Going “Full Lenin” on Free Speech: “What’s Left?” August 2016, MRR #399

Full Lenin

Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.

Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico

America’s founding myth is that we rose up against tyranny and oppression, fought a justified revolution for our freedoms, built a vibrant entrepreneurial economy, and established a democratic republic based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to become a light unto humanity, a beacon of hope for the world. To use the crude vernacular, “we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” But that’s not such a grand accomplishment in the 18th century, what with muzzle-loading flintlock musket technologies on a continent isolated by nearly four thousand miles of ocean and up to three months of travel from far more powerful nations in Europe. When the historical facts about the origins of the United States are transformed into ahistorical truisms, we have a problem.

The idea that marginal English colonists—in a hemisphere substantially depopulated of natives by disease, on the periphery of a mercantilist empire transitioning from absolutism to parliamentarianism, subject to benign neglect for decades—would succeed in forming a frontier republic based on a footnote to British liberal Enlightenment politics is not surprising. What is surprising is that such a one-off political experiment could be replicated anywhere else in the world. And, in fact, it hasn’t. Even when the Allies defeated the Axis powers, reduced Germany, Japan and Italy to rubble, and forcefully remolded those nations into Western liberal democracies, they remained substantially different from the American ideal—still very traditional with far fewer freedoms and far more governmental regulation. So if the US experience cannot be repeated within the rubric of Western liberalism, what makes anybody think it can be reproduced outside that context?

Various neocon war criminals for one, but more generally the American political punditry. All of these “talking heads” believed that a country like Iraq for instance could pull itself up by its bootstraps to emulate Western liberal democracies steeped in Enlightenment values after decades of war and civil war, scores of despotic tyranny, and centuries of colonial imperialism. A quixotic pipe dream at best, and cynical bullshit at worst. The measures taken by the US—no-fly-zones, blockades, embargoes—to affect regime change against Saddam Hussein and bring about some sort of military coup or “peoples power” uprising ultimately failed, requiring the American military invasion the consequences of which we are still living with today. We’re well aware how the Iraqi effort to pull itself up by its bootstraps worked out, aren’t we. Can you say Islamic State? I knew you could.

Historically, similar sanctions regimes have rarely, if ever, succeeded in democratizing or Americanizing their intended targets. As one recent NYT headline puts it, Venezuela would rather experience “hunger, blackouts and government shutdowns” than kowtow to Yanqui imperialism. Iran remained defiant against US/UN sanctions for over 35 years until sanctions relief in 2016. Cuba held out for over 50 years against the US economic embargo before the Obama administration began normalizing diplomatic relations with the island nation. Sanctions put in place by the Nixon administration against Allende’s Chile succeeded not in democratizing that country but in fomenting a fascist coup under Pinochet. By themselves, sanctions have failed time and again to achieve their stated goals of democratic regime change, leaving intact their implied goals of disrupting, destabilizing and destroying their targets however.

Go back to the OG sanctions regime, the French cordon sanitaire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley F. Gilchrist wrote in his essay “The Cordon Sanitaire—Is It Useful? Is It Practical?”: As early as the 17th century, the French term, cordon sanitaire (sanitary zone), was used to describe the establishment of a perimeter around an area infected with contagious disease to effect a quarantine. Gradually its usage spread to connote military perimeters enclosing safe areas. Later, the system of alliances instituted by France in post-World War I Europe that stretched from Finland to the Balkans was also referred to as a cordon sanitaire. It completely ringed Germany and sealed off Russia from Western Europe, thereby isolating the two politically “diseased” nations of Europe. Germany saw the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, initiating the second World War in Europe despite the cordon sanitaire. And Russia remained Bolshevik for nearly 75 years, expanding into an international Communist bloc that ruled 1/5 of the world’s land surface and 1/3 of the world’s population despite various sanctions regimes to contain it.

Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps doesn’t work, but sanctions that force one to Westernize don’t really work either. Something more subtle is required to turn recalcitrant nations onto the correct, American-approved path. Perhaps a little backroom US political or economic pressure, or maybe the market exigencies of the world capitalist economy, can “persuade” the country in question to become more open to American guidance and Western influence. Brazil’s left-wing government is in the midst of a right-wing, legalistic coup in all but name. The right has won election outright in Argentina hoping to regain access to international capital markets, appease foreign creditors, and solve the country’s debt default. Under American pressure, Japan is moving to the right as Prime Minister Abe reforms the country’s defense policy to allow greater Japanese military action abroad, even the acquisition of nuclear weapons, while engaging in historical revisionism regarding Japan’s role during the second World War. Even in Venezuela under American sanctions, where the Left still controls the presidency but has lost control of parliament, the US continues to encourage a deliberate, massive disruption of the economy by domestic right-wing forces.

