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.

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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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