what's left

Part of the Imperialist West’s Line of March: Hushing Up—and Profiting from—Saudi Aggressions, while Warmongering against Russia

The West has portrayed Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an aggression, but the re-integration of Crimea into Russia can be understood as a pre-emptive measure on the part of Moscow to preserve Russian access to a strategically important naval base at Sevastopol, from which the Russian Black Sea fleet likely would have been ejected by the new Russophobe regime in Kiev. While a highly visible campaign has been mounted in the West of demonizing Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to mobilize popular support for tough measures against Russia, the West has supported major aggressions by Saudi Arabia in Bahrain and Yemen. While Western politicians and commentators have vociferously condemned Russia’s “aggressions,” they have met the Saudi aggressions, which are on another scale entirely, with almost complete silence.

August 29, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

France cancelled the sale to Russia of two Mistral warships in response to “Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine,” [1] but announces that it is perfectly happy to sell the same warships to a coup government in Egypt, which has a deplorable—though in the West, largely glossed over—human rights record. Since Egypt’s Western-backed dictator Abdel Fattah Sisi “came to power in a coup two years ago, his government has criminalized street protests, sentenced hundreds to mass death in mass trials, and, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, imprisoned some 40,000 political opponents and their supporters.” [2] On top of the possible sale of the Mistral warships to Cairo, France announced in February “the sale of nearly $6 billion worth of military hardware to Egypt, including two dozen Rafale fighter jets and a naval frigate.” [3]

Saudi troops arrive in Bahrain on Monday, March 14, 2011. A Saudi-led military force crossed into Bahrain with Canadian-supplied light armored vehicles to suppress a movement for a representative parliamentary democracy.    APA /Landov

Saudi troops arrive in Bahrain on Monday, March 14, 2011. A Saudi-led military force crossed into Bahrain with Canadian-supplied light armored vehicles to suppress a movement for a representative parliamentary democracy. APA /Landov

Based on France’s purported commitment to the principles of equality, fraternity and liberty, one might think its government would have some reservations about striking weapons deals with a politically repressive regime which gags journalists, marches tens of thousands of political opponents into jail, and has condemned to death the elected president it overthrew. Certainly, France makes much of its commitment to liberal democratic values. How, then, could it support a regime that represents the very antithesis of the values it professes to cherish–unless the profits of France’s substantial citizens are senior to all other considerations?

Not to be outdone, in either arming an Arab dictator or exhibiting stunning hypocrisy in doing so, the United States gives Cairo $1.3 billion annually in military aid—effectively a pre-paid credit card for use in the US arms bazaar. The annual largesse, briefly suspended as a pro forma response to the coup for public relations purposes, has been resumed. In March, US “President Barack Obama agreed to release to Egypt a dozen F-16 attack aircraft and other military equipment,” including 12 F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles, and 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits. [4]

Meanwhile, the Canadian government, which, along with France, has made a show of deploring Russian “intervention” in Ukraine—and met it with its own interventions in encouraging the Maidan uprising, and in providing military training to Ukrainian militias—has facilitated a $15 billion sale of light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada. Significantly, “it was Canadian-made fighting vehicles that Saudi Arabia sent into Bahrain in 2011 to help quell a democratic uprising.” [5] So, while France cancelled a deal to deliver Mistral warships to Russia owing to Russian intervention in Ukraine, Canada arms Saudi Arabia with the very same equipment the kingdom’s military used to intervene in Bahrain to suppress protestors demanding a representative, democratically-elected, government. France too is arming the Saudi defenders of illegitimate royalist rule. In June, it “announced plans to sell $12 billion worth of equipment to Saudi Arabia, including civilian helicopters and naval patrol boats.” [6] No pressure is exerted on Canada or France by the EU or Washington to suspend their deals with the Saudi tyranny.

That Canada and France have any dealings with Saudi Arabia is remarkable, considering the country is a human rights sewer, where woman have no rights, the state regularly amputates the heads (a la ISIS) and limbs of people convicted of crimes, and there is no democracy, procedural or otherwise. Its foreign policy is as ugly as its domestic policy. It has initiated a war of aggression on neighboring Yemen, part of which involves a blockade in which one in five faces starvation. [7] It exports its benighted, medieval Wahhabi ideology, backing anti-secular, misogynistic, sectarian religious fanatics to break the backs of socialist, communist and secular national forces in the Arab world, all to the delight of the Western imperialist powers that benefit. The Saud family plunders the country’s oil wealth, investing it abroad in US banks and on arms purchases that swell the coffers of US, French and Canadian weapons manufacturers, rather than investing it at home in Arab economic development—which explains why Ottawa and Paris haven’t the slightest reservations about arming this regionally aggressive abomination. The only reservation Canada’s government has is whether the arms deal it has approved with the Saudi tyranny is acceptable to another abomination, Israel [8], whose founding principle is the dispossession of one Arab people from its land, the Palestinians, to make way for Jewish settlers from other lands. Diderot remarked that humanity would never be free until the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest. It might be said that the Arab world will never be free until the last Arab king is strangled with the entrails of the last Jihadi. (As Robert Dreyfuss has pointed out, the oil monarchies are ruled by royal kleptocracies whose legitimacy is nil. Most Arabs know that the monarchies were established by imperialists building fences around oil wells. [9] The kleptocracies have a symbiotic relationship with the imperialists. They loot the country and share the stolen wealth with the imperialists who provide military support.

Regarding Russia’s “intervention” in Ukraine, let’s be clear that the annexation of Crimea followed in the wake of the emergence of two major threats that arose from Washington’s sponsorship of a coup d’état in Kiev to bring to power a Russophobe government. [10]

The first threat was expressed in the European Association Agreement, whose signing became the immediate raison d’être of the Maidan rebellion that preceded the coup. The terms of the agreement direct Ukraine to reorient its economic and foreign and military policies to the West. [11] Since Ukraine is Russia’s largest trading partner, the signing of the agreement has overwhelmingly important and deleterious economic consequences for Russia. Imagine Canada and Mexico signing agreements to reorient their economies toward Russia.

There are compelling geographic and economic reasons why Russia ought to be Western Europe’s principle economic partner, and not the United States. It’s close to Western European markets and production, and offers a vast treasure trove of natural resources, easily transportable over comparatively short distances to Western European markets. A significant role for Russia in Western Europe, however, threatens US economic hegemony. To eclipse the threat, US foreign policy has long sought to weaken and isolate Russia, by keeping Western Europe locked in the US orbit, while at the same time drawing countries on Russia’s periphery into the US-superintended circle, severing their historical and geographically natural connections to Russia’s economy. Washington’s sponsorship of the Russophobe coup in a country that is Russia’s principal economic partner is part of the larger US strategy of weakening Russia through isolation from its natural markets and peripheral economies.

The second threat was expressed in the probability that the coup government in Kiev would try to evict Russia from its Black Sea naval base in Crimea, significantly undermining Russia’s security environment. Russian self-defense would be further threatened by the probability that the base would be transferred to the US Sixth Fleet. As Putin explained, “What did our partners (the West) expect from us as the developments in Ukraine unfolded?…[W]e could not allow our access to the Black Sea to be significantly limited, and could not allow NATO forces to come to Crimea and Sevastopol.” [12]

Hence, the narrative that Western foreign policy is animated by opposition to foreign aggression is challenged by the arms deals that France and Canada—whose governments profess to oppose foreign intervention—have struck with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi tyranny has intervened militarily in Bahrain against a movement for a representative political democracy, and, to the shame of the Canadian government, using light armored vehicles sold to Saudi tyrants by a Canadian arms manufacturer, approved by Ottawa.

Saudi Arabia is waging a war of aggression on Yemen, in a blatant violation of international law. The war involves an air campaign, and a naval blockade that has left one in five facing starvation. US warships  assist in enforcing the starvation blockade and the Pentagon provides the Saudis with logistics and intelligence support.

Saudi Arabia is waging a war of aggression on Yemen, which blatantly violates international law. The war involves an air campaign, and a naval blockade that has left one in five facing starvation. US warships assist in enforcing the starvation blockade and the Pentagon provides the Saudis with logistics and intelligence support.

