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People Aur Politics

A liberation zone for democratic rights, multiculturalism, international brotherhood and peace.

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Archive for the ‘Art and Culture/Cinema/Travel’ Category

Abdur Rahman I: The beginning of the glory of Muslim Spain-Akbar Ahmed

Posted by admin On June - 16 - 2018 Comments Off on Abdur Rahman I: The beginning of the glory of Muslim Spain-Akbar Ahmed


The story of the origin of the greatest of the dynasties of Andalusia, Spain is as fantastic as if it were taken from the pages of The Thousand and One Nights. Abdur Rahman, a dashing young Arab prince, barely escapes with his life from Damascus following a palace coup and massacre, survives hair-raising adventures with a band of soldiers hard on his heels with orders to kill him, and after crossing many lands establishes his rule on another continent, in Cordoba, Spain. These events took place over a thousand years ago and throw light on the encounters between Islam and Christianity and between Europe, Africa, and Asia. There is courage, heartache, pain, defeat, and triumph here, and even in the darkest hours there are characters from all faiths who inspire us today.

When the youthful Abdur Rahman, the lone surviving member of the royal family following the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids in AD 750, arrived in al­Andalus, he would have recognised the tribal identity of the groups who dominated it. Indeed, the name al­Andalus—the Arabic name for Iberia—is traditionally thought to be derived from the name of the Germanic tribe, the Vandals, who occupied the region before the Visigoths.

Abdur Rahman, a grandson of the Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled an empire larger than the Roman Empire, came from a tribal background; the very identity of his ruling family, the Umayyads, rested on its lineage links with the Prophet of Islam. His mother was a Berber, a fact that would stand him in good stead when he arrived in the lands dominated by the Berber tribes in the Maghreb in North Africa and southern Spain. He arrived in al­Andalus to find a reservoir of goodwill for his Umayyad dynasty; within a year of his arrival, Abdur Rahman would declare himself the emir of Cordoba and be recognised as such.

AbdurRahman had grown up in a culture that valued learning, knowledge, and literature. He was thus bringing with him ideas of pluralist societies successfully living together and the appreciation of learning.

Abdur Rahman’s dynasty would give Europe one of its most glorious periods of history, culminating in the reign of an illustrious successor, Abdur Rahman III, whose Jewish confidant, for all practical purposes, was his chief minister or vizier and whose ambassador to European courts was a Catholic bishop. Perhaps there is nothing more symbolic of that period and its fate than the ruins of Madinatal­Zahra on the outskirts of the city of Cordoba. Built by Abdur Rahman III, it was a glittering town that dazzled visitors. The architecture and town planning were breathtaking, and evidence of it can still be seen today.

Perhaps Abdur Rahman’s greatest contribution would be in laying the foundations of learning and knowledge so that society would reflect one of Islam’s core tenets, the instruction to seek knowledge, or ilm

The Andalusian model of Convivencia, a pluralist society encouraging acceptance of others and the pursuit of knowledge, art, and literature, persisted for centuries after Cordoba had changed hands. It was evident in different ways and in different kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. It was even visible in kingdoms with Christian kings elsewhere in Europe, as in Sicily. Later, the same idea would be evident in the Balkans during the Ottoman Empire. It also had an impact far beyond these areas to shape the very civilization of Europe itself.

Let us look more closely at Abdur Rahman, the man whose dynasty more than any other came to represent the idea of pluralist society in Europe.

Perhaps there is no greater recognition than that given by a sworn enemy. Al­Mansur, the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, once asked his fawning courtiers who might best fit the title, Saqr Quraish or “the Falcon of the Quraish.” Surely, the courtiers argued, the Caliph himself deserved the title of the bird that is the swiftest and fiercest predator of the skies. The caliph pondered a while and then replied that the title belonged to his rival, Abdur Rahman.

Abdur Rahman’s reign lasted thirty­two years, during which he established a dynasty that would be the pride of Europe. It laid the foundations for the Umayyad caliphate of Cordoba that rivaled the other established caliphate in Baghdad, the Abbasids. Its capital, Cordoba, the jewel of al­Andalus, was the most populous and resplendent capital of Europe with parks, palaces, baths, and libraries.

Abdur Rahman’s personal story, in addition to his skills as an administrator, created wide sympathy for the man who was known as al­Dakhil—the immigrant. People were moved by his nostalgic yearning for the home of his youth. He never forgot his days in his Syrian birthplace of Rusafa and would do everything possible to remind himself of it. His greatest architectural triumph, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, contained a thousand marble columns reaching up in arches to the high ceiling in a shape suggestive of palm fronds. Matching them, just outside, was a grove of actual date palms, a tree Abdur Rahman is thought to have introduced to al­Andalus. Worshippers in the mosque looking around and above would be forgiven for feeling they were sitting in a forest of palm trees. Abdur Rahman’s poem of exile and longing, inspired by the sight of a palm tree in his Spanish palace named Rusafa after his home in Syria, captures the sensitivity of the man:

“A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,?

Born in the West, far from the land of palms.?

I said to it: How like me you are, far away and in exile,

In long separation from family and friends.?

You have sprung from soil in which you are a stranger;

And I, like you, am far from home.”

This was a man who in his time was a match for the other two titans of the age—Charlemagne, the most powerful Christian ruler in Europe, and Harun al­Rashid, the Caliph of the mighty Abbasid Empire. Yet today, Abdur Rahman’s name is hardly known in Europe, and few Muslims remember him with any clarity.

Perhaps Abdur Rahman’s greatest contribution would be in laying the foundations of learning and knowledge so that society would reflect one of Islam’s core tenets, the instruction to seek knowledge, or ilm. The ilm ethos in time came to characterize the culture of Andalusia.

At a time when Islam is widely seen in the West as backward and violent, it is important to remember this most important of Muslim European dynasties, it’s fascinating beginning, and why it proved to be so influential to European culture and history. It is my hope that through remembering and learning the lessons of Europe’s multicultural past, we can envision a New Andalusia, whereby the different religions and cultures may live together in the 21st century.

The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018)

Published in Daily Times, June 16th 2018.
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

The Russian Revolution Catalysed an Array of Experiments in Art-SHUKLA SAWANT

Posted by admin On November - 7 - 2017 Comments Off on The Russian Revolution Catalysed an Array of Experiments in Art-SHUKLA SAWANT

The Russian Revolution Catalysed an Array of Experiments in Art
BY SHUKLA SAWANT ON 07/11/2017 •
Avant-garde artists of the time were primarily concerned with projecting different kinds of future work spaces.
Ekaterina Zernova’s ‘Collective Farmers Greeting the Tank’, 1937. Credit: mcah.columbia.edu
A hundred years ago, the Russian revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century.

In 1937, at a time when Stalin was consolidating his policy of collectivised farming in Russia, Ekaterina Zernova, a member of  “Izobrigada” (group of art workers), made a painting depicting an army tank rolling down a dirt track through a green meadow, being greeted by workers of a collective farm with bouquets of flowers in their hands. This celebration of an industrial war machine, painted in a manner that was to become the dominant visual language across authoritarian regimes, was far removed in content and style from the body of work that was produced by artists in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. This pivotal movement in the visual arts, informed by a utopian outlook, subsequently acquired great currency in many parts of the world.

There is no single route to abstraction. It is worth noting then that the Russian Revolution threw up a fascinating array of experiments in nonrepresentational arts; a revolt against the illusionary character of art associated with religion and representation of the aristocracy that was the mainstay of art practice till the 19th century. The political focus of the new socialist ideology in Russia lay in transforming a rural economy into an industrialised society and artists, it was believed, would play an important role in this transformation if given the autonomy to frame a new artistic vision. Not directed towards the production of aesthetic objects, the art of this period flourished through the support of an institutional infrastructure and intellectual engagement of artists that believed in endorsing “truth to materials”. This had enormous bearings on the field of functional design, typography and architecture that developed out of an analysis of the fundamental properties of materials: faktura, combined with tektonika, their spatial presence.

The impulse towards nonrepresentational art, however, was inaugurated a little earlier, in the first two decades of the 20th century, through the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, and the activities of short-lived artists groups from Russia, intent on provocation and bearing absurd names like the ‘Jack of Diamonds’ or the ‘Donkey’s Tail’. What emerged though from this labyrinth of irreverent activities was a style of painting called Suprematism, steeped in spiritualism and practiced by  Kasimir Maleavich from Kiev. His Black Square on a White Ground (1913) is an early example of trying to pare art down to the bare essentials of form.
Black Square on a White Ground. Credit: tate.org.uk
Yet, there was another dimension to experimentation with pure form. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, a 1919 poster designed by El Lissitzky drawing upon Vladimir Mayakovsky’s declaration ‘the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes’, is a politically-charged work that used the language of formalism rather than academic realism. It is, however, also a partisan political statement in favour of the Bolshevik revolution, visualised through the pure geometry of triangles and squares. Designed to stand on a street corner, the poster prefigures what came to be called Constructivism in the Russian avant-garde.
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. Credit: designishistory.com
The formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 was a turning point for artists, and the desire to foreground proletariat expression led to the formation of ‘Proletkult’ – an organisation that advanced the idea of a spare, functional art in consonance with thinking about art and its social role. This was supported by the government of the day with an independent network of studios being created to give artists the space for autonomous experimentation. Subsequently, institutions such as ‘VKhUTEMAS’ (The Higher Art and Technical Workshop) with Vladimir Tatlin, Kandinsky, Naum Gabo and Alexander Rodchenko as faculty, UNOVIS (The Champions of the New Art) helmed by Maleavich and other organisations, connected artists who sought to repudiate easel painting for utopian functionalism. Textile designs, posters, furniture for workers clubs and clothes for the factory worker, athletes and modern working men and women were developed to  flatten class and gender hierarchies in the workplace. Essential to this transformative vision were designs developed by women artists like Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova.

One fundamental text of Constructivism is The Realist Manifesto, authored by the sculptors Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, which positions art as the fulcrum of modern life “at the workbench, at the office, at work, at rest, and at leisure; work days and holidays, at home and on the road, so that the flame of life does not go out in man”.
Liubov Popova Textile Design 1923–4, Ink and gouache on paper, reproduced on the cover of Lef, no.2, 1924. Credit: tate.org.uk
Indeed, the overwhelming concern of artists of the Russian avant-garde was to make enlightened projections for the future of the workspace, an example of which is Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International or Tatlin’s Tower as it came to be called; a spiralling mass of steel and glass that was envisaged to stand taller than the Eiffel Tower. It was to be constructed out of the three basic forms of the cone, cube and cylinder and also have a temporal character as each unit was meant to rotate at a different cadence. This architectural design, a monument to the revolution was planned to serve as a centre for the Communist Third International, or the Comintern, even though it was probably impossible to realise on the ground. Several experiments in architecture however did see the light of day such as the futuristic designs of the Soviet Pavilion at the 1925 Paris International Exposition, and even the designs for residential units such as the Narkomfin Building in Moscow, which included communal kitchens and crèches releasing women from domesticity to enable them to join the workforce.
Fig. 4. Monument to the Third International. Credit: tate.org.uk
Industrial forms that could replicate images such as printing and photography had an important place in the visual lexicon developed by Constructivist artists. Photomontage as imagined by them was quite different from the Dadaist “destructive” collages. The photograph was a construction unit that was often combined with text and painted areas, to dismantle the idea of one point perspective. With the background eliminated by cutting, the image could be re-contextualised and animated through variations in scale and contrasts of colour that would be added as activating elements. Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina’s Dynamic City or the poster The Electrification of the Entire Country are early examples of this form of montage technique.
Fig. 5. Gustav Klutsis, Design for a poster The Electrification of the Entire Country. Credit: monoskop.org
Unlike photography of an earlier period that was intimately connected to acts of memorialisation, these images, published primarily in periodicals such as LEF (Left Front of Art) created a unique space for image – text relationships, beginning with the cover page, a distinctive location for professing a social agenda. However, in this space of futuristic projections there was also space for emotional entanglements and the celebrated romance between Mayakovsky and Lilya Birk found a place in the periodical as an illustrated poem Pro eto (About this).

