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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The enemy of your enemy?: “What’s Left?” May 2012, MRR #348

Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice.

Proverbs 24:17

It’s a thought experiment. Imagine that you can go back in time and personally assassinate dictator X, and by doing so, save Y number of lives, all the people slaughtered by said dictator. Would you do it?

Personally, I would do it in a New York minute. Hitler? Stalin? One life for millions? No question. I would do it in a heartbeat.

Now, take this another step. Imagine that you can travel back in time, but instead of taking out dictator X, you can only kill the dictator’s mother, thus aborting the dictator’s birth, and thereby preventing the murder of all the dictator’s victims. Would you do it?

That’s where I draw the line. I couldn’t do it. I could not kill an innocent in order to prevent evil from being born into the world. Aside from dyed-in-the-wool pacifists, I think most people would opt to blow away a monstrous tyrant, if in doing so they saved thousands, perhaps millions of lives. But this line—being willing to kill the dictator but not the mother of the dictator—seems to be the way most people would respond to this exercise.

Perhaps I’m being too optimistic though. There is a surprisingly common tendency to hold the family and friends of a criminal responsible, guilty by association if you will, for the crimes committed by that individual. Initiated by the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war, the practice of holding ones enemy’s families hostage as an act of terror appears to be widespread in conflicts around the world, despite being prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. Hell, the Bolsheviks held hostage the families of deserters, rebellious Kronstadt sailors, even Bolshevik Red Army generals in order to insure their loyalty. The willingness to produce collateral damage however doesn’t require excuses like “the ends justify the means” or “by any means necessary.” Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder asserted that, in the war on terror, the US government has the right to murder one of its own citizens as suspected terrorists whenever and wherever it choses to do so, simply on the word of the President, in order to “save lives.” In this case, the real victim is due process and the US constitution.

This little thought experiment was brought to mind by the sudden death of Andrew Breitbart at 43. Now, don’t get me wrong. Breitbart was a despicable individual who was willing to deliberately distort facts in order to get the results he desired. In the case of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, he edited down the video of a speech she gave at an NAACP fundraising dinner in order to “prove” that she was an anti-white racist. As a consequence of his video hatchet job, the NAACP condemned Sherrod, and the government fired her. When Breitbart was forced to post the full video, it was revealed that Shirley Sherrod had said the exact opposite and opposed discriminating against whites. The NAACP apologized, the Department of Agriculture did as well, offering her another job, and Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation. But the damage had been done. So I have no love for Andrew Breitbart, a slimy, loathsome individual at best who practiced a shoddy, scurrilous form of character assassination he mislabeled as journalism. Yet I was extremely uncomfortable over the outright gloating with which many progressives greeted the news of his death.

Take Henry Kissinger, for another example. I consider Kissinger nothing less than a war criminal. If I could have been assured that, when he was Secretary of State, his assassination would have saved the lives of a million Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Chileans, I might have condoned such an act. But better to have him arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a six by nine cell for the rest of his sorry life. I still think it’s a great option. Or better still, have him slave away gathering night soil for Vietnamese or Chilean peasants in his old age. It would be justice that he suffer for his crimes. When someone chided a left communist I know that “the rich are human too,” he retorted, “yes, I’m glad they’re human because I want them to suffer when we take everything away from them.” I want to take everything away from the likes of Henry Kissinger, leaving his kind to eke out the remainder of their lives in abject misery.

I shouldn’t be quoting the commie in question. He thinks of himself as Marx’s gift to the ultraleft and once scolded fellow radicals not to let their compassion get in the way of their politics. He manufactures enemies at the drop of a hat, and if anyone would take their families hostage as an act of terror, it would be this asshole.

One person I’m not reluctant to quote is Tim Yohannan. Back in the day, it was rumored that Tim was not just an upfront Maoist, but also associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party. I once asked him how his politics had changed over the years, and was surprised when he said “I guess I’ve mellowed with age.” To hear Tim use the term mellow in reference to himself was quite a shock, and he went on to explain “I used to think that the guy who runs a Fortune 500 corporation should be put up against a wall and shot. Now I just think he should be forced to be the janitor and push a broom around his company all day.”

I’ve been mulling things over as I’ve gotten older—past associations, actions and ideas—and like Tim I believe I’m mellowing with age. Last column, I made a clear break with the liberatory Left I once considered myself a member of—both left anarchism and left communism—by expressing my doubts that workers are capable of emancipating themselves as a class. Now I’m arguing that even heinous war criminals like Henry Kissinger shouldn’t be summarily executed, but rather severely punished for their crimes. I’m even queasy about celebrating the death of right-wing morons like Andrew Breitbart.

