what's left

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]



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.

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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

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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)


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.


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

Rethinking Chemical Weapons

It’s highly unlikely that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons in its ongoing fight against foreign-backed jihadists, but if it had, would use of the weapons be uniquely reprehensible, and would it justify an intervention?

“You mention chemical weapons, people immediately freeze and are irrational.”–Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commanding officer of the British army’s chemical weapons unit.*

June 27, 2015
Updated July 18, 2015 and August 14, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

There are two problems with the way we think about chemical weapons. The first is the idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, and explosives. This position is both intellectually and morally indefensible. The second is our belief that chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They are not. In fact, they’re no more WMD than are bullets and machetes. [1]

Before elaborating on these points, let me address the question of whether the Syrian Army has used chemical weapons. This article is not a defense of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces, because I don’t believe the Syrian Army has used them. If it had, I would defend the army’s use of these weapons, but there’s no reason to believe they have been used, and compelling reasons to believe they haven’t. It’s impossible, of course, to say definitively that Syrian forces haven’t used chemical weapons; negatives can’t be proved. But there are compelling political and military reasons that can be cited that any reasonable person would concede amount to formidable constraints on the Syrian military that would prevent it from using chemical weapons. These constraints make the allegations against Syrian forces unconvincing. Plus, there’s no hard evidence, only allegations by states with a record of placing fabrications on the public record as pretexts for illegal aggressions against nationalist, socialist, communist and anti-imperialist governments. As an Arab nationalist state, with a significant public sector, and an independent foreign policy, Syria is a prime target for aggression by the United States, its allies, and its proxies.

Chemical weapons, as will be shown below, are highly ineffective. It’s difficult to conceive of when they would be used when bullets, conventional ordnance, missiles and jet fighters are at hand. Militarily, there are no compelling reasons for the Syrian military to use chemical weapons. This logic is all the stronger in the case of chlorine gas which is more an annoyance (its makes people sick, and rarely kills) than a credible weapon. [2]

Additionally, it made no sense politically for Syrian forces to deploy chemical weapons once their use became a red line drawn by US President Barack Obama. Since the US leader promised that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would trigger missile strikes, any possibility of their use became severely constrained. And since there were no compelling military reasons to use them, allegations that the Syrian military did, indeed, use them are unconvincing in the extreme.

The recent allegation that Syrian forces are using chlorine gas-filled barrel bombs dropped from helicopters suffers from the same lack of credibility. The political reasons against using chlorine gas remain the same as those that militate against the use of banned chemical weapons. And the military reasons that act as restraints on their use are even stronger, since chlorine gas rarely kills. [3]

Let’s acknowledge, then, that the Syrian military almost certainly hasn’t used chemical weapons in Syria in the last four years, and almost certainly isn’t mounting chlorine gas attacks today. Instead, let’s turn to the following questions:

• Are chemical weapons more reprehensible than other weapons?
• Are they legitimately WMD?
• Where did the concept of WMD come from?
• What role, if any, does the concept play in selling Western foreign policy goals to the public?

The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, or explosives is untenable. Why is choking to death from gas inhalation inhumane, while bleeding to death from a bullet wound, being crushed to death by a collapsed building struck by a missile, or being incinerated in an explosion, morally acceptable? Why is killing hundreds of people with sarin or mustard gas bad, when killing a hundred-fold more people through sanctions and economic blockade and their attendant hunger and disease, is all right? In this perverted moral calculus, what matters, it seems, is not the weapon, per se, but who’s wielding it. Our unique weapons are all right. Their unique weapons are morally repugnant. This double standard is glimpsed in the condemnation by Western human rights NGOs of the Palestinians’ home-made rockets as indiscriminate and therefore criminal under international law and the acceptance of Israel’s missiles and bombs as “precise” and therefore acceptable under the rules of war. The trouble is that the “morally repugnant” Palestinian rockets kill few Israelis while the Israeli’s “morally acceptable” precise weapons kill many Palestinians. [4]

To have any meaning at all, the concept of WMD must include weapons that kill massive numbers of people, and exclude those that don’t. A single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 70,000 people. [5] By contrast, a rocket with a typical payload of nerve gas will kill between 108 and 290 people if delivered under ideal weather conditions (overcast skies with no wind) over a heavily populated area against unprotected people. If there is a moderate wind or the sun is out, the death rate will be 11 to 29 people. [6] WMD kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, not tens or hundreds.

