATO’s action – just as Pavlov’s dogs reacted as if they were being
fed when they heard a bell ring, regardless of whether any food was actually

This conditioned reaction to the broken record of
justifications led anti-interventionists to conclude that NATO’s end of the
Libyan war would resemble the Afghan and Iraq wars and so their case against
intervention was built around the following predictions:

1) Mass civilian casualties due to Iraq or Viet
Nam-style aerial bombardment;

2) Foreign invasion/occupation due to imperialist
“mission creep”;

3) Future interventions would be easier and more likely

4) A neocolonial regime would be installed in Tripoli
as the result of NATO-led “regime change,” the logical conclusion of the
“revolution was hijacked” conspiracy theory.

NATO’s methods and the war’s outcome were totally at
odds with what the anti-interventionists envisioned:

1) There was no massive NATO bombardment of civilian
targets, there was no Libyan highway of death, no Black Hawk Down, no
Wikileaks-style helicopter gunship atrocities. The absence of wanton slaughter
of civilians by NATO compelled Ghadafi to fake collateral damage incidents and
civilian funerals and arbitrarily exaggerate the number of civilians killed.

2) The anti-interventionists believed that NATO would
be compelled to send ground troops by the logic of “regime change,” by the
inability of forces loyal to the NTC to make significant headway against
Ghadafi’s forces. They seized on the presence of small numbers of NATO military
advisers and special forces in Libya as a vindication of their prediction and
as proof that the West put “boots on the ground.” In reality, NATO boots played
a secondary role; Libyans did the fighting and the dying, not Westerners. Out
of 30,000 people who were killed in the Libyan civil war, how many were NATO
personnel? Zero. That number would have been higher if NATO ground forces were
in the thick of combat or invaded (much less occupied) the country.

3) Paradoxically, NATO’s successful campaign in Libya
made a future U.S./NATO campaign in Syria less likely. Russia and China are now
determined to block any attempt to apply the Libyan model to Syria at the
United Nations Security Council and the Obama administration is not willing to
defy either of them by taking Bush-style unilateral military action for the
time being.

4) The proponents of the hijacking theory failed to
address the most obvious and urgent question that flowed from their own
analysis: what could the Libyans do to take their revolution back from NATO’s
hijacking? A hijacking is a struggle for control between legitimate and
illegitimate actors where the rogue elements get the upper hand. (Never forget
9/11.) Not one of the Libyan revolution’s progressive detractors outlined how
NATO could be elbowed aside by Libyans to regain control of their struggle.

This was no accident or coincidence.

The hijacking narrative did not arise from a factual
foundation but from a simplistic, reflexive ideology, albeit an
anti-imperialist one. The anti-interventionists did their best to substitute
weak suppositions, NATO’s bald hypocrisy, and guilt by association for the
evidence they lacked to support their hijacking story. For them, the Libyan
revolution’s constituent elements lost their political independence,
initiative, and lifeblood the instant NATO fired its first cruise missile.
Nothing else mattered except that NATO chose to act; what Libyans said, did,
thought, and organized was simply not a factor for them.

This image became very popular among Western leftists
prior to NATO’s intervention. Revolutionary Libyans did not feel that
U.N.-backed airstrikes constituted foreign intervention, a term they used to
describe invasion and other forms of unwanted imperialist meddling. The Western
left disregarded the thoughts and feelings of their Libyan comrades and called
for an end to NATO airstrikes against Ghadafi’s forces.

The driving force behind the military offensive by
Berber militias in western Libya that was timed to coincide with the surprise
uprising in Tripoli that ousted Ghadafi was not NATO. NATO did not organize the
underground network of neighborhood cells in Tripoli that penetrated Ghadafi’s
secret police. And NATO certainly did not pick August 20, the day Muhammad
entered Mecca, as the day to launch a risky grassroots insurrection in Tripoli.

Hammered by NATO’s airpower from above, by the Berbers
from without, and by revolutionaries from below, Ghadafi’s forces in Tripoli
melted away. The “Libyan Winter” proved to be the hottest chapter of the Arab
Spring thus far.

Post-War Libya

Rebels who stormed Ghadafi’s Tripoli compound were
eager to expose his regime’s relationship with imperialist powers and one of
their commanders sued the British foreign minister for handing him over to
Ghadafi to be tortured, hardly the acts of anyone on the CIA payroll.

Events shortly after Ghadafi was toppled provide even
more evidence that the revolution was not hijacked by NATO. When rebels stormed
Ghadafi’s compound, they were quick to show Western reporters the dictator’s
scrap book featuring himself arm-in-arm with Condoleeza Rice. A top rebel
commander publicly accused the British government of handing him over to
Ghadai’s regime to be tortured right before he filed a lawsuit against Jack
Straw, Britain’s former Foreign Minister for authorizing the rendition. The new
Libyan government refused to hand over Ghadafi’s son Saif to the International
Criminal Court (now it has even arrested their lawyers), the body responsible
for dispensing NATO’s “justice” to Slobodan Milosevic. No U.S or NATO bases
have been established in Libya unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

In other words, Libyan sovereignty emerged from the
revolution intact despite NATO’s involvement. This would not be the case if
NATO was directly or indirectly in charge of Libya or set up some sort of neocolonial

The bottom line is that the bulk of the Western left
could not bring itself to wholeheartedly support a democratic revolution that
co-opted foreign intervention for its own ends. The revolution landed safe and
sound at a qualitatively more democratic destination precisely because control
of the revolution never left Libyan hands.

