Alternate socialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2021

I received a letter yesterday from my leftist penpal via the Multiverse Postal Service. We’ve been discussing the origins of the Cold War in our respective parallel universes. I quote from his lengthy missive below:

We both agree that the similar contours of our side-by-side worlds were consolidated after the disastrous Afghan war. But we each have differing timelines for the historical sequence of events starting from the February 1917 Russian Revolution that produced our present realities in our alternate universes.

On August 30, 1918, a dissident, Cheka-based conspiracy to assassinate Lenin succeeded when a militant Left Social Revolutionary recruited for the purpose, Fanny Kaplan, shot and killed the Bolshevik Party leader. Authority in the Bolshevik Party transferred to the troika of Trotsky, Bukharin, and Tomsky, who reconciled Bolshevik and Menshevik factions into a strengthened Russian Social Democratic Labor Party by early 1919. The death of Lenin—the “Red Beast”—reverberated beyond Soviet Russia. When working-class social revolution erupted across Germany in October, 1918, the right-wing veteran Freikorps counterrevolution suffered from overconfidence. They succeeded in assassinating Spartakist leader Liebknecht in January, 1919. But Luxemburg and Jogiches survived to consolidate Berlin’s communist uprising. They managed to regroup the German Left into a revolutionary Red Front to provide effective leadership for the country’s inchoate workers’ insurrection by the spring of 1919. Their actions moved the ruling Social Democratic government decidedly to the left with the purge of its right wing in the early summer of 1919. Noske’s assassination that August proved the spur for the bloody civil war’s final phase which saw the suppression of the Freikorps by October, 1919, and the establishment of a council communist regime in central Europe.

The formation of a Soviet Germany broke the suffocating, imperialist cordon sanitaire around socialist Russia. Germany helped negotiate and monitor political settlements to the Makhnovist struggle for anarchist self-rule in the Ukraine and the Social Revolutionary-led peasant revolt in the Tambov region. German support for the Workers Group, Democratic Centralists, and Workers Opposition within the RSDLP, as well as for rebellious Kronstadt sailors and Petrograd workers under RSDLP attack, ensured a broad-based socialism for Russia. Right and Left Social Revolutionaries and sundry anarchist alignments rejoined a multi-party revolutionary Soviet government with Trotsky’s RSDLP by late 1920. With German assistance, this more democratic Russian revolution defeated the remaining White counterrevolution at some cost, and established a worker-and-peasant-run, pluralist socialist society by mid-1921. Russia and Germany then established a revolutionary confederation—initially called the Eurasian Socialist Commonwealth or Red Union for short—and pursued working-class intermarium policies regionally.

The Red Union stretched from Germany through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and across Russia by 1936. Fascism took power in Portugal, France, Italy, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and the Balkans before the fateful Spanish civil war of 1936-1941. The vicious battle that carved up the Iberian Peninsula was prelude to a savage European war from 1942 to 1949. This bloody internecine conflict witnessed Britain and the United States ally with the Fascist Axis powers and Imperial Japan. Ultimately the victorious Red Union scoured Fascism’s remnants—Pétain’s Vichy France, Franco’s northern Spanish Nationalist redoubt, and Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic—from the European continent by 1951.

As Fascism was driven from continental Europe, an apartheid America converted its alliance with Mosley’s United Kingdom and Hirohito’s Japan into a Mutual Defense Agreement. This renewed Axis eventually came to include Argentina, Uganda, Libya, and Myanmar, among other nations. Mao’s anarchist-communist guerrilla armies gained full control of mainland China from Japan by 1951—two years after the United Stated developed an atomic bomb. The libertarian communist Viet Minh defeated Axis forces in 1954, the same year Red Union scientists matched America’s nuclear achievement. Third World socialist liberation struggles continued to spread, primarily in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The conflict between the Red Union and the American-led Axis on the Korea peninsula left a divided Korean nation after almost a decade of brutal warfare. Britain attempted to move nuclear missiles to launch sites in Gibraltar, triggering an armed confrontation between massed Red Union and US-UK militaries on September 19, 1960. Britain agreed to remove the missiles and dismantle the missile sites on September 25. Concurrently, Castro’s focoist forces overthrew Batista in Cuba. Following the disastrous American-sponsored May 3, 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the Red Union began building missile launching sites on the island of Cuba. US reconnaissance flights detected the construction and US President Nixon demanded the withdrawal of the missiles and imposed a naval blockade on Cuba on October 23, 1962. The Red Union agreed to dismantle the missile sites on October 28.