Compared to the single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a single rocket with a typical chemical weapons payload perfectly delivered against unprotected people will produce a fatality rate less than one-half of one percent as great under ideal conditions, and less than one-twentieth of one percent as great under realistic conditions. Against those with gas masks, or who have taken shelter indoors, the fatality rate will be infinitesimally small.

In WWI, it took 70,000 tons of gas to produce as many fatalities as were produced in Hiroshima by a single atom bomb. [7]

For the aforesaid reasons, defining chemical weapons as WMD is highly dubious unless the concept is so diluted that bullets and machetes are also included. [8] In large quantities, chemical weapons can kill many people. But in large quantities, bullets and machetes can kill many people, too.

Chemical weapons were introduced by the Germans in 1915. They accounted for less than one percent of battle deaths in WWI. Only 2-3 percent of those gassed on the Western front died, while the fatality rate among those struck by bullets or shrapnel was 10 to 12 times higher. It took a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. After the war, some military analysts argued that gas was comparatively humane—it incapacitated troops without killing them. [9]

Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons in its war against Iran in the 1980s—to little outside protest. At the time, Iraq was fighting a US enemy, Iran, with US assistance. Hence, for the United States and its allies, chemical weapons were all right—even though they were largely ineffective. Of 27,000 Iranian soldiers gassed, only 268 died—one in 100. [10]

Baghdad’s chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 is held up as an example of the weapons’ extensive destructive power. The attack is said to have produced 5,000 deaths. However, even if we accept this estimate as reasonable, it isn’t in the tens of thousands, as would be expected from a true WMD, like an atom bomb, but is in the low thousands. And there’s reason to believe that even this number is over-estimated. The source of the estimate was Iranian authorities, who had an interest in exaggerating the number of fatalities, because they were engaged in a conflict with Iraq and were providing aid to the Kurds. Journalists visiting the town after the attack reported seeing hundreds, not thousands, of dead. And the town had been under siege for several days and bombarded by conventional artillery.
Conventional weapons likely accounted for some fraction of the fatalities, and perhaps a large fraction. [11]

A Human Rights Watch report on Iraqi chemical weapon attacks in Iraqi Kurdish areas during the 1980s cited two attacks in which it is suggested that 300-400 may have been killed (again hundreds, and not tens of thousands of fatalities), while estimates for other attacks are under 100, and most are under 20. [12]

The release of sarin gas into a Japanese subway station in 1995 killed only 12 people. [13]

In August 2013, a chemical weapons attack took place in the Syrian town of Ghouta. Fatality estimates range from the low hundreds to low thousands, not tens of thousands. [14]

Thousands were killed in the 1984 Bhopal tragedy in India. This is sometimes cited as an example of the massive destructive power of chemical agents. But 40 tons of toxic gas was released into a heavily populated area after an explosion at a chemical plant, and no chemical weapon carries a payload of 40 tons. [15] To be sure, chemical weapons can be highly destructive if used in massive quantities, but so too can bombs and incendiaries, as witness the tens of thousands of deaths caused by the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo in WWII.