The Saudi tyranny has also launched a blood-soaked intervention into neighboring Yemen, with the ostensible goal of restoring to power a pro-Saudi president who was ousted in an uprising. That president, Abd-Rabbu Hadi, has virtually no support in Yemen. [13] There is some resemblance to Ukraine, i.e., a president ousted in a coup and a military response by a neighboring country, though the toppled Ukraine president was neither pro- nor anti-Russian, had far more support in Ukraine than Hadi has in Yemen, and Russia isn’t bombing Ukraine or enforcing a blockade to starve Ukraine into submission. Nor does Russia seek the restoration to power of Victor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukraine president. Yet bombing and blockade happen in Yemen, and there’s only silence in the West. US and British warships assist in maintaining the blockade. The Pentagon provides logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi bombing campaign. [14]

The entire affair is a blatant breach of international law, and an assault on authentic democracy and self-determination. Yet it is met by silence in the West (whose Saudi partner in robbing the Arabs of their oil wealth is the perpetrator.) Western politicians who rail against “Putin’s aggressions” and commentators who counsel tough measures against Moscow’s “belligerence”, have nothing to say about the US- and British-assisted Saudi war of aggression on Yemen, just as earlier they could find no words to condemn the Saudi march into Bahrain.

Imagine that Russia was bombing Ukraine and blockading its borders, instead of the Saudis doing the same to Yemen. The outcry would be deafening. Already, there is a full-throated call for aggressive economic and military action against Russia. And yet, what, in truth, was Moscow’s offense? Has it bombed Ukraine? No. Is it blockading its neighbor’s borders? No. It annexed Crimea, historically part of Russia, whose residents opposed the coup government in Kiev and welcomed their reintegration into Russia [15], and which is the site of an important Russian naval base. Russia’s actions were a predictable defensive measure against an aggressive US-led campaign to deprive Russia of its principal economic partner and its strategically important naval base on the Black Sea.

There is much to condemn and oppose: The Saudi interventions in Yemen and Bahrain; Western support for the Arab kleptocracies; the economic and military threats from the US against Russia that provoked Moscow’s defensive annexation of Crimea; royalist oppression in Saudi Arabia and the Western arms manufacturers and their partners in government who furnish the Saudi kleptocrats with weapons to suppress internal revolts. “Putin’s aggressions”—largely a fantasy—are not among them.

1. Matthew Dalton, “Egypt in talks to buy Mistral warships from France,” The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2015.

2. Tamer el-Ghobashy, “Egypt’s leader reinvents himself as bulwark against terrorism,” The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2015.

3. Nicola Clark, “Egypt to purchase fighter jets and a warship from France,” The New York Times, February 12, 2015.

4. Bryon Tau and Adam Entous, “Obama administration releases military aid to Egypt,” The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2015.

5. Steve Chase, “Foreign Affairs found no ‘red flags’ for Israel is Saudi arms sale,” The Globe and Mail, August 27, 2015.

6. Dalton.

7. Shuaib Almosawa, Kareem Fahim and Somini Sengupta, “Yemeni government faces choice between a truce and fighting on,” The New York Times, Aug 14, 2015.

8. Chase.

9. Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Holt, 2005, p. 99.

10. The arguments developed in connection with Ukraine are based mainly on Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, I.B. Taurus, 2015.

11. Sakwa, p. 75.

12. Sakwa, p. 167.

13. Patrick Cockburn, “In the Middle East, our enemy’s enemy must be our friend,” The Independent, April 12, 2015.

14. Ian Sinclair, “Yemen: Britain lurks behind Saudi atrocities,” The Morning Star, July 20, 2015; Shuaib Almosawa, Kareem Fahim and Somini Sengupta, “Yemeni government faces choice between a truce and fighting on,” The New York Times, Aug 14, 2015; Jay Solomon and Asa Fitch, “U.S. met secretly with Yemen rebels,” The Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2015; Maria Abi-Habin and Adam Entous, “U.S. widens role in Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen,” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2015; Hakim Almasmari and Maria Abi-Habib, “Saudi-backed forces set back in Yemen,” The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2015.

15. Peter Hart, “Radioactive Putin is ‘Stalin’s Spawn’”, Extra!, May 1, 2014.

Written by what's left

August 29, 2015 at 2:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cuba’s Low Level of Internet Use: Not a Policy of Restricting the Flow of Information

If you want to find examples of governments restricting the flow of information on the internet for political purposes, look to the United States and its allies, and not to the low-level of internet use in Cuba, which, notwithstanding press reports to the contrary, is a consequence of Cuba’s comparatively low-level of economic development, not communist ‘totalitarianism.’

August 22, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

cuba-computerPart of the dogma of capitalist societies is that communist states are inherently restrictive and ‘totalitarian’, in contrast to liberal democracies, which are portrayed as beacons of liberty. Communist states, we’re told, suppress dissent, while capitalist states allow it to flourish. This, of course, is nonsense. All states, regardless of how they’re organized economically, suppress dissent under circumstances of grave threat, and relax repression as danger diminishes. Those that are the most free, are those that face the least danger. Highly restrictive societies are typically highly threatened. The restrictions in the Soviet Union from its birth in 1917 to its collapse in 1991 are pointed to as proof of the totalitarian nature of communism (or “Stalinism”), but the reality that the country was in a permanent state of crisis is ignored, and restrictive measures have long been recognized as legitimate and necessary under emergency conditions, including in liberal theory and practice. Wave after wave of aggression crashed against the Soviet Union from its birth until its collapse. These included the aggressions of Wilhelmine Germany, the intervention of the Entente powers in the Civil War, Japan’s harassment of Soviet borders in the 1930s, the invasion of Nazi Germany, the Cold War, and Reagan’s program of spending the Soviets into bankruptcy. The objective of each aggression was the total annihilation of the communist state.

Totalitarianism has not been a stranger to liberal democracies either. Despite being sheltered by two oceans, having no hostile powers on its borders, and facing no realistic threat of invasion, the US state in two world wars invested its executive with dictatorial powers. These were used to direct the country’s economy, control the flow of information, crackdown on dissent, and herd potential fifth columnists into concentration camps. Even today, despite facing the comparatively minor threat of potential blowback from the political Islamic forces it has long supported to disrupt secular Arab nationalism [1], the United States, Britain, France, Canada and Australia have invested the political policing functions of their respective states with growing powers of surveillance and disruption.

Philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo observes:

In reality, although protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific, every time it has rightly or wrongly felt itself imperilled, the North American republic has proceeded to a more or less drastic reinforcement of executive power and to more or less heavy restrictions on freedom of association of expression. This applies to the years immediately following the French Revolution (when its devotees on American soil were hit by the Alien and Sedition Acts), to the Civil War, the First Word War, the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Cold War. Even in our day, the sequel of the attack of 11 September 2001 was the opening of a concentration camp at Guantanamo, where detainees have been imprisoned without trial, and without even being informed of a specific charge, regardless of age. However terrible, the threat of terrorism is minor compared with that of invasion and military occupation, not to mention nuclear destruction. [2]

The restrictive practices, or ‘totalitarianism’, of communist states are not inherent. They are, instead, defensive measures against external threat. Cuba and North Korea have been under a greater sustained threat of invasion and military occupation than any other country (and North Korea is additionally under the threat of nuclear destruction.) It is in these countries that the pressure for restrictive practices is most acutely felt. Nor are restrictions on civil and political liberties unique to communist states. They are also found in abundance in capitalist countries, as well.

To illustrate how the dogma in capitalist society conditions its mass media to portray communist countries as inherently restrictive, consider a recent Wall Street Journal article on the expansion of internet access in Cuba (“Cubans get a tantalizing taste of the internet,” August 19, 2015).

The article attributes the comparatively low level of internet use on the Caribbean island to a theorized desire of Cuban authorities to control the flow of information, rather than to a more likely explanation, namely Cuba’s low level of economic development. We would expect that more developed countries would have a higher level of internet use, and less developed countries a lower level. If the level of internet use in Cuba is on par with that of other countries at the same level of economic development, the country’s low level of internet use can be explained by economic development, not a desire to restrict access to the internet to control the flow of information.