The longue durée of the avant-garde project, even if it was to subside momentarily in Russia, extended across diverse locations and continents, taking root through institutions that were inaugurated when decolonised nations sought to imagine a new future for themselves. It is a bequest that did not always maintain a dialectical relationship with local social conditions and geography, because of which this historical project of modernity today finds itself at a crossroads.

Shukla Sawant is a visual artist and professor of visual studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Thread of the unstitched cloth-JAWED NAQVI

Posted by admin On December - 20 - 2016 Comments Off on Thread of the unstitched cloth-JAWED NAQVI

FIRAQ Gorakhpuri was the senior poet on the stage at a Lucknow mushaira. A rookie versifier was on the mike. Firaq appeared to have dozed off, as his turn, the last usually, was still a few more senior poets away. He wasn’t really asleep though.

“That sounds like my verse you are reciting, sir,” he suddenly interrupted the young poet who was in full cry. The unhesitant accusation was padded with a grudging half smile. “Thank you indeed Firaq sahib, but this is obviously an accident,” the frazzled poet pleaded, waiting for the nod to continue. The reply, however, provoked a sharper reaction than was bargained for. “Young friend, we have seen bullock carts crashing into pedestrians. Accidents are known to occur between cars and trains,” Firaq wouldn’t stop. “But an accident between an aeroplane and a bicycle?” The auditorium was in splits and it was a while before the soirée could resume.

Imagine Gautam Buddha as the senior poet and the world of intellect that followed as his protégés. I must confess, I too felt like the rookie man the other day when I thought I had figured out how Buddhism may have impacted global religions and some great literature too in no small way. Existentialism, theatre of the absurd, pacifism, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, they all flitted by. ‘Damyata’ (control), ‘datta’ (give), ‘dayadhvam’ (compassion) from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are Eliot’s last words in the long poem. The words are thought to have come from the Buddhist reflection of the Upanishads.

It was humbling to realise soon enough that scholars had arrived at similar conclusions with far more diligence than I could hope to muster as a journalist. Sitting in 10 days of Vipassana silence recently, the mind leapt hither and thither.

Any number of lines by Ghalib are infused with Buddhist meditation that may pass for Sufi influence.
The religious injunction came to mind in the reverie: travel to far away China to seek knowledge. Why be partial to China, why not Greece, for example, which produced great philosophers? Some more cogitation and a faint answer appeared. Could it have to do with Buddhism, which had travelled circuitously to China while it was being exiled out of India? Was that the wisdom Muslims were being counselled to partake of? Surely there was more than an outside chance that Buddha’s teachings had imbued Confucianism with greater moral and temporal sinews. The idea of the unstitched cloth worn by Haj pilgrims and Buddhist monks crossed the mind, and their shaven heads.

I noted that the focus on the inward gaze suggested by Buddhist contemplation was coursing through Allama Iqbal, possibly the greatest Muslim philosopher from Asia. “Apne mann mein doob kar pa ja suragh-i-zindagi/ Tu agar mera nahi banta na ban, apna to ban.” (Delve into your soul to seek life’s buried tracks; Will you not be mine? then be not mine, be your own at least!) Iqbal regurgitates Buddha again: “Mann ki duniya mein na paya mein ne Afrangi ka raaj/ Man ki duniya mein na dekhe, meiney Sheikh-o-Barhaman.” (In the depth of my soul I have not allowed the white man’s rule/ In that world I have not seen Hindu and Muslim fight.)

Kabir was a popular pre-Mughal poet. Bulleh Shah came along from Bukhara with the Mughal arrival in India. Both learned poets divided by 1,000 miles between them and a couple of centuries apart spoke Buddha’s language. “Bulleya ki jaana main kaun’(Bulleya to me, I am not known). ‘Verhe aa varh mere” (Do come to me). “Main jaana jogi de naal” (I’m going together with Jogi). The last is so akin to the essential invocation: “Buddham sharanam gachhami.” (I’m off to surrender to Buddha’s care).

Kabir says: “Man na rangaae, rangaae jogi kapda.” It was a direct indictment of the priestly class. The mystics colour their clothes when they were required to fix their thought. Buddha’s use of the human body as an implement to train the mind to deal with worldly traps is reflected in Kabir faithfully in his poem Jheeni jeeni beeni chadariya. In this, Kabir likens the body to a woven shawl. “Jo chaadar sur nar muni orhey, orh ke maeli kini chadariya/ Das Kabir jatan se orhi, jyon ki tyon dhar dini chadariya.” (The noble and the learned soiled the sheet. Kabir used it with care and left it spotless clean.)

Kabir’s simile for creation as a delicate work of threading shows up in Mir Taqi Mir a couple of centuries later with another Buddhist quest for treading gently. “Le saans bhi aahista ke nazuk hai bahot kaam/ Aafaq ki is kargah-i-sheeshagari ka.” (Breathe but gently. Do not disturb the arrangement of resplendent particles that make up the delicate thread of life). “Hasti apni habaab ki si hai/ Ye numaish saraab ki si hai.” Mir may be using the Buddhist concept of anichchya or impermanence here. (My life is like a bubble now/ Mirage-like it appears and how).

Any number of lines by Ghalib are infused with Buddhist meditation that may pass for Sufi influence. But was Sufism devoid of Buddha’s core beliefs? Khwaja Mir Dard the Sufi poet of the 18th-century Delhi offered an insight into his grasp of classical music and mysticism that came close to the voice of the Great Teacher of 600 BC. “Khalq mein hain par juda sab khalq say rahtay hain hum/ Taal ki gintee say baahar jis tarah roopak mein sum.” (We belong to the world we live in, but we always stand apart/ Like the climax of the roopak taal uniquely aloof from the cyclical beat of the drum.)

From Turkey to Iran, the Buddhist thought had been woven into poetry. Take Rumi or Adam Sanai in the 12th century, Buddha’s presence is inescapable. “Someone who keeps aloof from suffering is not a lover,” says Sanai in a translation by Coleman Barks. Buddha would be smiling with joy, not the half smile of Firaq.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Published in Dawn December 20th, 2016
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

The Man Who Flew-Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Jamey Gambrell

Posted by admin On October - 31 - 2015 Comments Off on The Man Who Flew-Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Jamey Gambrell


Svetlana Alexievich
The Story of the Man Who Flew Like a Bird:
Ivan Mashovets—Graduate Student of the Philosophy Department


On October 8, the Nobel Committee announced that the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature was being awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a writer and journalist whose body of work is unique both in scope and in genre.

The bare facts of Alexievich’s biography reflect the nature of her greater subject: the memory, aspirations, tragedy, and fluid historical identity of Homo sovieticus. She was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine that lies at the eastern edge of the Carpathian Mountains, about 85 miles south of Lviv, and a mere 150 or so miles from the borders of Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, respectively. The city was annexed by the USSR only a few years before her birth in 1948. Her mother was Ukrainian and her father Belarussian. She grew up in Minsk, Belarus, where she studied journalism, developed her own exceptional voice, and became a Russian writer.

Over the course of several decades and numerous books, Alexievich has pursued a distinctive kind of narrative based on journalistic research and the distillation of thousands of firsthand interviews with people directly affected by all the major events of the Soviet and post-Soviet period. She has uncovered the unknown but crucial work that Soviet women did in World War II, recounted the memories of children caught up in the “Great Patriotic War,” documented the realities facing soldiers in the Soviet-Afghan war, which were kept from the Soviet public, and recorded the experiences of those who lived through the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

In her most recent book, she deftly orchestrates a great chorus of diverse voices to chronicle the human toll—emotional, physical, economic, and political—of the collapse of the USSR, a country that once made up a sixth of the world’s land mass.1 Alexievich’s oeuvre comprises nothing less than a history of epic proportions, which she has called “Voices of Utopia.” This undertaking has brought the writer many awards and accolades from Western European countries in particular, and from Russia, where her books have been printed and reprinted many times; she is a well-known critic of the Putin regime. In her home, Belarus, however, under the dictatorship of Aleksandr Lukashenko, she has been subject to the same political censorship and pressure as many of her colleagues (as Timothy Snyder pointed out in the NYR Daily 2). For over a decade she lived in various European cities, because it was not safe to return to Minsk (though she did in 2011), and her books have not been published in Belarus since 1994.
In announcing the award, the Swedish Academy called Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings…a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” “By means of her extraordinary method—a carefully composed collage of human voices,” the Academy went on to say, “Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era.” As she writes:

I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings. What people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced. This is impossible to imagine or invent, at any rate in such multitude of real details. We quickly forget what we were like ten or twenty or fifty years ago….
I’m searching life for observations, nuances, details. Because my interest in life is not the event as such, not war as such, not Chernobyl as such, not suicide as such. What I am interested in is what happens to the human being….
Svetlana Alexievich’s interest in what happens to the human being is evident on every page of her writing. Among other things, her work testifies to the immense power of compassion to create understanding of our fellow human beings.

The text below is from a collection of more than a dozen tales of suicide that Alexievich published in Russia in 1994 under the title Zacharovannye smert’iu (Enchanted by Death). In the introduction she wrote that she sought to “distinguish…the lonely human voice. They all sound different. Each one has its own secret.”

—Jamey Gambrell
Archive of Svetlana Alexievich
Svetlana Alexievich
The Story of the Man Who Flew Like a Bird:
Ivan Mashovets—Graduate Student of the Philosophy Department

From the account of his friend, Vladimir Staniukevich, graduate student in the Philosophy Department:

…He wanted to leave unnoticed, of course. It was evening. Twilight. But several students in the nearby dormitory saw him jump. He opened his window wide, stood up on the sill, and looked down for a long time. Then he turned around, pushed hard, and flew… He flew from the twelfth floor…

A woman was passing by with a little boy. The youngster looked up:

“Mama, look, that man is flying like a bird…”

He flew for five seconds…

The district police officer told me all this when I returned to the dormitory; I was the only person who could be called his friend in any sense. The next day I saw a photo in the evening paper: he lay on the pavement face down…in the pose of a flying man…

I can try to put some of it into words… Although everything is slipping away… You and I won’t make it out of this labyrinth… It will be a partial explanation, a physical explanation, not a spiritual one. For instance, there’s something called the trust hotline. A person calls and says: “I want to commit suicide.” In fifteen minutes they dissuade him. They find out the reason. But it isn’t really the reason, it’s the trigger…

The day before he saw me in the hall:

“Be sure to come by. We have to talk.”

That evening I knocked on his door several times, but he didn’t open it. Through the wall I could hear he was there (our rooms are adjacent). He was pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth. “Well,” I thought, “I’ll drop by tomorrow.” Tomorrow I talked to the policeman.

“What’s this?” The policeman showed me a vaguely familiar folder.

I leaned over the table:

“It’s his dissertation. There’s the title page: Marxism and Religion.”

