By Stephen Gowans
A common complaint made against critics of color revolutions, the Western-engineered insurrections that have brought neo-liberal governments to power in Serbia (the 5th October Overthrow), Georgia (the Rose Revolution), and Ukraine (the Orange Revolution), and have been attempted in Zimbabwe and Belarus, is that they err in minimizing the degree to which these revolutions are spontaneous, grass-roots-organized eruptions of popular anger against oppressive “regimes.”
One such defender of color revolutions, Philippe Duhamel, a “non-violent actionist (sic) and an educator for social change” takes issue with criticism of non-violence, pro-democracy activists who cheer on, and contribute to the organizing of, color revolutions (1). He argues that:
1. Criticism of such color revolution supporters as Stephen Zunes for his connections to ruling class foundations is unfair, and amounts to guilt by association; (2)
2. Color revolutions provide a model for non-violent social change in the West;
3. Anti-government mobilizations in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine were not imported from the West, but were grass-roots in origin.
Duhamel argues it is “possible for somebody to study the dynamics of popular revolutions and want to further nonviolent methods…without necessarily becoming a fan of the types of regime or rulers that emerge” – an implicit acknowledgement that the governments that have been swept to power by color revolutions, aided by “non-violent actionists and educators for social change,” are not the kinds of governments “pro-democracy” activists care to be associated with. No wonder. Western-directed uprisings have produced governments in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia committed to the Washington Consensus of harshness to the weak and indulgence to Western business interests. Considering that these uprisings have cleared the way for the ascension to power of governments that cater to the interests of the same Western governments and corporations that funded them (and hired the West’s docents of non-violent social change as color revolution advisors), they can hardly be said to be popular, progressive or democratic.
As regards studying color revolutions to apply their lessons to bringing about social change in the West, one must ask why it is that the model has enjoyed vaunted success in spring-boarding to power neo-liberal governments outside the West, but has failed to bring about a popular revolution in the West. (3) Color revolutions have relied heavily on funding from imperialist governments, ruling class foundations, and wealthy investors. (4) Western funding provides enormous advantages that genuine popular revolutions not aimed at serving imperialist goals struggle (usually unsuccessfully) to obtain. Obviously, Western governments and corporate foundations don’t fund revolutions in their own countries. (5) For this reason, color revolutions have been strictly non-Western phenomena.
In Serbia, where the 5th October Overthrow succeeded, and in Zimbabwe and Belarus, where Western governments and corporate foundations have worked to replicate the color revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine, economic warfare and threats of military intervention were, and are, important regime change inputs. They conduce to the success of anti-government uprisings by establishing regime change as a necessary condition for ending the crisis conditions economic warfare and threatened (or actual) military intervention create. Whether techniques of non-violent direct action are more effective than other means of bringing about revolutionary change under siege conditions is an open question. What is clear is that in Ukraine and Georgia, anti-government mobilizations were bankrolled, organized and assisted by Western governments, corporate foundations and billionaire investor George Soros. Could anti-government mobilizations succeed in toppling governments in the West without the strategic advice, polling, legal support, media infrastructure, public relations backing, legal expertise, civil disobedience training, leadership education, hiring of full-time organizers, creation of unified political opposition parties, unqualified media support, and mountains of spending money that Western governments and corporate foundations have showered on color revolutionaries outside the West?
Duhamel and other pro-democracy non-violence activists argue that major social mobilizations cannot be created on demand from a socio-economic vacuum or imported from the US, but critics of color revolutions haven’t tried to make this case. The argument they make is that engineered uprisings depend on three critical inputs: a crisis (induced by economic warfare, actual or threatened military intervention, or related to the impugned legitimacy of an election); an understanding that relief from the crisis is contingent on removal of the government; and a united political opposition working with an interlocked civil society apparatus pursuing clear and specific goals related to removal of the government. (6) The idea that popular uprisings of sufficient mass and coherence to topple governments arise spontaneously is a pleasant thought, but fatally minimizes the necessity of crises, the establishment of a contingent relation between ending the crisis and overthrowing the government, and the advantages of generous funding in building an opposition capable of carrying out the assigned task of sweeping the government away.
The goals of color revolutionaries are narrow and circumscribed and quite different from those of truly popular revolutions. Color revolutionaries care about toppling the current government, not about the government that follows. Not surprisingly, color revolution enthusiasts in the West are usually completely unaware of the nature and character of governments that have been swept to power by color revolutions. They celebrate the process, not the outcome. Unlike color revolutions, truly popular revolutions have been concerned first with establishing new systems of government and second with removing the existing government because it stood in the way of achieving this goal. Color revolutions, however, are inspired by no positive vision, only a negative one.