Today, Libyans enjoy freedom of speech, freedom to
protest and organize, and most importantly, freedom from fear of state
repression. The Western left ought to join the revolutionary masses of the Arab
and North African world in celebrating this historic victory, not isolate
ourselves from them by mourning (or slandering) it.

Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, the
anti-interventionists simply moved on to Syria to make the same errors without
a second thought about why the reality of post-intervention Libya looked
nothing like their dire forecasts. This willful blindness makes them incapable
of understanding why any Arab revolutionary in their right mind would look to
Libya as a model, why Syrians would chant, “Bye, bye Ghadafi, Bashar your turn
is coming!” while crowds in Tahrir Square chant, “If they want to be Syria,
we’ll give them Libya” in response to the Egyptian military’s latest power

The Main Enemy In Syria

The anti-interventionists are repeating their mistakes
over the Libyan revolution blunder-for-blunder over the Syria revolution. In
place of their attacks on the Libyan NTC, they denounce the Syrian Nation
Council (SNC); they dwell on the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) U.S. backing, just as
they painted Libya’s rebels as tools of the CIA; instead of “hands off Libya,”
they put forward the slogan “hands off Syria,” as if Syria’s death squads were
Uncle Sam’s handiwork and not Assad’s.

Hyperbolic condemnations of the FSA, SNC, or the
coordinating committees do nothing for Syrians whose lives do not depend on the
anti-imperialist credentials of these groups but on whatever assistance they
can provide. Similarly, criticisms that the Syrian revolution should rely less
on armed struggle and more on strikes by workers have a questionable
relationship to reality at best. Since when has a strike ever stopped a death
squad from breaking down a door and murdering a sleeping family or prevented a
civilian neighborhood from being shelled by artillery? Does anyone seriously
believe that the Syrian struggle is being led astray by trigger-happy gunmen
(most of whom are working for Assad, not against him)?

German socialist Karl Liebknecht wrote an anti-war leafleft
in 1915 under the title, “The Main Enemy Is At Home!”

Our first duty in the West is to do whatever we can to
aid, abet, and provide material support for our Syrian brothers’ and sisters’
fight against the Assad regime. Our main enemy is at home in the West, but
theirs is not. Washington, D.C. is not sending death squads door-to-door to
execute women and children, the regime in Damascus is; the Pentagon is not
shelling civilian targets and killing journalists in Homs, the regime in
Damascus is. Their main enemy is at home, just as ours is.

This grim reality must be our starting point in any
discussion about Syria, not a hypothetical U.S. military action down the road,
the contours of which cannot be known in advance. We cannot have the same
attitude towards U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s forces and a full-scale ground
invasion of Syria because their impact on and implications for the revolution
would be completely different. The contours of imperialist intervention must
shape our attitude towards it. Sending the FSA small arms and anti-tank
missiles or video cameras is not the same as sending American marines into the
streets of Damascus, although they are all forms of U.S. intervention.

Syrian revolutionaries know damn well what atrocities
Uncle Sam is capable of – Iraq is right next door – and the Arab world knows
better than we in the West ever will what the colonial boot feels like. To
lecture them of perils and pitfalls they know better than we do is to insult
their intelligence. To pretend that we know the dangers of dealing with
imperialist devils better than Third World revolutionaries do is a kind of
white anti-imperialist’s burden, and its arrogant paternalism is just as
misguided as its colonialist antipode.

We have no business criticizing the SNC, FSA, or the
coordinating committees unless and until we have fulfilled our first duty by
matching our words of solidarity with deeds and acts that can make a difference
in the revolution’s outcome, however small they might seem.

Self-Determination and Intervention

The biggest obstacle to Syrian self-determination today
is the Assad regime which increasingly rests on Russian bayonets drenched in
Syrian blood. He is determined to stay in power by any means necessary and will
not rest until their struggle for self-determination (which is what a
democratic revolution is) is buried, in mass graves if need be. Respect for
Syrian self-determination means respecting how Syrian revolutionaries organize
their struggle and their choices even when they conflict with our own
preferences and choices.

If Syrian revolutionaries ask for Western airstrikes
because they lack an air force to counter the Assad regime militarily, who are
we to oppose those airstrikes? Who are we to tell them that all-out defeat is
better than the triumph of a revolution “tainted” by an unavoidable compromise
with imperialists powers? Who are we to tell them they must face Russian
helicopter gunships without imperialist aid because “the revolution will be won
by Syrians themselves or it won’t be won at all”? Do we really want our Syrian
brothers and sisters to confront tanks with rocks and slingshots as so many
Palestinians have?