The graph below uses World Bank data to show the relationship between internet use per 100 people and GDP per capita. If the Cuban government deliberately restricts internet use, we would expect Cuba to depart significantly to the right of the trend line. Instead, it falls close to it, meaning the level of internet use in Cuba is typical of countries at an equal level of economic development. We can dismiss, therefore, the view that the Caribbean island’s low level of internet use is due to the government deliberately restricting access to the Web. The Wall Street Journal’s explanation of the low level of internet use in Cuba is a political argument, intended to mislead and discredit, not illuminate.

Internet users per 100At 30 users per 100 people in 2014, internet use in Cuba was on par with that of Egypt (32) and El Salvador (30) and greater than in Guatemala (23), Honduras (19), India (18), Nicaragua (18) and Haiti (11) (World Bank). The average for Central America, a region on which the United States has lavished much attention to keep it free from communist ‘totalitarianism’, was 29, virtually equal to that of Cuba. If Cuba’s low level of internet use is indicative of Havana deliberately restricting access to the internet to control the flow of information, then the governments of Central America, along with Egypt and India, must also be ‘totalitarian.’

More fertile ground for identifying governments that impede the flow of information for political purposes can be found in the US orbit, among such trusted US (and capitalist) allies as South Korea, Turkey, Britain, Canada and the United States itself.

The South Korean police state vigorously effaces online content it doesn’t want South Koreans to see. When a computer user in South Korea clicks on an item on the North Korean Twitter account, a government warning against illegal content pops up. In 2011, South Korean authorities blocked over 53,000 internet posts for infractions which included having a kind word to say about North Korea. In the same year, the South Korean police state deleted over 67,000 Web posts that were deemed favorable to North Korea or which criticized the US or South Korean government. Over 14,000 posts were deleted in 2009. [3]

In Turkey, “thousands of Web sites are blocked by the state, mostly without any publicized reason.” [4]

In Britain, government officials have met with representatives of Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry “to discuss voluntary ways to limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime and periods of civil unrest.” Free-speech advocates liken these policies to those the British government “has criticized in totalitarian and one-party states.” [5]

The Canadian government recently passed legislation that would give its spy agency, CSIS, authority to disrupt “radical websites” and remove “terrorist propaganda” from the Internet—that is, restrict the flow of information on the Web. [6]

As for the United States, in 2009 “the U.S. Treasury Department ordered the closure of more than eighty websites related to Cuba that promoted trade and thus violated U.S. legislation on economic sanctions.” [7]

If the United States, South Korea, Turkey, Britain and Canada restrict the flow of information on the Internet for political reasons, how is it that Cuba is totalitarian, but these states are beacons of liberty?

Two further points.

First, the United States has waged a campaign of economic warfare against Cuba for over five decades. It’s impossible to say how large the Cuban economy would be today had it been allowed to develop unimpeded, but some estimates put the cost to Cuba of US economic aggression at $750 to $975 billion. [8] One analyst estimates that “Without the blockade, the Cuban standard of living today might well be equal to that of Western Europe.” [9] If so, internet use in Cuba would likely resemble European levels of 76 per 100 people, rather than today’s 30.

Second, the US propaganda system can’t mention internet access in Cuba without making reference to blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose online newspaper 14ymedio “is blocked in Cuba,” according to The Wall Street Journal. [10] There is a good reason for this. Sanchez’s web site appears to be a hostile project of the United States, a country in a virtual state of war with Cuba. Despite her status as a grassroots dissident, Sanchez’s web site is miraculously “available in no less than 18 languages….No other site in the world, including those of major international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, OECD, and the European Union, has as many language versions available. Not even the U.S. State Department web site or the CIA has such a variety.” [11]

Moreover,

The site hosting the blog of Sanchez has a bandwidth 60 times higher than Cuba has for all its Internet users! Other questions inevitably arise about it: Who manages these pages in 18 languages? Who pays the administrators? How much? Who pays for the translators who work daily on Sanchez’s site? How much? Furthermore, the management of a flow of more than 14 million visitors monthly is extremely expensive. Who pays for that? [12]

Jose Luis Martinez, a spokesman for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, attributes the blocking of 14ymedio to the Cuban government’s desire “to have some type of control” and of being “a totalitarian regime trying to operate in the 21st century.” [13] US client state Egypt has locked up nearly 500 of Sanchez’s fellow political bloggers [14], while Washington’s strategic partner and major arms buyer Saudi Arabia has sentenced one blogger to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his dissident views [15], yet Havana, the ‘totalitarian regime’ that insists on ‘some type of control’, has spared Sanchez a similar fate. By Martinez’s reasoning, Egypt—which receives $1.3 billion annually in military aid from the United States, second only to Israel [16]—must be a totalitarian state on steroids. And yet it suffers none of the denigration Western news media heap on Cuba.

Losurdo observes that if Cuba’s measures for repressing some political dissent are totalitarianism, then West Germany, which did not shrink from repressing communists, and which, like Hitler, banned the Communist Party, would also have to be regarded as totalitarian. [17] The same could be said of South Korea, whose infamous National Security Law continues to be used to lock up leftists. The South Korea police state recently disbanded one left-wing party, stripping its legislators of their parliamentary seats, and jailing a handful of its members, including the lawmaker Lee Seok-ki. [18]

Decades of low-intensity warfare against Cuba carried out by the United States, including a blockade, unremitting military threat, sabotage, support for fifth columnists, and occasional terrorism, has created a de facto state of war. Nevertheless, Cuba has reacted to this situation with measures no more drastic than those implemented in the United States during two world wars, [19] and no more drastic than those once implemented in West Germany and currently practiced with vigor in South Korea.

It’s not ‘totalitarian’ Cuban government policy that has limited internet use in Cuba. Internet use in Cuba has been limited by the comparatively low level of development of the Cuban economy and the US economic aggression which has stifled it. What restrictions Cuba has implemented are warranted defensive measures against the predations of its hyper-aggressive neighbor to the north. This, however, would be news to those who follow the mass media in capitalist societies. The sole interest of these media when it comes to Cuba and North Korea is to discredit ideological competitors through the propagation of dogma which treats the warts of all societies as uniquely present in those of communism and absent in those of capitalism.

1. See Robert Dreyfus, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Holt Paperbacks, 2005 and Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent’s Tail, 2010.

2. Domenico Losurdo. War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century. Verso. 2015. p 58.

3. Stephen Gowans, “South Korea’s Police State Wages War on Proponents of Democracy,” what’s left, January 27, 2015.

4. Sebnem Arsu, “Internet filters set off protests around Turkey”, The New York Times, May 15, 2011.

5. Ravi Somaiya, “In Britain, a meeting on limiting social media”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.

6. “Tell Parliament-defeat police state bill C-51!”, People’s Voice, February 5, 2015.

7. Salim Lamrani, “The Contradictions of Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez,” MRZine, December 11, 2009.

8. Aida Calviac Mora, “With Obama in the White House, the blockade hasn’t changed at all”, Granma International, September 16, 2010; Thomas Kenny, “Interview with Thomas Kenny co-author of Socialism of ‘Betrayed Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991,” PoliticalEconomy.ie, March 16, 2015.

9. Kenny.

10. Ryan Dube, “Cubans get a tantalizing taste of the internet,” The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2015.

11. Lamrani.

12. Lamrani.

13. Dube.

14. Jeffrey Fleishman, “In Egypt, a blogger tries to spread ‘culture of disobedience’ among youths,” The Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2009.

15. Jay Solomon and Felicia Schwartz, “U.S. rebukes Saudis for sentencing blogger to 1,000 lashes,” The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2014.

16. Carol E. Lee and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. seeks to allay concerns of allies on Iran nuclear deal,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2015.