The beneficiaries of color revolutions have been neo-liberal governments committed to privatizing publicly-owned assets, providing a low-wage, low-tax environment for Western investors, eliminating tariffs and subsidies to please Western exporters, and signing up to integration into Nato to please the Pentagon. For all their boasting about being pro-democratic, color revolutions haven’t brought democratic governments to power (democratic in the sense of representing the interests of the mass of citizens.) Since the outcome of ostensibly pro-democracy revolutions cannot, therefore, be said to be truly democratic, why it is that color revolutionaries don’t try again, if, indeed, democracy, or at least, removal of oppressive antidemocratic governments, is their true aim? Surely, equipped with techniques of non-violent activism imparted by corporate foundation-supported educators for social change, a movement, emboldened by success in toppling one oppressive government, would have no trouble toppling another – or at least, giving it a good try. Yet the post-revolutionary governments of Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, which have been no better than the ones they replaced, and in the case of Serbia, far worse, have faced no popular insurrections that have threatened to bring them down.(7)
Consider the case of Georgia’s Rose Revolution. The popular insurrection that brought US-trained corporate lawyer, and George W. Bush-admirer, Mikhail Saakashvili to power, has not ushered in a new, democratic, day. Instead, Georgia has become decidedly less democratic and emphatically friendlier to US corporate and military interests.
Lincoln A. Mitchell, a Georgia expert at Columbia University says that,
“The reality is that the Saakashvili government is the fourth one-party state that Georgia has had during the last 20 years, going back to the Soviet period. And nowhere has this been more apparent than in the restrictions on media freedom.” (8)
According to Sozar Subari, Georgia’s ombudsman for human rights,
“That Georgia is on the road to democracy and has a free press is the main myth created by Georgia that the West has believed in. We have some of the best freedom-of-expression laws in the world, but in practice, the government is so afraid of criticism that it has felt compelled to raid media offices and to intimidate journalists and bash their equipment.” (9)
Indeed, so severe are the new government’s restrictions on the press that Nino Zuriashvili, a Georgian investigative journalist, says, “The paradox is that there was more media freedom before the Rose Revolution.” (10)
So why haven’t the Rose Revolutionaries trotted out their pro-democracy, non-violence techniques to oust the oppressive, anti-democratic and violence-prone Saakashvili (who sent troops to Iraq, started a war in South Ossetia, and sent riot police into the streets to bash the heads of demonstrators protesting the loss of their jobs)? One reason why is because they’re otherwise engaged doing Uncle Sam’s work elsewhere in the world. Instead of staying at home to topple the oppressive Saakashvili government, the non-violent, pro-democracy activists who helped organize the Rose Revolution have been “deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change against their autocratic governments, going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians” (11) but not Georgia.
Who deployed them abroad? Their employers, billionaire financier George Soros and “the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or Canvas. The group is funded in part by the International Republican Institute, which many describe as the international arm of the GOP, and Washington-based Freedom House, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. government” (12) and is interlocked with the CIA. (13)
The other reason a second Rose Revolution hasn’t come along to sweep away the anti-democratic, pro-violence, Saakashvili is that while “U.S. support for Saakashvili resulted in a sharp increase in foreign aid to the Georgian government…funding for the advocacy groups that had been at the heart of the Rose Revolution dried up, forcing organizations to shut down programs that could monitor and challenge his decisions.” (14)
In other words, Washington cut off the funding that fuelled the Rose Revolution, and, predictably, without the impetus of generous funding, no grass-roots organized popular mobilization has arisen (or has, but is so starved for funds, and has such a low profile as a consequence, that nobody has noticed.) And yet pro-democracy, non-violence activists, who take money from imperialist governments and corporate foundations to train Belarusians, Iranians, Zimbabweans and Venezuelans to overthrow their governments, insist that color revolutions are not fuelled by Western lucre, but are grass-roots, independent, uprisings against oppression.
Finally, the idea that color revolutions are carried out non-violently, while also a pleasant thought, is without foundation. Engineered uprisings invariably arise in the context of implied or threatened violence, whether it is the persistent threat of non-violent demonstrators suddenly turning into a violent mob, or the threat of Western military intervention, lurking in the background of events related to efforts to oust the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe, and actual military intervention preceding the Serbian 5th October Overthrow.
Western-assisted revolutions have also been aided by the efforts of Western governments to destabilize target countries through economic warfare. The West imposed sanctions on the former Yugoslavia, and maintains sanctions on Zimbabwe and Belarus. As mentioned, these destabilizing efforts are accompanied by signals to the besieged population. Topple your government and the threats and sanctions end. These conditions (blackmail, in straightforward language) give birth to an incipient movement to overthrow the government, coalescing around the existing opposition. The hiring of full-time anti-government organizers, grants to establish “independent” media to shape public opinion, Voice of America and Radio Liberty broadcasts to further tilt public sentiment away from the local government, the hardships imposed by the West’s economic warfare, the training of activists in techniques of popular insurrection, diplomatic maneuvers to isolate the country internationally — these things together establish the conditions for the success of an engineered insurrection. At the same time, they challenge the idea that color revolutions are pure, spontaneous, and grass-roots-organized, not contrived, nurtured and facilitated from without.
