what's left

UN Report on North Korea could be about the United States or South Korea

Posted in north Korea by what's left on February 18, 2014

By Stephen Gowans

Surely one could be forgiven for thinking that when the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan (February 17) described the conclusions reached by the UN Human Rights Commission’s investigation into North Korea that he was really describing his own country, the United States. Harlan wrote, “The report makes for devastating reading, laying out the way North Korea conducts surveillance on its citizens (see Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s spying on US citizens…and everyone else), bans them from travel (anyone up for a visit to Cuba?), discriminates against them based on supposed ideological impurities (has the United States ever been kind to Marxist-Leninists?), tortures them (water boarding and Abu Ghraib) and sometimes banishes them to isolated prison camps, where they are held incommunicado” (recently Guantanamo and other CIA torture camps around the world to which opponents of the US regime have been rendered, more distantly, the incarceration of German-, Italian- and Japanese-Americans during WWII.)

The report recommends that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, but if the charges against North Korea are true, then surely the case for referring the United States to the same court is at least as compelling. Add the United States’ record of extrajudicial assassination, its world-leading rate of incarceration, its illegal wars, and its support for the most vile human rights violators on the planet, among them Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, and the case for referring US leaders to The Hague is overwhelming.

The UN report says that North Korea is committing human rights violations “without any parallel in the contemporary world,” a conclusion that could only be reached by wilful blindness to the human rights violations of the United States, its democracy-abominating allies in the Gulf, and its south Korean neo-colony. South Korea, whose affronts against human rights are passed over largely in silence by the Western media (and it seems by the UN Human Rights Commission too), conducts surveillance on its citizens, bans them from travel to North Korea, discriminates against them if they hold views sympathetic to North Korea, its official Juche ideology or Marxism-Leninism, and uses its highly repressive National Security Law to lock up and intimidate anyone who has a good word to say about North Korea.

The UN report can hardly be taken seriously. It is a transparent effort to discredit a government that has, for more than half a century, been in the cross-hairs of a US program of military intimidation, economic warfare, diplomatic isolation and ideological assault, targeted for regime change for rejecting participation in a US-superintended global capitalist order. More than that, by passing over regimes that do what North Korea is accused of doing, it sanitizes the behavior of the United States and its allies, buttressing the ideological fiction that anti-capitalist governments are uniquely human rights violators, while upholders of global capitalism are uniquely champions of human rights.

If a case is to be pressed to refer North Korea to the ICC, then referrals of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea to The Hague—to start—are long overdue. Until this oversight is rectified, it is impossible to regard the UN report—and the western media’s coverage of it—as anything but sops to the propaganda imperatives of US foreign policy.

Ukraine and How the West Treats Comparable Events in Satellite and Non-Satellite Countries Differently

Posted in Egypt, Syria, Ukraine by what's left on January 27, 2014

By Stephen Gowans

The uprising in Ukraine represents a struggle between the West and Russia to integrate Ukraine economically, and, ultimately, militarily, into their respective orbits. I take no side in the struggle. All the same, each side wants me, and you, to take sides. Since I live in the West, and have greater exposure to the pronouncements of people of state in the West, and to the Western mass media than I do to their Russian counterparts, I’ll concentrate herein on analyzing Western efforts to shape public opinion to support the Western side of the struggle.

First, a few points by way of background.

• Ukraine is divided nationally between ethnic Ukrainians, who are concentrated in the West, and Russians, who are concentrated in the East, and especially in Crimea. Russians in Crimea and the East lean toward integration with Russia, while ethnic Ukrainians in the West tend to resent Russia’s historical domination of Ukraine.
• Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, is the home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The current president, Yanukovych, extended the Russian lease on the naval base.
• Russian gas bound for Europe transits Ukraine.
• Russia does not want Ukraine to be integrated into NATO, which it views, for sound reasons, as an anti-Russian military alliance.

For the West, integration of Ukraine into its orbit means:

• Expansion of Western business opportunities.
• Growing isolation of Russia, one of the few countries strong enough to challenge US hegemony.
• Influence over transit of Russian gas exports to Europe.
• Military strategic advantage.

It’s instructive to contrast the treatment by Western states and mass media of the uprising in Ukraine with the concurrent uprisings in Egypt (which the West opposes) and Syria (which it supports.)

The Syrian uprising, contrary to its depiction by Western forces as a battle for democracy, is the latest, and most violent, eruption of an ongoing Islamist insurgency dating back to the 1960s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to oust the “infidel” non-sectarian Arab nationalist government. The insurgency has since mutated into one dominated by salafist, takfiri, and al-Qaeda-aligned fighters backed by hereditary Muslim tyrannies, the Qatari and Saudi royal dictatorships, and former colonial powers, Turkey, France and Britain. The Western narrative makes obligatory references to the Syrian government as a “regime”, complains about its authoritarian nature, insists the insurgency springs from the peaceful protests of pro-democracy activists, and celebrates the “moderate” rebels. The moderate rebels are, in the main, Muslim Brothers. To be sure, they’re moderate compared to the Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but they’re not the secular liberal- or social-democrats so many in the West would like to believe they are.

In contrast, the uprising in Egypt against a military dictatorship that ousted an elected Muslim Brother as president is treated very differently. The dictatorship is not called a “dictatorship”, nor even a “regime”, but neutrally, a “military government.” The Muslim Brothers, who have taken to the streets in protest at the coup, and have been gunned down and locked up for their troubles, are not called “pro-democracy activists”, as the Muslim Brothers in Syria are, or even moderate rebels, but an “emerging Islamist insurgency.” Nor is the dictatorship which shot them down and locked them up called a “brutal” dictatorship. The Egyptian dictatorship calls the insurgents “terrorists”, which is dispassionately noted in Western news reports, while the Assad government’s depictions of Syrian insurgents who set off car bombs in crowded downtown streets as terrorists is dismissed as patent propaganda. Egypt’s military dictatorship has banned political parties, tossed political opponents in jail on trumped up charges, and arrested journalists. Over the weekend the Egyptian military killed somewhere between 50 and 60 demonstrators. This is mechanically documented in major Western newspapers. There are no calls for Western intervention.

The recent events in Ukraine are treated very differently. The deaths of a few rioters in Ukraine sparks fevered media coverage and denunciation in Western capitals, while the president’s attempts to quell the disorder by invoking laws restricting civil liberties is treated as a major assault on human rights. Compare that to the relative silence over the deaths of many more demonstrators in Egypt and the suspension of all political liberties in that country. If we should be exercised by the state of affairs in Ukraine, surely we should be incensed on a far grander scale by the state of affairs in Egypt.

Foreign governments stand in relation to the West as satellites, in which case they’re called allies, or non-satellites, in which case they’re “enemies”, or, if they’re large enough, “rivals.” Comparable events in any two countries will be treated in Western mass media differently and using different language depending on whether the country is a satellite (ally) or non-satellite (enemy or rival). Hence, in Syria (a non-satellite) an elected government (elected, to be sure, under restrictive conditions) is called a “regime” headed by a “dictator”, while in Egypt (a satellite) a military-appointed government is not called a “regime” but a “government” and the de facto head of state (a dictator) is simply called “the head of the military.” In Egypt, an emerging insurgency led by Muslim Brothers and Islamist fanatics is called “an emerging Islamist insurgency”, but in Syria, an insurgency reignited by Muslim Brothers and now dominated by Islamist fanatics is called a “rebellion against dictatorship.” In Ukraine (a non-satellite so far as the government goes ahead with plans to align itself with Russia and not the EU) a crackdown on dissent which is mild compared to the crackdown in Egypt (or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf monarchy satellite of the United States) is treated as a major transgression on human rights, one warranting some form of Western intervention. However, no intervention is called for to stay the hand of Egypt’s military. Through the deft use of language and selective emphasis and silence, Western states concoct and spread through the mass media an understanding of events in far off places that comport with the pursuit of their own interests (which, more narrowly, once you parse them out, are the interests of their wealthiest citizens as a class.)