17. Losurdo, p. 312.

18. Gowans.

19. Losurdo, p. 312.

Written by what's left

August 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Cuba

The Dung Heap of Procedural Democracy

August 18, 2015
Updated August 23, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

In one of his twice-weekly New York Times columns, the Nobel Prize-winning liberal economist Paul Krugman attempted to discredit Republican Party politicians by portraying them as creatures of a money-driven political system. He unfairly and dishonestly excluded Democratic Party politicians, as if they somehow lived in a different world, free from the influence of money. But if we correct Krugman’s partisan bias—he’s a Democrat—the economist produces a creditable critique of why the procedural democracies that almost everyone deeply genuflects to are nothing but fronts for the pursuit of plutocratic interests:

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics…You often see political analyses pointing out, rightly, that voting in actual primaries is preceded by an ‘invisible primary’ in which candidates compete for the support of crucial elites…a stark competition for the affections and, of course, the money of a few dozen plutocrats. What that means, in turn, is that … (elected politicians) will be committed … to a broader plutocratic agenda (and will have) won over the big money by promising government by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. [1]

Thomas Ferguson elaborated this view into an investment theory of party competition in his Golden Rule, a reflection on the logic of money-driven political systems (those who have the gold, rule). [2]

But Krugman and Ferguson are late to the party. Those inspired by the communist tradition longed ago recognized the anti-democratic character of procedural democracies, contrasting them with authentic democracies in which outcome, not procedures, matter. A system of regular, multiparty elections, which reliably produces anti-popular policy favoring the interests of the one percent is hardly democratic, but such a procedural system, embedded in a larger society dominated by the logic of capitalism, will inevitably produce this outcome, elections and civil society notwithstanding.

Not long ago Krugman publicized a study that re-discovers the view that the wealthy owners of productive property dominate policy-formation and the political process. It’s a study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University that appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of Perspectives in Politics. [3] Gilens and Page examined over 1,700 policy issues, concluding that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interests groups have little or no independent influence.” In other words, they produced data consistent with what Marxists, and others, including Adam Smith [4], had long maintained: that the economy’s owners have extraordinary influence over the state and everyone else has virtually none—the Golden Rule, as Ferguson succinctly put it.

Warranted contempt for the falsity of procedural democracy is evidenced in the indictment of German Communist Party leader Hugo Urbahns in 1923. “We will rather burn in the fire of revolution,” he promised, “than perish on the dung heap of democracy.” [5]

Urbahns

Urbahns

Much earlier, Marx and Engels, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, defined democracy, not as a set of procedures for electing representatives, but as the rule of the working class, or in today’s parlance, of the 99 percent. Elections may happen, and politicians may vie (or say they’re vying) for the “middle-class” vote, but that doesn’t mean the interests of the 99 percent will be translated into public policy. As Ferguson explains, the key question is: Who do elected representatives represent? The answer is not the electorate, but the class that has the resources to invest in the political system—resources politicians need to get elected. This is none other than the class of capitalists.

Still, despite the glaring disparity between the promise of procedural democracy and its outcomes, most everyone celebrates it, or talks about democracy as if it had only recently been negated, as if the domination of capitalist society by capitalists is a recent phenomenon and not a necessity by definition.

Governments that emerged in the 20th century from the fires of revolution turned out to be a good deal more democratic, in any meaningful sense of the word, than the dung heaps of government by the one percent for the one percent. Consider the Soviet Union under Stalin—in the dogma of capitalist societies, the very antithesis of democracy, but which may have, in fact, been the very first expression of authentic democracy.

In the mid-1930s, the USSR had the most inclusive and equal political democracy in the world. Adult suffrage was universal. Discrimination on the basis of race, sex and property had been eliminated. By comparison, Britain had an unelected second chamber and unelected head of state (abominations against authentic democracy that persist to this day, not only in Britain [6], but in some inheritors of the British system, including Canada [7].) Only 70 million of 500 million inhabitants of the British Commonwealth lived in procedural democracies. The vast majority of British subjects were ruled by colonial administrators. South Africa denied suffrage to its black majority and Canada and Australia did the same to their aboriginal populations. [8]

Meanwhile, in the United States, a “democracy” founded on the extermination of Native Americans and slavery of Africans—the framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were slave-owners, as were the first presidents—practiced racial segregation and truncated its black (second-class) citizens’ civil and political liberties. “Herrenvolk” democracies, procedural democracies for a master race, have largely jettisoned their racist features since, likely under the pressure of the counterexample provided by states that followed the antiracist communist tradition, but continue to produce policy outcomes that favor a parasitic elite of productive-property owners at the top.

Not too long ago, the dung heaps were called “capitalist democracies” to distinguish them from “socialist democracies”. Use of the phrase “capitalist democracy” reveals an absent understanding of either capitalism or democracy or both, since the two are mutually inimical, and their pairing produces an oxymoron, or, worse, a political deception, namely, the transformation of capitalism as a type of society at odds with democracy into democracy itself.

Capitalism, a system supporting owners of capital through the parasitism of wage labour, can hardly be democratic. Equally, democracy, a type of society in which the interests of the bulk of people prevail (historically, the rabble, an exploited class or oppressed people) can hardly coexist with capitalism. Either a society is capitalist, in which case it’s not democratic, or it’s democratic, in which case it’s not capitalist. And it’s clear to many, including Nobel Prize winning economists, in which direction the contradiction resolves itself on the dung heap.

Clarity of language aids analysis. If we acknowledge that we live in capitalist societies, the discovery that our politics favors capitalists hardly seems extraordinary or radical—just obvious, if not axiomatic.

1. Paul Krugman, “Republicans against retirement,” The New York Times, August 17, 2015.

2. Thomas Ferguson. The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. The University of Chicago Press. 1995.

3. http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf

4. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote, “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” (Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 2.)

5. Arthur Rosenberg. Democracy and Socialism: A Contribution to the Political History of the Past 150 Years. Beacon Press. 1938, p. 9.

6. The British House of Lords consists of 781 unelected members who collectively have the authority to amend and delay legislation. It is the world’s largest legislative chamber outside of China. British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to expand the chamber further, with scores of appointments in the works. How extraordinary that the largest legislative chamber outside the world’s most populous country, is unelected, and exists in a country that celebrates its ‘democracy’. An August 22, 2015 New York Times article, (“A British house overflowing with Lords draws scorn”) critiques the House of Lords for its demographic imbalance, disproportionately elderly and male, but not its undemocratic character. We’re left to believe that if only the chamber’s demographic failings were redressed, all would be fine. On a dung heap, an unelected legislative chamber is wholly acceptable so long as it’s demographically representative.

7. In Canada, the abomination against authentic democracy is even greater since the country’s head of state was neither born in, nor resides in, Canada. However, the head of state has only nominal authority, making this a largely academic concern. Canada’s unelected Senate is a more problematic affair. It’s bad enough that the elected representatives that sit in Canada’s House of Commons represent a capitalist class and not the electorate, but that an unelected and non-popular body has any input into public policy is an intolerable scandal, but one the Canadian public nevertheless passively accepts under the onslaught of blanket propaganda that astonishingly holds up their country as a shining light of democracy. That Canadians are able to believe Canada is even much of a procedural democracy, let alone an authentic one, is testament to the efficacy of the propaganda system to befuddle the public on issues of the greatest political significance.

8. Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. Longmans, Green and Co., Third Edition. 1947. pp xxi-xxii.

Written by what's left

August 18, 2015 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Democracy

US- S. Korea Exploiting DMZ Mine Incident to Divert Attention from Anti-N Korea Provocations

August 18, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

I have no idea how it transpired that mines linked to the DPRK (north Korea) that severed the legs of two south Korean soldiers in the demilitarized zone earlier this month came to be where they were, anymore than Washington, Seoul or The New York Times does. But I do know that the set of possible explanations contains more than the single explanation favored by the south Korean and US governments and the Western media, that the mines were deliberately planted by north Korean soldiers as part of an “ongoing pattern of provocation.” I also know that neither Seoul nor Washington are likely to let any opportunity pass to resolve ambiguity into the certainty that the north Koreans, repeatedly denounced in Western propaganda as “belligerent”, have deliberately provoked tensions. The Western propaganda system has a confirmatory bias. All acts of north Koreans must be construed as belligerent, with every act so construed reinforcing the theory.