So what’s a decent sovereign country supposed to do—“so far from God, so close to the United States?” Aside from greeting their American liberators with “sweets and flowers” that is. Most of those nations wishing to remain independent of the US and the West tend to be leftist in political orientation, although theocratic Iran and fascist Myanmar run counter to this.

Ian Welsh has written a provocative essay on his blog with the self-explanatory title “Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government,” lessons that are applicable across the political spectrum. His section headers are equally clear and incendiary, and I’ve made notes in parentheses where appropriate. “It’s not you, it’s […] the world system.” “Don’t run your economy on resources.” “Your first act must be a media law” (to control the media). “Take control of the banking sector.” “Who is your administrative class” (and is it reliable)? “Take control of distribution and utilities.” “Reduce your vulnerability to the world trade system.” “Be satisfied with what you can grow and make.” “Obey the laws of purges” (as Machiavelli first described).

“Break your enemy’s power,” Welsh concludes. “If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs. And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them. Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing. You’re tackling the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few. So, know the odds are against you, and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.”

The horror! The denial of free expression! The violation of human rights! The suppression of private property and profit!

When I first called myself an anarchist some forty-eight years ago, I believed that free expression was an absolute that could be scrupulously maintained while carrying out a spontaneous revolution for individual human liberation against the power of private property and profit. Nowadays, I think that the power of private property and profit needs to be severely curtailed if not communized, that the goal is social revolution based on organized social power, and that there’s no such things as absolute freedom of expression. Recently, a chuckle-headed free speech absolutist I sometimes ridicule in this column agreed with this in a back-handed way. He has cried censorship in the denial of free speech by government, corporate, social, even market forces, yet he himself draws the line on HIS facebook page where he reserves the right to censor free speech. As if declaring your power to censor your personal digital squat at the sufferance of Zuckerberg’s whims, FB’s changing rules and corporate ownership, and government oversight means shit. But by drawing even such a puny reverse line-in-the-sand he acknowledges that there are lines to be drawn and defended. And that freedom of speech is not absolute.

Free speech doesn’t really exist when you’re willing to engage in civilized debate with fascists, only to be stomped in an alley afterwards by the boneheads. And freedom of speech can’t really exist for right-wing opposition in leftist societies when the US Sixth Fleet is anchored offshore. I find no shame in defending yourself, your community, even your country from fascists, be they actual nazi skinheads or Yanqui imperialists. You know my opinions on fighting fascists. Don’t assume I’m going all Third World national liberation struggle on you now. I have no love for the nation-state, even in its revolutionary/leftist guise. But I no longer blithely repeat ultraleft platitudes about “no war but the class war” and the need for “world revolution” to dismiss the problematics of nationalism and uneven development. I take cautious inspiration from indications that the Left’s long deadlock and current crisis might be transcended. Independent political currents are emerging that are fostering a dialogue between anarchism and Marxism. Hybrid social experiments are coming to the fore in Chiapas and Rojava, with bright promise and deep imperfections. And efforts to constitute genuine social power are being attempted by partial, flawed insurrectionary and communizing tendencies.

I’m pessimistically optimistic about the future of the Left.

Rojava and Syriza: “What’s Left?” April 2015, MRR #383

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The disadvantage of having “been there, done that” in politics for almost fifty years now is that nothing ever really surprises me anymore. I’ve gone from left anarchism to anti-state communism, with stops along the way in the Industrial Workers of the World and Anti-Racist Action. After organizing scores of ad hoc anti-authoritarian groups and producing hundreds of flyers, posters, zines, publications and like propaganda over that span of time, I’ve gotten a bit jaded. The last thing that truly surprised me in a good way was the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle in 1999. Since then, I’ve been only mildly surprised with some aspects of the Arab Spring, the European anti-austerity protests, popular autonomous movements in Mexico, and the Occupy Movement. So, let’s consider a couple of things that are kind of cool and interesting in politics these days.

First, let’s be clear that I no longer claim any type of politics to the left of the Left. I still have sympathies and solidarities, but no overt affiliations. Which means I tend to be less concerned with purity and much more pragmatically inclined. Which, in turn, means I’m not into the game of “more anarchist/communist than thou” as I analyze existing politics and evaluate current events. So, let’s consider two subjects that seem to have anti-authoritarian knickers in a twist.

Begin with the plight of the Kurdish people. The Kurds have asserted a common ethnic identity through shared language and culture for over nine hundred years, ever since the high Middle Ages of the 11th or 12th centuries. Modern Kurdish nationalism arose after 1880, and if anything gives anti-authoritarians the screaming heebie-jeebies, it’s nationalism. Patriotism, the nation-state, national liberation struggles; nationalism in all its variations and permutations is anathema certainly for anarchists and also for most left communists.