All the pages were crossed out. Diagonally, in red pencil, he’d written furiously: “Nonsense!! Gibberish!! Lies!!” It was his handwriting… I recognized it…

He was always afraid of water… I remember that from our college days. But he’d never said that he was afraid of heights…

His dissertation didn’t pan out. Well, to hell with it! You have to admit you’re a prisoner of utopia… Why jump from the twelfth floor on account of that? These days how many people are rewriting their master’s essay, their doctoral dissertation, and how many are afraid to admit what the title was? It’s embarrassing, uncomfortable… Maybe he decided: I’ll throw off these clothes and this physical shell…

Behavioral logic didn’t lead to this, but the act was committed nonetheless… There’s the concept of fate. You’ve been given a path to follow… You rise to it… You either rise, or fall… I think he believed that there is another life… In a thin layer… Was he religious? This is where speculation begins… If he believed, it was without intermediaries, without cultish organizations, without any ritual. But suicide is impossible for a religious person, he wouldn’t dare violate God’s plan… Break the thread… The trigger mechanism works more easily for atheists. They don’t believe in another life, aren’t afraid of what might be. What’s the difference between seventy years or a hundred? It’s just a moment, a grain of sand. A molecule of time…

He and I once talked about socialism not resolving the problem of death, or at least of old age. It just skirts it…

I saw him make the acquaintance of a crazy guy in a used bookstore. This guy, too, was rummaging around in old books on Marxism, like we were. Then he told me:

“You know what he said? ‘I’m the one who’s normal—but you’re suffering.’ And you know, he was right.”
Art Resource
‘Marx as Prometheus’; engraving, 1843
I think that he was a sincere Marxist and saw Marxism as a humanitarian idea, where “we” means much more than “I.” Like some kind of unified planetary civilization in the future… When you’d drop by his room he’d be lying there, surrounded by books: Plekhanov, Marx, biographies of Hitler, Stalin, Hans Christian Andersen stories, Bunin, the Bible, the Koran. He was reading it all at once. I remember some fragments of his thoughts, but only fragments. I reconstructed them afterward… I’m trying to find meaning in his death… Not an excuse, not a reason… Meaning! In his words…

“What is the difference between a scholar and a priest? The priest comes to know the unknown through faith. But the scholar tries to comprehend it through facts, through knowledge. Knowledge is rational. But let’s take death, for instance. Just death. Death goes beyond thought.

“We Marxists have taken on the role of church ministers. We say we know the answer to the question: How do you make everyone happy? How?! My favorite childhood book was The Human-Amphibian by A. Belyaev. I reread it again recently. It’s a response to all the utopians of the world… The father turns his son into a human-amphibian. He wants to give him the oceans of the world, to make him happy by changing his human nature. He’s a brilliant engineer… The father believes that he’s uncovered the secret… That he’s God! He made his son into the most miserable of people… Nature doesn’t reveal itself to human reason… It only entices it.”

Here are a few more of his monologues. As I remember them, at least.

“The phenomenon of Hitler will trouble many minds for a long time to come. Excite them. How, after all, is the mechanism of mass psychosis launched? Mothers held their children up crying: ‘Here, Führer, take them!’

“We are consumers of Marxism. Who can say he knows Marxism? Knows Lenin, knows Marx? There’s early Marx… And Marx at the end of his life… The halftones, shades, the whole blossoming complexity of it all, is unknowable to us. No one can increase our knowledge. We are all interpreters…

“At the moment we’re stuck in the past like we used to be stuck in the future. I also thought I hated this my whole life, but it turns out that I loved it. Loved?… How can anyone possibly love this pool of blood? This cemetery? What filth, what nightmares…what blood is mixed into it all… But I do love it!

“I proposed a new dissertation topic to our professor: ‘Socialism as an Intellectual Mistake.’ His response was: ‘Nonsense.’ As if I could decipher the Bible or the Apocalypse with equal success. Well, nonsense is a form of creativity, too… The old man was bewildered. You know him yourself—he’s not one of those old farts, but everything that happened was a personal tragedy for him. I have to rewrite my dissertation, but how can he rewrite his life? Right now each of us has to rehabilitate himself. There’s a mental illness—multiple, or dissociated, personality disorder. People who have it forget their names, social positions, their friends and even their children, their lives. It’s a dissolution of personality…when a person can’t combine the official take or government belief, his own point of view, and his doubts…how true is what he thinks, and how true is what he says. The personality splits into two or three parts… There are plenty of history teachers and professors in psychiatric hospitals… The better they were at instilling something, the more they were corrupted… At the very least three generations…and a few others are infected… How mysteriously everything eludes definition… The temptation of utopia…

“Take Jack London… Remember his story about how you can live life even if you’re in a straitjacket? You just have to shrivel up, sink down, and get used to it… You’ll even be able to dream…”

Now that I analyze what he said…follow his train of thought… I can see that he was preparing for departure…

We were drinking tea one time, and out of the blue he said:

“I know how long I have…”

“Vanya, what on earth are you saying!” my wife exclaimed. “We were just getting ready to marry you off.”

“I was joking. You know, animals never commit suicide. They don’t violate the course…”

The day after that conversation the dormitory housekeeper found a suit, practically brand new, in the rubbish bin; his passport was in the pocket. She ran to his room. He was embarrassed and muttered something about having been drunk. But he never ever touched a drop! He kept the passport, but gave her the suit: “I don’t need it anymore.”

He’d decided to get rid of these clothes, this physical membrane. He had a more subtle, detailed understanding than we did of what awaited him. And he liked Christ’s age.

One might think he’d gone mad. But a few weeks earlier I’d heard his research presentation… Water-tight logic. A superb defense!

Does a person really need to know when his time will come? I once knew a guy who knew it. A friend of my father’s. When he left for the war, a gypsy woman prophesied: he needn’t be afraid of bullets because he wouldn’t die in the war, but at age fifty-eight at home, sitting in an armchair. He went through the whole war, came under fire, was known as a foolhardy fellow, and was sent on the most difficult missions. He returned without a scratch. Until age fifty-seven he drank and smoked since he knew he’d die at fifty-eight, so until then he could do anything. His last year was terrible… He was constantly afraid of death… He was waiting for it… And he died at age fifty-eight, at home…in an armchair in front of the television…

Is it better for a person when the line has been drawn? The border between here and there? This is where the questions begin…

Once I suggested he dig into his childhood memories and desires, what he’d dreamed of and then forgotten. He could fulfill them now… He never talked to me about his childhood. Then suddenly he opened up. From the age of three months he had lived in the country with his grandmother. When he got a bit older he would stand on a tree stump and wait for his mama. Mama returned after he’d finished school, with three brothers and sisters—each child from a different man. He studied at the university, kept ten rubles for himself, and sent the rest of his stipend home. To Mama…

“I don’t remember her ever washing anything for me, not even a handkerchief. But in the summer I’ll go back to the country: I’ll repaper the walls. And if she says a kind word to me, I’ll be so happy…”

He never had a girlfriend…

His brother came for him from the countryside. He was in the morgue… We began looking for a woman to help, to wash him, dress him. There are women who do that sort of thing. When she came she was drunk. I dressed him myself…

In the village I sat alone with him all night. Amid the old men and women. His brother didn’t hide the truth, although I’d asked him not to say anything, at least to their mother. But he got drunk and blabbed everything. It poured for two days. At the cemetery a tractor had to pull the car with the casket. The old ladies crossed themselves fearfully and zealously:

“Went against God’s will, he did.”

The priest wouldn’t let him be buried in the cemetery: he’d committed an unforgivable sin… But the director of the village council arrived in a van and gave his permission…

We returned at twilight. Wet. Destroyed. Drunk. It occurred to me that for some reason righteous men and dreamers always choose these kinds of places. This is the only kind of place they are born. Our conversations about Marxism as a unified planetary civilization floated up in my memory. About Christ being the first socialist. And about how the mystery of Marxist religion wasn’t fully comprehensible to us, even though we were up to our knees in blood.

Everyone sat down at the table. They poured me a glass of homemade vodka right away. I drank it…

A year later my wife and I went to the cemetery again…

“He’s not here,” my wife said. “When we came the other times we were visiting him, this time it’s just a tombstone. Remember how he used to smile in photographs?”

So he had moved on. Women are more delicate instruments than men, and she felt it.

The landscape was the same. Wet. Dilapidated. Drunk. His mother showered us with apples for the trip. The tipsy tractor driver drove us to the bus stop…

English translation © 2011 by Jamey Gambrell

To be published in 2016 under the tentative title Time Second Hand by Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. ↩

“Svetlana Alexievich: The Truth in Many Voices,” October 12, 2015. ↩http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/nov/19/man-who-flew/

How 4 federal lawyers paved the way to kill Osama bin Laden

Posted by admin On October - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on How 4 federal lawyers paved the way to kill Osama bin Laden

WASHINGTON: Weeks before President Barack Obama ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011, four administration lawyers hammered out rationales intended to overcome any legal obstacles — and made it all but inevitable that Navy SEALs would kill the fugitive Qaida leader, not capture him.

Stretching sparse precedents, the lawyers worked in intense secrecy. Fearing leaks, the White House would not let them consult aides or even the administration’s top lawyer, attorney general Eric Holder. They did their own research, wrote memos on highly secure laptops and traded drafts hand-delivered by trusted couriers.

Just days before the raid, the lawyers drafted five secret memos so that if pressed later, they could prove they were not inventing after-the-fact reasons for having blessed it. “We should memorialize our rationales because we may be called upon to explain our legal conclusions, particularly if the operation goes terribly badly,” said Stephen W Preston, the CIA’s general counsel, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations.

While the bin Laden operation has been much scrutinized, the story of how a tiny team of government lawyers helped shape and justify Obama’s high-stakes decision has not been previously told. The group worked as military and intelligence officials conducted a parallel effort to explore options and prepare members of SEAL Team 6 for the possible mission.

The legal analysis offered the administration wide flexibility to send ground forces onto Pakistani soil without the country’s consent, to explicitly authorize a lethal mission, to delay telling Congress until afterward, and to bury a wartime enemy at sea. By the end, one official said, the lawyers concluded that there was “clear and ample authority for the use of lethal force under US and international law.”

Some legal scholars later raised objections, but criticism was muted after the successful operation. The administration lawyers, however, did not know at the time how events would play out, and they faced the “unenviable task” of “resolving a cluster of sensitive legal issues without any consultation with colleagues,” said Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who worked on a Justice Department detainee policy task force in 2009.

“The proposed raid required answers to many hard legal questions, some of which were entirely novel despite a decade’s worth of conflict with al-Qaida,” Chesney said.

This account of the role of the four lawyers — Preston; Mary B. DeRosa, the National Security Council’s legal adviser; Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel; and then-Rear Adm. James W. Crawford III, the Joint Chiefs of Staff legal adviser — is based on interviews with more than a half-dozen current and former administration officials who had direct knowledge of the planning for the raid. While outlines of some of the government’s rationales have been mentioned previously, the officials provided new insights and details about the analysis and decision-making process.

The officials described the secret legal deliberations and memos for a forthcoming book on national security legal policy under Obama. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.

The Trotsky Paradox-William T. Vollmann

Posted by admin On October - 1 - 2015 Comments Off on The Trotsky Paradox-William T. Vollmann

Why should you read Bernard Wolfe’s The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky? What is its project, and how does it go about fulfilling it?

Do not expect an accurate relation of Trotsky’s assassination. Wolfe informs us that “this work cannot be called history. It is, rather, a fiction based upon, derived from, dogged by, if you will—history.”
David Levine
Leon Trotsky
Whatever it is, it cannot be called great literature, either.