Efforts to integrate Ukraine into the EU are motivated by the desire of Western states to secure advantages for their economic elite, while efforts to integrate Ukraine into Russia are aimed at garnering benefits for Russian enterprises and investors. The interests of the bulk of Ukrainians do not, however, enter into the equation. Their role is simply to produce wealth for investors—Russian or Western or both—while doing so for as little compensation in wages, salary, benefits and government services as possible to allow the investors to make off with as much as possible. The interests of the bulk of Ukraine’s citizens lie, neither with the EU nor Russian elites, but with themselves.

Qatar’s Questionable Syrian Torture Allegations

Posted in Qatar, Syria by what's left on January 22, 2014

By Stephen Gowans

A report sponsored by one of the Syrian insurgency’s major weapons suppliers claims to provide “new visual corroboration that Mr. Assad’s government is guilty of mass war crimes against its own citizens.” Based on photos of dead detainees said to be taken by a defector from the Syrian military, the report alleges that Syrian forces engaged in widespread torture.

While the allegations may be true, there is considerable room for skepticism.

First, and foremost, the photographs on which the report is based have not been independently verified.

Second, the driving force behind the report is Qatar, which has been energetically engaged in efforts to bring down the Syrian government. Part of that effort has been to supply Syrian and foreign jihadists– themselves the target of torture accusations–with arms.

Third, there are three reasons the Qatari emirate might have an interest in traducing the Syrian government with phony allegations.

• To strengthen assertions that Assad must step down, preventing any deal at the Geneva II conference that might leave him in place.

• To provide a pretext for direct intervention by Western military forces into the Syrian conflict.

• To divert attention from the brutal war crimes (including mass executions, beheadings and eviscerations) carried out by the insurgents, now under investigation by Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief.

Of course, we can’t be sure that the financing of the torture allegations report is a stratagem to gain the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, but as The New York Times acknowledges in an understatement, the funding of the project by one of the insurgents’ principal backers is “likely to raise questions.”


Seven Myths about the USSR

Posted in Communism, Socialism, Soviet Union by what's left on December 23, 2013

By Stephen Gowans

The Soviet Union was dissolved 22 years ago, on December 26, 1991. It’s widely believed outside the former republics of the USSR that Soviet citizens fervently wished for this; that Stalin was hated as a vile despot; that the USSR’s socialist economy never worked; and that the citizens of the former Soviet Union prefer the life they have today under capitalist democracy to, what, in the fevered parlance of Western journalists, politicians and historians, was the repressive, dictatorial rule of a one-party state which presided over a sclerotic, creaky and unworkable socialist economy.

None of these beliefs is true.

Myth #1. The Soviet Union had no popular support. On March 17, 1991, nine months before the Soviet Union’s demise, Soviet citizens went to the polls to vote on a referendum which asked whether they were in favor of preserving the USSR. Over three-quarters voted yes. Far from favoring the breakup of the union, most Soviet citizens wanted to preserve it. [1]

Myth #2. Russians hate Stalin. In 2009, Rossiya, a Russian TV channel, spent three months polling over 50 million Russians to find out who, in their view, were the greatest Russians of all time. Prince Alexander Nevsky, who successfully repelled an attempted Western invasion of Russia in the 13th century, came first. Second place went to Pyotr Stolypin, who served as prime minister to Tsar Nicholas II, and enacted agrarian reforms. In third place, behind Stolypin by only 5,500 votes, was Joseph Stalin, a man that Western opinion leaders routinely describe as a ruthless dictator with the blood of tens of millions on his hands. [2] He may be reviled in the West, not surprisingly, since he was never one after the hearts of the corporate grandees who dominate the West’s ideological apparatus, but, it seems, Russians have a different view—one that fails to comport with the notion that Russians were victimized, rather than elevated, by Stalin’s leadership.

In a May/June 2004 Foreign Affairs article, (Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want), anti-communist Harvard historian Richard Pipes cited a poll in which Russians were asked to list the 10 greatest men and women of all time. The poll-takers were looking for significant figures of any country, not just Russians. Stalin came fourth, behind Peter the Great, Lenin, and Pushkin…much to Pipes’ irritation. [3]

Myth #3. Soviet socialism didn’t work. If this is true, then capitalism, by any equal measure, is an indisputable failure. From its inception in 1928, to the point at which it was dismantled in 1989, Soviet socialism never once, except during the extraordinary years of World War II, stumbled into recession, nor failed to provide full employment. [4] What capitalist economy has ever grown unremittingly, without recession, and providing jobs for all, over a 56 year span (the period during which the Soviet economy was socialist and the country was not at war, 1928-1941 and 1946-1989)? Moreover, the Soviet economy grew faster than capitalist economies that were at an equal level of economic development when Stalin launched the first five year plan in 1928—and faster than the US economy through much of the socialist system’s existence. [5] To be sure, the Soviet economy never caught up to or surpassed the advanced industrial economies of the capitalist core, but it started the race further back; was not aided, as Western countries were, by histories of slavery, colonial plunder, and economic imperialism; and was unremittingly the object of Western, and especially US, attempts to sabotage it. Particularly deleterious to Soviet economic development was the necessity of diverting material and human resources from the civilian to the military economy, to meet the challenge of Western military pressure. The Cold War and arms race, which entangled the Soviet Union in battles against a stronger foe, not state ownership and planning, kept the socialist economy from overtaking the advanced industrial economies of the capitalist West. [6] And yet, despite the West’s unflagging efforts to cripple it, the Soviet socialist economy produced positive growth in each and every non-war year of its existence, providing a materially secure existence for all. Which capitalist economy can claim equal success?

Myth #4. Now that they’ve experienced it, citizens of the former Soviet Union prefer capitalism. On the contrary, they prefer the Soviet system’s state planning, that is, socialism. Asked in a recent poll what socio-economic system they favor, Russians answered [7]:

• State planning and distribution, 58%
• Private property and distribution, 28%
• Hard to say, 14%
• Total, 100%

Pipes cites a poll in which 72 percent of Russians “said they wanted to restrict private economic initiative.” [8]

Myth #5. Twenty-two years later, citizens of the former Soviet Union see the USSR’s demise as more beneficial than harmful. Wrong again. According to a just-released Gallup poll, for every citizen of 11 former Soviet republics, including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who thinks the breakup of the Soviet Union benefited their country, two think it did harm. And the results are more strongly skewed toward the view that the breakup was harmful among those aged 45 years and over, namely, the people who knew the Soviet system best. [9]

According to another poll cited by Pipes, three-quarters of Russians regret the Soviet Union’s demise [10]—hardly what you would think of people who were reportedly delivered from a supposedly repressive state and allegedly arthritic, ponderous economy.

Myth #6. Citizens of the former Soviet Union are better off today. To be sure, some are. But are most? Given that more prefer the former socialist system to the current capitalist one, and think that the USSR’s breakup has done more harm than good, we might infer that most aren’t better off—or at least, that they don’t see themselves as such. This view is confirmed, at least as regards life expectancy. In a paper in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, sociologist David Stuckler and medical researcher Martin McKee, show that the transition to capitalism in the former USSR precipitated a sharp drop in life-expectancy, and that “only a little over half of the ex-Communist countries have regained their pre-transition life-expectancy levels.” Male life expectancy in Russia, for example, was 67 years in 1985, under communism. In 2007, it was less than 60 years. Life expectancy plunged five years between 1991 and 1994. [11] The transition to capitalism, then, produced countless pre-mature deaths—and continues to produce a higher mortality rate than likely would have prevailed under the (more humane) socialist system. (A 1986 study by Shirley Ciresto and Howard Waitzkin, based on World Bank data, found that the socialist economies of the Soviet bloc produced more favorable outcomes on measures of physical quality of life, including life expectancy, infant mortality, and caloric intake, than did capitalist economies at the same level of economic development, and as good as capitalist economies at a higher level of development. [12])

As regards the transition from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy, Pipes points to a poll that shows that Russians view democracy as a fraud. Over three-quarters believe “democracy is a facade for a government controlled by rich and powerful cliques.” [13] Who says Russians aren’t perspicacious?