The Kurds struggled for national self-determination for a greater Kurdistan against the Ottoman empire until British/French imperialism divided up the Middle East after the first World War. Most of the Kurdish population found itself in southern and eastern Turkey, with sizable minorities residing in northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. This arbitrary division of the region into artificial nation-states fractured the Kurdish national movement into separate nationalist struggles; the PKK in Turkey, the KDP and then the PUK in Iraq, and the KDP-I and PJAK in Iran. All of these Kurdish political entities claimed to be, to varying degrees, political parties/guerrilla armies fighting for national liberation against their respective non-Kurdish regimes.

Sectarianism, nationalism, and imperialism have continued to keep Kurdish struggles fragmented, among the most intransigent being the Kurdish PKK’s incessant “peoples war” against the Turkish state. Even Kurdish successes have been piecemeal as a consequence. This is illustrated by decades of conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq’s Ba’athist regime in aborted revolution, back-and-forth war, and state instigated genocide, finally mitigated only by the happenstance of American imperialism. When the US military enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kurdish peshmerga consolidated autonomous power in the three northernmost Iraqi provinces (Dohuk, Arbil, and Sulaimanya) and surrounding territories, even as various Kurdish political factions fought a civil war for control of what would be called by 1998 the Kurdish Federation. This territory has been governed as a state-within-a-state by the Kurdistan Regional Government after the US/Iraq war of 2003, a pro-Western, pro-Turkish sovereign Kurdish state in all but name and UN recognition with pretensions to being the first puzzle piece fit into a greater Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the most staid, orthodox expression of Kurdish nationalism imaginable, however. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK now in a Turkish prison for terrorism, recently rescinded the organization’s staunch Marxism-Leninism and replaced it with a libertarian communalism that has strong anarchist overtones. Traditional Leninist democratic centralism has been replaced with the democratic confederalism of Kurdistan, which:
[I]s not a state system, but a democratic system of the people without a state. With the women and youth at the forefront, it is a system in which all sectors of society will develop their own democratic organisations. It is a politics exercised by free and equal confederal citizens by electing their own free regional representatives. It is based on the principle of its own strength and expertise. It derives its power from the people and in all areas including its economy it will seek self-sufficiency. [“Declaration of Democratic Confederalism” by Abdullah Öcalan]
Ostensibly influenced by libertarian socialism, Öcalan and the PKK have given a particular shout-out to Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism for their ideological turnaround.

The Kurds have now seized the opportunity offered by Syria’s disintegration into civil war, and the threat posed by the resurgent Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State, to fight for an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria known as Rojava. The PYD party, which fields the YPG/J guerrilla army, has close ties to the PKK and governs Rojava with the pro-Iraqi KNC through a Kurdish Supreme Committee. The PKK’s communalism and democratic confederalism pervades Rojava. The territory is organized into cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani), governed by councils and communes, all defended by armed militias. The peshmerga have even joined the YPG/J in defending Kobani against the IS. So, here is the conundrum for anti-authoritarians. Is Rojava a genuine libertarian revolution of the Kurdish people, or is it window dressing for the post-Leninist Öcalan and his crypto-authoritarian, unapologetically nationalist PKK?

When the EZLN broke onto the international political stage in 1994, the Zapatistas were mum about their origins in Mexico’s 1968 student Marxist/Leninist/Maoist politics, as well as coy about their own political ideology. Nevertheless, anarchists and left communists embraced the EZLN wholeheartedly, without reservation, and events in Chiapas were defended as both revolutionary and anti-authoritarian. Not so Rojava. The anarcho/ultra milieu is being asked either to show unconditional solidarity for the revolution in Rojava or to summarily denounce Rojava as a Trojan horse for autocratic Kurdish nationalism.

Apparently, no nuance is permitted.

Let’s now switch to another of the anti-authoritarian Left’s abominations—party politics. Political parties are universally vilified by anarchists, and less consistently condemned by left communists, whether liberal democratic, Marxist, fascist, what-have-you, and whether in the context of parliamentary democracies or one-party totalitarian states. No surprise then that the anarcho/ultra milieu views with intense suspicion the rise of Syriza in Greek politics.