The Great Prince Died does in fact concern itself with the assassination of Trotsky, but V.R. Rostov—as Wolfe calls the protagonist in his novel—lacks three of Trotsky’s four children and one of his two wives, and even meets his death a year earlier than the historical Trotsky (who was killed in August 1940), so that Wolfe can haunt us with that cynical triumph, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact: “Idea of agreement with Hitler a jolt. Had to introduce it in stages: first as plot. After that, no novelty or shock power to the idea … Rostov working with Hitler must be in Hitler’s pocket. Stalin working with Hitler must have Hitler in his pocket. All the badness in the idea pinned to Rostovites. Rostovites wiped out—idea remains, minus its badness.”

And here let me pause to temper my earlier criticism: When Wolfe writes in this telegraphic style, he can be quite effective. Moreover, some of his episodes achieve true narrative interest—for instance, the impulsive liaisons and ghastly memories of Rostov’s security guard Paul Teleki, the most fully realized character.

If you have read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, you will probably remember how the International Brigades of anarchists, Communists, socialists, do-gooders, and fellow travellers were systematically undermined by their supposed ally, J. V. Stalin. The circumstances of Teleki’s initiation into this truth are rather extreme. And just to make things neat—far neater than real life could be—his educators turn out to be some of Rostov’s future assassins.

The assassins, though they bear some similarity to their counterparts in our universe, have likewise been changed. Cándida Baeza de Riviera and Tomás are loosely modeled after Caridad Mercader and her son Ramon. I was sorry not to encounter the Stalinist painter Siqueiros, who led the first assassination attempt with a machine gun. Wolfe’s George Bass, who tortures his victims with lenses of his own manufacture, is a remarkable villain, but still perhaps less fascinating than the real article, Mark Zborowski, who after procuring the death of Trotsky’s son and of various members of the Trotsky circle, then became an anthropologist at two American Ivy League universities.

At any rate, Wolfe has strong feelings; he means to paint a certain picture, and to do so he will not hesitate to alter this or that—which is peculiar, since he informs us that he was Trotsky’s secretary in 1937, so that he must have known the facts pretty well; he could have served them up with a sauce of hyper-realistic local flavor. And yet the closer we look at his tale (or parable, I should better call it), the greater appear his alterations.

Consider the actual mood in Trotsky’s besieged fortress. In the final volume of his great biographical trilogy, Isaac Deutscher, who was not there, conveys a sad and increasingly ominous impression. Joseph Hansen, who was present, having been another Trotsky secretary not long after Wolfe, insists that “Deutscher’s picture of the years in Coyoacán is of virtually unrelieved gloom, life … being overcast by a hopeless battle against the Kremlin’s executioners. This is not the way it was.”—Well, then how was it? Trotsky had hopes and even successes; he sometimes achieved propaganda victories. For instance, regarding the third “great” Moscow show trial of 1938, “Trotsky, the chief defendant, succeeded in turning the tables on Stalin, becoming the chief accuser.” In The Great Prince Died, the picture is more like Deutscher’s than Hansen’s. “Certainly,” Wolfe admits, “the inner agitation, if it was there, did not come out as nakedly as I have suggested.” But in Wolfe’s re-envisioning, Rostov and the entourage are not merely hemmed in; they are waiting for death. And the subtext—distasteful, disturbing to be on Stalin’s side!—is that Rostov might even deserve killing—for we hear a certain name on everyone’s lips: Kronstadt.


The Kronstadt rebellion, an unsuccessful 1921 uprising against the Bolsheviks by sailors at a naval garrison in the Gulf of Finland, is the focus and locus of Wolfe’s fictional project. Rostov says the word with a guilty irritation; Paul Teleki continually needles him about it. Even the wide-eyed young American linguist overcomes his hero-worship enough to make accusations. It is difficult to imagine the real life Trotsky putting up with all this. As Robert Conquest remarked, Trotsky’s “ideas are notable for … a total lack of solicitude for the non-Communist victims of the regime: no sympathy whatever was expended, for example, on the dead of the collectivization famine.” Therefore, “the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion was as much his personal battle honor as the seizure of power had been.”

In 1917, the Romanov era finally came to an end with the abdication of Nicholas II. The curtain of the February Revolution unsteadily rose upon a Provisional Government whose elements were various and antithetical: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, Social Revolutionaries, Tsarists, prospective White Guards—all biding their time under the mercurial leadership of Alexander Kerensky, who thought to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the bourgeoisie and the ultraleftists. According to Trotsky, one of these myriad indissoluble globules was “the independent Kronstadt republic,” the fortress where “the flame of rebellion never went out.”

“The February Revolution was relatively bloodless …,” writes the historian Richard Pipes. “Most of the deaths occurred at the naval bases in Kronshtadt and Helsinki, where anarchist sailors lynched officers, often on suspicion of ‘espionage’ because of their German-sounding surnames.” Or, as Trotsky more romantically tells it: “In Kronstadt the revolution was accompanied by an outbreak of bloody vengeance against the officers, who attempted, as if in horror at their own past, to conceal the revolution from the sailors.” (The Great Prince Died omits this episode entirely, for it is essential to Wolfe’s project to represent the sailors as heroic victims.)

In July 1917, as Kerensky’s coalition continued its inevitable disintegration, there presently arose, “spontaneously” again, the ultrarevolutionary demonstrations of the “July days,” when hordes demanded that Bolsheviks break with the Provisional Government and establish Red rule. Of course five or six thousand Kronstadt sailors took part, raising the banner “All Power to the Soviets.” Lenin, however, hesitated, believing the Bolsheviks too weak to seize power just yet.

Lenin’s caution proved correct, for the “July days” presently burned themselves out—except for one last manifestation: the Peter and Paul fortress remained under the control of Kronstadt sailors and other ultraradicals. Stalin and a Menshevik colleague (or, to hear our hero tell it, Trotsky) finally visited them to negotiate their surrender, which was accomplished without violence and led to no executions.

So it happened that emissaries of the Kronstadt Soviet found themselves able to travel all over Russia, urging peasants to pillage the aristocrats, persuading soldiers to desert from the frontline. Trotsky pays them this tribute: “The sailors far more deeply expressed the demands of historic evolution than the very intelligent professors.”

Later that year, the Bolsheviks finally did seize power in the October Revolution. Of course Kronstadt sailors were there.
Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
A railway station destroyed during the Kronstadt rebellion, 1921

Five years later, with the Soviet Union starved and exhausted by the Civil War, Kronstadt rose up against Bolshevik unilateralism, because, as Wolfe so accurately explains, “the trouble was: the best ingredient in a movement of social revolt was the young spirit of rebellion.” So the sailors demanded a “third revolution”—and with good reason, for the stern measures of “War Communism,” which Lenin, Trotsky & Co. had applied, had grown intolerable. In his autobiography Trotsky nearly admits this: “The question at issue was really one of daily bread, of fuel, of raw material for the industries … the thing that really mattered was the economic catastrophe hanging over the country. The uprisings at Kronstadt and in the province of Tambov broke into the discussion as the last warning.” It was March 1921. A few weeks earlier the bread ration had been cut by 30 percent. Joined by soldiers, workers, even card-carrying Bolsheviks, the sailors once more established their own provisional revolutionary committee. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn gave them this epitaph: Kronstadt and Tambov marked the last time in forty-one years that the people would speak out.

What the people said in this final declaration was nothing that the new autocrats wished to hear. Let me quote from one Kronstadt manifesto: “The power of the police-gendarme monarchy has gone into the hands of the Communist-usurpers, who instead of freedom offer the toilers the constant fear of falling into the torture-chambers of the Cheka, which in their horrors surpass many times the gendarme administration of the tsarist regime.”

The Cheka were already on the case. They warned Lenin: “The Kronstadt revolutionary committee clearly expects a general uprising in Petrograd any day now.” Lenin advised the Tenth Congress: “Now as to Kronshtadt. The danger there lies in the fact that their slogans are not Socialistic-Revolutionary, but anarchistic. An All-Russian Congress of Producers—this is not a Marxist but a petty bourgeois idea.”

Not coincidentally, I suspect, in this same document Lenin goes on to say: “Trotsky wants to resign … But Trotsky is a temperamental man with military experience. He is in love with the organization, but as for politics, he hasn’t got a clue.” After all, he had loved the Kronstadt fighters. But fortunately for his personal equilibrium, he was practiced at breaking with former allies—and the rupture must have come easier to him when the other Bolsheviks rapidly made up their own steely minds to follow Lenin’s intimations.

The Great Prince Died alludes to what happened next: “Pyramids of Teotihuacán. Pointed tops: rooms of sacrifice there. Where men used to face charges. Charged with being wanted by the boss, the sun god, without delay; hearts pulled out and dropped, still pumping, on fires.” And again, more blatantly (this somewhat recalls the doctrine of the High, the Middle, and the Low in Orwell’s 1984): “Those who rise to the apex can’t see the base … the base will rise up one day, not seen until the last minute, and destroy the apex.” On the subject of Kronstadt, Rostov explains: “We had to stop their premature attack on the pyramid—in the interest of abolishing pyramids altogether.”

So the Cheka arrested two thousand worker sympathizers, after which the military assault on Kronstadt began. “Thousands of people” were killed in the taking of the fortress. This was not enough for the vanguardists at the apex. We read that 2,103 prisoners received capital sentences, and 6,459 were imprisoned. (Considerable numbers of the latter would soon be tied to stones and drowned in the Dvina River.) In 1923, 2,154 civilians were deported from Kronstadt to Siberia, “merely on the grounds that they had stayed in the town through the events.” Meanwhile, as many as possible of the besieged who had escaped into Finnish internment were lured back and likewise dispatched to the Gulag.

“Trotsky,” says Wolfe, “did not participate personally in the military operation against Kronstadt … He and Lenin, however, drew up the ultimatums issued to the sailors.” In The Great Prince Died, Rostov leads the attack, and on “the night it was finally over at Kronstadt,” his fifteen-year-old only son, whom Stalin will eventually assassinate, upbraids him: “They were your best friends … Mine, too … Uncle Anastas let me climb all over the battleships …”

After the rebellion had been crushed, Lenin went easier on the general population while tightening the screws within the Party: from here on, even the most loyal and reasoned disagreement increasingly became labeled as “factionalism,” and received appropriate punishment. In My Life, published in 1930, the freshly exiled Trotsky justifies the practice: “As a rule, solutions had to be found on the spur of the moment, and mistakes were followed by immediate retribution … If we had had more time for discussion, we should probably have made a great deal more mistakes.” But by 1937, with Stalin’s assassins closing in, he writes in The Revolution Betrayed: “This forbidding of factions was again regarded as an exceptional measure to be abandoned at the first serious improvement in the situation … However,” this “proved perfectly suited to the taste of the bureaucracy.”

Accordingly, in the novel we find Paul Teleki worrying that “it,” meaning both bureaucratic centralism and Rostov’s death wish, might have started after Kronstadt.


The Great Prince Died stands or falls by its invocation of Kronstadt. I say it stands. In essence, the novel is a Socratic dialogue with more or less colorful interruptions. If it tends to heavyhandedness, well, so do the conversations in Plato. Wolfe’s own position is clear. He argues first with Trotsky, then with Bolshevism, and eventually with authority itself. As the book progresses, the metaphor of Kronstadt grows and grows, until it stands in for any time and place in which someone employs power upon the weak in the service of a stated good.