Western-engineered insurrections cannot, then, serve as a paradigm for organizing in the West, for the ingredients essential to their success could never be expected in the foreseeable future to be present in the case of attempted popular revolutions in the US, UK, France or elsewhere in the Western world. The necessary crisis conditions, and the contingency between relief from the crisis and removal of the government, will have to arise independently of the will of Western ruling classes. In Serbia, Zimbabwe and Belarus, they have arisen owing to the will of Western ruling classes.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from attempted and successful color revolutions. There are two important lessons to be learned:
o Funding, and the organization that generous funding enormously facilitates, cannot be underestimated in its power to bring about disciplined mass mobilizations guided by clear and specific goals.
o Organizers serve the interests of those who provide the funding.
From this we can conclude that for a revolution to serve popular interests, its funding, unlike that of color revolutions (which have served Western corporate and military interests), must be popularly sourced. Non-popularly sourced leadership training, training in techniques of civil disobedience and insurrection, “independent” media and NGOs, serve the interests of their funders.
As regards the guilt by association of Stephen Zunes and his peers, it can be said that what they are guilty of is taking money from Western governments, ruling class foundations and wealthy individuals to train activists to topple foreign governments. The purpose of these activities, whether the guilty acknowledge it or not, is to clear the way for the ascension to power of reactionary dependent governments committed to catering to imperialist interests. What Zunes et al are associated with, then, are the outcomes of these insurrections – harsher, more uncertain, and certainly less democratic lives for the local populations, but enhanced profit-making opportunities for Western banks, corporations and investors. That the funding for these activities comes from Western governments, corporate-sponsored foundations and wealthy investors is no accident.
The argument of non-violent actionists and educators for social change that this funding contributes in no way to the success of antigovernment uprisings and in no way shapes their outcome is an obfuscation spurred by obvious self-interest. Those who take lucre from imperialist governments and corporate foundations to help bring to power foreign governments to cater to imperialist interests must be held accountable for the outcomes of their actions. They must not be allowed to hide behind the delusion that they’re only studying the dynamics of “popular revolutions” abroad in order to understand how to be bring about social change non-violently at home. Anyone who works diligently to overthrow foreign governments in order to clear the way for the more vigorous pursuit of imperialist interests can hardly be expected to be genuinely interested in bringing about truly democratic change at home.
2. Zunes has been criticized from the left by Michael Barker, “Peace activists, criticism and non-violent imperialism,” MRZine, January 8, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/barker080108.html and “Sharp reflection warranted: Non-violence in the service of imperialism,” Swans Commentary, June 30, 2008, http://www.swans.com/library/art14/barker01.html; John Bellamy Foster, “Reply to Stephen Zunes on imperialism and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” MRZine, January 17, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/foster170108.html; George Ciccariello-Maher and Eva Golinger, “Making Excuses for Empire: Reply to Defenders of the AEI,” August 4, 2008, Venezuelanalysis.com, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3690; Netfa Freeman, “Zimbabwe and the battle of ideas,” The Black Agenda Report, September 25, 2008, http://www.blackagendareport.com/?q=node/10802; and Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes and the struggle for overseas profits,” What’s Left, February 18, 2008, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/stephen-zunes-and-the-struggle-for-overseas-profits/.
3. Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes and the struggle for overseas profits,” What’s Left, February 18, 2008, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/stephen-zunes-and-the-struggle-for-overseas-profits/ and “The war over South Ossetia,” September 4, 2008, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/09/04/the-war-over-south-ossetia/
4. Michael Barker, “Regulating revolutions in Eastern Europe,” ZNet, November 1, 2006, http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/2846
5. The funding that ruling class foundations and Western governments provide to left and progressive groups in the West is counter-revolutionary, intended to channel potential militancy into bureaucratic, litigious and electoral arenas where ruling class forces have the upper hand. Foundations are keen to support left groups that promote the idea that “we can change the world without taking power” and limit their goals to “pressuring elites”, i.e., leaving capitalist ruling class structures in place. Foundation grants are also used to upset the development of class consciousness by promoting identity politics and particularism. There is plenty of foundation funding available to support groups organized around women’s issues, ethnic media, gay, lesbian and transgender concerns, the elderly, and so on, but not for those working to create a working class conscious of its collective interests and place in history and the world. See Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, State University of New York Press, 2003.
6. Zimbabwe provides an example of how Western governments, media and foundations work together to destabilize target countries to promote anti-government uprisings. Western efforts to replicate Eastern European color revolutions in Zimbabwe have so far failed, possibly owing to the reality that the formula has become evident and target governments know what to expect and can take defensive actions. See Stephen Gowans, “Zimbabwe at War,” What’s Left, June 24, 2008, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/zimbabwe-at-war/ and “US government report undermines Zimbabwe opposition’s claim of independence,” What’s Left, October 4, 2008, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/us-government-report-undermines-zimbabwe-opposition%e2%80%99s-claim-of-independence/
7. For a summary of post-5th October Overthrow Serbia see Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes and the struggle for overseas profits,” What’s Left, February 18, 2008, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/stephen-zunes-and-the-struggle-for-overseas-profits/.
8. New York Times, October 7, 2008.
11. Borzou Daragahi “Soros’ Army: A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008
13. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon Books, 1988, p. 28. 17.