The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets and shrapnel comes out of WWI. The Germans were the first to introduce gas in 1915 and the British emphasized the inhuman aspects to try to draw the United States into the war on their side. [16] The British used the deception—to be used by many other states subsequently–that their weapons were humane while the weapons uniquely used by the other side were inhumane. That this was wrong is starkly illustrated by the following: Eighty thousand soldiers died from gas in WWI. Even if all of these fatalities were British, the number would pale in comparison with the hundreds of thousands, and possibly as many as 750,000 German civilians who perished from hunger and disease as a result of Britain’s deployment of its main weapon against Germany—a blockade intended to starve the country into surrender. [17]

Initially, WMD was a term to denote nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. [18] In 1989, George HW Bush departed from this convention, using the term WMD in an address to the UN in connection with chemical weapons. [19]

In 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, the White House began to talk of Iraq as “an emergent regional superpower, bristling with weapons of mass destruction,” a reference to Baghdad’s chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. [20] As shown above, chemical weapons are manifestly not WMD. Nor, by themselves, are ballistic missiles WMD. But it was useful for Washington to transform Iraq from being seen accurately as a comparatively weak country militarily that could carry out chemical weapons attacks, each of which could kill a few thousand at most under favorable conditions, to being seen inaccurately as a WMD threat. The purpose of elevating Iraq from a non-threat to a large threat was to soften public opinion for a series of wars and massively destructive sanctions that would soon be rolled out against the country. Washington’s problem with Iraq wasn’t that it bristled with WMD (it didn’t), but that it bristled against subservience to the interlocked political and economic agendas of Washington and Wall Street. As an Arab nationalist state with a publicly-owned economy sitting atop an ocean of oil, Iraq was a prime target for US aggression. Deceiving the Western public into believing Iraq was a WMD threat would secure public support for, or at least acquiescence to, a campaign of war and sanctions leading to regime change and absorption of Iraq into the United States’ informal empire. The ultimate prize would be the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry. [21]

In 1992, as sanctions against Iraq were beginning to bite, US law defined chemical and biological weapons as WMD. In 1994, radiological weapons and explosives were added to the list. Under the law, almost all weapons apart from modern rifles and pistols now became WMD, a vast extension of the concept, rendering it virtually meaningless. [22]

Chlorine Gas

Bullets kill. Shrapnel kills. Explosives kill. Chlorine gas makes people sick. It is lethal only in very high doses and where medical attention is not immediately available. [23] It’s a nuisance, not a lethal threat. It’s not even in the same category as bullets and machetes.

There are compelling political and military considerations that militate against Syrian forces mounting chlorine gas attacks. Chlorine gas is less effective than bullets and conventional ordnance, so why use it? Moreover, doing so would open up Syria to the risk of the United States claiming that the Syrian military’s use of chlorine gas was uniquely reprehensible and that air and missile strikes on Syrian forces were necessary as a moral response to barbarity.

By contrast, there is a strong reason for the jihadist proxies of the United States and its allies to mount chlorine gas attacks. They would welcome any direct military intervention by US and allied forces that weakens the Assad government. Any evidence of chlorine gas use in Syria can be employed to create a pretext for a US-led air campaign against Syrian forces, or short of that, to further vilify the Syrian government. Pinning blame for chlorine gas attacks on Assad and convincing the Western public that the Syrian president is culpable isn’t difficult to do. The Syrian leader has already been so thoroughly demonized that any charge, no matter how absurd, improbable, or baseless, will stick. All that needs to be done is to produce evidence of chlorine gas use, and then have Western state officials publicly express a “strong suspicion” that the Syrian Army is responsible. No hard evidence need be produced. The allegations will be disseminated uncritically by mass news media, to become, soon enough, the received truth. If the incident isn’t used by Western forces as a pretext for an attack, it can still be added to the growing Himalaya of slanders and black propaganda that has accumulated against the Syrian government over the last four years, and so make a future attack all the easier to sell to Western populations.

Significantly, chlorine gas has been used by jihadists in Iraq since 2003. There was flurry of chlorine gas attacks on US forces carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. [24] The jihadist group later became ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the main anti-government militant groups operating today in Syria. Ask yourself: If chlorine gas attacks have been mounted in Syria, who is more likely to have been the perpetrator—organizations with a history of using the weapon and a motivation to continue [25], or an organization with no military reason to use it and a compelling political reason not to?