Myth #7. If citizens of the former Soviet Union really wanted a return to socialism, they would just vote it in. If only it were so simple. Capitalist systems are structured to deliver public policy that suits capitalists, and not what’s popular, if what’s popular is against capitalist interests. Obamacare aside, the United States doesn’t have full public health insurance. Why not? According to the polls, most Americans want it. So, why don’t they just vote it in? The answer, of course, is that there are powerful capitalist interests, principally private insurance companies, that have used their wealth and connections to block a public policy that would attenuate their profits. What’s popular doesn’t always, or even often, prevail in societies where those who own and control the economy can use their wealth and connections to dominate the political system to win in contests that pit their elite interests against mass interests. As Michael Parenti writes,

Capitalism is not just an economic system, but an entire social order. Once it takes hold, it is not voted out of existence by electing socialists or communists. They may occupy office but the wealth of the nation, the basic property relations, organic law, financial system, and debt structure, along with the national media, police power, and state institutions have all been fundamentally restructured. [14]

A Russian return to socialism is far more likely to come about the way it did the first time, through revolution, not elections—and revolutions don’t happen simply because people prefer a better system to the one they currently have. Revolutions happen when life can no longer be lived in the old way—and Russians haven’t reached the point where life as it’s lived today is no longer tolerable.

Interestingly, a 2003 poll asked Russians how they would react if the Communists seized power. Almost one-quarter would support the new government, one in five would collaborate, 27 percent would accept it, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist it. In other words, for every Russian who would actively oppose a Communist take-over, four would support it or collaborate with it, and three would accept it [15]—not what you would expect if you think Russians are glad to get out from underneath what we’re told was the burden of communist rule.

So, the Soviet Union’s passing is regretted by the people who knew the USSR firsthand (but not by Western journalists, politicians and historians who knew Soviet socialism only through the prism of their capitalist ideology.) Now that they’ve had over two decades of multi-party democracy, private enterprise and a market economy, Russians don’t think these institutions are the wonders Western politicians and mass media make them out to be. Most Russians would prefer a return to the Soviet system of state planning, that is, to socialism.

Even so, these realities are hidden behind a blizzard of propaganda, whose intensity peaks each year on the anniversary of the USSR’s passing. We’re supposed to believe that where it was tried, socialism was popularly disdained and failed to deliver—though neither assertion is true.

Of course, that anti-Soviet views have hegemonic status in the capitalist core is hardly surprising. The Soviet Union is reviled by just about everyone in the West: by the Trotskyists, because the USSR was built under Stalin’s (and not their man’s) leadership; by social democrats, because the Soviets embraced revolution and rejected capitalism; by the capitalists, for obvious reasons; and by the mass media (which are owned by the capitalists) and the schools (whose curricula, ideological orientation and political and economic research are strongly influenced by them.)

So, on the anniversary of the USSR’s demise we should not be surprised to discover that socialism’s political enemies should present a view of the Soviet Union that is at odds with what those on the ground really experienced, what a socialist economy really accomplished, and what those deprived of it really want.

1.”Referendum on the preservation of the USSR,” RIA Novosti, 2001, http://en.ria.ru/infographics/20110313/162959645.html
2. Guy Gavriel Kay, “The greatest Russians of all time?” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 10, 2009.
3. Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.
4. Robert C. Allen. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003. David Kotz and Fred Weir. Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997.
5. Allen; Kotz and Weir.
6. Stephen Gowans, “Do Publicly Owned, Planned Economies Work?” what’s left, December 21, 2012.
7. “Russia Nw”, in The Washington Post, March 25, 2009.
8. Pipes.
9. Neli Espova and Julie Ray, “Former Soviet countries see more harm from breakup,” Gallup, December 19, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/166538/former-soviet-countries-harm-breakup.aspx
10. Pipes.
11. Judy Dempsey, “Study looks at mortality in post-Soviet era,” The New York Times, January 16, 2009.
12. Shirley Ceresto and Howard Waitzkin, “Economic development, political-economic system, and the physical quality of life”, American Journal of Public Health, June 1986, Vol. 76, No. 6.
13. Pipes.
14. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, City Light Books, 1997, p. 119.
15. Pipes.

Under-Reported UN Investigation Points to Rebel Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria by what's left on December 14, 2013

By Stephen Gowans

It can’t be said that the media failed to mention it altogether, because The New York Times made passing reference to it on December 12 (Chemical Arms Used Repeatedly in Syria, U.N. Says).Other media outlets did too. They just didn’t give it much coverage.

The ‘it’ was the finding of the UN inspector mission in Syria that chemical weapons were used on two occasions against Syrian soldiers and on one occasion against soldiers and civilians (presumably by insurgents.)

This is the same mission whose report on the August Ghouta incident is now widely misreported in the Western media to have strongly suggested that the Syrian army was responsible for the gassing deaths of hundreds. In fact, while the UN report concluded that a chemical weapons attack had occurred, it did not assign blame for the attack, and noted that physical evidence at the site had been manipulated, complicating whatever inferences one cared to make about who the perpetrators were.

The mission’s final report—presented to the UN Secretary General on December 12 – explores a number of other incidents in which chemical weapons were allegedly used.

The inspectors corroborated three of four Syrian government allegations that its troops had been gassed. In one of the alleged incidents (on March 19 at Khan Al Asal) civilians were also gassed. That incident “reportedly resulted in the deaths of 25 people and injured more than 110 civilians and soldiers,” according to the UN report.

Given that Syrian soldiers were the targets of these attacks, it seems very likely that insurgent forces were responsible. Of course, that’s by no means certain. It’s possible that the soldiers were exposed to sarin after mishandling their own weapons. But the balance of probabilities favors the view that the insurgents were the culpable party.

Had UN inspectors concluded that chemical weapons were used against insurgents and civilians, killing two dozen and injuring over 100, it is nearly certain that this would be the top news story in Western media for days to come. However, given that the report points, instead, to the insurgents using chemical weapons, and not Syrian forces, it has been given little play.

The New York Times limits to three paragraphs its reporting on those elements of the UN report that point strongly to the culpability of insurgent forces, and reporters Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone take pains to minimize the mission’s findings, noting that “verification was impossible” and that in the Jobar and Ashrafiah cases “the report said, chemical weapons may have been used on ‘a relatively small scale against soldiers’” (emphasis added).

In fact, the relevant conclusions from the report, reproduced below, evince more certainty than Sengupta’s and Gladstone’s use of “may” acknowledges.

• “The United Nations Mission collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on 24 August 2013 on a relatively small scale against soldiers.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence that suggests that chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 on a small scale against soldiers.”

Interestingly, the report reveals that the UN team felt that most of the French, British and US allegations against Syria lacked sufficient information and credibility, and so were never investigated. On the other hand, the mission found all four of Syria’s allegations to be sufficiently credible to investigate, and corroborated three of them.

Table 1This suggests that in most instances, the allegations made by the Western powers were propaganda-driven, and were intended to manipulate public opinion through the innuendo effect—the tendency of people to regard allegations as fact, especially if viewed to come from a credible source. The UN mission, however, had other ideas about how credible these sources were.

Also under-reported is the investigative work of Seymour Hersh, who in a December 8 online article for the London Review of Books, titled Whose Sarin?, revealed that Washington had “evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.”

According to Hersh, the Joint Chiefs of Staff “concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas.”

On the other hand, Hersh revealed that Washington had no evidence that the Syrian army was responsible for the August 21 Ghouta attack.

The New Yorker and Washington Post, which usually run Hersh’s investigative reporting, refused to publish his story. With the UN report offering credible evidence that the insurgents have used chemical weapons, it’s difficult to attribute the media outlets’ rejection of the Hersh story to concerns about the credibility of Hersh’s reporting. It’s more likely that they, along with media outlets who are underplaying the UN report, are trying not to draw too much attention to the use of chemical weapons by insurgents.

Table 2

No Pause in US Economic War on Iran

Posted in Iran by what's left on December 12, 2013

By Stephen Gowans

David Cohen, a US Treasury Department undersecretary, took pains in The Wall Street Journal (December 10) to point out that despite the sanctions relief provided for in the November interim nuclear agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 [1], that the US-led economic war on Iran continues largely unabated. Cohen’s message is that the relief package “is economically insignificant to Iran,” while US-led oil sanctions, trade disruptions, and efforts to isolate Iran from the US banking system—which remain in place despite the deal—continue to hobble Iran’s economy.