While the Western left is raising a hue and cry over
the minimal aid Syria’s rebels receive from the CIA and reactionary Gulf
states, Russia is overtly ramping up its military aid to Assad. Whether we like
it or not, the struggle between the Syrian revolution and Assad’s
counter-revolution has been internationalized just as the Spanish civil war of
1936-1939 was. The Western left in those days demanded foreign intervention in
the form of arms, military aid, and volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The
anti-interventionists (mostly fascists or fascist sympathizers) were more than
happy to see the Republic starved in the name of “non-intervention” while
Hitler bombed Guernica and did everything possible to ensure Franco’s victory.

Those who oppose Western military action today against
Assad in the context of a revolution that has developed into a full-blown civil
war where segments of the revolution and the people are begging for foreign
arms, aid, and airstrikes while the counter-revolution imports arms to
slaughter them follow in the anti-interventionist footsteps of the Spanish
Republic’s opponents whether they are aware of it or not.

“Hands off Syria” should be the slogan raised at
demonstrations in front of Russian embassies and consulates around the world,
not the one directed at foreign powers aiding the rebels lest we become little
better than Assad’s unwitting executioners in the eyes of revolutionary
Syrians. Instead of focusing our fire on the shortcomings of the SNC, FSA, and
the coordinating committees, we should be organizing events and fund-raisers
for humanitarian relief, fact-finding missions, and video and communications
equipment with the aim of smuggling it into Syria. These activities are already
taking place but not with the participation of the Western left since we are
more worried about our precious anti-imperialist principles and hypothetical
Libya-style airstrikes (as if the outcome there was a step backward and not a
step forward) than tackling the ugly realities of the Syrian revolution whose
straits become more desperate with each passing hour.

We fiddle furiously while Syria burns and Syrians

The most important thing for the Western left to do is
to forge close and enduring relationships with revolutionary Syrians living
abroad by demonstrating our unequivocal support for their revolution through
deeds, through joint work with their communities. Only in that context and on
that basis can criticisms we have about deals with U.S. imperialism or mistakes
made by the SNC, FSA, and the coordinating committees gain a hearing among the
people who count: revolutionary Syrians.

One way to begin building these relationships would be
to organize forums and debates over the question of intervention with
revolutionary Syrians of various shades of opinion. The single most
embarrassing aspect of the Western left’s opposition to NATO’s Libya operation
was the way revolutionary Libyans were barred from Libya forums organized by

This outrage was the absurd but logical outcome of the
white anti-imperialist’s burden, a burden we must cast aside if we hope to act
in concert with the Arab Spring.


The Western left should reject knee-jerk
anti-imperialism because its unthinking, blind, reflexive, natureput us at odds
with the interests and explicit demands of first the Libyan and now the Syrian
revolutionary peoplesand in line with the interests of their mortal enemies.

Knee-jerk anti-imperialism leads to our enemies doing
our thinking for us: whatever Uncle Sam wants, we oppose; whatever Uncle Sam
opposes, we want. This method plays right into U.S. imperialism’s hands because
the last thing Uncle Sam wants is a thinking enemy.

Praying for a Wind

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 Manuel Barrera, PhD, North Star

As I write, I am hearing the gunfire and shelling in Damascus as fighters in the Free Syrian Army take the fight to Assad, gaining ground, but more importantly, gaining ever more support from the people and within Assad’s crumbling, but likely still quite lethal, army.

As more soldiers and military officers begin to defect, what remains of the “armed body of men” becomes ever-more distilled into the forces of thuggery and murder that will stand with a despot and his hated regime. A civil war is rapidly becoming a revolution, a challenge for power.

As we debate here the merits of aiding the Syrian revolution — solidarity without U.S./NATO intervention, solidarity with different nuances of support for such military aid — the Syrian people are weighing in on our deliberations and their actions are speaking loudly and clearly: we will not stop until the murderer Assad is brought down!

Although the question of working class power has yet to be posed, the question of what side revolutionaries outside of Syria should take is posed (our comrades inside of Syria have already answered the call). Right now, in Damascus, on its streets, who do we support? Whose banners will we carry in any solidarity actions that may take place (and they already are)? If any guns and bullets, grenades, or food enter Syria—from whatever regime—where should they go?

The dictator is being challenged by the masses in all their points of view—religious, political, working class, or bourgeois — all are saying “no!” to this regime and they are now not just saying ”no”, they are shooting ”no,” bombing “no,” marching ”no,” making “no” a reality.

What will we say?

The Syrian “revolutionary” forces are making a real push and may soon topple Assad; I use quotes around the term “revolutionary” not as a pejorative, but to convey that the forces coalescing to topple the Syrian murderer — just like the Libyan people coalesced to topple their murderer — are truly variegated in their nature and we should be clear that some of these forces are not necessarily revolutionary in their true nature, but at this moment, when the line has been drawn, those forces against the dictator are engaged in a revolutionary process.
It also appears that the capitalist press cannot hide the nature of this revolution or recast it. The imperialists throughout the world, especially in the United States, are placed in a quandary just like when the Egyptian people put them in a quandry when they overthrew Mubarak. I believe a poignant moment was reached this week when President Barack Obama decided to forego — at least overt — direct support to the Syrian opposition signaling a degree, if only for public consumption, of abstention that I am sure they would prefer not to have taken. I cannot claim any real knowledge either of actual U.S. intentions covertly, except to believe they are doing “something” as they always try to do.
The Syrian masses, in their growing bravery and willingness to challenge the Assad regime, have: spurred ever larger elements of the Syrian military — especially soldiers — which, in turn, have spurred the inter-class conflicts within the Syrian military leadership and the Syrian bourgeois “elements”; I am not really sure if there is true split within the Syrian capitalist class, but certainly they have been either forced into opposition or neutralized in the face of Assad’s brutality and the mounting outrage and defiance of the Syrian masses themselves.