14. Philip P. Pan, “Georgia, a nation stalled on the road to democracy,” The Washington Post, March 9, 2009.
Stephen Zunes has written a brief reply to my last article, 10 Rules for Understanding Civil Society Imperialism, which you can read here. The following is my response.
Let me address your points one by one.
1.You say: “I do not and have never singled out leftist governments for criticism.”
I guess that depends on what you consider a leftist government to be. I would surmise that your definition is different from mine. If I said, “You criticized government x,” you would reply, “But government x isn’t leftist.” You’re using a difference of opinion about what a leftist government is, to construct a straw man.
2. You say: “I have supported anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements around the world.”
I’m sure you have supported some anti-imperialist and some anti-capitalist movements around the world, but who says you haven’t? My comments concerned anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist governments, not movements. I suspect you haven’t supported anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements that take up arms, but that’s another matter.
3. You say: “I have opposed the agenda of ‘wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments’”.
I’ve never said you haven’t, but some would say you certainly haven’t opposed the agenda of Peter Ackerman as it relates to the ICNC and you certainly didn’t oppose USIP when you accepted a USIP research fellowship (i). These are good points, but they’re not my points and they’re hardly necessary points. Churchill opposed the agenda of the Soviet Union, but that didn’t stop him from working with it.
The issues, here, are: (1) Are you willing to take money from one or more of: wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments? And (2): Are wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments willing to give you money to oppose their interests? The answer to the first question, judging by your comments on an earlier article of mine, is yes (ii); the second question can only be answered in the affirmative by the deluded or naïve.
4.You say: “I have never implied that (wealthy individuals, corporations…) were in any way a “wellspring of hope.”
Who said you had? The “wellsprings of hope” reference was to civil society (and Patrick Bond’s and Grace Kwinjeh’s description of it), not to the funders of civil society.
5. You say: “I have never ‘followed State Department’ narratives.”
I guess it depends on what you mean by “followed.” Maybe we should call it a case of simultaneous multiple invention. You can be Wallace to the State Department’s Darwin. The State Department talks about “democracy” and “freedom” in the abstract. You talk about “democracy” and “freedom” in the abstract. The State Department talks about Belarus as a dictatorship. You talk about Belarus as a dictatorship. The State Department talks about Zimbabwe as a dictatorship. You talk about Zimbabwe as a dictatorship. And so on. (iii)
But maybe I’m being too charitable. I’ve assumed you’ve aped the State Department narrative on places like Zimbabwe, Belarus and Iran because it’s easy to do. Perhaps I should be complaining about your false allegations and total fabrications about these governments.
6. You say: “I have never defended the practices of the NED, the USAID or other government agencies.”
Who says you have? Patrick Bond is wont to celebrate groups that receive NED funding as an “independent” left. I’m not sure whether that counts as defending the practices of the NED, but I have no information on your attitude toward these organizations. Accordingly, I have nothing to say about it. Claiming I have is (to use your language) a total fabrication.
7. You say: “I only wish I could be criticized about the things I’ve really said.”
If I said all the things you say I’ve said about you, I too would say they were total fabrications. But alas I haven’t said these things. You’re either misreading what I’ve written or you’re raising the straw man to an art form.
(i) See point 11of your “A Reply to Stephen Gowans’ False Allegations Against Stephen Zunes” http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16613 .
(ii) Ibid. You write: “The unfortunate reality in capitalist societies is that most non-profit organizations — from universities to social justice organizations to art galleries to peace groups (and ICNC as well) — depend at least in part on donations from wealthy individuals and from foundations which get their money from wealthy individuals.”
(iii) You write, “The best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world’s remaining autocratic states comes from civil society” and “Similar claims heard today that the United States is somehow a major force behind contemporary popular movements against dictatorships in Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Belarus or that the United States was somehow responsible for the successes of previous movements in Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine are equally ludicrous.” “Nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles,” http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16538 .
By Stephen Gowans
Stephen Zunes has written a reply to my article criticizing his connections to US government- and ruling class-funded “peace” organizations, but far from rebutting my criticisms, he helps make my point.
He writes, “The unfortunate reality in capitalist societies is that most non-profit organizations – from universities to social justice organizations to art galleries to peace groups (and ICNC as well) – depend at least in part on donations from wealthy individuals and from foundations which get their money from wealthy individuals.”
On this we agree: The capitalist class, through its money power, dominates capitalist societies, including its universities, social justice organizations, peace groups and scholars of non-violence (at least those willing to feed at the trough.) Is it any surprise, then, that handsomely-funded social justice organizations, peace groups, progressive media and scholars of nonviolence might be understood to be agents of capitalism and imperialism within the left community?
But Zunes continues: “Just because the ultimate source of funding for various non-profit groups is from members of the ruling class, however, does not mean that ruling class interests therefore set the agenda for every such non-profit group; they certainly do in some cases, but not in many other cases, including that of ICNC.”