But there are alternative, and more likely, explanations.

korea-hot-spot-horizontal-large-galleryOne offered immediately after the event was that flooding or shifting soil had led mines to drift from another location. The New York Times’ Korea correspondent Choe Sang-hun reported on August 10 [1] that “Old mines loosed by floodwaters … pose a risk for soldiers serving in the zone. In 2010, dozens of North Korean land mines moved into the South through floodwaters, killing one villager and scaring vacationers away from rivers and beaches near the border.” Indeed, so heavily mined is the area “that wild deer sometimes step on them, causing blasts.” What’s more, “116 villagers have been killed by mines in Gangwon, one of the two South Korean provinces on the border with the North.”

In light of the large number of mines in the zone, and the scores of accidental deaths the mines have caused, it hardly seems that an accident is completely out of the question as an explanation for the tragedy of August 4. On the contrary, it seems to be a probable explanation.

Nevertheless, the probable explanation has been “ruled out” without explanation by Seoul and the “U.N. Command”, the latter presented in press reports as a neutral body, when, indeed, it is none other than the US military. The attempted deception of portraying US occupying forces as impartial observers is necessary to invest the accusation against north Korea with weight, since no one of an unbiased mind reasonably expects Washington to have a neutral attitude toward a country whose government it has been trying to bring down for the past 65 years.

By blaming north Korean for the tragedy, the US-led duo, patron and client, is deflecting attention from its own actual provocations of north Korea by inventing provocations on the north Korean side.

August 17 marked the beginning of joint US-south Korean war games targeted at north Korea, known as Ulji Freedom Guardian. These follow north Korea-targeted war games carried out earlier this year by the United States, south Korea, Britain, Australia and Canada. North Korea poses a vanishingly small offensive military threat to the US client state on the south of the peninsula. At $39 billion annually, Seoul’s military budget towers over Pyongyang’s comparatively meagre $10 billion annual expenditure. Adding decisively to the imbalance is the presence of nearly 30,000 US troops—and advanced US military hardware—on Korean soil, to say nothing of 45,000 US troops in nearby Japan, or the strategic nuclear missiles the United States targets on north Korea.

Contrary to a favored Western deception, the US war games on the Korean peninsula are not defensive; they’re part of a decades-long effort of low intensity warfare carried out by the United States and its client regime whose aim is to sabotage the small north Korean economy by forcing Pyongyang onto a perpetual war footing in which scarce resources are diverted from the civilian economy to defense. North Korea’s small economy can hardly support the expenditures on a conventional military necessary to deter aggression by south Korea and its behemoth patron. But this it must do, and is part of the reason why it has developed a nuclear shield.

The north Koreans face an unenviable choice: to keep up their guard at the expense of their economy, or let it down and face invasion and coerced absorption into the United States’ informal empire. As north Korea’s Workers’ Party puts it, “In actuality, the U.S. is plugging the DPRK into an arms race through ceaseless war drills and arms build-up in a sinister bid to throw hurdles in its efforts to develop its economy and improve the standard of its people’s living.” [2]

Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, much are they’re portrayed to be provocative, are not a threat to Washington or Seoul. There’s much talk of “denuclearizing” the Korean peninsula, which is nothing more than a call for north Korea to remove a formidable obstacle to the United States fulfilling its agenda of chasing the anti-imperialists out of Pyongyang. Korea will never be denuclearized in any meaningful way so long as US strategic nuclear weapons are, or are able to be, targeted on north Korea—which is to say, so long as the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal. And since there’s no chance that Washington will voluntarily relinquish its nuclear weapons anytime soon, if ever, all talk of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is simply a conversation about north Korea’s capitulation.

Fortunately, the disasters visited upon Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam in Iraq in voluntarily disarming under US pressure have not gone unnoticed by Pyongyang, which recognizes the advantages of having, in a very small quantity, the WMD the United States possesses in vast numbers. The lesson the DPRK drew from Libya was that the only guarantee of peace on the Korean peninsula is a powerful military, backed by nuclear weapons. [3] Others have acknowledged this, as well. “Who would have dared deal with Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein if they had a nuclear capability?” asks Major General Amir Eshel, chief of the Israeli army’s planning division. “No way.” [4]

Calling for north Korea to denuclearize, without first calling for the United States to do the same, is logically indefensible. Since the cause of Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons is to deter an aggressive nuclear armed predatory state, it follows that the only way in which the Korean peninsula can be disarmed meaningfully is to remove the root cause of its nuclearization, which means bilateral disarmament, and not north Korea surrendering its nuclear weapons unilaterally while the United States retains the capability to turn north Korea into a “charcoal briquette,” as a former head of the Pentagon once threatened. And just to be clear about who the aggressor is, consider that, according to declassified and other US government documents, from “the 1950s’ Pentagon to today’s Obama administration, the United States has repeatedly pondered, planned and threatened the use of nuclear weapons against north Korea,” [5] and importantly, during most of those years north Korea was a non-nuclear weapons state. These documents, along with the public statements of senior US officials, point to an ongoing pattern of US nuclear intimidation of the DPRK.

• The United States introduced nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula as early as 1950. [6]

• During the Korean War, US president Harry Truman announced that the use of nuclear weapons was under active consideration; US Air Force bombers flew nuclear rehearsal runs over Pyongyang; and US commander General Douglas MacArthur planned to drop 30 to 50 atomic bombs across the northern neck of the Korean peninsula to block Chinese intervention. [7]

• In the late 1960s, nuclear-armed US warplanes were maintained on 15-minute alert to strike north Korea. [8]

• In 1975, US defense secretary James Schlesinger acknowledged for the first time that US nuclear weapons were deployed in south Korea. Addressing the north Koreans, he warned, “I do not think it would be wise to test (US) reactions.” [9]

• In February 1993, Lee Butler, head of the US Strategic Command, announced the United States was retargeting hydrogen bombs aimed at the old USSR on north Korea (and other targets.) One month later, north Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. [10]

• On July 22, 1993, US president Bill Clinton said if north Korea developed and used nuclear weapons “we would quickly and overwhelmingly retaliate. It would mean the end of their country as we know it.” [11]

• In 1995, Colin Powell, who had served as chairman of the US joints chiefs of staff and would later serve as US secretary of state, warned the north Koreans that the United States had the means to turn their country into “a charcoal briquette.” [12]

• Following north Korea’s first nuclear test on October 9, 2006, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice reminded north Korea that “the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range—and I underscore full range of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.” [13]

• In April 2010, US defense secretary Leon Panetta refused to rule out a US nuclear attack on north Korea, saying, “all options are on the table.” [14]

• On February 13, 2013, Panetta described north Korea as “a threat to the United States, to regional stability, and to global security.” He added: “Make no mistake. The US military will take all necessary steps to meet our security commitments to the Republic of Korea and to our regional allies.” [15]

As the north Koreans put it, “no nation in the world has been exposed to the nuclear threat so directly and for so long as the Koreans.”[16]

In pursuing its foreign policy goals, Washington threatened other countries with nuclear attack on 25 separate occasions between 1970 and 2010, and 14 occasions between 1990 and 2010. On six of these occasions, the United States threatened the DPRK. [17] There have been more US threats against north Korea since. (The United States’ record of issuing threats of nuclear attack against other countries over this period is: Iraq, 7; China, 4; the USSR, 4; Libya, 2; Iran, 1; Syria, 1. Significantly, all these countries, like the DPRK, were under communist or economically nationalist governance when the threats were made.)

Since the United States is one of the most aggressive countries in history, not out of place in a category that contains Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, we should hardly passively accept its status as the world’s #1 possessor of WMD. As for north Korea, whose only military aggression (if it can be called that) has occurred as part of a just and legitimate civil war to achieve real independence by liberating the south from the rule of the United States and the Japanese collaborators it recruited to staff its puppet state, it seems to me that lamenting Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal while accepting Washington’s is completely backward. It’s like deploring the symptoms while accepting the virus.