The 2008 international economic collapse forced the European Union to the brink of default, and the Greek economy into bankruptcy. The Greek government economic crisis distilled down the general European economic crisis into a painful Greek depression in which Greek debt soared, GDP growth went negative, and a third of the population became unemployed. Numerous factors were blamed for this—unrestrained government spending, unsecured lending by rapacious creditors, corruption and tax evasion in society, etc. But the consequence was economic default, downgrading Greece’s credit rating, and two Economic Adjustment Programs (EAPs) of debt restructuring, severe austerity, and public sector privatization forced on Greece by the Troika of Eurozone, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. More to the point, social misery and unrest followed, with demonstrations, labor unrest, strikes, and riots becoming a daily occurrence.

The Greek government, comprised of the socialist PASOK and conservative New Democracy parties, accepted the bailout constraints, disciplined their respective memberships, and implemented the austerity, restructuring and privatization measures of the EAPs. Meanwhile, social suffering and rebellion escalated. One result was the resurgence of a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, fascist right in the Golden Dawn party, but another more important upshot was the formation of Syriza as an anti-austerity, EU-critical, opposition political party. Syriza itself is a unitary party forged from a diverse coalition of much smaller constituent parties claiming liberalism, social democracy, revolutionary socialism, communism, ultraleftism, eco-socialism, environmentalism, green politics, and feminism. The dominant, democratic socialist, euro-communist, feminist Synaspismós party is in Syriza side-by-side with the Trotskyist DEA, the Maoist KOE, the ultraleft ROZA, the green AKOA, and a dozen more fractious political parties.

Talk about herding cats!

The thought of Trotskyists and Maoists working together is mind-boggling in itself, and speaks simultaneously to the incredible fragility and astounding audacity of Syriza as a unified party project. Syriza got 36% of the popular vote in the 2015 Greek elections, enough to form a government in parliamentary alliance with one other, very minor Greek party. That this was with the right-wing, national-conservative, Euroskeptic party called Independent Greeks (with 4.7% of the vote) instead of the old-school KKE Communist party (5.4% of the vote) was also quite interesting, allowing Syriza flexibility on its left flank. Syriza’s stated goal is to force the Troika to renegotiate the EAPs in order to end economic austerity and privatization for Greece.

Far from hoping that Syriza is “workers’ power” in waiting, as some on the ultraleft have speculated, the general anti-authoritarian Left is adamant that nothing good can come from Syriza’s recent electoral victory. Crimethinc delivers the stock anti-party line, repeating tired old tropes from the anarcho/ultra milieu. Capitalism is in perpetual crisis and needs to be abolished. The social revolution required to abolish capitalism cannot be initiated and carried out, let alone won through political parties, electoral politics, or parliamentarianism. Syriza will succeed only in disciplining Greek social movements and social unrest to the exigencies of a capitalism in crisis, even in preparing the way for outright fascism: Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force. [“Syriza Can’t Save Greece: Why There’s No Electoral Exit From The Crisis” by Crimethinc.]

That I was mildly surprised by Syriza’s electoral showing doesn’t mean I hold illusions that Syriza will usher in social revolution, or even a “workers’ power,” for Greece. There is the very real danger that Syriza might act to effectively bridle Greek social movements and social unrest. That Syriza cannot resolve capitalism’s crisis in Greece goes without saying. But still, I want to see Syriza poke its thumb into the eye of the Troika causing Greece’s misery, if it can. I want to see Syriza cause as much trouble as possible before it is inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated. That too, goes without saying.

That’s also how I feel about Rojava. I am mildly surprised by the successes of the armed Kurdish uprising in Rojava. But Öcalan is not Durruti reincarnated, nor is Kurdistan, even the Rojava part of Kurdistan, some anarchist utopia in the making. The limitations and shortcomings of national liberation politics, even those that proclaim socialist struggles for national liberation, are historically self-evident. Any movement for a greater Kurdistan, no matter how communalist, is also up against a capitalism in crisis. But still, I want to see Rojava take things as far as the Kurds there can with respect to liberatory social organization and self-defense. I want to see the Kurds of Rojava, and of all Kurdistan, kick up as much of a ruckus as possible before they are inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated.

If Rojava or Syriza actually, fundamentally, completely wins? Well, that would be truly surprising. Finally, that goes without saying.

ACRONYMS: WTO – World Trade Organization; PKK – Kurdistan Workers Party; KDP – Kurdistan Democratic Party; PUK – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; KDP-I – Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan; PJAK – Party of a Free Life in Kurdistan; PYD – Democratic Union Party; KNC – Kurdish National Council; YPG/J – People’s Defense Units; EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation; SYRIZA – Coalition of the Radical Left; PASOK – Panhellenic Socialist Movement; DEA – International Workers’ Left; KOE – Communist Organization of Greece; ROZA – Radical Left Group; AKOA – Renewing Communist Ecological Left; KKE – Communist Party of Greece

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