The idea that chemical weapons, like nuclear weapons, kill massive numbers of people is wrong. Chemical weapons are no more destructive, and often are far less so, than conventional arms. Calling chemical weapons massively destructive makes the concept of WMD meaningless. WMD has become a hollow term used to manipulate public opinion to secure support for dubious political goals. Developed as a way of justifying a program of aggression against Iraq, its sole function is to connote something bad while denoting almost nothing at all, in order to turn non-threats into seemingly legitimate targets to secure public support for campaigns of aggression against governments whose sole crime is to exercise sovereignty over their country’s politics, natural resources, and economy.


Stephen Gowans discusses chemical weapons and WMD with Brendan Stone on Unusual Sources

Radio: We need to oppose illegal wars, not just weapons


*Adam Entous, “Islamic State suspected of using chemical weapon, U.S. says,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2015.

1. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013

2. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015

3. Barnard and Sengupta

4. See Jonathan Cooke, “Experts: Israel’s weapons are not precise,” The Blog from Nazareth, August 1, 2014. http://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2014-08-01/experts-israels-weapons-are-not-precise/

5. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999

6. “A 1993 analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress finds that a ton of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 3,000 and 8,000 deaths. Under slightly less ideal circumstances—if there is a moderate wind or if the sun is out, for example—the death rate would be one-tenth as great.” (John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. p.18.) The UN estimated that rockets carrying a payload of between 11 and 16 gallons of chemical agent were used in the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria. (“Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013) Assuming an average payload of 13 gallons and 358 gallons per ton, then 13 gallons of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 108 and 290 deaths.

7. According to Mueller, 2013 it took one ton of gas to produce a single fatality in WWI. If follows, then, that 70,000 tons of gas would produce 70,000 deaths—as many as caused by a single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

8. Mueller and Mueller

9. Mueller, 2013

10. John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. pp.19-20

11. Mueller, 2006

12. Mueller, 2006

13. John Mueller. Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp 227-228

14. “Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013

15. Mueller, 2006. p. 20

16. Mueller, 2013

17. Mueller and Mueller

18. Mueller, 2013

19. “Excerpts from Bush’s Speech at the Opening of the UN General Assembly,” The New York Times, September 26, 1989. Bush pledged to eliminate the United States’ chemical weapons within 10 years (since delayed to 2023.) US allies Israel and Egypt also have chemical weapons. In 2003, Syria proposed to the United Nations Security Council that the Middle East become a chemical weapons-free zone. The proposal was blocked by the United States, likely in order to shelter Israel from having to give up its store of chemical arms or from being forced into the embarrassing situation of having to explain to the world why it was keeping them. Numerous calls to declare the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone have also been blocked by Washington to shelter Israel from having to give up its nuclear arsenal.

20. Michael Wines, “Confrontation in the Gulf: US explores new strategies to limit weapons of mass destruction,” The New York Times, September 30, 1990

21. See Greg Muttitt. Fuel of the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. The New Press. 2012

22. Mueller, 2013

23. Barnard and Sengupta

24. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.

25. In a July 17, 2015 New York Times Article, (ISIS has fired chemical mortar shells, evidence indicates) journalist C.J. Chivers reported on indications that Islamic State militants used improvised mortar shells to carry chemical agents in attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.

Chivers wrote:

The Islamic State appears to have manufactured rudimentary chemical warfare shells and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria with them as many as three times in recent weeks, according to field investigators, Kurdish officials and a Western ordnance disposal technician who examined the incidents and recovered one of the shells.

Chivers added that Sunni militants have a history of using chemical weapons.

Beginning more than a decade ago, Sunni militants in Iraq have occasionally used chlorine or old chemical warfare shells in makeshift bombs against American and Iraqi government forces. And Kurdish forces have claimed that militants affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, used a chlorine-based chemical in at least one suicide truck bomb in Iraq this year.