Inasmuch as Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal helps the DPRK stop the juggernaut of US imperialism, those who deplore imperialist predation ought to welcome north Korea’s own observation that the “army and people of the DPRK are no longer what they used to be in the past when they had to counter the U.S. nukes with rifles.” [18]

On top of war games, south Korea has elevated its provocations by resuming, after an 11 year hiatus, propaganda broadcasts, broadcast into north Korea by giant speakers placed at the border, ostensibly in retaliation for the mine incident. The south Korean military has pressed into service “newly developed digital mobile speakers” that “have a range of over 20 kilometers, or double that of the old model.” [19] The DPRK threatened to attack the loudspeakers, eliciting an Orwellian demand from south Korean president Park Geun-hye for Pyongyang to stop “military provocations on the border.” [20]

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the White House approved a detailed plan, called ‘the playbook,’ to ratchet up tension with north Korea. The playbook was developed by the Pentagon’s Pacific Command, and was discussed at several high-level White House meetings. The plan called for low-altitude B-52 bomber flights over the Korean peninsula. Two nuclear-capable B-2 bombers dropped dummy payloads on a south Korean missile range. The flights were deliberately carried out one spring day in 2013 in broad daylight at low altitude. “We could fly it at night, but the point was for them to see it,” said a US military official. A few days later, the Pentagon deployed two advanced F-22 warplanes to south Korea, also part of the ‘play-book’ plan to intimidate Pyongyang. [21]

According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House knew that the north Koreans would react by threatening to retaliate against the United States and south Korea. US “Defense officials acknowledged that north Korean military officers (were) particularly agitated by bomber flights because of memories of the destruction wrought from the air during the Korean War.” [22] US warplanes had demolished every target over one story. They also dropped more napalm in Korea than they did later in Vietnam. [23] The death toll reached into the millions.

The reality, then as now, is exactly opposite of the narrative formulated in Washington and reliably propagated by the Western mass media. Washington and Seoul haven’t responded to north Korean belligerence and provocations; they’ve deliberately planned a show of force in order to elicit an angry north Korean reaction, which is then labelled “belligerent” and “provocative.” The provocations, coldly and calculatingly planned, have come from Washington and south Korea. North Korea’s reactions have been defensive and necessary.

As for the DMZ mine incident, it seems likely that it was accident and Washington and Seoul have decided to turn it into an opportunity to further demonize north Korea, to use it as a pretext to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang by resuming propaganda broadcasts across the border, and to divert attention from the true provocations on the peninsula—their regular and robust anti-DPRK war games.

1. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea accuses the north after land mines maim two soldiers in DMZ”, The New York times, August 10, 2015.

2. US-S. Korean Ulji Freedom Guardian joint military drills under fire,” Rodong Sinmun, August 14, 2015.

3. Mark McDonald, “North Korea suggests Libya should have kept nuclear program”, The New York Times, March 24, 2011.

4. Ethan Bronner, “Israel sense bluffing in Iran’s threats of retaliation”, The New York Times, January 26, 2012.

5. Charles J. Hanley and Randy Hershaft, “U.S. often weighed N. Korea nuke option”, The Associated Press, October 11, 2010.

6. Hanley and Hershaft.

7. Hanley and Hershaft.

8. Hanley and Hershaft.

9. Hanley and Hershaft.

10. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. p. 488-489.

11. William E. Berry Jr., “North Korea’s nuclear program: The Clinton administration’s response,” INSS Occasional Paper 3, March 1995.

12. Bruce Cumings, “Latest North Korean provocations stem from missed US opportunities for demilitarization,” Democracy Now!, May 29, 2009.

13. Lou Dobbs Tonight, October 18, 2006.

14. Hanley and Hershaft.

15. Choe Sang-hun, “New leader in South criticizes North Korea,” The New York Times, February 13, 2013.

16. “Foreign ministry issues memorandum on N-issue,” Korean Central News Agency, April 21, 2010.

17. Samuel Black, “The changing political utility of nuclear weapons: Nuclear threats from 1970 to 2010,” The Stimson Center, August 2010, http://www.stimson.org/images/uploads/research-pdfs/Nuclear_Final.pdf

18. Rodong Sinmum, August 17, 2015.

19. “More leaflet launches by conservative groups during inter-Korean impasse,” The Hankyoreh, August 14, 2015.

20. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean leader marks anniversary of war’s end with warning to north Korea,” The New York Times, August 15, 2015.

21. Jay Solomon, Julian E. Barnes and Alastair Gale, “North Korea warned”, The Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2013.

22. Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. pledges further show of force in Korea”, The Wall Street journal, March 29, 2013

23. Bruce Cumings. The Korean War: A History. Modern Library. 2010.

Written by what's left

August 18, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Terrorism from Damascus’s perspective

Below are excerpts from a July 26, 2015 speech Syrian president Bashar al-Assad delivered in Damascus.

turkey-us-isis-syrian-conflict-birgun-gazetesiOn the West’s double standards on terrorism

[Western powers] call it terrorism when it hits them, and call it revolution, freedom, democracy, and human rights when it hits us. There, its perpetrators are terrorists, and here, they are rebels and moderate opposition. They scream at the top of their voices whenever they are touched by a spark of fire while they fall deathly silent when we are burned by it.

On humanitarian intervention

Let them permit the opposition in their countries to bear arms and kill and destroy and keep calling them opposition, or permit them to become proxies or let other states decide what is the ruling system for them should be, then we will believe and accept their old recipes that have always been used to justify an aggression or interference in states’ affairs under humanitarian slogans like human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on.

On the West’s relationship with militant Islamists

What they want is to keep this monster in check and not eliminate it. All their military, political and media campaigns are in fact smoke screens, and what the West has done so far has led to a growth of terrorism instead of eliminating it, and this is confirmed by reality, not personal analysis, as terrorism has spread geographically, its material resources have increased, and its manpower has doubled.

An observation a propos of Assad’s comments: Western newspapers talk of the Egyptian army’s fight in the Sinai against militant Islamists, but of the Syrian army’s fight against militant Islamists in Syria as “regime forces” waging a “brutal” war to crush a “rebellion”.

Written by what's left

July 27, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Syria

‘We want what we had’

July 20th, 2015

The Taylor Report

Stephen Gowans reviews Kristen Ghodsee’s book, “The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe.” Ghodsee interviewed Eastern Europeans about socialism and their situation two decades after dissolution of the Soviet Union, including activists at an Occupy-styled protest in Bulgaria.

From these activists, we learn that many people want free education (like they had in the Soviet Union), and free child care (like they had in the Soviet Union), but they reject the term ‘communism’ and the Soviet Legacy. “We don’t want communism” it has been said, “we just want to have a normal life.”

But lack of all these nice things is ‘normal life’ under capitalism. There is little understanding of the difficulties in providing social wealth in former-fascist, war-torn countries like Bulgaria.

This attempt to grapple with the disappearing welfare state and Soviet legacy comes at a time of heightened official anti-communism. The new capitalist states in East Europe are trying to portray an equivalence between fascism and communism, so as to generate fear of socialism. The effect is that people yearn for the policies of socialism, but not the name.

Ghodsee herself succumbs to the fear of ghosts, drawing from the new capitalist historiography in which Soviets are simply portrayed as demons. She contrasts the ‘good communists’ in Bulgaria to the demon Stalin.

She has to, because if she accepts the achievements of Bulgarian communists, she will be tarred as a Stalinist. Instead, she calls for a merging of the Soviet welfare state with Western political institutions. Yet it is these Western institutions that block socialism in their own countries, and in Eastern Europe. Ghodsee and others need to take a lesson from E.H. Carr, who refused to submit to the moral blackmail of being labelled a ‘Stalinist’ for reviewing the progress of the Soviet Union.