In truth, rather than “bullets” and no-fly zones publicly brought into the uprising by imperialism, the outrage and courage of the Syrian masses have

  1. caused the      imperialists to “pause” realizing that this revolution is a “tiger” that      can’t be well pulled by its tail
  2. caused      significant splits within the Syrian military apparatus as it becomes      clearer even to these thugs that Assad is intent on butchering his own      people, and
  3. spurred      the resistance of both revolutionary and broad “opposition” elements to      ever-more boldness.

If there is one important observation I have taken from Binh’s post, it is the reminder that one must take revolutions in their actual context.

I am reminded of my days as an actor and performer. Every play has its script and that script is written not by the actors, but by its authors. However, every actor knows that no matter how well he and his cast mates adhere to a script, every single performance is different and often quite fundamentally different from every other performance. So, too, is what we are seeing on this greatest of world stages: the struggle between oppressor and oppressed. The Egyptian masses — in some ways one of the best “authors” of the Arab Spring — have created a master script.

Indeed, it was such a powerful one that even one of the smallest offshoots, the occupation of Madison, Wisconsin, workers in the State Capitol carried placards and shouted slogans, we “walk like Egyptians”.

But even though this “script” is really just the latest iteration of the battle between worker and oppressor, every other such performance, Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia (before Egypt), and, now, Syria, all of these revolutions have been different and will be successful (if not now, eventually) because those actors—the working masses of these countries—have taken that script, made it their own, and have performed with valor, honor, bravery, and magnificence worthy of the history they are writing.

It is incumbent upon each of us revolutionary fighters, rather than to mouth general platitudes whether they be to oppose imperialism at every juncture — true, and correct — or to argue that Lenin could not have made the 1917 revolution without first the German imperialists letting him ride a train — true, and correct enough in its intent. Either such arguments, “no to imperialism at every turn” and “yes, to revolution ‘by any means necessary,’ are platitudes if they are devoid of any true knowledge of facts “on the ground” or merely logical in their correctness absent the performance regardless how true one is to the script.

However, there is one “platitude”, in my view, that must stand and be spoken: our absolute confidence in the revolutionary uprising and organization of the masses, in struggle.

That confidence requires our solidarity. What that means to me is that insofar as it will take imperialist aid – in the hands of the revolutionary forces – to win the battle in Syria, we can support it should that become necessary. However, I submit that what we are seeing right now is that imperialism is simply ineffectual and is, let’s say, having difficulty showing willingness to provide such aid (at least publicly) precisely because of the veritable revolutionary will of the Syrian people. The mass movement has spurred the necessary breakdown of the oppressors and their tools. Imperialists are never interested in a revolution they cannot in some way control. Like in Libya, they will send their aid when it suits their interest and to the people — classes — that will support their designs.

In this moment, when the Syrian masses are on the stage, the imperialists can not edit the script. They will wait for the applause to die down, for the end of the performance, and then try to mold the actors, and the stage, to their will. The degree to which the Syrian revolutionary masses have accomplished a revolution in their own name and have won the majority of a country to their side, they will have learned the all too often difficult lesson that imperialist “friends” were only in it for themselves.

This reality has significant implications, the greatest of which is that the liberation of the Syrian people that can only become complete through a resulting socialist revolution in the context of the broad revolutionary uprising of the Arab Spring. If the Syrian people can overcome Assad (mostly) by their own design, the Arab East will have an example of winning liberation free of their local and international oppressors; an example that was afforded them in Egypt and even somewhat in Libya and now being realized in Syria.

Of secondary, but equal, importance is the example that such bravery and courage brings to the workers and oppressed of the imperialist world; how mass struggle wins, wins with honor, and wins by our unity. This implication must not be lost on any of us who purport to be Marxist and revolutionary: sex (i.e., seduction by imperialism) doesn’t “sell,” courage and unity do.

Third, of minor importance, but still worthy of consideration, are the implications this unfolding of the Syrian people’s resolve have for the so-called revolutionary left. I found the recent post by Syria Freedom Forever in response to Tariq Ali significant in this regard.

However, I also believe all the discussions that have occurred here on The North Star have been given a real gift by the Syrian masses. As much as some of you have railed against the abstractions of the left and how much the sectarian left have railed with equal abstractions, all of these discussions must now turn to the chronicling, and learning from, the prosecution of what was once an uprising, became a civil war, and now is becoming a veritable struggle for power against a despot in the midst of the Arab Spring.