According to Chivers, an investigator found evidence that ISIS militants had used chemical projectiles in attacks in northeastern Syria.

The reporter acknowledged that “Chemical weapons, internationally condemned and banned in most of the world, are often less lethal than conventional munitions.” He didn’t mention that despite the pariah status of the weapons that the United States has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles. Israel, too, has chemical weapons.

Written by what's left

June 27, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria, WMD

The Concept of WMD, and its Use against Syria, in the Propaganda Systems of Western States

May 20, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

John Mueller, the US political scientist who coined the term “sanctions of mass destruction,” to show that “economic sanctions…by large states…may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history” [1], wrote an article two years ago in Foreign Affairs, the major foreign policy journal of the US establishment, challenging the idea that Syria’s chemical weapons (when it had them) were a threat. [2] Mueller examined the history of chemical weapons since WWI to make the point that chemical agents are misclassified as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

According to Mueller, chemical weapons accounted for less than one percent of battle fatalities during the First World War; it took one ton of Sarin gas on average, during that conflict, to produce a single fatality; and only 2-3% of those gassed on the Western front died, compared to a fatality rate 10 to 12 times higher among those who were struck by bullets or shrapnel from conventional weapons. [3]

In their official history of WWI, the British concluded that “gas made war uncomfortable…to no purpose.” [4] Accordingly, most handsomely funded militaries with generous weapons development programs or the means to purchase highly destructive armaments were quite happy to relinquish their chemical weapons. They are ineffective and conventional arms produce far higher rates of fatalities.

But in the course of challenging the view that chemical weapons are WMD, Mueller came close to making a far more significant point, namely, that the concept of WMD is used for propaganda purposes to vastly exaggerate the threat posed by official enemies that have “weapons of little destruction.” This is done by creating the impression that the ineffective weapons in the enemy’s arsenal are weapons of great destructive power, through the pairing of weapons of little destruction, like chemical agents, with highly destructive armaments, like nuclear weapons. Two auxiliary points are necessary here: (i) These “enemies” are comparatively weak militarily, without the massively destructive conventional arms found in the arsenals of major military powers; (ii) The previous point explains the “enemies’” possession of weapons of little destruction. To exaggerate to make a point, labeling chemical weapons as WMD is like calling the spears of hunting and gathering tribes WMD in order to turn primitive people into threats.

In 1992, the term WMD was explicitly codified in US law to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological weapons, as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons—conventional bombs used to disperse radioactive material—were added. [5] But chemical, biological and radiological weapons have nowhere near the destructive capability of nuclear weapons, to say nothing of the destructive capability of the high yield conventional explosives in the arsenals of the US and other large militaries.

So why would the United States subsume a class of highly ineffective weapons under a rubric archetypically defined by nuclear weapons?

For the same reason the British quintupled their gas casualty figures in WWI—to justify a military intervention. For the British, making gas into a uniquely inhuman weapon demonized the Germans, the major users of gas. This could be used, it was hoped, to draw the United States into the war on the side of the Triple Entente. [6]

For the United States, in 1992, investing chemical weapons with the same kind of horrific aura that nuclear weapons have, served the political purpose of making Iraq, which had chemical weapons—furnished by the United States, which condoned their use by Iraq against Iran [7]—appear to be a unique threat—one that had to be dealt with by imposing what amounted to a blockade to starve the population into submission. The blockade contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, Iraqis—more people than could ever be killed by all of the chemical weapons in the US-supplied Iraqi arsenal—truly, sanctions of mass destruction, and far more terrible than chemical weapons.

So, WMD, applied to chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, is by design, a term of deception, whose purpose is the manipulation of public opinion to soften up attitudes to war against countries that (i) are an obstacle to US geopolitical designs and (ii) have one or more types of these weapons of little destruction.