What’s more, I’m approaching my own death with much contemplation, and a bit of soul-searching. I’ve made my fair share of enemies in my lifetime. I hate to think of people wishing that I would die, or gleefully celebrating my death once it happens. I suppose that many of my political associates would contend that it is far better to be hated than to be ignored, that to be despised by the class enemy equates to being effective. I’ve got a decent ego, but even I don’t think I’ve been so effective politically as to merit being placed on some blacklist, either governmental (FBI, Terrorist Watch, etc.) or private (David Horowitz’s http://discoverthenetworks.org/ being the most egregious). No, most of the folks who hate me do so because of some past, personal fight, or more likely, because I was an asshole. Tim Yo, when he knew he had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and was actively looking for ways to have MRR continue operation, asserted that a key characteristic of any magazine coordinator had to be their willingness “to be an asshole.” Unfortunately, my being an asshole had nothing to do with any managerial strategy, but was due instead to my immaturity, my drug abuse, or my desperate circumstances mostly of my own devising. I have tried making amends, and I try not to behave like an asshole any longer. Still, I’ve done personal damage I’m not proud of, so I dread thinking of who’s lining up to dance on my grave.

The real barbarians!: “What’s Left?” July 2011, MRR #338

“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Crowds chant in front of the White House, at Ground Zero in New York City, in various sports arenas around the country in response to the news that US military Special Forces have found and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2011. They are exuberant, and joyful. Yet there is a frenzy to their celebration, even a touch of desperation, a gloating that masks a sense of helplessness and impotence.

I don’t hold to the bullshit that all human life is precious, that each and every individual death diminishes us. Nor do I believe that it isn’t right to rejoice at the death of another human being, no matter how heinous or criminal that person’s actions have been. There are plenty of folks I would give three hearty cheers to see strung up, beginning with war criminal Henry Kissinger, and running through any number of Wall Street CEOs. Yet there is something rather pathetic about the jubilation displayed by Americans over the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, beginning with the contemptible assertion that “justice was done” with the Al Qaeda leader’s assassination.

Even the most rudimentary form of justice would have required bin Laden’s capture and trial, instead of his summary execution, which many in the Obama administration concede was planned from the start of the operation. Thus, those who castigate the US government and American people for engaging in vengeance rather than justice are correct, even while their moral outrage is misplaced. Justice is a cornerstone of the mythology underpinning democratic republics, whereas vengeance historically is the stock in trade of empires.

When Julius Caesar attempted to wrap up Rome’s conquest of Gaul, a number of Gallic leaders rose in revolt against the Roman Empire, among them Ambiorix, Commius, and Vercingetorix. Vercingetorix is perhaps the best known of the Gauls to resist the Romans, and the French have made him over into a minor proto-nationalist hero. Aside from uniting most of the Gallic tribes against Rome, he engaged the Roman legions with conventional military tactics and strategy, and harassed them with what we now call asymmetrical warfare (e.g. guerrilla warfare), retreating to natural fortifications whenever possible. But Vercingetorix was not a nice guy. He ruled with an iron discipline, and enforced his will by murdering his opposition and taking hostages to guarantee compliance. In order to prevent Caesar’s armies from gathering supplies and living off the land, Vercingetorix adopted a scorched earth strategy, particularly in retreat, in which his forces burned Gallic villages and towns.

Vercingetorix surrendered to Julius Caesar after the battle of Alesia in 52 bce. Due to the Roman civil war however, Caesar did not deal immediately with the rebel leader. Instead, Vercingetorix was imprisoned in the Tullianum in Rome before being publicly displayed through the streets in a celebration of Caesar’s triumph in the Gallic War in 46 bce, and then strangled in prison in 45 bce. Thus, this quintessential act of personal and martial vengeance also symbolically marked Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire.

Contrast this with the killing of Osama bin Laden, a half-assed act of vengeance by a desultory American empire. The United States couldn’t afford to capture and publicly try the Al Qaeda leader, for fear that this might provoke adverse reactions from Muslims around the world. The Obama administration was scared of even releasing pictures of bin Laden’s dead body, afraid that such an act would incite retaliation from Islamic extremists. Behind a smokescreen declaring that “justice was served” and that “bin Laden got what he deserved,” there was a sense of anxiety and panic unbecoming a great power. Oh, for the days when empire bestrode the globe like a colossus. Whatever one thinks of the ancient Roman empire, or say, the more recently deceased British empire, at least they suffered from the sin of hubris, not of chickenshit cowardice. Better the arrogance of raw power than the disingenuousness of euphemism and platitude.

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