Every revolutionary tendency, from us in The North Star to the Cuban Communist Party must stop, look, and, most importantly, listen to the sound and fury of those so long oppressed.

Finally, I am reminded in watching these events from Egypt-Tunisia-Bahrain through Libya and now Syria and concomitantly reading our posts in response to these events of a speech by Malcolm X. I think it apropos on this The North Star site to end this post with one of his brilliant observations. As I see the Syrian people — Free Syrian Army, the masses in the streets—as they are fighting, and dying, so valiantly, I can’t help but feel what they feel — we “slaves”, wage slaves, oppressed by color, by gender, by existing in countries that the oppressors deem their “plantations” — that it is time for the reckoning and the storm of revolutionary will to overcome tyranny, slavery, and the injustice of our work, sweat, blood, and lives used to provide wealth and power for the slave masters of this world. In talking about the differences between slaves — those “house negroes” and “field negroes” — Malcolm described that in those days:

“If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. … The field Negro was beaten, from morning till night. He lived in a shack, in a hut. He wore cast-off clothes. He hated his master . . .When the house caught on fire, he didn’t try to put it out, that field negro prayed for a wind; for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field negro prayed that he died. If someone come to the field Negro and said ‘Let’s separate, let’s run.’ He didn’t say ‘Where we going?,’ he said ‘Any place is better than here!’.”

I am sitting here watching the Syrian people fighting for freedom — fighting for me.

I am praying for a wind.



The Anti-Imperialism of Fools and the Syrian Spring

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by Pham Binh … North Star

Fresh off of arguing that North Korea is a live issue for American socialist organizing in the context of Occupy, Paul D’amato takes issue with my argument that the Western left puts itself at odds with revolutionary Syrians by opposing U.S. intervention full stop – no ifs, ands, or buts. Siding with revolutionary Syrians and Libyans regardless of their calls for foreign airstrikes since they do not have an air forces of their own to protect themselves hardly adds up to cheering the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the United States military.

I side with the Arab Spring, no matter what country it spreads to, no matter what dictatorship comes under threat, and no matter what side the U.S. government eventually decides to back. As Clay Claiborne said elsewhere, I did not side with U.S. imperialism on the Libyan revolution, U.S. imperialism sided with me.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), by contrast, quietly abandoned its support for the Libyan revolution once the going got tough and NATO’s F-16s got going and even went so far to argue that Ghadafi’s overthrow was a “blow to the Arab Spring.” Yes, you read that right! National elections, workers organizing and going on strike (in the oil industry, no less), people launching political parties and organizing protests in Libya are a huge, tremendous, staggering blow to the Arab Spring. Why? Because NATO did not follow the Western left’s example by standing meekly on the sidelines, twiddling its thumbs, while the conflict between revolution and counter-revolution raged.

If only the anti-imperialist left in the West had been strong enough to stop NATO’s planes from bombing Ghadafi’s tanks as they headed towards Benghazi in March of 2011 to do what the Assad regime is doing now to Syrians, if only comrade D’amato had gotten his way, then the Libyan Spring would be in good shape, buried under a pile of bloody corpses no doubt, but with its anti-imperialist credentials safely intact, which, of course, is the important thing in all this.

D’amato is at least perceptive enough to note that my pro-revolution position on Libya has shifted. I opposed NATO’s airstrikes from the outset because I feared that NATO would use the Libyan revolution’s military dependence on NATO to co-opt and destroy the revolution. They certainly tried; Britain demanded the extradition of Libyans while the bullets were still flying but the Libyan National Transitional Council rebuffed the British repeatedly and consistently (after arresting and deporting their SAS goon squad). My fears proved to be unfounded and instead of trying to re-write reality and cherry-pick facts to fit my position, I learned from my mistake and shifted my stance.

If only the ISO and its three-letter counterparts would do the same.

Because nothing positive has ever come from imperialist intervention even by accident, D’amato decides that the notion that there are “widespread freedoms in post-Qaddafi Libya also needs to be challenged” and points to human rights abuses by revolutionary forces. It makes me wonder if he is remotely familiar with the human rights record of the Bolsehvik-led Cheka, the Stalinist-led National Liberation Front in Viet Nam, or that of our very own Founding Fathers who, when they were not lynching rebellious black slaves and exterminating Native Americans, led a revolution against British colonialism and then shot the very debt-ridden farmer-veterans who paid for that victory with their blood, sweat, and tears.

I will concede that D’amato’s judgment on military affairs in foreign countries is superior to mine since he wrote the wonderful book The Meaning of Marxism and is the managing editor of International Socialist Review while I am merely, in his words, a “leftist internet gadfly.” Let us assume he is right to give NATO the credit for the Libyan revolution’s victory because it played a “decisive” role. NATO gets the credit for the final Berber offensive from Western Libya. NATO gets the credit for organizing underground cells (penetrating the ranks of Ghadafi’s secret police) that carefully planned the victorious Tripoli uprising. NATO gets the credit for finding ingenious ways to get around Ghadafi’s internet blackout to livestream the revolution.