The Red Union and its mutual aid pact COMECON encompassed roughly a fifth of the world’s land surface and a third of its population by 1980. If the moderate social democratic welfare state countries of the Non-Aligned Movement were included, a third of the world and nearly half of its population lived in some form of socialist society. This socialist Second World squared off against a capitalist First World, which dubbed itself the Free World. Third World brush wars raged between the two contending political blocs across three continents. When Shah’s Afghanistan regime was overthrown in 1978 by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in the Saur Revolution (April Coup) the Red Union made a serious mistake in backing the unrepresentative PDPA with aid and eventually troops. The nearly decade-long civil war that followed resulted in a tense stalemate between the Northern Red Alliance and an Islamist southern Afghanistan that independent observers considered a military and political defeat for the Red Union. This pivotal event led to the rise of political Islam and Islamist regimes across North Africa and the Middle East which were nominally allied with the Axis powers but often played the two competing political blocs against each other.

The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first witnessed an uneasy détente between the Socialist bloc and the Free World, between the Red Union and the capitalist Axis powers, which continues to the present. Non-state hybrid socialist forms have recently emerged—the EZLN’s “mandar obedeciendo” in Chiapas, the SDF’s democratic confederalism in Rojava, and the OTF’s neo-Ujaama intercommunalism in Central Africa. But genocidal neo-Fascist movements and regimes have also appeared—the Islamic State in Bādiyat Al-Shām and the Khmer Bleue in western Kampuchea.

That’s how struggles between socialism and capitalism played out on my side of the quantum divide.

This alternate history relies on the multiverse physics of Schrödinger and chaos theory’s butterfly effect trope. Thus it’s not a Marxist rendering of how a non-Stalinist Communism might have arisen based on an interplay of contending social forces. I’ve called capitalism the only game in town. Despite all its failings, “real existing socialism” proved to be the most enduring worldwide opposition to capitalism then and since. The fantasy of a genuine socialist alternative to capitalism is also intended to contrast with the Communist bloc fashioned by Leninism after 1917. Lenin reformulated Marx’s rough notions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, lessons from the Paris Commune, and lower vs higher stages of communism into a theory of the Commune State, the workers’ state, and the socialist state transitioning into non-state communism central to Bolshevism. Leninism considered the Soviet Union a workers’ state, but with Stalin’s rise to power Trotsky redefined it as a degenerated workers’ state. Mainstream Trotskyists labeled the Warsaw Pact, Cuba, China, et al, deformed workers’ states. Various conventional Trotskyist tendencies as well as anarchist, left communist, and libertarian Marxist currents riffed on Lenin’s own designation of his New Economic Plan as “state capitalism” to classify “real existing socialism” as state capitalist. Other more obscure Trotskyist tendencies came up with the ambiguous concept of bureaucratic collectivism to describe Stalinist regimes. And taking a cue from Otto Rühle some ultraleftists condemned Stalinism as Red Fascism.

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991 threatened to make the issue of how to characterize the Communist bloc a moot point. China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam are all that remain of the socialist Second World that once challenged the capitalist Free World for global hegemony. But as the Cold War witticism went, the Free World isn’t free and the Communist bloc isn’t communist. I often regret not having kept every bit of political ephemera I ran across during my life. I remember a faux quiz during the 1970s humorously designed to determine which tendency of the Left one belonged. One of the questions I remember asked: “When did Russia deviate from true socialism?” The multiple choice options included: “(a) 1917; (b) 1921; (c) 1922; (d) 1929; (e) 1956; or (f) it hasn’t yet, but we’ll be the first to denounce it when it happens.”

An in-depth discussion of how to analyze the worldwide political and economic bloc established by Stalin’s rise to power—not to mention whether it is historically accurate to draw a single direct line from Marx through Lenin to Stalin—remains for future columns.

SOURCES:
“Letter to ‘Lefty’ Hooligan” from G. Metesky, MPS postmark: 5-1-2021

 

Buy my book, 1% Free, here.

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.