Do the ends justify the means? This is one of the great questions of any time. We should consider it deeply and provisionally answer it for ourselves. To help us do so, Wolfe has simplified real life into a parable in order to present us with the following question: If the Kronstadt mutineers were “innocent,” “virtuous” and somehow “correct” in their political line, and if Trotsky were responsible for their suppression, which not only was (“necessary” or not) an atrocity, but also furthered the cause of bureaucratic centralism through which millions, including Trotsky, were liquidated, then how valid would Trotsky’s justifications be?

Paradox: If Trotsky was correct at Kronstadt, then his own murder could also be construed as right. If his murder stinks (as I most certainly believe), then he was wrong at Kronstadt, in which case his murder again becomes justified so long as he supports Kronstadt-like actions. Like most paradoxes, this one ultimately fails to hold together—but only in the “real world.” Rostov is a reduction of a far more interesting and ambiguous man. But the protagonists of parables must be types, emblems, tropes. Rostov represents not who Trotsky was, but a certain principle that Trotsky stood for. If we feel willing to generalize and simplify, then this parable with its paradox does have something to tell us—for the events that haunted Bernard Wolfe reincarnate themselves endlessly.

“Then it amounts to this,” says a Mexican official to the dying Rostov’s wife. “Those who use all means will win, those who reject some means will lose. There is no remedy …” Can it be so? Trotsky believed it. Sometimes, so do I. (That is why I prefer to lose.) Exactly here we come face to face with Wolfe’s defective, unlikely greatness. His formulation must never be forgotten.

Adapted from William T. Vollmann’s afterword to the new University of Chicago Press edition of Bernard Wolfe’s 1959 novel The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky, which will be published this week.

On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare-Andre Vltchek and Noam Chomsky

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare-Andre Vltchek and Noam Chomsky


On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare
Pluto Press, London, 2013. 208pp., £13.99 pb

About the reviewer
Margaux Portron

Margaux Portron is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at Paris 8 University and Queen Mary, University of London. She is studying the relationship between states and individuals, at home and abroad, particularly in drone warfare.


This book is a series of discussions between Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek on the foreign policies of Western countries, namely the United States, Britain and France. It begins with an introduction by Vltchek about how the pair’s relationship came about and why they have decided to write this series of conversations. While Chomsky is a famous linguist and critical philosopher, Vltchek is a writer, filmmaker and investigative journalist. They have developed, according to this introduction, a father-son relationship, which may explain the eulogistic nature of the book – especially when it comes to Chomsky. Indeed, the reader will need to look past the comments glorifying Chomsky, which are spread across the book cover, before being able to appreciate the content. Chomsky is undoubtedly one of the greatest radical thinkers and one needs to give him credit for the humility and curiosity he demonstrates throughout the conversations. Although he is quite knowledgeable, he continuously enquires and does not position himself here as ‘the teacher’ – rather, he positions himself as an equal to Vltchek. It must be stated, however, that this book is not an academic work. A lot of information within is unreferenced. The back cover rightfully presents it as “the perfect introduction to Chomsky’s political thinking” – his career as a linguist is not mentioned in the conversations. Chomsky and Vltchek evoke a lot of cases and readers will need to do their research if they want to understand why these events are relevant to what the authors call “Western terrorism”.

According to the authors, Western terrorism is, on one hand, a type of foreign policy which works not only through terrorist methods in the military field (Hiroshima) but through ideology. It also, on the other hand, construes an image of the ‘other’, or the ‘enemy’ which frames as acceptable what are in fact unlawful attacks on countries (such as the disputed UK report on weapons of mass destruction). The main import of the book is that violence takes widely different forms and is not limited to just a bomb or a machete. For instance, the writers mention, however quickly, how certain universities played a central role in the different US-backed coups in Indonesia or Chile. Here, US-shaped technocracy was a weapon. What is striking is how, before even launching any military command, the US had prepared the future government by training them. The ideological coup preceded the political and military one. By doing so, the US government was assured of having loyal and neoliberal partners in the defeated states. This aspect of colonialism is less known than other CIA practices of violence. Indeed, it does not use violence but can still be viewed as a terror technique which, by consequence, robs countries of their sovereignty. For the reader who would like to know more, Naomi Klein spends time on the subject in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism – in the end, Western terrorism has much to do with International Relations as well as political economy. Chomsky also raises the essential point of colonialism not necessarily being carried out “across the sea”. The case being argued is that the conquest of US territory by the freshly established democracy can also be viewed as colonial politics: “the conquest of the national territory in the United States is not called imperialism. But that’s a linguistic decision” (162).

The book chapters are interestingly titled and show the thinking process behind the conversation; it starts with an introduction to “The Murderous Legacy of Colonialism” and a necessary framework, “Propaganda and the Media”. However, it then shifts to focus on the geographical areas from “The Soviet Bloc” to “The Middle East and the Arab Spring”. These spaces are not only geographical but also historical: they have been framed and construed by Western representations at particular times, such as ‘Soviet countries’. The book then goes back to less localised topics and ends with “The Decline of US power”, where Vltchek and Chomsky particularly focus on Obama’s administration. Contrary to what the reader might think from the book’s title, drones are actually only evoked in the conclusion – and considered as the embodiment of a new extreme reached in US foreign policy.

Their arguments are convincing and shed the light on less known realities, such as freedom of speech in countries like China and India. Both of them state, for instance, that it is a lot easier to speak of political matters in the former than in the latter. They go on to explain that the representation of China as authoritarian is a construction of the West. The reason is that Western countries want to keep the simplistic image of Cold War era communism as evil: “the way China is being judged in Europe and the U.S. is arrogant, thoroughly patronising” (90). Indeed, both Vltcheck and Chomsky say that they have been able to speak of political matters, on television, in the country. Moreover, they argue that the current protests against the Chinese government are presented by the West as a desire for the free-market – Vltchek points out that people are, on the contrary, actually protesting for Communism or socialism. Turning to India, which maintains a caste system while embracing dehumanizing neoliberalism, they argue that freedom of the press is compromised by corruption. India is not, and has never been, according to Vltchek, the largest democracy in the world. It is instead a capitalist and feudal system. They know these countries very well and are able to argue against the “mainstream” version of History.

It is worthwhile remembering that Chomsky and Vltchek sometimes speak from personal experience here. For better or worse – they do not make their own freedom of speech a general reality for everyone in China – they fail to insist on their privileged status as foreigners and renowned intellectuals. Nevertheless, Vltchek evokes a case where he has been tortured in East Timor in 1996 and it is clear their position as intellectuals does not mean they have only been passive observers of political situations. They are activists and are sometimes exposed to police or military violence. They also talk about the local thinkers they work or have worked with, but sometimes tend to generalise a singular experience to the general thinking of a time. Chomsky explains that in his daughter’s school in the 1960s it was perfectly normal to be taught about the slaughter of Native Americans from the point of view of a boy who wished he had been there as a man to kill and rape. He uses this example to state that this was the way of teaching the History of the US at the time, without providing a source of qualitative or quantitative research besides this – nevertheless significant – anecdote.

Vltchek seems more radical than Chomsky on where Obama comes from in terms of familial background: Vltchek resents the idyllic image Obama has of his childhood in Indonesia at the time of mass killings (1965-1966). As Chomsky points out, Obama was 4 or 5 at the time of the killings, but Vltchek insists that “he was a school age kid, but even they would know. People were disappearing everywhere. […] It would take great discipline not to notice and not to remember” (169). It seems problematic or absurd to prove Obama administration’s policies on Indonesia with childhood memories.

Ultimately, the conversational format of the book makes it easy to read for people who might not be familiar with the History of US foreign policy and with international relations in general. Covering a wide range of events and arguing convincingly for a history which is not Eurocentric or Americano-centric, it is a good entry point to critical International Relations. Chomsky and Vltchek use their empirical knowledge to tell the story of the “un-people”, as George Orwell called them: “the world is divided into people like us, and un-people – everyone else who do not matter. Orwell was talking about a future totalitarian society, but it applies quite well to us” (4).

The Actuality of Communism-Bruno Bosteels

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on The Actuality of Communism-Bruno Bosteels


The Actuality of Communism
Verso Books, London and New York, 2014. 304pp., £9.99 pb

About the reviewer
Matt Lee

Matt Lee is a philosopher, currently helping to organise the Free University of Brighton. He can be contacted via matt@razorsmile.org.


Bosteels book, first published by Verso in hardback in 2011 and now issued in paperback (2014), arises from the brief, intense period of discussion that surrounded the 2009 conference on the ‘idea of communism’. As is made clear from the very opening pages of the ‘Introduction’, the essays in this book are intended to be part of this discussion, in particular responding to questions posed by Daniel Bensaid about the historical problem of communism, that is, the problem of both the history and the historicity of communism. Bensaid’s question – ‘Of what is communism the name today?’ – only arises because it is widely accepted that the history of communism undermines its potentiality, as though the real problem for communism is that ‘actually existing’ communists have left their dead hand on the heart of the idea. Whilst I would suggest that this problem may arise only because many theorists are too enamoured of the ghosts of a ‘universal history’, at the same time it is clear that both practically and theoretically the problems of the history and historicity of communism are still producing intelligent and interesting debates, to which Bosteels’ book is an important contribution.

The book comprises a series of 5 essays, each originally published within the preceding decade, the final chapter being a revised version of the paper Bosteels gave to the 2009 conference on the ‘idea of communism’. It gathers together a series of interlinked pieces in which Bosteels encounters a variety of ‘deviations’ or problems regarding any attempt to think an idea of communism today. Beginning, in Chapter 1, from a discussion of the recent ‘ontological turn’ in politics, where questions focus on problems arising from conceptual distinctions such as the one made between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’, it is the question of the militant subject that is brought to the fore. If the contemporary metaphysical dynamic is one of ‘deconstructing’ the subject, then, Bosteels asks, what role is there for militant subjectivity within emancipatory politics?

Chapter 2 develops this problem, in particular in a critique of the biopolitical positions of thinkers such as Roberto Esposito, pushing the claim that there is a philosophical appropriation – via the use of the category of ‘the political’ – of politics. Bosteels claims that the Nietzschean position of a ‘grand politics’ that can be found in thinkers such as Esposito falls under the category of Badiou’s ‘archipolitics’. Such a position, “by absorbing the violent break of revolutionary politics into the characterization of the philosophical act proper … allows the philosopher of the overman to portray himself as infinitely more radical than any existing politics” (57). Archipolitics is, it seems, a form of individualisation of the revolutionary moment, converting it from one in which militant subjectivity finds its critical role within historical structures to one in which such subjectivity only arises as a break from historicity.

Bosteels turns from the deviation found in the radical appearance of Nietzschean biopolitics to a prolonged discussion of Rancière that takes up Chapter 3. Here the deviation under discussion is ‘speculative leftism’, which is a more general term for “the philosophical appropriation of radical emancipatory politics” (36) of which the ‘grand politics’ discussed in Chapter 2 is just one form. Bosteels notes Rancière’s important attempts to reinscribe the militant subject in the foreground of politics, motivated in part by a dynamic of resisting philosophical appropriations of politics, arising from Rancière’s responses to Althusser. Yet, Bosteels claims, there is a tension in Rancière’s work between the reinscription of a particular discourse, such as Althusser’s, within history and the historicity of politics qua politics, as ‘the political’. This tension arises from the way Rancière mobilises the given-ness of the political as a break or event resting on the ‘there is’ of ontological distinction. The invariant essence of politics offered by the ‘there is’ moment is, Bosteels argues, a sophisticated version of the “ontologization” of politics, a process which always threatens to idealise its analytical object. Bosteels claims that, for Rancière, “in the final analysis, history’s role seems limited to determining the successive eras of the covering-up of an invariant form of politics” (49).