The basic problem remains: D’amato’s vitriolic response (aside from the glaring misrepresentations, misquotations, and internal inconsistencies [claiming “there are no accurate figures of total casualties” in Libya and then citing a figure of 20,000 deaths]) is thoroughly NATO-centric and Western-centric. D’amato looks at the question of imperialist intervention into the civil wars sprung by the Arab Spring not from the stand point of the concrete, tactical realities facing first Libyans and now Syrians but from the standpoint of general principles.

The closest he comes to acknowledging this problem with his own position when he writes:

“It is entirely understandable that in the face of the barbarity of the Assad government, there are people in Syria who hope for foreign intervention. But understanding the reasons for such a position is not the same as endorsing it.”

Again, the problem is that D’amato never spells out what precisely it is we are supposed to oppose beyond imperialism (general) and intervention (abstract). He did not mention anything about Russian and Chinese imperialism, both of which are aiding Assad by intervening not only with words but with weapons shipments and diplomatic muscle at the United Nations Security Council.

If we are opposed to U.S. intervention in all cases and forms without exception, then we must say “no” to American small arms shipments to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because that is the form that U.S. intervention is actually taking in Syria today (perhaps D’amato would be happy to learn that the U.S. is refusing to provide logistical aid and heavy weapons to the FSA for now). If we are opposed to U.S. intervention in all cases and forms without exception, then we should try to block those small arms shipments and let the FSA fight tanks with slingshots as the Palestinians have been forced to do because no imperialist power will supply them with arms.

Such an effort on our part would no doubt be greeted warmly by the Assad regime and with total hostility by those who are fighting and dying to put an end to that regime. I never thought I would live to see the day when the ISO in the pages of Socialist Worker embrace such a position alongside the Party for Socialism and Liberation (who says left unity is a pipe dream?).

Then again, tens of millions of people in the Arab world never imagined that they would rid themselves of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Ghadafi, and yet, here we are.

D’amato claims, “Pham bases this argument on seeing some protesters in Syria holding up signs demanding intervention.” Some protestors? To protest today in Syria is risk your life, but setting that dismissive tone aside, D’amato seems to have missed the concrete development of the Syiran revolution where street protestors:

… named July 29, 2011 “Friday of Your Silence Is Killing Us” and held massive demonstrations across Syria that directed that slogan not only at other Syrians that had yet to join the struggle but to the people of the world as well. The Syria wide mass protests of September 9, 2011 were named the “Friday of International Protection.” That was the first time the movement as a whole put forward an explicit demand for foreign intervention. As Assad’s violence continued unabated on March 16, 2012 the opposition called the protests the “Friday of Immediate Foreign Intervention.”

So while it is true that “[not] everyone who opposes Assad in Syria is demanding U.S. intervention” as D’amato says, the question for him is this: where are all the mass protests in Syria rejecting U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s forces? Where is the “Friday to No CIA Weapons for the FSA”? Where is the “Friday of Please Don’t Bomb Assad’s Compound”? Where is the “Friday of Our Revolution Rejects Foreign Airstrikes on Assad’s Tanks, Artillery, and Helicopters”?

These rhetorical questions make it clear that nobody is “cheering imperialism,” an idiotic claim if there ever was one.

The situation in Syria, as it was in Libya, is one of absolute desperation because both revolutions (for subjective and historical reasons) were not (yet!) able to triumph exclusively through their own efforts over merciless military machines and systems of patronage that ensured enduring minority support for Ghadafi and Assad right up until the bitter, bloody end. We should not be surprised that the Arab left is weak to nonexistent in country after country when their counterparts in the West try to stop airstrikes on counter-revolutionary forces in the name of anti-imperialism.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the Western left slammed the Bush administration for allowing Saddam Hussein to violate the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq to smash rebellious Kurds and Shia with helicopter gunship attacks. Based on the reaction to my article it seems that most Western anti-imperialists today would cheer the Bush administration’s “hands off” policy, Kurds and Shia be damned.

If this what “principled anti-imperialism” means concretely in the real world then it is the anti-imperialism of fools. Applying abstract principles mechanically and without any common sense is the worst thing we can do when lives are on the line, especially the lives of people other than ourselves.

Few revolutions historically have triumphed with zero outside assistance. The Vietnamese got huge amounts of arms and economic aid from the Russians and Chinese in their fight against French and American occupations. The Americans beat the British with arms provided by the French monarchy. Lenin was only able to get back to Russia in 1917 because the German high command approved his transport through Germany; they figured his return would hasten the end of Russia’s participation in World War One, and they figured right. Exclusively by their own efforts the Vietnamese would not have beaten first France and later America, the struggle that gave birth to America might have been aborted, and the Russian Bolsheviks that the ISO idolizes may not have triumphed since Lenin’s return was impossible without the approval of German imperialism. Outside powers in each of these cases played a decisive role in the final progressive outcome.

Revolutionaries have to be prepared to fight for our ends by any means necessary, which includes accepting aid from one set of enemies to fight another and exploiting conflicts between enemies no matter how transient. Surely that is how Lenin saw things when he decided to accept help from the German high command to get home, overturn Russia, and spread revolution to Germany.

