Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

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Attacking Iran (Again): “What’s Left?” May 2008, MRR #300

There I was, boring some friends with the story of how I got politics at 16 in 1968. For that tumultuous year, and several thereafter, most of my friends and I thought that The Revolution was just around the corner. We predicted a popular uprising any day against Nixon’s law-and-order fascism. To which the crusty nonagenarian of the group, Ben, commented, “What in hell were you smoking?”

Exactly!

I published a science fiction novel, End Time, in January of 1994 in which, among other things, the people of southern Mexico rise up in anarchist revolution led by a group calling themselves the Zapatistas. Coincidental to the book’s publication, the EZLN launched their uprising in Chiapas. I in no way predicted the real Zapatista rebellion, but had simply used history to create plausible future scenarios for my story. Most reviewers thought I had, however, so I played up this fortuitous circumstance to get more publicity, and sell more books.

I’ve never been very accurate in my forecasts, even though I’m not shy about making them. Five months ago, I predicted that it would be Clinton and Giuliani in November, and that the US would bomb Iran this spring. It now looks like Obama and McCain will be squaring off for the presidency. I can only hope that my forecast of US military action against Iran is equally wrong. For while few could have predicted the current economic crisis that began with the breakdown of the US sub-prime mortgage market and has expanded into an economy-wide credit collapse, the consequences of attacking Iran should be obvious to anyone.

Just in case they aren’t, let me spell them out, one more time.

I assume that the US engages in military aggression in conjunction with Israel. Their combined attack is a comprehensive assault targeting, not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but also that country’s military and political infrastructures, launched sometime this spring when the weather is optimal. The goals are to significantly set back Iran’s nuclear research and development program, and to affect some form of regime change. It’s doubtful that the disastrous results of such a military campaign would be significantly mitigated if the US opts for an American-only strike, or limits military targets solely to nuclear facilities. So let’s start with Iran, and move outward.

Military attacks alone cannot achieve regime change in Iran. The general populace does not rise up against the government, nor do regional or ethnic uprisings seriously threaten Iran’s national stability. What does happen is that hard line forces associated with the Revolutionary Guard, already on the ascendancy over the arch-conservative theocratic mullahs, use any US/Israeli strike to consolidate their power and take out their opposition. Iran stops selling oil to the US and Europe. That country is in a “state of war” with the West, which involves, in part, harassing petroleum shipments from Iraq and the Gulf states, if not blocking the Straits of Hormuz altogether. On a wider front, Iranian terrorist elements initiate attacks on US, Israeli and European interests around the world.

Shiite Iran makes an alliance of convenience with the Sunni Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to strengthen and broaden the guerrilla resurgence against US and NATO forces. In Iraq, the Shiite population of the south rises up and makes that part of the country a no-go area for the US military, effectively removing southern Iraq’s oil supplies from US control as well. The Sunnis of western Iraq also revolt, driving the US military out, into the last, remaining region of Iraq still friendly to America, the Kurdish north, with perhaps a territorial corridor to the Green Zone in Baghdad. The US-installed Iraqi government pretends to function for a while longer, but the country has splintered de facto into three mini-states. That fact is not lost on Iraq’s neighbors. Iran trains and arms the southern Shia to the teeth, as does Syria and Saudi Arabia the western Sunni. Turkey, now cognizant that northern Iraq is a Kurdish state in all but name, invades and occupies the northern mountainous region of this Kurdistan, ostensibly to “help” the US fight Kurdish PKK terrorism. The Kurds respond to the Turkish invasion by intensifying their guerrilla war inside and outside of Turkey. The US, too preoccupied with problems in the rest of Iraq, is unable to stop this escalation. Meanwhile, oil reaches $400 a barrel and the industrialized North, with the exception of Russia, slides into a prolonged economic depression.

The outright participation of Israel in the third American assault on an Islamic nation in less than a decade reverberates throughout the Muslim world. Lebanon collapses into another civil war, with Hezbollah now the dominant military and political player. Pakistan completely loses control of its western provinces, taking one more step toward becoming a failed state. A failed state with nuclear weapons. Fundamentalist Muslim attacks on US forces, corporations, and individuals skyrocket internationally. Many European countries with substantial Muslim immigrant populations experience varying degrees of urban insurrection, and the United States is once more subject to terrorist attacks on its soil. Civil liberties are curtailed, conscription is reinstated, internment camps are built and populated, total surveillance becomes the norm, and civil society is thoroughly militarized.

You’d think that the quagmire-like nature of US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the dire circumstances of the American economy, would dissuade Bush and Company from further military adventures in Iran. The recent forced resignation of Admiral William Fallon, Central Commander responsible for the Middle East, has been widely interpreted as a sign that the US executive is indeed preparing to go to war with Iran. An Esquire interview reveals that Fallon was a vocal critic of the administration’s military policies in Iraq and belligerence toward Iran, and describes him as the lone man standing in the way of Bush attacking Iran. Yet I’ve been foretelling an impending US military strike on Iran for the past four years now, thankfully without much accuracy. I appreciate how damned hard predictions are to make as I finish this column in the middle of March, with spring yet to begin. Readers of this issue, the May issue and the 300th issue of Maximum Rocknroll will probably know the accuracy of my prognostications. I do hope that mine are wrong.

Three hundred issues. Who would have predicted it?

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