Audio Files:

Interview with Stephen Gowans

MP3 Page:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/81858

Link:
Submitting to Moral Blackmail? Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Left Side of History

Written by what's left

July 21, 2015 at 11:31 am

Posted in Communism, Socialism

Submitting to Moral Blackmail? Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Left Side of History”

July 19, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe,” is a variegated reflection on socialism as practiced in Eastern Europe, and especially Bulgaria, in the four and half decades following WWII. It is, at one and the same time, a meditation on the purpose of official anti-communism; a near hagiography of the British communist Frank Thompson, the elder brother of the famed historian E.P. Thompson, who died fighting with Bulgarian partisans in WWII; a history of the Lagadinovas, three brothers and a sister (the latter of whom would become famous throughout the socialist bloc as the “Amazon”), who joined the ranks of communist partisans struggling against Bulgaria’s Nazi-allied government; a Philippic against the contemporary political left for being comfortable only with opposition, and lacking any clear sense of what it’s for; and paradoxically, given the foregoing, an execration of communism, filled with the crude anti-communist diatribes one would expect from The Black Book of Communism, and not from one who sets out to explore the heroism of communist partisans and a British communist who fought with them.

Ghodsee is an ethnographer whose prior works include “three books on how non-elite Bulgarian men and women experienced the economic transition from communism.” (Ghodsee, 2012)

Function of official anti-communism

Left Side of HistoryIn writing The Left Side of History, Ghodsee set out to show there was much good about communism in Bulgaria. She felt that the achievements of communist Bulgaria were hidden beneath an avalanche of official anti-communist demonization. In this, she has responded to a danger foretold by the great historian of the Russian Revolution, E.H. Carr. Referring specifically to the Bolshevik revolution, Carr warned in 1978 that there was little danger that a veil would be drawn “over the enormous blots on the record of the Revolution, over its costs in human suffering, over the crimes committed in its name.”

Indeed, every effort has been made by those who would discredit the Bolsheviks and all they stood for to bring these to the fore. The greater danger, warned Carr, was that

“we shall be tempted to forget altogether, and to pass over in silence, (the Revolution’s) immense achievements…I am thinking of the transformation since 1917 in the lives of ordinary people: the transformation of Russia from a country more than eighty per cent of whose population consisted of illiterate or semi-literate peasants into a country with a population more than sixty per cent urban, which is totally literate and is rapidly acquiring the elements of urban culture…and these things have been brought about by rejecting the main criteria of capitalist production—profits and the laws of the market—and substituting a comprehensive economic plan aimed at promoting the common welfare.” (Carr, 1978)

For her part, Ghodsee celebrates the achievements of Bulgarian communism. It “provided support for working mothers and promoted programs to ensure the de jure and de facto equality of men and women. Communism promoted literacy and education and health care and guaranteed full employment for anyone able to work. Communism gave people jobs, homes, and daily routines that were predictable and stable…” (Ghodsee, 2015: 192)

Nowadays, communism is presented, not as a type of society that stressed the common welfare and the end of exploitation of man by man, but as an abomination equal to Nazism. In 2009, the European Union created a new holiday, the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Ghodsee condemns this as an attempt to discredit communism at a time the global financial crisis is inspiring austerity-weary populations to seek political alternatives. She cites also as further evidence of the efforts to blot out the rich contribution communists have made to the progress of humanity, a June 2013 decision by a Madrid court ordering the dismantling of a monument that commemorated the sacrifices of the mainly communist International Brigades, volunteers burning with passion for a new, more humane and democratic world, who fought against Franco’s fascists.

In my country, Canada, plans are afoot to erect a monument to the “victims” of communism, leaving ordinary Canadians puzzled as to why. Canada has never been Communist.

But there is a chance that Canadians, and others in the world, bedevilled by unemployment, economic insecurity, diminished economic opportunity and growing material deprivation, will increasingly look to the model provided by the really-existing socialism of the Soviet bloc as an alternative. “Communism may be making a bit of a comeback in Europe,” Ghodsee writes, “but it is also the case that some political elites are working harder than ever to stop it by blackwashing its history.” (Ghodsee, 2015: viii-xix) She adds, “At the exact moment when ordinary people are searching for political alternatives, many official historical institutes are supported (often with funds from the West) to discredit communism.”

Victims of communism, promoters of fascism

Ghodsee effectively punctures the growing movement to commemorate the ‘victims’ of communism by showing that the ‘victims’ were hardly innocents, but in many cases, were xenophobes, Judeophobes, and fascists responsible for the deaths, oppression and exploitation of numberless people.

Every year some Bulgarians lay wreaths at a wall inscribed with the names of many who died at the hands of communists. “The victims memorialized on the wall include many political opponents of communism executed after September 1944, when Bulgaria’s communists seized power in this tiny Balkan country,” reported the Associated Press. (Ghodsee, 2015: 192) Ghodsee points out that ‘Nowhere was it mentioned, even in passing, that Bulgaria’s ‘political and military elite’ were allied with Nazi Germany.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 192)

The ‘victims’ of communism memorialized in Bulgaria include:

o Bogdan Filov, a passionate and committed ally of Hitler, who as Bulgarian prime minister from 1940 to 1943, deported 11,000 Jews to their deaths at Treblinka;

o Petar Gabrovski, minister of the interior under Filov, and briefly prime minister; a vicious Judeophobe who started his political career as a Nazi;

o Nikola Zhekov, head of the Bulgarian far-right legionnaires and a personal friend of Hitler;

o General Hristo Lukov, the Bulgarian minister of war, who has become an inspiration for today’s neo-Nazis. (Ghodsee, 2015:194-196)

What are we fighting for?

Ghodsee writes of an encounter with students at an Occupy-like encampment.

“I spoke to some students sitting on the ground in front of one of the tents. There was a sign in Bulgarian. It read ‘This is not a protest. This is a process. Revolution for a New Bulgaria.’

“I asked the students why they were protesting. One young woman said, ‘I love my country, but I have no future here. While the Mafia governments stay in power, Bulgaria will never develop, I don’t want to leave. I want to stay and fight and make my country a better place.’

“’Do you have any concrete proposals?” I said. The protestors I had spoken to thus far all had very different ideas about what needed to be done.

“’Free university education,’ she said. The other students nodded. ‘And practical training placements for three years after you graduate.’

“’You mean like it was before?’ I said. Before 1989, the state paid for all university education, and all students completed three years of national service upon graduation. The state guaranteed a job in the student’s area of speciality…

“’Yes,’ the woman said…

“A second woman in the group waited until there was a lull in the conversation before she spoke. ‘There should be more kindergartens,’ she said. ‘Every mother should have a safe place for her child when she works.’

“’You mean like they had under communism?’ I said.

“At the word ‘communism,’ the students tensed.

“’We don’t want communism back,” the first young woman said. ‘We just want a normal country.” (Ghodsee, 2015:166-168)

In a similar vein, Ghodsee recounts a conversation between two elderly Bulgarian women, Elena Lagadinova, who joined the Bulgarian partisans at age 14 and later became a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party Central Committee, and Maria Zneopolska, author of a book on Frank Thompson.

“’Look at these protestors,’ Elena said, ‘They are against the monopolies and the corruption and the foreign capitalists. These are the same things (the communist partisans) were against.’

‘It’s the same fight,” Maria agreed. She looked to Elena and then back at me. ‘But it’s not enough to protest against. Nothing ever changes until the people have something to fight for.’” (Ghodsee, 2015: 175)

Ghodsee’s anticommunism

While Ghodsee laments that “strident anticommunist rhetoric demonizes anyone who once called himself or herself a ‘communist’ or who believed in the communist ideal” (Ghodsee, 2015: xvi) and regrets the hegemony of an anti-communist ideology that makes it “easier to assert that the moon landing was staged than it would be to argue that there was anything good about the communist past,” (Ghodsee, 2015: 133) she, herself, reinforces the anti-communism she deplores.