There’s an obvious exceptionalism in Zunes’ argument. Maybe others are bought, but not me. Lay that aside. The ruling class doesn’t need to set the agenda for all organizations and individuals; it only needs to fund individuals and groups who promote its interests. This is the same argument Chomsky and Herman have made in connection with the mainstream press propagating elite narratives. Media outlets don’t need to set the agenda for journalists; they simply need to hire journalists who say the right things, and fire those who don’t. The New York Times won’t hire Chomksy or Herman to write a regular column, but it will hire Thomas Friedman, because he can be relied on to stay within a narrow band of opinion acceptable to ruling class interests. No one sets an agenda for Friedman. But, then, no one has to. As Humbert Wolfe once said, “You cannot hope to bribe and twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”
So what does Zunes do, unbribed, that obviates his funders setting an agenda for him? For one, he promotes a peaceful activism at home that is useful to the ruling class in channeling inchoate militancy into ritualistic, symbolic, forms of protest, whose effect in countering the ruling class is approximately zero. He says he “has even been arrested on a number of occasions protesting US imperialism” (doubtlessly in a ritualistic way that minimizes inconvenience for all concerned) but his being arrested has accomplished nothing, except to bulk up his credentials as an activist. And all those who have followed his lead had the same effect. The Washington Consensus is in no danger of falling apart and US war-making hasn’t been set back a millimeter in its relentless advance.
By contrast, non-violent activists in Belarus, Zimbabwe, Iran and formerly in Serbia can be much more effective; they have the US ruling class on their side. They’re helped immensely by the sanctions Washington deploys against their governments, by the threats of war the US uses to intimidate governments it wants to overthrow, by US bombing campaigns, by US assistance to the political opposition, and by the wads of money from the NED, USAID, and their equivalents in Britain, Germany and so on. Non-violent regime change in foreign countries is only possible as a result of contextual violence related to economic and conventional warfare. The contextual violence is absent in the case of peaceful protest in the US, which is why non-violent activism plus sanctions plus threats of war plus funding of subversion plus establishing media to broadcast anti-government propaganda works abroad and non-violent activism plus none of these other things doesn’t work at home.
Another reason the ruling class foundations on which Zunes relies do not have to set his agenda is that Zunes is an absolutely reliable amplifier within the progressive community of the arguments the State Department uses as the basis for its human rights imperialism. He assures us, without adducing the tiniest jot of evidence, that Belarus, Iran, and Zimbabwe are dictatorships and that Yugoslavia was in 1999. That’s helpful to the imperialist class in dampening interest among those politically conscious enough to be inclined to get in the way of imperialist designs being carried out against target countries. Who’s going to spring to the aid of foreign governments and anti-imperialist movements that are widely portrayed in the mass media, and seconded by foundation-supported “independent” progressive scholars, as oppressive and dictatorial?
Indeed, there are three ways Zunes promotes the ruling class agenda within the progressive community which makes the setting of an agenda for him by the wealthy individuals and foundations who furnish him with money completely unnecessary. He (1) lionizes ritualistic and symbolic forms of non-violent protest at home which have no effect in impeding the ruling class in pursuing its interests, and which, therefore it seeks to promote as an alternative to potentially more effective opposition (and if this safe outlet of opposition can be promoted by someone with activist credentials, all the better); by (2) amplifying ruling class justifications for its meddling in the affairs of other countries and thereby turning progressives against ruling class foreign policy targets; and (3) by burnishing US government regime change operations, portraying them as legitimate home-grown operations against oppressive governments.
The only way we cannot accept that Zunes is an agent of imperialism, is if we accept that the ruling class is incredibly stupid and funds the activities of those who are against its interests and fail to promote its agenda. Since this is highly unlikely, it is also highly unlikely that he is not a grassroots lieutenant of imperialism, along with all the other left scholars who have made their compromise with “the unfortunate reality” that in capitalist societies peace groups and social justice organizations are funded by wealthy individuals and their foundations.
“The name for our profits is democracy” – Phil Ochs, Cops of the World
By Stephen Gowans
Stephen Zunes, a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, is bristling against what he calls the leftist attack on “independent” grassroots nonviolent activists who are trying to bring down “autocratic” governments and “dictatorships” in places like Zimbabwe, Belarus and Iran (1). People who have cast votes in these countries may be surprised to discover they’re living in dictatorships, but the U.S. government says they are, and “progressives” like Stephen Zunes are happy to lend credibility to Washington’s charges. “Independent” grassroots activists in these same countries may be surprised to hear they’re independent, despite the cataract of support they receive from U.S. and Western governments and Western ruling class foundations, but if Zunes wants to elevate them from fifth columnists to independent democracy activists, they’re pleased to receive his support.
These days, Zunes’ bristling against the leftist attack may have something to do with the attack hitting too close to home (2). His association with dodgy U.S. ruling class foundations that hide the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives behind a high-sounding commitment to peace has increasingly come under scrutiny. And judging by his reaction, he doesn’t like it (3).
Although he boasts of having impeccable progressive and anti-imperialist credentials, Zunes chairs the board of academic advisors for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (the ICNC), a Wall Street-connected organization that promotes nonviolent activism in the service of destabilizing foreign governments — the same ones the U.S. State Department (and Zunes) likes to discredit by calling them dictatorships.