I warned in an October article that no matter how it looked on the surface, an accord with Iran would represent an insignificant concession by Washington, a point Cohen confirms. The reality, however, has not been widely grasped, and the deal has been misconstrued in many quarters as a possible precursor to a detente and normalization of relations between the West and Iran. Cohen dashes this illusion.

Washington estimates that Iran “will stand to receive $6 billion to $7 billion in relief” over the agreement’s six-month term but lose “about $30 billion in oil revenue” as a result of continued “oil, financial and banking sanctions.” In other words, the relief package will mitigate the impact of sanctions, but only mildly—and the remaining sanctions will continue to bite deeply.

What’s more, the insignificant level of sanctions relief comes on top “of the roughly $80 billion Iran has lost since early 2012 because of US and European Union oil sanctions, and of the nearly $100 billion in Iran’s foreign exchange holdings that are mostly restricted or inaccessible due to U.S. financial and banking sanctions.”

Cohen reminds us that the US economic war has badly battered Iran’s economy. GDP contracted by five percent last year. Inflation is running at about 40 percent. And Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 60 percent of its value against the US dollar in the last two years. For Tehran, the prognosis is grim. And sanctions relief—what little there is—is insufficient to brighten the outlook. The economy continues to shrink.

Cohen says Washington will continue to make Iran’s economy “suffer,” maintain the “pressure,” keep “Iran’s oil revenues depressed,” and ensure that “latent interest in trade” with Iran will be held back by bullying anyone “who thinks now might be a good time to test the waters.”

No matter how far Tehran goes in the final negotiations in limiting its nuclear program, it’s unlikely the West will abandon its efforts to bring about regime change in Tehran, or relinquish economic warfare as a regime change tool. Sanctions are likely to be a permanent feature of US policy on Iran, ending only when, and if, US foreign policy goals are brought to fruition and a Western oriented, pro-foreign investment regime comes to power in Tehran.

That’s because Washington’s ambitions go beyond depriving Iran of an independent means of producing nuclear fuel and preventing it from securing the theoretical capability of mounting a nuclear self-defense, to changing its economic and foreign policies. This can be seen in the reality that the US-led economic war didn’t begin in response to Iran enriching uranium. It began when Iran extricated itself from the US orbit by overthrowing Washington’s puppet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. Ever since, Washington has deployed sanctions to prevent Iran from:

• Building ballistic missiles;
• Supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad;
• Exercising influence in the Middle East;
• Exporting arms;
• Dealing with unrest and subversion at home (stoked by the misery created by Western sanctions);
• Monitoring and censoring domestic internet communications. [2]

So, even if Iran agreed to give up uranium enrichment altogether and to permanently shut-down its Arak heavy-water reactor, Tehran’s support for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance organizations, its backing of Syria, and its predilection for promoting local enterprise and maintaining state-owned enterprises at the expense of foreign investors, would continue to evoke US hostility.

As Cohen points out, the idea that Washington has suspended its punishing economic war on Iran is an illusion. Until Iran’s independence from US domination is brought to an end, Washington’s war on Iran’s economy—and its people—will continue.

1. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France) plus Germany, also known as the E3/EU+3, E3 referring to the United States, Russia and China and the EU3 denoting the three largest countries of the EU: Germany, France, and Britain.
2. Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, July 26, 2013.

Why the West Loves Mandela (and Hates Mugabe)

Posted in Mandela, Mugabe by what's left on December 9, 2013

By Stephen Gowans

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, hosannas continue to be sung to the former ANC leader and South African president from both the left, for his role in ending the institutional racism of apartheid, and from the right, for ostensibly the same reason. But the right’s embrace of Mandela as an anti-racist hero doesn’t ring true. Is there another reason establishment media and mainstream politicians are as Mandela-crazy as the left?

According to Doug Saunders, reporter for the unabashedly big business-promoting Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, there is.

In a December 6 article, “From revolutionary to economic manager: Mandela’s lesson in change,” Saunders writes that Mandela’s “great accomplishment” was to protect the South African economy as a sphere for exploitation by the white property-owning minority and Western corporate and financial elite from the rank-and-file demands for economic justice of the movement he led.

Saunders doesn’t put it in quite these terms, hiding the sectional interests of bond holders, land owners, and foreign investors behind Mandela’s embrace of “sound” principles of economic management, but the meaning is the same.

Saunders quotes Alec Russell, a Financial Times writer who explains that under Mandela, the ANC “proved a reliable steward of sub-Sahara Africa’s largest economy, embracing orthodox fiscal and monetary policies…” That is, Mandela made sure that the flow of profits from South African mines and agriculture into the coffers of foreign investors and the white business elite wasn’t interrupted by the implementation of the ANC’s economic justice program, with its calls for nationalizing the mines and redistributing land.

Instead, Mandela dismissed calls for economic justice as a “culture of entitlement” of which South Africans needed to rid themselves. That he managed to persuade them to do so meant that the peaceful digestion of profits by those at the top could continue uninterrupted.

But it was not Mandela’s betrayal of the ANC’s economic program that Saunders thinks merits the right’s admiration, though the right certainly is grateful. Mandela’s genius, according to Saunders, was that he did it “without alienating his radical followers or creating a dangerous factional struggle within his movement.”

Thus, in Saunder’s view, Mandela was a special kind of leader: one who could use his enormous prestige and charisma to induce his followers to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the elite that had grown rich off their sweat, going so far as to acquiesce in the repudiation of their own economic program.

“Here is the crucial lesson of Mr. Mandela for modern politicians,” writes Saunders. “The principled successful leader is the one who betrays his party members for the larger interests of the nation. When one has to decide between the rank-and-file and the greater good, the party should never come first.”

For Saunders and most other mainstream journalists, “the larger interests of the nation” are the larger interests of banks, land owners, bond holders and share holders. This is the idea expressed in the old adage “What’s good for GM, is good for America.” Since mainstream media are large corporations, interlocked with other large corporations, and are dependent on still other large corporations for advertising revenue, the placing of an equal sign between corporate interests and the national interest comes quite naturally. Would we be shocked to discover that a mass-circulation newspaper owned by environmentalists (if such a thing existed) opposed fracking? (Journalists will rejoin, “I say what I like.” But as Michael Parenti once pointed out, journalists say what they like because their bosses like what they say.)

Predictably, Saunders ends his encomium to the party-betraying Mandela, the ‘good’ liberation hero, with a reference to the ‘bad’ south African liberation hero, Robert Mugabe. “One only needs look north to Zimbabwe to see what usually happens when revolutionaries” fail to follow Mandela’s economically conservative path, writes Saunders.

At one point, Mugabe’s predilection for orthodox fiscal and monetary policy was a strong as Mandela’s. Yet after almost a decade-and-a-half of the Western media demonizing Mugabe as an autocratic thug, it’s difficult to remember that he, too, was once the toast of Western capitals.

The West’s love affair with Mugabe came to an abrupt end when he rejected the Washington Consensus and embarked on a fast-track land reform program. Its disdain for him deepened when he launched an indigenization program to place majority control of the country’s mineral resources in the hands of black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe’s transition from ‘good’ liberation hero to ‘bad’, from saint to demon, coincided with his transition from “reliable steward” of Zimbabwe’s economy (that is, reliable steward of foreign investor and white colonial settler interests) to promoter of indigenous black economic interests.

That’s a transition Mandela never made. Had he, the elite of the imperialist world would not now be flocking to South Africa for Saint Mandela’s funeral, overflowing with fulsome eulogies.

Good Liberation Hero-Bad Liberation Hero

Posted in Mandela, Mugabe, Zimbabwe by what's left on December 6, 2013

By Stephen Gowans

It seemed almost inevitable that on the new day Western newspapers were filled with encomia to the recently deceased South African national liberation hero Nelson Mandela that another southern African hero of national liberation, Robert Mugabe, should be vilified. “Nearly 90, Mugabe still driving Zimbabwe’s economy into the ground,” complained Geoffrey York of Canada’s Globe and Mail.

