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.

Defending the left of the Left: “What’s Left?” June 2018, MRR #421

Dans une société qui a aboli toute aventure, la seule aventure qui reste est celle d’abolir la société.

graffito, Paris, 1968

By the time I turned sixteen, I knew. But I’d suspected it all my life. I won’t claim I was “born this way,” although I’ve had overwhelming urges as long as I can remember. At the time, in 1968, the status quo was being challenged everywhere. So better blatant than latent I always said.

I’m an ultraleftist.

I had a bad attitude toward authority long before I declared myself a radical at sixteen in 1968, when the whole world was exploding politically, culturally, and socially. I’ve told the story of finding my politics, and of evolving from anarchism through left communism to my current left of the Left agnosticism, way too often. In addition to my visceral anti-authoritarianism, I was sympathetic to the underdog, empathetic toward the oppressed, angry over injustice, and always itching for a fight. I identified with the Left, but I felt the conventional Left was insufficiently aggressive and too ready to compromise. I can’t count the times I’ve been called too radical, far Left, hard Left, infantile Left, or ultraleft, and seriously advised to tone down or back off my politics. I’ve had liberal Democrats wave Orwell’s Animal Farm and Trotskyists brandish Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, all the while screaming insults at me. I’ve been called a communist by the liberals and, most telling, an adventurist and objective counterrevolutionary by the Trots.

Lenin’s polemic is occasionally translated as Ultraleftism: An Infantile Disease, hence the common epithet. His vitriol in 1920 was reserved for the Dutch and German Left (the Council Communists) and the Italian Left (followers of Bordiga) for rejecting any participation in reformist working class politics. To the claim by ultras that the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets had made parliamentarianism obsolete, Lenin wrote that parliament can still “be used as a platform for revolutionary socialist propaganda.” To the call by ultras to abandon reformist trade unionism for immaculate revolutionary unions, Lenin argued that revolutionaries should remain in the unions to expose the opportunism and social chauvinism of their leaders while converting their reformist fellow workers to revolutionary politics. To the demand by ultras for “no compromise” in theory and practice, Lenin insisted that revolutionaries needed to know “how to retreat properly” and therefore how to effectively compromise in order to survive. These “mistakes” by ultraleftism invariably lead to adventurism according to Lenin, producing reckless or impetuous actions, methods, or policies, especially in political or international undertakings.

Yet what makes parliamentarianism obsolete, what exposes trade unionism as reformist, and what reveals itself as uncompromising is the revolutionary situation itself. The revolutionary moment—from mass uprising to social revolution—is in practice ultraleft. It is invariably spontaneous, politically variegated and broad-based; frequently expressed through similar organizational forms like autonomous collectives, councils and communes; and everywhere surprising and outflanking the powers-that-be and the vanguard parties that hoped to suppress or control it. The historical high points to this ultraleftism are numerous, if often brief—the Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02. From Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions to Mattick’s Anti-Bolshevik Communism and Dauvé’s Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, this revolutionary situation, this ultraleftism in practice has been exalted as the sine qua non of socialism. Equally obvious is that historically, the nemesis of this ultraleftism has been the Leninist vanguard party.


[source: Margarita @Allriot.com]

The Collected Works of V.I. Lenin runs to fifty-four volumes and roughly thirty-five thousand pages of political writings, studies, polemics, notes, and letters in the original Russian. Yet, with the exception of his explicitly philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin wrote almost exclusively about Bolshevik party politics and practice. From One Step Forward, Two Steps Back where he outlined the circumstances which resulted in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s split between a Bolshevik (“majority”) faction led by himself and a Menshevik (“minority”) faction led by Martov, to The State and Revolution, his greatest contribution to political theory which arose from arguments with fellow Bolshevik Bukharin, Lenin related everything he wrote back to the Bolsheviks. Lenin was obsessed with defining the vanguard party’s “scientifically correct” theory and practice, strategy and tactics, even process and procedure. For Lenin, the Bolshevik party was “the way and the truth and the life,” and no one came to The Socialist Revolution except through the Bolshevik party.

I’ve talked about Leninism’s delusion of “scientific socialism” as well as its quasi-religious illusions in a previous column on sectarianism (MRR #408). Now I’d like to point out a simple fact, so simple that it should be couched as an aphorism: “One person’s moderate is another person’s ultraleftist.” Liberals consider socialists too far to the left while socialists label communists hard Left. As mentioned above, Lenin himself coined the slur infantile Leftist for Bordiga and the Councilists he considered left-wing communists. In turn, Stalinists disparage both Trotskyists and Maoists as ultraleft, while Trotskyists and Maoists trade this insult between and among themselves. And everybody denounces anarchists as too far left.

Which is how anti-fascist protests and violence are deemed by most on the Left today. Black bloc tactics and antifa strategies in particular have become the subject of scorn and condemnation by the usual suspects; Adam Proctor of Dead Pundits Society and Democratic Socialists of America, Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin, Sherry Wolf and Derek Wright of the International Socialist Organization, and Left academics from Freddie deBoer to Noam Chomsky. Whether rehashing Lenin’s tired old insults or bemoaning how black bloc tactics and antifa strategies hurt the Left, embolden the Right, and give the state an excuse to suppress political activity, this is clearly a battle to be fought in the streets as well as in academia and on social media. This piling on of the Left onto the left of the Left, in turn, has permitted a bizarre entryism into leftwing politics for former Leftists who have secretly become right wingers.

In “Invasion of the Entryists,” George Monbiot describes one such clandestine shift from Left to Right in excruciating detail. The ultra-sectarian British Trotskyist splinter groupuscule, the Revolutionary Communist Party, went from physically attacking competing oppositionist groups and movements in order to destroy them to founding a journal, Living Marxism, that covertly embraced pro-corporate libertarian rightwing politics. LM eventually became Sp!ked, which still retains its crypto-Libertarianism under the guise of so-called libertarian Marxism. The Sp!ked cadre (Brendan O’Neill, James Heartfield, Michael Fitzpatrick, Patrick West, Frank Furedi, et al), their fronts (among them the Institute of Ideas think tank), and their fellow travelers (Lee Fang of The Intercept, pop journalist Angela Nagle) continue to infiltrate rightwing politics into the Left with constant warnings against the ultraleft, without much opposition or even awareness.

My solution to sorting out who’s ultraleft is to promote a diversity of tactics on the Left and let the success of their respective practices be our guide. Beginning with Malcolm X (“Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common goal.”) and concluding with Howard Zinn (“Each situation in the world is unique and requires unique combinations of tactics. I insist only that the question is so open, so complex, that it would be foolish to rule out at the start, for all times and conditions, all of the vast range of possible tactics beyond strict nonviolence.”) a diversity of tactics is essential. The mass insurrections and social revolutions extolled above are historical examples of a diversity of tactics in practice, as are the suffragist, labor, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam war movements. Arguments over diversity of tactics, begun in 1999 during the anti-WTO battle of Seattle and continuing through Occupy Wall Street, need to transcend the Leftist debating society and take matters into the streets.

Or as we say in punk rock, see you in the pit!

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