The ICNC’s founding chair is New York investment banker Peter Ackerman, who is also a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an organization dominated by directors of major U.S. corporations, corporate lawyers and CEOs. The CFR brings together executives, government and military officials and scholars to provide policy advice to the U.S. State Department. Its key members circulate between the council, corporate board appointments and State Department positions. The CFR has never been particularly concerned about promoting peace, freedom and democracy, but has had a single-minded focus on promoting the overseas profit-making interests of U.S. corporations and investors.
Ackerman is also chairman of the board of Freedom House, an organization that champions the rights of journalists, union leaders and democracy activists to organize openly to bring down governments whose economic policies are insufficiently friendly to U.S. trade and investment. Funded by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House features a rogues’ gallery of U.S. ruling class activists who have sat, or currently sit, on its board of directors: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Otto Reich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Steve Forbes, among others. These people share Zunes’ rhetorical commitment to “freedom and democracy,” though the only freedom they’re interested in is the freedom of U.S. corporations and investors to accumulate capital wherever and whenever they please.
Ackerman’s Center has been heavily involved in successful and ongoing regime change operations, including in Yugoslavia, which Ackerman celebrated in a PBS-TV documentary, Bringing Down a Dictator, about the ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Ackerman, who studied under U.S. nonviolence guru Gene Sharp, has a U.S. Marine Corps officer son who earned a silver star for service in Iraq, using bombs and bullets, not nonviolent activism, to change Iraq’s regime. Apparently, Ackerman did little to instill nonviolent values in members of his own family.
The Center’s vice-chair is Berel Rodal, a former senior Canadian government official in foreign affairs, international trade, defense, security and intelligence, hardly the kind of background you would expect of an advocate of nonviolence, but fits well someone who has taken a leadership role in promoting Western foreign policy goals. Put the two together and you get nonviolent direct activism in the service of US foreign policy goals – -exactly what Rodal, Ackerman, the ICNC and Stephen Zunes are all about.
Another Center associate is Robert Helvey, whose book “On Strategic Non-Violent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamental”, is promoted on the Center’s website. Helvey is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former U.S. military attaché to Myanmar (like Rodal’s, an improbable background for a budding Ghandi) who has been linked to anti-Chavez groups. Chavez has accused Helvey’s employer, the Albert Einstein Institution, of being behind an imperialist conspiracy to overthrow his government (4). Zunes says that “charges that…Bob Helvey” or the Albert Einstein Institution or the ICNC “are serving as agents of U.S. imperialism are totally unfounded” and that “the only visit to Venezuela that has taken place on behalf of any of these non-profit groups engaged in educational efforts on strategic nonviolence was in early 2006 when” Zunes “led a series of workshops at the World Social Forum in Caracas.” (5) Chavez, he says, has fallen for a conspiracy theory. These “individuals and groups” are not “plotting with his opponents to overthrow him.” (6)
But a Reuters’ report says Helvey was brought to Caracas in 2003 “by a group of businessmen and professionals to give courses to young activists on how to ‘resist, oppose, and change a government without the use of bombs and bullets.’” (7) Is Zunes unaware of this, or is he paltering with the truth?
Helvey’s dalliances with the anti-Chavez opposition came fast on the heels of “his work in Serbia before Milosevic’s fall” where he “briefed students on ways to organize a strike and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime.” (8)
Zunes has received at least one research grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and has served as a fellow of the organization (9). USIP’s aim is to “help prevent and resolve violent conflicts”, an improbable mandate given that the organization was established by the U.S. government, receives funding from Congress, and has a board of directors appointed by the President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the president of the National Defense University – hardly the world’s greatest advocates of peace, but pretty effective advocates of the pursuit of U.S. corporate and investor interests abroad.
What’s not so improbable is that Zune’s ICNC colleagues (you know, the guys who are absolutely not agents of U.S. imperialism) are also connected to USIP. ICNC founder and Freedom House chair Peter Ackerman is on the advisory council. Former U.S. Air Force officer, presidential campaign speechwriter and ICNC director Jack DuVall – who Zunes must know well based on his assurances that “Jack DuVall…is not an agent of U.S. imperialism” (10) — is also connected to the USIP.
It’s hardly curious, then, that a group of Americans, many with backgrounds in the military, but also in foreign policy and investment banking, connected in some way to the U.S.-government funded and directed Institute of Peace, and involved in training foreign activists to destabilize foreign governments, might be seen as agents of U.S. imperialism. But Zunes says they’re not, offering his assertion alone (and his self-proclaimed credentials as a progressive and anti-imperialist) as proof.
Zunes’ rhetoric is reminiscent of Bush’s. He says nonviolent activists are pursuing “freedom and democracy” (in the same way, apparently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a project in bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East). He throws the charge of dictatorship around as facilely as Bush does. Yugoslavia (in 1999), Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Iran are dictatorships, he says. Apparently, Zunes has been too busy mimicking State Department press releases to notice there are elections and opposition parties in these places.