Mandela and Mugabe are key figures in the liberation of black southern Africa from white rule. So why does the West overflow with hosannas for Mandela and continue to revile Mugabe? Why is Mandela the good national liberation leader and Mugabe the bad?

A lot of it has to do with the extent to which the liberation projects in South Africa and Zimbabwe have threatened white and Western economic interests—hardly at all in Mandela’s South Africa and considerably in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The media-propagated narrative is that Mandela is good because he was ‘democratic’ and Mugabe is bad because he is ‘autocratic.’ But scratch the surface and economic interests peek out.

Land ownership in South Africa continues to be dominated by the white minority, just as it was under apartheid. What land redistribution has occurred has been glacial at best. In Zimbabwe, land has been redistributed from white colonial settlers and their descendants to the black majority. South Africa’s economy is white- and Western-dominated. Zimbabwe is taking steps to indigenize its economy, placing majority control of the country’s natural wealth and productive assets in the hands of blacks.

The centrality of economic interests in the Western demonization of Mugabe are revealed in York’s complaint about Mugabe’s plan to indigenize Canadian-owned New Dawn Mining company, a process which would force a few wealthy Canadians to surrender a majority stake in the mining of Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth. In York’s view, an African government giving its people an ownership stake in their own economy is unthinkable, but many wealthy countries, including Canada, have done the same.

Mandela, in contrast, rejected calls to nationalize South Africa’s mines, accepting Western and white domination of the country’s economy as a bedrock principle of sound economic management.

And so it is that Mugabe, the redistribtor of land and mineral wealth away from the descendants of white colonial settlers and foreign owners to black Africans is seen as devil incarnate in a Canadian newspaper that concerns itself with reporting the news from the perspective Canadian corporate interests. Canadian business wants the world to be open to profit-taking, and doesn’t care for governments that stand in their way. York reflects that bias. And Mandela didn’t get in the way of it.

Recycling the usual myths that make up the anti-Mugabe demonology, the Globe and Mail propagandist writes that Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties are due to Mugabe’s mismanagement, not to Western sanctions, erroneously describing sanctions as limited to travel restrictions on Mugabe and his closest associates. This overlooks Washington’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which has blocked financial assistance to Zimbabwe from international lending institutions, a major impediment to the country’s economic development. It’s as if York blamed the Soviet Union’s crippled post-WWII economy on communist mismanagement, eliding Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi invasion from history. In this, York follows the standard operating procedure of the Western propaganda system, attributing a country’s economic troubles to mismanagement and not the sanctions that cause them.

As to the democrat vs. autocrat dichotomy, it is a propaganda contrivance. It’s what Western governments and media use to legitimize leaders who protect Western corporate interests and demonize leaders who threaten them.

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The Ghost of Paul Sweezy

Posted in Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Paul Sweezy by what's left on November 18, 2013

By Stephen Gowans

Reading Paul Krugman’s New York Times column today, A Permanent Slump?, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the IMF, Larry Summers and Paul Krugman, had belatedly discovered an idea that Paul Sweezy, a Marxist economist who died in 2004, had elaborated on decades ago, namely that stagnation is the normal state of contemporary capitalist economies.

Krugman writes,

…the case for “secular stagnation” — a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between — was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the I.M.F.’s big annual research conference. And the person making that case was none other than Larry Summers. Yes, that Larry Summers.

Summers is a Harvard economist whose career has included stints as chief economist of the World Bank, US Secretary of the Treasury and chief economic adviser to US president Barack Obama.

Krugman paraphrases Summers:

We have, he suggested, an economy whose normal condition is one of inadequate demand — of at least mild depression — and which only gets anywhere close to full employment when it is being buoyed by bubbles.

The idea that financial bubbles have counteracted the economy’s slide into permanent stagnation was also explored by Sweezy. But he cited other countervailing effects, too, including military spending, and in the post-war period, pent-up demand and the building of the interstate highway system, with its concomitant boom in the construction of the suburbs and expansion of the automobile industry.

Krugman concludes that “the evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing.”

Sweezy, I think, would have agreed, but added that the tendency to stagnation is hardly new, but has been an enduring characteristic of contemporary capitalist economies, traceable to their internal logic.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised…Nor Will It Be Brought To You By Russell Brand, Oliver Stone Or Noam Chomsky

Posted in Kim Il Sung, Mao, New Statesman, Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone, Revolution, Russell Brand, Stalin by what's left on November 9, 2013

By Stephen Gowans

Not too many years ago, when protesters were running riot through the streets, disrupting meetings of the WTO, G7, and other international organizations, the Canadian newspaper The National Post served up a flattering and generous portrait of young people who had eschewed the streets as a terrain for political struggle and turned instead to what the newspaper considered the responsible and laudatory path of seeking nomination to run as candidates for the mildly social democratic (but in the newspaper’s view, rabidly leftwing) New Democratic Party. This was a curious turn of events, for the National Post, a newspaper founded by the notoriously rightwing, white-collar criminal, Lord Conrad Black, was as likely in normal times to heap praise on anyone associated with the NDP as George Bush was to sing the praises of Kim Il Sung. But these were not normal times. In retrospect it’s easy to see that the protests, demonstrations, and strikes of the time, would fizzle and die, as the Occupy movement would also fizzle and die years later. Lacking a central organizing idea and concrete vision of where they wanted to go, they were too hobbled by anarchist nonsense to achieve much more than to sell a few more copies of Z Magazine and to create a decent phrase about the 1% making off with all the wealth at the expense of the 99%. But it was clear that the editors of the National Post were worried enough to recommend a path other than the streets to those who burned with the desire for political change. That they should recommend electoral politics was predictable. Young people who plowed their energies into the NDP would soon get bogged down in the harmless, ineffectual, routines of political campaigns, and be kept safely off the streets.

The wealthy are keen on electoral politics—when they go their way, as they often do. Elections in capitalist society can be dominated by money, as can the larger political process. Banks, corporations and major investors lobby politicians, fund political campaigns, bribe legislators with the promise of lucrative post-political jobs, place their representatives in key positions in the state, and shape the ideological environment through their control of the media, creation of think-tanks, hiring of PR firms, and funding of university chairs. Those without wealth can hardly compete, except, in principle, by pooling their resources and hoping to tilt the balance the other way against a formidable foe that controls infinitely more resources. The absence of organization and class consciousness, however, routinely assures this doesn’t happen. Moreover, the electoral arena channels dissent into predictable, controllable paths, keeping it off the streets, where it might become unpredictable and therefore dangerous. Additionally, the sway that corporate, banking and investor groups exercise behind the scenes is masked by the egalitarian spectacle of elections. One person, one vote. What could be more equal?

I was reminded of this after reading the Russell Brand-edited issue of The New Statesman [1], not because it was in any particular way an endorsement of capitalist democracy, but because, like the National Post, it defined legitimate political change within parameters favorable to the established order. Of course, Brand wasn’t advocating electoral politics as the National Post was. On the contrary, he spoke out against voting in an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, and called for a revolution. But Brand’s New Statesman went further than the National Post. Where the National Post said that those who fight for political change within the established system are admirable, while those who step outside it are not, Brand, as editor, tackled the larger idea of revolution (the only way, he said, he could get interested in politics. ) Mind you, a mass circulation magazine was not about to become a platform to rally the masses to armed insurrection to overthrow the established order. “The revolution,” observed Gil Scott-Heron, “will not be televised.” Nor will it be found in the pages of the New Statesman. Predictably, the outcome of Brand’s editing exercise was the redefining of the entire idea of revolution, or, I should say, the destroying of it altogether, turning it into something vague and difficult to put your finger on, except to say it was good, and true, and safe to bring home to mother. But not at all like what Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il sung were implicated in. According to the luminaries Brand assembled to hold forth on what revolution means, revolution isn’t the transfer of productive property from one group to another –from, say, private owners to workers, or colonial settlers to those they dispossessed, or even owners who reside outside a country to the people within. Instead, it means many things, but not what you thought it did. [2]

