The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

I devoured Pynchon’s 760-page epic and absorbed his dichotomy between paranoia and anti-paranoia. Paranoia is the sense that everything is connected, has meaning, and is part of some larger pattern. Anti-paranoia is the sense that nothing is connected to anything, has no meaning, and is patternless. That basic duality has informed everything from my psychedelic drug experiences to my study of everything—history, politics, economics, society, spirituality.

As a lover of history who fancies myself an amateur historian, I consider history the best tool to study those other subjects. History is not just the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle). There is some level of pattern to be found in history. Civilizations, empires and nations rise and fall. War is a persistent pastime for humans. “Who benefits?” (cui bono) is always a good question to ask of any set of historical evidence or events. But to argue that “history repeats itself,” or that history demonstrates an ever-ascending line of progress, or that it’s possible to draw “universal truths” from comparing similar historical events that occurred at different times, in different places, under different socio-economic circumstances, to different groups of people, is fallacious.

Then there are the long-term, nearly permanent or slowly evolving historical structures mapped out by Karl Marx as modes of production and by Fernand Braudel as the longue durée. I tend to view these analyses as descriptive rather than prescriptive; as describing what happened rather than what must happen. One of these structures is the nation-state. In The State, Franz Oppenheimer argued that the modern nation-state is a historical structure of relatively recent origins, a product of conquest. The feudal state based on landed territorial empires was politically amalgamated with the maritime state based on coastal commercial city-states.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory describes a more complex development for the nation-state. As integrated territories and homogenous populations were achieved over centuries independent states and economies were consolidated. Centralized governments with extensive bureaucracies and large mercenary armies were attained by ruling elites—the local bourgeoisie. These nation-states regulated the domestic economy and controlled international commerce in order to extract surpluses, eventually industrializing their economies and democratizing their societies.

The Left has targeted the nation-state for complete destruction since the First International, with the anarchist project to abolish the state and the Marxist project to abolish the nation. Lenin put up obstacles to abolishing the nation-state by championing the right of oppressed peoples to national self-determination and insisting that the communist withering away of the state be preceded by a strengthening of state power under socialism. Marxism-Leninism has subsequently devolved into the dictatorship of the vanguard party and socialist struggles for national liberation, completely reversing the First International’s liberatory intent.

Given this betrayal, my propensity is always to look for Leftist non-state and non-national alternatives. Hence me calling myself an anti-state communist, and my interest in the EZLN in Chiapas and the YPG/SDF in Rojava. And it’s why I’ve studied how dispersed peoples like the Jews have managed to survive for millennia partially or entirely without a national state. The Jewish diaspora has existed since the Babylonian Exile in 597 bce and was complemented by influential cultural centers in Babylon, Palestine, Spain and Poland. This core/periphery historical dynamic was not merely central to Jewish survival but it’s also partly why Marxist-Leninist types have denied the Jewish people the right to the national self-determination they insist on for other marginalized peoples.

But history is not the only way to organize time. Traditional pre-modern societies have frequently used repeating cycles of ages and concepts like the eternal return to structure temporal reality.

The four ages cycle of decay and rebirth in Hinduism is the best known, comprised of the Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yugas. Comparable to the four ages in Greek/Roman mythology (Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron), cyclical time is what Frederich Nietzsche called the “eternal recurrence.” “Everything has returned. […] [A]ll things will return. […] [F]or mankind this is always the hour of Noon.” This radical reactionary’s promotion of what he considered simultaneously to be humanity’s heaviest burden and a love of one’s own fate (amor fati) illustrates a key distinction between antiquity and modernity, what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the concept of the “eternal return.” The desire and capacity to return to a mythical golden age is the theme of his flawed, simplistic study The Myth of the Eternal Return. Eliade covered not just cyclical time but the power of origins, the distinction between the sacred and profane and the importance of sacred time, the use of myth and ritual to become contemporaneous with a past golden age, and the terror of history. While in his 20’s, Mircea Eliade was sympathetic with, though not a member of, Corneliu Codreanu’s fascist Christian Legion of the Archangel Michael—the bloody, brutal Romanian Iron Guard that the Nazis considered too extreme. He distanced himself from overt rightwing involvements even as he maintained close friendships with parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola who advocated for similar notions of cyclical time and the eternal return.

“In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the ‘liberties’ that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?” Mircea Eliade wrote in The Myth of the Eternal Return of the terror of history. “We know how, in the past, humanity has been able to endure the sufferings we have enumerated: they were regarded as a punishment inflicted by God, the syndrome of the decline of the ‘age,’ and so on. And it was possible to accept them precisely because they had a metahistorical meaning […] Every hero repeated the archetypal gesture, every war rehearsed the struggle between good and evil, every fresh social injustice was identified with the sufferings of the Saviour (or, for example, in the pre-Christian world, with the passion of a divine messenger or vegetation god), each new massacre repeated the glorious end of the martyrs. […] By virtue of this view, tens of millions of men were able, for century after century, to endure great historical pressures without despairing, without committing suicide or falling into that spiritual aridity that always brings with it a relativistic or nihilistic view of history.”

Nietzsche may have coined the expression “historical sickness” (historische Krankheit) in critiquing the study of history, preferring the idea of genealogy to express the power of origins and relations. To be fair, an acceptance of cyclical time is not always an embrace. Buddhism expresses a terror of the eternal return in seeking to end the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation, which is the cyclical time of ages writ personal. The Sacred cannot exist within time according to Buddhism which seeks a transcendence of both the ego and the cosmic. And even within the profane time understood as history—that supposedly linear march of facts and events devoid of any inherent meaning or sacrality—there is the tendency to see cycles. Certain schools of Marxism contend that the ultimate goal of a stateless, nationless, classless communism is humanity’s original primitive communism taken to a higher level, implying that history is not cyclical so much as an upward spiral.

Braudel and the Annales School to which he belonged actually divided historical time into individual time, social time and geographical time. Individual time is the courte durée history of “individuals with names,” the superficial linear histoire événementielle chronicling of events, facts, politics and people that is without deep significance, pattern or meaning. Social time is the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures. Geographical time is the imperceptibly evolving repetitive cycles of the natural environment. These three types of historical time are to be contrasted with the cyclical time of traditional societies and rightwing politics which is rigidly patterned, drenched in fixed meaning, and eternally repeating. In Pynchon’s dichotomy, individual time is anti-paranoia whereas cyclical time is paranoia. Everything in between is history proper.

And the abolition of the nation-state remains on the agenda.

SOURCES:
Notes on the Eternal Recurrence by Frederich Nietzsche
Capital by Karl Marx
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel
The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade
The Modern World-System by Immanuel Wallerstein
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

 

 

 

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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.