The moment of the event, one which is mobilised in Rancière to offer grounds for the invariant essence of the political, presents the next step in Bosteels’ reading of contemporary trends and dynamics within the thinking of the idea of communism. Bosteels mobilises Badiou contra Rancière, noting the great tension of the event, of affirming the ‘there is’ of the event, as one of constraint and freedom. Yet here it is not Badiou that is most noticeable, it is, instead, Hegel. In a telling passage Bosteels makes the claim that the only way of avoiding a collapse into speculative leftism is to understand the tension between liberty and constraint as ‘dialectical’ albeit “in a new and untimely sense” (48). Such a dialectical understanding, which would allow liberty and constraint to be understood as mutual presuppositions rather than exclusive options, unfortunately appears to stand as little more than a kind of promissory note for a theoretical solution to problems which often appear as simply ‘badly posed’. There are, no doubt, serious theoretical and practical problems arising from tensions between conditions – theoretical, historical, actual – and conditioned, but such problems seem unlikely to be overcome by promissory notes about a dialectical understanding. They appear more likely to be dealt with, or at least addressed productively by, small scale, case by case work, rather than by grand abstractions about ‘dialectical understandings’.

In Chapter 4 the ‘event’ stays central but this time the focus of the discussion shifts to Žižek. At this point the twin thematics of ‘the event’ and ‘militant subjectivity’ come together as the primary lens through which to think the politics of communism. What Žižek brings to the table, via Lacan, is a thinking of negativity that produces an ‘oscillation’ between, on the one hand, a radical affirmation of the militant revolutionary event that threatens to collapse into a dead repetition and, on the other hand, a stepping back from the weight of history into a philosophical move that attempts to affirm the very possibility of any political event yet threatens to evacuate the political of any material reality. This oscillation, centred on a consideration of the ‘non-act as an act’, such as that found in the inaction of the analyst, enables Žižek to offer a broad account of “all intonations of the act” (213). Having traced a route through the maze of philosophical problematics Bosteels then attempts, in his final chapter, to turn to the question of the ‘actuality of communism’.

Bosteels begins his final chapter by quite clearly articulating his central concern and the one that forms the thread along which the essays hang. “To what extent can we say that communism today is an actuality and not just a spectre; a real movement and not just a ghostly spirit from the dead past, or one whose only forward-looking move is to postulate the need for a speculative-philosophical Idea, whether Kantian or Platonic?” (220-1). In an attempt to answer such a question positively, that is, to point to a ‘real movement’, Bosteels turns to the work of Garcia Linera, vice president of Bolivia. In bringing the work of Garcia Linera to the table Bosteels foregrounds both the historical richness of Marx’s revolutionary thought and the contemporary difficulties embodied in what we might describe, perhaps crudely, as the contradictions between city and land, between industry and labour and between North and South. At a time when the slogan ‘soviet power plus electrification’ is no longer adequate, the central tension for the ‘actuality of communism’ might not be between a past of revolutions gone awry and the future they were supposed to open but instead it may lie in the real problems of a whole world gone awry and the future communism promises to open. One is reminded, albeit in a different tone, of the stark choice posed by Luxemburg, ‘socialism or barbarism’. The actuality of communism must encounter the generalised ecological and colonial crisis that marks the face of the planet with the new ‘war to end all wars’. In ‘traditional’ Marxist terms of debate, it is the national and agrarian questions that must be foregrounded as most real, most capable of actualising any communist theory or act in the coming future. It is in terms of a renewal of these questions that Garcia Linera is brought forward as offering important theoretical resources, ones that go beyond standard post-colonial theory as derived from thinkers such as Said. Of course Garcia Linera is a controversial figure in terms of developing a Marxist understanding of practical relations to the state and unfortunately there is little sustained engagement with possible difficulties that might surround Linera’s governmental activity.

Bosteels’ book has some valuable moments, not least in his last chapter, but it also suffers from its conditions of genesis within a particular debate. It rests on extensive but fairly polemical exegesis, which has the advantage of engaging with the detail of a thinker, but which demands of the reader a considerable degree of already existing engagement in quite specialised theoretical work. It also offers, for the most part, highly intelligent and informed commentary on those with whom it engages but there is little in the way of a detailed development of any particular position or problem and so, at times, one is left with a sense of commentary rather than argument. It relies upon, but does not explicitly offer, a ‘big picture’ of contemporary debate in order to justify its rapid movement from one theoretical position to another and yet, at the same time, its engagement is detailed enough to make it too dense to be an ‘introduction’ to the debate. There is the nagging sense that it would have been better to give more time and space to any of a number of critical comments that were of interest but which were passed over in a couple of pages. Despite these minor criticisms, Bosteels’ work offers some valuable moments of intelligent and engaged thought in terms of theorising the future of communism.

China up-close-STANLY JOHNY

Posted by admin On July - 15 - 2015 Comments Off on China up-close-STANLY JOHNY


The book deals at great length with the author’s business engagements with China, the thrust of which was Sino-U.S. trade and economic cooperation. By STANLY JOHNY
In April 2006, Henry M. Paulson, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Goldman Sachs, was invited for the lunch at the White House given in honour of the visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao. Paulson had already been approached by the White House to become Treasury Secretary and he had decided not to accept the offer. At the dinner, Paulson met Zhou Xiaochuan, China’s Central Bank chief, whom he had known from his years of dealing with China as the Goldman Sachs CEO. Zhou asked him if he was going to take up the job of Treasury Secretary. Paulson told him that he had declined the offer and was not sure how he could be effective in the last two years of an “unpopular administration”. “It’s a great honour to serve your country,” Zhou told him. “More important, you never know what opportunity you may have to make a difference.”

In his book Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower, Paulson writes that Zhou’s words struck him, and “I returned to them again and again over the next month or so as I began to second-guess my decision after some soul-searching and conversation with close friends.” It is amusing to know that a Treasury Secretary of the United States had taken the advice of a Chinese Central Bank Governor to take up a job at a time when there were serious disagreements between the two countries over trade practices. But Paulson’s relations with China cannot be seen through the prism of volatile Sino-U.S. bilateral ties. They run deeper.

As the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Paulson had played a key role in overhauling China’s state-run enterprises in the 1990s, including China Telecom. The Chinese government was so happy with the initial public offering (IPO) of China Telecom that Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji told Paulson that if he had 10 people like Mike Evans (Paulson’s colleague at Goldman who oversaw the China Telecom reform), “I would turn around all of the state enterprises”.

China many not have “turned around” all of its public enterprises, but Goldman Sachs, under the leadership of Paulson, continued to play a vital role in Beijing’s implementation of the “opening up” policy. It had helped the IPO of China’s National Petroleum Corporation, prepared the blueprint for the overhaul of Guangdong Enterprises Holdings and laid out the path for banking reforms. When Paulson became the Treasury Secretary, these business-to-business ties paved the way for government-to-government cooperation, but China never ceased to amuse him. In Dealing with China, Paulson reconstructs his years of association with China and its top leaders, including Jian Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

Paulson divides the book into three sections: “Banking on Reform” (about working with China while at Goldman); “Breaking New Ground” (on his Treasury years); and “Building Bridges” (on his time running the Paulson Institute).

He says the book is the perspective of “a businessman who brings a first-hand financial knowledge of China and its corporate and political leaders. I have gleaned this over more than 100 visits to the country and nearly 25 years of dealing with Chinese officials on commercial matters while at Goldman Sachs, on affairs of state and macroeconomic policy as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and, nowadays as head of the Paulson Institute, which promotes sustainable economic growth and a cleaner environment through greater cooperation between the U.S. and China.”

What makes his approach different from other Western writers on China is that he is less preachy on “universal moral values” and his focus is on international cooperation and building business and economic links with Beijing. “I am not saying that China, which is such a different country, with such a different history and culture from ours, must have the same political system that we do. The U.S. after all has evolved in a great many ways since our founding. Just so, change will come for the Chinese,” he writes.

A middle path

Paulson is trying to tread a middle path between lauding the Chinese political system and demonising it. His focus is rather on the need to cooperate and compete with China in both economic and strategic spheres. Americans should root for China to succeed, he argues, because it is in the U.S.’ “self-interest” to do so. The U.S. needs Chinese support to deal with most of the world’s pressing issues, from environmental and economic issues to food security and nuclear proliferation.

How would this cooperation become possible? Paulson puts forward an eight-point agenda for the U.S.’ China policy, this includes the U.S.’ traditional policy of supporting movements within China for greater transparency, adhering to international standards, emphasising “speak with one voice” with official Chinese interlocutors, and finding China “a better seat at the table”. By “better seat at the table”, he means the U.S. should support China’s leadership roles in international groups such as the World Trade Organisation.

The book’s greatest strength is Paulson’s business engagements with China. Even as Treasury Secretary, the thrust of his engagement with Beijing was trade and economic cooperation. While the author gives extensive details about China’s economic reforms, the political process in the country is hardly discussed in the 430-page book. Paulson tries to balance this out in a chapter titled “The Party Line”.

But the chapter does not offer anything that is not in the public sphere. He says the Communist Party has “essentially made a deal with the people to provide prosperity in return for continued political power”. This is a sweeping statement, made without understanding the nuances of China’s political system that is deeply rooted both in the Communist Party’s revolutionary past and the Chinese nationalism it nurtures.

Sino-U.S. relations

Another problem is his overemphasis on cooperation between the two countries. Paulson sounds unrealistically optimistic about Sino-U.S. relations. He goes back several times to the rapprochement in Sino-U.S. ties brought about by President Richard Nixon’s China visit in 1972 to make the point that the once-acrimonious relations turned around for good. “President Nixon and his then National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, deftly took advantage of China’s even greater mistrust of a common foe, the Soviet Union, to build a strategic relationship.”

While his assessment on the rapprochement is precise, what it fails to take into account is the emerging complexities of the new world. The common foe called Soviet Union is no longer there. There is no Cold War antagonism between Russia and China. More important, there is increasing cooperation between the two countries in international fora against the U.S.’ foreign policy. Although the U.S. and China have, over the years, built economic and strategic mechanisms to strengthen their ties, there is a deep strategic mistrust between the two. One is a declining superpower and the other is a rising power. The Barack Obama administration has already said that it is shifting its focus from elsewhere to Asia.

Of late, there has been a heated war of words between the U.S. and China over the latter’s “encroachments” into international waters. Paulson, however, does not acknowledge this rift. While writing about the South China Sea dispute, he says: “I support U.S. policy, which is not to choose sides on the underlying merits of competing claims of sovereignty but to stand firm on such long-standing principles as freedom of navigation.”

Here, Paulson is using the U.S. establishment’s diplomatic language. In real terms, the coinage of “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” is often used (it has appeared even in the latest Indo-U.S. joint statements) to refer to China’s claims on the sea, and the U.S., make no mistake, has taken a clear side against China in these disputes. But Paulson has a pragmatic sense of foreign policy. He writes about the threat an enhancing Sino-Russian cooperation at the global scale would pose to U.S. interests, something which many wonks in Capitol Hill will still not understand. “We certainly wouldn’t want to face a united China-Russia strategic front that could frustrate American interests.” Despite this, he does not think “four decades of goodwill and close cooperation between the U.S. and China are about to be tossed on the ash heap of history”.