In Brand’s issue of The New Statesman, film-maker Judd Apatow writes that revolution is telling authority figures to fuck off…in a funny way. “Comedy itself is revolutionary,” he says, whatever that means. Deepak Chopra rejects politics altogether as “irrelevant” and writes that he puts his “trust in inner revolution,” as priests and other religious figures have done for centuries, counselling the exploited to look inward rather than outward, leaving the exploiters to carry on exploiting free from the inconvenience of anyone fighting back. Comedian Francesca Martinez seeks, not a revolution in who owns productive property, but “of our ideas.” Author Howard Marks begins on a promising note, writing that he would like to see a revolution along the lines of the “Marxist notions of transferring power from reactionary to progressive classes,” but quickly plunges into the ridiculous by expressing the hope that such a revolution will create an immediate utopia, where we can all smoke dope, love each other, and never fight. The model he would like to see realized on a grand scale is the “wine-drinking, dancing, pagan society without a written language” of the Kalash Valleys in northern Pakistan. “There are no prisons, no laws, no police and no vested interests.” Tim Street, director of UK Uncut Legal Action calls “democracy” the most revolutionary idea, and offers a vision of revolution in which the corporate ruling class remains in place (hence, no revolution at all), but where the people try to hold it in check. Street writes, “we can begin by holding corporations which put profit before people to account and fight back when they bully and threaten us. We can begin by using our voices and our bodies to protest, to take direct action against the cuts and tax dodging.” How depressingly far the idea of revolution has drifted (or has been pushed) from its moorings, when anti-capitalist revolution once meant abolition of the profit system, not pressuring corporations to put people before profits (a Quixotic project, since it is both legally and systemically impossible for capitalism to put people before profits. Street has set a rather ambitious goal for himself if he thinks he’s going to hold all the corporations that put profits before people (i.e., all of them) to account. He’ll hardly have time to keep abreast of the latest Noam Chomsky interviews on YouTube.) Newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev offers nothing better, but at least knows what a revolution is, pointing to the American, French and Russian revolutions as revolutions. But Lebedev’s view of these revolutions is precisely what you might expect of a business owner. The American Revolution, he says, was “mostly very good”. The French is to be applauded, in part. But the Bolshevik revolution had no redeeming features whatever, except this: It showed “that Marx’s method was incompatible with freedom and dignity.” Lebedev endorses “evolution” as “the better guide to human affairs” (now that the bourgeois revolutions have succeeded.) [3]

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, authors of The Untold History of the United States, offer a 1960s New Left anarchist vision, where the only good revolutions are the ones that never happened and the bad ones are the ones that did. This meshes well with a brief entry by anarchist Noam Chomsky on how utopia can be brought about (about which more in a moment.) Stone and Kuznick find inspiration in former US Vice President Henry Wallace’s idea of a worldwide people’s revolution, which would “end militarism, imperialism and economic exploitation, redistribute wealth on a global scale, and spread the fruits of science and industry.” Great, but there are two problems here. For Stone and Kuznick, who, by the way, make no apologies for engaging in utopian (i.e., unrealistic) thinking, revolution is the answer to an intellectual problem: how to eliminate militarism, imperialism, and exploitation, which they regard as morally insupportable. But revolutions don’t work that way. People don’t overturn an existing political and economic order because they dislike militarism intellectually or regard exploitation as morally indefensible. They overturn existing orders when the conditions of their lives become intolerable, and revolution becomes the only way out—which is more likely to happen in the countries which are the victims of militarism and imperialism than in the ones which are the perpetrators and within whose borders lie the audience Stone’s and Kuznick’s comments are presumably directed at. Secondly, the duo seems to want to arrive at utopia without violence, conflict, hierarchy or power politics—in other words, a utopian path to utopia, where a utopia must first exist before it can be realized. We “have too often seen the use of violence unleash emotions and forces that beget more violence and new forms of tyranny and oppression,” they write. [4]

It was the New Left’s desire for the ocean without the roar of the river that led to the movement’s denunciation by its critics as comprising those who “combine the luxury of being eternally in the right without the obligation of ever actually being responsible for anything.” And indeed, the New Left, and its successors, managed to escape responsibility by never actually achieving anything that would require that they bear it. Arnold Kettle noted in 1960 that “What the New Left seems not to be able to stomach is that (the countries that actually had revolutions) should have not only principles but also a strategy, a diplomacy, a defense policy…and all the responsibilities and consequent impurities… Power politics is always used by New Left writers in a derogatory sense, as if there were some other form of politics.” As for the New Left vision of what a revolution was to achieve, “it was a reality beyond class struggle, a society which is neither capitalist nor socialist, but simply nice.” [5] Indeed, Stone and Kuznick express their vision in terms of a nice world of “creativity, kindness and generosity” where “greed and the lust for power” have no place, rather than a world of jobs for all, free heath care and education, cheap public transportation, subsidized housing, and affordable childcare, racial and gender equality, and investment of the social surplus into raising the living standards of all. If you want a nice world of kindness and charity where greed and lust for power have no place, there are plenty of religions around to take care of that. But that’s not revolution.

Stone and Kuznick reserve special scorn for “Stalin, Mao and the Kims”, who they depict as power-hungry defilers of “the noble concept of revolution” who grabbed power to aggrandize themselves. Fuck them, they write. One day someone will have to write The Untold History of 20th Century Revolutions to correct Stone’s and Kuznick’s defiling of accomplished revolutionaries. For now, suffice to say that the title of duo’s book ought to be changed to The Untold History of the United States by Two Confused Leftists Who Have Yet to Be Told the Untold History of Russia, China and Korea.

For Stone’s and Kuznick’s benefit here’s a brief history to fill the gaps of their knowledge.


Kim Il Sung was an effective guerrilla leader who made an enormous contribution to the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule, and from the form of residual rule by Japanese collaborators that took hold in the south, and has echoes today. South Korea’s current president, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of the military dictator, Park Chung-hee, who served in the Japanese imperial army, hunting down Kim and his guerrillas. Whatever one might say about the de facto, but hardly de jure, Kim dynastic succession, the Kims trace their lineage to a leading anti-colonial guerrilla who played a lead role in building an independent state, free from domination by outside powers. The south, in contrast, is a neo-colony of the United States, where the armed forces are under the war-time command of the Pentagon, and anti-communist descendants of Japanese collaborators exercise local control. Had Kim anticipated Deepak Chopra’s path and declared politics “irrelevant” and put his “trust in inner revolution”, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick might have lauded him, rather than blurting “Fuck…the Kims.” Yet, the price of Kim’s earning the respect of the New Left film-makers would likely have been Korea remaining a colony of Japan, or more likely, a neo-colony of the United States from the south to the north.


Before the Mao-led revolution in China, 55 to 65 percent of the land was owned by 10 percent of the population–parasites who exploited the labor of peasants by virtue of claiming ownership of the land and holding it by law and force. Hundreds of millions eked out bare existences on tiny plots and forever faced the threat of famine. The country had less industrial power than Belgium. Long dominated by outside powers, the Chinese lived as untermenschen in their own country. “Everything fed the revolution. Only by revolution could China’s peasants get land, get out from under landlord control…Without revolution, China would have remained in the grip of imperialism, a semi-colony, dominated and exploited by the United States.” [6] Domenico Losurdo points out that, “It is widely known that Mao Zedong declared at the foundation of the Peoples Republic of China that the Chinese nation had risen up and nobody would tread on it again. Perhaps he was thinking about the years when a sign at the entrance to the French consulate in Shanghai forbade entrance to Chinese and dogs.” Losurdo asks: “Is the new situation in the great Asian country a result of ‘failure’?” [7] To be sure, the Chinese Revolution falls well short of Stone’s and Kuznick’s vision of a world free from militarism, imperialism, and exploitation, and where creativity, kindness, and generosity have replaced greed and lust for power, but it did improve the lives of hundreds of millions. As the privileged son of a stockbroker who has lived his life in a country that dominates others, Stone may regard Mao’s revolution as a defiling of the noble concept of revolution, but he’d find few Chinese to agree with him.