John Reed was absolutely right when he wrote:

“Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.”

Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing but take what he gives and use it against him before he has a chance to stab you in the back. If Uncle Sam hands the Syrians a whip to use against Assad, we should not stop Sam; the Syrians can use that whip against Sam once they finish Assad. If Uncle Sam whips Assad in conjunction with Syrian action from below, we should not stop Sam then either because doing so would hurt the Syrians literally and physically.

Sometimes standing firm with revolutionary movements and peoples means setting aside abstractions, ideologies, and so-called principles because they get in the way of victory. Now is one of those times.


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A recent email exchange between myself and Steve Heder, a former officer of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC), throws doubts on the allegations of ‘genocide’ made against three defendants in the the current ‘Khmer Rouge’ trials. These defendants are Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary who are charged with crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.

According to the prosecution case, the policies of the ‘Khmer Rouge’ (Communist Party of Kampuchea-CPK) leadership of Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and the start of 1979 resulted in a death toll, estimated at between 1.7 and 2.2 million. The source for this figure seems to be the ‘Demographic Expert Report’ that was submitted to the ECCC in 2009 (1). One of the authors of the report is Ewa Tabeau, the Chief Demographer for the Prosecutor at the United Nations International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague.

One of the main sources cited for this death toll figure are the estimates made by Ben Kiernan, author of ‘The Pol Pot Regime’ which has become the standard text by those who accuse the government of Democratic Kampuchea of genocide (2). His estimates are analysed in the ‘Demographic Expert Report’ (3). Kiernan makes one of his estimates from surveys of survivors who were asked about how the numbers of people in their families who died in the Democratic Kampuchea period. One of Kiernan’s most important sources is a survey by Stephen Heder which was carried out on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980-1981. According to Kiernan, Heder’s survey of these refugees shows a death toll of 20% of the population of Kampuchea in the Democratic Kampuchea period (4). On page 108 of the ‘Demographic Expert Report’ it is claimed that this survey and the others Kiernan uses provide support for an ‘excess death toll’ figure of 1,671,000 of the Kampuchean population (21%). They base this on a calculation Kiernan made by extrapolating deaths from surveys, including Heder’s, across the Kampuchean population as a whole (5). However, as a recent email exchange between Dr Heder and myself reveals, Heder believes that as far as he can remember the normal level of deaths that would have occurred in Kampuchea in this period were never deducted from the death toll of 20% that he calculated from his survey. It is therefore, not an ‘excess death figure’, in all probability. Assuming the figure is correct, and this cannot be checked, it is just a figure for total deaths in Kampuchea from 1975-79. It must be stressed however, that the data for Heder’s survey is in storage and was never seen by the authors of the ‘Demographic Expert Report’ so it is not clear to anyone, what the precise status of the 20% figure is. It is very surprising that the authors of the ‘Demographic Expert Report’ seem not to have queried this issue.

It is very surprising that a survey of this kind has been entered in evidence in such an important trial when the original data has not been checked, according to Heder’s account. There must also be a question about the figures Kiernan uses from the other surveys from which he derives his figures. For example, Kiernan uses his own refugee survey and a refugee survey by Milton Osborne to calculate the death toll of 21%. There is no indication that normal deaths have been subtracted from the death toll figure either of his own survey or that of Osborne’s.

On page 52 of the ‘Demographic Expert Report’ a pre-Democratic Kampuchea death rate of 1.86% per annum is cited. If we subtract this from the 21% Kiernan believes he has discovered, then this would imply that over the nearly four years that Democratic Kampuchea existed, there was an excess death rate of perhaps 12 or 13% .

However, a survey of sibling survivors covering the period 1970-1980, quoted by De Walque, shows the death rate was already expanding very steeply in 1974 BEFORE the Communist Party of Kampuchea took over and the death rate actually began an equally steep decrease before the Communist Party of Kampuchea left power. This survey would imply that the 1974 death rate was actually quite a lot higher than 1.86%, even if this was the average for 1970-74. It also shows that the leadership of Democratic Kampuchea was able to bring the death toll down very substantially, once death rates peaked at the mid-point of the regime, and surely the reasons for this should be considered by the current Tribunal.

I have not had time to study all the other evidence in the ‘Demographic Expert Report’. I am releasing the email evidence now purely because the trials are now in progress and a proper treatment of the Democratic Kampuchea period would probably take longer than the likely lifespans of some of the defendants. However I would make the following points about the other evidence that seem to be overlooked elsewhere.

1) De Walque criticises the approach of Sliwinski in coming up with their death toll figures. The ‘Demographic Expert Report’ relies heavily on this source, along with Kiernan’s survey evidence.