This, she does, subtly, in earlier publications, through the use of language that implicitly accepts communism as a danger implanted from without. For example, in Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, Ghodsee writes that “the revolution in Cuba (just 90 miles from Florida) brought the communist threat closer than it had ever been to the United States” (emphasis added; Ghodsee, 2011: xi) rather than writing “the Cuban revolution brought communism (sans threat) closer than it had ever been to the United States”, or that it “brought the communist threat closer than it had ever been to the capitalist elite of the United States.” She wrote too of how “Many countries in Latin America and Africa were constantly fighting communist insurgencies” (Ghodsee, 2011: xi) as if the insurgencies were separate from the countries that battled them. Here she equates country with the state. It would have been more apt for Ghodsee to have written that many states in Latin America and Africa, backed by Western economic and political elites, fought to suppress rebellions from their populations against their oppression and exploitation. Of the other September 11, September 11, 1973, Ghodsee writes “Chile would elect a socialist leader, leaving the United States no choice but to support a coup d’état” (Ghodsee, 2011: xi), leaving one to muse over why she felt the United States government had no choice. Indeed, formally, it did have a choice, though it might be argued that the imperatives of the US economic system created a compulsion for Washington to intervene.

In The Left Side of History Ghodsee abandons subtle anti-communist language for crude, and shockingly puerile, anti-communist rhetoric. After touting the achievements of Bulgaria’s communism, she brands communist Bulgaria “a brutal dystopia ruled by paranoid dictators.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 129) Rather than examining the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union from the perspective of the multiple and almost insuperable challenges the country’s leadership faced, she offers a sophomoric psychological reductionism, transforming Stalin into a kind of cartoon character Dr. Evil, who she depicts as a “megalomaniac” who “hijacked the communist cause” (Ghodsee, 2015: 129) to pursue his “dreams of world domination.” (Ghodsee, 2015; 128) It appears that it is not only the European Union that has drawn an equal sign between Hitler and Stalin.

Against the Stalinist Beelzebub Ghodsee juxtaposes the pure and angelic heroes of her book, Frank Thompson and the Lagadinovas, the ‘good’ communists betrayed by their iniquitous leaders. “I needed to remind myself,” she writes, “that not all who fought or found themselves on the left side of history were radical Marxist zealots bent on world domination.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 199) Ghodsee wants us to believe that everything good about communism in Bulgaria is traceable to Thompson, the Lagadinovas, and the good communists, and all the bad is due to “Stalinists.”

This, however, is completely indefensible. The Bulgarian partisans and Frank Thompson had very little to do with the gains communism implanted in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian partisans were, by Ghodsee’s own admission, largely ineffective. They spent most of their time eking out a bare existence, frequently betrayed by peasants who didn’t support them. Unlike in neighboring Greece and Yugoslavia, where foreign occupations galvanized people to support the communist-led guerrilla resistance, Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany and endured no foreign occupation. The lives of most Bulgarians during the war were quiet, and they did not support the communist guerrillas. It was the Red Army, under Stalin’s leadership, that ultimately toppled Hitler’s allies in Sofia, and brought communism to Bulgaria. Stalin, far more than the Lagadinovas, and especially the hapless (though admirable) Frank Thompson, is responsible for the immense social gains Bulgaria enjoyed during the communist period.

Ghodsee’s politics

Ghodsee’s political ideal, revealed in her various other writings, is “a more socially oriented state akin to the Scandinavian welfare state—states that combine democracy with social security.” (Ghodsee, 2004) She doesn’t say what she means by ‘democracy,” though it appears that she means a multiparty state, or at least, not the socialist states of central and eastern Europe in which one party, that of the Communists, was hegemonic. What she’s against is “the overly-individualistic, savage capitalism of the United States and the United Kingdom,” (Ghodsee, 2004) but is also against “one-party rule and leaders who remained unchallenged for thirty-five years” (Ghodsee, 2015: 191). She favors a combining of the full-employment, social welfare, egalitarian politics of the communist states (democracy as a type of society) with the procedural democracies of North America and Western Europe (democracy as a set of rules for electing representatives.) In this she is guilty of what she faults the contemporary left for: being clear on what she’s against (‘savage’ capitalism* and the one-party state), but having no concrete proposal for how to bring about the implied alternative, namely, socialism within a multi-party state—nor any sense, one suspects, of whether a socialist state with a Western-style parliamentary democracy is at all possible in a world profoundly dominated politically, economically, militarily and ideologically by a capitalist elite, who will no more accept a “democratic” socialism than an “undemocratic” one. The only difference between the socialism Ghodsee lionizes and the socialism she deplores is that the first has never existed. It’s as if, like the supporters of Syriza, Ghodsee believes that all one has to do is vote against capitalism (or austerity) and the capitalist elite, its institutions, and imperatives will meekly step aside. Jean Bricmont offers a refreshing corrective to Ghodsee’s naiveté. “If it is true, as often said, that most socialist regimes turn out to be dictatorships that is largely because a dictatorship is much harder to overthrow or subvert than a democracy.” (Bricmont, 2006)

Conclusion

The Left Side of History is not without its charms. Ghodsee does stress the importance for the left of having a clear idea of what it’s for and concrete proposals for how to get there. She makes the case, cogently I think, that the upsurge in official anticommunism is linked to the financial crisis and austerity and the need of ruling elites to eclipse, what from their point of view, is a danger that in a searching for political alternatives, people will turn to the really-existing socialism of the Soviet bloc for inspiration. She has shown that many of the so-called victims of communism were hardly innocent, but instead were victimizers—often fascists, racists and xenophobes, responsible for the persecution, oppression and deaths of numberless people. And in exploring the lives of Frank Thomson and the Lagadinovas, she challenges official anti-communism by pointing to communists who were not the “red scum” of official anticommunist demonology but selfless heroes with a burning passion for a more humane, democratic world.

The weakness of The Left Side of History lies in Ghodsee’s occasional substitution of anti-communist slogans for critical analysis, as in her portrayal of Stalin as a paranoid bent on world domination who hijacked a good cause and turned it to evil ends. In this she concedes to the official demonology. To be sure, in her view, Thompson and the Lagadinovas were communist heroes but Stalin and Stalinists were red scum. What Ghodsee loses sight of was that Thompson and the Lagadinovas were members of a movement in which Stalin played a central role, and could therefore, themselves, be called “Stalinists.” What’s more, Stalin, to far greater degree than Ghodsee’s chosen heroes, brought the achievements of communism to Eastern Europe.

Another weakness is Ghodsee’s depiction of communist Eastern Europe as a brutal dystopia. Indeed, this borders on bizarre, considering that she attributes the rise in official anticommunism to a need on the part of ruling elites to discredit communism as a model. Why would anyone feel compelled to discredit a brutal dystopia?

One could speculate that in writing The Left Side of History, Ghodsee was filled with a dread that her favorable assessments of communism would inevitably mean she would be denounced as a Stalinist. Could it be that as a prophylaxis, she armored herself with anti-Stalinist rhetoric? Her rhetoric is fevered, of a more rabid variety than even conservatives are capable of. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone seriously accuse Stalin—the champion of socialism in one country, the man who dismantled the Comintern and pursued what his leftist critics called an overly cautious foreign policy–of having had an agenda of world domination.

If indeed fear of being denounced as a Stalinist led Ghodsee to the missteps that have almost fatally weakened The Left Side of History, she might have looked to E.H. Carr for inspiration. After publicly declaring his concern that the achievements of communism would be expunged from history, Carr acknowledged that, “Of course, I know that anyone who speaks of the achievements of the Revolution will at once be branded as a Stalinist. But I am not prepared to submit to this kind of moral blackmail.” (Carr, 1978)

*Savage capitalism implies there’s some other kind of capitalism, perhaps a gentle one. But this is tantamount to distinguishing a gentle slavery from a savage slavery, as if indeed, a gentle slavery (or a gentle capitalism) is anything but an oxymoron.

References

Jean Bricmont. Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. 2006

Kristen Ghodsee, “The Specter Still Haunts: Revisiting 1989,” Dissent, Spring 2012

E.H. Carr, “The Russian Revolution and the West,” New Left Review 1/111/ September-October 1978.

Kristen Ghodsee, “Red Nostalgia? Communism, Women’s Emancipation, and Economic Transformation in Bulgaria,” L,Homme Z. F. G. 15, 1 (2004)

Kristen Ghodsee, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism. Duke University Press Books, 2011.

Kristen Ghodsee. The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe. Duke University Press. 2015.

Written by what's left

July 19, 2015 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Bulgaria, Communism

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