He says “there is no evidence…to suggest…that the U.S. government or any U.S.-funded entity has ever provided training, advice, or strategic assistance for the kind of mass popular nonviolent action campaigns that have toppled governments or threatened the survival of incumbent regimes.” (11)
Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention. When it comes to Zimbabwe, one of Zunes’ and the U.S. government’s favorite betes noire, there’s plenty of evidence. The British newspaper The Guardian revealed as early as August 22, 2002 that, “The United States government has said it wants to see President Robert Mugabe removed from power and that it is working with the Zimbabwean opposition” “trade unions, pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations” “to bring about a change of administration.” (12)
Washington confirmed its own civil society-assisted regime change plans for Zimbabwe in an April 5, 2007 report, revealing that in 2006 “The U.S. government continued to support the efforts of the political opposition, the media and civil society,” including providing training and assistance to the kind of grassroots “pro-democracy” groups phony anti-imperialists, among them, another ruling class foundation-connected academic, Patrick Bond, celebrate as “the independent left.” (13) The U.S. “supported workshops to develop youth leadership skills necessary to confront social injustice through nonviolent strategies.” (14)
Zunes tries to defend U.S. government meddling in the affairs of other countries by pointing out that “the limited amount of financial support provided to opposition groups by the United States and other Western governments in recent years cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place.” (15)
Who said it could? The real issue isn’t whether groups that challenge foreign governments are homegrown; it’s what they’re struggling for, why phony peace institutes are helping them, and what they’re going to end up with if they’re successful.
How curious that the governments Zunes really seems to be concerned about (Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus and Myanmar) are hostile to the idea of opening their doors to unrestricted U.S. investment and exports. How curious that the successful soft revolutions Zunes admires (Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine) have brought pro-U.S., pro-foreign investment governments to power.
And what happens when the soft revolutions Zunes and his colleagues assist, succeed? In Serbia, which Zunes’ ICNC considers to be the site of one of its most successful engagements, “dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the United States emerged as the largest single source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of ‘committed investments’ represented in no small part by the $580 million privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250 million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million. The list goes on.” (16)
Meanwhile, in Kosovo, the “coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across the Balkans, ‘publicly-owned enterprises’ are auctioned for a fraction of their value on the private market with little or no compensation for taxpayers.” (17)
It should be recalled that prior to the soft revolution-engineered corporate takeover, the Yugoslav economy consisted largely of state- and socially-owned enterprises, leaving little room for U.S. profit-making opportunities, not the kind of place investment bankers like Ackerman could easily warm up to. That the toppling of Milosevic had everything to do with opening space for U.S. investors and corporations should have been apparent to anyone who read chapter four of the U.S.-authored Rambouillet ultimatum, an ultimatum Milosevic rejected, triggering weeks of NATO bombing. The first article called for a free-market economy and the second for privatization of all government-owned assets. NATO bombs seemed to have had an unerring ability to hit Yugoslavia’s socially-owned factories and to miss foreign-owned ones. This was an economic take-over project.
Zunes’ associate Helvey hasn’t limited himself to training activists to overthrow governments in Venezuela and Serbia. Wherever Washington seeks to oust governments that pursue economically nationalist or socialist policies, you’ll find Helvey (and perhaps Zunes as well) holding seminars on nonviolent direct action: in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Iraq (before the U.S. invasion) and in Iran (18).
Zunes would be a more credible anti-imperialist were he organizing seminars on how to use nonviolent direct action to overthrow the blatantly imperialist U.S. and British governments. With the largest demonstrations in history held in Western cities on the eve of the last conspicuous eruption of Anglo-American imperialism, it cannot be denied that there’s a grassroots movement for peace and democracy in the West awaiting Zunes’ assistance. So is he training U.S. and British grassroots activists to use nonviolent direct action to stop the machinery of war? No. His attention is directed outward, not on his own government, but on the governments Washington and ruling class think-tanks want overthrown. He’s also busy applying for grants from a phony U.S. government institute of peace, hooking up with Peter Ackerman and his gaggle of fifth column promoters and mimicking U.S. State Department nonsense about countries the U.S. ruling class would like to dominate but can’t being dictatorships and their Western-funded oppositions being independent.
Genuine progressives and anti-imperialists should carefully scrutinize the backgrounds of Zunes and others, paying special attention to their foundation and think-tank connections. They should also ask whether the “independent” grassroots groups these people celebrate are really independent, or whether they’re as tightly connected to Western governments and ruling class activist foundations as Zunes is.
1. “Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles,” Z-Net, February 17, 2008, http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16538. See also Zune’s “Leftist Attack on Nonviolent Direct Action for Democratic Change, www.canvasopedia.org/files/various/Leftist_Attack_on_NVA.doc
2. Michael Barker, “Peace Activists, Criticism, and Nonviolent Imperialism,” MRZine, January 8, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/barker080108.html and John Bellamy Foster, “Reply to Stephen Zunes on Imperialism and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” MRZine, January 17, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/foster170108.html.
3. Stephen Zunes, “Spurious Attacks on Supporters of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression, MRZine, January 18, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/barker080108.html#zunes.