Stalin made enormous contributions to socialism, decolonization, and indirectly, to the emergence of the welfare state in the West. He played a lead role in the building of the first publicly-owned, planned, economy –one free from unemployment and the insecurities and injustices of the past. He was at the forefront of the project to lift Russia from backwardness, succeeding spectacularly in short order. His contributions to the defeat of fascism were unparalleled, exceeding those of any other individual. Under his leadership, the monarchies and military dictatorships of Eastern Europe were overthrown and, no, the socialist societies that replaced them were not simply new forms of oppression. Their economies grew rapidly and with them standards of living rose, while the insecurities, injustices, inequalities and exploitation of the past were eliminated. The national liberation movement had no greater friend than Stalin’s Soviet Union. By successfully creating an alternative to capitalism, Stalin forced Western governments to build robust programs of social welfare to maintain the allegiance of their populations. And the Soviet Union’s policy of racial equality embarrassed the United States into improving the conditions of its black citizens.

It’s instructive to consider the Soviet Union in 1936. Soviet democracy, based on the constitution Stalin played a key role in writing, was being rolled out. The constitution mandated the creation of a system of elected representatives. Stalin was elected the representative of a Moscow constituency of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. By this assembly he was elected as one of 30 members of the Presidium, which in turn elected a Council of Commissars. He did not call himself a dictator, nor was there a position of dictator to be occupied.

Soviet democracy has been derided and ridiculed in the West. But let’s consider the Soviet form of democracy in 1936 versus the Western form. At the time, Britain had an unelected House of Lords (still does), while Canada had, and continues to have, an unelected Senate. Of 500 million inhabitants of the British Empire, only 70 million, or 1/7th, lived in political democracies. South Africa denied suffrage to its black population. In Canada and Australia, aboriginal people were not allowed to vote. India had no political democracy at all, and was governed by the British civil service. The United States denied civil rights to its black citizens, who lived in a state of oppression. [8] In contrast, suffrage in the USSR was universal, hardly the tyranny by comparison with the West that Stone and Kuznick would have us believe it was.

As to the perennial charge that Stalin murdered millions, we can dismiss this as an unexamined legend that everyone believes to be true because someone (they just can’t remember who) told them it was, and about which they can provide no details, like who, how, when and why? William Blum writes:

“We’ve all heard the figures many times…10 million…20 million…40 million…60 million…died under Stalin. But what does the number mean, whichever number you choose? Of course many people died under Stalin, many people died under Roosevelt….Dying appears to be a natural phenomenon in every country. The question is how did those people die under Stalin? Did they die from the famines that plagued the USSR in the 1920s and 30s? Did the Bolsheviks deliberately create those famines? How? Why? More people certainly died in India in the 20th century from famines than in the Soviet Union, but no one accuses India of the mass murder of its own citizens. Did the millions die from disease in an age before antibiotics? In prison? From what causes? People die in prison in the United States on a regular basis. Were millions actually murdered in cold blood? If so, how? How many were criminals executed for non-political crimes? The logistics of murdering tens of millions of people is daunting.” [9]

The numbers are, in fact, estimates derived by comparing the Soviet population with projections of whatever the author making the estimate thinks the population would have been at a given point had Stalin never existed. The difference between the two figures is then said to represent the missing population, or people Stalin “murdered.” It’s obvious that this method is open to abuse and that attributing excess deaths to mass murder has no other intention than to bamboozle people into believing that Stalin ordered the cold-blooded killing of tens of millions. This isn’t to say that Stalin didn’t order executions, and lots of them. He did. But executions in times of exceptional circumstances, when the revolution was under threat from within and without—as the Soviet Union was throughout the Stalin era–are no less necessary than the killing of soldiers of an invading army. It was war. Unless action fitting to war was taken, the revolution would fail. Everywhere fifth columnists facilitated the Nazi invasions, except in the Soviet Union where there was no fifth column. Stalin had eliminated it. He may have uniquely accomplished this feat by accepting a high false positive rate as the cost of extirpating the disease, catching the innocent and harmless in his net as well as the dangerous and guilty. But when it’s unclear whether the tissue is diseased or healthy, the surgeon who saves the patient cuts out both the clearly diseased and the surrounding suspicious (though possibly healthy) tissue. The question is: Did Stalin order executions to satisfy a personal lust for power, or to safeguard the revolution bequeathed by Lenin? Stalin’s political enemies have always favored the first explanation. And the CIA has ensured that those who favored it had a platform from which to spread it far and wide.

When Stalin came to power, the Soviet Union was in a precarious position—its agriculture backward, its industry stunted, its military feeble. What’s more, fierce and fissiparous debate within the Communist Party about the way forward had produced paralysis, infighting and intrigues. The country was going nowhere, fast. Three decades later Stalin was dead. But in those three decades, with Stalin at the helm, the country had advanced from the wooden plow to the atomic pile.

“When Stalin died in 1953, the Soviet Union was the second greatest industrial, scientific, and military power in the world and showed clear signs of moving to overtake the United States in all these areas. This was despite the devastating losses it suffered while defeating the fascist powers of Germany, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. The various peoples of the U.S.S.R were unified. Starvation and illiteracy were unknown throughout the country. Agriculture was completely collectivized and extremely productive. Preventive health care was the finest in the world, and medical treatment of exceptionally high quality was available free to all citizens. Education at all levels was free. More books were published in the U.S.S.R than in any other country. There was no unemployment.

“Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, not only had the main fascist powers of 1922-1945 been defeated, but the forces of revolution were on the rise everywhere. The Chinese Communist Party had just led one fourth of the world’s population to victory over foreign imperialism and domestic feudalism and capitalism. Half of Korea was socialist…In Vietnam, a strong socialist power, which had already defeated Japanese imperialism, was administering the final blows to the beaten army of the French empire. The monarchies and fascist dictatorships of Eastern Europe had been destroyed by a combination of partisan forces, led by local Communists, and the Soviet Army…The largest political party in both France and Italy was the Communist Party. The national liberation movement among the European colonies and neo-colonies was surging forward…The entire continent of Africa was stirring.” [10]

Were these the accomplishments of a “failed” revolution? Domenico Losurdo demands that critics like Stone and Kuznick,

“explain how a ‘failure’…has managed to make such an enormous contribution to the emancipation of the colonial people and, in the West, to the destruction of the old regime and the emergence of the welfare state. In 1923, when Lenin, gravely ill, is forced to release the reins of power, the state that emerged from the October Revolution, mutilated in the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, is leading a paltry and precarious life. In 1953, at Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union and the socialist camp are enjoying enormous growth, power, and prestige. A few more of these (‘defilers of the noble concept of revolution’) and the situation of the imperialist and capitalist world system would have become precarious and untenable indeed!” [11]

Contrary to Stone’s and Kuznick’s falsifications, Stalin did more to bring the world closer to their vision of freedom from militarism, imperialism and exploitation than anyone else. Yet the two Americans say “Fuck Stalin.” They don’t, however, say “Fuck Castro.” Why not? The Cuban revolution was guerrilla-led, like Mao’s and Kim’s, assisted by the Soviet Union, like Mao’s and Kim’s, and Cuban socialism is based largely on the “Stalinist” model. Yet, Stone, whose three documentaries on the Cuban revolutionary reveal a soft spot for Castro, doesn’t accuse the leader of the Cuban revolution of defiling the concept of revolution in the interests of power, self-aggrandizement, repression and iron-fisted control.

The inconsistencies don’t stop there. Stone, it seems, also has a soft spot for Barack Obama, who he reportedly voted for in 2008 and 2012. [12] Shouting “Fuck Stalin, Mao and the Kims” while voting for Obama calls to mind Michael Parenti’s criticism of the hypocrisy of left anti-communists who profess revulsion at the “crimes of communism” while facilitating the crimes of Democratic presidents by voting for them.

Parenti explains:

“Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of innocent life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a ‘national emergency’; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political association and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witch-hunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberals, the social democrats, and the ‘democratic socialist’ anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnation of either the Democratic party or the political system that produced it…” [13]

Stone and Kuznick may deplore these Democratic party crimes, but it’s unlikely they’d ever say “Fuck the Democrats.” It’s more likely they’d say, “Vote Democrat.” So, let’s forget about “Fuck Stalin, Mao and the Kims.” If Stone is really interested in ending militarism, imperialism, and exploitation, why isn’t he telling us to “Fuck Obama,” a major promoter of the scourges Stone says he hates, rather than running down historical figures who actually fought against imperialism and exploitation, and won?