The book is written in lucid prose and the style of writing is fascinating. Even a lay reader will enjoy reading Paulson’s experiences in China. The book is filled with anecdotes and stories that not many people may know about China. For example, he says Zhou Xiaochuan was sent to a farm in Heilongjiang, a northern province, for four years. In the brutal winters in Heilongjiang that last from October to May, Zhou kept up his spirits with a five-foot-tall stack of classical music records.

“During the Cultural Revolution, they tried to stop people from listening to classical music but in the countryside, no one cared!” Paulson quotes the Governor as telling him. Zhou is now steering the monetary policy of the world’s second largest economy. That says a lot about the rise of China.

Syriza and the crisis-Interview with Panos Garganas

Posted by admin On June - 26 - 2015 Comments Off on Syriza and the crisis-Interview with Panos Garganas


The election victory of Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece has galvanised the radical left internationally. With parliamentary elections due in the Spanish state later this year, the prospect of a left front against austerity in Europe has opened up. But the hopes Syriza’s victory evoked were badly jolted by the agreement that the new Greek government under Alexis Tsipras made with the Eurogroup (the eurozone finance ministers) on 20 February. Under its terms, not only was Greece’s debt burden not reduced, but the bail-out under the supervision of the hated Troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund), renamed the “Institutions”, which Syriza promised to scrap, continues.

The advances of Syriza in Greece and of Podemos in Spain have also revived longer-standing debates about socialist strategy. International Socialism is playing an active part in these debates, organising a forum in central London in which Stathis Kouvelakis of Syriza and Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party discussed the significance of Syriza’s victory.1 Panos Garganas of the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK) continues the debate in this interview.

What is the significance of Syriza’s election victory on 25 January and of the formation of a government led by Syriza?

There are two important points that come out of this result. The first is the failure of austerity politics to solve the crisis in the Greek case, and the second is the extent of the swing to the left. I think that both these developments are obviously significant in the Greek case, but they have wider implications across Europe.

To take up the first point, throughout 2014 the then Greek government (a coalition of the main centre-right and centre-left parties, respectively New Democracy and Pasok, under Antonis Samaras) had a perspective that, if they achieved a large enough budget surplus, that would be the end of the crisis—it would convince the markets that the Greek debt is sustainable, the spreads would come down, and Greece would be back to normal.2 And that was used very, very strongly as government propaganda. It collapsed in the autumn, when there was a day of panic in the financial markets, with a movement away from risky placements towards safe havens. And that meant that the spreads on Greek bonds went through the roof. It was obvious to everybody that that was a new failure for the umpteenth time in the past five years. So this is one aspect that’s particularly important because it poses the question of an alternative, of which way it would be possible to break out of this cycle of austerity that doesn’t solve the problems and repeats itself in a vicious circle.

Despite the failure of austerity the Samaras government waged a very strong fight to survive in office. They tried to create a presidential majority to avoid an election (if parliament fails to elect the president of the republic, a general election has to take place). The election of a new president was coming up, and they tried very hard to rally all political forces against the left on the basis of electing a president to avoid an election and in this way save Greece from a victory of the left. This was a particularly vicious campaign—they tried to bribe MPs, they put huge pressure on different smaller parties and so on, but they failed. They failed, first, because all the parties had realised that the politics of austerity had come to an impasse, and, secondly, they were at the same time under huge pressure from the mood inside the population. The shift to the left was visible and palpable: it was a factor in preventing Samaras from getting a presidential majority and avoiding the election.

So once the election came about the swing to the left was massive. In Greece there’s never been this kind of situation where the left can have a majority and, particularly in working class areas, that was an ­absolute majority, the total share of the vote for parties of the left was above 50 percent. Another indication of how massive the radicalisation has been was that in working class areas the Communist Party (KKE) had a bigger share of the vote than the fascists of Golden Dawn.

This again is an indication of what has been happening in the previous period. Golden Dawn had risen to prominence, entering parliament, in 2012, and there was nothing automatic about what would happen between 2012 and 2015. The danger that the pain of austerity might lead people to look to the far-right was quite real. But that’s not how things turned out. The swing was to the left, and that’s seen obviously by the victory of Syriza, but also by the fact that Golden Dawn was held back. That was the result of a continuing wave of radicalisation.

This is something that stands out in the Greek experience. That was quite obvious in the first period, from 2010 to 2012, when there was a wave of general strikes opposing the bail-out and the conditions of austerity imposed by the bail-out. This wave continued in the next two years, from 2012 right up to this election, and if anything people became more radicalised. That can be seen by the rise of the anti-fascist movement—there were huge demonstrations after Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by the neo-Nazis in September 2013. And it’s also seen in the activities of groups of workers that continued the fightback, like the workers at ERT, the Greek broadcasting company, which was shut down in June 2013. The response of the media workers was to occupy ERT and keep it open until the police moved in to shut the place down. So we have a combination of both factors—the severity of the crisis and a massive wave of radicalisation. This is the basis of the election result that brought Syriza to government.

So we have this process of radicalisation that begins in 2010 and that finds expression in the election result. Of course, this means that the expectations in Syriza were absolutely massive. We’re now in the middle of March, about six weeks after the government was formed. So what’s your assessment of the performance of the government so far, particularly in the light of the agreement with the Eurogroup in Brussels on 20 February?

Well, first of all let’s talk about the expectations. The election result strengthened the expectations. Because the fightback by the previous government was so tough there were lots of people who were not sure that the left might win. After the election, when it was proven that the old parties had ­collapsed, there’s been a continuation of the move to the left, so opinion polls show that Syriza now leads the Tories by over 20 points—New Democracy is under 20 percent and Syriza is over 40 percent. So this is one aspect that shows that people were expecting a sign of hope. That came on 25 January. If anything, the election result has moved the radicalisation forward.

The other way we saw the expectations coming to the fore was by the demonstrations in the squares when the government was formed and when the negotiations with the Eurogroup started. People came out in the demonstrations in a show of support for the Syriza government and also as a way of expressing their hope that it would not compromise. This is the crucial aspect of what’s been happening over the past few weeks. The government has compromised, and it has compromised badly. The agreement that has been reached traps the new government in a new cycle of austerity. They have to repay parts of the debt that mature over the next six months and there’s no financial help from the European Central Bank (ECB) or any other European institution. They have to raise the money by imposing cuts. That is a terrible prospect.

It doesn’t mean that people have become disappointed as a result of the agreement. No, I don’t think there are signs of that. There’s lots of fighting spirit. This is shown by the fact that groups of workers and the trade unions are insisting that their demands shall be met. For example, the ERT workers are expecting to get their jobs back. In fact one of the first bills in parliament will be a reopening of ERT. The terms of reopening are not what the ERT workers expected and are demanding. But still it’s a sign that the government is under pressure not only from the eurozone authorities but also from the expectations of people inside Greece.

The way the government is trying to explain what it has done is to argue that this is a temporary arrangement for four months, and then things will improve; then there will be some leeway to change the terms of the Greek debt, and that will improve the situation. In reality, one of the big concessions that the government has made was to drop the demand for a cancellation of the debt. Syriza was not in favour of cancelling the debt full stop. The position was that they would demand and negotiate a partial cancellation of the debt. But even that was dropped under pressure. So that means that what will follow after the four months of this agreement will be more of the same. The Greek debt is not sustainable by any means. So even if the terms are ameliorated, it will mean that a Syriza government will have to produce surpluses in the Greek budget to keep servicing the debt, and that of course means more cuts and privatisations.

This has happened very, very quickly, very, very suddenly; it’s a U-turn that’s very abrupt. The consequences are only now beginning to be felt. And what is at stake, of course, is whether opposition to this deal will continue to the left or people will start getting disappointed. At this stage the prospect of a fightback against the deal is quite open. This is the mood that’s prevailing, and it’s also a question of who does the running. The reactions to the deal have come from the left. The right is so weakened it has resorted to a policy of: “Well, we told you so. Syriza is coming to terms with reality. This is welcome; let’s put some more pressure, and it will compromise even more”.

But that’s not the main theme right now. The main theme is reaction from the left. When the resistance hero Manolis Glezos made the statement that you cannot present the deal in good terms, it’s like presenting meat as fish (he was using a Greek expression), he caught the mood of everybody: “This is a compromise, it’s a step back, and it’s no use trying to gloss it over.” Another person who summed up the mood brilliantly is Panayotis Kalfayianis, the leader of POSPERT, the union of ERT media workers. He said that this means “the left does not govern; it is governed”.

Just specifically on the debate about the deal, of course there is an argument that this was a compromise, but it’s a way of buying time for the government. It doesn’t mean that it’s abandoning its reform programme. This is an argument that’s been put quite strongly outside Greece by, for example, Étienne Balibar.3 You don’t think this is a credible argument?

No. There are two reasons for that. One is that the concessions for buying time are huge—dropping the demand for even a partial cancellation of the debt, and insisting that any solution has to be found within the confines of the eurozone. These are huge restrictions on the government. These restrictions won’t go away in four months time or in six months time. There’s a second point. The broader context is not improving. Part of the government’s argument is that the whole of Europe will shift away from austerity because the ECB is launching into a programme of quantitative easing. But this has no real basis. There’s no prospect on the horizon that the economic situation will move towards a strong recovery and therefore Syriza will have more leeway.

In reality, who is buying time? It’s not Syriza who’s buying time. The German government is buying time. They know they’re facing a year with elections in Spain, in Ireland, in many places, and they face the prospect that a revolt to the left against austerity could spread across Europe. So forcing Syriza into a humiliating compromise gives them time to stave off this wave of rebellion against austerity. This is how, I think, we should read the situation. It is not Syriza who has bought time. The compromise has given more leeway to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, to play their political games.

OK: so what we’ve seen, as you’ve said, very quickly is the exposure of the central contradiction in Syriza’s programme, which was that we can break with austerity on a negotiated basis within the framework of the eurozone and the EU. But, of course, this has been challenged from the left, most clearly and systematically by Antarsya (the Front of the Anticapitalist Left) with its programme of a break with the euro and nationalising the banks, an offensive programme of reforms that is willing to confront the core centres of European capitalism.

But there is also within Syriza the Left Platform, which has had a broadly comparable approach. We’ve heard quite a lot about opposition to the Brussels deal from within Syriza, within the Central Committee, among MPs. So it would be interesting to know what the response to the deal has been within the left, broadly understood—Syriza, Antarsya, and so on—but also within the workers’ movement more generally. To what extent is the deal leading to the crystallisation of some sort of left alternative to the policies of Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis?

Now this is an open possibility. There was widespread reaction to the deal inside Syriza. The parliamentary group had a session where there was a presentation on the deal by Tsipras and at the end of the meeting he asked MPs to indicate whether they would vote to support the deal or not. The result was very bad for Tspiras. Syriza has 149 MPs—38 were absent, 70 voted for Tsipras, and 30 to 40 either voted against or abstained. Effectively in that meeting he got the support of just under half of the parliamentary group. This is a sign of how widespread opposition to the deal is.

After that discussion in the parliamentary group the government decided that the deal will not be ratified by the Greek parliament. Legally they’ve found a way where it’s not necessary for the Greek parliament to vote on the deal. But politically it means that they realise that if the deal came to parliament there would be Syriza MPs who would join with the Communist Party in voting against it. The deal would go through because the other parties, ie the right wing parties, would vote for the deal. But still the government would have been faced with a humiliating rebellion. The same trend was visible in the Central Committee, where there was a debate, and in the final resolution the Left Platform introduced an amendment. They lost the amendment, but the share of the vote they got was higher than the share the Left Platform usually commands in the Central Committee. It means that people who used to be in Tsipras’s camp expressed their disagreement with the deal.