4. The Guardian, June 7, 2007.
5. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
Concerning Zunes’ assurances that Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey and the Albert Einstein Institution are not agents of U.S. imperialism and aren’t assisting groups plotting to overthrow the Chavez government:
“The AEI is run by Gene Sharp, a self-titled expert of what he calls ‘nonviolent defense,’ though better termed ‘regime change.’ His methodologies have been studied and utilized by opposition movements in Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Belarus, Serbia, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. In the AEI’s 2004 annual report, Venezuela is highlighted as an area where actions are currently being taken:
Venezuelans opposed to Chavez met with Gene Sharp and other AEI staff to talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country. They also discussed options of opposition groups to further their cause effectively without violence. These visits led to an in-country consultation in April 2003. The nine day consultation was held by consultants Robert Helvey and Chris Miler in Caracas for members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition. The objective of the consultation was to provide them with the capacity to develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela. Participants included members of political parties and unions, nongovernmental organization leaders and unaffiliated activists…Helvey presented a course of instruction on the theory, applications and planning for a strategic nonviolent struggle. Through this, the participants realized the importance of strategic planning to overcome existing shortcomings in the opposition’s campaign against Chavez. Ofensiva Cuidadana, a pro-democracy group in Venezuela, request and organized the workshop. The workshop has led to continued contact with Venezuelans and renewed requests for additional consultations.”
Eva Golinger, Bush vs Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008, p. 136.
Either Zunes doesn’t know what’s going on, or is playing fast and loose with the truth.
7. Reuters, April 30, 2003.
9. See http://www.stephenzunes.org/ and http://www.fpif.org/advisers/37
10. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
12. The Guardian, August 22, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/aug/22/zimbabwe.chrismcgreal .
13. Stephen Gowans, “Talk Left, Funded Right, April 7, 2007, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/07/talk-left-funded-right/ .
14. U.S. Department of State, The U.S. Record 2006, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/shrd/2006/.
15. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
16. Elise Hugus, “Eight Years After NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’: Serbia’s new ‘third way’”, Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4.
18. The Albert Einstein Institution, Report on Activities, 2000 to 2004, http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations/org/2000-04rpt.pdf .
By Stephen Gowans
As he stepped off his plane at the Minsk airport two summers ago to begin a two-day visit to Belarus, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pointed to a connection between his country and that of his host, President Alexander Lukashenko. “Belarus,” he declared, “is a model of a social state, which we are also building.” (1) That Chavez’s model state exists in an infrequently remarked upon corner of Europe may be a surprise to most admirers of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Called Europe’s last dictator by Condoleezza Rice and a “brother in arms” by Chavez (2), Lukashenko oversees over a “socially-oriented market economy” in which 80 percent of the enterprises are state-owned and collective farms still feed the country.
He has “presided over a continual increase in real wages for several years…cut the (value added tax), brought down inflation, halved the number of people in poverty”…and created “the fairest distribution of incomes of any country in the region.” (3)
He has done “what the conventional wisdom in the West says is not possible: maintaining a state run economy with one of the strongest growth rates in Europe, generating increases in wages and pensions, boosting productivity and minimizing the disparities in wealth that have destabilized so many of the former Soviet republics in their transition to market economies.” (4)
What may be equally surprising to Chavez admirers is that Lukashenko has done all this by “steadily turn(ing) Belarus into a miniature version of the Soviet Union, with a state-run economy.” (5)
The only deputy of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic to vote against the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Lukashenko talks fondly of the Soviet Union — “my country,” he called it in 2005 before the UN General Assembly. (6) Statues of Lenin and busts of Stalin — some newly erected — can still be found in Belarus.
This hardly sits well with state officials in the West who accuse Lukashenko of stealing elections and smothering democracy – the usual charge leveled against leaders who haven’t signed on to the project of fattening the bottom lines of Western corporations and investment banks at the expense of their own people. Lukashenko wins elections by landslides because he is widely popular, and he’s widely popular because he puts the interests of Belarus’ people first.
So Washington and London fund subversion projects under the guise of promoting democracy, funneling millions of dollars to youth groups, anti-Lukashenko media and opposition parties to bring down the government. The New York Times remarked that in the last presidential election the US and British-backed opposition “seemed not to be running an election campaign, as much as they (were) trying to organize an uprising.” (7)
The opposition failed miserably, both at the polls and in the streets.
Check out Stewart Parker’s new book, The Last Soviet Republic: Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus (http://www.belarussolidaritycampaign.co.uk/) as well as “Belarus struggles to defend workers’ interests” in the latest issue of Proletarian http://www.cpgb-ml.org/index.php?secName=proletarian&subName=display&art=338 .
Both go a long way to setting the record straight on the hold-out Soviet republic Chavez calls a model of a social state.
1. New York Times, July 24, 2006
2. Financial Times, August 2, 2007.
3. Times Online, March 10, 2006.
4. Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2006.
5. New York Times, January 1, 2006.
6. Lukashenko address to the 60th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 15, 2005.
7. New York Times, January 1, 2006.