The Stone and Kuznick view is, really, rather quite silly. They believe that Mao and Kim decided to become guerrillas, and Stalin, a Bolshevik, because these were routes to the acquisition of personal power, self-aggrandizement, and iron-fisted control. Yet, at the time, guerrilla and underground revolutionary were hardly the most promising career paths for people who lusted for power and self-aggrandizement. If Stalin really lusted after these things, why didn’t he link up with Tsarist forces, rather than the Bolsheviks, which until mid-1917 were a minor political force that no one (including many Bolsheviks) expected to take power? Chinese and Koreans who became guerrillas were more likely to find themselves dead, tortured or imprisoned, than rising to the head of a bureaucracy administering a new state. They became guerrillas because they found feudal and imperialist oppression intolerable and wanted to put an end to them. A Georgian like Stalin became a Bolshevik because he hated Tsarist oppression and wanted to replace it. Stalin lived much of his early life underground, trying to keep one step ahead of the Tsarist police, and serving long stretches in internal exile. As leader of the Soviet Union he lived a modest, almost Spartan life. He was not a Red Tsar, living in the lap of luxury, as Stone’s and Kuznick’s crude myth-making would have us believe. Stalin, Mao and Kim understood that ending oppression meant taking political power, which meant, in turn, a disciplined, organized approach to the project—one that involved leaders and hierarchy. The idea that the politically-inspired seek power for power’s sake is an anarchist confusion. As Richard Levins points out, even George W. Bush would never have promoted universal free health care, subsidized Venezuela, or renounced Jesus just to stay in power. Behind “every facade of power-hunger, there lurks a person of principles, though (as in Bush’s case) these may be noxious principles.” [14] Revolutionaries seek power to aggrandize the position of the class they represent. People in leadership positions may be in positions to exercise power, but that doesn’t mean they seek power as an end in itself. They seek power as an instrument to accomplish goals that comport with the aspirations of the class or people they represent. Stone’s and Kuznick’s cynicism tars the disciplined, organizational forms necessary for revolution. In their view, and that of anarchists generally, hierarchical, disciplined organizations are vehicles of tyranny and oppression that will inevitably be used by tyrants-in-embryo to catapult themselves to power, whereupon they will subvert the revolution’s beautiful goals to aggrandize themselves and exercise an iron-fisted control. Did Kim subvert the goal of achieving Korean independence? Did Mao not overturn centuries of feudalism and great power domination? Did Stalin fail to abolish unemployment, homelessness, national oppression, and racial inequality? The view that the leaders of successful revolutions betrayed the revolution’s goals to aggrandize themselves is not only bad history, it’s bad politics. It encourages people seeking political change to eschew any form of “Leninist” politics, in favor of “leaderless” agglomerations, which practice decentralized decision-making, and accomplish not much of anything.

Noam Chomsky is an endless source of slurs against Leninism, which he equates with “counterrevolution”, [15] a heterodox view of what revolution is, but certainly consistent with the Brand-edited New Statesman view that it’s something other than what you always thought it was, and what you always thought it was is actually quite a bad thing that should be avoided altogether. I suppose it should come as no surprise that Chomsky answers the question, “What does revolution mean to you?”, with an attack on Lenin, the leader of a revolution that succeeded, and praise for Rosa Luxemburg, a leader of an attempted socialist revolution that failed. Chomsky writes,

“I cannot improve on Rosa Luxemburg’s eloquent critique of Leninist doctrine: a true social revolution requires a ‘spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule…it is only by extirpating the habits of obedience and servility to the last root that the working class can acquire the understanding of a new form of discipline, self-discipline arising from free consent.’ And as part of this ‘spiritual transformation’, a true social revolution will, furthermore create—by the spontaneous activity of the mass of the population—the social forms that enable people to act as free creative individuals, with social bonds replacing social fetters, controlling their own destiny in freedom and solidarity.” [16]

Here’s A.J. Ryder, an historian of the German Revolution, on Luxemburg’s role in the failure to bring about a socialist revolution in Germany in 1918-1919.

“Spartacists (Karl) Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg…were conscious revolutionaries in deed as well as in word. They were bent on using the opportunity presented by the fall of the Hohenzollern regime to set in motion the socialist revolution which they believed would carry them to power in place of Ebert as Lenin had displaced Kerensky….Few (of the leaders) possessed the qualities of a successful revolutionary leader. By common consent Rosa Luxemburg was the outstanding personality of the left, but her intellectual gifts and personal fanaticism were not matched by a grasp of reality. She was at heart a romantic, a visionary appearing in the garb of ‘scientific socialism.’” [17]

Ryder sums up the failure of the revolution by reference to the failings of its key personalities. They “were amateurs compared with Lenin.” [18] Luxemburg, the romantic, emphasized spontaneity and ‘spiritual transformation.’ Lenin, the hard-headed realist, emphasized planning and organization. Luxemburg was murdered by proto-fascist thugs, her bloodied corpse tossed into a canal, as the revolution she sought to midwife, sputtered and failed. Lenin seized power to set in motion a socialist, anti-imperialist project that spanned over seven decades—one that played the key role in exterminating the fascism that, in its embryonic stage, murdered Luxemburg.

Chomsky has enormous respect for those who have failed at revolution, and enormous contempt for those who have succeeded. If we were to follow his lead and emulate the failures, while eschewing the successes, we would be sure to arrive at the same place the National Post wanted young political activists to arrive at: a political dead-end. Brand’s edition of the New Statesman follows in the same vein. Its positive statements are reserved for political action that leaves the established order in place: Chopra’s “internal revolution”; Apatow’s comedy; Lebedev’s evolution; Martinez’s new thinking; Tim Street’s “democracy.” Its negative statements are reserved for the revolutions that actually brought about the “revolutionary transformations of the deepest and most profound sort” that Stone and Kuznick say they want. So, the message is clear. Light a joint, work on your kindness and generosity, demand that corporations put people before profits, watch a Marx Brother’s movie, and tell Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Kim to fuck off.

1. New Statesman, October 24, 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/Russell%20Brand
2. What Does Revolution Mean to You? The New Statesman, October 30, 2013, htt://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/what-does-revolution-mean-you
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Arnold Kettle, “How new is the ‘New Left’”, Marxism Today, October, 1960, http://www.unz.org/Pub/MarxismToday-1960oct-00302
6. Edward and Regula Boorstein. Counterrevolution: U.S. Foreign Policy. International Publishers. 1990. p. 73.
7. Domenico Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement: Failure, Betrayal, or Learning Process?”, Nature, Society, and Thought, Vol. 16, no 1 (2003). http://homepages.spa.umn.edu/~marquit/nst161a.pdf
8. Sydney and Beatrice Webb. The Truth about Soviet Russia. Nabu Public Domain Reprints. pp. 21-22.
9. William Blum. Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire. Common Courage Press. 2005. p. 194.
10. Bruce Franklin, “An Introduction to Stalin,” excerpted from Bruce Franklin (Ed.). The Essential Stalin: Major Theoretical Writings, 1905-52 (Anchor Books, 1972). http://anti-imperialism.com/2012/11/02/an-introduction-to-stalin/
11. Losurdo.
12. Solvej Schou, “Oliver Stone on Obama: ‘I hope he wins’”, Entertainment Weekly, November 6, 2012. http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/11/06/oliver-stone-obama-presidential-election/
13. Michael Parenti. Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism. City Light Books. 1997. pp. 48-49.
14. Richard Levins, “How to Visit a Socialist Country”, Monthly Review, 2010, Volume 61, Issue 11, (April), http://monthlyreview.org/2010/04/01/how-to-visit-a-socialist-country
15. Parenti, pp. 46-47.
16. “What Does Revolution Mean to You?”
17. A.J. Ryder. The German Revolution of 1918: A Study of German Socialism in War and Revolt. Cambridge University Press. 2008. p. 7.
18. Ibid.


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