These days, the concept of WMD as part of the propaganda system of Western states has been used against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The nature of the government in Damascus, and the reason it finds itself in the cross-hairs of the West’s regime-change apparatus, can best be explained in the words of its president. “Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [8] In other words, the Syrian government pursues Syria’s interests, not the interlocked political agendas of Washington and economic agendas of Wall St.

To demonize this obstacle to Western agendas, the charge is leveled at Damascus that it is responsible for at least one chemical weapons attack, for which no clear evidence has ever been adduced that implicates the Syrian army, and for which the use of chemical weapons would have been a transparent tactical blunder since it would have delivered to Washington a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria. For this reason it is highly improbable that the Syrian army was behind the attack. An additional charge, made now that Syria has abandoned its chemical weapons, is that it routinely uses chlorine gas as a weapon.

As a weapon, chlorine gas is exceedingly ineffective. It is lethal only in highly concentrated doses and where medical treatment is not immediately available. It is far less effective than conventional weapons. [9] Why, then, would the Syrian army use a highly ineffective weapon, which is deplored by world public opinion, and whose use would provide the United States a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria, when it has far more effective conventional weapons, which are not deplored by world public opinion, and whose use does not deliver a pretext to Washington to intervene? Unless we believe the government in Damascus is comprised of a collection of imbeciles, this makes no sense.

On the other hand, let’s look at this from the perspective of the opposition. It has a strong motive to use chlorine gas in order to pin blame for its use on the Syrian army to create a pretext for direct US military intervention. What’s more, the opposition’s major forces have a long history of using chlorine gas as a weapon.

Chlorine gas has been used by Sunni militants in Iraq for over a decade. It has been used intermittently in attacks against US and Iraqi forces and against civilians since 2003. There was a flurry of such attacks in Anbar province in 2007 as US forces were trying to wrest control of the territory from Al-Qaeda in Iraq [10], an organization from which sprang ISIS and al-Nusra, the principal militant groups in Syria today.

In light of the above, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out who’s using chlorine gas in Syria: the forces that have a motive for their use and a history of using them. Nor do you have to be particularly perceptive (only attentive) to determine that the insinuation of US politicians and leading news media that the Syrian government is weaponizing chlorine gas is a deliberate deception, on par with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell inventing a pretext for war on Iraq by concocting a deliberate fiction about Iraq concealing chemical weapons, a fabrication leading news media legitimized.

The concept of WMD provides a context in which the public is manipulated to see governments whose militaries have ineffective weapons, of a destructive capability far below that of the conventional weapons in the arsenals of major militaries, as uniquely inhuman and vastly destructive, thereby depicting these governments as dire threats and consequently as necessary targets for regime change. Syria’s relinquishing its chemical weapons stores has undercut the ability of Western governments to demonize Damascus as a user of WMD. Accordingly, the Western propaganda system, of which governments, leading news media, and leading human rights NGOs are a part, has invoked allegations of chlorine gas use by the Syrian Arab Army to bring WMD back into the picture.

But it should be made clear, first, that it is a corruption of the truth to equate weaponized chlorine gas, a weapon of little destruction, with nuclear weapons and veridical WMD; second, that the allegation that the Syrian military is deploying a weapon of little destruction when it has more effective weapons and use of chlorine gas would deliver a pretext to Washington to directly intervene militarily in Syria, strains credibility; and third, there is, not surprisingly, a complete absence of credible evidence that the Syrian army has used chlorine gas as a weapon. It is the propaganda apparatus of Western states—itself a weapon of mass deception–that advances the antitheses of these points.

1. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.

2. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line: Why WeShouldn’t Care about Syria’s Chemical Weapons,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid; The radiation dispersal range is equal to the blast range. Hence, anyone exposed to radiation would be killed first by the conventional blast. Adding radioactive material, then, to a conventional bomb is pointless—like shooting someone two days after he has been beheaded.

6. Ibid.

7. Glen Kessler, “History lesson: When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2013

8. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,” http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835

9. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015.

10. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.

Written by what's left

May 20, 2015 at 1:51 am


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