2) Mass grave or ‘Killing Field’ evidence seems unreliable. As the ‘Demographic Expert’ report concedes (p.119) the CPK banned traditional means of disposing of the dead (cremation). Therefore, it seems that all those who died in the Democratic Kampuchea period were either buried or sometimes just dumped in the jungle with little ceremony. It’s certainly not clear that all those corpses disposed of in this way were ‘victims’ of the CPK. The only forensic examination that appears to have been made of the Killing Fields showed only a very small percentage showing signs of violent death (7). Though the author Pollanen claimes a ‘significant minority’ of the bones he examined showed signs of a violent death his own report simply does not bear out this ‘politically correct’ conclusion. He examined three sites. At Kampong Speu, he examined 100 crania and found evidence of violent death in 1 case. Of several hundred long bones, Pollanen found 13 showing signs of violence (8). At Pomhea Lea, Pollanen examined several hundred long bones and crania. He found evidence of violence in 8 of the long bones and 2 crania had gunshot wounds (9). At the memorial site at the ruins of the Sang Prison, Pollanen examined piles of human skeletal remains, topped with 50 crania. He found no evidence of violence or violent death. Despite such evidence the authors of the ‘Demographic Experts Report’ insist that 50% of all excess deaths in the Democratic Kampuchea era were due to violence (11).

3) I have not studied the various demographic studies mentioned in the report. On the face of it, however, trying to get a death toll by extrapolating between censuses, that were 36 years apart to try and get a death toll for a four year period some time in between is pointless. It might look scientific but surely the method is nonsensical unless you have reliable birth/death registration figures for the period in question and these don’t exist. This would even be the case if the time gap is narrowed, perhaps by comparing the 1962 census to the 1980 Administrative Account of the population (compiled at a time when Vietnam was desperate to prove that the CPK had committed genocide in order to secure international recognition of their client regime in Kampuchea.)

4)Refugee surveys are unreliable guides to death tolls in the country as a whole as refugees are more likely to come from the regions that suffered the most from violence or hunger. (It should be pointed out that Heder claims his survey described as a ‘refugee survey’ by Kiernan was not only a survey of refugees).

5)It must be noted that US food aid was cut off when Lon Nol fell. The capital Phnom Penh was swollen with refugees who had been relying on this food aid. It may be this factor that led to most of the excess deaths rather than deliberate policy or indeed policy error. It is not true that Democratic Kampuchea accepted no aid, they accepted food aid from China as Phillip Short’s book on Pol Pot demonstrates (12). It may have been that if the CPK had accepted aid from western food agencies, China would have reduced its own aid in proportion. China was not producing massive surpluses of food at this time and had already cut off aid to Vietnam, probably due to Vietnam’s links with the Soviet Union (13). It’s not entirely clear-cut that accepting food aid, especially from potentially hostile western powers would have been an unalloyed good. It might have encouraged dependence and discourage some farmers to plant crops. If the aid had then been cut for political reasons, the long-run effect might be an even greater number of deaths than a policy of trying to cope with the food crisis with internal resources and aid from Kampuchea’s ally China.

In conclusion, the question of how many of the deaths that occurred in Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979 can be blamed on policy errors or deliberate killings by the CPK has not been established and the ‘Demographic Expert Report’ appears, on the face of it, to do nothing to shed light on this question.

My comments here should not be taken as any endorsement of the policies of the CPK by myself. We do not know how many people were executed in Democratic Kampuchea, however I am an opponent of the death penalty by any regime. The CPK is often described as ‘Maoist’ but its ideology seems wrapped in confusion. Mao himself warned against the ‘Communist Wind’ of trying to abolish money too soon. Mao also believed that after taking power the Communists in countries like Kampuchea should begin with ‘New Democracy’ not move straight to socialism and communism. This idea does not seem to have been present in CPK thinking. The CPK is often described as ‘ultra-leftist’ but it seems to have moved quickly to condemn the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ in China and to endorse the rightest regime created in China by Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping. A full, objective account of what happened in Democratic Kampuchea has yet to appear. It is unlikely that the deliberations of the ECCC will do much to contribute to its emergence.
(1)’Demographic Expert Report. Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia, April 1975-January 1979. A Critical Assessment of Major Estimates.’ http://www.eccc.gov.kh/sites/default/files/documents/courtdoc/D140_1_1_Public_Redacted_EN.PDF
(2) Kiernan B. (1996) ‘The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79.’ Yale University Press.
(3) ‘Demographic Expert Report’ p.108-110
(4) Kiernan, B. (1996), p.456-457
(5) see ibid. (1996), p. 458
(6) see de Walque,D.(2004) ‘The Long-Term Legacy of the Khmer Rouge Period in Camodia’, Development Research Group, World Bank, p.21. http://elibrary.worldbank.org/docserver/download/3446.pdf?expires=1322765337&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=B9280E8AEEB8844C409FFA6B44C6CA2B
(7) Pollanen, M. (2002) ‘Forensic Survey of Three Memorial Sites Containing Human Skeletal Remains in the Kingdom of Cambodia’, Forensic Mission in Cambodia http://www.d.dccam.org/Projects/Forensic_Study/pdf/Forensic_Survey_of_Three_Memorial_Sites.pdf
(8) ibid, p. 6.
(9) ibid, (2002), p. 7.
(10) ibid.. (2002), p. 8.
(11) ‘Demographic Expert Report’, p. 70.
(12) Short, P.(2004) ‘Pol Pot. The History of a Nightmare.’, p.289, John Murray.
(13) Short, P. (2004) p. 303.

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