This, of course, is not a one-way street. There are efforts to defuse this rebellion. One way of doing this is by persisting with presenting the ­advantages of the deal, but that’s not getting anywhere because the interpretation of the deal by the Eurogroup authorities is tougher than what was initially presented. There is no “creative ambiguity”, as Varoufakis put it—all the ambiguities are being interpreted towards stiffer terms.

The other way of dealing with this inside the government has been for anti-German politics to come to the fore. The government includes the Independent Greeks (ANEL), who are a breakaway from the Tories. Panos Kammenos, who is the leader of the Independent Greeks and now holds the ministry of defence, made a statement that, if the German government does not soften its stance, we have ways of responding; for example, we’ll start ignoring the restrictions and we’ll start allowing immigrants and refugees to go to Berlin. That statement was echoed by the foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, who said: if they keep on putting the pressure on Greece and it collapses, that will open the door for the jihadi threat to reach Central Europe.

This kind of political manoeuvring is trying to deflect the agenda. It’s a very dangerous move, and it’s creating lots of problems. Syriza had an anti-racist agenda. Syriza had the prospect of abolishing the concentration camps for illegal immigrants that were set up by the previous government. Now this agenda is being pushed back because of this kind of nationalist politicking. One way that the left has to respond is not just on opposition to austerity, opposition to the deal on the basis that it imposes austerity, but also by raising anti-racist politics. The mobilisation for the international anti-racist day of action on 21 March is an important step in this direction.

There is a debate opening up inside the left on why Syriza is behaving like that. This started when the government was formed and the Independent Greeks were invited to join the government. At first people were saying that Tsipras was two MPs short of a majority so he had to find an ally and the Independent Greeks were the only thing available. But then gradually this argument receded, because it became more and more clear that it was not a matter of finding a few more MPs to have a parliamentary majority. It was a strategic decision on the part of Alexis Tsipras about what sort of support he’s seeking.

To clarify this—he not only invited Kammenos into the government; he invited Yiannis Panousis, who is the minister responsible for the police. Now Panousis doesn’t add anything to the parliamentary majority; he’s not an MP. His background is somewhere between the Democratic Left (a right wing breakaway from Syriza) and Pasok. In reality, it was an appointment in the same spirit as the appointment of Kammenos in the ministry of defence: keep the generals quiet; they have their own trusted ministers at the head of the ministry that’s responsible for the army, the ministry that’s responsible for the police. And the same applies to giving the foreign office to Nikos Kotzias. He’s not a person of the left. He’s closer to Kammenos and the Independent Greeks. So we have a government where three crucial ministries, the ones that have to do with the deep state—let’s put it that way—are in the hands of people that send the message that a Syriza government will not touch these areas of the state; you can be relaxed about that.

Now this is an indication of the sort of fight the left has to face—inside Syriza, first of all. The disagreements with the deal have to be generalised. The Syriza left faces a fight. The Syriza leadership is controlled by Tsipras, and it’s not just a temporary compromise. His strategic orientation is towards compromise with capital, and therefore that opens up a whole area for people inside Syriza to confront.

Let me then ask you about the forces independent of Syriza on the left. There’s, of course, the Communist Party, which saw its vote rise in the election. But from our point of view more important is Antarsya and SEK as part of Antarsya. SEK and Antarsya were attacked a lot at the time of the 2012 elections for taking a stance independent of Syriza, but one might argue now that that stance is beginning to be vindicated.

This is the starting point. The debate about what sort of party Syriza is has been going on for a long time, both inside Greece and outside Greece. The voices that were warning that this is a party of left reformism were attacked—you know this very well. Now, of course, it turns out that it’s very important to have a correct assessment of where Syriza is heading. And the latest moves by Alexis Tsipras are confirming this.

That, of course, is not the end of the story. That gives you a strategic orientation, but it doesn’t solve the difficulties of how you create a left opposition in this situation. That is not easily solved. For example, the Communist Party presents itself as a left opposition, but it spends most of its time just denouncing Syriza. It is so sectarian that it denounces everyone on the left. The standard denunciation for Antarsya is that it is tailing Syriza, quite to the contrary to the main impression of Antarsya, which is that it is a left opposition to Syriza. This is creating a big problem. You cannot support the groups of workers and the rank and file of Syriza in opposing the compromise with the Eurogroup by just denouncing day in and day out. It means that the Communist Party, despite its quite impressive size, is not an effective force for creating a left opposition that could force the Syriza government to abandon the compromises and start delivering on its promises.

This is something that Antarsya is trying to do. Despite the small size of the forces of Antarsya, it is well placed for that—above all because it has not been sectarian. We have been in common struggle with the Syriza rank and file again and again on many occasions—during the strikes, during the occupations of the square, during the anti-fascist demonstrations, again and again. So there are many links, many bridges, between the Syriza rank and file and Antarsya. This was even visible in the election: if you look at the election results, it’s easy to see that there are at least 100,000 people who voted tactically—sometimes for Antarsya, sometimes for Syriza. If you leave the parliamentary field and take a broader look, the number is obviously much bigger.

So if Antarsya pursues a policy of united front with a Syriza rank and file that is finding it hard to swallow the deal, there is the prospect of a fightback. There is the prospect of resisting, not just what will happen in the next four months, but what will come after that. The question of a third Greek bail-out has been raised, and a new bail-out means that a new memorandum will be imposed on the Syriza government that will restrict it, not just for four months, but for a longer period. Now defeating this prospect is the project that is opening up.

Antarsya is taking this orientation. There are difficulties in this. I’m not trying to paint an easy picture. There are difficulties about how you operate in a united front. On the Greek left the dominant tradition has been the popular front, not the united front, and therefore ideologically there are many currents that confuse the two. Moreover, the associated idea that what is needed is a “national-popular” alliance against the external forces dominating Greece has a resonance not just in Syriza, but in forces further to the left. So there are weaknesses that need to be overcome. This is why SEK is important as a component of Antarsya: we stand for the classical Marxist tradition, which combines firm revolutionary principle and organisation with tactical flexibility and a commitment to the politics of the united front. This approach is crucial in facing the challenges of today. And this is what we’ve been trying to do.4

We’re involved in common activity in many areas. The 21 March is the obvious example—fighting for an end to concentration camps, for the legalisation of immigrants, and for the trial of Golden Dawn to take place is a very important area. Again this does not automatically attract all sections of Syriza. For example, the speaker of parliament, Zoi Konstantopoulou, has taken quite a wrong stance on the question of Golden Dawn, challenging the courts because they don’t allow Golden Dawn MPs who are in jail to attend sessions of parliament. That was a huge opening towards the far right. Opposing this is part of the challenge that we face to present a left alternative. But I think we will be making progress.

The Greek example is already proving an inspiration to people wanting to fight austerity across Europe. This is an important dynamic. Sustaining it is the main task of revolutionaries right now and it means organising support for workers fighting to get their immediate demands satisfied despite the restrictions imposed by the Eurogroup deal. It also means raising the demands of the anti-capitalist transitional programme: cancelling the debt, breaking with the euro, nationalising the banks and heading for workers’ control.

Finally what we’re seeing with the advances of the radical left in different parts of Europe, particularly in Greece but also in the Spanish state, is a return to the strategic arguments that were particularly vigorous in the 1970s but that have been a bit in cold storage since then. So Stathis Kouvelakis, one of the leading figures on the left of Syriza, has invoked the importance of Antonio Gramsci and Nikos Poulantzas for understanding the kind of strategy that Syriza has pursued.5 The leaders of Podemos are apparently very influenced by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. There’s a sudden revival of more theoretical reference points for left strategy. Do you have any thoughts about what revolutionary Marxists would say about these debates?

Well, that’s a very important development. As you’ve just said, these sorts of debates had receded into the background for a long time. They’re now coming to the fore, and this is obviously welcome. Unless we clarify the strategic approach that can answer these debates, then, no matter how many tactical victories we can achieve, we won’t be making headway. In terms of the content of the debate, the question of the state is very central. The experience of the first weeks of a Syriza government raises these questions.

The idea that you can approach the state with a strategy of partial reforms that can be supported by popular movements outside the state, but that essentially the strategy is that of a gradual reform of the state from within is a central fault in Syriza’s approach. This is hitting people in the face in Greece. I was saying before about the choices of Tsipras in leaving these important ministries in the hands of right wingers. This is not something new. This was the policy of Salvador Allende in Chile. He had made a deal that a government of the left would not touch the press, would not touch the army, and so on. It led nowhere. In Greece we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes, if we keep pursuing this approach.

So the question of an alternative, the question of building a movement that can challenge the state, even its hard core, is something that’s returning to the agenda. And it’s important, particularly if the Greek example is repeated in Spain and in other places. It is quite possible that we will see this in the coming months. So the debate will become more urgent if we have European-wide revolt against austerity and a swing to the left. Then whether this should be contained within a strategy of reforms to the state or widen its horizons towards a revolutionary overthrow of the state is something that we will have to debate again and again.

And the debate has started. We will see more episodes in the coming months. Inside Greece the strategic debate is tied again to the characterisation of Syriza. People inside Syriza are suddenly realising that they are not all the same, that portraying the peaceful coexistence of different currents, reformist and revolutionary and movementist, inside Syriza as a positive thing is very misleading. Now people are realising that the Tsipras leadership is a right reformist leadership and that is bringing up the question of shifting away from a strategy that is trying to blur these differences. This is the disadvantage actually of the Poulantzas strategy—it blurs the difference not just between revolution and reform, but also between left reformism and right reformism. These differences are now coming forcefully to the fore so we need to address all these issues quite urgently.


1: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV2jCTBjlpQ—see also the extracts in Kouvelakis, 2015, and Callinicos, 2015. A full transcript of the main speeches is available online at http://isj.org.uk/syriza-and-socialist-strategy/

2: The spreads here are the difference between the interest rates on Greek and German government debt. The wider the spreads the higher interest the Greek government must pay and the lower the confidence in Greece’s financial position.

3: Balibar and Mezzadra, 2015.

4: For a comparison of the approaches of Varoufakis, Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas and Antarsya see Garganas, 2014.

5: Budgen and Kouvelakis, 2015. The key theoretical reference point here is Poulantzas, 1978, criticised in Barker, 1979.


Balibar, Étienne, and Sandro Mezzadra, 2015, “Syriza Wins Space and Time” (23 February), www.versobooks.com/blogs/1885-syriza-wins-time-and-space-by-etienne-balibar-and-sandro-mezzadra

Barker, Colin, 1979, “A ‘New’ Reformism? A Critique of the Political Theory of Nicos Poulantzas”, International Socialism 4 (spring), www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/barker-c/1979/xx/poulantzas.htm

Budgen, Sebastian, and Stathis Kouvelakis, 2015, “Greece: Phase One”, Jacobin (22 January), www.jacobinmag.com/2015/01/phase-one/

Callinicos, Alex, 2015, “Syriza and Socialist Strategy—part two”, Socialist Worker (21 March), http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/40129/Syriza+and+socialist+strategy%E2%80%94part+two

Garganas, Panos, 2014, “Moderate, Radical or Anticapitalist Proposal from the Left?”, Socialism from Below (13 November), http://socialismfrombelow.gr/article.php?id=518 (in Greek).

Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2015, “Syriza and Socialist Strategy—part one”, Socialist Worker (14 March), http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art/40099/Syriza+and++socialist++strategy+-+part+one

Poulantzas, Nicos, 1978, State, Power, Socialism (NLB).

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